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First Annual Story Fair

One of the things I love most about being a freelance writer, author, and an attorney who shares a firm with her husband is that I get a decent amount of flexibility. Which means that on days like today WPC2014-Giveawaywhen I have legal work that needs to get done, I can still take breaks and participate in fun opportunities like the First Annual Story Fair!

The first annual Wattpad Story Fair is today Sept. 19th at 12:00 – 12:30 and 3:30-4:00 PST. Join me and the amazing Wattpad Class of 2014 to learn about all the exciting things we’re doing for fellow Wattpadders! It’s going to be a blast!

The WPC2014 will be appearing at two time slots – 12-12:30 and 3:30-4:00pm PST. Learn more about our Profile Makeover Contests, Twitter Chats, Story Reviews, and awesome articles on how to succeed as a writer. We also have this amazing giveaway from the WPC2014 going on – Books, ebooks, interviews, chapter dedications and chapter critiques! So please stop on by!

https://www.facebook.com/events/1628644337393871/The Celebrity Story Fair Submission 03

Oh, and before I forget, I’m also being featured as an author! Yay! Today I’m focusing on my first ever sweet romance with no fantasy and no paranormal elements: The Celebrity. I’m also giving away some great prizes plus a special Reader’s Dream Package if you sign up for my newsletter http://forms.aweber.com/form/13/666935913.htm or answer questions on my Facebook page
https://www.facebook.com/jmbutler1728
 or at my “booth” at the fair https://www.facebook.com/MALICEAUTHORS/photos/gm.1634720403452931/905388482877091/?type=1 .

I hope to see you there!

 

 

The Many Problems of For Such a Time

A friend gave me a copy of For Such a Time, and she wanted to know my thoughts. It’s a difficult subject to wrap my head around. And doing a straight and simple review seemed to devolve too often into something more akin to a rant. So I decided to do something more positive and talk about the things authors can learn from this book while reviewing this.

A General Assessment of For Such a Time
First, in terms of my general assessment, no, this is not a good book. It is not a book I intend to read again, and it is not a book I recommend. The writing style is sufficient and typical for the Christian inspirational genre. It’s well crafted for a book of that genre. It also shows a desire to engage with a difficult subject matter, and, in fairness, it had potential. But having potential is not the same as realizing it.

If you really want to know about what life during the Holocaust is like, I recommend Night. And if you haven’t read The Hiding Place, I highly recommend it. Neither of these books are romanticized. They are brutal and often leave the reader feeling uncomfortable as they should. We have other genres for fun and whimsy as well as dark romances. In fact, using some of these other genres to explore concepts like redemption, bullying, and so forth can be advantageous because it removes the baggage that must necessarily come with historical fiction.

Disclaimers
I found this book very difficult to read. I made notes, but it is one of those books I find difficult not to block out. So I have done my best to make note of the key points. I hope that I have not just blocked out evidence that contradicts these points.

I cannot cover all of the issues in this book or analyze everything. There are probably some things I have missed that might seem quite relevant. I apologize in advance. I should also add that this is not generally my cup of tea. I don’t read a lot of WWII historical fiction, nor am I an expert on the subject though I have read a fair number of nonfiction books.

This book also represents my greatest fear in writing historical fiction: carelessly disregarding what actually happened to shoehorn in my own perspective and modern notions to tell an entertaining story while spitting on history.

Think About the Larger Context
One of the points in contention is whether a true conversion takes place for Hadassah. Some insist that she converted to Christianity. Some insist she did not. I assumed she did. There are a number of segments that suggest this despite there not being the explicit sinner’s prayer and repentance speech that used to be prominently featured in books like this. However, it also seems disingenuous to suggest that she did not. From the fond thoughts of a friend who consistently tried to convert her to her favorable comparisons and thoughts about Jesus, Hadassah does not display a mindset or worldview that remains consistent with a young Jewish woman. It’s far more in line with a modern evangelical woman. The miracles and favor likewise shift after her perceived acceptance of Christianity. I don’t want to go too far into this because, whether big or little, the greater problem is that this ignores one of the deepest problems: Hadassah ultimately winds up stripped of her Jewish identity, and it doesn’t seem all that important because she is with the ever so handsome commandant. The Nazis stripped the Jews of their humanity as well as their culture, thus making holding onto that culture and humanity even more important for those who survived.

While it’s true that the heroine struggles with her feelings, the struggle doesn’t line up with what a young woman in her position seems most likely to have struggled with. It’s much more angsty. It also glazes over so many issues. For instance, her being forced to eat pork is handled within the span of a couple paragraphs and has relatively little impact on the story. But this is a tremendous issue. She also turns regularly to the Bible, always opening it to just the right point. And she doesn’t just read the Old Testament, though that is where she begins. She also reads the New Testament, which is part of Christianity, not Judaism. It’s also an odd contradiction because Aric constantly insists he does not want to force her to do anything (i.e. he won’t rape her), but he forces her to do many things including serving as his secretary, typing up death lists, and eating pork.

In telling stories based off true events, it’s important to remember what is being said and to avoid, if possible, spitting on those who suffered. The cover, for instance, depicts actual women and children waiting on the platform for the train to Auschwitz. It wasn’t a reenactment. When you pick up that book, you are looking at real people who likely met their ends after horrific tortures and demeaning treatment that we can scarcely comprehend. It seems to be in incredible bad taste to profit off their images.

Don’t Forget Suspension of Disbelief
This story only works if you attempt to romanticize it to an extreme level. Yet the author never wanted to do that. She constantly reminds the reader of the foul stenches and the horrors of those in the camps. Hadassah is initially emaciated, tattooed with a number (which I believe was reserved only for those on their way to Auschwitz which she was not, but oh well, let’s up the horror), and shaved. Yet somehow Aric sees her and is stricken by her beauty. He fights through the firing squad at Dachau to sweep her up in his arms and carry her off, promising to nourish “his dove” and make her beautiful again. I would have believed that he felt great sympathy and pity for her (though why her and no one else is poorly explained at best), but not desire. Otherwise, what does that say about him? That is in the first couple chapters, and it illustrates one of the biggest issues. The story is almost impossible to believe despite it taking itself very seriously and believing that it is shedding light on a dark and tragic time.

Another similar issue that I will touch on more is that we are led to believe that Aric himself, despite being a member of the SS and the commandant of Theresienstadt, has not done anything terrible himself. Unless you count his looking the other way or following orders. In fact, he despises and resents the Gestapo and other members of the Nazi party. His rise to power within Hitler’s regime feels contrived and strange. He is an outsider, and, even at parties where other high ranking members of the SS attend, he makes comments to indicate his displeasure. The actual commandants of Theresienstadt were brutal men. While Theresienstadt was not a death camp like Auschwitz, many did die there. And while it was “better” than Auschwitz, “better” is still relative. Tremendous horrors occurred in this place such as a forced census count in which the prisoners were required to stand in freezing water for hours. Many died from that alone.

Despite the heavy use of sensory imagery, I had a very hard immersing myself in the world or believing that it was in any way a serious historical novel. It just didn’t add up. There were too many points where it was hard to suspend belief.

A Story About Redemption Is Significantly Less Potent if the Primary Argument is That The Protagonist is Misunderstood
Schindler’s List is a difficult film to watch, but one of the things that made it work was the protagonist’s gradual realization that he was viewing these people as sub human when they weren’t. The film took full ownership of the horrors that he committed. He did some pretty terrible things, and his original motives are tremendously selfish. Yet his transformation as the film continues shows a quasi redemption story. Even so it remains uncomfortable. The tone is dark. The horrors are realized. And the point is made.

One of my biggest issues in For Such a Time is that Aric is portrayed as misunderstood rather than evil. In fact, on multiple occasions, Hadassah muses that he must suffer much as she does and is similarly trapped. This might have worked to show Stockholm Syndrome or the other psychological issues that might have been at work. The human heart longs for love. But the story ignores the fact that Aric, to be in this position and to have this role and to have the power he does, would have had to do something, most likely evil somethings.

On a secondary note, the misunderstood man with the broad shoulders does not fit into the Esther parallels. This, like the “true love” that develops between them, is designed to make the story “more palatable.” Esther’s lot was a dangerous one. She likely still had encounters with Vashti, and, according to historians, as best we can tell, Vashti is believed to have potentially regained her position, meaning either Esther was cast aside or perhaps died. There doesn’t seem to be clear consensus on that. But for the modern reader, the powerful man who falls in love with the strong spirited woman who is desperate to save her people is far more enjoyable than the story of the powerful man who uses a strong spirited woman who is desperate to save her people. True love and affection provides a buffer. It allows for some protection. Plus it appeals to the romantic sensibilities that some hold dear and it makes it easier for the reader to envision herself in that place without it being “too horrible.” Xerxes himself committed his fair share of atrocities and was not known as a good or kind or even misunderstood man.

The other issue here is that ultimately it doesn’t seem to even be about redemption though that is a main point I’ve heard thrown about. None of the main characters really need it. Despite bending over backwards to show Aric as misunderstood, the author goes to great lengths to show that Nazis in general are the scum of the earth. They are porcine and disgusting. Their breath is always foul (by the way, halitosis is not an indicator of evil), and they are excessively rude. The vast majority seem to have an addiction to rape and so on. Only Aric stands alone. Thank goodness he’s handsome! Even if he does have a slight limp and a slightly crooked nose. He is a beacon of humanity and goodness among his Nazi brethren. Really…what does he need redemption from?

What troubles me in this is that nuance should be a core element within a redemption story. People can have many sides, and rampant contradictions may appear. This story would have been far more horrifying if it had actually dealt with the realities. The Nazis were people too. They weren’t soulless monsters, and that is part of the horror. That men and women who were capable of loving one another, demonstrating compassion for friends, participating in the arts, playing with their own children, and so on could possibly allow atrocities like the Holocaust happen. No, not just allow. Participate in. Even encourage. (And this was not unique to the Nazis. At other times in history, other groups of people have determined that another is inferior or subhuman and treated them with contempt, cruelty, and dismissal. In this case, the Holocaust brought about an undeniable and horrific example of what this looks like when allowed to continue to its conclusion.) Dehumanization works both ways. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews so they could more easily dispose of them. Many people dehumanize the Nazis so they can more easily pretend they would never commit the same atrocities.

So this story might have worked if Aric had been a true SS officer. Perhaps he eventually struggled with what he was doing as he started to wonder if they are human. Perhaps he realized that he was oppressing even this young woman whom he believed he has saved. His own discovery of the way that he oppressed even her would have been a great way to show what might have happened.

And bear in mind, powerful men who have done terrible things have at times fallen in love with good women who have loved their man and fought for their people/group. But that is not every story. And in cases when this was not so, it dilutes the potency of those cases where it is true and ignores the sacrifices and struggles those brave women had to make. Sanitizing history does not make people more heroic. It makes heroism more mundane because it strips them of their humanity and makes them seem more common. In the situation of Esther and an Esther parallel story, it actually strips away one of the biggest things that Esther lost: a husband who loved and cherished her. She was alone in a palace with a man who could at any time cast her aside and whom she might not see for weeks at a time. Imagine the loneliness. The strength of character it took for her to continue to faithfully look out for and defend her people in the ways she could. All the while dealing with the pettiness and cattiness that likely went on with Xerxes’ other wives. Esther was a prisoner. Not of love but of politics and lust. She was used for her body. She had lost much, and she risked everything else by appealing to Xerxes. This was not a love story.

Remember Your Audience
One of the challenges in writing historical fiction is that the author is telling of a time when sensibilities and perspectives are not the same. So one has to bear in mind both the story being told and the people listening to the story. A number of reviewers and readers have commented on how offensive the term “Jewess” is, and it is often used to describe Hadassah. Right along with her blonde hair and blue eyes.

The term might have been acceptable at one point, but the term now has significant baggage. Similar to many others. As it wasn’t necessary to the story, it could have easily been removed. What is lost by saying that she is Jewish? Little choices like this show an odd carelessness.

Consider the Actual Point Being Made
When writing from a character’s perspective, it goes without saying that the character may not agree with the author. In fact, there should be lots of disagreement. But when a character’s perspective is given and no one contradicts that perspective, it might seem that that is actually the perspective of the author and the point of the book.

In this case, Hadassah frequently muses about the suffering Aric goes through, in between thinking of him as the Jew Killer. But she over empathizes and eventually slides into putting her own feelings and struggles aside to deal with his.

Someone needed to grab this young woman by the shoulders and say, “No! You and he are not the same! He has not suffered as you have. He is discrediting your experience while validating his own! Don’t push your own feelings to the side. You matter too!” But this doesn’t happen. The disabled help who assist around the house love Aric as do the Jewish prisoners. They all side with him when push comes to shove. All of this suggests that Aric did indeed suffer as much as the concentration camp prisoners, living with a tortured conscience as he struggles to do what’s right.
This is beyond ridiculous. It’s dangerous to get into games of “I have suffered more than you,” but that doesn’t mean that some people don’t suffer more. More importantly, it’s horrific how all of Hadassah’s loss is set aside because of the commandant’s discomfort. I’m not entirely certain what the point being made was except that he had needs…The more uncomfortable point is that all of the suffering of the Jewish prisoners and other members of the concentration camp is somehow less important than the mental anguish of the one who oversaw it.

Remember That Context Can Change Situations
Another point of contention within the book has been that Aric rapes Hadassah while others insist that he does not. Again, this is a tense issue because, technically, Aric does not rape Hadassah in a strict physical sense. However, when other reviewers have used the term “rape,” they are referring to it contextually. Aric kisses her. He fondles her. He caresses her. He makes his sexual desire exceptionally clear. He micro manages her. In the beginning, he also tells her that if he does not have her loyalty, he can throw her back into the cesspool from which she came. She cannot leave him. She cannot leave the camp. She is forced to participate in other activities that she finds reprehensible. She ultimately marries and joins with Aric after he begins to change. So clearly, no rape here? Right.

Not exactly. Not to be too technical or legal, but there are different kinds of rape. And under some legal definitions, an individual can be stripped of her ability to consent or be in circumstances that make her consent meaningless. This could easily morph into a much larger discussion.

But the people who are saying that this story involves rape aren’t wrong. The power disconnect and Hadassah’s helplessness before Aric is not addressed sufficiently. And because of the cultural baggage and awareness of history, it becomes even more problematic.

Now I realize that this can be taken too far. That’s partially why the couple’s relationship, treatment, and other factors all go in to determining what happened. And even so, this story is iffy. This could have been handled better by actually addressing the issue. Instead, the story acts as if this is little more than a businessman interested in his secretary who can leave at any point and find another job and who has the necessary strength and capacity to do so.

As writers we have to remain aware of the situations in which we place our characters. Sometimes, such as in comedy, it may not receive as much attention because the focus is on the joke and people behave more absurdly. But in a serious novel such as this one, the awareness of the situation and what it may be saying to the modern reader is essential. It doesn’t mean conflict should be avoided. But it does mean the author should know what she’s getting into and address the relevant points.

Don’t Use Disabled or Ethnic People as Props
This book is far from the only story where I’ve witnessed this. In fact, it’s really quite common. The basic scenario is this: there is a group of individuals or several separate people whom society looks down upon. These people might be fat. They might be disabled. They might be clumsy. They might be from the wrong side of town. They might have the wrong social status or the wrong pasts. They might have the wrong color skin. They might not think like everyone else. But the protagonist always stands up for or comforts these people. Often these characters feel affection for the protagonist and rally to his aid when his hour of need arises because, you know, their lives revolve around the protagonist.

The problem arises when these people are just props. Jewish children are frequently props in this book. At Dachau, Aric is drawn to Hadassah when he sees her clinging to a five year old who is shot. Instead of saving the other children who are in line, he saves her because of her compassion for that now dead child (and please, don’t tell me she was the only one. That is insulting to all the parents and adults who desperately tried to save the little ones, and most of them were butchered for their troubles). These characters are not individuals in their own right. They are props to demonstrate the protagonists’ character traits such as Hadassah’s compassion and Aric’s so called tolerance. There was never really a sense that these characters were their own entities who had stories that just intersected with Aric and Hadassah.

Maybe You Need a Disclaimer
Historical fiction provides a number of challenges, particularly when dealing with more recent events or events charged with emotions and tragedy. The Holocaust is one of those times. It’s a particularly horrific page in world history that is shocking to contemplate, and authors should be cautious when dealing with raw and potentially offensive subject matter.

Let me make one thing clear to start with. This is not about not offending people. Good literature will often perturb some people. Good literature will make people talk. But this is not that. Nor is this about censorship. People should be allowed to write what they want, but other people are allowed to react and disagree or be offended. Also just because people are upset about something doesn’t make the work good or commendable in any way.
This is a book that in my opinion should not have been written as a true historical fiction. The book generally has a dark and serious tone. It often feels like two stories are jammed together (the romance and the historical), but it’s clear that it wants to be taken seriously. The author even provides footnotes of research though it seems that the research was far from sufficient given a number of errors.

This book would have been easier to take if it had been set up as an alternative history. Not a lot. But a little bit. See, one of the horrors of the Holocaust, in my opinion, is the fact that, until the end, there were no rescues. The fight on top of the train, the daring escape, and so forth in this book all are elements of fiction, and oddly make the book feel like it wants to be an action thriller at the end. A strange choice given the rest of the story. But it seems to me that historical fiction, while being free to change many things, should not change core elements. For instance, if you write a story about the Titanic, you may change a number of things such as inserting characters who were not there or creating subplots that did not occur. What you should not do is change the core events such as the sinking of the Titanic or the shutting off of the poorer passengers down below or other similar events. As horrifying as both those are, they speak to what made this event so memorable and tragic.
So if you’re going to write a historical novel where key events change or go against history, you need to make it clear that this is an alternative version. Many people regard historical fiction as being more accurate about history than other fiction. Obviously, if the Doctor shows up or Bill and Ted arrive or dinosaurs break in, the reader knows that a lot of it has been made up with historical facts being used to supplement the story. In a story like this, it all sounds and looks historical. It even seems plausible if you don’t think about it too much or know that much about history. So at the very least, the truth of the matter should have been more clearly made. I maintain that the length of time those concentration camps lasted is one of the many abominations that came from WWII.

Not Everyone Who Hates a Book is a Hater
Everybody knows that haters are gonna hate. People love saying that. But some people hate for a reason. There are many legitimate reasons to despise this book. And it’s not as easy as saying “oh, people don’t like characters converting to Christianity” or “readers just don’t like Christian stories.”
That may in part be true. But this book was nominated for a RITA, so it’s hard to claim that it is just being summarily rejected. However, the difficult part here is that certain individuals refuse to see this from any perspective but their own. And to the Christian inspirational readers who are insisting that there’s nothing wrong with this and it’s just prejudice against Christians, please, please, please stop! I say this as a fellow Christian who believes that conversions can happen from anyone and anywhere.

The mere act of a conversion is not the problem in this book. It is the conversion with the presentation and the other historical elements that all combine to create the problems and make it unpalatable and unreadable for many readers. It also ignores what so many Jews did suffer. Many did convert to Christianity to escape the Holocaust, and they were caught too. Also many were blond haired and blue eyed. That was not a guaranteed protection. It’s important to remember that just because something seems normal in one’s own life and like a positive thing (aka conversion to Christianity) doesn’t mean that it will come without baggage to others. And when other people were butchered for their beliefs and their cultural identity, that makes the conversion that much trickier.
If you read the book through a particular lens, it seems harmless and possibly sweet. But that lens requires ignoring a number of atrocities and pretending that the others who disagree are just haters. These sorts of stories can happen. Of course they can. But just because something can happen doesn’t justify it happening within a story. The characters and the plot and the events must work together in such a way that makes it believable.
Additionally, there’s room for various interpretations. One reader made the point that she had thought Hadassah was sympathetic to Christianity at the start of the book and so read the book as a continuation of her self discovery. I hadn’t thought of that. It didn’t strike me as that way, but I can see how that might have been the intent.
The world is a much bigger place now. And as authors, we have to bear in mind how things might be taken. We can’t always protect against every negative interpretation. Sometimes the purpose of the story and its overall message means that some people will be alienated or offended, and nothing can be done. But this book does not accomplish that. It does not tell of the power of Christ’s redemption in converting the most hardened SS officer into someone who cares about the poor and downtrodden. It does not really tell anything of value that could not have been told in another forum and with better taste with less offense and less baggage.

Stop Hammering in Your Point
This isn’t exclusive to Christian inspirational stories though they are the most frequent offenders, in my opinion. But the author starts every single chapter with a verse from Esther that corresponds to that section of the story. It became exceptionally hamfisted and frustrating, and, even if the story was such to keep me engaged all the way through, the verses out of context pulled me out of the story and said “hey, look at this, look at this! It’s an allegory! This means it’s especially important and look at how clever this is.”

Apologize if You Get It Wrong
People sometimes complain that our culture has become too apologetic. People say something, it’s taken out of context, and an apology follows. While I can certainly think of a few occasions when it seemed like overkill and exceptionally vindictive for people to demand blood, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Historical fiction sometimes sits easier when it is clear that it is diverging from history, but writers must be cautious about doing so in a manner that doesn’t spit in the face of those who endured it.

When I went to Ms. Breslin’s website, all I found was her discussion of the awards this book has been nominated for. Nothing about the uproar or the disapproval or the frustration readers have felt. I recognize that this can be quite upsetting, but many of these people have raised legitimate concerns. A simple letter addressing her intentions and what she meant to do could go a long way in resolving some of these matters such as the use of “Jewess” and how seriously this book is meant to be taken. Perhaps something will come eventually.

Stories, Passion, and Students

One of my side jobs that I love the most is tutoring students in writing. I love working with young writers and fanning that flame into something more. And today I was reminded why I love it so much.

About seven in the morning, an essay arrived in my inbox that made me tear up. One of my particularly gifted students wrote about the most powerful relationship in her life, and she chose books. Through the essay, she described how the Harry Potter series drew her into the magical world of reading and how it changed her. She now loves reading and writing because she can experience so much more. Her friendships with fictional characters feels as rich as that with regular people.

I saw so much of myself in that essay. For those of you who are wondering, no, it wasn’t a perfect essay. But it was one of the few times a student poured her heart into an assignment. And it was beautiful. Even though she wants to be a microbiologist when she grows up, her passion and excitement bled through those 500 words. I’ve never been prouder of a student.

Fictional characters have been as near and dear to me as flesh and blood friends. I always loved reading, but the books that pulled me into the fictional world unlike any other were The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. After that, the possibilities of the imagination seemed limitless. There’s something so powerful about a well written book. It doesn’t just tell you a story. It transports you to a new world with characters you come to love and cherish so much.

So to all the writers out there pouring themselves into their stories, thank you. You make our lives richer. And to the readers who are willing to jump into these stories, you make it even more fulfilling.

2014 Reflection

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s hard to believe that it is now 2015.

Every year, I always put together a list of resolutions and goals. Then, throughout the year, I check myself to see how well I am doing in reaching those goals. Some attempts result in failure, but, in my opinion, the most important thing is to try and see what comes. But here’s my evaluation of last year’s public goals.

Overall Reflection

The biggest lesson from this year has been to “not despise the small things.” So often I tend to be an all or nothing kind of woman. I want it to be perfect, and I do not want to accept the small steps that may be the only ones accomplished within a day.

Write Daily

Yes, I managed to hit this one again. I’ve been writing at least 500 words a day now for years, but I still make this a yearly goal to hold myself to it. It’s hard to imagine not writing. It’s more important than eating. Fortunately, it appears that writing is good for one’s health!

Lose 30 Pounds

Yes and no. Throughout the course of the year, I worked out, ate healthy, hit some setbacks, persevered, and by late August reached my year’s target. I did a great job maintaining it too until I got sick again. And then I gained most of it back. Alas, I wish it had been through cheesecake, pizza, and burgers. Weight gain happens very easily for me. If I actually let myself go and just ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted with no regard to health, I’d probably balloon up like nobody’s business. I haven’t done so well about drinking enough water, and to combat the nausea, I have been drinking carbonated beverages again. I’ve cut those as much as I can. Tea, for whatever reason, does not really soothe the way soda does.

So my goal for this year is to knock off 60 pounds. If past experience is any indicator, the weight I gained back will go away fairly easily. (A fair amount of it may be swelling?) I see the best results following a slightly modified low carb diet. Lots of fresh vegetables. Plenty of water. Lean protein. Even if it doesn’t result in weight loss, I do feel better while avoiding processed foods and sugars. No matter how much I enjoy fast food. It’s best to keep that as a treat rather than a staple.

Complete Tue-Rah Identity Revealed

Yes. I realized this year that I had spent more than twenty years working on Tue-Rah Identity Revealed in particular. I have, of course, worked on the other books in the series, but Identity Revealed absorbed the majority of my time and focus. As such, I really, really wanted to finish the draft this year. It still needs some final proofing, but it is done. December 15.

Oddly it left me feeling depressed, but I suspect that has more to do with other emotions and conclusions as well.

Experiment with and Decide on Primary Social Media Accounts

Social media just keeps expanding. One of last year’s resolutions was to determine which ones I wanted to prioritize. I have settled on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. I may use Google+ and LinkedIn some.

Build a Website on WordPress

Obviously this one was a success as you can see. It’s pretty basic. I tried Elegant Themes, but I couldn’t get those themes to work as well. So I switched to a basic layout. Nothing fancy. It could use some tweaking, but it has my blog as well. Most everything imported all right.

Finish Five Stories

This year was quite good in terms of overall productivity. I finished Tue-Rah Identity Revealed as well as Cyberbullying: What You Need to Know; 10,000 Words a Day: How to Survive and Thrive; Mermaid Bride; Ragnarok Unravels, and a handful of short stories.  Most of these are ready for publication, but I need to finish cover art and prep for the formatting and so on. Plus there’s always a few more tweaks I will want to make.

Get Law Firm Going

All the books and seminars in the world are nothing compared to actually doing it. James and I have gone from handling one or two cases a week to four to five cases a day with some random free days. Getting clients to pay, of course, is the bigger challenge. For the first full year of our law firm, it really went quite well. Ups and downs but overall good. And no malpractice suits. The home office works quite well.

Month of Fear

I actually didn’t have a name of this before. All it was labeled as was “overcome fears” and “try new things.” So I compiled this into a single month known as the Month of Fear. It was challenging but fun. I intend to do the Month of Fear again this year. Perhaps more than once. In fact, I’m tackling some fears today. I will post some updates on these. Most of the time they tend to be more personal, and there’s no need to share everything.

Create a Place for Knife Throwing in My House

I may not be good at it, but I do love throwing knives. It soothes me. And I did succeed in making a knife throwing board for my office. It works so well. The only thing I have to watch out for is Thor who loves to play fetch. And I don’t like him trying to snatch blades out of the air.

So those are some of the top goals/resolutions and their results from 2014. I may share my goals and resolutions for 2015. Even though the year has been off to a rough start, I’ve done fairly well so far. It was a trying but exciting and good year. I am looking forward to this one. Have an absolutely wonderful day!

 

Farewell: Concerning a Grandfather, the Hobbit, and a Story

Grandpa
Grandpa’s eyes twinkled whenever he smiled; he often wore red, one of his favorite colors.

I have been trying for months now to write a small memoir to honor my grandfather, Bob Farlow who passed away in 2008. It’s difficult to summarize or honor the life of a man who has done so much. He was a true Renaissance man, an artist, a preacher, a teacher, a principal, an entrepreneur, a sculptor, a musician, a soldier, a father, a grandfather, and so much more. Knowing where to start has always been the difficulty. I could start with his accomplishments in the art community or with his adventures and achievements. But for me, so many of the stories and so much of what I remember of him all started with one book in particular. Fortunately, recounting this will allow me to honor and thank a few others as well.

The story that started it was the Hobbit. My grandfather supervised my reading as soon as I started, and he always pushed me to read complex books in addition to children’s tales. I often balked at the heavier classics, despite loving to read. I abhorred the Odyssey, and I was probably too young for it. For some reason, I found it harder to read than the various books with Norse mythology or maybe Grandpa just knew it better and was able to make harder quizzes. But he promised that if I finished it, he would let me read a book he was quite certain I would love. We often made bargains like that, and we always kept our word. So I finished the Odyssey on a cold autumn day, and he let me borrow an already well worn copy of the Hobbit.

Books were always an important part of my relationship with my grandfather. Even when I was too young to understand letters, he read with me.

The Hobbit was the first true fantasy novel I ever read, and it awoke a deep desire within me to write fantasy. A desire that has burned for years now, never fading and always strengthening. The Hobbit was the first time I ever engaged so deeply with a book that I wept over the characters. Even now I am not entirely certain what it was that pulled me in and made me so invested. All I know is that I felt and I loved. Bilbo and Thorin were the first lessons I understood relating to conflicted characters who were not entirely good in all respects. And Gandalf was the first wizard I really remembered. I had been writing my own stories for a couple years by that point, but the Hobbit somehow made it all come alive to me and made me want to be a writer all the more.

Given that connection alone, even after more than twenty years, I had a deep love for the story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Watching The Battle of the Five Armies, despite all the ways it differed from the book, was such a rich experience. I have had a marvelous time, enjoying the film, hosting a party, cooking themed food, and even preparing costumes. It has been the best of experiences which bring both joy and grief at once. The happiness so much the richer for the tears that are shed and the ache of loss that comes with the realization that all that is left are the memories of what once was and the hope of what exists beyond Heaven’s gates.

The film made me realize that I have never wanted to say good bye to my grandfather. I miss him so much even now.  At times, I catch myself wondering what he would say, wanting to talk to him, missing his voice.  The workshop still has his last painting on the easel. Half carved statues packed away. Balsa wood shavings on the floor. The carving tools in neat rows and the paintbrushes in glass bottles. A dozen projects in various stages scattered around the studio. It always smelled of linseed oil, oil paints, Bavarian wax, and shaved Balsa wood. I can still see it all so clearly. It’s been years since I’ve walked into that studio, but the memory is as crisp in my mind as a new book fresh from Amazon.

Sinterklaas the Netherlands
The Sinterklaas from the Netherlands was one of many Gift Givers Grandpa hand carved. Replicas were then made from Bavarian wax and hand painted.

Of course, I always think of Grandpa around Christmas. He and my grandmother ran a small business known as Briercroft. He carved and sold various sculptures, the most popular being the Giftgivers. From St. Nicholas to Sinterklaas, he carved, molded, and painted the gift givers from around the world for many years until they closed the business a few years before his death. This Christmas is even heavier for me, and I apologize because this is rather convoluted.

You see, after I read the Hobbit for the first time as a little girl, I decided I wanted to write my own fantasy. My desire only grew when I read Lord of the Rings. But my grandfather and father always encouraged me to avoid mimicking Tolkien. As brilliant as he was, there will never be another J.R.R. Tolkien. What they told me to do was find my own story to tell, create my own races, develop my own world, and honor Tolkien through learning the craft as best I could. And I took that very, very seriously. For me, that story became the Tue-Rah series, but the first book is the one that absorbed the majority of my attention: Tue-Rah Identity Revealed.

I was very young when I first got the idea for Tue-Rah. In this picture, my father had just caught me making battle plans on the site of our new home. Grandpa thought it was funny.

I have been working on it for over twenty years now. My grandfather never worked on just one project. He always had at least half a dozen or more. One day I walked in on him, and he had started plans for a hand crafted sailboat (which he completed and sailed, I might add). He never stopped working, never stopped dreaming, never stopped thinking. But he always had at least one project he focused on. So I followed his example. While I had many stories and many projects, Tue-Rah was my primary focus and will remain so until the entire series is completed. Grandpa always teased me because I never thought the first book was really finished. I kept tweaking it, changing a plot point here, developing a character there, and then overhauling it. The whys and the hows had to be analyzed and satisfied. And I wanted so much for it to be perfect. He wanted me to finish it. He always told me that I would never think it was perfect or even good enough. I said I just wanted to be satisfied with it. In fairness, I was only a very little girl when I wrote the first draft. And so I learned about world building, character development, pacing, and everything else through those pages. As I neared my high school graduation though, Grandpa started encouraging me to consider it finished and leave the first book. “You’ll have plenty of time to tweak with the final edits, and you have the rest of the books to finish.”

I refused to listen. It still didn’t feel quite right. Yet somehow the conversation shifted back to the Hobbit, and Grandpa shocked me when he revealed that the only Tolkien works he had read were Gawain and the Green Knight and Tolkien’s pieces on Beowulf.

Grandpa and Me 05
The fact that Grandpa could listen to my stories and juggle my little sister and maintain his sanity is proof of the man’s strength and resolve.

Given how much the books had impacted me, I wanted to share that with him. It meant…so much. I really don’t know why. We had spoken of it many times, and I had told him all about it. It had never impeded our discussion. Still, I offered to read to him while he carved or painted or sculpted. I had done that for my younger brothers just a few years before. He smiled at that, and we struck another bargain. He told me I could read the Hobbit to him when I finished the final draft of Tue-Rah Identity Revealed before it went in to editors. If he liked the Hobbit, I could read the Lord of the Rings. I agreed. I even joked with him that if I didn’t get it done before they made a Hobbit movie, he’d have to go with me to see it. And while I did not procrastinate, I thought we had all the time in the world.

As it turned out, we only had three years. Grandpa went to the doctor for a routine checkup after he spent the previous day chopping wood with an old axe. And then the news came. He had to have emergency open heart surgery. He was going to be on bedrest for weeks, and he was already fussing about that. He didn’t want any of us grandkids coming to see him in the hospital. So I wrote him a letter to encourage him before or after the surgery, whenever Grandma gave it to him. I told him I was going to read him those books, starting with the Hobbit. I didn’t care that I hadn’t finished Tue-Rah Identity Revealed, and since he would be trapped on the old creaky couch, I knew he’d be glad for the company. I was just putting the books together in an oversized black bag that I used for a purse. And that’s when the phone rang. He was gone. In the space of a second, my grandfather ceased to exist in this world.

It was so hard to comprehend. That all that was left was the memory of those calloused hands and twinkling eyes. That there would never be another debate over what constituted literature or whether a particular color was burgundy or crimson or which translation of Philippians was the most accurate. That there would be many Thanksgivings and Christmases, birthdays and celebrations he would never see.

Grandpa's Grave
It doesn’t feel like it should be real. Grandpa traveled so much that I might be able to pretend he has merely been away on a very long trip. But I can’t…

I still remember his body in that casket. So lifeless. All that had once been there. Gone. The twinkle in his eyes. The fidgety energy that never faded. To see someone who was so vital and strong placed in a box and arranged like a doll with too much makeup and no smile…it was wrong. It was so wrong. That spark of the divine, the incredible spirit that had made him so much…it was gone, leaving only a silent shell behind. I could barely breathe when I looked at him; I wanted so much for it to be no more than a horrible mistake, some nightmare I could push away.  But it was not so.

At the funeral, the pastor asked me at the last minute whether I wanted to write a poem and read it at the funeral. He didn’t mean any harm; I think he just forgot to talk to me sooner. When I said I didn’t have anything prepared, he insisted I could speak off the cuff and share my heart. But I refused to trot out my grief and paste random words on it. The loss cut through my soul, eating it like turpentine eats through paint. And to just come up with something in less than fifteen minutes the way I might to honor a speaker who arrived unannounced at a club meeting felt blasphemous. It wasn’t just reading a Scripture verse Grandpa had loved or playing a song he adored. It was about reaching into my soul, digging through the morass, and finding some fitting way to honor and remember him. And that could not be done in such a short span. Any poem or snippet I wrote would be clumsy and forced.

So when it came time, I sat in silence, my hands in my lap. I did not know what to say.

We buried him in another church graveyard down in Shelbyville some hours away. I still had a copy of the Hobbit in my purse along with my notebooks with scene drafts for the Tue-Rah series and some other stories. I tried writing on that car ride, but my writing reflected the state of my mind. Distant and jumbled. So I read instead. I don’t remember which section. I think it was when the dwarves arrived or perhaps when they met Beorn.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA
It’s very well worn by this point. This isn’t the same rose that I was given at Grandpa’s burial, but it is similar. A student who didn’t realize the significance of the book to me grabbed it and pulled out the flower petals without realizing how delicate they were.

I still have that same copy of the Hobbit. Grandma gave it to me along with a number of other beloved books. It is so fragile now I can barely turn the pages without tearing them. The binding has all but fallen away, and masking tape secures it at key points. I pressed the rose petals from my grandfather’s burial in those pages. An accident destroyed the rose petals, but the book survived. It’s in the bookshelf next to my desk.

Finishing Tue-Rah Identity Revealed and sending it to an editor just before the Battle of the Five Armies came out was bittersweet. Grandpa would have teased me for taking so long, but he would have been pleased, I think. I hope. He would probably tease me all the more if I told him that I still think it needs tweaking and editing, but at least I now feel satisfied that it is the whole of the first book. I have shed so many tears. Watching the movie only intensified my feelings. While it was not perfect and quite different from the book, the movie was a fitting end for my favorite fantasy novel of all time, the story I wanted my grandfather to hear, and a tearful farewell to Middle Earth, one of the few fictional worlds where I gladly escape time and time again. But it was like coming to the end of a journey and realizing that one of the people I thought for certain would be there isn’t there at all.

There was so much good in this movie. I noticed even more when I watched it a second time. Peter Jackson did an incredible job making the world come to life yet again, and I will always be so grateful that he gave me the chance to return to Middle Earth and see that world in film yet again. The actors were phenomenal. The funny thing though was that when I first heard about the movie’s production, I couldn’t really imagine the chosen actors in the roles. I was familiar with some of them from other pieces, and they were talented. But they did not match the characters in my mind. Yet after I watched An Unexpected Journey, I realized they were the perfect choice. It was quite incredible to see beloved characters from a story I treasured come to life in a way so unlike what I expected and yet so perfect that I cannot imagine anyone else. Even though I knew the story well, I leaned on the edge of my seat. I have never wanted a story to deviate from its conclusion so much as I did there. The characters made me feel as strongly as I did the first time I read the book, and I wanted so much for them to live happily ever after. There was no more chance of that though than of my grandfather surviving the final stroke.

Pigs
My grandfather always found it ironic that his hog paintings from rural Indiana life were always among his most popular and highly awarded. He said it was how God kept him humble.

To say that it was sad is an understatement, but the most perfect thing of all was the ending. Billy Boyd’s song, “The Last Goodbye” was heart wrenching and beautiful at once. Listening to that play while watching the penciled illustrations appear and fade on the big screen was hauntingly appropriate. The artistic style reminded me of my grandfather’s. Soft pencil strokes across parchment paper, filled with expression and movement with lead that could so easily be smudged by a wayward brush of the hand. I stayed until the end, wrapped in a soft red pashmina, listening to each word and note until they faded away.

The song is true in many respects. I know I cannot remain forever in one place. I know that I must away. There is so much more to be done. I will never stop missing my grandfather. I will never stop loving him. He was a good and godly man who seized life in every breath he drew. If he were here now,…

In many respects, it was the end a long time ago. But this is not my last goodbye. Not to Middle Earth. Not to my grandfather. But it is time to say farewell. For now.

So to all those who were involved with the making of the Hobbit films as well as the Lord of the Rings, from the grips to the lighting experts to the cooks to the directors to the actors and everyone else, thank you. You brought the story to life in a beautiful way that I will always remember. You put faces on characters I have loved for years and made the world seem as real as I always hoped it would be. I cannot read it now without seeing your interpretation, and I am grateful it is one I can love just as much as the books.

To Tolkien, thank you for creating the stories in the first place.  I will always treasure them, and they will always be part of my library and my heart. I cannot imagine fantasy without your stories. You brought me such joy and comfort so many times.

Grandpa and Me 07And to Grandpa…I finally know what I want to say…. Grandpa, I love you, and I will never ever forget you. I wish so much that it had been different and that you were still here. There are so many things I wanted to share with you. So many times when I wish with all my heart that you were here. That when I come home you would be there. That I could have shown you that I really did finish Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. And so I could just tell you one more time how much I love you, how much you mean to me, and how you inspire me even to this day. I will see you again, and I am so blessed to have known you. But I still miss you, and there will always be tears when I try to say goodbye.

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