Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Fairs, Fun Fairs, and Ice Cream

When I was in grade school, my three favorite events during the school year were the Fun Fair, the Ice Cream Social, and when the Scholastic book catalog came out. (I know, I was really wild kid, right?) The Fun Fair was held in the gymnasium. It was a giant space, or at least it seem that way at the time. There were rows and rows of carnival-like games. The one I loved most had plastic ducklings floating in long narrow troughs. You handed over your tickets and chose a duckling to lift out of the water. A number was written on the bottom of each duckling, and you got whatever price matched that number. I'm sure the prizes were small, but I loved it because I always "won" something. The other game I remember is one I'm pretty sure schools aren't allowed to do anymore. You tossed a ping-pong ball toward a group of goldfish bowls with narrow openings. If the ball went into a bowl, you got to take the goldfish home. The fish never lived very long, but I did have one for a while.

Getting reading for the Chicago Book Expo, 11/21/15, 11-5 at Columbia College, Chicago (sorry, piano not included)
The Ice Cream Social was held in a medium sized room our school very creatively called the Multi-Purpose room. We had gym class there in the early grades and dance lessons there in junior high. I'm sure the Ice Cream Social had some games or prizes, but I mostly remember being excited about getting free ice cream. (I assume my parents probably paid something for us to attend, as I have to think this was some sort of school fundraiser, but I didn't know that at the time.)

Then there was the day our teacher handed out the Scholastic book catalogs. I loved that day because it was the one time I got to buy books rather than only taking them out of the library. I love libraries, as I wrote about in Rediscovering Bliss--At The Library, but there was something very exciting about choosing books to own. My mom always let me pick out two. I'd circle them in the catalog, hand it in, then wait however many weeks to get the books. The anticipation was part of the fun. I had only one disappointment, and it was a big one. I got a book, it was some sort of fantasy story. Halfway through, suddenly the print on the pages was upside down. The first half of the book had been printed twice. Once right side up and once upside down so that if you flipped over the book you would be reading the first half again. When the teacher contacted Scholastic, she was told that a correct copy of the book was not available, but I could choose something else, which I did. But I was left hanging in the middle of the story. I finally found the book in the library about a year later. (This seems very strange now in the age of Amazon when you can order almost any book in the world and have it within a few days on paper or within a minute on your Kindle.) Scholastic continues to have a huge influence on publishing. Among other things, it is the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books.

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As an adult, carnivals have lost most of their allure. The prizes look like dust catchers, and I know too many statistics about accidents on hastily put together rides for temporary events. And getting ice cream is not quite the novelty it once was. But I still am excited to go anywhere where I might find lots of new books. Which is why I'm so happy this year to be taking part in the fourth annual Chicago Book Expo for the first time. I will have a table there, and I hope to get a chance to walk around the fair as well. It promises to be full of Chicago area publishers and authors, and I can't wait to explore and discover books I might not have otherwise come across. The panels also look very interesting and include one on historical mysteries and another on the cutting edge of horror. (Of course, there are many “literary” panels as well, but I confess those don't interest me quite as much.)

The Expo is this Saturday, November 21, 2015, from 11 AM to 5 PM at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash, Chicago. (I'm also excited about seeing the building itself, as I attended Columbia before it expanded so much across Chicago.) The event is free. If you live in or near Chicago and love books as much as I do, it's a great way to spend a possibly snowy Saturday afternoon. If you do, please stop by my table on the 8th floor. I will have paperbacks from the Awakening series and free short stories and, more important, mini candy bars to hand out. Hope to see you there!

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Workplace, Veterans, PTSD, & The Mockingjay

Over the last week, I rewatched the Hunger Games movies. (CAUTION: Some spoilers ahead.) In the beginning of Mockingjay Part One, hero Katniss Everdeen, survivor of two battles to the death, hides in a narrow corridor, rocking and whispering the few facts she remembers, desperate to reorient herself. The scene reminded me of a question a friend asked me after I saw the film at the theater. She hadn't seen it yet, but she'd heard other moviegoers say they did not like it as much as the previous two Hunger Games films because, in this installment, Katniss seemed weak.

Having just read an article on veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it occurred to me on rewatching Mockingjay Part One that Katniss suffers from PTSD. In her two times in the arena, Katniss sees people killed right in front of her, including a little girl she thought of as a younger sister, and she kills others to defend herself, Peeta, and her allies. She sets off an explosion that causes her to lose her hearing in one ear (though the hearing loss is omitted from the movies). These are all experiences that can cause PTSD, especially close proximity to explosions.

The symptoms of PTSD include many of those we see Katniss exhibit in Mockingjay Part One and, to a lesser extent, in Catching Fire. Flashbacks, disturbing dreams, severe emotional distress on being reminded of anything related to the trauma, negative feelings about self, overwhelming guilt (think of how angry and upset Katniss feels over being rescued from the arena while Peeta was not), trouble concentrating, angry outbursts, and feelings of hopelessness. Fellow survivor Finnick Odair, also shattered by the experience, tells Katniss with conviction that they'd be better off dead.

I admire Suzanne Collins for delving into the consequences of war. Both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the first two films, depict the pageantry of war. Young people are sent to fight battles with everyone knowing how many of them will die. (Further, those in lower income brackets are the most likely to "volunteer," as each time a family puts its child’s name in the reaping, it gets extra rations some need to survive.) Catching Fire and the third film, Mockingjay Part One, show the severe effects of combat on the survivors. These consequences are particularly striking seen against the propaganda both sides engage in during Mockingjay. While obviously Katniss Everdeen is a fictional character, that some audience members might see her as as weak when she exhibits those effects made me think about our culture’s views of strength, weakness, and emotional and mental challenges.

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People who live with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues also face the challenge of how others see them. Despite greater awareness, many people still see emotional or mental illnesses as a form of weakness. I am a fan of many self-help guides and methods, and I use techniques I've learned regarding meditation, goal setting, and being aware of what questions I ask myself to feel my best and achieve as much as possible. But versions of these techniques and their related messages often trickle into popular culture in an oversimplified form. We are told that your life circumstances are those that you've created, as if we had complete control; that you get what you focus on; that the world returns to you what you put out into it; and that if you are struggling with anything from low earnings to depression to difficult relationships, it’s all your own doing. Further, improving anything is solely a matter of the adopting the correct mindset, evoking the right emotional state, or taking a more spiritual path. These advice soundbites can leave those facing challenges that can't be addressed through a change of individual mindset or habits alone feeling guilt and shame over not being able to "pull themselves together" or "get over it."

Reactions to Katniss are also, I suspect, grounded in cultural stereotyping of certain emotions as feminine or masculine. When Katniss cries uncontrollably and is distracted and depressed, President Coin of the rebellion sees her as weak. When she expresses anger, even against the President, she’s seen as a strong symbol for the rebellion. This is not so far off from norms for girls and boys, and women and men. Boys are socialized not to cry but are allowed to express anger while girls are taught that crying is acceptable, but showing anger is inappropriate. Because of this socialization, many women report that they cry when they're angry, making dealing with workplace disagreements particularly challenging. A man who raises his voice to a coworker in anger or slams a poorly written report by a subordinate down on the conference table never risks being seen as weak. A woman who cries in the same context will likely never be seen as a leader. She might not even be seen as competent.

I saw shades of this in my past life as a large law firm litigator. In a retreat for senior associates, a consultant advised that if a junior lawyer came to your office, started talking about a work problem, and began to cry, you should immediately leave to give her a chance to compose herself because the woman crying would be embarrassed and also needed to learn to manage her emotions better. Talking while calm is a good idea, but the idea of standing up and walking out on someone who starts to cry strikes me as awful in most circumstances. I did not hear any similar advice given about men who became angry, though women were cautioned against expressing anger too often or too strongly given the likelihood of being perceived as a bitch. Recently I read a woman blogger who said that her new plan is that every time a man shouts in the workplace, she's going to say, "I can't talk to you when you're so emotional. Please come see me when you compose yourself." If that starts happening, I will be more OK with the advice about walking away from a woman who cries. But the reality is still that expressing emotion through tears is seen as weak, while expressing anger, for men, is seen as empowering.

It’s a stretch to imagine that The Hunger Games books and movies can change that. But I love that in Katniss, we have an action hero who shows the real effects of what she's been through. Rather than being stoic, she cries and shouts, falls apart when confronted with certain scenarios, and eventually finds her way through--not by toughing it out, but through finding a sense of purpose and with the aid of medical help and friends. Perhaps her story will open the way for more heroes, real and fictional, of any gender, to express all types of emotion.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Premiums, Provider Networks, And Other Changes To Affordable Care Act Plans (Adventures in Health Insurance Post No. 7)

It's been a little over two years since I wrote about my experiences buying insurance under the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a Obamacare). Many insurers, including mine, are changing plans or premiums or both this year, so it's a good time for an update.

I still work for myself and and remain thrilled that I can buy an individual health insurance plan. For reasons I wrote about before, I was denied individual health insurance after I started my own law firm, and there is no group coverage available to me as a sole proprietor. I bought coverage through the Illinois ICHIP program, paying about $300 a month for a $5,000 deductible/out of pocket limit. After the ACA/Obamacare, I bought a PPO Silver plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield. The premium was somewhat higher, the deductible was lower, and the out of pocket limit higher. The first time I picked up a prescription from the pharmacy I got a surprise.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital is the hospital my doctor is affiliated with.
Under the ICHIP plan I had before the ACA went into effect, I paid everything out of pocket until I met the $5,000 deductible. Not a percentage. Not a co-pay. Everything. So when my pharmacist told me I didn't owe for my prescription, I thought he'd made a mistake, as I hadn't met my deductible. The drug normally cost me about $8-$10 for 30 tablets. He explained that under my PPO Silver plan, I paid only a co-pay amount for prescriptions even before I hit the deductible, and because this drug was an inexpensive one on an agreed-upon list, I did not need to pay at all. Who knew? Then when I went in for a yearly check up, I found out that was covered, too, with no co-pay. A yearly mammogram also cost me nothing.

The second year my premium increased a bit, to about $420 per month. I didn't mind. It was wonderful not worrying that unavailability of individual insurance would force me to close my business and go work for a large employer. And the timing of the ACA, for me personally, couldn't have been better. In the past two years, I've gradually shifted my law practice to part time and started writing full time. Because of the ACA, I can run two businesses, both of which provide work to other small businesses and send work to freelancers.

This October I received a letter about my Blue Cross Blue Shield health plan. First surprise: the premium is going down. Second surprise: it is because Blue Cross is discontinuing the PPO Silver plans in Illinois (as well as the Gold and Bronze versions) under which I'd been covered. I was offered a different network, but when I checked, I learned my doctor was not part of it. And more important, neither is the hospital with which she is affiliated. The Blue Cross person I spoke to was very nice and helpful, but there is now no Blue Cross plan I can buy that includes either my doctor or Northwestern Memorial Hospital. If I got care out of network, I'd pay entirely out of pocket up to $45,000 a year and at the full price rates, not negotiated Blue Cross rates. (To give you an idea of the difference, the PPO rate can be as little as one-third of a total hospital bill, meaning an uninsured person would owe $75,000 where a Blue Cross insured would owe $25,000 (which would be paid mostly by the insurer).) My doctor's staff person was less pleasant--perhaps she's fielding a lot of calls--but she did refer me to the website to see what other Healthcare Exchange Plans my doctor's practice accepts.

I checked the one PPO plan with an insurer I'd never heard of. The premium and deductible were significantly lower than my current plan. But the top results in a quick Google search included numerous Better Business Bureau complaints about failures to pay, delayed payments, and inept/non-existent claims handling. I figured that probably explained the lower costs and decided against that plan. The other plan is offered by an insurer I'm familiar with, and it's a Bronze plan. The premium is higher ($508 v. $420), as is the deductible, and the benefits lower (higher co-pays, less covered even after the deductible) but both my doctor and Northwestern are in the network.

A Wall Street Journal article this week explained why people are encountering these types of changes. While health insurers gained many new policyholders under the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, many lost money on the very plan I had--the Silver PPOs. That meant significant premium increases. In Illinois, Blue Cross Blue Shield opted to drop all the PPO plans, not just the Silver ones, with the wide networks, offering instead to shift people to less pricey plans with more limited networks.

The company's reason is one I'm familiar with from my work as a lawyer. For the most part, when people buy insurance, what they care most about is the cost, not the benefits. Sometimes it's because their budget doesn't allow them to buy higher priced plans. Other times it's because they simply don't think ahead to what will happen if they do need to use the insurance. (Unfortunately, this can lead to disappointment--and sometimes to unfounded lawsuits--when people who chose the lowest priced coverage need to make a claim. Only then does it sink in that the lower premium means certain things are not covered, or at least aren't covered to the extent the policyholder now desires.)

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I felt frustrated and a little worried. While I hope to not need to enter the hospital, if I do, it's important to me that it be one I feel confident about. For years I worked as a paralegal at a firm that handled medical malpractice cases. I learned a lot about errors in medical care and bad outcomes, including that mistakes can happen anywhere, that sometimes when everything is done right, a patient still does not do well, and that some doctors and hospitals are sued all the time, while others are sued rarely. I want to go to one of the places where mistakes, including those that lead to lawsuits, are comparatively rare, and I've already done the research regarding Northwestern and feel comfortable going there.

As for my doctor, I've been seeing her for more than a decade. She is a good doctor, and she knows me. Not just my health history but me, which saves money for me and the insurance companies and leads to better care. If I call her to say my ongoing neck and shoulder issues (from so much computer work as well as my neck being where my tension tends to settle) have worsened but are pretty much what we dealt with three years ago, she doesn't need to insist that I come in for an MRI or even a visit. We can talk over the phone about what's worked in the past and try that first. On the other hand, if I tell her I am so sick with a respiratory illness that I missed work, she'd probably have me come in to be sure it's not pneumonia, as she knows very little keeps me out of my office.

Before cursing the ACA for the loss of the Silver PPO, I remembered that I'd chosen it because Blue Cross Blue Shield in Illinois is the gold standard for health insurance. I could only buy directly from Blue Cross in the first place because of the ACA. Also, I realized I had to compare what I can buy now to what I had before the ACA/Obamacare. When I did that, I realized I am still far better off. My premium will be higher, but I am two years older, and the increase is still offset by the fact that instead of paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket for a yearly check up and associated tests and a mammogram, I will pay 0-$20. And if I do become ill or need a prescription, which obviously I hope I won't, I won't have to spend $5,000 before anything at all is covered.

Unfortunately, with health insurance, it's next to impossible to make everyone happy. Some people qualify for subsidies, others don't; some can afford to buy broader plans, others can't or don't want to; some people are concerned about seeing a particular doctor or having access to particular hospitals, others are not; some believe if they are overall relatively healthy, they will never need coverage, others have serious illnesses or are healthy now but recognize that unforeseen accidents, injuries, or illnesses can happen to anyone. I do hope that next year the statistics are such that Blue Cross Blue Shield and other health insurers limiting their networks will consider going back to offering the broader plans.

What about you? Has the ACA directly affected you? Is your plan changing? Please drop me an email to let me know ( or comment below.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Do The Clothes Make The Woman?

Here is my wish for the coming presidential campaign season: that no matter who the candidates are, we will talk more about substance than appearances. This occurred to me when I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column discussing the recent Benghazi Committee hearings. Noonan mentioned that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was beautifully coiffed and made up and wore a "sober, dark high-end pantsuit." In response to young journalists who told her she wasn't allowed to describe how Clinton dressed, Noonan said that journalists should not start out as "word cops." She then went on to describe in parentheses what the (male) Committee Chairman wore. (Whether she would have commented on the Chairman's clothes absent the critique of her mention of Clinton's pantsuit only she knows.)

Tea Leoni as the fictional Madam Secretary Elizabeth McCord
The last time Hillary Clinton ran, my cousin, a woman about 15 years older than me, complained about the pantsuits, saying: “Why doesn’t Hillary feel free to dress like a girl?” This view sees the pantsuits as a way to conform with the male standard for clothing. Perhaps when my cousin started in the business world, women were pushed to dress as much like men as possible. To me, though, this choice by a woman candidate was a welcome signal that I no longer needed to show my legs to be seen as dressing appropriately when I represented a client in court or attended formal meetings. I like both skirt suits and pantsuits, but the latter are far more practical when walking through downtown Chicago in the middle of winter. It always struck me as unfair that men could stride through the snow and slush to the Daley Center, where many civil lawsuits are tried, in sensible shoes and pants and still appear presentable, while I had to make due with skirts and tights and either get ice in my high heels or carry them and change out of boots before walking into the courtroom. (The different standards for a woman's appearance versus a man's also result in a drain on women's time and money, as I noted in The Military, Make Up, and Rereading Katniss.)

In the 2008 campaign season, I suspect Hillary Clinton adopted the pantsuit to try to wear something neutral. So that just like Barack Obama and John McCain and other male candidates, people would pay attention to what she said, not what she wore. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I can’t remember anything said about McCain’s or Obama’s suits during that campaign, but both Clinton and Sarah Palin were criticized for their wardrobes. I don't believe that reflected intentional bias, but rather that in 2008, there was no neutral business attire for women. Whatever a woman wore--pants, skirts, high neck blouse, scoop neckline, jewelry or not--was and is still today remarkable. A man can wear the same gray pinstriped suit every day of the week, and if he adds a different tie, no one will notice he’s worn the same thing. My most neutral suit is a navy blue skirt suit, but there is no way I could wear it every day without someone noticing. The very sameness would be remarkable.

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In the television show Madam Secretary, fictional Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord used the media obsession with women's clothes and appearance to her advantage. Throughout the first episode, she resisted the President's insistence that she get a hair and clothing makeover after taking office. But when she wanted to deflect attention from a negative substantive issue, she decided to get the makeover, telling the press and so ensuring that the top news story about her office would be her style, not the negative issue she wished to bury. (A male critic reviewed this episode and complained about the script, saying it was ridiculous that Madam Secretary didn't realize she was beautiful and then discovered it at the end, doing an about face on the makeover. Talk about completely missing the point, but that's a whole other post.) The real former Madam Secretary, too, seems this election season to be looking to turn the focus on her appearance to her advantage. She released on Instagram photos of her pantsuits, including ones that are monochrome, alternating red, white, and blue. So she is getting free publicity simply for changing her clothes.

The comments of the younger journalists, as reported by Peggy Noonan, do give me a little hope. I don’t believe any journalist should stop herself from observing what any candidate is wearing. Nor should anyone be prohibited from writing what she or he believes is newsworthy. But maybe, just maybe, we're coming closer to a time when what a woman candidate wears will be considered no more newsworthy than what a man wears.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Entrepreneur Or Ne're Do Well?

A boyfriend I had in my early twenties was a hard worker but did not like his job. He had no interest in going to college, and he was unimpressed by how long it took most people to build businesses from the ground up, so he looked into various get-rich quick-schemes. He purchased a series of books on how to buy a house with no money down, fix it up and rent it out, then use equity in the first house to help buy another, and so on. The idea was not to earn income through rentals but to sell after a few years and reap a profit due to market appreciation. The system the books described supposedly made people into millionaires. Though I earned barely more than minimum wage myself and wasn't a business or finance major, I enjoyed reading personal finance books (a little odd for a college student, I know), but the ones I read were far less sensational and less expensive, as I got them at the local library. (I've been a fan of libraries all my life, as I wrote in a previous entry.) I had serious questions about the scheme. It's hard to imagine now, but mortgage interest rates then averaged around 13%, and reputable lenders required 20% down in cash. But the author, my boyfriend assured me, was a millionaire, so the system must work. When I found out the books cost over $700 and the author also offered seminars all over the country for an additional thousand or two, I suspected I knew how he'd become a millionaire, and it wasn't by selling houses.

My current favorite writing space/office.
That experience is one reason I had mixed feelings when, about a month ago, I considered updating my profession on Linked In and other social media sites to include the word “entrepreneur.” For so long, for me that word called up images either of the boyfriend who preferred not to work or the salesperson hawking pricey no-fail systems for becoming a millionaire. The people I knew who did well in life worked hard at jobs or professions and saved and invested little by little. As I entered my thirties, my view of entrepreneurs didn't change. A good friend married a man who ran various businesses and was always evading bill collectors and always on the verge of the one big deal that would make him rich. Though eventually it meant losing their house, this entrepreneur refused to take any job unless it paid well over a hundred thousand a year. No such job was ever offered to him. I also discovered that if someone described himself in an online dating profile as an entrepreneur, it quite often meant he was a guy who couldn’t or wouldn't hold a job--one my mother would have called a “ne'er-do-well.” Such men were often charming, but could rarely pay their bills.

I'm sure decades ago there were many actual entrepreneurs--as opposed to people who adopted the label as a cover--I simply didn't do the kind of work that brought me into contact with them. Now I do. As an author who independently publishes my own work and an attorney who runs my own law firm, I keep up with the business world and am on email lists of various entrepreneurs. Today, running a business is probably more common than ever. The Internet empowers many people to work anywhere at any time and to sell products and services all over the world. Yet still there are times I wonder. Some Internet businesses remind me of the house parties my mom went to when I was a kid. Everyone “made money” or got free items attending everyone else’s Tupperware/Pampered Chef/Mary Kay parties. But eventually the circle of friends was exhausted, the round robin ended, and no one was any wealthier, though their kitchens were more organized. (Not an entirely bad thing, but not a basis for a business.)
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Also, while some author/entrepreneurs I'm familiar with offer a lot of helpful information for free on blogs or in reasonably priced books (say, $3.99-$9.99, not $700), I also get offers from “entrepreneurs” who seem to be making a lot of money selling books about how to sell books or, worse, by giving expensive seminars on how to sell books. When I try to trace back to some other type of book, product, or service the author successfully created and sold, I find only vague references to business experiences that sound suspiciously like college internships. Not to say a college intern might not know something I don't. I'm just not willing to pay upwards of $500 to find out.

On the other hand, I've been enjoying running my own businesses for years, and I hope never to have a job again. Soon after I started my law firm, heavy layoffs during a recession underscored the risk of working for just one employer. And I love that the Internet makes it possible for many authors to sell to the public, offering their work for less than a traditional publisher would charge, but earning more than a traditional publisher would pay while doing so. Also important to me is that running my own writing business means choosing the strategy and making the decisions. Or, as entrepreneur and author Joanna Penn puts it, never having to ask permission. If I think something is a good idea--say, writing and publishing a religious conspiracy thriller series without adopting a male pen name--I can go ahead and do it without seeking anyone’s approval. Yes, I take the risk it won’t work, but if that happens, I learn from the experience and try something else rather than, as usually occurs as an employee, being discouraged from innovating again. And if things do work out, I gain the reward.

Most of all, it’s fun to wear different hats throughout a day, week, and year. Nearly every job I’ve had, my main reason for leaving was that I got tired of doing the same thing over and over. Now there is always a new book to write, an innovative marketing approach to learn, an emerging creative outlet to explore. So, in the end, I decided to embrace the term entrepreneur.

What are your thoughts on entrepreneurs? What do you associate with the term? Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Please share in the comments below. Also, if you’d like to keep up on my creative and business endeavors, you can join my email list. No pitches to buy $700 books, I promise.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why Write a Thriller Series About A Potential Female Messiah?

People often ask me why, as a non-believer, I'm writing a thriller series that revolves around religion-related concepts. (The Awakening series follows a young woman whose virgin pregnancy might bring the world a female messiah or trigger Armageddon.) First, completely aside from religion, I’ve always been intrigued by world changing or world ending stories. A great example of this type of story is my favorite movie, The Terminator.
The Awakening (Book 1) and The Unbelievers (Book 2).

Second, the role of women in myth and religion fascinates me. I grew up learning about Christianity from the Catholic perspective, and the Catholic religion is filled with contradictions in its view of Mary, believed to be the mother of Jesus. I had friends in other Christian churches who told me Catholicism was wrong or evil because Catholics “worship” Mary. Apparently aware of that critique, the priests at the church my family attended were careful to emphasize that Mary is not a deity in her own right. On the other hand, though it appears nowhere in the Church’s written gospels, Catholics believe that Mary in and of herself is unique among humans. For one, she is believed to be the only human being conceived without Original Sin, which is the actual meaning of the term Immaculate Conception. And for another, she supposedly never died. Instead, her body was “assumed” into heaven. A pretty amazing feat for someone who is not divine. Many Catholics also believe she has special powers to intercede with Jesus/God and see that prayers are answered.
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For all the interest in Mary in the Catholic Church, the Bible coverage of her is limited. If she were real, what was her life like? In her time, far more than now, being unmarried and pregnant did not bode well for a young woman. Yet the Bible says nothing about what she told her parents, relatives, or friends about her situation. The only mention is that Joseph initially intended to reject her, but changed his mind after an angel visited him.

Perhaps because I ultimately found I didn’t believe most of the stories I grew up with, I’m intrigued by the reasoning of those who continue to do so, which is the majority of people in the Chicago area where I live. What I found myself asking is how literal people’s beliefs are. Are they convinced that a little over two thousand years ago a woman named Mary actually one day found herself pregnant despite never having had sex? And, if so, how would they react to a young woman who made that same claim today? It’s one thing to believe that in Biblical times Moses parted the Red Sea or Jesus was born of a virgin, but it’s another to believe anyone who claims to perform miracles today.

Along with that “What if” came my other issue with the major monotheistic religions—that God is represented as male. So when I began putting together my plot idea for The Awakening series, I considered not only what opposition and disbelief a pregnant virgin today would face, but how that might change once she revealed her child would be a girl.

I also wanted to explore many potential causes for such an event, as not all the world is Christian. In fact, my protagonist, Tara Spencer, is not herself religious, though her parents are, which adds to her confusion and makes the issue more complex. The event that starts the story could have been caused by some sort of god, an adversary to god (such as Satan as he is traditionally depicted in our culture), a different supernatural being or force altogether, a scheming scientist, evolution…the possibilities are endless. All these causes remain on the table for most of the series, so the answer to the other question often asked of me, which is whether the series is a Christian one, is no.

I chose to go beyond one thriller and into a four-book series in part due to my original thought that the Biblical character of Mary gets short shrift. In the end, her value is mainly as a Mother with a capital M. (Though Catholicism borrowed a lot of goddess lore in its depiction of her, attempting to draw in believers in goddess culture with some success, thus its contradictory stance on Mary.) Likewise, in stories that flip the narrative and portray a supernatural pregnancy that is a danger to the woman or perhaps to the world, such as Rosemary’s Baby (one of my favorite books), the woman’s role also is primarily as a mother/victim/woman in peril. In contrast, I wanted to explore Tara Spencer, my protagonist, as a protagonist. As a person who is a force in the world who has her own goals, powers, and challenges. Her own friends and enemies. In short, her own life. The Awakening series is primarily about Tara as a person, not as a pregnant woman.

All of the above sometimes leaves me at a loss at cocktail parties or in interviews when I’m asked how I categorize The Awakening series. Books 1 and 2 have spent significant time in Amazon’s Top 100 Occult and Horror best seller lists, though I admit the series has as much in common with The Da Vinci Code as Rosemary’s Baby, as one reviewer pointed out. Religious conspiracy series also seems to fit, though it bothers me because it puts the emphasis on the religious order opposing Tara, the Brotherhood of Andrew, rather than on Tara herself. But the people whose eyes light up when I describe the concept often also love books described as religious conspiracy thrillers, including those of Dan Brown and Joanna Penn. I’ve used the term paranormal thriller, but “paranormal” for the last decade or two seems to call up visions of the Twilight series or paranormal romances. Science fiction/fantasy fans often also like the series, though I don’t usually read the genre. (One exception is that I love Dan Simmons' Hyperion series which, perhaps not coincidentally, includes a female messiah-type character.) Recently Amazon added a category “Supernatural Thriller,” and that may be the best fit of The Awakening, The Unbelievers, and the last two books in the series.

The reality is, of course, most of us read in more than one genre. I love horror, suspense, mystery, occult, thrillers, and supernatural books. Further, all of us also tend to sub-specialize in our genre reading. I like horror but not gore. I like mysteries and particularly detective stories but not cozies. Other people love suspense but won’t read anything with any hint of the supernatural. In the end, I suppose that’s why I love reading and writing fiction so much. There are so many great stories, and so many ways to tell them.

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