Monday, May 25, 2015

War, the Roads, and the Value of Life

Recently I read Unbroken for my women's book group. It made me think about my father, who is pictured below, and it seemed appropriate to write about it on Memorial Day.

WWII Naval Aviator Francis G. Lilly with his mother
Like Louis Zamperini, whose life Unbroken chronicles, my dad was a WWII naval aviator. Dad tried to join the Army and was turned down because he had flat feet. He was then not only accepted by the Navy, but trained to be a pilot. He enlisted just before the Pearl Harbor attack and remained in the service six months after the war ended so he could keep flying. (He commented as an aside once that the Navy nurses really liked getting rides in the planes when he did his flights to keep certification during that time period, but I never could get much more detail about that. Perhaps because my mom was usually around when I was talking with my dad.)

What I didn't understand until I read Unbroken was the great danger to aviators and their crews even when not in combat. Like Zamperini, my dad was stationed in the Pacific. He never said a whole lot about the war, only that he loved flying and that he hadn't seen combat. One of his squadron mates, when I called about my dad’s funeral, told me they had a running joke at the reunion based on my dad setting the record for crashing the most planes during maneuvers. What was left out of that statement, I'm guessing, is that he was the pilot who crashed the most planes and survived. I learned from Unbroken that a high percentage of aviators died training, preparing, and practicing maneuvers--exactly what my dad did during his years in the Navy--regardless whether they flew in battles. I'm sure that percentage is even higher for those stationed on aircraft carriers, as my dad was. After reading the book, I searched Google for my dad's name and found it on a list of Navy and Marine aircraft accidents for which reports have been collected.

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Dad always made it sound exciting when he talked about parachuting out at the last moment. It never occurred to me to ask him about those who did not make it, and there must have been many, which may be why he didn't talk about his time in the war. I also am guessing that his experience flying and understanding and avoiding danger is part of why he emphasized safety so much when teaching us to drive. I remember him telling me that whenever I was on the road, I should glance at the rear and side view mirrors regularly to be sure I was aware of what other cars were doing. Also, he said, I should assess the traffic around me at all times and mentally prepare for what I would do if someone stopped suddenly, ran out in front of me, or swerved toward me. Always know your escape route.

Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand quotes an ordnance officer who describes various safety issues with WWII aircraft that resulted in accidental deaths and says, “Life is cheap in war.” According to the statistics in the book, 35,946 personnel in the air corps died in WWII in non-combat situations, mostly in accidental crashes.

My dad, who survived WWII and lived for many years after, was killed at age 88 by a drunk driver, along with my mother, who was 84. According to the NHTSA, in 2007, the year my parents died, intoxicated drivers caused 12,998 deaths. On our streets and highways, too, life is cheap.

So on this Memorial Day, my hope is that as the human race continues to evolve, we will value life more and more, that our roads will be safer, and our battles fewer.

And to all our women and men in the military, then and now, thank you for your service.

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 on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Unreliable Narrators Abound in Life, Law, and Fiction

Recently I attended a talk by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. A week later I read The Girl on the Train. Both books are hugely popular and both feature more than one first person narrator who may be unreliable. Which led me to wonder: is that part of why readers enjoyed both books so much? And if so, why?

The Encyclopeadia Britannica offers this definition of an unreliable narrator “…one who does not understand the full import of a situation or one who makes incorrect conclusions and assumptions about events witnessed…” This may occur because the character lacks the age or capacity to understand or convey accurately what is happening, such as where she or he suffers from mental illness (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), has blackouts due to alcoholism (The Girl on the Train), or is a child (Room). Unreliable narrators can also be viewpoint characters that deliberately lie or withhold information from the reader.

This literary device is not a new one. Articles and lists on the topic usually include classics such as Lolita, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. But when I did a Google search about why readers enjoy such stories, most of the results were articles and posts directed at writers, not readers.
Personally, I can think of three reasons for our love of these types of stories.

First, a tale told by one or more than one unreliable narrator creates a puzzle for the reader, or adds more layers to an already-existing mystery, as in both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. In a typical suspense novel, the reader attempts to put together what she sees and learns through the viewpoint character’s eyes to solve a mystery or guess how the plot will unfold. Adding one or more narrators who might not be telling the whole truth means the reader must assess the characters’ honesty, knowledge, and understanding, requiring more reading between the lines. This allows a higher level of reader engagement and is more satisfying for the reader who unravels one or more story questions or successfully spots misrepresentations. It can also lead to anger and disappointment if the reader feels the author didn’t play fair; for instance, by not sufficiently signaling that the narrator may not be fully truthful. (I felt this way about Presumed Innocent but, to be fair, the cues might have been there and I missed them.)

Second, on a related note, unreliable narration adds to the surprises or twists many readers enjoy in novels. By making the resolution less predictable and what actually occurred less clear, there is more room for a turn in the story that is well supported and yet still a shock. Also, revelations about how true or false a particular character’s narration is can come at different points during the book, adding to the intrigue and providing many plot turns.

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Finally, and most significant, unreliable narration reflects real life. In both reality and fiction, every narrator is unreliable to some degree, as we all see the world through the lenses of our own personal experiences, knowledge, and emotions. If that weren’t so, there would be far less conflict, and far fewer lawsuits, diminishing my work in my other life as a lawyer. Try asking two different family members who attended the same holiday gathering and had an argument to describe it. What each remembers about what was said and done will be different. And even if both remember the same words, the meaning that’s drawn from them will vary. Likewise, the courts are full of disputes where business partners discover after the fact that they had completely different understandings of contracts to which they agreed. Because no one knew what was in the other person’s mind, everything went smoothly until it was time to sell the business, or one partner wanted out, or another decided to hire his or her child as the president.

Our political process offers yet another example of this phenomenon. If you read the responses of the two major political parties to the same words spoken by the president, you might easily conclude that two different speeches were given. And one need only look at the reactions to the changes in the laws regarding health insurance to see the same effect on a personal level. I believe the new health insurance laws are wonderful for small businesses. Any number of owners of small businesses might disagree with me, starting with what counts as a small business. Right now, I’m a business of one, so I’m definitely small. But depending upon the industry, the Small Business Administration includes companies with as many as 1,500 employees as a “small business.” It’s unlikely a 1,500-employee company and I will have the same view of how a law affects our livelihoods.

And to segue to a topic more interesting than health insurance (and what isn’t), consider romance. There’s a reason He Said, She Said is the title of a 1990s RomCom and has been the basis for hundreds of thousands if not millions of books, plays, and movies throughout the ages.

So, ultimately, my take on the popularity of books with unreliable narrators is that these books more accurately reflect how we live from day-to-day. But who knows, my comments on this topic may be completely unreliable.

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 on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The It's-Not-Okay-To-Not-Have Children Act

I just finished reading The Children Act by Ian McEwan, this month's selection for my lawyer book group. (More on the lawyer book group here.) The main character is a 59-year-old judge who never chose to have children. At the opening of the book, the marriage is rocky, to say the least, and the judge is troubled by two cases that have come before her in court involving children. One was a set of conjoined twins who would die if not separated, but only one could survive if they were. The other is a seventeen-year-old refusing a blood transfusion for religious reasons.

Despite a thoughtful and long career and good relationships with her nieces and nephews, when divorce threatens, the judge feels her life is empty and suddenly laments the lack of children. I say "suddenly" because that's how it struck me. Perhaps it's not how the author meant it, but I didn't find any support for the longing being a more gradual realization or any indication the judge had ever felt particularly strongly about procreating. There was no discussion of whether the judge liked kids of any age or whether, growing up, she'd imagined herself having kids, or had a happy childhood herself, or had friends who enjoyed childrearing. I found myself checking the publication date, wondering if the book had been published in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, when it might be more likely a woman would feel the need to say she longed for children whether she did or not. But no, ironically, the publication date is 2014, the same year Time reported that "More women in the U.S. are childless than at any other time since the government began keeping track...."

Protagonist Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
Certainly, a character can be believable who experiences sadness and loss over not having children or who has a deep connection with a child. Elizabeth George created such a character, Deborah St. James, in her series of novels about Detectives Barbara Havers and Thomas Lynley. Deb desperately wants a child and is unable to have one, and an undercurrent of sadness runs through her plot lines because of this regardless what else is happening in the books. I'm not a big fan of Deb, not because of the children issue, but because she wallows in her grief, and I become impatient her. (Which is the sign of great characterization, as I react to her as if she were a real person, not a creation of the author.)  But I believe in Deb's angst, and it has a basis. Her backstory supports it, though I won't detail it so as not to spoil it for those who might want to read the books and have not yet done so. Likewise, in The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins writes a moving portrait of a young woman whose love for her sister drives her to volunteer for what most believe is certain death and to fight others to the death. The feeling for her sister Prim doesn't come from nowhere for Katniss. Years before the first book starts, her father has died, her mother has become a shell of a woman, and Katniss has been supporting her little sister in every way she can.

In contrast, the author tells us in The Children Act that the judge and her husband discussed and considered having kids over the years, but between both their careers and other life events it never seemed quite the right time. There's no indication that as she neared an age when she might no longer physically be able to conceive that the judge gave the matter serious thought. And there's no indication that over the years she felt anything missing in her life until the author needed her to feel bad about not having children. It felt to me like a default. Woman - kids = sad.

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Ian McEwan is not the only author who seems to believe that saying a woman lacks children is sufficient to show that she is depressed or lonely. I see this often, and it rarely rings true. It feels like lazy writing. One of my favorite suspense authors is Jonathan Kellerman, who writes the Alex Delaware mysteries. A side character in some of those is Petra Connor, a thirtyish (or maybe fortyish, I can't recall now) woman who is distraught about not having kids yet. As a side character, I didn't mind that being a quick item we learn about Petra, and I didn't need more detail to buy it. But when I read Kellerman's first book with her as protagonist, I found it hard to see her as three-dimensional. Aside from solving the crime, her driving need was to find a way to have a child. But, again, there was no particular reason for it other than, apparently, biology. It seemed like a shorthand for dealing with the need for the main character to have some sort of personal story to go along with the mystery.

Men are not the only ones who write women characters this way. Another suspense writer I enjoy is Lisa Gardiner. What I don't like is that her single women characters tend to have no friends and spartan apartments, because apparently only married folk can shop at Ikea. (For a contrasting view of a single woman character, see Why I Love V.I.) And one of my favorite married characters plunges back into depression and alcoholism because she can't have a child. Gardiner does more with her characters than is done for the judge to show why they, individually, feel these strong desires. But something I heard Gardiner say when she was speaking at a thriller writing conference made me wonder. She said when she gets to know someone, she first asks if they are married, then if they have kids, then if they have pets. If the answer is No to all three, she doesn't know what to ask them because their lives seems empty to her. So perhaps authors who default to childless (or childfree, as some prefer) = sad and lonely are speaking from their own hearts. If what fills their lives and makes them happiest is a spouse and kids, then it might be easy for them to believe that anyone without one or the other of those must be terribly lonely.

Still, that's not much of an excuse. Authors are supposed to use their imaginations. After all, some of these are writers who create complex, nuanced portraits of serial killers. Can they truly not imagine a happy woman without children?

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 on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why Do The Books We Love (Or Hate) Matter So Much To Us?

One of the two book groups I belong to consists of lawyers. (Yes, who knows why we set it up that way, but we did.) In the non-lawyer group, the participants express strong personal views about liking or disliking a book, a character, the writing style, the plot, etc., and usually listen with interest to others' impressions. The lawyer-readers comment on the same aspects of the books but are a lot more apt to pound the table and insist a particular book or author is excellent or horrible. The intense debates led me to wonder why people react so strongly, and yet in such different ways, to the same books, particularly novels. In the end, novels consist of words on a page (or, these days, on a handheld device) about people who don't exist and events that never happened, at least not in the way depicted in the fictional world. So why does how they are written and what happens in them hit people, even ones in the same profession who live in the same geographic area, in such very different ways?

Some of the varying reactions, I suspect, arise from differences in why people choose to read and what they hope to gain from the experience. Here are a few of the motives and goals I've observed:

To Decode The Text:  I have a running dispute with one of the lawyer book group participants about what is and isn't good writing. In one novel (literary--not mystery or suspense), she said she reread a scene three times to figure out the identity of a character referred to only by the pronoun "she." My book group companion felt a sense of accomplishment upon determining that "she" meant the main character's mother. To me, it's just plain bad writing if it takes multiple readings to know who is in the room in a particular scene. But to others, including many critics, a book that requires the reader to parse out phrases, reexamine passages, and devise for herself what actually happened on the page is more interesting and engaging than one that sweeps the reader into a clear narrative with characters that, as written and without in-depth fill-in-the-blanks by the reader, are well-developed.

To Go Along For The Ride:  I read for plot and character. This means that, for the most part, I both read and write genre fiction. My favorite books are ones that tell a compelling story and offer a significant theme or help me learn more about some part of the world or history or culture. But to get to the learning part, I first want a story and a character (or characters) who grab me on page one. This is partly because my law career involves reading convoluted case law and, often, insurance policies (yes, it's an exciting practice), so when I read for pleasure, I don't want to struggle. I want to escape. Suspense, thrillers, horror, mystery--all the genres I love tend to grab the reader on page one and pull her or him into the world of the story immediately. On the other hand, I tend to avoid fantasy and to a lesser extent, science fiction, because I become impatient with the time many sci fi and fantasy authors spend building the new worlds before getting to the story. Which is a bit ironic given that my Awakening series generally does well with science fiction readers, though it's not strictly sci fi. But I get to the story on page one, and I did a great deal of editing with the aim of folding in the background information the reader needs without slowing the story.

To Learn Through The Book:  People loved The Da Vinci Code because it was a page turner, but also because, while racing through the plot, they learned a lot about aspects of Christianity and Catholicism that were unfamiliar to them. The book addressed how the role of women in the Christian movement was obscured and diminished as it became a more organized religion. (Interesting side note--the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a non-fiction book which the authors asserted had a central theme that The Da Vinci Code drew from, sued the publisher of the novel. They were not successful.) Brown is particularly good at weaving background information into the plot without the reader feeling like she's sitting in a lecture, despite that sometimes his main character Professor Langdon literally gives lectures. In auditoriums. I appreciate an author who can do that well. For many years, James Michener was popular in part because a reader could learn so much about history by reading his novels. I could never get through one, though, as I wanted the story to start sooner than page 100 (see above, To Go Along For The Ride).

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To Learn Because Of The Book:  When the lawyer book group read The Three Musketeers, the book group member I mentioned above pulled out atlases, a French dictionary, and Google to understand where exactly the events took place and additional details about the historical and geographic context. She loves books that are enhanced by outside research, and I admire her for that. I've become a rather lazy reader and am inclined to move forward and pick up what I can from the context of the novel without doing anything extra. If I'm particularly interested, I might research when I'm finished. For instance, I read a suspense novel by Alexandra Sokoloff, The Unseen, that incorporated certain types of ESP cards and testing. I had read a non-fiction book about that as a teenager, so I did some research on the Internet to find out how much of what was in the novel was historical fact. I also sometimes research later to find the factual underpinnings of a book for my own education as a writer. Now that I'm writing full time and practicing law only part-time, I plan to do that more often, both for fun and to analyze other authors' efforts.

To Find Kindred Spirits:  I recently read a scathing comment by a literary critic about readers who prefer likeable characters. The critic said it was a sad thing if a person needed to find friends in books. I disagree (no doubt because I find friends in books). There are characters I return to again and again because I admire them and enjoy their company. While as readers, we know the characters and events in novels aren't "real" in the sense of being alive and breathing, if they speak to us, we feel that the author, at least, understood something about who we are and how life appears to us. We've all had times when it seems as if we're the only person in the world who has felt a certain way or been through a difficult experience. Sometimes, through books, we can discover that at least someone else has been there, too. Also, there are times we can't sort out our feelings, and stepping into the shoes of a character who is in the same position can help us do that. After my parents' deaths were caused by a drunk driver, I often felt too angry and overwhelmed to talk with others. Reading offered me a safe place to explore my feelings and deal with pain.

To Better Understand Others:  A book with well-developed characters--ones whose motives, feelings, and previous life experience are explored--allows the reader to step into someone else's shoes for a little while or, more accurately, into someone else's mind and heart. I love when I feel that, in reading, I almost become someone else temporarily, and see through that person's eyes. I can only meet so many people in life, and most of them will never share their inmost feelings with me. In a novel, I see things from other perspectives and get glimpses into how the world looks to someone other than me. When you think about it, this is really the basis of nearly all advocacy, whether it's legal or political or otherwise. There's a reason politicians use anecdotes about welfare queens or Joe the Plumber--story resonates in a way that facts and figures do not.

To Be Inspired:  Both fiction and non-fiction offer a chance to live through or follow people we admire. One of my favorite fictional characters is female private eye V.I. Warshawski (for more on this, see Why I Love V.I.). I admire her determination, courage, and loyalty. She inspired me to leave the large firm where I worked and start my own law practice because I so enjoyed seeing how she worked for herself and ran her business. (I did not want to get hit on the head or be near death quite as often as V.I., so I opted not to become a private detective.) Reading about people and characters I admire is a big part of why I love novels, and why I'm not a fan of books that are mainly about people who struggle through the entire book and fail entirely or who are the types of people I'd avoid in real life.

To Impose Order On The Universe:  For a similar reason, I like horror, suspense, and thrillers because, usually, the protagonist prevails in the end. The victory may not be complete, but there is generally some sort of justice and a semblance of order is restored in the universe. This appeals to me precisely because I already know life is hard and terrible things happen. I can read that in the news every day. In fiction, I want there to be order and a progression toward a goal, however rocky the path. In that sense, I am very much a devotee of Ayn Rand's view of fiction--that it should depict humans as they might be and ought to be. I want a book to have a hero.

To Feel Less Alone:  My love for heroes and order sometimes puts me at odds with those who prefer books about significantly dysfunctional people or families. What appeals to me as imposing order on a chaotic universe strikes other readers as too pollyannaish (I checked, that's a word). In the way that someone bubbling over with cheer at five a.m. is obnoxious to the non-morning person who got up early solely to catch a flight, the resolution and order I seek, that makes me feel less adrift in the universe, can grate on those who prefer more realism in fiction. Conversely, books that leave me ready to slit my wrists can comfort someone else. Both types of book can make the reader feel less alone, but which book does that for a particular reader can vary widely.

To Explore Issues:  There's a reason preachers often speak in parables. As I noted above, storytelling can provide an engaging vehicle for exploring social issues or advocating causes. If it's done well, without preaching, it can change minds. My own views on gun control modified slightly after reading many of Dean Koontz's books. It's not that I thought I'd ever be in the situations that his protagonists face. But his often-used premise of the individual against the worst elements of government illustrated for me why many people fear a world where only the police and authorities can access guns, as there's no doubt that authority can be abused and that many governments oppress people. Some of Koontz's books are a bit heavy handed for me, and I'll probably never become an NRA member. But his narratives provided a perspective I otherwise lacked. Likewise, being a United States city dweller, reading stories set in other parts of the U.S. and in other countries helps me see why there are such vast political divisions over many issues. It's hard to understand a completely different political mindset while knowing next to nothing about the day-to-day life of anyone who holds it. Fiction and creative non-fiction can help remedy that.

To Escape:  I read about a study years ago that said that people who read fiction in hospital waiting rooms are less stressed and more able to cope with their reason for being there than those who read non-fiction or don't read at all. No matter what types of novels a person reads, fiction offers an escape. It's a chance to step away from day-to-day life and be absorbed in another place and time.

To Connect With Other People:  As my membership in two book groups shows, not only do many people love to read, they love to attend book groups. Books offer a chance to connect to one another, whether it's over sharing a love of the same book or character or to conduct a passionate debate about the merits or demerits of a work. Throwing in a glass or two of wine and/or a good dinner adds to the fun and the ambience. Regardless of disagreements, the shared love of fiction brings people together.

What pulls all of these reasons--and I'm sure I missed many--together for me is that while we may read for different reasons, fiction fulfills deep human needs. No wonder we sometimes passionately defend or advocate for our book choices.

What about you? Why do you read, and what differences have you noticed in your likes and dislikes versus those of your fellow and sister readers?

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 on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list

Friday, January 9, 2015

6 Things I Learned In The Last Year About Writing And Business

During much of the last fourteen years, I worked full-time--and then some--as a lawyer and wrote fiction on the side. Last year, I gradually shifted gears so that now more than half my professional life is devoted to writing and to the business side of writing. Below are a few things I've learned along the way.

Get Out:  Getting outside once a day, no matter what the weather, boosts my mental health. Much as writing all day at an antique desk in my home office sounds appealing when it's ten degrees with a six below windchill (can you tell I live in Chicago?), if I stay inside too much, I start feeling blue. I'm also less creative and less motivated. So if I'm working from home more than a day or two in a row, I make sure I meet someone for lunch, lug my laptop to the local coffeehouse, or at least walk a few blocks to the Container Store to admire the many wondrous things there. Despite the time it takes to layer on a fleece, winter coat, scarf, and double gloves (when it's zero or colder), I feel energized and ready to get back to work when I get home.

Flexibility:  For years (actually, decades), I wrote, submitted manuscripts, and ascended the rejection ladder, graduating from form letters to personal notes to publication of some short stories, poems, and articles. I took a few breaks when my law practice became extremely busy and after my parents' deaths. When I came back and needed to decide what to do with my most recently-completed novel, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about authors having success with self-publishing. I hesitated because in my mind that wasn't "real" publishing. But the more I researched, the more excited I became. I believe in my work, and rather than spending so much energy and time persuading others to invest in it, I decided to bet on myself. Now my marketing time goes toward reaching readers directly. Likewise, I discovered I need to be flexible about genre. I think of my Awakening series as a thriller series despite occult elements, as it contains relatively little of the type of gore that's common these days in horror. (Though I disagree that gore is required.) Yet the books sell well when listed in Amazon's horror category. When my first fan email came in, it was from readers who love science fiction, a genre in which I hadn't imagined the books directly fit. That's when I realized that, by not reaching sci fi and other genre readers, I was missing entire audience sections.

Amazon helps those who help themselves: The more I do to advertise and promote my books, the more Amazon does to promote them and the more sales rise. This is a great relief. When I started running ads for The Awakening, I rarely recovered the price of the ad. Now ads in smaller publications nearly always pay for themselves, and an ad in a publication with a large subscription base such as BookBub usually earns me much more than it costs within the first day, plus prompts a string of sales for weeks to come. Having a second book in the series adds to this effect. While I'm sure longevity and past sales must be factored into Amazon's algorithms, this also reflects a larger truth in any business. At first, a huge amount of time and effort is spent getting the word out. But if you have a good product, eventually others start selling it for you. Not as a favor but because, if they are customers, they truly love the product and want to share it with others and, if they are vendors, because you are showing you can help make them money.

Consistency matters: There is a great quote that I don't remember word-for-word in Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. It goes something like "you are what your habits make you, and you can choose your habits." I thought of this as I began devoting more time and effort to writing and publishing. How does it relate? For the majority of authors, writing one book and publishing it on Amazon results in little more than a handful of sales to family and friends. Likewise, writing a blog post or two, occasionally tweeting, and creating a webpage won't sustain a career or a business. It's the effort that's made week after week, month after month, and year after year that has the most effect. Writing in particular is something a lot of people love doing, as is playing sports. That means for authors and athletes (and singers and actors and visual artists), there is a lot of competition. That doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing. It does mean a successful career will likely require effort day after day for years. This is something I keep in mind every time I read an "overnight" success story. Usually further research reveals that the novel the person wrote and sold a hundred thousand copies of was the fifth one that person finished, and the stunning sales record came not because of one ad but after months or years of seeking reviews from book bloggers, attending and speaking at conferences, and finding creative ways to reach readers.

No one owes it to me to be excited about what I'm doing: There are certain things that almost everyone in our culture universally expresses excitement about when women do them--mainly getting married and having children. Beyond that, it varies. For example, some people feel earning an advanced degree is a great accomplishment, others scoff at "professional students." When it comes to writing and particularly an author independently publishing her own work, there will always be people eager to downplay any success, or who view all artistic efforts as too much of a long shot to be worth noting. At first those attitudes surprised and disappointed me. Then I realized that everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion, and I don't need to share it, be concerned about it, or factor it into how I live my life. What's important is doing my best at what I love doing.

Many talented people are generous with their time and information: This is the flip side of the point above. For every person who is dismissive of self-publishing, there are three or four who freely offer information, advice, and support. I've learned tremendous amounts about writing, business, and marketing from blogs and websites created by authors like Nick Stephenson, Joanna Penn, Bob Mayer, and Melissa Foster. I've also joined on-line communities where authors share what they've learned about writing, editing, and marketing. I had this same experience when I started my own law practice after many years of working at a large firm. It reaffirms my faith in human nature and in the value of being kind, professional, and considerate. It is almost always returned tenfold.

Questions or comments on these points or a few to add of your own? Please comment below or email me at
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in numerous print and on-line magazines, including Parade of PhantomsStrong Coffee, and Hair Trigger, and 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, click here to join her email listThe Awakening series is also available on

Friday, November 28, 2014

What Books Are You Thankful You Read? (Favorite Books Post No. 4)

This year has been a good year, and I have more to be thankful for than I could put into a hundred posts. So, being a writer, I figured I'd narrow it down to books. Which still could take more than a hundred posts, so I decided to write about three books: one from childhood, one from college, one from the last few years.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

In first grade, my teacher left school for several months to have a baby, and we had a wonderful substitute teacher. Every day she read to us from C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It captivated me instantly with the scene where Lucy hides in a wardrobe during hide-and-seek. She plunges into the furs hanging there, putting one hand out so she doesn't hit the back of the wardrobe. Instead, she finds herself in a forest with snow falling around her. I wasn't sure what a wardrobe was, but from context decided it was like a closet. After that, every closet I could get to, I felt along the back for a secret door to the land of Narnia. Similarly, I didn't know what Turkish Delight, the treat the Snow Queen gives little Edmund that only makes him long for more, was. (Okay, I still don't, so if anyone would like to fill me in, feel free). I imagined it tasted like my favorite candy, which was Watermelon Jolly Rancher hard candy, only liquid so it could be poured out of a bottle. I loved to read, and I'm sure I'd already read, or had read to me, other books that involved magical worlds, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first one that stands out in my mind. Lewis' vivid descriptions drew me into Narnia. And the story gave me the sense that there were amazing worlds and possibilities just a stretch of an arm away.  

Atlas Shrugged

I came across Ayn Rand in a Philosophy 101 class. The textbook mentioned almost in passing a philosophy of enlightened self-interest that held a man's proper moral goal was his own happiness. (Ironically, that's how Rand phrased it, despite that she created one of my favorite women heroes.) My professor, when I asked to learn more, told me to read Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, and I did. On a practical level, Rand's heroes Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon gave me models of women and men excited and passionate about their work. Most people I knew viewed their jobs as a sort of a necessary evil, and each work week as something to be gotten through to get to the weekend. I knew few people who ran businesses or who finished college. On an emotional level, the idea that a person ought to pursue happiness changed my view of life. My mom, raised in a very poor immigrant family during the Depression, believed happiness was more likely in the next life than this one. At the time, the Catholic Church fostered that type of mindset. We were told most people needed to suffer after death in a place called Purgatory to pay for their sins. Then they could be allowed into heaven. If you suffered in life, that shortened your time in Purgatory. So my mom believed if you were too happy in life, you'd have to suffer for it later. In retrospect, I think this was her way of believing in some sort of fairness, a way to balance out that some people at least seemed to have better and happier lives than others. Atlas Shrugged gave me an alternative approach, one that said that achievement and happiness and success all fit together and that it was moral to want the same positive, good things in your own life that you believed were good for others.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy

I found this book while browsing in Borders one day. I love Buffy, and I'd never taken philosophy beyond the 101 class. This book seemed like a painless way to cover some of the ground I'd missed. But it turned out to do more than that. For one thing, I learned a lot about writing from it, particularly how ethics and a world view can make a story rich and layered without slowing it. Much as I'd liked Atlas Shrugged, it was as if Rand didn't trust her readers to draw the "right" conclusions, so she'd inserted treatises within the novel. Probably good for reaching someone like me who wasn't inclined to read her non-fiction cover-to-cover, but not a model of how I wanted to write fiction. Buffy and Philosophy peeled apart plots to show me how the ethics of Buffy creator Joss Whedon made the storylines stronger and the characters deeper without any preaching. The book also helped me understand my own world view and why Buffy spoke to me beyond just being a good show with strong characters. I'd long ago rejected most of Catholicism, though not the values I'd learned along the way. I struggled to articulate the source of my beliefs on right and wrong. The first essay in Buffy and Philosophy speaks to this, positing eudaimonism as the ethical basis of Buffy. Eudaimonism "holds that the basis of moral goodness is the fulfillment of human nature to its highest potential....The Buffyverse consistently reflects the Platonic view that a just person is always happier than an unjust person." (See the first essay, Faith and Plato, pp. 7-8.) The essay shows how this plays out throughout the show and in spinoff Angel, particularly through the dynamic of Buffy and Faith, initially drawn as the "good slayer" and "bad slayer."  

So those are my three books. I'd love to hear about yours, so feel free to comment below. And Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving!


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of Amazon occult best sellers The Awakening and The Unbelievers. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in numerous print and on-line magazines, including Parade of PhantomsStrong Coffee, and Hair Trigger, and 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, click here to join her email listThe Awakening series is also available on

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Critiquee's Choice or The Truth About Praise and Blame

In my other life as a lawyer, my colleagues and I have a running joke. One day your client says you are the best attorney in the world, worth every penny (that would be the day you win a trial, an appeal, or a crucial motion), the next day you have no idea what you're doing and it's unbelievable you graduated law school (that would be the day the judge rules against you). Sometimes it's the same client sending those conflicting messages. As the author of Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff notes, if you take either praise or blame too much to heart, you’ll live on an emotional roller coaster. This is why many authors I know don’t read reviews of their books. So is there anything to be learned from the comments (especially the negative ones) people make about our work or other aspects of our lives? That depends upon a few factors.

The first is how specific the critique is. No doubt like most people, I prefer "loved it" to "hated it" (so feel free to write a few "loved it" reviews of my latest release, The Unbelievers), but what I value most are comments that pinpoint what worked and/or didn't. For example, one reader wrote that she really liked the supernatural pregnancy aspect of The Awakening (Book 1 in my occult thriller series) and found it to be fast paced and intriguing, but she felt the male characters were overall portrayed negatively as compared to the female characters. That certainly wasn't my intent, but on reflection, I could see where someone could read the book that way. So in Book 2, The Unbelievers, I focused one of the sub-plots on two of the male characters and delved into their stories and motives more. That ultimately became one of the greatest strengths in the story. On the other hand, I didn't learn anything from a 1-star review that said “Meh – not for me.” Or, though they made me smile, from 4 and 5-star ratings on Goodreads with no comments.

Can we learn from the comments (especially the negative ones) others make about us? 

Another thing to consider when deciding whether praise or blame tells you anything useful is the emotional context. A client's comments about my legal ability just after a win or a loss are less likely to reflect accurately my actual legal skills or the service I delivered than the same client's feedback after a year of working together that included both ups and downs.

Perhaps what matters most is understanding the critic's preferences. I have a friend whose decorating advice I’d take any day of the week, even if she told me my favorite lamp needed to be hidden away where no one but me would see it. I love the way her home looks and admire her taste. Plus we both love hardwood floors and antiques, and we both are definitely not fans of matched sets of anything. Or of ruffles. On the other hand, her interest in fashion is minimal and her clothing choices are ultra-conservative. If she told me my shoes were too flashy, it's unlikely I'd change my footwear. Likewise, when I see a review of one of my thrillers, whether it’s positive or negative, I often check to see what else the reader has reviewed. One reader complained that the characters in The Awakening raced around too much and there wasn't even a good love scene. Her other reviews were mostly of romance novels. While I'm sorry she didn't like the book, I didn't change the pacing or plot of Book 2 because of it. The racing around that she didn't like is what makes fans of Dan Brown and Dean Koontz call The Awakening and The Unbelievers fast-paced page-turners, which is what I was aiming for.

If I tried to make every potential reader happy, I'd probably produce terrible books that zigzagged all over the place, So I do my best, in writing and in life, to appreciate anyone who takes the time to give feedback, and to pay the most attention to those critiques likely to help me get better and better. That makes my life more peaceful and, I hope, my work the best it can be.


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of Amazon occult best sellers The Awakening and The Unbelievers. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in numerous print and on-line magazines, including Parade of PhantomsStrong Coffee, and Hair Trigger, and 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, click here to join her email list. The Awakening series is also available on