Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Value of Retreating

One of many sunsets during the retreat.
In early July, I spent seven days at a creative retreat organized by Rabbit Hole (a company that designs live interactive gaming experiences). We stayed in a house on a river in Indiana with an outdoor grill, fire pit, and decks. While I set specific writing goals, I didn't think much beforehand about what being on a retreat means.

Today I looked up the dictionary definitions of the word "retreat." As a noun, it can mean a place of privacy that affords peace and quiet, an area where a person can be alone, an area for withdrawal for prayer and study, or the act of withdrawing or going backwards, especially to escape something hazardous or unpleasant (or enemy troops). As a verb, its meanings are similar and include pulling back or moving backward, withdrawing from enemy forces, or withdrawing to a quiet or secluded place.

In different ways, all these definitions applied. I consciously decided to withdraw for the week from unnecessary email, most social media, and business concerns.
Michelle (no longer a baby) taking a break on the dock.

I also withdrew, without really planning to, from other aspects of life. For instance, from being concerned about how I present myself. Rabbit Hole was founded by my niece Michelle Lilly and her friend and business partner Eleanor Hyde. I've hung out with Michelle since she was born (she was a super-cute baby, by the way, not that I'm biased), and the retreat included other writers, musicians, and artists who are family or are friends of Michelle. All had come to work on their own projects (games, plays, music, art), not to evaluate or do business with me. Which meant I packed and wore what was comfortable and weather appropriate without a lot of thought about how I looked. I brought only one pair of shoes--sandals with a gym-shoe like sole. In other words, I could ignore the lines most women walk every day, such as do I look:
  • too young (skirt too short; hair too long; dress, skirt, leggings, or jeans too tight; sweatshirt or T-shirt too big/too loose)
  • too old (too much gray in hair; skirt too long; blouse buttoned too high)
  • too sexy (blouse cut too low; skirt too short; heels too high; hair too wild)
  • too conservative (shoes too flat; make up too sparse or too polished; hair too straight and neither too short nor too long)
  • too serious (not smiling; arms at sides)
  • too silly (smiling too much; gesturing too much). 
I just wore what I wore and looked how I looked. How relaxing was that?

A cemetery a few steps from the house.
It also felt wonderful to be free of scheduling. As I wrote in my last entry, I live by schedules because that's how I make sure I get things done. But because I dropped out almost everything other than fiction writing, I felt confident I could write the number of words I wanted to write without a fixed plan. So I never set in alarm for when I would get up, and I went to bed when I got tired, rather than at a specific time.

Also, Monotone, Indiana is in a different time zone than Chicago, where I live. My laptop stayed on Central Time, the clocks in the kitchen were set to Eastern Time. The clocks in the bedroom were all blinking because apparently the electricity had gone out at one point. My iPhone kept switching time zones, which probably had to do with cell phone towers. All of this gave me a wonderful feeling of time being fluid, and of having no pressing demands.

A zombie game we played (similar narrative to Walking Dead).
Retreating means not only pulling away but moving toward. I was looking for peace and to jump start my creativity after a few busy months getting my third supernatural thriller released, finishing a semester of teaching, and writing an appeal. My plan was to relax by immersing myself in fiction writing (I'm working on The Illumination, the fourth and final book in my Awakening Series), and I did that. But I also completely enjoyed simply being in a place with all these people who love telling stories, and care about telling stories, as much as I do, and who tell them in very different ways. Michelle, Eleanor, and I spent about eight hours playing a game called Her Story. It required using keywords to search for video clips of an interview of a woman who was connected to a murder. By finding and watching the clips, which could not be seen in chronological order, we pieced together the woman's life and what had happened. So it was both a game an an alternate, non-linear way of figuring out a mystery/suspense story. As the next series I plan to write will be mysteries/legal thrillers, I not only had fun, I learned about my genre.

The house, which Rabbit Hole found through AirBnB, had a VCR and a bunch of videotapes, including the original Star Wars trilogy. So one night we stayed up late and watched Star Wars. (I admit it; I went to bed before Empire Strikes Back.) That, too, was a great experience that took me back to how I excited I felt about that movie when it came out, and the sense of wonder it engendered.

These surprises and others (including the neighbors' over-the-top fireworks displays on July 3, 4, and 5) reminded me that while focusing on productivity and sticking to schedules has served me well my whole life, it's also important to be flexible and try new things. Not just to foster creativity but to have a happy and fun life.

One of the cloudy days on retreat.
Finally, I appreciated how responsible, considerate, and cool everyone at the retreat was. Depending on the day, we had between 3 and 8 people staying in a small two-bedroom house. Everyone brought or bought more than enough food to share, washed dishes when they saw them piling up in the sink (no dishwasher), cleaned counters or tables when needed, and cooked. Those who stayed up late or got up early were mindful that others were sleeping. And we all checked with one another regarding workspaces and whether what we were doing might disturb anyone else.

The only downside for me was that while I loved taking walks, sitting near the river, and watching sunsets over the water (see photos), many, many, many bugs also enjoy the same, and are not at all put off by eco-friendly bug spray. I am pretty sure I got more insect bites in one week than I've had in the last 10 years. And I am absolutely going back if Rabbit Hole hosts the retreat again next year.

When is the last time you went on a retreat? If you haven't been on one, would you like to? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Best Laid Plans Half Way Through The Year

View from Three Sixty Restaurant in St. Louis
I'm a little nervous posting this. Yesterday I had on my schedule to write out a schedule (yes, really) for the rest of the year. Which led me to defining specific goals for the second half of 2016. I tend to aim high each January with the idea that it's rare to exceed a goal. But I don't share my goals, as I'm not committing to achieving every single one unless everything works out perfectly and there are no surprises. (Surprisingly, I've never had a year like that.)

But mid-year is different. It's about priorities for the rest of the year, and a little beyond. Part of me feels like sharing them, with a timeline no less, is tempting fate. We all know the saying about the best laid plans. The part of me that struggled on and off with anxiety for many years swears by that saying. While anxiety rarely takes over anymore, it's like a broken bone that's long since healed. Every now and then--in a certain type of weather or after a wrong step--it reminds me that it was once very seriously broken and could break again.

View from Cindy's in Chicago
The other, healthier part of me knows that a career as an author and publisher means prioritizing writing and publishing. I already prioritize the part-time work I do as a lawyer and adjunct professor because other people are depending on my efforts to advance their careers and businesses. But my shift to devoting the bulk of my time to writing and publishing only works if I set realistic deadlines. Ones that account for the ups and downs I can anticipate (a larger than usual class size, an unexpected court ruling requiring an appeal at an already busy time, a family or friend or personal emergency). If everything goes far more smoothly than expected, I can always move up the schedule. But I no longer am willing to move it back.

So, here it is, my half-year check in/schedule/goal list. The Cliff's Notes version is the release date for the fourth and final book in The Awakening series, The Illumination, is May 15, 2017. If you'd like to know what else I have in the works feel free to read the details.

8/12/16:  1st Draft of The Illumination finished

8/12/16:  List of 10 topics for blog posts about Writing as a Second Career finished

8/19/16:  First 25,000 words of Illumination and outline revised to send to story editor

8/26/16:  First 5 posts of WSC blog finished, start posting one each Sunday night

9/2/16:  Next 5 posts of WSC blog finished

9/9/16:  Finish Outline of The Worried Man (working title of first book in a new legal thriller/mystery series)

9/16/16:  Next 5 posts of WSC blog finished

9/23/16:  Revision of Worried Man Outline finished

10/28/16:  Send revised Illumination manuscript (based on editor's comments & my post-break review) to Beta Readers

11/4/16:  Next 5 posts of WSC blog finished

12/23/16:  First draft of Worried Man finished

1/20/17:  Revision of Illumination based on beta readers' comments finished.

(work on Worried Man while taking break from Illumination)

2/23/17:  Final revisions to Illumination finished

(take a week off)

2/27-28/17:  Proofread and polish Illumination (minor edits only + corrections)

3/1/17:  Send Illumination to proofreaders

3/17/17:  My last proofread; add edits from others

(do not read Illumination for at least 5 days)

3/28-29/17:  Final check, all proofreading finished, manuscript finalized

3/30/17:  Manuscript to 52novels (for ebook conversion) and CreateSpace (for print publication)

(work on Worried Man revisions, blog posts, proofread ebook files, galleys)

5/15/17:  Publication date for Illumination

Oh, I almost forgot. Why the photos? Most of the action in The Illumination will be in Chicago and St. Louis, so I've given you bird's eye views of both. Which I think is appropriate for goal setting. If you'd like to keep up to date with new releases and be notified when The Illumination is available for pre-order or purchase, please join my email list.

How has your year gone? Any half-year goals or plans you'd like to share in the comment section?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Four Book Series And The Forced Pregnancy Narrative

The Final Print Proof of The Conflagration
Many people have asked why I made The Awakening a four-book series. I asked myself the same question yesterday after I approved the final print proof for The Conflagration, Book 3 in the series, and revised my handwritten outline for Book 4, The Illumination. (You can get The Conflagration now in ebook form if you don't want to wait for the paperback.) It's not that I don't love my main character, Tara Spencer. Despite all the awful events I've put her through, I do. She and her allies and foes are my favorite characters of all those I've written about. But if I had made the series a trilogy, I'd be finished now. I'd miss them all. But I'd be finished. As someone who likes to check off boxes for completed tasks on lists, that appeals to me.

So why write four books? As I talked about in the Author's Note at the end of The Conflagration, originally I envisioned The Awakening as a standalone novel. But as I revised it before publishing, I realized there was much more to Tara's story. I've always been intrigued by world-changing pregnancy narratives, Rosemary's Baby and The Terminator being my favorites. On the one hand, that trope gave us one of our most well known female action heroes in The Terminator. On the other, that narrative seems to say the woman protagonist derives her significance from the fact that she may give birth to a special child, and that it's only acceptable for her be proactive, to fight, if it's to protect her child. That's not the story I felt compelled to tell.

Outline for The Illumination, the fourth (and last) book in The Awakening Series
Tara is a hero not because of the child she might have but because of the values she holds and who she is, so her story goes far beyond having to deal with a pregnancy that was forced upon her. I also wanted to deal with the issue of the forced pregnancy itself. As in, regardless of end goals or motives, what are the ethics of causing a supernatural or mystical pregnancy for a woman who had no part in the plan? As I plotted The Unbelievers (Book 2), I discovered it took me to a natural midpoint both for Tara's personal journey and for the bigger picture of how and why she came to be pregnant and what it means for the world. So -- four books.

My goal is to release Book 4, The Illumination, within a year. If you've enjoyed The Awakening Series to date and would like to be notified of the release of The Illumination, you can join my email list here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Now Available For Preorder: Book 3 In The Awakening Series

Six months after giving birth to a mysterious child whispered to be the Antichrist, Tara Spencer fights for her life as she searches for her kidnapped baby girl.

While Tara follows leads, she also must struggle to make sense of a shocking prophecy about her own growing power and place in the battle between good and evil.

Denounced by some as a fraud and feared by others, Tara desperately aligns herself with foes who attempted to murder her only days ago. But can she come to terms with what she's learned about herself and control her power in time to save her daughter?

The Conflagration is the third installment in the four-book Awakening series by Lisa M. Lilly, author of The Awakening and The Unbelievers. She lives and practices law in Chicago.

Release date: May 17, 2016 for all ebook editions

Preorder Now:




Thursday, May 5, 2016

Lost Gospels From the Fourth Century

If you've never heard of the Nag Hammadi documents, think Dead Sea Scrolls but less well known. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures contain English-language translations of fourth-century papyrus gospels unearthed in Egypt in 1945. I relied on an earlier compilation of the translations in my research for The Awakening series.

Inside, you'll find many lost texts the official Catholic Church rejected, including the Gospel of Mary, the Apocalypse of Adam (where Adam speaks to his son Seth), the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Thomas, and two I used in the Awakening series, The Trimorphic Protennoia and The Thunder, Perfect Mind. (You'll see reference to the latter in Book 3, The Conflagration, which will be released May 17, 2017.) Both of those texts are poetic and both lend themselves to a focus on the feminine aspects of God. I liked reading them because they interested me even if I hadn't been looking for inspiration for my fiction.

Other texts I found hard to follow, and still others seemed so out of whack (that's a technical term) to my modern-day eyes that I wasn't surprised the Church disregarded them. Whether they made sense at the time and were rejected as contrary to official Church teachings, I don't know.

This edition in particular of the Nag Hammadi Scriptures makes me cheer for Amazon and other platforms for selling books on line. When I first learned about these manuscripts, the compilation of translated versions was only available through academic publishers at a cost of over $700. Later, I bought the edition I still have through Amazon for about $60. As I write this, the price is $12.99 for Kindle and $15.48 for paperback, with many used copies available for less.

If you are interested in the origins of Christianity and how and why some of the earliest texts were excluded from it, this is well worth the read.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Literary Equivalent Of Pratfalls

Lamb is the latest book group read.
One of the pluses and minuses of belonging to two book groups is that I read a lot of books I wouldn't otherwise choose. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal is one of them. Not only does it not fall into the mystery, occult (OK-maybe extremely loosely), suspense, or thriller genres, it is a novel that is mostly satire mixed with the literary equivalent of pratfalls. I enjoy short satirical pieces and goofy humor at times. But not so much for fifteen hours and twenty minutes, which is the length of this book on Audible.

Despite all that, I'm not sorry I read Lamb. Mainly told in first person, it purports to be a lost gospel of a childhood friend of Jesus Christ, wrapped within the story of how Biff came to write it after being resurrected by an annoying angel. It focuses on the years the Christian New Testament skips. First, it covers childhood and, second, the early teens to twenty-something. According to Biff, these years include travel in India, learning about other religions, doubts about being a messiah and what that means, and a healthy/borderline unhealthy curiosity about sex.

More Than A Comedy

Lamb is filled with irreverent jokes, anachronisms, and silliness, but it would be a mistake to view it as making fun of the Christian gospels. OK, it does make fun of the Christian gospels a little. But I read the book as the author’s genuine attempt to understand inconsistencies, gaps, and less-than-clear doctrines expressed by the Christ depicted in the New Testament. For that reason, depending upon whether the reader's sense of humor matches the author’s, I don't think this book will necessarily put off religious readers.

But It's Probably Not Horror

The Amazon rankings for Lamb as I write this include listings under (a) horror/comedy, (b) contemporary fiction/religious, and (c) religious and inspirational/historical. Uh, I'm not so sure. I didn't find anything that would be remotely considered horror in this book. But the Amazon categories, despite including numerous subcategories, often do not quite fit a particular read. My own Awakening series, best described as a supernatural thriller series, usually appears on the Horror Top 100 list when I have a sale, though it is more supernatural than frightening or bone chilling.

As to the historical reference, my guess is people who view the Bible itself as historical would be offended at anyone referring to Lamb that way. On the other hand, I saw a Goodreads review that noted that some of the fictional adventures Joshua (the name Biff claims was Jesus Christ's real name) engages in fit with historical suppositions about those missing years.

Why Listen Rather Than Read

Had I read Lamb rather than listened to it, I might have liked it better. The joke is a bit one-note, and listening to it for so many hours got tiresome. Had I been reading, it would have taken me less time, so I might not have grown tired of it. I also might have skimmed a few more parts. (Though I confess I did the audio equivalent of skimming. I set the reading speed faster and occasionally did household tasks that drowned out the narration without going back to listen to the parts I missed.) I chose to listen rather than read because I knew this wasn't my type of book. I figured I'd be more apt to finish it if I listened while doing other things rather than setting aside time simply to read. Also, I wanted to use my Audible subscription credits.

Conflicting Reviews Of Lamb

Unlike Americanah, which I discussed two weeks ago, I was not surprised by the varying reviews of Lamb. Those people who enjoy satire and farce seemed to really love the book. Those who gave it very low reviews tended to be people who, like me, grew tired of the novel-length joke or aren't really fans of satire or farce. If you're not sure if this book will work for you, I suggest listening to a sample on Audible or reading the sample pages on Amazon. If you enjoy the tone, you probably will like the rest of the book as well. If not, I doubt that it will grow on you.

Why Would I Review Another Book That Is Not What I Usually Like To Read?

From a marketing perspective, I probably should review books here that are in the same genre in which I write. That way, people might flip from the blog page on my website to the book page and discover they are interested in my Awakening series. But I already edit a monthly newsletter that covers the mystery, occult, suspense, and thriller genres in books, film, and TV. (You can sign up here if interested.)

More important, as both a reader and writer, I want to pay attention to books that are outside my usual area. For one thing, too many dark books leads to a skewed view of the world. I already look at every alley or panel van and imagine a story involving a monster or other villain. That’s good for my career as an author, but I don’t need to reinforce it with every book I pick up. And I have always liked learning about perspectives and approaches different from my own. Which has resulted in some very interesting conversations with different friends during this election cycle, but that's a whole other post. Lamb gave me some new perspectives on how believers see Christ and on using satire in long-form storytelling. That alone made it worth the read.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

God Is Not One

This week's book recommendation.
Since my early twenties when I started seriously questioning my religious beliefs, I've enjoyed reading books about religion. Not books that preach, but books that explore. Questions about when and how the universe was created, whether there is a god, many gods, or no god, and the various ways people rely upon religion to explain and navigate the world fascinate me, as does how religious beliefs affect people's relationships. That last point inspired me to write my Awakening thriller series, where characters with genuine, deeply-held beliefs oppose one another. All of which is why I love the book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World by Stephen Prothero.

Prothero's Reasons For Writing About Differences In Religious Beliefs

Prothero's premise is that while people often say things like "we all worship the same God," we actually " in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one." (See Prothero's Introduction.) No one tries to argue that every political party, type of government, or economic system is the same, as the current U.S. presidential primary races highlight. Yet popular culture and even religious scholars often view different religious as merely varying ways to get to the same place. 

The Eight Religions The Book Discusses

Throughout God Is Not One, Prothero shows the differences among Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism. Why these and not others are included in itself raises interesting questions. Prothero organizes his analysis using a four-point structure. For each religion, he examines:

  • the problem
  • the solution (or religious goal)
  • the technique (for reaching/achieving the solution)
  • an exemplar who illustrates the path from problem to solution 

A Timely Example Of Differences

As an example of differences in the first two points, Prothero explains how Christianity sees the problem as sin, with salvation as the solution. But in Buddhism, suffering is the problem and awakening is the solution. In contrast to both of those religions, in Judaism, the problem is exile; the solution is returning to God. I find these comparisons particularly timely for the U.S., which is now in the midst of the presidential primary election season. The race includes candidates who normally court the vote of a specific segment of the Christian population, argue the U.S. is a Christian nation, and deplore businesses who attempt to recognize that not all their customers are Christian. Yet because the primaries are hotly contested this year in New York, those same candidates have needed to attempt to broaden their appeal to non-Christian voters. I confess to not following every single thing politicians say (shocking, I know), but I feel safe in guessing that one way politicians attempt to deal with such conundrums is to assert that we all worship the same God and hold the same values.

Who Shouldn't Read This Book 

If you're uninterested in religion or philosophy, God Is Not One won't appeal to you. But if you are curious about what, how, and why cultures and individuals profess certain religious beliefs, I think you'll find this fascinating. Also, while the book is well-researched, the tone is fairly conversation, so you won't feel like you're reading a textbook.

If you read God Is Not One and have thoughts about it or can suggest other similar books, please share below.