Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Living On The Cusp

My life changed in an instant. One moment I was outgoing and sociable, impulsive and carefree, bordering on irresponsible. I was an optimist operating on blind faith, the type who jumped in first and worried about consequences later. A moment later, I became someone who preferred solitude to the point of being reclusive. I was careful and methodical and my view on life was realistic, if not pessimistic. What changed in that one moment? My sign. As I switched from one website to another, I transformed based on the differing dates the websites indicated matched astrological signs. Such is life when you're born on the cusp.

Once more (as I did last week when writing about True Believers), I looked to for clarity. Not only in astrology but in life, a cusp is "a point of transition (as from one historical period to the next)" or the "edge" or "verge." My birthday falls on the cusp of the astrological signs of Sagittarius--the characteristics of which I described first above--and Capricorn--the second. While I'm not a believer in astrology, I  find the cusp fits much of my life, starting in childhood.

I have two brothers who are over 7 years older than me and no other siblings. My parents were in their 40s when they had me. This combination of circumstances has left me feeling always a bit out of step with my peers. When I was in high school I listened to the music my brothers and their friends liked: Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles, Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie. Many of the books my brothers read when they were in high school, I read at the same time, so I was introduced to ideas and philosophies that were not on the minds of most fifth and sixth graders. Being raised by parents who lived through the Depression, my attitudes toward money differed significantly from that of most people my age. (That actually came in very handy in the years leading up to the recession that began in 2008.)

If you are interested in astrology, I found this book on Amazon all about being on the cusp.

Also, having siblings so much older than me made me in some ways more like an only child. I conversed more often with adults than with children. I had my own room, and I still tend to like a lot of space. Yet, I had the advantage of having siblings who generally liked me when I wasn't annoying them. They came up with a connect the dots approach to teaching me how to draw shapes, made games out of learning to tie my shoes and do arithmetic, and tried to teach me how to play softball. They were never too successful with that last one. They stopped when I batted the ball into my own nose. There's a reason I make my living as a writer and a lawyer, not an athlete.

The trend of being out of step age-wise continued in law school. I attended school at night and worked full time. Most other night students were (a) recently out of college and attending at night because they needed to work full time to afford school or (b) in their forties and up and changing careers from other professions. I was 30 when I started law school, and 34 when I became a lawyer. The attorneys I started at a large firm with were 8 years younger than me, and most people assumed I was of a similar age and had a similar lack of professional work experience.
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There were definite pluses to that assumption. The clients paid the same rate for me as they did for other brand new lawyers, but I'd worked full time for years in several different businesses and one law firm. I knew how to write business letters, conduct interviews, write motions, research efficiently and undertake other tasks that involved a steep learning curve for some of my colleagues. That meant my work was in demand, and I more quickly got more responsibility. In other ways, though, I felt perpetually behind. The 35 year olds at the firm were partners, not brand new associates, and I measured myself against them rather than against lawyers who'd just graduated law school. I was also less willing to devote endless hours to law for as many years as some of the twenty-somethings were. I think that's healthy, but large firms tend to prefer those attorneys who spend several years of doing nothing but working before they start asking themselves whether they might want to have time for other aspects of life.

As a writer, I live on the cusp of groundbreaking changes in the publishing world. When I was writing horror and young adult novels in the 8 years after college, the only real option for a writer to sell her novels was to query agent after agent and publisher after publisher, hoping to become the one new writer out of hundreds of thousands that year whose work was pulled out of the stacks of manuscripts on an intern's desk. When I began writing supernatural thrillers after practicing law for 7 or 8 years, I discovered a wonderful thing. If I believed in my writing and was willing to put my own effort behind it, I could publish my own work, becoming an entrepreneur as an author just as I had as a lawyer. The great part about having lived in both worlds is I developed good habits when querying agents and editors. Because I knew grammar errors and uneven writing would get my query or sample chapters tossed immediately, I learned to be vigilant about producing carefully edited prose. That's served me well as the quality control supervisor of my own publishing enterprise. It also means I'm used to spending significant time and effort putting my work out into the world. And the rewards are so much more immediate and tangible with indie publishing because I can see sales within days and royalties within months rather than waiting six months to a year to hear back from a single agent.

As a whole, despite the occasional uncertainty I feel at not firmly belonging within any one world (or one astrological sign), being on the cusp has been a wonderful way to live. I like to think I can take the best of each place I've been and can make more conscious choices than I might if I fit completely within a particular category.

What about you? Are there ways you live on the cusp or that you fit right into a particular category? What are the pluses and minuses you've found for either?

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, January 20, 2016

Is It Good To Be A True Believer?

I'm currently revising Book 3 in my supernatural thriller series. In the first quarter of the story, one character takes a swipe at another for being a "true believer". (The characters are Eric Holmes and Cyril Woods for those who are following the Awakening series.) I run into this phrase in my other profession, law, as well. Typically I defend companies or corporations against lawsuits, and on a few occasions my colleagues and I have referred to the lawyers on the other side as true believers, meaning attorneys who express a passion for or conviction about an issue that goes beyond the specific case they are handling. In the presidential primary season, too, one is apt to hear candidates professing to be the most devoted to their party's values. All this got me thinking about what it means to be a true believer and whether it’s a good thing.

According to, a true believer is "a person who professes absolute belief in something" or is "a zealous supporter of a particular cause." Synonyms listed are crusader, fanatic, and ideologue.

On social issues, it’s almost always true believers who spearhead change. They are the ones with the passionate conviction to face universal disagreement and, at times, physical violence to achieve changes such as women’s suffrage or an end to slavery. On that front, most of us tend to admire those who crusade for causes we favor, but may be at a loss to understand those on the other side.

Sometimes I agree with the results of a true believer’s action even if I don’t share an “absolute belief.” The summer I studied for the bar, I did a legal fellowship with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The non-profit believes “housing is a human right in a just society.” Seeing housing as a right raises questions for me, such as who is required to build the houses to which other people have a right, and how will those workers be paid? Or will they be forced to work for free? Nonetheless, I believe it is a worthy goal for a society that all of its people have a safe place to live. I admire the results the Coalition obtains, particularly in ensuring homeless children have equal access to education. I don't need to be an ideologue or a true believer to support the organization.

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The lawyers I know who fall into the true believer category, as with any person performing any job, have strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, they persist long past when other lawyers might get discouraged, and this sometimes means they win cases that seemed unwinnable or help change the law in ways they believe are vital. On the downside, true believers often can't see the flaws in their own arguments or the merits of the other side. If you can’t see your weaknesses, you can’t address or correct them, and if you can’t understand the other side’s argument, you’re much less likely to know how to counter it. These downsides are at the heart of why lawyers are advised not to represent themselves.

Absolute belief on a personal level can result in an unwillingness to consider new information. An acquaintance of mine is certain white males have no advantages in the job market. First, he says that once discrimination in employment based on race became illegal, there was no more discrimination, and second, he says he has never been afforded any preference based on his gender or race. I shared with him my experience working for a small business when I was in my early twenties. I sat in on interviews for a person being hired to do a similar job to mine. I liked one candidate, and the manager agreed the young woman had more relevant experience and presented more professionally in the interview than did the other woman being considered. But because the candidate I wanted to hire was African-American, the manager thought she would be a bad fit. Everyone else at the company was white, and some of the older male employees often said racist things. I pointed out that the answer to that was to tell the other employees to cut it out and that it was against the law to hire or not based on race. The manager still hired the young white woman instead.

The acquaintance who heard this said flatly, “I don’t believe that.” He’s not required to believe me. But in the ten years I’d known him before that, he’d never accused me of lying about anything or even of exaggerating or having a poor memory. This article in the New Yorker might explain why this time he did. The research cited within it showed that when new information contradicts a long-held belief that is intrinsic to a person's concept of self, the person generally rejects that information. It doesn’t matter if it’s an emotional appeal, a personal story, or a series of studies, the person simply doesn't accept the contradictory information.

I took an on line survey recently that was meant to evaluate the survey taker’s reasoning style. Mine showed as Skeptical. Perhaps because I am skeptical by nature, I wondered how accurate a twenty-minute survey could be. But I did identify with the description of skeptics as people who subject their own views and the views of others to scrutiny. My inclination when told about a study, regardless of its findings, is to look at who conducted it and why and what sorts of controls there were. When I feel strongly about a topic, I try to read and listen to the other side and think of an example where I might disagree with my initial position. When I hear a politician say something, I consider also what words the person chooses and what that person is not saying, no matter who that politician is.

Probably that tendency to look at all sides is why true believers fascinate me. I envy their certainty. To be absolutely convinced you are right must offer a great sense of purpose and clarity. All the same, always questioning and exploring new ideas and facts has served me well as a lawyer and as a writer, so I’ll stick with my own approach. Though I can’t say that with absolute certainty.

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, January 13, 2016

The Frightening World Of Work

I've been thinking a lot about work lately. Specifically, how work affects quality of life. Last year was one of change for me. I shifted to writing fiction full time. Before that, I practiced law full time, and before that, I worked in various office jobs and later as a paralegal, always writing on the side.

The Willis Tower, one setting for my urban horror.
As an attorney, I've never, ever, been bored. I learn new things every day—about my clients’ businesses, changes in the law, new courtroom technology. My first year as a lawyer also was the first time I can remember not being worried about money. That was a really great thing. I also remember feeling happy to have a professional title and a certain amount of respect.(I discovered this respect in a roundabout way. When I worked as a paralegal and told people I was writing novels, they usually rolled their eyes and joked about my pie-in-the-sky aspirations. As soon as I became a lawyer, others assumed I’d sell all my novels and asked if when that happened I’d continue practicing law. (Yes, I would.)). At the same time, the transition to large firm lawyer carried new stresses. Juggling matters for multiple clients, dealing with a vast range of personalities and work styles among coworkers, superiors, and opponents, and always being "on" and switching tasks so I could respond quickly to anything that came my way.

And so I wrote horror stories. Mostly about law. In The Mirror, an attorney who desperately wants to advance at his firm attends a summer recruiting event at an evil amusement park. His envy of people who succeed where he fails and his frustration at how others see him are reflected in the frightening things that occur as the park’s attractions spin out of control. In The Red Stone, a lawyer on the brink of partnership struggles with his ambivalence over how many hoops he'll jump through to prove himself. His travails include battling a boss/mentor who becomes an actual monster while wining and dining a hard-to-please client. And The Tower Formerly Known As Sears addresses the inevitability of change in the locked world of attorneys trapped within the former Sears Tower during a tornado.

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When I wrote these stories—which you can find in The Tower Formally Known As Sears And Two Other Tales Of Urban Horror for Kindle and Kindle apps (free January 12-14, 2016)—I didn’t see them as personal. None of the characters are me in disguise. All the protagonists are men, and none of the plots reflect my personal experiences except watching from the inside of a large firm as it went through growing pains to become global. More personal to me, at least in that I share the main character’s gender, is Ninevah, a short story published exclusively for my email list subscribers, where a woman executive struggles with whether to stay or go when her company is swallowed up by a larger corporation. While I never climbed the ladder in a corporation, Joan Voichek’s fears and desires strike a chord with how I felt when contemplating transitions—first, when deciding whether to break away from a large law firm to start my own practice, and years later, when I decided to shift away from a busy practice to focus on fiction writing. While Joan frames the questions in her mind in terms of finances, her real fear is the loss of her true self if she goes along with the corporate program. Of course, because it's a horror story, staying is much more dangerous than she ever imagines.

Looking at these plots together, it hit me how much they reflect the ambivalence I felt as my law practice grew busier and busier over the years. I was grateful there was a strong demand for my work, and I kept growing as a person and a lawyer. I enjoyed and did well at arguing in court, giving presentations, and interacting with other attorneys and clients, things I might not have known had I followed my earlier inclinations to close myself in a room and write and read fiction. But working 55+ hours a week at law didn’t leave me enough time to recharge by reading, writing, meditating, or doing yoga. I often felt disconnected from what I thought of as my true self, the one that, in the years immediately after college, worked for a few weeks at a time, then took off 1-2 weeks to write. That self was financially pretty broke, not surprisingly, but far more peaceful and content.

Now, as I wrote about in the Beauty Of Being Fifty, I feel I’ve reached a wonderful place in my work life. I’m happy for the many years of intense hours practicing law, and I’m happy for the chance to let that be a smaller part of my professional life while I write. Perhaps that’s why my work shifted over the last few years to my Awakening series, which fits better into the supernatural thriller genre than horror, and why my next series idea is a more traditional mystery/detective one. Then again, who knows, after another five years of writing full-time I may be writing horror stories about that.

If you’re curious about what’s frightening in the world of work, you can get The Tower Formally Known As Sears And Two Other Tales Of Urban Horror free for the Kindle or Kindle app from Wednesday, 1/12/16, through Friday, 1/14/16, or for $0.99 after that, and it’s always free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Also, once a month, I send a monthly MOST newsletter with book and film or television reviews in the Mystery, Occult, Suspense, and Thriller genres, and an occasional email about my new releases or appearances. If you join here, you will receive Ninevah, which was published exclusively for MOST subscribers.

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, January 6, 2016

Missed Communications And The Rise Of The Emojis

I had another topic in mind for this week’s blog post, but I started reading comments from beta readers (first readers who critique a writer’s manuscript) for The Conflagration, Book 3 in my supernatural thriller series, and it got me thinking about how people communicate, and fail to communicate, in today’s world. The readers of this draft of The Conflagration raised questions about plot points and characters that I had thought I’d written clearly. One bit of crucial information about who is sending cryptic Bible verses about Satan appeared in my outline for the book, but not in the manuscript. And I’d cut scenes between two characters (professor and former nun Sophia Gaddini and billionaire Erik Holmes, for those following the Awakening series) to keep the plot moving quickly, but that left one of the characters underdeveloped, as what was in my mind never made it onto the page.

Already I have ideas about how to revise to address these points. But the same types of miscommunications—and missed communications—happen all the time in day-to-day life and, unfortunately, we don’t have beta readers to review what we say or write before we share with others.

The Death of Letters

Ironically, this age of multiple communication methods and platforms seems to lead to more communication problems. Part of it is the death of written letters. Three or four decades ago, people regularly wrote letters for business and personal reasons. Handwriting takes time. Word processing is quicker, but it allows multiple revisions. Either way, letter writers tended to think about what they wrote and read their words again before sending the correspondence, which in itself was a process. You couldn’t zap off a letter in a rush of anger two seconds after you finished it. At the very least, you needed to address an envelope and walk it to a postage machine in your office or find a stamp and a mailbox. The length of letters also allowed the writer to include details and asides that conveyed tone and emotion.

The Depth of Real Phone Calls

Phone calls, too, provided cues that are missing in most communication today. I’m referring to “real” phone calls—ones on landlines with good sound quality. Tone of voice, how quickly or slowly someone spoke, hesitation, breathing—all of these gave cues to the listener about what the speaker meant and felt. And phone calls were two way. If my friend on the other end of the phone line understood something different from what I meant, I usually could tell that based on her response and further explain myself.

All this is not to say that today’s communication methods are worse than those in the past. Technology has allowed us to expand communication in so many ways. For example, video conferencing, though it hasn’t caught on as much as I'd expected. When I was a kid, video telephone calls were a staple in futuristic television shows or movies. Now such calls are easy and free for anyone who has Internet access and a Skype account or FaceTime. Yet, I have only one friend who FaceTimes periodically with me, but usually we talk on the phone, and more often than that, we text. Also, I’ve yet to use video conferencing on a day-to-day basis for business. Texting or emailing is quicker and allows the sender to communicate when she has time, and the recipient to answer whenever it’s convenient. It’s often hard enough to find a time when two people are free to talk via phone, let alone when both are able to access a video device and want to be seen. (My mom’s generation used to have a phrase called “putting on your face,” meaning to put on the amount of make up considered appropriate to see other people. In a more general sense, I think that’s also a factor in why video telephoning hasn’t become common.)

The Rise of Emojis and Exclamation Marks!!

Another innovation is the emoji, descendant of the emoticon. The emoticon came about when letters gave way to emails, which are still a main method of business communication. A letter was long if it went past a few pages; an email is long if it exceeds a paragraph. That makes it harder to read tone, and I probably spend nearly as much time composing and revising an email as I did a letter, despite its drastically shorter length. Because of that, in the 90s, people began combining and typing symbols to show emotions, such as :) or :(  According to what I found on the internet here, as texting became more prevalent, emojis, shown above, developed to replace the multiple character emoticons. An emoji is a small picture that counts as a single character, thus making it easier to stay within text message limits. (If you’re into grammar, here’s an Atlantic post on whether the plural of emoji is emojis or emoji.) Emojis and emoticons, as well as a lot of added punctuation, provide tone and context for texts. Without them, promises to get together soon or congratulations on graduations or promotions or new babies can sound flat or, worse, sarcastic. Emojis also can go beyond tone and convey activities or messages in themselves.

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Emojis Take Over Social Media

I also see emojis in social media, which makes sense. Social media typically involves people interacting through public personae, often carefully crafted. In a certain way, this makes the communication less interactive. One person posts carefully chosen photos, videos, quotes, and anecdotes. Others comment, often at a different time, and often in posts as short as those in texts. It’s easy for people who just happen to comment on the same photo to debate, without the benefit of knowing one another personally or knowing anything about one another’s context and lives. Emojis, emoticons, and exclamation points make it a little less likely tone will be misread. 

Making Peace with Emojis

I learned to write at a time when exclamation points were considered weak, as good writing in itself ought to convey the emotion. So part of me dislikes the trend toward shorter communication that requires multiple exclamation points and emojis. But I’ve taken to using them so there is less chance of misunderstanding. And, as with email, I reread what I type into social media platforms several times before sharing. As a corollary, if something someone else writes strikes me as offensive, I try to assume the best of all possible intentions by the writer. All of this involves effort, but in the end the chance to communicate with so many people I’d never have met in an age of more limited means of communication makes it worth it the effort.

What are your thoughts on today's methods of communication? Feel free to use emojis 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.