Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 30 - A Brilliant Day

Her 45-year-old father was in California, stationed at a military base. He thought he'd retired but idiots in Pyongyang and Beijing invented the Korean War and he found himself called up again for active duty. He was career Navy, and that was probably a good thing; he’d always been the family handful. When I met him, he was a fun, storytelling, baseball-loving man of 67. It was hard to imagine some of the stories the family told about him, but then again, it was hard to imagine some of the stories my family told about my father. And some they wouldn't tell.

Her 22-year-old mother was pregnant and the baby overdue (it turned out that lateness was something feathered into her DNA). And the young mother-to-be was likely feeling miserable in the late May north Louisiana heat. This was before air conditioning, which truly allowed the South to rise again. She was staying at her older sister’s house in what was then the country out from Shreveport (it would eventually become suburbs). The young woman decided to help speed things along and went outside to cut the grass. And she did. She cut the grass (a couple of acres) and she sped things along. The baby, a little girl, was born sometime before midnight.

They named her Janet. Her father, a movie buff who occasionally ran across movie stars in southern California, said she was named for the actress Janet Leigh (Jamie Leigh Curtis' mom) who starred in the movie “My Sister Eileen.” Her mother denied that story, and frankly, I believed her mother. But I always liked her father’s story.

Two years later, a little brother joined her. And then 11 years after that, another little brother came along. I’ll do the math for you – her father was 59 when her youngest brother was born. Did I mention that her father was a handful?

Some eight years after she found herself babysitting a new little brother, she came waltzing into the office of LSU’s student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, in Baton Rouge and said to me, “Hi. I’m Janet Lowrey. Do you have any stories for me to do?” I was the big-shot managing editor; all the reporters, of which she was one, reported to me and I assigned stories and beats.

That was in January of 1973. We were married that August. I didn’t compare to her father and my father in the black sheep department, but I was my own kind of handful.

So, I’d like to thank my deceased father-in-law and my still living, still-cutting-the-grass and-the-neighbors’-grass-too mother-in-law, for bringing that little baby girl into the world all those years ago. They never knew what a blessing they were creating for me.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"In Search of Eden" by Linda Nichols

In Search of Eden by Linda Nichols is a sweet story. After I read it, I checked a few reviews on Amazon, and there were some who complained about it being predictable and having a happy ending that tied up all the threads. I suppose some people prefer threads left dangling and unhappy endings. Maybe that’s more “realistic.”

What I like about the novel is that it’s unpretentious. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. It’s a story about a 15-year-old girl who’s forced to give up her newborn baby, and how she spends the next 11 years looking for the child, and looking for herself. She finds both, and a lot more, in a small town in Virginia.

I like how Nichols blends the message of faith and belief into the story, so that it’s natural, not forced or awkward, but simply part of what’s there. I like how the characters are three-dimensional, with scars and hurts and resentments. I like how the theme slowly emerges, the theme of forgiveness. And I like how Nichols writes a good story because she simply wants to tell one.

Yeah, In Search of Eden is women’s fiction. But I liked it.

The Message is Also the Medium

On his blog today, literary agent Nathan Bransford asks a question -- how does technology affect writing style? And I recall a conversation I had with a university English professor in a writing class, circa 1985.

I was in a masters program, and the course on writing was an elective. (For what it's worth, I received a B in the class -- the professor didn't like the way I wrote -- it wasn't literary enough.) And we were having a discussion in class about writing tools. The year before, I had received my first computer at work -- an IBM desktop (I think it was the IBM 286). And I found myself puzzled by something -- I wrote differently depending on what tool I was using. I mentioned this, and the professor was absolutely fascinated. I was fascinated, too -- it was the only thing I said that semester that he actually paid attention to.

Now you would think that an IBM Selectric (with correcto-type) is not radically different from a desktop word processor. But I found myself writing in different ways. I was more precise and slower on the typewriter. I was more "stream of consciousness" on the computer.

Then came the most startling discovery. I was writing a lot of of speeches at the time, and the writing requires you to write for the ear as opposed to the eye (makes sense -- speeches are supposed to be heard, at least first). For certain kinds of speeches, and sections of speeches, I was frustrated with both the typewriter and the computer, especially when it came to writing the more soaring, more emotional stuff as opposed to the more analytical. Both the typewriter and the computer didn't lend themselves to that, for some inexplicable reason.

One day I walked away from both tools, and sat in a conference room and wrote an emotional section of a speech -- by hand, on paper, with a pen. And it worked better than either the typewriter or the computer. In fact, it worked phenomenally well. The particular speech ended up blowing people's socks off when they heard it given by an executive in Denver.

I still do this today, with all kinds of writing. If I need to employ emotion and empathy, I write it out on paper with a pen. Then I type it on the computer. And it works.

I can't claim to understand why it works. It just does.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Travis Thrasher's "Ghostwriter"

I like how Travis Thrasher writes. He’s written 11 novels; I’ve read four of the most recent – Isolation, Sky Blue, Admission and now Ghostwriter. Earlier today, I posted my review of Ghostwriter at Amazon. It’s a novel that sticks.

Ghostwriter falls in the suspense/horror genre, and it’s got all of the characteristic elements – a ghost, a serial killer, the possibility that the main character is only living his own horror writer’s imagination and slowly going mad, and enough tension that builds to the point you wonder if you can stand any more. The novel succeeds simply as a suspense/horror story.

But it’s more than that. And it’s the “more,” rather than the story’s ghost, that’s haunting me right now. The “more” is about creativity and faith, and I’ve read this novel at a moment in my life when I’m wrestling with both. And Ghostwriter has helped me see that I’m actually wrestling with one thing, not two, and His name is God.

I’ve talked before (OK, I’ve bragged before) about the incredibly creative team I have at work. For more than two years now, the team has had an unparalleled run of innovation and accomplishment. A handful of lightly regarded functions was brought together and given the chance to excel. And excel they did, beyond anything thought possible. Our website was transformed. Our internal communications went from coach to first class. Our involvement in social media was launched. A research function was created and soared right out of the starting gate. Issues management was fundamentally changed from reactive to “we’re playing in this space so watch out.”

A lot of people have pointed to my leadership of the team. I knew better. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t the wellspring of all the creativity. I contributed some things (like helping hire good people) but I added one critical thing – my belief that all people have the same inherent value (which I’ve often talked about at work), the inherent value that comes from all of us being made in God’s image. That part is more problematic to talk about in the workplace; possible but problematic, and only done very carefully.

Things at work are now changing. It’s hard. My focus has shifted from creativity to helping people deal with the change and not be changed by it.

At the same time, church is changing. We’ve attended a church for several years that we really enjoy. And now church is changing, beginning to embrace a more “relevant” and contemporary approach. We left our last church because the focus became relevance instead of worship and discipleship. And I’m struggling to cope here, too, questioning a lot of what’s going on and my own beliefs as well.

Then I read Ghostwriter. And it tells me that, like the main character, I’m trying to control what I really can’t, at both work and church and all other parts of my life. A novel did this. It’s going to haunt me for a while, and I needed to be haunted. So, Travis Thrasher, you did more than entertain and tell a good story. You challenged and provoked.

Good writers tell good stories. Great writers challenge and provoke, and help change people’s lives.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sam Batterman's "Wayback"

I finished reading Sam Batterman's Wayback, and I've posted the review at Amazon (may take a while before it's visible, though; Amazon publishes reviews anywhere from immediately to 48 hours later). It's a great story about a "what if" -- what if the Biblical account of creation and the flood found in the book of Genesis were true -- and scientists had the means to verify it?

Batterman mixes science, action, history, a little romance -- and serves up one powerful story.

What impressed me the most, though, was his ability to describe settings -- the landscape. I was in that control center where the scientists have congregated. I was seeing the antedeluvian world for the first time, feeling and inhaling the water-saturated atmosphere and shocked, like the characters, at seeing herds of dinosaurs. I was walking the streets of Jersualem right before the Six-Day Way begins in 1967. I was running with the crew down the streets and into the sewer of the ancient city that doesn't know it's doomed. The detail is amazing, representing some exhaustive research. In the case of the antedeluvian world, the descriptions and detail are speculative but no less real.

Batterman, in his first novel, is clearly a master of setting of the scene.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Going "Wayback"

Thirty years ago, I went through a science fiction phase in my reading. I believe it started with Frank Herbert's Dune series; by the time the phase ended, I had devoured Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, Arthur Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Ben Bova and scores of others, all of them great storytellers. Previously, the closest I had come to science fiction was Michael Crichton -- The Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man, other best sellers, and then the mega-hit (and mega-movie) Jurassic Park.

There was a gap for me between Terminal Man and Jurassic Park -- I was on to other genres. But what always impressed me about Crichton was his ability to embrace science in his novels, and make the speculative totally believable.

I'm almost finished the novel Wayback by Sam Batterman, and I may have found another Michael Crichton.

Wayback is about an idea -- the idea that scientists have figured out a way to travel back in time, and a team goes to a time shortly before the Great Flood of Genesis. The scientists on the team represent the gamut of belief -- from ardent Christians to atheists. They don't know that Middle Eastern terrorists are right behind them, terrorists who are not interested in scientific knowledge but something sinister.

It sounds implausible. It sounds like believability will be a problem. But you start reading the novel and wham!, it's got you. Sam Batterman has that same ability to utilize science and speculative science that Michael Crichton had. The breadth of the research he's undertaken for the novel is extraordinary. And the novel does what good speculative novels have to do -- suck you into the story and move fast. You find yourself exploring the world of Noah with all the wonder of the novel's fictional scientific team.

I'll have a more in-depth review, but I can say right now that Wayback is a terrific, and thought-provoking, read.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Engaged Consumer

In earlier posts, I wrote about a speech I gave at a Conference Board meeting last week in New York. The meeting was called "Corporate Communication and Web 2.0," and it was all things social media. As I was speaking, an attendee commented on my presentation in a series of 12 tweets on Twitter (well, it was about social media; what did I expect?).

And then today, a blog called The Engaged Consumer posted this. And the blog post is now being tweeted on Twitter.

Oh, boy.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Back to College with "Admission"

I posted a review of Travis Thrasher's Admission at, and I won't repeat or recycle it here. It's sufficient to say I liked this mystery/suspense novel. Anyone who's ever been a college student or known a college student will recognize the intensity of college life (including the binge drinking), how things seem to matter so much more than they ever will again, and the college pranks and practical jokes and what happens when they go wrong.

The novel is the story of how one former college student has to find out what happened in an incident from 11 years before. Thrasher keeps you guessing throughout. Someone did something, and you gradually begin to suspect what the something was, but the mystery is who might have done it and the details of what actually happened. The story is structured and tied together well. You finish Admission and you're satisifed. This is an author who writes for his readers, and he writes very well indeed. I've previously read his Isolation and Sky Blue, and all of his books are good.

Admission also provokes long-buried memories. You think back to your own college days and about things that happened that you remember or heard about. It reminded me of college "names," the student "wheels" on campus. And then the book connected me to the memory of going to the police jail in my college town on a cold, overcast Sunday morning. A friend and I, he a "name" in student government and I a "name" on the student newspaper, went there to see if we could get a girl we knew released from custody. She'd been arrested because because she was with her boyfriend when he was arrested for drug possession (this was the early 1970s).

The girl was a type -- sweet, naive, innocent and wildly in love with her boyfriend, who was also a "name" in student government. And, shocking everyone, a drug dealer. We talked with the police; they listened and told us to leave, but they did release her about an hour later and never pressed charges against her. Some time later, another student government "name," who was one of the university's official, card-carrying-and-proud-of-it "leftists," suddenly quit school. It turned out he was actually a narc, and had been the one to turn the guy, and many others, in.

The narc's girlfriend, another "name" in student journalism, was a good friend of mine (we'd even dated a couple of times). She was devastated. Think what that would have meant for her --dating a guy who turned out to be narc who turned in his friends, then disappeared. She loved the guy, but she was only part of his cover, and their relationship a complete sham, as was his commitment to the campus leftist political association he was part of (which, by the way, never recovered from the scandal of having a narc in its midst). This sounds like a novel, but it actually happened.

There's an intensity about college life that's hard to describe -- you have to live it to understand it. That's what Travis Thatcher captured in Admission.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Conference Board Meeting

No, it doesn't have anything to do with Christian fiction. But today I attended a Conference Board meeting on "Corporate Communications and Web 2.0" in New York City and spoke this afternoon on creating and managing online content. It's really been a great meeting.

So, before I talk about what I said, what did I hear?

It's better to understand Humans 1.0 than Web 2.0. Exactly right. Social media are about people and relationships. They're not about getting your "messages" to "targeted audiences."

Think tribe, not market segment. Think network, not "channel." Think customer-centric, not company-centric. Think messiness and fragmentation, not hierarchal fixed processes (oh, boy, is that something companies need to learn). Think fast -- people want responses FAST. This is about conversation, not responding with your pre-approved corporate messages. You're having a conversation with a real human being -- if you asked a person a question, would you wait three days for a response? Not likely.

What else did I learn?

You have to resist the urge to broadcast your "message" or your "news." Ted Skinner of PR Newswire pointed out that the rules of marketing don't apply in social media -- it's the rules of people that apply. The same could be said for Christian fiction. Think about the reader. The reader is a real person who buys your book. Don't mislead him or her.

And what did I say?

I talked about my team at work, and what they've accomplished. They've launched an issues blog and an online news publication. They've managed a Twitter account (1200+ followers) and our Facebook page. They've developed a YouTube channel. They've turned corporate employee communications into a best practice. They've stopped an online viral campaign against the company (virtually no one has done that before). They've done best-in-class online research. They've transformed our web site from boring brochureware to the dynamic news hub of everything we do online.

And the reaction from the conference attendees?

"You're my new hero." (Actual comment!)

"I can't believe a company like yours is doing this." (Actual comment!)

"I'm stunned. You give me hope for corporate America." (Actual comment!)

They treated me like a rock star. But it was my people who did the work.

I've been blessed more than I could have ever imagined. In corporate America, it doesn't get any better than this.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How Did the Story Hook Me?

On Monday, I was interviewed for a project at work -- I'd been asked to read Tony Dungy's Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance and then be interviewed for one of the print publications published by the company for employees. The interview went fine -- took all of about 15 minutes and we were done. Tuesday morning, I received the draft for comment -- the turnaround was quick. It was a different way to do a book review -- have someone read a book and then talk to them about what they read.

Last night, I started reading Travis Thrasher's Admission. It jumped around a bit at first, or it was actually more a case of me being easily distracted. And then, by about page 20, I was hooked. I had a hard time putting it down but I had to get to sleep. I went back this morning and tried to find the spot where Thrasher hurled me into the story, but I don't see the precise point. All I know is that it happened, somewhere around page 20, when the lead character, Jake Rivers, is offered $50,000 to find a college friend he hasn't seen in 11 years. It's odd how those hooks work. You're reading along, trying to figure out if you're going to be interested or not, and the next thing you know, it's 60 pages later. Gotcha.

I have to fly to New York this afternoon for a talk I'm giving tomorrow at a Conference Board meeting (my assigned topic is "Creating and Managing Online Content"). I can't wait for the plane ride and a good two hours of uninterrupted reading.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

When Work Gets Irrational

I’ve been reading Tony Dungy’s Uncommon: Finding Your Path to Significance, and it reminded me of something long forgotten.

A long time ago, I went through a particularly hard, emotional week at work (not an uncommon thing in the American workplace but this one stands out in my mind). It wasn’t about layoffs, but about changes in structure and reporting relationships. Because some things didn’t make sense, in fact, none of it made sense, I spent the entire week trying to help people understand the answer to the question, Why? And there was no good answer. I didn’t have one. No one else did either. Including the people who made the changes.

Two people were in my office in tears. Three were outraged. Everyone was upset. Other teams were also in turmoil. Who would be reorganized and reshuffled next? An element previously not present -- fear -- had entered our workplace. Human minds searched for that rational explanation because everyone felt the uncertainty and fear. Why did this happen?

It wasn’t as if the signs weren’t there. They were. There had been a “chill” for many, many weeks, although there was no ostensible, or rational, reason for that, either. Work performance had been soaring, against all the odds. Incredible things were being accomplished. There was broad recognition inside and outside the organization.

And then, the sledgehammer.

This is often where organizations of all types – corporate, non-profit, government, what-have-you – go off track. You look at the all the statements – the mission statement, the vision, the list of corporate values – and then you look at an action that makes no rational sense. All that other stuff suddenly looks flimsy. And it hurts, because all that flimsy stuff speaks to who we are as human beings, what we really want things to be like, and what we desire in our hearts, because God puts it there.

In any workplace, people quickly learn that it’s what you do that matters, not what you say. And even more importantly, it’s how you do it.

I’m reading Uncommon, interestingly enough, for a project at work. Another team in a different part of the company publishes a quarterly magazine, and it includes a “book review interview” on a book selected by the editor that might apply to the workplace. Uncommon certainly fits, but it’s somewhat surprising because it is largely based on Dungy’s Christian faith, and it’s not something you expect in the workplace. (You expect Who Moved My Cheese, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. You don’t expect Uncommon.) My interview is set for Monday afternoon.

Early on, Dungy says this: What you do is not as important as how you do it. This is what character is about, what integrity is about. It’s the "how," not the "what." The “what” will follow the “how.” In today’s workplace, we focus on the “what.” There’s virtually no understanding that the “how” is the critical part.

And he says this: The opposite of courage is not cowardice. The opposite of courage is conformity. (I had to think about that for a long time. He’s absolutely right.)

And then he says this: don’t let the bad things that happen to you – a rotten performance review, office politics, a restructuring, or even being fired – define who you are as a person. What defines you as a person is how you respond to the things – bad and good – that happen to you.

Even people who don’t share Dungy’s – and my – Christian faith will get this. Because God puts it in our hearts.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crying with Them Crickets

Tuesday morning, I finished Charles Martin's When Crickets Cry. Published three years ago, the novel (subtitled "A Novel of the Heart") is the story of Reese Mitch, a guy doing carpentry and contruction work who buys a glass of lemonade on a street corner from a little girl named Annie. Annie parents are dead, and she lives with her aunt, Cindy McReedy. Some of Annie's lemonade money blows into the street, she runs to get it, and is hit by a truck. And Reese's life is never the same.

Gradually, Martin tells two stories. One is Annie's. She's 11 years old and needs a new heart. The other story is Reese's. Gradually the reader learns that Reese is something far more than what he appears to be. And he's never recovered from the loss of his wife Emma, who died waiting for a heart transplant. Reese lives near Emma's brother Charlie; Charlie is blind for reasons that only eventually become clear.

When Crickets Cry is fully recognizable as a Charles Martin book. His writing is about place, and place is almost always a main character in itself in his stories. His novels are about broken people, people seeking healing and redemption. There are always surprises, twists and turns. There's usually a child in there somewhere. And often physical illness.

But for all of the recognizable signs, his novels are not formulaic. The Dead Don't Dance and Maggie are about a couple trying to have a child. Wrapped in Rain is a story of two brothers, half-brothers, actually, each dealing and trying to overcome a childhood of abuse. Chasing Fireflies is about family secrets and a man's awful longing for a father he never knew. And then there's this novel, When Crickets Cry.

The writing is powerful, achingly so. The reader feels Reese's pain and Annie's desire for life. The characters, all of them, are drawn true -- you recognize and know these people, and more than that, you care about them. And while you learn a lot about the human heart as a physical entity, you also understand that it is far more than that.

Yes, I cried with the crickets.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What I Learned Today

It's only Tuesday, and it's already a bad week. I couldn't sleep, so I got up and read for a while. I'm almost finished with Charles Martin's When Crickets Cry. Those crickets have brought tears to my eyes more than once in the past few days.

And then I read this. If you haven't read Billy Coffey's blog before, "What I Learned Today," then read his post today. It's about the second thing God wants to hear.

Simply wonderful.

Monday, May 4, 2009

When Work Isn't Work

I've been discovering a whole raft of online conversations going on right now about work and faith. Inside Work, for example, is an entire web site devoted to the subject of faith in work and business, and contains some of the most intelligent conversation I've run across on the subject. Another site (or blog, to be specific), Red Letter Believers, had a post about it yesterday, asking the provocative question, does work matter? A blog I particularly like is Shrinking the Camel, written by a business executive in the northeastern U.S., and it's all about work, with an occasional digression about family and children. Which is also work, come to think about it, the most difficult work/mission we can encounter.

The workplace can be a tough mission field, but likely no tougher than anywhere else. I've learned that, like most situations, what you do at work matters vastly more than what you say. So you have to be conscious of what you say and how well it connects to what you do, but the doing is the critical part. When people see something different in the workplace, they want to know why. So they watch, and sometimes they ask.

I've found this works in two ways. First, if people think you're serious about your faith, they expect you to be different. They don't expect the same profanity and politicking they experience with everyone else. This is where I've seen business people trip up -- it's almost as if they deliberately keep their faith out of the workplace because "you have to play the business game to be successful." I've heard some Christian business people actually articulate this. And I've been on the receiving end a few times -- surprised (walloped, actually) by actions and words I never would have expected from a fellow believer. I'm older now, and have to keep reminding myself that God continues to work on me, too.

But second, there's a more positive sense of how faith can operate in the workplace. Work has been hard from the beginning; God never told Adam that it would be a slam dunk. But He also gave us the ability to create and innovate, to encourage others to create and innovate, and possibly to provide air cover so people can create and innovate. I've found that most organizations tend to reject creativity and innovation until circumstances force them to accept it. (I also have a theory about this -- that change comes to a profession primarily from outside the profession, because it's too threatening to one's notions of expertise and control. And it is threatening. Look at newspapers; they're dying because of the change coming from outside traditional journalism.)

But what might be accomplished if I, as a believer in the workplace, help people create and innovate? Might people see a glimpse of the ultimate Creator?

I figure it's worth a shot.

These online discussions about work have also prompted me to look at what I'm doing with my writing. Up until now, I haven't thought of my writing as work. There's no question that it's hard, frustrating and often a struggle. But have I thought of it as work?

I realized that writing is exactly that -- work. And the same rules that apply to my job at the office apply to my writing. Am I doing what everyone else is doing? Is it the same old rut? Or is it creative? Does it offer a fresh voice? Is it purposeful?

And most of all -- does it please God?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reading Charles Martin's "When Crickets Cry"

I've been reading Charles Martin's When Crickets Cry. I really like his novels, for much the same reasons I like the novels of Dale Cramer and Chris Fabry.

All three authors evoke a strong sense of place in their works -- Martin in Florida/southeast Georgia, Cramer in the Atlanta area (and Kentucky), and Fabry in West Virginia. Okay, so I like Southerners. I'm one of them. I count West Virginia as part of the American South -- they talk like us, although the accents, or actually the array of accents associated with "Southern," are being homogenized into American newspeak. (I'm the classic example of this.)

All three writers are also strong on story -- and they always tell a good one. Always. I haven't hit a bum one yet, and I've read all of Cramer, most of Martin and the one adult novel Fabry has published (his second, June Bug, is scheduled for publication this summer).

And all three don't smack you upside the head with the Christian message, or any Christian message. But it's there, informing and often saturating their novels, even more powerful because it's not overt. You get the themes of brokenness and redemption, and of sacrifice and debt paid, without having them shoved at you. It's done much more subtly, almost wooing the reader, in much the same way I believe God often woos us. Odd word, that -- woo. The dictionary says it means to seek the affection of, to court, to solicit or entreat, to seek to gain or bring about.

That's what their writing does for me -- woo.