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Archive for February, 2012

In honor of Shrove Tuesday, a snippet from a book I’m working on about missionaries in Congo. I know, it perhaps seems mighty odd for me to be writing about missionaries, but I grew up in a church that regularly hosted missionaries, and I always found their stories to be a compelling mix of higher callings and simple humanity.

***

They rode in silence, everyone praying the same desperate thing inside their heads. Two hours before, they had prayed together. Big, noble, fearless prayers. Oh, heavenly father, please look after our hosts in this time of unrest. Please, oh Lord, protect the wonderful people of The Republic of Congo.

That was before they bribed their way through the first checkpoint on the way to Brazzaville. The checkpoint was clearly unofficial, even if the men who waved the Land Rovers to a halt wore uniforms. Everyone had been ordered out of the Rovers in the narrow, shady road. The men in uniforms lined the passengers up while they “inspected” the vehicles. Over the rapid-fire exchanges in French and Congolese, Angie’s father said, “Don’t worry. They’re not going to hurt us.”

Unofficial Checkpoint

The soldiers laughed at that and said, “Rich pig. Dollars. Donnez la monnaie.”

It didn’t cost a great deal, less than twenty dollars, and they were on their way again, rattling along the road cut into the forest.

“We just have to stay calm,” Mr. Veatch said. “They’re not going to hurt Americans.”

“Of course not,” said Nina, Angie’s mother.

Of course not, but after that they prayed in silence, something along the lines of “Please, get us out of here. Please, get us to Brazzaville and back to the U.S.”

Angie’s prayer was a little less polite. Less prayer than mantra. Screw good works. I want to go home.

It was all different from the six years they’d spent in Haiti. Yes, things had been rough there. Angie and Hope had slept under mosquito netting and longed endlessly for the comforts of America, even though they lived better than all the Haitian parishioners of the mission. They’d had indoor plumbing, windows, a washer, a fridge, and care packages from the sponsor church in Missouri. American candy, soap, and mac ‘n’ cheese.

Angie hadn’t lain awake every night in Haiti, listening for distant gunfire.

After two years stateside, she didn’t want to be in Congo. She’d come because that’s what family did. Fine, that was a lie. She’d been furious that her father agreed to the mission trip and insisted she come. She’d been angry and afraid. Terrified to think of Hope going on mission just a year after her leukemia went into remission.

“Re-mission,” her father, John, said. “Do you hear that? Re-mission. A chance to recommit ourselves to mission. It’s been missing. We haven’t been fully in Christ since we came to Missouri.”

She wanted to say, “Speak for yourself. If you haven’t been fully in Christ, that’s your problem.” Instead, she kept her head down, waiting to see what her mother would say.

After Hope got sick, they’d come out of the field, taken a pastoral position at Guiding Shepherd. A nice church. Too nice for John. His sermons toward the end were less shepherding and more accusatory. The church elders seemed relieved to send him back into the mission field. Seeing the newsletter photo of the four of them at their farewell party, Angie considered for the first time that they were all hostages to John’s fervor. That was why her mother said nothing to talk her father out of going again. Hope, Nina, and Angie, they were all shell-shocked victims struggling to smile.

A week later, they were in the Republic of Congo, standing on the tarmac at Brazzaville/Kinshasa. Five days of driving over dirt roads to get to the school and the church. The problem was that none of them were fearless anymore. Except John. In Haiti, Hope had been healthy and seven, and had never met a stranger. In Congo, she was weaker. Mortal and embarrassed by that spate of doubt. Nina was like a woman with the wind knocked out of her. The kind of woman who would be stronger in her faith for having been tested. Eventually. In a few years. But not yet. Angie had just lost her sense of rightness. Not her sense of right and wrong, but her sense that she was useful.

She had gone to Haiti at ten, a hopeful little Christian with ideals. Before it was over she’d seen how little good they’d managed to do. Oh, sure, there was the school with the little medical clinic, but there was the never-ending parade of babies who died, kids who dropped out of school to work, girls married way too young, children called restaveks who were nothing but slaves. And the unrelenting poverty.

Then Hope got sick and suddenly there were no more good works. There was a plane back to Missouri and the best medical treatment for Hope. That was good. Angie was grateful. She wanted Hope to live, to get well, but it seemed so easy. If you were American, if you were white, if you had money, or friends with money, you lived in a different world than poor black Haitians did. If you weren’t an America, you were already home. Tough luck.

Returning to a public school in Missouri compounded it. Hammered from all sides with the waste, the indifference, the blindness, Angie found it was easier to go along and be a part of it. She let herself forget what deprivation looked like. She embraced the shallowness, the new clothes, the donated car, the spending money, the ipod, the college applications. John guided her toward a private Lutheran college, to keep her in Christ.

Angie accused herself every day. Lukewarm. Christ would spit her out. He would spit them all out. Even John, whose fervor didn’t keep him from buying new suits and fetishizing his laptop. Lukewarm. John must have felt it, too. Maybe that was why he dragged them to Africa. Hope wide-eyed and a little too thin. Nina with a sharp new crease between her eyebrows that got deeper if Hope so much as sneezed. Angie, glaring at the back of her father’s head as they jolted down the road away from the checkpoint. She promised herself that as soon as they were safely on a plane back to the States, she would tell him exactly what she thought.

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Most writers would like to think that our brilliant writing, clever premise, and skillful plot manipulation are the primary things that lead to a book selling. We want to believe this, perhaps even need to believe this, because it helps us feel that we have some control over our writing careers, such as they are. If it’s all about skills, we can just work harder to become better writers, thereby increasing our chances of being published.

That said, as many writers can tell you, luck is a big component to the publishing game. You have to write not just a good book, or a great book, but the right book. Then you (or the right agent) have to send it out to the the right editor at just the right time. If this weren’t true, then how would any of the great classics of literature have ever been rejected even once? If all it were about was the quality of the writing and the story, every great book would immediately sell, leading to accolades, fame, and wealth for the author. We know it ain’t so.

Yet sometimes I encounter writers who would have you believe that it was only their hard work that led to their writing successes. As though they alone controlled the outcome.

Today, I read a news story about a CNN producer who has won the lottery twice. She tells her own story here. Part of the story is touching, because she apparently won $100,000 the first time, just at the moment she most needed it. Those are wonderful stories, when crisis is averted by a sudden windfall.

The rest of the story is pure aggravation. Here is what she has to say about why she won:

“I believe that this blessing came to me because I have worked very hard.”

Scratch harder!!!

I have scratched lottery tickets before. It’s not that difficult. It certainly doesn’t qualify as “hard work.” Somehow, this woman believes that she won the lottery because she deserved it for working so hard. These are the words of someone who is either delusional or lacking in logic. Unless one is cheating, one wins the lottery, because through a process of random chance, one has purchased a winning ticket. It has nothing to do with hard work or being deserving.

The same is true with writing and publishing. To get published, you have to write a book (or in some cases, hire someone to write your book.) Hard work helps with this, because writing a book is not as easy as buying a lottery ticket. That said, the rest of the equation is all about getting your book into the hands of the right editor at the right moment. This rests a very great deal on chance.

What say you? How important is luck? In publishing? In winning the lottery? In everyday life?

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Today’s teaser, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is from a story I’m working on that was inspired by an infamous Kansas family, the Bloody Benders. It’s a bit longer than the teasers I usually post, because it’s hard to get a read on the situation without a bit more set-up.

***

Ma Bender

The old woman said a long prayer over the food until it was half cold, and then they all began to eat, with the old woman talking the whole while.  The boy with the silver necklace tried twice to take the meager serving of bread off quiet girl’s plate and when she tried to defend herself, the boy struck her hard on the side of the head and took the bread.

Oliver had never been in a house where it was acceptable to hit women and he felt the seconds passing him by between the twinge of indignation and the moment when he caught the boy’s arm and said, “There’s no call for that.”  For a brief moment he thought the boy would strike him, too, but either the old woman’s look of disapproval or Oliver’s size or Oliver’s pistol decided him against it.  He returned the bread to the quiet girl’s plate.

After the meal was done, Oliver managed to bring the talk back around to his brother, asking whether any of the rest of the family had seen him.  He passed the picture around the room.  The quiet girl stared at it a long time, until the old woman took it out of her hand, saying, “I expected the boys home sooner than this, but surely they’ll be in, before too much later.  I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.  You know, they travel a lot, see a lot more of the country. They might be able to find someone who’s seen your brother.”  Oliver looked up to see the quiet girl looking at him.  She didn’t seem embarrassed, but she looked away.

There was a bit more talk about other things, and then the old woman sent several of the boys out to do chores.  She sent one of the younger boys up into the loft after some extra blankets and then turned to the quiet girl.  “Why don’t you take Mister Oliver out to the barn and help him settle down where they’ll sleep for the night.”

The girl nodded, and when she rose, Oliver and James did likewise.  At that moment, however, the strawberry-haired woman put her hand on James’ arm.  Laying a Bible out on the table, the old woman said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading us a piece out of the Good Book.”  James blushed and looked to Oliver for approval before sitting back down.  The strawberry-haired woman still had her hand on his arm and was smiling at him.

Oliver followed the quiet girl out the door.  She carried several blankets that the boy had thrown down to her from the loft.  He offered to carry them, but that seemed to embarrass her, although she finally gave him the small lantern to carry.  As they neared the barn, he finally got the nerve to ask where the outhouse was.  She pointed a little ways around the corner of the barn and offered to wait for him.  Even with the lantern, it was the worst of its kind that he’d found out west—dank and dark and full of spiders.  Outside, he heard voices, the girl, and one of the older boys.  At first, he couldn’t make out their words, and then the fight grew loud enough for him to understand its meaning.

“Does he still have his gun?” the boy said.

“I’m not helping you with him.”

“You will or she’ll sell you to the Comancheros.  You’ll wish you were dead.”

“I won’t do it.”

Oliver heard a scuffle, the girl’s muffled cry.  He struggled to fasten his belt, wrestled with the plank door, and left the lantern.  When he hurried around the corner, he saw in the pool of light from the barn that the boy with the heavy silver necklace had the quiet girl down on the ground.  He kicked at her as she struggled to get back on her feet, striking at him with her hands.  She pulled him off balance and he fell onto her, punched her hard in the side of her neck, just as Oliver reached them and pulled the boy off her.

The boy staggered,  then came up shouting, “Ahora!”.

His hand went to a small hatchet at his belt, and as Oliver thrust the girl behind him, a burning stripe opened across his shoulder.  The boy was already swinging back for another blow with the hatchet.

“La pistola!” the boy shouted.

Before Oliver could get his hand down to his side, he felt the electricity of the girl’s hand sliding against his waist, felt the weight of the Colt lifted out of its holster.  He staggered back to avoid the hatchet, which made a short stroke against his chest.  He felt a terrible emptiness in his stomach: real, final terror.

He knew it was only a matter of moments before the girl passed the gun to her brother or shot her himself.  For all he knew, he was already bleeding to death, and the boy was readying the hatchet again.  Oliver tried to grab the girl’s arm, said a quick prayer: “God—.” and heard the gunshot.

The boy jerked backwards, fell, and Oliver and the girl also fell back, propelled by Oliver’s retreat from the hatchet and the recoil of the Colt.  The girl leapt up, pointing the pistol down at her brother and fired again.  He jerked and was still.

Oliver sat up, looking around in confusion.  The girl pulled on his arm.

“Now,” she said. “You have to hurry.  They’re killing your friend now.”

Oliver lurched to his feet, his arm and chest numb. “Get his axe,” she commanded, pointing down at the boy’s body.  She jerked up the tail of her skirt, ignoring her bared legs and ran hard across the yard.  Oliver followed with his head swimming.

The old woman sat just where she had throughout the meal.  James had been sitting on the bench across from her, a few candles on the table, reading from the Bible.  Now he wore a noose around his neck, his face gone purple.  The rope was slung up over a rafter and on the other end of it, swung the boy who had gone up into the loft for blankets.

“Help him,” the old woman screamed at the strawberry-haired woman, who was laughing as she scrambled to help the boy pull down on the other end of the hanging rope.  The two of them hoisted James a foot off the floor.  Oliver was paralyzed in the seconds it took for him to understand what was happening.

He stared, trying to comprehend, and in those few moments the girl began to shoot.  She was no marksman and made no effort at severing the rope.  She simply shot the boy who held the rope, and then palmed the hammer back and shot him again in the chest.  He dropped from the rope and the woman let go, screaming.  James hit the floor and began clawing at the noose.  With an ease that belied her age, the old woman turned to the hearth behind her and pulled down a shotgun.

Oliver looked down at the axe in his hand.  Before the old woman could even level the shotgun, the girl crossed to the table and shot her from just a step away.  The old woman fell back, almost into the fire as the girl jerked the shotgun away from her.  She turned back to Oliver.  Her eyes were dead black, unreadable.  There were two hectic spots of color in her cheeks and a splatter of blood on her face.  She held out the shotgun.

“Take it and use it,” she said.  “You’ll be dead if you don’t.”  The old woman groaned and the girl turned back to her and shot her again, just as she had done the boy out by the barn.  She pulled the trigger again and they looked at each other at the sound of the dry click.

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First I trolled all over the internet, digging away at remembered details, fretting that perhaps Brianne had married and I had no hope of finding her with her maiden name.

Failing there, I traversed the vasty wilderness of Facebook and LinkedIn, sending at least a dozen messages to strangers who might have been my Brianne, but weren’t.

Next, I called my old employer, using a wee bit of subterfuge, looking for Brianne. Alas, they only keep records the seven years the law requires. Double alas, the person in Human Resources wasn’t employed there in 2003 when I worked there alongside Brianne.

Not to be thwarted, when the prevailing feeling in the poll was that I hadn’t tried hard enough, I tried harder, and spent a little money. I paid to pull background information on likely prospects. One made my hopes soar. Her age was right, born in 1977. Her middle name was Brianne, which rang a bell for me. I seemed to remember that, like me, Brianne used her middle name instead of her first for many things. Her address for the period I knew Briann matched my memory of the neighborhood in Temple Terrace, Florida. More importantly, there was an address history going back to the 1990s. There, I was sure, I would find her family, and through her family, I would find her.

I did. After a fashion.

Before I got on the phone and started calling strangers, I did a search of her name and her childhood hometown. What I found was heartbreaking to say the least. It explains why she just didn’t seem to exist on the internet. It explains why we “lost touch” in late 2004.

Lost and Found

Now I know how to spell her name. What I still have to figure out is how to word the dedication. If this were a story in a book, I would throw it against the wall in anger and rail against the author. Truth being a bit crueler and more pragmatic than fiction, I’ll try to make it matter that the book she liked enough to keep a printout of will be going to press with her name in it. Thanks to Brianne it has a happy ending. She said it had to. She said it wasn’t fair if Bernie and Meda didn’t get a happy ending. She was right.

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So, let’s just play a hypothetical game to help me out with a dilemma.

Let’s say that 10 or more years ago, while toiling in obscurity in Tampa, I finished writing my first real novel. Let’s pretend it was before the internet was big, so my circle of writing friends was a lot smaller than it is now. I had this really great coworker, you, who read a lot and enjoyed talking about books. So I asked you to read my book, before I decided what to do with it–burn it, query it, weep quietly over it?

Continuing with our hypothetical scenario, let’s say you were an enthusiastic reader, who not only said nice things about my book, but offered some comments that proved helpful to me in revising.

Now, flash forward to the present. Sadly, you and I lost touch years ago. Before the internet, this happened all the time, remember? It was nobody’s fault. Sad, but true.

Except something pretty cool happened this year, hypothetically. After all these years, I sold that very first book to a publisher. I’ve hammered out edits, weighed in on covers, shilled other writers for blurbs and engaged in a growing variety of networking gymnastics. Then the publisher emailed me to ask, “Do you want to include a dedication?”

Um, yeah, yeah, I do. I particular, I’d really like to dedicate this book to my two first readers. The problem is, I don’t remember how to spell your name exactly. I think it’s Brianne May. But maybe it’s Brianna May. Or maybe your last name was LeMay. It’s just been too long since I worked with you, and I don’t remember.

So, in this hypothetical situation …

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