Of Heroes and Ordinary Men

As of late, I’ve been reading a book called Ordinary Men. It’s a recount of German police battalion 101; a documentation of the men who served as part of Nazi Germany’s Order Police during the Second World War. The policemen, as cataloged by author Christopher Browning, are given an assignment on the morning of July 13, 1942 that would change their lives forever. And subsequently, the lives of every Jewish man, woman, and child living in the ghetto of Jozefow. Though only police officers, the battalion is handed down orders to “liquidate” the entire ghetto and thus, murder every single Jewish person – amounting somewhere in the thousands – that resided within. As you might suspect, the orders are carried out in full. But, not without consequence. In the days and years that follow, the members of Battalion 101 experience extreme regret, bitterness, and entanglement of their very souls. It’s a chilling read and a grim reminder of how quickly things can devolve into madness.

What’s more, the book chronicles how so many of these average police officers were given a choice: to carry out their orders or to simply “walk out.” The majority of them did not choose the latter. And though some did outright, a vast majority of officers participated. The details of which I will leave for those who wish to read the book themselves.

As a writer of fiction, I am in the business of creating stories. Stories that not only tickle the imagination, but project images and ideals of I would constitute as heroic. For without heroism, few protagonists are memorable.

And yet, when it comes to real life, the heroes we find in story are remarkably absent. Bullies surround a kid at school and no one intervenes. An employee knowingly removes money from the company bank account and those in the know turn a blind eye. If confronted with these situations ourselves, we’d all like to believe we’d rise to the occasion. That we’d mirror the heroes of our favorite fantasy or fiction and become the star of our circumstances. However, as I’m reading through Ordinary Men, it’s easy to see that we aren’t always as virtuous as we tend to think, nor are we as brave as we’d choose to believe. External forces – coupled by our own internal ones – drive us to self-preserve, to retain self-interest, and forego the sacrifice that might be necessary to simply do what is good and just.

But, what is good and just? Writers have been tackling what is right and what is wrong since the beginning of time. And the more specific and morally gripping the scenario, the cloudier our answer tends to become. Yet by continually engaging in stories that challenge our thinking on these matters, we continue to cultivate the best parts of ourselves: the traits most associated with what is admirable and what is desirable. And that’s worth writing about.

For more on that topic, check out my latest podcast We All Wish We Could Be The Hero.

I want what you have; I want to do it better; and I want you to fail

Within the Ten Commandments, there is one in particular that focuses on our thoughts. And that commandment says this: “Do not covet.”

Depending on whom you ask, this may or may not be one of the richer and philosophically deep commandments among the bunch. Not as straightforward as “do not murder” but just as thought-provoking as “you shall have no other gods before me”, I’d argue. Those three little words give us some major insight into our thought life. How we interpret other people’s successes. How we measure ourselves against our neighbors. How we relish the thought of usurping another’s ideas and then watching as they fall.

If there’s one thing social media has taught me, it’s that looks can be deceiving. A person may tout their perfect relationship one day only to break up horribly the next. Tis a fickle place, the Internet. But, when applied to online entrepreneurship – like, self-publishing – the journey to start a following can be demoralizing. Especially when you are witness to all the other success stories that are out there.

Such becomes the tendency to compromise ourselves. Throwing money at fruitless ventures. Or adopting habits that don’t work for us. I can attest to buying business cards that didn’t make much sense for me to do so.

These are the pitfalls to avoid. But, even as I type this, I understand the difficulty in doing just that. Because we are always comparing, sizing up, and measuring ourselves by the ones we wish we could be like. I have found during my own journey that one needs to establish a healthy balance of. And even more importantly, establish a mindset that doesn’t revolve around getting everything that think is necessary.

Rather, seeing what others might desire and then trying to help them achieve it. More on that in this week’s episode.

 

Should we separate art from the artist?

Human beings can create extraordinary things. Human beings can also do horrendous things to one another. And yet, somehow, the same people who are capable of doing horrible things may also be capable of making beautiful things. It doesn’t seem logical. Yet, humans defy this simple equation every day.

So, when an artist does something – say morally unacceptable – do we immediately negate everything he or she has ever done? On the basis that we disagree with his or her personal life? Or do we let it slide because hey, it’s not the art we disagree with, it’s the person. And one’s art – be it story, film, a painting –  ought to stand on its own. Right?

Bestselling author Andrew Klavan tends to think so. His admission that once a piece of art – written, painted, sculpted, etc. – is made for the masses, then it’s no longer the artist’s; it’s in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. It takes on its own identity. And thereby is apart from its source.

This is a tough call, I’d argue. After all, one of art’s primary functions is to invoke a response. Good or bad. It’s up to the consumer. But, if we are more aware of the person who made it, then we might have a different outlook on what has been produced.

This perspective is becoming increasingly difficult to hold to by today’s standards. After all, we live in the age of social media. People’s thoughts and knee-jerk emotions can be plastered all over the world in a matter of seconds. So if you’re someone of influence, those words or phrases can spread like wildfire. As can allegations against your name, brand, and image.

Such has been the case of many starlets and celebrities in 2017. Kevin Spacey was fired from his hit television show. Harvey Weinstein’s entire legacy was left in tatters. And to go back aways, Bill Cosby’s wholesome stand-up comedy now looks like a cover for his secret life of seduction (this one has really hurt me).

All that being said, do we marshall on knowing that these people had the best intentions in mind? Or do we reject their work because they’ve offended us? The jury may still be out on that one.

Until then, I’ll continue debating this very topic.

Who is rooting for you?

In prep for my next episode, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Writing a story – well, writing anything – tends to be a solitary vocation. Like, shooting a free throw; or running a race; or giving a speech. You’re alone in every sense of the word.

So with that in mind, who is in your corner? Who is helping you along the way? Who is waiting on the other side of whatever it is you are doing? I’ll be honest, I didn’t give the idea of “teamwork” much thought when I started writing books. I’d always understood writing to be something akin to a self-help journey. It was me against the paper (or laptop, if you prefer). I wasn’t interested in asking for assistance. And I wasn’t inviting anyone’s approval either. That would only muck up my progress; deter me from ever finishing.

But, then I finished my passion project – let’s say, my first book. And there was joy. There was some relief too – only now, what was I to do with it? I hadn’t told too many people about what I was doing. I was actually a little embarrassed to tell people what I’d been up to. I mean, doesn’t everybody want to write a book nowadays? And yes, several folks were intrigued, even interested. But, here’s the thing – none of the people I told had been eagerly awaiting its release. There’d been no anticipation. No build up. I’d simply dropped in one day and said what I’d done in my private time.

This may sound contradictory to what I said earlier, but those experiences had me completely underwhelmed. Only later did I realize – and this may sound foolish – that I had expectations I wasn’t even aware of. And to have nobody there at the finish line saying, “Great, here’s what we do next”, I was back where I began: just me, my laptop, and my idea. Without a team of helpers, I was still going to face the uphill battle… alone. Yes, I had people willing to purchase my book out of the gate, but I had no “brain trust”; I had no “think tank”. I was simply off in space, wondering if I’d wasted my time with I’d done.

At that point, I understood I needed more than myself, my laptop, and my idea – I needed people in my corner. I needed a team helping me from start to finish. Jeff Goins refers to this concept as a tribe; created not for the purpose of trashing my ideas or giving me new ones they thought was best, but a group to confide in and help me think beyond the story I was crafting.

It was a hard lesson, but with some patience, I found myself a part of a local writer’s group. One that would grow exponentially into almost 10 members. And I must say, I would not have made it as far as I did without the accountability and help from fellow creatives. So now, here I am, finishing the second installment of my Mars series and I can say that having people in your corner is paramount. Yes, it’s nice having Mom or Dad and Aunt or Uncle cheering you on, but who is checking in with you? Who is challenging you on meeting deadlines? Who is reminding you why you started all this in the first place?

Because let’s be honest, if you aren’t gathering those voices around you, then you’re most certainly hearing the opposite ones. The ones who want you to fail; they aren’t rooting for you to win. They only want you to lose. So, again I ask – who is it that is rooting for you

The Writer’s Lens – On YouTube now!

I’m happy to announce every one of my podcast episodes can now be found on YouTube.

So not only are my interviews on YouTube, but every one of my individual episodes too.

And if you’re someone who doesn’t like doing the YouTube thing – no worries – you can still find me at iTunes and Podbean.

Because not everyone needs a visual to go with their audio, of course.

 

“How old are veterans anyway? I wanted to change that perspective.” – Dr. Robert Snyder, author of “What is a Veteran, Anyway?”

Veterans’ Day has come and passed. Yet, I am reminded of a great conversation I had with a veteran – and author – who was kind enough to let me interview him. On both fronts: being an author and being a veteran.

Dr. Robert Snyder is a professor, author, and former Iraqi war veteran whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a book signing back in October. He was covered from head to toe in military garb, and when I asked what he’d written a book about, I was (somewhat) surprised to find that he’d penned a children’s book. Its title was What is a Veteran, Anyway? And after some conversation, I asked him to appear in an interview for my podcast, The Writer’s Lens. When he agreed, we were able to dig deeper into the inspiration behind his book.

Turns out, Dr. Snyder had a vision for teaching young people about war veterans – a concept I found as intriguing as his rationale for doing it (and I’ll paraphrase): “When you think about a war veteran, you may visualize someone well into his or her’s later years. But, not all veterans are like that.”

In addition to that, Dr. Snyder hopes to educate others on what a family may experience when one’s parent is overseas. I can say I’ve never had that experience as neither of my parents served in the military. But, I have had the experience of family (my eldest brother) and friends / acquaintances being in active duty. The strain of these circumstances can be relationship-threatening both abroad and back on home soil. Dr. Snyder tackles these bigger concepts in picturesque form that isn’t too gritty and isn’t too “child-like” either. His work has earned him the distinction of being the 2017 winner of the Notable Social Studies Trade Book award for young people and a rather rigorous tour schedule (see his photos from recent events here). 

To see my full interview with Dr. Snyder, you can hop on to YouTube. Or, if you’d rather audio over my smiling face, you can find the audio-only version on iTunes or going here.

You can also find Dr. Snyder on Facebook and Instagram.

 

“…often their last book and their first book are different. They’ve changed.” – Darrick Dean, author of Among the Shadows

My freshman year of high school was a landmark in my life. I started the year with dyed blond hair. I ended it with brown. I started with no experience playing varsity sports. I ended it as our baseball team’s starting shortstop. I started with no braces and ended it with a consultation that would lead to braces (again).  Lastly, I started with no girlfriend…and wait, I ended without one too.

Okay, so it wasn’t a complete landmark experience. But, there was plenty happening that year.

My friends, and especially my family, noticed the changes I was going through the most. Especially when it came to my outward appearance. I shot up about five inches. It was a much-needed growth spurt. For the majority of guys in my eighth-grade class had apparently been taking horse pills during the summer break. So I needed to grow. And thanks to father time, I’d been given the chance to do so.

But, I’d also changed on the inside. I’d gotten more confident. I made decisions faster. I prioritized things. I even broke some rules that year. I stayed out later with friends. I took risks. And though it was uncomfortable at times, I was beginning to navigate who I was as a young adult.

Yet, I did my best to stay grounded. I liked doing things outside the norm. But, I didn’t want to lose who I was as a person. Yes, I wanted to become more independent; more

Writing is often seen as an outward expression of inner workings. The things that make us tick, boiling to the surface and out. How we feel about our world and what we think it ought to look like according to us. Ernest Hemmingway once said about writing, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And there you have it – minus the blood.

When I interviewed Darrick Dean, a fellow author, he and I were discussing how writers cand change over time. How even the most seasoned scribes like Stephen King can sometimes change their habits. How writers can alter their styles and even deviate from their core content (see my first book vs. my last).

And though this can be true of the writing world, I don’t tend to stress about it. Style can change; much like a teenager in high school. The only thing I do want to concentrate on is my message; the themes I am engaging. The feelings I am leaving with my readers. This is something I want to have some consistency in. For I believe any great writer knows his words will outlast his lifetime. That he will be regarded (and remembered) by the messages he left behind.

In my case, I can look back and see how I’ve changed; some ways more drastically than others. Yet, I must be aware that this is all part of the process. Finding a voice. Owning it. And being cognizant of how to utilize it. Every writer ought to be aware of this; every good writer, that is.

Because even if you aren’t recognizing every little change in you, your readers most certainly are.

 

 

The Writer’s Lens Podcast – Pilot

Hey, everyone! So, about that big announcement. Well, it’s actually a two-parter. The first part is that I’m getting REALLY close to finishing up my manuscript for The Shadow of Mars, the second book in my Mars trilogy (no date set yet so be sure to stick around for more info…).

BUT, the second part is that…well, you can hear it for yourself below. I have a new podcast: The Writer’s Lens. And it launches…today! Below is a link to the first episode; just an intro. And as a bonus, I’ll be posting the 2nd full episode on my webpage in a few days. So you can check it out once you get done with the first.

More to come!

 

An Interview with #TotalTutor, Neil S. Haley

Again, I found myself being quite fortunate as I was interviewed by Neil Haley, host of Blog Talk Radio’s Total Tutor this past week. For those who don’t know Neil, he’s a former pro wrestler (which I thought was cool enough), but most recently, he’s the CEO and radio show host of his own talk show, Total Tutor. The Total Radio network is listened to by more than 2 million listeners a week and is broadcasted in 180 countries.

I met Neil back in October of 2016 when I was receiving my 2nd place award at the TAZ (The Author’s Zone) conference in Pittsburgh. My book, The Road To Mars, had been a finalist in the category of science fiction.

Neil interviews a variety of individuals – from authors such as myself to actors, actresses, and business entrepreneurs. You can check out his extensive celebrity guest list here.

And, of course, you can find my interview here.

For more on Neil and his work, you can go follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Have a great Friday everyone!

Book Signings? Yep.

Well, hello there.

It’s certainly been a while. April, to be exact. That’s the last time I decided to write a blog. And that’s a long time to be away. I haven’t been not writing. But, I have been away from my keyboard a lot, which is a good thing.

Here’s why – since April, my summer has been filled with moving homes and baby-prepping. My wife and I are expecting a 2nd little one. Not till November though. Yet, if it were up to my wife, she’d probably want this baby on express delivery (honestly, the changes a woman’s body goes through during a pregnancy are remarkable and terrifying in the eyes of her husband. Truly amazing). And to add the amazingness, I’ve been the recipient of more good news: invites to various book-signings.

At the beginning of the year, I was doing my best to get the word out about my debut novel, The Road to Mars (have you heard of it? You should). And things were going well. Aside from working to make some sales, I did some guest blogging and even started a few new projects. My 2016 was shaping up to be better than 2015, from a writing standpoint. However, what I really wanted to be doing was making some appearances. Perhaps do a local signing or an event. But, nothing was coming about, or rather, the timing just wasn’t there. Well, “when it rains, it pours”, so they say. And I’m excited to say I have two events coming up. The first will be this Saturday, October 1 at Shenango Valley Mall in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, hosted by the locally owned Leana’s Books & More. And the second will be at the Cuyahoga County Library’s Parma-Snow location Saturday, November 12. This will be my second time at this particular showcase and am blessed to have gotten a return invite.

All that being said, I’m definitely looking forward to what the next few months have in store. Hope to see some of you soon.

J.C.L.