Random Observations from a Writer That Is Also Trying to Be a Good Father

When I was growing up, I got the same tired lecture as everyone else: “I hope when you have kids, they are just like you.”

I’m not sure if this has happened yet. While my kids certainly took my genes and ran with them (poor kids), I’m not smart enough to judge their mannerisms and habits yet (although my wife is a genius at this). Yes, my son can throw a tantrum that reminds me of me but other than that, the verdict is out.

I work from home. I have three kids. The oldest is 6, the middle one is 4 (all boy and with the destructive force of a hurricane) and the youngest is 6 months.

Sometimes the father in me takes the controls at the keyboard when I’m writing. This can be awkward, especially when writing something as bleak as Nests. But it has helped my writing in a way (Nests, again as you’ll see when/if you read it).

From time to time, I do get the urge to stop writing and do something that will secure an actual paycheck once again. Freelancing is going alright, but let’s face it…no writer is ever going to be happy unless they can write for a living.

Still, the protectiveness and responsibility of being a father sometimes clashes with the selfish story-teller. When they do, there are some keen observations that I have made about the world. Some are inspiring and some are depressing. 

You know, after all…you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have stuff like this:

* It depresses me to no end that my 6 year old daughter knows what Facebook is.

* My kids don’t really view the actual cordless phone in our house as “the phone.” No, “the phone” is one of those square things that mommy and daddy keep at their sides at all times.

* I love the fact that my kids get more excited about going to the library or a bookstore than they do a toy store.

* I love that when my my 6 year old daughter is reading, she will fight and struggle with a word for at least five minutes on her own before she’ll ask for help. (I don’t mind gloating here…she just started first grade and is reading on an almost 3rd grade level).

* I hate that I am so protective of my kids that my wife and I actually can’t decide if Home Alone is appropriate Christmas viewing for our 6 year old yet. I blame this on the violence the news constantly shows on television…

* I love the fact that my 4 year old son is all about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles right now. I grew up on them (screw G.I. Joe) so this is awesome for me.

* It’s pleasing to know that none of my kids sees the Kindle as a “book.” Books have covers and spines and actual pages you can turn.

* It’s depressing to know that all of my kids see the Kindle as the conduit for every other form of entertainment.

* My daughter is very much a Carly Rae Jepsen fan. I’m not so upset about this, though, as she also really likes the Ramones.

* I don’t have to worry about my kids wanting to read my stuff anytime soon. My daughter says “they are too big.” And there are no pictures, so my son doesn’t care.

* A few weeks ago, we caught my daughter writing a book. She had several sheets of notebook paper, some markers, and a stapler. She had stapled the pages together and made her own little book. It was called Everything Looks Blue.

She did not ask us for help. She wrote it herself. In it, everything turned blue. It was 12 pages long and had its own illustrations. Plot-wise, it is better than anything I have ever written. My wife and I asked what she was up to and she said she was “writing a book like Daddy.” My heart melted a little bit.

This parenting thing can be very rewarding. And so can the writer thing. I find it interesting that it can be easy to wear both hats at the same time but they often clash in peculiar ways.

In closing, I urge you t save some space in your Kindles (which really aren’t book) for Everything Is Blue.

 

From the Bottom Looking Up (or “Lessons from The Haven’t Made It Yets”)

I’ve spent the last two years or so closely studying the maneuvers and strategies of various other self published writers, hoping to find some sort of formula that will work for me. I have been blessed to have made internet friendships with a few writers that have “made it” in terms of self publishing and while I have learned a lot from them, I still remain on the lower end of the self publishing ladder.

While I’m not quite so transparent as to provide numbers, I will preface this post by saying this: I have not made it in terms of self-publishing.  Sure, I make enough to knock out a utility bill here or there, but the freelancing puts the food on the table and keeps the lights on (in addition to my wife’s income).

I thought I’d finally share some of what I have learned (or, perhaps more accurately, what I have not learned) in the event that there are any writers out there on the cusp of giving up. Because here’s the thing…reading all of those posts from the successful writers can be inspirational but they can also be depressing. While it’s unhealthy to compare your own success to another writer, it’s an impossibility not to do so. So when I read that J.A. Konrath made $100,000 in 4 months, I automatically ask myself why I had trouble pushing 100 copies in that same amount of time.

So, here’s how I see it all. Here’s the writing world from an author that had his absolute worst month to date in July but has also managed to get more involved in all levels of The Business since February.

If You’re About to Throw in the Towel, Get More Towels

There have been two instances in the last three years where I almost stopped writing. One was when I lost my job last August. That month, I sold a whopping 22 books on Amazon. You do the math…for someone that just lost their job, that’s not a great motivational statistic to hunker down and make a go of this writing thing. We had two kids and one on the way at that time. To say “hey, I think I’ll keep plugging along at writing until it finally sticks” would have been irresponsible and borderline naive.

The other time was when I first started. When I released The Masks of Our Fathers, I was still dumb enough to think I’d sell at least 1,000 in the first two months. That didn’t happen…not even close.

A certain thing happened in both of those cases to convince me to stick with it. In the case of just having lost my job, I used the fact that I had won Amazon’s Write a Dead Man contest and that I had coaches and other writers like Lee Goldberg (whom I don’t mind name dropping from time to time now that he’s a NY Times best-selling author) at my side. In the case of The Masks of Our Fathers, it was seeing the success of writers I had never heard of…normal people kind of like me that were making enough to write full time.

Granted, things have still not panned out the way I wanted them to. But I made another decision recently that has me hoping things will swerve upwards sooner rather than later.

Going the Small Press Route is Not Blasphemous

The self-publishing successes are cringing at that headline, I bet. But what works for one is likely going to cause another to fail. Again, not giving numbers, but I will tell you this much. In the last nine months, I have received two advances from small-to-medium sized publishers. Those advances were indeed smallish as the self-publishing purists will be more than happy to tell you. But in terms of my own writing, those advances offered more money than all of my self published earnings in the last two and a half years.

And if you total up all of the advances I have received from small presses and money from short stories since I started writing with intent 7 years ago, this figure FAR exceeds what I have made with self publishing.

More than that, these small presses took/are taking care of something I hate: self-promotion.

So for the self-publishing starter that is having trouble with getting sales going, maybe think about small presses. The royalties aren’t as good as Amazon, but some are pretty competitive.

Speaking of Hating Self Promotion, Let’s Face Some Realities Here

At the risk of pissing off some of the writers at the top of the pack, here’s some more honesty. Whenever I see a writer that is bringing in four figures a month on their writing that lists a “professional cover” as a ticket to sure success, I get a little angry. Have you priced a “professional cover” lately? It’s not something that a struggling writer that just lost his job can afford.

But here’s the thing: they’re absolutely right. Which is why it pisses me off. Oh, and even if you’re the best editor on the face of the planet, they are also right in saying that you need the services of a professional editor. And formatting. And this, and that.

Self-publishing costs money up front. That’s why it took me so long to come around to it. At first, the fact that you had to pay for these things made me put self-publishing in the same sloppy bucket with vanity presses.

Another reality…that self promotion crap is a necessity. I’d like to think it’s one of the reasons my writing hasn’t done better. I don’t post here enough and when I do, it’s nothing that anyone in The Business doesn’t already know. I also hate Facebook and while I do enjoy Twitter, I’m probably not doing it right.

So given all of this, I do take a long hard look at my goals every now and then and ask myself why things aren’t quite working out as I’d like them to. The answer to this has evolved over time but the list looks something like this for most writers that are still struggling.

The Real World: I have to provide for my family. I have to spend time with my kids and be a husband. Sometimes that means making up stories has to take a back seat. (A big thanks to someone as successful as Brian Keene for pointing this out to a wider audience).

Covers: I’ve been fortunate in this area. I work with an exceptional artist that I have known for quite some time. He doesn’t charge $400-600 like those “pros” which is weird because the dude is a pro in every sense of the word. So check out Keith Draws. You can tell him I sent you, although I don’t think it will do much good.

And if you’re not as lucky as I am in this regard, this is an answer I just don’t have for you. Scrounge, dig in the couch cushions, maybe even hit up Craigslist for a college art student that will do your cover for peanuts. But yeah…this is one of those areas the “made it” writers are 100% correct on. Bastards!

Pricing: From what I can tell, the $0.99 price point is dead. I have a few titles at that price, but they are short stories that are under 10,000 words. Everything I have read claims that the sweet spot is $2.99 – $3.99 but I think this varies. The few minor successful months I’ve had have come from the $1.99 price point. This, I think, is just something that fluctuates more than anyone realizes.

About the “Going Free” Thing: I saw a post on Facebook a while back from an author that I greatly respect and admire that was bemoaning the fact that indie authors are getting successful by giving their books away for free. This stung because at that time, I had The Hollows set up on a free promotion that did okay.

The thing here is that I find it hard to listen to an author that has made it when they start bitching about any strategies that up and comers have to endure to get to their level. Some may feel differently, but again, this post is all about transparency.

On the occasions where I have set titles to free for 3-5 days, I have seen a slight surge in sales for about a week afterwards. For someone that is a few levels above me in terms of sales, I’d imagine this could be pretty significant. So as far as I can see,free does work but it also needs to be based on a platform that is already slightly established.

 

I understand that there is a question standing at the end of this post like a dead elephant in a clown car. Why bother listening to the “lessons” learned from a writer that can barely make enough sales to cover all the coffee you drink?

I don’t know. Maybe because every now and then you need to see the industry from the bottom looking up rather than the top looking down.

I’m going to keep writing with the hope that one day, the cards are going to fall in my favor. The ideas keep coming, and I am just the conduit. Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to write a similar post, only from a bit higher up the ladder and with answers that make more sense.

So for writers big and small, what can you add to these ramblings?

In Which I Compare My Writing Process to Passing a Kidney Stone

Here’s a painful trivia item about me: I’ve had a rough time with kidney stones. I passed my first one at the age of 17. I passed my most recent one four days ago. In the time between, I have honestly lost count but I think my grand total comes in at around 14 stones passed.

For those not well-informed on kidney stones, here are the basics (and I promise that writerly-type stuff is coming).

According to the three different doctors I’ve seen about the condition, the stones are caused by a lot of different things but mostly nutritional kind of stuff.  Too much calcium, not enough water, things like that. It also doesn’t help that I live within an area known as the Kidney Stone Belt. In this area, I believe the stat is something like every 1 in 5 people will pass stones in their lifetime. Something literally in the water, I think. A very small percentage will ever actually be bothered with them because what they pass is so small.

Not me.

The one I passed four days ago was about the size of a sharpened pencil tip. It was not smooth. It was barbed and sharp and jagged. Which means it broke off of another, larger stone that I can look forward to dealing with sometime in the future. (I have passed whole, unbroken ones. They are no easier. The one I had lythotrypsy for last year was the size of a large pea).

The one I passed four days ago snuck up on me. I didn’t know it was there until it was already tied up in the water works. The one last year that required the hospital visit let me know it was there four days in advance. Imagine being heel kicked squarely in the back by Chuck Norris after  he has chugged a few energy drinks. That’s what it feels like when the stone is working its way out of your kidney.

Now, the writing stuff.

As of late, I’m being told by a few writers and am also reading blogs and articles that equate a large part of self-publishing success to a) luck and b) the volume of work you have available. I’m screwed on both these ends because I am not lucky (as is evident in the kidney stone department, for one) and don’t have many books available (5).

The volume thing is my own fault. I get too many ideas and I don’t know how to make them shut up. What eventually happens is I try to work on too many projects at once and end up getting my brain clogged up…much like my “plumbing” when a kidney stone breaks off inside my kidneys and tries to find a way out. Oh yeah, that’s another great thing about kidney stones; the larger ones takes roughly 3 days to make the trip from the kidney to the toilet…if you can pass them manually at all (something I do not recommend without some type of medication).

If I were a smart and tactful writer, I could have released two titles between August of 2012 and now. But instead, I got involved in writing the faith-based book I have mentioned here before. I also started writing the series I am calling Legends Lost.  I also wrote Streets of Blood, my dead man book. I should have been knocking out Everything Theory 3 and the other novel I spent a bit of 2012 working on. Instead, I elected to work on four things. It clogged up my productivity. And the work situation didn’t help, either. Freelance writing is a time-suck like no other.

And watching my salesremain stagnant…it’s not quite as painful as passing a kidney stone but it’s not pleasant, either.

The good thing, though…during the moment where the stone is passed, when you’re standing at the toilet, teeth grinding as you pray that you won’t pass out and that the pain will be quick and merciful, there is a huge relief immediately afterwards. Imagine if you will a water hose with a rock stuck in it. The water will stop flowing out when it comes to the rock but the pressure of the water building up behind it will eventually force the rock out. That’s exactly what happens when a stone is passed.

Creatively, that’s how I feel right now. Working on all of those different projects has finally started to work out collectively. In the next few months, if nothing changes, there should be a trickle, a stop, and then the stone will come out and the labor of the last few months will be seen.

So for the creatives out there…baring the horrendous analogy, what methods do you have to get over the creative clogging of your pipes?

 

the Nicaragua posts: Day Three

I woke up with conflicting feelings. It was our last day in Managua, the last day with all of these kids I had grown to know (and attached to).  Yet I wanted to get home to my own kids as quickly as possible. It was depressing to ride out to House of Hope, knowing that it was our last day.

And while I don’t think the kids really knew that it was our last day, I think they could tell based on our moods. Out of my group, there were some that were in tears just about all day.  Others took it relatively well.  For the majority of the day, we played. And again, we played hard.

One of the key moments for me was in giving the kids the books that I mentioned in this post several weeks ago. The way they looked through them and carried them around made it obvious that they cherished them. It was very cool for me to see one child pointing out the creatures in Where the Wild Things Are (or, in this case, Donde Viven los Monstrous), and just in awe of them.

One member of our group also brought a few puzzles which the kids played with for hours. It was really cool to see how they worked with us, not being able to speak much Spanish, in putting the puzzles together.   The day, in all honesty, was a big blur to me. It went by far too fast. My ribs ached a bit from all of the hugs these little kids gave me and for the next day as they ached, I couldn’t help but smile.

I had been wrestling with the idea that to these kids, the young girls in particular, we were just another group of Americans that came down, pretended to care, and then left. But they basically killed this idea on the third day.  One girl that I had spent quite a lot of time with over the last two days drug the translator over to me and had her tell me a bit of disheartening news.  Now, with the expression on her face, I knew it was a joke but all the same, it stung.  The translator sort of giggled and said “She says when you’re gone, she’s going to be sad. She will cry and cry.” Another quick round of translation and more giggles added on: “She’ll cry a lot.”

We did everything we could to slow down our departure. One more hug here, one more high-five there. Then, as I was walking to the van, doing a pretty good job of not breaking down, I looked back and saw perhaps the most touching thing I had seen on the entire trip.

One member of our group was sitting on the ground, her back propped against one of the home’s boundary walls. She’d been sitting there for about half an hour before with two kids in her lap, singing with them and playing. Now there were four kids sitting around her, one hugging on her in a way that I think only parents can really understand. I felt bad for her because it was clear that she was really struggling to not weep uncontrollably.

And as I watched, she finally broke and cried. The children, rather than being weirded out and leaving her alone, hugged on her tighter. Another girl even cupped her face in her little hands and wiped away her tears.  It was that moment that brought back a comment our team leader had told us during our planning meetings a few weeks before: We go down there to help them, but they end up doing so much more for us.

A thought went through my head which was later echoed by this member of our group later that night. As that little girl—probably no older than eight or so—wiped this woman’s tears away, I thought: Wow, that’s backwards. Isn’t this supposed to be the other way around?

Then, feeling the tears coming on, I made it back to the van without becoming a blubbering mess.

I understood her tears although maybe not as powerfully as a woman would. You cry because you know you may never see these children again. You’ve come to show love for them and are now leaving them to their lives where, ultimately, our few days with them did nothing to change what has happened to them in their past.  It really is an overpowering sort of feeling.

We left with half of the van in tears. It was the largest silence between the twelve of us since leaving Virginia four days before.

Back in the airport in Atlanta, I ended up somehow on the phone with my grandmother and she asked “Did you enjoy it?”

My answer was “Yes.”

“Would you go back?” she asked.

“Today, if I could,” I said.  And it was that comment that almost had me sobbing in the middle of the airport.  Yes, I would have missed my family and the folks at work would have been pretty angry, but in that moment I didn’t care.  I wanted to be on a plane, headed back. The ache in my ribs agreed and seemed to actually flare up a bit in response.

We came home. I shared stories and digested it all. Already, I am trying to figure out how to make another trip down there within the next sixteen months or so.

I took away a lot of lessons and personal stories which I won’t share here, as they are too personal. But I keep thinking back to that last scene—the little girl wiping away the tears of an American woman that had only experienced that lifestyle for three days—and it gives me a certain sort of peace. Those young girls, despite their past, know that they are loved and valued beyond what their pasts have taught them.

Credit it to God or good will or whatever you want…but this trip was proof to me that love and hope can thrive even in the most dismal of places.

One of the reasons women come to House of Hope is to learn trades that will allow them to earn enough money to finally break away from prostitution. This is a group of women and young girls creating jewelry which they sell in the market. If they do well enough, they are given micro grants to start their own small businesses.

the Nicaragua posts: Day Two

We woke up the next morning, excited and tired. The previous night, as mention in my last post, a water line burst (well, not a line, per se, but a mini-water tower type structure bolted to the top of our guest house) and put a nice amount of water on the floor of the main room. So everything was damp, but it didn’t stop us from eating breakfast and debriefing on yesterday’s events and what to expect in the next fifteen hours or so.

We piled into our van again and bumped our way through Managua, headed to House of Hope. When we arrived there, we weren’t the only ones. Headed down the poorly maintained dirt road to the home, we saw many women walking to the home from elsewhere in Managua. As we unloaded from the van, we were hugged/attacked by several of the children we had met the day before.

We were then allowed to enter a mid-sized covered area that serves as the hub of House of Hope.  Here, once a week, House of Hope holds a morning worship service of sorts. More than two hundred women attended this service while we were there, all of whom are living in prostitution or had suffered sexual abuse in their lives. Many walk as far as five miles to attend. Others are picked up in a bus that Oscar (that mountain of a man I introduced you to from Day One) drives through Managua and the outlying areas. The women come here to seek comfort, to hear motivating stories, and to seek a way out. They sing songs and pray and share their stories among one another.

The worship service was pretty amazing for me to experience. Seeing these women and knowing the hurts of their pasts, it was crazy to see them singing songs to God, lifting their hands to the sky and worshiping. The musical accompaniment consisted of a tambourine and clapping hands, but it was just as powerful (if not more) than a traditional American worship service in a church of 700 or so.

This whole event was extremely moving for me because one of my big issues with becoming a Christ follower was wrestling with the concept of “Why does God allow bad things to happen to innocent people?” It was, in fact, one of my big weapons-at-the ready to assault Christians with when I was a non-believer.

In many ways, I got my answer that day. See, the answer I have always been led to was that there is a greater and significant purpose of some sort to all pain. I saw this firsthand as I watched these women together. Many of them are in prostitution because they have no other choice; it’s the only way they can make money. Others have been sexually abused and are looking for freedom from it.  Yes, these women have all been dealt a crappy hand. But their stories serve to uplift one another and motivate them to come to House of Hope, in an attempt to change their lives.

Their pain and horrible histories are a commonality among them all. So when one woman shares how faith and the teachings/lessons of House of Hope have freed her from abuse and sexual slavery, there is hope in that. And the other women that are “on the fence” or have never experienced a feeling of self worth notice this.

Once the service was over, the home became a flurry of activity. Women sat together and talked. Kids started going wild. This, of course, was my group’s cue. We played tag, soccer, and many piggy-back rides were given. Then my group made the mistake of pulling out the bag of water toys we had packed to give to the kids.

World War III ensued.

I kid you not, a water fight of epic proportions broke out. I am not even exaggerating when I say this fight went on for about two and a half hours. Water guns evolved into water cannons. Water balls were then incorporated. After a while, someone broke out several buckets. It was the most fun I’d had in a very long time. I got beyond soaked. I also made the mistake of wearing my sneakers. They got drenched and never properly dried. They reeked when I took them out of my luggage after returning home and were promptly thrown away.

This was also the day I realized that these kids—not just the girls but some of the younger boys, too—make connections to you pretty quickly. One little boy in particular stayed by my side most of the day. When he asked to be picked up, I’d pick him up and he’d cling to me as if he was afraid I’d put him back down and run away. It was explained to me later than the majority of the boys at the home have never had any sort of father figure. So when men pay any sort of attention to them, they milk it up as much as they can. I saw this same sort of thing with the younger girls and the women in my group. It’s one of those things that is both sad and inspirational at the same time.

I also found myself spending a lot of time with the same two kids more than the others. The language barrier made it hard to really interact with them, but our translators helped. The kids asked tons of questions about where we are from and wanted to know about our families.

With the two children I had made a connection with, I kept my questions to them rather simple. I was afraid to know too much about them. I didn’t want to know the details of their histories. I didn’t want to know if they had been abused…particularly the five year old girl that latched onto my leg as we tried to leave that afternoon. (Note: If there were no laws, this little girl would have easily fit into my duffle bag and there would now be three children in the Napier Household).

The day sped by and I honestly didn’t want to leave the home. We went out as a group and had dinner, where I passed on the local delicacy of bull testicles. I replayed the day over and over in my head and I kept asking myself  why I didn’t show this much compassion and love for my own kids. That, quite honestly, is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with since getting back home.

When I crawled into bed that night, I was quite possibly more tired than I had ever been in my life. Just before I fell asleep, I realized it was because it was the first time in my adult life that I had been both physically and emotionally exhausted at the same time.

I fell dead asleep but woke up several times in the course of the night. In total, I got about four hours of sleep before it was time to start day three.

the Nicaragua posts: Nicaragua Day One

I kept saying I was taking so long to share my experiences in Nicaragua because I had to process it all. While this was true, there was another reason behind it, too: I was hesitant to share it with people that were not my immediate family or close friends.  But I also know that the issues I was faced with while on my trip to House of Hope in Nicaragua are ones that need to be made public as much as possible.

I’m to the point now where I think I can talk about God stuff on this blog without being apologetic. I know full well that a good mix of people read my feeble little posts: other believers, skeptics, agnostics, and atheists alike. But what has blown me away is that members from all four of these groups have shown interest in the trip and the cause. I’ve even had people that had never read this blog (to my knowledge) e-mailing me to ask about the trip.

Those of you that know me well enough see this as a safe place, I guess. You’re not going to be attacked or questioned. See those four groups up there?…I’ve been a member of all 4 at some point and as a believer, I think it would be stupid to be in-your-face and drive you all away.

Anyway, all that to say…I’m ready to talk about it now. I actually have a seven page document with the entire trip written out. I have decided to not post the entire thing, but to divide it up by days. So without further delaying (did you sense that I was stalling?…) here’s the first of my Nicaragua posts.

I’ll skip the travels down there for the sake of interest. We left on a Sunday morning, from our church.  Lynchburg to Raleigh, then flying out of Raleigh to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Managua.  We arrived in Managua right around 8:00 p.m. Managua time.  The plan was to meet a man named Oscar and his family. They would take us from the airport to our guest house in downtown Managua.

Oscar is roughly the size of a mountain and serves as basically the strong arm of House of Hope. He has three children, one of whom is an older son that lives in America. He, his wife, and his other son have not seen his American-moved son in nearly two years.

Seeing her son for the first time in over 2 years

So it was a great privilege to be part of the group that actually surprised Oscar and his family by bringing his son with us. They had not been expecting it at all and there were many gasps and tears and hugs.

Five minutes in Nicaragua and I was already getting misty eyed.  This was not good…

The truck Oscar picked us up in was an old work truck with an open back cab. A few support bars ran along the top of it. The thirteen members of our group crammed into the back of the truck, some sitting, some standing, some holding on for dear life, and drove through downtown Managua at about 9:00 at night. It was actually a lot of fun and also a unique way to see the lay of the land.  It was also an eye-opening way to see how extreme the poverty is in certain areas of Nicaragua. One block would boast old houses and deteriorating yet habitable apartments while the next block featured shacks of wood, tin and anything that might hold them together, all tucked away behind concrete walls and trees.

The sitting area/den…before the flood.

So of course, I instantly felt guilty when we arrived at our guest house. The construction was new and we had a lot of conveniences that the majority of areas we had passed often go without: air conditioning, a fridge, hot water, clean sheets.  Karma did pay a visit on a few occasions though; the water heater burst and partially flooded the den area, there was no water pressure for about a day or so, and the entire men’s floor was flooded with about an inch of standing water when the shower in the adjoining bathroom began to leak.

But enough with the woes of the spoiled Americans…

DAY ONE

Day One had us traveling in a cramped van to the Managua Zoo. There, we were to meet the women and children of House of Hope and take them to the Zoo. When we got there, we discovered that the zoo is closed on Mondays. So after hanging out in what I assume was the zoo parking lot for about an hour, we decided to take the kids and women (an entire busload of about sixty or so) to Lake Managua. There, we accompanied the women and children on guided boat rides of the lake. This was a little bit of overload for me. It was quite difficult to split my attention between the kids and the sights. Lake Managua is enormous and most rich people from Managua and Granada have extremely nice houses along the lake. That, plus the beautiful sights of the lake’s wilderness and Mombacho (a huge volcano just south of Managua) setting in the background.

It was also a wake-up call to realize that the vast majority of these kids had never touched a boat, much less ever ridden on one. I was glad to be a part of it, even when I was asked to sit at the front of the boat and catch most of the waves that splashed up over the sides when the driver hit rough wakes.

This was followed by about two straight hours of playing with roughly thirty-five children on a playground just off the shore of the lake. Now look…I have 2 children, one of which is a 3 year old boy who has reserves of energy that baffle me at times. But within this 2 hours, I got more exercise than I had in the past 6 months. I got dirty and dusty. I got cuts and scrapes and bruises. I had bug bites (I guess that’s what they were anyway) and sore spots on places I didn’t know could get sore.

But it was fun. I had an absolute blast. It was also here when I was forced to get over myself. Knowing what the majority of these girls have gone through before the age of ten, it’s difficult, as a man, to know how to interact with them. Apparently, the girls are used to this and they take initiative. If they want to be hugged, your discomfort is a non-issue. They will hug you. And if you resist at all, you will be attacked with a bear hug. If they want you to put your arm around them as you walk from the swing set to the slides, they will take your arm and put it around their shoulders themselves. The first time this happened to me, the nine year-old girl in question actually looked at me and sort of rolled her eyes …a get over yourself expression if I’ve ever seen one…

We then had a late lunch of fried chicken with the group from House of Hope. The chicken lunches were from a fast food place called Tip Top. As a rule, I’m not the biggest fan of fried chicken but Tip Top was amazing (a good thing since I’d encounter it a few more times during my stay).

After this, we traveled to House of Hope. Stepping onto the grounds for the first time was sort of dizzying. It’s a place I’d heard about, a place I knew was helping so many women and young girls escape abuse.  But now it was real. It was like reading about a place for years and then being able to physically manifest it and touch it. We got a quick tour where we learned more about Casa Esperanza (House of Hope). Our guide went over some of the basics, some of which I already knew: most of the girls in the home have no actual families. Some were even sold into prostitution by their families for meager sums of money.  At House of Hope, the girls live in a dorm-like environment that barely holds the 27 girls that are currently living there.

It was odd to hear the guide explain the abuse and torment these girls have gone through, some from as early as six years of age, and then to see those same girls running around with smiles on their faces, playing and trying to grab our attention. It was my first confirmation that House of Hope was more than just a nice pleasant story of girls finding healing. Contrasting those stories with the joy I saw in some of them was polarizing in a way, but I left there that day with a better understanding of how God and faith truly can help to heal and redirect pain towards something better.

back home and still processing

Many of you know why I was out of the country for the past week.  If not, you can read a rundown of it here.

I’ve been back since Friday and am still in the process of…well, processing.

Sure, there was culture shock. But beyond that there was just shock. Every kind of shock imaginable. At one point Wednesday afternoon, there was a span of about three hours where I was both physically and emotionally drained for the first time in my life.  I literally felt empty.

There were times when I felt like, while my intentions were good for being there, it was pointless in that it was for such a short time. Just another group of white people that visit for a while, show some love and then leave.  Now, back home, I’m struggling to find the reason and significance in things.  What’s the point in stocking the refrigerator after a $150 grocery trip? What’s the point in returning to a job that is creatively stifling and emotionally unrewarding?

At the risk of sounding cliched, the four days I spent in Nicaragua effectively changed my life.  As I continue to process things, I am finding that much of it was for the good.  I am also discovering that there are things I want to change about myself.

This might mean my writing will change. Maybe this blog will be shut down and be reborn under another style and title. Maybe the posts I’ve recently written on the monotony of much modern horror will be involved in it all. Maybe this sense of unbalance I’ve felt about the direction my writing and overall career path will finally shift one way or another.

I don’t know yet.

For now, as I said, I am still processing.  Some of it is being sorted out through writing, which is a good thing.  This makes me happy because as I was there in the moment and tried to write about my experiences on paper, the words would not come.  They did not come because there were no proper words at first. My mind and heart drew a blank.  There were simply no words.

But the words are slowly taking shape and sorting themselves out like kids rummaging through the box of a jigsaw puzzle.  And soon, maybe I’ll share a few.  I have several stories and pictures to share with whoever wants to listen but for now, it’s too close to me.

Until then…still processing.

these real horrors (and the hope they bring)

I’ve wrestled with whether or not to write this post…I really have.

In the end, I decided to go ahead and do it.  The next few paragraphs are going to likely be hard for some of you to read. But in the sake of awareness and what I almost, in a way, feel is my responsibility, here goes.

Some of you may recall a post from last year (can’t find the link right now) where I briefly mentioned my wife taking a trip to Nicaragua.  It was a very defining moment in her life and some of the stories and memories that she brought back affected me in ways I’m still trying to understand.

That being said, when the opportunity arose again, I acted.  For those of you that believe in God and know when you’re being prompted, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  And for those of you that don’t…it’s basically identical to that “push” you get from your gut when you’re in a situation and know right away with the uttermost clarity that you’re supposed to do a certain thing.  (By the way, having once lived as a non-believer, I am slowly understanding that instinct and God are basically the same thing…but that’s for another post).

So in a couple of days, I’ll be leaving for Nicaragua.  Yes, it’s part of a church outreach/missions sort of thing.  No, we will not be going there to whack them over the heads with Bibles or assault them with life lessons or scripture.  Why go, you ask?  Well here’s the skinny.  (Note: I’m excluding the names of locations and people for the sake of respect; however if any of you are moved by any of this and want to know more, feel free to e-mail me).

This place I will be visiting for a week ministers to and provides aide to prostitutes in one of the most underprivileged areas in Nicaragua .  The intention of this home is  to not only give these women and young girls hope, but to also rescue them from futures of neglect and abuse.

There is no way to easily explain the pain and suffering currently being experienced by the women and children in Nicaragua. This home I am visiting provides women and their children with a way out of having to work the streets.  Yes…even children are involved. Many of the prostitutes are extremely young and these are the stories that have devastated me.

Imagine a 5 year old girl chained behind a shack and fed like a dog, only paid attention to when her owner sexually abused her. She was left outside in the rain and the heat. She slept on the ground. She did nothing; she did not play, she did not sing, she was not a child. She lived on a chain and was raped and abused. That was her life.

Imagine two sisters, 6 and 4, sold into the sex trade by an aunt that needed the money (a fetching sum of about $20 US for both girls).  After the girls were rescued by people at the home, that same aunt came to the home and took them back. She then promptly sold them to another brothel where they were separated from one another. (The home has no legal rights for the children; if a family member comes for them, there is nothing to be done to stop them).

These are true stories…true horrors that most of us can’t even comprehend.  However, due to the help of the home I will be traveling to, all three of those girls have been rescued and are no longer living in neglect and abuse. The scars, of course, remain.  Any girl sexually abused at such a young age will likely never be able to have children of her own.  And of course, there are countless trust issues to be considered.

As a father of a 5 year old daughter, when I hear stories of girls that are as young as 4 or 5 years old being sold into the sex trade and subjected to sexual abuse, there is no way to ignore it.  Similarly, the need to act—the need to help—is not easy to ignore, either. For the older women, they have regretfully accepted it. Prostitution is a way of life for them and it is how they make their living.  But the young girls are forced into it, often being sold into brothels as young as 4 years of age because their mothers can’t afford to take care of them and other family members simply don’t want them.

When these women and girls come to the home, they are given the opportunity to receive education and learn skills that will help to provide a sustainable source of income so that they can provide for their families without resorting back to a life of prostitution.  The goal is to teach the women another trade (sewing, card making, baking, etc.) and then, through money donated to the home through donations and offerings, provide these women with micro business grants.

As for the younger girls, the teachings and love provided to them through the home instills a sense of worth in them. It shows them that the world is more than abuse and anger.  While more than 60 women and children call this place their “home,” more than 300 attend the “workdays” where they are taught new skills while sharing stories about how the home and their faith have helped to heal them emotionally.

While there are no accurate numbers, it is estimated that around 70% of all women that have experienced the support and encouragement of the home have turned away from a life of prostitution, finding other financially sound ways to support their families and ensuring that future generations are not subjected to the sex trade, sexual slavery, and abuse. And when a woman turns away from that life, it means that her children will not have to endure it. (With prostitution, many girls decide to follow in their mothers’ footsteps as young as 13 years of age. This is for both the money and believing that prostitution equals acceptance or love by the men that “hire” them).

I suppose I decided to share this mainly because this trip is a huge event to me.  Not only that, but it never hurts to open the eyes of the public to the tragedy of sexual slavery that is often swept under the rug around most parts of the world.

Most importantly, this trip is not about trying to convert these women and children. Not at all.  Besides, most of them have become Christians since their rescue, relying on their faith and eager to tell stories of their rescue and how their lives have changed.  So this trip is more about lending a hand and, more importantly, playing with the children.  The women have sons and daughters that visit and live at the home that have been robbed of their childhood. To play games and to even just read to them gives them an experience that they never had, yet American children are spoiled on and take for granted.

I personally took it upon myself to collect as many Spanish children’s books as I could find.  They have no toys, very few clothes, and ZERO books.  Meanwhile, I have about 300 paperbacks, 150 digital books and access to libraries every day.  So this is me trying to do my part.

Again, I realize that many people may feel far removed from something like this because, at its core, my trip is about  a belief in God (or, at the every least, a very real hope that these women and children usually don’t know exists).  Being a former atheist, I get the detachment at the mention of church.  I get it, I understand it, and I don’t fault anyone for that.

But with a cause like this, it comes down to human decency and the need to react to these very real horrors.  As a guy that has spent the past 12 years writing about imagined horrors, the idea of what is going on in Nicaragua, the Ukraine, and all around the world in regards to sex trafficking saddens and disgusts me. And rather than whining and asking God how He could allow things like this to happen, I finally stopped placing blame and asked myself “What can I do about it?  What can I do to help?”

The answer was easy.  And that’s why I’m leaving in a few days for Nicaragua.

I told myself in December of 2011 that I would spend 2012 being a more honest writer.  Based on this post (which grew much longer than I intended), I’m staying true to that. So maybe I did finally stick with a resolution!

Three Horror Trends that Need to Disappear

While working on my first novel that only barely touches the realm of the supernatural, I am also outlining another project.  This project is certainly going to rely heavily on the supernatural element, but I would not go so far as to call it horror.  It’s a ghost story more than anything.

I understand that for those not overly familiar with the genre, a ghost story is a horror story. I initially begged to differ. While a ghost story can deliver chills and genuine frights, my first reaction is to not call it a horror story.  And honestly, this bothers me.

When did horror become more about gore and shock value than the actual scary moments and sense of anxiousness and dread?  There are more than fifty movies released within the past five years or so that could be blamed for what I find to be a pretty disappointing state of horror.  And within those movies, there are a few central reasons that I believe have caused this shift in how people perceive horror.

Gore and Needless Violence

At the risk angering many people, I’m going to make a bold statement. Gore for the sake of gore is dumb. I’m going to use Eli Roth as an example here. Like most, my first exposure to his work was Cabin Fever.  I actually enjoyed this movie more than anything else he’s ever done.  I liked it and even enjoyed the gorier parts.

But I didn’t mind the gore because Cabin Fever was a movie that didn’t take itself too seriously.  You know pretty quickly that this is going to be a horror film with some B-movie qualities.  So you know there’s going to be gore. Being that it was the sort of movie that was basically built around gory situations, it’s permissible.

But then came Hostel.  To this day, I think it’s a stretch to call it a horror movie.  I lump Saw into this unfortunate group as well…a group many have come to call torture porn.  When looked at closely, these films are really only brutal and insanely graphic crime dramas.  But the popularity of these sorts of films have made it almost an expected part of horror movies.

Hopefully one day there will be enough of these movies where they can be excised from the label of “horror” and given their own classification.  Because blood and gore alone do not make a horror movie.

Unnecessary Remakes

I understand the cultural impact Rob Zombie’s movies had on the genre.  I actually enjoyed The Devil’s Rejects quite a bit.  But that sort of success does not in any way hand you the keys to the kingdom. I am still baffled over the fact that anyone saw fit to remake Halloween.  I don’t care who is directing.  There are certain movies that simply should not be remade.

I knew we were in trouble when they remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  And if we’re being honest, the Friday the 13th remake was a joke.

Honestly…compare any of these remakes to the originals. You’d think people would wise up and realize that none of these remakes come remotely close to the originals.  I still see the dinner scene in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre as one of the best scenes in any horror movie. Ever.

Rape

This is just a pet peeve of mine.  When I was watching the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, there’s that one scene where Juno and Lizard enter the camper.  Much violence and bloodshed ensue, but there is also the rape of the teenage daughter. And I tried to remember if the scene was that vivid in the original. Sure, I get that the act itself is sort of needed to convey just how deplorable the savages are, but did we need it in all that detail?

I remember when the remade sequel (sigh….) came out, a friend of mine made  a comment that really made me cringe for the horror genre.

It used to be, “oh man, did you see that murder scene where….?”

But my friend actually made the comment: “Oh man, what did you think of that rape scene?”

A sad day, really. Oh and there’s one in the Halloween remake, too and it was 100% unnecessary for the course of the movie.

I understand that it’s par for the course in revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left.  But again, we go into the above question of what constitutes horror. Neither of these films, in my opinion, should be labelled horror. This misrepresentation that horror is all about rape, murder, torture and gratuitous bloodshed is hurting the genre more than it’s helping.

Just my two cents!

But going back to my point at the beginning…ghost stories vs. horror stories. I agree that there’s a fine line there, too.  There are ghosts in A Christmas Carol but it’s not horror.  Alternatively, there are ghosts in The Shining and that is classic horror.

So sure, there’s a fine line between a ghost story and a horror story. And I’d be unfair to not acknowledge that same line between horror and torture porn and “revenge horror.”  Even creature horror and zombie movies. So sure, horror as a genre has many levels. It’s the same with any genre. Look at comedy: you have family safe Eddie Murphy drivel and then you have raunchy Judd Apatow flicks. So any genre has to have range for it to be relevant.  I get that.

I just wish certain factors like those listed above weren’t bringing down the genre I love and try to work within.

For now, I’m sticking to ghost stories.  I’ll wait to see how this whole horror thing pans out, zombies and vampires aside.