My Big Story

I’ve moved my blog to my own website at www.DennisBrooke.com. I will no longer be posting stories here–not that I’ve posted anything here recently. That’s in part because of–the big story!

The big story is that my novel, The Last Apostle, releases on February 1. The first printing has already sold out and it is getting great reviews. I hope you’ll check it out at www.TheLastApostle.com and join me for conversations and contests. The synopsis is below.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my stories over the past years and will join me at my new site. If you haven’t already signed up for that list you can here. SIGN ME UP

The Last Apostle - 3D smallWhat if John, the last living apostle of Jesus Christ, was still alive and well…and living in Seattle?

In A.D. 100 the century old John is on his deathbed when he is restored to the body of his youth and sent on a mission with a warning: to never reveal his true identity. He ends up on a small Greek isle where he faces an attempted assassination, a run-in with the Roman authorities, and develops a relationship with the daughter of the village leader.

Fast-forward to modern day Seattle, where John leads a foundation dedicated to bringing clean water to third world nations. A new television series brings attention to ancient legends about the true fate of John the apostle and threatens to reveal the truth of his identity. John struggles to keep his secret as he grows close to Nicole, a young women he recruits to lead his organization.

For two thousand years, John has wandered the earth while hiding his true identity. But now, both friends and foes are on the verge of discovering who he truly is―an event that will trigger the end times.

Can John divert those who would discover his secret, or will curious friends and suspicious enemies spark the apocalypse? The Last Apostle is the first in the series of novels on the life of John over the last two millennia.

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Look to the Goal, and Stay out of the Ditch

2013-12-07 10.21.07-2I took a motorcycle class to get re-certified and learned an important principle that goes way beyond riding two wheelers. The instructor emphasized over and over in both the classroom and on the course that when you’re making a turn you want to look through the turn—look where you’re going—and not at the obstacle near your path that you’re afraid you’re going to hit.

It’s human nature that we steer in the direction we’re looking, and when you’re afraid you’re heading toward the ditch, you look at the ditch, and your path follows your gaze right into the ditch. In the class they pounded in the lesson that when you get into trouble, look far ahead to where you want to go, and keep your eyes off what you’re afraid will be your impending doom.

That lesson has worked well for me on bicycles. More than once since then I’ve found myself in a tight space on a road or mountain trail and was heading toward a drop off or nasty obstacle. I remembered the lesson from the motorcycle course and looked toward the goal, and recovered without crashing.

file3681303063905-2But what’s really important is how that applies to life in general. For example, if I want to be a better writer I need to look at the lifestyles of successful writers and follow them. Do things like read great books in my genre and on the craft, write regularly, and avoid distractions that stand in the way of producing quality work. And avoid looking at the ditch, which in this case is worrying about rejection or failure.

In my leadership role at work I need to look at respected people and their path. Things like industry knowledge, communications skills, and taking the initiative.

As a husband I need to… Actually, in this case I should be talking to my wife to see where I want to go. She’s the one who knows where I should be going.

How about you? Do you have someplace you’d like to go—and know what you need to look to?

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Writing is a Team Sport

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the Northwest Christian Writers Association, which I joined in 2007. Following are the notes from my talk. Links to segments of the video are provided in the text.

Six years ago I showed up at my first Northwest Christian Writers Association meeting. I was excited because I had spent the last year writing a book. I knew it was ready to be published and I was ready to quit my day job. I quickly learned three things:

– It was NOT ready to be published

– Most authors have one thing in common–a day job

– BUT I was part of a community that could help me find that path to understanding three things:

– The SPIRIT of being a writer

– The CRAFT of being a writer

– The WRITING industry and how it works

My story. Like most books my story was based on a “What if?” Twilight was based on “what if” a high school girl moved to a remote town on the Washington coast and fell in love with a vampire.  “What if” the rapture occurred today led to the best selling series of Left Behind books and at least one really bad movie.

My “what if is based on the following biblical passage:

John 21:20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple [John] whom Jesus loved was following them. When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? …” Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

I always wondered, “What if” Jesus really did mean that and John was still alive. In 2006 I was working on a project at the RAND Corporation. The husband of one of the team members was a TV scriptwriter. I pitched the idea to him who liked it. He pitched it to several producers but they were looking for the next Lost. Something more “edgy.” He suggested I write it as a book. To this day I don’t know whether to bless or curse him

Spirit

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Faith and persistence. Prayer, persistence and patience equals published.

My wife and I recently finished reading the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor – Harvard Professor  MDiv at Harvard. In 200 studies on 275,000 people world wide: happiness leads to success in nearly every domain, including work, health, friendship, sociability, creativity, and energy. Here’s a short video of a talk by Shawn:

Our culture teaches success = happiness. But is that true? Look at “successful” people like the Kardashians, Lindsay Lohan, or lottery winners. Are they happy?

Happiness is not just singing a “Don’t worry, be happy” song. It’s taking concrete actions: gratitude, developing good habits, focusing on achievement. (I highly recommend the book. See a summary of it in this short clip by Shawn:

Happiness first, success later. Don’t expect that success will lead to happiness.

In the movie Invincible – Vince Papale (played by Mark Wahlberg) was a substitute high school teacher whose wife dumped him and left behind this note: “You’ll never go anywhere, never make a name for yourself and never make any money.” He used this to motivate himself to earn a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles even though he’d never played college football. (Good movie—based on a true story.)

Personally, I use positive reminders. I carry a bookmark with a quote from a note that Mick Silva (formerly of WaterBrook Multnomah) gave me: Mick said he believed I had it in my to be a career writer. That quote on a bookmark reminds me of my goal and my potential.

A quote: “By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” Stephen King. Imagine if Stephen had quit in the face of that discouragement.

“The opposite of success is not failure, but learning” Rachelle Gardner

Resources

On Writing by Stephen King – Audio version narrated by him is excellent

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

– Warning: both resources have great lessons but use inappropriate language.

The Craft

I used an example of  “The Bar” and how it applies to writing. Examples:

– For a tax accountant “the bar” is completing a tax return for a client and passing any audit.

– For a realtor “the bar” is selling your client’s house at a good price.

But “the bar” for a writer is much more subjective. You might think (as I did) that your writing met the bar. But it depends strongly on quality, needs of the market, and competition—things you don’t control. So how do you as a writer “meet the bar”?

Perfect practice makes perfect

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell talks about spending the time to become an expert. Typically 10,000 hours is needed to develop true proficiency. The Beatles, Bill Gates, violinists, and writers are all examples of this rule of thumb.

How do you make sure you “do the time?”:

– Read books on the craft

– Work with a critique group or partner

– Go to classes

– Do the time:  Stephen King: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

James Rubart told me of his accountability group: Each person had a word count for the week. If they failed to meet that count they paid $50 to each of the other members ($200 total). Led to lots of late nights. What happened to those five people: John Olson – six books (Christie Award); Katie Cushman – 7 books (Bethany House); Jim Rubart -sixth coming in May (Christie Award Winner); Jenn Doucette – 2 books; Katie Vorreiter – 3 unpublished books–have done well in contests

How to make sure you do the time? I used “the rocks in the jar analogy” to talk about doing what’s important first. Read it here if you haven’t heard of it.

For many of us we treat distractions like FaceBook and TV as “big rocks” when they should be pebbles. If we’re writers our writing time should be big rocks.

Things that I do to make sure I do the time:

– Write for thirty minutes in morning before reading the paper or going to work. Use a time on my iPhone.

– I make sure my work in progress is accessible from anywhere. I use Box but DropBox, SkyDrive, Google Docs or other on-line locations make it accessible for you.

– Reward myself for goals such as completing a first draft; submitting an article, etc. You might buy yourself a book or CD. I finished a proposal, which required a major rewrite. My reward was a nice bike jersey because it was a big effort.

Sometimes you have to hire a coach. You hire people to do your taxes, teach you golf, Laurie and I once hired someone for 1:1 kayaking lessons

I’ve hired personal writing coaches twice:

Jeff Gerke – Marcher Lord Press. Working with him fixed some basic problems I had and led to a third place finish in the Marcher Lord Select on-line contest in 2009. People who became acquainted with my work through that contest still talk about it.

Mick Silva of Your Writers Group – Last spring. Led to some specific suggestions and validation of what I was doing. Has greatly improved the manuscript.

Chip MacGregor of MacGregor literary has said that good writing will win out. I have to–you have to–do the things that make sure my writing meets the bar.

Resources:

Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass

The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman

Advanced Fiction Writing – Randy Ingermanson. Sign up for his eZine.

Industry

They say “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but in the writing industry it’s both!

Randy Ingermanson of Advanced Fiction Writing says when you go to a conference, “Think contacts, not contracts.”

Have you ever seen a TV show or movie where a writer just sent in a book and got a contract? That’s not that way it normally works.

Personal example: five months after joining NCWA I wrote an article to submit to  Focus on the Family Magazine. I worked with my critique group, read submission guidelines, and it led to my first paid international publication. Teamwork paid off.

Do be a writer you need to do things that make you uncomfortable: Writers tend to be introverts and don’t like:

– Speaking

– Marketing – self-promotion

Understand the market – What’s in demand. Can you alter your work to fit the market without compromising it? I added a romantic angle to my book. Didn’t compromise the character and made it stronger—and more marketable.

As you navigate–don’t expect overnight success:

– Timing: Expect ten years, 3-5 novels.  Books like The Shack by William P Young are like winning the lottery. You don’t (I hope) base your retirement plan on winning the lottery. Your writing career shouldn’t be based on that strategy either.

– Mrs. Maria Ann Hirschmann, grew up in Nazi Germany former Member Hitler Youth said, “God’s timing is perfect and it’s always later than ours.”

Resources:

Christian Writer’s Coach: How to Get the Most out of a Writer’s Conference. It’s about more than conferences.

– Blogs: Chip MacGregor, Rachelle Gardner Great blogs about the craft and industry.

Advanced Fiction Writing – Randy Ingermanson. Again, sign up for his eZine.

Closing:

Guide to resources:

– People around you

NCWA Bookstore

– Conferences

Summary

1. The Spirit: Faith and persistence

2. The Craft: Put in the time–quality time

3. The Industry: Understand the process and connect with people.

Stephen King: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, . . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

In your writing journey walk in faith, do the work to honor your calling, and connect to the community of faith-based writers around you because writing is a team sport

 

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A Gift for Making Friends

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

FriendsWhy do some people have a knack at connecting with others? Over the last several decades my wife and I had a chance to observe one person who had this gift—my mother-in-law, Patti Scarrah.

Patti started to go blind over a decade ago when she was in her sixties. She had already retired from Boeing at that point but then had to give up her volunteer work at a local police department. She had a lot of things going against her in the building friends department—but had some true gifts that helped her continue to connect with people.

Key was her interest in others. When she met new people she would ask them about themselves, their kids, spouses, etc. Fortunately her memory was sharp and because she cared about others she was great at retaining this information in follow up conversations. She was a popular patron at her regular coffee stops and her favorite restaurant, Plum Delicious.

When she broke her hip last November she spent an extended stay in a local rehab facility. Her smile, interest in the staff at her temporary home, and positive approach to therapy sessions helped her establish a new circle of friends. And it didn’t hurt that she had us drop a large selection of chocolates after she moved home.

She also remembered people through birthday and anniversary cards. Her friend, Fay, would help her select cards for her extensive list of recipients during shopping trips to the local Fred Meyer. Fay would sometimes read many cards to Patti until she decided it was the right one. Her card list numbered over 75 and ranged from close relatives to the son of her dentist.

Patti (center) at her 80th Birthday Party

Patti (center) at her 80th Birthday Party

When she celebrated her 80th birthday party last January the guests included relatives from out of state, staff from her hip fracture rehab facility, fellow retirees, AA buddies, church friends, and many others. Nearly 80 people helped her mark the occasion. Not a bad turnout for a little old blind lady.

I’ve seen that the best conversationalists are not necessarily those that have something witty to say, but those who listen with genuine interest about the lives of others. Patti demonstrated those sincere listening skills and developed deep and lasting friendships over the course of her life.

Patti Scarrah passed away over Labor Day weekend after fighting esophageal and lung cancer for nearly a year. In her last week at home she had a steady stream of visitors and phone calls from her many walks of life. Sixty people attended her memorial mass and many others who couldn’t attend sent their wishes and prayers.

Many people at her age and in her situation would have passed away almost unnoticed. But she had a true gift for making friends.

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How to Get Paid to Sing Karaoke

Microphone in FistA friend asked me last weekend why I didn’t show up for the men’s choir practice at our church. I replied that my singing was so bad that, when the crowds get a bit unruly, some local bars hire me to come up and do a karaoke number at closing time to clear out the place. It’s safer and cheaper than using bouncers and had the happy side effect of letting them skip a week or two of rodent control.

While that might be a slight exaggeration, I did resign myself to the fact that my singing days ended at the same time puberty hit me and my voice changed. And I have anecdotal data to back it up.

When my fraternity participated in a Greek Week singing competition our choir master had each of us try out individually. He rated us as poor, average, and good in voice quality and strength. He marked me down as average in quality and good in strength. I was actually pleased–until I ran across his notes later. He had crossed those marks after I left and put down his true opinion: poor and average, respectively. When I missed practices no fuss was made.

And during a company party I did a few karaoke numbers with a group of close friends. But I noticed that for the finale they invited everyone else up in the team–except for me.

Don’t think that I’m complaining. I’ve been blessed with a number of talents and work on others that capture my interest. As far as voice, if I worked with a coach I’m sure I could become a better–maybe even passable–singer. I sometimes think I should keep in mind baseball great Lou Gehrig’s response to a reporter who asked him why he was expert in so many aspects of the game. Gehrig  replied, “I worked at what I wasn’t good at.”

BadNoteWhen I sing at church I can “make a joyful noise” and contribute to the volume while those more talented make up for my lack of quality. As far as my solo singing talents I’ll continue to use them where they seem to be best suited: pest control.

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The Power in the Pause

Inexperienced story tellers and speakers often rush through their narrative as if they were a rodent on crack–and overlook the power of pacing. A well placed pause can add suspense and conflict to a tale. For a great example of this let’s turn to the classic movie, Casablanca.

Casablanca,_titleOne of the most famous movie lines of all time is near the end of the film when Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, is helping Victor Laslow, resistance leader and the husband of his ex-girlfiend, Ilsa, flee Casablanca via plane. While Rick is holding police prefect Captain Louis Renault at gunpoint, Nazi Major Strasser arrives at the airport and attempts to call the control tower to stop the escape. Rick shoots the Nazi Major to save Ilsa and Victor. Moments later Captain Renault’s gendarmes arrive and it looks like Rick is headed for jail and the getaway may be thwarted.

At this point Captain Renault announces “Major Strasser has been shot.” He pauses–for nearly five full seconds. From the look on Rick’s face you can tell he expects he’s about to be arrested. But then Renault tells his officers, “Round up the usual suspects.”

The story is told that when that scene was originally filmed the director didn’t insert the gap to build suspense. But one of the script writers stepped in and explained how the two lines were meant to be separated by a dramatic pause. The resulting scene led to “Round up the usual suspects” being named the 32nd most memorable line of all time by the American Film Institute.

Watch this clip of the scene to see the result–and imagine the two lines without the power of the pause.

Next time you’re telling a story, giving a speech, telling a joke, or writing a scene remember the lesson of Casablanca: there is power in the pause.

Related Post:

Three Powerful Storytelling Methods

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The Secret of Success

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”  Woody Allen

Every great cause requires a person to step forward and make that dream a reality. Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with a leader who underestimated her ability to make the dream of a critically ill young man come true.

In 2008 Cullen Steele was diagnosed with Pulmonary Hypertension, a disease that requires him to take a battery of drugs, including wearing a backpack that administers medication intravenously at six-minute intervals. The third grader was told he would eventually need a heart, double lung transplant.

But before the specialists at Stanford University would put him on the transplant list, his family had to raise $75,000 to help pay for expenses that wouldn’t be covered by his medical insurance.

Fortunately for the Steele family, there is an organization called the Children’s Organ Transplant Organization, COTA, that exists just for this purpose.  The people at COTA met with the family and local volunteers to help organize a one year fundraising campaign. At this point, Amy O’Donnell-Riley stepped in to be the coordinator to help make Cullen Steele’s dream come true.

Cullen Steele & Friends

Cullen Steele (center) & Friends

Amy had a worthy cause and dedicated volunteers to help. But the path was rough. There were people who questioned why the focus on one kid, when there were plenty of people in need. Her pitch to a local group of government employees was turned down in favor of another charity. And as the year progressed it looked more and more unlikely that we were going to achieve the $75,000 goal. At one point of great frustration Amy was talking to me about whether or not she was the right person to lead this effort. She said, “I must be the world’s worst COTA Coordinator.” I lamented with her, offered encouragement, and remembered the comment.

Amy and her band of believers stayed the course. Pastor Don Stevenson walked 1200 miles around the state of Washington to raise money for the cause.  A local Buddy Holly tribute concert brought the community together, raised money, and spread the word about Cullen. Friends and classmates “donated their birthdays” by asking for support for COTA instead of gifts. A Brownie troop donated their part of cookie sales and during one particular low point, Leon Sanders, the father of one of Cullen’s classmates walked into an organization meeting with three checks totaling over $6000—the results of scrap metal contributions by local businesses.

As the good news piled up I frequently had the chance to kid Amy by telling her, “Not bad for the ‘world’s worst COTA coordinator.’ ” But as the year wound down it looked like we would fall short of the $75,000 goal.

Amy rallied her team. Pastor Stevenson talked a local choir into a benefit concert that raised over $10,000. Leon Sanders organized a community scrap drive, and in the end the “World’s Worst COTA Coordinator” raised over $79,000. Because we beat the one year deadline, COTA added $15,000 in matching funds for a total of nearly $100,000.

A Mug for Amy

A Mug for Amy

Sometimes success is showing up, recruiting fellow believers, and persevering through tough times. Fortunately for Cullen Steele and his family, Amy O’Donnell-Riley was there to do that.

UPDATE: 

Cullen is now 13 and a priority candidate for the transplant list. He now carries two backpacks to deliver critical medication on an around the clock basis. Getting on the transplant list depends on his ability to have transportation from his Seattle area home to San Francisco in four hours or less—on a moment’s notice. If you can help in that area please contact me at dennis@dennisbrooke.com. If you’d like to make a tax deductible contribution to Cullen’s COTA fund go to http://cota.donorpages.com/PatientOnlineDonation/COTAforCullenS/ You can also go to www.COTA.org and search for Cullen Steele. Keep in touch with his progress at his Caring Bridge Site: http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/cullensteele

Related Post: Giving Away Your Birthday

A version of this post appeared in the July 12 editions of the Auburn Reporter and Kent Reporter newspapers  

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