I Triple Dog Dare You

It’s the end of the year, time for New Year’s resolutions, right? Wrong. Resolutions suck. These are things we resolve to do. There’s no accountability, no measurement, no plan for achievement. Just those nebulous, pie-in-the-sky things we want to do or see different in our lives. I need something more tangible, more concrete.

In my Day Job, I work in the talent management space. That means I’ve learned the value of creating SMART goals with timeframes and measurable outcomes. I bought into the whole 7 Habits of Highly Effective People “a goal is a dream with a deadline” and all that jazz. For what I want to do, what I need to do, resolutions don’t get me there.

I also know you shouldn’t start any journey, whether for self-improvement or mental health or business success, without an honest assessment of where you stand. You have to know where you are. I’d like to say 2011 sucked. I got the sorriest sports-related injury ever, my Christmas was funky, and the Day Job Dragon bit me in the ass. A lot. This year sucked. Royally. That’s what I want to say. But, in retrospect, that’s not entirely true. This year I did launch my writing career. My writing career. That’s a heavy concept for me. I became a professional writer this year: published my first novel, built a publishing company and made a whopping $36.88 in royalties.

You can laugh. Seriously. I did. It isn’t much but it’s something. It’s a place to start.

I got an email about setting writing goals and while I don’t like resolutions, I couldn’t resist chiming in with my own: it felt like a dare.

I can’t resist a dare. Never could. I don’t care what it is—eat a mouthful of uncooked rice, drink that entire bottle of Cisco, try to have a serious discussion with the kid who stutters AND keep a straight face–provided it won’t kill me or put me in jail (because I’m too pretty for jail), I’m game. For the record, don’t eat uncooked rice unless you have a good dental plan; a whole pint of Cisco is stupid—if you have a job, you should just know better; and stuttering, unfortunately, is my kryptonite…I failed on this one.

One of my favorite movies, especially at Christmas time, is A Christmas Story. Not because Ralphie is trying to get the Red Ryder BB Gun but because of all the other stuff that goes on in this movie. One of the best scenes is the tongue-to-the-flagpole scene. I like it because a dare is serious business and once you’re in, you’re in. No backing out.

I’ll let Ralphie, Flick and Schwartz tell it: Christmas Story “I Triple Dog Dare You”

My writing career goals for 2012 are below. I share them because once they’re out there, they’re real. Tangible. You can hold me accountable to them. I challenge you to set your own. I Triple Dog Dare you.

Happy New Year!

2012 Goals
These are broken into my goals as a writer and as a publisher. As a writer, I can commit to:
• Blog post every other day
• 2 book reviews a month
• 1 Blog tour in 2012
• 1 script through Script Frenzy
• 1 novel through NaNoWriMo

On the publishing side, I’d like to:
• Sell 10,000 copies of The Road to Hell (90% digital, 10% paper)
• Obtain 10 reviews
• Obtain 5 author quotes
• Sign 2 additional authors
• Publish 2 books (1 novel, 1 anthology) through Sanford House Press

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How the Grinch SAVED Christmas

It’s no secret that I’ve had a tough time this Christmas. For me, the spirit was gone (If you missed it, check out Friday’s post). But friends and family encouraged me to find the good in the season, to remember what it was really about. They said watch movies, wrap gifts, have hot chocolate. I listened: I watched How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

The Grinch is my hero because he was mean. I’m not talking about the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey movie where they gave the Grinch a backstory and rationale for his actions. Nah, that’s crap. Go back to the original cartoon or even the book: the Grinch hated Christmas because he didn’t like the songs, the happiness, the joy. The Whos were too loud singing their Christmas songs. He hated it—hated them—because they were happy. Because they were smiling. I think only the Evil Queen from Snow White had a worse reason for being a villain.

While I was in college, I worked full time in a bank vault. I think between school and work I was leading 18-19 hour days. I still remember my answering machine message (yes I had an answering machine): “Hey, this is Chris. I’m either at school or work, sleeping or studying. Leave me a message.” In short, I was beat in those days. EXHAUSTED. Anyway, I worked with a pretty, bubbly blond named Dawn. One day, Dawn came in, exuberant as ever, big smile and saying Hi. My response: “I hate a happy mother@%?!. Shut up!”

Now that was mean. It really was. And Dawn’s face fell. And then it got funny. I laughed! And I laughed because it was mean.

I know, I know, you’re already at “Damn, Chris, that was cold!” Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m also the guy who made Lucifer my hero. But, yes, it was mean. And it was delicious! Mean resonates with us. We don’t like Voldemort for his fashion sense (he has ONE robe, people! ONE) or Vader for his prolific vocabulary (it’s all Something, Something, Something Dark Side) or Eric Cartman because he is so cool. Each one of us has a mean streak: we’ve all wanted to push a kid down at the park or snatch someone’s Halloween candy or snickered when somebody fell (or maybe that’s just me). Mean is okay. It is real and human and okay.

So I listened to everything my friends and family said Friday night. I took my daughter to church to see a live nativity scene, petted a camel and some goats, and talked to her about Jesus’ birth (I might be mean but I still have a soul!) Then we dropped the kids off and my wife and I got coffee and took a drive looking at Christmas lights. We weren’t looking for the good, elaborate ones mind you: we found the tackiest, pathetic, sorriest displays we could, including our own (though I did finally get the lights to work…on Christmas Eve). And we laughed! Then we came home and watched Gremlins. And it was a good Christmas.

Bah Humbug! More like Blah Whatever…

About 36 hours ago, I gave up on Christmas. I feel like the Christmas spirit skipped my house this year.

I tried to force Christmas by pulling my family together. I got a plane ticket to get my mother to come out to spend Christmas with us but, in the process, I upset my sister and alienated my brother. And it was my own fault. Then my mom got too sick to fly out anyway.

So then I tried to buy Christmas. I went waaaayyyyy overboard on presents and the reality of that is going to haunt me next year. My kids can’t seem to understand why they can’t just have it all right now and have made it their mission to pester my wife and I until we cave. It’s like living with two addicts and we keep dangling the crack in front of them, just out of their reach. I can’t afford an intervention…

Then we tried to bake Christmas but we ate all the cookies. We tried to decorate the house Griswald-style but half of my lights won’t work.

Shit.

Then I got an email from Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center on Fathering, about the meaning of home for holidays. He told me “creating a ‘home’ is about creating traditions and bonds that tie the family together,” and to “be flexible in where, when and how you celebrate.”

I wanted to wallow in my disappointment and the shroud of inevitability next year would bring. I wanted to turn my back on not getting what I wanted, on the holiday itself, and this cat is telling me to ‘be flexible’ and to create traditions regardless of where family is. And he’s right.

Dammit.

You know, it’s different when you’re a dad, when you’re responsible for other people. There are things you really can’t do because someone else is basing their actions, and their responses to adversity, on what you do. Curling up in a ball is not a good look for me and doesn’t send the best message to my son. Crying my eyes out over not getting what I wanted for Christmas is kinda pathetic and doesn’t teach my daughter how to handle disappointment. Neither approach is particularly sexy to my wife.

I asked my Facebook family (we all have one) how to get the spirit back. Someone told me “remember what the holiday is really about.”

What it’s really about? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

I’m reminded of that O’Henry story, The Gift of the Magi. It tells the story of Jim and Della, a young couple who practice selflessness to give to one another. Each has something precious them: Della has long, beautiful hair; Jim has a pocketwatch that belonged to his father and grandfather. In a beautiful turn of events, Della sells her hair to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s watch; Jim sells his watch to obtain ivory combs for Della’s hair.

That’s what it’s really about. Not Christmas lights and plane tickets, but selflessness and sacrifice, about giving of yourself to those who matter to you in a tangible expression of love. In ways they can see, and feel and touch. Children see fathers honoring their mothers with gifts. Those same children are encouraged to think of others, to be selfless, at a time when greed runs rampant.

So fine, I will be flexible. I will laugh at the fact that my freaking lights will not work (I’m secretly bitter), that we keep eating the cookies faster than my wife can bake them. I’ll Skype with my mom and put her gifts in the mail and see her for my birthday. I’ll make nice with my brother and sister. And it’ll be the best Christmas ever because that’s what it’s really about.

Gotta run—it’s time for me to taunt my kids with presents they cannot have…yet.

Merry Christmas!

What the Hell was I thinking? or Why I made Lucifer my hero

Someone called me a Satanist recently.

He’d read my book and was making a joke in passing. I know him, I love him—wasn’t a big deal. But it did get me thinking: how do I justify writing a novel where Lucifer—the Devil—is my protagonist? And who the hell would want to read it?

My novel, The Road to Hell, is the story of Lucifer’s fall, the war between the angels, and the creation of man. My Oprah answer is that the book is meant to be an allegory about humanity, about our own worth and what we must have cost God to make us. It’s supposed to make us evaluate ourselves a little better, maybe make us think about us, about each other, in a different light.

And Michael was supposed to be my hero. It was supposed to be his story.

If you don’t know Michael the Archangel, he’s the warrior angel who crushed the rebellion and ultimately had to exile Lucifer from Heaven. Michael was my main character. I loved him. I cared about him. I wondered how tough it must have been to truly have the responsibility for tearing Heaven apart. For knowing how it would end and having the resolve to do it anyway. Sure Lucifer was the catalyst, but Michael was the hammer. I wanted to see the story through his eyes. And it was personal. I was going through this crisis of faith and I gave Michael that cross to bear. His story was my story. It was a tale about the loss and reclamation of faith in the face of adversity, even when Heaven was falling down.

But it was boring. Sure, there was action in it and there were passages that were some of the best writing I’d ever done. When I reread it, I smiled, I laughed, I cried. I loved Michael but he was “flat” (that’s what my friends said.) He was a flat two-dimensional character that was more cliché than compelling. But Lucifer! Now here was the most vibrant, interesting voice in the book. He was fun to write, he was funny, mean, focused—and there was nothing I couldn’t do! He’s the Devil! I had all the latitude my imagination could conjure up.

Here is the point where the storyteller in me conflicted with the author who desperately wants to be successful. I knew my market; I knew I wanted to reach the Christian audience. While the story might be slightly unorthodox, I knew I was hitting all the major themes of redemption and faith and obedience. But the story sucked! I wasn’t breaking new ground, not with this approach. John Milton, Wendy Alec, Brian Schaefer, Stephen Brust and others had already done it. Sub-par story, flat characters—it wasn’t worth it.

In the end, this is what this post is about: being a storyteller vs. being in the business of telling stories. I don’t knock a single soul who has the guts to put their prose out there for the world to see. Whether you are in it for the money, for the story or for some combination of them both, I have mad respect for you. I have dreams and hopes and delusions of grandeur too. I daydream about getting my book optioned or seeing royalty checks with more zeroes than I can imagine or discussing the narrative themes in front of crowds of people. But I can’t live with a substandard story. I can’t. And I can’t believe that that route gets me to those things that haunt my dreams.

So I listened. I listened to my gut and my family and friends. And I listened to my characters. Michael wasn’t some sad sap of an angel wallowing in his lot in life. You don’t kick the Prince of Darkness out of Heaven by being a punk. That’s not how it works. That’s not what made sense to me. So I recast him into a much darker, brooding, angry rendition of himself who was decidedly on the side of righteousness regardless of the circumstances.

And Lucifer…well, he was the most compelling one of all.

So why did I make him my hero? How could I resist? Here is an angel, a brilliant, beautiful, majestic angel who waged a rebellion against God. Think about that. Whether you buy into the religion or not, the story is fascinating. This is a character that found Heaven—Heaven—so distasteful under God’s rule that he convinced one-third of the population that his way was better. You don’t go from Beloved to Betrayer without one hell of an emotional arc. He was begging to tell his side of the story. How could I resist?

My point is simply this: tell the story you are meant to tell. The one that truly resonates in your gut. The one that wakes you up from your sleep, that has you whispering the words of your characters when you think no one can hear you. Tell that story. The world has millions—literally—of writers who tell the stories they think we will buy, the ones they pray will sell. Hell, I’m one of them. But somewhere in the midst of the platform building, social networking, tweeting, Facebooking madness, we are storytellers. Let us resolve to tell the stories that deserve to be told. How can you resist?

Check out the story in The Road to Hell. Available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Now only 99¢!

And so it begins…

I first met them in a lounge on the top floor of the BP building in downtown Cleveland about 10 years ago.  It was a unique place, a penthouse slash pool hall slash men’s lodge.  A wide, open space, dimly lit, bound by floor-to-ceiling windows.  They called it the Upper Room.  It was quite some time before I understood the irony.  I wasn’t sure why I was there—they’d called me but I couldn’t remember how or why.  I knew where to go, when to meet them, what to look for.

There were four of them then and a more disparate group of comrades could not be found.  There was Michael, a gruff hulk of a man, constantly clad in the deep blue kimono of a samurai—sword included—with his thick mane of dreadlocks pulled into a high ponytail.  He spoke little, usually in a series of grunts and growls, and played pool religiously.  Michael had a penchant for breaking sticks.  Somehow, there was an endless supply of them and I never saw him replace a single one.

Raphael was clearly the youngest—slim body with a middleweight boxer’s build framed in linen.  Piercing blue eyes often unnerved me as though he could see into me, through me.  His demeanor was soothing, hypnotic and he welcomed me with an embrace every time I arrived, as though it was the first time he’d seen me.  Calling him a man, though, was a travesty: Raphael could walk on walls.

The third was Gabriel and he was every bit as huge as Michael, a towering bulk with eyes that could not see.  Hands clasped behind his back, blind man’s staff at attention, Gabriel stared out the windows constantly, at everything and nothing at the same time and did not turn when he spoke to me.  Gabriel was cordial enough, almost overwhelmingly so and addressed me as a knight.  I didn’t like him—his eyes hid too much.

I met Lucifer first and found him in a darkened corner of the Room.  The area was raised and apart from the others and bathed in shadow.  Impeccably dressed in a dark suit constantly ordained with a crucifix, Lucifer never let me see his eyes, hiding them behind a pair of impenetrable shades.  Hair, if you could call it that, was pulled back and varied from black to blonde to iridescent, depending on his mood.  Lucifer was who I came to see.

“I’m sure you want to why you’re here,” he said and his voice sounded like silk and smelled like brandy.

I nodded and watch the snifter refill itself with dark fluid.  “What…?”

Lucifer interrupted, “This idea of why, it’s a defect in all of you.  You can’t just accept anything, you have to know the why of it all.”

“You don’t think I have a right to know?” I said, feeling the indignation rise.  I heard Michael stifle a laugh as he made his break.

“A right to know?  You think you have rights?”  Lucifer leaned forward now, animated.  “You think the dust of the earth is worthy of rights, of consideration?  You hardly have a right to life.”

“Lucifer,” Gabriel warned and continued staring.  “He’s not here for this.”

“I called him; I know what he’s here for, Watcher.”

Raphael was pacing on the ceiling.  “Gabriel’s right.  Tell him.”

“Fine.  You must excuse me.  My colleagues have fared somewhat better than I when it comes to your ‘whys’ and ‘hows.’  Forgive my indignation.”  He shifted in the dark and offered me a seat.  I accepted.

“You know my name,” Lucifer said, “and yes, I am that Lucifer.  Fall from Heaven, Garden of Eden, ruler of Hell, blah blah blah. I am that one you have condemned without, what do you call it? A fair trial.  Forget what you think you know.  Call me Lucifer.”

I caught my breath.

“Not what you expected, huh?  We’ll fix that.  That,” he pointed at Michael, “is the Angel of Death, the slaughterer of the firstborn, the butcher for Israel.  The Captain of Army of Heaven.  If you must speak to him, call him Michael.  I’d be careful what I say, though, he doesn’t exactly have a soft spot for humanity.”

Pointing up, “You know Raphael.  You’ve seen him on the street, in your dreams, just over your shoulder.  He looks out for you—all of you—because he is a pathetic ass-kisser.  He’s the one who told Mary about her bastard-son, the savior.  You’ve known about him for a long time.”

“Lucifer is a little bitter,” Raphael said.  “Hell does that.”

“Clod,” Lucifer said under his breath.  “And that is Gabriel the Watcher.  He doesn’t do anything.  Never has, never will.”

Michael growled across the table and snapped his stick.  I watched it grow out of his fist.

“Fine fine fine.  Gabriel has the eyes of the Father—everything you’ve ever read about any of us, he’s dropped into the laps of willing humans.  This is why you have a story at all.  But humans being what they are, the story never stays the same or consistent or even true.  That’s why you’re here.”

“Wait,” I said, standing, “you are angels?  Like real angels, not ‘Touched by an Angel’ angels but the real thing?  You’re the Devil?”

“Sit down,” Michael said.

I didn’t.  “This is ridiculous.  Aren’t you at war?  Wasn’t, isn’t there some war going on for our souls?  What is this?  You guys are sitting here like you’re friends.”

Michael faced me now, brandishing his pool stick.  “I said, sit down.  Now.”

I sat.  He knocked the 4 into a side pocket.

“Yes, there’s a war,” Lucifer said, “but you are not the prize.  I don’t want you, I never wanted you.”  He stood now.  “As far as friendships go, let me explain something to you.  We are forever.  We’ve been here since the beginning, not the beginning of this pile of garbage you call a planet, but the beginning of time.  We are old, our war is old. But before we were warriors, we were brothers.  Understand?”

Lucifer sat and his drink refilled.  He sipped it.

“What do you want with me?” I said.

“You have questions. We have answers,” he said.

Raphael told me, “For thousands of years, the Father has chosen men to tell His side of the story.  They were the prophets.  We need you to do the same for us.”

“You want me to be a prophet?” I said.  “Why?”

“We want you to tell our side—the truth—before it’s too late,” he said.

“Because we all have blood on our hands!” Lucifer said.  “No one is innocent, or purely good or purely evil.  Because what you know is a lie!”

Gabriel turned and I saw his eyes: they did not exist.  Puddles of black fluid, steaming, rippled in his eye sockets.  “The end is coming,” he said.

Lucifer leaned forward, “We thought you might want to know why.”

Read the rest in The Road to Hell. Also available at Barnes and Noble