Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why I don't worry about stolen ideas

This old fear still crops up occasionally on the Absolute Write forums. Sometimes we discover it while critiquing a query, because we ask for specifics. The writer hesitates, unsure whether to reveal the Big Premise or the Big Twist.

Or sometimes newer writers come right out and ask: how to prevent people from stealing their ideas? This is why I don’t worry about it. Here’s the same basic idea that I used for The Deepest Ocean (ship plus great white shark), used to tell five very different stories:

1. Young Adult

The hero is a fifteen-year-old midshipman. His father is an Ahab hunting the shark for his own reasons.

2. Horror/paranormal

He’s one of the best captains in the navy… but every month he changes into an instinct-driven wereshark.

3. Thriller

A shark genetically modified to be intelligent works with a destroyer to locate enemy submarines.

4. Romance

He’s a shark expert monitoring a great white’s release from Sea World. She’s the captain of a ecovessel out to stop a finning operation (anything that butchers apex predators for their fins is unspeakably cruel).

5. Cyberpunk

A battleship has to hunt down the last cyborg shark.

All these stories would appeal to different readerships. All of them would target different markets when the writers sent them out.

So why worry about the idea being stolen? If you and I both sit on eggs, I could hatch a turkey (albeit a bit late for Thanksgiving) and you could hatch a pterodactyl, because we’re different people and therefore we’ll produce different books. Both of which have their own place in the food chain.

Plus, I’ve got hundreds more eggs ideas where that one came from. Just never enough time to sit on them all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ways to help people who are grieving

Yesterday I wrote a post on ten things not to say to someone grieving a loss, and I’m thankful to everyone who commented and shared their experiences.

I think one reason people say unintentionally hurtful or dismissive things in response to a death is because they feel they have to fix things. They see you’re in pain, and they want to make it better, so they tell you that your loved one is with the angels now, or that it will all work out for the best somehow.

The problem is, if someone is grieving—whether it’s for a parent, child, spouse, friend, pet, anyone—you can’t take away the pain. Period. It will lessen over time, I know that from personal experience, but there’s no quick fix to apply right now. And that can make people feel pretty helpless in the face of grief.

So here are a few things that could be more understanding and helpful towards a grieving person, and I hope they make a difference.

1. Don’t feel you have to come up with something new or profound

“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful person, and we’ll miss her.”

That will never go down in the books as amazingly quotable. It’s not the kind of statement which makes anyone redefine their worldview on death and grieving.

But it is by far the best possible thing anyone could have said to me. Sometimes, acknowledging grief is all the support that can be given under the circumstances.

2. Share a memory

If their loved ones are prepared for it or would welcome it, talk about the person who died. Keep it positive, but depending on the situation, your recollections could go from positive and heart-warming to hilariously off-color. Either way, it shows that the dead person hasn’t been swept under the rug.

3. Books and poetry

It’s best to be careful about this, but I had to include poetry, because after my mom’s death, someone sent me a poem about bereavement. I’ll always remember one line of it

“I promise to hold you in my heart
As a cupped hand protects a flame.”

That is exactly how I felt about my mother, about all my memories of her and my love for her. As long as I’m here, the flame won’t go out.

But as I said, be careful. My mom’s devoutly religious friends knew I didn’t share their beliefs, so they didn’t send me any books written from a Christian perspective, and the poem came from someone whom I’d talked to on a discussion board for non-believers. Either way, the poem or book should benefit the grieving person, not the person who gives it.

A truly wrenching and sensitive book that could be given to a non-religious person is Michael Rosen's Sad Book. After his son died at 16, Rosen wrote this, an honest exploration of his loss and grief, and the things he does to deal with them day by day.

There’s a beautiful moment of hope at the end, but it’s not “I’ll see him again some day and he’ll be fine” hope. It’s more the sense that things will slowly get better, and that all we can do each day is light a single candle against the dark.

4. Other gifts

Speaking of candles, I read of this gift : a scented candle with a note attached, saying, “When you miss her, light this.”

I would have liked that. No, it won’t make any practical difference to light a candle, other than making the room smell of gardenia. But it acknowledges that, yes, you will feel grief, and here’s something you can do about it.

Personally, I’d have more difficulty blowing out the candle, and would soon need a new one.

That was all I could come up with, so please feel free to share your suggestions!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ten things not to say to someone grieving a death

This day, ten years ago, my mother died of cancer.

I still miss her. I didn’t want to write a blog post about her or the illness—too personal, sorry—but when I thought about what happened after her death, then there was a lot that needed to be said. My mother had extremely religious friends, one of whom had exorcised the demons of cancer out of her a few days before she died, and some of the things they said to me, I’ll never forget.

1. “You’ll get over it.”

Or what I got, which was minus the “you’ll”.

Especially if the death happened recently, the person may be deep in grief. They need to work through that at their own pace. They don’t need to get the impression that there’s something wrong with their pain, so other people are looking forward to that being over and everything going back to normal.

2. “She’s in a better place.”

Firstly, not everyone believes in an afterlife.

Secondly, my mom’s place was with her family. Period.

So each time I heard that, I thought the person saying it didn’t know my mother at all, if they believed she could be happy without her children and her home and her busy, cheerful, productive life.

3. “She’s watching over you.”

Shortly after my mother died, an acquaintance of hers phoned up to tell me this. She also claimed my mother would always be with me and if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask my mom. After I got her off the line, I shouted to the empty house that my mother was d-e-a-d, dead! and as a result, she wouldn’t be hanging around like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

If people are helped by the belief that their lost loved one is now their guardian angel, that’s wonderful for them.

But please. Don’t assume that everyone shares this belief, that everyone wants to share it, or that everyone needs to hear it about their own loved ones.

4. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Every time I hear this I think, “Yes. Sometimes the reason is that shit happens in this world to people who don’t deserve it. Wonderful reason, that.”

It’s great if people take comfort in the conviction that there’s meaning and/or a good outcome in grief and loss. But again. Please don’t assume that everyone shares this viewpoint, or that others will appreciate the idea of their loved one’s death being planned so something special can take place.

5. “She wouldn’t want you to feel like this.”

Even if she wouldn’t, the fact remained that I did. Piling guilt on top of everything else isn’t likely to help.

And I just wished the person saying this wouldn't try to speak for my mom.

6. “At least she isn’t suffering any more.”

Yes, the reason she’s not suffering is because she’s dead. Er… yay?

7. “She wasn’t such a great person, really.”

After my mother’s funeral, my father’s cousin started to tell me about a flaw in my mom’s character. I immediately interrupted to say I wasn’t interested in hearing it and never would be interested in hearing it. My mom was not perfect, and I’m well aware of that, but no one gets to criticize her to my face.

Slamming a dead person to someone grieving the loss of that person is an especially low blow. It’s not going to produce the result: “Maybe I should stop feeling sad.” It may, however, lead to: “Maybe I shouldn’t speak to you again, so I don’t feel worse.”

I can only imagine what such people say when someone dies of a drug overdose or through not wearing a seatbelt. Keep the judgments to yourself, please. The dead person’s relatives don’t need to hear them.

8. “It was meant to be.”

I don’t have to explain why this is hurtful and unproductive, do I?

9. “I will do this and that and the other thing for you.”

Which is lovely if you mean it.

But there was a couple in my mom’s church who (at social functions) kept saying what they would do to help me, without ever actually doing anything. After the first couple of letdowns, I wised up.

Maybe they felt good to say this, maybe it was like “let’s get together some time” or “I’ll call you in the morning” or maybe they got brownie points from the people at church who overheard but who didn’t know they never followed up.

10. “What a saint she was. She never doubted. She never said a word of complaint.”

She never said a word to you. Maybe because she knew you wouldn’t want to listen.