Sunday, August 31, 2014

Getting Past Negativity Bias - the Beachy Way

by @JeffeKennedy

This week's topic in the Bordello is Measuring Success (and Failures): How, When, and Then What?

Since I'm lucky enough to be at the beach this weekend, I think I'd measure that as a success.

Shortest blog post ever!

Okay, okay - but only because it's too foggy yet to go boogie boarding...

Getting a grip on measuring success and failure - and learning how to handle both - is key to personal happiness, in my opinion. Note that I'm not counting "Being Happy" as a goal that be attained, which many people do. Instead, for me, happiness is a way of living life. I make a lot of deliberate choices to preserve my personal happiness, which is a top priority for me. I'm blessed to have fortunate chemistry that predisposes me to be happy, but I also avoid things that impede my happiness - something other people don't always approve of. I don't watch the news, or much TV at all besides carefully chosen shows. I don't worry about how clean my house is or whether the dishes are done. I don't do things for other people unless I want to.

The difference in thinking here is that many people - myself included, if I lose sight of this perspective - see success as something that leads to happiness and failure as something that leads away.

This isn't true at all. And, in fact, is a sure recipe for misery.


Two things are working against us here. First of all, lots of good research has shown that our brains have a Negativity Bias. We are far more likely to remember negative emotional events, in far greater detail and clarity, than positive ones. Extremely useful for learning to avoid saber-tooth tigers. Not so great for convincing ourselves that the one snarky review means nothing. The other is that success is transitory and comes with no guarantees. It's like counting on a particular bird flying by to instill happiness. We can put out birdseed, sure - but a lot is up to chance.

Besides, there's nothing negative about failure.


Failure isn't the opposite of a happy outcome, it's just an other outcome. We've just conditioned ourselves - particularly in American culture - to see anything other than success as a negative.

So, here's my beach analogy for you.

For the last couple of days, I've been getting to spend time doing boogie boarding. For those who don't know, a boogie board is kind of like those paddle boards we used in swimming. You lay your upper body over it and ride the waves into shore. It's like surfing, without the athletic skill required, which puts it right up my alley. My surf-beach equivalent to snorkeling. Both are low-key activities that require little equipment and no classes, certification or training (not like scuba-diving might). All of these things up my happiness quotient by keeping the pressure off.

Like surfing, boogie boarding means waiting for the right wave. You swim out there and watch the swells, picking out the one that looks to be breaking exactly right for the best ride. Sometimes you miss a good one. Sometimes you get swamped by one you didn't see coming. Sometimes a promising wave peters out and you go a short distance before having to swim back out again. Sometimes a wave turns vicious and takes you over, pounding you against the sand and filling your sinuses with salt. Every once in a while, you catch one exactly right and ride it like a rocket all the way to the shore.

And it's awesome.

But that's not one success out of many failures, as we'd be tempted to paint it. Why?


What is not wonderful about swimming in the ocean on a brilliantly sunny day, playing around with a boogie board? Likewise, what is not TOTALLY AMAZING about spending our days telling stories, creating worlds and people from thin air? Writers like to focus on the emo aspects of the life - one of my loops is talking about the BCoD (black cloud of doom) right now - but how incredible is it that we get to do this and people actually pay us? Don't tell me you don't get paid enough. That's like saying the last wave only carried you twenty feet. You're playing in the fucking ocean of stories! It just doesn't get better than that.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some waves to ride.

Happy Sunday everyone!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

And Sometimes There's No Dialog

This week I'm going to share a video -  my shiny new book trailer for Magic of the Nile, which just went live yesterday.

Now Magic of the Nile isn't completely off-topic. Here's a short excerpt from the book, where the conversation in a non-action scene is definitely carrying some double meanings. Tyema the High Priestess and Captain Sahure spent the evening attending a festival together and she never told him who she really was. But now he knows. The temple scribe doesn't know any of this and has already tried to defer Sahure from meeting with Tyema until the following day, to preserve the precious schedule. (Petty bureaucrats existed in all ages!)

She caught her breath as Sahure sauntered in, resplendent in his full uniform, the golden falcon badge prominent on the leather straps crossing his broad chest, scarlet cloak swirling around his legs. He was even more handsome than she’d remembered. He bowed, “Good morning to you, my lady.”
            “And to you, captain.” With great effort, she kept a smile from forming on her lips. Unfamiliar heat pulsed in her core and she suppressed the urge to shift her hips in response.
            “I appreciate your seeing me today instead of tomorrow,” he said, staring at her with narrowed eyes.
            Oh, I couldn’t wait till tomorrow. Tyema remained regally seated in her chair with an effort, curling her fingers tight against the desire to touch him. “I’m sure your business is urgent.”
            “Indeed, I’m here at the command of Pharaoh, very pressing affairs.” He raised his eyebrows and gave a sideways glance at the scribe.
            “You may go, Jemkhufu,” she said, following Sahure’s line of sight.
            “But, my lady, what if notes need to be taken?” The scribe was startled, his eyes opening wide and his mouth hanging open. Tyema never met with anyone alone, other than the god Sobek, so she wasn’t surprised by Jemkhufu’s reaction. Swallowing hard, the scribe glared at Sahure while questioning her order for privacy again. “Are you sure you won’t need me?”
            She tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I’ll call you when we’re done.”
            The scribe gathered up his tablets, rolls of blank papyrus and sharpened quills in an untidy armful and backed from the room, closing the door. She heard him complaining to the guard about the unscheduled audience interfering with the day as the portal closed.
            Before she could say anything, Sahure was standing in front of her, his arms caging her in the chair. “And I thought Theban ladies played games,” he said. “Imagine my surprise this morning to see that the high priestess of Sobek was none other than my little waif from the previous evening. She whom I thought to be Ema was in reality the legendary and rarely seen Tyema herself.”
            “Waif?” Tyema couldn’t decide whether to be amused or insulted. True the plain dress wasn’t the best garment in her wardrobe but surely it didn’t give such an insignificant impression?
            “Were you laughing at me the entire evening?” His tone was cold. “Did you enjoy your masquerade?”
            She put one hand on his chest, trying to push him away, but under her fingers his body was solid muscle, an unyielding wall. “I’m sorry, I didn’t set out to deceive you.”
            He stared at her for a long moment before releasing the chair. He backed up a step. Hands on hips, he asked, “Then why the lie?”

Why indeed? Here's the trailer:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Power Play: Dialogue

Can we talk?

Look. There's only so much to say about dialogue in fiction and there's already been a lot this week. So let me leave you with this.

Dialogue in fiction has to sound like dialogue in real life, but it is utterly unlike real life dialogue. Conversation in day to day life doesn't have to have any point. It needn't be fraught with tons of subtext. In fact, one of the great joys of day to day conversation is that it has no point other than to establish a brief connection with another human being. Our lives generally have room for that kind of aimless chat about the weather. Stories don't. Dialogue in a story must use as few words as possible to hit as many points as possible while pushing the tension of the conflict in the direction it needs to go. Lovely, Marcella, but how the heck do you actually DO that?

*I* do it by drafting in first person and by reminding myself that the person who uses the most words is the weakest. Surprised? Did you know I had a super short and ill-fated stint selling cars? Yeah, I sucked at it. But. I learned a bunch of sales tricks and that was one. Saying only what is necessary is the position of strength. The other HOW is through ruthless editing and paying attention to my beats, objectives and tactics. This part gets complicated. It's from a class I teach on text analysis. That's usually a year long course. It's a little chewy.

The main points I want to make are these:

1. In every conversation, each participant has a goal (Objective) You can usually work that out by looking at the dialog and asking, "What does that character want right here?" Character goals may not align - usually they don't. One person wants x and the other one wants y.
2. In a conversation where objectives don't align, characters will change how they go about trying to get what they want. (Tactics) You'll find tactics by asking "How is that character going about getting what he or she wants?"
As a result:
3. Every conversation is a win or lose proposition - someone wins, someone loses.

Let me give you an example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In the beginning of the book, Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall meet outside the Dursley’s house. I’m using just the dialog because that’s where objectives and tactics originate. (This is from the very first chapter of the book.)

Dumbledore: Would you care for a lemon drop?
McGonagall: A what?
Dumbledore: A lemon drop. They’re a kind of Muggle sweet I’m rather fond of.
McGonagall: No, thank you. As I say, even if You-Know-Who has gone –
Dumbledore: My dear professor, surely a sensible person like yourself can call him by his name? All this ‘You-Know-Who’ nonsense – for eleven years I have been trying to persuade people to call him by his proper name: Voldemort. It all gets so confusing if we keep saying ‘You-Know-Who.’ I have never seen any reason to be frightened of saying Voldemort’s name.
McGonagall: I know you haven’t. But you’re different. Everyone knows you’re the only one You-Know- oh, all right, Voldemort, was frightened of.
Dumbledore: You flatter me. Voldemort had powers I will never have.
McGonagall: Only because you’re too – well – noble to use them.
Dumbledore: It’s lucky it’s dark. I haven’t blushed so much since Madam Pomfrey told me she liked my new earmuffs.

This short scene is a ‘beat’. It encompasses one complete set of objectives and tactics. This beat has a clear winner and a clear loser. Dumbledore wins this round. Here’s why. In the larger scene from which this scene was extracted, Dumbledore is refusing to allow McGonagall to challenge his decision (the decision to place Harry with the Dursley’s). Professor McGonagall met him outside the house with three things in mind: to confirm that Voldemort is gone, to confirm the rumors that the Potters are dead, and to question the wisdom of placing the infant Harry in so cold a home. These are their objectives.

Dumbledore’s objective is to shut down anything that might alter his course. McGonagall’s objective is to extract confirmation from Dumbledore that Voldemort really has been defeated.

Because she kept *trying* to broach the subject, but never got the assurance she wanted, Professor McGonagall loses. Dumbledore wins because he achieved his objective – he shut his colleague down. He won’t go on winning, however. If you read further in the chapter, Professor McGonagall does manage to extract the information she wants and she does question his decision. Ultimately, however, by the chapter’s end, Dumbledore emerges the winner in the objectives war. He does leave Harry with the Dursleys - but it comes at a cost - he has to acknowledge his own misgivings about the situation and explain his reasoning to Professor McGonagall. Both things expose emotions in him that he really didn't want anyone (including himself) to see.

Read the dialog again. Now that you know their objectives, concentrate on *how* each character achieved his or her objectives (or failed to).

Dumbledore, by focusing on inane minutiae, managed to keep a very bright and capable woman off a point of significant emotional importance to her. He defended his objective by distracting Professor McGonagall, but *how* does he distract her? Initially, he distracts her with charm (Would you care for a lemon drop?). When that fails (she says: As I was saying…) he changes tactics and becomes annoyed. (Oh look, say his name!) It works. She’s derailed. He changes tactics again, letting the annoyance go. He subsides into pseudo-embarrassment (stop, you’ll make me blush) – his last few lines carry a hint of amusement and of warning to Professor McGonagall not to wax too sentimental – almost as if he’s bracing her for what’s about to come: Hagrid, carrying the infant Harry.

If you now go through and read the scene in the novel, you’ll find that the narration; the actions and the body language in the scene shore up the objectives and tactics as I’ve given them here. But in acting and in writing a book, it pays to be contrarian from time to time. Ask yourself: How else could this scene play out? Give your imagination free reign. The objectives remain the same. Those are dictated by the words your characters say, but the tactics – how you pursue those objectives – that’s where you can play around, looking for the unexpected.

Imagine Johnny Depp (as Captain Jack Sparrow) delivering Dumbledore’s lines and reread the scene. I bet you saw a completely different set of tactics didn’t you? He’d feign madness initially. Then puff up with self-importance, and finally end with the false modesty that is a Captain Jack trademark. Can you imagine how McGonagall’s reactions would change in response to these different tactics?

Then, what if Dumbledore were actually Voldemort in disguise? Reread the dialog from that perspective – knowing that there’s now an added dimension to his need to distract her for there’s a vital secret to keep. Suddenly, there’s menace and a sly, watchful, almost probing emotional component to the fake Dumbledore’s seemingly innocent words. McGonagall’s dialog takes on a new, deeper significance, too – her line “I know you haven’t. But you’re different.” This would be delivered with a penetrating stare – as if she sensed the man standing next to her wasn’t what he appeared. In this case, we nearly reverse the winner of the objective game – if she finds out his secret, she wins and on those two lines, she comes very, very close, but the dialog doesn’t change and the false Dumbledore wins by assuaging her doubt – he gives her a detail only the real Dumbledore ought to know – that Professor Pomfrey complimented his taste in ear muffs.

Silly, I know, but look at how the feel of a few simple words can change based on the emotional choices you as an author make. Many people forget that HOW you say something or HOW you perform an action can communicate volumes about what you're feeling in a scene. When you read your drafts, just as an exercise, try reading only dialog. Look for places to veer into more interesting emotional territory with tags or short bits of action that show your reader how your character is going after what he or she wants. It’s in the small, seemingly inconsequential spots that you can play with tactics, with action and reaction, looking for an emotional angle that delights or horrifies you. In this way, you're making dialogue do far more than chat between characters. Goals are pursued, yes, but with tactics and objectives, you're putting characters in a win/lose position with one another. If you're writing romance, the winning and losing had better balance out or the relationship is doomed. But this gives you all sorts of room to play with power balances between your characters while they're working out how to defeat the bad guy, save the world, or blow up that tower.

Now. Aren't you glad you and I get to just talk about the weather??

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Which I Become A Word-Whore; Or, Who is Marshall Ryan Maresca Character Anyway?

Hello!  I'm Marshall Ryan Maresca, the latest addition to Word Whores, and I know exactly the question you're all asking.


I just told you.

No, really, who are you?

All right, fair question. 

So: Marshall Ryan Maresca, Fantasy and Science-Fiction writer.  I'm also a playwright, but in all honestly I don't focus on that as much, leaning more toward fantasy and sci-fi writing. 

Yeah, but, have I read any of your stuff?
Product Details

Well... maybe?  My short story Jump the Black appeared in Rayguns Over Texas, an anthology of sci-fi short stories all from Texas authors.  It's a very cool anthology, and I highly recommend it.

Texas, huh?

Yes.  Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, a city known for its rainfall and winters where daily snow can occasionally be measure in feet.  All right, admittedly, that's during freak blizzards, but it still happens.  So after finishing a film degree at Penn State, I moved to Austin, Texas.  A place where snow is so uncommon, a wisp of it shuts the whole city down.  It is bliss. degree, playwright?  Why are you writing novels?

I actually spent quite a bit of time doing theatre in Austin, as a playwright, director, producer, and even a bit of time as an actor.  As an actor, I mostly specialized in characters who got beat up, smacked around or killed.  I even played a character who was killed twice: first time, getting my neck broken, and then having my brain stolen.  Said brain was installed into a virtual reality system, and then my virtual self was killed.

It was a weird show.

But over time I began to realize that writing novels was what I really wanted to do, and I but all my focus into that.  I still write short plays on occasion, mostly because it helps keep those dialogue writing muscles sharp.  (More on that in a bit)

So, ahem... novels, you were saying?

Right.  I've got two fantasy novels coming out in 2015 from DAW Books.  First is The Thorn of Dentonhill coming out on February 3rd.  The next one, A Murder of Mages, will be coming out later in the year.  Both books are in the same fantasy setting, in the same city, but they are each, individually, the first of a series. 

So you're launching two different series essentially at the same time?

Yes. I'm crazy.

All right, man, it's your life.

Is that all?

Hey, I'm asking the questions!

Actually, you're not any more.

Oh, yeah.  So, aren't your posts for WordWhores supposed to be on a topic-of-the-week?

Yes, they are!  Which I'm quite grateful for, so now I won't spend Wednesday nights thinking, "What the heck am I supposed to be writing about for tomorrow?"

What's this week?

This week is about dialogue in non-action scenes, which is a right-in-my-wheelhouse place to start.  Dialogue and I are good friends.  This comes from cutting my writing teeth on plays.  I can throw two characters in a room and have them banter and bounce until days end. 

Which means sometimes, in writing prose, I fall into the trap of thinking like a playwright.  I mean, I just give them the words to say.  Action, emotion, intention?  The actors will bring that in their performance.  What's that?  No actors?  Just words on the page?  Ah.  Have to go back and revise.

So, yeah, for me, it's always an active process of remembering the action of the non-action scene, what the people are doing, how they physically react to the conversation, how the POV character feels and their observations of other people's emotions.  But part of that being an active process means I have to be aware that it isn't becoming inorganic.  It's one thing to make sure the characters are active while they're talking.  It's another to make sure I'm not just marking minutia for no reason other than to give them bits of business to do while talking.

That's overdirecting your actors.

So, on some level, you do have to trust in the effectiveness of the words of dialogue themselves.  Like you trust your actors to find the meaning and action that goes with it, you can trust your readers to do the same.

And with that, it's time to head back into the word mines.  See you down there.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dialogue Should Be More than the Sum of its Parts

Readers have an expectation. Even as the story is unfolding before their eyes, their mind is working at what is happening, anticipating the next part of this scene, the next scene. Sure, a lively smart-ass character might leap off the page and entertain you with witty banter touting to her enemies all those smarty-nasty things you wish you had the balls to say to that bitch in the next cubicle. Books are, for many, an escape tool, so there is nothing wrong with a sassy character to let them live vicariously through.

That said, though we are talking about dialogue not in action scenes this week, I don't want to talk about the talking as much as the character development of the talking. Sooo much more meaning can be infused into their words. Their sentences need to be more than the sum of their parts, and, well, I'm going to stop talking about it and just let you draw your own conclusions:

Tonight Jovienne proceeded without him, bravely accepting what she understood was hers alone to face.

He stared at the doors after she passed through them, a breath locked his chest. He waited, eagerly watching that doorway. Part of him wanted her to race back out...but he knew better. Even as a child she never fled from her fears. He recalled taking her to the cemetery to see the graves of her family. She made him wait outside the gates, and assured him that she would find them herself. 

She kicked the fallen yellow leaves away, clearing the slightly mounded ground before a small headstone. Then, in front of the adjacent tombstone-for-two, she did the same for the outermost of the two graves. The green grass was a stark contrast to the bright deposits of foliage.

The center grave, she left covered. He wondered why. He wondered if it was her mother or her father that she did not reveal. He wondered if she’d had a brother or a sister, older or younger.

Upon her return to the gates an hour later, her cheeks were wet, but her eyes showed no sign of having wept. The drops on her face were only rain. He marveled, wondering if it was strength or the misunderstanding of youth that had locked in the tears she deserved to set free.

Seeing his scrutiny, she seemed to understand it. “The sky cried for me,” she said. “And the trees are weeping pretty blankets.” She glanced back at her work then, the grassy area easy to pick out. “But some graves ought to be cold.”

A chill heaved over him, and not from the late autumn air.

He had thought she worked to reveal those she cared for, but instead she had worked to, in some small way, steal the peaceful rest from those she did not care for. The child had come here to say goodbye and had said it in a manner more telling than any he could imagine.

He watched her admire the center grave under its “pretty blanket” and wondered what horror she had been released from to become his pupil.

His admiration for her was rooted in that memory.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Contributor to the Blog!

Please join us in extending a warm bordello welcome to our newest Word-Whore, Marshall Ryan Maresca!

~pours the wine~      ~tosses flower petals~

Marshall takes over Thursdays, bringing his experiences as a playwright and a sf/f author to our mix.  His latest works include the sci-fi short "Jump the Black"  in Rayguns Over Texas Anthology. His fantasy novel The Thorn of Dentonhill is available for pre-order now with a release of February 2015.

A member of  team Plotters & Outliners, he's currently running a tutorial on worldbuilding over on his personal blog:  Trekkies, take a closer look and you'll find an Easter egg or two.

Little known fact: He's a foodie who, along with his wife, mixes Spanish cuisine with Spanish language instruction.

You can follow him on Twitter @marshallmaresca and on Facebook at @Marshall.Maresca

Welcome, Marshall!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dialogue in the Quiet Times

Dialogue should always, always move the story forward. From conversation to internal monologues, the words characters speak should tell you about them, foreshadow pertinent information regarding their thought processes or tell you how they react with others.  

Submitted for your consideration is the first appearance of Lazarus Cotton in CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD. Lazarus is a devout man on a mission. He wants to save souls.

What follows was my attempt, mostly through dialogue, to show a bit about the man, his history and his desires.

You decide if I did my job properly, but for me, this is a good example of dialogue in a non-combat scene.

The Mount Zion Church of Faith was lit with electric lights, but by the reverend’s orders they were subdued, to look as much like candles and lanterns as possible. The building was old and the air was simply too hot to allow that many real open flames in the structure.

The pews were full, the faithful were in abundance. That was not always the case, of course. Some nights they had only a few of the faithful with them, because the rest had to go forth and find the lost and wayward and lead them home.

“Got a full house tonight, ‘Rus.” Fry’s voice was mellow and laid back. He was very good at seeming to be as serene as his voice.

Lazarus Cotton preferred to be called Reverend or Reverend Cotton or even Lazarus, but for Fry he made exceptions. Truly the man was his right hand, and Lazarus knew he meant no disrespect.

“The numbers don’t matter, Fry.” The Reverend’s voice was soft, but deep and melodious. His voice was an instrument of the Lord, and as such he had been blessed. Truly, he had been blessed. Hallelujah.

He stood from the chair where he prepared himself and contemplated his words. The chair groaned a bit. He was not a small man, but he carried himself with ease. His dark pants were creased just so, and his suspenders were in the right place. His tie was perfect. His shoes were polished. He was presentable, and that was an important thing. He spoke often to his flock about the need to be presentable. The Lord did not ask that his children be dressed in spectacular fashion, or that they paint their faces like harlots. No, his children were to be humble, and that meant they should dress the part as well.

“What did you want to do about that Wade Griffin fellow, ‘Rus?”

He looked toward Fry with a small frown. “This close to my sermon you should address me properly, please, Fry.”

            The man’s smile was quick and thin. He knew that Fry was not quite a true believer. He wanted to be, but Faith, true Faith, did not always come easily and Fry had been through so very much in his lifetime. “Of course, Reverend Cotton.”

“Much obliged, son.” The Reverend nodded his thanks and headed for the door to the stage at the front of the congregation. It was a simple affair. There was no need for preposterous pomp. There was no need for elaborate draperies. Jesus did not find a need to robe himself in wealth or in finery and if it was good enough for the Christ, it was certainly good enough for his followers.

The pews were indeed filled with the faithful, and with the lost souls they’d brought with them to be saved.

Lazarus Cotton smiled as he looked to the faces staring in his direction. A few were looking elsewhere, but mostly they turned and faced him as he strode across the hardwood on his way to the pulpit.

He raised his hands and waved and the faithful turned toward him and grew silent, waiting for the words he would speak.

“Welcome! All are welcome here. Welcome to old, familiar faces and to the new faces I have never seen before.” He walked as he spoke, for Lazarus Cotton was filled with the Lord’s glory. He felt as strong as a dozen men and as mighty as any man could be when blessed by the Lord and that, friends and neighbors, was mighty indeed. Can I get an amen?

“I’m looking at you, too, you know. Oh, I know you’re looking at me, and I know what a few of you are probably thinking. You’re asking yourselves what you’ve gotten yourselves into.” He looked around and got a comically worried expression on his face. After holding it for a second, he let the expression change to one of mild disgust. “’Lookit that man! He dresses like Colonel Sanders’ country cousin.’” There were a few snickers out in the audience when he hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and popped them against his beefy chest.  “Or maybe you’re thinking about my age.” He waved a hand dismissively, a sly smile blooming on his broad, friendly face. “Oh, I know I’m a bit older than most of you. In fact I’m older than I look, but we’ll get to that part. What you’re wondering about is why you should be spending an evening listening to another fat old minister talk to you about Jesus and the Lord Almighty. Don’t look so surprised…I’ve been on your side of the pulpit too, you know. I went through a lot of my life as a sinner.”

Lazarus Cotton’s face grew serious and he looked from person to person earnestly. “I’ve done my share of blaspheming, and I was known to indulge a bit too much in wine and women and song.” Once again that expression of mild shock moved across his broad features and transformed into a comical look of disgust as if he realized he’s just swallowed a fly why yawning. “’Why would anyone ever? Lookit him! He’s old and fat.’” He stood taller and patted his round belly. While he was never going to be a model for Calvin Klein most of the audience could see his hand hit solid flesh and realized that it wasn’t really a matter of being flabby so much as it was being barrel-chested. He was solid. “Just you remember, Marilyn Monroe wore a size eighteen dress, and when I was growing up a certain amount of belly was a sign of success. It meant you could afford to eat regular meals.”

That one earned him a few more laughs and he could see the newer faces laughing a bit more, relaxing as they got to know him.

“That one hits home with a few of you, doesn’t it? The need to eat? The need to know where your next meal is coming from. It’s a big thing when you’re flat broke and living in an alleyway. And that’s an even bigger thing when you have heat like what we’re handling right now. Well, I’m not so worried about the heat. I can assure you there are places that are a lot hotter.”

A few eyes rolled. Yes, of course he was talking about Hell. They were in a church after all.

“Know what’s funny to me?” He looked at them and planted his big fists on his broad hips. “What’s funny is how many of you just rolled your eyes. Bet you think I’m gonna talk about sin, and hellfire and brimstone.” He shook his head and frowned with a deep enough expression to make sure that even the people in the back of the congregational hall could see the expression. “Well, you’re wrong about that. You look at the Good Books in front of you, on the back of the seats before yours, and you look good and hard. And you find a spot in there where it says you’re going to burn in Hell for all eternity.” He held up a finger. “I don’t mean a reference in the Old Testament that talks of a burning lake without mentioning Hell by name. I mean you find a spot in the New Testament where it says that anyone alive is going to burn in Hell for all eternity.” He crossed his arms and tapped a foot on the floor beneath him. “I can wait if you want to try to find the spot. But I have to tell you, back in the days when I was a bit more of a sinner I would have charged you hard cash for the Bibles I’ll let you have for free now. Back then I was a Bible salesman and I could have convinced your daddy to give me a month’s pay for a cheap Bible and I could have had him writing me the check while you momma was pouring me a whiskey and sitting in my lap.”

He paused while they considered that and the mischievous grin crept back to his mobile face. “Told you I was a sinner, didn’t I? Back in the day? Believe me, I got around and I met more than one lonely wife back in my heyday. We none of us start off as sinners and we none of us start out as saints. One way or another we have to work our way down the proper path to get where we’re going.”

He walked again, treading heavily on the small stage and waving his hands about with every word he said. “The Lord doesn’t promise us eternal damnation. What He promises, what his only begotten son Jesus Christ promises, is the chance for eternal life. If we just do the right things, if we treat people the right way and we can manage to stay properly humble, the meek shall inherit the earth.”

And now he stopped and he looked out at the crowd with wide eyes. “Eternal life. Think about that. The chance to live forever, to never grow old and die, to never suffer disease, to never again suffer the pain of illness, or to know the endless misery of losing our loved ones. Think about how amazing that promise is.”

Oh, there might have been a few who were doubting him, but Lazarus knew when he had a crowd that was listening, and nearly to the last they were paying close attention.

“Jesus Christ died for our sins. He died and He promised us that if we would but love Him and ask His forgiveness for our sins…” He paused and held up one finger again. “And mean it, that part is important, well, then, we could live forever in the glory of the Lord’s blessings.”

Several of the devout called out from the audience with a smattering of Hallelujahs and amens.

And Lazarus Cotton smiled lovingly to his children as they responded. “Would you like to know what makes me different from other ministers and reverends and pastors?” Oh, the grin he offered was a sly one, positively conspiratorial. “Would you like to know what separates me and all of my followers from the rest of the glad-handers who are offering Salvation?”

Several people whispered and looked around and finally one of the young lads in the audience looked toward him and asked, “What?”

Lazarus Cotton’s smile grew into a thing of strange and wondrous beauty.
“Well, now, the difference is that I don’t just tell you what you can have. I can show you the Glory of the blessings of the Lord Almighty.” He stood tall and spread his arms wide. “I don’t offer false promises, my children. I offer proof.”

And then did the children, the wayward and the lost, lean in closer. And then did they listen with rapt attention to the words of Lazarus Cotton.

Can you say Amen?