Monday, December 06, 2010

Oh, the agony

My mama is spinning in her grave like a chicken on a spit, and Martha Stewart is clutching her chest, moaning, “This could be the Big One!”

Before I launch into this story, I should preface it with this: there is no “right” color of Christmas lights. I know that, in my head at least.

However, in the South, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, and that’s how it was at our house when I was growing up. My mother, may she rest in peace, had dozens upon dozens of “rules” that she applied to life. I had no idea just how many rules she had (and that she had inculcated in me) until I got married to a perfectly nice perfect stranger to my family’s ways and traditions.

Some examples? Sheets aren’t on a bed properly unless you have neat little hospital corners. A present isn’t properly wrapped unless you can’t detect a smidge of tape (that one alone nearly sent me to therapy.) Don’t use the same utensil in the jelly jar that you just used in the peanut butter jar. Don’t get crumbs in the jelly. Never wear plaids and stripes at the same time.

There are also strict rules about which way the toilet paper goes on the roll, and how you fold a napkin, as well as a whole canon on the proper way to handle thank you notes. But if you think those were a lot of rules to learn, Christmas outstripped them all. Yep, you could fill an entire set of encyclopedias just on Mama’s Rules About Christmas.

The one absolute immutable law, though, dealt with lights. Christmas lights were to be dainty and small and, well, white. Preferably NOT blinking, but she could take the blinking as long as they were white.

The way she taught this law was simple. From the earliest age I can remember, if I ever admired multi-colored lights as we were driving by someone’s Griswoldville, she’d tutt her tongue and hiss, “Looks just like a jook-joint.”

For those of you not from my neck of the woods, a jook-joint is slang for beer joint, and the worst sort, the kind that the bartender might have to break up three fights in one evening alone.

Fast forward to now. The Kiddo and The Husband had long planned to string Christmas lights along our front fence. It never occurred to me to tell them to get white lights. I just sort of, er, assumed that they knew that. I mean, The Husband has been married to me for how many years? Yes, 20. And never a colored light has been lit on our hill.

But what do we have on our fence? Rainbow hues of lights. Brilliant, garish lights – that, gasp, blink. Yes, my Mama is spinning in her grave. But she was a mama, too, so here’s hoping she can understand that I had nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

And they crawl back out


All over the world this morning -- okay, this afternoon -- writers are crawling out of their caves, blinking, yawning, stretching. They mumble something like, "Gee, where'd all the leaves on the trees go?" and "Got any more turkey left over from Thanksgiving?"

Yes, it is the NaNo crew, coming out of its annual hibernation. Hats off to all of you who managed to do it, who managed to plug your ears and forget about November being the kickoff for the insane rush of holiday madness, who managed to turn thought into kilobytes.

Now if you'll just tell me how you dispatched your internal editors, I'll use the scientific method to see if I can replicate your results on my own Internal Editor, AKA the Demon Muse in Stilettos. She's been busy muttering things like, "Ya didn't even have to cook the turkey, so what's up with the no-writing biz last week, huh? Care to explain THAT?"

But enough about my long, ongoing battle with the evil twin of Fran. In addition to death and taxes, Evil Twin Fran is a certainty, unless I can get her sidetracked on the possibility of doing a makeover on me or on closet organizers to manage an impossibly large collection of feather boas.

No, I'm sympathizing with that time warp that NaNo writers are experiencing right about now. I've had to do massive writing projects where turnaround time consisted of days, not months, and upon surfacing, I found the following to be consistently true:

1) I have lost all track of time and season. It's true. If my crash writing episode happened to fall during a season change, I was as confused as a bear after his first hibernation session. You go to sleep and it's fall, and you wake up, and the crocus buds are poking out of the snow. (Not that we have snow down here in Georgia, but you know what I mean.)

2) My spoken language skills have regressed to grunts and moans. It's as though I'd drained all language skills into my writing. Even a two-word sentence that sounds anything more complicated than "Me want" is often beyond me at times like that.

3) I get the mother of all colds. Doesn't matter that I haven't been around human beings besides immediate family for the better part of a month; the first day I venture out into the world, it's as though I was Bubble Boy and the bubble burst. It must have something to do with stress and the immune system.

4) I never want to see a computer again. OK, this is short-lived, but for a day or so, the urge to surf the web or tweet or do ANYTHING that remotely involves a keyboard? It's dead, dead, dead.

5) After 48 hours, the relief I feel at finishing turns into euphoria and a huge burst of self-confidence. I'm at my mountain-top, shouting, "Huzzah!" (Yes, I know, that's so not a cool exclamation, but I've always wanted to say it.)

So it's okay, my NaNo friends, if you grunt with surprise at the lack of leaves, and you wave your hand in the general direction of the Kleenex box. I'll know exactly what you mean.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nope, the printed word's not doomed


Technology is terrific, isn’t it? At least when it works.

I don’t have much time to read these days, at least not the “sitting down and turning the pages of a book” kind of reading. That’s hard for a girl like me, who used to scarf down three or four or even five books a week back when life was saner.
As a kid, I’d always read at least two books at a time – that way, if Mama confiscated one book when she caught me reading instead of doing my chores, then I’d have a back-up. I also learned, by sheer necessity, that if I were going to read at my house, I needed to speed read.

But even speed readers need time to finish a book. Way back when my to-do list started pushing my reading time out the window, I realized that I was cranky and grouchy and just plain hard to live with when I didn’t ingest the printed word.
So I picked up an audio book from the library to listen to in my car. Back then, the books were on cassette tapes (yes, I do realize that tells you that I am old enough to have driven a car with a cassette tape deck.) It took me a little while to get used to the weird transition of having someone read to you – it’s not as passive as TV, but I did miss the interaction with the printed word.

But at least I was “reading” after a sort, and doing it during a time when I wasn’t accomplishing much else. I hung on through bad narrators and shredded tapes, because at last I was getting my “fix.”

Fast-forward through CDs – much better than cassette tapes – and onto to the lovely, lovely leap of an iPod and free downloads from the library. No more CDs to worry about, no more having to leave the story’s characters hanging off a cliff – now I could just unhook my iPod and take it in with me, to listen to while I folded clothes or cooked supper or vacuumed. (Ha, you say, that’s a lie, because we know you hate to vacuum.)

I’d noticed though that sometimes in the downloading, though, that the last little bit of a chapter would get chopped off. No problem. I could usually figure out the last little bit as I listened to the first part of the next chapter.
But then I outlasted my odds. I came to the end of a book, and bam! The last little bit, when I was supposed to find out whether the guy was going to get the girl, it was all gone.

That just about drove me crazy. Still, I can’t knock the fact that I’ve gotten loads of good books – complete books with no glitches – downloaded from the library. I guess, though, that tells me that the printed book will never die, as at least it doesn’t require batteries and the page isn’t dependent on kilobytes cooperating.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not Dead, Just Buried


Nope. I'm not dead. Just buried.

I know the blog-stage has been darkened for a bit, and this is not even a proper blog post in and of itself.

But it's been a crazy roller coaster ride, what with me getting used to the new dayjob, and the holidays, and trying to find my way.

We've all got the same 24 hours in a day. We may not have the same amount of money, we may not have the same amount of talent, but we've ALL had EXACTLY 24 hours in the past day. That being the case, I'm really wondering what I blew my 24 hours on, because I honestly can't see that I've done much besides survive.

Sometimes, though, you get a gold star for just surviving, just treading water until the Coast Guard can scoop you out of the murky deep. And that's how I've felt lately. Sooner or later, though, just surviving isn't enough.

I read something once that made me realize how useful priorities were in making life decisions, no matter what those decisions involved: family, money, time, stuff. I believe it was a Dr. Phil book.

I'll roughly paraphrase here: say you wanted to go to Miami, and you started from DC. You're tooling down the interstate, and you take a wrong turn. Instead of going down I-95, now you're heading west. You go about two miles down that road, realize what you've done, and say, "Self, I've got to turn around."

Now a flashback to your dreaded word problems in math class. Just how far off course have you strayed? Nope, it's not just the two miles ... it's the two miles down the wrong road, the two miles back to the initial wrong turn, and the fact that you could be at least four miles further along your path and closer to your goal if you hadn't made the wrong turn in the first place.

The thing about priorities is that they make you ask this question: Is this choice leading me closer to my goal? Or further away?

Theoretically in a perfect world, we'd never choose a priority that takes us away from our goal. But we aren't computers. We don't make calculated choices. Our choices are steeped in emotion -- which is not all bad. We don't even, sometimes, recognize that whatever the choice is DOES affect our priorities.

But it's back to those 24 hours in a day. Like my "stuff" in my closets, only so much can be jammed into those 24 hours. I have to figure out what I want to get accomplished long-term. And then I have to be disciplined about using my time wisely.

That's what I'm doing now -- my brain is busy cogitating the top three things I want to get accomplished in the next year. After that, I'll be able to give a flint-hearted, cold-eyed stare to a decision and say, "Yup, that's gonna help me get there," or "Nope, that's taking me west when I wanna go south."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fore!


I'm tossing again.

Back when I first started claiming home office expenses related to my writing on my income tax, I had a lightbulb moment of why my house was so cluttered. In order to claim expenses, you have to provide what proportion of your home office is of your total heated square footage, right?

So I did. And I was aghast to find out that my heated square footage was about 1, 100 square feet. No wonder I was walking around piles of stuff with no home. I joked with The Husband that I had 3,300 square feet of junk crammed in 1,100 square feet.

Maybe we don't have quite 3,300 square feet of junk, but we have way too much stuff for such a little house. So since then, I've been going through spells of decluttering, with the hope of one day getting down to a Zen-like bareness.

To that end, I checked out a book from the library called IT'S ALL TOO MUCH, by my hero of decluttering, Peter Walsh, the guy from CLEAN SWEEP.

It's more of the same message -- you can't put three cubic feet of junk into one cubic foot of space -- but I like the way Walsh puts it. Sometimes I'm so dense that I have to hear the same message in about a million different permutations before it really sinks in.

His big push is that form should follow function. A person or family should decide what the mission is for a particular space, and then subtract out everything that doesn't promote that mission.

It was so basic and fundamental a principle that I put the book down and tackled the top of my bureau, a no-man's land of stuff that didn't really have a home. And I thought, as I did it, about life and writing.

Why is it that we tolerate so much clutter in our lives -- not just real, physical clutter, but "issue-type" clutter? We tip-toe around it and make what my mom used to refer to as "pig-paths" around the heaps. We can't do A because someone's feelings might get hurt, and we can't accomplish B until we accomplish A. We need X, but first we have to stop doing Y, just so we'll have the money or the time or the space for it.

Same thing in writing: it was such a lightbulb moment, a better way to look at it than the "kill your darlings" old saw that writing teachers always talk about. Instead of looking at your darlings, or as Peter Walsh calls clutter, your stuff, look at what you want to accomplish. What's keeping you from it?

So hopefully from now on, as I'm writing a scene or a chapter or a book, I can look at the purpose of a scene, the mission of it. What's that purpose? What am I hoping to accomplish? What do I need to get rid of to make that path clear?

In the meantime, I am back on the tossing wagon at home, so if you're hanging around my house, consider yourselves ordered to duck!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beyond perfection


The Kiddo has a Perfection Complex. I know this because I have to avert potential thermo-nuclear meltdowns on more occasions than I would like. She thinks she needs to make a 100 on every test. She thinks her hair has to be perfectly straight and glossy every day. She thinks her clothes need to match not only in color, but also to the exact temperature of recess -- never mind that recess is clocking in at 72 degrees, while school drop-off is clocking in at 39 degrees.

I swear, we don't push her. We don't nag. We don't even fuss. We don't have to. She beats herself up far more severely than we ever could.

But her perfection complex is not completely value-less for me. It provides me with a continual life lesson for me and my life and my writing.

When I was in middle school, I never worried about grades. I got what I got, which except for math were usually pretty good, at least a solid B.

Then a fateful moment occurred. A fellow student who had eeked out an A- was bewailing her grade. I glanced from the 83 or so that I'd scored on the same test and asked what the big deal was.

"My mama says that an A- is nearly a B, and a B- is nearly a C!" she explained.

I looked aghast at my 83, which was indeed numerically cheek-to-jowl with a C+. Quietly I folded my paper, tucked it in my messy book bag and vowed never again to have a B, save for math which came with a lifetime exclusion from any such blood oaths.

Fast-forward to high school. By then, even with a C in math (hey, that was a miracle for me, believe me!), I was making honor roll. Most of my grades were in the mid-90s.

That memory of the lowly station of an A minus, though, haunted me. If A minus was cheek-to-jowl with a B, then a 95, was neighbors with an A minus. That would not do.

My grade inflation slowly ratcheted upward, where no grade below a 98 in any subject save math would satisfy me. Oh, yes, I know. I was a tightly wound child.

It was college that saved me -- a psychology lecture on the Bell Curve. Suddenly I realized that statistically I was an aberration. Most people would fall within that heretofore hated C grade.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. No, I didn't start slacking and earning C's. But I stopped beating myself up about it so badly.

That's why seeing The Kiddo go down this same road is so painful for me -- especially when she started down it so much earlier than me.

Writers in particular can be just as severe on themselves. They kick and scream and wad up paper and let their internal editors convince them that any word they put to paper or commit to kilobytes is worthless.

Remember this, however. For most of the world, the prospect of writing a brief note to a teacher or a boss is only slightly less terrifying than having to speak in front of people. If you are a writer -- even a greenhorn newbie who still leans on adverbs and the passive tense -- you are already head and shoulders above most of the world.

So I give you the same advice that I give The Kiddo and myself: be kind to yourself. Be forgiving. Cut yourself a little slack. If you're doing the best that you can, it's all you can do ... and all anybody can expect of you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Unfathomable attraction


So just what IS the attraction of the UnDead?

Vampires and zombies have been so common for these past few years on deal announcements for book sales that I know someone out there thinks they're sexy -- lots and lots of someones, actually. My hat's off to any writers who can pull it off, that transformation of stinky zombies with falling off body parts or blood-sucking bats with legs into the guy you'd just die (pardon the pun, I just couldn't resist) to have a date with.

When I first started seeing the announcements, I thought, "Hmm, this is the new chick-lit fad." But vamps and the zombies that followed closely on the tails of their sexy black capes have hung around a lot longer than lattes, high heels and gripes about the workplace.

It's not that I'm judgmental. No, not at all. It's kind of like the "yawn" I feel when I see the blond-haired surfer god that some of my friends would drool over. Give me Pierce Brosnan over the newish James Bond fellow any old day.

Same thing with the UnDead. I simply cannot wrap my head around a concept like loving up on a dead-ish body, at least not long enough to suspend my disbelief and get into a book to give it a fair shake.

All of which makes this an amazingly good thing that I am not an editor -- boy, the sales I would have missed these past few years. And it seems that vamps and zombies have taken hold of the general population's consciousness, kind of like great white sharks did back in the JAWS days. For instance, a digital traffic sign in Arizona was reprogrammed by a zombie lover recently to warn, "Caution, Zombies Ahead."

I am reminded about the wisdom a furniture store owner shared with my parental units many years ago, about how he chose his inventory. "I pick a quarter of what I absolutely love, a quarter of what I absolutely despise, and the rest?" he said. "It's stuff I feel 'meh' about."

If editors chose it the same way, then they've certainly hit the jackpot with vampires and zombies ... and I would appreciate anyone who could educate me on the finer points of what makes the UnDead irresistable.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Forward, MARCH


Lots of folks are hopping on the NANO bandwagon this month, and I wish them well. The whole spirit of NANO is to write a novel (or at least a good start) during the month of November, which requires you to fire your internal editor (or at least give her a month-long vacation if she's like my internal editor and won't be fired).

I've written the first draft of a novel in a month -- a full length, 80K word novel, so I know it can be done. Frequently the best approach for me in writing IS to write in a blitzkrieg session, getting it all done down in a month. Only then do I go back and tear it apart and revise it.

This month, though, it just doesn't seem doable, so I'm standing on the wharf, waving goodbye to all those aboard the NANO ship. I wish them bon voyage, but, what with a new dayjob and getting settled into a new dayjob schedule, I've just got too much baggage to go trucking across the gangway onto Good Ship NANO this year.

Still, I highly recommend it. Even if you can't do NANO in November, with the rest of the nation, take a look at your calendar, pick the least busy month (preferably one with 31 days), and set that aside for YOUR NANO.

The thing about writing, the thing that I've experienced first hand many times, is that the process of writing a novel bears a striking resemblance to walking in thigh-deep muck. As long as you keep moving, you're fine. The going can be slow, your steps frequently inelegant, but progress is assured.

Stop, though, and you sink. What's more, the mud locks you in a body cast sometimes so tightly that not even Houdini could break free.

I experienced that with every single novel I started way back before I finished my first one. I'd get to a place where I was full of doubt about where to go next, and I'd stop -- usually about Chapter Three. There, my poor project would die a death of starvation and neglect.

I'm not saying I march through the muck all the time now. In fact, I feel that muck clinging to me just now, as I've had to stop writing to adjust schedules and routines with this new dayjob. Maybe then, I'm preaching more to me than you.

Whatever the case, I know if I'm struggling with something, at least one other writer is also battling the same demon (those demons are fantastic multi-taskers.). My faint hope? That it will be of some use to you, O Struggling Writer, that I, too, have to point a stern finger at myself on occasion and bark, "Forward, MARCH!"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Money, Money, Money


The one thing The Kiddo loves more than spending money? That would be making money.

The Kiddo has always been a saver, and a strategic spender: she spends other people’s money and saves her own. She’s probably got a career in politics ahead of her, no?

Her usual standard operating procedure is to put most of her money in the bank, while leaving a little mad money in her piggy bank at home. But sometimes the piggy bank oinks out a red alert signal.

Such is this case this weekend. The Kiddo wound up falling in love with one of the new “jelly” watches that all the kids are just in love with. It’s a great big man-sized watch, encrusted with rhinestones and graced with a red and black rubberized “jelly” band. She picked red and black because, unlike her dad, The Kiddo likes the Georgia Bulldogs … but she was quick to point out that it was our high school’s team colors, too.

The only problem with her watch (besides the fact that I say red and black DON’T go with everything) was that it absorbed all of her mad money. That being the case, The Kiddo quickly launched a fund-raising campaign.

Before breakfast on Sunday morning, the child had already drafted a menu of awesome opportunities, designed to part pocket change from whomever might wander past. Examples?

Well, she’d sweep three rooms (no carpet, as she hates to vacuum) for 50 cents, six for a buck. She’d trade five minutes of raking leaves for three dollars (she hates raking leaves almost as much as she hates to vacuum.)

A back or shoulder rub for a minute and a half (strictly timed) would set you back just two thin dimes – and she hooked you with free five second samples. Do you have only a dime to spare? No problem. She’d write you a very short story for just ten cents.

If you were of the female persuasion, you could have your toenails and fingernails painted for just 20 cents – you can tell that she likes painting nails, right?

The artistic stuff was the high priced items. She’ll draw a picture of your face for a dollar, and even two people for the same price. But if you wanted your wiggly pet tarantula in for a portrait with you? That will be a buck and a half, thank you very much.

I remember doing much the same when I was her age. I wonder if my mom and dad got as much of a kick out of it as I did when The Kiddo approached me with her first five-second free shoulder rub sample.

So far, she’s got a quarter out of me … that would be for the blue-light special shoulder rub she gave me – 50 seconds of pure bliss for the princely sum of 25 cents. I hope as she goes through life, she won’t forget her willingness to work hard to earn money – and to realize that some things are so fun (those fingernails and toenails, again) that they don’t even seem like work.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Times, they are a changin'


Except for the early dark evenings, I never mind saying goodbye to Daylight Savings Time, especially not this year.

Not only did I get an extra hour of sleep (or goofing-off time, actually, as I didn’t REALLY sleep), but this year, because Standard Time starts so late, it’s barely more than a month before the days start getting longer.

I’ve long had a running feud with the otherwise sensible Benjamin Franklin – or his ghost, more accurately – because he decided that fiddling with the clock would make us think we had more time.

Maybe back in the day when the sun ruled the way people lived, Franklin’s idea would have merit. But now? With Wal-Marts open 24/7? And each Wal-Mart having more lights than two or three football fields? Nope. Thomas Edison’s light bulb made Daylight Savings Time pretty much useless.

In years past, the time change was not something that netted a whole lot of discussion from The Kiddo. She just took it at face value that the grown-ups in the household knew what they were doing.

This year, no such credit was extended. The Kiddo needed an in-depth explanation about what the time-change was all about, why we did it, how we knew when to do it, who told us what time we should set our clocks to … in other words, the works. She sounded a lot like she does in the backseat whenever I’m mumbling about where I should turn if I’m in an unfamiliar area. Her question then is, “Mommy, are you sure you’re not lost?”

Getting to stay up an hour later did mollify her a bit Saturday night. Still, she kept stopping in her playing and coming to ask me, “Now, the reason I can do this is because of the time-change, right?” It was again as though she didn’t quite trust the grown-ups in the household to get the rules right.

I let her stay up because I knew that the Sunday morning after we bid adieu to Daylight Savings Time is the only morning that I ever wake up early, night owl that I am. I wanted her to sleep in, in the vain hope that if I did wake up, nothing would keep me from rolling over and indulging in a little lie-in. After all, it’s the only day of the year that I can honestly escape being called a slug-a-bed for sleeping late.

Indeed, I did wake up early, the early light bright and shining on my face at 6:45. The Kiddo slept like the log she was impersonating and seemed quite disappointed that the whole time-change ordeal had gone by painlessly for her.
Over our Sunday morning pancakes, she scrunched up her face and asked, “So Mommy, when do we get the REAL time back?”

Leave it to The Kiddo to think of Daylight Savings Time as the “real” time.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Cold and writing do not mix


Let’s face it. I am strictly a sub-tropical variety.

I thrive under conditions with balmy weather, with temps hovering around the 85 degree mark, clear skies, white puffy clouds, and the gentlest warm breeze (I don’t like drafts at ALL.)

Any hotter, and I can tolerate it. Not happily, but I can tolerate it.

Any colder? Forget it. My feet turn into size 4 foot-shaped ice blocks. Forget that old wives tale about keeping warm if you keep your head covered. Me? I must have warm feet to feel any smidge of metabolic activity.

And if it’s below the mid 50s, with a gray sky and a chill wind? I start exhibiting definite signs of hypothermia.

My intolerance to cold has generated all sorts of responses over the years, from the mild eye-roll to the gnashing of teeth as my own teeth chattering disturbs someone in their peaceful enjoyment of the thermostat set on 68 degrees in the summer time. In my previous dayjob, I always took a big ugly fleece jacket that I zipped over whatever suit blazer I was wearing. The hideous thing evoked all sorts of teasing, as I wore it year-round: indoor climes of hot-natured office staff generally hover in the mid to upper 60s.

The Husband and The Kiddo are both hot-natured, and I have learned how to wrap up just short of looking like a mummy in order to survive their ceiling fans and preferred chilly temps.

When it comes to writing, it’s almost impossible to think creatively while one is shaking uncontrollably. So as I wrote the book that wound up being my first sale, I would wrap up in warm fuzzy socks and a big old jacket that The Sister had accidentally left at my house.

But then my computer became so old that I couldn’t upgrade the browser any more, and I moved operations to my laptop and my bedroom. There, ensconced in layers of warm fluffy blankets, I wrote in comfort. Not so for The Husband, as the light from the screen kept him awake.

So I cleaned out the office of all the detritus that had landed there upon my abandonment, and it’s a great place to write. Except for my cold feet. And my cold body.

I’m now in the midst of plotting the stealthy retrieval of the aforementioned big old jacket from The Sister’s house, because it was warm enough to thaw my brain, but light enough in weight to allow me more freedom of movement than a mummy, and of course, it also led to a sale. The combo of warmth and good luck is hard to beat!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Lies our English teachers told us


We writers learned from an early age to revere our English teachers. After all, our English teacher was the one teacher we could count on to beam at approval when presented with our work.

I for one couldn’t count on that during, say, algebra, or ye gads, chemistry. My history teacher gave essay exams, so I could count on a beam on occasion from him, provided I didn’t confuse any dates. My high school Spanish class was the last class of the day, in a room with no air conditioning. That, combined with the sedative effect of conjugating irregular verbs, lulled me into a slumber so many times Senora sent a note home, so no smiles there.

But my English teacher … ah, I could count on her. When everyone else groaned about essays and themes, I hid a secret smile. When the rest of the class seemed completely flummoxed at the prospect of diagramming sentences, I could diagram a compound/complex sentence complete with gerund phrases and appositions.

So it is with a heavy heart that I tell you the truth. Many English teachers lie. Well, not lie, exactly, but certainly teach you habits that don’t translate into marketable fiction. And no, I’m not talking about how they crooned over THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE as a wonderful example of literature.

Thus follows a list – not a comprehensive one, but a good start – on the lies your English teacher (may) have told you.

Never write a fragment. This sounds like a wonderful command that should always be obeyed. However, try writing dialogue in complete sentences, and at once you’ll discover that your characters sound like stuffed shirts. Even in the narrative, a judicious use of a fragment is sometimes required.

Never end a sentence with a preposition. You remember the old grammarian’s favorite comeback after you ask, “Where’s something at?” She will (and I confess, I do this, too) invariably snap, “Behind the at!” and then cackle maniacally. But such a rule leads to some mighty convoluted wordsmithing. For instance, your character is asking, “Which bin should I put this in?” and suddenly, from the dusty recesses of your brain, you remember Mrs. English rapping her ruler at such a question and correcting with, “In which bin should I put this?” Like I said, you listen to Grammar Grouch and your characters will sound like stuffed shirts.

Adverbs are our friends. If there was one thing I wish my English teacher had told me, it was that the exact opposite is true. She had the right idea, of course: we need to use description and crisp imagery. But the beams that I got from Mrs. English came in response to essays and compositions larded with the hateful –ly family. I had no idea, when I first started writing toward publication, that adverbs were inferior crutches used to prop up lazy verbs.

So there you have it, just a few of the misguided notions that English teachers might possibly have let slip over the years. Yes, they were technically correct, but alas, when it comes to fiction writing, sometimes you have to bend the rules.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Honey-darlin' and other atrocities


One thing I had to get used to when I was writing for the Non-Southern World?

Having my characters call each other by name.

I know. For you Above-the-Mason-Dixon-Line folks, this sounds kind of weird. But we Southerners don't always refer to each other by name. In fact, about the only time we do is when we want to indicate that little Sarah Mary-Kate Johnson or William Joseph Baines (usually referred to as Billy Joe), is in hot water up to their eyelashes.

The rest of the time? Lord bless us, but we fall back on endearments.

Each Southerner, you'll find, has his or her particular pet "fill-name" for anybody younger than 16 or so -- and sometimes younger than 60. (Hey, when you get to be a certain age, you experience a lot of those "Some-timers" moments.) A common one in the south is Sugar.

We get teased about this quite a bit, us calling every man, woman and child "Sugar." But down here, it's an efficiency method, not meant to be sexist or insulting. We can concentrate on what you're actually saying, rather than trying to frantically recall just what your name is.

You have to remember that, at the same time we're carrying on this conversation with you, we're also juggling a double-handful of etiquette rules and regulations. For instance, most every conversation requires some reference to a person's mama, and how she's doing, which requires us to recall at an instant whether (a) someone's mama is actually still on this earth and (b) whether the person is currently on speaking terms with her mama (in the south, never a given, although we do revere our mamas).

This is generally covered by another short-cut, a simple question of, "How are all the folks doing?" Such a short-cut can backfire, as in the situations where we are treated to the wholesale discussion of someone's horrid sister-in-law's daughter's antics and Great Aunt Mabel's hemorrhoid surgery. It can even touch on how Buster, Big Willie Joe's bird dog, is sorrowing away since Big Willie Joe has had to take a night shift job and is no longer able to go bird hunting.

When you start bumping around someone's family tree, the limbs of said tree are apt to knock you a bit loopy. Thus, rather than accidentally insulting someone by calling her the wrong name (God forbid the dreaded sister-in-law), we just resort to Sugar.

I could have sworn I didn't use this method, that I never called anybody by a nickname that hadn't been earned by some cute little action he or she'd done while still in diapers. However, in the wake of my classroom volunteer experience, I was dished up a nice plate of crow.

Nope, I didn't call all the little people "Sugar." I called them "Sweetie." Boy, girl, or spotted giraffe, didn't matter. They were all Sweetie to me.

And I understood then the use of such an endearment, either Sugar or Sweetie or some other similar name (I've been called Honey, Darlin', Sweetie-Pie, and even Sugar-Foot, and those are just the ones I can easily remember). It wasn't just a memory device. It was another time-saver, a contraction of language.

What we might start out saying would be: "Be sweet as sugar and do X, Y, or Z for me." We Southerners have all heard that from our mamas or our grandmothers or some person acting in a parental way. Pretty soon, as slow as we talk, that got to be way too time-consuming, and it was truncated to: "Sugar, would you ..."

Translated? That meant, I'm going to assume you're going to be sweet as sugar and do X, Y, or Z, and if I call you that, you'll hopefully live up to your name. Since Southerners are always asking people to do something for them (not commanding or demanding), and since we're always juggling an arcane set of rules and regulations about social deportment, the use of the blanket endearment was born.

Back to my problems with writing. I went to the Wal-Mart School of Dialogue, where I soaked up dialogue and regurgitated it on the page. That gave me authentic Southern dialogue, complete with all the honeys and darlin's and sugarfoots that people might (and did) insert into their conversations.

Of course, when non-southerners like my critique partner Tawna Fenske or my editor would read such lovely appellations, they recoiled in horror. How COULD I allow my hero to be so sexist as to refer to my heroine as "darlin'" or "honey" or "sugar?"

It took awhile, but I learned that (a) either Non-Southerners have the thinnest skins in the known world, or (b) we Southerners, for all our hospitality, can be a bit dunderheaded. Since I"m Southern, I'll just blame myself and do a search and destroy with Word's find command on all my "sugars" and "darlin's" and any combination there-to.

Monday, November 01, 2010

First Day Jitters


I write this BEFORE my big day ... my very first day of my new dayjob, after I've been out of a dayjob since August. I cannot tell a lie: I'm a puddle of nervous jelly.

Firsts are always hard for me. I always dreaded the first day of school, the first day on a job, the first time I had to do anything new by myself. Over the years, I've made a conscious effort to turn that negative energy into something more positive. Sometimes it works and sometimes, well, it doesn't.

Authors have a lot of firsts, just like anybody else. I still remember the weeks following my first sale -- I was a complete noodly wreck when it came to how I should approach something as simple as a talk with my editor. Should I call her? Should I email her? If I called her, was first thing in the morning better, or should I wait until after lunch?

No worries -- my editor turned out to be a complete doll who exchanged emails and jokes and was just the absolute dream editor a newbie writer could have ever wanted. I've been really blessed that both the editors I've worked under were open to me calling them up and saying, "Uh, dumb question, buuuut ..."

Then of course came a whole series of firsts: my first book on the shelves, my first book signing, my first book club talk, my first you-name-it. I got myself through those "firsts" by telling myself it wouldn't all be fresh and new the next time, that I would know what the heck I was doing.

Errrr ... not true. Everything changes. And everything stays the same. That feeling of nervous jelly -- the idea that you are a complete and total fraud and that if your editor/publisher/readers ever take a good look at you, they'll figure it out? Well, it's a friend for life -- or maybe I should better classify it as a long-lost relative that attaches itself to you and won't shake loose. It's you -- but not you, if you know what I mean.

The one thing that I've learned over the years is that "firsts" of anything are just plain nerve-wracking. Knowing that, I give myself lots of prep time, so I won't do what I did on my first day of teaching 20 ga-jillion years ago -- leave the house without brushing my teeth. Yep. I forgot to brush my teeth. Lucky for me, it was just pre-planning, so the only people I subjected to Gorilla Breath (freshened with Doublemint gum bought in a hurry at a convenience store) were my fellow teachers.

I'm hoping that my first day, which I'm experiencing as you read this, turns out okay. And I'm SURE hoping that I remembered to brush my chompers.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Welcome to the bouncy season


And so begins the “bouncey” season.

The Kiddo came home this Friday before Halloween with a sackful of candy and a wiggly body bouncing with excitement. It wasn’t just the wind-up of Red Ribbon Week (with its opportunities for her to go to school as a rock princess and a scary witch), but Halloween.

Halloween officially kicks off the holidays – and it gives the carte blanche to kids everywhere to eat tons of candy from then until the last Valentine’s Day sucker is gone. I swear, retailers have gone in league with dentists, and between the two have created a Faustian pact.

Even though I let The Kiddo eat her fill of candy for the first 48 hours after Halloween, and I dole out small judicious amounts every day after that, we never seem to get finished with the Halloween candy until just in time for Christmas – which brings more candy. We don’t get through with THAT candy until Valentine’s Day … and that supply lasts us until Easter. You get the picture. Summer is about the only time her poor tooth enamel gets a break (uh, no pun intended).

But the excitement is more than sucrose-based. Halloween also signals that Christmas is coming at us with the unforgiving speed of one of those oncoming locomotives in math word problems. The Kiddo realizes that she has to make the very big, very important gift decision: what is the one BIG gift she wants for Christmas?

Oh, just so many reasons to bounce.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of knowing a woman who had all her Christmas shopping done by Halloween. (No, she is still alive and well as far as I know. I did NOT dispatch this paragon of virtue to the great Boutique in The Sky.)

Me? Christmas shopping? Isn’t that something to be done after Thanksgiving? You’re not considered a slacker unless you’re in Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve buying something besides batteries, right?

But I have learned that if I don’t take advantage of all The Kiddo’s excess energy, and focus it with laser-like precision onto the one gift she might like, she’s going to be bouncing from one big gift idea to another all the way up to Christmas Eve. And we all know that Santa’s elves need some lead time to get those special orders onto the sleigh.

So even though it’s not even Thanksgiving, and my body is resisting all impulses to the contrary, Christmas-time, it is a-coming. That being the case, I’m geared up for the bounces.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Different (can be/is/might not be) good


Back when I was teaching a million years ago, I had this cute little poster (that has long since gone the way of Goodwill), with a group of stodgy penguins standing apart from one obviously doing-a-jig penguin in a loosely tied, striped necktie. The caption? I just gotta be me.

I thought about that this morning as I sent off The Kiddo to school. It's Red Ribbon Week, a week dedicated to teaching drug abuse awareness and helping kids hopefully make the right choice. Each day, the kids can dress up as something ... today it was Dress Like a Rocker and Rock Out to a Drug Free Life.

All weekend, The Kiddo has been planning her outfit. She's been looking up (with my help, of course) pictures of Madonna and the girl-bands of the 1980s. She was thrilled with her ensemble -- black glittery leggings, a hot pink tank-top - black net tutu skirt combo, gobs of jewelry, her hair twigged up in a Bam-Bam ponytail and decorated with a long glittery scarf. I even helped her finish off the ensemble with a plenteous amount of purple eyeshadow.

(And no, I didn't get a picture. Had to do the makeup and the hair and that meant we were lucky to get out the door on time. I'm praying that I can get one this afternoon.)

But when we pulled up to the school, The Kiddo hesitated. Most of the kids she saw climbing out of cars were wearing the usual kid-camo of tee-shirts, hoodies and jeans. "Mommy, are you sure it's rocker day?" she asked.

"Yep."

A long silence ensued from the back seat. Finally, in a very quiet voice, she announced, "I'm gonna wait to see if anybody else is dressed up."

A backwards look into my own experience of these particular types of dress up days told me that the tardy bell might ring before she saw another kid with her daring. "I tell you what," I told her. "If you get in there, and you are the only one dressed up, you can always call me and I'll bring you a change of clothes."

That was enough of a guarantee. She hopped out of the car and headed up the walk to the door. It's 9:11 as I write this, and so far, my cell phone and the house phone has remained silent. I think I'm past the danger point.

What does all that have to do with writing, or for living, for that matter?

Different can be/is/might not be good.

Take your choice, because every permutation of that sentence is spot-on true. We writers want to know the exact "rules" of a genre or a sub-genre -- the exact mix of romance to mystery in a romantic suspense, the right time-span between The Meet and The First Kiss in a romance, the proper amount of sizzle in an inspirational, the maximum amount of tell we can have before we're no longer showing, the genre that is selling now, so no agent or editor will immediately single our way-too-different query out and file it in the round file.

Like The Kiddo, we want to blend. We want to swim along in schools of similarly-colored fish so that we don't stick out. And while that camo will protect us from getting laughed at by agents and editors and the publishing biz, it also keeps us hidden from agents and editors and the publishing biz.

It's the old saw about risk: the risks are in direct proportion to the rewards. Your way-out-there idea? Yeah, it might get laughed out of an agent's office -- maybe even fifty agents' offices. But then again? It might be the Next Big Idea.

So rocker-up, like The Kiddo did this morning. Go on out there and dare to be different. Just make sure your mom's at home and able to bring you a change of clothes if worst comes to worst.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A-Mazed


This weekend, I spat in the face of my directionally-challenged self. So what if I can't tell north from south, if you don't even have to spin me around to disorient me? I didn't care. The Kiddo wanted to go in a corn maze, and I was going to take her.

Admittedly, the first maze of the afternoon set me up for some false confidence. It was easy-peasy, whereas the Phase 2 Maze was anything but. Filled with dead-ends and endless loops, the maze led us around our elbow to get to our nose.

But the sun was high, and way above the corn stalks were scaffold platforms with event staff making sure nobody got terribly lost, so we soldiered on.

I thought about a lot of things while we plowed through the trails in our very slow trek through the maze. I thought about what a terrible lab rat I'd make. I thought about aliens and Mel Gibson and crop circles. I thought about what a fabulous setting a corn maze would make for a television show like CRIMINAL MINDS, where a killer lurked in one of the dead-ends of the maze. (You can tell, can't you, that my claustrophobia was setting in toward the end, huh?)

But mostly I thought about something I've long been convinced of. The big decisions in our life are pretty much already decided by the time we get there. No, I'm not talking about pre-destination or anything like that, and I truly believe that no matter where you are in life, you can do a 180 and go the other way.

Still, every turn that carried me deeper into that corn maze was preceded by a turn before that one. And it's like that in life. The little decisions I make, decisions like, "Oh, I won't write tonight," or "I'll write that errand on my to-do list later," well, those are the very decisions that make the big decision ahead of me almost a fait accompli.

For instance, say I choose to NOT write an errand down on my list, thinking that surely I'll remember it. But of course I don't, and then at the last minute, I have to do it in a very inconvenient, inefficient way. That in turn steals the tiny sliver of time I have to write, which then puts me further behind on my goal to finish the current project.

Before we enter the Big Rat Race called Life, then, we need to think like a well-educated lab rat. What do we want? The cheese, of course. And when do we want it? ASAP. That being the case, whatever our priorities in life are -- and for me, that's my family and my writing -- we need to be single-minded and let every decision guide us closer to those things.

How do you handle life's little decisions? Do they stack up like bricks and wall you in? Or are you able to jump over the walls they build before you're completely boxed in?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

How to make the lightbulb moment a long-lasting light source, and other lies I tell myself


My Twitter friend and fellow writer Julie Weathers asked me to join in with an impromptu blog tour about my process. I've written about my writing process before (it involves Excel spreadsheets, chapter outlines and plotting out the wazoo.)

But since I'm on a mission to achieve both World Domination and to turn the pantsers of the world into plotters, I'll wax eloquent about it all over again. I'll try to take it from a slightly different angle -- more about how I turn an idea into a workable novel that I can then rip apart.

Take for instance, the story behind WHERE LOVE GROWS, my second pubbed book. This story is just so incredible that few people actually believe it. It says something about writers that they hear it and INSTANTLY know it's true.

Writers will tell you that there's no shortage of good ideas. But really, the trick is to take those good ideas and tweak them into something unique. It doesn't have to be a totally new wheel that you invent ... just a SUPERIOR wheel to those currently in the Bedrock City Tire Emporium.

The story germinated from a single irritant, yes, like a pearl does from a grain of sand annoying a poor old oyster. The Kiddo, then three, was in love with Kenny Chesney's music, especially SHE THINKS MY TRACTOR'S SEXY. I would pick her up from daycare and she would want to hear that CD ad nauseum. Don't get me wrong: I think Kenny's a pretty cool dude ('specially from the neck down), but every day? The same CD?

Shortly before I applied hot pokers to my eyes to see if THAT torture was more entertaining, my mind made that weird leap it sometimes does.

What kind of girl would think a guy with a farmer's tan, who makes a living driving a tractor, is sexy?


My writer's mind noodled that thought through the 100-gajillion times I listened to the song. You have to admit, Chesney's lyrics will create vivid images in your mind, and already I had a vision of a few scenes called for in the song. But a farmer? As a hero?

Then, NPR ran two different stories on Morning Edition, one about this ew-inspiring leafless vine called the giant dodder vine, and the other on crop insurance scams. The dodder vine, at first, didn't do a thing for me, except make me glad I wasn't a tomato in Texas (where the dodder vine actually lives.)

But then I heard the crop insurance scam, and I thought, Hmh. That would be a neat job for a hero, a crop insurance investigator.

My brain stubbed its toe on one problem, though: male investigators were more than a little cliche.

I kept working at that problem in my head. That's how I do things: once presented with a problem, I chew on it until I get it solved.

So picture this. I'm driving in from work, The Baby Kiddo singing "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" at the top of her lungs in the back seat, the insistent beat about to drive me out of my mind. Not to mention, I'm still worrying the twin problems of how to make a male investigator un-cliched, and how to make a farmer sexy.

I pull up into the garage. The song's still playing. My brain makes another leap. "Bet that farmer was never into crop insurance fraud." It was like nuclear fission after that. Farmer - crop insurance fraud - weird vine - make the GIRL the investigator.

The big pix in place, the huge leaps leapt, I started in on my usual process. For brevity sake's I've done it as a list.

- Write a movie synop -- if it won't hold together for the few minutes long enough to tell a friend about a movie, it's doomed to fall apart like overcooked pasta left too long in a pot of warm water.

- Write a character arc synop -- this is a longer synop, one where I take the characters through their growing pains. After all, if my farmer doesn't learn and grow, just being sexy won't be satisfying for my fab female investigator. Likewise, the fab female. Spunky's fine, but it's got a short half-life.

- Write a chapter by chapter outline. No big, just a sentence or two summary of the major plot points.

I'll send these off to my CPs (Tawna Fenske, for one), and they'll poke about a thousand holes in it, and then I'll fix it, and then I'll start writing. And yeah, I pretty much DO stick with my revised chapter outline, along with my Excel spreadsheets that I use to be SURE there aren't plot holes or loose plot threads or under-done character arcs.

Why, yes. I HAVE been told I'm an anal OCD woman. Thanks for the compliment!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oh, happy day!


I have a biiiig announcement -- no, not a book deal, but something just as important to Reese Family, Inc.'s bottom line.

I. Have. A. Job. Offer.

A good one. With a good company. Making what I was making with my previous employer.

Oh, and did I tell you the BEST news? The office? It's five minutes from my house.

Of course, my REAL office would be mostly in my car, but that's something I've grown accustomed to over the years.

I HAD planned to write about how the job hunt process was remarkably similar to the Great Agent Hunt, especially after Jeffe Kennedy had announced her very interesting post today about the same thing. I trust serendipity, trust timing, and after my good news this afternoon, I can't ignore such big smoke signals in the sky. Maybe someone somehow will get some encouragement out of what I have to say.

Before I embarked on this job hunt, I hadn't actively pounded the pavement for a job since 1992, during the middle of another recession. It was hard then -- nobody would believe an ex-teacher would STAY an ex-teacher. I looked, on and off, for about a year for a job, but I was able to be picky then. I only applied for the jobs that sparked my interest.

The job changes I've had since, for the most part, were jobs that sort of fell in my lap. I never was out of work between them. And then .. boom. Right outta left field, I found myself without a job, without insurance, WITH a family who depended on me.

I cried. And I don't cry that often. The Husband says that I'm the sort of person who would join the cockroaches after thermo-nuclear war, scrabbling out from under the wreckage, saying, "OK, let's make the best of it." But this just socked me in the gut.

But like the roaches, I soldiered on. I found a job opening or two, and I read them, and I thought, "Huh. Sounds like something I could do. I'll apply." Repeat, repeat, repeat.

In the real world? No response means no for prospective employers, too. The most discouraging times were when I'd sent in my best polished resume and my best cover letter and my best list of references, and I'd wait for a call to interview ... only to have a silent phone, and a few days later, see the job posting quietly disappear from the website.

That's remarkably how it was with me pre-pubbed (or even post-pubbed) and writing. I'd think I nailed it, only to, at best, get a "meh" response.

Like Jeffe points out in her blog, the query letter is your cover letter, the resume your partial or your synop. The request for more? Well, that's the interview in job-hunting terms. And the competition? It's just as stiff. One job that I applied for had over 100 applicants -- and it had only been posted on ONE website for two weeks. I felt like a winner just getting an interview for that one.

The one thing that I kept holding onto throughout this process is the fact that so much of the time, either in writing or job-hunting, agents, publishers and prospective employers are right when they shrug and say, "It's not you, it's me." Just as I don't ever want to write for a house or an editor or an agent that feels tepid about me, I didn't want to work for someone who was just using me to fill a hole. I wanted them to love me, to feel excited about me. And if they didn't feel that way, then that wasn't where God wanted me to be. Same with you -- DON'T sell yourself short.

These folks? They like me, they really, really like me! Fingers crossed that everything works out -- for you in your publishing dreams, and for me in my prospective dayjob.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some unexpected wrinkles


You know how I blogged about straightening out my office so that I could house my laptop? Well, it's been marvelous for my work ethic -- amazing how much more business-like you feel in an upright position as opposed to a semi-horizontal one with your covers up to your chin.

But it has had one unexpected development that I didn't plan on. I now have company. Scads of it. Loads of it.

Yes, my lovely, loving family wanders in and peers over my shoulder. They share. They talk. They converse about their day. They ask me, "While you're on the computer, could you look up ..." They remind me that the water is boiled out of my beans. They remind me that the beans haven't even made it out of the freezer yet and INTO the water. They make dire predictions about the fate of the universe if I don't get up and liberate the beans from the deep freeze and plunge them into said boiling water.

In the spirit of Linda Grimes, I have done little to make things hospitable for them. The one extra chair in the room is the way station for The Kiddo's puppy blanket that we never finished, and I haven't made any effort to provide additional seating.

But that's okay. My fam, they're understanding. They bring their OWN chairs. Or they simply pull up a square of carpet.

Maybe it's the proximity of the room near the heart of the house -- kitchen as the right ventricle, living room with flat screen, left ventricle. Or maybe I just look more alert and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed sitting up at a computer.

All I DO know for certain? It's flat driving me crazy. And now that the cat has gotten into the act, well, I may be shopping for a strait-jacket sooner than I thought.

Yep, the cat. The other day, when I was blissfully alone, hard at work searching for gainful employment, in walked Max. He was not taking no for an answer. He sat by my chair. He stretched one paw and tapped on my thigh. He cleared his cat throat and gave me a polite, "me-row?" which I ignored the first dozen times. Then when I tried to take his picture, he abandoned "kitteh haz huge appetite" wide-eyed appeal, and instead went for the brass tacks -- the fierce feline stare.

With Max, that makes a full count of the household census laying siege to my sanctuary. What IS a writer to do?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad as a Hatter


Although I am mad as a hatter right now, I'd sure like me some mad hatting skills. It would get me out of a hole that I dug for myself last October.

Last year, The Kiddo dressed up as a witch for Halloween. Shortly thereafter, in a move to fend off masquerade ideas that might generate nightmares (that would be zombies, ghosts, vampires, and anything to do with spider webs) and prove to be as hard to find as her last year's witch's costume, I suggested an easier disguise: a cowgirl.

I sweetened the deal with something I knew The Kiddo wanted - boots. She really had her eye on a pair of stiletto boots that were pictured in my Cinderella of Boston's catalog. I did not totally disabuse the notion. I figured we could find her some moderately heeled boots, put her in a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, stick a straw hat on her head, and presto, a cowgirl is born.

Fast-forward to October 2010, past August and my job layoff, past September and the end of my severance pay. The witching hour was upon me, and The Kiddo reminded me of my almost (well, it seemed that way now) Faustian bargain. Boots? Gulp. Well, at least, I thought, the jeans and a shirt that would do were already hanging in her closet, and the hat should be relatively easy.

Ha.

Thanks to The Kiddo's very generous grandparents, the boot were the easiest part of the whole deal. They picked up the cutest little cowboy boots you ever did see, and -- bonus points -- the boots fit me. They'll look great with a pair of my jeans once The Kiddo outgrows them.

So I started trying to find a "cowgirl" shirt. It developed, after much time on the web with The Kiddo, that a "cowgirl" shirt was a red gingham shirt. I finally found one, for a modest ten bucks, and then The Kiddo confessed that she probably wouldn't be caught dead in it as of November 1. Retreat, rethink and forward march.

We found a tee-shirt and denim vest combo that she said she WOULD wear after November 1. I may go ahead and order the gingham shirt just in case it's cold, and then force feed her into it a couple of more times this winter just to get my Return on Investment.

Onto the easiest part of the costume, the hat.

Only, of course it wasn't. The millinery acquisition process had as many provisos and caveats and ixnays as a treaty of peace must. First of all, the hat had to be WHITE. No villain headgear for The Kiddo. And second, it couldn't just be any sort of hat. It had to be a tightly-woven straw hat that looked solid (I've since learned, along with far too many other arcane details, that such a hat is called shantung) or wool felt. Third of all, she wanted one WITHOUT sparkles but WITH discreet decoration: turquoise beads would be good, or concho shells or anything that ran the price up to obscene limits. There were also limits and provisos about the shape of the brim. AAAACK.

I can't seem to find any hat that would actually fit her beautiful little head for any price less than $20, and all the ones I've found for that garner only a thumbs down.

The Kiddo took matters into her own hands today and began googling hats. She found the perfect hat: a 35 buck hat that is exactly like the one George Strait wears. Never mind that she doesn't know George Strait from a hole in the ground -- whoever he is, The Kiddo opines, she thinks he has extremely good taste in headgear.

No, I am not buying the child a $35 hat. I might if I knew she would wear it more than once -- the boots have been a spot-on investment, as they are almost inseparable from her feet. And yes, there are some who might argue that $35 is a terrific deal on a Halloween costume. In other, flusher, economic times, I might agree.

Not now. So that means I am looking for a cowboy hat (child hat size 6 and a half) that is white or very light, that we can add some beads or turquoise or fake concho shells to, and that is very, very cheap.

Somewhere the devil is laughing at me and saying that if I'd let The Kiddo go as a mummy or a zombie, I could have used old sheets ripped into strips.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Great pictures on the radio!


Confession: For years, I was a free-loader.

I listened to Georgia Public Radio for a huge chunk of my childhood and all of my adulthood, and I never picked up the phone and called in a pledge.

And it wasn't as if I wasn't getting something out of it, either. I can't tell you how many ideas I've gotten off National Public Radio programs like All Things Considered or Morning Edition. Wait -- I can tell you one thing: the idea for my book WHERE LOVE GROWS? Yep, it came to me in a lightbulb moment after I heard two programs at two different times on NPR. One was about crop insurance fraud (who knew?) and the other was about a weird parasitic vine that had no leaves (eww! Stuff out of B-Movie plots!).

Yeah, I know, you're thinking NPR really stands for Nerdy People's Radio, and sure, you could be right. But don't turn your nose up at it before you take a listen. It's a great resource for writers.

Number one, it's got a wealth of information, and much of it is available on-line in archive format. Whether it's info to help you flesh out your research or warm and fuzzy human interest stories which give you insight into what makes people tick, NPR is terrific. I get story ideas there all the time -- the latest one after I heard a profile about a guy who works for the FDIC and comes in to take over failing banks. Did you know that bank takeovers almost always happen on a Friday? So if you see a lot of strange suits in your bank on a Friday afternoon, get really suspicious.

But more than the info, it's the delivery that will help you improve as a writer. Radio has to rely on creating word pictures, even in this digital age where you can go to the website and look at an accompanying picture. I've learned more on showing and not telling from NPR stories than almost any other kind of writing. The writers create such strong images, and I examine those images to see what makes them work. Then I try (very hard) to use those techniques in my own writing.

Back to my confession. Even with all the value that I got out of NPR -- a book deal, for gracious sakes -- I'd never plunked down my money. Don't get me wrong. I always INTENDED to. Somehow, though, I never did.

Then just before last Christmas, The Kiddo was watching GPB TV, our state's public TV station, in the morning before school when a fund-raising drive came on. Apparently, the network was short on funds because people like me sat on their hands.

The Kiddo looked up at me and said, "What's that for?" in response to the fund-raising drive. So I explained that public didn't necessarily mean free, and that it was folks like us who made it possible for her to watch CURIOUS GEORGE in the morning.

"You mean WE give them money?" she asked.

Color me embarrassed. I hemmed and hawed until she got out the basic info that I was a free-loader. And then color me twice over embarrassed because she announced:

"That's what I want for Christmas, Mommy! Can we give money to them like we give to the ASPCA?"

So I did. It wasn't much, my pittance of a donation, and this year's donation during the Fall Membership Drive wasn't much, either. But hey, when I see or hear "brought to you by viewers like you," I know that it really is me and The Kiddo who help out.

This is my state's time to do the Fall Membership Drive. So be better than me and don't be a free-loader. Go to GPB's website (or your own public radio/TV network) and give what you can. Who knows? What you hear on NPR might give you the idea that will turn into a sold book!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A whole lotta ma'ams and sirs


My friend Tawna Fenske just does not understand the importance of adding "ma'am" or "sir" to yes or no. She, being the Yankee she is (okay, Pacific Northwesterner, but anybody above Virginia can technically be called a Yankee) sort of thinks it is an insult.

Yankee-types do this, making the wrong-headed assumption that being told "ma'am" is the equivalent of being carded in the chain drug store where you've sneaked to buy your beer or liquor on the faint hope that the other Baptists won't see you buying fermented fruit of the vine (or hops.) They think either being carded or being addressed as "ma'am" is a slight to one's age.

They couldn't be further from the truth. In the South, we have highly complex rules of "ma'ams" and "sirs." The rules are so convoluted that it's hard for me to pick them apart to instruct my wonderful Yankee friends all the ins and outs, rather like a native of Beijing trying to explain the Chinese culture to round-eyes.

So here goes my feeble attempt. Proper Southerners say "ma'am" or "sir" when:

You're addressing anybody that is obviously more than 18 and at least five years your senior. (Oh, pooh, you can tell. And if someone isn't quite at the five-year mark, they'll blush and say, "Aw, you don't have to call me ma'am!" You cease and desist, and no harm done.)

You're addressing your parents, even if (the shock of it!) said parent isn't quite 18 yet.

You're addressing your parents' parents, your parents' neighbors, your parents' boss, or anyone who bends down from the waist, cracks a fake smile and asks, "Well, sonny, how old are you?"

You're addressing someone in authority, even if said person is younger than you. By authority, I mean anyone who can make your life even temporarily miserable by saying no or yes when you strongly desire the opposite answer. That includes the return clerk at Wal-Mart, the whipper-snapper state trooper with not a hair of fuzz on his face, or the painted-up tart in the government office.

You're addressing a teacher -- whether it's yours or your child's or even your child's child, even if she's wearing blue jeans, T-shirt, and flip flops and has some mighty weird new-fangled ideas from that teacher college she went off to.

You're addressing a person who might possibly be giving you money for a good or a service. (So yes, it is feasible that you could say "yes, ma'am" to a clerk, and the clerk could say, "yes, ma'am" right back at you, and nobody would go away offended.)

You're addressing someone who is clearly better educated than you are.

You're addressing someone who is clearly LESS educated than you are.

You're addressing a preacher or his wife. Assistant pastors and youth pastors don't count, not until they get promoted up.

You're addressing a doctor or a doctor's nurse. Doctor's nurses actually are smarter than the doctors (well, most of the time) and at the first sign of disrespect, they can lose your chart and make your life immortal torment. A well-placed "ma'am" can avert such travesties.

You know you're in the wrong.

You're in ANY doubt about whether you SHOULD say, "yes, ma'am."

You're addressing anyone with a weird, Yankee-fied accent, because we Southerners love to see Yankees squirm, and what with all of our time being so prim and proper, we've gotta get our licks in somewhere.

So as you can see, down here in Georgia, we're pretty much "yes, ma'am-ing" and "no, sir-ring" all over the place, except the kids who are less than ten and have been corrupted by MTV and the Disney channels, which is pretty much all kids. These types drive us older Southerners slap-dab crazy with all their "uh-uhs" and "Hmh-huhs" and other various grunts and groans that bear no resemblance whatsoever to a very simple "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am."

But since we were the same way (without MTV or Disney to be our parents' scapegoat), I guess after about age ten, it will finally take. I'll keep you posted, ma'am.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Power of pink


The Kiddo's hairdresser (and a friend of mine) was giving away free hair extensions today after school in support of Breast Cancer Awareness. Yes, the extensions are bubblegum pink. I hesitated for about a millisecond before I let her do it, mainly because I figured The Husband would have a heart attack. When it comes to most things, he's the Traditional Southern Dad, using the Traditional Southern Dad's motto: If my dad wouldn't allow it, I shouldn't, either.

I told the ladies at school that I might have to bum up a couch after The Husband got a gander at the hair extensions ... and The Kiddo was as jumpy with excitement as a cat in a rocking chair factory. She wanted, like any kid, to see the resulting explosions.

What I hadn't bargained on, though, was The Husband's temporary lack of observation skills. Usually, he pounces on anything different. The Kiddo danced and spun and bounced in front of him, and, while he knew SOMETHING was up, he didn't know what. Finally she just about had to point to the hot pink streaks in her hair.

He acted all cool and nonchalant about it then, trying to cover up how unobservant he'd been. It reminded me of the the trait that ALL writers must have: being a nosy busy-body that latches onto any and every change.

Now I'm not saying that nosy busy-bodies are inherent writers. I'm saying we writers need to be sure we develop that trait. Whether it's eavesdropping in Wal-Mart (the better to develop our dialogue, m'dear), or staring at some wildy-patterned, definitely What-Not-To-Wear pants (the better to dress our characters, m'dear), our powers of observation have to be honed.

One thing that mission does is make wait times far less boring. The other day, while I waited in our local Department of Labor office, I turned my attention to the scuffed walls, the various people crowded around the tables, their dress, their attitudes, the expressions of exasperation on the staff's faces. I did it intentionally, because I wanted to be able to mine that experience later on, whenever I had a character unemployed.

Don't just stop at the sights and sounds, though. My CP Tawna Fenske is great about pointing out where I can beef up my scene building with the other, less obvious, senses: smells, tastes and touch. She reminds me to layer in an almost wrap-around experience.

Of course, this could be just another writer's justification for being the aforementioned nosy busybody. Even so, isn't that its own reward?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

More than words can say


If you're a regular reader of this blog, and you aren't yet convinced that I was a weird kid, you must have been a weird kid, too -- weird, like me, in the nicest possible way.

We lived waaaay out in the sticks, and the library was too far for us. Ergo, I read a lot of books that probably I shouldn't have, including my mom's stash of Cosmopolitan. (Which is why I don't have Cosmo in my house. But really, they actually did have some pretty interesting serious articles beyond those bared-breasted cover girls.)

One book that I read, though, has served me well over the years. It was a book club edition that my mom didn't order but got anyway, because you know how those slips of "not this month, thank you" never get logged before the book-of-the-month gets mailed. It was The Body Language of Sex, Power & Aggression, by Julian Fast.

Writers, you need to read this. PEOPLE, you need to read this. It's a thin little book, and the format is all Q&A. Fast takes real-life types of questions and answers them with anecotal info or results of studies that he knows about.

What's that got to do with writing? If you want to show instead of tell, everything. Instead of just appending "nervously" to "he said," how can you show a character is nervous? Fast points out in one question's answer that the hands often give away nervousness and anxiety.

Same thing with showing the developing romance between characters. How can we get away from all those meaningful (but repetitive) gazes? What are some flirtatious gestures that our heroine can make toward the guy who will wind up as her one true love?

Back when I read the book, of course, my biggest kick was gluing a teacher to one side of a classroom. Yep, if you lean forward in your desk while a teacher is on your side of a classroom, then lean back when she wanders toward the other side, you will soon have her glued to your side of the line. And yes, I did it. But hey, I don't fall for it whenever I'm teaching, so I guess I learned from my devilment!

I'm not sure if the book is even in print, and certainly there are more recent books on body language, but don't forget this tool in your writing. Read up on body language. It helps introverts like so many of us writers read the human population better, AND it helps us communicate more vividly. That's a win-win in my book.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A clean well-lighted space


I envy people who are instinctively neat. You know, those folks who strike the balance between slovenly slob and OCD freak? I tend toward the messy end of the spectrum, as much as I wish it weren’t so. I was reminded of that this weekend when my sister helped me tackle a project I’ve been putting off for awhile.

Every house has at least one room that is a magnet for junk, or at least the stuff you don’t know where else to put and haven’t yet consigned to the junk heap. The room in my house that had been tarred by that brush was my office.

Years ago, the office/study was one of my favorite spots in the entire house. It’s a tiny little thing, but when we first moved in, it was home to all my books, thanks to a wall of built-in bookshelves, and a drop-leaf secretary.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and even after purging a great many books in a quest toward Zen-like bareness, the room bore little resemblance to the place I wrote my first complete manuscript. While you could tell it was sort of an office, the old computer was as obsolete as a dodo bird (it still ran on Windows 95), and in corners were jammed bits and pieces of detritus that was part and parcel of life as the Reeses know it.

An automotive vacuum that didn’t really work? Check. The box of stuff from my dayjob office while I await a new dayjob home? Check. The boxes of leftovers from my personal copies of my books? Check. Usable space and a clean, orderly study? Eh, let me get back to you on that.

My sister had heard my whining and my complaining about this place – and also the whining and complaining of The Husband, who was tired of me working beside him as he tried to sleep. The light from my laptop screen did not a sleep inducer make.

So this weekend The Sister took pity on me and popped the whip. Me? I took one look at the room and threw up my hands. “I don’t even know where to start,” I said.

She shoved the defunct auto vacuum cleaner in my hands. “This. Outside under the garage now.”

And that’s how we did it, piece by piece, decision by decision on each piece of junk, paper, file folder or obsolete hunk of technology we came across. Is it like I want it? Not on your life. Am I typing this on a computer that is not shining in The Husband’s eyes? Oh, yeah.

As usual, I’ve come away not just with a more organized space, but a larger life lesson. Decisions don’t make themselves. People make them, even when they’re busy NOT making them. And so often, the things we put off, whether it’s clearing out an office or deciding what to wear, are choices we’re intimidated about making. By the end of the night, though, I was a pro at giving a piece of “office treasure” a callous glance and saying, “Toss it.”

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Patience, grasshopper


The one thing (beyond some modicum of innate talent at stringing words together) necessary to make it in writing?

Patience.

I was telling this to the group of eighth graders I mentioned in an earlier post. I could see their eyes roll. I could hear the switches tripping off in their brains as they decided, "yep, another grown-up telling me to hang tight." (Or whatever kids say these days to indicate patience.)

But now that I am a hundred fifty eight years old (that's the age I give the third graders I'm helping when they ask me how old I am), it seems pretty clear to me that the thing that separates the goats from the sheep, the wheat from the chaff, is patience.

Patience has helped me realize what I don't know -- and boy, I don't know a lot. (Please don't tell The Husband this. He's under the impression that I am a near genius, or at least he thinks I think I am.) By being patient, I've learned, more than anything, that I have to ask questions.

Patience has helped me forgive myself time and again for not being the perfect writer, capable of writing the perfect novel on the first try and in the perfectly short period of time I'd like to crank out said perfect novel.

But more than teaching me what I don't know and helping me forgive myself for my ignorance, patience helps me endure the very nature of the publishing beast. That's hard to comprehend in the age of microwavable frozen rice (yes, check it out, it's in your grocer's freezer. Amazing that 20 minutes is too long to wait for rice. Now we have to nuke it.)

Molasses in the winter moves at the speed of light compared to publishing's meandering, poky pace. Without being able to white knuckle the hurry-up-and-wait aspect of the business of writing, I would have given up a long time ago. I would have never been published the first time, much less three more.

Show me two writers, one a phenomenally talented but impatient sort, and the other not-quite-so talented but infinitely more patient, and I guarantee you, the patient one will win out. Agents and editors don't appreciate fidgety types any more than your third grade teacher did. In writing and publishing -- just like life -- patience is indeed a virtue.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Finding true posterity


I have achieved true fame.

Nope, it's not that I've won the Pulitzer. I haven't hit this week's NYT Best Seller list. Oprah hasn't asked me to be on her series finale.

But all the same, I AM somebody.

Today I found out that an eighth grader is doing a report for her English class. The assignment? Write about a Georgia author.

The author?

That would be yours truly.

Ahem. I'd like to thank the academy --

Oh, wait. That's for another honor altogether, isn't it?

In all seriousness, I am a bit swimmy-eyed at the thought of myself being the topic for some student's English paper. It isn't often that romance authors are considered serious enough authors to be the topic of a paper, and kudos to her teacher for not exhibiting any prejudice or bias just because I'm one of those "trashy romance writers."

I suppose I am more than a little sadistic in taking glee from the idea that some poor innocent kid is slaving over a word processor, writing about me and my books and my writing and how it relates to Georgia. But then, I am a former teacher, and they don't allow you into any self-respecting school of education if you don't get a buzz off giving a pop quiz. Twisted, yes, I may be, but in the nicest possible way.

Perhaps this is the first wave in romance authors getting the respect we deserve. So what if we don't end our books in bleak desperation, a la Flaubert in his MADAME BOVARY? We give value for the money, a happily ever after on demand. So hopefully somewhere there's another English teacher who is assigning a student a paper on some other writer -- and hopefully that teacher will let the student go ahead and write about an addicted-to-HEAs romance author.

Until then, well, I'm just basking in my new-found fame. I just hope the student's dog doesn't eat me.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Yes to the elephant, no to skinny-dipping


A cousin of mine sent me an email the other day titled Bucket List. Since she recently crossed one of her bucket list items off (driving from California to Georgia), I opened it. It had a list of things that I was supposed to check if I'd done it. Color me surprised that I found several on the list that I couldn't put an X by.

Since I'm in full confession mode in the wake of my handwriting post, I figured it might be interesting for you to see just how sheltered I've been, and yet I still consider myself a writer. Seems to me that my education needs to be furthered a bit, don't you agree?

Here's the list.

(  ) Shot a gun
(  ) Shot anyone
(x) Gone on a blind date
(x) Skipped school
( ) Been to Canada
( ) Been to Alaska 
( ) Been to Cuba  
( )Been to Bahamas 
( ) Been to Europe
( ) Been to Las Vegas   
( ) Been to Mexico
(x) Been to Florida
(X) Been to California
( ) Been to Maine
(x) Been on a plane
( ) Been on a Cruise Ship
(X)  Finished reading books you started
(X) Sang Karaoke 
(X)  Paid for a meal with coins only 
( ) Made prank phone calls
(x) Laughed until some beverage came out of your nose 
(X) Read the Bible completely through
(X) Caught a snowflake on your tongue
(X) Made snow angels
(x) Danced in the rain
(X) Skipped Rocks
(X) Written a letter to Santa Claus 
( ) Been kissed under the mistletoe
(X) Watched the sunrise with someone
( ) Stayed out all night.
(x) Blown bubbles
( ) Gone ice skating
( ) Gone skiing
( ) Camped out under the stars
(x) Seen something so beautiful that it took your breath away 
(x) Are or have been married
(X) Have children. 
(  ) Have Grand Children
(x) Have / had a pet
( ) Been skinny dipping outdoors 
(x) Been fishing
(x) Been boating
( ) Been water skiing
( ) Been hiking
( )  Been scuba diving
(X) Been camping in a trailer/RV
( ) Flown in a small 2-seater airplane
( )Flown in a glider 
(X)Been flying in a helicopter 
( ) Been flying in a hot air balloon 
( ) Been BUNGEE-jumping
(x) Gone to a drive-in movie
( ) Ever sneak into a drive-in movie
(X) Done something that should have killed you (could have) 
(x) Done something that you will regret for the rest of your life
( ) Been to Africa
( )Taken  a train ride
(X) Ever ride an elephant (nope, the pix with the elephant isn't me -- I was about 7 when I rode a pachyderm.)
(x) Ever eaten just cookies for dinner 
(X) Ever been on T.V. 
( ) Ever steal any traffic signs   
(x) Ever been in a car accident  
(x) Had a nickname 

(x) Name ever been in the local paper
(X) Ever been to Asia
( ) Ever been to Australia
( ) Been sky-diving
( ) Driven/ridden in a car going more than 100 mph
(  ) milked a cow
( )went to summer camp
(  ) plucked a chicken
 
Favorite drink:  Iced tea
Tattoo: Nope    
Do you drive a 4-door vehicle: Yep
Favorite number: 7
Favorite holiday: Thanksgiving
favorite dessert: apple pie and ice cream
Where do you see yourself  in 10 years: Seeing my daughter start college, maybe a full time writer

So of this list, what surprised you the most about me? What have you done that I haven't? How have you mined those experiences to use in your writing? Share a few stories in my comments trail, and if you'd like, consider yourself tagged to use this in YOUR blog!