Friday, July 30, 2010

The Definitive Top-Five List of A Writer's Rewards

Lickety Splitter, a non-writing (she says) follower of mine, has said she tried writing, but it seemed like way too little rewards for way too much agony, and so she quit it. I'm amazed that anybody could be smart enough to see this low reward-to-work ratio and get out while the gettin's good.

But then, no. I could never give up writing, because there ARE rewards.

OK, now you ask me to name them. Details, details.

Oh, you REALLY want me to name them. A little trust, people. If I say there are rewards, then there are -- ptui. You're not going to shut up until I enumerate them, are you?

So for the Doubting Thomases in my readership, here is the definitive Top Five Rewards list for writers.

5) People think you're smart.

It's true. If you let the non-writing public find out you are writing a book, people are genuinely impressed with you. They assume you are going to join the ranks of JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer and that they will have known you when. Do not disavow them of such beliefs.

4) People will excuse your messy house.

The non-writing public will (generally speaking) give you a pass if your house is cluttered but essentially sanitary. They assume that you are expelling blood, sweat, toil and tears during all your free time, and that you don't have time to deal with dust bunnies.

3) People will excuse your strange behavior.

The NWP (non-writing public) will soon grow accustomed to you stopping in mid-sentence, shrieking, "Eureka!" and then scribbling something on your palm only to dash off for your laptop. When you NAME your dust bunnies and talk to them, the NWP will smile and say things like, "Well, yanno, she's one of those creative types."

2) You may get some dough.

Most writers don't get rich, but they can, if they're lucky and work at it, garner anything from enough to take a vacation to enough to quit the day job and still survive. Doing what you love for a living? That's not work. And what idiot walks away from money that can be made with so little capital investment?

1) You will remain true to yourself.

Eventually the NWP will get impatient with you and say, "So when's that big best-seller coming out?" But there's something about seeing your words in print, even if it's in the local paper, that gives you a thrill that won't quit. It's addictive. If you are a writer, you can't REALLY quit (which is why I suspect that Lickety Splitter, with her keen observations on her colorful blog, is truly a writer in hibernation). But if you did PRETEND to quit, you'd be denying a part of yourself. That would make as much sense as looking at your left hand and saying, "Huh, don't use it much. Guess I could chop it off and it wouldn't be cold in the winter time."

So be honest. Deal in truth. Say it loud and say it proud: I am a writer, I'm for real, even if I haven't been pubbed, and I do it for ME.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In need of an idea -- or frequent flier miles

Yesterday (pre-migraine) a college professor/writer that I am acquainted with tricked me into coming out of my shell.

OK, really, truly there were no tricks. He merely asked me if I would be willing to teach a seminar on writing to high school students and a class or two to college students on creative writing.

I said yes before I could really think about it. I love talking about writing, and I love teaching writing. If I had the dollars and the time, I'd go back and get the parchment that would say I could dayjob by teaching creative writing. Alas, the idea of doing more post-grad work makes my head ache worse.

Also, these commitments were blissfully out in the future -- the high school one is not until February.

Then Dr. Writer (who shall remain nameless) told me the kicker about the high school seminar: the time block is two hours, and in that time, the students have to produce a sample of writing that is judged for an English scholarship.

Yikes! Back I retreated into my turtle shell.

Usually when I'm asked to do something like this, I focus on something useful -- query letters or synopses or just a general overview of the writing/publishing biz. But these kids will be nowhere near submitting for publication (well, most of 'em, anyway), and I don't think even the best query letter could be good enough to base an English scholarship on.

So onto my quandary: what component of writing can I teach to high school students that I can teach in, say, an hour or so, and leave them enough time to craft a good sample of their writing?

My thoughts so far? Let's go all James Joyce and stream-of-consciousness for a moment.

Eeek! Can I get out of this? Maybe an unexpected trip out of the country? No, no, my word is my bond ... two hours! Not even two, because they have to write and how can they write anything in two hours that will give them a good shot at writing and what if I can't shut up about writing and take the whole two hours and they have zip to show for their scholarship? Two hours! TWO HOURS! I can say no, sure I can say no, no, no, I can't say no, say, how about dialogue?

Once I hit the brakes on the runaway train that is my thought process (ain't pretty, is it?), I tell myself to define the problem and get on with finding a solution. I have to teach a bite-size chunk, and dialogue is something that could be bite-sized.

Other possibilities:

1) Setting and imagery

2) First pages

3) Show, don't tell.

So you tell me. Back when you were a high school kid who thought all romance writers were rich and ate bon-bons all the live-long day and wore feather boas and stilettos and resembled Barbara Cartland, what could you have listened to in sixty short minutes and then turned into some sort of work product?

Because it's either you help me come up with this, or I'm hitting Tawna Fenske up for some of her frequent flier miles out of the country.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Zedonks and subgenres

This week in Georgia, we had a rare birth: a donkey gave birth to a zedonk -- a cross between a zebra and a donkey. The little thing is cute as pie, with the striped legs of a zebra and the face of a donkey.

I always think about the world through one of two filters, that of The Kiddo or writing. The zedonk made me think of genres being mixed willy-nilly, coming up with totally new stuff. It's kind of like that old Reese's commercial: "Hey, you got your peanut butter in my chocolate!"

Take for instance, romantic suspense. In today's writing market, we tend to take it for granted, like it's always been there. Not so. The first person to really successfully combine the two genres in a seamless sort of way was Mary Stewart, of TOUCH NOT THE CAT fame, with her first romantic suspense in 1955 with MADAME, WILL YOU TALK?

I like a little mystery with my romance and a little romance with my mystery, and I do wonder why it took us writers so long for someone to come up with the idea. That's true creativity, if you ask me: someone taking two things we take for granted and combining them in a new and creative way.

Now we have zombies invading Jane Austen's world, and vamps routinely making inroads into the YA sphere. Sometimes I wonder what's new that's left to be written or even combined. But I know that I'm just too blind to see the obvious. Someone will come up with something that will make us all go, "Aaack! Why didn't I think of that?" and while we're doing the palm-to-forehead routine, the intrepid author will be whistling all the way to the bank.

But as far as the peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate that we have NOW, what's your favorite sub-genre? What's a classic of that genre, something that would be the book you'd point a new reader toward in order to introduce the sub-genre in its best light?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A sackful of writing lessons

Bagging groceries is a lost art.

Some years ago, Tawna Fenske gifted me with a few reusable shopping bags, way before they were popular in my neck of the woods. I use those and an insulated shopping bag to pack my groceries in. Even now, the cashier and bagger will give me sort of quizzical looks, as though I've just asked them to stand on their heads.

This past Saturday the bagger totally ignored the chill bag and just tossed things harem-scarem into any bag she could get her hands on. The bathroom cleaner was chunked in with my bread. My frozen chicken tenders were in a bag all by their lonesome. And my chill bag? Well, the bagger held it in her hands and said, "Uh, guess I could have used this for the cold stuff."

I'd sorted the cold stuff as I put it on the register's conveyor belt. I'd asked the cashier to put my cold stuff in the chill bag. But bagger and cashier both looked lost as haints, as my grandmother used to say, so I pushed my cart out of the way of the next person in line and started re-bagging my groceries.

Yes, a tad OCD, but the temps were hovering in the 100-degree neighborhood, and I did have 30 minutes of drive-time in front of me to get home. As I rescued my bread from the bathroom cleaner -- which later proved to be leaking -- I thought about how baggers used to take such care with groceries. When I was little, paper bags were the rule, and cold things like ice cream went into a super-heavy small paper bag. Baggers took pride in filling the sacks so that, if the bag were ripped away, the contents would almost be able to stand in a tightly-packed tower.

I blame it on those infernal plastic bags. Baggers now toss a few items in each bag and stick your bread and your eggs on top of the pile. They've never learned the intricate art of assembling a bag of groceries -- or even that it mattered.

Computers, in a way, have made writing novels seem easy and accessible, just like those plastic bags. People think that writing a book is something you can just toss together: you open up a word processing document and start with Chapter One. No planning. No thinking of plot. No need to develop characters.

I'm not talking plotter vs. pantsers here. Pantsers do all the thinking and planning and character development after they have the framework done, whereas plotters get it done first. I'm not talking about people who are just starting out and don't know beans about writing - everybody's got to start somewhere.

Nope, I'm thinking instead of people who SHOULD know better but don't. They think a first draft is the ONLY draft they need to write before they send it off to a publisher, with the next stop Number One on the NYT Best-Seller List. They think that their manuscript should never be subjected to an editor's tender mercies, and that any suggestion of improving their story is a request for them to sacrifice their art on the altar of commerce.

Nobody reading this would fall in that category -- the folks I'm arghing about are too hard-headed to read blogs about writing. But as you continue to write, I can guarantee that you will run into these sorts of people -- the equivalent of my Saturday bagger who couldn't understand that cold stuff should go into a chill bag.

My advice? Smile and say, "Oh, you're writing a novel? Wow. That's great." If they're really interested in learning, they'll ask YOU questions that will signal that they understand the cardinal rule of being a writer: no matter where you are in learning the craft, there's always SOMETHING you can learn.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Wherein I discover a few things about myself

Saturday night I talked books for three hours.

It was that Literary Ladies Night that I mentioned in a previous blog, the one where I said I had to choose my favorite book to share.

I was more than a little nervous about the evening. For one thing, since I'm a true introvert, I'm not a joiner. I'm not a mixer. I have been, all of my life, painfully shy and awkward, and inclined to blurt out things that come out entirely wrong. Maybe that's why I prefer books and writing to social functions -- at social functions there's no such thing as a delete key.

For another, two of the ladies to be at the event were college professors. Okay, so once upon a time I was a college English instructor, but one of these ladies had a master's degree and the other was the proud possessor of a Ph.D. To say that I was psyched out was an understatement of British proportions.

The third reason is that I had offered to bring chicken salad before I remembered that I was a Bad Cook. Sure, it's awfully hard to mess up chicken salad; after all it's just chicken, mayo and loads of sweet salad cubes (chunky relish for all you who reside north of the Mason-Dixon line.) But I'm terribly self-conscious of my cooking.

We wound up with six ladies, with six books, as well as egg-salad sandwiches, hummus and chips, pesto, strawberries and cantaloupe and brownies, plus my chicken salad. Round-robin we went. I was fifth, and glad of it so that I could Monkey-See-Monkey-Do.

Of course I had nothing to worry about. The college profs both brought very accessible stuff -- an English cozy and a book that was an out-of-print memoir that could actually be a targeted at a younger audience. I realized that when they meant favorite books, they meant comfort books -- the things you rested your soul with.

Each book sparked discussions about other books -- and one woman confessed she'd had to plod through WUTHERING HEIGHTS, as she'd felt inclined to slap the characters. It was a refreshing let-your-hair-down sort of evening, with no pretensions and lots of sharing -- and I came away with at least five books I hadn't read, but definitely wanted to after their thumbs-up.

I recommended GODS IN ALABAMA, and read a favorite scene (where Arlene Fleet loses it during a bout of home-sickness in a Chicago Wal-Mart). They all listened, asked intelligent questions, and seemed to be genuinely intrigued by the book.

Oh, and my chicken salad? They went back for seconds.

So yanno what? Maybe I've just been letting the wrong people eat my cooking, and maybe I've been going to the wrong social events. Because I'd go back there in a heartbeat, and I'd bring my chicken salad.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Auld Lang Summer

Today (and yes, I know I'm late again with the blog) I'm taking a Mental Health Day off from the Day Job.

Nope. I'm not writing (except for this.)

Nope. I'm not gonna Twitter (not much, anyway.)

Instead, I'm going to take The Kiddo to her last day of swimming lessons, because this summer she has gone from terrified of water to swimming like a fish, and I have yet to see a stroke of it.

And then I'm going to let her play at her friends' house, while I do something supremely important.

Absolutely nothing productive.

Yep. No projects. No grocery shopping. No back-to-school-clothes shopping. No cleaning. No de-cluttering. No writing. No research on a WIP. No research on agents or publishing houses. No research on DIY projects. Or getting organized. Or chasing down that 25th hour of the day.

I intend to have a summer day like I had when I was ten. Unstructured. Unproductive. Because I've been waaay too productive lately when it comes to my life.

I was somewhat lucky growing up. My mom was at first a stay-at-home mom and then a work-at-home mom. Summers were an endless string of come-what-may days, where there was no rush, no worry, no fuss, no muss.

We were productive, don't get me wrong. My mom was always one to have a project going -- usually building herself yet another kitchen on our hill. Summers also meant produce -- corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, okra, squash. We grew it and picked it and shelled/husked/peeled/cut it, and then we canned or froze it. It was hard work, but it was fun work, and I don't remember any deadlines save for food safety ones.

I remember one day, very clearly, that we'd spent the morning shelling purple hull peas (for you Yankees, think field peas, but much, much better) outside by our pool, where we wouldn't make a mess in the house. Even in the morning, the Georgia heat and humidity sweltered. My mom took one wistful look at the pool, set aside her big pan of shelled peas, and jumped in the pool, clothes and all.

If there was one thing that I could give The Kiddo, it would be a single summer like that: a summer where I didn't have to get up and put on dry-clean-only clothes and go work with my brain all day in an office, while she had to get up early and go to the sitter's. It would be a summer where there was no rush, no worry, no fuss, no muss. And if we had a pool, we would jump in with our clothes on.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A little rain, a little lightning

Sorry for the delay in posting, but last night was filled with thunderboomers, which meant no computer time for me. After having one computer fried by lightning, I take storms VERY seriously.

And maybe I'm a little phobic about bad weather. When I was kid, I never minded the storms, but my mom made a huge deal out of them. We'd sit in the dark when the power went off (as it frequently did out in the country), heating to death because of the summer's swelter, talking and worrying about how long the storm would last. I always thought it was much ado about nothing.

But then, when I was a freshman in high school, one afternoon the sky turned the weirdest green-orange I'd ever seen. Our gym was in a separate building, and I got soaked to the skin going through the rain. Me hating gym, I thought the logical thing for me to do was call my mom to come and get me. So I went to the office wing of the school to make a pleading phone call -- and the tornado alarm went off.

A tornado had destroyed a mobile home park about a mile or so down the road, and there were other reports of tornado warnings as well. I found that out as I sat huddled with other students in the hallways, listening to the worried and anxious whispers of teachers and staff.

It felt like forever we sat there -- and one reason it felt like an eternity to me was the guy that I was sitting next to. He already had the strapping frame of a Nebraska line-backer stuffed into a pair of faded-to-blue-white overalls. I know somewhere in this world he has grown up to be an avid watcher of The Weather Channel's Storm Stories, because he would NOT shut up about all the really bad tornado stories he knew.

Boy, did he know a lot of 'em, stories about pine needles buried into telephone poles, houses leveled to the foundation, people jerked up and relocated a mile down the road.

About the time I thought I would go insane if he didn't shut up, the principal stuck his head out into the hall and told me my parents had come for me.

My parents? I hadn't even been able to make the telephone call. They'd heard about the bad weather and had jumped into our little powder-blue '72 Vega to fetch me.

My relief at deliverance was short-lived. Our little powder-blue '72 Vega died on us, in the middle of a monsoon, about two miles from the school.

A mechanic rescued us -- a mechanic who had a knife as big as a small machete laid out on his front seat. He said he kept it there in case he encountered "trouble" on the road.

Between the spine-tingling storm stories of the Nebraska-line-backer-weather-channel addict, the stalled out car in the middle of the storm, and the scary mechanic, something clicked in me, and I've been more than a little nervous about storm ever since.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kitteh haz plots? Does Kitteh haz fur?

It is plain scary when my kitties get along.

We brought Max home when The Kiddo was three, after an Unfortunate Incident with a kitten and our big overgrown Chocolate Lab, who mistakenly thought she could use said kitten as a toy. The Kiddo was distraught, and in a moment of weakness, I said, "Don't worry, baby, you can have a kitty."

Max was supposed to be a white purebred Persian, but The Kiddo and The Husband picked a lanky orange tabby half-breed because he needed a home. I came back from Christmas shopping to find said kitty lurking under our tree. Later, he discovered the tree was great for roosting. I did not, at least that year, bother with an angel. Why should I? I had a real-live orange tabby.

Six months later, after Max thought he was king of the castle, I returned from a RWA convention, the first time I'd ever been away from The Kiddo. The very moment I walked in the door, a mom of a friend of The Kiddo's called me up and said the magic words, "I have a stray Siamese kitten who needs a home."

I was picturing the classic seal-point, so The Kiddo and I got in the car, headed over to her friend's house, and there was a tiny runt of a white cat with toasted coconut ears, paws and tail. I had myself a flame-point -- that's a Siamese on steroids. The Kiddo named him Pete because she wanted a name she could spell.

Max is an affectionate boy, whose main issue is that he will NOT drink water from a bowl. He demands fresh water -- and assures himself it's fresh by overseeing its dispensation out of the tub faucet.

Pete has intimacy issues. He's the only cat I've ever seen who doesn't have a magic spot under his chin -- his is on his forehead, midway between his ears. If he wants attention, he is very naughty and nips. I had completely forgotten this tendency of Siameses when I agreed to adopt the rascal.

They tolerate each other. They don't hiss and spit unless they're truly out of sorts, and Pete likes to wait for Max to go out the door first (Siamese deviousness -- he knows that if a bear's out there, the first one out has issues.) They also do a weird changing of the guard -- one will come in the house when the other goes out, and sometimes Pete will meow by the door to let us know that Max wants in. Pete is smart enough to knock and once scared the be-jeebers out of us by climbing up and ringing the doorbell when we wouldn't answer.

Tonight, though, I walked into our bathroom and found both of them within six inches of each other -- a miracle. Pete was on the ledge of the tub, and Max had the prime real-estate, the closed toilet lid directly under the cool jet of the AC vent. They looked a little startled and embarrassed, and I had to wonder: were they plotting something?

I sure hope the plotting does not involve the demise of the Permed Dachshund -- the one critter they both heartily agree on.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thank you, Alton Brown

I owe a huge thank you to Alton Brown -- you know, the half-chef, half-food scientist, all fun sort of guy on Good Eats? Well, thanks to him, I was able to cook a ribeye for The Big 2-0 for The Husband and me.

Yeah, we could have gone out to a fancy restaurant and had someone else do all the cooking. But then we would have added:

1) The stress of getting the reservations (for me and The Husband, it's a battle of wills. He doesn't want to do it, and I don't want to do it, so it usually doesn't get done.)

2) The stress of getting to the restaurant on time (I'm always late coming home from the dayjob. He's always the last one to the car. 'Nuff said.)

3) The stress of spending waaaay too much money.

4) The stress of getting back home at a semi-decent hour.

With all that possibility of stress, I decided that what I really wanted was a low-key anniversary. I wanted us to cook together. So Saturday I brought home a couple of six buck ribeye steaks, some red potatoes and some frozen brussels sprouts. (The Husband asked the potato soup and the sprouts.)

The Kiddo had supper with some friends, and The Husband and I talked more that evening than we probably had in the past six months. Having three jobs between us (his job, my dayjob and my writing), plus being parents, isn't a recipe for conversation.

Granted, I did most of the cooking, but The Husband stayed in the kitchen with me for most of the prep, and even washed a few dishes for me. The steak turned out perfectly, and for once, I got everything on the table at about the same time. For a bad cook, I didn't do a half-bad job -- salad, steak, potato soup, brussels sprouts, and rolls. I was going to do dessert, but didn't have time, and besides, we were stuffed with what we had.

We took a long walk, and talked some more. We talked about inconsequential things. But we talked. And that, after 20 years, is a mighty big deal.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Because pea green is such an ugly color for a complexion

Except for Martians, lizards, geckos, other creepy-crawlies and the odd fish, I know of no living breathing critter that looks good with a complexion of pea green.

Especially writers.

This writing business is a capricious ride. People are plucked out of obscurity, out a slush pile of thousands, and suddenly, they have a book deal -- all because (at first) one person (dozens later) said, "Gee, I LIKE that!"

To writers who have been struggling for years just to get agents to request a partial, that can sting. To published writers, always conscious that they're only as good as their last sell-through numbers and ever-cognizant of the shrinking mid-list, that can sting.

Add to that the possibility of sudden, overwhelming riches with movie deals and merchandise tie-ins, and the green meter goes from the palest apple green to that of a sun-tanned Martian.

Let's face it. We've all done it. We're all human. We've all ground our teeth at a less-than-stellar book and thought, "WHY HER? WHY NOT ME?"

For one thing, it was her (or his) time.

Yes, that's a fatalistic view, but I sincerely believe in it. I've seen that the very best things in my life usually come after the longest dry/rainy spell (depending on how you look at bad luck). My most heart-felt wishes came to pass only after I'd truly given up ... a chance at a college education. The possibility of The Kiddo's adoption. My first book sale. I'm a Christian, so my theory is that God waits until we have our backs to the wall so that we're SURE that it's all Him and not anything to do with us.

For another thing? Being pea green with envy hurts only us.

Yeah. I said that. It doesn't put one less dollar in Mr. Best-Seller's bank account. But if I choose to grind my teeth over his success, I'm really just substituting excuses for effort. Pretty soon, if I've convinced myself that it's either blind luck or that all editors are interested in buying is whatever the hot genre is, then I'll give up on the book of my heart.

The cure? It's to realize that anger and bitterness and jealousy are really just mixed up expressions of fear and disappointment. Just like a toddler goes into melt-down mode and screams in rage when he's sick or hungry or hurt, we grown-ups do the same thing. We get all mixed up.

So let's use our words. Let's tell ourselves, "When I see Mr. Best Seller's books, I'm afraid that I'll never sell/never be as successful/never have as much money." When we define the problem -- or at least when I do -- then we can figure out what part of it we CAN control.

Friday, July 16, 2010

An impossible choice

Later this month, a friend of mine is hosting a "Literary Ladies Night," a sort of show and tell where we bring our most favorite books and do the two-thumbs up deal. I am most excited about this.

Usually the extent of my evenings is rushing food from the fridge to the stove to the table, and then rushing The Husband and The Kiddo to the table to meet up with the food. Then comes the rushing of the dishes to the dishwasher (thank GOD for dishwashers), and the rushing of The Kiddo from the tub to the bed and convincing her that yes, three yawns in a row mean she really is sleepy. If we go out for entertainment, it's usually a kid's movie (The Husband suggested, for about 90 seconds, that we take The Kiddo to see Toy Story 3 for our anniversary. I think he got the picture. I'm not picky about anniversaries usually, but this IS our 20th one.)

So the idea of sitting around for a couple of hours, munching on food I didn't cook on dishes I won't have to wash and talking about books ... ah, bliss.

For all of about a nano-second. Then reality sets in. The price of admission to this Literary Ladies Night is one book -- one favorite book. I shall have to pluck, out of all the ones I have loved and sighed over, a single volume, preferably one that hasn't been discovered already by the other Literary Ladies.

I don't think I can do it. Books, for me anyway, speak different things on different days. Some days I'm in the mood for a fast-paced thriller. Other days, I want to dive into the thrill of romance in an epic love story. And others I want to laugh. So if you ask me, "What's your favorite book?" seven days running, you're likely to get seven different answers.

I'm not sure what book I'm going to recommend. The good thing is, even if all the also-rans go pouty and silent on me, whichever volume I choose, it's guaranteed to be a good one, because after four decades on this earth, I no longer force myself to finish truly bad books. (And yes, even though I am an author and I know how hard it is to craft those words, there are truly bad books out there.)

What about you? If you were going to a Literary Ladies Night, what book would you recommend?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What seems easy to us ...

Yesterday, for a rather momentous occasion in my life, The Husband and The Kiddo conspired to make brownies.

The Husband cannot in any way, shape or form be considered a cook, or even a foodie. Bless his heart, pork skins or honey-buns are good eats to him. So it was understandable, as I prepared to leave for work yesterday morning, that he seemed consumed with knowing the right recipe for making brownies.

So I hauled out my two big fat cookbooks that are the staple of many a kitchen and laid their red plaid covers on my counters. "There, that's the easy recipe for brownies, and that's the one that takes the mixer," I told him.

Panic etched into his face. "Have we got all the stuff to make this?" he asked.

"Sure." I started dragging out the cocoa powder, which I use instead of baker's chocolate. "Er, you'll have to follow the directions here to make the equivalent of the baker's chocolate."

"You mean I have to cook that before I cook this?" he asked.

"You could pick up some baker's chocolate from the grocery store. But I usually use this because it's just as good."

"Okay," The Husband said doubtfully. "So you mix the cocoa powder and the butter -- does it come out in a hard block?"

"Uh, no. It looks like melted chocolate. You just add it to the flour."

The panicked look came back in full force. "Where's the flour?" he asked.

I pointed it out. "Well," I said, trying very hard to keep any trace of anything that could be misconstrued as judgment out of my voice, "there ARE mixes you can buy, where all you have to do is add an egg and some water and oil." When he looked crushed that I didn't have faith in him, I added, "But brownies are VERY hard to mess up. You really can't mess up a brownie."

Later that day, the texts I got from him:

"Where's the baking powder and the vanilla?" he asked first.

I texted back that our flour was self-rising, so no baking powder was needed. Then I gave him a mapquest version to find the vanilla lurking in our cabinets.

A few minutes later, he texted back, "Is it okay if I use vanilla EXTRACT?"

I texted back that vanilla extract was perfectly acceptable.

Then I got a weird question, something about did he have to mix the water with the chocolate. For the life of me, I couldn't understand that one, not until I got home and he pointed out the recipe. The directions had called for the baker's chocolate to be melted over hot water, but it didn't add anything about using a double-boiler.

The brownies smelled all chocolatey and wonderful when I walked in the door. They were dark and chewy, and boasted extra chocolate because The Kiddo had decided they needed chocolate chips in them.

The moral of the story? Never assume that things are easy.

I've been making brownies since I was a bit bigger than The Kiddo's age, and helping in the kitchen before that. I'd always assumed that anyone could follow a recipe, but recipes have every bit as much jargon as we writers do.

I've been writing since I was nine years old -- The Kiddo's age, in fact. For me, while stringing words together in a coherent novel can be tough, usually if all I need to do is dash off a letter or write a report, it's no problem. I have frequently found myself impatient with family members who beg me to write a letter.

For me, writing came so easy that I forgot how hard it was for most everyone else. By thinking it was easy, I was doing two things: 1) selling myself short, and 2) holding other people up to a standard I wouldn't want to be held to myself. My barely smothered scoff at the request of my Cum Laude graduate sister to write her a letter would be no different than if she scoffed at my reluctance to use power tools.

For The Husband, making those brownies from scratch was a hard and scary and intimidating thing to do. And let me tell you, I appreciate the effort from the very bottom of my heart.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Because girls are worth power tools

I have spent 20 years trying to gift The Husband with power tools that he doesn't want to have and most certainly doesn't want to use. I have done this in the sneaky, indirect attempt to get what I want: a finished Honey-Do list.

Well, ladies (and gents), it's so not working.

When The Sister came and helped me paint my kitchen (before The Flood), she brought along her automatic battery powered screwdriver. Before that, when we were doing the refacing part of the project, she brought along her pneumatic brad gun.

I was terrified of the brad gun, and only slightly less intimidated at the prospect of using the battery-powered screwdriver. That's funny, really, because I grew up with a mom who did not move furniture around walls ... she moved walls around furniture.

But I was the littlest, and the baby, and everybody worried that I wasn't strong enough, and so I was given the all important job of fetching jugs of ice water and tea and lemonade.

After 20 years of THAT, I can fetch you a brilliant glass of lemonade, yes, ma'am. Power tools? Eh, not so much.

While we were putting on the hinges for the doors, The Sister handed The Kiddo the battery powered screwdriver and said, "Go to it, girlie." I looked on in horror, because of course The Sister doesn't have small fry of her own (just 30 kids that she teaches during the school year), so she wouldn't know that it was a Bad Idea To Give The Kiddo A Power Tool.

But then I thought, "Self, you have taught The Kiddo how to use your santoku knife to chop veggies, so maybe The Sister isn't so crazy."

The Sister wasn't so crazy.

(The Kiddo using a power drill on her SECOND project -- a kitchen that's not mine!)

It was a humbling experience, seeing The Kiddo tackle something that intimidated me. But it was also liberating. If a nine-year-old kid could do it, then surely I could tackle my fears of power tools and that Honey-Do list on my own.

Then my dad let me borrow his shop vac to suck up the water during The Flood, and I was hooked. I'd never bought The Husband a shop vac, because he wouldn't have appreciated it, and honestly, I couldn't think of why I'd benefit from one.

Not so. Tawna Fenske's Pythagoras has the right idea. That little sucker is handy. It was after I'd zapped all the cobwebs off my ceiling fan blades AND vacuumed out my garage AND vacuumed out my car that I realized the ultimate truth:

Girls are worth power tools.

Now how is this connected to writing? Bear with me. You know that computer you've been limping along with, the one that still runs Windows 98 and has the browser you can't upgrade? You're worth a new one. You know how you've been putting off moving from dial-up to DSL or buying that new modem? You're worth it. That printer you want to throw out in the street? Order a new one and condemn the old one to the recycle bin. You're worth it.

You know that Honey-Do list you've been nagging Hubby about? Grab that power drill and learn how to use it. What's the worst that could happen? (OK, I'm a writer, so we really don't want me thinking about the worst because I'll come up with a humdinger, so let's rephrase that -- what is most likely going to happen?)

Archimedes said that given the right lever, and a place to stand, he could move the earth. Well, I'm here to tell you, Archimedes knew a thing or two about how much more efficient we could be if we just had the proper tools to work with. And he would have LOVED power tools.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Yin and the Yang

My critique partner Tawna Fenske and I are taking part in Candace Ganger's "I Helped Bring Joy" auction, which is raising money to empower the girls and women of Ghana by generating microloans. We're donating a unique critique prize ... wherein you get not one but two crits of a partial.

It was Tawna's idea, but I think it's a great one ... and I'm really glad she suggested it. The two of us "met" on the eHarlequin forums about six years ago when we both thought for about 90 seconds that we'd be editor-sistahs. While that didn't come to pass, I found Tawna's honest, thoughtful critiques to be a wonderful treasure, and her wonderful, infectious zeal for life even more so.

We are so different, she and I. She is a West Coast dedicated recycler/nature-lover/world-traveler with no kids, and I am a South Georgia mom who knew all 99 different rules and rituals regarding the proper funeral. She loves wine-tastings and a risque joke, and I am a Baptist tee-totaler. She had no idea what salad cubes were, and I was just as lost when it came to couscous and quinoa. She is a pantser, and I'm so OCD that I plot EVERYTHING.

But at the same time, we are peas in a pod. Both of us love animals. Both of us see human beings' differences as something to embrace rather than to be feared. Both of us would go crazy if we didn't write. Both of us love a good story. Both of us hate Too Stupid To Live heroines. Tawna is probably the one other person besides my sister that I would call at two in the morning -- unless I was in jail, at which point I'd call Linda Grimes so that she could see, lo, how the mighty have fallen and capture all on video for YouTube. (Easy, Linda, that just ain't gonna happen.)

Over the years, I've taught Tawna how to make grits, fried chicken and corn bread, and she's turned me into a person who takes my own bags to the grocery store and cooks quinoa and couscous. As far as writing, she's taught me how to use my entire arsenal of the five senses in setting scenes and how to create stronger, more admirable heroines. Honestly, she didn't need any improving as far as writing, so I can't say what I've taught her, except that plotting isn't a curse word, and that you don't have to hiss when uttering the word "synopsis."

So when you get the Dynamic Duo critiquing your work, you get the Yin and the Yang, the classic East Coast and West Coast. You get the benefit of what we've taught each other as we've grown in that six years as writers.

Plus, you get to help women and girls who have never, and will never again, have a chance to chase their dreams and shape their destiny -- and I always say that if you want something done right, put a woman in charge, so your winning bid might well be the tipping point that turns Ghana around. Okay, okay, so I indulge in hyperbole. Sue me. I'm a writer.

But seriously, you want this. You really, really want this. So what are you waiting for? Go explore some more on Candace Ganger's blog.

Monday, July 12, 2010

No green thumbs, not even out of a bottle

First off, thanks for so much warm support on Friday's post. Every comment lifted my spirits. I try not to be a downer, and I don't intend for my blog audience to be the recipient of all my moans and groans. Thanks for being there.

It's a definite sign that plants rightfully fear me.

I'm not so good with green and growing things. Either I get too much water on them or not enough, so usually I stick with the silk versions.

However, you can't slice and eat a silk tomato, or chop up silk basil and oregano. So this spring, I decided that I would plant three tomato plants, two pepper plants, and add to a window box of oregano I hadn't managed to kill last year. They reside on my back deck, save for one of the tomato plants, which is one of those Topsy Turvy planters I had to have after I saw it on TV. Why, yes, I am the living incarnate definition of gullible.

My plants have managed to limp along, and I've even gotten two knotty little ripe tomatoes from them. But no one could mistake my horticultural efforts for a green thumb.

Saturday morning, I found the whole passel of 'em wilted beyond belief, practically coding on the table. I rushed water to them, hoping I wasn't too late.

Off I went to town, for shopping, which included buying two cans of hunter green spray paint to resuscitate a patio furniture set I'd inherited from my mom.

It's a overgrown bistro set, one that my mom had since I was probably The Kiddo's age. Back when she bought it, she paid the earth for it, and I thought it was so cute in its black wrought iron state. It was Mama's pride and joy.

Over the years, Mama repainted it white to match with the changing styles. But as she grew older -- and sicker -- the thing rusted away in her back yard. I’d no idea how rusty it was, or how much it needed a face-lift, until The Sister and I were examining it.

The Sister suggested that, since it was small, it would be perfect for my back deck. We loaded the set up on her truck and hauled it to my house. Saturday was The Day that it was supposed to be turned from rusty white/black to a more stylish hunter green.

The Kiddo and I scrubbed away the biggest pocks of rust, sanded off the legs and seats until they felt fairly smooth. I kept thinking about Mama, and how I should have done this chore for her while she was still alive. The sanding finished, we dragged the chairs out onto the grass and I took the spray cans to them.

It took a lot more paint than I'd bargained for to cover the chairs. Two cans later, I still had some white spots and black spots and rusty spots shining.

Midway through, The Kiddo observed, "Hey, Mommy! You've got paint on your fingers!"

Sure enough, green speckles covered one hand. I suspected that I had green paint on other skin surfaces as well. As we inspected my hands, The Kiddo brightened. "Hey! Maybe this is how you can get a green thumb!"

But we looked closer, turning both of my thumbs this way and that. Alas ... not one fleck of green paint had landed on either of my thumbs.

The Kiddo gave me a sympathetic look, shook her head, and said, "Or ... maybe not?"

I nodded. "Or maybe not."

Friday, July 09, 2010

Giving myself permission to muddle

This year has been a beaut. Every time I think it can't get any worse, somehow, some way, it does. I've had Get-Back-Jack days, but I swear, since last fall, this has been a Get-Back-Jack year.

I just want something, some tiny little infinitesimal thing, to go RIGHT.

I won't go into the gory details, save that it's bad, and it's life-altering, but it is, ultimately, survivable.

Right now, I'm concentrating on the survivable part. If I squint really, really hard, I can see light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm praying it's not a bear with a flashlight.

But enough about the specifics of my muddle. We all have muddles. They jump out and grab us when we least expect it, when we're the least ready for it -- or so it seems.

I want to talk about how our muddles relate to our writing. Some people use their writing during a muddle as an escape mechanism, an anesthetic. They wall themselves off and write like crazy, churning out beautiful, perfect worlds that they have control over, by gum.

Not me. When I'm in the middle of a muddle, it saps my energy. It saps my creativity. I'm like that lizard that starts out at sunrise at Rock A, and he calls it a successful day if he makes to Rock B by sunset.

A year ago, I would have beaten myself up about not being able to face my current editing project. I'd tell myself that I'm falling behind on my goals. I'd tell myself that you have to force yourself on and not wait on The Muse to come teetering in on her stilettos with her feather boa trailing behind her.

But that was before I'd experienced a Get-Back-Jack Year. I understand the importance of being professional, of not missing deadlines, of pushing on when other people's jobs depend on me.

This time my muddle doesn't coincide with a deadline. And I'm giving myself permission, however hard or self-indulgent it seems to me, to muddle through. And you know what else? I'm giving you, should you need it, that same permission.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Wherein I Get More Loot

I still haven't figured out all the rules for these lovely blog awards that keep coming my way ... I suspect that there's some sort of code I should be following, kind of like The Pirate's Code.

I so appreciate it when I do get these awards ... it means so much when someone tells me that my blog has impacted the award-giver in some special way. But I REALLY appreciate it when they also accompany the award with the care and feeding of that particular award.

For instance, nifty blogger Samuel Park, who has a novel coming out in 2011 (do put it on your to-buy lists, folks!) gifted me with The Versatile Blogger award ... and he gave me the rules for it, too -- very handy!

The rules go something like this ... you thank and link back to the blogger who awarded you (check!). And then you reveal seven true things about yourself.

Woo-boy. Seven things, huh? Has there been seven things that I haven't already revealed?

1) I really DO like vanilla ice cream the best.

2) I am terrified of rats. Spiders, snakes, wasps ... they give me the creeps, but don't send me into the nearest chair.

3) I'm so cold-natured that July usually feels pretty good to me.

4) I will do things for my daughter that I could never get the courage to do for myself.

5) I cried when I ran over a turtle -- not big boo-hoo tears, but it completely ruined my day and I still feel awful when I think about the thunk the poor guy made when I couldn't avoid him.

6) I secretly think that I am a fluke when it comes to this writing business. My first editor told me I wasn't, but I keep thinking that somehow, someday soon, someone will figure out that I'm a fluke.

7) I hate the way that Hollywood portrays Southern accents. I can't for the life of me figure out WHY they sound all wrong, but they do. In the movies, the Southern guys all sound girly-girly and the Southern women all sound dumb. In real life, we don't really sound like that. Trust me.

OK, check! on the revealed seven things.

Now, onto the next portion -- I must name 15 bloggers that I admire and share this award with them.

That's tough. I only get to pick 15? But someone's feelings will get wounded! I'm going to do this in rounds, then, like a government grant, and it will all be completely random. Some time in the future, I'll award a few more rounds of 15, because I follow only those bloggers that I like and that I enjoy, and they're all versatile!

1) Toby Speed - The Writer's Arm Chair -- whose blog often captures sky pix of lovely, fluffy clouds.

2) Rebecca Thompson - Sonshine Thoughts -- whose Retail Wednesdays crack me up and make me glad I'm not in retail!

3) Lickety Splitter -- at Pukka Pearl -- who is a Southern blogger who has a great sense of humor.

4) Matthew Delman -- at The Secret Archives of the Alliterati and Free The Princess -- who is a great Twitter bud who has intro'd me to Steampunk -- something I had no idea I already liked.

5) Jamie Debree at The Variety Pages -- whose goals make me feel like an underachieving slug, but then I actually DO make goals and get some work done.

6) Julie Musil at her blog -- always full of interesting observations on writing and life, and whom, if memory serves, has gifted me with an award or two.

7) Susan Kaye Quinn at Ink Spells -- a loyal commenter and one who always gives you something to think about on her blog. She's got a book out -- LIFE, LIBERTY AND PURSUIT -- another for your to-buy list!

8) Lydia Kang at The Word Is My Oyster -- love her Medical Mondays and her cute little blog-strations! (That's illustrations for blogs.)

9) Joel Stickley's How To Write Badly Well -- a hilarious blog that shows me just how badly I can write if I don't pay attention.

10) Kelley Breakey at Blog Like You Mean It -- she's a great Twitter bud with a wonderful sense of humor, and I found her blog (I think) through Twitter.

11) Stephanie Faris at Steph In The City who always has the neatest blog topics about anything and everything.

12) Anne Gallagher at Piedmont Writer who, unlike me, can build fences on her own, but, like me, would also cry if she ran over a turtle.

13) Michele Emrath at Southern City Mysteries -- we Southern gals have got to stick together! (Please just think it's mysterious that you're #13, Michele -- nothing sinister, I promise!)

14) Jody Hedlund at her blog, and whom, if I'm remembering correctly rescued some baby squirrels and would totally understand that I cried over a turtle. She already has a Versatile Blogger Award, but she's so good, she DESERVES two.

15) Linda Grimes at Visiting Reality -- she's an agency sistah of my critique partner Tawna Fenske. Linda is a great Twitter buddy, and probably a person I could put on my "Call at 2 AM" list. If I ever wound up in jail, Linda would cheerfully drive down from Virginia to bail me out, just so she could rag me about my "fallen" status! :-)

OK, 15 recipients of blog love -- check! Now the rules say I have to notify said bloggers ... so I guess I'm off to enjoy their wonderful blogs!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Contentment is being happy with ...

The Kiddo and The Husband and I wound up enjoying steaks at my dad and step-mom's last night -- which was terrific for all around, as I didn't have to cook and The Kiddo and The Husband didn't have to eat my slightly carbonized version of grilled meat.

The Kiddo had stayed with my parental units all day, and when I arrived, she and my step-mom were tempting a huge black and white cat away from the grill and to the other side of the yard. A serving of dry cat food and a small can of the moist, smelly kind of cat food served as bait.

The cat is not my step-mother's. She's not anti-animal, but she and my dad like to travel too much to be tied down these days to the demands of a pet. This big kitty, however, has shown up with no signs of leaving, and my step-mother can't stand to see the poor old thing starve.

She knew my dad couldn't stand to see the steaks in peril, either. Thus the application of cat food to prevent the collision of kitty paws on a hot gas grill.

The nameless cat, however, was having none of it. He took one sniff of the bowl of wet/dry food, and then turned his nose upwind, where the smoke from the grill drifted. That feline knew that steak was a better deal than the fishy clump of food we were trying to palm off on him.

Still, he was a pragmatic critter. After he saw my dad glower in his direction, you could almost see the cat's whole body sigh of resignation. He approached the bowl and started in on it.

I was reminded of the old saying, "Happiness is getting what you want. But contentment? That's being happy with what you have."

The cat would have been blissfully happy for the two seconds he'd latched onto one of Daddy's New York strips. But he wouldn't have been content with burnt paws and the after-effects of being knocked back from the grill. So he decided that he would content himself with the canned cat food.

We writers -- everyone, really -- can take a lesson or two from that old cat. I know the restless urges of want-want-want attack me, usually when I've been engaging in what I call Kitchen Porn -- flipping through one too many glossy magazines of kitchen make-overs that cost more than my house did. I see, and then I covet, and that's not good.

And with writing, even with four sales behind me, sometimes the bad old want-want-want gets me down to the cellular, bone-deep level, and I crave the Next Big Thing. If, I think, IF I could just get X or Y or Z, THEN I would be REALLY happy.

Maybe, though, it would be two seconds of ecstasy, followed by a whole lot of pain of wanting the wrong thing at the wrong time.

So I tell myself to count my blessings, to take stock of what I have -- and that's a lot. And you know what? The old want-want-want monster subsides back to his deep cave, and I find peace and contentment in what I already have.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Organization for the hopelessly disorganized

The Husband would be rolling on the floor if I told him I was writing a blog post on organization tips. He'd get up, wipe his eyes and wander off, chortling, "You? YOU?"

But I figure if something works for a congenitally-disorganized recovering Messie, it must be a pretty good tip.

I thought about all this as I was searching out paperwork over the holiday weekend and cleaning up my home office. If I could just do the things I was supposed to do at the times I am supposed to do them, life would go so much more smoothly.

I do have a go-to system for filing that worked beautifully until I, ahem, stopped doing it -- mysteriously and for no good reason in June of this past year. And this weekend's search for paperwork reminded me why I should redouble my efforts to get organized and STAY organized.

The supah-secret-solution to never having to hunt for important paperwork?

Forget file folders and filing cabinets.

Yeah, I said that.

Think about it: a file drawer could be a mini-tower housing the Bermuda Triangle under my tender care. I've had file cabinets that I jammed with so much stuff that I couldn't open it to put more stuff in, and I couldn't close it once I got it open.

Plus, file folders hold only a limited amount of stuff, and unless I use a binder clip (expensive and hateful), my papers can fall out or get disorganized. Or (and this is how it usually happens), I'd get in a hurry and take something OUT of the file folder and then, ahem, never put it back.

Plus-plus, with a filing cabinet, I tend to make too many sub-categories, which means I have a tough time remembering HOW I filed something. Finding anything turned out to be one gigantic game of Concentration.

None of that is conducive to encouraging good filing habits.

So instead I use the jumbo-size three-ring notebook binders, the kind that you can buy at your handy-dandy office supply store and slip a label on the edge of it. Bank statements, credit card statements, retirement account statements, royalty statements -- pretty much any kind of paperwork you get on a monthly basis that you need to keep up with.

I take a three-hole punch, skewer those statements and drop the latest one in on top. I don't have too many binders -- one for my bank, one for my credit card, one for Harlequin -- think BIG categories here. The resulting binders stack neatly on bookshelves, and their contents never get confuzzled.

The Sister HATES my system. She is a teacher, and apparently for every new gimmicky fad in education, teachers are given a new binder.

She is also Martha-Stewart-incarnate, so "Martha" that she hides her microwave in a cupboard. The Sister hates how my binders look on a shelf, as there's no possible way they can be disguised to look like fine works of literature. She'd rather tuck all that ugly in a filing drawer -- her filing cabinet is made of dark cherry and looks like something you'd find in a super-organized office in the 1800s.

The Sister, however, has a better memory than me, and she can actually find things that she files. She was exhorting me just to go back and get a new filing cabinet (I tossed mine years ago when it appeared to be a purgatory for dead trees) and try filing once again.

Nope. The best tip of all when it comes to organizing yourself is to realize what you will or won't do -- because organization, like eating healthy and exercising, is a life-style choice. I have to find my limits, find what I am willing to do on a consistent basis, and then stick with it.

And you know what? My system works for me. It may not work for you. It may drive my sister crazy. But for this anti-filing gal, it's the secret of my success.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Southerner's Ten Commandments

Non-Southerners (the PC way of saying Yankees) just don't understand the Southern approach to life. We talk too slow. We worry about the wrong things. We never say what we mean.

But it can all traced back to the 10 Commandments of Being Southern. It's bred in us, especially Southern women, from the time our little bottoms are slapped and we open our eyes to the world.

1) Thou Shalt Always Display Good Manners. Now, this is not saying that Non-Southerners don't put stock in manners. They do. They just don't use them to the effect that Southerners do. It's much harder for someone to be rude to you when you're being nice to them. Don't holler and yell the next time you get bad service. Kill that cashier with kindness. Trust me, the poor blighted soul won't know what hit her.

2) Thou Shalt Never Rush. Non-Southerners -- well, the urban variety -- talk fast and they move fast and they eat fast. We Southerners know that such high velocity is only inviting trouble, for yes, the early bird may have gotten the worm, but what does that say about the luck of the early WORM?

3) Thou Shalt Always Remember That You Are A Direct Reflection of Your Mama's Raisin'. This, more than any other Southern Commandment is critical. It guides your behavior in ways that last long past the preacher's last prayer over your mama's casket. My mama's worst fear wasn't spiders or snakes or even a lizard loose in her house -- it was that she would be "hew-miiiiil-ee-ated." Yes, that's exactly how Mama said it. I laughed at her until I had a daughter of my own.

4) Thou Shalt Be Kind To Animals and Other Dumb Creatures, For They Know Not What They Do. Again, I'm not saying that Non-Southerners aren't kind to those who are vulnerable. They are, for the most part. But we Southerners tend to understand Commandment #4 applies to more critters than those covered with fur -- it applies to men, for instance, heinous husbands who say horrid things. And it applies to the less-genteelly brought up Southern girl who doesn't mind her manners and says something cutting and, my word, unforgivably direct.

5) Thou Shalt Always Be Hospitable. Yes, Non-Southerners can be hospitable, but we Southerners are truly brought up to believe that when we say, "C'mon in and stay a spell," we're opening our house up to you for anywhere from five minutes to five months. We're not going to turn you away hungry, even if it means stretching the spaghetti sauce with ketchup (a true story told by one of my friends, whose Dumb Critter Husband brought in a mess of good ol' boys for supper.)

6) Thou Shalt Uphold Tradition. Northerners don't understand why we put so much stock in tradition. They see us as resistant to change and progress. We, on the other hand, understand that things are always changing, and that if you wait long enough, it will work its way right back to where it was. Take, for instance, long straight hair and flare-leg jeans. Didn't we tell you not to throw those clothes out?

7) Thou Shalt Keep Weddings And Funerals Sacred. Closely associated with Commandment #6 is the one about Weddings and Funerals. Yes, you will attend every single solitary bridal shower -- the hardware shower, the lingerie shower, the Tupperware shower, the bridal-bridal shower -- that your starry-eyed engaged friend's mama is throwing. And you'll do it with a smile, because weddings are sacred. As for funerals, you'd best have a pan of home-baked lasagna in the freezer at the ready to take to the bereaved, because trust me, people will remember those kindnesses. And don't you dare think that bucket of greasy fast-food chicken will do -- if hard-pressed for time, throw together a care package of napkins, paper plates and cups, tissue and paper towels, or bring a big old ice chest full of ice.

8) Thou Shalt Honor Your Home. Southerners -- true Southerners -- know their home is where they were raised. True, they might get a wild hair and move up to New York City, but they're never FROM there. I know Southerners who've taken this commandment to the extreme ... there are spots in my county where you can drive for miles until you get to a house that doesn't belong to folks kin to their neighbors. And no, I'm not talking about marrying cousins. We don't do that. Er, not anymore.

9) Thou Shalt Honor Your Kith & Kin. This goes with Commandments #1, #3 and #4. Even if dumb old Uncle Butterball's drunk as a skunk and the old coot keeps mistaking you for a Hooter's waitress, you just smile and swat his hand. Then you go tell his wife, the long-suffering Aunt Mary Ellen, "I do declare, I think the poor old soul's forgotten his pills." That's all Aunt Mary Ellen needs to hear before she'll drag the dumb old thing out to the car by his ear.

10) Thou Shalt Never Apologize For Being Southern. Non-Southerners will assume Southerners, because of our studied indirectness, our slow, ponderous way with language, because of the way we get snookered into not one, not two, but three bridal showers for the same girl, that we are dumb. But we are not dumb. We're just treating people like we want to be treated, and as long as we don't venture above the Mason-Dixon line (or some city over-run by people who don't understand the importance of Commandment #3), we pretty much are treated that way.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

You've come a long way, baby

We writers forget just how horribly gruesome we were when we first started out. I know I did.

Yeah, yeah, I was green, and I remember being so dumb I didn't even know what I didn't know. But even before that, I had a sort of arrogance about me, that, "I could do that," when I polished off the last page of a book I'd bought.

It was usually the less-than-stellar books that inspired such confidence. And yeah, I can say I've read less-than-stellar books. In fact, to some writers or readers, my own books make them whack their heads and say, "I could do that."

So it was an eye-opening experience this weekend when I opened up a long discarded "trunk" novel with the thought that, as it was at least a first chapter written, I could resurrect it.

The first sentence, with its clunky introductory gerund phrase, warned of woe. The chapter didn't, for the most part, rise above it.

Keep in mind that this was a novel I started NOT when I was 16 (I was still writing very bad poetry about the football player upon whom I crushed on and upon whom didn't even know I existed), or when I was in college (writing a really bad, over-the-top family saga about a NASCAR family of all things).

Nope, this was a novel I started in 2003, after I'd won at least two first place Georgia Press Association Awards and after I'd been making my living off writing for five years (I was an editor/reporter).

My heroine was a shrew with an entitlement complex. My hero was a chauvinist who came across patronizing at best and Neanderthal at worst. The best character in the whole chapter was the tow-truck driver, who had a scant two or three lines to his credit. And since, in the years that have stretched on from 2003, "boots" have replaced tow-truck drivers for parking violations, Tow-Truck Driver would wind up on the cutting room floor.

I cringed with embarrassment, but I sent it to Tawna Fenske for her to take a look-see. She agreed, and I cringed some more.

But you know what? I really shouldn't cringe. I should celebrate three things: the scant flashes of talent that I came across (they registered as a "well, that's not so bad" upon re-reading), and the fact that I have improved, and finally, that I can SEE said improvement.

Being able to see that you sometimes, oftentimes, suck at writing -- or any skill, really -- is something you don't learn immediately. But you have to learn that humbling lesson if you're ever going to make it. If I had never been able to see the wisdom in my critique partners' line edits, I would have never improved. You can't improve what you don't first embrace as something that NEEDS improving.

So don't pull a Van Gogh and trash your early efforts in a blaze of feverish delete-delete-delete. Keep those trunk novels tucked away in your trunk or drawer or under your bed. And on the days when you swear you can't write, when you haven't learned one iota ... that's when you pull out those early mess-terpieces. And you'll see that, like me, you've come a long, long, long way.