Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A writer with bad hand-writing?

A few confessions:

1) In first grade, the highest mark I got for penmanship was FAIR. Never good or excellent (unlike the little red-headed girl next to me.) Just FAIR. I learned to hate the word fair.

2) I wrote so much in long-hand, and so many notes in college on that teeny-tiny college ruled paper, that by the time I graduated college (to become a teacher), I had handwriting that resembled a doctor's. It was BAD.

Can you imagine my terror upon realizing I had to (a) write on the board for those lovable scamps I called students and (b) write notes home to said lovable scamps' parents?

So one of my first assignments to myself as a teacher was to learn how to write again. My handwriting still leaves a lot to be desired, and I envy anyone with a nice, crisp print or a beautiful cursive hand -- someone, say, like Nicole Ducleroir, who tagged me for a hand-writing tag.

Showing off my handwriting is right up there with me putting a pix of me in my yellow bikini on my blog (yes, I still have my yellow bikini, yes, it still fits, and no, I don't wear it anywhere in public, unless you count The Sister's hot tub as public.) But for Natalie, I will grit my teeth and expose my shame.

Write down (by hand!) on a piece of paper the following:

1. Name, Blog Name
2. Right handed, left handed, or both?
3. Favorite letters to write
4. Least favorite letters to write
5. Write out "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"
7. Favorite song lyrics
8. Tag 7 people
9. Whatever else strikes your fancy (Me, I have supper calling, so no more silliness for me tonight!)

It was interesting, this assignment, that I had to confess my least favorite letter to write -- that would be C. Yes, the C that I write my name with. My "c" leaves much to be desired, aesthetically speaking, and it's one of the letters I'd like to improve on. Also, I'm a Georgia girl, and Georgia girls' "c's" ought to resemble the Coca Cola "c."

And now my tagged victims:

Tawna Fenske
Linda Grimes
Julie Musil
Anne Gallagher
Nelsa Roberto
Lola Sharp
Jessica Lemmon

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A message from The Professional Muse Society

Cynthia's Muse, here, with an important request from The Professional Muse Society.

Ya know, it's not in my job description to actually get in here and write blog posts for her. It's not in my job description to write anything, actually, but ya know how it is, working with these creative types. They go all moody on you and then ya gotta endure it, like my Uncle Art has to endure his hemorrhoids.

Cynthia, now, she's not so bad. It's not like she listens, or anything, but then ya can't have everything, now can ya? At least she's not snappin' her fingers at two in the morning and saying, "abracadabra," like I'm some sort of genie in a bottle. I've had writers like that, and they are a pain in the tuches.

When I got assigned to her, eh, way back in 2003, I told HR it was never gonna work. Me? A fabulous dresser who never shows up in public without my nails done? Working with a Georgia girl who'd never been to the 212 area code? Who didn't even own a pair of stilettos? Plus, there is the issue of the lack of clothing space for my wardrobe. Been here since 2003, and I still don't have the walk-in closet I need for my feather boas.

But that Cynthia, she's got the work ethic. You'd think she was a little Puritan straight from the Mayflower, the way she goes at it. Half the trouble with her -- or maybe it's more like three-quarters, cuz ya know fractions weren't ever my forte, except when I'm figuring sales prices at Bergdorfs -- is that she won't let me do my job.

She works, works, works, writes, writes, writes. I tell her, "Honey, take a break. Have some fun. Go play. Go get a wardrobe that doesn't look like it comes from the Lands End school uniform catalog, for gracious sakes. And by the way, get your nails done -- maybe a nice French manicure?"

But, no. Who am I that she should listen to me? I'm just a muse that's been doing this way before Cynthia was holding out for three packs of paper and blue Papermate pens for a Christmas present.

People, ya gotta listen, especially you writer types. All work and no play? Not effective. Ya gotta scoot off and play a little -- catch that sale at Macy's, go get ya hair done, try on some sparkly shoes -- so's we muses can work our magic. I speak on behalf of The Professional Muse Society -- hey, I heard that snicker about PMS, ya little pipsqueak -- Excuse me while I chase this shmendrik off this blog. I'll have to finish this advice in another blog post.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Silly Business

Curse you, Robert Croak.

Mr. Croak, it turns out, is the guy who invented Silly Bandz, those shaped rubber-band bracelets that every kid is going nuts for these days. And by every kid, yes, that does include The Kiddo.

She has almost a hundred of the little suckers, and the only good things I can say about them are at least they don’t take up much room and they aren’t that expensive (although, I could get her a thousand regular rubber bands for the price of two dozen Silly Bandz, so maybe that’s not quite an accurate observation.)

Trust me, if you want to see a teacher steam, just waggle a Silly Band in front of her.

If the pesky little rubber bands would stay put on a child’s arm, it would be one thing. That’s way too much to hope for, not when kids can string them together in long necklaces and have protracted haggling/trading sessions that would make the brokers on the New York Stock Exchange look like amateurs.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud that Mr. Croak found a way to make a living during this recession. And I’m glad he has made a success out of a few cents worth of rubber band materials. I’m not begrudging him his pursuit of happiness.

I’m begrudging him my pursuit of SANITY.

I strictly forbade The Kiddo taking the little sapsuckers to school. Hey, I was a teacher, and I know how hard it is to keep a kid’s attention on math or reading even without the latest fad. I could see in two quick blinks of an eye the aggravation Silly Bandz could cause.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. The Kiddo started in at once on the, “but everyone else wears Silly Bandz!” and “I promise, promise, promise that I won’t play with them at school.”

My response was to give her the steely-eyed, “I’m no fool” look and to drag, from somewhere deep, deep inside me, yet another, “no.”

“But, please, please, Mommy,” she begged me, “just ASK the teachers and you’ll see that it’s okay. We can wear Silly Bandz.”

So I did. After the aforementioned steam stopped hissing, the teachers were able to confirm my earlier suspicion: Silly Bandz weren’t quite the devil incarnate, but they sure beat the stuffing out of studying place values and main ideas, and as such, didn’t exactly complement the Three R’s. In fact, the principal had just handed down a No-Silly-Bandz policy.

I do wish Mr. Croak all the success in the world. But first? Could he serve a time-out of sorts? If I had my druthers, I’d stick him in a classroom replete with 25 students loaded to the gills with the silly sapsuckers and tell him that he needed to teach a lesson on independent clauses. If he managed to get the concept across without confiscating his rubber swag, why, then he really would have earned my respect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Symbolically speaking

Mouth the words "high school literature."

I'll bet, if your high school lit courses were anything like mine, the words evoked THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, MADAME BOVARY, Hemingway and ... symbolism.

I was a puffed-up little peacock about writing back then. When my English teachers talked to us about writers using symbolism in their works, I rolled my eyes to the point I nearly had to pick 'em up off the floor.

"Symbolism? Ha!" I thought. "Writers just write. It's all these English teachers and professors who start saying Hemingway is using Christian symbolism in THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Hemingway was probably too drunk to even think about symbolism."

I held my tongue, got an A and moved onto college, where I waded through still more swamps of symbolism. Sure, I could see how poets use symbolism. But writers of prose?

It was a movie which actually showed me the power of symbolism. SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY is a particular favorite of mine, although the book was more of a mixed bag. For those of you who haven't seen it or read the book, it is about an abused woman who fakes her death to escape the clutches of her husband.

In the movie (not the book), the life she escapes is one of wealth and privilege. Her husband is OCD about things being tidy and neat. The setting for the house is ultra modern, with cold, spare lines. But the house she escapes to is old-fashioned, with romantic frilly touches.

I remember seeing those two settings, remember how the power of that hit me. It was the juxtaposition of the two styles of homes that underscored the life she'd left -- cold and sterile -- for her new life -- warm and soft. It just drove the point home in a simple, non-verbal way.

That's when I realized that the objects and situations in a character's world could echo the plot. And really, isn't that what symbolism is? A shortcut of sorts?

So do I use symbolism in my romance novels? You betcha. In THE BABY WAIT, there is one situation that I use symbolically, and I had to break a rule to do it.

My two characters, a man and wife, are literally stuck in a traffic jam. Now, in every writer's seminar you will ever attend, they warn you against having two characters in a car talking. But in this case, I used that traffic jam to symbolize where they were at that point in the plot -- stuck in transit, not anywhere close to where they wanted to be.

Most of the symbolism that I use is very brief -- an object, a place, a song. It's got to be subtle, or else it's overkill. All I want to do is to create an echo.

So now do I think Hemingway used symbolism? Oh, yeah, I think he did. Now what about you? Do you use symbolism?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Gibbs Girl

I admit it. I love television.

I know. So many writers pooh-pooh television, saying that it shrinks our brains and hampers our creativity. But give me a well-written drama, and I can learn so much about writing and pacing from it.

Say ... NCIS.

I further admit that I am a Gibbs girl, myself. I love me some Gibbs -- Gibbs is one of those characters that appear at the top of my "If I were ever stranded on a desert island" lists. He'd probably hammer me into the ground by the end of the first day, but by gosh, he's nothing if he's not competent. Give the guy a case of toothpicks and a piece of innertube, and he could probably build a raft.

NCIS is one of the few television shows that The Husband and I will watch together. The Husband's non-ESPN tastes run to sit-coms, which I file under breaches of the Geneva Convention. Most sit-coms turn on pratfalls and abject humiliation, and I never got past the stage where I just empathized so strongly for the poor blighted character that I had to walk out of the room at the moment of their humiliation.

But NCIS, somehow or another, caught The Husband's attention. It has to do with several factors. One, it's not a particularly gory show after the first five minutes -- unlike some of my other fave TV show -- CRIMINAL MINDS or CSI. Two, it's got comedy in it, and if you want to keep The Husband's attention, you'd best keep his funny bone tickled.

As I write this, both The Husband and I are rather tickled at the prospect of the season premiere of NCIS. I've waited a long time to see what old Gibbs will do following last season's cliff-hanger -- and if his dad makes it after facing down a gun held by a revenge-bent woman.

I try to remember that I need to bring just that sort of balance to my own writing -- some choke-you-up tender moments, some shoot-em-up action sequences, some belly-laughs. What a good writer is doing is constructing a roller coaster that will take the reader on a ride. NCIS and other good shows like that help me remember that.

Or at least, that's what I tell myself about why it's worth 45 minutes a week for me to speed through the DVR'd version of NCIS. It could, of course, just be a fatal weakness for Mark Harmon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does your main character need Prozac?

We writers can talk about motivation and backstory and character development until the cows come home. (Why, yes, I often do!) We can string together long paragraphs of introspection and volleys of dialogue in our efforts to "show, don't tell." (Oh, my, guilty as charged.)

One thing I can easily forget, though, is that a character's mood and outlook on life is probably one of the most important factors in making motivation make sense.

I was thinking about that as I read over two chapters that I've been working on in my current WIP. Both are from my heroine's point of view, and both take place by the same stretch of quiet river. In the first, when the river is a welcome refuge, my gal feels the cool river breeze. Later, though, as the scene goes on and when things go bad, that same river only feels hot and muggy and smells of dank fish.

My fingers hovered over the delete button as I read over those shifts. For a few minutes, I was convinced I needed to fix this. It showed a lapse in continuity, surely.

But I think I've talked myself out of it. After all, in real life, we don't always see things the same way, day in and day out, or even within the span of a day.

Think about how you view something as simple as a ringing telephone. If you're trying to avoid a call, your Great Aunt Zelda, say, whom you just know is going to draft you for bridesmaid duty, every ring creates knots in your stomach. You know how tacky your Great Aunt Zelda is, and her granddaughter, the bride-to-be? Well, her having been married three times already and still insisting on a church wedding and a white dress just says everything you need to know.

If, however, you're fully expecting Publisher's Clearinghouse peeps to call for directions to your house when they stop off with that big check, that r-r-riiiing is as beautiful as anything the New York Philharmonic could perform.

Of course, you can take this too far. If your character views anyone who shares even the most benign "good morning" as a Little Mary Sunshine, perhaps her next stop ought to be on a shrink's couch, with her hand out for a Prozac prescription.

The cool graphic that went with this blog post was purloined from JojoVanB's photobucket -- and trust me, it's better than Prozac to wash the blues away!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Writing: easier than harvesting sand spurs?

I don't think writers truly understand the fear non-writers have for creating words. I have some idea -- if you want to turn me into a puddle of jelly, all you have to do is to demand the answer of 112 divided by 4, or the product of 36 and 9.

But just as math-geared minds think, "Pfft! Of course that's 28, and the product is 324," we writers go, "Pfft! A 200-word essay on the importance of being earnest? Easy-peasy."

(Of course, I'd actually groan, because whoever heard of being able to explain the importance of being earnest in just 200 measly words?)

I taught a lesson on writing to a group of third graders last week, and this fear was brought home to me all over again. Not only were these kids terrified to put something down, but they were also terrified that their ideas weren't good enough.

The Sister, a teacher of some 20 years experience, nodded sagely as I conveyed this. "I'd rather spend all day pulling sand spurs* out of a patch of grass than I would write a paragraph," she admitted.

What? This was news to me. My sister is a smart woman, extremely capable, one who graduated cum laude from college. When I pressed her for more details, she said, "Well, I'm just afraid that the commas will all be in the wrong place."

Commas?! Commas?! She's letting mechanics get in the way of a wonderfully creative mind? She's letting grammar grind her to a halt?

Okay, I have an additional confession to admit. I never minded grammar. I, in fact, loved diagramming sentences. I loved it so much that I never got called on to diagram sentences on the board because the teacher saw that I wasn't terrified by it, and therefore I deprived her of her buzz. (OK, that's not fair, but that's how I saw it in high school.)

But even so, not everything I write is perfectly grammatically correct on the first pass. That's what revision is for. A grammar check is the final polish.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in grammar. I will hunt you down over the loftily uttered, "between you and I" mistake (prepositional phrases take an objective, not nominative, pronoun), and subject-verb errors leave me itching.

But until you get the framework done, until you get the blank page filled, I'm not going to worry your little head about conventions or grammar or mechanics. Then, once I know what you're trying to say, I'll help you say it better and point you toward a grammar handbook.

Yeah. That's when you worry about commas.

*Sand spurs defined for Yankees: Sandspur or sandbur is a grass plant that produces a sticker that can really get under your skin, as so aptly defined by the University of Florida IFAS Extension Agency.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Why you should never judge a book by its advanced buzz

I admit it. I am a contrary demon. Whatever everybody else likes, I turn up my nose in complete disdain. Later, I'll get hornswaggled into trying whatever it is, only to find that, for once, everybody else was right. It's happened over and over again: E.T., pine nuts, Hemingway, and ... Joshilyn Jackson.

When GODS IN ALABAMA first came out, it was one of those books people just gushed about, like THE KITE RUNNER or WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. "You've just gotta read this," they'd say. I'd make some excuse and go on my merry way. I'd feel guilty about this every time I was in a bookstore, and on one occasion in Barnes & Noble, I picked up the book, flipped it over, read the back cover, read the first page, and went, "Meh. It can't be THAT good." And back down on the big round table it went.

But then destiny found me. My library's supply of audio books had gone pitifully thin, and I was left with, you guessed it, GODS. I groaned and checked it out. But I was hooked by the time I got home -- hooked so much that I had a "driveway moment" where you stay in your car long after you've parked it, just so you can listen to what's blaring out of your speakers.

The book is about one Arlene Fleet, who has sworn to God to repent from her fornicating and lying and to never set so much as a pinkie toe back into Possett, Alabama -- as long as God will do one teeny-tiny thing for her: Keep the body hidden.

The body? Well, that's one of the gods in Alabama that Arlene talks about on the first page of novel. Arlene may have repented technically, but ONLY technically. She has a right-up-to-the-limit relationship with her boyfriend Burr, and she pulls all sorts of stunts to avoid lying -- like buying a laptop she doesn't need or want just to be able to tell her won't-take-no-for-an-answer Aunt Florence she doesn't have the funds to go back home. She'll return the laptop ASAP -- after she's told Aunt Florence. And the bit about not returning to Possett? Well, for all her traveling north to Chicago, it's clear that Arlene has never truly left Possett.

Arlene has a lot of demons to face, demons she wouldn't tackle at all if Burr wasn't insisting on being introduced to her family and the girlfriend of the boy she left under the heaps of Alabama kudzu wasn't hounding her. But before you know it, Arlene is waving hello to the Alabama state line.

The book is a tightly paced mystery, and Jackson is marvelous at creating a flawed hero that you root for. One of the reasons I was so long in reading it was that Arlene is supposed to be a murderess. How can I root for a murderess?

With Jackson's deft touch, I do. Jackson makes the south come alive -- warts and all -- and presents it in the unflinchingly love and honesty that only your best friend can match when she tells you, "You can't wear that dress. It makes you look as wide as the side of a barn." The thing I love best about her work -- beyond the clever mystery, beyond the wonderful characters, beyond how she keeps you guessing -- is Jackson's marvelous way with setting. Even in a Chicago Wal-Mart, Jackson paints a picture of the south and its customs and shows us what Arlene, a true southerner, has given up when she accepts her self-imposed exile. That's the moment that Jackson won me over -- that scene where Arlene breaks down into sobs and is comforted by a woman with a soft accent that reminds her of all she left behind.

I was the one who suggested this book for our BOOK HUNGRY on-line book club, and I'm eager to see what the rest of our members thought of it. You can, too! But first, if you haven't read GODS IN ALABAMA, I'm here to tell you ... you've just gotta read this!

Karla Nellenbach
Patty Blount
Abby Mumford
Elizabeth Ryann
Kelly Breakey
Alyson Peterson
Vanessa Noble

Thursday, September 16, 2010

At the mercy of the food police

I am a self-admitted bad cook. Okay, not a terrible cook -- I can bring water to a boil without scorching it -- but I'm definately an uninspired cook.

That's the real reason I have 31 meals pre-planned that I use on a rotating basis. What? Me come up with something creative in the kitchen? Sorry, all that creative energy just got expended on my main characters!

We eat okay, but nothing to write home about -- or to write to school about. So imagine my panic when The Kiddo divested her bookbag of one (1) weekly food survey.

It was a chart, and The Kiddo was to fill it out with what she has for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The point, of course, is to teach healthy eating habits. But, oh, my, I'm about to get busted for enabling The Kiddo's Lucky Charms addiction.

Luckily The Husband in a stroke of complete serendipity prepared a grilled cheese sandwich for The Kiddo for breakfast yesterday morning, and supper was chili and cornbread, so I looked good, if I do say so myself.

This morning, though, The Husband said, "Now that they're checking meals, you need to cook healthier stuff." He proceeded to fry the child an egg.

It's not that I'm loading The Kiddo up on deep fried chicken tenders and french fries (I don't.) It's just that ... well, vegetables that I can afford bore the stew out of me. What is there in the frozen foods department besides baby limas, green beans, and turnip greens that are fit to eat? I've tried frozen carrots (yech), frozen broccoli (double yech) and the brussels sprouts are pretty much hit or miss.

Couple that with The Kiddo's strong propensity for noodles, and sometimes the only vegetable on the table will be the chopped up garlic that I used to season the pasta sauce (I know, I am a bad, bad mommy.) She likes salads (as long as they're caesar with no hint of carrots), but my grocery budget sometimes won't stretch to the arm-and-a-leg price tag on romaine lettuce.

I miss fresh summer squash and eggplants and sweet potatoes. Those are the interesting veggies. They also tend to be the expensive veggies that The Kiddo, most conveniently, won't touch a morsel of. Sigh.

Well, maybe the lack of those Happy Meals will make up for the lack of veggies? But if the food police come and arrest me, will someone bail me out?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A new generation of plotters

After a 20-year hiatus, I found myself back in a classroom.

Two decades ago, I was a very young, very SHORT teacher trying to teach 150 kids art and spelling, whether they aspired to more than drawing a stick figure or could spell more than C-A-T. I thought I'd failed those kids (and in a way, I had), so I left the classroom. I was determined to dig ditches before I ever darkened the door of a classroom again.

But you can't NOT be a teacher if you're a parent, and I am first and foremost a parent to The Kiddo. Teachers are so swamped these days that often at least a quarter of the teaching of content subjects is left to the parents. I'm not saying teachers intend for that to happen. I'm not even saying that's a bad thing. But I can assure you that I've been mighty proud of all those education methods courses I toiled over in college. They've come in quite handy as I've shepherded The Kiddo through her elementary school career thus far. I honestly don't know how parents who don't have that background knowledge do it.

Between that homework-at-the-dining-room-table time and my previous successful (if I do say so myself) stint as a college English instructor for remedial students, I realized that I wasn't a half-bad teacher. I realized that I loved showing people how to do things. And the thing I especially love? The high that won't quit? The moment the lightbulb dings on for your student, whether she happens to be a 50-year-old returning college freshman or a 9 year-old Kiddo who finally understands the difference between conduction and convection.

In the midst of my job-hunting, I counted up my blessings, and one of them happens to be a defunct teaching certificate. In order to renew it, I'll need some time with the books (10 professional learning units or six semester hours of college courses), but it's doable.

But was it right for me? Would I be okay in a classroom? Would I even like dealing with whippersnappers all day long? Or would it be an utter failure like I thought I'd experienced two decades ago? The questions led me to volunteer in The Kiddo's school. No, I'm not in her class, but Tuesday was the first day that I served as a sort of reading coach to a third grade class.

And you know what? I had a ball! I learned a lot about classroom management from the teacher I was with, and I got to try out the skills I'd been honing on The Kiddo on a new crop of unsuspecting guinea pigs. They didn't seem any more the warped for it.

On Friday, I get to teach a writing lesson. Imagine! Me! Teaching third graders about writing! No, I'll spare them the lectures on deep POV and conflict (for now!). But I'm rubbing my hands together in glee at the prospect of turning the lot of them into -- gasp -- a whole class of plotters! Linda Grimes and Tawna Fenske will probably organize a protest!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Leaky sinks and romance

Romance often begins by a splashing waterfall and ends over a leaky sink.

The ubiquitous Anonymous said that, and I have to agree. Yes, I'm a romance novelist, and yes, I believe in Happily Ever Afters, but this marriage business is hard work. Take it from me. Or no, take it from The Husband, who has suffered many, many indignities from me over the past 20 years. (Don't worry. He's repaid them all in full.)

The marriage started out all rainbows and puppies, as all marriages should. But pretty soon, I was letting him see my washed-out hosiery as it dripped-dried over the tub, and he was belching at the table without bothering to even say, "Not bad manners, just good vittles."

(Okay, so for the first year, he was probably belching from the indigestion he garnered from my poor cooking. I'm letting the belching slide.)

That is not to say that I don't love The Husband, and I surely hope he still loves me -- in spite of my bad cooking and my messy house and the fact that I tend to get welded to a laptop at an alarmingly frequent rate.

But romance ... ah, romance. We have traded it in (pretty much) for a good working-in-tandem partnership that makes sure all the big bases are covered.

And you know? I know what that's worth. It's priceless. Give me a man who will call me up and remind me to pick up the dry cleaning or totally understands my propensity to forget mailing off bills -- yes, give me that over a Romeo who will whisper sweet nothings and let the errands slide. I'm a pragmatic sort of gal.

I didn't realize that my preferences really slid to this even in literature. I want my relationships gritty. Real. Honest. I'm currently reading a perfectly lovely book (whose title will go unnamed because I don't want to slam the author). The problem? The love interest is just too perfect. Too romantic. Too understanding. In my head, I'm thinking, "OK, when's the other shoe going to drop?"

And of course with my comic-book-violence imagination, I'm thinking, "He'll turn out to be a cross-dressing ladies' man with three wives."

The hero hasn't revealed any size XXX negligees in his closet, and it doesn't look like he will. I think it's safe to say that this is a "perfect" gentleman.

Still, too much perfect romance in a novel, at least to me, is like too much cotton candy. Eventually? As my wonderful Aunt Lou used to say, "Well, now, after awhile, ya just get a bait of it."*

What do you think? What's the perfect balance of real man vs. Perfect Man in a romance novel?

Bait - south Georgia slang that means enough, a surfeit, up to your gullet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A conversation with my muse


No, I've not found gainful employment, but it's an ill-wind that blows no good. I have instead experienced productive un-employment.

Last week, I managed to turn an episode of insomnia into the final, successful push to creating two new or newly refurbished chapters in my current WIP. It was a particularly rough battle, as I had to take the old chapter's direction and turn it 180 degrees -- which is about as easy as doing the same with an oil tanker headed for an iceberg.

After I'd managed to rewrite the old chapter, I knew I needed to create a brand new chapter. The chapter is a critical one, where the heroine has to come to the realization that she's a whiny brat who has been dancing around a problem -- and yet, that realization couldn't be full-blown. It is supposed to be a turn in the right direction, but just that: a turn.

But I kept finding a million other things to do. I'd tell myself I needed to hunt down that gainful employment. Or wash another Mt. Everest of dirty clothes. Or save money by baking my own bread. Or cut my toenails.

Uh, yeah. It finally occurred to me, just before I reached for the toothbrush and the Tilex to start scrubbing my bathroom floor's grout again, that I was procrastinating. And the reason I was procrastinating was because I was afraid.

Afraid of what? you might ask.

Well, for one thing, afraid I couldn't pull off this miracle. Do you ever have moments like that? When you're afraid your characters have way too much growth ahead of them to get from Point A to Point B?

In the early, hazy, euphoric days of a Bright Shiny New Idea, everything looks so easy. I have these sorts of conversations with that Demon Muse in Stilettos and Feather Boa:

DMiS&FB: Yanno, ya might wanna think about how the lightbulb actually goes off for 'er. (Yeah, I know. My muse talks in a very thick Queens' accent, a la Fran Drescher. Come to think of it, she actually looks like Fran.)

Me: (waving my hand in a dismissive gesture) I've got it handled. Right now, I want to think about how the two first meet.

DMiS&FB: (tapping the pointy toe of her platform stiletto) Ya put it off, ya gonna be sorrr-ry.

Me: I'm not putting it off. I'm just not crossing bridges I haven't reached yet.

DMiS&FB: (popping a wad of chewing gum as she stares at me in disbelief.)

Me: What?!

DMiS&FB: Nuttin'.

Me: No, I know that look. C'mon. Say it.

DMiS&FB: (flicking her feather boa) Ya don't think about that lightbulb moment, ya won't have a bridge to cross.

Me: You're mixing your metaphors.

DMiS&FB: Hey, honey (she holds up her hands, palms outward, and then frowns in concern as she scrutinizes a possibly damaged fingernail. She beams in relief, then returns her attention to the matter at hand.) I'm no writer here. I'm just ya ordinary muse, albeit with spectacular fashion sense, which is more than I can say about you and your hot mess of a wardrobe. But if I can see there's a problem, there's a problem. And there's a problem.

Of course I didn't listen to her. I didn't listen to her until I got to the bridge and realized, "oh, bleepity-bleepity-bleep, she's right." I didn't tell her.

But she must have known, because the other morning, I woke up at 3 AM, couldn't go back to sleep, and at 4 AM, got up, hauled the laptop to the living room and began writing. I built that bridge word by word, while she looked over my shoulder and popped her gum enthusiastically.

She was, of course, in feather trimmed mules and silk jammies, while I was in a T shirt and yoga pants. While she's pleased with my progress on the writing front, she's still threatening to submit my name to WHAT NOT TO WEAR.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The art of parenting a worrywart

In the 18 months that I waited for The Kiddo's arrival (from the first adoption paperwork to the Chinese nanny putting her in my arms) I imagined a lot of trials and tribulations about parenting. I thought about the baby barf, the exploding Spaghettios, the temper tantrums.

Control freak that I am, I developed a plan for every eventuality that I could imagine. The one thing I did NOT plan for?


No, I'm not talking about a mother's worrying. That is The Mother's Lot, and I accept the old truism that being a parent is having your heart walk around outside of your body.

I'm talking about The Kiddo's worrying.

She has always been a worrywart. In a weird way, that makes my job easier. She worries about everything, from getting into trouble, to making bad grades, to what people will think about her clothes. And yes, she is only nine. And no, she does NOT get it from me. (OK, the clothes bit, maybe.)

Earlier this month, her school let loose its annual cookie-dough fund-raiser. Last year, I had no faith in The Kiddo's ability to sell $14 tubs of cookie dough, but I had underestimated her worrywart ways. She wanted that Mega Party. And she was going to get it.

She got it, and a ride in a limo, and a special lunch. So this year, when the fund-raiser got underway, I saw that they had sweetened the pot. Now if you turned in $50 worth of sales early, you were entered into a drawing for a stuffed animal.

She needs another stuffed animal like she needs a hole in her head, but she had the sales. So I let her -- and lo and behold, the child comes home with a stuffed starfish named Patrick that is nearly the size she is.

The next drawing level was $100, and she had that many sales. But The Kiddo was completely uncertain about whether she could count her previous sales or if she had to start from scratch after the first drawing. I told her, her father told her, a family friend told her, her aunt told her, all of us told her that it was cumulative sales.

The Kiddo worked herself into a complete froth. She didn't want to enter the drawing if she wasn't absolutely SURE that she was eligible. I asked, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

Ten minutes later of boo-hooing, and I realized afresh that personal humiliation was a BIG deal for this child of mine.

We finally got her convinced that it was cumulative sales, and she went to bed. At 11 o'clock, though, she was still awake, still worried. "Mommy, I don't want to enter the drawing," she told me.

I prepared to go back over old ground. But first, I asked a wise, wise question. "Why not?"

"Because I might win, and my friend really, really wanted the M&M stuffed animals and if I win it, then she wouldn't get it."

Facepalm. "Okay. Don't enter. Go to sleep."

This morning, when I was driving her to school, I tried to talk to The Kiddo about reducing her worrying. What, I asked, would help her not worry so much?

"Oh, that's easy," she said. "I just need to know everything."

I did a quick double-take in the rearview mirror as I headed for the Daytona 500 we call the morning drop-off line. "Everything?" I asked.

"Well ..." Her face scrunched with concentration. Even in this, she wanted to get it exactly right. "Not everything, everything. Just all the answers to all the questions that I need to ask."

Boy. I wouldn't worry, either, with such knowledge at MY fingertips.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

A master's degree in human nature

Somehow or another, I have managed to get on every known telemarketing list for online colleges and work-at-home schemes. I really feel for these folks, who are just trying to make a living themselves, but the answer is no. They want to sell me a master's degree in something besides human nature.

I've done more than a few talks with young writers, and they always ask me, "What can I do to improve my writing skills?"

I'd tell them to live a few more years and get some life experience under their belt, but the nation's young, fed on a continual diet of fast food and 30 second commercials that already seem too long for them, aren't the most patient demographic group. So that's when I dust off Plan B: Get a master's in human nature.

They ask, "How?"

And I say, "Get a job as a reporter at a newspaper."

They don't want to hear that any more than the life-experience deal, but it is true. I cut my teeth in professional writing as a reporter covering everything from a man who got struck by lightning to a highly publicized body in a suitcase.

The crime stuff, that was interesting. Criminals are notoriously dumb (which is the reason they get caught 99% of the time), and it's fairly easy to write a humorous story when the defendant gets caught in the midst of a commercial transaction of weed right across from the sheriff's office (true story).

But it was the features that taught me more about human beings than anything else. I wrote stories on everything you could think of: old houses, old people who lived in new houses, people who rescued dogs, people who collected dolls, people who had alligators in their pools, people who found weird things with metal detectors. I wrote about childhood sweethearts who had grown up and married and had been married for 50 years. If it had a smidge of a story to it and it could fill up column inches, and if I could figure out a photo to go with it, I wrote about it.

It taught me a valuable lesson: every person has at least one story to tell. Beyond that, it taught me the differences in people's speech patterns, in the way they sit and talk and walk, how they see the world. It showed me all the different things that make people unique.

And that can be boiled down to one thing: the element of surprise. I never failed to learn at least one unexpected thing about each person that I interviewed. I might not have used that in the story, but it made me walk away with the knowledge that no one is exactly who he appears to be.

I hope that I bring that richness to my own characters. It's not that I seek to make each one annoyingly cute or quirky. I just hope to make them rife with the contradictions that make them, well, human.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Galloping Zebras

My imagination is so wild that it doesn't just gallop like a runaway horse. It gallops like a zebra across a savanna. I guess that's a main ingredient of a writer's personality, but honestly, sometimes I wish I could find the off-switch.

For instance, about a month ago, a young man with a foreign accent showed up at my front door with some lame tale about wanting to talk about cultural exchange. I'd opened the front door after a hasty glance had me thinking that his vehicle was my dad's.

I stood there, listening to him trying to inveigle his way into my living room, and all I could think was: strange man with a weird story, no local connections, no contact information and a knapsack. Presto-change-o, I had the guy transformed into a serial killer with a murder kit in hand on my doorstep.

It turned out that he was just a guy after a quick buck (that I found out after I'd reported the strange incident to my local sheriff), but still. I was on full-alert for weeks, and whenever I'm by myself at home, I make sure that all the doors and windows are locked. This in a town where nothing of any great import has happened for the 20 years I've been here.

It's not just on my front porch. I can find sinister danger anywhere. This past weekend, I took a family friend to the ER. Imagine the prickles up and down my spine when a pair of corrections officers escorted an orange-suited jailbird in shackles (handcuffs and leg irons) into the neighboring treatment bay. With only a polyester curtain -- and one that didn't even stretch to the floor -- between me and Mr. Jailbird, I was most interested in the outcome of the guards' debate over whether they should double-shackle him to the bed. (Eventually they did.)

In my poor beleaguered brain, I already had the guy picking the locks, waiting for the opportune moment and then grabbing the handiest hostage (that would be yours truly) by an ankle and charging out the double doors to freedom.

I'm sure the poor inmate was sick with the stomach flu or just needed a break from the ennui of confinement. Probably the last thing on his mind was playing the villain in the drama unfolding between my ears.

At least it's all grist for the mill. I've filed these scares away in my brain along with dozens of others (who else can see a Wells Fargo truck in front of Wal-Mart and worry about being caught in the crossfire of an imaginary gun battle?). Who knows? One day maybe one of them will wind up being the seed for a best-seller. Now that's a zebra I'd LOVE to imagine.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Life is a wiggle

On a collection of Chinese fortune cookies, I saw a funny one: Life is not a struggle. It's a wiggle.

Again, I don't believe in fortune cookies or horoscopes, but that one did make me laugh.

It also made me think about a conversation that The Husband and I had -- and have had several times in various permutations. What really rules our life's fate? Destiny? Or decisions?

The latest conversation has revolved around a decision I made 20 years ago to get out of the classroom. At the time, it was the right decision for me. Then, fifteen years ago, my teaching certificate was up for renewal, and I made another decision: not to renew it.

Now, here I am, strongly considering going back into the classroom. So, did I waste 20 years? Or did it take me 20 years to become a stronger teacher? Or did I just take a really long, really convoluted detour?

The Husband is more than a bit of a fatalist. He grew up a country boy, and country folk tend to be very serene about their life's lot. Whatever will be will be, and no matter how you fight it, you can't really change where you're going to end up.

Uh, yeah. The Husband is saying a LOT of I-told-you-sos lately.

I, however, have a different philosophy in life -- well, at least until now. It's the little decisions that in effect make the big decisions for you. My decision to believe I was a flop at math (hey, how I was I to know I was dyscalculic?) and my disastrous experience with high school chemistry led me to another decision: don't change the major from education to pre-med, even though I was fascinated by all things medical.

Would I have been a terrific doctor or pharmacist or therapist? I'll never know. Would I have grown into a champion teacher had I stayed in the classroom? I'll never know that, either.

One thing getting out of the classroom did for me, though, was it gave me an education in real life. I wound up (by another freak small decision) working as an editor/reporter for a small chain of weekly newspapers, and the feature stories I covered gave me more insight into the human psyche and condition than any MFA program could have.

If I had stayed in the classroom, yes, I probably would have been just a decade from retiring with a pension (sob!) instead of looking for a job, any job with benefits. But would I have The Kiddo? Would I have four published novels?

Yanno, I don't think so. I like to think of life as a marble on one of those "trees" on a platter, the one that diverts all the au jus from the roasted beast? Wiggle the platter a hair that way, and the marble rolls along a branch that forks this way or that. Wiggle the platter the other way, and the marble sees a completely different side of the tree. And sometimes a sudden jerk knocks the marble from one side to the other without the benefit of gentle rolling at all.

Where will I be in 10 years? I don't have a clue. But I can tell you this -- I'm a wiggle away from a fantastic future.

Monday, September 06, 2010

R.I.P., Tweety

I killed Tweety.

Yes, me. I am the horrible mother, the terrible, no-good, horrible mother, who shattered poor Tweety.
Well, his likeness on The Kiddo’s favorite drinking glass, anyway.

I can’t remember when Tweety came into our lives, but I suspect it was sometime when we were making that slow and ponderous leap from sippy-cups to real drinking glasses. His smiling face and fluffy yellow body graced both sides of a glass that was easy for little hands to hold, yet big enough for me not to have to be on a constant run to the kitchen for refills.

Tweety had found a nest in our glasses cupboard, and he was The Kiddo’s go-to drinking glass. My mother would have (and frequently did when she was alive) rolled her eyes at the idea that I was allowing a non-matching drinking glass on our dining room table. But another bit of her sage advice was to “pick your battles,” and yanno, Tweety just wasn’t a battle I wanted to waste my time on.

Over the years, The Kiddo had given up on many of her hold-overs from baby and toddlerhood: by the time she was five, she no longer asked to eat on the Strawberry Shortcake plate she’d gotten for her birthday, and the colorful Princess cup she’d gotten from someplace had been likewise left in a catch-all cabinet.

Tweety, though, was still a perpetual favorite. Until today.

Today, as I was loading dishes, I reached over The Kiddo’s Tweety glass that she had left on the kitchen counter (per my instructions – the rule is, no eating or drinking except in the dining room or kitchen) for another glass.

The plain glass slipped from my hands and crashed down on the rim of Tweety. I heard the sickening crack of broken glass and I knew.

With all the will in me, I took a look at Tweety’s carcass. There was no saving him. “Oh, boy,” I said to The Husband.

He took in the situation and said, “Now you’ll catch it.”

I called The Kiddo in the kitchen with the news, and she wept for her old friend. “But where will we get another one?” she asked as I held her and mumbled, “I’m sorry, so sorry” about a million times in her ear.

I confessed I didn’t know, but that I would look. Tweety came from an antique/collectible shop to begin with, and I suspect he’ll be hard to replace (yes, I know, my mother would be tsking and telling me we shouldn’t have used such a glass in the first place.)

But then, The Kiddo’s tears dwindled and she headed back to the television program she’d been watching. A few minutes later, I heard her laughing, and spied her from a discreet vantage point. Her tears still wet her cheeks but a big smile graced her face.

Yep. Tweety will be missed, but maybe it was time to let him go anyway.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Fantastic Fingers

Can you imagine insuring your fingers for a million bucks EACH? Guitarist Jeff Beck did, according to an article on Time's website. He'd cut off the tip of his finger as he chopped carrots, and after the digit's tip was re-attached with no problems, he reportedly decided he needed to insure against more carrot-catastrophes.

As a writer, one of my biggest fears has always been that something will happen to my hands. I type, therefore I am, right?

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Why couldn't she just dictate her stories?"


That evil laugh wasn't me, by the way. That was The Husband, who claims that I cannot tell a story, a joke or even recount my day.

It's true. I am the world's worst oral story teller. I get all long-winded, with a whole bunch of hems and haws and going backwards and forwards just to make sure you have the complete picture. I use a lot of analogies, and that in particular drives The Husband bonkers.

Give me a piece of paper or a computer keyboard, though, and my hems and haws dissolve. Yep, I am the exact opposite of 90 percent of the general, non-writing population.

Back when I taught remedial English to college students, they'd practically break out in hives when they were faced with an essay (which was a lot in my class.) The only way I could convince them that they could write was to sit them down and make them tell me a story that I busily and as unobtrusively as possible transcribed.

Then I'd clean up the notes I'd made (my handwriting is as bad as my oral-story-telling skills) and read back to them what they'd just told me. "See?" I'd say, tapping the paper. "That's all I need."

Poor students. They'd look at me like they were waiting for a trap to spring. "Nah," they'd tell me. "That's too easy."

Speak for yourself, I'd think. I've long been envious of good oral story tellers.

In 2003, when The Kiddo was a baby and I was an editor/reporter for a chain of small weeklies, I was loading The Kiddo in my car's backseat when a friend of mine unwittingly slammed the car door shut -- with my hand still on the jam.

I will admit I said a few choice words, because, man, it hurt.

But the thing that got me was how scared I was that I'd broken one or more of the 27 fingers in my paw. I remember standing on the sidewalk, cradling my hand, my heart thumping in my chest. I nearly dissolved into a puddle of relief when all five of my fingers worked as advertised.

I know writers who have broken BOTH hands while on deadline and miraculously managed to dictate the rest of their books. Me? Well, according to The Husband, I'd be using Word's Find And Replace feature to search and destroy all my hems and haws.

So what's YOUR biggest body-part-fear when it comes to writing? What accomodations would you have to make if you lost that body part?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Perils of Pauline and other ways we tempt readers

I learn so much from The Kiddo. I think that's a real blessing that parents have -- seeing the world through their children's eyes.

Take, for instance, the lesson she taught me about chapter hooks.

The Kiddo has been glomming Trixie Belden, and to encourage her to read silently (and thus get hooked on reading as a means of battery-free entertainment), I've let her "talk" me into allowing an extra chapter at night, if she reads it to herself.

Usually, there's no problem, as Trixie will have gotten herself into some scrape or another. The Kiddo will leap on the book and eagerly read away, eyes wide, lips compressed, looking for all the world as though she's been strapped on a roller coaster. You can always tell when Trixie's out of harm's way, because then The Kiddo will settle back.

But the other night, I glanced at the clock and saw it was later than usual. So after I got to the end of the chapter that I was reading aloud, I closed the book. The Kiddo didn't argue.

"What?" I asked, amazed. "No begging? No pleading for just one more chapter?"

She yawned and shook her head. "They didn't tempt me to read any more," she confessed.

I pondered on that comment for several days. That is exactly what a chapter hook is: a temptation to read just one more page to see how things work out. It reminded me of the old black and white silent cliffhangers I've seen bits of in documentaries. The films were designed in serial fashion so that they could part kids from their nickels week after week.

Of course, we have to be a trifle more sophisticated in our cliffhangers. Today's smart readers will catch on quickly that we put Pauline in peril just to get them to flip the pages.

I've been thinking about what makes ME stay up until 2 a.m. to finish a book. Here's my sucker-list.

1) Short chapters. This one sucks me in every time. I'll have consumed another chapter (and gotten snagged by another chapter hook) before I know it. I actually use this in my own writing, because I prefer to limit my chapters to a single scene or two at the most, and that usually isn't sustainable for more than ten or twelve pages.

2) Heroine in hot water. Yep, I still fall for Pauline in Peril ... she may not be tied to a railroad track with a locomotive about to flatten her, but if she's in danger and I care about her, I'm going to at least read the first few pages of the next chapter.

3) An unexpected plot twist. If the story zings off in a way I didn't anticipate, you can bet I'll read right on, and who cares if the clock's struck midnight?

4) A fast-paced plot. We can knock Dan Brown all we want, but he understood how to keep the reader flipping those pages. He programmed readers to expect the plot to move ahead in blitzkrieg fashion, and they wanted to see what came next.

Again, today's readers are too sophisticated for a whole series of Paulines in peril, and if you end a chapter with a heroine in hot water, it better be real trouble, not something that is easily fixed. Otherwise, even the most unsophisticated reader realizes that you're just pushing her buttons to get her to read on, and she'll know, instinctively, that you never intend for your heroine to be put in harm's way.

My advice to myself? Shake all those strategies up in a bag and use them randomly, so that the readers never knows what you're going to hit them with next.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Pleading with plastic wrap

I wish I could think of knots and plastic wrap in the same way.

When I was little, I'd often accompany my dad on errands in his big white 60s-something GMC pickup that the family had christened The White Elephant. He'd pull up somewhere, a parts store, a hardware store or the like, and hand me a roll of knotted surveyors twine.

"Here," he'd tell me, "I need these knots out of this twine. Otherwise it won't hang straight when I use it to lay a foundation out."

I would go at that job with the tenacity of a fire ant. While my dad conducted his business, I'd be clawing and scratching and tugging at those knots.

It taught me patience and persistence and focus, traits that have served me well as a grown-up. It also kept me out of trouble, which was probably the entire reason I was given the knot-detangling job in the first place.

Because of that early experience, I've had a huge respect for knots. I will not cut a knot. You ask me, that's the ultimate in quitting. Nope. I'll hang in there, set my jaw, and keep at it until I have liberated the two ends of string.

Plastic wrap has never evoked a similar respect.

For years, I banished plastic wrap from my house. The Sister could not understand it. She said I could outfit Pharoh's army in my supply of zip-top bags, which I admit, I have an inordinate fondness for. What's not to like? They're easy to use, quick and convenient.

Unlike plastic wrap, which clings to you like the stink of a skunk. It sticks in all the wrong places, and, even more aggravating, doesn't stick to what you want it to stick to. And yet, with enough of it, you could probably bind and gag a person to the point she couldn't get free -- always my fear when getting too close to a roll of the evil stuff. I can just imagine that plastic slithering out of the box, up my back, around my wrists and tying me up.

The old axiom holds true, though: you can save money or you can save time, but you can't save both. Right now, while I'm job-hunting, money is in short supply but time? That I have.

So at the grocery, I picked up a roll of my nemesis to wrap about 10 pounds of pork chops that I got on sale. And this morning, I declared war.

I wish you could have seen me and the plastic wrap. For awhile there, it looked as though the plastic wrap, the devil's own invention, was going to win -- I was going to lose all my religion, and the pork chops were going to remain nekkid.

But I remembered those knots that I tackled in the cracked vinyl seat of The White Elephant. I got mad. I shook my finger at the blasted roll of plastic wrap.

"I will not let a piece of polyvinylidene chloride whip me!" I vowed.

Maybe it was my tenacity. Whatever it was, I managed to get all 21 pork chops wrapped and tucked in the freezer -- without contaminating the roll of plastic, dropping a pork chop or smothering myself. That's progress ... even if I still don't much like plastic wrap.

(Note: the cute picture of the Plastic Wrap captive? It came via Rubyreusable.Com, and is the brainchild sculpture of Mark Jenkins.)