Friday, October 29, 2010

Welcome to the bouncy season

And so begins the “bouncey” season.

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

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

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

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

Oh, just so many reasons to bounce.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Different can be/is/might not be good.

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 25, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Oh, happy day!

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

I. Have. A. Job. Offer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Some unexpected wrinkles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mad as a Hatter

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Onto the easiest part of the costume, the hat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 15, 2010

Great pictures on the radio!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A whole lotta ma'ams and sirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know you're in the wrong.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Power of pink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

More than words can say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

A clean well-lighted space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Patience, grasshopper

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Finding true posterity

I have achieved true fame.

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

But all the same, I AM somebody.

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

The author?

That would be yours truly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Yes to the elephant, no to skinny-dipping

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

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

Here's the list.

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

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

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

Monday, October 04, 2010

Exodus of the eggplant

It may be another 20 years before I attempt fried eggplant again.

I am not one for batter-fried vegetables. Give me my tomatoes ripe and sliced, my squash stewed or stir-fried, my okra stir-fried, and my eggplants … well, my eggplants, I’m just not sure about.

My family did not share my antipathy for batter-fried veggies. Hot grease and flour or any kind of batter could only improve a vegetable, in their opinion. I can remember plates and plates of the greasy stuff, passed down to me as though it were some rare delicacy.

I also remember the disgusting grease in the frying pans that had to be discarded afterwards, and it was my job to dispose of said grease. After all, my legs and my back were the youngest and most flexible.

When I got married, I chose a country-boy, more’s the pity for him, because so much of my limited cooking repertoire is not country-cookin’. While my hands can make a mean pan of lasagna and a fairly good fajita, I fall short when it comes to staples such as butter beans and batter-fried veggies. In fact, in 20 years of marriage, I can’t remember any time that I have ever previously tackled fried eggplant. Too much mess for way too little payoff.

But along came a sale on eggplants for a dollar each. And I thought, “Self, that’s a purple veggie, and The Kiddo should be eating purple veggies, at least according to the guilt-inducing info sheets her school sends home.” And then I thought, “Eggplant parmesan – I’ll do it like I do chicken parm, and she WILL eat it.”

Thanks to my favorite cook Alton Brown, I learned that I must first salt and purge the eggplant to get rid of the nasty bitterness. So I prepped the sliced eggplant, let it dry, rinsed all the salt off, and then took the slices through a one-way trip through flour, egg, and a combo of breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Into the hot grease they went, and out came a plate full of fried eggplant. I skipped the sauce and presented the plate a la my mom: as though it were a rare delicacy.

The verdict?

The Husband: “These have got too much salt. Why can’t you skip that fancy stuff and just cook southern?”

The Kiddo: “I like the crunchies. Can I just eat the crunchies?”

Hmh. I have since discovered via Alton Brown that eggplants don’t have that many vitamins anyway. That, combined with the lack of enthusiasm – hey, I wasn’t expecting a standing ovation, just a, “Wow, Mom, you batter-fried veggies!” Well, the combination may just render it another 20 years before I batter-fry eggplant again. In the meantime, I have a plate of leftover fried eggplant in my fridge. Any takers?

Friday, October 01, 2010

The old permanent record

Remember the worst threat, the equivalent of thermo-nuclear mutually assured destruction, that teachers would pull on their students years ago?

"It will go on your permanent record!" I remember hearing more than one of my teachers shriek at a particularly recalcitrant student -- usually a strapping boy who'd been held back a time or two.

Funny how we never got to see that all-powerful folder. It was tucked away in a file cabinet, but the threat of even the smallest single dark blot upon it was enough to keep me in line. The one time I did see a tiny bit of it was more than enough to make me never want to see any more of it.

I don't know why it was out where I could see it. I don't know why I was left alone with it. All the same, I didn't see much -- just the edge of a standardized test report that purported to diagnose my IQ. I can't remember how old I was or what grade, but I do remember the cold feeling of shame that lodged in my gut when I saw that my IQ was only 108.

Now, of course, I know that my bona fide learning disability of dyscalculia probably kept teachers from getting an accurate picture of my IQ -- and that IQs are notoriously hard to quantify anyway. But for years I was ashamed of how my permanent record had proof that I was just average.

Even if the IQ test was spot-on, and I am only of average intelligence, so what? I've done okay with the little gray cells that the Lord blessed me with. I've used what I've got to my best advantage.

Of course, that's wisdom gleaned from four decades on this planet. I have to wonder, though, how much I bought into that quick peek into my permanent record, and how I allowed it to limit my choices. Did I turn down the opportunity to go into pre-med because somewhere in the back of my mind was the niggling fear that I was "just average" and "just average" wasn't good enough to cut medical school?

It occurs to me that perhaps there were other things -- whether it was from teachers or parents or grown-ups or my friends -- that were written on my mind's version of my permanent record in indelible ink. Were they true? Surely some of them, but not all. Could I have overcome them? Most likely. Few flaws are fatal.

What about you? What are some beliefs that you bought into that you've come to realize weren't quite true? How did you come to the realization? How long did you take to stop believing the bad stuff and how did you purge it from your permanent record?