Monday, December 06, 2010

Oh, the agony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

And they crawl back out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nope, the printed word's not doomed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not Dead, Just Buried

Nope. I'm not dead. Just buried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010


I'm tossing again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beyond perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Unfathomable attraction

So just what IS the attraction of the UnDead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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