Stories, please

Like everyone else, I am staying home. Or trying to. There was a doctor appointment, and a trip to the car dealership to check on an engine warning light.  And I had to pick up a prescription.

But mostly, staying home. Connecting with others via telephone, Facebook, texting, and Zoom.

Doing a lot of cross stitch, basket weaving, and Solitaire. Watching TV. Reading.

Today I went outside and raked up sweet gum balls,and dragged limbs into a pile to be taken to the curb. Me against nature. I’m not sure who is winning.

A few days ago I wondered what I could do to help others. I know parents have their children at home, and possibly both parents are trying to work from home as well as make sure their children keep up with their lessons. But what about when said children are bored and whining that they have nothing to do?

The Swineherd and his magic kettle

 

I remembered that I used to read stories to my children and grandchildren. There doesn’t seem to be any substitute for curling up on Mom’s or Granny’s lap and listening to a story.

I remembered the stories I loved to listen to or read when I was a child. And so I dug out the faded and tattered copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. No copyright issues here, Andersen’s most loved fairy tale, The Mermaid, was first published in 1837.

So I set up my iPad on a table on the deck and began to read.

So far I have read six of his stories, some short, some long. Most have a somewhat happy ending. Andersen was not known for happy endings. Remember The Little Match girl or The Steadfast Tin Soldier?

Some are Christian allegories and filled with bloodshed. I even wondered about the soldier in The Tinderbox who murdered his benefactress with nary a glimmer of guilt. Or The Red Shoes, where poor Karen cuts off her own legs in order to stop dancing?

Then I realized something. What these children are living through today has nothing on Andersen’s most frightening tales.

I will continue to read, and leave it to the parents’ discretion as to whether their children can take a 200-year-old story of witches and goblins and kidnapping and whatever else the storyteller had in mind.

I read them all when I was a child, and it didn’t harm me. The world is a dangerous and often wicked place.

Our children know that.

You can find me on YouTube by typing in “Meemaw Sandy reading.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little rant and some advice

This is a world in which one has to be very aware and, need I say, suspicious of everything. You can’t believe half of what you hear, and even reliable sources can be wrong.

People  make a living from scamming others, preying on the most vulnerable. I watch the evening news in amazement as people recount how they willingly gave hundreds of dollars to strangers who tricked them over the telephone.

Today I have had (so far) four calls from “Apple” telling me there has been suspicious activity on my iCloud account.

I don’t have an iCloud account.

I think I am canny, but some day I suppose I will fall for a line. The caller would have to be a living human being, however. I don’t react well to mechanical, monotone voices telling me the IRS is out to get me. Or that my Microsoft account is 1) past due or 2) owes me a refund. (Refund for what?)

The thing is, I am very wary about handing over money. It goes fast enough paying bills I am sure about, and I’m not about to pay for something I’m not 100 percent positive I actually owe.

Several years ago, I almost fell for a call from my “grandson” saying he needed money because he and some friends had been arrested in Canada for possession of marijuana. The voice sound just like him. The tip off was that he called me “Grandma” which he never has. The grandkids have another name for me. And, after I got over my shock, I realized there was no way on Earth his parents would have let him go to Canada with friends no matter how much he pleaded.

So I know how easy it is to be scammed when it comes to family. We all have our weak points, and these people know how to reach them.

Even writers get fooled. I got a very nice comment on this blog. I was flattered and decided to reply and thank the person. Thank goodness I had some errands to run, so put it off until later. When I returned and clicked on the email, there was a huge red banner across it , telling me that this was a dangerous email and not to click on any links. I deleted it immediately, feeling a little sad that I didn’t have an adoring fan after all. Yep, flattery will get you in a whole lot of hot water.

We are aware of the most popular scams, and most of us know enough not to give out personal information, i.e. bank account or credit account numbers, over the phone unless we initiated the call. But every week, it seems, we hear of a new, clever scam. And every week, some poor man or woman loses their life savings.

So be careful out there. Remember, you can’t win a lottery if you never bought a ticket. That money dangled before you by an unknown caller is just a lure to relieve you of your savings.

 

Avoiding distractions — or not

I promised myself I would sit dutifully at my computer and play catch-up. First on my list was reading three contest entries and then filling out the score sheet. I don’t take this duty lightly, reading each at least three times and then trying to leave thoughtful, encouraging remarks. I know too well what just one disparaging comment can do to a writer’s soul. I’ve been on that end, too.

But distractions happen, and this time the distraction was not the telephone, doorbell, or a sudden emergency with my computer. It was the constant chirping from a small birdhouse filled with baby wrens.

I knew they were there. I’d seen the parents busily building their nest, heard the first feeble chirps. Maybe if I’d kept the deck door shut, I wouldn’t have heard them, but the cooler weather was too enticing.

One evening earlier this week I sat out on the deck with my book and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.  The hummingbirds didn’t seem to mind, nor the the finches eagerly prising seeds from a cylindrical mesh sock. But the mother and father wren kept up a constant chatter. I looked up to see one parent scolding away with a bug in his or her beak.

I wondered how they could make a noise with their beak filled with supper for their little ones. Just as the thought crossed my mind, the bird gulped the tidbit down and flew away.  Then the other parent appeared, this time with a grub, and repeated the same scenario. Meanwhile, having been cheated out of their supper, the little ones cheeped pathetically.

It dawned on me that the parents would eat the food themselves before daring to cross in front of me to enter the birdhouse. Feeling like a schoolyard bully, I took my book and wineglass indoors. Peering out of sight through the screen door, I was relieved to see the parents resume their feeding ritual.

But this day, a day when I needed no distractions, the baby chorus had definitely increased in decibels. Even shutting the sliding glass door didn’t mute it. To add to the din, both parents kept up a loud, irritated cheeping of their own. I thought perhaps they were coaxing the youngsters from their nest, so I put my work aside and went to look. This event was something I’d long wanted to observe.

But no, the birds were scolding a cat, or another bird, or some other object of their ire. In between, they’d swoop in and temporarily silence their offspring with another morsel.

I eventually managed to put the outdoor racket from my mind, completed the score sheet, and sent it on its way to the judging coordinator.

I sometimes think I would be a more prolific, or at least a faster writer, if I didn’t succumb to such distractions.

But then, look what I’d miss!

 

 

 

 

Reading, Writing and … Arithmetic?

All morning I have been going over figures, adding and subtracting, and being surprised when they all balanced at the end of the column.

No, not my checkbook, but the accounts of our writers’ club, for which I, in a mad moment, took responsibility for when the former treasurer resigned. We have two, a savings account and a checking account. Savings is easy: I just add in the few cents interest earned each month and it is done.

Checking is harder in that I am prone to make deposits and forget what they were for … dues, book sales, donations? Ditto with checks. Luckily for me our bank sends a copy of each cancelled check with the monthly statement or I’d be really lost.

It isn’t that difficult if you keep up with it. Alas, I sat down to do a report for an upcoming meeting and realized I hadn’t done one for almost a year! I had made a monthly report highlighting any notable expenses, but as for a typed-up, official report — nada.Image result for adding machine clipart

When I finally got all the figures neatly typed up and exported to a .pdf that I put on our website, I vowed never to let it slide so far again. But I probably will, simply because I hate figures. So why do I do it? Because year after year, when we hold elections, I beg someone else to take over the job. And no one does. I realize that if I were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, someone would have to take over, but knowing my fellow club members no one will be over-the-moon happy about it. I expect plenty of grumbling.

Until that day comes, I will do it not because I like being a martyr, but because I know if a club is to survive, every member has to do his or her part. Even writers clubs, where you would think all we do is sit around and listen to each other read at Open Mic or hold critique sessions. Our club does a little more than this. In the past we have written and presented an outdoor drama, held a two-state-wide writers conference, and hosted story-telling events and workshops on writing. To do all these things, money has to flow in and out.

And someone has to keep track of it.

So I’m not complaining. I’m just explaining why I haven’t written a word on my WIP today.

We writers just love excuses!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Progress of sorts

As I said last week, I am participating in a program for Black History Month that recognizes  the contributions of all people regardless of ethnicity toward the cause of equality.

I pulled together a costume that might be worn by a rather fierce mid-19th century abolitionist lady: long skirt, high-necked, long-sleeved pleated blouse, high black boots. I tried on a shawl, but it didn’t look right. Nor could I find a hat that looked right, so I opted to believe the lady was speaking indoors and wouldn’t necessarily be wearing a hat. With totally opposite reasoning, I tried to find a pair of gloves. I did find a pair in the back of one of my dresser drawers. I used to have many women’s gloves, but had donated all but this pretty pair to costumes for our outdoor drama. Alas, these are stained and I have been trying every remedy I can think of to remove the blotches.

Elizabeth B. Chace

The hardest part was my hair. I wear it short, so I parted it in the middle and combed the sides straight back. It makes a severe look, which I thought appropriate. I’m sure my character, Mrs. Chace, was kind to her charges, but I imagine her strong in her beliefs.

We had dress rehearsal and although I’d been practicing my little piece, it flew out of my mind when I realized there would be actual people there. I recovered quickly and spoke my lines with only a few minor lapses.

My friend Beverley and I decided to get a quick supper after rehearsal and went to a local pizzeria in our costumes. We raised nary an eyebrow. I may be getting a local reputation for eccentricity. As Eleanor Roosevelt, Beverley simply looked stylish.

I  haven’t been neglecting my writing. I sent out another query, and have written more pages.  Whether or not they are any good remains to be seen. Here is where I will rely on beta readers.

All this takes time. Time is something you squander when you are young, and try to hang onto when you are old. Alas, it slips through your fingers either way. I am beginning to feel a sense of urgency, which may be why I am sticking to my writing schedule more rigidly than I have previously.

So I am working and having fun in equal parts, which is not to say having fun isn’t work at times (memorizing lines) and working isn’t having fun (looking up from writing to discover an hour has flown by).

The program will be behind me in a few days. Hopefully, I can say the same about this book in a few months!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cheers! As I Pour A New Mimosa

Where have I been? MIA…

IMG_5058

Coffee sunrise Wilmington

In January, of this year, 2018, I was optimistic about the future, our future and my future –more so than I’d been in decades. I’d spent 2017 wrapping up loose ends. I’d finished healing from health issues, ready to move forward and get back on track. I’d finished 18 months of therapy for c-PTSD. Learned it was a ghost that would be with me forever; but, I’d acquired the tools to deal with my triggers. I eagerly anticipated the hard work and path I’d chosen!

I suppose, like many women, in America now, I could (but won’t) thank 45 for being the biggest trigger, since my childhood and forcing me to face my past. My WIP’s first draft was finally done, after a complete A-Z rewrite. I had a plan for the edits, which I set a deadline of September 2018. I had my house cleaned, my office organized and I felt an effervescence in my soul. In Wver the holidays, I’d mended bridges with my in-laws and poured my soul out to my poor Father-in-law after two large glasses of wine. (Yes, I am a light-weight) We even willingly hugged farewell as they headed back north. More

Ready, Set … Goal!

Having made the statement that I was going to revisit an old manuscript and revise it because I know now more than I did then, I had several people respond that they couldn’t wait to read the story.

Not only that, but in my writing group I set my next month’s goal to finish at least four chapters. We each put in 25 cents and write down our goal for the next meeting. These slips of paper are put in a pot and drawn. If your name is drawn and you have accomplished your goal, you win. If not, the pot rolls over to next time.

It isn’t about the money. The last person who won walked off with a whopping $5.00. It’s about setting that goal and reaching it. No one wants to admit that, for whatever reason, they didn’t do what they vowed to do. It’s not only  embarrassing, but shows a lack of commitment.

So I set both a short-range and a long-range goal to revise and finish this story. I’m excited. For one thing, in the past 10 years or more since I started it, I’ve learned more about pacing and structure. I’ve changed from pure pantser to more of a plotter, because I’ve discovered that if you go down a  road without checking a map first, you could very well find yourself at a dead end, or almost as bad, someplace you never intended to go and no way to get back on course.

I would most likely finish the story without having made my intention public. But now I feel a responsibility not only to myself but to my few but loyal fans.

Setting a goal is good and we all do it. Sometimes the only person aware of the goal is yourself, and if you fail you are the only one who knows it.

However, if you set a goal and talk about it to friends and write about it, you  have a lot more riding on its completion. And if that doesn’t make you sit down and start writing, I don’t know what will.

 

 

 

a’s and b’s of contests

I’ve entered a few contests in my time and have been a) mortified or b) uplifted by the judges’ comments.  I have had entries returned with angry lines scrawled across my hard-written efforts and I have had very nice remarks that almost made me feel good that I had lost. Judging is difficult, but it is akin to critiquing. You try to point out flaws gently and kindly.

Gently and kindly is best.

So when I judge, I try to keep in mind how I would want to be treated. Maybe there are issues. How best to tell the would-be writer that maybe, just maybe, they might want to take a teeny-tiny revisit and oh, say change a word or two here or there to make the sentence more coherent?

You almost have to choose your words as carefully as if you were writing a query letter, which everyone knows is the hardest writing of all. And a contest all its own, of sorts.

Because the last thing a judge wants to do is discourage a writer just as she is starting out her career. You don’t slap their hands with a ruler because they made a little error in spelling.

Spelling is the least of it. Spelling can be corrected. But when the writer makes a great big error in plotting, or in pacing, it’s a little more difficult to point it out. I can say, “I got a little lost here…” or “a bridge paragraph might work at this point” and go on my way.

That said, the beginning chapters of the three manuscripts I read made me eager to read more. The opening sentences were spot-on to rouse my interest. The unfolding plot lines kept me guessing.

If these authors are amateurs in the sense that they are not yet published, the established authors had better look out.

Or not. There is always room in the world for a good, fast-paced, and interesting novel. One thing I have learned about writers is that they do not feel as if they are in competition. They are always eager to help one another.

What I take away from judging is that a) I can see other writers’ mistakes more easily than I can see my own and b) I look forward to reading more from these talented ladies.

 

Book talks and things that go boom!

Lately, I feel as if I am being pulled in several different directions. I’m not complaining because I love to be busy. I love company. I love going places.

I was relieved when a health scare turned out to be nothing (but a week of anxiety) and was happy when I learned of back-to-back family visits. Truly a time for celebration. But I forgot that my family were coming to see me and not my house, so I spent a week cleaning and scouring and mopping which wore me out. The good thing is that my fall housecleaning is now accomplished!

All of you know that when family comes, you drop everything going on in your life to be with them. But sometimes this can’t be done. I had an obligation at the church on Sunday: lay reader and assistant to the pastor for communion. I told my kids I had to be at church and invited them to come. They did, and I had the very great and meaningful pleasure of serving the communion cup to my two sons and daughter-in-law.

They left and I had one day to wash sheets and towels and re-make the beds before another branch of the family arrived.  Again, I had an obligation I couldn’t back out of. I had promised a book club in another town that I would come and talk. I called and asked if I could bring my two guests along, and the hostess graciously said “Yes.”

There are all kinds of book clubs and I thought I knew how they worked, but this club was different. They each buy one book, and at their meeting they put the books on a table and the members choose one to read during the next month.

“Don’t you discuss them?” I asked.

“No, we never talk about the books,” was the answer.

Well, I talked about MY books and my road to publication, which is what they wanted to hear. My guests said they enjoyed it as they hadn’t realized how I got started writing or how many books I had written.

Which reminds me, one of the questions I was asked was about my schedule. I think they were disappointed when I said I didn’t have one. Anything, I said, from a load of laundry to a dirty floor, can keep me from writing. They were surprised that I had to make myself sit down and write. I keep vowing to write first, then do my chores, but like all good intentions I gradually slip back into old habits. This past week has shown me how far down I have slipped.

Another question was if I ever worked on more than one book at a time. I said yes, I’m currently revising one and re-writing the end of another. When I get tired of one project I switch to the other. It’s a race to see which gets finished first!

Am I going to get back on schedule now that my visitors have headed home? I hope so, but I do have plans for the rest of the month. One item on my list is to see the Georgia Dome get blown up on Nov. 20. We’ll have to get up early in the morning to see that, but who would miss a big explosion? Not me.

Maybe I can somehow work it into one of my books.

And if I get pictures I will share!

 

 

The longest week

I wasn’t going to write about this, but because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I decided to share anyway.

Like many woman, I get an annual mammogram. I may be past the recommended age range, but I remember my first husband’s Aunt Estelle dying of breast cancer 50 years ago. She had a total mastectomy, but the cancer got her anyway. She was  in her eighties.

So I two weeks ago, I had a screening mammogram. I always feel a little apprehensive, but in the past 15 years the only result was a letter telling me all was fine.

I went immediately in panic mode when, just three days later, I got a phone call. The caller ID was Charlotte Radiology.

I'd Rather Go to California by [Bruney, Sandra]

I wrote about my journey back in 2014 in “I’d Rather Go to California.Many people have told me it helped them, a friend, or a relative, which was my purpose in sharing my story.

I knew it would not be good news. They send a letter for that.

The very nice voice on the other end told me I had to schedule a diagnostic mammogram and a ultrasound. The only reason given was that the first mammogram was “incomplete.” I figured that was a code word for “We found something disturbing and it may or may not be cancer so we’ll take another look.”

Friends, the week until I went back was the longest week of my life. If this were the first time this had happened, I’d have been scared but ignorant. This time I was scared and fully aware of what might be ahead. It may have been 16 years ago, but I still remember the pain of surgery, the sickness of the chemo, during which I lost nearly 30 pounds because I couldn’t eat, and then the exhaustion following radiation. It took me a year to recover.

I had the diagnostic mammogram and was taken to the ultrasound room. I waited there alone for about five minutes, with everything going through my mind from how to tell the kids and what this meant for my planned trip to Ireland in 2019.

Then the doctor came in. “Everything looks good,” he said. No need for an ultrasound. Come back in a year.

I felt that burden I’d been carrying lift right off. I thanked him and hugged the  nurse. I thanked God for His goodness all the way home.

I hadn’t told anyone about this except for two friends I knew would stay mum while offering up prayers. When I told them the news, they were as happy as I was.

Not every woman going for her annual mammogram has such good results. Remember them in your prayers. Support whatever organization you prefer in continued research and hope for a cure.

And ladies, schedule your mammogram.

 

 

 

 

And here we go again…

I don’t normally rant on this space. It’s supposed to be about my writing journey, not politics.

Let me start by saying I am not against guns. My Dad hunted when I was young to put meat on the table. It was the tail end of the Great Depression and we were happy to eat rabbit, squirrel, venison, quail or what ever else he shot. Mom drew the line at cooking ground hog or ‘possum.

After Jim died, I found six guns in the house, from his grandfather’s rabbit gun to a Kruger pistol. I got rid of all of them. I don’t hunt and if I shot at a burglar I most probably would shoot my big toe off before I hit him. I took a rifle course in college, but had to drop out because of my poor eyesight.

I don’t care if you have a gun in the house as long as it is safely locked up away from curious little hands.

But I do have some questions. I read The Charlotte Observer, which recently reported its 70th homicide for 2017. Most of these are committed by young kids in their teens or early twenties. The victims are also teens, or even children. Why do these kids have guns? We know their brains are not yet fully mature and that this age range acts on impulse. I recall reading about one victim who said in the ambulance taking him to the hospital that he didn’t know being shot HURT! Why would he? Movies, TV, and video games show people getting shot, but they don’t convey the pain of the victim, the anguish of the victim’s family, the horror of something done that can never be undone.

We want the government to act, but they are bought and paid for by the NRA. In a perfect world, Congress would listen to the people who elected them and not their pocketbooks and enact some sensible legislation. We can’t get all the guns off the street, but we can make it harder for them to be used when some kid feels he is being dissed and wants to show that sucker not to mess with him.

  1. Make the person who sold the gun equally responsible for the crime committed. We hold bartenders responsible when they sell alcohol to a minor, why not gun sellers? Make it illegal for anyone under 21 to own a gun except a hunting gun. Most kids know who they bought the gun from.
  2.  Make it harder to buy ammunition. Same as above for the seller.
  3. Outlaw rapid-fire automatic weapons for anyone not in the military. You don’t hunt with them, you don’t target practice with them. So why have one? If you need one to feel macho, try another venue like running a marathon. It will also help relieve that anger and stress that makes you want such a weapon.
  4. Make would-be gun buyers complete a course in gun safety before purchase just as young hunters must take a course in hunting safety before they get a hunting license.  Double the penalty for a crime committed using a gun if the shooter can’t show his certificate.

Yes, I know none of the above protects us from crazy people. Our mental health system is working overtime. And even those professionals can’t do anything if a person suddenly breaks. That person isn’t in the system.

I don’t believe any of this will happen any time soon until the public takes a united stand. But that would take unity, and those who claim second amendment rights have to realize their rights end when our lives are in danger. I want to be able to go to a movie, a night club, an outdoor concert without wondering if I’m going to be a victim of someone’s misplaced rage. I know there is no way to eliminate that possibility, but we can make sure the chances of it happening are lower than they are now.

And it will only happen if two things change. Congress should not let the NRA keep their hands tied when it comes to enacting common sense gun laws. And the NRA should admit its culpability and acknowledge that those laws will not keep you from target shooting or hunting or protecting your home instead of screaming that their “rights” are being violated.

And sadly, pigs will fly before any of this happens.

Rant over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disaster preparedness

I love Nature as much as anybody: sunsets, beaches, mountain vistas …

But lately, Nature has been a little too upclose and personal. Ask anyone from Texas. Or Mexico.

If I had to pick between a hurricane and an earthquake, I’d pick neither, thank you very much.

It looks as if we’re getting something, though. A full-fledged hurricane or maybe some strong wind and rain. Not sure of Irma’s path. At one time predicted to roll over us, now maybe to the west, but wait, that could change.

So I went to Walmart yesterday to fill my gas tank, and get a few staples just in case. I remember Hurricane Hugo and the ensuing week without power. At that time we had a generator and lots of propane goodies like a lantern and stove. I no longer have any of those because I didn’t know how to use them and since Jim isn’t here to do it (or show me) I got rid of them, congratulating myself on the storage space I was saving.

I wish he were here now, not necessarily to fire up a propane lantern, but to talk me out of my misgivings about this storm. He was always  calm, but methodical. He knew how to get ready for an emergency without scaring me to death.

So anyway, I got the car gassed up and started looking for a battery for my heavy-duty lantern-type flashlight. I went to just about every store I could think of and finally went to an auto parts store. The clerk there told me they used to carry lantern batteries (the big, square 6-V kind) but now everyone had gone to LED lights.

So I bought one. And two packs of AAA batteries to back up the ones that came with it.

I also bought lamp oil for the two antique oil lamps in the den. I fired one up and it still works, so it’ll be all right if the smoke doesn’t drive me out of the house.

Food? Breakfast bars, some tinned meat, another loaf of bread, a big jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers. I figure I can pop up some corn ahead of time and put it in a bag. Won’t be able to brew coffee, but I can make cold-brewed tea.

And of course, wine. And books. Which I will read by the light of the new LED lamp or kerosene lamp or my flashlight. Because how else do you pass the time with no TV?

Of course, I am figuring some days without power if the wind is strong enough. If it is stronger than knocking down a few trees and takes my roof with it, all of the above is moot.

Maybe none of this will happen, but I’d rather be prepared. In 1999, Jim prepared for Y2K by stocking up on all the aforementioned things that I just got rid of. No electronic meltdown happened as predicted, but we did get 16 inches of snow New Year’s Day, almost unheard of in the N.C. Piedmont. And the power was out for a week. So it all came in handy and he couldn’t wipe the smirk off his face for a month.

So wherever Irma heads, be careful out there. And be prepared.

 

 

 

 

Family secrets

Secrets and lies. Every family has them. Events are omitted purposefully from the family history, questionable relatives are white-washed, stories are half-told or not at all.

This makes for great reading. We want to know why and who and how. We cheer the plucky heroine as she unravels the mysteries of the past to explain the present.

I’ve been playing with writing our family history. I say playing because, like the tablecloth I’ve been cross-stitching for 50 years or more, I pick it up and put it down again, leaving it for months at a time. I could tell the story with no trouble. It’s what I put in and what I leave out that makes me give up and go to something else.

There are amusing anecdotes that come easily. But how do I write the sometimes horrendous events that also make our family who we are? Does posterity really want to know? Do they need to know? Or should some secrets stay buried until they are pushed so deep that no one remembers?

It’s easier when you are writing about fictitious characters. They can be as angelic or evil as our imaginations can paint them. Their stories hurt no one except other fictitious characters. And as the author of their imaginary lives, we can heal them with our words.

But in real life, the truth can hurt. It changes how we feel about not just our forebears, but about ourselves. If they are not who we thought they were, then we are not who we thought we were.

So I write a few pages and then come to a stopping point when I realize I don’t really want to include some things. I wrestle with the necessity for telling the whole truth or not telling the story at all. I hope some day I will be brave enough to include the ugly as well as the noble.

It’s much easier to write fiction.

 

 

Reviews…and how to write them

I just finished writing reviews for two books I recently read. I don’t bother writing reviews for best-sellers or established authors, but I do for friends and acquaintances if I’ve read and enjoyed their stories. I hope they help.

I know writers, myself among them, who have asked, begged, and bribed friends and relations to write a review. Some say they will and never do. Some do, God love them. And some say, “I don’t know how.”

My response is, “Just write one sentence: I liked the book. Or hated it. Whatever.”

I know it’s hard if the only thing you’ve written lately without relying on emoticons is a thank-you to Grandma on a pretty note-card because she doesn’t have a computer and still uses a land-line phone. I concentrate on what it is about the book that makes me keep reading. What do you enjoy most in a book? It might be the plot, or it might be the characters. Maybe it’s the quirky humor. There has to be something noteworthy about the book or you wouldn’t have read it in the first place. So start with, “I enjoyed this book because…” and fill in the blanks.

Do people read reviews? I do. I realize not everyone is going to  like every book written, but I try to find a middle ground between gushing praise (written by the author’s mother, perhaps?) and crushing criticism (which may well have been penned by an envious fellow writer). I read a few five- and four-star reviews and then one or two one-stars before making up my mind to purchase the book.

Okay, in a stab at honesty, to download the free or 99-cent book.

Do reviews help the author? I think they do help people make up their minds to click the “Buy” button, but no one is going to read them unless they’re at least curious enough about the book that they’ve visited the site, be it Amazon or another distributor, the publisher, or the author’s web page. How do they find out about the book in the first place? Ah, that’s a subject for another blog. And when I find out the answer, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, if you’ve complimented a writer you know and she asks, boldly or hesitantly, that you repeat your kind words in a review, please do it. It isn’t all that difficult, honest. Just say what you said aloud to them.

And if you don’t know the writer personally, but liked their work enough to recommend it to a friend, you might do the same. Writers love it if you buy their book, but they love it even more when you tell them–and the world– how much you enjoyed it.

 

 

Start ’em early

One of the goals of our local writers’ club is to promote literacy.  I guess we’ve said this so loud and so often, it wasn’t a surprise when someone actually took us up on it.

A summer camp for kids needed someone to lead a class on story writing. Guess who they called?

So Kaye and I set out last Monday morning for the camp, which was held indoors. Given the 90+ temperatures we’ve had lately, I considered ‘camping’ in an air-conditioned room a perk.

How did it go? We had a blast. We had two groups of kids, the first from 4-8 years old and the second from 8 to about 14. Talk about enthusiasm! Once they grasped the idea of creating a story from scratch, the kids were falling over themselves to contribute their ideas.

They  knew the basics of story writing: Beginning, middle, end. They knew there had to be a problem and a solution. They knew a story was better when it contained details to set the scene. So our job was made easier because we just had to build on what they already had learned. We tried to steer them away from retelling Hansel and Gretel or The Parent Trap and get them to thinking on their own.

The first group’s story was imaginative even if it didn’t make a lot of sense. It didn’t have to follow a perfect story arc, it just had to entertain. And that it did.

The second group of older kids had a rocky start as the tweens and teens argued about the plot and where it was going. I had some doubts, but I needn’t have worried. They settled down and began backing up each other’s ideas, cooperating beautifully. Their story was heartfelt and had a satisfying conclusion.

I took my notes home and wrote down the stories they envisioned. I’ll print them out, a copy for each camper and a few extra, and take them back to camp next week.

I think the kids had a good time. I know Kaye and I did.

Who knew giving back could be so much fun?

 

 

 

 

The sins of my youth

When I was young, a hundred years ago, I thought I needed three things: a gorgeous tan, blonde hair, and adoring boyfriends.

I got the blonde hair from a bottle, and the tan from hours of lying in the sun in my teeny-weeny bikini. No, it wasn’t polka-dot.  And sometimes the sun tan turned into a sunburn, with accompanying blisters. The boyfriends came and went, not all adoring but faithful enough for brief periods of time.

Image result for sunburn meme

Then I married and had children. No time for tanning, no time to redo the roots of my hair. I let it grow back into its mousy brown.

As I got older, I began avoiding the sun. In the past few years I do my yard work protected by sunscreen, a floppy hat, and long pants. I get my various moles and other blemishes checked periodically by a dermatologist. I became especially vigilant after my younger brother died of a melanoma he’d had 20 years previously. They thought they got it all, but during those years it had metastasized, unknown to him and his loved ones.

So just before I went on my annual trip to Pennsylvania to visit my sister (my excuse for no blog last week) I got a call from my dermatologist. She’d removed a suspicious mole during my last appointment and sent it for a biopsy. The results were melanoma in situ.

It wasn’t that big of a shock. I knew the risks. I knew that in spite of the care I’d been taking, my foolishness 50 years ago had more than  likely set me up for something like this.

Of course, we didn’t know back then of the danger. Baby oil and iodine? Slap it on for a deeper, browner tan. Hours spent on the beach or on a towel in the back yard. A sunburn was a small price to pay. Sure, it hurt, but the blisters eventually went down. And then we did it all over again.

I went back Tuesday to have more tissue removed to make sure that all of the cancer was gone. It wasn’t fun. The area was numbed and then I lay on my stomach, my arms slowly falling asleep, trying not to twitch as she cut and cut … and cut. The the stitches. I didn’t ask how many, but it took a long time. The wound is covered with steri-strips, so I can’t see the damage. Yet.

And I’m waiting for word of the second biopsy. She was cheerfully confident it would come back clear, but I’ve heard that song before. I had to go for a third surgery when I had breast cancer because the margins weren’t clear the second time. Hopefully, that won’t happen again.

My back is sore and it hurts to stretch or move suddenly, but I tell myself that’s a small price to pay if the threat is truly gone.

Now I must be ever more vigilant because what happened once can happen again. I told my three sons they also must take care. We now have a family history of melanoma. I’m sorry to pass that on to my children and grandchildren. Fortunately, the grandchildren’s parents have been more cautious than I was, and slathered on sunscreen whenever the kids went outside.

I’m writing this as a warning. If you have children or grandchildren, please, please, make sure they are protected. They, like me, won’t think ahead. They think they will always be young and anyway, who cares what happens then they are “old.”

They will care. And it’s up to us to protect them now.

 

Writers retreat and beach memories

Home again!

I’m home after a week away. It was a fantastic week: sunrise over the ocean, the sky tinted pink and baby blue with whitecaps rolling against the shore.  Coffee, drifting to our self-appointed stations, everyone working on her project from a published writer meeting deadline to a novice working on her first draft. Ice cream breaks, walking along the beach, feet crunching over  broken shells or seeking balance on softly shifting sand, claiming the reward of sweet, cold strawberry or salty caramel. Silent afternoons, then laughter as eight women work together to prepare an evening meal.

It was a fantastic week in the company of women who got me, who understood what it is to create a story from nothing but our imaginations, what it means to select the right word, to bring a character to life.

They say writing is a lonely life. It is. It is the nature of the profession. Oh, we have critique partners, beta readers, editors, and hopefully, publishers, who help us along the way.  But the essential work is done inside our heads.

That’s why writer’s retreats, such as the one I just completed, are important. We remember we are not alone on our journey, that others are traveling the road with us. Some are a little ahead, and they look back and hold out a hand to help us along. And we do the same for those behind us.

I confess I was a little reluctant to go.  Live with strangers for a week? How did this work?

But I’m glad I did.  Within 24 hours, the doubts had fled. The strangers became friends. When the week was over we hugged goodbye with real emotion and pledged to meet again next year.

Did I accomplish the goal I had set? Yes, I did. I finished my edits. Others finished their drafts or met their deadlines. We all did what we came for, but for me, it was more than that.

It was realizing I was in good company. That I was not alone. That I was a part of a sisterhood of writers.

Of course I was glad to get home and accept the welcome meows of Spooky, Jack and Frenchie. There was mail, telephone messages, and the inevitable dirt to be swept up because my cats love to dig in the houseplants. Bags had to be unpacked, laundry done. Every vacation — even working vacations —  end.

But the memories remain.

 

 

 

Feeding the birds

I have a whiteboard calendar on my refrigerator to remind me of appointments coming up during the week. Sometimes it is empty and sometimes there are two or three things listed for the same day.calendar

Three chores stay there permanently: Wednesday, volunteer at the animal shelter; Thursday, water the plants; and Friday, clean the hummingbird feeders.

It’s not that I would forget these things, but this way I keep on schedule.

My list of chores, written or unwritten, has grown during the past year. Little by little, I took over some of the heavier duties as Jim’s strength failed. So it wasn’t too much of a change to keep on after he passed. One thing I do now that he did up until he was hospitalized is feed the birds. This was more of a joy for him than a chore. He loved watching them and never let the feeders get empty.

So I added this to my list, and every time I lift the heavy feeders down, drag out the 25-pound bag of bird seed and fill them, then stand on my tiptoes to replace them, I think of him. I wonder if he is watching and giving his little nod of approval.

I’m happy to say the squirrels have disappeared and the birds have had free access to the suet feeders. And, I haven’t had to refill them every other day due to the little thieves making off with the suet, cage and all. I have had to search the yard for the cage more than once. Which isn’t as bad as my sister has it, what with raccoons stealing her bird feeders, never to be seen again. The feeders, I mean. The raccoons keep coming back.

But where the squirrels have gone, I haven’t a clue. Maybe because the they ate every one of my crop of figs, they are too ashamed to show their greedy faces. But I’d keep feeding the birds even if the squirrels did keep stealing the suet cages and tipping the feeders, spilling the seeds on the ground.

I feel Jim’s presence when I feed the birds, and when I sit on the deck and watch them in the evening. If I keep my head still, I can imagine him on my right, watching their fluttering and listening to their songs. I can hear him laugh as the hummingbirds wage war, zooming over our heads.

I don’t need to write anything on  my whiteboard to remind myself to feed the birds. It’s too much a part of me.

Of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just the facts, Ma’am

I am trying to not get involved in politics. It’s pretty tough.

Today, at  birthday luncheon, someone mentioned the Republican Convention. Now, these are all gray-haired old ladies. Does the fact that we were celebrating one of our member’s  94th birthday tell you our approximate age? (Okay, I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I wasn’t born yesterday.)

Immediately, someone said…well, never mind. Then someone disagreed. Then a third person suggested we not talk about politics during what was a celebration.

Silence reigned. Then someone said…

You know how it goes. Everyone has a opinion and no one is willing to listen to anyone else.

I’ve been keeping my head down and writing. But it’s hard not to pay attention to what is going on. In fact, we should all be paying attention.

One thing you learn fairly quickly if you are a writer is to check the facts. This is especially important when you write historical fiction, but it’s true in any genre. Get a fact wrong and some alert reader will be sure to fire off an e-mail pointing out your error.

Yet facts seem to go flying off the page this electoral season. Yes, there are fact checkers who try to keep us all on the straight and narrow, but it seems to me the only people reading the results are the few whose minds are not so closed that any fact that disagrees with their mindset rolls off them like butter off a hot biscuit.

At least in my crowd we are trying to be civil and not throw a punch (not that any of us could without seriously injuring ourselves). A sniff and an eye-roll suffice.

My hope is that once the election is over, we can step back and accept victory or defeat gracefully and join together to address the real problems that face this nation–inequality, poverty, health care, a crumbling infrastructure, and the price of e-books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting my money’s worth

Like Christmas, after a period of frenzied preparation the day of our writers’ club’s annual conference has come and gone. Some of us counted success in the number of attendees, others in the  comments of those who came away with renewed purpose and a clearer goal.

I sat in on Robert Macomber’s workshop on “Planning Your Writing Career.”  I, like many others, went into writing with high hopes and little knowledge of the real work behind the books I love to read. Among those books are Macomber’s “Honor” series, richly detailed and meticulously researched novels about a fictional officer in the U.S. Navy from the Civil War through the early 2oth century. Here’s what he had to say:

  • Think of yourself as a professional writer, even if you are not yet published. Attitude is everything. Be positive minded and professional at all times.
  • Understand your story and understand your genre. Tell your story in a different way. Pick a niche that hasn’t been done.
  • Know your audience.
  • Learn, learn, learn. Know the rules and when to break them. Be an expert in your subject. Learn your competition: read their books. Talk to libraries, booksellers, editors to learn what readers want. Learn about the business of writing.
  • Bring your family on board. Have one area of the home that is your oasis and find a minimum of three hours a day when they know you are not to be disturbed. They need to know this is your second job. (Your first job earns the money so you can do the second.)
  • Decide before you start on point of view, past or present tense, and your title. A title should be concise, vivid, evocative, and memorable. Plan a storyboard or visual road map. (And here’s a kicker) write your synopsis first to keep your story on track. Decide the size of your chapters up front. Chapter titles and sub-titles intrigue the reader and help pacing.
  • Set a daily goal of draft words or finished words. Read your work aloud. The reader “hears” the words he reads inside his brain.
  • Consider the visual aspect of your words on the page, i.e., white space.
  • Set reasonable dates for interim goals to be met. Have your family celebrate these goals with you.
  •  Invite people to help you with research and be sure to name them in your acknowledgements.
  • Your first three pages are the most important in engaging the reader. The end of your story should leave the reader with a feeling of accomplishment and wondering what comes next.
  • Everybody needs one to three critical reader and an editor. Critical readers are friends who are widely read, who know grammar, can give you advice, and keep their mouth shut.
  • Your readers should learn something, be entertained, and not feel they have wasted their money.

Some of these things I knew before. Some I knew but hadn’t put into practice. And some are things I had never thought of, so of Macomber’s workshop I can say I learned something, was entertained (Macomber is as engaging a speaker as he is a writer), and I certainly didn’t feel I wasted my money. His workshop alone was worth the registration fee.

Next week I’ll share what I learned in the other workshops I attended.

You are welcome.

 

The balancing act

I somehow found myself volunteering to lead a workshop on dialogue.

Yes, “found myself,” as that person who raised her hand and said, “I’ll do it,” surely wasn’t me … except it was.

I thought I knew a little about dialogue. It’s my favorite part of writing. I’m a shameless eavesdropper and even more shameless about incorporating phrases and new (to me) words into my writing.

I know dialogue advances the plot, moves the story forward, foreshadows, gives insight into character, provides needed information, and all the rest.

What my research via the great search engine Google taught me was that dialogue also creates white space on the page.

That brought me up short. White space? But then I remembered the many books I leafed through, only to put them down because there was page after page of long, black paragraphs. Like Alice, I like a book with conversation and pictures. We don’t get many pictures now, but I remember when there were drawings interspersed among the pages that gave the reader a glimpse of what the characters and settings looked like. Now the author must provide this information, not with long expositions, but with a few well-chosen words that provide a springboard for the reader to leap into his or her own imagination.

Like artists facing a canvas, writers need to create a pleasing page as well as articulate prose. Balanced paragraphs. Judicious placing of description, action, and dialogue: not too much or too little of any of the components. We can’t really know how our words will appear on the printed page (or electronic page) but it is our job to try.

After all, writers are artists, also. We just use words instead of paint.

 

 

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