This Skeptic Just Turned Avid Fan

Did you miss me? I’ve been in the throes of fresh, uninhibited editing! It’s delicious. My Critique Partner’s manuscript was due today, and we’ve been blazing through chapter after chapter, draft after draft for a week and a half. We’ve fleshed out meaningful descriptions, and we’ve brainstormed for effective ways of foreshadowing and developing more intense relationship interactions. I love, love, lurve working with this writer! And four months ago, I didn’t know her from Eve.

I’ll admit: when I signed up on Ladies Who Critique, I was skeptical. My previous critiquing and beta experiences have rarely included a trade. I thought I’d end up in the same scenario on LWC—which I was okay with. I would be generous, and I would find someone equally generous. But that’s not how the system is meant to work. It’s truly about the give and take of a partnership. I’m such a loner in my craft I couldn’t quite grasp that concept. That might be why finding a Critique Partner took me a few months. I sifted through a ton of writers’ profiles on the site. I contacted a few writers and vice versa, but we were able to tell almost immediately that our tastes weren’t a fit. Then along came this writer, who pores over Celtic folklore like I do and loves to mask a good fairytale archetype with a better setting and higher stakes. I’m so glad she found me!

So what changed me from the one dragging my feet all the way to the game to the one waving that ridiculous “We’re #1!” foam hand? Here are a couple of things I’ve loved about the Critique Partner setup:

Having a Critique Partner spurs my creative momentum. We both have a vested interest, so it’s easier not to get sidetracked working on manuscripts. And it’s like Christmas when I get the notification that there are a new set of her chapters waiting for me.

There’s a sense of fairness when it comes to constructive criticism. Every writer knows that concrit smarts. I mean, who wants to be told something negative about one’s child of script? And telling someone else the flaws in his/her story is so much worse! But that honesty is necessary to correct what’s amiss in the tale. When we are both giving positive and negative feedback—both encouraging the strengths and highlighting what is lacking—it’s easier to take, and to bravely give, that negative stuff.

My CP continues to be thorough about analyzing my characters and their influences. She’s already pointed out inconsistencies in characterization, lack of action during dialogue, wordiness, incoherent mood transitions… She deserves a medal.

And you know what’s amazing? She makes comments after my critiques, like, “This is the kind of feedback I need! Thanks!” It’s so awesome to think I might be helping her as much as she is helping me.

Gushing finished.

The Conversation

“You were 126 a couple of months ago. Now you’re down to 123. It’s progress, sure, but it’s not enough. The goal is 114, remember?

“You know what? If you’ll work with me here, we can settle on 116. What about it? Is it a deal?”

(No response.)

“What can I do to make this an easy transition for you? Just name it.”

(Uncomfortable silence.)

“Come on! What will it take to get you down to 114K? And, yes, I’m taking back my offer of 116,000 words because you’re being stubborn!”

(The manuscript still refuses to budge.)

“Look, I’m on your side—I’ll always be on your side—but I have to look at this objectively. If I were asked to read a 123K manuscript for teens that I was reading cold, taking a chance on its writer, I’d probably pass.

“You know, the first Harry Potter book was only 77K.

“I’m rounding up.

A Wrinkle in Time was just under 50. Okay, so it’s true Eragon was 157 plus, but I want to err on the safe side, don’t you?

“Doesn’t it matter to you that you’re not published yet? Because it matters to me. I don’t want you to have to live in a box for the rest of your existence. Of course, I could always end your existence. I have that power, you know.”

(The tension is palpable.)

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. It’s just… I’m frustrated. I’ve been focused on you for quite sometime now. How long have we been together? Let me see… This September, it will be three years. Wow.

“It’s been fun, and I know it’s because I still like you–more than I did at the beginning. You bring out things in me I didn’t know were even there. Some of them are kind of embarrassing, but, all in all, I’m glad we’ve spent this time together.

“I’m not breaking up or anything. I mean, there are some other stories I’d really like to catch up with. Some of them were written before I ever started thinking about you. I feel bad that I’ve neglected them.

“Look, you’re still the one. You know that. It’s because so much about you is real, and it makes me feel fulfilled in some strange way; but then we come to these roadblocks. I admit, sometimes I question whether our relationship is healthy. What do you think? Is talking to you like this healthy?”

In trying to get this manuscript to cooperate, the words ‘wits end’ are ringing in my ears.

Mama Don’t Take My Commas ‘N Throw ‘Em Away+

Anyone who has to write something grammatically decent does his/her share of complaining about the inconsistencies of American English sentence structure. There really aren’t huge changes being made. I think that’s why it’s so annoying. If we all had to learn a new form of punctuation—say the ‘ellipsicolon’—we’d learn it quickly and become pros at…doing whatever the ellipsicolon was invented to do.* Instead, a group of somebodies gets together, rehashes the old arguments, and comes to the decision to omit a comma or put one back.

I’ve been comparing the commentaries of a fifth edition (1986) Norton Anthology of English Literature (Volume 1) and a Norton Anthology of English Literature–Victorian Period (2006). (I like doing this because I’m a nerd.) One difference I found was the comma usage.

Three books in my Norton collection. (The Plain English Handbook by Walsh (c)1936 actually inspired this post, so I had to include it.)

Let’s just admit it: commas have succumbed to relativism. There’s no absolute truth about commas. Use them as you will, and let no one judge the placement of your comma. Every list of comma rules includes the handy little, “Use commas when it alleviates confusion.” That does not alleviate my confusion about where to use commas; it merely gives license to all manner of comma debate.

Norton’s 2006 Anthology of English Literature forces me to reread sentences in an attempt to find where the pauses should be because there seems to be a general consensus among today’s Norton literati not to waste commas on things like introductory prepositional phrases. But don’t worry, the comma was saved, since it was needed before the last element in a series. (Previously, that comma had lost popularity and been discarded.) I realize now how much I depend on commas, and how often I take a lengthy prepositional phrase for granted at the beginning of a sentence. I wish to apologize to commas for my lackadaisical attitude toward them in the past and discuss four types of commas that deserve notable mention:

1. The Oxford Comma

“Please do not put glass, plastic, or tires into the fire.”

See that little comma after plastic? Beautiful, isn’t it? I think so. I was taught the Oxford comma, or serial comma, was a necessary component for good sentence structure. A short wave of anti-Oxford comma sentiment followed, and now the comma has returned. Yes, I still mutter under my breath about that snooty ‘professor emeritus’ who persuaded the rest of them it was right to denude our sentences of old Oxford.

2. The Introductory Modifier Comma

“Underneath that rich mound of soil, three small seeds are learning to grow.”

Long, long ago, in a world of grammarians far, far away, the rule for introducing a sentence using a prepositional phrase stated that a comma would separate the phrase from the main idea. Now it is a matter of judgement whether the comma after ‘soil’ is necessary, and the prepositional phrase that is less than five words in length doesn’t need a comma at all. Without that comma(,?) there’s always the possibility that a reader will lose the main idea in the sentence.

3. The Lyrical Comma

Gradually they got nearer and nearer, and Mr. Bhaer came up to watch the boy; for, as if he was in his element now, his cheeks reddened, and his thin fingers flew, as he hugged the old fiddle and made it speak to all their hearts the language that he loved.

This is an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men. Reading this sentence is like hearing the rhythm of Nat’s music. It is effortless because the commas guide you. They are there to build the emotion; yet, some would argue the sentence verges on run-on. If that’s the case, Alcott crafted her stories from run-on sentences. Here’s another:

4. The Supporting Comma

Demi called her a ‘Betty,’ but was very glad to have her keep his things in order, lend him her nimble fingers in all sorts of work, and help him with his lessons, for they kept abreast there, and had no thought of rivalry.

This second excerpt illustrates that rule about using commas to alleviate confusion. A good comma separates ideas in a sentence so they can all live together happily without frustrating the reader who is looking for the object a descriptive phrase is modifying. See what loving, supportive deeds these commas undertake in this sentence?

There’s nothing wrong with any of the commas above. They are perfectly well-situated commas. They aren’t hurting anyone. They are there to make the meaning clearer. But they often get discarded, rejected, wronged by modish grammarians. I’m sure it’s a comma conspiracy!

So, how do I deal with the comma kafuffle? I watch for comma habits. Does this writer use the Oxford comma? “Ah, I like him/her,” purrs the comma snob in me.

*As far as I know, there aren’t any ellipsicolons yet.
+This post title is based on lyrics in a Paul Simon song from the early 1970s, “Mama Don’t Take My Kodacrome Away.” From what I’ve read, nobody ever caught what he was saying. So, if we apply the philosophy of relativism on this song title, like we do with commas, the majority rules in favor of the song title “Mama Don’t Take My Clothes ‘N Throw ‘Em Away.”

This is a Piece of Cake!

Guess what I’ve been doing? (I bet you’ve guess it already because you’re brilliant like that. You must be; you read my blog.) Just in case you’re stumped, I’ll give you a hint: food writing. I have a friend who contacted me about a project with CakeTheater. The job description was something like, “creative writer to come up with blurbs for cake categories.” Within seconds I responded with, “Me! Me! Me!” Decades later, (okay, maybe just days) I was asked about my hourly rate. Thankfully, I didn’t send my immediate response, which was something like, “Somebody is going to pay me to write stuff about cakes?” Yes, confectionary delight of delights, all is right in my world! And, oddly, I’ve started making cakes. I think I must be very persuasive.

At first I tried to be all healthy about it. A carrot cake was my first attempt. The icing was made with cream cheese, whipped up to a fluffy cloud of sweetness. It melted on my tongue like butter. And, yeah, I used real butter anywhere it called for shortening/oil.*

It was completely fattening.

It was irresistibly good.

I couldn’t stand the longing looks the cake received from the fridge repair man when it was placed on the counter. I did not share with him. I was more generous when my sister and her boyfriend came over. (Actually, I was pretty much carrot-caked out by then.) Then they told me they’d been filching thin slices so I wouldn’t notice.

Jam & Tea Cake

You can see, cake decorating is not my forte. I’ve even taken a course. Isn’t that sad? That doesn’t seem to stop me, or anyone else at my house, from eating them. For this reason, this cake-writing project could be the death of me in terms of caloric overload. Otherwise, I am living in a dream… that funds the butter supply.

Here’s a cupcake idea I tried:

A mini Cat in the Hat birthday cake. Yes, I wrote a poem to go with it. (My creativity is good, though my artistry is lacking.)

Let’s do a recap of what you can know about me from this post: (1) I can’t decorate cakes well at all, and (2) my photography is just as bad. (Oh, and I’d better be keeping to a serious daily workout.) But know: if you’re drooling, or thinking about how long it’s been since you’ve had proper cake, then my work is complete. For you connoisseurs of our fine-floured friends, come be inspired by the cakes at CakeTheater. Not to tempt you or anything.

Oh, you talked me into it. One more:

Iced Lemon Cake for tea time

*Most shortenings and basic cooking oils are made with soybean oil, and I’m soy intolerant.

A Slow Descent to Madness

My workspace is a 6-foot long desk. It was designed by my husband and built by his dad, who is an incredibly skilled carpenter with his own cabinetry shop. I kinda sorta took over the desk. It’s my preferred place to write. My notes and files are nearby, and there’s plenty of workspace for my ingenious piling system. You’d think an issue I’d be facing is mobility, but I haven’t really had a problem with that yet. It’s true I don’t write well in public. I mean, I can write quantitatively in public, but I delete most of it when I get home. It’s difficult for me to be inspired when there are strangers around. I know it’s because I’m self-conscious.

My husband says I’m hilarious when I’m in the zone. He says I make faces and chuckle. Hey, I enjoy what I do! It just bubbles up sometimes! I also talk to myself regularly when I’m working on dialogue between characters. I have to hear it aloud to know it’s right. I also test out my characters’ physical reactions and facial expressions. But I have a slight hang-up about giving soliloquies in public. I’ve considered wearing an old Bluetooth to pretend I’m talking on the phone when the need arises.

Okay, so here’s the bane of my writing existence lately: my chair. It’s one of those plastic, height adjustable varieties. I waited for a sale day and bought the cheapest one that tilted, swiveled, and had a back tall enough to keep me from toppling over when I leaned back. I wasn’t that picky. The seat has hardly any cushion. I don’t care. The back is at a lazy angle for sitting up straight. No problem; I sit in it Indian-style (or Yoga “Easy Pose,” if you prefer the PC name for it) and try not to slouch all the time. The air cylinder mechanism doesn’t work. It leaks out slowly, causing the chair to lower gradually while the seat turns in minute degrees. Sometimes, I can perch precariously enough that it will stay the same height… until I get up and sit back down. That happens frequently. So, my descent back to the lowest chair setting drives me batty! I’ll be typing away and find my body has turned 90 degrees from my arms before there seems to be some deterrent–mainly, I can’t type with my arms behind me. I know, what’s wrong with me, right? Isn’t there a Yoga pose to correct that?

So, here I am, rising from my chair and releasing the handle to maximum height every few minutes. It’s completely inefficient and irksome. But it could be worse; I could be sitting in Panera Bread, my eyebrows quirked, muttering all kinds of inane statements.

So, maybe buckeyes aren’t summer fare, but someone needs to tell Cracker Barrel that because they have them set out to tempt me all year round. I’m sure homemade is much healthier, especially when it calls for one ​~cup~​ of butter. Drool.

Oh, Courtney

Ever since my little sister and I were born, my Grandma has lived in Florida. We’d fly out every Christmas to spend the holiday with her and the rest of the family. Once we were a bit older, we decided to alternate flying her out here and us out there, but during the summer time. South Florida in the summer is a mistake, but we love her very much, so it’s worth it. 🙂
Since she couldn’t see us for Christmas, she would send us tins and tins filled with her homemade cookies and candies. It was something we all looked forward to, even more than any Christmas present. All the fudge, chocolate walnut cookies, jubilee jumbos, lemon tarts and buckeyes we could eat. Buckeyes were my favorite, I’d always keep a secret stash in my room, so my dad wouldn’t eat them all. I decided to give the recipe…

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Inspired by a Dinosaur, a Waterfall, and Some Scuffed-Up Little Lawn Gnomes

In the middle of a game of miniature golf (the 7th hole, to be precise), my story sequel came alive again for me. Scenes began to unfold in my head right when I couldn’t jot them down. I had my cell phone–which is basic, no data plan–so, I recorded notes in textspeak, describing each scene in 130 characters or less. I finished with 11 scenes and the ending hint. (You might remember, I don’t like writing out my story’s ending.) I didn’t do so well on my game score, but I’m not complaining.

My head’s been a little clearer ever since. I don’t have that terrible looming notion of a crater-like nothingness ahead in the story where the continuation of a plot should be. Sometimes it’s fun not having a plan for the story, and I just want to write and let whatever happens happen; but this time the plot points had to come first for some reason.

And my husband has a new job! He thinks he’s going to love it. I think I love him so much more after experiencing this together. He came close to accepting a different job in another state. We were mentally preparing to move. You pre-planning bridge-crosser sorts know I was white-knuckling it at the last. It happened like that Bible verse that talks about finding God’s “grace to help in time of need.” ‘Time of need’ is actually one word, eukairos, that means it happens right when it needs to happen, by design. Some companies have used eukairos in their name to denote strategic planning. And that’s how it felt when he got the call. His eye was on this company well before he was laid off. I guess most people would be rendered speechless by such a serendipitous course of events. In my case, my words are back. I thank God for His plans for us. And thank you for your encouragement!