A Picture is Worth a Thousand Trips to the ‘Fridge

My family has a Christmas tradition of using men’s tube socks as stockings. Realm’s family does not, and he finds it disgusting. I do understand his disinclination to put candy into something that actual men’s gnarled feet can fit into, but I do not understand the virtue of using those awkward, red objects that look like baby elephant booties. I’ve assured him I have no intention of using already-worn socks. I’ve tried to cajole him by pointing out the socks can be washed and worn after the goodies are dumped out (including the apples and oranges, which look so funny in the tube socks). My utilitarian pleas hold no sway. He just can’t handle my tradition.

I, too, have trouble with certain traditions. For example, I cannot physically sit through those Christmas claymation movies. They were even dull when I watched them as a kid! There were no streaming videos then, so I had an excuse. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have to make a movie like that. Or to tell someone, “I spent this many hours moving a ball of clay two hundred centimeters today.” Now that’s a nightmare before Christmas.

The one tradition I hope will continue is the family picture card. I love getting family pictures! I put them on my refrigerator door and look at them all year round. They make me smile. And it doesn’t matter if Gerard has his eyes closed and darling Evangeline is picking her nose. So what if Lilly has her tongue hanging out? It’s natural. It’s real. It’s having loved ones waiting right there at the door when you reach for the milk.

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For you, may the season be festive and fun;
And the New Year, may it be a happy one!

5 Books with Family Personality

People have personalities. Families do, too. Being part of a family affects people – what they do, what they say, how they act. During Thanksgiving this year, I listened in on various family conversations and found a prevailing train of thought. It began something like this:

“I’m thinking about going into…”

“I’ve been considering a new…”

“This coming year, I really want to focus on…”

These statements caught my ear because they said something about my family that I’d never noticed before. They are future-thinking, goal-oriented, action-bound statements. You don’t often hear these from a group of people who have shared a long past together. We like to revisit the past at family gatherings. We like to discuss the present, too, catching up on what’s been happening. But families who share their dreams for the future are special. Their talks are woven from threads of hope, trust, and encouragement. They have something to look forward to. They are not weighed down by something to keep hidden. Oh, they have their fights and trigger topics, but they enjoy divulging their plans because past experience has shown them they will be supported and loved regardless.

Sometimes families get in a communication rut. They forget why they are together and how much being together means. Church families can be the same way. Families can be inhibiting or they can wrap you up in the feeling that you are truly interesting, wanted, and needed. It’s amazing how quickly group personalities can change with the addition or subtraction of people. Just one person can stir up a habit or thought that will put the whole group onto another track.

Thinking about family personality had me considering the books I read. Do you know how few books I’ve read lately that even have a central family in the story? Kids books sometimes do, but the middle school and young adult tend toward the dysfunctional family dynamic. The adult books hardly attempt to draw from family unity at all. So, what opportunities do we readers have to see the family in action? I can think of five books that exhibit obvious family personality.

1. Life with Father by Clarence Day

2. Cheaper by the Dozen by Gilbreth and Carey.

3. Another book I would love to get my hands on is My Philadelphia Father by Biddle/Crichton. At least, I think I’d like it.

4. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.

5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Everyone of these are based on real families. I haven’t come up with a fictional family yet. What about you? Can you think of a book that really exudes family personality (fictional or truth-based)?

 

Never Mind John Galt. Who is Beverley?

I’m reading The Warden by Anthony Trollope. As you know from previous hints, I’m very much delighted with 19th century writers’ methods. I crave the extensive introductions that grow the characters’ roots; it helps me understand them and empathize. I tend to linger over the insightful, sometimes humorous, comments from the author scattered throughout the story. Trollope satisfies my need to read about “real” personalities. And he doesn’t condemn his characters. No matter how proud, how cold or calculating, there is always a human element in these depictions of their nature.

He gives Eleanor, the warden’s daughter, a great deal of reflection when she takes up the campaign to save her father’s reputation from being ruined by the man she secretly loves. Trollope avers that hers is a disinterested act, yet he lets me see her through the eyes of one who knows the naivety and passion of youth. I smile at her expectation of gaining nothing, while I’m told she will end up with a pleasing confession from the man who returns her love. It’s gratifying to be told as a reader the writer’s decision not to use uninformed suspense to gain my interest in his tale. He woos by stroking a reader’s intellect and experience, while allowing his audience all the fervor of Eleanor’s determination to give up her most treasured wish for the sake of her father’s honor.

Trollope makes a vague reference while discussing Eleanor’s character. He notes she’s “not at all addicted to the Lydian school of romance: she by no means objected to her lover because he came in at the door under the name of Absolute, instead of pulling her out of a window under the name of Beverley…” Yes, Trollope does a wonderful job clarifying his meaning without explaining the allusion, but I want to know all the same. Who or what is Beverley? Being that my go-to tool for general questions is Google, I arrived at two quick guesses.

ma-74916Guess 1: Beverley is derived from the nun in Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, Constance de Beverly, who ends up being punished for breaking her vows by being walled up in an abbey.

Contention: ‘Beverly’ is spelled differently in Marmion, but that isn’t such a big deal. Not having access to an online library search engine, writers transposed and omitted letters in names all the time. Yet, the being walled up part is concerning because it presents no window to be pulled out of.

Guess 2: If Absolute is not an actual name, perhaps Beverley isn’t either. Beverley was the Parliament seat Trollope ran for but didn’t win. Could this be a jab at the tactics used in Beverley, noting that things were done in a less-than-straightforward way?

Contention: Trollope’s experience with the Beverley seat happened in 1868. He published The Warden in 1855. No doubt, Trollope had a prescient talent when it came to character sketching, but I don’t think he was psychic.

I’m sure there’s a simple explanation; I just don’t know what it is. ‘Beverley’ could mean anything! (Which means I don’t know Beverley about Beverley.) Is he alluding to a well-known person or place? I’m sure it was well-known for Trollope’s time, but I’m not as certain of its popularity today. Yet, here I am, connecting with the mind of a writer long gone who tosses out allusions to all sorts of things literary, historical, and meaningful to his time. Sometimes I look them up and am rewarded for my labor. Sometimes the detective in me has reached my quota for the day. That mysterious reference will have to remain a mystery.

Do you ever think about 21st century references and how confusing they could be to the 23rd century reader? Meme-making images and viral videos draw attention for a short time, and then we forget about them. What might have taken years to pass into oblivion takes a matter of days now. At least that’s how it seems. What are some references you’ve come across lately? Did you have to look them up, or did you already know what they were talking about?

5 Pacing Problems that Break Your Story’s Stride

Pacing can be my best friend or my nemesis when I’m writing. It depends. Getting from one plot point to the next without losing momentum is always a struggle. I’ve lost my way and left my characters wandering around too many times. That’s because pacing is the last thing on my mind when I’m tapped into my hero’s personality, living through what he is going through. This is the reason I’ve had to cut out chunks of my manuscript to be replaced by a line like, “It took three days for Aaron to cajole his rusty Plymouth into Arizona to find Maurice.” No introspection. No dialogue. No car-broken-down-on-the-side-of-the-road details. I have a story to tell; the extraneous information doesn’t work.

I’m reading two self-published books that have ruined their story’s pace in the first third of the book. Both are sci-fi fantasy with very different tales to tell, yet they make the same mistake. I’d like to say it’s just a fluke – two stories with pacing problems – but it’s not. To those fiction-writers who are flunking the story-pacing test, I, the reader, need you to know five things,

I’m Not Your Therapist.

I like that your character has thoughts I can share. That’s what introspection is for: divulging information that is vital to the storyline or to my connection with your character. That’s it. When you include immaterial monologue, I, the reader, become the unwilling listener. Yet, you are not paying me to trudge through the many branches of your character’s runaway train of thought. I am the one that paid for your book! If I wanted that kind of treatment, I’d have picked up a memoir. Sift through your character’s thoughts and decide whether they help your reader or subject your reader to TMI.

I’m Not Your Man Friday.

When a character is flashing back to the past, then to the present, and back to another time in the past, you have probably mistaken me for a yo-yo. Why am I errand-running through your protagonist’s head? I have my own head to run around in, thanks.

It’s imperative that a character’s experiences move the story forward, which is why every writer should question all flashbacks. “Is this flashback absolutely necessary for the reader to read?” Once you’ve answered that question, go back through the flashback again, asking, “Is there another way to convey the information more concisely?”

I’m Not an Idiot.

If I’m reading about a doctor who’s talking with a patient, do I need a dialogue tag to tell me who says, “Your blood work came back fine”? Please don’t use overuse dialogue tags, (begged Rilla). If you had to read a tag after every sentence, wouldn’t you find that annoying? (asked Rilla). Unless your characters are named “Dick” and “Jane,” and I happen to be at an elementary reading level, your tagging is belittling. Use hints. Often. They are the weapons of mass instruction for a dialogue pro.

I’m Not Your Prisoner.

I’ve mentioned this before, so perhaps I’m being redundant about this redundancy: If your character says it and the description repeats it, it is wasting four seconds of my life. Those are four seconds I could have been checking my email. I could have been deleting another Groupon offer for a spectacular $20 Jujitaekwarate course “Introductory to Principles of Breathing for Martial Arts” (as much as I would like to see who actually shows up for those). If Justin says he’s going for a run, I believe him! I don’t need the narrative to report, “Justin put on his running shoes and stepped out the door for a brisk jog.” Changing the words doesn’t change that I’m chained to Justin’s every move.

Um, I’m Still Here.

Have you ever had a friend tell you an anecdote only for you to remind him/her, “I was there.” It’s pretty funny when that happens, but the friend is usually a little embarrassed because, you know, he/she ought to remember me, right? A character may need to explain something to a new character that I, the reader, already know. Or a character may need to discover what the narrative has already described. Worse than the friend who forgot I was around, a writer who repeats an explanation is showing a lack of consideration for the reader. It doesn’t matter how brief is it. It’s being repeated for the sake of whom? Your imaginary character? I’m real. It is never a bad thing to show your reader you remember he/she is there by skipping the rehash.

 

As a detail-oriented writer, I know what a pain pacing can be when I’m in the throes of a tale, but it’s really worth it. I latch hold of the story’s momentum, as writer or reader, when the pace is kept in check. I don’t have to work at finding the important points because the story doesn’t get sidetracked. The characters will know where they’re going and how to get there, so I know, too. When it comes to introspection, flashbacks, dialogue tags, descriptions, and explanations; be ready to chuck the immaterial, stay in the present, drop the labels, and skip the replays. And don’t forget the magic words: Move On.

There are plenty of pacing tips I’ve not included here. I need help with these, too. Have some helpful advice?

On Finding Joy

This year has been full of wonderful experiences for me. I’ve been less focused on my own writing in favor of learning from other writers. (I’m still writing, but – you know me – I’m not ready to share until I’m ready to share.) During one event I attended in September, I met talented writer Sarah Floyd, who has self-published her novel, Finding Joy.

Yes, it’s my tendency to shrink away from self-published works; I’ve been burned many times. This book is different. It’s different in a lot of ways. First, it’s inspirational fiction…and I actually like it. That is a shock to me. There is a natural passage of time needed for persons to grow and develop, which principle is terribly lacking in most novels, particularly in the “Christian inspired” ones. And there’s no heavy weight of preachiness, no “hit me over the head with the Spirit of God” moments. In fact, most of the life principles that are brought up in this book are underemphasized. I found myself a few sentences ahead when the impact of some thought really penetrated my brain. This is where Sarah Floyd’s skill truly impresses. Here’s an excerpt near the end of the book where one of the characters is talking about how she’s forgiven someone for hurting her:

“I have to keep forgiving him periodically, you see, like clockwork…or a…an annual physical or something. And it’s overdue…I need to do it again.”

Yes! That’s how forgiveness really feels. It’s not something where you just forget what happened. The scar is always there, and you have to go back and reapply forgiveness every-so-often with no feelings of guilt, or “God isn’t doing His job taking this away from me.” It’s a natural part of the process that gets ignored. And it’s like an afterthought in this conversation. I love that!

Second, Floyd remains true to her characters. When Joy Carnegie gets to Vermont, she’s overwhelmed. She sees the needs others have, and she doesn’t suddenly pull a skill out of her back pocket and come to the rescue. When a friend gets sick, Joy reflects on her distress at her friend’s sickness; but she can’t think of what she can do to help. She prays; she calls to check on him. That’s all she can do. In another section of the book, Joy has a friend who is going through a family crisis and is crying softly in her bed. This moment of quiet release is a single statement in the story. Joy doesn’t do the superman thing and run over to comfort her. She just let’s her cry, let’s her have her time. The author doesn’t make excuses or leave her heroine feeling like a lousy friend. It’s clear Floyd’s not directing her principle actors to say what needs to be said at the fitting time, or pushing her characters to be anything more than what they are organically. She allows them to develop and change on their own. It’s wonderful! They say things and do things that flow like a normal stream of consciousness would have them. This is one of many reasons I turn to the old books for normal-human-reaction therapy. I want to read about the behavior that was completely acceptable before our super self-aware, movie-watching imitators’ culture decided what emotion and response is universally appropriate for every personality and situation. The writer of Finding Joy doesn’t conform to that silliness.

Here’s the third great thing about Sarah Floyd’s Finding Joy: It’s comforting. When I was a kid, my mom would make Cream of Wheat for breakfast, sprinkle it with sugar, and pour milk over it. That’s my comfort food as an adult – that or oatmeal with the milk poured over it. Now, if I’d just said, “Finding Joy is like eating oatmeal,” I realize most of you readers would’ve curled your lip at that. (Maybe you still are!) But I’m trying to give you an idea of the feeling this story wraps around me. It empowers one with the sense of being part of a special fellowship in the midst of all the struggles that can occur in life. There were sections where I smiled or laughed at the gentle banter between Floyd’s characters because they reminded me of the fun I share with close friends. (And it doesn’t hurt that there’s a character that likes eating oatmeal.)

Lastly, the grammar is better than I’ve read in current book selections from some of the genre book clubs. (Isn’t it dreadful how writers lazily apply past tense verbs when the narrative is in past participle? I don’t know why editors allow it in print.) I found a handful of typos but nothing that made me cringe. It’s obvious the author knows her verb tenses and her English, as well as some French!

I have no qualms or hesitations; I can completely recommend Finding Joy to you. Like I do with every story, I looked for a worthwhile protagonist to take with me after I closed book. I’ve found Joy to be just that sort of character. Find Joy’s story on Amazon.

My Neverending Story

Some homeschool mom on Facebook just announced her family started their first week of school. When I read those words, my heart stopped. No summer-loving homeschool mom can cope with this type of behavior on Facebook. I’m not saying she’s on my blacklist or anything. I still love her. I’m sure she’s completely unaware of the spike in my blood pressure, the pounding in my temples, the itch in my feet to bolt.

All year long I wait for summer. I think about it like a child thinks about a great big cloud of cotton candy. I salivate in anticipation of those two hot months of brain sluggery. I do this every year regardless of the reality that all my plans are gonna get sucked up into the vortex of camps and playdates and VBSes… and I don’t know what all I’ve been doing. I just know all my lovely teacher-free weeks are almost gone! Summer is going, going… And then this perky, plan-aheader mom announces, “Hey guys, we’re starting school! We’re so excited! We love us some maths! We’re all up in that earth science business!”

Oh no she didn’t. She did not just start her school year in the middle of July. There goes my fantasy summer, fading into the Nothing. I feel the Gmork of lesson plans and tests and endless “do I have to do this exercise?” whining breathing down my neck. And I’m not ready!

childlikeempress

Save me! My summer world is crumbling!

The Company Drill

There is nothing like coming home after the holidays. I drive by the neighbors’ houses, where cardboard boxes are battling it out with the garbage cans. The once festive green garlands are trailing along the front walks like miserable, bloated snakes. I walk through my door and spot the tinsel draped across my sofa pillows, a tad passé now. The white tree lights, dangling dangerously near the forgotten mug of curdled milk left out for Santa, are not going to win any Better Homes and Gardens awards this week. The leftover party favors, the scary-looking nutcracker dolls toppled over like dominoes on the mantel, the torn edges of shiny paper littering my floors are all evidence that we were hit by the Christmas tornado.

Is it worth it? I’m not going to answer that. I’m not the wide-eyed seven-year-old on Christmas morning anymore. And I would never be the one to deprive a child of the joy of presents under the boughs of a precariously-stationed tree. (My kids witnessed two trees come crashing down this year, so I’m not entirely exaggerating the precarious part.)

Still, a new year means a new leaf, right? Easier said than done. Where to begin…

If your house is clinging to Christmas past, and you have kids at home who can read, catch up with the Company Drill. This drill is inspired by the panic that ensues when you find out—15 minutes beforehand—that your favorite Aunt Minnie will be dropping by for a visit; or when that fabulous Mrs. Hodge, the president of your homeowner’s association, who washes her car for zenith shine while most sane people are asleep, calls and asks to borrow your Rain-X. The drill focuses on getting the public areas of your house in order.

At our house it looks something like this:Company drill2

This simple little paper is posted in an inconspicuous location, say, on a door inside a closet. It works best if you employ a timer—because you’re trying to clean up in record time. The goal is to straighten up in less than 15 minutes. Don’t expect a miracle. The first couple of rounds of the drill will probably fall short of that goal, but it makes a significant dent.

Call a family powwow, bring your timer, and announce that it’s drill time. I like to assign certain rooms to each child with the proviso that if one person does not complete his/her task after the rest have finished, then the whole team won’t make the 15-minute goal. This encourages us to help each other once we’ve finished our room assignments. (I usually take the kitchen—less broken dishes that way.)

What’s the reward for beating the clock? A cleaner house. Seriously. Just knowing you’re done in 15 minutes is pretty exhilarating. The kids have more time to play, and mom can get some writing time in!

Two more tips:

Record your best time and see if your team can beat it during the next drill.

Upbeat music is a great motivator for cleaning, but I suggest not using the music during a drill. It’s more distracting, since you’re yelling “Who has the vacuum?” and such. Plus, without the music I can pretend I’m that kid on Newsies and encourage my team with “Go! Go! Go! Get the lead out of your pants!” I’m helpful that way.