Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Journey

Last night we paid our respects to Barb and supported our friends as they mourned the death of a parent.  Today, DH will carry the burden of his love for her during her funeral service.  One of Barb’s wishes was that DH be a pall bearer on the day she is laid to rest.

This is a difficult task–one I have never performed myself, but one I watched DH struggle with when he and his cousins carried their grandfather from the church to the cemetary.  I have to believe this is one of the hardest journeys one must walk.

In life, the only guarantee is death.

Marriages fail, children are led astray, jobs are lost and families split apart due to affairs, drugs or tragedy.  Yet even through the pain, nothing is final.  Emotions wax and wan.  Joy follows sorrow.  Anger preceeds calm. 

Life is fluid.  Experiences hinge upon each other.  Journeys change from one moment to the next.  One week to the next.  Year to year and decade to decade. 

Yet there is always, inevitably, an end.  This simple fact shifts the focus from life itself to the journey through life.  Like any good  book, there is a beginning, a middle and an end.  Like the characters between the covers, we face obstacles, experience success and ultimately grow and change because of the choices we make.

While writing my DD’s confirmation poem, I focused not on her confirmation, but rather on her faith journey.  I wrote it to have meaning last Sunday, ten years from now and a lifetime from now–however short or long that may be. 

It is timely today, as my DH prepares to carry Barb to her final resting place.  It is a poetic replica of her life–the kindness, acceptance and grace in which she lived–and I’d like to share it with you.

Faith journey

Love journey

Hope journey

Life

Walk in the way of your spirit; your heart knows the way.

Follow where it shall lead, the path is ever under your feet.

And should you stumble, lift your voice to heaven

the answer is there.

Reach for the stars

Believe in miracles

Trust in the Lord

He is your guide.

Faith, Love, Hope

This is the journey of life.

 

These last days have been filled with raw emotion, both good and bad.  I suspect writing will flow easily for the next little while and my “voice” will be authentic.  Some of my best writing follows the emotional tides of my life.  I suspect this is true for most writers.

What life experiences have shaped the kind of person/writer you are today?  What events played a major role in your life/writer’s journey?

Napkin Notes

Sometimes life trails a finger down our spines just to make sure we’re paying attention.

On Saturday morning, DD and I searched through boxes in the basement to find some baby pics, her baptismal candle and anything else that might dress up the cake table for her confirmation.  It goes without saying that we got wrapped up in time as we fingered a miniature pair of jelly shoes, pink and white hair bands and DD’s baby ring. 

In the bottom of a box, we also came across her birth cards.   One did not fit in with the commercialized cards.  It was not decorated with cutesy sayings, baby booties and rattles in pink and blue.  In fact, it was nothing more than a plain white napkin.  

This simple card read She’s beautiful.  See you soon.

I pointed it out to my daughter and her eyes welled up.  The impromptu card had been written by my dear hubby’s surrogate mom–the mother of his childhood best friend.  At the time of DD’s birth, Barb worked in the medical center and was our first non-family visitor.  She had sneaked a peek in the nursery while the rest of the world slumbered.  There, she penned her warm welcome to our newest family member on a hospital napkin, too excited to wait for a trip to the store.

We packed up and moved shortly after and I hadn’t seen the note since.  Yet, at the time DD and I picked through her infant memorabilia, we both knew that Barb was fighting for her life in hospice.  Ten minutes after we cleaned up our mess, my DH called and told us the news.  Barb had passed away.

She’s beautiful.  See you soon.

In my heart, I know that Barb looked down on my daughter during her confirmation on Sunday in the same way she had gazed in that nursery window almost fourteen years ago.  In the same way she had witnessed DD’s baptism at a ceremony in our shared church.

In my world, guardian angels do exist.  Sometimes they are subtle and we don’t know they are there.  Other times they announce their intentions, sending a blessing our way if only we open our eyes to the possibility.  And I can think of no better gift than the one my daughter received on the eve of publicly confirming her faith.

She’s beautiful.  See you soon. 

Simple words.  Heartfelt sentiments.  A promise for every tomorrow and a gift for a life time.

In life, it is usually the small things that become something grand.  The sweet scent of a daffodil as it promises srping.  The tiny buzz of a bee that signifies honey. 

Notes on a napkin that give hope in a cascade of shivers down the spine. 

My prayer for you, my dear readers, is that you keep your hearts open to the promises around you.  On this day and all those to come.  And never pass up the opportunity to leave a simple note on a napkin.

Because in the end, no matter what our faith or belief systems, love transcends all.  Even in death it lives on in the hearts of those who remember.

~ cat

Hoppin’ Hares

With Easter right around the corner, I couldn’t help but think of rabbit.  In case anyone is wondering, our backyard vermin is still eating my plants.  It survived the winter and is plump and ready for the pot.  Over the weekend, no less than five attempts were made on its life to capture it and put it out of harm’s way.  Until we succeed, I will have to settle for passing on a bit of Rabbit Lore in Literature.

 Beatrix Potter likely created the most popular literary rabbit of all times.  Peter starred in many a tale as he battled his way to fresh lettuce while avoiding Mr. MacGregor’s stewpot.

So what is hassenpfeffer?  It is a traditional German stew made from the left over pieces and parts of a rabbit or hare–those that were too small to roast–braised with onion and wine and thickened with the creature’s blood. 

It makes me wonder if the references to hassenpfeffer stew would be so palatable if readers and writers knew the original ingredients.  Yet, rabbits (and the meals they make) remain a staple in literature.

To name a few:

  1. From Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit to Bhuddism to Native American lore, rabbits have played a prominent role in stories for both young and old.
  2. Then there’s the Velveteen Rabbit who goes from toy to real rabbit all because of a boy’s love.  It’s the vermin version of Toy Story–told decades earlier. 
  3. And who can forget Watership Down, often touted as the book that brought rabbits to the forefront of literature and created awareness for the impact of land development on wildlife habitats?
  4. For other titles, including Br’er Rabbit, check out this list of famous hoppers. 

Over the years, I have read many books that star our furry friends.  Others simply reference them as a means to an end.  For instance, rabbits are a main staple in survival books including White Fang, Hatchet, and The Hunger Games.  They are used as an abject lesson in Mrs. Mike, are sacrificed in horror or are often the creatures that skitter through the underbrush to scare the bejeebies out of the MC in thrillers.

Rabbits are as prolific in literature as they are in real life.  They also represent a univeral symbolism for busy writers tapping away on their keyboards, as nothing indicates creativity quite like a plot bunny.  In certain circles, they are revered and called upon as a blessing.

“May your plot bunnies be prolific.” 

During the course of NaNoWriMo, I have actually seen these happy hoppers, both in my dreams and on the internet.  They are as real as Shel Silverstein’s Runny Babbit and twice as cute.  The only thing they don’t do is deliver Easter eggs.

The Easter Bunny was first created as a sign of spring and fertility in Alsace and Southwestern Germany as early as the 1500’s.  The first written record of it appears in the 1600’s, and it was brought to America as the “O_ster Haws_e” in the 1700’s.  In the 1800’s, Germans made edible chocolate rabbits in addition to their traditional hassenpfeffer stew. 

My quick search this morning shows that rabbits have been hoppin’ across the pages of literature for centuries.  Their prolific nature makes them the perfect symbol for abundance, renewal and joy.  (Okay, I made up the joy part, but who can’t be happy when they’re hoppin’? )  Which is why the hare will be my 2010 writing mascot. 

Now if only I could catch that darn thing…

What is your favorite literary bunny?  Have you written a rabbit into your writing?  If so, how?

Book Reports and Baked Bread

When I was a kid, book reports were dull, lifeless regurgitations of novels.  They lacked all creativity and excitement.  Yet how could they be anything different when we simply filled out the same dumb form for every book? 

The English teacher in my kids’ school comes up with amazing book report ideas.  Once, Eldest made a movie poster for his latest Artemis Fowl read.  Arnold Schwarzenegger played Butler.  His Book in a Bag sported snippets of all the pertinent information from Inkheart along with lively illustrations.  DD’s book jacket gave 19 Minutes a whole new look. 

Even their timelines on non-fiction are no longer the straight and boring lines with dashes slashed across the page to denote significant events.  Run Baby Run careens across DD’s poster from immigration to the mean streets to church spires.  The background is a dark sketch of a concrete jungle opening to lightness for the end of the book.  Nicky Cruze’s life was not easy.

I love how this makes kids really consider the words they read.  It connects ideas and vibrant pictures with the written word and allows them to express the impact a novel has on them.  These book reports are no longer summaries, formatted to bore children to tears.  Instead, they create a physical and intellectual connection with the reader and the novel.

They are a visual reminder that we all experience things differently.  Which, of course, is the beauty of literature.

Another book that has as many interpretations as there are readers is the Bible.  Tomorrow is DD’s confirmation, where she will stand before the church and declare her intent to walk in her faith.  I’m proud of her.  Not for memorizing Bible passages or her ability to recite the Lord’s Prayer.  Rather, I’m proud of her because she taken information, her experiences and created her faith.

I will never know exactly what that means to her.  Just as I will never know what it means to my DH, my MIL or my next door neighbor.  Faith and spirituality are sacred to everyone in their own ways.  We all believe, or disbelieve, for a reason.  There are no right answers.  There are only life experiences, hope, love, happiness and the search for personal meaning.

Today I am baking bread for DD’s celebration.  It is something I love to do.  I thoroughly enjoy shaping the bread into edible reminders of an event.  For Valentine’s Day I made hearts.  Today, I shall twist and mold the dough into crosses, hearts and doves. 

Faith, love and hope.

They symbolize my interptretation of the Bible.  They are the words that form the poem for my DD.  They are my wish for her as she steps forward tomorrow and declares the journey of her life.

If I were a teacher, I would take book reports to a whole new level.  I would ask my students to make a food that symbolizes the essense of the story. 

Think of your favorite book.  What shape would your bread take in this delicious version of a book report?

Wandering Minds Want to Know

I’m considering a new writing project, a non-fiction with the tentative title of Focus: life skills for the organizationally challenged.

My least-loved quirk is my inability to orally complete a thought.  It drives DH to drink.  At least that’s his excuse when he’s sipping a Chevas and water on the rocks. 

Alas, this innate ability to lose track of my own words in casual conversation is not endearing, it is frustrating for both DH and myself.  However, yesterday I took my loss of focus to a new level.  I only made half the bed.  Somewhere between tucking in my side of the blanket and the making my way to DH’s side I got side-tracked.  Never to return.

“Did you take a nap today?”  DH’s question made me snort.  As if.  I certainly would have made the bed to hide the evidence.

“Have a friend over?”  Yeah right.  Again, check out the hiding of evidence from above.

“Are you mad at me?”  Sheesh, I would have done far worse than leave his half of the bed unmade–like paint a frowny face on the back window of his truck with squirt cheese or decorate the front yard tree with the contents of his sock and undie drawer–depending on just how mad I might be.

Needless to say, I sheepishly had to admit that I simply “forgot” to finish my task.  I know, it sounds bad and I’ve been wracking my brains to figure out why I am so inept at focusing.  After all, I can focus quite competently during a major project.  I can speak in front of people without leaving them hanging and begging for scotch.  I can even complete most tasks without getting side tracked.  It’s the little things, the daily things, the repetitive things that fluster my brain.

Here’s my conclusion: I can focus as tenaciously as a pit bull when it’s required.  However, simple tasks that I don’t need to think about to complete leave room for more fanciful things.  And since I have a huge imagination, four kids and a geriatric dog, there is no shortage of fanciful things to attract my attention.

I have learned to clean my house toilet by toilet, floor by floor, mirror by mirror.  This keeps me focused.  I have established a system of putting EVERY misplaced item on the kitchen counter as I come across them.  I no longer put them away in mid-clean, because there is no bigger distraction to me than trying to squeeze a book on a book shelf and realizing the shelf needs straightened to get rid of the stuffed animal that goes in the toy box that’s filled with clothes that go in the drawer in place of the Halloween costume that should be in a box in the storage room next to the Christmas light that are really on the gun cabinet along with the dust bunnies from the dryer that seep out of the cracked vent hose that…

*sigh*

This is why I focus on one thing at a time–in life and during edits.  Sure I drop the misspelled words, the lack-luster descriptions or the wrong punctuation on my counter when I run across them, but I don’t ever try to put them away until it’s their turn.  Highlights and side notes litter my manuscripts with each pass.  Yet in the end, every word is put in it’s righful place and the manuscript is clean from once upon a time to the end.

I have learned to excell at focusing on big projects–such as a weekly whole house clean.  And in the end, all the beds are made, the rugs shook out and the windows sparkling floors mopped. 

Now if only I could figure out a way to focus on the hum-drum, DH wouldn’t need to check his bed for a status update on our relationship…

How do you stay focused when your mind prefers to wander? 

For writers, which part of the writing process requires more deliberate focus for you?  How do you maintain control?  Share your tips with others.

The last vestiges of snow melted from my backyard yesterday, leaving me with a view of spring.

Crumbled leaves, broken flower stems and matted grass litter my little corner of heaven.  My passion for spring runs deep.  I love the pungent odor of newly turned soil, the cleansing scent of spring showers and the perfume of fresh blooms.  My fingers itch just typing this.

In much the same way, I love editing a newly finished manuscript.  There is so much debris that needs swept aside, words that can be cut and hauled away, scenes that can be transplanted and new ideas incorporated to flesh out the story. 

Gardening and editing are two of my favorite things.  They both require creativity and organization.  And when they are complete, the end product is delightful.  My garden is my favorite place to write.  It inspires me.  My writing is always richer when I’ve had a chance to phyically mold and shape my outdoor office.

I cant imagine one without the other.

What are you passionate about?  How does your other passion complement your writing?  How is the process of each similar?

Are Books Useful?

Okay, this may be a little TMI, but I have to spill.  The other day DH and I enjoyed a quiet dinner after watching Eldest perform in a jazz competition. 

Because I’m me, and DH is his delightful, humorous self, I began asking random questions.  A kind of get-to-know-you Q&A session after being well acquainted for more than 25 years.  Hey, I’m random, what can I say…

Anyway, as the quiet dinner escalated into side-splitting laughter, I asked, “Would you rather be a toupee or a jock strap?”

Without missing a beat DH answered, “A jock strap.  At least then I’d be useful.”

And so I’ve been thinking about usefulness.  Non-fiction writers are useful in passing along knowledge.  Poets are useful in that they offer desperation inspiration to their readers.  Songwriters, cook book authors, technical-writing scribes, sign makers, marketers, journalists and columnists are all useful to their target audience.

Authors of fiction–pure, simple, fiction–also serve a purpose.  We usefully send microscopic lessons to our readers.  We subliminally prod them with our messages.  Right?

Because if a book has absolutely no purpose beyond sheer entertainment–no moral, ethical or inspirational value–what is the point?

I don’t believe books can only provide a reprieve from the real world.   They must have some greater purpose than their simple existence–like a down and out toupee.  Books must join the ranks with jock straps in providing some level of service to the masses.

Underdeveloped plots with flowery prose are the toupees of the publishing industry.  They might look good on paper and bald pates. 

Well-defined characters with internal growth who overcome external conflict are the jock straps of the written word.  They support a story arc and give purpose to a manuscript.  They nudge the reader to examine his/her views on some level.  Bullies, alcoholism, love, faith, morals, hope, fear, prejudice, community, etc…

A quick review of random books on my shelf prove this is true.

  • The cartoonish Diary of a Whimpy Kid highlights self-acceptance.
  • Cane River by Lalita Tademy is a book about race, prejudice, hope and faith framed as a simple woman’s journey through life.
  • Any John Grisham novel: morality wrapped in suspense, intrigue and drama.
  • Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook portrays devotion and challenges readers to assess relationships in their lives.
  • The Gruffalo is a delightful picture book about self-preservation and problem solving for young readers anxious to see if the mouse gets eaten during his walk through the woods.
  • While posing as a  fantasy with demons and magicians, The Bartimeaus Trilogy by Jonathon Stroud depicts integrity.
  • In addition to scaring them out of their socks, Stephen King provides his readers with thought provoking plots.

While nothing should kill a manuscript faster than an overt, in-your-face message, I wonder: can a manuscript survive without some underlying purpose? 

I say no.  What’s your take? 

Can you provide titles in which the sole purpose of the novel is to act as a toupee and look good in your hands?  Or, do you believe that every book has a deeper purpose like our friend Mr. Jock Strap?

Am I dreaming

Last night I was visited by Mr. Toad from the Wind and the Willows.  The night before, the Weasles sang their way through my nocturnal musings.  I’m not strange, I’m just a very vidid dreamer who appears to incorporate the characters around me into my subconscious for later digestion.  In fact, I can not read Jurassic Park or The Lost World without being chased by dinos.  For weeks.

Other memorable characters have been Cassie Logan from Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, the demon Bartimaeus from his named trilogy and White Fang.  Jules Verne constantly led me on adventures as a child.  Most recently, Kristin Cashore’s Gracelings have blessed my slumbers.

I love when these characters debut for me in my own personal stories. 

Do characters haunt your dreams?  If so, who are the most Famous MC’s that have romped through your night?  What have they done?

The Final Curtain

This weekend marked my DD’s last performance for our local children’s theater.  In the eighth grade, she is too old to act in next year’s spring production.  Over the years, she’s been a swamp monster, a gansta, a maid a wife, a jitterbug, a…well, you get the picture.  She’s been there a while and is a natural performer.

Sunday was tough.  True to my usual, emotional self, I cried when that final curtain closed.  It is an era I will greatly miss. 

This sense of finality is the same one I get upon finishing a good book.  I lament the loss of the characters and wish I could follow them for just a bit longer.  Just one more play, please.  A line or two to make departure not quite so harsh. 

I don’t want to watch my characters disappear behind a curtain, knowing I will never hear from them again. 

However, writing on and on long after the climax peaks is never the right answer to maintaining a relationship with favorite characters.  Nor is trying to resurrect them in sequels, trilogies or series after the story is spent. 

Instead, we have to learn to graciously dim the lights and let the curtain fall.  Hoping, praying, knowing that a new character will take the stage, and with it, our hearts.

At least I know that’s the case in real life.  You see, my Middle Son has been in plays for the last two years.  Youngest wants to join him in the spotlight next year when he comes of age (1st grade).  They will bring new humor, drama, animation, character and talent to the theater.  Different?  Definitely.  And that’s a good thing.

I shall gladly welcome in the new cast of performers. 

Both on the stage and in my books.  For the last curtain never truly falls as long as we live with fertile imaginations, task-master muses and prolific plot bunnies.

By ending each story at–well–the end, we can keep our favorite characters vibrant and alive in our minds.  These successess pave the way for ferreting out the next generation of actors.  Our stories will not get dulled by hanging on to our favorite MC’s with unrequited love.

I have often heard aspiring writers talk about their sequels, trilogies or series.  The next eight books….  Even I am guilty of fostering a love affair with a particular pirate family and have scads of ideas for a series.  The second book is already half written.  I don’t want to release them.

So how do we know when The End is really the end?  When do we drop the final curtain on a story? 

Ar you guilty of adding scenes, chapters or epilogues because you simply can’t say good bye?  Or, do you cut off the action immediately after the climax, leaving readers to feel cheated out of a standing ovation?  How do you wrap up just before typing the end?

Major Manuscript Changes

Much discussion in the writing arena focuses on point of view.  Should my book be first person, third person exclusive, switch POV’s, etc.?  I firmly believe POV is a matter of personal taste–for each manuscript.

Every story has different needs.  Most of the time I know what those are going into it.  However, there are times when I’m unsure.  My best example is my NaNo09 novel Whispering Minds

I love, love, loved my character’s name: Gemini, Gemi for short.  I wanted to hear it and see it and love it on paper.  Selfishly.  In addition, I had a whole lot of characters to incorporate into the novel and planned to give each of them their own space.  So I wrote in third person and switched POV’s. 

Twelve thousand words into the manuscript I realized this was too impersonal.  I struggled to capture Gemi’s essence on the page.  She felt distant to me.  And if I didn’t connect, my readers would never give one flip about her. 

Enter first person with no POV switch.  From the moment I realized my huge mistake, I let Gemi tell her story.  It worked out much better this way because she knew her journey more intimately than I and it sounded natural coming from her rather than via my translation of what I thought she wanted to say.

This technique is encouraged in writing circles and by writing professionals.  I’ve heard it from editors, agents, writers and writing coaches.  “Give it a whirl.  See where it takes you.  Use what feels best.”

However, I don’t think they intended for anyone to write 1/5th of a novel before switching.  I have started editing Whispering Minds, but feel like I’ve gotten nowhere.  All I’ve done so far is change out my she’s with me’s and my Gemi’s with I’s and a few other prominant word swaps.  I haven’t even tackled the POV switch yet.  Even so, this is a daunting task.  To date, it is my least favorite edit.

It is even worse than the time I changed an entire novel from present tense to past tense.  Ten times more horrific than a character name change.  Scads more frustrating than the time I gave my MC a sex change.  Not literally within the manuscript–just a simple character shift throughout the whole thing. 

Everything is different.  Word choices, emotions, actions, everything.  Boys use shorter sentences and don’t get all touchy-feely.  Changing tenses means a verb swap in EVERY sentence.  Events feel foreign and forced when making simple substitutions.  Voice is lost and language becomes stilted. 

“Sharon and Gemi attended the play.  The girls laughed so hard their sides hurt.” cannot become “Sharon and I attended the play.  The girls laughed so hard their sides hurt.”  Every sentence needs to be read carefully to make every appropriate substitution.  This process is time consuming.

Along the way, I’ve learned some tips when making Major Manuscript Changes. 

  1. Use the find and replace button if you have one.  While this works miracles for POV or name changes, don’t try it on a tense change.
  2. In addition, do not–DO NOT–find and replace everything.  Confusion abounds.  I almost scrapped my whole project when I realized the magnitude of clicking replace all.
  3. Make your changes 100% BEFORE editing your rough draft.  If you try to edit and change at the same time you will never understand what is going on.  Your edit will be a Disaster with a capital D.
  4. Save the original manuscript someplace else and ignore it while you work on the new edit.  You may learn–when you are all done ripping your hair out making the changes–that the original was, indeed, the better option. 
  5. Relax.  It’s not a race.  You are not graded on how quickly you get the task done.  However, your final manuscript is judged by editors and agents.  Having Timmy start out the manuscript in present tense and ending the piece with Past-Tense-Tonya will likely get your submission tossed.
  6. Use fantastic beta readers before declaring your changes complete.  A Major Manuscript Change is far too difficult to accomplish going solo (ie, we are too close to the project and know what it is supposed to say).  At the end of the day, too many minute mistakes remain.

Have you ever made Major Manuscript Changes to a completed work?  If so, what tips or tricks do you have to help others? 

As readers or writers, what are your preferences regarding POV, tense, gender, etc.?  Is one form an absolute turn off?  If so, why?

~happy editing