Monthly Archives: July 2012

Twenty Years of Greatness

No, I haven’t been writing for twenty years.

I’ve been married to the same wonderful man for 7,305 days. We’ve had our ups and downs (obviously), but the truth: I’ve never been happier than I am right now. Despite my flaws and his flaws and my strengths and his, we have vowed to make this thing called marriage work. And work it does.

Cat’s Guide to a Happy Marriage

  • Never, ever go into it with an out. In other words, ditch the idea that “if it doesn’t work, we can always get divorced.” This thought process dooms you from the start. Marriage isn’t to be taken lightly. It isn’t a passing fancy. It’s a commitment. So either commit or stay friends.
  • Never, ever go to bed angry. And no, I’m not talking fight so you can have make-up sex. That’s twisted and wrong. Instead, discuss your feelings openly and honestly. What is working and what isn’t? How can you fix what’s broken? How can you make what’s amazing even better? It might be hard at first, but the more you talk, the better you’ll get at it.
  • Never, ever hold a grudge. If you truly go to bed each night without anger, this should never be a problem. If it is, you’re in for a poisonous relationship. Grudges don’t help. They strangle any and all things good. Translating this further, when you do fight, leave all the old crap behind. Don’t bring up “that one time when we were dating and you said….” Deal with it. Get over it. Move on.
  • Always respect your significant other. Always. It doesn’t mean you have to agree all the time. It simply means that you are two individuals with two distinct personalities and each of you deserve to be handled with care. Marriage is not the place to ignore each other, throw temper tantrums, manipulate or abuse. It’s a partnership.
  • Which brings me to this: always remember that marriage is a partnership. It’s not a tit for tat. It’s not you against him. It’s not a tally sheet or a check book. It is, however, a relationship of give and take. You give because you want to. He will do the same. Trust me on this, nothing is more satisfying than your partner’s happiness and when he’s happy, he’ll do everything in his power to make you happy.
  • Always keep in mind your goals. Raise kids. Buy a house. Own a dog. Vacation twice a year. Financial freedom. Career growth. When you know what you want, it’s easier to achieve it. If you have no goals, you might find yourself mired down in the quicksand of “then what’s the point?”
  • Never, ever forget that anything worth having in life takes hard work and dedication. Seriously. Marriage is hard. It’s not all butterflies and rainbows (or bloody Mary’s and martinis). Sometimes it’s more like pole skunks and port-a-potties.  But, going through the bad makes you appreciate the good. And even if your neighbor makes marriage look like a constant beach party, I guarantee you even they have moments where Hell would be a preferable vacation spot.
  • Always keep your distance. (Say what?) Marriage brings two amazing spirits together in one union. Without the spunk and individuality of the two, your marriage is doomed. Give him his time to hang with the boys. Let her savor quiet moments of uninterrupted time to read a book without guilt. Keep your distance or your personalities will merge into one gloppy, boring mess.
  • And for the love of all things dear, do not act like a parent. I am not my husband’s mother. I have no right to tell him what he can or cannot do. I have no right to micromanage his life. Conversely, he’s not my father. I don’t have to ask permission and I don’t deserve guilt trips for making “wrong choices.” Why on God’s green earth would anyone marry his parent? Repeat after me: marriage is a partnership. Equality reigns supreme. We ask each other’s opinions and we never act without the consent of the other–not because we have to, but because we respect each other.
  • Always have fun together. When the kids are gone, the house is paid for, promotions are received and you hit that existential time in your life to reflect back on what it all means, you don’t want to roll over and wonder who the heck is sharing your bed. The opposite of keeping your distance is to get to know your partner, be with your partner and share your life stories with her. Don’t lose yourself, but also, don’t lose each other.

I love my husband. I respect him and care deeply for him. I truly look forward to the next twenty forty years.

Happy anniversary to anyone in a committed, loving relationship. You rock my socks off!

Please share your tips and trick to making your partnership work.

Book Reviews Gone Wild: things I won’t listen to and those I will

I just sent Dear Daughter and five of her speech friends to speech camp. They’ll be there for a week, learning how to create and perform speeches in various categories for competition against their peers.

They will be judged.

Hopefully not too harshly, nor too falsely. Because, you see, they can’t get better if they are lied to. Even if it saves a hurt feeling or two, empty feedback provided in a way to only uplift and not to teach will not help them get better. It will not prepare them for the upcoming speech season. It will not help them pinpoint their flaws so they know what to work on.

Sound familiar?

Pull up Amazon or GoodReads. Now, click on a book–any book–and read the reviews. What did you find?  Something sugar-coated with no substance? A scathing review penned by the devil himself? Hurtful words, helpful hints or something in between?

Book reviews serve a purpose: to guide fellow readers in choosing their next beach read.

This type of publicity shouldn’t be directed by anything other than the reviewer’s opinion of the book. It shouldn’t matter if she met the author at a book signing. It shouldn’t matter if the author is the reviewer’s best friend. It shouldn’t matter if the author is Great Aunt Martha and she’s promised the farm in return for a glowing review.

Sadly, however, it seems to. More and more, books are reviewed with the author in mind, not the writing itself, and certainly not future readers. Blog friends return favors by selling word of mouth to reach a broader audience with their own published work. Amazon’s stars are not always given for unbiased purposes. Heck, rumor has it some of the bling is paid for. Or worse yet, it’s the author and his/her band of besties spamming stars on the bulletin board to trick readers into buying.

Gah! What’s a discerning reader to do? How do we pick solid books with content and writing style that interests us? How do we see past the ploys and make sure our money is spent wisely?

Personally, I’m wary of the all five-star books. If a novel has twenty-five reviews and every last one of them is a five, I run. And because of that, I very rarely give out five stars of my own. In fact, I think I’ve reserved that honor for a mere (and literal) handful of books.

I’m wary of the reviews that gush, yet have no substance. “It was amazing.” “Best book I ever read.” And…, why is that? If someone is either gushing or degrading, I want to know why. If they can’t tell me, I avoid the novel like I’d avoid the stink sac on a skunk.

If the review appears cautiously kind, I usually don’t read any further. This is a reviewer trying really hard not to hurt the author’s feelings. It means the book was not good. It didn’t live up to the reader’s expectations, yet he is too nice to say anything hurtful.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “So who/what the heck do you trust in a review?”

Constructive honesty.

Circling back to my speech kids and the critiques I want them to get this week at camp: constructive honesty.

I like hearing what works and what doesn’t. I like kindness with a purpose. I like substance–not a blow-by-blow of the novel (or speech)–but rather a gut reaction on how those words made the reviewer feel. And I like to know what needs improvement if it’s a real issue: grammar, spelling, characterization, etc…

What types of book reviews do you trust? Which ones make you cautious? Do you purchase books based on reviews and/or the star rating? Share your experiences about that great book with bad reviews or the five-star flop you got schnookered into purchasing. What made you choose to go against the ratings?

Curious minds want to know.

Are You a Chubby Writer?

I’m both lucky and unlucky enough to sleep with my work out partner. Lucky because he motivates me when I would otherwise stay in bed–it’s damn hard to roll over and put the pillow over your head when your hubby is strapping on his tennies. And unlucky because it’s damn hard to roll over when he’s strapping on his tennies.

Hopefully, his 5:20am habit will help keep writer’s spread from over-taking my chair (especially since I usually write from the couch, and not one of those little love-seats either). But what about the other kind of spread?

The bloated, chubby kind of writing that gets in the way of good storytelling?

Sadly, that’s something I have to do on my own. Well, on my own with the help of crit partners and Word’s Find button.

What makes chubby writing? Obviously words that are very over-used and so very often unnecessary. Yeah, the adverbs and adjectives. The dreaded “that”, “just”, “but” and “so”–to name a few.

Those go without saying. You can read blog post after blog post after book after article on those no-no’s.

What I’m talking about today are echoes. Word echoes and idea echoes. Beating your reader to death with redundant writing.

These things will give a reader gas any day. They bog down a story quicker than a Thanksgiving meal and have readers settling into the couch for a quick snooze.

While some echoes are purposeful and written to pack a punch, the majority of them I see (even in my own writing) are simply overlooked or unnoticed by the writer.

Your Task

  • Try really hard not to use the same word twice in one sentence.
  • Try really hard not to use the same word or phrase twice in one paragraph.
  • Heck, try really hard not to do the above in one page.

This can be a daunting task–like sleeping with your work out partner–and exhaustive when replacing common words with alternatives. But trust me, it is well worth the effort.

Common problems areas:

  • body part descriptions–hands, fingers, necks, etc…. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what a couple is doing and forget how boring it is to read of hands clasping hands touching hands.
  • room descriptions–doors, doorknobs, floors, steps, etc… “The front door was yellow. I walked up the steps to the door and knocked on it. The doorknob felt cool to the touch. The door swung open unexpectedly.” Kill me with a door knocker to the noggin already!
  • pet names. I know one Real Life Dude who calls everyone Dear. Every stinking time he starts a new sentence. I want to stab him with a spork. BEWARE the pet name trap. Make it mean something. Make sure only one person uses the same pet name. Make sure there are no sporks in your manuscript or your character will die an untimely death. I promise.

Now, for the far more difficult part of echoes: ideas.

What the heck is an idea echo, you might ask. It’s the repetition of information. It’s the consistent badgering or nagging. It’s beating your sleeping work out partner with your tennis shoe while shouting at her to get up because *hello* it’s time to work out.

Readers are smarter than we give them credit for and most of them are on a diet of slim books. They have an uncanny knack of understanding the idea the first time around and not needing us to shove a turkey leg down their throats before they get it.

When do writers get caught up in idea echoes?

  • romance novels: the internal debate of should I or shouldn’t I? The cure: show this debate through action.
  • mysteries: cutesy phrases that “cue” the reader to something important, that not-so-subtle foreshadowing of “I didn’t know when I picked it up how important it would be.” Ugh. Just let it be important and let your reader discover it along with the MC.
  • When don’t we?

Any idea that seems important to us as writers can become an echo idea for our readers. We want so badly to impart our information or make our readers see what we see and feel what we feel that we are compelled to TELL them about it. Over and over again.

Instead, we need to allow our readers to experience the events of the novel in their own way and trust that we’ve left a logical trail for them to reach their own conclusions.

So, if your manuscript feels bloated in terms of content or word count, strap on your editing shoes and check out your echoes. You’ll be surprised at how quickly careful cultivation of these words, phrases and ideas will slim down your writing and make for a better read.

Are you a chubby writer? If so, how do you check for echoes in your work, and how do you eliminate them? How do you recognize your idea echoes and what tips do you have for changing them?

Curious minds want to know.

Retreat! I’m Packing Up My Writing

A few weeks ago, one of my girlfriends texted me. “I’m packing for a 10 day trip and thought of you. Just fit all my clothes and shoes and swim wear in 1 carry-on bag. I’m learning.”

This from a gal who would pack a huge suitcase for a four-day trip. Who packed eleven pairs of shoes for one week of vacation. Who had to pay extra for luggage because, while it all fit, it still weighed more than the max amount.

She’s definitely learning.

Traditionally, I pack light. I hate carting extra stuff around and have long since realized one sweatshirt is enough to ward off the north woods’ chill for a weekend. Or that packing in color schemes lightens the load, as many items can be reused with little to no problem–sandals, for instance.

Easy when it comes to clothes. But next week, I’m packing up my writing. I’m attending a four-day retreat sans my little fam of one hubby, two dogs, four kids and 2001 dust bunnies. My only obligation during this time is to write.

And this is where the packing thing gets me. What do I bring?

Do I edit or write fresh? If the former, which manuscript and which copy: paper or digital? If the latter, what support material should I bring: my research books, my notebooks, my writing totem?

What if I have a brain fart and what I packed doesn’t flow? Do I need to pack multiple projects? What if I finish a project early and have nothing to do with my fingers besides shovel food in my mouth?

All of a sudden I picture an over-grown suitcase filled with eleven manuscripts and supporting documentation for each of them. I picture one small sliver of space left over for a ratty pair of jammie pants and one sweatshirt. I picture other retreaters stopping me at the door, badges in hand. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but your suitcase has reached maximum density. We’ll have to charge you an extra fee to bring all your words inside.”

I’ve never been on a writing retreat before and have no idea what to do. I need serious help.

So, dear readers, have you ever embarked on a writing retreat before? What did you pack that you shouldn’t have? What did you forget that you longed to have at your fingertips? How did you schedule your writing time: editing, writing or a combination of the two? What is a writing retreat must-have? Spill it all and help me learn.

BLOOM: Blog Novel Chapter 6

Last year I had a blast participating in the ever-talented and fun-loving Michelle Simkins’ traveling blog novel, SKELETON KEY. This year, Michelle has put together another lineup of writers to help her pen BLOOM. You may recognize some names from last year’s blogvel and others from SPRING FEVERS, the anthology.

Today, it’s my honor to add Chapter 6 to BLOOM, a fantasy-ish story. If you haven’t kept up from the beginning, you may want to consider it now. Just click on the first chapter and blog hop your way back here. If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that last week ended with a Report from a Fugitive, while Kay Elam Writes chapter 7 next Monday. I hope you discover a new writer or two whose words you can’t live without.

BLOOM: CHAPTER SIX

Of course the hedges were changing. Gold, he could deal with. Green? Living, breathing green? And they thought he was the evil one.

“Wanda, go to the meat market on First Street. Hijack a cold suit and hang out in the freezer. I’ll get you when this is over.”

“No way. I hate to be cold.”

“So do plants. Henceforth the suit.”

Whether Wanda said more or not, he would never know. A tendril of ivy trailed across the chapel floor and yanked his phone from his hand. Or was it a Hooligan vine? Damn his childhood penchant for The Great Green Turkey Creek Monster.

He rubbed his temples and tried to remember what had stopped the Turkey Creek vine in his favorite picture book. Music. Like the mice in that play. But louder. A trombone.

Maybe his trombone would work to tame the plant things staring him down. If only he played the trombone. Or any instrument for that matter. Instead, he’d asked for science kits for his birthdays. Kits he mixed and matched and created with in the meadow where Mom couldn’t see.

It took a long time to grow an evil genius.

“What do you want?” Jamie surprised himself with the strength of his voice. No quivering to match the roiling in his guts. At least he had that part of super villain down.

But they didn’t answer. Plants never do. Unless…

Jamie placed his hand on his sister’s back. Gold she may be, yet she still breathed. She should be safe until he returned. If he returned. He waved to the plant creatures. “Follow me.”

They did. A little too closely. The mom-thing dropped a branch across his shoulders. To keep him from running? Likely. A leaf–supple and sensual–caressed his neck.

Bile rose in his throat. “Knock it off, Mom.”

The tree-things shook. Leaves tinkled to the ground. They were laughing. At him. “So, you’re not Mom?”

More rustling. The branch arm snaked around his waist. Holy crap. He’d attracted a plant. Wanda he could deal with. A tree crush? No way.

It was a long walk back to the clearing where Jessica first found the flowers. Made longer under the weight of his new tree-girl’s arm. The softly stroking leaves against his body.

He didn’t think she’d contaminate him. Rather, didn’t think she could. Evil or not, he was–on some level–responsible for the rapid growth of the living gold spreading throughout the local plants. And, as the scientist who created the plants, he was afforded a certain amount of safety.

As long as he didn’t tick them off. Testing his hold on her, he brushed a finger across a leaf. It turned bright red before settling into a pinkish green. Perfect.

Now to get her to talk.

They passed through the clearing to the little creek gurgling in the background. In their younger days, Jessica and he had called it the Pactolus in honor of the King Midas myth. They would spend hours “panning” for gold along the muddy banks.

His first real scientific success had been squeezing one tiny nugget of gold out of his chemicals for his sister to find. Did she still sleep with it under her pillow each night or had she tossed it away like she had him when he went to college?

He shook his head. Didn’t matter now. He had a new girl-tree to talk to and her hulking bodyguard to manipulate.

On the banks of the Pactolus, the reeds whispered in the wind. Jamie scratched at a stem. A layer of green slime collected under his manicured fingernail. The real deal. No gold to lie to him.

His second success. The truth reeds. He’d made it impossible for Jessica to get away with telling a fib. He also learned the trick to getting plants to talk. The spot where the wind blew just right and rubbed the leaves the wrong way. They couldn’t resist.

He sat. His tree-girl followed with a graceful whump to the ground. A small landslide ensued, muddying the water. The truth reeds groaned into the breeze. They had a bit of OCD if he remembered correctly.

“What’s your name…er, genus?”

Abutilon theophrasti Medik.” Her words swirled around him on a puff of wind.

Keep her talking. He turned on the charm. Lounged back with his feet crossed at the ankles. Let his knee gently nudge hers. A white flower bloomed under his touch and the tree-girl quivered. Her leaves tinkling. “Sounds sweet, but I’ve never been good with foreign languages.”

She trailed a leaf across his cheek and grinned. Can trees grin? “You can call me Velvet.”

The truth weeds rustled in disagreement.

Velvetleaf. The plant that engulfed Gran’s vegetable garden each year. He pushed Velvet’s branches away. “You’re a tree not a weed. Try again.”

Velvet stiffened indignantly. “I’m a weed.”

The reeds bowed to her truth. Which made sense. Invasive. Murdering. Weedy. Sucking the life from the countryside around it. Again he cursed his love for the Turkey Creek plant monster.

The bodyguard shifted heavily behind him. It’s leg-branch pushed on Jamie’s spine. Unlike Velvet’s more supple bulk, the bodyguard had leaves of steel. Impenetrable. Like the bleeding heart he manipulated for Gran so the dog wouldn’t break the fragile stalks.

What had he done with it–scratch that–to it? Crossed it with teflon. Created a bullet-proof plant.

Jamie groaned. What other childhood fancies would get in his way?

Beside him, Velvet shook gently. As if to pull him from his funk. Her leaves blossomed red, then pink and back to green. Flirting. “I know.”

Holy crap! She could read his mind.

*

Please tune in to Kay Elam’s blog next week for the next chapter!

Readers, what do you think about blog novels? Does the week speed by because you have something to look forward to, or does the anticipation of a new chapter make it drag on forever?

Writers, how do you incorporate someone else’s voice, plot twists, characters and genre into your own style while maintaining the integrity of the story?

Curious minds want to know!

BloomTable of Contents

Click on the Chapter Number to be taken directly to the chapter you want!

Now You’re Cooking…er, writing!

Eldest just got home from a twelve day trek with two of his closest buddies. I barely heard from him the entire time he was gone–I guess it’s hard to call your mom when you’re cliff jumping and deep-sea fishing. Next year when he goes to college, I’ll probably hear from him even less.

“Oh, he’ll be home to eat his favorite meals,” many parents have claimed.

Yeah, right.

The only time he called and actually talked to me versus texting me a picture and a quick quip was to say, “Hey, mom, I’m making my favorite hot dish and wanted to make sure I had all the ingredients.”

He named them all except garlic. Not bad for a seventeen-year-old boy. And since he did the lion’s share of the cooking, I doubt very much he’ll be home for me to feed him. He’s way ahead of many young men who have never lifted a spoon before embarking on the next leg of their journey.

To this end, there are two kinds of critiquers. Ones who give advice in hopes of teaching and ones who rewrite entire passages.

There are also two types of writers. Ones who want someone else to rewrite and ones who want to learn how to do it themselves.

I’m a firm believer in teaching, not providing. In doing, not letting someone else do it all for you.

There are no shortcuts in writing–nor in life.

 Are you a teacher or a provider?What are the benefits of both? How do you hold back and teach when you’d really like to give? Vice versa? When is it okay to provide?

East Coast Hugs

I wrote a short story for the end of the world, you know, that imminent 2012 thing that’s on some people’s minds? Anyway, in it, technology is worthless. No internet, no electricity, no running water, no gas pumps, no refrigerators or cell phones…

I sent it to my big sister to read through. Not one week later, she was caught in the storm that cut a swath across the Plains and ravaged the coast.

Sorry…

Big Sis was without power for 33 hours. I know many more people had it far worse. I also have some writer friends in the storm’s path and wanted to send warm wishes East, as well as to my writer friends in Colorado who are battling uncontrolled fires.

May you all stay safe.