Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Sweetest Thing

I was at the bank a few days before Christmas and I saw this cute little boy in my daughter's elementary school class. He's six and missing several front teeth and darling. Love that little boy. He came up and hugged my leg. His granddad looked at me askance until I explained the connection. Then Cutie-boy said, "And you're the lady who wrote me the note!"

It's true. I'd written Cutie a thank you note back in October. He had helped our family by chance at a fair, spending a few hours passing out balloons to kids. It was fun work, but that kid really worked! Hours he and my daughter raced to catch every passing child and hand a balloon. They covered that fair in latex, bless their hearts.

So, a week or so later I was writing thank yous to various deserving folks, and I whipped up a quick note for Cutie and dropped it for him at the school then thought no more of it.

But he did. In fact, it made him beam. His grandma mentioned it to me a month ago, then his mom did a few weeks later, and now Cutie himself. It mattered to him.

Weird, and surprising.

A while back I read an article in my ANWA group's monthly newsletter. It was written by the highly talented and strikingly gorgeous Donna Hatch (get to know her if you like a good, juicy, clean romance!) Her suggestion was that all of us writers should pause and use our writing for good, to improve the world around us. Me, I'm not into writing stuff that really "matters" so I almost skipped the rest of the article, but it was Donna's so I read on.

In fact, she didn't suggest only writing "uplifting" or "heartwarming" stories. (Whew, not that I'm against what is uplifting, praiseworthy, or of good report, in general.) Instead, she suggested that we use our writing, which is our gift, our talent, to serve someone else at least once a day. Write a kind note, write a friendly email, send an encouraging comment even if only on facebook. Something along those lines, although those may not be her exact ideas.

That article rolled around in my mind for a few months, and now, with Cutie's reaction, I realized just how valuable the "gift" of writing can be. It can change a little one's happiness level! It can make a little boy run up and hug your leg in the bank because he knows you appreciate him.

Now isn't that a sweet thing?

Back to my old standby Robert Frost poem "Maple," but with a twist: "Send some dear ones some words and see what happens."

Now, for the candy portion of this post. Is it actually possible I ate too much candy over Christmas? Is it possible that sweet stuff doesn't even sound appealing? Pink cookies made from a strawberry cake mix and then rolled in coconut. That was a new favorite binge. Or the *entire pan* of homemade caramels might have tipped me over the edge. Or the *full pound* of Lindt dark chocolate truffles. It could have been caused by the 600 cookies I made and sampled for my brother in law's wedding. Or the slush from Eegee's. Now there's a heavenly treat. Eegee's. Worth a trip to Tucson, Arizona, alone!

Mmm. Sweet, frosty slush with real fruit chunks in it. Light, snowy, delicious. Hey, condolences to my snowbound friends in parts north-flung, places Robert Frost would write about with apple trees and fall leaves and wooden fences. But here in Arizona, this is the time of year we can at last venture out of doors without protective clothing. I shall always love December as the crowning time of year.

Drink a big styrofoam cup of lemon Eegee's to that!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Idaho Spud Bars...and Priorities

Have you ever noticed that in making hash browns a little pepper goes a long way? Unlike in a white sauce, where you need twice as much pepper as you'd think to even get a little taste of it. I wonder why. Maybe the milk in the white sauce just cancels out the peppery flavor. Potatoes, on the other hand, enhance it. They're like a perfect canvas for a lot of other flavors, including cheeeeese.

Did you hear about that study? There's some kind of endorphin thing that's released in the brain, a chemical that creates a sense of well-being. Of COURSE chocolate triggers it, but not as much as cheese.

One time I was talking with my friend Emily, a.k.a. Super* Homemaker. She told me she'd been pressure canning meat that day. When I asked why, she said it was to make room in her freezer for more important things, like cheese.

I couldn't fault her for that excellent reasoning.

Back to potatoes. They're like candy in a way. In fact, there's even a potato-inspired candy bar. They're kind of hard to find in stores, so not everyone has tried The Idaho Spud Bar. I'm not sure everyone should. It's a big, taupe colored marshmallow covered with a good waxy chocolate (love that waxy chocolate a la Little Debbie) and crispy flaked coconut. But when you bite in, it's, uh, a lot of marshmallow.

Me, I can take it. Give me more of those. 

*More about Super Homemaker. She makes homemade tortillas. With Kindergarteners. She baked a huge loaf of bread for every staff member at the whole school for Christmas. The list goes on. Sigh. She's inspiring.

But she's not busy writing a novel. Those of us busy writing a novel have to prioritize it. We cannot let details like "deep cleaning" get in our way. We have to shove every bit of filing into a cardboard box to be filed "later." Mine has been waiting now for 18 months--since the day I started writing this novel. All filing must languish there until this novel is in the hands of an agent or editor.

I cannot, simply cannot, pull my shampoo carpet-er (as my sister terms it) out of the cleaning closet and fire it up, no matter how much the carpet under the table needs it, or how bad the "high traffic areas" in my house are getting.

I have just decided to let the weeds in the back yard grow. So what. Who cares. (Other than the kids who are tired of getting "stickers" in their socks? I just throw those socks away.)

I am writing the novel. I have to focus. I have to push it ahead of those other things.

Not ahead of everything. The kids' meals matter. The husband's job (which I campaigned for relentlessly for three months) matters. The laundry has to matter, even if I don't want it to. I can't afford to risk the suffocation that might ensue. My sister in law is convinced her most likely risk of accidental death is by laundry suffocation. I concur. So, even though I must prioritize the novel, I cannot risk death for it. Seriously. It's not that important. Much as there are days I'd like to think so.

But I don't have time to try new recipes. I'm not going to whip out my cookbook and become Super Homemaker and attempt the Spudnut recipe that's been afflicting my curiosity for months and months. Spudnut? It's the recipe for doughnuts that includes mashed potatoes. I know they're good because there was a Pete's Spudnut Drive In in Logan, Utah, when I was a kid. That's a strong recipe--something good enough to build a whole restaurant around.

Pete's is gone, but a Mr. Spudnut lives on, somewhere in cyberspace.

I guess I need to get back to my point. A little pepper goes a long way in potatoes. A little prioritizing can go a long way toward getting to a writing goal. Five minutes of writing is five minutes of writing. One afternoon a week is still an afternoon of writing done. We don't have to completely shut out all the other things in our lives, but we do have to make time for the accomplishment of the goal. If I want to write a novel, if I want to finish a novel, I have to make the time for it. If not, I'll just spend another day frittering away my time wiping down fingerprints or flipping through cookbooks.

And isn't "fritter" another term for potatoes of some kind? Not my most focused blog, but it's a holiday week. We're all a little scattered. Happy joy to all you all. And many caramels and candies all week long!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Caramel is Sticky...Stories Should be Too

I just spent the day wrapping homemade caramels. I love them. I love them so much that if I were forced to choose between caramels or chocolate only forevermore...I'd pick homemade caramel.

I'd like to just sit here with a pan of it and a butter knife and watch the George C. Scott version of "A Christmas Carol" every night from now until Christmas. Mmmm. Probably heaven tastes like this. (The recipe for my caramels is in Delicious Conversation, which, as it happens, is NOT out of print. Shazam. Kinda suprising, eh?) (The ones pictured are on a yummy looking sisters-cooking blog. They look just like mine, but I think they actually have to stir theirs and use a candy thermometer, which would be waaaaaay too complex for me to achieve. Bless them for their supreme domesticity.)

Caramels should have a degree of stickiness to be truly delicious. If not, they're, what? Werther's Originals? Which are fine, but they're not caramels. Just think of the skiff of butter puddling at the edge of the pan, the way the caramel melts in your mouth, sticks slightly to your fingers as you lift another square of it to your lips, the way it makes upper and lower jaws cling and work a little harder to chew its brown-sugary deliciousness.

And like homemade caramel, a story's plot needs to be sticky. Unlike homemade caramel, though the stickier the better. If a plot lacks stickiness, it just won't hold attention. I guess stickiness is what I'm calling conflict. Again. This is the hobby horse I keep on a-ridin'. Get that story conflicted, folks!

The more often as a reader has to ask, "Oh my gosh. How's he going to get out of *that* situation?" the better. The worse the problem, the more the stickiness, the more compelling the story.

I guess what made me think of this was last week I finally picked up Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. *Spoiler Alert.* It's been out for a while, but I'm making my way through the book stack beside my bed slowly. I about choked partway through when things got absolutely as sticky as possible for the main character, Robert Langdon. In fact, that know-it-all protagonist croaked. Yup. Up and died. It was the ultimate in "Oh my goshes." The very worst case scenario of "How's he going to get out of this-es." Seriously, how can he fix the dilemma of being dead?

Dan Brown took the conflict to the max there, and I salute him.

Now, if only I had been rooting for Robert Langdon a little more due to his being remotely empathetic...

I'm still slogging through the edit of my own little novel. It may not be epic like Brown's work, and it may not be taking itself all that seriously, but this week I rolled up on this passage where I totally missed an opportunity to make things sticky for my main character. I mean, dropped the ball of stickiness and let it roll away in the dust and get all unsticky.

Shame on me.

So, I went back and rewrote the chapter where my guy accidentally witnessed a murder. Then I had to throw in consequences for that, which added all new layers of stickiness, and possibly made me shake out three subplots that were going *nowhere* and even might have refocused the remainder of the book. Ha ha--I hope.

Still, the point is, when stickiness happens, it's good. It makes the character work at maximum capacity. It makes the reader worry. It helps the writer focus the story.

And it tastes good. Like caramel. Please, step back and let me get at that pan of gooey joy I haven't wrapped yet. They're mine. Happy, happy Christmastime.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Passion, The Storytelling Contract, and Peanut Brittle

A while back I was preparing for a presentation to give at a writing conference and I came across this great book: Conflict, Action and Suspense by William Noble

Even though it didn't have everything in it I needed for my presentation at the time, I found myself reading the whole thing, as Noble had compiled great information (the best helpful hints on pacing I'd ever read) that would apply to the project I'm slogging through right now.

However, the tippy top best thing for me in the book happened in the first pages, the author's introduction. He made a strong point that there exists between a reader and a writer an unspoken but inherent contract. The reader's request is: "Tell me a story." The writer's response is: "Okay. Read on." Then, the contract is in force. If the writer fails to uphold his or her side of the contract, the reader has the right to break his side--the following through on reading it.

Tell me a story. How many times a day do I hear that? Read me a story, mommy. Mommy, will you read me this book? My 2 year old brought me a stack of picture books a couple of months ago. "Mommy! Read me these books! They're my passion!"

I choked a moment, thinking, "You're two. You can't have a passion." And yet, book love might just be genetic.

But what makes me love a book? What is the difference between a book I devour and one I endure (and one I toss aside)?

It's the contract. I think Noble is right. I believe every soul wandering the fiction shelves of Barnes and Noble or the local library is aching to be told a story. We love them. We need them. Something in our humanity deeply needs a story. Why? Uh, how should I know?

What I do know is there are some books I feel passionate about. Many are nonfiction--scriptures, for example, and some inspirational true life stories (Brave Girl Eating and Three Cups of Tea leap to mind just now)--but some are fiction. Books I sank into, books that were pure bliss. Books I couldn't wait to read more and more of. Books I felt sad when they ended. I imagine every avid reader feels this way about some book.

Some are picture books--A is for Annabelle by Tasha Tudor. LOVE it. The Empty Pot by Demi. Gorgeous. Perfectly told story.

Others are novels that make me gush with love just thinking of them off the top of my head, The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I'm pretty sure I spent a year telling everyone I met they had to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Charlotte's sister Anne Bronte. Now, none of these might be to anyone else's taste, but I just immersed in them.

There are books that are written by true storytellers. Millions of readers love Louis L'Amour for this, and John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks. The story sweeps them away. The genres they write might have a certain formula, and even if that formula might be predictable to some readers, still we want to read them. We want to go on that similar journey again and again. The joy isn't in the destination. Sure, most of the time the guy will get the girl and the ranch, but who cares? The joy is in getting there, reading the words, getting swept into the story.

I love to read Grisham. I love the Bronte sisters. I love Jane Austen. I love Anthony Trollope. These authors told me a story, a story I craved. They kept their half of the bargain.

Now, as a writer, I have to remember what my half is--and keep it. That's why as writers we have to get going on the story--right away. First five pages, first three--the first one if possible. If we don't, then the readers have no obligation to us.

Speaking of cravings, I think I'm addicted to peanut butter. Or peanuts in general. The other day I was in the dollar store and found something that made my eyes pop open with peanutty lust. Just like not all books meet everyone's same cravings, I realize not everyone loves peanuts. But this thing made me inhale softly and close my eyes in delight while I crunched it in the dollar store parking lot, not even waiting for a more discreet location. How could I not have known about the Planters Peanut Bar before now, I ask you? It's like a thin, thin layer of peanut brittle (which is not my cooking forte) topped by a WHOLE LOT of yummy salty peanuts. So super yum. Dang it.

Speaking of craving...I could use one right now. I'm going to have to pass that same dollar store on my way to pick up the next load of chauffeured kids.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My Enormous Gripe about Current Writing Theory (Plus Pie)

So. This is my current tirade:

What the HECK is with all this sudden hatred of adverbs? Come ON! I mean, it's an entire class of parts of speech?

About a year ago I started noticing this rumbling of, "Oh, avoid adverbs!" and "Adverbs, baaaad!" and "Adverbs are unnecessary if you simply choose a strong enough verb."

At first I thought, well, sure. English is the richest language on earth. English has a plethora of verbs, verbs with almost every nuance, verbs for every need. So, why not? I can just try a lot harder and figure out a perfect verb and do away with these pesky adverbs that seem to annoy writer-types. These adverbs, I am told, practically sear the corneas of editors and agents when they appear on the typed page. Any manuscript with an adverb in the first chapter will be summarily tossed into the slush pile.

Puh-lease. Adverbs. They tell us how, they tell us when. They tell us where. They tell us in what manner. We need them in descriptive writing. We need them as readers to conjure up images of what is going on in the story. We need them to give setting to our story's action and to give us a richness of language.

Here's my confession:


Now, I can see if paragraph after paragraph of a story were riddled with -ly adverbs, and the only verbs a writer chose were "walked" and "said" and the like, then it could be annoying. That MS could get a "Go to Slush Pile, Go Directly to Slush Pile, Do not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200 in Royalties" pass. However, a well-chosen adverb is not indicative of an underlying chronic or terminal illness in a writer's style!

I think it must go back to the "moderation in all things" edict. Too much of a good thing, ain't. But I'm simply not prepared to concede that an adverb is a bad thing. Absolutely not! (In fact, imagine how it would be if I'd just put not, and left the "absolutely" off. I'd sound like a Saturday Night Live '90s reject instead.)

There. I feel better now that I've vented all that frustration into the blogosphere.

Other beautiful things that need venting are baked potatoes (which I learned the hard way when I didn't prick enough holes in mine recently and had a big explosion in my oven) and ... yes! Thanksgiving fruit pies! I think this year I am going to make a blueberry pie to take to the annual Griffith pie celebration. Last year I made the mistake of using regular blueberries, when I think wild blueberries would have been much tastier. So, I'll vent that crust (or even do a lattice crust) and give it another go!

I love a lattice top pie.
 Every year the Griffith family celebrates our pilgrim heritage with pies. LOTS of pies. A staggering number of pies. I can't wait. Every year my father calls me and asks for "The Pie Count." This is more than just the number of pies at the Griffith Thanksgiving dinner. It also encompasses the ratio of pies to people. A good year is when there is a ratio greater than 1:1. One year there were 51 pies for 35 people. I think that was a record. Possibly the happiest, most delicious record EVER set in food history. Mmm.

I'm also making a bunch of chocolate cream pies, perhaps a vanilla cream, and my new favorite: a coconut cream. My daughter requested apple, but I might leave that to more capable hands. One year my husband made a tangerine pie. I'm sorry to report it was not a success. He does make a good dark chocolate cream.

Vanilla Cream Heaven
There. Thoughts of food have brought me back down from the ledge. Food has that power over me. Yessss.

Coconut Cream. I can't wait for Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Head Spinning Punctuation News

Head spinning news. All these years I have been devoted to the em-dash. That little magically long dash that automatically appears whenever I type a double hyphen between two words and then hit the space bar.

Now, today, lo and behold! I stumble across an awesome blog that every single one of us should read and memorize or at least print out and place next to our word processors written by Anne Mimi, professional editor at a publishing house and what to my wondering eyes should appear?

The em-dash is anathema to professional editors.

In the words of every single George Lucas character at one point or another: Noooooooooo!

I am ashamed to my core to admit I have actually misinformed several other writers about this rule, preaching the em-dash to high heaven among them. I am SO ASHAMED.

Sigh. That wasn't the only surprise, either. Miss Mimi also expounded at length on the evils of a single space after a period, rather than a double space. WHAT THE -- ? But, but, but, but my publisher once upon a time told me just one space!

Now, here I sit, flabbergasted, dumbfounded, and gobsmacked.

Gobsmacked sounds a lot like Gobstopper

To most people out there, news of absolutely anything besides punctuation would be more interesting. However, I have long considered myself to be a grammar devotee, a punctuation sheriff, a heat-seeking missile for typos. To me, it's like I'm a little kid and someone just took away my popsicle or told me there was no Santa Claus. How wrong I've been! Such is the ego, the pride. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Now, admittedly, the rules of grammar the editor adheres to (and she even mentioned it in her blog) all emanate from my #1 favorite grammar tome (even though it's short, it's the BIGGEST by nature of its importance), Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.



Seriously. (Or at least check it out of the library.) Soak it all in! Incentive: it gives concise and complete rules for commas! (And everything else.) I keep it by my bedside. Honest. (And I ignore some of the rules when I'm blogging because, hey, it's a blog.)

Meanwhile, I'm just going to have to start making excuses for myself. The rules Anne Mimi insists upon as a professional reader/editor are for manuscript submissions, not writing in general. She reiterates several times that MS submissions should NOT look like printed books. Therefore, I am going to give myself a little pass on a couple of things. There. I feel better. Kinda.

Part of me is truly overwhelmed, frightened that there is a whole world of vital information out there I simply don't know about and that I'm going to make a fool of myself as a total amateur. Another part of me is really super glad I found this information BEFORE I meet with an agent to pitch my novel (assuming I ever actually do that.)

Crud. Now I'm heading back over to my manuscript. With a printout of this REALLY INFORMATIVE BLOG ABOUT FORMATTING in hand, I'm going to get to work. It may take me a week to implement all the great formatting rules I'm now privy to, but if I'm going to submit it to an agent, I want it to look professional -- and not drop directly into the garbage.

But before I do that, I think I'll pop some popcorn and sit down and watch some reruns of Roswell. Now there's some angsty stuff to lurrrrrve. Give me impossible teen love between earthling and aliens on TV any day. I think I need a Milky Way to go with it. Chocolate, caramel, whipped goo. It will soothe the troubled soul.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Go, Songwriters!

A quick thank you to friends who sent me evidence of their songwriting prowess! Way to go! I really loved the creativity you showed, and it's amazing to see what poetry hides in the souls of the people around us. If only we could take a peek inside.

It's kind of like a Charms lollipop. On the outside it looks like a normal sucker, but inside is hours of bubbly fun.

I love it! (Not that ANY of you fine writers are suckers. Not what I meant at ALL.)

Three Cs: Chaos and Chocolate and Creativity

Is writing a reward?

Lately my life has become ridiculously busy. Scary busy. Still, I have this deep-seated need to write, to create--to be more than manager of the chaos of the swirl that is my world.

For the past two months I have not sat down to do this. Yes, I did briefly slap together some edits before doing a chapter-exchange-critique with a friend. It was a sorry effort. It does not count as creativity. It's, once again, just managing chaos.

This situation may be contributing to the chaos, however. Internally I keep telling myself, "When the vortex slows, when the laundry is done, when the 18 months worth of backlog of filing is neatly sorted into the filing cabinet, when I get a chance to dust and clean out the microwave, then I'll sit down again and write."

This attitude is not helping!

Part of me believes that all order must be established so that I can write in peace, so that creativity will flow. But I'm starting to believe that maybe if I could take the time to splat out all my creativity, then I'd have more energy to return to the front lines of the battle.

Laundry will always be there.

And a good chocolate bar wouldn't hurt.

Lindt chocolate has a website and their promotion this month is called "Trick or Truffle." They also have a link called "Tasting with the Five Senses." That's the vacation I need. A five senses chocolate vacay.

Am I alone in thinking Lindt makes some of the best, creamiest chocolate on the planet? Not that I'm exclusive. I'll pretty much eat any chocolate from the Palmer's rice crispy-filled nasty stuff at Easter to the best stuff Switzerland has to offer.

Truffles forever, I say. Bring them on.

About chocolate: they say the milk in milk chocolate negates the antioxidant effect of the Theobromine inherent in dark chocolate. I don't care. I'm not eating chocolate for my health. I'll take it dark, milk, even white (when it's melted and poured over salted popcorn) because it's one of the best foods created by God and innovated by man--most likely through pure inspiration.

So up with creativity and innovation and chocolate and inspiration and five-senses vacations, and down with chaos!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

German Drinking Songs (Oktoberfest!) Writing Challenge

I remember very little from my high school German class. I remember Mrs. Durrant's eyeglasses on a chain. I remember Jamie White and I repeated a hundred thousand times the line from our textbook, "Ich heisse Liese Lehman." My name is Lisa Lehman. Nice. So useful when I actually went to Germany. I remember ein, zwei, drei--one, two, three.

Steven Green and LaRoy Dailey were in there. They wore pearl snap shirts. It was the 80's in Idaho. Of course they wore pearl snap shirts.

The German I remember most is the drinking song Mrs. Durrant taught us. We sang it often, at the top of our lungs. We learned all three verses. We waved our pretend beer steins in the air during the "ja, ja, ja, ja" chorus.

I can still sing that song. Sometimes I sing it to my kids as we drive to school in the car. My toddler screams at me to stop singing. (Not just that song. Always. Should that hurt my feelings?) I still wave my hand in the air.

Drinking songs. They're good fun! (But remember: Even a rousing chorus of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" sung all the way through didn't cause me to abandon my teetotalling.)

There is a point to this. I'm getting to it. But first this:

I remember hearing or reading the story of the penning of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." You can read the story here. Julia Ward Howe visited a Union Army camp during the Civil War. She'd heard the soldiers singing a drinking song, "John Brown's Body" (which lies a-moldering in its grave). She thought there should be more uplifting words to the song. What self-respecting, good Victorian-era woman wouldn't? She gave us the gift of the Battle Hymn. I love it! Doesn't everyone?

Click here for a link to a video of it performed in magnificence.

Ah. So, approaching the point:

I've long wished I could write poetry. I don't do it often. It doesn't come naturally to me. I don't have a lot of music in my soul. I don't even read much poetry. But I do like hymns.

It occurred to me this morning that drinking songs and folk songs and already established tunes of that ilk have catchy melodies or they wouldn't have caught on. One of my favorite hymns at church is the catchy "Praise to the Man" set to the Scottish folk song.

Now, the point. I would like to issue an October challenge to my writing friends. If you have ever wished you could write a hymn or a song but didn't know where to start. If you're like me and it's easier to create poetry by wedging it into a previously established rhythm. If you have words but little "music in your soul" and wish to create something lovely. Or even if you're a great songwriter already and just want a fresh thing to try, here's an idea:

Dig up a folk song (or drinking song from your high school German class, but don't steal mine!), and set some of your own uplifting words to it. See how it turns out!

All this talk of forbidden drinks reminds of a candy I often avoided as a child. Root beer barrels. As a non-root beer drinker, the barrel candies held little appeal to me. Hard candy wasn't my sugar of choice. However, in a pinch, I often ate them anyway. Candy. It gets me. I have little resistance even to its less-delicious forms. There were generic barrels in the shape of wooden barrels, and there were the brand name A&W Root Beer candies.

I'm not sure if there was a difference. Some may have a preference for that frosty mug taste. I just chomped it fast to get the sugar down the gullet to where it belonged--the blood stream.

I found this picture that looks like a fabulous alternative to the root beer barrel straight. Mmm. Here's the recipe.
I think those candies around the bottom *should* be Sugar Babies, but I can't tell what they are. Sugar Babies? Now that's my idea of sugar.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Spelling Poorly at the Donut Shoppe

I got an email from my new pal at the radio station. In it he expressed regret that in his previous message he spelled the word "campaign" wrong, leaving out the letter G. "What with you being a writer and editor you should have said something!" he wrote.

My reply was something like, "Well, I think it's more accurate to the feeling to leave out the G--then it's cam-pain, emphasis on 'pain.'"

Still, where would we all be as writers if we took it upon ourselves to correct misspellings in everyday communication? Emails are lax, sure, but text messages would just be a nonstop joke.

I remember growing up we drove to Southern California to see my grandmother and near her house was a place called the "Donut Shoppe." Ugh! Every SINGLE time we passed it, I longed for my eyes to be able to shoot forth lasers to add missing letters and subtract the superfluous ones. WHY? WHY? It made my skin crawl. (Still kind of does, apparently.)

Am I alone here?

And yet, these are different times. Much as I would LOVE to be the instigator of a Renaissance of Good Spelling, I doubt that idea would fly much farther than a cement balloon. Can you imagine trying to police good spelling in ongoing conversations between teenagers, many of which consist of a single letter? MIOK?

What. Ever.

But as a writer, I do feel like I have a responsibility to the language, the purity of the written word, to be a bastion of conservation of formal communication. Sure, my books aren't exactly the height of formality, but the sentence structure in them can aspire to avoid fragments (unlike the preceding paragraph) and to have varying and complex structures, to not begin with conjunctions (uh, unlike this very paragraph and the one two above this), and to present the accurate spelling and usage of words to the best of my ability.

Part of this stems, I believe, from the desire to create a haven for those who feel like I do--that grammar matters, that punctuation counts, that clear and complete communication is possible and can be learned. If no examples of good writing exist for our upcoming generations to experience, I almost shudder to think of the disintegration English (and interpersonal expression) will suffer in the coming decades.

A few days ago I was talking with a friend who had just finished reading one of the classics. It might have been The Count of Monte Cristo (of course I can't remember now that I want to remember). She loved the story, but her main response went like this: "We may think we're so smart and advanced these days, but we have nothing on them! The people back then [I think she meant writers in the 18th & 19th Centuries] had such a complete way of expressing themselves. It was elegant and refined and educated. We're just a bunch of dummies by comparison!" Is my friend right?

Donut, anyone?

(My personal favorite is the Hostess powdered sugar doughnut with the raspberry gel filling. Mmm. I wish I had one right now!)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vicarious Pain (for a change) ... and baconization of the world

I just had a conversation about reading in the school parking lot with a friend of mine. She was saying how much she prefers light novels over the heavy stuff. She has to deal with heavy stuff in everyday life, and she just likes a fluffy novel to immerse in. Naturally, I whipped out copies of my books for her as loaners and (since I couldn't resist) gave her my philosophy on cotton candy, how much we just need an escape.

This morning a different friend called. She is working on the "black moment" in her novel. She is trying to make the awful part at the 85% mark much more wrenching. But she likes things nice for her characters (she says today, but I know she does make them suffer!) so it's hard to get the black moment black enough. We talked about figuring out what her character values most of all (her marriage and family) and putting that on the chopping block for the character--upping the stakes, making it really dangerously close to possibly being lost to the character.

My friend was saying how hard it is for her to get down and write the angry feelings or the pain or the fear. I agree. It's tough!

A few months ago I was reading a book about how to do that. (I wish I could remember which one it was. When I do, I'll post a link.) The author suggested mining our own experiences for times of deep emotion. Think back on times of each different kind of emotion: pain, suffering, embarrassment, grief, anger, hatred, longing, love, fear, fear of loss, disappointment, anything.

Think of times when we've felt that. For instance, the sorrow I felt when my grandma died, or the embarrassment of when (okay, too many to choose from). Then, we can list these times and beside them make a list of what representative emotion they connect to. Make a catalog of those emotion packed moments or experiences, relive them in our minds.

In this way, we mine our own experiences for emotion.

Now, the point the author (bless his heart whoever he was) made was that we don't have to put our character into the same situations we were in. We don't have to make all our stories autobiographical. However, we can draw on those experiences and transfuse the emotion of our own moments into the character's moment.

So, what does all this have to do with cotton candy? We read to escape our own real moments of emotion. Instead, we trade them for the emotion of fictional characters. Sometimes "a change is as good as a rest," and so as we read, we feel the pain or sorrow or anger of someone else, and it's a relief, a release, a cotton candy moment. It melts into our reading souls and can help us forget our own troubles and root for someone else for a change.

Now, I need something salty for a change. I recently heard about a new product: Baconnaise. The makers say their goal is to make everything taste like bacon. Mmm. Sweet is yummy, but salt ... it's the spice of life. Am I right?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Unforgivable Broccoli in the Teeth

I just found out that Nicholas Cage is...Francis Ford Coppola's son? And Sophia Coppola's brother. How could I not know that?

Also, how could I not have known that there was a little green broccoli bud between my two front teeth when I went to that important political meeting the other night to meet big wigs from the state party and when I was sitting on the front row of the meeting smiling through the whole thing? How?

These things are just not acceptable.

If I'd skipped the broccoli and just gone with candy for dinner like I wanted to--stuffed my mouth with Red Vines (sounds like it's based on a plant food) and Sour Patch Kids (vegetables grow in a patch, right?) instead of that healthy stuff, I might never have caused myself to suffer the embarrassment. And now I can't even remember if embarrassment has one or two r's in it.

The Dinner of Champions:

What is forgivable, however, is an imperfect first draft. I think a lot of us authors get done with a first draft and voila! we think it's a finished product and we get all excited and show it to all our friends and family and writing group pals. Then, a few weeks or months go by and ... shoot. It doesn't look so great. The fervor for its glory cools significantly. Freezes over, in fact. We approach it with new eyes and we're horrified. Much like my glance in the mirror after returning home from the Marriott meeting with bigwigs.

However, we have to remember that first drafts are just that: first drafts. First implies that other drafts follow. Like second, third, fourth drafts. I like what James A. Michener said, "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." We don't have to be geniuses in the first place. We just need to get the clay onto the pottery wheel so we can begin to mold it.

And how many metaphors can I fit into a single blog post? Going for a new record, I guess.

But what I'm saying is I hated seeing my imperfections of teeth (and knowledge) as much as I hate seeing first drafts' imperfections. But once that initial shock of horror passes, we need to let that subside and we can begin to look for the good things in the story and start to work from there molding it into something greater than we initially formed--make it take a shape closer to our original vision, perhaps.

But still. How could Nicholas Cage have been that guy and I not know it?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


In one of my favorite novels, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the main character Flora Post announces to her friend Mrs. Smiling, "I mean to write a novel as good as Persuasion by the time I'm fifty."

I say that's a pretty lofty goal.

But that phrase tumbled around in my head for so long (like a clothes dryer with no automatic shut off and I left on vacation with a load of towels in) that eventually I took up the challenge. I failed, naturally, but I did write a novel based on Persuasion, arguably Jane Austen's finest work (and the one supposedly most autobiographical.) It pales, but does that count?

Anyhow, I've spent the past three weeks immersed in a new and foreign (to me) form of writing: persuasive.

Given the choice in college, I signed up for the research writing class, not the persuasive writing class. Then when it came to the sales aspects of the technical writing courses I took, I pretty much stunk. Sigh. It's not my forte. But lately, my completely untrained moment has been thrust upon me. I've had to write the text for a brochure, six persuasive letters, a "convincing" post card, an entire website, several radio ads, and three newspaper ads.


It's a tall building to leap in a single bound. I don't know how the end result looks yet. And I won't know if they're effective for a few more weeks. And a LOT depends on it. In fact, I want to kind of hurl whenever I think about how much the success or failure of these chunks of text actually effects my life.

What I do know about persuasive writing is this: know your audience. Know what matters to them. Know what they want most. Suit your message to your reader. Figure out what will appeal to the reader and play on that. It can be based on fear, or deeply held emotions, or money. (Dang it. None of which I tapped into, I realize now.) It can be based on reason--well reasoned arguments (that's what I was going for). It can appeal to desires. (Avoided that one, too.)

Meanwhile, I'm thinking what I really desire is another dose of Tylenol and another dose of that fantastic Cherry Chocolate Ice Cream Bar by my good friends at the Blue Bell ice cream company. Is there more deliciousness anywhere? I think not. Unless it's in the Buttered Pecan Ice Cream Bar (which I have yet to sample. But my birthday is coming up in a few weeks. Hint. Hint.)

Now that's cold comfort.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Name that Tune (er, character)

So how could I possibly avoid eating the candy? It was a long-driving road trip. We were listening to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (it’s Roald Dahl month!), and the song on the radio was “Sugar, Sugar, oh honey honey, you are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you.” I’d been subconsciously prepped, so why not buy a Bit o’ Honey, a Snickers, a Spree, and a pack of Doublemint—and eat them all myself?

Good stuff. I love that honey taffy.

I have a dear friend named Taffy, actually. When I first met her I had to do an audio doubletake. Taffy? Excuse me?

But the better I got to know her the better her name fit her. If anyone ever was appropriately called Taffy it’s she.

I have another friend. She’s completely down to earth. She’s strong. She’s bright. She’s no frills, no pink, no ribbons or bows. She told me that when she was born, her mom (under the influence of post childbirth swirling emotions) wanted to name her Buffy.

Thank heavens her father stepped in and put a stop to that. She has a much more personality-appropriate name.
So, when we name book people, how do we come up with just the right name? I have read books where the whole way through the name of the main character has caused a little “ding” in my mind every time I see it. The name doesn’t fit the character’s age or personality or the time period setting of the book—something.

I find that choosing characters’ names is one of the great tasks. Sometimes the name hits me first, and then the story follows. I suspect The Great Gilly Hopkins. Perhaps Willy Wonka, too (while we’re on the candy subject.)

Other times I know the story, but I don’t know the character’s name for a long time. When I was pregnant with our oldest we bought these great name books—not just long lists of names listed alphabetically, but the listing included the connotation of the name, the way he might be perceived by his peers, whether it was stodgy or cool, solid or fluffy, plus lots of other naming theories. Loved them. The latest update of this series I bought was called The Baby Name Bible.

Between baby birthings (I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no babies!), I found these books to be really helpful in naming the imaginary people in my life. It was great to use them, and an added bonus was if I had a name I adored (Maren, Stan, Bridget) and my husband decidedly did NOT adore that name, it could be slapped on a story person and come to life, even if only on paper.

It’s a tricky business naming a character. It has to fit just right. The character doesn’t have the opportunity to grow up and head over to Social Security and make the change if you don’t get it right the first time. Only the author has the power and responsibility for the perfect fit. That is a hefty burden sometimes.

Sometimes an honest mistake can be made. This is why critique groups are so important. I was proofreading a story by an acquaintance once and the main character’s name was … let’s just say it was offensive. A baddie. Because it was the main character, it was on every page. When I mentioned she might like to rename him, she got a little defensive (we love our story-children), and so I got my husband to explain the meaning to her. She decided to let it go. Whew.

In one of my novels I made the mistake of making two characters’ names sound too closely alike: Jed and Ted. And no, they weren’t twins. It wasn’t until the book had been out almost a year that my neighbor said, “I kept getting them mixed up.” Clutch at my heart! How could I have not noticed such a thing? Ugh!

It’s important, I think, to have names that are memorable. They don’t have to be wacky-out-of-the-realm-of-normality names, but they need to be slightly odd. John Grisham is good at this. I decided a while back I think he skims the phone book and finds some of the weirder names and picks some. I liked the fact that Charlie in the chocolate factory’s last name is Bucket. It’s believable but quite memorable. In farce (like that) the people can be names that describe them (Angina—fat mother of spoiled rich girl, means heart attack; Gloop for the greedy kid; etc.) I have made the mistake of having names be too pedestrian. It helps the reader, (at least when I’m the reader), to have the names be just enough different to be memorable. Think Holden Caulfield, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.

Growing up "Jennifer"....I mean, in the '70s almost every girl seemed to be named Jennifer. Or Lisa. It had its pros and its cons.

So, I guess a couple of the things I now watch out for as I’m naming book people is to try not to have any rhyming names, to not have any two names begin with the same letter, and make it memorable.

There’s a poem by Robert Frost about a girl whose parents name her Maple. Not Mabel. It is forever giving her trouble, and then one day it becomes the springboard of a conversation with a man who ends up falling in love with her. The final line of the poem goes something like “Name children some names and see what you do.” Or what happens.

I like that.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Griffith: Unplugged

Last Saturday I got to drive a bunch of teenagers to the lake two hours away so they could waterski and wakeboard and get sunburns. The organizers of the trip probably hoped I'd help out, but instead, I did the hermit-writer classic move and hid in my cave (Suburban) and wrote!

It was the first time in I don't know how long that I was on a computer with no Internet access. Can I say how weird and disconnected from all mankind I felt? I'd forgotten. I mean, seriously--deserted island feeling.

But shazam! I got so much more done!

(Imagine that! )

It's been a really busy time around my world, with school ramping up and 2 year old at home with me declaring me as her one and only friend all day long (which I love, but it sure does mean a lot more of my attention gets diverted her way than it did all summer with the other four kiddos home) and other exciting stuff going on that I won't bore y'all with.

Still, I got more done in 4 hours on the shores of Roosevelt Lake in the sweltering car (intermittently plugging my laptop into the battery-jumper-box thingy) than I have in the last three weeks combined. I implemented about 20 edits, added about 10 pages of new writing, got rid of some super lame subplots and scenes, cleaned up some rough patches. Loved it!

Which tells me something. I am lazy? I have ADD? I'm addicted to facebook and email and mindless surfing the net?

Probably. But also, that a little more self control and technological isolation is good for the soul, and the plot, and the productivity levels.

I might try to recreate the circumstances here at home by switching off my modem and putting myself on the desert island again, but on the comfort of my sofa and in the cool whir of the air conditioning with piles of candy at my side.

Oh, wait. The candy might distract me.

Especially a candy that's also a toy. Like PEZ. Or Lik-M-Aid. PEZ is for sharing, I have always believed. What could be better than eating a rectangular disc of strawberry flavored sugar directly from the neck of Batman, or Kermit the Frog, or Princess Leia? Seriously? I wonder if there was a Leif Garrett Pez dispenser in the 1970s. I guess you know you've "arrived" fame-wise when they make a Pez dispenser with a model of your head.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chocolate Voodoo Doll

I have been editing the dialogue in my novel, and I was thinking about something I read in James N. Frey's book (mentioned several times in this blog, and now again) about what's important in writing good dialogue.

First off, good dialogue is *not* conversation. There are no "throwaway" lines in dialogue. Every line should advance the plot, reveal character, or heighten conflict.

He says good dialogue is always:
* in conflict
* indirect
* clever
* colorful
Here's something colorful. Skittles. Mmm.

I don't think colorful necessarily means "colorful language" in the cursing sense of the term. I think he means it should create images in the reader's mind, reveal the way the character thinks, and make an impact.

By indirect, Frye explained, if one character asks a question, the reply shouldn't answer it directly. The feeling will be crisper if the answer is oblique or if the answer comes several lines later. This can intensify conflict between characters, as well.

His points are that dialogue needs to reveal conflict, reveal character, and to provide immediacy--meaning it speeds up the action of the story, makes it seem like it's happening *now* and not just being told about. Funny, telling through dialogue ends up being one of the best ways to "show not tell."

Frey suggests that in the editing phase, we should go back and reexamine ALL dialogue and determine where it could be fresher, more unexpected, create greater tension, and throw a greater impact. Sigh. It's really hard to do!

I have a favorite TV show, Leverage, and I love it because the dialogue rocks. Everything just strikes me as clever, and it's never what I'm expecting. I'm sure the writers are either geniuses or else they labor for hours and days and weeks coming up with the perfect snappy (or snarky) response.

The thing about all this "unexpectedness" requirement in dialogue is that it also seems to extend to all aspects of writing--to the character development, to the plot twists, to the name assignments of characters, to the titles.

For instance, Cookie Monster. The name--it's a juxtaposition of ideas. And it's a beloved character who has endured over 30 years in children's and adults' minds.

I think we're kind of like the people the Apostle Paul describes (and kinda scorns) of Mars Hill, always looking about to see something new. It's human nature. We like what surprises us, what's different.

Now, candy-wise, here's something different. Lobster lollipops. I think I've eaten them before. Cherry flavor? Does that ring a bell? It's dinner time. I'd like one right now, to be honest.

Or this chocolate voodoo doll. What could be more appealing than a surprise like this?

I just love surprises--in candy and in good writing.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Deep Dark Secret...Revealed!

While I was studying up for a presentation I gave at the ANWA Retreat last month, I was reading James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. This book is by faaaaaaar THE BEST book on fiction writing I have ever come across. I adore it. It changed the way I think about writing, and I am kicking myself for not reading it 10 years earlier. (Okay, it wasn't written then, but, dang it!)

I really like the way Bell suggests setting up a plot--how to mine your psyche and your past for ideas, how to arrange scenes, etc. I am going to post about this more later, but the thing I am thinking about today is one of his sections: The Dark Secret.

One way of creating tension in a story, and of creating exciting and compelling characters is to give them a dark secret--something that could hurt them deeply if it comes to light, or something that could hurt someone they love, something they are trying to achieve (could stand between them and their goal or RULING PASSION), or destroy trust or reputation. They should be utterly desperate to keep the secret hidden. As writers we should consider to what lengths the character will go to prevent it from leaking out.

James N. Frey in that other great book How to Write a Da*n Good Novel insists that "every character should have something to hide." Soap operas are excellent examples of this.

So, last night I was lazing about watching a movie with my husband: Bandslam. I had low expectations for the show, and then bam! About 3/4 of the way through, a dark secret of the by-now-beloved main character comes to light to both the audience and to all his newfound friends. It nearly destroys everything he has worked for thus far and creates major tension up until the final minutes of the showdown in the climax of the show.

Suddenly for me this movie went from formula kid-show to,"Wow, what a cool script. I wish I could concoct something like this."

It's something I think would really help round out one of my characters during this edit. She's great but a little flat. A dark secret would make her much more interesting.

So, in regards to candy, I do have a dark secret in my candy-eating past. For several years in the 1970s, I was a hard core Candy Cigarette fan. (Cue the "dun-dun-dun" music here.) 

Yes! It's true! My cousin Matt and I bought them on Saturdays at the Milk Depot for 25 cents. Then we hid under the bridge in the canal and actually pretended we were smoking when we ate them. I savored that pepperminty flavor on the sly and I don't remember telling my mom or dad about it.

I'm so ashamed. I hope you'll all forgive me and know that I've reformed from this anti-social behavior since then.

But, come on! Geez. What kind of jerks made candy cigarettes? That's just shameful, don't you think?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Candy Whistle and the Same Old Song

I was trolling through Twitter a few weeks ago and stumbled across someone's home page full of tweets shared among agents and editors in the business. I didn't notice which publishing houses or agencies they worked for, but what I did notice was their string of complaints.

Yes, complaints.

The thing they complained about was other people's writing. Ew. Fer rude. It scared me.

I stared at the words horrified and decided I really don't want to be fodder for Tweets of Terror.

I'd forgotten about it when I posted yesterday, but the complaints related directly to what I was thinking and writing about then: THE RULING PASSION of the main characters in the manuscripts on their desks, and the fact that the passions were not strong enough or focused enough.

Specifically, several groaned about this: Curiosity is NOT a strong enough driving passion.

At the time, I think I felt a sense of relief at that, since my character's passion isn't curiosity, so the relief sent the thoughts out of my mind, but since I've been editing and going over this concern mentally, I can see how this could grow moldy for an agent or assistant editor digging through the slush pile all day.

Which reminds me. I love Slush Puppies. They have really good pebble ice. Give me the blue raspberry. Make the edge of my upper lip and my tongue dark blue.

Cherry is nice, too. I wouldn't pass on that.

But I have to remember that the key to getting past the slush pile (and not in the trash pile) is to make sure the driving passion of the main character is something OTHER than or MORE COMPELLING than curiosity.

I guess Alice in Wonderland is a been there, done that concept.

Since I don't have my own Slush Puppie machine here at Griffith Central (yet. Maybe after I sell my bestseller. Ha.), I had to settle for one of these. They're surprisingly DELICIOUS. Pomegranate is only 70 calories. Yeah, the 120 calorie coconut is fabulous, too, possibly even 50 calories *more* fabulous. Sigh.

However, I don't think the PASSION or the GOAL has to be earth shattering. Sure, if it's a sci fi or thriller plot, the goal is often to SAVE THE WORLD AND ALL MANKIND. That's great. However, if all that involves is a bunch of car chases and stuff blowing up, and the characters don't really, really care, neither will the readers.

However, if the character cares about even the lamest thing (I'm thinking about a stupid movie I got cajoled into seeing unwittingly by my Norwegian roommate back in my less movie-aware days) like going across the country to be in a drag queen parade to meet an aging starlet, then the reader might even care about the stupidest thing in the world.

Perhaps not a great example. I guess I never did get to caring about that. Ick. But take the TV show Glee for instance. Very popular. (I saw a couple of episodes, I'll admit.) Their goal isn't to save the world. It's to save the Glee Club. But that show has a huge following because the characters have a goal. They CARE about it deeply.

So, just playing that same tune again today. It might sound more delicious if it were being played on ... a Candy Whistle. Remember those? Watermelon. That was the best. Melody Pops. Great name for a candy.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Want it Most of All

My sister in law just stopped by to visit. She'd been to the Sweet's Candy Company in Salt Lake City on a factory tour. My eyes about popped out of my head when I heard this. In fact, I found myself getting irrationally jealous. Get this: at the factory store, she'd purchased a 27 pound box of chocolate covered cinnamon bears (a $115 value) for $15!

Insane jealousy.

She told me there were great, cool facts on the tour. Did you know it takes several days to make a jelly bean? The sugar layers have to dry.

Of course I can't remember the exact number of days now that I'm posting this. But it made me think. It takes several layers of effort in editing and writing to make a great, sweet story.

I'm reading a novel for a friend, for a critique. I really like the characters, and the story is unique. I'm interested to see where it's going.

However, I'll be honest. I'm not as interested as I might be. Why not? Because of one glaring omission.


That would be like the jelly center of the bean.

In the book How to Write a Da*n Good Novel by James N. Frey, the author explains in great detail the importance of imbuing our characters with ruling passions. The character has to have a goal, something he wants more than anything else, and must be willing to go after it. The more the character wants it, the more the reader will care, the more the reader will pull for the character and invest their own feelings into the story.

When a character has a ruling passion, and a clear goal, we can begin to worry as readers whether the character will achieve the goal. And, Frey says, that's what the reader wants is to worry.

I was thinking about this--when I read for escape (and that's my favorite kind of reading) the cotton candy of the story takes my mind away from what I'm worrying about in my own life, and I can worry about something else. The diversion of worry lets me forget my own problem and I can invest in the fiction, leaving behind reality. The more I can worry about the fake person, the more I forget my own life.

So, I think Frey has a point.

As I read this novel for my friend, I look forward to letting him in on the secret Frey shared. A novel like this that is well constructed and has fleshed-out characters can only be made more solid with a clear goal for the reader to pull for. It already has sparkle and magic. It just needs focus.

As a writer, I have been working to get my characters to be more solid, and when their ruling passion is as clear to me as possible, it seems to shape all their behavior, and I think it makes for better characterization. The love interest girl in my book I'm editing (my own) lacks it, and I need to figure out what it is that drives her. I believe it will lift her out of obscurity and boringness and into the believable, sympathetic character I need her to be!

Meanwhile, if you're wishing YOU could go on the Sweet's Candy Company tour, you can click here to book a tour (or just to check out the home page and salivate over the candy.)

Of all the treats my sister in law bought, this was the crown jewel.


I have to say, possibly the best taffy of all time, and that's saying a lot.

I wonder how much shipping costs.