Saturday, July 25, 2009

Magic Potions and Keyboard Trolls


I have one hundred wandering hogs that want to go to school, two devious young kids staging a worldwide bedtime revolt, and an autistic kid named Joshua - all with the same problem. They can't make the leap from my manuscript pages to a book. I love to write. I love creating new stories. I love being an author. But so many of my little darlings, my daring story attempts, are unfinished, in need of repair, less than perfect. Rejected.

It's like Harry Potter in potions class. If you don't have the right mix of ingredients, in the exact amounts, you won't get the desired result, the magical POOF! Instead you are stuck with a messy potion gone wrong, resulting in purple hair, or a twelve-legged toad, or worse, some nasty snot-filled troll-like thing stomping on your keyboard. I hate keyboard trolls.

The problem is,  there is no formula for a perfect manuscript. Even the half-blood prince had to write notes in the margins of the flawed potion book. How many of you were taken aback by the fact that the textbook instructions were not 100% accurate? That the wizard still needed to improvise, add a little of this, a little of that, to get the formula to work?  You can follow every piece of instruction, every bit of advice and still no POOF! It seems a bit unfair. It's almost like an actual writer came up with that story element. Oh, wait.

Of course, some stories will magically POOF! and reveal themselves as something special, but just not to all people. When it comes to the craft of writing, POOFS! are subjective. Some written works have a wide range of appeal - like the heavily desired universal mass market bestseller POOF! The magic formula for that is hidden away in the same underground vault that holds the ingredients list for Coke and the original recipe for KFC. 

I'm often asked, "How do I get published?" Published writers still struggle to get published. While many new writers suck, and I can say this because I hugely sucked when I first started, there are plenty of good, unpublished writers out there, too. The phrase I hear over and over at conferences is, "If you have a great, well-written story, you'll get published." I'm not convinced. A more accurate statement may be, "Don't expect to get published unless you start with a great story, write incredibly well, understand voice, pace your story properly, and appeal to your reader. Be unique. Know your market well enough so that you are not writing long when short is in, or quiet when, um, I guess loud is selling. Poetry potions are known to have explosive and sometimes fatal consequences to the inexperienced. Or so I am told."

Oh, but there's more, "Next, make sure the editor reading your work 'gets' your humor and sense of rhythm and thought process. Oh, and your book must have a point. And those reading your story must find your point a worthy point, and not a point that was recently made by someone else, or a point that has been made too many times. Or worse, a point already made by someone who won An Important Award or has the secret recipe for the universal you-know-what kind of POOF! Don't make your point too obvious. Avoid waving a four-foot neon foam pointy finger resembling those used by over-zealous baseball fans to make your point. And, of course, none if this matters if your work doesn't scream I WILL SELL!!! SELL!!! SELL!!! to those considering it for publication." You get my point.

Day-to-day writing is about growth and hard work and dealing with pesky keyboard trolls that result from poorly concocted potions. As annoying as they may be, do not kill them all off. There are trolls that shred manuscripts to bits with their nasty sharp teeth, forcing you to start over. Then there are the trolls that throw wild midnight parties on your unattended pages, leaving them scattered, unorganized, in need of massive repair. Some trolls just nibble the edges of your work, forcing you to constantly search for what may be missing . Trickster trolls are the most challenging. They dance on your keyboard, adding unnecessary words and phrases, forcing you to read your work over and over until your eyes are permanently crossed. Sometimes, overly-enthusiastic trolls with no common sense at all send your work to industry professionals before it is ready, when it is filled with horrible errors and flaws. You have my permission to stomp those trolls to death.

I mustn't forget to mention the nasty, dreaded, keyboard trolls that actually pee in your keyboard and make it look like a cup of spilled coffee. Those trolls, you can also do away with. In fact, I've got one jammed in my garbage disposal at this very moment.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Smart Kids, Dumb Crimes


Both my kids were early writers and readers. I'd like to be proud of the fact, but sadly their quick minds and eager hands soon led them to the less-than-desirable criminal activities of graffiti and vandalism. Crimes they committed within the walls of their own home. So far, I have not pressed charges. Yet.

One of the first acts of graffiti both my kids involved themselves with was marking their territory with their names. They'd execute neatly printed and properly spelled first names, and sometimes even last names, in marker, on my walls. In ballpoint pen, my son carved his full name along the side of a brand new bunk bed - as seen in the photo. In green and purple crayon, my daughter illustrated over the illustrations of a favorite book. The first time I came across hallway graffiti, I yelled at the top of my lungs, "Who wrote ERIKA on the wall?!?" Of course, there was no mystery as to who wrote ERIKA on the wall. Erika. Now, if my kids were really smart, they would have thought to write something like DADDY or PRINCESS THE DOG WAS HERE. But, no, they always chose their own name. Not just once, but multiple times. And then they would act surprised when I'd know who the culprit was. What a disappointment. My kids just don't have the clever young criminal minds required for a successful life of crime.

And they are terrible liars. I want to give them some practical lying tips, but I just can't cross that parenting line. "Alex, honey, if you want to effectively lie to me about hitting your sister, try wiping that smirk off your face and take your tone down a few octaves." Either they will figure it out themselves, or I am going to have some pretty easy teenagers to bust.

They don't cover their tracks well, either. I found a spatula and eight forks half-heartedly buried in the backyard. They left broken bits of bunny rabbit lawn ornaments on the patio. Hard not to notice when you don't wear shoes. And who could miss the patio furniture, devoid of cushions, stacked haphazardly up the side of the house to an open window. There's always little muddy footprints left in the flooded bathroom, and hand print smears amongst the spilt milk and cookie crumbs. They are fooling no one. Obviously, they lack the knowledge most of us have acquired from watching crime-scene mysteries on late night TV.

Instead, my kids think I am freakishly smart when it comes to domestic crime solving. I give them the age-old knowing LOOK and try not to smile when they pile on the lame excuses. Ah, to feel like the all-knowing powerful parent. But I am left to wonder if my young are just toying with me and that perhaps I need to dig deeper. Past the spatulas and the ruined forks, to whatever else they may have buried in the backyard.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lulu Needs a Boyfriend


Lulu is my loyal and opinionated writing companion. It says so on the jacket of my books, so it must be true. Though lately, her enthusiastic - and not very melodic - early morning singing has banished her to my front porch. The deciding factor was her appalling table manners that recently evolved to the unrestrained flinging of food. I think she learned it from my kids. Lulu will be the first to remind you, though, she is a full grown mature cockatiel girl.

Hanging out with the wildlife on my porch seems to have sparked Lulu's interest in more mature activities. Like egg-laying. She is laying like crazy. Up to five eggs a week and about a dozen per month. I told my husband the other day, "Hey, Lee, I think Lulu needs a boyfriend." Lee peered into the cage and rolled his eyes, "Don't even go there."

My dear spouse was not falling for even a half-joking comment that could loosely be interpreted as an excuse for bringing a new pet into the house. New pets are not permitted around here. It's the law according to Marital Code #11.WEALREADYHAVE13PETS which states that if I bring one more damn pet into the house said spouse will leave the premises immediately and may or may not return depending on the degree of the violation. A small pony is definitely off limits. I've asked.

So Lulu is stuck laying eggs that will never turn into baby Lulus. Which, honestly, is for best best. Lulu would make a terrible mother. Upon laying an egg, she sits on it for about an hour, and then rolls it out of her bed and onto the floor of her cage. Some crack open, most just sit there looking like, well, like abandoned eggs. It's not a pretty sight.

My friend Peggy came over one day and we fried one just for fun. It was cute. A Teeny-tiny itty-bitty fried egg. Not to eat, of course. We were just bored and curious and we wanted to freak Lee out a little bit. It was Peggy's idea.

Lulu has taken to egg-laying as a form of communication. If I buy her a new toy or fill her little bird bath, she'll get to work laying me an egg. If I have a busy week and don't spend time with her, she goes on egg hiatus. I'll admit, when Peggy and I cracked open that egg I was hoping to find  a little message written in tiny scratched-out letters on a rolled up piece of newspaper on the inside. It might say, "Thanks for the delicious honey seed ring you bought me, it was fabulous!" There was no note. Just in case you were wondering. I was a little disappointed, too.

At first I was shocked by Lulu's lack of mothering instinct, at her appalling disregard for the safety of her eggs. But I think by laying these eggs and shoving them out of her nest, Lulu is sending me a message. Or she's just gloating.  It's dawning on me that perhaps she is just as annoyed as I am now that summer is here and the human kids in the house are behaving in a less than ideal manner. Lulu likes the porch. And, I'm just guessing here, but I'm thinking she does not appreciate the musical qualities of "Mom, he's copying me!" followed by the faint, "Mom, she's copying me." Followed by preteen hysterical screams.

Perhaps if I stopped clearing out the eggs on the bottom of her cage, she'd eventually be able to spell out the words "Thank you for getting me the hell out of your house" in little neat rows of eggs, punctuated by bird droppings. Or something like that.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Confessions of an anti-shopper

Not only do I hate to shop, but I'm cheap. I'm not mother-in-law cheap. Lonna reuses her plastic bags by rinsing them in water and hanging them in her garage on a clothes line next to her ancient undergarments. Now that's impressively cheap. Plastic bags, when purchased on sale, are just not expensive enough to warrant that level of effort and organization. Plus, my garage is busy doing other things right now. Like housing a family of skunks.

Now that times are a bit tough, I'm hearing of how people are looking for ways to cut costs. My husband and I are a bit smug, in that we live pretty simply. Simple living allows us to dig deep and come up with the funds when it's time to throw a birthday party for one of the kids or travel for my daughter's gymnastics.

My two big money savers have more to do with what I won't do as opposed to what I will. I refuse to shop unless absolutely necessary. And I refuse to fix broken stuff in my house. Why? because it just breaks again. I remember calling Sears about my new refrigerator that had died without any warning. When I called, I asked the Sears repair operator why my new refrigerator would live such a short life. "Your refrigerator isn't new, it's eight years old. That's about how long they are supposed to last." I was appalled. It was new to me. Aside from my toaster oven, that was the last appliance I ever bought.

Cheap confessions: 
* We have basic cable on a dated TV.  We don't TIVO, in fact the whole process of TIVOing is a little unnerving. You won't find us at the video store every week, either.
* I own two pairs of shoes. Sandals and sneakers. I've owned both for close to two years. I usually replace them at about the three-year mark.
* Manicures, no. Supercuts, yes. I'm the only member of my family that splurges every year or two for a salon haircut.
* My oven has been broken for almost a year - which explains the toaster oven splurge. My dishwasher requires that I wash my dishes prior to loading them since it doesn't really wash anything, it just hot-bakes leftover food items onto my dinnerware. My clothes dryer won't stop until I open the door. With no buzzer to warn me of a certain time commitment, my dryer is happy to chug along all day. I won't let it though, because I realize that sparse homes go up in flames just as quickly as the fancy ones.
* My microwave gets its own bullet point. The handle has broken off and the front plastic panel is loose. Don't worry, my kids are not allowed to use it.
* I'm a cheap date. We almost never eat out - fast food included. Rarely do we get take-out, perhaps once a month. And when I say take-out, I'm not talking about fancy chinese food. Five dollar pizzas and sandwiches, baby, that's what I'm talking about.
* My car. My husband's car. I'm the one with the ten-year-old Saturn practically GIVEN to me by my sister. That's the same Saturn that has a trunk door that slams on my face. The upholstery is unraveling. It also has a broken skylight and one window that will open but not close. The bum window is where my daughter sits. I'm able to forcefully pull it up as needed. The alarm is broken, but I'm not worried.

Compared to my husband, I drive the fancy car. He has a beloved '94 4-runner. I can hear it  squeaking and groaning a good quarter mile before I see it. Love that vehicle. With its hand crank windows, manual door locks and ten-year-old Cheerios shoved in the cracks of the seats. Both our babies were brought home from the hospital in that car. 

Enough of my cheapness. Yes, I can go on and on of my sticker-shock horror when I have to go and buy $50 in new underpants - Hanes packs on sale, of course. I learned the drawbacks to cheap unknown-brand underpants in college. Won't go there.

The new cars, new appliances. They can wait. I got a call yesterday from a friend who is throwing a 50th wedding anniversary party for her parents. She got the supplies, to include table clothes and decorations, new and unused, off Craigslist for $15. She had a moment of pause when she found out the previous owners hadn't used the supplies because the husband of the celebrated union had died on the day of the party.

What I find most impressive about that story, is that the family of the deceased actually posted and sold that stuff for a mere $15 bucks on Craigslist. Now that's keeping your head about things.

And I guess now is as good as time as any to let my mom know that the new packages of unopened underpants (good quality Hanes Brand, even) that she bought for my grandpa right before he died were not worn by my husband. Ever. They were donated. But thanks for thinking of us.