Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ice Is Not Nice & Surprising News

Ice is not nice. Except in a tall glass of tea or in the summer mixed with rock salt to make some creamy homemade banana ice cream. But in the middle of the winter on the trees is not nice. It's been nasty here in Kentucky. Over 500,000 people without electricity including me for a while and my 88 year-old mom still. She's not happy. She likes being in her own place and own bed, but it's cold with no heat. She's lived through some chilly times. When she first got married, the old house they lived in only had a fireplace grate for heat and she said that sometimes in the winter when they'd come downstairs in the morning the water would be frozen in the teapot next to the fireplace. Now that's cold. But she's used to that nice thermostat controlled heat now that you need electricity for. Her whole neighborhood is out and I don't know why. No trees are down on lines or anything. Now out here in the country, there are trees down everywhere.

But you know, I went for a walk in the ice and snow and it is pretty. I took a ton of pictures and if I had a faster connection I'd put some up here on the blog, but pictures don't travel over my slow dial-up connection very fast. Most of the time it times out and sticks its tongue out at me. So just imagine everything coated with ice and icicles hanging down from every branch and fence. Of course right now I'd like to imagine it melting and Mom's heat coming back on. Soon.

Great news to share with all of you about my book The Outsider. It's been chosen as one of five finalists for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) for fiction book of the year. Wow! I'm surprised and happy. The winners will be announced in March. I'll share more news when I get it.

I'm going to be in WV babysitting the twin boys this weekend while the rest of the family goes to Disney World. I hope to be able to do my blog on Sunday as usual if the boys cooperate. They're five months old. Maybe they'll sleep at the same time some of the time. It should be fun.

You all breath some hot air over this way toward Kentucky and maybe all this ice will melt. Can you believe the Ohio Book Club I talked to Monday night (and they were fun and asked neat questions) said I sounded southern? I think that was their nice way of saying I sounded country. I am country. Talk to you soon.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Chocolate Eating Writer's Muse

We're still deep in winter here in Kentucky although we had a beautiful sunshiny day on Friday with the temps rising to near sixty. All of us started dreaming of spring to come. That's the way it is here in this border state between north and south. Days and sometimes weeks of warmer weather can come to call, but then winter always returns. Sometimes even in the spring when the cold should be gone and the flowers and trees are ready to burst into bloom, winter will sneak back a nasty finger of cold that freezes the blooms and steals our summer fruit. In January we don't have to worry about that. We just have to hope for snow instead of ice.

I'm several chapters into my new story and trying to keep to my page allotment each day. As always the way I thought I saw everything going so clearly is meandering into some alleyways I didn't notice at all. But I'm trying to trust my characters and my muse.

Bobbi's comment on my last entry got me to thinking about the writer's muse. Here is a Ray Bradbury quote about the Muse. "What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse."

I've had people ask me if I waited for my muse before I started writing. Or wanted to know how I corralled the slippery little sucker. Actually I've never given my muse a lot of consideration. Maybe not enough. I've always wanted to write so much that I may have taken it for granted that if I sat down and started writing a story would come. Gee, I hope my muse isn't listening and goes off to hide in a closet to pout where I'll never be able to find her again. I wish I hadn't thought about that! :o(

In Stephen King's book On Writing, he describes his muse as a cigar-smoking guy with wings. But he warns us our muse is not going to come fluttering down into our rooms and sprinkle creative fairy dust all over our computers. King is of the opinion that the writer has to do all the work while the muse just sits around and pretends to ignore you. His all the while smoking those cigars. I don't think I want my muse to smoke cigars. I'll let her eat chocolates. But then King adds that the muse has the inspiration, the bag of magic a writer needs.

And it does sometimes feel like magic when you've sat in front of the computer screen and fed in words on top of words that maybe didn't seem like anywhere close to the right words, but then somehow the story comes. Perhaps a character jumps into the story out of nowhere or you suddenly see what really happened instead of what you thought might happen. Not because you waited for your muse to show up, but because you chased her down. And maybe bought her a new box of those imaginary inspirational chocolates.

I'm ready to do a new give-away. Any of you have one of my books you'd like to have in the give-away more than any of the others, let me know. I'll probably add an autographed copy of a different author's book, too. I'll let you know which books on Wednesday. Before I head up to WV to babysit the twins for a few days. They're five and a half months old already. I'll get my baby holding tank filled up to the brim with two babies to spoil.

Hope winter is being kind to you all. And spring is coming.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bumpy Sledding and Writing

Hope all of you had a very good Wednesday. Halfway through the work week and on the downhill slide to Friday. I often wish I had an extra day especially when I'm getting started on a new book. Of course I took today off to spend a snow day with a couple of my grandkids. We haven't had a lot of snow, just flurries spread out over several days that has kept a skiff of snow on the ground. My daughter-in-law said it was like we were in a giant snow globe that somebody kept turning over to make it snow. Anyway, the little snow we had is almost gone except in the shade, but with those plastic smooth bottomed sleds, you can still do some sledding even when the snow is disappearing. So we walked all over the farm looking for enough snow cover to take a ride downhill. The two and a half year old was quite happy to let me pull her down those hills and then back up. Needless to say, this gramma is dragging tonight after a lot of trips up and down. At least I was smart enough to pick very short hills. The nine year old just had fun sliding although he did admit that the frozen ground with only a bare skiff of snow made for some pretty bumpy sledding.

I'm feeling as if I'm having some "bumpy sledding" as I try to get my new story off the ground, but I'm hanging on and absorbing the bumps because I think the story is there. I just have to find the best way to tell it. So here are some quotes to encourage you if you're a writer and help you understand some of what writers struggle with if you're a reader.

  • A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. --John K. Hutchens (A woman alone in a room, too. I do work much better when I'm alone.)
  • Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself-it is the occurring which is difficult. -Stephen Leacock
  • I think it's bad to talk about one's present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension. -Norman Mailer (I couldn't agree more. I simply cannot talk about my story in progress. One author I read suggested that if a writer tells her story, there's no need for her to write it.)
  • Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry; make 'em wait. - Charles Reade

That last one is advice I want to follow. I think I'll write those words in red on my desk calendar where I can see it every day when I start writing. I'll put it right beside the Proverb about how laughter works good for us like a medicine. Hope you have good days and good nights along with much laughter and good stories.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Story's Beginning and Dog Adventures

We had a cold few days around this neck of the woods last week. Got down to 3 below, but actually didn't feel all that bad because the wind didn't blow much and the sun was shining brightly. The next day when it was 20 something degrees, I actually got colder when I went walking. No sun that day and major wind.

We had an interesting week dogwise. My big chocolate lab decided to take a wander and was gone overnight. Turned up beside the parkway about a mile and a half away as the crow flies and six or so miles by car. Somebody had called the animal shelter about a chocolate lab being hit beside the road but said he was still moving. I had called earlier hunting Dub and so they called me. I said that can't be my dog. He wouldn't go that far. I guess I should never say never. We get in the car to go check it out and there's Dub laying up on the rise beside the parkway. I get out thinking, "Poor dog." And he stands up and wags his tail. He hadn't been hit. He'd just been doing his "stretch out and sleep in the sunshine" routine that has fooled others into calling me to ask if he was still breathing. So he comes down the hill wagging his tail and looking at me as if to say, "Good, my ride home is here." A neighborhood female is courting and even though Dub is supposed to be neutered, he's still twitter-pated and had followed her off. We gave her a ride home too along with the other two neighborhood dogs that were with her. You should have seen us trying to get those dogs in our van and shut the door without any of them escaping. All while the traffic was whizzing by. We would have gotten our time on Funniest Videos for sure. Anyway, Dub's been confined to the house ever since. He's hating that - being inside in the warm - getting lots of attention. I'll never keep him on the farm after he's found out the perks of running off!!!

I've begun my next Shaker book. My deadline is looming out there and getting me worried so I'm back to the 'make your fingers touch the keyboard and crank out some pages every day and hope the words make sense' mode. I think maybe the hardest thing about writing a book is the beginning. At least I think that until I get about a hundred pages in and then I think the hardest thing about writing a book is trusting my story through the middle. So far the endings of any of my stories haven't put me into a panic but there's always the first time for everything. I like my new characters, but I would have liked to have had a few more months to absorb some more history. I want to be true to the time of the story and get the atmosphere right.

The hard thing about writing a book in half the time it usually takes me is all the other things going on at the same time. Just because I'm writing a book doesn't mean the laundry doesn't need doing or the grandkids don't need visiting (they don't stay young long) or the dog doesn't need chasing or I could name a hundred things that can get in the way. Even writing stuff can get in the way of getting a new book out of my head onto paper or the computer. I'll be getting the pages of The Believer soon and have to do edits, etc. I want to make more personal appearances and bookstore visits. I want to do more research reading. I want to keep writing my blog. I need to go to the Shaker Village and walk around and let the buildings speak to me.

I've always thought I ought to be able to do it all, but sometimes I can't. And ouch! It's hard to admit that to myself. What I need to remember is that I have the time the Lord has given me and ask Him to help me use it wisely and well. And not to spin in place worrying about doing this or that. Just do it! Five pages a day. I can do that. Lots of writers spill out many more words a day than that. But you know, none of us are 'lots of writers.' We are unique individual writers with our own abilities and talents, and we have to figure out what works best for us. Not what works best for those other writers. And if the five pages I write aren't the right words, then I can work them over the next day and keep trucking.

Now I'd better go see about my dog, Dub. You know, make sure he's comfy and has plenty of fresh water and a nice warm bed. That dog thinks he's hit the jackpot for sure.

I hope you all have great weeks and stay warm while you're reading (or writing) some great stories. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Hope Factor in Books

I seem to have a theme going this month about books, so it's a good time to announce the winner of my latest website book give-away. Kim from right here in Kentucky won Virginia Smith's autographed copy of Stuck in the Middle and the choice of one of my books. Congratulations, Kim! Thanks to the rest of you who entered the drawing. I'll be posting a new give-away on my website in February. I have a couple of autographed books from other writers and of course my own. Maybe you'll be the lucky winner next time. I've also posted the cover of The Believer and have my new "Readers Say" page up and running. So check it out.

And since I'm talking about books, have you ever given up on a book? Just got tired of it and shut it and didn't pick it back up? I hope not one of mine. Or do you always finish every book you start whether you like it or not? I think I may have asked this question once before, but the reason it's back on my mind is that I've started a book I'm thinking about putting back on the shelf without finishing. It's an award winner, has great reviews, and looks like a book I would want to read. It's well written with finely drawn characters. But there's nobody I can like. It starts out with a ten-year-old narrating and you'd think anybody could like a ten-year-old girl. I want to. I really do, but I'm finding it hard. I think because I don't feel any hope in the story. I have the bad feeling things aren't going to get better and the child will never find a way that is not so difficult, not so depressing and that life is going to beat her down.

Bad things can happen in stories. I don't quit on them because of that. I might be unhappy if a character I care about is done in without good cause. I know. I know. I hear all of you screaming at me that I let people die in my stories, but only if that's what really happened. A writer has to stay true to her story and I think the writer of the book I'm ready to give up on is doing that. Maybe my problem is that I don't like her story. I miss that hope factor. Of course, I haven't put it back on the shelf yet. Perhaps I'll trudge on with her a few more pages. Would you?

January is being a cold one here in Kentucky. We're supposed to get down to 8 tonight and zero tomorrow night. It's been a while since it was that cold, but I remember much colder temps when I was growing up. Once the thermometer actually read 22 below. Very cold. And another time - after they came up with the wind chill temperatures to make you freeze a little faster -the wind chill was 47 below on Christmas Eve. That was a cold one and people's cars froze up while they were trying to get home for Christmas celebrations. I've been reading a Civil War diary and in it the diarist says it was 18 below on January 4, 1864, the coldest winter they'd had since 1835. So 8 degrees and zero sound almost balmy in comparison. Of course I haven't heard that nasty wind chill number yet.

So stay warm and remember, when the cold winds are blowing outside that's a great time to be cozy in your favorite reading chair with a cup of tea or hot chocolate and a book that is full of hope. And practice some kindness to keep us warm.

  • "One kind word can warm three winter months." -Japanese Proverb

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Clubs by the Millions

Since January seems to be my month for book club talks, I decided maybe I should find out more about book clubs. So I googled book clubs and came up with more than 7,850,000 hits. Wow! Then I read a December 2008 article in the NY Times about book club troubles and it said there were perhaps four or five million book clubs with the number growing. Wow again! So talking to book clubs is good and could conceivably keep me way too busy to ever write another word. :0! But I wouldn't mind being a book club favorite.

Of course most every writer wants to be an Oprah book club pick or at least they used to. There for a while she was only picking books by deceased authors. That took a little edge off the desire to be one of her picks, but now I understand that she's back to living writers. Her fans are certainly ready to listen to her advice. Her picks are usually bestsellers. And she did get people to talking about books more and about book clubs.

Book clubs have been around forever. According to the NY Times article they evolved out of old time sewing circles. I suppose women (and the majority of book club members are women although the NY Times article says there are co-ed and male book clubs) have always been ready to form a group for social, work, and educational reasons. There have been quilting bees since frontier times in our country. Of course the men had cornshucking bees or frolics. Then there were the sewing circles and homemaker clubs. And book clubs. I remember people talking about a book club in my little town when I was a young girl and I thought that had to be the best kind of club. But I have never been a member of a book club. So it's fun now that I'm getting to talk to book clubs and hear what the members have to say about my book and about reading. I always want to know what else they've read recently or what they are planning to read.

Many book clubs are formed through church groups now and generally pick Christian novels, but not always. There are probably as many different kinds of book clubs as there are different kinds of books. A variety of picks would seem to make a book club more fun to me. That would introduce me to a book that perhaps I might not pick up on my own. My granddaughter asked me last week what were some books I might recommend for her. She's a Harry Potter and Twilight fan, but not long ago she read The Robe. As I've said here on my blog before, I always give everybody in my family at least one book and the last couple of years I've picked an old favorite of mine to give Sarah who is 14 and an avid reader. Last Christmas it was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This year it was The Chosen by Chaim Potok. As I told her when I sent her some other book titles, I like to mix up types sometimes just to stretch the reading muscles. I like mysteries. I like family stories. I like historical fiction. But I don't want to limit myself to those categories. I want to be open to a good story no matter how it might be categorized. And when I think about all the good books out there waiting to be read by a young person Sarah's age or anyone of any age, I imagine a big treasure chest just waiting to be discovered and opened. And that's the great thing about book clubs. They've found that treasure chest and are discovering good stories.

I actually got to meet in person with a book club in London, Kentucky on Friday. That was even more fun than talking to a group over the phone. I like the phone call meetings too because I know I can't drive to Minnesota or New York, but still it was fun to meet with this group in person. We talked a lot about the Shakers and the question everybody wants me to answer is how they could separate the mothers and the children. I think that answer is not something we moms in the modern era can understand. And I think there were mothers who weren't happy with the answer then, but they didn't have the same options we have these days.

After the meeting, I did a booksigning at Brookhaven Christian Books in London, Kentucky. A beautiful store with a couple of lovely owners and a very helpful staff. I hope all of you in that area shop there all the time. They showcased local crafts and books by Kentucky authors in the store. Christian bookstores are not like other stores. They have a special atmosphere you feel as soon as you go through the door. You know you're in a special place where people will go out of their way to make sure your shopping experience is pleasant and that you will get the products you want and leave satisfied. You don't have to worry about buying something inappropriate but instead everything there is aimed to lift your spirits and help you be a better person. I hope you all support your local independent bookstores.

So what are some favorite books you might recommend to a young family member and how many of you are in book clubs? Hope if you are you enjoy every book and every meeting. Talk to you again Wednesday. It's supposed to be frigid around here toward the end of the week, but maybe the computer won't freeze up. I've got to get going on my new Shaker book. I typed Chapter 1 last week, but I don't think I've found the best beginning yet, so I'll probably begin all over again tomorrow. If I keep trying, I'll surely find the best way to jump into my story. Wish me luck.

Oh yeah, and thanks to all of you who let me know how things were going for you after you got my newsletter. I enjoy hearing from readers. I'll announce the winner to my book give-away on Wednesday. Thanks to everybody who entered by sending me an e-mail. I'll have another give-away soon.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Story of Words

I just talked to a bookclub in New York and one of the questions they asked was "Do you like to read?" That was an easy question. I not only like to read, I feel deprived when life keeps me too busy to read as much as I want. I'm one of those people whose eyes seek out words, on the cereal box or toothpaste tube or billboards along the highway if that's all that is at hand. Words are powerful. In the right hands, they can come together to tell an unforgettable story, inspire a generation, make you buy something you don't need, or perhaps bring you to your knees.

And if you string enough words together you have a book - a story to be shared with readers. I like sharing my stories with readers, but I also like reading other writers' stories. Reading fills my creative reservoir. When I'm researching and reading history books, whispers of stories bounce around inside my head. What if my character did this? What if he or she did that? When I read fiction, I might not be gathering ideas for a new story, but I'm absorbing the rhythm not only of the words but also of the characters' lives. And that makes me a better writer when I do sit down to invent my next story.

So in honor of book club members everywhere who love reading so much they not only assign themselves a book to read every month they come together to say what they liked or didn't like about the book, here are some quotes about books and reading.
  • Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book. ~Author Unknown (Ilike the idea behind this quote!)
  • A good book has no ending. ~R.D. Cumming
  • I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. ~Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, 7 August 1991
  • Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot
  • Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind. ~James Russell Lowell
  • If you have never said "Excuse me" to a parking meter or bashed your shins on a fireplug, you are probably wasting too much valuable reading time. ~Sherri Chasin Calvo
  • These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves. From each of them goes out its own voice... and just as the touch of a button on our set will fill the room with music, so by taking down one of these volumes and opening it, one can call into range the voice of a man far distant in time and space, and hear him speaking to us, mind to mind, heart to heart. ~Gilbert Highet

One of my goals for the year is to gift myself with a little extra time for reading. Hope you all read dozens of good books this year. But watch out for those fireplugs!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Blank Book

Happy New Year, everybody! Hope 2009 is treating you fine so far and that it will be a year packed full of good things and great joy.

We are four days into the year. Have you broken any of your New Year's resolutions yet? I sent out my occasional newsletter yesterday. (If you'd like to be on my list to get my five or six newsletters a year, you can sign up by clicking on Ann's newsletter on the homepage of my website.) Anyway, in the newsletter I say I like coming up with goals at the beginning of a year, but I don't do the resolution thing as well. Perhaps because I've always broken most of the resolutions I've made way before I should. A resolution makes me think "You can't do this anymore" like eat yummy desserts or play a computer game of solitaire when I should be writing. On the other hand, a goal makes me think "You can do this." I can write a better book. I can have it finished by deadline time. I can laugh at least once a day. I can read more books.

That's one of my goals this year - to read more. As I said in my newsletter, a writer needs to read. Reading feeds a writer's writing engine. Trouble is, a writer who wants to set her characters back in a historical time needs to do a lot of research. I like reading history, but I also want to read more books solely for pleasure, to stir up my own creative juices by reading others' words. Sometimes I wish I could somehow just absorb the historical information I need. Actually that’s sort of what has to happen so I can realistically write about a historical event. I have to put myself in the history with my characters and feel the wind and hear the thunder of the storms they are experiencing. That’s why I like reading diaries and letters of people who lived in whatever time period I’m researching. The letter writers might not have every fact of history right, but they know how the wind feels on their faces.

Many of my goals have to do with my writing. Most of my writing life I haven’t written to deadlines other than the ones I’ve set for myself. To get this or that story done by some arbitrary time I have decided on. It always helped to keep me focused on working to the end of my story even though I rarely finished my story as quickly as I hoped I would. Then last year I had a real deadline for a contracted book and learned I could keep my nose to the grindstone and force out so many pages each and every time I sat down at the computer. I love to write but at the same time it’s often very difficult to make my fingers start poking the keyboard and pulling the words out of my head. It’s easier to research one more fact, sharpen a dozen pencils, answer a few e-mails, steep another cup of tea, anything except digging out a new scene. I have another deadline not all that many months away, so I’m going to have to set some new goals and be disciplined at my work again.

I hope you are busy setting goals for the coming year. I think it helps to write them down, but of course, I'm a journal writer and that's what journal writers do. Set things down on paper. Dreams and goals. Good times and bad. In case you are in the goal setting or resolution making mode, here are some quotations you might enjoy.

  • You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. - Les Brown
  • Man is a goal seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals. - Aristotle
  • May all your troubles last as long as your New Year's resolutions! - Joey Adams (It appears Mr. Adams has my opinion of resolutions.)
  • Making resolutions is a cleansing ritual of self assessment and repentance that demands personal honesty and, ultimately, reinforces humility. Breaking them is part of the cycle. -Eric Zorn
  • We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day.- Edith Lovejoy Pierce

That last one is my favorite. A blank book. Now all I have to do is fill up the pages and take advantage of the opportunities that await me.

A couple of opportunites are coming up next week as I'm going to be talking to two bookclubs. One in New York and the other in Kentucky. I love bookclubs. Anybody who enjoys reading enough to join a club to talk about books has to be my kind of person.
Hope all of you set goals that will make your life better and that with the Lord's help you move toward those goals. As Paul says in Philippians 3:14 (Br. Fred preached on this passage today) "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." May we all press toward the mark.