Check This Out: Eternal Road

Today on the blog I’m happy to have the one and only John Howell here to talk about his latest novel, Eternal Road. It was published on August 23. Go here to read a synopsis of the book. Now, give it up for John!

  

John: Thank you so much for having me on your blog today, Linda. I certainly appreciate being here with you.

El Space: My pleasure, John. Four quick facts about yourself?
John: 1. I write every day.
2. I’ll be 80 years old in the spring.
3. I am a pantster and do not outline my work.
4. When I begin a novel, I write the last three lines and then go back and write to that conclusion.

El Space: Groovy! What inspired you to write this book? I can’t help thinking of a film from 1978 called Heaven Can Wait. The premise of that film is nothing like your book. But the life-after-death aspect of your book made me think of it.
John: I wanted to do a historical fiction novel. While I was doing the research, I wrote a short story that started with a couple hitchhiking, and then as the characters came alive, it went in a different direction. Sam, the female protagonist, is reminiscent of a childhood friend who moved away. James, the male protagonist, exhibits the feelings I had as a boy when I lost my childhood friend. She did eventually die when we were both 30. The story is pretty much a way of coming to grips with that double loss so many years ago.

El Space: I have to ask if there is a story behind the use of a 1956 Oldsmobile. Please shed light on that.
John: When I was in high school, a neighbor had a 1656 Oldsmobile identical to the car on the cover. I used to wash and wax that car and fell in love with it. I wanted to honor those memories somehow, so the vehicle is in the story as a tool for Sam and James.

El Space: Time travel also is an aspect of the story. What are some of your favorite time travel stories?
John: I’ve read and seen so many, but I have to say The Time Machine by H.G. Wells is my favorite. Another one was on The Twilight Zone, where a successful guy went back in time to start over for the thrill of building an empire all over again. He went back to the time before the automobile and tried to get people to help him make one. Of course, no one had the skills, so his trip (and deal with the devil) is a waste.

    

El Space: C. S. Lewis once mentioned,

All my seven Narnian books . . . began with seeing pictures in my head. At first, they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion [The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe] all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.

When you think of developing a story, which comes first for you—images in your head? The characters? The plot?
John: This is like asking a golfer if they inhale or exhale before their swing. Let me think a moment. I think my stories come about as a result of the images in my head first. These images can be relatively sparse and only a partial picture of what will become the full story. After the images, I then concentrate on the characters. The characters guide the story, and as they develop, they have a hand in developing the plot. Many times, the characters will create plot points by merely acting the way they usually would behave. In Eternal Road, a massive scene develops in the basement of a house due to following the instincts of the two characters. They are in the place and want to look in the basement. I had not planned to have them discover something there until one character all of a sudden said, “I wonder what we will find in the basement.”

El Space: What genre would you love to tackle that you haven’t yet?
John: I would love to write a pure Science Fiction book. I think it would be fun to create a futuristic world complete with political and social infrastructure. At this point, I’m not sure if it would be a thriller type of Sci-fi story or not. I do think the characters would have to be from Earth and on a mission of some sort. I would hope the mission would be one that, if accomplished, the Earth would be better off. Maybe something like word has been received that the inhabitants of a nearby system have discovered the cure for Cancer. The mission would be to go to a planet and bring back the cure. Of course, it would not be all that easy. Maybe the therapy only works on those who carry the DNA of ancient space travelers who visited the Earth many centuries ago. Everyone else who gets vaccinated for the disease dies. Well, I guess it would be a thriller after all.

El Space: Wow that sounds great! Hope you write that book someday. In the meantime, what will you work on next?
John: I had not intended to extend Eternal Road into a series. There have been a couple of reviewers who flatly state that it should be a series. I was going to get to work on a long-awaited story of one of the characters in my John Cannon Trilogy. His name is Ned Tranes, and he is the police chief of Port Aransas, Texas. Now I think Ned’s story is going to wait another year. He is very patient since he has been waiting for three years already. The last encounter we had, Ned’s wife, was taken hostage by a band working for the drug cartel. You know nothing good can come from that. Well, let’s hope they treat his wife nicely until we can get back to set her free.

 

El Space: Oh dear.
John: So I think I will jump in and write book two of Eternal Road.

Good idea! Thank you, John, for hanging out with me.

Looking for John? Check his blog, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon.

Looking for Eternal Road? Click here!

One of you will find a copy of Eternal Road on your device or in your mailbox. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on September 30.

Other books by John:

 

Author photo and Eternal Road book cover courtesy of John Howell. Eternal Road book cover by Roseanna White Designs. Other book covers from Goodreads. Twilight Zone logo from Bloody Disgusting. Heaven Can Wait movie poster from RogerEbert.com.Sci-fi image from wallpaperup.com.

Check This Out: The Edge of Anything

With me on the blog today is another of my awesome Secret Gardener classmates from VCFA: Nora Shalaway Carpenter. You might remember her from this post. She’s here to talk about her young adult novel, The Edge of Anything, which debuted on March 24. It was published by Running Press Teens/Hachette Book Group. Click here for the synopsis.

  

Nora is represented by Victoria Arms Wells of Wells Arms Literary in association with HG Literary. Now let’s talk to Nora!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nora: 1. My favorite food is watermelon.
2. I am a certified yoga teacher.
3. My favorite imaginary creature is a phoenix.
4. My hair is often blue.

 

El Space: The Edge of Anything is very powerful and moving. How did it come to be? What came first—the characters or the plot?
Nora: Thank you so much, Linda. I’m glad you enjoyed it. The characters definitely came first. I’ve always wanted to write a volleyball character because I played volleyball growing up and it was a huge part of my identity. However, I never found any books about teen volleyball players while I was growing up, and I wanted to change that. That’s how Sage got her start.

Len evolved because I wanted to write a character who was unknowingly suffering a mental health crisis. This happened to me in early adulthood and it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever experienced. I had no idea what was happening, and even though I had a supportive spouse and good health insurance, we had an incredibly tough time not only figuring out what was happening, but then finding the right care. I remember thinking I was going to die. I also remember feeling so incredibly alone, like no one else had ever experienced anything like what I was going through. I later found out that wasn’t true, of course, but there’s so much stigma and misinformation about mental health conditions—and the people who suffer from them—that many people don’t talk about it. I wanted to open a conversation. The Edge of Anything is the book I wish I’d had during that awful time in my life, a time when I doubted if things could ever get better. I wanted to create a book that showed a character struggling authentically and that depicted the hidden internal battles a person goes through daily. Most importantly—I wanted to show that Len—like all real people struggling with mental health—is so much more than this condition that is terrorizing her brain. She is a regular person, worthy of love and respect and dignity.

El Space: What were the challenges of bringing personal issues to light?
Nora: I talk about this a bit in the author’s note, but the biggest challenge was dealing with any lingering shame I had about my own experience with severe OCD. Over the years, I found that the more I talked about having OCD, the more people connected with me about it and offered their own experiences, and the less shame I felt. Still, writing a book is a whole different level of opening up. But I wanted to. Communication can be life saving when it comes to mental health conditions, and if my story could help someone, then I wanted it out there. It’s also important to note, though, that The Edge of Anything is not autobiographical. I used my own emotional experiences to inform Len’s, but the story is fictional.

El Space: Why was the setting important to you?
Nora: Place always plays a big role in my stories. A number of important scenes in The Edge of Anything take place in the forest surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway, so it was super important that the book be set somewhere where the characters had easy access to such a place. There are also hiking scenes, and as I live in the North Carolina mountains, I drew on my own experiences hiking the area.

Blue Ridge Parkway

El Space: I love the emphasis on female friendship. Please tell us why that was valuable to you.
Nora: I’ve always been fascinated with deep friendships—why they form and how they last. Female friendships have been incredibly important in my own life, and so I wanted to really dig into what puts one of these life-changing friendships on a different level than an average friendship. How is that bond established?

El Space: As you wrote your novel, what craft advice, if any, helped you along the way?
Nora: I struggle with perfectionism, which is basically the antidote to productive writing, so while writing The Edge of Anything I adhered to the mantra “write shitty.” It might sound silly, but my writing flows much better if I have permission to write badly at first. I even have a sticky note on my laptop that literally says, Write shitty, Nora. It makes me laugh, and it also makes writing much more manageable for me. I want my work to end up beautiful and cohesive, of course, but if you set out trying to write a finished product from scratch, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

First drafts are always bad, unless you’re the kind of writer that revises while you write, which can take a long time. But when I see my note to myself, I relax, because the pressure is off. I know I can write shitty, and so the words start flowing. Then, after I get the story out on the page, I can go back and see what themes my unconscious has put into the book, and start to tease those out. I can revise and re-vision and make the words beautiful. That mantra got me through drafting the book, and I recommend it to writers constantly. One of the biggest challenges for many writers, I think, is getting to the end of a draft when you know there are lots of things you want to fix in the beginning and middle. Of course there are and there’s time for that. But you have to get to the end so you can see the whole picture.

El Space: Did you read YA books growing up? How do you feel being part of the community of YA authors now?
Nora: This is an interesting question because there weren’t that many books designated as YA when I was growing up. At least I didn’t know they had that designation if they did. I feel like I jumped pretty quickly from reading the Berenstain Bears to middle grades like Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia and then Lord of the Flies and Fahrenheit 451. I do remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and freaking loving it. In fact, I’m a little afraid to reread it as an adult because I’m worried I won’t enjoy it as much. It’s truly a life-long dream come true to be part of the author community now.

El Space: What inspires you as you write?
Nora: Other books and nature. Whenever I’m feeling creatively stifled, I always start reading a ton and I spend as much time as I can outside and away from my phone and social media. For me, there is nothing like soaking up great books and reconnecting with the earth to get those creative juices flowing.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Nora: I’m currently writing another contemporary YA. This one is set is rural West Virginia. But my next book is a mixed genre anthology called Rural Voices: 15 authors Challenge Stereotypes of Small-Town America, out October 13, 2020 from Candlewick Press.

El Space: Thanks, Nora, for being my guest!
Nora: Thanks so much for having me on the blog, Linda!

Looking for Nora? Click below:

            .

Looking for The Edge of Anything? Check out your local bookstore, Amazon, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. Barnes and Noble, or Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Nora’s novel in your very own mailbox. Just comment below! Winner to be revealed next week sometime.

 

In these days of social distancing, the book club had to meet on Zoom. But they were on the same page when both said they wished the characters in The Edge of Anything were friends of theirs.

The Edge of Anything book cover and author photo courtesy of the author. Chip Bryan took the photo. Cover illustration: Fabio Consoli. Cover design by Frances J. Soo Ping Chow. Other book covers from Goodreads. Volleyball from cliparts.co. Blue Ridge Parkway map from blueridgeparkway.org. Watermelon image from download.com. Yoga clipart from 101clipart.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

Easter Eggs or Seven Years A-Bloggin’

Though I posted the above photo, this post is about what’s described in the quote below from Wikipedia. Check this out:

While the term Easter egg has been used to mean a hidden object for some time, in reference to an Easter egg hunt, it has come to be more commonly used to mean a message, image, or feature hidden in a video game, movie, or other, usually electronic, medium.

So I really mean images like the one below from Star Wars: The Force Awakens with Boba Fett from Return of the Jedi superimposed on it, which points out an Easter egg. You have to check out WatchMojo’s website or YouTube channel for the explanation. Easter Eggs are for fans who eagerly pour over scenes from movies, hoping to find characters, objects like spaceships or flags, dialogue, or even sound effects from other movies, TV shows, graphic novels, video games, etc. Finding a sly reference to another work can be as satisfying as finding Waldo in a crowded scene—something that’s very relaxing to people like me who are uptight and prone to road rage. (Ah, the life of an irate driver.)

Nowadays, it’s not enough that filmmakers or television producers provide an epic ending to a film or show. Many go the extra mile to entertain fans by hiding Easter eggs. Perhaps they feel they have to keep up with the Joneses by including Easter eggs, since so many other films and TV shows do so.

Easter eggs might seem like an odd topic for a blog post. But as someone who has participated in many an Easter egg hunt, hiding eggs in friends’ backyards over the years, I guess you can say I’ve earned the right to talk about them.

Do you look for Easter eggs in movies? What are your favorites?

P.S. Because this is my seventh blogoversary (the actual date was February 19), throughout this post I have included seven Easter eggs from my first seven blog posts. Big hint: I used phrases from blog post titles, rather than pictures. You’ll have to go alllllllllll the way back to the 2013 posts to see which titles I mean. I was so tempted to do thirteen for 2013—the year I started. Seven will have to do. Happy hunting!

Kitty desperately wanted to talk over the Easter eggs she saw in a movie. She asked Henry, “Did you find the Easter eggs?” When Henry nodded to an empty bucket, before he could open his mouth to say anything, Kitty added, “No. Don’t speak.” Obviously, he didn’t have a clue what she meant.

Easter eggs from somewhere on Pinterest. Star Wars image from WatchMojo.com. Other photo by L. Marie.

Lemons

Have you ever bitten into a lemon? I did once, when I was a kid. Note the word once. I quickly realized that some fruit have a taste other than sweet.

Now, I realize that many people love to eat lemons. (My mother for instance.) And this article talks about the benefits of eating lemons: https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/benefit-eating-whole-fresh-lemons-4390.html

Yet I prefer my lemons paired with other things: sugar and water in lemonade; sugar, water, and tea for iced tea; or sugar, eggs, flour, and other ingredients in lemon meringue pie or lemon bars. Even the lemon candy I like is of the sweet and sour variety.

    

It’s much the same with stories. I like a mixture of sweet and sour. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien; Sabriel by Garth Nix; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016 movie; the novelization was written by Alexander Freed). An author who writes this kind of story has to strike the right balance between hope and hopelessness.

   

Usually I love the point in the story where things are at their worst, and you don’t think good can come out of it—but then it does, sometimes at a high cost. A thoroughly satisfying conclusion is a great reward for that kind of tension.

I also think of lemons because the sourness of life sucks sometimes. I can’t help putting it that baldly. (Yes, baldly.) Jobs are lost. People you love face health issues or are in emotional pain. These moments are the “shut the book, Dad” moments Samwise Gamgee talked about in Lord of the Rings—the moments when you’re not sure everything will turn out right. I’m in that kind of moment right now. Maybe one day, I’ll provide the full details. But I wanted to write about it in the moment—when a happy ending isn’t a guarantee—because often you hear stories of triumph after the fact, after the darkness has passed and the “sun shines all the clearer”—another quote given to Samwise, this time in The Two Towers:

I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you.

These words gives me hope when life hands out lemons. May they enable you to keep pressing on in a sour/dark time of your own.

Now I’m thinking of some words Galadriel spoke in Fellowship of the Ring:

May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.

Lemon image from freepik. Lemon meringue pie image from Pillsbury. Lemonhead image from Target. Quote from Two Towers is from the script by Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair, and Fran Walsh © 2002. Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee image from Cinema Blend. Words of Galadriel and others are by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Hand Sewn/Sown

When I was a kid, my mother taught me to sew by hand. Though we didn’t own a sewing machine, she said I needed to learn the basics, like sewing on a button or sewing a hem on pants or a skirt. So I learned two basic stitches—the running stitch and the whip stitch. Later I bought this book, which lists other stitches. (This article lists some of the stitches I learned.)

Sewing anything by hand takes time and patience, especially if the goal for whatever you’re working on is that it be neat and durable. One day, however, I’d like to learn to use a sewing machine. (My sister-in-law has one.) That would certainly save time.

  

Stitches on felt

As I pen this post about hand sewing, I can’t help thinking of how I used to write everything—stories, poems, and even novel drafts—on legal pads or notebook paper. But when I acquired one computer after another, I stopped writing most things by hand, with the exception of some letters and some journal entries. (Yes, I still write letters. Not a ton, but a few in a month.)

The thing is, I type faster than I write by hand, which is why I turned to the keyboard many years ago. I reasoned, why not cut out the middle man by writing on the computer, rather than writing on paper and then having to type my handwritten text. But the words I’ve sown by hand on paper seem to have more depth. When I take time to physically write, I wind up writing more.

At first I thought that was just my perception. But an online article “Your First Book: Handwriting vs. Typing. How to Write It?” by Zoe Nixon states

Depending on the individual, some people confess that writing by hand allows their creative minds to work easier than when they type.

Here is yet another article on the subject: https://www.simonandschuster.com/getliterary/benefits-writing-longhand-versus-computer/

And another: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/03/creative-writing-better-pen-longhand

While I doubt that I’ll return to writing a whole novel by hand, I know the value of writing tricky scenes by hand. As one of the above articles suggested, I often doodle as I write. If I have multiple characters to maneuver in a scene, drawing their positions on paper (standing or sitting? punching first or dodging?) helps me write about them more effectively. This tactic also helps me discern if a scene is too overcrowded and in need of adjustment.

What about you? Do you first write by hand or do you enter your text on a computer first? Let me know in the comments!

Though her chicken is excited at having written her first novel, Pinkie Pie thinks it needs a revision. All of the dialogue consists of only one word, “Cluck.”

Computer from somewhere on the internet. Other photos by L. Marie.Pinkie Pie, computer, and chicken are from the My Little Pony Equestria Girls Minis Pinkie Pie Slumber Party Bedroom Set by My Little Pony.

Check This Out: Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln

With me on the blog today is the fabulous Shari Swanson (another great Secret Gardener classmate; for others, click here and here), who is here to talk about her picture book, Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, which was published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins and debuts today, people! Woot!

     

Shari is represented by John Rudolph. After Shari and I chat, I’ll fill you in on a giveaway of this very book. Now, let’s talk to Shari!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Shari: My favorite color is periwinkle. Actually, periwinkle is a favorite word, too. Perhaps I’ll write a book about Mr. Perry Winkle and his Phantasmagoric Adventures Through Color. (Dibs. 😀)


• I love games, all sorts—puzzles, mysteries, board games, sports, hiding pictures, and treasure hunting.
• I have a beloved dog named Honey, not, surprisingly, named after Abraham Lincoln’s dog.
• I love words—etymologies, derivations, roots, cadence, sound, rhyme—everything about words. When I was in high school, I read All About Words by Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum while suntanning on the beach. One of my favorite courses in college was linguistics.

El Space: How did you come to write this picture book about a dog and Abraham Lincoln? How long was the process of writing the book?
Shari: When I was teaching middle school literature early this millennia, we read about Abraham Lincoln’s early years from an excerpt of Russell Freedman’s book on Lincoln. It was fascinating. I hadn’t ever heard about Lincoln’s Kentucky years and wanted to know more. I thought perhaps children would like to read about Lincoln when he was their age. I had the pleasure of meeting the late Russell Freedman at an SCBWI conference in 2006 and told him how much I wanted to write a picture book expanding on those details from his book. With tears in his eyes, he encouraged me and told me what a wonderful picture book that would be. When I was deep in that research, I discovered Honey. Honey had saved Lincoln’s life! What would the world be like if we hadn’t had Abraham Lincoln? Honey was an unknown hero. Honey, I thought, would make a wonderful picture book. And then I set off to write that story. The first draft of my book was written when I was doing the picture book semester at VCFA, back in 2011. I sold it in 2016, and now it is finally in the world!

El Space: How did you get started writing picture books?
Shari: I’m not sure there is an easy answer to this. I’ve always loved picture books. But I didn’t always understand that I could write them. Somewhere along the line, I realized that you don’t have to be a master artist to write a picture book, and that made me think maybe I could try it. I took a course in picture books at UCLA Extension way back in the early 1990s, I think, so it’s been a lifelong dream. I enrolled in the picture book semester when I was at VCFA with Julie Larios, and a workshop just prior to that with Julie and Uma Krishnaswami. That six months was maybe my favorite in my entire education as it was so filled with play and words and sheer delight.

El Space: How much input did you have with the illustrator? What was your reaction to seeing the illustrations?
Shari: Every picture book author/illustrator interaction is probably different. My editor, Maria Barbo at HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen books, was wonderful at taking my thoughts and opinions into account at each stage of the process. First, she asked me if I had an illustrator in mind to suggest. That inquiry sent me on a delightful tour through bookstores and libraries, trying to find artists that had the right feel for Honey. When she suggested Chuck Groenink, she sent me links to his portfolio. [Click here for a post about Chuck and his process on another picture book.] We both loved his work, especially his use of light in dark scenes, a skill that would be important for the cavern scenes in Honey. Seeing Chuck’s first drafts for Honey was a highlight of my life. Right there in my hands was this charming beautifully-realized art bringing my words to life. As we moved forward, I had the ability at every stage to offer my thoughts. One suggestion that I am thrilled Chuck incorporated was adding more detail to the forest scenes. I wanted the readers to feel just how distracting the woods were, with all the sounds and animals, and have the reader be literally distracted by the detail on the page just as young Abe was distracted on his journey.

El Space: What picture books have inspired you as a kid? As an adult?
Shari: As a child, I loved Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Are You My Mother, by P. D. Eastman, and all things Dr. Seuss. As an adult, I love picture books that are poetic and musical; those that have wildly creative art, perhaps looking at things from unusual perspectives, and those that celebrate characters who are not stereotypic.

     

El Space: Any advice for would-be picture book writers? What do you think a twenty-first century kid needs to see in a picture book?
Shari: My best advice it to read your work out loud. Notice where the pauses and awkward phrasings are so you can fix them. I also think it is hugely important to make a picture book dummy, eight sheets of paper folded in half to make 32 pages, and block out your story. Where are the breaks? Are there interesting page turns? Is there something that is illustratible on each page? Finally, don’t give up. Take the time to create as often as you can. The joy is in the journey. I’m not sure what a modern kid needs to see in a picture book. I hope in Honey, a modern reader can both identify with young Abe—his distractedness, his love for animals, his desire to help—and think about the differences, too, like how Abe walked miles alone through a wild dangerous forest, so that the book is both timeless and grounded in its time.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Shari: I have several more works in progress, but the one getting my immediate attention is a non-fiction picture book, another heartwarming story of an animal/human interaction, this one from WWII.

Thanks, Shari, for being my guest!

Looking for Shari? Look no further than her website, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Looking for Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln? Check out your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

One of you will receive a copy of Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln in your very own mailbox. Just comment below! Winner to be revealed January 20, 2020.

The first meeting of the picture book club almost ended in a fistfight. While Lazy Buns and the Squeezamal agreed that Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, is a great book, they disagreed on the refreshments, or the lack thereof. “It was your job to bring tea with honey for us to share!” the Squeezamal grumbled, Lazy Buns having only remembered to bring herself a cup of coffee.

Author photo by Christie Lane Photography. Book covers, with the exception of Shari’s book, are from Goodreads. Periwinkle flower from Wikipedia. Book storyboard from somewhere on the internet. Other photo by L. Marie. Squeezamals are a product of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company. Lazy Buns is a Pop Hair Pet, a product of MGA Entertainment.

End of an Era—2019 and the Decade

By the time you read this, 2020 will be here. But today being New Year’s Eve, I asked Henry what he was looking forward to in 2020. You know, the kind of question everyone asks on the eve of a new year.

“Grapes,” he said. Not quite what I’d expected to hear, but to each his own.

Um, those are not grapes, Henry.

Though they weren’t asked, Lazy Buns and the Squeezamal chimed in with, “Catching some Zzzs” and “Tacos” respectively.

And Malik added, “Continuing to be awesome.” Perhaps having low expectations is the way some cope with the changing year.

Henry’s new BFF, the Bunny Cupcake (who sadly will be moving away soon), had very little to say other than bidding Henry a tearful good-bye.

And so, we bid good-bye to 2019 and the decade. I’m hardly tearful however. I’m glad to see you go, 2019! Thanks to the polar vortex, various family illnesses, manuscript rejections, pet deaths, and job losses, you will not be missed.

But as I consider those challenges, I can’t help seeing what they shaped in me, my family, and friends. Resilience is formed not in ease but in hard times. So 2019, your peaks and valleys left a residue of resilience that we can all carry into 2020—a year of endless possibilities.

I’m not one for making resolutions. And if you follow this blog at all, you know that I hardly ever post goals. (Some might say I never post goals.) But I’m writing three books that I’m looking forward to finishing in 2020.

What are you looking forward to in 2020? Comment below!

Happy New Year!

Photos by L. Marie. Squeezamals are a product of Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company. Lazy Buns is a Pop Hair Pet, a product of MGA Entertainment.

Finish Well

One of the things I find fascinating about The Great British Baking Show (as it is known here in the States because of Pillsbury; it is The Great British Bake Off where it originated) is the fact that you can win the accolade of Star Baker—the best baker—in one week of the competition and be sent home crying in another. It’s what you do each week of the competition that counts—particularly the final week. (Don’t worry. I won’t give any spoilers.) You can see this scenario played out in any of the series on Netflix (or wherever you watch the show). So, winning Star Baker is not an iron-clad guarantee that you will win the whole competition.

A good motto for the show is, “What have you done for me lately?” On this show, you can’t coast on your laurels. You have to prove yourself every week to the very end.

This is the concept of finishing well. Haven’t you’ve seen Olympic runners tragically stumble before crossing the finish line, or a gymnast execute a perfect tumbling run only to stumble out of bounds—or worse—fall and injure himself or herself? And how many of us have mourned when our favorite sports team choked in the last minutes or the last game of the championship?

And who can forget the hoopla surrounding the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones—a show highly favored until the last season?

I’ve read book trilogies and viewed movie trilogies with endings that disappointed me to the point where I wished I’d never started the journey in the first place. Have you? Some of the trilogies I’ve regretted reading had endings that felt rushed or tacked on. In all fairness, the downside of some publishing efforts is that some authors spend years on the first book but are only given a matter of months to finish the second and the third.

And I know: art is subjective. The same trilogies I’ve disliked were liked by many people. You can’t please everybody! But there are some series with endings so satisfying, they have become regular destinations for me. One of those is The Lord of the Rings. Another is Avatar: The Last Airbender (the animated series, not the movie). (I realize that fantasy is not everyone’s cup of tea. 😀)

I’m impressed by the fact that the Avatar series creators, Michael Dante DiMartino (right) and Bryan Konietzko, knew the ending of their series well before that season ever aired. In Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Art of the Animated Series (Dark Horse Books, 2010), DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko explain what happened during a meeting they attended to discuss the show:

We pitched for over two hours, describing the four nations, the entire story arc—all three seasons’ worth (12).

So, before the show was ever greenlit, they knew what was going to happen. And the show ended pretty much on par with that pitch meeting. Many fans and critics agree that this series is one of the best animated series ever made. Ending the series took four episodes! But it was one of the most satisfying endings to a series I have ever seen.

 

Finishing well is definitely not an easy undertaking. If you’ve ever run a race, you know that your strength begins to flag before you reach the end. When my brother ran the Chicago marathon, he said that around mile 20, he was ready to quit. But he tapped into a well of determination to cross that finish line. (We enjoyed some great snacks when he did. 😄)

The road to finishing well begins with finishing what you started. But that’s just the beginning, especially in writing! For many who have written a story, an article, or any book, you know that finishing a draft leads you to the beginning of another journey—that of revision. But revising helps you finish well.

What do you do to ensure that you finish a story or some other project well? What series have you read that finished well?

Finish line image from the intentionallife.com. Mile 20 image from Wikimedia. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko image from Toonzone. Avatar book photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl

I’m very pleased to welcome to the blog the amazing Marian Beaman, who is here to discuss her memoir, Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl, which launched on September 14.

   

You probably know Marian from her blog, which you can find here. After I talk to Marian, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Marian: 1. I met my first husband on a blind date. (He is my only husband!)


2. I flunked my driver’s test twice.
3. On Sunday mornings, I like to play with two-year-olds, making abstract art with tennis balls and paint on cardboard, blowing bubbles.
4. I watch my Fitbit like a hawk. Gotta get those step in!

El Space: What made you decide to write a memoir?
Marian: My blog readers helped make the decision for me. I wrote stories about my parents, grandparents, and other relatives on my blog. Readers wanted more, and suggested, “Write a book about it!” Though for many years I have wanted to leave a legacy of stories for my children and grandchildren, these readers pushed me toward actually doing it!

Granddaughter Jenna at guest book with hostesses Judy and Carolyn at Marian’s book signing at the Deerwood Country Club

El Space: How did you decide how much to include and what sections of your life to leave out? What was your process as you wrote? Did you write an outline of events? Talk with family members along the way?
Marian: My life as a Mennonite was dramatically different from my life now, so I decided to make the first 24-year slice of my life the focus of my memoir.

A memoir is not a biography. Memoirs need a focus. My focus was the imprint of two forces upon my life: the boundaries of my life as a Mennonite and the blessings of two homes (my parents’ and my grandmother’s house close by).

The collage on the easel is a composite of various snaps of Marian’s family with Bossler Mennonite Church in the background (done by artist Cliff Beaman).

I agree with May Sarton who said that she has “never written a book that wasn’t born out of question I needed to answer for myself.” For me, that question was this: “What was the source of my father’s anger?” My memoir explores possible answers.

To learn the craft of storytelling, I took a memoir-writing course from Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner: “Writing Your Story in Six Months.” And to get me started, I wrote topics I could remember on colored sticky notes I pasted to ply-board. Some of the topics became scenes that made it into the memoir; others did not.

El Space: How did growing up in a Mennonite background shape you into the writer you are today? What did you appreciate most about your upbringing?
Marian: I grew up loving my faith traditions and my family. Also the Swiss/German stock from which I am descended has imprinted on me a strong work ethic, which gave me the strength and discipline to persevere through the five years it took to write my story.

El Space: After you described your baptism [chapter 28], I was struck by this quote from page 157: “I had to find a way to reconcile pleasing God with expressing my love for beautiful things, hairdos and clothes included.” Such a turning point in your life. What was one step you took as you were “beginning to ‘kick against the pricks’”?
Marian: My mother, aunt, and grandmother expressed their love of beauty by planting flower gardens in a riot of colors. They, along with women in my church, also made exquisite quilt designs. I wanted to look pretty like a flower, wearing bright colors and shiny shoes. My desire to buck the strict dress code enforced by my church at that time caused friction with authorities at the Mennonite School, where I was employed in my early twenties. My reaction to these restrictions is told in two chapters which bookend my memoir.

These are the most cheerful looking flowers I have seen in years. They remind me of Marian. 😊

El Space: What books or authors inspired you as you worked on your memoir?
Marian: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life—Sassy, sometimes sarcastic, but always instructive.

Jordan Rosenfeld’s Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time—A good one to read early in the writing game.

Dani Shapiro: Still Writing—If you like Shapiro’s novels and memoirs, you’d like her take on the craft of writing.

Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing—A breath of fresh air, especially if you are tied up in a wad about your story and the writing process.

Dinty W. Moore’s The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir—Book Doctor Dinty provides cures and checkups in his manual embellished with case studies. Humorous and practical!

El Space: What advice do you have for memoir writers?
Marian: 1. Write every day, even if you don’t feel like it. Inspiration comes to those who sit in the writing chair. But don’t go nuts over it; take walks, go shopping, chat with friends. 2. Don’t impose a strict Get-Done-By deadline on yourself. I hoped to finish in three years, but it took me five years. 3. Life goes on! In those five years, my mother and my aunt died, and we had to clear out two houses with scads of stuff. Last year my brother died. Three years ago we also moved from a house we had lived in for 37 years to our current address; lots of sorting, recycling, and tossing out.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Marian: When people ask that question, I say, “Give me a break! I need a vacation or at least time to relax.” 😃 However, two ideas are playing tag in my brain right now: 1. A children’s book based on the oak tree my children and their cousins planted in the Grandma Longenecker’s back yard after she died. I have an in-house illustrator—ha! 2. My year and half in the 36-foot trailer with two babies while my artist/performer husband did art and music performances all over the Southeast. The object was to keep our family together; the reality of the itinerant life wreaked havoc on my sanity!

Thanks, Marian, for being my guest!
Looking for Marian? Click on the icons below:

                    

Looking to buy Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl? Head to Amazon or to your mailbox, since
one of you will receive a copy of this memoir just for commenting! Winner to be announced sometime next week!

The book club, after reading and loving Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl, unanimously decided to shop for red shoes.

Author photo by Joel Beaman, courtesy of Marian Beaman. Mennonite Daughter—The Story of a Plain Girl cover designed by Cliff Beaman, courtesy of Marian Beaman. Other covers from Goodreads. Book signing photos courtesy of Marian Beaman. Book club and flowers photos by L. Marie. Neonlicious and Royal Bee OMG dolls are products of MGA Entertainment, Inc.

What Might Have Been

Growing up, my brothers were not into cartoons or shows about Barbie or Polly Pocket (whose Alpine set is shown below). They certainly would not have cared about My Little Pony, had those ponies existed back then.

So, since there was only one small TV and I was outnumbered, I got used to watching wrestling matches and any other televised sport, including Roller Derby (remember the Thunderbirds? . . . No?)—and Godzilla and martial arts movies.

Bull Curry. . . . Don’t remember him? . . . Yeah, I’m old.

Terri Lynch of the Thunderbirds

And I read DC and Marvel comic books. Oh and Archie too, but I don’t have any of those from childhood.

 

So lately, I’ve wondered what my life would have been like had I grown up with a sister—a fervent wish when I was a kid. My best friend, who lived next door, was like a sister. I just wanted someone (a non-parent) to talk to who understood what it was like to be a girl. She was an only child. So neither of us knew what it was really like to have a sister. When we hung out, we rode our bikes and watched horror films hosted by Svengoolie (a show also known as Screaming Yellow Theater and Son of Svengoolie) and crashed into each other ala the Roller Derby.

  

Svengoolie (Jerry G. Bishop) and Son of Svengoolie (Rich Koz)

I can’t say those activities are what I imagined growing up as the kind of activities sisters participated in. I always thought sisters did each other’s hair and makeup and wore each other’s clothes, none of which I could do with a brother.

Those of you who grew up with sisters are probably thinking I sound extremely naive about sisters. You’re right. And I know the grass is greener and all that. But now that I think about it, I can’t help pondering over why I thought the activities I mentioned above were the kind of activities sisters did.

I am a product of the times in which I grew up. When I was a kid, the women’s rights movement was just beginning. Certain stereotypes about “the woman’s place” had yet to be challenged. Case in point: back when I was a kid, females in sports were frowned upon. Running and playing baseball in the alley—two things I loved to do—were not seen as “ladylike.” Sadly, I allowed the opinions of others to sway me away from them.

Yet no one could dissuade me from expressing my imagination through writing—though many tried. And as I think about what might have been had I grown up under different circumstances, I realize that those circumstances helped shape the writer I became.

So I have no regrets about the past. (Well, one regret—that I didn’t date that guy who expressed interest on the last day of my senior year in high school.) Though I might have watched a lot more wrestling than I cared to watch, I learned a lot growing up with guys. I learned to always look first before sitting on the toilet seat in the middle of the night while half awake (the lid might be up), to take risks (some of them stupid—I’ve mentioned before about jumping out of windows), how to fight (useful during my middle school years), that insects didn’t have to be feared, that a towel makes a good cape. But mostly, I learned that my brothers always had my back. (Well, most of the time.) I wouldn’t trade them for any mythical sister in the world.

Tia Tigerlily is grateful for her Girls Day outings with Marsha Mellow, despite the fact that Henry always tries to tag along.

Polly Pocket Alpine scene from ebay.com. Godzilla poster from mymightymega.com. Wrestling image from mentalfloss.com. Terri Lynch photo from Pinterest. Svengoolie image from the miniaturespage.com. Son of Svengoolie from Pinterest. Other photos by L. Marie. Tia Tigerlily and Marsha Mellow Shoppie dolls are products of Moose Toys.