The Perfect Christmas?

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving if you celebrated that holiday. This past Friday (Black Friday here in the U.S.), my sister-in-law and I made my brother turn from a Star Trek marathon so we could watch a Hallmark movie. Lest you misunderstand, I also was enjoying the Star Trek marathon. But around the fourth episode, I wanted to watch something else.

Anyway, the plot of the movie involved a woman following a list of activities she believed would make the perfect Christmas. For example, staying in a cozy cabin in the mountains (with the perfect covering of snow on the roof), singing Christmas carols, seeing The Nutcracker, making a gingerbread house, buying a real Christmas tree, baking, ice skating, taking a picture with Santa, etc.

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My brother glared at the television. “That’s every Christmas stereotype there is!” he declared, his lip curled.

I laughed, because he was right. But I couldn’t help recalling one Christmas season years ago, when a friend of mine and I followed a list of the quintessential Chicago Christmas activities. It included having lunch near the Christmas tree in the Walnut Room at Macy’s (which was Marshall Field back then), oohing and ahing over the Christmas display in the store windows, ice skating, checking out the Christmas trees at the Museum of and Industry (see photo below; it is not one of mine, however), going to see The Nutcracker (fail), etc. (Click here for a list of holiday things to do in and around Chicago.)

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We waited two hours just to get into the Walnut Room (see photo below; I did not take that photo either). While I was glad we checked that off on our Christmas to-do list, I can’t say the meal I had was memorable. It certainly hadn’t met my extraordinarily high expectations.

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And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Unrealistic expectations often put a damper on our enjoyment of the holidays. I learned that the hard way.

This year, I don’t feel motivated to rush around, doing holiday things while trying to manufacture the “perfect” Christmas season. Case in point: I skipped shopping on Thanksgiving or Black Friday. Instead, over the weekend, I took in a good movie (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) with friends.

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And I don’t plan to stress about Christmas shopping. This year, I’m focusing on the things in which I truly delight, rather than the “have-to’s” of the season. Guess that means crocheting more reindeer to give away (not a have-to, but a want-to), seeing more great films (Moana, you are next), and having quality conversations with friends and family.

What, if anything, constitutes the perfect Christmas or Hanukkah season for you? What are your plans for the season?
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Crocheted reindeer thugs stage a coupe by blocking my coffee mug. While I’m not exactly sure what their demands are, I will make it a priority to find good homes for them this season. And yes, the keyboard below them is very dusty. It’s not one that I use these days.

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Rainbow Kate and her BFF Popette finally finished hanging the Christmas lights on Rainbow Kate’s house, to the delight of the children Kate babysat. But the delight turned to consternation when they discovered Kitty in the living room, drinking the last of the cocoa.

Christmas tree in the Walnut room from anadesigns.blogspot. Christmas tree at the Museum of Science and Industry from commons.wikimedia.org. Santa from hdwallpapersforiphone.blogspot. Fantastic Beasts logo from geeknation.com. Other photos by L. Marie.

What Do You See?

What do you see in the photo below? (This is not a trick question.)

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When I asked two people that question, both said, “Two trees.” One added, “One with pink leaves, one with white leaves,” for extra credit points, I guess.

Now look.

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It is one tree, or at least two that became so interrelated as saplings, that they are now one tree. Changes your perspective a bit, doesn’t it?

You’re probably waiting for me to correlate this image with diversity—the fact that we’re all different, yet we’re part of the same “tree”—humanity (humani-tree, I guess). When I began this post, I thought I was going to do that. But something else more obvious struck me: I walked by that same tree year after year, and never noticed that what I thought was one tree is really two until last week.

Observant much? Yep. That’s me. But sometimes, I get smacked in the face with something that’s always been there, waiting for me to finally take notice. Like a beautiful sunrise or a sunset I’ve been too busy to stop and admire.

Life surprises us in delightful ways, occasionally. Which is good, because lately, I’ve had enough of the bad surprises, like when I learned that a teen I know has to deal with cancer yet again—this time a much more aggressive phase, or when I heard of the sudden death of a friend’s mom. And there were other surprises that sent me reeling in the last few weeks. Even writing has been frustrating.

The blows we take in life can change our perspective too—toward the good or the bad. The choice is ours, of course. Unfortunately, I haven’t always chosen a good perspective. I struggled with that recently. Lately, I’ve felt like cracked clay. But breath-catching moments, like when I finally noticed the tree above, also are soul-sculpting moments. What do I mean by that? Moments when I feel my soul expand like clay taking shape on a potter’s wheel. In those moments, I’m reminded that beauty still exists in the world. And good surprises.

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So, yeah, in the midst of a sobering week, I celebrated the fact that this tree surprised me. I also celebrated my birthday last week. Because I posted an author interview (and arranged for others), I didn’t post my usual birthday giveaway. But rest assured—there will be surprise giveaways in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a couple of photos of craft projects I’ve been working on in my spare time to unwind after a hard week—making doll furniture and crocheting friendly looking dragons (a change from the T-Rexes I had to crochet for a kid’s party weeks ago; patterns for fiercer looking dragons are not free, however). To make the doll sofa (it is about 7″ wide and 5″ tall), I watched a tutorial on a great YouTube channel—My Froggy Stuff. The sofa was made out of cardboard and a fabric remnant that I paid $1.49 for at Michaels. The pillows were made out of felt (39 cents at Michaels). The dragon came from a pattern that can be found here.

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How have you been surprised in a good way lately?

Clay on the wheel image from somewhere on Pinterest. Other photos by L. Marie.

Suits Me to a Tea

I’m a coffee drinker for the most part. But I love a good, hearty tea when the autumn weather turns nippy. How about you? A new favorite is Trader Joe’s Harvest Blend.

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Recently, a friend and I conducted an informal taste test of herbal teas. Among the cinnamon tea blends, we concluded that Trader’s Joe Harvest Blend was the best tasting. This is our opinion, of course. Yet others who tried the tea quickly headed to the store to buy it. They then gave tea bags to other people who then bought their own box of the tea. Yes, my friend and I are tea pushers. The first bag is free. 🙂

Isn’t it interesting that something steeped in hot water can produce such a rich, memorable flavor? Sounds like life, doesn’t it? (Work with me here. It sounds like life, doesn’t it? Just nod your head.) When we’re in hot water—troublesome circumstances—the flavor of our character is revealed. Are we bitter, as some tea is when steeped too long? Or do the “hot” circumstances bring out the best in us?

The subject came up as I recently pondered my reaction to disappointing expectations and problems. As others announced the joyous news of book deals, I contemplated the lack of positive news in my mailbox (including a no for the YA book I queried earlier this year). I soon realized that a thread of bitterness had crept in and wound itself around me, leaving me complaining and paralyzed. Kind of like a mummy in a sarcophagus. Only . . . mummies don’t really complain, do they? And if they’re of the undead variety, they’re not really paralyzed either. Instead, a mummy might break out of his or her sarcophagus and lurch about, terrorizing villages. So that metaphor is a bit labored. But you get what I mean.

A couple of quotes struck me recently:

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I guess it’s time for me to stop whining and do what I know to do: write and keep going. To celebrate the power of persistence, I’m giving away a box of this Harvest Blend Herbal Tea and some crocheted leaves. (If you want to know more about these leaves, click on crocheted leaves to get the pattern, which was designed by Michelle at The Painted Hinge blog.) I’ll choose a commenter at random. Feel free to comment on a tea you love or some aspect of autumn you love. Or talk about which quote above speaks to you. Perhaps you have another favorite quote about persistence. Winner to be announced Friday, November 6.

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Thomas Edison quote from pinterest. Harriet Beecher Stowe quote from viacharacterblog.org.

What’s the Deal with Pinterest?

Are you on Pinterest? Once again a family member—this time my sister-in-law—had talked me into branching out on social media. Which led me to Pinterest.

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For almost a year, I had a Pinterest board that I ignored. I didn’t quite get why I should use Pinterest. It seemed too simplistic. It also reminded me too much of scrapbooking—something at which I failed miserably. I still have a drawer full of photos I never placed in photo albums. So as a novice pinner, I didn’t have a plan. I repinned six photos culled from the ones sent by Pinterest because they looked interesting and had a vague connection to my high fantasy novel. I ran out of motivation after that.

Over the months, strangers from around the world repinned the same photo of dyed sheep from my board (see below). Pinterest kept emailing notifications like a persistent wooer. I wanted to say, “Shoo!” and close down my account despite the fact that some of the strangers began to follow that board.

Dyed Sheep

I was content to keep ignoring my board until a blogger I know wrote a post on how she used her Pinterest boards as inspiration for her book. That gave me an idea: perhaps I could do the same. But she had several boards. I didn’t understand why anyone would have more than one.

I had switched to a different WIP by that point and was stuck on how to proceed with it. Usually when I’m stuck on a project, I switch to another creative outlet: drawing, making 3D models out of paper, or crocheting—something visual and tactile. But this time, I turned to Pinterest. I had named my inaugural board Inspiration. Now I needed to be inspired.

When I was a kid, Pinterest was a notebook, some tape or glue, scissors, and a bunch of magazines out of which I cut pictures. In other words, Pinterest didn’t exist except through my physical labor. But as I think about the hours I spent cutting out magazine photos, I remember how inspired I was by the photos I found—inspired enough to hunt them down, display them in a notebook, and then write stories based on those pictures.

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After figuring out how to search for photos on my computer, Pinterest, or elsewhere online, I added to the Inspiration board, then started a different one—More Inspiration. (It was either that title, Inspiration 2, or Inspiration the Sequel. Do you see why Hollywood never hired me to title films?) I repinned eye-catching photos that made me feel something: joyful, nostalgic, or just plain awed. But I had added so many different categories of items on one board—animals, plants, etc. I was ready for a third board—Animals in My Books. That board led to a fourth—Plants and Trees in My Books. Are you sensing a pattern here?

So, what’s the deal with Pinterest? I would answer that question this way: it’s fun and easy to do. Adding photos to various boards gave my brain something it needed—visual reminders of possibilities.

Today I have 19 boards. And that novel I wasn’t sure about? I finished a draft that I’m now revising. While I didn’t value Pinterest at first, I’m glad I tried it. Sometimes the simplest tasks can lead to great breakthroughs in other places.

So, are you on Pinterest? What do you like about it?

Dyed sheep from themetapicture. Pinterest logo steadydemand.com. Construction paper, scissors, et al from mysheenvillage.com.

When the Well of Words Is Low

Today is Reveal Day for the winners of the awesome Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s young adult novels, Rogue and Gringolandia. (And if you’ve heard the TED Talk of Jill Shargaa, let me quickly say that I mean awesome in an appropriate way. Wondering about that talk? Head to the awesome Ellar Cooper’s blog here to listen to the talk.)

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Lyn and Jill

If you’ve decided to remain here, that’s cool too. I want to apologize for dropping the ball lately on blog posts. This is one of those weeks when the well has been on the dry side. The words that come to mind most readily—“Are you going to pay me soon?”—don’t make a good blog post. And no, I will not go into detail about that question. Suffice it to say that the life of a freelancer is often fraught with weeks like this. (If you know a freelancer, be kind to that person. Ply him or her with fruit salad, warm mittens, snuggly blankets, and popcorn. Chances are, he or she could use those.)

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So, lately my mind has been filled with cotton batting and those words I mentioned in the paragraph above. When I’m feeling anxious or “pen tied” (my way of saying, “at a loss for words”), I let my crochet hook do the talking. And lately it’s been saying two words: “Make hats.” When life hands you lemons, make hats, I always say. I’ve been on an owl and minion craze. It’s my way of keeping my toe in the pool of creativity.

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One thing I need to do that I’ve done in the past is return to the exercises of this book.

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I recommend it to anyone feeling a bit “pen tied.” Friot reminds me that writing can be fun and frolicsome. But what do you usually do when you’re at a loss for words but feel the need to be creative in some way?

While you consider that, let me introduce you to the minifig given to me by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. I’m calling him Jordie. Lyn felt that Jordie would make a good addition to the blog. Please say hello.

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Jordie says hi back.

You’ll see more of him in posts to come. Today, he wanted to be present when the winners were announced. So without further ado . . .

16101109The winner of Rogue and some crocheted flowers is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Charles Yallowitz!!!

hbc_gringolandia_front_medThe winner of Gringolandia and some crocheted flowers is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Andra Watkins!!!

Congrats, winners! Thanks for commenting. You know the drill. Please confirm below and your book will be mailed to you.

Fruit salad from teamripped.com. Book cover from Goodreads.

The Gift You Can Give

Recently, my good friend Pamela, a fellow blogger, sent this to me, which caused me great delight.

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If you’ve never read my blog before, you’re probably shrugging now and wondering (a) why yarn—and various textures of yarn at that—were sent to me and (b) why you should care. What does this have to do with your life as the post title implies? Let me address (b) first. Far be it for me to demand that you care. But perhaps if you knew what this gift means to me, and how you could do the same for someone, even without spending money, you might care. So, I will now address (a).

The Power to Create
I knit and crochet—mostly crochet. My grandmother taught me to crochet when I was a kid. I picked up knitting by looking at a how-to-knit book when I was 11. I love working with my hands—taking yarn and needles and making something out of them. I love flowers and other plants, but I manage to kill them. So for someone like me, the textile arts are the next best thing. After all, you can’t murder a flower made of yarn. That’s why I love anything that inspires me to create: yarn, a journal with blank pages, felt, pens, pencils, and markers. (Um, yes, I also write on the computer.) They remind me that I have the power to create.

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Believe it or not, this “poodle” is a flower.

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The same flower, only with less fuzzy yarn

The Power of Implied Competence
The gift of yarn is meaningful because of the implied competence factor. My friend believed I had the ability to make something beautiful from it. She didn’t send a craft book with it, telling me how to improve or announcing that others are more competent at needlework than me. She just sent the yarn.

By now you’re wondering what this has to do with you. Here’s the punch line you’ve been waiting for: you can use your words to stimulate the power to create in someone or to remind that person of the power of implied competence. Just by telling someone, “Your story (or blog post) meant so much to me,” “I appreciated your efforts the other day,” or “You can do this” can work wonders.

A paradigm shift might be necessary for those of us with a tendency to criticize first and admire second. 🙂 While constructive criticism can be a good tool, it doesn’t have to be the first tool we take out of the box.

If you’re a parent with young children, you can encourage their creativity by reading to them (or letting them read to you), drawing or painting with them, or working with them on a building project with Legos® (and that’s the only time I’m adding that registered trademark symbol). Give them the wings to fly. The great thing about Legos is that they provide the power to create and imply competence. Anything a kid (or you) makes is awesome. For inspiration, check out this Lego event post by another good friend and fellow blogger, Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Or, watch The Lego Movie (2014) with your kids. Creativity is a theme of the movie. (“Everything is awesome!”) 

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Maybe the person whose creativity needs to be encouraged is you. We all know about the inner critic—the discouraging voice that tells us we suck or that we’ll never finish what we’re working on. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that we have the power to create and that we’re more than competent at it.

Well, I’ve got a gift box full of lovely yarn and a cup of coffee at my elbow. I think I’ll go make somethin’.

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The “Sole” of the Matter

converse-all-star-hi-tops-red-pic33374For the past week or so, in addition to revising my young adult fantasy novel, I’ve been crocheting shoes that look like Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. No, I haven’t gone crazy, and yes, you read that right. I found a pattern online, and the shoes are for a two-year-old’s upcoming birthday party. The shoes make nice treat bags for kids.

Okay. I can see your eyes glazing over. There’s a point beyond this, so please be patient.

In case you’re wondering, you make this shoe from the bottom up. First, you start with the sole.

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The sole.
If you’re a fan of Monty Python, perhaps you remember a sketch involving a larch and are thinking right now as I am, “The Larch.” If you’re not a fan, you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Second, you crochet the tongue separately (below left). The tongue is one the of the most important parts, because it helps anchor the sole to the sides of the shoe. You can’t start the sides (third) until you connect the tongue to the shoe. You build the sides from the last stitch you used when you connected the tongue. 

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Fourth, crochet the shoestring (below left). The shoestring gives the shoe character. Fifth, make the little logo thingie. My embroidered stars need work, however.

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The pattern is very specific. I had to constantly count stitches. Since all of the parts fit together, I needed to be exact. If the stitch count on the sole is off, the whole shoe falls apart. After all, the sole is the foundation. (If you’d like the pattern, please comment below and I’ll email it to you.)

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Crocheting these shoes reminded me of aspects of novel writing. You start with the soul (rather than the sole). The soul of a work of fiction is the main character and his or desires—hidden or overt. Without a compelling character and a desire line, the novel (in my opinion of course) can’t stand.

I consider the tongue to be the voice in which you write. Voice is not only narrative voice (point of view), it also involves your own writing style. Here are some posts with good advice on voice:
http://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-voice.html
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/voice-in-writing-developing-a-unique-writing-voice
http://nybookeditors.com/book-editing-copy-editing-proofreading-self-publishing-blog/2013/8/4/point-of-view#axzz2v6kvEldW

The sides of the shoe remind me of the plot of a book. The plot gives a book its shape. But without the soul of the book and the voice, the plot seems empty—like the sides of a shoe without a sole or a suit without a body. After all, stories are about people.

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For a long time, I didn’t realize that character drives plot. I concentrated on plot rather than character. I thought I could plunk any old person into whatever plot I devised. I had a lot to learn.

The shoestring is the dialogue, which adds flair to your novel. Here is where character counts. The words your character says and the way he or she says them (and don’t forget subtext—what your character doesn’t say, but what we can infer based on his or her mood), add to the compelling nature of your book.

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The logo circle? That’s the genre of your book or your series. These are the details that help readers know your book belongs to a specific genre or genre hybrid. Converse’s star logo is instantly recognizable. You know you’re looking at a Converse shoe, as opposed to Adidas. In the same way, you can readily tell a historical fantasy book from one that’s contemporary realistic.

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Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the stitches themselves. They represent the words in your novel. With each word, each description, you build the novel from the ground up. Having a compelling character is great. But a novel also can stand or fall based on word choices.

You might have a completely different interpretation of these aspects. But that’s the way I see how they add up. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have three and a half more shoes to make and another chapter to revise in my novel.

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