Category Archives: Articles

Writing Christmas Fiction

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Since my children were small, there’s been a basket in the corner of our living room filled with Christmas books. Some are children’s books, some are grownups’, some are fiction, some are non-fiction. They’ve been collected over decades, and I reread a few every year. I’ve even reviewed a few of my favorites.

I’ve always wanted to write a Christmas story of my own. About a year ago I came up with an idea of a retelling of a classic Christmas tale—and that’s all I’m going to tell you about it, because I’m working hard at finishing it, and I’d really be bummed if you took my idea and did a better and quicker job of it than me.

Writing Christmas books is much like writing any other kind of book, but with a few slight differences. The same expectations for all fiction also apply to Christmas fiction: a vivid setting, a conflict, a main character who grows through time; a beginning, middle, and end; an arc with escalating action that leads to a satisfying conclusion. Christmas fiction also needs to evoke the feelings of the holidays, awakening associations through the senses: the twinkling lights, the smell of pine, the flavor of gingerbread, the sound of jingle bells. Christmas stories can be shorter than other novels, like 50,000 to 65,000 words rather than 90,000 to 300,000.

Christmas books generally sell from October through December. New Christmas books typically appear on shelves the first Tuesday in October. If you self-publish, you’ll want to launch in early October as well. Your book will languish from January through September, but you’ll be wise to self-promote it again starting each October.

Are you thinking of writing a Christmas book of your own? These articles may help you:

The Creative Soul

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I’ve been introspective lately, thinking about big topics, such as the presence of God in our lives. I want to be a person who is led by God, and I’m having trouble hearing Him. This would normally be a topic for my Religion and Politics page, but I’m going to leave it here, in the main part of my blog, because it’s also related to creativity.

God is the Creator, and He made us in His image. That means that to a certain lesser extent, we are creators also. We’re cooks and builders and artists and inventors. We make stuff.

I believe my ideas come from God, but sometimes I don’t know what to do with them. I’ve come to a dead stop on some of my books because I know they have the potential to be so much more than they are, and I don’t know how to get them there. I need God to show me what His plan for my work is. I want to catch His vision. I want to plug into His creative power, but I don’t know how to access it. Where is it? Can I reach it with my mind? Or is it deeper still? Is it in my heart? My soul? My spirit?

I’ve prayed about it, and waited quietly for an answer, but it’s been months and I haven’t heard anything yet. And so I wonder.

A book I’ve been reading with my Bible study group mentioned that the soul knows when you’re on the wrong path. I feel like I’m on the wrong creative path and I’m searching for the right one, but I’m so lost. I sensed a whisper that I should define soul, so I’m following a rabbit trail trying to get a handle on it.

Is my soul the same thing as my spirit? I googled the difference between soul and spirit, and one of the articles that came up looked at scripture for answers.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (NIV).” The way the sentence is structured in the original Greek infers that we are made up of three distinct parts: spirit, soul, and body.

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (NIV).” You can divide the soul from the spirit just as you can separate joints from marrow; they are two distinct things. But they are also intertwined; it takes something sharper than a double-edged sword to separate them. Have you ever tried to sever a chicken leg joint in order to cook or serve dinner? It helps to have a sharp knife, but even that isn’t enough by itself; you really need good technique not to botch it up. Why? Because it isn’t designed to come apart easily. It would not be beneficial to the chicken for her legs to come off with ease. The word of God divides soul and spirit. What does that even mean?

Glory Dy, the author of the article I read, says “The soul is basically our mind, our emotions, and our will. It is who we are as human beings.” When I tried to define soul in my Zoom Bible study on Monday, I said it is our true self, our essence. I’m not sure I have it nailed down.

In contrast, Dy says, spirit is where we experience God. It is how we connect to the divine.

I’m sorry that my post today raises more questions than it answers. I’m not being very helpful today. If you have insights on the soul and/or the spirit, please feel free to share in the comments.

More thoughts on soul vs. spirit.

Hummingbird Habitat

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Over the past few months I’ve noticed that some of my friends have posted beautiful photos of the Hummingbird Habitat in Desert Breeze Park just a few miles south of my house. And the last time I ventured out of my house for a photo shoot was May.

So on Wednesday, I bravely drove to the park.

I love parks. Desert Breeze has a lot of nice features. There’s a lake for urban fishing. There’s a little train. (One evening around Christmas many years ago we took the kids for a train ride around the holiday-lit park and then drank hot cocoa.) There’s a playground with a splash pad where kids were cooling off from the heat. (This is Arizona, where it’s still summer, with 100 degrees + temperatures.)

The park is four acres, and I didn’t know exactly where the hummingbird garden is. The first parking lot I pulled into was next to the lake. I didn’t see anything that could be a hummingbird garden.

The next lot I visited was next to the train station. I could see tennis courts and the playground. I parked the car and looked for a directory to show me the way to the hummingbird habitat. I found none, so I started walking. How far could it be?

Besides the kids in the playground, I saw groundskeepers striding around and people jogging, but instead of flagging them down, I kept my social distance. With no idea where to go, I took out my phone and looked for a map of the park. Why didn’t I do that when I first got to the park? Well, I tried, and I asked Siri for help, but I’m new to smart phones and I don’t know what I’m doing. I managed to find a map, and tried to enlarge it. An annoying little dialog box kept popping up saying “Chandler Parks wants to know your location” and I clicked “Don’t Allow” several times while trying to get my bearings. Finally, I clicked “Allow,” and a dot appeared on the map. As I took a couple of steps trying to determine where I was on the map, the dot moved. The dot was me! Who knew?

Then it was a snap to walk to the Hummingbird Habitat. Too bad I’d walked in all the wrong directions. I would never have found it without GPS. But my efforts were so worth it.

There’s an archway with a giant hummingbird at the entrance to the habitat. And just inside is a pond complete with waterlilies and a little waterfall.

A giant tree sculpture with a circular bench offers a place to sit.

There are lots of live trees, too.

And other plants.

Hummingbirds love trumpet-shaped flowers. Due to the heat, there weren’t very many of these left.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see a single hummingbird. It was already nearly noon (this is Arizona, where it’s still summer, with 100 degrees + temperatures), so I suspect the birds were resting wherever they could find shade. Next time I’ll go earlier. Or later.

On the way home, I drove around the neighborhood until I found the way to the parking lot that is only steps from the Hummingbird Habitat.

Ways that Technology has Changed the Writing Profession

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Ways that Technology has Changed the Writing Profession

 

Technology is both a blessing and a curse. Technological advances have effected every occupation, and writing is no exception.

From typewriter to computer

When I started freelance writing in the early 1990s, I wrote my drafts by hand either in notebooks or on loose-leaf paper, and when I was satisfied with my final draft, I typed it out. That sounds easier than it actually was. I was a terrible typist: I rarely had only one error per page, and retyping the page didn’t guarantee I’d have fewer mistakes.

Personal computers were just becoming a thing, and they were expensive. Instead, I bought a word processor, which worked fine for me, but one of my editors preferred to get manuscripts via floppy disc, so we eventually bit the bullet and bought a computer. This was a bare-bones Mac with no internet capability. Now every few years we upgrade (kicking and screaming) to a more current machine. I currently use a geriatric MacBookAir running High Sierra, which will have to be replaced soon.

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From snail mail to email or other electronic forms

In the old days, I had to mail my manuscripts, enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the reply and/or return of my manuscript. (No SASE, no response. Otherwise, you got some sort of acknowledgement, although you might have to wait six months for it.)

Now, virtually no one wants to deal with paper. Which is alright by me. But I am offended that so few agents and editors respond to a submission. They tell you upfront in their contact info that they are too busy. (In contrast to writers, who have nothing but time.)

From hard copy books to e-books

Electronic books were supposed to make hard copies obsolete. Instead, they are a purchasing option. Most books come out in both formats, and most readers buy some reads as e-books and others as hard copies.

And access to low-cost e-book production means that authors whose work isn’t snatched up by a traditional publisher can self-publish much more affordably than they used to (though it takes a lot of study to learn how to do it yourself).

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From publisher-sponsored publicity to the rise of author websites, blogs, and social media

Once upon a time, the publishing house had a small promotional budget for even their unknown authors. Nowadays, unless you’re Stephen King or a Washington insider writing a Trump exposé, you get zip. You’re responsible for creating your own buzz. You’ve got to be an influencer, or know a few. You’ve got to blog, or at least have a good-looking author website. You’ve got to be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and whatever social media launched five minutes ago. Some publishers want to see how many followers you have before they even read your proposal.

Though I admit technology has made some aspects of my life easier—Google means I can do research without even leaving my home!—there are some things about the old days that I miss, such as getting a mailed acknowledgement of my submission, even a rejection slip.

Tchaikovsky

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TchaikovskyPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840—November 6, 1893) was the first Russian composer to achieve international recognition.

Though musical from a young age, his parents encouraged him to study law so that he could enter the more lucrative profession of civil service. To please them, he spent nine years at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, and worked in the Ministry of Justice for four years while studying music on the side. In 1863, he resigned from civil service and became a professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky was greatly influenced by Russian folk music, but also by the Western music he studied while at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

In 1876, Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railroad magnate and an admirer of Tchaikovsky’s music, offered to become his patron. She provided him with a monthly stipend which allowed him to resign from his professorship in 1878 and pursue composition full time. Her only requirement was that they never meet in person. They did, however, maintain an extensive intellectual correspondence that documents their views on topics from religion to politics to creativity.

Tchaikovsky’s body of work includes 169 pieces, including 7 symphonies, 11 operas, 3 ballets, 5 suites, 3 piano concertos, a violin concerto, 11 overtures and single-movement orchestral works, 4 cantatas, 20 choral works, 3 string quartets, a string sextet, and more than 100 songs and piano pieces. Among his most beloved works are his three ballets (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty), his Piano Concerto No. 1, the opera Eugene Onegin, and the 1812 Overture.

 

This sweet little hymn for piano is one of my favorites:

You can learn more about Tchaikovsky at Encyclopaedia Britannica and Biography.

Good Articles for Writers

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Good Articles for Writers

Writers tend to be compulsive readers. Especially about writing. And the internet is full of wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) articles about writing. When I find one, I add its URL to a now 56-page file in my documents called “Blog Posts I Really Like” so that I can reread it whenever I want.

From time to time I share my wealth of resources. It’s been a couple of years since I last did this, so here are links to ten articles about writing that I found particularly interesting. Most of these articles focus on fiction writing.

I’m gonna warn you: this is meaty stuff. You can’t skim it. You’re going to need to dedicate an hour or two of your time to explore this information. You don’t have to do it today; but bookmark this post, and schedule a time for you to come back and wade through it. I promise it’ll be worth it.

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  1. Rules for writing.
  2. Great storytellers talk about story.
  3. What novel should you read next? How about something that will help you with your own fiction?
  4. How to write better fiction.
  5. How to ramp up your description.
  6. How to troubleshoot a problem scene.
  7. To learn how to write like your favorite author, copy their books, word for word, longhand. I’m going to do this, really. I’ve even picked a book: Even If I Fall by Abigail Johnson.
  8. It finally happened—a publisher is interested in your book! What questions should you ask a publisher before signing a contract?
  9. Bad news: your publisher’s promotional budget for your book is zip. How to schedule your own book tour. (Also good for self-published authors.)
  10. Ways to market your book (and yourself!).

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Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com

Now it’s your turn. Once you’ve read these articles, it’s easy to say, well, that was interesting, and not do anything with the knowledge you’ve gained. Hello, use it or lose it. I challenge you to choose one piece of information you’ve gleaned from these ten articles and turn it into an action item to improve your skills. Then tell us in the comments below what you’re going to do. (I’ve already told you what new thing I’m going to do—see number 7 above.)

Maybe the IRS Should Hire Sears to Write their Tax Return Instructions

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frustrated-writer-2For the first time ever, the entire United States had a three-month extension on filing income tax returns. (Did you get yours in on time? The deadline was last Wednesday.) I finished mine with two days to spare, despite my original intention to have it done by mid-April. A portion of our income comes from investments, so our return is a little complicated, and different every year. We get lots of forms with lots of figures on them, with the warning that Internal Revenue is also being furnished with a copy.

Now, some of those figures have clear directions where they are to be entered on the 1040. But the notes for others say “check the instructions for where to report.”

Have you seen the instruction book for the 1040? It’s, like, 108 pages long. And if I only had to fill out the 1040, that would be fine. But there are bunches of “schedules” and hundreds of other forms, and pretty much you need to fill them out before you know whether they apply to you or not.

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Every February I begin to work on my return. I have a folder where I keep important receipts and statements all year long, but some of the documents I need don’t come until late—this year in late April, though I usually get them a month earlier. So I devote an hour most Sundays to accomplishing what I can—sorting my papers, starting to add up different categories, printing out the tax forms I think I need, and reading and rereading directions.

Man, the government does not make it easy to determine what’s taxable and what’s not. And the worksheets seem really random. “Write the smaller of line 5 or line 12 on line 37. Subtract line 37 from line 22. If line 37 is larger than line 22, enter 0. . .”

When July 1 came around, I still wasn’t done, so I began working on taxes every day. Eventually I found out where one of my mystery numbers gets entered by looking at a form for something else entirely.

There’s got to be another way.

My sons generally do their taxes on the day they’re due. They both had last minute questions about payments they’d received that I had no experience with. We were all frustrated with reading and rereading instructions, trying to figure out where to enter the amounts and whether they were taxable or not. I think next year I’ll go on vacation from April 8-16 so they have to figure it out on their own.

The IRS writes terrible instructions. The processes are unnecessarily unwieldy. You almost have to hire an accountant to figure it out for you. And I’m cheap and stubborn and don’t want to. I don’t trust tax software—I’ve heard horror stories.

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In contrast, my Kenmore appliances have perhaps the clearest instruction manuals I’ve ever seen. The language is similar to what ordinary people use to communicate every day. You don’t have to be an engineer to read these documents. They don’t send you to different documents or to multiple locations within the book to find the answer to your questions. The name of every control button is given to you, along with its function. Each process is broken down into logical steps. One or two readings and I’m golden.

I wish the government would hire Sears’ technical writers to draft their tax booklet.

Happy Birthday E.B. White

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Elwyn Brooks White was born July 11, 1899. He is best known for three children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, and as the co-author with William Strunk, Jr. of the writers’ handbook, Elements of Style (affectionately known as Strunk & White). He also wrote poetry, was on staff at the New Yorker where he wrote essays and articles, and was also a columnist for Harpers. He also published other books and won numerous awards for his writing. He passed away in 1985.

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Carl Czerny: Pianist, Composer, and Piano Teacher

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Carl Czerny was born in Vienna, Austria, on February 21, 1791, to parents of Czech heritage. His father was an oboist, organist, and pianist. Carl showed musical talent early, beginning to play piano at age three and starting to compose at seven. His father was his first teacher. His first performance, at age nine, was the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24.

When Czerny was ten, the Czech composer and violinist Wenzel Krumpholz arranged for the boy to meet Ludwig van Beethoven, who asked him to play the Pathetique sonata and Adelaide. He was impressed with the boy’s playing and agreed to take him on as a student. Czerny premiered Beethoven’s first and fifth piano concertos and maintained a friendship with him for the rest of his life.

At age fifteen, Czerny began teaching piano, basing his method on those of Beethoven and Muzio Clementi. His best-known pupil was Franz Liszt, who came to him with weird technique and awkward movements, but also with obvious talent.

After 1840, Czerny worked exclusively on composition, producing many books of piano exercises in addition to solo piano pieces, chamber music, sacred choral music, and symphonic works.

What Lang Lang says about Czerny’s exercises:

Vladimir Horowitz plays Czerny: Rode Variations

Grand Concerto in A minor:

Information for this article came from Wikipedia.

Rejection Slips—Who Needs ‘Em?

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In my file cabinet I have a thick folder packed with negative responses, many dating back to my freelance writing days in the 1990’s—my dreaded rejection slips. The big joke was that I’d eventually have enough rejection slips to wallpaper my house. (Actually, I probably do.)

Some were neatly typed on an index card with a date and my article’s name, thanking me of thinking of the particular publication, but unfortunately my work doesn’t meet their current vision. Others were very bad photocopies of a generic rejection with no personal data whatsoever, sending me back to old notations on scraps of paper to try to remember which masterpiece was being turned down.

With the rise of email and electronic submissions and the virtual elimination of snail mail offerings, it’s rare to get a paper acknowledgement at all any more. For a while, I saved the email responses and toyed with the idea of printing them out and filing them in the “wallpaper” folder.

Now, many publications, agents, and editorial staff don’t even bother replying to submissions. They allow the deafening silence to speak for them.

Eventually, I came up with a notebook where I recorded my submissions, details, and expected turn-around times, and then just wrote a No next to the entry if or when a negative email arrived.

When I started my agent search, I tried the free version of Query Tracker, and liked it so well I decided to sign up for the paid plan, a bargain at $25 per year. It’s so nice to look up one of my titles and see the column of sad emojis next to the names of the agents who don’t believe they can sell it. (See what I did there? It’s not my fault, it’s their ineptitude.)

Also, a lot of editors take submissions only through Submittable, and also send a decision through the program, which does an excellent job of keeping track of which pieces are still under consideration and which are not.

So, what about you? Do you remember rejection slips? Do you print out rejection emails? How do you keep track of your submissions and responses? Do you keep negative replies? Should I chuck my wallpaper file? Share your suggestions in the comments below.