Black Cats and Good Luck

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Wow. Two months since my last entry. Sorry, but things got worse instead of better. Long story.

Anyway, that little guy up there is Ben Wade. He’s about six weeks old. I rescued him from the crawl space under my neighbor’s house. His mother apparently abandoned him. He’s so small he didn’t have the body weight to trigger the live trap the nice people at animal control brought over. He went to and from the trap to eat for days without setting it off. After six days of this, I decided to use trickery and deceit to win the day.  I baited the trap as usual but put an old towel over the trap so the kitten couldn’t see out while he was eating.  I waited for him to enter the trap, then snuck around and closed the door.

Boy, was he pissed.

Why Ben Wade? That’s the name of Russell Crowe’s outlaw character in “3:10 to Yuma”. Ben Wade was very hard to catch and even harder to keep in custody. He wore a black hat, of course.  The name seemed to fit my new friend.

Since my beloved Gandalf had passed away in March, I decided to keep Ben. We’re both pretty happy with the situation. Vet says Ben is healthy, aside from some parasites and a massive flea infestation, both of which are being treated. He has all the spunk and mischievousness I appreciate in cats, and he purrs every time I come near him.

He likes to sleep on that cushion on the floor next to my desk, so it looks like I’ll have a writing companion.  This is fitting, since it was after watching “3:10 to Yuma” that I got the idea for my story “The Cow Tipping Kangaroo of Kangaroo Valley” (under Stories for Children).

So say hello to my new muse.

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Wreck in Progress

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Yes, I’m coining a new phrase.  WIP now stands for “wreck in progress”.

I pulled out the file for a story I put aside last summer.  Its appalling state of confusion prompted me to label it a WIP.

Still, my distance from the project gave me some perspective on what can stay and what needs to be put down as mercifully as possible.

This will involve rum. Lots of it.

She Did Her Best

I like old cemeteries.  I like to stroll through and read the headstones.  Old headstones tell us something about the person resting below.  At the very least, we get a full name and dates of birth and death. We know if the person was married and if they had children. I found one very old headstone that said the deceased had been murdered and even named his murderer.

Today’s headstones are not as generous.  Too often, they’re just big granite slabs with a last name carved onto them.  They tell us nothing about the life of the person.  All we know about them is that they died.  In that sense, modern cemeteries are peopled by corpses, while old cemeteries are peopled by people.

Infant mortality rates were high a hundred and more years ago, so an old cemetery will have an unsettling number of tiny headstones marking the graves of little ones who never made it past the age of two.  I wonder at the small size of the headstones, as if they feared that a standard headstone would overwhelm the tiny grave.  These small headstones are usually the first to disappear, taken over by sod and weeds.

One of the saddest headstones I’ve found marked the grave of a woman who was married and had many children.  Beneath the basic information were the words, “She did her best.”

I’ve often wondered about that woman. With her husband and so many children to raise, what happened in her life that made her family put those words on her headstone?  To say that someone did their best implies that, despite their best efforts, they failed.  This grave was more than 100 years old, so it isn’t likely she failed at business, or law, or at being a doctor.  She was likely a housewife in that age when women didn’t have career options.  She did her best, they said.

I wish I could speak to her.  I wish I knew what the words on the headstone meant.

As I get older, I’m more conscious of the fact that I probably have more years behind me than I do ahead of me.  I wonder if my struggle to write and sell my stories will ever bear fruit.  I wonder how much the selling part matters.  I don’t want the words, “She did her best,” written on my headstone.

I want it to say, “She wrote.”

There’s a Spider in the Bathroom

I noticed it this morning before my shower.  It’s sitting up by the ceiling, above the medicine cabinet.  About the side of a nickel (counting the legs).

It’s a white spider, which my mother-in-law claims is the sign of a clean house.  Join me in a guffaw.

Let’s get something clear.  I don’t pick up dead spiders.  I will squish one with a shoe and leave it there until my husband gets home to clean up the carnage.  He no longer bothers to ask me why there is a random shoe sitting in a random spot.  He knows to grab a tissue and clean up what’s under the shoe.

That’s our system.

I can’t use a shoe on this spider because I can’t think of a way to make the shoe adhere to the wall in a way that won’t damage the paint.  Duct tape is out of the question, as is gorilla glue.

The weird thing is that the spider will probably still be there in the same spot when my husband gets home this afternoon, which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that spiders are, by their very nature, suicidal.

Maybe being one of the ickiest creatures on planet earth triggers their self-loathing, I’ll-just-sit-here-until-John-gets-home-so-he-can-squash-me attitude.

I can think of no other logical explanation.

I had a writing point. What was it?

Oh, yeah.

If I sit on a story while waiting six months for a publisher to get around to rejecting it, I start to feel like that suicidal spider.  Just sitting there.  Not moving.  Not looking for an alternative.  Knowing full well that if I don’t hear from them in three weeks it’s not going to end well.  Waiting for the publisher to whip out a shoe and squash me.

I’m not cleaning that up.

The Suckiness of the Situation Notwithstanding…

…I did manage to make a small but important step forward in the story. I had an idea of how I wanted a piece of the mystery to look (no footprints where there should have been footprints), but until today I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. I think I have a solution, which should move the story forward a bit.

I hate being stuck on a small detail.

Well, I lost my best buddy last week (Gandalf the cat), my husband’s layoff continues, my son was injured at work and is still waiting for his worker’s compensation claim to go through, my primary transcription customer is a deadbeat, and our financial situation has gone from tough to crushing in the last two weeks, but the writing must go on.

Calm your brain for just a few minutes. Read a little bit about writing. Dabble. The muse will drop by, even if it doesn’t stay long.

How I Got My Writing Groove Back

That nasty cold that’s been going around finally found me. Since I’m unlikely to come up with a new post this week, I’m reblogging this one from last February. It was the second one I posted, so most of you will have missed it the first time around.

Storyteller

I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One…

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The Happiness Question

“In happiness you must create.”

from For Writer’s Only, by Sophy Burnham

Writing is easiest for me during those times when I’m not faced with a major personal crisis. The “write-no-matter-what” crowd always made me feel guilty about putting my pen down when my emotions were pulled elsewhere by financial worries, illness, or family problems. I’m not talking about the everyday stuff. We all have that. I’m talking about the gut-wrenching stuff that keeps you awake at night and invades what little sleep you get. I’ve had a lot of that over the last few years. But there have been periods of relative calm that have allowed me to unhook the logical half of my brain and get some writing done. Sometimes that has meant letting go of my grasp on someone else’s problem and realizing it isn’t mine to solve. As a mother, that’s a tough thing to do.

Happiness is something that always seems to be off in the distance, something just out of reach. Maybe happiness isn’t the right word. Peace. Calm. During those times, as Ms. Burnham says, we create. We write, paint, and dance. It isn’t just that the process is easier then; it’s necessary. Singing a happy song when you’re down is the psychological equivalent of whistling past a graveyard. It lacks authenticity.  When we’re sad, if we sing at all, we sing the blues. But good news or a beautiful day demands creative outlet, like those moments when you can feel God standing next to you and all you can do is worship.

In the dark, icy grasp of winter, in the midst of troubles present and those looming on the horizon, happiness and creativity behave as fugitives. Weary of the chase, we drop our weapons for a while. Spring will come and fresh tracks will appear in the wet earth. Happiness will grow careless about its disguise and we will pick up the trail once again.

A New Form of Writer’s Block?

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That’s my cat, Gandalf.  I was struggling with the plot for my next book when he decided to make himself comfortable on the papers in my lap.  Gandalf is 12 years old and hasn’t been feeling well lately, so I let him stay.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get much work done.  I suppose this is one form of writer’s block I can blame on the cat.  I was bemoaning my lack of productivity to my husband who said, “Of course you didn’t get anything done.  You just cleaned up cat vomit and then he sat on your work.”  He’s good at talking me down off the ledge.  You need someone like that on hand if you’re trying to write.

Titles, characters, and how to say things all come relatively easy for me.  Plot is where I struggle.  I can hear some of you asking, “It’s a picture book!  How hard can it be to come up with a plot?”  To a picture book/early reader author, them’s fightin’ words.  Meet me in the octagon and we’ll settle this like civilized people.

I have to grab the attention of a small person will a small attention span.  If you’ve ever had to entertain a young child, you know how hard that is.  Next time you see a group of kids playing, stop and observe them.  They never stay on one topic or task for very long.  Especially if they’re boys.  Boys are wonderful to watch because they just make up the game as they go along (“OK, now let’s pretend that…”).  Their play is a series of plot twists.

What age-appropriate adventure can I take my main character on this time?  This kid solves mysteries, but I can’t have him breaking up the local crack smuggling ring.  Should I bring in the supporting characters from the first book?  Should I give the dog a bigger part in the story?  I want it to be a little bit scary, but not so much so that it causes nightmares.

Last week, I managed to work out some of the main character’s dialogue.  Since I don’t have a fixed plot, the dialogue is still pretty generic and can be used in a variety of situations.  But the dialogue was what shaped the plot last time, so I may have to content myself with working on that for now.

If Gandalf will let me.

Unbroken Binding

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I always feel bad when I see the clearance bin at the bookstore.  Do any of us think we’ll end up there? The manuscript we brought forth after hard labor reduced to a fraction of its worth?  Why do we do it? Why do we work so hard on something that may never even have a shelf life?

I found one of my favorite books from childhood on Amazon a few months ago. “How to Make Flibbers” by Robert Lopshire was published in 1964. It’s full of fun things to make out of stuff that’s just lying around the house. We had so much fun with that book. We made flibbers out of newspaper, hairclips out of clothespins, whirligigs, paper lanterns, finger puppets, and birdhouses.  We grew miniature “trees” out of carrot tops and leafy plants out of potatoes.

The sad thing is that the 1964 copy I found looks brand new.  The binding isn’t even broken. This book and all the magic it contains sat on someone’s shelf for 50 years, untouched and unexplored.  How is that possible?

We used to receive a new book every month through some book of the month club.  When a new book arrived, we couldn’t wait to open it. Books were the one luxury we had, and we appreciated each one.

“How to Make Flibbers” didn’t land in the bargain bin. Someone paid for it and gave it to a child. Full price paid for fun that would never be had.

Unpublished is bad.  Unsold is bad.  But unread is far worse.

 

The Infamous Purple Box

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There it is, folks.  The purple box you’ve heard so much about.  When an idea pops into my head (usually at the most inopportune moment), this is where I jot it down.  I have the box divided into four categories, and I use brightly colored index cards just to keep it visually appealing.  The categories are:

1.  Story lines. Interestingly, this is the category with the fewest number of cards.  I rarely start with an idea for a story line.

2. Characters/names.  Anytime I come across an unusual name, I jot it down.  I was travelling through Ohio once and saw an exit sign for an oddly named expressway.  It was just screaming to be put into a story.  I was going to use it for the name of a secondary character, but it’s just too wonderful for that.  This guy is a lead character, though he may be something of a nit-wit.  I haven’t decided much about him, except that his story will be fun to read aloud.

3. Titles.  This is the category with the greatest number of cards.  I know a lot of people have trouble coming up with titles; but for whatever reason, the title often comes first for me.  There’s a magic to it, almost like a spell.  A title may float around in my head for years, whispering something I can’t quite hear.  The story is in there somewhere.

4. Lines/words.  This is where I put those phrases or lines that come out of nowhere but become the foundation for the story.  I sometimes write dialogue in rhymes, and these lines come to me in an almost musical fashion.  Much more frustrating are the times I hear the rhythm of the words but not the words themselves.  In that case, a card may have nothing more on it than, “Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, dum, dum.”

I do keep a small notebook with me when I go out, just in case the muse drops by for a visit.  Anything he leaves behind is written down and transferred to the purple box when I get home.  That box has prevented the loss of some pretty great ideas.  The cards afford plenty of room to jot down any additional ideas I might have about the story or character at that moment, before it disappears into the ether.

The purple box is probably the most organized part of my writing process.  From there, it can get pretty messy.  I keep all the notes I make once I start writing; and I put them all in a file, along with a copy of the finished product.  A story rarely ends up as it started, but the germ of the idea is not wasted or lost.  The pages I keep remind me that a story seldom comes to me fully formed, and that getting to the finished product is a lot of work.  I’m encouraged by that, especially when I’m struggling with a story that doesn’t want to cooperate.

So here’s to the purple box, the one place the muse can’t possibly escape.

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