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Monday, January 30, 2012

Compelling Books

What makes a compelling book? You know the kind. The one you can't put down, that you read until three in the morning even though you have to get up for work at five. A book that so captures your imagination you want to stay in that world after the book ends to find out what comes next. The book you immediately reread to see what you missed first time around. The book you wished you'd written.

A few years ago, I considered writing Young Adult fiction. I had an idea for a story that started as the early years in one of my character's life—how she got to be the adult she is in one of my not-yet-published books. The story took on a life of its own and is nothing like my original concept. Before writing, I knew I needed to do market research. What did today's eleven-to-fourteen year olds read? I was sure it was a lot different from what I read when I was that age. I needed to read what was being published today. So, I asked my daughter who had been teaching middle school language arts for several years and whose master's degree is in children's literature. If anyone was up on what today's kids read, it would be her. She gave me a list. What a list! She loaned me several and I started working my way through the list. I found several fascinating books and authors whose other books I would try.

But something held me back from reading one book. I don't like reading about violence—especially, violence to children. Even when the third book in the series came out, I didn't understand all the hoop-la about it on writers' loops. Now, I do.

Never mind all the books in my TBR pile, at Christmas I borrowed all three books from my daughter. Last week, I finally started the first book. I couldn't put it down. The book carried me away making me ignore my own work in progress, laundry, even meals. Thank goodness for an understanding husband who threw in the wash and made dinner. I read until my eyes became gritty. Double thank goodness, I had the next two books. In three days, I read them all. I was stunned by how compelling the series was.

Now that I've tweaked your interest, you probably want to know which series it was. The Hunger Games. Those of you who've read the books are most likely rolling your eyes. Well, of course the books are compelling. What took you so long to see what everyone else has?

My original question still stands. What makes a book compelling? Is it the topic? In this case, children fighting children to the death is still not compelling to me. Triumph over adversity? Well, yes. But not enough. Is it the writing? When I find a great book, I try to dissect it, to figure out what made it so good. Inevitably, I'll start reading with intent to analyze and get so caught up in a story I've read two, three, six times I forget I'm supposed to be analyzing how the writer did it. Granted, I don't really like to analyze stories. I like to be entertained. I can usually tell you why a book isn't very good or, rather, why it didn't appeal to me. But, to analyze character, plot, narrative, dialogue? It doesn't come easy for me. It should if I want to be a better writer. With Suzanne Collins' books, I was blown away. I didn't want to know how she did it. It's like watching a magic show. When you know how the magician does it, something is lost. The magic, if you will. Maybe I don't really want to know how Collins wrote such compelling books. Maybe I just want to be entertained.

In the early days of my writing career, I read some books and thought I could write better than this. Pretty arrogant, right? Those books were published, mine weren't. I've read fabulous books and thought if I try hard enough I can do this. I have never read a book or series and thought I could never write anything this good. Until now. That's rather humbling.

What book(s) have you read that captivated you?

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Eyes Have It


A comment Lucy Kubash made to last week's post really got to me. In fact, I mused on it most of last week. She mentioned that a disease robbed her mother and sister of their sight. I was so sorry to hear that. But she triggered my worse fear. Being blind.

Okay, there are worse fears. Nuclear attack, earthquakes, tornados, alien invasion. I know that people who are blind can live normal, fulfilled lives. People cope with disasters and loss. Not sure how I'd handle aliens unless they looked like the hero in Switched. (He could abduct me any day.)

Somehow, loss of sight frightens me more than anything. Being totally in the dark. Does anyone remember the movie Wait Until Dark where a blind Audrey Hepburn is terrorized? I take a nightlight with me on vacation . . . so I can find the hotel bathroom at night. (That's my story and I'm sticking with it.)

Fear made me put off having a 15-minute operation until I absolutely had to. Consequently, I put up with ever-thickening cataracts for way too long. My well-meaning family and friends thought they were helping with comforting words like: "I had it and it was a piece of cake." Or, "my mother/husband/ grandmother had it, yada, yada." Hah. It was my eyes. The only comforting thing anyone said was "aren't you kind of young to have cataracts? My mother was way older." What a sweetheart.

Three years ago, I dutifully went to a specialist. He was very reassuring. I had to watch a video where the doctor explained the procedure. That wasn't too bad—at least, there were no pictures. At the end of the video was the disclosure of risk listing eighteen things that can go wrong. Eighteen, including blindness and death. And to make sure I understood all the risks, a voice-over read them. Old Murphy was jumping up and down waving his "if anything can go wrong, it will" banner. Blindness and death?

I freaked. Silently, of course. Doctors frown on patients who run screaming from their office. Bad for business. Rather, I politely said, "No, thank you. My eyesight isn't that bad."

Last fall, I knew my close-up vision was deteriorating. I had to ask my dear hubby to read things on the TV. I'm sure he got tired of me asking "what did that say?" but he was very patient. One of the things I've always loved about him is he never says "I told you so." He probably thinks it, though. Then, there was reading small print on over-the-counter medicine bottles. (Where did I leave that magnifying glass?) What put me over the edge was when the clues on Jeopardy were blurry. No Jeopardy? I don't think so.

I finally went to the optometrist's office for a check-up. Whoa. Did I get a slap upside the head. You know the test where they make you cover one eye, show you three lines of letters on the wall, and ask you to read the lowest one? I kept saying none and the lines moved up. I didn't realize the last three lines were the bars of the big E. Holy cow. I thought it was just another three lines. Mind you, this was with my glasses.

When I told my kids, they freaked. Sort of. My son felt bad because he thought I didn't see any of the marvelous Arizona and Utah scenery he and his girlfriend shared with hubby and me back in October. My daughter was worse. "I let you drive my children and you can't see!"

Hey, it wasn't that bad. Distance was never a problem. Everything was sharp and clear unless it required reading. And, the other eye was doing the heavy lifting. Besides, her dad did all the driving when we were with the grandkids. Still, I asked the optometrist what would happen if I still didn't do anything. I'd go blind.

My dad had an expression—damned if you do, damned if you don't.

It was time to go back to the specialist. I had to watch that video again. More fear. I told the doctor how squeamish I am about my eyes. Without a hint of sarcasm, he said he'd heard that before. (Gee, you mean I'm not the only scaredy-cat?) So, we set the appointment for the operation on each eye, two weeks apart. Yeah, both eyes. The one doing most of the work had a cataract, too. I figured if I didn't do them close together, I might wimp out and then where would I be?

You can't imagine what happened when I got to the surgery center the morning of the first surgery. My operation was cancelled. I'd finally gotten my nerves as quieted as they were going to get (without Xanax), steeled myself for this and it was cancelled? I didn't know whether to be angry or relieved. The explanation made sense. They didn't have a second lens and the doctor wouldn't operate without a backup. That didn't inspire a lot of confidence in the surgery center. Did nobody count the supplies?

I had a week's reprieve. I steeled myself again (why, oh, why didn't I ask for that Xanax prescription) and . . . it was a piece of cake. I was on my way home less than an hour after the surgery was scheduled. I think it took me longer to get my shoes on than the actual operation. Then, holy cow, I could read street signs before being on top of them. Without glasses. After the checkup the following day, I was told I was legal to drive. Without glasses. I could read the guide on the TV. Without glasses. (I picked up a pair of "readers" from the drugstore for close-up reading until my eyes settled down enough to get prescription lenses.) I could do everyday things, including reading the computer, without glasses. A week later, after the second eye was done, it was even better. No glasses.

Now, those of you who didn't need glasses until your forties (or later) probably can't understand my amazement. I have worn glasses since I was three years old. I never lost glasses because they were always on my face. I put them on first thing in the morning and took them off the last thing at night. I always wore glasses. Contacts? In my twenties, I tried them. Only hard contacts for far-sightedness then. Uncomfortable and too much bother. And now I don't need glasses anymore!

To be totally honest, I do need them to read. Another disclaimer: I was given the option to have a special lens that would also correct my astigmatism (lopsided eyeball—not a technical term but how I understand it). At my family's encouragement, I agreed, even though the pricey difference wasn't covered by insurance. The special lenses made such a difference.

Now that it's all over, I realize my fear was for naught. I let it blind me (pun intended) to doing what I should have done a lot sooner. I can't believe how long I allowed that fear to rule my life.

One thing I promised myself afterward. I wouldn't be one of those people who make light of what has become such a common-place surgery. Sure, it was a breeze—for me. Everything went well, beyond my expectations, actually. But, I still remember the fear, the anxiety that something would go wrong. I vowed to be sympathetic and listen to another's worries.

But, I would be thinking "hey, it's a piece of cake."   

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading is Fun


I'm picking up a thread from last week's post. While writing about my obsession with books, I started to go off on a tangent about non-readers. No, no, I told myself, stay on topic. So, I saved that thought to muse on today. I'm always surprised when I hear people say they don't have time to read. Like everything else, we make time for the things we enjoy. I'm more saddened when people say they don't like to read. And I wonder how they got that way.

Did no one tell them that reading is fun? Hang on. As writers, we're forever cautioned to show not tell. So, let me rephrase that. Did no ever show them how much fun it is to read? Did no one read to them as children? Did they never see their parents reading for enjoyment? Oh, sure, you say. Blame it on the parents.

I don't remember my parents reading to me. I'm sure Mom must have when I was little, but by the time my memory kicks in I only remember Mom being too busy with the younger kids (I'm the oldest of seven) to read to me. And Dad was always working. (It wasn't until much later that I remember him reading, history mostly. Mom didn't start reading for pleasure until I introduced her to romance novels back in the '80s.) We didn't have many books at home when I was young. My grandmother always gave each of us a book for Christmas and birthday. Money was tight for everyone then. We lived in a rural area where the nearest public library was a distance and the bookmobile only visited the school once a month and we were limited on how many books we could check out. How I ever became an avid reader is beyond me.

Still, I do believe that's where the enjoyment of reading starts—parents reading to children. Children seeing their parents reading. I read to my children when they were babies, before they could understand language. It didn't matter what I read out loud, it was the sound that was important. That's how they learn language—by hearing it. My son-in-law read medical textbooks to his babies. My daughter read out loud whatever book she was reading for enjoyment. We also read kiddie books to the babies. Think about it. A baby being cuddled, Mom or Dad's heart under their ear, hearing the sound of the parent's voice. Pure pleasure. What a great association. Even my almost-two year old grandson who has two speeds, fast and faster, will sit still for a book. Of course, their Nana and Papa love it when the little ones crawl up into our laps with a book so the enjoyment goes both ways.

Babies are sponges. They take in everything about their world. They are curious, eager to learn. How do we kill that? By making reading a chore. "You have to read for a half hour every day." Throw in the words "have to" and you destroy whatever benefit daily reading was supposed to instill. There were times when I was so overloaded with all the obligations of life that I would have given anything to have a half hour to read. That isn't really the point, is it?

So, what happens when those eager little sponges go off to school? Is reading still fun? It's a subject to learn—like math and spelling and state capitals. To make it easier to handle, the teacher divides the kids by reading ability into groups. (At least, that's what we did when I taught elementary school—back in the Dark Ages. Do they still do this?) No matter how we sugar-coated reality by giving the groups cutesy names (remember Bluebirds?) every kid quickly knew which group was which. And kids in the group with least ability were stigmatized. Who wouldn't give up?

Oh, wait, it gets worse. Kids are told not to read certain things, like comic books or Harry Potter. I've always maintained that any reading is great. Look at the phenomenon that the Potter series has wrought. Kids devouring books. Did you ever see kids waiting in line at the show reading (rather, rereading) the book on which the movie is based before? I never did. And when they had to wait for each book, they discovered other series books like Percy Jackson, I Am Number Four, or The Hunger Games. Like they couldn't get enough adventure.

As a fifth grader, I was told to put that book away and stop wasting my time reading. Never mind it was while I was supposed to be doing math. Never mind the teacher didn't ask if I was finished with said math. To this day, I remember being told not to waste time reading. Can you imagine?

Sounds like I'm blaming teachers, right? There has to be a better way of helping children learn to read. With huge classes (I had forty-two first graders in my first year teaching), how is one person supposed to reach each child individually?

Okay, I'm going off on a tangent and turning "musing" into a rant over education. I do want to add that good teachers try very hard to reach all students. They encourage reading. They show that reading can be fun and not a chore. I wasn't always successful as a teacher, but I read out loud to my students. To the younger ones, I read Charlotte's Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among others. To the older ones, A Wrinkle in Time and The Hobbit. Even the sixth graders listened eagerly to Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, which was nothing like the saccharine Disney movie rendering. The best part about reading out loud for fifteen minutes after lunch was when the kids begged me not to stop. No, the best part was when a student came in the next day with the same book and said s/he couldn't wait for me to finish the story and had to find out how it ended.

Reading is so important in our lives. Remember the PSA ad "Reading is FUNdamental"? Emphasis on "fun" but also how essential it is. Kids who learn that reading is fun will find it easier to read things that are necessary—like computer software manuals (which I have to say I only read after I get stuck) or in-depth news reports on candidates for elected office or business reports for their jobs.

To earn a college degree, I had to read a lot—history, literature, sociology, philosophy, science. Some I enjoyed. Others? Well, let's just say I slogged through a lot of words. Still, college wasn't overwhelming because I could read well. I could read well because I read a lot. The adage "practice makes perfect" certainly applies here. But, after I read all the things necessary for my education and subsequent jobs, I relaxed by reading what I wanted to—for fun.

People who find reading difficult or say they do not like to read miss so much. They miss the wonder of other worlds—and I'm not just talking about alien universes, like what I write. They miss the wonder of other times, other places, people whose life circumstances are different from the reader's. They miss the fun.

I'm preaching to the choir, right?

On my FaceBook author page, I shared the latest book I read. I hope others will also share. I'm always looking for a good book.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Possession Obsession


What is with our obsession to possess things? A better question is why do we hang onto things instead of letting go? Maybe this doesn't apply to you. Just me.
Books are my biggest problem. I love to read. I have to read, even if it's only a couple of paragraphs before I go to sleep. I have my favorite books, my "keepers". Then, there's the TBR pile. All those books I have yet to read. How did I get all those books that I haven't read? Many were free books. I remember my first writers' conference. Holy cow! They gave away books! There were books on our chairs in the dining room. There were books—free books, lots and lots of free books—in the Goody Room and in the publishers' suites. I couldn't resist. I've been to a lot of conferences since that first one. I'm more discriminate now about what I take. But still... Even if I read all day every day, it would take years to read all those books. But, wait. I don't just read a book once. I reread my favorites. I can't part with my favorites.
Consequently, my bookshelves overfloweth.
This doesn't just apply to books. DVDs. I love movies. Almost as much as books. At least, DVDs are smaller than VCR tapes. I had hundreds of those. Like books, I have my favorite movies. I'll buy a DVD of a movie I didn't get a chance to see when it came out. I'll buy a DVD of a movie I did see when it came out. Some movies I have to watch two or three times to "get" it—like Inception. I have "tunnel vision" while watching a movie. Somehow, my brain can't take in everything. While watching the main action, I often miss what's happening on the sidelines. Getting the DVD helps me see the whole picture. Besides, even with 700 channels (slight exaggeration) there are nights when there's nothing on TV so we'll watch a DVD.
Again, my shelves overfloweth. I know, I know. I could use the library and rent DVDs. But, I don't.
Then, there is paper. I'm often overwhelmed by the amount of paper in my life. I know the adage about handling a piece of paper only once. Hah. Easier said than done. I'm getting better but still... It's almost a cliché to say that computers were supposed to eliminate paper. Hah, again. Computers create more. What happens if the computer crashes? We have to have backups. I've heard too many stories from writers whose computer seized up and even the experts couldn't retrieve the contents. Or, worse, the backup drive (or memory stick) was corrupted. With a paper copy, at least the work isn't totally lost. And don't forget research. Copies of computer articles, newspaper clippings. The list goes on.
It's not just writing that creates paper. We're told to save anything related to our tax returns. Okay, but what about the closing papers on houses we've bought and sold? Paid utility bills, credit card receipts and statements? Letters and cards from family and friends? What's important and necessary? What's sentimental?
My file cabinets (note the plural) overfloweth.
Clothes. We hear all the time about how to manage our clothes. If I buy a new blouse, I should get rid of one. Yeah, right. How can I get rid of a perfectly good piece of clothing? Am I the only one who thinks I'll lose the weight and be able to wear that (fill in the blank—dress, slacks, shirt) again? I still have a dress from thirty years ago when I was at my smallest. Will I ever wear it again? Not in this lifetime. I'm saving it for my grandkids to play dress-up. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.
My closets overfloweth.
When we lost two loved ones, we gained the contents of their condos. Lucky us. Yes and no. Both women were savers. They had some very nice (read, expensive) things. And they had junk, as in "I might be able to use that someday" stuff. At 102 and 100 when they died, they had a long time to accumulate things. Plus, they were hugely influenced by living through the Great Depression. Waste not, want not was the motto they lived by. Good advice, unless you're talking about plastic take-out containers and many times reused food storage bags. Those were the easy things to dispose of. It took two years before I could even deal with all their "stuff" that filled my garage, basement, and dining room. My children took what they wanted. Despite many pleas, I couldn't foist any more things on them. They were the smart ones. I did have a massive garage sale and donated a ton of stuff, but I still have way more dishes and kitchen equipment than I need. And don't get me started on cookbooks. Even my son, the chef, doesn't want any more of the ones I have.
As you can see, possessions are overwhelming me. Last week, I wrote about setting goals and making a plan of action on how to accomplish the goals. After I posted the blog, I followed my own advice. I picked the areas of my life that I want to change. I think living healthier (note, I didn't say just lose weight) will be easier than disposing of possessions.
But, I'm willing to make the effort. That's a start. A friend wrote on someone else's blog that she was going to purge her office. I thought what a great word. Purge. Totally expresses what I need to do with my bookshelves, file cabinets, closets, kitchen, basement, garage. That just sounds overwhelming. Taken in small doses, steadily through the year, it's doable. If I tell myself that enough times, maybe I'll believe it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Goal Setting


Can you believe it's 2012 already? What a great opportunity we have. A new year, a new beginning. Here's a chance to start something new and a chance to do what didn't get done last year.
Like many people, I make resolutions at the beginning of a year and, also like many people, my resolve wanes after a few weeks or months. I heard a speaker on television last week talk about ways to help follow through on goals. One of the ways was to write them down. He also mentioned making smart goals. Not brilliant smart, but SMART. I thought, holy cow, I know what that means. For many years, I was a trainer of Girl Scout leaders and an instructor of trainers. In my own training, I learned SMART is an acronym for:
         Specific
         Measurable
         Attainable
         Relevant
         Time-related
Here's an example. People say they want to write a book. Good idea but not a SMART goal. To change this into one would be: "I will write a contemporary romance by the end of 2012." It is specific (a contemporary romance), measurable (a completed manuscript), relevant (if you're a writer), and time-related (by the end of 2012). The last criteria, is it attainable, can be a little tricky. Can a person complete a novel in a year? If you write one page a day every day, you would have a 365 page manuscript (over 90,000 words). That's a good-size book.
Two posts ago, I wrote about the camera I received as a Christmas gift and how it led to my photography hobby. I need to do something with all the photos I've taken. Somehow, I've gone from religiously putting well-labeled photos into albums to storing them in shoeboxes. I didn't get a digital camera until 2009 (I know, I was woefully behind the times). With a regular camera, I always took several shots of the same scene/group of people in case one didn't turn out. When it came time to develop the roll of film, I usually got double prints to share photos with family. Needless to say, I have LOTs of photos.
So, one of my goals for 2012 is to do something with all those pictures. Here's my SMART goal:
I will put all my photos into albums by the end of this year.
Wow. That is a daunting task. I think my last album is for photos taken in 2001. Not only do I have shoeboxes full of photos, I have hundreds of digital photos, too.
Sadly, my normal reaction when facing a task of what I consider overwhelming proportions is to play ostrich. I ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist. Breaking down a big goal into manageable (less daunting) ones can make achieving that goal possible. So, I'm also making a plan of action.
 1. By 1/31/12, I will sort my photos into save or toss. (OMG, throw away photos? Maybe another goal should be to give myself permission to throw away—and/or delete—duplicates and just plain lousy pictures.)
 2. By 2/28/12, I will sort my photos according to the year taken. (Because I'm such a linear thinker this method works for me.)
 3. Each month from March through December, I will put photos from one year into an album.
This whole task will probably tie up the dining room table for the entire year but, hey, maybe I'll get on a roll and finish early.
When I first joined my writing group (the Mid-Michigan chapter of Romance Writers of America), Nancy Gideon was often the program speaker for our January meetings. She did a great motivational talk on setting goals for the year, concluding with instructions to write down three things we wanted to accomplish that year.
By writing down my goals, I make them more "real". I'm a list maker and a checker-offer. Many people can mentally make goals and keep them. Not me. My intentions are always good. Follow through is more difficult. Keeping my written goals in front of me—like taping the list at eye-level next to my computer—will help.
Now, on to writing the rest of my goals for this year: organize my office, clean the basement, increase my readership, publish the sequel to Switched...
Hang on. I think my first SMART goal should be: By January 4th, I will write my goals for 2012 along with a plan of action for each.
I hope by sharing one of my goals here I will encourage you to make and keep your goals for 2012.

On Friday, January 6th, I'll be Margo Hoornstra's guest on her blog. I hope you'll stop by.