Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Randomness of Life

Lately I have been thinking about paths not taken. In my mind I travel back one year, five years, ten years, twenty years….even thirty years. And I think about the decisions I made at various points and the consequences of those decisions.

Everything from the length of my marriage, to the number of children we have, the places we’ve lived, the pets we’ve owned, and the jobs I’ve held. It’s like each juncture led to two or more different stories and by choosing one, the other story never got told.

I sometimes think about writing those untold stories…..creating a character and have her make that other decision and then see how it turns out. Makes me wish I believed in reincarnation and could start over, again and again, altering events each time to see how things turn out. 

But the choices I made led to the life I have now, and I do love my life. I just sometimes wonder where I would be, what I would be doing, and who I would be with if I hadn’t gone to that college, or taken that job, or visited that place at that time. The randomness of life just sometimes seems overwhelming. Does everyone else think like this or is it just me?

And there’s a great book that does sort of address this issue. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Great book, highly recommend.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Value of Beta-Readers

You’ve finished your manuscript. Written your query letter and synopsis. Compiled a list of agents and/or editors. Ready to hit ‘send’? STOP! Have you sent your manuscript off to any beta-readers? 

Many of us ask others to read our work as we go. Our critique groups might read one thousand words at a time or a chapter here and there. And that’s all well and good, but the problem with relying on this method is that no one really looks at the big picture.

How does the plot hold up over the course of the book? Any gaping plot holes? Character descriptions that change between chapter one and chapter twelve? Any time warp issues? When do they put the book down and why? I want my readers to stay up late reading because they can’t put the book down. If they do, I want to know exactly where in the book it happened. 

I recently finished my novel and sent it off to eight beta readers. The first two discovered a major issue immediately. I had done a “find and replace” when I changed a character’s name. Unfortunately, I forgot to specify that I wanted to replace “whole words only”. Every single instance where the word ‘Tray’ appeared in the book changed. So ‘betrayal’ became ‘beAxel” and ‘she picked up her tray’ became ‘she picked up her Axel’. 

I have to laugh about it now, but my immediate reaction was panic because I’d already sent a query letter off to an agent. And guess what? Those first pages I sent her contain that error. It was definitely a live and learn moment. Will I do that again? Nope.

 Other issues my beta-readers have found include things like: one minute the character is commenting on how beautiful the clouds are at dawn and two hours later she’s eating dinner.  Or a character walks into a room, and two paragraphs later he walks into the room again. Argh.

As the author, it’s too easy for me to miss some of these. I read what I thought I wrote. Even when I slow myself down, I don’t always catch the little things. 

I ask my beta-readers to not worry about line-by-line editing. I want their perspective on the big picture. Once I’m satisfied my team has found all the major issues and I’ve corrected them, then I’ll be ready to hit “send”.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Saga of the Squirrels

I love watching the birds in our yard. Jays, finches, woodpeckers, robins, starlings, flickers, and more.  When we first moved in I set up a bird feeder on our upper deck. Then I added another. And another. I can see the birds from every east-facing window. We now have four different feeders and birds of every type and color visit us daily. 
Birds on tube feeder

Love this fluffed up little guy!

Bird waiting patiently for his food

Flicker at suet feeder

There was only one problem. The birds weren’t the only ones who liked the feeders. So did the squirrels. And even though our deck is two stories up from the yard, the squirrels didn’t seem to mind. They leaped from trees, jumped from the roof, and treated the feeders like their personal Old Country Buffet.  
This squirrel is quite the contortionist

He's just waiting for us to go away so he can eat in peace

I tried all sorts of things to get the squirrels to leave the feeders alone. Spicy hot chili pepper cakes in the suet feeder. Safflower seeds in another and thistle seed in the third. But those darn squirrels were persistent. 

I made a trip to the bird store. Bags of peanuts and corn-on-the-cob were stacked along one wall.  If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em. I bought a bungee squirrel feeder and hung it over the edge of the deck. It dangled a few feet off the ground. The first visitors were stellar jays. I heard the bells jingle and the wire snap and I peeked over the edge. I wasn’t sure whether to shoo them away or hope the squirrels were observing and taking notes. 

It took another day or two, but the squirrels finally figured it out. Every morning the jingle of the bells tells me the squirrels are busy swinging like acrobats on a high wire. I can’t help but laugh as they bounce up and down while pulling off kernels of corn.
Squirrel on bungee feeder

And the best part? They haven’t visited the feeders on the deck since.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Am I a Writer?

“I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: You Are A Writer’ held by Positive Writer.” - See more at:

 I am participating in the writing contest:

“I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: You Are A Writer’ held by Positive Writer.” - See more at:
“I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: You Are A Writer’ held by Positive Writer.” - See more at:
“I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: You Are A Writer’ held by Positive Writer.” - See more at:
“I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: You Are A Writer’ held by Positive Writer.” - See more at:
“I am participating in the ‘Writing Contest: You Are A Writer’ held by Positive Writer.” - See more at:

When people ask me what I do, I don’t say I’m a writer. I never have. The words linger in my mouth, trapped, like the bubbles in the champagne bottle that you can’t tell are there until the cork explodes with a bang. I am fifty years old. I have been writing since I first picked up a pencil. My earliest manuscripts have faded with time, but I can still read the notes from my teachers. “Amazing…’ll be an author someday!” Or “I know you’ll be published someday!” 

I kept those words tucked inside my heart. When my high school English teacher slashed my work to pieces, I hung onto those earlier comments and told myself he was just one person. But his words lingered, too.
Over the years my word count grew. Journals, letters, short stories, poems, songs, and the beginnings of many novels. Just the beginnings, though.  Whether it was one thousand or ten thousand words in, I would always stop….defeated by the unknown, defeated by my own reluctance to acknowledge just how much I wanted to be a writer. Or did I? Did I want to write or did I want to say I had written? The enormity of the task before me pushed me under, held me in the riptide of uncertainty and insecurity.

When I turned forty I gave myself a gift. I signed up for a writing class. A novel writing class. And I told myself I would finish this story no matter what. That was the first class. There were others. Then there were writing conferences, critique groups, more classes. I finished one novel. Then another. I entered a few contests with short essays and stories. I always have a work-in-progress. Usually more than one. 

Do I call myself a writer? No. Not really. Not in a confident “THIS IS WHO I AM” tone of voice. I have been asked why I don’t. I don’t know. I suspect it’s because I’m afraid the response would be, “Oh, what have you written?”

And since the few published stories are unlikely to be known to the questioner, I fear I would stumble through my answer, fumbling for words, struggling to explain that while I am a WRITER, I do not (yet) have a New York Times bestselling novel on the shelves of every Barnes and Noble in the country. Maybe someday. 

But they are not asking for my life story. When someone asks, “What do you do?” they are looking for that “Where do you go every day? What do you do?” answer. And since I do have a day job, I answer with that. “I’m a teacher.” And maybe if the conversation continues and the flight is a long one (and perhaps I pull out my work-in-progress for a bit), then, and only then, will I hesitantly, reluctantly share my dream. 

Because to put my dream out there, under the cold glaring light of reality, is to be forced to examine it. To look at it closely and confirm for myself, yes, this is what I really want. 

Could I stop myself from writing? No. Never. I write because I am compelled to write. Writing helps me organize my world, my thoughts, my interactions with others. Does that make me a writer? I think it does. I can acknowledge it to myself. One of these days I will be able to share it with the world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reclaiming the Jungle

When we moved into our house nine months ago, the backyard resembled a jungle. The blackberry thicket was about four feet high and although the yard was a lush mass of vegetation, the only recognizable plants were the blackberries and many varieties of weeds. On top of all that, the entire yard was on a slope, ending in what the realtor described as a ravine. 
August, 2012- completely overgrown with blackberries and weeds. Hard to believe what was hiding underneath!

The first thing we did was get out the weedwacker and chop everything down to ground level. Once the blackberry vines were gone, we discovered two blueberry bushes, six rhododendrons, two azalea bushes, and approximately ten large stumps, signs that once upon a time the yard had actually contained fairly significant trees.

You can see the ground! Blueberry bushes, rhododendrons, and azaleas appeared. We planted a row of cypress trees to provide (eventually) a little privacy.

The next step was to figure out what we wanted to do with the yard. We spent the winter months planning and dreaming. We looked at websites and gardening books, talked to friends, and waited through the rainy days of winter in Seattle for spring to arrive.

I knew I wanted a raised bed for vegetable gardening. My husband began building it during the wet winter months. It immediately filled with water and stayed a soggy, muddy mess until mid-May.

Peas, lettuce, carrots, and squash are starting to come up!

Our yard will not be complete without a grape arbor!

Love the rainbow.....

I like to think of the yard as a work in progress, much like my current novel. Every weekend we head outside and make a little bit of progress. We’ve added steps, planted trees, and started work on a gravel pathway. Things don’t always go the way we planned, and that’s okay. Sometimes my stories take odd twists and turns, too. But each time I’m out there I discover something special and wonderful and find another reason to fall in love with our new home.

We are almost finished with the steps.....
The pathway will take a few more days to complete, I think. It leads to a lovely little area, surrounded by rhodies, where I can sit quietly and watch the birds at the feeders and the squirrels rummaging for the leftovers.