Friday, December 30, 2011

First Page Friday---What It Is & How It Works

Since we have been getting some questions about what exactly First Page Friday is, I thought I would take a few minutes today to explain it.

I was at a conference in April where there was a panel of national agents and editors. They all said the same thing---that if a manuscript hasn't caught their attention by the first page they reject it. They wanted to see fresh and original writing that drew them in, and of course, one free of typos and grammar errors.

As I talked to my writer friends and my editor friends, we all came to the same conclusion---everyone wanted a clean first page. (Of course it goes without saying that we all want a clean manuscript, but for this purpose, first pages fit.)

So, I asked my national editor friend if she could critique first pages that were submitted to my blog. With her job schedule being so tight, she could only do Fridays and First Page Friday was born. We affectionately named her Ms. Shreditor because she is a tough but fair editor and I knew she would do great.

Along the way, we had some wonderful experiences and we felt like we were really helping writers on their journey, but Ms. Shreditor's job schedule got even tighter and so I asked my former editor, Angela Eschler, if she could come on board. She was more than happy to take the last Friday of every month.

I have been so blessed to have both of these women critique for First Page Friday. They both have different styles and approaches, but I know them both to be incredible editors and very good at their jobs. Ms. Shreditor is known for her talent in the publishing industry and really does love her job. Angela Eschler is well-known for her editing services and now has her own editing business called Eschler Editing.

First Page Friday is about helping writers and we have two of the best editors around to do that. If you want to submit your work to be critiqued by some of the best in the business, all you have to do is submit your double-spaced, 12 pt. font, first page to with First Page Friday in the subject line. I do it on a first come first served basis, and right now we are booked out to mid-February. But don't let that discourage you. I think the critiques are well worth the wait.

First Page Fridays have taught me so much. Even as a published writer I am always learning and both of our editors have given me a lot to think about as I've read their critiques each Friday. I hope it has been the same for you.

I want to thank everyone who submits because it's a hard thing to put yourself out there and have your work critiqued. I want to thank everyone who reads the submission and makes comments for being respectful. And I want to thank our amazing editors for giving of their time to help us writers be the best we can be.

So what are you waiting for? Get your submission in today!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Writing Tip: Dealing With a Slump

I've been thinking a lot about Melanie's comment yesterday, that she's in a "writing depression." There are so many images evoked with the use of the word "depression." We have the Great Depression, depression as an illness, depressions you can make with your fingers when you're making certain cookies, you get my drift.

So, when I hear writing depression all these things crowd into my mind--people looking sadly at a camera with a lot of dust behind them, feeling sad, eating cookies without restraint. But what does this have to do with a writing depression?

Well, when you're in a writing depression, you feel sad, your keyboard gets dusty and you probably do a bit of guilt eating. At least I do.

So how do we snap out of it?

For me, I read more. It's funny how when I'm reading I will come across a turn of phrase that will inspire something in my own writing.

I write in my journal. Writing about my life always seems to give me a little jumpstart. I remember how much I love expressing myself and how freeing writing is for me.

I read what I've written so far. A lot of times I will think that my story is crap, but when I go back and read it I find myself thinking, hey, this isn't too bad, and the ideas for where it could go start flowing.

I make goals. With January 1st coming up, I've definitely got some writing goals that I'm, well, writing down.

I use the little support group we have on Word Count Wednesday to make sure I'm not too hard on myself. Things will get better. And if I have all of you to get me over the tough times, then I know I'm in a good place.

How do you get out of a writing slump?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Word Count Wednesday

I saw this quote and it really fit me right now, so I'm including it in my post today.

"Do not lose hold of your dreams, or aspirations. For if you do, you may still exist, but cease to live." - Henry David Thoreau

I haven't done any writing for two weeks. I have a ton of excuses, but it really comes down to the fact that my brain has been elsewhere. And oddly, I can't seem to write when I can't engage my brain.

I know I'll get back to it. I have a lot of writing goals that I want to share with you next week that will babystep me to where I want to be as a writer. But for this week, my word count was again 0. Yet, writing is a part of me, the part that keeps me sane, and this week, I'm going to make it happen. (Am I implying that I'm not currently sane? You decide.)

How did you do?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: Enduring Light

Enduring Light by Carla Kelly is a sequel to Borrowed Light. It picks up pretty much where the last one left off, but to be honest, it had been quite a few months since I'd read Borrowed Light and I had forgotten a lot of details. Since those details were pretty pertinent to the plot in Enduring Light, I would definitely recommend that you read Borrowed Light before this one.

So, here's a bit of background. Julia Darling had taken a position as a cook for a rancher in Wyoming named Paul Otto. The author did an incredible job with their love story in Borrowed Light and I really enjoyed them. In Enduring Light, the love story continues with their engagement, wedding, and settling down into married life on a ranch. In this book, Julia is still figuring out how to deal with the scars from the fire (that happened in Borrowed Light) and Paul is trying to gather his cattle that scattered, when a new threat comes to their family and causes all sorts of havoc. The author does the setting really well, especially the cow gather scenes and what ranching life is really like, but the thing I liked best is the quirkiness of the ranch family and how the author stays true to the characters we all came to know and love in Borrowed Light.

Overall, it was an enjoyable historical romance, however, there was a lot of sexual innuendo in this book that seemed unnecessary and was quite distracting after a while. I also felt like the tension from Borrowed Light seemed a bit lacking in Enduring Light. Not that married life is boring, but there just wasn't a lot to wonder about and the storyline angle with James that held the tension in the story didn't make sense unless you had read and remembered Borrowed Light, of which I sort of didn't. On a personal note, it probably wouldn't bother anyone else, but the hero, Paul Otto, called Julia "sport" after pretty much every sentence he spoke and it was starting to drive me insane. Nicknames are fine, but when you are doing it after every sentence, it's too much.

So, I'm a little Jekyll and Hyde on this one. I liked knowing more about how things turned out for the characters in Borrowed Light, but I thought Enduring Light needed a little more plot so it would seem less like a really long epilogue.

Here is the back copy for it:

Julia Darling is finally able to marry her Paul for eternity. But it’s a harsh world for a rancher in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, especially a Mormon rancher. When alienation and threats start coming, Julia must prove she’s her husband’s equal in strength and endurance as she learns to let go of scars on the outside and inside. Bestselling author Carla Kelly has woven a new story about the depths of love discovered by enduring to the end.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Boxing Day!

For all my Canadian friends, I hope you're having a relaxing Boxing Day. I know I am!

All my kids are happily playing with the Christmas presents they got yesterday, and I've been puttering around doing nothing really. I got rid of a flower arrangement that I've had for fourteen years. For some reason I woke up today and thought, you know, I think I'm done with that. It's been sort of a freeing thing. Like starting over with a blank wall. Has that ever happened to you?

How was your Christmas? What have you been doing today?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all of you! I hope you are able to spend it with your loved ones and that you got everything you wished for.

Friday, December 23, 2011

First Page Friday

This is one of the most amazing critiques I've ever seen for MG fiction. Thank you so much to Jill for submitting and Angela Eschler for critiquing!

The Entry
by Jill Campbell

My name is Ripcord Fire Dragon, but you can call me Rip.  Maybe I have another name, maybe I don’t.  I look average.  But don’t be fooled because I am anything but.  In fact, I am most likely a superhero.  Only I don’t wear tights, usually.  But don’t go blabbing about this because then all the girls will try to kiss me and want my autograph and then how could I save the world?

Your friendly, neighborhood superhero, that’s me.  Only I probably don’t live in your neighborhood, but I bet you wish I did.  Because if I lived in your neighborhood, you wouldn’t have to worry about aliens.  But who knows?  Maybe I didn’t just scare them from my city, but from the whole planet.  You can only hope my friend.  You can only hope.

It all started on an ordinary day when I found something not so ordinary on our front door.  It was a big circle of fruit and the moment I saw it, I knew it was trouble.

Fact:  My mind is superior to average minds.  This means I’m smarter than everyone else.  Don’t take this the wrong way.  I’m just giving you the simple facts.  Fact:  Everybody knows that you don’t eat fruit sticking on a door, especially if the fruit isn’t real.  How did I know the fruit wasn’t real?  Duh, I took a bite. 

I pulled that thing off the door and threw it like a Frisby.  By the way, I am a good thrower of Frisbies and other objects.  It is one of my natural super-abilities.  It sailed into Mr. Herriman’s yard.  I didn’t care because I am pretty sure he is a werewolf.

“Mom, you don’t need to worry, I have saved the day!” I yelled as I ran into the house.  “Aliens put an ugly circle of fruit on our door, but I threw it into Mr. Herriman’s yard.”

Unfortunately aliens had already taken over my mother’s body.  Her face

The Review:

Regarding this fun little story, I decided to consult a couple of editors that specialize in children’s fiction—just to make sure that I was guiding you on the right track (one male editor and one female editor for breadth of perspective/taste). Also, the strengths and the issues to consider in your story are part and parcel of the same package, so I’m just going to address everything all together, rather than break the review down into parts.

So let’s dive in:

The first editor I consulted with agreed that we wouldn’t classify it as early reader. Lack of contractions and the story idea alone won’t qualify it as early reader. There is a lot of contextual reading and tone that would pull this out of that age range. That being said, the voice is strong—very fun and creative. It might be a little too strong and complex for younger middle grade kids though (which seems to be your audience, based on the story content), but more on that later.

Why your book is more middle grade than early reader: So, the Fry readability measure (essentially similar to Lexile, if you’re familiar with that one) is an academic/research-based measuring tool to figure out the approximate reading/grade level of a piece of text. According to Fry, and assuming your story maintains the complexity level of your opening, your story is written on a 4th grade level, which means the audience is presumably that age or a year or two younger (and maybe even a little older, based on whether the kids read higher or lower than their grade level). If you’re interested, this was determined by the number of syllables (129) and sentences per hundred words (9.5). So I think it’s above the early reader level and is definitely more middle grade. It could be a series for slightly older elementary school kids.

Another factor, as mentioned above, that takes it out of the early reader range is the complexity of the tone. This might possibly be problematic if not tweaked or moderated a bit. I think what the tone creates is what’s sometimes called an “unreliable narrator.” It adds a level of complexity to the story that pushes an understanding of what’s going on out of a younger reader’s grasp. An unreliable narrator means that the narrator doesn’t seem sure of who he is or the state of things, or as if he’s trying to convince the reader of something he’s not sure or truthful about. That’s a very interesting character type, but it’s pretty different for younger readers and might make the story a little confusing. I’m not sure how you’ve decided to deal with this particular issue, but if you haven’t thought about it, you might want to make it clear whether this is a “real” fantastical event or if it’s the narrator’s imagination (aliens, being a superhero, etc.). Adult readers can pick up on slight cues that it’s his imagination (though it took me a couple of reads to figure out that’s what you were implying), but for kids, this might be harder to infer. Professor Ford, one of the editors I consulted, agreed that “The fact that the narrator is telling us that his mom was taken over by aliens is definitely something that needs to be addressed. Kids need very strong clues, maybe even visuals, that tell them that this boy is only pretending, then they’ll be more than capable of telling the difference. Even four-year olds can tell the difference between pretending and ‘reality.’”

Another part of the unreliable narrator voice (that might be a problem if overdone) is a tad too much arrogance. In addition to possibly being a little much for a young kid—unless he really is extremely advanced (like the child narrator of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)—the arrogance contributes to making the reader unable to fully trust the narrator (as we instinctually know boastful people are self-serving and likely dishonest in order to maintain their status, wealth, power, or whatever it is; thus they are “unreliable”). And it can sometimes make a character hard to relate to. This is fun for adult readers to maneuver, but might be simply confusing or annoying to younger readers who don’t get the nuance of such characterization.

As to the arrogance, pretty soon you might need to make sure the character also faces or admits to his Achille’s heel and/or to some emotional vulnerability—at the level an elementary kid would understand. This is generally done in all the MG and early reader books I sampled while reading up to do your review. Eccentric character traits were leveled out by the narrator noting (as in a side comment or whatnot) that the character really was nice at heart, etc., and/or realizing that their eccentric traits often got them into trouble (this eccentricity often created the problem they faced in each book of the series). You may be planning on addressing all of this for the book already, but think about the voice of the narrator in terms of whether it is too complex for younger readers. (Should you decide that MG is what you’re going for. For me, the character and his dilemma read as too young for older kids—so definitely elementary school).

Professor Ford also mentioned something else you might want to pay attention to: “Aside from tone, it is sometimes tricky to write about a kid who is always getting in trouble [which, we assume, this is where the story is going]. This is why, in the reading list below, I am recommending Joey Pigza to you. It’s all about a bad boy, who isn’t really so bad. Actually, now that I think about it, I wonder if reading Artemis Fowl might be helpful, too. It’s for a slightly older group, but the characterization would be really helpful. It is about a 10-year old criminal mastermind. [What to pay attention to with your story is whether the tone complexity and personality/arrogance are too close to the Artemis Fowl variety—which appeals to older kids and is a little beyond many middle graders.]

The following list is compiled from suggestions from both children’s book editors, and I sampled many of these books as I was studying to do your critique: “All that said, depending on which direction you want to go with tone, the early reader series you would compare against would be Time Warp Trio, Captain Underpants, and Junie B. Jones (your book is much more complex than Junie B, for example), as they lean toward sarcasm. Wimpy Kid (and the girl version someone else made to match) are more of your MG readers. You can also look at the older series book section (the one by the Encyclopedia Brown, Sisters Grimm, Warriors, and 39 Clues books). This also reminds me a bit of some boy books like Wayside School is Falling Down or There’s a Girl in the Boy’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar, or The Day My Butt Went Psycho and other books by Andy Griffiths. There are a bunch of fairly recent superhero books, too, if that’s the direction this is going. You might try looking at the Babymouse graphic novels, which are early middle grade. They are a little more advanced than Judy Moody and books about her brother Stink by Megan McDonald, but you’ll want to look at those, too. There’s also Clementine by Marla Frazee (although it is about a girl).  You should definitely try Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos or Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. If you are at the bookstore, you can wave a Louis Sachar or Andy Griffiths book at the employee and ask them to find you more boy books at that reading level. Or check out this website by Jon Scieszka: ”

Couple quick questions on specific lines/parts that were confusing to me:

“You can call me Rip.  Maybe I have another name, maybe I don’t.” As the opening line of the book, I’m not sure this is working. It fits the MG model in terms of introducing the character, but it creates confusion rather than places us clearly in the kid’s world. The reader has no context here for this being a cue that he’s imagining things. Thus it is unclear what this “maybe I have another name, but maybe not” implies. A child reader might not understand what the hidden info here is all about. After reading the story several times I figured out what you were doing here, but I think you need more context to pull this off (see my notes below).

When the narrator says he’s scared aliens away from the planet, I assume you’re referring to something that will happen later in the book that we haven’t read on this first page? If the Frisbee-throwing fruit-circle incident is what you meant by scaring aliens away, you’ll have a chronology problem. You have the “it all started when” structure set up. So you’ll have to make sure that you don’t get to the big reveals till the end of the story. Just wanted to make sure you’re clear on the story arc. The reason I ask, is because it was a little bit confusing, in the beginning, if we were getting the story from the immediate present or told as if looking back on it. I think the potential/slight confusion is caused by your interrupting the narrative to give asides about the character. Like interrupting the “It all started when I found the fruit” bit by the commentary on the character’s above-average intelligence. These types of interruptions make us lose our place in the story chronology, so to speak, and after the narrative interruption we have to mentally scramble to re-enter the story and place ourselves in it at the right spot in order to fend off confusion. You might want to save the interruptions to the narrative for a little further in when we have a good sense of setting, what’s at stake, and where we are in the chronology—interrupting in a downtime moment, if possible.

“It was a big circle of fruit . . .” Sort of a vague image. What’s a “circle” of fruit? A plate of it? A bunch of fruit stuck together in a ring? Something that he can’t name that looks like an apple or orange—round?

The section where the narrator is listing “facts”: The style is a little fast-paced and transition-less. It requires a fair bit of reader inference, which I’m not sure is a good thing for young middle grade or early readers. This is an example of where you might need to trim the exuberance of the voice a little so that readers can follow what’s going on. Here’s another example where the implications are thrown in and quickly abandoned without enough context for younger readers to be sure of the meaning: “It sailed into Mr. Herriman’s yard.  I didn’t care because I am pretty sure he is a werewolf.” My question: why would you not care that it’s in his yard because he’s a werewolf? Meaning, werewolves don’t deserve respect? Or meaning something else? I think you should clarify the implication.

The character’s name: Given that the narrator has introduced us to a world that has werewolves, aliens, and superheroes all within one page, I wasn’t entirely sure if his name implied that he was an actual dragon, or that he’s a human kid using that code name. It makes sense after reading the intro several times that the bit about the “maybe I have another name” means this is the boy’s made-up name, but I don’t know that kids are going to get that right away. If I had to read the piece several times, build up an understanding of context, and then realize everything you were doing it, I think kids would likely have to do the same. And I don’t know that they’d read it several times in order to be sure what literary tricks you were handing them. Perhaps start the story out with the voice you’ve created, but save the imagination tricks for a little later when we understand his personality, world view, whether he’s pretending or not, etc. That extra page of context or so will make it more clear what’s going on so we can enjoy the narrator as opposed to working too hard to figure him out. Another tactic would be to include a little context in the opening. He can introduce his fake name, then we can get a line of dialogue of his mom calling him (by his real name—asking him to do the dishes or whatever), and then he can say “maybe I have another name, maybe I don’t.” This bit of context immediately helps us see he’s pretending, which provides a framework for the rest of what we read. Just some thoughts on ways to keep the voice but lose the confusion. A little physical setting, along with a bit from his mom like that, would really help I think.

Finally, editorially we agree that the writing is compelling and the voice is energetic. Professor Ford’s final thoughts: “I would need to know a bit more about the plot and how the character grows, but the voice isn’t bad. The question is, can you sustain this level of writing? Do you think you’d be willing to trim a bit and round a bit in other places? The core is pretty stable, I think.”

Conclusion: This is a great idea (from what we have seen), but making it work for middle grade is an issue of finessing the tone so that it matches the age group you are trying to target. The best way to do that is to study the books above, dividing them into early reader vs middle grade, and determine what common denominators each category bears, as well as studying what agents are saying about the distinctions, then choose a tone complexity level that fits what your goals are. There will always be kids that read above and below their grade level, so there’s no exact science to defining middle grade vs early reader, but there are some notable differences in tone, complexity, and content you will see as you study different examples in the list above.

Best of luck—it’s a great time to be writing middle grade scifi (if that’s what this ends up to be, anyway, with the aliens and all). That’s one thing agents and editors would like to see more of these days; even if just imaginary scifi!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Short Christmas Stories to Warm Your Heart

As a family, we've been reading short Christmas stories each night. I thought I would share three of my favorites with you today and hope you enjoy them. The last one is a bit longer, but worth it. I hope you are enjoying your holiday season!

The Camel Had Wandered
by Janet Eyestone Buck

Our family has always enjoyed a Christmas tradition of setting out a ceramic nativity scene--complete with wise men, camels, shepherds, sheep, and of course, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. Each season the nativity scene was the same.

One year when my children were young, I carefully unwrapped each piece and set up an artistic display representing the first Christmas. The children gathered around to watch. We talked about the birth of Jesus and the visit of the shepherds and Magi. I then cautioned the children, as always, not to touch the pieces, explaining that they were fragile and easily broken.

This year, however, the temptation was too great for my two-year old daughter, Elizabeth. The day we set up the nativity scene, I noticed several times, with some irritation, that a camel had wandered from its appointed place or a sheep had strayed from the watchful care of the shepherd. Each time, I returned the piece to its rightful place, and then tracked down the culprit and admonished her to leave things alone.

The next morning, Elizabeth awoke and went downstairs before I did. When I walked into the living room I noticed right away that the manger scene had been disturbed again. All the pieces were clumped together in a mass, as tightly as they could be fitted together.

Impatiently, I stepped forward to put things right; but I stopped short as I realized that some thought had gone into this new arrangement. All twenty three figures were grouped in a circle, facing inward, pushed together as if to get the best view possible of the figure resting in the center of them all—the Baby Jesus.

The spirit touched my soul as I pondered the insight of a two-year old. Certainly, Christ should be the center of our holiday celebrations. If we all could draw in’ around our Savior—not only during the Christmas season but during each day—what a better perspective we would have. The love He offers to each of us would be easily shared with others who have not ventured so close.

I left the nativity arranged according to Elizabeth’s design that year. It served as a poignant reminder during the rest of the season of what Christmas is all about.

The Christmas I Remember Best
by Sherilyn Clarke Stinson

Christmas in 1960 brought my first fashion doll, complete with a wonderful wardrobe crafted in secret by my mother. But the best surprise was yet to come. In our Christmas morning oblivion, we kids didn’t realize Mom was in labor. She managed to endure until every gift was opened before going to the hospital to deliver our new baby brother. My new doll couldn’t compete with Matthew, a real-life 10-pound doll with big brown eyes. He quickly became my special charge, and I assumed the role of “assistant mother.” At the age of six, I believed I had found my mission in life. Matt was followed by a sister and then another brother, and I mothered them all.

In my early twenties I married with full expectation of becoming the mother of a large family. But life takes unexpected turns, and after two years of trying, we were diagnosed with infertility. It was a severe blow. Feeling bewildered and betrayed, I struggled to make sense of the hand I had been dealt. Finally, after many doctor visits, medical procedures, and prayers to heaven for a child, we began to consider adoption. Not wanting to give up my dream of having my “own” children, I was somewhat indifferent in the beginning. But as we completed our adoption study, my enthusiasm grew, and I began to believe that my dream of motherhood would actually come true.

December 22, 1981, started out like any other work day. My brother Matthew was due home from his mission the next day, and I was full of Christmas anticipation. But at about 11 a.m. my world changed forever with a simple phone call.

“Sherilyn? This is Ione Simpson, your adoption worker. How would you like an early Christmas present? We have a baby boy for you!”

Two hours later, my husband and I were sitting in an office at LDS Family Services in complete shock and disbelief. Our worker processed the necessary paperwork and then asked, “Are you ready to meet your son?” I don’t know what I expected, but an 11-pound baby fullback wasn’t it. Weighing 10 pounds at birth, he was now three weeks old, and all of the clothes we’d purchased on our way to the agency were too small for him. His little face was all broken out in baby acne, and he wore a forlorn expression of resignation. For a fleeting moment I was tempted to ask, “What else have you got?” But as soon as I held him in my arms, I fell in love and I knew he was our own.

Two years later, on December 15, I was wrapping the last of my Christmas gifts when Sister Simpson called again. “How would you like a baby girl?” Three frantic hours later the adventure began again with a beautiful, dark-haired daughter.

Each Christmas as I reflect on the birth of the Christ child, I also pause in gratitude for the precious gift of motherhood that came to me through the miracle of adoption. Amid the holiday flurry, my thoughts always turn to each of my children’s amazing, courageous birth mothers, whose selfless love made my dreams come true.

Although I have never met my children’s birth mothers, each Christmas and at each milestone of my children’s lives I say a prayer for those women, that they may have continued peace in their decisions and joy in their lives. How I wish they could know that the children they placed so trustingly with my husband and me became wonderful adults. How I wish they could know the exquisite joy their Christmas gifts have brought into our lives.

A Tiny Fragment of Steel

In early December 1970 I was asked to speak at our ward’s sacrament meeting Christmas program. At the time Susan and I, with our two small children, were living in Tallahassee, Florida, where I was working on a graduate degree at Florida State University. For my talk I related a story written by Lloyd C. Douglas entitled “Previous Jeopardy: A Christmas Story.”

The story is about a man named Phil Garland, his wife, Shirley, and their two children, Polly and Junior. Phil was disgruntled on one particular Christmas Eve because he had just lost his job. His financial situation had been difficult enough even when he was working—now it seemed impossible.

That evening Shirley tried to include Phil in some of the Christmas Eve activities with Polly and Junior, but Phil just grumbled at the price of the gifts. He reminded Shirley that in their tight financial situation they really couldn’t afford gifts. He said Christmas was overly commercialized anyway. Eventually Shirley helped Polly and Junior get ready for bed. Then, tearfully, she retired to her bedroom.

A few minutes later she heard Phil calling from the hallway. He yelled for her to go get the pliers. “I’ve stepped on a needle.” Shirley brought the pliers and Phil clamped the jaws on the needle protruding from his foot and pulled. Out came half of the needle! He and Shirley discussed the possibility of his going to the hospital that night to have the other half of the needle removed. But Phil assured her it could wait until morning.

The next day, Christmas, Phil drove to the hospital but paused outside the door. Somewhere he had heard that if you get a tiny piece of metal in your body and do not remove it, it could eventually move to one of the vital organs and cause death. For some reason Phil decided to leave the needle fragment in his foot and take the consequences, whatever they may be. He drove home and told Shirley that everything had been taken care of.

From that moment Phil believed his life was in jeopardy. He really didn’t know if he was going to live from one day to the next, and so he decided he would try to make the most of life on a day-to-day basis. That Christmas there was a marked change in Phil. He treated Shirley with much kindness and spent time playing with Polly and Junior. Christmas Day was the first day in a long time that Phil felt truly close to his family.

Tomorrow he might be dead, but today he would enjoy the important things in life. And, strangely, money no longer seemed important.

Tomorrow did come, and Phil Garland again found himself alive. For the second day he was especially considerate to his wife and children, because it might be the last day of his life. Each day thereafter Phil spent more time with Shirley, Polly, and Junior, taking odd jobs daily to support his family.

“Precious Jeopardy” ended as it began on Christmas Eve, one year later. The Garland celebration contrasted sharply with those of previous Christmas, because Phil was happy and at peace. He had lived long enough to celebrate Christmas with Shirley and their children.

On Christmas Eve, Phil played a few games with the children. Then the family exchanged a few small gifts each hand made during the year. During those months Phil had made a beautiful walnut sewing cabinet for Shirley, and she wept at his thoughtfulness when he showed it to her.

As the clock struck midnight, Shirley handed Phil her gift—a small box containing a tiny fragment of steel pierced with red velvet. It was the other half of the needle Phil thought was in his foot. The story ends with Shirley in tears asking Phil’s forgiveness. She had found the other half of the needle a few days after he had his accident, but had secretly kept it because it had, in a sense, given Phil back to his family. Phil, gratefully realizing how his life had changed since the previous Christmas put his arms around Shirley and told her not to cry—it’s Christmas.

The Church members in Tallahassee seemed to enjoy the story, and on later Church speaking assignments in Florida I again used the story to stress the importance of placing our priorities in the right order and enjoying life with our families.

In 1971 I finished my degree, and we moved to Carbondale, Illinois, where I was to teach at Southern Illinois University. A few months later I had an unusual experience which brought Douglas’s story vividly to mind once more. It was Saturday, and I had risen early to grade papers before getting ready for a Church leadership meeting. Finishing just in time to dress and get to the meeting, I hurried down the hall toward our bedroom.

As I reached the end of the hall, I felt a sudden, intense pain on the forepart of my left foot, a pain so intense I dropped to the floor and grabbed my foot. I had stepped on a needle! I called for help, and Susan and the children rushed to my side as I sat holding my foot, whining with pain.

The whole event was painfully familiar. Susan got the pliers, and I pulled on the needle. It wouldn’t come out. We agreed that I should go immediately to the hospital. I found I could drive our station wagon even though I had a needle in my foot. Unlike Phil Garland, however, there was no question whether the needle should stay in or come out.

It was about 6:00 a.m. when I limped into the emergency room and told the nurse what had happened. The doctor arrived a few minutes later and did some preliminary examinations. He found that the needle was so deeply imbedded in my foot that he would have to call a surgeon to remove it. Instructing me to lie on the operating table and wait for the surgeon to arrive, he left me alone. For nearly forty-five minutes I waited there, with no one else in the operating room. During that time I began to think seriously about things that matter most when one believes his life to be in peril. I immediately recalled my Christmas talk in Tallahassee the previous year. What irony! Here I was living Phil Garland’s experience. And like him, I found myself thinking about dying and more importantly, about living.

The surgeon finally arrived and began his examination of my foot. “Is it true that a tiny piece of metal in the body can eventually cause you to die if it is not removed?” I asked. The doctor smiled, “I think I’ve heard that before, but I’m not certain it’s true. But you won’t have to worry; yours will be out in a few minutes.”

As the surgeon went to work on my foot, a scripture I have quoted many times as a missionary again came to mind. “As in Adam all die . . . ” (1 Corinthians 14:22). Symbolically, I thought, we all have a tiny piece of metal in our bodies. The Lord calls it mortality. I think it was at that moment that I fully realized for the first time in my life that I, too, would eventually die.

After the surgery, I returned home to my family. They meant more to me then than they ever had before.

My foot eventually healed, but the vivid impression of the experience has never left me. Since then I have thought seriously about my life. What is the purpose of this life? What matters most? Where do I spend most of my time?

One thought by Henry David Thoreau has been helpful. One day when he went to the woods surrounding Walden Pond, he said, “Because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life. Living is so dear.”

Christmas means much more to me now, mostly because the Savior’s birth, life, death, and resurrection have all become more meaningful. I am beginning to realize the significance of his statement when he said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Certainly part of that abundance is enjoying life with our loved ones. Our children are growing up, their grandparents are getting older, and we now realize that each Christmas—indeed, each day is unique and not to be squandered on petty concerns. We hope we will be able to spend many more Christmas seasons together but if we don’t, we want at least to spend the ones we have together well.

I have located and purchased a copy of “Precious Jeopardy: A Christmas Story.” I read it each Christmas season and reflect on my experience both those that are past and those that lie ahead. And like Phil Garland’s needle, my needle is mounted on velvet and placed on our dresser as a constant reminder of the uncertainty of life and the importance of priorities. It is a precious gift, one I will always remember.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Word Count Wednesday

For some reason I thought I would get some writing done even though all eight of my kids were home for the holidays.

HAHAHA! *holds sides*

Yeah, that didn't happen. Although we did make a gingerbread house and an army of deformed gingerbread men and I actually thought about acting out some of my story with the gingerbread men to see if logistically what I was thinking of doing would work. But that's as far as I got.

So, this week my word count was 0. But I mulled ideas over a lot.

How did you do?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Seeking Persephone

So last night I was all hopped up on gingerbread cookies and thought that I would cruise Amazon for a book to read until I fell asleep. I saw Sarah Eden's Seeking Persephone and I had wanted that one since it came out, so I clicked the button (it's so easy!) and said Merry Christmas to myself.

It was 10:30 p.m. so I went upstairs and told myself I'd only read the first chapter and then go to bed. I read one chapter, then two, then three, and the next thing I knew it was 2:30 a.m. and I was finished.

It was that good.

I love regency romance and I love the way that Sarah's characters are flawed, but still empathetic. The main character, Adam, Duke of Kielder, has kept himself aloof from the world because he has some major scars on his face. He comes to a point where he needs to take a bride, but after having suffered women fainting at the sight of him and pitying looks from others, he makes an offer for a woman sight unseen, whose family needs his money. What he doesn't count on is Persephone Lancaster being beautiful and intriguing.

The story would seem to be cliche at first, but the author gives so many layers to the characters and their problems as they try to get to know each other and move past issues that seem to come between them, it is riveting. And the romance is so subtle that I was anticipating even the smallest looks and touches and I love it when that happens. This is a couple you are definitely invested in because of the way they are written.

I had actually read the sequel to this book, Courting Miss Lancaster, first, and I loved that one as well, but I think my experience would have been even richer had I read Seeking Persephone before Courting Miss Lancaster. Both books are clean regency romance reads and well worth your time.

Sarah Eden is a talented writer who can tell an incredible story that kept this tired mother of eight completely enthralled until two in the morning and that really says something. If you want a great book to read over Christmas holidays, I can highly recommend this one.

Here is the back copy for it:

When Persephone Lancaster receives a marriage proposal from the ill-tempered Duke of Kielder, she refuses—and then reconsiders. The obscene sum of money he’s offering Persephone would save her family from ruin. With her characteristic optimism, she travels to the far reaches of Northumberland to wed a greatly feared stranger. Lodged deep in a thick forest infested with wild dogs, the Duke’s castle is as cold and forbidding as the Duke himself, a man with terrible scars on his body and his soul. But the Duke’s steely determination to protect his heart at all costs is challenged by his growing attachment to his lovely and gentle bride. With caring persistence, Persephone attempts to pierce the Duke’s armor and reach the man beneath. Yet he cannot tolerate such exposure, and his repeated rejections take their toll. But when grave danger arises, the Duke realizes he must face the risk of revealing his true feelings or lose the woman he cannot live without.

Click here for the link to it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What Are Your Christmas Traditions?

Can you believe Christmas is just six days away? It hardly seems like it's real. My kids can hardly wait.

In order to make our holidays a little more fun and to create some family memories, I'm trying to add to our family traditions. We always go to see light displays and we do a gift exchange, and we do Sub for Santa, and make gifts for our neighbors, but this year I wanted to try making gingerbread houses, and maybe decorating sugar cookies. I'd also like to see A Christmas Carol at our local theater. Other than that, I've run out of ideas and could use your help.

What do you do for Christmas traditions? I'd love to hear so I can add to my own.

Friday, December 16, 2011

First Page Friday

I cannot stop listening to Ready, Steady, Go by Paul Oakenfold. It's like it is the new theme song for the book I'm working on. Have you heard it? Click here for the link to it on Youtube. You have to hear it and if you read my book in the future, you should listen to it while you're reading. Ha!

On to First Page Friday

The Entry

by Rebecca Talley

Shakespeare? I yawned and then drummed my pencil on my desk while Ms. Neal with her purple-streaked hair and diamond stud nose jewel read the lines from Romeo and Juliet like she was caressing each word." Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble - And I will do it without fear or doubt, To live an unstain'd wife to my sweet love," she said with far too much emotion. I rolled my eyes to myself and tuned out the rest of what she read.

Of course, being in theater required that I love Shakespeare so I kept it my little secret that I thought all of his plays were lame. I was thrilled when we moved and I started attending this high school in Colorado, my fourth one in as many years, and found out we wouldn't be doing any Shakespeare plays this year. My senior year. Thank goodness for small favors.

"Crystal, what do you get from this passage?" Ms. Neal said in her raspy, I'm-a-two-pack-a-day-smoker tone.

I tapped my forehead tying in vain to recall all that she'd read. Nothing came. Not a word. I bit my lip hoping to come up with something intelligent to say. I heard some snickering in the back of the class from the perfume-laden group of girls that took every opportunity to harass me. Chantelle Austin seemed to be the primary Crystal-hater of the group. I had no idea why she gave me the death glare or said rude comments about me under her breath, but I knew my face was bright red--the curse of fair skin and easy embarrassment, something I'd inherited from my Swedish mother. "Ummm . . . "

"Try paying attention Miss Scott." Ms. Neal glared at me with eyes that didn't seem like her own. They seemed distant, vacant, lifeless. I blinked several times and then dismissed it as my overactive imagination.

Ms. Shreditor's Comments

I have mixed feelings about the use of Shakespeare in this piece. More often than not, the Bard’s presence in a story feels forced, perhaps even cliché. In this case, however, we have a heroine who doesn’t worship the ground he walks on—a refreshing deviation from the norm, since people often pretend to appreciate/understand Shakespeare in the name of maintaining their literary street cred. Granted, Crystal is just a teenager, so for all I know this story might involve a journey toward Shakespeare appreciation.

Ms. Neal, the apparent villain-to-be, feels a bit one-dimensional to me. The story seems to dismiss her on the grounds that she has post-punk fashion sense and is a smoker. These things do not a villain make. The most vivid details about her are her tendency to fawn over Shakespeare’s writing and her lifeless eyes. Otherwise, it feels like the narrator/story is punishing her for superficial reasons.

As for Crystal herself, we don’t learn much about her. She strikes me as the kind of teen who is always sullen, always rolling her eyes at something. I think that, if she’s going to carry the story, she needs to make a stronger first impression. There are compelling tidbits here: that she’s the new girl at school, that her family moves around a lot (as evidenced by her “my fourth one in as many years” comment), that she’s bullied by a group of “mean girls,” and that she enjoys theater. She just needs to come alive with these details. Right now, as I mentioned above, she spends most of the first page talking about the things/people she doesn’t like, which makes her seem unapproachable. The yawning and pencil drumming in the second sentence make her seem disrespectful, which may or may not have been the intended result.

We don’t know much at this point, but there are strong hints that Ms. Neal will assume an adversarial role and that Crystal will have to contend with bullying. It would be interesting to know where this story is headed. Right now, I can only make wild guesses based on certain clues from this first page.

Thanks so much to Rebecca and Ms. Shreditor. I thought there was a lot of potential with this piece and would love to read more! I really appreciate all the effort everyone goes to when they submit and critique each week. See you next Friday, when we'll be critiquing a middle grade page.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Do You Re-Read Books?

I finally broke down and bought another bookshelf. I’ve been trying to organize my books, but all I could really do was make nice straight piles in front of one bookcase, double up books in another, well, you get the picture.

My family had suggested I just get rid of some books, and I really thought about it. I started going through them, just to see if there were any that I could get rid of. That ended up being quite the experience. It was like I was lost in a chocolate box and I had to try the best ones to remember all the flavors. I would flip through books to read all the best parts, re-read scenes that I had loved, and reminisce about characters that had stuck with me. It was really fun, but didn’t help my book problem. (Although in my defense, since I’ve had my Kindle I haven’t really bought any more physical books, it’s just a matter of organizing the ones I already have.)

A lot of it is the fact that I do like to re-read parts of my books. On rainy days I have my go-to favorites that I read again and again. I would like to think that there are people out there that feel the same way about some of my books---memorable characters and scenes you just want to read one more time. I think that’s part of an author’s job, to create stories and people that a reader can love and relate to as if they were real. And if an author doesn’t dig deep enough that won’t happen. Humans are intricate beings. Our world is complicated. Stories that combine the two can be wonderfully engaging.

Do you have books you like to read over and over? What keeps bringing you back to it?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Word Count Wednesday

Well, this week was much better for me. I added a layer into the story during my revisions, which started the ideas flowing again and I was able to put down almost 3000 words. Can you believe it? I love it when the muse comes back.

I'm also totally psyched about my story and how close I am to being done with it. Pretty soon I'll be begging my betas to be brutal (say that fast three times) so it can be the best manuscript it can be. I can't wait!

How did you do this week?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Great Books For Boys On Your Christmas List

Most of you know I have a book club with my boys and since Christmas is right around the corner, I thought I’d tell you what books we’re reading, in case you have kids that like to read on your Christmas list.

Right now, with my nine-year-old, we’re reading The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger. It’s a fun story about a kid who isn’t exactly popular, and he starts talking to his friends through this finger puppet he makes in the shape of Yoda. But Yoda starts to do all these amazing things and so they write a case file about it. It has some truly laugh out loud moments and we can’t wait to read the sequel, Darth Paper Strikes Back. Here’s the back copy for both of them.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

In this funny, uncannily wise portrait of the dynamics of a sixth-grade class and of the greatness that sometimes comes in unlikely packages, Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami finger puppet of Yoda. If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Dwight’s classmate Tommy wonders how Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless. With contributions from his puzzled classmates, he assembles the case file that forms this novel.

Darth Paper Strikes Back

It is a dark time at Ralph McQuarrie Middle School. After suffering several Origami Yoda–related humiliations, Harvey manages to get Dwight suspended from school for being a “troublemaker.” Origami Yoda pleads with Tommy and Kellen to save Dwight by making a new case file—one that will show how Dwight’s presence benefits McQuarrie. With the help of their friends, Tommy and Kellen record cases such as “Origami Yoda and the Pre-eaten Wiener,” “Origami Yoda and the Exploding Pizza Bagels,” and “Origami Yoda and Wonderland: The Musical.” But Harvey and his Darth Paper puppet have a secret plan that could make Dwight’s suspension permanent . . .

We've also been reading the How to Train Your Dragon series, which is a lot different than the movie and we've really enjoyed it.

The other books I’ve been reading with my thirteen-year-old is the Alex Rider books. It’s a fun series with the fourteen-year-old Alex being pulled into a secret agent life by MI6 after his parents are killed. The plots are fast-paced and really fun and I enjoyed how the author folds in the plot with the life of a teen.

We also are starting Brandon Mull’s new series, The Beyonders--World Without Heroes. We enjoyed his Fablehaven series and are excited about this one as well.

There are definitely a lot of great books out there for any boys on your Christmas list. Let me know if you have any other suggestions for our reading club! (And for under the tree Christmas morning.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Would You Rather Eat Dog Food Or Be Shot In The Knee?

Hey, do you want to win some amazing books for Christmas? LDSWBR is running a great Countdown to Christmas contest and I am spotlighted today! YAY! Click here for all the details on how to win and to hear what my favorite Christmas memories are.

This past weekend I was flipping channels trying to recover my sanity by vegging out in front of the TV, and I came across a show that was asking contestants if they would rather eat dog food for a year or be shot in the knee.

For some reason, this turned into quite a family discussion, and I thought about it long after I’d gone to bed that night.

I know, random, right?

But if that were seriously a choice, I think I would choose to eat dog food for a year, although it might depend on who the person was who was shooting me in the knee.

You see, if you get shot in the cartilage that holds the kneecap in place, I’m pretty sure that’s irreplaceable and I would be crippled for life. But if the shooter could place it just right, it might heal quickly and be okay. Generally, though, knee injuries are hard to overcome and plague you long after it’s healed (yeah, I ripped up my knee during high school and sometimes it still bugs me.) So after remembering that, I went back to my original decision of the dog food for a year.

The thing about the dog food is that it probably wouldn’t be nutritionally balanced and I’d have to carefully choose what kind to eat. And plug my nose while I ate it. And be very, very hungry in order to eat it in the first place. Hey, I wonder if that could count as a diet?

Thankfully, I don’t have to really make that choice, but it was sort of interesting to think about. If you had to answer the question, what would you pick? Eat dog food for a year or be shot in the knee? A dilemma to be sure.

Friday, December 9, 2011

First Page Friday

These entries are just getting better and better! I have one Friday slot left open for January if you would like your first page critiqued by one of our amazing editors. Directions are on the sidebar.

Let's get to today's entry.

The Entry

by C. Michelle Jeffries

Antony Danic let the slide of his Glock .357 slam home. The sound echoed against the sterile surfaces of the industrial kitchen where he waited. Lines of stainless steel appliances and stark white counters filled the room that was half the size of his whole apartment. Elite would love this kitchen. His thoughts turned from his wife to the hit, machine-like calm settling over his body.

"HQ, this is Viper," he said as he double-checked the blade strapped to his calf and adjusted his blue-lensed Lanzen glasses.

"Viper acknowledged," one of four female operators said over his silver and red earpiece.

"Viper in recon position."

"Roger that, Viper. Radio silence commenced." The earpiece went silent. There would be no more contact until he initiated it.

Mr. Dellos held to a strict schedule when he was in town. He would arrive at exactly eleven to do a final walk-through of his restaurant before locking up for the night. Somehow, after chasing the man for three weeks, through the United States and the Middle East, Antony was now less than twenty minutes from home.

"Thank you," a voice echoed through the kitchen, coming from the direction of the dining room. "I'll talk to you later." A phone snapped shut and Antony could hear shoes clicking on the tile floor. He slid his finger from the side of his Glock to the trigger well. A wide man entered the kitchen, checking the small refrigerator by the door and wiping his finger on the counter.

Meticulous and well-fed, Antony thought as he stepped from the shadows, training his pistol on the man. Pretty oblivious, too. They now stood a mere ten feet from each other.

Antony cleared his throat—he refused to shoot a man in the back—and pulled the trigger.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

I want to preface this critique by saying that it isn’t going to be much of a critique. Aside from some minor syntax issues that a light copyedit would resolve, there’s very little for me to pick apart here. It’s one of the more submission-ready excerpts I’ve read as Ms. Shreditor.

What does this sample get right? For starters, its opening sentence. Antony cocks his gun, and we’re off. A few sentences later, we already know where he is and that he’s married to a woman named Elite. The name “Elite” may be my only bone to pick here. The word “elite” often carries a negative connotation, so it doesn’t necessarily leave the reader with a favorable first impression (or, perhaps more accurate, impression-by-proxy) of Antony’s wife. Is this deliberate? If not, why this name?

The story sustains the kind of quick pacing vital to a suspense/thriller novel. The writer makes economic use of dialogue to move the story along without lingering too long on extraneous details. Yet despite this careful, economic use of language, we’re able to envision the scene in vivid detail.

There’s something almost noir about Antony’s efficiency and emotional detachment from his victim-to-be. Although this appears to be a thriller, his demeanor is reminiscent of the classic hardboiled detective novels. There is no better example of this than the following line: “Antony cleared his throat—he refused to shoot a man in the back—and pulled the trigger.” It’s cold as ice. It illustrates just how lethal our hero (antihero?) can be and just how efficient he is at his job. There is a saltier word I might use to describe such an awesome scene, but I’ll have to settle for the quasi-synonymous “fearless” and leave it at that.

So all I can really say this week is well done. This first page certainly has my attention.

I really enjoyed it as well! Thank you so much for our submitter and to Ms. Shreditor. See you next week!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Word Count Wednesday on Thursday

It felt a little strange not to have a Word Count Wednesday yesterday, so I thought we'd just have it today. We were all making such good progress and it is encouraging to hear about your successes. I also like having the accountability for myself each week. Not that my word count is anything great for the past seven days and I want to brag or anything.

You see, I've broken my own promise and I'm going back and doing revisions. I have a solid first half of my novel, and as I've started the end, I realize I need to go back and change some of the beginning. It's an exciting process for me in hammering out details and adding layers, so I really do like this part. And if any of you know me, you know editing and revision is really fun for me and I do have a tendency to overdo it a bit. I'm working on that.

So my word count is small because I've been deleting and adjusting. I've only added maybe 500 words total, but I've been making my story more solid and believable, so I'm okay with it.

How did you do this week?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

I’m feeling a little emotional today. As most of you know, today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The events of that day changed so many people’s lives and shaped the future for generations to come. There was a wonderful documentary on the History channel about it last night, followed by the Ben Affleck movie, Pearl Harbor (and yes, I know some people think that movie is cheesy, but I really liked it.) But the events of that day were shocking and unifying and definitely something to be remembered.

Winston Churchill said once (and I paraphrase) that he knew as soon as Pearl Harbor happened and the United States entered into World War II, that Adolph Hitler’s fate was sealed. And he knew that not only because of the military might that the United States would bring, but I also believe he knew that because of the resolve and spirit of American citizens to defend and fight for principles that are worth dying for.

I have a son who wants to join the military when he is old enough. It scares me to think about it, but I am also proud of the ideals that he holds dear. Freedom is a precious thing and something that is often taken for granted. I hope that doesn't happen in my family, and that my children can see what a privilege it is to have the ability to make so many of their life choices.

As we approach the holiday season and the hustle and bustle of buying gifts and planning family get-togethers, with the chorus of Peace on Earth ringing in our ears, I am reminded of how bleak a Christmas it would have been for those who lost loved ones at Pearl Harbor. And while peace on earth is an elusive ideal in our world today, I still continue to hope that, at this time of year especially, we will remember those who have sacrificed everything to defend freedom.

I hope you take a bit of time today to talk to your children about what the attack on Pearl Harbor meant to this country and to its citizens. And maybe tell them how grateful you are to live in a country that offers so much to so many. It’s important to make sure our children and grandchildren know the values and principles that those men and women, both those who died and those who survived Pearl Harbor, knew---that the defense of freedom is worth fighting for.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Disappointing Week for TV and Books

Well, this has been a disappointing week on the TV and book front.

Castle had so much potential this week and there were a couple of funny moments, like when the old lady said she’d shoot the pretty one first and Esposito and Ryan both looked at each other like, hmmm . . . which one of us is the pretty one? And the tiger was a surprise. But the ending was so well-worn with the Beckett tease and no forward movement in the relationship. It’s like they’re just recycling parts of scripts we’ve seen before. Move it along, people!

Hawaii Five-O did the same thing--we just saw the re-run of the Nick Lachey episode last week and this was pretty much a script recycle of that one. Kids kidnapped, running against time trying to get the ransom, then a happy reunion at the end with the kids/parents. Bo-ring. Seen it. And there wasn’t even any funny banter to counteract the boring. *sigh*

Usually when there’s nothing to catch my interest on TV I can always lose myself in a book, but the two books I started this week were also a disappointment. The first one starts out with a conversation between a brother and a sister. A boring one. I kept reading, thinking it would get better, but this conversation went on forever and was just as boring on page six as it was on page one. Although that did make it easy to put it down and start another book.

My hopes were high for the next book, and it had come recommended, but the beginning chapter was more or less a history lesson, which seriously put me to sleep. I love it when I learn something from a book I’ve read, but usually that has to be woven into the story and not just paragraph after paragraph of research that the author liked and wanted to put in as background. Especially in the first chapter. It was a real testimony to me in the value of hooks. Hook me as a reader so I will keep reading, because when your first chapter is boring, and I have to slog through it, more than likely I will put it down and may or may not come back to it.

Are you guys reading anything good that you can recommend? Any fun Christmas stories out there?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Do You Have Family Dinner Table Memories?

My son recently had to do a spotlight and was asked to tell about one of his favorite family memories. I was interested to hear his response and was quite surprised when he said he our family dinner table. In his mind, we’ve had so many laugh-out-loud moments and fun conversations (that we still quote every now and then to laugh over again), that that is one of his favorite memories.

This was sort of a parent payday for me. Sometimes getting dinner on the table for a large family is a monumental feat and then when everyone finally sits down, it can be loud and chaotic. But to hear that the chaos and craziness really means something to my kids makes me feel good. All that effort has turned into fun memories and family legends. Maybe someday my grandkids will tell me how their dad told them about some of the crazy stuff we talked about at the family dinner table.

So when I’m planning out my family menus this week, I’m definitely going to be smiling and looking forward to that time of day when we’re all around the table laughing and teasing (and yes, sometimes bickering). After all, that’s what family memories are made of.

What are you having for dinner tonight? Do you have fun family dinner table memories?

Friday, December 2, 2011

First Page Friday

Got a nano first page you're dying to have critiqued by a national editor? We have January slots available for First Page Friday. First submitted, first critiqued. Directions on the sidebar

Here's today's submission. It's a good one!

The Entry
Aurora Sky: Transfusion

By Nikki Jefford

This was what freedom looked like. Endless stretches of trim green grass under a canopy of elders and stone buildings that resembled medieval castles and old English manors. Walking through the ivy covered archways was like stepping back in time. Even the students were well-mannered. No one was running or shouting through the hallways at Wellesley. The students sat on benches reading quietly or gathered in small groups on the grass discussing literature and the world at large.

Although it was fall in Massachusetts, the air was pleasant, the sun shining. Birds burst into song – unlike home where they’d stopped singing altogether.

I walked around campus in khaki capris and a black V-neck, trying to blend. My hair was pulled back in a long loose blonde braid. I pretended like I was already a student there, rather than a visitor on tour at the campus, though my mother, walking beside me, was a dead giveaway.

Fourteen hours later, we were on our flight back to Anchorage – an 11 hour return journey to the Far North. I’d appreciate the distance once August rolled around and I was headed over to the East Coast to stay. Six more months and I’d be finished with high school forever. With any luck, I’d be a student at Wellesley in ten.

I logged this countdown into my journal along with my observations about Wellesley on the plane ride home.

It was 6:47 p.m. when we landed in Anchorage, 10:47 back East.

The arctic wind blasted my mom and me the moment we stepped through the sliding doors from baggage into the arrivals lane.

Ms. Shreditor’s Comments

A warning to all: This week’s critique is on the longer side. So please don’t read while operating heavy machinery.

I’m enjoying all of these first pages that take place in the northeast. Despite what you may have heard, don’t be intimidated by us. Aside from our horrible, inconsiderate driving (I’m looking at you, Jersey Turnpike), we are a funky, diverse bunch.

What makes the first sentence of this piece so effective is its sparseness. “This is what freedom looked like.” Six words, no waste. And we learn a lot from these six words, don’t we? Already, we know that our narrator feels trapped where she is and has found a potential escape. What really ups the ante: the reveal that the narrator is from Alaska. Anchorage to Wellesley is a pretty long trek—almost as far apart as any two points in the United States can get. So she must be running from something.

The choice of Wellesley is intriguing; for those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s a women’s college. It’s also interesting that the character’s first instinct is to blend in rather than stand out; this tells us a lot about her. Maybe she doesn’t have a strong sense of identity yet. Maybe she’s a follower. We don’t know yet, but it’s good to turn to page two with unanswered questions like these.

I haven’t visited Wellesley College myself, but I am very familiar with New England. The depiction of Wellesley feels a bit hackneyed with the old buildings and abundant ivy. While it’s certainly accurate, try not to restrict the story with those New England clichés. There’s a lot more to the area than ivy-covered architecture and intellectuals. What's so compelling about Boston area colleges isn't that they're populated by people sitting around talking about books and trying to blend in, but that the student bodies are so culturally, ideologically, and ethnically diverse. (Of course, don't overdo it on the freaks-and-geeks factor, either.)

I fact-checked the admissions deadlines at Wellesley to make sure that the six-months-from-graduation timeline was plausible. Sure enough, I found that the regular admissions deadline is in January. Something to consider, though: This character seems pretty motivated to leave Anchorage and attend Wellesley. Someone that eager would likely be submitting an early decision application (due November 1 at Wellesley). I assume that the tour precedes her actual application process, so you might want to tweak the timeline accordingly. Six months before graduation would likely mean that she’s touring the school in November or December of her senior year—a time of year that is rarely warm enough in Massachusetts for a tee and capris. Moreover, this time frame seems quite late for an exploratory visit, even if she is submitting a regular decision application.

Also consider expounding upon her observations about Wellesley instead of simply telling us that she’s written them down in her journal. Surely this visit has conjured up a lot of feelings for her. What are they? We know some things about Wellesley from her descriptions, but we don’t know how she feels about those things. It’s the missing link between us and the character whose story we’re following.

I like the juxtaposition of the green grass in Wellesley that greets the narrator at the beginning of the story and the arctic wind that greets her in Anchorage. Nicely done. The chirping of the birds was also a nice touch. I’m not sold on the pacing, though. While I enjoy the juxtaposition between the two states, I think it might be worthwhile to explore the Wellesley visit in more depth (rather than gloss over it in three paragraphs). The shift from Massachusetts to Alaska feels abrupt.

I’ve written a book myself here, so I’ll close with the following advice: Make sure not to over-simplify the New England college experience. If you have never lived there (or even if you have), find someone who does as a beta reader. You want your setting to be vivid and not just a plot point.

Sounds like Nikki has everyone's attention with her first page. Well done! Thank you so much for participating in First Page Friday. See you next week!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Writing Tip: Premature Submission--Resist the Urge

I am so excited about the words I was able to draft on my work-in-progress last month. It was extremely satisfying to see my characters and plot coming together so nicely. I know I have a lot of revision coming up, but to me, that’s the really fun part, polishing it up before submission.

Unfortunately, some writers seem to want to skip the revision part and go straight to submission after NaNoWriMo. Some of the editors I know, and the agents I’m acquainted with, were talking last week about the deluge of submissions they get in December and how they know that it went straight from the drafting stage of NanoWriMo to their inbox and it’s sad because a lot of potentially wonderful, sellable stories were prematurely submitted and lost out on a great opportunity to impress.

So, this is my writing tip for you. Do not submit the manuscript you drafted during Nano. Take December and use it to revise and polish your novel, and when you are done, take a break from it. Send it out to readers, or let it rest over the holidays, while you enjoy the holiday season. Come back to it in January and revise and polish it again, and then maybe, just maybe, it will be ready for submission and will be the impressive story it was always meant to be.