Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Trip to Paris, Keeping the Secret

Years ago, my husband Calvin told me that we’d celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in Paris. Knowing our budget, I always laughed. I shouldn’t have. In June we’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary.

This Christmas, my Christmas gift came with a card (unusual). It said, “Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday/Happy 25th Anniversary. And don’t worry, it’s already paid for.” (Yes, he knows me well.)

It turns out that Cal’s been saving for years. And we’ll be spending 7 days and 6 nights in Paris in a cute studio apartment in the Latin Quarter. (I cried when I opened the package.)

And Cal’s kept everything hidden from me. He called in help from the kids.

He told the kids to intercept the mail at all costs. And I thought they raced me to the mailbox for fun. Seriously, I’d be halfway to the mailbox when Matt/Jake would race past me. And on the days when they didn’t realize that I’d already gotten the mail, Jacob would say, “Mom, I think there’s a really important email that just came up on your computer. You need to check it right now.” He’d take the mail from me and sort through it. After checking my computer, I’d say, “The only thing I had was spam.” With a bill or brochure hidden under his shirt, Jake would shrug and say, “Oh well.”

Then, there was the checkbook. Cal didn’t want me to see any checks or fund transfers. So in the last couple of years, all the checks I needed to write were written and handed to me by Cal before I ever needed them. I knew he was efficient, but…

And his computer is a treasure trove of Paris sites, references, and price comparisons. But I never found that either. I hate his computer. It’s a hive of imps and has a weird keyboard that always misinterprets what I type.

So now I’m looking through the guidebooks and the places he’s planned for us to visit (we like the same things—art museums, gardens, architecture). And I discovered that the Shakespeare and Company bookstore is literally around the corner—a writer/reader’s nirvana. Squee!

File:Vista desde Notre Dame.jpg
Notre Dame gargoyle's view of Paris

Friday, December 21, 2012

E-publishing, the Nuts and Bolts

After being exclusively on Amazon for quite a while, I decided to publish both Screwing Up Time and Screwing Up Babylon on Smashwords. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Smashwords, they are an e-book provider that provides e-books in just about any and every format. If your e-reader is a Kindle, Nook, iPad, Kobo, etc., you can buy books at Smashwords. Click here, to visit the site if you’ve never been.

Originally, I published SUT to Smashwords, but I was disappointed with how the formatting came out. And eventually, I unpublished it. So I was concerned this time about how things would turn out. It went very well. Smashwords has become much easier to work with. And the “meatgrinder,” their affection name for the processor that turns your manuscript into various formats, has been hugely upgraded.

Here’s my hint on how to format your book to upload to Smashwords: Set up an account at Smashwords and buy their formatting guide. It will take you step-by-step through the process. Their formatting is not very different from Amazon’s, except for one big difference—the Table of Contents. Amazon and Smashwords have very different TOC formatting. My suggestion is that once everything else in your manuscript is properly formatted, save your novel in three different files. One the original file without any TOC. Two, your novel which you'll format in the Kindle style. Three, your novel in the Smashwords style. (I called mine: SUT; SUT, Kindle; and SUT, Smashwords. Yeah, very clever, I know.) It’s much easier to add TOCs to a fresh document than remove one TOC only to add in another because the formatting ends up all over the book (take it from someone who didn’t do that on the first book).

When adding the TOC, follow the formatting guides step-by-step. The first time, it will take a while, so find a few hours of uninterrupted quiet. (It may take a couple of days if you don’t use standard formatting for chapter breaks, new paragraph indents, etc.)

Also both Amazon and Smashwords require MS Word for an upload, so if you use something else, translate the file into Word. (Also I couldn’t find any information about whether Smashwords would take a .docx file, so I just used a .doc)

The bottomline here is that if I could do this, you can too. I’m definitely not a techie. The most important thing is to get the free formatting guidelines and follow them to the letter (no room for almost here). If you want to see what the Smashwords pages for my books look like, click on the titles. Screwing Up Time. Screwing Up Babylon.

If you’re looking for the formatting guides, here's what their cover art looks like. 
Good luck. You CAN do this!

Cover for 'Smashwords Style Guide'

Building Your Book for Kindle

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Scrooge-ish Holiday Rant

Holiday Scrooge Rant

I have so much to be thankful for. And I am. But I’m asking you to indulge me in a brief holiday rant.

1. Why are there so many more cars on the highways? After Thanksgiving, there are twice as many cars on the roads. When we drive home from somewhere, we have to take a circuitous route because there’s no way we can make the left turn into our street between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Where do the cars all come from? Are they extra cars hidden in garages? Do people have holiday cars like they have holiday sweaters? “Ooo, let’s drive the Christmas Toyota.”

2. Christmas cards. (Yeah, I can’t get over this one.) I finally finished the whole letter/photo trauma and took the photo to Costco. However, unbeknownst to me, I saved the photo onto a thumb drive that already contained 3256 photos—none of which were in folders. And there was no order to the photos. I had to literally look through 3256 photos. Once I found the right one and it were printed, I discovered that the photo guy had misaligned the photo. He printed 150 photos of the family with Jacob decapitated.

3. Pine needles. I sweep all the time.

4. Christmas crap. Yes, I’m a Scrooge. I don’t like 5 million Christmas knickknacks—can you say “dust magnets.” Ornaments and a few candles should suffice. But the kids have their ways. Besides ornaments and candles, we have a snowman nesting doll. I’m not sure what they’re for—no one takes it apart. It just stands guard on the piano. We also have a nutcracker, which doesn’t crack nuts. And a smiley snowman toilet cover—this one mystifies me the most. Besides the obvious—do you really want a cover on the toilet seat, which seems unsanitary to me—the whole idea of lifting the lid…well, you get the picture.

5. Baking. I love a celebration Christmas dinner as much as anyone, especially if it’s someone else’s house. ;) But I don’t get the baking, sweets stuff. Does having cookies, cake, etc., really make things more festive? Don’t get me wrong, I bake the obligatory double batch of Russian teacakes. But I’m not sure I’ve eaten one. In fact, I’m sure they’ve gone stale—the kids max out on sweets after the first day of having cookies. Maybe it’s because I’m not a sweets person. I’d rather have hummus and carrots. Or salt and vinegar potato chips. Hmm... That's it! They need to make red and green Christmas salt—that would be festivity I could get behind.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dread Holiday Photo

Saturday was “the” day. The dread day of the holiday season. The day we take out Christmas photo.

I got out the tripod and the camera and asked everyone to put on a shirt that had a collar. Everyone did. Ariel tried to color coordinator outfits, and the boys were patient-ish. Matt had on a pair of pants with a huge hole in the rear-end. But as he pointed out, no one we sent the picture to would ever know. Ariel and I pointed out that we could see more than we wanted to. So Matt duct-taped the rather large hole. Which was great until bedtime when he discover that it was stuck to his underwear. I think it’s time to throw those pants out.

Once again, the kids wanted our dog Jezebel in the photo. And once again, it didn’t work out. The gazillion photos with the dog ended up with her looking away on all the photos where we didn’t look weird/possessed/have our eyes closed.

After the camera battery recharged (it died mid photo session) and I checked the photos on my computer, I announced we had to do some photos without the dog. We tried an outside session. But it was windy. And my hair blew everywhere—hair in people’s eyes does not make for attractive photos taken by a camera on a timer.

So now, we have to vote on two photos. Most votes wins. And even though we have six people, there won’t be a tie. Luke will abstain saying he really doesn’t care.

If you’re curious, here are the two entries. (Okay, there are three. And that will really throw off the voting. sigh.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Internet Makes Me a Happy Shopper. Sort of.

File:Pre Christmas shopping - - 1103457.jpg
Photo by Sebastian Ballad from wikimedia

 Let me start off by saying I really, really hate shopping. It’s the crowds. People who wear too much perfume. People bumping each other. The heat of too many bodies in too small a space. Walking around seeing 12,000,000 pieces of clothing, knowing that most of them are poorly made—look, that seam hasn’t been properly finished and will unravel in the first washing.

So I love Amazon shopping. No crowds. I can shop in my pajamas while I drink my mug of morning coffee. No odd smells (unless you count Jezebel nudging me for her morning walk). And if I use my daughter’s prime account, I don’t always have to pay shipping costs.

Shopping bliss. Until I discover that the perfect present is out-of-stock. Or the shipping costs double the price of the gift since it would be shipping from a third party in Outer Boondocks Eastern Europe and isn’t eligible for free prime shipping.

And there’s always the dog nudging me—she still hasn’t been walked. And my daughter who wants me to look over an essay for grad school number three, which wants something different than grad schools one and two.

I can’t forget that I need to start laundry—it’s bedding day. And then Matt and Luke need haircuts before we do the Christmas photo. (Yes, I cut everyone’s hair. And yes, I still haven’t done the photo.) Speaking of Christmas cards, I still have to edit the Christmas letter and get everyone’s approval—this is the time of year where they get payback for every paper/letter/essay I’ve edited for them.

You know, store shopping doesn’t sound that bad.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Five Favorite Pre-Christmas Moments

Here are my favorite pre-Christmas moments.

1. Plugging in the Christmas tree for the first time. Made even better by the fact that I didn’t have to decorate the tree—the kids did it. Made doubly better by the electrical engineering major who dealt with the strands of light that didn’t work.

2. Giving the official “you may listen to Christmas music” pronouncement. Actually, this is my least favorite moment. By December 26, my brain and ears will be melted by carols that Matt plays nonstop on the stereo.

3. First mug of hot spiced cider. Matthew has his own special recipe that he makes during the holidays. All I have to do is buy the cider.

4. Watching “A Dog’s Life, Merry Gentlemen” from All Creatures Great & Small, series two.  My kids are tired of it—I watch it every year. The skeleton scene gives me the giggles every time.

5. Finishing the Christmas cards. When Cal and I were first married, we agreed that he’d balance the checkbook and I’d do all the Christmas cards. Eleven months out of the year, I think that I got the bargain. But in December, I know he did. Today I have to remind the kids that we haven’t done our picture yet…

 If you hear screaming carried on the breeze today, it’s my kids protesting the Christmas photo.

What are your favorite pre-Christmas moments?

Monday, December 10, 2012

2012 Holiday Blog Hop

Today I'm participating in the 2012 Holiday Blog Hop. So click on over to my Screwing Up Time blog and participate. There are lots of prizes, including two Kindle Fires! (And if you want Screwing Up Time for FREE, today is the last day. Click HERE.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Screwing Up Time for FREE!!

Thursday is not a normal posting day for me, but I have some exciting news. In celebration of the release of Screwing Up Babylon and the release of "Screwing Up Mongolia" in Winter Wonders, I decided to give away Screwing Up Time for free from Dec. 6 through Dec. 10. Click here. Enjoy!!

Screwing Up Time is a 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday Five: Bomb Threats

This is finals week for my three college age students. This means my living room has become a study hall, I make high protein breakfasts (sausage, eggs, cheese, chocolate high protein breakfast drinks—my kids are skinny), and I wait by the phone. Not to hear how the exams went, but to find out if anyone needs to be picked up because of a bomb threat.

Yes, really. For the third time this semester, there was a bomb threat at the university my kids attend. Luke was just starting a final. Five or six main buildings (and some parking lots) were shut down. Thankfully, his professor found a room in a “safe building” where they could finish the exam. Everyone else had to have their finals re-scheduled.

The police, fire department, ATF/Homeland Security (?), etc., all descend and have to spend hours certifying the safety of the building(s). It’s a huge, unnecessary expense to the tax payer. As if the city doesn’t have enough financial problems what with antiquated drainage system that get them fined by the EPA every time it rains.

So if you’re a would-be bomb threatener (I know, they aren’t likely to be reading my blog, but…), here are five thoughts to consider:

1.   Uh, dude, if you have to call in a bomb threat to miss an exam so you can have more time to study, another day isn't likely to make a difference.

2.      Really ticked off ATF agents. You don’t want them after you.

3.      Two Words. Federal Offense. Punishable by ten years in prison or a $250,000 fine. Or both. (And this applies to juveniles, so don’t get your kid brother to do it.)

4.      Your parents will be mortified. And poor—see above. Because I’m guessing you don’t have $250,000 sitting around.

5.      Public flogging. Just kidding. Though this is the South, so you might have to wear a pink vest that says, “Bomb Threatener. I cost the City of Chattanooga thousands of dollars.”* That would not go over well.

* (This is not unlikely given that drunk drivers have to wear vests that say “I am a drunk driver” when they clean up trash on the side of the interstate. We have very clean highways.)

Yesterday, my author copies of Winter Wonders came in the mail. Here’s a photo.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Passing the Time with Stories

When I was a little girl and couldn’t sleep at night, I’d make up stories. Unfortunately, they were sad and depressing, and sometimes I’d make myself cry. (No wonder I had nightmares.) At any rate, I’ve always been a storyteller. When I sit at an airport, I make up lives for all the waiting people based on the clues I see on them or their luggage. For example, a sighing sixty-year old woman with an iPhone covered in stickers—she got it from her daughter (not daughter-in-law because a d.i.l. wouldn’t usually presume to let her kids cover the phone in stickers), son-in-law, and grandkids. And grandma is still trying to figure out how to use it.

I make up stories about houses I drive by, especially those I pass frequently. There was the house with the lovely front garden that fell into disrepair. At first, it was because the woman gardener had a baby and she was too tired with the midnight and 2am feeding to keep up with the weeds. Then, as the situation got worse, eventually so bad that thistles grew up among the paving stones, I decided that the woman had cancer and died. And her husband was grieving so much he couldn’t even bear spraying Roundup. For weeks, I teared up when I drove past.

And I even make up stories about vanity license plates. Yesterday, we saw a plate that read PBJ 3930. I would have thought it was arbitrary but this state had only 6 character normal plates. So as we drove my husband and I made up stories. The license plate was a Christmas gift when the husband ate his 3930th  Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. Or the guy played the lottery and he hit the Power Ball Jackpot on his 3930th lottery ticket purchase. (It wasn’t that nice of a car, so maybe the jackpot didn’t cover the cost of all the tickets.) Our last thought was that the wife was a Professional Baseball Junkie and had watched her 3930th baseball game (she watches the Japanese and Dutch league as well as MLB). Of course, there is the possibility that Georgia has now added a seventh character to their license plates. But that’s not as much fun.

What about you? Do you make up stories to pass the time? Do you have a guess as to what the PBJ 3930 represented?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Winter Wonders!

Saturday is a big day. It's the release of Winter Wonders, a winter themed anthology of short stories published by Compass Press and recommended for those aged teen and above. "Screwing Up Mongolia," a Screwing Up Time short story, is one of the stories included in the anthology.

The story is set in the time between Screwing Up Babylon and book three of the Screwing Up Time series. And, of course, the story has Mark (Henry) and Miranda in it.

Here's a link to the e-book version, which is selling for $4.99 at Amazon.
Here's a link to e-book at Barnes & Noble, also selling for $4.99.
And one final link to the paperback version, which is selling for $9.99.

One more bit of information, all the proceeds from the anthology go to Literacy Inc., an organization that teaches teens the importance of reading and offers them a chance to win  a free college education.

All Proceeds Go To Charity!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My Characters are on Strike

I write by the seat of my pants. That means I write with only a vague notion of where I’m going and how I’m getting there. I’d prefer to write another way—I’d like to be a plotter, someone who plots out their entire novel and all subplots before they put pen to paper. That’s the way that I live the rest of my life. Everything is planned, organized, and collated.

Now I am addicted to the creative rush, which happens when the plot finds me. When something or someone I hadn’t thought of takes over the story. That’s euphoric. But there is a dark side. Times when you have no idea what happens next.

Those times I round up my characters to have a cast meeting. I greet them cheerfully. They turn sullen faces to me. The problem with being an author is you dump your characters into really bad situations, and, well, they hold it against you. So when you ask them for a favor, they aren’t exactly cooperative. More like bitter. And blackly sardonic.

So now I’m in that dark place. My text has stopped flowing, and my characters are on strike. Right now, I’m trying bribery. I’ve tried dangling a kissing scene with Miranda under Mark’s nose, but he ignored that. I’ve offered him a taser and that got his attention, but so far he’s only eyeing it with his arms crossed over his chest.

We’ll see what happens. The taser is shiny and packs a nasty punch. But if that doesn’t work, I’m open to suggestions. What do you think might get my characters back on track?

Monday, November 26, 2012

I Should Go to Grad School

Two of my kids are graduating from college in the spring. So, they’re in the process of applying to grad school. (Luke in chemistry, and Ariel in math.)

So they’ve been working on everything from personal statements, which are the equivalent of why-you-want-me-in-your-program, to curricula vitae, which is everything-I’ve-ever-done-that’s-vaguely-relevant to why-you-want-me-in-your-program. And, of course, they’ve taken the GRE.

And they’ve been getting emails. Luke’s are from chemistry departments. Ariel’s getting spammed. Recently, she got an email from the University of Colorado encouraging her to apply to their Quantitative Biology program. She said, “Shoot me now,” even though they were offering buckets of money. Matt said, “Does that mean you’d be counting sheep?” Ariel moaned about another program wanting to use her for her math skills. As a parent, that doesn’t sound so bad to me—not when there are buckets of money involved. I wish someone would want to use my mad math skills.

Lately, Ariel’s been getting lots emails from engineering programs. They all start, “Congratulations on your interest in graduate engineering.” She now talks back to the spam—“I never, ever said I was interested in engineering.” I said, “Well, at least, they don’t want you for your math skills. They want you because you’re a girl. Diversity.” I wonder if they’d give her buckets of money. Maybe I should apply to grad school. I could do Quantitative English. I’d love to be paid to count poems.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Beware What You Can't Read

Saturday night, I decided to sort through the bathroom cupboards, I threw away bottles of old, thick nail polish, expired makeup, etc. And then, I found a jar of face cream that I’d been given. I don’t usually wear face cream or lotion. My skin is really sensitive, even soap can burn my skin. But the face cream smelled really nice.

Still I’m not completely stupid, so I asked Ariel to read the minuscule list of ingredients, checking for anything nasty. Even with my reading glasses, the list was unreadable—you’d need a magnifying glass. (If I’d been really smart, I’d have asked my chemist son, but he wasn’t here. So I asked the math girl.) She said, “Most of the ingredients end in ‘-cone.’” Ah, silicone derivatives. No problem. I smoothed the cream on. It felt like silk.

Then, I went to bed. Big mistake.

When I woke in the morning, I dragged myself into the shower. It seemed odd to me that the water hurt my face. But, whatever. I glanced in the mirror afterwards, but it was fogged.

At breakfast, once hot coffee was coursing through my veins, I touched my cheeks. They were really hot. I asked the kids, “Is my face red?” They said, “Yes.” Ariel added, “Uh, you should look in the mirror.”

So, I did. Not only were my cheeks red, my entire face looked like it had been sunburned. I could tell you it looked like a sun-kissed glow. But it wasn’t. It was burned.

I ended up smearing some zinc oxide on my face with a thick coat of foundation. And either it worked to cover the burn, or the people at church were nice enough to ignore it. I did keep fanning my face, which was really hot. But not in a good way. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Riding the Bestseller Wave

A strange thing happened on Wednesday and Thursday. My YA novel shot through the ranks at Amazon. I found out what it’s like to ride the crest of the wave.

Ever since I first published Screwing Up Time, I’ve been trying to market it on a shoestring budget. When other authors said, “My budget for this novel is $5,000,” I said, “My budget for this novel is 5 bucks.” And I was okay with that.

But it’s very hard to get the word out when you don’t have a megaphone. Still, my efforts paid off and I broke small sales barriers. And I was/still am very thankful. Then, I found E-Reader News Today. And they were willing to advertise my novel (given it had enough good reviews and I was willing to sell it at a bargain rate—99 cents) for a part of the royalties. I figured it would be a win-win situation. If the book did well, I’d get a lot of exposure. If not, I wouldn’t have lost a big investment. So I submitted my book.

I hoped and prayed for the best, but kept my expectations very low. The site warned me that YA books aren’t the biggest sellers in the e-book biz. (I already knew that.)

Wednesday came around. I had a couple of sales. Good. By afternoon, I had a few more sales. By evening, I was pretty excited. The sales were really coming in. And by Thursday morning, Screwing Up Time was ranked #6 in Amazon Kindle’s Teen Literature and Fiction. It was only two spots below The Hobbit!

It was the most amazing feeling. People were interested in my book. I had my techo-son do a screen capture so I could savor the moment later because I knew it wouldn’t last. And it hasn’t—this morning my book has slipped to #15, which is still amazing. And the sales are still very good. Who knows what will happen today—Fridays are much better sale than Thursdays. But even if I slide down the charts, that’s okay. For a moment, my book was on the top of the charts. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Epic Battle of Cultural Neuroses

The other day I purchased a battery powered, hands-free soap pump. I had sneered at these in derision only weeks ago because I thought they were overpriced, faux-tech gizmos. Then, I needed a new hand soap container.

Yes, I know I can get a cheap Softsoap pump with soap in it. But they’re small, and we are big hand washers in our house. Even with extra large soap containers, I have to refill them once a week. (Remember my ethnic background is Dutch. Even the Pilgrims when they were living in Leiden said, “The Dutch clean things before they’re dirty.”) So, while I’m cooking, I wash my hands numerous times, especially with chicken. Cal thinks I’m a bit neurotic—he’s wrong. And as proof of this fact, no one in our house has ever had food poisoning.

The other problem is the extra large soap pumps break easily. So I found myself at WalMart (ugh) pricing new pumps. The price of a massive pump and hands-free pump were the same. So, of course, I bought the hands-free—no more pressing the pump with my elbow to avoid getting raw chicken liquids on the pump.

Everything was going along swimmingly. Until the hands-free pump got some water spots. I tried to clean it. And it dispensed soap all over me and itself.

Very carefully, I wiped the extra soap and water spots. And it dispensed soap again. At this point, Cal burst into laughter. What would win in my battle with the soap container—the need to be clean or the need to be thrifty. Cal settled in for the epic battle of cultural neuroses (it’s not neurotic though, just saying).

But then, to Cal’s chagrin, Ariel said, “Hey, just turn off the switch, and you can clean it.” So, I did. Of course, I should’ve known. I turned on the switch to begin with. 

Here's a photo. I got it for $6 at WalMart. Soap was extra.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: Elements of Voice

Today I'd like to welcome Laurel Garver to the blog. She writes the blog "Laurel's Leaves" and is the author of the recently released novel, Never Gone. (NG has just made it to the top of my Kindle TBR list, and I can't wait to read it.)

Elements of Voice

Sometimes the term “voice” is used interchangeably with “style.” What I’d like to talk about is not that sense of “authorial voice,” but rather how to develop character voices that are distinct from one another. If you write from multiple points of view, this is an essential craft to learn. But it’s also helpful for making sure that your fiction isn’t one-note and that the characters around the protagonist seem just as unique as he or she does.

How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament. A morose Oxford graduate will have a different manner of expressing himself than a scrappy graffiti writer from the Bronx.

Here are a few examples from my novel Never Gone. Can you guess which is the teen from New York, which is her middle-aged British uncle and which is her grandfather from central Pennsylvania?

-- “Your mother ain’t right in the head, seems to me. When you love someone, you can’t throw it away. You hang on with every ounce of strength. Right?”

 -- Cecily bubbles with fake cheer, no doubt trying to make up for being such a grinchy wench to me lately. She tells a dorky story about crushing on Ollie Mawbry, and her little horse-riding escapades to spy on him. No surprise he ignored her. Guys don’t exactly dig stalker chicks.

-- “It’s good of you to take an interest in Liza’s pony,” he says. “She’s always banging on endlessly about him. It’s hard for us to be enthusiastic anymore.”

Notice the use of cadence (speech rhythm) and key terminology. You immediately get a sense of place from “ain’t” and “banging on.” You get a sense of age from “right in the head” and “stalker chicks.”

Developing varied diction comes from doing lots of research. A few places to start: Keep a log of overheard conversations and transcribe speech from YouTube videos. Beware of taking your cues from TV, film or other novels, because those writers may not have worked from life. Go to the source as much as you can.

These “tip of the mind” thoughts are a huge part of character voice because they tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. Think of the word-association games psychotherapists use. When your character hears the word “home,” does he think “fried chicken,” “fear,” or “fantasy”? Any one of these answers gives a window into an intriguing story. Associations can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. Associations show up in the way characters describe things, and especially how they make comparisons, such as similes and metaphors.

Here are a few associations at work from Never Gone:

--Images burst in my mind like sudden sun through stained glass. (association of a church-goer)

--“Crikey,” Uncle says. “We’re in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.” (association of a reader of classics)

Attitudes are essentially value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected. The fireworks display is awesome or lame; the new teacher is nice or mean or airheaded or so cool; the flat tire is infuriating or just typical of my hopeless life. Look back at my first examples and you'll see strong expressions of attitudes. Danielle's grandfather finds fault with how her mother grieves. Dani herself is exasperated with her aunt's attempts to be cheerful. Dani's Uncle appreciates what he sees as her patient forbearance of his child, who he judges as repetitive.

Diction and associations will play into how attitudes are expressed, but by golly, all characters should have them. A character that never expresses an attitude will come off as emotionless, or perhaps on the autism spectrum. He’ll see fireworks and say “chemical explosions are causing light effects in the sky.”

Getting to know your characters beyond just age and occupation will help you develop distinct voices that engage readers and make your story come alive.

Which elements of voice come most easily to you? How might research help you create more distinctive voices for your characters?


Laurel Garver is the author of Never Gone, a novel about grief, faith and finding love when all seems lost. A word nerd, Indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.

Trailer for Never Gone

Add it on Goodreads. Read a sample chapter.

It is available as an ebook and a paperback at, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, CreateSpace.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Web Spiders and Louboutin

Over the last month, I’ve been getting a truck load of blog spam. I know, I know, I could add a word verification. But I really hate those. When I see the random combo of numbers and letters, my brain turns the random assortment into real words. “Nmrado” becomes “random” when I type it in. (Yes, this is a great skill in Scrabble and Boggle. Not so much otherwise.) I’ve been known to get an “incorrect” so many times that I thought the system was rigged against me. Now I type those things in with only an index finger so my brain can’t fix it.

The odd thing is that the blog spam comments are only on one blog post. Now I’m sure there’s a sophisticated computer-tech reason that would explain it. Like the HTML code has an embedded 404 compiler error. (Yeah, that probably makes no sense. But I think imps run computers with their evil black magic anyway, which is why the computer always crashes before I remember to save my document on days when I’ve made impressive progress on my novel.)

Anyway, the real reason the post is spammed is that it’s titled “Bob the Criminal Strikes Again.” And the topic of the post was identity theft—someone (Bob the Criminal) filed a fake tax return under my husband’s social security number and tried to get our money. (BTW, the government still hasn’t fixed the problem. But that’s another story.)

So I believe that some criminal syndicate has an evil web crawler (known as web spiders—I love bugs— though not mosquitos or cockroaches, which are pure evil disguised as bugs) searching the web for vulnerable people. And the spider added my blog post because it decided than people who’ve been victims of identity theft are more likely to buy knock off Christian Louboutin shoes or Coach bags because they’ve had their funds sucked dry. But here’s the thing. I really don’t want to wear knock offs of $3000 shoes. (Are the real ones comfortable? Or made out of gold?)

Okay, I just Googled a pair of $3000 suede crystal encrusted open-toed pumps. And I was all prepared to hate them. But, um, they’re really pretty.

Maybe those spiders know what they’re doing after all.  (They're from the Neiman-Marcus website.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Writing Voice: Getting Through the Squeaky Stage

Yesterday, I was discussing voice with a writing friend. She’s just begun a new novel and was anxious because she didn’t have the voice down. I reminded her of my favorite quote about first drafts, “A first draft is a celebration of everything that can go wrong on a page.”

But then, we began to discuss voice in more depth. She mentioned that when she writes short stories, the voice is always there at the beginning. And as I thought about it, I realized that when I write shorts, I always start with a voice. But when I write a novel, I never start with a full-formed voice (although with sequels it’s easier because the voice is already established).

Then the ten thousand dollar question is “Why.” What’s the difference? I think because a short story is so focused around the narrative voice, everything (plot, character, etc.) flows from that voice.

But novels are altogether different. Even the simplest novel, is a series of “clashes” between character, plot, tone, and voice. Not only are the characters refined as they bump up against each other, but the characters are sharpened by the plot. And the plot is honed by the tone and voice, which in turn influence the characters. And not until you get all of these ingredients into the cauldron of the novel, does the magic elixir of voice finally rise to the top.

I’m not saying that there isn’t some sort of voice at the beginning. I think you do start with an immature voice—you have to. After all, the voice helps to control where the story goes. But I think when you start a novel with a “little boy’s voice.” It’s squeaky and cute, not what you want to end up with, but it communicates and sets the arc of the story.

As the novel matures through revision, the voice changes. It takes on nuance and inflection. It deepens, much like the little boy whose voice goes through puberty to become a wide ranging tenor or rumbles in a bass profundo.

What about you, writers? Is this your experience of voice? Or do voices come to you fully formed and mature? (If so, I’m really, really jealous.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Screwing Up Babylon Release Party

Late Friday night Screwing Up Babylon went live on Amazon, we had a release party here at home.

And I promised photos. Unfortunately, I gave the camera to my 16 year old son. He took scads of photos--of the champagne. You'd think he'd never seen champagne before.

Here are two photos he took of me. (Also with the champagne bottle.)

And he took one photo of some of the food. Wensleydale with cranberries, smoked salmon with cream cheese, jalapenos, crackers. There was also chocolate and a West African beef stew.

We had a great time, even if there aren't many pictures to prove it.

And the sales seem to be going well. Here's a link to the book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Screwing Up Babylon Release!

Screwing Up Babylon is now available at Amazon. Click here.

Shredding the Bedding

Lots of people have been posting on Facebook and other places about participating in Thirty Days of Thanksgiving. I began to ponder some of the more unusual things I have to be thankful for like a husband who puts up with my sleep idiosyncrasies.

I sleep-talk a lot. (Though I will say, Cal needs to be thankful that I’m not my cousin who’s known to sit bolt upright in bed during the middle of the night and “sing” at the top of her lungs. You’ve never experienced sleep issues until you wake up at 2am to someone screaming “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of her lungs.) In any case, when Cal and I first got married, he didn’t realize I talked in my sleep. He’d thought sleep talking was the occasional mumbled word. Not the ramblings that went on and on. It wasn’t until he realized that I didn’t always make sense that I was asleep.

Then there are the times I wake him saying, “The police are pounding on the front door. Go answer it.” Except it’s only a dream. When I’ve been insistent, he’s actually gone down two flights of stairs and opened the door for me. Now he rolls over and says, “Go back to sleep.”

I can’t forget the sleep walking where he finds me and brings me back to bed.

But what would drive me crazy if he did it is the “bedding shredding.” No, I don’t kick the sheets around or pull the blanket loose. I actually shred the bedding. I wake up with sheets torn all around me. On some nights, I become the Incredible Hulk and rip the sheets. Thankfully, I’m not that strong and sheets are well made, so it only happens when the fabric is getting old from repeated washings. I’ve even shredded a heavy wool blanket. (Yes, I know I’m some sleep doctor’s key to the lead article in the Journal of Sleep Medicine.) If Cal had woken up among puffs of shredded wool, I would’ve said, “Ack, what did you do? Do you know how much a wool blanket costs?” Instead, he said, “Hmm. I guess that must be getting old.”

Yeah, he’s pretty much a saint. Last week, I ripped a pillowcase during the night—I guess it must have been getting old.

BTW, Screwing Up Babylon will soon be available. (In spite of Sandy) Today I plan to convert the file and upload it to Amazon. Yay!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dead-End Posts and Decking the Halls

Does any other blogger have this happen? You’re in the midst of a writing a blog post and suddenly it dies. Wherever the post was going originally, it took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. And the post lies like a dead cockroach in the middle of the living room floor. And you stare at the “cockroach” wondering if you should ignore it and hope your husband removes the carcass or get the broom and dust pan.

(In case you’re wondering, we do get the occasional dead roach body—my husband did pest control when he was in grad school, so he knows how to kill bugs other than to spray Raid. But it involves boric acid and wall joints, which “kills bug dead.” But when the weather gets cold and the bugs want a warmer place to live they crawl through the boric acid and die on the floor.)

Back to blog posts. I’ve never had a novel or short story die. But blog posts do. And usually they defy resurrection.

How do I cope? I usually yell out, “Who’s done something funny this week?” And everyone scowls at me. They don’t think they’re particularly funny.

According to the family, nothing funny has happened lately. Of course, there’s the Christmas music incident. Matthew wants to listen to Christmas music once school starts again. I do not. Really, really do not. Christmas music is under the ban until Thanksgiving is over—by January I’m ready to bang Rudolph against the wall. (Though I may make an occasional exception for Straight No Chaser’s Christmas CD, but only if I’m in an excellent mood.) In any case, Matthew chafes at my restrictions. So he found a way around it. (He’s clever that way.) He gathered up a ton of piano Christmas music and took it to music lessons. He said to his teacher (who is a massive Christmas fan), “I want to learn Christmas music”—this was back in the beginning of October!  She said, “Matthew what a wonderful idea!” And she assigned him a whole book of Christmas carols!! A whole book!

Now for an hour a day, I’m listening to Christmas music. I’m ready to Deck the Halls alright. Just not with boughs of holly. Next year, I’m hiding the Christmas music in a dark corner of the basement.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Release Draws Near!

Assuming the confluence of tropical storm Sandy and the Nor’easter doesn’t wipe out my proofreader’s internet access, Screwing Up Babylon should be available by this time next week. (Squee!)

In celebration of that, I’d like to set up a blog tour with hopes of spreading the tour out over several weeks.

If you’re interested in participating, you could just host the book or I could do a guest post on a topic. For example,

How to research

Integrating research into plot

Setting as a character

An excerpt from Screwing Up Babylon

Or something else of your choosing.

Please let me know if you’re interested in participating. (Either leave a comment or e-mail me at connie (dot) m (dot) keller AT gmail (dot) com). 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Five

Here’s a peak into our home—five statements that Kellers made this week.

1. Ariel was complaining about a proof for Modern Algebra. Luke told her, “Next semester take Post-Modern Algebra, and you won’t have to write any proofs.”

2. This election is the first time Jacob will vote. So he’s been avidly watching political pundits and quoting them to us. “Candidate X will steal your money, burn your house, and kill your cat. I’m Candidate Y, and I approve this message.”

3. I was singing along to a song in the car. Luke said to me, “That’s a heinous song.” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s about the transitory-ness of life and enjoying the one you love. Death could be around the corner.” Luke said, “Uh, Mom, the song’s about a one-night stand.” Me, “Oh…now you’ve ruined it for me.”

4. Matt’s learning to drive. “Wouldn’t it be cool if they made semi-automatic cars? Then you’d be able to change gears without using a clutch.”

5. “Life is like a melon. The question is whether you’re the fleshy part or the rind.” I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean, but it’s the kind of thing Matt says as walks through the house.


Image from Wikimedia

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In Praise of Used Bookstores

File:FI bookstore.JPG
This isn't McKay's. I forgot to take a photo
while I was there.

As an author, I have mixed feelings about used bookstores. I know when I buy a book there, the author is not getting any royalties. On the other hand, I view it kind of like a library—it’s an opportunity to discover new authors whose work I wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

I used to buy more books from local bookstores. But as our budget got tighter and books became much more expensive, I became more and more selective. For a while, I bought remaindered books and found books that way. But more often than not, the remaindered books were blockbuster authors or authors the bookstore hoped would be blockbuster authors and the books didn’t quite sell.

Then when we moved to Tennessee, I found an amazing used bookstore, McKays. It’s a two story warehouse of books—a real honest-to-goodness treasure trove. And I found the “bargain section,” a spot where they place novels that aren’t selling fast enough. This is where the real gems are. The books are usually under a dollar and are a mixed bag of everything from spy/legal/mystery/thrillers (which I like to read on the treadmill) to literary novels. Lots of literary novels. And I’ve discovered new authors. I won’t spend $25 on a book whose author I don’t know and love. But I’ll risk a dollar. For 25 cents, I’ll buy a book I think I probably won’t like but want to read for purposes of learning more about writing—and sometimes I fall in love.

The other day, I found a book by Geraldine Brooks. I read her novel People of the Book a couple of months ago and fell in love. If Year of Wonder is just as good, then I’ll buy her new book when it comes out. I’ll get her novel March (a retelling of Little Women), even though I’m not fond of Louisa May Alcott. Brook’s writing in POB was that good.

In a sense, used bookstores were the forerunner of Amazon’s Kindle Bargain Books. They’re an opportunity for a writer to share his/her vision and catch a new follower.

What about you? Do you buy books at used bookstores? 

Monday, October 22, 2012


The other day, my husband had to go out of town. Things always happen when a husband goes out of town. It used to be that all four kids would get sick,  or someone would break a bone, etc. But they’re older now. So it’s different.

Friday night, I discovered that what I thought I had in the freezer isn’t what I had in the freezer. So I decided to grill hamburgers, and I sent oldest son Luke to the store for buns and chips (we never have chips—too expensive for empty calories), so this was a treat. My thought was I’ll grill while he goes to the store and everything will be ready at the same time.

It was working fine, until I got a phone call. My husband called, he was on his way to NC and his directions weren’t good. He wanted me to pull up Google maps and get him back on track. No big deal.

So I asked Ariel to grill the burgers. She said, “Uh, I’ve never grilled anything before.” I was amazed—I guess I make the boys BBQ. At any rate, I said, “No big deal, just watch it and flip the burgers when they get brown.” She gave me a suspicious look. Which I ignored.

Google provided the proper maps, eventually. Then Ariel came in the house.

Ar: I need you!

Me: Dad needs me more.

Ar: The BBQ is on fire.

Me to husband: Go north and you’ll run into the highway you need, though there might not be an entrance.

Ar: The BBQ is on FIRE!

Me: sighing, “Close the lid and turn off the gas.”

Me to husband: When you find the highway, there’s road that runs parallel, so if there no on-ramp—

Ar: I already closed the lid, and flames are leaping out the sides.

Me to husband: Apparently, we have a disaster in progress. You’re on your own.

Husband: Bye.

I follow Ariel to the BBQ. The lid is closed, but the BBQ is surrounded by an orange haze. The thermometer on the lid reads 8,000 degrees (okay, more like over 800+—our BBQ doesn’t measure anything over 800). So, I get the hose and turn it on.

Ar: ACK! You can’t put water on a grease fire.

Me: (The following thought process occurred in about one half of a second.) Hmm. I know you can’t put water on a chemical fire. But I think water’s dangerous with grease, but the fire is sort of contained so it might be safe. And I don’t want to open the lid to douse it with flour because the flames might burn my arm. The deciding factor…I absolutely do not want to clean five pounds of flour out of my BBQ.

I squirt water into the side of the BBQ, and the orange haze disappears. Then, I turn off the hose, open the BBQ, and removed the “fully cooked” burgers. They are charred, but edible. When Luke returns, I serve dinner. I just don’t explain manner of grilling—inferno cooking. And no, they didn’t taste wet—“8,000 degrees” vaporizes water pretty quickly. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tidying Your Manuscript's Formatting

I finished proofreading Screwing Up Babylon.* Now I have a friend giving it a once over to catch anything I missed.

In the meantime, I’ve begun formatting the manuscript for Kindle. A lot of authors don’t  consider formatting, especially if they aren’t considering self-publishing. But think about this.  Most likely, any agent considering your manuscript will probably read it on a Kindle (though a few use Nooks). And after all the work that you’ve put into the book, don’t you want them to have a great reading experience?

Now obviously, if you’re not at the point where you’re publishing to Kindle, you don’t need a linked table of contents, a copyright page, conversion to html, etc. But if you’re using “returns” instead of “page breaks” at the end of chapters to force a new page, “tabs” to indent paragraphs instead of the using the margins function, or randomly hitting too many spaces in your text, your book may look wonky on a Kindle. And, though I’m sure many agents are used to formatting wonkiness, putting your best book forward can only help.

The good news is that it’s all easy to fix. Amazon has a free e-book called Building Your Book for Kindle that can take you through the step-by-step tidying. (It’s a great “hand-holder” if you’re pubbing to Kindle, even for non-techies.)

Ironically, even though the book is great, it’s formatted very poorly. The font is miniscule, which I had to adjust by several stages because even with my reading glasses I couldn’t read it, and I have yet to find a table of contents page, though I may have missed it. I guess this is a case of “do what I say and not what I do.”

Product DetailsIf you’re only tidying your book’s formatting, focus on using page breaks not “returns” at the end of chapters, using the ruler at the header on top of the Word file to set your indent instead of tabs or five spaces on the space bar, and make sure you don’t have random “returns” or “spaces” scattered throughout the novel. To see where they are, all you have to do is click the paragraph icon in the “paragraph” box and you’ll see all the hidden formatting. Unclick it when you’re done and the marks will hide themselves again. (This is in the 2007 version of Word—it’s there in earlier versions too, just look for it.)

Otherwise, you can Google “formatting for Kindle.” The better news is that the only formatting changes you need to do don’t force you to do anything weird with your text. And, of course, you don’t need to put your novel into html or add headings, etc., since you’re not pubbing, just tidying. So everything stays in a nice MS word document.

And for those of you who are self-pubbing, formatting your novel isn’t that hard. If you’ve learned to use a word processor, you can do this. Just bring your patience and a willingness to learn to the table. And if you don’t understand how to do something, Google it—more than likely there’s a YouTube video that you can stream where someone will show you how to format.

*In case you missed it, I posted the first chapter of Screwing Up Babylon on my book blog. Click here to read it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Beware the Editing Nazi

Last week, a bad thing happened. Something I’ve never seen addressed in a writing blog before. I don’t know if that means it’s rare, or if it’s something no one likes to talk about. But I figure that I can’t be the only person this has happened to. So, for what’s it worth, here’s my experience with the Editing Nazi.

I was supposed to be proofreading my latest novel. Everything else was finished. My betas had approved the plot, voice, tone, etc. I’d done all the line edits. And the proofing should’ve taken only a couple of days, two weeks at the most. And I was on schedule. But then, a lot of stress hit my non-writing life. And then I found an error in my novel. It wasn’t a big mistake—it was small. Small enough that two experienced betas and four other readers and I had all missed it. Most likely, anyone who read the book would’ve missed it.

But the error freaked me out. Enough that I opened the door to the Editing Nazi. And without me even realizing it, I went from proofreading to questioning every sentence, every verb, and punctuation mark. Now there’s a place for that—and you end up with Teflon and stainless steel sentences. Perfect, when you don’t want anything to stick—when you’re writing for technical precision.  (I suspect EN stems from my days working at Harcourt in the Academic Press division and subsequently working as a technical writer.) But you have to be careful when you  become the EN with fiction because it can destroy voice. And if you lose the voice, you lose the story.

Thankfully, I have a beta who has seen me turn into the Editing Nazi once before. I had a lovely short story that I subjected to the EN. Then, I resent her the “fixed” short. She emailed me back and said, “Uh, I hope you have the original short saved somewhere because you just edited the heart and soul out of your story.” Yeah. Thankfully, I keep old versions.

So last week, when I told my betas that my proofread was turning into an edit both of them, expressed concern—both said, “Um, what are you doing? The novel doesn’t need an edit.” And the beta who’d read the short gave me a “writing intervention.” Basically, she told me “Put down the red pen, and back away from the novel.” She had a gut feeling that I’d become the EN.

I was sure I hadn’t. But I promised her that I consider it. So I decided to read passages to my family at dinner time and ask them which they liked best. So I did. After the first passage, they all liked the old version. But I wasn’t discouraged—it was a fluke. Until I read the next passage, and they liked the old version better. So, I asked why. They all agreed that the version they liked sounded like Mark, my main character. Whereas in the second version, it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t sound like Mark, more like some narrator somewhere telling the story.

After I stopped beating my internal EN with a brick, I knew I’d learned an important lesson (again). Unless I’m channeling Mark, I have no business working on the novel. If I go in without the voice, I’m no longer the author, just someone mucking about in the text.

So I enlisted Mark’s help and together we bound and gagged the EN. We’ve agreed to lock the EN in a dungeon and throw away the key. But I know just how resourceful the EN is in escaping. And I’m so thankful for betas who watch my back—my writing swat team who will shout from their megaphones, “EN, we have you surrounded. Drop the red pen and back away from the novel. No one needs to kill a text today.”

And yes, I do have old versions of the chapters I “fixed.” It shouldn’t take long to paste them where they belong. BTW, am I the only one with an evil alter ego?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Going on a Virtual Tour of the Netherlands with my Grandmother

Yesterday, my 93 year old grandmother came and spent the day with us. She’s an immigrant from the Netherlands and ever since I was a little girl, she’s always told me about the old country, the people she knew, and the things that happened.

 (My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller, though it took years for him to start telling stories. Perhaps because he’d never told stories before. Or maybe because his stories were not the stories you tell a child—stories of violence and suffering, the years when he worked with the Underground during WW II.)

I’d thought about bringing out an old linen dinner napkin—it was my great-great grandmother’s. My grandmother gave it to me years ago because it was old, stained, and had a hole in it. But to me, it’s a talisman to the past and I imagine dinner parties at my great-great grandparents’ villa on the river.

But then, I had another idea. I got out my computer, sat next to her on the couch, and said, “Oma, where was your grandparents’ villa.” Then I typed it into Google maps and pulled up the street in Woubrugge. I took her to the street view. She caught her breath. “That’s it!”  And we took a walk down the street, and she pointed out the river that ran behind their villa. (Sadly, her grandparents lost the villa—which is a fascinating story full of family gossip.)

After that, we traveled to the town where she grew up and “walked” the streets. She pointed out an ugly building that didn’t used to be there. Instead, there was a lovely bench and she’d sit and wait there for her father. She showed me the houses that my great-grandfather had built around the turn of the century—they’re still there. He died young, and his widow supported herself and her three children by selling off a house every year or so and living off the money afterwards.

It’s been decades since my grandmother went back to her homeland. That last few times, my grandfather went back, she didn’t go. I suspect it was because of the emotional pain involved (some things are best forgotten) and the out-of-place feeling you get when people and places have changed so much that you feel you no longer have a place there.

But a virtual tour let both of us walk together. I saw places I’ve always heard of, but never seen (even though I’ve visited before). I heard new stories, and she had the fun of visiting without a plane trip, the need to visit relatives, or the exhaustion of walking. Plus, she got to correct my pronunciation of Dutch—she loves that. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Playing the PSAT Game

My youngest child takes the PSAT next week. So I’ve been helping him prepare.

The reading sections are his favorite, so he doesn’t need any help with those.

Then, there are the math sections. Matthew isn’t bad at math, but he has the same issue that I do—calculator error. I reverse numbers. (I’m really bad with phone numbers.) So when you’re moving numbers back and forth from the page to the calculator back to the page a couple of times, you’re almost guaranteed an error. So we look for shortcuts.

For example: “Look if you draw a line here, then you can turn the triangle into a 3, 4, 5 triangle and solve the problem in your head.” (Our brains don’t confuse the numbers, it’s the whole brain, eye, hand thing.)

Of course, other problems are so convoluted in terms of calculator use that I tell Matt don’t waste your time because you’ll have to double check your calculator work too many times. (This is why I hated chemistry in college. I’d have to run the numbers through the calculator multiple times and get many different answers.)

Then Matt and I got to the writing section. Having helped several kids prepare for the PSAT, I knew that I needed a deep breath. The PSAT writing section is not about good writing. It’s about using sentences to test grammar—sometimes. Other times, it’s just…horrid.

So we went over the questions that Matt missed on the pretest. I read the “question,” which isn’t really a question but a list of five sentences and they tell you to “pick the best one.” All five sentences sucked. I said, “These are bad.”

Matt said, “Uh, yeah.”

I said, “Why did you pick C.”

Matt: “Why not?”

Me: “Right.” I take another deep breath and begin to take apart the sentences.

“Okay, A is wrong because the pronoun and its antecedent don’t match—one is plural and the other is singular.”

“And E is wrong because, well, I’ve never seen anything written that poorly before. That clause stuck in the middle totally destroys the flow of the sentence—and I’m not even sure what they think it’s supposed to be modifying. If you wrote this, I’d make you rewrite it.”

D is wrong because the verb’s in present perfect tense and the action was actually completed in the past.”

B is wrong because it doesn’t have parallel structure in the verbs.”

Then, I read answer C—the wrong answer that Matt chose. “It’s in passive voice, Matt, so that’s why it’s wrong.”  I thought for a moment. “Wait a minute, I’ve ruled out every answer.”  So I looked the question up in the back of the book. The correct answer was E.

I was dumbfounded.

I looked at Matthew. “I’m sorry, buddy. This is really lame. You’re going to have to “game” the system. Don’t look for good writing. Just try to pick the sentence that has the least number of grammar and usage errors.”  

As we moved on, I realized that some of the questions were based on idioms—it was basically a match the correct preposition to the idiom. Really? That tests writing ability? I don’t think so. (And, let me just say, I’ve never heard of some of these “idioms.”) Does the ability to do this makes you smart? Does it make you a good candidate for scholarships?

Don’t get me wrong, my hat’s off to the kids who become National Merit Scholars. I know a lot of National Merit Scholars. And, yes, they will do very well in college because they are very bright students—they have to be. And ultimately, that is what the PSAT predicts. So it does what it sets out to do. But as for testing writing ability, not so much.

Standardized testing should dump the “writing” section. If you want to test grammar, then test grammar. If the test makers want to test students’ ability to use words and their ease in doing so, they should go back to analogies (those were actually fun).

In the meantime, I’ll keep telling Matt, “It’s a game. Play it the best you can, and then let it go.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Falling into a Hamper

I have a college senior who’s preparing for grad school. This particular very bright child (who will remain nameless) said, “When I finish grad school, I can’t take any more classes.”

Me: Uh, yeah, that’s sort of the point. You teach.

Child: But I want to take more classes.

Me: Why?

Child: Because I want to learn more.

Me: I believe you can sit in/take classes at the university where you teach.

Child: Really?! Could I get another degree?

Me: I suppose.

Apparently, this child wants to be an eternal student, which I sort of understand—we should all want to learn more and more, to the point of becoming autodidacts.

Of course, this is also the child who (just last night) sat on an open hamper, fell in, and had to be rescued—so maybe a course in common sense would help.

BTW, if you’d like to see the cover of my new novel, visit here.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Winnie the Pooh

Last week, I put Winnie the Pooh (the new one) on our Netflix queue. And I told the kids it was coming after the DVD was in the mail. (My queue has been known to alter mysteriously when the kids aren’t interested in what is up next, especially when it’s a documentary.) At any rate, my announcement was greeted with horrified faces all around.

When the kids were younger, Friday night was movie night. I make homemade pizza and the kids would take turns picking a movie—the boys got a good exposure to chick flicks when it was Ariel’s turn. I assured them it would make them more sensitive husbands. Yeah, they didn’t buy it either.

But now that the kids are older, if they’re not interested in a movie, they do homework. They don’t want to use precious study breaks for “lame” movies. And I get that. So I figured that Cal would be the only one who’d watch Winnie the Pooh with me. And I figured he’d sleep through part of it. (He did.)

But I was wrong about the kids. I don’t know if it was nostalgia, boredom, or the indescribable charm of Pooh, but they watched it and enjoyed it. They laughed out-loud. It was a charming movie. It didn’t have quite the animation of the old classics, but the storyline and textual playfulness were all there. I loved how Pooh took letters from the text to build a ladder so he, Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, et al. could climb out of a pit. If you’re a Pooh fan and haven’t seen it, I’d suggest adding it to your queue.

Which reminds me a friend recently shared a Russian version of Winnie the Pooh. After watching it, I think I understand Russian culture much better. No wonder Russians write depressing novels--Pooh the existentialist...

Here’s the Russian Pooh.

BTW, tomorrow I’ll be releasing the cover art for my YA novel Screwing Up Babylon. You can see it here.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The IRS and the Hot Potato

Perhaps you’re getting tired of hearing about IRS incompetence. I know that I’m getting tired of talking about it. But until IRS actually does something/anything, I guess I’ll keep reporting on the situation.

For those of you who don’t remember the story, here’s the short version. Back in January when we filed to get our tax return (yes, we are early filers), we discovered my husband’s identity had been stolen. We filed all the proper paperwork and presented all the documents—driver’s license, passports, etc. And then, the IRS agent sent in a change of address, which does nothing in terms of dealing with the fraud—and we never moved anyway.

We sent off paperwork. And we were told that a letter would soon be sent detailing when we’d get our return. The letter never came. And then, the responsibility hot potato game began—we were the hot potato being tossed back and forth from one agent to the next. Each one promised us the prize—the letter of information. But it never showed up.

My husband Cal has called and called. And then, called some more. One excuse followed another—my favorite was the criminal’s rights excuse. Rights—don’t I have some of those? And that letter, which kept being promised, never arrived.

It would be nice to actually meet these fraud agents face to face. But fraud is only handled by the Fresno, CA, office. I’m beginning to suspect the IRS chose Fresno on purpose—I’m mean who goes to Fresno? I’ve been there, it’s not a place I’d chose to visit. (Apologies to any readers who live there.)

Two weeks ago, we were assigned a case worker, and we assured ourselves that now something would be done. We were told we’d hear from her within ten days and that the letter—for sure—would come in ten days. Guess what? Ten days has come and gone. No letter and no contact from our case worker.

Cal called again. Now they gave us our caseworker’s name and number. So, Cal called and got her voicemail. It said to leave a message and she’d get back to us within thirty days. (Yeah, you read that right 30 days). Imagine trying that at work? Can you say “fired with cause”?

Hopefully, the case worker gets back to us much sooner. I’m sure she’s a busy woman, but we’ve been doing this for ten months. And it would be nice if the IRS actually contacted us or followed through on one single promise. If she’s too busy to call—maybe she could send that letter we were promised in January. It would be a nice gesture.

On the other hand, I’m getting a lot of blogs out of this fiasco. Maybe I could get a book deal. Or make a new version of the hot potato game—expect the timer would be set at one year. That’s not much fun.

I found out a curious thing. The IRS came out with a report on September 10, 2012 entitled, "The Process for Individuals to Report Suspected Tax Law Violations Is Not Efficient or Effective (2012-40-106).” Really, ya think?! And the report admitted that sometimes the IRS destroys the forms 3949-A that taxpayers used to file their fraud reports. Oops. Apparently, 3000 forms were destroyed and no one notified those taxpayers. Double oops. And it seems that if an IRS agent incorrectly thinks the report is unworkable, the 3949-A is destroyed within 90 days—and the taxpayer is not notified. Triple oops.

As far as I know, our 3949-A exists somewhere. Maybe.