Monday, April 27, 2015

Down Time: What This Writer Does To Relax

Those who are familiar with my work routine can see the irony in this week's blog post. The busiest time of the year for cake decorators is coming up--the entire month of May, or "May-hem" as I've come to call it--and down time is the last thing I should have on my mind. Mother's Day, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, and, the most stressful event of all, graduations are looming in the month ahead. People must have cake in order to properly celebrate these milestones and every year for the last twenty years (seventeen of them with Walmart) I have geared myself up mentally and emotionally to deal with an overload of work, picky customers, and too-little sleep (we've pulled a few all-nighters when we've only had two decorators and 80+ cakes to deliver!)
Yep, I made these!

However, the promise of having some time in the month following "May-hem" is the light at the end of a very long, tiring tunnel. So in order to give myself a little motivation to keep my spirits up when things are getting very hectic, I like to think about the things I like to do when I have some time to myself:

1) Read -- Duh. No, really, it's nice to be able to have a long stretch of time when I don't have a busy schedule in order to really get into a book and read more than a chapter or a few pages at a time.

2) Write -- As in, actually put words down on paper. I'll tell you a secret: writing is a never-ending job with me. Even when I'm not sitting in front of the laptop, even when I'm with family and friends, having a meal, shopping, working, whatever... I'm writing storylines in my head. They don't all make it onto a printed page, but when I have the time to sit and write it down, it's like embarking on a road trip. Which brings me to....

3) Road trips -- It doesn't have to involve a suitcase and an overnight stay away from home. Getting up, getting in the car, and driving around "with no particular place to go" rejuvenates me. It feels like an escape. Sometimes I take my camera along and sometimes I take a notebook. But I always come back feeling refreshed.

4) Cooking -- Of course, I cook almost every day. My family and I have gotten into this bad habit of needing to eat every day (or else we fall over), but when I have time, I like to pull out the cookbooks and cooking magazines I've collected over the years and find something new to make (if only cleaning up were just as relaxing....)

5) Spending time with family -- This month, I fall into a routine of work, home, dinner, bed, repeat. I don't get a chance to really socialize with my family and loved ones (not even the ones that live in my house!) So once "May-hem" is over for another year, I like to plan time with my husband and son and with our extended families and our friends. Every moment is precious, as we've come to discover as we get older, and we look forward to relaxing with our loved ones.

What all this means to me as a writer is that I build up the energy--both physical and creative--to write the next book in my series. After all, writing is an extension of me... and it's necessary to refuel in order to keep going!

And now, back to work....

Monday, April 20, 2015

Nun Better: My Catholic Education

I spent this past weekend touching my roots in El Paso, Texas, and, more specifically, my Catholic education. My sister's daughter is finishing her eighth grade year at Our Lady of Assumption school, so I still have a vested interest in Catholic education.

Saturday night, the Northeast Consortium of Catholic Schools held a spring benefit dance to raise funds for the two Catholic schools in the Northeast area of El Paso. The school I had attended, back in the day, Blessed Sacrament, closed a few years earlier, but I still have fond memories of the friends I made there (some of whom I still keep in touch with) and the teachers who educated me, so I was happy to attend the benefit. Sunday morning, I helped my sister make a couple dozen burritos and cupcakes to sell after the Sunday Masses to raise funds for the eighth grade class. And, today, Monday, I'll be speaking to the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students about writing. Yes, my niece has attained celebrity status by being related to a published author!

It wasn't my idea to attend Catholic school. My father was growing concerned about the the safety of his two daughters at public school. We were making good grades, but he felt something was missing, and he didn't like the increasing violence and lack of discipline he was seeing. So, being from a generation and place where it was his duty to protect the young women in his care, and being unable to be with us every minute of the day, he found a way to protect and guide his daughters' moral, educational, and physical growth.


The sisters were stern, caring, funny, compassionate, and uncompromising in demanding excellence, both in our academic and personal lives. People often paint a horror movie picture of sisters, but I can't believe it; the only people who cared more about us were our parents (even when Sister Angelita was threatening to remove our tonsils through our ears if we didn't quit horsing around and pay attention--and God help you if you were chewing gum in class... or worse, on your way to weekly Mass!)

The sisters taught us to diagram sentences, speak publicly in clear, well-modulated voices (without a single "um"), and do long division in our heads. They demanded neatness in our handwriting and appearance. Slouching wasn't permitted in class, let alone in church. Bullying was not a problem in our school; the sisters didn't permit it. We were not just classmates, we were family, even if we weren't all friends. And more than anything else, they believed in us. We were going to succeed in our lives, whatever success meant to us, because they knew we had it in us to do so.

Long after I've left their daily influence (I graduated in 1985 from Father Yermo High School), I still can hear the sisters urging me to keep trying; to never settle for less than my very best; to sit up straight, chin up, look 'em in the eye, and speak up ("There had better not be gum in your mouth, young lady!") I learned so much more than just how to diagram sentences and write neatly; I learned skills that aren't taught in schools anymore or even at home in some cases. And a lot of those skills are just as important to me as a writer as writing a grammatically correct sentence.

I know they still pray for me and the ones who have already moved on to their reward (and I hope they received a share of mine; they deserve it!) continue to watch over me and guide me. I hear their voices echo in my memory and over my shoulder when I sit down to write and when I get up to speak about my books. I hope I made them proud.

Thank you, Sister Angelita, Sister Gabriella, Sister Grace, and Sister Maria, and all the sisters who have touched our lives.

Eighth grade, Blessed Sacrament School, 1981
Sister Angelita is in the middle row, far right
I'm the second one from her.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Kids Say the Darnedest Things!

If the title of this blog post alone doesn't have you nodding your head in agreement, the statement of the fact that I don't write children's books probably will.

No, I don't write children's books, but I've heard (from far better writers than myself) that it is harder to write for children than adults. I'm not sure how true that is, since I've never considered writing for children, except maybe for young adults, so I can't speak from personal experience. However, though I don't write for children, I've found some of my biggest fans have been young people.

So far, I and my books have had the honor of being chosen by two young ladies (ages thirteen and younger) to be the subject of school projects. One of them won first place in a literary fair (think science fair for book lovers!) for featuring "End of the Road" and giving a detailed analysis of plot, setting, and characters, not to mention a rave review and a pretty impressive poster of my book! The other young lady has been corresponding with me, via e-mail, to help on a project on exploring career goals, by interviewing an "expert" in the field of work they'd like to get into when they grow up (shh, don't tell her I'm still learning, myself!) She has attended several book talks I've given and, at her insistence, got her mother to buy my books.

I've received good reviews and compliments from many adults about my books and that makes me feel very good. But there's something humbling about a young person becoming a fan. Think of all the competition any artist of any kind has in the world of our young people. Young people like what they like. And peer pressure is at its strongest in these formative early teen years, so it's easy for them to like what everyone else likes. For a young person to say, "I like your story, even if it isn't like 'The Hunger Games' or it's about grown-ups and their work lives without a young hero or protagonist," means a lot to me, even more than book sales and rave reviews from adults (but I still like those, so keep 'em coming!)

What do these young people see in the Black Horse Campground series? Maybe they see a world and life that isn't such a stretch of imagination and it's comforting. While they stand on the cusp of adulthood and responsibility, perhaps feeling a little unsure of themselves, they see adults taking charge in a time of danger and protecting others while seeking truth and justice and they take comfort in that as well. They see adults who are approachable and personify respect and true friendship.

I never intentionally set out to write a series that held appeal for all ages; in all honesty, I write what I would want to read and, apparently, that's what others like to read. I'm glad that I never attempted to write for a specific audience. I might have missed touching my youngest fans who tell me without reservation that they like Corrie, that Buster makes them laugh, that J.D. and Rick are not as tough as they seem, that they wished the Black Horse Campground was a real place....

When a young person compliments me, I take it to heart. Because that's where it came from.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Good, The Bad, and the Interesting: The Characters in Your Story

It's been said many times and many ways (no, not Merry Christmas, it was just Easter yesterday, for Pete's sake!) but it's true: Characters make the story. And like everyday life and the world, it takes all kinds of characters to make a story.

Not all characters are likable. Some are fearful, annoying, and downright despised. And there are different degrees of “likableness”. Some characters are the kind most people fall in love with, some make us laugh, and others are like the friendly cashier at the supermarket—you know their names (if you pay attention to the name tags) and they're a pleasure to do business with, but once you've paid and gathered your groceries, you don't give them another thought.

So many characters, so many story possibilities....

The key to good writing is to populate your story with a mix of different kinds of characters. A novel that has nothing but wonderful, agreeable characters would become boring very quickly. Hard as it may be to believe, so would a story with nothing but characters who are unlikable. Just as in the real world and in our daily contact with other human beings (yes, writers DO get out the house on occasion), a story should have a variety of humans with a characteristics unique to each one. This doesn't mean a writer has to really stretch to come up with characters who are so unique that they ultimately make the Land of Oz seem as bland as Stepford, Connecticut (although a glance around the dinner table at Easter dinner might reinforce the idea that truth is stranger than fiction!)

Your most likable character should, for obvious reasons, be the protagonist. And with good reason; if you're asking readers to stick around for the length of the book to see what happens to the protagonist, they would prefer it to be someone they'd like to be around. Imagine yourself taking a 300-mile journey in a small car with someone you don't like. Don't do that to your reader.

Also, the writer shouldn't make the protagonist the only likable character. For one thing, that's just not the way real life is. And you don't want your readers to end up thinking that your character really needs to get out more and find better people to associate with! A writer should be exceptionally careful when the story is told in the first person point-of-view. It's not easy to have a character talk about themselves and not come across as boring or irritating (you've gone to parties; you know who I'm talking about.) A likable protagonist should come with a heaping helping of genuine humility or self-deprecating sense of humor. And they should NOT whine!

All in all, a writer should strive to create a balance of characters who serve to move the story forward and not just fill in the background. And it's more important than most realize that the protagonist, the character around which the story revolves, be someone people care about.

Because, like it or not, that's with whom many readers associate the author.