From “The Angel Tree”

From “The Angel Tree”

Trigger warning for those who need it: This is a story about a woman contemplating suicide who gets…distracted. This excerpt begins partway through the story.

Published in the short story collection “Once Upon A Christmastime” (https://www.amazon.com/Once-Upon-Christmastime-Peggy-Perry-ebook/dp/B00KO5Y5DY/)

“There’s another bathroom in the master bedroom at the end of the hall,” Christie said automatically.  Her mind whirled as she was forced to deal with the invasion when she had been set on dying alone in peace. 

The little girl came out of the bathroom with her mother as Edith passed.  As her brothers shoved past them, elbowing each other and slamming the door, little Susanne pulled at her mother’s hand as she peered into the dark kitchen.  “I’m thirsty!”  she cried.  “I want some hot chocolate!  And cookies!”

Her mother hushed her and looked up at Christie, an apologetic smile on her face.  “That’s what we always have on Christmas Eve,” she explained.  “Susanne, honey, we’re not at home.  We’re at…”  She looked up, realizing she didn’t know her hostess’ name.

“Oh, uh, I’m Christie, Christie Wright.  And I can make some hot chocolate, but I don’t have any cookies made.  But I do have some canned food that we can probably make into a meal.”  She went into hostess mode automatically, locking onto something she could deal with.  She went into the kitchen and turned the light on.  The little girl followed her in and began exploring the cabinets she could reach, ignoring her mother’s reprimands. 

“It’s okay, those are childproofed.  My youngest son is the same – aahh!”  Her voice stopped with a gasp.  When Annabelle looked at her, frowning, she shook her head frantically and fumbled with the pan she was putting on the stove.  The little girl wandered out the door and her mother chased after her.  Christie fought for calm as she measured the ingredients with shaking hands. 

She nearly dropped everything as an arm wrapped around her waist and squeezed lightly.  “I put away the vodka and pills,” Edith whispered in her ear.  “Wouldn’t want the children to come upon them.  I put them in the closet up on the highest shelf.  That little girl looks like she might go through all your drawers if she gets away from her mama.  You don’t have a gun around anywhere, do you?”

Christie shook her head numbly.  She had disposed of her husband Rick’s guns as well.  She didn’t need them.

“That’s good.  Do you need any help here, dear?” Edith then said in a normal voice.  “Why don’t we fix something to eat?  I’m sure everybody is hungry.”  She began opening cabinet doors until she found the pantry and began pulling out cans and jars.  She looked in the refrigerator and freezer, but they were empty.  Christie had no need of fresh or frozen food before she left this world.

Edith didn’t seem bothered.  She asked Christie to introduce herself again, since she had missed it on the way to the bathroom.  When Beth came in asking if she could help, Edith put her to work opening various containers, explaining as she went what needed to be done. 

“You got no tree!” young Ricky exclaimed in the living room, outrage in his voice.   “How can you have Christmas without a tree?  You got no decorations at all!  Don’t you believe in Christmas?”

“Does that mean Santa isn’t going to stop here?”  His little sister cried over his parents’ frantic shushing noises.  “How are we going to get presents if he doesn’t stop here?”

“Children, children, he’ll leave the presents at our house, like he does every year!  We just have to wait until the storm is over, and we’ll be able to get home and get your presents.”

“But the lady here won’t get any presents!” their oldest boy Jody complained.  “Why didn’t she get ready for Santa?” 

Christie came out of the kitchen to meet the children’s accusing faces.  She fumbled for an explanation.  “I, uh, I just got here.  I didn’t have time to put anything up.”

Tim peered out the window around the blinds.  “I’d volunteer to go get a tree, but not in that storm!”

Mack looked out the other window.  “Yep,” he agreed with a nod.  “Just going to have to make do this year kids, till we can get home.  If we did have a tree we could make popcorn strings and our own decorations, but looks like that’s a bust.”

Beth came out of the kitchen, holding a tray of cups.  “I remember sharing my first apartment with four other girls.  There was no room for even a tiny tree, and we wound up hanging a paper tree on the wall, and stringing yarn to hang paper ornaments.  It wasn’t half bad.”   She offered everyone a cup of hot chocolate before returning the tray to the kitchen.  She and Edith came out holding their own cups and finding seats on the big roomy couches and chairs in the living room.

“The food should be ready in a few minutes,” Edith told them, and sighed with satisfaction as she sipped her cocoa.  “Hot cocoa and a fireplace and a comfortable seat.  Just what we need on a night like this.”

The children weren’t satisfied.  “We need to make a paper tree,” Jody decided.  “That wall there doesn’t have anything on it.  We can hang a big one there.  You got any paper, lady?”

Christie almost told them there was no way they were going to mess up her good wall with tape and tacks, until she realized how stupid it was to care about her wall when she was planning to kill herself.  “Why don’t you just draw a tree on the wall?  That way we can save the paper I’ve got for ornaments.”  The adults protested, but Christie waved her hand dismissively.  “Let me find the kids’ – I mean, some pencils and coloring pens or something.”

She ignored the looks the adults gave each other as she hurried to her children’s bedrooms.  She had to stop inside the boys’ door to pull herself together.  She had not been able to come in here since that night a year ago, and everything was unbearably familiar.  Hurrying to the desk against the wall, she grabbed the trashcan and put all the drawing and coloring utensils she could see into it.  She found some paper and tacks and tape and put those in as well.  Her little girl’s room had glue and glitter and all sorts of stickers.  She found yarn and beads and other craft materials and threw them in.

Taking the can back to the living room, she handed it to the children.  “See what you can do with this.  Don’t worry about making a mess, it will clean up. Excuse me; I have to check on the food.”  She headed for the kitchen.  The sight of the children digging through the materials just like her children always had tore at her heart.

Where Did THAT Come From?

Somebody is always asking Stephen King where his ideas come from. He has lots of answers, but one that stuck with me was that in his opinion, everybody’s brain has a filter, and whatever they observe will go through that filter. By example, he said that he and Zane Grey could both look at a bubbling, oozing tarpit and write a story based on it. Zane Grey would probably write a story of a battle over water rights and land by ranchers, while he would probably write one of monsters crawling out of the pool.

I’m currently writing a trilogy of novels that was supposed to be a quick sort of sword and sorcery story of young people who somehow wandered off the beaten path and wound up in a strange place with a magic weapon and saved the day from the evil overlord. You know, popcorn. It has been rattling around in my brain for YEARS.

But it would never gel. I started writing it. For some reason, it had to be two girls and two boys. I don’t remember why. A double budding romance, I think. But it wouldn’t work. One day I was staring at my computer screen and the short girl stares back at me and says, “Hey, stupid! I’m a guy!” and the handsome young man stepped up and snapped, “And I’m a girl! What’s wrong with you?” I looked at the other two and they held up their hands. “No, we’re good.” Okay, back to the beginning. So, a short, cheerful blond guy and a taller, aggressive, hostile Latina girl paired up with a really big, muscled black guy and a medium-sized girl from the Far East…uh-huh. I know. SO cliched and stereotyped!

But it only went so far as their wandering off the beaten path and meeting the downtrodden folk on the other end. It was a terrific episode. I did so much research on the location. I was holding my breath while writing it. The action! The terror! The suspense!

But it didn’t work. Back to the drawing board. I started at the other end of their journey. A dark scene, a dungeon, dying men, despair, terror, torture, and murder. Escape through natural disaster to freedom and a hard journey to the meeting place with the young people. It felt better, but…

About that time I got the opportunity to go to a writer’s conference and for an extra fee, get the first chapter or two of my work in progress (WIP) reviewed by other budding authors and two professional writers. The resulting opinions were interesting. One blew the whole story off because he hated the alternate world trope. I would have preferred he at least gave some opinion on how I wrote it, but he didn’t. Others weren’t ‘into’ that sort of fantasy or science fiction, so they didn’t say much other than “eh”. A few said it sounded interesting, but they were interested in short stories and didn’t like that it had no ending. One young man, who was my intended target group, loved it! Hope he finds it once it’s finally published (even if I have to self-publish it) and still likes it.

The two professionals’ opinions made me blink. One found it unbelievable because one of the girls was a prostitute. “Where were her parents?” The whole table stared at her. The other threw his copy of my manuscript down and announced it was all stupid because “nobody talks like this!” This time the table stared at me, embarrassed sympathy on their faces. Eh, I’ve faced harsher words. I worked the phone lines for the IRS…

But, again, it wouldn’t progress. Was I secretly inhibited by their criticism? I didn’t want to think I was. Maybe I was working too much. Then I retired, so I didn’t have that excuse. Then I wrote my three collections of short stories, and my sisters went through cancer, my mom got sick…you know, life happened. Then one day…(ellipses are my favorite vice…)

I was idly skimming the Internet one day during a rare moment of free time and came across a reference to ley lines in Texas. I live in an area where weird stuff happens all the time, so I clicked onto it. That started a long and winding path to Enchanted Rock State Park. It caught my interest and soon I was researching it, and ran smack dab into information about the Lipan Apaches who used to hang around there.

Like Stephen King, my mind went to “What if?” What if four modern teens ran into Lipan Apaches in the mid 1700s? What if one of the teens could speak Tex-Mex and one of the Apaches could speak Spanish learned from Spanish monks? But what would happen if that one teen was the exact double of the tyrant who terrorized them and was slowly killing the Apaches off?

Then my ‘ghostwriter for God’ kicked in and suddenly God was a major character. I took the manuscript I had so far to my writer’s group. One of the members remarked that it sounded like Exodus. Epiphany! It was, and the story was a trilogy. It was a tale of an enslaved people, a brutal tyrant, and four saviors sent by God to rescue them and teach them to be free. “Project Burning Bush”, “Project Exodus”, and “Project Promised Land” was born.

Why four heroes? Why are they ‘red and yellow, black and white’ like in the old children’s song? That puzzled me and my writers’ group for a while, but I knew they all had to be there. My fellow writers warned me of possible complaints about racism, political correctness, and too many main characters! I couldn’t help it though. They all had to be there.

I was researching the Lipan tribe and found they had a website. I sent an email asking if I could ask questions and make sure I got details correct. I never heard from them, but they did have a book list of the Lipan history for people wanting to know more. I’ve bought three so far. At first I just skimmed, looking for certain details. Then stuff began popping up that BLEW MY MIND.

There were four teens, and they were those ‘colors’ because the Lipan spiritual beliefs were based on the number four and the colors black, white, yellow, and blue. Yes, blue, not red. Once you read the book, you find out how that works out.

The weirdest part of writing this story is that the details of the Lipan tribe were written into the story first, then I found the writing in the history books that backed it up. Like their myths and legends, and how the teens fit into them.

It is amazing how much research is going into this story. I’ve even got blueprints of early Spanish settlements in Texas and topographical maps of Texas. Dates, and names, and I love Pinterest for photos of clothing worn back then. Padlocks and keys of the 1700’s, wildlife and fish found in Texas, the fastest way to kill somebody with a knife (yes, there is violence, just like in Exodus in the Bible) and how to use an old fashioned slingshot – the kind without elastic. Headgear from the Middle East, Marine training and slang, spy gear. Survivalist equipment, medical supplies, priests and conquistadores, the food they ate. I have a very fat file of research details.

Project Burning Bush first draft is done. Now I am winding my way into Project Exodus, which takes place in our time, to the people left behind when the teens disappeared. More violence, mystery, good vs. evil, tragedy, and triumph.

I assume this story is coming from God, because I can’t figure out how I’m making it up. I can hardly wait to see how Project Exodus comes out.

EULOGY FOR A GOOD MAN

My uncle Bruce Perry died June 1, 2019. It was a relief for him and everybody who loved him, because his body decided to quit before his mind and spirit were ready, and left him in great pain until his soul was finally released. Nevertheless, we all will miss him for a long time.

Uncle Bruce was one of those people that so many cynics would say, “Nobody is that terrific! You’re either ignorant or hiding something!”

He wasn’t perfect. He was always the first to admit that. He had a temper, he was impatient, and he had opinions that could put people’s backs up. But he was a solid family man, loved his wife even after she died, loved and worried about his sons and their children, didn’t drink, didn’t gamble, and only smoked cigars for a while.

Although he played for some time in a country and western band in honky-tonks, it was more for the pleasure of making music with his friends than any other reason. He worked hard during the days at various jobs, supporting his family and saving his money so that he and his wife could have a worry-free retirement. They looked forward to growing old together.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. His wife became ill and their savings were drained. After she passed away, his health got worse and he spent more time than he wanted to in the hospital. His eyes and his ears began failing, totally frustrating him because he could no longer hear his beloved music, or easily read the Bible studies that were his main interest. He had to move in with his son Barney after his son Clay who had been living with and watching over him passed away. Such are the afflictions of age.

He didn’t like the change in his circumstances and it frustrated and annoyed him that he could no longer be independent, but he understood it. What he couldn’t understand was one anxiety that he could not get rid of and spoke to me continually about: Was he really saved?

When he first brought it up in conversation, I was astonished. I didn’t know many men who embodied the Christian virtues more than him. He had not always gone to church, but never stopped his prayers and Bible study. He didn’t smoke, drink, fool around, gamble, cuss, and very rarely spoke critically of other people.

I began to think he was sort of like Job. He was never rich with 10 kids, but there wasn’t much the Devil could use to torment him. He lost his wife, oldest son, and a grandchild , but that didn’t affect his relationship with God. He lost his savings and was cheated out of a lot of money by people he trusted, but he didn’t get angry with God. He lost his health, and then his independence, but he didn’t lose his faith.

What he lost was his confidence in his salvation. All the Devil could use was the guilt of a child and he used it well. You see, when my uncle was young they had preachers who, especially during revivals, would pressure the youths to ‘come forward and be saved!’ so they could quote numbers of souls saved. Services could last a long time until somebody came forward.

During one such service he and several other ‘unsaved’ boys were getting weary of the constant exhortations of the preacher and one finally suggested they just go forward and claim to repent and get baptized just so they could finally go home and get some sleep. Exhaustion won out over their reluctance to lie in church, and they went forward as a group.

Ever since, Uncle Bruce felt guilty about his lie and wondered if it meant he had never really been saved. He worried about it constantly. He knew and believed I talked with God all the time and asked me if I could find out if he was really saved. I told him God said, “He’d better wise up and stop letting the Devil get between them.” I had to repeat that often.

I don’t think he worries about it anymore. I figure if he showed up at the Pearly Gates and hesitated to go in because he wasn’t sure he qualified, Jesus might come out and grab him by the ear to drag him inside. I imagine he’s picking and grinning with an angel band now, and getting all his questions about things he read in the Bible answered. No painful failing body to bother him, no more anxiety, no more worries, but surrounded by love. A fitting end for a good man.

Deja Vu (What, Again?)

We survived another August.  Barely.  The aftershocks are lingering, keeping us from our rest, but at least the outside temperature has dropped 10 degrees.  Sure, it’s only dropped from 102 to 92 degrees, but you have to appreciate the small stuff or scream, right?  Right?  Excuse me, I have to press a pillow over my face for a moment…

I wrote a previous blog, The Ides of August, about the trials that strike my family during the infamous month.  This year is up for top awards in the “I’m really tired of this…” category.  My sister came down with her second round of ovarian cancer.  It’s been very painful for her, expensive, frustrating, and exhausting for her and me both.  She had surgery in May to remove the cancer they could find, then began chemotherapy.  It didn’t go well.  She has had strong reactions to the drugs.

But because August has to show up the rest of the calendar, the first of the month found her back in the hospital having major abdominal surgery AGAIN.  The rest of the month has had her in wound care and physical therapy, and me playing nurse, chauffeur, cook, housemaid, and donkey since she was ordered not to carry anything.  She still has all the usual ‘fun’ of cancer like uncooperative taste buds, neuropathy, weakness, exhaustion, and exorbitant medical bills.

Experience has caused our family to adopt a policy of never leaving members in the hospital alone.  I was staying with her but had to run home for a day to pay bills and wash clothes.  As anybody who has been there knows, you don’t get much sleep in a hospital. The hospital they put her in was almost four hours away, so I was even more exhausted by the time I got home.  I was going to spend one night at home, so I was rushing to get laundry done and paying as many bills online as possible.

Of course, I made a mistake.  It just had to be on the biggest payment – our mortgage.  I completely forgot I had just the month before set it up for automatic payments.  Yep, I paid it twice.  And I didn’t notice, until a week later when the overdraft fees and chiding alerts began arriving on my account.  I live on a fixed income and a very tight budget.  My sister’s bout with cancer left her unable to work and with no money to add to the family budget.  I immediately contacted the mortgage company and they said, hey, no problem, send us a bank statement showing both the payments and we’ll send one of the payments back.

You guessed it.  It is now September, and I just spent a very frustrating call with the company.   Frustrating first because the static on the line was so bad, I asked him to send me an email because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.  Second, because, duh, I still don’t have my money so I am going to be short this month but they said my account shows the money was supposed to be sent to me August 25.  Then where is it???  Third, they took my September payment, but NOT ALL OF IT.  Why? They are researching. Gah.

My sister had her chemo drugs changed, and it helped, and her surgery is healing well.  But she still can’t work, she’s still in pain, and she still is pretty shaky on her feet.  Then our oven stopped working.  Then the hot water heater blew a gasket (actually, literally…).  Luckily (?) I noticed before it flooded the kitchen.  (Forty gallons of hot water? Eesh.  Welcome to the jungle…)  So no hot showers, no dishwasher use, and no baking until we get these appliances replaced.  Repair is no use, we were told.  Of course not.

We deal.  Life goes on, and we have endured worse.  I have a teakettle to heat water.  The air conditioner is working, the cold water still runs, and my sister lives.  We have a home.  We have a car.  We have food to eat.  We have family and we have friends.  My sister gets cheered by Skype calls from the newest member of the family born in May, and his grandmother, our sister.  Later this month an even newer member will arrive from our sister’s other daughter, who has triumphed with a second child after five miscarriages.

People shake their heads and ask how I can laugh about our travails.  Oh, I keep the screaming for my bedroom.  I hate watching people grab their ears.  But, mostly, it’s because God gave me a sense of humor to endure such frustration and constant tripping over life’s rocks.  What’s the point of being given a useful gift if you never get to use it?  Heh.  Careful what you ask for, trust me.  If He gives you something, you’ll usually get lots of opportunities to use it.

I noticed my year has been so chaotic I haven’t blogged for a while.  Sorry.  I need to write up a bunch during the odd moments I’m not dashing around doing and can actually sit and think so I can schedule them for publication.  I have been on Twitter meeting other writers and some admittedly odd characters, but it’s been fun.  If you’re actually interested, my Twitter handle is @ghostwriter4God.

I have finished my third book and named it Angels With Attitude.  Of course, it’s available on Amazon in print or Ebook, like Once Upon a Christmastime and Standing Next to a Miracle.

I have also contributed a story titled Sweet Talking Man to a sweet romance anthology called Cool Weather, Warm Hearts.  It will be released in Ebook form October 30 but is available for pre-order now.  The proceeds will go to two charities, The Magical Moon Foundation which helps sick children and their families and The Wounded Warrior Project which helps our Vets!  For those of you as ignorant as I had been about terminology, ‘sweet’ romances mean no sex.  I would assume it also means no vulgarities of speech or actions.  I don’t write that sort of thing, so I didn’t have to censor myself.

I hope your year is going better.

 

All Warm and Cozy

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve just finished my first cup of coffee.  I’d love to go back to sleep, but I have a plumber coming in today so I need to stay awake and get some work done before he gets here.  He was here yesterday working on several plumbing issues, and one of them waited until he was gone to suddenly spout another leak.  Now he has to come back and check his work or fix yet another problem.  He told us yesterday to get an electrician to check the wiring in our house.  When my sister got home she moaned, “This place is becoming a money pit!” A little dramatic, but accurate.

It’s Christmastime, and we still have gifts to purchase and wrap.  Several of my friends are staring at empty chairs after losing loved ones this year.  The news is full of sad stories, bad weather, foolish politics, and stupid scandals.  My arthritis is flaring, and my sleep patterns are erratic.

But you know what? I DON’T CARE.  Life is good.  I’m working part-time as a substitute teacher at a local small school, and I find it fascinating.  Frustrating, annoying, and exasperating, yes, but that happens anytime you deal with kids.  I enjoy getting to know the kids and helping them further their education.  It’s not just babysitting while the teacher is away.  My favorite moment was watching all the young ones from 3-year-olds in the Head Start Program through the 5th graders practice their Christmas program.  I know it was maddening for the teachers to try to corral them and get them to practice, but I adored watching the children just enjoy their day, running around, climbing all over the bleachers in the gym, and just being children.  Too many adults have lost the ability to live in the moment.

I had a good time last week when the local book club reviewed my first book, “Once Upon A Christmastime”.  Here is a link to the article posted about it in the local newspaper: Once Upon a Christmastime Review.  I was quite chuffed to hear them complain it was too short and they wanted a longer collection for next Christmas.  I’ve already got some story ideas lined up.  One of the club members posted a review of it on Goodreads: Kacy A Jey’s Review.  More than one of the members ran local bed and breakfasts and inns and said they were placing the book out for guests to read.

It’s always nice to hear they like the way you write, but it warmed my heart to hear it helped them get into the Christmas spirit, especially when, as one member said, she definitely wasn’t.  I smiled when they said at least two of the stories would make good Hallmark stories because my stories always seem like movies to me.  I would love to see them made into movies because I like to help lift the spirits of people.  Having people in a good mood around me makes all of life so much easier.

Especially when I still don’t have a working toilet and I have to clean house.  Merry Christmas!

How I Roll

One of the Facebook pages I follow, Novel Encounters, is about several historical romance novelists.  (I only read historical romances.  I’m still working on writing one that popped into my head, which of course doesn’t fit any historical period I know of.  Maybe if I call it a historical fantasy romance adventure…) This week they were asked to describe their writing process, and since all of them are different, it has been fascinating to see how they think and create and do the practical details of bringing their stories out of their brains and onto a published manuscript.  It got me to wondering just how I would describe how I create.

This  is how it usually begins:

I do mental movies of novels. I write a few chapters. Then I go do something else, usually another mental movie of a different story. I come back, read what I’ve written, vaguely feel there’s something not quite right, put it back and run through the movie in my head and discover much has been left on the cutting room floor and many scenes added.

I start thinking in scenes, detailing them in my mind. I think, maybe I should make a note, then it might not change. Now I have a general – well, not outline, really, but mostly a time line of actions and conversations – and as I look closer at each scene, I begin wondering about details like landscape, environment, odors, temperature, what side characters are doing while the main characters are busy at the front of the stage, clothing, food, shelter, etc.

I then begin to look at early scenes and wonder if they should become backstory instead. For example, mentally, I have had several stories begin at the birth or in one case, the rape conception of the main character. Then as the story developed, I began to think it might be better as backstory to be mentioned casually in a conversation between characters. Suddenly what was becoming a very long timeline of scenes shortens and I begin to feel the story is workable.  Crazed sessions of unstoppable typing ensue.

That is how my novels begin.  My short stories come from somewhere I’ve never been able to track down.  For all I know, God just puts them there.  Many times I finish typing and have to read them over to figure out what I wrote.  My two collections in print and ebook right now, Once Upon a Christmastime and Standing Next to a Miracle, are like that. I have a third collection to be titled Angels With Attitude, just about ready to go.  Of course, I’ve been saying that since 2014, I just discovered.  Sheesh!

I am going to try the Scrivener program since it seems to use many of the methods I do for setting out a story idea.  I have heard some published authors can’t stand it, others just love it.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  In the meantime, I’ll go work on that collection of short stories and try to get them out.

The Importance of Self-Education

When I was a senior in high school our school newspaper sponsor, our English teacher, assigned me the job of editing the various articles that would be posted in the local town newspaper.  I’m pretty sure I got the job because I was the best speller.  We posted little ‘what’s been happening’ paragraphs by each grade’s representative reporter and occasionally published poetry.  One introverted girl who rarely spoke offered a pretty decent poem once that I thought would be excellent with just a change to a couple of words.

When I suggested it, though, she blew up.  You would have thought I suggested sacrificing her first born child on Satan’s altar!  It was my first negative reaction to my editing, and I decided if she wanted an inferior version of her work, then so be it.

Later, when I submitted some of my fiction for critique by editors and agents, I understood her reaction.  My writing is my baby!  Nobody knows my story – or poetry – or anything else – like I do.  Nobody can improve my deathless prose (and rhyme)!  Of course, none of it sold.

Then at work, I was assigned to teach some of the worst training material I had ever been forced to use.  I complained so much that of course, they then assigned me to revise it.  Trust me, there is nothing like technical writing for educating a writer.  I was paid to write it and therefore was forced to do it the way my supervisors wanted it, or be able to successfully argue that my way was better.  Since my supervisors generally had college degrees in education, they tended to win more often than I did, until I got some real experience and self-confidence under my belt.

It was very humbling to realize how much I didn’t know about the technical aspects of writing.  I never got to go to college and graduated from a very small rural school that was unable to provide much of an education.  During my first session of revising the training material, I was totally unprepared for the supervisors’ total dismissal of it and their orders to rewrite it.

I was astonished to discover they wanted me to return and write more training material, but one supervisor told my team bluntly that even though we weren’t perfect, the others who wrote essays for their applications were even worse, and read a few anonymous essays to prove it.  Over the years, my technical knowledge combined with my improved writing skills gained me the name recognition necessary to be allowed to unofficially edit many of the technical procedures we used in our jobs. When I sent in a needed correction to a section because it was either incorrect or made no sense as written, it was accepted without argument.  Many times, it was the way it was written that was the problem.

As a teacher of adults learning new complex procedures for dealing with our job, I quickly discovered that a huge problem was the technical language used.  The instructors, including me,  were experienced and used to the terms and acronyms used on the job.   Since I encouraged questions from the students, not to mention being able to read their expressions, I realized that learning a new language had to be the first step in every training session for new employees.

Once I retired, I didn’t worry about teaching new terms and acronyms to bewildered students or trying to simplify complex procedures into a step by step list that could be easily followed.  I was relieved, thinking that finally, FINALLY, I would have the time to concentrate on my fiction and see about finally getting published.  I began reading various professional writing blogs to see what was selling, by whom, and why.

It didn’t take long before my forehead began wrinkling just like my former students. What were all these terms these writers were using?  Sure, I could look them up in a dictionary, but they didn’t make any sense in the context they were used in the article I was reading.  Nuts.  I had to go back to the basics and learn THEIR language.  Why bother?  Because one very old saying still holds true: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

If you want to write without worrying about being paid for your efforts, you can do it however you wish.  If you want someone to give you money for it, it has to please them. If they ask you about it and you don’t understand the question, it’s up to you to learn the language they are using.  Very few professionals in the publishing business have the time or interest to educate an amateur for free.  They don’t have to.  Writers, even incredibly talented writers, are a dime a dozen.  Sure, some editors probably bitterly regret passing up J. K. Rowling, but life happens.

Don’t think that self-publishing offers a way around that problem.  I have a Kindle, and about 1500 ebooks so far, to go with my print library of several thousand soft and hardbacks.  With ebooks especially buyers can return the book if they don’t like it soon after they buy it.  Most can be previewed and if they are badly written the books may never be bought.

I once bought a book that started out sounding terrific, then evolved into such excruciatingly bad prose, I gave up on the rest of the book.  I was furious.  The book was only about a dollar, but I was angry because the promise of an interesting plot, fascinating characters, and plenty of action was ruined by poor grammar, worse spelling, and ridiculous punctuation.  The only time I have seen worse writing is work by writers who don’t believe in using capitalization, paragraph breaks, or punctuation at all.

I don’t want people criticizing my work for poor writing, so I am learning to write like the authors of books I like to read.  I hope someday to have my work praised by well-known professionals, and if I have to learn their language to understand their criticism, to be able to answer their questions about my work, and to discuss my work in order to improve it, I’ll do it.  I have the Internet.  I may live out in a rural area and still not have transportation and money to get to college classes, but I can still educate myself.  I must, if I want to engage in the conversations I want to, with professional writers and editors and publishers. It’s my responsibility to find a way to make my dreams come true.

 

Talk To Me!

Communication is important, especially between large numbers of people all coming together for the same reason.  No, I’m not talking about protest marches or football games.  I’m talking about something much more important: pot-luck meals.  Don’t think that’s a big deal?  You must not have ever been to one.

If you’ve never come across the term, it means everybody attending brings some kind of food.  It is also referred to as a covered-dish meal, probably because not that long ago, you had to keep the food covered against insects and dirt until the meal started.

Family or friend pot-luck dinners are one thing.  You generally call around, checking to see what everybody is bringing, and the hostess usually makes sure there will be enough meat and side dishes and desserts.  But when the occasion becomes bigger, communication is even more important.

Church pot-lucks, for example.  All you have to do is go to one where the meat runs out before the line of eaters is finished to realize somebody should have been in charge of coordinating what everybody brought and figuring how many would be there.  The latter is sometimes impossible to predict, but at least there was a chance that somebody would be aware that there were only a couple of meat dishes and way too many side dishes.

These past few weeks I have been at functions that brought home the importance of communication.  In our area, the usual ritual is to have a meal after a funeral or memorial service, so that family and friends could gather and share their grief and love for the departed one.  Friends always took care of planning the meal, because the family had their hands full with grief and trying to deal with arrangements for the funeral or memorial service.

I have been to many of these meals since I am friends with many in our rural area and small towns.  Some of them are small with mostly family attending, but a couple have been enormous with a huge number of relatives and even more friends.  At one of the largest, the deceased’s employer had offered to cater the meal, and the family paid a young woman to meet the caterers and arrange the food at the community center where the meal would be held, while the mourners were finishing up the funeral at the graveside nearby.

Not everybody knew this, including me.   I personally brought several foods, meat and a couple of side dishes, I think.  I got there early, forgoing the graveside service, figuring I could help with the meal since the ladies who usually dealt with it were family members of the deceased and were at the graveside service.  I discovered the young woman arranging everything in the kitchen, which had two doors and a long counter, with two or three long tables for added surface space.

This immediately told me two things: one, she didn’t know how meals worked in our community center, and two, she had not seen how many mourners had been at the funeral.  I had and knew her arrangement was not going to work.  She was surprised and balked a little when I advised her the drinks and desserts needed to go in the main dining hall on larger tables.  She began to believe me when more ladies began showing up with more food, and the counter began being covered.  She had not even set out the meal the caterers had brought yet, keeping it warm in the oven and cool in the refrigerator.

She was astonished and a little dismayed when we finally had everything set up, with three long tables covered with desserts, two long tables covered with tea and coffee and a cooler on the floor full of ice and another full of canned drinks, and a kitchen with a long counter and two long tables all crowded with food.  “Won’t this be too much food?” she worried.  No, it wasn’t.  By the time the family and friends made their way through the line past all the food, the large amount of food the caterers provided and the extra food the friends of the family brought had dwindled to a few desserts.  If the friends of the family had not brought their dishes, only half the mourners would have had anything to eat.  NOT knowing about the catered food saved that meal.

Last week, another meal after a memorial service occurred.  The widow had asked the ladies of her church, which included me, to take care of arranging for food and drink for the family and friends later at a different community center.  One of the most experienced ladies here contacted all the usual members who donated food for these meals and figured whether we needed more or less of one food or another.  It was going to be simple, with only water to drink and sandwiches and soup and desserts for the food.  The only sticking point was how much would be needed since the family had many friends not from our area who would be attending.

The ladies of the church all brought our food, and the lady in charge made sure it got to the community center and got it set up with a few other women.  Few from our church and local area could attend the meal since it was almost an hour away and it was a weeknight with everybody needing to work the next day.  It was mostly the ladies who were retired who went to the community center to help out.  We got the sandwiches and soup set out and worried if there would be enough after seeing how many mourners had been at the memorial service.

We didn’t need to worry.  Apparently, the widow had not told their other friends that her church was handling the meal.  One man walked in with several large pizzas.  One came in with an enormous pan of barbecued sausages.  Desserts galore began crowding the dessert tables.  Boxes and boxes of fried chicken pressed up against the other meats. By the time they decided to start eating, the dishes were fighting for space on the long line of tables.

When everybody declared themselves stuffed there was still a large amount of food left, and the widow said she could not take it all home.  Then she had a brilliant idea.  She came up to us as we were contemplating all the remaining food and announced, “I solved it!  I just told all the college students they could take all this food back to their dorms!”  It was a perfect solution.  We got rid of the excess food, the kids got food for a week, and they did all the heavy labor of hauling the food to their vehicles, leaving us to just clean up.

Communication when coordinating is very important.  Sometimes you get all the information needed, and sometimes not.  Sometimes you just get lucky despite the missing information.

Not Just a ‘Writer’

I’m not just a writer.  I’m a storyteller.  I started telling stories before I learned my alphabet.  Once I discovered how to read and write, I learned that I could write something on paper and I could show it to others who had not heard me tell the story.  But writing my stories came later when my family could afford the extra paper and pencils.  Poverty sucks.

When I was a child, I was very introverted.  My family members were the only people I could tell my stories to.  When I was in elementary school, recess was an ordeal of loneliness until I started worldbuilding in my head.  It took a while to realize I was interacting with my imaginary world.  I would come out of it to see the other children staring at me.  I had been walking around, miming various actions and moving my mouth silently.  Finally one of them asked me what I was doing, and I began telling him about the sandwich factory I had built.  For some reason – hunger, maybe? – I was fascinated by the thought of automated assembly lines surrounded by machines slicing and stacking and wrapping meat and cheese sandwiches.  I had never seen an assembly line, but I guess we had been studying something on the subject.  Where were all the sandwiches going? I didn’t know and didn’t care.  It was the process that fascinated me.

The other kids thought I was nuts, but they began talking to me more, and I slowly made friends.  It helped me get through school.  Then we moved, and I had to make new friends. Since I was still introverted, it was difficult.  In the fifth grade, our English teacher discovered I had written a story.  I think it was about a horse since she had been reading a chapter a day from a novel about a horse to the class.  My story had several chapters as well, and she read a chapter of it every day to the class.  They did not seem impressed.  But they were happy they did not have to face a quiz about it, so I got no criticism.

I continued writing, the plots changing as I aged.  In the tenth grade, I was writing a teenage romance.  I had a thick spiral notebook dedicated to it.  A couple of weeks before the end of school, our history class teacher had pretty much finished everything on his curriculum and just told us to keep it quiet during class.  I immediately hauled out my notebook and began writing on my story.  The seat to my left was filled by a hulking football player.  He was a nice guy, but physically imposing.  I didn’t realize he was reading the page I was writing until I filled the page and started to turn to the next with my left hand.  He pinned my hand to the desk and leaned over.

I was speechless with shock and mortified by the immediate teasing coming from his friends behind us.  He ignored them and me and finished reading the page.  Then, still silent, he took the notebook away from me, flipped the pages to the story’s beginning, and read the whole thing.  I sat there too terrified to protest.  Luckily he caught up before the end of class.  I had no idea whether he’d let me have it back.  I had no idea what he was thinking as he read it.  It was a teen romance, written by a girl who had never had a boyfriend.  Would he make fun of me? Would he tell me it was trash?  Would he think it was about him?  It wasn’t, but would he be able to tell?

Just before class ended, he finished and handed the notebook back.  He looked at me, a warning clear in his expression.  “Finish it before school is out for the summer,” he said. “I want to read the end of it.”  He got up and left the room, still majestically ignoring his friends as they swarmed after him, demanding to know why he had held hands with me and then read my notebook.  I finished the story.  I did NOT want to find out what would happen if I didn’t.  After he finished it on the last day of school, he finally announced his opinion of it.  “A good story,” he said with an approving nod.  Nothing else, but I didn’t need anything else.

I lost my introverted nature over the next few years, but I never lost my love of story telling.  I wrote stories, I wrote poetry, I wrote songs.  I sent two books to publishers, and the editor told me that the beta readers had really liked them, but it wasn’t quite what the publishers really wanted at the moment.  I had learned about genre publishing by then, so I wasn’t surprised, but I was glad the beta readers had all liked my work.

One day I got the chance to have a science fiction/fantasy work of mine critiqued by a couple of professional writers and several amateurs as part of a science fiction convention.  You paid a fee, you sent in a chapter or short story, and received a copy of their work for you to critique.  I was always taught that if you need to offer criticism, make it constructive or leave it alone.  I learned that not everybody felt that way.

Science fiction and fantasy is such a broad genre most people have their own preferences for a certain kind.  Some have strong likes and dislikes of certain subjects.  At our session, we were supposed to go around the table, offering our critiques of one writer at a time.  The writer under the microscope was not allowed to argue with someone’s opinion, or defend their writing, or even speak until the end.  When mine came up, one amateur writer hated the whole story because it was based on a parallel world.  I didn’t worry about his opinion because that was his only criticism.  He just didn’t like parallel worlds, so he blew off the whole story.  Another young man loved my story.  He told me he couldn’t wait to read the rest of it.  I’m hoping to finally get that thing published soon, so maybe, wherever he is out there, he’ll be able to.

The other amateur writers were more focused on the technical aspects, like grammar and punctuation, and didn’t really have much to say about the story itself.  My work had been totally different from theirs, so I wasn’t surprised.  Then one of the pro writers, a white middle-class suburban mom type, complained that my characters were not believable.  “A teenage prostitute?  Where were her parents?”  Yes, she said that.  Everybody stared at her for a minute, and she looked like she couldn’t figure out why.  I don’t even remember the rest of what she said, I was so flabbergasted by that naive remark.

The other professional writer was a Canadian who wrote urban punk fantasy.  He tore my story to shreds, slapping the manuscript copy on the table.  “Nobody talks like that!” he snapped, and proceeded to vigorously point out how terrible everything else was in my story.  I was speechless about that, too.  Everyone looked vaguely embarrassed as he wound up.  When he was finished and I was allowed to speak to all of their critiques, I just smiled at him and told him I’d work on the dialogue.  I was from the rural southern United States, and he was an urban Canadian with a teenage daughter.  Maybe he didn’t get to listen to the kind of conversations I listened to.  I ignored everything else he said since it sounded like opinion, which didn’t worry me.  I was just pleased that one young man, who was my target audience for that story, really liked it.  That meant I had done it right.

I have had other comments since on many different stories I have written.  One lady told me about one story that she laughed and then she cried and then laughed again.  I said good because I had as well while I was writing it.  One lady told my church that she had not finished one of my books yet, but felt that it had changed her life, and urged all of them to read it.  Whoa!  I’m not sure I meant to do that, but she seemed happier, so I was glad.

Strong ego?  You bet.  I love to read what I write.  I like getting good reviews, but bad ones don’t bother me.  I may have to publish my own books, and I don’t make money at it yet, but I’m enjoying myself.  I get to tell stories, and that’s all I want to do.

Conversations With God

I had an interesting conversation with God the other day.  No, not a prayer.  I have conversations – you know, the kind where I say something, He says something, I say something…

People often give me a funny look when I say God talks to me, as if they expect me to start waving a sign saying stuff like “Prepare to meet thy Doom!” or something.  Nah.  The folks at my small church gave me that look when I first joined them, but since I’m a cheerful sort and often have humorous conversations with God that I remark on, they’ve relaxed.

I’ve had these conversations for as long as I can remember.  My parents, bless their hearts, just nodded and said stuff like, “How interesting.”  They were used to my storytelling, which started about the same time, and they might have thought that was just another story.  But it’s not fiction to me.  To me, God’s voice is as real as my mother’s, more trustworthy than anybody I know, and I never have to ask Him to speak up, stop mumbling, or clarify whether something He said was sarcasm or a joke.

A little girl, hearing me say God told me something, asked what God sounded like.  “Ever had a friend stand behind you and say something over your shoulder?” I asked her.  “He sounds just like that.  You don’t see Him, but you can hear him clearly.  You know His voice because you hear Him all the time. That’s what He sounds like.”

Some people say God speaks to them through the Bible, others say they have visions.  That happens to me, too, but I also get the audio version, which is better for me, since I can ask questions and get immediate answers.  I don’t always LIKE the answers, and sometimes He tells me my brain doesn’t have the words to understand the answer.  Like calculus, I guess.  I still don’t get that, either.  Algebra barely got through.

The conversation I had the other day was fairly typical.  He’s never really been able to get me to learn two things: self discipline and patience.  Especially patience.  Ever heard that old joke?  “Give me patience, NOW!”  That’s me.  My sister and I were cleaning all the Christmas decorations out of the house and putting them back into storage for another year.  We got the storage bins out of the storage building outside, filled them up, opened the door to take them back to the storage, and discovered a downpour occurring.

“Come on, God, give us a break!” I complained.  “Cut the rain off for just half an hour, can’t You?  Just give us enough time to get these boxes back into the storage building and You can let it rain all the rest of the day!  What do You say?” No response, and the rain just seemed to come down harder.  A couple of minutes passed, and finally my sister and I both shrugged.  We’re not sweet enough to melt in the rain, after all.

We lugged the plastic bins out of the house and into the storage building, getting incredibly soaked in the process, and no, we didn’t melt.  But just as I shut the storage building door and locked it, the rain stopped.  Perfectly timed.  I shook my fist at the sky.  “God, that’s not funny!” I shouted.  My sister just shook her head and laughed.  But God replied quite clearly.

“No, it’s not funny,” He agreed, sounding annoyed.  “If you had shown enough faith to wait a mere ten minutes, you would have been completely dry, wouldn’t you?”

I hate it when He makes a point so true I can’t argue.

A lot of the writing I do is at His order.  For instance, I’ve never been much into angels.  I just never paid much attention to the subject, other than the mentions of them in Bible stories.  But when I started writing a Christmas story for the Sunday School teachers in my church every year (I’m the Sunday School director) I discovered there were angels in every story, and so when I published the first collection of Christmas stories “Once Upon A Christmastime” I put an angel on the cover.  “Standing Next To A Miracle”, my second collection of short stories, is about the people who were friends and family of the people in Bible stories of miracles, but my third collection, coming out shortly (I’m planning, anyway) is all about angels.  “Angels With Attitude” it will be called.

I wasn’t planning on writing anything like any of these short stories.  I was planning to be a novelist, and already had a long list of novels I was planning to write as soon as I retired and finally got the time to sit back and pound the keyboard.  But when I finally do, what comes out?  Short stories about angels and Bible characters.  Huh.  I never know what will emerge.  I’m quite often surprised.  I usually can’t remember them, so I have to go back and reread them for myself.  I only half-jokingly remarked to my church members that I was ghostwriting for God.

This past Christmas was a hard one for our church.  Our church treasurer and a dear friend to many died of illness.  At her funeral we discovered a young man who had grown up in our church had died in an accident on his way back to his parents’ home the night before.  It was during his funeral a few days later that God spoke to me.  I never know until just before Christmas what the gift story will be about.   I always just wait for inspiration to strike, find stuff to go into gift bags that goes with the story, and type like mad when it hits.  But this time I got it during the funeral, and I was appalled.

You see, there was a story I had been planning to write for the “Angels With Attitude” collection, but I hadn’t got it on my computer yet.  God told me this story would be my Christmas gift.  I didn’t want to put it in a Christmas gift.  It’s a good story (I believe) but horribly inappropriate for any member of my church at Christmastime during our grief.  I was even more appalled when I discovered a short while later that the husband of one of the Sunday School teachers had just been diagnosed with a nasty form of cancer.

The story, you see, is about an angel of death (yeah, not THE angel of death – he explains it in the story) appearing to a young cancer patient.  I argued fiercely with God.  Okay, not argued; protested is really the correct word, since argument is a two way arrangement.  God doesn’t bother to argue.  You do it His way, or face the consequences.  What happens to me is I am placed under unction.  I heard that phrase once and thought it sounded appropriate, since that’s the sound I make: “Unnnn!”  Essentially, that means since I agreed a long time ago to do what He tells me to do, He’s going to keep nagging me until I do it.  In the Bible they called it anointing.  Wonder if any of those anointed folk felt like going “Unnn!”

He got His way, of course, but I added a letter outside the story to tell the teachers not to blame me for the story.  Apparently, God thought it was necessary for SOMEBODY to read it, so there it went.  I haven’t heard from any of them yet.  Maybe I’ll put an excerpt on my website and see what everybody else thinks of it.  Buy the book to read the whole thing.  Or look up one of the teachers I gave it to.  They might let you borrow it.  But I’d rather you buy the book.  You’ll like the other stories, too.  God said so.

Update: Just heard from a relative of the young man whose funeral I attended.  She said the story helped break her from her deep well of grief and begin to live again.  Whew!  Never try to second guess God.  I’ve learned to just ask to see the results of acting on His orders once in a while.  Got to get this third book published.