Author Archives: admin

About admin

So many changes! I've recently retired from teaching, returned from living in Germany, and am exploring the many blessings and challenges of early retirement. When not writing this blog, I write mysteries, women's fiction, and dark little stories. Life is good in Tacoma, WA, even though I often feel like a foreigner here. Here's to change, the only constant in life.

IWSG February 2107: Reading as a Writer, and Vice Versa

Can you believe how quickly another month has whizzed by? It’s time once again for our monthly question from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a great resource for all us scribblers, and I’ve really enjoyed meeting other writers via this blog exchange. Give them a look here and join the conversation:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

Our question for February: How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

  1. Being a writer has reduced the amount of fiction I read, because I’m busy writing, or reading about writing. I’m working to change that, because reading widely makes me a better writer. It also teaches me about publishing trends, as well as changing tastes in fiction. And it’s fun. With all the dire news landing with juicy splats all around me, I find myself reaching for love stories, comedy, and other light-hearted literary diversions.
  2. Being a writer has made me a more critical reader. Having gobbled so many workshops, books, blogs, and magazines about the craft of writing fiction, I’m now much quicker to notice craft elements that, if mishandled, dampen a story’s impact. During my many years of teaching high school English classes, I looked at stories primarily from a reader’s point of view. If a story didn’t grab me, I just set it aside without much thought as to why it left me flat. But having studied the craft of writing from a writer’s point of view, I’m much more aware of issues like:
  • Characters who talk alike
  • Stories knitted together out of boring, predictable clichés
  • Protagonists I just can’t relate to, or whose actions don’t make sense
  • Lengthy flashbacks that don’t move the story forward
  • Long pauses in the narrative to insert info-dumps
  • Formulaic writing, such as ending every scene with a breath-taking cliffhanger
  • Purple prose and thesaurus abuse: writing that distracts me from the story rather than enhancing its impact

The good news is that because I notice these issues in others’ writing, I’m less likely to commit these crimes in my own work. So I hope, anyway.

So, what have you been reading lately, and has it helped your writing?

On Minimalism, Adding Value, and Ten Thousand Steps

During this dark, drizzly, cold time of year,  walking at least 10 K steps per day can be a challenge. Picture, if you will, a middle-aged woman in gym clothes, pacing from front door to back door while listening to podcasts. That’s me. Just 1000 steps to go. Those recorded conversations really help pass the time while I walk.

Lately I’ve been gobbling podcasts about voluntary simplicity, “minimalism” being the more popular term these days. Of course I read Thoreau as an undergrad, and have been known to mutter “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” while searching my overstuffed closet for something to wear to work. The book that really opened my eyes to the beauty and wisdom of simplicity was Elaine St. James’ 1994 volume Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter.

Trends run in 20-year cycles, don’t they? It seems voluntary simplicity is in again. So far, my favorite podcast so far on this subject is The Minimalists, in which Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, both thirty-five, discuss how they came to and maintain a simpler lifestyle. They also have a documentary out, and a website, http://www.theminimalists.com/, in which they explore and celebrate an alternative to our destructive, mindless consumerism.

A phrase these two young minimalists frequently use is “Adding value to your life.” What a great guiding question to keep in mind as I weed through superfluous belongings or contemplate a purchase. Does this object add value to my life? Does this pastime? This habit?

During these dark days of the year, here are a few things that are adding value to my life:

  • Blogs by writers, for writers
  • Upbeat novels with a much-needed HEA ending, like Ann Garvin’s I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around.
  • Remembering to turn on the music while I cook, clean, or bathe. It’s harder to gnaw on that worry bone while dancing.
  • Rose-scented perfume
  • Trevor Noah’s commentary on our crazy times
  • My favorite fuzzy sweaters
  • Playing my ukulele
  • Singing with children. I don’t sing all that well, but they don’t care.

What’s adding value to your life these days?

On Insomnia and Internet-Induced Nightmares

Has the news been keeping you up nights?

I did it again last night. I’ll bet you’ve done it too.

Sleep evaded me, and so I lay in bed for hours with a twitching body and a racing mind. Every time I started to drift off, foul tendrils of worry wrapped around my brain. What’s to come under Cheetohlini the Terrible? Like giant dominos falling in slow motion, each potential disaster landed with an ominous thunk: no more Social Security, no more health insurance for my daughter, no more pension check. No more natural gas to heat our house. No electricity, no running water. War with Russia. Nuclear devastation.

And then the zombies came shambling over the horizon.

OK—by the light of day, I can see that all this spinning of dark doom-dreams is a waste of time. There are currently no reports of zombies in Tacoma, except perhaps for druggies on 6th Avenue. Our furnace still works. Our savings have not been wiped out by a stock market collapse or government confiscation.

I went hunting online for a quote I vaguely recall—was it by Mark Twain? Something about how none of us is truly sane in the wee hours of the morning. I couldn’t find it, but I did find this one by Calvin Coolidge.

“If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”

Since the election, I spend far too much time on social media and news sites, testing the limits of how much bad news I can tolerate. The needle is definitely in the red zone, and I need to release some pressure before my worry-tank explodes.

On the one hand, when dealing with adversity and worry, my default mode is to do something. Social media alerts me to opportunities to take action, such as calling my elected officials when they’re on the verge of voting away yet another batch of our rights. Public outcry had a lot to do with the reversal of sneaky, destructive doings by Republican congressmen and women recently, and public outcry may be key in limiting the injustices perpetrated by the new kakocracy.

On the other hand, much of the online news is pure speculation about what the neon-orange man-baby might do next. I’ve been watching friends both real and virtual work themselves up into a lather. And I’ll bet they’re not sleeping well.

Where is that perfect balance point between involvement and self-protection? I haven’t found it yet.

For now, I’m limiting my time on social media, and giving my skimming skills a good workout. It’s so tempting to read the latest flare-up of righteous indignation, but too much of that stuff will leave me singed–and it will eat up all my writing time to boot.

On the plus side, cutting back on social media leaves more time for reading fiction. What are you reading these days?

On Writing Rules We’d Rather Forget

Can it really be the first Wednesday of the month already? With each passing year, the time seems to fly by more swiftly. That may be good news, considering what the next four years may hold.

In any case, it’s IWSG time again! The Insecure Writers’ Support Group is a place where writers encourage each other, express their doubts, and offer help. According to their website, it’s “a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.” They also offer oodles of resources for writers. Visit them here:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

January 2017 Question: What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

I’m bolder than I was when younger, but I’m still quite conflict-averse. This is not a good trait in a writer. When creating a story, I resent the pressure to inject every scene with conflict. But all the craft books, all the writing teachers, all my critique partners remind me that I must. We’ve all heard the adage: “Put your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at her, then get her back down.”

Whether on the page or on the screen, a narrative with too much constant conflict tires me out. All that strife can feel phony, contrived. Must I really throw that many rocks? And then drop my protag over a cliff and leave her clutching at slippery tree roots by her fingernails?

Why can’t I intersperse high-conflict scenes with cozy, funny scenes in which nothing goes wrong for my poor protag? I know I’ve enjoyed books in which there were plenty of low-conflict scenes. Alas, I wasn’t yet writing “for reals” and didn’t take notes on those writers’ technique and structure.

OK, here’s one: J.A. Jance is one of my favorite mystery writers. Her stories include many low-key scenes in which the protag interacts with friends and family. These scenes provide backstory, comic relief, or just a breather. Of course, Jance’s stories never lack for adequate conflict—we’re trying to solve a murder, for goodness’ sake.

I get it—my job as a writer I to show a big change in my character. But I enjoy just spending with my protag, getting to know the colorful characters she meets. I’ve created a fictional town for her which incorporates aspects of my favorite places. Most of us don’t live in coastal artists’ colonies like my protag does—most of us live in overcrowded cities or boring suburbs or out in the country where nothing much happens. Do I really have to chase poor Lola down the streets of this lovely town, threatening her with the loss of all she holds dear?

I know, for a story to sell, the stakes must be high. But I wish that weren’t so; I wish readers, editors, publishers had a little more patience, were more inclined to stop and smell the coastal breeze as it wafts over my protag and her wise, funny friends.

Connecting in the New Year

I got this marvelous idea from Gretchen Rubin’s excellent podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. If you haven’t already, you should check it out on iTunes. Rubin and her sister, Elizabeth Craft, discuss ideas from her book Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life. Rather than create the usual list of (ignored by February) new year’s resolutions, Rubin suggests picking a one-word theme to focus on in the coming year.

Choosing my theme for 2017 was surprisingly easy: CONNECT.

Both my vocation and my avocation require lots of solitary office time, and that suits my mostly-introverted nature. I could easily spend a whole day writing and reading—until I find myself feeling lonely and itchy for actual human contact, an itch that social media doesn’t quite scratch. And yet, when I’m with others, I sometimes find it hard to give them my full attention. I could do much better here, and would be happier for it.

And then there’s the news. Oh my, how recent events tug on my worry strings. How they stretch their tendrils of gloom through my dreams. I sit at my desk, picking at the virtual scabs and retweeting dismay, which only magnifies the miasma of impending doom. I don’t want to waste four years huddled under a rain cloud like Eeyore.

And so, in 2017 I’ll focus on connecting—with other writers, with my students and colleagues, with activists who are doing something other than moan, with not-so-likeminded people, to remind them of our shared humanity, with loved ones I see too seldom, and with the fascinating people who cross my path each day. Keeping this one-word mantra in mind will help focus my efforts: connect. There’s no warmer comfort than knowing, deep down in your bones, that you’re not alone.

What’s your focus for the coming year? Can you boil it down to just one word?

Book Review: Exit Signs, by Patrice Locke

Patrice Locke’s charming new romance

It’s always a delight to read a book after having met the author. I met Patrice Locke at this year’s Women Fiction Writers’ Association retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is also the setting of this delightful tale. In fact, we met just a few days before her book’s release, and she was a bit nervous about the whole business. She needn’t have been—this story is a delight.

Researcher and ghost writer Tracy Price is hired to help dreamy rock star Jesse Elliot with his memoir. Sparks fly, naturally, but her cautious nature and his cockiness lead to misunderstandings and doubts. Meanwhile, Tracy and her partner are digging up intriguing clues about a long-dead poet from the 1930s, whose story may be the key that unlocks their success, as well as freedom from the odious boss, AKA “the dragon.”

Locke knits these two plot lines together in a clever and touching way. The on-again, off-again romance between Tracy and Jesse delivers humor and heartache. I read this novel during the very busy run-up to the holidays, and made sure to carve out a precious hour each day to escape to Albuquerque and see what new adventure or screw-up Tracy would deliver. Tracy’s the sort of heroine who shoots herself in the foot so often that she’s going to need a much smaller shoe, but Locke makes her an extremely sympathetic, well-rounded character all the same. Her quirky snack concoctions, awkwardness around achingly-handsome Jesse, her dogged independence, and her warm heart make her a character to fall in love with. The same holds true for her circle of friends, all well-rounded characters I enjoyed spending time with. This book delivers a satisfying resolution and plenty of warm fuzzies—sweet but not cloying, and great fun.

IWSG Question o’ the Month: What’s Your Five-Year Plan?

It’s time once again for our monthly question from the Insecure Writers’ Support Group. IWSG is a great resource for all us scribblers, and I’ve really enjoyed meeting other writers via this blog exchange. Give them a look here and join the conversation:

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/p/iwsg-sign-up.html

December 7 Question: In terms of your writing career, where do you see yourself five years from now, and what’s your plan to get there?

Ah, the five-year plan. I’ve heard of these. Having worked so long in an institution that doesn’t offer much “career advancement” (I was a high school teacher), this sort of planning is new to me. Here goes:

Five years from now, I will have published a book, probably more than one. I’ve spent the two plus years since I’ve left teaching learning my craft and learning about the publishing world. I have two complete manuscripts to show for all that effort, a cozy mystery and a women’s fiction novel. The former would be a good candidate for self-publishing, as it takes place in the community where I used to work. I’m betting that at least some of my fellow teachers and former teachers would enjoy reading about a fictional murder in their midst.

My hope is still to be published in the traditional sense, but I’m also working on a story that will be my first foray into self-publishing. It’s a steamy romance, which is great fun to write. And FUN is my guiding star. I prefer to read, and write, light-hearted stories with plenty of humor. When I open a book, I’m not looking for a cathartic sob-fest, nor a fog of ennui, nor a shiver of impending doom. Life hands me plenty of sorrow, weariness and fear—I want to offer my readers some fun. And I want the time I spend in my fictional worlds to be fun as well.

So—my plan is to have fun learning the process of self-publishing, to have fun finishing my next two novel projects, and to have fun connecting with other writers via workshops and forums (fora?) like IWSG. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that fun and hard work are mutually exclusive. I just want to enjoy the process and the journey to published authorship.

Five years from now, this blog will contain links to my published books, one way or the other. And you? Do you have a five-year goal for your writing or for another endeavor? Do you find such goals helpful?

What’s on Your Thanksgiving Table?

thanksgiving

Thanks to Ronna Benjamin of the Better After 50 blog for this writing prompt. Visit her here: http://betterafter50.com/

In 2016, I bring to my Thanksgiving table:

  • Our decidedly un-Thanksgiving-ish Provençal tablecloth, which we bought in Spain, because why not? It’s mostly orange, and that feels like Thanksgiving to me.
  • Memories of the twenty-seven Thanksgivings I celebrated in in Europe, mostly in Germany. Frohes Fest, ihr lieben, und guten Appetit!
  • A relaxed attitude. I’m not trying any ambitious new recipes this year. I don’t have a bin full of November decorations—that’s just not my style, and that’s OK. Our home is welcoming, comfortable, and clean, and that’s good enough.
  • Stretchy pants. It has not been a good year for my waistline, but Thanksgiving is not the time to worry about that.
  • Joy at being able to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s side of the family and Christmas with mine. No more melancholy Christmases for two, missing our loved ones across the ocean.
  • A spiny knot of worry about the state of our dear country, which I will try to soothe with pie and laughter.
  • A new song for our family guitar circle: John Lennon’s Imagine.
  • Gratitude for our good fortune, comfortable circumstances, and opportunities.
  • Freshly-sharpened determination to make new connections in my community, to do my part to hold back the wave of hate that threatens to drown our democracy. I only have my one little bucket to bail out the ship of state, but if we all bail together, we can stay afloat.

Steak and Potato Soup in the Slow Cooker

slow-cooker

In an alternate universe, I’m a food blogger. Today I’m zipping through the wormhole to share a recipe I tried that worked out well. No photo—we ate it all before it occurred to me to write down the recipe. But this turned out well, so I’ll share in hopes that someone might enjoy this hearty soup—and perhaps share his/her favorite slow-cooker recipe with me.

We recently visited the Newport Hills neighborhood of Bellevue, Washington, where my husband lived many moons ago. Of course, much has changed, and one new addition is the Mustard Seed Grill and Pub, a casual sports tavern where I had their delicious Pepper Pot Soup, tender cubes of beef and velvety potatoes in a creamy white base–perfect dish for a soggy, chilly fall day.

To lure our vegetable-phobic friend in for a weekday jam session—R and D on guitar and me on uke—I did my best to recreate this soup. Haute cuisine it ain’t; nevertheless, it’s delicious.

I diced up a big yellow onion, about a cup and half of celery, including the leaves, and three big carrots. Into the slow cooker that went, along with three diced cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, a generous grinding of black pepper, and about 2 teaspoons of Herbes de Provence.

I trimmed the biggest chunks of fat from a big ol’ beef chuck steak, a bit more than a pound. I diced the meat up small, about ½ inch cubes, peppered it generously and dredged it in flour. I browned that in olive oil in two batches, adding each to the slow cooker atop the vegetables. I peeled and diced up a monster russet potato—again, about ½ cubes. Then I filled the pot with four cups of beef broth and one can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup—the kind with roasted garlic. More pepper, a generous dash of Worcestershire sauce, and on goes the lid.

I intended to cook it on high for a few hours and then turn it down to low. Well, I forgot to switch to low, so I ended up leaving it on high for a good six hours. The result was perfect: tender meat, velvety potatoes, and a nice peppery bite. This made enough for at least six main-course bowlfuls. Our meat-loving friends were pleased. I’ll make this one again.

What’s your favorite slow-cooker recipe for a drizzly winter day?

Book giveaway: Piper Morgan to the Rescue!

piper-morgan-to-the-rescue-jpegheadshotsf

Because we’re all deeply mired in serious matters these days, a little levity is badly needed. How about an adorable little redhead with a heart for puppies? Here’s the latest release in Stephanie Faris’s Piper Morgan series, a perfect holiday gift for the little readers on your list. She’s giving away copies here!

https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/share-code/YmE3MjA1ZmE3NmM3MjJlOTUyMzIyZjViYzk5OWQ3Ojc=/?

Piper helps some four-legged friends find the perfect home in the third book of the brand-new Piper Morgan series.

Piper is super excited to help out at Bark Street, a local animal shelter in town. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by adorable puppies and dogs all day? And when Piper sees Taffy, the cutest dog she has ever seen, Piper is determined to find a way to bring Taffy home. But it won’t be easy—especially when she finds out someone else wants to make Taffy a part of their family, too!

Stephanie Faris knew she wanted to be an author from a very young age. In fact, her mother often told her to stop reading so much and go outside and play with the other kids. After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University with a Bachelor of Science in broadcast journalism, she somehow found herself working in information technology. But she never stopped writing.

Stephanie is the Simon & Schuster author of 30 Days of No Gossip and 25 Roses, as well as the upcoming Piper Morgan series. When she isn’t crafting fiction, she writes for a variety of online websites on the topics of business, technology, and her favorite subject of all—fashion. She lives in Nashville with her husband, a sales executive.

https://stephaniefaris.com/

http://stephie5741.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/stephfaris

https://twitter.com/stephfaris

https://www.instagram.com/stephfaris/