People I Used to Know

Today on Facebook, I saw multiple instances reminding me why I had to put aside my novel until the end of the year at least.

When I write stories, I work hard to present all of my characters as real people. In the case of my current novel, that meant that my progressive characters run over boundaries in their zeal to do the right thing. And it means that the characters who are blind to racist realities are also hospitable, helpful, and intelligent.

In fact, I was deeply invested presenting good down-home Christians as flawed but good-hearted people. After all, I came from them and I love them. I see big problems in their history and current perspectives, but at the same time, I could write them sympathetically because I know them.

At least, I thought I did.

But these are the people who are cluttering up my newsfeed with things like this:

This isn’t about whether Trump or Biden wins. I haven’t liked any of the options for two elections running. This hits me on a much more personal level.

Four years ago, I saw my people turn out in droves to vote for someone I thought they’d never ally themselves with. They traded principle for political power. That was a year of grief and disillusionment for me, yet I thought I still understood them. Then came this year, when I became aware of the ugly voices of conspiracy. The whispered lies have led people to spread fear and threats of violence as if it’s undisputable truth. My heart broke again. I don’t know my own people.

So my novel remains on a (digital) shelf for now. I hope that sometime soon I might once again know the people I came from.

A 2020 Planner

At the end of last year, I bought a 2020 Planner. Isn’t it lovely?

I had a good reason to buy one. And no, it wasn’t so I could schedule my days, track my goals, and do all that other weird organizer stuff that people usually use planners for. (Note: I tend to be friends with weird organizer people. Also, I marry them.)

No, I liked the idea of filling in a planner for a fictional character. This one promised lots of space for that.

I mean, you could even rate each day, track your goals, write to-do lists, track your water intake… It was perfect for developing an entirely different person in an entirely different life!

But of course, this the year that things went so haywire that even the phrase “2020 Planner” is a joke.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out this planner and flipped through the few pages where I’d jotted down some initial thoughts. The planner fell open to December 2019, and I wrote at the top, “This month I saw one article on Facebook about a new virus in China.”

My fictional character faded from view as I paged through the blank calendars and began to write notes. Everything began shutting down this week. It was hard to get toilet paper. I made masks for the family and felt a little sheepish, but figured it was a good policy.

And then came June, when our old national sin of racism flamed to the surface again after George Floyd’s death. DJ and I attended our first protest, and I saw white friends finally see truths that the black community has been saying for generations.

But I also saw other friends repeating the same old defenses — the same ones I wrote about in my current novel. Many claim to be Christian, who insist that we must repent as soon as the Holy Spirit shows us sin, and our entire duty is to obey God and let him handle the consequences, Yet when it comes to the hard work of repenting of a history of racism, they can’t manage to let go of their political loyalties enough to do so.

I ended in August, when homeschooling is suddenly mainstream, masks still political statement, and the presidential elections looming.

I also noted that I’ve decided to set my novel aside until the end of the year. 2020 threw me off-balance. I feel like I need to reconsider everything from my setting to my characters to the scope that my story takes in. I hope to fill in the rest of the planner at the end of the year, and maybe I’ll be ready to engage with the novel again.

As I look at this accidental journal, I’m glad I took a couple of hours to fill it in. I didn’t set out to write an overview of this year; it just happened. And I think that’s a fitting theme for a 2020 Planner.

The Best Name Book Ever

But not, surprisingly, by Richard Scarry! (Parents of small kids will probably get that joke.)

The Baby Name Wizard, 2019 Revised 4th Edition: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby by [Laura Wattenberg]

When I was a teenager, some of my favorite reading was baby name books. Not only did I have characters to name, but my family shared a general interest in names and naming trends. It took me a while to figure out that not every dinner table perked up at the mention an odd or trendy name you came across last week. That, in fact, some people didn’t even care about the difference in spelling a name Michaela or Makayla.

I also learned that I needed couch my hobby in the proper terms. An 18-year-old reading a baby-name book gave rise to two immediate assumptions:

  1. I was pregnant.
  2. I was not pregnant, but so looking forward to having babies that I was already thinking of names for them.

Neither was accurate.

I grew up, got married, and for a while I read baby names books with actual babies in mind. (Although I found our third child’s name long before I got pregnant with her — I just thought of it one afternoon, called DJ at work and asked if he liked the name, and it went on the list.) Yet it was also simply because I love the subject. It was during these years that I first discovered The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg… only the best name book ever.

The Baby Name Wizard was a revolution in the world of baby-name books. Most of them tended to just be a list of names with dubious definitions attached to them. (Many name meanings are uncertain or irrelevant anyway; our culture doesn’t generally choose names for their meanings. And in a world where you can build names like Abralyn and Jaycee, name meanings don’t even exist.) Some of the better books would give you a short commentary about a name, or list famous people who have the name.

TBNW does way more than that. In one small entry, you get:

  1. Name pronunciation
  2. Variations in spelling
  3. Common nicknames
  4. “Brother” and “sister” names. These are names that the author has decided match the name in style and association.
  5. A graph to show its popularity trend, especially which year it was the most popular
  6. A short blurb about the name — its sound, its origin, its associations
  7. A brief mention of well-known people who have the name

Here’s the entry* for my name:

And it sure doesn’t hurt my feelings that she gives “Sara” its own entry, separate from “Sarah.” When I was 13, my very first stories featured a character named Sarah Robsin who was not in any way a fantasy version of myself, since Sarah is such a different name from Sara.

Beyond the actual name listings, you also get sections that group names according to certain styles — African-American, Brisk & Breezy, Mythological, Nicknames… Y’all. It’s just good reading.

I’ve used this book extensively while writing my current novel. I needed to know what a woman would be named in the 60s (so, naming trends from the 40s). This book lets me find a name, then follow it to other, similar, names. I can see from the graph whether the name “Brittany” would have been cutting-edge, trendy, or passe depending on how old the character is. For someone who finds it jarring when a contemporary teenager is named “Judy”(and nobody remarks on it as unusual) or 35-year-old man in 2011 is named “Tristan” (and he wasn’t tormented in middle school in 1991?) — or, heck, who thinks it’s wildly convenient that all of the Twilight Cullens have trendy old-fashioned names like Edward and Rosalie and none of them are named Herbert or Flossie — this book has been an enormously helpful resource.

The 2019 (fourth) edition just came out, and I just got my copy. It’s familiar and fun, and good quarantine reading. You should pick one up! Just be prepared to explain to people that you aren’t actually pregnant.

*(Not the whole entry, just in case, and here’s hoping Laura Wattenberg doesn’t object to me posting this. Or maybe she’ll track it down, realize I’m a longtime loyal fan, and become pen pals with me.)

Revision in a Time of Quarantine

Nothing like rekindling your memories of your first great literary love just as a pandemic sweeps through the world.

To be honest, my daily life hasn’t change a whole lot even as everything is canceled and shut down. We already homeschool and we already prefer to stay home as much as we can. I’m used to shopping for a week or two at the time and feeding six people all day, every day. I’d also stocked up a bit because my mother told me to. DJ is working from home for a month, so that’s been a big change for him; but it turns out that my preferred lifestyle adapts pretty well to pandemic living.

While we continue with school and take long drives when the walls start closing in, I immersed myself yet again in that original Great Literary Work of mine.

An advantage of the revision of 2007 was that the story now had a plot. A disadvantage was that for some reason I decided to lower Ria’s age from 18 to 13, and I changed the tone of the story accordingly. It was not a happy choice. Re-reading it was, as my kids would say, massive cringe.

“Most of the time, she was just plain Ria. And this morning she was a very sulky Ria.”

“She didn’t intend to apologize to him, either, once she got her revenge.”

And to think she’d complained about being bored in her Castle. What a silly little princess she’d been!

Apparently in 2007 I was temporarily possessed by the spirit of an early 20th-century Sunday school teacher.

Earlier this month, I sat down to rewrite the terrible first chapters, and then send the rest to my sister. But once I got the first part in better shape, I couldn’t leave the rest of the tripe that Miss Flossie Jones of Millerville Baptist Church, circa 1902, communicated through me.

So for the past two weeks I’ve worked my way through the story, smoothing out the dialogue, creating better conflicts, and removing the saccharine moralization.

Since I returned Ria’s age to 18, I also reintroduced the romance that Flossie seemed very uncomfortable with. I suspect it was this aspect that made me decide to lower the age in the first place. I spent my teenage years in a real-life version of the Fellowship, so even at 30 I didn’t know quite how to handle romance in fiction.

The hardest part of the rewriting was Ria herself. She was a typical first-timer’s heroine. She had no real motivation, and she spent the whole story being propelled by other people’s decisions. She was also, as a writer friend of mine put it, “insufficiently hobbied.” What did Ria like to do in her spare time? The answer appeared to be “ride horses and complain about having nothing to do.” Ria’s sister, on the other hand, is always designing clever contraptions and figuring out how things work. She would have made a far better heroine. But this is The Ria Story, so I just had to try to work with what I had.

It was a lot of work… but so much fun. I stopped worrying about the unfixable worldbuilding problems and just let the story be what it is. Yesterday I finished it and emailed it to my sister. It’s not a great story, but I think I made it into a solidly “okay” story.

And now I’m at loose ends again.

Well, unless you count my actual serious novel. I’ve left Richmal and Co. cooling their heels in the third draft for nearly two months now. I’ve been stuck on a pretty thorny plot problem. Oh, hey, here’s a message from a reader who has a suggestion! BlessedAssurance.millertownbc points out that Richmal’s story features a lot more kissing than it does Bible reading, and she would be happy to take over the writing for a while.

Get thee behind me, Flossie.

My First Great Novel

Did you hear the light, wistful strains of violins wafting about the other day? I’m sure I did, as I was looking through things in my closet and picked up a tied-up bundle of fabric. The violin theme swelled as I untied it and laid out seven square quilt blocks. I had found remnants of my very first novel.

I’d written stories since I was nine years old, but this one was different. I began it when I was sixteen, and it was the one that introduced me to intoxication of novel-writing. Characters, setting, names, dialogue, conflict, romance, resolution… I drank deeply if inexpertly.

I based the novel on several selections of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. I imagined a princess, Ria*, who had to flee from a burning castle, was taken in by a farmgirl and had to learn to live as a peasant, was discovered and arrested and almost executed, only to be rescued and whisked off to a hideout deep in a forest. She eventually learns that the family friend who betrayed her was in fact working to protect her — but despite his being handsome and courageous and blue-eyed, MY princess fell in love with a clever, witty, and not-really-handsome green-eyed prince. Totally subverted expectations there!

(I also subverted the expectation that the novel would have a plot. Plots are hard.)

In case anyone wondered if a sixteen-year-old created this world, it was set in a land where each of the seven provinces was named for a jewel. Because why wouldn’t they use jewel names? Can you imagine how much more interesting addresses would be if our states were named for jewels? “My address is 121 Day Street, Millertown, Peridot, USA.”

Anyway, I can’t express just how completely I was immersed in my own world. I worked on this story almost continuously for three years. I spotted people who looked like my characters. I collected rhinestone jewelry that reminded me of the provinces. I listened to music that let me pretend I was hanging out with Ria and Co. And I dragged my obliging mother and long-suffering younger sister along for the whole dang journey.

Mom taught me how to actually write, while my sister, R, sat through innumerable reading sessions and discussions of my characters. Even my young nieces caught the bug; they used to spend hours pretending to be my characters in their hidden camp. The Ria Story (because I was bad at titles) was an fixed feature of our lives during those years.

So in retrospect, it made perfect sense that R and I spent who-knows-how-long designing and sewing seven quilt blocks to illustrate a folksong that Mom and I made up to go with the story.

Here you go: the Seven Provinces (with two extra blocks for symmetry’s sake): Amber, Sapphire, Vanyth, Amethyst, Ruby, Jaize, and Emerald.

(Oh, you noticed those gemstones you’ve never heard of? Well, Jaize — Ria’s own province — was originally Jade. But “jade” has too many negative connotations in English, so I made up my own gem. And then to justify it, I changed Opal to Vanyth.)

When I re-discovered these blocks, I spent most of the day trying to remember the song that went with them. It came back in pieces — to the point that I’d be browning meat for tacos and suddenly exclaim, “A merry feast on a golden plate and Emerald’s wine in a toast!” I still haven’t remembered the first verse, or the words that go with the ring-and-book block (to my chagrin, because that ring-and-book block was Ria’s own province and therefore The Most Important One). I sent the pictures to my sister R, who remembered each piece of the song after I quoted it to her. Mom had forgotten all of it.

I revised The Ria Story heavily in about 2007, streamlining it and giving it a plot, to the point that these quilt blocks hardly make any sense now. But my sister says that she wouldn’t mind having a copy anyway, just to show her own girls what we spent so much time talking about as teenagers.

So I’m trying to polish up the fairly terrible beginning into a sort-of readable state. I doubt this new generation will fall in love with the story like I did. I’m not sure anyone can. It’s not a viable story, but it will always be my first great novel.

*My princess’s name wasn’t just Ria. It was longer than that. The ability to make up completely new names was kind of a power rush. I got a little carried away. Best to just leave it at that.**

**Okay, okay. Her whole name was Vallarenzaria. Happy now?

8 Late Updates

The updates aren’t particularly late, I guess. But it rhymes!

Interesting how nothing bloggable has happened since November, huh? Well, the truth is, too much has happened — many things that made me think, “I should post about that.” You know what they say about good intentions and how they’re ideal for diabolical road maintenance. I’m just giving up and writing out a list of updates.

1. I’m writing a novel. Yes, the same one I’ve mentioned over the past (sigh) two years. Two or three times, I thought the end was in sight. I got really excited. And then I’d run into a snag that required me to go several chapters back and rewrite. Which is where I am now, having to write in an entirely new event to justify the climax.

2. It’s going to be a good novel! My problem is that I tend to write stories that are similar to existing genres, but don’t quite fit in one. They’re too lighthearted for drama and too serious for beach reads. So in my current novel, I’ve got a young librarian in a small town who has two love interests; but at the same time she’s dealing with the ongoing effects of racism and abuse. So definitely not an easy fit into one particular category.

3. I’m putting this item third, but I really ought to put it first, last, and in between all other points. In January, my kids’ best friend, a 13-year-old boy who was like a nephew to me, died suddenly of a previously unsuspected brain clot. He and his family have lived directly across from us for sixteen years, and he spent hours at our house. His loss is inexpressible. My kids are still pretty numb, and my husband is able to compartmentalize a broken heart. But I go through every day with my brain repeating, over and over, that our favorite friend is gone. It’s very difficult to watch his family grieve, and to try not looking too far ahead at all the years that he won’t be here. It’s hard, and sad, and I wish we could rewind and get another chance.

4. But life goes on, weirdly enough. I can switch from flooding tears to figuring out the day’s schedule in a moment.

5. Some stuff has been happening in the Toxic Christian Patriarchy world. A lot of it happened around the time we lost our friend, and I just couldn’t dredge up enough spirit to care. Fortunately, others have covered it better than I could anyway.

Go here to read about how Bill Gothard of IBLP/ATI had to face his accusers in court. The suit was dismissed due to the statute of limitations, but the judge allowed each woman to speak and validated them afterward.

Here’s the Joy frequently covers the various implosions among long-entrenched church leaders.

You know how Christians are always looking at “our country” and shaking their heads and praying for revival? If you ask me, those prayers are being answered. Powerful men are finding that they can’t squash their victims’ voices like  generations of men before them could.

6. We’re finishing up another year of homeschooling, but this year is different — this year we’re graduating our oldest daughter. I wrote an open letter to her to commemorate the occasion. It’s odd to be writing to an almost-adult, when I still clearly remember her as a newborn baby with her nose smashed sideways from the birth.

7. I’m seriously excited about this novel I’m writing. (It’s still untitled since I can’t title my works until I’m done.) I’m finding space to allow my characters to be that confusing mix of good and bad that everyone is. It’s especially important in this novel, I think, because it’s set in a little Southern town with the usual history of racism. It would be all too easy to write it as “bad guys racist, good guys not.” But I strive to write real, human characters — and none of us possess all of the approved virtues that would make us a full-fledged “good guy.”  If only I could keep the plot from tangling up, I’d get this thing done!

8. (The fact that there’s a plot at all is a dramatic improvement from my earlier attempts at novels.)

Summer is coming. Writing is on the docket. That looks pretty good to me.

Fifty Shades of Fiction

pexels-photo

Am I coming out as a secret fan of Fifty Shades of Grey?

Well, the books began as a fan-fiction retelling of Twilight. I will say that I don’t like Fifty Shades as much as I liked Twilight. 

And I utterly despise Twilight.

No, I’m not a fan. I did try to read the first book. The writing was abysmal, the characters were intolerable, and having been fed toxic patriarchy in my younger years, the forced-submission stuff made me want to cry. A good sex story shouldn’t make you cry.

So why have I linked to the video below? Well, sorry, it’s actually not as salacious as secret sex dungeons and thinly-veiled abuse. I’m linking to one section of it where he talks about fiction vs. reality, because I think this is an area where people haven’t really thought through things.

I’ve heard many times, “How can a woman support the #metoo movement against sexual harassment when she reads things like Fifty Shades of Grey?” Or any erotic fantasy, really, because the genre so often blurs the line between consent and compulsion. This argument frustrates me. What people enjoy in fiction is often exactly the opposite of what they want in reality. In fiction you want conflict, drama, danger, and uncertainty. In real life, you want trust, reliability, peace, and security. Granted, I look askance at the fact that Fifty Shades was ever so popular because, really, it’s a very terrible series on many levels. But I don’t think that enjoying erotic fiction means a woman has no say in whether her boss can pat her butt or require sexual attention for her to keep her job.

The video explains it better, though. Why do we look for situations and stories in fiction that we don’t want in real life?

If you’ve got time, I recommend watching the whole thing, because he goes on to take apart 50 Shades (book and movie) and explain why it doesn’t work even in the context of fiction.

(Note: I have friends who like Twilight and Fifty Shades. Especially for Twilight, it really seemed to hit people on some deep level while they were dealing with difficult issues in their lives. I have no idea why, mostly because they can’t tell me either. They like it, I don’t, we’ve agreed to disagree.)

Sabbath Restlessness

I occasionally see a meme that thinks it’s solved my church problem for me. It informs me that if I stopped going to church because someone hurt me, then it’s obvious I was focused on people instead of Jesus. In short, if I find church a hard place to be, it’s my own fault.

Do I need to say that I hate that meme? No? Good.

It’s difficult for me to attend church. Even when I don’t fall prey to a panic attack, I find the whole process exhausting. When my choice is to go to a coffee shop and be refreshed, or go to church and be tired… well, the choice kind of makes itself, doesn’t it?

But I try. After all, we’re part of a healthy and safe church now. Nobody reminds me that I have to stay under authority. Nobody is twisting up Scriptures. Nobody watches my kids and judges my parenting. I know it’s a good place.

But it’s hard to feel that.

Recently I attended a service. I even took along colored pens and a journal with faux-reclaimed paper that my daughter got me for my birthday. I listen best when I can doodle, something I no longer apologize for.

Halfway through the sermon, I’d filled up two pages like this:

Untitled design

When I start journalling like that, it means I’m desperately trying to outrun panic. And I didn’t make it this time. I left long before church was done.

When I looked at the pages later, I was struck at how it captures the frenzy of my thoughts in church. Not only am I reliving and grieving past hurts, but I’m also evaluating every word of the sermon to make sure it’s “okay.” My radar, so long suppressed, is on high alert at all times.

No wonder I get tired.

My husband is very understanding, but a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people look at spiritual abuse survivors and criticize them for not getting involved in a church. Well, here you go — handy-dandy photographic evidence of what a service looks like to someone who has been hurt by people in the church. 

I don’t skip church on Sundays because I’m spiritually apathetic. I avoid it because I’m on spiritual hyperdrive. And I long for the day that a church sanctuary is as safe and restful a place for me as a shabby-chic hipster coffee shop.

A Tip for When You Meet an Author

If you read a book you like, and then invite the author for coffee, here’s a tip: Bring a couple of copies to be signed, and then make sure that your nails coordinate with the cover of the book.

Alternatively, if you’re an author, choose a book cover that complements your readers’ unconventional style.

20171109_124910

I live for the times I hear from readers. Meeting them is a hundred times better.

Check out her blog here to read the thoughts and experiences of someone who grew up in a real-life Fellowship culture.

Thanks for a fun coffee date, Lady Adelaide. I really do love your nails.

Pre-Made Book Covers

One of the more surprising secrets of the indie-publishing trade is that there are entire sites selling pre-made book covers.

[I highly recommend Go On Write for pre-made, but not generic, book covers. I’m inserting this link here so you don’t have to wade through the rest of the post to find it. But please do finish the post before sailing away.]

You, the author, write your book and go buy a cover that fits it. You can spend quite a lot on them, but most of them cost within the $30 – $50 range.

And I obviously lucked out, huh? Both of my book covers are excellent. Yeah, well, that took a little more “doing” than just buying a $50 digital file

Browsing through a few hundred covers will tell you that the more “genre” your story is, the easier it is to find a cover for it. (If you happen to write paranormal romance, you are set for life and beyond.)

If, however, you write stories that don’t fit easily into any one category, even a dozen pre-made cover sites can fail you. They definitely failed me.

I ended up using a custom service for The Fellowship, but had to spell out highly specific instructions. I even went to the paint store, picked out two or three suitable colors, and emailed the numbers to the designer. I’m happy with the outcome, but I felt slightly gypped that I did nearly all the creative work, while paying $200-some for it.

I couldn’t afford to do the same with Go Right. So I pored over pre-made cover sites. The one site I kept returning to was Go On Write (which I think of as “goon write” because that’s how its address appears). These covers, while still mostly catering to genre fiction, showed a lot of creativity and sparkle.* The mock titles are entertaining as well.

I still didn’t find what I needed. Since I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, I took the chance on his custom service. The turnaround was fast, and I was very pleased with the result. It was more expensive than just buying one off the site, but all I had to do was toss him the ideas and a stock photo. A year later, I came back asking for the digital cover to be converted into a “wraparound” cover for a physical book. (That’s one of his other services, so an extra charge for it.) The result is beautiful.

I’ve also bought three other covers from him. (Once a cover is sold, he doesn’t reuse it.) I’m pretty sure I’ll write stories to go with them one day.

Anyway, that’s my endorsement — I used this service, I was happy with it, so I’m passing it on to someone else who might find it useful. And it’s plain fun to just browse his site. Go check it out!

*He obviously does a lot of business for erotica, both straight and gay, so be advised his wares are not all G-rated.