Saturday, December 16, 2006

What are you calling it?

This is probably the most common question I get from readers about whatever my current work in progress is.

Sadly, I never have an answer for it. I no longer name my books as I write them, and I haven't for a few years now.

Why? For starters, authors rarely get to have any say in their titles.

That can come as a surprise to aspiring writers who spend hours concocting the perfect title and imagine it emblazoned on a stack of books at their favorite bookstore.

But the reality is that the marketing department gets to pick the title, and an author is extremely lucky to have any say at all. Every book I've submitted has hit shelves with a different title than I gave it. (The closest I've come is with book #3: the title I suggested had the word "house" in it. The final title was House on the Hill.)

I think most authors will be honest and admit that there's a part of us that hates having no control over the title. It's MY baby; why can't I have a say in what it's called?

But then you have to remember the one and only purpose for a title: to get potential readers to take an interest and pick up the book. If the title does that, it's a good title, no matter how well it ties into the story.

Authors write stories; that's our specialty. We aren't as good at selling them. On the other hand, the marketing department specializes in selling books and knowing what kind of title grabs interest. They have entire meetings devoted to picking titles. And since the publisher is the one footing the editing, marketing, printing, shipping, and other bills associated with my book, it's only fair that they get to pick the title that will give the book its best shot. They have a vested interest in seeing the book do well, so they'll pick a title they think will get the final product off the shelf and out the bookstore doors.

That said, I still dislike the title of my first book. When my editor informed me that it would be called Lost Without You, I sent her an email in hopes she could clarify what in the world that had to do with my story. Basically: nothing. It's just a romantic-sounding title.

But since it didn't even almost fit the story or my characters, I added a line of dialogue in the final scene so the title would both make some sense as well as reflect what I felt was the entire point of the book. (Which, by the way, wasn't the romance.)

Aside from the fact that I know whatever title I pick won't be used, there is another reason I don't have working titles for my projects: It's emotionally and mentally tough to rename your baby. For Lost Without You it took me a good year to be able to refer to the book by name. For months it was just, "My book." (That worked at the time, since it was my only one so far.) Since my stories always become such a part of me, it feels like an appendage gets cut off when they're renamed.

So I no longer give my books titles as I work on them. Instead I refer to them by a significant element in the book, sometimes a character (House on the Hill was my "Lizzy" book), but usually part of the setting (At the Journey's End was my "Honeymoon Trail" book). My current work in progress is simply, "Salt Lake City," since that's the temple it focuses on.

Catchy title, eh?

The good news is that my publisher now asks for at least five title suggestions, along with lists of significant locations, objects, ideas, words, etc. so the marketing folks can have a better idea of what's inside the pages--and then attach a more fitting title.

I love that it gives me some input in the process. But I must admit that my last three titles all rock; they fit the story and are catchy enough to grasp a reader's attention.

Even better, with each one, I haven't had to call them my second, third, and fourth books while I get used to the title. Without batting an eye, I've been able to call my babies by their final titles even before they're in print.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Blogging for a Friend

Jeff Savage, long-time friend and member of my critique group, is part of a great blog circle made up of six LDS writers (and, apparently, a frog).

Each writer takes a day of the week for their posts. In addition to Jeff, there's Kerry Blair, Sariah Wilson, Robison Wells, Julie Bellon, and Stephanie Black. You can spend a frightening amount of time reading their entries as you laugh your head off one minute and learn something about writing the next. It's great fun.

This week Jeff is having fun with his family at the Happiest Place on Earth. Word also has it that today he has set up shop at a table in New Orleans Square and is writing to his heart's content while his family plays. This is his family's third time to Disneyland this year, and they have a season pass, so getting in cost him nothing. Talk about a writer's dream!

As a result, he asked if I'd sub for him on his blog this week, so I did.

Check it out. It was posted December 12, 2006 (Tuesday).

So now that I'm done with drafting my manuscript and taking Jeff's turn on his blog, what am I up to? This week I'm doing edits on two friends' manuscripts while they do the same on mine. After I input changes next week, I'll submit it, take a break for Christmas, then get to work on several projects:

-Research and writing a Manti temple book.
-A series of middle-grade historical books I recently pitched to my publisher
-A chocolate cookbook (oh, yeah . . .)
-plus other various and sundry projects that are always floating around in my head, including preparing for the two classes I'll be teaching at the annual LDStorymaker's Writing Conference and a project for kids. I'm also tinkering with magazine articles. (I have pieces coming out soon in ByLine and LDSLiving.)

Lots of fun!

And it truly is. When I'm not writing, I miss it sorely. It keeps me level and sane, even moreso than chocolate. At this Christmas time, may you find joy in the things that keep you sane!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Time of birth: 1:05 pm

YES!!! My "baby" is born!

Today I officially finished my manuscript.

I have a few things to thank for it. In part, I have a suspicion that the planets aligned just right. And a few panicked prayers were definitely heard.

For starters, yesterday I managed to get some work done thanks to two big things.

One: The migraine medicine finally kicked in after three hours (how's that for an odd time table?). So by 11:00 am I was almost pain free--feeling a bit off center and more liable to make typos, but relatively close to my normal self. At least close enough to do some writing.

Two: When my friend picked up her kids, she took pity on me and swept away my sweet little four-year-old to her house. She also took my daughter to her tumbling class, fed her lunch, and tended her until my the kids were out of school and I sent one of them down to pick her up.

Then today another dear friend tended my daughter as a favor after I had helped her with some editing on her own manuscript last week. I spent a solid four hours at the computer, breaking only for lunch, then printed the book off. (I love seeing a thick stack of pages and knowing my story is inside them!)

Bottom line: There is no way on this planet or otherwise that I could have finished the book this week without the support of friends. I am one lucky woman to have people willing to help me out. My visiting teacher even offered to help out--I swear she's the best VT I've ever, ever, ever had. I'm also glad I've finally learned to ASK for help when I need it instead of pretending I'm as strong as Xena Warrior Princess.

Some of my critique group members will be reading the book over the next week so I can go over their feedback and get the manuscript submitted by Christmas. (Again, thank heaven for good friends!)

My schedule next week will be pretty much filled with trying to bring Christmas to the house (finally!) and spending as many waking hours as I can with my toddler to make up for the time spent apart from her this week.

I have a feeling we'll be playing a lot of Dora Candyland, but I won't mind one bit, even if I get sent back to the Fiesta Trio time and again. I love being with my little girl.

And my book is WRITTEN!!!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Migraine, anyone?

Murphy must be laughing his head off. Aside from having four smoke alarms lose their batteries in three weeks (see my "CHIRP" blog about that), I'm having trouble getting my book finished. I promised my editor to have it to her by Christmas, and I'm still working toward that goal

Backing up a bit--the Relief Society president in my ward is out of town for her father's funeral, so I needed to go to Enrichment last night (being as I have the building keys for now as her counselor). Besides, December is one of the few times of the year that I don't meet weekly with my critique group, so I figured it would be good to actually be part of the ward for once.

I've been on the final push to finish my current manuscript (my next historical temple book, this one a romantic novel centered on the Salt Lake Temple). I've gotten a ton done and figured I was right on track to finish up this book between Thursday and Friday, so I could afford to not work on it last night and enjoy the evening at the chapel instead.

The plan is to get the whole thing done on Friday and printed out so some of my writer friends can take their red pens to it over the next week. That gives me a few days after getting it back to make needed changes and submit it to my publisher by Christmas.

So far so good.

For some bizarre reason I came home from Enrichment with a sharp headache that was the kind I knew would ramp up until I'm trembling with the pain, so I took a percocet to get to sleep. It took care of the pain, but kept me up instead of making me drowsy. If that were all, no biggie. At least we didn't have a fifth smoke detector battery go out.

Then this morning, just as I'm seeing my older kids off to school, I start getting blurry vision and the little flashing threads in my vision that signify a doosy of a migraine is on the way. I haven't had a full-blown migraine in several months (and I don't remember ever getting one at 8 am). At least I had prescription medication in the bathroom, so I hurried to get it before the pain kicked in for real.

Trouble is, I had agreed to tend two neighbor kids whose mother really needed the help--for just an hour and a half, but they were coming in forty-five minutes. Barely enough time for the medicine to work and maybe get a shower. It took care of the flashing lights, but the pain has continued to ramp up.

In a few minutes I can take another dose (although I don't know if it'll do much since the last one didn't), but I'm about to lose it (literally, my breakfast) from the nausea.

So instead of working on my book, which would mean going over stacks of critiques from my writer friends and writing a new scene that needs to bridge a gap in the story, I'm sitting here at the computer with my blog trying to distract myself. I'm too miserable to be able to write anything on my book, because it would take too much mental energy.

Instead I want to curl into a ball and rip my head off so it'll stop hurting. My friend should be here to get her kids in about half an hour. Fortunately these are easy-going kids, so they aren't tough to tend at all; one of them is my toddler daughter's best bud, and they just play happily the entire time. Forty-five minutes after they leave, I'm supposed to take said daughter to her tumbling class.

So today should be interesting.

What was that about being right on track with finishing the book on Friday?

I was tempting fate by saying it yesterday. By golly, I'm going to get it done if it kills me. But at this rate, I don't dare speak a word of it aloud.

You never know if Murphy's listening.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

CHIRP!

This is the time of year that I tend to do what I refer to as the headless chicken dance. For the third year running, my sisters and I are producing the Utah Chocolate Show.

Fun? You bet. Tasty? Oh, yeah.

Stressful? Save me now!

To add to the fun, for the first time ever, I had a fall release with my fourth novel, At the Journey’s End. I was thrilled when I got the news that it would come out in September, right in time for holiday shoppers.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I’d have to do book promotion and show production simultaneously, but I figured if I planned carefully, I’d manage just fine.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I also justified that the other big thing going on each fall wouldn’t faze me: finishing a manuscript.

Three major events going on all at once. Not the smartest thing to allow to happen to a person, and this isn’t counting the wife and mother hats I also wear. Or soccer season. Or the million other things that intrude on my life. Like trying to keep the family in clean underwear.

So the other night I dropped into bed after a long day that included book promotion, show production, and three kids’ homework, piano practice, and piano lessons (Superwoman couldn’t fit in writing on top of that, although I tried).

Somewhere around 3:00 am, my toddler began crying out with a nightmare. I groggily went to comfort her. No problem there; I’m happy to do this kind of thing for my children especially now that they usually sleep through the night and I’m not the walking zombie I was a few years back when they were babies.

When I got back to bed, I pulled up the covers and closed my eyes.

And then . . . CHIRP!

A smoke alarm somewhere in the house had just informed me that its battery was low. I groaned and hoped it was a fluke or that I had imagined it. Nope. It chirped again a moment later, so I threw off the covers and went to the center of the house in hopes of figuring out which of the alarms was the offending one.

I stood there for ten minutes. The smoke alarm surely laughed (silently) at my efforts as I stood there, trying not to fall against the wall from fatigue and eventually stumbling back to bed. The moment I pulled the covers up (you guessed it), CHIRP! And then about ten seconds later, another CHIRP.

This time I marched to the same spot as before, demanding the stupid alarm to show itself. It did: twelve and a half feet above the floor in on the vaulted ceiling of the great room. No other alarm in the entire house could have caused me to want to hurl large, heavy objects.

I tried to imagine dragging a ladder into the house in the middle of the night alone. No could do. I also didn’t want to wake up my husband, who had to work late and was running on fumes. I did the math anyway and realized that our tallest ladder wouldn’t come close to reaching the vault even if my six foot husband were standing on top of it.

Just dandy.

I shuffled back to bed, closing the door to muffle the infernal chirping. It didn’t work. I pulled blankets over my head. I braced my ears with my arms. I turned to the side so my ear with slightly worse hearing was up. Nothing worked. The chirping wouldn’t stop, and I couldn’t sleep.

At least, not until I was supposed to wake up. That’s the point when the chirping stopped altogether, about 7:00 in the morning. I had finally dozed off around 6:30 from sheer exhaustion and had to drag myself out of bed to get the kids to school on time. The smoke alarm didn’t chirp once the rest of the day.

But I bet you can guess what happened that night at 2:00 am.

After another night of insistent chirps irritating enough to drive one to criminal acts, I went about my day in a sleep-deprived, knee-jerk irritable haze. I’m one of those unfortunate souls who needs about nine hours of sleep to get by without pulling out anyone’s hair. Two nights of almost no sleep—in the middle of book promotion, Chocolate Show season, and manuscript preparations—had me practically twitching and ready to smack anyone who crossed my path.

Fortunately, my husband found a neighbor with a taller ladder and after work promptly replaced the battery so I wouldn’t go through a third night—and end up finding a pistol around 4 am to shoot the stupid alarm with.

I feel much better now that I’ve had a couple of nights’ sleep without CHIRP, CHIRP every ten seconds, but when I lie down, I give the smoke alarm on the ceiling the evil eye, as if to say, "Don’t—you—DARE!"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Confessions of a Non-historian

Since the publication of two historical novels, I frequently get variations of the same question:

How can you do so much research so fast?

The simple answer: I don't.

Frankly, if I were a dyed-in-the-wool historian, I wouldn't have a prayer of writing novels; there wouldn't be any time. So I don't pretend to be a true historian. I am, first and foremost, a novelist. I try very hard to make things as accurate as I can, and I would hate to find out I did something wrong (I haven't gotten wind of any errors yet, but that type of news is a historical novelist's lingering fear).

Since grade school I've read books set in or written during the 1800s, so writing about it myself isn't too strange. While I'm not an expert on the period, I do have a decent grasp on how people talked, what they did on a daily basis, and what the customs were. Some of the best compliments I've gotten on my books is that the voice feels real to the time period.

It was interesting to me to find that writing about the past actually comes easier to me than writing contemporary books like my first two. Go figure.

Since I'm NOT a historian, my credentials as one are rather spotty. Let's see . . . AP US History in high school was one of my favorite classes. Getting a 5 on the test wasn't hard for someone who loves this stuff. History was my college minor--that is, until I needed to graduate early and didn't finish the minor. It helps that my favorite books and authors are from the 19th century and that I focused on that era during my studies as an English major. My senior course was on Charles Dickens. (Do I get brownie points for the fact that I graduated cum laude?)

A dear late friend (who I credit with the existence of At the Journey's End), Linda Whiting, was a real historian. She wrote a biography on David Patten, the first martyr for the LDS Church. What began as a labor of love that she assumed would take a couple of years turned into a decade-long journey.

And that was researching the life of one man.

If I want to write novels--and have any reader remember me between books--I can't spend that kind of time on research and publish one book every decade. More simply, I can't be a "true" historian.

But I don't think I need to be. What I do is tell stories. I believe that the history in my books is the backdrop to the human drama that takes center stage. The history is not the point--although it certainly can and does affect the story in profound ways--but instead, the facts and details are the hanger on which the story is draped. So I don't need to know every tiny detail of what happened to whom, when, and how.

What consistutes my research? I do some primary research, but not much. For example, I spent time in the BYU library Special Collections for At the Journey's End, even handling an actual copy of the Book of Mormon edition that Abe gets in the story. I made ridiculously elaborate notes on the size, color, and formatting, and even noted where on the page certain scriptures showed up that I might want to use in the story.

But I also spend significant time digging up what others--those "real" historians--have already found. Those things are often in the form of article collections, a thesis, or books on specific topics. I collect any books I can find about Utah history (Currently I'm borrowing a great book from my in-laws that covers Utah history from the Deseret News since its inception. That thing is a gold mine that will be hard to part with.)

I've been fortunate thus far to find plenty of good stuff that someone else has painstakingly found in some dusty archive and then taken more effort to compile. Librarians are ready and willing to help; they do the hard work and send me the results. Likewise, I've emailed web masters at sites that cover a topic I need more information on--and I've been impressed with how willing people are to help a perfect stranger get the details right. For example, I exchanged numerous emails with a man at the Arizona Railway Museum and another with the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association. Both were gracious and helpful.

One tool I cannot live without is my trusty OED on CD. For those who aren't language geeks, that's the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehsive dictionary about the English language. The published version is some outragous length (twenty-something volumes and counting). It includes etymologies, quotations found in print using the words, and--most importantly for the historical novelist--the earliest known usage of each word. With the OED I can make sure that in 1884 people really used the word, "cookie." (They did.)

One other interesting aspect is how many realistic details I've gleaned from non-historical sources. Things about medicine, poisons, fire, herbs, plantlife, climate, and many more work their way into the storyline as well, and I find that information in totally different places.

So I'm not a historian and don't pretend to be. I'm a history fan, but I don't think I'd even go so far as to say a history buff. I enjoy learning about the past and weaving bits of it into stories. I do my best to make sure it's accurate, but when I'm done with the research for one book, I set it aside and begin digging for information on the next.

That means that as soon as I finish my manuscript set in the middle of the Salt Lake Temple construction (which opens in 1867), I'll turn my efforts toward finding information about the Manti Temple.

After that, we'll have to wait and see what piece of history draws me to it next!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Updates and Book Fun

First, a few updates on previous posts:

1) I’m still weird.
Today I found myself pulling out my poisons book to research snake bites. Which is worse—that I already own that book and have it underlined and highlighted, or that I’m rereading portions for a scene involving a nine-year-old girl who gets bitten by a rattlesnake?

I must be weird and sadistic.


2) The soccer season is improving.
The game following the Yellow Jackets fiasco was a world apart. We lost again, but this time everyone was able to leave the field with their dignity intact.

Even better, my daughters have been expressing how glad they are that they have friends who don’t care about things like clothes and hair, because "those things don’t matter."

My seven-year-old even rolled her eyes at the idea of only being friends with someone if they’re wearing cute clothes. "That’s just dumb, Mom. Clothes don’t make a good friend."

Maybe we should make a banner out of that and hang it at the high school.



3) Writing is also better. The horse is alive again.
I’m to the point now where I can go back to those blood-red critiques and make the changes needed. I’m working on several projects all at once, which helps. I can avoid the one giving me the biggest grief and come back to it when I can take it.



And now some fun I've been having on the book promotional end:

1. Being published is getting cooler with every book.
Last week I got to go to the LDS Booksellers Association convention for the first time. I had heard about the event, but never gotten to go before. My fourth book, At the Journey's End, being released in September, got promoted heavily at the LDSBA Convention. (Yippeee!!!)

I know a lot of other writers get this kind of treatment with book one (envy, envy), but this was my first time. I got a Covenant shirt to wear. I got to attend the Covenant lunch with booksellers at the Mayan restaurant and the presentation and mini concert at the theater next door after that. (I’m hereby converted to Joshua Creek.) After that I got to give out buttons of my book cover at the "button mania" event and bring a bunch of buttons home for future book promotion.

Okay, so not all of the buttons will end up in readers' hands. I gave four to my kids for fun. My youngest wore hers for days in a row and would tell everyone she saw that it was her mommy’s book and that, "We’re waiting for it to come out." She’s my personal marketing department—and probably more effective than I am, cause she’s so darn cute.

The next day I had a book signing at the convention itself—the first and probably only time that I will have a signing where people are literally waiting in line for me to sign their book. It was surreal but oh-so-cool! The Covenant booth was gorgeous and had huge displays of their upcoming book covers. And there was my cover—in all its glory, at least three feet tall.

Booksellers was also a fun time to see author friends and hang out together. Writing is such a solitary endeavor that I cling to any chance of rubbing shoulders with other people who know what it's like. I'm particularly lucky in the awesome group of writer friends I have.

It was also wild to actually see and handle the book. I had seen what the cover would look like, and for weeks and months read and reread, revised, and proofed the thing, but the convention was the first time I actually held the finished product. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to keep a copy; they were all for the booksellers. My author copies generally arrive a few days after the book hits store shelves. It should be shipping around September 1st, so I’ll be looking for the UPS man around the 7th.

However, with my book launch party on the 8th, my author copies might arrive while I’m gone.


2. Launch Party fun!
Speaking of which, as part of the promotion for At the Journey's End, we're throwing launch party at the location that's referred to in the title: St. George.

Here are the basic details:

At the Journey's End Launch Party
St. George Seagull
Friday, September 8th
4:00 to 6:00 pm
There will be door prizes, a trivia challenge game with prizes, and even chocolate! And of course, I'll be there to personally sign your book.

I've got a lot of signings and other events coming up, which are all listed on my website. Tell your friends about them, then drop by and say hi!


Friday, August 18, 2006

Dead Horse Pulp

I am probably the biggest proponent of writing critique groups I know of. From personal experience, I know how valuable good feedback is. After years of writing, reading, conferences, and rejections, my first book was accepted—not even close to coincidentally—after it went through the critique process. My writing has improved by light years since I began attending this same group six and a half years ago. I have no intention of quitting; I don’t dare.

The group has morphed over the years as members have moved and we’ve gotten new people; I think it’s stronger and better than ever. Counting, me, three of the original members are still around, and we’ve gotten several others over the years, maxing out currently at eight. (Although it’s a rare week we manage to have more than five of us.) Among our number are three other LDS authors, Jeffrey S. Savage, H.B. (Heather) Moore, and James Dashner.

I am a firm believer that a writer—no matter how talented—needs outside feedback. One simply cannot see holes and mistakes and weak spots on your own. The moment I think I’m too great a writer for a critique group is the moment my work takes a nose dive.

My first few months in the group were difficult, not only because my writing wasn’t stellar, but because my skin was tin foil thin.

Six and a half years later, my skin has thickened considerably. It takes a lot to get under it now. It's a relief to have my critique buddies point out motivation, character, and plot problems—I get to fix them before the book ever hits the shelf. Sometimes I’ll go weeks at a time with great feedback. Sometimes there’s downer weeks where the chapter just didn’t work or a particular scene is going to need some major rewrites.

In 2005 I ran into months on end of bad weeks, with not a single good one to break it up. It got old after, oh, the first four months, to constantly come home knowing I had major rewrites ahead—again. Why couldn’t I just get it right for once? I felt I was losing any touch I might have had before. To make matters worse, two or three members of the group seemed to have a virtual Midas-like touch—even their rough drafts sparkled. I was the only one going home with a manuscript that looked like someone had bled all over it.

I managed to pull out of the funk, mostly by not stopping. You keep going, you keep trying, and eventually it works out. I finally brought some great chapters that just clicked. I was back on the old path of some good weeks, some bad, most in between.

And then last week happened. By the time everyone was done giving me their evaluations, it was clear that my scene sucked, my characters were unsympathetic slimes, and nothing they did made any sense whatsoever. Not happy news, considering that this was supposed to be a romantic scene.

The chapter had at least two major (and I’m talking MAJOR) problems. The group discussed and agreed on them, not only beating the dead horse, but dragging the poor horse's corpse through the streets, and then for good measure, flogging it until it was little more than horse pulp. By the end, I wanted to scream, "Yes, I get it. I really do. Now could you stop explaining AGAIN why I’m a fraud?!"

Chocolate didn’t help, which is saying a whole lot.

By the time the night was over, I felt like a total hack. Who was I kidding? I was sure I couldn’t really write. Forget the fact that my fourth book is about to be released. I would have given a lot to be able to write a rough draft that didn’t stink.

I know better. I do. I’ve been through the ups and downs of writer life plenty of times before. Some of what I've learned:

1. Revision is what makes writing good. Who cares if I’m not the best at drafting? That's like sketching; it's revision that adds the color and shadows and life to the picture. I’m great at revising, and that’s what matters in the end.

2. Authors have tender egos, regardless of how thick their skin is. It doesn’t take much to put a writer on a high of feeling successful and then send the same writer crashing into despair. We’re an illogical bunch. My skin is thick enough that my feelings weren’t hurt at the group’s comments—I knew they were on target. I was just pummeling myself for not being good enough. Which is beyond stupid, because I know I can make the changes the story needs.

3. Time helps. However, it doesn’t heal all wounds when it comes to writing, because you still have to go back and fix the problems. But time does make it easier to not feel so emotional over those glaring blemishes. When the despair settles, you can go back and make those fixes objectively.

4. Again, after the emotions cool, chocolate is a good motivator to slog through the revisions. It's amazing what I can do with a truffle waiting for me other the other end.

And most importantly:

5. When all is said and done, writing rocks. Getting published is one of the coolest things ever. It’s a childhood dream come true for me. And I absolutely love it.

But it would be nice to be able write rough drafts like a certain person.

You know who you are, MH . . .

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Life's Yellow Jackets

My family isn’t particularly new to community sports. We’ve been involved ever since my oldest was in kindergarten soccer. This is our seventh season of soccer (fifteen soccer teams between the kids). We also dabbled in T-ball and coach pitch until we realized we hated it (making another six or so teams).

Sure, I had heard the horror stories of unsportsmanlike behavior. Maybe we lived a charmed existence, because aside from an occasional obnoxious father thinking his kid is the next Olympian, we’ve never had a problem. Rob and I have even dabbled at coaching. Our kids love playing team sports, and it’s been a great experience.

Until now.

This week my second oldest, age nine, had her first soccer game of the season with a brand new team. They played their little hearts out—my girl running and kicking and doing her absolute best until her face was beat red and she was ready to collapse.

Sadly, the other team slaughtered them 10 to 0.

But that wasn’t the problem. All our kids have been beaten before. Slaughtered before. While it’s not nearly as fun to lose as to win, all of our kids have lost games and still come off the field smiling because they knew they did their best and they had fun.

Again, until now.

The team we played on Wednesday could have gotten a medal for unsportsmanlike conduct. It would have been bad enough with the girls’ comments—Only losers wear black shirts. We knew we’d win and make you guys feel like dirt. You guys can’t play at all. You suck. We’re the best. But it was nearly the entire team—who had dubbed themselves the Yellow Jackets (fitting, since they were stinging and annoying).

It was also the parents.

And even the coach.

I couldn’t figure out why the yellow team’s crowd was cheering louder with each goal toward the end of the game. The poor black-shirted girls were wiped and feeling down, and yet the crowd insisted on rubbing it in that they were winning—and by what margin. You would think that parents would be sympathetic. That they’d clap and cheer, but not gloat.

Yeah. You’d think.

“Number nine! Way to go, McKenna!” screamed a dad with bleached hair next to his bleached hair wife as his daughter scored the ninth goal of the game. I wondered if he’d actually dare soil his designer clothes afterward by hugging his sweaty daughter.

When the coach began gloating and encouraging the girls—agreeing that yes, they’re terrific players and the black team isn't good and must feel bad, tee hee—I wanted to scratch her eyes out. If anyone on the field had the responsibility to be an example, it was the coach. Yet she had the biggest grin on her face of anyone.

Any time she gathered the girls around her, she’d concoct new strategies for tromping our team—as if they needed any more help in the smear fest.

The “Black Grizzly” crowd left the field with their heads hung low, the players with tears in their eyes.

It was a tough night all around. I left the game with my arm around my daughter, making sure she knew I was proud of her and how I knew that if she won by so much, she’d never act like that. She tearfully nodded in agreement. “It’s mean.”

Yes. It’s mean.

So simple, and yet why is it such a hard concept for us to grasp? Women and girls especially seem to have a catty nature among them—we’re always in competition with each other.

In high school it’s who got the boys’ attention and/or was asked out to the dances, who dressed the best, who had the best hair, the best clothes, who gets to go to the parties, who has the right friends, who is the most popular, who's the skinniest and prettiest.

Not much has changed for adult women. It’s still who is prettiest and has the best clothes. It’s still who is skinniest.

Sadly, it’s never who’s smartest or kindest or who is the best friend.

That’s one reason I’ve wanted my girls on a sports team—it’s one of the few places in our society where they learn to work as a group, not to be competitive as individuals, but as a unit.

I had no idea that even in that setting girls could get so catty and mean. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Yellow Jackets would have told our team that yellow looks better with their complexions than black does.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the bleach-haired dad was feeding the female competitive drive. He had three daughters, and he flirted with them as if they were high schoolers. The youngest was maybe four, and she’s learning from her father that to be accepted by men and boys she has to look and act like a twit.

The entire family wore name brand, trendy clothes, much of which looked too old for the young girls. The girl who looked maybe six or seven wore long, dangling pierced earrings that belonged on someone much older. All his daughters acted like teeneage air heads, getting praise for doing so. I wanted to wretch.

I wish I knew where to go from here. I don’t have any answers. I do know that this has been an issue for decades and seems to be getting worse. A college friend of mine who was brilliant—genius at calculus, art, and other subjects, full scholarship, Sterling Scholar, and on and on—acted like a dumb blond around both boys and girls so they’d like her more.

As disturbing as that is, it worked almost 100% of the time.

That probably explains why I’m not surrounded by adoring people; I don’t put on a stupid act. When I first met my husband, I made sure he knew I had a scholarship, just to see his reaction. He didn’t have much of one, beyond, “Cool.”


Big point for Rob.

All I can hope for is that my girls will continue to work hard and learn to be able to brush off what others say. That they won’t get their value from comparing themselves to others. That they won’t hide their intelligence in hopes of making people like them.

That they’ll know that aside from being beautiful—because they are—they’re also kind, generous, sympathetic, loyal, smart, and talented. And that those things matter far more than appearances.

No matter what the Yellow Jackets of life may say to the contrary.


Friday, August 04, 2006

Me and My "Twin"

Since it’s been happening for twenty-eight years, you’d think I’d be used to it now, or at least I’d be able to figure out the why it’s happening. But no.

When I was four it made some sense for people to mistake Sheryl and me for sisters, twins, or each other. It doesn’t take much for two chubby-cheeked, strawberry blond little girls with pig tails to look alike. Have them play together a lot, and they’ll naturally end up acting and talking like one another.

But when our baby fat melted away and my hair lost any trace of strawberry (Sheryl kept hers) and mine was a plain old dishwater blond, people still thought we looked alike. Maybe it was the pigtails. We still wore those.

The worst case of the identity mixup was around second grade when I took dance lessons. The studio picked you up for class in a van and dropped you off afterward. I had gone to my first dance class the day before, and now my sister had hers. The van pulled up just as Sheryl crossed my lawn to come play. The driver assumed the girl had to be my sister since she looked like me.

When he tried dragging her to the van, saying, "Come on. You don’t want to be late for class," poor Sheryl thought she was being abducted.

The look-alike thing continued all through high school. When people saw our prom picture, they’d say, "How neat! Twins taking twins to prom!" Not quite. Twins taking a pair of childhood buddies to prom.

On Sheryl’s birthday our senior year, I passed out dozens of suckers to the student body with instructions to give them to Sheryl and wish her a happy birthday. If they didn’t know who she was, I’d say, "She looks like me," and immediately I’d get, "Oh, yeah. I know who she is."

By the time we went to college, we were adults with our own hairstyles, fashion tastes, different heights, and different majors. But I’d still get high school alumni yelling across the BYU quad, "Hey, Sheryl! How ya doin?" I’d wave back and make a mental note to tell Sheryl that so-and-so says hi.

Sheryl and I have since married and had kids. We live far apart and see one another maybe once a year. Not long ago I arrived at the school with my kids to see a lady who had grown up a street away from me. Our sisters and mothers were both great friends. Immediately her face lit up and she said, "You’re a Stringham!"

I laughed and said, "Close. Two doors down."

We keep finding new variations of the old theme, like my sister, who has always insisted she could never see the Sheryl/Annette resemblance. Recently at church, she reached down for something and saw a woman across the room—upside down from her vantage point. "Wow," she thought, "That girl looks like Annette." When she righted herself, she realized it was—you guessed it—Sheryl, who was visiting for the day.

Or the time Sheryl’s son saw my picture in the back of one of my books and declared, "Mom, she looks like you."

But the most unusual variation came last April when my friend Jeff Savage came to speak to my ward book club after we read his House of Secrets. His wife, Jennifer, came along. I’ve known Jen for years, and never once have we ever gotten asked what we were that night:

"Are you two sisters?"

We looked at one another and with a laugh, shook our heads. I took another look at Jen and thought, "Wow. I never noticed that Jen looks a lot like Sheryl."

Which means . . . Oh.

Sheryl and I used to joke that some day we’d end up in the same nursing home as old ladies and be able to fool the nurses.

Ha. Like we’d still look alike in another fifty years. What are the chances of that?

With twenty-eight years down so far, the chances are looking better all the time. We might as well start planning how to really have fun switching places and confusing the nursing home staff.

Just so long as they don’t mix up our medications or give me her enema.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Of Bread Dough and Racing Stripes

Recently my three-year-old was watching me getting dressed. She’s at just the right height (or wrong height, as the case may be). She tilted her head and quite soberly declared, "Mommy, your tummy is SO big."

Gee, thanks for pointing that out. On Sundays I can mask it with control-top hoes and one of those things they now call a "body shaper" but is really just an elastic girdle that makes it hard to breathe.

Now all I needed was commentary on saggy skin and stretch marks.

I smiled and tried to explain that Mommy’s tummy got a bit stretched out because four babies had grown inside there. "Before you were born, you were in Mommy’s tummy, too."

Nice way of shifting the blame, I know.

It wasn’t until she answered that I realized that unlike my older three children, she had never seen me pregnant and didn’t understand the concept.

She narrowed her eyes, snorted the way only a toddler can, and with a shake of her head and a giggle said, "Nooooo . . ." Apparently Mommy was being silly.

Not quite. Like most mothers who have given birth, I have what can be affectionately referred to as "bread dough tummy." If you have it, you know what I’m talking about—that stretched-out skin with the consistency of bread dough that will never be tight again and instead just hangs there. It's one of those after effects of pregnancy that never go away, like stretch marks.

Eight months into my first pregnancy I was rather pleased that I had managed to escape the dreaded stretch mark phenomenon. I slathered on a cream every day. It was supposed to help repair skin, and three weeks before delivery, I was still stretch-mark free.

Then I ran out of the cream and couldn’t justify buying another $50 tub for the last part of the last month. After all, it probably hadn’t done much anyway, and really, how much bigger was I going to get in the last stretch of pregnancy? Whether the cream worked or not, I’ll never know.

What I do know is twofold:
1) babies do grow a lot in their last few weeks and
2) somewhere in the last days of that pregnancy, stretch marks blossomed on my thighs and crawled up my belly.

Watching the red lines travel felt like being trapped inside a science fiction movie with an organism that couldn’t be stopped.

Over the years my stretch marks have faded from scorching red to a pinkish silver, and I make a point of not even looking at them. Avoiding swimsuits tends to help. But a few weeks ago my husband and I were visiting my parents in Israel. Like good tourists, we took a dip in the Dead Sea. As I floated in the bath-warm water, I looked at my legs, hovering barely under the surface.

Did you know that water is a perfect magnifying glass?

The wobbly silver lines I hadn’t looked at in months suddenly looked as wide as racing stripes.

And this time I didn’t have any of my children around to blame it on. "See? You did that to me."

Which is just as well, because the reality is, my children were worth getting every squiggly line and every ounce of hanging bread dough.

Friday, July 21, 2006

You Calling Me Weird?

Not long ago, I pulled one of my many reference books from my office bookshelf so I could get a few details for an upcoming scene I’m writing.

Holding the book in my hands, I immediately felt transported back to the time I first read it, and I had to smile. Suddenly I felt sentimental.

It was the Christmas holidays, visiting my in-laws, during the time I was still a hopeful writer who hadn’t yet been published. I remembered the manuscript I was working on and why I needed this particular book to help me with certain details—and I still remember what those details were. Snow fell; holiday cheer abounded; carols drifted through the house.

And here I was engrossed in Body Trauma, where every chapter follows an organ system, explaining injuries and how they affect the human body—and even better, how those injuries can be used by writers in their work.

I know; you don’t have to tell me. I’m morbid.

It’s great to be reading along about blood and guts, then have the author insert something along the lines of, "Use this injury if you need your character’s future to be uncertain," or "This is a good one to use if a character needs to be ill, recover, and then relapse."

Okay, so I’m not just morbid; I’m weird.

I’m aware of that.

But sometimes I forget that others don’t share my bizarre curiosity.

You should have seen the faces of my brothers-in-law when they saw the book. "Light reading, huh?" they asked as they inched away from me.

"No, really, it’s so fascinating," I said as I stepped forward, eager to share gems I had just learned. "Did you know that if someone has a bad impact—say they fell from a cliff—and it’s so bad you can’t tell where their face is, you look for air bubbles?"

They sank into the couch, eyes wide with horror.

The reality is that I am weird.

I’m a writer. That makes me a little bit off the beaten path.

How many other people do you know who have conflicts appear in their imaginations in the middle of the night? Who else hears people talking in their heads (and no, they don’t need medication or a strait jacket). Who else finds joy in the discovery of new information that will help make their pretend world a little closer to reality?

And how many people do you know who are so obsessed punctuation rules that they cringe when they see a T-shirt with a comma splice?

So yes, I’m weird. And I celebrate that weirdness.

Weirdness is the quality that brings me the wonder of the written word, characters, storylines, creation, and so much more. It’s what brought me to the place of—finally—getting published.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, that first manuscript I read Body Trauma for did end up published several years later, complete with injuries for three victims of a drunk-driving car accident.

That book is now known as At the Water’s Edge.

A few months after reading Body Trauma I brought my next bit of light reading while visiting family—Cause of Death. I had to chase people around the house so they’d pay attention to the diagrams of autopsies. "No really. Check this out! It’s totally cool!"

They’d block their eyes and run the other way, saying, "Man, are you kidding me?"

Sheesh. Some people just can’t appreciate a good reference book.

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