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.

Coming Soon: Firsts and Lasts

UPDATE: Firsts and Lasts is now live as an ebook, and it'll soon be available in paperback as wel! Get the ebook HERE . I've got s...