Writers’ book giveaway

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is “Write!” Another is “Read!”

I’m currently reading Save the Cat, by  Blake Snyder, which is a book aimed at screenwriters, but applies to fiction writers in general. It’s interesting to see the techniques screenwriters use to create their characters and scenes without any words for the reader to take in. With so much emphasis on “show, don’t tell,” clearly these skills should become part of our writers’ toolkits as well. I also have Stephen King’s On Writing prepped on my bedstand for another read-through as the New Year begins.

What I’d like to suggest is that you also read about writing, so that you learn some of the tools of the trade. I’ll even make it easy for you. For each of the next five weeks, I’ll give some lucky reader/writer a book about writing. The books I have to give away are:

  • Writing and Selling Your Novel, Jack M. Bickham, Writer’s Digest Books, 1996
  • Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field, MJF Books, 1994
  • Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer, James V. Smith, Jr., Writer’s Digest Books, 2000
  • Conquering the Magazine Market, Connie Emerson, Writer’s Digest Books, 1991
  • Creativity, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, Harper Collins, 1996

While these books may not be hot off the press, they still have many valuable lessons for writers. Character development, writing interesting scenes, and studying where your fingers find energy for creation are always in style.

So if you’re interested in a chance at one of these books, leave a comment at my blog, and a random comment will be selected each week as a winner! If you aren’t chosen in any given week, try again the following week. Pass on the opportunity to your other writer friends, too.  When any of us gets published, we all win. Good writing and good luck!

A life built on connection

Coupling is easy. Relationships are hard.

I’m not the only one ruminating on this subject this week, so perhaps it’s one of those standard end of the year topics. As our thoughts turn to the new year, we examine what we have done in 2008 and could do better.

Our family had a solstice ritual last week where all of us, even the children, considered the year past and what priorities consumed each of us, and then what things negative we found, we scribbled on papers to burn in a winter fire.

I included several items and habits I had noted from my own relationships, both as  parent and partner. After a number of years, we do take certain aspects for granted, and fail to put out the effort we once did, leaving our loved ones feeling perhaps less cherished. So I hope to do better.

In light of how many people I meet through my office who are tearing each other apart, I’m also encouraged by the examples of several young people I know who are putting serious work and thought into their partnerships, even as they struggle with issues of commitment and difficulties of separation.

What’s the solution to a perfect relationship? There are as many answers to that question as there are relationships. Not everything works for everyone, but I’ve got to vote for the tortoise in this race. Slow and steady, a building of trust, caring, respect over a period of days or weeks or months–perhaps years– is much more likely to have a payoff than some jackrabbit start.

Must you have a relationship to be happy?

Just because it’s the cultural norm doesn’t dictate that result. I received a Christmas letter from my former step-mother, who’s been in a close relationship with her gentleman friend for some 20 years, but they don’t live together. They’ve defined a comfortable distance that keeps them happy. Other relatives of mine live alone, just as ecstatic in their solitude. Yet others have those cutesy, cuddly-every- minute bonds, and that works for them.

Sometimes, where you are in life sets your ability to have relationships. As someone wisely pointed out to me, if you’re working a 70-hour a week job, you don’t necessarily also have the time to devote to a full-time relationship. My daughter tells me that “soon” she might make decisions about relationships–and then adds that “soon” to her means “within four or five years.” (Since “soon” to me means within the next five minutes, during which time many things might change, I’m awed by her patience.)

Barbara de Angelis, who has written for 25 years about relationships, says, “The more connections you and your lover make, not just between your bodies, but between your minds, your hearts, and your souls, the more you will strengthen the fabric of your relationship, and the more real moments you will experience together.”

Let’s all take a few minutes today to build a connection with our loved ones; and resolve to keep making those connections in the year ahead.

Too many cooks = momma’s day off

While I’ve never gone to culinary school, I do know two things about it. First, you cook with the very best ingredients. Second, there are only invisible, non-existent calories there.

Two daughters are home for the holiday, and K, my culinary student, has volunteered to teach her sister B all about cooking. They’ve made a multitude of delicious dishes, and baked trays and trays of holiday cookies. We’re of course very pleased not to be in charge of cooking for a few days, so we’ve let them loose. We’ve had seared rosemary-seasoned pork roast, red and green sprinkled confections, and sourdough pancakes with bananas (from scratch starter!!) .

We’ve even had chicken alfredo. With sticks of butter, shredded parmesan and heavy cream. To die for!! Hopefully, not literally.

It’s not so hard to see how those persnickety tv chefs get that way. We must have proper measurement, proper tools and just the right ingredients. We bake with butter. Period. (Although I did persuade her to use the Crisco butter flavored sticks for a couple of things.) When we get chocolate to melt, it’s Ghirardelli. When we get to the amaretto cookies, I hope she’s not disappointed we have bottom shelf, not di Saronno.

The little ones are adapting to the absence of boxed mac and cheese, bless them, and are bravely trying almost everything. (Except Little Miss, who promptly declared that the peppers in the stir-fry were “gross.”)

It’s been great to have them home, and I’m delighted as I read other blogs where the family members are returning to visit, not so much like the swallows at Capistrano, but somewhat more like hungry vultures toting baskets of dirty laundry. But such is the way of things. As mothers and fathers, we are used to making a few sacrifices to keep our offspring inspired.

Like dishes. Apparently, that’s something else chefs don’t do. Although they use three times the cookware, they don’t clean up.

But it’s a small price to pay for the blizzard of YUM. And for seeing how wonderful children have become even more marvelous adults. Huzzah for the mellowing and polishing and yielding, at last, of top shelf young ladies. May they all find their dreams– sooner, instead of later.

The greatest gift

Civilization is a wonderful thing.

Every so often we venture from our small town where the locals’ idea of foreign food is Taco Bell and Guido’s Pizza, to a “real” place. You know, the kind of city with lights for miles at night, real shopping malls, and diversity?

I had such an opportunity this weekend, when my sister invited me for a much-appreciated “getaway.” We battled the snow in the eastern Cleveland snow belt for the lights of an area called Coventry, which has a delightful mix of small shops and interesting places to eat. We chose a combination Thai/Korean/Japanese restaurant called the Tree Country Bistro , where we had an assortment of vegetarian and other appetizers, fresh sushi and edameme, and some killer Basil Fried Rice.

Then the highlight of the evening was a trip up Fairmount to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to hear the complete Handel’s Messiah performed by Apollo’s Fire.

If you appreciate baroque music and you have not heard Apollo’s Fire, then you are missing something amazing. Reading over the bios of the performers, both vocal and instrumental, we found dozens of advanced degrees in music, advanced study and accolades  in no less than seven countries, and outstanding accomplishment. Music Director Jeannette Sorrell and her small, diverse group play period instruments (she conducts and plays the harpsichord during the performance) to give the audience the same quality of experience as those who listened 300 years ago.

I always thought the phrase “less is more” was something very odd, but Apollo’s Fire demonstrates the truth of these words to perfection. Not only do they command the venue with a modest several dozen singers and instrumentalists,but the soloists are a delight.

I have to confess that normally I dislike soprano soloists in almost any performance because they are belting out ear-piercing arias. Not so here. Amanda Forsythe brings her crystal voice to a near-whisper in places where others would give too much–she brought tears to my eyes. Definitely my favorite.

The group is often featured on public radio, so you too can share in the magic, with a performance of the Messiah on both December 23 and Christmas Day, at least in our neck of the woods. Check your local schedule to see when your local station will feature them (assuming you have civilization enough to have a National Public Radio available).

It’s important at this time of year to remember to take care of yourself while you’re rushing about with holiday plans for everyone else. Take the time to listen to some great music–or read a book, take a hot bubble bath, light a candle and meditate, get away for a day. Give yourself a gift as well. Your loved ones will be glad you did.

‘Tis the season

I bet over the years I’ve gone to 100 holiday concerts.

Some were mine, as a child. Some of my favorites then were the ones at Euclid Senior High, where old chorus director Sam Taylor taught the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah, and each year any alumni in the audience came on stage to sing along.  What a powerful feeling as that music swelled! That Handel music is still one of my preferred Christmas indulgences.

Then as I became a parent, we had multiple performances from preschool onward for B, who was an attention magnet, and always ready to be on stage. There were also orchestral performances from S, and choral bits from M, during a time when we lived in a community that included a great number of Mexican farmworkers, so the concerts were spiced with Spanish Christmas tunes as well.

When K came along, she preferred the trumpet, so we had several years of those performances. She, however, eventually moved on to backstage endeavors, and actually became stage manager for the high school a full year before most kids did, running the lights and all aspects of not only school functions but rentals as well.

The Captain tried an instrument; not so much. However, he does enjoy singing, and has done chorus for a couple of years now. Last night was his first “real” concert with a hundred kids on the big high school stage.

There he was as the event opened, sitting RIGHT NEXT to the piano, where the chorus teacher who’s been there forever had him in yardstick distance. We figured that was a bad sign.

There were a half a dozen songs, and about halfway through the first one, I could see the Captain’s nervous tics start rotating through. I really felt for him. (After all, a year ago, when he performed in front of the sixth-grade and parents group he ran off stage and said he was going to throw up.) The facial tics got stronger, but he followed along with the teacher, stood up and sat down as required and stayed in his seat, instead of wandering the place.

He’d said he had some sort of solo, which surprised us, because he’s one of those singers who makes up in volume what he might lack in correct tone. In the program we saw he was one of those chosen to lead the singalong with the audience for “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” So we waited. And hoped.

When his song came up, he walked proudly to the microphone, tics and all, and belted it out with the best of them. If you hadn’t known he had some issues, you wouldn’t have known it then. He took his bow and sat again, beaming, and so were we, even Little Miss, who kept saying, “That’s my brother up there!” A fine moment all around, and well worth making it concert # 101.

It’s aboot the cheese, eh

I’m really looking forward to several visits from family and near-family over the holidays, including a first from the charming Canadian host of our stay in Toronto.

He and B will be here for Christmas–i.e. he can meet the whole clan and decide if he ought to bail before it’s too late– and it will be a houseful again, which I do like, despite the stress.

On his behalf, B asked what he should bring to us, as his hosts, and of course there was only one answer. But first I must digress, to a tale of the year 2001 (pre 9/11 for reasons that shall become obvious), when my best friend came from California for a visit, and we expanded her horizons internationally by taking her across the border to see Niagara Falls.

During this delightful trip, we went up in the Skylon Tower, from which you can see…wow. Everything. I went to my first Hard Rock Cafe. We gambled a bit in the casino next door, and I lost my whole $20 stash. But it was fun doing it.

All in all, a great time, and the last thing we did was stop at the duty-free shop about 11 p.m.  to stock up on…well…booze. It is, after all, cheaper. I think I still have some of it. On our way out of the duty-free parking lot, there was a team of uniformed men stopping cars, which we thought was a little suspicious, but we were in a rollicking good mood after the day, so we pulled alongside them and smiled.

“Good evening,” the clean-cut young man said as he looked in our car window and noted how many people were there. He asked how long we’d been in Canada, and we told him just for the day, and his partner looked in the car from the other side.

“What brought you to Canada?” he asked, pen poised to write something eloquent.

My friend Chase leaned over with a wide grin and said, “The cheese!”

He looked at her very oddly, looked over the car at his pal, and I was sure we were headed off to some well-padded institution.  He looked back at his clipboard, and then shook his head, wishing us a nice evening before he stepped away from the car.

We left quick before anyone could change their mind. And laughed. A lot.

Today, the folk at the border are much less jolly, for obvious reasons, and we make sure we smile just enough and have our papers ready, so as not to call attention.

But when someone asks what is our favorite gift from Canada….what else could we say?  CHEESE, of course.

And with any luck, it won’t be limburger or casu marzu or something…. odd. And no one will get arrested.  It’s Christmas, after all. Joyeux fromage, one and all.

(Broken) Home for the holidays

A phenomenon many divorce attorneys encounter each year between mid-November and January 2 is the sudden drop-off of clients and client activity.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the holiday lull, the last-ditch effort to grasp the fast-fading warm feeling of family or at least the rational attempt to try to preserve the illusion that ‘everything is all right’ for the children.

Often, the holidays are a happy blurred memory batch from childhood, with ham dinners with families gathered at grandparents’ house, favorite (and not so favorite) presents we’ve received over the years, candlelit church services, carols and much more.

Overlay this with the commercial media blitz of glitter, bling (every kiss begins with k?? Awesome!) and price cuts, and the secular Holidays take on an almost sacred tone of their own.

We want our children to experience this, to feel whole, to be glad and warm and loved. Often we are able to swallow our own pain–or drown it with well-doctored eggnog– long enough to let the little ones experience Santa and the magic.

But what we also see as the years have passed is the carving up of these happy days with a broad knife, dividing the time the children “must” spend with father, mother, siblings, grandparents and others. When parents cannot look beyond their own needs to compromise with their children’s lives, the court will do it for them, with lack of emotion or feeling to guide it.

Four hours for mom. Two hours for grandma. Twelve hours for dad. Splitting the day so you have to be hauling kids on the road for two hours of the holiday you’d all rather spend at home. Alternating years, so every other Christmas your hearth is empty and dark with no children to celebrate. Christmas Eve. Christmas Day. Thanksgiving Thursday. Friday? Maybe, if you’re lucky, a few extra days of the vacation when the children can have a parent all to themselves without other obligations.

There’s no good way to do it, so this yields the sucking-up and effort to maintain through the holidays “for the kids.”

In my generation, divorce was not as prevalent as today, and we visited in summers only, so our holidays, though father was absent, were not disrupted. My children, however, were subject to visitation orders, and spent most holidays with their fathers, which was fine with me. Holiday is a state of mind, as far as I’m concerned. You can have a special day on the 23rd, 25th, or even 31st, if you put your mind to it.

Many more children of my kids’ generation grew up in split parenting situations, so maybe for them, it’s not as traumatic for their own children to be visiting other households during these magic periods. And often, no matter how hard you’re trying to hold things together, the children are well aware of the tensions underlying the surface. If those tensions become toxic, then perhaps separation, even this time of year, could be the right choice, for everyone’s peace of mind.

But even if the magic fails on one front, there are many more, like these suggestions from Suzy Brown. As she says, “Holidays are about peace and sharing and gratitude and love. During tragedy, or divorce, or heartache we have to reach down and find those core things at a deeper level, a more meaningful level.”

Brian James, who is a trained divorce mediator, also adds tips, including not trying to buy the child’s happiness with “stuff”, and making sure if you celebrate together that the children don’t take this as fulfillment of their fondest wish–that you’re getting back together.

If you feel that you can’t hold on, for any reason, please seek professional help, whether in the form of legal counsel, psychological counsel, or just a heartfelt cup of cocoa with a good friend or close relative. Take time out for yourself. Most decisions about situations (absent actual danger) can be put off for a week or two. Give yourself and the children time in as de-stressed a manner as possible. This will pay off as they learn coping skills from you they can use all their lives.