Friday, November 26, 2021

Friday Feature: Cozy Season

 What's on your agenda for today? Or, for those who hit the ground running, even the day after a holiday, what have you already accomplished?

For me, this is the lull before the storm. The semester ends in two weeks, on a slightly calmer note (I hope) than usual, thanks to some re-jiggering of my end-of-semester assignments. That means I can afford to take today off, something I've gotten much better at in the past six months -- taking time for myself, that is. 

Every once in a while, I read something that resonates so well I wish I'd written it myself. Such was the case with Melissa Kirsch's intro to my daily New York Times newsletter in which she ponders how to spend this in-between day. My favorite line is this one:

"...if you’ve had your fill of the hunker-down life, I hear you, and encourage you to be safely out and about. We indoor cats will mind the hearth until your return."

Whatever you're doing with your day, I hope it brings you joy. As for me, I'm puttering -- the indoor cat happily minding the hearth -- glad I included Kirsch's column in my day.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

99¢ Novels!

Kindle editions on sale on Amazon Black Friday through Cyber Monday. Sale begins 5 PM 11/25.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Way Back Wednesday: Reflecting on Lessons Instilled by My Characters

You might think that an author is in charge of her characters and, indeed, that's how it usually starts out. But eventually, they begin to take on lives of their own and can become bossy or withdrawn or...whatever they've been written to be.

And then some.

The nice thing about this phenomenon is that it becomes a sort of two-way street. I retain creative control, but sometimes they teach me a thing or two -- or remind me of things I already know -- in the process.

Here are five of those things.
  • Change is always possible. So is redemption. The best characters grow over the course of a novel. Some grow into their potential, some mature and some show only a glimmer of hope (Jim). And, while they might not change a lot from the beginning of the book to the end, a reader needs to be able to hold out hope that change is possible even after the story ends.
  • Everyone responds differently. In my novels, Jim seems to elicit a consistent negative reaction from readers, but each of the women in the book responds to him in a different way. Angel sees the good in him that Charli wants to see and Marita learns to tolerate him for her daughter's sake. As a result, Jim responds differently to each of these characters (and his mother and his sisters) as well. He is the character my readers love to hate.
  • Relationships matter. I'm not much of a plotter. I tend to be more of a fan of putting my characters in a room and letting them drive the story, but those two things don't happen automatically. Writing dialogue that's a real reflection of the relationships and events is what makes this happen. Readers need to care about not just the people but how they connect (or don't) to one another and what's at stake because of it.
  • People make the story matter. Often, the stuff that happens in novels is not that far-removed from everyday life. People fall in love, go to work, take their kids to school, make dinner and go to bed -- alone or together. If we don't care about the people who are doing these things, all we have is a mundane succession of events. The same is true of life. When our homes and work places are filled with people who keep things interesting, even the mundane can be fascinating. It's my job as a writer to elevate the day-to-day stuff into the stuff that makes you want to turn the page.
  • Decisions are reversible. Maybe we can't go home again -- at least not in quite the same way -- but characters can revisit situations and decisions and places over and over again in an effort to get it right. Ask any soap opera fan -- happy marriages don't always stay happy and broken relationships don't always stay broken. Friends become enemies and vice versa and what seemed like an impossible idea is sometimes the solution to a problem when all the stars align. Because this is far less traumatic on the page than in real life, readers can watch it all play out from the safety and security of their most comfy chairs. 
These aren't thinks I didn't know (obviously), but playing with them in fiction helps to remind me of all the possibilities real life holds as well. Sure, it's a lot scarier to take a chance in real life than to watch a fictional character do it but, if our characters can be brave, maybe we can be too.

Wacky Wednesday: Reading in the Slow Lane

Why Wacky Wednesday, you may ask? Because this is the post I wrote and posted for Monday. This morning, I realized it hadn't shown up here, though it was marked as published. After a little detective work, I found it. 

On my Organizing by STYLE blog. Oops. And, to make matters worse, that's where last Friday's post ended up, too. Good thing I have a day off to straighten these things out.

So, here's what I was thinking about on Monday.  

nnguyen21 via Pixabay
I used to hate it when the drive-through line at Starbucks was long, something that happens often. The perfect line was no line -- one where I could drive straight through to the window, order, pick up my drink, and be on my way. 

But I've changed my outlook.

I decided to see the line as a means of developing my patience, something I too often have in short supply. On days when that outlook failed, I took the mobile office perspective, scanning my phone for work or pleasure. Since I usually stop for my Starbucks between work and home, waiting in line provided an opportunity to reply to work e-mails, checking that task off my to-do list before I arrived home. 

Once I began to look at the line as an opportunity, it bothered me a lot less. And, when I started setting reading goals, it became something I looked forward to.

These days, when I see a line, I see a chance to relax and listen to a book, and a chance for something bigger as well. Starting last month, I set a goal to finish one audiobook and one print or e-book each month. When it comes to reading, I'm a dabbler, excited by the possibilities a new book brings and, while I typically read only one novel at a time, I often have multiple non-fiction books going simultaneously. Last month, frustrated with my seeming inability to finish what I started, I decided it was time to dig in.

In the past month and a half, I've finished three (previously started) e-books -- not bad for someone with a five-minute commute -- and returned to a fourth. I also finished reading a non-fiction book, which is a tougher task as most of the non-fiction books I choose have the meaty material up front. But finishing was the goal, and I selected carefully, choosing books I actually wanted to read (or listen to) all the way through. 

I still don't finish every book I start -- some don't make the cut. But now, thanks to my re-purposed wait time, I worry less about my ability to finish the books I choose. These days, I'm disappointed when the line is short but, at my Starbucks, I'm not disappointed often.

What could be better than a good drink and a good read?

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Way Back Wednesday: Reading Material

The pandemic has made travel more challenging and, though I got to shop in my favorite indie bookstore last summer, I haven't been to a train station -- let alone NYC -- in over two years. Maybe that's why this post earned a spot as a Way Back Wednesday feature.

And maybe that's why a bookstore features prominently in the novel I'm working on. 

I love big city train stations - well, at least the few I've been in. They're like miniature cities, with shops, eateries and people coming and going. When we got to Penn Station two weekends ago, I wanted to explore, but my family just wanted to find a taxi.

On Sunday afternoon, though, I got my chance. Having spent a good chunk of change in NY, I didn't wander far, but I couldn't resist the newsstand.

In part, I blame the freelancer in me, always on the lookout for a new market or a fresh read, but the truth is, I've loved bookstores for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, I worked as a page in the children's room of our local library. Then, a year or so later, I got a job working at a used bookstore a few blocks away. I spent more than four years working in my college bookstore, and even after I had a full-time, grown-up job, I spent a summer working at a local Encore Books.

But newsstands are a different animal. Maybe I'd find them less fascinating if I'd grown up in New York, or another city where I depended upon them to get my Sunday paper or my TV Guide. But in an age where our magazines come to our doorstep, newsstands are as rare as independent booksellers.

I've never actually bought anything at a newsstand on a city street, but I can't resist the appeal of its train station cousin. Such a variety of reading material on so many subjects, all neatly categorized and collated in top to bottom stacks of glossy, compact volumes that tuck neatly into a purse or briefcase.

When I was growing up, my dad used to stop at a newsstand near us for a Sunday paper from time to time. A cross between its city street and train station counterparts, it was similarly crammed with titles I was too young to appreciate at the time. Still, as I write this, I can picture it - or at least the way I remember it - in my mind. Thick Sunday editions of newspapers were stacked on the floor, tucked beneath shelves of magazines, neatly categorized by subject matter.

Come to think of it, maybe what intrigues me about both train stations and newsstands is the infinite sense of possibility each possesses. Standing in the middle of either of them leaves me with the sense that I can go anywhere - literally, figuratively or both - and that, although there is so much to explore, it is right there, just beyond my fingertips.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Daylight Savings Time and Mental Health

mohamed_hassan via Pixabay

This evening, as I was sitting on my sofa watching Dancing with the Stars and trying to decide whether I should finish tomorrow's class prep and then write a blog post or vice versa, an ad for tomorrow's local news came on. I usually mute the commercials, but had not done so for this break and so I caught the teaser for a feature on mental health and daylight savings time.

Really? Is that a thing? 

Turns out it is. I knew the extra hour of sleep messes with our body clocks and that the long-term light-to-darkness ratio that results from changing the clocks is a bummer. I also knew that health issues increased and that less light could be problematic for those with seasonal affective disorder but, beyond that, I hadn't really considered the fact that there could be a mental health impact.

Yes, I teach psychology. I guess I just got all excited about that extra hour of sleep and didn't want to ask too many questions lest it disappear.

But, come to think of it, my students have been less lively, particularly today (a gloomy Monday in my neck of the woods). A friend whose anxiety is usually reasonably well-controlled has felt old symptoms return with a vengeance. And it never seems to be the time I think it should be.


Still, these are just observations, not conclusive evidence (there's that "teaching psychology" thing again). But, if you're still feeling a little "off" a week after the time change, it might be nice to know that you're not alone. Feeling tired and "off" can have that effect, especially when the time on the clock changes but everything else in life (like the hours we work) remains the same. It might also help to know that this too, shall pass. In the meantime, here are a few suggestions for getting past those challenging first few weeks.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I need a nap.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Friday Feature: An Illustrated Look at Motherhood

 It's 10:53 on a Friday night and I have a little more than an hour to finish this and post it so it's actually a Friday Feature. The ironic thing is that I've been setting reading goals, and so I'm actually reading more than usual.

But, somehow, I'm struggling to come up with topics for this space. 

Maybe it's that I'm reading books, which don't always lend themselves to this topical musings I aim for here. Maybe it's my teaching/grading schedule. 

Or maybe it's something else entirely. 

Eventually, this evening, Twitter came to the rescue, sending me to a fun little (illustrated) piece on the joys of motherhood. It has very little application to my personal life now but I do remember those days, and I do also talk about them with my students as I teach child development. If you're a mom, I'm pretty sure the drawings will inspire both smiles and nostalgia. 

As for me, this weekend I'll celebrate a fun milestone that involves me, but is less about me than about someone else. My "baby" turns 24 on Sunday. (Maybe it was wrapping those gifts that kept me away from my keyboard).

And maybe tonight's choice is more relevant than I realized.

Whatever you're reading (or not), I hope you get to spend some time exercising your sense of humor this weekend, preferably along with someone you love.