Wednesday, September 18, 2019

My Favorite Wednesday, Their Least Favorite Character

Photo by Patricia Walters
Tonight is my favorite Wednesday of the month: my critique group. Tonight, I'll get the group's comments about the final chapters of the third Marita/Angel/Charli book, taking me one step closer to finishing it. One thing's for sure, though.

They won't have good things to say about Jim.

My critique group doesn't like Jim (Angel's husband and Charli's father), nor do most of the readers I've talked to. Then again, I haven't given them much reason to like him. He's pompous, spoiled, arrogant and, when it comes to Marita, he ran off when it was time to man up.

Even the most unlikeable characters have to be unlikeable for a reason, though. In Jim's case, that reason looms large in the form of his mother, Carmella. The only boy among her three children, Jim was raised to be a prince. Doted on, excused and elevated above his siblings, Jim grew into the entitled and demanding adult that we meet in each of the novels.

It's easy to see why Jim would marry Angel. Aside from being devout, kind, attractive and the polar opposite of Marita, she definitely had the potential to be the kind of wife he desired: a sweet, old-fashioned girl who would love, honor and obey.

But why, my readers ask, would Angel marry Jim?

Angel is the kind of person who sees the best in everyone, and this tendency also encourages those around her to put on their best face. Charmed by Angel, Jim himself was charming, showing her the gentleman he'd been brought up to be. Like any prince, he can be dazzling and protective when the fairy tale is going according to plan. But, when the story sneaks down a dark path, that same prince, unaccustomed to things not going his way, has a darker side as well. Every fairy tale is supposed to have a happy ending and when things lurch frighteningly toward unhappily ever after, even a true prince can show his true colors.

For all his flaws, Jim truly does love Angel, just as Angel loves him. As the story begins, the fairy tale is in full swing, with Angel and Jim living the life she has longed for. At the outset, Jim is her prince and his past is the only dark cloud on the horizon.

But soon it's gonna rain.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Technical Difficulties

Same book,
different cover :-)
Today, after class, one of my students and I were talking about writing papers. He said he was pretty good at papers once he got started. But, he said, getting started was sometimes hard.

Boy, can I identify.

I find that I feel that way about a lot of things and today, this post is one of them. I was excited to post that, after a nine-month hiatus, Casting the First Stone would once again be available on Amazon. But, as it turns out, I still have a little more work to do before it goes from draft to final copy. It seems that creating adventures for my characters is far easier than navigating the technology necessary to launch them from my screen to your shopping cart.

Meanwhile, the photo at left is the new cover that will wrap around the old story. I'm excited for this re-release, which, as it turns out, is going to be closer to the release of the third (still untitled but getting closer) and final installment of Marita, Angel and Charli's adventures. Oh, and Bets. She'd be very annoyed with me if I left her out as she thinks that, after two books in a supporting role, she deserves to share top billing.

As for the third book, it's now in the hands of my beta readers and my critique group. Later this week, I'll get feedback on the final chapters from my critique group and story feedback from my beta readers. From there, the only obstacles between finishing the book are time and technological expertise. And a title. But, as I said, I'm getting close.

The irony of working to perfect these books while I'm simultaneously teaching my students about perfectionism (as a cautionary tale, not a recommended methodology) is not lost on me. While I've learned to settle for "good enough" in some areas (cooking, for example), my books are not one of them. The real irony is that I might have to put them out there with mistakes in order to correct those same mistakes -- very, very quickly, I hope.

While I'm a tad frustrated (I wanted this to be simpler), I'm opting to view the whole thing as a learning experience. By the end of this endeavor, I'll know how to do all of this -- something I did not know before.

So, for today, allow me to reintroduce you to Marita, Charli and Angel (sorry, Bets) as they make their entrances in Chapter 1 of Casting the First Stone. Soon, they'll be arriving between new covers.

Marita Mercer adjusted the icicle-thin strap of her leopard print camisole and then tugged once, twice, three times. Perfect. Enough cleavage to look casually sexy, but not so much that Jim could brand her a wanton woman unworthy of her own daughter.

“Mom, do you have to wear that?” Twelve-year-old Charli flopped onto Marita’s bed. “Isn’t it bad enough that Dad’s dragging us through this mediation? Are you trying to let him win?”

“Of course not. Besides, you’ll barely see it.” Marita slipped a black jacket on over the camisole. 
“See? A sensible black suit. Sober and appropriate for all proceedings.”

“Didn’t you wear that to work yesterday?”

“As a matter of fact, I did. But yesterday, this suit was a uniform for a court reporter. Today, it’s outward proof that I can be boring and follow the rules.”

Charli sighed. “Maybe we should just take Grandma and Grandpa up on their offer. If I transfer to Holy Redeemer, maybe Dad and Angel will lay off.”

Marita sat down beside her daughter. “Do you really want to go to Christian school?”

“No. But I don’t want to live with Dad and Angel either.”

“Honey, your father and Angel won’t necessarily back off just because I send you to Holy Redeemer. They want full custody. Anyway, your father could easily argue that Holy Redeemer didn’t do much for me.”

Charli laughed. “I still can’t believe you went there for twelve years.”

ElevenMarita thought, refusing to voice that embarrassment aloud and remembering how everyone—the teachers, the principal, her parents—had insisted that she “find a more appropriate educational placement” when they’d found out she was pregnant. Get thee to a nunnery indeed. 

“Yeah, I’m hardly the poster child for Christian education. And it’s a good thing, too. Somebody has to let you have some fun.” She stood and selected a pair of thin, gold hoops from the jewelry box on her dresser, then turned back to her daughter. “Why don’t you go ahead downstairs? I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Okay. But hurry. We don’t want to be late.” Charli slid off the bed and bounded out of the bedroom, her brown ponytail bobbing up and down.

Running a hand through her own thick, dark hair, Marita turned back to the mirror mounted above her dresser. Nearly thirteen years had passed since she’d met Jim Alessio at that Chi Phi party. Her hair had been the same color as Charli’s then, with no need for purchased highlights to hide the grey that had begun encroaching even before her thirtieth birthday.

At nineteen, Jim had been older, charming, and just what Marita needed to show her parents that there was more to life than youth group and Sunday services. She’d planned to sneak out, have some fun, rebel a little. 

She hadn’t planned on Charli.

“Mom!” Charli called. “Are you coming?”

Marita slipped a thin gold bangle on her right wrist and pulled her watch onto her left. “Be right there!”

Jim hadn’t wanted Charli when she was born. There was no way Marita was letting him have her now.

Angel Alessio pulled her feet out of the stirrups and sat up, her paper gown rustling.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

“Perfectly fine,” Dr. Harrison said, rinsing the speculum and setting it on a paper towel. “I can’t see any reason why you and your husband would have trouble conceiving. How long have you been trying?”

“Six months.” Angel bit her lip as tears welled in her eyes.

“I know this is difficult,” Dr. Harrison said. “But you’re young and healthy, and even though six months feels like a long time, it’s not uncommon for couples to take twice as long as that to conceive, particularly if the woman has been on the Pill.”

“But I’ve never been on the Pill,” Angel said. “I don’t believe in contraception.”

“Then it’s probably just a matter of time.” Dr. Harrison made a note in Angel’s chart. “In the meantime, try to relax. Stress can inhibit conception.”

Great. “Should I plan on seeing an infertility specialist?”

Dr. Harrison flipped her chart closed. “We don’t have any reason to believe you’re infertile, Mrs. Alessio.”

“Well, I mean, isn’t it difficult to get an appointment? If I call now—”

“It’s too soon. You haven’t been trying long enough to be classified as infertile.” Dr. Harrison smiled. 
“This is supposed to be fun, remember?”

“That’s what my husband keeps saying. I just never imagined it would be this difficult.”

Dr. Harrison patted Angel’s hand. “I know. But we have every reason to believe that the next time I see you, you’ll be pregnant. Take care.”

As soon as Dr. Harrison shut the door, Angel took a deep breath and slid off the table. She crossed to the dressing area in three long strides, fighting back tears. She was relieved that everything was normal, of course—just as Jim had said it would be—but if that were true, then why wasn’t she pregnant? She knew women who had gotten pregnant on their honeymoons, others who’d conceived second children while still nursing the first, and yet six months of trying had gotten her nothing but disappointment and a sense of utter failure.

And then there was Marita. She and Jim had been together only once, and that was all it had taken for Marita to get what she hadn’t wanted—what Angel now wanted more than anything else in the world. 

(Water lily photo: Pixel2013 via Pixabay)

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday Feature: When and Why

Not too long ago, I finished listening to Daniel Pink's book When -- a book recommended by a friend that turned out to be one of my favorites. As I prepare to talk to my students about procrastination and time management, two topics that continue to be highly relevant to me, I'm revisiting the book. I'm particularly excited to share parts of the "Time Hacker's Handbook," -- a PDF that was included with the audiobook -- with my freshmen.

Then this morning, I found an article in Quartz about a few of the hows and whys surrounding Pink's writing of this particular book. I completely identified with the idea of writing about a topic that was not only relevant in my own life but something of a weakness as well. This, after all, was the impetus behind Know Thyself as I moved from one office to another and adopted a quest for sustainable organization in the process. Now, like Pink, I find that I'm in a better place when it comes to the very topic I write about.

I've never been one to seek out the origin stories of the fiction I read but I find a strange sense of satisfaction when the writer of a nonfiction book I've enjoyed turns out to be struggling with the same things I am. It forges a kind of connection between us, as though we're travelers on the same road which is, despite our new understanding of things, still rocky in places.

I like Pink's writing voice -- at once approachable and informed -- and suspect I'll seek out other books of his to listen to as well. Meanwhile, I'm seeking to apply what I've learned from When and to share Pink's concepts with my students.

What subject would you like to learn more about?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

It's the Little Things

It all started with a table.

When my sister moved, I acquired a small table that had been in my parents' house. To get it out of the way until I could find it a home, I put it in my office. The plan was for my daughter to take it to school with her but, as it turned out, I got attached. The extra work space was just what I needed. And, as it turned out, it changed the ambience of the room, adding a cozy feel.

When it came time for my daughter to go back to school, the table stayed home.

Then, a month or so ago, I bought a new chair for my office. The old one was comfortable while I was sitting in it, but left me achy after the fact, which meant that I often ended up working in other places in the house. I made the requisite trip to a local office store, where my Goldilocks routine (too tall, too big, too expensive) yielded a few contenders but no chair that was just right.

The following week, I visited a furniture store. I knew they wouldn't have as big a selection but figured it was worth a shot.

And there it was. The chair that had the potential to be just right.

I tried to talk myself out of it. It was white (not the best choice for an office chair) and more expensive than any of the ones I'd previously considered. I walked away -- I walked around the whole store, as a matter of fact -- but ended up back in front of it.

And arranged to take it home.

When I got home that afternoon, still wondering if white (the only color it came in) was my best choice, I saw something that I'd forgotten all about.

A small, rectangular white pillow, also taken from my parents' house, sat in the mudroom, still awaiting a home in my house. Suddenly, I knew exactly where it belonged.

My office is still the same small space that it always was, but, thanks to the new additions, it feels a little different. The small table and new chair (which still makes me smile every time I look in the office) have shifted the mood of the room in a subtle way.

My little room is growing up.

P.S. I made it to the bottom of the drawer.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Journey to the Bottom of the Drawer

By default, my books and swag have been taking up space in our dining room. It's not a perfect situation but, as is often the case, the stuff has been there for so long that I no longer really think about it.

Until last month when I moved it all to take it to a book signing. Once the car was packed, the clear space in the dining room looked lovely. That alone was enough to motivate me to begin sorting and clearing in an effort to find new homes for the supplies.

Last week, I cleared out some small drawers in my office, enabling me to move the swag out of the dining room and into the office. This began a domino effect, leading to my latest project: clearing out a large drawer in the dining room in an effort to get rid of the small drawer unit entirely.

The larger drawer, which is a catchall drawer, was full of all sorts of miscellany. Most of it was out-of-date paperwork that had somehow collected there, along with a bunch of loyalty cards, most of which had been transferred to the KeyRing app on my phone.

Easy peasy. Lots of things to toss, file and shred, leading to more clear space.

Along the way, I found a few treasures as well.
  • An email from my mom, finalizing the guest list for the 50th anniversary dinner my sister and held for my parents, along with an envelope from one card or another, with my name in her handwriting as it looked before she got sick.
  •  A birthday note from my husband the year he got me a Kindle...and it didn't arrive in time. He wrote me a note with the details, mounted it on cardboard and wrapped it. 
  • A cutout of my daughter's hand from when she was in preschool or elementary school (that I wish I'd put a date on) -- a relic from a little girl who is now an independent young woman. 
As I journey to the bottom of this drawer, which is now about 75% empty, I don't know what else I'll find. I have a feeling that what remains to be cleared is the part that will be the most rewarding but also the most challenging -- the part that's more nostalgia and inspiration than filing and shredding. There's the little yellow favor box from a friend's son's wedding alongside my checkbook and cash stashed away for a credit card payment, as well as who knows how many papers and receipts. The drawer itself tells a story -- of money spent, stores visited, mementos tucked away -- gathered together in unlikely combinations, a cross-section of life.

Soon, the drawer will be empty and ready to hold something mundane, like towels and pot holders. The newly cleared space will yield a sense of relief, but will also give way to a need to find homes for the treasures I'm bound to buried in and among the banalities of daily life. Practicality may win out, but, those special items -- along with the memories they've sparked -- will earn a victory of their own, surviving the purge, only to be tucked away again to become story starters elsewhere in the house when, inevitably, I stumble upon them once more.

Such is the beauty of life's souvenirs.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Friday Feature: The Inspector General's Report

It was another day of yelling at my car radio on the way to work, something that's happening with increasing frequency.

I was listening to the Friday News Roundup on 1A on NPR when the subject of the Inspector General's report on the separation of immigrant children from their parents came up. When host Joshua Johnson asked his guests about the report and what, if any action they were aware of, their responses amounted to a verbal shrug.

It confirms what we kind of knew, they said. A lot of these things we pretty much assumed.

Then why are we doing this??

There are some who are trying to keep this in the forefront.

Because it's still happening. And every day, more children are irreparably harmed.

It points out that Health and Human Services needs people who are trained in how to do this.

Do WHAT? Separate children from their parents? Why would we train people to do this?

In normal political times, there would be some sort of bipartisan solution, they said.

In these times, however, it's a political football (my words, not theirs) -- a talking point. Something for politicians to hash out from the comfort of their climate-controlled offices -- if they choose to discuss it at all -- places where food and health care and basic human rights are a given and there's not a single aluminum blanket in sight.

In fairness to those on the program, they were the messengers -- journalists responding to a situation, not representatives charged with doing something about it.

Seven months prior to this report (on February 7), Dr. Julie Linton spoke to House of Representatives about the well-documented, research-based, long-term dangers inherent in family separation:
"Studies overwhelmingly demonstrate the irreparable harm caused by breaking up families. Prolonged exposure to highly stressful situations — known as toxic stress — can disrupt a child's brain architecture and affect his or her short- and long-term health. A parent or a known caregiver's role is to mitigate these dangers. When robbed of that buffer, children are susceptible to a variety of adverse health impacts including learning deficits and chronic conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even heart disease."
The bottom line is that we are knowingly causing damage and, as the journalists on today's program asserted, none of this is a surprise. It does, of course, beg a rather obvious question: knowing what we know, why do we continuing doing what we're doing?

In my classes this week, I've been teaching my students about the ethics that researchers must follow. Like doctors, their first rule is simple, and governs all the rest: First, do no harm.

Any compassionate government should be expected to do the same.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Small Taste of Characters to Come

I did it!

Less than half an hour ago, I sent the third and final Marita/Angel/Charli book off to my beta readers. Once I get feedback from them and the last bit of feedback from my critique book, this book will finally launch! I am aiming for a November 1 launch -- stay tuned!

Meanwhile, here's a scene from the book. Happy reading!

Title and cover for the new book coming soon!

           Marita gave Lukas a quick kiss then slid into the booth across from him. A roast beef on rye with lettuce, tomato, extra mayo and a side of coleslaw waited for her, alongside a glass of iced tea. Her favorite sandwich, her favorite guy and a heaping helping of guilty conscience. 
            “Sorry I’m late,” she said, squeezing his hand on the way past. “The deposition ran long, and then my mother called.” 
            “How is Rosemarie?”
            “Same,” Marita said, her mouth full of sandwich. She held up one finger, as she chewed and swallowed, regretting the size of the bite she’d taken. “Offering intrusion in the guise of assistance.”
            “I’m assuming there’s a story behind that.”
            “She wants to take Charli to the beach with them.”
            “And this beach is the French Riviera?”        
Marita shook her head. “No. My mother’s hatred of cruise ships now extends to airplanes. Just a friend’s condo at the Delaware shore.”
            “And this is bad?”
            “Not bad. Just pushy. Summer is months away. It’s too soon to start planning trips to the beach.”
            “I don’t meant to be dense, but isn’t that kind of the idea of planning? You do it ahead of time?”  
Marita took another enormous bite of her sandwich, this time to avoid answering. Lukas refused to see her mother’s helpful ideas for what they were—candy-coated machinations designed to exert grandmotherly influence over Charli. 
            The worst part was that Marita couldn’t just say no. After all the drama of the past few months—Spencer’s birth, Charli’s break-up with Todd—Charli could really use a vacation. One that Marita wasn’t sure she could afford. 
            Actually, the worst part was that her mother was right. Marita needed to make summer arrangements for Charli as much as Charli needed to get away from Todd.
            Marita washed down her food with a large sip of tea. “Sorry.”
            “You seem preoccupied.”
            She nodded. “I am.”
            “Is Charli still struggling with Todd dating someone else?”
            “It’s more than just dating someone else, Lukas. He has all the subtlety of—” 
            “A teenage boy?” 
            Marita bit back a retort. It wasn’t Lukas’s fault that he didn’t get it. He wasn’t a parent. Not only that, but she’d chosen to keep the gory details from him. He was, after all, Todd’s youth pastor and trashing Todd to him didn’t seem fair. Besides, Mary Kate and her husband were doing their best to reign Todd in, and Marita knew—probably better than most people—that overcoming teenage hormones with parental intervention was a battle more often lost than won.
            Lukas took her hand. “Did I offend you?”
            “It’s just hard to watch Charli go through it. She and Anna are still best friends, so it’s not like Charli can simply walk away from the drama. Every time she goes to Anna’s house—or youth group, or even to school, for that matter—she stands a good chance of running into Todd. I’m sure she’ll be fine in time, but he was her first boyfriend. She doesn’t know what to do with all the feelings.” Marita took another sip of tea. “How about if we talk about something else?”          
             “Sounds like a plan. How are you enjoying Bible study?”
            From teenage hormones to church.“Good. But a little weird. Angel hasn’t been coming.”
            “That is weird. How many meetings has she missed?”          
Marita shrugged. Great. Rescue Todd, but throw Angel under the bus.“Just a couple. But it feels strange without her there.” 
            Lukas squinted at her. “Are you all right?