The Lucky 500

My husband has taken 6 weeks of paternity leave after the birth of each of our children, and he’s now just a little over halfway through this particular stretch. He is not much of a cook (OK – not a cook at all) and it takes him an hour to clean a bathroom, but he is very, very helpful with the kids. He gets up at 6 a.m. when our toddler starts screaming, gets all of them dressed, changes diapers throughout the day, and cobbles together something resembling breakfast, lunch and dinner. He also bathes the oldest three children and puts them to bed each night.

It’s been great. I can spend lots of time with the baby, take naps, and plan little day trips for our new family of six. I don’t even want to think about the day his leave ends. Which is why I found myself dreaming up ways to keep him from ever having to go back to work again. After discussing our pie-in-the-sky plans, we came up with two options:

Option #1 – Live in an alternate reality where our mortgage is paid off, our house is no longer in need of any expensive repairs, and we have access to very affordable health insurance for the entire family. If all of these things were true, and we lived frugally, we could likely live on our meager farm income rather than him returning to his desk job.

Option #2 – Win the lottery.

Notice there is no Option #3 – Write a best selling novel. You see, that’s kind of a joke in our house. Anytime we ever want something that’s hopelessly out of reach, one of us always says, “Now if we could just win the lottery.” My husband used to add, “Or you can write a best selling novel,” and then I would have a little conniption. Because no matter how successful I become, it is very unlikely that I will ever make enough as a novelist to buy a vacation home, or take my entire family on a cruise, or spend money without a second thought.

I’ve seen several estimates, but most place the number of novelists in America who make a full time living from book sales at between 300 and 500. I’m sure if you take into account income from writing workshops, speaking engagements, and freelance editing, the number is higher, but that’s not what people think of when they picture a successful novelist. They picture someone writing a few hours a day, and holding book signings for the fun of it. That’s why I’m sticking with the 500 number.

In contrast, according to the TLC show How the Lottery Changed My Life, 1,600 people a year win lottery payouts of one million dollars or more. Sixteen-hundred! Even if this number is high, there are still at least double the number of people becoming millionaires each year as there are novelists making a living from their books. And consider that each year there are 1,600 new millionaires minted by the lottery. I imagine a comprehensive annual list of the lucky 500 would reveal some of the same names over and over.

Which is why my husband is off to purchase lottery tickets. Can he pick up a few for you?

What’s in a Name?

My husband and I are currently going through final revisions of our (completely in our heads) list of names for baby. She’s due to arrive in 10 days, and her name is a bit up in the air. The middle name is set (mostly), and her first name is down to three. Our criteria for first names has always been this: you know how to spell it when you hear it, you know how to pronounce it when you see it, and it leaves no ambiguity as to the child’s gender. Sometimes those three things are easier said than done. It doesn’t help that all of our children have either an unusual first name or middle name, which means that everyone tells me, “I just can’t wait to hear the name you guys came up with.” Whew. That’s a lot of pressure. Not to mention it’s something our child will carry with her forever.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think there’s a similar pressure when naming characters in your novel. The right names “fit,” adding to the tone and story, while the wrong names can quite nearly ruin everything. You want your character names to be memorable but not distracting, and that can be a very hard line to balance. For every Harry Potter, there is a Renesmee Cullen (recently awarded the title of “Worst Character Name Ever.”)

I do not purport to be an expert, but as a lover of names, I’ve done more than my fair share of research on the subject. So here are a few of my tips for naming your characters.

Stay True to Your Time Period
If your story is historical fiction, due diligence should ensure your names are appropriate for the setting and time period. America is a melting pot of last names today, but 100 years ago many Americans were only one generation away from their home country, and small towns were rarely a mix of more than two or three nationalities. Check old census records to ensure the last names you choose accurately reflect the names used in that area. If the average Indiana town in 1890 was home to Brits and Scots, don’t use French last names unless they’re integral to the story.

The same advice is even more important for first names, and there are a number of sites online that can help you vet your choices. If your story is set in America after 1880, use this site to see if your chosen name is appropriate for your time period. For example, let’s say my novel takes place in 1915, and I want to name my character Adeline. The data from this site tells me Adeline reached it’s peak popularity in 1917, which tells me Adeline is an appropriate name for my time period. Now I want to name a secondary character Nicole. Hmmm, apparently this name was not used in the United States until 1937. If I went ahead and used Nicole, I’m risking drawing readers out of the story with this kind of anachronism.

Don’t Date Your Characters
A theme I’ve seen recently in a lot of YA is to give teenage characters names more befitting the preschool set. Often, this can give your characters a sense of being ahead of their time (which can be good), and can give your characters a little bit of longevity. In ten years, those reading your book will still get a sense they’re reading something contemporary. But naming trends are becoming shorter and shorter. Twenty years from now, your fresh sounding names might be dull and dated. Judy and Karen don’t sound like teenagers any more than Ethel and Agnes do. Use trendy names sparingly, and try to let the rest be a mix of timeless classics that fit characters of any age.

Don’t Make Up Names
If you’re anything like me, you read The Hunger Games, and marveled at the vast array of “new” names the author bestowed on her characters. From whimsical to sobering, they reflected everything from the character’s background to personality. These new names worked because they existed in the future, and they helped the reader become part of a world that had changed in every way.

But fabricating new names can just as easily work against you. For every Katniss Everdeen, there is a ridiculous Renesmee Cullen. Fabricating new names can just as easily work against you. If they aren’t pitch perfect, the reader will be distracted by your character – “Tamzania – but call me Tammy” – rather than absorbed in the story.

Do Your Research
Though this is especially true when writing historicals, researching names can help you avoid a number of pitfalls in contemporary novels, too. Next to no one named their daughter Nevaeh before 2001. And the popularity of names can vary widely based in different parts of the world, even between English speaking countries.  For example, the name Alfie was the 15th most popular name in England in 2012. In the same year, only 13 boys were named Alfie in all of the United States. That’s not to say that you couldn’t use either of those names for a 20-year-old American protagonist, but they might not be the perfect choice.

In 10 days, the world (OK – really just our close friends) will know our daughter’s name. I hope, in a few years, that my character names, and the fruits of my naming labor will be divulged. For those published, or unpublished – what paces do you put your character names through?

Losing the Fat

At a recent family gathering, I revealed how much weight I’d gained with this pregnancy (and I still have a month to go). That prompted someone to ask, “How much weight will you have gained and lost when you add up all four pregnancies?”

It was something I’d never thought about before, and so I had to do some quick math. “One-hundred and forty pounds …. No! One-hundred and fifty pounds!”

It was a mind-boggling sum. One-hundred and fifty pounds first gained, and then lost, in a period of about six years. Technically, the total is 146 as of this morning, but still – that is an incredible amount. To put things in perspective, my weight before and between pregnancies is 112. 

Soon I got to thinking about all the work my body has gone through to both gain and lose this weight. All the bowls of ice cream that tasted so good translated into healthy babies, but also time on the treadmill. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if I gained a lot less? In the end my babies end up being around 7 or 8 lbs. Isn’t it possible to go through a pregnancy and only put the exact amount of weight needed to create a baby?

Obviously, no. In addition to the baby, there are fat stores, and placenta, and amniotic fluid, and increased blood volume. All of these lovely things are needed to nourish the baby and sustain a healthy pregnancy.

Why on earth am I talking about this? Because gaining and losing all that extra weight is darn near similar to the editing process. When I wrote my first novel, the first draft was 116,000. Then I spent several months editing, took a step back, and saw that it was now 96,000.

20,000 words less. And the thought made me positively ill.  

You see, at a rate of 1,000 words a day, those 20,000 words represented almost 3 weeks of my life. Now it was all clipped and trimmed away, and I wondered if I had wasted those weeks and hours writing words that would never see the light of day. I had deleted no characters, no scenes. Not even much dialogue. I had simply written 20,000 words too many in the first place.

It took me quite awhile to work up the courage to write a second novel. I had the plot and characters defined, but the fear of again spending so much time writing superfluous descriptions and filler made my heart race. I didn’t want to write too many words. I wanted to write the exact number of words needed to finish my novel. Was this realistic?

Obviously, no.

Because just like a pregnancy, a novel needs all the extras in the beginning in order to nourish it. To help it flourish. It’s only through writing a paragraph about my heroine that I can arrive at the pitch-perfect five word descriptor. My hero has to grasp for her hand in six different ways before I can find the one that will truly make a reader’s heart flutter.

So here’s my advice to writers everywhere: Don’t be afraid of the fat. Though everything will look scary and bloated at first, I promise there’s a treasure underneath. And it’s only through the process of losing it that you’ll come to understand how to avoid gaining quite as much the next time. Is my second novel as long as my first? Most assuredly not. Could it stand to lose a few pounds? Yes, but isn’t the challenge part of the charm of the entire experience?

How I Find Time to Write

First, I should explain what I mean when I say I am “writing.” For example, I do not think I’m writing right now. This is because I can write a blog post, or an e-mail, or a Facebook comment with any number of chaotic things happening around me. I know there are others who homeschool 14 kids around the kitchen table while simultaneously writing a novel between questions about homonyms and igneous rock formations. That is not me.

Sad to say, but I am that person that needs total quiet to write. And time – lots of it. And knowledge that there is no chance that anyone will interrupt me. Not even the tiniest chance. It’s 9:00 at night right now. Prime “writing” time for me, but I’m doing this blog post because my husband has been moving around the living room and kitchen for the last 45 minutes. He has not spoken to me. In fact, he’s been completely silent. But it’s just the thought that he might speak to me that is enough to dry up any creative juices. Pathetic, I know.

So I think it’s fair to say I’m a high maintenance writer. I do have a lovely office, covered with built in cherry bookshelves and an enormous old window overlooking the barnyard. It’s floor is also completely covered with all manner of Christmas gifts, clothes to go to Goodwill, and random engineering manuals that my husband is sure he’ll refer back to someday. I have said time and again that my treat to myself for landing an agent would be to invest some money and time to fix up that room. I can see it now: bookshelves perfectly staged, a reproduction light fixture, and an overstuffed chair and ottoman on which to write (I’m a laptop girl). Until then, I drop myself on the sofa, with a clear view of the dishes on the kitchen table still needing cleaned up, and hope I can concentrate for more than a few seconds.

Wait – wasn’t this supposed to be a post about how I find time to write? Fair enough. I just wanted to lay it all out on the table. I am easily distracted, and I have a ridiculous number of small children. Yet I can do it. Which mean you can too.

First, I pinpoint my most productive time of day. For me that time is 10-12 p.m. Mostly because, as I mentioned, I need to know I won’t be disturbed. I’ve been known to write during nap time, but I tend to only churn out 500 words during those two hours, yet can produce 1,500 later in the evening. So I’ve learned to use my children’s nap time to catch a little sleep myself, and then I stay up late to write.

Second, I decide how many words I’ll write a day and stick to that number! I chose 1,000 words a day a few years ago because it’s fairly doable on most days. For some that number might be 500, others 2,000. Whatever your number, don’t let yourself go to bed without making  your daily goal. It is non-negotiable.

Lastly, I don’t count today’s overage toward tomorrow’s word count. Because despite what I just said in the last paragraph, there are plenty of days that I get behind on my writing, and no matter how hard I try, it just isn’t going to happen. That’s when my overages keep me from getting too far behind. What I mean is: if my daily goal is 1,000, and I write 1,300 on Monday, that does not mean I only have to write 700 on Tuesday. I still must write 1,000 words. Even though I’ve set a 1k a day goal, my personal rhythm is closer to 1,500 a day. Time and again, I get in the zone, and when I look up, I’ve written almost exactly 1,500 words. In the future, when I have more time and less children hanging on my leg, I’d like to up my goal. For now, I just let those overages compound, and then I don’t go crazy when everyone comes down with the stomach flu and writing is the last thing on my mind.

So far this system has worked fairly well for me. Anyone else care to share their daily word goals and how they achieve them?

How I Get 3 Kids Ready in the Morning and Stay Sane

This post has nothing to do with writing really, but recently several of my friends with one child have said they couldn’t do what I do. Specifically, get three children up and ready each morning. I’ll confess, I do feel a little burst of pride when I drop my son off at preschool and I’m wearing makeup and everyone’s clothes match. There’s just something about being ready for the day that makes everything I do feel more productive. Despite those feelings of pride, I have a confession to make: I’m not special.

First of all, I’m 100% certain that everyone who thinks they couldn’t do it could, and do it better. But that’s a whole different post. I am not an expert in any way, and most of what I do was learned through experience. In a way, I guess this is a lot like writing. From the outside, publishing a novel seems a daunting task. But no one woke up one morning and was an expert. Instead, most of their expertise was gained through hard work and time. Similarly, it used to take me until noon to get out of the house with one child, and now I can have all three dressed, fed and ready by 8. Experience is a beautiful thing.

So, without further ado, here are a few of the ways I have streamlined our day:

1. I get up early. Some of my friends get up at 6 a.m., work out, shower and do hair and makeup, and even squeeze in a cup of coffee or blogging before the kids open their eyes. Not me. I also get up at 6, but I’m lucky if I get through a shower before my two-year-old is peering through the frosted glass door. So much for privacy. Still, I’ve found starting the day even half ready means I’m more likely to finish the job. On a very good day everyone stays in bed until 7, which means I’m dressed and ready before they get up. No coffee, exercise, or blogging for me, but it’s better than nothing.

2. I set out their clothes. Let me be clear – I am the least organized person on earth, except in one tiny area. My children have hanging sweater organizers in their closets, and when I put their clothes away each week, I place outfits in each compartment. For my daughter, the outfit is complete down to the coordinating hair bow.

Pre-matching their outfits is a tiny step that reaps enormous rewards. First, my four-year-old can reach each outfit and dress himself, and he is expected to do so before he leaves his room. Since he has no desire to hang out in his room all morning, this means he dresses in ten minutes or less, instead of the up to two hours (true story!) it used to take him when he was downstairs distracted by the TV or his toys. My two-year-old can’t dress herself, but I can either get her dressed each morning without wondering where her new pink socks are, or she can bring the outfit to me if I need to be in another room.

The second benefit of the outfits doesn’t help us get ready faster, but it sure makes us all look better. On mornings when my husband dresses the kids, the matching work has been done for him. I’ll let that speak for itself.

3. I brush my kids teeth before breakfast (sometimes). Yes, I take my children to the dentist. No, they don’t have a mouth full of cavities. Before, I used to wait until after breakfast to brush their teeth, but that meant some mornings it just didn’t get done. The kids’ bathroom is a long way from the kitchen, and fetching toothbrushes wasn’t in the cards  on days we were racing to be somewhere. Yes, I could have kept a separate set of everything downstairs. But I didn’t want to. Instead, I brush hair and teeth before heading downstairs. Not right for everyone, but it works for us. 

4. I keep breakfast simple. We love our pancakes and waffles, which is why I serve them at dinner. In the morning, we keep things easy. Cereal (often dry until they get the hang of not spilling spoonfuls of milk), fruit that isn’t juicy (bananas and apples are great, oranges are out), and cups of milk. Toast and cheese is about as fancy as I get. Their egg allergies mean I’m never expected to make an omelette. These simple breakfasts take little prep or clean-up, and keep clothes clean – at least until lunch. On mornings when everyone gets up extra early and I’m not ready yet, I spread a blanket on the floor and serve bowls of dry Cheerios. They watch TV while I finish my hair and makeup. Then we have our milk and fruit at the table.

5. They are responsible for their own coats and shoes. I give the baby a pass on this one (aren’t I nice?), but the other two must put on their own shoes and outwear. This means I have to buy shoes without laces, and most days I have to set each shoe next to the appropriate foot (left to their own devices, they will place them on the wrong feet 95% of the time), but it’s still 4 less feet to clad and two less coats to wrangle and zip. 

There you have it. No superwoman capabilities. Just a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way. Next up: How I Find Time to Write (insert maniacal laugh).

A Kick in the Pants

I began the summer with very good intentions. Intentions of finishing my current WIP, polishing it to perfection, and actually attempting to get it in front of someone. 

But good intentions are not the same thing as writing, and deadlines, and actual effort. 

I can’t rightly say why this book is taking me so long. I know part of it is laziness, but part is also fear. I dove headlong into my first book with a head full of ideas, but not with a whole lot real world knowledge of the publishing industry. Soon I was reading writers’ blogs and agents’ blogs, and realizing this publishing thing was going to be an uphill battle. Even as my writing exponentially improved, I became discouraged. OK – I’ll admit. I was terrified. The more I knew about publishing, the more I became certain that I’d never be able to do it. Winning the lottery seemed more likely, and I don’t even play.

Of course, even as my writing changed, so did my life. I had just one sweetly napping baby when I wrote that first novel. Now I have a four-year-old, two-year-old, 14-month-old, and as news to my many readers (okay, all two of you) I’m eighteen weeks along with my fourth. No, my four-year-old will not yet be five when this baby is born. Yes, it was planned. Yes, I think we are crazy.

Yowza. Four kids under five. So I have an excuse as to why I’m not writing, right? Wrong. I wish I did. Except for some wicked evening sickness those first 14 weeks, nothing should have been getting in my way. I still have several hours in the evening, and I’ve always possessed the ability to hire a babysitter if I really, really needed writing time. Even now, as my two-year-old is climbing on my lap and announcing, “I must hug you. I am hugging you,” I’m still writing. Now she’s straddling me so that I have to crane my neck to the side to see the screen. Yep, still writing.

I entered ACFW’s Genesis contest this past year and semi-finaled. My scores were, to say the least, encouraging. Two of the semi-final judges gave me 100s. Last month I entered ACFW’s new First Impressions contest. I happened across it the day entries were due, and dashed off a 200-word blurb during nap time. I didn’t even review my five page entry, I was cutting the deadline so close.

Last week I received my scores. The first was a 54.5. Yes, it was out of 100. I took a deep breath and accepted that I would never write again. I wasn’t any good. I never would be. A few minutes later I screwed up the courage to open the second score. It was a 90.

Hmmm. Okay, so the second judge must have been having a good day. Or maybe they just loved mail order bride stories. I made a guess that the third score would be a 67, and opened the attachment.

It was a 99.5. 

I think every writer needs a kick in the pants every now and then. All three scores were mine. The first reminded me that my writing isn’t for everyone, and never will be. Even if I achieve my publishing dream, there will always be someone who just doesn’t “get” my novels. The other two scores were the little push I needed to open up that dusty Word doc again. I may not have all the time in the world to write, or even the dream circumstances under which to write, but I’m going try. Even if it means writing with two children on my lap. Yes, I’m doing that right now.

 

Why My Kitchen is Dirty (and maybe why I have lice)

A few months ago, I said to my husband, “I just don’t think our son likes me.” And I meant it.

I’ve known his entire life – all four years – that I wasn’t his favorite. Even as an infant, he preferred my father-in-law to just about anyone, followed closely by my husband. I’m really not sure if I ranked third or not. But then the gap widened. He’s never been a hugger, but soon he hugged me like it was a form of punishment. If my husband and I tried to trade off bedtime duties, and I entered our son’s room, I was quickly and loudly dismissed. Before long, I stopped asking if he wanted to sit next to me on the couch, because each rejection was a little more painful than the last.

I would read friends’ blogs and Facebook posts and be in awe. Their sons told them they were pretty. Their sons wanted to read books, and play games, and read stories with their mothers. Sometimes I wondered if my son would even miss me if I was gone.

And then something strange happened. Something very strange.

I was getting ready for church when my son entered the room. “Why are you wearing that pretty sweater mommy? You look so pretty.”

My jaw almost hit the floor. But I took it in stride. I figured he’d gotten a word confused. Maybe he’d mixed up “pretty” and “awful.”

We piled in the van. It was a sunny day, so I lowered my sun visor.

“Mommy, I can’t see that window up there. Open that window.”

“What window, Buddy? There isn’t a window up here.”

“I think he means the mirror on the visor. He thinks it’s a window,” my husband said.

I explained there was no window. I lifted the panel to reveal the mirror.

“That’s what I meant, Mommy. The mirror. I need you to open the mirror so I can see your pretty face.”

This time my jaw did hit the floor. But my heart bounced off the ceiling. I don’t know what caused the change, but I was taking it. Starting that night, I began cuddling with my son before bed. In the past he’d have wanted no part of it, but now he welcomed me with open arms. My daughter has always been a cuddle-bug, and she moved from her crib to a bed that same week. So after the baby was in bed, I would cuddle her goodnight, and then move on to my son.

As much as I loved the cuddling, all that extra love was taking a lot of time, and soon it was hard not to think of all I still had to do in the evenings. Besides my woefully neglected manuscript, there were dishes to clean and laundry to fold. There was also the all important “me time.” Cuddle time was falling at the end of a very long 14 hour day, and as sweet as their hair smelled, it would only remind me that I hadn’t washed my own. Each time, I would extricate myself from their warm embraces with the explanation, “Mommy has things to do.”

A few nights ago, I was balancing precariously on the edge of my son’s bed, held on only by the skinny leg  thrown on top of mine. I could almost hear the food drying on the dishes downstairs. Slowly hardening into a mashed potato cement that would never come unglued. I loosened his leg’s death grip from my thigh and announced, “Mommy has to clean the kitchen.”

“What will happen if you don’t clean the kitchen?”

I know this wasn’t a rhetorical question. He really did want to know if something would happen. Maybe he thought bugs or mice or dinosaurs would descend upon us and scavenge the kitchen for leftover scraps of chicken and peas. But in the moment, standing over that tiny boy with the big brown eyes, I knew the answer.

“You’re right, Buddy. Nothing will happen. That’s why I’m staying here with you.”

Then I dove back under the covers, arranged myself in the very middle of that cheap twin bed, and wrapped both arms around him. I didn’t even protest when he wanted to throw both of his legs over mine. I woke up 45 minutes later, groggy, but deeply at peace. And you know what? I didn’t even wash the dishes that night. I simply stumbled to my own room and resolved to clean the kitchen in the morning. 

Because who know how long this new phase will last? The one where I’m pretty, and worth cuddling? How many more days do I have for him to beg to sit on my lap to watch TV, and comes to me with his boo boos instead of Daddy? Maybe it will all end tomorrow – which is why my kitchen is dirty tonight.

Oh, and did I mention that I did pay another price for all this cuddling? My daughter has head lice, and I was the only one in the house lucky enough to catch them. Still, totally worth it.