Monday, November 23, 2015

The Perfect Clutch for the Bookish Gal

It’s a book? It’s a purse? It’s both! My book club met recently for a night of wine and crafting (we sometimes also read books!).

Under the expert tutelage of my friend Michele, we created clutch purses out of hardcover books. I used “Elements of Botany” by Joseph Bergen, Revised Edition (because only a loser would use the original), copyright 1906.

The first thing I did was slice right through the book’s beautiful cover, accidentally, while trying to gut the pages with a very sharp knife. This is an old, brittle book, but luckily it was nothing some duct tape couldn’t fix.

I won’t lie. This project was a bit complicated. It also revealed one of my key weaknesses. I don’t sew. I struggle with putting a button on. I use the iron-on stuff to affix badges to the kids’ scout uniforms. I really should learn. This deficiency all goes back to some very complicated baggage concerning my mother and admonitions to be an expert at sewing and cleaning and cooking or no man would ever want me (don’t tell my husband!) and I’d become an old crone. But let’s save all that for a future post...

So my friend did the sewing parts, and I did all the cutting and gluing, and unfortunately, the very key parts of the cutting and gluing came well after 10 p.m. and two glasses of wine.

Consequently, the edges are a bit wonky. But it’s still pretty cool. If you’re interested in trying your hand at this project, you can find full instructions on the blog, “A Beautiful Mess”

Now, I need to find something to do with the “guts” of this book, which are full of beautiful illustrations. Ideas anyone?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


In polls on well-being (aka happiness) conducted by the Gallup Corporation, “Community” is considered one of the five essential elements to a thriving well-being. (I read a lot of books on the topic when I was researching my novel, “Happy, Indiana.”) Community is quite simply the way we’re all taking care of each other. Specifically, Gallup’s surveys look at whether people consider their community a good “fit” for them, how deeply they engage in community activities and, especially on my mind today given all the fresh turmoil in the world, how safe they feel.

I’m writing this morning at a little table in my living room, set right against a large picture window overlooking the street. The sun is streaming in. A neighbor is walking his wife the couple blocks up to her office at our local college. Another is walking his dog. They can see me through the window and note that I’m still in my penguin pajamas (Hi!).

As I look out the window, I think how many neighbor's houses I could stroll into right now. Because I have their keys. They have mine, too. I'm thinking about the time when I locked myself out one freezing cold day, which I only realized while standing in front of the door holding a toddler in one arm and several bags of groceries in the other. The neighbor across the street noticed me out her window and ran my key over. I’m thinking of the couple who just moved in right next door and had our family over for dinner, rather than the other way around. They bought presents for my kids and attached a note that said they were excited to be our neighbors.

There’s a question on the Gallup survey that asks what would happen if you lost your wallet in your neighborhood (with your ID and some money in it). First, would you get it back at all? Second, would you get it back with the money still there? I propose a third answer: I would get it back, with all the money, along with a plate of cookies baked by the neighbor who found it, quite possibly snickerdoodles. Although…if it was found by the teenage neighbor who recently stole stuff out of my unlocked (I know, I know) car at night (Hope you’re enjoying that “Sound of Music” CD!), I may not get it back. 

No neighborhood is perfect. But this morning, at my window, sipping coffee in my pajamas, my overwhelming feeling is: I. Am. So. Lucky. I’m looking out at these people knowing they’ve got my back, and I’ve got theirs.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Fair!

I’m a PTO mom, and yes, I have a ponytail and yoga pants, but I don’t drive a minivan so there's that. My kids started school, and I started volunteering—helping in the classroom, baking the occasional cookie, leading the grandparents to the gym for the big concert—oh, and I’m also part of an amazing group of people building an awesome outdoor play and learning environment for our school, but that will be a post for another day.

Today, I want to talk about one of my favorite volunteer tasks—co-chairing our Scholastic Book Fair. I’m just coming up for air after our fall fair (we’ll do a smaller fair in the spring). It’s a lot of work, but I have to admit, there are moments when I’m positively giddy. When I arrive in the evening to set up, and all of those boxes are stacked on the stage (our fair is held in the school’s performing arts center), it’s such an anticipatory moment. I throw back the lids, revealing stack after stack of paperbacks and hardcovers, preschool picture books to middle grade novels. It’s like…oh, it’s something like Christmas, though of course most of the books will not be mine to keep; I’ll end up purchasing a half dozen for my kids, and the rest will find other homes or be packed away again at the fair’s conclusion.

As I stack them on the tables, positioning them just so, touching those glossy covers (is this getting weird? Tell me if it’s getting weird...). But, honestly, it’s all I can do to keep standing, and not just sit cross-legged in the middle of the room and pull down book after book and read. There are so many books here I’ve never read! And my head gets filled with ideas for children’s books I’d like to write, but, oh man, writing kids’ books is so hard! 

My absolute favorite fair ritual occurs after everything is set up, when I walk into the room alone the next day, getting ready to open. It’s a large room, with tiered, carpeted seating off to my left. On my right is the shiny, polished wood floor of the stage, where most of the books are waiting. It’s completely quiet as I walk to the panel of light switches and slide each lever up, taking the room from dark, to dim, to full brightness, the spotlights hitting the books on the stage, illuminating them like the stars they are. I want there to be trumpets, but it’s just my breathing. When I come back the next day, there will be a few less, and I’ll throw the lights on again, wanting to say, “Hey there, friends. Some of you will be leaving here today, but don’t worry, you’ll have a good home and people will love you.”

Lest you think I have just come by this particular weirdness, let me explain that I have always felt this way about books. I remember sitting in the closet-sized library at my elementary school, and wondering if I could read all the books in a year’s time. The anal, list-maker in me wanted a print-out of the names of all the books so I could go about systematically crossing them all off. I didn’t want to miss anything! And spectacular libraries have always made my jaw drop. The first time I walked into the law library at the University of Michigan, I believe I started to cry; it was just so beautiful. I believe libraries do for me what churches do for some other people, filling me with a sense of reverence and awe. Books! They’re as close to a religious experience as I get.

But of course, I’ve got no time to dawdle at our school’s book fair. Kids will be coming each day at lunch, some with a check for $20 to purchase as many books as they can, though quite a few of the kids at our economically disadvantaged public school will enter the room with a Ziploc full of pennies or a couple quarters they have left from lunch. Unfortunately, they can’t get a book for that. All I have to sell for 50 cents is a pencil, a bookmark, an eraser that, ironically, looks like a twenty dollar bill. Still, the money we raise goes back into the school’s reading program, so every kid benefits.

One of my joys is when parents come in with their kids in the evenings, fresh off parent-teacher conferences, and the kids are pulling books off the shelves, holding them up like jewels to mom or dad, asking, “Can I have this???” And when the parent looks down and says, “Yes.”

“Would you like a bag for that?” I ask at the check-out, but I know the child wants to carry it. She wants to feel that book in her hands that same way I do.

My favorite memory from last week's fair was when I was sitting at the cash register, just after opening. A little boy ran past, on his way to the cafeteria.  He was heading to lunch and did not stop, but he briefly glanced inside the room as he went past in a blur, and I heard his voice echo in the hallway, yelling, “Book Fair!!!!” I know how he feels.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Killing My Darlings

 A lot of well-worn advice gets passed around a writing workshop, things like “Show, Don’t Tell,” and “Write What You Know” and “Hey, Brah, check out this crocheted hat I made.”

Students learn all sorts of “rules” about writing in their introductory classes, and then they get to ADVANCED WORKSHOP where they learn to forget the rules and trust their instincts, but the problem is, those instincts are as poorly formed as the clay bowls they made at the same local art center where they learned to crochet.

I’m old enough to have learned the rules, thrown the rules out, trusted my instincts, abandoned them, circled back around to some of the rules and found that a few are finally making some real, serious sense. The one I’m thinking about lately is the admonition, most widely attributed to William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

The “darlings” referred to are those phrases, or paragraphs, or even whole pages, that you really think are the bees’ knees, writing that you pass right over during editing, because, why change that perfect phrase, that sentence that was clearly delivered right into your brain via a host of the angels of dead, brilliant writers?

Here’s the thing. Sometimes those phrases actually suck with a capital “S.” Only, you can’t see it, because you are in love with your own staggering talent. Such a thing happened to me with the first chapter of my recently completed novel, “Happy, Indiana.”

You may recall that I went away for a whole week, to a friend’s house in the way-too-hip-for-me city of Austin (where every woman is wearing a flouncy sundress and cowboy boots with a flair that says she just grabbed any old thing out of her closet, and I am wearing two blue things from Kohls), and I wrote my first chapter. First chapters of course are hugely important and full of so many must-dos. 

You must establish the voice and tone of the book. You must establish your main character’s motivation. You must establish the setting. You must give a preview of the main plot points, at the very least giving a hint at some struggle the character is going to have to overcome during the course of the book. You must have enough pacing so that the reader wants to read on to chapter two. You must do all this, if you are a literary novelist, with beautiful prose.

It’s not easy. And so that first chapter takes on a life of its own. It becomes almost a separate entity from the rest of the book, from chapters 2-25 where I really “told the story.” The first chapter becomes idolized and bronzed and set on a shelf. By the time I finished the first draft of the novel, I’d read that first chapter so many times, I didn’t even “see” it anymore. It’s like the basket of clean, folded laundry that almost always resides in my bedroom. I could put it away…but what basket? Where?

Once I starting showing my book to friends, I realized my error. They loved the book…once they got to chapter three. Chapter three is too late, folks. Harsh as it is, agents won’t read past chapter one unless they are hooked, and you need an agent if you want to publish in a big, or even semi-big way. And then you need to hook a publisher, and then, eventually, readers.

I rewrote my first three chapters, taking out anything that wasn’t essential. I seriously sliced and diced. I started the book right at a critical moment of action with my character already struggling with challenges. There’s no sitting on the on-ramp. You’ve got to merge into traffic, and fast, even for literary books these days. Everyone’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter, and I can clench my fists against that fact as much as I want, or I can accept it and work harder.

I had to work harder, to examine a bunch of paragraphs I loved and really ask, what do I love about this? Because if I only love the style, it has to go. If it doesn’t advance my plot, add something to deepen my protagonist, etc., it has to go.

There were way more darlings in that first chapter than anywhere else in the book. Enough that I’ve decided to make a new rule, and I’m writing it here so you hold me to it. From now on, with future books, I will craft a first chapter, but it will only be a place-holder. I will know, right from the start, that when I finish the book and have a much better idea of where it actually went (rather than where I thought it was going to go), I must take a hatchet to chapter one, knock down its door “Here’s Johnny!” style and leave no word unscathed.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Can You Say Ombrѐ? Major Bathroom Transformation on a Dime!

Hi, friends. Today I bring you the happy nice time DIY story of my recent bathroom renovation. As always, this was done on the cheap. And so, the “renovation” did not include any sledgehammers. In fact, the only things removed, and replaced, from the original space were a towel bar, a toilet seat and a light switch plate. As you might expect, I made use of lots of paint.

Take a look at the “before” shots of my blah first-floor powder room. It’s a teeny space (5 1/2’ x 3 1/2’) just off our kitchen. Given its prime location, this is the bathroom our family uses most often and is also the bathroom used by guests. The color on the walls is that sage-green so popular in the 90s that looks gray in low light. It was very dark. It depressed me just walking in there.



Enter the ombrѐ. This is a technique by which several hues of a color are put on a wall (or a fabric or your great-aunt-bertha’s cuckoo clock) in order of gradient, typically from light to dark, with dark being at the bottom. This is what I did to the walls with a sunny yellow color palette, carefully taping off each stripe. I like the effect, though it didn’t turn out exactly as I thought it would. The colors on the swatch are more much defined than they are on my walls. I guess this is just due to lighting. Oh well.


Our vanity and mirror were in fine shape, structurally, but sported stains and worn paint. My solution? Paint, of course. I decided to go dark, in order to match the black and brown linoleum floor. This is a really easy technique. I also did it on my radio-turned-kitchen-island. I just brushed on some dark brown paint, let it dry, then dry-brushed black over it, leaving areas where the brown shows through. This was all done in an afternoon. I liked the hardware, so I left that alone. I did, however, replace the dingy white caulk around the sink (this made a huge improvement).


A sidebar on towel bars: Have you ever gone into a perfectly decorated bathroom in which there are numerous coordinated towels all lined up neatly on a bar, smaller towel on top of smaller towel until you get to the twee little fingertip towel on top? I never want to dry my hands in these bathrooms! That’s because I know I’m going to have to make sure the towels are back in their precisely perfect spots afterwards. Also, the people who do this to their towels…do not have kids. My bathroom had one of those bars, which I promptly removed in favor of the hook you see here. Towel hooks are your best friend, especially if you have children. They come in all sorts of styles, and pretty much any kid can get a towel on a hook and still have it look neat (most of the time).


I did splurge a bit on accessories with this project. I swapped out my old potty training toilet seat (the kids have been potty trained for many years!) for a bamboo one. I also bought this sign at a local shop. You remember the novel I just finished, right? The one about the happiness researcher? Well, I happened upon this sign recently, just as I was finishing revisions, and it so perfectly captured one of the main themes of the book. I usually don’t buy accessories that I could make myself (this sign would be pretty simple to do), but fate seemed to be saying something to me, so I brought it home.

Our “new” bathroom makes me…happy.



Friday, April 24, 2015

I am so proud of my protagonist!

I’m revising. It is messy. If you’re a regular old reader who simply enjoys books, and really cares not one whit how they get made, then avert your eyes. You are about to enter the sausage-making factory and NO ONE wants to see that!

Still here, eh? Okay, here’s where I’m at. First draft of novel finished and shown to a writer-friend and an editor-friend, neither of whom are stingy with advice. The verdict? It’s good. The challenge? Can I make it fantastic? Can I tie up every plot point, every action, so that all my themes are swimming in the same direction, ending all together in some crystal-clear pool of insight into the human condition? (Is this asking too much?) Oh heck, why not try?

This is what my revision process looks like. Every writer has her own process. All writers I know just love to hear about each other’s processes, as though there might be something we can adopt that will be the key to making all future book writing much easier. (Also, we’re always looking for a way to procrastinate by reading each other’s blogs.)

What you see here is my printed manuscript, divided into various chunks, plus a whole bunch of notes (down the center of the table) listing “Challenges” and “Possible Solutions.” To arrive at those pages, I first considered everything my readers shared with me, and then spent a couple weeks freewriting dozens of pages as I worked through the issues they presented. Then, I had to decide what is going to make this book “better” and not just “different.” That work became the Challenge/Solution pages.

What I’m doing now is going page by page to mark-up, with post-it notes, where I’m going to change a scene, insert a new scene or take one out. I love the tactile nature of this process, being able to see things, touch them, move them around. It feels much more like “revision” to me than simply moving the cursor around on my computer screen.

At this point, I’m thinking about the book constantly, figuring out those last troublesome scenes so that they can really have the most resonance for my reader, figuring out, honestly, how has my character changed through the course of this book? (A character has got to change, or she just isn’t that interesting.) How is the ending (which I love, and my readers love), completely supported by everything that came before it? It’s tricky, but so rewarding when you get it right.

And today, *trumpet salute* I felt like I got it right. All these pieces have clicked into place, and I really saw, not just imagined in a vague way, but SAW on paper how my protagonist, Violet, had come through some really traumatic events, gotten through a lot of messy parts of her life, and how she made a conscious choice to keep moving, to live, even though that meant keeping some of those broken pieces inside of her, because they would never completely disappear.

Dear Reader, I cried. I sobbed like a child here at the dining room table. I was so proud of her. And yes, that is really the thought I had, that I still have. I’m proud of her. That is when you know your character is more than words on a page, that your book will resonate with others. That is the moment when the bunny wriggles his hind legs and realizes they aren’t made out of sawdust.

I so look forward to sharing this book with you all someday.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

This side table DIY is the perfect!

I do love a pretty transformation that costs none of the dollars (unless you count my labor, and as a DIY-er, creative writer, parent and general layabout, no one’s really paying much for that). Even better than the cost, this was an easy project, too.

Of course you know that the first step in an inexpensive DIY is finding the furniture. Browsing Goodwill and garage sales can net you some fine, solid-boned pieces just waiting for a little love and tenderness. I am also not above pulling things out of the trash, as I’ve mentioned in previous DIY posts.

This gem was rescued from my parents’ basement during a visit to their home on Dead End Rd. It was the end of the line for this little beauty. A plant stand in its former life, it was dirty and scuffed. The metal container (that held the plants) was discolored and scratched.  But look at the lines! Oh, for a dollar for every time I’ve said this. I also loved that it had a bottom shelf (more places to stack books!). The faux bamboo on the corner posts gave it a bit of an Asian flair. I knew this piece could play a leading role in my bedroom renovation.

And it has! The paint (Aztec Gold by Valspar) was free, courtesy of two magazine inserts for free sample pots from Lowes. I lightly sanded the piece first, then primed it, then added two coats of paint. This was a bit tricky, only because of all the curves. You really have to keep an eye out for drips (a good rule of thumb for life, in general).

The metal insert, which formally held plants, I simply flipped upside down, so it would transform the piece into a table. I hit it with a coat of the silver spray paint I always keep in my holster in case a piece needs a little bling. This silver has a nice matte finish, plus it’s hidden partially behind the latticework so it’s not too overpowering.

I love this spot of color against the robin’s egg blue walls of my new room. The fun chair was a steal from Big Lots. I’d always wanted a reading nook in my bedroom. This area is small, but quite comfortable. A place to lean back, a place to put up your feet, a place to set your cup of tea. Every bedroom needs a spot like this.