Merry Christmas or happy holidays?

It’s hard to believe that how we wish people well at this time of year has become a political litmus test.

Look, if you’re one of those people who is defending the right of that dude on Duck Dynasty to say whatever he wants, no matter how hateful or clueless it is, then I hope you also refrain from condemning people for saying something as benign as “Happy Holidays.”

Because you just can’t do both. Not without being either incredibly unaware, a complete hypocrite, or a devoted bully.

For one thing, “happy holidays” just makes sense, because there’s the New Year in the same season. “Happy holidays” is usefully plural.

Then there’s the reality that not everybody celebrates Christmas, and freedom of religion is another one of those grand American traditions worth being patriotic about (not that anybody in this country can really escape the overwhelming commercial presence of Christmas pretty much from Halloween on).

One of my Muslim students wished me a “happy holiday” as she said goodbye on the last day of class and I asked her if there were any Muslim holidays during the break. “No, just ordinary days for us,” she said, with a smile. I can’t help thinking that some of my otherwise quite lovely friends who get churlish about this would chill if they could simply meet people like this student in their daily lives.

Observant Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. Others sometimes do, much as  atheists and agnostics do. This latter group includes my parents, who indulged us with Santa Claus and a tree, but no religious content.

Other folks – Pagans and Wiccans, especially — celebrate the winter solstice instead, which Christians borrowed for their own uses a long time ago.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are Christians, don’t celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense. I wondered if the kids would feel deprived, but in-laws of mine had a tradition of going out on Black Friday and getting presents when they were cheap. The kids then got to play with everything right away, and no wrapping was required. They didn’t seem too unhappy with that deal.

Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians often celebrate Christmas according to a different calendar, usually Jan. 7.

Until recent generations, my husband tells me, Puerto Ricans’ largest celebration was originally El Dia de los tres reyes magos, or Three Kings Day, which falls on the twelfth day of Christmas, or January 6, known to Episcopalians like me as Epiphany. On the eve of that, children leave a box filled with grass for the wise men’s camels under the bed and wake to presents left there in its place.

Since my husband is Puerto Rican, my son grew up with a little bit of that tradition, although in our house (and on the island, too, these days) Three Kings Day is not a bigger deal than Christmas. It usually falls on an ordinary school day, so it’s not exactly easy to make a big production out of it. And getting our hands on grass this time of year isn’t very easy, either. Those poor camels usually have to make do with Christmas tree trimmings from us.

We never actually hewed to the Santa Claus tradition in our home, though it was inescapable in the culture. Frankly, I’m uncomfortable lying to my kid even about Santa Claus, though I didn’t go out of my way to demolish any belief that he might develop, either – and, in fact, at one point after he figured it out, he actually requested that we pretend Santa was real because that was way more fun.

Generally, however, we followed my husband’s custom and labeled my son’s presents as coming from the baby Jesus (on Christmas) or the Three Kings (on Three Kings Day) rather than from Santa Claus.  We do have the tree, though, and it’s always real. Alejandro and I love the smell, and I’m making up for all those years of putting the fake tree together down in Florida. We also live in Christmas tree farm country, so it’s another way of supporting local farmers.

So I’ll wish you a happy…  whatever it is you celebrate.

Personally, I’m going to celebrate the holidays and my semester break by taking a break from this blog and trying to catch up on other things, including lots and lots of reading, and a long visit with the folks. I’ll pop in here and there with tidbits, but there will be no long posts here until February.

What are your family’s unique holiday traditions? Feel free to share.


The fine art of twitter stalking

When I first tried Twitter — because it was one of those things all authors were supposed to do — I was instantly addicted. I enjoyed getting little tidbits of this and that. At first I was only following a few of my favorite bloggers and comedians and magazines and such, and it was easy to keep up. But as I followed more people and organizations, I began to realize:

  1. I have no hope of keeping up with this.
  2. This takes a lot of time.
  3. This isn’t selling any books.

So I started ignoring it for days at a time. But at some point I dipped back in and came across a post from Joel Friedlander – a man wise in the ways of indie publishing and generous about sharing his wisdom – in which he suggested that authors should build their Twitter networks not by following other authors, but by following people who describe themselves as avid readers.

And that works. A bit. Mind you, it’s laborious. I think of it as hand-selling. I’m doing well with it if one out of every twenty or thirty people I follow gets curious enough to check me out, and then also gets curious enough to buy or borrow my book — but that’s something. It’s enough to keep The Awful Mess: A Love Story from sinking into an utter abyss in the absence of any other marketing efforts.

Probably even more valuable than the sales, I’m building a list of fairly targeted followers. Although not very many people I follow immediately buy my book, a fair number of people do follow me back. Which means I can still talk to them. So there’s some potential there over the long term.

Of course, this strategy only works up to 2,000 or so follows, at which point Twitter decides you’re creepy or something and shuts you off.

When this figure neared for me, I signed up for an account at I’m personally not a fan of people’s daily tweets of how many followers and unfollowers they have, so I opted out of that, but I do occasionally tweet my own variation of their suggested tweets. It’s only fair to give this valuable free service some shout-outs now and then. (It’s not the only one available, either, so feel free to look around.)

Anyway, with this one, everyone gets 25 free unfollows a day. The occasional tweet on their behalf entitles you to fifty unfollows a day. And your non-followers are neatly organized with the oldest ones first.

So I go through that list and I clear out most people who haven’t followed me back, unless they happen to be particularly interesting.

I also tend to pretty quickly unfollow people who send me chirpy direct messages without following me back. I don’t mind being hit up with a marketing message, but a direct message suggests a willingness to interact, and I can’t DM back people who haven’t followed me. So that just seems rude. (First I’ll usually wait a week or so to see if they’ve just forgotten to pay any attention to their account.)

I do the same for most of the hapless folks who auto-DM me back to tell me they use TrueTwit validation. (DON’T use TrueTwit validation.)

And I will probably always follow more people than follow me, barring sudden fame (and I’m not holding my breath on that one). I find a lot of people interesting, and as I said before, I enjoy getting these little morsels of information.

Anyway, now that I’ve unfollowed enough to clear up space for more follows, I stalk writers whose work seems enough like mine that their readers might like my stuff, and I follow their followers — if they talk about being readers.

This isn’t all that easy, because most of the authors I idolize don’t have Twitter accounts, and Jane Austen, for example, has been dead way too long to be tweeting anybody, although she is associated with a surprising number of Twitter accounts. So I hunt for readers of women’s fiction and “smart chick lit,” or just about any Episcopalian who will admit to reading. Also, if anyone mentions being a Kindle addict, I’m on them like fat on bacon.

Of course, I’m late to this game, clearly, because other indie authors are in fact the majority of the followers of most published authors. I ignore them unless they speak of avid or voracious reading themselves or just seem to be an unusually kindred spirit. I usually ignore librarians and booksellers, too, because neither will have easy access to my book right now and will probably sniff at me in disdain. I also ignore people with locked accounts, people who haven’t tweeted in weeks, people whose politics and religious attitudes suggest they’d happily consign me to hell, and people who do nothing but tweet contests and marketing messages.

Along the way I’ve noticed that dark chocolate and red wine merit A LOT of mentions in women’s profiles. It’s actually quite fascinating to see how people from all over the world sum themselves up. (I’m stunned that I haven’t yet come across a single mention of long walks on the beach. It’s not really a hook-up oriented medium, apparently, or maybe I’m just looking at the wrong demographic for that.)

My next stage with Twitter will be organizing the people I follow into lists. I had no idea what that was until recently, and it makes so much sense. You can put the people you follow into categories, public or private, and then focus on that category only when you’re interested in it. Sounds like a good January project.

Do you have any Twitter tips, techniques, or pet peeves that you’d like to share?

Twitter Screenshot 2013-12-16 11.02.37

A Goodreads giveaway!

(for US readers)
Just a quick note here for our regular readers — and please feel free to pass the news along to your reading friends.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Awful Mess by Sandra  Hutchison

The Awful Mess

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends January 12, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Staying the course

I’m in the midst of (distractedly) grading the final research papers for my four English composition classes, so this will have to be a short post.

My paperbaPaperbackck went live on Amazon this week, which was interesting because, as I pretty much expected, the only people to buy it immediately were my parents. Which is just funny, really.

A few friends and family have requested multiple copies, so there’s that. (Yay, friends and family.)

I haven’t been able to do much marketing to support the release, what with the four classes and the unpredictability of the process, but that’s okay. At a friend’s suggestion I’m trying to throw together a little book launch party, but that’s not looking too healthy, either. This is a crazy time of year to squeeze one more thing in.

And sales even of the Kindle version have been slow. But I need to remember what the agents knew much better than I did: even a good debut novel is a challenge to sell in this market without some sort of compelling platform for the author. And I need to remember: That’s why I’m doing it this way. I can afford to fail and just keep writing and getting stuff out there until I gain some traction. In the meantime, I’m in print. And I’m learning.

So far I’ve actually been pretty fortunate, with more sales than the majority of first-timers, and some very nice positive reviews.

So, I really need to get back to what ought to be my primary focus — getting more books out there. Not that I’ll stop marketing, because that’s just too hard for me to do. It’s part of my professional background after all, so I find it embarrassing to just let it go. (On the other hand, my clients have always had much bigger budgets for marketing than I do.)

So the real focus here has to be getting more material out there.

And now I need to go back to grading (where I just discovered that one of my students and I — since I’d approved her source — were fooled by a fake scholarly journal. There’s another hazard of the brave new world of online publishing!)

For now, I wish you happy reading, and good luck with storms, semesters, holiday prep, and all the rest.

Pride goeth before a fall (or at least a misspelling)

One of the risks of calling this enterprise SHEER HUBRIS PRESS is that there’s a little extra irony — a wonderful soupçon of inevitability, really — when I screw up.

Only on this last revision of The Awful Mess: A Love Story did Amazon’s converter notify me of a spelling error I didn’t even realize was a spelling error. And I’m an English teacher and a former editor! (No, I won’t tell you what it is. You get extra points if you can find it, but it’s already gone in the Kindle store.) Alas, it was NOT caught before I’d ordered my book proofs. That’s expensive and time-consuming, because it means another round of proofs.

Most of the stuff I caught this time around was minor. There were words not italicized when I wanted them to be, and some inconsistent use of italics in general (I won’t pretend to have fixed that). There was a scene in which my heroine managed to fit “showers” into a space of time that would only allow one. There was a comma outside single quote marks. (The horror!)

Then there was my p013anic attack about apparently skipping an entire chapter in my chapter numbering. Thankfully, the guy working on the book told me my numbering was fine, since I later found the missing chapter under the desk, where it had hidden after Bo knocked over my neat stack of pages. (He’s not a great office assistant.)

I also developed some concerns about my use or non-use of the subjunctive tense. But this one’s a little tougher, because there’s an argument to be made that English is gradually losing this tense. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s something I have observed in common practice. And that’s how English always evolves — in common practice.

This section reserved for grammar nerds

Generally speaking, if you construct a conditional sentence about something that is not true, the subjunctive tense (or mood) is required. In other words, if Arthur says “It would be much worse if I was taking this kind of interest in you and you were in my church,” I’m pretty sure he is being ungrammatical.

I believe that “was” should be a “were” because Mary is not, in fact, in his church. Though since he is interested in her in fact and it’s in a compound sentence, I suppose we could debate the matter — after all, the second part could be subjunctive rather than just straight past tense, and English isn’t mathematics with handy parentheses to help us figure out in which order to solve the equation. That’s why I didn’t do it the first time. But being consistent with tense within a sentence is a good thing. So I edited that one this time around.

I did this since Arthur is clearly well-educated, so he should probably use the subjunctive instinctively. However, people speaking are not always as grammatical as they are on paper. So … I don’t know. Honestly, I think I could have gotten away with it. (Feel free to weigh in.)

Later, I’m quite certain I could have gotten away with it if Annie had said, “Maybe if he was about twenty years younger and not so damned religious.” Annie has already confessed that she hates writing and can’t spell. She probably wouldn’t know the subjunctive tense if it came up to her in a bar and bit her on the butt. However, in my book she actually says “…were about twenty years younger.” That’s because I used it unconsciously. Should I have? Probably not. But I left it as it was.

The reality is that 99% of readers won’t notice a missing subjunctive tense and 50% of the remaining 1% won’t care even if they do.

The challenge of regional colloquialisms

At another point I wimped out on something I had done intentionally wrong in the book, and had always meant to include somehow because it was something I so enjoyed hearing when I lived there. Many New Hampshire residents routinely employ the double negative. For example, you might hear:

“I need to make a trip to Keene.”

“So don’t I!”

I wanted Winslow to sound at least a little local and at one point I had him saying, “So hasn’t everybody.” But then I just couldn’t stick to it. People who were not familiar with the local grammar would think I’d made a mistake. Maybe if I’d found a way to get Bert to say something like that, I could have stuck to it. Maybe if I’d added something like, “lapsing into the local dialect, Winslow said, ‘So hasn’t everybody’.”  But that would have taken people out of the flow of the narrative. So he just says, “So has everybody.”

Sometimes it might make sense to do things wrong on purpose. For example, every once in a while I have found that there is really no good way to avoid an instance of poor agreement like “Your child never knows when they might be called upon to perform” without resorting to an awkward “he or she, ” which is one of the clunkiest constructions in the English language, and one that very few people use it in common speech. In my days in educational publishing we used to take pains to alternate between the he and she, always choosing the less gender-stereotypical gender. (“Your child may wish to become an engineer. So she needs to…”) Usually I try to find a way to avoid the problem, but in advertising we’ve sometimes just knowingly committed the error instead.

Other times, I’m the stickler. I can remember an unexpectedly bitter debate once with another writer who declared that semi-colons should never be used in dialogue. I disagreed. If we’re going to punctuate based on what people are actually thinking as they speak, there’s not much call for any punctuation. But people are reading our dialogue, not listening to it. Even in a script, actors have to read that dialogue and make sense of it. Punctuation is simply there to help our words make sense. Semi-colons are a useful part of the arsenal of sense-making. Of course, I also know from my students that there an awful lot of people who have no idea when they should be fired.

English is always flowing and changing. Consider the news that “selfie” has been added to the Oxford Dictionaries. Or just watch your local evening news, or commercials. Certainly our local stations appear to have decided that copy editors are a luxury they can’t afford anymore. Brian Williams also seems to delight in constructions like “What about them Red Sox,” though I hope that’s just his idea of sounding cool.

I wasn’t trying to be cool with my errors, and I have no excuse other than trying to do all this stuff myself. Someday, I hope to make enough money at this to be able to hire the most tight-assed proofreader in the universe to check my work. In the meantime, I make do with what I have at hand: me, the friends who read my early drafts, and a few sharp-eyed readers who are willing to share.

Do feel free to help me out with that by catching my errors.By the laws of irony, there should be at least one or two in this very blog post.

Book updates

This week my book has a wonderful new cover — if it ever shows up. Amazon is taking a very long time to update it. It appears that they require actual humans to look at new covers before they publish them now, which is probably smart given that it has a (tastefully) naked person on the cover.

For those of you who are waiting on the paperback, I’m sorry. Thanks to that spelling error, I now have to do another round of proofs, which also requires waiting for book proofs to arrive in the mail. Hopefully it will be available for order by the end of the week, but I can make no guarantees.