Things that won’t wait

I’m not going to get into perishables in the refrigerator or freezer or pantry, because we already know all too well about that. But these days I’m particularly aware of these other parts of life that just won’t wait forever:

Children.

They just keep growing! My grandchildren and niece and nephew in particular seem to be absolutely racing into adolescence and young adulthood. I wish they would slow down, but unfortunately I have it on great authority that it’s not how these things work.

Gardens.

You could still start tomato seeds right now in upstate New York, but you probably wouldn’t get much of a crop before frost arrives. Similarly, leaving plants in tiny nursery containers too long might mean they never flourish even after you plant them. (Sorry, basil.)  Also, if you let weeds set seed before you pull and/or mulch, you’ll be chasing weeds for months. (I will be chasing weeds for months.)

Painting.

At least up north, if you don’t get your house painting done in dry, temperate weather, you’re going to pay a price. Also, prep always takes more time than you think it should. Also, paint gets old. (If only buying paint equaled finishing a job! I’d be golden! Or, more likely, a nice off white!)

A 1350 angel from an altar piece who has folded arms and a skeptical or grumpy expression.expression.

How I imagine an actual angel might have watched our diocesan debate. (Angel by Niccolo di ser Sozzo Tegliacci, ca. 1350. Hyde Collection.)

Justice.

After participating in my (Episcopal) diocese’s annual convention this year, I became very aware of how dedicated some people seem to be to setting aside time for discussion and healing and conversation, maybe even forming committees or task forces, rather than simply removing some hateful and unenforceable canons targeting LGBTQIA persons. The laity was ready to move on, but our carefully curated clergy was not. I could say the fact we had a vote at all and that it was fairly close showed progress…but probably only because it’s not my marriage or my calling that was being strenuously and sometimes quite disingenuously opposed.

Books.

You have to put your butt in the chair and write them or they just don’t happen.

On the other hand, I do find that ideas will wait a bit and might even improve with a little subconscious marination. And sometimes writers need to recharge the creative batteries.

Readers.

It’s a truism in indie publishing that if you really want to make a living at this you need to publish four or more books a year. Some people publish ten or twelve or fifteen books a year (sometimes under various pen names). I am never going to be able to do that. But I’m also older now and don’t actually expect to make a living at this. So I’ll publish when I’m ready. (And I’m very thankful to those of you who are still hanging around for whatever comes next.)

Here’s wishing you the best of luck at not waiting too long to do whatever it is you want to accomplish this summer! Clearly I could use some of that myself.

 

 

 

 

 

Coping with trying times

This morning I woke to news the McConnell-stacked Supreme Court is about to demolish Roe v. Wade. Well, that and howls of outrage about it on Twitter. I joined in the collective fury, but I can’t help feeling an all-too-familiar disgusted resignation already creeping in.

The last five or six years, including the pandemic, have been emotionally exhausting. I’ve noticed in my own reading a tendency to want to escape into happy, amusing romantic comedies. (I even wrote one myself, an update of my favorite romcom of all time, Pride and Prejudice, and am currently trying to decide what to do with it.)

I always aim to keep my own novels light, but they usually also deal with some dark issues.

Maybe that’s why I don’t even feel like trying to market them right now? Because we’re all tired, aren’t we? We don’t necessarily want to “escape” into books about immigration or addiction or racism or whatever, even if promised a happy ending.

I have friends who have been using this time to organize their opposition at the grassroots level and take on entrenched powers. I admire them greatly. I’ve never been comfortable in an angry crowd at a protest, but I have done my fair share of door-to-door canvassing.

However, I’m old enough now to be kind to myself and admit how much I absolutely loathe doing that kind of thing.

These days I can’t seem to bring myself to do anything more than root for and vote for and maybe throw some money at the candidates they support. Who then tend to lose. (Though not always.)

A long time ago I had to read Candide for college, a howl of outrage written for its own day, and the way it ends, “We must tend our garden,” has always struck me as the best comfort in times like these, when so many hard-won freedoms are under vicious, coordinated attack.

a variety of seedlings not yet planted

This year’s somewhat stressed out seedlings, waiting for warmer weather.

Of course, I take that command more literally than Voltaire probably meant it, as I get ready to plant my veggie seedlings (if we ever stop having frosty nights here this spring!).

Such gardening is, of course, a privilege for those who have some land and time and the budget for gardening supplies (which, I’ve recently discovered, have been just as affected by inflation and supply chain issues as anything else).

Another type of tending, the kind of writing that examines our culture and promotes critical thinking about it, has also largely become the bastion of people who have the time and financial means and marketing wisdom and connections and dogged persistence (and, sometimes, just plain luck) to keep doing something that doesn’t pay a living wage to the vast majority of the people who do it.

So I guess I ought to try to make as much of that privilege as I can, right? Or at least more so than I seem to be doing at present.

As well as getting the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants in.

How are you keeping yourself from despair in trying times?

How marketing your writing can be like surviving high school P.E.

When I was in high school in Florida, we had physical education class every day.

I was bad at it.

I coped well enough with track, aerobics, gymnastics, and even volleyball (only because I was a fairly reliable server), but all the other team sports were nightmares. I could be counted on to let down my team. Softball was especially painful. I hated waiting in the outfield, desperately hoping no fly balls would come my way.

But then I figured out how to get through it: volunteer to be the catcher.

Was I a good catcher? Hell, no. (Not until I watched Bull Durham years later did I learn that catchers are supposed to be strategizing with the pitcher! Who knew?) But nobody else wanted to do it, what with the strained posture and ungainly equipment and chance of catching a ball or a bat the hard way. So they were happy to let me do it.

Sandra Hutchison as an uncoordinated teenager holding two inflatable pool floats

This may be the closest I ever came to being any kind of athlete. Even as a teenager, I looked like a librarian.

And it was SO MUCH BETTER. I didn’t have time to pray no ball would come. OF COURSE it came. Repeatedly!

I spent the whole inning catching and throwing. I had no time to get nervous. Hell, it was even fun.

Yes, once in a while a foul ball popped up or a run headed home and gave me the chance to disappoint my team, but I couldn’t stop and brood about it. Because there was another pitch.

After remembering this recently, I realized that’s the approach I need to take to marketing. Especially the newsletter part, which I’ve been procrastinating literally for years now.

Like a lot of authors, I hate marketing my own books, especially to people I know. Because my mailing list is so small (especially now!), a lot of people on it are people I know. And whether they know me or not, I fear I will irritate them or bore them or look desperate or tacky or clueless, or (most likely now) get marked as “spam” by people with no memory they signed up for my newsletter years ago.

To be fair, I have also repeatedly run into bewildering tech issues. Let me tell you, bewildering tech issues are THE BOMB if you’re looking to put off something uncomfortable. (I ran into more trying to publish this very post, which is why it’s out a day late.)

Restarting the blog last year was my first step in overcoming what had become a case of near-paralysis on the marketing side. Could I write something every single month that at least some people were going to read? Yes, I could! (Okay, always on the last possible day of the month, and I just missed February, as noted above.)

Would this renewed blog ever be brilliant or make any difference to my book sales? Not so far. But it does, at least, suggest that I’m still in the game. This is something, especially if you publish new novels as slowly as I do.

But the mailing list is the thing I really need to do. So… those few of you still on my list at this point and also reading this, which may be nobody … you are about to start hearing from me regularly, on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, with something shorter than this blog ever is.

(Check your promotion or spam folder if you think you’re on the list and don’t get anything – or sign up again at the bottom of this page.)

This frequency is not what I promised when you signed up. So if you find this annoying, I cordially and absolutely without angst invite you to unsubscribe. It’s actually ideal, if you’re not interested. Mailing lists above a certain size cost an author money, after all. (Yet another reason to procrastinate!) And you can reliably hear about new releases or promotions if you follow me on Bookbub or Amazon.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do about this blog. I enjoy this format, but it takes serious effort to get a post published, and the mailing list will be my top priority this year. I also don’t want to take away too much time from novel writing. (Novel #8 is finally under way!) So that’s something I’ll be thinking about a little more.

As always, I’m happy to hear your opinions if you have any. (Also, I’m curious if you have your own ways of psyching yourself into doing the stuff you find anxiety-producing!)

And now … I need to go play some ball.

A burst of productivity for the new year

January saw me racing through a bunch of things on my list, especially during the week I had hoped to spend with my parents, but had to postpone, because COVID. Part of it was giving myself permission to not worry about the writing. Part of it was if I didn’t get it done I knew it was only going to get worse.

Like the old boiler that was trying to kill me. A new energy-efficient, non-CO-spewing combi-boiler was installed at the beginning of the month. (Thanks, NYSERDA! Seriously, that commie socialist government program helped a lot.) Living with it is a bit different. One, my gas bill is noticeably lower. Two, instead of keeping water heated and standing by, it only heats it as I use it. Water takes a little longer to get hot, and it never gets hotter than the temperature it’s set at. The shower has less pressure because there’s less water flowing, and I also turn it all the way to HOT pretty much immediately and can’t nudge it any hotter even if I want to — at least, not without running down to the basement and setting a new temperature. On the plus side, I never run out of hot water.

I’ve been tempted to put the temp up a little because I am a fan of long hot showers (a lot of writers will tell you they get great ideas in the shower), but I’m resisting because the whole point of this change is to conserve resources.

In order to prep for the boiler and the new basement insulation included in the project, I cleaned and semi-organized the basement. I had not cleaned the basement since moving into this house in 2014. Tidied, yes; cleaned, no. (Feel for that poor vacuum cleaner!)

I tossed a lot of stuff. But since I’ve lost weight after going low carb, I was glad I hadn’t taken some of the old donation bags to a thrift store yet, because now I can wear some of that stuff again and instead get rid of fat clothes. Once in a while procrastination is our friend.

It certainly benefited my spare room library redecoration: I found uses for bookshelves, rugs, baskets, a rocking chair, an ottoman, a mirror, some frames, etc. It also enabled me to reorganize my office closet.

Once in a while a pack rat mentality actually does save some money.

Of course, there’s more to get rid of. I’m deciding between Facebook Marketplace or the Habitat ReStore for the stuff that still has some use, but I haven’t decided yet. (From what I hear, selling stuff on Facebook can be a miserable experience. Any thoughts?)

I bought a newer used car and said goodbye to the old Subaru. I somehow thought I was buying a smaller car, at least until I tried to get the RAV4 in the garage and clean the windshield. Oops. But I’m not listening anxiously to the engine for intimations of imminent disaster every time I drive this one, and that was my primary goal.

Penny the cat and I both got through dental work. Now I need to do something about these old glasses I reverted to during the pandemic because the more fashionable pair broke. My last experience trying to get a pair was so miserable, I’ve been putting it off. There’s also a part of me that thinks I should just wait until cataract surgery, but apparently I’ve got a ways to go.

As for writing? I joined a mini TikTok course. So far, it’s striking me as a needless distraction from what I really need to do. (Especially since most of my new followers each day are generic guys declaring that they’re honest, godly, and good. The same ones as on Facebook and Instagram, only the quantities are on steroids.)

Less than one day of new followers. Cowboy1634 is my favorite for that subtle touch of the wad of bills, but I appreciate shirtless Eric, too.

While I may continue to figure out TikTok, I’ve decided February is going to be Mailing List Month. That’s been hanging over my head only for, like, years now.

Part of that will require deciding on a regular blog post day that isn’t simply the last possible day of the month, which has actually been working pretty well for me. Or giving up the blog and only doing the mailing list. If you have a preference, O rare blog reader, let me know.

February is also Starting to Write the Next Book Month.

Soon needed is Haul Out and Lubricate the Sewing Machine and Finish the Window Treatments Month, but I’m not adding it to the list yet. February is too short for that.

Anyway, here’s a very fast look my spare room redecoration into a library/pantry/inflatable mattress guest room, if you’re interested: https://vm.tiktok.com/TTPdhcK2RW/

One of the things I noticed while setting it up is that I’ve become such a big library reader (and also often an e-book reader), that very few of the books I’ve loved in the last few years have actually made it onto the shelves here. Instead, there are old favorites that survived the last move, plus shelves of books I haven’t gotten around to yet … because unlike books I own, library books have due dates.

So, apparently, deadlines really do help.

The joy of a non-traditional Thanksgiving

My favorite Thanksgiving as a girl was spent with my family in a fishing cabin at Horseshoe Beach, Florida, with family friends, listening to the Zorba the Greek soundtrack over and over and having hamburgers for Thanksgiving dinner because we hadn’t caught any fish yet. (Not that I would eat fish back then — the next day I gave the flounder I caught to the adults and had another hamburger.)

This Thanksgiving was spent in Miami and Key West and it was fabulous, too.

Despite being born and raised in Florida, I’d never once been to either of those places. My parents were willing to drive from Tampa to Canada and from Tampa to St. Louis and we also headed up to North Carolina pretty regularly, but they considered the road to Miami way too boring. (Also, my mother — who attended high school in Key West while her dad was stationed there — hates bridges. If you drive to Key West, there are A LOT of bridges.)

But for this Thanksgiving my friend Nandini invited me to meet up with her and her kids and her friend Michelle in North Miami Beach. I hadn’t yet had an official invitation from anyone in the family, so I was thrilled to say yes. (Last Thanksgiving, in the midst of pandemic precautions, I spent waiting for my son to wake up after a grueling night shift at FedEx, but he slept through the whole day.)

It was lovely to get away from the grayness of late November in upstate New York to enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of a bustling tropical city. On my first full day (their second), we went to the science museum/planetarium/aquarium and later walked from there over to the Bayside Marketplace (a sort of Faneuil Hall, for those familiar with Boston).

On the second day we went to Wynwood Walls to see the street art both in and out of the official facility, and Michelle and I went to the free Miami botanical garden and (eventually) figured out how to take the free trolley back to our North Miami neighborhood. Then we all drove back south together to eat elotes (ears of corn grilled and coated in mayonnaise and cotija cheese and chili pepper) and tacos at HuaHua’s, a wonderful taqueria. (Since I’m still doing the low carb thing, I ate the delicious fillings of my tacos and left the tortillas behind.)

Day three the kids wanted to see the botanical garden, too, so we happily did that again before heading for South Beach, where we enjoyed the architecture and the kids romped in the officially hazardous but not yet red flag surf at the really beautiful beach. Then we went and repeated HuaHua’s, because it was that good. We finished the night with the classic movie The Birdcage, set in South Beach.

Day four was Thanksgiving. We got up pre-dawn and drove Route 1 to quaint Key West. We toured Hemingway’s house with its many cats and their extra toes (and a beautiful garden), spent some time on a tiny beach, visited the cemetery, and had a couple of good meals that were in no way traditional. Then came a fairly grueling trip back in the dark with no coffee anywhere for poor Nandini the driver, since everything had closed by then.

Day five was travel home day. After watching the sunrise at the beach, which we did every day (okay, I skipped one in favor of a shower), it was on to the airport. We landed in the first snow of the season. (Ouch.)

Anyway, my favorite things about Miami, besides being with friends: Excellent coffee (find a Cuban bakery). The beach. The weather. (Mind you, a couple of days were a bit chilly.) Interesting architecture. The tropical plants! Good eating. And having lots to do.

Least favorite things about Miami: Parking. Driving is also tense. And most servers got some things wrong (except at HuaHua’s and on Key West), enough that we began to wonder if it was how they got even with the tourists.

Anyway, it was a great break and I returned with my batteries recharged. I also actually remembered to take everything I wanted and bring back everything I wanted, which feels like a major life accomplishment.

That’s good, because this is the week Sheer Hubris Press finally goes wide again, beginning with Kobo, and if Amazon price matches, I will soon be able to point you to either store for a free download for that prequel A LESS THAN FRESH START, which has a Christmas theme going.

Here’s hoping you had a good Thanksgiving, and will have an excellent Christmas. I highly recommend breaking out of tradition once in a while for an adventure.

If you’d like, tell us about one of your nontraditional holidays. (Don’t panic if your comment doesn’t show up right away — they all have to be moderated.)

 

 

 

 

A practical inheritance: A bowl, a strainer, a brush, some tweezers, and sex

By Sandra Hutchison

While helping my mother clean out my 96-year-old grandmother’s house before and after she died at the beginning of this year, I was of course tempted by a number of items, mostly old tools. They became my grandmother’s legacy to me. But my favorite items are not what I would have expected.

My great grandmother’s bread bowl

Thelma’s mother set her bread to rise in this bowl. It’s not in perfect condition at this point but is clearly beautifully made (and easy enough to restore, when I get around to it). I used to make bread before I did the math and realized the increase in my electricity bill more than offset any savings in the bread budget. My current stove is gas, though, so one of these days I may actually use this bowl for its original purpose again. (Of course I have a solar roof now, so electric would save me even more money.) In the meantime, it holds just about anything that isn’t wet. In the picture above, it’s the temporary home for a stalk of flowering balsam my neighbor gave me for next year’s seeds.

This really ugly food mill

I actually bought one of these in shiny stainless steel some years back to help me process tomatoes. Maybe I didn’t know to adjust it or something, but it ended up trashing 90% of my tomatoes, so I happily ditched it in a garage sale when we moved (and warned the person who bought it that it might only be good for applesauce). But I figured I’d try again when I saw this in my grandmother’s kitchen and could see that it had clearly been used a lot. This one works like a dream, so homemade tomato sauce and tomato soup are finally in my repertoire.

A clothes brush

I only recognized this because of Downton Abbey. This is a cheaper version of the brush John Bates would use to clean Lord Crawley’s beautiful wool suits. All I can say is that I’ve finally found something to clean wool and fleece of cat hair that actually works! Yes, lint tape works, too, but it takes a lot and that stuff isn’t cheap. (And in case you haven’t already figured it out, those little red velvet lint “brushes” you may see for sale are just a good way to fill up the landfill with useless plastic.) Of course, the challenge for me is finding a cat-hair-free spot on which to brush clothes down.

Tweezers and scissors

I found a whole set of different kinds for personal grooming. No one ever warned me getting older would mean growing hair in places I never had before (and losing hair in places I had it, not that I mind that when it comes to my legs). I’ve reached the age when I occasionally just take a razor out and shave my face and neck, but plucking is way more satisfying — if I can just get a grip on the little buggers. Over the years I’ve accumulated innumerable cheap tweezers that have proven useless for anything but cleaning dirt from under my fingernails. Most of these hand-me-down instruments from Grandma’s house, on the other hand, actually do what they are supposed to. (Yes, of course, I gave them a good cleaning.)

Sex

Just kidding. Except not really. In the back room we found a stash of relatively wholesome old girlie watercolors that probably belonged to my grandfather. And in the bedroom, near the bed, we found a pretty heavy-duty electric vibrator. My mother was appalled and threw that thing away faster than I could say, “Hey, let me see that!” Still, I thought it was pretty cool that my grandmother’s libido had clearly persisted well into old age.

Of course, I’d had clues earlier, like when she gave me a bunch of really kinky science fiction novels by John Norman back in my teens. And just a couple of years ago she passed along a big bag of old perspiration-stained lingerie, as if she thought it was all too precious not to find new use. Then there was the time she insisted my mother take her recently-deceased last husband’s penis pump back to the urologist so someone else could use it. (Poor Mom!)

The young Thelma Mae Quick

In truth, Grandma Thelma was always a bit more hot mama than doting grandmother. She could be self-centered and manipulative (especially of my mother), and some of her lies stretched far beyond the social lies of the traditional Southern female. Yes, she could cook up great fried catfish or lima bean soup, but she didn’t do much other grandmotherly stuff. I never got the feeling she was aching for a conversation with me. It honestly surprised me to discover she’d carefully saved every card or letter or school photo or homemade gift she’d gotten from us over the years.

So we were never all that close, but she was still my grandma. In the end, she showed me what ninety-six years of fairly cheerful persistence looks like. I think I’ll take that as the most valuable gift of all.

Thelma and Sandra

Ditching the nudity, but not the sex

by Sandra Hutchison

I’ve been contemplating bringing THE AWFUL MESS: A LOVE STORY (2013) in from wide distribution to Kindle Select, where various promotional opportunities can give it a boost. But the cover was a problem. Because it had a naked lady on it, sort of.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Still widely distributed, without any recent promotions, I get the occasional foreign sale through Kobo and almost nothing in domestic or foreign sales from any of the other retailers except Amazon. About one in five Kindle purchasers of THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE (2014), which is in Kindle Select, also buy THE AWFUL MESS, which is nice, but will never get it ranking high on its own.

As indie authors with any experience know, if I go back into Kindle Select, even for a while, I can more easily try to goose those sales a bit. (This will indeed hurt my ranking at the other sites, but as noted above, I don’t have really have one.)

However, there was little point in going back into Kindle Select if I couldn’t at least promote it on Amazon from time to time. And so I had an exchange with Amazon about their AMS marketing standards and whether this cover would meet them. (Thankfully, they were willing to consider the question.)

No, I was eventually told, there could be no nudity. Not even tasteful, blurred nudity.

Evolution of a coverSo I tried going back to a more professional version of my first (homemade) cover. But sales fell during that test, so I returned to the naked lady.

Next, I tried drawing a blurry underwater bathing suit on that naked lady. That was pretty funny.

Then I decided to try to cover up her blurry naked behind with a nice blurb. 500x700theawfulmess_ebookyellowquoteWould that be okay, I asked Amazon? Nope, that was still no go. Even if we couldn’t see it, nudity was being suggested. (The helpful representative told me that standards have toughened a bit recently — even a male nipple disqualifies AMS marketing nowadays.)

I suppose this sensibility may also explain why I’ve had a harder time getting BookBub and other slots lately. Who knows why, though? My books are getting dated now, definitely backlist, so that’s a possibility. I won’t shut up about the current election, or race issues, or whatever, so maybe they think I’m too outspoken. Or maybe they blacklisted me for my post “The Five Stages of Grief of Being Rejected by BookBub,” even though it was free advertising.

Making your opinions public as an author or any small business person is always a risk. But so is publishing a book, right? I’d rather err on the side of telling the truth as I see it than tip-toeing around.

Of course, I’m not depending on my writing to pay the bills, so I get to make that choice from a position of privilege. Many others cannot.

Besides the really beautiful design by Damon Za, what I like about that semi-nude cover is that it signals the book might include some racy stuff. Which it does, in two short sex scenes. Some readers have an issue with that, which is understandable, although I could wish they would read the whole product description before they start reading.

Meanwhile, of course, other readers are disappointed when I don’t have any explicit sex, as I’ve noticed with my beta readers on BARDWELL’S FOLLY. It has some bedroom scenes between heroine and hero, just as RIBS does, but getting graphic about slot A and tab B in the two of them didn’t, to my mind, serve any non-prurient artistic purpose.

Occasionally I’ve thought of excising the explicit aspects from THE AWFUL MESS, too. But I feel those explicit scenes do add something to the characterization in that novel. And anyway, what’s done is done (except, cough, with covers and typos).

I do still, sometimes, toy with bringing back the clean PG-13 version, much as MM Jaye did with a recent romance, but since my clean version sold a total of two copies back in the day I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

tugboat-cover-for-the-awful-messIt’s not as if a novel addressing misogyny and gay rights is suddenly going to find great favor in Amazon’s Christian romance market. The only reason I still toy with the idea is that I’d just like to try marketing it as a progressive Christian novel. Many Evangelicals are more progressive or at least less prudish than you might expect, and there are plenty of Christian readers like me who are quite liberal.

Anyway, I just recently purchased from Tugboat Design a pre-designed cover of a fully dressed woman that I hope gives at least a suggestion of sex while also, perhaps, hinting at the theme. I really like it, even though I personally envision Mary having slightly darker brown hair and even though I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in this photo. (What do you think?)

As long as I was investing in real design work, I had Deborah at Tugboat clean up my design for BARDWELL’S FOLLY, and get the paperback cover done, an effort I was procrastinating figuring out for myself. Hopefully this means the ARC will be ready next week to start going out for review. (If you’re a blogger or reviewer, feel free to request one).

bardwells-folly-tugboat-designIf you’re a writer who includes bedroom scenes that are more or less explicit, how are you handling that issue in your cover design and marketing?

Or, if you’re a reader who has strong opinions one way or the other, I’d love to hear from you. Do you think explicit scenes usually add to your experience of a novel, or get in the way? And even if you don’t mind them yourself, does it keep you from recommending a book?

 

 

 

Sometimes less is more

And not just in writing. This blog post is going to be short because I spent today doing something I’ve been meaning to do ever since I moved in: getting rid of this hideous shed.

Ugly metal shed

It was ugly, it was damaged, it was in poor repair, and animals I don’t know personally were using it. My son and I started unscrewing it and quickly realized that a crowbar, some muscle, and listening for the satisfying sound of screws going pop-pop-pop was a lot faster. Eventually we got to the point when we could just pull the whole frame down and start twisting it apart.

007

I’m not going to replace it. I don’t need a shed. I have a garage, which already holds more stuff I need to get rid of (a vanity inherited from the previous owner, for example), and I haven’t even added shelves to it yet. I have a basement, too. So why bother with a shed? It’s just one more place in which to lose tools and equipment.

I think this space full of potential is much better.

empty spot where shed once stood

Obviously, this is still a work in progress. The locust on that awful slope needs to come down, but it’s on my neighbor’s property (which could also stand to see some paint — it looks fine in the front, but I think they like to pretend this side doesn’t exist). The arborvitae that is half bald and split under snow this winter needs to come down, too.

I’d like to build a retaining wall, but I don’t have the budget to pay someone else to do that right now. So I’ll have to see what I come up with.  If nothing else, it would be nice to try to fit my son’s car in the driveway the next time we’re getting 20 inches of snow.

At least I don’t have to start every morning with a view of that hideous shed anymore. I consider that great progress! Tomorrow morning I’ll get up early and drive it and the other accumulated dead appliances and scrap metal to the scrap yard.

010

As I told a friend today, I’m trying to get a lot of stuff done before I come up on my first-year anniversary in this house. I’m afraid that, as she put it, inertia will take over. I still have Chartreuse green walls, for example. But now I have central air instead of window air conditioners to wrestle with, and those walls are going to go ivory as soon as the semester is done. I even have a solar roof to power that central air, although I’m still trying to figure out what is going on financially with that — I’ll do a blog post when I have wrestled THAT mystery to that ground.

solar roofSo I’m feeling pretty accomplished today. Hey, I even got the weekly blog post done. AND I fit in a friend’s play reading. One of these days I’ll even get the onions planted before they give up on me.

Reminders

April 30 is the last day US residents can enter to win an author-signed copy of The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, and I’m not sure if that ends at the beginning of the day or the end. Until then, there’s an easy way to enter right on my home page.

I’m still formatting Chapters 1 and 2 of Bardwell’s Folly, the next novel, and sending it to my subscriber list soon. They get the first peek. Sign up for that list here.

So you need to write a literary analysis…

This week I’m borrowing from the other side of my life, the English professor side.

I’m hoping that putting this post out there will help a few students avoid those “free essay” web sites or CliffsNotes they might otherwise be tempted to borrow too much from. (In case you’re not sure: YES, that’s considered plagiarism. It’s not as if you were planning to cite them, right?)

I know how bewildering it can be to face a literary analysis assignment. A lot of professors and teachers have their own unspoken preferences about how a book report or literary essay or critical essay should be constructed. If you pay attention, you can tell what they are, because all their lectures about literature you read in class will do exactly that.

Seriously. I once took an undergraduate poetry class with a poet at UMass. Every single lecture pointed out the homoerotic qualities of whatever poems we were reading, or at least what they had to say about being a man. I assume there must have been some female poets represented in his syllabus, but I can’t remember any. And don’t get me started about the creative writing professor who just had to do a public Freudian analysis of everything we wrote for his class.

Your high school English teacher probably pushed you to do Formalist or New Criticism — to analyze the piece in terms of its literary techniques: characterization, plot, setting, mood, foreshadowing, irony, symbolism, and theme. Doing that helped you learn those terms.

Of course, I fear this is also how we get students who think that authors spend their days cruelly plotting ways to “hide” obscure things in their writing. That’s not really how it works.*

So how do you figure out what to write? In my college classes, if I ask for a literary essay I just want you to use evidence to argue some point about the text. You must find textual evidence in the piece — and possibly in criticism or historical sources or biographical sources that you will also cite — to make a case for some interpretation or another.

In other words, pretend you’re a lawyer trying to make a case that a piece is this or that (“Pride and Prejudice is not just a romance, but a critique of women’s economic status in Regency England”). Or think of yourself as a detective uncovering certain aspects of the text that others might not notice (“Mansfield Park suffers from Austen’s own ambivalence about vitality vs. propriety”). Instead of forensically investigating a crime scene for clues to the perpetrator, you’re forensically examining a text looking for clues to what it means, why it matters, or why it was perpetrated written.

Really at a loss? Try reader response. Just relate aspects of the piece to your own life or beliefs in whatever way you want. The nice thing about it is that you can’t be wrong. You may not be particularly right, either — and personally I tend to bar my students from this one because it’s just too easy to bullshit and I’m trying to get them ready for higher-level courses.

Anyway, I had the great fortune of actually taking a class in literary criticism with the wonderful Prof. John Sitter at UMass, so by the end of that I was at least dimly aware of what was possible. Years later, in an effort to explain all the major options for my students without spending a whole semester on it, I came up with the attached downloadable quick guide to the most common critical approaches. You are welcome to use it or share it in your own classroom or studies, assuming you’re not an educational publisher who’s planning to make some moola with it. Just copy it as-is, please.

Ways to analyze a literary work

This is just an image -- download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

This is just an image — download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

Hope it helps. And if it does, I’d love to hear about it.

*Oh, and about that idea that authors are hiding things on purpose…

I suppose some authors might quietly plot to stuff things into their books to torture future English students, but generally speaking I think authors are more interested in 1) making whatever point they’re trying to make, and 2) selling books.

If authors do use symbols, for example, it’s not out of a desire to be difficult, but because things generally considered “symbols” tend to crop up unconsciously as they write. Or, they might use symbolic elements very deliberately, but only because they are hoping it will help you “get” whatever point they’re trying to make.

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

For example, you could do a whole literary analysis of the symbolic role of water in my first book, The Awful Mess. Was I thinking about this possibility while I wrote it? Hell, no.

I knew I wanted the river at the beginning to be going the ‘wrong’ way, and, yes, I knew those two characters in the first scene were going to head the wrong way, too. But mostly I’d just always thought the Contookut River in Peterborough, New Hampshire was kind of charmingly funky that way. (It flows north, which I hadn’t realized some rivers do before I moved there.) Was that a symbolic connection? Yeah, maybe, vaguely, but it was more to do with exactly where I had first imagined that scene taking place.

Not until after I’d gotten quite a ways into the manuscript did I realize that water sure was popping up a lot. And water is sometimes used as a metaphor for sexuality … and life … and rebirth, as in baptism. And so, yes, once I saw it was there, I did play with it a bit, and that’s even how I found my ending. I even got to the point when I wished somebody hadn’t already used the title A River Runs Through It. But did I plan it that way from the beginning? Nope. Sadly, I’m not that clever. (My original idea had nothing to do with water as metaphor. It had to do with an arcane principle of web design that nobody knows as metaphor. FAIL!)

Anyway, at least I know I don’t need to worry about The Awful Mess ever being taught in high schools. There’s too much sex!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to get the Sunday paper out of your snow blower

I’m interrupting the novelist stuff to share a practical tip today, because I couldn’t find the answer on Google myself. So I called the guy who tunes up my two-stage snow blower, and he told me what to do, because he knew today was a rare break in the frigid temps and he couldn’t get here. (Thank you, Lawnmower Guy!)

Has this ever happened to you?

newspaper-jammed snow blower auger

The Sunday Times Union and its wrapper, intimately involved with my snow blower’s auger.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a licensed expert and make no claims to be. This just worked for me. Do any of this at your own risk.

  1. It has just snowed, which means it’s cold and wet out, so put the clogged snow blower away and finish your job another way.
  2. Unless you have a heated garage at your disposal (lucky you), wait for the next warm, dry day (20’s and sunny counts as warm where I live) and put your snow blower in the sun (and in a dry spot) to thaw a bit.
  3. Make sure it is OFF. Completely off. And has been for a while. If you want to be extra sure, take the wire off the spark plug. I couldn’t find my spark plug, but I was assured that the auger wasn’t going to suddenly come to life and take my hand off as long as the machine was indeed fully off. (If it’s an electric machine, obviously UNPLUG it.)
  4. If you can, lift the machine off the ground a bit. I used two bricks to support mine. If there isn’t any gas in it, you can turn it on its side. But of course there is gas in it — you were using it before you ran over the paper, weren’t you?
  5. If it’s not thawing fast enough, set a hair blow dryer on low and aim it at the clog. (Obviously, don’t do this if there is any question of the dryer or its cord getting WET.)
  6. Just start peeling away layer by layer, piece by piece.
  7. After about five or ten minutes of this, the remains of even the thickest Sunday paper will drop out with in a big, satisfying clump. You might even be able to rescue a few coupons, if you’re into that. (I’m not that into that.)
    Snow blower cleaned out.

    Yay, all done! It took me less than ten minutes. Note the purple blow dryer at the bottom, and the sheer pins in the middle of each of the blades’ axles. Also, note the bricks.

     

  8. Check to see if the shear pins have broken. If so, replace them, because that side of the machine will not function without them. (Everyone who owns a machine should know how to do this — keep spare shear pins on hand. Usually there’s a compartment on your snow blower to hold these for you.)
  9. Start it up again, run it enough to make sure it’s okay, and then put it away.
  10. Hoorah! You’re ready for the next snow. Which in my case is tomorrow.

From now on, I’ll do the front walk by hand, at least until I’m certain there’s not a newspaper under the snow.

By the way, the other great hazard for snow blowers, according to my lawnmower guy, is rubber doormats. I’ve also seen garden hoses mentioned online. So it might be worth making sure both of those are safely out of range before the snow starts.

The other big tip? Don’t let old gas sit in your snow blower for too long. Use fresh gas you’ve treated with STA-BIL® Fuel Stabilizer (or some other additive) to run it. (Put old gas in your car — it can handle it.) STA-BIL® and others like it keep the ethanol that is now part of our gasoline supply from doing bad things to your small engine, especially in the off-season. This is true of lawn mowers as well.

Yes, someday we’ll need those again. There will be grass. Have faith!