And if you don’t know, now you know.

I thought writing would be so easy. I’d sit on my back porch with a cup of coffee and my laptop. Or I’d rent a little cottage for a weekend and bang out a few chapters. And when I finally typed “The End,” I’d trot off to The Publishing Place and hand them my book. They, in turn, would gush gratefully and scurry off to print it. A few months later, I’d be rolling in the dough as those royalty checks came flowing in.

Ah, this is the life.

Boy, was I ever wrong. Or naïve. Or just plain dumb. Yes, those mornings with my cup of coffee and laptop happen quite often. Just . . . none of the rest of it. There is so much more than meets the eye to writing—and publishing—a book.

You read your work to your critique group who look for confusing sections, or mismatched time lines, or missing commas. You send it off to beta readers who check for flow, plot holes, or tell you if it’s boring. If you self-publish, you find someone to create a book cover for you.

ho-hum . . . is this all you got?

But before you do any of that, you self-edit.

By the way, there are exactly 7,531 writing rules you must check for.

Because you probably broke 7,527 of them.

Seriously.

Today, I found a list. A wonderful, all-encompassing, helpful list. It makes sure I won’t forget any of the 7,531 writing rules, and actually added two or three more. I’m talking about the awesome Chapter Checklist compiled by the awesome K. M. Allan. She graciously gave me permission to post her list here.

Hear the sound of angels in chorus as this list floats down from Heaven.

Without further ado, here is the list. (I’ll post links to K. M. Allan’s social media at the bottom. You’ll want to follow her.) (Oh, one more thing . . . click on every single link to see more exceptional posts by K. M.)

(This is now in K.M.’s voice:) If you follow me on social media, you’ll know I’ve spent the last few months editing my latest WIP.

It’s book 3 in my Urban Fantasy YA series, Blackbirch, and I’m aiming to have it published in the first half of this year. I spent most of 2020 rewriting the draft I penned back in 2017, and now I’m in an endless editing loop.

So far, I’ve completed a grammar and spell check with ProWritingAid, checked for weak words, found and eliminated repeats, and made sure the punctuation for my dialogue is correct. I’ve even worked through notes I made during my last read-through to ensure all the characters aren’t grinning too much.

But before I pass the MS to my first round of beta readers, I know it needs something more. Checks that aren’t just ensuring I haven’t overused “that” or written every character as constantly nodding.

Enter…

The Chapter Checklist

For this checklist, we’re going to take each chapter page by page. You can print out the MS and staple/paper clip each individual chapter together to work on using highlighters, post-its for notes, and a red pen for corrections. Or you can work from your screen using digital highlighters and note-taking features in your preferred writing program.

The key is to concentrate on one chapter at a time, so it’s not overwhelming.

As this is a checklist, you’ll be doing just that: checking things. This isn’t the time to edit or rewrite, it’s the time to use a critical eye to look at what your chapter contains and note down what changes to make during your next round of edits. Here’s what we’ll be checking…

The Length

Some writers work to specific word counts for a chapter, others write it as long as it needs to be.

Whatever method you use, take the opportunity now to look at your chapter lengths and see if any need to be adjusted.

If a chapter is too long, cut it down or split it up. If it’s too short, brainstorm what you can add to make it longer, i.e., more detailed descriptions, an extra scene, etc. The task can then be completed in your next round of edits.

The Openings And Endings

Or as I also like to call it: the tops and tails of each chapter. Here we will check the opening sentence/paragraph and the closing sentence/paragraph.

These are important to check because it’s very easy to open a scene with a similar description when you’ve been penning a book over months or years. Checking the first sentence/paragraph of every chapter one after the other allows you to see if you’ve made this mistake.

As for the endings, to keep readers turning the page, closing each scene with a hook or a cliffhanger is ideal. Using this checklist to study each last sentence with more scrutiny will ensure you’re doing just that.

The Balance

Of scene/sequels and unanswered questions.

One of my favorite writing methods is using scenes and sequels within a chapter. If you’re not familiar with it, a scene is when you have an event, like an exciting incident, and the sequel is dealing with the consequences of that incident. For more info on each, check out the blog posts, Writing Tips For Great Scenes and Writing Tips For Worthy Scene Sequels.

For this checklist item, read each scene in your chapter, work out if it’s a scene or sequel (if you don’t know already), and ensure there’s a balance of both.

Another thing to balance is your unanswered questions. Every unanswered question needs an answer in your story (unless it’s a hook for the next book in the series). Use your chapter read to highlight any unanswered question so you, 1) know it’s there, and 2) can look for the answer in other chapters.

If at the end of a checklist, you find you don’t have a good balance of unanswered questions, or there are ones that need answers in this book but you haven’t done it yet (it happens), make your notes to add it to your next draft to-do list.

The Timeline

Looking at each chapter closely gives you the perfect chance to note down the timeline of your book and see if everything that happens is in the right order.

I don’t know about you, but I write my manuscripts on and off and usually over months (if not years), so it’s easy to miss that the characters have lived through two Tuesdays in a row, or you’ve forgotten to mention that it’s been five months between the opening chapter and the end of the book.

It’s also likely that edits might remove a reference to an event or the event altogether, but your characters may be dealing with the consequences in chapter 12.

Use this pass to check every event that happens in your book, big or small, and that those events are happening in the order they’re supposed to. Also look out for day, month, season, or year mentions. If your characters meet on a Monday, but the next scene is a Saturday, the reader might wonder what happened to the rest of the week. Get your timeline, events, days, months, seasons, years in order so your story is as plausible as possible.

The Plot Twists

While a plot twist doesn’t happen every chapter, the foreshadowing and the aftermath of each plot twist needs to be present in the lead-up chapters and the ones that follow the twist.

As you give your chapters a read for the millionth time, highlight any foreshadowing and plot twist consequence so you can confirm they’re enough, in the right place, and working.

The Mix

As you’re concentrating on each chapter, keep an eye on your descriptions, dialogue, action, and settings. Highlight each sentence that contains those things so you can see if the chapter contains enough of a mix.

This check may make you realize the chapter is super dialogue-heavy and could use a little more action to break it up. Or you may notice you’ve forgotten to add in the room setting so the reader can picture where your characters are as they make life-changing decisions during the climax of the book.

It’s the little details of descriptions and settings, and the combination of dialogue and action that moves your story along, so getting the mix right is important. Checking for that and the other elements mentioned here should strengthen your story. I’m hoping that’s what it’ll do for my current WIP, and if you give these checks a go, I hope it’ll do the same for you.

— K.M. Allan

And there you have it. The wonderful, one-last-pass-through checklist to help you polish that manuscript to as bright of a sheen as you can get it before you brave the world of querying.

Thank you, K. M., for letting me ride on your coattails and share your wisdom.

Follow K.M. here:

Now, open your manuscript and start checking!

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words

A picture is worth a thousand words. You’ve heard this phrase before. And you probably took it to mean something along the lines of “a picture can show us something better than words can tell us.”

If you’re an author, you probably expect me to launch into a lecture about “show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard that criticism about our work before. Spoiler alert: that’s not where I’m going.

It’s a great phrase though, right? If left to our own devices, we could look at a painting and interpret what the artist wanted to convey. We don’t need a typed explanation. (Okay, maybe with some art we do—I’ve seen some pretty strange paintings hanging in museums.)

Leonardo da Vinci had a go at using the phrase. In his estimation, a poet would be “overcome by sleep and hunger before [being able to] describe with words what a painter is able to [depict] in an instant.”

La Scapigliata – Leonardo da Vinci

This phrase tells us to use our eyes to get our message, not words on a page. It exhorts us to use our senses. To think for ourselves.

But maybe—sometimes—our interpretation is wrong.

Look at this picture. What thousand words does it say to you?

Forget a thousand. Pick five. What five words come to your mind when you see this man? Be honest. And if you know who he is, keep your lip buttoned. Don’t ruin the surprise for the rest of us.

Got your five words? OK. Jot them down. We’ll come back to them later.

Let’s take a look at a different picture. Come up with five words to describe these guys. Take ten if you need to, since there are two of them.

Simon & Garfunkle

I would venture to guess your words this time around were friendlier, more positive. If you’re my age or older, you probably recognize this pair. The tall one is Art Garfunkle. Fuzzy hair. Baby-faced smile. Nerdy name. Not the same vibe as the first guy.

The short one is Paul Simon. He has made his living as a musician for the past six decades. He won sixteen Grammy Awards, he is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Time selected him as one of the “100 People Who Shaped the World,” and Rolling Stone ranked him eighth in their list of “The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.” Very respectable.

And he wrote The Sound of Silence.

The song is gorgeous. It’s incredible. It’s poetry.

Garfunkle described the song’s meaning this way: “the inability of people to communicate with each other . . . so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

In case you’ve lived your life under a rock and have never heard this song, here is a link to a live performance in 1981. Pay attention to the lyrics.

The inability of people to love each other is a failing of the greatest magnitude. In Mark 12, when a teacher of the law asked Jesus which of the commandments was most important, Jesus answered, “The most important one is this. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”

But he wasn’t finished. He also said, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Remember the five words I asked you to write? Jesus’ five words may have been, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus didn’t qualify the neighbor part by telling us what they should look like.

I’m afraid sometimes the five words I come up with are not words that lead me to love my neighbor. Sometimes my words are racist or criminal. Thug or terrorist. Sometimes words like stupid.

And I could nest all those words under a category titled “Different.” From me.

Society teaches us to fear different. But that’s not what Jesus modeled. He really upset some folks by hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Different. He talked to the wrong kind of people. Different. He ate with, worked with, loved the wrong kind of people. Different.

The Woman at the Well

I want to follow Jesus. I want to live my life the way he did. I want to love the way he did. I want to be different. So, I have to see my pictures with different eyes. Think different words. Be open to the surprises I will find when I do.

Our friend at the beginning of the post? His name is David Draiman. He was a surprise for me. He is the vocalist for the metal band Disturbed. The band has debuted five albums at number one on the Billboard 200. They have sold over 17 million records worldwide. If you Google the band or search for their music videos on YouTube, you’ll see exactly what you were expecting. Metal music. Loud singing, almost screaming. Bad language. Not exactly my cup of tea.

But what might surprise you is David grew up in a Jewish household. He went to Jewish schools where he expected to receive rabbinic ordination. He trained as a hazzan, or precentor, taught in the vocal arts to lead the congregation in soulful prayer. He started pre-law studies at Loyola University. He graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Government, Philosophy, and Business Administration.

Were any of those words in your list of five? Mine either.

Let’s challenge each other to move past our initial, knee-jerk reaction to the pictures we see and dig deeper. Maybe we find some surprises. Maybe there are more things we share than we expected.

Like Paul Simon and David Draiman. Paul Simon wrote The Sound of Silence in 1964. It hit number one on the Billboard charts and was added to the National Recording Registry in 2012 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Fifty years later, David Draiman sang a cover of it with his metal band. It hit number one again. Listeners have streamed the song over 54 million times, and viewers have watched the music video on YouTube over 500 million times. (I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for at least 20, maybe 30 of those views.)

Looking at those two pictures, we would never in a million years believe those two men had anything in common. Nor would we expect the cover of the song to be something just as powerful and emotional from Disturbed as the original from Simon and Garfunkle. We would’ve been wrong.

So, go forth and be different. Be curious. Dig a little deeper.

And sit back and enjoy the precision, beauty, and power of this man’s voice.

Be surprised.

All Dogs Go To Heaven

We live in a tough time. Covid-19 strikes almost 39,000 people each day. On January 31, almost 10,000 people died worldwide in a single day. Over 2,000,000 people have lost their lives across the globe in the past year.  Lock-downs or social distancing continue to affect jobs, and many people remain out of work. In some households, putting food on the table is a genuine struggle. My church handed out food twice a week throughout the summer to help families eat.

Amid all this life-and-death trouble, losing a pet can feel like a minor issue. What’s the loss of a dog or cat compared to your neighbor losing their parents? A child?

Grief is grief. Pets play a huge part of our lives. I bet you can remember losing your first pet. Mine was Droopy, a red-and-white Basset hound who came to live with us as a puppy when I was two years old. He was my dog. He died when I was sixteen. My mother sent me and my two brothers to my grandmother’s for the day, then carried him to the vet where they put him to sleep. It took me a long time to forgive her for not letting us know what she planned to do. I didn’t get to say goodbye.

Droopy; my dad, Paul; and me – 1970

I’ve seen a rash of stories on Facebook in the past few months where my friends have lost a pet. Despite the maelstrom surrounding us, in our little bubbles, our world comes crashing down on that day. It hurts. We’re devastated. Hearts break.

The Bible doesn’t say whether animals go to Heaven, but it’s hard to imagine that a creature so loyal and full of love for us wouldn’t be welcome there. Whether it’s biblically correct, I like to think my furry friends through the years—friends who have held such a huge part of my heart—wait for me there until I arrive. It comforts me.

Lady was my first dog after I divorced. I had moved out of my apartment and into a house. With a fenced backyard and no grumpy landlords to say otherwise, I was free to own a pet. We brought Lady home as a newly weaned puppy, and she lived with us for almost fifteen years. Letting her go was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

I wrote this story with her in mind. It brings me peace to picture her with Jesus. If you’ve lost a pet, I hope it brings the same to you. This is for you Keith, Deb, Jodi, Sara . . . and anyone else who is now missing a piece of their heart.

Eddy & Lady, 2000

Coming Home

The dog padded along the dusty trail beaten into the ground. Her paws pressed clover- leaf-shaped prints into the dirt. The wheat-topped grasses lining the path waved like ribbons floating at the 4th of July parade she always attended with her humans. They curved under the weight of their seeded tops and nodded bows to her as she passed, paying homage. Iridescent dragonflies darted from landing pad to landing pad, their colorful bodies flashing in the sun, like jewels with wings.

The dog paid them no mind. Where was she and how had she arrived here? The last thing she remembered was her man human carrying her to the car and laying her on the red-and-black blanket they used at the beach. Her humans drove her to the place with the astringent smells that hurt the inside of her nose. She didn’t enjoy going there, but friendly people always talked to her when she came. She remembered being there . . . then, nothing.

So, how did she get here? Stiffened by age, her legs moved with an awkward inflexibility, hips swaying to compensate for the ungainly movement. Her head bobbed like a metronome with each step, her tongue peeking out as she panted with exertion. Where were her humans? She kept walking, pushing forward, searching for an answer. Her brow furrowed with worry, a silent companion as she continued down the path.

She hiked up a sloping hill. At the gentle summit, she stopped and peered into the glen below. There! A human, a man. Not hers—she could tell that from his scent, pleasant, but unfamiliar. Nevertheless, his presence calmed her. His brown skin gleamed in the sunlight, his hair curled like a poodle’s, a beard covered his chin. Her long tail wagged, but uncertainty glued her feet to this spot. The feathery golden-red fur fluttered as it drifted back and forth. Did he know what this place was? Did he know where her humans were? He turned, as if sensing her there, although she made no sound.

She wasn’t a barker, never needed to be the center of attention. Her humans never had to scold her. Lady differed from the immature, attention-seeking hounds she met at the dog park her family visited on special days. Young dogs. She scoffed at their greenness. An obedient dog knew how to behave, how to present herself as a complement to her humans. Humans who cared about their dogs took the time to teach manners and to instill a sense of pride into them. Her humans had.

A memory surfaced—graduation day from Obedience School. Her humans had placed a cardboard cone hat on her head. The elastic band stretched under her jaw with an annoying bite, but she didn’t shake the decoration off. She smiled into the camera her humans pointed at her when she pleased them. Their pleasure at her accomplishment pleased her. Lady could STAY and SIT. And LIE DOWN. The lessons were unnecessary. She could’ve done all those things if her humans had let her know that’s what they expected. But she wanted them to feel good about the feat. Lady attended the obedience classes and never let on.

Where were they? The worry returned. The human waiting farther down the path calmed her, but could not drive the concern away completely.

As if he read her thoughts, he smiled and waved, calling to her. “Lady!” His wide smile split his face, and his eyes crinkled in friendship.

It startled her. Her ears perked up, and she stilled. How did this human know her name? When she met other humans on the street or at the park, they called her names like girl or pup, which was ridiculous. It had been ages since she was that young. The nicknames were whimsical and silly. However, they seemed to mean it as a term of endearment, so she accepted the names with grace, wagging her long tail to show them she didn’t mind.

The man clapped his hands at her with invitation. “Come!”

Try as she might, she could not remember meeting this human before. Despite that, it was not in her nature to be disobedient, so she continued moving toward him down the path, opening her mouth so he would understand she was pleased to see him.

“Ah, good girl!”

She approached him. He kneeled and invited her to come closer, grasping her furry head between his hands and ruffling her ears. Lady smiled then in earnest, wondering how he knew she particularly enjoyed when her humans did that for her. Her tail wagged harder. This human put himself at her level and patted her with both hands. She felt certain he could answer her questions. She licked his hand—only once—so he would know she appreciated his attention.

“Pretty Lady.” He scratched her head. “We’ve been expecting you. Come with me. There is someone I want you to meet.”

She knew the word come, so she fell into step with the kind man, struggling to keep up with his long steps as he strode farther into the valley below. He pushed his way through the nodding grasses and allowed her to take the easier path, carving a smooth passage down.

As they rounded a curve, joyful noises of many dogs, barking, snipping, and baying to each other in play reached her. Her ears perked up again. Was this a new dog park? Would her humans be here? She ignored the pain and quickened her steps. It had hurt her joints for quite some time now to move that fast.

Finally, she could see the animals her ears had announced. There were dogs everywhere in the field before them, chasing, jumping, rolling, and playing with complete abandon. There were no fences, no benches. Also no other humans. Her nose busily cataloged the unfamiliar scents. Her pack nature compelled her to join the joyous play of the others, even as her heart sank with the realization her family was not here. She glanced up at the human beside her, wondering if he had any answers.

His calm gaze met hers, as if he could read her mind. “Come with me. The person I want you to meet is just around the bend.”

She walked beside the man, watching the dogs as they passed. Some stopped in their play and looked her way, but none approached her. Strange. It was as if they were reluctant to hinder her progress. Lady focused on making her steps sure. She feared stumbling and revealing a weakness.

An unfamiliar person came into view. He saw them coming and turned to face them fully, giving them his total attention.

“Peter!” His voice was joyful. “Bring me our new friend.” His kind gaze settled on the dog’s face.

Her heart leaped inside her chest when she heard His words. Who was this man? She had never seen Him before, but His fragrance tickled her delicate nose like a bouquet. The same instant euphoria she experienced when she stumbled across the path of some wild animal on her walks with her humans filled her with excitement. It overwhelmed, suffusing her entire being, far outweighing the bliss she normally felt when scenting a squirrel. Her tail wagged so forcefully her hindquarters wagged with it. The pain from her joints didn’t register. She burst forward unselfconsciously, wanting only to be near Him.

He kneeled as she bounded toward him and enfolded her in an embrace that pulled her close to His chest. She licked his face with ecstasy, barking with short, excited yelps, wiggling like a salmon on a hook.

An astonishing sensation flooded her body the moment His hands touched her golden-red fur. The constant pain she had grown accustomed to these past few years melted away like the fuzzy white seeds of a dandelion floating on a summer breeze. Confusion and love warred inside of her chest. A tinge of fear in the face of this unexpected and all-consuming surge of emotion swept through her and she rolled onto her back, tucking her tail over her exposed belly.

He squatted on His heels and cupped her jaw in large, calloused hands.

“Lady.” His voice was gracious. “I’m so glad to see you. We’ve been expecting you. I want you to be happy here while we wait for your family to join us. And they will arrive someday soon. Look!” He placed one knee on the ground and leaned on his thigh, allowing her to roll over and regain her footing.

Astonishment at the ease with which her body responded caused her to stumble. Her head cocked to one side and her ears lifted. The pain had disappeared, no twinges, no sharp bites from her joints. Her muscles reacted as quickly and surely as they had when she was a pup. Another joyful bark escaped, her surprise overriding the careful control she usually exerted. She turned to follow His pointing finger. A woman ran down the embankment she herself had just traversed so painfully, calling to one dog. A jaunty Beagle responded to the sound of her voice, turning and pelting toward her with excitement, his tongue lolling from the side of his open mouth, his legs launching his body with ever-lengthening bounds. Their reunion was emotional. Lady glanced up at the dark-skinned man who still kneeled by her side.

“You’ll stay here with me. You’ll live here until your family comes. We’ll have fun together. We’ll take walks, you can play with the others, and I’ll come each day to visit you. I will love you fully and completely in their absence. Consider yourself as important to Me as you’ve ever been to your family. I created you, and you are Mine. Welcome.” He stood and gazed across the field at the other hounds. A look of love and pleasure warmed His face.

She sat at His feet, caressing the grass underneath her with her silky tail. She stared at Him with worship in her eyes. Her worry melted away. Her humans would come, eventually. Joy swelled inside of her. She now understood the euphoria of the others.

He laughed and waved His hand toward the field, giving her permission to join them. She bounded away gracefully, unable to sit still for a moment longer, all pain vanished from her bones. A puzzle piece she hadn’t realized was missing had dropped into place and completed her. Love had been her constant companion before, and now it had found her again. It was like coming home.

What Is In a Name?

Nicknames. They can make us feel special, well-known, loved. Or they can hurt and shame.

Personally, I enjoy having a nickname. My mother sometimes called me “P” – my daughter name. My children call me “Mama.” My grandma name is “Poo,” which comes from my high school nickname of Paula-Poo, given to me by my best friend, Sandy. Each name is special to me, and all have a different meaning.

Did you know God has many names? The most well-known are obvious: God, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Jehovah, Yahweh. But there are others, and each has a particular meaning. Unless you’ve done some fairly stout bible study, you may not have stumbled across all of them.

El Shaddai—God Almighty or God All Sufficient. God first revealed this name to Abram in Genesis 17. He used that name to reveal to Abram He would provide all He promised. A strong name to stand for a strong promise.

Elohim—The Living God. This ancient name for God contains the idea of God’s creative power as well as his authority and sovereignty. Supreme. Absolute. Greatest. Another strong name.

El Roi—The God Who Sees Me. This name was spoken by Hagar in the wilderness when God sent his messenger to her. What a personal, affirming name. It encourages and comforts. We know we are never alone.

There are over 100 names for God in the Bible. But my absolute favorite is “I Am.”

It’s hard for me to verbalize why this name is so important to me. It exemplifies strength. It reassures me. I read this name and I know everything will be okay. Because God Is.

This name is powerful. Confident. Unchanging.

Implacable.

God uses it more than once. It is in one of my favorite verses. “Be still, and know that I Am God.”

In our world today, that implacability calms me. No matter what happens—in politics, with the virus, in our relationships—God Is. He is in control. I read this verse, and it settles me.

We’re going to be okay. We’re going to emerge on the other side. There is no power in hell that can stand before the Great I Am.

Jared Anderson and New Life Worship puts it far more poetically than I in their YouTube video.

Enjoy.

Proverbs 27:19 “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects man.”

Thank you, God, for the lesson I seem to need once again. 

On a summer morning last year, I stopped at Starbucks before heading to the rehabilitation center to pick up my dad for an oral surgery appointment. As I walked toward the store, I crossed paths with a homeless woman. All the obvious clues were there. Mis-matched clothing, worn in layers. House slippers for shoes on her shuffling feet. Crazy hair. Quiet muttering, speaking only to herself.

Coffee waited for me inside, and I had an appointment to meet. I didn’t pause as I walked past her. The woman was youngish, between 30-40 years old. A frown creased her face, and her jaw clenched with a belligerent jut. 

She paid me no attention and arranged her collection of plastic bags on a table on the outdoor porch. 

Waiting in line for my coffee, I watched the reactions of the people inside. The barista kept glancing outside, worry in his eyes. Was he wishing she hadn’t set up camp at his store? She was dirty and didn’t present a welcoming presence to customers arriving for their morning pick-me-up. Two women seated inside at a small, round table eyed her avidly, whispering to each other as they laughed, shiny nails glittering on their fingertips, lipstick kisses on the lids of their coffees.

I should talk to her on my way back to my car. Homeless people feel invisible, ignored by the world bustling past them. I should take the few seconds required to ask her a question, say hello. Would she be argumentative if I spoke to her?

She looked angry. Many homeless suffer from mental illness, and can be combative. I glanced at my watch. I had time to stop for coffee. Did I have time to stop for her?

She walked off of the porch and around to the drive-thru. My eyes widened, and I stepped back so I could watch her progress. What was she doing now? What were the people waiting in line in their cars thinking, watching her approach? She startled me by climbing right into the landscaping. The leaves of Asian jasmine still dripped from their early morning spraying from the automatic sprinklers. The water droplets would soak her clothing. She exhibited classic crazy-person actions.

The crazy thing she did? She plucked trash from the bushes, then climbed back out and deposited it into a waste can. 

God, forgive me. 

The homeless woman cleaned the debris tossed aside by a careless person paying $5.00 for a cup of coffee.

I picked up my coffee and turned to leave. I passed the two smirking women, resenting their privilege, resenting their beauty, feeling disappointment burn inside. Disappointment at myself. Was I so different? Disappointment at them. It’s so easy to judge, especially from our oh-so-comfortable lives. I pushed the door open to head outside, calling a greeting to the woman as I did. I said it loudly enough for the ladies with the beautifully manicured nails to hear.

The woman outside looked up. She was someone’s daughter. Someone’s sister? Maybe someone’s mother. Our eyes met, and I smiled at her. 

The change was amazing. A wide grin creased her face, transforming her angry, belligerent look into beauty. I stopped, struck. 

“Have you had breakfast?” McDonalds was 20 yards away. 

Her smile broadened. “Oh, yes!” Her voice was sweet, childish, high-pitched. “I have bagels!” 

What a beautiful, grateful spirit. Shame flooded me.

I touched her on the arm as I passed, a fingertip on her sleeve. “Have a good day.”

“God bless you.” Her reply was fervent. 

She called down God’s blessing on me for speaking to her, for recognizing her as a fellow human being. For seeing her.

Jesus taught us to do this. He led by example, repeatedly. He spoke to the lame man waiting by the pool of Bethesda. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. He spoke to the tax collector, to the leper, to the demon-possessed men in Gadarenes. 

Today I learned, again, that I want to live my life like Jesus. Help me, God, to see this world and Your people through Your eyes, not mine. Help me to always ask, “What would Jesus do?”

~~~

In my book, PROTECTED, one of the main characters — Manny — is horribly disfigured by a scar he got as a child when a fire burned him. He feels ignored and judged by the people he meets in his life. But God shows him he is worthy of love and brings someone to him. The question is whether or not the two people will trust God enough to let this relationship flourish.

Things We Overhear: Reading on the Go

12-18-2020

I spent a few hours with some teenaged girls this week. I eavesdropped on their excited chatter as we headed home, me in the driver’s seat, them scattered behind me in the van. A surprise awaited them, and all their focus was on what to wear. Four of the five wanted to wear dresses. The lone jeans fan distressed herself over the possibility of being different. She really didn’t want to wear a dress, but couldn’t convince any of the others to join her on Team Jeans.

Finally, I couldn’t hold back. “Wear what you want! Be brave.” I pictured five sets of eyes glancing my way.

The momentary silence quickly dispersed, and they resumed their conversation as if I had not spoken. I shook my head. I’ve forgotten how difficult it is to be different, to stand out when you’re that age.

Occasionally, a brave soul appears, determined to be that mythical drummer following her own beat. A memory surfaced from my first few years of teaching at Burleson High School. Shelby definitely bucked the routine and normal. Here is a story from 2003,

A small sigh of relief escapes. It’s 4:05, and my day is about to be kid-free. I sit at my laptop to check email. Behind me, my class is noisy with chatter and laughter as the kids wind down. Anticipation of the 4:15 bell frees them from the strictures of the school day, and they’re getting loud. I don’t listen to anything in particular. It’s the background noise of my professional life. Without warning, a single phrase lifts itself from the general clutter of noise and shoots into my ear like an arrow.

“Did you sniff my head?”

Hmm. That sounded like Shelby. Staring at my computer screen, I mentally rewind that, sifting through my vocabulary to find a set of five words that sounds like “Did you sniff my head?” without actually being the five words “Did you sniff my head?” My cranial magnifying glass waves back and forth across my brain but comes up short. No files found. What did she say?

I swivel around in my chair and look. Sure enough, Shelby is perched in a desk near mine. She sits sideways in her chair with one knee pulled to her chest, held close by one curved arm, the other foot tucked underneath her. She looks to the right at Jordan, who sits behind her. I assume he is the recipient of the question.

Jordan slouches comfortably in his chair, his long feet propped heavily on the wire basket under Shelby’s seat, his hands lying relaxed on the top of his desk. He stares at Shelby with an uncomprehending look in his eyes. Matt sits one row over, watching this exchange. He has a tiny frown line between his eyes. I catch his eye when I turn, but I hide my smile.

I look at Shelby. “Did you just say, ‘Did you smell my head?’” I speak slowly, enunciating my words with care so there is no chance for mistake.

“Yes.” Her answer is cheerful. “I smell heads when I sit behind people. I just lean forward and sniff.” She demonstrates for us with the empty air of the unoccupied desk in front of her, her pert nose sniffing daintily. The three of us stare.

“I sniffed Matt’s head when he sat in front of me.” Her voice is bright, happy.

Matt’s eyes widen slightly in surprise. Would a person, I wonder, notice if someone behind him leaned forward and sniffed his head? Unless he had very sensitive hair follicles that would register that small tug of air, probably not. Matt wears his hair short and tidy. It’s not like there’s a lot of hair to disturb.

Jordan has still not said a word, but he is now looking at Shelby with interest.

“Well, I guess people’s heads smell pretty good.” I try to inject normalcy into this bizarre conversation. I picture the fruity concoctions of shampoo and conditioners in my shower. Bottles with names like Chamomile-Lemon and Ginger-Papaya. My efforts are shot down.

“Matt’s head didn’t.” Shelby doesn’t miss a beat. Matt’s eyes widen even further. I can practically see the thoughts racing through his mind.

My head doesn’t smell good? What does my head smell like?

Eww. What does Matt’s head smell like? A mental picture of sweaty fifth-graders comes to mind. Eww.

Still trying gamely to rescue the conversation and now Matt, I try once again to make this sound like a conversation I’ve had before.

“Well, Shelby, that sounds like…” I try to think of what sniffing people’s heads sounds like. Odd? Weird? Bizarre?

Animals pops out before I can stop it. “It sounds like what animals do.”

Arrgh! I give myself a mental slap to the forehead. That’s not the effect I was going for in my rescue. I picture the exuberant greeting my dogs give me when I come home, sniffing my legs and my shoes to discover where I’ve been that day and to find out what other dogs I’ve cheated on them with. Then my mind takes the animal sniffing picture one step further. Suddenly, I’m horrified that the three of them may be thinking the same thing that I am thinking, and I realize my efforts to save this conversation are falling wildly short.

Jordan, I notice through my consternation, has wisely still not said a word.

Thankfully, at that moment, the final bell rings.

Shelby stands with fluid grace. Her bright red canvas high-tops peek out from underneath the legs of her jeans. Her silky, long, navy blue scarf covered in white polka dots flows over her shoulder from where it’s wound loosely around her neck.

“’Bye, Mrs. Peckham!” She sails from the room with a cheery farewell.

Jordan, who has never taken his eyes from Shelby’s face throughout the entire conversation, also stands and heads out, shaking his head silently, smiling at the floor.

Matt leaves with a frown on his face. I wonder if he’ll figure out a way to sniff his head that night, to be sure about how it smells. I manage to wait for the room to empty before I laugh.

What, I wonder, do I miss hearing each day?

I’m sure God sends me messages every day, messages I don’t pick up. What a loss.

How can we ensure our lines of communication are open? How do we keep the line from being busy when He calls?

I think a good way to clear the obstructions is to start the day with prayer. Quiet time with God sets the tone for the day, reestablishes the connection. Plus, it puts us in a frame of mind to listen, to actively search for the messages He sends.

I don’t want to miss God’s call. I imagine my world would be a lot nicer and more satisfying if I receive what He has in store for me.

What about you? What messages does God have for you? Wouldn’t you love to know?

Commas, the bane of my existence – nine rules to clean up your writing

This Is How to Correctly Use Commas in Your Writing | Grammarly

I am a member of a critique group. We meet once a week (thank you, Zoom, during this time of pandemic restrictions) where we take turns reading to the group and providing feedback for each other. We joke about our “comma jar,” where we contribute an imaginary dollar for every comma correction made during the feedback comments.

Why are commas so confusing? I tend to put them where I pause while reading. This is an intuitive decision, but unfortunately, it often leads me astray. Others in the group seem to avoid them altogether. Without the commas, their sentences flow onward with no rhythm or cadence. You’ve probably seen the joke: Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma. Commas save lives! We really need to figure them out.

Let's Eat Grandma Poster by Danya Ata | Teachers Pay Teachers

In 1998, I took a Business Writing class in college, and we made a punctuation Bible. I’ve returned to that spiral notebook time and again (thank you, Dr. Culbert). Here is what he taught us about commas.

Commas precede coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor) that join independent clauses.

Ben, Eric, and Mandy will attend the meeting today, but Charlotte won’t be there.

You need to clean your room to receive your allowance, but Zach can help you if you persuade him.

Commas follow long, introductory, adverbial phrases and clauses.

In the middle of their transaction, Marcus and Jim blew up.

Mentally preparing herself for the battle of wills ahead, Sandy made a list of all her reasons for denying Michelle’s request for a tattoo.

However, if the introductory phrase is shorter than four words, you can leave the comma out. (Personally, I tend to include the comma anyway. My fingers type it automatically.)

During the night he heard many noises.

Commas precede, follow, or surround appositives. (Appositives are noun phrases placed side by side so that one element identifies the other in a different way.)

I chained Lady, my adventurous dog, to a tree to keep her from digging under the fence.

During our next school holiday, Thanksgiving break, I’ll take a vacation.

Commas precede, follow, or surround inverted elements. (For when you’re channeling Yoda.)

Too, he loved her.

I, also, have been to the edge.

Commas surround non-restrictive modifiers. A non-restrictive modifier is a word or group of words modifying the subject of a sentence but not restricting it to a particular individual or group. A restrictive modifier restricts the subject to a particular individual or group. Commas surrounding a non-restrictive modifier indicate that we can take it from the sentence without changing the sentence’s essential significance. Therefore, commas must not surround a restrictive modifier. (I confess, I have to Google this one every time. I need lots of examples to cement the definitions.)

restrictive: Men who hate women should not marry. (We don’t use commas to surround “who hate women” because we cannot take it from the sentence without changing the meaning. Men should not marry gives us a completely different meaning than the original sentence.)

non-restrictive: The women, who rode in all three barrel races, love to date cowboys. (The commas surround the modifier because we can remove these words without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.)

restrictive: People who have addictive personalities shouldn’t try smoking. (“Who have addictive personalities” is essential to the sentence – no commas.)

non-restrictive: My brother, who trimmed trees Sunday, came by for dinner. (We can ignore the modifier without changing the meaning of the sentence.)

Commas separate elements in a series. (In a series of three or more elements, if a coordinating conjunction precedes the last element in the series, the comma preceding the conjunction is optional. Enter the Oxford comma argument, which is a post for another day.)

We hired laborers, skilled carpenters, and supervisors for the project. (Since we have included “and” in the series, we can drop the comma after carpenters. I, however, am in the Oxford comma camp, so I choose to keep it.)

We need to buy apples, bags of candy, shaving cream, and decorations.

Commas precede quotation marks.

He asked, “Will you marry me?”

I answered, “You can go if your room is clean.”

Commas surround simple interrupters.

I’ll see you tonight about, let’s see, 7:00 pm.

It was over, um, two years ago.

Use commas to separate adjectives of equal rank. (If we could place the word and between two adjectives without changing the meaning of the sentence, then the adjectives are considered equal. Here is an example:

She spoke in a thoughtful, precise manner. (The phrase with the conjunction included — “thoughtful and precise” — gives the sentence the same meaning, therefore, replace and with the comma.

She wore a cheap fur coat. (Including the and between “cheap and fur” doesn’t give the same meaning. No comma.)

Common mistakes:

Using a comma when a sentence has two clauses, but both have the same (implied) subject. If two or more verbs go with the same subject, you don’t need a comma because you don’t have multiple independent clauses.

We are visiting Washington and also plan a side trip to Baltimore. (The subject of both phrases is “we” — no comma necessary.

Commas always, always, always go inside the quotation mark.

“That’s simple,” the student said.

When including city and state names, use commas after both.

His journey took him from Fargo, North Dakota, to Burleson, Texas.

Commas aren’t needed after conjunctions that begin sentences.

But I was afraid to open the door.

Commas, commas, commas. I’ve accepted the reality that I’m gonna put a dollar in the comma jar at least once each meeting with my critique partners. It’s my goal to make it through an entire chapter reading with no corrections. One day!

How “Tip Jars” Can Tip the Balance for Podcast Creators — The Canadian  Podcast Listener

What about you? What are your common mistakes? Share with us what you’ve learned through your writing journey.

Happy Day!

11-10-2020

I recently learned an online magazine accepted a poem I wrote for publication in their inaugural edition.  Inspiration for the poem came from a tragic accident experienced by the family of a friend of mine at church. Her six-year-old daughter, Raven, suffered a head injury and was declared brain dead. The family donated her organs. It was terribly sad and seemed so senseless, but the family–and the grace with which they handled–it shared a strong testimony to all who followed the ordeal. The Bible tells us in Romans that God can work all things to the good of them who love him. We saw that verse lived out. Here is the poem. I hope you enjoy it.

The Garment of Sadness by Paula Peckham

Sadness is a heavy garment.

A well-made garment, with tightly-sewn seams.

We can forget—for a moment—that we wear it.

It would be easy to drown under that garment.

So easy.

But faith is persistent.

Insistent.

And it seeps through those tightly-sewn seams

One drip at a time.

Unceasing.

Relentless.

        Faith
      Faith
    Faith
  Faith
Faith is our lifeline.

We grab it like a drowning person grasps an offered hand.

Though the garment is heavy, and it weighs us down,

We grasp that lifeline, and struggle through the next breath.

We force the next step.

We search through the darkness for the tiny spark of life inside.

The spark that faith protects for us while

We grieve

And rave

And die inside.

When there is trust enough to let sadness go,

            H
        T
     I
  A
F
lifts it away and leaves peace in its place.

And we realize we can breathe again.

And smile.

Even laugh.

We leave the garment of sadness lying in a sodden heap

Heavy with its soaking from our tears and horrible sorrow.

And we crawl from underneath its crushing weight.

So we wait on the LORD for that day.

We wait.

We wait.

We wait.

And when that moment arrives,

We realize by its absence how heavy that garment had been.

We realize by its absence we are free without it.

And we soar.

Pop

Late afternoon sun slips between the plastic slats of the blinds, painting parallel lines in the room. The stripes melt over the edge of the mattress and land on the floor, getting wider and wider as they go. I sit on the bed, watching my grandfather. They moved him to the “rehabilitation center” today (it’s not a nursing home, everyone insists) after spending time in the hospital. I know this is a turning point in our lives. He won’t go home again.

He sits in his wheelchair, facing me. I am his mirror image, sitting motionless, facing him. Sterile plastic crackled beneath me when I first sat down. My mind shies away from the ramifications of that sound.

This is my grandfather.

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He glances at me and cracks his familiar grin, cocking his head slightly to the right. The smile splits his face from side to side, revealing the gap between his two front teeth. He knows it’s me, but I sense from the quiet confusion in his eyes he doesn’t quite know where he is. He glances away, maybe ashamed to ask me, maybe embarrassed he doesn’t know.

This is my grandfather.

I sit, watching him be. The sun streams in golden from his window, also casting stripes across his face and body. Dust motes dance in the alternating pattern of light and the dimness of his room.

It’s quiet where we are, alone at the end of an L-shaped hall. We’re in the last room. The constant stream of day-to-day noises from the nurses and other residents seem far away from our golden cocoon. His room is a double occupancy, shaped like the wings of a butterfly with the shared bathroom in the position of thorax. The other butterfly wing, however, is empty. It is just the two of us.

I fight back tears as I watch him. His hand moves up slowly, and his fingers touch the side of his face. The tip of his index finger traces the curve of the shell of his ear. Each movement is slow, methodical, thoughtful. It’s as if a current has broken between the synapses in his brain controlling his movements and the actual muscle contractions that follow. I wonder briefly if they gave him a pill.

His ears make me smile through my tears. A memory surfaces. We took a picture of him from behind, while he was holding my infant son. We stood on the sidewalk in my mother’s front yard. The similar silhouettes of their two round, almost-bald heads with their ears sticking out slightly to the sides made us all laugh, and we told him to hold it while we found the camera. He was so tall, so strong, holding my baby. He was my grandfather. We laughed…

Pop lays his hand gently, slowly back in his lap. It joins its gnarled, age-mottled partner, both facing palm up with fingers curled inward, relaxed and defenseless. He glances at me again, and I quickly wipe my face and smile back at that grin I’ve known all my life.

This is my grandfather.

This is the man who sailed a boat on Lake Benbrook with my grandmother. This is the man who, during the summer I was twelve, spent hours touring me around on his motorcycle during the once-a-summer week I spent with them each year. My feet and my bottom were numb from the vibrations before we got home, but I can still see my skinny arms wrapped tightly around his sturdy back as he drove and drove. This is the man who whistles, because the joy inside has to come out somehow.

This is my grandfather. And he will never be the same.

I sit in this golden, quiet room, and I love him.

Finally, I reach out and wrap my fingers around his. “Pop, I have to go home. Someone will come tomorrow to see you.”

He looks at me, quiet, uncertain, but that grin cracks out again. He doesn’t answer and doesn’t try to talk me out of leaving him. I lean forward and press a kiss against his bristly face, feeling the tips of whiskers prickle against my lips. 

I am flooded with another memory.  He stands in his bathroom, feet braced wide apart, white undershirt tucked into his pants, belt unbuckled. Morning sun streams in through the frosted window pane to his right. He stretches his cheek tight with one hand while his other rubs his electric razor across the night’s growth of beard. 

I can’t remember ever feeling whiskers on his face before now. Love floods my chest so strongly that for a moment it is hard to breathe.

I walk down the hall, leaving my heart in the room. I press buttons to open doors. They’re simple buttons. They’re even labeled so people will know which to push. But they trap the residents behind the doors as surely as a prison gate. Buttons empowered by the dimness in their minds.

This is my grandfather.

I sit in the parking lot, unable to drive because of the tears flooding my eyes. I chant, like a mantra.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. 

Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.

I speak out loud, through the tears slipping down my face. “This is my grandfather, God. He has loved You all his life. Now, love him well.”

And I know He did, and He does, and He always will. Because there, in that golden room, was also my Father, and He is a God with a plan, a God who loves. 

Two Ways to Tighten Your Writing

How many of us have heard these words?

“Don’t worry about making it flawless. Get words on the paper. You can come back and fix it later.”

This is helpful if you’re stuck, if you can’t think of the perfect way to say what’s on your mind. But it often leaves us a page bloated with extra words. And those words slow our readers down.

So, yes, go ahead and do a brain dump. Get everything on the page. But be prepared for some serious chopping when you return the next day wearing your editor’s hat.

There are two places you can tighten your writing. One is the use of dialogue tags. The other is by eliminating unnecessary, filler words.

What is a dialogue tag?

dialogue tags | Author, editor, caffeine-addict, wannabe ninja

This is how we attribute our conversation in our story. It’s the “she said” and “he asked” bits that follow the dialogue. Sometimes dialogue tags are necessary. If you have several people talking at once, your reader needs a tag to know who said what. But most of the time, our conversations are taking place between two people. If your writing is clear, your reader will understand which character is saying the words. If you add “he said” after each utterance, it bogs your reader down.

Instead, replace the dialogue tags with action beats. The action beat describes what your character does while he is speaking. The action beat adds flavor and depth to the scene, without slowing the reader with unnecessary words. Compare these examples.

Example 1:
“Hey, Manny,” called Jonathan, riding a few paces behind. “You think we will be home in two weeks? I’m ready for a bed and a pillow made of feathers instead of a saddle.”

“Hard to say,” replied Manny. He smiled to himself, knowing Jonathan was fretting about a girl.

Jonathan calls. Manny replies. But won’t your reader get that, without being told? Compare to this, where I replaced my dialogue tags with action beats.

“Hey, Manny.” Jonathan rode his horse a few paces behind. “How much longer ’til we’re home? Two weeks? I’m ready for a bed. And a pillow made of feathers. Not a saddle.”

“Hard to say.” Manny glanced over his shoulder. “It’s a bed you’re pining for? I’d be willing to bet money it’s something else. Like, I don’t know… a girl?”

“A girl?” A derisive snort accompanied Jonathan’s reply. “No, I’m just tired of eating your cooking.”

Let’s try another one. See what you think.

Example 2:

Jonathan narrowed his eyes at his friend then grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy,” he said, waving his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.

“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell,” Manny replied.

OK. Jonathan said. Manny replied. Totally unnecessary words. My readers know that from the context of the scene. What if I tighten the writing by removing the dialogue tags?

Jonathan narrowed his eyes at the insult. He grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy.” He waved his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.

“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell.” Manny’s voice was dry.

With Jonathan’s conversation, removing the dialogue tag tightened the writing. With Manny’s, using the action beat added some flavor to the scene. We hear his sarcasm, start understanding the camaraderie between the two friends.

What about the filler words?

Fillers are words we probably say a lot while we talk but don’t really need when we write. These are words like: just, very, really, a lot, kind of, a little, sort of, maybe. Why force your reader to slog through these words like wading through little puddles of quicksand?

welly-boots-stuck-in-the-mud

Listen to Grady talk to Abby. He has fillers in there.

“I guess I need to hunt,” Grady answered. “Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get some breakfast for the Littles? Maybe by the time everyone has eaten, I’ll be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”

If we eliminate the unnecessary words, we get this:

“I need to hunt. Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get breakfast for the Littles? By the time everyone eats, I should be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”

They make rules in writing so we can break them, right? And these are no exception. Your character’s “voice” may need those words. If the dialogue sounds more genuine using fillers, keep them. But don’t leave them in the rest of the novel. It’s just a little bit annoying to have to read through those little extras. Really.

What editing nightmare do you routinely create for yourself? Let’s compare. We can make a list of things to avoid.

Here is a link to a website with more discussion about filler words:  https://ivypanda.com/blog/filler-words/