My September Reads

Fall is always a busy time in the publishing world. A fall book release is coveted by authors since it coincides with the busy holiday book-buying season. And publishers always consider fall when releasing noteworthy titles. Not to suggest that other release seasons are poor – they aren’t! – but fall finds those of us who live in the northern hemisphere at least cozying up with our books. Here’s a Publisher’s Weekly article on what books to look for this fall. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/89655-adult-books-for-fall-2022.html   And here’s what I’m reading this month:

The Maid by Nita Prose

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Alone in the Great Unknown by Caroll Simpson

Books read to date in 2022: 58

September is the New January

In case you haven’t seen a calendar lately, heads up: tomorrow is September 1st. And while the asters are blooming in my garden and the days are still warm, there’s a hint of cool in the early morning air; fall is definitely coming.

September always feels like a fresh start to me, a new beginning. Like every new beginning (writing that first chapter or painting that first stroke, leaving on a journey, witnessing a birth), there’s anticipatory joy and excitement. Out with the old and in with the new. New seems to be a running theme around here. In the last three weeks, I’ve needed to replace my cell phone and my laptop, and I’ve put four badly-needed new tires on the car too. I’m considering them my new year expenses.

I’m not alone in thinking of September as the start of a new year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is one of Judaism’s holiest days, begins this year on September 25th.  The literal translation is ‘head of the year’ or ‘first of the year.’  

The ancient Egyptians considered September 11th the start of the new year. In fact, this September will mark the year 6264 in the Egyptian calendar.

Fresh starts are good for us. They can lead to greater productivity and more willingness to embrace change, and that, in turn, can be empowering.

Plato said beginnings are the most important part of the work. They frame everything that comes after.

So, here’s to September. May this new month bring us all renewed energy, enthusiasm and opportunities!  

And Here We Go . . .

Author Dean Wesley Smith calls it The Time of Great Forgetting – that stretch between now and the end of August when writing routines get torpedoed because of outside influences. That could be anything from the lure of family reunions or friends visiting from out of town, the pull of the garden and all things outdoors, or even travel, depending on your Covid comfort level. Writing conferences and workshops, in spite of being a part of our professional life, can be a distraction too, especially if travel is involved. And if you have kids at home, it goes without saying that a regular writing routine is much harder to maintain during summer holidays.

Distractions aren’t limited to the spring and summer; they can happen anytime. On the upside, the writing life is flexible, making it easy to respond. But there can be a downside to that flexibility too. Lines can get blurred. For instance, someone who started working at home during the pandemic commented that his work and his other life bled together ‘like a tie-dye sweatshirt.’ Depending on the type of distraction you’re facing, and how you respond, creative routines can slide or even become completely eroded.

You might be fine with letting them go for a few months. But if not, here are a few things that help me maintain focus when life dishes the distractions.

Creating a schedule and (mostly) sticking to it. That used to be Monday to Friday, nine to three (a hold-over from when my kids were in school). I still aim for that, with a couple of exceptions: an early morning walk with a group of neighbourhood women once a week; and the occasional (once or twice a month) Friday afternoon lunch or coffee date with a friend.

Writing in the morning and leaving the business side of writing (research, social media, blogging) for the afternoon. It takes discipline and a little planning, but it’s doable.

Scheduling ahead when and where possible. I try to write, upload and schedule my blog a week ahead (or longer if I’m going away). Tweets can be scheduled in advance too, a bonus for getting a jump on promotion or simply trying to maintain a social media presence. But the latter can also be something of a gamble. If the tone of your scheduled tweets is upbeat and light, and they appear around the time something horrible hits the news (and you forget or can’t take them down), it could reflect poorly on you.

Grouping tasks and appointments. Some things like vet or doctor appointments inevitably crop up during working hours. When I can’t schedule them for the end of the day, I try for afternoon appointments, and I try to fit in another task (picking up a hold at the library or visiting the post office) at the same time.

Being satisfied with small steps. I may not have a full or half-day, but with thirty minutes, I can read over the last scene I wrote and make a few notes in the margin.  A few minutes a day on peripheral work can keep the story in my mind and make it easier to return to later.

Learning to say no. It’s not always easy, especially when you’ll disappoint someone. But there are times to be available to others and times when we need to be available to ourselves. We sometimes forget that.  

And finally, remember that everything is temporary. This, too, shall pass. Repeat as needed.

Pick Up That Pen

Today is National Pen Pal Day.

I didn’t have a pen pal as a child, but years ago, while researching a book on lighthouses, I began a long correspondence with a lighthouse keeper. Though I had a computer and easy access to email by then, we kept in touch the old-fashioned way – with letters sent by mail. That process – writing and mailing the letters and then eagerly waiting for her to reply – took me back to childhood and pre-computer days when we relied on physical letters instead of emails and texts to keep in touch with out-of-town friends and family. A bit like how it was when pen pals first began.

Pen pals have been around for a long time. They began during the 1930s when a society called the Student Letter Exchange was formed so young students from different countries could connect through letters, mainly to learn about each other’s cultures. The pen pals were strangers, and the relationship was generally limited to letters, though occasionally, pen pals would meet. That’s how it was for Canadian Ruth Magee, who began a pen pal friendship with Brit Beryl Richmond in 1939. They’ve met twice over the years: once in 1986 and again in 2009. And their pen pal friendship continues today.

Pen pals, both real and imagined, have infused popular culture.

In 1997 Australian author Geraldine Brooks wrote Foreign Correspondence, a memoir about her childhood pen pals in Australia and overseas, and her travels as an adult searching for the people they’d become. 

In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown tries to write to a pen pal using a fountain pen, but when that doesn’t work, he switches to a pencil and refers to his pen pal as a pencil pal. And in the film adaptation, Charlie Brown’s pen pal issue has a happy ending when he becomes friends with his little red-haired dream girl.

In the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks develop a pen pal email relationship, unaware that they’re also business rivals. You’ve Got Mail was based on Shop Around the Corner, a 1940s film also focusing on a pen pal relationship.

These days, pen pal relationships are more likely to take place by email than snail mail, though there are a few groups dedicated to matching pen pals who want to connect through physical letters. These include the Letter Writers Alliance and a dedicated Facebook group called the Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals.

Happy writing!

Snakes and Slugs and Rabbits … Oh My!

 

A snake slithered across my foot as I walked to the greenhouse one morning last week. I felt it before I saw it, so I was a little startled when I glanced down and saw it slide off my toes and disappear under a nearby Hosta.  It made me smile. My cousins and I used to play with the garter snakes in my grandmother’s garden when we were kids, going so far as to bestow names and weave stories around them (yes, the storytelling seeds were germinating even then). So, seeing a snake in my garden brought back happy memories.

Some people hate snakes. They see them as horrifying, villainous creatures. But, for me, it’s rodents that I hate with an irrational passion. And these days, as the plants in the garden begin waking up from their winter slumber, I have a current hate on for the slugs and rabbits that are decimating the new growth. They are the current antagonists of my world.

Life is full of antagonists. Novels are too. The latter not only require antagonists, but they depend on them to drive a story forward. Without a great villain, the hero can’t shine. And the key to crafting a good antagonist or villain is making them well-rounded enough to be believable. Every villain should have at least one redeeming characteristic.

If I’m ever tempted to forget this, all I have to do is look outside. Snakes may be considered villainous to some, but they devour garden pests and even small mice.  Slugs are a great source of food for birds (thrushes love them), and they break down garden debris and turn it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  Wild rabbits are considered a keystone species, essential workers of a healthy ecosystem. In fact, populations are so low in the UK and parts of Europe that environmentalists are sounding the alarm and working to increase their numbers (too bad I can’t figure out a way to export mine; both my garden and my wallet would benefit). Even mice, creatures I will never tolerate anywhere close, link plants and predators in every terrestrial ecosystem.

Whatever antagonist you’re currently facing, whether it’s ravenous rabbits in the garden, a belligerent boss at work or wicked, uncooperative weather, a piece of advice: always wear shoes and watch where you step.

My April Reads

Spring continues to flirt with us. One minute the sun is shining, and the next minute, the hail falls. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a spring this cold. We’re weeks, if not an entire month, behind on outside tasks, which means May will be crazy busy. In the meantime, however, the cold, unpredictable weather leaves more time to read. And here’s what I’m reading this month:

The Keeper of Happy Endings by Barbara Davis

The Almost Wife by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

After by Bruce Greyson

Books read to date in 2022: 25

A Question of Light and Dark

An artist friend recently displayed two versions of a scene she’d painted – one was dark, rich and moody, while the other was a lighter, fresher portrayal of the same image. She asked us to state which we preferred. The feedback was mixed, but slightly more people liked the darker image than the lighter one. Artists particularly gravitated to the darker scene and, in one case, pointed to the depth of saturation as a reason for their choice. Both images were gorgeous, and it was hard to choose one over the other. But for me, having just lived through a dark and wet weekend that included a six-hour power outage, I craved something light. My need for sunshine and uplift reminded me of a recent newsletter written by foodie and cookbook author Laura Calder. You can read her post here:   https://www.lauracalder.com/april-2022

In part of her newsletter, Calder writes about leaving on vacation just as the Russians attacked Ukraine. She wrestled with whether or not it was in bad taste to post happy holiday shots on social media when there was so much pain and suffering in the world. Ultimately, believing that negativity needs to be beaten back with some delight or everyone would go mad, she decided to share some of her joy. “We have as much of a moral obligation to appreciate beauty, pleasure, and goodness when they’re presented to us as we do to confront evil and destruction when they show up on our path,” Calder wrote. “In fact, when we’re down in the dumps or anxious, it’s more important than ever to keep our senses sharpened for perceiving love and loveliness, because these can be the only things that keep us going.”

My artist friend who posted her work for us to see is just one of many creatives I know who continue to paint, play music, create mosaics and write books, among many other artistic pursuits. With the world feeling quite dark these days, it may feel indulgent or superfluous to do those things, and yet, as Laura Calder reminds us, there are times when a single touch of loveliness or one spot of brightness truly can keep us going.  

The Pencil is Mightier Than the Pen

                    

March 30th is National Pencil Day. I don’t usually give pencils much thought; I’m more of a pen fanatic. But as soon as I found out that a day was set aside to honor the lowly pencil, I did a little digging into pencil trivia. And here’s what I learned: The average pencil can be sharpened 17 times, draw a line 50 kilometers long and can write roughly 45,000 words. To put that word length to the test, a group of volunteers at the Hollidaysburg Public Library in Pennsylvania came together to copy To Kill a Mockingbird word-for-word with one pencil. They started May 4th 2007 and finished on June 6th of the same year.

An average-sized tree can make 300,000 pencils.

Although the content of a pencil is referred to as lead, pencils actually don’t contain lead. They contain a mix of graphite and clay.

Before the eraser was invented, people used balls of moistened bread or breadcrumbs to remove their mistakes.

Originally, pencils were only manufactured to be round, but people were frustrated by the fact that the pencils often rolled off surfaces. So, the popular hexagon shape was introduced.

More than 14 billion pencils are produced in the world annually. That’s enough to circle the globe 62 times.

Do you know why most pencils are yellow? In the 19th century, the best graphite came from China, and in China, the color yellow is associated with royalty and respect. So, to give off a luxurious, high-quality vibe, American manufacturers started painting their pencils yellow.

And finally, I was surprised to learn how many authors have favored pencils over pens, including William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Mary Norris, Henry David Thoreau and Earnest Hemmingway to mention only a few. that’s probably because pencils don’t bleed, burst, run dry or freeze like ink pens do. For that reason, Margaret Atwood sites pencil-carrying during travel as one of her number one rules for writers. 

Take a pencil to write with on airplanes,” she writes.  “Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the planes because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore, take two pencils.”

I’m going to try a pencil. Maybe it will make my points clearer!

My January Reads

                                                                     

In terms of my reading habits, 2021 was pretty typical (it’s nice that something was typical last year!). I read 95 books, close to my average of reading two books a week. If you follow my blog, you may remember that my reading fell off in 2020. I only read about 70 books that year which surprised me because, with Covid restrictions, I had more quiet time at home. However, back then, libraries were locked down for long stretches at a time, and I couldn’t borrow electronically. At least not easily (my Kindle is not library compatible) or in a way that would have made reading enjoyable. Thankfully, that issue is behind me, and I’m now able to borrow both physical and electronic books from our library system. And thank goodness. While lockdowns seem to be a thing of the past, Covid is still with us, so who knows what the future holds? One thing is certain, though, there will be plenty of good books to read. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Lovish by Karen Rivers

Jackpot by Michael Mechanic

Books read to date in 2022: 2

Thoughts for the Day

I’m protecting my productivity this week (see last week’s blog if you missed the reason why) and that means keeping this blog short.  

As I mulled over what to write, I googled ‘this day in history’ for ideas. Though I think of spring as a time for new beginnings, a few new beginnings or creative undertakings were launched on this date over the years.

German engineer Gottlieb Daimler unveiled the world’s first motorcycle, the Daimler, on this date in 1885. Sesame Street was launched on November 10th, 1969. And author Neil Gaiman was born on November 10th 1960. Gaiman, who has written Neverwhere, Coraline, and Stardust among others, is a dedicated user of fountain pens and writes the first draft of all his books with one.

That takes commitment. And time. And since my time is committed this month, I’ll leave you with two Neil Gaiman quotes to inspire you.

“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So, write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”