February 26, 2015

My First Writing Critique in...Lots of Years



This week I submitted my first piece of writing for critique in a very, very long time. Very, very long.

I remember submitting pieces for critique in my college creative writing class, but I also remember it feeling more like a typical assignment...I was in the habit of submitting work for evaluation then because I was in school. I did it all of the time. And I seem to recall still having a glimmer of the cockiness of youth on my side, which can make things like this a little easier, initially, at least. (Though it's possible that that particular class knocked the last of that cockiness right on out of me. Bastards.)

Then I remember a little writing group in my early twenties where I shared a few small pieces. But there was less critique and more encouragement there. It was a very safe space...but not necessarily a very productive one.

Now I am in my first real writing critique group. There are a few very inexperienced writers, but none of them are submitting work for critique quite yet.  The rest of the writers, the ones who will be critiquing my work, have been published or have self-published or are in the process of self-publishing. They are writers who have been doing it longer than me. This means that five or six of these writers will read a 4000 word selection from one of my first draft NaNoWriMo books and critique it.

No one else has read these books.

No one.

So I'm pretty terrified to learn that they are giant piles of crap (at least from anyone's perspective other than my own six year old daughter).

I am worried that they're crappy. But I'm also worried that having adults who do not regularly read children's chapter books critique writing meant for 6-10 year olds will not be a success (three of these writers are men over 50...and I think all of them write mysteries).

But I'm hoping for the best. I'm hoping for some positive feedback and encouragement. And I'm hoping for some helpful suggestions and guidance on how to make these books better.

Still, I'm scared. I'm not really known for dealing well with criticism.

And right now, I tend to waffle between feeling really good about what I've written and feeling very shy about it. I know we're not talking about seminal pieces of literature here. (Not yet, anyway. I'm just (re)starting out.) But it would be nice if they didn't totally suck.

The thing is, I know the pieces need revision. I know they need work. And I've been stuck.

Actually, saying that I've been stuck is a massive understatement. I have been struggling to edit and struggling to write for weeks now. I just keep staring at the printouts of the rough drafts of the books I've written, and at the computer screen with the first pages of the new ones I'm starting.

But.

Nothing.

I can't figure out how to get my writing mojo back. So I just keep staring and avoiding.

Which is super helpful. Very productive.

So, here's hoping that the feedback from this critique group will get my synapses firing again and help me move forward.

And that it won't be too painful.

I'll find out on March 10th.

Fingers crossed, everybody.

Fingers crossed.

Until next time, send me good vibes, friends. Thanks.




February 24, 2015

A Quick Book Reco: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd



Okay, I know I've been on a bit of a middle grade novel recommendation bender, but when I read a good book I just can't help but share it and for whatever reason I've been most drawn to the middle grade novels on my to-read list lately. So here we go...

The last two books I recommended had a few things in common. This one is different. Though our main character is similarly aged at 12 years old, the storyline, tone and writing style are very different from Wonder and Counting By 7s. But once again, I loved this book!

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd is a novel about a love of words (and I love words) and finding your home. 12 year old Felicity Pickle (I want to change my name to Felicity Pickle.) is a word collector. She sees words everywhere-- in bubbles over people's heads or as birds on their shoulders, dripping down windows with raindrops, and in the stained glass of church windows. She catches and saves as many words as she can by writing them in her special blue book (or on her tennis shoes or her hands), and sometimes she spins them into funny little poems for her little sister, Frannie Jo.

Felicity has traveled the country and had lots of adventures and she's happy to have shared it all with her mom and her sister. But Felicity longs to settle her mother's wandering heart and put down roots in her mom's home town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee. Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place filled with magical people who could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers, but that was before a long ago curse drove much of the magic away. Now Felicity, with the help of her new friends, must figure out how to break the curse and bring the magic back to Midnight Gulch and mend her mother's broken heart.

What I love about this book is its playfulness and its love of language and its sweet, quirky characters. Its story is heartwarming and uplifting and, for me, it was a ray of sunshine in my own cold and cloudy February world. It made me want to lay in the grass on a sunny, summer day beneath a shady tree listening to the birds and watching the clouds roll by. It also made me want to find ways to do nice things for other people (read the book and you'll see why).

If you're looking for a light-hearted, fanciful and fun read that is appropriate for all ages, check out A Snicker of Magic. I think you'll be glad you did.

Until next time, happy reading.



P.S. Since we last talked, I also read Four by Divergent trilogy author, Veronica Roth. I liked getting another perspective on a familiar story and characters. I just wish there had been more to it. Still fun, if you've read the trilogy. Onward!






February 19, 2015

I Finally Made the #&*@#!*%$ Button Lampshade...and it's Fifty Shades of Awesome! (Get it?)

The Button Lampshade

So this craft project has been on my list FOR YEARS!

I am not kidding.

I saw the picture on Pinterest ages ago. I loved it. I thought, I can do that. I found a cute lamp with a basic white drum shade at Target: Perfect. Bought it. I found a website where you can order loads of buttons for not loads of money: Perfect. Ordered 'em.

The lamp then sat on my daughter's dresser, lovely but plain. The box of buttons sat with my craft supplies, opened and oohed-and-ahhed at but unused. And "Start Button Lampshade" sat on my to-do list for years, sadly moving from page to page, month to month, year to year. Last year I even put it in a blog post of things I wanted to do that year, hoping it would inspire me to actually do it. Didn't. Do it.

But then, for no apparent reason whatsoever, two weeks ago I got the bee in my bonnet to do it. I took the shade off the light. I got the buttons out of their box. I plugged in the glue gun and I got to work.

And guess what?

It was so much fun. It was super relaxing to work on. And it was way easy. And....it looks awesome! I love it. My daughter loves it. And I can't wait to figure out my next project.

Look out Pinterest, this lady's on the prowl.

Check it out...

The Lampshade
The Buttons


The Finished Product

Don't you just love it?


It's so pretty with the light on


Until next time, go get your crafty on!


P.S. If you're looking for a tutorial, here it is: 1) Buy a plain, drum lampshade. 2) Buy lots and lots of colorful buttons. 3) Get a glue gun and lots of sticks of glue gun glue. 4) Glue buttons to lampshade with hot glue...trying very hard not to burn yourself. 5) Enjoy finished product.

P.P.S. If you're looking for a smaller button project, check out Pinterest for other ideas. You could do a simple picture frame, or a button vase could be very cool. The options are pretty much endless.




February 12, 2015

Quick Book Reco: Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan


That moment when you realize that you're reading a book as much and as fast as you can because you love it and can't get enough of it and want to know where the story goes and how it all ends...but you also know that you'll be so bummed when it's done and you won't get to read it anymore and you'll miss the characters terribly. Yeah, I had that moment here. I miss Willow already.


Another amazing middle grade novel. Another must read. Add it to your list: Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan.


I followed up the fantastic Wonder with this awesome book: Counting By 7s. As with Wonder, I read this in just a few short days and had trouble putting it down to attend to my motherly duties ("Okay, sweetie, let me just finish this page," was heard a lot in our house for a couple of days). You will quickly fall for the quirky main character, Willow Chance, and you will ache for her and cheer for her until the very last page. And, if you're like me, you'll also fall for Sloan's writing style, story line and character development...it's the total package! (I'm super impressed as both a reader and writer.)

Counting by 7s is about being an outsider, and coping with loss, and discovering where you belong. Willow Chance is a 12 year old genius with many obsessions but not many friends, who still manages to lead a quietly happy life...until tragedy strikes and her world is turned upside-down. Her journey to find her way through a world she doesn't really understand and the thick smoke of grief should feel tragic, but, in fact, it feels triumphant and heartwarming and endearing. Willow touches lives in unexpected ways that even she can't understand and manages to rise from the ashes of her former life with a strange, yet uniquely perfect new world for herself. She is every bit the survivor (and thriver) and she will stay with you even after the book is done.

I adored this book. And I bet you will too.

Until next time, I bid you good reading.


P.S. This was an Amazon Best Book of 2013, amongst other honors, and is recommended for ages 10 and up.



February 10, 2015

Dog Spoons

Cooper livin' large on the couch

As most of you already know, our family dog, Cooper, is at the end of his life. He has bladder cancer that has spread and our vet has said he has a month or two left before things get bad. So we are giving him medication to keep him comfortable and trying to fill his remaining days with lots of love. He has stopped eating dog food, but since I transitioned to making him chicken and rice, his appetite has been revitalized...at least for now. But the biggest change in his little, day-to-day, doggie world is that he is now allowed on the couch to cuddle, and he has moved from his dog bed on the floor of our master bedroom, to the master bed. And here's what has happened...I have fallen in love all over again.

I had forgotten how much I love dog spoons (curling up with with your favorite dog). There is something comforting and reassuring about sleeping with a dog. The weight of their side against your leg or the gentle pressure of their paws against your back. It's different from sleeping near another person. I find it more calming and more comfortable. My husband gets too hot. And my kids move around too much. But my dog, well, he's just right.

When I was growing up we had a dog named Cocoa who loved to nestle in the crook of your knees when you laid on the couch. It was her favorite spot, and I would often adjust my position just so that she could lay there. My dog Jack liked to be near me all the time and was a total bed hog...but not by spreading out and taking up the entire bed. No. There would be me laying right along the edge of the bed, then Jack laying right along my side, and then a wide open expanse of empty bed to our left. He always had to be touching me. So if he got hot and moved away, he would extend one paw out to touch my side. I loved that.

But when I got married and had kids there didn't seem to be room in the bed or on the couch for a dog. There were babies and small children and less space and less available attention and, well, people who cared more about dog hair than me. So, when Cooper joined our family he mostly stayed on the floor. At the time it didn't seem like that big of a deal.

Now that Coop has found his way into our bed, he happily lays right down the middle between my husband and me. And even though it means that I have less space in the bed, and that someone's always laying on my covers, making them much harder to adjust, I find that I just don't care. And did I mention that he snores? Um, yeah. Don't care. For some reason I love having him sleep by my side. And I love having him cuddle up next to me not he couch when I read or watch some TV in the evening. Why is that so soothing? I don't know. Just is.

So after a lifetime of dogs (first Susie then Cocoa then Jack) nestled near me on the couch and the bed, I hadn't realized how much I missed having that with Cooper. I am sad to report that I think I did both him and me a disservice by not letting him up to sleep near me. But I'm glad that this is how we're going out. With dog spoons.

Until next time, go get yourself some doggie cuddle time. I promise you that it's so worth the dog hair on your clothes and stinky breath in your face. It's so, so worth it.

Cooper waiting patiently for us to come to bed

P.S. Last night Cooper had some gas that smelled faintly of burnt rubber. Not really the smell that you want to go to sleep with. But guess what? Didn't care.

P.P.S. Thanks to my husband for letting Cooper up to cuddle with us. It's a nice gift for Cooper...and for me.




February 3, 2015

Another Quick Book Reco: Wonder by R.J. Palacio


You should read this book. And if you have kids between the ages of 8 and 15, you should hand it to them when you're done and have them read it. Or, better yet, read it together. And then when you're both done reading it, pass it along to a friend. This is a book that should be making the rounds. It should be required reading for elementary and middle school students.

Please, please read it.

Why?

Sigh. What to say about this book? It is well written. It is a fun, funny, entertaining, moving read. Kids will enjoy it. Adults will enjoy it. But that's not why I so want everyone to read it. This is: Wonder is a book about kindness and compassion. Wonder is a book about friendship and families and love. Wonder is a book about how tough the middle school years can be for everyone. Wonder is a book about seeing inside everyone's story and seeing that everyone has their challenges, whether they're obvious on the outside, or not. Wonder is a book about growing and changing and maturing and stretching and living.

Wonder is the story of August Pullman, who, on the inside, is in every way a typical ten year old. But on the outside, he is anything but typical. Born with a perfect storm of syndromes that have danced his face into a mask that startles people when they first see him, August has been homeschooled his whole life because of his facial deformities. But now, as he begins fifth grade, August's parents have enrolled him at Beecher Prep Middle School. August is terrified but determined to make people see that he really is just like them.

Narrated by August and the people around him whose lives he touches and changes forever, Wonder is an funny, frank and astonishingly moving novel that you will read quickly and want to pass on to another. 

Thank you, R.J. Palacio, for giving us such a wonderful gift to help us teach our kids, and remind ourselves, that everyone is a person with their own story, and that the only way to move through this world is with kindness and compassion. What a great entree into conversations with our kids on bullying and kindness and compassion you've given us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Seriously, friends, if you haven't already, go read this book. And share it with your kids, now if they're ready for it, or, if they're not, down the road when they are. (I will be reading it with both of my kids in a few years.)

Until next time, I bid you good reading.



January 27, 2015

Cowboy Casserole

So here are the reasons I'm sharing this recipe:

1. It's pretty easy.
2. It tastes good.
3. It's great for feeding a group.
4. It reheats well, making it also great for cooking once for a smaller group and then having yummy leftovers for lunches or subsequent nights off from cooking.
5. It has pretty broad palette appeal.
6. You can easily customize it a bit to your tastes (add sautéed mushrooms, top with siracha or sour cream or ketchup, etc.) .

I have made it 3 or 4 times now, and it always goes over well. And I thought that such a long of a list of pluses made it worth sharing. So, thank you to thecuttingedgeofordinary.blogspot.com for sharing it. And here you go:

Cowboy Casserole (photo from thecuttingedgeofordinary.blogspot.com)

Cowboy Casserole (adapted from Taste of Home)
1 to 1.5 lb ground beef (depending on your preference, I used 1 lb)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 gloves garlic, chopped
1 can (15oz) whole kernel corn, drained
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1.5 to 2 c. shredded cheddar cheese (depending on how much you want to top it with)
1/2 c. milk
4 tbsp sour cream
1 bag (30oz) frozen crispy crowns (the flattened tater tots; you could use regular tots too...or even sweet potato tots!), slightly thawed

A quick side note: I use as many organic ingredients as I can when I cook, and this recipe is no exception. I used organic grass-fed beef, organic garlic, corn, cheese, milk, sour cream and even organic cream of mushroom soup! I am a big believer in organic and use it whenever and wherever I can. But, when it comes to beef I think being grass-fed makes a HUGE difference. Not only is it better for you and for the planet and for the cow, it also tastes way better. Give it a try when you cook with beef. I know it's more expensive, but I really believe that it is worth it.

About an hour before you're ready to make the casserole, pull your crispy crowns out of the freezer and let them sit on the counter to thaw a bit...they cook better/faster and get crispier if they thaw some in advance.

Preheat oven to 350. Spray a large skillet with cooking spray and cook the onion over medium heat until tender and translucent. Add the chopped garlic and cook for one minute more. Add the beef and cook over medium heat until no longer pink. Drain any standing grease from the mixture.

In a large bowl combine the soup, milk and sour cream. Whisk until smooth. Add the ground beef mixture and stir to combine. Add corn and 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese. Mix to combine.

Grease a 9x13 baking dish. Layer half of the crispy crowns on the bottom of the dish. Pour the beef mixture over the top, then layer the remaining crispy crowns on top of that. Sprinkle another 1/2 to 1 cup of shredded cheese over the top and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until golden and crunchy.

Note: You can make this in advance (earlier in the day or even the night before) and just refrigerate it. About an hour before your ready to put it in the oven, sit it on the counter to come to room temperature a bit, then bake as directed.

Until next time, happy cooking!