Month: June 2011

Snippets from the Weekend

Our friend Mike got baptized yesterday morning. It was one of many decisions he has made to change his life from drifting and unhappy, into focused and goal-oriented. Mike has taken control of his life and is choosing who he wants to be. The fact that he picked our church brings us joy, but even more joyful is seeing how he chooses every day to do hard things because they take him where he wants to go. Most adults are not willing to dare to change so much about who they are. It inspires me to look at my own life and see if there are things that I am afraid to change.


Yesterday evening Howard was grouchy and decided to get out of the house. He wandered his way down to the Provo Festival of Books where several of our published author friends were presenting. Within an hour he called me because he’d arranged for a whole group to head out for dinner. I set Kiki and Link to babysitting the younger two and then drove myself down to join them. The world is a wonderful place when we can gather a group of friends for dinner and then later realize that 4 of them are New York Times bestselling authors and one was a Nebula award winner. All that authorial importance at the table and somehow the evening was completely lacking in ego. I love being at the table with high-energy creative people. They work really hard and that is why they have succeeded. Just as inspiring to me were the other people at the table, the ones who have not yet earned banner success, but who are also high-energy creative people. Dinners like that one are one of the rewards for the fretting and work we do much of the rest of the time.


The snowball bush is finally in bloom. Usually the blooms arrive in mid-May, but they were delayed by the cool weather. This means it is time for the annual snowball bush flower fight. This is where the kids pick snowball-shaped clusters of white flowers and throw them at each other or fling them into the air like confetti. Also in full bloom are my irises. They’re swirling their petals like Spanish dancers and filling the air with a spicy floral scent. These things thrive despite my neglect of them in recent years. I hope that this summer I can spend more time with them.


The thought arrived during the closing hymn. We were on the second verse of “Be Thou Humble” when I knew that though my currently-in-query-process book and all my future writings will bring me criticisms, the good accomplished by them will far outweigh the negative criticism. It was a calming thought. I have been much worried about how bad reviews and hateful comments would injure me. My book is based in my life and it will be very hard to remain objective. I have some of the same concerns in my blog. I often have an impulse to leave things unsaid and thus shield myself. But the good will outweigh the difficulty. I can hold on to that.


The chore lists have been updated and placed on our bulletin board in the kitchen. Each child has a grid. Seven days of the week across and ten weeks down. Each day that they complete their list of chores they fill in a square. At the end of the week, each filled square represents allowance money. Each completely filled week adds to the bonus which they can earn at the end of the summer. It is a new iteration of an old system, and thus more easily understood by the kids than explained in words. They all contemplated their charts, running calculations in their heads about money they could earn and what they could buy. I look at the charts and hope that they will help tame the household chaos and teach my kids the value of daily effort. Howard and I also have daily household chore lists. We could learn the same daily effort lesson in regards to household maintenance. The system will probably fall apart. I just hope it is tight enough to last through 10 weeks of summer.


I sat on a stool in my kitchen reading out loud from a manuscript page. Kiki was rolling out biscuits as she listened. Link and Patch just sat in chairs, listening with bright eyes and smiles. Mom reading aloud is fairly common, but this story was about them. One of the rules I set myself for my book was that the kids would get ultimate approval about what I say about them. This was their chance to hear my words and tell me what they thought. They loved hearing the stories, even when the stories were about their mis-behaviors and childishness. We still have more to read, but thus far only Link has requested a change. It is a minor wording change which will leave the heart of the story intact. It is a small thing to do to acknowledge to my kids that their opinions matter to me.

The Gateway to Summer

It is the last day of school. Two of my kids are at their elementary school for an hour and a half. My junior high and high schoolers are both at home since no one takes role on the last day and they don’t see much point in wandering around in the halls carrying yearbooks. In 30 minutes I’ll retrieve the younger pair and the school year will be officially over.

The end of a school year is usually an event of high emotion to me. I’m either eagerly ready to be done with a year that is hard, or dreading the end of a year that was good. Often I feel both ways about different children, or even the same child, if the year has been particularly… interesting. For the past few years I looked toward the onset of summer schedule with dread. I panicked about organizing 6 people in one house all day long so that work was maximized and squabbling was minimized. I also tend to dread the influx of lunches. Fixing meals is not my favorite activity and with the kids at home I have three per day instead of just two. The end of the school year also carries with it much angst about what the following year will be. No matter how hard the current year was, it was at least a known quality. The year to come could be so much worse.

If you pay attention to tenses in the previous paragraph (but not too close, my tenses probably don’t hold up to intense scrutiny) you will notice that I talked about all that high emotion in past tense. It has all been absent this year. Today is the end of school and my entire emotional reaction has been to shrug and dust off the summer chore lists from last year. It is possible that I simply used up all my end-of-year hand wringing back in April when I helped my older two register for classes and filled out paperwork for my younger two to be transferred to a different school. All the choices are made and my psyche seems inclined to let them lay until (probably) sometime in August. Also there doesn’t seem to be much point in panicking about having all the kids home while I’m trying to work. I’ve done it before and sorted it out. We’ll figure it out again.

What I’m feeling is not apathy. It’s not that I don’t care. It is that I don’t feel stress. The calmness is nice. I can save all my panic for the upcoming book pre-order, book shipping, and three major conventions in six weeks. Perhaps it is simply that Conservation of Anxiety means that I’ve already met my anxiety quota for the summer and I don’t have any left to spill over onto the end of school. Except that I don’t feel particularly anxious right now. I feel like we’re going to move calmly and seamlessly into a nice summer routine.

Tune in next week for : Sandra finds her stress, a blog in four parts about how bored kids can squabble over anything.

When Critiques Wound

I tell the following story in support of Amy Sundberg’s post “You’re Not a Weenie if a Critique Makes You Cry” because I have cried at critiques, and what I did afterward is the reason it didn’t make me a weenie.

I was invited to join a writer’s group during the summer of 2007. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to, writing had always been a solo venture for me, but my good friend wanted me in the group and I wondered what it would be like, so I agreed to give it a try. At the time I had one professional story story sale and a small pile of drafted stories. The group included one novelist with several novel sales under his belt (who later went on to be a New York Times best seller), one multi-sale short story writer (who went on to win a Nebula), one novelist with several novels finished (who later was nominated for the Campbell award), my friend (who has since sold a novel and at the time had written 5 novels), a couple of wise readers, and me. The awards and amazing credits came later, but I knew before showing up for the first meeting what caliber of writers I was going to critique and be critiqued by. It was a little like jumping into the deep end of the pool after only a few swimming lessons.

The first meeting arrived. I had a story critiqued and while the process was difficult, the other folks in the group knew how to deliver a critique kindly. They said things and I could suddenly see gaping holes in my story. Equally important, they pointed out what was working in the story and why it worked well. When I offered my critiques of their chapters, I got to see enlightened looks in response. It all went very well, which is why I was so surprised that the first thing I did on arriving home was go to my husband and cry. The whole experience had been emotionally wringing. The fact that things went well did not change the fact that I had emotionally braced for it to go very badly. I’d been terrified that my critiques would be useless, that I would have nothing to add. I’d been afraid that they would see nothing of value in the work I submitted. I was still sorting out the social mix of people. I was trying to figure out when I could tease and when I needed to play things straight. I didn’t know what social landmines were buried in the group and I was terrified of stepping on one. I really wanted to be friends with these people because they were fun and because I knew I had tons to learn from them. My husband held me tight, stood me up straight again, and told me I had to go back the next week. So I did.

The second week was when I put my foot squarely on one of those social landmines. My story was being critiqued and I liked the new ideas that the critique was sparking. I was feeling more relaxed with the group and ready for further discussion. I responded to the critique with a mild defense of what I’d written, explaining what I’d really meant. I did not know that ‘arguing with a critique’ was a hot button for the most experienced novelist there. As soon as critique comments on my story were done, he called me on it. Looking back, his actual words were a mild reminder, a setting out of ground rules for this new group we were all building. Unfortunately I was in such an emotionally heightened and fragile place that I felt slapped down. I folded inward both emotionally and physically. My mind raced as I re-examined every single thing I’d said that evening and the week before, trying to figure out what other stupid newbie mistakes I had made. I was suddenly certain that I was only present on sufferance, that everyone else in the group wondered why on earth I’d been invited to join. The thoughts were not rational, but at that point I was completely unable to be rational. The group moved on to the next piece to be critiqued. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Then I tried to blink back my tears. Then I pulled my long hair from it’s ponytail so it could fall forward to hide my face. About the third time I sneaked a hand up to wipe away a tear I knew I was fooling no one and I fled to the bathroom.

I sat in that bathroom and cried. I cried as silently as I could, because the living room full of writers was a mere 15 feet and one door away. Sobbing can be done silently if you’re careful. The front door of the condo was also about 15 feet and one door away. I seriously considered slipping out. What did they think of me? I could hear their voices rumbling, they’d continued onward rather than waiting for me to return. I was grateful that my weakness had not derailed the evening for everyone. I could not face them. It was mortifying with the emphasis on “mort”, the Latin root meaning death. Adults don’t run to the bathroom and cry. Professional writers don’t hide behind their hair when given a critique, not even if it is a critique of how to behave during critiques. Minutes stretched in that bathroom and I slowly filled the trash can with wadded damp toilet paper.

This is the hard truth about critiques which rarely gets mentioned: If the critique hits one of your writing insecurities, or if you’re uncertain about the relationship with the person critiquing you, then the process can be emotionally injurious. And the writer is not the only one at risk, the critiquer is taking a risk as well. People can get hurt. I got hurt.

My plan to flee faltered on two points 1. I’d left my car keys in the living room with everyone else and 2. if I left I did not know how I would ever be able to come back. Not only that, but I would see these people at almost every local convention and event. I would have to face them at some point or flee from writing speculative fiction completely. I splashed water on my face and took a deep breath. I repeated that process several times until I’d achieved a state where everyone could quietly pretend to not notice how red my face and eyes were. Then I walked out the door and across 15 feet to rejoin the group. I sat down in my abandoned chair and proceeded to participate as if nothing had happened. There was a momentary pause when I entered, but then everyone followed my lead. We had a useful and productive critique session. I even managed to keep the waterworks closed down by focusing on the subject at hand.

The critiques were done, everyone relaxed a bit and began to enjoy the purely social part of the evening. I still felt unsettled though. I could not pretend my crying jag out of existence, so I turned to the writer who’d scolded me and deliberately laid open the subject of arguing with critiques. I apologized for my weakness. He apologized in return, he had not intended to be harsh. What followed was a very good group discussion on critiquing. By the time I left, I felt more comfortable with the group and I knew I would be back the next week. Of course, I cried more when I got home and told my husband the story, but then I dried up the tears and went back to work.

What matters most about this story is not “suck it up and get back on the horse” what matters is that I faced the hurt straight on, I addressed it with the other people involved, and through it we all came to a greater understanding of each other. Critiques require trust and an intention to help. This event proved to me that I had a stellar group who was willing to accept me despite my obvious human failings. They would not judge me as a person even if my writing was awful or if I fled to the bathroom in tears. This is imperative in a critique group. It is why that group was so invaluable to me and why I am still good friends with everyone who was there. When I had to leave the group six months later, due to scheduling conflicts, I was honestly grieved to no longer be a part of it.

Are you going to cry or be depressed because of critiques or reviews? Yes. That is normal and it is human. What matters is what you do afterward.

Discovering Shawls

Mary and I were in our hotel room getting dressed to venture into Baycon for the evening. I had a lovely short sleeved shirt, but once again came up against the knowledge that hotel interiors are invariably frigid. I could wear the shirt and feel pretty, or I could cover it almost completely with a jacket and feel warm. The jacket choices I’d brought were less than ideal. Mary turned to her drawer and pulled out a long piece of fabric. It was a lovely shawl which complemented my shirt beautifully. Mary had several of these and after a single evening of wearing one, I realized that they are now essential convention wear for me. I must always have a shawl. If I am too warm I can tuck it into my purse. If I am too cold, I can wrap it around like a blanket. A shawl is a good thing. Conveniently the hotel store had a stack of pashmina shawls for sale. I bought several in solid colors. Searching the internet has shown me many shawls with lovely designs as well. I suspect my collection will grow. I love it when beautiful things are also useful.