Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Home, at last, after a very long season of travel. I’m looking forward to the working months ahead with the continued sense of urgency I brought back with me, along with a thankfulness that I have such a pleasant study to work in. Ah, Toto – there’s no place like home!

Tomorrow will mark my first day back in my study, but I can’t help peeking in every time I pass during the chore of resettling. Is everybody there? Ann – Lilly – Professor?

"Of course we are."

And the cousins?

"Even the cousins."

Then my world is complete.

What’s happening on the farm today… the prolonged and unusual rains have reeked havoc on our little place. Pops is hard at work patching leaks in the roof, shoring up pieces of shifting foundation, and getting in firewood. Me, I’m trying to make trails through the jungle that was once my garden, and chase all the bugs out of the house. Could it get any more glorious?

Status: My new year begins (I have always been on a different calendar than the rest of the world)


Simmering in Summer...

Back. But only for a moment. If there’s one thing I like about all of you, it’s that no explanations are ever needed. Suffice it to say I’ve missed you more than you can imagine. No time for sentimentality, however – I have a job to do.

“If you’re worried about the plots that are on the back of the burners, we’ve got you covered.”

“Thank you, Ann, I never worry about that. After all these years, I know the basics are always taken care of quite nicely. Our calendar – or should I say, lack of it – must be put on hold for the first time in our partnership. You see, I’ve been out and about in the world, again, and walking up and down in it. The place is in a terrible state. The thing is, I am convinced that life as we know it is shortly to become a thing of the past.

“The very subject I’ve been trying to get you to look at for months.”

I know that, Professor, and I should probably beg your pardon for not taking those comments more seriously. At any rate, it has suddenly become imperative for me to finish whatever I’m responsible for as soon as possible, as the opportunity may suddenly evaporate.

“Good lord, where does that leave me? My contribution – at the very least – is nothing but shear entertainment. What good is that in a time of crisis?”

A very good thing, Lilly, if you want to know the truth of the matter. People in crisis are always in need of a few moments of escape now and again. And to be perfectly honest, there aren’t half enough of them to be found during hard times. So, I’d say you better go right on with that humorous survival manual of yours. It might come in handy after all. Ooops… I have to run. Don’t know when I’ll make it back, but I can assure you it is my utmost priority. Meanwhile, I appreciate you all holding down the fort. By the way, where are the cousins?

“Off hob-knobing with some agent who’s taken a bit of an interest in them. Been quiet as a tomb around the laboratory without them, I can assure you.”

I’ll leave them to you, then, Professor.

“As always.”

What’s happening on the farm today: Being away for so long, I have no idea but I’ve heard rumors. The weather’s gone completely crazy and it’s been raining cats and dogs all summer. There’s a nest of snakes in the barn and one on the back porch of the house, too. The local coyotes have killed every last one of the Peabodys. Bad omens any way you look at them!

Value status: Recent events have made it necessary to change the judgment criteria. In the future, things might have to be put to a vote for reevaluation.


The End of the World...

When we finally made our way back to regular society we discovered we had become ghosts. It is a true term in the monetary world. It means someone who has "left no trace." No paper trail. No permanent place of residence. Someone who is impossible to track down. In the eyes of that world it seemed even bad credit was preferable to being a ghost.

That’s not all that had changed. The information age had also exploded onto the scene. Now turning out a technically perfect manuscript could be managed by anyone who had the funds to purchase a computer. Suddenly the publishing industry was swamped with so many submissions that slush piles turned into a veritable sludge. That’s because ninety percent of it sank immediately to the bottom and solidified as such. The trouble was, the sheer manpower needed to wade through the muck in search of the remaining ten percent, was financially unfeasible. Something had to be done in the wake of such a flood… and it was.

In the relatively short time we had been gone, an entire new "middle industry" had sprung up in the literary world. Where once one could number good agents in the business at less than a hundred, there were now thousands… and not all of them good. As yet, there were no standards for the new operations. Anyone and everyone could hang out a shingle and declare themselves an agent. Mostly because publishers were more than happy to relegate their slush piles to companies that would wade through all that dirt on mere speculation, with no money up front to do so. Under the circumstances, it worked out for everybody. But an alarming number of the new guys were sharks, and had no scruples about what to do with the dirt.

They were no better than the carnival types who preyed on certain quirks of human nature (the kind Pinocchio became famous for). It was now possible – and even legal – to make something of a living off suckers. Several new publishing companies even sprang up around the fringes of the legitimate ones who did the same thing, because there was a lot of money to be made that way, too. It was rather like the Golden Era in Hollywood, when anyone who was half-beautiful or thought they could carry a tune was willing to pay to wait in long lines and crowded hallways in the hope of being discovered. Anyway, the results were the same. The only way out of the dilemma was to know somebody who knew somebody.

Which, thankfully, I did.

Only come to find out, she had died while I was gone, and I found myself relegated to standing in the same lines as everyone else. There might have been some benefit in that if the old adage, "if it’s good, you’ll eventually be recognized" was true… only it wasn’t anymore. That’s because something else ungodly had also taken place that changed things. The former literary standards had toppled. Come to find out most of the people who ran those middle industries were as unskilled in literature as their clients. They were getting by mostly on salesmanship, trends, and shock value. By the time we got back into society, it was a completely different world for everybody.

So, here we are.

Not that I feel things are hopeless, because I don’t. Even though the publishing industry is about as slow as the medical one when it comes to making changes, history tells us that the general public (who is generally good) still holds the greatest clout. Because they are the ones who spend the most money. And people in the business world always follow after the money – it is their first priority – taking precedence over even their personal preferences and values. So, I can only believe that things will eventually swing back into some sort of good and reasonable balance, again.

Which leaves us with nothing to do until then but learn new strategies and continue to perfect our craft. There, now, that’s done. Are you all still with me? Or are you contemplating desertion now that I have finally revealed the true coordinates of – not only where we’ve been – but where we’re headed.

"Well, it certainly took long enough."

Thank you, Ann, I can always count on you to be perfectly frank. What about you, Professor?

"It seems to me, you have come full circle, my dear, only to end up setting your final course on the same one you started out with. A shame to have wasted all that time, but – like most necessary experimentation – one needs the lessons learned in failures almost as much as what might be learned from success. Sometimes even more. Often the most powerful substances are found in the minutest of quantities. Look at Madam Curie, for instance, and what her agonizing search for radium ended up doing for the world."

"Madam Curie – really Professor – our D. Ann Graham is more comparable to Pinocchio, if you ask me! But who are we to criticize? There’s certainly no place else for us to go. I vote we pick up where we left off before all this self-analysis started. Don’t you think so, Ann?"

"I do. Because while the three of us have endless time at our disposal, it’s become quite clear after hearing the whole story, that D. Ann Graham has the same limitations as any other mortal. So we’ll have to work especially hard to help her fulfill her destiny before her time runs out. Which we can only do if we agree to stop distracting her so much and start inspiring her, instead. Especially you, Professor."

"I couldn’t agree more. How long have I been telling you we’ve got to get even more serious before someone finally delivers the bomb. Which is a much bigger threat to the existence of the planet than running out of all the basic elements we’ve wasted so much time talking about."

"The bomb – oh, good lord, Professor! Are you trying to scare us with that nuclear threat thing, again? What on earth can we do about that, other than be so scared stiff we won’t be able to accomplish anything of merit at all?"

"Not a threat, Lilly, it’s inevitable. Which renders everything we’ve been groveling with, here, utterly useless in the true perspective of things. I suggest we get our priorities in order. Stop looking at the whys when we should be contemplating the hows."

"But how on earth can you expect us to do anything to save the world when we can barely manage to take care of ourselves?"

"A legitimate question, Ann. The answer to which is that only by taking care of others, can you possibly save yourselves. And that, ladies, is the proper perspective on everything."

What’s happening on the farm today: Rain, floods, and tornadoes. Oklahoma’s violent spring multiplied by the global warming that is still under controversy as to whether or not it actually exists. Which makes about as much difference in what we should do about it, as the natural cycle of things had on the dinosaurs.

Value status: Day 3 (our days, that is), and today everything is debatable.


The Gypsy Years...

Nothing beats getting rid of a bout of self-pity better than seeking out others who are worse off than yourself. You never have to look long because the world is full of them. And if you want to be so bold as to include the WHOLE world, they are the majority. We started out by hiring on as a cook and chief engineer on a Swedish mercy ship that was being refitted for a special mission. It was to be used to ferry Jewish refugee families from the Russian port of Odessa, to Israel’s Haifa. When we arrived, the old WW II troop transport had just been towed into Seattle from the "Mothball Fleet" and wasn’t anywhere near special, yet. It still even had ghosts.

I could write a book about that experience all by itself, but this is not the place. Suffice it to say it was one of the most pivotal points in my entire life. For it was there – in a microcosm of the perfect world (there is nothing that illustrates this better than shipboard life) – I began to truly learn about people. All kinds. From all walks of life. From many countries. Though my duties got me up before five to have breakfast ready for a crew that fluctuated between thirty and fifty, I had wonderful hours in late afternoons. Before having to get dinner ready, I was always pounding away at an old typewriter I found in one of the supply lockers, with the salt air wafting in through a brass porthole of my stateroom.

After that, we bought a camper for our truck and toured the entire U.S. Since we started from our home in Alaska, that included parts of Canada. Then – lonesome for the sea – we moved aboard another sailboat and explored every nook and cranny of Washington’s Puget Sound. Everywhere we went, we met children who wanted to join us. A few times, we gave into staying someplace long enough to start a school before moving on, again. We took miles of video documenting our teaching methods, as well as hour upon hour of wildlife and the "great outdoors." Pretty soon patterns began to emerge.

I discovered I loved the study of human nature. It had its forces and laws in the same way that the natural world did, and – if one took the time to learn them – was not only identifiable, but predictable. It was also the same in any country in any language. Suddenly, I wanted to illustrate these most universal traits of all mankind. Not so much the big stuff as the little stuff. The stuff that we could see in ourselves no matter who we were. The stuff that could make a person laugh or cry with empathy because I painted it – in the words of Hemingway – "… so true that’s the way it happens."

I also wanted to answer some of Life’s more pressing questions in a more gentle, roundabout way that didn’t blast people in the psyche or make them feel worthless. That’s because in all these travels and experiences, I found that I absolutely, positively, LOVED people. I even found myself wanting to tell them that there was a place for everybody, no matter who you were or where you came from: a truly wonderful place if only they looked long enough to find it. So many seemed to stop – disappointed -- in the middle of life and never go on.

During these adventures I never stopped writing. I couldn’t. In spite of a strict speech to all of my "alter egos" before leaving, they simply picked up their bags and followed me. However, I did discover my own voice in the midst of all these things and stopped writing in flavors. I now knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I even felt I had enough energy to get back into the marketplace, again.

But it was like Rip Van Winkle waking up from his nap in the woods only to discover that twenty long years had gone by. What a shock to find out that during the seven years (yes, another seven!) we had been "…wandering to and fro over the earth and walking up and down in it…" that everything had changed. Not just in the publishing world…

But the world, itself.

What’s happening on the farm today: Pops is involved with other things, so I have to handle the farm chores, again. Morning AND evening. I must calculate very carefully, as this coincides with quitting time in my study. Which is not a problem at other times of the year. In the short days of winter, however… the night creatures are already up and on the prowl. And neither opossums, coons, or skunks, are very cute when they are cornered unexpectedly in a barn.

Value status: Day 2 (the days are getting longer again, but only because I’m being chased by the necessities of the real ones. This, too, shall pass…)

Following the Yellow Brick Road...

The Yellow Brick Road came into sight again when I landed my first agent. She was a good agent, had good contacts in the industry, was well respected, and knew her stuff. She thought my work showed great promise, and that the novel manuscript I sent her had the sweep of GONE WITH THE WIND. But it needed a little more work.

This time I was willing to cooperate at all costs, even if it meant learning the craft all over again, using strictly conventional methods. I was determined to be conventional. I was willing to put a cap on my opinionated brain, listen to my betters, and – above all – no more shortcuts. Really. So, we set to work. I rewrote a couple of times, added a few scenes that she "would have liked to see included," and took out a few others she "didn’t quite care for." At last, it began to make the rounds.

First response: they liked it. But the dialect was a bit too laborious – could I cut back on it? Or – better yet – take it out completely. Which I did. After another rewrite, it went back to them. Sorry, no longer interested. Twenty-seven times it went out, with a total of about eight additional rewrites, many of which included putting things back that others had requested be taken out. Or vice-versa. The eighth time was a real doozie.

As a family, we were not made of money at this point. One does not grow rich in the teaching trade, or even working as a stringer on some local newspaper. Especially when you are turning over fifteen percent of your salary to an agent who might sell the great American novel for you one of these days. Not that she wasn’t worth it. I’m sure she was hard pressed to break even on submission costs without it, and she was banking on the "big break" as much as I was. I had a lot of confidence in her. But there were times when I had to choose between making a back up copy (this was before PC days, when such things take only minutes to transfer files to disk) or a pair of kid’s shoes. Most of the time I was lucky to scrape up more typing paper and postage money. After all, how many times did things get lost in the mail?

Not half as often as they get lost at large publishing houses. The eighth rewrite was done from memory and original research notes because the worst case scenario had happened and the only copy had disappeared into the abyss of one of the larger houses. No, I did not save old manuscript versions, because we lived on a forty-three foot sailboat at the time. Besides being limited for space, you wouldn’t believe what effect water could have on twelve copies of a five hundred page manuscript that would have to be stored in plastic containers down in the bilge. It was hard enough to keep a new ream of typing paper from starting to mold before project’s end, much less not to smell like diesel fuel.

Starting over from scratch practically killed me, but I did it.

It took months. But in the end (as with most rewrites) it was a better book because of it. The first time out after that we hit pay dirt. A direct call from a top-notch editor at a big time house who… wanted another rewrite. Other than that, she loved it. The first thing out of my mouth was, "I’m not doing another rewrite without a commitment!"

I should have remembered the frozen vegetable experience. Because after all these struggling years, I still could not tell the real opportunities from the false ones. What’s more I didn’t even have enough discipline to put a "safety cap" on my inappropriate responses that would have at least kept one in reach long enough for me to recognize it. In all twenty-seven submissions that was the only one that could have amounted to anything if I had seen it at the time. But I didn’t.

In the meanwhile, I was selling freelance articles to national magazines and writing other novels. Trying my hand at any and all genres even if I didn’t like personally reading them, and changing, changing, changing. More graphic. Less graphic. This may have happened in true life, but it’s not politically correct – has to be changed, etc. etc. Rewrite after rewrite. Nothing ever sold.

Seven years went by.

My children grew up and all left "the nest" in the same year, and suddenly my entire life seemed less than worthless. I began to wonder if it was my destiny to be a wilderness dweller all my life, why I kept dreaming of the Emerald City. Now, even the Yellow Brick Road seemed impossible, because every time I came near it, there was always some great crevasse that kept me from crossing over. What if I had already used up my entire allotment of Life’s opportunities? What if there was absolutely nothing left for me in the world? So – in the face of such catastrophe -- my husband did the only thing that could be done with a wife in such a state…

We embarked on a grand adventure.

What’s happening on the farm today: Tilling the garden, adding ashes to the peach tree soil, planting all manner of seeds in pots inside the house, and keeping the fire well stoked because it’s still ABSOLUTELY FREEZING AROUND HERE. I think I have spring fever and it’s such a long way off, yet…

Value status: Day 1 (if nothing else, I’m going to save money on psycho-analysis)

Learning From Editors (part two)...

We were still adventuring when I hired on at the newspaper. University days were long over, we had found our calling and discovered our gifts, and we were still headed for the mission field. Not just any mission field. We had our hearts set on the Pacific Islands… any of which that could be found along the Pacific Rim. There had to be ocean, there had to be wilderness, and there had to be boats. Especially boats.

We were living aboard a forty-three foot sailboat when we pulled into a remote little town on the Oregon coast and decided to stay for a while. The newspaper business proved much different than magazines. Newspapers are not enterprises they are organisms. They are the pulse and beat of a place, and a good one will not miss any pulses or beats. You especially do not miss deadlines. Even if it means working twenty-four hours straight. If you can’t do it in twenty-four hours, others will step in to help you: but if that happens too much, you’ll get fired. You can get fired for other things, too.

My new editor and I had a tumultuous relationship. Which was mostly my fault. Looking back on it, I must say I am amazed at how much patience he had, considering he was the one that got called on the carpet for any of the mistakes I made. Things like leaving the soda out of the recipe for Irish soda bread in the Coastal Cooking column. Or asking subversive questions in the public opinion polls that generated hostile calls to the publisher from half the town. Or having to buy air time at the radio station because I got the date wrong for when all our senior citizens would be bussed up north two hours for free flu shots... all of these he bailed me out of and forgave me for.

But he never forgave my being biased. Such as when a revolutionary from Nicaragua came through town to raise money and I was sent to cover the speech. I had no right to persuade people in the man’s favor, he said. But if an issue was clearly black and white, I argued, wasn’t it our duty to support the white? Especially if the black side failed to even show up at the event?


Well then, if something pretty darn lousy was going on in town, weren’t we obligated by our integrity to expose it to the citizens – whether it "fit in" with our publishing philosophies or not?


How about if you knew a dangerous crime was eminent because of something you became privy to during an interview? Were you not more than obligated to report it to the police?


I had too many "scruples" to be a good reporter.

After having to kill too many articles that I would not budge on, I got demoted to the entertainment section. After writing a scathing review of James Michener’s latest book (it was anti-American -- for goodness sake – was no one supposed to mention that?), I was hauled by the collar into the publisher’s office to face the music myself this time. After which I was relegated to advertising for the duration. I did have one consolation out of the entire newspaper experience, however.

While I was dutifully sitting in the composing room, making up slogans for this week’s special on vegetables down at the local market, a buzz went around the room that THE EDITOR was making the long walk down from his office just to see me. Uh-oh. I hadn’t written anything subversive in weeks. What could he possibly –

He sat down on my desk that was littered with grocery coupon memos and clipart suggestions for various food items. "That little article you wrote for the Fourth of July special edition -- the one about the rights of every American?"

"Well, if you think I should I have expanded it to include Hispanics, Asians, or even Middle Eastern--"

"I think it was the best thing ever written for this newspaper. I’m going to put it on the front page."

Did that get me out of the advertising department?


But it got me an agent.

What’s happening on the farm today: All that noise yesterday was a new set of double doors leading from the living room into the curiosity room. Finishing touches wrapping things up this afternoon. Such loveliness! The word "art" can encompass so many forms.

Habit status: Day 14. Round 2 is over. It is no longer a question of habit now, but whether or not it has any relative value to our craft. Thus we will devote one round to a value meter, and then… the end.


Learning From Editors...

All right, so it was an automotive magazine. Even though I never owned one until after I was married (had been driving less than a year up until that time), I did feel some affinity with the inner workings of cars. I had spent many hours in mechanic’s overalls, fiddling with some mundane chore (taking out bolts, putting in bolts, retrieving various tools, etc.) for my father, who spent over ten years restoring a 1934 Ford with a rumble seat. I loved that rumble seat! At any rate, I felt qualified for whatever assignment they might give me… how hard could it be?

Of course, they wanted a sample of what I could do. They gave me a feature article that had been written for one of their clients by the man I was to replace (there were rumors he left to work for the National Inquirer), that had been rejected. If I could fix it up into something the client would approve, I would officially be put on staff. It was like the Fox throwing Brer Rabbit into the brier patch. Give me a set of facts, and I could arrange them into any flavor there was. Had spent years doing that. So, I poured over the last three issues of the magazine, fixed up the broken article to match… and I was in.

Thus began several years of learning the magazine trade from an editor whose teaching sessions were doled out in three to five minute sessions at his desk while he scrutinized my latest article. I stood looking over his shoulder while he read with a pencil.

"This is good…" It passes. "We don’t need this…" He scribbles out the excess words with the pencil. "OK… OK… this is great…" He chuckles. "This is crap…" He vehemently scribbles out the offending words. "OK… OK… good… crap… really crap…" and so on. The single most important thing I learned while working for this enterprise, was how to tell the difference between the good stuff and the crap.

Which is extremely important if your goal is to become a professional writer.

Later, when we moved farther north, the small town we settled in did not have any publishing houses or magazines in their local business repertoire. But they had a newspaper. Feeling fairly professional at this point (I had risen to the position of assistant editor before I left the automotive magazine), I armed myself with numerous clips, and applied for a position as reporter. All I needed to know was what flavor they wanted… exactly how did they want me to report things?

This editor was the full-fledged, journalism degree college type. "Flavor? For God sake – we don’t want any flavor. No slant, no bias, no nothing! Just the facts – the straight facts. We’re not running a factory for yellow journalism here. We’ll start you off with a couple of columns where you can’t get into trouble. Public opinion polls, and Coastal Cooking."

"Coastal Cooking?"

"It features a different person each week along with one of their favorite recipes."

Ah, yes. Interviews. No problem -- I was good at those. How could anyone possibly get in trouble taking snapshots and writing feature profiles of prominent local citizens?

You wouldn’t believe the kind of trouble a person can get into in situations like that.

What’s happening on the farm today: Pops is home and I’m hearing all manner of work going on in various corners of the place. Anything is possible. I might venture out of my study and find a doorway put through somewhere there wasn’t one before. Or some new renovation to the barn. A boat or canoe might even be taking shape out in the shop. The temptation is mounting to find out just what it is and any minute now I will have to go out and see…

Habit status: Day 13 round 2 (and tomorrow’s the big day)


The Yellow Brick Road...

I did not take the Yellow Brick Road in pursuit of my writing career. It would have been easier if I had. Instead, I looked up from that winding path that lost itself in the first turn that was nearby, set my gaze on the glow from the Emerald City, and took off for it in a straight line through uncharted wilderness. I did not want to waste time on any long and winding roads.

There are dangerous places hidden in wilderness areas, to which the ignorant are not immune. Deep woods, wild seas, trackless deserts, and backwaters that often lead to bogs and swamps are there. Rarely will one come upon fellow travelers in such places. Once lost – and there were many times that I was – the option to go back becomes marred by the fact that you no longer know how to do that.

Not knowing enough was my worst enemy.

It was different back then. There were no droids named "Yahoo" or "Google" that could conjure up answers to questions on any subject within a mere few seconds. If there was an Internet, I didn’t know about it, and if there was such a thing as a "PC"…. I couldn’t have afforded it even if I wanted one. A writer could glean a bit of knowledge from what others had written down, but few did anything beyond telling their own personal stories, and those usually scarce of the nuts and bolts of how they actually did things. Even less of them were accessible to the general public, with hardly any networking (outside of personal friends) going on at all. It was a lonely road.

I made countless mistakes: some that still make me cringe even to this day. Like looking up the telephone numbers of publishing houses, getting them on the line, and boldly proclaiming, "I’m a writer – do you need one?" Usually, no. At long last (probably in another Writers’ Digest article) I came across something called the submission process. Ah-ha. So, that’s how it was done. Immediately, I took one of my best offerings (a children’s chapter book titled The Swan Hero) and sent it off to the first company on an alphabetical list that had been included there. Not long after, I got a reply.

"We would be happy to publish this delightful story. Enclosed, please find a copy of our standard contract… you should see your book available in about eight months…"

Eight months? That seemed an inordinate amount of time. Why should I wait so long when I had been waiting years already? Surely there was someone who could do better than that (nearly a whole year!), and – now that I finally knew the process for getting my material looked at by the right people – I was sure I could find more of them. This was a great story (in my opinion), and children needed to be able to read it right now. So, I typed up a letter that said as much, requested they return my submission, thank you very much, but eight months to publish something was bordering on the ridiculous. Then I went shopping.

Somewhere between the frozen vegetables and the cereal isles, I came to my senses. What had I done? What if EVERYBODY took eight months to publish a book, or maybe even longer? What if this had been my one and only shot out of the wilderness, and I hadn’t taken it? Worse yet, I had shunned it. I had never actually seen the Emerald City, only the glow of it. Perhaps it was not the great castle I had imagined, but only many small houses nestled close to each other. If that was the case, then this little publishing house could very well have been –

I didn’t even finish my shopping. I left my half-full cart in the middle of an isle (my kids thought that was hilarious) and tried to race home before the mailman came so that I could snatch that ungrateful, offending letter out of the box.

Too late!

We had pancakes for supper, my lovely manuscript came back in a few days, and there was not another house on that entire list that was willing to so much as give me a look – much less a contract. Meanwhile, I went back to the yellow pages. I had gone through all the book publishers, and was now down to periodicals.

"Hello, I’m a writer… do you need one?"

Finally… one did.

What’s happening on the farm today: Temperatures dropped overnight and the water in the horse trough had turned to ice, again. Trudge back across the pasture for the ax, duck under the fence and haul it back (it’s a splitting maul, really, so it’s heavy), and then try to break through. I learned something in this exercise. The ice seemed thicker than it was last week. Nothing but little chips flying at each swing – it would take me all morning to do this. Worse yet, I’d run out of energy because I was too out of shape to swing that ax for very long. Then I remembered some ancient karate wisdom and – instead of trying to get through the ice – started trying to get through the underlying water. It worked! Now I am convinced that if you want to break through anything, you must think beyond it, and not simply concentrate on how strong the obstacle is.

Habit status: Day 12 round 2 (the end is in sight)


Mr. Right...

We met on a street corner, passing out tracts for a youth rally that was to take place later that evening. He was older, having just finished up a six-year stint in the Navy. A few days before that, he had gone to a Billy Graham crusade and had a similar experience to my encounter at the surf club. When he said he would like to see more of me, I told him I would pray about it.

I did not date. Long ago, I had decided I was not interested in trying out partner prospects in the same way one shopped for new shoes or bought a car. Besides that, I was far too sensitive to others, and didn’t know anyone that I didn’t like immensely. How could I ever choose? So, I asked the Lord if He would just let me know whenever the right person came along. That way, there would be no mistakes. When I asked Him about this new acquaintance, the reply was, "I have given you to him as a gift."

Three weeks later, we were married.

My parents might have objected, only I was adamant. I had also turned eighteen two weeks before, so there was little they could do. In their estimation, it was probably better than taking off for any more foreign countries by myself. I had already been to six since my newfound freedom, and they were getting gray hairs. It bothered them that he was twenty-seven, but then again, maybe he would have some sort of a stabilizing effect on me.

Which he certainly did.

The first thing we did – before even renting an apartment – was take off for Europe. We went to Denmark, where we stayed with relatives of his and participated in youth rallies, hosted coffeehouses, and visited various churches. It was winter, the country was beautiful, and we walked between ten and fifteen miles a day to the different activities. The more we got to know each other, the more we realized how similar we were. Even in small things.

We both liked travel, we both liked simple living, we both wanted to do something worthwhile with our lives, and – most importantly – we both loved the Lord more than any of these things. At some point during this trip, we realized we were perfectly cut out to be missionaries. But neither of us had been raised in church. Just how did one go about it? Then we found a small pamphlet on a table at one of the churches called, "Ten Steps to the Mission Field." Number one was go to college.

He asked where I would like to go. I was from the West Coast, which still symbolized everything restrictive to me. So, I said, "As far away as possible." We went to the East Coast, starting out at a little Bible school in Pennsylvania. If I was going to be attending a Bible school to become a missionary, I decided I better start out clean. There was one part of my life I still hadn’t shared with him, yet. It was a bad habit I had. Almost an addiction. Matter of fact, I still did not have complete control over it.

He was so understanding. Whatever it was, we could handle it. We would work it out together. "I write stories," I confessed. "My head is absolutely full of them. Sometimes, they seem more real than life to me. I scribble them down everywhere and then hide them."

He bought me a desk and a typewriter – the first I had ever owned – and said, "Write."

What’s happening on the farm today: Still melting, and warming enough in the afternoon to turn the heat off in the study. Just when I reached the conclusion that all the bugs are either asleep or dead altogether for the season, I swallowed one in my tea this morning. Global warming seems to be effecting more than just the weather.

Habit status: Day 11, round 2 (drawing close to a judgment)


Freedom (part two)...

We all sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of the bed.

"How would you like it if you had a telephone that was a direct line to God," said Crazy Ed, "and you could talk to Him personally, anytime you wanted to?"

I could use one of those right now. Couldn’t anybody? "I would like that," I admitted.

"Good. I thought so. Now, here’s how it works. Right now, you’re not connected. God wants to talk to you, but it’s expensive to get hooked up because of all the sin in your life… and you don’t have enough to cover it."

What – did I have a sign on my forehead that said "sinner" or something? How should he know? I had a hard time believing all those other people outside the door hadn’t done plenty of sins themselves. What kind of a club was this, anyway?

"Nobody does," he answered the question like he had read my mind.

"So, what’s the point then?" I asked.

"The point is, somebody already paid the bill for you. Jesus did. He took the rap for every bad thing you did, just so you could have one of those connections, free and clear. He did it because He loves you."

"I don’t even know Him."

"He knows you, though."

"I thought He was dead."


"What?" I had never heard of such a thing. I looked over at the teacher.

"He’s alive," she informed me. "He loves you. And He has a wonderful plan for your life. Something you’ve always wanted to do and never thought you could. Better than anything you could imagine."

"That’s a fairy tale." At least in my life it was.

"It’s no fairy tale," said Crazy Ed.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"Because He told me. Pointed you out to me the minute you came in tonight."

"It’s because I didn’t eat the snack. I didn’t want to be guilty of anyone’s body and blood."

"That was communion, and you were right not to take it. That’s only for people who have accepted the sacrifice He made by dying for their sins."

"I thought you said He was alive. That you even talked to Him tonight."

"He’s alive because the power of God shot its way into hell and raised Him from the dead. Because he didn’t deserve to be there. He was just taking the rap for all of us who did. It was such a selfless act it was enough to pay for a free ticket to heaven for anybody who wants to take it. The phone connection comes with the deal. You want one of those tickets?"

"What do I have to do to get it?"

"You can’t do anything to get it. You can’t buy it. There’s no way you can earn it. Nobody can. That’s because it’s a gift straight from Him. Of course, it’s your choice. You don’t have to accept somebody’s gift if you don’t want to. But it would be pretty lame to turn your nose up at something that cost so much… especially when He’s been waiting to meet you for a long time. It would be sort of like making Him suffer all over, again. For nothing."

"I wouldn’t want to do that to Him."

"Tell Him, then."

"Right now? But I don’t have a connection."

"He’s on the line, go ahead."

"What do I say?"

"Just say, Jesus, I’m sorry for what you went through because of me, and I would like to accept your gift of heaven, with a direct line to God – right here in my heart – for anytime I want to talk."

I repeated it. The teacher sniffed and then blew her nose. She was sort of teary-eyed, like she had just been at a wedding, or heard news that a new baby had been born. I didn’t feel any different. No thunder had rumbled, and there had been no earthquakes. I definitely didn’t hear any voice saying, "Hello."

"About that voice…" Crazy Ed explained. Was this guy a mind-reader, or what? "It takes a little practice to get used to hearing it, because it comes from the inside of you, not the outside."

"How do I know it’s even real?"

"Tomorrow -- maybe even the minute you leave this room – there’s going to be a lot of people, and circumstances, and maybe even your own thoughts that will try to convince you that it isn’t real. That’s because there’s still a battle going on for people’s souls and the devil doesn’t want anybody getting a free ticket. They’ll especially try to convince you that nothing supernatural happened in this room, at all. But every time something like that pops up, you just start thanking Jesus for that wonderful gift all over again. And don’t worry, He’ll prove Himself to you. Matter of fact, why don’t you ask Him to prove He’s real to you right now?"

I did. Nothing happened. I looked at Crazy Ed.

"Well, it’s like any other gift," He picked up his big black Bible and held it out to me. "Say, this is it and I’m offering it to you. What would you do?"

"I’d take it."

"So, take it."

I reached out and put my hands on that book… and took the first whole breath I had ever breathed in my life. All of a sudden, I had enough air – I had more than enough – I had so much, I felt lightheaded! It was the last thing in the world I expected. All I was asking for was a connection, and now… "I can breathe – I can --" I felt like I could laugh and cry all at the same time.

"She got it," said Crazy Ed. "Now keep talking to Him every day. And read the Bible. It will help you learn the difference between right and wrong."

I did. And Jesus continued to prove Himself to me over and over, again. I was a junior in high school, and I got to take a P.E. class for the first time in my life. I took archery, and tennis, and swimming… and I could still breathe! If this is what knowing Jesus was, why weren’t people running after Him in droves?

They were. I discovered miracles were happening all over the place. I went from church to church, meeting to meeting, just to watch this miracle-working Jesus prove Himself to people. It was so much more exciting than hanging out at the local hamburger joint with friends, asking each other what we should do that day. If I wanted an adventure, Jesus had one going any day of the week. There was no shortage of them, and they were thrilling. I got better and better at listening to Him, too.

I even stopped lying to my parents and my teachers. After a while, I began to wonder why I ever felt I had to. I felt like I could do anything. I wanted to do everything. What if I wanted to do nothing but travel and have adventures for the rest of my life? Was that possible?

He said anything was possible.

He said yes when everyone else in my world had been telling me, no.

By the time I was seventeen, I had not only brought up my grades, I accelerated my classes and graduated early. I was so starved for a big adventure by then I was ready to head out to Africa by myself if I had to…

And that’s when the most wonderful man in the world stepped into my life.

What’s happening on the farm today: Hay is scarce in these parts. You can’t buy it at any of the feed stores in town anymore, and people are even driving up from Texas to get it from local farmers around here. We were down to our last bale, and the guy we regularly buy from said he was running low himself but might be able to sell us a couple of bales. Definitely not a truck load, though. Then he didn’t call back, and we thought we might have to drive all the way to Kansas to get some. And there was a freezing rain, with the threat of snow in the next couple of hours. Come to find out, he HAD called – our phone just didn’t ring. He let us have a whole truck load. Not only that but he also said he would save some back for us for next time, too. We felt highly favored!

Habit status: Day 10 round 2 (if this isn’t a habit, I don’t know what is)



As well as being born into a family that treated girls like something out of the Victorian Era, I also happened to have been born with weak lungs. This further restricted my activities, for I was not allowed to exert myself, since it always brought on some sort of breathing distress. Thus, I spent most of my early childhood watching other children play but never participating. Oddly enough, this did not stifle my desire for adventure, but only heightened it.

I found a measure of freedom "visiting at a friend’s house," where there weren’t so many watchful eyes around. If there were, they rarely knew what to watch for. So, in the middle years I managed to taste some of the joys of climbing trees, exploring dry riverbeds, and wandering miles on end through open fields. My favorite place was the beach, where one could wander endlessly, climbing over rocky points, exploring caves, and marveling at all kinds of sea creatures. There was also the added thrill of occasionally getting caught in some distant cove when the tide came in… but one only had to swim out and around to be saved. As wonderful as these times were, they were still stolen moments, and added to my growing burden of guilty pleasures.

Then one day a neighbor invited me to come to a surf club meeting. They met at someone’s house (a schoolteacher, so my parents approved) during the week, where they sat around and talked. Then on weekends they car-pooled to surf at local beaches (which my parents would only approve if I did not participate in the surfing). I could hardly wait.

The house was packed with so many people when I arrived that every inch of living room floor space was taken, and kids were spilling out down hallways and into the dining room. All of these were surf enthusiasts? The furniture was taken by adults. A particular figure seated in the middle of the couch looked like a priest. Not that I had ever seen one outside of movies, but he had on a backwards collar and a black suit. Not long into his speech, I discovered he was a missionary from Africa.

Africa! One of my all-time favorite places, since one of my heroes was Tarzan. He told some interesting stories about his experiences, which I enjoyed very much, even though they had nothing to do with surfing. Then something very strange happened. They passed around grape juice and soda crackers so that we could all "commune" together. Whatever that was. While we were holding our little snacks (they were so little!) the missionary took out the Bible and read two warnings. The gist of it was that anyone who was not worthy to eat and drink these little specialties, would be guilty of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ – my father only said that when he was angry or extremely emotional: usually before a complete blow-up was about to occur. My inner warning signals began to go off. Besides that, I was having an increasingly difficult time carrying the burden of my own sins around. Adding murder to them would probably kill me. So, even though I would have enjoyed communing with these nice people, I quietly set my little snack aside.

Which somebody named "Crazy Ed" took notice of.

When everything was over, he cornered me at the front door and asked if I would like to go into one of the back rooms and talk for a while. Not really. I began looking around for that teacher. Our eyes connected above a sea of heads, and in a few moments, she was beside us. Whew! I was about to whisper into her ear that this guy was way past high school age and he had just invited me into –

"I see you’ve met Crazy Ed!" Her eyes sparkled like he was Santa Clause. "We call him crazy because he will do anything to--"

"You got any empty rooms back there, Barb?" He used her first name (how inappropriate was that?). "This girl has never met Jesus."

"Sure. You can use my room."

Oh, God. I started to shake. I was petrified, and my feet felt like they were rooted in cement. But the teacher put an arm around me and propelled me down the hall to the master bedroom. At that point, I wasn’t about to let go of her, because there was no way I was going in there by myself. My parents would hit the roof if they found out, and probably put me on restriction until I was thirty. I was not allowed to date until next year (when I would turn sixteen), or ever be alone with any boy – much less, a MAN with curly blonde hair that was too long… and a tan that looked like he lived at the beach...


"Why are you stopping?"

Because, Lilly, this is a blog, not a biography. It’s getting too long.

"What did you even start it for then?"

I don’t know. All this delving into character suddenly made me want to understand my own, I guess. More often than not, who I really am eludes me. Especially with all of you crowding around. Every once in a while I have to remind myself.

"But you can’t stop in the middle. Tell her, Professor."

"If D. Ann Graham stops in the middle of anything, she will inevitably return to finish it later. I suggest we all meet back here on Monday to hear the conclusion."

"Oh, drat – it’s a weekend, already."

What’s happening on the farm today: The arctic freeze has passed, and there is a pleasant dripping off the eves of my study. It shouldn’t be long now before the water pipe at the horse trough unfreezes. Tomorrow will be a wonderful day…

Habit status: Day 9 round 2 (interrupted but still consistent)


The Rebellious Years...

I did not stop writing simply because I could never attain my goal. I couldn’t. It was a way of life for me, now. More than that, actually: it had a grip on me that I could not break free of. I didn’t try very hard, because the enticements were too strong. I did make half-hearted attempts every once in a while, because my family wanted so much for me to be "normal." In the end, I stopped bothering them with my ambitions and went underground. Which produced a guilt complex that later took years to overcome.

But doors were opening for me. I might not have hundreds of dollars for the Writer’s Digest Correspondence Course, but I had libraries. I took charge of my own education, and I had my own system. I began at the beginning. That is, I started with the first shelf on the first row, and read anything and everything that caught my interest. If something particularly impressed me, I copied it. Not word for word. I made up a new story with new characters, and copied the style, with all its rhythms and patterns. Even plot lines. If there was a conversation at a certain place, I put one there. If a fight or battle scene occurred in a certain chapter, there would be one in mine, as well. Which also added to my guilt complex, since I often spun off book reports for extra credit school assignments from these to keep from failing in my real subjects. Only once did a teacher ever ask me where I got one of those books.

I told her a great uncle in our family had died and left us an antique cherry bookcase with beveled glass doors on the front. A really exquisite piece. But better than that, the thing was full of old books. He had been wealthy and traveled the world for several years before the First World War, so it was anyone’s guess where they all came from. There was even a diary of those travels, but the handwriting difficult to decipher, although it contained a pressed flower that was over fifty years old. Would she like to see it? Indeed she would. My book reports were forgotten in her pleasure of perusing several of the old volumes that I later brought for her to look over.

Everything that I told her was true.

It’s just that – in my long years of deceit at home – I had learned early that a diversion was the best defense for clandestine behavior. Especially a shocking one. I was also becoming a fairly good judge of character by that time, and figured an eleventh grade history teacher would be intrigued with something historical. Which she was. The toll such behavior took on my own character, however, was much harder to come to grips with.

For it was during that year that my entire life took a turn.

What’s happening on the farm today: The errant dog returned after dark, none the worse for wear, but who knows what he was up to? That dog has more lives than a cat. This morning during chores, the hill I usually walk up was so slippery I had to go around. As I was skating down on my boot bottoms, realizing how awful it would be to fall on the ax I was carrying, I noticed half of the gate was busted off and lying on the ground. Getting to work this morning must have been a bit slippery for Pops, as well. Now, I’m wondering what the car looks like…

Habit status: Day 8 round 2 (continuing to digress)


Time Out for Destiny...

When I was young, I wanted to be the youngest published author. At the time, I was nearing twelve, and my knowledge of the holder of this particular title was the daughter of Mark Twain, who – at the age of thirteen – had penned a biography of her famous father. It began, "My Papa was a very funny man…"

I began with an imitation of Dr. Seuss. Although the particular plot and theme elude me at this late date, I recall believing that my poetry, rhythm, and wit were near perfection. Few would be able to tell the difference between myself, and the famous man. But what to do with it? I certainly couldn’t send it to Dr. Seuss. Besides the fact that I hadn’t the vaguest idea of what his address was…he might be intimidated.

But I had to write. Because in the writing of my Dr. Seuss parody, I had discovered the thrill of living in other worlds. Ones over which I had complete control, and – should there be any mistakes – I could merely relegate those pages to the trash bin as opposed to bearing the consequences in my own personal flesh. Yet, these worlds were as real to me as my own. Not only did I see them played out before my mind’s eye like a mental movie, they were all consuming: possessing the power to elevate my heartbeat, make me rack my brain for solutions, and introduce me to worlds forbidden to girls of my age. I spent many a late night that stretched into the waning hours of the morning, under my bedcovers with a flashlight, penning the latest chapter of a current work in progress…

My parents did not understand me.

They still thought I should be in bed by nine. Should never venture into a public place alone, and – some public places – not ever. Not at all. In comparison, my school activities became dull. During class-work times, or homework sessions, I would more often than not be working away at my latest novel. My grades – which had always been high – suffered. Suddenly, I could care less what teachers thought of me. I could care less what anyone thought of me. I was penning the next great American novel. And it was a masterpiece.

Then one day, while waiting for my mother to conclude her shopping at a local market, I was biding my time at a magazine stand. All at once, my eye fell on a copy of WRITER’S DIGEST, featuring that month an article on the elements of successful mystery fiction. I HAD TO HAVE THAT MAGAZINE. Looking back, I am not ashamed that I resorted to whatever it took to get it. I have a vague recollection that it was throwing a scene in a public place. At any rate, I came home with my mother wondering what in the world had come over me… and my first lessons in acquiring the skills of writing popular fiction. Within those same pages, I found something almost too good to believe. Writers’ Digest offered a fiction writing correspondence school. Anyone who qualified could attend. No age limit. The cost was several hundred dollars, but for the knowledge one could come away with, it was more than worth it. A mere pittance, actually.

Mother thought otherwise.

Is it any wonder the next few years were rebellious ones? No one understood me. Least of all this strange family I had been born into. They were so old-fashioned! My younger brother had more freedoms than me. Several years went by during which I felt all of my problems in life could have been solved if only I had been born a boy. Then I could physically fight my way out of any problems that confronted me. I could run away with half a chance that I could land a good enough job to support myself, no matter how old I was. Before I knew it, I was fourteen…

Devastated that I would never be the youngest published author.

Not ever.

Was there anything left for me in the world?

What’s happening on the farm today: One of the dogs is missing. It is the middle "mut" -- the one with issues – that the neighbor shot two bullets into his head last year for killing one of his wife’s little terriers. Which he deserved every bit of. But because he didn’t die, the neighborhood consensus was to treat it like a hanging gone awry: for some reason the criminal deserved to live. However, he has been progressively weird ever since. Over the last few days, he has taken to running away in terror whenever called. I figure it’s too late for a guilt complex, so someone else in the neighborhood must be after him for other crimes. Now we are on day six of the arctic freeze, and he did not come home with the other two after the usual romp at five in the morning. Probably all for the best considering his propensity for criminal behavior, except that the kids love him and would be crushed if he never came back, again.

Habit status: Day 7 round 2 (and a real digression in subject matter)


Shades of Character...

Do you realize this is the most consistently we have all shown up – in real time – since the beginning of this blog experiment? Even at the start we drifted back to our own clocks within a mere few days. Now, we are not only here, I see everyone has come prepared. Lovely fire, Professor – thank you for that. And Ann: hot chocolate and cinnamon bread… I see we are back in each other’s graces, again.

"It helps to have a topic we are all not only interested in, but dedicated to."

Yes, well, it’s a large topic. We could spend an entire year on it and still not cover everything. But for this particular little study, let’s start off by defining exactly what it is we are looking for. I believe the original aim of this project was to uncover certain secrets that we could apply in a general way to any piece of writing, and come out better for it. Literally speaking. So… what exactly IS a literary character? What is the basic definition of one?

"I think they’re ghosts."

"You know, Lilly, I had the feeling the minute I got here, you were in one of your moods. Why bother to come at all if you’re going to play the advocate the entire time? Stretched out on the couch that way with an ice-pack on your head and a heat-pad on your feet – don’t think I didn’t notice while I was pouring the chocolate that your cup was already a third full of brandy!"

"I’m sorry, Ann, but I’ve just had a near death experience and I’m not quite over it, yet."

"My dear, you were never once in any real danger of dying."

"I don’t believe you, Professor. A current of so many millions of volts passing through my brain – I feel like I’ve just lived through the mother of all shock treatments!"

"Good lord, Professor – how could you even think of doing such a thing to our Lilly!"

"That was one of Tesla’s most popular experiments. The fact that one could electrocute something with a few volts, but the passage of millions through the body at the right –"

"Tesla was a lunatic! I don’t think I like him at all anymore."

"Lilly, were not your very words that you wanted to feel what it was like to be an inventor?"

"You know perfectly well what I meant! It was the character of an inventor I was interested in. I wanted to see if I could put myself in that place for a bit, so that I could better understand the inner workings of the captain from my manuscript, since he is something of an inventor himself!"

"And so you have."

"I have an infuriating buzz, that’s what I have! From my head to my toes and back up, again, like some pulsating –"

"It’s the brandy, if you ask me."

"I find it amusing that the first to the forefront on our study of character should be the absolute worst aspects of our own. Marvelous cinnamon bread, Ann. I must confess, half the reason I come to these meetings is for the treats."

"Well, not for the company, God knows."

"Lilly, if you could make a little more effort not to be insulting. I’m sure the Professor was--"

"I move there should be rules to this study. And that we forego the demonstrations."

"Any study without experimentation can never go beyond speculation."

"I move we let D. Ann Graham decide. Where did she go?"

"Don’t worry, I’m sure she’s watching."

What’s happening on the farm today: Day five of the freeze and still no power outages for our area. Wonderful. I have discovered that my expensive Sorrel boots I brought from Alaska have been serving as apartment housing for mice. Lying for months in the wooden shoebox on the back porch, the left was designated storage for various nuts and bits of dog food, while the right was the sleeping and entertainment area. What do mice do for entertainment? Let’s just say that besides chewing half the tongue off that expensive leather, they also did extensive damage to the shoestrings and felt liner. But who wants to haggle when one is due out in the barn in morning temperatures that are still in the single digits? I dumped out the stash and wore them anyway.

Habit status: Day 6, second round (and another setback)


Hook, Line, and Sinker...

Let’s see… where did we leave off?

"I believe Lilly got an idea and we all adjourned. Did anything pan out, Lilly?"

"Of course. Things always pan out when you add more ideas. I decided to make the format, itself, a hook, and I think it’s going to work out beautifully."

"My dear, so far you’ve got a hook in the first line, one at the end of each chapter, your main character is also a hook -- and now – you’re telling us you’ve fashioned the format into a hook? I should think at the moment, it would be too frightening for anyone to pick up."

"People like frightening, these days, Professor."

"Well, then they’re living in the right era. Personally, I prefer the last century. There seems to have been more thinking going on then. Anyway, you can’t just have a mass of hooks, we get that with the evening news. One shock, jab, or prick after another and not a thing you can do about most of it. Too many of those tangle up the lines – which are the truly essential part of any story. Wouldn’t you say so, Ann?"

"I agree everything has to end up going somewhere. But I can also see that if people are doing less thinking, one might have to shock, jab, or prick a little more to get any reactions. Then again, it depends what you’re fishing for."

"Which brings us to the most important facet of hook study. There are different kinds of hooks for different kinds of quarry. One has to know who the audience is before preparing any type of a hook. For the simple reason that what appeals to one might have little or no effect on another. Have you thought about your audience, Lilly? Do you know who they are?"

"They’re ordinary people like us."

"Too vague."

"Who don’t particularly like change. They’d rather ignore most of the irritating stuff one hears on the news, but every once in a while, something comes along to dump them into a catastrophe, and they have to deal with it."

"Better, but keep going. Are they young or old? Male or female? Working or unemployed?"

"All of the above."

"Good grief – what is this thing? Another War and Peace, only this time, with survival tips?"

"Something like that, yes. Look how worried people are over the war these days."

"Well, I’m stunned. I thought we were dealing with one of your light, experimental manuscripts for the purpose of practicing the craft, and now you’ve got us going in so many directions, I hardly see how anything beneficial can come out of it. What kind of a person is this Stella Madison, anyway? And who the blazes is the devil?"

"I beg your pardon, ladies – may I propose that we have sufficiently covered the subject of hooks?"


"Well, it seems that if we are now demanding explanations of the who and why of these characters, we might as well get on with the subject of characters."

"Lilly’s a character, if you ask me."

"Thank you, Ann."

"I move that tomorrow we go on to the next subject. Lilly, will you be responsible for the demonstration this time? The thought of what the Professor might concoct in his lab to show character gives me the chills just thinking about it."

"Certainly. But I might at least have to get some advice from him."

"Oh, for heaven sake! I can see where this study is headed, already."

What’s happening on the farm today: Fourth day of arctic weather. Still have electricity, although the woodpile is going down fast and we now have to carry water to the animals. I used the ax to break through the ice in the horse trough this morning, but it is frozen nearly halfway down. Now is when it begins to show how really out of shape I am, and how much of a pansy I am when it comes to being out in the cold.

Habit status: Day 5 second round (beginning to move right along)


Hooked Up...

Are we all settled, now? It seems we were interrupted yesterday, and we never finished our discussion on hooks. There’s a lot more to them than just snagging attention. Since this little study is going to be a very careful look at the elements, let’s not rush things by speeding on to the next subject when we haven’t thoroughly explored the first one. We haven’t even discovered the secret part, yet. Where did we leave off?

"I left off wondering how the Professor ever came up with the idea that putting a hole in someone’s best pair of slacks was an appropriate example of a hook! The only thing I got out of that was irritated."

"There’s nothing pleasant about a hook, my dear. Their sole purpose is sinister. They are meant to capture and hold, and unless cleverly disguised, even the stupidest of creatures steer clear of them."

"I think the Professor has a valid point, Lilly. A poorly embedded hook – in the literary world -- is more apt to cause resentment than interest. Nobody likes to be taken in. It’s rather like those advertisements for free things that have hidden purchases or fees attached."

"I hate those."

"Most people do."

"If you use a hook to draw someone into a story, it better make sense. It has to be a legitimate part of the whole."

"It has to have a line attached to it, if you ask me. Any hook without a line is worthless."

"I agree. A hook should always lead somewhere. It has to be connected to the next thing, and the next, and so on."

"End of the chapter cliffhangers. Do you think every chapter should end in such a way, Ann? Or is there something to be said for a bit of a change of pace."

"I think the arch enemy of suspense is a change of pace. Readers are always looking for a good place to stop. Well, that’s one thing I don’t think you should ever give them. The only place for one of those is at the end. But once, again, if there are any contrivances showing, you’re done for."

"Fiction is nothing but contrivances. Good fiction just makes you forget it. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that. Did you bring any of those chocolate things, today, Ann?"

"After yesterday? Certainly not. I brought carrots."


"Now let’s scrutinize Lilly’s opening. You have promised us the devil, Lilly – is he going to show up on the scene eventually?"

"I’ll say he is."

"Is this another one of those war between good and evil themes? Thery’re getting tiresome, if you ask me. Every time you turn around another one shows up on the shelves. And these days, it’s the devil that mostly ends up on top."

"All of life is a war between good and evil, Professor. But that falls more under the heading of a theme, I should think. Which is another element that should be undetectable. Heard but not seen, you might say. Actually, this is sort of a how-to manual on survival."

"A how-to manual – your ladies trapped in the wine cellar book?"

"Certainly. It’s something everyone is concerned about lately. Myself included."

"Universal, you mean. Something we can all relate to. Which things also provide the best hooks: a car being erratically driven pulling into a gas station at night, disobedient children, a strange noise…"

"That gives me an idea! I move we postpone the rest of this discussion until tomorrow."

"Fine by me. I left the cousins experimenting with the Bunsen burner back at the lab."

"Oh, good lord, Professor!"

"They could burn the whole place down!"

"Not really, ladies. Just an example of a good universal hook. But I do need to be getting back."

"He’s impossible, lately!"

What’s happening on the farm today: We are having an ice storm that is predicted to last through the weekend. Time to fill every available container with water, bring in extra firewood, and get out the kerosene lamps for when the electricity goes out. As it invariably does during such times. I think there should be rebates from the electric company when that happens but, so far, the CEO hasn’t answered any of my emails about it.

Habit status: Day 4 of round 2 (gaining focus)



My goodness… you certainly all got back here in a hurry. I think this is one of the shortest days we’ve had since the beginning of the experiment. Maybe it’s because we had something to look forward to. I don’t mind saying I’m rather excited about it, too. Do you realize we have never come away disappointed when we set out to perfect the craft? We always discover some treasure we can put to good use.

"I like the part about the adventure, myself. And the fact the rest of you might finally donate enough time to help me get my ladies out of the wine cellar."

"Is that the manuscript we’ll be practicing on? As I recall, Lilly, that entire project was one big experiment. I was hoping we might actually accomplish some work during these sessions and be able to catch up with the agenda at the same time."

"I beg your pardon, Ann, but what good is moving forward on the agenda if the quality is lacking? I’m all for the treasure hunt. Let’s start with you, Professor. I can’t imagine what sort of demonstration you could come up with out of that laboratory of yours that might illustrate writing rules, but--"

"I’d prefer to save it till the end, if you don’t mind – I’ve just sweetened my tea. Besides that, Ann’s chocolate things look delicious. Let’s just lead off with the importance of hooks in general. Begin at the beginning, you might say."

"Which is exactly where the first hook should go. At the beginning. I don’t know how many times we’ve had to go back and change a beginning because it didn’t have a sufficient enough hook. I realize it’s a rough draft, Lilly, but what have you got so far?"

"When opportunity first knocked on Stella Madison’s door, she thought it was the devil."


"I agree with the Professor. We might not know who Stella is at this point but we’ve all had at least a passing acquaintance with the devil. Your hook, of course, is that we would now like to know what the opportunity was. For the sake of this discussion, at what point in the manuscript do you actually tell us?"

"I don’t give out that information until page eleven, at which point it becomes one of those cliff-hanger hooks for the end of a chapter. Let me see… I believe the exact wording is: It wasn’t until the following Tuesday that the opportunity revealed itself."

"Page eleven and you haven’t told what it is, yet? What’s to keep us interested? Why should we care?"

"Well, because by that time I’ve presented several possibilities of what it could be. Sort of a who-done-it approach. I’ve always been of the opinion readers like to use their own wits in a book to figure things out, no matter what kind it is."

"That being the case, then, it seems you would have to compensate by some excellent building of Stella’s character in order for us to care enough about her to continue on. Wouldn’t you agree, Professor?"

"Undoubtedly. But it’s a difficult challenge in so short a space. How exactly did you go about it, my dear?"

"I made Stella, herself, a hook. You see, you know right off she is not who she says she is."

"Why, Lilly – what a brilliant idea!"

"Which is about as perfect a definition of a hook that you can get, ladies. Now look here. One doesn’t have to understand hooks in order for them to get your attention. They snag. They irritate. Or they interfere. A really good one will bother you until you are forced to deal with it, no matter what you were doing before it came along. Ann, you don’t by any chance have more of those chocolate things, do you?"

"There’s some more in the kitchen. If you’d like, I’ll just – what? Oh, dear!"

"Wait a minute, Ann – your sweater – it’s snagged on the back of – ooops – oh, good Lord! My best wool slacks stuck through with a fishhook! Is this your idea of a joke, Professor?"

"I believe I was asked to do a demonstration on hooks."

"Well, for heaven sake! Ann can slip out of her sweater easy enough, but this is hardly the place to slip out of my pants!"

"I’ll leave you ladies to work out your hook problems, then, and I’ll head on back to the lab."

"Turn off this blog!"

What’s happening on the farm today: A storm brewing. Wind gusting up to fifty and sixty miles an hour at times, and things flying around all over. The metal roof seems about to lift off but I can’t think what to do about it. At sea, you would put out a sea anchor and shorten sail, but one can hardly batten down the trees…

Habit status: Day 3 of round two (interrupted)


Winter Work...

There is more time for us in the winter. When the holidays are over and the outdoor activity schedule is still too far away to think about, when the study is at its most inviting with plenty of warm drinks and a wood-burning fire crackling; it seems easier to get down to serious business. It is a great time to take a bit of extra effort to hone the craft. This year, we will be trying out "seven secrets" on one specific manuscript, and see what it does for us.

It will be an adventure.

I believe I will take each secret out of the box, one at a time, look it over carefully, analyze it, and then implement it into the story. Then I will erase lines and fill in others so that the new addition will seem to be undetectable: a seamless part of the whole. Then I will wait – like Dr. Frankenstein – for the moment when I can say of my creation, "It’s alive!"

We’ll start tomorrow with a lively discussion on hooks: the main purpose of which is to snag something. You bring the chocolate, will you, Ann?

"I’d be glad to."

And Professor, do you think you could bring some sort of a demonstration from your laboratory that would help us to better visualize the concept?

"I’ll see what I can do."

Lilly – if you would be so kind as to donate the manuscript.

"I would like to contribute the one about Stella and the Fat Man."


What’s happening on the farm today: Everyone is gone for the next two months and I am left on my own for the morning chores. At the moment, the animals are like naughty children when there is a substitute teacher in class. The horses play musical stalls as if there weren’t enough to go around, and the dogs hide their food bowls in a different place every day. Colonel Peabody has decided I am an invader in his yard and somebody to get in the ring with. After a week, he is no longer interested in food, freedom, or even girls. To open the hen house door now has the same effect as the bell at the beginning of a boxing round. Wings spread, he leaps into the air, talons forward, and attacks. We are at war.

Habit status: Day 2 of the second round (so far, no conflicts)