Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Christmas, A New Me

I've been enjoying these Christmas memories and traditions that everyone has shared. I have plenty of my own, like my newborn brother being brought home from the hospital on Christmas Eve after the nurses had placed him in a stocking for a picture. Or when my sisters and brother (and me, of course) all had chicken pox during Christmas break. Or recently when my own 3-year-old put her toy dinosaur in the manger scene so they could all "play".

Those memories reminded me that Christmas is about family. But not until recently did I view Christmas as something greater.

When I was a kid, I never went to church. I don't remember seeing a Bible in the house. We never said grace before meals, not even at Christmas. If you had asked me about God, I would have said I think he exists. And nothing more than that. I didn't know anything more than that. Not about a tiny baby sent to us on Christmas or the lives he would touch throughout his. I didn't know about a great sacrifice that would bring me salvation one day.

I didn't know Jesus.

At least not until five years ago.

That's a whole other story, nothing incredibly amazing in the grand scheme of things but obviously a very important time in my life.

Now, when my family celebrates Christmas, not only is there the excitement of family and presents and Santa, there's a celebration for the birth of our savior. Whether we have ham for dinner or meatloaf, while we're saying our blessing, we can thank a faithful God who sent his son for us. And whether we get four hundred gifts or none, we can remember we got the greatest gift of all.

Even better, this gift lasts the whole year, every day of our lives. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, and I don't know about you, but I look forward to a new year with all this in mind. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rudolph, Is that You?

Children love being enraptured in the magical stories that come with Christmas. I was one of those children who craved to BELIEVE for as long as I could. I liked the idea of a plump old man delivering gifts all across the country to the point of weary fatigue. I liked how he jumped down chimneys, scattered gifts and reunited with his crew of reindeer to head to the next house.

All this to say, my imagination was as ripe as a ripe could be.

My dad knew this. He knew each of us his four daughters lavished in the stories that surrounded Christmas.

And this is why for years on Christmas Eve, after we’d changed into our nightgowns and downed the last of the shrimp and eggnog (his spiked, ours not), he’d sneak outside. Unbeknownst to us he’d propped a ladder on the side of our house so he could hoist himself up on the roof.

Meanwhile, me and my sisters gathered with my mom by the fire and occasionally we’d look above the fireplace and make jokes about the deer head fastened to the stones there, decorated with a bulging red clown nose. Inevitably one of my older sisters would demand us all to hush. We’d grow still as the down of a thistle (what is the down of a thistle anyway?).

And then we heard it. We always heard it.

Stomping and clomping. Deer hooves. Of course!

My mom would hustle us to bed, insisting Santa must be preparing to visit. I never thought much about how the bearded man was going to make it beyond the raging fire in the fireplace. A child's imagination is a crazy thing. My imagination didn’t require me to problem solve—only dream that night.

On our way upstairs, my sisters and I would huddle and giggle. Rudolph made it. Those were his footfalls we heard on our roof. It made for a near impossible transition into dream world. Instead, I often stayed up chatting with one or more of my sisters (on the other end of the house, while Santa was hard at work and hopefully sporting flame resistant clothing).

Why does this Christmas memory stand out above so many others?

We lost my dad this year. He was a successful businessman. He had many friends and knew how to command attention from everyone in a room. But I don’t remember those things as much as the goofy things he did. He loved to be silly with us. He, like all people had his shortcomings, but once I understood his way of connecting with me, I grew to appreciate him all the more.

Rudolph on our roof is one of my favorite Christmas memories. So what if it wasn’t really Rudolph. My dad made me believe it was. He gave me that and as goofy as it might be, I’ll forever have it.

*photo from flickr

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Agonizing Wait

Here's how the typical Christmas morning unfolded when I was a little girl. I'd wake up well before the sun even dreamed of rising and would roll over and nudge my older sister, my voice shaking with excitement. "Wake up. It's Christmas!"

She'd mumble something about it being too early and go back to sleep.

I'd wriggle out of bed and hug my flannel PJs close to my skin. A teenage sister couldn't dampen my Christmas spirit. I'd tiptoe out into the hall and find my older brother peeking out of his room.

We'd meet somewhere in the middle and glance toward the stairs. "We should try to go down there," he'd whisper.

I'd look at the black stairway then at my parents' bedroom door and chew on my lip. "I don't know. We'd get in big trouble if they found us."

He'd take a few daring steps down, only to return back to my side and plop down next to me on the top stair, where we'd follow the family tradition of waiting for Dad to get up and lead the procession downstairs.

Minute after agonizing minute, we'd stare at Mom and Dad's closed door, as if our eyeballs could open it by sheer willpower. Eventually my sister would wake up and join us, the excitement building as we speculated about what could be waiting under the tree.

Then the moment would arrive. The big door would open and my dad would emerge. But instead of walking straight to the stairs, he'd get a little grin on his face and say, "I need to take a shower first."

We'd all sigh and slump down while we waited for him to take the longest shower in recorded history. He'd open the bathroom door and then, as if to taunt us, would draw out his razor and do a thorough shave. Didn't he know Santa went with the beard look?

Finally, he'd meander down the hall and say, "Okay kids, you ready yet?" To which we'd all roll our eyes and say, "Daaaad!"

Then he'd lead us down the stairs and we'd open our presents and revel in the joy of Christmas.

So what does that nice little tradition have to do with my life as a writer? It taught me to wait...and wait...and wait. I'm pretty sure Dad didn't know how much patience he was developing in me.

Then again, maybe he did.

How do you handle the waiting that comes with your life as a writer? Who taught you the value of patience?

*Santa picture by Akarakingdoms /

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10 Things I Learned About Writing in 2010 (Often the Hard Way)

1) It all starts with a blog.  Not that blogging is essential for a writer, but for me this jumpstarted my writing process in 2010.  Blogging led to more interest in writing, which led to reviewing...all of which led to more connections with wonderful online friends.

2) I have been surprised that I have learned nearly as much about my own writing by critiquing other's pieces as I have by having my pieces critiqued.  God uses other people's writing to show me the strengths and weaknesses of my own writing.

3) In 2010 I have been learning the true meaning of "sloppy copy."  As a perfectionist, it sure doesn't come naturally to me.  I have been learning how my inner critic has slowed down my productivity.

4) Reputation does matter.  BIG time.  People are watching, we need to remember this as Christian writers.  Watch who you accept as friends, even if it is as simple as who you follow on Goodreads and Twitter.

5) Not every "opportunity" is a door we need to step through.  Satan is subtle in trying to get us to compromise our witness.  And we need to be just as careful with opportunities in the Christian market.  I have sadly learned this the hard way in 2010, several times.

6) A good critique is worth its weight in gold.  I have had the fortunate experience of being critiqued by a few wonderful people in 2010.  My experience is that there's nearly always at least a kernel of truth in every critique.

7) I believe the quality of books you write will never exceed the quality of books you read.  I have sadly wasted time on books in 2010 and I hope to be more choosy about my reads in 2011 by cutting down on reviewing commitments.

8) Its when my writing truly contains a piece of my brokenness and is stripped of pride that He can use it most.  Ouch, it hurts to write these things to bleed out on the page.

9) Published authors are "regular folk."  Yes, I know just how hick-ish this sounds, but I've been blown away by authors who have gone out of their way to help and bless me and so many others.

10) Always pray before you pick up that pen.  I have most definitely noticed the difference between times when I do this and times when I don't.

What about you?  What has God taught you about writing craft in 2010?  

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Top Nine (Ten?) Christmas Moments

A Merry and Bright Christmas!
I hope you have had a wonderful Christmas weekend, among family, and most importantly, focusing on the God who bestowed a wonderful gift to us in His son, Christ Jesus!

I decided to give you a top 9 Christmas moment countdown of my life (I wasn't really present for number 1 :)). Even though these are quick glimpses into my life, I can reflect on each memory and see it as potential brainstorming material for writing authentic characters, grounded themes, or believable progressions in my fiction. Because they are from my own story, I can remember the feelings, the smells, sounds, and impressions me a whole bunch of templates to choose from!

Do you find parts of yourself or your story layered within your fiction?

10. Redefined Focus: A 9 year old girl learns that Santa isn't real, and appropriately remembers it most by her dad's blaring of Jesus Is Born Today! by the Oakridge Boys.

9. Pure Child-like Joy: A 7th grader jumps up and down like a preschooler when her Christmas culminates in a Nintendo gaming system!

8. A character stepping forward from the faith line: A newly saved college student drags her dad and sisters to church on Christmas morning.

7. Love brings fullness: A couple celebrates their first Christmas together in a tiny apartment, but with lots of love and family all around.

6. Redefining goals: New parents spend their Christmas day dragging their 4 month old son from house to house, and swear that they will start their own traditions next year!

5. First impressions can be misleading: On Christmas Eve, a 15 month old boy runs through the house and shuts himself in the bathroom when a loud noise might mean that scary Santa has arrived.

4. Obstacles towards a climactic point: A soon-to-be mother of two, watches the clock strike midnight on Christmas eve/day, in a labor and delivery unit, only to be sent home a couple of hours later, with no baby yet!
White Christmas 2010

3. A perfect blend of character and motives: A family of four prepares for a cozy Christmas, with hot chocolate, Christmas movies, and two little boys who can't wait to see Santa and give him their list!

2.  Simple truths: A family of five, almost six, celebrate Christ's birth and the joy of gifts, on a very white Midwest Christmas day!

A very young couple!
1. Ultimate inspiration:  A young couple birth a special baby boy, among the rejoicing of angels and the humility of shepherds,  eventually changing the hearts of generations until the end of time.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What's Up the Street For Next Week?


Angels We Have Heard on High sing Joy To The World. In the Little Town of Bethlehem on a ‘not so’ Silent Night it was The Birthday of a King. One Small Child was born and placed Away in a Manger. What Child is This? Emmanuel. The Christ.

Far beyond the Jingle Bells or the times we Deck The Halls. More precious than the news that Santa Claus is Coming to Town with his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. With greater splendor than that O Christmas Tree or a White Christmas is the wonder of the news that The Herald Angels Sing.

On this Holy Night, we celebrate an Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. Run to adore him. O Come, All Ye Faithful. His love is amazing! Isn’t He beautiful? We can celebrate because Love Has Come.

Sing We Now of Christmas – the true reason for the season (and any other): Jesus.

Christ is born.

In celebration of the greatest gift of all being given, we have a gift for Apple Blossom – winner of Finding Christmas. Send your snail mail to pepperbasham(at)yahoo(dot)com.

End 2010 with some more tradtions, thoughts, memories, and stories about Christmas from the Alley Cats here at The Writers Alley. We'll be celebrating Christmas past, present, and yet to come during this last week of 2010.

We wish you a very Merry Christmas.

May God bless us – every one.

I'll end with a poem by Christina Rosetti

What Can I Give Him?

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I give him a lamb.
If I were a wiseman, I'd do my part.
What can I give him? I'll give him my heart.

Friday, December 24, 2010


As many of you know, my daughter, Annabelle Lillian Faith Phillips, was born in July with a severe heart condition. Basically, she only had half of a functioning heart.

They had told us to anticipate at least 3 open heart surgeries, one within the first week of life, another at 4-6 months of age, and another at 2 years of age. We were to also anticipate 4 weeks to 2 months in the hospital to begin with.

Annabelle is 5 months old as of Monday... has had 2 open heart surguries, and now has at least 3 more to go. She has NEVER been home.

I'd asked God along time ago to PLEASE let her be home by CHristmas. Thanksgiving would have been nice, but when we found out that we wouldn't be leaving the hospital for a while due to her complications, I told him I would settle for Christmas.

Then we got some blowing news that it didn't look like Annabelle would be home for many weeks, if not months, right around Thanksgiving. God asked me to give Him EVERYTHING... including my dream of Christmas at home with my WHOLE family. I was crushed... but I gave it to Him anyway. I could be bitter and hold onto it for dear life, or I could let go and enjoy Christmas, regardless of where.

It still wasn't easy though. The month of December was the hardest month I've gone through in a really long time, except maybe the first month of Annabelle's life.

Then last Sunday... the doctor gave us some encouraging news. There was a CHANCE that we might go home by Christmas. Annabelle had to do PERFECT all week, all her O2 levels wonderful, no fevers, nothing wrong.

So we prayed. We asked EVERYONE we know to pray. I begged God to PLEASE let her have a great week.

Well, her O2 sats have been *almost* perfect. But she's had a fever at some point every day. She's had blood in her stool and a scare with that. As the week went on and fevers continued, my hope started to deflate a bit. Then yesterday, the doctor came in and said he was really worried about sending her home. He just wasn't sure it was a good idea, and didn't want to compromise her health. I, even though I wanted Christmas, agreed.

He said the answer wasn't no yet, but still a maybe.

Then on Thursday... they had a big meeting with all the cardiologists and the heart surgeon.

And despite a few of Annabelle's blips this week, they decided that she was indeed okay to go home for Christmas!

So, as I type, it is Thursday, and Annabelle is scheduled and ready to go home tomorrow, on Christmas Eve!

She is our Christmas Miracle!

Now, we still probably have to come back for another surgery in January, so we might only be home a few days, or a few weeks, but we will take however long God grants us at home and be thankful for each day, each hour, each minute.

My four girls!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Writing in a Winter Wonderland

I'll never forget the cold, cold moments of trudging into the warm house after a romp in the snow filled pit in the back field. Clothes wet, no matter how much the tags said they were water resistant. Cheeks flaming red, hair in disarray, glasses instantly fogging in the warmth. Tired, but happy. The ecstasy of the first sip of hot tea and a handful of crunchy Chex Mix. These are moments of purest family togetherness. Though the outside world rages cold and snow, we know there is a warm hearth waiting and the open arms and smiles of a family that welcomes us, wet snow clothes and all.

Isn't that our goal in fiction as well? To take our reader on a journey filled with struggles and angst for our characters and the growth they must sustain, but in the end can take their hand and lead them back to the fires of home and welcome them to the moment that confirms the values you have worked for years to craft and hone.

Such metaphors can be found in any season, but seem to abound in the coldness of winter. Maybe because being indoors, looking out on a blinding white world makes me so reflective. As your family gathers around the holiday dinner table. Possibly with extended friends and family, what brought you to this moment? The road of life is never smooth. Were there travel troubles? Relational issues that almost stopped you from sending that invitation? A loved one that is noticeably missing?

As the children romp in the snow, joining in on the one fight that generally won't get them in trouble, these are the moments that make the greatest memories. And often the ones that provoke others. As you watch your children (or grandchildren) whooping and laughing, what is the emotion coursing through you? Joy? Nostalgia? Perhaps a touch of sadness of something that never was?

Do you have a friend or relative that says your name in a special way that always warms your middle? How loved it makes you feel when you see that person just once in a while? Savor it. Don't let it pass it by. Hold it close and remember that encompassing joy like being wrapped in a warm hug even when that person isn't near to hear their voice.

Take these moments this holiday season and bottle them up. The scent of sugar cookies cooling on the rack. The trill of childish laughter. The fullness of family near and far. The warmth of a full fire. Inhale them all. Mark each one and file it away, so when the manuscript beckons and the characters again become front and center, each of these moments that have made your season so memorable can be pulled out, relived and shared through the pages and lives of your characters.

True to the theme this week on the Alley, as we share memories or moments in our fiction that have been taken from our lives, I ask, do you have a special moment you have bottled to someday share in written word?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Unexpected Gift

Two Christmas memories begged me to be picked for this post.  Both worthy of "The Unexpected Gift" title.  I randomly chose this memory for you, and will post the other on my personal blog God Loves Kids next Monday.

Two months after I was married, my mother-in-law, affectionately called Mama, asked me if I would like to go with the family to Lithuania for Christmas. Dada, my father-in-law, hadn't seen his mother or his home in Lithuania for many years. A group of his patients wanted to show their appreciation for his kind services. They offered to send us to Lithuania to visit his family for Christmas and to Germany to visit Mama's family for New Years.

Well, of course the idea sounded fabulous, but the logistics surpassed the highest skyscraper.  I said, "Sure, I'd like to go," but, I thought: I'll believe it when I see it.

My new family brought many obstacles for any serious consider of such a trip since Lithuania belonged to the USSR at the time. Three family members did not have US citizenship, one was a citizen of no country, and one had a government security clearance preventing him from entering communist countries. 

The group of patients took the challenge.  Two months later I stood in a judge's chamber with my husband, the citizen of no country, and witnessed him reciting the oath to become a US citizen. Within a few days other family members received their citizenships. As I walked out the door, I realized I needed to request time off work for an unexpected gift about to come true.

A few days before Christmas four teens, two young married couples, one baby, and my in-laws stood in an airport line to pick up our tickets to New York. Seconds after landing at Laguardia we rushed to board a helicopter to Kennedy Airport to catch our next flight. 

The teens had joked and wrestled from the moment the suitcases left the house. By the time we reached Kennedy, Dada grew frustrated with the silliness. "There will be no hooliganism on this trip!"  He hurried us to the next gate and tried to ignore the antics along the way. He seemed relieved after we took our seats on the correct airplane.

Some family members slept on the overseas flight to Copenhagen, including the baby who rested in a hammock crib suspended from the baggage overhang. My husband and I joined the teen fun. 

During our layover in Denmark, we said goodbye to the one family member with a US security clearance as he boarded his flight to Germany. Despite the great efforts of the patients working to send us, he was not allowed in the USSR.

Dada raised his finger and warned us as we boarded the plane to Moscow, "Remember, this is a communist country. They don't like hooliganism. We could be thrown in prison. You must behave."

Twenty-three hours after leaving Detroit, we landed in Moscow. We blindly followed the crowd toward international security feeling lost and confused with the Russian signs, Russian language, people pushing, crowds shifting, suitcases flying, and family members walking the wrong way. The teens resumed joking and wrestling, while Dada frantically gathered our group and steered us toward a security line.  

The Russian inspector's jaw dropped as the ten American hooligans swooped to his counter.  He shouted something in Russian and waved his arms in a circle. I think the translation might have been "GACK! You American hooligans--move through my line at once. Don't open those suitcases. Go--take your suitcases and move through at once!"

The next day we boarded our last flight to Lithuania.  Dada's poor family sacrificed their savings to prepare a special Christmas meal for us.  Fifteen family members crowded around a table lavished with cultural Lithuanian foods. I couldn't interpret the language, but I understood the message: Home for Christmas.

We rode Lithuanian trolleys through the city, sat on the hill where Dada spent time skipping school, drove by his childhood home, and visited the great Fort Trakai before flying to Germany.

This Christmas gift from Dada's patients fave more than a visit overseas, it brought family members together and helped me feel welcomed into a warm family that reached beyond American soil. It breathed life into special names.

The Old Testament foretold the greatest Christmas gift of all.  No one knew when the Messiah would come or who the parents would be. The logistics seemed to surpass the highest mountain...
an angel spoke to Mary,
Joseph listened to an angel's message to not put her away,
Caesar Augusta decreed a census which sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem
for the birth of her child, the King of Kings,
and the shepherds came to share the news throughout the town

Because of God's gift, we can have the true breath life through Jesus' name.

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mistletoe Madness

For a romance writer, Christmas follows close behind Valentine's Day as the best holiday of the year. Why? Because of mistletoe! Those green springs covered in white berries inspires kissing like nothing else.

The tradition of mistletoe originated from Scandinavian custom and Norse myth. In Scandinavia, if enemies met under it, they would lay down their arms and declare a truce until the next day. Along with that, the Norse myth centered around Baldur is what caused mistletoe to be known as the kissing plant. Here is the myth according to:

Baldur's mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant -- and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Ever the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear fashioned from mistletoe. The demise of Baldur, a vegetation deity in the Norse myths, brought winter into the world, although the gods did eventually restore Baldur to life. After which Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world. Happily complying with Frigga's wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur's resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.
I can remember being at a party in middle school where the mistletoe hung in the door frame. Being the romantic that I was, I created my own awesome party memory. I daydreamed about the cute guy pulling me aside, setting me under that special mistletoe ball, and kissing me senseless. Yeah, it didn't happen, but it was a great daydream!

That little green ball sprinkled with white berries inspires hints of romance, awkward moments of flirty men and blushing women, and the breathless meeting of lips. It is prime time fun for romance writers!

Since I haven't written a scene with mistletoe, I'm sharing a favorite kissing scene from one of my favorite TV shows, Bones. It is a behind the scenes look at mistletoe at it's best! Enjoy!

Do you have a favorite Christmas mistletoe memory or kissing scene you'd like to share? Have you written one?


Monday, December 20, 2010

Rewriting Christmas Traditions

I LOVE Christmas. The scent of fresh baked cookies, pine needles, and brand new wrapping paper mixed together with the crackling of a fire and the magical glitter of white lights just makes me all gooey inside. Happy children’s giggles top it off like whipped cream on homemade chocolate pie.

What I enjoy most of all? Family. It's so much fun to hang out with my wild and crazy family who love with a zealous sort of love. Growing up, we had a tradition of reading the gospel of Luke’s Christmas story on Christmas Eve, followed by the children going upstairs to have an aunt read Twas the Night before Christmas. As the poem was being read, ‘Santa’ would drop off some presents and with a “Ho! Ho! Ho!” he’d disappear out the door, just as we clamored down the stairs to catch a glimpse. The quest for Santa was soon forgotten as we noticed the pile of gifts underneath the tree. That tradition lasted up until seven years ago, when I was the ‘aunt’ who read the story and watched my children clamor down the stairs for a peek at Santa.

Nowadays, I’ve started a new Christmas tradition at our house. Something to draw less attention to Santa Claus, and more attention to the greatest Christmas gift. Jesus. Not that the whole idea of Santa isn't fun and exciting - and not that Santa's true story isn't beautiful, but there's MUCH MORE. Eternally more.

It easy to get so distracted by the lighted displays and clearance prices, that we lose sight of the most amazing truth of all. God came.

It should shock us. God, wrapped in flesh, came to rescue His kids. The Father of all became a son so that we could be called His sons and daughters. Wow!

Not only did He come to Earth, but he came as a human – not only as a human, but an infant. The same hands that formed Adam and Eve, grasped in the darkness of a stinky, filthy stable. The same voice that spoke the world into existence, cried out for food from his mother.

It should boggle the mind!

So – to help my kids gain that perspective a little better, after we’ve attended our beautiful Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion Service, we have a scavenger hunt of our Advent characters (everyone desperately wants to find Baby Jesus, of course). Then we gather around the Christmas tree and read a poem called Twas the Night Jesus Came.

(I discovered another great Christmas story for kids this year. It’s called What God Wants for Christmas- an interactive Christmas story)

My hope in writing this poem was to take the same ‘melody’ of the familiar Twas the Night Before Christmas and bring out the real heart-story of Christmas. Because I couldn’t find anything similar, it was my desire to write something for my kids – and it’s grown into a poem I’ve been asked to share with many more.

I hope you enjoy it – and may your Christmas be filled with the love of a Father who put on human flesh, so that humans can be called children of God. The Rescuer, the Redeemer has come!

Do you have a favorite Christmas story that you share with your family? A book, song, or poem that has particular meaning to you this time of year? I’ll be adding What God Wants for Christmas to my Christmas reading list for my children.

Merry Christmas

Twas the Night Jesus Came

Twas the night Jesus came and all through the town,

Not a person would guess The Messiah came down.

The earth gave no warning to speak God’s intent

But this magical night I would never forget.

The streets were all busy with strangers from far;

No time to hear singing or see the bright star.

As my young friends and I kept our watch o’er the flock

We had no idea we’d soon get a shock.

When out of the darkness there rose such a light,

I sprang from the hilltop to gaze at the sight.

An angel came shining as bright as noon-day,

More fearsome and brilliant than I’ve words to say.

At first he said, softly, “There’s no need to fear.”

Which I found hard to do since this host first appeared,

But he said, “Be of Joy! I bring you great news!

Your Savior is born, there is no time to lose.”

“This babe wrapped in cloths has no crib for his bed,

But rests his sweet head in a feed-trough instead.”

And then other angels, more than I can know,

Rejoiced through the dark with their songs and their glow.

Like millions of stars dancing down to the earth,

They lifted their voices in praise of his birth-

Singing, “Glory to God.” Through the stillness of night

“and peace to all men,” then they flew out of sight.

It didn’t take long to break out of our shock.

We ran down the hill leaving our field and flock,

And found the sweet baby inside a damp cave,

But could this be Christ – the whole world to save?

The donkeys and horses had left a foul smell.

The straw was all muddy, the manger as well.

But everything was as the angel had said,

A babe wrapped in cloths in a crude manger bed.

Then I knew – it was clear. Where else would he be?

The Teacher and Healer to make the blind see.

The Savior who’d carry the sins of us all,

Where else would show love than an old cattle stall?

This baby, The Christ, would clean up all our messes.

He’d take on our curses and give us His blessings.

So as I adored Him, God’s Son, the true Light,

God seemed to be whisp’ring to all a “good night”

copyright 2009 Pepper D. Basham

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What's Up the Street For Next Week?

O Christmas Tree! O Christmas Tree! Well, things are looking more and more festive in almost every corner of the country. Here at The Writers Alley, things are as merry and bright. In celebration of the Holiday season, we have some special treats for you this week – but first of all, let’s talk about GIVEAWAYS!!!

Two to be specific.

Carole is the winner of Melanie Dickerson’s book, The Healer’s Apprentice. Email me at pepperbasham(at)yahoo(dot)com with your snail mail. Congrats.

The winner of Hillary Manton Lodge’s book, Simply Sara, is Carman. Send your snail mail to Sarah Forgrave at forgravebooks(at)gmail(dot)com. Congratulations to you too.

Now for this week’s giveaway, we have a lovely Christmas surprise to give away. Leave your favorite Christmas tradition, memory, or book for your chance to win James Calvin Schaap’s book Finding Christmas.

Up this week:

Pepper, Sherrinda, Mary, Casey, Krista will share one of their own favorite Christmas memories, movies, or book scenes this week. Come join the fun and festivities as The Alley gets ready to celebrate the birth of Christ.

What are the top Christmas movies?
Chicago Tribune gives this list for the top 10.

10. Love Actually (go figure)
9.  Elf
8. The Muppet Christmas Carol
7. White Christmas
6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
4. The Santa Claus (1994)
3. It's a Wonderful Life (I'm shocked it's not #1)
2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated)
1. A Christmas Story

Friday, December 17, 2010

Making Your Readers Feel Like They Are Part of the Story

Lately I've been having some very vivid dreams. You know the kind where you wake up and feel suspended between reality and the dream? Where you're not sure what's real and what isn't?

This can be a great thing or a bad thing, depending on the dream. But when you're talking about a story, it's ideal. I love losing myself in a story, not to emerge for hours, and realizing how much time has past and how immersed in the story I was.

It's a goal of many writers to not just invite their readers into their story, but let them plunge in headfirst. One of the best ways to make your reader feel like they are part of the story is by creating a sense of immediacy.

Here are a few ways to accomplish this:


A great way to get deeper into a character's pov and create a sense of immediacy is by allowing the character to ask questions.

For example, instead of -

Frank walked across the street and wondered what he was doing here and why he'd ever come back.

You can try -

Frank strolled into the street. What was he doing here? He'd promised himself he'd never come back...

Get Rid of the Passive

Stay away from passive words in sentences, like It was cold.

Try instead The cold nipped her cheeks.

This will give you more showing, not telling and allow for stronger, more engaging verbs.

Vary Sentence Structure

He walked toward the store and paused. He lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. He dreaded what he saw.

Repetitive sentence structure can lull your reader into a boring rhythm that doesn't make them feel a part of the story. Try changing it up by varying the nouns and verbs in the sentence as well as experimenting with sentence length to keep the pace quick and more exciting.

Use All the Senses

A simple way to draw your reader into the story is by using the senses. It's often said that a great test is to try to include at least one of the five senses on each page. Incorporating even a few will give your reader a better sense of the characters or their surroundings and make them feel like a part of the story.

Have you recently read a book that completely drew you into the story? What tips have you seen or do you use to make your reader a part of the book?

***photo by flickr

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Who’s Walking Who?

How Writing a Novel is like Walking a Dog

Isn’t who’s walking whom the correct grammar for this post title? Anyway, now that we have that out of the way let’s get to it. The following indicate ways a stroll with your pet pooch resembles crafting a novel…

While writing a novel we find ourselves:

TuggedOur ideas and our characters pull us forth. My parents used to have a dog that wheezed so hard when they walked her I swore she would lose a lung on the sidewalk. What does this have to do with writing a novel? Some characters are tenacious. We lose sleep because they invade our dreams. Some ideas yank so hard we feel a visceral pull in our arm as we type away at the keys.

Performing Clean Up DutyWe all deal with the fear we are writing crap. It’s part of being a writer. Well at some point, if we’re determined enough we’ll avoid stepping in those thoughts and clean them up. We’ll pick up the “I can’t do it” thoughts and chuck them in the trash along the way. (All part of the journey.)

TangledNot the movie, tangled up in the leash. When she was a puppy, our dog used to nip at her leash and turn in circles whenever we began walking. Excitement at its best. When we write a novel it’s easy to get tangled up when we try to apply the right amount of conflict. We’re also easily pulled in different directions if we are SOTP writers and not Plotters. Even when we plot, a new brainstorm can cause us to sprint down rabbit trails. We have to work hard to make sure the story is still moving forward.

Checking in with FriendsWriting is a solitary adventure. Most of the time. Beta readers and critique partners can be comrades on the path. They help the whole editing process go a little smoother with their keen eye and their detailed feedback. Thankfully, because we are a more refined species our means of checking in with each other doesn’t compare to the way dogs touch base.

On a Hunt for WaterThe novel is written. Edited. Our readers have given input. Now what? The dog rolls on its back to have its belly scratched. Not quite. They want water. We have to get our novel published. So we search for agent. Said agent connects us with a publishing house and there you have it…simple, right? Something to keep in mind when we hit this stage—dogs are relentless about quenching their thirst. You have the satisfied feeling of completing a novel. Is it time to quench your thirst?

*photos from flickr

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Author Hillary Manton Lodge on Writing and Being Funny (Plus a Giveaway!)

If you've come to hear about my adventures in Paris, SURPRISE!!! I have something even better. I'm so, so, so excited to have Hillary Manton Lodge here today! AND she's graciously offered a copy of Simpy Sara as a giveaway for all our commenters, so be sure to leave a comment with your email address!

Hillary is one funny and fabulous writer. Here's a little bit about her: Hillary writes Generation-Next Contemporary fiction. Her books usually center on normal people learning to live, laugh, heal, and try to understand the concept of God in a crazy world. Her first released novel, Plain Jayne, is now available nationwide. Her second, Simply Sara, released Sept. 1, 2010. Both books are "Urban Amish," and totally not your mom's Amish books. Except for the Amish. They're still there.

Now before I get to the official interview, you'll have to bear with me while I give you the backstory of how I discovered Hillary's books and then met her at ACFW!

It all started a year ago when I started plotting a lighthearted romance with Amish flavor, and I thought, "Hmm, I wonder if this has been done before." So I ventured onto Amazon, looked through all the Amish fiction books, and one cover stood out. It had a small Amish buggy on it, but the hero and heroine's pictures looked like non-Amish people. It was Hillary's book, Plain Jayne. I ordered it and ended up reading it in one day. It was funny, poignant, and amazingly written.

Fast forward to the ACFW Conference in September of this year. I saw that Hillary was doing book signings, and I also knew that Simply Sara was released in September. So I made a beeline for the bookstore and bought up half of Hillary's books (I was Christmas shopping early). Then I marched over to Hillary's table with my arms loaded down and proceeded to gush like a 12-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert (minus the ear-piercing squeals).

Poor Hillary, she didn't know what hit her. But she was sweet and gracious and talked to me a little bit about her writing journey. I was so thrilled to have her sign my books, but I was more thrilled to make a new friend. And now I get to introduce her to you. :-)

Hillary, you told me a little bit at ACFW about how you ended up writing "urban Amish". Can you share the story for our readers here?

First off, I didn't think you gushed at ACFW. It was very dignified. And I was delighted to have someone to chat with!

I connected with editors at Harvest House in 2007. After sending in the completed manuscript of my first novel, after a few months I heard from a second editor, who invited me to coffee. Since I lived in Eugene, Oregon at the time, getting to meet with an editor in person was actually an option! After several conversations I learned that while many editors at Harvest loved the book I'd written, they were really wanting to focus on their Amish fiction line. I was approached to do an Amish novel, but my own spin. "Sassy Amish" is what I was told. After several months of research and some rewrites, I wrote three chapters that became the start of Plain Jayne. Harvest loved it and offered me a two-book contract. The whole process took the better part of a year - there's nothing quick about publishing!

So true. That explains why most writers are manic depressives and/or addicted to coffee. So what five words best describe your writing process?

Oh, gracious. Distraction, inspiration, scribbling, Starbucks, and note-cards. Can I cheat on note-cards? I really can't live without them!

I guess I'll let you cheat since you proved my coffee point with your Starbucks answer. I loved, loved, loved Jayne in Plain Jayne. She was hilarious! How did you come up with the idea to create a motorcycle-loving girl who would become obsessed with making quilt squares with the Amish?

My initial concept with Jayne was to come up with a person who was as different from an Amish woman as possible. She's independent and sarcastic with a definite rebellious streak. But I also wanted her to be teachable, to be the kind of person who would be open-hearted enough to learn from her experiences. As she grew and changed throughout the book, the quilt squares became a physical metaphor for how she was recreating her life and piecing it together. The fact that they gave plenty of opportunity for comedy only made it that much more fun to write.

You had amazing sales right out of the gate with Plain Jayne. What do you think was the secret to its success?

I had a lot of retailer support with Jayne. They loved the cover and the concept. I think the idea of a very modern woman experiencing the Amish had a lot of appeal. Other than that? I have no idea!

Sara in Simply Sara had a very different voice from Jayne, but the story was just as fun (I also read it in 24 hours...I don't do that with just any old book, people). How difficult was it to switch voices and perspectives between the two books? Did you use any tricks to make the switch in your head?

I'll be honest - Sara gave me fits, and getting the voice right was the hardest part. I knew how to write her, and how she would sound - she was so well-defined in Jayne. But getting that voice to propel the book was a challenge. If I got stuck with Jayne, I'd have her say something witty, but that wasn't Sara's style. Sara was so much more internal, so much more thoughtful. It's not that she couldn't be funny, it's just that it didn't occur to her very often. I don't know that I had any specific tricks to switch the voices, other than to sit back and try to hear her in my head, hear how she would phrase things. I had one draft reader in particular who was very helpful - she'd pick on me every time something I'd written didn't sound quite like Sara. Knowing I had someone keeping such a close eye on me helped me make sure I kept my voices straight!

Where would you say most of your humor inspiration comes from? From your own life experiences? From your Great Aunt Maude's genes?

Hard to say. Great comedy can certainly be found in my family. They're kind of like the Portokalos family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only they're not at all Greek, they're just entertaining.

When I read this question, it made me think of the quote from Chariots of Fire: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast." For some reason, God decided I would have a particularly twisted sense of humor. It drove me nuts when I was younger - we'd go on youth retreats and everyone would take turns saying nice things about each other. Other people would be praised for their generosity of spirit or their smile or what have you. Invariably, I was praised for my sense of humor. I always felt it was a cop-out. Now I see it as a gift. It's nice being able to go through life with the ability to see humor in everyday events. Laughter is healing. Humor, when used correctly, is disarming. Comedy can tear down or build up. I try to use my powers for the forces of good. :-)

Wow, I got a little teary-eyed when I read your answer. Powerful stuff. Okay, so when does the humor really start to shine in your manuscripts? Do you have funny lines out the wazoo in your first drafts and have to tone it down in the second? Or do you start out with a Plain-Jayne first draft (sorry for the bad pun...couldn't resist) and laugh it up in future versions?

I'm going to reveal something here I don't like to share - I tend to be a one-draft writer. That one draft takes forever and a day to write, gets edited up one side and down the other, but it's the version that tends to go to print.

So most of the jokes are original. Very rarely, a couple get edited out (there was one such line in Sara, but I'm saving it for a rainy day). Sometimes, I'll add a line or two while I'm editing a scene in the polishing process. But the humor very much tends to propel the writing process; the funny scenes are my favorite to write.

I will say, I was very surprised when I turned in my draft for Jayne. I was sure my editor would think it was too wack-a-doodle, sure she would ask me to tone it down. To my surprise, the parts I thought she'd object to were the parts she loved best!

Wack-a-doodle...Love that word. It's been known to leak out of my mouth on occasion. What advice do you have for someone who's thinking about exploring their funny side in fiction?

Consume funny media. See how other people do it. I think the book The Princess Bride is a master's thesis on writing humor. TV shows such as Gilmore Girls are another wonderful example. If there's a movie you find particularly funny, listen to the director's commentary. Garry Marshall does great commentaries for The Princess Diaries and The Runaway Bride. I love Nora Ephron's commentary for You've Got Mail. Pay attention to things like pacing and delivery.

Don't take yourself too seriously. Don't ever try to be funny. Humor is very Yoda-esque - do or do not, there is no "try". Be true to your voice.

I could go on for a while - it's a subject I'm very passionate about. Be sure to stop by my blog for more - :-)

I heard it through the grapevine that you may be branching out of the Amish fiction world in the future. What ideas are percolating in your brain?

Ah yes, the grapevine. I've made the decision to move on from Amish fiction. I feel I've explored the genre as far as I can while still enjoying the process. I could try to write another, but it's not where my heart's at.

There are always many ideas in my head! I've wanted to do a book about Gemma for years. [Sarah here: Gemma's a fun character from Books 1 & 2.] And I've got my first novel as well, which features Livy (whom you might remember as Sara's roommate), Mark the landscape architect, and a host of characters who are dear, dear friends. I'd also love to do a superhero book!

Well, I guarantee you, whichever direction you go, I'll be reading. Can't help it...I like to laugh. Thanks so much for stopping by, Hillary! It was a delight to have you here!

And readers, don't forget to comment for a chance to win Simply Sara! We'll end the drawing on Friday and announce the winner in the weekend edition.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Guest Post: Linore Rose Burkard

was intending to write about grieving and the writing process today, however, a few Diet Pepsis and a fabulous letter from Linore Rose Burkard changed my mood.  I would like to share Linore's thoughts on dialogue.

He Said, She Said: 
Using Too Many Tags in Dialogue

by Linore Rose Burkard

When I look at portions of work by newer writers, it is common to find them doing one of two things when it comes to dialogue tags: they either use too many tags or  not enough. Both tendencies adversely affect writing, make readers cringe, or tell an editor or agent to stop reading. Since we want people to KEEP reading, how we do avoid both pitfalls? 

First, let's look at the problem with using too many tags (A dialogue tag is when you follow dialogue with something like "he said," "she laughed," etc.)  The first rule of thumb when adding a tag is to ask yourself,

Is it Necessary? 
A tag is only necessary when you need to clarify who is speaking, or to show a reaction that might otherwise be missed. If you insert tags when they are not needed, you risk using too many and this makes the writing awkward. 

To tell if you are using too many tags, backtrack a paragraph or two when you're editing your work, and try the dialogue WITHOUT the tags in question. Does it still work? Still make sense? Can you easily tell who is talking? IF the answer is 'yes' to these questions, then you don't need the tag. Cut it out.

Using many tags when they're not necessary makes a work stilted; the dialogue will suffer; and the reader will groan. Don't make your reader groan! 

Is Something Missing?

On the other hand, however, if you fail to give enough clues about who is speaking, this too, will make for unhappy readers. They will feel as though they're missing something, and this is frustrating. They will have to go back and try to figure out who is saying what. Ideally, when your characters are really strong, there will be occasions when you can omit a tag simply because the spoken words are so distinctly characteristic of that person, that it becomes redundant to use one. But be sure about this; use a critique partner or two to make sure. If it turns out that readers are confused, then you need a tag. Keep it in. 

Is it Character-Driven?

There are occasions when it's right and good to use a tag even though the reader knows who is speaking.  This may sound counter to what I said earlier, but the key here are the words,character-driven.  This means that it is important for the reader, not only to know who is speaking, but to know HOW the character is saying or thinking a thing.  In other words, you want to clarify an emotion that isn't perhaps altogether clear from the words alone. In some cases you may need to specify the tone of voice; or an accompanying gesture the character makes while talking. 

I would caution you not to do this often, and again, use critique readers or beta readers, or an editor to take a second look when there is any question about this.
Also, be sure not to overdo it.  Having a heroine who sighs heavily once or twice a chapter is probably fine; any more than that and the reader will be sighing heavily.  

To emphasize the point of using too many tags,  I leave you with an old poem by the humorist Franklin P. Adams. (Read it and learn!) 

    Monotonous Variety
(All of them from two stories in a single magazine.)

She "greeted" and he "volunteered";
    She "giggled": he "asserted";
She "queried" and he "lightly veered";
    She "drawled" and he "averted";
She "scoffed," she "laughed" and he "averred";
He "mumbled," "parried," and "demurred."

She "languidly responded"; he
    "Incautiously assented"; 
Doretta "proffered lazily";
    Will "speedily invented"; 
She "parried," "whispered," "bade," and "mused"; 
He "urged," "acknowledged," and "refused."

She "softly added"; "she alleged";
    He "consciously invited";
She "then corrected"; William "hedged";
She "prettily recited";
She "nodded" "stormed," and "acquiesced"; 
He "promised," "hastened," and "confessed."

Doretta "chided"; "cautioned" Will;
    She "voiced" and he "defended";
She "vouchsafed"; he "continued still"; 
    She "sneered" and he "amended";
She "smiled," she "twitted," and she "dared"
He "scorned," "exclaimed," "pronounced," and "flared."

He "waived," "believed," "explained," and "tried"; 
    "Commented" she; he "muttered";
She "blushed," she "dimpled," and she "sighed";
    He 'ventured" and he "stuttered"; 
She "spoke," "suggested," and "pursued";
He "pleaded," "pouted," "called," and "viewed."

O syonymble writers, ye
    Whose work is so high-pricey.
Think ye not that variety
    May haply be too spicy?
Meseems that in an elder day
They had a thing or two to--say.

by Franklin P. Adams

PS: Did you notice that he used the word "twitted"? Nowadays, we can use that one with a completely different meaning. But no matter what words you use, strike a balance so that you don't use too many tags, or too few. Happy writing. 

Linore Rose Burkard creates Inspirational Romance for the Jane Austen Soul. Her characters take you back in time to experience life and love during the Regency England era (circa 1800 - 1830). Ms. Burkard's novels include Before the Seasons Ends, The House in Grosvenor Square and, The Country House Courtship. Her stories blend Christian faith and romance with well-researched details from the Regency. Readers experience a romantic age, where England from the past comes alive and happy endings are possible for everyone!