Laney

Kathleen_Delaney_and_dogs

 

Laney

 

Laney was probably the most unlikely dog I’ve ever owned. Not because she was an Italian Greyhound, I’d already had three others and was used to their quirks, in fact loved them, but Laney was an outstanding example of a neurotic dog, and I chose her.

My then current IG, Allegra, had died of cancer and I vowed I wasn’t getting another dog. I had two, a German Shepard puppy who clients of mine could no longer keep (they’d probably run out of chair legs for her to chew on) and an English Cocker who had appeared in the middle of the street one day, had come home with me and never left.  I had a full time job, a new granddaughter who I wanted to spend as much time with as possible, and was struggling to get my first Ellen McKenzie mystery in print. I didn’t need another dog. Then I went to a dog show. The class was best of breed, the category was toy dogs, and there was an IG  I immediately fell in love with. All the old longing for one came back with a rush. So, when my vet called to say a woman in our town, who bred IG’s, had to sell off some of hers because of county kennel restrictions and was I interested, I was. I scooped up the baby who, for some reason I can’t remember was with me, and we were off.

It was obvious the breeders weren’t anxious to part with any of their dogs, but the lady pointed out three females she was going to sell. I sat down in the middle of her living room floor, the baby on my lap and was immediately surrounded by small dogs, all wagging their tails, all seemingly delighted we’d come, all vying for a change to lick the baby. All except one. A pretty little caramel colored dog circled the outside of the pack. She retreated if a hand was held out to her, instead she stood in a corner and shivered. That she wanted to come over was obvious, that she was terrified to try it was equally obvious. Guess which one came home with us.

Laney was terrified of everything. I thought she was going to have a heart attack in the car going home. Trucks passed us and I could almost see her pale. I made sure the gate was closed when I pulled into our yard as I was sure I would never catch her if she got loose. The other two dogs circled the car, barking a greeting, but she didn’t look convinced it was safe to get out. When she did, she stood still and shook. The only way I could get her in the house was to open the back door, put the other two away, leave a bowl of food where she could see it and hide. Finally, she came in far enough that I could get behind her and close the door. It took a long time before Laney would come in any other way.

However, bit by bit, she calmed down. She and Shea, the Shepard, formed what was to be a life time bond, and she and Ira, the cocker, were almost as close. People took a little longer, but gradually she let me touch her without flinching. We graduated to her sitting on my lap each night to her burrowing under the covers on my bed. I sighed a little at that, but it gave her comfort and she continued to share her bed with me (I’m pretty sure that’s how she saw it) for the next twelve years.

Laney never became a brave dog and she never became one of those dogs who love everyone. However, she adored my mother who lived next door to us and learned not to run and hide whenever a visitor came; she learned that the mailman was her friend, that going to book signings and sitting on my lap wasn’t so bad, that going on book tours was kind of fun, that elevators came to a stop safely, and that she could stay in a hotel room if she had Shea with her and my nightdress to lie on. The circle of people she loved expanded to encompass a lot of my family, our vet and his family who lived next door, and Tina, a special family friend who took care of her and Shea while I spent a month in the hospital recovering from a leg amputation. She especially loved the baby who had now grown into a lovely budding young lady, and her brother who couldn’t remember life without either her or Shea.

Laney had been slowing down for some months. She had a hard time jumping on the bed, slept a lot more than she used to, wasn’t so sure she wanted to go in the car which she now enjoyed and no longer pulled out the toys from her basket. Her time was getting near, I knew, but couldn’t bear the thought. Our vet took blood, prescribed pain medicines, said we had her stabilized but she was now fourteen and the ravages of old age can only be held at bay so long. I hoped they could be held off a little longer as I was leaving for Spain and Portugal on a long planned trip and, although my daughter and the children would stay at my house with her, I worried. Go, they all said, she’ll be fine. About that, I wasn’t so sure. That she would be lovingly and tenderly cared for I didn’t doubt.

I had been gone a week when I got the phone call. Laney had passed away in my granddaughter’s arms that night.

I miss her. We all miss her. However, I think about all of the years we had together, the adventures we had, most of them adventures she would just as soon not taken, but she learned to enjoy them, to enjoy us, to enjoy her life. I will think of that through my tears, and smile.

Catching Up

Milly the mop Lefty the three cornered dog

Catching Up

 

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog. A lot has happened in my life since then. I’ve left my much loved old house in South Carolina for a suburb of Atlanta where I am nearer to family, have acquired a new dog, actually one and one half new dogs, and a new Ellen McKenzie mystery is out.

First, dogs. I live close by two of my grandchildren, who are now here every day. They wanted a dog, badly, but no one is home all day and it didn’t seem feasible. Then they found Lefty at a local shelter. He is a hound mix who somehow mislaid his left hind leg, young and was in need of a foster home over the 4th. Firecrackers and all that.  The children volunteered me. He never went back to the shelter. He comes to me every morning and returns to spend the night and week-ends with them. In the meantime, a friend of mine, who works dog rescue, sent me a picture of a small black mop of a dog who had been tossed out of a car. I responded with “isn’t she cute”. Yes, she is. I’m not sure how it happened but she now lives here as well. Her name is Millie the Mop, or was until she got a haircut. Now it’s Millicent the Magnificent. Laney, my elderly IG likes them both, or at least tolerates them and the cat has finally decided it isn’t much fun to sulk in the garage and has re-joined the somewhat tumultuous life in the house.

Dogs have been a part of human life since wolves decided to come out of the darkness and share primitive man’s dinner around the campfire. However, through much of history, they were expected to perform a job of some sort to earn their portion of the stew. I did a lot of research into Colonial life for the latest Ellen book, Murder by Syllabub, and it doesn’t seem to have been much different then. Dogs helped in the hunt by pointing out the hapless bird who was destined to be that night’s dinner and then were expected to retrieve it without eating it. They herded sheep, goats, and cattle, pulled carts, and guarded the hen house by night. Not so much today. Most dogs today are pets and expected to do nothing more than be companions. They are quite good at that, at least mine are, but still, it seems they could perform some useful function other than barking at the mailman. I recently broached that theory to mine, even going as far as to read them a list of chores colonial dogs were excepted to complete.

They yawned.

There are two dogs in Murder by Syllabub and they have important roles to play in the story. However, they don’t exactly have jobs. Either of them. Hummm. Upon reflection, I guess barking at the mailman isn’t all bad.

Eye to Eye

Two friends and I purchased a table at the Greenville, South Carolina Holiday Craft Fair last weekend and we took our books. We have all had a recent release and thought it would be a good place to sell them, or at least get some exposure and hopefully pick up some new readers.

It doesn’t seem, in this age of instant communication, social networking, tweeting and so forth, that exposure would be a problem. But it is. E books are a huge thing, and since just about anyone can post a book on Smashwords, Kindle, Nook, the inventory has swollen. The E stores are flooded with them but browsing is a problem, finding a good, well constructed, well edited book is a bigger one. You almost have to know the name of the author or the book you want to make sense of it all. Barnes and Noble overflows with books. Even if you know what kind of book you want, the selection is vast. Most casual browsers never get past the front table. That’s where all the “blockbusters” reside and that’s what most folks end up with. The library is no less daunting but at least it’s free. If you don’t like the book, you can take it back. Only, how do the librarians choose what to buy on their limited budgets?  Good reviews from major reviewers, and, occasionally, word of mouth or a request from a patron. So, how does a “mid-list” author stand out? Get known?

We thought the Craft Fair might be a way. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were expected to pass through over the three days we would be there. We could reasonably expect a few sales and even more contacts during that time, couldn’t we? Not knowing what to expect, we bundled up our books, our crime scene tape and white tablecloth and set off. Were we successful? I’m not sure. I really don’t know how to measure success under those conditions. I do know we sold a bunch of books, and I gave away more than two hundred bookmarks. I talked to just about everyone who took one. Some asked about my books, others tucked the bookmark into their bags for, I hope, a further look when they got home. We got very brazen, calling out to passersby, asking if they liked to read, or did they read mysteries. The results were mixed. Many said they never read. Others just smiled and kept going. Quite a few said they read but not mysteries. Too scary. After trying to say that cozies are not very scary I gave up trying to disassociate myself from Steven King.  People like what they like. Many did come over to the table, and were interested enough to ask about the books. Ellis Vidlar, Linda Lovely and I write very different kinds of stories, so there was a wide choice, and many bought. More took a bookmark and said they would order on line. Maybe they will. And will those who stopped to chat, remember our books and us? Don’t know. But I think it was three days well spent. Eye to eye, person to person, it’s always been a very good way to stand out.  People were kind, courteous, and mostly interested in what we had to say. Not all, of course. There was one woman who stopped in the middle of the aisle, looked at all the titles on display, and loudly commented, “I’ve never heard of any of you,” and stomped off. Oh, well.

I’ll be at Books A Million in, SC, Saturday and Fiction Addiction, also in Greenville, the Saturday after that. You see, I still believe in person to person, eye to eye. And, if I run into that lady at another event, who knows, she just might remember me.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sidekicks

 

 

Books on writing often have long chapters on how to develop and present protagonists and antagonists. They should. After all, the struggle between the hero/heroine and the villain is the basis of our stories. But any good story needs more than that. It needs other people, people who are going to support our Hero/heroine, who are going to help find clues, listen as he/she works out the kinks in the plot, and help catch the crook. They ride to the rescue when our hero is in trouble or at least bring in the cavalry, and they give our hero/heroine the support or advice he or she needs to bring the story to a satisfactory close.

 

I’ve often thought that sidekicks were the underpaid and overworked members of a book’s cast of characters. They’re called supporting actors in the movies, and they get Oscars.  In books, they are the members of the cast that get the least attention, certainly the least credit, but we need them. “Supporting” means just that, and supporting is what they do. They back up the hero, the heroine, and the story.

 

Where would Sherlock Holmes have been without Dr.Watson? Lord Peter would never have gotten over his war nerves without Bunter. The Lone Ranger wouldn’t have been as adept at catching all those bad guys without Tonto. I’ve long suspected it was Tonto who kept him supplied with silver bullets. It’s Lula who keeps Stephanie Plum supplied with donuts but Stephanie might not catch another bail bond skip without Lula. Of course, she probably wouldn’t get into as much trouble without her either. Well, she probably would, but without Lula it wouldn’t be as much fun.

 

Because I believe so firmly in the worth of the support staff, the sidekicks, I made sure Ellen McKenzie had one, her aunt, Mary McGill. In And Murder For Dessert, it’s Aunt Mary who saves Ellen from getting stabbed to death with some pretty fancy work with a frying pan. In the latest Ellen McKenzie book, Murder Half Baked, its Aunt Mary once more who, with quirky humor and practical wisdom, helps put Ellen on the path to finding a murderer. But she does more than that. She props Ellen up when she is sagging under the weight of the many problems I’ve thrown at her, and she backs her up when Ellen puts herself in danger. We all need someone like Mary McGill in our lives.

 

So, writers, let those supporting characters loose. Let them wander through your books at will. They’ll make the story more interesting and your protagonist as well. And, readers. Nominations are open. Who is your favorite Sidekick? And why? Fictional or not, your choice. Let’s hear from you.

 

Kathleen Delaney

And Murder For Dessert

Murder Half Baked 

Both available in soft cover at an indie bookstore near you.

www.kathleendelaney.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memory of Shea

Shea came to live with me when she was a puppy, not a baby but certainly not grown. She still had her baby teeth. I know that because I still have the ladder back chairs she used as a teething ring. Back then, she was all tail and feet and not entirely sure what to do with either.

I was living in California then, working as a real estate broker. One of my clients had a home on acreage they wanted to put on the market. They had it rented to some very nice people who had a lot of dogs, cats, goats and I believe a pony. We had to ask them to move before we put the property on the market, which meant they were going to have to find homes for most of their animals. I sat on their front porch, watching their dogs play while we talked about it. Almost before I knew it, I said, ”If you don’t have a home for the Shepherd pup, I’ll take her.”

I didn’t need another dog. I had two already, but there was something about this one—.    Shea enjoyed the ride home, but wasn’t so sure about getting out when she spied the greeting committee. The other dogs circled the car, barking and in general making a fuss. My mother lived in a small house on my property and she, too, came over to see what was going on.  She looked in the car and sighed. “Another dog?”

My son-in-law said, “Are you going to let this one in the house also?”

“Of course not,” I replied, “She’s going to be huge. Besides, she’s never been in the house, and I need a guard dog.”

He laughed, but I insisted she would sleep outside. Just shows how we can delude ourselves.

Shea did get to be a big dog, and a beautiful and happy one. She also took her heritage as a herding dog seriously. The cat was the first victim. She rapidly found out that herding cats is, indeed, difficult. She tried it on the grandkids next. They were little then, and didn’t like being pushed into a corner and held there. They protested with loud yowls until rescued. She wanted to try herding the horses but I made sure she knew they were off limits as well.

She was a gentle dog who loved just about everybody, especially kids. I have a picture of her lying on my kitchen floor, my granddaughter, who was less than two, sitting on her as if she was a chair, while looking at a picture book.

Shea loved to travel. We crossed the country three times, Shea, Laney, my Italian Greyhound and Shea’s best friend, and me. I never felt safer than when I had her with me. She wasn’t a snarly dog, but she did love her family and I don’t think anyone who tried to threaten me, or one of the kids, or Laney. would have gotten off easy. She thought motels were fun and especially liked elevators. Laney didn’t share that particular enthusiasm.

She loved our house in South Carolina. It has a wrap around front porch. However, she was given to unauthorized walks, so I had a gate build over the steps. She spent a lot of time there, telling each passerby good morning and each dog that stepping on her grass was against her law. She loved the postman. Go figure.

She died during the night, not coming into my bedroom for help, so I know it had to have been quick. I found her in the morning, lying between the coffee table and the sofa, looking as if she had returned to a favorite spot to sleep, a sleep from which she would not wake.

I was with a friend, many years ago, when her dog died. She was devastated and cried out that she would never get another one, the pain of loosing them was too great. I understood then what she meant, and certainly understand it now. The pain is intense. But, I wouldn’t have missed a minute of the time I had with Shea. She brought great joy into my life and even greater love. She was fun to be around, and an unfailing friend. You can’t feel grief without great love, and great love was what she gave me, and what I gave her back. Will there be another dog? Almost certainly, but not now, and it won’t matter. Whoever it is won’t take the place Shea had in my life and in my heart. In my memory, she’ll always be beside me.

Charlie Got A Job

Charlie just phoned me. He got a job. He’s not sure what he’ll be doing, but the city called him and asked him to come in tomorrow morning. They told him they were going to offer him a job. Offer? That always sounds as if there is some doubt. There is no doubt here. He’ll take it. Whatever it is, it’s something steady, five days a week, a paycheck and—this is the clincher. He’ll get benefits. Tonight, Charlie is a happy man.

I met Charlie after a big snow. I’d only been out of the hospital a short time, didn’t have my artificial leg yet, was scheduled to go to Duke for further tests, and was snowed in. My sister-in-law was with me but she could no more shovel all that snow off the porch than I could. We were stuck. I called some friends, and low and behold, Charlie arrived. His head was covered by a knit cap, his muffler wound around his neck, a huge smile was on his face. “This won’t take but a minute,” he said.  He was like a snow shovel machine. Not only did he shovel the snow off the porch, he kept going. Snow on the driveway flew. We made it to Duke.

Charlie left me his number and I used it. I love to garden, however that was no longer an option. I could get down, sort of, still can, but getting back up was, and is, another thing altogether. I have always picked up after my dogs, have never asked for help, but staying upright in the backyard was, and remains, a challenge I’m afraid I’ll lose. Over these last couple of years, Charlie has been a godsend. However, the little pick up work I could offer didn’t begin to substitute for a real job. We talked often about his being laid off and what he was doing to find a new job. We talked about what he did before, how he’d worked in a grocery store and was in line for a promotion when the store went out of business, how he’d worked for the city on the trash truck for a while, but hurt his back and there was no position open when he could work again. It was an ongoing saga because, as I gradually learned, Charlie has limited skills.

I live in a state that has some wonderful universities. Young people from all over come here to attend them. We also have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation. How we reconcile that, I don’t understand. But it was increasingly obvious to me that Charlie was a product of the part of our state’s school system that was short of everything, books, desks, pencils, teachers, but not students. He was never going to attend one of those fine universities; he was never going to land a white-collar job. He was going to be lucky, in this economic climate, to get one at all. During all this, Charlie kept smiling, but, month by month, I watched his hair turn gray.

Charlie never gave up. He found out there were new openings at the city. He went down and applied. He had lost his drivers license. He’d had a couple of traffic tickets and there was no money to pay them. A driver’s license was necessary to do just about anything the city had open, or would have open. A friend of mine, and Charlie’s, took that project in hand, and after a lot of red tape cutting, Charlie’s license was re-instated. He was ready. However, the city wasn’t, the hospital wasn’t, the new restaurants up on the boulevard weren’t either. But Charlie kept making the rounds. He applied to the city again. This time, I tried to help. We wrote a thank you letter to the man who interviewed him and I wrote him a letter of recommendation. So did some of the others who he worked for. And Charlie kept going back. Politely, persistently, he took the letters in, took his new drivers license in, and took himself in, just asking to be considered. He did it on his bike, he couldn’t afford a car. He never lost his good humor, never lost his hope. He never blamed anyone, just thanked all of us who tried to help. This morning, all that paid off. The city called.

We will all give special thanks this coming Thanksgiving. Charlie has a job.

How It All Began

I’ve never quite figured out why some of us become writers. Oh, I don’t mean writing a message on Facebook, twittering a tweet, or even writing a blog. I’m talking about that strange compulsion that comes over some of us to write a novel. To look at a blank page and know you have to fill it with words about what happened to someone who doesn’t exist in circumstances that never happened. You have a story to tell.

Dying For A Change was my first novel. I’d had a few short pieces published,  so finally got up the courage to do what I always wanted to do. Write a mystery novel. Only, where to start? When I was in school, creative writing was not on any class list I ever found. Creative anything wasn’t. You were supposed to learn what was put in front of you and question nothing, not even why you couldn’t understand algabra. The art of putting words on paper to make a story was foreign to me. Luckily, I didn’t even realize back then that it was an art. If I had, I might not have blindly tried it.

I had been to a couple of writing seminars at the local college and one universal piece of advice was “write what you know.” So, as I sat up in bed with a legal pad on my lap and a mug of coffee beside me, I pondered. What did I know about? Real estate. Horses. Kids. I knew a lot about kids. Divorce. Starting over. I had chosen to do that in a small town on California’s central coast. A town that was about to get a Wal Mart, a fact that did not make everyone happy. I knew about that. I thought about conflict and knew I had a plot.

It wasn’t that easy, of course. I have never, to this day, found a dead body in any of the houses I’ve shown. I’ve never seen anyone who has been shot. I’ve never had an Aunt Mary. Those things I had to make up. Actually, I had to make it all up. Once I had the outline for my main character and the primary conflict that would run through the story,  it started to unfold, admittedly in fits and starts, but unfold it did and was it ever fun.

I worked on that book until my eyes crossed. The first several versions were not what I wanted, only I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. Several people helped me, made suggestions, and I went back to school. UCLA has extension classes that they often hold as week-end seminars and I was more than willing to make the drive to LA. I learned, among other things, that writing is a craft and you have to  learn the basics. Then I wrote it again.

Eventually, it was a finalist in St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, got published by another company but got published, and got really great reviews. Library Journal and Publishers Weekly both loved it.

So, now I’m hooked. I love writing these books. Not only has Ellen grown and changed through the four books I have written about her, but so have I. Murder Half-Baked is the fourth Ellen mystery, and while she’s had a lot of adventures through those books, found a lot of bodies, solved a lot of mysteries and even sold a little real estate, in Half-Baked, she gets to do something she’s been slowly moving toward. Ellen gets married again.

Dying For A Change is back. It is out on Kindle and Nook, where you can find all of the Ellen books, and from now until the end of November, you can buy the first one for .99. Meet Ellen, and follow all of her adventures, including her wedding which didn’t come about smoothly.. I hope you have as much fun reading about them as I have had writing them.

Quality Control

Years ago, before I had anything published, I used to write little things and hide them in my cedar chest. I have always been an avid reader and secretly wanted to be a writer, an august state I was sure I could never attain. I didn’t have the imagination, the cleverness, to write a book, or even an article. My scribbling was destined never to see the light of day, and especially not the printed page.

One day one of my daughters wanted something in the cedar chest and came out with a handful of pages. “Did you write these? They’re really good.” They weren’t and I knew it, but shortly after a close friend commented on how well I wrote business letters and other things, so I gathered my courage and decided to seriously try. I wrote an article about my children’s adventures in 4H and it was published by Family Fun. I was thrilled. I was on my way.

It didn’t turn out quite that easy. Writing a book, writing anything, is hard work. At least it is if you want it to be good.

I wrote my first mystery novel without benefit of knowledge of the craft, or even the knowledge that it was a craft, one that needed to be learned. Why that never occurred to me, I don’t know. You have to learn to do everything else. No one dances the lead in Swan Lake without years of practice, no one is allowed to drive a car unless you can prove your competency, no one wants to grace your dinner table unless you’ve learned to do something more than boil water. Writing is no different.

I submitted my first mystery novel to St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, by now certain my hard work and the sale of that one lone article had made me a competent author. I was certain to win. The book came back with a note from the judge, saying it had promise but I needed to learn how to write. Well!

How dare she! I picked up my precious manuscript and started to read. It didn’t take long. She was right. I realized I had two choices. I could put the book back in the cedar chest and do something else or I could learn how to write. I chose to learn.

Four novels, several short stories, articles and blogs later, I’m still learning. My work is earning praise from readers and reviewers and I’m about ready to tear down all of the rejections I used to paper the bathroom wall and replace them with glowing reviews. It’s taken years of hard work and I’m not finished yet. I’m sure I’ll still be learning, still rewriting, still giving my books more layers, tightening up the story, fleshing out my characters on the day I shut my computer down for the last time. Which brings me to my point.

Today almost any one can get just about anything in print, or published on the web in some form. Put your novel up on Kindle, Nook or Smashwords. It might sell. Create a Facebook page and get a Twitter account. and you’re good to go. Self publish and set the reading world on fire. Maybe. However, most really good books are still published the old fashioned way, with an agent to guide you through the hunt for an editor and that same editor doing what they are supposed to do. Edit. Conversely, many of the self published books are poorly written by earnest people, many with talent, all of whom were willing to put in the hours, days, months it takes to write a book, but haven’t taken the time to really learn their craft. How is a reader to know which is which?

For me, it goes back to quality control. I look at reviews, see if the libraries stock the book, see if others have read it, and see who published it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to like the book, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but it does give me a guide. Trying to pick something to read out of the thousands of ebooks offered, or the hundreds of new books that just came into the local library, or find my way through the stacks at Barnes and Noble, is daunting. You can’t tell the quality by the cover. You never could, but now that so many people are proficient at photo-shop, you really can’t. I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality. Many aren’t. I know authors who are talented, write tight stories, build beguiling characters, are meticulous editors, but for some reason haven’t made it through the slush pile or have had bad experiences and choose the self published route. But you, the reader, can’t tell that by the cover. There is no way to know if the story is tight, the characters convincing, especially if you are choosing an ebook. There is no gatekeeper.

So, I have developed a strategy for picking authors new to me. I look at who is publishing the book. If I know, and respect the publishing house, or the person giving the blurb on the back cover I am more willing to take a chance. Then I go back to my favorite method. I go to my convenient and friendly local book store and ask the bookseller what’s new and what’s good. She’s usually right. Besides, she carries my books.

A Personal Best

I’m not much for team sports. For whatever reason, football, baseball, all those kinds of sports have never grabbed me. Perhaps it’s because when I was young I went to Catholic school. The nuns weren’t much on girl’s team sports either, except volleyball. They loved it. I didn’t. I always stood in the back row and ducked when the ball came near me.

However, I love individual sports. The kind of thing where you are competing against yourself as much as against the other guy in the pool, the ice rink, the horse show arena, or on the gymnastic floor. The sports announcers call it “personal best.” I understand that kind of competition, challenging yourself to get better, to try harder, at something that is very important to you.

This couple of years have been filled with personal best challenges for me. Some I didn’t think I’d accomplish, but somehow I’ve managed to achieve a few of them. And, glory be, I’ve just pulled off another one. I can get into—and out of—the swimming pool without using the handicapped lift chair.

I can hear the murmurs now. My two year old does it all the time, I hear someone back there say.  So did I until I ended up with only one leg.

I’m not going to describe here how I can do it, but suffice it to say it’s damn hard and scary as all get out. I really didn’t think I could do it until I met a man at the pool who also was missing a leg and climbed in and out routinely.  I stopped him to ask how he did it and how long he’d been an amputee. If he’d been young, bulging with muscles, I wouldn’t have asked, but he looked to be about my age and in not much better shape, so–.

He’d been an amputee since he was a teenager so was a lot more practiced at this stuff, but I decided that didn’t count. If he could do it, so could I. I tried climbing out first. Half the lifeguards were standing by, ready to pluck the old girl out of the water, but I made it. The next time, I went down the ladder into the pool. They were all still there, but they weren’t holding their breath quite so obviously. Now, they just ask which way I’m going in or getting out. Yes! One more hurdle jumped. Figuratively speaking, of course. But this frees me up just a little bit more. I can go to any pool without asking if they have a handicapped lift. So—hotel pools, friends pools, the Y pool near where I live, I can go to any of them.

Challenging ourselves and winning is a great feeling. We all do it, in almost all facets of our lives. We challenge ourselves to be better at work, to be better parents, or grandparents, to be better, healthier cooks, gardeners, tennis players, to loose weight, do a better job balancing our budgets, the list goes on. We’re not always going to win, I still struggle with that blasted budget, but if we keep trying, and set realistic goals so we don’t defeat ourselves before we ever get started, its amazing what we can accomplish.

Writing is no different. You are in a competition with yourself to write the best book or short story possible. You’re going to test how well you did by sending your manuscript out to compete with thousands of other writers who are also sweating blood and tears to come up with the next best seller, or just to get into print. And, as certain as death and taxes, you are going to get rejected. If you keep at this long enough, you’ll have enough rejection slips to wallpaper the dining room. But, like getting in and out of the pool, if you keep trying, good things happen. It may not come in the form of a publishers contract, but go back and read something you wrote a year ago, two years ago, and see if you have improved. See if you are learning, finally, to do this very difficult thing, write a good book. Now go back and read the chapter you just finished. How does it read? Flows better? Characters seem more real? Dialog not so stilted? Plot makes sense? You haven’t used every adverb you’ve ever met?  Ha! You have a personal best. Celebrate. Sing your own praises, crow like a rooster, dance an Irish jig. Make yourself a hot fudge sundae. Then, go pull out that desk chair and plant your behind in it. Crank up the computer and take another look at that great chapter. Can you make it even better? Probably. And, what comes after that? The next chapter, of course. And this one will be better still. Because personal bests exist only to challenge us to do more, to reach another harder and more rewarding goal.

I’m going to follow my own advice. The next chapter in the book I’m writing is going to be more exciting, I’m going to push the story forward without getting hung up on tangents, the characters will be more alive and my dialog is going to sparkle. And, I’m going to keep getting in and out of that pool without using the lift and who knows, maybe I’ll get up enough courage to actually try swimming across it, Maybe. If I do, that will be truly a personal best.

So, I raise me coffee cup in salute to you, to me, to all of us who have achieved a personal best. Let me know what yours was, and how you managed it. I’ll bet there are some pretty interesting stories out there.

In Defense of Grammar

Years ago, before any of my novels or articles were published, I decided that if I was going to get serious about writing I needed a writing class. The instructor wrote children’s books. Past middle age, her long gray hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her neck. She was given to smock tops, tights under her long denim skirts, Birkenstocks, and she was delightfully vague. My perfect mental image of what a children’s author should look like, maybe any author. I’ve learned a lot since then.

She was a lovely person, but she wasn’t a very good teacher. She had no idea how to explain how an author constructed a story, built characters, and incorporated tension. Those things I would learn much later.

What she did do was emphasize the importance of story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar.

There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He brushed away the idea of story entirely and concentrated on correct sentence structure. Poor lady, she didn’t know how to stop him and fumbled around each class, trying to tell him that it didn’t really matter how correct the sentence was if it didn’t say something interesting. If it didn’t push the story line forward, didn’t build empathy for the characters, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t grammatically correct. No one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.

It took me awhile to realize they were both right.

I grew up in Catholic schools, back in the days when nuns wearing habits, who were addicted to diagramming sentences, staffed them. Maybe that’s why I hated grammar. I didn’t really care if my participles dangled, if my page was littered with commas all in the wrong place, and if my spelling was atrocious. I was a reader; I had no thought of becoming a writer, and didn’t want all those little annoying details to get in the way of a good story.

It is only now, years later, that I realize the importance of grammar. How, for instance, a misplaced comma can impart a different meaning to a sentence than the one you intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle and the story stops while the reader tries to figure out what the writer is trying to say. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting that the reader puts it down in frustration.

Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is on the Internet. Today, anyone can comment on anything and post it for the world to see. Those comments are often vitriolic, lambasting everything and everybody. The government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or merely their neighbor who lets her kids dare to play on the sidewalk, they all get a liberal dose of abuse. The Internet is awash in comments, posted by people who seem to take pride in the fact that their tweet has turned into a squawk. When I’m in the mood for a puzzle, I read some of them. Mostly, I don’t feel strong enough to unravel the wandering thoughts that never seem to come to a conclusion, the lack of punctuation, and the words that are so misspelled you have to guess at them. That’s when I thank Sister Mary St. Herbert for her love affair with the semi-colon and Sister Mary Katherine Patrice for her insistence on complete sentences with proper punctuation. Some of what they taught me actually rubbed off. I wonder, where were these people’s sixth grade teachers? Or are they so intent on posting their pearls of wisdom they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they’ve missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know where the delete button is or some of their postings would come down before they go up.

One of the first things writers learn is to re-read, and then re-write, what they have written. Does it make sense? Do the words flow together to present the thought accurately, and is the sentence a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end? If you make a point important to you, shouldn’t you take the time to express it in a way that makes sense? More people will read your comments on Facebook or Twitter than will ever read a novel, a scary thought. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a “writer,” just someone who wishes to make an occasional comment. You still need to go back and re-read what you just wrote. You may want to revise that a little. Or a lot. And, in case you missed it, Spell check is under Tools on your space bar and Delete is under your right hand’s little finger.