The Flower Pot

 

Miguel never participated in my high school Child Development class, and he never turned in an assignment. He missed more classes than he attended. On the rare occasions I saw him in the hall during passing period, he walked alone, his eyes slightly downcast, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Tall and lanky, his thin rounded shoulders seemed to strain under an enormous weight.

Miguel’s background was typical of my rural New Mexico students. Of predominantly Hispanic and Native American origins, the majority lived at some level of poverty. Many lived in what can only be described as utter poverty.

This was not the kind of poverty that merely restricts its victims to boxed macaroni and cheese or ramen for dinner every night. This was the mind-deadening, soul-shriveling poverty that means going home to an apartment or trailer house in which there is nothing to fill a growling, perpetually empty teenage stomach. It is the kind of poverty that means not enough money to pay the water bill, so there is no running water to drink or in which to bathe. The kind of poverty that compels a family to live in a car until Mom gets the first paycheck from her new job.

Unlike the middle-class students I taught in other states, my Los Lunas students rarely had adequate school supplies. Many regularly had to borrow pencils and paper from me or their classmates.

Two girls in one class wore fuzzy pink and blue house slippers of the type I had seen in the local dollar store. They wore them every day – even in frigid winter weather. In several of my classes, I had at least one student required to wear the ankle bracelet that came with being caught up in the juvenile justice system. Each semester at least one or two of my students were pregnant.

In December, I typically taught a unit on positive reinforcement. I set up a token economy wherein students received one play money Buck every day they came to class on time. Extra Bucks were given for completed assignments and for good classroom behavior. The students’ goal was to accumulate as many Bucks as possible by the last day of class before Winter Break, when they would be allowed to spend their savings at my Bazaar – an auction held in my classroom.

A few items to be auctioned, such as candy bars, would have been donated by one or two parents, but I purchased most of them in volume from local dollar stores. Pop tarts, microwave popcorn, and macaroni and cheese were the most popular items, followed by star-shaped sunglasses, stretchy bracelets made of plastic beads, glitter-laden lotions, and assorted party favors.

As usual, tardiness and absenteeism lessened during this unit. But I was surprised and inordinately pleased when Miguel not only began showing up to class but was on time.

Every day for those two weeks Miguel walked through the door just before the tardy bell rang. He would catch my eye, nod once, and then make his way to his desk. There he sat with his head bowed, his clasped hands resting on the desk throughout the forty-five-minute class.

As was my custom, I handed out the day’s attendance Bucks at the beginning of each class. Miguel would take the Buck from my hand, say “Thank you, Miss,” and stuff the play money into the pocket of his too-large jacket.

Before class on the day of the auction, students could view the items I placed on a long table at the front of the classroom. The excitement always ran high. Kids stood around the table chattering with one another about which things caught their fancy. They pointed at the trinkets on which they wanted to bid. Some would playfully threaten anyone who might decide to overbid them. Others would count their Bucks and compare their pretend wealth with that of their friends. I overheard one student proudly tell another that this would be his Christmas shopping for his younger siblings.

As usual, I began the auction by first offering the smaller pieces then moving on to the larger items. I held up each article as students began their frenzied bidding.

A few of the students, especially those who had accumulated thick wads of Bucks, quickly jumped in with high bids. Others waited patiently for a specific item to be offered. Still others hooted and egged the bidders on to get them to spend all their money before the more desirable items were offered.

Miguel sat quietly at his desk. He wore the same faded blue workout pants and hooded jacket he had worn for the past several days, the stretched-out cuffs frayed and stained. His hair hung in greasy ropes around his thin face, and his ragged fingernails were rimed in black.

At some point during the auction, Miguel took his wadded-up Bucks out of his jacket. He carefully straightened the bills on his desk, then sat with his head bent slightly forward and eyes downcast as item after item went up for bid. He did not bid, even though I had seen him looking over the auction table before class.

The final item up for bid was a small terra cotta flowerpot, the packaging of which proclaimed it to contain soil and the seeds of a lavender plant. I mentally prepared myself for the bidding frenzy that always took place when those who had inexplicably held onto their Bucks realized they would soon become worthless squares of colored paper.

“What am I bid for—” I held up the flowerpot.

“Five Bucks,” Miguel said in a soft voice before anyone else could speak.

A couple of students murmured things like, “Go for it, Miguel,” and “All right Miguel.”

Then the rowdy, boisterous chatter fell silent.

“Five Bucks going once,” I said. The wall clock behind my desk ticked off its second-to-second cadence.

“Going twice.” I moved my gaze around the silent room.

“Going three times, and sold to Miguel for five Bucks.”

Pandemonium broke out as Miguel walked to the front of the room to claim his prize. Students hooted their congratulations and support.

I struggled to maintain what my Marine Corps son calls bearing as my chest filled with awe and pride at what these young people had just done.

Tonight, a much-loved mother, sister, aunt, grandma, or maybe even sweetheart, would be the recipient of a very special gift…and after today, Miguel would never again be so completely alone.

 

Field Trip!

Having completed my third suspense novel, I email the manuscript to my publisher and immediately dive into another. Protagonist and Antagonist are identified; storyboard template is filled out; character arcs are described; beginning and end are imagined. Now to the sizzling dialogue…

“Where are you taking me?” Protagonist says.
“To the dessert.” Antagonist smiles gleefully. “I’m going to leave you for the coyotes and scorpions.”

“Cliché,” I tell myself. Right up there with the villain chaining the swooning heroine to a train track.
I hit backspace then begin again.

“I’m going to haul your sorry ass to the local gravel pit and leave you tied to a backhoe—”

“Wait,” I interrupt. “Where is the gravel pit? And is it even possible to tie someone to a backhoe?”

Trouble is, I wouldn’t know a backhoe if it ran over my foot. Besides, what time of day – or night – must my bad guy take his captive to the gravel pit without risking discovery? What if the gravel pit has a night watchman?

Frustrated, I again jab my index finger onto the backspace key and hold it down.

“So,” my Internal Writerly-Parent says, “…if you’re supposed to write about stuff you know, and you don’t know anything about gravel pits or backhoes, maybe you should, oh I don’t know, LEARN?”

“Why the sarcasm?” I whine.

“Because sure as the Creator made green onions, you’ll say stupid stuff about gravel pits and backhoes out of ignorance. Remember how disgusted Pop was when that old television series Rawhide portrayed cattle drives in which Hollywood’s version of cowboys drove the cattle at a run, whipping them into a frenzy? Born in 1919, and a veteran of a couple of cattle drives himself, Pop said by the time those cattle got to market, all the fat would be run right off them; they’d not bring nearly as much money as their heftier, slower brethren and sister-en. The point wasn’t to get to market as fast as possible, but to get there with the fattest cattle possible. A real cattle drive would cover only about eight miles per day. While Readers might ignore one small gaffe, they won’t tolerate—”

“Field trip,” I yelp as enlightenment dawns.

“Great idea,” Snarky Internal Writerly-Parent says. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Ever-obliging, Google gives me directions to a local gravel pit, along with hours of operation and a phone number. A young woman answers on the third ring.

“Sure,” she says, “…come on out. We’re open until five.”

By the time the day ends, I not only know where the gravel pit is located and what it looks like, I have answers to important questions such as how many entrances there are; if the front gate’s locked after hours; if anyone is there at night; what security measures are in place; how much area it covers, and how many people it employs. I’ll even be given an up-close look at a backhoe.

I enthusiastically thank the young female employee, hustle home, plop myself into my office chair, and boot up my laptop.

“I’m going to haul your sorry ass to the gravel pit and chain you to a backhoe’s steering wheel. Tomorrow’s a holiday and the place is closed on weekends. It’s so isolated, you can scream your head off; it’ll be days before you’re found. By then, I’ll be sipping Mojitos in the Caribbean.”

That’s more like it.

Lessons From Rejection

For the umpteenth time, I click my cursor through the terse, to-the-point emailed responses to my latest barrage of agent queries. Thanks, but no thanks; Unfortunately, your work is not a good fit for our agency; and finally, the dreaded: This is in no way meant to reflect on the quality of your writing, keep it up.

“I’m seventy years old; the clock’s ticking,” my internal doomsday prophet intones. How many increments of a typical six-month waiting period do I have left? I don’t even buy green bananas.

Driven by the desire to hit that sweet spot required to find an agent willing to take a chance on my writing, I ask, “What does a good fit look like?”

Apparently, as the old saying goes, it’s different strokes for different folks. One agent’s pot-o-gold is another’s anathema. The bottom line is, how tough would an agent find it to sell my story? The shifts in the industry over the past decade alone have made it harder than ever to sell anything even remotely considered cliché, passé, overdone, or not edgy enough. To quote an agent who spoke at a writer’s convention I attended, “Please, don’t send me another story about vampires or kid wizards.” It’s a market-driven business; fads quickly come and go – emphasis on GO. To be marketable, a novel must not only be well-written, it must sizzle and pop with unique plot, peopled with and acted out by unique characters.

The latest series of rejections catapulting me to action, I spend the day researching books on Amazon, paying careful attention to the back covers and blurbs to get a feel for what’s selling. Then I read my manuscript out loud, in hopes that including the sense of hearing may help me spot gaps in the plot or highlight weak verbs and wonky sentences. Regardless of how many times I’ve edited, I edit again, searching for typos, misspellings, and over-use of be, am, is, are, was, were, been, or has been and have been.

If I’m still happy with my plot and character arcs, I seek and destroy anything written in passive voice – the use of which will doom even a great story.

I then move on to the Query letter. Does it sing? Does the Hook really hook? I re-read Query by C.J. Redwine and invest a day re-working my Query letter. I search the pages of the latest Guide to Literary Agents, highlighting the agencies I’ve not yet queried.

After doing everything I know to do, and as the melody of Cast Your Fate to the Wind – a golden oldie from the seventies – floats across my memory, I send out another barrage of Queries. Then I square my shoulders, open the Outline Template on my desktop, type in a working title, and begin another story.

Interview with a Villain

Grinning as if I’d just won something, which I never do, I push my office chair back from the desk and toss another ball of wadded paper toward the trash can. Whoosh, it falls through the opening without touching the sides. A good omen; one which cannot be ignored.

“Woo-hoo!” I pump my fist up and down. My pulse quickens, and I glance at my watch.

Today’s the day. In precisely six minutes, I will interview a murderer.

I couldn’t do such a thing on just any day, you understand. It must be a day filled with good omens, a day in which I feel physically energized and psychologically pumped.

A day like today.

In preparation for the interview, I drag a woven cane-bottomed dining room chair into my office and situate it directly across from my seat. The straight, ladder back should prove uncomfortable enough to keep my guest off balance, thereby ensuring more spontaneous responses to my questions. The distance of five feet between chairs, give or take a few inches, will allow unimpeded eye contact.

I take a deep breath and blow it out through puckered lips then drop into my chair. With less than two minutes to go I peer at the screen of my laptop.
My mouth goes dry as I consider the questions that seemed insightful minutes earlier but now appear insipid and pointless. Do they zero in on the villain’s motivation like a professor’s laser pointer, or are they so ambiguous as to allow room for sloppy evasions? Are any of them redundant? Will they elicit responses that help my Readers understand human nature while chilling their bones?

I chew my thumbnail and shoot a look toward the office door. A shadowy figure stands in the opening, back-lit by the hallway light.

“You’re early,” I say.

“Insightful,” the murderer says. “Anything else, or is that it?”

“Thanks for showing up.” I point to the chair opposite me. “Have a seat.”

The villain saunters to the rattan chair. She stares down at it, snorts then grins and shakes her head. “Such an obvious ploy. Contrived. Best be careful or I’ll disappear before you have what you need.”

“Sorry.” I hold my hand up, palm out as if to stop a charging rhino. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

“No, no, no.” My murderer moves her index finger back and forth imitating a clock’s pendulum. “That’s not how this works. While allowing me freedom of expression is important, it’s up to you to ask the right questions. Otherwise, you risk making me predictable, or worse, cliché. When I have something unexpected to say, as I most assuredly will if you do this right, I’ll jump in and it’ll be up to you to keep up.”

“Okay.” I take a deep breath.

For the next hour or so, I shoot questions at my murderer, furiously typing her responses into my laptop. I’ve just finished memorializing her umpteenth impromptu stream-of-consciousness monologue when she falls silent. I glance in her direction just as her shadowy form retreats through the office door.

“Thanks,” I call out.

Wordlessly, she waves an arm over her head then is gone.

My pulse pumps like a race car piston as I review the transcribed pages that will set the stage for my suspense novel.

“Not at all what I expected,” I murmur.

The fragrance of lilacs suddenly fills the room. I breathe deeply, sensing another presence.

“My turn,” says my Protagonist.

“So it is,” I say. “Please, have a seat.”

How Bad Do You Want It?

Today I’m setting up book signings and library book talks, emailing press releases to the local newspaper as well as to the paper in the city of my birth. I’m doing it all. No agent. No nanny. Any marketing of my book is down to me.

Surely the current book publishing business bears little resemblance to what it was even a few decades ago. I mean, did Hemingway have to market his own work? And, no, I’m not comparing my first effort to Hemingway.

But all things change. The world changes. People change. Needs change. And from the arrival of Gutenberg’s amazing contraption, the publishing business has certainly done its share of changing.

Now days, it’s not enough to write a good tale. The author must school himself in the fine art of marketing, and that includes hacking his way through the social media morass, among other venues.

I’m not complaining, you understand. Just commenting.

In fact, my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, Inc., has been terrific to work with. Beginning with their swift and kind response to my query, moving on to giving me an amazing editor, and then putting my book online and making it available in paperback in record time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have my words in print. Actual print. I didn’t have to learn yet another skill by having to figure out how to publish it as an ebook. No slam against those who do…I’m just not ready to add that tool to my burgeoning tool chest.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be talking about lessons learned through this process. Suffice it to say, the trip’s been enlightening.

I’m Baaaack

Thanks to my amazing daughter-in-law, Erin O’Donnell, my website has been updated. And thanks to her, my mystery novel, AN ARM AND A LEG, may now be purchased on my website (see the book icon at the right of each of my pages).

It’s been an interesting few months – a couple of book signings, lots of hoop-lah from family and friends. Lots of lessons learned. And lots of marketing ideas fomenting.

But now I find myself obsessing about book number two. Questions like: Should I do a sequel? Or should I do a Stephen King and gin up a completely new set of characters? And is it okay to do an Isaac Asimov and work on several novels simultaneously? Because right now I have about three stories floating around in the alphabet soup that makes up my brain.

At this point, all I know is I gotta keep going. No over-thinking allowed. So, in the words I’ve used dozens of times when I wore a Trainer of Trainers hat (a different lifetime ago), I’m going to trust the Process. Can’t wait to see where that takes me and anyone else willing to go with.

 

Life Lesson No. 15: Life Scripts & Could-a, Should-a, Would-a Thinking

I’ve heard that introspection is good for the soul. Last week I spent, as the old joke goes, a few decades plumbing the nooks and crannies inside my head. I wondered which decisions I made over my lifetime brought me to the life-space I currently inhabit. More importantly, how many of those decisions were really my own choice and not borne out of an unwillingness to fight back, to hold firm against the onslaught of someone else’s ideas of what I should do—someone else’s image of who I should be? It’s a sad reality that people often move through their whole lives stepping to the beat of someone else’s drummer. But is that always a bad thing?

I believe it’s a matter of perception. I’ve made a few life-choices that I regret. But which ones could I honestly say made that much difference in who I’ve become?

A friend of mine is a successful psychiatrist who always wanted to be an artist, but who went to school to please her parents (who were also paying the bills). Years later, she was still unable to completely silence that inner artist. As we chatted over hot tea, she said she’d always wondered what her life would have been like had she been allowed to go to Spain and study painting as she so badly wanted to do as a teen. We followed that thread of thought, and brainstormed possible outcomes she’d have faced had she not listened to her parents. For one thing, we agreed her life would have been immensely different. Whereas she currently made a great living as a practitioner for mental health, she would most likely have struggled to make ends meet as an artist—for years. Maybe throughout her whole life. It is the exceedingly rare exception for an artist to sell enough paintings to live the high life—or even cover the cost of living. Most of the time, it’s the people who invested in her art who make money off her labors—and that’s usually after the artist is dead.

We decided my friend’s life-path hadn’t been such a misstep after all. Now she’s attending art classes at UNM. She works her bill-paying job by day, and happily dabs in oils in the evenings.

As for me, a retired educator (having obeyed my dad’s directive that I needed to be a teacher like my mom), I have the time to pursue my writing. Paying my bills AND living my dream. Not a bad combination.

Life Lesson No. 14: Never Say Die

I’ve been working on a novel for nearly seven years. The path has been slow-going and fraught with frustration. Trial-and-error learning, especially in the absence of any real feedback, is incredibly time consuming.

Things I didn’t know seven years ago: whether or not I needed an agent, which publishers accept unsolicited submissions, acceptable word count, genre requirements, how to build suspense, importance of conflict, what makes for good dialogue, the uber-importance of the first words of the novel, consistent POV, back story placement, and how to make use of all five senses, to name a few.

The first iteration of my novel weighed-in at 45,000 words. It opened with a description of the weather (a huge no-no), and I hadn’t yet learned that each chapter needed to include conflict and end in suspense. However, excited to have managed to get the story down on paper at all, I sent out a spate of submissions to potential agents. Most didn’t respond; others sent boiler-plate rejection letters.

So I signed up for a creative writing class and bought a couple of how-to’s. Armed with fresh information, I edited. Along the way, potential scenes bubbled up from what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement,” and my novel grew to 55,000 words. I confidently sent out another salvo of submissions to potential agents. Result? See the preceding paragraph. A slurry formed in the pit of my stomach: rejection mixed with feelings of ineptitude. I questioned whether I actually had what it took to be a published writer.

However, determined not to give up, I bought Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, along with enough books on writing to fill a small bookstore. I read each one, highlighting salient points in pink, yellow, blue, and green. I took another class, then edited some more. I entered a couple of contests and paid extra for critiques; I attended a couple of conferences. I established a daily writing schedule and stuck with it. My novel grew to its current 75,000 words.

Having learned that first-time, unpublished authors have about as much chance of acquiring an agent as they do getting hit by a monkey falling from a spaceship, I plumbed the Predators and Editors website for small publishers (I started at the end of the alphabet, figuring most writers would start with the A’s). Carefully following guidelines found on each publisher’s website, I again began the submission process. This time, I hit pay dirt. After having accumulated enough rejections to paper our guest bathroom, I was offered contracts from three publishers within a space of about four days. Thrilled into near-catatonia, I researched each, and decided on the one that had most authors in their stable as well as most titles in print.

As a poly-published author once said at a conference I attended: I’m not aiming at the Pulitzer Prize. (Huzzah to those who are.) My aim is to pull my Readers out of their reality and into another for a bit. We’ll see how that pans out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Lesson No. 13: Ignore the Audience

For a period of about five years during my mid-thirties, I enjoyed working in a community theater. I sang roles such as Mad Margaret and one of the Three Little Maids from School in a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. And I learned the hard way not to look at the audience, lest I get caught up in someone else’s facial expressions and forget my lines. It pretty much boils down to focus.

I’ve come to believe the same holds true for life in general: one can either follow one’s inner truth, or risk losing it in the face of someone else’s views. And there will always be someone ready and willing to tell the rest of us how we should live.

Someone once said the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s self. I believe that to be one of the few Supreme Truths on this earth. We’re born into a Role (not into a Script, which is the subject of a different Life Lesson), or dealt a specific hand of cards, if you prefer. To do ourselves and the rest of humanity full justice, and in the interests of wasting not one single hour of our allotted time, we must follow our Truth – what some call that still, small, inner voice.

While that may sound like fuzzy, leftwing drek, it isn’t easy to actually do. It takes courage – especially in the face of opposition – to decide against doing something most of humanity is doing simply because most of humanity is doing it.

I’m no philosopher, but the happiest times of my life have been when the decisions I made were in keeping with my inner truth. And my worst living nightmares have been the results of decisions I made that went against it.