NaNoWriMo Success, a Goodreads Giveaway, and the Return of #Debut19Chat

The past week has been busy in a good way.

I topped 50,000 words in my newest novel manuscript and won National Novel Writing Month for the second time (the result of the first time will actually be my second novel, coming out in September, and which has a shiny new title I can’t wait to share with you).

I finished up several PR items my publicist needed in order to spread the word about We Hope for Better Things.

I actually did my very first interview with a writer for a magazine!

I made much progress on an advance reader copy of The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill by James Charlesworth, another author who will debut in 2019.

dusted. I actually dusted.

I decorated for Christmas.

I did some laundry (finally).

I prepped food for a church potluck.

I started my Advent reading, Wrapped in Grace by Deana Lynn Rogers.

And #Debut19Chat is running again on Twitter, with new questions and answers to get to know 2019 debut authors and their projects.

Now I sit back a moment and consider the reality that 2018 is racing to a close and I have a very busy year ahead of me, in which I have two books coming out (one in just a month!), two books in the process of writing and revising, and I’m directing my beloved WFWA writing retreat.

If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, including my book launch events, speaking and workshops, my podcast, and more, you can get my newsletter in your email inbox by subscribing here.

If you want to enter to win one of ten free copies of We Hope for Better Things, you can enter the Goodreads Giveaway here!

And if you want to listen to me riff about the cute online animal videos I would have attempted to make as a child had the technology been available to me, click here to listen to the latest Your Face Is Crooked podcast episode. Or click the graphic below, which is my husband communing with a goat.

 

Waiting for the Snows

But for a few days in November, mid-Michigan has been naked this winter. Today was rainy and in the 40s and felt like spring, a melancholy masquerade in late December. Two days out from Christmas with no snow on the ground and even the most summer-loving Midwesterner must feel an itching wistfulness. When we moved to Lansing from Grand Rapids in 2005, it was a green (brown, really) Christmas. During the week following, I was working in my new yard, pulling English ivy from walls, trimming tree limbs with a saw my father got me for Christmas, and digging up sandstone rocks from beneath the ground. I was more than 50 pounds lighter then than I am today, eager to make my new home my own. Nine years later and I have nothing to do in the garden despite the warm temperatures and the soft earth. The garden is “finished” as far as that goes.

I won’t lie; the lack of snow has got me down. What is winter without snow except a long, dull stretch of cloudy sky and gray-brown earth? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. There are lights on the house, presents under the tree, family coming for good food. I’m anticipating the smiles on the faces of my son and husband as they open up their gifts. I’m listening to carols and playing them for my son on the guitar at night. Tomorrow night is our candlelight service at church. Everything is as it should be–except the snow. Funny how one thing out of place throws off the whole thing.

One thing out of place.

When I turned my calendar to December a few weeks ago, I was met with an envelope containing a letter I had forgotten I’d written. Last night I cheated and opened it a week early. At my husband’s bemused urging, I read it out loud. It was cheesier than I can imagine myself being. Or maybe it wasn’t cheesy so much as it was too sincere. We had a couple good laughs during my oration. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my hopes for myself had come to pass in 2014. One very particular one did not–one thing out of place–but I am slowly becoming okay with it. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was ahead of where I had claimed I hoped to be when it came to my writing. And yet, for much of the second half of 2014, I have been impatient and felt as though I was lagging behind. My January 2014 self, the one who wrote that letter, seems a more reasonable person than my December 2014 self. And I’m glad that she reminded me just how much I have accomplished this past year.

So I wait for the snow and I wait for the fulfillment of a goal I hadn’t really given myself a year ago. I remind myself that I’m right on track and that Christmas comes whether it snows or not. I may feel that there is still one thing out of place, but in reality it is just my own impatience. God’s time is rarely our time, is it?

Entering a Season of Joyful Anticipation

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m still recovering from a fantastic extended weekend of great food, family, friends new and old, and lots and lots of cleaning up. I managed to somehow be involved in three Thanksgivings: one at my in-laws’ with fifteen people; a quick visit to my aunt & uncle’s house to see them, my parents, and one of my cousins; and one at home a couple days later with eleven people that I actually prepared singlehandedly.

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It ended up being a very multicultural Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law invited four international students who wouldn’t be able to be home over the holiday. Our Kenyan friend Grace we have known since she was nine and her father Jeremiah was attending seminary in Grand Rapids. She brought three friends: Korean Grace who grew up in China, Korean Grace who grew up in India, and Nigerian Oyin who grew up in Nigeria. The meal we had at our home on Sunday night was our little family and eight Bhutanese-Nepali friends from one of the congregations that uses our church building for their church services.

It was fun to share the story of the first Thanksgiving with our Nepali friends who had never heard it. And it was fun to discover, through my mother-in-law’s careful genealogical research over many years, that my husband Zach has two ancestors who were actually on the Mayflower! Thinking about that distant connection gave new meaning to the very old story.

And as Advent began on Sunday, Zach (who is also my pastor, in case you didn’t know) made a poignant connection for me. The same distance in time that exists between us modern Americans and the Mayflower existed between the close of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ as a baby in the manger. Four hundred years. Four hundred years from when God said this:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6

to when God said this:

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:13-17

I think about those four hundred years of waiting, listening, wishing for a word from one’s God, wishing for fulfillment of a promise. And I believe I shall think on it all during Advent, in a time in our world when it can feel like God is silent and everyone simply does “what is right in his own eyes.”

Tonight we’ll finally have time to decorate the house for Christmas. On our pre-lit tree, I believe there are four hundred lights. One tiny light for every dark year of anguished waiting. Altogether they make a bright and beautiful light and will point me toward the one Light that was soon to make His humble entrance into His creation, in order to redeem it.

The Top Ten Ways to Get through Winter without Entering the Spiraling Vortex of Self-Pity

It’s no secret that much of the country has recently experienced a preview of winter. As I type this, my yard is covered in a few inches of snow and the sunlight seeping through the thin haze of clouds has everything glowing. My friends and colleagues in West Michigan are under as much as a foot and a half of snow. And, of course, Upstate New Yorkers are trying to dig out of six feet of it!

Snow like this, especially before Thanksgiving can make people super cranky (adults, anyway–children, it seems, are programmed to be ecstatic about snow any time before Spring Fever sets in in February). Granting that there are major problems when you get the kind of snow that Buffalo has in the past few days, the photos we’re seeing on Twitter and Facebook are generally showing people making the best of things–turning their front doors into refrigerators, shoveling in shorts and sandals, hopping into the hot tub between the drifts.

The nice thing about Buffalo being so bad off is that I’m not hearing much complaining from Michiganders at the moment. Which suits me just fine. Because if there is one thing that doesn’t change anything when it comes to weather, it’s complaining.  However, knowing that some people, despite being born and raised in the Midwest, have a hard time with winter, I thought I’d offer the Unofficial Midwesterner’s Guide to Loving Winter (a.k.a., The Top Ten Ways to Get through Winter without Entering the Spiraling Vortex of Self-Pity):

 

10. Open the Blinds and Turn on the Lights

Look, around the 45th parallel, it gets dark in winter. And I’m not just talking about the sun setting at 5 o’clock. Around the Great Lakes, it is cloudy. Like, almost all the time. Sure, you get the occasional blue sky and brilliant sun, but on most days you need to seek out the light, invite it inside, and supplement with electricity. If you don’t seek out the light, you may find yourself suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (symptoms include depression, extreme self-pity, irritability, and bringing everyone around you down). Older houses like mine tend to have lots of big windows. I face an east window most of the day at my desk, which really helps with my moods. But if you find you just aren’t getting enough natural light, get yourself some of those “sunlight” lights or at least up the wattage in the bulbs around your house. Turn on every light in the room. Get outside on sunny days. Schedule a skylight installation.

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9. Get Cozy

My friend Meghan introduced me to the Danish term hygge and I’m so glad she did. It wasn’t really a new concept to me, but I finally had a word to describe how I kind of already felt about winter as a time to enjoy being enclosed–in a house, in a room, in comfy clothes, under a warm blanket, with family and friends, eating lots of comfort food and drinking hot cocoa. Winter’s the time to enjoy being indoors as much as summer’s the time to enjoy being outdoors. It’s a time to layer on body fat and clothing and cuddle together to keep warm. It’s a time for sweet solitude and joyful togetherness.

8. Get Moving

But all this coziness can lead to feeling sluggish. And at some point, you’re going to get Cabin Fever. Not everyone knows this, but I’ve done some firsthand research and found that snow is not toxic. It can be walked upon, trudged through, played with, and even eaten with no ill effects! So get your butt outside and enjoy it! As long as you dress for the cold, endless possibilities are open to you, from walking your dog to making snow angels to skiing to snowshoeing to snowmobiling to surfing for crying out loud! Go places! Just make sure you have a shovel and a warm blanket and a granola bar in the car and that you brake gently, earlier than you would on dry pavement. Winter driving isn’t hard. It’s just different. Load your trunk with sandbags. Get yourself some snow tires and a vehicle with 4-wheel drive. Leave ten minutes earlier.

7. Burn Stuff

Fireplaces, candles, bonfires–winter is the perfect time to burn stuff. It gives off extra light (see #10 above), encourages and adds to hygge (see #9 above), and it gets you moving a little bit (see #8 above) by chopping, stacking, and gathering wood. Also, it smells great and sounds like childhood. Perfect the art of making a great fire, and you’ll be an indispensable part of any gathering in a home built before about 1990, when everyone starting installing gas fireplaces (which, let’s be honest, are a bit like vegan sausage). Fireplace or no, save up your money and go buy yourself a nice Yankee Candle. May I recommend Balsam & Cedar?

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6. Make Stuff

Oh, the things you can create when you have months inside! Mosaics, birdhouses, origami animals, paintings, cookies, quilts, hats, paper chains and paper snowflakes, music, novels, poetry, babies, Lego civilizations…the list is endless! That craft or skill you haven’t used in forever? Dust it off! That thing you’ve been wanting to learn for years? Get some library books and start trolling YouTube for tutorials! You can waste your winter grumpily watching TV and complaining about the cold on social media, or you can actually DO something with your time. Make some Christmas gifts. Make a hot meal for an elderly shut in. Make time for reading and prayer and reflection on the big things in life.

5. Feed the Birds

It’s not just for retirees, honestly. If you have a window at home or work, you can put a birdfeeder out there and I have to tell you, there is something about little birds that gives a watcher nothing but positive feelings. And watching squirrels? Hilarious! And sometimes you even get to witness an altercation like this:

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For a winter-loving double-whammy you can make a birdfeeder and even make homemade treats for the birds from seeds, nuts, dried fruit, bacon fat, peanut butter and more! (see #6 above)

4. Celebrate Small Victories & Don’t Take It Personally

Did you manage to drag your butt out of bed before the sun rose even though it felt like the middle of the night? Good for you! Did you walk the dog without slipping on ice and bruising your tailbone? Congratulations! Did you look out on a snowy night and think about how beautiful it was before you starting cursing about how much you’d have to shovel in the morning? Gold star! Garrison Keillor is fond of pointing out that winter offers us many opportunities to overcome adversity, and that that makes us better people. I agree with him. Even the little things that winter makes more challenging can shape our character. Do we take those challenges as a normal part of the season that everyone around us is also experiencing? Or do we take it personally, like God has it in for us and is up there laughing at us? As Keillor says, “Winter is not a personal experience.”

3. Share Your Most Harrowing Stories

Let’s face it, if the roads weren’t so bad, we’d have a lot less to talk about in the winter. Everyone loves a good “near-miss” story, the kind where everyone else out on the road is an idiot, but through your incredible driving skills you were able to pull out of a heart-stopping, spinning, skidding death trap and save your family’s life while avoiding the deer and the jack-knifed semi truck. Sure, your shoulders and back are aching as you get out of your car after three hours of white-knuckling it on the highway on the way to your extended family’s Christmas party in Traverse City. But when you make it there, you’re the hero! You’ve won the Iditarod! You’re Robert Peary reaching the North Pole!

Robert Peary

2. Seek Out the Beautiful

Every season has its own particular beauty. Spring has colorful bulbs and trees bowed with blossoms. Summer has wildflowers and beaches and amazing sunsets. Autumn dazzles us with red and orange and yellow leaves against a blue sky. In the same way, winter can stop you in your tracks. The sparkling light reflected from each facet of every snowflake. The hypnotic effect of big, lazy clumps of snow falling outside the window. The utter quietness that pervades a snow-filled wood. The shock of a red cardinal against a backdrop of white. The enchantment of your living room decorated for Christmas. When you’ve seen one too many dirty, slushy parking lots, go out and seek the beauty that is out there waiting for you.

And the most surefire way to get through winter with a smile on your face…

1. Choose to Love It

Attitude really is everything. It can mean the difference between success and failure in so many parts of our lives. When we choose to be positive about a situation, we so often find that there was good in it all along but we were blinded to it because we were so busy wishing that things were different. But when you live in the Midwest, winter is reality. It will happen. Sometimes it will happen BIG, like last year’s Polar Vortex and the last few days in New York.

Choosing to love it doesn’t mean we pretend it isn’t a very real trial sometimes. But it does mean that on any given morning, when we have to shovel the driveway and scrape the car windows and leave extra early to get to where we’re going on time, that we can at that moment choose to be miserable or choose to be stalwart, cheerful, and proud that we are a people who drill holes in the frigging ice to go fishing and drive snowmobiles across the Straits of Mackinac to get groceries.

And, most importantly, we laugh at those wimps down south who shut everything down when there’s an inch of snow on the ground.

Melt

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With a predicted high today of 35 and 42 tomorrow, the icy grip on my town is beginning to ease. Friends are still without power, lines are still down all over my neighborhood, but the end is in sight now. For many, this will be a very memorable Christmas of last-minute plan changes and candlelight and frustration. But years hence, it will make a good story that I bet will get just a little bit more dramatic with each telling.

On Cold Mornings, Doomed Goats, and Stories Waiting to Be Told

We woke this morning to the shortest day of the year in the coldest house of the year. The batteries in the thermostat had apparently died in the night, making it a toasty 55 degrees on the main floor and colder yet in the basement. A few space heaters (why do we have so many of these?) and a couple new AA batteries warmed things up fairly quickly, and the cold did allow me to see my five-year-old son looking extra adorable in his robe and slippers.

The fairly warm temperatures we’ve been having continued this morning, hovering above freezing and giving a foggy, ethereal glow to the moisture-laden air. The rooftops, the lawns, the roads, and the sky are all varying shades of white and gray. Much of our beautiful snow has melted under the constant rain we had yesterday and I fear by the time Christmas dawns it will be brown rather than white. That’s how it goes sometimes–our ideals and reality at odds.

As time winds down before Christmas I find that I have a couple more gifts to buy, I’m waiting on a few things to be delivered, I have a number of gifts to wrap. I’ve got bathrooms that need cleaning, sheets that need washing, boxes that need recycling. Probably most of this is true for you as well.

More uniquely, I’ve been invited to attend a goat slaughter and a five-hour worship service and meal (at which the condemned goat will be consumed) to celebrate Christmas with my new Bhutanese-Nepali friends. I’m still deliberating on the goat. On the one hand, I am curious about how it will all go down and I feel intrinsically that a writer should observe those out-of-the-ordinary (to us) things. Certainly I would find something of interest to report to you. But I’ve never actually eaten something I witnessed being killed. Seriously, not even a fish. I guess we’ll see how things pan out on Monday afternoon.

Tonight, however, on the longest night of the year, I will not be thinking about goats. I’ll hopefully be finishing up my last short story for 2013. Once that is done, every item on my 2013 to-do list will be checked off and my mind will be free to turn completely toward writing the novel I’ve been researching and musing upon and planning for the past year. The story has gestated and grown and morphed in my mind to the point where I am more eager to write than I have ever been.

I think about the anticipation of the child who would come to deliver his people, of thousands of years waiting for the Word. I think of the people who converged on Bethlehem–Mary and Joseph traveling to be registered, sages making the treacherous desert journey to see the fulfillment of prophecies, angels coming down from heaven, shepherds leaving their fields and flocks, and soldiers dispatched to murder innocent baby boys. And the most important–God drawing near, so near as to become one of us. To feel pain and sorrow and temptation and anguish. To make meaning from chaos. To be both conclusion and new beginning.

The coming together of God and man. The crux of history. The greatest story, which informs all of our small and secondary stories.

Throughout 2013 I told little stories. Now I am ready for a big story.

Winter is here, so why not enjoy it already?

After an extremely snowy weekend, today dawned clear and cold. Oh, who am I kidding? I didn’t actually get up before dawn. But it has been a sunny morning and all the world is covered in a soft blanket of white snow. My Samoyed/German Shepherd mix, Sasha, loves it.

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From inside my home office with the space heater at my feet and an unending supply of great coffee, I can enjoy days like this in ways that daily commuters may not be able to. So many of my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances despise Michigan in the winter. Perhaps, when they look out at the snow, they only see this:

Yes, the roads are a bit slick out there, but there are some simple lessons to be learned from winter. Start early, take it slow, steer into the skid, and maybe get yourself some new tires once in a while.

Seems like there might be some writing advice in there too…

Winter isn’t interested in bustling about. It isn’t concerned with appointments or ladder climbing or making a mark on the world, beyond footprints in the snow or an occasional snow angel.

Winter is about waiting, regrouping, hibernating, anticipating. Winter waits for Christmas. Winter waits for spring. Winter sits still for a while and enjoys itself.

Winter says, “Make a fire. Eat rich food. Sip some cocoa. Listen to some music.”

Winter says, “Just as the grass is there waiting beneath the snow, life will still be there tomorrow. It will wait. For now, enjoy yourself.”

Winter says, “I won’t last forever. So rest while you can.”

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