When Hearts Conjoin

Those of you who write (whether you are published yet or not) know it’s all about perseverance. No writer knows this better than my good friend, Lu Ann Staheli.

When I first met Lu Ann, I was a terrible writer. I had a million great ideas rolling around in my brain and absolutely no clue how to get them on paper correctly, so that others could enjoy them. Enter my critique group. Yes, I’ve blogged about them before and likely will until the day I die. To this day I remain baffled why it was they allowed me to stay and learn from them.

Lu Ann taught me many things those first few years. Some were terribly basic, like not using the word that in every other sentence. Lu Ann literally edited 1000 thats from my first completed manuscript. She also taught me the evils of adverbs (never mind how many of those I had in my story), and dialogue tags that people physically cannot do (yes, we romance writers love for our characters to breathe their words).

Long story short, our little group began, one-by-one, getting published. Lu Ann, meanwhile continued to crank out some absolutely brilliant YA fiction, and she continued collecting rejections. At one point I had quite a few myself and we joked about who would get the most in a given year, but I feel I can say with confidence that Lu Ann now holds the record for the highest number of rejections in all our group. Why is this? Because she isn’t afraid of them! She’s not afraid to dream big, plan big, write big. And we always told her that when she did see her name on the cover of a book, it was going to be big.

Um, yeah. We were right. Her first book, When Hearts Conjoin, which she ghostwrote with Erin Herrin, is headed for Oprah! Must be nice, Lu Ann 😀

And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more deserving person (who worked like a madwoman to get this book written on a very short deadline). This, I am quite certain, is the beginning of many great things.

Below you’ll find my review of this remarkable book. Enjoy.

On August 7, 2006 four-year-old conjoined twins Maliyah and Kendra Herrin made history when they were successfully separated. The surgery lasted over twenty-six hours and required over thirty-five doctors and medical personnel. That event alone—and all the anxiety and emotions of those involved with it—is a great story in and of itself. Yet even more amazing is what it took for parents Jake and Erin Herrin to get their two little girls, and themselves, to that point. When Hearts Conjoin is that story.
Told by Erin Marie Herrin with LuAnn Brobst Staheli, When Hearts Conjoin begins in 1997, when Erin was a carefree young girl and long before she had any idea of the trials that lay ahead. Written with honesty, and without apology for both mistakes they made and the beliefs which carried them through the most difficult times, the book begins by chronicling Erin’s relationship with Jake Herrin, the boy she fell in love with during her senior year of high school. As happens too often with teens, the young couple let their feelings and passion carry them away to physical intimacy neither was prepared for. The result was a frightening eighteenth birthday for Erin, with an unexpected baby on the way, two heartbroken families, and two futures irrevocably changed.
Trying to do the right thing, Jake and Erin married, but happily ever after was not to be for a very long time. The pressures of family were too much for the young couple. It was astonishing to read that Jake and Erin were separated and had filed for divorce when they found out Erin was carrying conjoined twin girls. What would have been enough to send many older, stable couples to the brink should have been the final nail in the coffin of the Herrin’s relationship. It wasn’t. Instead, a remarkable change took place, the first of many miracles in their family, as they forged ahead and faced their incredible trials—together.
Erin and Jake overcame a series of hurdles to have their babies—beginning with multiple suggestions that they terminate the pregnancy. Against gigantic odds, the twins were born, survived, and even thrived, eventually coming home. But Maliyah and Kendra’s health challenges were many, and the stresses of caring for their conjoined twins were not all that Erin and Jake had to endure. Parents with serious health problems, another set of twins, and a kidney transplant were just a few of the things that lay in store. It was amazing to see how they literally rolled with the punches, sometimes joking and teasing to get through—a lot of times crying. But made it through, they did, to that fateful summer day in 2006.
The chapters detailing the surgery are difficult to read. The girls endured physical and emotional pain both before and after the surgeries, and their parents suffered emotional anguish beyond what most parents will ever have to go through. Both Jake and Erin agreed it was the best thing, the right thing to separate the girls. But what if something went wrong? What if one of them died? What if . . . Any parent reading this can only imagine that fear and agony they faced.
Though the separation was successful, the girls required additional surgeries and procedures and were in and out of the hospital over the coming months.
Since then the girls have continued to have health challenges, but the prognosis for their separate, happy lives is excellent. The prognosis for the Herrin family is equally good. Having weathered more storms than many people undergo in an entire lifetime, they are strong in mind and spirit. They are grateful for the mercies and miracles of God and filled with love for their immediate and extended families.
I am grateful for having read this book. Erin Herrin and author LuAnn Staheli took truths stranger than fiction and chronicled them into an inspiring volume. When Hearts Conjoin is guaranteed to touch your heart and make you look at your own life and blessings a little closer. It is a compelling read from start to finish, one that will motivate you to face your own challenges with more courage, and to find more gratitude in the simple, every day blessings we all enjoy.

The Wonderful, Wacky, Whitney Awards

As promised, here are pictures from the Whitney Awards last month. And I should clarify the title of this blog—there is nothing wacky about the Whitney Awards. Rob Wells, as founder of the Whitney Awards and head of the committee the past two years, is all business (no pun intended Mr. recent MBA grad) and works hard to keep everything having to do with the awards both professional and ethical. But this past April he was a little busy with graduation and everything. In fact, Rob’s graduation was the same day as the Whitney Awards Banquet. Talk about being double booked . . . which is probably why Rob left it up to the presenters to do their own thing. Note to future Whitney presidents: This may not be the best idea. Unless, of course, you want wacky. Which is exactly what happened—all night long. Save for the classy duo of Annette Lyon and Angela Eschler, every single presentation was, well . . . goofy. It seems that as writers, most of us found it beyond our abilities to simply read the finalists and present the awards. We felt compelled to write, at times stretching the titles in our respective categories to the absurd. But, hey, we had fun!

Hope you have fun looking at the pictures. And if you didn’t go this year, plan to attend in 2010. Aside from being wacky, it’s really inspiring to see talented, hard working authors recognized for their efforts.

And the winner is . . .

These days there are so many things to blog about and so little time to blog. Since I’m having difficulty finding time to post more than once every few weeks, I thought I’d list a few of the things I’d like to blog about and you, the creative reader, can imagine what I might have said on those topics. It’s really a win, win situation—I’ve at least posted something (alleviating my reader-neglect guilt), and you end up with a much shorter blog to read, thus freeing up your time as well 😀

Here’s today’s list.

The 2009 Storymakers Conference quite literally rocked . . . still can’t get “I Wanna Be A Bestseller” out of my brain.

The wonderful, wacky, Whitney awards. I will post on this soon, photos included (I’ve got a great one of Stephanie Meyers presenting Brandon’s award). Who knew we were all such a bunch of goofballs?! EVERYONE who was there knows now.

Annette Lyon’s secret obsession with horses. After writing Tower of Strength, she swore she’d never write a book with a horse in it again. Guess what showed up in her chapter last week at critique?

Heather Moore won a second Whitney award and Best of State! Holy cow, I have such famous friends. When is some of that going to rub off on me?

Speaking of fame, another good friend—LuAnn Staheli—wrote a book that is going to be on Oprah. I’ll be posting my own, humble book review soon.

My four-month-old son is -now 15 1/2- pounds and twenty-six inches—about the same size his sister was at age one. But he still thinks we are starving him and wakes up a couple of times each night absolutely ravenous. My fondest wish for Mother’s Day? Sleep. On a regular basis would be nice. But I don’t really mind so much if I don’t get any. My fervent prayer last Mother’s Day was that we would defy the odds and get him here safely. I am so very, extremely happy to be this little (big) guy’s mom. He is our own personal miracle.

Another miracle . . . I finally have a second book coming out! All the Stars in Heaven is now available for pre-order at BarnesandNoble.com and online at Deseret Book. It’s scheduled to arrive in stores at the end of June. I’ll be posting excerpts, deleted scenes and other fun stuff in the coming weeks.

And finally . . .the thing I most want to blog about in my sparest of spare time, is my amazing husband. There ought to be a Whitney or Best of State or Best Always All Around Forever award for the most outstanding, supportive husband. Sorry to all you readers who think your guys are great, but my man would win this award hands down. Here’s a little example why.

Shortly after I registered for the Storymaker conference, my husband found out he had a conference the same weekend. This posed a slight problem, as I was counting on him to play single parent to our five kids that weekend. Turned out it was no problem, as Dixon explained to his boss why he couldn’t attend. Another employee from his office went to the conference, while my husband did an amazing job running things at home. He also ran our baby over to the Marriott every couple of hours so I could nurse him.

When I came home Friday evening there were about a half dozen extra kids at our house—teens in the basement watching a movie, and a kitchen full of cousins playing Killer Bunnies at the table. Dixon was busy making pizzas for all of them. The house was clean, the baby (having been hanging out with Dad quite literally—in the front pack) was happy. I went into the bedroom to do a little preparation for a panel I was on the following day, and my husband brought dinner in to me a while later.

The next morning he bought me flowers on the way home from his run. And that night, while I attended the Whitney Awards alone (alas, our baby kept my date away), Dixon drove circles around the Marriott, waiting for me to be done, and trying to keep our baby pacified until I was.

As usual, I feel in debt to this wonderful man I married. No matter what I do, it always seems he does more for me. We may not go dancing very often anymore; we haven’t made it to Hawaii yet. But romance is alive and strong in our household just the same. For while I was speaking about romance at the conference, Dixon was at home, sacrificing his weekend for me, reminding me what true romance is all about. Behind this published writer there is an extremely supportive man. And I’m so very grateful for him.

A Fine Line Between Love and Hate

No, today’s post is not about living with teenagers. Though I will admit that the love/hate thing certainly applies there. As in last night at our house when our fifteen-year-old daughter screamed at my husband, “I hate you!” He’d just told her she could not go to bed until her algebra homework was complete, as she is barely passing this class and needs each and every point.

Good thing my husband and I understand our daughter well enough to know that what she really meant was—“I’m extremely tired, I hate that I don’t understand math and it takes me so long to do it, and I’m frustrated with myself and my not-so-great teacher. That you guys care about my grades is the last straw.”

A while later when our son came in a few minutes past his curfew and got a lecture, he didn’t tell us he hated us but said, “I can’t wait until I’m eighteen,” then huffed off to his room (we have a fair amount of huffing and eye rolling in our home). Again, we translated what he really meant: “I’m almost eighteen, I feel like I’m an adult, and I hate people telling me what to do. And I really need to get a job that pays better than Arby’s, otherwise I won’t be able to say, ‘can’t wait until I’m eighteen’ in a few months. Cause you guys will call my bluff, knowing I can’t afford to move out. Of course if I do move out, not having a curfew won’t matter, because I won’t have any money to go out and do anything because it will all be going toward rent.”

Isn’t it amazing what we can decipher from one short sentence?

But as I said, this blog isn’t about living with teenagers. It’s actually about writing—specifically, writing romance. The thing I love to do—the thing that keeps me sane while I am living with teens.

Recently, at our critique group, a certain member whose initials are Rob Wells, commented about this love/hate thing found in my writing. He said something like this. “Right here, this girl really seems to like the prince, but two sentences later, she’s annoyed with him and says he’s immature.”

Before I could respond to Rob’s comment, the other guy in our group (aka Jeffrey S. Savage or J. Scott Savage—depending on which genre you happen to be reading) chimed in saying, “Oh, that’s just a Michele book. The first novel I ever heard her read in critique was the same way. The characters were alternately madly in love or ready to kill each other.”

Rob still looked confused, but fortunately the ladies in our group agreed that the passage was fine and the love/hate thing made for good romance.

Later, after going over the edits and reading Rob’s comments once again, I started to think more about this, wondering if the way I wrote the relationship between my main characters really was ok. In the story in question the hero is an immature eighteen. He’s in a position of responsibility that he doesn’t care for, and when we first meet him, he’s all about having a good time until he is shortly saddled with the real responsibility of running a kingdom.

The heroine, on the other hand, is not quite sixteen (this is YA), and she’s much more serious, having had a rather difficult life. That he annoys her is natural—especially when he teases at innapropriate moments. And yet, they are attracted to each other and do end up falling in love.

Starting the hero at this immature point allows for growth, and giving both he and the heroine flaws makes them human. Personally I love stories like this—where the two main characters remain at odds for a good portion of the story. As a reader, I see their attraction to each other, I feel it if the author has done his/her job well, but I also get to experience the obstacles they have to overcome to be together.

Recently on the Frog Blog, Stephanie Black wrote about books that keep us turning pages. Her post was mainly geared toward the suspense market, and most people responded with titles in this genre. While I enjoy reading suspense novels, and I definitely feel there are some great ones that turn pages, it is more often a great romance that keeps me up past bedtime. And in thinking about why certain stories keep me in their grip, I believe it has to do with the whole love/hate thing.

A national market author who does this really well is Judith McNaught. Her stories have kept me up late countless times, with main characters you feel as if you’d like to throttle because they are making things so difficult and taking so dang long to get together. Her heroes are great, though they too, often go about things the wrong way. Her first novel (written a couple of decades ago—and reader beware, some things in this story would never be published today),Whitney My Love is a perfect example of this, with the main characters taking much of the book to finally cross the line to committment and love for each other.

In that first novel I wrote—the one Jeff mentioned at our critique group—I actually have a line where a side character, a wise old woman, tells the heroine that “there is a fine line betwixt love and hate.” Having the main characters go from one extreme to the other was great fun to write and, if the story ever gets published, will hopefully be equally enjoyable for readers to experience. But returning to Rob’s comments, I wondered if every great romance has to be this way, or are there other ways of achieving that magical “romantic tension?” In thinking about Jeff’s comment, I certainly don’t want to have each of my stories sound the same. So is there something else I might be—should be—doing to achieve the desired tension between characters?

My twelve-year-old provided at least part of the answer. She is currently (like many other pre-teen and teen girls in the nation) “Twilight obsessed.” It is only recently that I finally caved and let her read the book (though she has only read Twilight, and that is our deal for a couple more years), but she’s wasted no time at all in following her older sister into what I term “Edward awe.” Each and every day my two oldest daughters watch previews for the movie and check the count down calendar on Stepahanie Meyers’ website. It’s enough to make a mother crazy—except that I’ve started watching those clips with them and really thinking about what makes Twilight the phenomenon it is.

A couple of things to think about . . . Do Edward and Bella initially hate each other? YES! Are they attracted to each other in spite of their differences and the antagonism Edward at first shows Bella? Yes. Does it take a while for them to work through these differences, this awkwardness, the tension (both romantic and other) between them? Yes.

Some of the movie clips have done a great job showing this, as did Stephanie Meyers in the book. That Edward was a vampire and the whole cool storyline that went with that is obviously a huge plus most romances don’t have, but returning to my question—the basic love/hate plot line was there too.

Interesting, to say the least. Also interesting is the fact that once that line was crossed, and that part of their relationship resolved, the following books didn’t hold my attention nearly as well as Twilight did.

So here’s my question to you—fellow readers of romance (except maybe Karlene, because she hates romance :D). What books have kept you up late? What characters and storylines have stayed in your mind long after the last page was finished? And did these stories have the love/hate element? Is Rob (who writes a darn good romance himself) right in thinking my characters shouldn’t be quite so extreme in their feelings? And if so, what is it that makes a great love story so great?

Tell me quickly please—as I’m about to begin another novel.

Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys

Over the past couple of months as I’ve been resting a lot, trying to keep my breakfast down and this baby inside where it belongs, I’ve had some time to catch up on my reading. The stack of books on my night stand has now dwindled to a reasonable half dozen, and I’ve crossed several “must reads” off my list.

Unfortunately, a lot of the books I’d looked forward to for a while, were . . . less than appetizing when I finally got to them. I’m sure this had to do with my real appetite at the time and the constant nausea I was dealing with. My usual pickiness tends to intensify with pregnancy. However, there were a few books that captured my attention and held it, transporting me from my misery for the time I spent with them. To those authors, I say a heartfelt thank you. Your talents and hard work became, for me, just what the doctor ordered when I needed it most.

There are three such books I want to blog about, and I’ll try to spend a little time doing that over the next couple of months. These blogs are not intended to be thorough reviews, but rather a recommendation to friends for books I feel are worth both your time and money. As you might have guessed, the first book I’d like to tell you about is Janet Kay Jensen’s Don’t You Marry The Mormon Boys.

It took me all of a half page to become engrossed in this delightful, interesting story about Dr. Andy McBride and his ex-girfriend of sorts, Dr. Louisa Martin. Some quick backstory—Andy and Louisa met while attending medical school at the University of Utah. Though each had strong feelings for the other, there were some pretty intense obstacles in their way—like the fact that Louisa is from a polygamist family, and Andy’s father is an attorney who prosecutes polygamists (ouch- love it!). The reader learns this, and a lot of other interesting tidbits through both Andy and Louisa as they each reflect on the past as they live their current, very different, lives.

By choice, Andy has landed in a small community in rural Kentucky. The chapters entailing his life there—everything from his home with the wrap-around porch, to the characters (and they are characters!) he meets—were so vivid I found myself yearning to visit. I love that the author spends time building his life there. From the funny—being awoken from a lovely dream about Louisa to find himself being kissed by a horse—to the poignant—his association and friendships with the local band and one of its members he is ultimately unable to save—I enjoyed getting to know Andy and seeing the details of his life.

While Andy is in Kentucky, Louisa is back at home in Gabriel’s Landing, the small polygamist community she was raised in. Though her mother has passed away, Louisa has two other “step-mothers” and a very loving father. It was with both the blessing and financing of the elders in the community that Louisa attended medical school, and now she has returned, hoping to improve health care for those she knows and loves. But it isn’t long before she runs into trouble. Louisa’s knowledge doesn’t mesh with the old ways of doing things, and her attempts to improve life—especially for the women of Gabriel’s Landing—soon get her into trouble. But Louisa isn’t the only one in her family struggling with obedience. Her father’s refusal to force her to wed brings additional problems and repercussions.

Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say that early on, it is apparent Andy and Louisa both still have feelings for the other. But for much of the book it seems that any lasting relationship will be impossible (ah, the makings of a good romance :D).

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns these intertwined stories took. I appreciated the time the author must have spent researching modern day polygamy, and I felt I had a good look inside what must be reality for many of those sects still practicing today.

I also enjoyed all the intricate details and subplots woven into the story. That Andy has a service dog due to past problems with seizures, was intriguing, as were the folks he met in Kentucky and their stories. I thought the author did a great job showing us Andy’s life as a small town doctor and Louisa’s agonizing struggles back in Utah.

One of my favorite characters in this book was, surprisingly, Louisa’s father (and equally surprising, I really didn’t care for Andy’s dad). The author made him human, and his choice–to live the life he’d been raised in and committed to for so long or to do what he knew was really best for his daughter–was deeply moving. Though the story clearly showed many of the evils of modern day polygamy, it also showed at least some of its followers as kind, loving, and concerned parents.

As I read Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys
I discovered the author and I have something in common. We both enjoy writing long, complicated stories. When it comes to reading a good book, I’ve always thought, “the longer the better,” but I actually felt a little differently this time. SO much happens at the end of this book, that I was left feeling a little dizzy (okay, so maybe that was the pregnancy thing), and I would have much preferred the author saved the events at the ending for a sequel—which I would have eagerly bought. As it is, the ending is surprising, to say the least, and I felt a bit too much happened. And yes, this is definitely the pot calling the kettle black here 😀 I’ve been criticized for doing the exact same thing with my own stories, but I didn’t get it before now. Thanks Ms. Jensen for the lesson—and for the fine read.

Andy and Louisa are characters that will stay with me for a long time. And I have hope that maybe I’ll see them in another book someday soon.

Back in Seattle Again

Nine years ago this past April, my husband and I took our first trip to Seattle. A couple of important things happened on that trip with regards to my writing. The first was that I discovered my “hobby” could actually develop into something serious if I had the time to devote to it. This is how that discovery came about.

Dixon: I’m off to my conference now, dear. See you later. I’ll come back for lunch if I can.

Me: (giving him lingering kiss by the door of our suite in downtown Seattle) I’ll miss you.

Door closes; Dixon leaves. Without bothering to get out of my pajamas, I settle in front of my laptop, excited to write the scene that’s been bouncing around in my head for so long.

Some time later . . .

Dixon: (entering room) Hi.

Me: (not bothering to look up from laptop) Hi.

Dixon: I, uh, thought we were going on a dinner cruise tonight.

Me: (still typing and still not looking up) Mm-hm. I can’t wait.

Dixon: You don’t have to. We’re supposed to leave in a few minutes.

Me: (head snapping up) What?!

Dixon: (observing my disheveled hair and pajamas) So what have you done today? I take it you didn’t go shopping or anything.

Me: (Scrambling to plug in my curling iron, get into my little black dress, and put on mascara all at the same time) No. I’ve been in Scotland in the 12th century all day. You see there’s really evil Englishman, and he set this castle on fire and murdered this Scottish Laird’s wife. So the Scottish guy had to get even, so he went down to England and set the English guy’s castle on fire, but he didn’t kill his wife, even though he could have. But the fire and trauma made her baby come early, and the little girl died. So now she wants revenge, so she goes to Scotland. Except she ends up falling in love with the guy who caused her all the grief, but she doesn’t realize who he is until it’s too late and—

Dixon: (looking at me with glazed eyes) I’m not so sure this climate is good for you.

Me: It’s great! I wrote eight thousand words today.

And so our trip went. While the other wives who’d accompanied their husbands to the conference were out and about shopping, sight seeing, and sitting by the pool, I was content to sit in our suite (which had a most inspiring view of the Space Needle) and write all day. Something had clicked inside, and I was finally in my element. I was amazed and overjoyed to discover I could write for eight hours at a time, and it seemed as if about eight minutes had passed. For the first time, I felt like a real writer.

At night Dixon and I explored Seattle, and I fell in love with it. For a lot of reasons it deserves its claim as one of the most romantic cities. Then, during one of Dixon’s free days, we rented a car and took a ferry ride out to the island of Bainbridge. During our drive around this enchanting, charming island, we passed a house with gorgeous landscaping, a white picket fence–the works. Sometime between seeing that house and the ferry ride back to Seattle, an idea formed in my mind, and by the time we drove our car off the ferry, I’d met Jane, Caroline, Jay, Peter, Mark and Madison from the story that would become Counting Stars. I could hardly wait to get back to our hotel and start writing it—except that I was in the middle of another story, and I knew I needed to finish it first.

Turns out it took me a very long time to finish my Scottish historical and get it to pass muster with the critique group I joined the following year. My “Seattle Story,” as I thought of it, had to percolate for quite some time. So when I finally sat down to write it, I was relying on memories several years old. Fortunately I had some Seattle connections, and was able to fill in the blanks as needed. It was a magical thing when Counting Stars was published last year.

A couple of weeks ago, Dixon and I had the opportunity to return to Seattle. I was excited to go and revisit the places I’d written about, but I was also nervous they’d be different than I’d remembered them, and somehow the magic would change. I needn’t have worried.

Shortly after arriving in the city, an eery sense of deja vu descended on me, starting when a Northwest Airlift helicopter flew overhead—heading toward Swedish Medical Center. Later, as we were riding the ferry, I watched as a young man with a ponytail braved the rain to stand out on the deck alone. When we were walking down mainstreet in Bainbridge, a brown haired young woman, who happened to be driving a Jeep, stopped to let us cross the street. I felt like raising my hand and calling, “Hi, Jane.”

The orange rolls in the bakery were delicious, the island even more beautiful than I remembered. And my only disappointment was not being able to find the house we’d seen on our first visit. But I did see another—a larger home, still with white picket fence and gorgeous landscaping, and a large wooden play structure in back. It wasn’t hard to imagine Jane, being the motivated character she was, disassembling the swingset at their rental and moving it to the cottage on Bainbridge. It was also easy to imagine that she and Peter would have added onto that cottage by now, as there are some changes coming in their family. Changes I hope to incorporate in the two stories I still hope to write about Caroline and Tara.

Visiting Seattle again was a wonderful treat, as time alone with my husband always is. It was also just the thing to get the imagination going, the ideas flowing. And with that . . . back to writing.

Michele’s Three Step Guide For Beating Writer’s Depression—or Lessons Learned From Green Gables

Last week on the LDS Storymaker list, a very talented author asked others how they deal with the depression writers encounter—those times we feel everything we’ve ever written is garbage and we’d be better off flipping burgers at the local fast food joint. The slew of responses from many other talented authors showed clearly that a nerve had been hit. Self-doubt, depression, and times of downright misery are all part of the writing package. I’ve experienced them myself, and was in fact in the very throes of one last week while this email thread was going round. Instead of responding on the list I decided to blog about it—so those not yet published will know what they’re in for and know they aren’t alone!

Before I share my tried and true method for rising out of the writer’s depression mire, I want to explain that I know and understand real depression. My two oldest children have dealt with this (and consequently, so has our whole family) for several years. Clinical depression is a very real thing, and sometimes both medical and psychological help are needed to deal with this condition. And it is a very real condition. As I’ve explained to my children in the past, just as diabetics need to take insulin to keep their blood sugar levels in balance, some people need to take medication to keep their chemical levels in balance.

Fortunately, beating writer’s depression requires no medication—not even large doses of chocolate! Though many will disagree with me on this 😀

Step 1. Be Sad

Last week I received an email from my publisher explaining they still weren’t happy with my latest manuscript and wanted an additional rewrite, 80 pages cut etc. I was sad—really sad. And, as Anne Shirley (Green Gables, anyone?), I descended into the “depths of despair” in about two minutes. Writers, as a whole, are a pretty emotional lot, and I’m probably one of the worst. This is a real plus when you’re writing an emotionally packed scene; it’s a real negative when you’re dealing with rejection. As I reread this latest rejection, I sat at my computer and bawled—thinking positive, reaffirming things like, “I’m never going to get this book published. That’s it, I’m never writing again. I just wasted a year of my life for what?!” and, “it’s probably for the best. Now I can catch up on the ironing.”

In short, I was wallowing big time.

Some of my writer friends (Jeff) tell me I’m a pessimist, but really the opposite is true. I’ve experienced some pretty rough times in my life (and getting a rejection doesn’t even make the list), and with every trial I manage to bounce back fairly quick. But first I wallow. And when I’m there—as my husband has learned—let me be. The first step to feeling better is to feel bad. The Lord gave us tear ducts for a reason—use them.

Step 2. Get Mad

I can only cry for so long—an hour tops, usually, and then anger kicks in. My thoughts now turn to . . . “Do they not realize I put blood, sweat, and tears into that manuscript?!” While I’m sure Anne found it immensely satisfying to tell off Rachel Lynde and crack that slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head, I am a bit more practical in my anger. During my mad stage, I’ll often crank up the stereo and run on the treadmill, or scrub the top layer off our floors or attack some poor, unsuspecting bush in the yard. This time, I was fortunate in that I had a project I’d been putting off for some time. Our bathroom wallpaper needed to be removed and the walls painted. Scraping off wallpaper and scrubbing the walls clean proved a very effective release for my anger. Rolling on the fresh coat of paint while I thought through things (more logically now) soothed the last of my irrational state away, and a few hours later I had a sparkling new bathroom to show for it. Later that night as I brushed my teeth and admired our freshly-painted walls, I couldn’t help but feel a little better, as at least I’d accomplished something that day.

Step 3. Get to work

When I say work, I don’t mean cleaning or painting (those things become luxuries when you’re a writer), I’m talking about writing. If the project is at all salvageable, then get back to it and pour what blood, sweat and tears you have left into the thing. If it isn’t—if you’ve literally been rejected by every agent on the planet—then maybe it’s time to shelve it for a while and come back later when you can look at it more objectively. But until then, you’ve still got to work if you want to feel better. Since the time I last submitted something to my publisher (six weeks ago), I’ve worked on three different projects and finally settled into one. And while I really hope I can work something out on the manuscript giving me grief right now, if I can’t, I’m ready to forge ahead with the next project. Write something that makes you laugh. Or start something completely new. Put pen to paper and begin writing one of the stories that’s been nagging in the back of your mind for a while. You might be pleasantly surprised (as I was recently) at how quickly the idea blossoms when you start to write it.

Writers should never put all their eggs in one basket—or all their hopes into one manuscript. To do so is to really set yourself up for a fall. If you’re a writer, you have plenty of stories in you. Now is the time to get working and get another one going (if you haven’t already). Kind of like the game Parchesi, you need to get another man out and start moving him around the board.

Perhaps one of the reasons I love the Anne of Green Gables series so much, is that we see this same pattern in her life. She wallows. She gets good and angry. She gets back to work. After dealing with Gilbert’s blow about, “high falluting mumbo-jumbo,” and enduring the baking powder fiasco, Anne does not despair forever her dreams of writing. During a particularly lonely time, she gets back to work again and finally finds success.

Get back to work, and you will too.

Season of Sacrifice—a labor of love

I am a picky reader. Like the writer’s depression I blogged about last time, being picky with my reading material is an unfortunate byproduct of writing. And the more I write and learn about good writing, the pickier I get with what I read. No longer can I simply read for enjoyment; instead I find myself analyzing the characters’ actions, the dialogue, the motivation and conflict. It’s really annoying—most of all to myself, because I really love to read. And there are a lot of good stories out there that are less than perfect–mine included.

While I still read a great deal, a book has to speak to me, touch me in some way if I’m going to recommend it to others. Today I’m happy to say that I have a great recommendation, a book I think should be read by every Latter-day Saint and those outside our faith as well.

Tristi Pinkston’s Season of Sacrifice is a fictionalized account of her ancestors, Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah Perkins, who immigrated from Wales, became faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, pioneered their way through Hole in the Rock to settle the San Juan Valley, and finally entered into a polygamous marriage.

I admit to being presdisposed to liking this book. I’d heard its history–how one of the big LDS publishing houses rejected it because, though it was a well-written and compelling story, it dealt with the issue of polygamy. Rather than getting it published, the author refused to take out the storyline dealing with this sensitive and often taboo subject and has waited some time before being able to self-publish this story. Hats off to Tristi for hanging in there, and for sticking with what really happened to her ancestors. Their story is both heart-wrenching and eye-opening, and since reading it, I cannot stop thinking about Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah who really lived and endured so very much.
Now onto the story . . . SPOILERS AHEAD!

The book begins in 1859 in Treboeth Wales with fifteen-year-old Ben Perkins and his father assisting in the rescue and removal of bodies from a coal mine collapse. It doesn’t take long to see the harsh realities of life in this time period and coal mining town. Children as young as six are sent to work in the mines; accidents are common; health is poor. Those fortunate enough to avoid working in the mines, like Sarah Williams, work hard at home, helping run the household from sunup to sundown.

Throughout the first section of the book–sixty-eight pages–one trial after another befalls the Williams and Perkins families. Ben immigrates to America, leaving his sweetheart Mary Anne behind with a promise he’ll send for her when he’s saved enough money. To do that, he takes a job on the trail, driving a team of oxen. There’s just one problem with this—Ben has never worked with oxen before. What was probably a very trying experience is a rather humorous part of the book.
The first day goes all right though,
Ben looked at the animals, and they looked at him. Neither were impressed. The second day things get ugly when Ben mistakenly hitches the wrong oxen to his wagon.

“Where’s my ox? Somebody stole my ox!”
Several of the other teamsters ran over, looking around them. Ben came too, wondering who could be so thoughtless as to steal that poor man’s animal.
“There it is!” one of the men yelled, pointing to Ben’s wagon.
“Ben! Why did you take my ox?” The teamster, a man named Clint, yelled in his face.
“They look the same,” Ben said. He didn’t know that ox wasn’t his. An ox was an ox, right? They were all big and ugly.

Unfortunately for Ben, the trip didn’t get any easier, but he did save enough money for the rest of his family, along with Mary Anne, to make the journey to America. Mary Anne joins him, they are married and have two children, one of whom dies shortly after birth. A short while later Mary Anne is asked to take in a baby whose mother has died. Though at first she does not think she can care for the child, she finds her heart is not as closed as she believed, and she comes to love the little girl as her own.

With Mary Anne gone, much of the work in the Williams’ home falls to her sister (younger by nine years), Sarah. Their father takes a mining job in Russia and ends up being gone three years–much longer than he or his family anticipated. In his absence, Sarah’s older brother Thomas runs away to Australia, her mother has another baby, and they are forced to sell their home and move to a smaller one to make ends meet. Throughout all of this Sarah is seen as a patient, long-suffering and introspective young woman.

Upon her father’s return, the family decides to immigrate to America both to improve her father’s health and to be near her sister, Mary Anne, living in Cedar City, Utah.
Sarah faces the difficult decision of staying behind and marrying the young man who is courting her or leaving with her family.

Sarah stood for a moment on the steps of the Methodist Church and pulled a scarf over her head. The eastern breezes had brought fog from the ocean, and it hung thick and ghost-like over the town, wrapping itself around the tall steeples of the church. She loved days like that–days when the sun would peek through the clouds only occasionally, giving hints about what might be to come but not letting on too much.

As she ponders her choices and the subject of religion (unlike her parents, she has not been baptized) she eventually decides she must go with her family, leaving her homeland and her beau behind forever.

At this point in the story I felt like I had to catch my breath as so much had happened so quickly. And this is my complaint about this book (told you I was picky). Many huge, significant events are given only a paragraph or two while the author pushes ahead to the main story–what happened in Utah. Tristi is a talented writer (see the above excerpt), and I would loved to have seen more time and pages devoted to some of the events in these people’s lives. However, having said that, and having read the entire book, I do understand what an incredible story she had to tell and I can only imagine the enormous task it must have been to tie it all together. The book does slow down for the telling of the journey to the San Juan valley, and it slows down even more during the last section titled, “The Sacrifice.” And presenting it this way does make sense in that all the things these people went through—poverty, sickness, death, being separated from each other by an ocean, pioneering a trail through the desert in the middle of winter—pale in comparison to what they were ultimately asked to do.

The third section of the book is devoted to the perilous journey Ben, Mary Anne, their children, and several other saints (including Sarah) take from Cedar City to settle the San Juan valley. What was supposed to be a six week journey turns into six months as the group blazes their own trail, including the famous hole in the rock. The author’s research for this section is meticulous, and I really learned a lot about the painfully slow and dangerous process of this expedition. My favorite part was the story (documented in the chapter notes at the end of the book) about another family on the journey, Stanford and Arabella Smith, who had to bring their wagon down the hole alone because no one remained behind to help them. Stanford later retells the traumatic experience to Ben and Mary Anne.

“I told her I feared we couldn’t make it. She was calm as she could be. ‘We have to make it,’ she said.
“I told her if we had someone to hold the wagon back, we might succeed.”
Stanford paused and rubbed his face. He resumed talking, his voice thick with tears.
“Belle said she would hold the wagon back. She told me she’d pull back on Nig’s lines and that we’d leave the children at the top and come back for them. I worried we wouldn’t come back, but she said we would. We wrapped the children up in blankets and set them on a snow bank. Roy, he’s our three-year-old, sat down, and Belle put the baby between his legs. She told him to hold his little brother until we came back for them. She put Ada, our oldest, in front of the two boys and asked her to say a little prayer, and told them not to move and not to stand up.” Tears ran freely down Stanford’s cheeks.

The rest of the passage is too long to recount here (go buy the book!) but reading it brought tears to my eyes. I cannot imagine the faith these people had. And I wasn’t even to the really gripping, emotionally-wrenching part of the story yet.

The last section of the book deals with the polygamous marriage of Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah. This was difficult for me to read, and I can only imagine how terribly hard it must have been to write. I love and adore my husband and feel the same emotions from him, and I cannot imagine much worse than having to share that with someone else. One of the great blessings of living the gospel is our belief in the law of chastity. Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) have very strict beliefs when it comes to sexual intimacy. It is reserved for marriage and marriage only. How grateful I’ve been over the twenty years of my marriage, that both my husband and I followed this counsel in our youth. The intimacies between us are between us only; they are a sacred, loving, and binding part of our marriage. I truly feel sorry for those living the world’s standards who do not have this blessing. And along these lines, I’ve always struggled with our church’s polygamous past, knowing it is something I could not do. We are asked to love the Lord more than anything else, and to be honest I struggle with this when it comes to my husband and children. I am grateful the sacrifices I’ve been called upon to make have come in the form of sharing time and talents. My husband serves as a bishop, and there have been times I’ve hated to share him with that calling, times I selfishly wanted him home with our family. I don’t doubt that is something I will continue to struggle with while he has this calling, though I try my best to be supportive. I know his love and service has blessed many people, and yet I yearn for the days when we were younger, life was simpler, and he was home by five!

As I read about Ben, Mary Anne, and Sarah, I could not help but make comparisons, and of course my little sacrifice paled in light of what they had to do. I have no doubt Tristi was inspired to write this part of the story. Her telling of it left me with much to think about and a deeper understanding and appreciation for what a polygamous marriage entailed. Every Latter-Day Saint should read this story, if for no other reason than to answer the questions often posed by those not of our faith. Should someone ask me about our polygamous history now, I would feel I had some appropriate and accurate answers. And while it is something I will never completely understand (one of those things I trust Heavenly Father will clarify and explain some day) I feel a greater peace with our past.

Ben first proposes the idea of a polygamous marriage to Sarah, telling her his patriarchal blessing (given years earlier) told him he would someday take a second wife. This has always troubled both he and Mary Anne, as they love each other deeply and are happy together. Aside from knowing this will hurt the woman he loves the most, Ben is also concerned with the practicality of such an arrangement.

He couldn’t say the principle made sense to him. He couldn’t even imagine how he was to go about supporting two wives–he barely had enough to care for one.

Mary Anne reacts much as I imagine I would, she is crushed, her heart broken, the trust between them shattered. That Ben would marry her own sister makes things that much worse.

“Nothing has happened, Mary Ann. He asked me a question, that is all.”
“That’s all?” Mary Ann rose and crossed the floor, her face in Sarah’s. “He asked you to share with him a life that he has only shared with me. He is taking away a portion of himself and giving it to you. My children will do without a father for a period of time so he can spend it wooing you. And you think that’s all?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Sarah said softly. “I meant that his actions toward me, and mine toward him, have been above reproach.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Mary Ann retorted. “I know my husband well enough to know that he wouldn’t say or do anything inappropriate. But the fact remains that while he’s been married to me, he’s been thinking about you.”

Ouch. And well said. Mary Ann’s hurt became my own as I read these passages. I felt her relief when her sister refused and returned to Cedar City. And I absolutely loved the comparison Mary Ann (and the author) drew with Abraham’s sacrifice.

She badly wanted the Lord to tell him (Ben) he had done enough, that no more would be required. Hadn’t Abraham been released from his heart-wrenching commandment? But even as she had the thought, she knew it was not possible in her own life. God had made a command, and Ben would strive to fulfill it at all costs. It was part of why she loved him. She never dreamed it would be part of why she hated him.

I tried to understand why both Ben and Sarah spent the following year grappling with the decision. I wanted Sarah to get on a boat back to Wales and marry the man she’d left behind. But she understood that to do so would have been to leave her faith, and the opportunity to raise children in the gospel, behind. Ultimately she chose her faith over everything else and became Ben’s second wife—a marriage very different from her sister’s I might add. I felt her hurt too, imagining how it would be on your wedding day, if, shortly after the wedding, your husband left to spend the night with and comfort his other wife. There wasn’t any romance here that I could see, but rather a resignation to the harsh reality that there weren’t enough men for every woman to have her own husband and to raise up a righteous family. And so incredible sacrifices were made.

Sarah’s decision divided her family—her parents were hurt and hateful, accusing her of setting her cap for her sister’s husband. Mary Ann was so wounded she too acted out of character, striking her sister and at first refusing to speak with her. I felt Sarah’s hurt when she pled with Ben.

“Promise me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “Promise me that the Lord will make it right.”
“He will make it right,” Ben echoed. “He always does . . . in his own due time.”

For me right is one husband and one wife. And I still have hope a loving Heavenly Father will arrange that for these people in the life to come. But for the time they spent on earth, they had to learn to live with their situation. Eventually, unbelievably, harmony came to the home they shared. Feelings were mended. Love overcame the wounds. Personally, this is still something I don’t think I could ever recover from. But in thinking about my life, there are things that have happened in our own family that, even now, I am not sure how the Lord managed to heal, and yet he has.

The fact remains that the early saints sacrificed much and brought forth a strong, righteous prosperity. I am grateful Tristi took the time to research and write one family’s story in such a profound and moving way. It is a story that has forever altered the way I will think about some things, and it has given me cause to look into the stories of my own ancestors and learn from the experiences and sacrifices in their lives.

What I Meant to Say

My wonderful, supportive husband—this guy is the reason I write romance.

The ladies of the LDS Women’s Book Review Podcast—Sheila,Hillary, and Shanda.

James Dashner and Brandon Sanderson. I know famous people :)

My most awesome editor for Counting Stars, Angela Eschler.

Josi Kilpack, winner of the Whitney for best suspense. Sheep’s Clothing was terrifyingly real—especially for those of us with teens.

Annette and Heather, my critique buds. These ladies should have had their names on my trophy as well. They, along with the rest of our group, taught me everything I know about writing.

WARNING: This is going to be a long post (even for me, which is saying a lot). If you are a writer and haven’t met your word count today, get outta here and come back later. If you’re a SAHM whose children need food or a diaper change, please attend to their needs first. If you’re at work . . . just make sure your boss is out of the office!

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the 5th annual LDS Storymakers conference. It was fantastic, and later I’ll have to write a separate blog about the two days packed with great workshops and speakers.

The weekend culminated Saturday evening with the Whitney Awards Gala. As I mentioned a couple of blogs ago, I’d been nominated for two Whitneys, and I was looking forward to a great evening with my husband and a bunch of famous people. I didn’t have any expectation of winning—as I was up against ladies like Rachel Nunes and Stephanie Meyers in the romance category and Jessica Day George (I predicted that one right) in the new author category. But in a way that took a lot of pressure off the night for me. I didn’t worry about, “what if’s,” but I did want to look nice. And in that quest, I did two things—purchased new nylons (no wrapping my toes around holes tonight!), and set my hair in painful curlers and got little sleep the night before. I’d hoped for sexy legs and a classy updo.

Unfortunately, I had failure on both accounts.

Shortly before the Whitney dinner (and I mean shortly, cause people kept talking to me in the hall—which was way cool. An author can never hear too many times that someone loved her story) I went up to our hotel room and joined my husband who had biked up from Provo for the evening. I changed into my dress and opened the brand new nylons. I’d purchased the “long” variety because that was all I’d been able to find at the store during my fifteen- minutes-between-carpool-stop on Thursday. Though I’m nowhere near 5’8″ as the chart on the back said I should be, I was hopeful that the nylons would work out all right anyway. They didn’t. But instead of being too long, they were horribly short—the label confirmed they were mispackaged, as I’d guessed when they only came up to my knees.

My husband sat on the bed and held the top of the nylons. I walked backward across the room, pulling on the feet, attempting to stretch the things into submission. I put them back on and a minute later was waddling. Clearly this was not going to work out. Frustrated—and with about a minute before we were supposed to head downstairs—I ripped the nylons off, threw them on the floor and had a very two-year-oldish tantrum. Of all the nights! I was a little depressed as I looked down at my glaringly white legs (it’s March—they haven’t seen the sun in months). In addition to the white leg problem, I was also now without the benefit of the super control top—hopefully-hide-the-given-birth-four-times-abs-of-flab-problem—the pantyhose would have provided.

First lessons of the night: Holey nylons are better than no nylons, and open the package at the store.

I suppose baring my white legs and having to suck in my stomach all night wouldn’t have been too bad, but my problems only began there. My hair wasn’t cooperating either. Earlier I had pinned it up on top of my head—as Julie and Josi had theirs so stylishly done—but by ten a.m. I’d given up, taken it down and taken some Advil. Unfortunately, I get headaches easily, and it was a case of comfort over beauty. But that comfort left me with a head of messy curls that looked nothing like Jewel’s smoothly styled ones. But again, I had no time to do anything about either problem, so away we went.

Lesson two: Go with what God gives you. I have straight hair, and you can bet I’ll wear it that way (as my smart friend, Annette did) next year.

On our way downstairs I noticed my husband had a cut on his chin from shaving. His knee was also hurting; he’d done something to it on the bike ride up. So we limped along together (after two days in high heels, my feet were killing me), and I had the reaffirming feeling that we were made for each other.

It was a, “this is why I write fiction” moment. Things never quite turn out as I imagine them . . . Her hair trailed down in a riot of gorgeous curls as the tall, dark, handsome man beside her swept her up in his arms, kissing her passionately as the elevator descended . . .

Reality was we both made it to our table without tripping.

We soon forgot our woes and enjoyed our awesome tablemates—my good friend, Heather Moore and her husband, Rob Wells and his wife, and Dean Hughes and his wife. Fame all around me. It was very cool. Other famous people I was dying to meet, like Shannon Hale and Jessica Day George, flitted around the room. The yummy dinner was served, and I forgot all about my messy hair and white legs. My legs were, in fact, hidden by the long tablecloth, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt if I took my shoes off too. Again, I’ll always choose comfort over beauty—or in this case, basic etiquette.

At some point early in the program we stood and applauded, and I was careful to keep my bare feet under the table. As we sat down again, I had the thought that I should put my shoes back on. Of course I ignored this.

It was time for the winner to be announced in the romance category. I sighed to myself, feeling a little bummed that Stephanie Meyers wasn’t in attendance. I wondered who would be accepting the award for her.

And then Annette called my name.

My husband smiled this awesome smile at me, and I realized I had to go up there and say something, and I didn’t even know where my shoes were. Somehow I managed to find them under the table and get up to the podium.

Lesson 3: When at a formal dinner, always keep your footwear on, or at least where you can locate it without having to stick your head under the table. And when you hear those little promptings—LISTEN!

As I walked up front, I remember thinking that it was the coolest thing in the world that it was Annette who called my name. More than anyone else, this woman is the one responsible for me being there in the first place. She was the first one to read (I mean really read my writing—and it came back looking like she’d sliced open a major artery while doing so), and it was she who invited me join a critique group with other amazing writers, LuAnn and Stephanie. From there our group grew to include Jeff, Heather, Lynda, and James, and it just kept getting better.

I knew I wanted to thank these people, but the first thoughts that came to my mind were how many times I’d entered (at a mere $50.00 a shot) the national RWA Golden Heart Contest and never even been a finalist. How was it possible then, that I was a winner in a contest I didn’t even enter, didn’t have to pay for—and was in fact receiving money from? I’m never going to fulfill that Golden Heart dream now—published authors are not eligible—but the dream I was suddenly living was so much better. That’s what I wanted to express and am afraid I failed to do so. This is what I meant to say.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try, and dug my heels in against so much, the LDS fiction market. For years I never imagined this path, but since deciding to give it a try, I’ve had one great experience after another.

I should have known it would be this way. Annette, LuAnn, Heather, Stephanie, Lynda, Jeff, and James are all such great people. And dang smart too. I should have listened to them much earlier. I think I tried thanking them Saturday night, but I’m sure I didn’t express enough how grateful I am for the way they so generously share their talents and time. When I started with our group, I didn’t even know how to use quote marks correctly. I had imagination, but it ended there. How blessed I am that they didn’t vote me out of the group that first month. If not for these wonderful people, I’d have never been published, let alone received an award for my writing.

Even after all of their guidance and my best efforts, my writing still needed something more. Enter Angela Eschler, my talented and oh-so-patient editor. I completely forgot to thank her, and all those others at Covenant who helped in so many ways. Forgive me, please! I’ve never had such a difficult time forming coherent thought as I did during those few minutes Saturday night.

But here’s the thing about Angela. A great editor is much like a coach in being able to see what a project needs and knowing how to get that out of the author. If not for Angela, two of the scenes I get the most emails about would not be in the book. Originally, the scene where Caroline is breastfeeding her baby was cut. I begged for it to stay, and Angela went to bat for me, taking a risk with something a little outside the normal boundaries Covenant publishes. Another scene—Mark’s tragic surgery—didn’t even exist when I turned in Counting Stars. Angela knew something was missing and encouraged me to write more about this heartbreaking section of the book. I did and turned in a funeral scene. She sent it back and in her very non-demanding way, told me it wasn’t quite there. I tried again—spent a good long time sitting at my computer, exploring Jane’s feelings, dredging up some of my own sorrows, and crying as I wrote the chapter that ended up in the book. Aside from being a marvelous coach, Angela and the Covenant team were also very thorough. It really irritates me when I hear someone say that LDS books are not well edited. I cannot imagine any better editing than was done for my book. Everything was double and triple checked, and so many people, from the artists to the copyeditors, worked to make it the best it could be. A huge thanks to all of you—especially Angela.

Fourth lesson of the night: Even if you don’t think you have a prayer of winning, think about what you’d say and who you’d like to thank if you did. Messy hair and white legs don’t matter in the long run, but forgetting to thank important people does.

Finally I attempted to thank the wonderful man sitting a few feet in front of me. My husband Dixon is absolutely the best husband a woman—and writer—could ever imagine. He is the reason I write romance, the reason that after twenty years of marriage I still know what it’s like to be madly and passionately in love.

Dixon has sacrificed an awful lot for me to pursue my writing dreams—and I’m not just talking about all that money we’ve dropped in pursuit of a Golden Heart. I’m talking about his time. Eight years of critique group at approximately thirty-five weeks per year, times four hours each of those weeks equals an astounding one thousand one hundred twenty hours that he’s been running things at home so I could work on my writing. In addition to that, there are those Saturdays (several a year) when he sends me to the library for six hours at a time, while he stays at home, does laundry, helps with homework, and everything else that needs to be done. When I left early Friday morning to attend the conference, I left Dixon with a list including, getting our two teens out the door to seminary, packing four lunches, reviewing spelling words with our youngest, curling two daughters’ hair and making sure they looked good for school pictures, driving six children to elementary school (and picking them up later), grocery shopping, preparing dinner, taking the teens to and from work, and helping with homework. Of course he did all that (and much more) without complaint. He is so awesome.

As I returned to my seat Saturday night, I remembered a florist’s card I’d carried in my purse for several years now. It originally came with a dozen roses that Dixon bought me, following a particularly painful rejection from a national agent (she’d requested my entire manuscript, only to then reject it—triple ouch!). The card reads, “Michele, Don’t give up!! It will happen. I know you can do it. Dix” He believed in me when I couldn’t anymore, and I’m so grateful for that and for his unconditional love. Heaven knows I am not the perfect wife. But he always treats me like I am.

The day last spring when we picked up my box of books from Covenant was very much like crossing the finish line in the marathons he runs. Saturday night, he cheered for me, just as I cheered for him when he finished his first triathalon last year. It’s the best thing in the world when we see the payoff for all the hard work we’ve put in. And no one else knows better than we do, how hard each of us work at our individual goals. Dixon isn’t through yet—he’s got Ironman dreams. I’ve got dreams too, and he knows them. How blessed I feel to be able to work toward them with such a great companion at my side.

And how blessed I feel to be surrounded by such great people and in such a wonderful place. Publishing in the LDS market has been the best experience. I’m excited and grateful to be where I am, and I can’t wait to see what the coming years bring. There are so many talented people involved on all sides, that I think we’re truly heading toward those days when we will see, “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own,” as Orson F. Whitney predicted.

Finally, I meant to thank Rob, Stephanie, Kerry, James, Crystal, B.J., and Julie for all their hard work—for taking an excellent idea and making it a reality. I can’t imagine the hours you must have put in, and I hope I can join your ranks in the future, helping with this great program. I’d love to be at the podium again next year, but this time opening an envelope and reading a name, making someone else’s dream come true.

Posted by Michele Holmes at 8:50 AM 10 comments

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Band Van

Last Thursday night I’d just fallen asleep when I was awakened by my seventeen-year-old son.

“Mom! You gotta see this. Come quick.”

The bedroom light glared, illuminating my son, hopping up and down in the doorway. Had he been about ten years younger, I would have ordered him into the bathroom at once. Instead, I left the comfort of my bed and donned robe and slippers to see what was up. Already a little leery of what that might be (recent experience in the form of a bazillion watt, six-foot tall amp weighing on my mind), I followed him to the front door and outside.

And there, gracing our driveway, was an old, ugly, Dodge van conversion—with teenage boys swarming all over it.

“What is it?” I asked, though I could clearly see that at one time it had passed as a motor vehicle.

“It’s our band van,” Spencer exclaimed. “Isn’t it sweet? I just bought it.”

“You what?!” I was awake now.

“I bought it from the Tongan family around the corner—just $300.”

Feeling dizzy, I sat down hard on the step while Spencer continued explaining the intricacies of his van—the van that would now be parked in our driveway. The realtor we’d just listed our house with was going to be thrilled.

“Come see the inside, Mom.” Spencer ran down the walk. After a minute I followed, determined to see it all—the bad, the worse, and the truly awful. The side doors opened as I approached.

“All the doors open and close. And it’s only missing one window.” Spencer’s friend, sitting in the driver’s seat, informed me. The van shook as his brother scaled the ladder on the back and beat on the roof.

“It’s solid!” he shouted down to us.

I peeked inside. It was was dirty and smelly and—

“Isn’t it sweet?” Spencer asked. “We already took the other two captain’s chairs out, so we can redo the carpet. And we’ll keep them out when we’re transporting our equipment. But when we take road trips to Moab, the seats will be great.”

I frowned as I eyed the couch in back. “Just who are you thinking of going to Moab with?” I looked around at all the boys and spoke in my sternest voice. “This is not going to be a van that’s a rockin. No girls—got it?”

“This van’s going to rock all right,” Spencer’s friend, Jordan said. “With music. The tape player even works.”

“It’s just for moving our band equipment, Mom,” Spencer said. “And for taking road trips. It’s perfect.” He was practically glowing.

It was suddenly hard not to share his enthusiasm. His grin was infectious, and in his eyes I saw reflections of my own youth. I realized he was right. For him the van was perfect. He was feeling on top of the world, and for a few minutes, anyway, I understood why.

For a mere $300. he’d just purchased a good piece of freedom and independence. Not only would these wheels get him around town and beyond (or so he hopes), but they’d solve the transportation problem for his band. Now—when they’re soon in hot demand—they’ll be able to travel to their gigs.

I never had a band, never had musical aspirations like he does, but I did have a car and a lot of dreams as a youth. As I stood in my robe and slippers in our driveway, looking at “the beast,” as the boys had already dubbed it, I was transported back in time to 1985, to the glorious day I got my driver’s license and to the little Le Car my father purchased for me. I remember well the exhilarating freedom that little car brought me. I remember stuffing it full of girls and luggage and heading off to French camp the summer between my junior and senior years of high school—and getting grounded from my car when I returned home. Seems I wasn’t supposed to drive that many girls, that far, on California’s busy highways. I think I recall knowing this beforehand, but how could I resist driving my French car to French camp? I still remember pulling into the parking lot, my friends, standing up in the back, waving wildly through the sun roof. Good times. Fun memories.

I sold that little car to help pay for my freshman year at BYU, but when I returned home the next summer, my stepfather was very generous, letting me drive his Honda all over the place. I remember driving down to Marriotts Great America and getting lost at night in San Francisco on the way home. My friend from Colorado checked the door locks and hunkered down in her seat as we drove through some less-than-desirable parts of town trying to find our way to the Golden Gate. We eventually did and spent a couple more days in the city that week, exploring everything from Chinatown to Pier 39, Saks 5th Avenue, and beyond. Ah youth . . . when having fun was the central part of our life. School, work, marriage, babies, mortgages, retirement, and our own teenagers were all in the distant future. The present was the time for exploring the world and having fun.

How could I have forgotten?

I hurried into the house and called my husband’s cell phone, bracing him for the sight that was to greet him when he returned home from a late night taking care of bishop responsibilities. Fortunately, like me, he isn’t too old to remember how it was to be young and to have transportation—no matter how hideous (he drove a Maverick that had seen better days). And when he returned home, he spent some time with Spencer, listening as he pointed out all the fine features on the band van.

Since last Thursday, said van has undergone a few changes: carpet removed (and AC line accidentally cut in the process. Thanks, good neighbor for helping the boys repair it), and a free-for-all paint job(ie. all the various leftover paint we had in our garage) on the outside of the van. Teenage priorities being what they are, the boys are “tricking it out” before they pursue seeing if it will pass inspection. Once it does that, there’s just one more detail Spencer needs to take care of to put the grand plan for the band van into action . . .

We hope he’ll have his license soon.

Wart and the Whitneys

A couple of weeks ago my daughter B (name withheld to protect the guilty) had the opportunity to go to the district science fair at the American Leadership Academy in Spanish Fork. This is the second year her project has made it to the district level, and she was pretty excited. I have to admit that, at first, I was not. The term science fair roughly translates to, “lots of work for Mom,” and district level means, “more work for Mom.” However, daughter B and partner did nearly everything themselves this year (aside from transportation and photography), and on the afternoon of the district fair, I packed them and the project into our suburban and headed south.

Once we were there, I had a good time, and the kids did too—repeatedly rehearsing their presentation, going to different Bill Nye-type science classes, watching a magic show, and eating pizza and hanging out with their friends. The event started at 4:00 and ended shortly before ten. I headed home around 7:00, when they went in for judging. Daughter B’s, partner’s dad took over from there. Hint to parents who may not yet have experienced, “the science fair”–Always have your child work with a partner. We’ve done this two years in a row, and it’s been a very good thing. Nothing like splitting the stress with another set of parents :)

When daughter B arrived home later that evening, I wasn’t sure if she was really my child or not. Normally she is easy-going and a source of great joy in our home, but the girl who walked through the door brought a storm cloud of out-of-control emotion with her. She marched up the steps, threw her belongings down and, with a scowl that stretched across her entire face, proceeded to unleash a tirade of anger and accusations, all directed toward an individual named Wart. When I finally got her calmed down, I discovered that Wart (name changed by my daughter) had won the only spot from their school to go on to the regional competition.

I was still baffled by my daughter’s odd behavior. After all, she hadn’t won last year, and it wasn’t a big deal. I reminded her of this.

“But Emily won last year, and she’s nice, so I was happy for her.”

“Wart isn’t nice?” I guessed.

“He’s horrid, Mom. And he cheated. He bought his mice for the project at Petco, and one of the rules was that you couldn’t buy animals at a pet store. Then he left them in the garage and they froze to death!”

“That’s too bad,” I said, silently wondering if Wart’s mom felt the same way. After all, what do you do with three science fair mice, after the fair is over? If it were me, I wouldn’t have been too excited about the prospect of three new pets. But still, my daughter had a point about animal cruelty.

“And that’s not all,” she continued. “He bribed the judges tonight. He bragged about it afterward.”

This accusation seemed a little over-the-top. “The judges were BYU students—probably a pretty honest bunch. I doubt they were bribed with a candy bar or anything else. Wart was probably just teasing. Boys your age do that a lot, you know.”

“I know,” she huffed as the first tear slid down her cheek. “But I really wanted to win a medal.”

Ahhhh . . . Now I got it. Daughter B, while easy-going, is also our most competitive child. Whatever she does, she likes to do it well, and she’ll keep at it until she does. The nine medals and two trophies in her room attest to this. She’s a bit of a perfectionist, something that has worried my husband and I on more than one occasion.

So I softened my words, put my arm around her, and comforted her as best I could. I reminded her what a great job she and her partner had done on their project. I told her it was an honor that she was one of a handful of kids who made it to the district level—two years in a row. I talked about the fun evening we’d shared together—free of her siblings—the things she’d learned doing the project, the fact that she was good at science. Her dad joined us, and we both told her how much we love her and how proud we are of all her accomplishments.

She went to bed a while later, somewhat mollified. And as I headed to bed myself, it struck me that the words of wisdom I’d just imparted to my daughter, were exactly how I felt about the upcoming Whitney awards. I also realized there were probably a few people I ought to express those feelings to.

For those reading this who may not know what I’m talking about, the Whitney Awards—named such for prominent LDS church member Orson F. Whitney—honor the best of LDS fiction. Counting Stars is a finalist this year in both the romance category and, best book by new author, category. That it’s there in either of those is pretty cool, and I sincerely thank all the people who nominated it. It was kind and thoughtful of you, and I truly appreciate such great fans.

However, after reading all those other books that Counting Stars is up against, I imagine the Whitney award results will, for me, be somewhat similar to the outcome of my daughter’s science fair. While I put my all into that story—laughed, cried, fell in love with the characters, pulled my hair out in frustration trying to make it all come together—it was just my best effort and not necessarily equal to someone else’s best. For example, Stephanie Meyer’s New York Times bestseller, Eclipse is also a finalist in the romance category. Whether you like what Mrs. Meyer writes or not (and I happen to like it quite a bit), if you’ve read her books, you will probably agree that she is a very good writer. If I’d been truly honest with my vote (LDStorymaker members each had one vote), I’d have chosen Eclipse for best romance of the year. But I’m not that noble :) After realizing I’d missed my deadline for a June release and would not be getting another check until next February, I decided I would go ahead and vote for myself, on the off chance that it mattered. I’m certain Mrs. Meyer makes a tiny bit more than I do with her writing :)

But when all is said and done, and the night is over, I imagine that I will feel happy for whoever brings home the trophies. I’ve read and enjoyed the entries and am happy to say there are no “Warts,” only several well-deserving authors. I feel privileged to be listed among them, and I’m looking forward to an evening out with my husband and friends. Being a Whitney Award finalist is very much the icing on the cake to a dream come true. After spending seven years trying to get a book published, making it to “district level” the first time around is pretty amazing. But the real reward came months ago, when your emails and letters gave me what a writer dreams of the most—readers who love her story. I thank you for those letters, my trophy of words, that has become most precious and inspiring.