Judging for the Whitney Awards Part 2

As promised, here is a little more information on the criteria I personally look for when judging for the romance category of the Whitney Awards. Be forwarned, this is likely to be a long post, as each of these subjects could be a blog—or three—by themselves. I’ll do my best to give concise examples of each. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree or have another opinion. Feel free to take a nap if I’m boring you.

But romance, for me, is a passionate subject.

As I mentioned previously, there are no specific guidelines given to judges of the Whitney Awards. First, to answer Stephanie Black’s question about the process, what it comes down to is having a ranked list (from 1-20 in romance this year) of the books from best written to, well, the not best written. It would be more gentle, perhaps, to say favorite to least favorite, but the Whitney Awards are not about favorites—regarding authors, subject matter or anything else. Case in point being the general category last year. Jonathan Langford’s book, No Going Back, dealt with a subject matter—a teen boy’s struggle with same sex attraction—that I didn’t particularly want to delve into. As a mother of a teenage boy, this pretty much sounded like one of my worst nightmares. Based on that, one would think that there was no way this book was going to be my “favorite” or anything close. I began reading, and I wasn’t very far into the story before I found myself really caring about the main character and his plight. I’m happy to say I was one who voted it into finalist status. It was well-written and very deserving. And while I don’t count it as one of my favorite books—the subject matter just isn’t something I want to dwell on—it was definitely one of the best general fiction nominees last year.

I hope, in some small way, this reassures all whose books have been nominated. I believe the judges really do try their best to be fair, impartial, and accurate. Being a writer myself, I understand that to some extent we hold your heart in our hands. I want to treat it gently—but I also want it to get stronger!

One thing more about the process, and then I’ll get to the details. The judge’s ballot is different from the ballot that the academy receives. Judges are asked to compare every book to every other book in that category (as in, is book XYZ or book ABC more deserving of the Whitney Award?), so it is easiest to complete voting with a ranked list. Formulating that list is the difficult part. As I read, I don’t make any permanent decisions about where I will rank each book (though I have a pretty good idea with some). I do take notes about each nominee and record these on index cards. Then, as I progress with my reading, I am able to arrange those cards in the order I feel they belong.

Here is a small sample—the good, bad, and ugly—of some of the notes I’ve made while reading the romance nominees this year.

intense, realistic voice
Knew the end from the beginning, with no surprises along the way
Though the main characters were well developed, the secondary characters were flat and that made the storyline unbelievable.
Telling, telling, telling—so frustrating, because this plot could have been awesome.
Beautiful writing, right on for the time period.
Great romantic angst and emotional build up.
laugh out loud funny
This was a romance?
Couldn’t stand the guy . . . not buying that the protagonist could either.
Fantastic voice. Different and so fun.
So much head hopping, I am dizzy.

Okay, so some of those were pretty harsh. Blame it on my critique group. We’re kinda brutal, but it’s all in the name of improvement. And that’s the whole point of this post. I want every single romance nominee to be amazing. I want my decision, as a judge, to be nearly impossible because there are so many great choices. And more than that, I just want more good romance reads out there!

Here, once again in my opinion, are the things that make a wonderful, unforgettable romance.

A story that grabs my attention and pulls me in—
The first time I attended my critique group, I’d just finished reading what I was sure had to be a brilliant chapter, when a member of our group said to me, “I don’t know where your story begins, but it isn’t here. Go home, throw this away, and start over.” I remember swallowing a big lump of emotion and nodding like I understood what she meant. In reality, I had no clue, and it was quite a few months before the light bulb went on and I understood that my first chapter, while sweet and lovely and all that, was nothing that was ever going to capture a reader’s attention—much less a publisher’s. Readers these days are busy people. The only way I have time to read is when I choose to give up sleep. About once a week, I make that choice and begin a new book around 9 pm. If that book doesn’t grab me in the first chapter, forget it. I need my sleep.

So what is it that pulls me in? Voice (whatever the heck that is, right? Good Grief by Lolly Winston is an example that comes to mind), a unique situation, or an immediate problem. The place a story needs to start is in the middle of the action. But don’t tell me what’s going on (as too many nominees did this year) show me. Set me squarely in a setting that pulls me from my room into the main character’s world. Let me see her in motion, and quickly see the type of person she is. For some excellent examples—see the finalist list next week.

Characters I care about—
This one is critical. They all are, but if you don’t have this one . . . your romance isn’t going to get off the ground. In a female character (assuming here that most of your readers are female), readers want someone they can, on some level, identify and empathize with. I really didn’t think I would like The Hunger Games (why would a forty-year-old mom want to read about teens killing each other? We have enough of that at our house already . . .), but in that very first chapter, I began to identify with Katniss, her love for her sister and her desire to provide for her family. When she traded places with her sister and put her own life in danger, I was hooked.

That isn’t to say that readers have to identify with everything in a character. Nor do we want a character to be perfect. This happens more often than not in romance, and it is very irksome. Female protagonists who are beautiful, slender, excellent cooks, good tempered, patient, kind, etc. aren’t realistic. A character should be just that, someone with a unique set of qualities (and flaws) that make her human—like the rest of us. But a word of caution here, please don’t create flaws in your character just to fill this requirement. This also happens far too often in romance, and readers see right through it. Instead, think hard about your protagonist’s life, where she’s come from and what experiences have molded her into the person she is.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the leading men in romance novels, often readers see more flaws than good. Word of warning: If the guy is a complete jerk at the beginning of the book and does something pretty unforgivable, or acts in a way that is immature, egotistical, promiscuous etc. then your reader is going to have a difficult time liking him. He’ll have to change, and the reader will have to see that change (and the motivations behind it) in a believable, realistic way. If the guy is not likable or lovable, but the girl loves him anyway, the reader then loses respect for her too. So ask yourself, what is it about this guy that makes the main character love him? And does that tip the scales on any baggage he might be carrying?

A couple of things to watch for with male characters—It’s all right for them to cry—once in a while, if something really drastic and awful happens. But when a guy cries, gets misty-eyed etc, all throughout the story, it’s not believable or desirable. Yes, we want our men to have feelings. But we don’t want them to be like us!
One other thing that the guys in my critique group have called me on a time or two—men don’t over think/over analyze/over discuss stuff like women do. If you’re in your guy’s POV, make sure it is a guy’s POV.

A believable plot— (and I’m going to add here, an interesting plot, as well)
There are only so many romance plots out there, right? And they all keep getting recycled. To some extent this is true. And in some ways, I think the job of the romance writer is more difficult than that of those who write other genres. In a mystery or suspense novel, the reader keeps turning pages, trying to discover who did what, who is good, who is evil, what clues add up to solve the mystery etc. If it’s a good suspense, often times all the threads don’t tie up neatly until the last few pages. Readers are given thrills along the way and some real satisfaction for having stuck it out so long.

In a romance, boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, some difficult stuff happens, they overcome it, and they live happily ever after. As Jeff Savage would (and has) said, “bor-ing.” But by definition, a romance must end with the two main characters in a committed relationship, so really, the reader knows from the get go what the ending will be. Why even bother reading a romance? Because the ways to get from A-Z are infinite. Because reading (recreating, if you’re the writer) that wonderful, heady feeling of falling in love is so much fun!

What are a few ways to make that basic formula and those recycled plots believable and interesting?
-flip it around (using my own example here. In Counting Stars I based the plot loosely on a familiar rhyme—backwards. “the babies in the baby carriage, then comes marriage, last comes love”)
-Consider more than one love interest (Jacob and Edward, anyone?) One of the books I think should be a finalist did this extremely well, and for much of the book, I really didn’t know who the main character would end up with. What made this work is that both guys were viable choices. Sure, they weren’t perfect, but there were some pretty good things going for each of them, and she had feelings for both—ahh, angst. LOVE IT!
-Assemble a good supporting cast. This really is important. I remember reading somewhere (probably in the Romance Writer’s Report years ago) that every heroine needs a best friend to whom she can confide important feelings and events that move the plot forward. When a protagonist does not have this, then the reader is forced to rely on what is in the main character’s head (not always bad, esp. if the book is in first person) and any action we see. Along with this, well-developed secondary characters give the story depth and make it much more believable. If the people and world around your main characters fall flat, then the story will too.

A believable love story that builds in a natural, realistic way—
Years ago, Jeff Savage taught me about a common writing mistake called, “unearned emotion.” Basically, this is when a character is displaying emotion (in romance, it’s usually crying) before the reader has seen the cause of that emotion or when the character really has no cause to behave that way. Even more bothersome to me than unearned emotion, is unearned intimacy. Romance is about love, not lust. But when characters are throwing themselves at each other in chapter two, it makes the reader wonder. Fortunately, we don’t get much bodice ripping in the LDS market, but a passionate embrace and lengthy kiss that comes out of nowhere (as in, when the main characters have hardly spoken to each other for three chapters) is NOT believable. Worse than that, it cheats the reader of genuine, romantic tension and build up. Make us wait for that kiss, dang it. And then make it good.

Believable dialogue—this is the romance writer’s greatest tool. Please make it real. Silly, flirty, and redundant conversations aren’t how most people (or people we want to read about, anyway)speak to one another. Continuous fighting between characters makes a reader weary. Sure, they can start off on the wrong foot, but at some point fairly quickly in your story, that needs to change so the characters connect with each other.

Avoidance of head hopping/Point of View changes—Bless Angela Eschler for teaching me how important this is. When I turned in my first manuscript, it had several chapters with frequent POV changes. Angela (my most awesome editor at the time), said I had to fix them all. I pointed out that this is common in romance novels, and readers are smart and can easily follow POV changes. She pointed out that it was lazy writing. She was right. I was also right. Head hopping is sinfully common in the romance genre (where are all the editors, I say???), and yes, readers are generally smart enough to follow along. The problem is that it continuously pulls them out of the story. Our main job as writers is to pull the reader so thoroughly into our story that she forgets she is reading. This becomes impossible when the reader has to pay attention and is constantly jumping from one character’s thoughts to the other.

I think romance writers often feel the need to show both points of view. We feel the reader needs to see both sides, right now. They don’t. Josi Kilpack taught me that a scene should be placed in the POV of the character who has the most to lose. I’ve never gone wrong sticking with that advice. And it really is okay for the reader to wait until the next chapter to find out what the guy (or girl) is thinking.

An exercise I always do when I finish my first draft is to go back through the story and make a list, chapter by chapter, of whose point of view it is in. This helps me catch any head hopping I’ve done, and it also tells me if I’ve got the right balance in my story. Unless I’m writing in first person, I need to give a fair amount of time to the man in my story as well as the woman. A 2/3 (girl) to 1/3 (guy) to 1/2 and 1/2 ratio seems to work well.

A plot that moves forward instead of backward—Yes, you have to start your story in the action, but please don’t flashback to everything before that! Flashbacks, like head hopping, are a writing sin. Especially when they are long, complicated, and frequent. There are better ways to weave important back story and information into your plot (remember that best friend?). Like head hopping, the big problem with flashbacks is that it pulls the reader from your story. Do that too many times, and she drops it permanently.

Instead, move your plot forward. Every single scene must do that. This is one I struggle with. I’m happy to let my characters linger longer. Reader’s aren’t. So while a chapter may show a relationship building, it also needs to have something about it that is propelling your plot toward the final crisis and conclusion.

An overall package the suspends disbelief and evokes emotion—
If you meet all of the above criteria, there’s a good chance your story will suspend disbelief, but creating a story that evokes emotion can be even more difficult. At the Whitney Awards Banquet last year, when it was announced that Liz Adair’s Counting the Cost won the award for best romance, I leaned over to my husband and whispered knowingly, “her book made people cry.” I think books that make people feel succeed on a whole different level than books that simply entertain. That isn’t to say you have to write a tear jerker romance to win a Whitney in this category. But if you’re fortunate enough to have the voice, characters, plot, and romantic angst come together in a way that makes people laugh or cry, so much the better—for me as a reader! This is where writing really becomes an art form, and a practice in patience. Rewriting, editing, cutting dialogue and scenes, adding others in their place, really taking the time to play with words until they fit together magically is what being a writer is all about. Honoring those writers who have done that, is what the Whitney Awards are all about.

A sincere congratulations to each and every nominee this year. You wrote and published a book! What an amazing accomplishment. If you are a finalist, thank you for writing an outstanding book, for entertaining, inspiring, and moving the rest of us. As I said in my previous post, may we all continue to strive for excellence.

Judging for the Whitney Awards—part 1

For the third year in a row I have the privilege of being a judge for the Whitney Awards. In 2008 I judged the romance category; last year I read for both the mystery and general categories (INSANE!), and this year I am happily back in familiar territory reading romance once again.

It is a privilege to be a judge for these awards. For me, being asked to judge means that someone, somewhere must think I know something about writing. I hope, that after over a decade at it, I do. To be certain, I’m still learning and growing as a writer myself, and during the years I’ve judged I have come across more than a book or two that was way out of my league (like last year’s general fiction winner, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet).

Unfortunately, I’ve also come across books that have disappointed me—especially in the romance category. Romance has and probably always will get the bad rap as a genre of fluff and bodice ripping. This bothers me—a lot. I enjoy romance novels. I’m not embarassed to say I write them. After all, what could be better than writing about love, the greatest of human emotions? Writing those emotions, showing characters discovering love for the first time, working to keep that love, and overcoming obstacles to make it happen, is a wonderful thing. It’s also not an easy thing to do and do well.

In a suspense or mystery novel, if the bad guy isn’t all that bad (ie. truly, believably evil) and the plot is not mysterious enough to keep the reader guessing and turning pages, then things really don’t work well. And most stories in this genre that don’t work well, don’t make it to press. The same principles apply to romance. If the characters are not loveable (to the reader and each other), and the relationship isn’t shown growing (but the characters are suddenly thrown into a passionate embrace), then the story fails to be believable. And for the reader eagerly anticipating being swept away into an uplifting, romantic story, it is horribly disappointing. Unlike suspense, however, it seems there is more publisher leniency in the romance genre, and so we end up with fluff and bodice rippers. Both of which make me crazy :)

To that end, I’ve decided to do a couple of posts about what I personally look for in a book when judging for the Whitney Awards.

First, let me say that Whitney judges are not given a specific set of criteria to look for in a book. There are times I wish this were different, as I have judged contests with specific elements and point systems, and in many ways this makes the job of judging much easier. But because of the volume (entire books, and many of them!) that Whitney judges read and the limited time which they have to read them, the current system works best. It is not perfect—we’re dealing with humans here—and it is very subjective. But I do believe those in the position of judges take their jobs seriously and work hard to treat all entries equally and fairly.

Second, I’ve been on the other side of contests enough—with both the Whitneys and local and national writing organizations—to know how it feels to have a beloved manuscript (or in the case of the Whitneys, a beloved book) in the hands of others to be judged. Quite honestly, it can be a terrifying, frustrating, heartbreaking experience. With all that in mind, I tread with care, hoping to shed positive light on the Whitney experience for all involved.

Here, in a nutshell, are the top five things I look for when judging the romance category. In a forthcoming post I’ll talk more specifically about each of these.

1. A story that grabs my attention and pulls me in.
2. Characters I care about.
3. A believable plot.
4. A love story that builds in a natural, realistic way (see #3).
5. Good writing—believable dialogue, avoidance of head hopping/POV changes, a plot that moves forward, not back (as in continuous flashbacks), and an overall package that suspends disbelief and evokes emotion (laughter or sadness—love them both).

While reading Whitney nominees this year, I’ve come across books that failed at many of these. Happily, I have also read others that hit every one right on. To those writers, I say a heartfelt thank you for making my job so enjoyable. It is my hope that as the Whitney Awards continue to grow, being a judge becomes more difficult, as more and more of the nominees will consistently meet the above criteria. The Whitneys are all about reaching for, achieving, and recognizing excellence. May all of us who write continue to strive for it.

The Provo Tabernacle–My personal Memories

This evening I had the privilege of attending Lex De Azevedo’s Gloria, The Life of Christ, Part 1. In addition to being an absolutely spectacular and moving performance, it was also a dedication to the memory of the Provo Tabernacle and the spirit our entire community enjoyed in that beautiful building. Mayor Curtis urged all in attendance to take a few minutes to write down our own experiences there, to reflect on the “soul” of that special place and what it meant to us. My memories, while not as plentiful or poignant as those President Holland and others shared this evening, are nonetheless dear to me. The Provo Tabernacle was just a building, but it was also a marvelous piece of history which myself and thousands of others were in some small way entwined in.

Back in the good old days–1986, to be exact– when I was a Freshman at BYU, I had my first glimpse of the Provo Tabernacle. I was on a date, headed to a now non-existent dance club on Center Street. Unfortunately, I ended up having a slight problem that evening. I was a young freshman, just seventeen years-old, and one had to be eighteen to enter the dance club. I don’t remember the particulars of how we worked out that evening, but I do remember standing outside, feeling embarassed and frustrated, as we discussed the matter near the shadow of the tabernacle. And while I don’t remember the outcome of that night, I do remember my enchantment with BYU and Provo. It was my first time downtown, and I loved the quaint, old buildings and the small-town feel of things. It was a magical time in my life, and downtown Provo seemed to add to the magic and uniqueness of my BYU experience.

Several years later, I started attending the tabernacle on a regular basis. Instead of returning to our California roots, my husband and I were thrilled when he was offered a job at Provo City and we were able to return to Utah just eight months after we’d graduated and left. Soon we’d settled into our first home and attended the first of many stake conferences at the tabernacle. Our family had a favorite bench, on the first floor, north side, second row in. We sat there for years, freezing a little in January and enjoying the occasional breeze in July, when frustrated parents exited the nearby side doors with their fussy toddlers in tow. Our children often asked when we could move up to balcony seats (as if those required a change in status), and we’d told them we’d consider it when everyone was old enough that we didn’t have to worry so much about one of our children pitching himself or herself over the edge. We were still a few years away from that one. Sorry kids. Wish we’d let you have your way at least once.

I walked the back hall area with our own fussy toddlers, nursed my babies in the way-too-small mother’s lounge, and stood in line with more than one of my little girls hopping up and down as they waited for their turn in the also too-small bathroom.

One year I sat in the choir seats and had the opportunity to sing at conference. I heard my husband’s name read from the pulpit as his ordination from Elder to High Priest was announced when he was called into a bishopric. I looked forward to someday hearing our children’s names announced when they received mission calls. For the past few years our older children have walked up the steps after conference to retrieve the flowers from the podium so their dad, the bishop then, could distribute them to ward members.

In addition to stake conference, we’ve sat in those pews enjoying performances by the Utah Valley Handbell Choir, the Utah Valley Symphony, and numerous other concerts and performances. Probably most memorable are all the years our family Christmas traditions have included the Living Nativity the first week of December. My husband participated in the pageant twice, once as a wise man and once as a prophet. For years we attended the outdoor show and sat huddled in blankets, watching as the lawn outside the tabernacle was temporarily transformed into Bethlehem, animals and all. When the show moved inside a few years ago, we rejoiced in the warmer seats, but admittedly missed the authenticity of the outdoor setting. Just a few short weeks ago–on my birthday, December 3rd–our family sat in the tabernacle, once more enjoying the short program and time to reflect on our Savior’s birth and the Christmas season. I remember looking up at the star suspended from the ceiling and wondering how it had been attached and what a job that must have been, as the ceiling is so high. On the heels of that curious thought came the more profound one of what a miracle the real star of Bethlehem represented to those who saw it and to all who remember it now. As I’d been so many times before in that sacred place, I felt my heart touched as I thought of our Savior Jesus Christ and all his miraculous birth means to me.

Simple memories, yes. But important to me and my family. Seeing the tabernacle on fire brought immediate tears of dismay. Knowing we’ll never sit on that same bench, pry another child’s fingers from those same pillars, or stare up at the beautiful windows and woodwork brings a pang of sadness to my heart. Yet the prayer said before the performance tonight put it all into perspective. We’ve lost a beautiful place we all loved, but let us take away from that sorrow more empathy for those everywhere who have lost so much more. We live in a blessed, beautiful valley. Compared with much of the world, our life here is peaceful, abundant, and happy. May we ever remember that and remember to cherish and feel gratitude for what we do have, simple or grand as that may be.

That’s a wrap!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love all things having to do with fall and the holdays. I feel a little giddy when September arrives and I notice the first color changes on the mountains. But by the time December and Christmas are upon us, I’m exhausted, positively wiped out from all this joyous season entails. It’s truly the most wonderful and insane time of the year.

As a result, I didn’t post about homeschool for October or November, nor have I posted anything about writing lately. So today’s summary is going to wrap all that up into one—including a note about an opportunity to win Covenant’s 2010 Christmas Anthology, Where Will Christmas Find Us? For more info. on that, keep reading. But first, a quick run-down of the craziness we’ve had around here the past sixty or so days.

With homeschool—science units on Oceanography and the Atmosphere, complete with a boatload of fun experiments. A field trip to the Scera to see The Reluctant Dragon, and another to The Covey Center to see Knuffle Bunny . We made more salt dough models (I think children will recall anything they learn if they get to make it in salt dough), read more of the Sarah Plain and Tall Series, the Fudge series, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. We visited Pumpkin Land (where my daughter sadly informed me that this is her last year there, as she is getting too big), made Frankenstein Jello, and had a party that used up a good portion of our toilet paper supply.

For Halloween I sewed Woody and Jessie costumes for my two youngest, and on the 29th both started and finished Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head for my husband and I. On the 30th we had about 25 people here for our traditional soup and chili dinner before trick-or-treating. Those same 25 plus a few more joined us for a crazy, chaotic Thanksgiving. Throw in a school play here and a dance recital there, along with a trip or two to visit our son at college and whew! What a couple of months. It was crazy and fun and left me so exhausted that I’ve yet to remove the rotting pumpkins from my front porch. Maybe I’ll just throw some garland on them if I ever get around to decorating the outside of our house for Christmas.

As for writing . . . are you laughing yet? Superwoman I am not, and unfortunately, my writing is the thing that suffers most in all this madness. And that, while as it should be–I have the rest of my life to write, but only so long with our children–is still painful. I miss my characters and creativity. Thankfully weekends like the earlier Authors Incognito retreat, allow me to see that the creativity is still there, hibernating in my brain until a later date when I am allowed more than two seconds at a time for coherent thought.

But I do have some exciting news. First, Covenant’s 2010 Christmas short story collection is now available in stores. Twelve authors, myself included, have shared Christmas memories about poignant moments in our lives. Today, over at Tristi Pinkston’s Blog, you can win a free copy as part of her Merry Month of Miracles countdown to her next release, Dearly Departed. I haven’t had a sneak peak at Tristi’s latest book, but you can read here, how much I’ve loved her other books. I’m looking forward to curling up with this next one on a snowy January day.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying hanging out at Tristi’s blog all month. She is one of those people that make me tired just thinking of all she does. From homeschooling all four of her children, to writing much faster than I do, to blogging, book reviews, editing etc. she is one amazing lady. The first time I met Tristi she was teaching a class at the Storymakers conference in 2007. What she said in that class, about being true to ourselves in our writing, so resonated with me that I felt I knew her well already and that she was a Kindred spirit. Congratulations Tristi, on your upcoming book and all that you do. You inspire slackers like me!

And speaking of slackers, upcoming releases, and miracles . . . Covenant will be publishing one of my historical romances this spring. More on that later. But now, I’ve got a math lesson to teach :)

Happy Holidays everyone. May your days be merry and bright, and may you get more sleep than I do at night!

An Awesome time with Authors Incognito

Last Thursday morning I packed a bag with the necessities—pajama bottoms, sweatshirt, warm fuzzy socks, slippers, hair brush, & toothpaste—grabbed my laptop, and headed for a cabin in the mountains near Park City. The night before I left I had a conversation with my seventeen year-old daughter. It went something like this.

Daughter: Explain to me again what exactly you’re leaving us for?

Me: I’m not leaving you. I’m going away for a few days to write.

Daughter: Yeah, but aren’t you going to be with other people? You’re not just going to write all weekend.

Me: But I am! And so will everyone else who comes. We’re all going to sit around staring at our computers for three blissful days.

Daughter: You’re so weird.

Fortunately, I was in good, weird company at the first annual (I sure hope it will be annual) Authors Incognito Writing Retreat. Many Kudos to Danyelle Ferguson and Nichole Giles for putting together a fantastic,fun, and productive weekend. The cabin was gorgeous, the food yummy, the contests inspiring (I don’t even type fast compared to some people!)and the time spent writing was nothing short of divine. In two and a half days I plowed through a huge stack of editing (no more excuses, it’s time to start querying that manuscript now) and wrote 14000 words, most on a brand new novel.

My daughter, however, was partially correct in her assumption that I’d be doing something other than writing while I was away. Because I was determined to make the most of every second, I skipped the hot tub and foosball, but I did enjoy the company at meals. Previously, I’d met most of the Authors Incognito members at conferences (and one I even went to college with a couple of decades earlier) but prior to the retreat, I was not close friends with any of them. That said, I’d love to have all of them as my close friends. I didn’t say a whole lot this weekend, but I caught snatches of conversation here and there that left me a little in awe of many of my fellow attendees. I think it would be fair to say that just about everyone who came to the retreat has been dealing with significant and serious personal issues in their lives. Many, like my own, had to do with their children and the heartache and hardships of being a parent, especially to teenagers and adult children. Others had health concerns, financial struggles, and other simply inconceivable trials. Yet here they were, smiling and working toward ambitious dreams. When I left on Saturday, my own heart felt considerably lighter. I felt renewed appreciation for my family, along with the absolute knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who’d been wondering why life had to be so difficult all the time. I also realized that, difficult or not, it can be happy and I can still write.

With that goal in mind, I’m off to polish up a chapter for critique.

Good luck to all involved in NaNoWriMo.

UEA = Utah Escape Activities

I love Autumn, and living in Utah it is made even better by the annual fall break or UEA (Utah Education Association) days each October. In the past our family has–with half the state–headed south to Disneyland, Seaworld and the like, but this year we’re staying closer to home. We started our week early at a local pumpkin patch where we enjoyed perfect weather and my youngest got to chase a squealing pig around and around the farmyard.

After that it was time for fun without our children–and yes, we sure heard from them what dreadful parents we are for leaving them at home on their school break. I think it’s very important to be dreadful sometimes! A night at the Homestead Resort in Midway, an hour long soak in their mineral hot spring crater, a quiet dinner together—where we didn’t have to clean up any spills, cut anyone’s meat, or referee any teen arguments—and a day spent exploring art galleries and seeing the fall colors was the perfect escape. It is quite amazing what twenty-four hours of peace can do to rejuvenate the spirit.

Perhaps that is what the leaders of UEA had in mind when they first started this long-standing tradition. Teachers, probably more than anyone I know, need a break, need to have their reservoirs of patience, motivation, and inspiration refilled. How wonderful that those of us in Utah have the same opportunity to “take a break” each fall. This time of year, and this time spent with my family has become one of my favorite things.

My wish for everyone–may each of you find the time for your own autumn escape, the time to slow down and simply enjoy.


Off and Running

Last year my both my blogging habits and my blog reading habits changed quite a bit. Instead of spending what little time I had at the computer focused on writing, I found myself lurking on homeschool sites as I tried to hurriedly educate myself on the huge venture I’d undertaken. Many of those sites became my lifeline. Just knowing there were other moms out there struggling through the daily and, at times, overwhelming task of educating their children was an immense comfort. Even more than this comfort, I found inspiration in their ideas and enthusiasm. And now—a scant year later—I feel ready to share some of my own creative ideas and solutions. What a difference that year has made. Our days are certainly not perfect, and my daughter’s learning challenges continue to be many, but we are making this work. More than that, we are making the work fun.

So, aside from my monstrously big goal of finding time to write seriously again, I’ve also set a goal to blog about our homeschool at least once a month this year. It will keep me accountable, and just maybe some other “newbie” homeschool mother will stumble upon my post and find her own inspiration to keep on going.

And with that, here is a glimpse of our first month of the 2010-2011 school year. I’m happy to say that we are off and running.

As a review before our Science Unit 1 test on the water cycle, I filled up water balloons and wrote vocabulary words on them. The girls had several turns to be blindfolded and pick a balloon. If they could give the correct definition of the word on their balloons, then they were allowed to keep the balloons or pop them however they wanted to. But . . . if they got the definition wrong, I got to pop the balloons over their heads. It was a lot of fun, everyone aced the test, and I’m pretty confident they will remember what we learned for a long time.

Hannah continues to be a wonder with clay. One thing I learned last year is that it is important to have fun! As our budget is tight this year (son in college), we’ve had to cut back on a lot of the extra curricular activities we did last year. Instead we’ve incorporated weekly art, cooking, and sewing (she is a crafty type girl :D) into our curriculum. The morning is for being serious; the afternoon is still about learning but less with books and more with hands on.

Andrew is—not a baby anymore! Or at least he doesn’t think he is. Things are a little trickier this year, as he naps less and wants to do everything that we are. I’ve found it best if we let him help where he can. It takes longer to get through our day, but having a toddler around certainly keeps things lively. And no one will ever be able to tell me that homeschooled children are not able to focus like children in a regular classroom can. Have you ever tried taking a math test with a 21 month old driving his muscial fire truck around and around and around your desk?

To ease a bit of our mom stress, and to keep things fun for our girls, a friend and I are trading off teaching science and language arts this year. So far, so good. It’s nice to have friends around, and it keeps everyone on schedule. By the way, did you know that you can inflate a balloon by putting it over the top of a soda bottle and then very carefully unscrewing the lid? Just one of many cool science experiments we did during our Ocean Science Unit. Thanks Bill Nye!
Note: See my daughter with her uncombed hair and PJ’s still on? Some days are just like that—and it’s okay!

Field trip report: Took advantage of Thanksgiving Point’s two buck Tuesdays in August. The museum was crazy crowded, the farm was fun (especially when Andrew tried to climb in with the cows and sampled the goat’s food), the gardens were gorgeous.
We also attended a back-to-school picnic with Alpine Online. Now, if I could just find those scraps of paper that I wrote down all those other moms’ phone numbers on . . .

Loving Literature: I introduced Hannah to Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I thought she might be able to identify with the main character, Peter, and his frustration with his pesky little brother, Fudge. I was right on. After that we devoured (and I mean devoured, for three days straight we pretty much ignored other language arts related work so we could READ!)Robin McKinley’s Beauty. And that, I admit, was my choice for personal, writing-related reading. Since I really want to write in this genre (and want to make what I’ve already written in this genre better), I am revisiting favorites to see just what it is that makes them so great. Beauty, I am pleased to say, was just as splendid as ever. My daughter summed it up nicely this morning when she sighed and said, “I’m so sad we finished that book.” I couldn’t agree more, though it was the perfect way to spend a couple of rainy afternoons in early October.

The Learning Curve

It was about this time a year ago that I was making the agonizing decision of whether or not to pull my daughter out of her charter school (a great school that I really love) to homeschool her. Ultimately, after quite a lot of prayer and pondering, I (we, though my husband left this decision largely up to me) decided we would teach her at home. I’ll go into the reasons in a future post, but with the first year behind us, I feel strongly it was the right thing to do. That said, I have to admit the learning curve was pretty steep for both of us. Here are a few things we’ve discovered along the way.

-Starting homeschool the same year you’ve had a baby, are building a home, and will have to move twice is probably NOT a good idea.

-Once started, there is no going back (literally in our case, as our previous charter school has a long waiting list), so it’s best to dive in and plow through whatever obstacles you’re dealing with.

-Having a set schedule is vital.

-Following that set schedule everyday is unrealistic. And that’s okay. If, for example, the opportunity presents itself for you and your child to see a crane in action (as it lifts the trusses onto your future home) you should put away the science book and head outside to witness some firsthand engineering.

-Math is best done first thing in the morning before you are both too cranky.

-It’s okay to eat marshmallows while you do that math.

-It’s generally not okay, however, to wear your pajamas while you eat marshmallows and do math. What you’re wearing really does affect performance.

-P.E. is important for both teacher and student, or—in this case—mother and child. Units on rollerblading or Tae Bo are perfectly acceptable.

-Aside from unique PE activities, homeschool encompasses learning in other, unusual ways. Because Hannah learned at home this year, she finally had time to take piano lessons (and did awesome at her first recital last night) and was able to realize her dream of being on a dance team. She also learned how to make her own pancakes, eggs, and cupcakes (a ten year-old’s favorite food groups), change a diaper, and navigate her own laptop. These might be simple things for many children, but for Hannah each was a significant victory.

-Curriculum is hugely important. Saxon Math, Core Knowledge, All About Spelling, and K12 are all excellent choices.

-Field trips are fun and a real perk of homeschool. This year we . . . visited the Thanksgiving Point Museum, farm, and gardens, went to This is the Place State Park and Old Deseret Village, hiked in Provo canyon, spent a very cold morning at Hee Haw’s, attended a Utah Valley Symphony concert, attended two plays at the Scera theater—Stellaluna and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie—went rollerblading at Classic Skating, went ice skating at The Peaks, visited the children’s museum in Carson City, Nevada, visited the Rosenbruch museum in St. George, went on a space camp mission, and went to Hogle Zoo. A big thank you to Alpine online for providing many of those experiences.

-Getting through all that great curriculum and going on all those field trips took a lot of time—about 1080 hours. That’s 1080 hours that had to come from somewhere. In other words, I had 1080 less hours for meal planning, cooking, cleaning, shopping, baking, sewing, ironing, laundry, organizing, bill paying, blogging, and writing.

-The upside: I spent 1080 more hours with my daughter.

And for us, that upside says it all. I’ll be the first to admit that homeschooling is not for everyone. There were several days this year I thought it wasn’t for me. But it is, I’ve discovered, very good for my daughter. A year into this I’ve noticed her stress decrease, her confidence level soar, and her enthusiasm and love of learning take flight. To say the least, it’s been a bumpy ride, but as I look back over the past nine months, I want to pat us both on the back. We made it. We accomplished amazing things, and we’re in this for the long haul.

Just what I needed

Since the birth of my darling little boy sixteen months ago, I have posted on this blog exactly 15 times. I have been caught up on the laundry twice. I’ve made breakfast for my family perhaps 20 times during all those months (pathetic considering that we used to eat breakfast together almost every day). I’ve purchased, rather than sewn, the Christmas pajamas; I haven’t scrapbooked a page. And, after our recent move (recent being four months ago), I still have a basement full of stuff to unpack. Who knows how long it will be before I get to it? Who knows how long it will take me to finish my next novel (at the turtle’s pace I’m writing at now)? Who knows if my family will ever again have clean clothes when they need them or anything besides cold cereal for breakfast?

To be fair, our little guy is not entirely to blame for my lack of progress in writing and just about everything else. His arrival coincided with several other significant events in our lives, all of which have drastically altered my days, nights, and pretty much every breath I take.

Without going into all that, I’ll just say that I’m hard pressed to think of a time as stressful as the past several months. My husband and I have been dealing with several crisis of varying degrees with our four older children. We continue to love them all dearly, but they are draining us both mentally, physically, and financially. Added to their teen angst, learning disablities, and the like, our sweet, sleepless baby has just about put me over the edge. Since his arrival he has yet to sleep through the night. This has been new territory for my husband and I, as our other children were all pretty great sleepers (three of the four sleeping through the night by six weeks—we didn’t know how good we had it!). Since Andrew’s arrival, and our subsequent sleeplessness, we’ve read all the books, tried all the methods and come rather close to losing our minds in our efforts to get a good night’s sleep once again.

Recently, during a middle-of-the-night, rocking and calming my baby session, I had a frank discussion with our Father in Heaven about the state of my life. My purpose was two-fold. First, I recognized the many blessings he’s bestowed upon me. I have a wonderful husband and five unique, exhausting children. I’m grateful for this crazy family of ours. I love them all dearly; my life revolves around them. I’m doing the things I wanted more than anything else when I was growing up—being a wife and mother. But lovely as that is, lately my life has had its moments. And it was about these moments and our five children, specifically the one on my lap, that the second part of my prayer was concerned with. It was time, I’d decided, to call in the promise from Heavenly Father that he won’t give us more than we can handle.
Because I’m pretty sure I’m there, as in one beat away from total insanity.

It’s one thing to have a baby who keeps me up at night. It’s another to have that baby plus a fourth grader who, in spite of my year-long effort homeschooling her, spending thousands in vision therapy etc. still cannot read. And it’s yet another to have three high needs teenagers all in various crisis points in their lives. In other words—

“Uncle, already!”

And so I pled with our Father in Heaven to please let our little guy sleep so I could. So I could be well rested and level-headed to deal with the events of my days. So the tears I’d probably cry would at least be from true emotions and not sleep-deprivation.

As is often the case, this particular prayer was not answered in the way I hoped. My baby did not fall into an instant, deep sleep. He did, however, wrap his arms around my neck and lay his head on my shoulder—one of my very favorite things in the world. I’ve been a mom long enough to know that hugs like that get farther and fewer between as children grow older. I cherish every one and, tired though I’ve been these past months, I’ve cherished the time, these middle of the night moments, with Andrew.

As I felt his little arms tighten around me, the thought distinctly came that this was exactly what I needed. While I’d been yearning for sleep, Heavenly Father was giving me what I actually needed even more—peaceful moments with the baby we wanted so badly, time alone with him, reminders of the joys that really do come with being a parent. In our crazy, busy, stressful days, there isn’t a lot of alone time for Andrew and I. But for the past sixteen months, we’ve spent good time together anyway, rocking, singing, reading stories. I’ve had plenty of chances to brush the hair back from his face, to look down into his eyes, to kiss his neck. We’ve cuddled and snuggled even more than I did with our other children during less stressful and busy times of life. In short, I’ve been able to do what I promised myself I would—to enjoy and treasure the oh-so-short time when he’s a baby.

It was a revelation that left me uplifted and gave me the energy to pull myself out of bed the next morning and face another day. Our lives and our family are certainly not perfect, but I am grateful for the sweet, middle-of-the-night reminder that Heavenly Father is aware of each of us and knows and provides what we truly need.

Ironman and Ironwoman

Saturday marked the culmination of a year of training and preparation at our house. My husband competed in (and completed!) the St. George Ironman, swimming 2.4 miles, then biking 112 miles, then running 26.2 miles—all in about fourteen and a half hours. Way to go Dixon!!!!

It was an exciting, thrilling day, and it was a lot of fun to be a part of his hard work and success. I am so happy for him. And honestly, I am so happy it’s over, because it was also a difficult year and an exhausting day. Saturday as we stood at T2 (transition area where competitors finish the bike and start the run)for an hour and twenty minutes, I noticed a woman wearing a shirt that said, Ironmate.

No kidding, I thought. Not to diminish my husband’s spectacular accomplishment—something I could never in a million years do—but it also takes a “woman of iron” if you will, to hold it all together while he is training and triumphing. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a brief overview of competition day.

4:30 am

IRONMAN—leaves to catch his shuttle out to Sand Hollow Reservoir where the race will kick off (no pun intended) with the swim.

IRONWOMAN—begins packing everything but the hotel sink into the backpack she will wear today. Come to think of it, the sink would be useful too. When traveling with a toddler, it’s always good to have a source of running water.

5:30 am

IRONMAN—begins the arduous task of getting into his skin tight wetsuit.

IRONWOMAN—begins the arduous task of dressing everyone in three layers—a t-shirt for later when it’s hot, a sweatshirt for warmth now, and a jacket to keep out the wind that will inevitably come and go throughout the day. “Layers keep you warm, plus I don’t have to carry a bunch of heavy coats,” Ironwoman explains to her screaming toddler as she wrestles a sweatshirt over his head.

6:30 am

IRONMAN—is psyching himself up for the swim. “I can do this. I can do this. I’ve trained hard, and I CAN DO THIS.”

IRONWOMAN—is psyching herself up to step on the bus that will strand her and her children out at the reservoir for the next three (ended up being four) hours. “Did I pack enough diapers? Did I remember the baby’s leash? I should have brought something for us to sit on, but there is no way I could carry the camp chairs–maybe a large towel would have worked. I can’t believe I left my sunglasses back in Provo. I hope Andrew will keep his hat on today. I need to watch Hannah’s skin too. She is so fair and burns easily. Did I bring enough water? Did I remember to pack . . .”

7:00 am

IRONMAN—is off and swimming.

IRONWOMAN—is staring out at the sea of 2000+ matching swimcaps and praying for the one that is her husband. The swim scares her. People have died doing this event. She will be grateful when he is out of the water.

7:30 am

IRONMAN—is winning the mental battle and getting into his groove.

IRONWOMAN—is feeling pretty good. She packed well. So far she’s fed the kids Mcdonalds scrambled eggs and hashbrowns for breakfast, made a blanket tent for her daughter and set her up inside with a new DVD on the laptop, played bubbles with the baby, and is getting out the puzzles and books to keep him entertained.

8:30 am

IRONMAN—Is hauling. He owns the swim today.

IRONWOMAN—is positioning herself and the kids at the swim finish to see her husband, though he’s told her he won’t cross until at least 9:00 am.

8:42 am

IRONMAN—gets out of the water and runs toward the transition area. He’s stoked at his record time.

IRONWOMAN—is shocked to see her husband so early. He totally rocked the swim!!! She is so happy for him. She knows the hard part is past, and he’ll do great on the bike and run. But because he is so early, she doesn’t have the camera ready for a picture.

10:00 am

IRONMAN—is flying. On some of the downhill portions of the race, he’s clocking 44 mph. He knows Ironwoman would be upset with him if she knew how fast he is going. He goes fast anyway. He is the Ironman. He is invincible. He will be in trouble later.

IRONWOMAN—is still stuck on the bus, waiting to return to the fairground parking lot. The baby is losing it big time. Singing the “Wheels on the bus’ song has lost its amusement value. The bus driver has compassion and allows the baby to pretend to drive the bus while they wait, and wait, and wait . . .

1:30 pm

IRONMAN—is realizing he shouldn’t have pushed it so hard on that first bike lap. All those people he passed are passing him now.

IRONWOMAN—is so impressed and happy with her teenagers for driving down to see their dad compete that she doesn’t freak out at them for making it from Provo to St. George in THREE HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES!!!!

3:30 pm

IRONMAN—is having technical difficulties . . . with his left knee. It is slowing him down considerably.

IRONWOMAN—is at T2 with her kids. She is holding her baby who is hot and tired and arching his back and screaming his lungs out. Ironwoman is developing some seriously iron arms holding this kid. Her youngest daughter really needs to go to the bathroom. She is standing next to Ironwoman and hopping up and down, repeatedly stepping on Ironwoman’s toes. “You have to hold it,” Ironwoman tells her. “We’re not missing Dad finish the bike and start the run. We’re ALL in pain right now.”

4:07 pm

IRONMAN—coasts into T2 and is glad to be done with the bike. His first step on his left leg does not encourage him about the run.

IRONWOMAN—has been standing at T2 with her family so long, that they are all somewhat lethargic and do not spring into action for the coordinated yell and sign waving. Still, Ironman sees them, and that’s something.

4:14 pm

IRONMAN—starts his run, pauses to say hi to the fam.

IRONWOMAN—trying to be encouraging tells IRONMAN he only has a marathon left now. He does not look encouraged. A cheer, a photo, and she waves her husband off. Next order of business: finding a bathroom before daughter wets her pants.

8:45 pm

IRONMAN—is pleased his knee has held up for most of the race, but it is starting to hurt again now.

IRONWOMAN—and her family are as close to the finish line as they can get (in the huge, swelling crowd of people). The cameras are ready. The sign is ready. Youngest daughter has fallen asleep on the ground. She is shivering. Ironwoman puts daughter in the stroller and tucks blankets in around her. Ironwoman holds the baby, who is tired, cranky and all around disgruntled with the situation.

9:15ish pm

IRONMAN—the finish line is in site.

IRONWOMAN—Here he comes! He’s still alive! We’re almost done!!! Both the video camera and the camera suddenly have dead batteries.

9:30 pm

IRONMAN—is sitting on the ground on the finisher’s area. He is not feeling so hot.

IRONWOMAN—finally fights her way through the crowds (while pushing an overloaded stroller carrying a sleeping, possibly sick, child)to her Ironman. She is alarmed that he does not look well. Her teenagers spring into action, getting their dad up and moving toward the food and massage tents.

10:30 pm

IRONMAN—is getting a massage and some pizza.

IRONWOMAN—is sitting on a park bench nursing her nearly inconsolable baby (he was almost weaned before this weekend, but that plan’s out the window for now). Her daughter is still in the stroller, shivering uncontrollably, though Ironwoman has placed every blanket and article of clothing she can find on top of her. A kind volunteer offers one of the ahtletes’ mylar blankets.

11:00 pm

IRONMAN—is feeling like he is going to live. He is gathering his things.

IRONWOMAN—is very relieved to find out Ironman is okay. Aside from simply being glad he is okay she wasn’t sure how she was going to get him, two sick, tired little kids, the stroller, his gear, and his bike the three blocks to the car on her own. Ironwoman bids farewell to the teenagers who have to drive home tonight. She lays down the rules (no going over 75mph; at least two of you awake at all times)before they leave. She knows she will not be able to sleep tonight until they are home safely.

11:30 pm

IRONMAN—is taking a hot shower.

IRONWOMAN—is nursing the baby again while coaxing her daughter out of her clothes and into PJ’s.

2:45 am

IRONMAN—is relieved to hear his kids made it home safe. He is worried about his knee.

IRONWOMAN—can finally sleep now that her kids are home safely. She is out cold in about 30 seconds.

8:00 am Sunday morning

IRONMAN—casually mentions to Ironwoman that he might want to do another Ironman competition someday.

IRONWOMAN—as she is changing the baby’s third messy diaper in the last hour—the result of trying very hard to keep him hydrated with lots of bottles of applejuice the previous day. “Now is not the time to discuss this.”