Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Eleven in Seven—a “Whole Family” Vacation Story: Part 2

So. We did it. Eleven of us—six adults and five kids ages three to eight—spent seven days in a vacation rental house just three blocks off a Lake Michigan beach. (What editor would ever allow that many numbers in one sentence!?) 

Here is what I have to say about the experience compared to my musings in Part 1.

South Haven, Michigan **
·         “Fantastic Mom and Dad . . .” Oh. Now that I think about it, we forgot to be fantastic. (Well, our knees hurt with all the extra walking!) But we made a good kitchen clean-up team!

·         “Equally wonderful grown-up children.” Seven days in close proximity is an excellent opportunity to observe your grown children and their spouses being incredible parents, loving partners, and all-around good, intelligent, interesting people. Two of them went out running almost every morning, but I only hated them for flaunting their good knees a little bit.

·         “Our family’s time together would never resemble either the angst or antics of any of the [big families meeting together in big houses] films I’m talking about. We’re not that brilliantly funny or dramatic. I don’t know. The “kids” might have talked behind our backs—you know, about our knees. If we had caught them there might have been drama. Meanwhile, one of the actual kids, age five, said during a conversation about marriage that I will probably be dead when she and the others kids get married. Now, that was funny! (But she has been tossed out of the will.)

·         I have a feeling I might have imagined our “whole family” vacation with a little too much idealism. I didn't! Big house, big yard, Lake Michigan, sand, campfires, good food, Lake Michigan, more sand, commotion, games, Lake Michigan, more sand . . . and family, family, family. The main difference was not much opportunity for adult conversation. In the movies, the kids are often off camera. In real life, they tell people, "You'll probably be dead in twenty years." (I hope not! I want to remind her what she said at her wedding.)

·         Eleven people in one house, for seven days. Eleven people eating meals together, for seven days. Eleven people coordinating plans each day, for seven days. Somehow it worked, but my daughter and daughter-in-law are masters at going with the flow! I would say I “supervised,” but I mostly watched the organized chaos called family with a good deal of awe.
·         Five little cousins, together every day, for seven days. There were some trials and tears, but altogether, they were practically The Brady Bunch and had a great time.

·         I am still convinced this is the kind of special gathering that gives families their texture and their stories. Absolutely! Summer 2015 will always hold this memory—and I hope we can do it again. Can’t let a little thing like bad knees stop us! (And where do we go to learn how to be fantastic?)

 ** http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=3171&picture=pier-to-the-lighthouse

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Eleven in Seven—a “Whole Family” Vacation Story: Part 1

We started talking about it years ago. Or maybe it was just me.

We'll rent a big house in our favorite Lake Michigan beach town for a “whole family,” seven-day vacation. It will be just like those movies. Fantastic Mom and Dad and their equally wonderful grown-up children, some with families of their own, gather for a holiday, special occasion, or because that is just what they do every summer. 

Last fall we finally did it. We found a great house online, checked out summer 2015 dates with all the households, and sent in our deposit. What we have ended up with is not the whole family, but it’s close: six adults and five children, the latter all under age nine. Eleven people for seven days. 

Well, sure, in the movies the families have relational issues to resolve during this gathering. But by the end of two hours they usually have it all worked out and have had a tremendous, meaningful time. Hugs all around. And as far as I know, our family’s time together would never resemble either the angst or antics of any of the films I’m talking about. We’re not that brilliantly funny or dramatic. (See, for instance, Dan in Real Life, starring Steve Carell.) 

No, when I watch these films, my thoughts go like this: Just look at that place! Big house, lots of room, a nice yard, beautiful setting. And just look at that fun. Talent shows, board games, and touch football. Yes, if we rent a big house for the “whole family,” it will be just like that. So I spent this last long and cold winter dreaming about the house and what great memories we will make, all with the backdrop of beautiful Lake Michigan and its beaches and lighthouses. The fact that I have never seen anyone in our family play touch football is irrelevant.

Now that the time is here, though, I have a feeling I might have imagined our “whole family” vacation with a little too much idealism. Maybe it won’t be “just like that.” Yes, the house is large, with plenty of bedrooms and bathrooms and common-room space. It has a fenced-in yard for the kids to play safely outside, and it is within walking distance to everything we’ll need or probably even want (though we will also have three vehicles at our disposal). But, well, we’ve never done this before. And we are not actors in a movie with a script.

Eleven people in one house, for seven days. Eleven people eating meals together, for seven days. Eleven people coordinating plans each day, for seven days. Five little cousins, together every day, for seven days.


Oh, I know we will have a great time. Even with the eleven-in-seven reality now rattling around in my head, I am still convinced this is the kind of special gathering that gives families their texture and their stories. One way or another, it will be just like that.*

(See Part 2.)

*But we will miss you, A.

** http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=3172&picture=pier-to-the-lighthouse

Thursday, June 11, 2015

5 Ways to Avoid the “Huh?” Factor in Writing

Writers, my point is simple: anytime you cause a reader to say, “Huh?” you’ve got a problem.

Proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure all contribute to clear, effective written communication, but “connecting the dots” is important too. By “dots,” I don’t mean an ellipsis, often referred to as a “dot dot dot” (…), which is okay; I don’t mind. No, I’m referring to details. And when details don’t connect, the gaps and mismatches can stop an astute, swept-along-in-your-story reader cold.

·         It’s Thursday? But yesterday was Monday.
·         How can Emily have an uncle on page 127 when page 39 said her parents were both only children?
·         If Mrs. Smith was sitting in a chair, how did she get to the couch without moving?
·         Hey, Harvey’s eyes are bright blue, not chocolate brown. What gives?
·         Junior is three and he is in kindergarten already?

Don’t feel bad. When we write and revise—and revise some more—details can get scrambled or take off in their own direction. That, by the way, makes for some job security for editors, and I still recommend their involvement no matter what! But you can look for rowdy dots in your own work too. Here are a few ideas:

1.       List people and places with their attributes: Document your cast of characters and places for spellings and physical characteristics as you create or reveal them, then refer to that list every time you want to repeat a description.  
2.       Make a time line: If you can stand it even as you write your first draft, document your time line as you go. It might be easier to get your time line close to right early on than later when you have to force corrections.  
3.       Piecemeal it: During one of your revision passes, read one section or one scene at a time with only dots in mind. Pay attention to staging and movement and descriptions. Refer to your time line and people and place list if necessary to keep details straight.
4.       Get some distance: Even an email can read better if you set it aside for a time (five minutes!) and then read it again. Confusing inconsistencies are more likely to stand out so you can fix them.
5.       Mind your changes: When you make a change, try searching your entire work for an applicable key word or phrase to allow you to easily make that change everywhere you need to right away. You can't assume you will catch all those places later. 

*** http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=31709&picture=questions

Thursday, June 04, 2015

You’re Not Lost; You’re Just Not Where You Want to Be (a Throw-Back Post for the Writing-Inclined and Others Who Feel Lost)

This is a reprinted post from June 2014.

A colleague and I drove to Chicago for a Saturday seminar, in a rental car, before the days of common GPS use. I’ll call her “Jane,” because that’s not her real name and she won’t want you talking to her about this. 

Jane was driving and I was trying to navigate with a fold-out map. As we made our way to our hotel, which was right in the heart of the city, we ended up in a lane that forced us to eventually turn north onto Lake Shore Drive. It was Friday, during rush hour. Do you know how fast Chicagoans move those cars on Lake Shore Drive?

“We’re lost!” Jane said it. She gripped the steering wheel for dear life. I didn’t blame her one bit for that outburst, but with all the confidence I could muster, I shot back, “No, we’re not! I can see where we are and where we want to be on this map. We aren’t lost; we just aren’t where we want to be.” 

I’ll skip the part where Jane threatened to abandon the car somewhere and hail a cab, but she did agree to make the next left turn possible for us to get back onto south Michigan Avenue. Thanks to the cab driver who gave us directions as we sat next to him in completely stalled, bumper-to-bumper traffic, we finally inched our way to our hotel. 

Sometimes we aren’t where we want to be and we’re feeling lost. We have a plan, we’ve been heading toward our goal, and then somehow . . . bam. But are we really lost, or just not where we want to be?

In writing, we often map out how to get an idea into the form it needs to be: a saleable article, a contest-worthy poem, publishable fiction, what the client asked for . . . But no matter how we have mapped the journey, sometimes we feel we’re no longer in control, about to fail. Here are three basics, and they are good for any kind of project, actually:

·         Don’t give in to any urge to abandon the project. Being off-track may feel like being lost, but don’t give up—at least not yet. Keep going if you really want to get there.

·        Recalculate. It’s not too late to look closely at your goal and, even from “way out on Lake Shore Drive,” make adjustments to get going in the right direction. Do it before you end up in Wisconsin. Maybe your book idea for a novel will actually make a better novella, but you can still live out your dream to write fiction with that idea. 

·         Seek more information. Even if you are going in the right direction, something important could be missing—like our hotel's street off Michigan Avenue not being on the map at all or a GPS that has become confused by too many wrong turns. Ask someone who can help—an editor, a mentor, a professional who blogs, your client . . . even a cab driver if he knows what he’s talking about.

** http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=21405&picture=the-lost-toy

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