Winter hits Texas

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It was 70 when I awoke this morning. An hour later it had dropped to 50. Another hour passed, and it was down to 40. Oh my gosh! It's winter. Yesterday, when I was running around in shorts, tee shirt, and sneakers, and it was 85, I wondered if we'd have a fall this year. Suddenly, it's winter.

Think I'll go put on a big pot of vegetable soup. Oops, I forgot. I still don't have a stove. You may recall my gas line disaster discovered a few days before Thanksgiving? Well, I still don't have a new gas line.

When the plumber, darling Mr. Ramos who will be installing the new gas line, left after installing the new water heater, he said: "If I don't see you before Christmas, have a merry one."

Oh, dear. I hope he was joking.

Definition of insanity

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I'm sure you've heard this definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Okay. So that's insanity.

Here's insanity in action. Working at the computer and going through a series of steps that's supposed to do something but it doesn't yet we keep doing it because, damn it, it's supposed to work!

That was me when I couldn't get this blankety blank new hard drive to work. Today this was my mom who couldn't get her scanner to work and she kept double clicking the icon and getting the same error message over and over until she was so frustrated she finally asked me about it. Solution? The scanner wasn't powered on.

Yes, we had a laugh about it, but how many times have you lost something like your car keys or your glasses and searched for them, repeatedly looking in places you'd already looked as if they would magically appear there the next time.

We all do it which of course means that - drum roll please - we are all insane. It's endemic in the human race.

Sling Words out to go check the closet again for that spare printer ink cartridge that's supposed to be there but can't be found anywhere. Hope the office supply fairy makes it magically appear.

Post Thanksgiving

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I waddled home from the Thanksgiving bacchanalia in the country. At times like these, I wish my family didn't have so many talented cooks. Even my younger brother gets in the act with a duck gumbo for which he's famous.

It's not so much the cajun fried turkey, dressing, and gravy that does in my best diet intentions, but the sweet things like that good old southern standard Pink Stuff. Supposedly, this is a salad. At least that's how it's classified in a half dozen church cookbooks my mom has in her bookshelf. This concoction of marshmallows, whipped cream, coconut, jello, and chopped fruit has about as much a connection to salad as cheesecake does--and probably more calories.

Yes, there was four different kinds of vegetables, but then there was also homemade hot dinner rolls, chocolate and vanilla layered dessert, cherry pie, pecan pie, coconut cream pie, and a coconut layer cake that made you wish you were alone in a room with the cake, a fork, and no conscience.

Today, post Thanksgiving started with cottage cheese and diced apple. Ah, diet, thy name is Joan.

Sling Words out.

Giving thanks

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Thanksgiving is the holiday, always the fourth Thursday in November, that allows us to take a step back from our busy lives to reflect on those busy lives and give thanks. Why is it important to do this? Giving thanks is a way to stay grounded and in the present moment, as everyone on television talk shows seems prone to saying. Since I'm Christian, I give thanks to a higher power for having a life I enjoy populated by people I love.

Whatever your faith, Thanksgiving Day is a time to simply take a look at your life during the past year. It's a way to look back and say, "This was good. This was bad, but I survived. Better times are coming."

We celebrate with food, football games, parades, and family gatherings. Some see it as the eve of the biggest shopping day of the year, the day after Turkey Day, affectionately called Black Friday by retailers who usually go into the black (profit side of the balance sheet) from the sales rung up that day.

Yes, it's become more commercial than spiritual, like most holidays seem to have done. I sometimes think those Pilgrims who fled England, first to New Holland then to America, to escape religious persecution would go into a catatonic shock were they to witness Americans on a typical Thanksgiving Day.

Those brave men and women who boarded the Mayflower, certainly spartan by any standards, and landed at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, probably thought they'd escaped the frying pan only to land in the fire. That part of the country is formidable in winter.

Their first terrible winter was a struggle just to survive. Many died. Those who survived did so with the assistance of the native people. When the Pilgrims brought in their first harvest in the fall of 1621, there was much for which they gave thanks, not only the bountiful harvest but also the mere fact that they'd made it from one year to the next.

For three days, the colonists celebrated with the tribe who had helped them survive. (Perhaps Congress needs to review the Thanksgiving holiday and extend it by two additional days?)

A hundred years plus a few passed before the holiday we call Thanksgiving became formally established. Many influential Americans wanted to have an official day of thanksgiving, including George Washington, who in 1789 declared a National Day of Thanksgiving. However, there were just as many who did not want this holiday, including President Thomas Jefferson.

The opinion of the White House resident determined whether there would be a holiday to be celebrated. The campaign for Thanksgiving Day continued until 1863 when President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

This practice of a presidential proclamation for Thanksgiving continued until President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the third Thursday in November as the holiday in order to lengthen the holiday shopping season which upset many. (That crass commercialism we scorn isn't a modern day invention.) In 1941, Congress made Thanksgiving official by declaring it a national holiday to be celebrated the fourth Thursday in November.

Perhaps we should consider writing our representatives about making the holiday reflect the way our founding fathers celebrated. I mean a three day Thanksgiving would even give us time to exercise more to burn up all those calories we consumed.

In any event, I wish you a fabulous day filled with loving family and friends as well as good food. While you're dozing off after dinner, take a moment to reflect on the goodness in your life.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Idea ether

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There's one final thing I want to say about writing contests, and it's a general observation about the "uniqueness" of ideas.

I, like most beginning writers, jealously guarded my ideas, certain they were so unique that they'd be "stolen" if I mentioned them. After a while, I noticed that an idea I'd thought so singular and compelling was already used in a book. In fact, I noticed that my unique ideas appeared in many books, sometimes in different genres.

Time passed and I began to realize that I, an unpublished writer, could think of something and start a manuscript with that premise only to see a new release with the idea already executed and hitting the shelves.

After getting published and beginning to judge writing contests, I was surprised at how many entries seemed to follow trends as far as ideas go. Finally, I realized it wasn't uncommon for writers in different parts of the country to somehow come up with the same premise. I saw this over and over in contests.

In fact, this year I've had an entry from three different contests that involved a famous painting being stolen after the artist was murdered. Even had one about a famous artwork being damaged. Saw two other entries about politicians as hero in romance novels.

After years of seeing such similarities, I've begun to subscribe to the philosophy that there's a creative ether into which anyone can tap. That explains how someone can think of the same thing you thought up. Sound silly? Just read about famous scientists. The American medical researcher who discovered the AIDS virus did so at the same time as a French researcher. In history, you'll read about scientists in different parts of the world who invented the same thing at nearly the same time.

When you get one of those lightning bolt ideas just realize that someone else probably got the same idea. The one who acts first and executes well will be the one who chalks up a success.

Ah, yes. Sometimes, the early bird does indeed get the worm.

Gas lines & water heaters--oh my!

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Been a tough weekend in old Casa Reeves. Had two dire situations occur. The first was a sudden broken gas line which services the range top. Had to call the gas company who sent out a serviceman with a clickety click gas detector which went crazy when he stuck it in the cupboard beneath the stove top.

I never go in that cupboard since that's where I store parts for the grill along with small appliances. However, with Thanksgiving around the corner, I decided to retrieve the dusty food processor and make my famous cranberry-orange relish. I opened the cupboard and immediately smelled the gas.

So the very nice man from the gas company went up in the attic to check all the pipes and such and discovered that one of the water heaters was also leaking!

Great! Two expensive, no, make that VERY expensive issues suddenly rearing their ugly heads.

So tomorrow the plumber comes about the gas line and the water heater. So excited to hear how much this is going to cost. NOT! Of course, with Thanksgiving a couple days away, nothing is going to get done until after this week.

The bad news is there's no stove until this problem gets fixed. The good news is there's no stove. No way to cook. (If you don't count the microwave.) No meals to fix. Woo hoo!

I'll be heading to the country for Thanksgiving. I'm officially off the hook for even bringing a dish or two or six to my family's celebration. Wow. Great timing huh? And, yes, I am smiling at the moment. Sometimes you just have to look for that silver lining.

Authors Guild

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I want to talk today about an organization all writers should join. At least that's the way I feel about Authors Guild. I've been a member for a long time. I even use their web services for my Joan Reeves.com.

What brought about this sudden urge to recommend them to you was a flyer I received about their fall programs. I was looking at it again yesterday and realized what a fantastic value they offer for the price of membership. Membership fees are based upon your earnings as an author with a minimum of $90.00 per year.

That may sound like a lot of money, but listen to this lineup of "phone-in" seminars and roundtables. For a member, each costs only $10.00. For nonmembers, they're $60.00.

The Author-Agent Relationship
Copyright in 30 Minutes: How & Why to Register
Publicity Roundtable: Pre & Post Publication
Tax Tips for Writers
Contract Negotiation

These phone-in seminars are given several times during the year, but this is just one of many benefits. Cruise on over to their website and find out if you're eligible for membership, and just what you can get as a member.

Create Restore Point

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Today's blog entry is a lesson in something important to know about your operating system which in most cases means Windows XP so you Mac users can just have a big laugh about this.

Last week I really screwed up some of my programs when I was trying to offload them from my C drive to the new external hard drive I'd purchased. I messed up my C drive so much that I belatedly went to the Windows Help Index to find out how to "go back" or restore my drive to the way it was before I messed it up.

I found out something important. To successfully restore, you first need to create a restore point. Now Windows is supposed to make Restore Points by default each day, but I learned that's no guarantee your system will restore to the way it was.

The proper thing to do before installing a new application or upgrade or making major changes is to first create a Restore Point that Windows can easily find.

Here are the steps to ACCESS THE SYSTEM RESTORE WIZARD.

1. Click START then click HELP AND SUPPORT.
2. Click PERFORMANCE AND MAINTENANCE and it opens the wizard. (Then you'll CLICK the action you want to take from the list displayed.)
3. Click CREATE A RESTORE POINT then click NEXT.
4. In the Restore Point Description box, type a name to identify this Restore Point, System REstore automatically adds to this name the date and time the Point is created.
5. Click CREATE.

You can read all the detailed instructions in the Help Index under To create a Restore Point.

Take a tip from me: do this before you mess your computer up.

Sling Words (still cleaning up my messed up hard drive).

Josh Groban's new album

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Awake is the new album, and I have it!

What a voice.

Sling Words off to listen to the long-awaited new album.

Uh oh X 2

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I had just about maxxed out my hard drive so I bit the bullet and bought an external hard drive with 160 dazzling gigs of space. Two days ago, I started transferring files to Mr. G, the external drive. Somehow in the process, I accidentally uninstalled my music application and all the music files I'd accumulated in the past three years, a not inconsiderable amount of tunes. Bad? Yep. What was worse was that I also somehow deleted my digital illustration software and project files.

I have no idea how I did it, but six hours of work and a lot of angst later, I had reinstalled both applications, found and undeleted the songs and the art work, but what a pain in the old derriere.

At the end of all that, I was toast.

Vote today

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Here's another of those things I don't understand. Why don't people vote? There are more people who clog the phone lines to vote for American Idol contestants than who clog the voting booths on election day. A recent movie used that fact as its premise.

In America, you have the privilege of voting for those who represent you. Yet few seem to honor this responsibility. I grew up in a household where all the adult members voted. Maybe that was a good example for me because I've always voted too.

This is probably useless ranting so I'll be succinct. If you don't vote, then keep your mouth shut about what is happening in this country - good or bad. You haven't earned the right to say a single word about anything if you don't exercise your right to vote.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is very "quotable" so today I'll use his words to close this blog entry. "Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves — and the only way they could do this is by not voting."

Acacia delight

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The other day I was talking to someone about the beauty of my acacia tree, and they had no idea what kind of tree that was. So here's a close up of the profuse blooms of the acacia at the end of my driveway. The tree starts blooming in mid-October and blooms its heart out with showers of yellow blossoms until spring.Early this morning a huge storm blew through and removed all the spent blooms so the lovely tree will keep blooming.

Some years it becomes so heavy with blooms that it begins uprooting so we have to anchor it to the ground with cables in order for it to survive the March winds. For a semi-tropical tree, it's amazingly hardy once it's established.

Okay, that's your botany lesson for today. Back to writing now.

Ted Bundy story

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I turned on the television early the other morning and caught The Deliberate Stranger, a movie about serial killer Ted Bundy, starring Mark Harmon as Bundy. Though this was made twenty years ago and I'd seen it before, I still found it darkly compelling and frightening. Harmon is one heck of an actor who portrayed the charming, intelligent killer without chewing up the scenery in the process. Creepy and disturbing are two adjectives to apply to his performance and the movie. Seeing this movie again made me want to call up my kids and review all the safety procedures drummed into their heads when they were younger.

Watching The Deliberate Stranger and seeing how this supposed all-American guy is revealed layer by layer as the sick killer he was will certainly give you some insight into characterization.

If you're writing suspense or have serial killers on the brain for a crime novel, take a look at this movie and read the book by Richard W. Larsen from which the movie was adapted.

Just don't do either at night, alone.

William Styron, gone but not forgotten

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How well I remember the first time I read William Styron. The book was The Confessions of Nat Turner for which he won the Pulitzer. Though in my teens, I was barely more than a child and completely shocked by the world he depicted.

Fast forward several years and Styron did it to me again with Sophie's Choice. What a brutal, heartbreaking story. I wept buckets, but that didn't keep me from seeing the movie version starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline with each so young and beautiful and doomed. I wept more buckets.

Styron's biography says he explored the darkest corners of the human mind and experience and that he was plagued by his own near-suicidal demons. It's easy to believe that the darkness he explored mirrored that inside his own heart. How else could he have written in a way that conveyed such authenticity?

I always liked knowing that he'd served in 1945 in Okinawa. Many years after he'd been there, I lived on the island. I'd think about the things I'd see and know that he'd seen them too, and they probably had looked about the same.

I also liked that he and other authors successfully kept the Disney company from putting a theme park near the Manassas National Battlefield in northern Virginia.

His writing, and he himself, was revered and reviled. Maybe that's always the way it is with people who touch our deepest emotions.

John Kerry, what were you thinking?

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I rarely discuss anything political because there are so many other ways to make people mad at you. Besides, I'm a good southern girl who was taught it's bad manners to discuss politics, religion, or money.

However, sometimes your Inbox contains something so funny that it's just too good not to share. A picture is worth a thousand words. Right? My military buddy sent me this. Don't know where he got it, but I'm sure it's going around the electronic world even as we speak.

God bless our soldiers. The ones I've known have a great sense of humor, and they never pass up an opportunity to laugh. They know a joke when they see one.

Writing contests: elements judged

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Halloween is over. Let's get back to business. That's contest business. I think some of you are as confused as the signs shown here. I hope I can clarify the situation and help you.

Writing contests break down the various fiction skills required to write a solid story into individual parts which will be used to judge the entry. You don't have to be a NASA astrophysicist to understand this fact. However, most people seem to be selective when it comes to reading the rules and subsequently submitting their baby.

Study the rules carefully because they tell you what areas will be judged. Better yet, if a sample copy of the score sheet is provided, study that until you know what elements are crucially important. Then ask someone else to read the sample score sheet and then read what you plan to enter and see how your manuscript compares. Be sure this reader is someone who has not read your selection before. Don't give it to your critique partner, because s/he will unconsciously be kinder than say, the retired school teacher next door.

I think every contest I've ever judged usually has these elements: characterization, conflict, plot, hook, dialogue, pace, setting, viewpoint, sexual tension or romance development, and manuscript preparation. There may be other elements, but these are the basics though they may be labeled something different in certain contests.

When you enter the contest, you probably know that these are some of the things you'll be judged on. So why do I see so many entries that totally ignore these elements? I won't even focus on the really hard things like characterization, conflict, plot, pacing, and viewpoint since those require a lot of work to develop properly.

I'm talking about the stuff that gets completely left out which means you're going to be rated very low. Most often I see hook, dialogue, setting, sexual tension, and manuscript preparation completely forgotten.

The Hook. I've already held forth about the beginnings that open with reams of description, backstory, flashback, or any of the other ways that are more or less boring. So I won't go into more detail here. Go back and read the blog on Writing Contests: alpha and omega. Suffice it to say that if you don't have a hook, you've lost this category.

Dialogue. Contest judges rate an entry on dialogue in a few ways. Two of these are (1) Is it good dialogue? (2) Is it balanced with narration and exposition? (3) Do the different characters sound different?

When you pick up an entry and there's NO dialogue, how can a judge honestly rate you with anything above, well, zero? Same with the balance. How can you expect anything but a low rating when out of perhaps 20 pages there's a grand total of 1 page of dialogue when you add it all up? Or 1 or 2 sentences? People, quit shooting yourselves in the foot with this category.

Each character should speak with his own voice based on his educational background, personality, etc. Yet most times, in contests, they all sound alike. Perhaps Aaron Sorkin wrote them? Why do I make this crack? To me, everyone on Sorkin's show West Wing sounds the same. This is why I couldn't get through one epidsode of West Wing despite that it was well written. All the people sounded the same. They talked at the same pace and in the same style. It drove me nuts.

Setting. Within the first few pages, a reader should know where and when the story is taking place. Where basically means geographical location, and when means the time of the year and whether it's day or night. Why is this important, other than being judged on producing a credible, concrete setting? Because the reader's brain is constantly producing mental pictures that illustrate the story being read.

One of the best movies I've ever seen that depicts this is The Big Picture starring Kevin Bacon and a host of stars in cameo roles. Kevin is a screenwriter. He tells the studio head what his story is about and the viewer sees the vision of it - two young, sensitive married couples in an old house. As the studio head starts to edit the story, saying, no, we really need it younger and sexier, the scene changes to screaming, laughing 20-somethings in bikinis being chased by hunky surfer dudes.

That's the way it is when a reader reads. The picture is formed in the mind. It's very jarring to have an entry that has a throwaway line about being a cop in a big city is a hard job, and I picture New York, only to discover at the end of the contest entry that the writer is talking about Topeka, Kansas. Now Topeka might also have eight million stories to tell, but am I willing to read them after being tricked like that? And the reader does feel duped.

So do yourself a favor and let the reader know where the story is taking place and what time of the year it is. Give us a picture we can replicate in our minds.

Sexual Tension
. Oh, brother. This is a biggie in romance. Every contest asks you to rate this or the development of the romance or something similar. How can you rate something that isn't there? I wonder over and over why someone bothers entering a contest where their entry will be judged for this, and there's not a smidgen of romance or sexual tension. So how do you get rated for this when there is none? I'm sure I don't have to tell you that on a scale of 1-10, 1-5, 1-20, or 1 to a zillion that you get 1 if the judge is generous and gives you the benefit of the doubt that there will be a romance somewhere in the story since you labeled your entry a romance. You get a zero if the judge is honest.

Why enter something that has no tension or romance? Don't shoot yourself in the foot and say, "Well, that's how this is written." Professional writers learn to revise. Either revise it to show a meeting between the hero and the heroine where sparks fly or enter something else that does have this evident.

Another thing about sexual tension. Having immediate gratuitous sex by page three or before is NOT sexual tension or romance. A strange man slipping into a woman's bedroom and fondling her while she sleeps, then having sex with her when she awakens and finds an UNKNOWN man, naked and erect in her bed is NOT sexual tension or romance. That's every woman's nightmare, and it's usually called rape. If you think that's romance, you need to read more romance novels. Please don't submit any more of these in contests. I've seen it so many times that I'm no longer stunned by it.

Manuscript Preparation. This is a no-brainer. If you don't know when and where to use commas, then get someone else to proof your manuscript. If you can't spell, and trust me on this, hardly anyone seems able to in today's world, find someone who can. Manuscript preparation is covered in many books and articles. (There's probably one on my website. I'll check and pull it out of archives if not.) Everyone who enters a contest can score the highest on this, yet I rarely have an entry that does. It's as if most people think this doesn't matter. Yet it can easily cost you 5, 10, or 15 points depending on the scoring system.

If you slept through English in high school or your girl/boy friend did your composition work in college, it's not too late to learn now. Get a basic grammar book and go to work. If you are unwilling to master this required skill, then get someone who knows these things to proof your manuscripts.

I just want to say one other thing. Some of the contests produce entries that are all uniformly good. Year after year, I'm amazed at how good the writing is in a few of the contests so I enjoy reading these. Unfortunately, other contests seem to produce uniformly mediocre entries. I suspect the contest just hasn't "grown up" yet. I won't give names in either category. You know who you are.

So, you contest divas out there, choose your contests wisely, and be just as wise when selecting what you'll enter. And, for pity's sake, don't shoot yourself in the foot with dumb mistakes.