Year of the Monkey Writing Prompt

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My FB friends know I teach a group of homeschoolers writing Monday mornings. This is our fourth year together and this semester I added a writing prompt. They’re given less than than 5 minutes to complete it. I post it on my FB in case anyone wants to write along and decided that it’d be fun to add it here.

Feel free to link to your response on your site or leave it in the comments. Play along if you like!

This week’s prompt….

In honor of Chinese New Year and red envelopes… The Monkey stole something of value from you and…

And The Mariachi Band Played On

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I wrote this for an anthology last year and then realized that it missed the point of the theme. It’s not doing any good just sitting in my hard drive … so decided to share it. Enjoy! jerjonji

By jerjonji

The eight-foot tall dancing dinosaur skeleton puppet wove and twirled to the sounds of the Mariachi band as the crowd on the sidelines cheered. Children mimicked its steps on the curb as their parents and grandparents goaded them on. Antique cars decked out in vibrant yellow and gold marigold putted down the street. In the hot Albuquerque November sun, the ancient Ford covered in pennies glittered and shimmered while the Barbie art car made spectators laugh, point, and jostle for the perfect photograph of the car covered in naked Barbies. People in Calaveras face paint waved and passed out candy into the grubby outstretched tiny palms. Each white face elaborately done up with delicate frons, hearts, and flowers. None of them gruesome or scary like the older teens begging for candy in the neighborhood the night before with their fake blood masks and ugly criminals, but cheerful and happy in a zany way; it was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Day, November 1st. The day to remember those who’d gone on before, to drink their favorite drinks and eat their favorite foods. A holiday older than the arrival of the Spaniards to the West Coast, some experts said the day celebrating family members who died was thousands of years old.

Maria groaned and shifted in her overlarge soccer chair placed carefully by her grown son in the shade, far from the crowd. “Momma, You can’t see anything back here. All the children want to be up front.”

Maria waved him off. She’d been coming to the parade since she was the age of newest great-grand child, a babe in a modern day baby pack that let the child cling to the mother, similar to the way the women back in the old days carried their child while they worked in the fields picking crops. Not that her granddaughter had spent one day working the land. Maria protected all her children and grandchildren from that experience. Every stray penny went into a jar and when full of change, she dumped it out in the center of the worn quilt her grandmother had made years ago and rolled it into tight cylinders carted to the bank in the bottom of her purse and exchanged for a stamp in a small bank book. Over the years, she filled a stack of bankbooks. When her oldest, Manuel, wanted to drop out of high school and go to work with his uncle at the Brick Factory, she shared her secret.

“Manuel, what’s your secret heart’s desire? If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?”

Manuel, tall and dark like his father, with her own father’s eyes, stammered a bit before admitting he wanted to cook- not like his mother, but like the old white woman on TV with the funny voice who made exotic dishes.

“So- go,” she declared. And Manuel was sent off to study culinary cooking, a term she’d never heard until Manuel confessed his deepest secret. Now, he was the top chef at hottest restaurant in the city. They told her that you needed reservations weeks in advance to get a table. She didn’t care much for the food at his restaurant, not that she’d ever admit it to his face, but when he cooked for her at home, using her momma’s recipes, she believed every penny was well spent.

As each of her children came of age, she repeated the experience. The surgical nurse who worked with heart attack patients was on duty the day she had her first heart attack. It helped knowing her child’s hands would be in the room while the doctors cut her apart and put her back together again. Another studied business and worked as a bank manager in the same branch she’d been using all these years. With each success, came more success, and her funds became the family bank. Borrow momma’s money, pay it back with just a little bit more, and borrow it again. It paid for new roofs, new cars, braces, and the occasional family emergency. She hadn’t asked the children to pay it back, but when Manuel offered the first time, she was a little short for paying Jose’s tuition bill and accepted.

Sami, the bank manager, was in charge of the family’s finances now. After her third heart attack, she turned over the little bank books to her energetic and determined child who’d grown into a woman she barely recognized. An independent, freethinking woman with no patience for useless people, Sami was shocked at the amount her poor little mother had accumulated in a lifetime of working in the fields, washing dishes in small restaurants, and sewing sequins on the elaborate Mariachi charro costumes. If family member didn’t pay back the money fast enough, Sami scolded them heartlessly. “Momma worked her whole life for that money. She never took vacations, bought new cars, or spent a dime on herself, and you’re driving what? Who bought that car? Momma! Not another loan until you pay it all back! And don’t you dare go to Momma about this. You know her heart can’t take it.”

Secretly, Maria smiled at Sami’s fierceness. Some of the family needed her toughness. She’d been right to send the girl to get her MBA when everyone said girls didn’t need advanced degrees. It was enough for her to have a college degree. But it wasn’t enough for Maria. She wanted all of her living children to achieve the very best, and if that meant more schooling, go get it! Besides, if that little great grandchild was to reach for the stars, the rest had to pay up. The original money was long gone. It hadn’t been that much when she sent Manuel off.

The strains of the Mariachi tune hung in the air and Maria’s feet moved slightly to the music. “Momma, want anything? I’m taking the kids for ice cream.” Maria waved away her youngest child who was surrounded by a host of wiggling children. She couldn’t hear the music over all their confusion.

The coolness of the shade felt cooler after her mass of offspring disappeared into the crowd. The strings of the guitars strummed and hummed as the men in maroon cowboy style suits covered in silver and gold sequins surrounded her. They tipped their matching wide brim Mexican cowboy hats and flirted with her, smiling and winking suggestively. She laughed in appreciation. She’d attached every single tiny jewel to their outfits years ago and yet neither the suits or the men playing had aged at all.

A child, a tiny skeleton, wearing an old-style cotton dress, pulled her up out of the chair and they danced. One foot, then two, the odd couple spun around and around the invisible hat on the ground. They danced like she’d danced so often in her youth. When had she quit dancing? It felt so good, so perfect, to be out of that chair and letting her body flow nearly subconsciously to the familiar steps and music.

“Oh,” she said, finally recognizing the child. “It’s been so long! I’ve missed you terribly. I cried and cried when you left us.”

The child, silent and grinning, danced another step as the Mariachi band started up again. Maria, lost in her memories, laughed aloud, and grabbed the child’s bony fingers.

“Oh, Momma,” Manuel cried out when he returned to the lifeless body of the woman he thought would never leave him. “Oh Momma!”

The More I Know…

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… the less I know! Anyone else feel that way? I’ve been revisiting writing queries and am beginning to feel like I know the format… and then, I realize that what I really need to know is something else- something completely different!

The same thing happens when I’m researching a topic for one of my novels. I spent nearly a year learning about the Native Americans living in New Jersey before it was New Jersey and then realized that I really needed to study the War of 1812 (and all it’s causes and results)… and then realized I needed to know about the New Jersey Quakers (before and after the War of 1812). Needless to say, that book was late! Very late! (And I have a ton of information I didn’t use stuck in my brain.)

Knowledge is a funny thing. If you meet an expert on something, the first thing they’ll start telling you is all the things they don’t know– yet (if they’re honest). It’s easy to become narrower and narrower in your research and not see the external connections you need to comprehend in order to completely understand the first topic.

So, I keep on learning and keep on thinking and keep on gathering up useless facts and tidbits in hopes that they’ll lead me where I need to go and don’t yet know I need to go there! Oh for a knowledge GPS!

Demons of Doubt

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The demons of doubt roam freely in the brain of creative people. They jeer and challenge until the writer is left in knots, tangled so tightly in their critique that it is all nonsense and stuff that goes poof like a dandelion in the hands of a toddler. Crippled, full of anxiety, second guessing every word, the writer stops- sometimes for a day, and sometimes for forever.

I keep demon slayers on my desk surface, swords drawn, ready to slash to a bloody death any doubt demon that wanders by. Some days, they fight a good fight and lose, exhausted and damaged by the warfare for my work. Other days, their sheer bravado takes the day and I write like my fingers are on fire, the words flowing faster than I can manage to type. Those are good days.

“Finish the work,” we tell new writers. “Turn off the editor in your brain until it’s finished,” we insist, knowing full well that without that control, the story demanding its freedom will be forever enslaved inside the tunnels of your neuron synapses. And yet, there are days… there are days… Fight well, my protectors, you are needed.

Fueling the Creativity Fire

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I unofficially type “THE END” in my mind as I finish the last page of my newest tale… and then I mope and grieve and say goodbye to the characters that have lived in my mind forever and are now gone.

They aren’t really gone. In front of me I face revisions, editing, more revisions, more editing, and then it’s off to the publisher for more editing and then… the magical cover reveal and release date. But the creative part for me ends with “the end” as I finish the story I meant to tell and I free the spirits I’ve held captive during this process.

In the days following, I don’t sit back down at my keyboard and start Chapter One. It’s refueling time. I read… tons and tons of things- all kinds of things. I visit the mall and sit in the food court. I make up stories about people I see outside my car window as I drive to the store. I watch foreign TV and I catch up on all the famous people gossip (who has a new show coming, who is singing with whom, and who was caught in NY last month and why). I watch those stupid Youtube videos with silly babies, cats, and dogs, and I search for new artists. And I read some more. I study a genre- not one I’m going to write in, but a new one so that I can figure out what makes that kind of story work and doesn’t. I carry around a notebook and make new character sketches and story plots. I answer email (and compose mental emails to those pesky spam emails). I fingerpaint with the two year old and make paper dolls with the six year old. I shop and shop and shop… and I’m in the kitchen, cooking and baking and making crafty type things.

I’m filling up- getting ready to write. To the outsider, it looks like procrastination. It may be procrastination, but it works for me. When I sit down to write again, it will pour out like an unstopped dam until the story is done and the vessel is empty. If I try to write before I’m full, I bang around on the keys, distracted and vexed.

Creativity needs to be fed something besides candy hearts and Hershey bars. It needs to feel, taste, and roll around in life. It needs to listen to new sounds, see new places, and touch new substances. It needs words and music and art until the brain is brimming and sloshing out from the overflow. So don’t be afraid to fill it up before you let it! It’s all part of the same process to me!

 

 

Marketing Books 101

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The topic of actually selling your books after you’re published came up at Writer’s Group last night and I shared my “vast, unsuccessful” strategies. They are the following:

  1. Be nice… No, really. My Grams used to say (just like yours did) “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” and while I know my readers aren’t flies (because I’ve never met a fly that could read as far as I could tell though that might explain their attraction to the paper I’m reading in the summer), it’s critical to remember that even those that hate you are human beings fighting their own battles that you know nothing of. Give them the grace you crave as another human being. You are your brand- not your publisher, editor, or writer friend… just you!
  2. Use Social Media. I’m still struggling to get this under control and while it was suggested that I pre-write and time things to post as specific times, I’d rather be a bit more real and sporadic. It’s a painful choice between writing and promotion. If I’m writing, I’m not marketing and if I’m marketing, I’m not… well, you know. Balance… ah, I fight for a sense of balance.
  3. Go where your readers are…. If only I knew where to go! Where are all those YA readers? Sometimes, I just need to go somewhere where people are even if they aren’t my people and be very nice to them! So you’ll find me at conventions that aren’t necessarily geared towards my readers, but I’m there, being real and happy and stepping outside my comfort zone.
  4. Be Professional. Treat everyone with respect and use those manners your Grams whacked into you? Your Grams didn’t chase you around the yard with a broom? Your loss! Mine taught me a lot about being respectful! And Thankful! I’m thankful for every reader, for every person who stops by a booth to talk to me, who takes my handouts happily, who friends me on Facebook and leaves thoughtful comments, and who leaves reviews after they read.
  5. Try new things. Experiment and learn. One friend leaves her bookmarks everywhere. I don’t think they’ve resulted in a single sale, but she’s trying! I’ve given writing workshops, given books away for reviews (which rarely happen), and I keep working on perfecting the craft of writing. I’ve paid for Facebook ads which has generated views (and no sales). I’ve entered local and international writing events (and still no sales). I blog and network and teach… no sales. But I have to keep trying to develop that base of readers who hound me for the next book (it’s in the works!).

So you read all this and just now realized that I have no magic answers (or sales)… yep, that’s right. No matter how well you write, there are no shortcuts that I’ve found that result in sales. But as Grams always said, “Get back in this house and finish your chores before I beat you,” or in other words, “I love you. Keep trying! Don’t give up! Finish what you started!”

Writer’s Group Doesn’t Hate You

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I see you sitting there, shoulders clenched tightly under your bulky coat, papers in front of you untouched, mouth tightened. I know you’re a hot mess underneath that fake calm you’re projecting to the group. Your thoughts are racing, the anger’s rising, and it’s taking all your self-control to stay in the hard metal chair while the urge to fly grows.

Here’s the thing you don’t understand. We’ve all been there- right there in that hard seat- feeling those same emotions- but we’ve returned and done it all over again. The real test is if there is a next time.

Can you hear me yet? We don’t hate you. We don’t even think that you’re a terrible writer. We think you’re brave for sharing it and braver still for sitting there as we take it apart and put it back together again. Some of your mistakes are classic newbie ones that you’ll learn quickly to avoid while others are complex and more of a teaching tool for the rest of the group.

It’s not about you at all in fact. The focus is on the work and how to make it the best work you can write- and in the end, when it’s over, it’ll be up to you to decide which changes to make or reject. Not all our suggestions are on target or meet the needs of your story.

I suspect that you’re used to people reading your work and telling you how great it is, but that’s not our role. We focus on the things that don’t work because we only have a limited time before it’s the next writer’s turn. You’ll know you’re good when silence falls over the group after your work is read. It will happen to you- if you’re still at the table.

Writing is a craft. Every writer who takes it seriously is on a journey. When we critique your writing at writer’s group, it’s to help teach you the craft, not to say your writing is terrible. Everyone’s writing is terrible- all the time- that’s why we rewrite, edit, polish, and beta read it. We are not there to be your cheerleader or friend. We are there to help your journey end in mastery. What we’re trying to teach you are the same mistakes we made until someone taught us. Sometimes, we still make those same mistakes until someone points them out to us. That’s why we go to writer’s group. Check your ego at the door and bring on the work. Your other choice is to listen to the primal need for flight and not return. Please return!

Santa Doesn’t Visit Poor Kids

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“You say that to shock people,” the love of my life offers. I offer him more cheese and crackers and drink the last of his Sam Adams Winter Lager. It’s bitter and I make a face.

“Maybe,” I agree, “but it’s true.”

I hadn’t been teaching in an urban school long before I changed my December curriculum. No one cared what I taught my special ed. Kindergartners as long as they quit running naked in the halls and didn’t leave puddles of pee on the newly waxed floors. When Christmastime came at my new school, I approached the Principal about taking the kids to the mall to see Santa. He was dubious but made arrangements for a school bus. I told the kids we were going to see Santa, but Elvis objected.

“No see Santa,” he insisted, but I ignored him- a mistake I tried never to make again.

The gentle white Santa sat on his throne, in all his splendor, and called for my class. Milton went first. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he wouldn’t let the old man touch him. Inching away, he knocked over a fake reindeer and a small tree. Comforted with a candy cane, he sucked on it without removing the plastic.

While I was trying to get Dalton to spit out the fake snow he was cramming into his mouth with both hands, Elvis strutted up to the waiting Santa. Six years old, street-smart and wise, he had something to say and no adult was stopping him.

“How come you no come my house?” Elvis shouted. “You no like me? I’se good boy!” Good for Elvis is a relative term- meaning in the last five minutes he hadn’t cussed me out in Spanish or stolen something from the classroom.

Santa lost his smile and he stuttered. I suspect they didn’t cover dealing with Elvis in Santa school. Elvis put his hands on his hips and shook a tiny finger in Santa’s direction. “You no come my street. I no like you!”

He stomped off the staging area, grabbed a handful of candy canes from the Elf, and kicked over the remaining fake reindeer. Joan liberated most of the candy canes, but Santa didn’t want them back, and we hurriedly rushed the rest of the class through the experience.

I quit asking children what they wanted for Christmas or what Santa would bring them. There were whole neighborhoods in my city that Santa didn’t go down and it seemed cruel to taunt them with dreams that wouldn’t come true.

I focused on the role of family and friends during the holidays and the beauty of the lights. I taught my kids the story of Chanukah and Elvis acted out the lead of Judas Maccabee with relish. We learned about Kwanzaa and the meaning behind each candle. We pretended to light the candles for Diwali and float them down the river. We talked about the angels singing to the shepherds. And once in a while, we colored pictures of Santa and his skin tone varied, depending on what color crayons were left after Dalton chewed his favorite ones.

Every year, as a family, we picked out one student not in my class and bought the one toy they wanted for Christmas. One year it was the worst kid in the school. Franklin had been teasing my class merciless at lunch, on the bus, and in the schoolyard. Nothing made him cease his evil actions.

“That’s the kid we should buy for this year,” my ten-year-old son said after I ranted about his behavior at dinner- again. Taken back by his suggestion, I resisted. I’d rather put snakes in Franklin’s bed than buy him the toy of his dreams.

“He’s just acting out because he needs attention,” my kid continued, giving me the same advice I’d given him about his own bully.

I stopped Franklin in the hall the next day.

“I dina do nuttin!” He protested.

“What do you want for Christmas, Franklin?”

He stared at me. “We don’t have no money for Christmas,” he replied, like I was the stupid one. “Not like Santa’s comin or nuttin.”

“If you could have any toy, what would it be?”

A bit of the belligerent look in his eyes faded as he described the remote control car he wanted. It wasn’t the huge, brand name car my own son and his friends had requested, but a small car that ran on double AA’s. I nodded and walked away.

The last day of school before Christmas break, it snowed and Franklin skipped school. I watched the snow piling on the cars and in the street. It was going to be slick driving until the sand trucks started, and there were streets in the city that hadn’t been plowed since the last major snow.

Joan stayed behind to clean up the glitter, Kool-aid, bits of chewed wrapping paper, and smears of frosting as while I drove to Franklin’s house. No one was home. The snow was falling thicker and it was sticking. The car in front of me did a donut just missing the streetlight.  The sidewalks were empty. Even the drug dealers on the corners were inside drinking hot cocoa. The state workers who left early for their warm homes in the suburbs had already left the city leaving me alone on the city streets in the middle of a snowstorm.  There were few riders on the rare city buses I saw. The slick slush grew deeper.  Night was coming, and I had my own kid, at home, wanting to tell me about his day. I drove all over the city, praying for a miracle.

The present next to me took up the entire passenger seat. Wrapped in our best paper with a huge bow, was the nicest remote control car that Radio Shack sold; with a year of batteries attached. But it looked like Franklin wasn’t getting a present this year either. “That’ll teach you to skip school,” I muttered, ready to give up.

A snowplow, the first I’d seen, threw a mountain of slushy brown snow on my car. My wipers couldn’t clear it. I pulled over, got out the brush, and pushed the muck off my window.

“Mz. M? Need help?” Franklin offered. Snow covered his shoulders and he looked cold in his thin, three sizes too small, winter coat with a broken zipper.  I should have bought him a coat too.

“How come you cut school today?” I asked, always a teacher first.

He shrugged and brushed the snow off my hood with his coat sleeve. “Gonna get in trouble ‘n suspended if I went, so I’s started vacation early.”

I opened the passenger door, took out the present, and thrust it at him. “Merry Christmas!”

He glared at me, not reaching for it. I shoved the package towards him again. “For you.”

He crossed his arms. “I ain’t takin’ it. I ain’t no charity case.”

“Fine,” I said shortly and not in the best holiday spirits. “I’ve been looking for you for two hours, and I’m tired.” I set the package on a snowbank and shut the passenger door. “See you in January.”

“Wait,” he called as I opened the driver’s side door.

He picked up the package and nodded his appreciation. I accepted it silently. He kicked at the snow, silent. A few of the remaining working streetlights came on, and the wind kicked up, blowing snow around him like snow angels dancing. A shy smile he didn’t want me to see showed briefly and vanished.

“Wanna ride home?” I offered. My kid would wait. He wouldn’t want me to leave this kid to walk home carrying a big package. He’d be a target with it- if he even made it home safe.

I pulled up in front of Franklin’s dark house. Snow covered the taped windows and gang tags. No outdoor Christmas lights glittered in the darkness bringing light to the dark street. The lack of working streetlights added to the gloom.

“Thanks for the ride. You shouldn’t be in this neighborhood at night,” Franklin said. “Lemme run this in and watch you leave.”

“Santa doesn’t visit poor kids,” I tell people, meaning only people visit poor kids. Maybe I do say it to shock them. Mostly I say it because it’s true, and people seem to forget it. We are the lights of the season, not the bright bulbs on the outside of the house.

 

Paying Dues

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You occasionally see photos of authors at book signings with empty chairs and stacks of books no one is buying and before you publish, you’re a bit arrogant, and think, “That won’t be me. My book will sell itself.” Not true.

Part of garnering attention for it means sitting in an arts and crafts consignment shop on a cold rainy Saturday and waiting for nonexistent customers or going to a book signing at a bus stop that’s quit running. It means selling books to all your friends and family and inviting them to signings so the room is full. It requires marketing, more marketing, and yet more marketing, having faith that one day a small miracle will happen and your book will stand out.

As I explore the wonderful world of not selling books, I’m learning what didn’t work this time failed for a different reason than what didn’t work last time. It’s like collecting rejection slips and writing synopsis before you find a publisher- you’re paying dues.

Am I done trying things or thinking outside the box? Not at all. What I am doing now is looking for places where people gather and asking if I can share that space. I’ve banded together with other writers so there are lots of ideas. I’ve done some things that work but I’m open to suggestions. What works for you- on a shoe string budget?

Just Go Ahead and Alter Those My Little Ponies…

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The 2.5 year old and I bought a lot of MLP (My Little Ponies) at the Goodwill a month or two ago and she expressed no interest in them… until yesterday… AFTER I painted three black and started transforming them into Day of the Dead Ponies for the Fur Reality convention.

She looked and looked for her other little ponies and played non-stop with her remaining two. Really played- giving them separate voices, feeding them, combing their hair, sleeping with them, telling stories with them. Today I gave in and took her to the BIG Toy Store to get a new pony. We usually go to the small local store that has interesting toys, but this trip required the store with the backwards R because it has a huge selection. Noni was thrilled with our adventure. She found something that interested in nearly every aisle, flopping down on the floor to look at a box or read a book. It made toy shopping lengthy and I insisted that she stay focused and pick only one toy, and she continued to chose the box of three Tiny ponies wearing dresses.

In the backseat, all the way home, she talked to the ponies in the box and introduced them to her Big Pony. “This is your big sister. Momma’s at home.” And then, she said to me, “My ponies are very sad, NiNi.”

“Why?”

“Because they don’t have a daddy. Let’s go get a daddy pony.”

We didn’t, of course. I put out a call to an online garage sale group for MLP lots. We’ll see what happens…

And those in the process of being altered? Tip #1 Braid their hair BEFORE you start. Tip #2 Allow plenty of time for each layer of paint to dry before beginning the next layer. Good thing the convention is 9 days away!!! It may take me all of them to finish them! Tip #3 If you want the toddler to play with something, take it away and turn it into something else.

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