“A Cruel Blessing” a Ballad

by Jackie Houchin

                 I know this is an unusual post, but in this time of lock-down, I’ve not been able to focus on writing anything new. So I’m presenting this Ballad I wrote for a Creative Writing class at Glendale Community College. I’ve tried to publish it, but no one will take this many stanzas (27), although one of the lines is only ONE word. Can you find it?  And it’s less than 600 words. 

                This ballad is based on a real person I knew, a man who had Grand Mal epilepsy.  

 

“A Cruel Blessing”

 

In olden days, the ancient Land

Of Ararat became

The birthplace of a first born son—

So beautiful, but lame.

 

The lameness was inside of him,

A sleeping fiend, unseen,

That would attack and seize him fast

Once he became a teen.

 

But now, the babe lay peacefully

Against his mother’s breast,

And drank her nectar, white and rich,

And safely took his rest.

 

They double blessed and named the boy

Vartan and Victory.

Then sprinkled him with holy oil

To seal his destiny.

 

A close-knit tribe, his kin instilled

Within their growing child,

A pride of place, and heritage,

A name kept undefiled.

 

The father taught Vartan to war,

Retaliate, defend,

And laid in Victory the love

Of truth, and God and friend.

 

The mother gave him nourishment

To make him strong of limb.

Likewise, the food for soul and mind

She gently forced within.

 

Then on their son they placed this grave

Responsibility,

“The future of this clan does rest

On your integrity.”

 

Relentlessly the clock of months

Ticked thirteen times around.

Vartan approached his manhood proud,

A prince as yet uncrowned.

 

But on his honored day there struck

A death – so fresh, so raw.

The gruesome end of one most dear

Was what young Vartan saw.

 

Then deep within the boy-man’s frame

An aura and a flash

Preceded tremors, shakes and quakes,

A weakness, then a crash.

 

Like frozen forms the family

Around the crumpled lad

Took in with shock and fright the sight,

And wailed, “Our son is mad!”

 

They mourned the loss of hopes and dreams,

(As well, the one so dear),

And wake became a vigil grim;

A sick bed and a bier.

 

Vartan lay still as death that night;

The other’s corpse quite close.

At dawn they lowered bones below,

But Victory arose!

 

A celebration wild with joy

Then met the rising son.

They dared to hope that only once

The dreadful foe had won.

 

Forgotten soon the grievous curse

As manly, Vartan grew.

A wanton woman caught his eye,

Then taught him all she knew.

 

But in the rush of ecstasy

The pleasures turned to pains.

He screamed, convulsed, then toppled down

Amidst a dozen stains.

 

In shame they found the fallen oak

And slowly hauled him home.

Beside the hearth, he warmed and woke

With kin, but all alone.

 

A disciplined and structured life

He thought would bring release.

Vartan desired glory bright,

But Victory sought peace.

 

So in the frozen, northern wastes

A soldier he became.

And hardship burned the dross from him;

A cruel and thorough flame.

 

But still, in light-less days he fell

A victim to his plight.

And so there came to dwell in him

A darkness more than night.

 

A disciplined and structured life—

This time, a different kind;

In solitude and quietness

Release he’d surely find.

 

So to the Church, went Victory.

He knelt, and prayed and read.

Now sixty months of sanity

Have eased his tortured head.

 

A Holy Man, a Prophet true

Is what he’s meant to be.

For holy oil had marked him thus,

And sealed his destiny.

 

Now from the monastery, he

Speaks out the Truth he’s learned,

And prays forgiveness from his kin

For hopes and dreams he’s spurned.

 

For from Vartan no seed will flow

To populate the clan,

And to defend the name and place

There’s no one who will stand.

 

But, praise! The sleeping fiend has fled—

It dared not seize a priest!

So God and Church held Vartan in…

And Victory released.

Vartan 2

Vartan woman

Vartan 3

Vartan monestary

 

  • * * * * *

 

 

 

 

Teaching Writing in Africa

Ah, the stories they tell!

IMG_0643MeTeachOn a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.

Two years ago I taught most of these kids “How to Write A Short Story.” Their creations were marvelous, and in fact, I posted some of the stories on my blog, Here’s How It Happened. (See the mystery, “The Tay Diamond”,  the action-packed, “The Adventures of Timmy, the Squirrel”,  and the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque “The Mirror”)

IMG_1133Booklet coversAfter reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.

This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.

IMG_0645MeTeach Young classBefore I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud.  There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).

I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions.  I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.

IMG_0640MeTeach Micah,TylerFor the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished.  I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them.  (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)

We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words.  Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion.  Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.

We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.

Character traits 71T4QNm+soLNext, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon.  I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait.  We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)

As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions.  “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or  Timothy was peculiar because he….”

For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.”  They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.

IMG_0654 Older writing classFor the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.

We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations.  These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)

IMG_0651MeTeach MatthewIMG_0653MeTeach AndrewThese boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.

I think they got it! By George, they got it!  

(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)

At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.

I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!

IMG_0667MeTeach fun

 

Post Script:  I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive.  One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish.  Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.

 

 

Kitchen Art and Edible Legacies

by Jackie Houchin

I’m so thankful that both my mom and my dad put pen to paper while they were alive to draw and write out lasting legacies for me to cherish now that they are gone.

Our Thanksgiving Dinner

Mom cooked the whole feast, all the fixings and desserts, until way after she had great-grandchildren. When she was no longer able, I took over the task for a few years before handing it down to my daughter-in law who excels in the kitchen.

IMG_4917Now, the week before Thanksgiving I thumb through the 3×5 cards in Mom’s old plastic recipe box, looking for the Cranberry Salad, the Holiday Mincemeat Cake, and the Chiffon Pumpkin Pie recipes. The writing is faint and blurred; the cards are stained. And my heart gives a twist as I picture Mom taking each one out and assembling the ingredients on the counter.  (This “treasured” box came to me 20 months ago when, at 94, she died.)

Six weeks ago my Dad joined her in Heaven. Now they are giving thanks to God continually, not just on our annual holiday.

In cleaning out my dad’s file drawers I found a stack of napkins about five inches high. I thought they were dust cloths for his crafting projects, until I took them out of the plastic bag. Instead of throwaways, I found ‘priceless’ pieces of art that I will treasure alongside my mom’s recipe box.

IMG_4915Daily for a year or so in 1999, Dad sat at their kitchen table and drew stick figure sketches of Mom in various situations, from housecleaning and cooking, to relaxing with a morning coffee on the patio, working a jigsaw puzzle, gardening,  and packing/traveling to Solvang on their anniversary.  Each filmy paper illustration has her comment in a balloon above her head. I can hear her saying them all! I admit, I cried as I looked at each one in the stack.

I’ll share a few of his sketches here, along with two of her “famous” Thanksgiving recipes.

Mom, baking her Chiffon Pumpkin Pies (Thin crusts; never soggy!)

IMG_4898 (Edited)    IMG_4900 (Edited)

Mom’s pie recipe:

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup canned pumpkin (not pie mix)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 eggs (separated)
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 TBS. plain gelatin
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 2 TBS. granulated sugar
  • 1 baked pie shell

Soak Gelatin in water. Combine brown sugar, pumpkin, milk, egg yolks (lightly beaten), spices and salt.  Cook in top of double boiler until mixture begins to thicken (about 5 minutes)  Add gelatin to hot mixture. Chill until partially congealed. Beat egg whites stiff, but not dry. Beat granulated sugar into egg  whites. Fold into pumpkin mixture.  Pour into baked pie shell. Chill for 1-2 hours or until stiff enough to cut and hold its shape.  Garnish with whipped cream if desired.

Mom’s Cranberry Salad recipe:

  • 1 pound fresh or frozen whole cranberries
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup drained crushed pineapple
  • 1 cup mini marshmallows
  • 1 large package of strawberry Jell-O
  • 1 cup boiling water

Grind (or process) the cranberries roughly. Add sugar. Let set 3 hours.  Add pecans,  pineapple, and marshmallows.  Dissolve Jell-O thoroughly in boiling water. Add to the above mixture and set aside to mold. (When slightly thickened, stir down the marshmallows.)

Gratitude

How glad I am that my parents took time to write out and draw “every day” things.  They may never be published (other than on this blog), but they are as enduring and endearing to me as any literary classic or masterpiece painting.  They are the hearts of my Mom and Dad.

Creativity in any form is a gift from God and destined to bless (or change) someone.  Keep on creating from your heart. You’ll never know who will pick up a piece of “you” and smile (or cry).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving snoopy

“Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good.” Psalm 136.1

#WriteMotivation    !    #Creativity

How To Earn $1 Million on Your First Book… or NOT!

Jackie Houchin

bag of moneyI was going to write this post on “how to make $1 million on your first book” and follow the story of paranormal-romance writer Amanda Hocking who actually sold 1.5 million eBooks in 2010 and made $2.5 million. “All by her lonesome self. Not a single book agent or publishing house or sales force or marketing manager or bookshop anywhere in sight.”

Following tips she’d gleaned from the blog of JA Konrath (an internet self-publishing pioneer, who boasted of making $100,000 in three weeks), she also uploaded to Smashwords to gain access to the Nook, Sony eReader and iBook markets.  “It wasn’t that difficult. A couple of hours of formatting, and it was done.”

Then… she got a $2 million contract from St Martin’s Press and… yada, yada, yada.   Here’sHerStory

Today the self-published book market is flooded with books, and unfortunately a lot of them are inferior in quality in one way or another.  Authors in a rush to publish don’t take time to write a quality story, edit, format, proofread, and design a cover professionally. And less than half of them make even $500.

So what’s a newbie author like me to do?

I’m currently working on a middle grade children’s book manuscript. It is a collection of twelve stories from the POV of seven kids who are the children of Missionaries in Africa. The kids take turns writing emails to their friends back home, telling of adventures, mishaps, mysteries, and lessons learned. In the process they reveal amazing bits of African culture, as well as showing how kids anywhere can use the Bible to help them in life.

Because it is unabashedly a Christian book and might be difficult to market, I decided to self-publish.  I’m also determined to make it the best possible book I can.

Okay. No problem.

I’m a journalist and a reviewer. I’ve written tons of stories for my granddaughters over the years. And these twelve stories have been “kid tested” to more than a dozen children at my church. (They loved them.)

So all I have to do is a minor rework so they fit together smoothly, check for typos and grammar errors, and ask a friend to help me upload it to Kindle and Createspace. Right?

WRONG!

IMG_3243As I began to read blogs about self-publishing and downloaded PDFs like “Checklist for Publishing Your Book” and “Which Format Should I Choose” and followed marketing blogs with tips on using  social media, launching your book, advertising, newsletters, and websites, I discovered there’s a lot more to consider.

How to self publish your bookI bought and read “How to Self Publish Your Book” by Craig Gibb, which details about titles, pen names, and blurbs, as well as editing, cover designs, formatting, promoting and marketing options.

Word by Word Editing“Word by Word, An Editor Guides Writers in the Self-Editing Process” by Linda Taylor describes in detail the process of content and copy editing, proofreading, formatting, and all the front and back matter I would need to write for a complete “up-loadable manuscript package.”

 

My take away, if I am determined enough to do it:

  1. Write/rewrite my stories so they are polished to a mirror shine and have a kid-compelling first chapter.
  2. Get my manuscript professionally edited. (I sent in a sample 750 words to be edited free to one publisher, and was aghast at all the track changes suggested!) A proofreader is also high on my list.
  3. Get professional help in formatting my manuscript for the various eBook and print options. (There are just too many things that can go wrong, and I know from a dear friend on this blog that the learning curve is steep.) This is especially important because I want to include photos or illustrations.
  4. Get a cover designer/illustrator who can format for both eBook and Print, and who can portray the vision I have for the stories.

How much is this going to cost me?  A lot.

Can a middle grade children’s book with a Bible slant recoup that in sales?  Only God knows. I’m really NOT out to earn $millions. Any profit I make will be channeled back into the Africa ministries that I love.

But… I DO have a person who has promised to read the book and write a foreward for it. He’s worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators and travels the world as a Partnership Facilitator. He’s been to Malawi many times.  Who knows where THAT contact might lead.

And YOU might even know a 7-12-year-old who thinks it would be fun to grow up in deepest, darkest Africa!  And want to read my book.

IMG_3208

A Library By Any Other Name…

by Jackie Houchin

Mention “Valentine’s Day,” and instantly visions of  cute or sentimental greeting cards, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and bouquets of red roses come to mind. You may even dream of romantic dinners or diamond bracelets.

But it was none of these things that Kristin Molloy of Mission Viejo, California, wished for last year for Valentine’s Day.

“I love books and libraries,” she said with a smile. “So do my kids. We love to go to our Mission Viejo library to check out books. Growing up, everyone in my family had a book to read around the dining room table. I wanted my own library!”

oaxze7-b88760174z.120160726144933000gjmhqss4.10
From left to right: Jenna Brown, Kaitlyn Schisler and Astha Parmar take a photo with the Little Free Library, a book kiosk at the Lake Forest Sports Park designed by the three from Cadette Girl Scout Troop 1859. Contractor Bradlee Rodecker helped in building the house-like kiosk.

Her husband, Kevin Molloy, a fireman, knew exactly what she meant. Earlier that year while visiting the Lake Forest Sports Park and Rec. Center they spotted an amazing tiny wooden library on a pole. Designed and built by three Girl Scouts with help from the Park staff, the cheery blue and white painted Little Free Library is a house-like box of books. Visible through two Plexiglas doors are perhaps 30-40 books for all ages. Anyone can take a book to read…free. After reading it, they can return it or bring back a different one. The organization’s motto is “Take a Book, Return a Book.”

Kristen thought her own Little Free Library would be great for their neighborhood.

IMG_2702Kevin drew plans and constructed his Valentine’s Day gift, painting it to match their house. He checked with city regulations (though not all the Libraries I visited did) and sunk a post into their front lawn three feet from the side walk and about 24 inches from the ground. Three small flagstone steps invite kids to visit. He attached a mailbox flag which is extended when new books are added.

Kristin loved it!

(The height of the Libraries is a personal preference. I saw ones sitting on a base at 3 and 4 feet high.)

The family says they have quite a few kids & teens stopping to choose books on their way to/from a nearby park. The couple’s children, Georgia and Ryan, enjoy sharing their own books as well.

Check out the organization for information on buying or building your own library, and to see an amazing variety of Little Free Libraries, including some that look like a church, schoolhouse, caboose, or English telephone booth! https://littlefreelibrary.org/faqs/

Of course, right away, I had my hubby build a Little FREE Library for ME for THIS Valentine’s Day, and paint it to match our house. (I’ll let you know how it goes in a later post, if you are interested.)

Other Little Free Libraries in Mission Viejo.

IMG_2676      IMG_2705

 

Now let me tell you about some other things to LOVE and to GIVE on February 14th, and these are especially meaningful to us writers of books.

I love a libraryThe 14th of February is also LIBRARY LOVERS DAY.

Here are some things you can do to celebrate:

  • Visit your local library and check out a book or film.
  • If you know someone who doesn’t have a library card, encourage/help them to get one.
  • Volunteer time at the library (shelving, tutoring, reading to kids), or donate money and/or a few of your books.

Without the library, you have no civilization.” ― Ray Bradbury

“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.” ― Jo Walton

“The library is like a candy store where everything is free.” ― Jamie Ford

“Libraries made me – as a reader, as a writer, and as a human being.”  –Laurie R. King

 

book-giving-day-bookmark-original-copyThe 14th of February is also INTERNATIONAL BOOK GIVING DAY.

Here are some ways to participate:

  • Share your favorite book with a friend.
  • Give books as gifts to your own children or to those of friends.
  • Donate books to children’s libraries, schools or charities.
  • Leave books in places where they’ll be found, such as doctors’ waiting rooms, train or bus stations, or airports.

“Give a Book” is a UK based charity with the sole aim of giving books where they will be of particular benefit including prisons.  http://giveabook.org.uk/

“Give a Book” works with Ellie’s Friends, a charity who helps women who are recovering from Cancer. They send a monthly mixed selection of light reading to be enjoyed. Each bundle contains ten titles and is delivered to a different recipient each month.  https://elliesfriends.org

“Give a Book” also works with First Story, a registered charity which places published authors in schools to hold weekly workshops on creative writing. At the end of the program, the students’ pieces are published in their own anthology.  https://firststory.org.uk/

*****

4fe43936383d7abf9e1f87c045c5a3b2

 

TWEETABLES: 

What else can you do for your Sweetheart on February 14th? (Click to Tweet)

Library Lovers Day & International Book Giving Day share February 14 with Valentine’s Day. (Click to Tweet)

Creating Seasonal Articles*

Christmas sugar plumsby Jackie Houchin

Does reading all those December magazines with their holiday stories, recipes, tips, traditions, and inspirations make visions of sugar plums, er, I mean, ideas for articles to dance on your head?

“Oh dear! I so wanted to write an article about those fun games we play for identifying Grandma’s tag-less gifts under the tree!” (Family Circle Magazine?)

“And how I wished I’d shared my Mom’s Christmas fruitcake recipe from her recipe box (that I inherited this year when she died), and told all who read the article why they really should try fruitcake again.”  (Reminiscence Magazine?)

But, I forgot to write them.

And now it’s too late – WAY too late.

At least for this year.

But not for next year, if I plan ahead.  Many magazines need seasonal articles. But they need them long before the pub date. Articles with a “time-tag” are a good way for new writers to break into print (or seasoned writers to pick up some pocket money).

It’s all in the timing

Start by picking up Chase’s Calendar Of Events and look ahead to see what holidays will be celebrated in six months to a year. Or you can check the guidelines in the new The Writers Market Guide for specific publications you hope to write for.

Send a query letter with your idea ahead of the suggested time. If you get a go-ahead, be sure to deliver your article on time. And be patient. If it isn’t used in 2018, it may be held till 2019.

Low-profile holidays

Brain storm ideas for the less popular holidays, such as Arbor Day, Grandparents’ Day, Flag Day, Patriot Day, Friendship Day, Bastille Day, Poppy Day, or even…. Cookie Baking Day! (December 18)  Also think about back-to-school and summer vacation themes.

Your special “slant”

If those “sugar plum” ideas aren’t already dancing away up there, then:

  • Leaf through old magazines (yours or at the library).
  • Think about experiences you’ve had during holidays.
  • Write a short biography of a person linked to a holiday.
  • Research a holiday custom.
  • Remember anniversaries. (What happened 5, 10, 500 years ago?)
  • Interview a teacher, a parent, a coach, a Macy’s clerk.
  • Write a holiday short story or poem. (Some magazines are still open to them.)

Christmas funny poem

Before and After Tips

Start an idea folder with clipped articles from magazines or newspapers. Jot notes about ideas on each. Not all will be usable, but many will work. When you’re looking for a certain seasonal theme, these may trigger an idea.

After the original-rights sale, look for reprint markets for next season. Make a list of potential ones and their lead times, and keep your original article with them.

Open a new bank account!

Christmas bank accountJust kidding!  You won’t get rich from these sales, but you will get “writing clips.”  And when magazine editors discover your timely, well-written articles/stories etc., they will approach YOU with their needs.

Okay… do you need some ideas for NEXT Christmas?  Check out these:

  • Favorite Christmas books, movies, musicals/plays (pastiche or true likes)
  • Christmas mishaps (humorous, or coping skills)
  • Christmas trees: cutting your own, uniquely decorating (we knew friends who lit live candles on their tree!), a special nostalgia ornament
  • Family traditions (oldies, or how to start your own)
  • How to make homemade gifts (food, ornaments, clothes, home decor)
  • Holiday baking (how-to, tastes & smells, shipping)
  • Holiday traditions from other countries (foods, decorations, activities)
  • Or…. interview someone with over 3,500 Santa Claus decorations (Hint: I can give you her name.)

Take away

After all the gifts are opened, the holiday meal is eaten (and cleaned up), the kids are playing with new toys (or the boxes), and the older “boys” are watching football, go grab a piece of crumpled wrapping paper, smooth it out, flick open that new expensive gold-plated pen, and start writing up your holiday impressions, experiences, and ideas while they are still “dancing in your head.”

Christmas garland

Merry Christmas &  Happy New Year !

 

*Inspiration for this post came from Jewell Johnson’s article, Writing Seasonal Articles in the Christian Communicator, Nov-Dec, 2017.

A Boost Up!

By Jackie Houchin

Boost up2“A boost up”….when someone holds their clasped hands together next to a horse, and you put your foot in like a stirrup, and they propel you upward into the saddle.

#

Sometimes a beginner (or lazy) writer needs a boost up into the writing saddle.  That’s where The Write Practice came into the picture for me. (I’m one of those lazy ones!)

The Write Practice

”If you want to become a better writer, you need to practice,” says Joe Bunting, creator of The Write Practice organization and blog. What’s involved? Fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, practicing with fresh writing prompts, unique lessons on technique, and getting feedback from a supportive community.

There are over 1000 practice exercises and lessons on the blog in such categories as; better writing, genre & format, characterization, grammar, journalism, plot & story, writers block, inspirational writing, publishing, and blogging. And it’s free.  http://thewritepractice.com/about/

I’ve attempted two lessons so far in the Short Story category. The first lesson was to read at least six short stories from the many magazine links supplied. The second lesson was to free-write for at least 15 minutes, post what you wrote in the comments section, read three of what other people wrote, and give them brief feedback.  Simple as that; practice writing and give feedback. It’s really the basis for everything Bunting does.

I wrote a short ditty on ‘Pig, Porcupine & Pineapple.’  It was totally fun!  Now to see with my fellow writers say about it

The Becoming Writer Community & Challenge

 If you are ready to go to the next level and start writing finished pieces (and get published), then the Becoming Writer community is the next step. Bunting compares this with what the “Inklings were for Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the expats in Paris were for Hemingway, and the Bloomsbury group was for Woolf.”

I discovered Becoming Writer because membership in it (yes, it does cost a little) was a requirement to submit to The Write Practice’s quarterly short story writing contest. But what you get with membership is a lot more than the contest.

Like the free practice lessons above, you share your writing with a community of writers to get and give feedback.  Actually giving feedback on another’s work helps you when it comes time to edit your own piece.

The Challenge is to write ONE piece EACH WEEK, submitted on Fridays.  It can be a short story, blog post, poem, essay, or a chapter in a book.  This is what us “lazy” writers call accountability.

And finally, besides actually finishing your pieces (Yay!), you get opportunities to submit to magazines like Short Fiction Break, Wordhaus and others.

The feedback on my first piece, an essay I wrote about Africa, brought a suggestion for submission to a specific online magazine. I submitted it and am waiting to hear.  http://thewritepractice.com/members/join

The Fall Contest

This is what caught my attention at first, a writing contest that promised cash prizes, free books, and publication. The theme was “Let’s Fall in Love.” Stories had to contain the two elements FALL and LOVE and be no longer than 1,500 words.  I told myself, “I can do that.”

The name “Autumn Gold” sprang to my mind and I quizzed my writer friends on Facebook as to how a girl with that name might look. The first answer – a stripper – caused me to cringe because that’s not what I had in mind. But when another person confirmed what he said, it left no doubt.

The story I eventually wrote keeps the title “Autumn Gold,” but the girl’s name is Audrey Gould.  I wrote an outline of sorts, showed it to a friend for her opinion, and then pounded out a story about LOVE that takes place in AUTUMN. It was 1,948 words. Lots of cuts and edits later, I submitted it to the Becoming Writer Contest community.

For the contest (548 entrants) the community is divided into ten groups, A–J, with about 40-50 writers in each. I landed in Group D. There are 46 of us, and we’ve become a close-knit group.

I’ve gotten about nine feedbacks on “Autumn Gold,” and I’ve given at least many more on other stories.  Some are VERY good! Others will need some work.  Reading my story’s feedback and the feedback on the other stories has opened my eyes to what works and what doesn’t, and what readers “get” from what you write, even if it’s not what you intended.

Invaluable!

I’m considering rewriting the ending and running it past them one more time. The final deadline to submit the story to the judges is September 4.

Other Programs

The Write Practice offers other programs for writers and authors on building a platform, publishing & marketing, Twitter, and the 100 Day Book challenge.  http://thewritepractice.com/products

#

Now I’m up in the saddle. I’m trotting around and loving it. I can’t wait to press my calves against my steed’s sides and rise into a canter.  I needed that boost up.  Do you?  Perhaps you should consider a writing community.

I suggest The Writing Practice. Take advantage of the discipline and the getting and giving of feedback.  Pick the lessons you are interested in and go for it. They are free! You might also consider Becoming Writer.

Or join a critique group and begin giving your work over to new eyes and opinions.

Get up there and get galloping!

###

Currently the Becoming Writer and the 100 Day Book programs are closed until next semester.  Future contests in Becoming Writer will be on Flash Fiction, Essay writing, Novels, and Poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DEAD MICE, An African Tale – Turning Experiences Into Stories

By Jackie Houchin

In last week’s Writers in Residence blog post, Gayle Bartos-Pool asked the question, “What do I bring to the party?”  She went on to tell of her extensive and varied experiences and personal contacts that have helped in research for her detective and spy novels. It got me to thinking about what I “bring to the party” of my story writing.

(1) I have a good knowledge of the Bible. (2) I’ve been on three short-term mission trips to Malawi, Africa. (3) I have 3 granddaughters who were once little and to whom I told and wrote many stories. (4)  I teach the 4th-6th grade Sunday School class at church and I occasionally help in the K-2nd grade Junior Church.

What a set up for writing children’s stories that take place in Africa and that have a Bible truth woven into them. Hey! That’s just what I am doing. I write the “Missionary Kids Stories” series (about a family serving in Malawi) and I send them out to about a dozen young kids (6-11) at church via email every 1-2 weeks. They are entertaining (according to  the kids) informative about Africa and mission life (occasionally gross as in the story that follows), “safe” (one mom’s comment), and have truths from the Bible as a take away.

Here is the first one I sent out, introducing the family and setting up the series. It is the shortest and simplest one. The stories vary in age level depending on the MK (Missionary Kid) who is telling the story. Stories five and six – told by a teenager – is one story in two parts with a cliff hanger at the end of five.

Dead Mice

Introduction

 These stories are about the (make-believe) Matthews Family, who went to Malawi, Africa about eight years ago to be missionaries.  This family has a dad and a mom, and seven children (three boys and four girls including a set of twins). As part of their names, each of them has the month that they were born in as a first or middle name, like Melody May or April Grace.  All of the stories are written to you as letters.  The first story starts like this: 

Hi kids!

My name is Melody May, and I have a twin sister whose name is Charity June. I also have three brothers and two more sisters. We all have the month we were born in as part of our names. It’s really cool I think, but some people think it’s weird.

My mom – her name is Mrs. Matthews – is really fun and creative. She picks out all our names. My dad – his name is Mr. Matthews – just smiles at her with love and agrees to the names.

People call me Melody, but they call my twin sister “June.” You may wonder how twins could be born in two different months. Can you guess how? It’s kind of tricky.

I’ll let my brothers and sisters tell you about themselves in other letters, but right now, let me tell you about what happened to my sister June and I a week ago.

We are MKs (Missionary Kids) who live in Malawi, Africa. Our dad is a college teacher at the African Bible College. We go to a school there too, but in a different building.

One day, an African boy in our class showed us a mouse… a really DEAD mouse. Then he dared us to do something with it. At first June and I refused, but then…..

Here’s how it happened.

The boy’s name is Kukana (Koo-KAH-nah). On that day, the first day of the new school year, he dared us to EAT a dead mouse! Ewww! Would YOU eat a mouse, especially a dead one? (I guess a live one would be worse!)

There are kids from America and Canada and Holland and South Africa in my class. There are many Malawian kids too. We have three grades in our classroom because, well, our teacher is very smart and can teach three grades at once! At least that’s what I think.

That day, when Kukana stood up in class with a closed box and told us he brought something for us to eat, we all smiled. We thought it might be some roasted peanuts, or those small super-sweet bananas they grown in Malawi. Yum.

Then he opened the box and reached in and held up this really stiff, black, hairy thing.  Some of the new girls screamed, but June and I didn’t. We almost did, but we grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed real tight.

“This is a mbewa,” he told us.

(You say mbewa like this – mmmmm-BEE-wah.)

“They are very tasty to eat,” Kukana said.

Then he held the mbewa up high by the stiff tail, tilted his head back, put the old dead mouse’s head into his mouth… and crunched it off!!!!!  He smiled big as he chewed it. The Malawian boys cheered and stomped their feet!

Our teacher frowned a little, but she didn’t say anything.

Kukana smiled again, real big, and there were little bits of black fur in his teeth!  He leaned very close to June and me and showed us his icky tongue, trying to scare us, I think.

Then he ate the rest of it….. even the tail. There were more hoots from the boys, and this time Mrs. Molenaar said, “Okay. That’s enough. Now tell the class about mbewa. Why did you bring it – and eat it?”

Mrs. Molenaar knew about mbewa – we could tell by her look – but she wanted Kukana to explain about this “famous Malawian snack food.”

“We eat mbewa because it’s good protein food,” began Kukana.

June and I looked at each other, our eyebrows raised way up and our eyes got big. OUR family eats  eggs, chicken, fish, and sometimes pork or beef for protein.

Kukana went on, “Village families here in Malawi are very poor. They raise goats and sometimes cows to SELL but not to EAT. They do this to have money for beans and maize to eat, and seeds to plant.”

I thought about what else OUR family eats. We like the beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts that the villagers grow. We also eat yogurt and canned fruit and oatmeal. Sometimes Mom cooks nsima (nnnnnn-SEE-mah) which is made from white corn, called maize, and tastes like thick hot cereal without any salt. (Mom adds some for us.) Poor Malawians eat that every day. Sometimes that is all they HAVE to eat.

“There’s LOTS of mbewa around,” said Kukana. “You just have to catch them. We go to where old maize stalks or dead grass is piled up. We stand around the pile with sticks. Then someone lifts up the pile with a long pole and mice run out everywhere.  We have a lot of fun killing them with our sticks!”

Kukana laughed and all the boys laughed too.

“Then we put five or maybe ten of them on a long stick and roast them.”

Kukana looked right at June and me, opened his eyes really big and added, “….just… like… your… marshmallows!” Then he laughed in a mean way.

That made us feel mad and scared and icky, but we didn’t do anything. I think it was then, that I started to think….. maybe I WILL eat a dead mouse!

Mrs. Molenaar gave Kukana a stern look and he finished his talk like this. “Sometimes our fathers burn off the maize stubble (old stalks) in our fields. Then all the people stand around the edge of the field to catch the mice that run out.”

Mrs. Molenaar told the rest of it. “After the mice are roasted, which dries out the bodies but doesn’t burn off all the fur, they will keep for quite a while. Maybe you American children have tried jerky. It’s a bit like that.”

She turned to Kukana. “Did you want to share your mbewa with the class?”

He walked through the desks with the box down low. All the Malawian boys and girls took one out and started crunching and chewing. One American boy, named Benji took one too.

When the box came to June and me, my sister leaned way back, but I….. I reached in, grabbed a stiff hairy burned mouse and took it out.  Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned back, held the thing up, and crunched off its head!!!!!!

This time June DID scream. “Melody! Noooo!! You are going to get sick and die!! And Mom will be very mad!”

I didn’t look at her. I stared at Kukana as I chewed the prickly, scratchy thing. It tasted kind of like burnt peanut shells and grease to me. Finally I swallowed it and stuck out my black-specked tongue to prove I ate it.

Kukana was surprised. He smiled at me (nicely, this time) and gave a little nod.  After that, he didn’t tease June and me. He kind of respected me, and since I was usually with my sister, he didn’t dare tease her either. After a while we even became friends.

Let me tell you a secret now. I didn’t finish the dead mouse.  I passed it to the boy behind me who snatched it up and ate it.

And you know what else?  I didn’t get sick and die.

I just became a Malawian.

But Mom DID get mad at me and told me never to do that again. I promised her that I wouldn’t. I figured I would never HAVE to do it again.

Later in our Sunday School class at the International Bible Fellowship church where my Dad sometimes preaches, I learned what Paul wrote in one of his letters in the Bible. He was a missionary to MANY countries. I don’t know if he ever had to eat mice, but he did say in 1 Corinthians 9:22, that he wanted to “become all things to all men that he might save some” for Christ.

I hope Kukana will someday want to know Jesus too. Maybe he will listen to me now when I tell him the gospel story ….. BECAUSE I ate the mouse.

mk-mice-and-boy

mk-mice-1

~~ Facts ~~

          Malawians DO eat mice like this for protein. Sometimes you can see them along the road, selling mbewa still lined up in a row on the roasting sticks, or in piles on a piece of cloth they spread out on the ground. They also eat big grasshoppers for protein which they fry in oil and sprinkle with hot pepper. 

What the Writers in Residence are Grateful for this Thanksgiving


Yes, yes, I am grateful for all the usual stuff – all the stuff we should be grateful for. But I am grateful for Pain and Loss, too. When the Bad Stuff is there, the balance is there, and the balance is what keeps us on an even keel in a world that doesn’t always make sense. 

I am grateful for Pain.

When I was in the Army, the Marines used to tell us that pain was weakness leaving the body. Nice idea, but that only applied to exercise and physical endurance. Real pain, the kind you feel in your body when there is something terribly wrong, is a constant reminder that you are alive and need to do something to alleviate that pain. See a doctor, take your medication, do all you can to feel better so you can really live. Do distracting things, like helping others, to get your mind off any pain that your doctor cannot fix.

Real pain of the other kind, the broken-heart kind, also reminds you that you are alive and human. You only feel that kind of pain when you have a depth of feeling which is in itself a gift. Tears can help you through it, but recognize it for what it is: a common experience which binds us together and reinforces our humanity. Pain shared is pain lessened.

I am also grateful for Loss.

Loss teaches us the value of – and fleeting nature of – all things. All things. Our loved ones, ourselves, our world, everything. How many times must loss teach us the same lesson? Every day we learn it over again. Live each day fully, appreciate each moment, live without regret. Know that Loss will touch you as it touches everyone, so be ready. Live with sincere love and caring every day, and don’t be afraid to show it.

I am grateful for Inconvenience.

Inconvenience is the niggling teacher of patience. A little patience can go a long way in overcoming Pain and Loss, so embrace it as a way to slow down and see the very real wonder of this world.

Moderation is key to appreciating Pain, Loss and Inconvenience. There is nothing at all to be gained from wallowing in them. But remember their useful qualities the next time you must experience them. And be grateful you are able to feel. It means you are alive and human, which is a very good thing.

                                                          Kate Thornton



I’m grateful for so many things, but to me, the “basics” are very important, and are the foundation that enables me to write. Very thankful I was born in The United States of American during this era, with all it offers on every level, have decent health, and people and animals with whom to share love and experiences. It is with that support I am able to write.        
                             Madeline (M.M.) Gornell






I am grateful that I was taught how to read; reading sparked my interest in writing. I often take it for granted, but there are many places in the world where people don’t have this skill. The work of other writers, in all its variety, is one of the best writing teachers in the world.

Bonnie Schroeder

For me, I truly believe that any talent I have to write, whether seriously or tongue-in-cheek is God-given. I’m also thankful for curiosity and nosiness, which helped me as a newspaper writer, and the love of reading which helped me build a good vocabulary.

Jackie Houchin

I am thankful for the rich inheritance I received from my family which includes: a smattering of my father’s witty sarcasm, some of my mother’s artistic talent, my grandfather’s love of history, my grandmother’s stubbornness (when it counts), my Aunt Mollie’s love of writing, and a pinch of sewing prowess from Aunt Dottie. I hope everyone has a few people from whom they learned wonderful things.

Gayle Bartos-Pool






I’m grateful for my husband

                       and family,

                                my friends

                                             and good neighbors.


                                                             Miko Johnston



I am grateful for the ability to be grateful. Many people have gifts and blessings, but they are unable to recognize them. That is what makes Kate Thornton’s post above so beautiful. It’s easy to be grateful for the good stuff, but it takes an open heart to find the redeemable qualities in the poop. Gratitude means getting out from under the weight of entitlement and embracing the fact that I don’t deserve anything, but that the Bon Dieu (as Hercule Poirot would say it) has seen fit to grace me. And then saying Thank You. 

                                      Jacqueline Vick


Goodness, I have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Where do I start?

Without the friendship and encouragement of my fellow Bloggists (is that a word?) my world would be bleak. We really do laugh together and cry together. They inspire me. Our monthly luncheons are a treasured time to talk of writing, of our home-lives, of cabbages and kings. The time goes by far too fast before we scurry off in our different directions.
I am thankful for the fascinating people and wonderful friends I have made since I found my new life in this ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’


For the amazing adventures life has thrown at me. For the strength and ability to survive.
I am also truly thankful to have my loving family in England. My big sister Annie, my brothers Ted, Phil and Peter, my cousins, nieces and nephews. Although we may be thousands of miles apart, we are very close, speak often and meet up whenever we can – and still giggle together like a bunch of five-year-olds.

I am eternally thankful for the many years I had with my darling Rick, my late husband, who I feel watches over me still. He taught me so much and always helped me to laugh at life’s adversities. I think I am most grateful for the gift of laughter: the ability to laugh with others, to laugh at myself and at life’s absurdities.

And I am most grateful to have this Blog, that gives me the opportunity to formulate and share my thoughts…
                                                           Rosemary Lord