All posts by Janet Coburn

Scheduling Rejection

I’m a writer and right now I have a book manuscript floating around the Internet, looking for an agent. Which means, of course, that I’m collecting a lot of rejection slips (emails, really).

A lot of books and articles and blog posts purport to teach you how to deal with rejection, usually by telling you about famous authors whose novels were rejected any number of times before they were accepted. This doesn’t cheer me up or comfort me any, as all I can say is, “Well, I have way more rejections than J.D. Salinger ever did.” It’s a competition I don’t care to win.

Instead, I have decided to schedule my rejections, so that they come in a little more slowly and I can handle them, psychologically. To me, at least, getting a few rejections at a time is better than getting hundreds all at once. That would truly drive me into depression and immobility.

Actually, no one gets hundreds of rejections. Most agents have a policy of “no response means no.” This means that many of my query letters, writing samples, and submissions are lost in limbo – not a yes, not a no, just nothing. (Yes, I know the Catholic Church has given up on Limbo as a Thing. That doesn’t make my metaphor any less appropriate. But I digress.)

So, here’s my schedule: Every day I send out queries – but only three. That’s just the basics, though. Every time a get a rejection email, I cross that agency off my master list of queries sent, and I send an extra query that day. And add it to the master list, of course. The master list also contains the date the query was sent and the name of the specific agent it was addressed to, as well as the agency.

When I say “cross that agency off,” I mean it literally – I don’t delete it from the list. (Strikethrough is a function I use often in Word.) The info remains encoded in ones and in zeros. It’s just that I can’t remember the names of all the places I’ve queried. So whenever I find another potential agent, I use “Find” to see if I have sent to them, been rejected by them, or whatever. (I know there are apps like Query Tracker and just any old database that would do this for me, but I stubbornly stick to my low-tech version.)

I also use the list to keep track of any additional notes: “Closed to queries until March 1st.  Try again then.” Or “Re-query in eight weeks.” (That one’s a rarity.)

I must admit that I am running low on agents to query. I don’t think I’ve contacted every available agent in the US, but I’m having a hard time finding lists of agents who are willing to consider mysteries or lists that contain a number of agents to whom I haven’t already submitted.

I have received one semi-positive response – one agent wanted to see a copy of the whole manuscript. And another rejection email – one that I considered a good one – said that I could try them again when I had another project. Although if they didn’t want the first one, I don’t know why they’d want the sequel, which is what I’m now writing.

Maybe I should take on a different project altogether. I don’t really love the genres, but maybe a cozy mystery (if only I could think up a suitable career for the “detective” to have and a, well, cozy setting). Or a romance, though I wouldn’t be able to use my own experience to base it on. I haven’t had a “meet cute” since I met my husband, mumblemumble years ago, introduced by mutual friends at a folk festival.

Actually, what I’m working on is a sequel to the mystery novel I’ve been sending around. My theory is that publishing companies like series more than they like stand-alone novels. Or maybe I should resurrect my early attempt at a mystery novel in which I killed off my rotten-ex-boyfriend-who-almost-ruined-my-life. If that doesn’t make me feel better, I’ll kill him off again in the sequel.

 

 

Missing My Friend

Last week I received an answer to a query. An agent I had contacted about my mystery novel had asked to review my complete manuscript.

My first thought was, “I have to tell Robbin about this!” But I couldn’t.

No, Robbin doesn’t have COVID and she isn’t dead. But she had a severe stroke last month and is in a nursing home. I can’t visit her or even call her on the phone. 

Robbin has a limited range of motion on one side of her body. With the other hand, she keeps trying to pull out her trache tube, which has made her life a tennis match between hospital and nursing home. Hospital to insert the tube, and back to the nursing home until she pulls it out again. Evidently, the nursing home does not have personnel able to put in a trache.

Robbin’s daughter and husband have had “window visits” with her, and now Stu is allowed to visit her in person. Stu and Kelly phone me frequently to give me updates on her condition, though there isn’t really much to tell, except transfers to and from the hospital and occasional infections and fevers. The latest update was that they’re now treating her for pneumonia. None of it is in the least encouraging.

I fear I will never have my friend back again.

Robbin and I met when she applied for a temporary job at a publishing company where I was working. I remember seeing her credentials and editing test and thinking, “We’ve got a live one here!” She only worked at the company for a few months, but it was enough to bond us.

Robbin has been my partner in crime, my commiseration buddy, my writing cheerleader, and my test audience. We have compared notes on our mental and emotional states, bitched about our husbands, given each other gifts, talked for hours about everything or nothing much. We have crashed parties together. We have made rum balls together. (My contribution was to taste them and advise, “Needs more rum.”)

She has taken me shopping and dressed me up like her own personal Barbie. Until she came along, I didn’t know there were any colors other than beige, olive drab, and camo. She took my husband shopping too, when he needed a suit for his class reunion.

When a tornado destroyed our house and my husband and I were stuck in a Red Cross shelter, Robbin and Stu gave us a lift and the use of their credit card to get us into a motel, where we stayed for a number of weeks.

I gave Robbin the first cat she ever had (Norman), thus starting her on a long career as the local Crazy Cat Lady. We’ve supported each other and cried our way through many a feline illness and death, and reminisced about our little friends afterward. I know her cats and her little chihuahua Moochie are missing her too. (This cat would surely remind her of Sandy, or one of the many others she opened her heart and house to.)

Robbin has never been good at diplomacy. She says what she thinks and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anyone. You always know where you stand with her. She has a generous heart and a raucous laugh that I fear I will never hear again. Her absence is a hole in my life that no one else can fill.

I know that the odds are not good for her to recover from this, the second stroke she’s had. I know I will likely never get my friend back the way I knew her. And I know my feelings are as nothing compared to those of her husband and daughter.

But I wish I had the Robbin I knew back, even for just another phone call.

What Do You Do With Your Winnings?

You suddenly receive a chunk of money. What will you do with it? That’s a question that I have heard often. Not directed to me. I have no prospects of landing more than pocket change, unless my mystery gets published, hits the bestseller lists, and gets picked up for a television series.

But I watch a fair number of competition shows on TV, primarily on Food Network or The History Channel. I enter giveaways occasionally, when HGTV is offering a fabulous house in Rhode Island as a prize. But I never even buy lottery tickets, to which I have a philosophical objection. (I believe that they are a tool used by the upper classes to make money by fooling people into believing that they can magically join the upper classes. But I digress.)

The prizes offered in the shows I watch are seldom life-changing, usually starting at $10,000, which seems nice, but I have seen them go up to $100,000, which actually could be life-changing, if not a key into the leisure class.

What the contestant would spend the money on if he or she won is a question that invariably gets asked. I have noticed a pattern in the responses. There are a few major categories.

Travel. Contestants’ dreams of travel seem pretty realistic to me. It’s what I would spend my winnings on.

The usual fantasy trips are to take the family on a great vacation, to have a honeymoon that somehow never happened, or to visit a part of the world from which ancestors came. In the food competitions, there is also a tendency to wish for funds to travel the world (or at least part of it) sampling and learning how to cook different kinds of cuisine.

(Since we were on the subject of honeymoons (or at least I was), I also hear contestants who want to spend their prize on an engagement ring or a wedding. I know the price of diamonds and of weddings have not gone down in recent years, but $10,000 or $25,000 seems a bit high for regular folks, the ones who never appear on “Say Yes to the Dress.” An engagement ring for $25,000? I mean, come on!)

Home. I’ve heard a number of contestants say they would like to put a down payment on a new home. This time the figure seems a bit too low. But what do I know? Maybe the couple has already saved toward a house and this would put them over the roof, so to speak.

Other winners say they would renovate their kitchen (on the food shows) or their workshop (on craft- or building-type shows). This I can understand. Remodeling a kitchen or a workshop could easily eat up that kind of money, especially if new appliances or tools are required.

Business. Again, as with houses, the prizes offered don’t really seem magnanimous enough to start a business, but again, most of these lucky winners may have a fair amount put aside already. Or their dreams are more modest – to get a storefront instead of an internet bakery (a concept I’m not altogether clear on), or a food truck (I’m assuming this would also be a down payment, given that a food truck would have to cost more than a car, which you can hardly get for $10,000 anymore anyway) or the ability to turn a part-time hobby into a full-time business, which seems to me like a pipe dream, but I suppose there are people who could make it work.

Charity. Some of the potential winners have loftier goals. I’ve heard chefs say that they would start a variety of cooking programs for troubled youth. I’ve heard winners say that they would give part, or even all, their winnings, to a charity that provides funds for researching a disease or condition that a family member suffers from. Others want to donate to a church or other religious cause. Once I even saw a kid (on “Kids’ Baking Championship”) who wanted to help out a teacher who had fallen on hard times.

Me, I’d be off like a flash to Ireland with my husband. (I’ve been twice, but he’s never been). If there’s some left over, we’ll just have to arm wrestle for it. Maybe Benson, Arizona, where we once enjoyed one of our best vacations ever. Or, more likely, only as far as the IRS office.

 

 

There’s a Redbud in My Shower!

I love plants and flowers. I really do. As long as they stay outdoors, where they belong, as nature intended. Or sit politely on windowsills, if indoors.

What I object to are plants and flowers that refuse to know their place.

I really shouldn’t blame the botanical specimens for this. What I object to is my husband putting them where they don’t belong. My husband brings home rescue plants.

(Both of us believe in adopting rescue animals. Adopt, don’t shop is our motto. We have adopted dogs and cats (mostly cats), all the way from Dumpster divers to pets that adopted us. But I digress.)

Dan gets these wayward plant specimens from work. No, he doesn’t work at a nursery, but a big box store. They do have a gardening section, though, and in it they have plants. And when the plants look the least bit discouraged or haven’t bloomed in a while, that’s when my husband swoops in and carries them off. Occasionally they make him pay a buck or two, but usually they were destined for the Dumpster (making Dan a Dumpster diver, too, I guess).

Sometimes the plants he brings home have little ceramic pots – often chipped or cracked. Other times, he brings home plants with tiny bare roots or ones with potting soil clinging to them. Fortunately, Dan has a robust collection of dark green plastic containers that he uses for the pot-less orphans.

It’s not the actual plants I object to. Dan has brought home some truly gorgeous ones – orchids and African violets and night-blooming jasmine and leafy green things that threaten to take over wherever they’re planted.

And unfortunately, where they’re planted is often the bathroom. When we had a regular tub, Dan used it as a potting table (or trough, really). He thereby acquired the chore of scrubbing out the tub.

Now, however, we have walk-in showers with lots of little ledges designed to hold soaps and shampoos and exfoliants and loofahs and such. They are instead filled – you guessed it – with plants, from the flourishing to the bedraggled to the defunct. (He claims he was experimenting to see whether plants would grow under the bathroom’s LED lighting. They won’t.) He waters them by the simple expedient of showering with them. (We have two walk-in showers, and so far the greenery hasn’t invaded the second one.)

They also show up in other places – in the sink or hanging from the towel bar, for instance. I swear I once almost wiped my ass with a philodendron leaf from a plant that was completely obscuring the toilet paper roll.

Nor has Dan stopped with taking over the shower and the windowsills. (I grudgingly allowed him to place one small, easily-cared-for plant on the windowsill in my study.) A number of his botanical friends seem to have taken root on the coffee table. Well, not taken root, actually, but you get the idea. This is his temporary repotting station. He claims he’s going to set up a real one in the basement. (I’ll believe it when I see it and I haven’t seen it yet.)

I shouldn’t complain too much about the rescue plants, I suppose. The seed catalogs have started to arrive and Dan will most assuredly negotiate his orders with me.

Can I spend $200?

Can you keep it down to $75?

$150?

$75 now and $25 more when we get paid again?

At least those will mostly be planted outside, unless he has to store them in the refrigerator till the ground unfreezes. Or unless they need potting in the aforementioned shower, sink, or living room. Then it’s time to offer up fervent prayers for no more freezes.

Freeze is also an issue in the fall, when Dan needs to bring in the potted plants that adorn the front stoop. I gather daily weather reports and hold the door open for him as he brings in banana trees and other large specimens, being vigilant about our rescue cat door-darter. (At least the foliage doesn’t have that bad habit.)

I must admit that the plants and flowers add a certain ambience to the house. Just not to the bathroom.

 

Dressing for Work

Of course, since I now work at home, I wear pajamas. Or maybe scrubs, as my latest pair of pjs looks like I could walk into any doctor’s office and riffle through their files. I wouldn’t be caught unless someone noticed that the cute sheep in hats and scarves were saying Baaa Humbug.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about today. Once (or twice) I worked in a regular office where I wore regular clothes – skirts, blouses, sweaters, slacks. If I was lucky or awake that day, they even matched. I was also fond of drop-waist dresses. I had at least four, in solid colors and florals.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about today either. Once I was assigned to interview a woman for a temporary job. She answered my questions shyly and monosyllabically. Desperate, I asked her a version of one of my go-to questions, “If you could dress up as anything at all for Halloween, what would you be, and why?”

(This was a version of a question I always swore I’d ask an official giving a press conference. Once I was able to ask my remedial English students to write a paragraph on the topic, and they all wanted to be birds of prey or cats of prey. Once I asked Jenny Lawson this question and she said “a tapeworm,” because she wouldn’t have to walk around and people would feed her, which I guess shows you how her mind works. But I digress. Again.)

Back to the drab woman I was interviewing. When I asked her my Halloween costume question, she instantly lit up. “Oh, Cinderella,” she said with sparkling eyes. “The ball gown and the shoes and the carriage and the whole thing.” She waxed rhapsodic for several minutes. She didn’t get the job, but I learned that it’s sometimes the goofy question that can unlock a person’s personality.

Our office did dress up for Halloween, though. One memorable year, the accounting department wore white sweatsuits with black spots. Then they each put a newspaper outside their doors, colored part of it yellow with highlighter, and deposited a tootsie roll on each one. The 101 Dalmations cosplay was cute, if disgusting.

My costumes were a bit esoteric and usually no one “got them.” One year my mother had made me a floor-length nightgown in a camo pattern (my mother could be whimsical). I asked her to make a matching nightcap, powdered my hair, and went as Rambo’s Granny. No one guessed what I was. I had other notable non-successes. Once I dressed as a pirate and the office guessed I was a motorcycle mama.

One year they understood what I was, but all stepped away from me and didn’t make eye contact. I was “Indiana Jan,” complete with bullwhip. If anyone was brave enough to ask me about the bullwhip, I replied, “Oh, this old thing? We just had it around the house,” which did not detract a bit from my reputation for oddity.

Then, every Halloween, rain or shine, we had a march around the outside of the building, led by an employee who called herself the “Grand Poo-Pah.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it should have been “Grand Poo-Bah.” Those were the days!

Now, of course, I shun Halloween and all its trappings (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-Yu). This year, if I answer the door at all, I’ll probably wear the Baaa Humbug scrubs.

 

Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

The Bride Wore Boots

When my husband and I married, it was at an unusual time in both our lives. We were both out of work and on food stamps. We did not spend thousands of dollars on our wedding, as everyone on TV seems to do. Back then, weddings did not have themes, though they did have color palettes. Ours was off-white, rose, and rust. (The off-white was so that no one would snicker.) Back in the day, gentleman were able to wear tuxes of colors other than black, and such were available at tuxedo shops. As you can see from the photo, Dan wore a rust-colored tux with a ruffled shirt and a matching tie. He looked like a riverboat gambler, but he did fit in with the color scheme.

We married in August, so my dress was a leftover from prom season. (Not my prom, you understand. I didn’t go to that. It was just a prom dress that didn’t sell.) It had long sleeves, but they were made of lace, so I thought there was a chance I wouldn’t roast to death. Defying tradition, I brought Dan along to help pick it out. There was a dress I liked better, actually. It was low cut, but the minister was going to stand a step above us, and Dan didn’t think his view down my cleavage would set the proper tone for the ceremony.

I refused to wear a traditional veil, just a circlet of flowers in my hair with some lace trailing down the back a ways, since I didn’t like the traditional symbolism. I didn’t have my father give me away either. I was giving myself away, as it were, and I thought that I could find the way from the back of the church to the front all by myself.

I did have my hair, makeup, and nails “done.” I still remember that the color of the nail polish was called “pepperoni,” which was a dreadful name, but fit in with the rust in the palette. I also remember the frantic calls to the tux shop afterward, where I learned that Dan had not yet picked up his tux. He didn’t have a good track record of showing up on time for other people’s weddings, so it made me nervous. He did show up at the appropriate time, though with his tie askew.

And the boots? They were a pair of off-white cowboy boots that I just happened to have and that matched the dress. They showed up well in the garter pictures, though people were unlikely to notice. I was wearing the garter several inches above my knee. If I couldn’t have a low neckline, at least I could have fun with the garter tradition.

Our reception was a potluck held at a friend’s house, which they were kind enough to let us use. We had had many fabulous parties there over the years, so the vibe was just right.

Our wedding cake was a spice cake with off-white buttercream and rust-colored flowers on it. (That was what we bought with our food stamps.) The top tier rested on three upside-down borrowed champagne glasses (martini glasses, really, as flutes hadn’t been invented yet.) At some point during or after the festivities, one of the glasses was broken, but I was able to replace it exactly, in time to return to the owner, my matron of honor. (She never reads Facebook, so I’m safe. But I digress.)

The only other untoward moment occurred as Dan and I left the church. I heard his mother screaming. Fortunately, she was not screaming in horror at me, or the fact that her darling son was married. No, it was because the pastor from Dan’s church back in Pennsylvania had driven all the way to Ohio to attend. He had just shown up a little late. There’s a picture of me somewhere, exiting the church and looking confused. 

Our honeymoon consisted of a night in a local no-tell motel, since we didn’t want to drive far after partying so heary. They gave us a bottle of champagne, I assume because they had never had a married (to each other) couple stay there before. The next day, we were off for a whirlwind honeymoon of camping, sleeping in a treehouse, whitewater rafting, and a visit to the Philly Folk Festival, where we had met.

Our wedding may not have been technically traditional, but it worked its magic nonetheless. We have stayed married for over 35 years.

 

 

1,000 Books

It goes everywhere with me. It carries over 1,000 of my books. It hands me the one I want at a moment’s notice. It keeps track of what page I’m on without a sticky note. It defines words I don’t know and tells me how to pronounce unfamiliar words. It allows me to sort my books onto different shelves for convenience’s sake and easily find books that I own or that are available in the bookstore. It’s my most faithful companion (aside from my husband) and the best tool that I own.

It’s my ereader, in my case a Nook from Barnes & Noble, though I’m sure Amazon’s Kindle and other devices do much the same things. I’ve gone through several iterations of the Nook device over the years and downloaded the Nook reading app to my iPad. When one gets low on juice, I simply switch to another while it’s recharging.

(Of course, I will need a way to convert all those ebooks to Kindle when the time comes and Barnes & Noble either collapses or stops supporting their own devices. I have a Kindle reading app on one of the readers because there was a book I dearly loved, Rift by Liza Cody, which B&N didn’t offer. But I digress.)

I usually keep two books going at once – one fiction and one nonfiction – and switch back and forth when a chapter or essay ends, or really, whenever the mood strikes me. I have a TBR stack as long as my arm, literally, but it will never collapse on me and kill me. I take my reading addiction wherever I go, never having to resort to reading the labels on ketchup bottles to satisfy my jones.

The iPad with the Nook reading app may be my favorite of all my ereaders, because it allows me to switch to other apps, check my email, messages, and Facebook timeline easily. And it has a snazzy purple case. My second favorite is my Nook tablet, which allows me to do many of the same things and also has a nifty keyboard should I ever want to answer messages, though to tell the truth, I seldom use it. I got that feature so I could blog on the go, but the WordPress app seems unable to accommodate me. The tablet has a spiffy black cover with a magnet to hold it open or closed, and a hinge so I can set it upright should I ever decide to use the keyboard. My third ereader is a basic Nook that fits in my purse.

My husband insisted I get him an ereader too, though he hardly ever uses it. He got one that fits in his back pocket and is linked to my account so he can read any of my thousand books as well. I make sure to buy ones that he enjoys, like Slaughterhouse-Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Fanny Hill, and I introduce him to new ones, like Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

My one complaint about my ereader is that it does not do pictures well. Once I had a subscription to Barnes & Noble’s version of  National Geographic. The photographs that appeared there were less than impressive. You expect impressive photos from National Geographic. Even the pictures in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did not reproduce well. And the hand-written letters – I basically had to skip them, even though they contributed a lot to the plot.

Still, I am willing to overlook those flaws. As I get older and my eyes get worse (doc says I’m in line to develop cataracts), I’m going to need my ereader, where I can bump up the point sizes, more than ever. And purses large enough to contain them. Maybe I should carry a needlepoint tote like all the craft ladies I know – containing no yarn. Just 1000 books.

 

Your Writing Brain

Re-writing – also known as content editing – is a necessity at some stage of preparing your manuscript. However, there are pitfalls.

Suppose you are writing a novel, and one day it comes to you – the exquisite bit of detail that will make a scene pop or reveal something important about your protagonist’s inner life. You go to your manuscript and insert it just where you think it will do the most good. Then you read a little further and find that your perfect addition was already added one or two drafts ago. Yes, you had a brilliant thought, but you had it before, and yes, you knew where to put it, but with a few paragraph’s difference. Then you have the option of deciding which is the better place for that exquisite piece of prose to go, but it’s still kind of demoralizing.

Or – as just happened to me – you get a great idea for a blog post. You even start drafting it. But something niggles at the back of your brain. It all sounds very familiar. So, you go back to your file of posts and discover that you wrote almost exactly the same post, using almost exactly the same language, two years before. It was good enough that it doesn’t need rewriting, and you’re not so desperate that you re-post previous writing when ideas are thin on the ground. What do you do then?

Obviously, as I have done, you take the situation as a jumping-off point for a new post about re-writing that covers different territory than the old post. And you check your files again to make sure that this one is not a rewrite as well. It may even be a good idea to read over at least the titles on your old blog posts before you begin a new one.

Or you set out in a different direction entirely, one you’ve never explored before. Never write about politics? This may be the time to start. Start a short story instead of a blog post. Begin plotting the sequel to the novel that you’ve been sending around to agents, on the theory that agents and editors love series rather than stand-alone novels. Or try poetry, which you haven’t written since college. Think of it as a way to flex your writing muscles and blow the cobwebs off your brain.

You can also engage in prewriting (which, unfortunately, resembles lying on the couch and staring off into space). Toss ideas around in your head. Brainstorm, without analyzing whether your ideas are spectacular or not. You can even jot down a few of the ones that strike you as most fruitful, but really the exercise is just to get your brain moving. Re-read favorite books and pay attention to why you love them and how the authors made you love them.

Writing prompts and contests are also ways to get your creative juices flowing. Many writing websites feature assorted prompts. Or a question asked or situation described on Facebook may cause you to think, “What would I do in that situation?” or “Gee, that answer stank. Here’s what I would say.” A short story contest might give a list of possible topics. For example, I saw a story contest that proposed a topic of “Write about a new technology that changes a person’s life for good or ill.” I got a story out of it and an honorable mention.

And don’t be afraid if your new idea isn’t something earthshaking or written for the ages. Remember that William Carlos Williams wrote about plums in the icebox and Pablo Neruda wrote “Ode to My Socks.” Both of these are considered classic poems today.

You can also get ideas from the best. What if you had written “Ode to My Socks”? How would it go? What would it reveal? What if you took the premise of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” and ran with it? What alternate ending could you invent? At this point, it doesn’t matter if what you write isn’t better than Neruda or Asimov. It’s enough that you’re stretching your brain and your creativity.

Whether you write about something familiar that you may have overlooked, try a new style or genre, or just play with words until some of them magically come together, you are performing exercises in writing. And that’s a good thing.

New Year’s Sweaters I Have Known

Christmas sweaters, both ugly and pretty, have come and gone for this year. But for me, sweaters are inevitably evocative of New Year’s. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, I worked in an office that didn’t go in for Christmas sweaters. The telemarketing department wore Christmas sweatshirts, mostly handcrafted. My department, fortunately, left the exercise to them. I’m not at my best with hot glue, sequins, and ribbon. Not to say I end up wearing the appliques, but let’s just say they adhere to something other than the sweatshirt.

Later, I did work in an office where Christmas sweaters were a Thing. (Ugly sweaters were not a Thing. Yet.) Everyone, it seemed had a closet- or drawer-full of festive holiday wear.

I had exactly one handed-down-from-a-friend Christmas vest. That was fine, as far as it went, but it didn’t go very far. Everyone else had complete wardrobes of Christmas sweaters, perhaps not one for each of the 12 Days of Christmas, but enough for the entire week before. I had a hard enough time fitting in with the work crowd, so I decided I would play the sweater game too.

Being frugal (that is to say cheap), I saw no point in paying good money for a sweater or multiple sweaters that I could wear only once a year. I had a dilemma. The answer soon came to me. I would shop on New Year’s Day, when the Christmas sweaters had all been put on the clearance sale table. I scooped up about five, including one I particularly liked. Instead of being red or green, it was dark blue, a night scene with Santa and his sleigh flying over rooftops and across the moon. I tucked them away in a drawer, anticipating how I would wow the office the next year.

Inevitably, and given my luck, I was let go before the next Christmas season. I went freelance, which meant that my usual work clothes were pajamas. My beautiful sweaters languished in a drawer and so did my snowflake and wrapped presents earrings (I picked up some of those too at the sales). One year I tried to be festive and dressed up for Christmas, but no one at the Chinese restaurant was impressed.

I did have one other adventure involving New Year’s sweaters. One year, some of my friends and I were determined to crash a fancy party in a local hotel. I did have a black sweater with gold and silver beading around the yoke. (I forget why. Maybe my friend, she of the Christmas vest, gave it to me.) At any rate, it was simple enough to buy some shiny gold fabric and ask my mother to sew it into a simple skirt. My friend had a similar outfit, and the guy accompanying us rented a tux, which I thought was overkill. But it was fun to stand next to him in my white faux fur coat and shed all over him.

We had it planned just right. We wandered into the hotel ballroom precisely at 11:30 p.m., when no one else was expected to arrive, and mingled. (We knew one of the band members and decided to claim we were with him if challenged.) Then we indulged in the open bar (this was many years ago, when I sometimes indulged in dodgy behavior) and I spent part of the evening necking with one of the waiters. (He was trying to convince me to take a hotel room. I declined.)

Afterward, we went to a nearby diner in our finery and sobered up on coffee and waffles. We tried to hold down our obnoxious glee, but I suspect we failed. 

This year for Christmas, my husband presented me with an assortment of sweaters – the kind meant to keep one warm. Not a sequin or reindeer in sight. He did also give me a pair of Christmas earrings (cats in stockings), which I made sure to wear when we went to the store to pick up a bottle of champagne for our New Year’s celebration. Maybe next year I can get him to dress up as a waiter.