Minuet, Goodbye

I lost someone. I lost something significant. For a lot of complicated reasons, I’ve given up on the book I spent the 8 years, 1 month, and 1 day writing. And rewriting. And rewriting again. I couldn’t ever seem to make it work. And just recently, a news event changed the context in which my book would have been read. And because of that, my book, my idea, my characters’ journeys, don’t have a place in the world anymore. A real story has supplanted it, changed the landscape for the type of story I was telling. So I’m bowing out and laying my story down.

I’m not going to explain further. I’m not going to change my mind. I don’t want anyone to try to talk me out of it or to tell me that I learned a lot. I know the time wasn’t wasted, though I have felt that at times. I know I grew tremendously. I know how much joy writing and rewriting this book brought me. And it still sucks.

I’ve felt this was coming for a while. I tried to work around it. I consulted my best friend and long-time writing partner, the only person I’ve shared this story and these characters with. She gave me the writing prompt from which it all came to start with. And after I laid it all out, she reluctantly agreed with me.

Thinking about my characters, imagining their scenes and stories and voices, is habitual for me now. My playlists and Pinterest boards are full of references to them. I’ll miss them. And I’ll miss what they represented. I thought they’d be the start of my professional writing career. Something my parents could read and understand me better, somehow. I believed in my idea so much, for over eight years. It was my safe place. And now…

Now, putting them away leaves my writing life wide open. And uncertain. For years, I’ve kept a bright pink post-it on my desk at work, saying simply: “I am a writer. I write books.” Monday morning, after Kayla and I agreed that I need to put this book to rest, I took that post-it note down and threw it away. 

I do still consider myself a writer. I do still want to write books. But I’m not writing now. I’m letting go of a dream, and all these beloved characters and their story. I’m saying goodbye. I have other books partially drafted, but it doesn’t feel right to try to jump back into any of them. I’m not excited about any of them. 

This book is over. It didn’t end the way I would have wished. 

It’s strange, and somewhat gratifying, to have seen my story become real for real people, and to have watched so many in the world rejoice at it. Part of me feels as though my idea moved beyond me, grew legs when I wasn’t paying attention, and bolted at full gallop into the world. It seems to have manifested as real in the world. Velveteen Rabbit-real. I don’t believe that I had anything to do with the news story, with those people’s real lives, but I am aware that this idea, this plot, these characters were a creature I purposefully fed and nurtured for most of the last decade. My pet project. And now it’s in the world with no help or connection to me at all.

The world has changed and it can’t be born into this world and be seen as anything other than a poor retelling of reality. Nevermind that I imagined my story first.

The only people who know, who really know, about my story and what it was before this extraordinary news broke, are me and my best friend. This huge part of my life, that I expected my family to read and my new husband to read, is going in a drawer. It’s quite the mental shift. And I am quite sad about it. 

I’m also aware that all this yawning nothingness before me is full of possibilities. And that should be celebrated. So should my past 8 years of work, really. I did something I didn’t think I could do, and then I did it again. And it never quite worked out the way I hoped, but I did write a 300-page book. And I revised it many times. I called it Minuet, after my protagonist. And I am proud of it. And of her. And of the real-life person who has supplanted her.

I imagine I’ll sneak the names of my characters into whatever I write after this. Just in passing. They’ll be hidden in a world between worlds.

That feels like a good reason to write, in and of itself. Something fun. But not yet.

Right now, I just want to say her name one more time.

Minuet, I love you.
Minuet, goodbye.

A Secret

The first book I finished in 2020 was Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn, and I adored it. A man finds a secret code hidden in his hand-lettered wedding program, and goes back to the artist a year later to demand how she knew his marriage would fail. The book builds a relationship between the man and the artist through tiny moments of small but significant contact. In Romancelandia (the online space occupied by writers and readers of romance), we call these as Darcy-hand-flex moments, in reference to the scene in Pride & Prejudice (2005) when Darcy and Elizabeth touch bare hands for the first time. 

Up to this point in the film, Lizzie and Darcy have had a contemptuous relationship, but both are so moved by their first tiny skin-to-skin contact that she stares at him open-mouthed, and he, as he turns and walks briskly away, flexes the hand that touched hers. It is a brilliant acting choice and beautifully captured, giving the audience unique insight into Darcy’s feelings, the first indication that he is truly and deeply affected by Lizzie. It’s a secret between Darcy and the audience. His body hides his hand flex from everyone else in the scene. But we see it. We won’t be shocked by his proposal and admission of love thirty minutes later the way Elizabeth will be. That hand flex speaks quiet, aching volumes. And it’s become an accepted code amongst romance writers and readers for small moments of seemingly insignificant contact or connection that deeply resonates.

Love Lettering masterfully builds such moments into first a friendship, then a relationship. Because the book is told from the perspective of the main character, Meg, we see only what she notices. So she does notice Reid’s proverbial hand flexes, and what’s hidden from everyone but the reader are her reactions and feelings to them. Meg doesn’t want Reid to know how affected she is by his hand on her elbow or his simple, straight-forward statements, like “I am” and “Especially me.” Meg feels in those moments like she lives for the swoop of his almost smile, and the first time she makes him laugh she wants to find ways to make him laugh again and again all day. 

Reading Meg’s secret reminds me that I once had such a secret. And it’s been a secret ever since. 

His name was Ben and he was a poet. 

He was quiet, serious, and beautiful. Blue eyes, pale skin with acne (how human of him), a ruddy complexion, and a short crop of unfussy blonde hair. He spoke sparingly but with gravity. An introvert with shades of sadness. I’m also an introvert, so I related, but I was friendly and social in a way he didn’t seem to be. He’d glower around the room without malice. And I’d want to see him smile.  

I played a very long game of getting to know him. In our first writing class together, I noticed his gravitas and respected his thoughtful comments. He seemed to like my work, and his positive comments made me feel accomplished in a way others’ comments didn’t. As the semester went on, I’d occasionally, strategically linger enough to end up walking out the door with him, and I’d make a comment about his poem or someone else’s imagery. I tried very hard not to catch my breath when I found his full attention fixed on me. I tried very hard not to wonder what his skin felt like. I tried not to notice his back muscles through his fitted t-shirts.

I had a crush on him, but I felt this felt was immensely embarrassing and should be kept secret at all costs, most especially from him. I confided in no one. I didn’t write about it, even in a journal. And I made absolutely sure not to expect anything of him. I set myself up as a safe and familiar space, nothing more. I told myself it couldn’t be a crush—I barely knew him. I avoided eye contact. I avoided looking for him at readings and department events and in restaurants on campus. No strings. No vying for his number or a coffee date. I just wanted to break the ice. And, very gradually, I did.

The next semester, we ended up in 3 classes together, 2 of them back-to-back. We sat near each other in the first class, and when we both walked into the classroom next-door and found ourselves the first ones there, by unspoken maneuvering of “let’s not make this awkward,” we sat a friendly distance apart. The next day, I was already sitting in advanced poetry with a friend when he sat down on my other side. As we left that day, I stayed behind to tell my professor how much I’d been looking to taking his class, and my friend accused me—in front of said professor—of trying to suck up. She wasn’t exactly dead to be after that, but the next class, I turned away from her, toward Ben, and never turned back. She soon moved toward the girl on her other side, which I suspect was some version of what she’d wanted all along.

These 3 classes rapidly accelerated Ben’s and my slightly warm familiarity. And, naturally, my crush got worse. Lord, I lived to make that boy smile, and I got pretty good at it. But I locked down any resemblance of affection. I didn’t neglect getting to know my other classmates better. And when he asked for my number, the reason was so mundane and practical that I didn’t even let myself do a victory dance. I was still in a long game, careful neither to spook him nor to tip my (mortifying) hand.

In getting to know Ben, I eventually learned that he had a girlfriend. (I still remember chanting to myself as my heart dropped, “Do not react. Do not react. Do not react.”) A poem a few months later about him having sex with her was tense with passion and beauty and it absolutely slayed me. In part because of how much he clearly missed her (she was in culinary school in Kentucky) and in part because sex was not an aspect of my relationships, nor would it be until after I got married for religious reasons. So even though I still found him beautiful and kind and a gorgeous writer, we weren’t on the same page.

I didn’t ever wish he and his girlfriend would break up. That would have been deeply unkind, and I was trying to build a friendship here. Also, I knew that, even if they did break up, what he expected and wanted from his relationships was different from what I expected and wanted from mine. This fact was immutable. So I could live on a smile I’d caused for days, but I couldn’t ever forget what we were and weren’t to each other. I asked him a question or two about her when she came up. I made myself care about her and their relationship because we were friends and I was staying in the friendship lane. Even if my knuckles were white with the effort. I worked very hard to keep things friendly. Not light. Not vapid. But platonic. We were linked by our respect for the other’s work, and by the friendship we were building. 

When you’re in a writing program with a lot of workshop classes, in which you share your writing and your classmates give you feedback, you figure out over time whose comments are most valuable to you, the most helpful or accurate. And some people’s feedback, you know you’ll be able to more-or-less dismiss. I treasured Ben’s comments. And I gave him the same serious, at times blistering feedback I was becoming known for in the department. Not that I wanted to be harsh. I wanted to become a better writer, and I wanted others to be able to do the same.

Critiques, even largely positive ones, get at your tenderest parts. Knowing this, and feeling their effects myself, I made sure to open and close with positives and focus only on what was on the page, not on the person. If my classmates had largely ripped the piece we were discussing, I’d try to provide some balance by focusing more on the positives. Still, I learned that I was earning a reputation for harshness, so I made an extra effort to remain friendly and caring outside of those feedback sessions and to always be honest but never cruel. 

Still, at times I felt the distance and coolness of personal affront from people who’s work I’d critiqued that day. I respected that their feelings were tender, so I’d let them not look at me, not speak to me, and I’d quietly slip from the room. One day when I’d shared a deeply unpopular opinion about a classmate’s work, I felt like Public Enemy #1. As I rose to made my escape at the end of class, Ben came to stand behind my chair. When I started for the door, he fell into step beside me. His presence and solidarity in that moment meant the world. I had already chosen him to be my friend, but in that moment I felt chosen as his friend. And I felt understood.

Ben got me as a writer, not always in the specifics but in nature. And from then on, even if one of us was in a hurry, we’d walk out the door together from our two workshop classes. When I or he felt embarrassed because our work had flopped or, in my case, when someone had stabbed at me (not my work) in a critique session, that walk was a tangible solace. Even when we’d critiqued each other’s work that day, and our tender feelings stemmed in part from each other’s words, we left as a unit. Solid. Friends. Respected colleagues. Often, all we’d say on these walks were a simple “bye” or “see you tomorrow” at the end of the hall. Sometimes it was a pained half-smile on my part or a solemn nod on his. All Darcy-hand-flex moments. 

I didn’t ever wish for his relationship to fail or for him to develop a faith like mine. Once I understood him better, and especially when he and his girlfriend briefly broke up, I prayed he wouldn’t express interest in me. I didn’t want them temptation of what I knew wouldn’t be a good romantic relationship. We never got dinner or coffee after class. We didn’t linger on the steps for hours talking.

Still, in a small and distant way, I think my long-ago crush on Ben is one of the reasons I enjoyed Love Lettering so thoroughly. Reading a book where the entire relationship, from strangers to friends to lovers, is built through Darcy-hand-flex moments reminds me of those moments with Ben. How my heart seemed to stutter at his eye contact. The times I watched his thumbs rub together over his clasped hands. How making him laugh made me feel victorious. How understood I felt as a writer when he championed a poem everyone else in our class seemed to misunderstand. His silent support on hard days as we walked to the end of the hall. I was so proud of having built a friendship with him. And I remain, more than 10 years later, grateful for it.

Welcome 2020

I’ve been seeing a lot of people—friends and strangers—recapping their decade. Initially, I dismissed the idea as too broad. So much has changed for me this year, it initially felt impossible to even consider those of the past decade. But over the past week or so, I have been able to pin down a few of those changes, and I want to record and share them.

In 2010, I was a junior and senior at Georgia Southern, and I’d already met my now husband though we didn’t date for the first 6 years or so. I was studying writing and history. Now I work in publishing as an editorial associate and I’ve drafted 3 novels, all of which are under revision.

As a student, I looked forward to breaks when I could read a couple of books for fun, mostly YA fantasy. I’d recently discovered audiobooks and borrowed YA romances from my hometown library. This year, I read 130 books, mostly adult romance, including 31 audiobooks. 

My best friend in 2010 is still my friend now, though the rest of my friend group has changed quite a bit. I moved more times than I can count, but have lived the last 7 years in Macon, Georgia. I listen to different music. I no longer watch Glee or Doctor Who, but The Good Place and The Curse of Oak Island. Another Star Wars trilogy has come and gone. (So has Carrie Fisher.) I jokingly complain that work gets in the way of my life just as I used to complain that school did so.

My grandfather died the first day of classes of my senior year of college, a Monday in mid-August, 2010. Since then, I’ve lost my grandmother, two great-aunts, one great-uncle, my baby cousin, and a number of other, more distant relatives and friends. I still wish I could call my Papa, especially on autumn days when the red leaves are falling past my window. We just passed the first anniversary of my baby cousin’s death. Lying in his coffin, his long neck and long limbs and grey suit reminded me so much of my last image of my grandfather, in his coffin and suit. And above my baby cousin, the spray was full of the same flowers that’d been in my bouquet a month earlier.

The world is a lot different than I thought it was 10 years ago. Aside from the trends and technologies we’ve all experienced, I now realize that, as a college student, I didn’t understand some core-deep realities of the world and this country related to racism, cruelty, and money. My adulthood has begun to teach me about those upsetting and unsettling realities, and how widely they hurt people. 

Growing up, my mom would avoid reading and watching things that made her sad. She said life is sad enough without seeking out that sadness in entertainment too. She wanted to escape. I didn’t understand that feeling 10 years ago, but I intimately do today. 

My faith has changed greatly, both in my daily practice and in my specific beliefs. I no longer consider myself a Southern Baptist, and am unsure that Baptist best fits my theology at all. My knowledge of the Bible and theology has increased greatly, and my mind and compassion has expanded with these concepts as well. How I embody my faith, how I present it to the world, has also changed. 

Although I long suspected that my level of stress and dread ahead of social situations and changed plans was unusual, during this past decade I realized those struggles are symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Knowing this has helped me manage my anxiety, but it still makes an unexpected dinner with friends and especially large get-togethers with my husband’s family deeply difficult, even painful. I give myself grace to not be my best self right away. I do my best to show up, even if I’m uncomfortable the whole time and exhausted when it’s over. And, honestly, having Tyler with me when we travel or go to socially demanding situations helps my anxiety tremendously. 

I’ve had depression. 

I am, generally, angrier than I was 10 years ago, but I also think I’m a better person. I’m rarely angry for myself, but for the abundance of pain around me. And, with social media (which I was sparsely using as the decade dawned), so much more pain feels near.

The last ten years have been, largely, very happy ones for me. I experienced and gave a tremendous amount of love. I visited Egypt and Key West and Germany and Wales, lived for a while in Manchester, England, became an Atlanta United and Braves fan. I learned to crochet. I became a hot chocolate snob. I went to counseling through three different periods, and I wish I’d gone more often than that. 

Despite allowing myself to look back and be proud of myself for what’s transpired over the past decade, I don’t want to look forward another ten years and speculate. Doing so makes my feel anxious, but I also don’t want to anticipate an entire decade’s worth of experiences. I can’t. So much will be surprising and unexpected, though perhaps not in the broad strokes that the 2010’s brought to me. Instead, I’m looking just at the year ahead of me.

I want to write.
I want to manage my anxiety better.
I want to exercise regularly.
I want to more intentionally support my husband and family.
I want to look forward to my work.

Unlike in past years, I don’t have a single word to help encapsulate those desires. Perhaps I’ll still find one. In any case, welcome 2020

NaNoWriMo 2019

When I was a ministry intern, I would walk into my apartment after an emotionally draining day or full evening and all my energy would whoosh out of me at once, usually the moment I turned the lock on my door and my day. I’d step out of my heels in the dark—feet suddenly aching, shoulders suddenly slumping, suddenly away of my dry throat and sore, watery eyes—and drag myself toward the short list of necessities I had to accomplish before I could tuck myself into bed.

One day last week, my energy left me in much the same way it used to. I’d had a long, full afternoon. I’d spent it with people I love, and I’d enjoyed it. But I hadn’t intended to be out so long or to interact with so many people on my day off, the day after returning from a trip with Tyler over the long weekend. I felt the crash coming as I drove home, and held out until I could turn the lock behind me. 

I took off my shoes, set down my purse, changed into sweatpants, and lay down on the couch. And because I have a capable and sensitive husband, I didn’t have to do much else. When he got home a few minutes after I did, he fed and played with Tara. He checked the porch for packages and made sure I had a glass of water. He cooked. I didn’t put in a load of towels, as I’d intended. I didn’t write, as I’d hoped. I didn’t even read. I merely lay on the sofa under my favorite blanket and recharged for four hours, then went to bed. 

As I look ahead to November and the writing I hope to accomplish during it (50K words as part of National Novel Writing Month: NaNoWriMo, or NaNo), I’m looking at ways I can try to avoid becoming emotionally and physically overtaxed. 

First, I’m taking an honest look at my calendar. I have multiple trips already planned, including a work trip I’m trying hard not to dread, and Thanksgiving, for which neither of our families have finalized plans. I’m considering how I can write on weekdays and my few free weekends to help make up for the days when I’ll be traveling. I’d like to believe I’ll at least get a sentence written even on those days, and I might, but I’m not going to saddle myself with unreasonable expectations or set myself up for failure. I also don’t want to burn out because of the combination of life events, work requirements, and my writing. Holidays can be overtaxing in and of themselves. So can writing 50K words in a month. So I need to be honest about when and how much I can hope to write. Thankfully, I have participated in, and written about, NaNo before.

Two, I’m outlining. In drafts past, I’ve written a bunch of scenes, then strung them together and decided what I needed to write to fill the gaps. To some degree, I’m doing that again. I’m rewriting a manuscript I “finished” years ago but that wasn’t working. I’ve selected a few scenes from that draft that work with the new characterization and pacing, and written a lot of others to mark the changes in plot and the addition of a second point of view. But the main thing I want to avoid with this project is overwriting. I don’t what to write a bunch of scenes I don’t need. I don’t want to waste the time or the energy. 

Throughout October, I’ve been spending my lunch breaks researching various outlining methods, and working on a detailed outline for myself. I’m sure I’ll deviate from it, and I’m not sure how effective it’ll be, since I haven’t written from one before. But I have found it helpful so far. I think it’s also helpful to announce my intentions, thus this late-October treatise:

I’ll be attempting to write 50k words in November. I may not get back to you. I may not be able to hang out. I may not sound particularly with it when we talk. I’m sorry in advance if I sound rude or distant. I’m building worlds with words and it’s taking up a lot of my brainpower. I’m trying hard not to overdo it, and I’m grateful that you understand. 

Mary Oliver

Yesterday we learned of the death of Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. I enjoyed seeing her work filling my Twitter feed, including poems I’d never read and many familiar verses.

I can’t articulate well why Mary Oliver was one of my favorite poets. I read her poetry collections slowly, alone, with a pencil to underline beautiful lines, but I inevitably failed to use it because each line is so visceral and enrapturing. Mary Oliver came with honesty in her hands and I floated in her words, comforted. And now she is resting. I pray it is peaceful.

In an earlier version of this post, I quoted six of my favorite Mary Oliver poems. However, a friend rightly point out that Mary Oliver’s works are all under copyright. I don’t want to keep anyone from paying for her art by supplying her words here, so I’ve replaced the poems with links to some of my favorite collections of her works. If you haven’t invested in one of her collections, or if (like me) you’re wanting to get another one, I heartily recommend these three.

A Thousand Mornings
Dog Songs
Owls and Other Fantasies

Poetry is Saving My Life

Last Wednesday, I read Liz Deere’s exceptional blog post, “Life Savers.” In it, she explains the origins behind a question I’ve heard asked, and liked, for a while now: What is saving your life? I encourage you to go read the post, and the rest of Liz’s work. For Liz, meeting around the table with friends was saving her life. Poetry was saving mine.

Tyler had had a long, rough day. I lay down on the couch with him for a while, until he was soothed and asleep, then slipped away and fetched the book I’d started several days earlier: Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. I bought the book years and years ago. I’ve even given it to others, on all the highest recommendations, without having read it.

At the moment, I’m galloping through my existing library, trying books I’ve had for years, giving them just 20 minutes to capture me or they go in the “to give away” pile. Even books I finish and thoroughly enjoy, I often put into the “to give away” pile. I don’t need them taking up space on my shelves or in the future’s moving truck unless I intend to treasure them for years. And a great many books, though I enjoy them, are not that way. Many were, but I no longer need them as I once did. I want them to go to people who need their stories, who will read and love them as they were meant to be read and loved.

Several nights before as I prepared to take a long, hot bath, I picked Brown Girl Dreaming because it is a memoir in verse and I expected it wouldn’t take me long to finish. I felt almost manic that night, wanting to get things done, get things through, to add to my piles and give one pile away. But I couldn’t go to sleep that way.

One of the many wonders of poetry is that it doesn’t care about your desired pace. In poems, time and rhythm and pacing and focus exists differently, uniquely, almost-but-not-quite rigidly.

Reading a book of poetry, whether done over years or a few hours, is like slipping your head under the meniscus of the ocean. You can surface after each poem or stay under and explore the depths until your lungs burn and your legs feel leaden. But for every moment you are reading, your body moves with foreign resistance and unearned grace. The currents determine how quickly and how well and they are not yours. They don’t listen to you. Someone else has already decided how this will flow. The experience can leave one gasping and disoriented or invigorated and refreshed. I have enough experience with poetry, like swimming, that I’m usually of the latter. Even so, I can put my head up and find the landscape completely changed from what I remember.

When I finished the last poem in Woodson’s collection, I wrote “Mom” on a blue post it and stuck it to the front cover. Then I curled up next to Tyler and let my mind float again through the words and phrases, images and sounds I’d gathered while swimming. And it sustained me long past when he woke.

The following morning I encountered a photo of Mary Karr’s poem, “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God” from her new collection, Tropic of Squalor. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you,” the poem begins, “could be cured with a hot bath”.

Yes, I thought. Brown Girl Dreaming.

A story also surfaced, one I heard Mary Karr tell at a lecture at Georgia Southern when I was still an undergrad there. When Karr was an alcoholic, and when she and her husband were divorcing, she would hear a voice that tried to take care of her. It said things like, “You should make a sandwich.” And when she’d keep listening, it said, “You haven’t eaten all day. You should make a sandwich.” That voice was so kind, so wise, so invested in her well-being that she appreciated it and gradually learned to listen to it. That voice, she told us, she eventually understood as the voice of God.

“VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God” she’d titled the poem. “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath…”. And at the end, ”Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”

The ocean of poetry is as much a gift from God as the air around us, the sandwich that will sustain us. And poetry is saving my life this week.

Poems:
“I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir
“Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
“Bareback Pantoum” by Cecilia Woloch
“This Happened” by C. K. Williams
“Apostrophe to the Apostrophe” by Eric Nelson

Novels and Collections:
Brown Girl Dreaming Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Teratology by Susannah Nevison
A Book of Luminous Things edited by Czeslaw Miłosz
On Paying Attention by James A. Autry

For the Love of Hallmark Movies

It’s hardly a secret—though I haven’t talked about it much here—that I love Hallmark movies. Admittedly, they aren’t always the highest quality possible, but they are sweet, comforting, swoony, and leave me smiling. When the world feels like the flashback chapters of a gritty post-apocalyptic novel, it’s really important to me that I’m smiling when I close the back cover of a book or turn off my TV to go to bed.

Yesterday I read an excellent discussion of the use of “fluffy” to describe books, particularly Young Adult books (my favorite genre). Although some author balk at the word, readers generally use “fluffy” to mean a book, usually a contemporary romance, with little angst or melodrama that makes them feel happy and that they often reread. Hallmark Channel original movies, for me, meet this definition of fluffy. They aren’t only cheerful, neither are they insignificant. They could have wonderful messages or deal with deep or complex topics. The angst is limited in degree and topic to the relationship, and because it’s a Hallmark movie, we know what to expect and how it’s going to end (happily).

Now, let’s talk about what goes into the structure of a Hallmark, using a favorite fall Hallmark movie as a case study.

1. Plot set up. We’re introduced to out main character—almost always a woman—and the plot element that will put the main character in a position to meet the love interest—usually a man.

2. Meet cute. The couple meets for the first time or reconnects after a long separation, and they often don’t get along.

3. Thrown together. For plot purposes, the couple has to spent time together, though they try to maintain physical or emotional separation. This is often because of initial dislike, past hurts, or the existence of a significant other.

4. Bonding. The couple sees good qualities in the other person, overcome an obstacle, and help each other advance their goals. This takes most of the movie—everything except the first fourth and last fourth of the movie—which is why it’s really important to have an interesting situation or reason why they’ve been thrown together, as well as compelling goals for each person.

5. Small crisis. At the 50% mark of the movie, something relatively small but meaningful happens, often threatening one of the character’s goals, and which can only be overcome together. Doing so solidifies the relationship, revealing to the couple that they each care for the other. A first kiss might happen here.

6. More bonding. Now even closer, the couple works together toward their goals with increasing cuteness, perhaps peppered by a second kiss.

7. BIG PROBLEM. 75% of the way through the movie, the romance is threatened by a big problem, the couple separates, and everyone is miserable. In Hallmarks, the problem is usually something objectively small, like a misunderstanding or the reappearance of the aforementioned significant other who no one likes, as opposed to a massive problem like both of their dreams came true but now they live in different countries. Massive problems are difficult to overcome in the last fourth of the movie, so usually a simple but honest conversation will solve things. However, first they have to be miserable and the audience must pretend to wonder if they’ll ever work it out. (They will. This a Hallmark. We’re here for happy endings.)

8. Reconciliation. Often prompted by a friend or mentor shedding new light on the situation, one person doggedly pursues reconciliation, usually in a big or public gesture, offering a solution to the problem and pledging their love. This is always where the couple kisses. It might be a first kiss or the third kiss, but they kiss.

An Aside on Kissing: Hallmarks generally have a 3 kiss rule. If the couple first kisses around the halfway point of the movie, they likely kiss again before the BIG PROBLEM and kiss a final time to cement their reconciliation. However, in slower burn sorts of movies, the first kiss is at the end. Cheesy clichés like a Christmas tree lighting up in the background, the bang of fireworks overhead, or the first snowfall often accompany these finale moments. Some actors and actresses sell this well. Sometimes the actress is Danica McKellar (Winnie from The Wonder Years), who always looks doe-eyed and devastated right before the final kiss. This would be annoying but okay if she’d just follow it up with non-awkward-looking kiss. But she doesn’t. Ever.

To help us understand how this structure plays out, I offer All of My Heart, a goat-tastic fall Hallmark movie from 2015. Its sequel (a Hallmark rarity) came out earlier this month.

1. Plot set up: Jenny, a young chef wanting to open her own restaurant (played by Lacey Chabert, Gretchen from Mean Girls), learns she’s inherited a house in the country from her great-something-aunt. She decides to adjust her dream and open a B&B, a “restaurant with beds,” in the big country house.

2. Meet cute: Brian (played by Brennan Elliot), a Wall Street financial consultant, inherits the same house and, since he and Jenny have equal claim, wants to sell the house and split the proceeds. Jenny asks for time to start her business and buy him out, Brian wants the deal done so he can move on.

3. Thrown together: Brian is fired from his firm and can’t afford his apartment, forcing him to move into the inherited house Jenny is already living in.

4. Bonding: Money-strapped and grumpy, constantly searching for a new Wall Street job, Brian tries to save money by fixing the house’s many problems himself. He’s quickly won over by Jenny’s cooking and encourages her to sell her pastries to local cafes and restaurants, helping lay the base for her future inn. Jenny likes having help, even if Brian isn’t naturally handy, and flourishes under his encouragement and business advice.

5. Small crisis: Gabby, the nanny goat that came with property, goes missing. When Brian and Jenny finally find her and get her back to the barn, they learn she’s in labor. The morning arrives with happy kids, happy housemates, and a happy Gabby.

6. More bonding: Paint war on the porch, singing pipes, a wobbly table, a stuck window. New lock screen images of the furry kids. Jenny gets a deal with a regional supplier and Brian finally fixes the sink.

7. Big problem: Brian is hired to consult again and takes off back to the city. He’s just as good at his job, but not enjoying it like he used to. The advance on Jenny’s baked goods deal gives her enough funds to start buying Brian out. After he signs a few papers, they’re connection will be severed forever.

8. Reconciliation: Brian returns early, asking Jenny to let him move back for good. An epilogue scene includes the B&B’s grand opening and Brian’s proposal to Jenny.

I also want to point out that this structure is similar to most romance genre books—contemporary, historical, fantasy, and otherwise. Furthermore, it’s the basic structure I will be using for this year’s cozy mystery NaNo project (Eeek!).

I’ve already watched my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the year and am planning to enthusiastically watch and rate all 31 holiday movies Hallmark is debuting this year. I don’t want to be too annoying about this, so I’m starting a new tab on the site (see above, or follow this link) for my summaries and ratings of all the Christmas Hallmarks I watch this season. I’ll also post on Facebook and Twitter when I update the list, in case you’re into that sort of thing.

November Means NaNo

I’ve wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo since I learned about it in college, but I never felt like I had the time. Looking back on all the Novembers since then—almost a decade of them, which isn’t disheartening at all—I can point to ones where I could have tried it, at least. And there are some that I genuinely could not have managed. Not the 50K words, not the mental devotion, not the emotional drain.

Like two years ago. So many people in my life died that month that I physically could not attend all of their funerals. Emotionally, I could hardly bear to read all their obituaries. I was overwrought in every way. My birthday and Thanksgiving came and went as usual, but I don’t remember them at all. And just before the month’s end, as I staggered under the weight of it all, someone I love dearly fell, and fell ill, and died just before Christmas.

A year later (last year), I did NaNo for the first time, and I won. In NaNo-speak, that means I finished: I wrote all 50K words.

I joined NaNo because I had to do something. By October of last year, every day I struggled more and more to get out of bed. No matter how much or how little sleep I got, I couldn’t seem to motivate myself. I tricked myself upright sometimes but I knew it was bad when I couldn’t even bribe myself. Not with Chick-fil-a, not with a new book, not with a nap later. Where everything else failed, guilt would eventually get me up. I was leaving the dog whining outside my door, him knowing I was inside and awake, me knowing he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get up and open the door to see him.

Ten minutes became fifteen, twenty, thirty. I was regularly late for work and stayed late to make up the time. Trying to scare myself out of bed, I’d watch the clock on my bedside table tick to, and past, the time I should have left for work. I’d berate myself that “They are going to fire you and you will deserve it.” Despite having a job I was good at with coworkers I love, despite my wonderful family, despite an understanding roommate, despite friends, despite professional counseling, I couldn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning.

Now, I don’t want to over-dramatize this any more than I already have: as best I can remember, I did get up every day. Out of habit, out of guilt, out of shame. I don’t think I ever called in sick because I couldn’t make it out of bed. But I also didn’t know each morning if today would be the day I didn’t get up.

I started thinking of November as my month to save myself, to set a big goal and to meet it, and I thought NaNo might be what I needed. NaNo has built-in ways to track and celebrate my progress, plus a community of people also writing their way into or out of or through things via these 50K words. I’ve been writing to escape for as long as I could write, which is almost as long as I can remember. And, when I did a test run, I discovered that, if I could write very first thing, I could get out of bed.

As November strode on, though I grew increasingly tired and did sleep through my pre-work writing sessions a couple of times, I flew out of bed. I was excited. I felt driven. My mind sharpened and I got better at other tasks, like editing and social media writing at work, like memorizing scripture and focusing on the sermon. I think it did help that I was writing about death and grief, generously heaped with humor. It also helped that the dog liked to come downstairs for a pet and to wish me well.

As I always have, I wrote to cope and to understand. And I saw people draw near to me, people who asked about my project and cared about how it was going. Near the end, probably the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my brother came into the room where I’d been holed up for hours, miserably trying to pry words from my brain. He came up behind me, kissed me on the crown of head, and told me I could do it. I grabbed his hands and hugged him, and when he had left I cried. And then I kept writing.

That’s something else about NaNo: it forces you to take care of yourself. You’re still galloping toward 50K words, which you likely wouldn’t have written otherwise, and you’re staying up later and getting up earlier and not returning friends’ texts and ordering pizza again, but you have to sleep. You have to eat. You have to laugh. You have to go for walk. You have to, or the words won’t happen. And in November, it’s all about the words.

I don’t need NaNo with the desperation of last year. Still, I am incredibly excited for my 6am writing sessions and I’ve literally been stockpiling cookies since the spring.

I don’t know if I’ll finish. I do have an idea I like. I’ve tried to prepare better than I did last year. And I know what NaNo can be.

I love to write, and I’m going to try really, really hard.

Forgive me if I’m a bit distant this month, a bit hard to find, a bit more tired and less conversational than usual. I’m doing something that’s really, really important to me. I hope you’ll still be there in December. I’d love to catch up.