The fine art of public speaking

Bloganuary: What fear have you conquered?

When I was sixteen, I decided—somewhat out of the blue—that I couldn’t go through life being petrified of public speaking.

Because I was petrified. And I knew that other people would expect me to talk, especially as an adult. Because that’s what adults did. They talked.

So I joined our high school speech team.

Nearly every weekend during the season, I’d hop on a school bus and ride with my teammates to wherever that week’s tournament was. I’d read my piece three times. At the end of the day, I’d dissolve into a puddle.

At first, I was terrible. Really, really terrible. I’d rank the lowest in each of my rounds (a 5 on a scale of 1 – 5). I was okay with that because I wasn’t doing this to win a prize.

But a funny thing started to happen. By the season’s end, I was pulling in solid 3s each round, with a scattering of 4s or even a surprise 2.

The following year? I started at the 3 and 4 ranks and inched my way up. I earned an honorable mention at one of our big tournaments hosted by our rival high school and actually placed third in another.

I didn’t go to the state tournament, but then I didn’t want to. I’d accomplished what I set out to do, and I was no longer the participant everyone felt sorry for in each of my rounds.

And many years later, I wrote a novel based on these experiences.

Make no mistake: I still don’t like public speaking. You won’t see me joining Toastmasters any time soon. But I look back on that sixteen-year-old and marvel at how she could’ve been so prescient … and brave.

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Trains, planes, and automobiles

Bloganuary: What is your preferred mode of travel?

When I lived in Germany, I loved taking the trains and trolleys and the U-Bahn. So easy. So convenient. Many of my friends enjoyed driving (way too fast) on the autobahn. What sticks in my mind is the phrase fünf kilometer stau. The inevitable result of driving way too fast on the autobahn.

But even catching the U-Bahn or a trolley downtown felt like a mini-adventure.

And the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg? Well, that definitely was an adventure. It was also far less nerve-wracking than the flight into Moscow on Aeroflot.

And yes, the stories are true; the passengers really did applaud when the wheels of the plane (successfully) touched the ground.

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But not a real green dress, that’s cruel

Bloganuary: If you had a billion US dollars, how would you spend it?

Ideally, here’s what I’d do:

After ensuring my immediate and extended family was settled and secure (and paying my taxes), I’d set up a foundation to manage the rest. I’d look for places and organizations that are doing the most good in the world and support them.

As I said, ideally.

Would I do that if a billion dollars suddenly landed in my lap? (Figuratively speaking—literally, that would probably kill me.)

I don’t know. But history (recent and not so recent) is filled with cautionary tales of people who have (or had) extraordinary power, or fame, or wealth. Some may look at that situation and say: those are good problems to have.

Again, I’m not so sure that’s true. I’m not convinced I could be an exception to all that history. I’m not talking about money can’t buy happiness platitudes. Because having enough resources for safety, security, and comfort is vital. And I’m acutely aware that not everyone has those things.

This brings me back to why I don’t need a billion dollars. That being said, it might be different if I had a million dollars:

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I, for one, plan on welcoming our dinner-cooking robot overlords

Bloganuary: What chore do you find the most challenging?

It’s not that I find cooking dinner exceptionally challenging. I’m just disappointed that, despite the fact it’s 2023, we haven’t found a way for AI to do it for us. Where’s my Star Trek replicator that will make me some tea, Earl Grey, hot? I ask you!

I can turn the lights on and off by myself. Thank you very much, Alexa. But why must I cook dinner?




And it isn’t even the prep time or the cleanup. It’s that it goes by so quickly. You do all this work and all this cleaning. For what? Five or so minutes of eating?

Granted, I may be doing the eating part of dinner wrong. I realize that I don’t need to inhale my food like I’m in the dining facility, and a drill sergeant is clocking my every bite.

Sometimes you really can’t take the Army out of the girl.

It’s why I prefer to bake. The same amount of work, but the results hang around for much longer.

With that in mind, I think I’ll go make some cookies.

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Of brass rings and other dreams

Bloganuary: How do you define success?

So, I started this prompt maybe three or four times? Each time it was all: delete, delete, backspace, delete.

I think success is so hard to define because we often conflate it with happiness. You can have all the success in the world and still be the most miserable person on the planet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because writing is tied up with publishing, and publishing (whether traditional or indie) is tied up with success. What happens when the brass ring of publishing success only makes you momentarily happy?

You reach for another.

And another.

And another.

And maybe you don’t question whether these are good things to reach for, whether they make you happy or successful.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that people abandon their goals and dreams of success. With the correct alignment, success might help you gain happiness (or at least contentment).

But I’ve been asking myself what makes me happy, what makes me feel successful. I’m working to filter the external, those things that are someone else’s standards, and capture my own.

And that might be a moving target, but it feels like a good one to set my sights on.

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The book that almost wasn’t

Bloganuary: Has a book changed your life?

So they didn’t specify a book you’ve read or a book you’ve written, did they now? The short answer is yes. Yes, a book has changed my life.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated. Some of you might know that my first (and only traditionally) published novel was The Geek Girl’s Guide to Cheerleading. This was a book I co-wrote with my writing BFF Darcy Vance.

Some of you might even know the story behind that story. What you might not know is how Darcy took my “final” draft of GGG (as we referred to it) and started revising it. After I had shelved the novel. Without my knowledge.

Her intentions were nothing but good. She wanted to show me that the novel was marketable. All it needed was some glittery eyeliner (as she called it), like a simple shift from the third person point of view to first*.

Once she revised the first three chapters, she sent them my way.

Reading a story you’ve written in someone else’s voice is, at best, disconcerting. At worse, it can feel like a violation. Darcy was hoping I’d see what she was doing and carry on with the rest of the novel.

And yes, I could see what she was getting at, but I wasn’t into it. I felt the novel had run its course, and it was time to move on to something new. I was, actually, working on something new. So those first three chapters became this awkward thing between us. While it didn’t destroy our friendship—although it certainly could have—there were some cracks in its surface.

Then Darcy’s son was diagnosed with cancer.

Darcy lived in Indiana, and I was in Minnesota. It wasn’t like I could stop by with a hot dish, offer to do the laundry, or help out in any way.

Except. There was a way I could help. I knew it deep down in my gut. There was.

I pulled out those first three chapters and took another look. I decided we could revise Geek Girl together. And if we sold it, Darcy could use her part of the advance to help with medical bills.

Because she was right; Geek Girl did have potential. It had even more once we started working in sync. Darcy changed the point of view (which must have been a slog, but she claimed it was a distraction she needed at the time). We would pass scenes back and forth, refining the prose until it wasn’t my voice or her voice but the main character Bethany’s voice. We worked on it all winter long.

In the spring, while Darcy and her family were seeing specialists and her son was having surgery, I pulled together a query letter. I sent out a couple of waves of queries. We had an amazing response rate, secured an agent, and a year later, a publishing contract.

And all that was wonderful, but not nearly as wonderful as learning to put my ego aside. Not nearly as wonderful as working with Darcy, over IM, in marathon revision sessions. Not nearly as wonderful as having her as a friend, of being able to help her, of learning that her son was cancer-free.

There are days when I miss her so much and wish she were still here. There’s so much I want to tell her. I’m a better writer because of her. I like to think I’m also a better person.

And that’s the story of how a book changed my life.

*This is not simple.

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The gift at the end of the treasure hunt

Bloganuary: What is the most memorable gift you have received?

My daughter worked so hard on this Christmas gift.

As you can see, it has the following:

  • a map
  • a treasure hunt with clues
  • a large glass crystal
  • a keepsake box with a hand-painted coffee cup

And yes, she sent me all over the house searching for my gift. And it was all in honor of the first season of Coffee and Ghosts (long before there was a second, third, and fourth season).

For my daughter, I’ve always been a writer. She witnessed my first novel being published by Simon and Schuster. She saw the ups and downs, mainly because I shared them with her and explained what I was doing and how publishing worked. My kids know how to check print books to see if the book in question is a first edition. This might be an unusual skill to pass along to your children, but there you go.

So she also witnessed my transition to indie publishing. I explained my reasons for that as well. How no publisher (in their right mind) was going to publish a series based on the slim premise of catching ghosts with coffee*.

When I reached the end of the treasure hunt, she told me why she created this Coffee and Ghosts-themed gift.

Because when everyone said no to you, you said yes to yourself.

And that’s a gift I hope will continue to linger—for both of us.  

*To be fair, “The Ghost in the Coffee Machine” was part of the Coffee: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic anthology. It was also produced in audio by The Drabblecast.

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Peering into the past

Bloganuary: How far back in your family tree can you go?

On my husband’s side of the family, they can trace their tree back to the Safavids. (Cool, yes?) On my side of the family, not quite so far.

Both my parents did work on pulling together the family tree. Most of these notes are handwritten or on an old laptop. I’m the keeper of all this now. It’s occurred to me that if I don’t keep them, they’ll be lost forever.

So, yes, genealogy is on my list of things I’d like to tackle this year.

A few months back, I fell down an internet rabbit hole. I knew my grandfather (mother’s side) emigrated from Sweden. He died young—when my mom was six—trying to save another firefighter in a furniture factory fire. This story is part of our family lore. In searching for more information on that, I found a news article listing the names of people who gained citizenship due to their service in World War I.

My grandfather’s name was among those listed. And I was all:

Wait. What?

Considering I spent six years on active duty in the Army, you’d think his service would have come up in conversation. After all, I knew the uncle who flew in WWII. Plus, there’s a story about a German ancestor who fought for the Union during the Civil War.

Now I wonder if my mom even knew about this. Or if the firefighter part of her father’s persona and our family history (her grandfather was a fire chief) simply eclipsed this part of his life.

I’ll never know the answers to those questions. Still, I hope to uncover more about his time in the service. If I can piece together some fragments, I might have a clearer view into the past.


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Blame it on the rain

Bloganuary: Write a short story or poem about rain

I don’t have a short story or a poem, but I do have this snippet from my work in progress (which may or may not end up in the final draft).

Rain greets us in the morning. We stand in the doorway and inspect the downpour. It’s fierce but not too unusual for early autumn.

“How infected do you think it is?” Agent Darnelle asks.

My impulse is to say not at all. After yesterday’s freak attack? This could be the aftermath. Mixed in with innocuous raindrops could be plenty of residual toxins.

“One way to find out.” Already, I’m tugging on my rain boots, which I keep by the door. They are pink, with polka dots, nearly a match for my umbrella.

“Agent Little, stop. I insist—”

I halt his words with a pointed look at his shoes. They may be hand-tooled and lovely. But if he steps outside in this downpour?

They’ll disintegrate.

I take up my umbrella and bound out the door. I only venture a few feet down the walkway. No matter what mixture is falling from the sky, this is no day for patrolling. The muck in the housing development will be ankle-deep.

I stick out an arm and feel the cold pelt of raindrops against my skin. When I turn to race inside, a gust of wind catches my umbrella and brings a shower of rain beneath it. I am soaked, my T-shirt clinging to my skin, jeans plastered to my thighs. I run for the door.

There, Agent Darnelle stands. In his hands, he holds a huge bath towel. I rush straight into the waiting terry cloth, and he closes it around me.

“You’re drenched,” he says, the towel skimming my arms and fluffing my hair.

It’s warm and chaotic, encased in the towel and his embrace.

“Tea,” he commands before frog-marching me toward the kitchen. There, a steaming pot of tea is waiting for us.

“I know you’ll want to change,” he says, “but we should assess the damage to your arms. Do you mind?”

I shake my head. It’s what I’d do on my own. He seats me and drapes the towel around my shoulders. While I sip the tea, he inspects my right arm. He does this by pulling out what can only be described as a monocle and peers through it.

“It’s infected.” His lips compress in concern. “Actually, if the rain weren’t so heavy, the damage would be worse.”

“It’s a small advantage King’s End has,” I say. “We get good rain.”

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Making sense of the world

Bloganuary: Why do you write?

I like to make a note of my first thoughts on these prompts. In the case of this one, it was:

I need to.

That seems to sum it up.

Of course, writing also made my list of what brings me joy (see yesterday’s post).

“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, it doesn’t feel like I should be doing anything else.” ~ Gloria Steinem

This quote resonates so hard with me. For me, it really does feel like that. And when circumstances conspire to keep me from writing, I’m not fully myself.

Maybe because this other quote about writing also resonates:

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” ~ Joan Didion.

I write to make sense of the world. I write stories to explore issues while having fun. (Yes, even in something like Coffee and Ghosts.) If other people pick up on the subtext, great. But if not, that’s fine.

Because the subtext is for me.

The story is for everyone else.  

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