My Preschooler vs. The Costco Happiness Mandate

Once a month or so, I go with my family to that Mecca of Consumerist Culture, Costco. It’s probably not cool to say so, but I love this ritual. Usually we’re stocking up on staples like paper towels, milk and diapers; but it’s also a specific type of quality family time. While we’re getting our basic household needs met, we also wander around browsing, snacking on samples, and looking forward to the cheap hot dog at the end. The boys (one and three) fit securely side-by-side in the super-wide shopping carts, and the various items for sale typically spark conversations about future vacations, home improvements, or large gatherings we’d like to have.

If you’ve been to Costco, you know that they have employees stationed at the exits, who check your receipt against what’s in the cart and put a line through it with permanent marker. If you have little kids, they also routinely flip the receipt over and draw a smiley face there as well. Unbelievably, it’s this smiley face schtick that has become a point of contention between my stubborn as hell precocious three year old and the staff of our local Costco.

I don’t remember exactly how this started, maybe by a loose cannon employee trying to cheer him up on a grouchy day, but somehow my little guy got it into his head that he wants both a happy face and a sad face on his receipts. Leave it to a therapist’s kid to insist that a fuller range of human emotions be represented. Apparently, we’ve learned, this is against Costco policy.

If you know any three-year-olds, you know that accepting such realities is not really their

Costco Smiley

You would think this a simple issue…

specialty. He asks for a sad face, in his most charming and polite little voice, every time. And every time, they refuse. Sometimes they rebuff his request with a muttered joke, sometimes they pretend not to hear him, and once or twice they have even refused him directly – saying that it’s Costco policy. I find it hard to imagine this is actually Costco policy, but if it is, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting.

As you can imagine, this leaves us with a frustrated and bewildered child on our hands after every trip to Costco, at least until we can get to the car and his dad or I will add a sad face to the happy one on the back of the receipt. Silly, but true. And you know what? I don’t blame him. He approaches those employees with a perfectly reasonable request, and feels frustrated when those in charge refuse him for no apparent reason.

Readers are the same way.

When I pick up a novel, I develop certain expectations for how it will go in the first few pages, and certainly by the end of the third chapter or so. If the author doesn’t resolve the problem presented in the initial chapters by the end, I get frustrated and angry, too. I’m not talking about happy endings, necessarily, because like my three-year-old I believe there’s room in the world for sadness, too; but I do expect to feel satisfied at the end of a novel.

I have noticed that some authors – amateurs and publishing legends alike – sometimes ignore or fail to account for this expectation when they write. They muddle their story with too many unrelated twists and turns, or so many characters and details that they seem to lose track of them [I’ve been guilty of that one myself]. Or, in what I assume is an attempt to avoid being predictable, they heap tragedy or ecstasy on their characters to such excess that it’s hard to keep reading. Maybe that is how real life works sometimes, but that’s not why readers pick up novels.

Originality is critical, as is the element of suspense. And I’m certainly not advocating two-dimensional characters or canned plotlines. But I think there’s a time when writers take their quest to surprise and engage to a level at which the reader becomes an adversary to be bested, rather than a fan to be courted. I believe that’s a strategy for failure. Readers love twists, intrigue and surprises, but they have to fit into the context of the story and help the reader progress toward solving whatever problem the novel introduces (whether it’s resolved for the characters or not, it must be resolved for the reader in some way).

Writers who smugly try to outsmart readers, rather than partnering with them to tell the story, will most likely find this strategy about as useful as telling a three year old how he should feel. While I don’t think my little guy will ever boycott Costco because of their happy-only philosophy, I do feel confident that readers who find a story unsatisfying will be likely to look for what they expect somewhere else.

So, how do you strike the balance between expressing yourself as an artist and creating an enjoyable experience for the reader? Is your reader forefront when you sit down to write? Or maybe he/she doesn’t enter your mind at all?


Writer’s Challenge #5 – FEAR

With Halloween around the corner (and my house infested with creepy, itchy little fleas – UGH!), I wanted to spend some time talking about fear, and how writers can use fear in their work. For writers of horror, suspense and thrillers, the use of fear is not only overt, it’s an essential part of the story. But what if you write contemporary romances, or satirical fantasy? Fear plays a minimal role, right?

I’d like to challenge you to re-think that perspective. Knowing what your characters (and readers) fear most is absolutely critical in writing good fiction of any sort. Fear is the shadow side of drive; you can’t have one without the other. Most of us could say what drives our main characters to do what they do – perhaps the pursuit of love, prestige, money, or power. But what keeps your characters awake at night? What are they desperately trying to avoid?

Maybe your fashion-focused heroine is afraid of becoming irrelevant; perhaps the brooding hero can’t stomach the idea of being vulnerable, or disappointing his father, or you know, spiders. While we may or may not share those fears explicitly with the reader, they guide our characters’ actions and thoughts just as strongly as their movement toward the goal of the story. Sometimes, more. Ignore fears and insecurities, and your characters can fall flat.

In my work as a therapist, I have often invited anxious clients to play out their worst fears by imagining the worst case scenario in vivid, horrifying detail. Too often, we are ruled by what we cannot see and dare not name, but when we cast our fears in concrete details, we begin to be able to evaluate them more rationally. This can be helpful as a writer, too, knowing what you’re afraid of and becoming the master over it. You can take your characters on that same journey as the story progresses — whether they succeed or fail in overcoming their fears is up to you!

Fiction Prompt: Pick a character you know and love (yours or someone else’s) and write their worst nightmare, in excruciating detail, right up until the point when he or she wakes up in a cold sweat. How does it impact the character’s behavior upon waking?

Non-fiction: What scares you the most as a writer? What is the most painful result you can imagine from your work? Describe it in detail. Then ask yourself how much that particular fear limits your writing or guides what you do. Is it worth it? How can you take ownership of that fear?


Writer’s Challenge #4 – Significance of October 12

Happy October 12th, and welcome to the weekly writer’s challenge! It’s like Flash Fiction, but broader and without those messy time constraints. Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. Happy writing!

Writing Prompt: This week I’m combining the prompts into one. Check out the wiki list of things that have happened on this day in history (love this, by the way – it’s a rich writing prompt you could use any time). Pick one of those events and write about it, fictionalizing or not.

My personal favorite is the second on the list. How the heck did King John lose the crown jewels? How did he explain this, or did he need to explain, to his subjects? What about the queen? The story almost writes itself. If you’re a fantasy-type writer, use something from this list to create a mirroring event in your world. Any of these events can be an allegory or starting point for non-fiction, too. If you do send me a link, be sure to put the event you chose at the top!

Not in the mood to write today? Take a moment to set out at least one goal to accomplish by October 12, 2013. Choose something not already on your to-do list. Maybe something on your bucket list you can prioritize for this year. Maybe something it’s hard to imagine accomplishing right this minute, but what a difference a year can make. So many of us make New Year’s resolutions only to abandon them by February… But today you have 80 days until the end of the year. Why not start on October 12 and get a head start on your own personal Around the World in 80 Days?

The October Writer’s Dilemma


Not my hands.

Is anyone else struggling with an October… weirdness this year? Yes, that’s right. I’m a therapist and the best I can do is ‘weirdness.’  I guess another way to express it would be ‘October NaNoWriMo Anticipatory Time Distortion Funk.’

For the first time ever, I’m going into NaNoWriMo this year knowing more or less what I’ll be writing, with a basic outline already started. Years past, I’ve been an unwilling pantser (that sounds just horrible) as November sneaked up on me out of the blue. Last year my life was a fat mess. My dad had just died, I had a newborn. I didn’t even start my NaNoWriMo project until November 3rd, and I bailed out at 19,000 words or so.

This year, I’m in a different space entirely. Last year’s NaNoWriMo was this summer’s publication. Life has largely settled down, or at least I’m pretending it has, and my confidence is up. I’ve done some research, made my outlines, I’m ready to go. What? It’s only October 8th? But I’m ready NOW! I keep freaking out thinking I’m not ready enough, then bemoaning how much time is still left until November, then panicking that I found an hour or two to write but wasn’t sure what to do with it. October feels both long and short at once. Thus the weirdness.

The way I see it, here are my options:

  1. Cheat. I could start writing the novella I’ve plotted for NaNoWriMo early, and no one would be the wiser. But that’s not cool. Why bother participating if you’re not going to do it side-by-side, minute-by-minute with your writing comrades? Plus, that sounds a lot like the easy road, which is just not my style. Plus it would probably be wrong on, like, some ethical level or something.
  2. Start on Something Else. I have another Work In Almost-Progress that I have outlined, the next novel featuring the same set of characters from my first two. Logically, that’s the thing to do – work on that one and change gears for November. If I were further along in the process with the WIP, that’s absolutely what I would do, but somehow it’s hard for me to imagine beginning two new projects simultaneously. In the revision stage with one I could certainly start on another, but trying to conceptualize and start on two projects at once feels scatterbrained, even for me.
  3. Procrastinate with Purpose.

You can probably tell by how I set it up, #3 is the option I’m going with. I’ve decided to see what happens if I sit on my hands for three weeks, chomping at the bit. I’ve taken breaks from writing before, but always by force of life, never by conscious choice. I’m impatient by nature, so it’s hard to hold back from something I feel really motivated to do. This will be interesting.

I wonder what will happen if I try to set writing aside for a couple of weeks and focus instead on creating a better environment in which to write, and doing more planning? What will happen if, instead of writing surrounded by a disorganized house feeling a little guilty that I’m swept up in my story and not keeping things neater, I spent a few weeks getting things extra neat and ready to go? I see a trip to the Container Store in my future… [Okay, I have a preschooler and a toddler, so staying neat is not an option, but I could at least be a bit more organized].

More importantly, what will happen to my spontaneous, organic writing process if I force myself to take longer in the planning process? Reading, outlining, more research, more preparations

For me, all of this Type A stuff is very out of character. Ever since my first book reports were due in elementary school, I’ve been the girl who waited until the night before and reveled in pulling something readable out of the fire at the last minute. As a novelist, I set a deadline and go – stopping to rethink, research, revise along the way — in sort of a beautifully messy manic spiral. I’ve always worked better in a pinch. Or at least, that’s how I’ve always worked.

I’m really curious how changing that a bit will impact my writing process. Of course I’ll still have the time pressure inherent in NaNoWriMo structure, but having a clear plan and spending more time on the front end will be new to me. What do you think? Is this going to make me a better, more efficient writer? Or will I find away to bring back the chaos that has been my friend in the writing process all along? Do you think more planning will make my process smoother, or will it end up being a waste of time?

Have you ever made a big change to your writing approach, and how did it go?

Have a happy, weird October!!

Writer’s Challenge #3

On Tuesday, I wrote with nostalgia about email forwards and National Friendship Week. This week’s challenges were all inspired by that post in one way or another. Feel free to respond on your own blog or site and link with a few words in the comments section below. And if you don’t, something horrible will happen…

Fiction Prompt: One glance at her inbox that morning showed that something was amiss. Forty messages, maybe more, at least half of them marked ‘urgent’ and all from friends. All with different but disturbing subject lines: ‘Trying to reach you,’ ‘Is your phone on?’ ‘Are you okay?’ She bit her bottom lip nervously and took a deep breath before opening the first one…

Non-fiction/essay: What are you most likely to share with others online? Do you ever forward emails to friends? When and why? What meets the threshold for sharing on Facebook, versus Twitter, or crafting a blog to pass on? How do you decide something is worth sharing — is it a level of personal experience or investment? Entertainment value? What would your friends say about you based on what you post/share online? Does it jive with who you are in ‘real’ life?

Writer’s Business Challenge: What is your online strategy for promoting your work? Find two or three authors whose approach/philosophy closely mirrors your own and study them. What do you notice about their online strategy – is it aggressive or gentle? Subtle or loud? Do you think it works? Does it make you want to read his/her work? How can this information help you focus your own promotional strategy?

…And that’s how I lost all my friends

Remember email forwards? If you spent any time in front of a computer between 1999 and 2004, I’m guessing you do. Conspiracy theories, chain letters, jokes, requests for prayers, virus hoaxes (not to mention actual viruses)… all delivered daily to your inbox from your friends, neighbors and – in my case – my grandmother. At one point in the early 2000’s it took me forty-five minutes each day just to clean out my inbox to get to the actual mail there.

My very favorite of these was the “National Friendship Week” email. Every single week between October 16, 2000 and April 3, 2004 was National Friendship Week. As you may know, our longstanding tradition for ‘NFW’ in this country is to honor our friends by sending them all an email, created by someone else, and containing a horrible poem and some form of animated dancing cherubs. This email is directed at everyone in our contact list, and while it has nothing personal in it whatsoever, it does end with a threat that if we don’t forward it to at least ten of our other friends, something horrible will happen. Every time I realize that I’ve lost touch with someone special I know it’s because I didn’t forward those damn cherubs.

For writers, especially new writers, Twitter, Facebook and Blogs are the platforms that have captured our attention the way email once did. And like the well-intended mother of my friend, who sent me those cherubs EVERY SINGLE TIME someone sent them to her, some of us are unintentionally making a nuisance of ourselves, undoing all the good we hoped to accomplish by signing up for social media to start with. And other writers are letting us know about it. Sometimes by complaining, sometimes by simply un-following us and never looking back.

I will say that I’m guilty of some of the faux pas the above writers have listed (I have tweeted too much about my books when they were free, and did quite cheerfully tweet how much I enjoyed hearing from fans after getting a particularly touching email). Some of this is owed to being new to the medium, some to the fact that different writers have varying opinions on what the purpose and propriety of social media really is — especially Twitter.

Some say more followers is good, and your ‘platform’ for marketing your books can be made on the weight of sheer numbers. Others eschew the concept of the ‘platform’ altogether, and feel that all social media is a place for making personal connections with other professionals. I happen to believe that both views are right and both can be wrong.

Twitter is something of an enigma. It’s both more and less possible to make real, meaningful connections through Twitter than Facebook or other venues. On the one hand, Twitter is real-time, so you can drop by a tweet stream like #amwriting or #myWANA and find writers who are there, right then, writing and tweeting. (Except for the ones who scheduled tweets with those hashtags, which is kind of annoying when you’re looking for real-time support. But maybe those people are new, too, and don’t yet understand that some hashtags are actually more like hangouts. See? There are some things you can only learn through experience.)

On the other hand, Twitter is really impersonal, too. Unless you have a private account and only follow 17 people, you don’t read your whole tweet stream. You don’t even read 5% of what floats through there. Most of the time, when I log on to Twitter, I read the 10 or so most recent tweets in my stream, and if I don’t see something there that catches my eye, I move on with my day. With that kind of noise, it’s hard to be heard unless you tweet fairly frequently. But not too frequently. And about what? Endless book promos aren’t interesting, but neither is a minute-by-minute update about the fact that you’re drinking coffee or what you’re planning to watch on TV later.

Twitter is a medium that requires people to be interesting, succinct, genuine, real-time, present but not too present, social media savvy, friendly and patient. And while you’re balancing all of that, you have to decide what you’re using Twitter for and to whom your tweets are targeted. That’s a tall order for any of us.

I submit that the best way to do all of that is to tweet experimentally, and spend a good deal of time reading and responding to the tweets of others. Follow the people you find interesting and model your strategy after those who share your vision, both for Twitter and success overall. It helps to review your own tweet stream periodically to ensure you’re coming across the way you intend.

In the meantime, be patient with yourself. You’ll make mistakes. We all do. You may alienate some people, or miss out on others who might have value to offer you. It happens. And later, when you have the hardened sophistication of months under your belt, others will annoy you with their aimless or overly self-focused twittering, and you should be patient and kind to them, too. After all, it’s National Friendship Week.