Black Friday Tradition

Black Friday Tradition

christmas-cookiesBlack Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, was a magical day when I was a child. That was back in the day when the Christmas season, with its attending retail ads and sales, did not start months in advance. Santa Claus arrived at the tail end of the Thanksgiving Day parade on Thursday, and retailers opened their doors to the Christmas shoppers the next morning, Black Friday.

That was the first day the retailers unveiled their Christmas displays. The big department store windows along Market Street in Philadelphia delighted shoppers with a tableau of animated figures skating, opening gaily decorated Christmas packages, and penning letters to Santa Clause. Strawbridge & Clothier had an animated Dickens Christmas Village in their store for shoppers to walk through. The Grand Court in Wanamaker’s was the site of hourly Christmas light shows. Throughout the day, Christmas carols were played on The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world at that time. The modest displays and shows of the smaller retailers added to the Christmas cheer.

Although Philly was just a short bus ride across the bridge from my childhood home in Gloucester City, NJ, our family never spent Black Friday there; our traditional trip “into the city” to see the wonders of Christmas there, waited. It took a back seat to the Christmas traditions in our own home. For our family, Black Friday marked the start of the Christmas baking season, not the holiday spending season.

We were a family of modest means. My dad was a blue-collar worker, a railroad electrician for the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Line, who moonlighted at various jobs throughout the year. My mom was a homemaker and stay-at-home mom. There was little in the way of discretionary income, and the bulk of the presents my sister and I found under the Christmas tree each year were homemade dresses and coats.

But each year, my parents invested in a Christmas Club, a short-term savings account that few, if any, banks still offer. A Christmas club allowed people to make weekly deposits all year long, to save up money for the holidays.  That extra savings allowed my parents to purchase some store-bought presents for the family, to place under the tree alongside the home-sewn clothing. That savings also allowed my mom to give home-baked cookies to all our extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and countless others with whom she wished to share the holiday spirit.

Christmas baking commenced every year on Black Friday, and continued right up to the day before Christmas. There would be dozens of batches of cookies baked in those weeks – chocolate chips, peanut-butter kisses, rum-balls, brownies, sugar cookies, butter cookies, green Christmas wreaths, and cut-outs in the shapes of Santa, Christmas trees, bells, reindeer, and other holiday designs. But my favorites were the delicate little cookies that my mother called Norwegian Christmas cakes. They were the first cookies to be baked each Christmas season, and the ones the whole family helped with.

On Black Friday, right after breakfast, my sister and I would wash, dry, and put away the breakfast dishes. My dad would put the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas album on the record player. My mom would clean the kitchen table and start assembling the ingredients for that most wonderful first batch of cookies.

While we listened to Der Bingle croon “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, “Mele Kalikimaka”, “Christmas in Killarney” and the rest (with my dad occasionally singing along), my sister and I would use nutcrackers to crush sugar cubes into smaller pieces to be placed on the wreaths. My mom would mix the dough, and carefully shape each cookie. When I was old enough, I was given the job of brushing the cookies with beaten egg whites and coating them with the crushed sugar.

The Norwegian Christmas cake was not a particularly fancy cookie. Next to the green Christmas wreaths, or the iced Santa cutouts, they didn’t look particularly Christmassy. They were not in the same league as my mom’s signature cookies, her renowned butter cookies. And they were not the crowd-pleasers, like the chocolate chips, the brownies, and the peanut butter kisses. Yet, to this day, the unpretentious Norwegian Christmas cake remains my favorite Christmas cookie. The sight of one transports me back to that cozy kitchen. I hear Der Bingle proclaiming the joy of the season, and I am once again with my family, as we sing and laugh and work together at that most wonderful time of the year.

I recently found a recipe for a Norwegian Christmas Wreath that is almost identical to my mom’s Christmas cake cookies.  I might whip up a batch or two this year. Feel free to stop back from time to time and sample some. I’ll keep the porch light on for you.

Norwegian Christmas Wreath cookies

Norwegian Christmas Wreath Cookies

 Preheat oven to 350 degrees

 Mix in order given:

 Mix with electric mixer:

½ lb. butter, softened

½ cup sugar

2 raw egg yolks (reserve the whites)

Add and mix with large wooden spoon:

2 hard boiled egg yolks rubbed through sieve

3 cups SIFTED all-purpose flour

Knead dough thoroughly

Break off small pieces and roll between palms of hands into ropes approximately ½ inch thick and 5 inches long.

Shapes ropes into wreaths, overlapping ends and allowing them to extend out from body of wreath. Place on cookie trays, spacing carefully and allowing for some spreading during baking.

Beat reserved egg whites with fork until foamy.

Carefully brush each wreath with beaten egg whites, making certain not to drip the egg whites on the tray, and sprinkle the coated cookies with coarse sugar crystals. (My mom never sprinkled, as she said that would allow the sugar to get on the tray and burn. She placed tiny lumps/large crystals – formed from cracking sugar cubes – onto the wreaths, pressing them lightly into the cookie dough)

Bake 10-12 minutes on ungreased cookie sheets. Allow sheets to cool on wire racks until cookies can be removed with a spatula without breaking. Cookies tend to be crumbly, so they must be handled carefully. Transfer to cool cookie sheets to cool completely before placing in a cookie tin.

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy

You can't make everyone happyThis week, I saw a cute meme on the internet. It stated “You can’t make everyone happy. You’re not chocolate ice cream.”

How true is that? This past week, I was definitely not chocolate ice cream. I not only did not make everyone happy, I actually made some people very angry.

All last week, the most prominent news story was the Syrian refugee crisis. You could not avoid reading about it, seeing it on television and the internet, hearing about it on the radio. And thanks to my Facebook newsfeed, I could not avoid seeing how people felt about it. To my amazement, most did not feel the way I felt.

I usually do not post about political issues on Facebook. I’m more the nature photos, occasional amusing memes, and cute cat video type, with a weekly link to my blog on writing. But I felt this was more than a political football, this was a humanitarian issue. I was passionate about this issue. So I got vocal. I posted on my timeline and I commented on other people’s posts when I saw them in my newsfeed.

I have been active on the internet long enough to know that one will never change another person’s mind in an internet argument. Still, my passion on the subject spurred me on. I tried to counter the fear-filled and hate-mongering posts I encountered with calm, rational comments, complete with links to accurate statistics and unbiased, fact-filled articles.

I received some “likes” and a few supportive comments. I received many more comments and private messages ripping into me, and calling me names. I was labeled “stupid,” “naive,” “uninformed,” “liar” and “dangerous.”

I was unfriended by a few people over this, and even blocked by one person who seemed to think she had the right to comment on my posts, but I had no right to comment on hers.

There was a time when this would not have bothered me in the least. If someone wants to call me names, unfriend me or block me because they can not accept anyone having an opinion that is not in lockstep with their own, I figure it’s no great loss.

But now, I am an aspiring author, attempting to grow a following on my writer’s platform. Should I be posting about issues? Can I afford to publicly espouse controversial opinions?

Authors in such fields as politics, economics, science, environment, religion, philosophy, human sexuality and the like, whose works are about intrinsically controversial subjects, may be able to get away with posting their opinions. Even long-established writers in non-controversial genres might be safe making controversial comments and posts without risking the loss of their readers. But should an aspiring young-adult fantasy writer, with a new and undeveloped following, risk alienating segments of a potential audience? Perhaps I should I just go back to posting my nature photos and an occasional amusing meme or cat video, and blog about my writing.

Naw. I know I can’t make everyone happy. I’m not chocolate ice cream. I’m a writer of young adult fantasy who is also a world citizen. I hold passionate opinions on issues facing the world in which I live and write. And I have never really learned how to hold my tongue.

So, if anyone wants to debate the Syrian refugee crisis…or climate change, or factory farming, or endangered species, or the minimum wage, or if only some lives matter…or if you just want to let me know if you think I am foolish for alienating my potential audience…feel free to stop back from time to time. I’ll keep the porch light on for you. And I’ll stock the freezer with chocolate ice cream.

Querying an Agent

Querying an Agent

Many of my friends and family who are not writers ask about the process. One question I hear a lot, now that I have two completed manuscripts I hope to have published, is “How do you find an agent?”

I spend a lot of time researching agents. I check print and online directories of literary agents; I scour writers’ blogs and websites; and I ask published writers if they can recommend any agents who are taking on new clients. I hunt for those agents who represent not just novels geared for mid-grade to young adult audiences, but those who understand and handle the fantasy genre as well.

Once I find someone who appears promising, I have to follow the guidelines of that agent when submitting my query. Some agents require all queries to be sent through a submission form on their website, while others want queries e-mailed. Some want just a query letter with a short synopsis. Others want a query, a synopsis, and anywhere from 5 pages to 10 chapters of the manuscript. Some want the prospective client’s life story from birth to the present moment and others don’t care who or what the writer is, they let the writing speak for itself. Most will not open attachments, so whatever the agent requires has to be included in the body of the e-mail. So, each query has to be tailored specifically for the agent, but most queries do contain certain basics. Here’s a “typical” query for my series:

Agent 002 ¾
Absolute Bestest Literary Agency Ever…Really
Fantasyland

Dear Agent 002 ¾,

Hi there! I was researching agents, and came upon your contact info on an obscure blog that only a handful of people outside of Lost Springs, Wyoming, have ever read. I was so impressed with your client list! You have represented 3 of my idols! As a matter of fact, P.B.J. Sandwich’s last installment in her fantasy series, Alone with 5,000 Dragons and a Solitary Unicorn, was my all-time favorite! I am in awe of this 104-year-old’s career, and I hope by the time I am her age, I will be as successful. And, hopefully, Two (may I call you Two, or do you prefer  Ms. Three-Quarters?), you can help me attain that success.

I am seeking representation for my tween (mid-grade to young adult) fantasy adventure novels, Caern’s Treachery and The Search for the Heir, the first two books in my Paths of Destiny series. The third in the envisioned seven book series is in the planning stages.

Destiny. Fate. Predetermination. Call it what you will. You can’t escape it. At least, my characters can’t. The Paths of Destiny series, set in a medieval world where magic exists, follows a number of characters who are set on a path, often through no choice of their own. The series explores how they grow and change from their brush with fate, their walk down destiny’s path. The books are full of intrigue and suspense, peppered with humor, and peopled with characters that surprise, confuse, delight, shock and dismay, characters that will be beloved, characters that will be despised, and characters that will move the reader to pity. The series explores many themes, including friendship, duty, sacrifice, prejudice and, of course, destiny.

Book One: Caern’s Treachery:
In spite of almost insurmountable odds, a young half-dwarf (Cabochon Breccia-Corvius) survives a perilous journey, a treacherous uncle with his own agenda, and enormous personal loss, to discover he has a destiny to fulfill in this heart-rending coming of age tale. (Book completed at approx. 73,000 words)

Book Two: The Search for the Heir
The young half-dwarf, Cabochon Breccia-Corvius, and his two companions (the Gypsy lad, Rokren, and the elven cleric, Saeth), face danger and share adventures as they search for the true heir to the dwarven throne in this poignant sequel to Caern’s Treachery. (Book completed at approx. 95,000 words)

I am returning to writing after a prolonged hiatus. My admittedly dated professional credits as a freelance journalist include articles in local, regional and national publications, mostly in the field of equine sports. I have been published in The Press of Atlantic City, Horseman Magazine, Equus, Rodeo News, Pro Rodeo Sports News, and others. I have also had some short fiction published, in Star Magazine (back when they published a one-page romance in each issue), and Lighthouse Magazine, among others. This series is my first foray into novel-length fiction.
The complete manuscripts of Caern’s Treachery and The Search for the Heir are available upon request. I am certain you would enjoy reading them. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Margaret (Cutter) Tesch
(Marge Cutter)
900000 Road to Fame
One-horse Town, State of Confusion 00000
000-000-0000 (home)
111-111-1111 (cell)
margecutter@some_e-mail.com

Well, that’s it folks – a “typical” query letter in my quest to find an agent for my series. Feel free to stop back from time to time and read over my shoulder any responses I get to this query. I’ll keep the porch light on for you. And if you happen to know any agents who specialize in Young Adult Fantasy and who are taking on new clients, bring them along.

I’m a Pantser

I’m a Pantser

I’m an unabashed and unapologetic pantser.

A question that is eventually posed to every writer is “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” The first time I was asked this, my response involved a blank look and one of my trademark uber-intelligent responses like “huh?” or “say what?” (Or maybe it was just “excuse me?”) At any rate, I had no idea what the term “pantser” meant. Turns out, it means a writer who eschews outlines and writes “by the seat of his/her pants.”

The first novel of my Young Adult Fantasy series was written very much by the seat of my pants. The book itself was born from just a scene that I could not get out of my head: two figures on horseback, galloping out of the woods and into a meadow. For the longest time, I had no idea who these figures were, why they were galloping their horses, where they were going (or who they might be running from), or why I could not get them out of my head. Finally, they introduced themselves to me, and one became the protagonist of the first two books in the series.

When I began writing the first book, I had no idea what this protagonist was going to do, or who was going to help him or hinder him along the way. Little by little, new characters introduced themselves to me and placed themselves into the book. Slowly, I discovered the tale. Writing it was pure joy. It was the same type of joy one experiences when reading a good book. Like a reader, I had no idea what twists and turns the story would take until the words flowed out of me. I was surprised by the characters’ actions and motives. The intricacies of the subplots fascinated me. And I had no control over it whatsoever. I often likened writing that first book to being a secretary, recording the story as the characters told it. When the characters were finished, I had a great tale to edit into a novel.

Book two was not much different. When I began writing that book, I had a starting point (where book one ended), and I knew how I wanted the story to end. How the characters were going to get from point A to point B was a complete mystery. As the tale progressed, new characters introduced themselves and joined with the established characters. Together, they developed the storyline, with numerous subplots. Again, I had but to listen to them and record their words. Again, writing it was pure joy, and when the characters fell silent at the end of their saga, I had a fantastic tale to edit into book two.

I am currently working on book three. When I began, I had a starting point, where book two ended; I had a main character, one of the companions of the protagonist from the first two books; and I had more than a fair idea of what was supposed to happen. I had more notes for this book than I ever had for the first two books. I discovered that I was moving, slowly, from pantsing to plotting. I even outlined the whole thing on Excel. But then I found that plotting worked against me. I told the characters what to do, where to go, with whom to interact. They stared at me, sullen. They went off for days and sulked. I kept telling them that I am the writer, that they must do my bidding. “See?” I would say, pointing to the ten page outline. “You have to go there. It’s in the outline. You must follow the plot!” They sneered at me and went through the motions half-heartedly. There was no joy in the writing of this book.

So I tore up the outline. Now, I am relinquishing control of book three. I am giving my characters the freedom to tell their story, to develop their plot and their subplots, to reveal their quirks and their philosophies, just as I allowed them to do this for the first two books. I am trusting my characters not to lead me astray. They are rewarding me by showing passion once more. They are surprising me and delighting me and terrifying me and educating me as they tell me their tale. And when they are finished, I know I will have a story I can edit into a worthy third installment of this series. The joy has returned to the writing.

Feel free to stop back from time to time and visit with this pantser. I’ll keep the porch light on for you. If I am not here, I’m sure one of my characters will keep you entertained until my return.

Isn’t This How Every Writer Revises a Manuscript?

Isn’t This How Every Writer Revises a Manuscript?

“Well, it’s about time you got here! Are you all finished socializing?”

The speaker was a tall, elderly man with steel grey hair, soft grey eyes, and a decidedly military bearing. He made the word socializing sound like he was sucking a lemon when he said it.

“I wasn’t socializing,” I corrected him. “I was working on my writer’s platform.”
I took my seat at a large, round table in the center of the closet-sized room.

“You were posting on social media,” he countered, smirking.

“I was making myself visible to potential readers,” I explained. “You do want me to have readers, don’t you?”

“Of course we do!”

The new voice in the conversation belonged to a willowy female, with soulful cornflower eyes, delicately pointed ears poking up through impossibly thick ebony tresses, and an aloof bearing.

“Then I need to attend to my writer’s platform,” I stated, my tone discouraging further discussion on the subject.

“Fine.” The man took his seat directly across from me. “But you do realize this is only the third time we’ve seen you in over a month.”

I shot him a warning look, which he answered with a shrug and a grin.

“Who else is joining us tonight?” the female asked, sliding into the seat on my left.

“I don’t know. I never know. Who called this meeting, anyway?”

“I did.”

All eyes turned to the haughty, brown-eyed, flaxen haired, pointy-eared new arrival. He sneered at us in greeting, then moved a chair as far away from the table as possible in such cramped quarters, and flung himself into it.

“Good to see you, too!” The elderly man snickered, and received a dagger-like glare in response.

“Shall we begin, then?” the willowy female invited.

“We’ll wait. I’m expecting others.”

No doubt whatsoever who’s running this staff meeting, I thought, sighing audibly.

Another pair of elves soon joined the group.

“I trust we are not late.” The middle-aged female with coal-black eyes and chocolate brown hair took stock of the assembled group as she spoke. Not receiving an immediate reply, she moved with regal grace to a chair next to the elderly human. Her companion, a young male with silvery-blond hair that he kept sweeping away from his strangely colorless eyes, flounced to the seat on the other side of her.

“If you had been late, we would have started without you.” The haughty young elf got up and closed the door. He moved his chair closer to the table and asked, “Did everyone bring their copy of the last three chapters?”

Everyone nodded, and produced the requisite pages.

“Okay, let’s take a look at the scene on page 80.”

“What’s wrong with that scene?” demanded the elderly human.

“I don’t think it’s believable. When you pushed your way into the room, I think I should have killed you on sight.”

“Oh, that would have been real smart. Then how would you have found out about the assassin following you?”

“He’s not following me, you moron, he’s following you!”

“No way. Look, right here on page 95, it says the assassin was following the elven cleric and her companion. That’s you, genius.”

The elf seated next to me leaned close and whispered, “Reminds me of the staff meetings we had for the first two books. Remember how the dwarves used to go at it? How many times did those meetings deteriorate into physical brawls?” We both chuckled at the memory.

“Well, I, for one, am glad you did not kill the human,” the black-eyed female declared. “Who else could have saved me from that band of thugs?”

“I would have saved you,” her fair-haired companion quickly avowed.

The human snickered. “The fact is, you had already joined that band of thugs, junior” he reminded the lad.

“Had I? I do not remember.” He frowned and shook his head. “I doubt I would have ever done anything so distasteful.”

The discussion went on for what seemed like hours, each character voicing an opinion on the chapters in question. Some were valid points, regarding inaccuracies in the timeline. Some were just ploys by a character to grab the spotlight in a scene.

Finally, I interrupted. “Okay, okay, I think I understand where everyone’s coming from. I’ll try to incorporate some of your ideas into the revisions. Now, let’s call it a night!”

I watched as the small group filed out of the room in uncharacteristic silence. I fell in at the end of the line, reaching to turn off the lights as I left the room. Instead of the light switch, my hand hit the snooze button on the alarm. I rolled over, thinking, “I love being a writer.”