Yes, I know I’m writing these books wrong, but I don’t care. (plus a sneak peek to Book 8)

Over the years I’ve been told by critics that:

  • I wrote my books “wrong” (whatever that means);
  • That that my series wouldn’t be “successful” (by whose standards?) because it wasn’t like other people’s books series;
  • That if I really wanted to be popular (why would I want that much attention?!) I needed to change x, y, z and rewrite the whole thing;
  • And my biggest problem, I’ve been told by a few, is that my books don’t fit neatly into one particular genre. Didn’t I know I was supposed to write to conform to what’s already out there?

Yes, I knew I was doing it “wrong.”
But I didn’t care.

I wanted to write something that I wanted to read (selfish, yes—but it’s my time I’m investing in this project). I wanted to do something different, unpredictable, and not easily shoved into some neat little box.

Deciding not to conform is what made writing this series so much fun.

I took inspiration from J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote a huge fantasy series when no one else was, and he didn’t even know if anyone would read it, but that was ok because he loved what he was doing.

I also took inspiration from Terry Pratchett whose Discworld doesn’t follow any order or even scientific laws, but he didn’t care because he loved what he was doing.

I certainly don’t class myself with those two, but I sit on the sidelines and point, saying, “See? They did what they wanted—so can I!”

And so can you.
Who cares what you’re “supposed” to do? It’s your life—try something different.

I’ve been at this book series for over eight years now: has it been “successful”?

Yes, because I’ve never had so much fun in my entire life! I’ve researched, studied, learned, developed, and accomplished more than I ever thought I could. That, I believe, is success.

Some want to measure success in money and numbers, but those are meaningless to me because I make my books as free as possible, and whatever revenue I do make each month I donate to charity. As for numbers, I don’t know how many books have been downloaded on other venues, but I know that on Amazon a couple of months ago it was around 70,000 downloads. Is that a “successful” number? I have no idea. I’ve never bothered to find out.

You’ve heard it a hundred times before: be yourself, don’t follow everyone else, be your own drummer, don’t copy everyone else . . .
But hear it one more time: noncomformity is too much fun to pass up.

“She always said exactly what she thought, and she didn’t care how others took it. She only wanted to say what she was sure was right, even if she might be wrong.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming summer 2018

BOOK 8 teaser HORIZONTAL say what you want

Book 8 teaser: Your heritage doesn’t determine your legacy, and that’s a good thing.

As a 10th grade English teacher, I learn a lot about students from their writing. I read about divorces, neglect, drug use, alcohol problems, and misery.

And I hold all of their words sacred. They’ve trusted me with them, and they could write about something easier, but they share what eats at them. They have to, before it consumes them.

My students likely don’t realize how much they’re revealing, but maybe they do. Maybe they hope someone’s paying attention when they write, “But that’s not who I want to be. I plan to be different.”

And I write back to them. “I know you’ll be different. You’re amazing already.”

They apologize for turning in work late—someone was kicked out of the house in the middle of the night, someone was taken away by the police, someone was using again, someone didn’t pay the electricity bill, an elderly guardian was afraid of the snow and didn’t want to send the child out into more danger—

I smile and say, “Whenever you can get it to me.”

“I will,” they say with determination. And they do. And it’s good.

My heart seizes nearly every day. Yesterday a student, with tears in her eyes, said, “Today’s my last day. My dad got custody again and I’m moving to his town this weekend.” Her best friend sat in the corner, weeping.

I realize I have no real problems—none at all. The ones I have are merely stubbed toes compared to the severed arteries these students walk around with, smiling bravely and vowing to be better to the world than it’s been to them.

I wish them luck. I pray silently for them, asking for inspiration as to how I can help. All I get back is, “Show them love. They need someone to love them.”

I know some people who take great pride in their heritage, brag about their legacy and ancestors, sit arrogantly on the shoulders of giants as if they climbed there all by themselves.

Then there are others who have crawled out of pits their families have dug, and they wipe themselves off and declare, “My children will never know of this place.”

I stand in awe of the second group.

Since I’ve moved to Maine last year and was asked to be a permanent substitute teacher (I love that oxymoron), I’ve taught my students probably a dozen things. In return they’ve taught me thousands.

I have a lot of catching up to do.

“I’ll remind her every day that her heritage doesn’t determine her actions. She’ll be the best beginning of a new legacy.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018

best beginning BOOK 8 teaser

BOOK 6, “Flight of the Wounded Falcon” IS HERE! Get it 3 ways (one is free)!

Book 6, Flight of the Wounded Falcon is ready! And you can get it three ways:

  1. Kindle download, click right here. Priced at 99 cents, that means you’re paying only, umm  . . . well, hardly anything per the 240,000 words. (This is why I majored in English, not math.)
  2. Paperback, on CreateSpace for now, but will be on Amazon by the end of the week. Click here to purchase for $14.85. That’s the cheapest I can price it, but even then per page that’s only . . . well, still not a bad price for 665 pages.
  3. PDF download, FREE right here. Yes, as I’ve written before, I want to provide my books for as cheap as possible or even free. So every book I publish is also always available on my site here under “Start Reading the Books.” (That’s misleading because you can also finish reading the books there as well.) I feel these stories have been freely shared with me, and so I freely share them with you.
    The only catch is that you cannot profit on them by trying to resell them. I’m not profiting either: I earn only a handful of pennies on each book I sell, and donate 100% of that to charity.

SO GO GET IT! Read it! Then let me know what you think, because I love to hear from you. (And for now, I’m going to take a small break and a big breath.)

Book 6 is HERE

All of this is such a strange, strange process. Every time I publish a book I collapse in relief. Sections of this particular book I drafted eight long years ago (the very first images of this series came to me almost a decade ago), and to see yet another branch of it finished is overwhelming.

Back when I first tried drafting this “short story” I wondered if I’d ever get all of it out there, birthed and living. (Books are alive, we all know that.) Every night I’d send the drafts I had written to my email, terrified that all of the work I’d accomplished would be lost. (Then I discovered Dropbox and my email became tidier.) Still, the larger this series grew, the more I fretted that I’d never get it all done. But now it’s 6/8 finished (pretty sure that’s 3/4–I have some math skills) and books 7 and 8 are rarin’ at the gates, desperate to be done as well. They’re well developed, nearly mature, but still suffering from a few growing pains that we’ll work out, no doubt.

But writing is such an odd process in that it’s so involving of one’s entire heart and soul, yet no one outside knows it.

Writing (drafting, editing, researching, formatting, editing, reformatting, editing) is a completely consuming endeavor done solely, quietly, alone-ly (that really should be a word; and no, I don’t mean lonely–there’s absolutely nothing lonely about this). The triumphs of getting this aspect fixed or that part done happens without any fanfare, without cheering crowds, without even a ding of congratulations from my laptop. This past week I mentioned to my kids that after 50 hours I got the covers right and formatting issues resolved, and they said, “Good job!” in the same way I’d say it to my 13-year-old when he tells me something he accomplished on Space Engineers. Clueless, but kind.

My family has no idea when I’ve just killed someone or just saved them. No one in the real world sees the process beyond the tapping at the keyboard. When I go walking with my earbuds in, no one I pass realizes the trials and torments I’m currently putting my characters through, and that I’m walking to help them out again. That the music I hear and the scenes in my mind are anything but as quiet and calm as the mountains before me. I’m striding through battles, I’m walking through heartache, I’m sauntering through celebrations, I’m meandering through joy.

Oh, how I wish you could be with me for every step of the way! For the moments I stop suddenly and exclaim, “I didn’t see that coming!” For the times when my fingers leave the keyboard to make fists that I punch in the air in triumph, either for a character or for myself, because I finally–finally–got something right after spending hours a day, day after day, early in the morning, late at night, or while I’m waiting for the water to boil for dinner. The wins happen about twice a month, about once every 90 hours. But oh, what fantastic wins!

But no one else sees this. No one else knows the schizophrenia of a writer’s mind, how we’re juggling a variety of realities all at once, and often struggle to be in the real one at the correct time. No wonder so many writers are unstable. No wonder so many frequently drink. (Since I’m a Mormon I resort to chocolate chips.)

No wonder so many people give up, or don’t even start that book that picks daily at their brains, begging to be let out, but doesn’t tell the brain how to release it. It’s maddening, like looking at a pile of wood, drywall, wire, pipes, and shingles, and told to make it into a house but you’re not given any plans, any diagrams, no idea how it should look in the end. Why would anybody take on such an endeavor?!

But oh, those materials are just sitting there, with so much potential, so many possibilities that you just can’t walk away, just can’t pretend it’s not there, especially when God repeatedly turns you around and gently pushes you back to the pile. You just HAVE to start sorting the two-by-fours, laying out the framework, again and again and again, until something really interesting starts to happen. You’ll destroy it and remake it a hundred times over until you realize you’ve given it your all and you have to let someone come wander in what you’ve created. You cringe the whole time they do, because you’ve spent years on this, building and fixing and tossing and adding, and you know there’s still more that could be done, but it’s time to let someone else into that massive and complex structure you had no idea you could build, but suddenly here it is.

And you step away, hold your breath, and let everyone in, all the while glancing around and mumbling, “Did I really do this? Is it all holding together?” You tense, waiting for the criticisms that are sure to come, and the praises you know you don’t deserve, until you realize you didn’t do it for those words. You didn’t even do it for yourself, although you wrote the books you’ve always wanted to read. But you did it for those characters, to let them live their lives, to let their world exist, and if they’re happy with what you’ve fleshed out for them, then who cares what anyone else thinks.

And then you wonder, “Can I possibly do it again? There’s another pile of material, right there, pleading to be put together, but do I have it in me to do it all again?”

Oh, yes, God willing, you have to! Because this is life, why you were born, and what you’ve waited thousands of years to accomplish, and it’d be unthinkable to quit.

Why aren’t mothers the main protagonists of books or movies?

Have you ever noticed mothers are not the main character . . . in anything?

Try this: name every Disney movie where the mother is absent and/or dead.

Are you done yet? There’s a lot, isn’t there?

And when a mother is present in a book/movie, what’s her role?

Supporting.

Try this: name a book or movie where a mom is the principle protagonist.

Yeah, none sprang to my mind, either.

Recently I ran into a series of articles about “Strong Female Characters,” and how they tend to collapse into a few categories:

  1. they’re heartless witches, manipulative and demeaning; or,
  2. they’re remarkably tough—like a female male—until the male shows up to aid/rescue/eclipse her; or,
  3. the females vanish from the story because they really didn’t play much of a role anyway, only to show up at the end as an afterthought.

When analyzing the stories I love, I realized to my dismay that most of the females fall into one of those three categories.

For example, “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” I liked that movie, until my husband pointed out that not only is the mom rather useless after we meet her, but Hiccup disobeys his father, gets him killed, then still gets to become the chief. Dave thought all of that was pretty unfair. Then again, he’s the father of five sons. Image result for valka how to train your dragon

But dang it, he was right, especially about Valka. She’s powerful, but useless, and never really mothered her son, aside from giving him some pat advice when he needed it.

At least she fares better than most female/mother figures in literature and movies. Consider “The Emperor’s New Groove,”  “Cinderella,” or any other Disney movie—

Except for “Mulan.” Mulan is brilliant, in every way. She not only has BOTH parents (rare in Disney), but even a grandmother, and Mulan does the rescuing, several times. (And, thankfully, Disney allowed Merida to “Brave”ly keep both of her parents, although the mother needs saving later.) 

Still, even in “Mulan” the mother is in the background, only as a supporting role.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the supporting role; it’s vital, in everything. Where would any of us be without those who support us?

By why not make mother The Hero?

That thought was part of my unconscious when I created Mahrree for my series “Forest at the Edge.” When we first meet her in The Forest at the Edge of the World, she’s a single woman, albeit motherly in that she teaches school and worries immensely for her students. Then we have the obligatory romance (because hey, I’ve got some Strong Male Characters, too) and then she becomes a mother.

Sometime around there, while drafting the series, I realized that I was writing a main character that I hadn’t encountered before: a mother actively trying to improve the world for her children. (Aside from sappy made-for-cable movies or disease-of-the-week tales.)

Everything she says and does is in effort to reform her government, allow her children options in their future, and make sure school isn’t ridiculously boring.

“Mom Wants to Make the World a Better Place for Her Children”. It’s a universal theme, so why isn’t it more prevalent in what we read and watch?

Why have young mothers, middle-aged women, and even grandmothers not been the movers and drivers of a plot? They are when they’re in a family, and everyone knows it. And I don’t mean in a snarky, antagonistic way; enough of evil step-mothers.

I have friends who see themselves as primarily mothers, but are also involved in politics, providing aid for abused women and children, volunteering to preserve the environment, fighting pornography, promoting families, helping their schools, and improving the health and finances of those in need.

Maybe writers and Hollywood don’t see that as exciting as clichéd “Save the World” themes, but these women really are saving the world, more than any fictional superhero will.

I’d love to see more thoughtful mothers, experienced grandmothers, and confident women playing bigger roles in the narratives of the world, because they do that everywhere else.

Terry Pratchett gets close at times, with his witches who aren’t evil but keep the balance in the world, and in their villages. Nanny Ogg, who has more than a dozen children and oodles of grandchildren, is occasionally a major player in the witches books, but even then, Granny Weatherwax, who was never a mother, prevails as the main protagonist.

Mahrree Peto Shin isn’t a character I created, as I erroneous stated earlier; she manifested herself to me through one shocking, powerful image that I won’t reveal entirely here, because it happens in book 8 which will come out in probably another 3-4 years. (Book 5 will be out before this summer.)

But that image—of a woman facing an enormous threat, alone—riveted me. I wondered for months how she came to that position, and she slowly revealed her story to me, until I had enough to begin writing it.

(As an aside, I’m not psychotic; lots of writers have had this experience of characters demanding that they write their story. I can see how the ancient Greeks believed they had muses speaking to them, and my daughter gave me a mug which reads, “Writer’s Block: when your imaginary friends refuse to talk to you.” It’s true, you know.)

The “Forest at the Edge” series isn’t wholly about Mahrree, but about her family. She plays a major role in that family, and all the trouble she causes is primarily because she’s a worried mother.

The mother-perspective is powerful, more so than the perspective of a president, or a general, or a king, or any other hero. Those characters may lead countries or armies, but I doubt they could ever genuinely love them as much as a mother loves her children. References comparing mothers to bears and their cubs aren’t accidental.

Imagine Harry Potter being told from the perspective of Molly Weasley, who had seven children in peril, along with Harry who she tried to mother.

Image result for molly weasley

Or Hunger Games, from the perspective of President Coin, who lost her child.

Or even “Brave,” from the perspective Queen Elinor, who tries to help her daughter find a husband, then has to be saved from her unintentionally turning her into a bear. 

How engrossing, heart-breaking, and hopeful would these perspectives be?

Maybe . . . maybe they’d be too much.

Too close to reality. Too gut-wrenching.

Maybe that’s why it’s rare to find a mother-perspective in literature, because all of us have mothers, most of us appreciate them, and deep down we’re worried about what they’re really thinking.

Maybe many of us are still suffering from Bambi’s Mother Syndrome, the idea of losing mother, or seeing things from her perspective, which may be too intense. (Although Disney loves to make children miserable with mother-loss. No adult movie franchise kills off mothers as much as Disney.)

As moms, I think we frequently have a hard time facing our greatest fears for our families and their future.

But I think it’s time we tried. I submit there isn’t a stronger force in nature or in humanity than that of a mother trying to protect and provide for her children.

What fantastic stories that premise could ignite! Let’s see them!

High Polish Tatra mountains

Book 5 Teaser–Mahrree’s big mouth

A Really Bad Book

Following the notion someone once expressed to me that since it takes only about three days to read a book, it should take about that long to write one, I did.

Here is the result.

really bad book cover A really bad book BACK cover

Full of action, intrigue, aliens, a desperate princess, a lonely shoe repairer, and the obligatory wizard, there’s something for everyone, provided “everyone” isn’t too particular. 

Family-friendly and short enough to read in one sitting, even in the bathroom, this book will be perfect for those last-minute book reports. (Tell your teacher this is a legitimate book. Because I said it was.)

From start to finish, I created all of this in a 72-hour period: plot development, character names, formatting, cover creation–everything.

A word of warning: a semi-decent book takes a LOT longer than three days to write.

However, I was morbidly proud of what I created–I caught myself smiling every now and then–so I decided to publish it. (Actually, I never had so much fun writing something.)

It’s awful. Truly. I fully expect terrible reviews, and I’ll promote it later for free just to generate those affronted comments. (I’ll advertise the free days, so that you can be part of the mud slinging. Or if you want to spend $1.99 for the digital version, be my guest. It’s also available in paperback for $3.95. Would be a great joke gift for that book lover in your life. Hint-hint.)

Bad reviews ruin every writer’s day (week/life), but this time, I’ll revel in them. There’s no false advertising here, and people will know exactly what they’re getting when they read the title. Plus, it’s short–much faster to read than three days, with mistakes and typos because hey, when you write a Really Bad Book, you don’t employ beta readers.

A couple years ago I wanted to host a competition of people writing Really Bad Books in 72 hours. I did a little bit of advertising for it, but then time got in the way. (No, that’s not irony; that’s a blessing.) Some year I still may attempt to do that again. I’d love to see the drivel others come up with.

But for now, enjoy (so to speak).

(And I chose the pen name Ethyl Alkaleen, because I always thought Ethyl was the most unfortunate label for a human being. Anyone remember Ethyl Mertz? Way too close to Ethyl Mercer.)

Hoarding your praise doesn’t make it more valuable

When I was asked to be a “responder” for a writers and artists fest our school district hosts each year at the university, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My daughter had participated when she was in middle school, spending five agonizing minutes reading her writing in front of two “responders,” several peers, and some of their parents.

Thirty people might as well be thirty thousand when you’re thirteen.

Knowing the fragile natures of both writers and middle schoolers—combining the two is Mentos and Diet Coke–I anxiously drove up to the campus this morning, praying that I’d say the right things to these young writers.

The purpose of the fest is to encourage budding artists and writers, to give them a forum to perform, and to receive feedback from professionals such as authors and teachers. Encouragement, not criticism, is the point, because heaven knows sixth, seventh, and eighth graders don’t need any hits to their very delicate egos.

Even love taps can shatter them.

The co-responder in my room had done this for a few years, and gave me excellent pointers as to what to say when the child was finished stammering nervously through their work. Karen Clegg pulled the most wonderful words out of the air, and bestowed them lovingly upon the trembling tweens.

I hoped I could do half so well.

I took notes as the kids read, told them what I liked, read back to them their triumphs (knowing how thrilling it is to hear someone else read your words out loud, in an appreciative way), and thanked them for their time.

After the first session, a mom came up to us during the break and said, “Are you watching the faces of those kids when you talk about their work?”

“No,” I confessed. “I try to avoid that.”

I’m not sure why or how, but quite often I get too much from someone, especially their eyes. While they tell me a few innocuous words, I perceive an onslaught of emotions, stories, experiences, and history. Hopes, fears, frustrations, and joy hit me in the face like a frozen snowball, often when someone’s only telling me something mundane. I’m one of those people who rarely look folks in the eyes, because I’m never sure when that deluge of data may suddenly hit me. It’s easier to just listen than look.

“Watch them,” this mother insisted. “Most of these kids don’t hear such words from adults they don’t know. They devour what you say. Watch them.” 

So when round two arrived, with a new batch of fresh, pimply faces, I tried to concentrate on their expressions, and for the most part it was painful.

Have you ever had the experience of reading your work in public?

Try taking your heart, placing it on a plate, then setting it in front of hungry wolves. The emotion is roughly the same.

One of the readers that round was a tiny boy who puberty has decided it’ll visit later, maybe when he’s 17. He was the scrawny kind of thing that others sit on and don’t even realize it. He could barely look over the podium to see us responders at the table in front of him. Shuffling his pages, he wore a hesitant grin of expectancy, and dove in.

Karen and I were taking turns responding, and Tiny Man was mine. He read with great feeling the beginning of a sci-fi book he was crafting at the tender age of twelve, and later my cohort told me she was relieved he wasn’t hers, because she didn’t know anything about sci-fi. But I’m a nerd.

When he finished in his five minutes, I said, “So I’m sensing themes of steampunk in your writing.” And I looked at him.

His eyes were so bright and enthusiastic that I was startled, and I realized that I was probably the first adult he’d met there who knew what steampunk was. He nodded enthusiastically.

“How much more of your story have you written?”

“I’ve got 80 more pages!” he announced proudly.

“Wow. Took me until I was 40 to get 80 pages. So where does the story go from here?”

I’m sure I went over time with him, as he happily told me the rest of the plot, forgetting about the audience in front of him and the other kids waiting their turn. The boy positively glowed with delight to tell a stranger about his book. 

I could barely look at him, he so hurt my eyes.

For my next turn, a girl stood up, the very picture of thirteen-year-old gangliness. She, too, had been neglected by the Puberty Fairy, and trembled behind the podium, her straight brown hair framing her freckled face, and she began to read. It was essentially two pages of an ode to a special young man who had rescued her from some difficulties in her life, and there I sat, knowing that in a few minutes I’d have to deliver an encouraging critique of her description of a modern-day Thor turned mortal.

When she concluded, and the audience finished applauding, she looked to me with terrified eyes.

I couldn’t look at her for long, but I did manage, “What you’ve written is essentially a thorough character analysis. Most teens wouldn’t be able to see as deeply as you have. Heck, most adults can’t either—” and that’s when I was shocked by her response.

She had teal-tinted braces. How do I know that? Because her face split into such a wide grin that I could see every last tooth.

I wasn’t expecting that reaction, especially considering how somberly she had read her piece.

Unable to watch her anymore, I looked down at my copy of her words and did as I had with the others: read the lines I liked the best, explained what was working well, and what traits as a writer I felt she was demonstrating. I glanced up a couple of times, and nearly choked up.

Have you ever seen a tween grin out of pure joy? It’ll break your heart.

The same thing happened, again and again, and while I tried to make an effort to look at the kids, as my partner did so well, I found it much easier to sift through their pages finding more examples to praise.

At the end of each session, we stood at the front and handed back our notes to their work as they filed out, the kids giving me shy smiles as I thanked them for sharing their writing.

I was nearly in tears at the end. The fact that one of the last writers wrote a poem about her mom who died last year didn’t help much. Nor did parents coming back in to thank us for our words, to tell us that a son never gets such praise from anyone outside the family, or that a daughter is terrified to speak in front of others, and would be happy for the rest of the week.

All I did was listen, intently.

All I did was give 60 seconds of approval.

All I did was make an effort—and occasionally, it really was an effort—to find something to compliment. But there was always something to appreciate.

All I did was pray, “Dear Lord, tell me what this child needs to hear,” then I said those words which came to my mind, and the child nearly exploded in glee and relief.

After, we went to the luncheon where hundreds of middle-schoolers were collecting their food and talking about their experiences, that cute kid over there, and the author Tyler Whitesides, of the Janitor series, who had addressed them.

As I made my way through the noise and gaggle, I knew instantly which kids in the crowd had been “mine.” They waved timidly, offered me careful and happy smiles, and I’d wink back or grin, as if we shared some secret. We were friends.

I admit I shed a couple of tears as I left.

I’d never before realized how just a few words could mean so much, and I worry that I’ve been too stingy with my compliments in the past, as if hoarding my praise somehow makes it more valuable.

I realized that I paid out mere pennies of compliments, but what was received were pounds of gold that those tender teens will carry with them, hopefully for the rest of their very costly teenage years. They’ll need every ounce of encouragement to make it through.

And I’ll try to keep giving them more so that they never run out. Encouragement doesn’t cost me a thing.

“Mrs. Shin’s the only teacher who actually teaches. She’s also the only one who listens.”

~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

“An author is speaking clearly and silently in your head, directly to you.”

Until I read this beautiful quote from Carl Sagan (thank you, Grammarly), I didn’t know how to articulate the sensation I’ve felt that I’ve snuck into a writer’s mind, and was welcomed there. But as I thought about it, I realized I’ve “experienced” a variety of authors in such a manner. Tell me if you’ve had similar impressions with these or other authors:

Plato: I approached his writing hesitantly, researching background about ancient civilizations, when about two paragraphs into the chapter I felt as if Plato himself had come into the room to have a chat. In my mind he was a small, narrow-bodied man wearing a white tunic and sitting on plain stool. He smiled as if glad to see someone else was coming “in” for a visit, and he wanted to help. He pointed out sections, waved for me to skip other parts, and cheerfully gestured to a chapter he knew I’d particularly enjoy. Then he sat back and smiled as I read, waiting to answer questions he’s known the answers to for thousands of years.

 J.K. Rowling: Reading her feels like a group activity, a sense of sitting on the floor on comfy cushions (a la the Room of Requirement) with about a dozen others of all ages and sizes—and no one cares that we seem too old to do this—while our friend Jo sits on a soft chair, but at the very edge of it, reading to us her stories and getting all of the voices just right.

James Joyce: I’ve wandered a few times into Mrs. Dalloway to find Mr. Joyce sitting in the corner rattling on and on, only distantly recognizing I was there as he gestured to the wall and talked to the ceiling, until I quietly slinked out again and closed the door. I don’t think he ever noticed.

Hugh Nibley: This scholar and philosopher stands at a podium in a lecture hall, while I sit near the back frantically taking notes as he reads his words at break-neck speed. But I have a remote control, and every minute I zap him to pause his lecture, rewind, listen, then flip to the extensive footnotes while Professor Nibley waits, just on this side of patient. I bite my lip as I read the footnote, realize it introduces yet more names and archaic traditions I’ve never heard before, so I shrug, occasionally write down a reference to Google later, then hit “play” again, pretending all the while that even though I just sit on the surface of his topic, I understand the depths to which he’s diving. We both know I can barely tread water.

Flannery O’Connor: She tells me her stories as we wash dishes in the back kitchen of a large southern plantation home, and we snigger when the ladies with fancy hats walk past the window.

Shannon Hale: She tells me her stories as we drove up through the canyons in a big SUV to take the teenage girls from our church on a camping trip, because I met her at a book signing where she told me she also loves Terry Pratchett, and I knew right then we could be great friends.

J.R.R. Tolkien: He sits behind a grand desk, leaning back leisurely and gestures to maps on his walls and charts on the desk, while talking in an oddly lilting monotone about details and histories and peoples I’m not quite following until I fall asleep. Guiltily I shake myself awake a moment later, only to realize he never noticed I nodded off—he’s enjoying himself far too much. My daughters, however, glare at me in disgust.

Stephen King: Because he starts his stories by turning out all the lights, then shining a flashlight in his face, I slam shut the book just as he opens his mouth to speak, and I move on.

Lao Tzu: He’s a sweet, gentle man, forcing me to sit in an expanse of sand while he teaches me his verses of philosophy. Much like Oogway in “Kung Fu Panda,” he speaks slowly and repeats himself until he sees a light of understanding come in my eyes. Then he hands me a peach, and recites me another couplet about war, and fighting, and peace, and knowing.

Jane Austen: We sit primly in her parlor, with arms folded just so and skirts adjusted in just this way, and glance furtively at the door for someone wonderful or dreadful to come through it, while she tells me all the news of the town as quickly as she can before either of our mothers can interrupt us.

Jessica Day George: We sit in the back of some dull meeting gossiping quietly and giggling, hoping no one hears us, but knowing the speaker is glaring right at us.

Orson Scott Card: I actually sat in two meetings with him! At a small private college in Virginia! But I never spoke to him! And he never noticed me! And when I finally read Ender’s Game, I felt as if I was huddled in the corner of that classroom with his book, and he was watching me out of the corner of his eye as if to say, “It’s about time.”

PHOTO MISSING,

TO PROTECT THESE  NEXT TWO AUTHORS FROM SCORN                               

(because I’m sure they’re both just as lovely as can be, but create utter drivel)

Authors who will remain anonymous, but have a fondness for writing about males that turn into animals and woo silly teenage females: I gritted my teeth and cringed through these authors first books, as if I was stuck on a long bus ride behind two chatting women telling each other far too many details about their fantasy love lives. I closed my eyes periodically hoping to avoid gooey passages, only to run into other sections that not only made my eyes roll but caused me involuntary gagging. I got off the bus at the earliest possible moment.

Terry Pratchett: My all-time favorite author who I visit frequently. He lets me right into his mind, which is most intimidating and most marvelous. Every time I want to turn left, he shifts me to go right; I look down, he points me up, and I sigh and wish I could think of such turns. He takes characters, sets them in front of me, then describes them in such terms that I despair, because I’ll never come close to writing like that. But he just chuckles, grabs my arm, and drags me to yet another amazing place until suddenly I stop and say, “I just had an idea . . .” To which he smiles and waves good-bye until I come back again, because it’s not about being better than him, or even as good as him, but about discovering what I want to say.