#NaNoInspo: Write Badly

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeMy November post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is all about writing badly.

 

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. — Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird.

A quick Google search on “Anne Lamott shitty first draft,” reveals that lots of bloggers have written about this quote and the importance of writing badly. Now I could do the responsible thing, and find another topic, or I could just carry on anyway, because I really want to write about writing badly.

Guess what I’m going to do?

One of the most valuable writing lessons I’ve learned in the 5+ years of my fiction writing “career” is the value of the shitty first draft. Or, more politely: the value of writing badly.

Pointless digression #1: Can it really be called a career if I’ve never been paid for it? I don’t want to contemplate that too closely, so I’m going to move on to…

Turning off your inner editor (or how to tell that a**hole to shut the f*** up)

I’m writing this post on November 1, also known as the first day of #NaNoWriMo. For the first time since 2014, I’m doing NaNo as it’s “supposed” to be done, i.e. I’m trying to write 50,000 words of a brand spanking new novel. I’ve spent the last 4 years or so editing my first NaNo novel, i.e. being a perfectionist. Fix this plot hole, delete that redundancy, spend 20 minutes trying to find a stronger verb for a sentence I’ll edit out 10 minutes later… you get the idea. My overly-aggressive inner editor has been having his nitpicky way with me for quite awhile. And now that I’m trying to write something new, I’m having trouble getting him to shut up.

Pointless digression #2: I picture my inner editor as Stripe from Gremlins (if you’re under 40, Google it or visit the Wikipedia entry. I’m not going to post a picture and risk being sued out of existence by the MPAA just to save you clacking a few keys, ya lazy bum.) Editor-Stripe looms over my desk, gnashing his many, pointy teeth at every digression, weak verb, or passage of rambling dialogue I create.

When I first sat down this morning to start writing the novel I’ve been outlining for 3 weeks, I struggled. It took me about a half hour to write maybe 200 words. Why? Because I kept trying to make them good. I’d frown at my monitor, type a few words, frown some more, take a swig of Diet Coke in the vain hope that caffeine+aspartame=inspiration, and type a few more words. It took me the better part of an hour to figure out my problem and give myself permission to write crap. I went to a write-in this afternoon and cranked out > 3,000 words in a little over 2 hours.

Why you should write badly

Admittedly, most of those 3,000 words are crap. But that’s OK, and here’s why:

  1. I can make them better later. I can take Stripe’s shackles off and let him loose on my steaming pile o’ prose (this is what normal writers call, “revising”), and it’ll get better. Gradually. Iteratively. And with much gnashing of teeth (Stripe’s and mine).
  2. I have to write the crap to get to the good stuff. Writing crap is my way of feeling my way through my story, getting deep into my characters, and exploring various blind alleys and winding paths to see which ones lead to creative gold. I have an outline, yes, but until I actually write a first draft, my characters are abstract ideas. They take their first breaths as living, flesh-and-bone people when I spew out a bunch of verbal diarrhea in a blank Scrivener window. Poor things. Isn’t that a helluva way to enter the world?
  3. And the very best reason: Sometimes—only sometimes—there’s gold in that thar crap. The words I think are terrible, just page filler to pump up my NaNo word count, turn out to be actually good. My writing teacher says that’s because when we give ourselves permission to write without editing, we tap into our subconscious in ways we can’t when we’re trying not to suck.

So my words of inspiration for you this National Novel Writing Month, are these: Give yourself permission to write crap. To write badly. To write so badly that you inadvertently summon the Demon of Suckitude, who will spend the entire month perched on your shoulder, whispering adverbs in your ear.

Pointless digression #3: And now I’m picturing the Demon of Suckitude in a cage match with Editor-Stripe. Send help.

How to write badly

Anyway, if you doubt me, try it for yourself. Try making yourself just write. No editing. No making frowny-faces at your monitor while you try to cudgel some brilliance out of your under-caffeinated brain. Just write. Let the words flow, and put in placeholders for stuff you aren’t ready to write yet, such as:

    • Stuff you need to research. Example: [research history of 18th century couches and enter description here]
    • Plot holes you could drive a C130 through. Example: [explain what the heck Stripe is doing in my living room]
    • Pieces of scenes you need to figure out. Example: [explain exactly how Stripe goes about shredding the 18th century couch]
    • Descriptions you haven’t figured out yet or aren’t in the mood to write. Example: [describe the Demon of Suckitude’s hairstyle and genitalia]

You can use your writing software’s comment feature for this, but I like to put my placeholders in the text in square brackets, so I don’t have to take my hands off the keyboard to grab the mouse and navigate to the menu that contains the comment feature. I can also find them easily later, because I don’t normally have square brackets in my writing for any other reason. And, bonus! If the comments are in the text, they’ll be included in my NaNo word count when I validate at the end of the month.

You’re welcome.

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#nanoprep: Creating characters

I’m up to my eyeballs in #nanoprep, otherwise known as preparing for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a worldwide phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of people commit to writing 50,000 words in November. Much caffeine is consumed, much angst ensues, and many fingers ache from pounding on many keyboards. I’ve done NaNo a few times and “won” (wrote 50K words) the first time, in 2014. This is the first time since then that I’ve started a brand-new novel for NaNo.

I have an outline done, and now I’m working on character sketches. One of the lessons I learned from writing my first novel is that I could avoid some rewriting and a lot of inconsistencies if I went deeper into my characters before I started writing. In this post, I’ll share with you a few of the most helpful tools I’ve found for creating detailed character sketches and, more importantly, figuring out what makes your character tick and how your character will behave in a variety of situations.

Book recommendation for creating characters

I started with a book I found in my library: The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon (Writers Digest, 1996). This book is mostly a character thesaurus containing lists of traits people can have, divided into the following sections: Face and Body; Personality/Identity; Facial Expressions, Body and Vocal Language; Dress; Dialects and Foreign Speech; Given Names and Surnames from Around the World; and Character Homes. It also includes a detailed and super-useful Character Questionnaire, which I have adapted for creating my character sketches. I’m not going to reproduce it here (copyright is a thing to be respected), but it includes details about the character’s personality, style of dress, occupational history, physical characteristics, family background, ethnicity, goals and needs, quirks, health, hobbies, and a whole lot more.

I just finished using it, with a few adaptations, to flesh out my main character. Thinking through all those aspects of my character gave me much deeper insights into who she is and even gave me some ideas for additional scenes.

Blog posts on character traits

I also found some excellent blog posts to help me fill out my character sketch. I have a hard time creating good action beats for my characters, ones that actually characterize rather than just make the character fidget awkwardly during emotional moments (hmm,that’s what I do during emotional moments. Like author, like character, I guess).

Another tip for creating characters–Google it!

As I filled out my character sketch, I had to answer questions like, What does my character wear? And What’s her hairstyle? I have a bad habit of failing to dress my characters or giving them hairstyles (perhaps I should write stories in which everyone is naked and bald), but I want to do better this time. The trouble is, I know bupkis about fashion or hair (I mean, I wear clothes and have hair, but if you know me IRL, you’ll understand). So I figured out enough about my character’s psychology to know that she needs a simple, businesslike hairstyle and wears dressy casual clothes when she isn’t at work. So I Googled “short professional hairstyles for women” (or something like that) and “dressy casual clothes for women” (or something like that) and found some articles and pictures to help me out. Now my MC will look like Vanessa Hudgins and need to take a second job to afford her wardrobe.

I hope that the extra effort I’m putting into creating characters will help me avoid many instances of furrowed brows, tapping fingers, raised eyebrows, and other boring, overused action beats. We’ll see in a few days (*gasp*), when I stop planning and start writing.

Are you participating in NaNo this year? If so, and you’d like a NaNo buddy, feel free to add me (NaNo ID: janetcrum – yeah, I know, how original). Have any favorite tips and tricks for creating characters? Or favorite character mannerisms? Share ‘em in the comments!

Creating is self-care

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeSometimes life kicks you in the butt. Then it kicks you when you’re down. Then it curb-stomps you into a bloody pulp and leaves you twitching in the gutter.

My mother passed away Saturday morning. The woman who birthed me, loved me, taught me, corrected me, protected me, nurtured me, encouraged me. That woman is gone.

Her passing was not sudden. It was not unexpected. Dementia had stolen most of who she was, so her death wasn’t even a tragedy. It was a mercy.

But it hurts like hell.

That sucks, you say, but first Wednesday is supposed to be the day we IWSG types write words of encouragement to our fellow writers, and getting curb-stomped by life doesn’t sound very encouraging. Fair point. Stick with me. The encouragement is coming.

One of the first things that usually gets cast aside in dark times is self-care. Friday I forgot to eat. Yes, really. Me, the unrepentant glutton, forgot to eat for about 8 hours, till my stomach was digesting itself, and I was too lightheaded to think. And even then, I didn’t really want to eat.

Another thing that gets cast aside is creating. We’re too tired, too hurting, too demoralized to do anything but suck in the next ragged breath. The distance between the metaphorical gutter where we lie, broken and bleeding, and the metaphorical curb is just too damn far. That curb might as well be El Capitan. No way we’re getting up there.

And when we finally drag our broken selves up that impossible height to stand again, we can only find the strength to put one foot in front of the other, to take a few shambling steps, to do the things we absolutely have to do. And writing, creating, making art is not something we have to do.  So we don’t.

And sometimes we keep don’t-ing for days, weeks, months, even years. We sink deeper into the abyss, or we take up new activities, and we leave our art behind. Someday, we say. Someday, when life gets easier. Someday, when things settle down.

But things don’t settle down, do they? Oh, no, they don’t. Stuff happens, some good, some bad, some breathtakingly awful in this cosmic game of Whack-a-Mole. But things never settle down.

So here’s what I have learned over the last decade of watching my mother fade away, of caring for ill family members, of losing one of the best friends I ever had–in other words, of getting kicked around about as much as any other middle-aged, middle-class American. No pity party here.

What I’ve learned is that creating is self-care.

Creating is a way to nurture a broken soul, to take tiny daily steps up out of that gutter.

Oh, look, you say. Here’s another person telling me to suck it up, Buttercup. To pull myself up by my bootstraps and get back to work. Work is good for you. Work builds character. Blah blah self-helpity blah.

No.

What I’m saying is that creating gives me hope. Hope that I’ll get through this. Hope that I can still do what I love. Hope that I can get my life back after the curb-stomping. That there’s something on the other side of this pain besides more pain.

Everyone copes differently. Everyone grieves differently. And that’s OK. What works for me may not work for you. But for me, knowing I can still make a tiny bit of progress toward my dream, can still find the will to create, nourishes me through the dark times. It doesn’t have to be much. Ten minutes a day. 100 words. Five minutes. One sentence. One crappy metaphor about being curb-stomped by life. Something.

And so, fellow writer, my words of encouragement to you on this first Wednesday in October are these: Create. Even when life sucks. Even when it all feels pointless and hopeless. Even when getting out of bed seems like an act of heroism. And may each act of creation, no matter how small, be a tiny bandage, a dab of healing salve on your broken, bleeding soul. May each act of creation bring you hope.

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Learn to Write Fiction 1: Get Started

start-road-1668916__340_pixabayI explained in my last post why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s. Sometimes I think my life’s motto should be, Better Late than Never. Anyway, once I decided to give this whole making-up-stories thing a try, I had to figure out how to get started. Just put some words on the page? Well, OK, but as I said in my last post, creative writing is a craft. And crafts have to be learned. So, how does one learn to write a novel? Especially if one has a day job and doesn’t want to spend a couple of years and many thousands of dollars earning an MFA?

How I got started writing fiction

As I mentioned in my last post (Have I plugged that thing enough yet? Maybe my life motto should really be, Shameless Self-Promotion for the Win), I literally started by Googling “how to write a novel.” Yeah, I know. I’m an academic librarian, a professional searcher with the universe of published knowledge at my fingertips, and I started my creative writing career with a lame-ass Google search. Truth be told, I wasn’t very serious then. I did that search on a whim.

That whim and that search led me to the Snowflake Method by self-proclaimed Snowflake Guy Randy Ingermanson. By pure luck (or fate or law of attraction or whatever you want to call it), I found an approach that meshes nicely with how my mind works. I read through Randy’s pages, and the magical phrase that has so often sent me on life adventures clanged through my work-addled brain:

I can do this.

Learn the craft

I’ve said it before, but it’s important enough to repeat: Creative writing is a craft. Not magic, not some gift that only a rare few people are blessed with. And crafts can be learned. But they aren’t learned automagically or by osmosis or by standing under a full moon at midnight and sacrificing a live chicken. They’re learned through study and practice.

So that’s my first piece of advice if you want to learn to write fiction: study and practice. What does that look like? Here are 3 suggestions:

  1. If you want to write, you have to read. If you want to write romances, read good, successful romances. Ditto for thrillers or mysteries or whatever your chosen genre is.
  2. But reading other people’s stories isn’t enough. After all, you can’t learn to knit just by wearing sweaters. You have study the craft itself. So get some good books on the craft of fiction writing and start reading. At the end of this post, I list the books I found most helpful as a brand-new writer, but your mileage may vary, as your approach may be different from mine.
  3. Practice. For me, practice took 2 forms:
    1. Doing exercises in writing books. They help you apply techniques right as you’re learning.
    2. Working on my own writing. I started planning, then drafting, my first novel right after I discovered the Snowflake Method. As I read books about the craft, I tried to apply what I’d learned to my own work.

Books for Getting Started

There are a zillion books about fiction writing with a zillion different approaches. You may need to read widely to find a few that work for you. The ones listed below worked for me. The first two can help you structure your novel and get started writing it. The third will help you avoid common newbie mistakes so your writing sounds polished and professional. Note: these are Amazon Affiliate links that will throw a few pennies my way if you use them to purchase.

      1. How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method – Randy Ingermanson. The book that started me on my journey. It’s for people who want to impose some structure on their novel but don’t want to make a detailed outline. This process worked very well for me as I planned my first novel.
      2. Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between – James Scott Bell. Like the Snowflake Method, Bell’s approach is a compromise between hardcore outlining and winging it (or plotting vs. pantsing). He provides enough structure to help you get started without overwhelming you.
      3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print – Renni Browne and Dave King. And if you want even more books to read, check out The Best Books on Writing Ever, a recent blog post from Browne’s Editorial Department blog.

     

How about you? Are you new to writing or an old hack? Do you have any favorite resources to help new writers get started? Share them in the comments and help out your fellow scribblers.

Talent is overrated

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThis is my first ever post for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop. On the first Wednesday of each month, participants, “Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.” Today I’ll use this opportunity to talk about why I didn’t start writing fiction till my late 40s, even though I’d always dreamed of doing so.

I’ve been a bookworm since forever. I still remember one Saturday afternoon when I was about 6 or 7, and my mother was too busy to stop right.that.minute and read me The Wizard of Oz for the 472nd time. Yes, I was quite the Oz fangirl. I picked the book up, tried to read it myself, and discovered I could. The first time a kid reads a chapter book on their own should be a milestone celebrated with fireworks. And cake. Lots of cake. But I digress.

I started journaling not long after that and fantasized about becoming a fiction writer. So why didn’t I? I am going to tell you, and you are going to think I’m an idiot.

When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher told us to write a short story. That’s it. Write a short story. We had spent exactly zero time talking about how to write fiction. We’d read plenty (thanks, Mrs. Rainer, for interrupting my senioritis with Heart of Darkness), but we hadn’t studied a dang thing about how to write anything other than essays and term papers.

So I wrote a short story. And it sucked. Big time. It sucked hard enough to create a black hole that threatened to consume the entire planet. The planet survived, but I got a lousy grade and assumed I didn’t have any “talent” for writing fiction. And splat went my dream like a bug on a windshield.

I majored in English as an undergrad, but I avoided all the creative writing courses, because I didn’t have any “talent.” Of course I didn’t, because I couldn’t produce a decent short story with no training whatsoever. I told you, you’d think I’m an idiot. Instead I wrote boring literary criticism, got my degree, became an English teacher, hated it, went to grad school, and became a librarian. All the while, I kept writing. I even won a student paper contest in library school, but I’m pretty sure I won by being the only entrant.

As a librarian, I wrote and published journal articles and book chapters. I blogged. I struggled with how to channel my compulsion to write into actually getting an audience. I read about how fiction writers got started and ached to have the “talent” to write fiction.

And then I approached 50. My boobs went south, my blood pressure went north, and I began to reconsider my dreams. There’s something about knowing ~2/3 of your life is over that makes you think long and hard about how you want to spend the last third.

Around that same time, I reread Diana Gabaldon’s account of how she wrote Outlander (tl;dr: she wanted to learn how to write a novel, and decided that the best way to do that was to actually write one). I read about how other authors started their careers. And one slow afternoon at work, I Googled, “how to write a novel.”

That was in 2014, and I’ve been writing fiction ever since. I won NaNoWriMo in 2014 and finished the first draft of my first novel a few months later. I’ve spent the years since revising it from almost black-hole-level suckitude to something almost worth reading. I’ve written a couple of short stories. I’ve read books and articles and blog posts about fiction writing. And I’ve learned two priceless lessons that, had I known them 30 years ago, might have changed the course of my life:

  1. Talent is overrated.
  2. Creative writing is a skill, and skills can be learned.

Why are those lessons so important? Because “talent,” is some mystical magic bestowed on the very few, probably those born at midnight under a full moon in a witch’s side garden or something. But learning is something we control. We have the power to get better. It’s hard work, yes. Lots of reading and learning, and lots and lots of practice, practice, practice. But those things are under our control. We can choose to do them. We can’t choose to be born in a witch’s side garden at midnight.

So if you’re discouraged, if you look at other people’s writing and wish you had their “talent,” remember: You can learn it. You can build it. You can choose to invest time and sweat and blood and tears in yourself, and you’re never too old to start. The power is yours. Claim it.

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Monthly reading list: August 2019

bookcoverLike most writers, I’m a voracious reader. I consume books like an unsupervised 7-year-old consumes Pop Tarts. I read all kinds of books and in all kinds of formats (unlike my Pop Tart habit. There is only one kind of Pop Tart worth eating–Brown Sugar Cinnamon. Fight me.) I’m also one of those nerdy people who is highly motivated by measurements, so I do the Goodreads Reading Challenge every year. I just logged in to view the list of books I read in August and was horrified to find that I’m 2 books behind my annual goal. I guess I know what I’m doing for the rest of today. The vacuuming will have to wait–I’m behind on my reading.

So here’s what I read in August. Hopefully September’s list will be longer.

Books about Writing

The Writer’s Lexicon: Descriptions, Overused Words, and TaboosKathy Steinemann and Stuart Aken (Kindle ebook). This book was depressing, only because it revealed just how much is still wrong with my novel in progress. My characters nod, smile, and laugh pretty much constantly. This book provided some great tips for turning those characters into something other than bobbleheads on happy pills. And if you want more practical advice on improving your writing, there’s a volume 2, which I just started reading, plus Kathy Steinemann’s excellent blog. See, for example, her two posts on Writing Rules: When Can You Break Them? (Rules 1-6, Rules 7-10)

How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating TalesPeter Rubie (hardcover from the library I work in). I found some excellent advice here on plot, character, point of view, and more. My favorite quote: “The story is not what happens. The story is who it happens to.”

The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors –  Anne R. Allen (Kindle ebook). This book inspired me to create an author blog! This author blog! Allen offers excellent practical advice for creating a blog and building an online identity and reputation. I plan to return to her book many times as I tiptoe into the author blog-iverse. Allen’s own blog is an excellent resource for writers. My favorite recent post is The Decline of Mainstream Fiction: Why Authors Need a Genre in Today’s Fragmented Publishing World, in which Allen provides astute insights into changes in publishing and which types of fiction do best as indie-published vs. traditional.

Your Novel, Day by Day: A Fiction Writer’s CompanionMary Anna Evans (print, purchased). This book contains 365 essays, from the very short to a page or two. It’s designed to be read while writing the first draft of a novel, a page a day for one year. Evans talks about craft, but what I loved most about this book was the feeling of having a kind (but stern when necessary) mentor keeping me company as I wrote. I didn’t read the book as designed, but I may do so when I start my second novel.

Fiction

The President is Missing – Bill Clinton and James Patterson (audiobook from Overdrive, courtesy of my public library). Fairly formulaic thriller but a fun read. I enjoyed seeing Patterson employ various plot techniques I’ve read about.

Final WitnessJames Scott Bell (Kindle ebook). James Scott Bell is well-known in the writer world for his excellent books on fiction writing, so it was interesting to read an example of his fiction. The book was well-plotted (I would expect nothing less) and an entertaining read, though I didn’t always fully engage with the characters. There’s a good bit of overt Christianity in the book as well, which may be off-putting to some non-religious readers.

Carte Blanche (James Bond – Extended Series #45) – Jeffery Deaver (audiobook from Overdrive, courtesy of my public library). I love Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, and I’ve been a James Bond fan since college, so I was excited to listen to this one. It took a little while to get into, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. It has a great classic Bond villain and puts Bond in modern times. Fun read.

Fatal Voyage (Temperance Brennan #4) – Kathy Reichs (audiobook from Overdrive, courtesy of my public library). I just discovered Kathy Reichs this year (yeah, I know, I live under a rock), and I love her storytelling. This one took me a little time to get into–a problem I seem to have with audiobooks more than print–but was worth the patience required.

Same blog, new focus

2018-12-28 17.06.06 maddieWelcome to my revamped blog! New and improved! Get it while it lasts!

OK, seriously… For those who don’t know, I’ve been teaching myself how to write fiction since 2014. I’m happy to report that after 5 years of significant effort, I suck a little less than I did when I started. I’m working on what I hope will be the last round of revisions before I send my newborn novel out to beta readers. (It’s a time travel romance – did you know that’s a genre now? Thanks, Outlander!)  According to various Writing Experts, now is the time I should be building an online presence and readership, so…

Rather than create yet another blog (I have several, most of which haven’t been updated since my son still thought I was cool), I decided to repurpose this one. It contained a few political essays, most dating from the 2016 election (shudder), so I removed them, tweaked the look and feel, and, voila, I now have an author site! Isn’t the internet wonderful?

So if you subscribed to this blog for my scintillating political observations, I pity you I hope you’ll stay for my scintillating observations about writing and the torture adventure of finishing a novel and trying to get it published. And if you’re new here, welcome! Pull up a chair, grab a drink, pet a greyhound (that’s Maddie in the picture, modeling my husband’s Call of Duty cap), and hang out.

Christmas with Mom

christmasThe Crum family Christmas spirit this year could best be summed up with a hearty, “Bah, humbug.” One of our dearest friends died this year, Tony is recovering from his fourth major surgery in less than two years, and my mother is in the late stages of dementia, meaning this will probably be her last Christmas. Our decorating consisted of buying a tiny live tree from Home Depot that I’m pretty sure is mostly dead now. Our shopping consisted of replacing the refrigerator that died right after Thanksgiving, along with the microwave that died a week later. So it’s Christmas, and we aren’t feeling it. I plan to cook our traditional roast beef dinner and visit my mom. That’ll be the extent of our holiday cheer.

For those who don’t know, my mother lives in an assisted living home here in town. She’s almost 91, and over the past decade dementia has taken most of what made her, well, *her*. Her body, however, keeps humming along, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her brain left the building sometime in the late oughts. I visit her, of course, a ritual I have come to dread. Each time I wonder what new piece of her the disease will have taken. At least she still knows who I am–most of the time. Today being Christmas, of course I will visit. So I stick a Santa hat on my head, paste a smile on my face, and clomp up the stairs to do my filial duty. Tony, ever the supportive husband, tags along.

We walk into a Hallmark card. Christmas tree bedecked with lights and candy canes next to a cozy fire with snowflakes falling softly outside the windows and a Hallmark Christmas movie on the TV. It checks every box on the American Christmas fantasy list. Martha Stewart would be proud. Almost grudgingly, I admit to myself that maybe we should have made a bit more of an effort at home.

I get out my knitting, and my mother and I attempt what passes for conversation these days.

“How have you been, Mom?”

“Oh, fine.”

I start knitting and listening to the Hallmark movie.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

LeeAnn Rimes is the female lead in the movie. Some generic clean-cut businessman-type guy is her love interest.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

LeeAnn sings some made-for-the-movie Christmas song. I don’t catch many of the lyrics, but her voice rings clear and powerful through the scene. The woman’s got some pipes. I wish I could sing like that.

“How are things at home?”

“Oh, not bad.” I tell her about Tony’s latest surgery–again. It’s been less than 15 minutes since the first time, but she’s forgotten. She probably forgot about three seconds after I told her. I tell her about our son’s upcoming trip to Portland.

LeeAnn sings. LeeAnn tells her fictional love interest she’s turned down a job across the country to stay in their fictional town. He looks appropriately lovestruck.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

Someone else in the movie is singing now. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”

Tears prick the corners of my eyes. “Silent Night” has always been my favorite Christmas song. So many memories. Playing it on my flute for middle school concerts, singing it to my son as a lullaby when he was small enough not to care that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

“Round yon virgin…”

I hear my mother’s voice, almost a croak, more chanting than singing, so quiet I doubt anyone else in the room can hear over the person warbling on the TV.

“Mother and child.”

I join in. I sound almost as croaky as she does, forcing the notes past the lump in my throat. How long has it been since my mother and I sang together? 40 years? 45?

“Holy infant so tender and mild.”

I wipe the tears away quickly, hoping no one sees.

“Sleep in heavenly peace.”

We manage one more off-key line of our impromptu duet before the movie cuts away from the song, and the moment is gone like a snuffed-out candle flame. I fish around in my purse for a tissue and wipe my eyes as unobtrusively as I can. I blow my nose and mumble something about allergies.

“It’s so nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Mom. Merry Christmas.” And I mean it with all my heart.