Painting Angels: Cover and Co-Author!

Painting Angels, Book 3 in the #SamandSaucer trilogy, just went to press! It’s due to release on July 21, and I want to share the cover, catalog copy, and adorable new co-author for this book as we wait to see the book “in person.”

The Cover

The Catalog Copy

What happens when you can’t get away from the person who drives you craziest? Sam and Macrina are about to find out. Stuck working together to help the nuns, Sam and Macrina come up with a thousand reasons to disagree. Sam is too rude. Macrina is too bossy. Summer at the monastery will be miserable if they can’t find some common ground. With the help of three friendly nuns, a runaway bunny, and Saucer the trusty corgi, Macrina and Sam discover a big secret that helps put them on the road toward peace.

The Co-Author

I am thrilled to announce that I have a co-author for Painting Angels! Thirteen-year-old Veronica Naasko kindly contributed an account of life as a “farm kid” that is going into the print, ebook, and audiobook editions of Painting Angels! The animal farm at the book’s imaginary monastery is central to the story in Book 3, and when we found there was space available at the end of the book, we asked Veronica to write for us. I recorded my part of the Audible edition this weekend, and Veronica is submitting hers this afternoon. Her part of this book is awesome. It has turkeys. It has wolves. It even has an unusual bishop. Just wait till you read it!! Here is a picture of Veronica recording for Audible.

Quick Fixes: Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing

Two days into running a private Facebook group for Orthodox Christian Children’s Writers and Illustrators, I’m thinking about writing technique, publishing tips, illustrators I like, group activities, and other delights in every available moment. This evening, while washing the dishes, I decided to jot down my list of hard-earned “simple fix” wisdom for writers. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself as you read over your work. Ask yourself before an editor asks you! And no, number 1 is not a question. It is a command.

  1. Spelling. Seriously.
  2. Are you relying on “to be” verbs too much? What stronger, more specific verb could you use instead of “is/was/are”?
  3. Are you over-explaining? Are you saying “As she stepped out of the car, she opened her umbrella because it was raining and she was getting wet” instead of saying, “She opened her umbrella as she stepped out of the car”?
  4. Are you writing in the active voice or the passive voice? There is only one right answer to this question. ACTIVE.
  5. Are you speaking for your characters, or are you letting your characters speak for themselves? When you write a piece of dialog, are they saying what YOU would say or what THEY would say?
  6. Are you using the same word twice in one sentence, or in adjoining sentences? Do not do this. Find another word or another way to make the statement.
  7. Words are music. Listen to the beat or rhythm of your sentence. Is it musical or awkward?
  8. Are your details consistent? Is that sofa the same color in every chapter?
  9. Is your point of view consistent? Do you keep switching from one perspective to another mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter? Did you forget what your characters would and wouldn’t know because you’re the author and you know everything?
  10. Is your agenda bleeding through your narrative? Are you noticeably judging your characters? Is your plot buckling under the weight of the point you are hammering home?

Those are my 10 simple fixes for writers. What are yours?

Painting Angels: Coming this summer!

Today, I enjoyed being a writer for a few minutes during a day of otherwise un-writerly work. The publisher sent back the copyedited version of Painting Angels (Book 3 in the Sam and Saucer series). The book is going to press in just a few weeks. I’ve seen some illustrations and sent back feedback, and I’ve worked on all the text edits sent to me. Now I just need to read this copy-edited manuscript, and it will be off to the proofreader – almost finished!

Today I also received the “promo copy” for the book. This is the description that shows up in the publisher’s catalog, on their website, on Amazon, and everywhere the book is sold (in English). When the original manuscript was submitted, I completed an author questionnaire as I do each time one of my books is published. The questionnaire asked me to provide text that could be used to create this promo copy. The editor worked with it, and I’m happy with the final result. Here it is!

What happens when you can’t get away from the person who drives you craziest? Sam and Macrina are about to find out. Stuck working together to help the nuns, Sam and Macrina come up with a thousand reasons to disagree. Sam is too rude. Macrina is too bossy. Summer at the monastery will be miserable if they can’t find some common ground. With the help of three friendly nuns, a runaway bunny, and Saucer the trusty corgi, Macrina and Sam discover a big secret that helps put them on the road toward peace.

Reading this, I realized how well this book fits the time in which it will be released. God willing, we’ll be out and about before the summer, but who knows? Even if we are, our memories of being cooped up, struggling together, will be fresh! COVID-19 never entered my head during the writing process (in fact, the last major revision was completed before quarantine), but today I see major parallels!

Writing and imagination, minds and thoughts, and the whole spiritual atmosphere swirling around us fascinate me. There is no knowing the complex of our connections with each other, or with the unseen influences around us and within us. Perhaps the only key to the mystery is this:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

God help us all, according to His purpose.

Writing in Faith, not about Faith

I think I just found THE words for an idea I’ve been striving to express for decades. The idea sprouted before I was Orthodox, but here it is in my present context.

Good Orthodox fiction is written IN Orthodoxy, not ABOUT Orthodoxy.

Fiction written ABOUT Orthodoxy (or Christianity in general) will crumple under the weight. Fiction does not do the work of nonfiction; it does a wholly different work, though it can bear similar fruit.

Fiction written IN Orthodoxy is fiction. Fiction may be full of light or full of darkness. The light’s the thing.

Narrative can only act for apologetics, in my view, the way a tune can remind you of a lyric. Faith-informed fiction is the melody only. If it’s rendered accurately, you will know the words.

It’s the difference between an oil painting of a flower and the shredded description of the flower pasted to the canvas in a floral shape. Let the explanation be the explanation. Let the portrait be the portrait.

Vase of Flowers. Creator: Jan Davidsz de Heem. Date: 1670. Institution: Mauritshuis. Provider: Digitale Collectie. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain Mark

Herd the Bird: A Poem for Ferdinand the Corgi

This is a poem I wrote on behalf of our corgi, Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s views on birds suggest that a corgi does not always learn from experience.

Herd the Bird: A Poem by Ferdinand the Corgi

Herd the bird.
Herd the bird.
I will herd the little bird.

Herd the bird!
Herd the bird!
See me herd the little bird!

Stop it, bird!
Stop it, bird!
You have left my little herd!

Herd the bird.
Herd the bird.
I cannot ever herd the bird.

[To be repeated however many times it takes to get around the block on your stumpy legs, with no wings.]

Ferdinand with a bird he WAS able to herd…

#BlogtownTuesday: An interview with Even Thine Altars

It’s delightful to know that I met today’s #BlogtownTuesday guest IN #Blogtown! When I returned to this form of social writing, I spent hours searching the blogosphere for potential kindred spirits. In one of these searches, I discovered Catherine at Even Thine Altars. I appreciate her writing and her thoughtfulness. I hope you’ll enjoy her answers to my 5 questions.

How did your blog get its name?

My blog got its name from a line in my favorite psalm, Psalm 83 (Septuagint numbering). “How beloved are Thy dwellings, O Lord of hosts…. Even Thine altars, my King and my God.” The line of “even Thine altars” refers to the home-ness of the altar of God, which to me is symbolic of the home we have in the Eucharist as members of the body of Christ on the altar of Christ. It is such a delightful and profoundly moving image for me, and every time I think about it there is new richness in it.

Choosing this line from Psalm 83 is also in reference to my love of the typikon, since Psalm 83 is the first psalm read at the 9th Hour, usually right before Vespers. The placement of this psalm is at the beginning of the last service of the day, and for me it signifies both rest and renewal, since work is done and the new liturgical day will start shortly.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of your blog?

I think the defining characteristic of my blog is Orthodoxy, which permeates everything I write about. I love my faith and it is very present for me in my daily life, especially since I have been at Hellenic College Holy Cross. In the past, I tried to limit the influence that the psalms, quotes from the saints, or Orthodox-related posts had on my blogging, but this is impossible, so I have let it go. I really hope it isn’t overbearing or seems like I’m trying to be an example for other people, because that absolutely is not the intent. I simply hope to document my struggles and thoughts, and I hope they are at least interesting.

What is your favorite thing about blogging? Least favorite?

My favorite thing about blogging is being able to express my thoughts in long-form writing, which no other form of social media allows. I also get to read other people’s well thought out and often moving or enlightening reflections on their own lives and struggles, which I find to be very beautiful.

My least favorite thing about blogging is having to take pictures, which I often forget to do until the last minute.

You’re a member of #Blogtown, a social blogging collaborative. How is blogging social for you?

Blogging is social to me because I get to put writing out into the world. This is very exciting for me, since otherwise the only place that sees my writing is my journal. It also has helped me get over my perfectionist ideals for my writing, since putting something out and connecting with people (especially in #Blogtown!) is so much more important than being “good.”

Sometimes the social aspects of blogging, especially Orthodox blogging but also blogging generally, are difficult for me because I am so young compared to most people in the community, and sometimes it feels as if I am on a childless single lonely little island trying to make the best of it. Despite this, it has been so amazing connecting with other people and seeing their interests and their stories, seeing what beautiful things they create or poems they write or thoughts they have about their most recent read.

Tell us 3 things we’d know about you if we’d grown up together.

1. I was homeschooled in a neo-classical Christian environment. This, of course, has had a big impact on my life. It allowed me to be more focused and creative in what I read and worked on, and it taught me discipline and focus which are great tools for me now.

 2. I adore proper grammar. I would always be the person not-so-silently correcting a person’s grammar. Now this love of the proper placement and use of words has allowed me to study dead languages with a fairly decent degree of ease.

3. I lived in a monastery. After I graduated high school in December 2015, I moved to St. Paisius Monastery in Safford, AZ, for a short time while I was trying to discern a monastic vocation. I didn’t stay very long, and about a year later I started college at HCHC. God only knows what I’m doing with my life now!

Thank you, Catherine!

You can connect with Catherine at Even Thine Altars. See you in #Blogtown!

#MakersMonday: Reta Evens Simons

Today’s maker has been a storied presence in my life since before my memory began. She entered the world as a wheat-farmer’s daughter on the Canadian prairie, and she came south to Pennsylvania on the smallest of chances – her father said she could go to school in America if it rained at harvest time. Many years later, she wrote the story of her life, naming it for that rain.

My grandmother’s expressive face on the cover of her memoir.

After the rain, after a long journey by train and years of schooling and servanthood in America, she married my grandfather Keneth. My father was their first child.

I remember a photo of Reta on my grandfather’s desk. It was probably taken in her 40s or 50s, on a visit to her brothers who were still on the farm in Alberta. In the photo, she’s standing near the grain elevator, wearing a cotton blouse and skirt. Perhaps she held a hat, or a purse, but what I remember about the photo is her hands. They looked just like my father’s hands, larger than I expected, veined, strong and capable. Reta could do almost anything with those hands.

She taught herself patternless dressmaking. My parents have a beautiful photograph of her wearing a blue evening gown, exquisitely tailored, with a blue satin train, that she designed and sewed. Dad told us stories of a dress she dyed, carefully shading the color from a deep violet at the hem that faded by degrees until it was so pale it was almost white at the top. Imagine that shading process – what a good eye she had, and a steady hand.

Reta taught herself to paint, too. Everyone in the family has at least one of her oil paintings, or a water color. Here is mine.

We also have things Reta embroidered. I have two cushions with birds embroidered on them – currently packed away because the corgi does not share my respect for heirloom embroidery. Another piece she embroidered hung on the wall in my parents’ house. The quote, as it turns out, is originally attributed to a Quaker missionary. I saw it on our wall, in her graceful stitching, every day of my life. That made it hers.

“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Etienne de Grellet, QUAKER MISSIONARY

Farm girl that she was, Reta also had a way with little animals, and she raised more than one abandoned baby squirrel. Just this year, an aunt sent me an old home-movie clip, with no sound, of my grandmother playing with one of these babies. It struck me, watching it, that it’s the only time I’ve seen her alive, in motion, more like the person Dad remembered with such affection. Reta died of cancer just a few months after I was born.

But of all the things she made, my father was the best. Reta raised a good man, brilliant, kind, appreciative. Like her, he strove to do all the good he could. He never forgot he could live each day only once.

At Reta’s graveside, the presiding minister read the parable of the talents, ending with “Well done, good and faithful servant.” God bless her, entering into the joy of her Lord.

#Blogtown: Letters from the Homefront

Dear Friends,

Why does this blog post begin like a letter? I’ll tell you.

My friend Anna at The Brown Dress Project is drawing on a lifetime of history-reading for strength and motivation in the present time. I love her assessment of what qualities are needed.

 Thrift, ingenuity, service, hard work, gratitude for daily bread, commitment to neighborliness were all traits which brought families through. Those times are no longer the faded memories of grandparents – they are upon us now.

Anna the Librarian/Historian

In today’s open letter on her blog, Anna’s suggesting that our #blogtown community stick together through this hard time by writing letters to each other. Noting that the front lines for this “world war” run squarely through the home of each person, Anna hearkens back to the days when the efforts of those at home provided the strength and resources for those far away on the more obvious battlefields. That’s why she’s calling for Letters from the Homefront.

If you have a blog, welcome! You’re automatically a neighbor in the #blogtown community. Your well-being matters. The funny moments, frantic boredom, quiet inspiration, fabulous nap, or dogged determination that got you through the day are worth sharing with all of us, your virtual neighbors.

It’s a quiet day at my house. I’m pondering the mix of worry and relief this situation has brought to us. I meant to bake bread today, but instead I played games with my kiddo and took a gray-day walk, looking for leaf buds and early flowers. I even curled up on the couch with the dog and stared out the window at the intricacy of tree branches.

This week has been fiercely busy. I work for an internet company, so working at home isn’t a change. But the sudden influx of EVERYONE ON THE PLANET onto the internet, all hoping to help, all live-streaming, all sharing tips, all asking if this or that is going to happen and when, seemed to make all my days twice as crowded.

I love the surge of helpfulness, but I also believe that we humans aren’t capable of sustaining this level of intensity. Once the novelty of this situation wears off, we will either turn on each other or relax into this new way of being and go back to binge-watching Netflix or reading real, tangible, papery-scented printed books. We’ll walk around the block, and around again. We’ll bake things. Our supply chain will recover from our panic, and there won’t be as much to say about toilet paper any more. But I don’t think normal life will come back for a few months.

I’m at peace for now. Mostly. And exchanging letters with all of you here in this cozy internet community will be something I continue to enjoy.

God bless and keep you,

Melinda

#LettersfromtheHomefront

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Swing

This summer, my mother let me bring home a collection of old books that were my childhood favorites. Whenever I read them, I hear the words in her voice, and the spirit of many long-lost summer afternoons, piled around her on the couch with my little siblings, rises around me. I love that.

One I brought home is a well-worn copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It appears to have been printed in 1932, so it was already old in my little-girlhood.

On a side note, I learned in adulthood that RLS is related to another favorite author of mine, D. E. Stevenson, who mentions him in several of her books. Her characters quote him sometimes, and his poems find their way into the subtext.

What I love about this poem is how well the rhythm of the verses mimics that of the activity they describe. They swing up into the sky, hang there for the tiniest fraction of a second, and swing back again. Your muscle memory will quickly join your voice, and you will find yourself reading the poem in your chair as if you were reading it on the swing. Up in the air and down!

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,

Till I can see so wide,

Rivers and trees and cattle and all

Over the countryside–

Till I look down on the garden green,

Down on the roof so brown–

Up in the air I go flying again,

Up in the air and down!

Robert Louis Stevenson

This poem must have been a favorite of Stevenson’s or his reading public, because both the cover of the book (above) and the frontispiece (below) are illustrated with a little girl on a swing, and The Swing is the first poem in the book!

I especially like this poem at a time when we are all, more or less, living inside the garden wall. Like the child on the swing, we may catch glimpses of the outer world, only to drop again behind the wall. But in this poem at least, there’s a garden within that wall, and the child on the swing is both excited by the wider vista and content to return to the confines of home.