Posts Tagged Christmas

A Holiday Guide for Writers

There are certain things I need to stay sane and healthy. These include:

  1. Proper sleep and diet
  2. Exercise
  3. Some minimal socializing
  4. Writing
  5. Reading
  6. Music

There are other things that are unnecessary for my health and sanity, although I do enjoy them, in small doses. Some of them are:

  1. Baking cookies
  2. Shopping
  3. Cooking Christmas dinner
  4. Holiday Decorating
  5. Gift Wrapping
  6. Parties and large social gatherings in general
  7. Sending Christmas cards

All of these holiday activities take time, and when time runs short, some activities are sacrificed–including items from the list of things I need to stay sane and healthy. Exercise suffers. I eat too many high-fat carbs. I don’t have enough alone time. Maybe I let the holidays mess with my writing schedule, or I read less. Let’s face it…I do all of the above in order to create the Christmas I want.

The first things to go from my sane ‘n’ healthy list are exercise and writing. Exercise…because it takes time, and I am lazy. Writing, because it takes time, and effort, and I’m lazy. Sleep, on the other hand, only requires lying down. Reading and listening to music are passive enjoyments.

Writing and exercise are the first to go, and I suffer from their lack.

I haven’t had much luck with the exercise, but I am determined to make a stand on the writing. It seems to me that there are certain things I can do. And here, I don’t need a bunch of numbers. I need only one rule: that my scheduled daily writing time be honored. This is it, and that is all there is to my Holiday Guide for Writers.

Taking the distractions of the season in reverse order: I am not sure I’ll get cards out this year. Fewer and fewer people send them. If I do send them, they may go out late. This is okay. This is a decision. As for parties, I keep them few and with people I want to spend precious time with. I am done with obligations, mostly. I will go with store gift wrap and bags with tissue paper whenever possible. Decorating? Yeah, that’s my favorite. I’ll spend a little extra time on that. For the rest of it, Christmas dinner will get served, my loved ones will have presents to open, and yes, the cookies will be baked. It will be fine, it will be enough. I will let the rest of the season take care of itself.

I am recycling this photo from a post from last year. Saves time! Helps allow me to stick to my writing schedule!

I am recycling this photo from a post from last year. Saves time! Helps allow me to stick to my writing schedule! (Link to previous post below.)

Writers: Do what you need to to stick to your writing schedule during this festive season, and stay sane and healthy.


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I’ll Have That Outline Now, Please

Some Christmas cheer for my manuscript.

Some Christmas cheer for my manuscript.

We are officially into December. The coming days will be filled with Christmas decorations, cards, presents, food, and the preparation and placement of those items. I will keep my ambivalence, my love/hate of the season, off these pages for the most part, in service of my overriding goal for the month, which is to keep to my daily writing schedule. That schedule should produce, in another ten days or so, the next draft of my novel, a successor to the previous draft, which I dubbed “the almost readable draft,” back in March of this year.

(Previous post: I Think I’ve Finally Gone and Done It)

I’ll call this one “the barely readable draft.”

This is the draft a reader might like some parts, but be frustrated when other parts don’t make sense. But they would see, at least, that there was some sense to be made.

As I finish up, I’m telling myself I can now do a solid, etched in stone timeline. I can map out spaces and scenes. I can get my biology and future-tech straight. I can give the characters a shampoo, cut, and blow dry. I can even do an honest-to-gosh outline, if I need one. I’m not sure I will.

The next draft will be more than a copy-editing, polishing enterprise. There are still some major connectors needed between some major dots. There are continuity problems. Things will change. Nothing big, but medium, yes. Much will be refined. After that, I’ll have a person or two read it. Once it is out of my hands (for a time), I will begin on the next. This first one is a mystery of sorts, with other elements. The second one is a quest in which a youngish woman goes somewhere that’s not Earth, looking for someone she loves, and learns secrets that could destroy humanity. That’s all I’ll say. That’s almost all I know, other than a few odd plot turns and some set decoration.

I understand now that that’s enough. I can trust myself to bash my way through that hideous first draft, which might turn out to be less a draft than a 200 page synopsis. 150 pages of it will be junk. I will find something of value in the remaining 50, and will go to work on that. This is the process I’ve used successfully dozens of times on short stories. Now I know a novel is not “too long” for this same method to work. I only need to be persistent.

I also need to give my work priority over things I don’t really care about, and there’s a lot of that during the holiday season. Maybe I need to work harder this month. That’s okay, too. I need to be Scrooge. I’ll give myself–grudgingly–all of Christmas Day off, but I’ll expect myself to come in an hour earlier the next day.

Merry Bah Humbug.

Photo: SpeculativeMartha. All rights reserved.

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Books I Received for Christmas, and What I Plan to Do About Them

We have these bookcases. Five of them, scattered about the house. Four are the tall ones from IKEA. I, my husband, and our daughter all have e-readers as well. Over the years, I have repeatedly declined invitations to join book clubs, because I really, really don’t need additional reading assignments.

Three shelves of one bookcase are designated for books I have acquired but not yet read. Unread books are accumulating in my e-bookshelves as well, although I’ve only half a dozen or so there. When I finish one book, I decide what to read next, and sometimes, it is a difficult decision. In a later post, I’ll dive into the mass of the Waiting-to-be-Read; for now, I’ll consider only the most recent additions to that pile.

My husband gave me Then Again, Diane Keaton’s biography, having read and enjoyed it himself. A family story that his uncle and Keaton’s father had worked together in Orange County, California, way-back-when intrigued him. He hoped for some confirmation of the claim, but there was none. If his uncle and Diane Keaton’s father ever knew each other, it didn’t make it into the bio. Nonetheless, he liked the book a lot. He had read it as an ebook, and but bought the hard copy for me, in order to provide the tactile sensation of opening a new book on Christmas morning.

As to what I plan to do with the book, I’ve already read it. Diane Keaton’s autobiography is very good–near the top of the celebrity autobiography category. She weaves in her mother’s journals, and her mother’s life, with that of her own improbable (as she sees it) rise to fame. The result is a wonderful look at two interesting women of two generations, and just enough gossipy tidbits of Keaton’s movie star life and relationships to add a little spice. She does not go into lurid detail, or rake anybody over the coals here. Classy.

I asked for China Mieville’s Embassytown, and my daughter gave it to me as an ebook. I have not yet read it, as I require a certain mental energy to read a Mieville book. My three favorites of his so far are (in order) The City and The City, Perdido Street Station, and Un Lun Dun. I liked The Scar and Kraken, but simply could never get into The Iron Council. I may very well read Embassytown next, now that I am more or less recovered from the holidays.

I am in the middle of Game of Thrones, also given to me by my daughter, but not specifically requested by me. I was glad to have it; George R. R. Martin’s series has become the new hip pop culture geek reference, and I love to be in the know. Once I was past the first thirty pages or so, I found it easy to keep the various family lines straight, and the book reads quickly. For the first few days of being in the book though, I found my sleep disturbed. Martin has the trappings of high fantasy, but without what we have come to expect, which is that the good guy will defeat the bad guy and the natural order restored. It is full of political intrigue, the kind where the pure of heart are delay with harshly.

A commentator on the Emmys commented on the “interesting historical period” of Thrones. I laugh, but while I deplore her ignorance of the genre, (and of history) she may have had a point. The Seven Kingdoms seems quite close to what it was like to be of the peerage in feudal Europe. It may not be of a historical period, but it certainly is historical, and the political intrigue and moral dilemmas are very much of the present.

Finally, my sister in law gave our whole family the Michael Slater biography, Charles Dickens. I do not know when I will read this. Scholarly biographies–even popular biographies–can be dry, rough, going. There was a time in my life when I would have forced myself to read the book, thinking that if it’s more difficult, it’s better for me than Thrones or Keaton’s book, but I’m past that. Books don’t have to be “easy reading,” but I do expect to be entertained. Real lives, unlike fiction, do not have to be interesting. Usually they are, but not all the way through.

I will definitely try the book at some point, because I could be cheating myself if I don’t. Case in point: A couple years ago, my sister-in-law gave me Beatrice Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear. I was rather mystified (I had never had any special interest in Potter) and, as I later found out, Anne only got me the book because she couldn’t find the Dickens book. Nonetheless, I found myself picking it up and looking at it.

It was fascinating. Beatrice Potter was a woman of the nineteenth century who wanted to do things women didn’t get to do in those days. Besides being an artist and children’s author, she was an enthusiastic amateur botanist, specializing in fungi that grew where she lived. Now, this was fine, a suitable pursuit for a lady, but when she discovered that lichen were the product of algae and fungi (as I recall, one or more botanists on the Continent had proposed the same thing), she was going against the doctrine of the time. When she wanted to present evidence of her findings to the folks at Kew Gardens, she ran into quite a bit of resistance, and could only get an appointment with the help of a male relative. Fascinating stuff.

I am grateful for what I received, and I am grateful for what I didn’t receive. No coffee table books, no books I’ve already read, no self-help, no political pundits’ books, no junk. A good Christmas book haul.


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Christmas As Alternate Reality

As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, I find normal reality sometimes weirder than the wildest of speculations. Christmas is something pretty weird, as full of inconsistencies as a bad movie. It is pagan and Christian, religious and secular. We do things we hate doing, and we do other things we say we wish we could do all year long. Some of us absolutely love it, some of us wish it would all go away. I’m somewhere in the middle. It is a time set apart from the rest of the year in which there are extra activities and things to be accomplished (gifts, cards, decorating, baking, gatherings), and all those things add up to a time crunch. There are rewards for our efforts, sometimes, and sometimes, they seem to fall flat.

My perception of Christmas, and my feelings about it, have been in large part a function of my situation in life. As a child, I looked forward to it with great anticipation. Although I never believed in Santa Claus, I liked pretending to believe, and I loved the whole magical-fantasy trip about it. Even into young adulthood, Christmas was more than a show the grown-ups put on for us all; it was a palpable  entity unto itself, with a life of its own, as if lights, decorations, carolers, and Nativity plays somehow sprung up, regardless of human effort.

When we had a young child to celebrate Christmas with, I became the director of the show, and we wrapped and assembled late into the wee hours, so that all the presents Santa had brought could appear magically beneath the tree on Christmas morning. My daughter, like me, could not sustain a belief in Santa Claus. In my case, it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. I couldn’t get past that glaring discrepancy. In my daughter’s case, the “tell” was the wrapping paper. She noticed Santa used the same paper as we did. We enjoyed the game though, leaving cookies for Santa, and greens for the reindeer on Christmas Eve. (One year the reindeer had a bunch of cilantro for their salad.)

Every year, regardless of my stage in life, I anticipated Christmas with a mixture of joy, humor, dread, and excitement. I worried over the gifts, micro-managed the decoration, fretted over baking and cooking, and wrapped it all up on Christmas Eve by watching the NBC broadcast of the Pope doing mass at St. Peter’s. And no, I’m not Catholic.

This year, something happened. I had fewer, and less intense, feelings about Christmas. The “entity-ness” went out of it; it became another date on the calendar, something that humans cooked up. It had lost the inevitable quality it had had. I felt no compulsion, no drive, to put on a show. I examined each of the tasks, and asked, “Why do we do this?”

Cards: There are people dear to me who I simply don’t see during the year, and don’t get a chance to talk to. They genuinely do want to hear from me, and I, from them. It is worth doing the cards. I no longer send them out to businesses, nor will I send a card just because someone sends me one.

Decorations: I looooove lights. I think of my northern European ancestors shivering in a dark and frigid December and think what a mental health boost these winter solstice traditions were for them and are for us. Good work, ancient ancestors, for thinking up such cool and goofy stuff as yule logs, wreaths, and candles. We are indebted to you for all the lights, the colors, the greenery.

Gifts: There is less drama, as our family tends to tell each other what we want. Nonetheless, Christmas morning still has a few surprises to offer, and this is the fun of it. Gift cards are more fun than they might seem, offering days of thinking about what I’m going to get with my Amazon gift card. It’s fun, it’s worth it, but I do a lot of online shopping and only one visit to the Big Mall. When I watch reports of  Black Friday incidents on TV, or incidents of shortages of particular toys, where grown-ups are punching each other out for something (does anyone remember Furbys?), then I think Christmas giving might be pure evil. On balance though, with restraint, I like it.

Food: There is too much of it, but it’s the only time of year I eat like this.

So I did this year what I normally do, mostly. I dropped sweet potatoes from the Christmas dinner menu, and substituted asparagus for green beans. Good move. I pulled out a few decorations that I really don’t like, and that don’t fit in with the theme. So I decorated a little less. I wrapped presents, but didn’t fret about whether the bow matched exactly. I skipped watching the Pope. I gave up trying to force Christmas into its former magic.

What was the result, you ask? Did magic happen anyway? Did the Ghost of Christmas Present pop up in the middle of the living room to lend his spectral touch? No. Christmas remained a day on the calendar for me this year, not anticipated all that much, nor dreaded. I was neither sad nor glad when it was over. It was good. Even if it’s not magic, I need this holiday.

Happy New Year!

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Did the Catholics Ruin Christmas?

It’s official. The Crystal Cathedral of Garden Grove, California, home of “The Glory of Christmas,”  has been sold to the Catholic Archdiocese of Orange County, after several years of drama involving an aging founder and pastor, church and family infighting, and financial insolvency.

According to the Crystal Cathedral’s website,, the Rev. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvulla began the church in 1955 at the Orange Drive-in Theatre, where he would preach from atop the snack bar, and she would play electric organ. This was the beginning of their vision, their dream. The church’s catchphrase was, “Come As You Are in the Family Car.” The first permanent home for the church, built in 1968, was a building that you could walk into, but which also had a wall that could roll up to reveal the parking lot, where, yes, you could still “come as you are, etc.”

By 1970, Schuller was a TV preacher, on Hour of Power, and by the mid-seventies, work began on what is now known as the Crystal Cathedral. The word from the church website is that Schuller missed the open sky of his drive-in movie theater church, and so he told the architect to “…make it all glass.” The Hour of Power broadcasts continued, and for many years, the Crystal Cathedral produced a lavish Christmas pageant entitled “The Glory of Christmas,” which included actors (angels) on wires flying high above the congregation, and live camels, cattle, and other manger-ish animals. This pageant was heavily advertised on local TV, and ran for almost thirty years. I believe its last performance was in 2009.

2005 photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have never set foot in the Chrystal Cathedral, I am not in sympathy with it as a religion, and have distaste for its social positions, but its passing as an institution moves me nonetheless. It was so SoCal, what with the drive-in origins, the feel good positivity, the never-ending happy ending shared from its pulpit, and its utterly corny excess. For all its trappings, I sensed sincerity. What is it with places like this, and why do so many people care? Why am I interested? What would Jesus think?

Travel with me now back to 1997. I was on vacation in England. One Friday night, I found myself in a pub in Brighton, in a gathering of editors and writers from the science fiction magazine Interzone. I spent time talking with editorial staff member Paul Brazier, who told me he was going to guest-edit the upcoming Christmas issue. He suffered, I think, a mini-moment of social awkwardness for not having invited me to submit (the deadline at that point was only about a week away), but I said, oh don’t worry, because “… I don’t do holiday stories.”

The moment I say I don’t do something, I start thinking of ways I might actually do it. It just happens. That’s why I don’t make claims of not doing stuff very often. It’s a reckless thing to do.

On the way back to my hotel that night, I ignored my chatty-cathy taxi driver and wondered what my story of Christmas would be, were I the sort of person who did that sort of thing. It occurred to me that Jesus, if He were to return to our time, would have more than a few problems with how modern-day humans celebrate His birth. So there was a title: “When Jesus Ruined Christmas.”

But how would He ruin it? What actions would He take? I took Him on a mental tour of shopping malls and dysfunctional family gatherings, but nothing seemed to click. Then, just at the end of my taxi ride in Brighton, my mental tour took Him to the Crystal Cathedral, and to a performance of “The Glory of Christmas.

I named my fictional house of worship the Emerald Cathedral, in part as a Wizard of Oz reference, but also because the all-glass architecture gives the interior the look of a greenhouse in photos and on television. I named my pastor Rev. Howard Givens. As for Jesus, He did not appear as he does on Sunday school illustrations, but was bodily reincarnated in the body of an unemployed alcoholic man by the name of Jesus Olivo.

Jesus/Jesus goes to the Emerald Cathedral, applies to work on their Christmas pageant, and is cast in the role of Joseph. From that vantage point, He wreaks havoc on the grandiosity of the church, and of the pageant, fulfilling a mission He  is committed to, but does not understand. Some of the time, He seems to think what happens is merely a personal test of faith for Reverend Givens, and the rest of the time, He thinks maybe God is just messing with His head, making Him do all this weird stuff.

In the case of the Crystal Cathedral, no supernatural act of God brought it down, only the very normal and mundane acts of human beings. The size of the organization. The advancing age and deteriorating health of Schuller. The mismanagement of money; perhaps, the greed for money and power as well. Being unable to pay debts. The camels can’t keep coming unless the camel-wrangler has been paid for the previous year.

Nonetheless, the fate of the Crystal Cathedral and the fate of my fictional Emerald Cathedral are similar. I am not happy about that; in fact, a small part of me wishes those corny Christmas shows were still going on, even if I’m not interested in going myself. I’m left with a mix of feelings, touched by events that have nothing to do with me.

The mere thought of attending a mega-church makes my blood curdle. I do not care at all for the social conservatism large churches in our area tend to preach. There is a certain smugness about these institutions, a smugness purchased with donations of the faithful. It is simply not necessary to have an all-glass church, flying angels, and real camels to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday. It is perhaps not even desirable. On the other hand, I have affection for anyone with a dream who makes that dream real, and Rev. Schuller did that, with a vision of a church that everyone could come to, that they didn’t even have to get dressed up for. I never sensed smugness in him.

“When Jesus Ruined Christmas” was eventually published in the August 1999 issue of Tales of the Unanticipated, (issue #20), which can still be found at This is a very fine semiprozine, one that’s been around since the mid-eighties. If you want to compare the fate of the Crystal Cathedral with that of the Emerald Cathedral, check it out.

The Catholics did not ruin Christmas by purchasing the Crystal Cathedral. In fact, they kind of started Christmas by superimposing it upon pagan solstice celebrations. Jesus did not ruin Christmas; it happened after He’d left the scene. “The Glory of Christmas” didn’t ruin Christmas; it scarcely made it gaudier. Christmas, in the end, is whatever you care to make of it; nothing more, nothing less.

On Christmas Eve, I plan to do as I usually do–spend half an hour or so watching the delayed broadcast of services at the Vatican. (Talk about your gaudy pageants.) Then I’ll go to sleep, and wait for Santa to arrive.

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To Believe and/or Not to Believe

A long time ago, my daughter asked me, point-blank, whether or not Santa was real. I believe she was almost four. The previous year, she had noted aloud that Santa used the same wrapping paper as Mommy, and had speculated, “I bet Mommy is Santa Claus.” A few feet away, Daddy, who had worked his butt off paying for the items under the tree, felt somewhat left out, but did not protest. I kept my mouth shut, as she did not ask directly. But now, here it was a year later, and the game was up. To lie in the face of the direct question seemed wrong. So I told her, making it clear that it was perfectly all right and loads of fun to pretend to believe in Santa.

She was disappointed, and for a split second I thought I had made a mistake. But only for a split second. She quickly recovered and had fun with pretending about Santa Claus for several years to come.

In truth, my decision to tell the truth was somewhat selfish. Parents everywhere know how annoying Santa-mania is among the very young believers, how it is stoked by children’s programs and marketers until kids are whipped into a maniacal frenzy. I remember a year when she was 4 or 5, the mom of a friend of hers suggested we take the girls to a storytelling event at the library–billed as being winter-related, but not Christmas-related. This family was Jewish, and the mom was looking for relief from the incessant Santa frenzy. I was looking for relief too, I told her. So, we arrived at the event, only to learn that the storyteller who had been booked had cancelled due to illness. In her place–ta da!–here was another lady who would lead a sing-along of–wait for it–Santa Claus songs! She had the kids in a state of hyper-excitement in moments.

It wasn’t so crazy when I was a kid, at least it didn’t seem as if every adult I met was going out of his or her way to make me hyperactive with thoughts of Santa.

In fact, I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus. I had a couple of problems with the concept. Number one was that our house had no chimney. Number two, most of my schoolmates were Jewish, and it seemed grossly unfair that Santa served only those who celebrated Christmas. Not my sort of universal good spirit at all. Problem number three: there were too many Santas around…one, in fact, at every department store, apparently there simultaneously. And oh yeah, I noticed the wrapping paper, too.

As an adult, however, I have made my peace with St. Nick, and I have Charles Dickens to thank for my pro-Santa spirit.

By the time my daughter turned five, we were attending an annual production of A Christmas Carol at South Coast Repertory theater in Costa Mesa, California. The play, Dickens’ story, offers up a Santa suitable for grown-ups, in the person of the Ghost of Christmas Present.

This role has been played by a variety of actors over the years, but all of them say the same thing.  “Look upon me,” the ghost says, “and know me well.”

He is clad in fur-trimmed green, sports a red beard, and holds a bejeweled cup of Christmas cheer. He takes Scrooge on a round of parties–that of the Cratchits and that of his nephew, Fred. The Ghost of Christmas Present mocks Scrooge’s dour demeanor and his meanness of spirit. At the end of Fred’s party (and to close the first act) he promises that wherever people keep Christmas in their hearts, there he will be. In that moment of voices raised in song, he is preaching the absolute morality of generosity of spirit as well as material goods, and of the morality of conviviality, the absolute goodness of fun.

He’s a Santa we all need, whether we suffer from seasonal affective disorder, seasonal social anxiety, gift-giving frenzy, Christmas card guilt, whatever. If our ornaments won’t hang right, if we don’t think we can get through Christmas dinner, or if we’ve heard one too many renditions of “Little Drummer Boy.” (Barump-a-bump-bum is not too far from Bah, humbug!) Looking upon this Santa for grown-ups, it all comes clear. Belief in Christmas is irrelevant. Pretending to believe is enough.

Pretending to believe gives me the strength to do all the work, to not worry too much about money, to not fight for parking spaces, and to trust that somehow, it’ll turn out right in the end. Various bills will come due in January, but for now, we’re having a good time.

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