2019 Theme Announced

As is my custom, I began searching for a theme last October around the time Halloween decorations took flight all over the house. This is my fifth year to choose a theme, and the way I do it is to pick a word or phrase that applies to all aspects of my life. The words– Intention (2015), Reinvention (2016), Discipline (2017), and Ambition (2018)–have caused no small amount of trouble. Yes, I blame the words.

But the words have also been a balm in times of uncertainty and a growth mechanism. If nothing else, they help me focus my efforts. They force me to acknowledge where I’ve been and where I want to be.

I considered a bunch of words for 2019: abundance, forward, optimism, openness, new, support, begin, enlarge, reach, stretch. None of these told the whole story of who I wanted to become in 2019, and I finally settled on the phrase Planting & Watering. It comes from a new testament Bible verse: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” 1 Corinthians 3: 6.

I am a Christian, and I believe these words. I also know they apply in context to the conversion work that Paul and Apollos performed–their preaching and teaching and service.

However, most of life revolves around the principles of planting and watering and someone else granting the growth. Hamilton in the eponymous musical said the same of democracy. I’m saying it of most of my life. As a Christian, I do believe God gives the increase when the planting and watering concern what concerns my God. Most of that comes down to love. I don’t believe my God will give me more money because I work harder. I do believe my God will increase something for somebody when I work toward love.

The older I get, the more I realize how little I control in this world. Having a teenager will do that. In relationships, the most I can do is plant and water, tend my side of the relationship. The increase comes, if at all, out of so many variables, most of which I cannot affect. For example, I want my kids to carry a lot of life skills into their adulthood. But I cannot force them to learn anything. I cannot force them to practice or to remember or to care. I can only plant and water. I can only show what the skill is, why it’s important, how to do it, and then practice it myself. Planting and watering.

I want my kids to understand the world and to love people and to care about humans and the planet. But I don’t control any of those actions–my children’s understanding, love, or care. If I focus my mothering energies on planting and watering what I hope will grow, then maybe…Maybe it will grow. And if it doesn’t, I won’t regret the effort.

This is true of my marriage, my friendships, and so much more. It’s also true of my own physical and mental health. There are factors I don’t control, like heredity, past choices and failures, aging, accidental injury, or future illness, among others. I don’t wholly control the increase or the growth in health areas. I can plant and I can water. Then a host of variables–environmental, hereditary, etc–will conspire to increase or decrease my health. I don’t believe I’ll regret having done the work, though. Whether it’s getting enough steps or sleep, or seeing my therapist, or eating cholesterol-lowering foods, I likely won’t regret having done it regardless of the outcome.

I felt this weight lift off me after I chose the phrase. The weight of expectation and disappointment. The weight of regret and failures and shouldas and couldas. Another weight lifted from my working shoulders. I no longer feel burdened with making an agent or publisher choose me. Lean in closely. I never controlled that anyway. Now I am free to plant and water by writing more, editing better, drawing anything, and sending it out into the world. The increase will come, or it won’t. But I’ll never regret the work. I’ll just have more fun doing it.

This topic will simmer here on the blog all year. I’ll tell you what I planned and how it’s panning out. If you gain anything from it, excellent! If not, I don’t regret a thing.

Edit by (Soft) Firing Squad

Tons of writing advice implores you to read your work aloud. You can hear the snags, the run-ons, the unwitting alliteration. You can hear when you used a word that doesn’t fit the tone or time period of the manuscript.

Not too long ago, I tried this with a twist. I’d already read the manuscript many times, both silently and aloud. But I took the opportunity to read it aloud to my three sons and two nieces, all between the ages of ten and thirteen.

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I now call this edit by (soft) firing squad.

Kids are excellent listeners. You need not tell them to listen for mistakes. You need not tell them to pay attention to continuity. They do it by design, and they’ve been doing it all their lives, or for as long as they’ve been read to.

And they are not easy. Oh, they’re impressed. It’s like a warm bath of adoration when they come to realize you have strung together so many words. They have a knack for balancing love for you the person with critique of the work. They have not yet learned to be unhelpfully polite.

The rapid fire comes sooner or later. Hands shoot into the air: I don’t understand. I’m confused. What is this word? What happened to X? Or my personal favorite: Wait, when did Y get there? Wasn’t he missing?

They miss nothing. It is a step beyond word choice, beyond culling adverbs and discovering concision, beyond anything I’ve ever done before. It was a live preview into readership. When were they antsy and bored? When were they invested and unwilling for me to stop reading? When did something not click or seem less clear than I thought?

At no point did any of them say, “This story arc should be changed in these substantial ways.” They told me which characters they liked and why. Which characters failed to accomplish their purposes, though not in so many words. They told me when they were afraid for relationships, for character safety, for the outcomes. They told me when they were satisfied.

It was amazing.

As a second layer for me, my nieces are second generation on their father’s side. They perked up when they heard words from their second language. One said, “I always look in books for words I know, like a little wave.” The other said, “I can’t speak for everybody represented in your book, but I think you did a good job.” They are not representative of every character in the book or even every character like them. They cannot grant me absolution for any errors in representation. They do represent honesty for themselves and their own perspectives, because we’ve cultivated a relationship of it.

Edit by firing squad is not the first, the only, or the last edit. It was a terrific edit that gave me information in real time like no other edit to date has. And it sharpened aspects of the book I didn’t realize needed sharpening.

Is a live read edit something you would try?