Writer’s Winter

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Okay, I confess . . . I love winter. Gray clouds full of snow, cold wind biting my face, soft sweaters, scarves, mittens, hats, and coats. There is nothing better than a steaming cup of coffee, a good book, a comfy chair and the warm glow of the fireplace. when snow is predicted I hang on to every word the weatherman speaks. I’m like a child waiting for Santa Claus, because where I live a snow event is as rare as Santa’s visits. Sometimes rarer.

The majority of my friends hate winter. They are miserable when the sky is steel sky and the temperatures drop to freezing. From their point of view nothing happens in winter. Everything looks and feels dead. No leaves on the trees, no grass in the lawn, no flowers in the beds. Just . . . bleh.
Soooo, why am I writing about winter? Because we sometimes experience this season in our writing lives when nothing seems to be happening. Our minds are frozen, no words are on our screens, no inspiration in our souls. Just . . . bleh.

But here’s a good word. Although winter gives the appearance of death, life is happening below the surface. This season is nature’s time of rest and rejuvenation. Much in the same way, when we are experiencing writer’s winter. Therefore, we should also rest and rejuvenate. It is a time to play, read, and push our writing roots deeper.

The way I play is doing fun writing exercises. One of my favorites is describing things using different senses not normally used. This stretches my imagination and refreshes my description storehouse. For instance, describe with violin music looks like. What does fire taste like? What would bravery sound like? What does sorrow look like?

These are just to get you started. Grab a notebook and have fun coming up with your own.

I also read books, both in my genre and in other genres as well. Then there are inspirational blogs such as Jane Friedman and how to books on writing like Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure. By doing this we nourish our writerly minds. Warning, read for the pleasure of it, and resist the temptation to edit while you read.  Appreciate the talents of others.

So, my kindred spirits, if you find yourself in writer’s winter, embrace it. Take the time to rest and rejuvenate. In no time writer’s spring is sure to bloom on your screen!

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Haiku: The Power of Brevity

Are you sometimes distracted by “shiny objects” around you? I am, and in today’s world, so are a lot of readers. That’s one reason I love haiku, not only as a reader, but as a writer, too.

First, what is haiku?

(Note: Not all haiku have seventeen syllables in the 5-7-5 structure. Sometimes this is due to translation.)

I enjoy reading haiku because it evokes a powerful image in only seventeen syllables. It’s a “story” I can read in a few seconds. It touches me, even if there are “shiny objects” waiting to distract me:

Blow of an ax,
pine scent,
the winter woods.
~~Yosa Buson

 old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water
~~Matsuo Basho

I enjoy writing haiku because it has taught me to use words sparingly. As with almost anything in life, haiku’s brevity leaves me wanting more. Verbosity is not necessary for powerful writing, as can be seen in the following haiku:

Don’t imitate me;
it’s as boring as the two
halves of a melon.
~~Matsuo Basho

Wrapping dumplings in
bamboo leaves, with one finger
she tidies her hair
~~Matsuo Basho

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.
~~Kobayashi Issa

Haiku is able to pack a punch in so few words because:

  • it focuses on a brief moment in time

The toddler –
as he laughs
autumn evening

~Kobayashi Issa
 

  • it uses provocative, relatable images

blow dandelions
and watch a thousand wishes
scatter in the wind
~Life: Haiku by Haiku 

  • it gives the reader a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination

damsel fly dances
skips along the water’s edge
flirting with demise
                         ~Life: Haiku by Haiku 

The above points are followed by examples of haiku, however, these guidelines can also be used as tools to strengthen your non-haiku writing.

Here are a couple of other ideas on how to use haiku with your writing:

Summarize with Haiku
Do you find it a challenge to write your elevator pitches or synopses? Try a different twist: You may find it easier to summarize your book as a haiku first, then from that haiku, develop your pitch or synopsis. After all:

  1. There’s no shorter elevator pitch than a haiku.
  2. Haiku captures the “essence” of the scene, chapter or book.

For example, the following haiku from The Red Kimono summarizes my entire historical fiction:

a porcelain mask
though inside a heart beats strong
even the oak breaks

Writing a haiku about your book will help you to capture the essence of the book, which is one of the most important aspects of both your elevator pitch and your synopsis.

To further demonstrate, following are a couple of haiku I’ve written about other popular books:

mischievous Scout sought
adventure, but instead found
compassion for Boo
                                 ~To Kill a Mockingbird 

Scarlett chased lost love.
When at last she loved Rhett, he
didn’t give a damn
                              ~Gone with the Wind 

the yellow-brick road
path to the greatest treasure
there’s no place like home
                         ~The Wizard of Oz

Haiku as Writing Prompt
Haiku can serve as excellent writing prompts. How? Find a haiku that captures your imagination and expand it. What is the story told in those seventeen syllables?

Here’s an example of an excerpt, written “on the fly” using the following haiku as a writing prompt:

Crisp air nips my nose
Snowflakes dust my lashes
A walk in winter
                 ~Life: Haiku by Haiku

Expanded to a Story:

Jo stared out the library window, daydreaming about what it would be like to be one of those snowflakes drifting, swirling, slowly, slowly to the ground.

Wait. Was she really imagining being a snowflake? That did it. She had to get out of that stuffy, stale room where she’d been practically shackled during finals week.

Oh, to be on the outside. The air, cool and crisp. What harm could it do?

With that, she rushed for the exit and burst through the door. She inhaled the air, so crisp and cold it stung her nose.

But she noticed the silence most. So immense it enveloped her. So quiet, she could hear the “plip” of each snowflake that landed on her jacket, as if it whispered “goodbye” before melting away.

Whether you condense a story into a haiku or select a haiku to expand to a story, give these techniques a try. Sure, they’re a little “different.” But sometimes, taking a different writing “path” inspires us and may lead to places we might not have “seen” otherwise!

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Give haiku a try! Here are a few photographs to use as prompts. We’d love to read your haiku in the comments. 🙂

No Book Before Its Time

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I have a confession to make: I am a procrastinator.  Surprise!

I’m not especially proud of the fact, but it really doesn’t bother me either—well, not to the extent that I plan on changing my ways any time soon.  I’m not talking about waiting one hour before a trip to pack or unhooking the hose from the outside faucet when a frost is coming. These  mundane things border on being lazy rather than being a procrastinator. There is a difference. What I’m talking about is more along the lines of creativity; writing to be more specific.

Last weekend I attended Ozark Creative Writers conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. While I sat at my table selling my books, I overheard a fair number of attendees saying the same thing: they have an idea for a book running amok in their heads, but they can’t get it down on paper. They feared the story idea would disappear and the book never written. Yet, try as they might, they just couldn’t get started. This stagnation worried them a great deal.  To them I say, fear not.

Creativity can not be rushed.

Creativity is a seed that needs first to be planted and then given time to grow.  God doesn’t force a rose to bloom. He lets the tiny bud unfold at its own rate of speed. The same with a great story idea.

Sometimes the story pours itself onto the page so fast I struggle to stay up with the words.   Other times, the story germinates in my head for long periods of time. Just because I’m not typing words onto paper does not mean I’m not working.  I am letting the story unfold. The meat of Soldiers In the Mist came quickly, but I forced the ending. Big mistake! The result: Five years from its release, I rewrote it with the proper ending.

The Adventures of Dixie Dandelion waited until Daughter of the Howling Moon was finished, but Dixie’s story was always firm in my head.

On the other hand, Daughter of the Howling Moon decided its birthday all on its own.  I did not rush the date. I did not induce labor or let any man-made days, hours, or minutes dictate its birth.  As a result, Daughter, in my opinion,was some of the best writing I’ve ever done and a fantastic story. In addition, this unfolding  prevents writers’ block. Technical things such as plot, story arc, and characterization automatically fall into place.  I never think of story arc when I write.  In fact, the term confuses me.  Trust in the process and the essence of your story takes care of all this man-made stuff.  How? I have no idea. Magic just works that way.

I am a firm believer that a book will determine its own making.  After all, time is only a man-made preconception. So to all of you who worry about not writing, relax. Let the story develop. Let the words run free in your mind. Let the plot simmer.  Let the bud unfold and burst forth in its own time.

Trust the process and do not force the outcome.  Because . . .

No book is born before its time.       rose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deep POV and Perspective

What draws you to a story? My favorite stories are those written in what’s often known as “deep point of view.”

 

In my novel, The Red Kimono, I created three separate Deep POV/Perspective characters: Sachi, an 8-year old Japanese American girl; Nobu, her 17-year old brother; and Terrence, Nobu’s African American friend. As you might imagine, all three saw the years surrounding World War II differently.

 

The Editor’s Blog says:

Deep POV takes readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the character’s experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.

In preparing for writing workshops, the Sisterhood often discusses debates argues about the difference between Point of View and Perspective. We go back and forth on what to call it. But then, isn’t it a woman’s prerogative to change her mind?

Here’s how NYBookEditors.com defines each:

  • Point of view focuses on the type of narrator used to tell the story
    1. First person – “I”
    2. Second person – “You”
    3. Third person – “He, she, it, they”
  • Perspective focuses on how this narrator perceives what’s happening within the story

What we call it is not so important as how we create and use Deep POV/Perspective, because writing in this way helps the reader to experience a story through the characters’ eyes, not the author’s eyes. It draws readers to empathize with characters, to love or despise them, to cheer for their successes or failures.

Exercise:

  1. Think of a memory that involves you and a friend or family member.
  2. On a sheet of paper, make two columns.
  3. In one column, write everything you recall about that memory. (Feelings, reactions, opinions, senses you recall.)
  4. Without letting your friend/family member see your recollections, ask him about his memories and write down everything he can recall about the event.
  5. Compare the two versions.

This exercise demonstrates the power of perspective and how completely it can change a story. Everything depends on from whose eyes the story is seen.

How?

To create a deeper intimacy between your characters and your reader, in other words, to create scenes with Deep POV/Perspective:

  1. Know your character. An author must know her characters as well or better than she knows real people in her life. How does your character see the world? How would she react in certain situations? How do her memories influence how she sees the world? One way to get to know answers to such questions is by interviewing your character.
  2. Be constantly aware that your character doesn’t know everything. He can’t know what’s happening in another room, or what someone said about him two days before. Stay in your character’s head—no head hopping!
  3. Avoid using, “filter words” such as the following.
  • She wondered. . .
  • He thought . . .
  • She was . . .
  • He felt . . .

Example:

  • Out of Deep POV – Kim was beginning to feel nervous as she sipped her tea. She wondered if Nick would take the time to meet her at the coffee shop.
  • In Deep POV/Perspective – Kim sipped her tea to calm roiling nerves. Still, her foot continued to tap the floor. It was a bad habit her mother always brought to her attention, which only served to make her tap harder and faster. Would Nick show up at the coffee shop? Would she be worth his time?

In Example 2, (Deep POV/Perspective), there are no “tags” or “filter words.” We are in Kim’s head. We know her memories, her concerns, her irritations, her fears.

In short, wherever possible, “Show, (through your character’s eyes). Don’t tell.”

Exercise:

  1. Choose a scene from your story/novel.
  2. Write it from different character’s perspective.
  3. If you write the scene “in the head” of this different character, you’ll be surprised about what you’ll learn about your characters, scene and story.

Deep POV/Perspective is like adding color to a canvas or photo.

Splash a little color onto your writerly canvas!

Writers Write!

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“If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire must be not to write.” ~ Hugh Prather

Are you a writer? Or, are you someone who only talks writing? Another question, do you attend conferences only to rub shoulders with writers and talk the game? Or, are you there to learn and network?

It’s so easy to talk the talk without walking the walk, or should I say writing the page? Over the years I’ve known writers who, after being rejected, picked up their pencils and went home. They were done. Finished. I know others who simply cannot take constructive criticism from honest critique. One of my friends had a bright future ahead of her with one of the big five publishing houses. But she argued with an agent representing the house about a change he wanted before accepting her manuscript. The result? She was rejected and was never published. By the way, the agent’s suggestion was spot on. Many of us in her critique circle had suggested the same thing.  Thankfully, she continued writing but many do not. They simply remain in writer’s circles talking writing instead of writing.

Always bear this in mind, rejections and critiques are not the writer’s enemies. Quite the opposite. They are the gym where the writer grows stronger. Avoiding the computer or putting pen to paper is the true enemy.

If you are discouraged with your writing or have fallen off the writing saddle, I encourage you to get back on and start a new habit. Write a paragraph every day about something you’ve observed: a news story, a conversation you overheard, or a comical antic by your pet. Anything that stirs a thought or emotion, write about it. Another good exercise is to enter contests. Even if you don’t win, you will have written. Another plus, by entering contests you’ll have good bones for publishable work.

Remember, there is only one guarantee in writing: If you don’t write, you won’t be published. Don’t be a quitter—or a talker. Be a writer!

WRITE! 

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Christmas is only 12 weeks away! If you have a child in your life, my first children’s book is an excellent gift idea!  Not only does it entertain, but it also has an important message: You are special, you have purpose. I’ve also included a page with topic suggestions for discussion, as well as a fun and interactive activity – find the ladybug on every page. The kids love this! You may purchase them for $16.99 on Amazon, or see me at our next conference…you are planning on it aren’t you? Hmmmm?

Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About

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For me, one on the most enjoyable aspects of writing is dialogue.  However, this is not true for all writers. Many struggle with conversations between their characters resulting in too much narrative. Not that narrative isn’t good (as well as necessary) but too much of one thing is seldom productive.

There are several reasons why dialogue is so important in writing:  it breaks up the narrative, helps with characterization, gives the reader insight into the character, and makes the story real and believable.

The human eye needs white space when reading. All narrative is not only boring but tedious to read as well.  Injecting dialogue into the story breaks up the never ending line of sentences and gives the eye a much needed break.  It also keeps the reader engaged and interested in the story.  It keeps them turning the pages.

Dialogue can be used to describe a character, their looks, their background and/or their past without being an info dump.  For example, in my book, The Adventures of Dixie Dandelion, my character, Big Mike talks about Dixie this way: “I expected a wee snip of a shy girl. You neglected to tell me she’d be a stick of dynamite with a fuse of wild, scarlet hair.”  In two sentences the reader discovers that Dixie is far from being shy, she’s spontaneous and explosive, and has red hair.

How characters talk is also a great way to describe their background. For example, In Soldiers in the Mist, my character Charlie is well educated while his friend, Specks never learned to read or write.  Charlie would say:  “I have none,” while Specks would say, “I ain’t got none.”

Using certain words and phrases in dialogue is yet another way to describe your character.  Big Mike is Irish. Using phrases such as, “Top of the morning to ye, or Tis a big shillelagh ye have there,” tells his nationality and adds flavor to the story.

Dialogue is nothing more than two or more people talking.  If I ever get stuck in not knowing what to say, I act out the scene and just say what comes to mind. Sometimes I have a friend help me with this.

People talk. So do your characters.  Sometimes their conversations can surprise you and can turn the story in a whole different direction. Be brave. Write their words.

Give your readers something to talk about!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sense of Place

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Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the readers.  Stephen King

Sense of place…connection…that is the goal in both fiction and nonfiction. Skillful writers placing their readers in the bodies and minds of their characters, giving just enough tantalizing description to prompt the reader to engage his or her memory and finish the picture. The challenge, however, is to spark readers’ imaginations in new ways and avoid the heavy telling line of adjectives. So how do we do this? Below are four suggestions that have worked for me.

Refresh your senses. Take the job of describing away from your eyes. Go somewhere you can be alone. I like to refresh in the outdoors, but you can do this anywhere. Close your eyes and be silent. Listen, breathe, feel, taste, think. Don’t hurry this. Just relax and let the words come. It takes time but is so worth it. I do this often, because there are so many voices clamoring for my mind that my sharpness wears down to dullness. The following is an example of one of my refreshment exercises as I sat on my deck:

 The breeze offers hope of refreshment from the sun’s determined holdover of summer. Its whispering changes into bellows, lifting cobweb strands of my hair, tickling my cheeks. In the distance a bird chants a one-note dirge and a jay screams its complaint. The crow sings off key and the hawk calls out a warning. Clearly this warrior of the sky is not pleased with the dysfunctional melody.

Isn’t that better than writing the cool breeze blew through my hair while the birds sang a cacophony of songs?  I think so. You can do this anywhere you are. If you are in a coffee shop, shield your closed eyes with your hands and pretend to read a magazine. The more you do this, the more you will notice the nuances around you, sparking your imagination.

Use one sense to describe another. This is a challenging exercise, but fun too. Earlier I mentioned a blue-jay’s scream. Think…what would that bird’s call look like? To me? Shards of glass. I might write: The jagged shards of the jay’s call pierced my ears. Ask yourself what chocolate feels like or what success tastes like.  Again, have fun with this.

Use light to set the mood. Harsh light gives the feel of impatience, anger, resistance. A thin stream of light through the curtains might reveal vulnerability. The sliver of dawn separating earth from sky may indicate hope. Shadows give the feeling of doubt and insecurity. Firelight in a dark room is romantic and cozy as does the twinkling Christmas Tree lights. But deep darkness, heavy on one’s soul, indicates sorrow, hopelessness or depression. So don’t forget about the light!

Reveal things about the character. Finally, think about the setting around the character such as a room, furniture, even the clothes he or she chooses to wear. Describing these will reveal a lot about the character without you having to say anything about him or her. For instance, if the character has an overflowing ash tray on the coffee table, magazines scattered all over the floor, wine glasses with gnats in them, lumpy couch cushions with a myriad of un-matching pillows. The air had a yin-yang odor of stale cigarette smoke and incense. What would that say about the person who lived there? What if the coffee table was spotless and glossy with nothing on it. Magazines are alphabetized in holders, sitting on a perfectly organized book shelf. The couch is black leather, as rectangular and hard as the coffee table. No pillows. The prevalent smell about the room comes from a lemon-eucalyptus candle. What would that tell you about the person living there?  What would a grandmother’s cottage tell about her? Smell of baking? Comfy afghans? What if grandma wore a mini-skirt, a plunging neckline, and heavy green eyeshadow? By describing these things the reader would already know a lot about the character without writing a word about their person.

So you see, description is a lot more than a string of adjectives. By giving tantalizing bits of description in creative ways, your reader will connect with your prose, and as the master, Stephen King says, they will finish what you start!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewing Your Characters

How are your story ideas born? For me, it all begins with a character. Maybe it’s someone I see at a mall, or at the airport. Perhaps it’s someone in a car next to me at a traffic light. The list goes on and on.

Next comes “I wonder.”

I wonder why he is smiling? Why is she crying? What makes him clutch so tightly to that steering wheel? Where is he going? Who is going to meet her at the airport?

With such curiosity in the beginning, your character’s story might flow like ice melt in the spring. But lines or pages into your story, “winter” often comes too soon as your ideas once again begin to freeze.

What then?

I’ve shared many of the techniques I’ve used to “thaw the frozen stream” in my book, Creative Characterization. But my favorite method is “Interviewing Your Character.”

Characterization is only one element of fiction. But, in my favorite stories, other elements—plot, setting, and conflict—are seen, felt, touched, heard, even tasted through the characters. Therefore, an author must know her characters as well, if not better than, the “real” people in her life.

So, how do you get to know your characters–make them tell their secrets? I’ve used two different techniques:

Interviewing on Paper

  1. Write down several questions you’d like to ask your character. (Suggestion: Use the list below to start a conversation with your character, rather than a Q&A session.)
  2. Close your eyes and imagine sitting with the character. Imagine the setting—the sights, sounds, smells.
  3. Write down the conversation as it happens in your mind.
  4. As your character talks to you, pay attention to his “voice” not only in dialogue, but also internalization. Write in that voice.
  5. This is not a time to edit or censor, but to gain knowledge. Don’t lift your pen from the page or your fingers from the keyboard.

Interviewing “In Person”

  1. Find a friend, relative or fellow writer to interview you as you portray your character.
  2. “Become” your character. Assume her personality, including her voice. If she’s a child, speak as a child. If she’s from the South, speak like a Southerner.
  3. Your interviewer can start with a few questions listed below, or ask something he’d like to know, especially if he’s familiar with your story or character.
  4. As best you can, remain in the persona of your character. Try dressing as your character!

The deeper you get into the role of your character, the more you’ll discover about your character and how he or she sees the story.

Here are a couple of questions to get you started. Try to start a conversation, rather than firing off questions like in a Q&A session. As in real life, you’ll learn more in a conversation.

  • Tell me about something or someone who made you angry or happy.
  • Who was your greatest teacher?
  • Tell me about a time someone teased you as a child.
  • If you had one day left on earth, who would you want to spend it with?
  • Tell me a secret, either about yourself or someone else.
  • Who would you like to thank and for what?
  • If you could be a fly on the wall, where would that wall be?
  • Who do you need to forgive?

Though I have many other questions in my book Creative Characterizationtry to come up with your own questions, too. I created my list of questions by thinking of things I’d like to ask friends, family and even strangers to get to know their secrets. (I rarely have the courage to ask some of these questions of people in “real life,” but you can ask your characters ANYTHING, right?

I’ve used interviewing many times with my stories or novels, but my favorite instance–the time I learned the most–was when I interviewed Nobu, a character from my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. If you’d like to read the interview, click HERE.

You’ll learn many new, exciting and perhaps, surprising things about your character (and story) through this “conversation.” However, you probably won’t (nor should you) use everything. Still, the more of your characters’ secrets you learn, the better you’ll know how he sees the world. This knowledge will lead to deeper and richer characters and stories and therefore, will keep your readers turning the pages.

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NOTE:  I’ll be teaching the interview method and other characterization development techniques with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pen at this year’s Ozark Creative Writers Conference October 11-14. Come enjoy the Ozarks in autumn—the perfect setting to share and learn with other writers.

Rules Are More Like Guidelines

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All of our lives we are told, “No. You can’t do this. You have to do that. That’s not allowed. You must follow the rules.”

When I first started writing, I joined a critique group.  Their input was priceless and it lead to publication. Since then I have written and published five books. I’ve learned  my craft through trial and error, following advise from more experienced writers, and learning the rules.

Writing has a Holy Trinity of its own:  Point of View, Internalization, and Sense of Place. Every writer is told to include these three points in each scene.  As a beginning writer I got so caught up in making sure I had these attitudes in every chapter, I forgot to write.

Of course I realize there are basic guidelines that help  beginners become more professional and organized. By learning colors and textures, an artist creates more breathtaking drawings.  By taking lessons and learning the mechanics of certain strokes,  a swimmer can slice through the water in record time. All professions and professionals learn the rules and dedicate hours and hours of practice following said rules.

Ok, I get it.  By learning and following the Holy Trinity of Writing, a story goes from flat to 3-D.

But:

I can’t help but wonder, who made up these rules?  Did Shakespeare,  Dickens, Hemingway, and Faulkner sit around one night and decide: hook the reader with the first sentence, a writer must have an agent,  writers can have only 10 minutes to pitch their books, etc, etc, etc..   Of course not.  In fact, Dickens self-published!

Remember the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean? In this movie the Pirates Code played an important part.  But I loved Barbossa’s explanation when he said, “And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.

My point is this:  There is no right or wrong way to write!

True, there are more productive ways.  However:

Creativity is a free spirit. She loves to run. She doesn’t want or need any stinkin’ rules!

So, am I telling beginning writers not follow the rules?

NO!

By all means, learn all the rules. Become efficient in using them. Hone your craft. Know the rules inside and out. Get published.  Then . . .

Break them!

The Quest for the Illusive “They”

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My twin brother, Jim has a great sense of humor. He can be extremely quick with a comeback and is very witty at times. He’s had me rolling on the floor with laughter more than once. A particularly memorable time in Branson comes to mind when I laughed so hard at one of his off-handed comments, I about peed my pants. Sometimes, it isn’t what he says but more the way he says it that sends me into a fit of guffaws. Through the years, Jim has sent emails that made me laugh out loud and marvel at his insight and wit. At one time I was printing these little gems out and saving them but, alas, two moves later I’ve lost them.

Recently, Jim had a bout with pneumonia. He’s recovering now but still has health issues that make me cringe. We were emailing back and forth last Friday…

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