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Nine things you need to know before you write your book

Nina AmirInspiration hits. The light bulb goes on. You’ve got a passion, and you pursue it. You see a need, and you fill it. There’s a question, and you answer it. You have a purpose, and you fulfill it.

These are all great reasons to begin writing a book. And most writers, when struck by a good idea and the desire to write, simply begin writing. However, an even better reason exists to take a bit of time before you beginning writing to evaluate your idea — at least if you want your book to be successful.

Evaluate? I can hear you groaning. No one wants to evaluate anything, especially that book idea you are so psyched about.

If you simply want to write the book of your heart and you don’t care how many copies you sell, great. Go for it. If you want to write a successful book, meaning one that sells to lots of readers or to a traditional publisher and to lots of readers, however, it behooves you to take the time to consider if your idea is a good one by industry standards.

To do this, I suggest you discover nine things about your book idea. Once you have this information, you’ll know if your book has a chance of success.

1. What Your Book Will be About and Why Would Someone Would Want to Read (Buy) It: You’d be amazed at how many writers cannot tell you in 50 words or less, or in 30 seconds or less, what their book is about. They also may not be able to list the benefits their book will provide to readers. Before beginning to write your book, hone your topic and its angle. Figure out why someone would want to read your book rather than someone else’s book on the same topic. Write a pitch or elevator speech, a short statement that describes the essence of your book, and follow it with some bulleted points — the added value readers will take away from its pages. Think of this exercise like writing back cover copy. What might you say or write about your book that would make someone carry it to the register?

2. Who Wants to Read Your Book: Make sure you know your average reader — that one person you are writing for — as well as the size of your book’s market. Who wants to read your book, and where do you find them? How many of these people exist in the world? Are there enough of them to justify writing your book? This market research tells you if anyone is out there to read (buy) your book and helps you know for whom who you are writing.

3. Whether Your Book Will be Unique and Necessary: Make sure the book you plan on adding to the mix is not only unique compared to the other books in your niche or category but also necessary before you add one more title to the staggering number of books in print. Take a good hard look at what other authors have already written and published. Is what you want to write different — different enough to make someone purchase your book rather than an established title or a book by an established author? And is there a need for another book on the subject? If no books have been written on the subject, why? Is there a need for even one book on the topic?The Author Training Manual

4. If You Have Enough Content to Fill a Book: Sometimes writers think they have enough material for a book when really they only have enough for an article, a couple of articles, an essay, or a short story. Or they think they know what content they are going to include in the book, but when they finish the first draft, they discover they produced a manuscript that is scattered, rambling, misses the point, or leaves out essential information. Avoid these problems by mapping out your content first. Actually do a mind mapping exercise, which entails brainstorming while creating a large diagram of all your possible content and then organizing all these ideas into a table of contents or an outline. If you write fiction, try using a timeline. When you are done with this process you’ll know if you have enough content to fill a book, and you’ll know what content you plan to include in the pages of that book.

5. How You Would Describe Your Book’s Content:  Bring your book to life with a short synopsis for each chapter. This accomplishes two things. First, when you couple this chapter-by-chapter synopsis with your table of contents, your pitch and list of benefits, you will have the best writing guide possible. Second, when you have finished the synopsis of all your chapters, and you have completed the previous four steps, you will suddenly have a clear picture of your book and feel ready to write your book. Why? Because it will seem real to you. If you can see it and it seems real, if your idea stood up to all the prior steps, it’s likely a viable book.

6. How You Will Ensure You and Your Book Succeed: Whether you self-publish or land a traditional publishing deal, you will need to promote your book. And promotion does not begin after the book lands in your hands as a finished product. It begins the moment that light bulb goes off in your head. Spend some time considering all the options you have to build awareness for yourself and your book as you begin the writing process as well as after you launch the book.

7. Why You Are the Best Person to Write This Book: Novelists just need a good idea and the ability to bring it to life with good writing. Most nonfiction books are written by experts. Decide if you are the expert on your topic, how you will become the expert, or if you might need to bring in other experts (maybe a co-author, contributors or experts to interview). Also, does writing this book fulfill a sense of mission for you? If so, you might want to consider how to get that message across in the book and in your promotional efforts. Plus, in this step, no matter your genre, it’s important to ask yourself if you have what’s called an “author’s platform.” Do you have a fan base or a large, loyal following of people who know you in relationship to the topic about which you plan to write? If not, you need to consider how you will begin building that built-in readership for your book.

8. If This is the Only Book You Will Write on This Topic:  The more books you write, the more books you sell. That’s why it’s a good idea to spend a moment brainstorming other “spin-off” books on your topic, also known as sequels or series. This is especially important if you want to create a business around your book or attract a traditional publisher. As an expert author, if you have more books, you can create more products and services to sell to readers. And publishers like to take on multiple-book authors.

9. How You Want to Publish Your Book:  If you decided your book is marketable and has a chance of succeeding, you can begin writing your book — with one caveat. You need to know what publishing route you plan to take. If you plan on self-publishing, you can go ahead and write the whole book. If you plan on approaching traditional publishers, you only need to write 25-30 pages, or about two chapters, but you also need to write a book proposal, which includes all the information you just compiled. You then will submit the proposal to agents and publishers.

Armed with this information, and assuming you discovered your idea is a viable one, you’re ready to take action on your inspiration. Turn your idea into a successful book.

— Nina Amir

Nina Amir, author of How to Blog a Book and The Author Training Manual, transforms writers into inspired, successful authors, authorpreneurs and blogpreneurs. Known as the “Inspiration to Creation Coach,” she moves her clients from ideas to finished books as well as to careers as authors by helping them combine their passion and purpose so they create products that positively and meaningfully impact the world. A sought-after author, book, blog-to-book and results coach, Nina has helped clients sell 300,000+ copies of their books, land deals with major publishing houses and create thriving businesses around their books. She writes four blogs, has self-published 12 books and is the founder of National Nonfiction Writing Month, aka the Write Nonfiction in November Challenge. She’s part of the 2014 EBWW faculty.

The note on the door

Anne BardsleyI have a very specific talent. I cannot juggle, do cartwheels or win a baking contest. I can however, write backwards.

I know you’re wondering why I would even tell you this. Just try it. You will see that it is not as easy as it sounds.

When our kids were small, the elves would leave notes. Every Christmas morning they were letters telling them how much they loved those butter cookies with sprinkles. The elves also wrote personal things that they’d seen happen over the year. “That was a great goal last game!  That A+ on your spelling test was great! We saw how nice you were to your sister.” The elves wrote in the exact same penmanship as my backward cursive. Who knew!

On a more fun note, I once wrote my husband a note and left it on the front door. We had escaped to our little getaway vacation house. I left a note that read, “We are so happy you and your wife are amorous, however, please close your windows. The children can hear you. My daughter asked whose dog was howling.” I signed it, Sincerely, a concerned neighbor.

I giggled as I taped it on the door. We were leaving to go to dinner when he spotted the note. “Anne, what is this?” he asked as he studied the note. “Oh! This is not good. The neighbors heard us!” He was horrified. Within 10 seconds he went from horrified to very proud of himself. I swear his chest swelled three inches.

When we arrived at the restaurant, he asked, “Do you think this happens often?”

“Have we ever gotten a note before? No it doesn’t happen often!” It was all I could do not to burst out laughing.

“Which neighbor do you think left it? I’ll be able to tell if the wife starts smiling at me.”

“What are you talking about?” He was getting ridiculously full of himself.

“Well, you said it doesn’t happen often. She probably thinks I’m a hot guy.”

Our shrimp cocktail arrived, and the talk about the note continued. “She doesn’t have very good handwriting,” he said.

“She was probably nervous just bringing it over. Imagine if you had seen her at the door,” I said, defending my penmanship.

“Well, when I get home, I’m going to look out the bedroom window and try to figure this out. One of our neighbors knows we have sex now.”

I finished my shrimp cocktail and hoped this was the end of it.  As we finished dinner, he started up again, “So really, we do have a nice life, don’t we?  “Yes, we do,” I said.

“Maybe the mystery neighbor is envious of us.” He winked at me.

“I don’t think so,” I told him as I rummaged in my purse for a pen.

I smiled to myself as I wrote on a napkin and passed it to him. There in my unique penmanship were the words, “I wrote the note!”

“Are you serious?!!! My God! You write like an elf!”

— Anne Bardsley

Anne Bardsley, of St. Petersburg, Fla., is the author of the soon-to-be-published ANZ World…How I Earned My Wrinkles, a collection of humorous and sentimental stories about marriage, motherhood and menopause. She lives in a menopausal world with a husband who gives her wrinkles. When people ask her age, she sometimes tells them her bra size. “36-C,” she says, “was a wonderful age.”

The land line: saying goodbye

Barbara Younger“Time to give up the land line,” Cliff announced. “We don’t need to pay double for phone service.”

Give up the land line?

Our phone number for 30 years?

Say you don’t mean it!

The calls I took:

From my brother: “Barb, Dad just died.”

From my daughter: “He’s born. His name is Mazen.”

From my editor: “Barbara, we want to publish your picture book.”

The calls I made:

To my husband: “There’s water pouring down into the guest room. Will you come home? Fast!”Phone

To the doctor: “My daughter fell out of her crib. I can’t get her to stop crying.”

To my Mom: “Laura finally chose a wedding dress. It’s gorgeous!”

And if I could have a penny for every minute I spent as a young mom on that line, I’d be able to buy my own phone company. That line was a life line, especially after I got my first portable phone.

So give up the number?

919-732-3108?

I gave it up.

You can tell because I just wrote the number on the Internet.

Here it is again:  919-732-3108.

Gone.

My grief surprised Cliff. In fact, he had the number “frozen” for a month, I guess in case I didn’t recover.

And I haven’t.

I still miss 919-732-3108.

But hey, I still miss kindergarten art on the refrigerator and our first cat.

Time mellows loss.

With the money we save, maybe we can, among other projects, repaint the guest room. That water left some nasty spots, and by golly, it’s only been 20-some years.

— Barbara Younger

Barbara Younger writers an upbeat, witty blog, Friend for the Ride: Encouraging Words for the Menopause and Midlife Roller Coaster. Healthline placed Friend for the Ride on its list of Best Menopause Blogs of 2013.

A technology trifecta

Noah and Mary FarrMadam never claimed to be a technology whiz. Frankly, I too face techno challenges just trying to organize my hooves on a keyboard without triggering an Internet explosion. So, you can imagine my surprise when she texted me for advice on her new printer.

It’s worth noting that her former printer, a self-proclaimed, digital athlete theoretically claimed to do everything from FAX and scan, to print, dust, vacuum and clean the air ducts. Yet, It rarely even printed for more than 24 hours at a time. This launched a busy moonlighting career for Madam’s IT guy Matt. The printer held a permanent position on Matt’s to-do list.

So, about a month ago, Madam decided it was time for a technology updo. This involved new memory for her iMac; a reconditioned MacBook; and another printer tune-up. All three items had to be returned to Al’s Ace Tech Outlet within a week. The new shot of memory caused the iMac to contract a form of attention deficit disorder. It shut down and started up spontaneously in the middle of the night or the middle of a chapter, whichever one came first. The MacBook ignored all passwords and WiFi signals, and rarely recognized its own mouse. Of course, it also refused to speak to the printer, or visa versa.

That’s when Madam decided to replace the tuned-up printer with an industrial workhorse (her words, not mine!). The best thing about this fail-safe plan was the fact that the fail-safe workhorse failed within three weeks. Thus, it died before the warantee ran out. The next step involved making the exchange for another new printer.

Phone call number one to the manufacturer: This required another appointment with IT Matt to properly discuss the problem.

Call number two: Another consultation with IT Matt to discern the manufacturer’s return policy. Actually, this took two calls, and neither IT Matt nor Madam fully grasped the plan. A VP of Customer Service offered vague guidance and asked if they would like to take a quality survey.

Call number three: Madam turned to Al’s Ace Tech Outlet for help obtaining the correct mailing label to return the printer. Because Madam’s printer had expired, she could not print the label. So, the VP of Customer Service emailed the label to three different addresses without success. He also reminded Madam that time was running short before she would receive a $551 bill for the second computer.

Eventually, the courier missed the appointed pick-up date and then showed up the next day while Madam was out of the office. Then two couriers appeared within an hour of one another, annoyed about the double booking snafu. After that, the tracking code disappeared into cyberspace. That’s when Madam texted me for my opinion on the matter.

All I could say was, where would we be without technology-enhanced time savers such as these at our fingertips? I’ll tell you where — we would be making Saint Paddy’s Day plans with our pals!

— Noah Vail

Noah Vail and Mary Farr have collaborated on a book, Never Say Neigh: An Adventure in Fun, Funny and the Power of You. Noah, author, philosopher, humorist, gin rummy ace and all-around “good news sort of guy” blogs here. Never Say Neigh won an honorable mention in the 2013 Paris Book Festival.

You can write!

writingcompetitionlogoThe judges have spoken.

Here are the winners and honorable mentions in the 2014 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition. Click here to read the winning essays.

Global – Humor

Winner: Tracy Beckerman for “Not By the Hair of My Chinny-Chin-Chin” (New Jersey)

Honorable Mention: Leigh Ann Northcutt for “Can We Talk Turkey?” (Kentucky) and Kristina Cerise for “The ‘S’ Word” (Washington)

Others in the Top 10 (random order):  Becky Green Aaronson for “Smart Shoppers” (California); Krista Swan for “I’ll Do It Myself” (Ohio); Wayne Scheer for “My Left Foot” (Georgia); Lorrie Goldin for “Family Life” (California); Jennifer D. Munroe for “Potential” (Washington); Dorothy Rosby for “Worry Works” (South Dakota); and Beth Bartlett for “Digital Dieting” (Arkansas)

Global – Human Interest

Winner: Kim Parsells for “Favorite Neighbor Brat” (Idaho)

Honorable Mention: Frances Peacock for “Blue Line Beauty” (Indiana) and Maia Aziz for “A Family Reunited” (Quebec, Canada)

Others in the Top 10 (random order): Donna Volkenannt for “Remembering Miss Tobin” (Missouri); Annie Stopyro for “Be the Worst” (Minnesota); Kim Miller for “Goodbye to My Mom” (Massachusetts); Gretchen Ayoub for “Forever Saxophone” (Massachusetts);  Erica Brown for “Skills” (Massachusetts); Dortha Jackson for “There Goes Mom” (Texas); and Sarah Hunt for “Time Rules” (Ohio).

Local – Humor

Winner: Monica Schultz for “Mass Monitor”

Honorable Mention: Barbara Cleary for “Down the Bunny Trail”

Others in the Top 5 (random order): Daniel Crone for “Cash is Not Always King” and Tiziana Alings for “Icing on the Cake”

Local – Human Interest

Winner: Rosalie Bernard for “Every Woman Has a Norman In Her Life”

Honorable Mention: David Novick for “Rose, the Tarantula” and Sheila Hassell Hughes for “Assisted Living”

Others in the Top 5 (random order): Michelle Winters for “A Bag of Memories” and Christina Cahall for “Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien”

The 2014 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition attracted 853 entries from 48 states and 13 countries.  The four winners receive $500, a free registration to the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and publication of their pieces in the workshop’s program.

The writing competition is hosted every two years by the University of Dayton and the Washington-Centerville Public Library in Centerville, Ohio, where Erma wrote the books and columns that launched her national fame.

Congratulations to the winners and to all who entered the competition. In the words of Erma Bombeck, “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.”

Facebook fossil

Marcia DoyleOkay, I’ll admit that I’m tired of being the dinosaur in the family.

I was the last to learn how to use a DVD, the last to learn how to use a cell phone and the last to learn how to use a computer.

I finally brushed the cobwebs out of my brain and took a computer class geared for geriatric-aged people. For months I tinkered around on the computer and discovered how much I liked watching weird videos on YouTube, reading blog sites and emailing friends who had given up such relics as stationery, ink pens and postage stamps eons ago. My kids also set up a Facebook account for me, but I rarely looked at it. In fact, I thought it was kind of silly spending all that time chatting away with people I hadn’t seen since Jimmy Carter was in the oval office.  At the time I was also sharing the clunky, old, family computer with three other people in the house, so it seemed pointless to get into a juicy conversation with an old friend online when my kids were hovering nearby, waiting their turn to neglect their homework in favor of socializing on Facebook.

Life changed the day my husband surprised me with my very own computer for Christmas. It was the Holy Grail of communication for me, and every time I lifted the lid on my laptop, I swear I could hear the Hallelujah Chorus when the keyboard lit up. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough of it —  was zipping through videos, blogs, emails and Googling stupid stuff like kangaroos trained to play ping-pong in Australia. It was a heady experience, all that power at my finger tips. With one click, I had access to THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE — or at least a great recipe for low-fat meatloaf.

And then one day I let my fingers do the walking through Facebook, and I discovered this whole, new neighborhood filled with hundreds of people who at one time or another were important in my life. I badgered my kids daily to help me set up my profile, upload nice (i.e., flattering) pictures and to locate people I haven’t seen since we marched out of the high school auditorium with diplomas in our hands.

That’s when the real fun started. Friend requests were sent and received like rapid gunfire over the Internet. I was sending friend requests to EVERYONE, including people I hadn’t seen since nursery school. “Hey, remember me? We shared a mat together during nap time in Mr. Jim’s class…”

Even more fun was checking up on the Facebook status of each of my children and leaving silly comments on their walls. One son threatened to “unfriend” me for reminding him on his Facebook wall to brush his teeth before going to bed. I kept forgetting that my comments were like a neon sign on his wall for the entire teenage population to see.

I also had to adapt to computer lingo before I could join the Facebook community. Abbreviations such as: LOL, BRB, LMAO, DK, BFF, TMI, UR2, TXT, TTYL and ROFLMAO — it was like learning a new language. Once I got the hang of it, my fingers were flying over the keyboards as I abbreviated everything in “text-speak.”

At this point, my kids were nauseated by my Facebook enthusiasm. They never expected this old fossil to become a Facebook aficionado. I was obsessed with it — not only could I catch up with old friends, but I could also share recipes, videos, music, photos of the grandchildren and get good advice from dozens of people on how to stop my dog from pooping on the living room carpet. I could change my status daily or even hourly, and there was always someone out there reading it, ready to send me a smile or a sympathetic ear to my daily grumblings. My husband just shook his head and asked, “Why do you need to know who’s cheating on their diet right at this very moment with a strawberry and cream frappucino from Starbucks, or who’s secretly sucking down vodka martinis in a Spiderman thermos at their kid’s soccer game? Why do you even care?”

I couldn’t explain to him that it was all just part of being involved in the Facebook community.

Over time I have learned that there are certain, unwritten rules that need to be adhered to while using Facebook.  For instance:

1. You’ve heard of drunk texting?  Drunk Facebooking is worse. DO NOT get lubed up on cheap beer or wine and stalk old boyfriends/girlfriends or write depressing messages on your wall about feeling unloved or under-appreciated.

2. If you’ve got food poisoning or the flu, please refrain from sharing your symptoms, in detail, in your day’s status.  Some of us already have weak stomachs.

3. Leave negative comments to yourself.  If your best friend posts a picture of herself in a new pair of jeans, don’t ask her if it’s too late to get her money back.

4. Do not discuss politics on Facebook.  Pretty soon 40 people will be arguing on your wall over who would make a better president/senator/governor. Eventually they’ll all agree that Pee-wee Herman should be a write-in candidate.

5. If several of your Facebook friends are dieting, do not post pictures of the calorie-laden, mouth-watering meal you just consumed with a Rachel Ray description of every bite you took.

6. This is the most important one of all. DO NOT TAG YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS IN UNFLATTERING PICTURES!!!  To me, this is the worst offense on Facebook.  It’s hard enough to be a middle-aged person trying to look 10 years younger and trying to post a flattering picture of yourself on Facebook.  After all, EVERYONE sees these photos — old lovers, ex spouses, high school rivals, distant cousins, the family dog. You’ve got to look NICE in these pictures! When you finally think you’ve got the best pictures of yourself posted on Facebook (you know, the ones with your stomach sucked in, chest out, chin up, hair perfectly coiffed), something terrible is bound to happen that will shatter that image of perfection on the computer screen. Your kids (or a not-so-nice friend, in-law, etc.) will take great delight in posting a horrendous picture of you from last summer’s backyard barbecue — the one where you’re mid-bite into a juicy burger and there’s mayonnaise all over your face. Or that picture taken last Christmas that the kids think is so hilarious because they caught you on camera at 3 a.m. putting presents under the tree. No makeup, wild hair, ratty, old pajamas and looking very much like a rabid possum. They shamelessly tag you in these photos on Facebook.

The definition of blackmail?  When your kids post these God-awful pictures while you’re out of town (and miles from any WiFi spots) or schlepping around Walmart, and you have NO IDEA that the entire universe has already viewed the REAL YOU in living color. This can scar you for life, and you’ll end up shouting in your sleep, “DELETE! DELETE!”

The ultimate revenge in this case is to return the favor and post on Facebook old photos of these same people, whether it’s an old high school friend who once sported red satin pants, a sequin tube top and a poufy 1980s hairdo while engaged in a hotdog eating contest, or one of your kids (prior to puberty) when they went through that awkward, chubby, mouth-full-of-braces look in a bathing suit two sizes too small.

Post these embarrassing old photos on Facebook, sit back and chuckle while the comments roll in on your wall. Who says you can’t teach an old dinosaur new tricks? LOL!

— Marcia Kester Doyle

Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of the humorous blog “Menopausal Mother,” where she muses on the good, the bad and the ugly side of menopausal mayhem. She is a staff writer for In The Powder Room and HumorOutcasts.com and a contributing writer for What the Flicka. Her work recently captured first place in VoiceBoks Top Hilarious Parent Bloggers 2014, and her first book will be released in the spring through Blue Lobster Publishing. Marcia’s work has appeared on Scary Mommy, Mamapedia, Bloggy Moms, Messy Mom’s Radio, The Woven Press, the Life Well Blogged series and was voted Top 25 in the Circle Of Mom’s Contest 2013.

Trapped

Doug CloughAs my wife’s and my children grow older, I dread the day after a child’s sleepover. Sleepovers should just be called ‘overs,’ as in “It will be all over for you if you talk to my daughter today.”

I have learned it is possible to harness the power of a tired teen. It all began a few weeks ago at bedtime when my bride and I heard teeth gnashing coming from the bathroom.

“Do you hear that?” I stammered to my bride, sitting up.

“Yeah,” she replied. “It’s Abby scratching at the backdoor.” Abby is my companion Labradoodle.

“No,” I said. “It’s coming from the bathroom.”

“It’s not,” she uttered. “It’s Abby. I heard it all the time from our farm dogs.”

I went to sleep, not questioning  farmer’s daughter wisdom.

The next night we heard it again at 11 p.m. and every hour until 4 a.m. My wife’s confidence was shaken, evidenced by her polar bear pajamas stuffed into my boots while carrying a broom handle. We discovered a hole beneath the bathroom sink and sawdust piled neatly underneath.

“The good news is that it’s not a bat,” explained the Pest Control man. “The bad news is it’s not a mouse.”

Bad news?

“It’s doing too much damage.”

Our abode had been invaded through a ground-level dryer vent with a stuck flap. My dad came to help install a secure vent. During our work, we heard a POP, followed by the lights dimming. We shrugged and continued on our fix-it journey to find nothing unusual about the dryer’s innards.

The ventilation eventually repaired, the vermin had no way in — or out — of the house. I drove to the hardware store for glue traps and D-Con. The clerk suggested I might have a woodchuck. From bat to mouse to woodchuck; Sasquatch couldn’t be far off in the guessing horizon.

Traps in place we headed to bed in hopes of a good night’s sleep. Sliding off into slumber, I dreamed of Sasquatch sticking its nose through the hole, snarling, “That trap makes me ANGRY.”

Awakening to a “SNAP,” I ran to see our catch. I stared slack-jawed at an empty trap drawn against the hole. My wife’s oldest slept that night with a claw hammer in his right hand and fishing net in the other.

Three days passed without any noise or animal caught. Becoming frustrated, I checked the under-stairs storage for signs of life. After pulling out the initial load of winter coats and decoration-filled totes, I saw poop, something from a sizable sphincter. The interloper was around the corner where no light shone.

Abby was brought in to finish the hunt but refused to partake. My wife, growing more agitated with each day that passed, told me to “get in there and get the job done.” Abby now seemed the only one with good sense, so I joined my furry friend’s stance of refusal. And the spousal bickering began.

My wife’s 13-year-old daughter, the victim of two consecutive nights of sleepovers, was not amused by the squabbling, and hollered, “I’M TRYING TO SLEEP!” I calmly explained to her to “BUTT OUT.”

Not backing down, my farmer-daughter wife’s daughter marched downstairs, announcing, “FOR GOODNESS SAKE, IT WON’T BITE YOU IF YOU DON’T STEP ON IT!” Continuing, she sauntered into the abyss of the storage area where two adults and a Labradoodle would not go.

Fueled by an internal combustion known only to teens, the blonde bomb ticked around the corner with plumes of dust, bags and totes thrown over her shoulder — until pink feet and tail became visible. We had a rat, most notably, a freshly dead rat.

Our heroine shrieked and ran into her mother’s arms. Being assured it was dead, she declared, “I deserve take-out.” Agreed. After all, it’s distress in a family’s life that helps parents to know their children and how to reward a young lady for a job well done.

How did the rat meet its end?

My father speculates that its fondness for chewing got him electrocuted. My wife believes that, having tried the poison, he expired soon after. As for me, I believe the poor thing suffered heart failure at facing a sleep-deprived teen.

— Doug Clough

Doug Clough writes a column for the Ida County Courier in Ida Grove, Iowa, called “From our backyard…”  His work has appeared in Farm News, The Iowan and Boating World, and he served as a travel scout for Midwest Living. “I am a father of a salad bowl family (aka ‘blended’), a customer service manager, the possession of my Labradoodle and — in a former life — an English teacher. Someone has to enjoy that mix; it may as well be me,” he says.

The gift of the moment

Anne CasteenNext month, I will be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

This is very cool for me because I have always enjoyed Erma’s writing. It is often heartwarming, always pure comic genius, and timeless. Long before I could relate my personal life experiences to her writing, I thought she was hilarious.

At the age of 50, I have a greater appreciation for her insight and her use of  humor to celebrate the ups, and cope with the downs, of life. Life is short, but some days it sure seems long. The ability to see the funny in everyday life is a gift.

Even Erma’s views on the subject of humor were insightful. Some of her more famous quotes about the importance of humor are:

If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.

He who laughs….lasts.

When humor goes, there goes civilization.

I have a sentimental attachment to her writing because it reminds me of my Mom. When I was growing up, one of us would often ask the other, “Did you read Erma today?” Together, we laughed about her column, read her books and watched her segments on Good Morning America.

During the summer, we also tuned in at 9 a.m. to watch The Phil Donahue Show together. Oh, the education a teen could gain from The Phil Donahue Show back then. It was THE source for information because he covered all the thought-provoking and juicy topics.

So, Phil and Erma are forever linked together in my mind. Not only because they are former neighbors who had a mutual admiration and affection for each other, but also because they were involved in a sort of 1970s Midwestern love triangle with my mom and me. Nothin’ weird here; this was a triangle of appreciation and adoration.

We enjoyed Phil, and we loved Erma. Erma and Phil loved and adored each other.

In light of this, it is especially cool for me that Phil Donahue will be the keynote speaker at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

During a visit to my hometown over the holidays, I decided to tell my Mom that I had gotten into the workshop. The former version of my Mom would have been so tickled about this. I knew the current version of my Mom, with advanced dementia, would not fully grasp what I was saying. I also knew she would have absolutely no memory of the conversation just a minute later.

Despite being the subject of a few blog posts, including Sweetie Pie and She’s Such A Doll, she knows nothing about my blog and has never read a single post.

So, as silly as it may be, I still wanted to share this news with her, and just enjoy the moment. 

One afternoon I sat in her room, reading the Christmas cards she had received. Some included photos or letters. (For anyone who continues to remember nursing home residents with greeting cards, may God bless you for this kindness.) We passed the cards, photos and notes back and forth. She was able to fondly recall at least a small detail about each friend or family member.

She was “tracking” fairly well, so I decided to share my news with her. As we chatted, she was lying on her side, atop her bed, like a teenage girl. Her elbow bent, her head propped up in her hand.

“Mom, do you remember reading Erma Bombeck?”

“Oh GAWD, yes. She’s SO funny!”

“Well, do you remember my friend, Terri?”

“Well, of course. How is she?”

I went on to explain in very simple terms, with no details, that Terri and I would both be attending the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio.

I never even got to the part about Phil Donahue.

My Mom sat up and said, “Really? You’re kidding?”

Wow! Had I really picked the perfect lucid moment?

Then she said, “We should call Grandma! She loves Erma, too!  She’ll go with us!”

Chatting with dementia, the trickster, is sort of what I imagine doing improvisational comedy is like: you never know which direction your partner will go next. You need to be on your toes, open to anything, think quickly and just go with it.

We both smiled at the idea.

It was a lovely moment.

I went with it.

“Sure, that’s a great idea, Mom!”

As she slowly counted off on her right hand, she said “That’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 of us.”

Yep. Me, Terri, Mom, Grandma….and Erma gettin’ away for the weekend.

Of course, only three of us are actually alive, and only two of us are registered for the workshop.

Yet, in some way, I feel like all five of us will, in fact, be there.

— Anne Casteen

Anne Casteen is a Midwesterner at heart, but resides in Southern California, where she can be found chasing silver linings with a glass half-full (usually a California red). She loves nothing more than a good heartwarming or rib-tickling story. She celebrates the ups of life at 50, and laughs at the bumps in the road, in her blog at funnysister.wordpress.com.

Reflections of Erma