31 October 2014

Setting Schedules and Keeping Priorities Straight

A couple of weeks ago, I announced that I would be trimming some of the extras from my blog. Initially, I posted a poll, asking you to weigh in with your opinions. What should I keep? What should I cut? I truly enjoy each of my regular features, and although I knew something had to give, I didn't really want to cut anything from the schedule.

But over the course of the first 48 hours, two things became vibrantly clear.

1. The results of my poll were woefully inconclusive. Every vote I received for cutting a feature was balanced with a vote for keeping that same feature. And every feature had its fans. - Which is exactly how I got into this over-full blog predicament in the first place!

2. I was tempted to ask my family members to go online and cast votes for certain things that I didn't want to lose, and to vote against others that I no longer enjoyed as much as I used to. - Which told me I really didn't need a poll to show me where I need to be focusing my attention. Deep down, in that part of my soul I often forget to listen to, I already knew the answer.

So for the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to set a schedule that will allow me to keep the features I love while still trimming the blog back to manageable levels.

* First and foremost, I want to return to the original focus for this blog: Finding the blessings hidden in all of life's trials.

* I love sharing my recipes with you. There's a reason we celebrate Thanksgiving with a feast far larger than we could possibly eat in one sitting. Delicious food makes us happy and turns our thoughts to the blessings we've enjoyed. So the recipes are staying.

However, as I keep forgetting to take step-by-step pictures of the recipes as I'm making them, I'm going to simplify the format with only one or two pictures of the finished dish for each recipe (unless there's a step that's simply easier to explain with a photo, in which case, I'll include one).

* Reading is my passion, so of course I love to talk about the books I love. And I want to keep participating in cover reveals for my friends' books.
But there are a million book blogs out there dedicated to all the various categories in publishing, and this blog was never intended to be a book blog. So I'm discontinuing the book reviews.

However, many of my reflections and musings stem from the books I read and enjoy, so I will continue to talk about and recommend the books I'm reading, as they relate to the blessings and life-lessons I discuss on this blog. The book discussions will remain. Only the structured, trying-to-be-unbiased-and-strictly-professional book reviews will disappear. Because let's face it: I've never been a strictly-professional kind of girl, and I'd much rather gush about the books that leave me smiling for days or contemplate the lessons in books that tear my heart to shreds.

*Writing is my life, so of course there will be many, many blog posts that center around my life as a writer. Lessons I learn, news I'm excited to share, ideas I'm bubbling over with excitement about.
My blog simply wouldn't be my blog if I wasn't writing about, well, writing. But once again, it was never intended to be a "writer's blog." There are many, many fabulous blogs out there focused on grammar rules, querying, creating life-like characters, and all of the business and craft-related topics that a writer needs to know. This isn't one of those blogs. Instead, I'll talk about the lessons I learn, the friends I'm blessed to meet, and the many ups and downs of life as a writer. Just as I always have.

In the spirit of trying to keep things consistent and manageable, I've set a schedule for my blog posts, so you'll always know when and where you can find the information you're looking for.

* Recipes: 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month
      I'll share one of my latest recipe creations. These may be Crock Pot Gourmet, Vegan/Vegetarian, Gluten-free, Delicious Desserts, or any other category of yumminess that I happen to be concocting in my kitchen. Rest assured, I will continue to post links to the category recipe pages on my website, so you can easily find the recipes that fit your special diets.

* "Life Lessons": 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month
     This will be a short post with a quote or a thought that's inspired me, and the way it's influenced my life for the better.

* Other blog posts: 2nd and 4th Friday of each month
     I'll squeal about the exciting things happening for my friends and family, discuss the books I've read and enjoyed, and share my own writing news and insights.

Coming next week (the 1st Wednesday in November): I will share my recipe for the delicious Oatmeal Red Chile Cookies I made for last weekend's SCBWI NM Handsprings Conference!

13 October 2014

Getting my Priorities in Order (Update!)

I suffer from "As You Wish" syndrome.

When someone I love needs or wants something from me, it's very difficult to say no. I love seeing you smile and knowing that I played a part in putting that smile on your face. But sometimes (often), I say yes to so many people that I end up with far too many commitments and not nearly enough time to accomplish them all. And then I end up disappointing the very people I'm trying to help.

I've blogged about this issue here, here, here, and here (as well as a few - okay, many - other times). And let's be honest, I'll be blogging about it again before long. For someone with "As You Wish" syndrome, learning to say "no" is an ongoing, life-long process.

And I knew I was approaching my breaking point again a few weeks ago, when I talked about Juggling All the Things. But this weekend, I realized that I've actually long-since passed that point. As I sat down to schedule my Saturday, trying to fit in DD#1's band competition, DD#2's volleyball game, DD#3's church youth group mother/daughter activity, DS's bass guitar lessons, movie night for my oldest two daughters and their youth group, a church dance for my son, Pitch Wars critique, writing critiques for my CPs, blog posts, responding to emails about TWELVE STEPS school visits, and trying to fit in a little time to write my own WIP ... Something had to give. At any given time, I had at least three different places to be simultaneously. And since scientists haven't yet perfected cloning, I just couldn't do it all. But I'd promised everyone, and I couldn't let them down! So I worked out a schedule where I could do a little bit of everything, as long as I didn't stop moving for even a moment. It meant being on the move from 6am until 11:30pm or later, but I would do it all. And then, when the craziness was all over, I promised myself I'd learn to say "no."

As I prepared to leave my youngest daughter's mother/daughter activity (where we made these adorable Princess headbands for the little girls at church)
 the leader gave me a hug and said "I know you're extremely busy, but thank you for taking some time to come today." I smiled and nodded, but I was already running late for my next commitment, so I didn't really have time to let her words sink in.

That night, when I met my older daughters' youth group at the movie theater (where they were going to see the new Meet the Mormons movie), their youth leader invited me to stay and watch the movie with them. My daughters and their friends agreed. It would be so fun!!

"Oh, no," I replied. "I can't. I have work to do. I'm going to take my laptop and find someplace to write."

I watched the faces of my two daughters fall as they nodded and accepted the fact that Mom was too busy to simply hang out with them and their friends. - So I scrapped the rest of my To-Do list for the night and spent the next 90 minutes or so sharing a giant bucket of popcorn with the girls.

I'm really good at reminding other people that they shouldn't try to do everything at once. In a recent guest post about social media on the SCBWI MD/DE/WV blog, I wrote: "Don’t try to do it all at once! You know that old adage about eating an elephant one bite at a time? The same applies to building your online presence. If you try to do everything at once, you’ll burn yourself out before you even get started." And it's time I started taking my own advice. So once again, I'm making the commitment to streamline my life.

For the rest of October, I'll be playing catch-up. I'll be completing a web re-design to make my author website and blog more streamlined and easier to navigate, and I'll be setting a posting schedule for myself that will (hopefully) be easier to follow - including letting some of the less-important things go. When I come back in November, I hope to be much more consistent.

And I need your help! I want to return the main focus of this blog to it's original purpose: Finding the blessings within life's daily trials. I'll need to let go of some of the "extras" that have taken over recently, but I don't want to lose them all. So please vote in my poll below to let me know which blog features you love and which you really could do without. (Vote for as many items as you'd like. I'll take all of your input into consideration.)

Thank you so much! I love you all!!

Update: As votes trickled in for my poll, both officially and through comments on my other social media outlets, I realized two things:

#1 - The results were incredibly inconclusive. Every vote I got for discontinuing a feature was offset with a vote from someone else for keeping it. 

#2 - I was sorely tempted to "cheat" by asking friends and family members to come cast their votes for the things that I wanted to win. Which means I already know, in my heart, what needs to stay and what needs to go. So I've closed the poll early, and over the next week or so, I'll be working out a schedule. At the end of October, I will post my new schedule, along with the reasons why I'm keeping (or letting go) the features I've decided upon.

*Giant Squish Hugs* to you all!!

09 October 2014

What if the Princess REALLY Just Wants a Frog?? - (Announcing my Debut Picture Book!!)

Way back in October of 2011, I was actively querying my first YA manuscript when I discovered Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month - where you come up with an idea for a picture book every day in November). The challenge seemed easy enough, and so I eagerly accepted, certain I'd end the month with hundreds of ideas.

And guess what? It wasn't as easy as I expected. By mid-month I was grasping at straws, frantically looking for any source of inspiration. Any little shred of an idea. Just so I wouldn't have to count a big, fat zero for the day.

And in one of those "I have no creativity and what was I even thinking?" moments, I started thinking about my YA novel. KISSING FROGS. And I started playing the "What if?" game.

What if there was a princess who loved frogs more than anything else?

What if she wanted a frog for a pet?

What if she loved frogs so much that she 
couldn't help kissing them goodnight?

What if she wound up with a castle full of princes, all proposing marriage...

But what if you really just want a frog?

 The idea made me giggle so hard that I couldn't wait to start writing. I pulled out my notebook and a special story pencil and wrote my first draft that afternoon. And it was brilliant. Hilarious. Beautiful. Perfect! (Okay, not really. It was a first draft. And first drafts are always messy and awful. But the potential was there!! And I was absolutely in love with my spunky Princess Cassandra!)

After many, many rounds of revision, including a full manuscript critique from Christie Wright Wild, feedback from more than a few online writing workshops, and countless sessions with my fabulous CPs, Amie Rose Rotruck, Laura Shovan and Connie Collins Morgan, who helped me figure out the perfect ending to my story ... I put the thing in a metaphorical desk drawer to wait for the right timing.

Fast forward to November 2013. I was hard at work on final edits for my debut YA novel, TWELVE STEPS, and I had signed with my dream agent, Jessica Sinsheimer. And it was time to figure out what to work on NEXT. (Because, in writing, there always has to be a next project. Waiting for things to happen is much too crazy-making if you don't have something new to focus on.)

"What else are you working on?" Jessica asked. "What would you LIKE to work on next?"

So I told her all about the other MG novels I have stored in various stages of revision on my hard drive. And the YA novels that I've written and abandoned. Or plan to come back to one day. And the shiny new YA contemporary novel that I really wanted to write, but I wasn't sure if anyone would ever love as much as I do. And then I admitted, "And I have this picture book. People seem to like it. I don't know. Maybe we could do something with that someday?"

She loved the shiny, new YA idea and told me to start writing it immediately, and then she asked me to send her the manuscript for THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS. (She loved it!)

Fast forward a few months ...

When the first "I love this book! I plan to take it to our acquisitions meeting next week" email arrived from an editor I'd had at the top of my Dream Editors list for years, I literally fell off my treadmill! (*Note: Reading life-changing emails while working at a treadmill desk can be hazardous to your health.)

It was an excruciatingly-tough decision, but as soon as I spoke to Kristin Rens with Balzer and Bray (Harper Collins), I knew she was the right editor for me. We talked about the story, the illustrations, and all kinds of other things ... and, once again, I found a partner I could be so comfortable with that I forgot my phone phobia! Not only did she (and the whole team) love THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS, but she shared my vision for the book. She pinpointed the few spots in the manuscript that still felt like they weren't quite right, and I loved her ideas!

I've been dancing around for a LONG time, waiting to announce this news, but the day has finally arrived, and I can shout it from the rooftops!!

Coming soon to a bookstore near you!! 
My Debut Picture Book: 

So for those of you who are keeping count … Yes, this means my first TWO book sales were BOTH based on the first manuscript I ever wrote. Two books (TWELVE STEPS, and now THE PRINCESS AND THE FROGS), both inspired by the novel I counted as a failure. There is no wasted effort in the writing game. As long as you are learning and moving forward, as long as you never give up, you will find success. It may not be what you thought you were striving for, but if you keep working, you’ll probably find something even better.

07 October 2014

Three-Ingredient "Pretend" Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffles

http://i-am-so-grateful.blogspot.com/2014/01/cover-reveal-fine-art-of-pretending-by.html Last weekend, in celebration of Rachel Harris' latest YA novel, THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING, I shared some real-life "pretend boyfriend" moments from my high school diaries. Today, I'm celebrating with an even more delectable Flirt Squad challenge.  

For the Love of ChocolateAly is a snackage fiend, bakes often, and stands by her break-up cure of Double Stuf Oreos. Share YOUR favorite recipes!

A challenge to share a delicious chocolate recipe? Yes, please!*

Of course, since we're celebrating THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING, I had to come up with a recipe that fit the theme of "pretending," right? No, I'm not going to try to pass a non-chocolate recipe off as my answer to the Love of Chocolate challenge. (There are plenty of mock chocolate recipes out there, I'm sure, but in my book, pretend chocolate is just plain wrong.) But I was watching Master Chef a couple of weeks ago, and I realized that, as much as I love cooking and baking and making delicious food, I could never win a cooking competition, because I don't do it "right." I'm the queen of shortcuts and cheater dishes, but I'm really good at "Pretending" to be a "Real Chef." (Of course I'm not implying that my cooking is any less real than a professional chef. But I will admit, if I went head-to-head with someone in one of those cooking challenges, I'd be docked all kinds of crazy points for not using the "proper" techniques.)

So today, I present to you my recipe for  
"Pretend" Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffles
With only three ingredients (and an optional fourth ingredient), these melt-in-your-mouth candies take approximately two minutes to make, and they're both gluten-free and vegan.**

For three truffles, you will need:

1 Tbsp. baking cocoa powder
1 Tbsp. creamy peanut butter
1/2 tsp. agave syrup (you can use 1 full tsp. if you prefer sweeter truffles)
(optional: 1 tsp. powdered sugar for dusting finished truffles)

Place cocoa powder and peanut butter in very small bowl or cup. 


Microwave 20 seconds to melt the peanut butter. Add agave syrup. Stir to combine all ingredients, until a soft dough forms. 

Let cool slightly (about 30 seconds or so). Divide into 3 portions and roll into balls. 


Roll each ball in powdered sugar, cocoa powder, or a mix of both. Or simply enjoy as-is.

You can easily double (or triple ... or more) this recipe, if more than three truffles are desired. - These truffles aren't assembled using proper truffle techniques, and they don't even have the "right" ingredients (I think there's supposed to be some complicated process involving heavy cream?), but I wanted truffles one day, and most store-bought truffles contain the oil I'm allergic to, so I simply made my own with ingredients I had on hand. The resulting candy might not be a "real" truffle, but it's no less delicious than the real thing! Sometimes, pretending can be an awfully good thing.

*As you know, creating yummy chocolate desserts to celebrate books I love is kind of a hobby of mine. There were Dark Chocolate Maple Brownies to celebrate Anna Staniszewski's middle grade novel, THE DIRT DIARY ... Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse (as well as an Easy Vegan Chocolate Mousse) to celebrate Rachel Harris' adult contemporary romance, TASTE THE HEAT ... and a Giant Crock Pot Brownie Sundae to celebrate my own debut novel, TWELVE STEPS.

**(Note: These "Pretend" Truffles have REAL peanut butter in them, so if you have peanut allergies, these aren't for you. However, they may work just as well with almond butter, sunflower seed butter or cashew butter.)

04 October 2014

When the Lines Between Fiction and Reality Blur

You've all probably heard me anxiously counting down to the release of Rachel Harris' latest YA novel, THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING. It's no secret that I love Rachel's writing, but this book is, hands-down, my favorite of her novels so far. Because I've totally been there, and I could identify with Aly more than any other fictional character that didn't spring forth from my own brain.

http://i-am-so-grateful.blogspot.com/2014/01/cover-reveal-fine-art-of-pretending-by.htmlThe official blurb:
According to the guys at Fairfield Academy, there are two types of girls: the kind you hook up with, and the kind you're friends with. Seventeen-year-old Alyssa Reed is the second type. And she hates it. With just one year left to change her rank, she devises a plan to become the first type by homecoming, and she sets her sights on the perfect date—Justin Carter, Fairfield Academy’s biggest hottie and most notorious player.

With 57 days until the dance, Aly launches Operation Sex Appeal and sheds her tomboy image. The only thing left is for Justin actually to notice her. Enter best friend Brandon Taylor, the school’s second biggest hottie, and now Aly’s pretend boyfriend. With his help, elevating from “funny friend” to “tempting vixen” is only a matter of time.

But when everything goes according to plan, the inevitable “break up” leaves their friendship in shambles, and Aly and Brandon with feelings they can’t explain. And the fake couple discovers pretending can sometimes cost you the one thing you never expected to want.

Rachel admitted to her street team, the Flirt Squad, that THE FINE ART OF PRETENDING was inspired by an actual conversation she had with a group of guy friends in high school, and she challenged us to write a blog post about a high school memory that would make an excellent book or movie.

As you know, my high school diaries are full of such memories. In fact, my own debut young adult novel, TWELVE STEPS, was inspired by many, many real-life moments in my own high school memories. I've already shared many of those memories with you all, and I guarantee that I'll be sharing more such memories in the future. (And can I say "memories" one more time in this paragraph?)

But this week, all I can think about is how my high school diaries could have easily inspired THIS book. (Is there any wonder that Rachel and I have said for months that our characters could have been friends?)

Like Aly, I was labeled a "commitment" instead of a "casual" in high school.

I had at least 5 different boys describe to me in great detail what our lives would be like one day when we grew up and got married. They knew how many kids we were going to have, where we would live (right down to how many bedrooms our future houses would have), even the kind of jobs we'd probably wind up with. (People always talk about the way girls start planning their wedding days from the time they're old enough to start toddling down a make-believe aisle. From the conversations I've had, I sometimes wonder if boys start dreaming of their future families at a similarly early age.)

Yet none of these boys who planned to marry me when we grew up wanted to try dating me when we were still in high school. (Years after we graduated, several of these boys admitted, "I wanted to ask you out, but I wasn't good enough for you back then.")

So I absolutely understand Aly's frustration with her label. And I totally get her determination to change her status from "automatic friend-zone" to "dating possibility."

I've always kind of rolled my eyes at the "we'll pretend we're a couple to make someone jealous" trope in books and movies. As much as I absolutely adore the plot device (some of my favorite books and movies of all time include the "let's pretend we're in love" story line), I've never really believed that such a thing could happen believably in real life.

Until I started looking back through my high school memories for this challenge.

* There was the guy friend who wanted to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. So I wore his leather jacket (the one he never let anyone touch - not even the aforementioned ex-girlfriend, when they were still dating) and we went for a walk past her house, when we knew she'd be outside to see us holding hands and looking all lovey-dovey. (Theirs was a very on-again-off-again relationship. And whenever he wanted her to take him back, all he had to do was pretend he was inches away from getting together with me.)

* There was the time the guy with a reputation for being the biggest flirt in our class started showing interest in me. And it looked like he might even ask me to the Prom. My best guy friend knew I kind of had a crush on this guy, but he decided that Mr. Flirt wasn't good enough for me. So he told everyone in our class that I was absolutely off-limits, and then he ramped up the friendly hugs, etc. until everyone thought we were a couple. I've gotta admit. I was kind of furious about this one, because I didn't even agree to the "let's pretend we're together" act, and I didn't even find out about it until suddenly every guy I was even slightly interested in stopped talking to me. (Not to mention the trouble it caused when his girlfriend found out everyone in school thought he broke up with her for me.)

* There was the time a guy at work was bugging me. So my guy friend offered to stop by when I was at work and pretend to be my boyfriend for a few days, until the co-worker got the hint and backed off. We spent hours planning the choreography. And the conversations we'd have. (How cutesy did the pet names have to be? How touchy-feely did we have to get to really sell the fiction? Of course, there would have to be a kiss or two ... but how passionate? Would a kiss on the cheek be enough? A peck on the lips? Or a full-blown make-out session right there in public?)

In the end, we didn't actually go through with it. Because I started worrying about what his girlfriend (!!! Yes, my friend had a girlfriend at the time - most of my guy friends had girlfriends, and surprisingly, their girlfriends never really liked me much - but she was out of town, so maybe we could have gotten away with it) ... I worried about what his girlfriend might say if she found out about our little charade when she got back. My friend kept assuring me that his girlfriend would be totally okay with it. She knew there wasn't anything REALLY going on with us, and she'd understand the need to get this creepy co-worker off my back.

But, yeah, my friend wasn't a teenage girl. And even though his girlfriend was extremely secure in their relationship, I can assure you, there's no way she would have been okay with it.

* And there was the first time a boy shattered my heart. I was devastated, but determined not to let the boy know he'd hurt me. So one of my dad's college students offered to show up at a state speech and debate tournament to flirt with me shamelessly in front of the boy. It probably would have worked too ... except this college guy got his signals crossed, and he came over to do his massive flirting act in front of the wrong boy. The boy I was trying to make jealous wasn't even around, but I couldn't say anything to the college guy, because then everyone would know his flirting was just an act!

None of my "let's pretend we're together" moments led to the real romance it always leads to in fiction. There were a couple of almosts ... Like the guy who asked me to go to a dance with him to show his ex-girlfriend he wasn't pining away for her (even though he totally was). We went out on several other dates after that, and we had a lot of fun together, but he kept thinking about the ex, and I couldn't actually imagine kissing him, so it fizzled before it really began. ... Or there was the guy who flirted with me in class, to make the guy I'd had a crush on forever jealous. (Crush guy didn't notice, and before long I'd developed a crush on flirt guy, who admitted he didn't think of me "that way.") ... Or the guy who was just a friend, but who everyone in our social circle thought should be my boyfriend. Every time they started pressuring us to get together, we'd go out on a few dates to get them off our backs, and then go back to being just friends again. (Ironically, this is the only boy I ever went out with more than once or twice. We had 2-3 dates per year all through high school. And there was never any real chemistry between us, but he was the most fun fake boyfriend ever.)

Even though it didn't work out in real life like it does in fiction, the "pretend boyfriend" trope was a staple of my high school life. Is it any wonder I love the plot device in books? And movies? And TV shows?