Writers Watch Out

Hi writers. In the interest of doing a bit of a service, I thought I would make a list of some really common red flags that you should watch out for when perusing small publishers. Here, for your enjoyment, is my list, with my own trademarked names for each red flag. If you know of others, let me know.

I’m also compiling a list, since Predators and Editors went away and I can’t find a reliable, current list of bad publishers. So if you know of bad publishers, click on Contact Me above and let me know and give me reasons why.

Also, SFWA does serve a couple good purposes, and here’s a detailed page of what to watch out for in small publishers.


Here are your red flags and what they mean:

Edit Schmedit: This red flag indicates that the publisher has not got much in the way of editing. They don’t know what developmental and/or substantive editing are. And either they give no input on story tightening and improvement, or they try to get you to change the story to their vision. Also, their copy-editing looks like it’s about the level of a spell-check. Finally, if the quality of the books this publisher is putting out is bad– stay away. High standards are a self-propagating and wonderful thing.

Yo Money: Either they want fees or they pay no advance. You must get an advance, no matter what they say to you about lowering costs. If they can’t pay you an advance, run away. Period. And if they want any kind of fee or fee-sharing from you, run away. Get. Paid.

Crap Contract: Contracts with small publishers can be good and bad. They can also be hybrids of the two. Things to watch out for are broad clauses on ownership of rights, copyright term being non-specific, no clause for reversion of rights (this NEEDS to be there always and it should be reasonable), any kind of defamation clause (seriously– ANY kind of this is something to run away from, unless, maybe, it’s a Big Five publisher), option clauses that give the publisher all power, an abomination of royalty rates (check online for market standard), no commitment to marketing of any kind, and crap PDFs. Not kidding. If they can’t make a good PDF– they probably can’t format your book.

Warm Marketing: If the publisher’s initial marketing scheme is to have you, the author, send an individual note via social media or email to each of your contacts (family, friends, co-workers, etc), you get the hell out of there. That’s a terrible way to market your books, even if it is effective.

Marketing Meh: If the only marketing idea they have is building email lists and trying to convince people to read free advanced reader copies for reviews- get away. This ‘marketing plan’ and the Warm Marketing above are about launch– that’s it. There’s no plan to maintain sales after launch. And if the publisher claims to have a way to get your books on regular bookstore shelves or Costco or whatever, ask for a significant amount of proof. And if you’re writing for a young crowd, get proof that they can get you into schools. Your story is worth better than taking a stupid chance on promises promises.

Conflicted Inflicted: There are publishers, I kid you not, that are actually vanity presses of ‘literary agencies’. These are often agencies that charge fees. Remember Yo Money! If they want your money, get away. Dig into the publisher your small agency ‘sold’ your book to. Find other authors. Do your due diligence to make sure it’s a legit publisher and not a scam.

Farty Arty: Friends. Covers and the formatting of the inside of the book are critical. NO MATTER HOW GOOD YOUR STORY IS, if the skin and clothes suck, nobody will read it. EVERYBODY JUDGES A BOOK BY ITS COVER. You know you do. So make sure they’re doing good covers and make sure the typesetting is professional. But wait! What if you’re their first author? Run. The. Hell. Away. Your story deserves better.

Newby: If they’re a new publisher, don’t go with them. Not kidding. Even if you’re their fifth or even tenth author. Nope. Don’t go with them. Stay far away until they’re a couple years along and they’ve got at least 15 authors who are happy and getting paid and have few to no complaints about contracts and marketing, etc. When a publisher is new, they think they know what they’re doing, but they typically do not. Their contracts are still evolving, and they’re still trying to find out what they’re good at when it comes to marketing. So stay away from the newbies.

Some of this stuff is harsh. It’s meant to be. It’s time for you to get paid for your hard work on your story– don’t screw around, don’t be stupid, don’t be impatient, don’t make the mistakes … a friend of mine … made. Be careful. Ask around. Loop in author friends. Don’t be intimidated by forceful knuckleheads.

Please note, some predatory and bad publishers have great art and awful contracts. Some have world-class editing and zero marketing plan. Some have some good and some bad. Do your due diligence. Don’t be so eager that you put yourself in a bad situation and that you tie up your beloved story in the hands of awful publishers. Because they will own your story and will give unreasonable demands for reversion of rights to you.

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Here, My Loves, Is Chapter One of SHOWDOWN AT SERPENT RIDGE

Chapter 1


I leaned carefully toward the rock face, letting my douli slide backward. I liked the shade from the tightly woven straw hat, but the wide brim was always getting in my way. I had to get this primer hole deeper and the supervisor was always looking for a reason to kick girls off the crew. I tried again. I still couldn’t reach the deep red rock, even with the long chisel in my hand.

Loosening the douli’s strings, I dropped the straw hat off my head and let it hang on my back. I slid forward on my knees, the tough basket scraping my skin. The basket rocked and tipped. I held still for a moment, waiting for the shaking to stop. I ignored the old, worn ropes tied to each side of the basket. They would hold. But sometimes they don’t.

Yesterday’s accident, the screams and yells, the blank faces of the men who sat staring at the frayed, shredded ends of the broken ropes, came back to me. Cool it, Lucy. My father hated this saying, telling me I was trying to be a cowboy. But I liked hearing Stu say it; it felt new, wild.

Like this country.

I have to hurry or they’ll wonder if I fell out. Leaning again, I got the top rim of the basket to angle just a bit more, finally coming to a rest on the cliff face. As I placed the tip of my chisel against the dark rock, a faint smell reached my nose. Water. I glanced down. A blue snake of water wound its way far below.

It was because of that river that we had to make this tunnel. A crew was going to arrive in another month to start working on a hundred-foot tall bridge, and we had to have the tunnel started before they got here.

I stuck the point of the chisel into a small crack in the rock. Now I heard the others, to my right and left, already pounding away. I smashed my small sledge against the chisel and watched rock fly away.

Angling my chisel, I hit it again.

Sweat dripped down my nose, and long strands of my hair kept falling into my eyes. I swiped at my face and kept working.

I sat back a little and examined my pilot hole. I needed to go deeper. The dynamite had to go all the way in so it could be covered.

The sun was burning the top of my head by the time I had the hole ready.

“Lucy! What’s taking you so long?”

I glanced to my right. Ten feet away, Jian’s stupid grin needed a punch right in its crooked teeth. “My head isn’t hard enough to be a hammer, like yours!” I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Or maybe you’re just too weak to lift your sledge, girly!”

Was that supposed to be an insult? “I’m strong enough to throw it through your face, bai chi!” I lifted the sledge and pretended to aim at him.

Jian lifted a stick of dynamite. “I bet my hole will be bigger.”

“Why do I care?” I turned back to my work. Why did boys always have to turn everything into a contest?

I remembered my mother’s answer when I asked her this same question. “Because they only have room in their brain for thoughts of strength. Women think of everything else.”

Moving smoothly, I arranged several sticks of dynamite into the hole I’d carved from the cliff face, packing them tightly. I called up to the top of the cliff. “Ready!” I waited, checking on the other baskets to both sides. There were five of us. I was the second one from the right. Li Ba was in the basket to my right and a little below me. She was the fastest of all of us, so Jian’s stupid insult really made no sense.

Jian was in the middle, with Yao and Zhao, the twins, in the baskets to his left. I’d heard Jian and Li Ba yell they were ready before me. A few seconds later, Yao and Zhao called out. A shout came down from the top of the cliff.

“Light ‘em!” My basked immediately shifted. I lit the twisted, one-minute fuse at the moment my basket started rising. No matter how many times I’d done this, I always spent this final minute praying that the mules would lift my basket fast enough and that the ropes wouldn’t break and that the fuse wouldn’t burn too fast—

My basket jolted, then the left side dropped slightly. The rope was breaking! As I watched, several strands of the rope stretched and snapped. I yelled up at the men guiding my basket’s donkeys. “Left rope’s breaking!” My heart pounding, my mental countdown continued. Thirty seconds. I looked up. The top of the cliff was forty feet away, at least. I threw the sledge out of the basket, hearing it clang off the cliff. I threw the chisel out and held my breath. The basket continued its slow rise. Why couldn’t they go faster?

I knew why, but didn’t really care. Faster meant more strain on bad rope.

Forty seconds. Twenty five feet from the top.

A loud crack and the left side of the basket fell out from under me. For a moment, I hung in the air. I screamed and grabbed at the other, still fastened side of the basket. “Ropes!”

“Lucy!” I heard Jian’s shout but ignored it. He couldn’t do anything.

I clung to the basket’s rim, the tough woven fibers digging into my skin. My legs kicked wildly and I tried to bring them under control. We’d learned the best way to handle this kind of thing, but I’d forgotten all of that.

Without the stability offered by a second rope, the basket started twisting. It was still going up, but all of my weight, plus the basket, had to be hard on the one rope. I stared at the old, brown thing that was my only hope of survival.

A thick strand exploded right above me. “Ropes! Ropes!” Holding onto the basket with one hand, I tried to reach above the fraying spot on the rope. Where were the extra ropes?

My arms weren’t long enough. I couldn’t get above the weak spot.

Another strand split apart. Something hit my head, then flopped onto my shoulder. Finally!

I reached for the rope, clinging to the basket with my other hand. My knuckles felt like they were going to burst.

The new rope slid off my shoulder, the heavy knot at its end pulling it down. From the corner of my eye, I saw it swing away from me.

I felt the rope holding my basket pop. Only one more strand held—

It snapped.

I screamed and snatched for the broken end. My fingertips brushed it.


Time slowed. Pressure in my chest. Nothing holding me. Only empty space.

I saw faces at the top of the cliff, then Jian’s wide eyes.

A dark, moving line. Swinging toward me.

I stretched out. The new rope slid between my hands, the knot hitting me in the stomach and sliding up my neck. I grabbed. Burning heat in my hands. Slivers digging deep.

My hands hit the heavy knot and stopped. Pain knifed down my arms into my shoulders as my fall suddenly came to a jerking stop.

The rope felt strong and real after the terrifying moment of total emptiness. I held on and prayed whoever had the other end wouldn’t let go.

“Pull her up!”

That sounded like Jian. I forced my eyes to open. The broken ropes that used to hold my basket fluttered in the breeze that rose up the cliff face.

The cliff. The dynamite!

I felt myself being lifted through the air. “Faster!”

A powerful force hit the bottom of my feet. A moment later a loud noise slapped me. It felt like the force pushed me up faster, because suddenly I was at the top of the cliff, hands grabbing me and pulling me onto the scrub and dirt.

Arms wrapped around me. “Lucy. I thought you were going to die!”

Jian? What was he—

I pushed him off me. Concerned faces circled me, all in the shadow of their doulis. The earth under my feet felt solid and immovable. I dropped to my knees at the same moment that I heard my father’s voice. Tears ran wet down my face, which I kept hidden.

“Liu Shi! Liu Shi!”

My body shook as I dug my fingers into the dirt. Why wouldn’t my father use my American name? Hands grabbed me again, lifting me. Voices hit me, asking if I was okay, saying something about the ancestors holding me up.

Ancestors? No. A rope.

By the time my father got through the crowd, I had scrubbed the tears away.

“Liu Shi!” His hands cupped the sides of my face. He’d been doing that since I was tiny. It felt a lot different now that I was his height. Speaking Chinese, he guided me out of the crowd. “I told you the basket work was too dangerous. Now you must see. No more basket for you.”

I didn’t feel like arguing. I imagined my basket, now crumpled into bits on the valley floor. If I hadn’t been so lucky, there would be more of those bits, and they would be the color of my insides.

The hard reddish dirt and scrub felt safe under my feet. Why would I get back into a basket? That wasn’t for me. But I didn’t need my father thinking he could tell me what I could do. “We will put you on the hauling work. You can carry the spike—“

“Lucy!” Jian appeared in front of us.

“Jian, we are busy,” my father said. “Go back to work.”


I saw the look in Jian’s eyes. Why was he suddenly so concerned? Where was his stupid grin?

Jian stuttered again, but my father cut him off. “Back to work, boy.” This was in my father’s shift boss voice. The one he used to get people to work harder in the blazing hot sun.

Jian deflated and walked off, his eyes flicking back to me in a way that was beginning to make me uncomfortable. The boots he wore kicked small clouds of red and brown dust into the air. Sometimes it felt like the world was made of dust.

“So now, Liu Shi, are you all right? Any injuries?”

Feeling weirdly blank and empty, although I heard him and saw everything around me just fine, I turned my hands to look at my still burning palms.

“Ancestors! Your hands.” My father grabbed my wrists, pulling us to a stop. “We must get these treated. Then I think some tea—“

Behind us, another explosion sounded as more basket riders did the work of blowing a tunnel into the cliff. No. That was too fast. They couldn’t have already set dynamite.

My father’s steady stream of worried words cut off at the sound of a loud, endless scream. I felt it in my bones, running through my blood, and slashing through my ears. My father and I turned back to where the men and women had resumed their work.

Everyone had stopped and was looking around.

Who had screamed? Had somebody fallen?

The scream sounded again. It came from over the cliff, but it somehow filled the air as well. I felt like a jagged skinning knife was being shoved through my ears. I tried to go back to the cliff face, but couldn’t move.

That couldn’t be a person screaming. Was it a bird? And why couldn’t I move?

A dark shape appeared, bigger than the turkey vultures that circled during the hottest parts of the day. The shape circled out from somewhere below the cliff top and arced up. What was that?

The moment I saw it, I realized I could move again. I stumbled forward, but my father caught me after one step. “No Liu Shi!”

I turned, surprised at the fear in his voice. His eyes were wide, his face as white as a cactus flower. His eyes darted all over the work site.

“You must run! Find a hole or trench. The latrine! Go there, hide!”

“Ba.” I grabbed his wrist. “What is it? What’s going on?”

“We must have woken it!” He scanned the site again and broke into a run, dragging me with him.

“Woken it? Woken what?”
“These western ones are not like those of the old country. But how is this possible? Have we woken it?”

“Ba!” I tried to pull him to a stop, but after years of building railroad tracks, my father was as hard and strong as stone. “Woken what?”

It seemed like he must have forgotten I was there, except he was still dragging me behind him. He was talking to himself, fear dripping from every word. “The only hope is to hide. Somewhere dark but warm.”

Another scream shredded the air. It felt like it squeezed my head between two mountains.

I looked over my shoulder, still unable to stop my father. A creature, dark all over and as long as two train cars, with wings just as big, was swooping down from the pale blue sky. “What is that?”

My father stopped for a moment and turned. “It is death! We must get your mother and hide.”

The creature screamed again, nearly making me stumble with the force of the sound. As Father dragged me away from the cliff edge and toward the tents and wagons, I watched the flying creature grow closer.

Two legs, each as thick as three men, unfolded from the thing’s body, with long, glinting claws extending. I gasped and almost lost my lunch as it hit the first group of paralyzed workers. It tore through them, ripping bodies apart.

The men scattered.

Another unearthly scream filled the day. Then more screams joined it, but these of humans. Workers. My friends.

I tried to pull my wrist out of Father’s grip. I had to help them. But his hand was too strong and he sped up. “We must find your mother!”

“Ba! We have to help them.” I pulled as hard as I could. His fingers on my wrist didn’t budge.

“There is no helping them!” Father’s voice was hoarse. “It cannot be stopped.” His searching eyes settled on something just south of the tents and wagons. “There! The latrine trench.” He let go of my wrist. “You must go. I will get your mother and meet you there.”

“But what is it?” Movement caught my eye. The creature had finished its bloody work at the cliff edge and was flying higher now, angling toward the temporary railroad village we had set up.

“No!” Father grabbed my wrist again. He squeezed so hard I could feel my bones rub together. “It will get there before you. Find a hole. That way. Dig one if you have to.” He pointed north, toward the angle of the cliff, but not right at the cliff face we’d been working on.

I watched the creature fly, its huge wings flapping only a little. It seemed to reach a desired height, because it stopped flapping. For a moment, it hung in the air. I remembered the moment I had hung in the air, only minutes before. But then it tucked its wings against its body and straightened.

It looked like a thick arrow, descending incredibly fast toward the tents and wagons.

“Liu Shi! GO.” Father pushed me toward the cliff face and broke into a run. “Ming-Na! Ming-Na!” My mother’s name carried back to me.

I stood, transfixed by the sight of the black creature.

A word from the single book my parents had brought from China came to me. But the book was about legends from our home country. It wasn’t true.

The creature got to the town before my father. As it reached the first tents, flame gushed out of its mouth. The tents exploded with fire. Screams reached my ears as my father circled away from the flame and ducked under a wagon.

I ran after him, the word repeating itself in my head.

But that was impossible. They weren’t real.

A gigantic, invisible mountain slammed into me, throwing me up and back. A deafening boom reached me a moment later, then waves of force drove me into the earth under a large sage brush. Orange flame stretched skyward from the dynamite tent. I pushed myself up, screaming after my father.

Another explosion slammed me backward again. My head hit something hard.


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In Which I Fix Everything

The world today seems absolutely crackers.

If you get this reference, will you be my forever friend? And comment to prove you get the reference, because even forever friends must be accountable.

Have you noticed how people are losing their minds these days about nearly everything? Especially politics? No yeah, it’s happening a lot. Especially on Twitter and Facebook.

Well I’m here to fix it.

First, on political parties.

Guys, the only reason to join a political party is so you can vote in primaries and have your voice heard. This is a temporary state, my friends. Leave the political party immediately thereafter. (Leave all parties immediately and find a good book is actually generally good advice.) Once you find yourself identifying with a party, not people, you’re putting yourself in a dangerous place. And once you start seeing your fellow humans in other political parties as your enemy- simply because they’re in an opposing party (not like Candace’s party on the north end of the cul-de-sac versus Rhonda’s party on the west end. Those were just awesome.)- you are instantly part of the problem.

I mean think about it. Do you agree with one single political party on everything in their platform? If you do..

Are you for reals? Like, for reals reals?

You probably don’t. So don’t affiliate with the party- affiliate with people. Because everyone’s on the same team.

Second- everyone’s on the same team. We HAVE to shove and glue this positivity-attracting attitude into our head. Even though there is a wide variety of political opinion and philosophy– we’re all on the same team. This is because, unless we’re evil, we all want things to get better. We want our families and friends to be free and capable of improving their lives and setting their future generations on the path to happiness.

If you’re evil, please note. Liam Neeson is very scary:

So let’s remember this, okay? If we all just adopt the attitude that we’re all on the same team, we would fix things within a generation, without needing to wait for a big, clunky government to come along and do it for us.

Third, the big clunky government isn’t going to do it for us. To be sure, there are some very needful programs being run by the government (federal and state) to keep people fed and clothed and housed. Plenty of needy people out there. And honestly, some governmental programs have been helpful for needy folks, despite those programs’ massive overspending and unbelievable corruption. And that right there is why the government won’t fix it for us! The government is a thing that wants to always exist, but these programs’ jobs, really, is to work themselves *out* of a job. That’s never going to happen for lots of complex reasons.

So let’s do it ourselves. Let’s be a community. Let’s be good neighbors. Let’s use this wonderful technology we have to make strong connections and watch out for each other. Let’s stop thinking we should do things like disconnect from the internet (honestly, why would we do such a thing?) and instead use the internet as a tool for connection, accountability, and more. Our neighbors and community need this of us. We owe it to them. Frankly, we also owe it to ourselves. Being a good person and considering others is a question of becoming a better individual.

And that’s fourth and last. This life is about becoming better individuals, and the best way to do that is to help other people. But remember it’s about becoming better individuals. Each time we choose to make the world a darker place by speaking angrily to others, or overlooking people, or being obstinate, or not considering the feelings and lives and experiences and needs of those around us– we make ourselves a little uglier. But each time we choose to lift hands that hang low and sit with those who need comfort and companionship and love, and each time we make an effort and inconvenience ourselves for others for reasons both big and small– we bring more light into ourselves and the world around us through increased happiness in others.

I think we would all like to bring more light and happiness into our lives and others’ too. It’s not hard. We say yes to big and small opportunities to help. Guys, even a smile is helping. Even complaining in a civil way is helping. Even a nice ‘good morning’ and not flipping off the person tailgating us is helping.

So to fix it, we start with us. We see each day as a chance to win a bunch of choices and moments.

There, I fixed it.

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More On Dreams

A couple years ago, I wrote about following your dreams. Lots of us dream about all kinds of things: travel, meeting someone special, meeting a famous writer or… I guess an actor or something. Writers are cooler.


Anyway. I thought I would revisit that post and revise it to include some of what I’ve learned since I first wrote the post.

I do this because, honestly, it’s at times hard to know what to tell my kids about following their dreams. I have spent years off and on following my dreams. I lost all of our money years ago pursuing a dream of being a financially stable business owner. I spent a few years working full time as a freelance writer and trying to make writing be the focus of my work life– and what supports the family. Despite small successes here and there, I failed at the ultimate dream of living off and providing well from my writing. This is an important place to stop and think about this concept!

small success   vs    ultimate dream

Back then, it was so disheartening to feel like I was on the right path, again, doing what I loved, again, and then ultimately failing. Again.

So after grieving the defeat of another dream, I went back to work. And really put my head down after making a serious plan with Annemarie. We pushed at that plan and it came to fruition ten months later with me landing my first real job with actual benefits that wasn’t teaching in a classroom (which I love, but will never pay me properly). Things got better as we stayed focused and worked with real purpose. Daily effort towards our goal lifted us- and it was awesome.

Then extraordinary and life-changing 2014 happened and we made it through. We were changed. Broken and rebuilt better. And off we went on this Amazon and Washington/Seattle/but really a small town adventure. It’s harder than I thought it would be. It’s so taxing and I feel so exhausted sometimes and my bed is only a few steps away. But not yet. I have writing to do because making a good living as a writer is the only real, important dream that hasn’t come true for me yet and I don’t have any reason to not make it happen. (I only had one other dream by the way: have a family.)

And we got our foster daughter with all of the miracles associated, so it’s interesting to see how new dreams crop up as we say “yes” to unexpected and maybe even unsought for opportunities. I would never change a thing about this Washington adventure.

So as always, I’ve been thinking about dreams and work, probably because I feel like I’m almost always doing it. And for creative folks (which is pretty much everyone), we have very similar dreams. I list some of mine and the comments I have on them now that I know a little better. Yours are probably similar.

  1. Publishing a book will be the culmination of my writerly hopes and dreams!

It’s not. It’s the beginning. Actually, it’s not even the beginning. The beginning was when I chose the career dream of being a well-paid full-time writer. Publishing my first book was wonderful and a dream come true but it’s a milestone more than anything else. And like all milestones, it’s green and metal and you pass it pretty fast.

The passing it pretty fast thing is high truth. It goes and you realize.. wait, I have more work to do.

So back to work I go.

2. Everybody I know is fully invested in my dreams!

Not true. Many people I know are somewhat invested in my dreams because they’re wonderful people who just never seem to run out of space in their beautiful hearts. And if they can spare a ‘Like’ on Facebook, that’s really actually great of them. If they comment, that’s very sweet. If they buy one of my books- that’s near saintly. And reviewing? That’s worthy of deification.

This isn’t to say you’re on your own. You have love and support and people who won’t give up on you.

But you are on your own. You want this? You want to reach your dream? You’re on your own. (Unless you get ridiculously lucky- and frankly that luck might just ruin you as a person.) Your fingers type those words. Your feet run those miles. Your hands build that business plan. So draw on your support when you can, but remember- you want this thing. It’s entirely up to you.

So it’s back to work.

3. I’ll be satisfied if I can just get a book published!

Nope. Not a chance. You’ll be so giddy you jump out of your skin. It will hit you multiple times and it will feel surreal and it will be immensely gratifying. You should pause and soak in the beautiful validating experience. Own it, recognize it. 

Then accept that the feeling passes. You’re not satisfied and you shouldn’t be. You see those bestsellers? Those people who work their butts off to write stuff that is sometimes better than yours and sometimes not as good?

You want to be that. You want to do that.

So it’s back to work.

What I’m saying is that dreams are a spark in life. They’re not something to be ignored or shuffled aside for practicality’s sake. We should follow our dreams. I think we must, that by doing so we stay young and maintain the ability to see and feel wonder and awe and pure excitement. And I will firmly state that Father in Heaven approves of our dreams. He probably doesn’t like my vanity, but He surely wants me to feel fully engaged in my life and to do things that I’m passionate about.

But the saying that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life is popular garbage. Realizing dreams is non-stop work. It’s daily homework. It’s exhausting and it requires regular priority examination and re-adjustment.

It is work, it is work, it is work. It’s delicious exhaustion. It’s a passionate daily grind. It’s a boring daily grind sometimes too.

I will tell you that choosing the work that I do with my life, the place I put my best energy, is the greatest feeling ever. I look forward to the day that it is my only career. But until then, I’m going to keep working daily. I’ll take appropriate breaks and I’ll enjoy the ride, to be sure.

So I tell my kids that dreams can become reality. Those dreams becoming reality looks a lot like work.

Now, what are your thoughts on that vs up there? Small successes vs ultimate dream. Do we too often not see the beautiful trees because we just want a forest, dadgummit?

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A Plan for All and a Plan for Each

Warning: I am going to be unabashed in my language and enthusiasm about my faith right now. Read on if you dare.

For the meantime, many of the names in this story are being changed, just to be safe.

Last night a remarkable thing happened.

But it could only have happened because of what occurred three years and nearly five months ago. And because of all that has come to pass since then- based on the choices my family and I have made and the choices other inspired people have made.

I tell you now, God is real. I think coincidences are real things that happen and I also know that this was not a coincidence. It was a miracle. The manifestation of God’s merciful, loving hand guiding and nudging and arranging. And my family and I get to be both witnesses and tools in His hand.

In January of 2014, my wife, Annemarie, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. The cancer was found because she was pregnant and something seemed off to her, so we went to the hospital to have an ultrasound and other needful tests. And the pregnancy only happened because of lots of prayer, heartfelt conversations, and a decision to trust God. We felt revelation was leading us to have another child- and that revelation ended up saving Annemarie’s life.

So after the surgery and recovery and finally feeling ourselves settle back into a new normal, I think we both had an epiphany: life is short. Death is real. It’s not the end, but it’s the end of this existence, so maybe we should go milk this existence for all it’s worth. We were open for possibilities, my friends. And excited about what lay ahead.

Then I was laid off in July in a shameful way. I was angry. Anger motivates me and I decided to ‘show them’ by pushing my Instructional Design career as far and as fast as I could. I took courses. Built a network. Contracted for American Express. Took more courses and got certifications. Got a job at Bluehost to help revamp their training.

Then Amazon called. After a great interview cycle and trip, we got a job offer. We’d been warning the kids that this might happen and that we might take the job- necessitating a move to Seattle. We were surprised and thrilled. We talked and prayed. We were hesitant but excited. It was time to do new things- the whole family needed the experience. We felt Heavenly Father’s approval. We took the job.

The family came up in June of 2015. After our offer on a house north of Seattle was basically ignored, we turned our attention south. We ended up buying a pretty new, lovely house in Black Diamond, about an hour south of Seattle. We are across the street from a lake. The street is a gravel road that extends north and south in front of our house- south into a deep forest of trees and hidden houses. That’s important foreshadowing right there.

We settled in. My work was insane and hard and full of pressure and changing all the time. Annemarie homeschooled child 2 and 3 (boy and girl) while children 1, 4, and 5 all went to school. Child 6 was still too young for school so he stayed home.

As the new school year began in 2016, I hit an enormous home run that settled my job down a ton and made me start traveling a bunch. And Annemarie got kids into schools all over the place, with the oldest doing a mix of high school and college, and the rest of the kids in schools all over the map. She drives a lot these days.

Our daughter, Lily, ended up being the only kid going to the school that the school district expected her to go to. Cedar Heights Middle School. She takes the bus to and from school. She’s having an overall good experience there.

Soon after the school year began, Lily started bringing a friend home, a tall, cheerful girl named May. May and Lily waited at the same bus stop in the morning and they became good friends. And then May was at our house nearly every afternoon, playing video games, goofing with the kids, and just being herself. We thought she was a bit of a nut and really liked her a lot.

One rainy Saturday in October, she showed up at our door wrapped in a blanket and shoeless. She said she’d been kicked out of her house by her mom. By now, her mom knew who we were, and an hour or so later, someone from May’s house showed up with unmatching shoes.

We kept May with us that day, warming her and feeding her and comforting her. We didn’t pry much. She cheered up fast and played. She ate dinner with us. We make a mean homemade ‘Whatever Noodles & Cheese’.

A police officer showed up at 8PM, asking if she was with us, saying that her mother had reported her missing. Which is silly in light of the fact that we had a pair of unmatched shoes as evidence she knew where her daughter was. We talked to the officer for a while and we decided May would spend the night at our house, crashing in Lily’s room on an air mattress. The officer said, “The more time she’s away from that house, the better.” Turned out that May and her mom, Fran, lived there out of her mom’s friend’s kindness. Fran’s friend was the owner/renter (I dunno). But Fran’s friend was addicted to drugs and the home was firmly on the radar of law enforcement. And May, it turned out, had been in foster care several times throughout her life, due to Fran’s own struggles with alcohol and drugs. In fact, May had a brother who had been legally taken in by Fran’s mother years before.

So May spent the night with us and came to church with us the next day. She liked it a lot. And a routine was born! She came over every Saturday with a bag of clothes and spent the day and night and part of Sunday with us. I started jokingly referring to her as ‘weekend daughter.’ She played and played and wrestled and got loud and played and more.

Our kids were champions. They didn’t blink. They just welcomed their new weekend sister with no hesitation. We’d talked to them after the first weekend, making sure they understood what was happening as well as possible. But they didn’t pry and didn’t complain. Annemarie and I talked sometimes about what May’s home life must be like. We got a look at it sometimes because one or both of us would walk May home on Sunday afternoons.

I felt a lot of empathy for her. I saw her ability to read a room really fast and the way she keys in on adults’ moods instantaneously and recognized it. I do the same and have for as long as I can remember. And Annemarie was so good and gentle and warm with her.

Then May stopped coming. We asked Lily where May was and Lily said she thought May was sick. This went on for a couple weeks and Lily said she actually wasn’t sure what was going on. She hadn’t seen May in school for a while. We tried to get in touch with her, but only finally succeeded several weeks later when May replied to an email sent by Lily.

May had been taken out of the home after a drug raid. She was with a foster family.

Annemarie and I talked it over in I think sixty seconds. We were going to go get May and bring her into our home. Period. Annemarie made the call to Child Protective Services I believe on a Wednesday about 10 days before Christmas. We picked May up two days before Christmas. We weren’t licensed foster parents, but were deemed ‘Suitable Alternatives’ due to our history with her. We figured we had an agreement with CPS and the case worker that they would help us get started down the road of becoming official foster parents.

May has been with us ever since. Annemarie supervised regular visits between May and her mom while Fran still lived in the house down the road. But finally Fran left that house and went to a women’s shelter in Kent, about 20 minutes away. Annemarie supervised a few more visits with Fran.

Also, before all of this began, Annemarie took the LSATs and got a great score. She was offered a prestigious scholarship at BYU in Utah and she accepted, so we had plans to move there before Fall of 2017. CPS and the case worker knew that as everything unfolded. In fact, the case worker indicated he thought it would probably work out fine to have May come with us and she could come up to Washington regularly to see her mom. We were down with that.

May’s health overall improved. We got a great loft bed to put in the girls’ room and those two girls decked that bed and room out very impressively. Christmas lights and gossamer, guys. May decided to take lessons from the missionaries from our church. She prayed and studied and decided to be baptized. I baptized her on March 4th, learning that her full name was May Marie Call. Fran was there and was very emotional. She wasn’t moving very well, using a walker, but she was so clearly happy that May was doing so well.

Then, while I was abroad, we got the unexpected and heartbreaking news that Fran had passed a few weeks later. We still don’t know the cause.

After a few days of grief and quiet, May mentioned adoption. We were all for it. The case worker thought it was a great idea. Paperwork and the process are underway and are frustratingly slow. We know it will all work out, but we pray it works out quickly. One of the issues is that May’s father has been out of the picture since she was 3 or 4. He’d been in prison for a while, and then basically fell off the map. Nobody at CPS or Social Services has any clue about his whereabouts and he doesn’t seem to have a phone number. So the folks at CPS etc. began the process of filing a petition for termination of rights.

And May has us. But she misses her mother and is hurt by her father leaving.

Last Sunday, Sister Ballard came up to me and asked me if I would be able to help with the Young Women activity. They were going to go up to Seattle and talk to and feed homeless people in Pioneer Park with an organization called Mama’s Hands. They needed a second Priesthood holder, so Sister Ballard asked me. Which is a little odd. I’m traveling a lot and the ward knows it. But Sister Ballard clearly was led.

I, after a moment of stark-raving fear because I work long days already and talking to people, strangers no less, at the end of my long day is not my idea of fun. But the quiet voice in me yelled, “Jared, you want to help people out so put your money where your mouth is.” I said yes I could help.

My two girls, May and Lily, and I piled into my small Corolla. We picked up Destiny, May’s neighbor from before who had recently been baptized, and met at the church. With those three and Aeris packed in the car, we drove up to Bellevue, met the rest of the group again and Denny Hancock, the man who runs Mama’s Hands. I and the girls I’d driven up rode with Denny downtown. The big group split up and I took Lily and Aeris, hamburgers in tow, around the block to start handing out food. We talked to several people, got all the way back to the park, and handed another burger to a fellow sitting nearby his bike and shopping cart. We smiled and chatted a bit with him and then moved on.

By that time, my knee, which had recently had surgery, was pretty much done, so I looked for a place to rest.

That voice came again. “Fight the introversion. Talk to that guy with the bike.”

So I asked if I could sit with him. He said yes. His eyes were clear and he seemed eager to talk. I asked if he had any family. He said, with a small grin, “I was.. pretty fertile as a younger man.” He had several children with several women, it turned out. He said his last two were with his last wife (although I’m not sure if he said they were ever married). He pointed out that the last two were a boy, then a girl, and that the boy, Timothy Junior, had wound up being “signed over” to their mom’s mother.

Something went off in my head. I grew more interested. He said, “And my daughter, May Marie…” and I didn’t hear the rest because.. well.. you get it, right?

So I leaned in closer and got him talking more. I think I knew at this point exactly who this man was, but I had to be sure and I truly had no idea what on earth I was going to do once I got confirmation. And dear Father in Heaven could this truly be happening? Had I really just found May’s father?

He spoke of his life and relationships, how he struggled with drugs of all kinds and spent a year here and a year there in jail. He mentioned a detail I remembered hearing from May, about when she and her mother lived in a car. Finally, he said, “And sad to say I got a letter from the social services about two months ago saying she’d passed.” He mentioned that he thought he’d heard that the daughter he’d left all those years before was with family friends.

That was confirmation. I was on the edge of my rough concrete seat, beginning to shake. This was impossible. I asked him if he wanted to have his kids back. He quietly, with some shame, said he knew he couldn’t take care of them. He just wanted to know they were happy and safe. Finally, I said, “Hey, they’re all waiting for me over there. But I want to keep talking. Will you wait here for a minute? I’ll be right back.”

He said he would wait.

I stood. “My name’s Jared Garrett. What’s your name again?” I stuck out my hand.

“Timothy J. Call.” He shook my hand.

I walked away, asking God how and why and what I should do. I pulled out my phone, talked to Annemarie, told her what had just happened. We both were stunned. I asked her what I should do. She said she didn’t know. I said I was worried about hurting May, opening old wounds, but that maybe this would be really good for her. I admit I was also worried he might suddenly lay claim on MY daughter.

After talking to Annemarie, I was calmer, but still paralyzed. Didn’t know what to do. I told Sister Bolles and Sister Metler what had happened. They were stunned. I said a prayer, more emotion and pleading than words, and went back to Tim and had him sit down across from me.

“Tim. Okay.” Trust Father in Heaven. Say what He says. “I’m about to tell you something that is going to seem impossible. But it’s real because Father in Heaven loves you and wants you to turn fully to Him. He wants you to put your life in order, Tim.”

Tim leaned forward, interested.

I went on. “I know your daughter, May.” I thought I should start small. I was fearful. Didn’t know if I should reveal everything.

“You know my daughter?” He gulped and tears sprang into his eyes. “Is she okay?”

We talked for a minute and I told him she was okay. Told him she was with me and my family. That we loved her, that she was surrounded by love, that she had a sister and five brothers now.

He sprang to his feet. I did the same. He threw his arms around me and cried into my shoulder and I held him as tightly as I could, shaking, trying to stay upright, my chest and throat tight.

After a few minutes, I asked him if he could just wait one more minute because I needed to talk to my group, who was still waiting. I wanted to make sure I could reach him. He stayed standing, scrubbing his face.

I went to May, who was playing basketball with some people in the square. I sat her down. Pointed at the standing man. And trusting as much as I’ve ever trusted in Heavenly Father, I told her. “This is insane. It’s the hand of God and He loves you so much. That man’s your father.”

She got quiet and hunched forward, hands on her mouth, eyes wide. After a minute, I asked her if she wanted to meet him. She did. She said, “I saw him earlier and thought he looked familiar.”

I brought her over. “Tim. God loves you. This is a miracle. And this is your daughter.”

They hugged. He cried and cried. He finally stepped away, studying her face. “You got my nose.” His voice was small and he laughed. He gently pushed a lock of hair away from her face.

“I’m tall like you.” May looked between the ground and Tim.

Tim and I exchanged numbers as the Young Women leaders, then the Young Women, surrounded us, hugging May, speaking tenderly to Tim, and bringing sweetness and goodness in palpable waves. Tim told May and me that if May wanted to be adopted, he approved. May said she did. He said, “I just want you to be happy.”

Pictures were taken. Hugs never seemed to end. This must have been something like what the Day of Pentecost felt like. This is what being led not knowing feels like. This is beyond an honor or privilege, this is the power and manifestation of a Divine Father in Heaven who has a Plan for all and a Plan for each one of us. And plans inside of plans. And Who set in motion this to happen three years ago. Then sent the Spirit to whisper to Sister Ballard, “Ask Brother Garrett.”

I grew quiet for the rest of the evening, during the ride to Bellevue, then driving home. I later found out that the Young Women leaders were praying and intending to fast for a miracle that would help the process of bringing May fully into our home.

It’s early yet. I know it will work out. I’m still shaking.

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