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Melodee’s Rules for Authors — Number Nine

Number Nine

Final Drafts Are Still Pretty Rough

OK, maybe they’re REALLY rough.

No matter how carefully you read your manuscript, there will be errors. Grammar, spelling, syntax, and all of the rest will creep in and entrench the errors so deep that you, as the writer, can’t even see them. Logic and flow errors are even worse.

The reason for this is very simple, and my great grandma summed it up nicely when she said, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

In other words, you are too close.

Get people to read your manuscript. For grammar, spelling, and other mechanical issues, anyone with a reasonable grasp of high school level English will do. Even family will work.

For logic and flow, for God’s sake do NOT use a family member or close friend! They will ignore problems because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, even if the problem is glaring. Find someone who will be totally honest with you, even if it hurts.

If you have a representative, they will have editors who will help you, and they will be brutally honest with you. Trust me, that’s gonna hurt. And it will leave a mark…a mark that you will remember and help you grow and become a better writer.

Keep Loving!

Vanishing Authors

Those of you who follow me on Twitter have likely seen me comment over the years about why so many authors (mostly working in the indie or self-published arenas) seem to vanish from social media and other writer forums. As I have also commented, I have had a few ideas as to why this happens, but no real facts to back things up. At least until now…

I took the chance recently to have some of the marketing types in my organization actually look into the apparent phenomena, and I’d like to say that the results were surprising. Sadly, however, they weren’t at all unexpected.

Before we get to the reasons, let me tell you a little about the data used…

My staff looked at historical data from both Twitter and FaceBook taken from a total of just under 500 accounts. These accounts are those held by myself and a number of other authors the company works with that cover a number of pen names as well as accounts of the corporation/staff plus a good number of accounts of other people in the publishing industry who allowed us access. The data went back 45 months from December of 2018. What we looked at were writers who appeared (or were already on) FaceBook and Twitter and then, at some point, more or less vanished. We waded through the posts of these vanishing authors and, when possible, contacted them in order to find out what happened to them. People for whom we could not determine a reason for their dropping away were discarded from the data pool. Overall, we found out what happened to more than 6,000 writers.

Here is a summary of the results:

Still Writing – <1% – Most of the time, these writers changed pen names and simply abandoned their old name. Maybe not the best decision from a business point of view, but it explains what happened to this small group.

Stopped Writing – >99% – The major reasons why they stopped include:

Deceased – <0.5%

Not making enough money to justify the time spent – >70%

Ran out of money (bankrupt in some cases) – >4%

Ran out of story ideas – <8%

Terminal Writer’s Block – >7%

Lack of motivation to continue – >8%

Assorted other issues – >1.5%

In all honesty, in my mind, I tend to roll line-items 4, 5, and 6 into a single group. They are all very closely related and deal with the creative process itself. This larger group accounts for about 24% of the total. If you toss in line-items 1 and 7 as well, you’re at about 25%. I think it’s safe to say that a quarter of the authors who quit writing did so because of failures in the creative process of writing a story.

The troubling part is found in line-items 2 and 3. Again, I think these can be lumped together as they both come down to not making enough money to continue writing. As you can see, about 75% of all authors who stopped writing in the study period did so because it was not profitable to continue.

Sadly, this is the very reason I suspected for the attrition in the ranks of authors. Also sadly, this is something my company and I hear nearly every day from authors looking for a partnership to increase their income.

The pitch from the writer usually goes something like: “I’m putting in every spare minute writing, and I think I’m pretty good. For a typical book, by the time I pay an editor, cover artist, preparation software costs, and the other essentials, I end up going a hundred or more dollars in the hole on the book. For a really good seller where I do make some money, I end up working for about $1 an hour. I just can’t make it this way!”

And they are 100% correct.

Technically, any business can go forever on a break-even basis. You never get ahead that way, but you won’t go bankrupt, either. I suspect there are some writers who are OK with breaking even and just keeping their head above water. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most writers want to turn at least a little profit. And I’ll equally bet that there is a rather significant percentage of authors who want to actually make a living writing.

The good news is that there are ways to turn a profit. In fact, there are ways to turn a large enough profit to make a full-time living as a writer. There is one thing you need to do in order to reach the level of a full-time, professional author…

Change how you you think. Writing professionally is a business, plain and simple. As soon as you REALLY start thinking of your writing as a business, your entire outlook will change…and it will change in ways that will facilitate your professional growth.

One of the biggest changes you will see is the need for help. You will need a person (or company) out there to help you not only place your stories but to help you write them. A traditional literary agent will help somewhat, but a real representative will help even more. Some of you may have tried to hook up with an agent already, so you know how hard that can be. Getting a true representative is several orders of magnitude more difficult. A couple of things to keep in mind: If an agent picks you up, you likely have a lot of promise as a writer; If a representative even CONSIDERS picking you up, you absolutely have a TON of promise as a writer.

The other huge change most writers will need to make is learning to let go. This is particularly true if you hope to sell a story for video production…just as an example, you might spend four pages describing Mary’s office in a book, but the screenplay will say, “Bob walks into Mary’s office.” The point here is that you need to understand that things are not under your total control. And sorry, folks…that almost always ends up making the story better and worth more money.

We are in a world of side-hustles today…people doing two, three, or more jobs, and doing them all fair and none of them well. And writing is no different. I see writers all the time who are working two “real” jobs and writing in their so-called free time. And frankly, this side-hustle mentality shows. Between books I personally read (and I read very fast) and books my staff reads and provide a synopsis (think of a sort of Cliff Note for corporations) to me, I see well over a hundred books a month. On average I would guess that about 97 of them will make your eyes bleed, 2 of them are at least readable, and only 1 is passable. I would guess that I see maybe 1 or 2 books a year that are actually good.

But let’s get to the money shot…

Ask yourself one very simple question: Do you want to make a living as an author?

If the answer is “No”, then just keep going as you are now. Everything will be fine, and besides, what can possibly go wrong?

If, however, the answer is “Yes”, then you need to change how you think about your chosen career.

To make a long story short, get off your ass and do something!!

Keep Loving!

THWT Question for 08 JAN 2019

Here’s the Two Hundred Word Tuesday question for today:

What has been the best compliment given to you as an writer?

Keep Loving!

Melodee’s Rules for Authors — Number Eight

Number Eight

Don’t Fear The Editors

This Rule is a rough one for most writers, no matter if they are a seasoned professional author with decades in the business or if they are a new writer struggling with their first story. Editors can be intimidating, and that’s a good thing.

It is the editor—at least the good ones—who will push the writer to make the story better. From the line editor looking for grammatical and spelling errors to the content editor looking for continuity and logic in the story, they all have the aim of making your story the best it can be. In order to do that job right, they must be critical and on the offensive all of the time.

Over the years, I’ve come to know that the quality of the editor is directly proportional to the amount of red ink on my manuscript when I get it back. I know I’m not perfect, and I have never written the perfect manuscript. There are always errors, always problems, and the more of those the editor finds and flags the better they did their job.

Many new writers see the relationship between them and the editor as one of an adversarial nature, but nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a cooperative relationship, one where the writer and editor are a team working towards the common goal of producing a story that will sell. We have the same objective in mind…to entertain the reader and to sell books.

The editor is not there to rewrite the story. They are there to help the writer find mistakes and to make the story clear and concise. And this can lead to a potential problem…

In the print world, editors very rarely write stories at all. They are editors and that is that. In the world of E-Books, editors are often also writers. These people write their own books, and also work editing the stories of other writers to supplement their income.

And the print world has it right…

By and large, editors are terrible writers, and writers are terrible editors. Why is that?

A writer will tend to let their own voice drift into the works of others as they do an edit. It’s not a deliberate thing, it just happens. As a writer edits the work of another, that little voice that all writers hear will keep saying things like, “…I would say it this way instead…” and it all starts to blend together. I have seen this in numerous E-Books…in the middle of a paragraph, someone else takes over the writing for a few lines.

In similar fashion, an editor trying to write will typically end up with something that, while mechanically and technically correct, will sound stiff and stilted. That is to say that their voice ends up sounding like the style manuals and grammar textbooks.

Editors and writers are two different skill sets, both important to the final product.

I suppose it’s possible to have both skill sets in one person, but the danger for crosstalk between the two functions would be high. Of the tens of thousands of writers and thousands of editors I know, there is exactly one person I know can do both tasks. And it isn’t me!

Writers should not be afraid of the editors. They are there to help the writer and in most cases they succeed.

And this is where things come down to the brass tacks…

If the editor suggests a change, really think about it. If the change makes sense and makes the story better IN THE OPINION OF THE WRITER, then make the change. If not, then reject the change. Don’t be afraid to tell the editor “no”.

It is YOUR story, not theirs. It is YOUR voice, not theirs.

See Rule Number Twenty-One as well.

Keep Loving!

THWT Question for 01 JAN 2019

Here is the first Two Hundred Word Tuesday question for 2019:

If cost and/or availability were not issues, what ONE book would you most like to own? Be specific!

Keep Loving and Happy New Year!

Melodee’s Rules for Authors — Number Seven

Number Seven

Never Underestimate The Power Of The Backlist

As frightening as it might be, some writers don’t even know what the backlist is. So, let me quote from Wikipedia…

A backlist is a list of older books available from a publisher, as opposed to titles newly published (sometimes called the front list).

Building a strong backlist has traditionally been seen as the way to produce a profitable publishing house, as the most expensive aspects of the publishing process have already been paid for and the only remaining expenses are reproduction costs. A strong backlist is also a form of The Long Tail in modern business plans.

“The backlist is the financial backbone of the book industry, accounting for 25 to 30 percent of the average publisher’s sales,” wrote The New York Times. “Current titles, known as the front list, are often a gamble: they can become best sellers, but they are much more likely to disappear in a flood of returns from bookstores. By contrast, backlist books usually have predicable sales and revenues.”

While this definition is aimed at publishers, the same thing apply to writers…the backlist is a great source of steady revenue. Also, a new release will usually lead to spike in sales of backlist titles.

The lesson to be learned here is that you should always talk up and promote your backlist. Just because a book was released five years ago, that does not mean that there is no more money to be made from that title. Talk about it, spread the word, get readers interested, and convince them to buy that old book.

Every dime you make from the sale of a backlist title is a dime you didn’t have yesterday.

Keep Loving!

The Christmas Present

When I was a kid, my family didn’t have a lot. We were kind of like the poverty-stricken snake: We didn’t have a pit to hiss in.

One thing we did have was family, such as it was.

I never knew my dad’s mother or my mom’s father; they both died before I was born. I never really knew my dad’s father, either. He was what folks back then called a “wino” and what we would, in today’s politically correct world, call a homeless person.

But I did know my mom’s mother. In fact, she lived downstairs from us for a long time.

I had a good assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins, all from my dad’s side, who lived fairly close. There were another set from my mom’s side, but they mostly lived in Denver, and we didn’t see them very often.

But Grandma was always around.

I always had toys for Christmas, but not many and never very expensive things. I sometimes think that my dad always wanted a son, because often he would get me toys that would seem, at least at first, as being more appropriate for a boy.

Like the year he spent who-knows-how-much on a toy plane, some big airliner or another, that had a “remote control” on a wire so I could make the lights come on, the small plastic propellers on the four engines rev up, and it would taxi around while I steered it. I loved the plane and played with it for years.

Or the year dad got me BB gun, followed a year later by a Winchester lever-action .22 rifle. No, I didn’t shoot my eye out, either. I loved them, too.

Looking back, it was more about dad giving me something rather than the gifts themselves that I loved. Like so many kids, I equated the gifts with dad loving me.

I don’t have any of those toys or gifts today. They were all lost to the passing years, and I have no clue where or how. All I have now are the memories, and that’s more than enough for me.

Then there was the year that Grandma died.

She had breast cancer, and the doctors did all they could, but they didn’t have the treatments available then that we have today. There was really little they could do other than keep her comfortable. Well, at least as much as possible.

Her last Christmas was a sad one, but at six, I really didn’t understand that she, mom, and dad all knew it would be her last. I thought it was just another visit from Santa.

The medical bills took as big a toll as anything else. There weren’t many presents under the tree that year.

But I remember one small package, only a few inches long, and far less than that in width and height. It had worked its way to the very toe of my stocking hanging above the old gas fireplace, and I had to take the red sock down and shake it to get the present to fall to the floor.

I recall thinking that it must be something good because it was heavy. I can still see the red wrapping paper, covered in white snowmen dressed in the traditional black top hats with their carrot noses and coal lump eyes. It was tied with a thin green ribbon, and a silver bow twice as big as the package itself finished it off.

I’d already opened all my other gifts, but something about this odd present fascinated me. It was so unusual, so different from all the others, that I had this feeling in my six-year-old mind that something must be very special about this last item.

A small card was taped to the package, and it read simply: “To Melodee From Grandma and Grandpa”.

That puzzled me. Grandpa? Did it mean Grandpa Bunny, the aforementioned wino? Surely not.

But at six, I didn’t worry about it too much, and tore into the ribbon and paper, tossing them to join the small, sad pile already on the floor.

Inside was a simple, unmarked cardboard box, and when I opened that, I found an old, well-worn pocket knife.

As I turned it in my hands, it was marked on one side with the word “Primble” and on the other with “Barlow”. I had no idea who these people might be, but they must have lost this knife a long time ago, because far from the bright, shiny color of a new tool, this one was brown with the color of old rust, rubbed off by wear from being carried and used on a regular basis.

I opened the larger of the two blades, and it was thin from repeated sharpening. Carefully, I ran my finger across the blade as I’d seen dad do when he sharpened his knife, and it was like a razor. I couldn’t get my tiny hands to open the smaller blade, though. The spring was too strong for my fingers to work.

Grandma, sitting in the old, big easy chair, waved her hands to get my attention so I could read her lips. “Child, close that knife and come on over here.”

I folded the knife and went to where she sat, and I crawled up in her lap.

I know now that probably hurt her. Her bones were brittle and ached from the cancer that, unknown to a six-year-old child, ravaged her body. But Grandma didn’t complain. She didn’t even wince.

Instead, she put her arm around me and tapped at the old knife with her other hand, the tremble noticeable even to me. “That was your Grandpa’s knife. He carried that everyday for a long, long time. It’s yours now.”

I saw a few tears running down her cheeks, but I really didn’t understand, because she smiled bright as daybreak. When I glanced over at mom, she too was crying softly, but she also smiled. Dad was busy poking at some invisible spot on his shirt, his eyes carefully averted from my gaze.

I remember saying thank you, but totally without understanding.

Grandma died in February, but it was many more years before I understood the meaning of her last Christmas present to me.

As I said, all the toys and other things from those times are gone, all a part of history now.

All but one…

As I write this, I look down at the desk and see the familiar knife there, the words “Primble” and “Barlow” still easily readable in the brownish metal, the colors of the artificial horn flowing across the handle. The blade is a little thinner now, but it’s still razor-sharp. Both blades now, because I can get the smaller one to fold out.

I carry that little knife with me everywhere I can. If I wear jeans, it’s in my pocket. Otherwise, it’s in my purse.

It’s not worth anything. It wasn’t even an expensive knife when new. To me, though, it’s priceless. It’s a tie across the miles and years to a woman I loved very much and miss terribly. It’s also a tie to man I never knew, but who I love just as much.

Some of you may be disappointed, because most of the stories from my childhood have a funny aspect, and this one is seriously lacking in the comedic department. No, this wasn’t a funny story, but it is a happy one.

Memories define who we are. To a large degree, they also define who we will become. That, in turn, defines how we live our life and how we impact others. The memory of Grandma’s last Christmas is a good one. She gave me a gift beyond all measure.

She gave me a past much longer than my years.

Yes, there is a good dose of bitter with the sweet, but like a fine wine or the most delectable chocolate available, the sweet far outweighs the bitter, reducing the painful twinge to giving us a reminder of how good things really are. The bitter only serves to enhance the sweet.

Keep Loving


Merry Christmas

Melodee’s Rules for Authors — Number Six

Number Six

Odds Are The Style Manual Is Wrong

Does anyone really know how many different style manuals are out there? It must be in the hundreds, if not thousands. Every major university has one. Every major publication has one. Pretty much every industry has their own. Some publishers have one they use that they developed. Hell, Wikipedia has their own, too.

This all means that there are no hard and fast rules for style. I promise you that no matter what you do in the written word, you can find at least one style manual saying you’re right and at least one claiming you’re wrong.

And the interesting fact of this is it is authors who decide what is “right” and what is “wrong”. The so-called experts who write the style manuals look to our works to determine what proper style is.

And by the way, so do the so-called experts who write dictionaries.

Yeah, that’s right…we authors are in control.

Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?


Style and the nebulous concept of “voice” are closely related. It is an author’s voice that sets them apart from all of the other authors and the thing that readers like about that author. Let me give you an example, and I picked this one because it’s really a non-issue today…

The split infinitive…in short, to quote from the Wikipedia article, “a split infinitive is an English-language grammatical construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, comes between the marker ‘to’ and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of a verb.” Again, quoting from Wikipedia, they point out that: “For example, a split infinitive occurs in the opening sequence of the Star Trek television series: ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Here, the adverb ‘boldly’ splits the full infinitive ‘to go’.”

To meet the requirements of most style manuals, Star Trek should have said, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”

So what? The former statement, as used in the TV series, just plain sounds better.

In other words, the style manual is wrong and the writer is right.

But, as I pointed out earlier, there are a good number of style manuals that say to ignore the split infinitive and use what sounds and flows better.

End of that discussion.

Let me give you another, more real example…

In my books set in the Immortal Love Universe™, the alert reader will note that the military titles of characters are capitalized, even when not used as a proper noun. In something like “Yes, Commander”, it is clear and accepted by generic style manuals that “Commander” should be capitalized because it is a proper noun. In the case of “Look at that bunch of Marines over there”, most generic manuals say that “Marines” should be lower case. But if you look at style manuals geared to the military world, it should indeed be capitalized.

In this case, the style manual used by almost all publishers and publications is just plain wrong.

On the other hand, one could argue that the military manuals are wrong.

So, who really is right?

The author.

Remember…we control what makes it into the style manuals—and the dictionary—so we decide what is right and what is wrong.

Do what you know is right and what fits your voice, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Keep Loving!

THWT Question for 18 DEC 2018

This week we’ll look at your book(s) being made into movies…

Think of your favorite character from your books. If one (or more!) of the books were made into a movie, who would you cast to play this character?

Keep Loving!

The Christmas Tree

As an author, I’m asked many times about my favorite Christmas memories. The questions come from readers, publishers, reviewers, and many others. Those memories tend to wind up being edited down to a paragraph. Maybe two. You can’t really do justice to a memory in that space.

Growing up in the Missouri Ozarks, we often had a white Christmas. Yes, just like the song. The Bing Crosby version. Or The Moody Blues. A wonderfully beautiful time, but mixed now with a little of the bittersweet.

At the time, I didn’t understand that my parents scrimped and saved for a long time to make Christmas happen. Looking back, they spent a lot of money we didn’t have on Christmas, and I’m not talking about just on gifts.

My dad’s birthday was December 18th. Just a week before Christmas, his birthday present was always a Christmas tree.

We lived in a house that had high ceilings. Really high. About fourteen feet. Such a house today would have the ceiling lowered somehow, if for no other reason than to save on heating costs. And wallpaper costs. But our house had the ceilings clear to their full height. Added to this was a good deal of dark woodwork. I later learned that most of the houses of the period from when ours was built had mahogany woodwork. The carving was intricate with lots of roping and circular features.

Our home was the second floor of the building. The stairs were a straight shot from the front door, but at the top of the steps, there was a ninety-degree turn into the hallway that led to living room at the front of the house, and the kitchen toward the rear. My room was off the living room.

Between the living room and my room was a huge door. It reached nearly to the ceiling and was about eight feet wide. Made of the same dark wood, it had carved panels inset on its surface, and it slid on rollers to disappear into the wall. Oh, that’s called a pocket door. I usually kept it closed.

At least on nights other than dad’s birthday…on that night, the show was too good to miss by closing the door.

The annual floor-show we called tree shopping always started the same way. Dad would swear that we would get a small tree this year. I never figured out his definition of a small tree.

We would pile in the 1967 Dodge van and head out to the tree lots. This was one of the old vans, not like today’s minivans filled with soccer players and their moms. A big thing, based on a big truck, the van had two seats up front and the engine sat back a little, between the seats. In fact, there was room to pass from one seat to the other by walking between the dash and the engine box. The box lifted up so you could check the oil from the driver’s seat.

The back of the van had no seats. Just a huge open area, a lot like a metallic football field. Since there were no seats, we didn’t need seat belts. No one wore them back then anyway.

We went to the same lot every year. It was called simply “Ron’s”. I assume the greasy old man who drooled when he stared at mom was Ron. Anyway, dad said Ron had the best trees at the best prices. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t very old, I had never been to any other tree lot, and the prices must have been secret since the trees all had little colored tags on them. I guess Ron had the code to break the cipher someplace.

In late December in Missouri, it gets dark about four in the afternoon. Dad didn’t get home until about four-thirty or so. By the time we ate and hit the streets, it was full dark. We usually took several hours in the dark, using flashlights and the several bonfires Ron kept burning, to pick out a tree.

This was no small task nor was it one to be taken lightly. While dad stood shivering in the cold wind, mom made him hold the tree upright. She then stared at the tree with a practiced eye, making dad turn it this way and that. Most of the time, she would shake her head and mumble something about a flat or bare spot. Dad would go back to the racks of trees for another.

Did I make it clear these are real trees I’m talking about? Many people seem to think that Christmas trees come from the garden center at the local WalMart. You know…the ornaments are where the fertilizer was stacked in August. No, these trees didn’t come in a box.

Just a short time ago, these trees were living, growing things. They were snatched from the forest by force and brought by truck to Ron, and others like him, for sale to folks like us. Sort of an evergreen slave trade.

Ron had racks built from 2×4 lumber that held the trees. To a kid like me, there seemed to be a million trees there. Maybe there were a few hundred, but the smell still lingers in my head. The pine scent was almost overpowering. Ever open a new bottle of pine cleaner and take a really deep whiff? That’s not even close. At times, when standing close to one of the racks, it could actually get unpleasant.

Ron had several types of trees. I remember spruce, Scotch pine, blue spruce, and a few others. Dad liked the Scotch pines, and that’s where the efforts focused.

Often, mom’s thumbs down for a tree came because it was too small. Now, dad wasn’t a big man, only about five and half feet tall. But unless the tree was at least a foot over his head, he knew better than to waste mom’s time. She wouldn’t even speak then. She just gave dad The Look.

You know the one. All mothers know how to use The Look. Yes, you mothers out there reading this know what I’m talking about. It’s the expression that, when aimed at the man of the house, says without words, “Are you out of your mind?” The same look, when aimed at the children, says, “That’s very sweet and cute, but if you don’t stop now, I’m going to slap your face off.”

No matter who The Look was aimed at, it worked.

Dad knew better, but he always tried to sneak a tree shorter than himself into the game. I think it’s like a pitcher in baseball trying to doctor the ball. Sometimes, you get by with it. Most times, you get caught. When you did get caught, you usually paid a little fine, maybe sat out a game or two, and then all was forgiven. I wonder how many games dad sat out over the years.

The lot was pretty slow this particular year, and Ron was helping dad pick out trees for evaluation. After looking at several dozen, all rejected because they were too small, Ron told dad he could give him a good deal on a larger tree since only a few remained and it was only a week until Christmas.

With mom’s smiling approval, we followed Ron to the high rent district.

The trees towered over my seven-year-old head like redwoods. Reaching so high in the air, the tops were lost in darkness because the light of the bonfires just couldn’t reach that far. Dad frowned and turned his flashlight to the sky, but the light faded before it found the tip of the trees.

While Ron still had several trees here in the Beverly Hills part of the lot, only one fit the bill; a Scotch pine, the only one there. The trunk near the base was too big around for Dad to grip fully with both hands. Some of the lower branches were bigger than a few trees we looked at earlier. Processed and cut into lumber, the tree could have built at least two homes.

Dad and Ron wrestled the monster from the rack and balanced it precariously on the ground. The tree swayed in the wind, causing the men to struggle to keep it upright.

Mom, taking pity on them, walked around the tree instead of making them turn it for her.

Her smile said it all. This was the one.

After a few minutes of negotiation, dad and Ron settled on the price. The tree was soon tied with bailing twine and ready for loading.

With the mighty pine tree resting on the ground, the problem became obvious. The tree was about twice the length of the old Dodge van. There was no way it would fit inside unless the windshield was broken out. Maybe not even then.

Dad decided to tie the tree to the top of the van.

Ever see the Oscar Meyer Weiner-Mobile? The van looked a lot like that when Dad and Ron finished. Well, other than the moldy green hot dog drooped down toward the street at the ends.

And away we went, driving through the dark streets with a dwarf redwood on the roof.

Those old vans were top-heavy when they left the factory. Dad nearly flipped ours over several times on turns long before this night. With who-knows how many tons of evergreen tied to the highest point of the vehicle, it became very top-heavy.

It took about thirty minutes to get to the tree lot. It took more than an hour to get home. When added to the time at the lot, we finally arrived back home at about nine at night.

And the fun had only just begun.

I’m an only child. No big brothers to help. Mom was less than five feet tall and weighed perhaps ninety pounds. Soaking wet. With her clothes on. I was not quite seven.

What I’m trying to say here is that dad was on his own.

He managed to wrestle the baby sequoia from the van and get it on the ground. He had the idea of putting the tree on a big canvas tarpaulin so he could drag it instead of carrying it. It seemed like a good idea to me.

He began pulling. The tree did well, sliding along the ground and up the five steps to the door. It fit through the door, barely, and dad backed up the main stairs, pulling and sweating and saying bad things about the tree’s parents not being married.

I remember mom and I standing at the foot of the stairs watching dad. His face looked like traffic signal stuck on stop. In the rain. He was really sweating. I recall not understanding why, because it was maybe twenty degrees outside.

He was a little past halfway up the steps when the top of the tree went through the door. Dad gave a mighty pull, and the tree lurched up the steps nearly a foot. Dad sat down hard on the steps. The jolt made him lose his grip on the tarp.

The tree came sliding down the steps, top first, like a runaway train on a mountain. The bottom of the tree bounced on the steps as it descended, and I imagined the sound to be like restless cannibal pygmies deciding whose house to meet at for dinner.

I watched all this from my position on the steps leading from the sidewalk to the door. Directly in front of the door. Right in the path of the humongous tree.

Dad always called me ‘Mel’. Mom gave him The Look every time he did. She never failed to call me ‘Melodee’. I hate it when people call me ‘Mel’. Only three people can get by with it, and I like it. Dad was one. Hey? What little girl wouldn’t like her Daddy to have a special name just for her? A close business associate is another. She holds the purse strings, so she can call me anything she likes. The third is someone very special to me. But I digress.

Mom said only one word. “Mel!”

Remember the scene in the movie Vacation when Clark falls asleep at the wheel and leaves the freeway? Remember when the man walking his dog snatches the pooch back by the leash, thus saving it from being crushed by the Griswold Family Truckster? Mom did the same thing to me, only using my arm instead of a leash.

And I reacted the same way as the dog. I yelped. Loudly.

The tree shot past mom and I at a high rate of speed. I guess being tied tightly to the trunk, the branches offered less wind resistance. The canvas slide probably helped. When the bottom of the tree exited the door to the house, it was moving much faster than I could walk. Probably faster than I could run.

The inertia, a function of the mass of the tree (large) and the velocity of the tree (also large) carried the tree all the way back to the van. It stopped when the first four or so feet of the treetop was under the van.

Dad stumbled down the steps. He stood next to mom and I, his breathing a ragged pant, with his hands on his hips. I think he used up all the good words already, because he didn’t say a thing. He just glared at the tree.

Finally, dad’s breathing returned to normal, or at least as much as a fifty-five-year-old obese smoker can breathe normally, and he smiled down at me where I still stood holding mom’s hand. “You OK, Mel?”

He got The Look from mom.

I smiled. “Yeah, Daddy.”

He messed my hair and went after the tree.

The second assault on Mount Aaron went pretty good. At least dad made it to the top of the stairs with the tree in tow. It was here that a major problem was encountered.

Remember that ninety-degree turn?

How do you get a monster conifer around not one, but two such turns?

I was wrong…Dad hadn’t used up all the good words. At least not yet. Even today, I don’t understand what they mean when people say someone is ‘turning the air blue’. Mom said dad was doing that, but I didn’t see it.

Dad was a machinist. More accurately, he was a precision machinist. All machinists work with tolerances measured in thousandths of an inch. Dad dealt with dimensional clearances on the order of a few ten-thousandths of an inch or less.

The tree had far less clearance than that to get around the corner and out of the stairs.

I’m not sure if the cussing or his skills as a machinist helped more, but dad managed to get the tree from the stairway into the hall. It was a relatively simple task to get it into the living room.

It was after ten by then.

After some careful measuring and a couple of tests, dad finally cut several feet from both ends of the coniferous monster and was ready to attach the base and stand the tree up.

The trunk was far too big to fit into the stand.

Again, the air didn’t turn blue, but I came to understand that the supply of good words is all but infinite.

I had a cat. His name was Jessie, and he was just your common feline mongrel. When you have a cat, you also have a litter box. A litter box implies cat litter. But cat litter is expensive. Instead, dad would get a fifty-pound bag of something called Speedy Dry from where he worked as we needed it. It looks, feels, and smells, at least before the cat gets to it, just like clay cat litter. We had a new bag.

Being ingenious, dad got a five-gallon bucket, put the base of the tree in there, and filled the bucket with Speedy Dry. Adding water made the mixture like cement. It also weighed more than mom and I put together. That’s a good thing, because the huge dwarf redwood needed the weight to hold it upright.

When dad finally stood the tree up, it was about quarter past eleven. The treetop ornament, a hideous yellow and purple thing my grandma gave us, was less than an inch from the fourteen-foot ceiling.

Dad cut the rope holding the branches and the tree unfolded majestically, nearly filling the entire room with long green needles reaching in every direction. The already strong scent of pine intensified in the air, and sent us all the same message…

Christmas was actually coming.

Mom brought in the boxes of ornaments and lights. As mom picked out the ornaments she wanted on the tree, dad played with the strings of lights, making sure they all worked and the cords and plugs were in good shape.

I sat down on the couch and watched my parents.

The last thing I remember is the old mantle clock above the gas fireplace chiming midnight, signally the end of my dad’s fifty-fifth birthday. But his night had only just started. By the time I woke up in the morning, still on the couch, the tree was trimmed.

Dad died in 1987, but even now, I get my Christmas tree on December the 18th.

Happy birthday, Daddy.