We’ve all been asked the question, “paper or plastic?”. Plastic was the environmentally-friendly answer when I was a kid because it wasn’t a dead tree. Now, because it’s biodegradable, the answer is paper. Or to not take a bag at all. Or to bring a reusable bag. This is all great for the environment, but what about the clerk?

As a bookseller, I don’t have to bother with the paper or plastic question (I can only imagine what grocers must face each day), but I must instead inquire whether my customers would like a bag “or not.” In the good ol’ days, everyone expected a bag. You rang up the merch, stuck it in a bag, done! A couple months ago I read an article that suggested retailers ask “do you need a bag” instead of “would you like a bag.” Notice the subtle difference? How many people need a bag?

The problem here (I use the word problem lightly) is the classic “we can’t be everything for everybody.” Most folks respond to the bag question decisively, others waffle, but some… some… look at you like you’re the devil. I can’t imagine baggers of the past dealing with this issue. Either you’re the devil because you dared to imply that they wouldn’t want a bag — of course they want a bag! They’re buying something aren’t they? They’re giving you money! — or you’re the devil for suggesting that they take a bag when it’s so obviously a blatant waste of our precious resources.

Lately, I’ve found myself justifying the question. Like “would you like a bag? Since, you see, it’s raining out?” As though I would never dream of offering them a bag if it was sunny. Or if they’re already carrying a large shopping bag, I edit the question to be “would you like a bag, or do you just want to add these to the one you have?” like I’m the bag police. Or, and this one’s terrible, I try to guess whether the customer is the bag-rejecting type based on what they’re wearing or what book they’re buying. I’ve got a pretty good average though.

But is all this angst really necessary? I can’t help but feel that the reusable bag craze is just another fad that has been well capitalized on. Raise your hand if you’ve bought one or three but never remember to bring it to the store with you! I can think of two really good things that have come from this, though, that will hopefully be long-lasting:

1. Some people have now trained themselves to not take a bag when they buy something that they can just as easily carry, and that is a habit that can’t fall prey to our ability to forget or misplace small items like rolled up bags.

2. Many grocers and big box stores have plastic bag returns for recycling/reuse, so now answering “plastic” at checkout and then bringing your bags back in to return the next time is almost as good as bringing your own, and you’re not out any money for trendy bags.

So… To bag or not to bag, that is the question. Which do you choose?

Tonight is another Tin Pencil meeting. This time I actually did the optional assignment (days in advance, too), which was inspired by the article in the Guardian that asked several writers to share their personal writing rules. Most of the lists weren’t so much rules about the craft of writing, but about the writing lifestyle and positive writing practices. So here are my rules (I’m sure they’ll continue to develop over time, too):

  1. Spend some time everyday alone in the quiet. Let your thoughts rise through the silence.
  2. Even when you’re not writing, think about your story, let your mind wander through the world you’re creating, so that when you finally sit down to write you’ll already be in that space.
  3. Always keep a pen/pencil and a writing journal with you.
  4. Keep an idea box and store away ideas for future stories and characters or random bits of information that inspire you.
  5. Read, read, read… and not just in the genre that you write.
  6. Don’t let research slow you down. Research for your book can easily turn into procrastination for actually writing your book. Get to writing and place-mark the details that need firming up.
  7. Choose your readers cautiously at the early stages of your story. Don’t solicit feedback until you’re really ready to hear it.
  8. Listen carefully to feedback. If you hear the same thing more than once it probably deserves your attention.
  9. Don’t fall in love with your words, be in love with your story. It makes editing less painful.
  10. Know why you’re writing.

And here are my three bonus rules on the craft of writing, which are mostly inspired by my current irritation with The Physick Book of Deliverence Dane, by Katherine Howe ( I haven’t even reached the end yet and there are two instances of dialogue that read “Shhhhhh,” he shushed her):

  1. Create REAL conflict. A character over-reacting to a situation is false conflict.
  2. Give your characters TRUE motivation, real reasons to do what they do and react how they do. Make their actions consistent with their personalities and desires, not just a vehicle for your plot.
  3. The story is the most important ingredient in your book; know where you’re going and why and how you’re going to get there.

I’m always on the lookout for helpful writing resources, but I feel as though I’ve just stumbled across a Crumple-Horned Snorkack!

The Strengths of the Harry Potter Series” by Jim Adam and hosted by Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog “There Are No Rules,” is a continuing series of posts on what J. K. Rowling did so right and what writers can learn from it. The most recent addition, “No Description Dumps! Crafting a Story With Details & Immersion,” made some very good points about using physical description to give us insight into the character’s personality/lifestyle/interests/etc. (like Harry’s glasses being held together with tape revealing that he is often bullied by his cousin), as well as spreading out descriptions through actions and dialogue (such as learning that Harry’s hair is untidy by Uncle Vernon telling him to comb it, and as a bonus we also see how poorly Harry gets treated by his uncle).

With ten posts completed and at least three still to come, I’ll definitely be returning for another dose.

I love to read, but isn’t there something so melancholy about sliding that finished book back onto the shelf where it will wait who-knows-how-long until you pick it up for another go? Solution: lend it to a friend! I have found that lending out a good book greatly increases my enjoyment of it. It’s also wonderful to be lent a “must read” by someone dear. The reading process is so quiet and internal, and I love that about it, but there is a richness added when you can share your reactions to that other world with someone who’s traveled there too. So here’s my current lending library status (though I’m sure I’m forgetting some that I have loaned out) along with brief reviews.

Books I’m Lending:

Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin (lent to my mom) – My favorite historical novel of the moment, this story left me spellbound. Alice Liddell sounds like such an extraordinary person and I had no idea that Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) was a mathematics professor at Oxford. I am now re-reading Lewis Carroll’s complete works to see if I can take away anything new.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow (lent to my mom) – A fascinating novel about racial identity and stereotyping. The main character, Rachel, is the daughter of an African-American G.I. and a Danish woman. When a family tragedy lands her back in the States with her black grandmother, she finds herself being defined by unfamiliar prejudices and struggles to be “black enough.”

The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, both by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (lent to Ginny) – I can’t praise these two novels highly enough, especially with their literature-loving characters. In The Shadow of the Wind, the main character is a bookseller’s son, and in The Angel’s Game the main character is an author, and though it came after Shadow it takes place years before when bookseller is a young man. And, of course, both feature the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (lent to Kimmee) – I couldn’t put this one down and will probably re-read it as soon as I get it back. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the diverse and spunky cast of women shines light not only on the race issues of the time, but also on conflicts regarding gender roles, social classes, and generational expectations.

Books I’m Borrowing:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe (lent by Ginny) – I just got this one on Friday and started it at breakfast this morning.

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux (lent by Kimmee) – I have had this one on loan for about a year now and still not cracked the cover. Shame on me. I was fortunate enough to see the musical last year and wanted to read the book, but I guess not bad enough.

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, by Nancy Kress (lent by Phyllis) – This is a fantastic book on writing and I would highly recommend it to any writer. Confession: I have my own copy now (different edition) but still need to locate my borrowed copy, which is in a box in my basement somewhere since I moved last year. Sorry Phyllis, I promise it will be returned soon!

I have the most wonderful husband in the world, and Garlic Jim’s has the tastiest gluten-free pizza. Yesterday, after a long day at work and a fun-filled Tin Pencil meeting, the question of what to fix for dinner hung in the air on the car ride home. It was after 8:30pm already, and I asked my husband, David, if I should fix nachos.

“No, I don’t really feel like nachos tonight,” he said to the windshield.

David has never turned down nachos before and it caught me by surprise. But no matter. Then, when we got home and I was finally able to give him a proper hello, I noticed something else strange.

“Did you have garlic for lunch?” I asked, pulling away. Earlier that day, he had told me he’d had fast food.

“No,” David said, giving me a confused look. He started test-smelling his shirt and then turned his nose toward me. “Maybe it’s your hair.”

I laughed doubtfully and went to the kitchen, my bat senses tingling. The final three clues came in quick succession. I started looking in the fridge and searching the cupboards when David interrupted me.

“Let’s go get in comfy clothes,” he said.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked, baffled that Mr. Hollow Legs would delay an already late dinner a moment longer than necessary.

“I really want to go change,” he insisted.

I made my way to our bedroom and then realized he wasn’t with me. Clue one.

“Where did you go?” I hollered.

“Be right there!”

And then I heard it. The beep of the kitchen timer being set. Clue two. When he appeared by my side a moment later, I eyed him suspiciously.

“What did you do?” I asked with a grin. “Is there something in the oven?”

“No!” he said, unconvincingly.

“What did you make?” I was jumping up and down now, a childish tendency that I can’t seem to suppress when David is around.

“I didn’t make anything,” he said. This time I knew he was telling the truth and that this was the third clue.

I didn’t dare hope. Could it be pizza? I was afraid to ask but did anyway and he told me to go look in the oven. It wasn’t just gluten-free pizza, it was THE BEST gluten-free (non-homemade) pizza I’ve ever tasted (and have only ever had once before). Garlic Jim’s! David had gone there for lunch as part of a work thing and brought a pizza home for dinner. What a guy! Honestly, I wonder how I ever got so lucky.

By the way, for anyone who’d like to spread the pizzawesomeness, Garlic Jim’s is a franchise. Please, someone open one in Spokane (the closest one is nearly an hour away)!

I never cease to be amazed at some people’s inability to use their imaginations and, for one moment, put themselves in another person’s shoes. It’s not that I expected my previous post on this topic to obliterate the habit, really, I just continue to find it surprising.

A gentleman came into the gallery this afternoon to show me his wildlife photography (he failed to adhere to rules 4 and 6 of the previous post, but did okay with the rest). Besides seeming a bit self-important, he was a friendly enough gent and proceeded to tell me about a particular photo he had taken at a to-remain-nameless national park. He explained that, after he returned from his trip and saw how amazing his photo had turned out, the first thing he did was get on the phone with the folks at the national park, to see if they were interested in it. Then, rather grumpily, he told me that he wasn’t let to speak to the man in charge but could only talk to the man’s personal assistant. “She wanted me to send her the photograph,” he huffed, giving me a knowing look. “I said, I’m not sending you nothing.”

“What did you expect them to do for you without letting them see the photograph?” I asked.

He was afraid of them stealing his image. “And, anyway, if I’m going to do business with them,” he said, “I’m going to do it in person and not over the phone.” He felt that  she wasn’t the one he needed to be talking to. He wants to talk to her superior. The one who makes the decisions.

Not sparing his feelings, I laid it out plain for him.

“Why should they give you their time when they don’t even know if the photo is any good or not?” I asked. “Maybe if Ansel Adams was calling they’d be a little more receptive, but they don’t know you from anyone. And treat that personal assistant with respect. She’s the gatekeeper; it’s her job to work with people like yourself, and if you want your photo to go somewhere with the parks you’re going to have to jump through their hoops. You should send the picture. If you don’t feel comfortable sending a digital file, don’t. Send them a printed 4×6 if you’re really afraid of them reproducing it.”

How can an artist expect to even discuss their unsolicited work with anyone without being prepared to show their work? Even if he had been let to speak with Mr. Man In Charge, did he think he would get anywhere just by saying that he took a great photograph? Is Mr. Man In Charge supposed to take him seriously just because he says so? It would be like if I called up a literary agent to ask if they would represent me, bypassing the querying process, and, oh by the way, Ms. Agent, I won’t send you my manuscript until you sign me, but trust me it’s good.

I don’t think so.

If you want to be treated like a professional, you’d better act like a professional, people! And treat others with respect. What makes this fellow think he is too important to talk to someone’s personal assistant? The fact that Mr. Man In Charge even has an assistant means he’s too busy to talk to you, and if you offend his gatekeeper you may find that she’s too busy to talk to you too.

Through my work I’ve been exposed to things I’d never have guessed at in my formative years. I’ve gone to bookselling tradeshows and met some of my favorite authors, leaving with bags and bags of free books, many of them autographed (squee!). I’ve had my portrait photographed with my twin sister for being local filmmakers, as part of a local artist series that was purchased and donated to our Museum of Arts and Culture. And, most recently, my husband and I were able to attend the 25th annual Works from the Heart art auction last night, thanks to my boss sponsoring a table there. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to bid on anything (I wish) but it was a fun reason to dress up, taste some new fancy foods, and chat with the artists I work with at someplace other than the gallery.

There were some truly stunning pieces there. I decided that I would imagine I had more in my wallet than a punch card to Taco del Mar and choose the five pieces that, in an alternate universe, would be mine.

No.5   “White Trail Road” by Kim Wheaton

I had never seen Kim Wheaton’s work before, but this painting was so beautiful in its simplicity, I felt that I could merely glance at it and feel at peace.

No.4   “Garden Tree” by Mason McCuddin

Mason McCuddin won me over with his “Yellow Brick Road” hanging sculpture last August, and “Garden Tree” didn’t disappoint. A photo can’t do it justice, because the motion of the piece and how it changes from each angle are part of the charm.

No.3   “Country Charmer” by Dean Davis

Though I’m not usually a fan of photography printed on canvas, it did seem to add something to this moody print. In fact, it seemed like you could just fall into the canvas.

No. 2   “In the Grass” by Dara Harvey

Dara Harvey’s whimsical paintings always delight me, but this is my favorite of hers so far, though I may be biased by the subject matter.

No. 1   “Chardonnay” by E. L. Stewart

Elsie Stewart’s painting was my favorite of the evening, no question. Her layers of color, varied texture, and unique composition were masterfully done, and the subject matter is timeless. I must be content to lock the image in my memory, as I’m sure it found a home last night.

We didn’t stay for the live auction (I could only torture my husband for so long), but the quality of art and the amount of wine being consumed promised that it would be a successful fundraiser for the museum. Though I left without any art, I had tasted my first caviar and hadn’t spilled anything on the dress I borrowed from my sister, so I count the night as a success.

The most frustrating thing about being Celiac, at least for those of us who discovered our problem late in life, is missing all those wonderful, gluten-filled treats we used to eat. I discovered I was Celiac when I was fifteen, which had left me time for enough cookies, muffins, bagels, cake, and donuts to be wistful about it the rest of my life. Silly as it may sound though, one of the things I miss most are Lemon-OHs!(R) by Austin (R). Well, not anymore!

Based loosely on the featured cookie in February’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine (a Christmas present from my in-laws) and turned gluten-free, lemony, and for god’s sake simpler (who keeps ground vanilla beans on hand?), I present to you Lemon-SQUEEs!

.  .  .

Lemon-SQUEEs!

3  cups gluten-free, all-purpose flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill)

3  tsp. xanthan gum

2  tsp. cream of tartar

1  tsp. baking soda

1/2  tsp. salt

1  cup unsalted butter, softened

1  1/2  cups granulated sugar

2  Tbsp. milk

1  Tbsp. vanilla extract

1  16 oz. container of Betty Crocker’s gluten-free lemon frosting

  1. Mix together flour, xanthan gum, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  2. With an electric mixer, beat the softened butter. Add the granulated sugar and then beat until smooth. Beat in the milk and vanilla, and then your flour mixture.
  3. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half between two large sheets of wax paper until about 1/8″ thick. Put in the fridge to chill for thirty minutes.
  4. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Using a 2″ (diameter) round cookie cutter, cut out circles from dough. Lightly spray cookie sheet with gluten-free cooking spray (such as PAM, but not PAM Baking) and arrange dough circles on sheet, leaving plenty of room for the dough to spread (I only fit fifteen: three up and five across). Re-roll scraps between the wax paper and re-chill for a few minutes if dough has become too sticky from handling.
  5. Sprinkle dough circles with a pinch of granulated sugar. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until golden. If your oven’s like mine and tends to burn in the back, you may need to rotate the cookie sheet after 5 minutes. Allow to cool for 1 minute and then move to a wire rack to cool completely.
  6. Frost the bottom-side of one cookie with the gluten-free lemon frosting. For prettiest results, you may want to use a frosting bag (I didn’t have one and just used a butter knife.) Top with a second cookie, sugared-side-out. Repeat. Recipe makes about 45 sandwich cookies.

Consider the following scenario:

You’re strolling the aisles of a grocery store, looking for an elusive bottle of gluten-free soy sauce when you notice a young employee in a red vest strolling toward you, straightening items on the shelves as he walks. He sees your empty basket and worried expression and asks if he can help you with anything.

“Can I speak to your manager or someone who knows about food?” you ask.

The young employee does a double take and adjusts his vest, an indignant look on his face. “Maybe I could answer your question. What do you need?”

You then doubtfully explain what your looking for — slowly and deliberately since you’re sure he won’t possibly understand — and the now-much-less-friendly grocery clerk responds deftly with the item’s exact location since, SURPRISE!, that’s his job.

The behavior above could be classified as simply rude or self-important, but in another environment it can be interpreted as something infinitely worse: unprofessional.

In my work at an indie art gallery and bookstore, I get this kind of unprofessional behavior all the time. No doubt thinking they come off as “in-the-know” by asking to speak to the gallery owner before even exchanging a hello with me or my coworkers, artists and self-published authors don’t realize that they were already speaking to the ones who could best help them. When approaching a business with your wares, you would do well to keep the following ideas in mind:

  1. It’s like going to the doctor; you don’t have anything we haven’t seen before. Believe it or not, you’re not the first person to approach us because you’re an artist or a writer. Don’t be nervous, but don’t expect us to treat you like a celebrity either.
  2. We’re not fooled. When you come in and ask to speak to the owner, it’s pretty obvious you’re not her best pal coming for a lunch date. You don’t even know her name! In what way is it professional to march into a place of business and ask to see the owner without introducing yourself or stating why you’re there? Of course, we know why you’re here, but the point is you could be an ax murderer. So be polite. Introduce yourself to the people who actually work here, because if by chance you do actually get your wares in here we’re the ones you’re actually going to be working with.
  3. And what makes you think I’m not the owner? I actually had a girl come in one time, march right up to the counter, and ask to talk to “my boss.” I could be the boss for all you know. Treat the person you meet at the counter as though they’re the one you need to talk to. If they aren’t qualified to answer your questions, they’ll direct you to the one you need to talk to.
  4. Put some thought into what you’re going to say. This is a business pitch. Come up with something better than “what does somebody have to do to get their stuff in here?” as though it’ll be some arbitrary challenge like picking the right number out of a hat. Another common one is starting with “I’m an [artist or author]” and then pausing for an uncomfortably long time as though I might break into applause. And for god’s sake don’t start with “boy, I got something to show you you’re gonna like.”
  5. Come in prepared but not demanding. If you’re just stopping in without an appointment, don’t expect the world to come to a halt for you. Ask whether you can leave us with a CD of images of your work or a copy of your book for us to review on our own time, and actually have the CD or book on you so you can actually leave it (common mistake). You don’t need to bother the owner to put it in her hand, it’ll get to her when she’s got the time to look at it.
  6. Be fairly sure it’s a good fit before you start taking up people’s time. Don’t pitch a gallery on your abstract paintings if they only sell western art, and don’t bring your self-published memoir to a bookstore that only sells contemporary fiction. Most galleries and indie bookshops run on a small staff and we can tell if you’ve never set foot in the place before. That’s not necessarily a deal killer, but it’s polite to show some knowledge or at least interest in the business you’re asking to take an interest in you, the business we dedicate our daylight hours to.

The biggest lesson here is that politeness goes a long way. When you assume that the person working the counter is chopped liver and you need to talk to someone more important, the only one you’re hurting is yourself. They are the gatekeeper, the one who actually makes the place run, and the one that you actually are talking to, so make your words count.

This video made me very happy. It makes me want to go be all rebellious in the name of literacy.

Mallory Battista’s Blog

Notes from an aspiring author, artist, and occasional gluten-free cook.

Storytelling isn’t just a thing to do, it is a way of seeing the world.

I am a storyteller. I live as though I am a hero on a quest and I strive to treat every person that crosses my path as the main character of an equally complex and exciting story. I find joy when their paths overlap with mine, and though some encounters are fleeting and others last a lifetime, I see the importance of each one to the continuation of Life's plot. I am grateful for the adversity that is set before me, as it makes me a more well-rounded character and adds challenge and excitement to my journey. And I always, ALWAYS have faith in happy endings.

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