Deadline to Vote is Today!

Today is your last chance to vote for your favorite 2011 Christmas stories!

Voting ends at midnight tonight.

Click here for voting instructions.

Contest winners will be announced on Tuesday, October 4th.


Unique Blog Tour Tips by Danyelle Ferguson

Most authors – no matter if they are traditionally published or self published – set up their own blog tours. Some authors band together with peers who write in the same genre, then do a big blog tour together or contest together (like the Massive Romance Reader Squee Moment Ahead contest). Other authors send a “Call to Review” on their blogs or emails (See H.B. Moore’s blog post).

But what if you want to hit a broader market? Or you want to target certain niche readers? A great blog tour has reviewers with both small (100+) and big (1000+) follower counts, reviewers who have relationships with the author & reviewers who don’t know the author, and covers a variety of geographical locations.

For my book – (dis)Abilities and the Gospel – I wanted to get a wide variety of reviewers. Very few people on the tour were writer friends. My goal was to have a lot of reviewers who didn’t know me, who attended different churches, and who either had kids with cognitive disabilities or were church teachers who had someone in their class with a cognitive disability. Here’s how I found them:

First: Get Organized.
I’m a huge spreadsheet organization freak. It’s probably the only area I’m really good at keeping everything on track (Ask my hubby. I’m horrible at keeping my desk organized!) But spreadsheets – I can whip them out like crazy and keep track of gobs of things that way. And a good spreadsheet is essential when putting together a blog tour.

So, let’s get started. Create a spreadsheet with the following fields: Reviewer’s Name, Blog Title, Blog Address, Email Address, # of Followers, Target (for me this was either parent, church teacher, or book reviewer), Contacted On (date you emailed review request), Response, Scheduled Review Date and Review Copy Sent. Add blogs you are interested in to this list. Once you’ve done all your research, sort the list by number of followers and pick some of the bigger blogs and mark those lines in another color. Then sort the list by targets and see which demographics you need more of and mark those with a different color.

Then start sending emails to the bloggers. I had a lot of people return my emails saying they had never done a book review or participated in a blog tour. I sent them additional information, along with expectations for the tour (I gave them the option to choose a date within the tour time frame and told them I wanted their honest opinion about the book). Don’t be afraid to choose reviewers who don’t have book blogs, but have a connection to the topic related to in your book. During my tour, one of my reviewers was a cake decorator who had a child with autism. Her review not only introduced my book to a large group I wasn’t connected with, but was also picked up by several e-magazines. (See Topsy Turvy Cakes)

Start with Your Contacts
If you’re traditionally published, shoot an email over to your marketing team and ask if they have any blog book reviewers they recommend. My publisher actually had a few and even offered to send those bloggers review copies if they agreed to be on the tour.

I also emailed out to some disability and church groups I work with to see if they had recommendations, blogs they frequently went to for information, etc. If you write YA, email out to your nieces, nephews, church youth groups, your friends’ kids, etc and ask them what blogs they go to check out cool stuff.

Twitter was actually my best resource to discover new reviewers. If you’re not on Twitter, then you should start a profile. It’s a great way to connect with others – even if you don’t post on it daily. I try to go out once a week to socialize for about an hour.

On the Twitter homepage, there’s a link at the top that says “Who to Follow”. If you click on it, it brings you to a page with a search box. You can search for anything here (book reviewers, YA Romance, etc). You can also search for books that are like yours – for example, Matched by Ally Condie. Twitter searches through status updates and profile descriptions to suggest friends for you. For my tour, I searched for autism, LDS autism, Down syndrome, special needs, and church to name a few.I went through about a hundred profiles, checked out their activity and following. I also looked at who that person followed. I often found more good leads that way. After narrowing down who I wanted to review, I contacted them through either Twitter email or an email address that was listed on the profile.

Another tip is to do geographical searches – such as Autism Canada or Fantasy Reader Arizona.
Take advantage of hashtag searches too. Check out authors who write in the same genre as you and see what they are doing on Twitter. Elana Johnson did a huge Twitter promo for her book Possession using the hashtag #tagged. You could go through the postings with that hashtag to find readers who loved her book, then contact them to review your book.

Amazon & Goodreads
The awesome thing about Amazon and Goodreads is that they link to their reviewers profiles. Some of those reviewers list their websites or blogs. So you can check out books similar to yours and do some research on readers. Find a few who you really like, then send them an email through their website or blog.

Check Out Other Authors
It’s time to go hit the websites for all the big authors who write in your genre. Especially if you know of an author who has a book coming out in the next few months. They often list all the stops on their blog tour (Check out Ashley March’s pre-publication book tour). Go check out those reviewers and their guidelines. (BTW - Keep all this info in a spreadsheet for future reference!) To find more authors: Go to Amazon.com, type in an author’s name and hit enter, then check out the “Related Searches” results just under the search box.

In Closing
Putting together a good blog tour involves a bit of internet stalking sleuthing. But it’s totally worth it when you put together a completed list of reviewers from all over. The goal of a blog tour isn’t just to get (hopefully) awesome reviews, but to reach reader circles you currently don’t have connections with. Go for variety! Happy book tour scheduling!

Danyelle Ferguson is the author of (dis)Abilities and the Gospel: How to Bring People with Special Needs Closer to Christ. She's also a public speaker to churches and disability groups, freelance editor and book reviewer. She lives in Kansas with her hubby and four angels-in-training. For more information, you can check out her blog (www.QueenOfTheClan.com) or her website (www.DanyelleFerguson.com).

Don't forget to vote for your favorite Christmas stories!

Voting ends at midnight, September 30th


The Plight of the Picture Book

Thanks for taking the time to write your blog. I'm just getting my feet wet in the publishing world, and you have given me a place to start. I have written a children's picture book. I've been rejected by three publishers so far, and searched dozens of other LDS publishers who are not accepting submissions in this genre. Would you please direct me? I don't know what to do next.

Picture books are tough for small niche publishers, unless they specialize in picture books. Full color layouts and quality illustrations are very expensive.

Picture books, in general, don't sell well unless you win an award. (Think about how many you buy vs how many you check out at the library.) If your picture book targets an LDS market, sales will be even smaller, making it unlikely that the publisher will make a return on the investment.

Of course, there are exceptions to this—but it requires killer illustrations (which the publisher usually provides), an exceptional story line, and most of the time, it must appeal to both children and adults.

Where do you go now?

I'd suggest you join SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) or at the very least, scour their site for information. Attending one of their conferences may also help. Networking with others who write picture books will steer you in the right direction.

Don't forget to vote for your favorite Christmas stories!

Voting ends at midnight, September 30th


The Myth of the Perfect Book by Tristi Pinkston

I have decided there's no such thing as writing the perfect book.

We might write books that are funny and uplifting, dramatic and thought-provoking, or spiritual and enlightening. We might write books that take us to the edges of our strength and force us to push a little harder, to transcend everything we thought we were capable of, to create a new limit to break later on. We might cry as we outline. We might tremble as we write. We can sit back at the end and heave a great sigh and feel that we truly have done what we set out to do . . . and yet, the book is still not perfect.

There will always be typos. There will always be places where we could have shown when we told. There will always be times when we confuse a character's name or forget to hide the key under the mat, thereby making the reader wonder how the hero got in. There will always be something to criticize, regardless of how good the book is.

But that doesn't mean we stop writing.

It means we continue to push ourselves. We continue to stretch ourselves, finding our wings, exploring, expanding, striving. We never, ever give up. But we do it with the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is going to find something wrong with our book.

And that's okay.

It means we're human.

And it means we'll take what we learned from the experience and be grateful for it. We'll grow, we'll hone our skills, and we'll progress. A writer who refuses to learn, who refuses to stretch, will never truly reach the heights he otherwise could. It's the bumps we encounter along the way that knock off our rough spots.

I've had a lot of bumps. But I'm grateful for them.

I can fly higher now than I ever could before.

Tristi Pinkston is the author of eight published books, including the Secret Sisters mystery series. In addition to being a prolific author, Tristi also provides a variety of author services, including editing, coordinating blog tours, and online writing instruction. You can visit her at www.tristipinkston.blogspot.com or her website at www.tristipinkston.com.

Don't forget to vote for your favorite Christmas stories!

Voting ends at midnight, September 30th


2011 Christmas Story Voting Instructions

Please read the voting instructions carefully before casting your vote.

Voting for LDSP's 2011 Christmas Story Contest starts NOW!

VOTE between September 26th and midnight on Friday, September 30th.

Voting Info:
  1. There will be four winners:
    Readers Choice (Published authors)
    Readers Choice (Unpublished authors)
    Publisher's Choice (Published authors)
    Publisher's Choice (Unpublished authors).

  2. Publisher's Choice winners will be judged on a variety of criteria, according to a point system. But it basically boils down to quality of writing, uniqueness of story and what I think will best sell a book.

  3. You can vote by whatever criteria you want, just don't make it a popularity contest.

  4. You MAY vote for your own story. (In fact, you should. I am constantly amazed by the number of stories that receive no votes. What's wrong with you people??)

  5. You may vote twice in each category: Published and Unpublished.

    Click HERE to read all stories by Published Authors. Vote for two.

    Click HERE to read all stories by Unpublished Authors. Vote for two.

    NOTE: Due to the limitations of Blogger, all stories in a category may not show up on one page. After you've read the first batch, click the OLDER POSTS link at the bottom right below the last story to go to the next page of stories.

  6. To Place Your Vote: The word "VOTE" must appear in your comment. Leave a comment for the story you're voting for with the words, I VOTE FOR THIS ONE or THIS ONE GETS MY VOTE or some other phrase that CLEARLY indicates you are voting. Comments that say, "I like this one..." will not be counted as a vote.

  7. You may make all the comments you like, but VOTING must contain the word VOTE.

  8. Anonymous votes count. We're using the Honor System here and trusting that no one will over vote.

  9. AUTHORS: Please tell your friends that you've submitted a story and to come read and vote, but DO NOT tell them which story is yours. We want the stories to win on merit, not personal popularity.

  10. I'll announce the winners on Tuesday, October 4th.

[P.S. All comments on the stories and Voting Comments will enter you in the Monthly Comment Contest.]


2011 Christmas Story Contest Is Now Closed

All Christmas stories have now been posted. If you sent one in and it's not posted, then I didn't get it. Please resend ASAP. If I get it before I go to bed tonight, I'll post it.

The submission portion of the 2011 Christmas Story Contest is now over.

Early Monday morning, September 26th, I will post voting instructions. Please read these instructions carefully before casting your votes.

Good luck to all those who submitted stories!


23 Checkin’ It Twice

by Michael Young

St Nick was not feeling jolly. Just “Old St. Nicolas”.

He looked down and thought how his stomach was more like a half-deflated balloon than a bowl full of jelly, and his nose more black cherry than maraschino.

His job gave him every reason to feel jolly: perfect job security, cheerful co-workers, state of the art technology, travel to exotic places and unlimited hot cocoa. But today the calendar read Feb 25th. The most dreaded deadline of the year was today: the finalization of the Naughty List, based on last year’s deeds.

Sure, he could see kids when they were sleeping and know when they were awake. He knew if they were bad or good with the help of his monitoring elves. It was just so hard to make the final decisions. Though most people assumed he checked the list only twice, he often agonized over it for weeks, checking and rechecking it.

There was the regular Naughty List, which was bad enough, and then there was the Chronically Naughty List, where only the naughtiest appeared. Those on the list risked being permanently banned from Christmas privileges, with only coal to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
St. Nick didn’t like having to put anyone on the list. But, rules were rules and he couldn’t break them without setting a bad example.

He stuffed his large girth into the tinsel-draped chair behind his desk, and picked up his candy-cane striped pen. The Naughty and Nice lists lay out in front of him, filled with of names in calligraphy. Off to the side lay the third list, on which only one name stood. St. Nick’s eyebrows rose.

Several months ago, he had sent his elite elves to carry out interventions for each of those on the Chronically Naughty List. For those who remained after the interventions, he conducted a trial, with one elf as the prosecution and one as the defense.

Every year they had managed to shrink the last list considerably by the middle of February, but he had not expected this. A single name. "Dallin J. Snark,” read St. Nick. "How can we get you off this list?" There was nothing to do but conduct the trial. He’d have to call on Amras and Nerwen, his most talented elite elves.

St. Nick rubbed his black cherry nose. “Bisquat,” he said to his head secretarial elf, “could you bring me some of my Krisp Kringles? This case requires comfort food.”
Bisquat bowed, "No milk and cookies?”

St. Nick gave a “Ho, ho”. He couldn’t manage the third “Ho” today. "No, it's usually June before I can even look at a cookie. Too many in one night. Why don't you also fetch Amras and Nerwen?"
Bisquat bowed again and his exit was heralded by the sound of retreating jingle bells. A minute later, a full-size figure entered. St. Nick jumped in his chair. He was not used to looking up at any one around here, and briefly feared the intruder might have infiltrated the North Pole, intent on stealing trade secrets or perhaps a taste of reindeer venison.

"Amras! You’ve got to remember to shorten your cane once you’re back at the Pole."

Amras glanced down and reddened to match St. Nick’s suit. "I'm sorry, your Saintliness. Right away." He looked up at the red and white cane in his hand and pressed the down on the end. The cane retracted like a telescope, and, as the cane shrunk, so did its owner until he stood less than half of his original height.

St. Nick sat back in his chair, “That's better,” he said. "Now where is—“

Another elf entered, already shrunken to the size of the door, her flushed face matching her fiery red curls. "Just in the St. Nick of time!”

She flung up her arms and waited for a response. None came. Her face fell.
“You used to laugh at that one.”

St. Nick managed a faint smile. "The first 20 times, Nerwen. You should really think of a new punch-line, or figure out how to be on time.”

Nerwen nodded and took a step back.

"Let's get started," St. Nick said, opening his bag of Krisp Kringles, which resembled a miniature version of his present bag. He took one red and green chip and popped it in his mouth. Each chip was designed to taste like something from Christmas dinner and this one tasted like eggnog. "I will hear three arguments to determine whether this boy should be given the Ban. Amras?"

Amras smoothed down his green vest. "Thank you, St. Nick. I’ve seen some terrible cases, but this is one of the worst. I shall endeavor to show that the subject deserves this punishment for three reasons: his disrespect for authority, his disrespect for his peers, and his disrespect for himself.” Amras withdrew a clear marble from his pocket and rolled it in his hands. It grew like a snowball into a large orb.

Amras approached St. Nick's desk and placed the snow globe on a stand at the edge. St. Nick leaned forward and Amras tapped the globes surface. "Exhibit A,” Amras said as a young boy came into focus within the ball. The boy had a tangled mass of blonde hair and a husky frame.
"This is he?" asked St. Nick.

"Yes. Note the sinister smile, the darting, mischievous eyes.”

Nerwen’s hand shot up, "Objection! Speculation. How do we know that it’s not a friendly smile? That his eyes are not jolly?”

Amras remained unruffled. "In context you will see there could be no other explanation."


"Thank you. “ Amras tapped the glass again and the picture came to life. Amras narrated the events that took place. "On February 14th, the school held a Valentine's Day assembly in which students were invited to perform love poems they had written."

Amras placed his hand over his heart. "Not exactly Shakespearean sonnets, but touching nonetheless. During the recitation of one of these poems, Dallin stood and released stink bombs, yelling 'Love stinks!’ Pandemonium ensued, and many were injured. Dallin was suspended, pending an expulsion hearing. He’s played every prank in the book and contributed several chapters of his own.”

St. Nick scratched his beard. “Nerwen, do you have anything to say?”

Nerwen shook her head, her red curls bobbing. “I would prefer to listen to all of the arguments first before refuting them.”

“That’s fine,” St. Nick said. “Continue.”

Amras tapped the globe and another scene appeared. “You will recall my second point was that he has no respect for his peers. Look.”

The surface swirled and came into focus. It showed Dallin next to a smaller kid in front of a locker covered with wrapping paper. At the top was a sign that read “Are you ready for s’more birthday fun?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Nerwen said. “He decorated that boy’s locker.”

“He did,” said Amras. “That boy is one of the most picked-on boys in school—a foster child with some serious medical problems. Our subject told him that he had a birthday surprise for him.”
St. Nick drew his eyebrows together. “You’re defeating your own point. That’s one of the nicest things I’ve seen in a long time.”

Amras jabbed a finger at the image. “That’s exactly what makes this deed so dastardly, this act so atrocious, this plot so pernicious, this-“

St Nick cut him off. “We understand. Go on.”

Amras smoothed his suit. “Dallin filled that boy’s locker with marshmallows.”

Nerwen burst out laughing, her clothes jingling.

“Once again, you haven’t considered everything,” said Amras. “The boy’s birthday falls on July 26th, which just happened to be the hottest day of the year. That day turned each locker into a long, thin Dutch oven.”

Amras tapped the globe again and the picture advanced, showing the poor boy opening his locker, only to find it flooded with sticky goo. A couple graham crackers and pieces of chocolate had been added at strategic points, making it look as if a boy scout’s backpack had exploded.
St. Nick put his head in his hands.

“It took the janitors a week to get it all off. The hallway still smells like s’mores and cleaning solution.”

St. Nick waved his hand. “Enough. I may never be able to eat a s’more again.”

“And worst of all,” said Amras, “my third argument.”

Amras tapped the globe, and the boy was seen holding a large bag of peanuts.

Nerwen’s hand shot up.”I suppose you're going to tell me now that he's a terrible person, because he likes to eat peanuts and leave the shells on the floor. You’ll have to try harder.”

Amras smoothed his dark hair. “I will, little miss. He has a violent peanut allergy and carries around that bag everywhere. And whenever things aren't going his way, he eats some just for the attention it affords him. He's tried this at home, school, and in various public places. He becomes violently ill and blames it on all sorts of things. He would damage his body to get away from his problems.”

In the globe, Amras displayed a montage. “His cousin’s wedding, his sister’s piano recital, his first day at his new school—the list goes on.”

Amras tapped the globe and stepped back, “These incidents show that the subject is an inherently naughty person. Intervention has failed, and he shows no remorse. I call for the immediate suspension of holiday privileges without the possibility of parole.”

Amras shot an overly-broad smile at Nerwen. “The prosecution rests.”

Nerwen walked over to the desk. “That was convincing. If I had not seen what I have, I would've been won over. But for his three points, I have three questions: Why? How? When?”

St. Nick adjusted his spectacles. “Please be more specific.”

“Specifically, ‘Why is Dallin the way that he is?’, ‘How can he be helped?’ and ‘When are we going to do it?”

“Good,” said St. Nick, finishing a Krisp that tasted like turkey with cranberry sauce. “I’d like to hear more."

She produced a snow globe of her own and placed it on St. Nick’s desk. An image of a Dallin appeared, all smiles gone, mischievous or not. Nerwen cleared her throat. "Dallin lives a difficult life, and not all of his troubles are his fault. He was orphaned young and placed in foster care with poor parents."

Nerwen tapped the snow globe a number of times and it cycled through different scenes of Dallin’s life, being ignored, being yelled at, being told that he was stupid, and finally left alone, shutting himself in his closet and crying softly.

She tapped the surface a final time and the picture froze on the closed door. Before anyone could say anything, she continued. “As demonstrated by the prosecutor, Dallin is a boy of considerable brains. He's extremely creative and courageous. Now, however, he is applying his talents in a negative way. People have tried to change Dallin’s behavior by punishing, yelling, and threatening. I understand why he is so naughty.”

A faint snicker came from Amras’s direction.

“He feels unappreciated and under stimulated. If he felt there were people that really cared about him and if he were given an outlet to do something positive, the problem would cease.”
Amras sighed. “It is one thing to say how you feel. It is another thing to see what is really there. This boy has a chronic history of misdeeds. I doubt the solution is so simple.”

Nerwen shook her fiery curls. “I can prove it to you.”

“You can prove it?” asked St. Nick. “That’s a bold statement. Would you like to explain?”

Nerwen nodded. “The proof is contained in the third question: “when are we going to do something about it?’ The answer is ‘I already have.’”

All eyes fixed on her, “You better explain that,” said St. Nick.

“I talked to him myself. I used my cane to make myself a little bit taller and wore a cap to disguise my ears. I found him out walking by himself and started talking to him. His first reaction was ‘buzz off,’ but after we got over that hurdle, things went along nicely.”

Amras choked, even though he was not eating. “You actually risked talking to him? Don’t you think that’s a bit reckless when you’re the right size to get stuffed in a locker?”

Nerwen lifted her chin another inch. “Reckless, but necessary. I had to be sure that he was really the worst apple of the bunch. And you know what?”

Everyone leaned forward.

A broad smile broke over Nerwen’s face. “The outside is rotten, but the core is sweet.”

“Did you put on your rose-colored glasses this morning?” said Amras with a scowl, “You don’t get on the Chronically Naughty list by having a good core.”

Nerwen met St. Nick’s gaze. “I would like to invite you both to come with me. I have something to show you.”

With a sigh, Amras rolled his eyes. “We don’t have time to go looking at your snow angel gallery, Nerwen.”

Nerwen’s face did not flinch. “With respect, that is not what I had in mind, though the gallery is exquisite. I promise this will prove enlightening.”

St. Nick rose and nodded, brushing colorful crumbs off his suit. “I’d like a diversion. Lead the way.” He glanced over in Amras’s direction. “No snarky comments.”

Nerwen led them out of the workshop and up the snow-covered rise that overlooked the surrounding area. At the top, a railing marked off an observation area. The snow blew in thick flurries, carried on a wind that tasted of peppermint, so that every breath felt like brushing your teeth.

“With respect,” he muttered, “what are we supposed to see? I've been up here dozens of times.”

Nerwen pointed at a cluster of buildings below. “I'm sure you remember that you commissioned us to build a new gingerbread village.”

St. Nick ran his hands through his beard. “Yes,” he said, “But it was my understanding that construction has been delayed, because our chief candy designer has taken ill.” St. Nick fell silent. It was yet another thing that dampened his jolly attitude.

“I invite you, your Jolliness, and even you, your grumpiness, to look down at it now.”

They craned their necks over the edge and glanced down at the gingerbread village under construction. The village teamed with activity, with great carts pulled by reindeer lugging stores of candy down from the factories, and candy masons, sculptors, and artists swarming over buildings in various stages of construction.

“Donner and Blitzen!” cried St. Nick. “Everything is in full swing. How did this happen?”

Nerwen pointed down to the square where a single figure stood atop a fountain pouring streams of hot wassail. “There is our supposed bad apple.”

They craned to see, and nearly lost their footing. It was Dallin, decked out in full Christmas attire, with an enormous green pointed hat wreathed with sprigs of mistletoe and holly. He carried a large notebook in which he wrote with an enormous quill pen and shouted instructions to craftsmen as they approached.

“I don’t believe it," muttered Amras.

“Correction,” Nerwen said softly. “You didn’t believe in him. I spoke to his foster parents and told them we’re a new kind of school willing to take him in to teach him a wonderful new trade. I had already seen how clever he is with sweets. I know it's not a typical course of study, but he's already shaping up to be one of the greatest gingerbread architects we've ever had.”

St. Nick removed his cap and scratched his head, marveling that he hadn’t noticed. “Remarkable.”

"It's like that motto you're saying all the time--the one that you put at the bottom of all your correspondence. You’ve even got it written above your office door.”

St. Nick nodded. “’Tis the season. Remember the reason.”

St. Nick leaned against the railing, staring down with wet eyes at the scene. “I think,” he said in a low whisper, “perhaps I've been doing things all wrong. The One whose birth we celebrate does not have a Naughty List. He serves everyone in the world and offers them incredible gifts, no matter what they have done. It's true many people do not accept His gifts, but He is willing to give them anyway. I, on the other hand, have given my gifts conditionally. I've made it my business to judge people, and I wonder how many times I have misjudged them.”

St. Nick arose, the color returning to his cheeks, the cherry-like quality to his nose, the twinkle in his eye, and even the jiggle of his belly. “From now on, I will be setting the example. In celebrating Christmas, I will be more like Christ.”

He turned to Amras and Nerwen, his face aglow. “Come, I'm eager to see that snow angel gallery.”

Nerwen beamed to match St. Nick, but Amras frowned. “But, sir, do you have time? I'm sure you have more pressing duties.”

“No. Without the Naughty List, I’ll have plenty of time. Now that I think of it, so much of my time was spent judging people that I've hardly had a chance to appreciate them. Why don't you come along? I promise we'll pay a visit to your candy cane mosaics afterwards.”

For the first time that day, Amras’s lips rose in a genuine smile. “Really?’

“Really,” said St. Nick.

Amras fell into step and all three broke out in a rousing Christmas carol. When they had finished, St. Nick drew in his breath and let out a complete “Ho, ho, ho,” feeling jollier than he had in years. This Christmas was going to be different. This year, he’d be makin’ a list, but he would not have to check it twice.

[This was sent in time, but didn't get to me. If you've already voted but would have voted for this one had it been posted on time, go ahead and vote for it.]

[If you haven't already voted, never mind.]

Critique: Loved it. The only suggestion I have is to differentiate the two elves just a bit more through dialog, actions, quirks or something. Otherwise, it’s great!

What I liked best: Santa’s words about Christ. Loved that message. Great writing.

Publication ready: Absolutely!

22 The Two Hundred Forty-fourth Ornament

by Jennifer Ricks

Two hundred and forty-three glass ornaments of all colors and sizes. Some were shiny Christmas red and gold. Some were frosted with sparkling paint. A few were clear with dainty pictures or patterns inside. Rich plums, crisp ice blues, even a few orange and yellow, glowing and blinking on the Christmas tree.

It was a fetish, Kayley knew that well enough. Hadn’t her mother complained about it enough over the years? Even in high school Kayley couldn’t resist picking up a box of shimmering orbs from the clearance aisle of the department store.

Now there were two hundred and forty-three, but Kayley also had a townhouse of her own and a Christmas tree of her own, so Mom couldn’t complain about storage boxes anymore. Kayley sat back on her heels to see the effect of her last sprig of tinsel. The tree looked just perfect.

Christmas was Kayley’s favorite time of year. It meant a two-week vacation. It meant crunchy snow and melted marshmallows in warm cups of rich cocoa. It meant a tangible excitement in her second-grade classroom that drove her crazy and giddy all at the same time. It meant talking of Santa Claus and wearing red and listening to old-time holiday favorites on the radio. It meant enough of a holiday—a whole season in fact—that it filled up her time and she didn’t have to worry about anything else in her life, or anything else that her life lacked.

The Monday of the last week of school, Kayley had started easing into what she liked to call “Holiday Week.” The kids were too excited for vacation to focus for the last five days, and Kayley was an experienced teacher enough to know when to give up. For the past three years running she had observed Holiday Week. She scoured all her materials and the internet to find enough “review” activities to cover most of the week—review activities that were all about Christmas: worksheets with trees and holly and snowmen, history excerpts of events that happened in December, and even science demonstrations about the water cycle and snow. The spelling list for the week consisted of evergreen, sleigh, reindeer, tinsel, carol, pumpkin, and (just to be more culturally universal) dreidle.

The week had gone as Kayley had planned: borderline mayhem the entire time. No one wanted to stay in their seats. Everyone wanted to compare Christmas lists. Slowly crude versions of the most popular Christmas songs spread around the school to be snickered at in corners. And someone was told that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

This year it happened to a little towheaded boy named Jackson. When she caught a glimpse of his tear-stained face after recess, Kayley couldn’t believe that she hadn’t seen it coming. Jackson was one of those rare sensitive second-grade boys. He liked to draw more than tell jokes or play kickball. He didn’t talk to his neighbor during lessons. He hardly ever raised his hand, but he always focused on everything Kayley said and followed instructions perfectly. It was one of the injustices of education that most of Kayley’s attention went to the rowdy troublemakers while star students like Jackson hardly ever worked with her one-on-one, but that’s how it was.

“Don’t forget your spelling test tomorrow,” Kayley warned just before the bell rang at the end of the day. “It’ll be first thing, so be ready.”

“And then the party?” yelled Howell, who never raised his hand.

“Yes,” Kayley decided to let the hand raising discipline pass just this once, “so don’t forget to bring the snack your mom signed up for.”

The bell rang and the students jumped to their feet. Kayley used the shuffling of twenty-eight pairs of eight-year-old feet as cover to quietly ask Jackson to help her wipe off the board. He jumped out of his seat eagerly and went to his task with a will.

Kayley stood behind watching him for a while. Every truth about Santa Claus case was different. She had seen many in her short lifespan in the second grade. Each one took special care and handling.

“Jackson,” Kayley said decidedly as she took her finger from her lips and moved a step towards the blond boy.

“All done, Miss Kelly!” Jackson said as he finished with a flourish.

“Jackson,” Kayley repeated, “I need someone to do something special for me at the class Christmas party tomorrow.”

“Really?” Jackson’s eyes widened. He was the only eight-year-old in the class who could look as eager as that. “I’ll do it!”

“Well,” Kayley leaned against a desk in the front row and put on a serious face. “I need someone to read a story aloud for part of an activity.”

“Sure thing!” Jackson agreed, nodding vigorously. “I’ll do it.”

Kayley was inwardly relieved. Talking in front of the class was not Jackson’s favorite thing to do, but she had started noticing that this wasn’t because he was afraid, just because sometimes he would rather think about things than talk about them.

“You can practice it at home tonight?” Kayley asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Jackson said, “I already have the spelling words memorized, so I don’t have any other homework. And,” Jackson paused for a second, “this isn’t really homework, right, Miss Kelly? I mean, it’s just a favor and all, right?”

“Of course,” Kayley smiled. “I wouldn’t dream of giving a good student like you extra homework.”

Jackson’s shoulders relaxed with relief, and Kayley turned away to hide her broadening smile.

“This is the story,” she walked to her desk and took a sheet of paper from a side drawer.

“A Gift for Santa Claus,” Jackson read from the sheet Kayley had handed him. He looked up at her doubtfully. “I don’t know, Miss Kelly,” Jackson shifted his feet, “Santa Claus and all—it’s just kid’s stuff, right?” The last word of his question hung in the air desperately.

“This,” Kayley said seriously, pointing to the paper, “is a really important part of our Christmas party,” she paused for emphasis. Second-graders were good at picking up on dramatic pauses like that. “Do you think you can do it?” she asked again.

“If you really need me,” Jackson beamed. He unzipped his backpack and placed the paper carefully in his folder.

“And remember,” Kayley called as Jackson tromped out of the classroom, “it’s a favor, not homework!”

Keeping with tradition, Kayley spent that evening in the most relaxed way possible, which this year happened to correspond with the TV rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Occasionally she smiled at the thought of all her students’ parents rushing around at the grocery stores to pick up the packages of cookies they forgot to bake for the party or hot-gluing pom-poms to popsicle sticks to set up for the Rudolph craft. Those were things Kayley had learned parents are good at—and fully capable of stressing over—while she could take the night off because no homework was due the next day, or the next two weeks.

As for the solitude of her situation—in her own living room, on her own couch, eating her own bowl of popcorn—that was what she was especially savoring on the last day of school eve. She would miss her students during the vacation a little, but not until after the first week, and with all the family events crammed into the holidays, she knew from experience that she would have few, if any, leisurely nights like this until New Year’s was over. And the thought of her mother commenting on why Kayley couldn’t find a nice man like George Bailey prompted her to dig out another handful of popcorn and continue savoring the evening alone.

The room moms came early to school the next day to set up the classroom for the party. Every year was the same. The construction paper garlands and decorations that Kayley had taught in art lessons all month were not sufficient. There was always at least a couple interior-decorating intensive moms who would come and make the whole classroom over that morning with trees, garlands, and lights strung everywhere. It was something that Kayley didn’t mind. She had a thing for ornaments, after all, so she could be patient with other people’s holiday obsessions.

By the time the morning bell rang, the classroom looked like it was part of the North Pole display at the mall. Two years ago a dad had even dressed up as Santa Claus and made a guest appearance at the party, but Kayley was grateful that such an elaborate scheme was not in the works this year because what was most on her mind that morning was Jackson and the story she had given him to read.

“Miss Kelly!” he whispered as she crossed by his seat to start class. “I’ve got it learned by heart!” He was grinning like crazy, and Kayley was relieved. His enthusiasm was a good sign. She only hoped it would carry her plan through when Jackson had to stand up for himself in front of the whole class—in front of Howell and the other boys that Kayley was sure were the culprits of Jackson’s tears the day before.

“Welcome to our class Christmas party,” Kayley said when the class went quiet. “Welcome to all the parents who could come. We have a fun day planned with lots of food and activities, so we’ll let Bridger’s mom get us started.”

And that opening speech was pretty much Kayley’s largest task for the day, until it came to Jackson’s story in the afternoon. Like all wizened teachers, Kayley knew that “class party” pretty much meant a day off for the teacher.

All day she wove in and out of rows of desks commenting on the crafts and activities, helping parents open glue sticks, and chatting with the room moms. She was ready with a fresh roll of paper towels from the back of the classroom for the inevitable large spill of punch during snack time, and she was the only one who could thread Janey’s frayed yarn for her stocking craft for the twentieth time. But all of these tasks were easy—a cinch—when compared with teaching the concept of multiplication for the first time, something she tackled every February.

At two o’clock, things were winding down. All the trashcans in the room were filled to the brim with red and green construction paper clippings, punch-stained paper cups, and paper plates sticky with paste or frosting (or maybe both). All the children were squirmy and beaming and wearing glittered homemade hats. All the parents were bleary-eyed and exhausted and looking at Kayley like they couldn’t believe that she spent every day in this classroom with these kids. Everything was just as it should be.

“I want to thank everyone for making our class party such a success,” Kayley smiled, “especially all the parents. We have just one activity left before it’s time to go home. I’ve asked Jackson to read a special Christmas story for us to end our day.”

Kayley nodded at Jackson and he moved to the front of the classroom. His dad was standing at the back of the room, a tall, thin man with glasses. Kayley could never remember if he was an accountant or a stock broker, but he had never come to a class party before and she was so glad he was there today.

“A Gift for Santa Claus,” Jackson began. Kayley could see that his hands were shaking a little, but his voice was firm. “Once upon a time, and a long time ago,” Jackson read slowly and clearly, just as Kayley had taught them all to do when reading in front of the class, “there was a snowy village high on top of a mountain. The village had never seen a car, or a train, or an airplane. They didn’t have cellphones, or computers, or TVs, or anything. But they had big fur coats to keep them warm in winter and a lot of hard work to do every day.

“All except one boy in the village. He was sick and couldn’t walk. Everyone else in the town did so many things—pushing carts, making shoes, baking bread—but the boy couldn’t do anything except lie in bed or sit in a chair and watch out the window.

“At Christmastime, all the children in the village would write down what they wanted for Christmas, roll the paper up in a scroll with a ribbon tied around it, and leave it in the windowsill of their house for—” here Jackson faltered and gulped. Out of the corner of her eye, Kayley saw Howell nudge his neighbor, but Jackson didn’t look at Howell. Instead, he saw his father at the back of the room, took a deep breath, and read on.

“For Santa Claus,” Jackson continued firmly. “And on Christmas Eve this year, Santa Claus would come by each house, read the notes, and leave a gift.”

“This year the little boy who couldn’t walk almost didn’t write a note. Even though he had something very big to wish for—that he could walk again—he didn’t think he deserved a Christmas gift. Everyone else in the village worked so hard, but he couldn’t do anything. Finally, just before he went to bed on Christmas Eve, he thought of what he wanted to write and left his note on the windowsill just like everybody else.”

“The next morning, Christmas morning, was sunny and bright. All the children of the village ran outside, bundled in their soft fur coats, to play with their new toys, all except the little boy who couldn’t walk. On his porch was a note written on the finest paper he had ever seen and in beautiful gold ink. This is what the note said: ‘Thank you for the best Christmas gift ever. Love, Santa Claus.’

“Most people in the village didn’t know what had happened to make the boy that couldn’t walk so happy, but a few had peeked at his note from the night before. ‘Dear Santa Claus,’ he had written, ‘Please, I would love my gift to be that you have a Merry Christmas.’ And those people knew that no one had a greater gift for Christmas than the boy himself because he had given a gift of joy to another.”

The classroom filled with applause and Jackson took a few bows before retreating, flush-faced and beaming, back to his seat.

Kayley shook all the parents’ hands as they left the classroom and wished dozens of students a Merry Christmas in return for their snickered, “See you next year, Miss Kelly!” Twenty minutes after the last mom left with her four boxes of artificial pine boughs, Kayley locked the classroom door and drove away from the school. She would be back later to redecorate the classroom for the new unit in January, but all that could wait at least a week, if not a few days more.

She had not had a chance to speak with Jackson after he performed his part so well, but she had not meant to either. His confidence throughout the reading was enough to show her that the story had worked its magic. It was enough that she had given it to him and that his father was there to hear him read it.

But on Christmas morning, Kayley was pleasantly surprised to find a small, beautifully wrapped gift box on her porch. Tied in the ribbon was a piece of paper rolled into a scroll with this note scrawled in second-grade handwriting: “Dear Miss Kelly, Thank you for letting me read the Christmas story at the party. I asked Santa Claus to give you a Merry Christmas this year because you are the best teacher ever. And then Mom said we could help Santa by leaving you a gift, so here it is. Love, Jackson.”

Kayley felt like her smile was as broad as Jackson’s had been when he finished reading the story as she untied the shiny red ribbon of the box. Inside was ornament number two hundred and forty-four.

Critique: We lose the ornament theme. I’d suggest weaving it in throughout the story, perhaps have her trying to decide which is her favorite. Add a description of the ornament Jackson gives her. The first three paragraphs were a tad slow for me, but then it picked up and kept me involved in the story. A few awkward sentences, but overall very good. Oh, but don’t use the word fetish. Obsession works better.

What I liked best: I could just picture her poor tree groaning under all those ornaments! Great classroom scenes. Great voice.

Publication ready: Yes, with just a bit of editing.

21 Third Strike Christmas

Kevin was on his third strike this Christmas, and he knew he was in trouble.

He blamed it all on those charming jewelry commercials that start airing after Thanksgiving. It’s early Christmas morning. Prince Charming and Perfect Hair are sitting under a large tree in their ironed red pajamas. It looks like all the presents have been opened, but no, Prince Charming whisks out a small box with a red bow. Perfect Hair’s eyes glimmer. Charming opens it. Hair gasps. They hug. Then they kiss. 365 more days of marital happiness are guaranteed because the Prince Charming brought out the perfect present on Christmas morning.

For twenty-five years Kevin was indoctrinated that Prince Charming husbands always produced the perfect surprise on Christmas morning. No worries, he mused as December approached a few months after his wedding, I can cook up that perfect open-gasp-hug-kiss moment easy.

Deeply in debt for dental school, he and his wife Katie stretched and gave themselves twenty dollars to spend on each other. The visit to the jewelry store and the chuckle of the employee (Son, we don’t sell anything for less than two hundred dollars) had left him stumped, but nonetheless confident.

His break came two weeks before the big day when Katie ripped her favorite A-line dress with her violin case after coming home from church on Sunday. Kevin didn’t know what made a dress an A-line meant was (he still doesn’t), but he hatched a plan. Kevin had a sister in town that had a sewing machine—he and his sister would make a new dress for Katie.

The good news was that Rachel, his sister, knew what an A-line dress was and had a pattern. The bad news was that twenty doesn’t go far at a fabric store. In the end Kevin managed to get the very end of a roll that was mispriced and, with the help of two coupons and a growing line of increasingly impatient holiday shoppers behind him, he was shooed out of the fabric store with enough fabric for the dress.

Well, at least he thought it was enough fabric. Rachel said two yards wasn’t enough to make a skirt, not to mention a dress. Nor did she seem to think that one hundred percent wool was the right fabric. But Kevin was insistent that they try (It’s our first Christmas, we have to try!) and they spent a whole afternoon sewing. They had barely finished the bodice when Kevin had to go, but Rachel promised she could finish it on her own.

Two days before Christmas Kevin picked up the already wrapped dress from his sister. “Oh, it turned out beautifully,” Rachel insisted, “Katie will just love it.”

The sun rose on Christmas morning to find Kevin and Katie sitting in front of their borrowed three-foot Christmas tree drinking candy cane hot chocolate. The night before had ended with a reading of Luke 2 and promises that neither of them would wake up before sunrise, but all the same they sprang out of bed while it was still dark, ready to share their first Christmas together. When their few presents had been opened and laughed over (Oh, your aunt’s sweater will never fit! and How did your brother know we needed a plunger?) Kevin though the moment was right. Katie’s hair wasn’t perfect, but he was feeling like Prince Charming. “Ah, you probably thought that dental school recruiting t-shirt was your Christmas present,” he said with a grin, “Just you wait.” He ran into the bedroom and pulled the box out from its hiding place under his gym shorts.

She grinned as she neatly untied the bow (We should save it for next year) and then noisily ripped off the wrapping paper (We can’t save that) but instead of Katie gasping at the sight of the dress, Kevin gasped.

The dress was beautiful. The light of the dawn shining through the window made the dress shimmer. In fact it looked perfectly soft and silky. “Let me see that,” Kevin said, grabbing at the dress. She tried to stop him, but it was too late. One touch made it clear it was silk. Katie crossed her arms and put on her pouty face as Kevin turned it over and found a tag in the collar.

“Funny, I didn’t think my sister would bother sewing in a Dillard’s tag,” he said sarcastically.

She frowned. “I was hoping that if I acted excited enough you wouldn’t notice!”

Humph. He didn’t feel like Prince Charming, he felt like a fool. He marched off into the kitchen on the pretense of getting more hot chocolate.

A few seconds later he heard the pattering of bare feet as she followed him in. “Honey, it was awful sweet of you to try and make me a dress. Rachel called me last week in an awful fret. There wasn’t nearly enough fabric and she knew that I couldn’t wear a wool dress.”

Kevin just put another candy cane in his hot chocolate.

“And when I got a check from my grandparents, I thought it was the thought that would count.”

Kevin cast a sideways look at his wife and saw her how her face, wrought with a mix of guilt and hope, was completely sincere. He was really disappointed, but eventually he laughed, she laughed, and they laughed every time she wore that dress to church.

Right after the next Halloween they found out that Katie was pregnant, and if ever there was a time for a Prince Charming moment it was now. Kevin’s homework load was getting more intense and a very morning sick Kate found working almost unbearable. The evenings and weekends of carefree running around had turned into quieter, more meaningful nights. Sometimes Kevin would read as Katie laid her head in his lap until she fell asleep, or, more likely, she’d read silently as he tried to cram yet another hundred anatomy terms into his overfull brain.

Kevin knew that Christmas would be the perfect time to show how much he really appreciated Katie. He had been saving for months now, skipping a lunch here and there and saving as much change as he could. Their budget was now only ten dollars, but with all that he had saved, he had enough for two pounds of See’s Chocolate. At first Rachel’s suggestion of chocolate had seemed ridiculous (Girls don’t gasp over chocolate!), but he had changed his mind. Everything Katie wanted since the pregnancy chocolate had turned into a major food group. If Kate ever felt bad about something (which happened a lot) then chocolate was surely the answer.

So chocolate it was that found its way under Kevin’s gym shorts three days before Christmas. Once again, Christmas found them out of bed early despite vain promises to the contrary. Once again, hot chocolate was the treat of choice (Katie had three mugs of it) as they opened presents under a tree that they now owned. Once again, Kevin waited for just the right moment to announce that the pens inscribed with his dental school logo were not her real present, and he sprang up to get the box of chocolates. He shook it gently as he came around the corner. Katie grinned and Kevin knew this was the moment. His whole life he had waited for this.

She gasped as she opened it. She pulled off the lid and immediately threw one of the chocolates into her mouth. She hugged him, gave him and a kiss that left chocolate on his cheek and then threw another chocolate in her mouth. She looked like she was in heaven.

“What kind is your favorite?” Kevin asked as he picked up the lid and started reading the list of what was inside. Cherry, double chocolate, caramel—and his personal favorite, orange.

“Here, have one,” she tried to say between chewing the two chocolates that were already in her mouth, “they’re great.”

He looked at the box but didn’t see anything that looked like orange. Of course maybe one of the two that Katie had been taken was the orange chocolate one. He was just about to ask when he noticed that instead of two empty chocolate slots there were three empty chocolates slots.

Katie seemed to notice the disparity in math, too, because she quickly started talking about the new sweater her aunt had sent.

Kevin interrupted. “Darling, you took two chocolates, but three are missing. Maybe they gave us a bad box…”

Katie’s guilty face made it clear that it had been a mistake. At least not See’s mistake. “I found them,” she confessed, “when I was doing laundry…” Kevin didn’t seem to understand so she went on, “I needed chocolate so bad yesterday. I couldn’t live knowing there was chocolate right there and I couldn’t have it. So I snuck one, put the wrapping back on, and this morning I took two in hopes that you’d lose count and not notice.” She burst into guilty sobs and Kevin swallowed his pride, gave her a big hug, and told her it was okay. It was at least a week before Kevin realized that her gasp, hugs, and kisses had all been faked. He really hadn’t gotten that perfect moment after all.

The next twelve months had brought an end to the pregnancy and the beginning of parenting. Somehow Kevin managed to survive his classes even though baby Charlotte didn’t seem to believe in letting anyone sleep. In fact he even managed to love Charlotte to death despite his desperately baggy eyes. Katie gave up work and took up feeding, changing diapers, and blogging. She also took on most of the shopping, budgeting, cleaning, and worrying about the house. All her extra work was vital to Kevin who was staying at school later and later every day. What free time he had was spent sending off applications to residency programs and he already had two interview trips planned for the holiday—one right before Christmas and one starting the day after. The only thing Katie really wanted this year was time, and it was the one thing he couldn’t give. Kevin need some way to say I love you, it had to be something amazing, something heartwarming and meaningful. And something that she wouldn’t find beforehand. If he couldn’t deliver a surprise this year, he knew he probably never would. It was a Prince Charming Christmas or nothing this year.

But things were getting complicated. One of this interviews would leave him coming home late Christmas Eve. There would be no time to shop before Christmas morning. He started talking to all his friends at school and of the course of a few days he formed a fool-proof plan. Maybe this wouldn’t be a third strike Christmas after all.

Katie’s sat hunched over the edge of the bathtub scrubbing Charlotte’s hair when Kevin came in the door a week before Christmas. Without looking up she said hello and started talking about how this was Charlottes third bath today. Kevin listened quietly without saying anything.

“First she had an accident, and then she dumped my lunch on her hair and then ten minutes ago…” she trailed off as she realized something was different. Looking up from Charlotte’s hair she turned to see Kevin in the doorway holding a large sack.

“What’s that, Baby?”

Kevin grinned, said Ho, Ho, Ho, and walked over to their Christmas tree (placed on a table out of little baby reach) and silently started pulling presents out of the bag. Katie wiped her hands on a towel and walked up behind him.

“Honey, what’s going on? We only had eight dollars each this year, how…”

Kevin gave her a kiss on the cheek. “They’re not for you. At least, all but one aren’t for you. I was elected chief secret keeper for the dental school this year. None of the other guys can hide presents from their wives, so they gave they all to me. I’m keeping them here and they’ll come pick up their respective presents on Christmas Eve after I get back. Their presents will never be alone in their houses without them watching.” He pulled the last present out with a flourish and placed on top of the tall stack.

“You said all but one…that means…”

“That means one of them is yours. But none of them are labeled, so you don’t know which is yours. When I’m out of town interviewing, my present to you will be as safe as if it were still at the store.” He kissed her again. “You better keep your eye on that girl.”

Kevin’s interviews went well but left him drained. He called every night from his hotel to say good night to Charlotte (She’s smiling, Dear, I think she knows your voice) and then to say good night to Katie (Once we get a residency we’ll starting making some money—it won’t be much, but it will be something). The days melted away until the twenty-fourth and Kevin found himself being picked up at the airport by Katie and a sleeping Charlotte.

Their conversation on the drive rolled from his interviews, to her updates on the neighbors, at the blogs Katie followed, and finally to the blogs the neighbors followed, but it never quite managed to land on the subject of Christmas presents. Kevin tried to move in that direction (he enjoyed teasing), but every time he did, Katie quickly moved on to something else.

They made it home and at the prearranged time all of Kevin’s buddies showed up to collect their loot. They were all full of chuckles and winks as they went on their way, thanking Kevin heartily for providing a surprise Christmas this year (Elsa knows the minute she sees the package what’s inside) and it was past midnight when all the presents were gone except one very thin, rectangular one.

“We really should keep our promise and not get up early tomorrow,” Kevin said with a yawn. “I don’t think I’ll be very cheery before about nine tomorrow.”

“Actually, we’re setting the record for our earliest Christmas. It’s technically already Christmas morning.”

Kevin gave her a tired half smile as he climbed into bed. “May this be the latest we’re ever up on Christmas Eve.”

“It won’t, in a few years we’ll be up even later putting our presents for Charlotte,” Kate said sleepily as Kevin turned off the light and quickly fell asleep.

An hour later, Kevin felt Katie sit up in bed. Kevin clicked on the light and rolled over to look at her. She just sat there with a frown on her face. “What’s up, Baby? Bad dream?”

She looked over at him sheepishly. “I can’t sleep. This is the third year you’ve tried to keep your present a secret from me and I know how important this is to you. The first two years I could fake being surprised, or at least try, but this year I can’t. I just have to let you know, I can’t go on pretending.”

Kevin sat up straighter in bed. “You found out what the present is? How? I thought I had the perfect plan.”

Katie grabbed his hand. “I tried so hard this year, Kevin, honest. I didn’t lift a corner of wrapping paper or even shake one of the presents. But a guy from Craig’s sheet music called and asked if you liked violin the song you bought. It’s really sweet of you to get me some sheet music, I’m genuinely excited, but I can’t try and fake that gasp you’re looking for.”

Kevin patted her on the hand. “When did you find out?”

She looked down at the covers. “The day after you left. It wasn’t hard to guess that it was the thin package.”

Kevin gave her a hug. “Thanks for telling me, Honey. Don’t worry about it. It’ll still be a great Christmas.”

It was. Charlotte loved all the wrapping paper and ignored all the fancy toys from grandparents (They never spent this much on me for Christmas!). When all the presents were opened and Charlotte was down for her first nap, Kevin and Katie went back to the tree and he handed her the floppy, thin present.

“Thanks in advance,” she said sheepishly as she carefully untied the bow and then ripped off the paper, throwing it in the pile for Charlotte.

Then she gasped. Then she threw her arms around Kevin and gave him a wallop of a kiss. Fallen to the ground in the midst of all the embracing was a single sheet of paper with the following printed in green and red letters:

“I really don’t have an interview next week. We get to spend it all together. Merry Christmas.”

Critique: Other than a few typos and what are probably cut and paste errors, I LOVE THIS STORY!

What I liked best: Love your writing style—the humor, the cleverness.

Publication ready: YES! You’re in!

20 The Parable of the Coal

“And what did you get, Joy?” Mrs. Leaneon asked the little fourth grader in the front row. Mrs. Leaneon was worn out. She had only started class four minutes ago, and already Broody brought up the one subject that little kids found impossible to drop: Christmas presents. It was a nightmare. Every year, right after Christmas break ended, somebody would bring up presents, and then all the kids would chatter on about it all day, even in the middle of a difficult test. It was terrible, particularly for an elementary school teacher.

It took her a moment to realize that Joy hadn’t answered. “Joy?” Mrs. Leaneon prompted. The girl finally replied, looking strangely content.

“I got a big box of coal.” As Joy said this, there was a huge gasp that came from all corners of the room at once; the children clearly thought that Santa was punishing Joy. Mrs. Leaneon didn’t know what to say. Joy was the sweetest student that had ever entered Mrs. Leaneon’s classroom. Was the coal a cruel joke? And why did Joy look so happy?

“I’m sure Mr. Claus made a mistake,” was all the teacher could think to say.

Joy shook her head. “There was no mistake. I got what I asked for.” Before Mrs. Leaneon could reply, Joy started to explain: “We don’t have electricity. Our stove takes coal, but lately we haven’t been able to afford the coal that would keep the house warm.”

Mrs. Leaneon suddenly knew why Joy was always asking other students for outgrown clothing or leftover pieces from their lunches.

It felt like years had passed before the bell rang at the end of school. When Mrs. Leaneon asked Joy to stay a little longer so that she could write a note to Joy’s mother, Joy looked as if she was trying to figure out what she did wrong. The child was, in fact, shocked when Mrs. Leaneon said she was asking for permission to take Joy clothes shopping, and offered to buy her anything she wanted. “And feel free to drop by for dinner any time.”

Critique: It needs some smoother transitions. And more—more character development and arc, more dialog, more from the students, more internal thought from the teacher, more setting and sensory imagery. What you have is a nugget that needs to be expanded.

What I liked best: I really liked the clever twist of a girl asking for coal.

Publication ready: No. But with some depth and development, I think it has real potential.

19 Happily Ever After!

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived in the wintry kingdom of Anolivia. She had reached that age of accountability, where tradition said she must learn homemaking skills. It was Christmas Eve and she had a wonderful breakfast in store for her parents. She was going over the supplies and realized that she didn’t have the eggs and milk that she needed. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to get the needed supplies in the morning. She knew curfew would be coming up very soon and the castle doors would be locked for the night. She and her ladies maid decided to risk it by running out to the dairy shed. They made it out to the shed in good time. They gathered the supplies and they were much more weighed down on the way back to the castle and could not run as fast. They had seen the mean guard at the doors and knew they had to hurry. The hurried back to the castle as fast as they could move. They heard the clock chiming and they could the see the castle doors. The guard was closing the door and he could see and he wasn’t going to wait for them. Just when they thought that they would have to spend the night on the cold steps the white knight appeared to battle the mean guard. They watched as they battled and the white knight prevailed. He showed his true chivalry and held the door open. They were able to save to bring the needed supplies for Christmas breakfast and the white knight saved the day. They were able to spend a wonderful Christmas and lived happily ever after.

Critique: This is not really a short story. It’s a very quick & dirty, bare-bones plot line for a story. You need to beef it up. Give us some characterization, dialog, sensory imagery. We need a character arc, where the princess learns something or grows and changes. And personally, I’d rather see the princess save herself, instead of being rescued by a white knight. It has potential, but it needs work.

What I liked best: That the princess sneaks out to get eggs and milk. Shows she has a bit of a rebellious streak, and I like that. (But not sure it's entirely believable or accurate for a princess in a castle to run out of eggs and milk.)

Publication ready: No.

18 The Christmas Angel

“John, don’t be ridiculous.” Sarah’s mother’s voice rang down the hall.

Sarah staggered out of her room and into the hallway rubbing fitful sleep from her eyes. She hesitated, listening to her parents argue. Lately, it seemed that’s all they did.

“C’mon Nikki,” her father said in a gruff voice, “It’s Christmas. Let’s spend it together.”

Sarah’s ears perked up. She couldn’t remember the last time they had all been together as a family.

“You know I have this big project due. The pressure’s on.”

“That’s why it’s such a good idea. You need a break.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nikki asked.

“Sarah needs your time as well. When’s the last time you kissed her goodnight or read her a bedtime story?”

“Oh please. You know the demands of my job.”

“You’re running, Nikki.”

“Running?” Nikki let out a sharp laugh. “From what?”

“From the past. From Amb—“

“We are not talking about that!”

John voice became gentle. “You’ll have to talk about it sometime.”

Nikki’s voice was hard, “We’re done with this conversation.”

Sarah trudged down the stairs and entered the kitchen. Both of her parents looked up at her.

“Good morning, Pumpkin,” her father said as he set the morning paper on the table.

“Morning,” Sarah mumbled, giving her father a kiss on the cheek.

“Sarah, we’re doing some shopping in town today.” Nikki said.

“Can’t I stay here?” Sarah pouted.

“No. Your father has to work so you’ll be coming with me. Now go get your coat on. I’ll be waiting in the car. We’ll pick up breakfast on the way out.”

Sarah looked at her father dejectedly.

“Don’t worry, Pumpkin,” he said. “Maybe while you’re shopping you can make a wish list for Santa.”

“There is no such thing as Santa,” Nikki called over her shoulder as she walked out the door. “C’mon, Sarah.”

Traveling in silence, Sarah watched the gray clouds out the window. “Do you think it will snow?” she asked her mother.

Nikki shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I hope so. It feels like Christmas when it snows.”

Nikki flipped on the radio and Sarah sat back in her seat, smiling. Christmas was only four days away and she couldn’t wait! A familiar Christmas song began to play.

“Oh, I love this song!” Sarah cried and started singing along.

Nikki abruptly turned the radio off.

“What did you do that for?”

“I don’t feel like listening the radio.”

Sarah folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip. “Why do you hate Christmas?”

“Don’t start that again.”

“Christmas is fun,” Sarah said, “the lights, the music, the presents…”

“The money.”

“You could go sledding with Dad and me. That’s free.”

Nikki sighed. “Someday you’ll realize that Christmas isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’ll always love Christmas.”

Nikki turned a corner and pulled against the curb. “We’re here.”

Sarah thrilled at the lights and street decorations as she climbed out of the car. “It’s so pretty.”

Her mother grabbed her hand and started walking down the sidewalk. Sarah skipped happily next to her, gazing at the multi-colored lights framing the store windows. The displays in the shops beckoned to her. One window caught her eye and she stopped to stare through the glass. It was a giant toy store.

Inside sat a decorated Christmas tree with a bright red train set—its cars carrying tiny bundles of candy cane and licorice treats—circling it. Underneath the tree sat two of the most perfect glass dolls Sarah had ever seen. The one with tight blonde curls and blue eyes wore a lacy pink dress and matching hat. The other had beautiful red hair, set in ringlets. Her blue dress looked silky and she carried a frilly umbrella.

Sarah turned to her mother. “Can we go in, Mom? Please?”

Nikki pulled on Sarah’s hand. “No. I have a meeting this evening and have to get all of my errands done before it gets too late.”

“But Mom, look at that doll.” Sarah pointed to the glass doll with blonde curls. “It looks just like me.”

Nikki gave a quick glance at the display. “Okay, let’s go.”

“And that other one is so beautiful. Can I have one for Christmas? I don’t care which one.”

“We’ll see.”

“I’ll take really good care of her.”

“Sarah,” Nikki warned, pulling Sarah away from the display.


Nikki exhaled in frustration. “You know, I have a schedule to keep. Time does not stand still so that we can look at a bunch of useless toys.”


“You are wasting my time.” Nikki pulled hard on Sarah’s hand. “Now come on!”

Sarah jerked back and folded her arms in front of her. “No.”

Nikki’s eyes widened. “You do not tell me ‘no’.”

Sarah’s lower lip began to tremble.

Nikki put her hands on her hips. “Now start moving or you will have no Christmas. Do you understand me?”

“You can’t take away Christmas!” Sarah shouted as tears began to fall down her cheeks.

“Oh, yes I can. You wait and see.”

“I hate you!” Sarah said with gritted teeth and clenched fists.

“Sarah Marie Roberts!”

Sarah gave her mother a seething glare, turned on her heels and ran, ignoring her mother’s calls.


Sarah’s legs burned. It wasn’t until she stopped to catch her breath that she looked up to find the faces of complete strangers surrounding her.

“Mom?” she squeaked, but the sound didn’t carry. The people had fierce looks on their faces and it frightened her. Dashing to the end of the street, she turned into the entrance of a park. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wandered aimlessly, lost and alone.

Sinking to the ground at the base of an old oak tree, she pulled her legs toward her and wrapped her arms around them. Her body shook with her sobs, the only sound echoing through the empty park.


“Hello there.”

Sarah jumped at the unexpected sound and looked up to see a beautiful young woman in a flowing pink dress standing next to her. This young woman seemed familiar and instead of being afraid, she felt comforted and safe.

“Are you okay?” The young woman asked.

Sarah shook her head. “I’m lost.”

The young woman sat beside Sarah and put her arm around her. “My name is Amberlee. What’s your name?”


“That’s a pretty name.”

Sarah gave a shy smile. She looked up at Amberlee and noticed her curly red hair and bright green eyes. “You look just like one of the dolls from the window at the store.”

Amberlee laughed like a tinkling of a bell. “I’d like to see that doll.”

“The other one looked like me,” Sarah said, tugging on her blonde curls. A burst of cold wind blew past them, making Sarah shiver.

“You must be so cold. Here,” Amberlee removed a beautiful white, lacy shawl from her shoulders and draped them around Sarah. “Is that better?”

Sarah nodded. “It does feel better. I just…” She began to cry again. “Can you help me find my mom?”

“Sure, honey. Where did you last see her?”

“At the giant toy store.”

“Well, let’s go there then.”

They stood up and Amberlee took Sarah’s hand as they walked along the path that led to the entrance gate.

“Are you excited for Christmas?” Amberlee asked.

Sarah shrugged. “I guess. My mom hates Christmas.”

“Your mother has had to deal with a lot of heartache and sadness. She’s trying the best she can,” Amberlee said, “but you can help her.”

“I can?”

Amberlee nodded.


“There’s a Christmas carol my mother used to sing to me.”

“I love Christmas carols.”

Amberlee started singing, her voice smooth and calming, fit for an angel.

See the babe in the manger
Swaddled and warm
As the angels watch over
Protecting from harm

Silent night, Peaceful night
My soul is at rest
Little babe in the manger
Through him I am blessed

Does he know he’s the Savior
Shepherd to all
If I will but follow
And answer his call

Silent night, Peaceful night
My soul is at rest
Little babe in the manger
Through him I am blessed

He will carry my burdens
He’ll calm my fears
When I pray he will listen
And dry my tears

Silent night, Peaceful night
This comfort so real
Little babe in the manger
His love I feel

Sweet babe in the manger
Before Thee I kneel

“That’s beautiful,” Sarah whispered.

“My mother wrote it.”


Amberlee laughed. “I’m going to teach it to you. I want you to sing it to your mother.” She kissed Sarah on the head. “It will remind her of the true meaning of Christmas and that the Savior will heal any heartache she has.”


They spent the rest their walk singing the song. Amberlee would sing a line and then Sarah repeated it. Soon they were singing it together, over and over.

They strode out of the park and into the busy street, where a police officer stood at the corner.

“Sir,” Amberlee said, approaching the officer, “This is Sarah Roberts. She’s lost and looking for her mother.”

“Sarah Roberts? Yes…” He held up his finger, telling them to wait as he spoke into his radio. “Command Center, this is Officer Jones. We’ve got Sarah Roberts. She is safe.”

Amberlee turned to Sarah. “Sweetie, I’ve got to go now. Officer Jones will take good care of you.”

Sarah nodded and began to take the lace shawl off her shoulders but Amberlee stopped her.

“Keep the shawl…to remember me by.”

“I love you,” Sarah said as she held on tight to Amberlee.

“I love you too.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

Amberlee smiled. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Remember to sing the Christmas carol to your mom. Help her remember the true meaning of Christmas.”

“I will.”

Amberlee gave Sarah one more quick squeeze and kissed the top of her head. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye, Amberlee.” Sarah’s eyes filled with tears as she watched Amberlee walk away. She felt as if she had known Amberlee her entire life.


Officer Jones led Sarah to a parking lot holding several police cars. Her mother was standing by one of them.

“Mama,” Sarah squealed as she raced to her mother.

“Sarah!” Nikki stooped down and gathered Sarah up in her arms. “Oh baby, are you alright?” Nikki stroked Sarah’s hair, tears streaming down her face.

Sarah nodded meekly. “I’m okay.” She looked up into her mother’s bloodshot eyes. “I’m sorry I ran away.”

Nikki stood up and addressed Officer Jones, “Thank you so much.”

Officer Jones nodded, “I’m glad everything worked out okay.” He stooped down to look Sarah in the eye. “You take care now.”

“I will.”

“No more running away.”

Sarah shook her head vigorously. “Never.”

“Okay then. Goodbye.”

Sarah waved goodbye and Nikki took her hand and led her to their car. As Sarah started climbing into the back seat, her mother reached out and pulled her into her arms. “I’m so glad you’re safe. I was so worried about you. I prayed that we would find you.”

Sarah’s eyes got big. “But you never pray.”

“This is the first time I’ve prayed in a very long time,” Nikki’s voice cracked.

“God answered your prayer, Mama.” She grinned. “He sent Amberlee to help me.”

Nikki stroked Sarah’s hair. “Who?”

“Amberlee,” Sarah said in a bubbly voice. “She was beautiful. She looked just like the glass doll I saw at the store. She had red hair and sparkling green eyes and she helped me find the policeman and gave me this to keep me warm.” Sarah pointed to the white lacy shawl, still draped across her shoulders.

Nikki reached out with trembling hands and fingered the shawl. Tears sprung to her eyes as she brought her hand to her mouth.

“Mama? Are you okay?”

Nikki shook her head. She tried to speak, but words didn’t come out.

Sarah placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Mama. Amberlee wanted me to sing you a song— See the babe in the manger, swaddled and warm…”

Tears freely fell down Nikki’s cheeks.


Nikki brushed away the tears with the back of her hand. “I want to show you something.” Digging through a pocket of her purse, she pulled out a rectangle piece of paper and handed it to Sarah.

Sarah looked at the paper and saw the picture of a girl staring up at her. “Mom, it looks like Amberlee.”

“It is Amberlee.”

Sarah gazed up at her mother, confusion filling her eyes.

Nikki studied the picture for a moment. She put her arm around Sarah, pulling her close. “Amberlee is your sister,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “This picture was taken when she was seven—your age.”

“My sister?” Sarah said, gaping at her mother with wide eyes.

“I have a story to tell you. It’s a sad story, but I have a feeling it will end up happy.”

“Okay,” Sarah said, watching her mother intently.

“A long time ago, before you were born, Daddy and I had a little girl. Her name was Amberlee and we loved her very much. She always wanted a little sister and kept asking us when her sister would come to live with us.” Nikki gave Sarah a quick squeeze. “We had a very happy family and Christmas was our favorite time of year.”

“Even yours?” Sarah asked bewildered.

Nikki laughed. “I loved Christmas. Remember the Christmas Carol you just sang to me?”

Sarah nodded.

“I wrote that Carol.”

“You wrote it? Mom, it’s so beautiful.”

“During the Christmas season, I used to sing it to Amberlee every night before bedtime.” Nikki sighed and stared off into space. “Then, seven years ago, just two days before Christmas, a terrible thing happened. Amberlee was crossing the street while walking to her friend’s house and…a car came out of nowhere and hit her.” Nikki shook her head and fingered the shawl on Sarah’s shoulders. Her voice quivered. “I made this shawl for Amberlee when she died.”

Sarah reached over and held her mother’s hand. “Is that why you don’t like Christmas? Because it reminds you of Amberlee?”

“Christmas has been very hard for me since Amberlee died. But now I have a happy Christmas memory—finding you.” She hugged Sarah tight. “I love you, Sarah.”

Sarah hugged her mother back as her body filled with warmth. “I love you, too.”

They sat in each other’s embrace for several minutes, tears streaming down both of their faces. Nikki let go of Sarah and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

“We’re a mess.”

Sarah laughed.

“I guess we had better get home.”


Sarah awoke to the sun streaming through her window. Sitting up in her bed, she rubbed her eyes. Today was Christmas! She jumped out of bed and threw open the door, running down the hallway and into her parent’s bedroom. Christmas music drifted upstairs from the radio in the kitchen.

“Mom! Dad!” Sarah cried.

“Merry Christmas!” John said as he wrapped Sarah in his arms.

“Merry Christmas, Sweetie,” said Nikki, “Did you sleep well?”

Sarah gave a vigorous nod.

“Are you ready to see the tree?” John asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.

“Yes, Yes,” Sarah exclaimed, jumping up and down.

Both Nikki and John laughed.

They all marched down the stairway like toy soldiers. As Sarah turned the corner, she shrieked with delight. In the living room sat a beautiful tree decorated with shiny garland and red and gold bulbs. A beautiful angel topped the tree. Underneath the tree stood a present wrapped in candy cane paper with a big red bow on top.

“For me?” Sarah gasped.

Her father nodded.

She gently ripped the paper to find a white box. She gently opened the lid.

“Oh, Daddy, It looks just like me!”

Inside laid the porcelain doll she had seen at the store. She lifted it out of the box, brushed the wrinkles out of the pink dress and rearranged the blonde curls.

“There’s another present,” Nikki said, nodding her head toward a box wrapped in blue polka dots with a white bow on top.

Sarah gingerly picked up the package and hesitated.

“Go ahead,” her mother urged.

Sarah opened the present to find another white box. She lifted the flap. “Oh,” she gasped as she pulled out the doll with the blue dress and red curls.

“Momma, it looks just like—“

“Amberlee. I know.” Nikki said with a smile.

Sarah held both dolls in her arms and gave them a hug. “Thank you so much.”

“This way you can always remember your sister.” John said as he walked over and put his arm around Nikki.

“I’ll never forget her,” Sarah said, hugging her dolls again.

That night, after her mother and father tucked her in bed and kissed her goodnight, Sarah said a prayer, thanking God for sending Amberlee to help her family. She looked out the window at the lights lining the rooftops and a wave of comfort and warmth washed over her.

“I love you, Amberlee,” she whispered.

She thought she saw a star twinkle a little brighter.

Critique: Mom is too mean in the beginning for such a quick change of heart to be believable. Pacing is inconsistent. It slows down too much when Mom is telling Amberlee’s story.

Personal note: In a realistically based story like this, it always makes me a little uncomfortable when you throw in corporeal visitations from the deceased. I don’t mind dreams or even a waking vision, but when you can hold their hand and they give you their clothing, it sort of creeps me out a little. Maybe it wouldn’t bother other readers.

What I liked best: Great dialog between John and Nikki at the beginning.

Publication ready: Not quite yet, but it has potential.