Flash Fiction — The Swap

By Denise Miller Holmes, Director

It’s amazing how one piece of mail can change a life and cause great embarrassment at the same time.

When I read the invitation to the Grand Opening of Evan’s used-car dealership, relief flooded my body.  Here’s your chance, I told myself. This is the perfect time to say, “sorry.”

I’d met Evan a few years back when I was twenty-two, and we dated a few times before I left for a job in another state.

The entire four years I was away, I tortured myself about how I’d treated him at the end, just before I left. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I yelled mean things at him and told him I never wanted to see him again. It was an intense outburst that gave me a pain in my gut and heat in my cheeks whenever I thought of it. I’d thrown every insult my father had taught me at Evan, including, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” — which made no sense.

But, God has a way of bringing painful things back in order to heal us, and the invite was my opportunity to make it right. I needed to make this right.

I wanted to do something more than show up at the opening of his new location. I wanted Evan to remember that I’d come to the party, and, especially that I was nice to him—that the animosity was gone. So, I pulled into Aunt Flo’s Floral for something special.

I picked out a dynamic arrangement of bold-colored flowers and signed the card. ”Congratulations . . . .” blah, blah, blah and signed it “Clarice.”

At the last minute, I decided to have them deliver it rather than haul them in myself. The nice man smiled at me and promised to get them there early that day when the celebration would be starting.

I arrived about thirty minutes after the doors opened and saw an exquisite carved wood table with flower arrangements and cards covering the entirety of it. My flowers were there, in the center, with an envelope attached to them—an envelope entirely the wrong color.

Because I’d picked a blue envelope and this one was pink, confusion swirled around for a bit. But, before I could check out the card, sweet Evan came up to me and took, not shook, my hand. He held it there for a full four seconds (I counted) and then gently let it go.

After a few minutes of chatting, I pointed to my flowers and said they were from me. He walked over, to my chagrin, and snapped up the card. As he read it, I got an understanding of how bad the message must be because his face paled and he swallowed hard. “What is this?” he yelled, throwing the card onto the floor. “Do you want me dead, Clarice? Can’t you let this go?” He stormed off.

Certainly, this was more than him not liking pink envelopes. I picked up the card and read, “Rest in peace.” It was signed “C.” 

My first thought was, Oh how annoying it is that so many lazy people abbreviate everything. My second thought was, Oh gawd. How will I ever explain this and win his trust?

I called the florist and gave them a piece of my mind. They apologized exuberantly, then explained what it was like for the people who received my card.

“Where did it go?” I said, thinking someone else’s pain might be more than my own.

“Well,” he hesitated and sighed. “Imagine how the grieving family of Herbert Kunkel felt when they read your note out loud at the funeral reception, and it said, “Congratulations on your new location.”

Evan was in another room, engaging his guests, and I figured he needed time to cool off. I went home and poured myself a full glass of sugary drink. By then, it was early evening. God, please help Evan believe me.

I didn’t finish the prayer because my doorbell rang and startled me. I opened the door to see a small bouquet of forget-me-nots in an arrangement with baby’s breath. I brought them inside and read the card. It said, “I think there was a mix-up at the florist’s and you don’t want me dead. Let’s both pray about it, then go get a coffee. Call me. Is six a.m. okay?”

I ruminated a bit over the turn of events as I sipped my cola. It didn’t take long to decide. With God (and coffee), anything was possible.  

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What fiction writers of all skill levels should do to improve and go from good to great!

by Denise Miller Holmes, Director

I’ve already talked about striving for excellence and continuing to improve your skills. This is the way to success.

But, many fiction writers do not know the areas of fiction writing that will keep them on the road to improvement. As far as the actual writing goes, there are these lovely things called “The Elements of Fiction.”

If you search for these elements online, you’ll find that every pundit has a different number of elements (some say three, some say six, etc.). But I’ve settled on twelve elements after some research. I believe these twelve are necessary tools to further your improvement in fiction writing.

So, here are the famous Twelve Elements of Fiction, as I have labeled them.
1.     Structure
2.     Character
3.     Plot
4.     Description
5.     Viewpoint
6.     Setting
7.     Scene
8.     Voice
9.     Dialogue
10.   Action
11.   Style
12.   Theme

The idea is to keep studying these elements and practice, practice, practice. You will be amazed at how good your fiction gets when you do this. 

Also, I suggest reading the Elements of Fiction Writing series by Writer’s Digest. But this series should not be your only source. There are many good books that will take you even further down the improvement road.

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Uncle Jerry’s Jokes

I am happy to give you another installment of Uncle Jerry’s Jokes. He is still diligently archiving every joke and funny story he runs across as he trudges down the salt-mining tunnels of Mars. I am right now crossing my fingers that y’all get a kick out of them.

The intelligence quotient on Venus
So many Earthers disrespect the Venusians because of their population’s low IQ. Do you know what the numbers 1776 and 1492 have in common on Venus? They are adjoining rooms at the Venusian Deluxe Hotel. I can’t wait to stay there.

Cleaning house on another planet
On Mars, there are dust storms and, therefore, a lot of dust in peoples’ homes. But Uncle Jerry says he threw his vacuum cleaner away the other day because it was just collecting dust.

Substitutes are okay if you don’t have the real thing
Uncle Jerry’s extended family has owned a hardware store for as long as he can remember. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s had a step ladder for a long time. Sadly, he told me with a tear in his eye, he never knew his real ladder.

Lamenting cement
When you mix quick-drying cement, there are many hard-and-fast rules. 

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Devotional: How Wonderful it is to Let Go of Worry

By Denise Miller Holmes, Director

(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)

In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths. Proverbs 3:6

God’s Presence is a sign of communion with Him. When you feel Him, you are reminded that you are not experiencing life alone. While we are trying to navigate the messes of this earth’s difficulties, His Presence supports us in detaching from worry and enables us to focus on the heavenly realm and God’s purposes for our lives.

Talking to God throughout your day about your goals and frustrations is key to connecting to the Presence of the Spirit. Make this a habit, and you will feel Him more and more.

Certainly, this habit will help you detach from the weight of this world. And, detaching and focusing on God enables you to see clearly—relieving worry. Worry only clutters the mind and blocks us from seeing God’s solutions to problems.

Remember Christ’s instructions:

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, . . . . Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?… But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. Matthew 6:25, 27, 33

Oh Lord, help us to focus on You and detach from our worries. Help us see the clear path before us, no matter how much clutter seems to be distracting us. Make the path straight. Guide us in our goals, and aid us in following Your lead. Amen

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Wisdom from Around the World

Knock Down Obstacles, then Succeed
“The virtuous person focuses first on the obstacles that must be overcome in an endeavor, and success should be his secondary consideration: this is called perfect virtue.”—Confucius, 551-479 B.C.E., Chapter 6, The Analects

Distracted by Comfort
“Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.”—Thomas Jefferson

High Wisdom
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness.”—The Talmud

Aim for Quality
When you’re out of quality, you’re out of business.”—Anonymous

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Building a Great Reputation: a Necessary Component of Success

By Denise Miller Holmes, Director

In the book The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, Greene has a full chapter called, “So Much Depends on Reputation—Guard It with Your Life.”

In that chapter, he uses the example of P.T. Barnum, of Circus fame, and his quest to buy The American Museum in Manhattan. The seller of the museum had another buyer to consider, however. His name was Mr. Peale, and, as it turns out, Peal had a great and winning reputation.

Barnum’s rep. was thin as he was an unknown. With no track record, his reputation paled in comparison to Peale’s. So, the seller decided to give Peale the deal instead of Barnum.

I can’t recommend you do what Barnum did to even the playing field (he started a smear campaign against Peale so he would lose his good reputation), but the story illustrates the power of and the need for a good reputation, and, therefore, the value of building one.

Here are some ways that I found in my research and experience to gain a solidly good reputation:

One thing I learned early on is to get your audience’s (or customers’, or boss’s) trust.  With that in mind, the axiom “under-promise and over-deliver” (UPOD) is gold. 

For instance, I used the UPOD axiom when naming this newsletter. I could have called it the “Laugh Your Butt Off” Newsletter, but I could not guarantee that this would be a laugh-a-minute newsletter for everyone who read it. Instead, I only promised a smile. I was sure I could do that—make you smile.

Now and then, you’ll run into something here that will make you laugh, that’s the “over-deliver” perk. But, most of the time, you’ll simply smile.

2. Excellence
There is a lot of shoddy work out there. Be the one who refuses to follow Boeing’s lead. Instead, be the one who does his work well, even great, and you’ll stand out from the crowd.

Too few companies, artisans, entrepreneurs, and leaders are desirous of Excellence. Most believe that good is good enough.

According to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, people tend to stop improving once they become good at something. Being good feels great because you’re making money, you have a good enough reputation, etc. There are many of your competitors that have good performance, but few are excellent. Collins challenges all of us to go beyond merely good.

Aim, instead, for GREAT.

Achievement of good-to-great does not come quickly, but, instead, requires a commitment to consistent improvement in your processes, customer relations, product performance, etc. This helps you go from average, to good, to great. It’s the commitment to improvement that gets companies to great and helps them stay there.

According to Collins, that excellence doesn’t just happen by luck. “Greatness
. . . is largely a matter of conscious choice.” This means that you’re going to have to try to be excellent; in fact, you may have to try very hard.

Darn it. We keep running into the “it isn’t easy” mantra, don’t we? [heavy sigh]

3. Consistency
Whatever excellence you develop, performing excellently consistently is key to building a powerful reputation. If you are hit-or-miss, you will find you break people’s trust. So, whatever you do, work to have high performance as the standard. People can’t refer people to you or use your idea, product, or service if your performance is not reliable.

A good example of letting people down is the disaster that befell Boeing. I mentioned the airplane manufacturer earlier in this article, and it is now a storied company for turning from a culture of quality, to a culture of shoddy workmanship and profits first.

Up until the recent deadly crashes, Boeing had a reputation for safety that couldn’t be rivaled. This reputation was solid for almost a hundred years. But a big change toward profit-first resulted in poor quality which then caused two disastrous crashes, which further caused their good reputation to melt almost instantly.

Boeing’s story demonstrates two big things: 1) never stop caring about excellence (and the customer experience) and 2) you must be consistent or you’ll have to fix and rebuild your reputation. And, as in the case of Boeing, it may never come back the way it was.

Be consistent.

Further Reading and Other Helps
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green. If you’re reading this for yourself, please take it with a grain of salt. It has some good suggestions and some evil ones. However, because of its glimpse into evil, it makes a great book to figure out what our politicians are doing and even what others are doing to you. It is also a great source of stories that explain what villains do, and therefore if you are a writer, you can use it as a source to pull from to design villains and their evil deeds in your juicy novel.

Build Your Reputation: Grow Your Personal Brand for Career and Business, by Rob Brown. I’m currently reading this one. It’s what inspired this article.

If you’re being smeared: Go to Amazon and search for “crisis management,” or “crisis communication.” If there is a campaign against you online, try the website ReputationDefender.com.

Understand that I’m not legally responsible for negative things that may happen to you as a result of looking into these helps. I’m merely giving you information for you to use at your own discretion.

Happy achieving!

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Fun Facts About Space (Celebrating Astronomy Day!)

Mariner 10 Satellite

If you are an astronaut, you shouldn’t cry over spilt milk

In space, spilt milk will bead, forcing you to suck up each tiny sphere if you still want to ingest it.  If you cry about it, it only makes it worse with all those beaded tears mixing in with the milk. So, don’t cry over the spilt milk. Just act like an adult and suck it up. Okay?

There’s a first time for everything

Back in 1973, NASA launched the Mariner 10 spacecraft. It was the first spacecraft to use the “gravity assist” technique, which was necessary to conserve fuel. The spacecraft used the gravity of Venus to catapult itself to Mercury, where it did several fly-bys, and snapped photos of 45% of the planet. 

Two metals stuck in space

Let’s say a paper clip and a curling iron are floating in space and they rudely bump into each other. They will instantly fuse together. I thought, at first reading of this fact that the two metals were desperate for company and thus, clung to each other like two feeding ticks. Turns out, it’s just science and the phenomenon is called “cold welding.” This cold welding becomes a problem when using metal tools in space, so engineers coat the metal tools before giving them to the astronauts so they can work on the space station without mishap.

Diamonds are a girl’s best planet

There are huge planets in the universe that are made entirely of diamond. When I find the location of the biggest one, I’m keeping it a secret and I’m not tellin’.

De Beers, look out!

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Soldier Fights the Harshness of Mars to Reach His Lady Love (We Celebrate Astronomy Day!)

By Denise Miller Holmes, Director

I was dating this good, kind and gorgeous Earth girl for about six months when the military called me to duty. It was during that time when the government was building prisons on Mars because Earth citizens, who embraced the “not in my back yard” movement, had won over the prison system’s need for real estate.

Mars was as far away from Earth as you could get with the technology we had at the time. For the Earthers, it was good. For me, it was a quantum, soul-sucking mess.

I figured out immediately upon arriving that my colonel, the operating officer of the installation, had it out for me. At first, I rationalized that his hatred for me was because he was a Martian human—born and raised in the old Martian colony. It is as true now as it was in the old days, that because of the puny gravity of the planet, human males who are raised on Mars are at least twelve-feet tall by adulthood. Earth males, in contrast, rise to a mere six feet on average.

My muscles were robust compared to the colonel’s reed-thin frame, yet Col. Malfrom made me, a 26-year-old soldier, want to weep and wet myself when he stood over me and glowered. No matter how strong I was, I was always hyperaware that I would never be able to deliver a respectable punch in his face without first asking him to bend down so I could tell him a secret.

The only alternative would be to punch him in the groin, and I would never do that because I had a personal ethos against hitting below the belt.

The real reason that Malfrom hated me, I found out, was his love for the woman I’d left on Earth. We’d dated for about five months and she told me about all the terrible things her ex had done to her. Now I’d put five and five together, and wish I’d known her ex’s name before I’d said yes to this assignment.

They say that knowledge is power but knowledge of his motivations to torment me didn’t make a difference in this circumstance—he still had it out for me and I was still his subordinate.

I’d been there about six months when the colonel approached me and said, “Sean, come with me into my office.” Okay, perhaps my multiple requests for a phone call to Earth had been heard and approved.

I followed him into his office, then sat down obediently when he pointed at a hard, metal, office chair. He grabbed another chair, sat across from me and eyed me like a snake that was planning to strike.

Because I was nervous, my throat went dry and I kept trying to clear it. He offered not one drop of water. I tried to say something, but he spoke instead.

“I’ve green-lighted your phone call,” he said in a flat tone, never taking his eyes off me. “I haven’t been ignoring you. It took a long time because the communications array was nearly destroyed in that sand storm and it took a whole month to fix it.”

I’m sure I looked relieved. Then he smiled as if he’d trapped his prey. “You want to call Genevra, don’t you?”

“Word gets around.” I adjusted my collar. It felt tight.

“You want to propose to her, yeah? I mean, you’ve been gone so long, I bet you’re worried someone else will ask her. She’s getting on in age and maybe feeling tired of waiting for you to come home. Besides, I hear the eligible Earth bachelors are pounding down her door. Rumor is, she wants a family.”

“She’s going to be 29 in 2091. I don’t think her world is ending.”

I didn’t tell him I’d suffered a series of night sweats recently over that very thing—her clock, her impatience. But I stopped worrying when I remembered how much she loved me.

“Are you going to let me call her now, or not?” I asked, letting all the air out of my lungs. I waited to breathe.

“Okay, but there are some rules,” he said, wagging a finger at me.

Of course there are.

“We’re at perigee, which means we’ve settled into the closest distance to Earth. That makes it possible to say something and have Genevra hear it in about five minutes.”

My heart stopped for a couple seconds. “Okay, what else?”

“That means that she’ll answer, but you won’t hear it for five minutes. You’ll say a short spiel, then she’ll wait five minutes to hear that. When she responds, you’ll either hear a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ or, most likely, a detailed description of what she had for dinner last night. If it isn’t ‘yes,’ I click the off switch, ‘Got it?”

My angry stomach churned. “Can’t wait to hear.” My words gushed sarcasm.

“You are wondering why I won’t give you a second chance to convince her, or even to clarify her words, aren’t you?” he said, reading my mind.

When I said nothing, the colonel continued. “Because you are an arrogant Earther who flexes his fat Neanderthal muscles around me whenever he can, and because, for some stupid reason, she prefers you over me, I’m going to only give you one chance to get her to say yes to your proposal.”

“Is that all?” I asked in my best casual tone. “There is no other reason?”

He stood up, drawing himself to his full height, as if getting in touch with that extra ego pack he kept inside his heart for special emergencies. Then, he leaned down, close enough to spit in my eye. “I just want to see your face when she says, ‘No.’”

I waited a tick, then said, “Ok, it works for me.”

You probably think I’m crazy taking the deal but I knew my girl loved me. She would have said ‘yes’ a few months ago when I’d left. On the other hand, it had been six months without a phone call. Girls hate that. What would she say? I had to try.

He led me into the communications room, a room walled off completely by glass, with a steel table that held equipment and a huge microphone. Lights flashed as I sat down in front of the mic, and Malfrom worked the dials and levers as if using this technology were an art. When I heard her voice come over the speaker, I thought I’d die. But all she said was, “Malfrom, why are you calling me?”

Eventually, the colonel let me speak. “Genevra,” the words struggled to get out. “I love you. I might be here a while, so I have to ask it now, Will you marry me?

That was it. What would she say? Could I convince Malfrom to have mercy and let her answer again if her words were garbled?

After a long five minutes, the speaker crackled. She was coming back on the array! I braced myself. Please God, let her say ‘yes’.

The crackle continued for a bit, then her sweet voice filled the room. “Sean? Is that you? What did you say?”

A sharp snap filled my ears as Col. Malfrom flipped the disconnect switch. He stood up, triumphant, his full height lording over me.

Rage poured into my lungs, and desperation filled my heart. The need to do something propelled my thoughts forward, and I quickly settled on what action to take. I truly had no choice.

“Colonel,” I said, putting on my most innocent face. “Come here.” I motioned him to bend toward me. “I have a secret to tell you.”

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Our New Newsletter, “Success with a Smile”

If you want to know about our new newsletter, “Success with a Smile,” here’s the “Welcome” from the first edition:

Let me throw open the door to our new newsletter home and seat you in our newly-decorated living room. I call it, “Success with a Smile.”

Here, you will learn new life principles, tips and tricks for success, with writing principles and encouragement to take you to your goals. All that, plus, it’ll put a smile on your face.

If you were a recipient of the Words for the Journey newsletter a while back, it is here, tucked below in the second half of this newsletter, with more information than the original ever had.

This newsletter will come every other month, with an encouraging Note delivered in the in-between times. All of us goal-setters must be reminded regularly that we are not alone, that it’s doable—if we just keep on truckin’ and eating mashed potatoes. (I’m not sure about the mashed potatoes part. It’s a theory I’m trying out. And, truckin’ may not be the best word.) [smile]

Anyway, get to reading and remember what Mark Twain said—
“A soap bubble is the most beautiful thing, and the most exquisite, in nature.”

Boy, that man was deep.

We’d love to send our newsletter to you! If you’d like to receive “Success with a Smile”, you can sign up by clicking here.

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Feeling Peace in Spite of Disappointment and Setbacks

By Denise Miller Holmes, Director

You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed in You . . . Is. 26:3

They say what you focus on can change everything. The Bible says that focusing on God is the focus that gives us peace. That sounds easy, but how do you do that? I mean, how do you focus intently enough that your troubles, for the moment, fall away from your thinking and you let the peace of God take over?

The Bible, more than once, talks about meditating on God, and specifically, on His Word. Beyond the humor I find in that—the Word telling you to focus on the Word—I also find it to be powerful.

“But Denise,” you say, “why doesn’t meditation of God’s Word help me right now? I read. I memorize, but the disappointment of my effort just swirls around me, and that peace just does not come?”

Oh, well there is one more ingredient that I think makes all the difference—faith, or to use a more common word, trust.

Confession time—the verse at the top is truncated. That ellipsis at the end is finished with … because he trusts in You.

Okay, so now we’re getting somewhere. If you don’t believe God is trustworthy and that His Calling on your life is real, then meditating on a Bible verse will end up in a void. It might even make your emotional state worse.

So, to drill down into this more deeply, what is it that you should trust about God’s purpose for your life? I think this verse in Jeremiah fills us in on the secret.

For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

So, specifically, we are to trust that God has good intentions toward us. No matter what storm is raging outside—rejection, a missed opportunity, a denied promotion, a team that comes against you, betrayal of a close ally—we are to ignore it and remember God’s plan for us, and also God’s own plan to bring us to a good place.

The road to that good place may be rough, but the Promised Land is there. We just need to keep moving forward.

By the way, for a long time, I quoted the top verse as “whose mind is stayed on Thee.” Reading it this way, “stayed” means focus. However, when you see the word is in, not on, it takes a different angle. With in, the verse is saying that our minds are stabilized through our connection to God. Interpreted this way, let me offer that God’s Word is a vehicle that keeps us connected to Him.

No matter how you look at it, though, it comes out the same:
Focus on God, focus on His Word, focus on (and trust in) His good intentions toward you. Amen

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