Writing Stuff

Penning Holiday Letters

This was originally published on the Write Anything blog a few years back.

Well, the New Year is approaching. December is generally a time to reflect back on the past year and make plans for the upcoming months. It’ll soon be time to wipe the slate clean, move past regrets and mistakes and gear up to jump new hurdles.

In the midst of all of this reflection, I can only think of one thing to write about – holiday letters. You know what I’m talking about, those letters you receive in your Christmas cards summarizing the past year for the such-and-such family. Do you write them? Have you ever considered writing them? What do you think about them?

I have one high school friend, whom I never talk to and haven’t seen since high school, who sends me a family letter with each card every Christmas. She’s done this for years. Even though I’ve never met her daughters, I feel like I know them as I watched them grow up via photographs. Her letters are always upbeat (almost impossibly so) and her family sounds … well, perfect. I can’t help but wonder if she hasn’t doctored the events just a bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sugar-coating the truth, but don’t you wonder if “Susie decided to forego her cheerleading ambitions to pursue her retail dreams” doesn’t really translate into, “Susie tried out for cheerleader, and didn’t make it. She was then so depressed that we had to pry her sticky, nasty self off the couch, throw her into the shower and force her to get a job in the mall just to save her sanity and make us some extra money?”

I’ve always read her letters with a grain of salt. True, her family COULD be perfect. And if that’s true, then perhaps I am just a tad jealous. But being cursed blessed with an over active imagination, I tend to read between the lines. I have to admit, it’s been fun to read these letters and put my own spin on things.

After receiving this year’s letter from her, I decided to try my hand at this holiday letter-writing thing. I had never written anything like this in the past and certainly never to her but I thought, what the hay, I’ll give it a go. I kept it short and to the point and I’m being honest when I say, I didn’t stretch the truth or sweeten the iffy areas. I simply wrote about my job and hobbies, my husband’s new job and how much happier he is, the boys’ school success and their interests.

After writing all of this down, after penning the nitty-gritty of our lives, I realized – we really do have a great family. True, she may read between the lines, roll her eyes and poke fun at us, but that doesn’t bother me. Because what I wrote was true and honest. And I’m proud of the fact that my husband and I have done a pretty good job living this little thing we call life.

At the end of the letter, I gave her my email address and suggested we catch up sometime. I really would like to see, and talk, to her. I mailed that letter weeks ago. I still haven’t heard from her.

Now I’m paranoid. Being a newbie to this whole holiday letter-writing thing, I’m thinking maybe I committed some sort of unforgivable faux pas. Curious, I Googled tips for writing holiday letters. Here’s what I found:

1] Consider Your Readers
As you prepare to compose the letter, think about some of the people who will be reading it. If they were sitting here now at your kitchen table, what would you be talking about with Aunt Vera, your school buddy Lane, and your old neighbors in Seattle? Talk about some of those things in your letter.

2] Involve the Family
Invite the other members of your family to contribute, and don’t be too quick to censor or redirect their ideas. Sure, you may be dying to tell the world that your son made the honor roll, but if he’s more interested in recalling that diving catch he made in centerfield, let him tell it—and let him use his own words.

3] Enjoy Yourself
If the prospect of writing a holiday letter makes you groan, forget it. A letter that starts out as a duty is likely to be read as a chore. Have some fun writing the letter.

4] Don’t Use a Template
If a family newsletter is worth writing at all, it should sound like you and your family. Don’t fill in any blanks or imitate any models.

5] Avoid Boasting
Your newsletter really shouldn’t sound like an application for America’s Greatest Family Award. Don’t brag about your stock options, your kids’ straight A’s, or your flashy new company car. Be real. Mention setbacks as well as achievements. Above all else, don’t be afraid to poke fun at yourself.

6] Read It Aloud
As you prepare to revise and edit your letter, listen to make sure that the language is clear and direct. The letter should sound as if you’re speaking with good friends, not directing a business meeting.

7] Don’t Embarrass Anybody
Encourage everyone in the family to read the letter before you make copies. You might have heard wedding bells when you met Junior’s new girlfriend on Thanksgiving, but those bells may have been false alarms. What Junior may not yet have told you is that the perfect couple broke up last weekend.

8] Proofread
There’s no need to amuse your friends with unintentional writing errors. Misspelling “bowl” as “bowel,” for instance, is funny only if somebody else has made the mistake. So review your letter for standard grammar and correct spelling.

9] Keep It Short
Nobody, they say, ever criticized a speech because it ran too short. The same is true of the holiday newsletter. Stick to one page, or even a bit less. Leave space for a brief handwritten note and a personal signature. If you’re including the letter as an e-mail attachment, send each e-mail individually. Real friends don’t spam their friends.

10] Be Selective
Send the letter only to acquaintances who might really care about what you and your family have been up to this past year. Your old roommate in Australia and a recently retired co-worker? Fine. But the mail carrier and your son’s second-grade teacher? Go with a card (or, better yet, a gift card) instead.

Considering I skipped steps 4 – 7, I think I did a pretty good job. Will I write any more holiday letters? I honestly don’t think so. I think holiday letters are dangerously close to bragging and don’t we have blogs for that? 😀

Thursday Thirteen

Thursday Thirteen – How to Write A Bad Novel (Part Two)

More really valuable tips from this site. Number 13 is especially important to WriMos. 😉

Thirteen Tips on How to Write a Really Bad Novel – Part Two

1. Nothing beats a catch phrase! I call Snoogity Bottom.

2. Brothers are always very different and they always argue about everything. Never portray brothers who are similar and get along unless they are twins (except if one is an evil twin). If they are twins they must finish each other’s sentences and no one should be able to tell them apart.

3. Sisters must always steal each other’s boyfriends. Additionally, one sister must be outgoing and the other must be quiet and serious. This makes no difference to the boyfriend though, he’ll gladly dump either for the other.

4. Don’t start your novel with an interesting event. Take a few dozen pages to explain everything that would lead up to that interesting event. The reader will gladly hang around until you get to the point.

5. Don’t make your secondary characters interesting. It will just detract from the main characters. Lesser characters don’t need reasons for their actions. They are just there to keep the plot moving.

6. If the plot seems to slow down, give someone a gun or a knife and kill off one of those secondary characters you don’t care about anyway.

7. If you want to write a serious novel, make sure the main character is jaded and has lost interest in life. This anti-hero must view all other people as phonies, fakes or idiots. The character should experiment with drugs and sex. At some point the character should watch someone die or at least be assaulted. At no point should the anti-hero feel any real pleasure. Happy endings are strictly prohibited.

8. Writing a mystery? Make sure the clues are really obvious or really obscure. Either way, your hero will be the only person who can piece these things together. At some point they must accuse the wrong person and be ridiculed for it. In the end though, they should deliver a speech that explains exactly how everything happened.

9. If you are writing about sports, make it clear that sports always provide important life lessons. Make sure the novel has one obsessive and one downtrodden coach.

10. Character conversations should always be used to explain what is happening and how people are feeling. It is perfectly natural to have a character explain to his office mate (whose brother is a bank president) that he used to be a safe cracker, but now he just wants to go straight.

11. Don’t forget to use italics when you want to emphasize something.

12. At the end of the book, you must have the main character reach an important and life-changing epiphany. Make that epiphany really obvious. Don’t worry about why they had one, just make sure they had it so the reader knows the book is ending.

13. Editing is just a waste of time. Spell check it and move on.

tags: thursday thirteen

More from Write From Karen