All Story, No Plot (Or, Hit Me With Your Best Shot.)

I love the holidays.  I love the tree, I love baking cookies and gingerbread with my kids, I love the presents, I love the peace, and I especially love the TWO WHOLE WEEKS off from school.  If we could only have snow and have it be 80 degrees at the same time, I’d be in heaven.

One thing I especially love, and have since my daughter was a baby, is making the holiday cards.  It’s one of my favorite activities, and since my oldest was little and I strapped her in angel wings, I’ve spent days each winter planning what I would do.  This sounds obnoxious, as if I’m striving to be Martha Stewart, but believe me when I say that despite my best efforts, the cards remain pretty simple and success is hit or miss.  But I finally realized this year why I love creating them so much.

Christmas cards are ALL character and NO plot.  (Ahem.  Does this sound like any author you may know?)  Each year is an opportunity to create a perfect little vignette, with no worries about rising action, microtension, or conclusions.  (Sorry, Donald Maass. I feel like I’m letting the team down.)

This year, however, my characters revolted.  After over a decade of taking direction, they’ve decided that next year, the Christmas card is theirs.  And while I’m sad I won’t be able to get to the rest of the fabulous ideas I’ve planned, I understand. (Plus, there’s always the chance they’ll forget and I’ll get to do it my way anyhow.)

So, to celebrate the end of a run, I thought I’d put together my thoughts on what makes a holiday card successful.  And if there’s some writing advice in there too, forgive me.  Just don’t listen to me on plot.

  • Pick a theme.  Even if you only use one photo, find a way to tie it to something larger.  I love using a line or two of a poem or holiday song in the greeting, and having the photo reflect what’s written. For example, in one of my earlier cards, I dressed my baby daughter in her pink tutu and snapped pictures while she twirled.  The line under the photo read “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Just like in novels, a strong theme can carry you through.
  • Be unexpected.  One of my favorite cards from last year showed a family on the beach in bathing suits, enjoying the warm weather.  Their card read “Dreaming (NOT!) of a White Christmas.”  (And taking your reader somewhere unexpected keeps them turning pages, too.)
  • Keep it fun.  My son is notorious for looking like a Grinch in pictures.  In the past years, in desperate attempts to make it look as if we’re not torturing him, I’ve had him sit in an old-fashioned horse carriage, pull a sleigh as fast as he could on the beach, jump on a trampoline, and pelt his sister with snowballs. (Guess which activity got the biggest smile out of him?) Just like in writing — if it’s  not fun for you, it shows through to your reader.
  • Keep the photos as big as you can.  And my rule is that in general, people on my holiday list really only want to see my kids. I’d rather have one great photo of the two of them than five smaller ones of the family. And lastly…
  • Make friends with a great photographer!  I’ve always done the photos for our cards myself, but this year my friend Kevin Harkins of Harkins Photography offered to take them for me.  The results were fabulous, and such a memorable way to (possibly) end my favorite tradition. To see our card this year as well as some of the outtake photos, hop over to his blog. And tell me — do you love doing holiday cards too?  If so, tell me about your favorite in the comments!

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

Liz Michalski


  1. Vaughn Roycroft on December 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

    The cards turned out beautifully! Great theme, great shots from Kevin, lovely family. Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season, Liz!

    • liz on December 9, 2014 at 11:19 am

      Kevin did an awesome job — he just kept laughing at the antics of my son and the dog. I hope you and yours have a lovely peaceful holiday as well Vaughn!

  2. Lynn on December 9, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Loved your card this year, Liz! As a firm believer of never giving over creative control, I don’t think you can let it go next year! 🙂

    • liz on December 9, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Well, I learned from the master of holiday cards, Lynn. (I still have most of yours.) Thanks!

  3. Norman on December 9, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Good advice, Liz. Especially about the photography; one fine picture instead of several requiring a magnifying glass . . .

    • liz on December 9, 2014 at 11:18 am

      Unless they are of me, Norm! Then they can be microscopic and I’m fine. : )

  4. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on December 9, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Wow. What a gorgeous card. The “fun” element makes it extra special.

    I haven’t done holiday cards for…25 years? You’re almost making me regret that decision.

  5. harkinsphoto on December 9, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you Liz, what a fun shoot it was too. I tortured my own children with a Christmas Card each year till they were all out of college. They still run and scream when they see the camera out at the holidays ;-).

  6. CG Blake on December 9, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Liz, I love the idea of choosing a theme for your card. I was thinking, “I triple dog dare you,” in keeping with the wonderful shot of your dog. Seriously, though, I am a real slacker when it comes to Christmas cards. Often I send them after Christmas, but they do get noticed more that day. By the way, I used to write a Christmas poem each year based on A Visits from Saint Nicholas, but I ran out of steam. Thanks for a great post.

  7. Marilynn Turner on December 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Great card, and if you must end the tradition, it certainly is a wonderful memory to be cherished through the years.

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