Archive for January, 2015

I’m still having difficulty considering myself a writer for the simple reason that I don’t have an agent and simply won a contest. Nevertheless, I thought that I might chronicle the process of being published so others can see some of the process and so that I can figure it out myself. To that end, I should start at the beginning.
The beginning is, of course, the book. I had self-published a book a few years back, but I never learned how to do the publicity side of things, so I didn’t have a lot of luck with it. Despite that, I wanted to give it another go because I do enjoy writing. I brainstormed on several ideas, and by the time I had thought everything through I had a rough outline for a story. The story can sometimes be the easiest part. It is the characters that can be a pain. I spent a lot of time thinking about that main character. Should he be lovable, comical, grumpy? Should he stand out in a crowd for a good reason or a bad reason? What does he want out of life? Can he achieve that? I answered a lot of questions that would never make it into the story, but they made the character seem more real to me.
I wrote in my spare time during the Spring Semester and over the summer. There isn’t much spare time in the life of a teacher, husband, and father, but I scratched some out and my wife was always very generous at making sure that I could find some time. It took a few months, but I finally completed my rough draft. Then I read through it myself. If there is one thing that I have discovered it is that I forget half of what I write and can actually surprise myself with my own writing. I know, it’s weird. I’m considering getting help. My wife and a friend beta read it for me. I highly recommend finding beta readers for your stories. A good beta reader can be an invaluable resource. Once they were finish, I contemplated what to do with my new novel.

Book
I was seriously considering self-publishing again. It can be a great tool and some writers have had tremendous success with it. While I was contemplating it I stumbled across mention of a writing contest. I’ve never bothered entering one because they either have a steep cost or an ridiculous set of requirements, but I decided to check it out anyways. The contest was on the website http://www.authorsfirst.com (a great resource for writers. Everyone should check it out!) and as soon as I arrived I found the contest rules. I read through me multiple times before deciding that the generous requirements and lack of entry fee made for a good fit. I had a friend proofread the book (thanks Mrs. G!) and sent it end a little before the deadline.
the next thing that came was the part that I understand every author has to go through: waiting. The contest entry deadline was September I believe, but the winners wouldn’t be announced until December. I understand that this kind of waiting is typical for many authors when trying to get an agent or submitting manuscripts to publishers. It is agonizing.
I haven’t always been known for my patience. As the time for the announcement of winners approached, I started making preparations to self-publish my novel. My wife and I spent some time trying to put together some cover art (thanks for working with me on that sweetie! I know it wasn’t easy) and I started thinking of what I could do differently to promote my book that I didn’t do last time. The email from Lou Aronica at The Story Plant didn’t come as a complete surprise. I figured it was a polite form email thanking me for entering the contest but that they had chosen someone else, etc. When I read the words “Congratulations, you are the inaugural winner of…” My brain kind of froze. Mrs. G asked what was wrong and I handed her my phone with the email on it. She shouted and gave me a hug and handed it to Mrs. Edwards who did the same thing. It took a long while to set in. I contacted Mr. Aronica to make certain that the email was genuine. He assured me that it was and tolerated my nervous joking as I asked him what I needed to do. He explained to me what would be happening over the next few days and what would be happening in the longer term. I don’t know if he has a lot of experience dealing with nervous, naive amateur writers but he does it quite well. The obligatory call to my wife, mother, and friends out of the way, I started down the path of becoming a published writer.
So what were the things that Mr. Aronica described to me as part of the process? That will be described later. This is still an ongoing process, and I am still overwhelmed. Maybe some of you wonder why I am bothering to write about is when so many people have been published, but if you are an amateur writer like me, you have no idea how this works. I know that I haven’t gone through the process of getting an agent or writing submissions. I’m an accidental author, and I know that I will be going through those difficulties eventually, but for now I’d like to share the light at the end of the tunnel.

Advertisements

package

There are lots of time in education when it almost feels like “us against them.” Of course, the “them” varies with the situation. Always remind yourself as an educator that for every one challenge that you face, there are always a dozen silent supporters thankful for what you are doing for them, their children, or the community. Additionally, always try to see their point of view. You see things that they don’t every day, but the opposite is true as well.

Unfortunately, social media and the media in general allow for a very vocal and public opposition to schools, policies, or even individual teachers. As a social studies teacher, I don’t even see this as any real problem because the freedom of speech is only useful if there is a way for people to hear you. The problem occurs when these vocal critics are ill-informed or misinformed. It is very hard to win back a good reputation for a school or teacher if it has been tarnished, and it doesn’t matter if that tarnish is caused by inaccurate information. So, is there a solution to this problem?

The honest answer is “Maybe.” While I haven’t had much opportunity yet to test this theory, I truly believe that many of these criticisms can be headed off with proper packaging of the school, its programs, and even individual teacher’s classes. It is very easy to cut off unwarranted criticism of a school if you simply provide a link to a local news article detailing how the school is already working on that problem. Consistent releases of information about school events, interesting classroom projects, etc. can also provide great packaging for a school that you only see from the inside, while most others only see it from the outside.

Naturally, this means more work for some members of the faculty. With the constant addition of more and more responsibilities, no one wants to volunteer for more burdens. However, if educators aren’t their own cheerleaders, who will be? News stories don’t happen on their own. Find a couple of teachers willing to learn how to write press releases. Better yet, have some teachers learn how to write press releases and pass that knowledge on to students in a journalism club. Write stories, take pictures, and flood the local papers with them. Put information on the schools website often. Inundate social media with everything that you school is doing and doing well. You don’t have to be able to do a backflip to be a cheerleader for teachers.

Criticism is how we learn, and any good teacher or administrator is willing to listen to criticism that will help them grow. However, criticism about things that have already been addressed or that suppose information is factual when it isn’t can harm the reputation of everyone involved. Some good packaging for your school and classroom can not only prevent unwarranted difficulties, but create more pride in your school and class as well.

Feature image via highspotinc.com

I just had to share this parenting moment. It is one of those moments when you shake your head in confusion and laugh hysterically inside. We called my son downstairs after we had sent him up there to get dressed. He came downstairs wearing an outfit that I had to stare at for several seconds before I could figure out what it consisted of. There was a button down dress shirt, a clip on tie that was on crooked and incorrectly, and black and neon green exercise pants.

joes goofy outfitIt doesn’t matter who you are, these fashion statements certainly remind you of the joys of being a parent. No matter what is going on, you never know when your kid is going to make you smile.

Maybe you have done it yourself or had it done to you. You have based a character on someone you know or someone has based one on you. This habit of basing characters on people never occurs without a pronouncement to the person the character is based on. I’m not sure if I have ever heard of a person reading a story or book and then going to the author and asking “Was that character based on me?” The question becomes whether basing characters on people you know is a good idea or a problem.

When discussing characters with students, I always tell them that you character needs to be a real person in your mind. Sometimes that can be a hard concept to truly grasp. That is where the habit of basing characters off of people that we know comes from. I would bet that many of the writers reading this blog have a lot of themselves in the main character of at least one of their stories. There is nothing wrong with that at all. It is certainly information that is easy for us to access and it makes the character very real to us because it is…well, us. Of course, you can’t be every character in your story, and so you decide to look at the people in your lives and use your knowledge of them in order to create a new character. Just like putting some of yourself in your main character, there is nothing wrong with that. So what am I on about?

The problem occurs when the writer tells their friend that they are basing a character on them. This is done because we all want to make our friends feel good, and what more can a writer do for a person immortalize them on paper? Unfortunately, we hobble ourselves by doing this. If a writer tells someone that they are basing a character on them, they have just guaranteed that this same character will do all good things. If the person you are basing the character on knows who that character is, they certainly do not want to read about that character doing anything bad or being snarky or any of a million other things that might help move the story along but are considered negative. Those things could even be a true reflection of that friend, but that doesn’t mean that they want to read it! So, in order to keep turmoil out of their real lives, writers will alter the actions in their written lives. That means that you just compromised your writing. I don’t mean to make that sound like some kind of artistic and somewhat vague comment. It means that you just prevented your story from happening the way that you wanted it to for the sake of another. One compromise makes for a slippery slope to others. To top it off, your character is less believable than before because it is so perfect. Whoops.

So, if you do feel that you need to base your characters off of people you know, which is just fine, shut your mouth about it. If the people who you are basing characters off of don’t know what you are doing, you can have those characters react and respond in a much more honest and realistic way. Sure, you might have to be a little more honest with yourself about some of your friends’ negative tendencies, but that is ok. They aren’t perfect, and that is why you like them. Your characters won’t be perfect either, and that is why your readers will like them.

What I am about to tell you is obvious. It is something that will not amaze you or put you in awe of my remarkable intellectual and creative abilities. What it might cause you to do is face-palm yourself if you are an educator and did not think of this before. There is a simple way to promote stress relief among teachers that doesn’t require a miracle or a prescription. One of the teachers in your school, preferably one in each group of classrooms, needs to maintain a stress drawer. In that drawer should be one of the basic necessities of life: chocolate.

snack

I cannot take credit for the stress drawer that I help maintain for my fellow 8th grade teachers. It was started before I got to the school. I do try my best to maintain it, though. Here is how it works: One individual with a lot of willpower, or who is not too negatively impacted by sweets, should clear out one drawer in a filing cabinet. That drawer should probably be in a lockable cabinet. Then, with the help and donation of other teachers, the drawer should be filled with comfort food. I have found a variety of Little Debbie and Hostess snacks to be the most economical and effective choices, although hitting the clearance aisles after a holiday can result in some very tasty options. Kit Kats seem to be the guilty pleasure of choice this year. All of the teachers in your group should know where the drawer is. When the day is going roughly, a quick run to the stress drawer can get you through the rest of the day.

This is not going to solve any educational issues in this nation. It certainly isn’t a panacea (I’ve always wanted to use that word) for all of the difficulties faced by the modern educator. What it will do is give a small outlet for stress as well as create a social experience among the teachers. I received a message today from a fellow teacher in the school that she and her student teacher were facing a chocolate emergency. I sprang into action and made certain that they got the chocolate that they need and felt glad that I was able to bring a smile to their faces. See? I didn’t even eat the chocolate and found some stress relief. I wonder if they have a stress drawer like this in the White House, Kremlin, or Parliament Building? Imagine the world crises we could solve!

I’m the most non-nutritious eater that the western world has ever seen. My breakfast consisted of an iced honeybun every morning for two years. This wasn’t when I was a growing teenager. This was last year! My lunchbox has become the stuff of legend among my co-workers. What Little Debbie snack will he have in there now? How many will be in there? We took everything out one day at lunch and discovered nothing with any nutritional value whatsoever. If you ever wondered what the teachers did in the teacher’s lounge when you were a kid, there it is! I feed my son better than I eat, although we do both have a weakness for fast food. Five Guys…yummm…

I’ve never had much concern about my eating habits because I have always maintained a healthy weight. I rarely get sick. My cholesterol is good and I pass my yearly physical with flying colors. Lately, though, I’ve been worried about some of my eating habits. What has changed? My wife is on a diet.

My wife is a wonderful lady. She has never asked me to join her on the diet. She exercises daily and she loves it. I exercise momentarily and don’t like it. She has never forced me to go to the gym with her. She has remarkable drive and willpower that I wish I possessed. The reason why I worry about my eating isn’t because of myself, it is because of her. How terrible of a husband and I to still eat a normal supper while she has to eat this exceedingly healthy food? I have asked her again and again if it is okay, and she insists that it is. Still, I worry about the temptation that I must be placing on her. I don’t find the sweetest, most delicious thing in the world and eat it in front of her while making sounds of delight or anything! Nevertheless, I will occasionally eat a nutty bar while I’m at home, and I worry if that angers her.

The thing that keeps me from joining her on her diet is the fact that I find all of her food incredibly nasty! She loves vegetables. I think that they are nature’s practical joke on the taste buds. I believe that the purpose of a salad is to hold the delicious dressing for you. She can eat them dry. She thinks that brussel sprouts are amazing. I comb the internet searching for signs that this is the symptom of some greater illness. How do I support my wife when I am scared that her food is going to grow teeth and attack me?

I try to do whatever I can to support my wife. Really, I do. But I can’t seem to make myself enjoy her dietary tastes. Does that make me a horrible husband?

featured image via abovethecrowd.com

(more…)

Yesterday I visited a new blog being written by a young lady in college. She enjoys writing, but that is not the full-time career she is pursuing. Instead, she is currently majoring to be an elementary school teacher. You can read the post that caught my eye here https://mycollegeodyssey.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/back-on-track/

This blog post reminded me a lot of a question that I and other veteran teachers get asked pretty regularly: would you recommend teaching as a career to a student today? Everyone has their own opinion. Many of us that are cynical will reply that we would never recommend this career to someone today because of the current political climate of “blame the teacher” or whatever difficulties are going on in their local district. Still others, almost with tears in their eyes, will reply that it is the greatest job you could ever have because you get to see the light in children’s eyes as they learn. I’m not denigrating or disagreeing with either of these answers. Sometimes it depends on the grade level that you teach. Sometimes it depends on the school you teach in. Sometimes it even depends on what time of day you ask the question.

So, as a teacher, what would I answer. My answer is that it depends on who you are. This career is not for everyone. There are those that believe that anyone can be qualified to be a teacher. There are even those that believe that teaching shouldn’t be a career, but instead something else you do after you have a lot of experience in another field. I say that people who subscribe to those beliefs haven’t been in charge of a classroom. The truth is that teaching requires a special type of person that has a very specific kind of patience. It isn’t necessarily the patience to do your grading or deal with upset parents or politicians making policies that pile more onto your workload, although that patience is necessary as well. You have to be the kind of person that has patience to wait for inspiration.

Inspiration for a teacher usually comes from only one place: our students. Better pay would be wonderful. More respect from policymakers would be glorious. If you get into the field of education for either money or respect than you will not remain long, even if those things were in abundance. You have to be in education for your students or you will not stay. I don’t mean that your entire life should center around your students. Heaven knows that teachers usually sacrifice their social lives for their careers. I mean that when the day is over and the lights are off and you are trying to find that blissful sleep, you should be able to bring a smile to your face because of something that a student has said for you. Some teachers are fortunate enough to find these little bits of inspiration every day with their students. A lot of the teachers of higher grade levels find the inspiration a little more rarely but just as powerfully when they receive a note, letter, e-mail, or contact from a former student that wants to thank them for some long forgotten gesture that helped steer that student in a new direction. This must be the fuel that keeps you going each day.

So whether or not I would recommend this career to someone depends on who that someone is. Are they someone who can wait for that inspiration? There are times when you might go for a full year or two before finding that inspiration again. Do you have the patience to stick it out, put everything you can into a school year that might be stressing you to inhuman levels, and still push your students towards success? If that one letter can inspire you for years, if that one smile or flicker of understanding can get you through the day, then welcome to the Teacher’s Club. Our dues are steep, but membership definitely has its privileges.

As I was folding laundry today (does it never end?), I turned on the television to have something to watch. I turned on an episode of Doctor Who and I heard the Doctor say something that I loved. “We are all just stories in the end.” That line says so much to me. There are so many things that can be taken from that line that can affect both life and writing.

Most people tend to think of stories as fiction that takes us away from life. Looking through a bookstore that appears to be true. However, think of all of the stories that you tell about friends and family. Think of the stories that you tell to friends and family. What about the stories that they tell about you? This is an untapped resource of ideas and revelations for writing about. Obviously, you don’t have to tell the full story as non-fiction, but instead use it as a basic idea or premise for something larger. Your source of ideas becomes infinite.

It is in life that I truly find the most wisdom in this saying. We are all just stories in the end. What is your story? My grandparents are gone. I tell many stories of them whenever I get the chance. My grandmother had an obsession with the Wendy’s chain of restaurants. She once wrote a thank you letter to Dave Thomas for creating the 99 cent value menu. The story of her eating at the drive through usually leaves people in tears with laughter. My grandfather got run over by a parked car. I’m not kidding! He actually did! The story would be nowhere as meaningful if he hadn’t told me about it himself in his matter-of-fact style. Though they have both been gone for over a decade, I know that they remain here whenever I tell one of their stories.

What is the story that you leave? Will it be a drama, tragedy, mystery, thriller, or comedy? Who will tell it? Everyone thinks of their legacy. As you grow older you often do things to try to secure your legacy. I’m less worried about that. Legacies are told by those that know of you, though they do not know you. Stories are told by those that have been there with you and seen you at your best and worst. They are shorter, more memorable, more personal, and more enduring. With each action you make, remember that you are creating your story. It may be told. It may wind up being written by someone with talent you have not yet realized. We can’t spend all of our time second guessing ourselves or worrying about other’s images of us, but we can still help shape our own stories. We are all just stories in the end.

earth

I try to provide the most useful advice that I can to anyone that is interested in writing. I usually do that because I am hoping to get advice in return. I’m certainly no expert, so anyone asking me for help can no doubt help me as well. If there is one piece of advice I find myself giving out often it is that well-developed characters can make the difference between a bad story and an amazing story. The actual story can be a little lukewarm, but great, well-developed characters can make it something that people will remember.

One of my classes has to put up with me trying to teach them some creative writing skills, and the first thing that I do is stress the importance of characters. Part of the multi-day lesson is showing them a character profile that ask questions like the character’s name, age, greatest strength, greatest weakness, etc. I tell them that when they write, they should be able to fill out a character profile for all of their major characters in order to make them more three-dimensional and believable. I make them fill out a character profile on themselves as practice. Once we have done that, I show them a few minutes of a movie that most of them are familiar with and have them all do a profile on the same character. We were doing this particular exercise and I noticed a problem- a significant number of my students did not answer (or did not seriously answer) the question in the profile about where the character was from. The movie never said it specifically, but there were hints dropped and characteristics that should have given it away. Those hints and characteristics were not caught by all, and in desperation to complete the assignment several students wrote next to the category “Birthplace” answers like “a hospital,” “Planet Earth,” and the every puzzling “IDK.” I required students to give different answers to these questions. I could hear them mumbling to themselves a question that I asked myself after class was finished. Does it really matter where a character was born?

It is remarkably easy when writing to go overboard with the details. Some professional authors are masters at being detailed to such an amazing degree that you can see, hear, and taste everything going on in their books. These detail masters are rare. Most writers that begin going into great detail eventually bore their readers. Is it too much detail to mention the birthplace of all of the major characters? I’m sure that my students think so, and I don’t blame them at all. I don’t blame them because they are right. If a writer goes into great depth about all of the details of every major character’s life, hopes, and dreams, their book would be the size of an encyclopedia set and no one would likely read past the introduction of the first character.

So why did I make these students redo their answers? Because it is still important. I would never expect a story to contain all of the details in the character profile within its writings. The character profile isn’t for the reader. The character profile is for the writer. Whenever you are writing a story, your characters need to be as real to you as the people in your life. You don’t need to know the details of their lives so that you can write about their lives. You need to know the details of their lives so that your character will have the same actions, reactions, logic, illogic, passion, and apathy of real people. If you don’t know and love (or love to hate) your characters, how can you expect your readers to?

Does it matter where a character comes from? I suppose that depends. If you believe that the characters in a story can make the difference between mediocre and exceptional writing as I do, then yes you need to know where the characters are from, as well as a great many other details about them. If you think that the characters are just there as part of the story, then don’t worry about where they are from. I’ll probably still read your work, but I’ll probably only do it once.