Posts Tagged ‘influences’

So here we are on Labor Day, so naturally many of us find ourselves at an outdoor barbecue. Now I will be the first to admit that I tend to leave this to the experts. Grilling just isn’t my thing. However, some people take it very seriously. This isn’t just a way of cooking food for them. They consider it an art form. Who am I to argue? Of course, I consider writing to be an art form as well, so if that is true, what can we learn about writing from grilling? Naturally, I have my own perspective on that, and here it is in this week’s vlog!



Writers and artists of various sorts always talk about their inspirations. It might be another artist or an event or the sun set just perfectly while they were walking their pet wombat through the swamp on the winter solstice…I’ve heard some interesting ones. Inspiration is something that we all need. Maybe it is inspiration to convince us to do something. Maybe it is inspiration that brings about a new idea. Maybe it is inspiration to push ourselves to be our best. No matter how much intrinsic motivation someone has, extrinsic inspiration is always a factor in ones actions and choices (I really just wanted an excuse to show that I could use the terms “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” intelligently!)

Anyone that knows me or that has read enough of my blogs knows that my grandfather has been a huge inspiration for me. So has my wife, son, parents, and many of my students. However, every once in a while I will stumble upon a new inspiration. These inspirations might not be life-changing, but they give you something new to look up to for a while. This happened to me just a couple of years ago. I was in a Master’s degree course talking about grading using a rubric, and we were given a rubric on how to grade someone’s public speaking presentation. We were then given a link to a video showing a young lady, about 12-13 years old, who was not only giving a public presentation, she was giving a presentation at a TED Conference. All of the students were amazed. The content of the presentation was excellent as was the style in which she presented it. I have taught students her age for fifteen years and I don’t think that I have ever taught one that could have presented with such poise and confidence in front of such an audience, and I have taught some talented folks. To make matters more interesting, she was already a published writer. I have to admit that this was inspirational to me…mostly because I was annoyed that it took me until I was in my thirties to become a published writer! The nerve of some overachievers…

Just a couple of days ago, I stumbled upon another TED talk by this same young lady, although she was older (maybe 17-18), and she spoke very intelligently about the inaccuracy of using test scores to judge a student’s merit (if you are a teacher, you are probably nodding your head vigorously right now.) Once again, she provided a great speech and made excellent points. I was impressed.

So what does any of this have to do with inspiration? Well, I have to say that this young lady has inspired me in a couple of ways. First, as a writer she has shown me that talent knows no age and that words do still impact the young. For a time, I think that we were all frightened that the internet would kill reading. As a teacher, she has inspired me by showing that there are those out there that understand what some of the true problems are in education, and that they aren’t all the fault of teachers. As both a teacher and a writer, she has also inspired me with hope that writing and teaching to a higher level than reality television even thinks exists will still reach my students and readers. Watch the speeches of Adora Svitak yourself and tell me what you think.

What about you? What inspirations have you found?


Featured image credit:

Whenever a person reads what someone else has written, there is always an expected level of judgment. The reader is going to judge whether the topic of the writing is something that they are interested in. They will judge the writer’s ability to express themselves or to describe a situation, act, person, or object. The reader will ultimately judge whether the writer’s work brought them any satisfaction. All of this is expected and probably required if writing is to have any meaning. However, do you ever judge the writer as a person based on the content or style of their writing?

I’ve never been the type of person that likes sacrificing realism for the sake of self-censorship. I oftentimes feel that such self-censorship robs the reader of a more insightful, fulfilling experience. That having been said, I have self-censored myself many times out of concern as to whether people will judge me based on what I write. In my case, it isn’t as much of a concern about people liking me as it is a concern for my career. In my profession, certain images are expected to be maintained. This is not a construct of my imagination. I have seen a colleague receive a complaint because a family saw them at a local restaurant drinking a beer. Witnessing this left a lasting impression on me, and I have always been extremely careful of both content and topics in my writing.

This begs the question as to whether it is appropriate or accurate to judge a writer’s character based upon their writing. I used to enjoy the writing of one particular author, but as time went past, the books being published by that author revealed a definite political leaning. While I didn’t agree with that particular point of view, I still tried reading the books because of the joy I had gotten from reading their previous books. Eventually, the constant political diatribes became too much and I stopped reading the newer books. I tried not to judge the author because of this, though. I thought that they might just be writing to a particular audience. When I found that author on social media, I happily followed them. It turned out that they were just as outspoken in person. So perhaps we should make certain inferences based on a writer’s work.

On the flip side of that, I can look at my own writing and know that it would be a incorrect for someone to judge me based on some of my characters or topics. In Pup: A Novel of Accidental Heroism I have some characters that aren’t very hospitable or friendly. Some  enjoy bullying the main character. That is certainly not something that I support or think is necessary. Some characters in my writing can be foul-mouthed and crude. That isn’t what you would see from me in public. Still, I worry that some people might  get an image of me based on those characters, so I sometimes self-censor.

Do you judge writers based on their works? Have you ever read a story or novel and thought “I really don’t want to ever meet that person”? Perhaps for some, separating art and life isn’t easy. Some of those people are readers. Some of those people are writers. I guess, like so many other things in life, we can only decide with each individual situation

Well, I started to relax a little bit more on the third day. The tropical storm was nowhere nearby and we were starting to learn where everything was. I really spent the third day getting a lot more experiences, and that matters. It not only matters personally, but it also matters as a writer. Details can make a world of difference, and I want to start making those differences.

Naturally, as a history teacher I think that we sometimes need to look into the past in order to find what we need today…or at least to get us thinking in a new direction. I’ve learned lately that you don’t have to be a history teacher to see things that way. Looking into the past can help you with ideas for your writing today as well. Check out this week’s vlog to see what I mean:

I’m sure that anyone reading this is aware of the importance of characters in a story. A writer can come up with the most imaginative and mind-blowing storyline that the world has ever seen, but if you don’t have characters that the reader feels a connection to and shares an interest in, then your story will fall flat and not find an audience. So how do you do this? How can you make your characters someone that your readers will want to follow? How do you make them someone that your readers will remain curious about?

One thing that has never ceased to amaze me is the obsession people have with celebrities. Sure, most of us laugh at the tabloid headlines with their absurd claims of relationships, scandals, and other baseless claims, but we still follow the information about celebrities from more “legitimate” news sources. There is something about people that have achieved some level of fame that entrances us and makes us want to know what they are doing. Sometimes what they are doing is nothing more unusual than what we ourselves or our own acquaintances do, but we just want to know anyways. Maybe it is so that we can feel some kind of connection to these larger than life individuals.

So what does this have to do with characters in your stories? Am I suggesting that every character that you or I write about be some kind of celebrity? Should they all be larger than life? That isn’t necessary. My students have shown me that some of the most average individuals can achieve a certain level of celebrity status just by being who they are. It is an odd thing to see, but it does happen often.

Think back to the days when you were in school. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone how far back you might have to imagine. Did you ever run into one of your teachers out in public? It was an odd situation, wasn’t it? How were you supposed to act around them? What were you supposed to say? Did you discuss class? Did you try to talk about whatever was going on in the place where you saw them? Did you do what you could to avoid them completely? No matter what you did, you undoubtedly treated that teacher a little bit differently than you would have most other people that you saw in the same place. Why is that? I think it is because teachers have achieved a certain type of celebrity. I don’t mean that they are famous or that people get tongue-tied when they meet them. I mean that students have a certain image of who a teacher is, and it is never an image that conforms to how the students see themselves. They are someone “different.” I have had students admit to me that they wouldn’t be surprised if teachers slept at the school, and these are 8th graders! Students will even text one another if they see a teacher out in public because it surprises them so much to see a teacher doing the same type of thing that they are doing.

Obviously, I don’t think it would be a good idea to make every character that you create a teacher. That would be just a little awkward and restrictive. What I do think you should consider is making your characters just a little bit different from the average reader. You don’t have to imbue your character with superhuman abilities or unusual talents unmatched by anyone else in order to make them a celebrity. All your character really has to be is someone that your reader might not expect to do any of the normal, everyday things that people do. As a result, when they do those everyday things it will amaze the reader and grab there attention in a way that never happens when that reader is doing the same activity. Doubt me? Run into one of your old teachers at the grocery store and see if you don’t behave just a little bit differently around them!


I haven’t been very active on social media for the past couple of weeks. Testing at school and a family trip are two of the reasons. A death in the family was another. After the funeral for my wife’s grandmother, I reflected on how much I was going to miss her, but I left with a smile. Here is why:

A while back, I found some soaking wet socks in my son’s bathroom. A few days later, I found six soaking wet socks hidden in his bedroom. I asked him what was going on. “I had a dream once about a monster attacking people. I’ve been showering in my socks so that I can throw them at him to chase him off.”

Of course, my response to this was, “Son, you are ruining your socks because of an imaginary situation that is never going to happen.” At least, that was what I said out loud. In my mind, I was thinking How can I possibly incorporate this into my next book?

On any given day, my cat goes also-freaking-lutely insane. For no apparent reason, she will run sprints all throughout the house. She seems to be attacking bugs that no one else can see. She howls late at night at nothing. She figures out precisely where you intend to sit and decides that is the very place that she intends to nap. I suppose that it shouldn’t surprise me that my son loves the cat almost to the point of obsession.

The thing about both of these individuals, my son and the cat, is that they live a lot of their lives in their own imaginations. It’s something that can make each day very difficult for those around them as people that don’t live in their worlds try to figure out what is going on. However, for my son and the cat, it is a perfectly equitable arrangement, and why shouldn’t it be? They might live in their own worlds, but everyone there knows them. The imagination is where they find peace, joy, excitement, and whatever else they are seeking at the moment. Who should deny that?

The truth is that I tend to benefit from it as well. Of course I work to make certain that my son can interact and function in the world. That is my job as his father. However, he as well as the cat, remind me how to make use of my own imagination. They help remind me how to find some of the more simple joys in life that cannot be discovered on a television screen or computer monitor. As a teacher, he reminds me of the youth that I interact with daily, even if that youth left me (chronologically) a while ago. As a writer, he brings me to a place in my imagination that helps me to create the universes needed for a good story to be told.

If you are a writer, or someone that just needs a smile, consider things from the point of view of a child, or even look at the world as a cat. If neither are an option, then think of the last time that you wanted to say, “What the crap was that?” You would be amazed at the direction that this can lead you in.

I had the pleasure of getting to be there when my best friends became parents recently. I have watched over the last few days as the things that they think are important have changed. It is a great lesson in life as well as a great lesson for writing. Watch my vlog to see why.

So you have come up with a wonderful idea for a novel. You have it all planned out. You know every detail of what is going to happen with your main characters. You know what plot twists are going to throw your reader for a loop. You’re set! Then you start writing and find a huge problem. It isn’t enough. Your plans for a novel have resulted in a short story with dreams of growing up into a novel. You add more details to your characters, embellish a little on the story, and even get creative with your spacing. Still not enough. You need a side story. Where are you going to come up with a side story? You fried out all of the creative circuits in your brain imagining the main plot. It’s all over! The book is ruined! Time to go back to watching Star Wars way to much and living off of popcorn! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

Before you format your hard drive and burn your printed copies, you should realize that a side story isn’t that difficult to create, and it can make a world of difference in your characters realism. Think about it. Do you do only one thing all of the time? Even people who are obsessed with something take a break from it now and again. Your characters should, too. That is where a good side story comes in. It transforms your characters from characters into people. So where do you find a good side story? My suggestion for that would be the same suggestion that I give for most things. Open your eyes! The perfect side stories are all around you or have already been a part of you and your life.

One of the favorite approaches I have seen some authors use is to make the setting of the book a side story. That is a tried and true technique. It’s especially useful if you are very familiar with the setting yourself. When this happens, the setting becomes a character all its own. Could Batman take place anywhere other than Gotham City? I really enjoy the Dresden Files series. In it, Jim Butcher often uses the setting of Chicago as a source for side stories. He takes common sites in the city and twists them to fit into his paranormal world. You can certainly do the same.

Of course, everyone doesn’t want to use the same formula for creating side stories. That would make for boring literature. So what else can you look to for side stories. Think of your own life. I don’t mean that you should make every story a biography. I mean that everyone can look back on an event in their life and imagine how it could have been different. You can positively or negatively change how things are handled by your characters in the same situation and create a good side story that will be very believable. After all, the situation did occur in real life, right? You can also look to your own activities. Why not incorporate some of your own hobbies, your job, or some of your interpersonal interactions into side stories. Once again, reality creeps into fiction, and it makes for a better story.

So, if it is big cities or family reunions, career moves or airsoft games, you can find lots of ideas for side stories for almost any book. Just look around, remember, go through a photo album, or talk to a friend. Personally, I am using airsoft in the book I am working on now. It gives me a good side story and an excuse to go and play!

airsoft pic