Sunday, December 29, 2013

I Now Know Exactly How Ralphie Parker Felt

A while back, I was delighted to find that an author whose books I adore is originally from my home state of West Virginia.  He now lives in and writes about a different part of the country, but anyone from West Virginia will tell you that once you're a Mountaineer (in the state sense, not the WVU sense), you always will be.  I should draw attention to the order of the events I just described.  First I loved his writing and then I found out he was from West Virginia.  I didn't take up his books because he was from here.  That he was is just a bonus.

So, being kinsmen of sorts (after all, isn't the joke that there are only fifteen last names in West Virginia, so we're probably related anyway), I, being a fledgling author hoping to do what he has already done, thought he might be willing to help out a newbie, especially a small-town guy from his birthplace.  So I contacted him on social media.  I don't remember what site I used, but it was not Facebook or anything like that, but instead something for writers and lovers of literature.  I told him I loved his work and that I was excited to find out that he was also from West Virginia.  Finally, I asked if he had any advice for a fellow small state author who was trying to find someone to publish his newly completed manuscript.

I'm not sure what I hoped would happen.  I guess, best case scenario, he would respond by asking to see my manuscript and then sending it off to his agent or publisher.  But I wasn't so deluded that I really thought that could happen.  I hoped he might at least give me a contact or a method I could use to be discovered. I mean, fellow West Virginians, pay it forward, and all that, right?

After a long enough time that I finally decided he wasn't going to, he responded.  I got an email notifying me that this person had replied to one of my posts.  I was so excited!  A best selling author whose stories had been adapted into a wildly popular television series was responding to me.  Me!

"Follow your dreams."  

That was the entirety of the response.  I read it several times, hoping to glean some hidden meaning, but it's hard to pack much into just three short words.  I felt a little like Ralphie Parker when he finally got his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin and gleefully decoded his first message from Annie herself, only to find it was merely a commercial for the show's sponsor.  My response was very much like Ralphie's. People familiar with A Christmas Story will understand why I don't quote it here, but I actually did think it.

It was basically an auto-response.  Something I now imagine he had sent to dozens, if not hundreds, of others asking for similar favors. I guess he can be forgiven for it.  How many times can you personally respond to people who want your help? But then I thought of the fact that the celebrities that people truly love and respect are the ones who take the time to actually stop and talk to people when they're signing autographs, not just dash their name on a sheet of paper as they hurry on with their own lives.  When asked about it, they talk about the fact that those folks outside the velvet ropes are the reason they're famous and it doesn't require that much effort to take a few extra minutes to actually interact and make those folks feel special.

I have to admit I'm not as enamored as I once was with this author or his works anymore. He has published two new books since this incident and I haven't bought either one. And this has definitely taught me a lesson. When I'm in his position someday, I plan to remember how he treated me and never do the same to another new author seeking help.  Sure, I might sell a couple extra books to someone grateful for my attention, but that's just gravy as far as I'm concerned. It's that I've done the right thing that will be reward enough for me. After all, the golden rule is, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," not, "Do unto others as much as you have time for; after all you're really busy and famous and who has time for the little people anyway?"

No, instead of "Follow your dreams," I'll leave them with the immortal words of the great philosopher Jean Shepherd:  

"Be sure to drink your Ovaltine"

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas Everyone

To anyone who reads this that doesn't celebrate Christmas, happy whatever you do celebrate.  Happy Christmahannakwanzmadon.  I don't take offense if you tell me happy holidays or even happy Festivus (I'm always up for a good grievance airing or even some feats of strength).  I hope you won't take offense that I celebrate Christmas.  Specifically, I celebrate the birth of the Christ child.  I know that historically he was pretty much certainly not born on December 25, or any time in December for that matter.  I still celebrate it then, just like Christians have for hundreds of years.  The Protestant church doesn't believe Christ arose every Sunday either, but we celebrate a mini-Easter every single week.  That's why we have church on Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath, which falls on what we now call Saturday.  In case you wanted to know.  Anyway...

Someone I follow on Twitter was, oddly enough, complaining about how people complain about little things too much.  I used to feel the same way.  Don't get me wrong--there are a lot of whiners out there who have first world problems, like their wallet's too small for their fifties and their ruby slippers rub their pinky toes. But the last year has taught me that I need to be careful about judging someone's complaining, for just because it doesn't seem big to me doesn't mean it's not genuinely, life-changing, what-am-I-going-to-do-now, things-will-never-be-the-same-again big to someone else.  Yes, big picture, it might be a minor issue, but it's sometimes hard to see the big picture when you're mired in your little dark corner of it.

And it could be that the grievance we're airing on Facebook might be the only one everyone sees because it's the only one we have the courage to share with the world.  I may be complaining about traffic because I can't tell everyone what's really going on in my life.  It's too hard. I can barely talk about it with my family and a few close friends, so I'm certainly not going to air it on Facebook.  So I hope you'll excuse me when I have a little harder time than usual handling how long it took to get to the mall.

I'm not saying these things to try to get people to feel sorry for me.  I know God loves me and a whole lot of people also love me and things will work out over time.  What I'm saying is let's try to have a little grace for each other.  And what better time to be reminded than the time of year we Christians celebrate Advent, when the God of the universe became like us, in order to share the ultimate Grace.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Free Nativity Clipart

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Does It Count As Writing If It's Not On My Novel?

Life gets a little hectic sometimes.  I'm sure we can all say that.  But something that has really cleared up some writing time for me is, and I know this isn't news to anyone, not watching so much TV.  I know intellectually that this is true, but the lure of coming home from a job where I'm paid to think all day, putting on my pajamas, and vegetating in front of the telly is so attractive sometimes that I just give in.  The irony is that, when I do this, I both get less accomplished and also get less sleep.  I can't go to bed until this show ends.  Oops, got interested in the next one.  Well, if I get to bed by 10pm, that's still okay.  Darn, I really like the show coming on next.  Eh, I can take a nap when I get home from work.  How do I nap best?  In front of the tube.  And the cycle continues.  

What's the answer?  Pretty simple, really.  I don't turn on the stupid thing when I get home.  I fool myself.  I know that by saying it out loud I should be able to catch me at it, but I just keep slipping it past me.  I say to myself that if I get the work done that I have set aside for the evening, then I can go watch for a bit.  It's like the old do-your-homework-before-you-may-watch-TV trick that parents have been using for decades, except I'm doing it to myself and I'm happy to report that I fall for it every time.  And the best part is that I almost never end up going down to the basement at all because I invariably find something better to do when my work is done, like a good book or even just going to bed early.  So, aside from keeping the dishwasher emptied and the cat litter cleaner and the laundry kept up and all the other domestic chores that I never seemed to have time for before, I'm not continually behind on grading, and, best of all, I actually am finding time to write.

That brings up the question referenced in the title.  Because I do have to grade quite a few papers, I only have an hour or so to write on most days--if I'm lucky--and, frankly, I'm not always feeling the novel.  I have nothing compelling to say about Harry and Dee tonight, but I might have a poem in me, and I really wanted to get this blog off my mind before it burned a hole in the back of my head and ruined my best sweater.  So, my fellow writers, is writing writing?  I know of a lot of authors who say that they have a goal of so many words or pages a day or per week.  Does that only mean on their primary project at the time and anything else is gravy?  Or is writing a well-crafted blog post or a heartfelt poem about my salad days just as noble and worthy of being counted as my writing for the day?  

I know there aren't any rules on this except those we impose on ourselves.  I'm just curious how some other folks feel and what you do.  I love to write.  I just don't always love to write the novel I'm currently working on.  Many nights I do, but sometimes, like tonight, I want to do something else.  And I'm okay with that.      

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tribute To a Man Who Died Too Young

Ralph Board was only 58 years old when he died suddenly.  All of his friends, former students, and colleagues share in a stunned, wide-eyed horror at how he could just be here one day and gone the next. His loss reminds us all of the importance of valuing every second, for not one more is guaranteed. And it also cautions so many of us who have been less than diligent about keeping in touch with loved ones just how vital it is that we not be so derelict because we never know when the last thing we say to someone will indeed be the last thing we say to him or her.  

I worked for and with Ralph for his entire tenure at PHS. In fact, I was on the committee that hired him. Frankly, there were some who didn't like him or appreciate his leadership style.  Even more frankly, I was sometimes among the people who questioned his decisions. But that is hardly an indictment of the man. No principal, or leader of any kind, will please all of the people any of the time. Sometimes he made decisions with which I didn't agree. But those were policies, not matters of morals or ethics, something about which he and I definitely agreed.

I learned early on in my time with him that he was on my side. I had been accused of something I didn't do by a student with an axe to grind. He could have thrown me under the bus, but he believed me. I was fortunate in that the student's story was a weak one and involved another student who was as puzzled by the accusation as I was, but the point is that Ralph advocated for me to the board office and the situation, one that could have turned ugly had it gone further, was dealt with quietly and without any damage to my reputation. Sadly, I'm not sure I ever told him how much I appreciated that.

Another thing that no one ever questioned was that Ralph Board was a Big Red through and through. To have been hired as the principal of his alma mater was, he regularly made clear, one of the proudest moments of his life. Every student who went through the doors of our school knew what Ralph's favorite saying was.   That slogan was more than just a group of words to him. To him, PHS was a close-knit community made up of everyone who had ever attended or worked there, and the members of that community should take care of each other. He lived those beliefs daily.

I didn't realize how much Ralph's death had affected me until I tried to talk about it this morning with my first period class and struggled to choke back tears. Though I rarely saw him since he changed jobs, when we did run into each other, his greeting was always genuine and warm; it saddens me to think I'll never shake his hand again, or hear him say those immortal words:


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Poem Inspired By Memories of Autumns Past

I've had this poem simmering in my brain for the entire Thanksgiving break.  I can't put a year on the event I recount, but I can guess it was between 1975 and 1979.  I can say for sure it was a Monday. Deer hunters will know why.

This is dedicated to my family, especially to those who've passed away: Uncle Mike, Uncle Pete, and cousin Bruce--Stick Stephens himself.  Oh, how I miss them and can't wait to see them again.

Deer Hunting on Uncle Mike’s Farm

Lounging comfortably on the cool earth,
My back resting against the perfectly curved trunk of a grand White Pine,
A pump 12-gauge shotgun sitting across my legs,
My seat a thick carpet of soft, fragrant needles.
The rich, fresh scent overwhelms my nose,
A sigh escapes, a smile plays across my face.
The sky, dark and foreboding this morning,
Has cleared to a brilliant, blinding blue,
Though my view is all but blocked by branches.

(replete with coffee, sandwiches, homemade cookies, and laughter)
is over.
Time to sit until dark, quiet, unmoving,
Hoping for but dreading what I hope will and won’t happen.
In the distance to my left I hear the occasional lowing of contented cows.
Straight ahead, high on a hill across the valley,
Barely visible through the newly leafless trees,
Is my great uncle Mike piling up firewood
In preparation for the coming winter.
The rhythmic clicking of log against log is my lullaby;
I drowse in and out of sleep as the dappled sunlight warms my face and soul.
In the lovely woods all around me are my family
—dad, uncle, brother, cousins—
Alert for movement.
Hoping to slay the biggest buck.

The sun drops near the tree line.
Shadows lengthen.
A squirrel barks overhead.
The air, bereft of light, chills.
I fish my toboggan, 
Blaze orange, crocheted by the precious hands of my mom,
From my coat pocket and pull it down over my ears.
The damp, cold ground filters through the needles,
My bum has grown numb.

Almost time to call it a day.
Peanut butter and jelly on white bread,
Dunked into steaming bowls of spicy venison chili,
Wait at home, warm and welcoming.
I think but would never say aloud,
Please God, don’t let a deer come by. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What the Hey is a Gwawdodyn?

I discovered a poetic form with which I was completely unfamiliar while reading my most recent edition of Writer's Digest.  It's called a gwawdodyn, which is a Welsh poem made up of as many quatrains as you want with an interesting meter and rhyme scheme.  The first, second, and fourth lines rhyme and contain nine syllables while the third line contains an internal rhyme and is ten syllables long.  In another version, the rhyme in the third line is not at the end of the line and rhymes with the end sounds in the other three lines.  I liked the form, so I thought I'd give it a try.  I think I cheated a little on mine.  The sample given in the magazine had the internal rhyme on the fifth and tenth syllables, whereas I just put it wherever I could get it to fit.  I also carried thoughts from one stanza to the next.  But it's a poem.  What fun is it if you don't break a rule now and then?

Here it goes:

Gwawdodyn About Poetry
Inspired by Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry”
by Joe Stephens

“I’m bad at poetry,” they all say.
"Studying poems makes a bad day.
Must you make student life so full of strife,
By torturing us with rhymes this way?"

“But poems,” I say, “are like language
Concentrate.  And besides what damage
Can I do to your psyche? It’s likely
You’ll thank me someday when you manage

To read a poem and see the light.
The words will leap up and take such flight
In your mind’s eye if you will simply try
To let them soar—don’t hold them too tight.”

Once in while I see a wee glimmer,
But mostly their eyes remain dimmer.
I hope that someday they all find their way
To finding joy in each word’s shimmer.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Obligatory Thanksgiving Post

To paraphrase the great philosopher Frank Burns, you can't swing a dead cat on the blogosphere without hitting a "What-I'm-Thankful-For" blog entry this time of year.  Since it might be required by law, I feel like I ought to write one myself.  The problem I've had lately, though, is an attitude of ingratitude.

People who really know me--I mean really know me, and I can count those people on one hand--know that I'm going through the darkest time of my life right now. For reasons I don't share with anyone but family and extremely close friends, my personal life is in complete upheaval.  Most of the time I'm able to put on a funny face and carry on like life is normal.  But it isn't.  I am relatively certain it will never be normal again in the way it has been since I was in college.  It may become a new normal, even a good normal, someday, but it I feel pretty strongly that the old normal is over.  And, on many levels, that breaks my heart.  

And that brokenness is manifesting itself in one very specific way.  I am normally the biggest of Christmas nuts.  I start playing Christmas music secretly in October and publicly the first week of November. And I have listened to some, but I find myself more and more opting for non-holiday music.  Or even silence. But I can't take the silence for too long because it starts my brain churning and makes my stomach hurt. The thought of Christmas just makes me feel a little ill. I want to just skip over it. I don't mind the time off of school, but even that has its drawbacks. Spare time leads to too much time to think.  To think about how my life isn't what it should be and I'm not the person I should be and how I'm disturbed by the thought that I'm coming to peace with those concepts. I guess I'm saying I suck and am learning to be okay with that. 

feature photoAnd yet, I am reminded, pretty much daily, through my devotions and my family and my friends from church and by God, that I have more to be thankful for than I could fit in a book or even a library, let alone a single blog entry. So I'll just talk about a few that come to mind right now.  Let me say that, though it won't be a category unto itself, my relationship with Christ is shot through all of them.  Without my faith, I have no idea where I would be now.

First is my family. When I say family, I mean biologically and those who choose to be. I can't stop thanking God that my parents, both nearly 80, are in great health. I can't adequately express how much that means to me.  I also have siblings I love so much, and I'm happy to say that they love me back. Finally, there are a couple people, and they know who they are, who are family because they've chosen to love me and be there for me. I'm truly thankful for these people who have been such a support in my time of need.

I am also thankful for my health. I'm trying to convince myself to stop taking this for granted and be more proactive about keeping myself healthy. I know I'm at that age when I can go one of two ways--toward staying young and vital or toward old age and sickness. I want the first one and, to a great extent, I'm in charge of which path I take. I think the height of thankfulness would be not to waste that for which I am grateful.

Finally, I am thankful for being one of those oddballs who has a job he absolutely loves.  Two jobs, actually, though I've only ever gotten paid for one of them. As a teacher, I'm so blessed to spend my working hours with people who make me so happy. And I get the privilege of being able to make a positive impact on their lives. May I never take that for granted. Beyond that, I've rediscovered a passion for writing that lay dormant for decades. Even if I never get published (Though it wouldn't be terrible if that headlines my thankful list next year at this time!), writing has helped me deal with life by temporarily escaping it while spending time in a world of my making, a world that makes a lot more sense than the real one does. 

I could go on for a few hundred more pages, but I fear this has gone on too long already. Thanks to those of you who've made it all the way to the end. I really do appreciate it. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I Got a New Office

As I write this, I realize the title is kind of a lie.  It's not like I've relocated or anything like that; it's just that I never had a place in my house that I used as my office, my writing nook, my lair.  Lair.  I like that.  Makes it sound like I'm a superhero.

Be that as it may, I used to write wherever the mood struck me.  Sometimes it was the living room, but it felt like public space, not like a place to hunker down and write. Others, it was the basement, though my 73-inch television often talked me into watching it instead.  It's like having a movie theater in your house--how do you not watch it when it's right there?  Once in a while, I would try the dining room table, but the chairs were designed by the Marquis de Sade and made my cheeks go to sleep in about twelve seconds.

Much of the time where I ended up writing was nowhere in the house at all.  One of my favorite spots has always been the little back corner at Panera Bread.  But, though I've never tried it, I have to think they would prefer that people at least buy a drink before coming in and hogging their Wi-Fi.  Even if they didn't say anything, I don't think I could do it without feeling too guilty to work.  And being an as-yet unpaid writer, I can't really afford to pay for the privilege yet.  Sadly, I often don't stick to coffee there either.  Have you ever tried not to eat there?  One does not simply walk into Panera without gaining a pound or two.

Another favorite spot, where I didn't feel guilty about using free wireless without buying anything was the Wood County Library.  Problem with that place, though, is not only do they not sell good coffee (or any coffee for that matter), but they don't even let me bring in a bottle of water.  I'm a bit weird about drinking from a public fountain.  I'll do it, but I won't like it.  I'm friends with the director; maybe I could talk him into installing a coffee shop. Or maybe I could just check books out of the library like a normal person.

I've had a room in my house that's been called the study or, alternately, the office since my wife and I moved in.  It has a whole wall of shelves with cabinets on the bottom.  Truthfully, the room is what sold me on the house.  I always felt like it would be a perfect place to work.  We even kept our desktop computer in there on a pretty substantial computer desk back before desktop computers gave way to laptops and tablets.  Eventually, it seemed silly to have that big desk that took up so much space in what was really a small room, made smaller by one whole wall being bookshelves.  So I sold the desk for a song and the room basically became storage.

But now I feel like I've turned a corner.  I cleaned out the clutter and many of the books that were just taking up space, with no chance I would ever even look at them.   Now I have a chair and ottoman with a reading lamp where I read and do my devotions every morning.  And in the opposite corner, I converted one end of the bookshelves into a little desk by taking out one of the shelves and adding a bracket.  Unlike the hulking computer desk that used to take up half of the room, this place feels like it was always here.  It fits.  It's part of the space instead of taking up space.  It's the exact right size and exact right location.  It's Goldilocks.  I find myself coming here in the evenings instead of crashing on the couch in front of the idiot box.  I grade papers here.  And I'm writing my first blog entry here. I've read so much about writers making a place to write.  I thought it was hooey.  It's not hooey.  Because I have an often time-intensive job, I haven't had much chance to write lately, but I feel like now, I'll make an effort to work it in since I have this place.  This room is my retreat. My writing nook.  My lair.

Friday, October 4, 2013


I thought it had only been a week or two since my last entry.  Imagine my surprise when I opened the site to find it has been in excess of a month. This is what happens in the life of a school teacher/writer.  In the summer, I'm a writer/school teacher, but come late August, those two occupations change seats, at least for a while until I get my sea legs under me, so to speak.

I've been so busy with school that it took me several weeks to work through a book I would polish off in a matter of a few days during the summer break.  Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot was worth the wait.

I actually received the book as a door prize at a teacher conference over the summer.  There were several titles from which to choose, but I was drawn to this for two reasons. First, I'd heard a rave review from a colleague of Middlesex, Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize winning earlier work. Second, according to the blurb on the back, it hearkened back to the thoughtful yet romantic plots of Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Upon reading, I found that assessment to be bordering on true.  I heard echoes of Austen, but faint ones. She's certainly invoked regularly enough, in that the protagonist of the book, Madeleine Hanna, is writing her senior thesis on the marriage plot as popularized by female novelists like Austen and George Eliot.

As in many of those novels of old, the plot circles around a love triangle between Madeleine and two of her schoolmates, Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus.  Both men are deep thinkers, though Leonard seems to have the greater appeal to women in that he's seen as dark and brooding.  Turns out he's struggling with powerful mental illness.  Mitchell, on the other hand, is more socially awkward, though equally brilliant.

Not surprisingly, she chooses the ruminative Leonard over the somewhat socially inept Mitchell.  Her choice, as seems obvious early on, is nothing short of disastrous.  While I had great sympathy for Leonard and his losing battle with a disease that was ravaging his mind, I never got to a point where I really liked him on any level.  But I may be bringing too much baggage to the story that makes it harder for me to be completely sympathetic to his plight.

It feels like Eugenides wants us to root for Mitchell and Madeleine.  Even their names are cutely alliterative. When the inevitable happens, we're expecting Maddie to turn to the much more well balanced if somewhat less romantic Mitchell, which she does, though, in keeping with 21st century sensibilities, it's not that simple. The ending might well be what Austen would have written if she were working today instead of in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

One word of warning.  Have your phone or a computer on hand to look stuff up.  The vocabulary is at times challenging, as are the seemingly endless references to philosophies, philosophers, and esoteric social movements.  Especially in the sections of the book that concentrate on Mitchell, a religion major with an extremely philosophical bent, who spends a lot of time contemplating the meaning of life, the world, and the relationship between humanity and the divine.   I'm pretty well read on a relatively broad array of subjects, but there were times I felt a little ignorant. I did learn some things, though.    

I recommend this book.  Set in the 1980s, a time in which I did a lot of growing up, it rang true to that time period.  The characters felt real, genuinely struggling to cope with a turbulent time in their lives as well as a time of great social change.  One thing it did have that Austen never did was a small amount of graphic sexual activity, though it was quite a small amount, along with some strong language.  It didn't keep me from enjoying the book, but it's nice to know going in for those of a more delicate nature than my own.

Enjoy, and if you do read it, get in touch so we can talk about it!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Encouraging Words to a Drowning Man

I have lots of friends, both social media friends and meat world friends, who know I'm a writer who is trying to become published.  I've put out there that I'm looking for a break and hope someone I know knows someone who would be willing to give me a read and consider taking me on as a client.  Or that they know someone who knows someone.

But that's not what I'm getting.  Every single person who's offered help has told me that they have a friend who is published and they asked their friend what I should do, in response to which every published friend has said, "Get an agent."  I don't want people to think I don't appreciate their interest because interest is better than no interest.  But telling me to get an agent is somewhat akin to telling a drowning person to keep his head above water.  I know I need an agent.  Believe me, I know.  I have accounts on a number of agent-finding sites and subscribe to writers' journals that have regular features on finding an agent.  I'm even getting ready to buy the new 2014 guide to literary agents from one of those magazines.  I've queried dozens of agents.  I can't tell you how many dozen, but over the last month of the summer, I sent out 5-10 queries a day for several days straight.  To be fair, I haven't heard back yet from several, but all that I have heard from have passed.

So, like the drowning person, I don't just need encouragement.  I have plenty of that, for which I am eternally grateful.  But what I need at the moment is actual assistance.  I need a connection, an in, a little good old fashioned nepotism.  I'm not above getting discovered by an agent through the recommendation of a friend or a brother or a sister or an aunt or a fill in the relationship of your choice.  If you have the ear of an agent, directly or indirectly, I'm asking you to fill that ear with my name.  If you want to read the book first so you can honestly tell them it's good (I hope you'll think it's good), please just let me know.

So if you don't have access to an agent, please know I'm grateful for your thoughts. Feel free to keep encouraging me.  And keep giving me ideas. Even if they're the same ideas I've already received before.  I love hearing from you.  I honestly do. It means more than you can know that you care enough to take the time and interest.  But if anybody out there knows a published author who's willing to read my book and recommend it to their agent and/or publisher, please get in touch.  That would also mean a lot.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"If you ain't where you are, you're no place."

These profound words, uttered by Colonel Sherman Potter of one of the greatest TV shows ever made, M*A*S*H, have always rung true to me and they hit home more than usual this morning when I read a snarky comment from someone on Facebook.  I don't know this person and wouldn't share the name even if I did, but she was commenting on the fact that a mutual friend, someone I do know, had moved to a big city from our hometown of Parkersburg, WV.  Her response was essentially that it was great that she had gotten away and she should never come back.  Maybe I'm becoming even more of a curmudgeon than I think I am, but that person's words really rubbed me the wrong way.

I was born in Parkersburg very nearly 50 years ago and, aside from short periods when I went away for schooling, I've lived here ever since.  Sure, there are things about it that I might change if I had the chance, but not many and I have a feeling I would regret it afterward if I were given the power to make those alterations, because every action has consequences, many unforeseeable.  Sure, it would be nice to have a bigger venue for sports and concerts here so we could get some famous names in and maybe a minor league baseball team.  But what do we get along with that?  More traffic, more crime, more noise.  In other words, more of the stuff that I live in Parkersburg to avoid.

I think of my beloved hometown as being kind of like Goldilocks.  Not too big, not too small, but just right. There's plenty to do, with some sort of events going on nearly every weekend.  I'm a runner and there are enough races to keep me broke paying for registrations on a regular basis.  There are concerts every single week during the summer in any of several scenic parks in and around Parkersburg.  In the fall, there are football games every weekend and in the spring you can watch track, softball, baseball, and tennis.  No, they aren't professionals, but they're something better--people who play their sport for the love of it.

And we're Goldilocksian in another way.  We're an hour's drive from Charleston and about two hours from Morgantown, Pittsburgh, Huntington, and Columbus, all places with those big-city amenities so many people moan that we lack.  Major college sports and even professional sports, big-name musicians, Broadway-quality theater, and so much more are just two hours away.  And when the show's over, I can come home to my quaint, quiet, friendly hometown.

I love this place so much that I made it the setting of my books.  My heroes could live anywhere, but like me, they chose to come back here after their education and try to make Parkersburg a better place rather than do the two things that too many people do: leave, taking their skills and energy away from here or stay and complain about how much they hate it.  If you really do hate where you are, by all means, go somewhere else.  It will make you happier and it will certainly bring joy to those who don't have to listen to you rant about this place we love.  Hearkening back to the words of the counter-counter-culture of the 60's and 70's, I end with these words:

Parkersburg--love it or leave it.  
A lovely sunset from Point Park

A view of the Belpre Bridge from Fort Boreman Park 
Blennerhassett Island as seen from Fort Boreman Park

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Some Things That Are True

I am, like nearly all Americans (I assume it's still true), a mutt.  I'm party British.  Everybody named Stephens or Stevens can trace at least part of his or her lineage back to the same village in England, if what I'm told is true. I like to think it is. I'm also aware of being part German. I might be a fraction of some other things, but I think I'm mostly Irish. From the Holleran clan.  Hope I'm spelling that right. Actually, it's the O'Holleran clan, though they apparently dropped the O when they came to America. In my mind it's full of romance--my ancestors came here to flee the great potato famine, searching for a better life. I have no idea whether that's what actually happened, though I could probably find out. I think I won't try. Better a romantic fantasy than a boring reality.

I said I think I am mostly Irish, but what I should have said is that I FEEL mostly Irish.  There's nothing really intellectual about it.  I don't know that my ancestry is more Irish than anything else.  I just feel Irish.  I have been drawn to all things Irish since before I really knew what all things Irish were.  Even as a child, I was fascinated by the sad lilting strains of Celtic music.  The first time I heard Enya, I thought that she was speaking my language, even though she was singing in a tongue I didn't know.  Same with The Chieftains. The mixture of a loud, boisterous exterior and a brooding melancholy interior is, well, me. The pipe and it's guttural, crying voice speaks to me like no other instrument.  A close second would be the cello, for much the same reason, though the two couldn't sound much different.  It's deep.  It's dark.  It's pensive.

I think that's part of why I love West Virginia so much.  The foggy, dark mountains look like so many of the pictures I've seen of Ireland. If I can't live on the Emerald Isle, give me West Virginia. I talk of moving to the beach when I retire, but I don't believe I could ever fully leave my beloved home state behind--unless it meant moving to Ireland.  But even then, I would have to come back from time to time.

Being Irish isn't all good, to be sure.  My Irish temper is quite pronounced.  I like to say I've learned to control it and become more contemplative over the years, but I fear I'd be lying if I did. Like I sometimes say to my students, some things are just baked right in. I guess my friends and family would have to say whether I'm better than I used to be.  I do know I'm quite mercurial.  I'm quick to anger, but also quick to forget. I can be in the throes of misery one minute and in the throes of laughter the next. It's just me.

Not sure exactly what the point of this ramble was. Not sure there was one.  Not sure there needs to be one. Just had some things in my head that wanted to come out and here they are. If I didn't let them out, they probably would've given me a headache and then eventually have leaked out, taking some of my brain cells with them, and I need all I can keep.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Last Week of Freedom?

Writing is my secret identity.  By day I'm a mild-mannered English teacher at a large metropolitan school. Actually, it's large suburban school, but that doesn't fit the Superman phrasing, and anyone who knows me at all knows I love anything Superman.  School starts for teachers a week from today and for students a week from Thursday.  That means this is, according to many of my teacher friends, our last week of freedom.  I guess that's true for me in some ways, but not so much in others.

It is the last week I get to sleep as late as I want on weekdays.  The odd thing is, I'm a morning person and don't sleep late much anyway, so that's kind of lost on me.  What I will miss are the leisurely mornings lingering over a third (or fourth) cup of coffee while doing my morning devotions, reading the news online, checking my Facebook and Twitter pages, answering emails, reading a good book, and writing a  good book. At least I hope it's good .  I guess I could still do all that if I want to get up at 5:00am, but even I'm not that much of a morning person. So I guess it's back to slamming coffee while doing my devotions and then getting ready for school, where I'll try to answer urgent emails before first period and continue to slam coffee until lunch time, when I'll give my kidneys a break and start slamming water.  It's a good thing my room's across the hall from the boys' potty.

I guess the main thing I'll miss is being able to have almost unlimited time to read for pleasure and to write. I'll still do both of those things, but I'll have to work around reading what I've assigned my kids to read and also what I've had them write.  That's one of the elements that nearly all English teachers have to contend with, especially AP English teachers.  We have them read and write a lot, which means we read a lot.  But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.

One thing I'm looking forward to is seeing my teacher friends.  I've been in touch with some over Facebook and such, but nothing can replace face-to-face human contact.  Sadly, some dear old friends are no longer with us.  No, they didn't die--they retired.  But many didn't and who knows, maybe the people who replace them will soon be dear old friends.

On the most positive of all notes is that I get to meet a new bunch of students with whom I'll most assuredly fall in love with, adopt as my sons and daughters for nine months, and tearfully bid goodbye to in May.  I know I'll be crushed on that last day, but only because I've had such a good time with them the previous weeks and months.  I'll laugh with them, cry with them, talk with them, eat with them, celebrate with them, mourn with them, and just enjoy being with them.  I'll go their games and plays and concerts and tournaments and recitals and be amazed at how talented and dedicated they are  So it's worth a few tears.  Okay, several tears.  I'm a crybaby.  I own it.

So yeah, it's a loss of some personal time, but it's bigger gain of personal fulfillment.  I'll take that trade anytime.  I'm a teacher.  I love my job.    

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Writer's Voice

I'm a huge Robert B. Parker fan.  If I haven't read all of his books, I've read the vast majority, some of them multiple times.  I've even read the non-mainstream ones without his three well known main characters, though Spenser is where I met Parker and is my first love among his characters.  I was saddened when he died, not just for the loss of him, but also for the loss of Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall, who had become like dear old friends to me.

So it was with mixed emotions that I heard that Parker's widow Joan had tapped two people to carry on the Spenser and Stone series.  I was excited to have more exploits of my two favorite good guys to read, but how could someone else possibly capture the voice of one of crime drama's greatest writers?

The answer is that they couldn't.  No disrespect to Ace Atkins and Michael Brandman, but the writing is simply a pale shadow of the quick narration and sharp, witty dialogue that was Parker's trademark.  The characters are flat and unappealing in some cases (How in the world do you make Hawk feel smaller than life?), while in other cases they are just not who they used to be.  Jesse Stone is completely unlikeable in Brandman's iteration.  And Susan Silverman is, to quote a friend and fellow Parkerite, just plain snarky.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.  It would be like going to a Yo-Yo Ma concert and hearing the following announcement:  "Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to announce that Yo-Yo Ma is not feeling well tonight.  However, his parts will be played by this other really good cellist.  He's just as good, really." Or like going to a New England Patriots game only to find that Tom Brady's uniform would be out there, but it would be filled by Tim Tebow.  They were going to run all the same plays, so the fans should expect Brady's uniform to be able to play just as well despite being filled by another player.

It's not the cello--it's Yo-Yo Ma.  It's not the uniform--it's Tom Brady.  It's not the names of the characters and locations--it's Robert B. Parker that makes them who they really are.  They just aren't the same without him.

Not to get all teacher-y, but the lesson here is that voice is important and each writer's voice is unique. I'm sure Mr. Atkins and Mr. Brandman are fine writers.  Atkins is a highly decorated author; I know less about Brandman.  But I'm 100% certain they are better writers when they are using their own voices than when they're trying (unsuccessfully) to imitate someone else's.  And the same is true for me.  You may hear echoes of writers like Parker and Craig Johnson in my voice because I love their writing so much and read it voraciously, but I write best when I write as me.  And I hope that's pretty good.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lazy Perfectionist

I have a problem.  I'm a lazy perfectionist.  Not sure if that's an actual thing, but it's the best description for me.  If I can't do something really well, I don't want to do it, but I'm often just too unmotivated to do it well. It's not that I don't have time.  It's that I just find myself vegetating rather than doing it.  I think that I don't really feel like sitting down and knocking out a whole chapter, so I won't bother working at all.

The weird part is that when I do get myself to do a little work, even if I think I don't have the time or energy to get a lot of writing done, I end up getting at least a little done and often do more than I think I will.  But even if I don't get lots done, I've moved forward. A step is better than no steps.

I also have this issue with setting goals and, when it becomes clear that I won't completely reach them, I decide it's easier just to give up rather than seeing how close I can come.  I'm that way with weight loss and with writing.  I was just on vacation and had this grand plan of writing and exercising every single day I was there.  I did a lot better on the exercising.  By the fourth day, I hadn't written a word, so I did what I usually do--I gave up.  I wrote two times and barely did that.  I probably didn't write 500 words.  They weren't bad words, but they weren't what I could have done if I had said to myself that I wasn't going to meet my goal, but I could still get good work done if I would just start from wherever I was.

That's my goal for the coming days.  I want to write every day, but if life gets in the way and I miss a day, my response will not be that I might as well give up.  Instead, I'll start new each day with the goal of writing THAT day.

Here are a few pictures from my family's trip to the Outer Banks:

Sunset over the beach

Ocracoke Ferry!

Hungry seagulls flying in formation

My niece and great nephew on the ferry.  He's a happy guy. :)

The family on the Rodanthe Pier.  It was nice, though they charged us just to go out on it. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

My Writing Process: To Be a Better Writer, You Have to Write More

I know, I know--not exactly a quotable quote.  But it's true nonetheless.  There are lots of tips and tools out there to help us all become better writers.  I get magazines full of them every month and the web has a seemingly never-ending supply of sites aimed at making better writers.  But all those tips in the world really boil down to one overriding idea: if you want to be a better writer, write as much as you can.  Practice, practice, practice.  

Let me back up a little, though.  If all I do as a writer is just pile word upon word and page upon page, I will become a highly prolific bad writer.  So I guess it should say, "To Be a Better Writer, You Have to Write More Reflectively."  If I think about what I've written and ask others to think about it and report their findings, the next time I sit down to write, I'll be better and more efficient.  And the more often I go through that reflective process, the faster I'll become better.  

What prompts this, possibly nonsensical, entry is what's happening as I write my second novel.  The editing process I went through with my first book is most definitely informing the writing of my second book.  I have a strong feeling the first draft of my second book will look a lot more like the final draft than the first draft of my first book did.  The amount of time I spend on description, the way I write dialogue, the general economy of my prose is so much better now as I write the initial draft of Kisses and Lies  than it was when I was drafting Harsh Prey, in which the final version ended up nearly 11,000 shorter than the first.  I'm sure there's going to be a need for editing and revising, but I am also sure they won't be as drastic and that will become more and more true with every book--as long as I reflect on my writing every time I do it.  Practice without reflection is useless.  Reflection without practice is equally useless.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Harsh Prey Excerpt

I just thought that, since I feel like it's ready to hit the public, I would give anyone who may be reading my blog a short excerpt from my debut novel, Harsh Prey.  This is the chapter in which Harry and Dee Shalan, the dual protagonists, reunite after she had gone away to contemplate whether she could deal with the dangers of Harry's life as a private detective.

I hope you enjoy it.  If you have questions or comments, please feel free to leave me a comment.

This is from chapter 7:

After the cleaning and repairing went as far as it could, we got Eddie onto his leash—somewhat akin to leashing a big hairy Super Ball—and took him for a walk around our neighborhood.  The rain had ushered in a cold front, so, while the air was still damp from the storm, the temperature had become much more clement than usual for this time of year.  It also seemed to make everything instantly greener and lusher.  Ours was a generally well-tended neighborhood of historic homes.  Some, like the one where we lived, had not been as well maintained, but many were showplaces, with long front yards festooned with ornate landscaping. The flowers and shrubs were in their full glory after a second storm in two days, which had broken a brief dry spell.  Augmenting the visual beauty was the almost cloyingly perfumed air, thanks to Bea Taylor’s prize-winning rose garden. 
As we walked, Dee took my hand in hers, raised it to her lips and kissed it gently.  Something clicked deep in my soul.  She was home, so I was home too, for the first time in three months. 
“I thought you were dead,” she said.
I kind of let it hang for a bit, mostly because I had no idea how to respond.  Eventually, words—clumsy, useless words—came. “I’m not.”  Beautiful, Shalan.  And you used to be on the speech team. 
She ignored my moronic reply. “I wasn’t sure I could go on if you were gone.  I didn’t even stop to tell Mom and Dad where I was going.  I didn’t pack, I didn’t do anything except get Eddie and his leash and run for the car.  I had to know, I had to be in your presence.  I knew then that my need for you and my connection to you is more vital to my survival than anything else in the world.  And part of being in your life is accepting that you are, more than anyone I know, what you do.”
“A big chunk of what I am is you, Dee.  I am not me without you.”
“I know, but you are also not you without doing what you do.  It’s what attracted me to you in the first place, and it’s what draws me inexorably in now.  I can’t live without you and I can’t live with myself asking you not to be a detective, a hero.  It’s like asking Superman to turn in his cape.  You help the helpless, support the weak.  You do heroic things because you are, with every fiber of your being, a hero.”
“I just try to help,” I replied sheepishly.  I never knew how to respond when she talked like this.  I hated and loved hearing every word she said, not because I loved the thought of being a hero.  What meant so much to me was that the person who made my heart beat thought it about me. 
“It’s that beautiful, self-deprecating manner that I know is not put on, that makes you all the more irresistible.  I’m pretty sure I would simply cease to be if you died, but I’m equally sure that I cease to be, in any way that is meaningful or attractive to me, if I cease to be with you.”
“So what you’re saying is you love me.” I smiled and bumped my hip into hers as I waved at Ike and Corabeth Godsey, who were enjoying the cool air and brilliant sunshine from the shade of their broad front porch.  Ike smiled from his oak swing, which was suspended by chains from the porch ceiling, and raised a glass of lemonade as if to propose a toast to us.  In response, Eddie barked and leapt high into the air.  He pretty much loved everybody, but he especially loved Ike and Corabeth, not in small part because she gave him bites of her homemade bread every time we stopped by on walks. 
“My love for you was never in question, Mr. Studly.” She skipped over a chunk of broken sidewalk.   “The only question was whether the fear of losing you was too much to live with.  Now I know the fear is just part of the price I pay.” She squeezed my hand. “And it’s more than worth the price.”
We stopped.  Eddie stood with his front paws against the trunk of Ralph Parker’s hickory tree staring with utmost concentration at what I assumed to be a squirrel only he could see.  Squirrels were Eddie’s mortal enemies. 
I turned to face Dee and pulled her into my arms.  “I love you, Dee.  More than anyone has ever loved anyone before.”
Our lips met and the whole world went away.  No Eddie, no neighbors mowing lawns, no kids shouting and running—just her and me. At least until a car horn pierced our bubble of passion and simply would not stop. I guess we should’ve picked somewhere other than Old Man Parker’s driveway to declare our eternal love for each other.  We smiled and waved, unembarrassed, and re-commenced strolling down the walk.  As we reached the corner, Otis Campbell’s city-issued Crown Victoria pulled up beside us.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Morning Mr. and Mrs. Shalan

I heard an apocryphal story about Carl Sandburg, who was quite a fan of Abraham Lincoln.  He apparently made it a habit of strolling every morning along the shores of Lake Michigan.  Some friends of his, who knew of his fondness for the late president and also of his daily walk, decided to play a joke on him by hiring a Lincoln impersonator to walk along the lake in the opposite direction.  Sandburg, so caught up in his thoughts upon seeing the faux Lincoln, didn't even bat an eye, but simply greeted him with, "Morning Mr. President," as he passed by.

I have no idea if that story's true, but I can definitely relate.  While I wait again for editors and agents to get back to me about my first novel, I am working on my second one.  As I work I realize that I really like my main characters, Harry and Dee.  I feel like I know them, maybe better than any actual person and I wouldn't be surprised to run into them on the street.

That's one of the joys of writing fiction.  I get to create these characters that become real to me.  Despite the fact that I make them up, they still manage to surprise me.  I'll be writing along and look back at a piece of dialogue and think to myself, gee, I wonder why he/she said that?  Sometimes, rarely, I'll decide he or she said that because I did a bad job and wrote words that didn't fit.  Most of the time, though, it just takes a little thought about the character to figure out where those words came from.  What's cool is that there's so much more to the characters than what the reader will find on the pages, especially of the first book.  I know all about their childhoods, who their friends were, the major and minor traumas of their lives.  The things that make them who they are.  Without that, the characters wouldn't ring true.  I wouldn't be able to know how they would react in a given situation.

I really hope I can get these books published so readers can get to know and love Harry and Dee the way I do and, upon reading the first book, they'll want to know more about them enough to buy the second and the third and the fourth, until they know them as well as I do.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


As of about five minutes ago, my manuscript, some ten or eleven thousand words--roughly thirty pages--shorter than the original, is flying around cyberspace aiming for my editor's inbox.  I feel a sense of relief, mingled with exhaustion like I've been up all night, and just a tiny bit of dread.

The relief is that I have reason to hope that I'm ready to move on to the next step--shopping for an agent.  I thought I was there almost a year ago, but found out rather quickly that I wasn't.  Through the kind words of a rejection email and the seemingly endless help of Mrs. Sandy Tritt, I believe I really am there this time.

The exhaustion really is best compared to that feeling you get when you've been up all night enjoying yourself.  Not bar-hopping-drinking-yourself-into-a-stupor fun.  I can honestly say I've never done that.  But just hanging around with friends, watching TV, listening to music, and talking until the sun comes up fun.  I have that feeling that I'm so tired I may actually just sink right into the mattress if I lie down, yet I'm exhilarated at the same time.  And I got plenty of sleep last night.  Editing is an intense process.  I took this manuscript, which really does feel like an old friend by now, and took not a scalpel but a cleaver to it.  It's like I gave it a verbal bypass it's lost so much weight.  And every word, phrase and paragraph was difficult to let go of.  I normally could only do it an hour or so at a time, but yesterday I decided to really push through.  I worked for four hours yesterday and four and a half today.  I proved to myself the quote I heard recently.  It was from an author who said that writing five hours a day is as hard as ten hours a day of a regular job.  I'm spent, emotionally, mentally, and physically.

The dread is that I think I'm ready to move on to the next step--shopping for an agent.  I know I said that was my hope, but it's also my fear.  Now I feel like this book is as good as I can make it.  What if no agent still wants it?  What if my best is just not good enough?  I guess I'll see how I react if that proves true.  I hope I never have to find out.  At the very least, I can always e-publish it on my own.  But I really don't want to do that.  I want to actually get this puppy published and be able to hold a copy in my hand, autograph it, go on a book tour, do a reading in a bookstore, have fans, receive a royalty check--the whole real published author experience.

Think I'll go take a nap.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I Thrive On Discipline And Routine

It's almost 8:30AM on a warm but overcast summer morning.  I've been up for just a little less than two hours.  I've had a big breakfast (healthy but big), done my devotions and daily Bible reading, checked my email, read the news online, and looked at my daily dose of drama on Facebook.  I'm also on my fourth cup of coffee--yes, I'm addicted and I'm okay with that.  I like my coffee three ways: hot, black, and in copious quantities.  As soon as I finish this blog entry, it's back to editing my book.  I'm excited to say that I am 66 pages from completing what I hope are my final edits, so the plan is to be finished by the end of the week.  Why am I making such progress?  Mainly because of what I just wrote about in this paragraph: discipline and routine.

I'm a teacher and most teachers who don't teach summer school or have some other summer job will tell you that they love getting to stay up late and sleep in all summer, but they bawl and squawl for the first month of school every fall since they struggle to get back into the routine of early to bed, early to rise.  They will also often tell you about all of their ambitious plans that never came to fruition because the summer just seemed to slip away without their notice.  I know this because I spent a lot of summers and early falls saying those exact things.  But this summer, at least so far, that hasn't been true for me.  And it's not by accident.  I've intentionally done some things to assure that I'm productive all summer and am not suffering from lack of sleep this fall.

First, and probably most important, I still set my alarm all week.  Yes, I sleep in a little on weekends, just like the rest of the year and I did make the small concession of getting up a half hour later during the week, but I don't let myself turn the alarm off and go back to sleep.  This means I know I need to get to bed at a decent hour so I can be bright and clear the next day.

Second, I set goals and keep a to-do list, with the idea in mind of achieving, or working toward achieving, at least one of the things on my list every weekday.  My big goals for the summer are getting my book published (or at least signing with an agent), read at least 8 books, and revamp my lesson plans for next year.  Along with that are various chores that need done around my house, like finally weeding that awful flower bed on the front of my lot and fixing up the deck and storage shed.  And finally, I plan for health by figuring out what sort of exercise I'll do and what I'll eat.  So every day in the morning, I look at my list and make a plan.  Today, the biggies are editing, weeding, and lifting weights.

Yes, it's summer, so my routine is not as regimented as it is during the school year.  I watch more movies.  I visit family more.  I go and stare down the river at Fort Boreman park.  I sleep in on weekends and don't often don't have a plan on Saturday.  I even get to go on a vacation!   But the routine is still there, even if it's altered.

Boring?  Maybe, but I don't think so.  Helpful?  Most assuredly. I'm tearing through my book at quite a clip, the house is less cluttered than it's been in months, and I'm on at least my third book.  Edifying?  Definitely!  I may enjoy sloth for a short while at first; however, I always regret it eventually.  I've known that a long time, but it's taken me awhile to do something about it.

So, since I'm being so industrious, look for my book on Amazon soon!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Another Successful Day in the Ville

Another good day of reading.  Got a lot of essays read.  I've greatly enjoyed getting to know my table-mates.  They are all good people and dedicated to doing a great job.  I hope to have a picture of them up soon.

This was another dinner out night, so I walked up and down 4th Street Live trying to decide where to eat.  I looked at menus in windows and finally settled on a place called Smashburger.  I ordered an avocado club burger and Nutter Butter Shake.  It was all amazing!  Healthy--of course--it had avocado on it!

This is 4th Street Live.  It used to be a place called The Galleria way back when I lived in Louisville.  It's like a pedestrian mall and they block off the street for concerts often.  Tons of restaurants.  

My shake came first.  It was so big it came in two cups!

About five minutes after this picture, the burger was replaced by about six napkins.  Delicious, yes.   Neat, no.

During lunchtime, many folks like to get out of the building--it's pretty intense work, so we need some sunshine and downtime.  There's a beautiful plaza across the street with fountains and a grassy area.  At lunch time it's solid people just soaking up the sun.

Our grassy sanctuary!

You can't see the fountains very well, but they're quite pretty.

This is a better view of one of the fountains.  There's a Panera, but we have  that at home, so I am venturing to eat at local places.
When I got back to the hotel this evening, I was greeted by calliope music from the Belle of Louisville, which was getting set to take folks on a dinner cruise.  It was quite festive.  Here's a picture from the atrium of her as she's pulling away from the dock.

The Belle of Louisville
It's hard to believe the reading ends tomorrow and I fly home day after.  It's been a great experience and I really hope they invite me back.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Baseball and Irish Pubs!

I've had a great time so far in Louisville.  Went to a Louisville Bats game last night.  Louisville Slugger Field is a top-notch facility and the Bats can really hit.  They had three dingers, including a grand slam that turned out to be the game winner.  It was also dog night, so I got to pet a bunch of adorable pooches.

Tonight we ate on our own.  I walked up the street to an Irish Pub called Ri Ra. No idea how to say it or what it means, but it was voted best Irish Pub in Louisville.  Don't know how significant that is, but the food was great.

I have posted other pictures, along with some of theses, on my Facebook page.

View from my seats.  I sat next to a lovely lady called Ms. Susie.  She's such a fixture at the ballpark that she actually has her name on her seat. 
Another picture from my seat.  I got in for $10 and it was dollar hot dog night.  Only in a minor league town could you get a ball game ticket and dinner for under $20. 

Homemade chicken pot pie from the Ri Ra Irish Pub.  It was so delicious!  It had a puff pastry topper that was so creamy that it was like it had cheese under it.  The dark bread was great dipped in it.

This is what's left of my appetizer.  Homemade potato cakes.  They  roll them in Panko bread crumbs before cooking so they had the best crust.  They were topped with a sour cream dressing of some kind and drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar.  They were too good not to eat before I got my phone out for a picture.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

I'm Surrounded By Smart People!

Arrived today in Louisville for the AP Literature and Composition reading.  Despite the horror stories I'd heard, my flights were uneventful.  And the leg from Cleveland to Louisville was filled with readers, so that added to the fun.  The hotel is quite nice, although, as with all tall buildings and large groups, the elevators take FOREVER.  I timed it and it took me 6 minutes to get from my room on the 21st floor to the 1st floor at dinner time.  I was considering taking my laptop downstairs to the AP lounge just to be around people, but I just couldn't face that wait again.

As I've talked to the other readers, I've gotten a little intimidated at how many smart people are here.  I mean I knew going in that the place would be littered with smarties, considering there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of AP teachers and college professors here.  But being here and listening to them talk makes it even more real.  I like to think I'm smart too, but, based on  the number of people who are hugging each other and talking like old friends, these are also mostly smart people with experience.

All I can do is my best.  I'm sure I'll be fine.  And as someone told me, it'll probably be the hardest professional development I'll ever love.

The lobby of the Galt House

The view from my window :)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Things Are Rarely As Bad As I Think They'll Be

I finally sat down to tackle the chapter of my manuscript that I was scared to work on.  As I said in a previous entry, my editor was asking me to make some pretty extensive changes and I was afraid I didn't want to make them and also that I couldn't make them without making a mess of the whole chapter.  I felt like it was going too far from my original image of my main character.

As I can't seem to remember from incident to incident, it's almost never as bad as my worry-prone mind makes it out to to be.  First of all, she told me I needed to expand the action in one scene.  That wasn't hard at all.  It was the opposite of what I normally get asked to do, which is cut, cut, cut.  But what I need to cut is the stuff in between the action scenes.  I'm being asked, to quote the great philosopher, Elvis Presley, "[a] little less conversation, a little more action please..."  So I took a paragraph of barely implied action and turned it into 2+ pages of explicit action.

The other issue was the harder one.  I like the action, but I like to bloviate too.  I'm learning--very slowly--that I can't keep both.  The reader apparently wants the narration to be economical and straight to the point but the action should be as developed and as detailed as possible.  They want to feel like they're in the room or the car or wherever the shootout or chase takes place.

So I just did it.  I didn't want to, but I started cutting and suddenly it was almost the end of the school day (I just supervise credit recovery and in-school suspension students now that my seniors are gone) and I was a full seven chapters past the scary part.  What's more, I began keeping track and cut more than 500 words in those chapters, and made the story flow at a much better pace than it had before.

So I'm almost halfway there; I think I'll be ready to shop this puppy before the end of the month, so maybe I'll have an agent by the end of the summer.  I can't properly explain how much I want that.  I can't remember anything I've wanted this badly since I became a grown-up.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Editing Gets Scary

Yesterday was kind of crazy, what with last second preparations for graduation and a variety of students in my room for in-school suspension (the bane of every senior teacher's existence) and credit recovery, so I didn't get any editing done, but I did the day before.  I stopped at a pivotal chapter where my editor wants me to make some rather substantive changes and I'm not sure I'm ready to make them yet.

I've tried to set aside my ego up to now, allowing her to lead me in terms of what is best for making my book saleable, despite some misgivings--about the process, not about my editor, who is a lovely, brilliant woman.  But she has asked me to take out some things that I feel are pivotal to knowing who my main characters are.  The pace things and the spots where I'm simply not following the rules of formatting are a non-issue.  I can definitely see where my prose is tighter and smoother than it was.  But there's one early scene where Harry makes his breakfast.  Harry is a foodie.  The process of cooking and enjoying food are significant to knowing who he is.  But she says that this drags the pace down and that readers want action.  I'll give her that, to a point, but Harry's a gourmand because I think of myself as one and one of the things I love about my hero, Robert B. Parker's, Spenser books is how much love he gives to the food.  It's integral.  But I cut that scene to the bone, just as she suggested.  Maybe I have to earn the right to go into such detail.  Like J. K. Rowling earned the right to write long, dizzyingly detailed books by writing compact, efficient ones that got her readers hooked enough not just to stand for, but even clamor for more and more in each book.  Again, I make no comparisons between Ms. Rowling and myself in terms of skill or potential success.  Just illustrating a concept.

But that leads to the spot in the book where I'm a little scared to go on.  Part of her comments are perfectly sensible--well, all of them are.  But she says we spend too much time in Harry's head.  That kind of hits home for me.  That's me as a writer.  Harry is a thoughtful guy.  He's even a bit of a worrier.  He overthinks things and his mind wanders around an issue for a while before he figures things out.  If spending too much time in his head is a fatal flaw, I fear I am just fatally flawed as a writer.  At what point do I say this is who I am and I will either get my book sold writing this way or I won't, but I'm not changing the essence of who I am as a writer just to sell a book.  Or is there a point where I do that?

I guess I need to stop and think about what I want to do with my writing.  Do I want to write for myself and hold to a high-minded (which probably means unreasonable) standard and not budge even if it means I'm a commercial failure?  Is it possible to write for myself but find a way to still succeed in selling to the public?  Do I need to "give in to the man" to start in order to gain the right to be myself with subsequent works?  The short answer is I don't know.  But I think that what I'm going to do is, for the most part, trust my editor and make the changes she suggests.  I may decide once in awhile that something is just too important to knowing Harry and/or Dee and the readers are just going to have wait a little longer to get to the next shootout and believe that they will appreciate them a bit more when they know my heroes a little more fully.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Really Am Still Alive

For the handful of folks who actually follow this blog, it may have seemed that I had fallen into a sinkhole or stepped in front of a bus, considering how long it's been since I've made an entry.  But it's nothing so dire.  My absence has been occasioned by two major time-eating events, one of which is actually a number of smaller events.

The first was the end of the school year for my seniors, who make up pretty much all of my students.  That's the one that's several smaller events combined.  My students had three major projects due over the last two weeks, which meant I was busy helping with last-minute issues, grading papers, answering literally hundreds of emails, watching and scoring presentations, recording grades, fixing grades--the list goes on. In my role as senior class advisor, it's mostly been preparation for Color Day, which, despite the fact that we felt like we were temporarily relocated to the Arctic Circle, went very well.  The cleanup is finished and all the bills are paid; all that's left for me is working with the commencement speakers and attending functions, which requires no preparation on my part.

The second, probably more stressful, time-eater was my National Board renewal.  As hard as it is for me to believe, it's been ten years since I completed work on my NBCT and nine years since I received certification.  So I had to submit a renewal portfolio this year.  The process was not nearly as daunting as the first time around, but still required a good deal of reflecting, video-recording, writing, and gathering of materials.  Somehow adding to and simultaneously subtracting from the stress was the fact that the whole process was online this time around.  Rather than mailing in a box of items in various envelopes behind various cover sheets, it was all uploaded to a website.  It was less stressful in that the deadline was extended an entire month, something of which I took full advantage.  It was more stressful, however, in that this was a completely new process--this is the first year they are doing the e-portfolio-- and it was so simple that it seemed like I must have missed something.  But all of the items were uploaded, reviewed, re-uploaded ,sometimes three and four times before I was happy with the final product, and I am excited, though trepidatious, that I clicked, "Submit For Approval" early this afternoon.  Pass or fail, it's now over.

So now I have a short window before the merry-go-round starts up again.  I leave for the AP reading on June 8, so for a few days I get to do crazy things like read for pleasure and actually edit my book.  I'll have to re-introduce myself to Harry and Dee.  They'll have forgotten who I am it's been so long.  

And I might even have some time to write on here once in awhile. :)