Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Tribute To All My Teacher Friends

It's the first weekend of the school year. We made it through the first week! I would love to tell you that I got lots of writing done, but that would just be a lie. All my teacher friends know exactly what I'm talking about when it comes to the first week of school. There are a few things that are just the sad realities of life for us.

First, we need lots of sleep. I was out cold by 9:30 every night. And it was a struggle most nights to get to that hour. One night, because my washer died and I'm too cheap to buy one yet, I had to go to my parents' house to do a couple loads of laundry (because I literally had no choice if I wanted to be clothed for work the next day). I was so tired when the last load was folded that I actually toyed with the idea of crashing there so I wouldn't have to go to all the trouble of driving home until morning. And I live less than five minutes from their house! More mature heads prevailed and I went home, but it was a struggle.

Second, we're in pure survival mode. I did nothing that was beyond the basest activities needed to survive. Dishes? I have extras. Paper towels on the dispenser? Nah, they can sit on the counter. Make dinner? A peanut butter sandwich is good enough. The night I realized I had a frozen pizza was such a celebration! I just had to talk myself into not eating it uncooked like a giant bread-and-cheese popsicle. Mad props to those of you with miniature humans for whom you are responsible. I'm amazed I kept my fur children from starving.

Why are we like this? Is it the hours? No, most teachers are as busy during the summer as they are during school, but at other things. It has to do with the emotional drain. If you're not a teacher, you don't have any idea how much of a psychic toll it takes on you to be on all day for your kids. It's just not natural to be as happy and upbeat and fun as I am in my classroom all day. And many of my friends are like me, with kids in their rooms from the time they unlock them until time to go home. I have fifth period plan, which means I'm already hosting two lunches worth of kids in my room when I'm not teaching classes.

And I'm not complaining about that. I love it. I love every minute that I get to spend with these kids that I grow really quickly to love like my own children. And in a few weeks, my mind, my body, and my spirit will adjust to this and I'll be able to do normal household chores again without giving myself a pep talk.

Until then, here's to a spoon and a jar of peanut butter for dinner.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Begin With The Goal In Mind

Our big local festival Homecoming, ends today. The centerpiece of the event (as far as I'm concerned, at least) is the Half Marathon, which was won by the same man, Kenyan Julius Kogo for the fifth consecutive time. I hurt myself training for it this year and didn't get to run in it, but I WILL run next year and I WILL set a PR.

The reason I am talking about this is not that I'm a frustrated runner (though I am). It's that Homecoming is our annual signal that summer is fast coming to an end. School starts tomorrow for students, having already started for teachers on Wednesday. My classroom is ready and I'm looking forward to meeting my new kids. Especially for the next four months, life will be quite hectic. That may seem like it will make it harder for me to write, but the opposite is actually true.

I need routine to get work done. When I have time on my hands, I waste it. On the other hand, when my time is limited, I seem to feel the need to take advantage of what I do have. I don't imagine I'm at all unique in that. Probably a lot of folks feel the same way. I like to say that I could use some time off to write, and who knows, maybe if I had enough time that I could get bored with it, I would start writing again just to have a new routine. But with less than a three week summer this year, all I could think about was how little I wanted to do anything constructive with my days off.

I'm almost 18,000 words into the initial draft of my third Shalan adventure and I have two more final drafts waiting for publication. So for this school year, my writing goals are two: finish this manuscript--all the way up to publication ready--and get my first manuscript published, be that through an agent or on my own. I am stating here that this time next year, I will be a published author who is actually making meaningful money.

Assuming that is true, I'll remind you of my prediction in twelve months. If it's not, don't remind me unless you want a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Monday, August 11, 2014


Here's a brief excerpt from my second Shalan Adventure novel, Kisses and Lies, in which Harry meets a new client.

It was almost too hot to breathe. There was but one window, making for absolutely no cross ventilation, despite having left the office door standing open. Perched high on a file cabinet behind my left shoulder in the corner, an ancient powder coated green metal oscillating fan, left over from the ark, moved the air sluggishly around the room, but the only thing that did was make it feel like the bowels of Hell were being belched forth. Well, that and make it nearly impossible to read the newspaper. This didn’t really matter much, since it was Monday and everyone who’s ever been in Parkersburg for any length of time knows Monday’s News and Sentinel is little more than a flyer, especially in the summer when there are no local sports events over the weekend.         My dog Eddie, a fawn boxer with a white diamond on his chest, white feet, and a head like a cinder block, was sprawled on the couch in the far corner.  He was snoring on his back with all four feet in the air and his head lulling off the edge of the brown microfiber sofa sleeper. Huge black rubber jowly lips hung down creating wings on either side of his snout. My wife Deanna was out of town visiting family, so Eddie was hanging around with me. She would not be happy if she heard that I was subjecting the baby to such harsh conditions, but in my defense, the AC was supposed to have been fixed by now. Besides, he didn’t seem to be suffering nearly as badly as I was, considering how quickly he had fallen asleep.
I anchored one corner of the paper with my sweating water bottle and the other with a replica of a Cass Scenic Railroad Shay Locomotive carved from coal that I used, appropriately enough, as a paper weight. The headline shouted the exciting news that Vienna was getting yet another national chain restaurant. It seemed no matter how many came in, they all managed to do a brisk business. I thought about how this probably meant no one cooked at home anymore, but I didn't think very hard because it just took too much effort. Is it possible for your brain to sweat? The article was continued on page 7a, meaning there was a car dealership ad on the back of the section—one of my biggest pet peeves. The continued articles should be on the back of the section. It’s a rule. Not that it actually affected me this day. I’d learned more than I wanted to from the headline about the latest reason for traffic to be impossible in Vienna.
I thought about going out for lunch, but decided it was probably not a good idea, since it wasn't even 9:30AM yet. I thought about sending out a couple bills, the main reason I had come in that morning, but that would involve getting up to go to the file cabinet and I was pretty sure I was hermetically sealed to the chair with sweat. All that was left to me was skipping to the only part of the paper I could read without moving my lips—the comics. I started, as I always do, at the top of the left column, read all the way down, then made my way up the right column. Being a detective, I am pretty good at detecting things, so I can say without much fear of contradiction that there was no evidence of anything remotely comic anywhere on the page. I longed for the days of Bloom County. There have just never been characters to compare with Opus the Penguin and Bill the Cat. “Gag, ack, barf.”  
          I checked my watch in hopes that I had maybe fallen asleep and it was somehow late enough to go to lunch and still preserve some level of social propriety. Not even 9:45. No dice. I was out of options, so I downed the last half of my water bottle, fired it into the recycle bin by the sink, and started to get up to see if I could catch the building superintendent in his office to ask about the air conditioning AGAIN. But before I could get a ruler out of the desk drawer to break the seal between my tuchus and the seat, she walked in.
Probably in her early twenties, almost ten years younger than I, she was just a shade under six feet tall, not nearly three-quarters of that being legs, which were bare below her gauzy pink slip dress that stopped just above what might have been the best pair of knees I’d seen in my adult life. When she accepted my invitation to sit, she turned nearly profile in her seat and threw her left leg over her right to reveal black patent leather strappy sandals and long, slim, straight toes with soft pink French manicured nails that matched her fingernails and coordinated quite well with the understated pink of her sleeveless dress. The sleeveless thing was working out quite well for us both. She was obviously in good shape without looking like a weightlifter. Almost certainly an athlete—probably volleyball and/or basketball considering her height. I was hoping for volleyball. Volleyball is the greatest women’s sport. It’s a rule.
Her hair, the color of corn silk, was perfectly straight, parted on the right, and hanging down to just above her shoulders. She took off oversized sunglasses and placed them on the desk. I was glad because they made her look a bit like a bug. She looked straight at me with her sky-blue eyes flecked with gold. Her eyelashes were surely artificially long, but they were so artfully done that no makeup was evident. The same was true of her entire face. Her complexion was flawless and showed no evidence of cosmetics, with the exception of a slight sheen of what I guessed was clear gloss on her mouth. Speaking of which, she boasted the kind of full, voluptuous lips that many women have paid way too much money to plastic surgeons to unsuccessfully imitate. All in all, I was half convinced I was in the presence of a Greek goddess. A goddess who liked dogs, apparently. She was affectionately tugging on the ears of Eddie who had awakened and moseyed over to greet her. He wasn’t so strong on the guard dog front, but he clearly had taste in women. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

It's a Catastrophe Until It's Not

It's interesting to me how we tend to go from things being catastrophic to things just being how they are in a relatively short period of time. In an example from my other job, the one I actually get paid to do, one of the big issues is common core. It's chock full of high stakes testing that a large portion of teachers realize is wrong in a lot of ways. It leads to teaching to the test, it takes away time from instruction, it doesn't (despite what its creators claim) teach higher level thinking skills--I could go on and on.

When this idea was presented, teachers protested loudly. And no, it's not because we're lazy louts who got into teaching because of the summer break. Countries that are the most successful educationally are doing the opposite of what we're doing. Less testing and more autonomy for teachers. Good teaching takes place when teachers are treated like professionals who have been trained to do this job. Do we have a group of non-doctors making medical decisions instead of doctors? Well, that may be a little more political than I want to get into.

But the point I'm trying to make is that, once common core became the law of the land, many of its promoters pointed to changes in polls among teachers. They said that many of the teachers no longer were against the high-stakes testing. But, as a teacher who has teacher friends, I can tell these people that the data isn't telling them what they think it is. What they're seeing is acquiescence to the reality of the situation, not agreement with it. What it's telling them is that teachers are realists and that, until the law of the land changes, we will do what we've always done--work within the requirements, trying our best to give your children the best education possible. We can yell and scream about it and, yes, work to get this misguided law changed, but until it is changed, it's what we have.

 That's life in general. We rarely have perfect circumstances. We just have what we have. When something bad comes along, it feels catastrophic at first, but eventually becomes the law of the land, so to speak, and we just do our best to work within it. Take my back, for instance. Earlier this week, I woke up in the night with cramps in my lower back. I've had back issues in the past, but I've lost weight and have been exercising and haven't had a problem for quite a while. Well, it appears my achy back is, well, back. The next morning, I was ready to just give up. No position except flat in bed was even remotely comfortable. So I did nothing, literally, other than watch TV and feel sorry for myself.

The next day, my back still hurt. I still had no comfortable way to sit up. But guess what? I didn't continue to lie around. No, I didn't go out and mow the grass, but I did clean the kitchen, take out the trash, go to the store (for more Salon Pas patches, which I'm convinced come directly from God), and get some writing done. And yes, my back hurts right now. But I'm 2300 words from my goal of 7000 words by today and I'm going to make it.

I'm not bragging. I'm not saying I'm a tough guy who can work through the pain. Truth is, I'm a big baby when it comes to that. I'm just making an observation about human nature. We often say things are unbearable, but then end up bearing them. How? I'm not sure. For me, it's with the help of God, family, and friends. I don't have any idea how folks without those three things make it.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Back To The Real World

I want to apologize in advance if there are any major formatting issues with this post. This website has decided to set itself on random insanity mode so that every time I tried to insert or move a picture, it just arbitrarily rearranged the text. So I deleted all the pictures and tried--TRIED--to get everything back where it belonged. 
I set my alarm yesterday morning. I made it a whole week without using it. I guess I'm back from my stay-cation. Today is still relaxing, as will be tomorrow, but real life starts in earnest on Monday. Aside from all the work I need to do around the house, Monday morning I start writing again. I'm setting a goal of at least 7,000 words by next Saturday. 

I used to set daily goals, but I think I'll try weekly goals for a while. That way, if I struggle on a particular day, whether it be from working my way through a hard scene or from having a busy day doing other things (such as a training event on Wednesday), I won't feel like I failed to meet my goals because I can catch up on another day.  
The reality is that I tend to work in spurts. I'll write for a while and not write for a while and then, as I've said in this blog before, I'll reach critical mass, after which I have to write almost constantly until the draft is finished. My goal is to even that out a little bit. I imagine there will still come a point when I just can't stop because I can see the end looming and I want to be there. But if I set a goal to write at least 7k words every single week, I should be able to finish a rough draft in under three months. Add a couple of months for revision and editing and some time off between manuscripts, and I should still be able to produce a couple of books a year. Assuming I can sell them, that should produce a relatively steady income.

That I can sell them is a pretty big assumption. I got another rejection this week. Still haven't heard from the gentleman who asked for the partial manuscript. I know it's not out of the question that he'll still respond, but my hope is dimming. I'm running out of people to query. I really just don't want to go this alone and self-publish. I've said several times that I am about to do it, but I know down deep that it's somewhat of an empty threat. I want so badly to have an agent and a publisher in my corner, doing some of the things that I neither want nor have the temperament to do. I'm a writer. I'm not a publisher. I'm not a publicist. I'm not an organizer or a salesman. Yes, I'm aware that there are some things I'll have to do other than writing in order to succeed, but I want someone to guide me through that and take the lead so that I can concentrate on the important stuff--telling my stories.

So, you publishers and agents out there, how about it? I'm a good writer. I think my work will sell. You want to help me sell it?