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K’Fay

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I took another Monday off from blogging last week because I had just returned home from a trip. My family and I had ventured up to Battle Creek, NE to visit my 81-year-old grandmother. She’s a great lady. Despite the fact that we have differing opinions on . . . a great many things . . . I love her dearly.

I try to get a photo of her every time I visit. I didn’t last time, but here is one from the time before:

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She’s pretty sweet in many ways. She lives on the acreage her parents lived in for many years. When her mother passed away in the early 1980s, she moved there from Hannibal, MO with her husband (my grandfather) and youngest children to help her father out. My father, her oldest child, had long since grown up, moved out, and created a family all his own. After her father died 15 or so years later and all her children were grown and off living their own lives, she stayed, so did her husband. When he followed her mother and father to the grave a few years later, history-in a way-repeated itself because I moved in with her. I spent two-and-a-half of the best years of my life on that little acreage. When I lived there, I really became a writer, I learned how to farm, I graduated from college (the first time) . . . I also gained 30 pounds.

She’s a great cook.

The weight melted off when I moved out . . . .

Anyway.

There are a lot of quirks to my grandmother’s personality I could explain here. I could tell you all about her bout with polio, about how more than one doctor said she would never walk yet here she is, 81, still walking like a champ. I could describe her deep and enviable faith or her sharp, if a bit forgetful, mind.

But I’m not.

I’m going to tell you how she pronounces the word ‘cafe.’

It’s ‘k’fay.’

Of all the many endearing things about her, I think I like this one the most. In my admittedly small world, it gives her a uniqueness that I will remember long after she’s gone.

Of course, I plan on her being around for a good many years to come, so I have no idea why I feel the need to write this.

A Teacher’s Spring Break Part #2

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So, here are the photos I mentioned last week.

The day before spring break I was gifted with some Sour Patch Kids Ladders, otherwise known as the human centipede of candy. They were delightfully horrifying in their grotesque deliciousness. 

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That same day, upon finally coming home after a long, long last day before spring break, I doffed the monkey suit of the average American teacher and threw on a Shakespeare t-shirt (Hamlet’s soliloquy in the shape of a skull, nooch), my fave sweater, and these amazing pajama pants. What’s that you say? You can’t see my legs? Of course you can’t, my pants are camouflage!

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My first full day of spring break began with a trip to the gym where I did nearly nothing while my daughter flipped and flopped around so that I was like to have a heart attack (had I not learned long ago not to watch for too long).

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Day #2 saw me try my hand at omelet cooking. It’s taste, of peppers, turkey, spinach, Tabasco, and (naturally) egg was far superior to it appearance.

 

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Some have argued that spring break cannot officially begin until Monday. I say those who make such outlandish claims are fools. However, I wondered on down to Hannibal, MO this day where I was gifted with a tenderloin as big as my head and root beer that was almost as delectable as regular beer.

 

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There is a theme running through Hannibal that would seem extreme anywhere else. I like to think Mark Twain would be pleased that this hotel is the place where my mother decided to stay with my father when they were teenagers in love.

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Returning home to Omaha on the fifth day of my spring break might have been a harrowing experience had I decided to leave Hannibal a few hours later. As it was, I just beat one of the first spring storms of the season home. This was the ominous sky that night shortly after I was tucked safely away in my recliner in the basement rec room.

 

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A day of relaxing followed my sojourn to Mark Twain’s hometown. It ended with an ominous message from my daughter. “These rocks are magic,” she said. “Magic.” I had to refrain from touching them but I figured a photo to memorialize these auspicious stones was in order.

 

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On Day #7 I began to realize I should probably start being productive. The below image is my attempt at that. I’m not going to lie to you fine readers. I completed one of these tasks . . . .

 

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After the insanity that was an attempt at work on the previous day, I realized I needed a bit more relaxation. Therefore, I rented six films and over the course of the final weekend of spring break 2015, watched them all. If you’re curious, they were all pretty good and included The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part #1, Annie, Evil Dead, John Wick, Cloud Atlasand Lucy

 

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Finally, on the ninth and final day of spring break I completed my relaxation by hanging out (still on my recliner in case you were wondering) with this guy. Yes, he is almost as handsome as me.

 

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I didn’t learn much.

It was great.

 

 

 

A Teacher’s Spring Break Part #1

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I have been in education most of my adult life. I’ve taken a few back roads and side streets into other careers. I had a taste of editing. I worked seriously in retail. Before all that, I probably had about 50 jobs ranging from slinging burgers at McDonald’s to counting stalks of corn for a seed company. I also spent a few summers at a steel mill. The pay was great at that one, but the place I worked in at the mill, known colloquially as “The Pit,” could get so hot I would be a couple of pounds lighter at the end of my shift than I was at the beginning. Shifts, by the way, ran either from 8am-4pm, 4pm-midnight, or midnight to 8am.

These jobs–all of them, from editing shitty journalistic stories for a shitty little indy newspaper, to wrapping bundles of rebar in “The Pit,” were their own kinds of hard. Some were more punishing to the brain, others to the body, and many to the soul–at least for me. I know SpongeBob’s soul is happiest when he’s slinging hash. So I’m not judging those who enjoy these jobs. In fact, I praise those who love these jobs, who are qualified for these jobs, and who spend years perfecting their performance at these jobs.

I’m an artist though folks and we’re a weird lot, especially in the eyes of modern society. I don’t like the concept of working for a living. I don’t understand how spending your hours for a handful of dimes is a noble endeavor, something we should look forward to. It baffles me. My dad spent 25 years working at a steel mill to support his family. I don’t consider his work honorable simply because he was working. The honor of work for work’s sake is–in my humble opinion–a lie. I consider his work honorable because he did it to support a family he decided to start when he was 19.

Look, money has never been a motivator for me. I like to be happy and I am happiest when I am being an artist because I don’t consider it a job (you already know how I feel about jobs). Today though, I do two things to earn the money I am–for the most part–unconcerned with: write and teach. I know I need money and I’ve found a couple of things to do that don’t slowly destroy my mind, body, and soul, because, as I mentioned, I find something unforgivably wrong with thinking working a job that is slowly destroying you is an absolute good, simply because having a job is the ‘right’ thing to do.

Luckily for me, one of my current money-making schemes (teaching) has this glorious thing called spring break. I’m on day three of it right now and it’s amazing.

Next week, I’ll have pictures. I’m sure they won’t be anything like this, but they’ll be pretty cool.

It is Not the End

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A misconception I’ve run into amongst those who do not write is that the most important aspect of the story is how it ends. This is simply not true. It is not the end that matters the most. In truth, it is not the beginning either. In the grand scheme of things all of our stories begin and end the same way: birth and death. On the surface level, there is no difference. Yes, there are many different ways to die, just as there are many different ways to be born. But the emergence into life and the exit from life are expected as we all cycle through our years on this plain of existence.

What tends to be interesting is the time in between.

The people who help shape you traditionally do not enter and exit your life at birth and death (save, perhaps, for your parents who are usually the first people you meet). Rather, they appear as neighbors, moving into the empty house across the street when you’re five. They stumble into the fourth grade classroom that smells of stickers and paste and offer endearing smiles or horrifying grimaces. They stare at you from behind a cold, wooden desk in the back of a journalism class in 11th grade and say something like, “Contrary to popular belief, you’ll never be a writer unless you stop smoking so much damn weed.” They dance by at your sister’s wedding and flutter their eyes at you as though seeing you for the first time or maybe wanting to be seen for the first time, though you’ve known each other since you were children. They sign up for your class and dash all your preconceived notions of what a good student should act like.

Likewise, the decisions you make that make your life and the lives of those around you interesting usually occur while you’re stumbling through this mortal coil, not while you’re taking your first worried steps or gently succumbing to your last night. When you decide to elope with the girl you started dating a little over a year ago, you are doing it in the middle of your story. When your job takes you to a completely different part of the country, you are doing it in the middle of your story. When your children are born, when your parents die, when you lose, love, laugh, and grow, you are doing it in the middle of your story. By the way, for our purposes, the middle is the longest chunk of your story, not the literal middle (in case you were wondering).

When the end comes, as it must, you, hopefully, drift off peacefully while dreaming of a cool summer day, a beautiful green field, and a gentle babbling creek filled with crystal clear water. Maybe you are reading a good book. Maybe you are talking with friends. Maybe you’re making love to your spouse. But that’s neither here nor there because the story is over at this point. The adventure has been had, the lessons learned.

The best part of the meatball sandwich is the meatball. The best part of the Oreo is the creamy filling. The best part of the workday is the middle (when you get to stop for lunch). So the best part of your story, the most important part of your story should always be the middle. The middle makes readers care. The middle makes readers want to keep reading.

The middle is life.

Your book is life.

Or rather it is if it is well written. As in life, the end is going to come. It always does.

Please don’t force it.

Practice the Craft

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My family was out-of-town this weekend and I have a little book coming out soon that I need to finalize. In case you were unaware, I also have a day job where I make yearbooks, video yearbooks, and videos for a student driven website. Needless to say, it keeps me a little busy. Normally, when I’m not doing that, I divide my writing time with family time. This Saturday was different though. This Saturday was mine and mine alone so I was a writer all day, nothing more and nothing less.

March 7th I practiced the craft the way I love to practice it.

Here is a semi-complete rundown of my day.

  • 7:00am
    • Woke up
  • 8:00am-10:00am
    • Taught my online course on writing graphic novels
  • 10:00am-11:30am
    • Edited the first two chapters of my friend’s newest novel
  • 12:00pm-6:00pm
    • Edited/wrote my aforementioned novel
  • 6:30pm-8:45pm
    • Met with another friend whose novel I edited last month and discussed those edits with him (among other things–like how we would fix Star Warswhy comic books are both awesome and awful, and how we feel about the fanboy mentality)
  • 9:30-10:30
    • Worked on my book some more
  • 10:30- whenever I fell asleep
    • Watched the latest season of Archer on Netflix

I tell you all this because most of my days are not spent this way. As a writer who has to make the bulk of his living another way (much like most of you, I assume), there is something great–nay–something magical–about a day spent absorbed in the written word, a day spent acting like a writer. This isn’t to say I feel like less of a writer any other day. On the contrary in fact. I consider days like March 7th, 2015 to be gifts and I look forward to many more.

I also wish you–all you artists out there on the Internets–the same sort of days more often than not.

Rethinking the Plot Pyramid, Part #2: No Pyramid

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Welcome back to some writerly instructions. Today I am going to go into more detail about the plot pyramid . . . kind of. We’re going to steer away from the traditional shape I wrote about a few weeks ago though and focus instead on the hero’s journey.

You will be–or maybe have been–told (correctly) that there are several different ways to tell stories. In fact, each person who writes has a different way to tell stories. This is all well and good. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that can complex it all up for beginners, or even some of us who have been at it for awhile.

Luckily, there are certain elements in good storytelling that seem to pop up again and again. For instance, when speaking of the plot pyramid, we have the specific shape from my last blog post. It is easy to understand and simple to use. To add to that though, we have two new shapes that can only exist because of the plot pyramid. They are the “Simple Storytelling Hero’s Journey” and the “Complex Storytelling-Hero’s Journey.”

For a simple storyteller, the hero’s journey is simple:

Simple Storytelling-Hero’s Journey

For s storyteller who wants his/her characters to grow and progress as he/she makes his way up and over the plot pyramid, the hero’s journey is a little more complicated. However, as I believe it is best to present instructions in a simple form, I came up with a easy-to-read design to show the complexity of growth:

Complex Storytelling-Hero’s Journey

Using the plot pyramid and the hero’s journey design, a sophisticated writer can begin to set up struggles and goals (particularly in the “rising and falling struggles” section of the pyramid) in order to create a character who changes over the course of a story, thereby becoming something more than a character, a person. If you have a character in no need of change, a simple storytelling journey will be appropriate.

But really–in a good story–how often does that happen?

Rethinking the Plot Pyramid, Part #1

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The plot pyramid, that old writing trope.

Your English teachers told you all about it in 6th grade, then again in 7th, then again in 8th . . . . This, naturally, went on until you were well into college. Every year, the same thing over and over again. It looked something like this. If you were anything like me and actually paid attention and enjoyed English class, then you probably became sick of this continuing re-education.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not begrudge any of my teachers for going over the plot pyramid time and time again, the same way I don’t begrudge them explaining simile and metaphor every year. They had to. After all, several students didn’t care, didn’t understand, or didn’t have the ability to retain what they were taught in class. Hell, when it came to math, I was one of those students. I get it. I do. But after several years of school, after learning, and re-learning this thing over and over again and after reading and writing books, I’ve come to the conclusion that the plot pyramid, frankly, isn’t right.

I like for my tools to be right, as, I assume, most writers do.

That in mind, I came up with a few visual aids to help aspiring writers work their way through the pratfalls of plot. Here is my first one:

Plot Pyramid

I’m keeping it simple this time. I hope you enjoy.

There will be more . . . .

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