Sample Chapter: Anathema, Chapter One

Hi! Here’s the first chapter of the project I’ll be working on for NaNoWriMo this month and then again in November. I’m hoping to write 40k this session, getting through a bit under half of the story, and then finishing it up this winter with another 50k. We’ll see how it goes!

Chapter One

It didn’t look like the Wisps her grandmother had told her about. But as the eldest, Anathema didn’t have the luxury of choice. She swallowed hard and stepped off the trail after it.

Anathema knew what she was. The older children were always thrown as sacrifices into the wilds, in the hope that the younger ones found their fortunes. They couldn’t all marry royals or befriend fairies or kill dragons. Parents understood this. The first few children were the trial runs, to set off all the traps and curses so that their blessed younger siblings could have a clear path to greatness.

She picked her way through a bramble patch and followed the Wisp down through the trees to lower ground, wondering if it could sense her oldishness even if she tried to hide it. Could a Wisp just look at her and her youngest sister Prosper and know? Grandmother was never sure. Of course, as the youngest, Grandmother didn’t have to be. Anathema followed the bobbing light deeper into the woods and prayed to the gods of sun and soil to abandon her.

The Wisp paused, and then bobbed away to the side, and then turned south again. Or maybe it was east. Anathema wasn’t sure anymore. But still, she followed it. It would take her to be either married to or eaten by an ogre—or both—or maybe to a cursed treasure, or a witch’s hovel deep in a bog. Whatever it was, Anathema wanted it over quickly.

Poor Enigma. As the second daughter, nobody knew what would happen to her, good or bad. At least Anathema knew what to expect. Nothing made loss harder than thinking you might actually win. But still, Anathema could at least hope for the sister who would come after her. She might even find Anathema’s bones and avenge her. That happened sometimes too.

The Wisp hesitated again, its wan light dimming further. Anathema frowned. This wasn’t at all the way her grandmother had described the Wisps. They hadn’t come across so much as a puddle, let alone a swamp. And Wisps were supposed to be cold blue. This one was decidedly pinkish. Anathema wondered nervously if she’d gotten a bad Wisp. And what would happen to her poor sisters if she failed to fail?

Anathema crept closer to the maybe-not-Wisp. It stayed where it was, letting her nearer than any Wisp worth its weight would. And then it winked out altogether.

Ready to read the rest? Follow the link!

Reblog: 12 Ideas for Writing Through the Pandemic

Hi friends! Another NaNo month is upon us, and so are the reblogs! This article by Natalie Proulx seems to be geared a little toward people who aren’t already writers, but I had fun doing some of them with my kiddos. (We enjoyed #10 best- writing comics!) Hopefully you’ll find some good ways to keep creative while things are still crazy. Hang in there!

12 Ideas for Writing Through the Pandemic With The New York Times

A dozen writing projects — including journals, poems, comics and more — for students to try at home.

<img src="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2020/04/25/style/oakImage-1584969107780-LN/oakImage-1584969107780-articleLarge.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp&disable=upscale&quot; alt="In Málaga, Spain, Marcos Moreno Maldonado makes drawings that weave around his words, keeping a diary that is botanical, beautiful and strange. Keeping a journal is just one of 12 writing projects we suggest for students. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/style/coronavirus-diaries-social-history.html">Related Article
In Málaga, Spain, Marcos Moreno Maldonado makes drawings that weave around his words, keeping a diary that is botanical, beautiful and strange. Keeping a journal is just one of 12 writing projects we suggest for students. Related ArticleCredit…Marcos Moreno Maldonado
Natalie Proulx

By Natalie Proulx

April 15, 2020

The coronavirus has transformed life as we know it. Schools are closed, we’re confined to our homes and the future feels very uncertain. Why write at a time like this?

For one, we are living through history. Future historians may look back on the journals, essays and art that ordinary people are creating now to tell the story of life during the coronavirus.

But writing can also be deeply therapeutic. It can be a way to express our fears, hopes and joys. It can help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

Plus, even though school buildings are shuttered, that doesn’t mean learning has stopped. Writing can help us reflect on what’s happening in our lives and form new ideas.

We want to help inspire your writing about the coronavirus while you learn from home. Below, we offer 12 projects for students, all based on pieces from The New York Times, including personal narrative essays, editorials, comic strips and podcasts. Each project features a Times text and prompts to inspire your writing, as well as related resources from The Learning Network to help you develop your craft. Some also offer opportunities to get your work published in The Times, on The Learning Network or elsewhere.

We know this list isn’t nearly complete. If you have ideas for other pandemic-related writing projects, please suggest them in the comments.

In the meantime, happy writing!

Want to keep reading? Follow the link to the full article!

Midsummer Goal Confessions

Happy summer solstice! Happy Juneteenth! Happy Father’s Day!

The midsummer festival was cancelled this year (and the fair, and Crab Fest, and the Midnight Sun Run, and everything fun *weeps*), but we partied it up at my place by—oh, wait, we didn’t! Because it was so dark and bucketing rain that it couldn’t possibly be solstice and we got confused and didn’t even realize what day it was. Right! Good times.

The estival solstice marks (approximately) halfway through the calendar year, so I figured this might be a good time to do a mid-year check in on how I’m doing on my New Year’s goals, especially as I prepare to hop into another session of Camp NaNo. Things have  n o t  steadied out in all the ways that I had hoped, plus the world in general decided to join in the fun in a multitude of ways too! So doing pathetically easy goals that felt really lame at the time actually turned out to be a great call. Looks like Jill has the power of foresight! Who knew!

I’m actually a little ahead on my twenty-four-books reading goal for the year, but about two-thirds of the books I’ve read have been nonfiction, so I need to pick up the fictional stuff a bit more. And since I did my first book shop raid since before Christmas late last week, I have fresh ammo for that one. Oh, wait, those were all nonfiction that I bought? All of them? …Oh right, because before I made it over to the fiction section, I got gently tossed out of the shop so that other customers could have a turn. But it’s not like I don’t own hundreds upon hundreds of fiction books already. I’ll manage. Somehow. *sinks onto fainting couch*

For my writing and editing goals, I at least have a plan for the rest of the year, with the slight hope that, if ever I should ever ever get my life back again, I might be able to overdo this stuff. I want to complete an editing pass on Quicksilver Queen, my Sherlockian fantasy/steampunk/who knows novel—and I’m actually getting pretty close! And for my first draft of a new novel, I’ll be working on Anathema, a fairy tale retelling, that I anticipate working on for both this session of Camp NaNo and for NaNoWriMo as well. If I can knock out at least one of the short stories by the end of the summer, that gives me plenty of room to actually surpass this goal by the end of the year.

For my submissions goals… well… um. Yeah. I’ll get to those. Really, I will. Twenty-four rejections by year’s end is still attainable. It is. Really. *coughs*

And just in case you care, my nonbookish goals are going pretty well. I’m fudging the specifics a bit, but the overall spirit of the goals is on track. Horray!

So, if I’m being completely honest here, I’m a little disappointed with myself that I haven’t blown these puny goals out of the water by now. But given how the year is proceeding, both personally, nationally, and globally, I’m trying to not be like that. I’ve got a lot going on and I’m still making forward progress on (most of) my goals. This year just may be the year that I learn to extend myself a little grace and chill out when I don’t do everything on the check list. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing either!

Sitting down and writing out all my writing goals for the summer really helped me to assess where I am and where I ought to be. I think it might behoove me to do something similar for my submissions goals. Just leaving it in a lump sum without little mini-deadlines hasn’t been doing me any favors so far this year. I’ll try to pull something in that vein together in the next few days to add to my goals calendar, maybe starting in the weeks following next month’s Camp NaNo frenzy. You know, just to make sure I don’t actually get my desk plant. *pouts*

All that said, this is your official heads up that next month is another NaNo month. One more comic and then we’re into the madness. Lots of bad art and lazy reblogs headed your way soon!

If you have goals that you’re working on this year, now might be a good time to take a look at how far you’ve come and how your habits are feeling. And be kind to yourself! Even if you still haven’t gotten quite as far as you were hoping, don’t give up. There’s still a lot of year left, and there’s no shame in reworking your goals to fit your evolving situation. I mean, back in January, we all thought the Australian wildfires were going to be the big headline of the year. Times, they are a-changin’. Your goals can too.

I’ll see you next week with this month’s comic! Until then, happy writing!

Clichés and What They’re Good For

Wait, wouldn’t this be heels over head? Like, their heels- are- what. What does this even mean?

Avoid clichés like the plague. That’s what we’re always told, right? (That, and never submit stories in Comic Sans font, but who really listens to that one?) But surely clichés can’t always be bad, can they? Are there times when clichés would be appropriate and right?

But first, what the heck is a cliché? (Okay, I’ll ease off on the endless questions now, sorry.)

A cliché is a phrase or idea that was once fresh and innovative, leading to its broad distribution and popularity, but that has since become so overused as to become boring, predictable, or even annoying. While the pre-cliché expression is witty and clever, that same expression post-cliché is often viewed as dull and lazy. Sometimes clichés will even lose their original context and just become a meaningless response to be trotted out following the appropriate stimulus. (Think, “The whole nine yards.” Like, we all know what that means, but what was the framework for why it means that?)

Clichés shouldn’t be confused with stereotypes (a set of attributes that people ascribe to a group at large), truisms (a widely accepted or self-evident ‘fact’, often seen as so obvious as to negate the need for definition or proof), or formal expressions (phrases used ceremonially, such as ‘I second the motion,’ or ‘I do solemnly swear…,’ etc.). There are also proverbs, idioms, and all kind so of other specifically defined phrases. While all of these things can contribute to a cliché, or be used in a cliché manner, they’re each kind of their own thing that we’re not going to get into much here.

The kinds of cliché I want to talk about today comes in two varieties: short phrases (the micro-cliché, if you will) and chains of events (the macro-cliché). And when it comes to writing a story, you want to be very, very careful with either of them. But that said, they do have their uses!

Cliché expressions are best used in establishing voice. After all, characters use clichés all the time, just like real people. Maybe they like to say things are ‘all that and a bag of chips’. Maybe they’re always rolling their eyes and ironically grumbling back their mom’s signature ‘a chip off the ol’ block’. Or maybe the time traveler from the 1920s has a tendency to cheerfully advise their friends to ‘know your onions’. Or these phrases can be tragically subverted, such as the terminally ill character encouraging their concerned family with a successively weaker and weaker ‘fit as a fiddle’.

Subversion is probably the best way to use clichéd events or situations in your storyline. Maybe the princess meets a friendly old woman who is of course a witch in disguise. How can you subvert this trope so that the story isn’t boring for your readers? Likewise, everyone expects that when your protagonist has a weird, symbolism laden dream that it’s foreshadowing something important. So how can you upend that expectation to deliver something unexpected?

When subverting a cliché, whether that’s a single phrase or a whole story trope, you’re working with two parts. The set up (which is the trope that savvy readers will see the beginning of and make assumptions about what’s coming) and the subversion (where the trope is revealed to be a red herring and now we’re going somewhere else, get in the car).

During this process, it’s important to surprise your audience, but also to not disappoint them. Yes, it would be very surprising to find out that the Chosen One completely fails in their task (and some shadowy governmental agency has to come clean up the mess and now there’s a hole in the universe that occasionally rains radioactive cheddar curds) and then the protagonist squanders the remainder of their life in drunken shame and dies while trying to fight off a ten-year-old pickpocket armed with an irradiated Army-issue spork. Surprising, sure. But your readers are going to pelt you with rotten fruit by the end of the story if you don’t pull off something better than that.

Like all other things in the story, the subversion needs to have the three S’s. It has to make sense, surprise readers, and satisfy the audience. Losing any one of those elements will sour the experience. But it you can use all three of them while turning a cliché on its head (haha, that’s a cliché), please do!

How about you guys? Can you think of any other good uses for clichés? Or any times you’ve seen them used well? Let me know in the comments below! And until next time, happy writing!

A House of Order

Well, I’ve done it again. What started as a short story is now quickly ballooning into a feature-length novel. (This is probably some kind of moral failing on my part, I’m sure.) I’m not usually one to bounce around between projects, but there’s been a bit of that lately and I have—somehow and without my quite realizing what was happening—promised to have a first draft of this new story completed by the end of the year.

Sooo… yeah. Things are starting to stack up a bit. I have two short stories I’m picking at, as well as a picture book idea that needs drafting. I’m midstream on editing passes on two nonfiction books as well as a novel; I haven’t quite finished any of them, but I really truly should have by now. And now this. It’s quite a bit more than I normally have on my plate. I try to stay more of a one-project-at-a-time kind of person. But I don’t want to drop any of these projects. I love them all! So now what?

The ever-fantastic CM Schofield has recently inspired me to get myself organized. My system isn’t nearly as glorious as theirs, but I feel waaaaay better for having straightened my stuff out instead of just helplessly letting everything pile up while I stand paralyzed.

The first thing I did was to list out every project that I want to work on, and then to break each down into parts. For example, I have a haunted campsite longish short story idea that I would like to eventually finish. (Ha.) It’s long enough that I should outline it first. And then draft. After that, I’ll probably edit it, and eventually maybe send it off to readers, and then edit it again based on their notes. But for now, I’m just worrying about the outlining and drafting. I don’t think I’ll get beyond that point this summer, so I’m just going to concentrate on that much. I did this for each of my projects that I think I can get to before the school year starts up again in the fall.

With that final school’s-about-to-start deadline in mind, I put all those little chunks into my to-do list with their own staggered deadlines. Remember a couple years ago when I made one teeny mention of my to-do app, Habitica? I’m still using it (and underutilizing it) and loving it. Each of the broken up goal bits went into Habitica along with the date I hoped to have them done by. I also wrote them on my big wall calendar to remind me as those dates approached.

Now, it should be said, I am being really ambitious, both with the amount of projects I’m tackling and with their individual deadlines. I recognize that there’s about a .02% chance that I’ll actually get through all of this in the allotted time frame. And that is A-OK. The point of this exercise was to break the projects into manageable chunks and get each of those chunks on my calendar in a time frame that isn’t so far into the future that I forget it for eight months and then scramble (and fail) at the last minute. Remember, I don’t do things unless there’s a deadline—the more looming, the better.

You know what else I don’t usually work without? Punishments. But since I recognize that these goals are basically nonattainable, and I’m trying to be kinder to myself in this time of difficulty, I’m going easy on the punishments end of the spectrum and am instead offering myself incentives for if I do hit the deadlines. I don’t usually work with rewards so this will be a bit of an experiment for me. Honestly, I haven’t even figured out what those rewards will be yet. (Super cheap plus bad at taking time for myself equals really bad at coming up with rewards.) I’ll let you know how it goes. (It will probably end up being something to do with baking. That’s how I roll. *snickers*)

So that is where I currently stand! I have my first two mini deadlines coming up this Friday, which will (hopefully) springboard me into action that I can keep going throughout the summer. We shall see! I’ll be sure to update this post with the exciting rewards I’ll be lavishing on myself as the season evolves.

UPDATE: So I put my goals all up in a calendar on Google Docs and shared it with my little writing group so that they can heckle me if I fail. But they’ve also posted goals of their own so that I can heckle them back! Yay, friendship! But just in case I actually succeed, here’s the breakdown of the fabulous prizes I’ve worked out for myself. After three successful weeks, I get to pay the kids in video game time to give me a back rub while one of them reads to me. After six successful weeks, I get to have a day of doing no chores, but I still get to check them all off in my to-do list. After eight successful weeks, I get to buy one of those really expensive chocolate bars that Anna got me addicted to. And after ten successful weeks (ha!), I get to buy myself a new houseplant to put on my desk. I currently have NO HOUSEPLANTS on my desk, so I am excited for this one. If it happens. So those are my rewards! Big enough that I want them, and frivolous enough that I wouldn’t just go out and get them regardless, but small enough that I’ll actually follow through with giving them to myself. We’ll see how it goes!

How about you fair readers? Any big plans for the summer? Any super organizational systems that keep you on track? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!

Put Out Day

O put out day! Callooh! Callay!

I don’t know about you guys, but while I’ve been getting my apocalypse on this spring, I’ve just about *coughs* more than doubled the size of our garden from last year. Not that I’ll be able to keep it alive, since I stink at this stuff, but I’m gonna give it a go. And here we are, finally, on June first! Into the garden they go!

I know that’s a pretty late put out day for most of the world, but things run a bit chilly up here in Alaska. And although I could probably slip things out a few days early without much risk (more and more each year, it seems, hmmm), June first is traditionally the earliest date by which you will reliably be past the danger of frost.

So although I’ve been putting in my plants like a madwoman over these last couple days, I’ve actually been prepping for this day for the past ten weeks. Put out day is certainly not the beginning of the gardening process (nor is it the end).

Garden work starts for me with the planning stage. I figure out how much garden space I have and how much of it I want to use. I try to gauge how much time I’ll have to devote to the garden, and I have some serious soul searching about how much chard we will actually eat. Then I pull out my garden journal, go over where various plants have lived over the previous summers, and decide approximately where I want them to go this year.

Once I have a plan, I start to gather my seeds. Inevitably, I pick up seeds for plants that weren’t on my list. I’m not sorry. I take all the seeds I plan to use this year and write down when they need to be started- whether that’s eight weeks out or four or direct seed. I make myself a little chart where I date each week back from June 1st, so that I know when to start each one. At this point, I also start gathering my starter pots and clear off the plant rack with the grow lights that kind of turns into a giant open-faced junk drawer over the winter.

Then I start planting. Pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, and sweet onions need to be started eight to ten weeks early. I fill pots with soil and worm compost and plant those seeds first. I water them and check on them regularly. A few weeks later, I start the next batch of seeds, and then more after. I stagger them so that I don’t start the lettuces or snap peas too soon, lest they run out of leg room while the ground is still frozen.

Eventually, I run out of room on the plant rack. The tomatoes get too tall. I started too many beets. There isn’t anywhere left for the nasturtiums. The zucchinis need bigger pots. That’s when I shove the couches out of the way and everything gets moved to the sunniest corner of the house, where I set up the card table and take over the top of my husband’s Magic: The Gathering cabinet. If there isn’t enough room there, a few things can stay under on the rack, but the lights are turned off. The mint and green onions are left to fend for themselves in the shade.

By now, the sun is up more than it’s not. The sap season is over. The bees are venturing outside their hive more and more. The snow is nearly gone. I shovel the last of it off the garden and put down cardboard to catch the falling catkins and starve the dormant weeds of sunlight before they can get a foothold they will never again relinquish. I rearrange the garden plan, putting the squashes and tomatoes with their orange and yellow blossoms directly across the strawberry patch from the beehive. They should all get along nicely.

I gather the last of the seeds, the things that will go directly in the garden- the carrots, the radishes, the potatoes, as well as extra lettuce and other leafy greens for second harvests. I get horse manure and aged chicken droppings and fresh ash from the birch and spruce trees we cut down and roasted marshmallows and sausages over. I find I don’t have enough compost from the last year, so I have to buy some, which feels wrong. I amend the soil with all this rot and poop and refuse, and it makes my soil dark and rich. I water it and put the cardboard back on top.

The days are warm now, in the fifties and sometimes higher, and the snow is all gone. I start putting the plants out during the day, when the sun is high and hot, and then bring them back in at night when the temperature drops to the thirties, and then to the forties. I water them in the mornings, or at least as soon as I remember. The tomatoes are already blossoming, so I put them up by the beehive.

Things are almost ready.

Working together, my family tills and weeds each row, pulling out the spreading rose roots, shaking the dirt from the pulled grass. We cut down high bush cranberry and birch saplings and willow shoots. We clear a new row. We put in a raised bed for the kids. We plant the apple trees. Everything is coming together.

The seedlings are overflowing their pots, their roots starting to peek out the drainage holes in the bottoms of their cups. I worry I started some of them too soon. (Sorry, lettuce, I tried.) They stay outside from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. I chase the chickens away when they get too curious; they go eat grass and dandelion shoots instead.

I put in the direct seeds and pull out the janky old sprinkler, cursing it when it gets stuck watering the edge of my driveway every two minutes. I worry over the apple trees. I fuss over whether I put down too much dung. I Google how much ash I should have added. I transfer the hardier plants into the ground- the peas and the overgrown lettuce.

Finally, it’s today! The rest of the plants go in, and more second harvests are started as well. The sun burns hot overhead, and then dark thunderclouds roll in and everything gets cool and windy. I worry for the leafy, swaying tomato plants and retreat inside, scratching at my collection of mosquito bites. I watch, craning my neck at the window, as the rain begins to fall.

It is a perfect put out day.

There will be more work tomorrow, and more the day after, for all the long, bright weeks of summer, until I bring in the last of the potatoes and pumpkins and beets and carrots. I’m a terrible gardener, but I love it. Maybe some day that love and continued effort will transform into skill and calories, like some alchemic magic.

Writing is like this too. At first, that story seems so beautifully impossible, like a perfect dream that I don’t know how to bring about. But it isn’t brought into the world all at once. It happens with a single seed pressed into three teaspoons of soil, repeated over and over again. It happens when what starts out looking like a brown lump of bird poop ends up being the fuel for some other stroke of brilliance. It happens days, and then weeks, and then months at a time. It happens failure after failure after failure, and then a breakthrough. It happens with tearing down and ripping up, and throwing in the compost heap and rotting away and trying again. It happens with one glorious bloom, and then another, and another.

Worthwhile things take time. Worthwhile things take work. Worthwhile things take soul. When writing gets tough—when you’ve lost your chard in all the weeds and the chickens scratched up the bed and ate all your radish seeds and your black currant fails to blossom and what the heck happened to the rhubarb bushes—keep at it. Everything is still so crazy right now, but keep at it. Prioritize the things that feed you, whatever they may be.

Until next week, happy writing!

So Sophisticated

For the record, this is absolutely 100% something that happens in my home.

(Ginger-beet-lemonade is one of the best beverages on the planet and I will never stop making it. Fight me.)

Like last month, sorry again for the quality of this image. I reeeeally should do something about my scanner. Now accepting donations to purchase a new one. 😀

From Tree to Table

I like growing and processing my own food on site. I can’t do it as much as I’d like to, and I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be, but there’s still something really satisfying about a salad that grew in your own weedy yard, or an omelet from your own sassy birds. I’m limited on what I can do here, both by the climate and by neighborhood covenants and by my own black thumb, but I do what I can and I love it.

One of the recent additions to my wanna-be homesteading repertoire (along with the beekeeping I talked about a couple weeks ago) is syrup making. Our climate is too cold for maple trees to survive, but if you’re stubborn and not afraid to steam the paint off your walls, you can boil down birch sap and make syrup.

The process of making birch syrup is the same as that for making maple syrup, but a bit… tricksier, let’s say. Birch sap has a lower sugar concentration, so it takes twice as much sap to make the same amount of syrup. Birch sap is also very perishable and must be processed or frozen quickly. Unfortunately, the sugars in the sap also scorch more easily than maple sugars do.

But the trees make up for their lame sap by giving you tons of it. Birch syrup making therefore takes a lot of boiling. We had only three trees tapped and we couldn’t even fit all the sap in our gigantic canner. We were getting sap faster than we could boil it down, the stove was on constantly, and our poor ceiling started dripping like it was raining in the kitchen. We gathered hundreds of liters of sap, and all of it boiled down to a just couple pints of sap. (Yes, I used liters and pints in the same sentence. I’m bilingual!)

Truth be told, syrup making and story writing are both total pains. They take up a ton of time and energy with little to show for it at the end. And honestly, I might not think it was worth it if I was only concerned with the results. A tiny bottle of syrup might not be enough to entice me through the whole process. But fortunately, the process itself is part of the fun. Let’s take a look!

Sap Flow I can’t really lay a lot of claim to this part of the process. Sap flow happens, whether I collect it or not. Likewise, story inspiration is out there, whether I’m paying attention to it or not. But if I know it’s happening, I can take steps to collect and process the flow. When I set the taps in the tree, that’s like starting to pay attention to all these amazing story ideas all around me.

Sap Collecting A single birch tree during peak flow can give as much as three gallons of sap from a single tap. For this part, simply drill a hole, set a tap, and let it dribble into a bucket. Then all you have to do is fetch a bucket of birch water once a day, easy peasy. For me, nothing about the writing process is easier than the giddy headlong rush through a first draft. When I’m in Go Mode, I can crank out up to 80k words in a month. Granted, I’m not usually moving that fast, but when the story’s fun, it just flows.

Hard Boiling Birch sap is about 99% water, so you can really boil the heck out of it when you first start processing it. It is insane how much boiling sap takes and it is insane how much editing an all-over-the-place garbage fest of a first draft needs. Especially when it’s my first draft. This is the longest part of the process and can sometimes take days for sap—or years for books.

Final Boiling Nine times out of ten, when you’re making syrup, this is the point at which things go irreversibly and horribly wrong. If you’re not watching that pot like a hawk to pull it at the right time, you can end up with syrup that is watery and not concentrated enough (and will inevitably spoil), or too concentrated and the consistency of wood-flavored taffy, or scorched, or any of a dozen other problems. Fortunately, your final draft is only mildly like this stage in syrup-making. If you take out too much, you can simply put it back in. If you don’t cut enough, you can go back and pull more. And the nasty burnt bits can be swapped out for something sweeter. All is not lost. (At least, so long as the end does eventually roll around. Endless editing is its own kind of story death.)

Bottling The final step is to bottle your beautiful dark syrup in a hot water bath and pop it in the pantry. It almost feels anticlimactic. Likewise, it can feel a little strange to finally be done with a story after working on it for so long. But syrup, like stories, is sweetest when shared with others. Opening up your work for the scrutiny of others can be a bit scary, but it is very rewarding to have something you poured so much work into bring a smile to someone else’s face.

I’ve mentioned my Star Daughter series here a few times. It’s a good example of this process. That story has gone through over twelve drafts (at which point I stopped counting) and over a million words, every single one haphazardly added, cut, rewritten, revised, rearranged, culled, and fleshed out. It took me yeeeeears to boil all those ideas down to the heart of the story I wanted to tell. Of course, this process doesn’t have to take years. (It probably shouldn’t, really.) But it’s a process that needs to happen for every story we write.

So what part of this process am I in right now? Ugh, good question. I’ve been hopping around between projects a bit, which is a thing I personally should never ever do. But I decided this morning that I want to pop out a couple shorts before the end of the month, new ideas from start to finish. So I’ll be getting going on that in the morning. I’ve been feeling a bit blah on writing lately (and about a lot of things), so I’m hoping that this gets the story sap flowing a bit more.

I’ll let you know how it’s going next week. Until then, happy writing!

Things I Have Missed About School This Quarter

The kids are very proud of their school mascot collage. Go, Pearl Creek Puffins!

So, if any of you follow me on Twitter, you probably already have some sense of how this post is going to go. And I’ll warn you right up front, today’s post has nothing to do with writing and it is longer than I usually try to make these things. But I just need to talk a little about this last quarter of the school year as it ends. (So click away now if you’re not that bored, haha.)

Here we are at last in the final week of school! We’re turning in the laptops the school let us borrow, the last of the library books, the violin. We’re picking up the last few items our children left in their classrooms. The assignments are dwindling fast to just a few fun activities for the students to share with each other on their final zoom calls. Things are winding down. And I could not possibly be more relieved.

Distance Learning was not an experience I enjoyed. It was a nightmare cocktail of someone else making all the plans that I then had to figure out and deliver, four different kids with four different teachers all on a hundred different web programs, kids who had no grade consequences to doing any of the schoolwork in the first place, and all of it to be done with *shudders* technology. In-person schooling is worlds better. Straight homeschooling is worlds better. Heck, I’m ready to give boarding school a go at this point. This was like someone took all possible education styles and mashed them together, with everything good about them strained out and thrown out onto the altar of COVID-19.

I, my children, my schoolteacher husband- all of us despise Distance Learning.

The kids’ teachers were amazing through all of this. They helped me through the endless litany of technofails, reminded me a hundred thousand times what the room number for the zoom call was, and gently talked me down from my maybe-not-so-funny self-harm “jokes”. It has been rough, but the teachers—who themselves had no time or warning to prepare for this disaster—are just bending over backward to get us all through this alive.

I miss them terribly. I know all my kids’ teachers. Heck, I know all the teachers, even the ones who ever taught my kids. I’ve been working and volunteering in that school since my firstborn was a newborn. Even when I am at my mental worst and cannot bear to go anywhere to do anything, I can still go down to the school. It’s just an extension of my home, and the people there an extension of my family.

There’s a lot to miss about public school as we’ve known it. Here are just a few of the things I’ve ached for this quarter in quarantine:

The Teachers There is something invaluable about having educators on hand to explain what the heck this assignment is asking us to do, or why the assignment won’t submit, or whatever else I’m doing wrong. Teachers, like parents, wear many hats. They’re fantastic about balancing the learning, fun, social engagement, and physical movement that factors into every second of every day at school. They know what each of the kids needs and how to assess whether or not they’re getting it. If I had been the one making the assignments or doing the assessments, I could have done this myself as part of my kids’ education. But with Distance Learning, I was not. I was just as lost and confused as the kids half the time, and the poor teacher was left fielding my inane questions every two minutes about how to log in to class dojo again instead of fielding questions from the kids about how the sun burns and why does division work like it does.

The Students I miss the students. I can’t work in the library with the library shut down, so I haven’t seen the students in months. I miss helping them find the perfect book to blow their weekend with and researching Thomas Jefferson for a class project and helping them cut paper for the display for their hand-sewn dolls from Two Old Women. I miss teaching them how to bake pastries after school and how to do lay outs for graphic novels. I miss being surrounded by hundreds of little kids who have known and trusted me since they were kindergarteners. Likewise, my kids miss their classmates. They miss working together in groups, and learning how to play together, and negotiating lunch box swaps when stupid mom put mayonnaise in the tuna sandwich again. (Just kidding—I only had to make that mistake once, haha. Yikes.)

The Resources I do not have buckets of clear plastic place value blocks at my disposal. I don’t have a twenty-egg incubator so my kids can watch chicks develop and hatch. Heck, the only reason I have enough computers is because the school lend us over half the arsenal. Yeah, each teacher has to educate thirty kids at a time, but they also have thirty times the resources to do so. There are so many perfect little do-dads that I wish I had right now, that are in a storage closet in a locked and empty building across the street. And that isn’t even considering the human resources of having a counselor, and a visiting artist, and a speech therapist, and a nurse, and all the other specialists that bring their amazing skills to the school.

The Learning Styles Everything is on the computer now. Yeah, some of the assignments are like, go outside and count birds or something, but the kids are still getting their assignments off the computer, turning in their assignments on the computer, and getting their teachers’ feedback on a computer. I am ~ d y i n g ~ over the amount of screen time these kids are suddenly having to absorb. And my kids definitely learn better if they’re up and moving and doing. Stuff that they read on a screen just doesn’t stick. But that’s the only way the teachers have to communicate with them. Plus—you know me—I’m also dying because I have to help them slog through all this technotorture.

I could go on. Oh, I could go on. But I’ll spare you. So as we celebrate (?) the conclusion of the school year, please forgive my ranting. Normally, the school year ends in a rush—suddenly the snow is gone and it’s a mad scramble to Field Day and we’re done! Not so much this year. Rather than the sudden finish, this year has ended more like a prolonged battle with illness that quietly ends on a drizzly Tuesday at two in the morning and you wake up in the gray dawn and realize it’s gone and you missed it.

Even if we erase all the other pains COVID-19 has brought us—the loss of jobs, the crippling of the economy, the staggering loss of human life, and so much more—my kids are suffering their smallish pains. I do what I can to shield them from the scary stuff, but they miss their teachers, their friends, their grandparents. They miss being able to leave their neighborhood. They miss the world they knew. I miss it with them. My children are endlessly flexible, but the stretching still hurts.

Later this week, after the laptops and the books and the violin are all returned and the school is cleaned out, I’m going to decorate our car are garishly as I possibly can. I’m going to load all the boys up inside and drive them down to the bottom of the hill, then turn around and drive them right back up it, ever so slowly. We’ll roll the windows down and honk the horn and wave goodbye to all the teachers lined up on the side of the road. We’ll wave because we can’t hug them. We’ll shout because we can’t talk. And then we’ll drive home again and I’ll scoop them up and tell them how proud of them I am. And I’ll hope that they’ll be happy with the end of the longest quarter of their short lives.

Hope is a necessity these days, as much as food and water, and I’ll move mountains before I let my kids run out of it.