Sunday, August 18, 2019

Ladders and Chutes


Ladders and Chutes

Recently, I made the decision to start taking online classes to earn my bachelor’s degree. I had never been a great student. It wasn’t that I was dumb, although I was convinced that I was. I started with a lack of confidence in my ability to learn. I did badly enough on an early test in first-grade that my teacher humiliated me in front of the class. I started to have panic attacks whenever I took an exam. I might have studied so much that I knew the answers backward and forwards, but come test-time, I was a wreck. My mind went blank. My second-grade teacher was actually worse. Each day, I felt as if I was drowning.
            It didn’t help that I was bullied at school. I was never into, or any good at sports. I wanted to play superheroes, or talk Star Wars, or other such nerd things that weren’t as excepted as they are today. At home, my father made me feel worse than anything that happened at school. And nobody went to bat for me. Nobody went to the school and told the teachers to stop humiliating me when I did poorly and help me learn.
            My third-grade teacher was different. She used to call me to her desk after an exam and just talk to me about the subject we’d just been tested in. She realized I knew the material. I just was a bad test taker.
            However, other teachers weren’t as willing to work with me. By the time I’d reached high school, between struggling day to day in classes, and being told I just was too lazy and stupid at home, I decided it was no use trying. It was easier never to do homework or to study. It took me an extra year to graduate high school. Since my family seemed more or less embarrassed at that fact, I didn’t bother trying to go to graduation. My mom told me congratulations in the driveway, and that was it. No other acknowledgment, especially from my father.
            I went to a local community college. It was, for the most part, the same pattern. I’d learned to believe I couldn’t. I had, of course, developed horrible study habits. Looking back on my transcript, if it was a subject I was interested in and I paid attention and did the work, I did okay. My English grades and even grades from my psychology classes were all A’s. Anything math related was a D.
            In the end, although I did earn an associate’s degree, I chose once again not to walk the stage. Why bother when nobody in my family at the time seemed as if they thought this was an accomplishment worth celebrating or even acknowledging?
            Lately, I’ve been thinking about how education is like a ladder. You have to take it one rung at a time. This analogy can be used not just for education, but almost anything. You’re in a certain place in your life. Bad job, in debt, and far from where you want to be. You may have made mistakes in life that put you back, but moving forward from that is just so hard to fathom. You’re in a state of depression, where getting out of bed is a challenge that seems insurmountable. It's a tall ladder to climb. And because of all the setbacks, because of all the self-doubt, inward loathing, and the inherent belief that you’re not good enough, you have to climb that ladder with weights attached to you. You only got your 2-year degree and you have to go back to school in your late forties to get a degree you should have done a quarter of a century ago. It’s so many classes. So much work. So many rungs on that ladder to climb. One bad grade is like a chute that brings you down. Every time you start a class, you’re convinced you’re not going to make it to the end without flunking out. Yeah, others have done it. But they weren’t you. That ladder seems so tall, and you just don’t know how you can be expected to climb that high now after when you should be much higher already.
            The answer simply is one rung at a time. Don't worry about climbing all the way to the top today. Just worry about that one rung. Just concentrate on staying on the ladder, and not falling down one of those chutes that brings you back to the bottom again.
            Is it really that easy? No, nothing ever is. It’s still a long climb. And yes, you have a lot of ground to make up. But you can do that one rung today. Worry about the next rung tomorrow.
            Me? I’ve got 2 classes under my belt. I received an A & and A- so far. All while working full time, running a local critique group, participating in another author group, and working on 3 different books. I’m nearly done with the one math class I need to take and believe it or not, I’m actually averaging an A so far. So maybe I’m not as dumb as I’d always believed I was?
            See you on the next rung.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

My past, present, and future with education.


            Growing up, I didn’t have a very easy time at school. I used to go into panic attacks during tests, which caused both my 1st grade and 2nd-grade teachers to judge me as a kid who just didn't study. Things got better in 3rd grade when I had a teacher named Mrs. Hanley who would bring me up to her desk and talk to me about the material. I didn’t realize it at first, but she was quizzing me and verifying that I had studied, I was just a bad test taker. However, things got worse with each subsequent grade. It didn’t help that at home, I was blamed for bad grades, and not encouraged. Eventually, I gave up. By not trying, I wasn’t disappointed. As a result, I developed really bad study habits. As in, I didn’t study, barely did homework. I became satisfied with any passing grade.  I was convinced that was all I was capable of.
            Things got worse in high school. I assumed I’d do badly in most classes. If it was something that was of interest, like English and writing related, I did fine. It wasn’t work. Math was my biggest obstacle. I was okay with math when it had numbers in it, but once they started asking me to find the value of X, I couldn't understand Y. It didn't help that my high school messed me up. They had put me in a remedial class when I should have been in Algebra 1. Then when I passed that, instead of putting me in Algebra 1, they put me in Algebra 2. The policy was if you failed 1, they'd put you in 2 and if you passed, they'd change your 1 grade to pass. 2 built on 1, so if you passed 2, maybe you absorbed enough in 1 and it made sense now. However, as I hadn't taken 1, I was screwed. It didn't help that, being lost from the get-go, I insisted that if Train B hadn't caught up to Train A since my mother was in high school, it never would.
 Eventually, I did get into a community college. I once again struggled with some classes, but I aced others. I managed an Associated degree, got a job and that was that.
Did I have regrets with regards to school? You betcha. Like so much, it was impacted by my complete lack of self-confidence. I was convinced I wouldn't amount to anything, and that nobody cared. I didn't walk to the stage to accept either my high school or college degree. I felt embarrassed by my scholastic performance. I didn't graduate on time, but I did graduate. I was sure nobody in my family would want to go to either. I'm pretty sure I was right about that. After all, nobody in my family even asked if I was going to attend graduation. It was just assumed I'd take the diploma and go on with my pathetic life.
Things have changed somewhat since then. I got married to someone who told me I was smart, and I could do whatever I put my mind to. She didn't pretend that if I had the potential to be a math genius, but that I could learn it if I stopped insisting the answer to every mathematical equation was 8. (It's the perfect #). I've helped to raise 2 extremely intelligent daughters, who have not only succeeded in school but exceeded and surpassed any expectations. I say they got their brains from their mom, but maybe it was possible I had something to do with it. I've become a published author, and learned the craft well enough that I've been able to give a few workshops on writing. I started to see a therapist. He asked me why not go back to school. My answer was quick. Why bother? To invest that kind of time and money to get a four-year degree just for the accomplishment and a chance to walk the stage? It didn’t make sense. I have a day job that doesn’t really care about my degree. I hate it, but it’s a decent paying job. As far as novels, does anyone care if the book their reading was written by an author with a 4.0 masters or if they were a high school drop out?
But I started to think about it. If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t think I could. It was unreal, going back to school in my late forties. I’d had my chance, and I’d blown it.
I started to think about what I was going to do once I was through with my day job. I've been there for 23 years. I can retire at 30, but then what? What if I got my degree? Could I become an editor? Could I get my masters and teach creative writing?
So earlier this year, I decided to look. At first, I tried to find someplace local to take night classes, but it didn't seem like there was any place that would give me the classes I needed to get a degree in English. Then someone suggested Southern New Hampshire University online. They offered not only the English degree but one with a concentration in creative writing. In a moment of insanity, I applied. Then I got accepted. I literally was enrolled on a Thursday and started the following Monday. Intro to Lit. It was a rough start, but I earned an A. I’m now in my 2nd semester, Lit 200, Critical Approaches to Lit. So far, so good. I’ll probably flunk out next term when I take the required math class, but we’ll see.
This time is different. I still worry that I can't, but I'm determined to prove that I can. I'm having to learn new study habits, such as opening the books and doing my homework, but I'm putting in the work. Not a day goes by that I'm not putting in the effort. My grades matter to me.
And this time, when I earn that degree, I will walk the stage. And the family I have today will be there to cheer me on.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

The 10 Rules of Writing. As per... me. Read them, if you dare.



                My ten rules for writing.
1)      Let it suck.

This is rule #1 for a reason. When you write, if you’re obsessed that everything that you put down on the page is perfect, you’ll never finish anything. Let it suck, especially that first draft. You can’t fix what ain’t there. Plow through. 

I’m not saying write your story into a plot hole, I’m saying it’s okay for a scene to be boring, or for the dialogue to be stiff, or a whole slew of other issues. In my first published book, Vision of Shadows, I had a scene where my protagonist Bristol had a talk with her Grandpa about the history of their family. It was an important scene, but it was two people sitting on a porch, gabbing. It felt dry. I almost stopped writing it, but I adhered to my rule. 

Then I revised it. I remembered, ‘Hey, Bristol is a psychic. She’s always got ghosts hanging around, and I have this dearly departed soul who plays a big part later on. Put him in now, where she can see and hear him, but grouchy old grandpa can’t. It made a dry scene flow.

2)      Own your book.

It’s your story. Do what you want. If you wrote a story, and you crafted it to follow the same path as Harry Potter, or something from Stephen King or Nora Roberts, you’d be ripping them off. If you decide to do the opposite of what JK Rowling did, you’re still letting your story be dictated by someone else. Write the story you want to write. We all have influences. In music, we love to hear hints of different musical styles. Same with books. 

3)      There is only one way to plot out, structure, and write a novel. Whatever way that works.

I’m going to go back to the music analogy again. Some musicians write the music parts first, then sit down and write the lyrics. Other’s write lyrics first, wanting the song to tell a story, and add the music to fit. Some write it together. There are songs where the artist took the verses of one song, the chorus of another, and the guitar riff off of a third, all songs they never thought were great, but loved those parts. The listener may never know this and most likely won’t care. What they care about is the song they hear. The end result. Do they like it. 

Some people plot their novels out in such details that they can write the chapters out of order. Other’s have no idea what they’re going to write until they write it. While many find someplace in-between. There’s no one way to do it. And there’s no rule that you can’t do it one way for book one, and another way for book two. What matters is the end product. 

4)      Writers are readers.
You need to have a love for stories. Again, back to music. I don’t know of any great musician that doesn’t love to listen to music. And just because you play in a band like KISS, doesn’t mean you can’t listen to Brad Paisley or Barry Manilow. (3 of my favorites.) That’s not to say you have to read every book out there. But the more you read, the more you absorb. Different styles, techniques for dialogue, world building, descriptions of characters, building tension, and other aspects. You learn, your grow. So keep reading. Besides, it’s fun. 

5)      Criticism is our friend.

When it’s done right, of course. We need feedback. Find a critique partner or group. Have someone read your work. Form a group if you have to. Listen to what they say. Be wary of those who just look to criticize you, cause they’re out there, but mostly writers love to help. If you join a critique group, and you spend the entire time explaining why you used that same word, over and over again, and how this conversation about a character that has no role in the story should be there because you want it, maybe it’s time to reexamine it. Take all criticism you and your story receive with a grain of salt. Other authors might make suggestions on how they might do something. Consider, but you’re not obligated. But if you keep hearing that they don’t understand what you’re saying, it might be time to revise. 

Listen to your editor. There are times when you have a vision, and you want to make your case, but an editor is doing a job. And that’s to give you a sellable, readable book. Pick your battles.

6)      Interact with other authors.

I know some of you are shy or really can't bring yourself to say hello. Some like to keep to yourself. Some may have challenges that a guy like me can’t understand. So my saying this may be far easier than you doing it, so don't feel bad if you can't. However, try to interact with other writers. It inspires and you learn from them. You can cheer them on, and console when they get rejected. Most of us have similar stories, and have faces the same fears, the same doubts. Generally speaking, we’re a fun bunch and we want to be there for you. So, try and become a part of the community. Be a lurker if that’s all you can handle. Maybe you need to work up to it. We’re not going anywhere. 

7)      Don’t feed the trolls

This is more of a social media thing, but it definitely applies to writers. There will be people out there who derive pleasure in embarrassing and harassing you. You’ll always run into that one person who deems it their place to spread negativity, and they often target those who just want to pass along a little positively. You won’t be able to avoid them all. Feel free on social media to hit the block button. Never feel bad about looking out for your own mental health. They’re not worth it. You are.

8)      Don’t be a troll
On the flip side, if you’re critiquing someone’s work, always try and find something positive. They poured their heart and soul into their work. Maybe it’s not anywhere near ready for publication, but find a nice way to telling them that. If you’re interacting with other writers on social media, remember you don’t know what challenges that person faces behind their keyboard. A little kindness can go a long way. Unfortunately, meanness, vileness and malice can go just as far, if not farther. Don’t be that guy. The one who has to try a ruin someone else’s joy, or relishes getting a rise out of people. The one who makes themselves feel powerful but making other’s feel lesser. By nature, most creative types, including writers, are a sensitive bunch. Maybe you’re not. That’s fine. Don’t be the one who makes someone else feel like nothing. You may not want to live with the results. 

9)      The are rules to writing, including writing certain genres. Know them. 

In a romance, there are a lot of rules. The couple needs to meet fairly early. They need to have a Happily Ever After ending, or at least a Happily For Now. There are different rules for each genre. Readers expect these things when they read that kind of book. Understand them. Respect them. And if you feel you need to, break them. Maybe your book isn’t a romance, but a woman’s fiction, or a love story, or a suspense with romantic elements. That’s something that can be figured out later. Other rules exist. Head hoping. (Pick a point of view in a scene and stick to it.) Tense. Show, not tell. It’s one thing to break a rule on purpose, as an artistic choice. It’s another to pretend they don’t exist. Know the difference. No rule is absolute. Heck, one amazing book I read, American Psycho, had the narrator going from 3rd person to 1st in the middle of a chapter. Happened later again. He spends pages talking about irrelevant information. But then again, the narrator was a psycho, so it all made sense. 

10)   The most important rule to remember. Your own.

Again, this is your story. Tell it. The way you want to. Don’t let someone come in, even someone with the best of intentions, and tell you vampires don’t sparkle, or an independently published book about an astronaut stranded on Mars will never be made into a movie. Don’t read a list of rules, even this list put out with the best of intentions, be your bible, or what keeps you from writing. Most likely, you’ve never heard of me, so why assume I’m all knowing, all seeing, and what I say has to be. Take what you like and leave the rest. And guess what? The same goes for Dan Brown, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or JK Rowling. They didn’t let others tell them exactly how to write, and neither should you. Sure, it makes sense to pay attention to someone who is a best seller, but you do you. Because just maybe you’ve got a rule or two that can teach someone something they didn’t think of before.

There you have it. My top ten rules. Do with them as you see fit. Print them out and paste them by your workstation. Or use them to line the bottom of a birdcage. Doesn’t matter. These are my top ten rules. 

So, what are yours?

Ladders and Chutes

Ladders and Chutes Recently, I made the decision to start taking online classes to earn my bachelor’s degree. I had never been a gre...