A Novel Update

So I’ve totally let this Blog slide for the last several years.

Why?

Because I’ve been focusing on writing my book, loving life, and having adventures. It’s been a fantastic several years (nice life, really!).

As for the book, well, I’m now calling it FRACTURED KNIGHTS, though a title change is no biggie. The major revision was writing it in first person POV, alternating between 3 narrators AND IT IS MUCH BETTER! It was good before, but the voice and humor really come through in 1st person.

So I’m happy with it. One agent is looking at it now and I’m hoping to get into #PitchWars (check out brenda-drake.com if you don’t know about PitchWars, the amazingly kind Brenda Drake, etc.).

Anyway, I hope you all are doing well. My absence doesn’t mean I’ve lost my passion for writing–far from it.

And maybe I’ll get back to this blog some day….

Cheers!

Craig

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WriteOnCon is Almost Here!

Attention all Writer Friends!

The best news you’ll read today is that WriteOnCon is scheduled for August 26 – 27 = just over a week away!

This is a FREE online Writing Conference that helped me out tremendously last year. Anyone who is working on Anything should check it out. Heck, even if you’re not currently writing, you should still check it out because you’ll find loads of great information and tips! There will be guest speakers (you can watch the videos later if you’re busy during the day) and best of all, you can post your query letter, the first few pages of your story, and more in the forums. After you’ve done that, read what other people have posted, leave comments, and most will return the favor. I got some fantastic feedback last year that catapulted my writing into new areas that have been wickedly fun (so fun that I have completely ignored my blog lately).

Perhaps best of all, several literary agents and editors will be participating, leaving comments, etc.

So polish up whatever you’re working on (it does not have to be a completed manuscript) and get ready to post!

The website is under construction right now, but hopefully it will be up and running anytime. Here is the link: http://writeoncon.com

I hope to read some of your work soon!

-Craig

*Check out my posts about WriteOnCon from last year for a lot more info.

A kind of Holiday Letter – 2013

Dear Friends,

Welcome to my annual “multiple-choice” Holiday Letter. As you may recall, I began writing in this format because (1):

  1. I enjoy ambiguity.
  2. Everyone loves a quiz.
  3. As a teacher, this format has become 2nd nature to me.

Yet again, I find that my life is ridiculously fun and rewarding. I owe this primarily to my wife and children, though my students, surprisingly enough, make me smile every day (thanks, guys!). There is so much for which I am thankful, including (2):

  1. That I get to spend so much time with my family.
  2. The good news about my Illinois teacher pension.
  3. That I still have winning the lottery to look forward to.

I am also happy to report that my wife (3):

  1. Has fallen in love with a younger man who our kids just rave about.
  2. Continues to make me laugh (not at her . . . usually).
  3. Has been asked to quit working for United Airlines and work exclusively for Air Force One.
  4. All of the above.

Our daughter has entered kindergarten and (4):

  1. Is learning in a bilingual school—most of her education is in Spanish.
  2. Has made several new friends.
  3. Still loves to give her daddy several hugs a day!
  4. All of the above.

While our son is only three-years-old, he (5):

  1. Has the destructive ability of a zombie dinosaur army.
  2. Speaks fluent French and Japanese.
  3. Is a cute, funny, and charming heartbreaker.
  4. Both A and C.

Life remains a blast—providing our family with new and plentiful reasons to celebrate. While we occasionally have a tough break or curve ball thrown our way, we stay happy because (6):

  1. We get shiny new toys that bring true enlightenment.
  2. Our fame continues to spread and our adoring public can’t get enough of us.
  3. Gold coins fall at our feet when we snap our fingers.
  4. None of the above is the key to our happiness.

We hope you have had a wonderful year and that the next one brings you (7):

  1. Adventure.
  2. Laughter.
  3. A few surprises.
  4. The time to do whatever it is you truly want to do.
  5. All of the above.

Happy Holidays!

Sincerely,

Craig

ANSWER KEY: 1 = 3.     2 = 1.    3 = 2.      4 = 4.     5 = 4.     6 = 4.     7 = 5.

Thresholds & Guardians

It is probably impossible for any hero’s journey to avoid thresholds and people/monsters/obstacles that serve as guardians of these milestones.

A threshold can be any dividing line between one point and another. Anything: a doorway, a fence, a river, a way off planet—any barrier is a threshold. The hero will go through several throughout his journey and each one is important because each means he has “made it” to the next phase of his journey.

Often the hero will have to bypass or defeat a person or thing that makes getting through the threshold rather difficult. These beings or obstacles are called “Threshold Guardians”—their purpose: to stop the hero in his tracks.

The most important threshold in any story is most likely the first one: the one that divides the hero’s ordinary world from the sacred world (see my post on “The Call”), but there will be many, and probably an obvious one before the climactic end scene.

While I will have several examples of thresholds and their guardians in my normal film list below, it would be silly not to mention the most plainly magnificent threshold guardian of all time: The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight guards a bridge over a creek no wider than a few feet, but simply stands there and repeats, “None shall pass,” so that King Arthur has to defeat him in combat (except, does he really? Why not just walk a few feet away and hop over the gully?). The Black Knight’s sole purpose is to be a threshold guardian. It is ridiculous and awesome. Please watch the scene even if you don’t have time for the entire film. I’m sure you can find it on Youtube.

EXAMPLES:
Major League: During spring training, the coaches are threshold guardians who will decide whether or not the individual players make it into the major leagues. After that, the coaches become true mentors while each team they face can be seen as a threshold guardian trying to prevent the Indians from winning and making it to the playoffs.
Stand By Me: When the boys first step onto the tracks, they pause at the bridge—an obvious threshold separating their hometown from the unknown. Minutes later, they encounter the threshold guardian: Chopper—the dog in the junkyard. Of course, when they try crossing the big river, the approaching train becomes a threshold guardian that very nearly kills them.
• Harry Potter: Wow. Where to begin? Harry’s stepparents are threshold guardians, trying to prevent Harry from entering the sacred world of wizardry. Then there’s getting into Diagon Alley, the train station and platform 9 ¾, and a billion special thresholds within Hogwarts. Many of these have obstacles making it difficult for normal people to get through. Toward the end, Fluffy (a giant three headed puppy) guards an entrance just as Cerberus guards the land of the dead in Greek mythology. Really, there are probably a hundred thresholds in each book in the series.
The Godfather: While there are many thresholds and guardians in this story, including Michaels’ own family members who do not want him to get involved in the family business because they want something better for him, some of the most obvious thresholds are the doorways in the restaurant scene with Michael kills Sollozzo (an act that irrevocably makes him part of the sacred world and leads to his crossing the ocean and hiding for several years). My favorite threshold, however, is in the final scene—the final shot, when Michael tells his wife, Kay, never to ask about his business and then, as she stands in the hallway, looking into Michael’s office, the door (threshold) slowly closes and she is left on the outside.
• Batman: In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne has to get out of prison (an obvious threshold) only to climb a mountain (another) and then survive his training before returning to Gotham City (yet another). His journey began when he left Gotham (threshold) and went to China. You’ll be able to find many more throughout The Dark Knight Trilogy—though the 3rd film certainly has more than its share once Bruce is left in a seemingly inescapable pit (which he does escape) and returns from around the world to Gotham (never mind that he is actually penniless at that time and the entire city is sealed off—he’s Batman, so he can make it).
Lord of the Rings: The thresholds and their guardians are obvious and ubiquitous in this story, so I’ll just mention one of the more subtle examples: when Frodo and Sam are leaving the Shire. The two Hobbits have been walking for a long while, when Sam suddenly stops where a line of wheat turns a different color. He tells Frodo that if he takes another step that “[He’ll] be farther from home than [he’s] ever been.” He pauses because, though it is just a line of wheat, it a huge step for him. Sam is crossing into the world of the unknown. I also really like that there is a scarecrow there—a silent guardian who gives Sam additional reason to pause and that serves as a warning of what is to come.
Star Wars: As with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, I could make a long list of thresholds and guardians, but if we look at Episode IV (the original, original film), Luke’s Uncle Owen is a threshold guardian who doesn’t want Luke getting involved with the adventure plot. After Owen has been barbequed, Luke is free to do as he pleases, but still has to find a way off his home planet of Tatooine. Some Imperial Stormtroopers (who are repeatedly used as threshold guardians) question Luke and co., but Jedi Master Ben Kenobi is able to use a Jedi Mind Trick on the weak minded soldiers and get past them. Even when the heroes board the ship that will take them to the stars, they are attacked by Stormtroopers who wish to stop them.
Skyfall (James Bond): Bond always faces a number of henchmen, each of whom can be seen as a threshold guardian who seeks to stop Bond from continuing on his quest/mission. In Skyfall, we also see Bond having to pass a number of tests to get back on the active duty list. In this case, his superiors are the threshold guardians who will decide whether or not he can continue.

WRITERS WEEK

So it’s WRITERS WEEK here at Libertyville High School: a full week when we invite professional writers of various sorts to dazzle, inspire, and challenge our students. With any luck, these presenters’ love for the written word will become contagious—infecting our teenagers with a desire to truly craft their own prose or poetry, taking more care than ever before and holding themselves to a higher standard.

And I must admit, it is my favorite week of the year.

It’s only Wednesday and already students are talking about how fantastic authors like Jay Asher (13 Reasons Why, The Future of Us), Jay Bonansinga (The Killer’s Game, The Walking Dead: The Rise of the Governor), Megan Stielstra (Everyone Remain Calm), and poets Robbie Q. Telfer, J. W. Basilo, and Derrick Brown have changed the way they think about writing, reading, and living.

If there are any other teachers reading this, I highly recommend you call these folks up and book them at your school (but it will cost some $$$-we do a lot of fundraising). They are all fantastic presenters and your students will love every minute. Truthfully, the kids will have so much fun they won’t even realize they’re learning and gaining important advice.

I spend a good deal of time helping organize this event. I don’t get paid extra for it—it’s simply something I love and that I firmly believe is important. Really, it’s kind of like putting on our own little writing conference. As a teacher, I’m thrilled at the students’ reactions. As a writer, I enjoy talking to professional writers and I’m inspired by what they do, their work, and the stories they have to tell.

Tomorrow we have musician Chris Bryan (“The Sum of My Habits”) and Kathy Hart from the Chicago area talk show Eric and Kathy in the Morning. With fun entertainers talking about their craft, their careers, and their love of writing and the arts, I am certain the week will continue to blow us all away.

But there is one other reason WRITERS WEEK is so special: our very own student writers and presenters. We ask students to submit their own original short fiction and poetry, take to the stage, and share it with the 200 – 500 other students sitting in the auditorium. Trust me: you’d be amazed at what these young men and women can achieve, what they can say, and what they can make us feel. The entire week is for the students, but in the end, the students themselves steal the show.

My Students, My Readers

This might be my worst idea yet.

Some of my freshmen (class of 2016) have asked to read the current draft of my novel as their “outside reading project” this semester. My first inclination was to say “No” since I want them to read great literature or at least something fantastically entertaining. I’m proud of my story—especially my latest draft, but I’m not in the same league as Rowling, Collins, Tolkien, Card, Asimov, Bester, Conroy, or a thousand others. Besides that, it would be weird for me to have them come in asking questions about my own story. Their reading it makes me vulnerable.

However, I have agreed to their request for several reasons:
1. I am happy with the novel and have received positive feedback from a few editors and other readers.
2. The students seem genuinely interested in what I’ve been up to—they think reading my book would be fun, if for no other reason than the novelty of critiquing a teacher’s work for a change.
3. I’m extremely curious about what they’ll think.
4. I think it is important that they see someone “go for it.” Hopefully, they’ll see me working toward my dream, see that it is often difficult, that it is okay to make mistakes, etc. I’m not giving up and I’m having fun.
5. And there’s a more academic reason: talking to them about my writing process could be a valuable learning tool for them as it (hopefully) will be for me. What I mean is, they’ll be able to ask an author direct questions like “Why did you chose to have X happen?” “How is X connected to Y?” It turns out there is a new state test heading our way in a few years (grumble-grumble-grumble) and it will test high school students on their ability to craft a story—so explaining how and why I made the decisions I did could help them consider story elements in their own writing. At the very least, it should open their eyes to the number of factors that go into an author’s decision making.

I will still encourage them to select any of the other novels on my approved list as they are, in fact, better than mine, but it seems that 10 – 20 plan on reading my draft.

Their critiques could provide great insight about what is working in the story and what is not. On the other hand, this entire ordeal may simply bring me to tears.

Of course, I expect some students to take this as an opportunity to get revenge on me for all the times I gave them something less than an “A.” That goes without saying. Still, I will encourage them to be honest in their critiques and join in my creative process and growth. If I were a student, I think I’d find this appealing. After all, it’s not every day they get an “inside scoop” and can actually help shape a story.

Oh, one last thing: no matter what my students say, “I solemnly swear not to hold their criticism against them.” They can still get an “A” on this assignment if they trash my novel.

I promise.

Choosing the Perfect Setting: Part Two

The best settings influence or benefit the story.

Think of some examples from books or movies you know and love. Many could probably take place in any big city or any small town, but that means the setting isn’t a major “character” in the story. Dystopians and many other science fiction or fantasy novels treat the setting as a character and the plot usually leaps right out of it. This is certainly the case in recent popular YA Dystopians like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and Divergent—the setting practically is the story (though not really because the main character changes quite a bit in each one).

Pick some stories in which the setting clearly benefits the overall story is some way. Take the time to analyze why the setting matters. What makes them memorable and special?

Keep in mind that setting includes the culture, the economics, and the prevalent attitudes of the region. Consider stories like The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible in which the characters’ religious beliefs are the very thing that make the story possible. Obviously One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest could only take place in a mental institution, but Kesey portrayed the asylum (and the nurse who ran it) in a particular way that clearly set up his plot and themes of individualism VS conformity, power abuse, etc.

A Streetcar Named Desire, my favorite play, could have happened in any major city of its time, but the fact that the Kowalskis choose to live in the French Quarter tells us a lot about Stanley and it is a sharp contrast to the plantation lifestyle to which the DuBois are accustomed.

My mind immediately leaps to Gotham City. While there are many incarnations of it, the city usually seems aptly named. That is to say, it is a dark and spooky metropolis—the kind of place that could give rise to a man who dresses like a bat, a psychopathic clown, a crocodile man living in the sewers, and many other scarred individuals with a penchant for mayhem.

Similarly, the city in David Fincher’s film Seven is unrelentingly bleak. It is home to murder and all sorts of moral depravity. While the city is filled with dull, dark colors, rain, and misery, the library (with its bright green lights and classical music) seems like a refuge for our great literary heritage. Unfortunately, we see that the library is empty . . . which ultimately magnifies the drudgery of the city.

On a happier note, check out the film Pleasantville which has two modern teenagers transported into a 1950s television show where everything is always innocent and happy. In this case, the setting changes as the characters within it change. It’s an interesting film worth watching.

What are settings do you find memorable and powerful? What makes them so?