Life

The Unexpected Evolution of Character

I just came across this unfinished blog post from a year and a half ago, and it made me laugh, so I decided to finish it. I no longer spend all day writing in coffee shops, and the manuscript I mention here has been collecting dust for months, but come summer, I hope to be having more awkward conversations in public and putting more words on the page.

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The Unexpected Evolution of Character

I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Recently, I walked into one and saw a man standing in line with his little boy. The man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I claimed a spot at my favorite little table in the corner, grabbed my wallet, and headed to the counter for my large café au lait. The man was still there. Worried that perhaps I did know him and was being weird by not speaking to him, I said, “You look familiar. Do we know each other?”

He said, “I don’t think so. I’m Jeff,” and he offered his hand to shake.

A brief conversation led us to the conclusion that we didn’t know each other but both frequent this coffee shop and had probably seen each other here before. By then it was his turn at the counter. He handed the barista a large glass jug and asked for a refill of the shop’s cold brew coffee while his toddler toddled around between us. By this time, a woman had entered and was standing in line behind me. Out of the blue, she said to me, “Do you like to heat it up?”

I stared at her. I said nothing. No appropriate responses came to mind. After standing there awkwardly for a moment, wondering if her words would make sense if I’d already had some coffee, I said, “Um… what?”

She nodded toward the man in front of me and repeated, “Do y’all like to heat it up?”

Well, this was completely inappropriate. No, I did not like to “heat it up” with this man. I didn’t even know this man. I suddenly, desperately wanted to be safe in my cozy corner table with my headphones on to block out the world, especially crazy women who asked me shockingly inappropriate questions. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, the woman said, “Oh, are you not together?”

Me and Jeff? No! We just met, barely, sort of, in line. It turns out the woman was referring to the coffee. She also likes cold brew coffee, but in the winter she likes to heat it up. Well, not Jeff. He never heats it up. In fact, he likes it better cold in winter. I stood there while they bonded over their favorite beverage until it was finally my turn to order my café au lait and scuttle back to my corner table, slightly scarred by the whole ordeal.

In a way, though, it fit perfectly with what I was struggling with in my current manuscript: I didn’t know who my main character was. I mean, I knew who he was in general. He was a kid being haunted by ghosts who were mad at him for skipping Halloween. But the specifics of the kid—his age, his family situation, his attitude—kept changing, making him feel vague and hard to pin down. I was employing the bracket method I learned in a workshop at The Writing Barn with YA author Ashely Hope Peréz. While writing my messy first draft, I placed brackets around prose that needed to be fixed or blanks that needed to be filled in or story ideas that I wanted to come back to later. It’s a great tool to keep you typing when your brain wants to second-guess or micromanage every little thing, but my brackets were getting out of control.

In one paragraph, my character (whose name kept switching from Donald to Miles) went from being a carefree, ten-year-old orphan to a surly, twelve-year-old kid who resented his parents for going on a vacation without him. At one point he even (briefly) changed gender. I was feeling discouraged about my lack of consistency.

But after my encounter at the counter, things suddenly seemed less dire. I mean, here, in real life, in less than five minutes, a man had gone from being a familiar-looking stranger, to an acquaintance, to my husband with whom I possibly liked to “heat it up,” and back to an acquaintance again.

So I dove back in to my messy manuscript, and I allowed my character to be whoever he/she wanted to be in that moment. I typed and typed and bracketed and bracketed, the only rule that I keep the momentum going forward. And after half an hour, I actually felt closer to my character, who at this point I was sure was a boy named Miles with parents who were alive. Slowly but surely, he began to reveal himself to me, and I felt more comfortable about where we were going together.

Much like Jeff. After all the confusion, I can now say with certainty that Jeff is a man who lives in Austin, has a young son, and likes cold brew coffee, even in the winter. That is all. Our story ends there. Miles’s however, is still going. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

 

Keeps Typing

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Creeeeeeeeak.

[Sticks one arm tentatively inside. Feels spider webs. Flips out. Does hippity-hoppity screechy octopus-style dance move until all spider webs are off.

[Reaches in with broom and clears entryway of cobwebs.]

[Lights match. Sees angry homeless spiders. Drops match. Screams. Runs. Screams some more.]

[Eventually comes back to make sure has not started fire by dropping match. Match is out. Spiders are gone. Soft bluish glow emanates from rectangular device in corner of room. Device beckons.]

[Tiptoes toward light. Sits down on slightly familiar wheeled object. Wiggles until feels more comfy.]

[Blows dust off tray of clicky things. Coughs. Sneezes. Looks for tissue. Finds none. Wipes nose on sleeve. Looks around. Pretends did not just wipe nose on sleeve.]

[Pops knuckles. Pops wrists. Pops neck. Pops knuckles again. Takes deep breath.]

[Types.]

[Smiles. Types some more. Backspaces to fix typos. Curses. Types again.]

[Checks Facebook. Goes back to typing.]

[Keeps typing.]

This is all just to say… I know. It’s been a really long time since I’ve posted anything to my blog. It’s been so long that WordPress is sending me emails like, “We recommend you post at least once a month!” and “It’s been a while since you posted,” and “Hey, you still have a blog, right?” Even my adoring fans* have started asking when I’m going to post something again.

* Ok, mainly just my dad.

So, here I am. I’ve clawed my way out of the piles of student papers and located my cute little office with my cute little computer with its cute little keyboard, and now that I’ve dusted off the cobwebs and sent the spiders scurrying, I plan to visit more often. I’ve missed it.

WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

At school mainly. And at home grading papers. And at coffee shops grading papers. And sitting in my backyard grading papers. I graded, among other things, 174 expository essays, which took me roughly… hang on… carry the one… subtract the sleeping… FOREVER.

It wasn’t all bad though. Some of the essays were quite good, and others were funny. One student wrote in her introduction to an essay about benefits of learning from your mistakes, “Why does failing feel like climbing up a giant mountain, but when you get to the top, the view is nothing but bricks and bones?”

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Nothing but bricks and bones? That’s some creepy stuff from a seventh grader. I may have to borrow that image for a short story.

My students also learned about procedural texts by writing how-to manuals. They had to write the step-by-step procedure for any simple task that could be done in less than fifteen minutes in the classroom. When they were finished, they brought all the necessary supplies for their task, swapped booklets at random, and proceeded to follow the instructions. That was a very amusing day. There were students making origami, braiding hair, doing push-ups, eating cereal, drawing penguins, and learning to throw a softball all at the same time.

The most unique manuals were:

  • How to Clean Your Teeth (complete with toothbrush, paste, floss, and mouthwash)
  • How to Make Cookie Dough (This involved a LOT of supplies and other students kept having to be shooed away from it, like flies.)
  • How to Do a Perfect Plié (This involved extremely detailed instructions about “squeezing your butt” so it didn’t stick out.)
  • How to Reverse Dab (described as “the move that took the world by storm”)
  • How to Play the Cello (yes, she really brought her cello)
  • How to Tell Time in a Room with No Clock (This manual gave step-by-step instructions for raising your hand, asking to go to the restroom, and then using the break to check the time on the clock in the hall.)
  • How to Get a Girlfriend (which was adorable)
  • How to Annoy a Teacher (This one was well-researched, thorough, and expertly executed. My “favorite” step was #3: “Raise your hand. When called on, pretend to think about a question for about 6 seconds, then say, ‘I forgot.’ Repeat this step 3-5 times.”)

[Note: This lesson was not my idea. I got it from one of my awesome coworkers.]

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How to Make a Clay Dog; How to Do a Perfect Plié; How to Make a Ninja Star; How to Make Space Buns (still not sure why she only brought in the Barbie’s HEAD to use as a model); How to Draw a Ninja; How to Make Cookie Dough

However, it hasn’t all been red pens and progress reports. Last week, for spring break, my hubby and I spent a few days at a cabin in Montana with no TV, no internet, no papers to grade, and no SCHOOL! Er… sort of. Actually the cabin was renovated from an old one-room schoolhouse, so it did have a chalk board, and some of the original desks, and pictures of the students, and several vocabulary flashcards. Yeah, now that I think about it, that was a strange choice of spring break getaway. But it was beautiful and severely lacking in stress. We saw lots of elk and bison, and I read a lot of books and made my first snowman. It was wonderful.

Montana Collage

ANY WRITING NEWS?

A little. Back in January, I forgot to share the link to my story “Reap,” which was published at Daily Science Fiction just after the new year. You can read it for free here.

And last month, the nonfiction beginning reader I wrote about octopuses and squids came out through the Scholastic Reading Club. If you have a kindergartner or first grader who’s interested in the ocean, you should check out the Smart Words Beginning Reader Pack #6: Ocean Animals in the April Seesaw catalogue because it includes my book and four others!

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There it is! Right next to Pete the Cat!

IMG_20170315_144204ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?

Um… Staedtler Triplus Fineliners make excellent grading pens. And lukewarm coffee is better than no coffee at all, especially when a student is following detailed instructions about how to annoy you. And you should always stay on the path at Mammoth Hot Springs so you don’t accidentally get boiled alive. And the next time I blog, I’ll try to be a little more focused and a little less covered in dust and cobwebs.

Anyway, I promise to keep typing.

The Tale of the Christmas Bat

Author’s Note: Before I begin, I would like to say that I have nothing but love and respect for the participants in this adventure. They are all kind-hearted, intelligent people, despite how they may appear in this story. You’ll have to trust me on this.

Author’s Note, Part 2: The following story really creates more questions than answers. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I apologize for it in advance.

The Tale of the Christmas Bat

This year, Hubby and I traveled to Maryland to visit his family for Christmas. We arrived at 11pm on the 22nd, hung out with his mom and brother for a bit, then went to bed. At that point, everything in his mom’s beautiful, two-story home seemed perfectly normal.

The next morning, Hubby got up before I did and went downstairs for breakfast, where his mom greeted him by saying, “I lost your bat.”

???

The following conversation ensued:

Hubby’s Mom: “I lost your bat.”
Hubby: …
Hubby’s Mom: “I lost your bat!”
Hubby: “Um… what?”
Hubby’s Mom: “I lost your bat. I poked it with a yard stick and it fell on the floor clicking and hissing but then I lost it.”
Hubby: “You poked… wait, something fell… wait, what?”
Hubby’s Mom: “I LOST YOUR BAT. I took it up to your bathroom to get you back but it flew back down here and I lost it.”
Hubby: …
Hubby’s Mom: “I lost your bat.”
Hubby: “Uh, Mom? I think you have a bat in your house.”
Hubby’s Mom: …
Hubby: “Mom! You have a BAT in your HOUSE!”
Hubby’s Mom: …

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Allow me to back up.

When Hubby’s Mom got up on the 23rd, she saw her cat staring at a bat stuck to the top of her kitchen cabinet, and she automatically jumped to the conclusion that her sons were playing a joke on her. She poked the bat with a yard stick, and it fell on the floor, where it hissed and opened and closed its claws. She still thought it was a toy, so she picked it up with an oven mitt, carried it upstairs, and put it on the toilet in our bathroom. A few minutes later, the bat flew out of the bathroom, flapped its way back downstairs, and made a couple of loops around the dining room before disappearing from sight, and Hubby’s Mom still thought it was a toy.

The woman is no dummy, I assure you. But she can be a bit stubborn. Another Christmas, she gave me an adorable penguin necklace and said, “I got it for you because I know how much you love the movie Happy Feet.” When I confessed that I’d never actually seen Happy Feet, she tried to convince me that I had and that Hubby told her I loved it, until finally Hubby’s Brother chimed in that it was actually his ex-girlfriend who loved the movie, at which point there was an awkward silence, and I said, “Um, well, I love the necklace. Thanks.” Anyway, you can see why it was difficult for Hubby’s Mom to accept the fact that she had a real live bat in her house, especially after she had CARRIED IT AROUND.

By this time, the arguing, screaming, and hysterical laughing had woken both me and Hubby’s Brother, and we joined in the HUNT FOR THE BAT.

Hubby’s Mom’s house is two stories, plus a basement. It has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, two living areas, a dining room, a kitchen, and a sunroom. And a bat. Somewhere. Now that she knew the thing was real, Hubby’s Mom was freaking out about it. She wanted that thing OUT OF HER HOUSE before the rest of the family showed up for Christmas Eve.

While we looked high and low, poking around in every nook and cranny, the conversation went something like this:

Hubby’s Mom: “I CANNOT HAVE A BAT IN MY HOUSE AT CHRISTMAS!”
Me: “Hahahahahahahaha!”
Hubby’s Brother: “Why didn’t you just throw it outside when you picked it up?”
Hubby’s Mom: “Because I thought it was fake! I thought you all were playing a joke on me!”
Me: “Hahahahahahahaha!”
Hubby: “Why would you think we would put a fake bat on your kitchen cabinet?”
Hubby’s Mom: “Remember ten years ago and when you and your brother snuck downstairs on Christmas Eve and put that giant nutcracker by the Christmas tree?”
Hubby’s Brother: “THAT’S NOT THE SAME THING AT ALL!”
Me: “Hahahahahahahaha!”

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One of these creatures was in Hubby’s Mom’s house. One was not.

There was no sign of the bat, which, based on Hubby’s Mom’s description and my Google searches, we concluded was probably a Little Brown Bat. While we all stood around in various states of bafflement (Hubby & Hubby’s Brother), frustration (Hubby’s Mom), and amusement (me) wondering where the bat could be, Hubby’s Mom’s cat calmly walked into the dining room, jumped onto a low wall separating the dining room from the entryway, stood on his hind legs, and stretched his front paws up a decorative column.

Hmm…, we all thought.

A ladder and a flashlight later, and yep, the cat was right. One corner of the hollow column had a hole in it, and the bat was nestled cozily inside.

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Comfy little brown bat

Now we knew where the bat was, but still didn’t know how to safely escort it from the premises.

We tried:

  • Asking it nicely.
  • Threatening it.
  • Banging on the column.
  • Bribing it with (false) promises of bags of mosquitoes.
  • Taping a garbage bag around the hole and waiting for it to fly out into the bag and get stuck there.
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Ineffective homemade bat trap

Twenty-four hours later, on Christmas Eve, we still had a bat, only now there were five more people in the house to stare it and wonder aloud why it had come and when it might leave. Eventually we read online that the bat might be finding a place to hibernate, and Hubby’s Mom was having none of that. She couldn’t deal with the bat for one more day, much less until spring, so decisions were made, plans were formed, and coat hangers were bent into non-pokey, bat-removing shapes.

Hubby, who had the longest arms of anyone present, climbed up on the ladder, removed the plastic bag, reached into the hole with the coat hanger, and gently nudged the bat. The bat did not move. However, it did squeak, hiss, and bite the coat hanger. Hubby nudged it less gently. There was more hissing and biting and squeaking (but this time the squeaking was from me). Finally, after four attempts, the bat became fed up with Hubby’s poking and decided to leave. He/She flew out of the hole, around the dining room, and into the family room where it landed on the wall above the fire place. We moved the ladder, and Hubby climbed up. Wearing two oven mitts, he grabbed the bat with a towel, carried it outside, and set it free, to much applause from the rest of us (and probably a few curses from the bat). Then we all washed our hands for several minutes.

The end.

(P.S. I told you it would leave you with questions. You were warned.)

(P.P.S. Could anyone point me in the direction of a really realistic remote-controlled bat? Asking for a friend…)

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The Christmas Bat, shortly before his/her departure

Things I am thankful for this holiday season:

  • I am thankful that Hubby’s Mom’s cats are up-to-date on their rabies vaccinations.
  • I am thankful that Hubby’s Mom used an oven mitt to pick up the bat even when she thought the bat was a toy.
  • I am thankful that Hubby’s Mom did not decide to get us back for our “clever prank” by throwing the “toy bat” on us while we were sleeping.
  • I am thankful that everyone survived the visit from the Christmas bat, including the Christmas bat.
  • I am thankful that, this Christmas, my husband’s family actually seemed weirder than mine.

********** DISCLAIMER **********

NEVER TOUCH A BAT! Many bats carry rabies, which is a horrible, fatal disease and a terrible Christmas gift. If you find a bat in your house, you should definitely call a professional to deal with it rather than setting up homemade traps and ruining oven mitts. We Juettners were lucky and stayed out of harm’s way, but I do not condone our methods. Please don’t be like us. Stay safe. Also, I’m typing this added disclaimer on my phone, so any typos are most likely the result of clumsy thumbs and not early onset rabies, so please don’t worry.