Red Spiral Notebook, a Substitute Teacher Story

I am a substitute teacher.  Here’s a story from my files.

When I arrived in Mrs. T’s 6th and 7th grade Science class, I found Mrs. T waiting for me. (She was only taking the afternoon off, so I was lucky to get her instructions in person AND I narrowly escaped cafeteria food!) She was speaking to a 7th grade boy and I approached to introduce myself. The boy’s eyes widened with fear at the sight of me. It was somewhat confusing because I’m really not all that scary looking. Mrs. T introduced me to “B” and told me that she was giving him permission to work on his special project after he’d finished the day’s assignment.

I said to B, “Sure! What’s your special project?”

Mrs. T explained. “B is an introvert.” Then she answered my question for him. “He’s writing a book.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “Me too!”

Mrs. T chuckled, certain that I was pulling something out of the “Substitute Teachers Big Bag O’ Tricks” in order to put B at ease.  As you know, I wasn’t.  I told her, “No, I really am. I write YA.” Then I turned to B. “My latest book is about a boy band who are also ninja assassins. What’s yours about?”

Mrs. T was distracted by a commotion in the back of the room and left B and I staring at each other.

B blinked a couple of times, then he launched into a very detailed description of his manuscript. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who becomes a superhero. I’m leaving the description as vague as possible as to not betray his trust. However, B’s description of his manuscript was in no way vague. He explained a complicated plot involving the protagonist coping with suddenly becoming a superhero, living with workaholic parents (because he has to learn to solve his own problems, he said), and unearthing a dastardly plot put into motion years ago by the villain—all while impressing the girl.

While he spoke, a steady stream of students filed into the classroom. Almost every one of them stopped and listened as B outlined his work. By the time he’d finished, the entire class was enraptured. Several students applauded him. One boy slapped him on the back. One girl even hugged him.

While his ideas were fantastic, they weren’t the most fantastic thing about the unfolding scene.

The bell rang and everyone took their seats except for the student Mrs. T had singled out as the responsible helper of the class. The responsible helper pulled on my sleeve and then whispered into my ear. “I’ve been in school with him for years and I’ve never heard him talk to anyone unless a teacher forced him. You got him to talk! Out loud!!”

All I had to do was show genuine interest in his book and he instantly trusted me.

That, my friends and readers, is the power of words.

I got the students working on their assignments and B approached me cautiously, clutching a red spiral notebook. Behind him, a couple students pointed and whispered. I thought, for a brief moment, I was going to have to admonish the students for making fun of B, but I didn’t have to do that. The two boys stared in disbelief as B handed me his notebook. “I’ll let you read it,” he said.

I took the red notebook from him. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m thrilled to read it.”

One of the whispering students spoke out. “No fair! I’ve been asking to read his book for months!”

B sheepishly shrugged at him. As a writer, I fully understand the amount of courage it takes to let others see your work. No matter how much you’ve worked on it or how good you think it is, it’s still sharing a part of your soul with someone. For B, who barely could share his voice, sharing his soul would be a monumental thing.

I explained to the whispering student, “I think he wants another writer’s opinion first, but once he gets everything the way he wants, he might let you read it. Be patient. It takes time to write an entire book. Right, B?”

B shook his head vigorously, acknowledging the effort writing takes and making a silent promise to the student,  then returned to his seat.

As the class worked, I read B’s story. Then I did what I’ve done for every one of my writer friends who’ve trusted me with their stories—I made notes.

I borrowed some post-it notes from Mrs. T, attaching them to appropriate places in the red spiral notebook. The first one said: Great opening line! You managed to nail the complex requirements of a killer opening line that hooks you instantly!

I scribbled on one post-it: Your opening scene gets right into the action. That’s good!

Next I commented on the voice of his manuscript—it sounded exactly like a 12-year-old talking to his friends about an impossible thing happening.

Then, I read in astonishment and made this note: This is based on a real-life event? You did your research! Now I’m even more intrigued.

I read on. It was close to ten pages, front and back. I didn’t get to all of it, but I got far enough along to feel his soul inside the words. There is no doubt this kid is going to be a writer. When I finished reading, I was  eager to get home and work on my own manuscript. That’s what good writing does for me. It lights a fire inside my little writer heart.

I returned the red spiral notebook full of yellow post-its to B. And I told him to keep writing. I told him not to give up, even when it gets hard. I told him there were things in his brain that the world needs to read. There are stories and visions and ideas that only he can share.

B smiled. Then he clutched the red spiral notebook to his chest. “I’m going to finish it, but I don’t know how to turn it into a real book that the library would have. I want my book to be in the library because that’s where I learned to love books.”

Me too, B.

So I gave the world’s most condensed version of “what literary agents do” explanation to B. He wrote some things down in the very back of his red spiral notebook. (The other pages, of course, remain blank, awaiting the words that he’ll conjure later.)

I wish I could’ve given B my email address so he could keep my updated on his progress, but substitute teacher rules strictly prohibit giving/receiving contact information. I’ll have to just keep an eye on the library bookshelves.

Word Flow

Earlier today I told my daughter that I had no idea what I was going to blog about today.

This is the way I approach writing manuscripts as well. I know I’ve mentioned being a “pantser” on this blog numerous times. I’ve tried doing detailed plot outlines, using index cards, making pretty charts on my white board. None of it works for me. For me, the thrill of discovery as I write is the most rewarding part of writing. It’s how I work best and what makes my voice, mine.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have moments like this when I sit down to write.

freak out

I have those moments before, during and after I write. My Crit partner can testify to that.

Oftentimes meandering down the unknown path yields the best result. But working with only a loose outline when when writing can be frightening. Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re going to say.

Here are some things that I’ve discovered that help me with Writer’s Block or as I like to call it, Writer’s Slow Drain.

  • THE RENAME GAME: I wish I could credit the source of this, but I truly don’t remember. It works though. When I’m stumped for a plot idea, scene, or even brief description, I clear my mind then close my eyes. When I open them, I look around the room (or desk, or Starbucks) and stop on the first item I see, then name it something else. For example, I just called my Yoda figure “apple,” the lightswitch, “cow,” and then the box of thumbtacks, “swing.” I don’t really know the science behind it, but it works. After I perform this exercise a few minutes, I always come up with the next thing to type in the MS.
  • PAPA’S ADVICE: I find that Ernest Hemingway’s advice works for me too. “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.” — Ernest Hemingway
  • DANGLING CARROT: I’ve been envisioning a scene for a while now and once I started getting close to it, I had a hard time stopping my writing sessions. I was so anxious to get to that (kissing!) scene that it dangled in front of me like a carrot. Knowing it was there waiting for me to write it made the words come so much faster. Scenes like this are like rewards—a treat to write once I put in the effort to get to them.
  • HEADLINES: Stuck for ideas? Look around you. Grab a paper (or click on a link to a paper), browse social media, flip the channel. There are a plethora of ideas for your choosing. For example, the scene (aforementioned kissing scene) I just wrote for my WIP was inspired by a photo my daughter posted to Facebook after she participated in The Color Run. No, she wasn’t kissing anyone and no, The Color Run has nothing to do with a space station, but yet that photo sparked an idea for a beautiful scenario that I could put my characters in.
  • MUSIC SOOTHES THE SAVAGE BEAST: I’m not a writer who can play music during writing sessions (I sing along and get distracted!) but I am one that is inspired by music. For EVERGREEN, I listened to a lot of Imagine Dragons, Fallout Boy, AWOLNation and Skillet. It set a dark edgy tone that matched my MS. Now I turn on the Ed Sheeran station all the time, which is coming out directly in my love interest. There’s a sweet flirty thing he’s got going, but it’s a little spicy too. Ed Sheeran is perfect to set that tone.
  • NAME GAME: When my daughter graduated college recently we ended up with multiple copies of the program. I tucked one of those copies on my desk next to my craft books. Now when I’m stuck for a name, I whip out the program. I find it very helpful with names from other nationalities. Those are real people with real names, so I know they work. (I do try to flip some first and last names in order not to copy directly.)

If you’re writing, hopefully these tips will help you dislodge those ideas and get more words on the page.  If all else fails, listen to Daryl Dixon.

Daryl drinkwater

On the days it’s hard to write are the days it’s most important to write.

That’s how you know who you really are.

That’s how you know this is what you’re meant to do.

Wake up.

Get up.

Write.

–Chuck Wendig