Sadly, writing does not (yet) pay the bills. No, like so many other writers, I have to have a day job. And mine happens to be high school teacher.
I’ve been teaching for the past decade in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. It’s a very different place from where I grew up out in Oklahoma. Academics are far more competitive, for a start. Back in the land of prairie grass and oil rigs, it’s all about football. I remember everyone in town coming to the high school football games on Friday nights: not just students and people with connections to the school, but old guys who graduated thirty years earlier but still wore their letter jackets, trying to hold on to those old glory days like a character in some Bruce Springsteen song.
Out here, it’s all about the academic achievement. Where I grew up, maybe 1/3 of students went on to college, if that much. Out here, it’s closer to like 90%. So there’s a lot of pressure on the students and on the teachers to perform.
Things are a bit different for me. I’ve always worked in special education, with students who have a variety of learning disabilities and associated Other Health Impairments (a category that covers ADD and ADHD), maybe some emotional disabilities or something on the Autism Spectrum. I love working with this population, and not just because we tend to play the same video games and watch the same movies and read the same comic books. There’s something deeply satisfying about working with a group that is so often maligned and mistreated in our society. Learning disabilities are often treated as punchlines to jokes rather than conditions that can lead to so much frustration, anxiety, and even anger in the classroom and everyday life. I’ve worked with a broad spectrum of students, from those who were capable of college-level academic work to those who literally cannot dress themselves or bathe themselves. I’ve had students who could discuss Shakespeare, and students who could not remember my name from one day to the next.
It’s a job that has its bad days, that’s for sure. Those days when you have what you think is a well-crafted lesson plan that falls apart five minutes in. Or the ones where you think something will only take ten minutes, but it takes 50. Or you think it’ll take 50, but it really only takes 5. Of course, then there’s all the standardized testing you have to get them ready for. Everyone loves the standardized tests, except that none of us do.
Teaching is far more challenging than most non-teachers think. The teaching itself may be straight-forward and even simple, but with special education especially, that’s not the hardest part of the job.
No, the hardest part is having to be constantly on. From the moment you walk into the building until the moment you leave at the end of the day, you are performing. You have an audience, one that senses fear and mistakes and will jump on either and tear you apart if you’re not careful. Every action you take, every word you say, it all has to be carefully thought out before you do it, and you are never given the time to actually do that careful thinking. Decisions must be swift, downright immediate, or you risk everything spiraling out of control. You can’t let yourself relax or lose focus for even a second, because that’s when disaster can strike.
But it is a rewarding job, as day jobs go. There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see a student master a new skill, or remember information they didn’t think they’d be able to recall, or see them become interested in a subject they’d detested or thought they could never get into. Those are the moments that make teaching something I love doing, and something I continue to drag my carcass out of bed for each morning.
I’ve…never been good at organization. If any of my previous English teachers are reading that sentence, they are muttering to themselves that it is the single greatest understatement in human history, ranking up there with “the Beatles were a pretty good band” and “maybe Hitler was not a very nice man.” I’d like to blame it on my ADD (like that guy from AWOLNATION, who capitalizes the entire band name for some reason? Maybe that’s the ADD’s fault, too), and it’s probably a significant culprit, but executive function has just never been my bailiwick. It bleeds over into my planning and plotting on a book, too. A few months ago, I wrote a guest post for Hart’s Romance Pulse where I talked about plotting by the seat of my pants. I’m not going to completely rehash what I’ve already said pretty clearly somewhere else, but I did want to address it a bit here on my own site.
Some authors, of course, craft very detailed, very specific outlines, with plot beats planned and scripted in a rigid text that is to be adhered to like a holy book. I am not of their ilk. A lot of my plot beats are created in the spur of the moment, following a general theme of, “I’m kinda stuck at the moment, what if someone started shooting at the protagonist?” It’s served me pretty well so far.
Generally speaking, when I’m writing, I’ve got a couple of plot points that I know have to happen. I usually know how the story will end. What will happen between my starting point, those important plot beats, and the ending? Only God knows for sure, and He likes to make me work it out for myself.
Mostly, it’s a lot of bad guys shooting at the hero.
As a writer, I sorta have to acknowledge my influences. There are many, and I wouldn’t be who I am today as a writer if it weren’t for them. So, to assign credit/blame where it’s due, this will be the first of several posts outlining my influences and what they’ve done for me. Today, it’s the work of Terry Pratchett!
Sir Terry Pratchett is, of course, the beloved author of the Discworld series, 40-odd books set in a world where magic is real and the world is a flat disc sitting on the back of four elephants that in turn stand on the back of a giant space turtle, the Great A’Tuin.
It’s still hard for me to talk about Sir Terry, who passed away last year from complications related to a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s. He
wrote right up until the end, crafting books with speech-to-text software when his brain betrayed him and forgot how to read and write. But his sense of humor, his love for the absurdity in the world, was still as strong as ever. So was his sense of anger. Neil Gaiman, his friend and writing partner for the novel Good Omens (one of my absolute favorite books of all time, and the novel that introduced me to both Pratchett and Gaiman), described Sir Terry as a man driven by a deep sense of anger with the injustice of the world. Whatever else Pratchett wanted, he wanted justice to be done and for good to win in the end. It may not be a clean win – in many of the Discworld books, the “good guys” win, but with compromises and conditions. Pratchett was, behind the jokes and the satire and the fantasy tropes that he constantly subverted, a bit of a realist about human nature. Folks aren’t usually good or evil, right or wrong. There are gray areas, and you have to acknowledge them if you want your writing to have any real depth to it.
I guess the biggest thing I learned from reading Terry Pratchett’s novels was that you can tell a ridiculous story, one with fantasy elements or bizarre sci-fi elements, and it can be funny and affecting and emotional and real in a way that non-genre fiction often can’t be.
Favorite Terry Pratchett Novels:
1. Small Gods. Sir Terry’s beautiful examination of the value of faith and belief, not just in some higher power, but in yourself.
2. Thief of Time. The Monks of History are tasked with making sure effect follows cause, that past comes before present, but the building of a mysterious clock in Ankh Morpork (where everything big always happens) and the weird powers of a thief-turned-novice-monk might not mean the end of the world, just the end of Time itself.
3. Witches Abroad. The Witches novels are my favorites, but that’s because I’m partial to Granny Weatherwax and her pragmatic approach to magic (or what she calls “headology”). This isn’t the first Witches novel, but it’s probably the best, and it carries the idea of the power of stories and narrative causality to a perfect conclusion. Someone is using stories to get their way, and it’s up to the Witches to stop them. Assuming some jerk doesn’t drop a house on their heads first.
4. Reaper Man. Death takes a holiday as Bill Door, works on a farm, and sorta ends up saving the universe from the Auditors.
5. Guards! Guards! The first of the Commander Vimes novels. Ankh Morpork’s Night Watch is where the worst of the worst end up, the folks too lazy, dumb, or not-self-aware who can’t hack it in the daylight. But when a dragon mysteriously starts appearing around the city and causing random havoc, it’s up to Vimes and his small team of nearly-useless fellows to solve the case and save the day.
If you’re like me – and you should all be so lucky – then writing is a process that involves music. Lots of music. But not just any music! No, you must listen to specific songs or specific styles to help set the mood for your protagonist’s adventures. Or misadventures. Or what have you.
I have a constantly-evolving playlist on my phone of the songs I listen to while writing. Some are on there because they fit a specific scene, while others are more about describing the characters or the mood. The following playlist was developed while I was writing The Invisible Crown and another novel that will appear later in the series, tentatively called Death and the Dame (that one’s a love story. Sort of).
1. Anita Kelsey, “Sway”: There have been times I’ve just written to the Dark City Soundtrack. This is still one of my favorite songs off that collection.
2. Sting, “Perfect Love…Gone Wrong”: On there because of the smoky, steamy city jazz feel, and also the extended metaphor where Sting is a disgruntled dog amuses me to no end.
3. John Mellencamp, “The Full Catastrophe”: Perfect summation of my protagonist, Eddie Hazzard. His life is a bit of a rolling catastrophe, and there is a minor chance he was accidentally loving your wife while you were loving his.
4. Soul Coughing, “Fully Retractable”: One that’s on there for tone/mood. There’s a dark undercurrent, a sinister feel to this song that’s just really fitting.
5. Muddy Waters, “Rolling Stone”: Life in a blues song always sounds like it sucks. I imagine Eddie’s life is much the same way.
6. Bob Dylan, “What Was It You Wanted”: Either the narrator is stuck in a world that makes no sense, or the guy took a shot to the head. Either way, a Dylan song is a must-have on pretty much any playlist I put together.
7. Gorillaz, “M1A1”: Fight scene song! Love the energy, the staccato burst of the snare, the spiky guitars…great soundtrack to a fistfight.
8. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Red Right Hand”: Another mood setter. Creepy, dark alley vibe that I dig.
9. EL VY, “Happiness, Missouri”: Like I said, a lot of songs I stick on these for the general mood they set. This one fits with the general feel of the city of Arcadia: dark, slightly mysterious, vaguely threatening and sinister.
10. Arcade Fire, “My Body is a Cage”: The contemplative, protagonist considers his actions and his destiny before launching into the story’s climactic scene song. Love the build of it, the sense of determination and all that.
11. The Dead Weather, “Hustle and Cuss”: Basically the Eddie Hazzard theme song. He has to be out there hustling, working his tail off, because his enemies are always a few steps ahead of him. And cussing…well, you have to express your frustration somehow.
12. David Gray, “Dead in the Water”: While The Invisible Crown might be the first of Eddie Hazzard’s cases, it certainly won’t be the last. I’ve got three other novels already written in the series, I’ve started working on the fifth novel, and I have plans for the sixth. The core idea for the sixth book came from a short story I wrote a couple years back about Eddie and a particularly disturbing case and a mis-remembering of a lyric from this song. Expect to see that book in…um…2022 or so, maybe? I dunno.
13. Adele, “Rumor Has It”: A private detective works with whatever information he can get. Sometimes, that information is merely rumors. Sometimes, those rumors turn out to be true.
14. Tom Waits, “Way Down in a Hole”: Tom Waits sounds too ludicrous to even be one of my characters, and I have one antagonist who’s a head in a jar named The Fish. Honestly, when developing characters, I just ask myself, “What would Tom Waits do?” and go from there. It’s served me pretty well so far.
15. Modest Mouse, “Bukowski”: This always struck me as driving music, the sort of thing you’d hear on the soundtrack if TIC was turned into a movie/TV series and they had a scene of him driving from the office to an informant or chasing down a lead.
That’s my playlist! What do you listen to when you’re writing?
It’s all official!