Tuesday, May 14, 2013

While Pencils Move: A Short Story for Mothers

While Pencils Move
©Chris Pepple 2013

               It’s that time of day again. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. The laundry smells fresh from the scent of my fabric softener I used this morning. A warm spinach and feta cheese aroma lingers in the kitchen from our pizza we completely devoured. The cats have settled into their comfy spots for an afternoon siesta. My daughters are stretched out in the floor in front of me. One has an open math book. The other one has her history book opened to a section on World War II. She is reading and taking notes.

               These moments are times I cherish. I look over my computer screen and watch my daughters learning and growing. I remember when their legs didn't stretch out this far. I also remember when their homework involved mostly coloring or cutting and gluing. Now they think intensely as the wrinkle their brows over historical facts and mathematical fractions.

               I close my eyes for a moment and listen to the sounds of their pencils moving across their papers. I wait for this sound every weekday afternoon. To me it is a sound of togetherness and stillness. The sound of pencils moving across paper ties me to the memories of their earliest days of learning. I picture myself writing a letter on lined paper and asking them to copy my work. With wiggly lines, they began the assignment. We clapped when they completed the task.

               Now they don’t need me as much. They start and complete most tasks on their own. I am more of an observer and a motivator these days. Occasionally my daughters get stuck on a problem and call my name. I can tell when that is about to happen. First, one of the pencils stops moving across the paper. I glance in that direction, careful not to jump in too quickly. I watch the eyes and brows to see if tension rises or clarity pops in. If tension rises, soon I will hear, “Mom, can you help me for a minute.”  I move over and look at the problem. We chat for a minute about the question at hand. Then I hear, “OK, I've got it now.” That’s my cue to move back to my seat so the pencil can move freely across the paper again.

These moments never last long enough for me. I want to sit next to them for hours as they conquer the challenges before them. But all too soon I must move from the scene to start dinner or pay bills or take a phone call from a client. The mail waits to be opened. The flowers need watering. I need to check in with a friend and a few relatives who need a call. Sometimes the moment ends when one daughter gets restless and can’t sit any longer. She usually doesn't admit that. Instead she provokes the other daughter into an argument so she can claim to be the victim and get a break.

But when I hear the sound of pencils moving across paper, I feel a sense of peace and hope. I feel secure about their futures for a moment. I can set aside my worries that arise each time I hear a news report about another mass shooting or teen who died while texting and driving. I can stop worrying about how I will pay for their college tuition. I relax and soak up the moment as we all sit in one room with our minds exploring new thoughts or new approaches to the past.

I hope when I am older, they return home for a visit and sit next to me with pencils in hand. I will ask them to jot down to-do lists or items I need from the store. They may need to write dates of appointments on my calendar for me. They will think I am old-fashioned for not putting it all on a computer. They may also think that the tasks are mundane. But as they write, I know that I will close my eyes and pictures all of our moments together when they were younger and I heard pencils moving across the paper.        

(This story may be forwarded or reproduced with credit given to Chris Pepple as author. This story may not be sold or edited by any other person other than the original author.)               

Monday, December 3, 2012

December 3 Writing Challenge

Greetings! Let’s finish the writing semester with some fun writing exercises this month. Complete one of the following exercises. These seem easy, but try to put some thought into them. Think of an intended audience when you write. Also, try to be original and creative in your message.

Challenge 1:

In 30 words or less for each, create five original greetings for a holiday card. Make at least one card funny. Make at least one card serious, reflecting your religious beliefs around the holiday. (Describe what scene should decorate the card.) Consider making these cards for family and friends. 

Challenge 2:

Make a snow person come to life. If Frosty can do it, so can your snow creation. In 350 words or less, what two things would this snow person want to do while alive in your part of the world. Consider reading this story to a younger relative during the holidays. 

Challenge 3:

I am basing this challenge on tales from friends who are missionaries in Australia, where it is summer (and very hot) when they celebrate Christmas. Write a short tale about spending Christmas day on a hot beach. What would the meal be like? What gifts would work well (they say chocolate melts quickly)? Be descriptive and creative. This is a holiday tale, but in a different setting than most holiday stories.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

November 26 Writing Challenge

Welcome back! Today we want to look at a few things we can think about when editing our work. In my opinion, writers should never try to complete a perfect work on the first draft. Drafts are designed for getting thoughts down on paper. In our first (and even second or third) drafts, we need to get a general plot down on paper and have strong characters forming. As we edit, we need to clean up the details and focus on adding or deleting information as needed.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong! Editing can be quite challenging. How do you know what needs to be added or deleted? Here are a few tips:

What does the reader need to know that we might not have included? In our minds, we may know that the main character has a fear of heights. If we don’t tell the reader, however, a scene may not make sense when a character faces a challenge and backs down because it involves a tall ladder or a steep climb. Make sure you give readers enough information.

Does the order of the writing make sense? Can readers follow your timeline? It is fine to jump back and forth in time as long as the readers can follow your changes.

Have you used strong descriptive language? Have you used enough action verbs? What can you do to make your words come alive for the readers?

Can you take out bits of information that are unnecessary to the work? Do you have too much conversation or too many details in a scene? Don’t add words just to lengthen your story or poem. All words must strengthen the writing or be removed.

When you are editing, get readers to help you. Ask someone to read part of your work and give you feedback. Have someone read the work aloud to you so you can see how it sounds and flows.

Complete at least one challenge:

Challenge 1:

Write 350-450 words (poem or short story) about a Christmas card that was mailed but never received. When you are done, edit the piece so that it is only 300 words long.

Challenge 2:

Write a short story or poem from the point of view of a fish in a bowl on a desk. When you are done, edit the piece as needed.

Challenge 3:

Find an online article that you can cut and paste into a Word document. Edit the piece, making it half of the original length. Tell why you chose to cut what you took out.

Monday, November 12, 2012

November 12 Writing Challenge

Welcome back, writers! Hope you enjoy your weekly challenges. We have been working through projects that take you through the process of creative writing. These steps can also be applied to academic writing. We have looked at details to begin the writing process (brainstorming ideas). We have followed that with a few tools to help with writer’s block if you have trouble starting. We have also worked through assignments that help you add details such as descriptive scenes, consistent and strong characters and a setting right for the characters to develop. In academic writing you would include consistent details to support your ideas and strong descriptive language that adds a depth to your work.

Guidance can come to us a writer when we stop and listen. Can we hear our characters? Can you hear the author you are writing about for a language arts paper? We know what we believe and what our voice sounds like; but unless we are writing our autobiography, that voice is not enough. For example, in creative writing we may put a villain in our story--someone who attempts to stop the growth or progress of our main character. What motivates that villain? What motivates other support characters in your writing? What motivated Thoreau to write while living at Walden’s Pond? Can you hear their voices speaking to you as a writer? They have a voice that you are releasing through your own writing.

These challenges help us think through our listening skills--listening to ourselves and listening to our characters. Complete at least one of these challenges:

Challenge 1:

Everyone has wishes based on things we want, things we need, or things we think we need. Fill in these blanks five times, thinking about your own wishes:

If I had ______________, I could _____________________________.

Now fill in the blanks five times based on a fictional character you are writing or reading about.

Challenge 2:

Find a figurine or stuffed animal in your home. Bring this figurine or animal to life in 250 to 500 words. What would this character need? What would this character think about? What would this character do? Write this in first person from the perspective of the figurine or animal.

Challenge 3:

You get a strange letter in the mail. This letter is from an acquaintance that you knew many years ago. This person made horrible choices and is now in prison. This person writes to you to ask you for something that they think only you can provide. Write a letter from the perspective of the person in prison. What are they asking you for? Why did they choose you to send their request to? 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

November 5 Writing Challenge

Greetings! Welcome back to another week of writing challenges. Here are some questions to make you think: Are you setting aside time to write daily if you have big projects you are working on? Are you reading daily? Are you writing in a setting that works well for you? Are you willing to revise what you write?

Here’s a challenge for you to consider: Set aside one writing project you are working on for at least a full day. When you read through your writing after the day has passed, try to look at the piece with fresh eyes. Do you think your piece still flows well? Do you see edits that need to be made?

Now, back to other business…This week, let’s talk about secondary or minor characters in a book. All books start with main characters that readers can sympathize with or relate to. Books and stories also need the supporting cast, however. These can be friends or enemies of the main character. Consider allies, enemies and mentors to be the supporting characters in a story. Allies assist main characters in reaching their goal or overcoming challenges. Enemies or villains attempt to block characters from obtaining success or become obstacles to a goal. Mentors offer wisdom to characters along their journey.

Characters can move among the various roles. A secondary character in one scene can become a main character later in a story. A villain can have a change of heart.  A mentor can fail at times. Transitions like these, however, have to be believable to the readers. A mean villain needs to have an enlightening moment that the readers can follow if the villain is to become an ally.
Complete at least one of the following challenges:

Challenge 1:

Write a scene (250 to 500 words) in which an ally (a friend or close relative) talks a main character through a challenge. The characters are facing a “person versus nature” challenge (bad weather, earthquake, extreme heat or cold, etc.). You can use dialogue here as well as using strong descriptive language to set the scene. Write this in first person from the main character’s perspective.

Challenge 2:

Write the same scene (250 to 500 words) except have the main character in the same setting with a villain that is complicating the journey rather than helping him/her complete it. Again, you can use dialogue here as well as using strong descriptive language to set the scene. Write this in first person from the main character’s perspective.

Challenge 3:

Write a letter from a mentor to a young traveler. Have the mentor advise the young traveler about some upcoming obstacles he/she may face on the trip. Use your imagination. The details are up to you. Remember--use active verbs and descriptive language.

Just a note: Here's an interesting writing guide if you want to write your autobiography: You Are Next In Line: Everyone's Guide forWriting Your Autobiography by Armiger Jagoe. 

Other options for creative people: 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

October 29 Creative Writing Challenge

Greetings! Welcome back for another creative writing challenge.  Some things to think about as you write: What inspires you? Do you write best after being in a quiet location or after an afternoon out with friends? Where do you write best? What do you do when you feel like you are stuck in a writing project with no direction? How do you handle writer’s block?

These are important questions to ask yourself if you are working on a paper or project that is challenging for you. Get to know your “writer” side. What conditions help you write freely? I write best to George Winston piano music playing on my computer as I write. Other writers prefer total silence. You have to find your own conditions that help you finish a writing project.

If you feel blocked, are you trying some writing exercises to help get the words flowing again? At times, you may need to walk away from writing for a moment to refresh your mind and regain your writing momentum. After that, if you still feel haunted by writer’s block, try free writing on your topic for 30 minutes or try a writing exercise not related to your topic. Also, don’t forget that just going outside and daydreaming can be useful. Creativity does not always mean you are producing something. Daydreaming about what you will produce can be a key part of the creative process.

Try at least one of these writing challenges for the week:

Challenge 1:

Write about the following situation using no more than 300 words: Your character buys a wooden chest at a garage sale. He/she wants to use it as a prop for a school play. When he/she gets home and opens it, he/she finds four surprise objects. Describe what your character finds using complete sentences.

Challenge 2:

Write a poem or story or scene for a book (no more than 250 words) that uses all of the following words: orange, potato, rabbit, cornfield, west, river, fair, and computer.

Challenge 3:

In 250 words or less, write about one of your favorite holidays from the perspective a child between the ages of two and six. Rewrite the same scene from the perspective of a person older than 70 years old.

Challenge 4:

If you are working on a longer writing project, write a letter from a person that you imagine has just read your finished published work. Using 100 to 150 words, what would you like a reader to say about your work? 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

October 22 Writing Challenge

Greetings! Hope you are beginning a wonderful week. This week I am borrowing some information from the Book Genome Project. According to their website (http://bookgenome.com/), this project “was created to identify, track, measure, and study the multitude of features that make up a book. Components such as language, character, and theme are mined and analyzed in order to sift, organize, categorize and ultimately separate one book from another in a crowded and complex ‘bookosphere.’” Basically, they research the content and make-up of books. Another website (http://booklamp.org/), uses the information from the Book Genome Project to help connect readers with books the will enjoy.

I’m borrowing some of their research for you to see:

Many writers want to know how many words a publisher expects a book to be. This chart gives you an overview of the length of the average book in the Book Genome Project. The second chart on the page shows you the most common perspective (first or third person) for each book genre. Of course, you do not need to modify your style based on this information. This information can guide you, however, if you want to see what readers will expect from your book if you are writing in a particular genre.

Take a look at some of the books you are reading. Which genre do they fall into? Do the books seem to follow the average length of other books in the genre (of course, unless you look up the stats on the book somehow, you will have to guess at word count)? Do the books follow the most common perspective for the genre? This is just something fun to think about for readers and writers.

Here’s what writers have to think about when they know a word count expected of them: If you know that you need to write an article for a website or magazine that requires 600 to 850 words, can you write that many words (or that few words) about the topic or person you are considering? Some interviews or topics need more than that to be written about well. Some topics (or people interviewed) can’t fill that many words. Same thing for a novel--if you are considering a story line  can you carry it for at least 40,000 words as an average minimum for a book? Should you write a short story instead? What perspective should you write from? (By the way, we will talk more about interviewing in a future lesson.)

I have three projects for you to choose from this week:

Challenge one:

Write a 250-500 word story about two people traveling to a place new to both people. The travel can be for business or for a vacation. You can decide who the people are and where they are going. You can also decide if the characters are just in the planning stages of the trip, if they are at location, or if they both plan and travel in your story. All of the details are up to you. Write this story in third person (he, she, they). Then write the exact same story in first person (I, we, me, us). Tell me briefly which story you think is the strongest/best and why.

Challenge two:

If you want to try your hand at a novel or short story, write about the setting for your storyline. Where will the book take place? A fictional city or a real one? A rural or urban area? What time periods will the book cover? Have you researched this time period and this location? Give me at least 250 words that answer these questions.

Challenge three:

Write a book review (250 to 500 words) of a book you have read within the last three months that you enjoyed reading. Write this as if it will be published in a local paper or in an online newspaper.  This differs from an academic book report. I don’t want to know academic details about the imagery in the book, etc. I want you to tell other readers about this book. What did you like about it? Why should a reader want to read it? Who would like the book--teens, women, a particular religious group? Don’t retell the book (and never give away the ending). Do give a description and a critical analysis. What was the author’s goal (entertain, educate, inform, persuade)? Did the author achieve that goal? How did this book affect you? Do you recommend it?

Enjoy your challenges! Have a great week!