Anecdotes from the Classroom

I retired from teaching just over two years ago. I spent sixteen years in the the trenches, mostly teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) but also two years as a secondary school English teacher. Some days I miss it, some days I don’t.

Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the kids I’ll never see again. There was the 14-year-old girl in Pusan who would bring her small robots to class with her. There was the young boy who had the most inquisitive mind, and who drew knowledge from me that I didn’t know I had. There were the musical prodigies, the kids who hated being there, the inevitable kid who had a crush on the teacher and couldn’t hide it… Many of these ‘kids’ have now doubled their ages. They’ve started careers and maybe families, and I’ll never know.

That’s part of being a teacher: Giving your best and sending them on to their future. We’re just one station on their journey. You don’t get to know what that future will turn out to be.

Here are a few that I’ve been thinking about recently.

I had a student, about 11 years old, who was the perfect student, engaged, happy, contributed well and in fun ways – as long as you didn’t try to get her to read. Then she became a holy terror. She would do anything to get out of reading aloud, including, once, punching the teacher (me).

I spoke with her parents (they’re paying good money to send her to a top language academy. This needs to be addressed for her to progress). Her mom knows this happens but doesn’t know why. Her school counsellor suggested it was some psychological aversion (?).

I did something we’re not suppose to do; I suggested the parents have her tested for dyslexia. I wrote it out on the board so she could take a picture of it. They’d never heard the term, it certainly hadn’t come up with their daughter’s school counsellor.

A few classes later, the girl shows up wearing glasses, all smiles. “Hi teacher, I have dyslexia!”

“OK, we can work with that.” I had a font that was supposed to be easier for dyslexics to read. I started printing a handout in that font for her (if I gave it to all the students I’d’ve had to explain why we were using an odd font.) I also had a list of all the famous dyslexics to show her that it wasn’t a tragedy to resign oneself to.

Her mom thanked my manager for my suggestion on being tested for dyslexia, and since we’re not supposed to do that, I got “talked to” and told not to do it again.

I had a new class of teenagers. When I walked in on the first day, one of the boys was barking. As I called the class to order and started taking attendance, he continued barking.

I walked around, calling names, and when I got to him, asked quietly, “Can you control this?”

His tone sounded panicked as he answered “No.”

“Ok,” I walked away. Apparently, he had a form of Tourette Syndrome. I figured it got worse when he was anxious so I tried to take the anxiety out of our encounters.

We tend to think that kids with disabilities are somehow model students otherwise. He wasn’t. He was one of the class bullies.

At one point, I sat down with him. I told him that I’m never mad at him for the sounds he makes, but if he didn’t behave properly in class, I would get mad.

This was a surprise to him. I guess a lot of his teachers gave him leeway because of his TS.

He started behaving better in class after that.

I was teaching nine-year-olds in Korea. One day, one of the boys, who had never been trouble before, started acting up. He wouldn’t pay attention and he was disrupting the class. I ended up having to raise my voice with him.

Class continued. I didn’t punish him or isolate or in any way treat him differently from before.

The next day, my Korean manager calls me over. The boy’s mom is here to talk with me (When this happens, I’d speak in English to my manager who would translate for the parent). Apparently the boy came home crying, believing that I now hated him and wouldn’t let him back into class.

I told my manager that the student was fine; He was a just a boy. Sometimes boys that age have too much energy and don’t know how to control it. I had to raise my voice to get him to focus. Each day is a clean start. I wouldn’t be upset unless this became his new normal.

Having said all that, I asked the manager to translate. “Oh, she’s fluent in English. I don’t need to translate.”

So I turn to the mom to see if she wants to ask any questions. “Thank you, you are a good teacher.” And she leaves.

That’s the highest compliment.

Again, teaching in Korea, I’m in the grocery store when something very common but very annoying happened:

“Stephen-Teacher!” A man is calling out to me. “You teach my daughter. How is she doing?”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” I have sixty students, about half are girls. Perhaps I can figure out who he’s talking about.

“Jenny.” I have seven girls named Jenny across my five classes. I tell him this, ask for more detail, meaning which class, which days. “She’s about this tall,” he answers (The same height as most of my students) “and has straight black hair” (Just like every girl her age).

Me, still with no clue who we’re talking about, “Oh, yeah, Jenny. Yeah, she’s doing fine.”

Of course, this wasn’t good enough. “But what more could she do?”

Korean kids don’t get to have enough fun, at least not back then. “She could exercise more… maybe ride her bike or play soccer with friends. Something to help clear her mind, get some fresh air.”

“Oh?” He walked away disappointed.

I walked out of class into the usual confusion that was end of day. While many kids took school buses to and from the academies, others were dropped off and picked up by a parent.

Note that each class has a camera in it and parents are allowed to watch classes through the monitor in reception (instead of standing at the classroom door, distracting us all)

A mother comes up to me, being followed by our manager, who has a panicked look on her face. The mom speaks to me, very upset. “Teacher, you asked every student 3 questions except my daughter. You only asked her two. Why?”

“Oh, it was obvious that your daughter understood everything. I needed to check that the other students were as smart as her.”

Happy mom walks away, manager looks at me with confusion. “Really?”

“I don’t know… who’s her daughter?”

Before I come off sounding too full of myself in all these anecdotes, here’s an embarrassing one.

I had a young student, I think he was 10, again, perfect: Engaged, fun, great on team work, excellent scores and talkative but not dominating conversations.

Then one week he comes in and he’s a different kid. He’s sullen, vacant, lost. This goes on for a couple more weeks (I only see his class on Sundays).

He’s young enough that he can’t leave after class until a parent shows up. So I wait around, find his mom and ask to speak to her.

I tell her what I’ve observed, then ask a stupid question, “About three weeks ago, did his dog die or something?”

“My mother, his grandmother, yes.”

I apologized, a lot.

We talked on about how this was the first time he’d experienced a death in the family. She said they had talked to him about what had happened and he said he was fine.

Apparently he was putting on a brave face for them that he couldn’t sustain when he was out.

He did come most of the way back to normal eventually, but he’d aged a bit (or perhaps matured).

One more: Even more embarassing.

It was literally my first week teaching ESL in South Korea. I wasn’t used to the culture at all and was probably still a little jetlagged.

One of the boys in class (10/11-year-olds) won’t stop talking over me. I’m going through an escalation of responses … “Ok, time to listen… ok. stop talking now .. ok, be quiet …” Finally I said, “Will you shut up?”

There’s loud gasps from all the students. One of the girls says, “Teacher swore!”

“No I didn’t.”

“You said the ‘sh… word”

“I said ‘shut up’” Large gasp again. “That’s not swearing, ‘Shut the f*ck up’ is swearing.”

Yes, I actually said that, to a class of ten- to eleven-year-olds.

I don’t know how I didn’t get fired, but no one ever mentioned it to me, not a student, not a parent, not my counsellor, or manager.

Making Money Ain’t Easy

Look, we’re all struggling to make money, authors as much as anyone else.

“Buy My Book! But My Book!” Ad Nauseum

As a writer, you can focus all your energy on getting people to read your books, but there’s a number of drawbacks. You pimp and pimp your books on social media, watching as you lose more followers than you get.

First, you need to have enough material out there that when people read one, they will have more to consume. If you’re new, or a slow writer like me, this isn’t easy to achieve.

So many writers look to alternative strategies to make money.

A simple one is to get more revenue from your existing work. This can mean submitting your shorter works to foreign markets for translations – which is time-consuming and doesn’t earn much, but might build an audience for later material. Or, it can mean making a Patreon-type program, where people are encouraged to pay money to get early access to your writing.

Again, this doesn’t work well with slow writers, and can also be difficult for writers who simply don’t have enough material to entice a recurring payment. Also, if you haven’t found your fans on social media, how will you find them on Patreon?

Then there’s the tip jars like Kofi. Without giving anything away, you simply ask people to tip you some money. I don’t know anyone who’s having success with that.

A couple of my designs

A different strategy strategy is to try to create multiple revenue streams from different products completely. That’s what I’m trying to do, by edging into Print-on-Demand t-shirt and all-over-print clothing.

This is your RedBubble, Etsy, Printful type work. Depending upon how you want to structure it, and how much control you want, you can find a solution that lets you design using their tools (great for silly slogan stye t-shirts) or go full-on photoshop CMYK designs on all-over prints.

Again, you have a problem of how to find an audience, but in theory Etsy or RedBubble are also trying to sell your work, so you have a very little bit of support from a very large player.

There are no easy answers.

The Impact of a Title

Writers think carefully about what to call their stories. So do publishers. I have one story that may be being hindered by its title. Let me explain.

Some titles are very direct. Let’s look at some movie titles as examples. If Star Wars isn’t about wars in space, I’ll be very disappointed. Other titles are more evocative without necessarily meaning anything. Apocalypse Now has nothing to do with the apocalypse. Reservoir Dogs? Spoiler: It isn’t about reservoirs or dogs. Still, each of these is a memorable title.

Think about The Life of Pi or The Forever War or Cloud Atlas. There’s a lot to be said for giving your story a memorable title.

But what if the title hits the reader wrong?

I have a story. It’s gotten excellent feedback from a number of editors. Each has loved it, but… And the “but” never gets quite articulated. I wonder now if maybe it’s the story’s title that’s causing the ‘but’.

What’s the story called? Graceful Degradation.

It’s not about BSDM (BDSM?). There are no whips, no bondage. The title comes from an old profession of mine, User Experience Design (aka UX). In UX, the concept of graceful degradation is that if something fails the user, it should do so in a way that allows some continued level of usage.

The primary example of this is a comparison of elevators and escalators. At the most basic level, both move people between floors. If an elevator breaks, it is no longer a means of getting from one floor to another. However, if an escalator breaks, it gracefully degrades into a staircase: still usable, if less helpful.

I took that concept and applied it to tokens of memory: photos, writing, music. What if they all were designed to degrade gracefully? What if there was no permanence allowed, so artists made works in such a way that the failings revealed new insights or expressions.

This is the backdrop for the story Graceful Degradation. Within this universe, there is a man trying to honour the memory of his dead wife. He wants to preserve photos of their wedding. He wants to preserve a recording of their wedding song. But each of these isn’t only difficult-by-design, they’re illegal.

So our protagonist is driven to some of the darker corners of society. He’s noble in intent but ill-equipped for the deception he needs to pull off.

As I said, I’ve gotten complimentary rejections of this story from editors of literary and genre magazines around the world. They like it… but…

Since no one can articulate the ‘but’, I’ve come to wonder if it’s the title that’s the hang up. I really like the title. I hope I’m wrong.

If you think you’d be interested in reading Graceful Degradation, it’s included in the collection The Maiden Voyage of Novyy Mir and Other Short Stories. The book is available in either e-reader/epub or paperback. Click this books2read link to get a list of retailers carrying the book. Or you can buy it through my indie publisher site, Skrap Books, if you’re in the US or Canada and would prefer to put more money into my pocket as opposed to the big box bookstores.

Memory is Such a Fickle Beast

I’ve been delving deep into a memory that I’d kind of forgotten about until a conversation recently with a friend. He asked me what was the weirdest thing I’d ever written.

I have written obituaries, but I didn’t talk about that. What I did talk about was that in university, I wrote a 3-act musical comedy that was performed six times over four days.

By Richard Bain –, Copyrighted free use,

Back in the day, the late 1980s, I was an undergrad at the University of Guelph. For those who have never heard of it, UofG is a Canadian university that offers a world-renowned agricultural program, along with a veterinary school, a hospitality school and the usual mix of arts and sciences. I studied Politics.

There was a troupe, called Curtain Call, that commissioned and performed a play each year. Their approach was to take an existing play or movie as a template, and mock both it and the latest year at the university.

A friend of mine had written it the past three years, using South Pacific, The Fiddler on the Roof, and The Sound of Music as his starting points. He didn’t want to do it a fourth time and recommended me to the group.

After a quick meeting with them, I was on board.

I chose The Rocky Horror Picture Show as my source. Roughly the plot of my Aggie Horror Show was that a Vet student wanted to win his roommate’s girlfriend (they were both Aggies), so he made a sentient bull to impress her. It got weird from there because the bull also fell in love with the girl.

Other plots involved a benefit concert for the ‘displaced guy’ (with everybody staying with their girlfriend/boyfriend in residence dorm rooms, there was always one guy who had nowhere to sleep. Let’s do a benefit for him!). There was the girl who’s secret power was that any elevator she entered would break down (there were so many elevator breakdowns that year, it was topical). And there was a rivalry with another university (The very business-oriented University of Western Ontario. When we beat them at football on national TV that year, they chanted, “It’s alright. It’s Ok. We’re gonna own your farm someday!”)

I didn’t use a lot of songs from Rocky Horror, from what I remember, but I did rewrite Time Warp to be about midterms (“Let’s write midterms again!”*). That was the centerpiece of the play. Also, there was a rewrite of Kate Bush’s Heathcliff about an environmental group’s reusable coffee mugs (this was a controversial topic at the time)… and … and … and … I don’t remember!

There were six or seven songs. I think I rewrote Summer Lovers from Grease to highlight the university rivalry… aaah, memory fails. I no longer have the script, and the only copy of the performance is on a VHS tape stored thousands of miles from me, slowly deteriorating, I’m sure.

Sadly, Curtain Call as a truly amateur production, only existed from 1957 to 1992. The club was taken over in 1993 by drama students who wanted to do professional productions and the group, now (retroactively) named Curtain Call Productions, no longer creates original satirical content for the enjoyment of the community, but stages professional productions for profit.

This may benefit the resumes of the students cast in roles, but it was done at the expense of a unique tradition. They could’ve just started their own drama club and left the amateurs to have our fun, instead of taking over our branding and reputation (satire since 1957!) and squeezing us out.

Of course, we’re talking about university; within every four years there’s a complete change of students. If something stays the same for five years, it’s “always been that way.” And that’s what Curtain Call would be now.

*Lyrics as I think I remember them(?):
Put your name at the top
(Put it on the riiiiiiight)
Keep your eyes to yourself
(and your chair in tiiiiiiiight)
Don’t watch the clo-ock
it’ll drive you insay-ay-ay-ane
Let’s write midterms again!

My Dreams Are Weird

I’ve written before about my dreams, but I’m going to do so again, as I have something new to share: My dreams have changed.

I don’t mean my aspirations, wishes, hopes for life. I mean my alpha wave middle of the night dreams have changed. And this isn’t the first time, now that I reflect on it.

So maybe this is normal. I don’t know. Someone will have to tell me.*

The first wave of recurring or similarly themed dreams that I remember were when I was a child. In each of these dreams, I was being chased by a tornado. Not that I was running – sometimes yes, but often, no.

In those dreams I would usually be in a group of some kind, all immersed in an activity. I would notice a tornado coming towards our house or field, and would try unsuccessfully to get people to notice. The theme was always the same, some kind of frustration, anger at an inevitable demise that I couldn’t get the adults around me to acknowledge or confront (did I tell you I grew up in the cold war?)

Oddly, these dreams led me to writing. I’ve written at least two stories based on these dreams.

The second memorable theme in my dreams didn’t start until I had traveled far and wide. I started having frequent dreams that were all about me exploring the same non-existant city (I think it’s fictitious). It was a square city with ocean on three sides, and a highway that ran both along the shoreline and across the top of the city, off into the distance.

I ate in restaurants in that city. I drove around it, took public transport. I was in a shootout in the docks. I went to the bank, and a museum/ I took food to a poor family on the outskirts. I helped rescue a kidnapped friend…

In later dreams, I would know my way around, seeing buildings that I’d been to in previous dreams. I’d even lead people through the city to specific places.

I thought that was a weird overall experience. Well, now comes phase three of my dreams.

I’m no longer in them.

Yep, in my dreams now, I’m not present.

Now my dreams are very short – maybe as short as fifteen seconds. I’m in someone else’s body, experiencing the moment. These aren’t magical, special moments. These are “I’m pumping gas at the petrol station.” Or “I’m paying for groceries.” Sometimes I appear to be in the middle of a conversation for which I have no context.

But the weirdest one was the longest one – and in it I was in two different people’s heads.

First, I was in a guy’s head. He was driving a very pretty girl to the cinema. He was nervous, excited. Once they got seated at the cinema, before the movie even started, she decided she wanted to go home. He went to get the car. It was down a slippery gravel parking lot (spring ice, I think). By the time he got the car up and out of the lot, she was getting into a taxi.

Then the really strange part.

I shifted into her head and saw him. I learned from her that his name is Charlie and that he’s neurodivergent but functional (down’s syndrome, I think) and that she’d gone out with him to the cinema as a joke. making a scene in the theatre and leaving him there was the punchline.

Then I jumped back into his head, but on a different day. He was racing his car down the town street to get somewhere, but cars and pedestrians kept cutting him off, swearing at him.

He couldn’t understand why something as simple as keeping an appointment was so difficult. He didn’t understand that the whole town was intentionally making his life harder than needed because they didn’t want him there. He just assumed that this was how hard life was and couldn’t understand how everyone else functioned so well.

Understand, this was all in a dream. It took you longer to read it than it did for me to experience it. I’ve never had dreams like that before.

*Comments are turned off on this site due to attempts to hack in through the comments. Please comment on twitter @StephenGParks or instagram

Misinformation Fatigue

Like many of you, my life has been impacted by misinformation, especially during Covid. Now, I come from a family of skeptics, we question everything. My wife’s family not so much. They belong to a number of interesting WhatsApp groups, mostly based around their church and faith.

Image by Stephan Fuchs from Pixabay

One member sent me a message about a miracle that had occurred, signalling the end of days. It appears, according to this message, that the Moon was visible in the sky at the same time as the Sun.

My first response was the Moon is visible in the same sky as the Sun every month. I included a link to Google images of it. “No the Moon outshone the Sun in the sky. This is miraculous and was visible all across the USA,” the reply concluded.

Me: So the country with the most astronomers in the world and the most evangelical Christians all saw this and it’s reported on no news sites, not anywhere on social media? Only a church in India knows about it?

“Oh, wait, it happened five years ago, never mind.”


Covid-related misinformation has been much worse, although fortunately most of the family eventually fell in line with science on this one.

Image by Alejandro Tuzzi from Pixabay

In the early days I was getting messages about a French doctor “debunking” the very existence of Covid. Oddly, the attached ‘proof’ was always a link to a “Wisconsin Lime Disease” website, never to any kind of medical authority. I had to debunk this one twice.

Of course the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has brought out. the end-of-days doomsayers again. That “BBC News” video from 2018 that apparently shows the beginning of WW3 has been all over my family’s WhatApps.

Whenever I debunk something like this, I ask my family member to pass along the correct information to whoever contacted them with this BS and also to pass the correction along to whoever else they’ve sent this too.

I doubt they’ve ever done it.

It gets tiring. Right now I’m having to debunk a “The dates add up to war” meme that only works if you don’t follow the meme’s rules consistently.

I’d decided a while ago that I wasn’t going to debunk anything that isn’t either dangerous (anti-vax, etc) or harming the well-being of my family members. BUT I let one go, and got a follow-on “So, you couldn’t disprove that, eh?”

So now apparently it’s my job to disprove every lie on the internet that my extended family chooses to believe… I’ve told them to ask questions before passing along, to look for any logical holes, or just Google it to see if it’s true. But apparently it’s just easier to send it to me and fight over it.


Trigger Warning: Rant About Trigger Warnings Ahead

My first exposure to the use of “trigger warning” came about as a teacher. As part of our training, we were briefed on them, so it wasn’t a complete surprise that our students knew about them too.

I was teaching ESL in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. One of my students, about 13 years old, attended an international school where they’d just had an assembly on triggers and trigger warnings. From that point on, whenever I mentioned grammar or homework, she’d shout “Trigger!”

This did not get her out of doing her class work or homework, and eventually she stopped.

There was a discussion on the Alliance of Independent Authors facebook group about trigger warnings. Apparently there’s a serious discussion around embracing the inclusion of trigger warnings on books.

I understand that some things in stories can trigger strong emotional reactions. Story-telling is about evoking emotions, sometimes a writer pushes too far. But the list being discussed, available here, is just absurd.

According to it, you should use a trigger warning if you mention a brand by name, if anyone is pregnant in the story, if there are any references to Harry Potter, spiders, or alcohol…

There are valid things on the list, such as rape, decapitation, torture, but they’re invalidated by the absurdity of the rest of the list.

Simply getting your feelings hurt because a story has “slut shaming” isn’t being triggered, it’s being uncomfortable.

All of this led me to think, how would the books of my childhood stack up to this list?

Let’s find out:

I’ll start with one of the most influential books in science fiction, Dune:

Abusive relationship
Attempted murder
Attempted rape
Child abuse
Child death
Emotional abuse


Physical abuse

So Dune (The first book) needs 32 trigger warnings. Did you enjoy watching the movie last year? Shame on you.

Surely Lord of the Rings isn’t so crass?

Abusive relationship
Animal abuse
Animal death
Attempted murder

Physical abuse


The Lord of the Rings needs 33 trigger warnings. I guess you’d better never read that book again.

A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) probably needs all of them. Let’s check anyway.

Abusive relationship
Animal abuse
Animal death
Attempted murder
Attempted rape
Child abuse
Child death

Emotional abuse
Physical abuse

Sexual abuse
Sexual assault
Sexual harassment
Sexually explicit scenes
Slut shaming

A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) scores 65 hits on the list, not quite the full list, but close.

Just for fun, let’s try Romeo and Juliet!

Abusive relationship
Attempted murder

Child abuse
Child death

Physical abuse

Congratulations, Will, your play only needs 18 trigger warnings. Woohoo.

A Short Story Publishing Strategy, Sort of

Finally, a publishing strategy for my short fiction!

Back when I was in university, I wrote some short fiction. I even got some backhand praise for it (“It’s too real, you’re writing a memoir and passing it off as fiction”), if not the best grades.

But I’ve always been drawn to the epic novel, the longest of long forms (think Lord of the Rings, which was written to be one volume with five parts but was published as three volumes).

I don’t know when I stopped writing short fiction, but I do know when I restarted.

There’s a new York literary agent named Janet Reid. For a while, she ran a weekly contest. She’d give you five words and you had to use them in a story of exactly 100 words. You had from late Friday until late Sunday to complete this task.

It was hard. It was fun.

It taught me a lot about brevity (ironically, something this post might lack). Then I started looking through my backlog of stories and found that a lot of them could easily be told in a much shorter form than an epic novel.

I discovered that 2,000 – 3,000 word stories were my jam. I started reading up on short fiction markets and submitted some stories. Then I sold a couple of them. I had my first professional sale, many semi-pro sales and some interesting contracts that I wouldn’t sign (You can read about here).

After six or seven years, I had a backlog of about 30 short stories and another 25 or so drabbles (those 100-word stories).

I gathered the best of the best, 14 short stories and 12 drabbles and made a book. Then I made three more. No, I don’t have enough content for four books.

But I do have a strategy.

I write across a number of genres, so I decided that for Amazon Kindle, I’d release two short “samplers”; one of space opera stories and the other of a speculative fiction variety. Both would have three stories and three drabbles. I’d make a third ebook sampler of just the complete set of drabbles and offer it to anyone who signed up for my newsletter.

The 14 short stories and the 12 drabbles, I’d bind as a paperback. This would allow me to learn about that whole process before I was ready to release one of my ‘epic novels’.

In a surprise to myself, I ended up also making an ebook out of the complete collection, and offering it everywhere except Amazon (It conflicts with the samplers).

So now those short stories have become four titles and five publications (four published and one given away)!

I’m still new to all this, and I’m finding it hard to keep track of where everything is available and when. Why don’t you take a minute to check out (my publishing company) to see if there’s anything you’d be interested in.

The War on Christmas

“This is WTVU tracking Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve,” It was a typical seasonal fluff story, the kind that the kids just out of J-school got assigned. Christine shouldn’t be doing it. This was punishment, especially for a single mom. She smiled, I’ll take their crap and bake a cake. “I’m joined by General Josiah Clark from NORAD control here in Colorado Springs. General, what can we expect?”

“General, inbound bogey!” A voice interrupted. “Southerly track, eastern seaboard.” Right on time, Christine looked at her watch and smiled. 6:12 p.m., so just after 8pm on the eastern seaboard, almost perfectly timed for the first commercial break during prime time. The kids were going to love this! Christine nodded her approval: This crew was well-prepared.

“Calmly, folks.” The General turned to his men, “We’ve trained for this. We know what to do. Put it on the big screen. Scramble intercept fighters.

Behind Christine, and perfectly in the frame of the camera, a map of North America lit up, superimposed with air traffic moved steadily around it. One blip far up north was highlighted, flashing.

“Fighters away, sir! CAP estimates intercept over northern Labrador in four minutes.”
Christine turned back to the camera, “Oh, a bit of excitement. Could this be Saint Nick making an appearance?” 

Behind her, but still visible on camera, the General opened a flask and took a quick swig. When he saw the camera watching him, he raised the flask in salutation.
“Tis the season,” He winked to the camera and moved off to oversee his men.
“And we’re out.” Off air, the cameraman was frantically gesticulating towards Christine, asking if she’d seen that. She brushed him off. She hadn’t seen it.

The corporal sitting at the second radar station was having a hard time not looking at her. She smiled encouragingly to him. He may be fifteen years younger, but that would just mean that he’d hit puberty during the height of her popularity.

Am I on your bucket list? She wondered. Should you be on my naughty list?

“It’s a seven minute break,” The cameraman interrupted her reverie, as if his words were supposed to mean something to her. She shrugged her non-comprehension. He made an ‘aren’t you stupid’ face and explained, “They intercept before we’re back on air.”

Of course, damn it. She felt frustration at how the world conspired against her. Yes, she’d slept with her producer. Yes, he was married. But why was she the only one being punished? She’d only slept with him to gain the weekend anchor desk. Now she was covering Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve!

The message was clear. She’d been too naughty in a profession that still punished women for the crimes of men.

But she’d also heard that the weekend desk might be opening up at rival WFVT. A good night tonight might raise her audience goodwill rating enough to land that gig instead. Screw WTVU.

Three minutes back.

“General, we have visual!” One of the ground controllers shouted. Christine looked at her cameraman, who was talking through his earpiece to the station. He nodded. They were going to go live – a Special Bulletin. Yeah!

A soft count, three, two, one…

“We’re back at NORAD, where we’ve had some fun developments with the Santa Tracker.” She picked her moment and tapped the shy corporal on his shoulder. “Can you tell us what’s going on?”

He looked startled, from her to the camera, back to her, and then he spoke past her. “Sir! We have confirmed the bogey is real. It’s moving at about mach 2. Heat signatures are confirmed.”

“Very well, tell our pilots to do a close pass. I want a visual.”

“Yes sir!”

“Very exciting,” Christine grabbed the general’s arm, turned him toward the camera.

“General, is this how it goes every year?”

“Lady, we don’t know what ‘this’ is yet. Now please keep the camera out of the way.”

That wasn’t according to script. Christine had watched the last ten years’ of Santa Tracker coverage. It was always gentle, light-hearted. This felt … tense.

Christine turned back to her camera, deflecting her momentary doubts by tossing her hair. Marketing surveys always said that men loved her hair and women envied it.

“Well, another interesting night!” Time to play up the noble warrior angle. “Our brave sons, brothers, and fathers are working diligently to keep us all safe this Christmas and every night.”

The cameraman was giving her the ‘wrap’ signal. “Now back to A Charlie Brown Christmas already in progress!”

Once they were off air, the cameramen propped his camera against a desk. “This isn’t normal,” he said. “This is my fifth year, and it’s never been this tense.”

Christine wasn’t sure how to address that.

“And some advice,” the cameraman leaned in, “leave the corporal alone. He’s having a bad night.”

During their downtimes, Christine imagined how she could cut this footage, add it to her highlight reel. In her mind, she was already revising a letter to the News Director at WFVT.

It should almost be time for another check in. She looked at her cameraman who was looking at her and touching his earpiece to let her know that the station was talking to him. “We’re coming back, regularly scheduled piece in five, four…”

He barely had the camera up when Christine started to speak. “Welcome back. NORAD is busy right now checking out what may very well be Santa. Let’s listen in…”

Christine gestured for the camera to come closer, and look over her shoulder. That would look so good on her highlight reel, she smiled as she turned, making sure to keep her hair out of the camera frame.

The information was coming fast, and from multiple servicemen:“Sir, pilots report that the object is about the size of a private jet.”

“Sir, the craft has no transponder and has not responded to challenges on commercial channels.”

“Sir, the bogey has begun a rapid descent towards Gander!”

Christine turned toward the camera and whispered, “Gander is in Newfoundland, one of Santa’s first stops on the continent!” She’d done her research. Tonight she needed to be perfect. She didn’t intend to spend next Christmas away from her sons.

“Description, I need a description.” The General bellowed, rage-pacing behind the radar operators.

“Sir, it’s brown and red. Correction, pilots report that the hull is red with no identifiable markings, no running lights. It appears to be being pulled by a number of brown elk.”


“Yes sir, pilot confirms, elk.”

“Damn those Commies! It’s a bomb.”

Christine spun, barely remembering to wield her microphone, her authority. “Commies? General, surely it’s Santa?”

“My pilot identified elk, not reindeer, elk. It’s those damned Commies trying to sneak a bomb onto the continent.” Christine thought his speech sounded a bit slurred.

“Elk, reindeer,” she tried one more time to be reasonable, “Aren’t they the same thing?”

“Ma’am,” The General looked directly into the camera, his bloodshot eyes dominating the screen, fighting to focus. “My pilots are highly trained at visual identification. If they say elk, then they’re elk.”

“Your pilots can tell an elk from a reindeer?” The General turned his back on Christine’s badgering. He had more important things to do.

With one last swig from the flask, then casting it aside, the General roared, “Weapons go hot. I want that Commie down before he reaches anyone! Engage! Engage! Engage!”

“Engage! Engage! Engage! Aye, sir. Order confirmed.”

Christine, her cameraman, and everyone watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on the Fox Network that night saw the blip disappear from the projected radar screen.

“Yes!” The General pumped the air, turning gleefully back towards the camera. “That’ll teach that Commie bastard about transponders!”

“You… just… killed… Santa…” Christine pointed to the camera, her anger boiling over, “on live TV!”

She bit back tears, even as her inner voice said, screw the highlight reel, this will make me a star. Fox and Friends, here I come!

“Biggest Commie of them all, if you ask me. Giving free toys to everyone. Commie, I tell ya.” The General’s voice trailed out as he leaned on her, his hand reaching down her back for an inappropriate squeeze, “Say, could you introduce me to Tucker Carlson?”

NOTES on 2021 edition:
A) Santa has a transponder that you can follow online; his call sign is R3DN053 (rednose).
B) I wrote this story about a decade ago. Back then the last line was Bill O’Reilly. Then it became Sean Hannity. Now it’s Tucker Carlson.

Story Evolution: A Pantser’s Journey

Like many things in life, the act of creation that we call writing comes in many forms. The most notable definitions are plotter and pantser. As you’d expect, a plotter is someone who plots their stories before they write. A pantser is someone who doesn’t plot, but makes it up as they write. Many Plotters write linearly, starting at chapter one and stopping at “The End”.

Image from Pixabay.

Many pantsers jump around within the story, incorporating plot points or detail as they go. Sometimes there’s a logic to this process, even if it’s not linear or plotting. For example, I like to write counterpoint scenes together (Scene one starts a story arc, Scene two gives the pay-off) even if those scenes aren’t in the same book, never mind the same chapter.

Of course plotting and pantsing aren’t mutually exclusive methods. Most writers are a mix of both, but lean heavily one way or the other. I would say I’m about 80% pantser and 20% plotter, or maybe 90/10. Whichever, I’m heavily on the pantser side.

I thought I’d share a bit about the evolution of a few story ideas from a pantser’s perspective to give you plotters out there some insight into how our (or at least my) minds work.

I had a number of story ideas back in the mid-1980s that have evolved substantially from where they started.

The one that’s evolved the least, and the first novel that I ever wrote, is a 135,000 space opera with military sci-fi leanings. If I ever want to publish it, I’ll need to do a rewrite, as it doesn’t reflect the quality of my writing now, and I wouldn’t want it out there as is. (I also have a cool idea for an alternative edit of it, so you can read it twice, the second time from a different perspective).

Then there was the story that I called The Key to Alexandria. It was about three gems and the various elements trying to control and unite them. The lead character, a modern-day man, must learn how to travel through time to control them and save the Earth from the demons that would be released if someone else gets control. The story ended with the destruction of the library in ancient Alexandria and the simultaneous destruction of the Moon, dooming all life on Earth.

The sequel, The Legacy of Alexandria, would follow the protagonist’s attempts to set things right – keep the destruction of the library, but save the Moon and thus Earth. Notably these two stories never left Earth, but played with time travel.

How they’ve evolved.

There are no more crystals. There are no more demons. The story barely touches on Earth, instead dealing with a close encounter in deep space and the repercussions that arise from it. There’s a huge time jump between book 1 and book 2 (about 300 years). The second book does deal with Earth a lot more, but is still space opera in its execution and tropes.

What’s stayed the same? The (human) characters and the themes.

The third idea that I’d developed the most was tentatively called Hawke, Inc. It was an episodic series that dealt with a far future society scattered among many stars. (It was ‘my Star Trek’ so to speak). In this universe, a very rich recluse named Hawke was spending his fortune to disrupt powerful corrupt governments by funding a series of ships and their counterinsurgency crews. These professional troublemakers would try to level the playing field for the less powerful.

In some ways the bones of this structure are still here, although less polemic. Hawke has been demoted to ship’s captain. His ship, name not finalized yet, was a mid-tier diplomatic ship from the local equivalent of the UN. But in this universe, the UN is being defunded by the superpowers, and losing all authority (so nothing like Star Trek’s Federation). In fact this UN has fallen so far from grace that they can’t completely crew their vessels with recruits. So they’ve started press-ganging some classes of criminals into serving on the vessels. The five-book story follows one such ship as it press-gangs a smuggler and gets into crazy adventures.

This story keeps evolving. As I’ve been writing it, I decided that I needed more layers. I’ve borrowed characters from a short story that I wrote a few years ago, and put them front and centre in this universe. Hawke isn’t in the story for very long now. The ‘love interest’ is a much more fleshed out character, and has a pretty cool story arc now that includes not just how she got disowned by her parents, and also her redemption (the plotter in me knows her whole path). She didn’t exist a year ago. Now, she’s the emotional core of the (over 30 year old) story.

And just today, I realized that the story works better if the ship isn’t “a mid-tier diplomatic ship” but a cadet training vessel being pressed into more and more dangerous service due to budget and crew shortfalls. This allows me to have a logical reason for scenes of conflict among the command crew and department heads. It allows me to incorporate minor info dumps as cadets are being taught on the job. This also sets up a cool set of scenes in book 3 when the remnants of the crew merges with three other crews to form a new one.

This is pantsing, in its purest form.

Writer • Nomand • Educator