My Writing Journey: Finding a Home For Your Story

To be honest, writing, critiquing, revision and rewriting your story is the easy part. These are all things that you have control over. These are all things that you can invest yourself into. You can do as much or as little as you wish.

In my opinion, the hardest part of the journey is finding a home for your story. To accomplish this, some things are in your control and others are absolutely not. For example, you can control the quality of your work by refining it through other people who understand the market and the process. You can’t control the agent who gets your amazing story on the same day they had a rough doctor’s appointment or the editor who just purchased a similar story as yours.

So what can you do to help your story find its way into the world? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Read. Read books from your genre, your formatting style, similar to yours and completely different. This will help you understand the types of books that are being marketed and published. It will also help you understand how to prepare your own work.
  2. Write. Write your story. Then write other stories. If all of your time is invested in one story, it makes you short sighted because your story holds immense value to you. There is nothing wrong with this, but it can hold you back from making the necessary changes, even small ones, to make your story marketable.
  3. Read more books. Always be on the lookout for what is new in the market. Are there trends? Who is buying them? Does your story not fit in them? Why? Is your story a mold breaker or is it not written for the current market?
  4. Revise your story. Never settle for the best that you can do. If that is the way you see your story, you are admitting there is more that can be done. Rewrite your story from another character’s viewpoint. Rewrite the story from a different point of view, i.e. first to third person (and if really brave, second!). Change the setting. There are so many devices to help you find a new voice for your story.
  5. Join a writing organization. Make sure that organization covers the type of stories you write. Romance Writers of America isn’t likely a good place for a picture book author and likewise, the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators is probably not the best place for a high fantasy writer. (though this doesn’t mean you can’t write other things)
  6. Put it away. When you are finished with your story, don’t rush to your email and send it off. Put it away. Don’t look at it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t even think about it. Give yourself some time to detach from it. I suggest a minimum of two weeks. I usually try to give it a month, but sometimes, during that long period, my story will call to me. It might be a voice, or a clever line or a different starting point. When you pick it back up, you are seeing your story anew. You are open to changes and subconsciously your mind has been working out issues that you never saw.
  7. Read it out loud. Whenever you have finished your story. Always read it out loud. This will help you find cadence issues. Then have someone else who is not familiar with it read it out loud to you. No illustrator notes, just the story! (I suppose this could go after #4, but I find that after I let it sit, this step has more of an impact)
  8. Research. Look back over all those books you’ve read. Which are similar to yours in theme or format? Who published those? Who represented those authors? Make a list of agents and/or editors that your really want to work with.

1-8 are all things that you have control over. Now we will move into things that you have less control over.

9. Marketing. You have written and refined your story. You have researched agents and editors. Now it is time to send your story into the world. But what will that look like? Who is the market for your story? Is it regional? Is it national? Is it educational? Is it evergreen? Or are you going to self publish? These are all questions that you have to ask yourself. You can waste a lot of manpower, both yours and theirs, if you decide to blanket the marketplace. Strategize and be aware of who is likely to read your story. This will help you write a better query letter and refine who is likely to purchase your story.

10. Do I need an agent? If you decide to go traditional, the next step is to decide if you need an agent or if you are going directly to the publisher. There are a lot of factors in this. If you are submitting to a small or regional publisher, an agent isn’t likely necessary. If you really only have one or two stories and you aren’t looking at writing as career, again, most likely you don’t need an agent. This doesn’t mean you can’t have or want one, or that this may change down the road, but it isn’t necessary. However, if you are looking at a career as a writer with multiple stories ready or near ready, then an agent will be a help to navigate the publishing world as they have access to companies that might otherwise be closed to you. Again, you don’t have to have an agent if this is your career path and you can always change your mind later.

11. Submitting. Now that you have decided your path, it is time to start submitting. There are many strategies to this, but I find the following the best: Don’t flood the market. You’ve done the research, you probably have at least a half of a dozen agents or publishers in mind. Don’t limit yourself just these few. Instead, send out your submissions in batches. Choose a couple you are interested in and maybe a couple that might be interested in you. If you get rejections (and you will get rejections) with feedback, it will help you prepare for future submissions. Maybe they like your work, but the market is inundated with work similar to yours. Maybe the work doesn’t fit their branding right now, but they give you feedback on what they liked or didn’t like. Or maybe you get no feedback at all. All of these will help you prepare for your next round and you haven’t used up all your favorite agents or publishers and can make changes.

12. Celebrate the small victories. Writing can feel lonely. You put your soul into your work. They are like your children and it crushes you when they get rejected. So take the time to celebrate each step of faith every time you send your work out into the world. It can be as simple as letting your friends know so they can encourage you. Celebrate each rejection. This is hard, but each time you are rejected, it means you have eliminated one more path and you are one more step closer to finding the right path. I like to celebrate these with cheesecake. I did it. I submitted in the face of rejection. I overcame my fears. And now I get cheesecake! And as I eat my cheesecake, I think of how much sweeter it will be when I receive an acceptance for my manuscript!

Every journey is different. Some seem faster than others. We see the author who just got a three book contract, but we don’t see the years of work and rejection that got them there. We see the author who’s stories are being made into movies and a franchise and we don’t always hear how that same story was rejected by every publisher for nearly a decade.

I heard this quote today and I think it is befitting for the writer’s journey.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” ― Plato.

Be kind. Be kind to those on the journey and support them. Be kind to those who have battled longer than you. Be kind to those who are just beginning as they do not know how long their journey will be. And be kind to yourself and rejoice in the fact that you have the freedom and courage to take this journey.

Growing Up Alaska: And Why I Don’t Like Grape Nuts

When I was 16, I spent a summer in Kodiak with a survey team with the Bureau of Land Management. Needlessly to say, that summer had so many issues, but those are all stories on their own.

We’d been sent to Olga Bay to do a land survey for some new native allotments. Our assignment had changed several times by the time we finally left for Kodiak, that there had been a mistake in the paperwork and everyone thought we were someplace else.

We arrived with about a week and a half of food and a week of military back up meals in case the weather turned bad and the supply planes couldn’t make it in. We’d never dreamed that the whole eight weeks we were there that they would never show up!

Again, another story.

On our third week and out of food, we all became creative. We ate a lot of fish, mostly salmon, and berries or whatever we could forage; but it was mostly salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

One thing that we did have left was a big box of Grape Nuts cereal, but no milk. Our boss suggested we have some for breakfast to break up the monotony of fish and I was eager to comply.

We rotated duties and it was my day to get the boat ready, so I was up early to begin my list of chores before the others got up. I fetched the water and got some boiling and pulled out the box of Grape Nuts.

Since there was no milk for the cereal, I poured myself a big bowl and carried it with me, eating it dry while I worked on the boat. It was a bit bland, but at least it wasn’t fish.

I finished my chores and walked back to the bunkhouse to make myself a cup of hot chocolate and greet the others. It was then that I realized I could have poured the hot chocolate over the Grape Nuts and made them taste better. I would try that tomorrow.

The others were all sitting down, munching on their dry cereal. My boss spotted me carrying my bowl, which was a large soup bowl and not a cereal bowl.

“How much did you eat?” he asked.

I suddenly felt very aware that they were all staring at me. Was there some special rationing that I was unaware of? Had I taken more than our boss had allowed the others to take.

I showed him the bowl and said a bit sheepishly, “I filled my bowl up.”

My boss groaned and shook his head. “Your staying in camp today.”

I thought this was a weird punishment. We were all hungry and they all had out their big bowls too! I was about to protest when our boss held up his hand.

“You’ve got dogs, right?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “Do you feed your dogs wet or dry food?”

“For my dog team, I soak dry food.” I replied.

“And what happens when you do that?”

“The food absorbs the water and helps hydrate them,” I replied again, still not comprehending.

Our boss took out a couple of Grape Nuts and poured a little coffee over them. “Just like your dog food, these Grape Nuts are going to expand. Only, in your stomach. And you ate so many that there won’t be any room for them.”

It dawned on me what that meant, but I was sure that I would be okay.

“No you won’t. I want you to drink a lot of water today,” our boss said as he cleaned up his mess and the others got ready.

I watched them go and was kind of relieved that I had a day off. Normally on down days, we had a list of chores. The only command he gave me was to drink, lots of water, so I did.

My stomach began to hurt about an hour and a half later. I could see the bump forming and could feel things stretching. Nausea rolled over me, but I couldn’t vomit. The only thing that seemed to help was water, though I could only take it in sips.

The sun seemed to help too. The warmth on my skin seemed to make things settle and my muscles around my stomach seemed to relax, so I sat out in the grass and tried to absorb as much sun as the mosquitos would let me.

I had to lay on my back. When I tried to roll over, I could feel the water slowly slosh around in my stomach and if I was face down, the pressure on my stomach was too great.

I wanted to vomit. I gagged a few times, but nothing. So I drank some more water as often as I could and laid there.

The pressure started to ease about eight hours later, shortly before the crew returned. It still hurt, but at least I could move about and I no longer felt like throwing up.

I hadn’t eaten lunch that day and couldn’t stand the thought of dinner. The next morning my stomach still ached and it would for a few days more. I passed on breakfast again and nibbled on lunch (fish…again) but had no appetite.

It took a few days for me to feel normal again, though my sides still hurt if I sucked in or leaned the wrong way.

And I never ate Grape Nuts again.

My Writing Journey: Mentors and Critique Partners

When I first took back up writing, my future wife introduced me to the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) which is an international non profit organization that brings like minded individuals together through meeting, conferences and educational classes, all in the pursuit of writing for children (0-18). My first thought was, “I don’t need this. I can read. I’ve been telling stories and writing for years!”

I was wrong. I needed a group to help show me the way into this unknown world of rules and formats and genres, of editors and publishers and agents. I needed people who could guide me and support me and celebrate with me.

You may not join SCBWI and may rather find yourself within another writing group or organization, and that is okay. What is important is that you find people to share your journey.

Writing can be lonely. It can be frustrating. It can be soul crushing. But writing isn’t done in a bubble. It is driven by the world around you and sometimes you need someone to laugh with or a shoulder to cry on or someone who is there to pick up the broken pieces.

During a writing retreat, I met a well known Alaskan author, Tricia Brown, who not only gave me a glowing critique on my manuscript that would become Pedro’s Pan, but she has gone on to share her experience, her knowledge and her friendship.

I’ve joined critique groups, some focused on the areas that I am writing, others not, but we all share our journey, our struggles, our successes and our unique viewpoints. Half the time it isn’t about the story I bring to share, but to have someone to share it with, to see them growing and being there to celebrate success, big or small.

So don’t make this journey alone. Find others who you can support and will support you too. Find people who understand your struggles and I think you will find the writing community is extremely generous.

Good luck with your writing and perhaps I will see you out there one day.

Growing Up Alaska: In the Shadows

I’ve been more fortunate than many with my experiences of growing up in Alaska. Many people who visit or even come to live tend to find themselves in one of the cities. While wilder than most, it still has that feel of civilization.

I grew up in the rural community of Central, Alaska. We didn’t have running water, electricity, phones or many of the modern amenities when we first moved there. We would eventually get some of it it intermittently, but we always had the wilderness experience.

One such experience for me was a sled dog team. I was young and had a handful of dogs that I trained and ran. It was fun and a lot work to properly care for the dogs. I was diligent in their care and made sure to exercise them often.

It was during one of these outings after school on evening that I had one of my most terrifying experiences with a dog team. It had warmed up a bit to about ten degrees above and I couldn’t tell if the storm clouds were moving in or moving out.

I harnessed my young team to take them on a short 7 mile run. I’d been harnessing more experienced dogs to help the young ones out, but today I hooked up my 5 dog sprint team with some of the more inexperienced dogs. We were going to run a well known route and I expected a quick trip.

I staggered the runs of my dogs making sure to take the sprinters out the day before I did a long run with the distance runners. Sprinters needed to be ran almost daily, even if not very far, but if I let them run hard for longer, they would take the next day to rest while I was gone with the other dogs.

I ran my distance runners 2-3 times a week, though I would sometimes rotate them through my sprint team for shorter runs. This allowed them to open up for sprints and stretch their muscles.

The big difference between the two types of dog teams was speed and endurance. I needed one team who could run all out over a day’s run while the other needed to be able to pull a load at a sustained rate over days.

We took off down the trail, the darkness only pierced by my headlamp on this moonless evening. The dogs excitedly took to the run and I listened to the sound of the snow crunching under the sled and the steady pant of the dogs.

I let the young lead dog set the pace for the first half a mile, then I slowly reeled them in to a more manageable pace. These guys would run all out if you let them, but they wouldn’t last the whole route that way and would slow to a crawl when they wore out.

It took them a bit to settle in as they were excited to go. I’d been working on this lead who’d shown promise despite her age. She was a bit bigger than most leads and was highly intelligent, responding to commands pretty quickly.

We were about to miles into the run when I noticed the dogs peering into the darkness to our left. Their pace slowed and their ears perked up and I tried to follow where they were looking.

My headlamp shown on the trees about 30 feet to our left and behind us, but I couldn’t see anything. I called to the dogs to keep going and my lead started pulling the others to go a bit fast and reset the pace.

I kept looking out into the dark, but couldn’t see what was spooking the dogs. Occasionally I thought I saw shadows move, but it could have just as easily been just shadows played by me bouncing along on the sled.

The panic started as a trickle, a tickle up my spine and the hair raising on my neck and arms. I don’t know if I truly felt the presence in the dark or if I was now playing off the panic of the dogs. We started slowing to an easy walk and chills ran up my spine as the dogs began to whimper.

I jumped off the runners and ran along side the dogs, encouraging them to run. I did my best to distract them and command them on and in a few seconds they had picked up the pace again. I waited for the sled to catch up and swung onto the runners.

As I looked off into the woods, I saw the shadows move and this time it was no trick of the eye as I saw eye reflection in the dark. The creature was nearly twice the size of my sled dogs and was keeping pace with us.

My stomach knotted and I reached into the sled to unzip the gun case lashed down in arms reach. I yelled for the dogs to take the next left, following our normal route and moving out into some more open terrain along a recently put in road with a cleared easement on either side.

The lead dog was now pulling hard and we missed the turn. I inserted my snow brake and called for a stop, all the while looking into the darkness, the shadow gone.

I’d heard that the Forty-Mile Caribou herd (same herd as a previous story, a couple of years prior) had moved into the Yukon Valley near Eagle Summit, but that was over 25 miles away. Nonetheless, whenever the caribou came, the wolves in the area would start gathering and I’d been warned to be on the lookout for them.

I set my snow hook and called for my lead to come back to me. She started to, but then turned and tried to run away, pulling the line taught. I tried to make my voice firm and called for her again, but I could hear the panic rise in me.

I realized now that we were stopped that a brisk wind had picked up and even though we couldn’t see whatever was lurking in the shadows, my team could now smell them. Most of the team had laid down as if to hide and they were all whimpering.

I stomped up the trail, each dog looking up at me as I passed, though their gaze quickly shifted to the woods behind us. I reached the lead dog and tried to calm her. She was still straining against the line and I petted her to calm her down.

I took her by the collar and steered her in the way I wanted her to go, calling out the command quietly as I did so. I knew she was afraid, but to be a good lead, you have to trust the musher and follow commands.

As we walked by the other dogs, they stood up and began to follow. Once I had them all standing on the right trail, I ran back to my sled and pulled the snow hook. They leapt at my command to go and ran all out.

I wanted to put the woods behind us and move into the open country, so I let them run for a little bit. And a little bit was all they would go. We made it a couple of hundred feet before they slowed and some tried to lay down. They weren’t tired, they were scared.

I got them on their feet and realized we had over three miles to get home, no matter if we continued forwards or backwards. At this pace, it would likely take us an hour and a half.

Not only had the wind picked up, but the temperature had dropped below zero again and I knew I had to keep the dogs moving. I lifted them onto their feet and ran with the lead dog until I was sure they were going before letting the sled catch up and hopping on.

We repeated the couple hundred feet run before slowing and stopping. I tried to catch them before they stopped and flopped down in hopes of keeping us going. It was during one of these runs that as I let the sled catch up I looked to the trees and spotted the eye shine of the creature pacing us.

I imagined what would happen if a pack of wolves came at us. Would I be able to shoot them before they harmed my team? Would my team cower like they had been making easy prey or would they fight back?

I pulled the gun out a bit to make sure it was loose and kept an eye on our shadow. I was so intense on tracking the creature that I missed the dogs slowing down.

By the time I got myself in motion, the team had stopped and laid down whining. I tried to pick them up, but as soon as I stood them up, they would flop back down, even the leader.

They were all intent in watching the woods and I figured the panic would cause them to want to flee, but they were choosing to hide. I flicked my light towards the woods and spotted the creature had moved out of the trees and was standing not more than 30 feet away.

I froze. Then I began pleading for the dogs to get up and run! The creature took a couple of steps closer and I knew this was one of the biggest wolves I’d ever seen.

I hefted on the gang line and bellowed out for the dogs to go. They were instantly up and sprinting as I spotted the wolf charging us. I flailed for the sled as it passed and nearly missed the handle, running to jump on.

The next part happened as time slowed down. The wolf plowed up snow as it came surprisingly fast. I got one foot on one runner and shook of my mitten to grab the gun. I twisted and pulled on the gun which snagged on the cloth case.

It was in that horrible moment that I realized the wolf was coming for me and not my team.

I twisted to yank the gun free as I brought up my other arm to fend off the first bite. I felt myself lurch to the side as my foot slid off the runner and caught the snow, throwing me off balance as the gun came free.

I tried to turn myself and the gun towards the wolf only to lose my balance and tumble off of the sled which flopped over on its side in the deep snow before bouncing back upright on the trail. I on the other hand, ended falling sideways into the snowbank, my lamp, hat and gun flying off.

The wolf had slowed and now that I was free from the sled, bounded at me again. I tried to get to my feet and put my arm out to protect it from going for my throat while searching with my other hand in the snow for my gun, a stick, anything.

But much to my surprise, the blow didn’t come. My arm wasn’t clenched in the jaws of a ferocious predator. Instead, over my pounding heartbeat, I heard the jangle of metal.

I stopped my frantic search and looked up to see the creature standing in front of me, so dark that I could barely see the tail wagging. My mind raced trying to find an explanation for this, but honestly, the adrenaline was preventing any rational thought.

When she barked and bounded to one side, I could see the outline of the chain against the snow and new immediately what I was facing. I spotted my headlamp glowing in the snow and picked up to confirm my guess.

In the light of my headlamp stood another one of my dogs, Goldie, a German Shepherd. She was massive, even for her breed, and it appeared she’d broken her chain. She wasn’t a sled dog, but loved to run with them. I’d tried to harness her before, but she would have nothing of it.

Sometimes I let her run with us, but it was usually on short trips up to the runway and back. I never took her with the young ones because she would nip at them and run at them, spooking them. Just as she had tonight.

My knees suddenly got weak and I knelt down. After a few moments to calm down, I chewed out Goldie who took it all with a doggy grin and a wag of her tail. I searched and found all of my gear except one mitten.

I unclasped the chain, which we’d upgraded to the same chain my dad used to around the mine, and slung it over my shoulder before taking off after the team. I wasn’t sure how far they would go or which way they would go, but I figured I would follow them to the main road at least and if I didn’t find them there, I would go home to get my snow machine before searching for them.

Goldie stayed faithfully with me, her tail wagging the whole time. We walked about a mile before reaching the road. I had to shift the gun from hand to hand and had to warm the unmittened hand by tucking it inside my coat.

The temperature was still dropping and I decided to leave the chain next to the road and did my best to jog home. The air stung my lungs, but whenever I slowed down, I spotted sled tracks along the road. It appeared the sled had overturned again and the dogs were sticking to their well known path.

When I arrived back in my yard, my dad had my team tied up and was starting his snow machine to come look for me. When he saw me he wordlessly shut off his machine, and seeing Goldie, walked over to his drill rig and pulled off a light chain.

I tended to my dogs, checking for injuries and feeding them before getting dinner of my own. I took the young lead dog with me around the dog yard to help establish her role as leader. When she came to Goldie, they ended up nose to nose.

I wasn’t sure either dog would react so I held the lead’s leash tightly, ready to pull her back. But they just stood there for a moment before Goldie began licking the young lead’s face before laying down and playing dead. All except her tail of course, which beat the ground mercilessly.

My Writing Journey: Writing for Your Audience

Teaching fourth grade this year in a virtual setting has been eye opening, and not just for for my job as a teacher, but my job as a writer. This last week we did an exploration of our writing by looking at various samples of writing I have received. Since the students aren’t “seeing” one another constantly, it made it pretty easy to share work anonymously.

We looked at good writing and better writing and some pitifully poor writing. Just like I’ve learned from doing critiques, we always find something positive in our feedback.

I would like to break down the differences and apply it to my career as a writer.

POOR WRITING (KIDS): When the kids write poorly, it is usually not from a lack of skill, but a lack of motivation. It’s more of a “be done with it” attitude. Don’t worry about the directions, just put something down so no one harps on me for not getting my work done. There is no pride in their work and their expected audience is them.

(ADULTS): I see the same in adults (myself included). Poor writing here is often a focus of who their audience is. “This is my story and I’ll write it how I want it.” They never look at anyone else as really reading the story. They are writing the story they want to read and who cares about the details because I already know them and no one else gets it. They may spend hours revising and rewriting, but if they don’t understand that their audience is anyone else but them, it will always be poor.

GOOD WRITING (KIDS): When a kid does well in writing, it isn’t usually because of skill, but from the fact that they can follow the directions. They understand the expectations and write to their audience, the teacher. Here are the guidelines and I can check off the boxes and get a passing grade.

(ADULTS): I believe that many of us who have chosen a writing career, whether successful or not, fall into the “Good Writer” category. We understand the expectations and rules and we write to them. We understand who our audience is, though we often focus on the main two: Agent and Editor. Here are the guidelines and I can check off the boxes so they should want this.

The problem is, we get stuck in the formula and our stories are merely good. And sometimes “Good Stories” get published. Often at conferences, classes, seminars and webinars, we are told to follow the formula, this is what the publishing world wants; but that isn’t entirely the truth.

BETTER WRITING (KIDS): When a kid writes something that I want to share with the other class as an example of writing, it is often the kid who has gone a step beyond. They aren’t just giving fact or rehashing what they have learned, but they put themselves in the writing, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. This requires skill, but more importantly, your connection to the topic you are writing about

An example of this was a recent writing my class did on Treasure Island. The directions were to write about Jim’s escape from the pirates. One student not only cited the story to support his response, but he conjectured what Jim must have felt by imposing how he would have felt if he’d been Jim. He didn’t just follow the formula, he wanted to share a bit of himself. He understood that not only was his teacher his audience, but possibly his classmates and anyone else who picked up the report.

(ADULTS): I think this is the kind of writing we aspire to do. These are the kinds of books that we see more often getting published. You may not agree that the are “good” but in most cases, these books have a connection with them. That is why you can have numerous books on the same topic, because each author brings a bit of themselves to the story and makes them unique.

I know that when I wrote Pedro’s Pan, I put bits of myself in it. My experiences prospecting as a kid and an adult. My fear of not being what everyone thought I was. My dad showing me the way through love and wisdom. In the end, that is what the publisher bought. And in the end, that is the connection the reader makes. They can see that and experience it themselves.

GREAT WRITING: Great writing is the White Whale. Great writers don’t set out to do great writing, it just happens. What makes great writing is not the writer, but the audience. It is like art, opinions of what is good varies and most people don’t understand great art until they experience it. Just like great art, great writing comes from exposing a part of yourself to the world that you can never get back.

So as you set out writing, think about your audience. Are you writing this for yourself? Are you writing this for an agent or editor? Or are you writing this to share with the world? Is it your story, their story or everyones?

Growing Up Alaska: Hot Springs and Frozen Hair

Growing up in the interior of Alaska, I marveled at the long nights and endless days. Being close to the Arctic Circle meant we may not see the sun for 2 1/2 weeks during the winter and it wouldn’t dip below the horizon for 3 days during the summer.

Summers could also bring temperatures of 90+ degrees (the warmest was over 100) and winters could bring weeks on end of minus 40 or colder (the coldest I experienced was -74 degrees). We learned to survive in these conditions by preparing and finding ways to keep ourselves occupied. Notice I didn’t say live since no one is really living when it is -74, just surviving.

I was lucky. Just up the road from my house was a hot springs with an Olympic size pool. When it got cold, the scalding 134 degree water from the springs flowed into the pool and you searched for just the right spot between the intake and the deep end which, during the coldest parts of the winter, could have ice forming on the surface.

Ice fog was a permanent fixture during the winter and provided great cover to play hide and seek games, or for some of the older kids, a bit of privacy to do what older kids did. The most adventurous of us, or possibly the most foolish, would climb from the water and throw ourselves into the snowbank lining the pool before screaming and jumping back into the water to the applause of tourists who frequented the pool.

But one of our favorite things to do was to dip our head underwater, then come to the surface and shape our hair quickly before it froze. Pulling the tips of our hair with wet warm fingers would help us get it to stand taller and pointer until you felt the cold reach your scalp and you would submerge again.

We often didn’t go swimming when the temperatures were well below zero, but most people didn’t have plumbing and relied on the hot springs to be a place to wash off, in the showers and not the pool. But after a few weeks of minus 40 and having teenagers cooped up and needing a bath, parents would thankfully relent and send us to the pool.

It was during one such outing at around minus 30 that the kids from the area gathered and played in the pool. We had all huddled in the shallow end where it was warmest and after a few minutes, a hair design contest began.

As you can imagine, we didn’t often get haircuts during the winter, so our longer hair instantly became rows of spikes or mohawks. This also resulted in laughs and pointing and eventually to a lot of splashing to ruin other people’s hairdos.

One teenage girl, who’s parents worked at the hotel, had hair nearly to her calves. Her parents didn’t allow her to cut her hair and often when we went swimming, it would fan out behind her and at times she needed help wrapping her hair up on her shoulders so she could get out of the pool. She also didn’t play the hairdo game because her parents told her it was vanity to do so.

But this time was different. The ice fog was thick and two of her friends convinced her that her parents couldn’t see through the extremely thick ice fog. They started by trying to make a large fan of her hair, but after multiple attempts, the discovered her hair was too heavy for that, so they changed tactics.

Next came spikes. That kind of worked, but as they grew taller, taller than the girls could reach, the spikes drooped and this tugged at her scalp causing her to let her hair fall back into the water.

This went on for some time until the two friends came up with a brilliant plan. They would take turns climbing out of the water and holding up her hair until if froze hard enough to stand. This also meant they would be tall enough to get the hair all the way up.

It still took them a couple of tries, but after about ten minutes, they’d created a massive mohawk sort of hairdo that stood nearly five feet tall. It bowed in the middle and waved when she moved, but if she crept along, it stayed upright.

This of course brought joy to everyone who laughed and cheered. By this time most people would’ve tried to splash her hair down, but we were so amazed that people helped her make sure the hairdo didn’t fall.

We didn’t play much longer and kids were preparing to make the dash to the changing rooms. The girls moved along slowly, trying to make their creation last as long as possible.

One of the older boys who’d climbed out too early turned back to the pool and cannon balled in. The girls turned to keep from getting splashed in the face and we all heard it — CRACK!

The sudden snap of her head caused the back section of her towering hair to snap off about halfway down. She dove underwater and no one knew for sure the damage until she came up and one of her friends was holding a large clump of about 2 feet of hair.

As you can imagine, this brought rounds of shrieks and screams and drew the attention of everyone around the pool who were all afraid someone had either slipped on the ice or had accidentally touched some piece of metal and instantly froze to it.

The girls did their best to hide the hair and after they came out of the changing room, they’d hoped that since the hair that had broken off was towards the back, they could hide it under layers of long hair.

This of course didn’t happen. When her mother went in to brush her hair, she discovered it. Needless to say, her parents were very upset with all of us for convincing their daughter to do something so foolish. We all got an earful and I am sure our parents did too.

The next week, it had warmed enough for us to go to school and the poor girl came in with her hat pulled low. Her parents had given her a bowl cut, but none of us made fun of her, not even in secret.

My Writing Journey: To Be or Not to Be…

Whenever I first took back up writing a few years ago, I struggled with coming up with ideas. I had plenty of them, but I worried whether they would be good enough, or I would spend countless hours writing out the story only to be frustrated that it didn’t seem to get anywhere.

So, to help me do better, I stuck with one format, picture books. I was fortunate to have one of my picture books published and decided that this was the kind of writer that I was; I am a children’s book writer who writes picture books.

Soon every idea I had I tried to cram it into the picture book format. I became more and more frustrated as I tried to fit all the blocks into the round hole. Some worked if I turned and pushed them hard enough, but others just wouldn’t fit.

I still dabbled in other formats, mostly middle grade, but I was a picture book writer.

That was a lie. I was a picture book author, but that was not my only method of writing. This came apparent to me when I came up with another idea for a book I was sure was going to sell. And I crammed the star into that round hole and…it didn’t fit. It was horrible.

So I tried another shape, but it didn’t fit either. The problem was that even though I was looking at different shapes, the hole that they needed to go into didn’t match. This story, as it was, wasn’t a picture book.

I would try to write early readers and middle grade books, but struggled because I was stuck in the mindset of a picture book writer. The language would be too young or too sparse. Visuals would be lacking and it just didn’t appeal to my critique partners.

For some people, they have only one dream or story, and that is okay for them. Their shapes ball has one shape and one block. For others, their’s may also be limited and that is by their choice. And for some, they just haven’t realized there are other shapes to play with and figure out.

It’s great to have a goal, but don’t let it limit your vision. Sometimes you have to spin the ball and find a new hole to put your shape in.

Fear and lack of knowledge are huge barriers to growth. Don’t let them stop you. You can always learn more and there are many people out there that want to support you and help you through those difficult times.

Remember that story I told you about that I wrote as a picture book that wasn’t a picture book? Well, it is out on submission after becoming a graphic novel, a middle grade novel and even an early reader. Funny thing, I found the picture book in it. It wasn’t the original story (concept yes) but after taking the time to allow it to be other things, I finally got it.

And from doing that I found homes for so many other story ideas that I’d put aside because the shapes wouldn’t fit together. It is okay to be an author of more than one format, but only if you give yourself permission to do it well.

And maybe you will even write a little Shakespeare….for kids of course!

Growing Up Alaska: Night Terrors

When I turned 16, I took a job for the summer on a survey crew that ended up on a remote site on Kodiak Island. Luckily for us, we weren’t going to have to spend the whole summer living out of tents as we had been originally told. Instead, we were going to be based out of a fish cannery that had been abandoned for at least fifty years.

Needless to say, many of the buildings had suffered greatly and collapsed, but we found one at the end of the beach that had once housed the offices and one of the bunkhouses. The second floor had collapsed in on itself and the back of the long building had crumbled, but miraculously the front was sound.

We spent the first day patching up holes in the wall to keep the rain and bugs out. We were all grateful for a dry place that would provide more protection from the many bears that we had already seen than our tents would have.

Exhausted from our first one day of work, we settled in. Sam, another kid from the crew, and I took the small bedroom with its two metal beds. We laid down foam over the squeaky springs and crawled into our sleeping bags.

In the other room, the main office space, our boss John and the other member of his crew slept on makeshift wooden beds. Since those two were still working, and not wanting to bother us, they closed the door to keep out the light.

I stared up into the darkness. We had one small window up high, but a storm had moved in and it provided little light. The wind picked up and I could hear it as it rattled loose pieces of tin siding that I vowed to find and nail down the next day.

I hadn’t even realized I’d fallen asleep when I heard a muffled cry. I opened my eyes and tried to orientate myself to the unfamiliar dark room. I sat there wide eyed and listened to my heart beat and the wind whistle.

After about a minute of not hearing the same noise, I rolled over to face the wall and immediately began falling back asleep.

The scream this time was not muffled, but an all out scream of terror. I flipped over as best as I could in my sleeping bag and fumbled for my flashlight. I knocked it over and heard it roll across the floor as I scrambled to pick it up.

The door swung open and John burst into the room loaded for bear, which was appropriate with all the bears around. He held his lantern high and illuminated my flashlight which I scooped up and turned on.

I sat up and shone my light on Sam who was sitting up in bed, his knees to his chest, whimpering.

John stepped closer and holstered his pistol. “It’s okay Sam,” he said calmly, “it was just a dream.”

Sam turned his wide eyes to John and I could see him visibly shaking. “No. It was here. It grabbed my head then disappeared under my bed!”

Something had definitely frightened Sam and I thought back to the stories I’d heard around the campfire from native elders about a creature that would get you. It was part boogie man, part Bigfoot and I wondered if Sam had heard those same stories.

There wasn’t any way something big could’ve gotten into the room and we inspected under the bed and around the room and found nothing.

It took nearly fifteen minutes to calm Sam down enough and I was yawning. John said he would leave the door open and assured Sam everything was okay, it had just been a bad dream.

As John was standing in the doorway, I heard something above me skittering and then there was a loud thump on the wall in the corner over Sam’s bed followed by Sam screaming again. John turned around and I grabbed my flashlight quickly.

“I’m awake! I’m awake!” Sam screamed. He stood in the middle of his bed and swatted at his head.

John ran over to him and yanked him off of the bed and back to the door. Sam screamed and kicked and once he was at the door, he ran into the other room.

I heard the skittering noise and then the sound of something moving just above my head. I ducked and shone the light up catching the movement of a shadow before it disappeared into the inky darkness.

“Did you see anything?” John asked, stepping back into the room.

I was off my bed now and knelt on the floor. I motioned with the flashlight above me and replied, “It’s above me somewhere.”

John set the lantern on the floor and went out to the main room to get another flashlight. Sam and the other survey member stood in the doorway and peered in while I continued to track the noise with my flashlight.

John came back in and he joined the search, but we still found nothing. The noise had stopped and after a few minutes of searching, John instructed me to lower my flashlight and we all sat in silence.

It seemed like an eternity and we were about to give up when we heard the skittering and bumping above Sam’s bed. Our flashlights swept up and again we caught shadows of something moving along the walls before simply disappearing.

I continued to search the corner while John swept his light around the room. “There it is,” he cried out, the beam of his light sweeping across something clinging to the wall in the opposite corner. It jumped off and I heard it pass by overhead.

I tracked it with my light and saw it smack into the wall next to the window before scrambling up the wall to the corner where a large hole had been before we’d patched it up that day.

It froze, panting heavily, its small furry body shaking as its leathery wings gripped the wall.

“It’s a bat,” John exclaimed with a laugh.

“There are bats in Alaska?” I heard Sam whisper.

“Obviously,” John said with a laugh. “It didn’t bite you did it? You’re not going to turn into a vampire on us?”

I couldn’t see Sam, but I heard him muttering under his breath as he walked away.

We spent another hour trying to figure out how to liberate the bat. The window didn’t open and we ended up accidentally trapping it with a blanket we were trying to use to guide it outside.

The little guy was no worse for wear, but Sam and I didn’t sleep well for a couple of more nights as every sound woke us up.

We discovered over the next couple of day that there was in fact a huge colony of bats that lived in the dilapidated building of the cannery. As the sun would go down, they were stream out of the buildings and begin feeding on all the insects.

It was kind of weird to hear them flitting about and swooping at the bugs that gathered around our heads, but we were eventually thankful since it was one of the only areas on the island that we weren’t eaten alive by bugs.

My Writing Journey: Writing what you know

In my opinion, the difference between good writing and great writing is personality, or what we sometimes refer to as voice. A good writer can inform you or entertain you, a great writer can make you feel a part of the story.

In order to involve your reader, you need to make them care. To make them care, you have to write in such a way that you connect with your character and can share that experience. In order to share that experience, you’ve had to have had that experience yourself.

I know what you’re thinking: Does that mean Tolkien really travelled to the Middle Earth? Don’t be ridiculous, one does not simply walk into Mordor.

Like Tolkien though, you need to immerse yourself into the world you are writing. If the underlying heart of your story is fear, then you should include your own fears. If it is about hope, then share your hopes. If your story is about losing your hat, add the emotions and thoughts you experienced during a time of your own loss.

That is what it means when you hear agents and editors say to write what you know. They aren’t expecting you to be an expert, they are expecting you to bring your passion and experiences, even when it comes to nonfiction.

I don’t think Candace Flemming has ever dived deep into the ocean to study Giant Squid, but she captures the experience beautifully in her book. I am sure that Jason Chin is not an expert of the Grand Canyon, but you can see his experiences come through on the page.

When I wrote Pedro’s Pan: A Gold Rush Story, I included tidbits from my own experiences growing up prospecting with my dad. I drew on the fears I had of what everyone else expected me to be and the fear of failing them.

It is a fear that I still have, a fear that I believe all authors have: the fear of being a fraud, of not being who we think everyone else sees us being. What if I don’t have another book, does that mean I’m really an author? Am I broken? Am I failure?

So as you write, think about what you can personally add to your story. How can you draw on your own experiences to show the deep desire or disappoint of that little girl who really wants a unicorn? How can you draw on your own life to express the pride of a snail who completed his great garden journey? Or the fear of someone who knocks on the door of the creepy house down the street without knowing what is on the other side?

In the end you will find that when you write well, you will leave little pieces of yourself in the stories and in the characters and when you do, that is what your reader will connect with.

Growing Up Alaska: How not to impress a girl

Growing up in rural Alaska, the chances to meet girls was slim, so when a new one showed up, the boys would undoubtably try to impress them. Looking back, I don’t recall it ever working.

The winter that I turned 14, one of my friends had some cousins come to visit. This was fortunate for two reasons: one, they had a daughter about my same age and two, it meant I had one less boy to contend with since they were cousins.

It also happened around that same time that the Forty-Mile Caribou heard was passing through not far from town. The herd had once been in the 100s of thousands, but due to overhunting and a surge in the wolf population, the herd had dwindled and had actually split into two groups, this one being around 800. The state had put a ban on hunting them, so few people really paid attention to them.

The herd was crossing over a pass near my house into the Yukon Valley and my friend’s cousin wanted to see them. She, my friend and I rode snow machines up the trail until we found them.

A few were in the lead and they came up slowly through the pass. The snow machines had sent them running, so we shut them down and found a rock out cropping to sit and dangle our legs.

Most of the caribou stayed far away from us, but just as we were about to leave, the main body of the herd crested the ridge and squeezed through the pass. The spread from side to side and the stopped paying an attention to us.

We talked quietly, amazed by the sight. My friend joked that we should ride the caribou back to my house and his cousin laughed and said that would be cool.

Yes, you’re right. What happened next was foolish.

The caribou were so close that we could have kicked some if we weren’t worried about causing them to stampede. In fact, on large cow had chosen that moment to look for some lichen or grass near the base of the rocks that we were sitting on.

My adolescent male brain kicked in and I swung my leg out hopped down onto the cow. I expected her to collapse under my weight or scoot away, but she did neither. Instead, she locked her legs and I straddled her, my feet barely touching the ground.

Now, I’m not sure who was more surprised, but our shock wore off at about the same time. I turned to wave triumphantly at my friend’s cousin and the caribou decided she didn’t want me on her back.

Surprisingly, with more speed and strength than I would have imagined, the caribou bolted ahead with me on her back! Two large strides and somehow I didn’t fall off.

And just as suddenly, she lowered her head and stopped. I cartwheeled over her head and landed hard on a pile of rocks barely covered with snow.

Pain and adrenaline coursed through my body at the same time. I knew I needed to get up and out of the way because I was sure the herd was spooked and I was going to be trampled.

I rolled onto my knees and watched as the caribou trotted off to rejoin the herd. My friend came running to ask if I was okay and I looked up to see my friend’s cousin standing on top of the rocks covering her mouth. She could’ve been amazed, but was more likely covering a laugh as I brushed off the snow and limped back up the slope to her.

I sat on my snow machine as the bulk of the herd finished going through the pass and descended into the valley below. The adrenaline stopped and the pain increased and I suddenly dreaded the seven mile ride home on some very bumpy trail.

That night I looked in the mirror and my lower back was one big bruise from where I’d landed on the rocks. My ego was also bruised and I never got a chance to talk to my friend’s cousin again to find out if I’d impressed her.

I hope you enjoyed this story and will come back next Friday for another tale of Growing Up Alaska.