Growing Up Alaska: Easter Best

For Easter, you never knew if you were searching for eggs wearing your Sunday best under a snowsuit or tucked into your rubber boots. One year we trudged through six inches of mud and another year we had nearly eight feet of snow!

But of all the Easters, two stand out the most to me, one because of total fun, the other because of total terror. Today, I will tell you the former.

It had been a snowy year, especially that spring. Crabb’s Corner, our local cafe/laundry/motel/grocery/bar/etc. was putting on an Easter egg hunt with a couple of grand prizes; a huge easter basket and $50.

They’d painted and filled hundreds of eggs and hired a couple of guys to hide the eggs over night in the park across the street from their place and to keep an eye out to make sure no one started early.

It was a sunny day and the whole community had come together to join in. The little kids went first to their area and collected the plastic eggs from a packed down spot. Then the rules were announced and the boundary set. There was one real egg with a star on it, find it and you win the large basket. Find the golden egg, and you win $50.

There was about a dozen older kids and a handful of younger kids who all lined up and waited for the signal to start. In years past, the best thing to do was follow the paths made through the snow and look for the eggs, so that was once again the plan.

The signal sounded and we took off running into the park. We ran down the starting path and it didn’t go far before turning into a trail where the men who’d hidden the eggs had trudged through eight feet of snow.

The made dash suddenly became shoving and pushing as all of us were trying to go down the same path. The older kids muscled their way through and waded down the trail only to find it went a little ways before turning back.

Unlike in years past, there were no clear trails through the park to follow and only a couple of eggs were visible near the beginning of the hunt. One of my friends spotted a hole about ten feet off the trail and we suddenly realized that the guys had walked a single path and chucked the eggs into the snow.

Kids began floundering through the snow looking for eggs, or more precisely, holes that showed where eggs had entered the snow.

After a half an hour, we were lucky to find a handful of the hundreds of hidden eggs. Kids were wet and cold and started giving up.

Adults began helping and trying to figure out where the eggs might have landed when one of the men who’d hidden the eggs brought out his secret weapon, a homemade potato gun that he had built to launch the eggs into the snow. We’d assumed most of the eggs were within thirty feet of the trail, but with the potato gun, the eggs could clear a hundred feet.

The search went on for nearly an hour before the owners put an end to it and awarded the basket to the kid who found the most eggs. People were perplexed though about the golden egg as it was too large to fit in the potato gun, but no one had found it.

The second man laughed and pointed to the top of 50 foot birch tree in the park. He grabbed his climbing gear and clambered up the tree and chucked it off into the snow causing a few bumps and bruises as kids scrambled for it.

It seemed that the Easter egg hunt had been a disaster, and as the owner of the park said, “I guess that is what you get for hiring a drunk mechanic and lumberjack to hide the eggs!”

It turned out to be the longest Easter egg hunt in history. As the snow melted, every Sunday you would see kids out there looking for eggs, after all, they still hand candy and money in them.

We never did find them all, but we slowly found most of them, including the one with a star on it, though it was so rotten no one wanted to pick it up, but it earned me a chocolate bar.

Growing Up Alaska: Ski Meet

Far North School in Central, Alaska, rarely had more than a dozen students. Since our school was small and mostly white, we didn’t get extra funds so we didn’t have an indoor gymnasium or dedicated P.E. teachers. But sports was required and the only sport that was universally supported was skiing.

So each year we would have a period in the week to practice skiing in preparations for the district wide ski meet, and sometimes a regional or state meet as well. By practice, I mean that we were assigned a set of cross country skis and told to go to a spot and return or take a loop around the school over a measured distance.

There are many issues with this as 1) we had little motivation because we almost always got beat because our gear was old and heavy compared to other schools, 2) we didn’t have anyone training us so there was little competition or chance to improve ourselves, and 3) our trail was mostly a snow machine trail over fairly flat terrain and they didn’t match the groomed and diverse courses we raced on.

But everyone was involved, not for the sport, but it was one of the few times that we were out of school and could travel for these meets.

A victory for us was to simply come in the top ten, which didn’t happen often. We knew that schools like Minto would always win because they trained for it and had Olympic skiers coaching them and they had the latest equipment.

Skate skis were still fairly new so most competitions saw a mix of skiers in the same heat as they had not yet distinguished between the two in smaller competitions like ours, like it was really a competition.

This year, one of the state trials was going to be held in Fairbanks at the Birch Hill Ski Area, so our Principal/Teacher thought it would be a good idea to enter. We even had a local woman who skied recreationally who decided she would be our coach and help prepare us for the meet.

We trained three days a week and we even got someone to build a sled that could be pulled behind a snow machine to create groomed trails for us. We trained hard in our winter gear, challenged to beat our own times.

As the meet drew closer, we learned about waxing skis and trail conditions and pacing and sprinting. We were starting to believe that we actually stood a chance at making the podium.

And our Principal told us he had a surprise for us.

We piled on the bus and climbed into cars and headed 125 miles south to Fairbanks. Along the way, the bus broke down and didn’t have the power to get up the final mountain, so we took the opportunity for extra ski practice and skied up the mountain. If we could do that, we could do anything!

The next day, after renting a bus while ours was repaired, our Principal took us to a sports shop and had us all fitted for skate skis. They weren’t top of the line, but they were sleek and beautiful compared to the wooden traditional skies many of us were using.

Excited, we took our new skis out to Birch Hill to do a practice run. The bindings were different from our old skis and it took many of us a bit and a little help to figure out how to put them on. Those that did figure out, tried to take off and fell down because the skis didn’t work like the old skis.

Other teams showed up to practice and laughed at us. Many of the coaches came over to help us, but as we watched the teams take off, our spirits hit an all time low. They looked so graceful on their skis in their special outfits in school colors.

After watching that, most of our team threw down their skis and refused to even try. There was no way we could win, with our without our new skis.

At the hotel that night, we decided that we would use our old heavy skis. No one talked of podiums or even doing well, just doing our best and beating any old personal records from prior meets.

The longer races started early in the morning and none of us were competing in those. We were sticking with the shorter 10K and under races, many of us racing in two.

The teams gathered data from the early morning runs. It was spring, so the weather was nice once the sun came up and reports came in for a soft course with melting snow, so teams waxed up appropriately.

We were the only team running traditional Nordic skis which drew the attention of a few, including an Olympic coach who helped us wax our skis and showed us an easier way of getting the job done. He gave us words of encouragement before he walked away.

I and my schoolmate were lined up for the 5K start and we were placed in the back so we wouldn’t get run over by the skate skiers. They raised the flag to indicate we were about to start when a call came over the radio of moose on the back of the run and we had to delay the race.

We made our way back to our designated school areas and while we waited, clouds moved in and blocked the sun. The temperature dropped ten degrees easily and we saw the coach who had shown us the waxing secret come over to us.

“Strip the wax,” he said in hushed tones as he approached.

We gathered around puzzled and he informed us the track was hardening and getting slick. The rules stated that during a delay, wax could not be applied, but wax could be removed. Our skis were old enough and made for recreational skiing, so removing the wax would give us ideal skiing surfaces.

We scraped the wax and about a half an hour later, the course was declared clear and we lined up again. Knowing the others had the wrong wax didn’t mean we could win, but it gave us hope.

The air horn blasted and we all started. The teams with professional coaches started off well and those without slipped and stumbled. Those of us on traditional skis shot off, but were blocked by all the sprawling skiers.

Out of the chute, me and two of my schoolmates jumped out in front of over half the pack and charged down the trail. By the time we reached the first hard turn, we had put some distance between us and them, but a gap had opened between us and the leaders. We overtook a couple who fell in the turn as the trail was fast and their skis didn’t have the edges to make the corner.

The course wound through the woods before coming to a steep section that rose over a hundred feet. The first thirty feet were extremely steep and many of the leaders worked hard to get up the hill since their skis didn’t have the edges on them.

It was a difficult climb, but with edges on our skis, we walked at an angle up the first steep part and then skied up the rest. We watched as other skiers lost their edges and slid back down the hill, often colliding into other skiers.

A few of the leaders beat us to the top of the hill, but we were hot on their heels. They had the advantage in speed, but we had better control. As we finished the first of two laps, one of the parent volunteers held up a chalkboard that showed me that I was nearly a minute faster than my last meet and that was in spite of the nasty hill climb.

With a new surge of adrenaline, we pressed on and caught two more leaders when then crashed at the first turn. I wasn’t sure what place I was in, but looking behind me, I only saw the two skiers who’d crashed and one other skier.

Panting hard, we came around the corner and all chaos broke loose. Nearly forty skiers were still trying to climb the hill. By the rules, you couldn’t remove your skies to walk without being disqualified, so many kids were sitting on the sides of the trail crying while other still tried to climb the hill, some on their hands and knees.

We wove our way up the hill, often having other skiers slide down and collide with us. The lead skiers on skate skies were easy to spot because they were assisting one another up the hill in tandem pairs. Some of their teammates who were still stuck from the first lap helped them out too.

There was nothing in the rules against it and we all moved up the hill.

I spotted one of my classmates clear the first steep rise just before two others. Once I cleared the top of that first rise, it was clear and I knew only a handful of the kids that had reached the top were in lap one.

I crossed the finish line to cheers and discovered that I was overall ten minutes slower than my last meet, but had placed sixth! One of my schoolmates took third and the other took fourth.

For the first time ever, our school had two representatives that qualified for the State Championship!

It was nearly a half an hour before large numbers of skiers made it through the chute to finish just their first lap. As it turns out, officials finally let them all remove their skis and climb the hill before putting them back on and finishing the race.

That evening, at the medal ceremony, I watch as my schoolmates both received medals. It turned out that the kid who took first had changed his wax during the delay and was disqualified. That meant I moved up to fifth and qualified for State too!

It was also decided that since the course couldn’t be completed by more than 50% of the contestants, and those that did qualified well under their normal time, that meet was being disqualified as a qualifier for State, so despite our school’s best performance because or our old gear, we didn’t make State.

We did try another meet, but the highest skier got was 11th, which was good considering we were still on old skis.

I did beat my best time by nearly a minute at that meet too, but I came in 26th.

We all looked forward to the next year when we would have time to practice on the new skate skis and see how some of our top skiers would do. Unfortunately, that would be the last meet in a long time as we only had 8 students the next year and they closed down our school.

Growing Up Alaska: Walking To School, Uphill Both Ways

Growing up in the small rural community of Central, Alaska, our school didn’t always have enough students to remain open. And when it did, the students were spread out over a large area.

My family was eight miles at the end of one of three roads, and with one bus, it made our commute rather long. There were a couple of families that lived near us and we all used the same bus stop. So each morning, Clint and I would walk about 3/4 of a mile up the hill and meet with the other kids while we waited for the bus.

It was springtime and we were in between a constant thaw/freeze cycle as temperatures during the day would get just above freezing and drop below at night. This particular morning it was already barely above freezing and the road was covered in slushy ice.

We trudged up the hill, Clint constantly encouraging me to keep up. It was cold enough we needed a coat, but warm enough that we didn’t zip it up. In fact, it was warm enough that most kids had their coat tied around their waist.

Like every other day, we rode to school. Only, today at recess, the temperature kept rising and we were near 50 degrees so no one wore a coat.

After school, we climbed onto the bus and prepared for the long commute home.

I noticed that many of the creeks, which were still frozen, had lots of water flowing over the tops of them and many low places in the road had standing water. All the meltwater had no place to go.

We dropped off everyone else and were nearly home when the bus driver stopped and told us we would have to walk the rest of the way. On this side of the hill, the creek had washed out the road and cars could not get across. Someone had set up a temporary footbridge so that people could cross.

We all climbed out and the bus driver walked us down to where the road had been washed out. The footbridge turned out to be a series of 2x6s and 2x8s that has been laid out across the downstream end of the culverts that had pretty much washed out.

One at a time we crossed the fifteen foot segment of washed out road. It was both thrilling and terrifying, but we all made it across safely and continued the walk home.

The bus driver lived up the road this way too, so she left the bus parked along the road so that we could get picked up there in the morning. Since we had parked on the other side of the hill, she started laughing as we walked along, nearly all of us complaining about having to walk so far.

“Well, at least you can tell your children that in your day, you had to walk uphill both ways to school,” our bus driver continued to laugh.

Our driver walked us all to the bus stop before heading back down to her house with the promise that she would contact our families about the pick up time for the next day.

As it turned out, we didn’t have school the next day because flood waters had washed out multiple bridges and repairs would take a few days to make the road safe.

But, for that one day, we can say that we walked uphill both ways, if not to school, to our bus stop; which I think counts.

Growing Up Alaska: Honeybuns

For those of you who do not know what Honeybuns are (other than that cute name you call your significant other), I will tell you they are not an Alaskan thing. They are a pastry that I would say is a cross between a cinnamon roll and a donut.

Back when I was seven, about the only way you could get these in Alaska was to have someone ship them to you. They were popular in the south and midwest, so when we had one of our rare calls to our grandmother in Oklahoma, my oldest brother Shane told her he wanted honeybuns for his upcoming 14th birthday.

She probably spent twice as much on postage as she did on the four dozen honeybuns, but she mailed them and I won’t forget the day that medium sized brown box arrived with my brother’s name on it. You would have thought we had just won the lottery.

Of course that excitement quickly died when our mother informed us that this was Shane’s birthday present so they were his, despite the note that my grandmother had written saying they were for the family. We each got one for breakfast, but the other 3 1/2 dozen went to my oldest brother.

You can eat them straight from the package, but the best way is to cook them on the griddle with a little bit of butter. This caramelizes the sugar and warms it up creating a decadent, gooey taste of heaven.

After breakfast, Shane took his box and went to hide it. We were on the mine site living in a small trailer so we didn’t exactly have personal space, but we all had our “spots.” Shane’s spot was an old Korean War era ambulance that my dad was planning to convert into a mobile processing lab for his new drill rig.

Mom gave us a stern warning not to bother Shane because they were his honeybuns. If we wanted some, we could ask grandmother to send some for our birthdays. So you can imagine her irritation when Shane entered the trailer and Clint, the middle brother, asked if he could have another.

We were sent on our way as the trailer was too small to hang out in and besides, we all had our jobs to tend to. I finished my chores quickly, being too small to have a “job,” and went to play with my cars in the sand pile.

While I was playing, Clint walked by as if heading to the trailer when he stopped, looked around, and sprinted for the ambulance. He disappeared through the driver’s door which faced away from the camp and since I knew what he was up to, I jumped up to follow.

I found Clint standing on a bucket in his search of the upper compartments and he shushed me as I climbed up. I closed the driver side door with a loud thud which was louder than a normal car door since it was made of multiple layers of steel.

Finding the right compartment, Clint pulled down the box and hopped off the bucket, sitting the box on one of the fold out stretchers. I climbed up next to him and we looked down into the box full of honeybuns.

Clint grabbed a couple out, putting one in his pocket and gave me the other. “Don’t tell,” he said, which was a common ploy of his when he was doing something wrong. He would try to get me involved so I would get into trouble too if I tattled.

It didn’t always work, but this time it did. I grinned as I tried to open the cellophane wrapper as Clint took one more before putting the box back.

We sprinted from the ambulance and ran behind a dirt pile to enjoy our spoils. I still couldn’t open my package, so Clint opened it for me and I dove in, shoving as much in as I could, expecting any moment to get caught.

Clint didn’t eat his as quickly, and I supposed he didn’t have to since he had two. “Slow down,” he told me as I took another big bite. “Save the rest. You won’t get another.”

I took another bite, then, as instructed, I folded down the wrapper and put the rest of the honeybun in my pocket. Clint wiped the evidence from my face and we merrily went back to our activities.

I hid the remainder of my honeybun in the tin that I put my toy cars in and thought about it all day.

The next day, as we set about our jobs in the morning, I saw Shane head to the ambulance. I held my breath and watched as he went in. But he emerged a couple of minutes later with his hands in his coat pocket and marched off to work without even a sidelong glance.

I was contemplating where I could take my honeybun to eat it and not get caught, when my mother called for me to ride with her into town. This journey took up most of our day and when we returned, my dad and brothers were working in the gold room where I had stored my toys so they wouldn’t get rained on.

It would be another day before I could savor the last of my honeybun, so I waited until the next morning, and as soon as my chores were done, I snatched up my tin box and went behind the dirt pile and devoured what was left of my honeybun.

While I was doing that, I heard the door to the ambulance squeak open and spotted Clint climbing out, a honeybun in hand. He ran off towards the woods and I snuck over to the ambulance.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach the compartment, even when standing on a bucket, so I gave up, sure that at any moment Shane was going to walk in and catch me.

I heard mom calling for me and realized it must be time for my next set of chores, so I sprinted as quietly as I could from the ambulance. Being as smart as I was, I wound my way around the camp so I came from behind the trailer and not so obviously from the ambulance.

Mom was waiting with two empty five gallon jugs that I was to use to gather water from the spring on the other side of camp. She set them on the ground as was about to head up the steps into the kitchen when she stopped and asked, “What did you get into?”

I looked down at my pants as I usually have crawled in the mud or something, but mom grabbed my face and wiped at it with a dish towel. It came away sticky and dirty.

“You have been eating honeybuns. Did you steal one from Shane?” She squeezed my cheeks so hard I couldn’t respond if I wanted to, so I shook my head no which only caused her to squeeze a little harder.

She let go and I said, “Clint gave it to me!” which wasn’t a complete lie.

Mom stood up and yelled for Clint. I saw his head duck down behind the embankment along the road. Mom yelled a couple of more times before Clint emerged from the woods about a hundred feet from where I had first spotted him. He walked over sheepishly and glared at me the whole way. He knew I had ratted on him.

Mom ordered us to go sit next to the trailer and called for Shane. He came running and mom instructed him to go get his honeybuns. When he exited the ambulance, he was fuming. “There are at least six missing!”

“I only had the one Clint gave me!” I blurted which got me an elbow in the side from him.

Mom lectured us about stealing and how we were not allowed to have any more of Shane’s honeybuns without his permission. Clint pointed out how unfair that was since Shane wasn’t going to share and my mom responded that he didn’t have too, especially since we stole from him.

She instructed Shane to find a better hiding place and took Clint and I around to the other side of the trailer to give us a spanking. When we were done, Shane had gone and so had the honeybuns.

Two days later I was sitting back in the sand area playing with my cars when I spotted Clint slinking off. I went out front by the oversized gravel parking lot and watched as he moved between the vehicles, watching something.

That is when I spotted Shane who had sprinted across the lot to where the mechanics worked on the heavy equipment from the mine; one area that was completely off limits to us kids. Shane disappeared into the scrap yard at the edge of the work area and Clint sprinted to a dirt pile nearby.

Clint climbed the pile and looked down, then flattened himself as Shane reappeared. Shane looked about, then sprinted across the lot and down towards the mine where he was supposed to be helping dad today.

Clint disappeared into the scrap yard and emerged a while later, his hands in his coat pocket. He looked around to make sure no one could see him, then sprinted for the woods.

Clint repeated this multiple times over the next two days, and on the second day I followed and repeated Clint’s actions from a few days earlier and spied on him from the dirt pile. I couldn’t see into the scrap yard, but I did see him climb up into the back of an old fire service truck that one of the mechanics had hoped to fix up and make his service truck.

Clint didn’t spot me as he ran to the woods. As many times as he had taken honeybuns, I wasn’t sure how Shane didn’t notice. I could only assume that Shane really was making his honeybuns last and hadn’t gotten another one yet.

The next morning, Shane started for the scrap yard and this time Clint stood out in the open. Shane saw him and stopped. He wandered down the road away from the honeybuns and Clint followed as if he wasn’t sure where Shane was going.

They played this cat and mouse game for about 5 minutes before dad came out and honked his horn, letting Shane know it was time to go to work. Shane came running and glared at Clint who only grinned back at him, his arms crossed.

As soon as the truck was out of sight, Clint sprinted for the scrap yard only to emerge a couple of minutes later and sprint for the trees.

I’m not sure if I was more upset with Clint stealing from Shane or the fact that neither of them was sharing, but that’s when the plan started to form in my head. I waited until all my chores were done and that Clint had gotten called off to work before I set out.

I knew the scrap yard was off limits and I could get into serious trouble if I got caught, so unlike my brothers, I skirted the edge of the woods rather than run across the open lot. When I got there, I climbed into the back of the fire truck and it was easy to spot where Shane had hidden his honeybuns since everything had been coated in dust.

It took me a few tries to open the compartment since I didn’t know how to use the latches, but when I did, I was surprised to find only about a dozen honeybuns left. I took one out and set my plan into motion.

After dinner, Shane said he needed to go use the bathroom and took off. He returned a few minutes later calling Clint’s name. Clint’s eyes went wide and Mom met Shane at the door.

There was a whole lot of yelling before mom drug Clint and I out of the trailer to face Shane. This lead to more yelling as Shane yelled that all his honeybuns were gone.

Clint tried to play innocent, but his glances at me told my mom he was hiding something.

“Matthew–” my mom started.

“I took them and hid them so Clint would stop stealing them!” I replied before she could say my whole name, a sure indication that we were in trouble.

This got me a glare from both of my brothers, Clint for ratting on him, Shane for taking his honeybuns.

“Clint followed you on the first day and found your hiding hole. He’s been eating them everyday!” I continued quickly. “I haven’t eaten any!”

“Where are they?” mom asked.

“I hid them someplace safe.”

They all looked at me, waiting for me to tell them where this safe place was.

“I think that I should get a reward.”

“What!” Shane bellowed.

“Just one honeybun.”

“No way!”

“Matthew! Those are not yours and you will give them back immediately!” my mother demanded.

I pressed my lips together, indicating I wasn’t going to respond.

So she spanked and grounded Clint, then told me she wouldn’t spank me if I told Shane where his honeybuns were.

I got spanked.

“Fine!” my mother protested, “We will let your father sort this out.”

So we all sat in the little trailer glaring at one another for an hour until dad came in. Apprised of the situation, dad took Clint out and gave him a spanking with his belt and left him sitting outside while he sorted out the rest of the problem.

“Where are they?” he asked as he came in, hunching over to squeeze his tall frame into the tiny trailer door. Being my dad already made him formidable in my eyes, but this caused him to loom over me and my resolve melted.

“I put them in a safe place.” I replied, afraid to look up. My dad let the silence linger and I finally said, “Shane is sitting on them.”

Shane sprang up and pulled up the cushions. Under it was a small storage compartment and when he opened it, there was his box of honeybuns. He pulled the box out and his face dropped when he opened it. He turned and yelled at me, “Where are they all at?”

Dad took the box from him, then asked him, “How many have you had?”

“Four since they stole them! There should be twice this many!” Shane wailed.

Dad turned to me and I held up my hands, “I haven’t eaten any! Mom said we couldn’t have any unless Shane gave them to us.”

Anger burned in Shane’s eyes and I knew if he got Clint or I alone, we were in trouble.

Dad placed his hand on Shane’s shoulder and said, “I think Matt deserves a reward, don’t you?”

That seemed to rattle Shane as he shook his head and stared in disbelief up at dad. “But…”

“If he had’t hidden them from Clint, you would have even less now. He could have eaten them, but he didn’t. He could have taken some, but he didn’t. He could have not told you were they were, but he didn’t. Losing one for the right reason is better than loosing them all for the wrong reason.”

Shane reluctantly took a honeybun out of the box and tossed it at me. I picked it up and smiled from ear to ear.

Dad looked at me and winked before he usher Shane out with the promise of a box with a lock on it.

I savored my prize over the next couple of days, making sure to keep it hidden.

It would be nearly two years before I got to eat another honeybun, but now, each time that I do, I remember that summer at the mine and the lessons learned.

Growing Up Alaska: The Candy Bar

Growing up in a rural town in Alaska meant things were done differently. People didn’t lock up their houses or their cars. A neighbor was more than someone who lived next to you. And all of this was based on trust.

I was around eleven when this next story occurred and it was one of those rare occasions that I was selected to go alone to help my dad. In reality, both of my brothers were likely occupied with something else and my dad took the next available son.

That sounds worse than it really was because I was 6 years younger than my oldest brother and when my dad went out to do something, he tended to take someone that he could depend on that already knew what to do. I was a bit of a dreamer and admittedly was not the best of “just knowing” what to do.

But today was my day. I honestly don’t remember exactly what we had gone to do, but I believe we’d gone to pick up my dad’s drill rig. We were successful and were on our way home when my dad stopped off at Crabb’s Corner, the local one stop convenience store/gas station/laundry/hotel/cafe/bar/etc.

My dad filled up the fuel tanks on the truck and drill rig and gave me a few dollars to go in to get a soda to split and a candy bar. Now this was something special as we didn’t do this often and I was quite excited.

I ran in and looked through the limited selection of candy, trying to decide what I wanted. I picked out a Hershey Bar with almonds for my dad and finally selected a Butterfinger for myself, not because it was my favorite, it was simply because it was the biggest.

When I went over to the fridge to get a Pepsi for us to share, I noticed a strange man standing in the dark near the laundry just staring at me. As you can imagine, this gave me the creeps, so I quickly grabbed the soda and went to the counter up front and rang the bell.

The store was often unmanned and the bell next to the register was used to alert someone upstairs in the cafe/bar to come down. Only no one came, so I waited and rang the bell again.

I looked out the window and could see my dad was finished with fueling the vehicles and was climbing into the cab to pull the truck around to get us ready for the road. I knew that if Jim was managing the bar, he didn’t like it when people rang the bell, so I ran to the steps and peered up into the cafe/bar.

I wasn’t allowed up their without one of my parents, so I craned my neck as much as I could and looked around. The place was empty. There weren’t even any customers which was odd.

Movement in the dark room to my left made my hair stand on end as the stranger had moved and was now standing in the middle of the room, staring at me wordlessly. I couldn’t see his face in the dark, but I imagined it to be something sinister.

My dad honked the horn and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I ran to the counter and in a panic, didn’t know what to do. Normally, if someone doesn’t answer, you fill out a slip on the notebook with what you purchased and the cash. If you are owed change, you picked it up the next time you came in. If you had a line of credit, you could simply write and IOU. Remember, we were a tight knit community and trust was everything.

And that was the problem. I didn’t trust this stranger. So, in a most grown up way, I decided not to leave the cash behind, but rather wrote an IOU and rushed out to my dad waiting in the truck.

I bound in and had barely closed the door before my dad started off. I handed him the soda and Hershey Bar before buckling my belt as we turned out onto the road.

I pulled my Butterfinger out along with the $3 he’d had given me and was pleased with my split second decision that I was sure my dad would be proud of it too.

“Here’s the money! I left them a note because there was no one there but this strange guy.”

My dad just turned and stared at me without taking the money. “Why didn’t you leave it on the counter?”

I beamed up at him. “I didn’t see anyone in the bar and afraid the stranger would steal the money, I decided to leave a note instead.”

Rather than the familiar pride on my dad’s face, a look I seldom saw darkened his eyes. He stuck out his hand and I handed him the money. He set it on his seat next to him and stuck out his hand again. I looked at him confused, then reluctantly handed him my Butterfinger.

He set it wordlessly on the seat as well and drove down the narrow road until he found a place that he could turn around with the trailer and we headed back to Crabb’s Corner.

“I understand why you thought that was good, but I want you to remember that the people around here have to earn each other’s trust. People can take your home, your bike, even your life, but one thing they can’t take from you is your good name.”

We pulled back into the parking lot and as we stopped, he continued. “You have not earned their trust to leave them a note. Though you thought you were doing the right thing, it isn’t your responsibility to make sure anyone else is. It would have been better for you to leave the money counter and have the man steal it than to steal something with a promise.”

“But what if–” I started before my dad held up his hand.

“Trust can not be built on what ifs.” He picked up my Butterfinger and handed it to me before fishing another dollar out of his pocket. “Now, return it and apologize. You will pay double for your candy when you return it. If no one is there, leave a note and apologize.”

Crestfallen, I took the money and my candy and trudged back into the store. When the chimes on the door rang, I was greeted by the cheerful voice of Ms. Sandy, the owner. “Why there you are dear! I got your note. Did you forget something?”

I shook my head and placed the Butterfinger on the counter along with $4. I felt the tears burning the corner of my eyes as I felt ashamed. “I’m sorry I took the stuff without paying.”

“Why that is okay, dear? I got your note,” she said picking up the money. “Hun, here, you gave me too much,” she said scooting the extra dollar back towards me.

“My dad said I had to pay double for what I stole since I don’t have permission to leave an IOU.”

I turned for the door as Ms. Sandy replied, “That’s silly. I don’t let kids write IOUs, but I know you are good for it. Besides, I heard you ring the bell, but I was….busy.”

I pulled open the door and she called out, “You forgot your candy!”

I felt the tears well up again and I left before she could see me crying.

My dad stood next to the truck waiting and when I came out, he motioned for me to get in and then went inside to talk to Ms. Sandy as well.

He came out less than two minutes later and climbed into the truck before pulling out onto the road.

Once we had driven for a minute, he said in his low solid voice, “I know that must have been hard, but I want you to know that I am proud of you. I’m proud of you for making a good choice, even if it wasn’t the right one. I’m proud of you for standing up and apologizing even when you didn’t feel you were in the wrong. And I am proud of you for listening to me and not complaining or arguing.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and I looked up in anticipation, wiping the tears from my cheeks. He handed me the rest of his Hershey Bar and for a flash of a moment I was disappointed until I realized that this was his treat, something I knew he looked forward to and he had given it to me though I was the one at fault.

It was one of my most humbling moments in life and it has always stuck with me. I can’t look at a Butterfinger without thinking of him and remembering the pride on his face as he gave away his treat to soften my blow. And I will always remember how sweet it was to share that treat with him as we drove home.

Growing Up Alaska: The Tale of the Tail

Winters are cold in the interior of Alaska. We can see the temperatures plummet to below minus 60º Fahrenheit which can be painfully cold. One of my prized possessions was my fur trappers hat that I wore to keep my head, ears and cheeks warm.

I was traveling by snow machine with a friend to clear and mark the trail for The Yukon Quest, a thousand mile sled dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska, that literally went through my backyard. It was late in January, so we didn’t get much sunlight, and most of our trail breaking was done in the dark.

Luckily, the temperatures had risen to just above zero and along with that, it brought fresh snow. That meant that in places it was difficult to find the trail and we spent a lot of time creating new paths.

A sliver of a moon had already risen, even though it was early in the evening, casting silvery shadows in open spaces and leaving the trees as dark splotches against an even darker sky. The headlight from the snow machine cast a bouncing yellow light that reflected off the drifts and left long chasms of shadows the seemed to move on their own.

I was kneeling on my machine to help keep it stable in the soft snow as I followed my friend who had taken the lead since I was hauling the sled with the trail markers and reflectors. The sound of the engine and the rushing wind drowned out most sound and caused a hum in my brain that tried to lull me to ignore the world around me.

We pulled out of the woods and dropped down onto a wide creek and after taking a right, I noticed that my friend had stopped not far up the creek. We frequently stopped to mark the trail or simply to warm ourselves up or let our machines cool down.

I stopped and marked the trail showing the mushers that the trail was about to turn and leave the creek. Finished, I climbed back on my machine and sped along the trail to my waiting friend.

As I approached him, I could see he was sitting on his machine and drinking from his thermos. I was thinking about how cold I was and looked forward to taking a break and drinking hot chocolate from my own thermos being kept warm near the exhaust manifold.

He turned and looked at me as I approached and I saw his eyes go wide and his jaw drop open in either surprise or trying to yell something. Of course, even if he had yelled, I wouldn’t have heard him.

And that is when something struck me upside my head causing me to shift on my machine and go off the trail and sink into the snow.

In that moment, my brain slowed down as it tried to process all the information. One part tried to keep my machine from sinking while another part processed the pain at the side of my head and yet another part tried to process what had caused the pain.

My machine slowed and immediately sunk as I tried to stay on and I knew I was going to get stuck, so I turned my attention to my friend who was frantically pointing behind me.

I swung my head around and watched a huge dark shadow fly up and disappear into the trees. As the snow machine stopped, I turned it off and felt the side of my head to see if I was bleeding.

Luckily I was not. I pulled my hat off and found a large scratch along the leather on the earflap. I checked my head again and found that pain was coming from just over and behind the ear.

“Holy cow! Did you see it?” my friend yelled as he ran to me. It was hard to understand him as my ears still thrummed from the roar of the vibrations of the snow machine. He point to the trees. “That was a huge owl! Are you okay?”

I checked the side of my head again and was relieved to find I still wasn’t bleeding, though it hurt enough that I was sure there should be some kind of gash there. As I spun my hat around, I saw that I was now missing the last four inches of my prized fox tail that tended to flutter in the breeze behind me as I rode.

“Man, it got your tail!” my friend said as he inspected the side of my head. “It came out of nowhere and WHAM! It must have thought your tail was food!”

I spent a few minutes lamenting my hat and my head before spending the next twenty minutes getting my machine and the sled out of the soft snow.

As we continued down the trail, more than once I was sure I spotted phantom shadows out of the corner of my eye causing me to duck.

Even today, if I am walking near woods or working in my yard, when a shadow passes overhead, my instinct is to duck and I think of that great horned owl that took the tip of my tail.

Growing Up Alaska: The Boy Scout Motto “I Forgot”

Growing up in Central, Alaska, a remote town with a population of less than a hundred year round residents, you can imagine that we didn’t have a very big school age population. In fact, most of the time our school had about a dozen students between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my family making up about a quarter of the school population.

This also meant that we didn’t have organizations like the Boy or Girl Scouts, though we did have a 4-H club for many years. This did not mean we weren’t aware of such groups as troops from the Fairbanks area would travel up to our neck of the woods to float Birch Creek which was really more of a river.

One summer, when I was 14, I was on a break from mining and word spread that they local guide for the trip had injured himself and wouldn’t be able to take the Boy Scout troop and they were looking for another guide. I stepped up and volunteered, but the Troop leader was a little hesitant since I was about the same age as many of the kids in his troop.

But after hours of no one else showing up to volunteer, he agreed to let me guide them on a three day trip down the creek. So late in the afternoon, we set off for a three day float that we could realistically make in one day. This took the pressure off of making camps as we could pull in early to set up.

My canoe was packed lightly as I carried a small backpack, a shotgun and my sleeping bag. I was in the water and waiting for nearly a half an hour before the troop finally waddled down to the boat launch and we set off.

The first day was short and we set up camp a few hours later along a wide gravel bar on the north side of the creek. It was fun to banter with the other boys, even if they were a bit standoffish. I didn’t have many kids my own age around, especially at the mine site.

As the kids started setting up their camp, the troop leader asked me to set up downstream as he didn’t want his troop distracted by my shotgun. I got the message and quickly set up camp before walking back up to see what was going on.

Half the troop hadn’t finished setting up their tents yet and I overheard the troop leader talking to two boys who didn’t appear to have a tent. One of the boys who was almost in tears, shrugged and said, “I forgot.”

“How do you forget your tent on a camping trip!” the leader exclaimed. “It was at the top of the list!”

“I packed it,” the boy tried to explain, “but I left it in the van.”

The leader separated the boys and assigned them to other tents making them a bit more crowded.

It took the troop nearly an hour to get all their tents set up, well, at least all set up at the same time.

The mosquitos were thick, but thankfully, as it got later, a breeze picked up and cleared the gravel bar and knocked down a couple of tents.

The leader set about having them practice their fire building skills which lead to a bunch more of “I forgots.”

“Where is your knife?” “I forgot it.”

“Where is your hatchet?” “I forgot it.”

“Where are your matches?” “I forgot.”

“Where is your change of clothes?” “I forgot.”

“Where is your handbook?” “I forgot.”

Each time this was met with sarcasm from their troop leader who reminded them that their motto was “Be prepared.”

After a half an hour of watching fires go up and die out or kids going through a small box of matches, I began to be embarrassed that these kids identified as Alaskan.

Luckily, the leader built the main fire for the troop to cook their hot dogs around. I hadn’t been sure if I would be invited to join them, so I’d caught a couple of grayling for dinner that I had cooking near my own fire. But the leader invited me over and we sat around the fire telling spooky stories until the sun crept down to the horizon.

Fires out, we headed to bed with the promise that we would be up with the sun and heading down river.

So I was up four hours later and packing up as the sun came up. In July, the sun doesn’t set until around 11pm and comes before 5am, so I was shocked because I had to sit around watching the sun rise for nearly two hours before anyone else got up.

They had a morning routine which took them nearly an hour and a half to do, along with another dozen “I forgots” before they even began to pack up.

I showed the leader a map of the creek and made plans for our lunch stop, places of interest and our goal for the evening. In all, the trip would take us at most 6 hours. It took 10. Namely because when we were an hour downstream and I was showing them fossils, some of the boys realized they had forgotten stuff upstream.

I took one of the older boys and we paddled back upstream to gather the backpacks and tent that were left behind. We made quick work of it and caught up to them for lunch.

I travelled ahead and would set up wherever the group was planned to meet next. While they did their activity, I moved on to the next point and reached the campsite around 5:30 and they appeared closer to 7.

I set my camp up on a small bluff overlooking where a smaller stream intersected with Birch Creek. I’d carried my canoe up the bank and tied it off to a tree as well. I’d been watching the weather all day, and while it had been mostly sunny here, the mountains to our east and upstream had been obscured by storm clouds all day.

The water had started to change mid afternoon from nearly crystal clear to a murky gray from the silt being churned up from the rainwaters by the time the troop arrived.

They were exhausted and I came down and told the troop leader that it would be best to set up on higher ground, but he was frustrated and tired and refused to listen. The second adult chaperone, one of the boys’ dad, nearly bit my head off when I pushed the point because “the mountains are at least 20 miles away.” They beached their canoes and within a half an hour had their tents set up on the gravel bar as near to the trees as they could get since a wind had come up again.

Dinner was canned soup and within an hour, most everyone had gone to bed. I watched the fire as it burned low before putting it out and turning in myself. The sky was cloudy and I could smell rain on the air. It mostly sprinkled and I allowed the pitter patter of raindrops on my tent lull me to sleep.

I woke up to the sound of the little stream gurgling. It was still dark, but the creek was much louder now. I sprang from bed and ran out to see how much the creek had risen.

The little stream was now a raging torrent overflowing its banks and Birch Creek had risen enough that most of the gravel bar was under an inch of water. Kids had started to scream and yell as the frigid water soaked their sleeping bags and they awoke to find themselves now in the creek.

I threw on my boots and waded across the stream that I had once been able leap across a few hours prior. Kids poked their heads out of their tents, many still in their sleeping bags, as I ran up the gravel bar to where they had beached their canoes. Only a couple were tied off and even those had been tied to small rocks.

A few of the canoes were bobbing on the sides and one had started working its way to the main current, dragging its small stone along. I hefted the boats up the gravel bar and hefted them onto the higher bank where thankfully a couple of the kids had come out and tied them off.

By the time I was done, the water had risen another inch and many of the tents started to collapse as the current shifted onto the gravel bank. I no longer ran since the water was now above my ankles.

I counted off all of the kids who stood on the slightly higher bank and they were all accounted for. The leader was trying to save supplies and the chaperone had gotten trapped in his tent when it collapsed. He thrashed about and I pounced on him and yelled for him to hold still as I cut away the fabric that had cocooned him.

The leader and a couple of the older kids began to drag the tents up to the bank by the time I’d freed the chaperone and helped him pull his now destroyed tent up to the bank.

It didn’t take much to convince them to move to higher ground since the water had risen another couple of inches and the small stream was overflowing its banks just behind them.

Tents were tossed into canoes and I instructed them to take them downstream around the bluff point were they would be able to pull them up to higher ground. The rest of the troop waded across the stream and up the embankment to my site.

After a check on my own canoe, I started a fire while the leader took assessment of their supplies. Fortunately, the only item they lost was a cooler that had been left in one of the boats that had rolled over. Everything else was there, even if it were a bit wet or ruined.

We ate a breakfast of granola bars and hot chocolate as we waited for the sun to rise. The creek rose another 6-8 inches in the next couple of hours creating swift currents, but luckily the creek was wide here and we were below any white water.

The rest of the canoe trip could be done in under 3 hours, though the original plan gave us nearly seven. The leader and the chaperone were done with the trip and many of the boys were cold and on the verge of tears, so as soon as the sun was up, they decided to paddle to the haul out.

I paddled ahead, looking for any sweepers in the water or any trees that looked like they may fall in as the flood eroded the bank. The water was swift and it didn’t take a lot of paddling to reach the haul out in just two and a half hours.

We all started unpacking our supplies and carrying out canoes up to were the leader was going to bring the van and trailer down that they had left in the parking area.

About fifteen minutes later, he reappeared, walking instead of driving. “Do you have the keys?” he asked the chaperone who pulled out his set for the other van.

The leader looked a bit sheepish as he turned to his troop and said, “I forgot the keys in my jacket in the other van.”

My Writing Journey: Marketing Not Only Your Book, But Yourself

Your success as a writer is going to depend on two thing: How you define success and your marketability.

I am not going to define success for you, but for me, it was seeing my name on a book on a shelf at my local book store. It isn’t about royalties or numbers sold or even sustainability, it has all been about making my dream come true. And I did it.

With that out of the way, your success depends all on you. You, after all, have to write the story that you can sell. I’ll leave that to you, but I want to talk about what marketability has to do with your success.

Your marketability starts before you sign a contract. Think of it as ripples on the pond. You throw your story out there and the biggest waves are created by your inner circle. These are your friends and family who tell you how great your story is before you have even finished your first draft.

Then it ripples out and the farther it gets away from you, the bigger the circle, but the smaller the ripple. These are your social contacts. They may be online or in person through organizations that you are a part of. The ripple has less of an impact, but it is there.

Now, imagine your inner circle tosses out their own pebbles to add to your story (likes, shares, retweets and word of mouth) and now you have multiple ripples that spread your message. And each time you share or post something new and those people cast their weight behind you, your marketability grows.

So what is your message? “Publish my story!” “Buy my story!” If that is your message, your voice will be drowned out by the thousands of other people who are doing the same.

What you need is a clear message as to why an editor or the public should want to buy your book. And it isn’t just about being a good story. Every year hundreds of good stories go unpublished and dozens of not so good stories get published.


Over the last few years, I’ve seen many stories getting published by celebrities who are “writing” stories. A few are okay, but to be honest, a majority would have never gotten published if you or I submitted the same story word for word. So why did they get their book published?

One word: Money. Not necessarily their own, but because a publisher is expecting to leverage star power to sell books. They expect that people will buy the book because of the name on it. So if you are a movie or tv personality or some sort of influencer with millions of people knowing you just by your name, then the editor can hope that 1% of those people buy your book, you are looking at tens if not hundreds of thousands of book sales.

So how do you and I compete? We write good stories and we have a message. That mean to make your stories didactic, but be sure you have a voice, a purpose for writing the story. Then think of where it falls in the market. Who is going to buy this book? Focus on that and make your voice heard there.

For example, I wrote Pedro’s Pan which is a story about gold panning. I needed to leverage my voice by looking at my market. My story has content about history and minerals (education), Alaska (tourist), it is for children 5-9, it is about mining. So what is my message?

I am an educator who works with children 5-10 years old. I grew up in Alaska and my family mined for gold. I am a member of the Gold Prospectors of America. I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

When I submitted my story to my publisher, they could see that I knew the needs of the age range. I had a connection with education and could provide content in that area. I am committed to improving my writing. And I am an expert in the area that I am writing about.

All of these, separate to my social media, have established my voice and platform. I have connections to people who can help me spread my message. They will become the most impactful of my ripples.

So then I can turn to social media to help boost that message. Again, my message isn’t “buy my book” but is instead, here is my story. I provide content that boosts my message. Gold facts, history, personal anecdotes, connecting to events and telling my story.

Take note that your marketability has nothing to do with your story. It is all about you. What do you have to offer? When people connect with that, they are more likely to be another ripple in your pond and buy your book. But even if they don’t, if they share your message, then you reach more people.

Once you sell your book, your marketability and the need to be marketable increases. Most publishers have a limited promotional account and they rely on you to get your story out there and that is done through the hard work you did to making yourself marketable.

And even when you sell a second or third book, even if the topic is different, your market platform is already there. Your content might need to change, but you will still rely on the same people to help you form ripples in your pond.

So go write great stories worth sharing. And as you do, be thinking about the people who are most likely to read it and start thinking now of how you will reach them, because if they never hear about it, they will never buy it.

Growing Up Alaska: The Gold Nugget

I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to know the hard labor of working on a gold mine. It is what my family did for many years, both in Alaska and the Yukon. I was fortunate to be included, despite my young age, in the family business. We found gold and we had hard times, but the following story is about none of those, yet it is an experience that changed my life.

When my family worked in Canada, just outside of Dawson City, the regulations there limited the amount and kind of work that I could do on the gold mine. This gave me a lot of free time which I spent much exploring the area around the mine or helping out wherever I could that wasn’t designated as “work.”

One of those things that I did was volunteer at a roadside gold panning business. For $5 you could get a pan full of dirt from the mine on the property and you could pan until you found gold. For $10 you could get a five gallon bucket of dirt and keep all that you find. And then for $25, you could pan all day.

The dirt was either overburden or tailings left from the old dredges. There wasn’t much gold in it and most tourists left with a small vial and smile of their memory of panning a dollar or two of gold in the legendary Klondike.

I was demonstrating panning when a large class A motorhome pulled up along with a smaller RV and a car. People began to pile out, stretching their legs and wandering about. There had to be nearly 20 of them and the last of them to unload from the motorhome was an elderly man in a wheel chair with an oxygen tank.

The man was in his late 80s and the owner of the mine talked with him. It turned out that the man had dreamt of coming to the Klondike since he was a kid. He’d even gone as far as running away from home to follow his uncle who’d come north to the goldfields, only to be brought home by railroad workers.

The owner was so moved by his story that he told the whole family that they could pan until each of them found gold. Within minutes, gold pans were loaded with dirt from the pay pile and all twenty family members were crowded around the panning stations.

The youngest in the family, all kids, quickly went through their pans and, not finding gold, ran to the pay pile to refill. Seeing that they weren’t going to follow directions on how to pan, I focused on the adults who had all gathered around the large water trough. They were laughing and pointing as some of them found some small flakes of gold.

I passed out vials and started helping the old man and his daughter settle the pan into the water. With his wheel chair and feeble hands, he struggled to get near the trough, so I guided him to the demonstration trough which was narrower and set up on a table, allowing him to get his legs under it.

He beamed as we lowered his pan in. We washed the rocks and I helped pick out the larger material. Once we had the material down to about a third of the pan, I left his daughter and a couple of others with him to check that everyone had a vial to put their gold in.

I was handing out vials when I heard the old man’s daughter scream. It raised the hair on my arms and I ran as quickly as my rubber boots would allow to the panning station where the family was gathered around the old man. They all had hands on him and my immediate thought was that he was having a heart attack or seizure.

His daughter stood upright at the sound of my boots, but it wasn’t fear in her eyes that I saw, but a huge grin.

As I approached, the group parted and the old man was shaking and pointing to his gold pan which two other people were holding to keep him from dropping it. In the bottom of the pan sat a nugget about the size of the tip of your pinky.

“Is it real?” one of the family members asked.

“I think it is iron pyrite,” another responded.

I stared down at the pan before pushing the nugget over. I was down at eye level with the old man who’s eyes were still wide with excitement. “It’s real!” I declared.

The commotion brought the mine owner out of his office where he was taking payment from other groups. When he spotted the nugget, his jaw nearly hit the ground. His land wasn’t known nuggets.

“Do I get to keep it,” the old man said as his shock wore off.

All eyes turned to the owner who could only nod. He quickly recovered and said, “You’re going to need a bigger bottle. Let me grab one and get my camera.”

The news of the nugget quickly spread and people gathered around. The sight of the nugget sent many running, old and young alike, to the pay pile. The old man continued to beam and show people his treasure while his daughter laughed and cried over him.

The owner returned with a larger vial and his camera. Many pictures were taken over the next hour before the family piled back into their caravan and headed on into Dawson City.

When my family returned to Dawson City the next mining season, we moved our operation to a different area and I didn’t get a chance to volunteer at the panning station, but my dad stopped in one day to talk the claim owner.

Seeing me, the claim owner waved me into his office and showed me a Christmas card he’d received from the family. It showed them gathered around the old man who wore a gold nugget necklace. They said that they had plans to return this summer if they could and thanked the owner and myself for making their dad’s dream come true.

The claim owner also showed me a letter that he had received from the daughter a few months later telling him that her dad had passed away. She let him know how much the nugget had meant to her dad and how much joy it had brought him as he showed it to everyone he’d met and told them about his adventure to the Klondike.

They had planned to bury him with his nugget, but had decided instead to send it back to the claim owner so it could return home to the Klondike, where they new their father would want it.

The claim owner had placed the picture of the old man with his nugget necklace and story into a shadow box that he had on display for the tourists to see.

I don’t know what happened to that nugget, but I do know that it changed many people’s lives and could never be valued in ounces.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
   It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
   So much as just finding the gold. -Excerpt from the Spell of the Yukon, by Robert Service

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.