What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

a quick guide to being a great teacher

Like my title? Yeah, that’s clickbait. (And if you’re a teacher, you should know that.) But it also fits the story I want to tell you today.

Since 2016, when I designed the main online college course I teach right now, I have been requiring students to create a “research quick guide” in one of the last modules. The assignment is supposed to get them to reflect on what they know about how to do research in their field (“field” can be academic or professional, or in the case of my creative writing students, genre) and come up with a succinct way to share that knowledge with others. The important thing is the content, but somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten a little hung up on the design element of the assignment. I often find myself deducting points when a student’s guide is “hard to visually scan” or “more of an essay than a quick guide.” The problem is that there’s not a general consensus across contexts as to what a “quick guide” actually is. I’m committing that terrible teacher sin of asking my students to read my mind.

I should also point out that it’s pretty ironic that I’m judging other people’s design skills, as may be evident from the fact that I’m still using this template from when I started this blog in 2011. I mean, I know basic principles like “don’t use Comic Sans in a work email” and “don’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide (and then turn your back to the audience and read straight from said wordy slide),” but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So not only am I asking students to read my mind, but I’m also asking them to do something I don’t really know how to do myself.

Now, as part of a larger update of the course, I’ve set out to create a quick guide for my students. My initial motivation for this project was not to create a quick guide as such; instead, I wanted to respond to a suggestion a student made last fall. (I’ve been carrying around the now-grubby no-longer-sticky note in my planner ever since then.) It turned out that some of the off-hand tips I gave her in emails were actually quite revelatory for her as a first-time online graduate student who hadn’t written an academic paper in years, and she thought that other students might also benefit from the advice. She suggested some categories, like “how to check grades and feedback,” “what is an annotated bibliography?,” and “getting to know your professor.”

Meanwhile, many students have asked for an example quick guide, so I decided to combine these two endeavors. I would create a quick guide to being an English 602 student (very meta, if you ask me). I hoped to be able to send this out to current and future students and tell them, “Hey, I’m not a designer, but I made this in Word and it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take me that long. You can do it too!”

I finally started on the document yesterday. For visual interest, I decided to use a variety of Word’s prefabricated text boxes and sidebars. I also used some relevant clip art icons to create a short border between two of the sections, and I inserted a photo from my computer. Nothing fancy, but I think it looks pretty good (though I still need to do the second page).

Here’s the problem: It wasn’t easy. Once I got some of the text boxes on the page, dragging them around to accommodate new elements was frustratingly difficult. Inserting and resizing the picture was a stab in the dark–I wasn’t sure what those numbers meant or why most of the photo had disappeared off the bottom of the page. I had to get my husband to help me, and even he, who’s all-around better at this stuff than I am, admitted that he didn’t know how to do everything I wanted to do.

So I don’t feel honest telling my students that creating a document like this will be easy. I sometimes have students who have design backgrounds or who use Publisher regularly in their work, and they turn in beautiful, readable, user-friendly quick guides. But for students who are having trouble centering their title or inserting a paragraph break in a basic essay, what I’m asking them to do in this assignment could be panic-inducing.

I’m going to finish the quick guide and send it to my students with the message I had planned to give them, minus “it wasn’t that easy and didn’t take me that long.” I am also going to add that their quick guide doesn’t need to look as good as mine; even some bullet points or a numbered list will show me that they’re thinking about how not to overwhelm their readers. I am going to continue assigning the quick guide, because I think it’s useful for students to work on problem-solving skills in a class about workplace writing–who knows what their bosses may ask them to create someday? But now that I’ve gone through the process of creating a quick guide myself, I’ve learned what’s most important about this assignment, and I’ve developed some empathy for my students. And I’ll be able to answer questions better in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t ask your students to do something you’ve never done yourself. That may not be a quick guide to becoming a great teacher, but it might be a small step to becoming at least a good one.

the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

in praise of my students

I am currently teaching six classes, three in online programs and three that started out as on-campus classes and have moved to the weird jerry-rigged sort-of online hybrid-ish format that many colleges and universities have implemented in recent weeks. I just want to write a quick post in praise of my students. I am so proud of the resilience they are all showing, from the online student I talked with on the phone yesterday who’s behind in her work because she’s been working ten days straight in a healthcare facility, to the on-campus students who had to quickly move out of their dorms this past weekend. They are all still writing thoughtful, thorough, intellectually curious discussion board posts. They are taking the time to encourage each other and me. I should probably be telling them this instead of writing it in a blog post–perhaps I’ll send this to them tomorrow. But for now, I would like to encourage you to join me in telling someone that you’ve noticed how wonderful they are. If you want, shout those people out in the comments below!

one of my periodic existential crises

This afternoon, a colleague who edits a theological journal came to my office and invited me to contribute an article to an upcoming issue on theology and literature. He assured me that I wouldn’t need to write an entirely new piece but could update something I wrote, say, during my doctoral studies. Knowing my love for Harry Potter, he said that a piece on the series would be enthusiastically welcomed. I said I’d be happy to contribute, and the conversation left me feeling honored and excited.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling more worried than anything else, for two main reasons. One has to do with the fact that I produced the bulk of my academic writing before cloud storage existed, or at least before I was using it regularly. I have a few PhD. papers in my Dropbox, as well as my dissertation (which–shameless plug–you can read on ProQuest), but the only academic work I still have from my master’s and bachelor’s programs are my respective theses, which are also accessible through library databases. One might correctly argue that most of what I wrote during those first two degree programs is not worth resurrecting, but I can think of a few papers from those years that, with some revision, would fit well with the theme of the journal issue–such as the first paper I ever presented at a conference (in 2008, during my master’s program), which connected Dorothy Sayers’ analogy of the Trinity with the author-character relationship in the film Stranger Than Fiction. This paper, which actually made a lot of sense, exists now only as a line on my CV.

My other, bigger concern has to do with the imposter syndrome I regularly experience, which leads me to believe that I’ve lost the ability to write. I realize the irony of expressing this fear in a blog post, but I worry specifically that I’ve lost the ability to write academically. A few weeks ago, while organizing the files in my Dropbox, I made a folder called “things I’ve written,” and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of written and oral contributions I’ve been able to make in the almost five years since I finished my doctorate–a short reflective essay published in Collegial Exchange (a publication of the professional organization for women educators, Delta Kappa Gamma), two lectures given at meetings of the local creative writing group I belonged to in Virginia, a short story written for my current employer’s annual magazine. I’m proud of these, but not one of them was scholarly in nature. I did present at an academic conference last year, but even that paper was a humor-laced analysis of the character of Loki in the Marvel movies, skimpy on sources and not rigorous enough for publication in a journal.

So I’m nervous. I haven’t written anything truly scholarly since my dissertation. Perhaps I can comb through said dissertation for segments that I might be able to expand into a journal article, but the problem is that there’s no obvious connection to theology or faith in my dissertation. There’s kind of a sideways connection, which I mention in the introduction, but I’m not sure if it would make sense as an article outside the context of the full study.

Underneath this nervousness, though, I still have to admit I’m a little bit excited. This will give me an excuse to go back and read at least parts of my dissertation and see if I still think they’re good. I have a feeling that there’s something there that might work for this assignment. The ideas are vague and formless, but watching an idea take shape was always my favorite part of writing for school. I’m ready to get started.

Sam’s Town–the paperback

cover

Hi everyone, I’m back with some exciting news: I just submitted the paperback of Sam’s Town to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for review. If it passes quality inspection (and I see no reason why it won’t, with this fantastic cover by Mike Nair!), it will be available for purchase within about two days. I will post another announcement when I receive confirmation, but in case I forget or am busy (a likely scenario, these days), I wanted to go ahead and give you the news. Mark your calendars for the end of this week! Just search the book title and my name on Amazon.com.

the character you’ve been waiting for–and the cover reveal!

Hi everyone, thanks for sticking with me through this month-long tour of the characters of Sam’s Town, my zombie apocalypse novel releasing…any day now! My fantastic cover artist, Mike Nair, has finished his work, and it looks great! I’m going to show it to you at the end of the post, but if you’re too excited to wait, go ahead and scroll down now (Sam and I would just appreciate if you came back here and read the rest afterward).

Today I want to tell you about Sam, who is both the protagonist of my novel and, to a great extent, my concept of what a good (though flawed) man looks like. Forgive me while I get sappy for a second: I was telling a friend the other day that all this character development I did over the past couple of years–for Adrian, Joe, and Frankie too, but mainly for Sam–helped me to figure out what I was looking for in a man I would want to marry. And right around the time I finished writing my novel this past summer, I met a man like that in real life. My boyfriend, Jordan (who I hope is reading this), has many of Sam’s best qualities–his loyalty, his intelligence, and most of all, his gentleness.

But enough about my personal life. What can I tell you about Sam Larson without taxing your patience with an unusually long post? He’s the writer and illustrator of a web comic called The Adventures of Sparky the Sidekick. He loves movies and will watch just about anything, but some of his favorites are the Godfather trilogy and George Romero’s zombie classics (the latter of which serves him well now that he’s living in a world where zombies actually exist). He’s a good cook who specializes in Italian food, though he doesn’t show off that skill very often. He hates conflict. He likes to feel useful. He struggles with depression. He’s smart and persistent, which makes him good at problem-solving. (In the novel, he tinkers with a vending machine until he figures out how to open it without a key. Which reminds me of another fact about Sam–he loves Coca-Cola.) He has a gift for making other people feel calm, which makes him the perfect counterpart to his frenzied best friend Adrian. He has these enormous pale blue eyes (just like his mother’s) that are always making people ask him if he’s okay, which he finds incredibly frustrating. He constantly underrates himself. He’s stronger than he thinks, physically and mentally, as the circumstances of the novel force him to discover.

Here are some fun facts about Sam:

  • I imagined a version of this character years ago, when I was in high school. His name was Sparky (like the aforementioned sidekick). You can read about the evolution of Sam in this post.
  • I once wrote a post about Mr. (Fred) Rogers in the voice of Sam.
  • Just like I gave some of my random quirks to Adrian and Ramona, I endowed Sam with this (understandable, I think) phobia that I have: He hates to watch people using intravenous needles in movies or TV. Stabbing a zombie in the head, fine. Shooting up heroin or getting an IV, no thank you. He has to look away.

And here are the first two paragraphs of my novel, in which we meet the title character:

You could tell by his apartment that Sam Larson lived alone. There were always a few dishes in the sink and a few pencils and sketchpads sitting around, and there was a sag in the middle of the couch where he usually sat. Sam worked from home, mostly. He taught an occasional art class or appeared at a comic book convention (his name was never high on the billing), but mostly he sat in his apartment and made comics. That was how he liked it.

On the last Friday night in July, Sam made spaghetti carbonara and ate a plate of it.  Then he turned on his epic movie scores station on Pandora and started drawing.  He was working on an installment of The Adventures of Sparky the Sidekick, his superhero web comic that capitalized on the ironic potential of foregrounding the affable best friend and downplaying the character who would normally be the hero.  Sam’s fans—they were few but loyal and willing to express their loyalty with their money—loved Sparky because he was witty and long-suffering and always came out okay in the end, despite all the crap he deflected away from his rather useless best friend.  But none of his fans knew that Sam drew Sparky as a version of himself—a short, round guy with straw-yellow hair and big washed-out-blue eyes that were always making people ask if he was okay.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: Here’s the cover of Sam’s Town! What’s your favorite part about it? I’ll pass your feedback along to the artist!

cover

Stay tuned for the official release announcement!

#Samona, part one

In these final weeks before the release of Sam’s Town, I want to introduce you to two more characters. Next week we’ll finally meet Sam, but today we’re focusing on Ramona Bates (her last name never appears in the novel), a former English professor from “the hillbilly part of Ohio” (her words) who, unlike Sam and Adrian, has never watched a zombie movie or TV show, yet takes to this post-apocalyptic world quite naturally, discovering survival and weapons skills she never knew she had. And oh yes, she falls in love with Sam, though she ends the novel still undecided on whether she would truly describe herself as “in love”—Ramona is an overthinker (and this, along with the English professor part, is directly autobiographical). Although, as I stated last week, Sam and Adrian’s friendship is the cornerstone relationship of the novel, Ramona and Sam’s awkward, by-fits-and-starts romantic relationship plays a key role in both characters’ development. It’s also a favorite storyline of the friends and fellow writers who have read and given feedback on my novel, as evidenced by the celebrity couple hashtag that one of them coined, #Samona.

With Ramona, I hope I have successfully portrayed a realistic female lead character: neither a damsel in distress nor a one-dimensional tough girl. When Sam and Adrian first meet Ramona, who is hitchhiking along a deserted highway in Michigan, she impresses them as strong, smart, and a bit intimidating. (Before taking a nap in the backseat, she threatens to kill anyone who touches her.) But after some late-night, emotionally vulnerable conversations, Sam learns that Ramona is just as insecure as he is. They are drawn together by their mutual kindness and respect, even after they have learned each other’s insecurities. I have learned in my own life that honesty can be kind of sexy. Not coincidentally, it is after Sam opens up to Ramona about his mental health struggles that she first kisses him.

Here are some fun facts about Ramona:

  • In Sam’s Town, we learn that Ramona has a sister that she believes is still living in their hometown. In the sequel, Sam’s Home (which I plan to work on next month during NaNoWriMo!), we learn that the sister is indeed still alive and is named Melissa, that Ramona is the older sister, and that Melissa has an ex-husband named Mike with whom she is back together (and who might turn out to be a bad guy—I haven’t gotten that far in my plotting yet).
  • This is the first time I’ve used the name “Ramona” in a story, but I’ve been tossing it around in my head ever since I heard Bob Dylan’s song “To Ramona” when I was in college. Though I never state this in the novel, I like to think that Ramona’s parents were Dylan fans and that this is perhaps why Ramona so readily recognizes the name of the town where Sam and Adrian are headed: Hibbing, Minnesota (Bob Dylan’s hometown—and Sam’s).

Here’s a 100% autobiographical, totally self-indulgent scene about Ramona’s past as a college professor. It begins with Sam asking her to define a term she has just used, “FERPA” (you’ll have to read the novel to find out how that came up in conversation!).

“It stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It means I don’t have to talk to parents unless my students give their permission, because…” She stopped walking and turned to face him but held onto his hand. “Because my students are legally adults. Sam, I’m a college professor.” She looked down at her feet.

“Oh!” he exclaimed as it all clicked into place. “Sorry, I’m slow. But wait—why do you seem embarrassed about that?”

She sighed, lifting her shoulders exaggeratedly like a little kid. “Because people always treat me differently when they find out. Especially guys. They act like I’m from another planet when they find out—“ she lowered her voice to a whisper—“I have a Ph.D.”

“You have a Ph.D.?!” Sam practically yelled.

“See? Exactly like that,” Ramona huffed.

“Sorry,” he said, laughing a little. “Well, I won’t lie; I’m impressed. But you still seem to be from this planet.” He smiled and tried to make eye contact with her, but she kept looking down.

She absently swung their hands back and forth. “I feel like such a pretentious—person.” She cleared her throat. “And I don’t know; I still feel like a poser when I say I’m a college professor. Like people are thinking I’m too young. Or too—too something. Or not something enough. Sorry.” She finally looked up. “Clearly I’m very insecure.”

“Well, hey! So am I,” Sam said with a fake heartiness, fighting a grin.

Ramona snorted. “Glad we got that off our chests.”

This scene also gave you a little preview of the guy you’ve all been waiting to meet—Sam Larson. Come back next week to learn about my protagonist, whom I love (and I hope you will too!).

meet Frankie Clemenza and his resplendent car

Welcome to the first in my series of posts introducing you to the six main characters in my zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town! Today I want you to meet Frankie Clemenza, an old friend of my main character, Sam. Frankie is a lifelong resident of Hibbing, Minnesota, where most of the story takes place, and although he’s a little self-conscious about the fact that he’s never gone to college, married, or done much traveling outside of Hibbing, he loves his life. Frankie has recently inherited the family restaurant from his aunt and uncle, and he’s opened it up (along with his upstairs apartment) as a safe house for Hibbing zombie apocalypse survivors. As the only true extrovert in my novel, Frankie loves the constant flow of people in and out of the restaurant, even if they’re sweaty and bloody. He also loves giving hugs. And he’s a bit of a klutz. Frankie can come across as “an unambitious goof-off” (his uncle Bobby’s words), but beneath his weight-lifting, pasta-cooking, classic-car-restoring surface, there’s a loyal friend and maybe even a capable leader.

Fun facts about Frankie:

  • Yes, his last name (and thus the name of the restaurant) was inspired by that of Peter Clemenza, one of the capos (and one of Vito Corleone’s oldest friends) in The Godfather. My Clemenzas have no organized crime connections, but because they’re chefs and restaurant owners, I associate them with Peter Clemenza, who once took a break from planning a Mafia war to teach Michael Corleone how to make tomato sauce–and uttered the famous line, “Leave the guns; take the cannoli.”
  • Frankie drives a 1960s Cadillac DeVille (I didn’t specify the year), which saves the day at a crucial point in my novel and which Sam describes as “resplendent.” I loved the idea of him in a chrome-plated “pontoon boat” of a car, but I knew that four-door cars were less common mid-century, so I had to do a little research to make sure that Cadillac came out with a DeVille in the 60s that had rear doors, which I needed for plot reasons. (That’s all I’m telling you right now!)

And now, for your reading enjoyment, here’s a snippet of the scene in which Frankie first appears. Frankie is having his arm bandaged due to an accident in which a gun went off while he was holding it. (Did I mention he’s a bit of a klutz?)

The man in the chair stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

“Frankie Clemenza!” Sam grinned.

The other man furrowed his brow. “Frankie was a dumb kid. I go by Frank now.”

“Oh, sorry…” Sam took a step backward.

Frank’s serious face split into a smile, and he stepped forward. “Just kidding, man! You can call me whatever you want!” He grabbed Sam in a fierce yet lingering hug. “I missed you, buddy. It’s been way too long. You never come home! But—” he pulled back to look Sam in the face but kept hugging him—“I read your comic every week when it comes out. Every week!”

What do you think of Frankie so far? Would you want a guy like him around during the zombie apocalypse, or is he a bit much to handle? Let me know in the comments!

Next week, we’ll meet Sam’s parents, Joe and Anna Larson, one of whom has been called Clemenza’s best customer of all time…