Karl’s Blog 9-27-2016

I’ve been finishing writing a book while here in Paris on my sabbatical.
It’s a book about what we’ve learned at Reading In Motion over the past 33
years of working in schools. Humans like stories better than lectures, I am
told, so I am writing this book as a story, a novel, rather than a
non-fiction, how-to book. I already have a publisher who has agreed to
publish it, so I better get it done!

But I need your help! I’ve done plenty of writing in the past, but never a
novel. And this is not just my story to tell – many others of you have been
part of it, as well, and know parts of it even better than I do. So, I’m
asking you to read parts now, in this blog, and give me feedback. Most of
the parts I’ll be sharing this way will be “technical” chapters, full of
details around some of my core ideas. I’ll need you to read them and tell
me whether they are clear and make sense. For those of you who read the
wonderful best selling book “The Martian” (now a movie starring Matt Damon,
too), you might recall that book started as a blog, wherein the author (a
first-time author, I believe) worked out each of the technical challenges
of a fictional astronaut who gets accidentally left behind on Mars and must
figure out how to survive with only the equipment and tools he has
available. Readers of that blog gave the author lots of feedback, which
helped him correct and improve what he’d written. That’s my same idea here,
if I may be so immodest as to put my endeavor in the same category as that
best-selling, now-a-movie, success!

The first thing I’ll share today is from the first chapter, just to set the
scene a little. I’ll post another chapter that’s more-technical soon.
Thanks for your help, and happy reading!

*How it all starts*

Three guys in matching baby blue Pelle Pelle jackets are taking the engine
out of a late model sedan in the school parking lot. They’ve got a big
hoist with chains going down into the open compartment under the lifted car
hood. These three characters are hunched over the vehicle, one with a
flashlight.

“Those baby blue jackets are gonna get dirty,” I say to myself. It’s 8:55
in the morning and I’m late. I already missed the 8:30 meet up. Still, I’d
better drive around the block and park on the street – if I want to ever
see my car engine again!

Is this the wrong building? It looks abandoned. I got the call late
yesterday and maybe I wrote down the address wrong. This school is only a
half mile from the fixer-upper house my wife and I just bought in a
“changing” neighborhood. I didn’t figure it would take so long to get over
here, but I guess I cut it a little tight. Trucks unloading their wares
into mom-and-pop storefronts on Central Street didn’t help.

Drive around the block again. Get out and try the building door – locked.
Try another door further down the building – locked.

My phone is buzzing in my pocket. “Patrick!” It’s my wife. “I just found
out from our new neighbor that the school you said you’d be at today is
where our son will go.” She sounds upset.

“That’s interesting, dear. I’m in front of the school right now, trying to
find a door that’s not locked tight. Let me call you later.”

“What I really called for is to tell you the morning paper is reporting on
page one that reading scores are down all across the schools. And there’s a
link to every school’s scores. Our computer’s not working at the moment or
I’d look up the scores for that school. But I called our neighbor and she
says that school is no good. Find out what’s going on over there.”

“This place looks dead as a doornail. I’m gonna try one more door and if
it’s not open I’m coming home.”

“It’s not closed yet, according to the neighbor,” she says. “That’s the
school where our son will go next year for Kindergarten. Why didn’t you
check this out before we bought this place?” She sounds like she might cry.

“OK, let me check it out now. Stay calm. I can’t imagine this is the school
for our block. It’s kinda scary over here.” I hang up. I shouldn’t have
said that last bit. What if this really is the school for our new
neighborhood?

As I’m thinking about all of that, there’s a tap on the car window that
makes me jump in my seat. Turning, I see it’s Eric, leader of our merry
band of itinerant brass musicians. “You’re late. Get out of your car and
follow me!”

Eric is in shirt sleeves, shivering in the brisk late-Fall temps. I get
out, grab my trombone and music. I follow him to a door that opens. “Let’s
go, they are waiting for us in the gym,” says Eric as he pulls me inside
the building. Warmth. Sounds of children. We move up the ancient stairs.
Each step is smoothed from years of little and big shoes trudging up them,
and each stair has a noticeable dip in it from all that use, even though
they appear to be made of hard stone. I imagine a million individual
trudges, slowly but surely wearing those dips into the solid stone.

The sounds of children get louder, joined now by what I can only call
“school smells” – school pizza cooking, mixed with rubber cement and a lot
of other smells that can’t be pulled out of the mix. A wave of memories
launch in my head. Is it third grade again?

As we move down the huge hallway, lined with a 1930’s era trophy case and
dusty American and State flags, the sound of children, really small
children is getting louder. As we turn the corner, I see we have arrived at
the gym, filling up with children sitting on the floor and already
restless. A steady line of children are filing through a different door,
jostling each other, all energy and excitement and happiness.

“Eric, I need to tell you something” I say, now remembering my wife’s call.
“I just got a call from Grace.”

“Not now” says Eric, always the focused, one-thing-at-a-time kind of guy.
“We’ve got a concert to play.” And he sits down and picks up his trumpet
from its case. It looks like the last of the students have been seated,
also – a gym full now of tiny humans sitting on their butts on the floor,
and a few larger humans sitting at intervals near the children, but on
folding chairs. I throw off my overcoat, adjust my tie and pull my trombone
from its case. Cold metal mouthpiece touches warm lips. Brr. Time to play!

Posted on September 27, 2016 in Karls Blog

Responses (5)

  1. Mark mckeown
    September 27, 2016 at 7:26 am · Reply

    Good start. Drew me in. Although I was. Confused by reference to guys repairing a car. Love the idea of a novel and read the Martian before seeing the movie. Made the movie that much more enjoyable.

  2. Pat Clough
    September 28, 2016 at 9:10 pm · Reply

    Karl –

    Wow, a novel! I had no idea you were taking that route to”talk” about reading, improving children’s learning through the arts, and more. Interesting, but more challenging, I’d guess, than a straight forward exposition.

    Inviting others to comment on your writing is a scary proposition. It can really help the outcome, but ouch! it can sting. And its YOUR story. So consider suggestions, but remember that that’s what they are. So here are a couple.

    I’d say you need to get into your story from your viewpoint more quickly. I was thrown off by the 3 guys (and what are Pelle Pelle jackets – but I’m no fashion bug). If you started off with your situation into which the three guys fit, it might be clearer. “It was 8:55 a.m. and I was already late for our group’s gig at the local school. Even so, with three guys preparing to hoist an engine out of a car parked in the school lot, I thought it best to park elsewhere, even though I’d be later still……

    Another comment: Notice that you’re out of the car trying doors of the school when Eric startles you with a tap on your car window! That needs fixing.

    Hope you get some good suggestions and feel propelled into the next draft.

    Pat/Joy (In case you know and hear from lots of Pat’s.)

  3. Jeanne
    September 30, 2016 at 2:51 am · Reply

    Great lead. Wonderful use of senses in describing scene. Some words/grammar I can help with.
    Good reading! GO ZOG GO!! J

  4. Eric Murphy
    October 6, 2016 at 12:06 am · Reply

    What an ambitious project you have embarked upon. What a good idea and of course to see myself in your story, that’s fun. It brings back some really cool memories, it was such a time of discovery and struggle and friendship, great friendship the kind that is hard to find. I would like to read more before commenting. You have written more I assume?

    Your stay in France sounds great, Sally and I marvel at your ability to escape the everyday life for a period of time. Something that would do us both a lot of good. Do you have an email address you are using?

  5. John
    October 6, 2016 at 9:31 am · Reply

    Big Karl…So glad to hear you’re making progress in Paris and writing. Wow. What an undertaking. I’ll be interested to see how it all comes together. You have some very nice sentences and phrases in the excerpt you posted. I’m excited to read more. In the meanwhile, here are some thoughts…

    I would advise against casting all of your narrative in present tense unless you have a clear purpose for using it. To the writer, present tense can feel more dynamic, intimate, and immediate as the words flow forth. To the reader, however, it can feel slow, constrained, hyperactive and hyper observational. For instance, in your sample, much of the observed detail before your character gets into the building could be conveyed more concisely and elegantly using past tense and a slightly more omniscient narrator…

    Outside the abandoned school, three suspicious men were removing an engine from a car in the parking lot. I drove around the corner and parked to escape their attention.

    Present tense can also lead your character into excessive meta discourse…

    I didn’t figure
    I say to myself
    I can’t imagine
    As we turn the corner, I see

    …adding extra words that slow down the action. All of the details of in a story must move the narrative forward and serve your themes and ideas or your reader will get irritated.

    Because you’ve used The Goal as a model, I understand why you’re using present tense. If you stick with it, however, just make sure it doesn’t interfere with the story’s energy. To test whether it does, switch to past tense and check your narrative flow. Do things move along? Are you getting efficiently from a to b? Is there flab?

    The more natural story telling approach is past tense.

    It is possible to creatively move between past and present tense if you think through the transitions.

    Because The Goal is about motion and throughput and efficiency and bottlenecks, present tense may better serve its themes, flow, and energy. Is the same true of your story? Does it have to be present tense? Could it be a combination of present and past?

    You might Google this topic. Some editors get pretty fired up about this stuff.

    I noticed a number of sentence fragments and thoughts that read more like poetry…

    Cold metal mouthpiece touches warm lips.
    Warmth. Sounds of children.
    Drive around the block again. Get out and try the building door – locked.

    Be careful not to overuse this technique unless you are deliberately listing something. It takes the reader out of the action.

    Hope this helps! I’ll be reading and commenting as we go.

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