Sunday, November 26, 2017

In His Hours of Relaxation

For we Sherlockians in the states, Thursday marked our annual Thanksgiving holiday.  For me, it also coincided with my 38th birthday, and the release of The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street

For the last few months, it seems like life has been all about this book and it wasn't even out yet!  To see the listing live on Amazon Thursday morning was surreal.  It has been quite a weekend.  Book release, national holiday, birthday, lots of family time, and I finally finished Stranger Things season 2.  I'm wiped out!

So, this week, it's time to stop and take a breather.  The pre-release publicity is done.  In a few days I'll start back up, but today is a day off. 

I've done interviews for blogs, newspapers, websites and podcasts.  Lots of book signings, speeches, and the pleasure of listening to a book I wrote as an audiobook.  I've even gotten a few good reviews along the way.

But this weekend is about being thankful for what you have.  I'm first and foremost thankful for my family.  But this being a Sherlockian blog, I a definitely thankful for the wonderful Sherlockians I've gotten to know.  Sherlockians on the whole are a good bunch of folks.  And we should all take a second to be thankful that our hobby is made up of some very decent folks that we get to spend out time with.

And if those great people decide to add The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street to their Christmas list?  All the better!

Monday, November 20, 2017

“Light-houses, My Boy! Beacons of the Future!

This week finds me at the end of my favorite part of the school year.  For the past two weeks, I've been teaching about Sherlock Holmes and the mystery genre to my fifth grade class.  Two things I'm passionate and deeply interested in are Sherlock Holmes and education.  For these two weeks, they merge into hours of lessons where my students are engaged and I am in the zone!

I won't go into depth here as to my lesson plans.  If you are interested, they are written in depth on my classroom webpage.  What I want to talk about is the infectious joy that is flowing through my room in relation to the great detective and reading in general right now.

In the past two weeks, we've covered The Blue Carbuncle, The Red-Headed League, The Speckled Band, The Copper Beeches and a Scandal in Belgravia as a whole class.  Most of these stories warranted two days of instruction, one day where the kids read with partners focusing on one or two thematic questions, and the second where we read as a class and discussed particular story elements.

I've been jotting down lines I've heard from kids as they read with their partners:

BLUE: "This must be where the term 'wild goose chase' came from!"

REDH: "Oh, that guy has red hair, too!"

SPEC: "Why in the world would she sleep in there?  This is SO creepy!"

SCAN: "A smoke bomb? This dude is crazy."

I always close the reading unit with A Scandal in Bohemia because it lends itself to such great classroom discussion.  We stop to brainstorm ideas to get the photograph back from Irene Adler which sometimes makes me marvel at how decivious fifth graders can be!  This year, a big debate flared up when I asked if Holmes accomplished his mission at the end of the story.  No matter what side of the debate the students ended up on, they all agreed that Irene Adler came out on top in the whole thing.

But it hasn't just been all reading.  On Monday, the students will perform two plays for the other fifth grade classes based off of The Blue Carbuncle and The Red-Headed League.  Watching these Midwestern kids try to employ British accents is always a hoot.

After watching the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes, we discussed other ways that Sherlock Holmes can be portrayed.  From there, the students started going through a two-week writing process to create their own Sherlock Holmes story.  When I first announced the project to them, the kids were audibly excited to write!

And these stories are really good.  Some of them are great mysteries.  Others have a five year-old Holmes investigating a robbery at a candy store, and another has Holmes fighting a ninja.  (It's titled Sherlock Holmes Fights a Ninja).  After discussing the elements to the mystery genre, the only requirements I gave students were that they had to have specific story elements found in most mysteries and that there had to be a character named Sherlock Holmes in their story.

What I got for their finished products were so different and fun, I actually woke my wife up while I was reading a story one night because I was laughing at it so hard.  This particular story has Holmes investigating a robbery from an Egyptian pyramid by a villain named Egypt Ian (that's great!).  He resurrects King Tut, Holmes foils the plan, Egypt Ian gives a long explanation why he did it, and King Tut just shrugs his shoulders, and answers "Meh."

Do I expect all 26 of my students to become ardent Sherlockians after this unit?  Absolutely not.  From a purely educational standpoint, I expect them to have a better grasp of story structure, the writing process and reading fluency.  But, hey, if they pick up a copy of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to read over Thanksgiving break, who am I to stop them?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

As My Speech Surely Shows You

Becoming a published author and taking a simple idea and creating something brand new from it has been a great experience.  Another interesting experience happened this past week when I was invited to speak to 300 middle schoolers on Thursday about the writing process.

Despite my social anxiety, I jumped at the chance at talking to LOTS of kids about Sherlock Holmes.  Being a teacher, I usually get to plant seeds of interest with my 25 students per year and hope something grows from it.  300 kids?  Well, hopefully I was able to get a few more kids interested in Holmes and Watson.

Here's what I had to say:

Your principal asked me to come here today to talk with you about the writing and publishing process.  Writing is a creative outlet, just like music, drama, sports and any other hobbies you have. And for anyone who says playing sports isn’t creative, I challenge you to watch what some of the top tier athletes can do in their profession and tell me they aren’t creative.  Adam Wainwright pitched a game this season where he couldn’t throw anything over 87 miles per hour and still got the win.  You’re telling me that didn’t take some creativity? 

Even video games can be a creative outlet.  Minecraft isn’t as cool as it used to be, but that was a huge creative outlet.  And how you complete missions on Call of Duty or some of the junk plays you try in Madden are creative in their own way. So even if writing isn’t your thing, bear with me.  Because my hope is what I have to say about the writing process can be applied to whatever your interests are.  If you’re not a writer, just consider this talk about the creative process instead.  They’re not too far removed from one another.

Alright, we’re all familiar with the steps to the writing process from all of those awesome five paragraph essays you’ve had to write in your life, right?

Prewriting, Writing, Revision, Editing and Publishing.

Okay, that’s the writing process in a nutshell.  Now, let’s talk about my book.

My book, The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street, takes the character of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective, and turns that concept on its head.  Instead of Holmes being a detective solving crimes in Victorian London, I’ve made him into the criminal genius behind the crimes in Victorian London.  Sound interesting?  Great.  Make sure to order your copy from Amazon when it comes out this month. 

That one little idea to turn Holmes into a criminal is all it took for me to start the prewriting process.  This little idea is the spark that starts a brainstorm.  Whether you have a writing prompt or a research project to complete, brainstorming is your first step.  From there, you can let your imagination run wild.  JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien and Suzanne Collins all created whole new worlds for their characters that all started from a single idea. 

I am not the world’s most creative guy, but you don’t have to be overly imaginative to create something exciting and worthwhile.  Anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Shark Tank knows that it just takes one small idea or a twist on an existing idea and you can take off from there.
But here’s an important part that no one ever talks about.  When those ideas start coming, write them down!  How many of you have ever had an awesome idea and then can’t remember it twenty minutes later?  This is where outlining comes into play.

Getting all of those ideas out of your head and written down somewhere is the first step, and then you put them in order.  And once you have the outline of what you want to create, you’re going to see the areas that need more attention.  This is where you can push yourself. 

For me, research was one of the best parts of writing my book.  I learned about the Tibetan mountains, French wine and Victorian cuss words just because they fit well into my story.  Is that information I’m going to use every day?  Probably not, but it’s cool to know some of that stuff.  

I do most of my writing at night after my daughter goes to sleep and my wife is watching Teen Mom.  I can’t stand to be in the room when Janelle is on TV, so it’s a good motivator to get to work. A lot of these nights were spent researching topics I knew a little about, but not enough to sound like I really knew what I was doing if I put it in a book.  You guys, have you heard of this internet thing?  It’s amazing!  I spent one whole night reading Mongolian traveler’s journals from the Smithsonian collection.  I ended up learning way more than I needed for the two sentences I ended up putting in my book, but the research part was pretty rad.

Okay, so now you have your ideas, the order they go in, and the information you need to make an awesome story.  Oh no, now you have to actually write this thing!  Staring at an empty screen or a blank page is daunting.  There’s no better way to start than to just start.  The first chapter of The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street is titled, Begin at the Beginning, and that’s just what you have to do.  Just start writing.  And keep writing.  And then write some more.  Don’t worry about making it great on the first try, because you won’t. 

There’s a saying, Don’t let great get in the way of good. 

If you’ve made it this far in creating something, you obviously think it’s pretty good.  Get that goodness written down!  And here’s a secret, first drafts stink.  That’s why first drafts are called rough drafts.  Because they’re rough.  Do you think John Green just sits down and awesomeness flows right out of him?  Well, probably.  But his first drafts still get changed and reworked along the way. 

Here’s my example of that.  If you’re familiar with Sherlock Holmes, you probably also recognize the name Irene Adler.  She’s a pretty important character in his story.  When I got to Irene’s chapter, I had a vague idea of how I wanted to write it.  I got it down, and was not happy at all with how it turned out.  But I kept on writing.  I had other chapters to write.  I ended up rewriting that chapter at least three times from start to finish, but if I tried to do that during my first draft, it would’ve thrown off my entire flow. 

A lot of that first draft is going to get changed.  Another big change was a whole chapter that I ended up deleting after my first reread of my book.  After spending a couple days working on it, I realized it was garbage.  Delete!  One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give you about writing or any project you care about is to keep at it. 

There are going to be days you don’t want to mess with it.  Keep at it. 

Sometimes you’ll try and try and nothing seems to work.  Keep at it. 

Some days you’ll sit down and realize you need to completely redo the previous day’s work.  Keep at it.

Because the minute you start to get lazy with your project, all of your forward momentum you’ve built up starts to slip away.  And forward momentum is the best thing you can have working for you. 
Don’t give up.  There are going to be some days when whatever you’re working on just isn’t clicking.  But there are going to be more days when everything flows.  You’ve got to push through to get to those days.

To actually write The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street took me about five months.  The revising and editing process took another seven.  But writing isn’t a solitary endeavor.  Recruiting someone to read your first draft is a great way to get early feedback.  These are called alpha readers.  In the gaming and computer world, they’re known as beta testers.  Their main purpose is to run through an early version of a project and point out things to fix. 

Not things that are wrong.  Things to fix. 

This is an important difference.  Things can’t be wrong on a first try.  They just don’t click yet.  When you’re creating something, everything makes sense in your own head, but those ideas don’t always get conveyed when you put them out there.  The purpose of the revision process is to evaluate what you’ve done so far and fine tune it.  These are what team practices and band rehearsals are in real life.  You try something, and then try it again and again until it’s great. 

My alpha reader caught a big mistake in my first draft.  A character I’d killed off in the middle of the book showed back up three chapters later.  Whoops!  It had been a few weeks since I had written the chapter where he died and it wasn’t on my mind when I plugged him in later.  That would’ve been a big problem if it made it to the final copy.  It wasn’t something wrong.  Just something I needed to fix.  I worked over the actual storyline of my book start to finish three times, each time finding things to tweak and streamline.  Each time, I felt that the story was getting stronger and stronger.
But, there will be things that are wrong with your creation.  And the editing process points all of those out. 

Here’s where I go into teacher mode and tell you that you should be double checking all of your work.  Whether it’s a homework assignment, code you’re drafting, or story you’re writing.  There are going to be things that are wrong.  I guarantee you’ve all gotten tests or assignments back and double checking your work would’ve caught some careless mistakes. 

Editing is a real life skill. 

If you don’t think I double check my work before I file my taxes, you’re nuts.  And I sure hope someone edited the medical textbook that anyone who operates on me read in college.  Editing not just saves your grades, it can also save money and lives. 

And here we are at the final step: publishing.  This is putting your finished product out there for the rest of the world to see.  This is where you post a video to YouTube, put your fan fiction on a site, turn in that research paper you’ve been slaving over.  This is what people will judge your work on. 
All of those other steps prepare you for publishing.  You’ve worked out all of the kinks, fixed all of the errors and made your project look great.  Come and get it!

Putting stuff out in the world also means getting rejected and ignored.  I’m not going to lie, it stung when I got rejected by publishers and I got down right mad when other publishers ignored my queries.  But keep at it.  I found a publisher who was awesome to work with and I wouldn’t have gotten there if I let my bruised ego stop me after my first few rejections. 

Maybe you get a lot of hits on your blog, or that play you’ve been drilling on works perfectly in a real game.  This is where all of that hard work pays off.  You have accomplished something and no one can take that away from you.  We all know there are trolls out there who are going to try and bring you down.  You did not work this hard to let some troll have a negative impact on you.  If you like your final product, then other people will too. 

Go look at the ratings for your favorite YouTuber or app.  I bet there’s a lot of negativity in those ratings.  Does that stop something you like from being awesome?  If you can enjoy someone else’s product that other people want to hate on, others are going to like your product too. 

Sports talk stations are full of people calling in who think they know better than the players and managers.  Guess who doesn’t listen to the negative feedback?  And guess who’s making a whole lot more money that those callers? Players and managers.  Because for every troll who blows you off or tries to make you feel inadequate, there are more people out there happy for what you’ve created. 

Your skills are a true gift to the world and people really do appreciate them, even if they’re not overly vocal about it sometimes.  As a teacher, I promise you we appreciate the hard work put into big projects or seeing an improvement in your schoolwork.  And your friends and fans appreciate the work you put in, too.  They care because you care.

So, whether you love writing or your passion lies somewhere else, look at each new endeavor as a chance to create something awesome out there.  Push yourself to be better.  Because the more you push yourselves, the better you’ll be.  And if you get to be really awesome, you just might get to speak in a middle school auditorium someday.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

I Shall Be All Anxiety

Like many Shelockian Twitter conversations, Chris Redmond started it.

Many of us shared our own short versions of our first nights in Sherlockiana in response to Chris's tweet Friday night.  I won't go too far into mine, as I've already shared it on I Hear of Sherlock a few years ago.  My favorite part of the conversation was one Sherlockian telling us that he ripped the seat of his pants TWICE on his first night.  That makes for a memorable evening!

This conversation got me thinking.  Is social anxiety a common feature of Sherlockians?  We are a literary bunch, so introversion wouldn't be out of character.  On the other hand, we are very sociable with one another at our gatherings.

So, why are there so many stories about us being nervous our first time?

And for some of us, it's not just the first time we meet.  I've written about how much I love my local scion, but there are some days where I'm all nerves on the way to a meeting.  Social anxiety sucks.

But it makes me wonder if this is a larger phenomenon among the younger generation of Sherlockians and people as a whole.  In the 50's, or the 80's, or anytime before the internet, really, if people weren't comfortable in social situations, they mostly stayed home.  Now we have a culture where we can be connected, but still isolated.  But when our connections are based in a common interest, it's a natural step to want to meet with others who share your interests.  And that is where people are stepping out of their comfort zones. 

Events like 221BCon in Atlanta never would have existed before the internet.  People from all over the country descend on Georgia each year, many times only knowing others as their online personas.  My bet would be there are more than a few attendees there that would admit to having social anxiety.

Before the internet connected us all, Sherlockians were connected through newsletters.  And the granddaddy of them all is the Baker Street Journal.  I assume that the Baker Street Journal had plenty of subscribers that never attended a scion meeting, much less the big gathering in New York every January. 

But this is a new day and age.  Now, we can get our BSJ in the mail, participate in Ashley Polasek's #221Movie tweetalong with her college students, spend hours reading on the new, upload your own fan fiction to AO3, and all other kinds of Sherlockian activities from our home.  But it's those real life, human connections that are so great.

So, even if you're a member of the old guard or a millennial and you suffer from social anxiety, get out there and spend time with other Sherlockians in real life.  Because, for every story of someone ripping their pants in the Twitter conversation, there were a dozen stories of people being welcomed with open arms to a community of people who all share the same interest, even if it is a little out of our comfort zones sometimes.