In the beginning…

When I was in the fourth grade, a man named Daraj Maxfield came to our school to immerse us into the world of theater. Valencia Elementary School didn’t have much of an arts program at the time, so we had no idea what to expect. When my class had its first session, Daraj (he was never Mr. Maxfield) explained that the school was going to put on a show, and that every student in the school was going to be part of it.

I was terrified. Up to that point, my life had consisted of being a top student (I got all smiley faces on my report card other than in handwriting, for which I earned a frowny face), playing Dungeons & Dragons, memorizing Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back (this was 1980), and that was about it. It is safe to say that I wasn’t the most popular kid in class. The idea of standing up in front of the entire school–having all those eyes on me–sent a shiver down my spine and gave me a punch in the gut.

Daraj’s vision for the show (which was, in fact, going to be an evening assembly for parents, teachers, friends, and anyone else they could stuff into the audience) was for each individual class to perform its own skit. The skits for the Kindergarten classes were obviously quite simple and short, with each grade taking on more and more elaborate work culminating in the sixth grade classes which would put on actual scenes.

The skit for my fourth grade class consisted of a family opening presents on Christmas morning. Almost everyone would be part of one of the presents that the mom, dad, son, and daughter would open. You had seven kids working together to be a table saw, five kids being a mixer, etc. The thing was, anyone who was part of a present had to stand still and silent for most of the scene. They started on stage, still as statues. Then the family entered and ‘opened’ their gifts one by one. When a gift was opened, the kids making up that gift would move and pretend to be the gift for a few seconds before going back to being still as the scene moved on to the next gift. Two kids were the Christmas tree, and they didn’t move during the entire scene!

Early on in rehearsals, it became very obvious that I could not stand still to save my life. I think I started as part of the table saw, but I fidgeted too much, Daraj switched me with the boy he’d cast to play “Boy.” Just like that, I had a part. I had lines. Three of them.

I wanted to die. My inability to stand still had forced me out of the shadows and into the spotlight. My parents were thrilled, of course. Mom even made me a rather ridiculous lime-green pajama suit to wear as a costume. But I dreaded every rehearsal…

…until I didn’t. Somewhere along the way, I began to look forward to the rehearsals. I would wait off-stage, then rush on with boundless enthusiasm. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d fallen in love with theater. I’d found my calling.

The night of the assembly came. Daraj started it off by tugging at everyone’s heartstring. He had a sixth-grader start the show alone on stage reading the evening news, and then the rest of the kids slowly walked into the auditorium carrying candles and singing Silent Night. By the time the first Kindergarten class went on stage, the entire room was in tears. It was only years later that I learned Daraj had stolen the idea from Simon and Garfunkel.

As the show proceeded, I became more and more excited. Finally, it was our turn. I had a blast and was the hit of the show. My three lines became five or six as my penchant for ad-libbing took hold. When the show was over, people came up to me and told me how much they’d enjoyed my performance. Kids congratulated me, even ones that generally didn’t know I existed. I was in Heaven.

That was the moment I became an actor.

You always hear people talk about the one teacher that inspired them or meant the most to them or had the greatest impact. For me, that was Daraj, a visiting artist who spent a couple weeks with us putting together a Christmas show in the fourth grade.

As fate would have it, our paths crossed again five years later. I was a Freshman at Aptos High School and had gone all-in on acting. Somehow, and I don’t recall how, I learned of a community show called Peace Child that was holding auditions in the area metropolis of Santa Cruz, California. It had already had a run, and was now casting for a second run that would also become a brief West Coast summer tour. The show is about an American boy who meets a Soviet girl. They become friends and, together, more or less end the Cold War through the power of their friendship (this was 1985). Aside from the two leads, the rest of the cast were either adults or ensemble. The girl who had played the lead in the first run was doing the part again, but for whatever reason (and I never found out why), they asked the boy who had done the lead originally to re-audition rather than just give him the part.

I auditioned and was called back, along with the original lead and one other boy. I assumed the entire time that they were going to give the part back to their original lead, but they didn’t. They gave it to me. We had a long run in Santa Cruz, then toured to three cities during the summer: Stockton, California; Laguna Beach, California; and Eugene, Oregon. That summer was monumental in my emotional and personal growth. I travelled with the troupe (me, my co-lead, and about twelve adults), learned a lot about myself as an actor, met an amazing array of people, and even, in Eugene, had my first kiss (Awkward, to say the least).

Peace Child, 1985. I’m the one in the middle. Daraj is the guy wearing the not-really-a-tux on the right.

So the two most formative events of my childhood are both inexorably tied to Daraj Maxfield. I have never forgotten him, and not just because of his unique name. I remember his smile, his laugh, his openness, his trust.

For the past couple of years, I’ve told myself I should look him up on social media or the internet. I couldn’t imagine it would be hard. It’s not like there are a thousand other Daraj Maxfields out there. But I always put it off. No reason, just laziness. Plus, what would I say if I found him? The only time in the past 35 years I’d even seen him was when I attended a community production of Camelot and he happened to be playing King Arthur. Even then, I don’t recall going backstage to say hi.

So this morning, I finally did it. I looked him up.

He died two months ago, on April 25, 2020. He was 69 years old.

He will never know just how much he meant to me or how he was such an important part of my life. It is safe to say that without him, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. He was the catalyst, the spark that sent me on my way. More importantly, he always believed in me. He believed in that wiggly fourth-grader enough to give him a speaking role, and he believed in that lanky high school freshman enough to cast him as a lead in his travelling show. That’s a lot of belief.

Thinking about this, about the effect a single individual had on my life over such a brief period of time, has made me consider all the chances I’ve had and continue to have to make a similar impression on someone else. Between my school visits, my theater camps, my work as a creative writing teacher, my after school improvisation classes, and more, I’ve come into contact with hundreds of kids over the last few years.

Every time I work with a child, I have a chance to make an impression. To help that girl or boy discover something in themselves they didn’t know was there. The same is true for any teacher, of course, and most educators have touched the lives of thousands more than I. But the next time I’m working with kids in whatever capacity it may be, I plan on keeping this thought at the forefront of my mind.

Maybe I can be somebody’s Daraj.

One of Us! One of Us!

It’s funny how things fall into place.

A few months ago, I get the opportunity to read an advance copy of an upcoming ‘spooky’ Middle Grade novel and then submit a promotional blurb.

Image result for from sunset to sunrise bookIt’s a fun book, called From Sunset to Sunrise by Jonathan Rosen and it’s all about kids and vampires and mad scientists and other things that go bump in the night.

A few months later, Jonathan drops me a Facebook line and invites me to join a fledgling group of other writers of Spooky Middle Grade books. I join up. Next thing I know we’re doing joint Skype visits and then there’s a website and now it’s a total thing!

The site is http://spookymiddlegrade.com.

We’re from all over the country, and many of us will probably never meet the others in person, but online, we are a cohesive unit. I did my first joint Skype visit with the group on Halloween. It was awesome. Four of us in our respective corners talking to a class of kids excited to hear from us about our work, our stories, our lives. It was fun to share this with the other three writers, and we’ll be doing a lot more of these as more and more teachers reach out and sign up (the visits are free, of course).

What struck me during the Skype was listening to the responses of the others and noting how similar they were to my own thoughts and stories. We really seemed to share a lot, and it was great to interact and work with like-minded people.

There will be more to come, but for now, check out our site and find a Spooky Middle Grade writer near you!

World Read Aloud Day Inspires!

Happy Day-After-World-Read-Aloud Day!

About a month ago I saw something on Twitter that talked about an upcoming World Read Aloud Day set for February 1. Interested, I followed the link which led to another link which led to another link which led to a few hours reading about crop circles. Then I went back a couple of links and found a page from an author I admire who was taking names and information of any authors interested in being a part of World Read Aloud Day by Skyping with classrooms across America.

I sent my info over to her and the next day I was listed along with a gazillion other authors on her site. I shrugged my shoulders and forgot about it. But it didn’t forget about me.

I got three bites. Two wanted me to Skype on World Read Aloud Day, and a third was hoping I could do it a week later. So yesterday I Skyped first with Ms. Jenny Berlin’s English 7 class at Baker Middle School located in Troy, Michigan. Later in the day, I Skyped with Ms. Fran King’s combined classes of grades 5 and 7 at St. Andrews School in Clifton, New Jersey. I’m still in talks trying to find a time that works with the third school.

It was awesome.

First, I have to apologize profusely to Ms. Berlin’s class. I Skyped from my Chromebook, and couldn’t get my camera to work. So while I had a nice video feed of the classroom, they were forced to stare at a black screen. I’m glad they couldn’t see how red I turned when I couldn’t get it to work.

Other than that, however, it was a great visit. They had lots of fantastic questions, some of which I get all the time (as, I assume, most authors do) and some of which I’d never heard before. They were engaged and interested even though it was 8:30 in the morning.

For my second Skype, I used my phone and it worked fine. Again the kids had a lot of questions: about me, my books, the publishing world, and writing in general. For both visits I tried to impart what little advise I could, drawing a lot from my School Visit Presentation ‘What If?’ And then I read the first chapter of Dr. Fell.

Talking with these kids, it really makes me realize how lucky I am. I mean I spend my days grumbling about low sales numbers (got a royalties statement that was about as depressing as one could be) and worrying that I won’t get another contract and all the while I’m forgetting that I did it. I got two books traditionally published by a pretty big publisher. That is huge, and a lot farther than most writers will ever get. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I’ve had, and I can only hope I haven’t wasted them.

Both classes asked what I was working on next. After explaining that most likely, the next thing they will come across is something I finished writing over a year ago, I teased my latest project. It got a decent reaction, and just talking about it, putting it out there in the universe, got me extra-jazzed about it. So I’ve been writing a storm the last couple of days and it is heading into the final stretch. I feel pretty confident that I’ll finish it this month. But then the real work begins.

But more on that on a later blog post.

 

Can You Keep Up with Dr. Fell?

Greetings and salutations one and all!

In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Dr. Fell has chosen to give thanks that he has a better vocabulary than anyone! To prove it, he has created a dastardly, cruel, Wicked Word Search! Find glorious words such as rapscallions and whippersnappers hidden on the page! (Beware, as the answers are printed in the bottom right corner of the page. No peeking!)

Dr. Fell’s Wicked Word Search is available as a free download as both a PDF and a JPG.

drfellwordsearch-001

It’s the perfect activity for those cold, snowy (or just really cold), Winter afternoons spent lazily in front of the fire. Dazzle your friends! Confound your enemies! Defeat Dr. Fell!

The Mushy Middle

Endings are hard to write.

Sometimes I’ll find myself running in circles and drawing out the last chapter because nothing I write works as a final line. There was an urban legend that may or may not be true (hence: urban legend) saying the J.K. Rowling knew for many years that the last word of Harry Potter 7 was going to be the word “scar.”

It wasn’t. She changed her mind. Writers do that.

I have leaped with great gusto into writing a new book. It has been some time since a story grabbed me and shook me into submission like this one, and I’m loving it. The start was easy. I raced through about 8 or 9 chapters lickedy-split. I’ve also gone to the trouble of mapping out the entire book. I know what’s going to happen, how it ends, everything. Don’t have the final word nailed down, but I’ll figure it out when I get to it.

So far, everything is awesome.

Until it’s not.

Image result for writer tearing hair out

(not actually me)

Somewhere around chapter 10, I ran into a problem. Looking at my notes, there is a very specific “X happens now” note, which is great, but it’s more of a guideline. The note’s actually closer to “X shows up here.” So cool, X shows up. But I didn’t actually say what X is supposed to do or how anyone is supposed to react to finding X standing in the middle of the puddling (Oops! Did I give too much away?).

Looking further on my outline, the next event is “Y shows up.” Again, not that helpful. Beyond that, I get some very specific instructions on plot point Z and the story rapidly unfolds beat by beat to the end. So if I can just get past this obnoxious middle, I’m set. But I’m stumped.

I know that I need X and Y to arrive before we get to exciting plot point Z. But X and Y can’t just show up and then everyone sits around for a bit until it’s time for Plot Point Z. Things need to happen. I’m just not sure what.

I’m stuck in the mushy middle.

It’s not that X and Y are empty characters. I have lots of very detailed things that X and Y will do as we get further into the book. I just didn’t think to have them do much more than plop their fictional fannies on a bar stool and twiddle their thumbs upon arrival. I’ve gone back to the beginning and edited and thinned and altered and tightened and made it even better and even more exciting and funny and cool. But then I get to “X shows up” and the writing process screeches to a halt.

Making things harder is the fact that, due to the rules of the world I’ve created, there needs to be a period of time between the arrivals of X and Y and then more time must pass until Plot Point Z. I can’t just cram all three beats into one scene and be done with it. That would break the universe I’ve created.

It’s frustrating.

Because usually it’s the end that stabs you in the back, severing your spinal cord and making you flop to the ground like wet linguine.

Image result for wet linguine

(me after being turned into wet linguine)

Thoughts From KidLitCon 2017

This past weekend I attended Kidlitcon, a middle grade book bloggers conference in Hershey, PA. Everyone was pretty pumped to be there, and the panels were a lot of fun. I was on a panel on the second day regarding Middle Grade Villains. There were five of us, and we took turns explaining why today’s villains are so much better than the cardboard cutouts of our own youth.

It’s always great to meet other authors and hear their stories. Some of them are success stories, some are stories of perseverance. All of them are stories of writers. It’s always good to hear other people going through a lot of the same things that I’m going through. Makes me feel less alone. Misery loves company.

The conference was held in The Hershey Lodge. As in Hershey chocolate. As in the entire town of Hershey is basically a huge company town. Of chocolate. The Hershey Lodge had little bowls of Hershey’s Kisses on every table, in every room. You couldn’t turn around without knocking a mass of Kisses onto the floor. I didn’t stay in the Lodge, but those that did told me that they found Hershey Chocolate Bars on their pillows, as well as chocolate soap in the bathroom. I imagine true chocoholics walk into this place and never return. They just consume so much chocolate that they become a permanent addition to the lodge.

But I didn’t stay there. I stayed at The Comfort Inn down the road. There was no chocolate bar on my pillow.

When I checked in, the woman at the desk said, “Don’t worry about the noise. It looks like the teams are all well-behaved.”

Well that raised a red flag.

“What teams?” I asked.

“All of the high school cross-country teams here for the weekend’s tournament.”

“Ah. Those teams.”

Yes, my hotel was filled to bursting with high school runners. These runners seemed to be very dedicated to their craft, as they were practicing running up and down the hall right outside my room until just past midnight.

My room which was DIRECTLY across from the elevators. Like three feet away. So that any time anyone did something silly like arrive on the floor, I knew. Oh yes, I knew.

All in all, it was a good weekend. I even got some writing done. At a writing conference. Well, OK, a book blogger’s conference. But bloggers write. And they blog about writing, so it counts, right?

Halloween Hysteria

Five more days until the 31st and that means I’m in overdrive getting everything ready and doing shows and parties and generally running around like a deranged chicken out for blood.

I still have two more shows at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (tonight and Sunday), I’m visiting a local pre-school this morning to warp some toddler minds, and there are parties and readings and a zillion gloriously creepy things in the near-future. And the action never stops, because next weekend (Nov 3 and 4) I’m attending the Kid Lit Con in Hershey, PA as an author. I’ll be on a panel all about Middle Grade villains, and then hobbing and nobbing with folks at various other times of the weekend.

But aside from all the work, Halloween is just a ton of fun. I have been spending the past few days creating my yard. The key is always the lights, and we’ve added some this year. See, I live at the top of a steep driveway, and we need to really entice the kids to trek up to the house. Without a good display, some lazy kids would just look at the driveway and say “Forget it! That looks like exercise!”

I’ve got the graveyard out, and it’s lit with a red light from below and then highlighted by a pure bright white light from above. Various contraptions that are motion-sensitive. My famed rat-in-a-cage thingy. Body parts. Webs. The heartbeat. Jack-o-Lanterns. Anything else I can come up with. I’m thinking of creating a tableau of a dark form sitting at a table with a flaming jack-o-lantern for a head. Not 100% sure if I can pull it off, but it will be fun to try.

See, I have a reputation to uphold. For many years, a number of kids have said we are the scariest house. It warms the heart. 🙂

What’s got me even more excited is looking forward to NEXT Halloween. Fingers crossed, but all the stuff I was supposed to do with Historic Hudson Valley this year ought to take flight next year. As well as a couple of other possibilities. Period adventures! Escape the Room! Classic, Gothic theater!

Meanwhile, I’ve read some great Middle Grade books of late. One of my favorites was The Lost Property Office, by James Hannibal.

A fun, magical story of a kid in modern-day London following in the footsteps of the Great Fire of London in 1666. There are secret societies, mystical powers, dastardly villains, daring escapes. It rocks. And the sequel (already pre-ordered) comes out… on Halloween! Wooo!!!

Two other Must-Read books which I have devoured recently are The Empty Grave and The Assassins Curse.

The Empty Grave is the fifth and (no!!!) final installment of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. novels.

Product Details

I have been enamored of these books since I discovered them and each one has pushed the story and world forward in fantastic ways. The finale does not disappoint, except for the fact that it’s the finale.

The Assassin’s Curse is the third book in Kevin Sands’ Blackthorn Key series.

Product Details

These books take place in 1665 London and follow an apprentice apothecary as he solves centuries-old mysteries (which is a feat, since he’s in the 1600’s, so centuries-old means, like, the 1300’s!) and navigates 1665 Europe. The latest volume brings him from London to Paris. However, it has suddenly occurred to me that he will probably return to London soon, since I can’t imagine Mr. Sands won’t take advantage of a particularly famous event which took place in 1666. (See “Lost Property Office” above)

 

So there ya go. Three great MG books for you to go purchase. Only after you’ve purchased Beyond the Doors and Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, of course. 🙂

Time For Some Halloween Fun!

Halloween season is upon us, and I could not be more giddy.

I have a slew of events and projects over the next six weeks that will be fun and crazy and creepy and awesome. It all starts this weekend with the 4th Annual Warner Library Headless Halloween Mini-Golf event. All day, on Saturday, September 23, the hallowed halls of our venerable library are turned into 19 holes of mini-golf awesomeness!

 

I’ve overseen this glorious event since its inception and am blown away with what the other builders come up with. That skull opens and closes its mouth!

Friday, September 29, I begin my unofficial residency at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery by hosting an original murder mystery event: Murder at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Someone is going to die and everyone is a suspect! Even you! Be warned, tickets are very limited!

The next day, Saturday, September 30, I’ll be back at the cemetery presenting Dark Dahl – Roald Dahl’s Creepy Tales at 5:00 and then again at 7:30.

On Thursday, October 5, I’ll be doing a reading of my latest Middle Grade novel, Beyond the Doors at the Warner Library in Tarrytown at 7:00.

Saturday, October 7, will find me spending the day at the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, New Jersey.

Then on Monday, October 9, I’ll be back at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery for two performances of An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe. Shows are at 5:00 and 7:30.

I will be appearing at the Barnes & Nobles in Yonkers, NY on Friday, October 13 (Friday the 13th!) for a reading and signing at 6:30.

The next day, Saturday, October 14, is the annual Sleepy Hollow Street Fair in Sleepy Hollow, NY. I’ll have a booth with books and goodies so come on by!

And that takes us through the first half of October! There’s plenty more in the second half, including an exciting new project I’ve been working all year on with Historic Hudson Valley that I hope to be able to announce soon.

Happy Halloween!

From Providence to Nashville

The Cons are coming! The Cons are coming!

Cons, in this case, is short for Conventions. Or Book Festivals. Big events where people show up and do stuff. Like hold interesting discussions and autograph copies of their books.

This past weekend, I was once again a guest of the Necronomicon Providence, held every 2 years in Providence, R.I. It is a festival of all things ‘Weird Fiction’ and is inspired by the work of Providence’s own H. P. Lovecraft. I performed two of my one-man shows at the festival–my version of H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu and an original show that mixes the horrors of Lovecraft with the witty, upper-class farce of… witty, upper-class farces… called Horace Whitley and the Unspeakable Horror.

Both shows went well (my Call of Cthulhu was standing-room only), and I had the good fortune to be given an opening act, which was this fantastic Canadian magician named James Harrison who did a fun, mind-bending routine before each of my shows. I also spent time in the vendor’s room signing and meeting folks from all over the country and world.

This weekend, I’m off to Nashville for the Killer Nashville conference. I will be participating on three panels:

Friday 8/25 9:40am — They’re Real: How to Write Fantasy Thrillers & Mysteries

Friday 8/25 2:20pm — From Seuss to Potter, Kids Love to Read: Writing Picture Books to Chapter Adventures

Saturday 8/26 2:00pm — Coming of Age: How to write Young Adult Mysteries & Thrillers

I’ve also been given a number of different signing slots for each panel, so if you’re in Nashville this weekend, come on by!

While I’m very excited for all three panels, I’m particularly excited for the “From Seuss to Potter” panel because one of my co-panelists will be Chris Grabenstein, who is a great guy and has been instrumental to my career (and whom I’ve been stalking for a couple of years now).

Beyond Nashville I’ve got another one in October and one in November, with more on the way. These Book Festivals and Conventions are a lot of fun, a great chance to meet people, share my work with them, and get free swag!

What more could you ask for?

The Stars Are Right Again!

This weekend, I will be in Providence, Rhode Island as part of the 2017 Necronomicon.

What is the Necronomicon? Aside from a dark book of evil? So glad you asked.

It’s a convention to celebration of Weird Fiction. Much of my work exists in this hybrid world–often seen as a mash-up of science fiction and horror. The Grandfather of Weird Fiction was H. P. Lovecraft, and H. P. Lovecraft was from Providence, Rhode Island. So… that explains that.

While I will be there Friday afternoon and all day Saturday in the Dealer’s Room meeting, greeting, signing books (both my Lovecraftian-inspired, traditionally-published Middle Grade books and my very Lovecraftian-inspired, self-published works of insanity), and being a general ray of joyous light, my main contribution to the festival will be my performances.

I will be performing twice at the festival, once on Friday evening, and once late Saturday night. On Friday, I will be debuting a new one-man show entitled “Horace Whitley and the Unimaginable Horror.” Saturday night, I will be presenting my fan-favorite show, “H. P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu.” Both shows are open to the general public as well as convention-goers, so if you happen to live in and/or around the Providence area, you should swing by and catch a show!

You can find out more information about my performances on their website.

And if you happen to be in Providence this weekend, come say hi!