The Final

 

The Final

By Sara Codair

It was too late to turn back–for all of them. The test had begun. They would either collaborate and score at least 75% and become wizards, or fail, get their minds wiped, and live out the rest of their lives in a factory.

Gretchen didn’t want to spend her life as a mindless soap- manufacturing drone, but no one would focus. Unfortunately, collaboration was essential. They each had a different piece of the equation to solve on the Physics of Potency exam. Jack was so busy ignoring Ricardo that he missed an important variable, meaning that by the time Gretchen arrived at her portion, she had to redo his before she could answer hers. Felecia was distracting Pi; he messed up his portion. By the time the answer was put into the crystal proctor ball, it was wrong.

“You’re all idiots,” muttered Gretchen, but no one heard her.

“Just focus on your task,” she shouted, and they still didn’t hear her.

When they got five consecutive questions wrong, she lost it. It was statistically impossible to pass now, but she wasn’t going down without a fight. She’d prove she was a capable mage, one way or another.

Enraged as she was, gathering power was easy. She wrapped it around herself like a flaming cocoon. Equations danced across her eyelids; she solved them effortlessly. The numbers translated to words as she spoke, sending flaming energy out from her fingers to her classmates. It twined around their bodies, contorting their forms and until they were just a herd of baaing goats.

The exam board materialized. They were all grinning.

“That’s a pass if I ever saw one,” said the headmaster. The deans all nodded in agreement.

©2016 Sara Codair

An earlier draft of “The Final” was posted on last week’s Cracked Flash competition. It was the honorable mention, so it received some feedback from the judges, so I made some changes and posted the final version here. You can enter this week’s competition at http://crackedflash.blogspot.com/

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The Magic of Tuesday Acceptance Letters

Tuesdays are the best and worst day of my week. I leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and don’t get home until 9:30 p.m. I tutor all day and teach at night, ending the day with my favorite group of students. By the time I get home, I’m exhausted, hungry, and off-the-wall hyper.

This Tuesday, I got home, made myself a cup of chamomile tea and curled up on the couch to watch This Old House. After watching a foundation poured and inspected, my husband and I found ourselves in a classic millennial situation: sitting out the couch with Mac Books on our laps, focused more on screens than each other. I would have rather had the cat on my lap than my computer, but he was unwilling to grace me with his presence.

I looked up from my screen, watching the cat bat his noisy ball around the living room. Glancing over at my husband, I said, “You know, for the past two Tuesdays, I’ve gotten good writing news.”

“Thats good,” he said lifting his eyes away from Facebook Messenger.

“Two weeks ago, I found out I was a finalist for that contest. Last week, I got a story accepted for an anthology. I didn’t get any rejections today, but there wasn’t any good news either.”

He shrugged. “No rejections is still pretty good.”

Our attention shifted back to our screens. An email notification popped up on mine, informing me I had a new message from Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

“Crap,” I muttered as I opened the message, expecting a rejection.

Then I jumped out of my seat. “Wait, I just got an acceptance!”

“You spoke to soon,” he said closing his lap top.

After a doing a proper happy dance and playing the the cat, I took my laptop to the kitchen table to withdraw the story from the other places I had sent it, update my bio and find a decent photo of myself. I only accomplished two of those three things before I went to bed, but I was happy and confident that there was a point to my obsession with submissions. It was worth all the hard work. I had found a home for another one of my stray stories.

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Write What You Know (or not).

“Write what you know” is a saying I have heard from many different people. I don’t usually agree with it, and find I prefer to use writing as a tool for exploring what I don’t know. The internet and library data bases can tell me almost anything I want to know about any subject. Writing about the unknown is the best way to motivate myself to do research and come to understand the research by writing about it, whether I am incorporating it into a novel, blogging, or writing academic prose.

As much as I like to think of writing as a tool for inquiry, I will not deny that it is easier to write about things I am familiar with. This month, I was reminded of just how big an impact knowledge and confidence can have on a person’s ability to write coherent prose.

There is one student who has been coming into the writing center on and off for a couple years. Lately, I have been tutoring him at least once a week. I’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this post.

Bob is a very good writer, lacking more in confidence than skill. Last week, I was working with him on a beautifully organized essay about business etiquette in his home country. Since English isn’t his first language, he needed help with the grammar, but little else. The essay had a strong voice, specific purpose and clear organization.

Today, he brought me an essay his instructor asked him to revise. To be honest, this essay seemed like a different student wrote it. The ideas were all over the place and some sentences were very difficult to decipher. If I hadn’t been working with him for so long, I might have suspected that the previous essay had been plagiarized.

As our session went on, I came to understand that he knew almost nothing about the topic prior to starting his research. He had been thorough with his research, but his lack of knowledge was having a major impact on his writing. He was disorganized, jumping from one topic to the next before he was done explaining it. There were missing sentences, missing words, and errors with tense and punctuation that I knew he had mastered last year. He was so focused on making sure he got his facts straight in both the writing and revising process, that he failed to organize the paper in a coherent manner and missed dozens of grammatical errors. His level of knowledge really effected what he was capable of.

While its fine for an experience writer to throw rules like “Write what you know” out the window and use writing as a tool for research and discovery, beginning or developing writers do much better when they are familiar with their subject.

It is good to let students write about things they are familiar with and gradually move them into using writing for inquiry.

When writers are taking their first adventures into fiction, they might want to start out by writing stories set in places they’ve been with characters doing things they know a lot about. Once they get a good handle on the craft (organization, detail, plot, structure, character, dialogue and grammatical control), then they can branch out to the unfamiliar.

I love to use writing to explore “what if” scenarios. If I am curious about what it is like to be exist as a hispanic teenager, an overweight man or a trans woman, I read, I watch, and then I write. When I get bored with my world and cease to appreciate it, I make up a new world that is far less comfortable than my own. Through writing, I experience thing that make me appreciate the privileges and comfort of my own life.

I used to just write what I understood. Now, I go out of my way to write what I don’t.

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©2016 Sara Codair

Submission Talk: Multiple Flashes in one Document

Hello followers and fellow writers!

Instead of a traditional post, today I have a question that I hope will propt a discussion in the comments section:

When you come across publications whose guidelines say things like “Send up to three flashes in one document” or send “For flash fiction, please send three pieces, all pasted into one document,” do you usually wait until you have three? or just send one? If you send two or three, do you select pieces that are drastically different from one another? or pieces that are thematically similar? Why?

Have you eve had something accepted from this kind of submissions? If so, so they accept everything or just one story?

For a while I avoided publications that ask this because I didn’t to handle it. However, this week, I got brave and submitted a few documents containing three very different flashes and one with some thematically similar stories.  Anyways, I would love to hear about your experiences!

p.s. If you are wondering why there is a picture of zucchini on here, it is because there are multiple fruits growing on the same plant, just like multiple submissions hanging out in one document. Will they motivate the owner to care for the plant and encourage them all to grow? or will they kill each other with competition?

A Fun Run for the Developing Writer’s Brain

Creative Writing exercises are my favorite thing to do in class. However, I used to think there wasn’t room for them in a first year writing class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Teaching any kind of writing without creative exercises is like a coach who doesn’t encourage his or her athletes to run or weight train.

Whether you are training to improve you skills at soccer, crew, or baseball, running is one way to progress. Or, if like me, you are not a fan or competitive sports, you can run to make your body stronger and healthier. I run because it eases my anxiety and keeps the copious amounts of cookies I consume from sticking to my hips. One could say the same thing for pushups, crunches and weight training. They improve your body so you can use it more effectively.DSC_0394

Creative Writing exercises are like running or doing push ups. They strengthen the brain and its ability to translate thoughts into words. It doesn’t matter if a person’s goal is to write copy for a website, a lab report, a short story or a persuasive essay. Doing writing exercises on a regular bases will strengthen the parts of his or her brain that translate ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

This is a realization four years in the making for me. When I first started teaching English Composition or College Writing, I thought that since my goal was to teach academic writing, I had to use traditional academic methods. At the time, I believed that mean brief lectures about essay structure followed by discussions on nonfiction texts.

There is nothing wrong with having students read and discuss texts that follow a similar style to the ones they plan to write. However, a college writing class can be much more than that. Boredom, Breadloaf and a slew of academic articles have convinced me that I can and should teach creative writing in a class where the end goal is an academic research paper.

It shows the students that writing can be fun while enhancing their ability to efficiently translate their thoughts to the written word, it facilitates skill transfer proves to the students that they have something to say and that it doesn’t take too long for the first draft of that idea to be born on the page.

One of my favorite creative exercises to do with my students is the never-ending story. Here are the directions I give my students:

  • Take out a blank piece of paper.
  • In a few minutes, I am going to play a song. When the music starts, you are going to start a story. The story can start with a character, a description, action or some combination of all three as long as it is inspired by the music.
  • When the music stops, pass you paper to the right.
  • Read what is on the paper that was passed to you.
  • When a new song plays, continue that story. However, you should let the music inspire how you continue it.
  • We will repeat this process eight times.

I play a variety of songs, ranging from Lindsey Sterling’s Crystalize to Drake’s Hotline Bling. A large variety in genre and style will wield hilarious stories and an interesting discussion about what kind of music facilitates writing and what kind interferes with it down.

The reflection and discussion that follows can’t be skipped. This is where students realize the activity was more than just a way to destress at the end of the semester. If you can get them to name the skills or strategies they used when composing on the spot, they can put those aside as tools for when they get stuck on an assignment. If the students get can make a connection between the kind thinking they did during this process to the  kind of thinking they did when doing other kinds of writing, they will begin to understand that skills do transfer from one genre to the other (something some academics think doesn’t happen in first year writing classes).

On the surface, the never ending story and other creative writing exercises may just seem like “fun” ways to fill time in class. However, they are actually valuable strategies for encouraging metacognition, skill transfer and team work.  They encourage students to think quick, reflect on how music or sounds affect their writing and asks them to participate in a non-verbal collaboration. They focus more on the process than the end product. Most importantly, the have fun while they are learning something.

 

Musings on Mash

Waking up to see my work published on a high traffic website always puts me in a good mood. Today, my article,  “Sew Your Story,” was featured on the Mash Blog.

This was particularly meaningful for me because Mash Stories has been an important part of my development as a writer.

Last summer, someone in my writing group asked for feedback on a story she planned to submit to Mash. After being inspired by her story, I paid a visit to Mashstories.com. Writing a story using three key words seemed like a fun challenge, so I  tried it. The words “Congress, Art, and Jealousy” were the inspiration for the first flash story I ever wrote. It wasn’t very good, and got rejected, but it taught me something important – I could finish something.

I had been writing all my life, but seldom finished what I started. I had two very rough drafts of different novels and dozens of beginnings, scenes and vignettes with no end in sight and half developed plots. Writing flash fiction taught me that not only could I write a story through to its end, but I could also revise it and edit until it was a polished piece.

I kept working on craft. I picked one of my novel drafts and focused on revising it. That is where I got the idea for the sewing metaphor discussed in”Sew Your Story.

When I was taking breaks from the novel, I worked on short stories. Some of them were flash, but eventually, I did work my way up to longer shorts.

On my third Mash competition (Halloween, Missile, Common) , my entry, “Above the Influence,” got short-listed.  This was my first fiction publication. Mash had taught me a second lesson. Not only could I finish and polish a story, but I could also do it well enough to published, to be be one of the top twenty-ish stories in a competition with hundreds of entries.

Around the time I got shortlisted, Mash had started a “Mash Club.” Joining cost money (regular submissions were free) but members received detailed feedback, quicker responses and were allowed multiple submissions. I had a lot of ideas for they key words and loved feedback, so I joined.

The next five stories I sent mash (two in that competition and three in the following quarter) got rejected. However, each rejection was followed by two or three pages of extremely detailed feedback from multiple judges. I used that feedback to revise each rejected story, and then I would send it out to another market.

This week, I found out one of those stories was accepted for publication in an anthology that Centum Press plans to publish this summer.  This will be my first piece of fiction to appear in a printed book.

So thank you, Mash stories, for giving me the inspiration, confidence and guidance to dive into the world of flash fiction. And thank you to the writing group members who introduced to Mash, encouraged me to write flash fiction and read/critiqued the rough versions of my stories. You know who you are.

Waking the Cape

A brief foray into creative non-fiction:

Waking the Cape

By Sara Codair

The smell of bacon and low tide permeate the air. I breathe deep, savoring the warm, salty aroma. The early spring air still has a bite to it, but the sun soothes the sting as it warms my skin.

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Chapoquoit Beach, Falmouth

Its quiet still – only a few cars out polluting the illusion of pristine air. The music of songbirds and gulls is still the dominant sound. Afternoon winds have yet to stir the ocean, so sparkling sunlight dances across the silky, aquamarine liquid.

 

I sip my tea, letting the bitterness of over brewed leaves distract me from the displacement I feel. Years ago, I could have called this place home. But home is two hours to the north now, on a lake, in a house that was someone else’s childhood get away. They sold it just like my parents sold the cottage.

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The Cottage

The people who bought the cottage tore it down and replaced it with a monstrous McMansion. It certainly isn’t the worst one on the street, but it is nothing like the little shacks that used to populate Monomoscoy Island.

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The view from The Cottage

In some ways, my grandfather was unknowing ahead of his time, building with salvaged windows and floors. None of that aesthetic is preserved in the house that stands in its place. Brand new windows, cementitious siding, shiny rocks and pvc trim have replaced the weathered brown shingles, mismatched windows and church floors.

 

I was kinder to my stolen oasis. Rot forced us to rip out old floors, but the ones we replaced them with were rustic with the same width boards. My husband spent weeks reconstructing the interior of cabinets and walls so we could preserve the old paneling and faces. Sure, we ripped down the white vinyl siding, but we replaced it shingles more like what would have covered the house when it was built in the early 1900’s. Some claim that it would have been easier to tear it down than fix it, but I wanted to preserve the house’s spirit, not break it.

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My lake-front yard, summer 2015. The boat at the dock is the one flipped upside down in the above photo.

Later in the afternoon, I’m “home” at the house my husband and I have lived in for two and a half years. I’m on the porch. The only thing we changed in this space is the furniture. It has the same indoor-outdoor mini-golf carpet, the same green and white paint and the same screens.

 

Small waves lap at the sandy beach out front of the house. Voices and the hum of a few boat engines float across the water, competing with birdsongs for my attention. My cat is perched above a speaker, trying to hunt the black birds, occasionally talking back to them with trills and chirps.

There is no cold bite in the air, just the afternoon sun warming my face. It’s getting lower, bathing the sand and water in gold. I have dirt under my fingernails and sand on my feet. There is no salt in the air, but the grilling meat makes my stomach growl.

It’s not the cape, but its mine. My roots are finally starting to break through the soil, drinking up the soul food only the earth can feed me.

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Sunlight Filters through the Fog of Rejection

I know rejections are part of being a writer, but when they come in waves, they can be hard to take, especially when I know I gave 110% to a piece.

Getting two stories on nonpaying e-zines boosted my confidence for a while, but the subsequent  slew of rejections from paying markets was starting to erode it. I’ve gotten at least five rejections in the past three days.

I can deal with quick rejections, but the ones that really hurt are the ones that told me I was close. We enjoyed your story, but

  • you didn’t make the final cut
  • You didn’t get enough votes to get into the third and final round of voting
  • I loved x, y and z about it, but have to pass anyways because we have so many submissions

They make me feel like I am wandering around in pea soup fog, within sight of the lighthouse, but unable to find the harbor entrance.

Fortunately, there are flickers of sunlight slipping through the haze of rejection.

Yesterday, I found out I am a finalist for a writing contest I entered in December. Over 200 hundred have been eliminated leaving the judges with 50 to sort through. I’ve been told the top 20 will get prizes(cash or gift cards), and the top ten published.

Today, I returned from work to find ten new emails appeared in my inbox during my 15 minute commute. They were mostly twitter notifications that came around as a result of winning Cracked Flash competition for the second week in a row. I suspect there is some magic in their prompts and time limit that brings out the best in me. I’m always surprised to see what I can do with three hundred words on a Saturday. Even though there is no prize for winning, it is a welcome reminder that someone likes my writing. And that gives me hope that if I keep at it long enough, I will eventually break into the paying markets.

Thank you to the good people that run Cracked Flash.

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Here is the winning story:

The Phoenix

By Sara Codair

We all knew he was going to set himself on fire, and we were right. Henry and I just never imagined how our son, Dane, would go up in flames.

It happened over summer vacation. The sun was scorching and the black top was so hot you could cook stir fry on it. Dane was angry. The wheels on his favorite skate board had melted. His face was beat red, aching with sunburn. So when Billy Jones tried to steal his Nintendo DS, he just lost and burst into flames.

The medical examiner said it was spontaneous combustion, but he wasn’t there when it happened. He didn’t see his son out on the street raising a fist to punch a kid twice his size, just go up in flames when the sun hit his fist. He didn’t see how quick the body blackened. He didn’t see the naked baby screaming in the ashes – a baby that looked exactly how the burning boy had looked twelve years earlier.

The papers said all that was left of Dane was a charred skeleton. They don’t know about the infant that wakes me every night crying for milk or to get his diaper changed. No one knows save Henry, and no one else can know. Not even my mother.

We’re already packing. Henry has an apartment picked out across the country, and a buddy at work who can hack the system and get baby Dane a fake birth certificate and social security number. I don’t know what Henry told his friend, just that it wasn’t the truth.
Like a phoenix, Dane was reborn from his ashes, starting life anew. So we, too, would start over, in a new town where no one knew our names.

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Making the Space

The space a class is taught in often has a profound impact on the students’ attitude and the ambiance of the classroom’s community. It’s not everything, but it can go a long way. As an adjunct, I have virtually no control over what room my class is taught in, so I’ve learned to make the most of what I have.

This semester, I have one particularly rowdy group. Their attention is easy to loose and difficult to hold. The classroom we are in has tables that 2 to 4 students can sit at.20160412_161229The tables are lined up so the students all sit facing me. It’s set up for a traditional, lecture style class.

In other places I’ve taught, and even in other buildings of the same school, I’ve had classic college desks, desk/chairs on wheels, and tables on wheels.

The heavy, not moving rows of tables are by far the worst. The students wind up expecting a lecture. They sit with their friends or hide phones under the big tables and cruise through social media all class.

They were okay for the first few weeks of class, but quickly dissolved into random interruptions, side conversations, abuse of phones and chaos.

So by midterm, I got fed up. I knew I needed to make some kind of change. The content I was using in class worked fine with other groups, so I thought I’d try changing the space and structure.

I got to class early and dragged the heavy tables together in the center of the room so it was set up like a conference room instead of a lecture hall.

The students were confused when they came to class, but quickly adapted. They didn’t all get their usual seat by their friends, and even if they did, they couldn’t easily hide their conversation or phones. It wasn’t just me looking at them, but their classmates.

When we started a discussion, instead of asking for volunteers, we just went around the table. Students were allowed to say pass if they weren’t comfortable talking, but few took that option in a majority of the discussions. Eventually, I did allow the discussion to take a more natural form, but by that point, it was much easier to moderate.

While I still noticed a few people texting, no one was having side conversations and the interruptions were minimized. Students were more respectful of each other and of me. They listened and made eye contact with the people who were talking. They stayed on topic (mostly). Everyone who did talk contributed something valuable to the discussion whether it was presenting their research or on strategies for avoiding procrastination.

By making a few adjustments to the layout of the room and structure of discussions, I transformed a the rowdy class that gave me anxiety to one I look forward to teaching again.

Evil English Teacher Alphabet Soup

DSC_0859Evil English Teacher Alphabet Soup

By Sara Codair

Evil English teachers. Grammar Nazis. Every school has them. If you yourself are an teacher, you probably know exactly which of your colleagues cringe at the tiniest of errors, covering their student papers in blood-red ink. Whether you are a teacher or not, it is likely that you encountered one of these people at some point in your life.

This soup was inspired by the teachers who make students so worried about where to put commas that they forget to think, creating essays that are pretty but shallow. This soup is to raise awareness of the teachers who send students away in tears – students who wrote brilliant essays but lost thirty points for misplaced comma’s, improperly conjugated verbs and informal language. This soup like looks like words drowned in red ink. It tastes as beautiful as the writing would have been if that red tide had not drown it before it learned to swim.

Correct grammar is important, but it is not everything. Students who didn’t learn grammar in middle school and students who are not native speakers of English will not master English grammar in one semester. Sure, there may be a handful of students who benefit from the strict, Grammar Nazi style class, but most panic, get too stressed and give up when confronted with that kind of teacher, or they over rely on tutors to help them get through the class while vowing to never speak to that instructor again once the semester is over.

If you worry about grammar on first and second drafts, your ideas won’t be fully developed simply because you cannot devote your full attention to ideas if you are stressing about grammar. Whenever I find myself editing prematurely, I wind up stuck on how to finish a piece or where to take. When I wait until the third or fourth draft, my ideas are fully developed and I can put all my attention to cleaning the piece up and making it beautiful. So why subject students to standards even professional writers cannot hold themselves to? Students don’t have time for the kind of editing we do before publishing something. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach grammar at all. I’m just saying we shouldn’t drown students with it.

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Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oilDSC_0834
  • Half of a large yellow onion or one small onion
  • Half of a large bell pepper (red, orange or yellow)
  • ¼ lb of ground beef (substitute with extra veggies for a vegetarian option)
  • 2 small carrots or one large carrot
  • 1 stick of celery
  • half a zucchini
  • seven cherry tomatoes (preferably sungolds)
  • a few sprinkles of dried thyme (or fresh equivalent)
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil (or fresh equivalent)
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano (or fresh equivalent)DSC_0847
  • ½ can of tomato paste
  • 1 box chicken broth (use vegetable stock for a vegetarian option)
  • ½ cup of alphabet pasta

 

Step 1: Put two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium or large saucepan.

Step 2: Dice the peppers and onions then add them to the pan. Let begin them cook while you defrost the beef in the microwave.

DSC_0837Step 3: Add the beef to the pan, constantly stirring and breaking up as it cooks. I prefer small pieces of meat, so I will keep chopping with a wooden spatula until it is thoroughly broken up.

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Step 4:
Cut up the carrots, celery and zucchini, adding each as it is ready to cut. For this  soup, I like to the leave the carrots round and cut the zucchini into tiny rectangles. Cut and add the tomatoes once all the other vegetables are in.

DSC_0844Step 5: Measure and add Thyme, Basil and Oregano. I used dried this time around, but prefer to use fresh when it is available.

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Step 6: Add the tomato paste, stirring until the meat and vegetables are as coated as possible.    

Step 7: Add the chicken broth, stirring until all the past has dissolved and turned the broth red.

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Step 8: Bring the soup to a boil and add the alphabet pasta. Turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for at least one hour before serving. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.

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If you are a teacher, please use your correcting pen cautiously. Focus on one issue at a time. Give mini lessons on grammar before students do a peer review in class. Don’t spill the soup on your papers.

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