Creation Station Summer

So the school year is over at the Cotchaleovitch residence, and it is time to sleep until 9:00 every morning, let the kids binge watch TV while I kick back with a book, and only change out of pajamas and emerge into the real world when we’re down to our last Capri Sun. Once we’ve recovered a little, we’ll consider a vacation.

Well, not quite. But by the last day of school, I was feeling pretty elated that we’d all made it. There were a lot of firsts in the 2015-16 school year: it was my first year teaching full-time; it was Ian’s first year in school; and it was Peter’s first year with an in-school reading resource for dyslexic kids, which meant I didn’t have to run him to a tutor twice a week.

We were on the home stretch. Other teachers commiserated with me when I noted that my students needed a second spring break. Like a permanent one. For the last month of school, we were all just holding on. That’s not to say that there weren’t good days, but there comes a point when a child can only take so much, and then every new bit of info you try to cram in their brains just comes spilling out of their ears. I’m sure parents felt much the same way (read one mom’s hilarious recap of her kids’ end of school year experience here).

Then, when it seemed that all the end-of-year events were falling into place, my eight-year-old got sick. I mean three-trips-to-the-doctor-in-six-days, two-different-antibiotics, absent-for-six-days sick. My husband, my parents, and I took turns watching him, and I stressed out over what he could possibly have (at the third appointment, the conclusion was bronchitis, but the fever that wouldn’t quit is still a mystery). Believe me, I was ready for some uninterrupted home time.

But there’s a part of me that knows what will happen in the fall if I just totally deflate and turn into a zombie for the next two-and-a-half months: everything my kids have learned in the past year will be relegated to their mental back burners, and the readjustment period come mid-August will be painful for both them and their teachers.

I had a rough idea of what my kids needed to accomplish this summer. Peter has a summer reading book, and so he doesn’t forget all his math skills, we need to play some math games that his teacher showed me. As for Ian, he’ll need to work on his fine motor skills. From working with four- and five-year-olds, I know that strengthening his fingers can be as simple as letting him put beads on strings, practice cutting with safety scissors, color, and play with Play-Doh.

So now, to implement all of these things into the days we spend at home. It was actually during Peter’s sickness that it all came together for me. One day, when his was fever was down and he had the energy get creative, he made this cute monster-Mickey-Mouse-ears thing:

Monster Frame.jpg

Ian loved it so much that Peter made another one for him. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the boys had so much fun inventing crafts from their own imaginations; after all, it’s what we encourage kids to do at school when we set up a table full of various supplies. It’s called “creation station.” At his age, it’s not the kind of thing Peter does much anymore, so it’s particularly enjoyable for him to do at home.

Creation Station.jpg

This is something that I can let my kids do with supplies already on hand and minimal brain power on my part. So many moms see crafts on Pinterest and then get stressed out because they think (I don’t know why) that their children expect perfection – or for them to spend hundreds of dollars on obscure supplies at craft stores. I promise you, they don’t. The kids I taught all year were usually happy with paper and crayons. While it may not be as easy as letting the TV babysit them, it keeps their little minds engaged without them even knowing it.

And the creation station portion of each day has an added benefit for me; it gives me a dedicated time to do a little prep for my class next year… and to do a little creating of my own. 🙂

Creation Station II.jpg



The Challenges of Parenting the Second Novel

When I had my second son, people warned me not to compare my children to each other – something that’s nearly impossible to do. And the same is true, I’ve found, with novels.

And so I come to NaNoWriMo again. (It’s November; get used to it.) The first two weeks have been rough this year, which blindsided me (and I can say the same of the early days of being a mom of two). If you followed me last year, you know that I “won” (which means that I reached the 50,000 word minimum) by the 14th of the month. (And if you didn’t follow me then, you can read about it here.) I had inspiration on my side with a brand new story that wouldn’t quit. I wrote well over 4700 words on the first day, and I didn’t slow down much from there. By the end of November, I was at 80,000 words and continued writing until February, when my first draft clocked in at 148K. From there, the challenge was to trim it down to under 100,000 (which I did two weeks ago, thank goodness).

Fast forward to this year: last week I wrote about middle-of-a-trilogy blues. I get stuck constantly. I carry my MacBook with me everywhere (just like last year), and any time I have a spare minute, it’s open to my novel. Whereas last year, scenes competed for my attention and I couldn’t get them down fast enough – bombarding me when I was in the shower or chauffeuring the kids or researching an article – this year, the computer sits open, the cursor flashing, waiting for me to type. Mind you, I am extremely busy, but still, the story isn’t constantly running in the background like last year. There’s no backlog of scenes waiting to be written at my earliest convenience.

Today is the 15th of the month, the halfway point. If you’re serious about finishing, you should have 25,000 words down, and I do, thank goodness. My goal is to type 2000 a day, just to give me a little cushion in case I have a rough day. November 1st I did pretty well with 4000 words. Not as much as last year, but it got me a day ahead of my goal. And I used up that 2000-word credit five days later when I only managed to get 200 words down. Determined to catch up, I pulled my average back up to 2000 words per day, but it’s been tight. I’m an over-achiever, and surpassing my goals is kind of my thing. I still have over 1000 words to type today to make it to 30,000, so forget last year’s astronomical word count.

It’s not the word count itself that bothers me as much as my difficulty in getting the words down. Again, I can see a parallel with my kids. The first baby was a breeze. Yes, we had some challenges early on, but looking back I realize what an easy kid he was and still is. Contrast him (I know, a no-no) with his little brother, and the story changes. That little dude was a challenge while still in the womb, and the challenges only escalated after he was born. Even the nurses at the hospital were perplexed by his inability to be consoled – and those maternity ward nurses have some sort of baby voo-doo that almost always works. We’ve tried to parent both kids the same way, so why are they so different?

The difficulties, the challenges, the things that make me want to scream and rip my hair out at times are also the beauties of these two very different people – if only I can take a deep breath and remind myself that no two people are exactly alike. It’s amazing to watch them grow into their personalities. Sometimes they’re predictable, and other times they take us by surprise. It’s the times that I try to force Ian (the younger one) to be more like Peter (big brother) that I frustrate him and unnecessarily disappoint myself.

So it is with my stories. I guess you could say that last year’s was the big brother: sometimes challenging but always a joy. There were so many new discoveries, each one a kind of adventure.

My NaNoWriMo 2014 novel is the second child. I’ve been there and done that – wait, wait, wait. It still has surprises, if only I can allow it to follow its own path. But in order to do that, I have to give it the freedom to do so.

One day last week, in the effort to plow through another 2000 words, I realized that I was going through the motions yet again.  I had allowed my so-called experience to make me complacent and fall into a predictable and not very fun routine. My novel has certain plot points, not unlike milestones for children. My characters have to travel in my story, and since I’m averse to writing outlines, I don’t know much of what happens on the journey from Point A to Point B. I just know that I somehow have to get them there. And that “getting there” part can be a real slog.

Last year, I had even less of an idea how I would move the story along, but I didn’t let that bother me. Scenes kept popping up in no particular order; I typed them, and when I had time to breathe, I tried to connect them. It was these bursts of inspiration that kept me on the edge of my seat, that made me excited to get up every day and write.

I was thrilled that my word count exceeded my expectations. It was great to not have to worry about it. This year, sometimes it seems that the word count is the end goal, but it shouldn’t be at all. The point is to write, to finish something that I otherwise might give up on halfway through. That’s what’s beautiful about NaNoWriMo to me.

I mentioned in a previous blog that I already know how my current novel will end (even if I don’t know all the in between stuff). Hard-pressed to finish a scene, I realized that I could give myself a break and jump ahead to the ending. Why not? Words count, after all, no matter where they fall sequentially.

While I was thinking through that scene, my fickle little muse stopped by for a visit. It was one of those moments when I realized that something I was already planning to write would make so much more sense if… well, I can’t tell you, but it was one of those brainwave-y moments that authors live for (or at least this author does).

It’s the kind of thing that happened all the time last November, when I was new at the whole writing a novel in a month thing, when it was exciting and much like embarking on a voyage into unknown waters. It was with a kind of joy that I realized new and surprising things can still happen with the second novel of a trilogy. Instead of coaxing it along and expecting it to be a good little novel that writes itself –surprise! – I need to be open to all the scenes that want to be written, even if they’re out of order or don’t seem to belong. After all, this is a different novel, and it deserves the same chance, the same attention, I gave its big brother.

Much like parenting my second child.

Here’s to second children, and here’s to second novels.

Here’s to writing first and counting my words second.

Here’s to another 15 days of creativity and exploration, and best of luck to all my fellow WriMos!

Are You Too Busy Posting About How Much Fun You’re Having to Have Fun?

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile pho...

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone while standing on a bike in traffic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One morning last week, I was watching the morning news and happened to see a segment with a therapist talking about social media accounts (Facebook, specifically) and how negative an impact they can have on relationships.

Now, of course, many of you, my faithful readers, read this on Facebook. So I am by no means saying we should give up this platform. But it was enough to get the old thinking juices flowing.

The therapist mentioned that many people are so busy posting updates about what they’re doing – that they’re not really doing anything. Except for updating social media, of course. There were other reasons that he went into for why Facebook can be bad for relationships – like coming across an ex and stirring up old feelings – but it made me start to think about my life and how it’s changed – not since I signed up for Facebook, necessarily, but since I got a smart phone.

Sure, there are people who only use Facebook on a home computer, and that takes them away from their family at home. But then there are others – like me – who almost always check on the phone – at a red light, in line at the grocery store, and of course, when the person you’re with is just boring you to death. Ouch. What happened to letting our minds politely wander? There’s nothing that says, I couldn’t care less what you’re saying than looking down at a phone and getting absorbed in what’s trending right now.

When did we have to start filling every “empty” moment with making sure we know what’s going on in the world of social media? There’s an appropriate time and place for it, sure, but I’m afraid that my kids and their friends will grow up without the luxury of knowing how wonderful so-called boredom can be. I fondly remember times when I had nothing to do, so I went outside and dug for rolly pollies. Or I walked laps around my bedroom, composing a new scene in my current story. Boredom is the birthplace for creativity. Of course, Pinterest is a great place for that, too, but we’re raising a generation of sharers right now. What happens when all the creators are gone?

Facebook and other social media do have their positive uses, of course. I have friends who are primarily members to promote themselves professionally. I do this myself, but I also post pictures of my kids because my out-of-town in-laws like to see what their grandkids are up to. That’s all well and good. But when smart phone and social media usage start replacing time with family, then we’ve somehow mixed up our priorities.

This therapist guy mentioned whole vacations that seem documented to-the-minute on Facebook. I’ve seen any number of them, and while I enjoy seeing some of the fun things my friends are up to, I have wondered: When do they have time to enjoy what they’re doing if they’re on Facebook updating their statuses so much?

And of course, I am guilty of this, too.

Sarah's Photo Books

Sarah’s Photo Books

Here you see a couple photo books I created of two of our most recent vacations. (Shameless plug: these aren’t cheap, copier paper photo books but high-quality, custom photo paper books made by Fuji, and you can create your own here.)

While I was creating the book on the left – a surprise Disney World trip for my kids – I noticed something that horrified me: I was paying attention to my phone instead of my kids in an embarrassing number of pictures. We were at Disney World, for crying out loud. It’s the happiest place on Earth, yet I was focused on reading updates of what my friends ate for dinner.

Now, granted, having a smart phone when you’re stuck in a two-hour line can be a great distraction. Disney also has a great app that helps you explore the park, so I could say, “Oh yeah, I was just using that.” But that would be a lie.

I’m not saying that smart phones are the devil and we should throw them all out, and neither should we do that with social media. But, as many people have noted, we need to make sure that we don’t get so sucked in to this virtual so-called “social” world that we isolate ourselves from the people that we really want and need to spend time with in the first place.

I think that sometimes, we are so self-centered, so stuck on the idea that we have to absolutely let all of our friends know what cool stuff we’re doing right now that we actually miss out on living in that moment. And what a shame that is.

Now, when I created the second photo book, a great trip with extended family in Washington State, I noticed something else. It was a bit of a letdown at first. You see, I remembered chasing my son and little niece through a mall in Washington. I remember their grins and giggles. I remember going lots of cool places and tasting great, new food. But somehow, I didn’t capture all of these moments photographically. I kind of kicked myself for missing them.

But you know what, I think that’s okay. I remembered a trip to the zoo that Thomas and I took early in our dating years. I made it a point to take a picture of all the wildlife we saw there. Why I thought this was so important, I can’t tell you. A photographer I am not. Any good pictures I’ve ever taken were completely by accident. So when I looked back at all these photos, I realized that I had no idea what I’d been trying to capture, nor could I remember enough of the day at the zoo to even take a wild guess. Why? Well, because I’d been trying so hard to get photos of the fun that I missed the fun altogether. (Thank goodness there weren’t smart phones or Facebook back then, otherwise I really would have made a fool of myself.)

I’m not saying to quit taking photos or to quit posting your events. But what I am saying is that it’s okay if your friends don’t see your kids sitting in a neat little row at the ice cream shop. I promise, your kids will enjoy their ice cream more if you don’t interrupt them.

And for those memories that you missed capturing on your phone or camera – those are likely the memories that will stick with you and your friends and loved ones the longest. Because you were too busy enjoying the moment to worry about how many likes and shares you might get on Facebook.

How to Write 50,000 Words in 14 Days


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Wait a minute – you thought that the goal of NaNoWriMo was to write 50,000 words in the month of November, which last you checked still has 30 days, not 14. And if you thought that, you’re absolutely right. When I decided, on a whim, to participate in NaNo this year, I thought that there was no way I would be able to write so much. To stay ahead of the game, it’s smart to write 2000 words a day. That’s a lot. Sometimes, in the throes of a brainwave, I’ve written that much, but could I keep it up for an entire month? And I know me: if I say I’m going to do something, I will pretty much kill myself to get it done.

NaNoWriMo must have been created for the writers with too much time on their hands, and they just needed a project like this to challenge them and add some spice to their lives. Writing a 50,000-word novel in a month should be a cinch for them, right? Except that I don’t believe these mythical writers actually exist. For argument’s sake, however, wouldn’t it be easier for this kind of writer than it is for me – a busy, semi-working mom of two – to write a novel in the space of a month?

In fact, I believe that simply having the skills and the time are not enough to get the job done here. I scoffed when I heard people talk about NaNoWriMo last year. I thought they were crazy, and I never saw myself participating in anything like this. It just spelled failure, something that I didn’t want to sign up for. Of course, I was the tired mom of an infant and a preschooler, and my creative side was just plain drained. I did muster my energy for some editing, but that’s much more a perfecting process with a little creativity on the side.

And that was the problem: I did not have the enthusiasm or the motivation to do it. I was not inspired.

Above everything else I did in the first 14 days of the month that allowed me to reach my goal early – even above carrying my laptop with me everywhere and typing every spare second – inspiration is what has carried me through, what has made it possible for me to write ridiculous amounts every day. And the inspiration didn’t hit me until October.

I’ve read interviews of famous authors, in which they talk about what kind of music (if any) helps them write. I’ve read them try to explain where they get the impetus to write, which is nearly impossible to explain.  I’ve read acknowledgements in novels that thank a particular rock band or attribute the desire to write to a favorite author. And it’s a combination of these and other artistic expressions that I believe form my own creative sustenance, as well as theirs.

One night years ago, Thomas and I left the theatre after a movie, and a new scene for my novel du jour popped into my head. Vivid enough that I can still remember it today, I could not wait to get home and get it on paper. At that moment, jotting down the teenaged boy climbing a tree outside his friend’s window and throwing rocks until she appeared was my top priority. And you know what movie it was that inspired this? X-Men. Yes, X-Men. Were my characters mutants? No, although there were sci-fi elements to my story because that’s just how I roll.

All that to say that the things that inspire me, as well as other writers, don’t have to have anything to do with the plot or the characters. They don’t have to make sense to anyone else, after all. There are songs that have done this for me, too, songs that I’ve listened to again and again because they evoked a particular scene every time I heard them. When I was a kid, I had a couple books filled with famous angel art that I flipped through when I needed an idea.

These other artists’ modes of expression become my mantra when I need them. It drives my husband crazy because that often means seeing the same movie or hearing the same song again and again, but it’s the method to my writing madness.

So in October I decided to go out on a limb and watch a movie that I had little hope for. It was based on a book I’d read and loved – the kind that kept me up until one or two in the morning a couple nights in a row. Not only was I pleasantly surprised with the movie version, but it reawakened that spark within me. Part of it, I think, was nostalgia, considering I’d enjoyed the book so much. But another part of it was a yearning from my creative side, which hadn’t been very active in a while. The problem I faced was that while I wanted to write, I wanted to write something new. I did nothing about it, though, just a whole lot of wanting.

And then two days before NaNo, I got a tiny glimpse into a new character that made me think I could actually do this thing. It snowballed from there. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait longer than two days because the scenes building in my head all but overflowed onto the page on November first. I wrote over 4700 words, and although I didn’t keep up that kind of pace, I stayed inspired. I kept watching the movie that gave me that initial excitement about writing again, and my new story kept playing itself out in my head.

One of the first bits of advice I received about conquering the 50,000-word requirement was to write a thorough chapter-by-chapter outline. I suppose this helps people add flesh to the skeletons of their stories, but to me, instead of being natural, it’s more of a Frankenstein’s monster kind of thing. In my experience, detailed outlines are the best way to kill creativity. They’re also very presumptuous. Authors who are scared or new to the craft use them because they want to control their novels. And believe me, I am a control freak. Having a guide is important. I write notes about what I would like to have in my story and where it’s important to introduce new characters and plot twists. But formal outlines that bind the story and leave it no room to grow are the best way to kill your creativity.

This time, I’ve let myself get quite carried away on wave after wave of inspiration. Completely open to whatever may happen next, I write scenes as they come to me. Sure, there are many places where the narrative jumps around with absolutely no transition, but at this point, I’m not worried about making it pretty so much as just making it.

The wonderful thing about allowing myself this kind of freedom with my writing is that it’s taken me unexpected places. Last Sunday night, a new scene barged in on me when I thought I was going to have a nice, relaxing 2000-word kind of night. This scene included new characters I’d never met and a circumstance that I certainly didn’t expect. It turned into a 9300-word writing fever – all in one sitting. I finally forced myself to go to bed. And I was amazed that it wasn’t nearly as late as I feared it would be. In the midst of that kind of outpouring, it doesn’t take as long to be productive as when you’re stuck trying to breathe life into a pre-determined plot point.

I’ve heard from other NaNo-ers that week two is when you need pep talks because there’s apparently a slump. There actually was one night this past week when I didn’t even type 1500 words. I am slowing down a little and having to fill in those transitional scenes that have put so many of my stories into comas. Still, I managed to pass the 50,000-word threshold at the end of the dreaded second week. I have the feeling this novel will be well over 100,000 words (at least before I take out the ax, that is), and now is not the time to sit back and think, Well, I reached the official goal, so now I can relax. I will finish my book. I will write through the dead spots. I will keep enjoying my inspirational cues, however they happen, until I get the job done.

I think I’ve said enough about process for now. It’s time to take a ride with my story.

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Stop Making Excuses and Write

“All I can do. . . is write daily, read as much as possible, and keep my vocabulary alive and changing so that I will have an instrument on which to play the book if it does me the honor of coming to me and asking to be written.”

Madeleine L’Engle

Writer's Stop

Writer’s Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

I just don’t get writers who don’t write. If you say you’re a writer, make sure you have something to back up that claim. And I’m not talking about struggling writers—people who desperately want to write but don’t have two seconds of free time to rub together or those other tormented souls who would only write if the mental block would move out of the way.

There’s a particular type of so-called writer that drives me nuts, the type that enters a writing course, presents a piece to a class full of writers, and is unprepared, even offended, when the other writers pick apart her precious offering. Or how about the guy who writes something that has potential but needs some major work before it’s submission worthy? After a round of constructive criticism, he knows his creative process wasn’t appreciated, and he refuses to revise his original draft because that would somehow mean that the words that poured from his imaginative well are no longer pure. I’ve gone to school with both of those types. Many drop out of the writing courses that they assumed would showcase them as beacons of creativity to the rest of us. One guy I knew wasn’t “feeling it.” When the requirement of the class is to apply the necessary changes your classmates recommend, and you can’t bring yourself to so much as fix your spelling errors, you not only don’t make the grade, but you also let yourself down as a writer.

Now, I am certainly not saying that everything we start must be publishable. There is a reason that we write first (or what some call “drawer”) novels. Maybe they are worth resurrecting, but if so, they most likely need considerable revision to make them readable. What I am saying is that there are so many of us who would love to have the time to make mistakes and learn from them, but that little thing called life makes it very difficult to for us. It’s why I abhor lazy, excuse-making writers.

I have an uncle who I don’t see very often, and invariably, when I do see him, he asks if I’m still writing. He asked me once when my elder son was a year old. I felt the question coming and squirmed in my seat. Write? I knew he didn’t mean my daily journal. He was asking about my story, and at the time, I was concentrating mostly on finding an agent, slogging through my old copy of Writer’s Market, hoping to find the perfect match. The problem was that I wasn’t trying nearly hard enough, and when I did send out the occasional query, my lackluster attitude showed whoever read it that I wasn’t ready to publish yet. That happens sometimes. At that point, I was not only a struggling writer, but an uninspired one, as well.

All writers go through those periods. And when we do, it’s best to be honest about them. Sometimes writers do need a break, either from a particularly difficult project or just altogether. (By the way, those little vacations are great times to read.)

For those frustrated writers, the ones who want so badly to say, “I’m a writer” and mean it, remember that writing isn’t the only part of your job description. Reading is a must, as well as being a part of the greater writing community. Years ago, when I first got involved in Fiction Fix, I had to attend and even participate in public readings, and there was little I dreaded more than getting in front of a bunch of people and putting myself in the spotlight. I want to share my work, yes, but I am shy in large groups. With the internet, however, I can choose how much I want to participate and be much more comfortable. If you have the time to read one blog a week to stay motivated, by all means, do so. If you don’t have the time to visit a bookstore or library, much less read the books you already have, consider picking up magazines or literary journals. There are great articles and short stories out there that you can read while you wait in line for a cup of coffee. (Shameless plug—check out Fiction Fix or my short story “Stranded” at If you have a smart phone, welcome to your new e-reading device.

You don’t have to read to be inspired, though. Visit a museum if visual art does it for you, or listen to your music of choice. At a time when it was particularly rough for me, just getting pen to paper, I read my friend Amy’s blog and found new hope when she suggested that the act of thinking is part of the writing process.

If you do have the time, and you choose to join a writing course, workshop, or conference, you have an incredible opportunity to be motivated and also to grow like never before. Just be ready to find out that your considerable intellect and creativity are not enough to save you from criticism and rejection. Those are two facets of the writing (and especially publication) process and no reason to feel unappreciated and give up (but that’s for another blog). If you quit at the point when you think it hurts most, you not only stunt your own growth, but you might not be available when that perfect story shows up, needing to be shared with the world.