Tag: writing

Success as an author?Success as an author?

Depends what you mean by “success”

One of my writing groups (the one that isn’t a critique circle) has set a blog-post prompt of “How do you measure success as an author?”
We’re supposed to introspect, come up with wise words to inspire and console others. I don’t know about y’all, but the past two years have been a low-rising roller coaster, beginning with a brief burst of elation that my first book (my “debut” if you want to get precious about it) was coming out.

WIte, red, and blue award ribbons from a fair

Only then we had a little bit of a pandemic to deal with.

And now it’s two years later.

All That Was Asked has never had a book-launch party (it slightly predates online launch parties), a signing session, a reading at a convention—none of those things. Not uncoincidentally, it hasn’t made much dough for me or for my publisher. At least the print copies are mostly print-on-demand, so no one’s staring at a warehouse full of unsold copies and calling a shredding company.

But is selling a ton of books a success? To stay sane in this business, I think you have to measure success more on the basis of what you are doing than what you have done. If you’re making oodles of money in the publishing industry, that’s mostly a matter of luck, so is that success? I’d call it good fortune. It’s very much a lottery. I’ve read absolutely stunning work in critique circles, listened to mind-blowing readings by little-known writers, and I’ve even had people tell me after a reading “wow, that was awesome!”

What makes sense is to measure how this work—writing—impacts your life. Is this what you live for? Not in a rosy-eyed, dreamy way, not “I luv writing <3” but “writing is what drags me out of everything else” and “writing is my food, drink, and sleep” and “writing is how I exist in this universe.”

What I’m doing right now is working on projects that I’ve wanted to tackle for years—no, decades—but never could due to the vicissitudes of child-rearing, day-job workload, personal upheavals, and disability.  I’m not whining. These are just facts. I chose to raise kids, and it was satisfying work (and, yes, frustrating, too, but in all the right ways). However, doing the best job possible involved more than dropping them off at our barely-adequate schools. It meant advocating for them, fighting an uncaring administrative system, volunteering, fundraising, and, as a last-resort, homeschooling. At least in the pandemic age, there are more parents out there who understand that homeschooling—at least not ideally—isn’t a romp in the garden, it’s serious work. And, like most of us, for me that was work that had to take place in parallel with earning a living.

So right now, I’m successful. Every morning (afternoon?) I wake up, and there’s writing to do.

  • This kind of writing, which is off-the-cuff, barely edited, and hurled into the interweb’s event horizon, never to be seen by human eyes.
  • Critical writing, where I’m critiquing work by fellow writers, trying to help them make their stories the best they can be. 
  • Social-media writing—mostly Twitter—where I practice being concise, kind, and thoughtful.
  • And, finally, yes, writing my own stories, the ones I’ve been wanting to read.

What I’ve been looking for—and yes, I’ve found some, but far too few—are stories led by characters who have trouble communicating, who don’t fit in, who think differently than others but find a way through life anyhow. I’m tired of hero’s-journey stories and chosen-one tales that take themselves too seriously. I don’t mind playing with the tropes. For instance, one of my WIPs has a seeming “chosen one” in it, but the whole thing is a crock, a scheme worked up by a person who’s trying to change society and is using an old myth to get buy-in. Not that the “chosen” person isn’t worthy, but there’s no magic in the process—they’re carefully selected for capability and then trained for the job.

I’m not writing to market. I admit that. So I can’t complain about sales, not too much. It may take time for people like me to find the stories I’m writing for them. That’s OK. I waited a long time. A little longer—I can deal.

Well, I’m trying to, anyhow.

In the meantime, I’m keeping on. For me, that writers learned to use remote meetings to connect for critiques, discuss craft, conduct conventions, and more has been a compensatory gain during the pandemic. It’s not a benefit of this horrible time; it’s a thing we could should have been doing all along, and only just now learned to value. When the pandemic’s over, we’ll keep connected this way. That’s a good thing, but we don’t get to pretend it’s all right that millions of people died while those of us privileged to live were fumbling our way to this belated discovery.

I’ve leveraged that new learning, because I’m an engineer and tech things come naturally to me. I’ve let myself get roped into volunteering to help others less comfortable with the technology—and that’s OK, because participating with other writers helps me connect more deeply with my writing community.  I value the friendships I’ve formed with people I’ve only met in Zoom rooms. This is not a trivial feeling—I dedicated my Monday afternoons for half this past year to help a Zoom friend whose critique circle had lost their only zoom-capable member. That meant stepping aside from one of my other critique circles, one that needed me less. I’m returning to my prior group as of this month, because my friend’s old zoom-host has returned. I’ll miss the new friends I made in her circle, even though we only ever saw each other in little boxes on our computer screens.

Am I a failure because I had to defer my writing career? Looking back through my drawer of shelved and partly-done stories, one thing is strikingly clear—I was so young, so ignorant, so clueless. Much of what I’m writing now, I couldn’t have done when I was younger. In technique, I’m much better than my younger self; some of that gain I can attribute to years of writing science and engineering reports and papers, working collaboratively with colleagues on phrasing, structure, and word choice … plus coping with deadlines. Beyond the technique, older me is able to imagine more-complex characters, see worlds with more-different people in them. Through personal experience, I know most lives—most real stories—don’t have a “call to adventure” or a “supreme ordeal.” There’s no wise mentor waiting to guide us. We have to muddle through, try to survive in an irrational universe, and deal with the fact we’ll never quite make sense of it all.

Sure, I’m still learning. You have to keep learning. It’s the key to growth in every respect. Even there, though, I’m doing better, working actively to learn more of what I need to continue improving.

In my next posting, I’ll demonstrate my success by sharing a list of what I consider to be my 2021 accomplishments not only as a writer but also as a member of the writing community.

I’ll warn you right now: it’s a longer post.

On the Care and Feeding of Participial PhrasesOn the Care and Feeding of Participial Phrases

In some critique circles, shooting down misplaced modifiers has become a sporting activity. It’s fun, because they’re easy to spot and can be really funny. “The robber drove the getaway car in a batman costume” should make you smile at the image of a car cosplaying as The Batman. It’s logical that a modifier works best when it’s placed as close as possible to the thing it’s describing. For example, the descriptor “in a batman costume” should be next to “robber” and not “car.”

Unfortunately, a valuable writing tool—the participial phrase—is taking collateral damage.

An image of a 19th-century postcard showing three people "flying" with stiff airplane-like wings justting from ther sides, as they shoot at ducks in the sky.
An 1899 postcard by Jean-Marc Côté
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A participial phrase is a specialized modifier that conveys movement or change, often incorporating visual imagery and other details, while performing the duties of an adjective. This tool has its own grammar and punctuation rules. Like any modifier, it can be misplaced, but the writer has flexibility in its placement, supported by the unsung hero of grammar: the comma.

To be sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start with participles. A participle is what you get when you take a verb and use it as an adjective: drowned trees, running water, flying pigs, grown woman, billowing clouds. Look for the past- and present-tense endings.

A simple participle works just like an ordinary adjective and is placed exactly as you would expect. For example, “drowned trees” could be a more dramatic way to say “dead trees.” It’s not unique to English, but repurposing words is relatively common in our language. Apparently, we English-speakers are determined to keep turning one part of speech into another, as if we haven’t got enough words already. Verbing nouns is one of my pet peeves.

(Yes, I know. You saw what I did there.)

A participial phrase is both

  • a phrase with a participle in it, and
  • a phrase acting as an adjective, intended to describe the subject of a sentence.

For example, “acting as an adjective” is a participial phrase. So is, “intended to describe the subject of a sentence.”

To get a participial phrase, you build upon the participle:

Trees … drowned in the flood from the broken dam

Water … running over rocks and rills

Pigs … flying like eagles

Woman … grown wise in the ways of the world

Clouds … billowing like windblown sheets of satin (note the participle within this participial phrase)

Brilliant clouds sail high over the plains towards distant mountaints

Participles and participial phrases add flavor and texture to our sentences, and because they come from verbs, they help create a feeling of action. Questions arise when we go to put our nicely-constructed phrase into its sentence, because … where do we put the darned thing? You have three choices:

Leading: Billowing like windblown sheets of satin, the clouds sailed over the plains of Endor.

Subject-adjacent: The clouds, billowing like windblown sheets of satin, sailed over the plains of Endor.

Trailing: The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor, billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Photo Credit: Jonathan C. Wheeler, CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

(Note: these are my own terms. Reliable texts will say “at the beginning/in the middle/at the end.” yawn. Also, do not rail at me about the forests of Endor. This one is about the plains. Where, possibly, it rains. Like in Spain.)

Now … wait for it … here it comes:

If (and only if) you fail to properly punctuate a participial phrase, it becomes a misplaced modifier.

Technically, it’s a mispunctuated modifier, but to the reader, it’s confusing, and that’s why we care about misplaced modifiers. It occurs most often when the participial phrase is trailing. The separating comma before the phrase signals the reader that what follows describes the subject, in our example: clouds. Without the comma, you get:

The clouds sailed over the plains of Endor billowing like windblown sheets of satin.

Here, the reader is cast adrift and must grab for the nearest noun. While it may be possible that the plains of Endor billow, without other information, the reader will snicker, backtrack, guess what you mean, and move on, now somewhat annoyed by your absent comma.

Participial phrases bow to the humble comma or risk being misunderstood. For leading ones, you need a comma to close off the modifying phrase and move into the sentence proper. For subject-adjacent placement, commas—or their absence—are used intentionally to create subtle distinctions in meaning, distinguishing between essential description and nonessential elaboration.

A participial phrase placed next to the subject but without commas makes that descriptor an essential one. Consider:

The clouds billowing like windblown sheets of satin sailed over the plains of Endor.

Here the phrase is “essential” because it’s telling us that only those clouds that are billowing (yes, like satin) sail over the plains. Perhaps other clouds lie high in the stratosphere, unaffected by the winds below. If we put the commas back in, then we know the descriptor is colorful but nonessential. That is, we understand that all the clouds are sailing, though we pause in the middle of the sentence to enjoy the charming detail of their movement and sheen.

Placement at the beginning versus the end of a sentence allows us to create a sense of sequence, the order in which the storyteller wants the reader to experience each element. With the leading version of our Endorian sentence, the author wants you to take in the image of the shape and movement and texture of the clouds first, then imagine them sailing over the plains. It’s like when a child runs up to you with a remote-control toy and says “Look! Godzilla is driving this robot car! Isn’t it cool? Now watch what it can do!”

In contrast, with a trailing placement, the author nudges you to first realize that the clouds are sailing over the plains—maybe it’s important, because a party of adventurers must cross the stormy plain—and then lets you enjoy the clouds’ beauty. In our child’s-play example, first you are startled by a remote-control car zipping across the playground, and then a child is calling out “Wow! Cool! A robot car with Godzilla driving it!”

And now, don’t you want a robot car?

Me, too!

Were the plains of Endor too much? Let’s review, using a simpler situation. Imagine a romance in which a young woman has just learned her true love is about to sail away on a ship, and she’s hurried to the docks. She spots him boarding a vessel, but it’s way down on the pier. She has to run. She wants him to see her, but he’s too far away.

Here’s a mispunctuated participial phrase: Mun-Su ran down the dock waving to her departing lover.

We know the dock isn’t saying farewell to its lover, we know it’s Mun-Su, but as readers we don’t like to have to stop and think about it. Add the comma demanded by a trailing participial phrase, and all becomes clear as we yank out our hankies: Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Of course, you could stick the participial phrase at the front: Waving to her departing lover, Mun-Su ran down the dock. Grammatically, this is correct, but we’ve defined a situation in which Mun-Su needs to get a move on first; her running is the critical action, because the lover won’t see her waving until she gets closer.

Further, what if you want to make the situation more complex? This is an important beat in the story. Surely, you want to share the character’s innermost feelings, her physical sensations at that moment: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su ran down the dock, waving to her departing lover.

Those unaware of the functionality of the participial phrase will point and cry, “You must place the phrase next to the subject.” Oh, my, but then you get: Her heart hammered like a steam piston as Mun-Su, waving to her departing lover, ran down the dock.

Poor Mun-Su is awkwardly waving, in a nonessential way, as she runs down the dock. Sadly, I’m not seeing a happily-ever-after now. Pass me the tissues.

I do hope you have enjoyed this little missive from the Grammar Police. We protect and serve … the text.

Further reading:

Clean examples and a bonus round on dangling modifiers from Grammar Monster: https://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/participle_phrases.htm

Purdue University’s online writing lab explicating plenty of complexities in participles and their phrases: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/mechanics/gerunds_participles_and_infinitives/participles.html

Don’t worry, Ha Mun-Su does get her happy ending eventually, and Won Jin-Ah won an award for her portrayal, too! https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7521898/

The Eight-Sentence ParagraphThe Eight-Sentence Paragraph

Apparently there is some sort of internet rule that all pages must have pictures. Even tweets, which were supposed to be the haiku of the internet now have to have photos attached.  Sorry, but this post has no pictures.  Wouldn’t be appropriate, as you’ll see.  Please don’t report me to the internet police.  Oh, I’ll put in some links.  Will that help?

This is a story I wrote for my son after a school lesson like to killed his interest in writing, fiction or non-fiction.  Given that he’s going to be spending the next semester writing a senior thesis in biology at UC Berkeley, I feel it’s only fair to take credit for saving his writer’s mind back in fifth grade.  Of course, his favorite writer is Charles Darwin.




Thomasina Keck sighed, looking out on the chaos of her fifth-grade class. There were too many questioners in this year’s group, too many boys who objected when girls gave them the business, too many girls who preferred to talk in class. Her hopes of getting thirty decent essays on her desk by the end of the month were fading fast. And the stupid standardized tests were scheduled for the week after that. No one would be paying attention to anything that week; the stress of Test Week wiped out everybody, including the teachers.

Mark Peterson sighed, squeezing into the back-corner desk surrounded by chattery girls. An aura of doom hung over his head. Sooner or later today, he knew, he would tell Maura or Sue to knock it off, and his name would be up there on the board. “How can I help it if the only one she hears is me?” he had moaned to his best friend Drew only yesterday.

It didn’t help that Sue kept track of his Detention Count, as sort of an anti-charitable act. She giggled as he slid into his seat. “One more time, Markie-Mark,” she said, just loud enough for Maura to hear. Eight times up on the board, and it was Detention. Mark gritted his teeth and tried to focus on laying out paper and pencils from his binder. The last thing he wanted to do this afternoon was sit in the office writing about how he could have been a better student.

Mark tipped his chair back, so he could see around Sue, and made a face at his best friend, Drew. The Evil Ms. Keck had put the friends as far away as possible. Drew pulled a face of his own, his trademarked Sick Fish impression, made their secret sign for “crazy”, and pointed dramatically to the front of the room.

When he looked, Mark’s heart sank even lower. Ms. Keck had written across the board “The Eight-Sentence Paragraph.” Oh, no. Writing time. Dimly, Mark remembered a time not so long ago, in third grade, when writing had been his favorite subject. Fourth grade had been a bummer. Not only had he and Drew been stuck in separate classrooms, but Drew got Ms. Houlihan, the teacher who had all her kids write their own books as a class project. He, Mark, got stuck with Mr. Black, whose idea of language arts was an endless series of grammar worksheets, word finds, and spelling words written three times each. Mark had only survived by writing in his journal every day while Mr. Black went through the worksheets one question at a time every morning.

Now, here was this Ms. Keck, trying to teach him, Mark, how to write a paragraph! Mark grunted, picked up his pencil, and laboriously wrote out the now-familiar list:

  1. Introduction.
  2. Reason.
  3. Explain.
  4. Another reason.
  5. Explain that reason.
  6. Another reason.
  7. Explain that reason.
  8. Conclusion.

Then Mark wrote:

Eight-sentence paragraphs are pointless. They are really dumb. It is a way for stupid people to pretend they are writing paragraphs. They are really fake. Real books have paragraphs with lots of different numbers of sentences. They are boring. No one wants to read the same thing over and over in one paragraph. Only really bogus brainless dweebs write eight-sentence paragraphs.

Sue was leaning over. She was reading his paper. That made Mark mad. He glared at her, just barely keeping his mouth shut. But she just made the peace sign at him. What a bogus brainless dweeb! he thought.

Up at the front of the room, her nose twitching with the smell of the dry-erase marker, Ms. Keck tried to pretend she didn’t see the little exchange going on in the far corner. She knew Mark was in a bad spot, but she just had to have someone between those two jaw-waggers, Maura and Sue. This month it was Mark’s turn. He deserved a little slack. So she pretended not to notice how he’d scooted his chair back so he could read the book on his lap.

“All right, now, class,” she said, trying to inject a little energy into her voice. “Can anyone remember how we build our eight-sentence paragraph?” After eight weeks, you’d think they’d have it down. A few kids raised their hands.

“Alyssa.” That girl usually had an answer.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

Ms. Keck felt like whapping herself in the head with the dry-erase eraser. That’s just what she needed—a procession of girls tripping off to the washroom.

“Alyssa, surely you can wait until recess. You just came in from lunch.”

“But I really really really have to go.”

All right then. She didn’t want to play the ogress today. But she could use her teacher power. Alyssa’s pal Katie was already standing up. The bathroom, like everything else in this cockamamie California school was reached from outside the building. So school rules were that all bathroom trips required buddies. Ms. Keck pointed to the big girl at the back of the room.

“Antoinette,” Ms. Keck called out, and the oversized girl in the back row jerked her head up from a page of doodles. “Please go with Alyssa.” Katie plopped back into her seat with a dark look.

Mark, despite his surreptitious reading, followed this little battle with some pleasure. Katie and Alyssa were the official class Popular Girls. They were fond of hanging out in the corner of the playground and calling the boys names when Yard Duty wasn’t listening. Some of the names were so rude that Mark wasn’t entirely sure what they meant.

But The Evil Ms. K. did not let her victory distract her from the task at hand. She turned immediately back to The Eight-Sentence Paragraph. Mark closed his eyes and felt a familiar feeling rush through him. First he felt hot, then cold, then all fluttery. He had a funny feeling recess would be bad today. It was always bad when he was feeling angry like this.

He opened his eyes and stared down at his book. It was the library’s copy of The Prince and the Pauper. Ms. Keck’s classroom copy was some bland kiddie version. It left out all the good stuff, like just exactly how mean and nasty the pauper’s dad was. He scanned over the two pages that were visible. Not one paragraph had eight sentences. He turned the page. No eight-sentence paragraphs here, either.

“I bet,” he thought, “there isn’t one eight-sentence paragraph in this whole dang book. Someone should show Ms. Keck.” And although he didn’t believe in wishing any more, Mark silently wished with all his heart that someone big and impressive and really convincing would really truly show Ms. Keck a thing or two about her stupid eight-sentence paragraphs.

Suddenly, he was aware that a large hand, a grown man’s hand, was resting on his desk. Half of his official eight-sentence paragraph was covered by the hand. It was rough, a little wrinkled, with short fingernails. He could see flecks of dirt under two of the fingernails.

“What’cha reading there, boy?” a low, masculine voice said behind him. Mark could feel all the hair on the back of his neck stand right up on end, as if he were a cat. Numb with surprise, he simply lifted up the book so the person behind him could see the cover.

A hand to match the first appeared from behind his head and picked up the book. The man chuckled. It was a pleased, contented chuckle, the kind you hear when your dad catches you picking up your room before he’s told you to.

“That’s not the best one. Written to make a point, as I recall, not just to tell the story.”

“Oh, but I really like it. And it doesn’t go all gloomy in the end, like Connecticut Yankee does.” Drawn into an argument, his favorite kind of conversation, Mark forgot he had the creeps and twisted around to look at the visitor.

The man was kind of tall. He had fluffy salt-and-pepper hair and a funny puffy mustache. He smelled strongly of tobacco smoke, which was kind of unpleasant but not quite as bad as the smell of Mark’s aunt’s cigarettes.

“Excuse me?” Ms. Keck’s voice struck its coldest, firmest level. “And you would be…?”

“I would be, madam, that most unwelcome of creatures, the unexpected visitor,” the stranger answered with a cheerful grin. His long, gangly legs carried him up to the front of the room in a few relaxed strides. “I’ll not be any bother. I’ll just set myself in the corner here. You just go on with what you were doing.”

The visitor wasn’t exactly in the corner when he said this. And it was hard to believe that Ms. Keck would not be bothered. He had planted himself at her desk. What’s more, he leaned back in her chair and parked his feet on the corner of the desk, right next to her Styrofoam mug full of Sharpie markers.

The class could not help itself. It gasped. It was a very soft, collective ah! And this meant Ms. Keck had to stifle her urgent need to tell this fellow off. By no means was she going to unbottle the energy of this class by giving any indication that she was bothered. She forced a smile.

“Welcome to our classroom, Mr. — ?” And she made it a pointed, direct question.

“Clemens, ma’am. That would be Mr. Clemens. I’m visiting from Connecticut, now, but I spent some time out here in California some time back, when I was in newspapers.”

“Is that so? Well, Mr. Clemends, if you can bear with us, we are reviewing our latest lesson in writing. Hassan, would you tell our guest what we have been studying?”

Hassan was usually quick off the mark. He was a short-term student, the son of a Nigerian engineer who had been brought over to the states for some big project up at IBM. Hassan had previously attended rather upscale private schools. But today, the boy was too dazzled by the tooled cowboy boots resting six feet to his left. He only turned his head slowly back to the front of the room and said, totally Americanized, “Huh?”

Corrina raised her hand and waved it vigorously. Having won the right to speak, she rattled off, “We’ve been studying paragraphs, because all our old essays are all just one big paragraph and you told us that was bad and so we have to learn to write paragraphs and the way to write a paragraph is to write eight sentences.”

“Very good, Corrina,” said Ms. Keck, actually allowing herself to feel a little pleased that the girl seemed actually to have absorbed the lesson.

The visitor shifted, making the old chair squeak. When the students’ heads swiveled his way, he asked, “And how long might those sentences be?”

“Oooh! Oooh!” It was Mayella’s turn to reach for the ceiling. “I know!”

“All right, May,” Ms. Keck said. “How long should each sentence be?”

“Short and sweet!” So that was two correct answers in a row. Ms. Keck felt a warm happy glow. Maybe things were going all right after all.

“Wonderful!” she said. “Let’s just go round the group and see if we remember our sequence. Neal, why don’t you start us off?”

Neal, a thin nervous boy who looked like he ought to be wearing glasses, coughed out, “Introduction.” Ms. Keck turned and swiftly wrote the word next to the number “1” she had ready on the board.

Oh, she was in her element now. Without looking over her shoulder, she called out the names and wrote their answers.

“Elena, what’s sentence number two?”

“Um, a reason?”

“Yes. Sasha?”


And so on through Carmelita, Edgar, Isaiah, Adnan, Paul, and Nick, until Mark could look up at the board and see his list replicated in orange marker. Ms. Keck finished her list with a flourish and turned with a smile.

“There now! I think you have it! Very good, class!”

But then there was a weird noise over at Ms. Keck’s desk, and everyone looked away from the teacher. The visitor was leaning over, tapping something on his boot. That was what made the strange thocking noise. Mark leaned over his desk to see past Sue’s bangs. It was a pipe. The guy had a pipe in school. Did he have the nerve to light it up?

But Mr. Clemens just tucked the empty pipe between his teeth. He may have had the nerve, Mark decided, but he just plain wasn’t that rude. He had claimed everyone’s attention, though. And once he knew all eyes were turned his way, the tall man stood up, grasped the edges of his vest with those big, gnarly hands, and said, “Poppycock.”

Ms. Keck made a squeaky noise. Then she swallowed and said, very coldly and politely, “I beg your pardon, sir?” She stood up very straight and stiff, somehow managing to be looking down at him, even though she barely topped five foot three.

“I said, ‘Poppycock’,” Mr. Clemens repeated, extracting the pipe from his teeth and tucking it into the pocket of his vest. “By which I mean, floptwaddle. Malarkey. Or, as the English fops so elegantly put it, stuff and nonsense.”

Ms. Keck, you had to give her credit for that, stood her ground. “And I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’, meaning ‘Have you forgotten that I am the teacher in this room?’”

But the big man was only revving up. “That’s confoundedly easy to forget, madam, when I hear you spouting such a load of tomfoolery. What in the blazes do you mean to accomplish here? The single-handed degradation of the art of American letters?” And he strode right up to the front of the room, picked up the eraser, and wiped The Eight Sentence Paragraph clean out of existence. Three of the boys at the back of the room actually burst into applause.

Ms. Keck stared at the invader. She honestly didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t leave the class to get help, not with a stranger in the room. Shouting for help could not be effectual, not in her hard-won self-contained classroom at the far end of the building.

Besides, what would she say? “This terrible man just erased my whiteboard”? She would be the butt of staff room humor for weeks to come. Nothing for it but a fight to the bitter end. She squared her shoulders, and stepped right up to the smart-alecky so-called visitor.

“Mister Clemends. You seem to have forgotten your promise. Observing classrooms is permitted. Interfering in lessons is not.” She glared up at him. He smiled down at her, with a twinkle of laughter in his eye.

“Very well then, madam. How about you provide some evidence of this spider-shaped paragraph, eh? You there, boy,” Clemens said, crooking a finger at Mark. “Let’s have a look through that book you have there.”

Mark passed the book forward, suddenly anxious that his sneak reading was now front-and-center with Ms. Keck. The visitor would be gone by the end of the day, for sure, well before she handed out detention notices.

Mr. Clemens took the book into his big hands gently, almost affectionately. “Says here,” he said with evident satisfaction, “that this book is one of the great classics of American literature.” And he slapped the slim hardcover right into Ms. Keck’s hand. “I dare you. Count the sentences in those paragraphs. Mark my words. I wager that you’ll not find even one, but even if you do, it will not read anything like this…” and he proceeded to quote Mark’s “bogus dweeb” paragraph, verbatim. Mark turned bright pink. He could feel it, like a fever. For once, he was relieved to be at the back of the room, with only Sue close enough to see. And her eyes were riveted to the front of the room.

But Ms. Keck was not giving up. “The children are learning to write essays, not fiction, sir. And you must realize that they are just beginning to learn about the structure of writing. The eight-sentence structure teaches children to organize their thoughts as they write and to justify the arguments they present in an essay.”

“Just beginning?” Mr. Clemens cast a skeptical eye around the room. “These great big boys and girls are only just beginning to write? What kind of a sorry excuse for a school is this?”

“A school with a well-ordered curriculum, Mr. Clemends. Now, if you don’t mind, we have very little time to complete our lesson today.” Ms. Keck felt herself in command again. She stepped back and glanced significantly toward the door, giving the ignorant interloper a fair opportunity to leave the room.

From his corner seat, Mark actually had a good angle on the action. He could see Ms. Keck with her head high, her chin in that commanding attitude that usually presaged a Name on the Board. But he could also see the bright gleam in Mr. Clemens eye as he took two steps towards the door, and then turned sharply, taking up position at the left side of the whiteboard. Once more, he had captured the attention of the class. Ms. Keck was totally upstaged.

Mr. Clemens reached down and picked up a marker, and pointed it at Mark.

“You there, boy. What’s your name?”

“Er…” Mark took a second to glance over at Ms. Keck. She was turning pink, too, but slowly. Would she explode? No one had ever seen Ms. Keck actually lose her temper. But then Mark realized that for now, he didn’t care about whether the teacher would break down and have a tantrum. He wanted to hear what this Mr. Clemens had to say, if only because the mysterious guy liked his book. “I’m Mark Peterson.”

“Good. Now, then, Mr. Peterson.” No one had ever called Mark “Mister” before. “Why don’t you stand up, so the other pupils can hear you? That’s better.” Mark felt a little funny standing up in the corner with everyone’s eyes flicking back and forth from him to Mr. Clemens. “Now, let’s hear from you. What’s a paragraph?”

“Um.” Mark felt desperate. Suddenly, he was sure he’d forgotten everything he ever knew. All that actually came to mind was Ms. Keck’s eight-sentence flapdoodle.

“Come along, come along. Madam, do these children also not know how to speak up?”

That helped Mark, because it revved up a little of his mad. Of course he knew how to speak up. “A paragraph,” he said, fumbling around in his head for those slippery words, “is when you have a lot to say on an idea and it just doesn’t fit into one sentence.” And he stopped to think a little more. What was even more amazing was that no one interrupted him. “But it could still be one sentence, if it has an idea that doesn’t fit with the ones around it. Or it could be really really long, like maybe a description. Or …”and his eye caught the poster of the Declaration of Independence at the far side of the room. “Or a list. Like a long series of …of…trials and usurpations.”

Mr. Clemens favored him with a grin, and turned that grin full force on Ms. Keck. It actually made her step back a little. “You see, madam? These children know what a paragraph is. Don’t you, boys and girls?” He pointed to Charlie, who sat smack in the middle of the room, because Ms. Keck could be sure he’d never say anything to anybody. “Why bother using paragraphs? Speak up, boy.”

And Charlie did better than that. He stood up, like he’d seen Mark do, and then he spoke up. Mark saw Ms. Keck’s mouth actually flap open in surprise. “Well, it would be a mess, wouldn’t it, if all the words just kept going and going? It would give you a headache.”

Then Maura raised her hand. The big man pointed and she stood up. “When the paragraphs are big, you have to read slower and when they’re short, you read faster. Do writers do that on purpose?”

“Aha!” laughed Mr. Clemens. “You have caught us out! See here, madam, you have children here who actually read books!”

Maura sat down, but she also twisted around to look back at Sue. This is so cool! she whispered.

And then Alyssa and Antoinette appeared in the door. Ms. Keck took her chance and marched across the room to meet them. “Girls,” she said, keeping her voice level and clear. “Please run up to the office for me and ask Mr. Cochrane to come over here.”   The pair were more than willing to skip class a little longer, not having been entranced by the Unwelcome Visitor.

Ms. Keck had every right to be in a panic. She had every justification to be calling in the heavy artillery. But as she stood there in the doorway, watching her students take turns standing up and speaking up, she took the time to give herself three nerve-calming breaths. No sense wasting all those hours in yoga class. She ran her eyes over the border strip on her whiteboard, which read, “Every new day is an opportunity, not a challenge.” It just one of those Classroom Inspiration decorations that ate into her meager salary. But maybe, just maybe, there was a grain of truth in that fatuous message.

Very calmly, Thomasina Keck walked up to her whiteboard. Mr. Clemends was still holding the orange marker, so she picked up the green one. She took a moment to think, and to listen, and then she began to write.

Mark’s brain had been working on overdrive ever since Mr. Clemends had answered Maura’s question. He had said “you caught us.” This guy was a writer, a real writer. Who in the class knew a real writer? Was someone’s Mom or Dad just as sick of the Eight-Sentence Paragraph as all the kids were? Did he know of any writers named Clemens? Had they heard him right?

Mark flipped over his paper and started scribbling down the names of writers: LeGuin, Konigsberg, Pilkey, L’Engle, Shakespeare, Sachar, Tolkein. No, too many women. Too many dead guys. Wait, he told himself, the bookshelf is right here. So he shifted his chair just enough to get a clear angle on the spines of the books in Ms. Keck’s classroom library. It didn’t take long.

Mark felt like his arm was going to pop out of its socket, he was holding it up so high. But Maura and Eleanor also had their hands up, and Eleanor was waving hers back and forth eagerly.

Suddenly, Mark realized that Ms. Keck was at the board, writing away feverishly in bright green marker. Mr. Clemens and she seemed to be working together, as if he were in fact an invited visitor. Every time a student spoke up, Ms. Keck scribbled something new on the board.

Mark couldn’t help being interested. He switched to holding up his right arm so he could write. Below the crossed-off names on his paper, he tried to copy what Ms. Keck was drawing. Somehow, it just looked cool, way cooler than the old eight-sentence list.

Finally, Ms. Keck tapped Mr. Clemens on the shoulder and spoke very quickly in a low voice that nobody else could hear. He pulled the cap off the orange marker, wrinkled his nose at the smell of the ink, and tested it on the board. Satisfied with the stinky tool, he wrote across the top of Ms. Keck’s green writings “The Authentic Paragraph”. Both adults stood back to admire the result. They both seemed happy. It even looked as though the Evil Ms. Keck was starting to smile.

When they turned back to face the class together, Mr. Clemens immediately pointed to Mark and said, “All right, Mr. Peterson. You have something more to say?”

Mark had nearly forgotten he had his hand up. But what he had to say was still on the tip of his tongue. “You’re the writer, aren’t you? Andrew Clements?” And he was careful to pronounce the t right before the s. “I really like your books. I read Frindle back in third grade and Drew and I made our own newspaper last summer, like in The Landry News, only we didn’t do it in school and we didn’t get famous, or even in trouble either.”

The visitor managed to look surprised, but he didn’t say anything. He just cleared his throat.

Ms. Keck whirled back around to stare at him. “Oh! I had no idea! And to think we have all your books in our class library! Why didn’t the PTA tell me you were coming?”

And just at that moment, Mr. Cochrane appeared at the door. He paused for an instant to assume what Ms. Keck thought of as his Aura of Mastery, that mixture of pose, gesture, and superior eye contact that declared him top dog in his little territory. Then he sailed into the room with a cheery “Good morning, fifth-graders!”, Alyssa and Antoinette marching behind him like a pair of half-size bodyguards.

One sharp look from Ms. Keck, and the girls fled to their seats. A word from Katie Lynn and Alyssa was back on her feet squealing “Oh, Mr. Clements! Can I have your autograph!”

Ms. Keck met Mr. Cochrane halfway. “Is there a problem here?” he intoned quietly, favoring the class with a deceptively cheerful smile.

By now, Ms. Keck could hardly remember why she had thought it necessary to send for the principal. “Not at all, Steve,” she said soothingly. “It’s just that we had an unexpected visitor in class today, and I knew you would want to be in on the excitement. Did the PTA President fill you in already?”

Mark had his eyes glued to the teacher and the principal. From here, it actually looked as though Ms. Keck was heading him off. Then a wave of oohs and aahs from the girls in front of him alerted Mark to something new. Mr. Clements was headed his way.

When he stopped next to Mark’s desk and Mark looked up at him, the author seemed even taller than he had up at the front of the class, towering over little Ms. Keck. He had Mark’s book.

“Glad you enjoyed the book, son,” he said. “Do me a favor. Try out my favorites. There’s a lot of Tom Canty in that old Huck Finn.”

Mark took the book back almost reluctantly. It seemed to spell an end to this adventure. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll check out Tom Sawyer. Mom says I should wait some before I read the big one.”

He was rewarded with one last deep chuckle. “Don’t wait too long. Huck’s not much older than you are, leastways with his life frozen in those books.” And he squeezed Mark’s shoulder as he moved on behind the row of desks.

“Children, can I have eyes front now, please?” came Ms. Keck’s commanding voice once more. Mark jerked his eyes up from the cover of The Prince and the Pauper to see the teacher pointing at a bunch of squiggles on the whiteboard. “Let’s show Mr. Cochrane what our visitor helped us work out today. Mr. Clements, would you like to…? Mr. Clements?”

There was no one in the classroom but twenty-seven students, one teacher, and one principal.

Brianna leapt from her desk and leaned out the door. “He’s gone!” she gasped. “Where did he go?”

“Now I’ll never get my autograph!” Alyssa whined.

Mark leaned back and tried to signal Drew. Mr. Clements had been heading in that direction. He must have slipped past Drew and out the door while Ms. Keck was getting fired up to show him off. Who knew a guy like that would be too shy to talk to the principal?

Up in the front of the room, Ms. Keck found herself still on balance, going with the flow. She only had to raise her voice just slightly, injecting a bit of calm and certainty. “Mr. Clements had to leave,” she said. “Our lesson did, after all, run much later than planned. But we still have our results, don’t we? Let’s take these last few minutes before math time to share them with Mr. Cochrane.”

The new paragraph-teaching approach was a huge hit. Steve Cochrane bought into it primarily because he was there when it was invented, and he used it to great effect in his political machinations up at the District Office. The kids bought into it because they, after all, had invented it. The teachers, as usual, were willing to try anything that worked.

It was Drew who named it, Mark Peterson’s buddy, the one kid who hadn’t actually had much to say that day. He’d sat there in the back of the room, stewing over all the attention “Mr. Peterson” was getting. And so he was the first one to notice the pattern Ms. Keck’s scribbles had made.

The biggest scribble said simply, “One Main Idea”. She’d circled it, so it made a big blob in the middle of the board. Then she had “Topic Sentence” in parentheses right next to the blob. The parentheses were big and swoopy, nearly meeting at the top and bottom. If you squinted, that made a blob with a head. So that made the New Improved Paragraph into some kind of creature. It was a live animal, crawling across the board.

It looked like it was crawling because there were all these words written as if they were springing out of the sides of the blob. Some made sense from what Drew remembered the kids saying in class, like “Details” and “Dialogue”.   Others made sense later, when they all copied the creature into their language arts notebooks and Ms. Keck explained why she chose certain words. For instance, “Pacing” had to do with Maura’s question about whether authors used paragraph length to get readers to slow down or speed up.

But long before he had the meaning of all those words clear, the shape of the whole thing was obvious to Drew. It was a spider, just like Mr. Clements had called Ms. Keck’s Eight-Sentence Paragraph. And he couldn’t help adding his own little observation, when he put in his suggestion for the Official Name, “It’s not really all that different from what Ms. Keck was trying to get us to do all along. The one big idea is the introduction and conclusion and all the other stuff is details and explanations. They just don’t necessarily add up to eight sentences every time.”

So Spider Paragraphs they were, all the rest of that year and for the rest of the years that Ms. Keck taught fifth grade. And she never tired of pointing out Andrew Clements’ books on her shelves at the back of the room. There were a few times that she wondered if it had really happened, such as the time she clipped a newspaper feature about the author.   He looked rather different than he had that day in class.

But Drew earned several shoulder-punches at afternoon recess that day, for sucking-up to the teacher. Only his best buddy gave him a break. Mark dragged him free of the guys and over to their personal hideout, in the shade of the bushes behind the backstop.

“Just look at this,” he said, urgently, pushing a hardcover book into Drew’s hands.

“What?” Drew protested. “I’m not on detention. I don’t have to read during recess!”

“No, no. Look here.” And Mark was eagerly flipping the pages at the front of the book, just as far as the title page.

“Oh, man,” Drew frowned. “You are in for it. This page is scribbled all over. You know what they make your parents pay for a damaged book?”

“Come on, come on,” Mark said impatiently. He bit his lip, he was so excited. He couldn’t stand it much longer. Drew was his best friend, the only one he could possibly trust with this. And he had to show somebody. “Just read it, will you?”

And Drew read it. The scribbling was actually pretty tidy for cursive writing. It looked smooth and even, as if it were done by someone who actually wrote by hand more often than by computer.

And he read it again. And again. Why was the last bit in quotes like that? Oh, yeah. Oh.

Mark watched him, tasting the metallic saltiness of the blood from his lip. Did Drew get it? Did he see?

“Oh, man,” said Drew. “Listen, I’ll help you pay the fine. No way do you want this book to ever go back to the library. Wow.” And he looked Mark in the eye. “Mind if I borrow it, sometimes, just to look at it?”

“Yeah, sure. Just don’t ever tell. Swear?”

“Swear.” And Drew handed back the precious book, with the long inscription on the title page. Mark knew this was one book he’d be keeping forever. While the end of recess bell squealed outside the hideout, he turned once more to read that loopy, elegant autograph:

To my dear friend and colleague,

Mark Peterson,

all the best of luck in the future.

Samuel L. Clemens

“Mark Twain”