June 29, 2009


Mr. Bates caught Christopher Hastings in the hallway. “Will you be joining us tonight for Math Team practice? The District Tournament is this Saturday and the State Meet is next weekend.”

For a second, CJ couldn’t breathe. If he didn’t meet Mom before Ms. Hester called her, she would not only have a thermonuclear meltdown, she’d probably ground him for the rest of the year. But if he missed practice, he wouldn’t be ready for the Tournament AND his three-day suspension would be over and Mom would just HAVE to let him go.

He held his breath then said, “I’ll be there, Mr. Bates.”

“Good,” he nodded, his long, thin nose cutting the air like a blade. “You must practice reading the questions. You don’t have time to stumble around and ask others to help you sound out words. You have been practicing your sight words, haven’t you?”

CJ nodded and hurried to his locker, got his books for next hour and got to class before the bell rang.

After school, CJ felt sick. “Maybe I should just go home, tell Mom and get it over with?” he said to Job Doe.

Job shook his head. “Listen, I know your mom’s gonna implode, but if you don’t practice tonight, there’s no telling how bad you’ll mess up on reading the Tournament questions!” Job replied. “Mr. Bates may be a refugee from a horror movie, but he’s still the only one who’s ever been able to help with your reading."

CJ nodded and walked into the math room.

Mr. Bates scowled. “On time as usual, eh, gentlemen?” He turned back to the rest of the team. After a moment, he turned to CJ and snapped, “Calculate the cube root of 4907.”

CJ fired back, “Sixteen point nine-nine.”

He nodded slowly then handed Job an envelope. He opened it, read, paused and replied, “Two of them will make thirteen ninety-five and hour. The manager will make twenty-six fifteen and hour.”


Practice wore on until Mr. Bates handed him an envelope. He watched CJ intently.

CJ felt the usual panic fill him, starting at his ankles and moving up until his ears seemed to be gurgling.

Mr. Bates said softly, “You can do this, Christopher. Stop panicking, close your eyes, open them, focus on the words and read one at a time.”

CJ did what Mr. Bates told him to do. After a moment with his eyes closed, the panic subsided. He opened them and looked at the first word, read it then moved on to the second, third…by the time he reached the end, he knew the answer. “They’ll need fourteen thousand, nine-hundred and sixty-two linear feet to complete the garage.”

Mr. Bates smiled and nodded. Jude Hildebrandt clapped her hands, smiling at him, too. CJ blushed. Eighth grader Sentury Millner gave him a dirty look. She’d never liked CJ and he was pretty sure she asked Mr. Bates after every practice if they really needed to have the “seventh grader who couldn’t read” on the Math Team. But Mr. Bates had never let CJ go.

The worked on until Mr. Bates finally said, “Enough for tonight. We need to meet in the entryway of Armstrong High School on Saturday morning at eight o’clock. AM, people. Not at night.” He scowled at Job and CJ, but his look softened until he rolled his eyes and dismissed them.

CJ and Job sprinted for the door and pounded out it, cutting across the parking lot. Ms. Hester’s car was still in its usual place. “Maybe she didn’t try to call Mom yet,” CJ shouted at Job.

“I can only pray!” he shouted back as he cut away from CJ at an angle, heading for his own house. CJ sped up and reached home moments later. He bounded up the steps and stopped. No car in the driveway! He was home free!

She was waiting for him in the living room. “Christopher. Please come here and sit down.”

Chris came and sat, hands in his lap.

Mom said, “You’re grounded. Until Monday.”

“Mom, we have a…”

“Math Tournament. I know. I just got off the phone with Mr. Bates. He knows you won’t be there.”

CJ jumped up but didn’t shout. He was too afraid he’d bust out crying if he opened his mouth. Instead, he stomped through the house, opened the basement door and slammed it good and hard as he ran to his room, sure that he heard Mai start crying because of the slammed door – and not sure if he cared right now.

June 28, 2009

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Lamentations, (St. John and More) for My Local Barnes & Noble

The Barnes & Noble I’ve worked at for the past six years closed on June 13, 2009.

Some writer reading this will cheer at the appearance of cracks in the façade of one bibliolithic giant. Others will shrug and say that B&N is just getting what it deserves for killing the independents. Still others will gather round their Kindles to beat their chests and shout, “Paper is dead! Long live the ebook!”

But I am here to say that an Asimovian intellect was snuffed out in a neighborhood that could ill afford to lose an more positrons. Sandwiched between a food court and Famous Footwear and Lenscrafters and a line up featuring Firestone Tires, Pearle Vision, MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, IHOP, Applebee’s and Meineke Muffler; B&N was the only place you could buy something besides the latest James Patterson, TIME magazine or The National Enquirer from anything but a grocery store rack.

The neighborhood is now brain dead and it’s all B&N’s fault.

And your fault.

And my fault.

I’m not going to belabor the point of guilt except to point out that intellect will die where it is not nurtured. The neighborhood of the mall that held “my” B&N is diverse and made up largely of welfare to middle middle class blue-collar families who hold service jobs and often teeter on the sharp edge of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.

Even so, my B&N sold books. Not-so-many CDs and DVDs because the corporate prices were obviously too high and there was Best Buy a few blocks away. We sold not-too-much food – for obvious reasons – and only a bit of coffee because there were Starbucks, Caribou, Burger King and McCafé within walking distance. No, this store sold BOOKS. We sold them well enough to keep the store open for seven years despite the fact that over that same seven-year period, the mall died. Mervyn’s was the first main-line store to vacate its massive block of space. Others followed: Victoria’s Secret; Bed, Bath and Beyond; Hot Topic; Old Navy; the Pretzel Factory and JC Penny moved out until it was just Sears and B&N anchoring the once busy mall.

After Macy's on the far end closed its doors, B&N gave up the ghost and announced it was closing as well. There was no protest, no editorials, and no “save-the-mall” campaign. Customers sniffed, said they were sad and added, “I’m not surprised.” It’s interesting to note that the previous comment was race-independent. Why were the diverse people of such a diverse community “not surprised” that this intellectual icon was jumping ship like rats off the Lusitania? Some even commented that they were surprised it had lasted as long as it did.

Why? I believe that the answer is that those who love the written word had chosen – and regularly DO choose – to pull away from those who do not care about the written word. They retreat rather than become missionaries of the written word.

We disciples of the written word might borrow the lessons of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Christian missionaries. Instead of pulling back when the heathen pressed close, the Church sent more missionaries. Those who were not called to the front lines sent money to support those who were. The men, women and children on location assessed the needs of the people they were called to serve and established hospitals, clinics, schools, dug freshwater wells, introduced new agricultural techniques and established libraries after codifying spoken languages. Only after they had helped increase the quality of life did they turn to the spiritual message that shaped their own lives and drove them. Of COURSE there were abuses! But most missionaries didn’t make the mistake many non-Christians make in accusing them of destroying cultures: they didn’t assume that the indigenes were stupid and unaware of what they were doing when they accepted the missionary’s God.

When we see bookstores in poor neighborhoods, instead of “tsking” and wondering why anyone would put a store “there”, we might make an effort to patronize the store and support literacy efforts in nearby schools, clubs, libraries and youth groups. Instead of fearing for our lives if we were to be “caught out in the dark” at “that” store, we might go on line and check the crime stats for “that” store and the one we regularly go to at The Nice Mall – we might be vindicated or stunned depending on our viewpoint.

I suppose then, that this might be a call to mission, a “God call”, so to speak, for those of us who read the written word in whatever form – paper, Kindle, online, text or twitter. It is a call to take up our reading material, to “go and make readers of all nations, bibliotizing them in the name of whatever writers you are passionate about, teaching them to absorb all that they can: and lo, books (in some way, shape or form) are with you, even unto the end of the age.” (With apologies to St. Matthew, Chapter 28, verses 19-20)

June 21, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: LIN OLIVER: Enjoy Your Creative Life While On the Road

I’ve heard writers say that time “on the road” is wasted time as far as writing goes. But not Lin Oliver!

Now, I may not have taken this the way Lin Oliver intended it – I can imagine that she might mean that because you’ve written books and were invited to speak or teach somewhere, you should enjoy yourself. I agree, 100%.

I suppose she might mean that I should spend the time revising or writing new chapters without the interruption of the phone and WITH the addition of room service. I agree 100% there, too!

But when I read this, I have taken it to mean that I am free to use my imagination while on the road. I can use new experiences and the sensory input of a new place in ways that my usual digs would never provide. For example, while teaching at a Young Author’s conference near St. Cloud, MN, I discovered that the city maintained a flower garden on the Mississippi. To tell you the truth, I went there not expecting it to be a “big deal”.

I was quite wrong! The Munsinger and Clemens Gardens along the river are stunning! With “color gardens” (where the flower blooms are all nearly the same color), a Formal Garden, the Rose Garden and many others, the place is both beautiful – and has an historic angle as well. A fair portion was constructed during the 30’s as part of the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression…

I know these Gardens will make their way into my writing some time, if not soon, then when the situation presents itself in a story or book, I’ll use the Gardens or ones like them, as a setting.

It doesn’t stop there, either. As I write for young people and I teach young people at the conferences, I find that characters form out of the kids I see. For example, I was eating my lunch alone in the courtyard of a university in southwestern Minnesota, when a young man strolled in from the building. I looked up, noting his presence and went back to reading and eating my lunch. Shortly, this gangly youth made his way to the concrete bench I was using as a table and commented on the weather. After chatting amiably for several minutes, he sat on the bench, tucking his long legs into a semi-lotus position. We talked about reading, writing and life for the next forty minutes.

He will make it into one of my stories someday.

The “creative life” I enjoy while on the road embraces new characters and places I’d have had no opportunity to meet otherwise. This past spring, I gained the image of a fascinating young man; three years ago, a unique setting was impressed in my mind.

Who knows what will come out of the mixing of the two? In fact, as I read this, something is stirring...something involving a young, unemployed man who no longer wishes to be "on the dole" during the Great Depression and who has a creative genius hidden beneath the grubbly shirt and pants of a field worker...

I can’t wait to find out the story!

June 14, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: GUY STEWART: Teaching Writing NOT the English Class Way…

I’ve been teaching writing classes for sixteen years.

I’ve been teaching science for as long as I can remember.

The two do NOT mean the same thing!

See, teaching science is my job. Don’t get me wrong – I love teaching science! I’ve been in the classroom for 27 years. I’ve taught science from astronomy to zoology, with no exaggeration; and special education to gifted and talented. But science isn’t my passion – writing is my passion. I love to write, and because I was born a teacher, I love teaching people to write…though I suppose “coaching creative people to better writing skills” would more clearly explain what I do.

To that end, each spring I teach a rotating set of writing skills at Young Author’s Conferences from Thief River Falls, Minnesota “up North” to Marshall, Minnesota on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, “down south”. I teach gifted and talented kids at West Suburban Summer School in a class called Writing To Get Published (incidentally I teach a class called Alien Worlds, too…but that’s another story). In that week-long class, I run through a number of kinds of writing (poetry, personal essay, scripts and fiction) as well as skills like revising, idea generation and then critique the work of the kids in the class. In a fifty-five minute session at a YAC, I focus on one skill. This year was learning to write flash fiction. I’ve also mentored adult writers through the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference contest.

I love teaching writing, and I’ve even been paid for it.

In fact, if you subtract out what I’ve been paid for TEACHING writing from what I’ve been paid for the PUBLICATION of my writing…um…hang on, let me get the calculator here…so, if I square the sum of the fees and subtract the cost of postage then remove the tax write-off for office supplies, then carry the two, divide the remainder by…hmmm…I come up with the answer…

I haven’t been paid for my WRITING in the past four years. I have been paid well over $20,000 for my TEACHING of writing in the same period of time (excluding the volunteer work I do acting as a writing coach for several people.)

So what does that mean?

I’m not sure, really. I have trouble reconciling me teaching writing with not getting published. The silly aphorism, “Them that can, does; them that can’t, teaches” floats like a malevolent ghost at the edge of my mind’s vision and I am ultimately afraid that it’s true. I shake myself hard like a dog and remind myself that in that same four-year period, I’ve graduated two kids from high school and a wife and one of the kids from college. I’ve corrected 36 months times 600 students worth of homework and projects. I’ve worked a part-time job at Barnes & Noble. I’ve finished and revised (three times) a 110,000 word hard SF novel, plus written two teen novels. I figure I can toss in ten to twelve short stories written and submitted, plus a couple of articles polished and put out as well.

Prior to those four years, I had thirty-five paid publications over a ten-year period, almost all in major markets like ANALOG, CRICKET, CICADA, and a book with CSS PUBLISHING.

Again, what does that mean?

Ultimately, I’m not sure except that I will continue to write and submit books, articles and stories – and I will continue with “coaching creative people to better writing skills” as long as I can.

Any comments would be welcome! You can leave them here or send them to my email: gstewart75@hotmail.com

June 8, 2009

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 3: DaneelAH -- Malacandra

In case you haven't figured it out yet, I've been exploring Biblical history by projecting it into the future. This piece is the first part of a story inspired by the Book of Daniel. I've also looked at Stepan On Mars ( http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2009/05/slice-of-pie-stepan-on-mars.html) and Paolo On Mars (http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2009/02/possibly-irritating-essay-paulo-on-mars.html ) and if things continue as they have, I'll probably look at Esther on Mars, maybe Ruth on Mars and a few others...shoot, this is FUN!

They’d been under arrest for two years when the mayor of Malacandra finally agreed to see them. DaneelAH had decided that if the meeting went badly, he’d kill himself.

He tugged his new gray tunic down more tightly, smoothing it over his flat belly. The other three – HanAH, AzAH, and MishAH had their own rooms at least. When they’d first been grabbed by Malacandra’s mayor during the Great Riot in the Martian capitol, Bradbury City, Mayor Turin had placed them in protective custody in a heavily guarded barracks deep in the city. He’d taken almost fifty Artificial Humans, mostly young adult men and women, though there’d been five little kids. He’d fed them all the best food and let them have the best virtual games. They’d been meticulously groomed…for something.

“There’s an awful lot more to groom now,” DaneelAH muttered. Except for the four of them, the rest of the prisoners were pudgy projections of their former selves. He ran his hand over his smooth head. Sometimes he wished he could grow head hair. But all Artificial Humans were DNA edited to be bald. “OK, that’s it!” He took a deep breath, held it then turned away from the mirror and crossed the tiny room. The door slid open and he squinted in the bright morning light of Malacandra’s enhanced Sun. As an agricultural dome, it rated a Solar concentration coating which was his concern. He frowned. The dome was getting dusty because hourly cleaning had been reduced to daily cleaning – because the bottom had fallen out of the Martian soybean market, which was NOT his concern. Exactly.

“Daneel! You look great!” MishAH flounced out of her room in a stunning yellow sundress. It was only just city government regulation.

He smiled anyway, “No wonder people are lining up to move into Malacandra!” he exclaimed. HanAH stepped out from his room right then, dressed in the charcoal gray uniform of Security, scowling as usual. A long-time muscle-head, his uniform barely contained his biceps. DaneelAH laughed and added, “You look mean enough to bust up the pot smugglers all alone.”

HanAH held on to his suspicious frown for a moment longer then broke into a grin. Smiling, he looked like a bald, tame grizzly bear.

AzAH was the last to come out. At the moment, she was distracted, her fingers making complex motions in the air.

HanAH said, “She’s working? I thought we were supposed to have the morning off to meet with the mayor?”

MishAH laughed. “With the Translation Project in full swing? AzAH’s practically one of the program directors.”

HanAH’s smile lapsed into a scowl again. “She’s an artificial human – she can’t hold a director’s position. Article Sixteen of the Martian Constitution.” He shot her a pained look. “You should go back and review your Civics lessons.”

MishAH bristled but DaneelAH intervened. “We should leave now. It’s fifteen minutes by slidewalk to the mayor’s mansion.” AzAH’s fingers stopped moving and she looked at DaneelAH and walked up to HahAH, taking his arm.

For a moment, he kept his scowl, but patting AzAH’s hand, jerked his chin up a bit and turned toward down the corridor to the main thoroughfare.

“You have to cut that out,” DaneelAH said to MishAH.

“He wasn’t this stuffy in Bradbury,” she said.

“He’s got responsibility now,” said DaneelAH, taking her elbow and steering her after the other two.

She sniffed, adding, “That's not responsibility -- that's just following orders. Like he said – he’ll always be a detective. ”

DaneelAH smirked. “We’ll see about that.”

She shot him a look, but they reached the slidewalk and they all had to concentrate on stepping from the outer, slower ‘walks to the faster ones. Once they reached the highest speed, the crowds were too heavy to let them talk. They were also standing in a sea of head hair – in Malacandra, it belonged mostly to people descended from either Scandinavia or West Africa. There were some fascinating colors and textures. DaneelAH ran his hand over his head. MishAH noticed and nodded.

Once they reached the Mansion Sector, they stepped back to the slower ‘walks until they were moving on their own again. By then, Security had marked their progress and a pair of Human officers met them. One nodded and said, “Come with us, please. Mayor Turin is expecting you.”

They followed in silence. It was the first time they’d seen him since their capture at Bradbury. Since then – except for the fact that they’d been under arrest – he’d treated with them through his assistants and given them everything they needed to be happy, including an education in the broader history of Malacandra and the rest of the Solar States of Earth. They’d all chosen a specialty under his orders and studied and were apprenticed to someone in their field.

They stopped in front of the Mayor’s Mansion and Malacandra Security handed them over to the Mayor’s personal security. None of them spoke much, either. They entered the Mansion, were scanned them and passed off to the Mansion staff. Standing in immense lobby at the desk of the Mayor’s human personal assistant, the four artificial humans waited while she looked over their dossiers on her wide hardscreen. Suddenly, a pair of carved, Martian stone doors opened.

Three men and three women hurried out and swept past the assistant’s desk, DaneelAH, AzAH, MishAH and HanAH.

A small crystal vase flew out of the room and shattered on the floor. From inside, a voice shouted, “Come back when you can speak in plain English!” The doors started to close, but not fast enough for them to block muttered curses and imprecations.

The assistant looked up at them, offered a pained smile and said, “The Mayor hasn’t been sleeping well lately.”

To be continued...