Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Slangifying Your Story

In the realm of YA writing in particular, slang of any kind is tricky, tricky business.

Slang and common expressions can make a teen voice feel more authentic. As someone who spends every workday listening to teenagers talk, I guarantee they're not pulling exclusively from an official dictionary.

Then again, slang is—by its nature—fleeting. A few bits and pieces work their way into the long-term vernacular, but most are solidly dated. Just think about "groovy," "bodacious," and "fresh." You just had certain decades flash through your mind, right? Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that instant association is what you need.

More often, I'm thinking that's not a good thing.

Let's go back to my students for a minute. There are some who spout a near-constant stream of "totes obvi" and "YOLO." (The one who says YOLO the most keeps doing it out of context. I'm not sure he really gets it. Or he likes to be annoying.) And here's the thing about super of-the-moment phrases. It only takes about two minutes for the kids to sound like they're trying too hard.

And it's even easier for an author to sound the same way.

So how do you deal with it? Stick to the more long-standing forms of teen-talk? Use a strict rule like one super-trendy term per fifty pages? Only let a side character use them, make it their "thing"?

Honestly, I don't know. I'm curious what you've found works, either from a writing or reading perspective.

I tend to work around it by writing science fiction and making up my own slang. Mindy McGinnis thinks I'm good at it. Hopefully others will agree.

Monday, October 29, 2012

One Term Down, Three to Go

First quarter ended last Friday at my school. Naturally, the past two weeks have been filled with kids desperate to get their F to a passing grade ... or their A-minus to an A. And in order to keep on top of the late work, make-up work, and occasional piece of extra credit, I set aside the quizzes that won't count until second quarter.

This means now I have large stacks of quizzes to grade. I knew this would happen. I was aware of the consequences for my decision.

Still ... it kinda sucks.

It's okay, though. I think at least a few kids figured out that desperately trying to raise their grade at the last minute is a lot more work than just keeping up through the term. As we start the new term, I'll try to get the message through to a few more.

Now that I've got my feet under me, I'm also hoping to keep things a little more organized from here.

Here's hoping.

Friday, October 26, 2012

"Teasing Your Friend" Doesn't Make It Funny or Okay

Warning: A rant is about to ensue.

It's nothing new. I imagine people have been tossing "joking" insults at their friends since the dawn of time, and especially boys. You've probably heard the type:

"Joe, you're such a girl." (Having two X chromosomes is an insult?)

"Hey, Larry likes guys." (Besides it being untrue, what's your point?)

"You're so gay, Jeff." ("Gay" as a vague catch-all synonym for stupid, clumsy, goofy, or whatever would actually fit the situation? ... Must not kill the children with my laser-eyes.)

That's when it's tame, and I'll let your imagination fill in when it's not. I'm sure there's some psychological/sociological explanation about male posturing, establishing dominance, or some other testosterone-fuelled phenomenon.

It drives me nuts.

What can I do about it? Probably not much. I try to take the extra moment for a stern "None of that in my classroom," but it's always met by the same thing:

"I'm just playing. Joe and I are buds. He knows I'm kidding."

The kidding aspect of it doesn't make it okay. I try to get that across (and get the class back on track with math, please-oh-please). It's very trying-to-empty-the-ocean-with-an-eyedropper. When I briefly mentioned it on Twitter the other day, I added the hashtag #CallMeSisyphus.

Super frustrating. I'm not stopping anytime soon, though.

Here's one reason why, aside from the fact that such "insults" are offensive, annoying, and unintelligent.

I know a guy, former student, now an adult, who's come out. I imagine him sitting in my classroom years ago. I imagine those stupid comments getting tossed around every single day. Back then, I was a new teacher who barely knew how to keep thirty teenagers from killing each other for forty-five minutes, much less having her ears tuned in to the random banter. So, I really don't know if it's gotten worse, or if I was just too stressed about not knowing what the heck I was doing to notice.

But even assuming such comments weren't lobbed at him directly (best-case scenario), I imagine how hearing it over and over made him feel.

Possibly he would have felt a little like I do when I hear that first type of insult: "You're such a girl," etc. Kind of like I feel when someone tells a guy they throw like a girl, and I want to respond with, "Yeah? Let me show you how to kick like a girl."

The feeling is that even if it's in so-called teasing, it holds an inherent assumption that being female or being gay or whatever is automatically inferior. Not worthy of respect.

Never mind that we're human beings. All of us.

And I know I've said it before, but I don't like this "looking-down" attitude on any front. Not Republicans talking trash about Democrats. Not atheists saying the religiously inclined are idiots.

You don't have to agree with someone to show them respect. And it's really not that hard.

Now, if only I could convince a few fourteen-to-fifteen-year-olds of that.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don't Make Readers Take Your Word for It

Has this ever happened to you? You're reading a book, there are a lot of good things going for it, you're even enjoying some things ... but you're just not feeling it. You're not even sure what "it" is. You just know you're not feeling what you're supposed to.

More specifically, you're not believing what the characters feel. Something about the story as a whole isn't authentic.

That's the best word I can think of for it. Authenticity. It's quite possibly one of the most difficult things to establish in our writing.

Or maybe it just is for me.

The thing is, it's a characteristic of the piece as a whole, with a mix of different variables going into it. You can't deconstruct it completely any more than you can break a baked cake down to its constituent ingredients.

We have to try, though. We can't just learn from CPs and beta-readers that the gut-feeling authenticity isn't there and throw up our hands. "Oh, well! So much for that story. Guess I'll try another one." We have to think about what might be factoring into it.

So I've pondered, and here are the first three that occurred to me.

  1. Show, don't tell. I know! How dare I trot that tired thing out? But think about it. "Telling" is, at its root, asking the reader to take your word for it that your character is angry or heartbroken or whatever. You can't show everything (even trying would be a pain), but try to show enough.
  2. Motivate actions (and reactions). If you've been reading my blog for a while, you might remember my little theory about Front-End/Back-End Motivation. (If not, may I shamelessly suggest you read that and see what you think?) Lack of authenticity may stem from readers not buying into your characters' choices.
  3. Voice, voice, voice. If the voice is (or becomes) jarring, stilted, or otherwise not right, it knocks the reader out of the story. It becomes just words on a page, and the characters lose their realness.

Okay, that's what I've got, but I'm sure there are other things that contribute to the problem. Any ideas?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Parental Priorities

This one's not exactly about math. It's kind of about math, but more education in general.

I'm not one to judge right and wrong ways of parenting. A lot of things have to depend on the individual child's needs, the family's background and values, etc. But I have some observations about different types of parents.

There are parents who apologize profusely for their kids missing school for legitimate reasons, like medical issues. Then there are those who check their kids out of class to go get smoothies.

It's not like either extreme is always great or always terrible. Sometimes the kids who miss for doctor's appointments aren't great about getting caught up on what they miss, and sometimes the smoothie-getting kids are.

Still, I wonder what message the smoothie-run parents are trying to send. That they're a cool parent? That sometimes you have to give yourself a mental-health break? (I can agree with that on occasion.)

What message are the kids getting? Like I said, those kids are often okay with making up what they miss. They're usually kids who clearly believe school is important, at least to some degree. But what about other students, who know why their classmate misses a class or two in the middle of the day? What does it say to them about where their priorities belong?

I don't know. I do know that with math in particular, if you miss a component or two and don't catch it up, you risk being very lost on concepts that follow. If you don't solidify basic equation solving, for instance, you'll have a very hard time with most other topics in algebra.

Most parents do the best they can, especially considering the bull-headedness of some teenagers. Some teens already understand the importance of their education, even the parts that don't immediately seem relevant. Others take a while to figure that out.

I just hope parents aren't delaying that understanding.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Epiphany of the Week: Hot Girls Can Be Smart

Not my epiphany ... that of a 9th grade boy. A very girl-crazy 9th grade boy. ("Aren't they all?" you say. No, not really. Not like this.)

The student in question was in my room, discussing with another student how astounded he was to discover this older girl (cheerleader, no less) is super-smart and able to help him with his math homework. I said (uh, pretty sarcastically), "Incredible, isn't it? A hot girl and she's smart?"

He could've really dug himself into a hole then, but he managed a save. "I know! But then I thought about it, and there's [names several girls in his grade who fit in the cute-and-popular category and have high academic achievement]."

It struck me that teens can be a little one-dimensional in their thinking, but they can also add dimensions to their view pretty easily when they let themselves.

It parallels the experience I often have when students find out I write fiction. "But you teach math!" Like they're these mutually exclusive things. Like I have to fit neatly into a stereotype.

Then there was the time a student reported that one of the English teachers had said English is harder to teach than math. (I hope she was joking around. I wasn't there, so I don't know.) I teased back that he should tell her we can switch places for a day and we'll see what happens, because I know a thing or two about English.

Really, though ... why must we try to fit people into these boxes? The analytical side of me can see the appeal of simple categorization. It keeps things organized. Much easier to split things into hot blondes (in the blonde-joke sense) and ugly nerds, math people and English people, jocks and band-geeks.

Real people tend to have overlap somewhere, though. More often than not, a lot of overlaps. That's trickier to wrangle with, but makes life a lot more interesting.

On a quick writing note ... I'm always glad to see characters that reflect the kind of multifaceted-ness I see in real-life teens. Sometimes, though, I find that one or more of those blended aspects lacks authenticity. The cute, popular girl who reports she loves math/science and is good at it ... but doesn't show any of the thinking processes that go with skills in those areas. Not that she can't still make stupid decisions—all humans do sometimes. But saying she's "that kind of smart" isn't the same as behaving like a person who really is, with all the complexity that includes.

I guess that makes another case for "Show, Don't Tell."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Spell-Check is Your Friend. Seriously.

Long before I ever thought I was creative enough to write any kind of fiction, my relationship with the written word held a particular distinction. I was English Student of the Year in 9th grade. That was the year of sentence diagramming (among other things).

Let me tell you, I diagrammed sentences like nobody's business. I don't remember a lot of the specifics now, but it did give me a pretty solid hold on some tricky grammar, comma rules, and the like.

That was me and English for a long time. The Technician. I wrote perfect essays that were exactly what my history teacher wanted to see. I wrote killer research papers and aced my technical writing class in college.

These skills still come in handy now. Just ask Mindy McGinnis, whose comma splices I've helped hide from her editor.

In the effort to develop my inner novelist, though, I try not to dwell on those technical aspects. I even make a conscious effort sometimes to let them go, allow myself to make "mistakes" for the purpose of flow and voice. (This was easier once my linguistics professor taught me the difference between Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar.)

That aspect of my journey has helped me ease up on the "Fix It!" button every time I see a grammar or spelling error. (Okay, the reaction's still there. But not as violent as it used to be.) I'm sure other novelists are very in-the-creative-moment, especially when drafting, and leave those things to be cleaned up in editing/revising. To stay in that creative zone, they may even turn off the spell-as-you-go feature that pops up with those red/orange underlines when you misspell something.

Awesome. Whatever works for the individual writer.

But some seem to forget that we do need to run a spell-check eventually.

I know, spell-check isn't perfect. It's annoying when it dings every one of your proper names, or made-up words for another language, or even perfectly spelled calculus vocabulary. And it won't catch misspellings that happen to be proper spellings of other words. It won't save you on a "phase-vs-faze" debate.

I've heard some say they don't worry about such things, because that's what editors are for. Sure, editors should be able to catch the errors so subtle, your eye glides over them. But leaving flat-out wrongly spelled words that five minutes with spell-check could catch?

That makes it look like we don't care. It doesn't look professional. It doesn't look like we respect the agent/editor/other human being we're sending our work to.

So, my plea for the week. Save someone a headache. Show them you care.

Run a spell-check. :)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Catching Your Glitches

We all make mistakes. Ideally, we learn from the mistake and don't make it again. Realistically, there's a certain type of mistake that we make over and over again. I'll refer to that as a glitch.

Some glitches we're aware of. I have plenty of students who see "three squared" and automatically think the answer's six. But they know they have that tendency, so they catch themselves and say nine before I say anything.

Other glitches sneak around, leaving us oblivious until someone else points them out. Sometimes they turn into the first kind after they've been pointed out. But sometimes they stay rooted, refusing to be corrected.

Students who continue to combine unlike terms no matter how often it's marked wrong. Or who say X plus X is X-squared.

It's not just in math, I'm sure. We fail to shift from second to third gear properly with our manual transmission. We mix up "lay" and "lie" or "affect" and "effect."

With the math, at least, I suspect part of why the glitches keep happening is because the student doesn't understand the foundation of why it's a mistake. Attempting to memorize arbitrary rules without understanding their basis is rarely effective.

Unfortunately, students are often so used to thinking of math as a matter of memorizing arbitrary rules, they don't shift into looking for meaning. At least, not easily. All I can do is try to open their eyes to the hows and whys behind the what-to-dos.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Transition from Cooties to Couples

Yes, I'm back with more observations from Project People-Watch: Junior High Edition.

For the last several years, I've been at a school where I've mainly been working with the older high school kids—anywhere from 16 to 21 years old. Even when I had 8th and 9th graders, it was such a tiny school that the dynamics weren't always what most teenagers would consider typical.

Now I'm back in a large public school. I have one 8th grade class (smaller, honors) and five 9th grade classes (large, full spectrum from overachievers to strugglers to I-don't-cares). Those 9th graders are top of the heap at this school, but would have been among the youngest I taught previously, so it's an interesting perspective.

The most interesting thing, regardless of class, is to watch what various students (and groups of students) do during a stretch of free time at the end of class.

The 8th grade class has The Great Wall of Gender Divide running down the middle of it. They chose their own seats, and it's girls on the right, boys on the left. During free time, the girls will talk—about play practice, homework and events in other classes, whatever. The boys will play cards.

One exception is a girl and boy who sit next to each other on the divide. The girl will alternate chatting and joking around with him, and chatting with the other girls. Don't know the history there, but the pair seem like they've been friends for a long time.

The only further mingling is a type I saw just this week after they all finished their tests. Several girls asked if they could draw on the whiteboard. (Last day before break—why not?) One of the girls favors the in-state rival over the more local college team. The boys take exception to that. So when she drew her team's logo on the board, it turned into a bit of a battle.

The rest of the girls continued doodling funny faces and writing names in fancy scripts.

Then there are the 9th grade classes. During free time (or even homework time), there are four major groups, with a few people who float between them.

First there are the girls sticking with girls, much like my 8th grade class. They gravitate to their friends in the class and chat about things from the silly to the serious.

Then there are the boys who stick with boys. Again like my 8th graders, card games are often popular, or some of the puzzles I keep in the classroom. They chat, too ... more likely about sports, video games, and such.

The other two groups are those where girls and guys intermingle, much more commonly than with my 8th graders. My gut tells me there are two distinct groups here, but the difference is hard to describe.

I guess I'd say one group is the Flirts, and the other is the Friends. That's not to say there isn't flirting and crushing going on amongst the Friends, but it's somehow less obvious, not the be-all end-all of their interactions. With the Friends, I see more genuine talking, less posturing.

With the Flirts, one glance tells me this guy is trying to be clever or smooth as a way of showing off, trying to impress the girl. The girl is laughing and acting cute as can be to keep him at it.

At any rate, I don't see anything like the Flirts in my 8th grade class. Aside from the one exceptional pair, I don't see the Friends there, either. Maybe because of its size? Just the dynamics of the people in there? Or the age, and what a difference a year makes?

Some possibilities to keep in mind if I ever write characters quite so young.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Yes, You Can Love Books TOO Much

Heresy, you say?

Hear me out before you brand me a traitor to writer-kind.

With a lot of kids, I'm thrilled when they want to read something that's not required by a teacher. At my last school, we had a small amount of dedicated reading time every day, regardless of what class they were in at that time. Sometimes I had a class of reluctant readers, and any time they didn't put they books away the second reading time ended, I didn't mind letting them carry on a bit.

There are kids at the other end of the spectrum, though. Kids who always want to read. Some of them know how to prioritize. They pay attention to lessons, work hard to get their tasks done so they'll have a bit of free time to read at the end of class.

That's fine by me.

But some kids don't have that self-control. Some will read straight through class unless someone steps in and stops them.

That someone would be me. The big, mean, book-closing teacher.

Forgive me, my fellow bibliophiles, but kids need more than books ... they need math, too. Among other things.

Any suggestions on helping certain students see that need for balance?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Power of "I Think I Can"

I have several students who struggle with math. That's okay. Perfectly normal. My job is to work with them and help them improve anyway.

By the time they get to me, these struggling students have often come to the conclusion that they can't do math, period. So a big part of my job is to undo that damage.

Not. Easy.

I'm not a magician, so it doesn't always work. But if I can find one thing they're successful with, reinforce it, and find another ... sometimes that sets off a chain reaction. They think maybe they can do a few things in math. They're a little more willing to try, a little more patient with their own mistakes.

They stop saying, "I can't." Instead, they ask questions.

And that can build momentum that'll take them far, long after they leave my class.

Other times, the barrier remains. They've given up. They refuse to believe. (So I try a little harder, try other ways. Jury's out on whether it works in a lot of cases.)

How often in our own lives do we let "I can't" become self-fulfilling? Not that saying, "I can," instantly makes all possible ... but it certainly doesn't hurt as a first step.

What helps you get past that, to begin to believe it might be possible?

And when the larger obstacles come, what helps you keep going?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Doting on the Doodlers

A while back, I posted a piece of "fan-art" that was included as part of a beta-reader's feedback. More recently, I touted the awesomeness of my former student Lynn, who draws awesome things like Mindy McGinnis's Hatchet Cat.

Today, the two are combined. Lynn read the manuscript for Stitching Snow several months ago and offered this marvelous depiction of the main character, Essie.

That's my girl.

And I continue to be in awe of people who can draw.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Do You Call Your Writerly Acquaintances?

We writers are connected in many ways. Some have pretty straightforward labels.

The Writer-Friend. Not that they need to be set aside from friends in general, but they meet extra qualifications. They know the lingo like "querying" and "form rejection" and the accompanying angst.

The CP (Critique Partner). Like the Writer-Friend squared, they don't just wish us well in the trenches—they help us get the right gear, find the best paths.

The Author-with-a-Capital-A. The rock stars of the writing world. The multi-published, best-selling authors. Those people the rest of us can't quite bring ourselves to equate as being in the same profession we're trying to weasel our way into.

Then there are other connections, a little more nuanced, and that's where the labels get a little head-scratching for me. Most specifically, writers with an agent or publishing imprint in common. I often see such writers referred to as agency-sisters, for instance.

But what about the guys? My agent represents several male writers (and illustrators!), but I've never seen anyone say anything like, "Yeah, Jimmy's my agency-brother."

Is it because as females, we're more likely to establish and define relationships in this way? For guys, are we just all writers and that's enough?

Does it matter? Probably not. But this is the way my brain works.

I guess I'll just stick with the labels for myself ... a happy AQCer and member of the Literaticult.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What Your Math Teacher Probably Didn't Tell You

First off, this isn't about the ubiquitous question every math teacher faces: "When are we ever gonna use this?" (The answer: You may not use an individual skill from class. Then again, you might. Few of us end up doing exactly what we thought we would as kids. More importantly, while learning the skills, you're developing the problem-solving, critical-thinking part of your brain, and THAT you will always need.)

With that out of the way, here's what it is about. Sometimes math teachers or textbooks make us do things in an overly demanding way, or using arbitrary rules. It's not always the times students think. There are good reasons for doing things the long way before learning shortcuts.

Here's one example where I think we get away from the spirit of mathematics. "Put your answer in the form of a fraction unless there are decimals in the original problem." Um, okay. Why?

What if I have a problem involving money, using only whole numbers initially, but the answer isn't a whole number? It only makes sense to give that answer in a decimal. That's an obvious case, but what about regular bare-numbers equations? What's so wrong with saying 0.5 instead of 1/2? They're equivalent.

So I've gone for a rule that's a little tougher. It means I have to watch for multiple correct answers when I grade work, and it means students actually have to think a little extra. I want the exact answer, not approximations, except when (a) the instructions say to round to a specific place value or (b) the context dictates an approximation is the only way it makes sense.

The reason? That's how answers get used in the real world. You use the form of the number that makes the most sense for the situation.

Kids need to know how to think, how to reason, how to work something out. When they get used to memorizing arbitrary rules ("Do it this way because that's how the teacher said to do it"), they don't delve in for deeper understanding.

That's what I think, anyway. Are there other rules your math teachers made you follow that didn't seem necessary to you?