Friday, November 30, 2012

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

No, I don't really believe that.

There are times, though—like this week—when it feels like there's some truth to it.

Earlier this week, a woman was shot and killed, allegedly by her adopted teenage son. I knew this woman because she was also the foster mom of a boy I taught for several years, who's now attending college.

I didn't know this woman well. I saw her and her husband and talked to them maybe half a dozen times during the years I taught that boy. They made a strong impression, though. Loving people with some cowboy flavor who opened their home to several boys, such as my student.

They even kept him on until he graduated from high school, by which time he was nineteen years old. I'm pretty sure they didn't have to. But they did.

This woman wasn't perfect, I'm sure. Who is? But I often marveled at my student's character, despite some hard circumstances throughout his life. His work ethic, and his positive outlook. If you looked at his history on paper, you probably wouldn't expect him to be the kind of person he is.

Much of the credit goes to the young man himself, but I think he'd agree his foster parents' influence played a role. And I know he's heartbroken by what happened this week.

Maybe it's true that no good deed goes unpunished. If it is, maybe it doesn't matter.

We'll keep doing them anyway.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I Don't Review Books

In the past week, I've read two books. This is very exciting, considering how little time I've found to read lately. I'm hoping to dive into more from here on out (and you can take a peek at what I've read and what's on-deck over here).

I use Goodreads to keep track of what I have read and want to read, but if you take a look over there, you'll see I don't post reviews. I don't even assign stars, generally.

Why not? It's something I've struggled with a bit. As a reader, I definitely have opinions. Maybe too many sometimes. And I've seen how it can look when authors get super-critical of other books—not pretty.

But authors should be allowed to voice their opinions, right? We're readers, too—maybe first and foremost. At the least, most of us have been reading longer than writing.

There's validity to that, and I would never tell others what to do on that front. Here are some of my thoughts that led me to just refrain from public reviewing.

Who would I be writing the reviews for? If my friends know I read a book and ask what I thought, I'll tell them. So I would post for strangers, for the random internet shopper. Why should a stranger care what I think of a book? (I admit, this is a weak reason, but it speaks more to my lack of motivation about writing reviews.)

Writing thoughtful reviews takes time. I can barely find time to read the books in the first place.

But giving stars on a site like Goodreads hardly takes any time, right? True, but if I hate the book and give it a low star rating, I wouldn't want to click one star and leave no reason why.

Maybe I could only give stars/reviews to books I really like. But I have a lot of friends with books out—everything from self-published to Big-6-published. If I review some and not others, it's easy to infer I didn't like those others. It gets iffy from there.

These reasons probably don't hold much water for anyone other than me, but it comes down to something simple for me. I'm a book-writer and a book-talker, but I'm not a book-reviewer. At least, not for now. I imagine I'll make some exceptions, and maybe I'll change my mind someday. Until then, this works for me.

How do you feel about authors reviewing books? Do you have a policy of your own? What considerations went into it?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

If I Say "Voice," You Run Away Screaming, Right?

Today we have another installment of "RC attempts to sum up an AQC chat for those who couldn't make it."

The topic this week was Voice. When it was suggested, Mindy McGinnis (BBC) said, "That's pretty much impossible to discuss. Okay, let's go for it!" (I may be paraphrasing.) She also shared an experience that pretty well encapsulates why it's such a maddening topic for writers.

Mindy was watching an agent/editor panel at a conference. A writer asked for a definition of voice, and not to say you know it when you see it.

The agent grabbed the mic and said, "I know it when I see it."

So what is this elusive thing called Voice? Mindy did some leg-work and found this from agent Natalie Fischer:

Language is diction: the word choices, the literal language of nationality. Style is the form: short, choppy, flowing, poetic, lyrical. Voice is the personality, the person behind the words that makes the reader forget about the author, and dive into a life. It’s what you remember about the characters long after you’ve forgotten their names.

And then there's this from agent Rachelle Gardner:

It’s the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write.

Okay, that's all well and good. How do we do that? Again from Ms. Fischer, her thoughts on what not to do:

I think the biggest mistake is to try and show voice through style or language. Using heavy slang or methods like “Southern dialogue” are annoying, not effective. Voice is a point of view, a perspective that is unique to only one person. It has emotion, history, a sense of place, and senses. These things are shown in unison with style and language, but not reliant on them to be clear.

Those are some words from the experts we used as a launching point. As usual, we went in a lot of directions from there. I'll try to hit a few highlights.

Character Voice vs Authorial Voice
Characters each have their own voice (should, anyway). Here you're primarily talking about dialogue. Then there's your voice as an author. That shows throughout the whole work (and to varying degrees, across works). Narrative voice can be a combination of the two, particularly when you're writing in first person.

Good vs Bad
This is tricky. Personally, I think there's a somewhat objective level of has/doesn't have distinctive voice. Beyond that, there's the more subjective voice you do/don't find engaging/enjoyable/compelling. Several times in chat, someone said, "I read this bestseller, and it had NO voice." Or, "This book had no voice, but I still read because of the plot/characters/something else."

I haven't read the books they're referring to, but I strongly suspect those books have distinctive voice. That reader just didn't like the voice.

So is it possible to have a story without voice? Tricky, but I think so. I've seen it, primarily in some student writing. Nothing technically "wrong," but it reads dead. The words are getting in the way of the story's life. That's okay—they're still learning.

Should We Worry?
One AQCer posited that we don't need to worry about Voice. We need to worry about everything else—grammar, structure, plot, characterization, etc. If we do all that, the voice will be there.

Some of us had a hard time deciding whether we agreed or disagreed with that. Certainly all of those things play into establishing the voice of a piece. But personally, I believe voice is greater than the sum of its parts.

Worry isn't all that productive, though. So worry? Not so much. Be mindful of? Definitely.

Can We Learn It?
This is an argument that goes back to my Authonomy days. There are those who believe voice can be taught, and thus learned. Others (and I tend to fall in this camp) think voice is innate.

So you have it or you don't, and if you don't, too bad? Not exactly. I just think of it less as a taught/learned thing and more a matter of development. We all have "voice potential" inside us. We need to develop it, find out how to uncover it. How to get those pesky words out of the way and let the story live.

As usual, I probably missed several salient points, but that's the gist of the discussion. Do you have any further thoughts on voice?

Monday, November 19, 2012

How Does a Math Teacher Tell a Kid How to Write?

I know, it's Mathematical Monday and this is only loosely mathematical, but it's the question on my mind at the moment.

I like showing my students that people don't (and shouldn't) fit into neat little pigeonholes. I like encouraging them to be multifaceted and be their entire selves in my math classes. But there's a drawback. Kind of.

As my students find out about me being an author, a few will ask me to read something they wrote.

That's cool, in theory. At my last school, we were such a small, tight community that it wasn't really a problem. But now, I find myself unsure how to respond.

After I read it, what do I say?

"That's great! Keep at it."

"I like how you describe the forest. Just watch your run-on sentences."

"Great start. Here are some things you might consider to tighten the narration and give us a stronger point-of-view."

Do I just give general encouragement? A tip or two? Or deeper feedback? Sometimes I just don't know, because I'm not the English teacher.

If I were the English teacher, I'd know what kinds of things we'd already discussed in class. The things kids want to show me aren't always for class assignments (some are actually doing NaNoWriMo at the direction of our librarian—which is awesome). But when it is an assignment, maybe there's something specific they're focusing on. As the math teacher, I have no idea.

Perhaps I'm worrying too much. With so many students, it's hard for me to get to know individuals well enough to know what kind of feedback they want/are ready for. Not like my last school, where I had super-tiny classes and often taught specific students for up to four or five years.

If anyone out there is an English teacher, can you answer this question? If you had a novel-writing math teacher in your school, how could she best support your students' writing efforts, without undermining any methods you're using in class?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hating on Hate

It's really frustrating to feel like I'm being blasted on one front and trying to keep students from blasting away on the other.

Election season seems to put people in one of two camps—the excited camp, and the "Is it over yet?" camp. (I imagine a lot of people flip-flop between the two.) I definitely fell in the latter this time.

My school is in an area that leans heavily to one side of the political spectrum. Then there's the too-typical teenage response to the "different"—tell them they're wrong or stupid, or just make fun of them. (I went on a bit about that not long ago.)

Some kids were able to reasonably say why they supported one candidate over another. That was always great to see. But others were more, "This one's evil, that one's stupid, you're an idiot for supporting him." So I did the usual putting out of fires, making it clear that people are allowed their opinions, and you don't attack them for it.

At the same time, I found myself feeling (indirectly) attacked, particularly in my online life. Vocally supporting your candidate? That's cool. Describing how you don't agree with the other guy? Also cool.

But throughout and after the election, lines were crossed here and there. Lines between "this is what I believe" and "anyone who believes differently is an idiot and should jump off a cliff." Not usually in so many words (although some came close), but often with a clear undertone.

One statement from the Walls of Facebook, by a so-called "Friend":

"Who would want to make a Mormon the most powerful man in the world?"

Let's imagine we replace the word "Mormon" with one of the following:









Should I let my students get away with saying any of those things? Yet when adults are the ones spreading such hate throughout social media, is it any wonder kids don't see a problem with doing the same?

By the end of election night, I felt beaten down, torn up, and truly sad. Not because of who won or who lost, but because of the hate I felt ... even from some (not all) of those who were spouting "Let's all work together (by being more like me)" hours later.

I know these attitudes aren't true of all, or even most, on either side. But there are enough of them to really get me down sometimes.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to think of new ways to convince a certain fifteen-year-old that calling girls sluts is never, ever okay.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Fall'-ing for Apocalyptic Fiction

As some of you may remember, last spring I mentioned the release of a short-story anthology titled Spring Fevers. Elephant's Bookshelf Press has put out their second offering in their seasonal series—The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse. I just did some tech work on the first anthology, but this time, I have a story included, titled "Trust."

Apocalypse? Sounds kind of dark and depressing, right? Nope. At least, not always. There's a full range of stories in this collection. Some intense, some twisted, some hopeful, some bittersweet ... and wait 'til you see Mindy McGinnis's one-act play. Ever wonder what would happen if God got His hands on an iPhone? Mindy has.

It's available in both Kindle format and paperback. Hopefully more eBook formats will be available soon. (If you don't have a Kindle, remember that you can read Kindle books on many electronic devices—tablets, smartphones, computers—using the free Kindle app.)

We'd love to know what you think. And when you think of the end of the world (literally or metaphorically), what kinds of stories come to mind?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Grades Aren't Given—They're Earned

"Ugh, Mr. Peabody gave me a D-plus."

"Miss Lewis, you should just give me an A."

These are among the more annoying statements I hear in my classroom, and it's a particular word that sets me off.


A lot of students have this attitude of teachers giving grades. One student said a teacher ruined their sibling's high school graduation because of the bad grade a teacher gave that sibling in ninth grade. (It meant not qualifying to wear the fancy gold cord with the graduation regalia.)

What? Really?

Okay, I'm sure there are teachers out there who are spiteful and mean and evil. I'm even more sure there are teachers who are really difficult to learn from.

But by and large (and certainly in my case, I hope), teachers don't give grades. Students earn them. I just do the accounting, verifying what they've earned.

Part of me hates that I have to grade at all. I like looking over student work to see what they understand, but I hate assigning a numerical value to it, figuring out what all those numerical values together mean and assigning a letter to that.

The students who think I give grades are part of the reason we have to use them. They only care about that letter on the report card, and in their minds (much of the time), it's arbitrary. If I could rely on every student to learn for the sake of learning, and to commit to doing the work necessary, there'd be no need for grades.

In a perfect world ... maybe someday.

For now, I'll keep with the response I've been using.

"Miss Lewis, you should just give me an A."

"Okay, I will ... as soon as you earn it."

Friday, November 9, 2012

I Need a New Category for Myself

I'm not particularly girly. While I wear makeup and the occasional skirt and high heels, I've never had a manicure. I don't get excited over things like shopping sprees and spa getaways. I'm not crafty, and I don't knit. If people are coming over (I can't say I'm having a party, because I can't think of the last time that happened), the last thing that occurs to me is decorating or making a cute centerpiece.

But I'm not a tomboy, either. I played soccer when I was a kid, and I don't mind watching football games with my mom now and then. Like I said, though, skirts and heels and makeup aren't foreign to me. I never had that comfortable buddy-buddy relationship with guys that goes along with the tomboy stereotype.

Yes, I just answered my own question. These ideas of "girly" and "tomboy" that I'm working off of are stereotypes. That doesn't change the fact that I see/meet people who seem to fit in with one or the other, and I don't quite identify.

What do I identify with? Seems to depend on what group I'm with at the time.

When I'm hanging out with authors, I often feel like the math-geek. At least, that's the role I seem to play. And that definitely plays into my author side, with the whole science fiction angle and everything.

When I'm with other math teachers, I feel like the weirdo who actually knows how to spell and talk about things like "tightening prose" and whatnot. (Doesn't mean there aren't others who know, too ... but they tend to keep it to themselves.)

Am I normal in this? Is that what we do? Feel like the trait that most defines us is the one least like those around us at that moment?

What does all this rumination imply for the characters I write? Hopefully that even when a character has some traits that fall solidly within a stereotype, they also have other layers adding nuance and complexity.

That's what people are, right? Complicated and hard to categorize.

In other words ... I'm normal and can stop worrying now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Primer on Critique Partners ... and Maybe Dating

Last Monday, we had one of our weekly chats on AgentQuery Connect (9pm Eastern, come for great writerly conversations). The topic was critique partners—choosing and using them—which seems to have been popular around the blogosphere in the last week. Nevertheless, because some AQCers missed the chat, I'm going to go ahead with a revamped recap.

Being critique partners is a lot like establishing and maintaining other relationships. In fact, it's a lot like dating, when you think about it. Here are some Dos and Don'ts.

  • Don't commit to marriage before the first date. Swapping full manuscripts when you hardly know someone? Maybe it'll be a match made in heaven ... or maybe you'll be stuck in a 300-page pickle. It's not a bad idea to get to know someone and their writing before making a big commitment. Try swapping a chapter or two. See how it goes.

  • Do communicate your needs/expectations. Chances are, your new critique partner isn't a mind-reader. If you don't mention that you don't want grammar nits pointed out, you can't really complain if that's all your partner focuses on. Worried about plot holes and consistency? Character development? Historical authenticity? Say so.

  • Don't tear your partner down. This can be a tricky one, especially in conjunction with the next. The point of a critique partner is to help us improve our work. But if it's all, "Fix this, fix that," we can get discouraged to the point of not moving forward. When something works well, be sure to let your partner know.

  • Do be honest. In my opinion (well, all of this is my opinion), if all we want is cheerleading, there are other ways to get that. Critique partners need to do more for each other. That means pointing out when we feel there may be issues in the manuscript. Pretending problems aren't there won't make them go away.

  • Don't feel locked in. If the relationship isn't working, you can walk away. There's nothing saying that great writer-friends will necessarily make great critique partners. Amicable break-ups are possible. It's okay to play the field until you find the right match.

  • Do have an open relationship. Er, I guess I could mean this in a couple of ways. It can be good to have more than one critique partner—long- or short-term. Some might be more suited to certain manuscripts. Some you might rely on for their particular strengths (which likely match up with your weaknesses). But also, within a single relationship, be open and receptive to what your partner says. If a critique is a little hard to hear, step away for a bit, then come back to it. Your partner may be right or wrong ... or their feedback might trigger something entirely different in your mind that'll make your story better.

Another thing to remember is that the early days of critique partnering are like the early days of dating. You'll likely need to be on your best behavior as you get to know each other's styles of critiquing, figure out what works for you.

With any luck, someday you'll be like Mindy McGinnis and me. I'm pretty sure we're at the "old married couple" stage where we can pretty much say anything as bluntly as we'd like. We know the love is there, and we know our own weaknesses, so there's no need to tiptoe around. ;)

What tips do you have for making a great critique-partner connection?

Monday, November 5, 2012

If You Need Help, THEN TAKE IT!

I started something new last week. After I finish the lesson portion of class and it's time to start on the homework, I have the kids move around. Those who feel like they've totally got it, ready to rock head to the back and work quietly. Those who are still feeling a little (or a lot) fuzzy come to the front, and I work with that smaller group on a few select problems from the homework.

The first day I did it was interesting. My A1 class had several takers who were like, "Dude, yes, help!" Most other classes, I had to twist some arms to get anyone to join in.

Second time around, though, more people joined in. I think some kids were like, "Uh, yeah, that actually looks helpful. Might be a good idea."

It's nice, because in those smaller groups, the struggling kids are more likely to ask questions, stop me when they don't understand. I'm liking it. I think I'll stick with it.

Still, some kids who I know really ought to join in are heading to the back and working with their friends instead. That'd be fine if their friends were helping them understand, but based on the daily quiz results and homework scores, it's more likely their friends are breezing through the assignment and distracting them with random chatter instead.

It makes me mad at the struggling kids for not prioritizing. It makes me mad at their friends for not recognizing how much harder they're making it.

I mean, I get it. Social pressure and all ... not wanting to "look stupid." I wish they'd notice that several popular kids are joining the extra-help group. Then again, an outward self-confidence often coincides with teen popularity. (Comes with its own problems, often under the surface, but that's another post.)

I've only been through it two times with each class so far. I could force it, telling specific kids they have to come to the front. I'd rather not. For now, I give a strongly worded suggestion that if they didn't get the homework done, struggled on the daily quiz, or got a bad grade last quarter, they really ought to join us.

Hopefully the more we do it, the less stigmatized kids will feel.