Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What Numbers Mean (and What They Don't)

I handed back my seniors' first essays on Monday, and before I did, I gave the speech I always give at the beginning of the year. This is their first essay. It's not going to be their strongest. They shouldn't get too worked up about their grades, especially since they have the chance to revise to recover missed points.

But, of course, some of them saw their grades and got upset. We're not talking about Ds or Fs. We're talking about the kids who are used to writing a paper in twenty minutes and getting an A being confronted with a B and not knowing how to handle it.

The problem with throwing out As all willy nilly is that the kids are never going to acknowledge their shortcomings enough to overcome them and grow. I explained to my students that they are not the number on the paper. They shouldn't internalize that grade as a judgment of their worth as a human being or even as a writer. That grade is a snapshot of how I viewed their performance and measured their potential for growth on that particular assignment.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

This morning I stepped on the scale. 166 pounds.

Disgusting. Fat. Whale. Worthless.

Worthless.

I was doing the exact thing I asked my students not to do, judging myself by a number only. What if I reframed my thinking? Used this data as a snapshot only, a measurement tool. 166 pounds. Up about 10 from where I was 8 months ago. Down 80 from where I was 2 years ago.

I set out on my weight loss journey with a goal in mind. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer. Every day I make choices that can move me closer or further away from this goal. Will I go Zumba tonight? Eat pizza for dinner? Or a salad?

I'd like to lose 20-30 more pounds. Of course I know what I need to do to get to my goal weight. It's just a matter of putting that knowledge into practice. Anyone who's struggled with their weight knows that's not true. Losing weight is not an intellectual process so much as an emotional one.

That weird lumpy thing on my waistband is my Fitbit, btw. :D

I had my friend take a picture of me this morning in front of his amazing Super Mario Bros. bulletin board. I'm 166 pounds in this picture. I'm not particularly happy with the way I look. My legs are too stocky. My arms are too thick. But you know what? This is a snapshot. One moment in life. And, though I'm not thrilled with my weight, I am happy with my career and my family, and I am grateful that I have a healthy body with the potential to reach my goals.

It's probably too small for you to see what I'm pointing at, but it's invincible Mario. He's midair, about to reach that flag, to achieve his goal.

I'm not there yet, but I'm on my way.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Brand New School Year

"I don't have a job. I am a job." ~Jacob Bacharach, The Bend of the World

A nut job, maybe.

That's what it feels like this time of year, tap dancing in front of the students with my syllabus and dry erase markers. It's a great time of year--the fall--don't get me wrong. Everyone is still smiling. The caffeine is still working. No one is failing.

As with my writing, I'm trying something new in the classroom. Well, our whole department is. As a district, we've adopted Springboard's pre-AP program, which is carefully matched with the standards set forth in the Common Core. Although rigorous in content, it is delightfully (and somewhat maddeningly) elementary in execution, urging teachers to decorate their bulletin boards with mountains so students may envision themselves traversing up the rocky terrain of rhetorical skills. I have a word wall displaying literary and academic terms such as "claim" and "concession" and "syntax" in red and purple and blue. Every time we use a collaborative strategy, I hand a tiny checkmark to a student to attach to our running chart.

And I love it.

I'm not being snarky. I really do love it. My inner elementary school teacher is coming out, the me that led crowds of five- and six- and seven-year-olds in endless rounds of camp songs and taught them how to make flux capacitors during craft time. I'm seriously considering investing in Crayola stock at this point in my life.

All of this curriculum work has necessarily drawn my attention from my WIP for the time being. I'm sitting with 2/3 of a completed draft and swishing the plot around in my mind during my commute, considering possible character connections and ways to tie up loose threads. I know that I need to get back in the zone, carve out the time to write. I also know that, for me, opening the document after a period of time away is sometimes the most difficult step.

Gah. Okay.

*screws up resolve* *opens document*

Here we go.

~~~

P.S. Just (this morning!!) finished Jacob Bacharach's The Bend of the World and completely loved it. Conspiracies, drugs, and snarky social commentary. I've been discussing "voice" with my students and am tempted to draw some quotes from this book to show how personality can come through so strongly in writing. And his "blogarach" is awesome.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Trying Something New

I've officially reached the 1/3 point on my current manuscript.

My instinct is to keep plugging away until I have 250-300 imperfect pages to go back and tackle in the revision process. But there's this technique that Megan Miranda has been using that I kind of want to try. I remember a few years ago when she was working on HYSTERIA. She wrote 1/3 of the book, then went back and revised. Wrote 1/3 more, went back and revised. Then wrote the final 1/3 of the book, went back and revised the whole thing. Her final revisions were a lot less painful during the final round.

I think I'm going to try it.

This morning I spent an hour or so preparing revision notes for the first third of my story. It's amazing how many inconsistencies already need to be worked out. As we've established, I'm very much a pantser, making things up as I go along, throwing in whatever occurs to me. This can make for an exciting storyline, but it's not always so... logical.

Sigh.

So here I go, back to the beginning, to color in the outline I've laid down, to make sure everything connects and that my flashbacks are woven in seamlessly. It's kind of depressing to think I won't reach my word count goal as quickly as I'd wanted, but I'm thinking I'll end up with a much stronger book if I do it Megan's way.

~~~

In non-writing news, Sherlock! I'm obsessed. It's been a while since I've been so taken with a TV show. I'm only on the second season and am savoring each episode, knowing that I'll never get to go back and watch it again for the first time.

Yay, and professional development. I'll be attending trainings all next week for the new AP curriculum. Yeah, yeah, it'll be fantastic, and I am looking forward to honing my teaching skills... but... but... it's summer...


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading Like a Writer

'ello, lovelies!

Hope your summer is swimming by scintillatingly. By that I mean: filled with wonderfully action-packed books! I just got back from the lake, where I made a dent in my to-read list. The first book was Jennifer Weiner's THE NEXT BEST THING, a fun romance about a TV writer in Hollywood. I enjoyed the love story, of course, but I found the insider talk about television production fascinating. I've been reading Weiner's books since college, when I devoured GOOD IN BED. TNBT is her tenth novel, and she's as talented as ever.

Today I started listening to THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M.J. Carey. I'm not sure where I got the recommendation... I think it was from some list on Goodreads. Anywho, it's a post-apocalyptic zombie book--right up my alley. It's really exciting... like ROOM by Emma Donoghue crossed with WARM BODIES by Isaac Marion. If you're looking for pointers on how to write a pageturner, you should definitely check out this title. 

Which brings me to the point of this post. Since I'm in writerly mode, I've been reading everything with an ulterior motive... to see how the stories work. Today, in particular, I've been thinking about characters and how an author manipulates the reader to either like or dislike them. I love the little girl in THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, so I made a list of all the things that made me want to root for her. I also made a list of all the traits that made me hate some of the other characters so I might use them in my own villains. 

Another trick Carey uses really well is introducing some type of question before the end of every chapter, so you HAVE to keep on reading. This is something I thought I had down with Slide and Impostor, but I really struggled with in ELT (which... truth be told... is maybe why even I started getting bored with it). I need to step up my game.

All of this babbling is just to say that I read books very differently from how I used to. Stories are intricate machines that have lots of moving parts and screws holding everything together, which you might not see if you're not looking closely. Often times you'll find a device that might work perfectly in your own story. As I was driving today, I had to pull over and furiously take notes about an idea I had for SNSB, the YA novel I'm working on.

So... what have you been reading lately? And what have you learned?


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Golden Rule of Critique

You all know the golden rule from elementary school, right? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Great rule, by the way. Fantastic rule for life. LOVE. THAT. RULE.

However.

How-ev-er.

It's the opposite when you're critiquing someone's work. Well, not the OPPOSITE opposite, but kind of. The whole point of critique is to give others constructive, legitimate criticism. I didn't really get that memo when I started this whole writing thing way back in 2007 (MY GOD HAS IT BEEN THAT LONG?!! IT HAS!!!! WOW I'M OLD). I remember sending my first shiny, complete manuscript to this saint of a guy (Martin? You out there?) who dutifully marked it all up, gently suggesting that I take out the Spiderman references (haha, that's the only concrete thing I remember from his thorough, amazing feedback). I excitedly ripped open the envelope with this amazing dude's critique, read it, and promptly wept. Yeah, literally wept. What was he SAYING? It wasn't PERFECT? On the first draft? Woe. was. me.

This was the exact WRONG way to handle receiving constructive criticism.

Which leads me to the golden rule of critique.

The ONLY acceptable response when someone takes their time to read and comment on your work?

It's THANK YOU.

That's it. The only thing you say. No explaining, no justifying, no whining.

You thank them and go on your merry revising way.

I seemed to have forgotten this rule when I read some feedback from the lovely Megan Miranda yesterday. I broke the golden rule. She had all positive comments but suggested I break up a bit of backstory. I thanked her, of course. But then I wrote, "Did the pacing really slow down at that point?" Facepalm. Of course it did. That's why she wrote it. Megan is a goddess, and I trust everything she says about my writing. (And other things. But especially writing. Love you, MM.)

I tell you, it's taking me a while to get back into this whole process.

Anyway, that's the one thing you have to remember when receiving feedback. Well, two things. Two words. THANK and YOU.

Done.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Playground

This summer I am playing.

With words, of course.

(And also my children and our $12 silly sprinkler that was the best purchasing decision I've ever made, I'm quite certain... but this is a writing blog, so I'm sure you don't want to hear about camping trips and summer reading programs.)

The playground I'm speaking of is my kitchen island, as I pound away on my laptop and drink countless cups of coffee and listen to Alien Antfarm's "Smooth Criminal" on repeat. It's been so long since I last had the freedom to just kind of mess around with words and play. I'm hoping to finish a first draft of this new project by the time school starts in August. I expect to reach the 1/4 mark sometime today, so I'm lagging a bit behind. My deadline is self-imposed, though, so I have a little leeway.

The structure is kind of tricky. I'm switching back and forth between timelines and narrators, which can be tough. I'm going by feel. It's kind of like when I was writing Slide, and I just wrote whatever made me happy that day. The goal was to just keep throwing awesome stuff in, enough twists and turns to keep me entertained. It did create some problems when I had to revise and make sure everything actually made sense within the context of the story. I'm sure I'll encounter that issue again.

My editor stressed that she wanted me to have fun with this book, rediscover the joy of writing. I do feel that I'm doing that as I fall back into the routine of long walks with my headphones on, dreaming up backstory, scribbling notes on the backs of envelopes, getting into feisty theological conversations with my in-laws, losing myself in the momentum.

For me, it's all about momentum.

If I've got that, I've got everything.

Friday, May 30, 2014

It's All Been Done Before!

Last night my family came over for a cookout, and my brother was telling me about a story idea. Halfway through, my husband interrupted him and said, "Oh, you mean like that movie..." and threw out some science fiction movie that was somewhat similar in premise.

Disappointment shadowed my brother's face.

"Yeah," I jumped in. "But it's all been done before. I've had this conversation a million times. There are no completely new ideas. Every idea that enters your head has been informed by the thousands of movies and TV shows you've seen, along with the books you've read and video games you've played. But that's not the point. You make it new because it's you."

Then we talked about how, since he's a county prosecutor, he could do some fun, John-Grishamy stuff with the laws of his land and how people try to manipulate them. My brother has spent a lot of time world-building, but he needs to narrow his focus and flesh out the characters and plot.

I'm in the same spot, really, minus the world building.

I had a lengthy phone call with my editor yesterday, and we discussed which project I'd focus on over the summer. I could return to ELT, which seems so over-worked and tedious to me at this point, or I could start on this other idea I pitched to her last fall. Ultimately I decided to switch to the new project because I just need a break from ELT.

So, here I am, sitting with my pile of legos (characters, ideas for scenes, nuggets of backstory, etc.), ready to start building. Yeah, the premise is a common one, especially in young adult literature, but I've got some ideas of how to put my own fingerprint on it.

Truthfully, I'm excited. Since I'm kind of free from a deadline, I get to just play with my legos and have fun. It's been a hard year, but I've learned a lot and I'm ready to translate that knowledge into story.