Friday, August 26, 2011

Math Rant: Subtraction

This will not be a rant about how even some kids in advanced math classes have to count on their fingers to subtract (or add). I'll save that one for another time. (For the record, with deaf kids "counting on fingers" is fairly equivalent to tapping on the desk and counting in your head.)

No, this rant is about the failure of someone (or several someones) earlier along the line failing to address both types of subtraction.

Two types of subtraction? Whatever are you talking about, Miss Lewis?

Yes, two types.

If you think of beginner's subtraction, what do you think of? Probably the idea of "take away." Johnny has 10 apples, and Jimmy takes 4 of them away. How many does Johnny have left?

Nothing wrong with that. Totally valid interpretation of subtraction. But it's not the only one, dagnabbit!

There is also the HOW FAR perspective. And I don't have the stats to prove it, but my gut says this is the more frequently useful angle in real life.

Take the problem 11 minus 8. Here's what I see over and over in my classroom:

*holds 11 on one hand, then starts counting off on the other*

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. I counted 8 places before 11, and the answer is 3.

Why? WHY? Even if you must count, here's all it takes:

*hold 11 on one hand, start counting off on the other*

10, 9, 8. I've arrived at 8 and it took 3 steps to do it, so the answer is 3.

To me, this says these kids were taught a procedure for subtracting and memorized it without really going deeper. So I need to dig in and do some remodeling in their heads.

Even better is when they see 11 - 8 on the paper and borrow. So the tens place becomes zero and the ones place becomes ... 11. Fortunately, that's a little more rare.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One of my co-workers (an English teacher) has a serious addiction to books. I know a lot of us think we do, but I'm telling you, most of us don't have anything on this friend of mine. In the past year, I believe she's spent thousands of dollars on books ... frequently at bargain prices.

Yeah, it's a lot of books.

That's okay, though, because it means our students have more access to current MG and YA novels than they would otherwise.

She moved into a different classroom this year, so it was a great excuse for getting organized. One day last week, she asked me and another teacher who reads a lot of MG/YA (the other math teacher, ironically) to come over during lunch and help her figure out the sub-genres for the fantasy and science fiction.

It was a fascinating experience. And really hard at times.

Some books I was already familiar with and could immediately declare as steampunk, urban fantasy, or paranormal (we meant largely paranormal romance, but left "romance" off the label so as not to scare the teenage boys away). Some books I could just glance at the cover art and/or title and could guess what it was, then checked the back cover to verify.

Those back covers are where a few less-obvious books gave us trouble. Some looked like a hybrid of more than one thing. Others fell somewhere in-between two genres. For instance, some were clearly high fantasy, others clearly urban fantasy, but there were some that didn't seem "high" enough for high or "urban" enough for urban. What are they? We ended up with a "just plain fantasy" category, which didn't quite satisfy me.

I also felt like Terry Pratchett should have a section all his own. If she'd had more books of his, I might've insisted.

I've critiqued queries before where the writer needed feedback on narrowing down the genre, and it hasn't usually been that hard. Maybe it's due to a fundamental difference between queries and cover blurbs. Even though they're similar and we're advised to use the same mind-set when writing queries, they serve slightly different purposes. Some cover blurbs are much more teasing, with much less revealing detail than a query will often have.

So when someone says you need to clearly identify your genre, it's not just so the publisher knows where to shelf your book. It's so hyperorganized English teachers can categorize it, too.

Do you have any rules of thumb for identifying the many flavors of sci-fi and fantasy? Any favorite genre-breaking examples?

P.S. Our moment of shame that afternoon: We couldn't figure out where to place A Wrinkle in Time. It seems like I must have read it once, but it was when I was too young (and read too large a volume of books) to remember details. And her copy had no blurb.

*crawls under rock*

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Guest Post: The Critecta

In the spirit of critique group collaboration, today's post is by my crit partner Caroline (Skyval on AQC).

Finding the special someone(s) who can complete your writing life is a lot like finding the special someone in your love life—damn hard. Where can you find these excellent people? How do you know when it's a good fit? What should you look for in a critique buddy? And what do you have to offer?

Our little trio met when we serendipitously crossed paths over at AgentQuery Connect, and we quickly discovered that ours was the kind of chemical balance you only find in a room full of professionals wearing white coats. We may all three end up in a room very much like that one day, but that's besides the point. Together, we're going to triple-team the concept of our Critecta—you can see RC's post at Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire, and Mindy's at From the Write Angle.

I started writing in September of 2009—much later than Mindy and at about the same time as Rachel. After completing my first draft in thirty days, declaring myself a genius, and receiving the usual “This is amazing”’s from my friends and family, I screwed up my courage and showed my MS to a brilliant writer friend. After three nail-biting days, her verdict. “You’ve got something here, but this needs A LOT OF WORK.”

So while I rewrote under my mentor’s watchful eye, I googled around, found AgentQuery, and started my new career as a lurking wannabe writer spying on the grown-up table. I’ve made many friends at AQ, but was drawn to BBC (Mindy) right off by her sense of humor, spot-on posts, and general devotion to her own craft as well as the time she spends helping others.

It’s been a long time since I had a first date. Okay, okay, a VERY LONG TIME, but finding my perfect Critecta followed that same heart-thumping, palm-sweating course. The from-afar admiring. A judgement call on compatibility. The dance of who will make the first move. The simultaneous reading hoping she doesn’t think I suck and wondering how she got into this. Then, “Does she LIKE me?” “Is she just being nice?” “How honest can I be here?” “Will she hate me if I point out this inconsistency?” “Can I really be myself?” I discovered that Mindy is refreshingly honest, down to earth, and her crit comments are like having a conversation while being doused with cold water and bleach over a cup of my favorite cappuccino. With chocolate.

Rachel came next. We both had entered the WEbook Page2Fame contest and although we had exchanged a few PM’s on AQ, we hadn’t talked about critiquing each other because our sub-genres were so different. Then in the course of the WEbook contest, we each had to rate the other’s first fifty, liked what we read, and decided to give each other a whirl around the dance floor. And what a compatibility it was! I told Mindy about Rachel and our Critecta was born.

Rachel’s technical skills are unparalleled. Mindy’s overall story-telling ability and superior voice and dialog skills are priceless. And me? I’m not sure what I contribute besides being a willing cold reader. We use Buzzword (a great tool by Adobe that allows highlighting and notes) and sometimes when reading Mindy’s work, I leave an occasional comment just to let her know I’m still reading but have been too engrossed to comment. We all contribute to the teen-speak—Mindy and Rachel both work with teens every day while I’ve actually SURVIVED raising two of ’em.

I do recall one bit of commentary of which I’m proud. In Rachel’s FINGERPRINTS, her MC is a brilliant science/techno geek (Hah! Much like Rachel herself...) and in one scene, Lareina and her equally brilliant boyfriend are working on a problem that flew over my head. But I understood it well enough to get that the characters understood it which is exactly the way it should have come off. A genius piece of writing on Rachel’s part and a scene I will never forget.

The other thing that makes our Critecta special is that we drop everything when the others need something read RIGHT NOW. When my girls ring me on email, I’m there. Mindy’s latest was so good and she was pumped late one night to get her query out. Sometimes you are just feeling it RIGHT THEN, ya know? Rachel and I critiqued her query for hours, Mindy sent it out that night, and voila, she got an agent. If I had any small part in making that happen for her, that’s all I need. I can’t speak enough about how much I’ve learned from my beloved crit partners, and although we’ve never heard each other’s voices in reality, we know each other’s voices through our writing. Priceless.

Do have your own Critecta? (Or duo, or quartet, or whatever...) How did you find them? What’s your process, and why does it work for you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Random Musings: What is Funny?

Yeah, I know. It's subjective. At the same time, I've often found myself perplexed by what some people find amusing. Something wrong with me? Or them? Or just different strokes?

When someone trips and falls, I don't laugh ... unless they're laughing (because laughter is contagious) or they're goofy and hammy as they get up.

Side story: My first year of teaching, I was trying to navigate down an aisle in my first period class when my foot caught on a backpack strap. Boom! Down to my hands and knees. (Not a total face-plant.) I laughed. My students freaked out wondering if I was okay, especially the very remorseful owner of the backpack. Those were good kids.

I'm not amused by the lewd, crude, and rude. It falls flat for me. This explains why I see very few so-called comedies.

Pranks where the goal is to humiliate the target? So not funny to me.

Lest you think I'm too saintly and need to get back to polishing my halo, I am a fan of sarcasm. But I try to be careful with how I use it, only engaging with people I know well enough. They need to know I'm being sarcastic and that I'd never mean it in a hurtful way.

Witty comebacks and good-natured verbal sparring can be very funny. Clever wordplay. Well-placed irony.

Often what I find funny is the unexpected, the things that come out of nowhere. Maybe that seems like a contradiction, because an algebra teacher getting her ankle ensnared by a wily backpack certainly qualifies as unexpected. Like I said, since I was laughing, I really wouldn't have minded if the kids had laughed, too.

I guess I don't like the idea of being amused at someone else's expense. That makes blanket statements tough, because situations that look similar on the surface might affect the people involved in very different ways.

So next time your math teacher trips and falls, ask if she's all right, give her a hand, and help her laugh it off.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Get Your Foot in the Door" Contest

Here's another contest, this one over at Gabriela Lessa's site and judged by one of four Sourcebooks editors (depending on genre). One-sentence pitch and the first paragraph (or two as long as the total is under 170 words). Checking out other entries is part of the fun, so here goes.

One-Sentence Pitch: When telepathic Ziv’s newly normal life is interrupted by a military request, she must decide if she belongs in humanity’s war, or on Earth at all.

Opening Paragraphs: Blades of grass brush my toes, forcing me to suppress a shudder. Textures like this still feel unnatural, wrong. Too irregular and unpredictable. Shouldn’t have worn sandals. Despite my physical reaction, I continue across the lawn toward school. If I force myself to endure it enough times, maybe I’ll finally get used to it.

A familiar voice calls out behind me. As I stop to let Khalil catch up, his golden-bronze skin seems to radiate the warmth of the sun back out to the world. Not for the first time, I wonder if he finds my pale face as cold as I do. The thought is interrupted by a tickle on my foot, different from the grass. A ladybug crawls across my toe, and I reflexively clench my fists, not letting myself fritz out.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Value of Expertise

I might get myself in trouble with this one.

As a teacher (and especially when I worked in "regular" ed), I've heard the following line more than once from parents: "I know what's best for my child."

Really? If so, why do we have pediatricians? Dentists? Why send children to school at all, where they'll be taught by someone who is not the parent of said-child?

We trust that doctors know more than we do about physical health. Most of us take our cars to mechanics because they know more about engines and carburetors and serpentine belts than we do. They have something we don't—EXPERTISE on the subject.

Same goes for teaching. I studied enough about mathematics and the teaching thereof to earn two degrees. I've taught just about every level of math that exists in secondary education. Perhaps I know a thing or two.

That's not to say parents (or anyone) should blindly trust the experts. But to make an informed argument, they need to gain some expertise of their own.

Ask questions. Do some research. Try a few different things—that would definitely make you an expert on what has and hasn't worked in the past. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind the advice being given to you before you dismiss it.

Wait a minute. This sounds familiar.

It applies to writing, too.

Writers often say we know what's best for our stories. In some ways, yes ... but in some, maybe not. Does the writer have the expertise to make that judgment?

An editor or agent generally does have that expertise. They've studied, trained, and had experience in the world of writing. They might just know more than we do about what does or doesn't work. (Yes, it's a very subjective industry, but some things are clear-cut enough.)

Agents are too overwhelmed to give much feedback, and most of us don't have access to an editor, nor the means to pay a freelancer. So we're left to gain at least some expertise ourselves.

How can we do that? I have friends who've been through MFA programs, and it shows in both the polish and cohesive structure of their work. But that may not be the route for all of us. There are How-To books of various types. Expertise galore, ready for us to access it.

Reading can be a great way, too, but we can't just read. We have to read on a "meta" level. When we enjoy something, we need to think about why—what did the author do right, and how? If something annoys or bores us, we need to figure out what's behind that, too.

Will all of that ever equal the knowledge and experience an industry pro can bring to the table? Probably not. But that's where strength in numbers comes in. Solid critique partners who've also done their part to gain expertise can have a huge effect on our outcome. (More on that coming on a special post August 15th.)

The bottom line is that we shouldn't plug our ears and chant that we know what's best for the story simply because we wrote it.

Well, really, we can do anything we want in our novels ... if we don't care about getting published.