Monday, May 30, 2011

Primer #2 on Deaf Can/Can't

I previously posted on the idea that deaf kids don't have great literacy skills. (Summary: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, same as hearing kids. They just add a few more variables to the mix.) Recently, some other ideas of what deaf people can and can't do have come up in conversation.

Sidenote: Have I mentioned that if you're calling them "hearing-impaired," you're wasting your breath? The only people I've met so far who prefer that over "deaf" have been folks who lost their hearing in old age.

First off, I'm a big believer in keeping the mindset that my students can do just about anything they want if they work hard enough. Once in a while, though, something comes up that makes me bite my lip, unsure what I should say.

I've had a couple of students who wanted to enter law enforcement—in the most recent case, preferably the FBI. Specifically, not a desk job—an out in the field, gun-toting Fed.

He hears relatively well with hearing aids, and speaks clear as day.

But ...

I can't help but think, what would it be like to be his partner in a dicey situation, where hearing the click of a gun's safety going off can make the difference? Or in a chaotic, noisy environment where they're not in each other's line-of-sight, so communication isn't clean and clear?

Or do I just watch too many TV shows like White Collar?

What do I tell a student in a situation like that? How do you combine being supportive and realistic?

This isn't exclusive to deafness. Sometimes you come across a person who's bound and determined to be a singer. They work hard for years, pay lots of money for lessons, but can still barely carry a tune. At what point do you lovingly say, "Look, hon, you have other talents. Put your energy into those and throw in the towel on this one. You can still sing along to the radio in the car."

Or what about someone who longs to be a published novelist, but just doesn't have the unteachable knack?

Of course, that gets into the argument of whether there are components of writing that can't be taught ... and that's another post.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

An "App-ic" Battle (groan)

Yeah, okay, I admit it—that title's lame. Sometimes we have to embrace our inner cheesiness (ooh, gooey!).

The apps I want to talk about are e-reader apps. Some people have dedicated e-reader devices (i.e., Kindle, Nook, Sony eReader, etc.), but smartphones and tablets seem to be taking over the world. There are lots of apps available, so I've been checking them out.

In case you missed it, I'm kind of opinionated about this sort of thing.

All of the apps listed are free (though the books you read may or may not be), and I'm testing them out on my iPhone 3GS.

The contenders:
  • iBooks (by Apple)
  • Kindle (by Amazon)
  • Nook (by Barnes & Noble)
  • Kobo (associated with Borders)
  • Stanza (by Lexcycle)

iBooks

Pros: This is by far my favorite when it comes to the interface. Looks and feels "bookish," with page-turning animation that's fast enough, yet smooth. Appearance of the text is comfortable to read. Six fonts to choose from. One-tap access to ToC. Notetaking/highlighting are the easiest of any of the five apps. Easily my favorite for reviewing my own manuscripts. I also like that I can email my ePub file to myself, and my phone gives me the option to open in iBooks.

Cons: Can't lock orientation to portrait or landscape, which can be annoying if reading in bed. You can turn full justification on or off in the main Settings menu, but this often forces things that are supposed to be centered to become left-aligned unless the publisher was very careful in the coding of the file. Also, in certain lighting situations, white text on a black background is preferable, and iBooks lacks that option. (I know, I can achieve it using the Accessibility settings, but that requires leaving the app and turning everything else on my iPhone to a negative image as well. Annoying.) Also, the iBookstore reportedly has less selection than many of the alternatives, though I've yet to come across a title I couldn't find there. (I also haven't shopped much yet.)

Kindle

Pros: This one has the white-on-black option (yay!). Interface is pretty simple. LOADS of eBooks available on Amazon, some free or cheap (often self-published), and others from big-name publishers. Formatting looks good as long as the publisher did their job right (which lots of the self-published don't quite manage, unfortunately). Also able to open .mobi file attachments directly from my email into the app.

Cons: Also can't lock orientation. No choice of font type (though size is adjustable). If there's a way to take notes/highlight within this app, I'm missing it. I know you can on the Kindle itself, but if the function exists on the app version, it's well-hidden. A lot of the books I've checked don't have a linked table of contents, and when they do, it looks like a page of hyperlinks. (Not a problem, just not very pretty.) It can be a problem when the font size I was comfortable reading with turns out to be too small to easily get my finger to tap the right chapter link. Also, if there's a way to specify what type of alignment you prefer (left or justified), I haven't found it.

Nook

Pros: White-on-black option. In fact, page, text, and highlight color are highly customizable. Eight fonts to choose from. This one can lock orientation. Can turn full justification on/off and publisher settings on/off. Note-taking/highlighting is reasonably easy, though it takes you to a separate screen to choose between a note or a highlight, rather than the small, unobtrusive pop-up menu of iBooks.

Cons: The only one I can't open my own eBook file with. As far as I can tell, unless I bought it through B&N's website, I can't read it here. Also, the margins are a bit wide on the books I've looked at, varying from just-a-touch to more-margin-space-than-text-space. The app has a margin setting with two options (narrow/wide), but changing does nothing to most of the books I have, and another book already had too-wide margins on the "narrow" setting.

Kobo

Pros: Lots of options, including page-turning style (page-flip animation, page-fade, or scrolling continuous), alignment (publisher default, left, or justified), orientation lock, and four fonts to choose from. Can open files directly from my email.

Cons: It is SLOW. The "social networking" features and "achievement badges" are distracting, annoying, and possibly contribute to the slow performance. Note-taking/highlighting are done similarly to iBooks, but the page often attempts to turn when I want to highlight (even in the middle of the page), and to highlight more than one word, I first have to get it to select one word, then use the "handles" to expand the selection.

Stanza

Pros: Black-on-white option (in fact, several regular and nighttime color themes and customizability). One-tap access to ToC. More fonts than I care to count. Ability to use your own background image and set opacity. Select alignment (full, left, right, or center ... though choosing full had the effect of forcing my centered scene break markers to the left). Slider control of margins, line spacing, paragraph spacing, and indent. Orientation lock. Choice of page-turn, page-slide, or none. Sliding your finger up and down the middle adjusts the brightness—that's kinda cool.

Cons: Took me a while to figure out how to select something to highlight or annotate. Again, it takes the text to a separate screen, and you have to broaden your selection from there if you want more than one word. Not quite as arduous as Kobo's, but more bother than iBooks or even Nook. The page-turn animation is either jerky and distracting or too slow, depending on the duration settings—just not as smooth as iBooks'. Tapping to bring up the menu options seriously clutters the screen and blocks the text with a "Chapter/Page/Percentage" text box right in the middle.


So, there it is. If someone took these pros and cons into account, they could easily make a perfect e-reader app ... for my personal preferences, anyway. (Doesn't the world revolve around me? Too bad.) For looking over my own manuscripts, I'll stick with iBooks for now, since its note-taking feature is the most comfortable. If/when I get to the point where I'm interested in buying a lot of eBooks (rather than hard copies I can keep on my classroom shelf for my students to borrow), I may reevaluate.

Anyone know of other e-reader apps I should check out? Have more pros or cons to share about those I've listed? Have I missed something in my quest for supreme nitpickiness? Let me know.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Decisions, Decisions!

I'm starting a new novel, and I'm back at the old crossroads.

First or third person?

If first, present or past?

When I started Fingerprints, I actually wrote several pages in third person before it started screaming at me that it wasn't working. Go back to the beginning, change it all to first person ... ah, that's better. It never occurred to me that present tense was an option. It was my first novel—what did I know?—and I'd hardly read any novels written in present tense up to that point.

Three manuscripts later, I began my Recently Finished New Novel. I'd learned a lot in-between, read a ton of current YA work, and felt like I almost had a coherent idea of what I was doing. The RFNN (uh-huh, that's what I'm gonna refer to it as) is in third person. There was never any question about it, partly because I needed my MC to withhold quite a bit of information in the early parts of the story. I knew from first person, it would've been really obnoxious. Also, I briefly considered telling the story from several POVs, but never from my MC's POV. I quickly decided I wasn't that crazy brave, and I think it worked out pretty well. (We'll see.)

Now, I'm about to embark on a Shiny New Novel (SNN ... yeah). For the first time, I went through this active, conscious, stressful thought process. I could see pros and cons for doing it any of the three ways (third person, first past, or first present). For about ten minutes, it felt like choosing what college to go to: This decision will impact the rest of my life!

Well, okay, not quite. Making the "wrong" choice would just mean major rewriting once I decided it was, in fact, wrong. And depending on how long it took for me to make that decision, the rewriting could be a right pain.

Worse things have happened.

In this case, I started thinking about my MC. Her personality, what it would mean to be right up in her head, or have a little distance. Then I thought about the general plot as it's formed so far (in my head)—what things might happen outside my MC's presence, how to deliver those things if I'm in first person, etc. Settled on trying first person, then thought about whether the plot warrants the kind of immediacy I always associate with present tense. In combination with certain personality quirks of the MC, I think present might fit.

So my decision is to get in there and start drafting. If I get a page or a chapter (or five) in and realize it's not flying ... back to the drawing board.

That's how we learn, right?

How do you guys make these types of decisions? How do you know whether the story will be best with one POV character, or two ... or more? I'm still a newbie (in some ways), so I want all the learnin' I can get.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Character Curve-Balls

Veteran writers know all about it, but the first time it happened to me, I was floored. A character did something I didn't expect. But wait! I'm the writer! How can something happen in my writing that's not premeditated on my part?

Fact: Fictional characters are the truth behind Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.

They live in our subconscious, and once they've burrowed a nice cozy nook for themselves ... they evolve. And once in a while, they kick down the door between subconscious and conscious, and start making demands.

Or they skip the demanding and just take over.

Sometimes they go a little too rogue and have to be reined back in. Often, though—at least in my experience so far—they make better decisions than I would if I knew I was making them. (If that makes sense...)

So I thought it'd be fun to categorize the various curve-balls my characters have thrown at me thus far.

  1. The "Don't Think You Know Me Better Than I Do" Curve-Ball This was the first I ran into. I was maybe a third of the way through the first draft of Fingerprints when a side character decided to be a snotty brat about a (planned) turn of events. Who knew she felt that way? Or that it'd end up being a critical development for the whole series?
  2. The "Let's Talk Technique" Curve-Ball This one happened after I'd added terms like "POV shift" and "head-hopping" to my functional vocabulary. I had great momentum going, writing the last quarter or so of the new project. Great hook at the end of a chapter (I think), went to a new page for the next chapter and ... it immediately played out from 2nd-Most-Important-Character's POV, not Ms. MC who'd been running the show (in tight third person) up to that point. I think there were good reasons for making the shift, and it ended up helping with a dilemma I was already worried about in an upcoming scene. We'll wait for my critique partners to let me know whether I pulled it off.
  3. The "You Think You're Done With Me?—You're Not Done With Me!" Curve-Ball Another fairly recent development. I thought the Crossing the Helix books were set as a solid trilogy. A couple ideas for short-story or novella length prequels, maybe, but that was it. Then Taz (who's usually been much quieter than Raina—no deaf jokes, please) piped up with an idea for a fourth book, launching a new arc. So it's on the list of possible projects.

Have you experienced these types of curve-balls, or others I haven't mentioned? Did they lead you to the promised land ... or down a certain path paved with good intentions?

Friday, May 13, 2011

How Hard Do You Push?

People who say teenagers are lazy, don't care whether something's good for them, don't know the value of hard work, etc. don't know what they're talking about.

Okay, I know there are teens who fit that description.

So do some adults. (That's beside the point.)

Here's my evidence: Despite the fact that they want to have fun and don't really like homework (except for Student X, who asks for extra work just because she gets bored at home), I've had a surprising number of students complain about teachers not challenging them enough.

Some teens out there who have nearly a full load of AP classes will wonder what planet I'm living on where such a complaint could be voiced. It's a very small one, where "on grade-level" is pretty much the top of the food chain. But maybe we could push them higher.

After slogging it out for nine months, they want to feel like they've accomplished something—like they've completed their first marathon ... not like they've been doing daily jogs around the local park. They may complain about how hard it is while they're running, but deep-down, many of them seem to want that push.

I have a point, I promise.

I think our characters want to be pushed, too. And they want to push back. Throw a tough situation at them, and get them to slog through it. There's a balance to maintain with believability, but don't make it easy on the little dears. Let their reactions happen in vivid high-def with surround-sound. Challenge the characters. Challenge your readers.

Problems shouldn't be solved too easily. The path of the plot shouldn't be laid out neatly with big, bright roadsigns posted every mile. Emotions shouldn't be consistently lukewarm, only half-felt. Sometimes, a character needs to have a solid freak-out.

And yes, most of this post is directed at myself.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to brainstorm some ways to torture challenge both my characters and my students.

Friday, May 6, 2011

You Think You Know Me?

No, I'm not talking about you knowing me. The title above is a question asked by our characters. But I also don't exactly mean knowing our characters on an individual level—their likes and dislikes, personality quirks, deeper values, etc. (Incidentally, though, From the Write Angle recently had a couple of great posts on that. Here's one. And here's the other.)

My question is related, yet different. A more global perspective—more demographic, maybe—where knowing our characters and knowing our audience overlap.

When you write about teenagers, and teenagers are your target audience, this is kind of important.

Everyone knows generalizations are ridiculous. You can't say, "All teenagers are like this." You can't even say 'most' are. The opposite, though—where you're pretty sure no teenager would say or do something, or act a particular way—that can happen. When teens read the story, they don't have to think, "Every character's just like me," but they should identify the characters as real ... like some teenagers somewhere.

How do you make that happen?

I consider myself lucky. I'm surrounded by the target audience throughout the workweek. A pretty good cross-section of personalities and backgrounds, too. That definitely helps. Not a possibility for everyone, though. And not a necessity.

What are the other options? Believe what TV and movies would have us believe about teenagers?

I grew up with the running joke of actors pushing (and pulling) thirty playing teenagers on 90210. So, um, no.

Better option for those who don't have a lot of teens in their everyday lives (or even those who do): READ.

Unlike when I was a teen, there are a ton of great YA books out there. Even better is the wide variety of character types you can find. They're not all perfect—some Mary-Sues, some clich├ęs and stereotypes—but if you look carefully and read (a LOT), you can get a feel for the modern teen character.

Personally, I can't imagine trying to write a YA novel without reading stacks of them first.

And if you can find some brutally honest teens willing to beta-read for you and call you out when the adult-writer is overpowering the teen-character ... so much the better.

Any other ideas about getting that reader-character synergy? Experiences where you got it right on ... or way wrong?