Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Vow to Be Discriminate

Okay, I realize that title doesn't sound like a positive thing (especially if you overlook the "be"), so let me explain. If I am not discriminate, I am by definition indiscriminate. And that is something I do not wish to be.

I enjoy supporting fellow writers. Exchanging feedback on query letters, discussing the ins and outs of the business, offering chocolate when the rejections come in, swapping manuscripts for critique ... all high on my agenda. I'm happy to support with more than my time, too. I've bought several books (some hard copy, some eBook, and some both) over the past couple of years by writers I know. Often these are in genres I don't normally read a lot of, but in these cases I know the writer personally, and I know that the quality of writing is up to snuff, so I put my money behind them. These have been both traditionally published and self-published books.

But I will not support only because the "I know the writer" half of the equation is met. For one thing, I know too many, and half of them are self-publishing these days. Even at 99 cents or $3, that can add up.

More importantly, that "writing is up to snuff" part is critical. Reviewing books publicly can be super-sticky for a writer, especially one who's still seeking the ever-elusive agent and publishing deal. My even-handed criticisms might be based more on my decades of experience as a reader, but it just looks bad to have even a hint of "bashing" others.

So the only vote of support I might have for some books comes in the form of currency and/or downloads. If I don't believe a book is worthy, for whatever reason, I think it's okay for me to withhold that vote. Certainly, I don't think I do myself, my fellow writers, and most importantly readers any favors if I contribute to artificially inflating the rankings/visibility of a book I don't believe in.

The brunt of this falls on the self-published works, it seems, because there are so many among my acquaintances, and because the self-publishing process has an inherent reduction in quality control. I am not anti-self-publishing. I'm still actively considering it for myself. But I've always been picky and demanding when it comes to books. Super-picky, some might say. (Mindy McGinnis has her own way of putting it, as those of you who know her can guess.) That pickiness isn't going to change (and shouldn't, in my opinion) just because I've talked to the author.

So I'll continue to check samples and listen to the opinions of those I trust. If I believe in the work, you can bet I'll put everything possible behind it. I've already pre-ordered the eBook for Sophie Perinot's debut in less than two weeks, and I also plan to hit a brick-and-mortar store release day to buy a hard copy ... maybe two. (Who has a birthday coming up and likes historical fiction?) I'm already earmarking money for several copies of Mindy McGinnis's debut novel (which I was privileged to read and critique pre-querying), and that doesn't come out until Fall 2013.

Am I too picky? Am I missing the boat of Authorial Solidarity? Have you ever found yourself stuck between a writer-friend who wants your support and your integrity that says, "This really wasn't ready to go out into the world?" How do you handle it?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hating Math

Last week I discussed my deep and abiding love for calculus. I understand not everyone feels this way, and in fact, some people don't even have the slightest hint of positive feelings toward any kind of math at all. If you're one of those, this post is for you.

I'm not going to tell you it's wrong to feel that way, or that you have to change your mind. (I will ask that you try to refrain from saying, "Ugh, I hate math!" around children who are still forming their own opinions. Can't tell you how many times I've had a student who tells me, "My mom/dad hates math and thinks it's stupid and doesn't think there's any point to learning it." Thanks for sabotaging my work, Mom/Dad.)

The people I know who hate math usually fall into a couple different categories. Some hate it because they really struggle with it no matter how hard they try. Sometimes a learning disability is involved. Sometimes nothing's been diagnosed, but it's clear their mind just isn't wired for numbers.

I recently had a student like that. Brilliant artist and some strong writing skills, but math just Would. Not. Click. Bless her, though, she kept trying and was incredibly patient, no matter how many times she had to erase and rework a problem. And the thing is, she did make progress. Not at the same pace as her peers, but she improved, because she didn't give up. She admitted she didn't like it at all, but she hung in there.

I think most of the math-haters I know, however, fall into the second category: those who had at least one really bad math teacher, usually at a critical juncture in their math education. This often happens either at fractions in elementary school, or a little later somewhere around pre-algebra/algebra, when things start to get more abstract.

What's the key to teachers not facilitating the mathematical downfall of their students? I think a big part is recognizing that many students are likely to hit a wall a those junctures, so the teacher needs to be extremely flexible. One way of explaining a tough concept isn't likely to work for everyone. If a kid isn't getting it, you have to look for another bridge to get them across.

Even bigger key—don't make the kid feel stupid for not getting it right away. Kids are good enough at doing that on their own. They don't need our help.

Many times, I've had adults watch me teach or listen to me discuss a lesson and say, "If I'd had a teacher like you, I probably would've liked math."

Best compliment I can receive, but I don't really mind the hating math. My goal with the haters in my class is for them to hate math a little less. Even if they still hate math, I try to make sure they like the class. Because if they do, their minds stay a little more open, and even if they don't want to admit it, they learn.

Are you a math-hater? If so, which category do you fall into? Or is there another reason I haven't accounted for here?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lessons Learned from Shasta

Warning: This post is uncharacteristically sentimental. If you're as much a cynic as I usually am, you may want to avert your eyes. And if you've ever said of a pet, "It's just an animal," and meant it, you might as well navigate away from this page right now.

In Fall 1997, my family got our first (and so far only) dog, a lab-husky mix we named Shasta. At over fourteen years old, her health had been deteriorating recently, and this past Tuesday, we made the decision to let her go.

As I reflected on our time with Shasta, I realized there are a lot of things we should learn from her. I'll share a few of them here.

With ears like that, how could she NOT listen?
#1 How you start is only a small hint of how you'll end up.

The day we got Shasta, we had to go to PetSmart to get some particular supplies, so we brought her along. I could cuddle her to my chest with one hand. Hard to believe her puppy size was smaller than her adult-sized head.

#2 Listening is a skill that must be learned.

As first-time dog owners, training Shasta had a bit of a learning curve. She didn't really want to listen at first. When she wanted to do something, she wanted to do it, whether we told her differently or not. Eventually, though, she figured it out. She wasn't perfect, but most of the time she did all right.

#3 Sometimes you lead; sometimes you follow.

Related to training/learning ... When she was young, Shasta really lived up to her husky nature during walks. She wanted to PULL you along the whole way. (We often wondered what would happen if we strapped on a pair of rollerblades and took her out, but decided it would be unwise.) Usually, she'd settle down a bit partway through the walk and stay at our side. As she got older, we were the ones coaxing her along.

Miracle: Not Shasta tolerating Chia, but Chia tolerating the dog.
#4 Don't believe all the stereotypes.

Shasta grew up in a house full of cats. She got along with all of them (although they didn't all get along with her). To Shasta, the cats of the family were friends. On the other hand, she did chase any cat that wandered into the backyard.

#5 There are some things you just can't be.

Shasta really, really wanted to be a lap-dog. It was apparent for all of us, but especially with my dad. She wanted to climb right up there and get cozy. But considering her size (60+ lbs), it wasn't going to happen. Likewise, I'll never be a supermodel. And that's okay.

Sadie and her dog. Or Shasta and her kitty.
#6 Don't be afraid of unusual types. You might be best friends. (Sidenote: Remember you're setting an example.)

Remember the cats of the family? Sadie is the only one who came along after Shasta, so she grew up with a dog around. They loved each other. Sadie would get up on her hind legs to rub up against Shasta's chest (Shasta being MUCH taller than she is.) Related to the sidenote, I swear Sadie copied Shasta's walk.

#7 Do your own thing; it's okay if a few others think you're crazy.

Again showing her husky blood ran deep, Shasta loved the snow. When there were a few fresh inches of powder out in the yard, she'd bound through it, burrow her nose under it and fling it in the air. Then she'd curl up in it like it was the comfiest bed ever.
I could never look that peaceful while lying on snow.

#8 We all have faults.

Shasta's fur looked short, but it was thick, and it shed like you wouldn't believe. Not her fault—she obviously couldn't help it—but my family really should have bought stock in lint-removal devices of all types years ago. Between her and the cats, it was hopeless.

That's apparently only half the fur from one brushing session.
#9 Dream big.

You've all seen a sleeping dog dream, right? Their paws twitch like they're running, their little yips. You get the feeling they're living that dream.

#10 Sometimes you resist things that end up being good for you.

When we first got Shasta, she wasn't crazy about her leash. We'd be trying to get her safely across the street, and she'd twist around to grab the leash in her mouth and play tug-o-war with us. Not good.

This one had a flip-side from the human angle, too. My sister wanted a dog all growing up, but Dad said no because we didn't have a fenced-in backyard. In '97, we moved, and had the fenced-in yard. So Dad had to (grudgingly) give in.

In the end, no one loved Shasta like Dad, and it was mutual.

We'll miss her.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gung-Ho About Grammar

If I've ever critiqued or beta-read for you, you probably noticed that I can get nit-picky with grammar when I want to. For me, it's just part of my OCD, perfectionist nature. I see an error, and it's like being jacked into an electric fence unless I do something to fix it.

Okay, maybe not that bad. But I used to be almost that bad. When we did diagramming sentences in ninth grade, I didn't understand why so many of my classmates were complaining. For the most part, it was easy, I thought. What's the big deal? My brain just seemed to be wired for it.

(Before anyone starts sending me hate-mail, realize that at the time I also thought creative writing was a kind of magic I would never possess. So, you know, some things balance out.)

When I started teaching deaf students, I really began to understand just how wacky English grammar is. No wonder even those of us who hear and speak the language every day screw it up! My students will master one rule only to discover there are twenty more exceptions they have to figure out.

Even with my super-grammar-skillz, there are a few things that still hang me up. I only just got a solid handle on the whole lay-vs-lie thing. (Related concepts, and the past tense of one is the present tense of the other? Whose idea was that?)

Further-vs-farther? I know the rule. Farther is for distance; further is for degree. But I swear I've come across a few places where I could argue it fits either condition. (And of course, I can't come up with an example right now. If I ever do, I'll throw it in an edit or the comments.)

"If it were" vs "If it was"? I remember being told if it actually happened that way it was one, but if the circumstance was never true, it's the other ... something like that. I have a really hard time wrapping my head around that one and all related forms, so if you have several super-clear illustrations to pass along, I'd be hugely grateful.

The nice thing is, grammar isn't so hard to learn. (Particularly compared to some other aspects of writing. I can't begin to tell you how to develop more voice in your manuscript, but I can help you understand the proper way to use semicolons.)

What about you? Any particular nuances of grammar that you just can't nail? Any that you KNOW, but find you have to keep a close eye on yourself not to slip?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Confessions of a Math Geek

I love calculus.

If there's anything that cements and seals my "I'm a Geek" badge, that statement is it. And I'm okay with that.

Do you know what you can do with calculus? I've found most people who never took calculus have no idea what it involves, so here are some highlights.

You can find the slope of curves. Remember slope? You learned about it in algebra, probably with some variety of "rise-over-run." It tells you how steep a straight line is, the rate at which it increases or decreases.

Well, with calculus, you can find that rate at a specific point on a curvy line. It's starts off a little ugly and scary, with a formula that looks like this (or a variation on it):

After laboring through several problems with this not-so-fun process, your teacher reveals that there are ridiculously easy shortcuts.

You want to kill your teacher. (I warn my students ahead of time that this will happen.) Then you get over it and get to work.

This may not sound that useful, but think about all the things that involve rates. Velocity, acceleration, how quickly something is growing or shrinking, etc.

Later on, you learn how to find the area under curves. Again, it starts with a slightly complex process that you soon simplify (until it gets harder again). This concept extends to taking the graph of an equation, imagining that you're spinning it around an axis, and finding the volume of that 3-D shape.

There are ways this is useful, too. But from the time I learned it, I thought it was just insanely cool all by itself.

Yup. A geek, for sure.

You know what's even stranger? That slope-finding process and the area-finding process turn out to be inverses of each other. Totally unexpected, but it's part of what makes it easier in the long run.

Anyone else have a topic they learned about in school that just makes them geek out to an irrational degree? A certain period in history, or a concept in science? It's safe to share. All geeks are welcome here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Feeling the Funk

So, Valentine's Day was this week, and ...

... well, moving on.

Let's face it. There are times you feel considerably less than awesome. This isn't a pity-party—not a full-blown one, anyway—but it's an acknowledgement of these feelings. They're real, and they're not fun. But acknowledging their reality (without going overboard) often helps me move on.

People talk about surrounding yourself with greatness. There are many benefits to this, but there's at least one glaring downside. When you're surrounded by the super-awesome, you really start to notice the ways you're not-quite-so-awesome.

Then there's the even more awkward position: When those looking up to your super-awesome friends assume you're one of them.

"No, really, I'm just another wannabe trying to slog it out like you guys."

But wait, I can't say that. I'll sound like a jerk to people who are struggling even more than I am. So I'll just smile and play along.

And then I feel like a fraud, too.


So, here's the thing. I can dwell on this "I'm not as cool as my friends" feeling, but I prefer the other option.

I can work my butt off until I reach their level of awesome. Maybe I won't get there, but even just by trying, surely I'll get closer. And improvement's always a good thing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All the Same, It's Totally Different

This week, I had one of my math classes (with students who are a bit lower functioning) doing a worksheet that involved directions like "Go right 3," and, "Go up 4." As usual, when they asked what to do, I asked them to read what it said.

Here's the thing. In ASL, there are three different signs for "right." There's "right vs. left," "right vs. wrong," and "you have the right to remain silent." Kids that are strong readers will figure out from context which it means, but five out of six kids signed, "Go right-as-in-not-wrong." (When I pointed out the second instruction said "Go up," they figured it out and felt silly.)

So, Thing #1 to think about as a writer (particularly writing for kids): Words have multiple meanings. Make sure the specific use is clear.

I hate to mention highway signs and driving again, but seriously, I spend a LOT of time in my car. And although it's been a mild winter, it's winter nonetheless, and that brings out the ice signs.

Have you ever noticed there's no standard for those signs? Especially if you drive in different states, there's a whole variety out there. Lots of ways to say essentially the same thing, but I'll assert that some are better than others.


This one is the simplest, but perhaps my least favorite. More than 50% of the time, it's a lie. Too often, I pass these signs and think, "Yeah, it could be icy ... if it weren't bone-dry and 40 degrees!"


More accurate, but my snarky self thinks, "Yeah, I can tell you for sure they exist in Antarctica. Are you talking about here?" There's just something overly complicated about it, making it sound like the politically correct version of the sign.


Oh, look, a physics lesson in a road sign! This one isn't too bad on the surface, but hey—maybe the road is icy, too, in which case this sign is kind of pointless.


Ah, this is the one I like. It says what it needs to say simply. It doesn't over- or understate things. I wish they would use this one everywhere they need such signs.

Thing #2 to think about as a writer: There are many ways to say the same thing. Sometimes the "pretty" way is best for what we need to accomplish. But sometimes it's more important that it's functional and accurate. Don't be afraid of clarity.

What are some of the "same but different" conundrums you've run into? (Don't get me started on the different ASL signs for "run" ...)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dressed to the Nines

We have a wonderful base-10 number system. It makes a lot of things easy, and would make things even easier if the U.S. would get with it and switch to the metric system. Think about the poor Romans. Have you seen those years noted at the end of movies made in the twentieth century? Yuck.

The nature of the base-10 system makes for some interesting things with the number that's just one shy of ten—nine. While learning your times tables, you may have noticed these properties of nine.

Up to 9 × 10, the digits of the products add to nine.

Again up to 10, there's a cool bookend-reversing thing going on, as the first digits go up and the second digits go down:


A side-effect of this, along with the fact we have ten fingers, is a little trick I use with kids who still struggle to remember multiplication facts with nine. (I thought everyone knew this, but have found several adults who've never seen it, so I figured I'd share it here.)

Hold your hands in front of you, fingers spread. Whatever number you want to multiply nine by, count that many fingers from the left and put down the finger you land on. (So if you're doing 3 × 9, count three fingers from the left, and put down your left middle finger.)

How many fingers are up to the left of the lowered finger? (In the example, two.) How many fingers are up to the right? (Seven.) Put those together, and you have the answer. (Two and seven ... 3 × 9 = 27.)

And now, I have to go do some research on the title of this post, because I've always kind of wondered about that phrase.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Misleading Words

I admit it—I love words.

I loved them even before I became a writer. During graduate school, I took a linguistics class required for my degree. My professor told me I should jump ship on education and study linguistics. It was tempting, because I found it fascinating.

Words are funny things, though. They don't always do what you expect.

Take phlebotomy for example. It's fun to say. Go ahead, try it. But unless you have a weird fetish for blood-letting (vampires, anyone?), there's nothing else about the word that's much fun.

Then there's one of my favorites: crapulous. Despite what my spell-check is telling me, it's an actual word, but it doesn't mean what you might guess. It's characterized by excess in drinking or eating.

Pop Quiz: Can anyone tell me (without internet or dictionary cheating) what a clowder is?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Censorship or Audience Appropriateness?

My school has its second biannual Author Illustrator Competition coming up, and I'm on the committee. (I'm the only person on the committee who doesn't teach English, so I don't actually work with my classes on their stories, which makes things interesting.)

During a recent committee meeting, the issue of censorship came up, so you know that was more interesting than deciding who would go to the hobby store to get materials and who would make the certificates.

First, two things to understand. (1) Part of the plan for the event is that the books the students have made will be on display on tables in a hallway leading to the guest speaker presentation. (2) Our school is pre-K through 12th grade, with children ranging from 2 to 22.

One member of the committee noted that she has a student who's writing a story that's, well, more PG-13 than G. (Knowing the student, it may cross more to R, but I haven't actually seen it yet.) So we had a discussion about whether this would be permitted in the competition.

Without getting into details, some said it was not appropriate, and the story should be revised for the wide-ranging audience. The teacher said she would not support censorship of any kind.

I got stuck thinking about it. Is this censorship? Or is it acknowledging what is and isn't appropriate for a specific audience? If it is censorship, then is all censorship automatically a bad thing, or does some of it fall under the umbrella of respecting the rights of others not to be subjected to certain material?

You might show Schindler's List to a high school class learning about the Holocaust. You would not show the movie at a school-wide assembly on the Holocaust (at a K-12 school like ours).

We recently had an ASL poetry/storytelling event. If I were doing poetry in a high school class, I could see allowing certain language (dropping F-bombs, for instance) if the student felt it belonged in the poem. At a school-wide event, however, this would not be appropriate.

Is it censorship? Is it something else? Where's the line, and how do we help kids differentiate? I'd really like to hear some thoughts on this, because my mind keeps going in circles.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Impress Your Friends With Mental Math

You'll have to take my word for it that I'm going to do this entire post without touching a calculator or scribbling calculations anywhere. I also don't know how useful these tricks will be for you, but hey, it's fun.

Divisibility by 3, 6 or 9

Have a large-ish number and need to know whether you can divide it by one of the above numbers? Easy. Just add up the digits. If the result is divisible by 3 (or 9), then so is the original number. If it's divisible by 9, it's automatically divisible by 3. If it's divisible by 3 and is even, then it's divisible by 6.

Example: 4,374

4 + 3 + 7 + 4 = 18

18 is divisible by both 3 and 9, so 4,374 is divisible by both. Since it's even, it's also divisible by 6. Go ahead and check it while I try a larger number.

Example: 5,660,193

5 + 6 + 6 + 0 + 1 + 9 + 3 = 30

30 is divisible by 3, but not 9. The original number is odd, so it's only divisible by 3 (not 9 or 6).

Multiplying by 11

We all know that multiplying a single-digit number by 11 is easy—just repeat the number. 11 times 7 is 77, 11 times 3 is 33, etc. Multiplying by larger numbers is pretty easy, too.

The first and last digits stay the same. For the middle number(s), add adjacent numbers together.

Example: 11 × 35 = 3_5.
Since 3 + 5 = 8, that's the middle digit.
So 11 × 35 = 385.

Bigger Example: 11 × 724 = 7_ _4.
7 + 2 = 9, and 2 + 4 = 6.
So 11 × 724 = 7,964.

What if one of those middle number sums results in a 2-digit number? Still works, you'll just have to do a little carrying over to the next column to the left.

Example: 11 × 3852 = 3_ _ _2
3 + 8 = 11. Oops, carry that 1 over to the left, so the first digit is 4.
8 + 5 = 13. Oops again. Carry that 1 to the 1 in the 11 above. (Confusing, yeah.) Second digit is 2, third is 3.
5 + 2 = 7. Okay, nothing fancy here.
So 11 × 3,852 = 42,372.

Now go and impress your non-mathematical friends.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Yeah, I Know You're Jealous

I have next week off from school.

That's right. A full week break in early February for no particular reason other than that our school always has this mid-winter break. Whatever shall I do with all that free time?

I'll tell you what. Write. Write some more. Maybe read a little. Then keep writing.

I have a shiny new work-in-progress, and I'd love to crank out at least 10k words next week. 20k would be even better. If I can finish the first draft (or nearly) by the end of month, I'd be happy-happy-happy.

You see, Mindy McGinnis is working on a revision right now, and we have plans to swap that for my completed NaNoWriMo project when she's done. I want to make sure there's always one more thing in the R.C. Lewis Library waiting for her. ;)

So, for the week of vacation from the day-job, I'm hoping to let the "other" job go temporarily full-time. I'll also be visiting my family, so hanging with them and a few random appointments will fill my time on the side.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to pack.

If you had a week off from your usual job and/or responsibilities, would you buckle down and write, or go off on a real vacation? (To be honest, I don't remember the last time I had a real vacation ... maybe I need to do something about that at some point.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Interlude Poetical

Today, I have a guest post of sorts. If you've been following the blog for a while, you may remember "The Hunger Pangs" from last summer. It's a short story written by a student of mine, parodying The Hunger Games.

The same student has been quietly observing an ongoing war in her writing class between the teacher (Vicki) and one of her classmates. The battles are so constant, she was moved to poetry. Enjoy!

* * * * *

"The Teacher and the Artist"

His words are free, twisting and turning on the page,
But she thinks they need to be trapped in a cage,
But he doesn’t believe it.
He says we should leave it,
The words don’t really need it,
But she says they do, so she screams,
Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation!

His words are gentle, just rambling around,
But she says he needs to change the sound.
Then his words are screaming,
No longer gently streaming,
Exclamatory, it’s seeming,
So she starts yelling,
Exclamation, exclamation, exclamation!

His words are peaceful, always having the answer
Until she comes along to infect like a cancer.
Until they don’t know what to be.
They don’t know what to see.
They don’t know why she—
Vicki, keeps shouting,
It’s a question, it’s a question, it’s a question!

His words run up hills and never stop.
She says there’s too many “ands,” it’s a little over the top.
Then they have nowhere to go.
They have nowhere to flow.
They don’t really know
Why Vicki keeps saying,
Too many conjunctions, conjunctions, conjunctions!

His words are tangled,
And she wants him strangled.
I say find an in-between.
Make his style seen,
But make it seem clean.
So I turn to her, suggesting,
Go easy on the conventions, conventions, conventions!

Then, I turn to him and say,
Go easy on the accusations, accusations, accusations!
But still it goes on.

* * * * *

Is it just me, or does this spring interesting thoughts for anyone else?

But still it goes on.