Friday, March 30, 2012

It's Not Rocket Science—Just Read the Directions!

I had this experience in elementary school, and I bet some of you did, too (then, or at some other point in your life). My teacher passed out a quiz/assignment. The first thing it said was, "Read everything before doing anything." It then proceeded to list a number of random tasks, from writing your favorite color in the right margin to hopping around the room on one foot.

The very last item said, "Write your name at the top of the paper and do none of the items listed here."

A good chunk of the class got through some of the sillier tasks before catching on.

Okay, that was third grade or something. Kids are still learning that whole follow-directions concept, right? By the time we're adults, it's a no-brainer, right?

Not right.

I see it with my teenage students. Student: "What am I supposed to do for #13?" Me: "What do the directions say?" Student: "Umm ..." Me: "Maybe you should read them, huh?"

But teenagers aren't adults yet, right? By the time we're old enough to legally drink, smoke, and otherwise shorten our lifespan, we know better, right?

Still not right.

If you follow agent @SaraMegibow on Twitter, you've probably seen her weekly #10queriesin10tweets. She goes through ten random queries in her inbox and tweets whether she's passing on it or requesting, and a quick reason why.

Guess what one of the most common reasons for a pass is? Wrong genre. You can find Ms. Megibow's fair-game genres easily, on AgentQuery, QueryTracker, the agency's website, or her page on Publishers Marketplace.

Yet people still query her with thrillers and non-fiction and who-knows-what-else.

Want to look smart? Be one of the few who doesn't go hopping around the room on one foot. We'll have plenty of time to make ourselves look like idiots later, in slightly more intelligent ways. (Yes, let's aspire to be intelligent idiots.)

What directions do you find people not reading when they really ought to know better? Want to confess to your own "shoulda paid more attention" faux pas?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I'm Not a Bipolar Writer—What's Wrong With Me?

Lately I've been seeing a lot of tweets, status updates, and posts relating in some way to the bipolarity of writers. The euphoric highs of Mega-Manuscript Love, and the desperate lows of I Hate Writing But I'm Doing It Anyway, Sort Of.

I don't get it ... which makes me wonder if I'm missing something.

It's not the first time I've wondered that.

It's not that nothing about this business gets me way down (One word: rejection ... yeah) or way up (Full requests! Agents acknowledging me on Twitter!). But the super-extreme emotions don't tie to the actual WRITING OF THE STORY.

If you saw my post last Friday, you know I'm not into the super-whiny (or super-effusive) approach to much of anything. Aside from letting that writer-bipolarity dominate your social media presence, though, I imagine there's nothing wrong with it.

Is there something right with it? Am I actually missing something? Are my emotions not getting engaged enough as I write?

I don't think that's it. There was a particular scene that truly creeped me out to write. And I've gotten teary while writing others. So I don't think I have a death-grip on my emotions while writing.

Maybe it's my "analytic-artist" nature. (Trust me, it's taken ages to acknowledge the "artist" half of that.) The analytic part has never been prone to extreme emotions without truly extreme circumstances. (My teenage years don't count, Mom.)

I have times when the words come fast and furious. I have times when the pace necessarily slows down so my brain can work out some connections. I'm fine with both.

Here's the thing. I write because I want to. I write because I enjoy it. I write because I love reading what I've written, making it better, and having others read it.

The knowledge that I need to keep working keeps the love from taking me super-high. The love keeps the knowledge that I still have a lot to do from taking me super-low.

Every writer will have a slightly different process. For me, keeping the balance works. So, there might be things wrong with me, but this isn't one of them. It's just my way.

Are you a writer that hits those highs and lows during the writing process? What gets you through the lows? What do those highs feel like?

Monday, March 26, 2012

State of the State Testing

Oh, joy, the time for state-mandated testing is upon us.

For my school, the brunt of it happened last week. We made a patchwork quilt of our schedule so testing would always be in the morning, but the kids wouldn't miss just their morning classes all week. The kids who had to take it (those in their second or third year of high school) were divvied up into groups and teachers were assigned to administer certain portions of the test.

I only had to miss one class for my test administration. Not bad. But giving these tests to deaf kids is always a big-time drain on the brainpower.

Most of the kids have a testing accommodation on their IEP stating that any test material (other than in the Reading section) can be signed to them. No problem. I handle math stuff in ASL all day.

Except this is totally different.

First, I don't get to see the test until the day of. Second, some math signs are so iconic, they may give away too much information. So I have to read each question, decide what's being tested, and determine which words should be spelled rather than signed.

For example (and these examples are completely made-up and unrelated to any I saw in the test), if a test question said, "What is the numerator of the fraction 4/5?" I couldn't sign "numerator." Why? The sign for it is one hand held flat like a fraction bar and the other making the N-handshape above it. (Guess what denominator is. Yeah, same thing, D-handshape below.)

Another example is "parallel." If a question asked, "Which lines are parallel?" I couldn't use the sign. It's too visual. On the other hand, if a more complex problem relied on the fact that two lines are parallel and some information needed to be derived from that, I could sign "parallel."

It makes my head hurt.

It's a test to gauge mathematical ability, so the accommodation is there to make sure English reading ability doesn't get in the way of the kids showing what they know. But it's such a delicate balancing act between that and giving an unfair advantage.

Anyone else have brain-busting balancing acts going on in their lives right now?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hey, Whiners, Cut It Out! (But Not Too Much)

During my tenure in social media (particularly Twitter and Facebook), I've observed a lot of whining, complaining, and overall negativity. I confess, I've been known to gripe now and then. Everyone needs to vent sometimes. But I try to keep the public venting reasonable and infrequent, while the more everyday venting gets handled in private by my friends. (Love you, friends!)

There are mega-extremes, of course. Those people who reply to agents' form rejections with F-bombs and C-words. Most of us aren't that far gone. (And those who are kind of scare me.)

But there are the little things, consistently and constantly griping, that actually annoy me more. The expletive-spouting writers I can assume are crazy. Others are just negative to the point it affects the image they portray to the world at large—especially the professional image for my fellow aspiring writers.

People with spouses, boyfriends, etc. who never do anything but complain about them. (Ladies, I have to say, I've yet to see a guy trash-talk his wife on Twitter. Husband-bashing, however, is rampant.) People with children and/or jobs who whine about those, too.

I'm pretty sure there are people out there who wish they could find a romantic partner, who wish they had kids, who wish they could earn enough money to make a living. Can we have a little gratitude for what we have?

But wait...

Going to the other extreme annoys me, too. People who never stop gushing about how they have the best. Husband. EVER. Or how adorable and wonderful their kids are. Ugh.

I don't believe we need to be sunshine and happiness all the time. Let's keep it real. When we don't approve of something, it's okay to speak negatively of it. When we're excited, there's nothing wrong with showing enthusiasm. But real people have both highs and lows, likes and dislikes, good days and Mondays.

Share the whole spectrum. Keep it balanced. If you find your tweet-stream (or timeline, or whatever) is full of negativity, take a minute to evaluate. What can you do to get yourself to a more emotionally healthy place? Maybe some things are better shared privately with those who will help you get over life's speed bumps. That's not the same as putting "Pity me!" attention-seekers out on social media.

On the other hand, if you're constantly raving about how thoroughly awesome your life is ... stop rubbing it in to the rest of us poor saps. ;)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Whipping the WiP

First, let's make this clear. The speed at which you write your first draft has nothing to do with the quality of the end product. It varies by individual. Some can crank out a novel-length draft in two weeks, and others take years. It really doesn't matter.

From talking to others, it seems I'm on the slightly faster end. As long as I'm not in a "muddy" area, I can write 1k in an hour pretty easily. I managed over 50k in the month of November for NaNoWriMo without having to push myself that hard.

Here's something important to remember: My free time is pretty distraction-free (unless I choose some distractions). I have a day job, but once I get home (evenings and weekends), I have no kids to chase nor spouse to feed.

An interesting thing I've noticed during my time in the online world of writers' communities is that there are two polarized types of writers—those who hate drafting, and those who hate editing/revising.

Not everyone falls into one of those two camps. Personally, I like both. I like initial writing, getting the story down, because then I can read it. That's what I do—I write novels I want to read. I think that's part of what pushes my daily word-count along, especially in the final third or so when I really get some momentum going. (Also, by then I'm pretty clear on what'll happen in the rest of the book, i.e., no mud in my path.)

I also like making what I've written even better. Fleshing out some things, tightening others up, hitting things a little harder. Making it all pretty.

How about you? What motivates you to keep moving forward on your work-in-progress? What do you do when you can't seem to get that momentum going?

Monday, March 19, 2012

It's Opposite Day!

Grr, Blogger's post scheduling failed me again ... better late than never?

No, not really. Some of my students think every day is, though, finding it highly amusing to speak in opposites, so I've had enough of that.

Math is all about opposites, though. More specifically, inverses, such as inverse operations. Many of the math problems we did in school related to "undoing" something. Pretty much anything we did could be undone. (I hit some advanced math courses in college with operations that were irreversible. Most of you probably don't want to go there.)

Addition and subtraction. Multiplication and division. Squaring and square-rooting. Even all the way up to trig—sine and arcsine–and calculus—derivatives and integrals.

It's an accepted fact that mathematicians, at their core, are lazy creatures. So it makes me a little crazy when I have students who don't grasp the power of the opposite. These two things add up to 64. You need 100, so how many more do you need? Some kids will guess and check, or count up ... or add 64 to 100. (This particular case kind of goes back to my earlier rant on subtraction.)

It happens in higher math classes, too, though less frequently (fortunately). In algebra, the idea of "undoing" is huge, so when someone gets to Algebra 2 without catching that division undoes multiplication, I get a little headdesk-y. Then I teach them about it until they understand. The squaring/square-rooting dyad is newer to them, so I make sure to drill it into their heads.

And because I'm on the topic, here's a little puzzle you can solve with the power of opposites.

I have a mystery number. I divide it by two, subtract 200, square the result, multiply that by ten, and add 52, getting a result of 412. What was my mystery number?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tweet Me Like You Mean It

Everyone has their list of Twitter pet-peeves, right? So I figured I'd add mine, knowing that the offenders are little-likely to see it.

Of course, this is all just my opinion. What bugs me may be fine for another person.

The Bait-and-Switch Follow. Have any of you caught people at this? You get a notification that someone's followed you. You take a look at their feed and decide sure, you'll follow back. A day or so later, you get another notification that they've followed you. So they followed you, unfollowed, and waited to see if you would follow back before committing to following you. (Do you follow?) The new Twitter interface shows "Follows You" prominently on people's profiles, so it seems that practice has trailed off for me, but it still happened the other day. Maybe there's a lag?

The Super "Welcoming" Auto-Tweet. I think this one is pretty specialized to people like writers who are trying to sell something. You follow someone and immediately get a tweet—usually a direct message—with something along the lines of, "Thanks for following! Check out my blog/book/butterific-bacon-buns (insert link)." I've limited my reaction to rolling my eyes at such tactics (and have never once clicked the link), but it's happening so much now, I think I'm going to automatically unfollow anyone who does it.

The Feed-Flooder. First of all, I can't imagine what it's like to have enough free time to tweet upwards of 100 times a day. (I know it doesn't always mean the tweeter is actually tweeting ... see below.) I only have so much time to devote to checking in with Twitter. I like to find relevant industry links/news, interesting conversations, and a little silliness with tweeps I know fairly well. If someone is filling my feed by retweeting everything in sight, pushing the Tweet This! button on every blog in the universe, and otherwise just making noise, I have to make it go away. Remember, when everything is special, nothing is.

The Robo-Tweet. I haven't confirmed this—it's just a suspicion. There are a lot of tweeting utilities out there to manage your social media experience. Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, I don't even know how many others. I think I've spotted at least one that will auto-tweet random "ice-breaker question" tweets from your account on a scheduled basis ... like every half-hour. Does this actually work for people? What happened to authentic engagement?

The Deja-Tweet. Another one that's particularly prevalent in the writer-world. Send out a little promo-blurb tweet when your book comes out, or when some particular milestone is reached. That's fine. I'm even okay with you doing it twice that day—once for the morning crowd, then later for the evening. But when I see the same blurb (or even a small rotating set of them) day after day after day ... yeah, even among all the tweets in my feed, I spot 'em.

You know what I like best? Stumbling across people through mutual Twitter-acquaintances, having a little interaction, and then following.

I could probably come up with more nuisances if I tried, but I'm sure I've whined enough for now. It's your turn! What Twitter behavior drives you up the wall? Am I out of line on any of those I've listed above?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writer's Mud

To the best of my knowledge/memory, I have never had writer's block. Not the way I've heard it described, at least. Manuscript at a standstill, unable to move forward one word, let alone one sentence.

Never had that—of course, I haven't been at this too long yet. What I have done is slog through the writer's mud. Have you been there? The forward momentum doesn't stop; it just slows down. There's a little more thinking going on, a little more letting the scene play out in my head before I attempt writing the words.

I don't see this as a particularly bad thing (as long as the whole manuscript doesn't go that way). It's kind of the bridge that joins the planning part of me and the "pantsing" part. (For the uninitiated, that's the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants concept.) I frequently have some broad plot points outlined (roughly) when I start, even some details noted, but I don't have the specifics of how those major landmarks will be connected. Basically, I know the characters will start at A, stop by E, L, and T on the way, and end up at Z. The rest of the alphabet kind of unfolds as I go.

Generally, I like how this works. I have those big points in mind, so I know what I need to point toward. As I slog through the mud, my brain is sifting through possibilities, everything marinating and percolating to get those connections made.

Since I spent the majority of my life convinced I wasn't creative at all, I'm happy to find a creative process that works (or seems to). I just have to make sure I keep moving, or that mud might suck me down to where I can't get the momentum going again.

Have you experienced the mud? Or have you experienced writer's block? What do you do to put a positive spin on it and get moving again?

Monday, March 12, 2012

How Do You Measure Up?

I have a math-teacher confession. (Again.) It's not something I'm proud of. Not something I like to admit.

I'm not very good at estimating measurements.

Oh, I'm okay at the small stuff, particularly with length. I can say, "This is about two inches," or even, "That's about fifteen centimeters." But if you go much beyond something I can hold in my hands, I'm pretty hopeless.

This drove me nuts in driver's ed. Rules like, "When parking on the street, you must be X feet from the corner," were useless for me. Thirty feet, fifty feet, doesn't matter. I have no mental gauge for a distance like that.

Weights are even worse. Give me something and ask me if it's closer to five pounds or ten, and I'll be straight-up guessing. I know the fifty-pound bags of salt are pretty close to the limit of what I can comfortably lug around, so if something else is close to that, my guesstimate will be okay.

You know what this all has in common? Experience.

I can estimate lengths of things smaller than a breadbox because I've done a lot of measuring with a 12-inch ruler. I can tell when things are close to that fifty-pound mark because lugging those salt bags down to the basement is a memorable experience. I don't have a lot of experience measuring and knowing larger distances.

I bet if I played football, I'd have a pretty good feel for five yards vs. ten yards vs. twenty.

Except ... I have students who play football and don't know what a yard is.


As much as I'm not great with measurement, it's a much weaker area for many of my students. (Oh, if I could tell you how many times I've asked, "How many inches are in a foot?" or even, "How many months in a year?" and gotten blank stares!) Some of it's a language issue, and some is that it hasn't been prioritized in their previous years of math education. Mostly, it's a combination of both.

So, students in some of my math classes will be attacking objects with rulers and yardsticks and tape measures and scales. I will throw lots of questions at them like, "If you were measuring the water to fill up a bathtub, would you use gallons or cups?" And I will hope some of it sinks in.

What mad measurement skills do you have? What areas trip you up? Any tips or tricks? I'd love to hear 'em.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Deceptive Appearances

My lovely friend Tracy Jorgensen has beta-read two of my manuscripts for me (so far), and both times has included fan-art sketches with her feedback. I won't post the one for Significantly Other because it's slightly spoilerish (kinda-sorta). More recently, she did this sketch for Fingerprints, my much beloved ms #1.

There are the twins, Taz on the left, Raina on the right. Taz has a bowl of yummy, fudgy goodness. Raina (poor thing) got a stinky pile of dog poop.

Think about it. From a distance (and especially from an image so your nose isn't involved), the two might look kind of similar, right? Tracy had a whole analogy about the ms to go with it. Maybe I'll share it sometime.

Meanwhile, I'd love to hear your interpretation. What are two things that look very similar on the surface, but upon closer inspection, one is awesome and the other ... not so much?

Come on, creative types! What's the best you can come up with? (Or maybe just a silly caption for the picture?)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Call It What It Is ... So What Is It?

I am sure I've referred to myself as an aspiring writer before. Maybe even frequently. Chuck Wendig says I shouldn't call myself that. (Good article on the other end of that link, but fair warning—coarse language therein as well.) I understand his point. You either write or you don't. If you do, you're a writer; if you don't, you're not. Very Yoda.

With respect to Mr. Wendig, however, sometimes that's the clearest, most concise label for the type of writer I'm referring to. There are many types, and I have friends among all of them. Published writers, writers with publishing contracts who've not yet been published (would that be pre-published?), agented writers, self-published and/or indie writers.

Then there's me (and my friends rowing along in the same boat).

I suppose I could call myself an aspiring-to-be-published writer. Accurate, but kind of a mouthful. If I wanted to be really accurate about my status at this very moment, I should call myself an aspiring-to-be-agented writer. That's even more awkward.

Sometimes (maybe even most of the time), it's fine to say "writers," all-inclusive. Then there are times when I need to specify a more specific group, and if I say "aspiring writers," most people will know what I mean.

It reminds me of a discussion I had with a colleague at school a few years ago. She'd been in a discussion where some teachers stated vehemently that we shouldn't refer to some students as hard-of-hearing. It's a school for the deaf, call them all deaf (or Deaf, more accurately), and leave it at that.

Again, that's all well and good much of the time, but there are occasions when I need to refer to a particular subset of students. I joked with my friend that I'd call them Students Having Access To Sound Adequate For Acquiring Spoken English—the SHATSAFASEs. (Try saying that aloud. Yeah.)

The hard-of-hearing label has pretty much stuck. Sometimes I call them "Talkers." We all know it isn't meant to put them above or below the deaf kids—it just means speaking to them isn't a waste of breath.

So, my apologies. I'm going to continue to use "aspiring writer" when necessary for clarity.

Have you run into this type of "labelling" issue before? (Does anyone seriously use the term "vertically challenged"?)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gender Wars, Math-Style

This isn't a war so much as an observation. Not even a highly scientific observation. It's not based on a fancy statistical study or anything, just my own observations in my classroom over the years. The conclusion isn't anything like 100%, but the vast majority in my small sample seems to follow the pattern.

Because I've taught in the same small school for several years, I've often followed the same group of students from Algebra 1 on up, some of them all the way to Calculus. I've kept an eye on what students liked and didn't like, what methods they chose when given a choice, and where their strengths and weaknesses were.

By and large (again, in my relatively small sample), girls prefer the analytical and algebraic. They'd rather have an equation to manipulate and solve, going step by step to isolate the variable. Boys prefer more visual approaches—geometry over algebra, analyzing a graph over an equation. There have been a couple of exceptions, but every year I've had more kids split down the expected line.

I've found this particularly interesting since these are all deaf and hard-of-hearing students, so you might expect they'd all lean toward the visual approach. Is it something in how males and females are respectively wired that makes us tend to lean toward one or the other? I remember reading things in school about how girls tend to be stronger in verbal-linguistic areas, while boys are stronger in logical-mathematical areas. (Again, these are just tendencies and obviously not true across the board.) Perhaps this is something similar.

Or maybe my students are just strange. :)

Do you fall into my expected categories or defy them? Have you noticed other unexpected (non-stereotypical) areas where divisions tend to fall along gender lines?

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Springing of Spring

Yes, I know the "official" start of spring isn't for a few more weeks, but spring weather has definitely arrived. And by that I mean, the insane meteorological roller coaster has launched at full speed.

That wonderful time of year when I'm freezing as I walk from the parking lot to the school in the morning ... and the air conditioner kicks on my classroom in the afternoon. (It's still only low-to-mid 50s outside ... but my room appears to share some characteristics with a solar-powered brick oven.) This is great, because during the same class, Student X will think it's a refrigerator while Student Y thinks it's a sauna.

The commute home nearly every day this week has made me think, "There's no way Chicago has more wind than this. If they're the Windy City, we're the Windier STATE."

And you know what? This state is full of something else: SAND. Wind plus sand. Do the math.

Spring also brings about that characteristic rise in the hormone levels of my teenage students. Oh, boy.

Speaking of which (yeah, that's a smooth segue), there's one good thing about spring. Several of my writer-friends have put together an anthology of short stories titled Spring Fevers. (I don't have a story in there, but I did the formatting—yay, tech-head!) It's available for free on Smashwords in a variety of electronic formats, or for 99 cents at Amazon. (Any proceeds from sales on Amazon will go to charity.) The stories are all about relationships in some form, with wide variety in topic and tone. If you like short stories, take a look and see what you think.

(My birthday's in spring. I guess that's another good thing. But not until next month.)

Now, if you'll excuse me, all that dust and sand in the air means I need to do some sneezing.