Monday, April 30, 2012

MindyMania 2012: The Wild Aftermath

Okay, this is supposed to be a Mathematical Monday, but hey—I worked the word "math" into the title.

As I mentioned on Friday, Mindy McGinnis (critique partner extraordinaire) came to visit for the weekend. The three presentations at my school Friday were awesome. More on that Wednesday. Today, I'll talk about wildlife.

After school, we saw a camel. Well, sort of. We went to Camel Rock.

See? Totally looks like a camel, right?

On Saturday, we went out to Petroglyphs National Monument. I'll share some pictures of the actual petroglyphs on Friday, but I said this was about wildlife. Here's a bug we saw as we were hiking.

Can anyone tell me what kind of bug it is? It was a quick little thing, so I'm pretty impressed with the picture I managed.

Later on, during the hike back, we saw this lizard. Not at all uncommon for me—I see them all the time outside my apartment complex—but not an everyday thing for Mindy. Unlike the mystery bug, this guy was happy to stand and pose for us as long as we didn't step any closer. Hooray for camera zoom!

After Petroglyphs, we went to a very particular Twisters restaurant. That's a burger/burrito chain around here. No big deal, except this specific location was featured prominently in a season of the TV series Breaking Bad, which Mindy is a fan of. We weren't expecting more wildlife, but in the lot next door, we saw an emu.

Yes, an emu.


Sunday didn't involve any wildlife, except for the angry passengers from Mindy's cancelled flight. Don't worry. She (hopefully) made it safely away this morning and will either be on her way home or there by the time you read this.

More to come the rest of this week.

Friday, April 27, 2012

People on the Internet are Scary! (No, They're Not)

You know how they say to be careful with people you meet on the internet? How they might not be who they say they are? Maybe they're scary and strange?

Apparently I'm allowed to throw that advice out the window under the right circumstances.

The illustrious Mindy McGinnis safely arrived in the dusty, dirty, just-plain-BROWN southwest today. (Seriously. Mega-winds kicking up the dirt creating a cloud of brown over the city.) We've known each other (on the internet) for about two and a half years. We've been critique partners (on the internet) for about a year and a half. Today we met in person for the first time.

People knew this was happening. No one thought it was weird or scary.

Maybe it's because of how ubiquitous the internet is now, how big social media has become, or maybe it's just that Mindy and I have known each other in online arenas that are public enough to validate our identities. Or something.

At any rate ...

Today she's the guest author at my school's second biannual Author Illustrator Competition. Not only is this her first visit anywhere in the west that isn't Las Vegas, it's also her first foray into Deaf-World.

Should be fun.

I'll be sure to report back.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

These are terms I learned in a linguistics class in grad school. If you're not familiar, here are the quick-and-dirty definitions.

Prescriptive grammar is grammar according to the super-official grammar books.

Descriptive grammar is how people actually talk.

Of course, language is always evolving, and often the changes come because something in the realm of descriptive grammar becomes so common and pervasive, it overwrites the prior rule in the prescriptive grammar books.

In certain arenas, it's appropriate to follow prescriptive grammar rules to the letter. When writing fiction, it's not so clear-cut. There's also voice to consider. Dialogue in particular gets a little more leeway when it comes to grammar.

Once in a while, though, something comes along that can't be explained away by voice, and yet I can't bring myself to write it the "proper" way because my gut says we're on the verge of overwriting the rule. (Or at the least, my gut says people who talk that way in real life are a critically endangered species.)

For example, in my current project, I have a character say, "It is her." (The sense is, "She is the one we're looking for.")

Gerty Grammarian says it should be, "It is she." In the particular situation, it makes sense that the character would be fairly educated and would probably speak in a proper manner.

But I can't bring myself to write it that way. It just feels too wrong.

In a situation later in the story, a similar line came up, and in that case I did change it. I wanted that particular character to be over-the-top formal, so it made sense to me. It felt right.

How about you? Do you have any little gems of grammar that you know are "correct" one way, but you just can't bring yourself to write it that way?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Earth: By the Numbers

Yesterday was Earth Day, and today is Mathematical Monday, so I figured I'd put the two together with some stats on this planet of ours.

  • The diameter of Earth is about 7,920 miles. That's nearly 140,000 football fields. If it were possible to drive at highway speeds (say, 75 mph) through the planet, it would take nearly 4.5 days to reach the other side.
  • The mass of Earth is about 6 septillion kilograms. (That's 6 followed by 24 zeroes. I'm going by the U.S. definition of the word—apparently it's different in the U.K.) That's about the same as 165 quintillion empty 18-wheelers. Or the Empire State Building 16,000,000,000,000,000,000 times over.
  • The volume of water on Earth is about 1.5 billion cubic kilometers. That's about 600 trillion Olympic swimming pools. (I think. I don't have my preferred calculators handy.) 97% of that is saltwater in the oceans.
  • So, Earth is pretty big. But if our sun were empty, it could fit over 1,000,000 Earths inside.
Now, while you ponder that massiveness, check out this very cool view of the planet from orbit.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Undefinable, Undeniable Teen

What are teenagers like?

Don't answer that. No matter what you say, you're wrong. Unless you say something like, "Depends on the teen," or, "As varied as adults, toddlers, senior citizens, or anything else." Those are cop-outs anyway.

Teens (like so many other groups) get a lot of generalizations applied to them. Like every other generalization or stereotype, you can point to textbook cases where they're true, and often just as many where they're utterly false.

Example: Teens are irresponsible.

If we're judging based on how some of them drive, then absolutely. On the other hand, I know teens who budget their money, make sure to take their car in for regular oil changes, and warn me two weeks in advance that they'll be missing school and need their homework.

The whole essence of "teenager" is that it's this amorphous time between childhood and adulthood where they have several traits of both stages at the same time ... and those traits are often in flux from one moment to the next.

This is on my mind today because of a particular pet peeve of mine—talking to teens like they're little kids.

I can't fathom how common this is in schools. Not like all teachers do it, or even most, but enough to puzzle me. I've often wondered—but have never had the guts to ask one of the perpetrators—why they talk to students as they do. They're not rude or anything. It's just this tone and approach to interacting with students that I know would drive me bonkers if I were a teen.

Do they really regard teenagers as roughly the same as elementary students? I don't know.

I can't say I treat students exactly the same as I treat adults, or even talk to them exactly the same way. But it's close. I try to acknowledge that they're in that transition, which means they're partway adult, but still in flux.

Maybe this attitude in teaching has informed my writing, because I try really hard to never talk down (write down?) to my audience.

And maybe that consciousness is why that "I'm talking like you're nine years old" tone drives me nuts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Undeserved Rant, Perhaps

Lots of people have been getting good news lately—yay, good news! But in the congratulations, I've seen the following phrase come up a lot:

You deserve it.

This kept standing out to me, and it got me thinking. What does it mean to "deserve" something?

Okay, I know what it means. Somehow by our character or actions, we qualify to receive whatever we've gotten. But it kept bugging me.

In ASL, we generally use the same sign for "deserve" and "earn," and in a lot of cases, they feel pretty interchangeable. So why does something tell me they're not the same thing this situation? Maybe it's this:

What does not getting it mean?

If some particular good-thing hasn't happened for me, does that mean I don't deserve it? (And of course, this doesn't just go for me, but anyone who hasn't gotten whatever that good-thing is.) Please don't say that's true, because I'm plenty good at beating up on myself already. ;)

Or then there's this:

What if someone doesn't deserve it but gets it anyway?

Clearly if there's any real meaning to "deserving" anything, it's possible to be undeserving. So if there are people who deserve but don't get, there are likely people who get but don't deserve.

But what does any of that mean? And how does anyone decide? What is it based on?

What's the point of saying it? Maybe everyone deserves everything, or no one deserves anything. Either way, the statement feels empty to me.

Personally, I'm going to stick to the following:

I'm so happy for you!
This is so exciting.
Good luck on the next step.

Or something along those lines. Because maybe they deserve it, maybe they don't, but it doesn't matter. They got it.

Whatever "it" is. :)

Monday, April 16, 2012

From the Department of Made-Up Statistics

I admit it—I'm a data geek. (Shocking, right?) Give me some data, and I can't help but analyze it at least a little. I've even made graphs to analyze my writing.

I've often heard people claim you can make statistics say anything you want. That's not entirely true, but you can usually frame them in a way that leans in a certain direction, even if that direction is misleading. Some easy ways to do this are asking your question in a particular way, choosing a biased sample, and setting up a graph with an inappropriate axis. (All of these will get you labeled a bad statistician, though.)

Sometimes, it's easier just to skip all the technical steps and just make up results. So here are some claims that are entirely made up based only on my gut instinct. If anyone finds hard data on any of them, feel free to let me know.

  • 47% of cancer survivors will (attempt to) write a memoir on the topic.
  • 72% of drivers don't know how to merge properly.
  • 96% of literate Americans don't know how to use a semicolon.
  • 83% of teenagers declare something boring a minimum of twice every school day.
  • Chocolate makes everything better 99.9% of the time.
  • I remember 74% of the useless minutiae I come across, but only 51% of the information I actually need.
  • 2% of the people who protest that a given book should be banned have actually read the book.

Go ahead and make up some of your own statistics, or let me know if you think my percentages are off on any of the above. It's fun and makes you sound knowledgeable. ;)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dream Casting: Hiddles for Giggles

My sister is slightly (just a little) obsessed with the actor Tom Hiddleston, and if you don't recognize him in his headshot, visualize him with darker, longer, straighter hair (Loki in Thor and The Avengers) or wearing an English WWI military uniform (a brief but memorable role in War Horse), or you might have seen him in a few other places.

This blog post is largely for her, and just having a little fun.

I know a lot of writers do it—come up with their dream cast for "if they made my novel a movie." Or at least digging up photos of celebrities (or athletes, or models, or whatever else they can find online) who are a decent fit for their mental picture of various characters.

In this case, instead of casting a full novel, I'm going to find spots for Mr. Hiddleston in each of my completed manuscripts. It'll be a little tricky, because he's 31 years old, and I write YA. I refuse to '90210' him and cast him as a teenager, so no lead roles for him. (Sorry, sis.) But let's see what I can come up with.

Crossing the Helix trilogy (Fingerprints, Echoes, & Catalysts)
I have too many options for this one. Mr. Z, the very cool physics teacher in the regular world, or Wreiden, one of the Flecks in the alternate world. Either way, he'd be super-smart.

Or, if I want to make my sister really happy ... Tayn, the twins' father. He could pull off the flashbacks as he is now, and a little minor makeup work could age him up 5-10 years for later.

Let's just jump straight to him being at least in his late thirties by this point. Is he more Reagan (my MC's uncle who raised her) or more Dexter (the teacher of her favorite subject)? I'm thinking more Reagan. (Hmm ... now I'm wondering, who out there is more Dexter?)

Significantly Other
Ooh, this is a tough one. There aren't a lot of options. I think he'd probably be best as the colonel who pulls my MC back into the military role she was created for.

Matters of Life and Deaf
How ambitious are you, Mr. Hiddleston? Ambitious enough to learn sign language and play a deaf person? Yes? Then Vince, the ASL specialist. No? Then I'll change the name of the jerk pre-calculus teacher.

Stitching Snow
Again, we'll say he's a touch older, late thirties or early forties. Definitely Kip. But I can't say anything about who that character is to the story just now. (Or wait, maybe Thad, at the age he is now! But I can't say anything much about him, either.)

Like I said, all of this is just fun. But it also made me think about my characters, which of their attributes (ethnicity, age, etc.) are truly integral to the character, and which are less important and could easily be adjusted if I wanted to.

'Fess up. Have you ever dream-cast the movie of your novel? What does the exercise do for you?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Accepting When You're the Buck-Stopper

You know the saying—the buck stops here. A simple phrase, easily understood. It means recognizing when the responsibility for something lands squarely on ourselves.

In the realm of the aspiring writer, rejection is the norm. We'll all experience more rejection than acceptance (although hopefully, the magnitude of the acceptance makes up for the sheer number of rejections). There are also a lot of possible reasons for the rejections. Some are within our control. Some aren't.

When we're not getting any nibbles, we need to consider all the possible reasons. Here are some that we may like telling ourselves to feel better, and they may even be true.

It's all subjective. Yes, it is, to a large degree. What one person loves, another may hate. (Just ask my sister.) Maybe the agents you've tried so far just aren't into your premise, but if you keep trying, you'll find one who feels that resonance.

The agent's not really looking for new clients. Well, maybe. Kind of. Personally, I think most agents who are open to queries really are hoping to find new clients. BUT ... a modified version of this may apply if the agent already has a manuscript to shop that's in a similar vein to yours.

The agent was in a bad mood when going through hundreds of queries. Possible, I suppose. Call me an optimist, but I like to think most agents are professional enough to keep moods out of it. But they're human, they're not perfect, so it could happen. Perhaps more likely is unfortunate timing. If an agent is seeing several queries in a row with similar premises—most of them badly done—and then comes across your similarly-themed query, they might be too burned out on the concept to recognize your fresh take.

All those reasons shift the responsibility away from us. That's kind of appealing, right? "It's not MY fault I'm not getting nibbles." Appealing, but dangerous, because here's the thing:

The Buck Stops HERE.

Let's face it. It's WAY more likely that the reason we're not getting nibbles is our fault in some way. Here are a few candidates to consider:

The query sucks. This is even more basic than not finding that magical, evasive, perfect query. Glaring errors. Weak writing. Newbie mistakes. Do your homework, get your rear-end kicked by knowledgeable people (such as those over at AgentQuery Connect), and get the basics right.

The premise is stale. Maybe the actual premise isn't stale, but in the query, it might come across as a tired old rehash of something that's been done. The query needs to highlight what's fresh and awesome in your story.

The un-sucky query isn't doing its job. Getting a well-written query that follows the rules is only the baseline. A query's job is to COMPEL. It must compel the recipient to read more. That's probably what I see lacking most often in queries I critique. The writing and set-up are okay, but it leaves me flat. It doesn't grab me and say, "You must read this!"

The sample pages are letting you down. This is a tricky one, because it can overlap with the idea of subjectivity a LOT. But this is where it all has to come together. Your voice, your technique, your style, your plotting choices, your characters ... they all need to sing in gorgeous harmony. One piece off-key can mean a quick rejection.

That last one can be the hardest. It's easy to say queries are hard. Figuring them out is a whole new learning curve from writing a novel. But it can come down to something as simple and frightening as this:

It might be the writing.

Maybe we're not ready. Maybe our skills need a touch more development.

We have to be open to this. If we're not, we won't take the next step—working harder to improve.

Maybe it's one of the other reasons—the reasons that are out of our control. Personally, I choose to assume I need to make my work better, because in the end, that attitude will do my writing the most good.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Blowing Students' Minds

This is one of my favorite parts of teaching—that moment when you tell kids something, and they give you that look.

"Seriously? No way!"

I teach such a wide range of kids, those jaw-dropping moments can come in a variety of ways, especially during the years when I've taught physics. Here are a few examples.

  • When it's three o'clock Thursday afternoon for us, it's eight o'clock Friday morning in Australia.
  • How dirt-simple derivatives in calculus can be with shortcuts like the Power Rule, yet still give the same information as the long limit-definition way.
  • What happens when you shoot a laser pointer through a piece of diffraction grating (or a prism, or a lens).
  • What happens when you look through a piece of diffraction grating at a prism while outside in the sun. (This was accidental, and very cool. We had fun in our color and optics unit.)
  • The whole idea of traveling close to the speed of light and all the crazy things that go along with it, like the Twin Paradox.
  • The crazy things that just plain sound waves do to cornstarch and water.


What are some things (from school or just life) that blew your mind when you learned about them?

Friday, April 6, 2012

It's Spring (Maybe?) and I Need a Break

After work today, Spring Break begins for my school. Not a moment too soon.

In the last couple of weeks, I've been through state testing, a last-gasp-of-winter snowstorm, a leaky classroom ceiling (still!), and the staff restrooms (adjacent to my classroom) requiring a massive toilet-removing plumbing-exploring procedure to return flushability to our lives. Oh, and other than the state testing, that was all in a matter of two days.

My nose needs a vacation more than anything.

My trusty laptop also croaked after over four years of working hard—fortunately not so badly that I couldn't get all my files off, and everything important was backed up. (In honor of my five novel protagonists, the replacement laptop has been named Nezra.)

Despite all this, I'm actually in a pretty good mood. I finished the draft of my seventh novel Wednesday night. (Uh, that sounds like a lot. Three are a trilogy. One is last year's NaNo.) My students handled the chaos in the classroom pretty well. We're down to T-minus-three-weeks until Mindy McGinnis invades the southwest. And like I said, vacation starts tomorrow afternoon.

So, my plans for the break? As usual, head up to my folks' place for a week. Do some editing. Critique Mindy's sure-to-be-mega-awesome revision. Prepare for the aforementioned invasion.

And pray that my classroom isn't soaked to the core when I get back.

But it occurs to me that I haven't been on a vacation in so long, I have no idea what the last one was. Maybe the time in grad school I spent Easter weekend with a classmate's family on the other side of New York state?

When Mindy and I get together, I suspect there will be some plotting about a future invasion, heading farther west ... and involving another certain critique partner.

Anyone else have Spring Break coming up? Any exciting plans? Or are you looking ahead to summer?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Write What You Know ... Or Don't ... But Only Sometimes?

We've all heard that tired piece of so-called advice: Write what you know. If you go traipsing about the writerly corners of the blogosphere, you'll find a lot of posts about why that's ridiculous.

And it is, especially when taken literally. If my novels were strictly based on things I know (i.e., have experienced), my family should be very worried about me. (Alternate dimensions? Human-alien hybrids? Uh, yeah.)

In some senses, though, I do write what I know, because I use my knowledge in lots of different ways as I write. I have deaf characters in two different projects. Yeah, that's something I know a thing or two about. If I didn't, I don't think I would dare attempt to write them. But there are other ways to gain that knowledge than by day-to-day living it.

I think we all know that we need to do our homework when writing, researching and educating ourselves about various topics that weave their way into the story. In that sense, we will write what we know, only we didn't know it until we needed to write it. (And as a friend recently noted, our search-engine histories can look really ... um ... interesting.)

There's knowledge, and then there's experience. Obviously we write about things we haven't experienced, and in many cases, we never could experience. (Again, crossing dimensions? Or, say, what some catastrophic injury feels like? Or what it's like to murder someone?)

But here's a thought: Are there some things, probably less out of the ordinary than the examples I mentioned, that you really must experience yourself?

A fellow writer recently posited that there are—that certain things will never be written well by a person who hasn't experienced them firsthand. I'm not going to go into it, because I don't want to color the responses.

Can you think of anything? Any at all? Or is the idea a load of hooey?

Make your case, for or against. I'm really curious to see what the general consensus is.

Monday, April 2, 2012

You Gotta Represent

If you're like me, you probably didn't learn much about data and statistics when you were in school. There were bits and pieces sprinkled throughout my math textbooks, usually at the end of a chapter, and usually sections that teachers deemed skippable.

Not so anymore. Since just before my teaching career began, data and statistics have been getting a lot more attention in math curricula. One of the last courses I took for my bachelors degree was a stats class where I learned about box-and-whisker plots for the first time. When I started my internship a few months later, I discovered kids were learning about those plots in Pre-Algebra.

It makes sense when you think about it. We have data flying at us every day in the form of survey results, charts, and infographics. It's important to be able to interpret all that information with a critical eye.

Something getting particular emphasis is the idea of sampling methods and using a representative sample. Say you're doing a survey on career goals among the student body at your school. You're not just going to ask the kids in the advanced art class and call it good. Likewise, if you want to know the average height of teenagers, you're not just going to measure the basketball team.

I got to thinking about this in reference to writing. Specifically, getting critique and feedback. It kind of follows the examples above, plus the reverse. You want to be a little bit narrow (if you're looking for information relating to teenagers, including grandparents in your sample doesn't make sense), but also not too narrow.

What determines "narrowness" in this case? There are certain things any reader can point out for you—typos, grammatical errors, things that truly don't make sense. But for the more subjective "Does this work or not?" questions, you probably don't want to seek the opinion of someone who doesn't read or even like your genre. If such a person comes along and gives their opinion anyway, you should see if anything's valid, but don't get too carried away with it.

At the same time, you don't necessarily want all your feedback to come from people who only read exactly the kind of thing you write, who may even write very similarly to you. Like I've said before, my critique partners are great because even though we all write YA, their strengths and preferences vary enough from mine to push me out of my comfort zone and make me stretch.

Have you had a representative sample in your beta readers and critique partners? How did you get that perfect selection?