Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Don't Take that Tone with Me!

It's one thing when you're communicating face-to-face. When someone's "taking a tone" with you, it's usually pretty obvious. Take the conversation to the realm of the written word, though, and suddenly there's more than enough room for interpretation.

As a novelist, it's tricky enough to make sure a character's tone matches the intention. I remember I once had a reader of one of my early manuscripts say, "Man, he's being a little harsh." I looked at the line of dialogue, mystified. Then I realized my reader (a teenager) was assuming a sarcastic tone for the brief statement. Not at all what I intended.

Did I tell her she was wrong and skip happily on my way? Nope. I adjusted the line and the information surrounding it so the intended tone came across more clearly.

Real-time conversations by text can be so much worse if we're not careful. That's why emoticons were invented, right? To give an extra cue of whether we're teasing or annoyed or uncertain? (I don't know if that's true, but it sounds good, and it's why I use them.)

What if one of our online compadres says, "Hey, on that post over there, you're coming across kind of (insert undesirable trait)"? Do we say, "That's not what I meant at all," and continue on without changing? Hopefully not. The fact I know what I meant is irrelevant. How it's taken by those reading is more important.

I may need to adjust my approach in the future, make sure my tone is more clear without the benefit of facial expression, vocal tone, body language, and all the other cues we use in real life. If I learn how to do that, who knows? Maybe it'll make me a better writer in general.

Have you had any experiences with misunderstanding tone or having your own misunderstood? Any tips or tricks for making tone clear in writing?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Chances Are, We Don't Understand Chances

Personally, I think probability is one of the most fun math concepts to teach. Break out the dice, the coins, the different-colored marbles, and the spinners. Do a bunch of trials to see how the experimental compares to the theoretical.

Despite the fun, I see a lot of students get all the way to high school without a solid understanding of what probabilities really mean. Take, for example, these two questions:

#1 You flip a fair coin five times and get five heads in a row. What's the probability of getting heads on the sixth flip?

#2 What's the probability of flipping a coin six times and getting heads all six times?

People often think these are asking the same thing. Our gut instinct for #1 is that if we've already gotten an uncommon five heads in a row, surely the chance of getting heads again isn't that good. But the coin doesn't know what it landed on before. The situation only has two choices: heads or tails. For that single sixth flip, it has a 50% chance of landing heads just like every other time.

The situation in #2 is completely different. You're taking all six flips as one situation, so there are a lot more "choices" for the results. All heads, all tails, one tail and five heads (with six different configurations for this one alone), and so on. There is only a 1/64, or a little more than 1.5% chance, of this happening.

The difference in the two is that in #1, the five heads in a row have already happened, and cannot influence the sixth flip.

It's also good to talk about what makes a game fair or unfair, and why gambling isn't such a great idea.

The thing about probabilities is that they often make an assumption about all else being equal. The coin or dice being evenly weighted. Every individual outcome (like heads or tails) having an equal chance.

In life, we can't always make that assumption. That's where people sometimes confuse "probability" with "statistics." For example, say we collect some data and find that 2% of writers querying a novel this year will secure representation with an agent. Does that mean any given querying writer this year has a 2% chance of getting an agent?

Not remotely.

Within that pool of querying writers, we can't say "all things being equal," because they aren't. Some of the writers don't have a clue what they're doing. (You've seen Slushpile Hell, right?) Some aren't making such egregious mistakes, but just aren't ready yet. Some just don't have the right timing with market trends. Some aren't querying that aggressively, only sending out a few here and there. And then some are at the top of their game, do their homework, and go at it. The percentage of that last group getting representation is probably quite different.

So, strange as it is for a math teacher to say, don't get caught up in the numbers when it comes to these subjective, highly variable, real life scenarios. Save thoughts of probability for when you're deciding whether to walk into a casino, or figuring out whether you should take an umbrella when you leave for work.

When it comes to situations where all things aren't equal, work to make sure you belong to the group that successes draw from. That's the way to up your chances.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hazards of the Blame Game

This is kind of an extension of my prior post on accepting responsibility. Blaming others is probably built into our genetic code. Little kids certainly pick up the skill quickly. They don't even have to be talking yet—they can just point at their sibling.

I teach teenagers, so I see it plenty. A student's grade is slipping, they're not doing what they're supposed to in class, and there are a thousand reasons for it. None of them acknowledging that maybe they bear some responsibility and control for their own academic fate.

Actually, since I've taught a lot of the same kids over several years, I've been able to see them grow and mature. I've seen them go through this transition to understanding, "Yeah, there are some factors I can't control, but my own decisions have the biggest impact on my life." It's very cool to see that change.

Not everyone gets there, though, even in adulthood.

A number of people I know are currently pregnant. I admit, #blamethefetus tweets are frequently amusing, so I'm not saying any hint of "blaming" someone/something is going to make my head explode. Even less humorous blaming can be okay once in a while. Sometimes you need to blow off steam. Sometimes something really is someone else's fault.

The not one but TWO traffic jams I had to get through on Wednesday after school, for instance. Definitely someone else's fault, definitely preventable, and definitely annoyed me. A lot.

But ... when we're looking at something that's not going right, trying to figure out why, and we look at everyone except ourselves, we have a problem. If we're the ones to blame (even partially), we'll be blind to it, and we'll likely miss opportunities to FIX IT.

I mean, hey, who doesn't want their life to go better?

Not getting the promotion we want at work? Maybe there's discrimination or favoritism going on. Or maybe we aren't working as hard or as well as some others.

Not getting requests with our queries, or not getting anywhere with submissions? Maybe trends in the market aren't lining up. Or maybe we can improve the story and writing in some way.

Do you catch yourself blaming others when you shouldn't? Has it gotten you in trouble? Do particular iterations of the Blame Game annoy you more than others?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Crushing the Contest Curse

Some of you know I haven't had the greatest history with contests. I'd only entered two—well, the same one, two years in a row. I got through the initial slush round both times. When it came to the agent judging/voting round, however ... silence.


All the things people say about subjectivity, not the right mix of agents for you, etc. are true. Someone thought my work was good enough to put me through the slush.

Those true words don't stop the hurt. The feeling that readers and other writers may appreciate aspects of my writing, but to the "people who matter," I'll never be good enough. The conviction that I'm doing something wrong and no one can tell me what.

Or maybe someone could tell me. They just don't.

I kept writing, kept revising, kept querying. With each story, I've gotten better. I know that. But I figured contests weren't for me. The sting of public silence was too much.

Then a couple of friends talked me into trying one more contest. (Okay, they didn't have to try that hard. Mostly it kept coming up in conversation and they said, "Yeah, you should.")

Maybe I'm just a masochist at heart.

I got picked by a coach, thus getting through the slush again.

Monday was agent voting day. One or two votes meant partial requests. Three or more meant full requests.

Would I suffer silence again?

No. Not this time. Five votes. Five full requests.

Nothing is guaranteed. An agent still has to love the whole manuscript enough to offer representation, and that's a whole different hurdle. The point for now is that when I was put up next to lots of really stellar work, I still caught some eyes. That feels really good.

But I still remember how the silence felt.

If you've suffered the silence, it's okay that it hurts. I'm a big believer in letting yourself wallow for a day or so, but only if you definitively cut off that wallowing before it does some damage. Keep working on the story you've got, or start working on a new one. Tweak your query or opening pages. Do some research on which agents are most likely to love your story.

Hope that you hit the right agent at the right time with the right story, because it takes a little luck. I'm not one to say we will make it if we keep working, because no one knows that. The only thing I know is that if we stop writing and stop trying, failure is guaranteed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mistakes vs. Incompetence

As some of you know, I'm entering a transition in the day job. This involves a lot of interviews, some where I'm the interviewee and some where I'm on the panel of interviewers. It makes for an interesting dual perspective.

My current school includes something extra in the interview process—candidates have to teach a brief mock-lesson. For me, that's the make-or-break portion of the interview. I can forgive a few weak answers on the standard interview questions, but if the math teaching isn't up to snuff, I'm not recommending.

Since we're nearing the end of the school year, I'm also leading my classes through reviews to prepare for their final exams. This includes going through problems we haven't discussed in-depth since last fall. Most of the time, it's fine. But a couple of times last week (in calculus, naturally), I had some ridiculous cerebral failures.

That's fine, too. I make a point of emphasizing to my students early on that I can make mistakes, and if they catch me at it, good for them. Seeing me make mistakes without falling apart seems to help them be more willing to take risks even though they might be wrong.

I got to thinking about the two situations. Where's the line between "Oops, the teacher's human and makes mistakes" and, "No, this interviewee doesn't have what it takes"?

My guess is that the line is in awareness. When I screwed up in calculus, I either knew right away or within moments. I immediately 'fessed up to the students and set about figuring out what I'd done wrong. With interviewees who aren't cutting it, they generally seem to think what they're doing is fine. Top interviewees often have more to criticize about themselves. There's a question in the interview about what they think they need to work on most. It's always interesting to correlate their answer to this question with their performance in the mock-lesson.

So, everyone, let's aspire to make mistakes. Own them, learn from them. But never let it cross into incompetence. If we are incompetent in an area, let's be aware of it, and work to correct it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Write What You Know, Pt 2: Diversity Edition

Last month, I posted about writing what you know, or more specifically, knowing vs. experiencing and the necessary levels of each. With the situation I had in mind at the time, I have to believe it's possible to write authentically without experiencing firsthand. (If not, I've got problems.)

Today, I'm thinking about a different situation. In this case, I still think it's possible to write it well without firsthand experience, but the closer you can get to the source in your "research," the better.

The situation is writing from an ethnic or cultural perspective that is not your own.

Clearly it can't be necessary for us to share backgrounds with our protagonists. If it were, women could only write female protagonists. No one could write from the POV of anyone older than they were. Way too limiting, to the point of being ridiculous.

But how do we do the research to make sure our characters are culturally authentic?

As I mentioned in the other post, two of my novels have deaf characters. In the first, it's not the POV character, but the almost-as-important sister. Honestly, I didn't dare attempt a deaf POV at that point. I'd been teaching at a deaf school for three years at the time, but I didn't feel ready. (It turned out that I think my POV choice was the right one regardless, just with who the characters are and where the story needed to go, but that's another matter.)

For the second novel (which followers of the blog may notice has finally shown up among the tabs at the top), I got brave. My MC is hard-of-hearing, and there are a variety of deaf supporting characters. I felt like I was ready to take it on.

I'm not "in" Deaf culture, but I've been pretty well immersed in it for several years now. I've seen a lot of viewpoints within it, some of them completely contradictory to each other. I think witnessing and acknowledging the contradictions was the key.

No culture is homogenous any more than a society is homogenous. You can't say, "All Deaf people are like this," any more than you can say, "All Chinese people are like that."

That doesn't mean you can have a character say and do anything and have it be authentic, though.

Am I talking in circles yet? Feels like it.

Cultures are tricky things. Group history, personalities, individual experiences, family tradition, education ... all those things feed into the culture and influence how each person inside experiences it. Individual, unique, yet within certain bounds that offer sameness, that allow a person to say, "Yes, I belong."

Can you find that in a Google search?

Will you even know to look?

Be honest. How many of you are looking at me funny for capitalizing "Deaf" in some places? How many of you are getting question-mark-face at the way I'm discussing a physical disability alongside cultures like they're the same thing?

Surely anyone can write a deaf character. Just cut out the sound and add in sign language, right? I might have thought the same before I became acquainted with people on the inside, and learned that Deaf and deaf are two different things.

Do we fall into the same trap with other cultural identities? Do we assume we can write a character from a particular background, when really we haven't dug deep enough yet to see the nuance and variety within that culture? The push and pull that come from being part of a smaller culture (or more than one) within the larger culture of a particular society?

This is definitely a post where I don't have answers—just questions. And it's gone on long enough. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Addict's Scorn

Since my students often borrow books from me (particularly books that the school library doesn't have), they also share their opinions on those books. Sometimes it's just a quick, "Yes, this was good!" or, "Eh, it was okay," when they return it. They know that if I haven't read it yet, I don't want to know details. If I have read it, we'll chat a little more about what they liked or didn't.

Yesterday, one of my students walked in and declared, "I hate this book!"

I spotted the bookmark. She's halfway through. And she's still reading.

If she really loathed it, she'd have quit earlier and traded for another book. They do that all the time. Since it's one I haven't gotten to yet, she didn't get specific. But from what I can gather, she's frustrated with something about the course of the plot. And/or it's not giving her what she wants when she wants it.

This particular book is part of a series. The same student has been very vocal in her opinions (both positive and negative) on earlier books in the series. Overall, she likes it. But that didn't stop her from passing through my room on the way to lunch and shouting, "I hate the book even more now!"

There's another series the same student has read. That one, she really hates for very particular reasons. But she's said, "Will they just finish the stupid series so I know how the stupid thing ends?"

She hates it, but she'll still finish it.

In both cases, the author has her hooked. She's addicted, and she can't let the stories go until she knows how they end. There's a difference, though.

When the author of Series 1 begins a new series, my student will probably buy in and get hooked on that one, too. With Series 2, I don't think my student will give that author more opportunities to torture her.

They have something in common—they're both addictive.

They're polar opposites—one makes you revel in the addiction while the other makes you curse the person who got you hooked.

I wish I could put my finger on the key to that addictive quality. I'd bottle it up and pour copious amounts on my manuscripts. My best guess is it's some bit of magic balancing characters that feel real and a compelling plot.

So where do the two series diverge? I think it's a matter of those qualities slipping away as the series goes on. The authenticity of characters is weakened when they make unrealistically stupid choices for the sake of plot. Consequently, the plot may start to feel obnoxious and contrived.

With Series 1, my student may not like some turns the characters and plot are taking, but those turns must still feel authentic. She still believes.

What do you think makes some novels so addictive? What pitfalls have you noted that make an initially addictive novel fall flat?

Monday, May 14, 2012

How Does Your World Measure Up?

World-building is a key component of writing fiction, particularly in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy. That means you have to have culture, history, and everything else that comes with a real world underlying your story.

Including ... measurement units?

Maybe not. Maybe your world is built enough off of ours that it makes sense to stick with the usual feet and inches, pounds and ounces. Or if your world is in a future where scientific reasonableness is king, so you're all metric.

But what if that won't work for your world?

My first novel was largely in an alternate dimension with some shared history, but mostly a huge divergence. And a very science-oriented society. In a particular situation, I needed to make a reference to a measurement of volts.

Volts were named for Alessandro Volta. A dude who didn't exist in that dimension.

First thought: Oh, crap.

Second thought: Okay, what made-up units would make sense in this word I've created?

I considered how the society was fairly practical and straightforward in other naming practices, and I thought about what voltage means. In the end, I came up with a fake unit that seemed to fit both needs.

Have you ever thought about how many units are named after a person? Fahrenheit and Celsius for temperature. Volts, amperes, coulombs, and ohms for various aspects of electricity and charge. Newtons for force, pascals for pressure.

If you don't need to worry about these things in your stories, you're a lucky one. For the rest of us, make sure you think about a natural way for units to evolve in your world.

Have you invented units/measurements for one or more of your stories? How did you go about it?

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Birthday Resolution

No, it's not my birthday. That was last month. Did you miss it? That's okay. I really don't mind.

Fact is, it's been years since I made a big deal of my birthday. I can't remember the last time it was a big deal. Well, three years ago I brought an amazing friend with me on a birthday visit to my family. She made cakes, and the experience was pretty memorable.

Cake with Gaping Flesh Wound
But really, we could have—and probably would have—done it without it being my birthday.

I'm not so different from a lot of other people. Birthdays remind me that I'm getting older. Then I delve into thoughts of, "Am I where I thought I'd be or wanted to be by this age?" In some ways, no. Cue disappointment, depression, and general malaise. In other ways, I've done some very positive things I never imagined five years ago.

Still. Birthdays. Meh.

At least, that's how I felt until something made me think about it the other night.

I have pretty awesome students. You might have heard me mention it before. Even the ones who drive me bonkers find ways to make me glad I work with them now and then. Earlier this week, I attended an award ceremony for top seniors around the city, including one of my students, whom I'd nominated.

I've taught this student for the past five years, from Algebra 1 all the way to Calculus. I've chatted with her mom several times, and did again this particular night. This student has a few health issues, no surprise there, but her mom mentioned something I didn't know before.

When she was born, no one expected her to make it. They came in and told her mom—a first-time mother—that her baby would not make it through the night.

As her mom says now, though, her daughter is a regular donkey with the stubbornness. And here we are, eighteen years later. Eighteen years longer than the doctors expected. Alive and lively.

I'm not going to gripe about my birthdays and getting older anymore.

Happy Birthday, Paige!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

You Might Have a Bad Prologue If ...

If you lurk around writing/publishing sites or follow such people on Twitter, you'll see a couple (hundred) comments on the evils of prologues. And they can be evil. Quite often are, especially in unpublished manuscripts. I used to spend a lot of time on an online slushpile of a site. I've seen a lot of such manuscripts, and I think I only ever saw a couple of prologues where I said, "Oh, yeah. That works. That's a keeper."

People wiser than I have posted on the topic, but I never let that stop me. So here's a Jeff Foxworthy-style (but probably not as entertaining) list. Read it over, take a good look at your prologue, and try to be honest about whether it fits into any of these clues that



  • ... you only wrote the prologue because EVERY book in your genre has one. Every single one. Not one out there that doesn't in the whole wide world. Well, except those over there. They don't count.
  • ... you only wrote the prologue because you're completely enamored with the idea of prologues. You love them. The books you worship most and aspire to be like have them, so clearly you must have a prologue so your books can be just like the oh-so-awesome works of [fill in the blank].

  • ... your reader feels like they were walking to an important appointment and got held up by a chatterbox in the hallway who won't let them go until they've heard all about the stapler that keeps disappearing from the copy room. In other words, they feel like they're being held up from the real story. (Even a prologue should feel like part of the 'real' story.)

  • ... your reader feels compelled to take notes on all the names of characters, their vital stats, and how they interrelate, only to find out none of them will show up again in the next 80,000 words.

  • ... your reader learns something through the prologue that the main character is ignorant of until the third-to-last page of the novel, and spends the whole novel screaming, "No, you idiot! He's your FATHER!" (Or equivalent.) Letting the reader be in the know when the MC isn't can be cool. It can also be seriously frustrating. Fine line to tread.
  • ... your reader gets annoyed because they already have a long-winded, boring history teacher, and it's no fun in real life, so even worse during pleasure reading, thank you very much!
  • ... you could avoid all of the above with three well-placed sentences rather than the prologue, but you can't see that because you're utterly certain that your novel REQUIRES a prologue to work.

This doesn't mean all prologues are evil and bad and smelly and gross. Plenty of published books have them. They got past an editor's desk that way for a reason. Are you sure you likewise qualify?

Really sure?

If so, go ahead. Just remember, every time you assume you're one of the exceptions, you're taking a risk.

Can anyone add to the You Might Have a Bad Prologue If... list? I'm sure there are things I missed.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Makings of Mathematical Mistakes

In my years of teaching math, I've amused myself by taking note of the types of mistakes students make. (Yeah, okay. I'm easily amused.) You can pretty much figure out the type of mistake by watching my reaction.

The "Fell Through the Cracks" Mistake

This usually happens in complex, multi-step problems. The student does all the hard stuff right but overlooks something. More often than not, it's losing a negative or mistyping something in the calculator.

R.C.'s Reaction: I just point wordlessly at the paper or calculator and wait while the student looks, ponders, then says, "Oh! Oops."

The "You Know Better" Mistake

Another "careless" variety of mistake. Can I tell you how many times I've asked what four-squared is only to hear, "Eight. No—wait! Sorry. Sixteen."

R.C.'s Reaction: Students often catch those without any help from me. When they don't, they get my 'Did you seriously just say that?' look. If that's not enough, they get a verbal, "Really?"

The "You're Still Learning" Mistake

This happens when students are mostly getting a new concept but aren't quite there yet. OR ... when they have to apply something they learned previously that hasn't quite solidified.

R.C.'s Reaction: Usually I ask them to explain their thinking first, then ask some follow-up questions until they see the wrong turn. Sometimes a neighboring student will try to tease the other about the mistake, at which point I remind them that they made the exact same mistake two minutes ago when I was helping them.

The "Someone in Your Past Failed Both of Us" Mistake

I teach high school math, which naturally relies on concepts learned over several years before arriving in my class. Sometimes we're working on some complicated algebraic thing and I realize some/all of the students have a problem with an underlying principle. (Fractions, anyone? Or measurement conversions?)

R.C.'s Reaction: What can I do? Go off to the side of our work and make up a simplified example (i.e., non-algebraic addition of fractions), quickly refresh the kids' memories on that, and parallel it to the problem at hand.

The "Back the Truck Up" Mistake

These mistakes on the part of the student tell me that I screwed something up as the teacher. Didn't explain clearly, allowed for a massive misconception to take root, etc. Sometimes I even did something just plain wrong.

R.C.'s Reaction: Confess to the class that I made a boo-boo, very clearly indicate where we went wrong, and emphasize the proper way to move forward.

Some people might say it's a teacher's job to eliminate mistakes and a student's job to avoid them. I don't agree with that. Mistakes are great! They're how we learn. (Well, so they're great as long as we learn from them.) And one thing to keep in mind is that I have extremely small classes, and I've taught most of my students for more than one year, some for up to five straight. My reactions to the "Fell Through the Cracks" and "You Know Better" varieties are done in an environment where the students and I are able to laugh off mistakes without embarrassment. (And where I'll accept "It's calculus on a Monday morning," as an excuse for the careless mistakes as long as they keep trying.)

I know some people who were always terrified to volunteer information in class, certain they'd make a mistake. I was one of them. Now, I'm okay with making mistakes in the classroom. Still working on being okay with it in the rest of my life.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What We Learned During MindyMania 2012

This week I've been discussing the weekend I spent with my critique partner, Mindy McGinnis. I've covered the wildlife and the writing, so today I'll just sum up a few things we learned.

Thing We Learned #1: Mindy and I really are twins separated at birth.

(And Mom was in labor for about three weeks.) We already suspected. Our birthdays are very close, down to the year. Our opinions and tastes are often the same. We complete each other's sentences. And now we know that we use the same shampoo.

Thing We Learned #2: Fast food employees can take the "twins" idea too far.

To the girl at Wendy's who thought Mindy was me after I'd already ordered—really? Okay, we were both wearing glasses and both tend toward the chalk-white end of "pale." But there's a seven- or eight-inch difference in height. My hair is mega-short; hers is long. Beyond that, the differences are what make things interesting. Mindy was ready and raring to go for the school presentations. I was freaking out about having to introduce her each time for about thirty seconds.

Thing We Learned #3: Handprint petroglyphs are the best.

I mentioned earlier in the week that we visited Petroglyph National Monument. It was very cool hiking around one of the canyons, and right on the edge of the city. All the petroglyphs were fascinating, and we had a lot of fun wondering about the meanings of different symbols, but I particularly liked this set we saw right at the end of the canyon. Strange thing, too—a few hikers had been ahead of us, and the hike is an out-and-back, not really a loop, but we never saw them coming back. Maybe the hands were warning us ... ?

"Turn back! Alien abductions beyond this point!"
Thing We Learned #4: Going out of your way can really pay off.

I don't know if any of you watch the series Breaking Bad. I don't, but Mindy does. There's a particular restaurant that figures prominently in one season, apparently, and we went to check out the actual restaurant that provided the front for the show. Bonus: The lot next door is where we saw the emu I posted about Monday. Double Bonus: The food was awesome.

If not for the glare, you might see the ostrich out the window.
We learned several other things, but I'll save those for another time. :)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"The Writer's Voice" Contest Entry: Stitching Snow

For my regular readers, this is my entry for a contest I've entered. (See details here.) Feel free to peruse or ignore as you'd like. :)


Seventeen-year-old Essie knows how to stitch up robotic drones so the men in the mining settlement remember she’s worth keeping around. She knows how to use her fists to make sure they keep their hands off her. What she doesn’t know is how to deal with a boy who’s depending on her to get his crashed shuttle off the ground and out of orbit.

He’s polite, chivalrous, even a little charming, and he gives Essie the kind of attention she’s never had ... until he discovers her secret. She’s the missing princess of his people’s greatest enemy. One betrayal later, he’s taking her home whether she likes it or not, to exchange for prisoners of war. What he doesn’t know is she had damn good reasons for running away. His ‘leverage’ means her death.

STITCHING SNOW is 68,000 words of Snow White in space, if Snow were a cage-fighting tech-head with daddy issues.

First 250 Words:

It took seventeen seconds to decide Jarom Thacker’s reputation as the sharpest fighter on Thanda had been a minor exaggeration. At twice my size—and age—he was still quick, forcing me to move or risk getting pinned against the cage. Like everyone else who came through Mining Settlement Forty-Two, though, he aimed for my gut or back. Never the most obvious target.

Wouldn’t want to botch the pretty girl’s face, right? Idiot.

I blocked him on the left, but missed his swing on the right slamming into my ribs. Pain flared through my side. I let it fire me on and slipped Thacker’s grip when he tried to grab me.

Unlike him, I had no qualms about uglifying him further—not with the way he looked at me, the shudder it sent across my skin. The heel of my palm slammed into his nose with a satisfying crunch despite the cushioning of my shock-fiber handwraps. He ignored the blood and lunged blindly; I dodged with a knee to his groin. When he doubled over, I kicked his legs from under him. He went down and I followed, pinning him. He tried to raise himself up. Before he could throw me off, I grabbed a fistful of his hair and knocked his head against the floor.

“Three ... two ... one ... fight goes to Forty-Two’s own Essie.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Telling Teens Reading Doesn't Suck ... Using Vomit

As mentioned previously (twice now), critique partner extraordinaire Mindy McGinnis joined me in the southwest for the weekend, including a set of presentations to my school.

The first two presentations were to younger students (grades 1-3 for the first, then 4-8 for the second). We broke the kids into three groups and had one come up with a character, one a setting, and one a "problem," plus each group had to offer one random word. Then Mindy had to pull all that together and make up a story on the spot.

Ninjas are very popular this year. And Mindy managed to turn our school's founder into a zombie ship captain on Mars.

The other presentation was a little more formal for the high school kids. Mindy talked about the idea of lots of stories having the same basic plot at their root, but weaving in specifics that make it interesting and new. She'd give several examples of a particular Big Idea, then offer a specific premise for the kids to guess.

For example, under "Boy and girl fall in love but can't be together because ______," she gave, "Pretty blonde with a perfect life falls for a Hispanic gang member from the wrong side of town." Several of my female students jumped right in with the answer: Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles.

I think many of the kids came away with the point Mindy wanted to make. The "sameness" of many stories is a good thing, because if you find one you really like, you can find others you're likely to enjoy as well. (And librarians can help you with that!)

As writers, though, we need to remember the second part of that formula—bringing a fresh, new take to the same old story. Too often, we find ourselves just writing the same story with only superficial differences, and that's just boring.

Oh, and the vomit? Yes, Mindy totally has a story that makes vomit relevant to reading. But you'll have to hear her tell it sometime.