Friday, June 29, 2012

Things that Make You Go *Headdesk*

(If you're internet-uninitiated and don't have an immediate visual for "headdesk" then go run an image search.)

We all have things that drive us to that point of cranium-meets-office-furniture. Some big, some small. And once in a while, you need to vent about those headdesk moments.

Here are a few I've come across lately:

  • Idiots who start wildfires. Yeah, sometimes they're started by lightning. Sometimes they're started by accidents that are honestly out of anyone's control. But it seems like lately it's a lot of target shooting or fireworks in obviously unwise areas. (It's a desert, people. Have a clue.)

  • Misspellings of "definitely," such as definately or definatly. (Yeah, I'm illustrating the full range of *headdesks* from significant to trivial.) While we're at it, mix-ups of rein/reign. If you're out of control, someone needs to rein you in. If someone's ruling you, they're reigning over you.

  • People who argue/talk back to judges on reality/talent shows. Especially on Hell's Kitchen when Gordon Ramsay tells a chef to get out and they argue that they want to stay. Haven't they seen the show before? When he says go, you just go.

That's probably more than enough for one day.

How about you? What's made you go *headdesk* lately? Go ahead and vent. Sometimes you just have to.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Putting the Sci in Sci-Fi

I've written before about world-building, focusing on the art of weaving it into the body of our stories. It's a necessary part of pretty much any genre of fiction to one degree or another, but particularly in speculative and historical fiction. Right now, I'm going to focus on a different aspect of world-building, specifically in science fiction.

Forget working in the details. I want to talk about whether the details work.

It's science fiction, right? Fiction, as in made up. Yeah, but you also have the 'science' part. You want things to be a little out there, imaginative, something the reader hasn't thought of before, but now that you suggested it, "Yes, that's so awesome!" At the same time, you don't want it to enter the realm of, "But that's totally impossible!"

Finding the balance between scientific feasibility and creative license isn't easy. I don't think I know any writers who don't dive in and do some research when they find they need to. There are natural limitations. (For example, check out the letter Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry sent Isaac Asimov in response to the latter's criticism of the television series.)

However, I've come across instances where I feel like authors didn't realize they needed to do a little research. Maybe they lacked the background knowledge. Maybe they just didn't think it through from the angle I naturally look from. Maybe they put more emphasis on what worked for their plot than what actually works from a logical world-building perspective.

Maybe I'm just a science snob.

To be honest, I see this particularly in YA sci-fi. Not saying it's true of all (not remotely!) or most. I hope it's not even true of many. But it's certainly true of some. Some who call themselves geeks, love sci-fi as a consumer, but don't get the whole left-side-of-the-brain engagement going in their writing.

I'm not saying all sci-fi has to be hard sci-fi. We don't need pages of techno-babble backing up the scientific elements of the story. But here are some (very general) scientifically minded questions I try to consider in my world-building details:

  • What progression led to the present level of technology in the world? Is it ascending (advancing technology) or descending (lost knowledge due to some event in the past)?
  • What limitations are there, preventing all tasks from being dirt simple? If technology makes some things super-simple, but others still require effort, does that distinction make sense?

  • If my setting is Earth, but X years in the future, how do elements of our current world influence my story? How have elements of our present degraded over time? (Never forget entropy.)

And here's a biggie:

  • What laws of physics (as currently understood) am I going to try to break, bend, or circumvent? How can I justify it? (The justification can be highly fictional, but must be consistent within itself.)

Any other sci-fi buffs out there? Are there ways you see the "sci" in sci-fi getting glossed over too much (in YA or otherwise)? What strategies do you have for keeping your imagination within some confines of scientific consistency? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Flavor of Origami

If you've read my profile over there on the right, you might have noticed the "origami-folding" part. But when you think of origami, what do you think of?

Paper cranes? I don't know how to make those.

Or maybe Origami Yoda? I only wish I were that cool.

So what's up with me saying I'm origami-folding? What can I make?

That's right! Piles of brightly colored, crinkly parallelograms!

Okay, I'm kidding. I hadn't assembled them yet. Here's what they really make.

It's called a stellated icosahedron. The "stellated" means it's pointy and star-like. The "icosahedron" means if those pointy parts were flattened down, it'd have twenty faces.

In general, this style is called modular origami. You make a bunch of identical pieces and assemble them. Very geometric.

You can imagine why I like it so much.

It's also a great way to fill a day of math classes when the timing doesn't work for a regular math lesson. Like the last day before Christmas break and you just did a chapter or unit test the day before, so you definitely don't want to start a new chapter.

It also makes the students think their math teacher is pretty cool.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A Round of Applause for the Visual Arts

On Wednesday, I mentioned that it took a long time for me to discover/realize/admit I had any type of creativity inside me. Acknowledging that my writing had any artistic value took a little longer. There's one thing, though, that remains an unchanging truth.

I can't draw.

Add to that the fact that I can't paint, sculpt, or do anything else under the umbrella of visual arts. My brother and sister got that talent. When we started playing DrawSomething against each other, I figured my attempts would be pitiful next to theirs. (Fortunately, phone-sized touchscreens are the great equalizer.)

It's not one of my strengths, and I'm okay with that. I think it's helped me appreciate those who do have talents in that area.

You know who doesn't appreciate the talent and hard work required? Those clients featured on Clients From Hell. Seriously. As the sister of a graphic designer, I find it mind-boggling.

To counter those non-appreciators, here's some appreciation. Once upon a time, I taught an eighth-grade girl named Lynn some math. Fast forward about a decade, and we got back in touch. She doesn't draw professionally, just doodles for fun, but that doesn't stop me from following her Tumblr religiously.

Have you seen the Hatchet Cat featured on Mindy McGinnis's Saturday Slash query critiques? Yeah, Lynn drew that.

So, for Lynn, my siblings, and everyone else who can draw things that make me go ♡♥♡, I raise my glass (of root beer) to you!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Confessions of a Late Bloomer

I've heard it more than once. Possibly more than a hundred times. Likely from some of you reading this post. Countless writers have said some version of the following:

I was born to write. Came out of the womb with a pencil in my hand.

I wrote my first book (with staple binding and full-color illustrations) when I was five.

I knew I wanted to be an author when I was eight. It's my life's dream.

If you've said one of those things, totally cool. Nothing wrong with that. (Unless you mention any of the above in your query letter. DON'T do it!) Some people have that direction and solid idea of where they want to go in life early.

I'm not one of those people.

To be fair, I've always been a bookworm. But as a kid/teen, I never got enthralled by gorgeous prose or amazing imagery. I just wanted a story that could hold my interest, keep me guessing, suck me in to the very end and beyond.

To be even more fair, I've always known I'm pretty good with words. I could write a school essay on just about any topic without breaking a sweat. (Very handy in grad school.) When my sister needed to argue with someone on a message board, she got me to help her phrase everything just right.

That didn't make me a writer. Writers were creative and imaginative and all those good things.

We had to take two English classes in college. Freshman English (which I managed to delay well beyond freshman year) and some type of Advanced English chosen from a list. I chose Technical Writing. Never considered taking any type of creative writing class.

I wasn't the type.

So what am I now?

Over the past three years, I've slowly grown used to the idea that there is some creativity in me. That while my writing style will never be "conventionally beautiful," there is artistic merit in it. That the strong analytical side I've been so comfortable with all my life can be a complement to creativity.

I think I'm old enough now to understand that while there are many types, there isn't one correct type. My "writerliness" is just as real as that of someone who's been spinning stories since toddlerhood.

Some people take the interstate to their goals. Others take mountainous backroads, and an unplanned detour leads to an unexpected destination. One isn't better (or worse) than the other.

Just different.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dads by the Numbers

Okay, this is kind of a stretch for a Mathematical Monday, but Fathers Day was yesterday, and I'm involving numbers. We'll pretend it works.

In contemplating Fathers Day, I found myself thinking about the students I've taught recently and the various roles fathers have (or haven't) played in their lives. Here come the numbers.

0 Dads
I've had several students raised by single mothers without any father in the picture. Some of them mentioned offhand that the last time they heard from him was years and years ago. I have another student whose father died just last year. Even in the absence of a father, the experience can vary widely.

1 Dad
This is just the standard, average situation, right? For some, yes. Some students have the basic one mom, one dad, still married after all these years. (That's the situation I come from.) There are others whose parents are divorced, but their dad has stayed just as involved as their mom.

It's not always so standard, though. I had one student who was raised by her dad because her mom passed away years ago.

2+ Dads
Anyone with half a brain should know that biology isn't everything. When one of my students mentioned her dad, sometimes she meant her biological dad, but often she meant her step-father. She has a great relationship with him.

When another of my students mentioned his dad, he almost always meant his foster dad. The only time he meant his biological dad was when he talked about filling out paperwork and making sure people included the "Jr." so his father's criminal record wouldn't come up and get mistaken for him.

There are lots of kinds of dads, and they cover the spectrum from amazing to appalling. As a writer, I try to hit on various types and situations. Whatever our situation, we have to be grateful for the good, and grateful for every chance to overcome the bad.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Looking for Love in All the Lame Places

I'm admittedly picky about reality television. It's a mixed bag, as I'm sure anyone who's glanced at any would agree. I like talent-based shows (America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance?) and competitions like The Amazing Race. That last one sometimes devolves into drama and pettiness, which I'm not so crazy about. I've only watched a couple of seasons of Survivor for the same reason.

For me (my personality, disposition, whatever), the absolute worst are the dating shows.

Full disclosure: I've never actually watched so much as a single episode of The Bachelor. My opinion is based entirely on commercials and listening to other people talk about the shows. It's been more than enough for me. Every time I see those commercials, I find myself yelling at the TV.

And there are so many of them now. Love in the Wild (dating show meets Survivor). Take Me Out. The Choice (dating show meets The Voice ... clearly).

I might've been interested in Beauty and the Geek if they'd made it hot guys and a brainy girl. Maybe. A friend in college claimed if you pay attention to wedding announcement photos, the guy and gal are either equally attractive or the girl is distinctly better looking. So seeing that flipped around could have at least intrigued me.

With this many shows, though, clearly people are interested. There's a reason for the popularity. Something I can't see, I guess. Is it seeing the shallow interplay, mocking it, or is there something more?

If any of you are fans and can enlighten me, I'd love to hear about it.

Are there things that are popular with others and you just don't understand?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where Does Your Idea-Spawner Dwell?

"Where do you get the ideas for your stories?"

I haven't even been at this very long, and I've already lost count how many times I've been asked that. Maybe it hasn't been that many. Maybe I'm just blocking the memories because my answer often seems to be, "Um, well ... I don't know. Places."

Part of the problem is that no two stories have had the same clear-cut idea-spawning process. One came from a line of lyrics that I thought I'd heard wrong. One came from experiences I saw repeating for a certain subset of my students, and I realized I could fictionalize the essence of it. Most of the others, I don't have a solid memory of where they came from. One little germ of a thought smooshed into another, then another. A main character, a premise, a plot ... they just kind of evolved. By the time I had the full "idea" in my head, I couldn't remember how I got to that original germ in the first place.

Another thing I've lost count of is how many times I've heard other authors say they've gotten ideas from dreams. Tons of them saying they have to keep a notepad on the nightstand so when they wake from a dream that'll make an awesome story, they can jot down the important points before it slips from their minds.

I have a confession. My dreams are utterly useless to me as a writer.

I can't say they're necessarily boring. They're just either too ordinary or too weird to make good story fodder. A lot of my dreams involve mash-ups of my current life with older memories. I'm at school, and I'm supposed to go teach something, but I'm also a student again, and it's supposed to be my high school, but it's more like classrooms from the deaf school I interned at got transplanted to my junior high building. The supporting characters are a mix of people I went to school with and kids I've taught at various stages of my career.

Oh, and the best part is when some people are using ASL while others are speaking, and it almost never matches up with who would be doing each in real life.

(Someone's going to waltz in and do a dream analysis on this, declaring my subconscious to be either really dull or really messed up, right?)

The good news is, it doesn't really matter where the ideas come from, as long as they come. Maybe it's on my mind because I'm wondering where I'll find the next one.

Do your ideas tend to spawn in ways that are easy for you to pinpoint? Or are they a little more amorphous as they sneak up on you?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Covering the Full Spectrum

I seem to talk about balance a lot. (I just ran a search on "balance" and it came up with a dozen posts here on the blog.) It certainly comes up plenty when talking about writing. Balance description with pace. Balance clarity with mystery and intrigue. Adjectives aren't evil; the overuse and abuse of them is.

Basically, I don't go in for absolutes on a lot of things. It's not just in writing, either. It holds in other areas, even when I make a statement that might seem absolute. For instance, I'm sure this won't come as a surprise:

I love math.

But does this mean I love math absolutely? That I love all math? That I love every single thing pertaining to math?


There are parts I love more, parts I love less, and parts I love not at all. Like what, you ask? Here you go—examples.

Math-Thing I Love a Lot: Being able to break down a complex problem into steps or pieces that logically flow from one to another.

Math-Thing I Love Less: Sketching visuals (graphs, diagrams, etc.) by hand. I can do them pretty well on paper, but I'm a teacher. That means whiteboards. And that means, uh, not so pretty. (Favorite math quote of all-time: "Geometry is the art of correct reasoning from incorrect drawing.")

Math-Thing I Don't Love At All: Having to do things the long way when I know there's a shortcut. That might be more of a math teacher thing, but it came up sometimes when I was a student, too. If a student can prove to me they understand the foundations contained in the long way and can justify their shortcut working consistently, I'll usually let them use it. But as the teacher, I'm generally stuck with the long way in the early days of teaching a concept.

But here's the good news about having such a full spectrum even within something I love. I suspect it means even students who generally hate math will have some aspect of it they don't hate. My job is to find that aspect, because that's where I can get my foot in the door.

How about you? If you love math, what part of it do you hate? If you hate math, what part of it do you love?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Being Proud or Keeping Others from Feeling Bad?

When I was in junior high, they tried doing this "character education" program with us once a week. I don't remember much of it, other than that we all thought it was lame, and it talked about self-esteem a lot. The message that came across was that we should all be proud of ourselves no matter what.

Personally, I've never found that approach effective. Saying everyone should feel good about themselves is empty, hollow, meaningless. It sure didn't work for me. What does work? Encouraging kids to do something they can be proud of, perhaps. Helping them accomplish those things. Emphasizing pride in things of more intrinsic value (like accomplishing something through hard work) than extrinsic (like being the most popular kid in school).

This week, I heard about some events at recent high school graduations. Four seniors have to complete twenty hours of community service before getting their diplomas, because their family and friends cheered when their names were called during the ceremony. I thought the no-cheering rule was odd and surely an isolated thing, but no. A graduate's mother was arrested for supposedly cheering too much for her daughter.

From what I've read, the reasoning behind the anti-cheering (or anti-excessive-cheering) ceremonies is that in the past, some families have carried on so much that the following students' names couldn't even be heard, or delayed the ceremony by refusing to settle down for several minutes. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's been a problem in some places. (But arresting the mom? Really?)

At the same time, part of me suspects there's a bit more beneath. Could it be that these rules are so some kids don't feel bad that they get less cheering than some of their classmates? I don't know. But I think it's possible.

I just attended a graduation a week ago. It was unusual. The state governor was the speaker. The graduating class consisted of just ten kids. Most of the ceremony was in ASL, with interpreters over the sound system, so "not hearing" something wasn't an issue. Anyone could cheer as much as they wanted.

So I thought back to my own graduation. I was in a graduating class of several hundred. The graduation was held in a university arena. They cranked through our names fairly quickly. Some kids had loud and enthusiastic cheering sections, but I'm pretty sure the sound system beat them out.

Then, when some girl I didn't even know had her turn to walk across, half of the arena erupted. It didn't make sense. Then I found out why.

This had just happened:

John Stockton had to feel pretty proud of himself. Deservedly so.

And I didn't need my family to cheer that loudly for me to know they were proud of me.

What's your take on self-esteem? How do we encourage kids to develop it without making it empty and meaningless?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Gauging the Awesome

I've been hearing it for a while. Want to get an agent? The most important piece of the puzzle is to be awesome. Write an awesome query to get an agent's attention, and make sure you're ready to back it up with an awesome manuscript.

Okay, but how do you know when you've arrived at "awesome"?

It's not easy. The first thing I had to accept was that I might be wrong. I wouldn't really know. The best I could do was have a really strong belief. I also tried to keep my mind open to a need to increase the awesome.

There's a line between "If I don't believe in my work, why should anyone else?" and "I've written the most amazing novel ever and how dare anyone say I change a single thing?" It's a thin line, and crossing to the wrong side isn't pretty. Keeping my self-assessments honest can be a battle between my perfectionism and occasional surges of ego.

It doesn't help when there are plenty of outside-our-control reasons for agents not to nibble. Our timing may be off trend-wise. Maybe we're hitting agents who just signed something too similar.

Maybe the work just isn't awesome enough (yet).

That doesn't mean it isn't awesome at all. Maybe it's pretty-darn awesome, just not holy-whoa awesome.

I thought my earlier manuscripts were awesome enough. In fact, I still think there's a lot of awesome in them. At the same time, there's something great about retrospect. When I look back over my querying experiences, there was something different this last round—the round that resulted in signing with my agent. A different gut-feeling when I said to myself, "This bird is ready to fly."

Thing is, I can only recognize that from here. At the time, all I could do was hope.

And keep working.

Because no amount of awesome is ever really enough, right?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Even Math Teachers Can Have Math Weaknesses

I've taught just about every math subject and topic you can imagine right up through calculus. I'm pretty good at all kinds of math problems, which is nice when you're expected to help kids make sense of them. But there's a skill—mathematical in nature—that I'm not so hot at.

Spatial estimation.

How many feet are between me and the car in front of me? Couldn't tell you.

How many gallons of water fit in my bathtub? No idea.

When it comes to teaching, this isn't really a problem. I know about measurement. I know how to take measurements. I know a few benchmarks (like a football field) and can easily estimate whether something is more or less than those.

It's a problem when I'm moving today. Do I have enough boxes? Is everything going to fit in the size of moving truck I've rented (plus the two cars coming along)?

I guess I'll find out.

After packing up my classroom this past week, though, I'm happy to say I've at least gotten better at optimizing box space. I got some books packed in an arrangement that was a thing of beauty.

Is there a minor section in your area of expertise where you don't feel so expert? Has it gotten in your way? How do you work around it?

Friday, June 1, 2012

R.C. and the Terrible/Wonderful, No-Good/Very-Rad Day

Wednesday, May 23rd was the most awesome bad day ever. Emphasis on the "awesome," seriously. Hang with me, and you'll see what I mean. First ...

The Prologue

Some of you know, I've been on the job hunt for a while now. As much as I love my current job, I feel I need to relocate closer to family. In fact, I made confirmed plans to leave ... without having landed a new job yet. Leap of faith? Oh, yeah.

Also, if you've been around the blog at all the past few months, you know I was involved in a contest called The Writer's Voice. This meant Monday (the 21st), my entry was up on my coach's blog, available for any of the eight participating agents to place a vote.

I got five votes, which meant five full requests. I also got some requests from lurking agents and queries I'd sent the week before. Lots of yay!

The Terrible, Wonderful, No-Good, Very-Rad Day

I had a week and a half left of school. Finals to prep for, paperwork to complete, a classroom to pack up. Plus I had preparations for moving (despite having no job) soon after the end of school. Lots of stress.

Wednesday promised to be busy. I had a phone interview for a prospective job during my morning prep time. It went well. Really well. I even had a little time afterwards before my next class, so I got things squared away and glanced at my email.

One of the agents from Monday had already finished reading the full and wanted to know if there was a time for us to talk.

Cue the out-of-body experience.

After a little back-and-forth email, we agreed she'd call at 7:00 that evening. Then I threw myself into getting my physics students ready for their final. Then another job interview (this one on Skype) during lunch. It went well, too. My afternoon prep hour held a mix of "holy crap, am I really talking to an agent tonight?" texting with my critique partner (thanks, Mindy!) and wrangling some sub plans for my 7th period, because I would be on an interview panel for a candidate to replace me at my current school.

6th period went pretty well—always good to have students keeping me busy and distracted. But, the time for the interview comes around, and no sub shows up. I check with the other math teacher, who was also going to the interview. No sub for him either. Some back and forth with the secretary, already late ... finally one sub shows up to watch both classes. I knew nothing mathematical would happen, but whatever.

Interview was solid, but a little long because the candidate was technically interviewing for two different positions. It was Wednesday, which at my school meant staying until 5:00. Good thing, because I had plenty to do, like getting my calculus final ready for the next day.

The clock hit five, and I was out the door. Except I passed a classroom where a few teacher-friends were chatting, and they called at me to wait. Vicki wanted to know when we could have a little get-together before I left town (love you, Vicki!). I promised to let them know as soon as I had my schedule worked out, Jill gave me a cupcake (<3), and I was off again. I hit the road just before 5:15, and my afternoon commute takes about an hour. No problem. Five minutes later, wall-to-wall cars. NO!

It was okay, though. A delay of no more than ten minutes due to one of the traffic lights flashing red, creating a four-way stop during rush hour. On I went to the freeway.

Ten minutes later, gridlock.

Gridlock in a town that never has gridlock.

Stop-and-go traffic. A section that normally takes three minutes took twenty. Then it flowed a little more through a section that was being resurfaced.

Math-teacher me couldn't stop looking at the clock, calculating how many minutes I still had to spare. I'd be okay, just barely.

Once through the construction and back to regular speeds, I forced myself to take calm, relaxing breaths, because I knew I'd have no time for that once I got home. I walked in my door at 6:52. Got settled and situated.

She called. We talked for over an hour. At the end, an offer of representation.

That's right. AN OFFER!

The Epilogue

Naturally, I asked for a week to notify the other agents with the manuscript. Everyone promised to read quickly. Then there were new requests. I didn't need new requests! Too many variables! But okay. By end of the week, I'd had a total of eleven requests, one turning into the offer, one bowing out, and one arranging to call the following Tuesday.

Oh, and the first interview I had Wednesday morning? They offered me the job, and I accepted. My relocation is a leap of faith no more.

Tuesday involved no fewer than four phone calls with agents and further offers. Serious quandary. All five offering agents are amazing. Much hashing-it-out-with-Mindy ensued. Finally, I made my decision and accepted one of the offers—from the agent who offered first, it turned out.

So, here's the important part.

WAIT! You can't have something important in the epilogue!

Too bad, I'm doing it anyway.

I am now represented by the marvelous Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. But most of you already knew that.

I suspect the real work is about to begin.