Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Good News Travels ... Slowly Sometimes

You know how when you have some big news, so you tell people in a few ways/places, and then you feel like if you mention it more, it'll just be obnoxious, and surely word has spread by now to everyone who should know?

You know how that doesn't always work?


As most of you know, I had pretty big writing-life news a couple of times this year. I posted here and on Facebook, I tweeted, and AgentQuery Connect spontaneously combusted both times. I also told my immediate family (obviously) and the parts of my extended family that I see on a regular basis.

I got to that point where I thought word had spread. Naturally, though, there were gaps.

Some were inevitable, like fellow writers who have too many friends on Facebook to keep up with everything. Occasionally, someone will drop me a line and ask how things are going, so I have to pull out the, "Well, I don't know if you heard about this, but ... uh, yeah."

With others, I just didn't do a very good job. Family in particular. I don't see my mom's side as often as my dad's, but I figured my mom would tell her sister, and word would get around.

Well, that didn't work, judging by my aunt's announcement and everyone's surprise at Christmas Eve dinner. I guess my aunt didn't find out until much more recently, so the cousins and their kids didn't know until we all got together.

I think there's a lesson buried in here about self-promotion.

We've all seen self-promotion gone wrong. The authors who spam your Twitter feed, who are a constant stream of "Buy my book!" We don't want to do that.

At the same time, we need to make sure word gets out, so people who want to know will. It's a balance, like everything else.

With that in mind ...

Yes, my debut novel is coming out with Disney-Hyperion in Summer 2014. It's even listed on Goodreads now. Feel free to add it to your To-Read shelf if you have an account there.

It's also on some lists. If you feel like voting for it, awesome. If you don't, no worries.

But at least I let you know.

Monday, December 24, 2012

To Get Kids' Attention, Sometimes You Fast-Forward

A simple fact of life is that sometimes you have to learn basic, not-so-exciting stuff before you can move on to the really cool stuff. It's certainly true in math class. I have to get my students used to handling variables and exponents (basics of algebra) before I can teach them cool stuff like revolving functions around an axis and finding the volume of the solid formed.

What? I totally thought that was the coolest thing ever when I was in calculus.

But just because students aren't ready to dive into something yet doesn't mean I can't give them a sneak preview of things to come.

My classes recently did some activities with graphing calculators. Mostly stuff that looked like this:

Hi, we're linear equations, and we're a little boring.
While they were thrilled at using the calculators instead of graphing by hand, it wasn't all that exciting. In several classes, I put something like this on the projector while they were all working on their assignment:

Flowers! Using math! So pretty!
Trust me, even the most macho teenage boys think it's mind-blowing that you can make flowers using equations.

They're not going to learn rose curves this year. It's either next year or the year after (I need to check) that they'll cover polar functions. But kids who really wanted to know, I gave them a quick overview of how the polar graphing system works.

It got their attention, and got them asking, "What else can we do with graphs?"

And when they're asking questions, I'm happy.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What's Up With the Name of the Blog?

Admit it—some of you have been wondering about "crossing the helix" for a while.

The name originally goes back to the series of novels I was working on when I started the blog. It ended up being a trilogy—the first three novels I ever wrote. If you read those stories (and a few of you have), the name makes sense.

However, that's not the story I'm debuting with. I have hope that someday I'll get them out there (after some re-tinkering—see Wednesday's post). At this moment, though, it doesn't appear to have much to do with anything.

I've kept the name anyway. Here's why.

For one thing, sentimental value. Those first three novels got me on this road to being an author. I went from "Hey, I wonder if I can write a book" with the first one, to "You know, I think I really have a shot at this" by the last one.

More importantly, I think it can still have some meaning, if very abstractly. It's all about a journey ("crossing").

A helix is generally a spiral, and more specifically a three-dimensional one. Think of the thread of a screw. To travel on such a path, you would typically walk along it like a spiral staircase. You're moving upward, but not in the most direct way. It's a little meandering, but it'll get you there.

And once in a while, you make a leap. You "cross the helix" to a higher point by a shorter route. I made some leaps this year. I signed with an agent. She sold my book.

There's still a lot of "helix" left to travel.

So, for now, the blog name will stay.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Starting From Scratch, Kind Of (The Mega-Rewrite)

A lot of publishing is about waiting. We send out queries and wait. Get requests for partials or fulls and wait. Our agent submits to editors and we wait. We revise, send to our editor, and wait.

Best thing to do with the waiting is work on something else. One thing I've been chipping away at (on an off-and-on basis) is a near-complete rewrite of my very first manuscript.

(Some of you remember Fingerprints, right?)

Can someone coin a term for the writerly version of beer-goggles? I've revised and re-revised this thing so many times I've lost count. It got better each time, and I don't think it was ever terrible.

I still believe in the characters 100%. The world, too. Even the plot, largely.

But the execution ... ugh. Very "what was I thinking?" in places.

I think this is okay. It's not beating up on myself. It's acknowledging the skills I've gained and developed over the past three years. If I weren't capable of writing better now, I'd be worried.

So, the solution?

A blank document. A different opening scene. The same general story, but with new ideas for added tension and conflict. And yes, here and there, some words that are worth keeping.

This is kind of intimidating in some ways. I really hope I can get it up to snuff, so there are lingering worries that maybe it still won't cut it. Hopefully I can just let those doubts motivate me to silence them through sheer awesomeness.

It's also tricky because the original is so cemented in my mind. I want to change enough without changing too much, and there's no telling whether my internal gauge is calibrated right on that count.

Thank goodness for critique partners.

(Yes, Mindy, this means that someday you'll have to read the darn thing AGAIN.)

Have any of you ever done a from-scratch rewrite? Any advice for making it work?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Just Because They're Behind Doesn't Mean You Have to Keep Them There

Math teachers in my department have had a significant challenge this year. As part of implementing the new core standards, nearly all students at each grade level have been placed in the same math class. (The main exceptions are the accelerated classes, which account for 20-30 students in each grade, 7th-9th.)

This means some kids have had to learn material at a condensed rate, while others have had to endure a ton of review to start with.

We're nearly halfway through the year, and I can't count how many times I've heard that it doesn't work, that we need to get the "low" kids back in a class of their own. For instance, the 9th graders who took Pre-Algebra last year and are now in class with mostly kids who already passed Algebra 1.

I understand where they're coming from. Truly. I see students in my class who haven't quite grasped solving for X yet (simple linear equations), and we're doing exponential functions and recursive sequences now. I have plenty of students bombing tests and quizzes.

But part of me says that the way we've been doing things only perpetuates the problem. These kids are behind grade level in math, and putting them in a slower or repeat math class will only put them further behind.

Then again, does this way just set them up for failure? Some seem to think so.

Something happened the other day that makes me think that may not be true. One of those "shoved into the fast lane" kids came in after school. He has the supplemental "math lab" period that many of these kids do, to give them more time and support to learn concepts, yet still hadn't been doing too well.

He said, "Miss Lewis, can you help me with this Chapter 5 and 6 stuff? I need to retake that test, but I just don't get it."

(He also apologized, asked if it wasn't too much trouble, etc. I'm thinking, "Dude, what do you think I'm here for?")

We started at the beginning of Chapter 5 (inequalities) and I wrote a few examples on the whiteboard. We talked about the process, and I got him working through them himself. (He mentioned it makes sense when I explain it, but then it crumbles when he tries on his own.) Moved through that and on to Chapter 6 (systems of equations).

He picked it up quick.

He said, "Now it seems so easy."

I've seen this before. I had students at the deaf school who couldn't reliably solve simple equations when they were all the way in Algebra 2. I kept pushing them forward, kept supporting and reviewing and reinforcing. When I taught them Calculus, they still had to work at it, but they had some serious math skills.

We could've said, "They can't solve basic equations. They need to repeat this course." We chose not to.

When we don't make falling (or staying) behind an option, and when we give the right support, they can catch up. But there's a key.

That kid came in after school to work on math instead of going to the basketball game. The kids need to be willing to put in the effort.

The best we can do is try to convince them that the effort will be worth it. Saying they're destined for "low" math classes doesn't seem to do that job.

What do you think?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Teen Type Missing in YA Lit (Thank Goodness!)

Young adult novels (contemporary and otherwise) manage to fit a lot of different types of teenagers. Artsy types. Bookish types. Sporty types. Loner types. Popular types. Aggressive types. Passive types. Sometimes characters who are more than one at the same time.

I always appreciate the variety. I like finding novels with characters similar to students who don't seem to be represented so much in pop culture. A particular type stood out to me this week, though, and I realized I don't recall ever reading a character that quite matched up with it.

The whiners.

And please, my fellow YA authors, don't feel any need to change that.

I'm not talking about teens who get whiny now and then. That happens, both in fiction and in life. Part and parcel of being not-quite-kid, not-quite-adult. No, I'm talking about teens who do nothing. But. Complain.

All. Day. Long.

I can barely take it for an hour at a time with those students. If I had to read it in a book, that book would get put down and never picked up again.

And from a math teacher standpoint, let me just say that complaining that it's hard and you don't get it before I've even started explaining anything isn't conducive to learning. It doesn't endear the student to their more open-minded classmates, either.

If you know someone like this in real life, please find a way to rehabilitate them. When you find a successful method for doing so, drop me a line.

I could use the help.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thoughts on the Common Core Standards: English Edition

There's been a lot of chatter about the new Common Core Standards. We have a set for English and a set for mathematics. As a math teacher who writes novels, I have thoughts about both, but I'll focus on the English standards for this post.

The big attention-getter for these new standards is that it calls for more reading of informational, non-fiction texts, going from 50% of reading material in elementary school and gradually increasing to 70% in high school.

That's where the chatter comes in. Many are upset about the units on classic literature, beloved favorites, and poetry getting cut from the curriculum, as noted in articles here and here.

I have thoughts on both sides of this. I've seen personally that students are definitely lacking in their ability to read text for factual information, to reason through technical material. I agree that more focus on developing these types of reading skills is necessary.

I also agree that nurturing a love of reading for pleasure is important. Reading fiction has boundless benefits, especially for children and teenagers.

I've heard some say that technical reading is for science class. Basically, let the science teachers handle all that, along with the social studies teachers for historical documents. Leave the English teachers to focus exclusively on the fiction side.

On the other side, content area teachers say they don't teach reading and writing—that's the English teacher's job.

Which side do I fall on? Both, or neither.

From my time working in a school for the deaf, I have it ingrained in me that all teachers are language arts teachers. We don't all cover all aspects of language equally, but we all have parts we can build up, develop, and reinforce. I see no reason that shouldn't carry over to non-deaf education.

At the same time, English teachers are in more of a position to focus deeply on the nuances of non-fiction, informational writing without splitting as much attention with the concepts and other skills to be mastered. They also have more training in the teaching of reading and writing.

So ideally, a balance between both. Teachers brainstorming about texts that fit within their curricula, including English class. Working together. Supporting each other.

As much as I love fiction, it's not the be-all, end-all.

As much as I love math and science, they're not the be-all, end-all.

So my first step? Try to open some dialogue with the English teachers at my school ... because without Twitter, I wouldn't have even known as much as I do about these new standards.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Another Contest? But Wait, This One's Weird!

If you're anything like me, you probably find it easier to rave about your critique partners' work than your own. Maybe even easier to pitch theirs than ours. To explain how that skill could come in handy, we interrupt our regularly scheduled blog posts for a message from Mindy McGinnis.

I know what you're thinking.

Another contest? Seriously? But I absolutely despise all these chances to expose my work to agents!

Well, don't worry. Because I'm me, when I decided to do a contest I knew I had to make it Mindy-Style, which means it had to be different from everyone else and slightly offensive. I wracked my brain about how to do this, as there are a plethora of writing contests out there. And I came up with something that I think fulfills the Mindy-Style requirements.

Introducing the Pitch-A-Partner Festival! Yes, that's right, it's the PAPfest. Coming at you during the month of February 2013. Why February? Well, because you want to show your partner you love them, and also because I have a badly timed reoccurring annual exam that makes me think February = PAPfest.

When it comes to my writing I value my Critique Partners above all else. My CPs deserve a lot of credit for helping to improve my craft, and I'm sure there are a lot of aspiring authors out there who feel the same. So what better way to show them you love them than to pitch their project? Don't worry, there's something in it for both of you.

I dragged my CPs, MarcyKate Connolly and R.C. Lewis, into the PAPfest as co-hosts, because it's only fitting. In our model, writers will pitch their critique partner’s project, and our team will decide whose pitching abilities are so strong that we’re interested in seeing their own project. And of course, if the premise of the partner’s project is so enticing that we can’t help ourselves, we’re free to request material from them as well.

The blogging team will narrow the final hopefuls down to 30 entries, at which point we’ll ask our participating agents to cruise our blogs to bid on projects that catch their eye. We've got an excellent team of agents lined up, both established and brand-new hungry types.

  • The PAPfest is open to completed MG & YA projects of any genre
  • Be sure to have your CP's permission before pitching them
  • If CP-X successfully pitches CP-Y, then CP-Y gets a query critique, and we ask for the first 5 pages of CP-X's ms to use in determining who moves on to agent judging
  • 100 initial entries accepted
  • 30 finalists move on to agent judging
  • Finalists will provide query & first 200 words for agent judging

Are you confused? That's OK. We're planning on walking you through the process as February gets closer. All kinds of fun things are in store to clarify all your questions. I mean that. I intend to amuse the hell out of you while explaining this contest.

Why am I telling you this now? Because I want you to stress over the holidays.

Not really. I'm telling you this now because it's important that you have your CP's permission to pitch their project—they'll be getting a query crit out of the deal (and possibly a request for more if we're hooked by their concept, pitched by you). And of course in order for you to pitch something in the first place, you need to have read it. So polish off your WIPs or breathe new life into a trunked novel and get that ms in front of your CP!

Stay tuned to Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire for more details! And feel free to ask questions, always. Comment on one of the participating blogs, email Mindy, or tweet using the tag #PAPfest.

And yes, I'd love to see that trending. :)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Laser-Guided Ears and Conquering Copiers

When we think of talents, we often think of the obvious. Someone's good at drawing or writing or singing or playing an instrument. The arts come up a lot. Or they're an amazing runner, swimmer, or basketball player. Sports come up a lot, too.

I have some of those. I imagine many of you reading this post do as well. But I have other talents that are much more rarely acknowledged. My secret superpowers.

In my years of working in schools, I've yet to meet a copy-machine paper jam I couldn't unravel. And in a classroom with nearly forty teenagers, I can hear a student use an inappropriate word from twenty feet.

I know, I should get Lynn Phillips to draw me as a superhero, right?

Okay, maybe not so much.

My paper-jam and other tech-related powers mostly come down to an ability to read directions. Or in the case of copy machines, the ability to decipher cryptic diagrams that think they're showing you what to do under the ridiculous assumption you can tell which portion of the machine is represented in the drawing.

I really doubt my hearing is all that good. In fact, given the volume I've been known to set the music in my car to, I'm pretty sure there's at least a little damage in my cochlea. It's just often the kids whose voices carry best (and who have a natural tendency to loudness) who go blurting things they shouldn't.

But the kids sure seem to think it's amazing that I can hear them. And the other teachers definitely don't mind when some of us know what to do with the new machine. So I'll bask in it a little longer.

Do you have any uncelebrated "superpowers"? Go on and brag and a little.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

'Tis the Season for Good News from Friends!

It's been a good week for several of my friends on AgentQuery Connect.

First off, MarcyKate Connolly finally got to shout from the rooftops about news she's been sitting on for-e-ver. (At least, I imagine it feels like it to her.) Her debut Monstrous will be published by Harper Children's in 2014. Oh, and in the process, it's going to morph from young adult to middle grade. I read and critiqued for her before she started querying, and I'm looking forward to seeing the changes. MarcyKate definitely has the chops to pull it off.

The same day, Stephanie Diaz announced her own book deal. Extraction, the first book of her YA sci-fi trilogy, will be published by St. Martin's in 2014. I read some of this early on in a critique group, and I'm RIDICULOUSLY excited to read the whole thing.

Why do we have to wait?! (Yeah, I know, you have to wait for mine, too.)

Speaking of waiting, we also know exactly how long we have to wait for Mindy McGinnis's debut, Not a Drop to Drink. She has a release date of September 9, 2013. If you haven't heard how her editor describes it, think Little House on the Prairie ... on steroids.

As for someone who doesn't have to wait much longer, Robert K. Lewis (no relation, a.k.a. Thrownbones) got his very first ARCs for Untold Damage. (Those are advance reader copies.) They're real, tangible objects with pages and covers and everything!

If you're on Goodreads, you can add the books to your To Be Read list using the links below.

Monstrous by MarcyKate Connolly

Extraction by Stephanie Diaz

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Untold Damage by Robert K. Lewis

Who's going to be next with some good news?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Mathematical Constipation

Have you ever had some kind of information you were trying to take in, but your brain just clenched up and would NOT let it in?

Yeah, I think I'm going to create some interesting visuals in this post.

I have students who go through this all the time. They've decided they don't get math, so they won't get math. Sometimes it's because someone (even a previous math teacher) told them they couldn't.

Excuse me. Must calm down the rage.

Other times, the mental block is self-inflicted. I have one particular student who spends so much time and energy declaring she doesn't get it and complaining about how hard it is, her brain forms a rubber wall my words bounce right off of.

Once I get her to slow down, take a breath, and listen, she gets it fine. I'm trying to get her to stop "clenching up" ... to relax and believe that even if she doesn't get it instantly, she will get it eventually.

Sometimes the old, trite sayings are true. Try this one on:

If you think you can, or you think you can't, you're probably right.

Habits are hard to break, though. Getting students to loosen up their brain cells isn't easy. Building confidence in people who are at a stage of life where they're hormonally inclined to beat up on themselves is ... well, not impossible, but there are days where it almost feels that way.

I'm not into blowing sunshine at kids. I'm not going to tell them they're a math genius when they're not. I will tell them honestly that math doesn't come easily to them, and that's okay, because they CAN get it. They just have to let themselves. And put in a little work (or a lot).

Anyone have other ideas on getting this through to kids?