Friday, August 2, 2013

In Defense of First Person

(The hosting service for my website is having a bad day, so I'm cross-posting this here for now.)

Recently I heard a well-known author state that (paraphrasing) writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn’t be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. Respectfully, I disagree. I’m addressing the “present tense” part over on From the Write Angle, so here I’ll focus on first person.

One criticism of first-person narrative was that it’s what newbie, amateur writers default to, and they don’t have the skills to do it well.

On the first count, well, that’s kind of a big generalization. I started my very first manuscript in third person, got 5-10 pages in, and knew something wasn’t working. I went back, changed it to first person, and it flowed from there. My friend Charlee Vale tells me her first two manuscripts were entirely in third person.

But maybe the majority of new writers automatically go with first person? Sure, I can buy that.

On the second count, let’s face it. Our very first attempts with any writing technique or tool usually suck. This author posited that everyone should master third-person limited before even considering first person. You know, that’s probably not a bad idea in general. At the least, we should learn the strengths and limitations of all our options and practice to maximize their potential.

Another criticism was that there’s a “falseness” to first person. Your main character has to narrate things they would never say about themselves, engage in an unrealistic level of self-consciousness, etc. Plus in first person past tense, supposedly any suspense the character experiences is false, because they’ve already survived the tale in order to “tell” it to us. They know exactly what happens.

Here’s where people divide into two camps according to how they experience reading. Some people read a first-person narrative and process it as an artifact, a memoir written by the main character, or a record of that character verbally telling the story.

I’m not in that camp. I don’t view stories in that kind of framework unless they’re explicitly placed in it—”Now, let me tell you about the time my grandpa gave me a birthday present that changed the world.” I view the story as simply happening. I don’t think about someone telling it or writing it—it just unfolds before me, and the book with written words is just the delivery vehicle.

Just like when I watch a movie, I don’t think about “Who’s following these people around with a camera everywhere?”

I don’t know if that puts me in the majority or minority, but there it is.

At any rate, why should we or shouldn’t we use first person? Some people find the constant “I, I, I, me, me, me” obnoxious. Fair enough. Third-person limited lets us get into our protagonist’s head just as much as first person, so why don’t we stick to that?

To me, there’s still just a little more separation between reader and protagonist in third person. A character in third can get away with withholding a little information from the reader that would feel forced and fake in first person. First person, on the other hand, delivers the protagonist’s experience a little more exactly. In that case, it’s easier to withhold information from the character.

First person is notably more prevalent in some types of fiction than others, particularly young adult (YA). Some have said this is because teenagers are so self-centered, so they gravitate toward that focus on the “me.”

That may have some merit, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I know a lot of selfless, generous, thoughtful teens. Rather than self-centered, I think of them as “self-centric.” (That may be a distinction with no difference, but it makes sense to me.) The world doesn’t revolve around them—they are simply their own anchor point in a world that’s expanded tremendously since their pre-teen years.

It still sounds like I’m saying the same thing two ways, I guess. If it makes sense to any of you, and you can explain it better, please let me know.

I think for me, when choosing between first and third person, part of the decision is based on the answer to a question. Is this a story in World X focusing on Character Y? Or is it Character X’s story, occurring in World Y? Essentially, it’s a matter of story ownership, and how tightly that ownership is tied to that specific character.

First person can be very limited and restrictive, it’s true. But sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs, and I refuse to believe it’s a bad thing in and of itself. Like all tools and techniques, it has its place, its function, its value.

What do you think about first-person narratives? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Share your opinions and experiences (respectfully, please) in the comments.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I'm Moving! (Virtually)

It's official. I have a brand-spanking-new website. It's going to be my main online hub, so I'll be transitioning my blogging activities over there.

For now, I'll hang onto this place, too. I might repurpose it in some way in the future.

If you have a minute, pop on over to the new digs:

You might find something nice over there.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Support of Birthdays

Yes, you read that right.

Despite the associated anxiety that "Ugh! I'm getting old!" I've decided I'm in favor of birthdays. Not only am I in favor of them, I think we should give them more weight ... particularly over other certain holidays.

This post lining up with Mother's Day is no coincidence.

Don't get me wrong. I love my mom. She beats herself up over perceived shortcomings (gee, wonder where I got that from), when in reality she's done a great job raising the three of us.

I likewise respect mothers everywhere. It's hard work. Infinitely rewarding, yet often thankless. My metaphorical hat is off to you all.

And yet, I have a problem with Mother's Day.

If you know me, you probably know I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day, either. Could this simply be bitterness at work? Perhaps. (Okay, somewhat likely, in part.) But I do have more behind it than that. It could be a matter of over-thinking, but when has that ever stopped me?

You see, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and Father's Day—among others—have something in common. They ask us to celebrate a singular aspect of you-ness as though it can be separated from all the rest of the you-ness.

My mother is a mother, yes. She's also a singer, a gardener, a pianist, a teacher, a genealogist, and a reader. She enjoys movies and games and puzzles. She loves animals. She hates balloons because she hates them popping.

Why single out one label over the others? Same goes for celebrating the fact that two people are each other's romantic partner. Aren't they more than that?

I like the idea of celebrating the whole person, for everything they are.

Thus, birthdays.

A day not for celebrating labels, but to celebrate a person's very existence. Where it doesn't matter what you aren't, because the day is about what you are. Everyone has a birthday. No one has to be left out. Even if odd circumstances mean we don't know the exact date, one can be declared and accepted. The specific day doesn't matter, because it's the symbol that's important.

It's your day to be appreciated for all you are.

No guilt trips or feelings of inadequacy necessary.

Just a thought.

Monday, April 15, 2013

When Words Are Worse Than Sticks & Stones

Words will never hurt me, huh?

Sometimes that can be true. If someone calls me a geek, I'll just agree with them. If someone tells me something I know is untrue, big deal. It's all well and good to say we should know who we are and be confident enough that name-calling doesn't hurt us. But words hold a particular danger. They have a tendency to become more than just words.

I've talked about it before, how words have power and saying you're teasing doesn't make it okay. It's continued to be an issue in varying ways in my classroom.

On a regular basis, a student will tell me something like, "Guess what—Girl X (sitting right there) made out with Boy Y last weekend." First, I don't care. Second, I'm pretty sure it isn't true. And what does the girl do? Smack his arm playfully, act shocked, and say, "I did not! Stop it!" ... with a smile.

In other words, encourage him to keep saying such things.

After years of getting the attention he wants from "joking" about girls being "easy," what else is he going to think he can get away with?

I say when a guy (or anyone) is a jerk, call him out on it. Shut him down. Don't give him what he wants.

On a related note, a student has spent most of this year calling himself and his friends a particular made-up word. "Miss Lewis, I can't do this—I'm a _____. _____'s don't do math."

(Mostly this has had "Stop trying to make 'fetch' happen" running in my head all year.)

But then some of the friends let it slip that this name for themselves was a portmanteau of two words, one of which is 'pimp.'

I am not okay with this. I know the word has come to have certain pop-culture meanings (i.e., pimp my ride), but as a noun, in the context of a group of boys calling themselves this, I'm not okay with it.

So I'm calling them out on it. I'm asking them if they know what a pimp actually is. (We're in a sheltered enough community that some kids actually don't know.) Then I'm asking if they know how a real pimp views women. Once that's clear, I ask if they understand now why I don't want to hear anything more about that made-up word in my classroom.

So far, they've understood, but I haven't really seen the main instigators yet. (Just started having these little talks on Friday.) We'll see if I actually have any success keeping the word out of my classroom. And better yet, convincing these kids that it's not such a great thing, whether in my classroom or not.

I suspect the originator will argue with me and say my least favorite sentence: "It's okay, Miss Lewis."

I truly worry about someone who so constantly tries to insist something's okay when I tell him to his face that it's not.

I'll keep trying.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Less than the Best Can Be AMAZING

The third quarter of the school year just ended for me. Predictably, I spent much of last week staying very late after school with kids desperate to get their grade up at the last minute. If they're willing to do the work, I'm willing to put in the extra time.

A few different groups of kids come in. There are the kids who've been failing since the beginning of the YEAR, and when they find out they've just gotten it up to a D, they break out in the Hallelujah Chorus. There's a similar group who get it up to a B from a C, say, "That's awesome!" and carry on with their lives. Both groups could've been a whole grade higher if they'd just applied themselves more earlier.

There are also kids I've been working with a little longer than the past week. They get it from a D up to a B, and want to know if they can get it any higher at the last minute. In those cases, I have to try to convince them that their B is awesome, because I've already bent as much as I could to help them.

Then ... there are the A-minuses.

Some A-minuses are easy to deal with. They're one percent from an A, and one of my usual culprits (i.e., retake a quiz) is easily enough to bump them over.

But others are tougher. These are students who may not get math easily, so they work their tails off to get that A-minus. They should be SO PROUD of that A-minus. A line I heard more than once last week:

"It's not good enough for my dad/mom/both parents. I'll be in so much trouble."

Sure, some of these kids might just be using the "blame the parents" line to get me to feel bad for them and help them nudge it up to an A. But I've met some of the parents at Parent Teacher Conferences, and I suspect those kids are telling the truth.

I get that parents want their kids to reach their utmost potential. I get that some kids slack off (those Bs that could've easily been As) and need motivation/pressure from home to get it in gear. I get that there's pressure for getting into a good college.

I also get that if a kid works really hard, and the result of that hard work is an A-minus, that A-minus should be celebrated. It's not "less than perfect." It's an amazing accomplishment.

The whole idea of grading has issues. I try to be as fair as possible, but there's still an almost arbitrary nature about it. Should grades reflect effort, actual mathematical understanding, or a combination of both? If a combination, in what proportion? What earns an A in one class may only be enough for a B in another.

It sucks.

I hope some parents will help it suck a little less by acknowledging when less than the "best" is more than good enough.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Edit Letters and Ending Terms and What's Up With Referrals?

As usual, when it rains, it pours.

I have arrived at the next stage of The Book Deal. First came the offer. Then waiting. Next came the contract. Then more waiting. Now the edit letter has arrived.

No waiting. Just working.

Between all the revising I need to do and the term ending this week at school, I'm a bit busy. So it might be quiet here at the blog for a while. I'll try to pipe up now and then.

One word of advice for the savvy aspiring writer. Remember that a referral to someone's agent is not typically something you ask for. It's something that's offered. And you definitely don't ask an author who doesn't know you from the crossing guard down the street.

I had a referral once from a writer who knows me (and more importantly, my work!) very well. It went as far as an R&R (revise-and-resubmit) but didn't pan out. The referral was a gift—something I didn't ask for, but was very grateful to be offered.

Be professional. It always looks good.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Fellow Perfectionists, Let Us Embrace the Suckitude

I admit it. I've been struggling with perfectionism pretty much my whole life. (You'll have to ask my mom how much of it manifested when I was a two-year-old, I guess.) There's a particular aspect of it that sticks with me. If I couldn't do something perfectly, I'd rather not do it at all.

No settling for "okay." No such thing as "good enough." All or nothing, a hundred percent or zero.

If I were still full-throttle in that zone and trying to write novels, I think I'd be dead already.

Don't get me wrong. Striving for excellence is great. It's something we should do, and something I still do. But writing is never going to be perfect, and it's going to be very unperfect for a long time before we get it as close to perfect as we can. If we lock onto the flaws during the process, we're never going to move forward. So here's what we can do:

We can let our first draft suck.

It's okay. We have permission. It's allowed.

If we're coming up on a fight scene, and we know we have a hard time with action descriptions? That's okay. Write it badly. Let the words come, because then we have something to work with.

I'm not saying editing/revising as you go isn't allowed. Personally, I tend to do that as I draft. Others, like Mindy McGinnis, prefer the first draft to be "word vomit"—just get it all out there and tidy it up on the first revision pass. When I feel my perfectionism creeping up, though ... when I get those doubts saying I can't write what I need to well enough, so I may as well not bother at all ... that's when I know I need to just let it spill.

Once it's out there, I can see how bad it really is. Maybe it's worse than I thought, and I need to educate myself on how to fix it. More often than not, though, it's not nearly as bad as I expect.

For me, the fear of sucking is much worse than actually giving something a shot. So I'm trying not to fear it. I'm trying to embrace that suckiness, knowing at worst, it'll only be temporary.

A crappy scene can be revised and fixed. A blank page is just a blank page. Great for origami. Not so great for telling a story.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Do We Do "Pointless" Things? (Hint: They're Not)

The other day, an English teacher at my school emailed the faculty with the link to this piece in the New York Times about literacy (or lack thereof) in Mexico. It makes me want to yell at someone, hit someone, and just scream and cry at the same time.

Here's part of what set me to tearing my hair out:

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

Because if they read thought-provoking novels, they won't be able to read the newspaper? We should limit them to only achieving the baseline?


And then this:

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.”

I'm all for using literacy in the content areas, but throwing out fiction in literature class in favor of textbooks?

There's learning to read, which is generally what happens in elementary school. Then kids transition to reading to learn, which is what we're doing when we read textbooks or essays. We take the knowledge someone else has and absorb it by reading.

Then there's what I'd call reading to create knowledge. I'd say that's what happens when we read fiction. We can make our own discoveries about human nature, about ourselves, our own understandings about the world. The job of a novelist—as I see it—is not to teach but to explore. The reader explores with us, yet may not discover the same things or arrive at the same destination. That's why it's amazing.

This idea that we should only learn things that we'll definitely, absolutely use in a concrete, practical way mystifies me. As I mentioned a month ago, it's certainly turned up in my classroom. While I don't hear students ask what the point of reading novels is (maybe the English teachers get that from the kids who don't like reading—I have to threaten to take books away from kids who'd rather read than do math), I get it about almost everything else we want them to learn.

My school just sent out a survey last week, and one of the items was to vote on whether we want to institute a mandatory free-reading time next year. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. No matter the class, everyone will spend those twenty minutes reading, including the teachers, administrators, everyone.

I haven't had a chance to ask the other math teachers what they think of it. Or the science, art, PE, music, history, and tech teachers.

My vote: Absolutely, yes, without question.

Because the only pointless thing is limiting ourselves to the concrete little nothings. What kind of life is that?

Friday, March 8, 2013

When It's NOT "Just Jealousy"

News Flash: Not all teenagers love and adore each other. (They're just like younger kids and adults that way.) When one teen hates another, there seem to be two routes. The hater makes no secret of their hate, broadcasting it to the world, or they act extra-super-sweet-and-nicey-nice around their hate-ee.

The second is just about as obvious as the first.

Then there's the response from the hate-ee's friends once the hater moves on, particularly when we're talking about girls:

"Forget it, she's just jealous."

It's true at least some of the time, I'm sure. Envy gets ugly easily enough. But it's become a sort of default response to being hated, or even just disliked. "It's not my problem—they're just jealous."

What if they're not? What if someone's beef with me has nothing to do with my possessions, my status, my accomplishments? What if it has everything to do with how I'm conducting myself? I see kids who really don't like other kids, and have really good reasons for it. Boys who disrespect girls, students who disrespect teachers, kids who try to cheat or cause trouble. And I've seen those kids brush it off with the "jealousy" excuse. Pointing fingers at the hater distracts me from what I need to see—my own face in the mirror, my own actions and character.

That doesn't mean we need to beat ourselves up every time someone has a problem with us. But taking it as a prompt for some quick self-reflection couldn't hurt.

This is part of why I don't feel inclined to celebrate my successes in a sense of "Ha! Take that, haters!" If there are haters out there, I'm not always sure of the reason behind their hate. My success stands on its own. Separately, I'll celebrate when I manage to knock down any of my own tendencies toward bad conduct ...

... leaving the haters to worry about their own selves.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Going Off-Topic Can Be On-Topic

When I was in junior high, there was this one English teacher. I never had him, but I heard stories. Stories about the stories. My classmates talked about how all they had to do was make one comment or ask one random question to get him going, and they could keep him talking through all of class. As in, never getting to the lesson. As in, no homework.

Not something I aspire to as a teacher.

At the same time, I find I can't be totally rigid about sticking to the agenda and only the agenda. That likely comes from my years in deaf-ed, where kids often have gaps in their world knowledge, and if I don't allow a tangent to fill them, who will? I have a curriculum to stick to, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for other conversations.

Here's what I've learned: Kids want to know things. Since my students have heard about my publishing deal, they want to know a lot of things.

How long did it take to write the book?

Why is it going to be so long before it's published?

How did you get the book deal?

What's an agent?

Will it be in bookstores or will we have to buy it from you?

Will there be a movie?

I get particularly in-depth questions from students who want to write and publish novels themselves, but some of the most intense curiosity comes from students who aren't into writing at all. Often who aren't even into reading all that much.

Indulging those questions gives them insight into something that certainly isn't on the curriculum in any of their classes. It also reinforces one of my favorite points—don't pigeonhole people. Yeah, I'm a math teacher. Yeah, I'm a novelist. Yeah, I know ASL.

Hopefully it gets through to them that they can be as multi-faceted as they want, too. Especially in the adolescent world of "What's your label?"

And you know what? Sometimes tangents like that work in writing, too. It might seem like wandering off aimlessly, but if we do it right, it can actually play right into our point.

Of course, the trick is the "doing it right" part. But isn't it always?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bitterness Isn't Sexy

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post about humility being sexy. Today, a little time on the flip-side with what isn't sexy.

The writing/publishing world is an easy one to get bitter in. No matter our route and no matter where we are in our journey, there's always someone who's gone further faster, gotten more, done better.

A fellow querying writer who gets a gazillion requests on a derivative story with a so-so query while you can't get a peep out of agents.

A fellow self-publisher who races to #1 on the charts without seeming to lift a finger.

A fellow agented author whose novel sells in days while your agent has been shopping your second manuscript for six months after striking out with the first.

A fellow published author who gets the red-carpet treatment from their publisher while you have to pound the pavement yourself if anyone's even going to hear about your book.

So what do we do about it?

Some people send nasty replies to agents' form rejections. Some leave bad reviews on their "competitions'" books. Some just plain badmouth their peers. Some chat-bomb Twitter events that industry professionals have given up their scant free time to host and do little more than spew venom.

What good did any of that ever do anyone? I have a hard time believing it even makes the perpetrator feel better—not in any real way.

Here's what it's not going to do: Endear you to other writers. Or agents. Or editors.

Or readers.

Did you notice something in the list I gave earlier? All those people are supposed to be our "fellows." How about we treat them like it? We can be happy for them while hoping to soon be a bit happier for ourselves.

If nothing else, it's got to be better for your mental health.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Something is Usually Better Than Nothing

I'm back after a week off from blogging. Last week was mostly spent getting ready for Parent-Teacher Conference, which meant getting tests graded before then. Approximately two hundred of them. Afterwards, I decided some basic test-taking advice was in order. Nothing beats preparation and true understanding, but in the spirit of "something is better than nothing," these tips could certainly inch scores up a few percentage points.

Read the Instructions
I think teachers have been trying to get all students to do this since written language was invented. Yet some students persist in ignoring them. Thus perfectly capable people lose points because they only gave half of what the problem was looking for.

Use Common Sense
Even if you don't remember how to do a particular problem, you can at least apply common sense and avoid some obviously wrong tactics. If a problem asks for a distance, don't give me coordinates for a point. If it asks for an angle, don't tell me a line. If you're supposed to justify steps for solving an algebra equation, don't use geometry postulates and definitions.

Give Me Something ... Anything
It's true that if you write random numbers and such for every question, you're not going to get any credit for it. But by and large, students who at least attempted something got at least a point for showing a tiny bit of understanding. And that's more than a student who left pretty much everything blank will get. (A student who thought he didn't know anything but tried anyway actually did about as well as the class average.)

Take Advantage of Advantages
It continues to boggle my mind that I can give a review with problems mirroring what's on the test and make the test open-note, yet some students still do miserably. But I know at least part of it. They didn't bring their notes, or they didn't take notes in the first place. So they're automatically at a disadvantage.

The Last Minute is Too Late
I had a student who was frustrated when she got her test back. "I thought I did so well! I even studied!" Her version of studying was coming in after school the day before the test and saying, "Teach me everything." As in, the whole chapter we'd been studying for the past 3-4 weeks. I did a quick overview of each section, but there was no way she was going to meaningfully absorb it all in a single afternoon. Still, she probably did better than she would've if she hadn't come in at all.

Hopefully I can get some of these messages through before the next test.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Recover and Recharge

The weekend always strikes me as a time of recovery. This may be reflective of my day job, but this week there seems to be a lot to recover from.

Valentine's Day being yesterday means today my students will be crashing from their sugar high, and I'll still be finding candy wrappers in the strangest nooks and crannies of my classroom.

Yesterday was also our inaugural PAPfest. We're recovering from running it. Some of our participants are recovering from the excitement. Others are recovering from the disappointment. (For the latter, be sure to check my post from Wednesday if you haven't already.)

Today is mid-term, so I have a ton of grading to do. I don't get to recover from that until it's done. My back hurts just thinking about it. (I'm more likely to actually get grading done at school than at home, but if at school, it means being hunched over a desk while doing it. Definite dilemma there.)

One the plus side, it's a three-day weekend. On the minus side, parent-teacher conference is coming up on Thursday. I actually like the chatting-with-the-parents part. The be-at-school-until-8pm part isn't my favorite.

So the plan for the weekend is to do more than recover. It's to recharge. And I think I'll best accomplish that by engaging the writer-side a little more. Do a little reading for once. Do some work on either a revision or a rewrite of one project or another. Things that are a little less frustrating than grading quizzes where some kids did great, and others ... still didn't.

If you're looking for something happy to get your recovery going this weekend, keep an eye on Young Adult Books Central today. They'll be revealing the cover for Mindy McGinnis's debut Not a Drop to Drink, which is less than seven months away from publication.

And that right there makes up for the empty cotton candy bag shoved between books on my shelf.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

PAPfest is LIVE!

Thanks to everyone who participated in the PAPfest! We had some wonderful entries and are looking for great things to come from the writers who were selected to move on to the agent judging round. Our lovely agents—Adriann Ranta, Tina Wexler, Jennifer Laughran, Suzie Townsend, Laura Bradford and Pooja Menon—will be cruising the entries and making their requests in the comments of the entries until 9 PM EST tonight.

Don't forget the entries are spread out over my co-hosts blogs as well. MarcyKate Connolly and Mindy McGinnis have PAPfest entries, too, so don't miss out on some excellent new MG and YA voices being hosted over on their blogs.

But please, NO COMMENTS on the entries until the agents have made their rounds (so not until 9 PM EST tonight).


The PAPteam

R.C. Lewis
Mindy McGinnis
MarcyKate Connolly



GENRE: YA Fantasy (set in today's world)

WORD COUNT: 70,000


Sixteen-year-old Allura comes from a long line of man-eaters.

Her all-female race of Femina Mari lost their hunger for flesh a few hundred years ago, after her folkloric ancestors decided the best way to hide from humans was to live among them. And while they still enjoy tree-jumping under the shroud of night, the Council’s policy against man-eating is strictly enforced.

But the Council has just elected a new leader, and she’s set on resurrecting the old ways. So when Allura starts developing the abilities of her foremothers, her caretaker aunts notice. She’s the first in generations to show true Femina Mari tendencies—the desire and prowess to prey on men. According to her aunts, if she embraces her cravings, she can awaken the carnal hunger within her sisters, putting her species back where they belong, at the top of the food chain. Allura wants what’s best for her kind, but going from zero to monster overnight can leave a girl’s head spinning.

When Allura falls for David, the delicious-looking guy she’s supposed to be hunting, her feelings for him complicate matters … a ton. If Allura obeys her aunts, the cravings will intensify with each kill. And unleashing the flesh-hungry side of her sisters can’t be good for mankind. But if she defies her aunts, they’ll destroy David, her human stumbling block.

Too bad falling for the enemy never tasted so good.

The fierce-female story elements of DARK WATERS will appeal to fans of Andrea Cremer’s NIGHTSHADE and Julie Kagawa’s THE IMMORTAL RULES. I envision it the first in a series, though it can stand alone.

I am a PRO member of Evergreen RWA. DARK WATERS won second place in the Seattle RWA’s E.C.O. contest. My credits include an article on marketing strategies, Guest Speaking to Get the Word Out, published in the spring edition of the C.A.P.P.A. newsletter.

FIRST 200:

My nails dug into the bark as I clung to the pine tree and swung myself up to a higher branch. “I’m thinking the forest is a lost cause tonight, sisters.” I lifted my nose and took another whiff. Just to double check. “There’s nothing to hunt here.” The three female teens waiting in the nearby trees were the daughters of my aunts, but I’d never call them cousins. We were more like sisters.

Arlana crouched on the solid branch of a towering evergreen and shook her head. “Allura, why do you keep picking the thinnest limbs?” she said in a voice barely louder than a whisper, ignoring my food comment. Our hearing was more than impeccable. We could almost feel the vibration of sound.

“What’s the fun in catapulting from the thick ones?” I pulled my body low, positioning to leap from the narrow limb to a thread of a twig ten feet higher, on a nearby tree.

“Um, I’d say not falling on your ass when the tiny, weak branch breaks!” Celine laughed and rested her hand on her hip as she watched me prepare to make the jump.

PAPfest Entry - WAR PROJECT 7



WORD COUNT: 105,000


Set on a far distant planet in the future, WAR PROJECT 7 is a young adult sci-fi novel with fantasy elements about a seventeen-year-old female soldier. Raised on a battlefield alongside other child-warriors, Mara lives to Protect. Her actions as a fighter, and now a leader, daily determine who lives and who dies.

Actions off the field have consequences as well, and the senior officers punish those with questioning minds, no matter the intent behind the questions. When Mara is wounded in battle and an enemy fighter not only heals her injury, but promises answers about the war, she’s compelled to risk treason and travel with him beyond the boundaries of her known world.

That the war is not a true war, but a war experiment, is the first in a series of challenging discoveries as new knowledge reshapes Mara's identity and new alliances work to shatter a system that values experimental design over human life.

This book would be a great match for fans of Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, Beth Revis, and James Dashner because of the strong female main character, the action, and the scale of the conflict.

During the summer I teach classes to budding novelists in grades 5-8. I am a fellow of the Denver Writing Project and a member of RWA, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and Pikes Peak Writers. I am a state and national-level presenter in gifted education, a black belt in Taekwando, and a former middle school English teacher.

FIRST 200:

Mara stared down the line of her fellow Protectors. Young faces looked back at her, expectant. Anyone over fifteen watched the trees and the shadows underneath the huge branches.

“Helmets,” she called. The Gaishan would appear by sunset, boiling onto the battlefield like ants from an anthill.

She nudged her horse through the ranks to the newest fighters. How many would be lost tonight? She stopped in front of a brother and sister she’d taught in combat class. Both clutched their long staffs. Both faces were blotchy with fear.

“Trust your training,” Mara said. When the two children just stared at her with wide amber eyes, she leaned out of the saddle. “Keep your staff between you and the enemy. If they hit you with powder, if you’re cut or touched with a weapon, run for the edge of the fight and don’t let anyone near, not even family, until a healer clears you.”

The small girl cast a worried look at her brother. “Yes, ma’am.”

Mara made her way back to the center aisle and stood up on the stirrups. This plus her own nearly two meters in height provided a view of her entire cohort.

“There’s six hundred Protectors out here tonight. And a hundred fifty is us, the Greens,” she yelled.

Someone in the middle rows whooped. A few laughed.

“We got a lot of new fighters with us. First fight,” Mara continued.

The standing soldiers shuffled like rows of plants in the wind. “First fight,” repeated along the lines.



GENRE: YA Urban/Modern Fantasy

WORD COUNT: 80,000 words


Cursebreakers are the first responders to the devastation left by the magic of angry creatures of myth. Morgan is the only born Cursebreaker in the region and she thinks of it as more of a janitorial position where she's hired to do clean-up. She runs an agency with her Gramps, but business is on the rocks. It’s hard to make a living in the modern world when your clients don’t have bank accounts.

Nicholas, her latest client and a prince who thinks he’s really charming, becomes her assistant when he can’t pay off his debt and creates more problems than he fixes. To make matters worse, her snake-turned-boy childhood friend, Sadler, is suddenly acting suspicious while the official supernatural police force is interfering with business.

Now the Collector, a hunter who kills and drains his victims for their magic, plans to add Morgan's ability to his already expansive collection of powers. Morgan doesn't know who to trust when she finds out that Prince Nicholas has secrets of his own, and a close connection to the Collector despite being asleep for the past 1000 years.

CURSEBREAKER is an 80,000 word humorous urban fantasy for young adults told from multiple perspectives. It incorporates fairy tale elements and folklore to tell an unconventional romance of a heroine and her prince in distress.

I'm very active in the Boston writing community as an associate of the Boston Public Library, a member of SCBWI and PEN New England. I received my Bachelor of Arts from Simmons College in English Literature and Writing in 2008. My favorite hobby is studying old fairy tales.

FIRST 200:

The witch had telekinesis. That hadn’t shown up in Morgan’s research.

Morgan hit the ground hard, barely missing the three latte mugs flying at her. They shattered harmlessly against the wall as the witch’s face contorted in rage. Yeah, the lady was pretty pissed.

The polished floorboards of Six Swans Coffee were strewn with large white feathers. Turning the owners into swans—You had to admire the witch’s sense of irony.

Making sure her leather bag o’ supplies was still with her, Morgan ducked behind the counter, dodging another flying ceramic. There they were, six large white swans honking softly. One of them saw her first and the rest twitched their heads to her in unison, beady eyes watching her expectantly. “I have those shirts you ordered, guys,” Morgan said softly.

Morgan hadn’t brought proper supplies for defeating an angry witch, but she had some stuff to at least ward her off temporarily. She quickly lined the counter with a brass bell, a quartz crystal, and a clove of garlic from her bag. The witch dove after her too late. Wards and charms were great for minor offensive magic, but it wouldn’t hold for long.



GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

WORD COUNT: 84,000


HIDDEN DEEP is complete at 84,000 words and won the 2012 Maggie Unpublished contest in the YA division. It is set in a version of our present world where beautiful and powerful Elves use glamour enhanced by modern technology to cover their existence and get whatever they want.

Sixteen-year-old Ryanne Carroll has just run into the guy who saved her life ten years ago. You might think she'd be happy to see him again. Not exactly. She's a bit underdressed (as in skinny-dipping), and he's not supposed to exist.

After her father's affair, all Ryanne wants is to escape the fallout of family implosion and find a little peace. She also wouldn't mind a first date that didn't suck, but she's determined to make sure she protects her heart and never ends up like her mom: vulnerable, betrayed, destroyed. Ryanne has recently moved back to her childhood hometown in rural Mississippi, the same place where ten years earlier she became lost in the woods overnight and nearly died.

She's still irresistibly drawn to those woods. There she encounters the boy who kept her from freezing to death that long ago winter night and was nowhere to be seen when rescuers arrived. He's still mysterious, but now all grown-up and gorgeous, too. And the more she's with him, the greater the threat he poses to Ryanne's strict policy-- never want someone more than he wants you.

Seventeen-year-old Ladd knows the law of his people all too well: Don't get careless and Don't get caught. It's allowed the Light Elves to live undetected in this world for thousands of years, mentioned only in flawed and fading folklore. Ladd's never been able to forget about Ryanne since that night ten years ago. When he sees her again, his fascination re-ignites and becomes a growing desire that tempts him to break all the rules. He's not even supposed to talk to a human, much less fall in love with one.

And the timing is atrocious. The Assemblage is coming, the rift between the Light and Dark Elves is widening. Ladd may have to trade his own chance at happiness to keep the humans, especially Ryanne, blissfully ignorant and safe.

I envision Hidden Deep as the first part of a triology, though it can stand alone. I think readers who enjoyed the fated love vs. forbidden love story of Unearthly and the mysterious contemporary fantasy elements of Beautiful Creatures and Evermore will respond to Hidden Deep.

My previous writing samples were broadcast daily to thousands of people (though the word count was considerably lower!) through my work as a news anchor and reporter in Mississippi, Tennessee, California, and Rhode Island.

FIRST 200:


The first time I saw him, everyone convinced me he was a hallucination caused by hypothermia. It was the second time that really messed me up.

* * *

It was only mid-morning, but I couldn’t wait anymore. The need to get out there had grown stronger each day since we’d returned. With everything my mom had going on today, maybe she wouldn’t give me an argument this time. The screen door slammed behind me with a loud creak and double-bouncing bang.

“Ryanne? You going out?”

I exhaled loudly, then turned and faced my mother as she followed me out onto the back porch. She was dressed in her new red interview suit, a face full of going-somewhere makeup, and her hair up in clips where she’d been straightening it in sections. She’d rushed to the door in her stocking feet, causing a fresh run to start near her big toe.

“I left a note on the counter. Just going for a walk—you know.” I shrugged. No big deal. I glanced down and nodded toward her foot. “You’d better change those.”

“Shoot!” She hiked up her skirt and started ripping off the pantyhose.



GENRE: MG Adventure

WORD COUNT: 55,000


Stray has just blown his sister’s chance at the scholarship of a lifetime, and their father’s old pirate stories may be the only way to set things right. One stolen death certificate, a caged research assistant (he totally had it coming!), and an unearthed grave later, Stray faces his first real challenge. His sister wants to join the treasure hunt. Along with three friends—and one reluctant enemy—the siblings inch closer to a stash long dismissed as legend. In turn, two modern-day pirates hunt a prize of their own. Stray. And they’ll gladly kill anyone who tries to stop them.

DOUBLE-CROSSED (55,000 words) is a middle grade adventure rooted in the history and legends of my hometown, Amelia Island, Florida. This tiny island has flown eight different flags, including two hoisted by pirates who changed the course of Florida history. Following in these illustrious footsteps, I routinely pillage the local library and procured a degree in Modern Treasure (a.k.a. Finance) after forcing its previous owner to walk the plank.

Like THE GOONIES and the more recent SUPER 8, DOUBLE-CROSSED is driven by character relationships, which are illuminated—and tested—by each plot twist and danger. I hope the sample below leaves you wanting more.

FIRST 200:


In 1817, notorious con artist Gregor MacGregor set sail for Spanish Florida, where he conquered the quiet island of Amelia. Scallywags and thieves immediately overran the tiny port, filling MacGregor’s coffers with their ill-gotten spoil. As U.S. troops closed in, determined to restore order, MacGregor fled, but not before meeting with fellow pirate Luis Aury.

To this day, no one knows what occurred during this meeting aboard Aury’s ship, the Congresso Mexicano. All anyone can say for sure is that, when the U.S. finally arrived, Aury claimed to be destitute – and MacGregor’s loot had vanished.

Two zillion and eleven.

That’s how many times Amee had repeated that story to sunburnt tourists at her dad’s Amelia Museum of Piracy.

But never again. Not after today.

All she had to do was ace the Ramirez Sporting Goods scholarship contest, and she’d be free. She glanced over at her biggest competition, beach-bum Greg Johannsen. His genius idea for community improvement was park benches made out of old surfboards.

Amee had this in the bag.

Amelia High’s air conditioner labored against the May heat, sounding like a dragon snoring on the roof. News cameras flanked the walls, all trained on the Ramirezes.



GENRE: MG Fantasy

WORD COUNT: 57,000


Birthdays shouldn’t be this tough.

But ever since his dad died, Asher thinks they’d be a heck of a lot better with him around. On his 13th birthday his mom gives him a pretty unusual present. An old pin that belonged to his father.

And that’s when everything changes.

Strangers start showing up at his school. Objects begin moving around on their own. Mysterious creatures keep lurking around every corner.

And when Asher gets chased into a world called Eden Worn through his school’s boiler room, he finds out why. It’s because his dad’s not really dead. He’s being held prisoner by Lord Balor. A madman who wants something of Asher’s. Something Asher doesn’t even know he has: the key to using the magic from the ancient Stones in Eden Worn.

Asher has to make a decision. If he leaves Eden Worn, he’ll never see his dad again. But making a deal with Lord Balor could mean the end of both worlds as he knows it.

Nope. Birthdays shouldn’t be this tough.

I am an award winning screenwriter and a member of SCBWI. By night I’m an avid fiction reader and writer. By day I teach at a public school where I keep an eye on our own boiler room door. I haven’t discovered any worlds beyond the mass of old desks and tables that lie behind it.


FIRST 200:

Asher ran his thumb across the blade.

It was sharp. Really sharp.

The light reflected off the edge and the steel sliced right through it. He smiled. Even the light didn’t stand a chance against the weapon in his hand.

His eyes narrowed and he leaned in for the attack. His heart pounded in his chest. He raised the blade and took a deep breath.

“This better work.”

And then he struck.

Asher dragged the razor blade down his cheek. A trail of freshly shaved skin appeared beneath the thick layer of shaving cream. This was way easier than he thought it was gonna be. He put the blade under the running water to knock off the bunched up foam and went in for round two. He pulled the blade down again. A white-hot pinch of pain seared his chin.

Asher sucked in a sharp breath and dropped the razor in the sink. A bead of blood welled up under his lower lip. The sting was a whole heck of a lot bigger than the tiny cut. He splashed water all over his face and watched the shaving cream swirl down the drain.

He looked at himself in the mirror.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Contest Woes: I Feel Your Pain

Tomorrow morning, the PAPfest entries will go live on my blog as well as Mindy McGinnis's and MarcyKate Connolly's.

If any of the entrants are reading this post, I imagine some of you are old hands at such contests, while others may be contest newbies. Either way, I want you to keep my own contest experiences in mind.

Some blog readers may remember that last spring's Writer's Voice contest was a big part of the big, crazy frenzy that resulted in me signing with my agent less than two weeks later. I had several requests from participating agents, lurking agents, and through a handful of queries I'd sent just before the contest went live.

Super-awesome, right? Dream come true, right?



I almost didn't enter.

I'd tried another similar contest for two years straight (different manuscripts) and nary a peep from an agent either time. Not so much as a request for five measly pages. There'd been a "preliminary" round beforehand, and I'd gotten through that both times. Someone had at least sort of liked my work.

Hard to remind myself of that with the silence surrounding me.

The silence hurt more than any number of query rejections. Mindy can tell you about talking me off the ledge those days.

But I did come down off that ledge. I kept writing, kept learning, kept working, and eventually it all came together. (Now I have the same old insecurities in whole new ways, but that's another story.)

I'd love it if every entry tomorrow gets requests. I hope that happens. But if it doesn't, those of you who receive the silence, I understand. It's okay to be bummed and let it hurt ... for a little while. A good critique partner will let you wallow in it just long enough, and then they'll remind you it's not the end. You're still awesome. That awesomeness can only come out if you keep putting it out there, one way or another.

Send some queries.

Revise some pages.

Work on a new project.

Just keep going.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Does It Matter If You Ever Use It, Specifically?

"When are we ever going to use this?"

Every math teacher's probably heard this at least once, and during some units, at least once a day. (There were years where I never heard it. How I long to go back to teaching that way. But I digress...)

Here's the answer I've taken to giving my students. It's three-part.

First, you may think right now that you won't use this specific math concept, or any math other than basic percent calculations with money. You may think you know what career you'll go into, and it's not one that involves math even a tiny bit. But when I was your age, I said the very last thing I would be was a teacher. When I passed my AP Calculus exam so my general math requirements for college were taken care of, I said, "Yes! I never have to take math again!"

Moral #1: It doesn't hurt to keep your options open. The more you learn—in all areas—the more doors you have available to you in the future.

Second, no, most of you will never have to do a geometric proof after finishing high school. You may never factor another quadratic equation after that, either, or sketch another box-and-whisker plot. But how often in life do you need to bench-press a hundred-pound barbell? Rarely if ever? So, why do so many people do weight training? To strengthen muscles so they will be able to use them in various other ways when needed.

Moral #2: Math builds up a part of your brain that might otherwise atrophy. Logical reasoning skills are always useful, and just like Chris Hemsworth's biceps, they don't magically appear from nowhere.

Third, why are you asking this in the first place? Are you really concerned with whether this is something you're going to use specifically in your everyday life? I'm pretty sure if you isolate specific tasks in most of your other classes, you'll find they don't mirror the activities of most adults. (I promise I haven't written a five-paragraph essay since high school.) I think you're really asking because I'm presenting you with something that isn't instantly easy for you. Your instinct, therefore, is to avoid something that requires effort unless you can see a direct need for doing it.

Moral #3: There is value in struggling. Many things are only worth the effort they require, making easy things pretty worthless. As for the direct need for doing it, see Moral #2.

This is a little ranty, but there's been a silver lining to these conversations lately. I rarely get through more than a sentence or two of one of my reasons before another student in the class pipes up with why they think it's important for them to learn the concept, even if it isn't obviously applicable to "real life."

Bless those long-sighted teenagers.

P.S. To be fair, I also have some students who ask the same question, but in a different way. They sincerely want to know the applications of a particular mathematical concept, because they like to see the bigger picture, to get an idea of how it's all connected. And that's always a question I'm happy to answer.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Conference: The Aftermath

I'm back. As expected, I survived despite my anxiety. The trip to New York was great, and I gladly accept the resulting exhaustion. Since I went primarily for a conference, and conferences are for learning, I'll share a few things I learned.

  • If I'm going to take red-eye flights, I need to learn how to sleep sitting up.

  • I still love NYC. Cabs accepting credit cards makes it even better.

  • Meg Rosoff and Mo Willems are entertaining/fascinating enough to keep me wide awake no matter how little sleep I've had. And Shaun Tan is brilliant. (I must check out the work of all three.)

  • We need to shrink geography or come up with more time-effective methods of travel so there aren't thousands of miles between me and the likes of Mindy McGinnis, MarcyKate Connolly, Charlee Vale, and Matt Sinclair.

  • Speaking of ... Mindy after a few glasses of wine isn't very different from regular-Mindy. And MarcyKate needs a medic as part of her personal staff.

  • Editors are people, too. People who dress better than I do, but people nonetheless.

  • While I've gotten pretty good at forcing myself out of my introvert tendencies, I can only push them away for so long. (Mindy was very proud of me for managing the shindig Saturday night as well as I did. But I was definitely ready to head back to the room when we did.)

  • Mindy's anecdotes on her blog are awesome as-is. But when she tells stories in real life, she reenacts. This is not to be missed.

  • Cupcake love forever!

The bottom line is that I need to head back to NYC before too long. (And yes, I know my sister will insist on coming along that time.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Being Liked is Nice, But Not at Another's Expense

When it comes to teaching, I know I have things to work on, but I also do some things pretty well. A lot of kids like my class and like me as a teacher.

That feels nice. It's helpful, too, when a kid who doesn't normally like math likes you as a teacher. They try a little harder, which often leads to doing a little better. I've even had a kid or two come away with a totally different opinion of math as a subject.

Like I said, it feels nice.

You know what doesn't feel nice, though? Students convincing counselors to let them transfer into my class mid-year because they think I'm somehow better than the other teacher who teaches the course.

Flattering, but ... wait a minute.

The two of us prep together and teach from exactly the same materials. We have essentially the same training. We see eye-to-eye on most mathematical topics and how to approach them. Sure, our personalities are a little different. But here's what it really comes down to.

I don't have a reputation yet.

The other teacher falls into the tough-but-fair category. That's a good thing, but kids who don't like the "tough" part spread the word that she's "mean." (Oh, please.)

Letting kids bail from one teacher to the other just because they feel like it isn't fair to her—it undermines her. She's been teaching for years and teaching well, and she deserves more credit than these kids are giving her.

It's also not fair to me. It puts me in a position I don't want to be in, playing me against my colleague. That sucks. On a more practical note, I don't like it because it means my classes keep getting bigger. They're all between 36 and 39 students now.

(My colleague could see it as great for her, because her classes are smaller, but she doesn't. She'd rather we each have a fair, even class load.)

And you know what? Kids (and people in general, I'm sure) do this all the time. Playing favorites. Choosing sides. Trying to get everyone else to like/not like the same people they do. Often without much—if any—solid basis for that opinion.

I don't like it.

Not sure what I can do about it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

First Conference Anxiety (Hold Me)

I've been to a number of math ed or deaf ed conferences, but never a writers' conference. It's something I've been interested in doing, so I was on the lookout for a good one to start with. Something local. Maybe regional. If I could just find one with the right timing.

But no. Thanks to Peer Pressure Practitioner extraordinaire Mindy McGinnis, I'm kicking off my writers' conference experience at the winter conference for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in New York.

This is a good thing. I've been wanting to go back to New York since the first (only) time I went, when I was a teenager. I'll get to hang out with Mindy and MarcyKate Connolly. I'll get to meet people like my editor, my agent, and friends from AQC.

But I'm an introvert. And a worrier. So while there's a lot of anxious-excited going on, there's also plenty of just-plain-anxious.

A sampling:

  • My classroom. It needs to be ready for my absence. That means prepping the students and getting sub plans ready. Considering the other ninth grade teacher and I have barely been able to get ready a day in advance most of the year, this is worrisome.

  • Packing. I haven't gone anywhere other than between my apartment and my parents' house in years. My sister has half the stuff I might need, so packing for home never took much forethought.

  • My first flight in over seven years. I have no problem with flying. Delays leading to missing my connection ... that's gets me going.

  • Speaking of flights, I'm taking my first red-eye. I've never had any success at sleeping sitting up. At all. This could be interesting.

  • Getting around. Yes, I've been to New York before. Took the subway. Took a cab. But I was with a youth symphony group, so I was never in charge. Is it sad that the idea of hailing a cab makes me anxious? Go ahead and laugh at me.

  • On a related note, tipping. I come from a world where the only tipping that happens is at a restaurant (which I'm great at). Honestly, I rarely use cash these days. I'll need to figure this out.

  • Being social. Did I mention I'm an introvert? I have plenty of experience forcing myself out of my comfort zone, but it takes energy.

  • Oh, yeah. Energy. I have to go directly back to work just over twelve hours after arriving home. Survive Tuesday through Friday before crashing on Saturday (most likely).

Okay, this sounds dangerously close to complaining about something I really am excited for.

Just anxious, too.

Sometimes being a grown-up is overrated.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Age is Relative

I already knew our perception of age is relative. When you're five, a 16-year-old is practically as old as your parents. When you're thirty, that same 16-year-old may seem like barely more than a tiny child.

I also knew age differences are relative. An eight-year difference is huge between a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old. But between people who are 72 and 80? Not so much.

Here's a new one I just noticed, though. The context and timing of when I met a person affects how I think of their relative age from then on. A 24-year-old I met fairly recently will fall into my mental category of "around my age." (I know they're younger than I am. I said "around.") They're definitely adults.

Then there are the people I taught my first year. They're all around 24 now. But when I taught them—when I met them—they were 8th graders. (That means they were 13- to 14-year-olds.) Those are forever stuck in my category of "definitely younger than I am."

It doesn't mean I treat them like kids when I see them now. On the contrary, I've reconnected with a couple and definitely see them as adults I can treat as equals. But they are younger.

Similarly, people who were already adults when I met them as a little kid are solidly "older." But I could meet someone that same age—say, pushing 50—right now and they still might fall into the "around my age" category.

It's all about context.

Not like it's a big deal, but one of the weird things about perception.

Lynn Phillips should be happy. This means she's forever young. At least to me.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Experience vs. Expertise

There are a couple of things I could say I'm an expert in. Math and deaf education, for instance. I have the degrees and the training, plus actual years in the classroom. (Not that I can't still improve, of course.)

Then there are areas I have experience in. Some coincide with my expertise (such as those years of experience in the classroom), while others are just experience, making me far from an expert. I'd put writing and the publishing industry in this latter category, though I think it's transitioning to the former.

I have expertise, I have experience, and I also have opinions. On just about anything. Some of those opinions are on subjects I have NO experience in, much less expertise. I try to make it clear that those opinions fit into the "very theoretical" category.

My opinions on writing and publishing are a little less theoretical, because I've actually done some stuff. I've written a few novels. I've queried a lot. I've critiqued a few manuscripts, and I've talked to some agents and editors. But in a business as fickle and subjective and super-in-flux-right-now as publishing, my individual experiences are only worth so much.

Still, people ask for advice. I offer my opinion, and I try to back it up with the reasoning or experience that led to it. They can take it or leave it as they see fit.

That pretty much goes for all the advice and opinions I offer in any area, including education. Yes, I favor certain ways. Yes, I get frustrated when other people seem stuck in what I view as outdated or unsubstantiated opinions. I get even more frustrated when those people don't have the expertise to back up what they're spouting.

I'm pretty sure beating someone over the head with what I think won't do much to change their mind.

So I'll say what I think, especially when asked directly. I'll try to keep my mind open to understanding the reasons behind opposing views. And I'll give experts a fair shot, while considering the source of their credentials.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Your Excuses May Vary

As writers—heck, as people in general—we have things we'd like to accomplish. Write a new novel. Start querying. Revise an old novel. Complete edits before a deadline.

So we set goals. We post them in places like the Writing Odometer at AgentQuery Connect. We round up Twitter friends for a high-motivation Word War or #1k1hr. Public declaration of our goals and intentions can help us follow-through.

Sometimes we stay on track and celebrate. Sometimes we don't, and then we might publicly confess the cause of our demise.

Sometimes we have really good reasons. Sometimes we're just making excuses. Sometimes it's somewhere in-between and can be hard to tell whether we're being too hard on ourselves ... or not hard enough.

My excuses may not be your excuses. I don't have kids and/or a husband to take up time, which can make me think, "Why am I not getting things done?" Then again, some of you may not have a day job outside of writing and wonder the same. Some of you have both, or other things getting in the way that I can't even imagine.

Those things are pretty valid, I think. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much we can pack in before our neurons explode. It's okay to cut ourselves some slack, especially since beating ourselves up doesn't actually get much done.

Then again, there are also plenty of times I think, "Just one little round of this mind-numbing game to decompress from school," and it turns into an hour or two I could've used to get something done. Yes, taking a break to relieve stress is important, but I know from experience that falling behind on things that need to be done only creates more stress.

I think my own goal for now is not to fall back on my good reasons so much that they become lame excuses.

Your excuses, of course, may vary.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Six Degrees of Separation from Me, I Guess

I've had a particularly annoying song popping into my head frequently, and by the end of the post, I'm sure you'll have guessed it.

It started a month or two ago. My mom mentioned something about where her mother and grandmother had grown up, and our neighbor down the street remembered that her husband had family connections in the same location. Five minutes of conversation later, we figured out that my mom and this woman's husband are second cousins, making me and the children in that family third cousins.

Oh, and one of those kids is in my math class. He now periodically greets me with, "Hey, Cuz!"

Earlier this week, I went to the mall to pick up a few things. A lady helped me at a particular store, answering questions and pointing out products she thought would fit my needs. During checkout, she signed me up for their frequent shopper rewards program, which involved giving my name, address, and such. She got a look on her face and said, "Did you ... this probably sounds weird, but do you play the cello?"

I looked at her a little harder. "Tonya?"

Turns out we both played cello in the same junior high orchestra as well as the local youth symphony.

Then yesterday, my mother went in for surgery. (She's doing well!) In the ICU afterwards (part of the plan, don't worry!), the nurse and my dad got to small-talking. Dad asked if she's from the area. She said she was born and raised in El Paso, Texas.

That's where my mom grew up.

When my dad mentioned that, the nurse asked for her maiden name. Dad gave it.

"You mean Aunt Nelle and Uncle Ivan??" (My grandparents.)

Turns out this woman is my mom's second cousin (their grandmothers were sisters). My mom even remembers her from way back, I think.

I guess there's really no point in me being surprised at these things anymore.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Show the Love and Pitch-A-Partner in PAPfest

Let's get real—pitching our novels is tough. Often beyond tough. Personally, I find it a lot easier to talk about the amazing work of my critique partners MarcyKate Connolly and Mindy McGinnis. In imagining pitching my novel and MarcyKate's to her students, Mindy had a thought ... hey—EVERYONE should practice pitching by pitching other people's stuff! And so our contest idea was born.

Last month we announced an upcoming agent-judged contest called the PAPfest (Pitch-A-Partner Festival). As always, the PAP is sneaking up on you quicker than you thought. Mindy will be the primary host on Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire, while MarcyKate and I will be co-hosting, because that'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.

The blogging team will narrow down the final hopefuls to 30 entries, at which point we’ll ask our participating agents to cruise our blogs to bid on projects that catch their eye.

What Are the Rules?

  • 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, we will ask to see the query and 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. Their partner CP-Y has the option of requesting a query critique from the PAP team of myself, MarcyKate and Mindy.

Are you confused? That's OK. We believe in multiple learning styles, so we'll lay this out a few different ways. But first, the nitty-gritty:

What's the Timeline?

There will be two windows to pitch your CP's project to PAPfest(at)gmail(dot)com
The first window will open Wednesday, Jan 23 at 8 AM EST
The second window will open Friday, Jan 25 at 8 PM EST
Each window will allow 50 email entries

The PAP team of myself, MarcyKate and Mindy will be reading the entries between Jan 29 - Feb 8. If you are one of the 30 finalists you will be notified by Feb 8 via email. If you are chosen you will provide your query & first 200 words for agent judging. Also if you are chosen, your CP who graciously allowed you to use their project as pitching material will have the option of requesting a query critique from the PAP team.

February 14th from 9 AM EST to 9 PM EST (Hooray! V-DAY!) The agents will be invited to browse the entries and make requests. They will vote for their favorites with a partial or full request. Everyone who receives requests will be able to submit their materials to all the agents who voted for them.

Can Guys Get a PAP?

Why yes, yes they can. In fact, we'd love to see that.

Who are the Agents?

Agents participating in the PAPfest are:

Laura Bradford of Bradford Literary
Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary
Pooja Menon of Kimberley Cameron
Adriann Ranta of Wolf Literary
Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary
Tina Wexler of ICM

Isn't that spectacular? Aren't we so glad that we have them? Yes, we are. We commissioned original art from Lynn Phillips to immortalize them. (Click to enlarge the image.)

As if the fabulous portraits you've seen aren't enough, we asked Lynn to reiterate the process for those who learn best through comics. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cynical Reader or Unconvincing Character?

Allow me, if I may, to put on my reader-hat for a moment. See, there's this thing that happens sometimes when I'm reading, and I'm not sure if it's me or the book.

"Sorry, book, it's not you. It's me." Ugh. Good thing books can't throw their readers across the room.

It's a little hard to describe. I'm reading along, enjoying the story well enough, even liking the side characters, but there's something about the protagonist.

I don't believe her.

(Yes, it pretty much always happens to be a female protagonist. Maybe that's more for me to ponder.)

Not like I think she's lying, not directly. But what she's trying to be or supposed to be doesn't feel real. Not to me. And that's where I'm not sure if it's me or her (or rather, her author).

The verdict might vary by book. Sometimes it might really be me and my cynical side getting in the way. Maybe that keeps me from being open to certain traits coinciding. That wouldn't surprise me.

Sometimes, though, I think it might be a weakness in how the character's written. Here's a fairly common manifestation: Female MC is stubborn and insists on being self-reliant. Hates getting help from anyone.

That's all well and good, and plenty of YA heroines these days fit that description. It doesn't always fly believably, though, and I think sometimes it's because the author shoehorns those traits into the character. The author wants a character like that, because who doesn't love an independent female who isn't afraid to butt heads with other people?

Wanting that kind of character and creating one are two different things. It can't be pasted on top of everything else the character is. Pasting is for flat objects. Who the character is needs to be pervasive, leaking through in moments that seemingly have nothing to do with that aspect of them.

With my writer-hat back on, how does one accomplish that?

That's a post for another day. If you have ideas, please share.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Kids, Don't Apologize for Making Me Do My Job

The other day, my ninth graders were working on a review assignment. Mostly independent, or working through with friends, while I circulated to help out.

These were mostly things we'd learned between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was a little tricky to remember some of the concepts. Not a problem. That was the point of reviewing.

In more than one class, a student or two got to the fourth or fifth question they'd asked me and prefaced with this:


Sorry to bother me? Sorry I had to weave through rearranged desks to get to them? Sorry they had so many questions?

Well, at least one said it was the last one. "Sorry, I have a lot of questions."

Mind-boggling, from my perspective.

I guess there are teachers who prefer that their students work in silence while the teacher sits at their desk and does their own thing. And okay, I admit, there are days when I'm exhausted and sitting down sounds really nice.

But like I said to my students ... "What are you apologizing for? Why do you think I'm here?"

Helping students is what makes teaching fun. Seeing them piece things together until they understand. It's certainly not about hearing myself lecture from the front of the room.

If you have kids, make sure they know they should never feel like they have to apologize for asking a teacher to do her job.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Being a Benevolent World-Builder

There are a lot of amazing things about being a novelist—things that make the tough parts worth it. The joy of bringing characters to life, torturing them because we can ... in worlds we create.

Talk about power.

Sometimes, though, we get carried away with that power. We name and define enough flora and fauna to cover the planet twice over. We develop a 700-year history of the monarchy. We formulate scientific theories to support complex technology that all runs on algae.

That's great. Fill reams of paper or gigabytes on your hard drive with every nuanced detail. Go for it.

The problem comes if we throw it at the reader ... all of it.

Don't get me wrong. I love a fully realized world. And I hate one that doesn't have enough detail, lacks internal consistency, and just doesn't feel real. But having that fleshed-out world as a foundation doesn't mean we have to spell it all out within the manuscript. If we do all the hard labor of working it out behind the scenes, it can seep naturally into the story.

Some details do deserve to make the page and add to the narrative. Personally, there are a couple of situations where I feel it's worth the word count to detail things in.

It's News to Me. This is pretty typical in speculative fiction genres. The protagonist enters a new country/society/galaxy/dimension. Everything will be new, so some detailing is only natural. In these situations, I always ask myself what my MC would notice first, and what would get glossed over until they're in deeper.

It's a Matter of Life or Death. Okay, maybe not that extreme. But I'm talking about aspects of world-building that are pertinent—even critical—in that particular moment. Make sure the diversion into explanation or description is properly motivated.

I'm Right and You're Wrong. This can be a fun one. Character #1 says, "Let's do ____ to accomplish this goal." Character #2 says, "You're a moron, that'll never work!" #1: "Yes it will. If we ____, ____, and ____, then ____ will happen." #2: "No way. Nuh-uh. The ______ of the ____ will never ____ _____ _____ ...." And so on. Hopefully done more artfully than that, but you get the idea. When there are legitimate differing views on how something in the world operates, that can be a decent time to work in some specifics.

I'm sure there are other situations and a variety of factors that can play into how much is too much and what approach is best. Some genres expect world-building to be handled a particular way. Some readers can drink in pages of geography and political history, while others will skim (if they don't just give up on the book altogether).

And who says it's just the sci-fi/fantasy spectrum that world-builds? Historical fiction may call on a setting we have some passing familiarity with, but it has to make it real just the same. Just about any novel has to establish at least a microcosm of a fictional world.

For myself, the sign of great world-building is when I don't notice it happening. Whether through description, dialogue, or more subtle means, I experience it and live in the world.

Do you have pet-peeves when it comes to world-building? Tips for pulling it off smoothly? I'd love to hear them.