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.