Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fangirling Wally Lamb


Wally Lamb. Wally Lamb. Wally Lamb.

I met Wally freakin' Lamb last night!

He is one of my all-time FAVORITE authors. I remember reading She's Come Undone in college and not being able to believe that a GUY had created this character, Dolores Price, that resonated so strongly with me. He really captured the protagonist's struggles with food and weight accurately, exploring all of the emotional triggers and underlying reasons for an eating disorder (in this case, compulsive overeating).

He's written several fantastic books since then, but his recent We Are Water leapt to the top of my all time favorites list. I'd forgotten how much it moved me until he read an incredibly powerful passage last night, and I just felt this lump of dread in my stomach, because I knew where it was heading. What I love about Wally Lamb is that he's able to explore the light and dark sides of people and how they interplay throughout a life. For instance, in the piece he read last night, a boy performs an act of heroic generosity, and it directly leads him into one of the most shameful acts imaginable. But you can't completely hate him for it because you see everything leading up to it and understand how circumstances beyond his control could give birth to the demons he struggles with.

Lamb talked about how he volunteers as a writing teacher at a women's prison and his inspiring experiences with his students there. He shared a student's heartbreaking piece that conveyed a theme that he often explores--how one's background can set them up to fail before they even get a chance. What's important about Lamb's work, though, is that he shows how a person can have everything against them and have sunk to the absolute bottom but still somehow find the strength to swim back to the surface and save themselves and their loved ones. His stories exude hope.

And he manages to reach both ends of the spectrum... he does tragedy so well, but he's also hilarious! I had some serious writer envy when he read the piece about his signing at a Costco the size of Delaware and how a little girl came up and asked him how much he wanted for a Sharpie. Haha, and how a man slowly led his wife away after being told that We Are Water is about a wife leaving her husband for another woman.

He's brilliant. Just brilliant. So excited that I got to meet him.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What I Learned in College



I'll be honest.

I don't remember a lot from college. At least not from my classes. Unless it involved reading novels or memoirs, I really wasn't very interested in the content. If my math professors had stood in front of the class and acted out stories about the bell curve, I'm sure I would have retained a lot more.

Nope, I don't recall a lot, but I do remember, during my freshman year, someone modeling how to schedule my time. College was different from high school, they explained, because you were only in class for three hours a week, but you were supposed to study a bazillion hours outside of class for every hour you were in class. It seemed overwhelming, but once I charted it out and saw how much time I actually had, I felt a lot better.

So, uh, I'm under a bit of stress right now.

I'm teaching, parenting, writing, trying to lose weight, struggling to keep my house from turning into a complete pigsty, and looking for some time to snuggle up with Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels.

It's a lot.

When you also consider the fact that I have 100 students in Composition I this semester, well... let me break that down for you...

100 students X 10 minutes to grade the average essay = 1000 minutes = about 17 hours every time an essay comes in (usually every 2 weeks)

Blah... I feel like I'm getting into one of those competitions where people detail everything they have to get done and everyone else rolls their eyes and says, "Yeah, we all have a lot on our plates."

It's true. We've all got a lot.

Anyway, I've managed to de-escalate some of the panic by making one of those charts from college. I started by blocking off the non-negotiable time, my hours at school. But even some of that is negotiable, like I can walk the halls in the morning (AHEM... MONITOR the STUDENTS) for 20 minutes or so and knock out about 2,000 steps or so. (Goal is 10,000 a day.) I can do another few rounds at lunch while I'm waiting for my Lean Cuisine to heat up if I don't waste time on Pinterest.

This year my husband is dropping the kids off/picking them up from daycare, which opens up a HUGE time slot for me in the afternoons. So, if I put my butt in that chair for an hour before I leave school, I can manage 1,000 words before I leave for the day. I've trained my students to ask me if I've done MY homework and started to chart my progress on the board so they can see my word count.

I pack my gym clothes in the morning and head straight to the gym so I can take in a Zumba or Body Pump class before heading home for snuggle time. Fitness, check. I just have to try not to undo it all with sloppy joes or mac and cheese for dinner.

Weekends are harder. Not as regimented. The couch is a magnet, and Margo Lanagan is just calling to me. (Damn you, Margo Lanagan! Hahaha. Just kidding.) If I can get out of the house and get my butt to Panera or the library, it's easier for me to focus and get some words written. But then there's stuff like football games, birthday parties, trips to the pumpkin farm... all of which are important! Don't get me wrong! But I'm not one of those people who can write novels on their iPhones between tents at the farmers' market. I'm just not.

Soooo... rambly rambles are finished.

I'm off to guzzle more coffee and, as soon as my husband gets home, get gone to the library and write some words.

Ssssssshhhh. Quiet, Margo.

I've conquered 50K at the time of this writing! Woooooooo!!!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What Numbers Mean (and What They Don't)

I handed back my seniors' first essays on Monday, and before I did, I gave the speech I always give at the beginning of the year. This is their first essay. It's not going to be their strongest. They shouldn't get too worked up about their grades, especially since they have the chance to revise to recover missed points.

But, of course, some of them saw their grades and got upset. We're not talking about Ds or Fs. We're talking about the kids who are used to writing a paper in twenty minutes and getting an A being confronted with a B and not knowing how to handle it.

The problem with throwing out As all willy nilly is that the kids are never going to acknowledge their shortcomings enough to overcome them and grow. I explained to my students that they are not the number on the paper. They shouldn't internalize that grade as a judgment of their worth as a human being or even as a writer. That grade is a snapshot of how I viewed their performance and measured their potential for growth on that particular assignment.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

This morning I stepped on the scale. 166 pounds.

Disgusting. Fat. Whale. Worthless.

Worthless.

I was doing the exact thing I asked my students not to do, judging myself by a number only. What if I reframed my thinking? Used this data as a snapshot only, a measurement tool. 166 pounds. Up about 10 from where I was 8 months ago. Down 80 from where I was 2 years ago.

I set out on my weight loss journey with a goal in mind. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer. Every day I make choices that can move me closer or further away from this goal. Will I go Zumba tonight? Eat pizza for dinner? Or a salad?

I'd like to lose 20-30 more pounds. Of course I know what I need to do to get to my goal weight. It's just a matter of putting that knowledge into practice. Anyone who's struggled with their weight knows that's not true. Losing weight is not an intellectual process so much as an emotional one.

That weird lumpy thing on my waistband is my Fitbit, btw. :D

I had my friend take a picture of me this morning in front of his amazing Super Mario Bros. bulletin board. I'm 166 pounds in this picture. I'm not particularly happy with the way I look. My legs are too stocky. My arms are too thick. But you know what? This is a snapshot. One moment in life. And, though I'm not thrilled with my weight, I am happy with my career and my family, and I am grateful that I have a healthy body with the potential to reach my goals.

It's probably too small for you to see what I'm pointing at, but it's invincible Mario. He's midair, about to reach that flag, to achieve his goal.

I'm not there yet, but I'm on my way.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Brand New School Year

"I don't have a job. I am a job." ~Jacob Bacharach, The Bend of the World

A nut job, maybe.

That's what it feels like this time of year, tap dancing in front of the students with my syllabus and dry erase markers. It's a great time of year--the fall--don't get me wrong. Everyone is still smiling. The caffeine is still working. No one is failing.

As with my writing, I'm trying something new in the classroom. Well, our whole department is. As a district, we've adopted Springboard's pre-AP program, which is carefully matched with the standards set forth in the Common Core. Although rigorous in content, it is delightfully (and somewhat maddeningly) elementary in execution, urging teachers to decorate their bulletin boards with mountains so students may envision themselves traversing up the rocky terrain of rhetorical skills. I have a word wall displaying literary and academic terms such as "claim" and "concession" and "syntax" in red and purple and blue. Every time we use a collaborative strategy, I hand a tiny checkmark to a student to attach to our running chart.

And I love it.

I'm not being snarky. I really do love it. My inner elementary school teacher is coming out, the me that led crowds of five- and six- and seven-year-olds in endless rounds of camp songs and taught them how to make flux capacitors during craft time. I'm seriously considering investing in Crayola stock at this point in my life.

All of this curriculum work has necessarily drawn my attention from my WIP for the time being. I'm sitting with 2/3 of a completed draft and swishing the plot around in my mind during my commute, considering possible character connections and ways to tie up loose threads. I know that I need to get back in the zone, carve out the time to write. I also know that, for me, opening the document after a period of time away is sometimes the most difficult step.

Gah. Okay.

*screws up resolve* *opens document*

Here we go.

~~~

P.S. Just (this morning!!) finished Jacob Bacharach's The Bend of the World and completely loved it. Conspiracies, drugs, and snarky social commentary. I've been discussing "voice" with my students and am tempted to draw some quotes from this book to show how personality can come through so strongly in writing. And his "blogarach" is awesome.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Trying Something New

I've officially reached the 1/3 point on my current manuscript.

My instinct is to keep plugging away until I have 250-300 imperfect pages to go back and tackle in the revision process. But there's this technique that Megan Miranda has been using that I kind of want to try. I remember a few years ago when she was working on HYSTERIA. She wrote 1/3 of the book, then went back and revised. Wrote 1/3 more, went back and revised. Then wrote the final 1/3 of the book, went back and revised the whole thing. Her final revisions were a lot less painful during the final round.

I think I'm going to try it.

This morning I spent an hour or so preparing revision notes for the first third of my story. It's amazing how many inconsistencies already need to be worked out. As we've established, I'm very much a pantser, making things up as I go along, throwing in whatever occurs to me. This can make for an exciting storyline, but it's not always so... logical.

Sigh.

So here I go, back to the beginning, to color in the outline I've laid down, to make sure everything connects and that my flashbacks are woven in seamlessly. It's kind of depressing to think I won't reach my word count goal as quickly as I'd wanted, but I'm thinking I'll end up with a much stronger book if I do it Megan's way.

~~~

In non-writing news, Sherlock! I'm obsessed. It's been a while since I've been so taken with a TV show. I'm only on the second season and am savoring each episode, knowing that I'll never get to go back and watch it again for the first time.

Yay, and professional development. I'll be attending trainings all next week for the new AP curriculum. Yeah, yeah, it'll be fantastic, and I am looking forward to honing my teaching skills... but... but... it's summer...


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading Like a Writer

'ello, lovelies!

Hope your summer is swimming by scintillatingly. By that I mean: filled with wonderfully action-packed books! I just got back from the lake, where I made a dent in my to-read list. The first book was Jennifer Weiner's THE NEXT BEST THING, a fun romance about a TV writer in Hollywood. I enjoyed the love story, of course, but I found the insider talk about television production fascinating. I've been reading Weiner's books since college, when I devoured GOOD IN BED. TNBT is her tenth novel, and she's as talented as ever.

Today I started listening to THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M.J. Carey. I'm not sure where I got the recommendation... I think it was from some list on Goodreads. Anywho, it's a post-apocalyptic zombie book--right up my alley. It's really exciting... like ROOM by Emma Donoghue crossed with WARM BODIES by Isaac Marion. If you're looking for pointers on how to write a pageturner, you should definitely check out this title. 

Which brings me to the point of this post. Since I'm in writerly mode, I've been reading everything with an ulterior motive... to see how the stories work. Today, in particular, I've been thinking about characters and how an author manipulates the reader to either like or dislike them. I love the little girl in THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, so I made a list of all the things that made me want to root for her. I also made a list of all the traits that made me hate some of the other characters so I might use them in my own villains. 

Another trick Carey uses really well is introducing some type of question before the end of every chapter, so you HAVE to keep on reading. This is something I thought I had down with Slide and Impostor, but I really struggled with in ELT (which... truth be told... is maybe why even I started getting bored with it). I need to step up my game.

All of this babbling is just to say that I read books very differently from how I used to. Stories are intricate machines that have lots of moving parts and screws holding everything together, which you might not see if you're not looking closely. Often times you'll find a device that might work perfectly in your own story. As I was driving today, I had to pull over and furiously take notes about an idea I had for SNSB, the YA novel I'm working on.

So... what have you been reading lately? And what have you learned?


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Golden Rule of Critique

You all know the golden rule from elementary school, right? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Great rule, by the way. Fantastic rule for life. LOVE. THAT. RULE.

However.

How-ev-er.

It's the opposite when you're critiquing someone's work. Well, not the OPPOSITE opposite, but kind of. The whole point of critique is to give others constructive, legitimate criticism. I didn't really get that memo when I started this whole writing thing way back in 2007 (MY GOD HAS IT BEEN THAT LONG?!! IT HAS!!!! WOW I'M OLD). I remember sending my first shiny, complete manuscript to this saint of a guy (Martin? You out there?) who dutifully marked it all up, gently suggesting that I take out the Spiderman references (haha, that's the only concrete thing I remember from his thorough, amazing feedback). I excitedly ripped open the envelope with this amazing dude's critique, read it, and promptly wept. Yeah, literally wept. What was he SAYING? It wasn't PERFECT? On the first draft? Woe. was. me.

This was the exact WRONG way to handle receiving constructive criticism.

Which leads me to the golden rule of critique.

The ONLY acceptable response when someone takes their time to read and comment on your work?

It's THANK YOU.

That's it. The only thing you say. No explaining, no justifying, no whining.

You thank them and go on your merry revising way.

I seemed to have forgotten this rule when I read some feedback from the lovely Megan Miranda yesterday. I broke the golden rule. She had all positive comments but suggested I break up a bit of backstory. I thanked her, of course. But then I wrote, "Did the pacing really slow down at that point?" Facepalm. Of course it did. That's why she wrote it. Megan is a goddess, and I trust everything she says about my writing. (And other things. But especially writing. Love you, MM.)

I tell you, it's taking me a while to get back into this whole process.

Anyway, that's the one thing you have to remember when receiving feedback. Well, two things. Two words. THANK and YOU.

Done.