Sunday, August 29, 2010

Once More into the Breach

Okay, so tomorrow is it....tomorrow is the first day of fall semester. I'm teaching three sections of Freshmen Comp...It's time to be afraid, very afraid. They're coming to my classroom and what will ensue only God knows.

As each year begins, I've got another set of headaches. Most of the students are woefully unprepared for college level writing. It's not really their fault. Actually, it's the fault of all those hippies (I confess. I was one for a while) who grew up to change the structure of education in America. I can remember hearing someone say that all children could learn but each child learns at a different rate. What my generation failed to take into account is the basic laziness of ALL humans. We take the easy way out from the time we walk to the time we become a boxed lunch for the worms. That's right. From the cradle to the grave, we strive to do as little as possible.

That little-as-possible thingy holds true. I've even experimented with the prospect, and I always come up with lazy as a result. There are a few students, very few, who contradict the principle, but their diligence is overshadowed by the majority of their peers. Learning stations, relaxed grading systems, re-vamped tests that "dumb down" the requirements for graduation and college all comes down to taking the easy way out. If a child resists learning, then by all means, make it easier for that child to pass so his/her parents won't be upset, so the statistics for a particular school look good on paper. You guessed it! This stuff really pisses me off!

Did you know that if a prospective teacher doesn't have an education degree but wishes to take a job in public education and if that teacher took SAT's before 1990 and scored above 1000, then the prospective teacher doesn't have to take the first of the two exams required for state licensure. Since 1990, the SAT test has been revised to accommodate the weaker students graduating high school in the 21st Century. The tougher test of the 20th Century go a long way. Sad. Very sad.

AS for writing...very few college freshmen can write a research paper. Heck, very few can write a cohesive paragraph. They have no understanding of basic grammar because the new pedagogy re-enforces the concept that grammar doesn't have to be taught. Students simply absorb grammar rules via osmosis as they write and read. Read? My experience tells me that they only read what they're forced to read with the exception of instructions on video games.

I'm going into the breach once more, packing up my book bag, searching for things that my students might find interesting, and thinking of presentations that won't cause (as it did on one occasion..honest!) students to stand up and question my right to ask them to read a book. I'm teaching a class called "Literature in context of Culture." So far, 10 students have signed up. If I'm lucky, that's the cut-off number and my class will make. If I'm really lucky, all 10 students will know who Hemingway is and will have read more than the back of a cereal box.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

As Always

As always happens, my writer's mind has begun its usual diversionary track. Yep! While revising and expanding my work in progress, a new work or maybe a new series has reared its ugly head. Characters are begging me to create them, scenes are appearing in dreams, imagination is putting together settings, and I'm struggling to keep my mind on the task at hand.

Some writers can handle multiple projects at one time. I can't. I'm a writer in focus. In other words, if I'm not in focus, not zeroing in on one piece, then nothing really gets finished. I may write character profiles for this new piece, and I most likely will attempt a general outline (something I never really adhere to).

Outlines work for some but not for me. It seems that my stories begin and then write themselves, each scene appearing on the inside of my eyelids and then transferring through my keyboard onto the screen in front of me. I usually know how the story is going to end, but I seldom know how it'll get from point A to point B. If I outline, it is very general, meaning it has a few character names, where or if those characters survive to the end of the novel, and how the story climaxes. That's it. Nothing more.

This burgeoning thing that is trying to distract me, as is true in all my stories, is founded in personal experience. I live in a region of the country served by the regional electric service monopoly known as AEP. AEP serves the general Appalachian region most associated with "mountain folk" as defined by popular, national opinion. Nevermind that these "folk" earn almost 50% less than people living in urban areas. Nevermind that these "folk" have fewer job opportunities, cannot access public transportation, and are bereft of some of the services available in other areas like public water and sewage, trash pick up, and zoning. Regardless of these facts, AEP has raised their electric service distribution prices almost 100% in the last 5 years. That's right. Cost of electric service has DOUBLED! Needless to say, the villain in my new book will be an electric company, a thinly disguised version of my nemesis, AEP.

That's all I'm telling right now. BUT my two-book series, WIP MUST COME FIRST. I can't trunk it again, not while I'm making headway in character development and plot line. This is when it usually happens...when I begin to rush toward the end, effectively disjointing the storyline and leaving my characters to perform deeds that seem foreign to the character I developed early in the story. This is when that virtue, patience, must take hold. Jumping from an unfinished novel into another not-yet-written piece will jumble my feeble brain and make both endeavors fruitless.

Writer know thyself. That's been a little hard for me. I've learned about me and about how I write over time. I know that if I hurry to finish the WIP, then the story will feel rushed and choppy. If I leave the WIP to move to another story that is bubbling up through the curly strands of my brain, then the work in progress (a good story by all accounts) might never be finished.

What is a writer to do? In this case, I'm pretty sure I've got a handle on it. I take notes. When the new story bubbles up, I wipe it from my brain by taking notes on possibilities as to how it might turn out. I keep the notes in a safe place. The WIP will be finished, to my satisfaction, and beta-ed by the Dawg Pack. After the pack has howled out its approval or disapproval, after the final edits are done, then I'll query the piece and keep my fingers crossed. While I'm querying, I'll slip out my notes and let all those collected bubbles of possibility breathe again. I'll write the first chapter of the next WIP, then the second chapter, and so on. When the agent who requests the full manuscript of the two-book series calls and says, "I'd like to offer you representation," I can say (after the screaming and fainting and shouting for joy, of course) "You know what? I've got two finished books on the old computer and I'm half way through a new one." Won't I be proud? :D

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Okay. I've finally made some great headway. The one thing my beta-readers found unsettling in the one-now-two books I'm working on was character development. It seemed I slacked up a bit when it came to almost everyone in the story. Yep! As Robbie the Robot (oops! dated myself) once said, "Error. Error."

Character development appears in class number one of any writer's workshop. The key to success is to make the reader love at least one of the characters and have strong feelings about the rest, whether they're villains or heroes. When members of my writing group began the book, my main character was spellbinding. Well, that may be a little strong, but hey! They liked her a whole lot. When the book passed the half-way point, I began to hurry, letting my compulsive desire to finish overwhelm the characters, all the characters. Doesn't work. By the end of the book, most readers were glad the read was over, having seen the MC turn from strong and complicated to whiny and overbearing. Not good. Not good at all.

This go around, I'm trying to be more patient, to read the un-trunked volumes with an objective air, and through revisions, to tell readers what I already know: that the main character is indeed complicated, rootless yet strong enough to try to find a place in life to plant herself and grow. I'm hoping that all these revisions will work that magic and that by the time readers close the book, they'll want to open it and start again from the beginning. A good dream if I can pull it off.

Harper Lee did just that in To Kill a Mockingbird. Dare I hope to achieve that success? Well, a girl can hope, but I'd be happy with simply writing a good book and finally have readers other than my long-suffering writing group. Of course, no writer writes just to see hundreds of unsold books stacked in a dusty warehouse. I, like all authors (I sometimes call myself 'author' just so somebody says it), want to be read and often. My name on a bookjacket is a nice thought, but knowing that readers think I actually have something to say is a better idea.

I'd certainly like to think I have something to say, that my work will not only entertain the reader but also offer insight into the human condition. I write literary fiction, so far mostly historical literary fiction. For some reason, looking back at what we've been seems more appealing than looking forward to what we might become. We learn from history, or so I've been told, and history has always shown me a new way to view the present. As a writer, I can re-write history just a bit, hopefully just enough to offer that 20/20 hindsight we've all heard talk about. Some write about a future that we may never see. Their imaginations send us to apocalypse or to a wonderland in which all things evil are overcome by good. A nice place if you can find it.

My late husband was a visionary of sorts, even though, like John Milton, he was legally blind. He enjoyed Star Trek, not so much because of the scifi adventure but because the Trekkie world held cures for all diseases, hope that poverty would be eliminated, and laws that forbid the use of force except at times when Justice had been raped by burgeoning Injustice. Evil was always nipped in the bud, as Barney Fife once said. He liked to learn what visions writers had for the yet-to-come. To those who write futuristically, I doff my hat.

As for me and the 1800 or so words I've added to the WIP, I'm hoping my words give insight to the importance of personal history, to the idea that where we come from does as much to shape who we are as any other component of life. We're built, brick by tragic brick. We don't spring to life fully completed. Like the potter's clay, we're molded and shaped by circumstance, geography, and history, ours and the history of those around us. That's the point. We're born, yes, but then we must become.

My main character is finally becoming. What? Well, should the book be published and if you're interested, you must purchase a copy or otherwise, wait for the movie. :D

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Running a Good Race

My good friend, Gini Koch, is expecting. Her second book will be on shelves come December, 2010 (Alien Tango), and two more are scheduled to be out soon. If she and I were in a race, I'm running well behind the champ. However, as she often reminds me, it took her a while to get where she is on the publication track.

I'm not so patient. You might even describe me as impatient (or so says Gini). I started my attempted writing career rather late in life. That fact shouldn't surprise anyone. I finished my BS when I was forty-five, and although I went straight from under-grad to graduate school, I was the oldest graduate teaching assistant in university history (I really don't know that for sure, but it certainly seemed that way.) Getting out of the gate behind the rest of the pack is something I'm used to.

Oh-Wise-Gini also reminds me that she worked hard at becoming a professional writer. She wrote countless volumes before she hit on just the right combination to catch the eye of her agent. She wrote hundreds of query letters and got almost as many rejections, some formula "I'm not interested" letters and some more personal. She's no novice, no got-an-agent-the-first-time-I-entered-the-race kind of gal. Gini is the consummate professional, a hard-working writer who's not afraid to take a shot at her dreams no matter how long the realization of those dreams take.

In this day and age when thousands of would-be writers are talking about the great books they're going to write, I'm told that only about 1% of those books are every really written. I've written three manuscripts. I hesitate to say that I've completed three novels because I'm not sure you can say that unpublished manuscripts are ever completed. I've even queried one of them with some success. I had several requests for full manuscripts from my query. That's why Ms. Gini calls me Query-Dog.

Am I back at work on my latest efforts? You betcha. I can't wait to get the okay from the BIG DAWGS (writing group) to go ahead and query. My old impatient self might just want to query with the work I have, but rule one of the writer's handbook: Never query on only a partial manuscript OR on a manuscript with issues. I've got rule one down pat!

Well, back to the race. I'm more like the tortoise than the hare. I came out of the gate rather late, but I'm ahead of the 99% of runners who never even finish the book. That's something, huh?