Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gardens in the Cracks & Other Stories

I double checked everything.  Then I double checked it again.  For extra measure, I rechecked, re-proofread, got more feedback on the cover and did it all again.  My goal was to upload my anthology by the last day of June.  It was ready Monday, so I let it cool a bit.  Then I did all that stuff I already mentioned again. And not five minutes ago, I uploaded it.  I sat watching the spinning convertor symbol work its way through the versions of e-book formats available for my book, then decided not to watch it any longer.  I left for a bit.

Though my first book had made it through the conversion process the first time, I was not feeling cocky enough to think that I would have the same luck with this one. But I still felt surprised when it came up with AutoVetter errors.  A quick check and it turned out to be three tabs I had not removed.  Smashwords is great about this.  It didn't just inform me that I had some errors.  It told me I had tab errors and how to do a quick fix to correct them.  Took me all of 30 seconds to remove them. Then five minutes to re-upload and bingo approved for Smashwords distribution on site (it is pending review for the other markets:  Sony, Apple, Kobo, etc.)  I opened to the home page at Smashwords and there she was!

Gardens in the Cracks & Other Stories

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How to build a classroom writing community

Day 1: but this pattern holds true for the days to follow
  • Tell them to look around at the other writers in the room (For some, this is a frightening experience, for others confirmation.)  Recognize them immediately as writers.  If you have returning students, ask them to explain the difference between this class and an English class.  Their words will be more convincing then yours.  Your actions will support what they say.
  • Provide a prompt to write to and give instructions: write about anything that comes to mind.  Give them a set amount of time, about 7 minutes.
  • Each student shares by reading his/her response to the prompt.  Encourage returning students to go first.  (I follow a seniority pattern.  By setting this now, it won't be a surprise in a workshop [see post for June 16, 2012], and it shows the new students what behavior is expected [and accepted: writers are quirky]). Some students refuse to share; explain that you allow this occasionally, but they must at least tell what they wrote about or what they hoped to write about.  Encourage them to share the next time.
  • Each student's work must be acknowledged.  Point out a strong image, what you think the idea might develop into, or summarize it.  Don't forget to smile.
  •  Diversity is already present, but it is important to point it out.  New writers in a creative writing class will often try to emulate (or think they should) the more polished writers which results in the sacrifice of their own individual voices. So point out the diversity and how it is a bonus for the class to have so many different styles present.  Encourage them to help each other develop this diversity.
  • Begin your lesson for the day.  All writing should be shared and encouraged. No lesson should lack an opportunity to write.  Some should just be shared and left in the journal.  Some writing should be turned in and graded for effort to fulfill the task.  Grading should be gentle: attempt is much more important than result. (Final work, I grade mercilessly, but practice is a different animal.)
By having a pattern of daily writing and sharing, your class will become a community.  Be a positive role model: be specific, encouraging and excited about what they are doing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday prompt: #26 2012

First grab a book off a shelf, any book.  Then close your eyes, flip it open and plant your finger on the page. You are welcome to swirl your finger about if you wish first.  Where it lands is the first line of what one character says to another.  Start your story there.

Sample: "used to ride a horse, which had feet that were almost human, the hoofs being cleft like toes."  (Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes by Stephen Jay Gould, p. 177)

     "I say," Judson said, "he used to ride a horse, which had feet that were almost human, the hoofs being cleft like toes."
     "Are you daft?" I said.
     "Really. It's part of history," Judson sputtered.  "I read it just this morning.  Caesar rode such a horse."
     I sat back on my heals and tried to look at the new born colt in this different light. The feet were not human, but there were in fact three toes on each hoof where there should have only been one solid toe.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rules for a classroom writer's workshop

A writer's workshop is one of the best ways to advance student writers both in their writing skills and in their personal recognition that they are part of a community.  This is especially important in the classroom where many students may be admitting for the first time that they write because they like it.  There is much I can say about building this community feeling, but I am just going to focus on key rules to teach students how to participate in a workshop.

Both the writer and the critic must use their pens with thought.
The workshop critic
  • Focus on the writing, not the writer.  This workshop is not an opportunity to attack.  This is where the teacher/mediator must model the behavior required.  (I always go last and never pull my punches. The first workshop is always awkward since I make the students go first in order of seniority (so the most experienced writers set the tone. When necessary, I quietly redirect comments or responses to maintain the rules.)
  • Honor the writer's voice.  In other words, don't change the writing into something you might have written.  In fact, you must make an effort to appreciate this writer's voice and work to help the writer develop it.
  • Be honest and kind.  Being kind without honesty does not help the writer.  And being honest without kindness for the sensitivity of a young writer is foolishness and destructive.
  • Point out what is good and why (often).  Every writer needs to know where it worked, so he or she can do it again.
  • Don't just say what needs work; give suggestions for how it might be improved.  Then don't expect the writer to use your suggestions. The intention is to give inspiration so the writer comes up with something original that fits both the writer's style and the needs of the work.
  • Be clear and specific about both fine work and work that needs redrafting.  Also as a group, agree on routine symbols.  A question mark could mean confusion while an exclamation mark could mean especially fine image (or whatever was underlined).

The workshop writer

  • The writer must turn in as quality a work as possible.  Don't write it the night before you distribute it.
  • Distribute your work in as timely a manner as possible.  All workshop members need time to look over the work.  Two days before a workshop is minimal.
  • Don't take criticism personally.  The workshop is about the work.  Learn to put up a wall that allows you to listen with a willingness to consider change rather than a defense against every suggestion.
  • Do not explain to the others what you meant.  If they could not understand it, then you did not do it correctly.  I tell my students they must take the criticism in silence.  They may answer questions if asked, but may not volunteer information.
  • If you have concerns you want addressed, put questions at the top of your work, so the other members have time to consider them and be prepared to give you useful answers.
  • Do not provide a rewritten work that has not gone through considerable change.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday prompt: #25 2012

This prompt is a bit different.  In fact, there are five prompts.  Start with the first and each day add to your written idea letting the day's prompt add a new twist to the situation.

Day 1:  an argument (internal or external)
Day 2:  blue skies
Day 3:  the sound of time passing
Day 4:  something breaks
Day 5:  no forgiveness

Use the next two days to add, rework or set aside.  Let cool, prod until warm again, let cool.  Decide what to do with it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Today I wish I was perfect, and probably tomorrow, too

It is hard to believe, but I am close to publishing my second book at Smashwords.  This work is an anthology of shorts stories, Gardens in the Cracks & Other Stories. They are loosely connected by the "world" they are all derived from in that similar technology and history are imbedded in each.  The title piece ("Gardens in the Cracks") and another short work (Scrapper, a novella) have some characters in common as well as time and general locale.  The remaining stories developed out of experiments of one sort or another: repeating motif, what if, narrative from a secondary character, and such.  I think all writers will agree, the editing is the hardest part.  I have gone over them so many times looking for every error I can.

Besides the fact that I write recursively and therefore edit constantly as I write, I am now on my fourth line edit of this work.  I can say that turning on the feature that checks grammar and mechanics in a word processing program can be the most annoying and beneficial experience.  I found myself examining nearly every sentence and defending or correcting innumerable aspects of my writing.  Frequently, the program would highlight a word or two and state "if you are using this to mean...., then you are correct.  But if you mean...., then...."  I can't say how many times I said, "Can't you tell?"  Every once and a while I was glad it did not let a single questionable word by, as I had in fact used a word incorrectly.

Dialogue can play a large part of a fiction work, and in an effort to sound like the genuine article, my characters often speak in phrases or are not necessarily grammatically correct.  So I was reminded on a regular basis that I had fragments of sentences or slang where I intended them to be.  This still was a benefit as I noticed that some of my characters did this more often than others, and I had the opportunity to decide if this was a characteristic I wanted for the individual or if it was too heavily used.

The fine tooth comb that I am using now gives me a headache, but not using it would be worse than a headache.  So off I go again scraping each sentence free of error.  This is one of those times when I really wish I was perfect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What we read is certainly part of what we write.

When I was a teenager I didn't always have a book available, and I was an insatiable reader.  So I would go to my father and ask if he had a book to spare. He was always going on business trips and read whenever he was on a plane. Frequently, he would ask me not to lose his place, and he would tell me when his next trip was so I could get it back to him, and then he could pick up where he left off.  I read science fiction, and he read action adventure, but to me a book was a book was a book. If it had words placed in sentences, I was going to read it.

So I read a lot of John D. MacDonald, Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane novels, though I wouldn't hand them to my own teenage daughter. I came to know their series characters, such as James Bond and Travis McGee, pretty well.  I have been shaped by those books and characters.  And I know my writing was influenced by them though I don't write in that genre. I think the character development and dialogue style of my own writing is built on the foundations of those works, as well as the authors I read when I could select the books for myself rather then beg for reading material from my father. So interior dialogue, the aside and internal motivation vs external motivation are as much central to my writing as the genre of science fiction is. And then I read The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything.  Time Travel became my favorite fiction, and I saw MacDonald in a whole new light.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday Prompt: #24 2012

Take a previously written short piece and add internal dialogue (main character) responding to each action your supporting character takes.  Put the internal dialogue in italics.  This action will help you flesh out the personality of your main character.  Choose a response type:  examples - loves the supporting character, hates the supporting character, finds the supporting character boring, thinks the supporting character is hiding something. By choosing a response type, you will add depth to your character and interest in why he or she feels that way as well as cause the reader to begin to evaluate the actions of the supporting character: is he worth loving, hating, suspecting, and so forth?

When you have finished, add behavior cues, tone to dialogue, expressions that support what is being thought internally. Then remove all the internal dialogue and see if the additions created greater complexity to the piece.  Note: You may find you want to keep some of the internal dialogue.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ray Bradbury: a fire in the belly

I have read a few of Ray Bradbury's books.  They offer more than enjoyment and an easy way to pass the time.  He had such a way with metaphor (was it a real snake or a stomach pump tube, a jet overhead or a scream?) and was one of the most literary of the major science fiction writers.  I have read Fahrenheit 451 numerous times, as well as The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles.  He was a writer that made the reader think, and think deep.  I was not so much captured by his characters as by his ideas.  I have taught, like many English teachers, Fahrenheit 451.  It has always made my students look at their education in a new way, a privilege they don't ever want to lose.  For that alone I could thank him profusely.  But he has also taught them tolerance, the beauty of a well-turned phrase and how people can be manipulated into not trusting what they know.  Most importantly, he showed that the human being must question, must seek greater understanding and failing that will surrender to madness.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Teenagers and writing

I have been teaching creative writing for about six years now.  The things my students write can be revealing, intriguing and by far inspiring. Many start at the beginning of the year just writing about the frustration they feel about a friend's actions or the awful/amazing feeling they have about the person they are dating. But as the weeks progress, the writing gets deeper.  They write each day, and each day they are a step deeper in making a writing corner of their own.  The student begins to see what is behind their writing; they grow and what comes out is magical, not because suddenly there is a Pulitzer prize forming in the room, but because they have grasped some essential understanding.  Instead of writing about their frustration, they write about frustration.  They examine it for its bitter taste, sallow color, caustic odor and suddenly they know frustration.  I love that day and the days that follow.  This week two of my writers graduated and I wept to see them go.  My last words: don't forget to write.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday Prompt: #23 2012

The wrought iron stairs twisted twice before reaching the top of the aged brick building, but that was not what made them interesting. What caught the eye was the woman below turning slowly in a white strapless wedding dress with flared hem, her graceful arms extended out, head thrown back and the videographer leaning out over the rusty twisted metal twenty feet above her, his heavy camera extended even further out on a cantilevering arm strapped to a brace mounted to his chest.  I wondered who would fall first, her dizzy with the arching spin or him unable to pull back if the rail were to give way or his balance was thrown off by a sudden flinch of the sagging bolts.

Which one fell or did something else occur?  Take it from there.