Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Evolution of a Reader: Part 1

Each year I have my students write their Autobiography as a Reader. I ask them to tell me their story as readers: What do they read? Why do they read it? What made them love reading? Even, what made them hate reading? Don't worry; I'm not offended by non-readers. I might pity them, but (relatively) silently. And, as is usual for me, whatever I make my students do, I also do. For this assignment it's partly because students are more willing to write something like this when they see I've done it too, perhaps because it shows them it isn't as hard as they might think. But it's also because I actually love my Autobiography as a Reader, which is a bit of a thank you letter to my parents, both readers themselves, who placed an importance on reading from a young age. That emphasis turned me into a reader, and I wouldn't trade my love of books or the joys they've given me for anything.

Both of my parents read to my sister and me at bedtime, but the choice of reading material was vastly different in each household. My mom read mostly Dr. Seuss and other similar stories. We loved listening to her try to pronounce tongue twisters and silly words, and we of course liked the drawings and made-up words. The Lorax and Fox in Socks are two of my favorites. Then, after a book, sometimes two, it was off to bed. This is, I think, a normal bedtime routine for many families.

My dad took a totally different approach to bedtime reading. He would often read to us from whatever he was reading. That meant that we did not read Dr. Seuss. Instead, we read from Agatha -Christie, Miss Marple being one of our favorites, or The Hobbit (the movie of which scarred my sister and me for life for no discernible reason - the old one, with Warwick Davis in the lead role). My dad read these stories to us with no consideration of age, so we were reading these stories at an age that was, certainly, much younger than the intended audience. Neither of us minded, however. And I found that it was often not the story I was listening to, but my dad's voice, because he has a real talent for reading aloud. He has a deep, melodious voice that always aligns with the author's intentions. When a character is shouting, my dad is shouting. When a character is whispering, my dad is whispering. When a character is angry, confused, elated - that's how my dad sounds. And it was these bedtime "stories" that turned me into a reader from a very early age. For the longest time, whenever I read a story, it was my dad's voice I heard in my head.

Similarly, it was these bedtime readings that determined what I enjoyed reading on my own. Both of my parents like a good mystery. Mom prefers Patterson and Cornwell, while Dad gravitates to Christie and Grafton. So as I began to choose my own books, I consistently chose mystery. And it wasn't until I started doing the Autobiography as a Reader assignment with my students that I realized I'd boxed myself in. I often speak to my students about stepping out of their comfort zone in reading and trying something new because they never know what joy they might find in a book they might never have otherwise considered...

Hypocrite alert! I realized that, despite my philosophy, I was telling my students to do something I wasn't willing to do! Aside from a brief children's literature kick started by a college class, wherein I burned through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series (which actually starts with The Magician's Nephew, and is a series I'd recommend to just about anyone, child or adult) and then the Harry Potter series (twice actually), mystery was my go-to book. I had no interest in a book that didn't include at least one dead body well into my adulthood. This assignment forced me to accept that one of those non-readers I pitied was myself! Of course I'm a reader, but in staying within my preferred genre, I was missing out on a whole host of experiences and amazing books, most notably (and surprisingly) non-fiction books, which I'd always assumed were about as interesting as my history textbooks. So I set out to take my own advice, and start reading things that I wouldn't normally go for. It's this decision that forced me to evolve as a reader and realize that there are some amazing books out there that affected me, not just as a reader, but as a person. They are presented below in no particular order.

The House Across the Cove by Barbara Hall and Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (young adult mysteries)

Don't fault me for beginning my list with two mysteries that I read as a kid, because as I was compiling this list, I realized that there are a LOT of books that changed me as a reader. The important lesson I learned from these books is that not only is it possible to become totally lost in a book, it's necessary. I think that, although I read a lot and basically lived in the local library as a kid, I'd never really understood what it felt like to live a book, to actually enter the world of a book, until I read these, both around 11 or 12.

The House Across the Cove makes the list because it's the first book I ever sat down and read in one sitting despite it being nearly 300 pages. I read it in about five hours without moving from a spot below my bedroom window. I inhaled this book, and as a young reader, that was so, so important to me. House had such an impact on me that I took great pains to track down a copy (it's out of print now) so I could re-read it as an adult. And it's so precious to me that it's one of the only young adult books of mine that didn't make it to the classroom library. (Find your own worn copy kiddos. This one is too important to me. Think of it as an adventure.) When I first got House, I'd never read something that I literally could not put down. And it's this title I refer to when talking to my reluctant readers about "finding that just right book" that will help them find something to love about reading. And other than Down a Dark Hall, it's one of the very few books that I actually remember from my childhood.

Down a Dark Hall had a similar effect on me. I didn't read it in one sitting, but I recall one specific occasion when I was in the sixth grade. It was silent reading time and I sat at my desk in Mrs. Blackwwood's classroom, reading the climax of the story. I was so totally enthralled, that when I came up for air, I realized I was alone. The entire class had gotten up and left for lunch and I didn't even notice. I didn't see them get up, didn't hear the talking and the shuffling and gathering of lunch boxes, didn't hear Mrs. Blackwood call my name - not a damn thing. I was gobsmacked. I couldn't understand how it was even possible to be that into a book. Only one other book in my lifetime has had that affect on me - American Gods by Neil Gaiman (author of another book I love and recommend, Neverwhere.) American Gods is my boyfriend's least favorite book, even though he's never read it, because he insists I completely ignored him any time it was in my hands. I didn't actually ignore him, mind you. I simply didn't notice him, wasn't even capable of it, the book is that good. (It's also one of the only books that I actually mourned over when I finished it.) And, ultimately, isn't that what we want out of a good book? To be so enthralled, so entertained, that the real world actually disappears and is replaced by the world the author has created for you? To live in that world?

The House Across the Cove
Down a Dark Hall
American Gods
Neverwhere

Stiff by Mary Roach (and everything else she's written) (non-fiction/research)

The first genre I attempted to tackle when I started taking my own advice was non-fiction. I'd notoriously avoided the genre my entire life. I told myself over and over again that I just didn't like it, which is a total lie because I'd refused to even try it for most of my life. And I avoided it for the same reason most of my students avoid it - I assume it'll bore me to death. I need mystery, intrigue, plot! That's fiction isn't it? Non-fiction is for history textbooks. Research is for nerds. 

Wrong! The truth is you can find excitement in many non-fiction books, and this is another strong case for finding that just right book. I'd attempted to read a few non-fiction books over the years, but they were mostly left unfinished (except for Edgar Allan by John Neufeld, but we'll get to that one another time). When I went to a Walden Books going-out-of-business sale, it wasn't me who picked this title up, but my boyfriend. He said, "You're going to love this book." And every time he's said that to me, he's been right, so I gave it a shot. And I loved it. Why? Because there is mystery and intrigue and excitement! This book in particular is about a subject that ties in with why I love mysteries and Dateline marathons - dead bodies. It's a book about the science of cadavers and how they've been historically used to teach us any number of things, from how to perform surgery to the effects of car crashes on humans to why victims of plane crashes are so often found without any clothes on. And as soon as I started Stiff, any worries of dry, boring scientific writing were quelled. Roach is funny and serious at the same time. She's enthusiastic about every topic she's researched, and that enthusiasm comes through in her writing. She's one of the most genuine non-fiction authors out there. If you don't believe me, or you don't have an interest in cadavers, then try Gulp or Packing for Mars, or Bonk. She won't disappoint you, no matter where your interests lie. The only book of hers I haven't inhaled is Spook, which tackles the topic of life after death from a research perspective, and that's only because I'm terrified of the subject - but it's still on my TBR list. Someday. Anyway, the point is, that you never know what you're going to enjoy in terms of genre until you give it the good college try. It was this book that turned me onto the non-fiction genre, and since then, I've read several non-fiction books, and not just those by Roach. I've discovered my interests are far more varied than I ever imagined. 


A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (yes, sis, you read that right) and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman (more non-fiction, both by physicists) 

Um, science? Please; I barely survived biology and chemistry, and not for lack of trying. For Pete's sake, I almost didn't pass Geosystems, which was basically science for dummies. And outer space? Are there aliens? How about Mulder and Scully, are they in it? No? Pfft. Not interested. That's what I used to think whenever someone suggested reading to learn something. Reading isn't for learning, it's for fun! Right? Well, as it turns out, it's for both. That's something that was hard for me to grasp before I actually became a teacher and realized I not only had to find a way to teach kids to both enjoy what they read, but also to enjoy learning from it. 

A Brief History of Time is as far out of my comfort zone as I've ever gone. Not only is it about science and physics, it's written by a physicist and it's full of theories and other terms I'd never heard of. I had to look up every third word in a dictionary to even begin to try to comprehend what I was reading. I read whole paragraphs, sometimes pages, three or four times before I got a grasp on the topic. This was not a book I read, but a book I survived. I considered dropping it several times because it was so difficult to read. So why didn't I? To impress a guy, of course. My boyfriend and I had just met, and he's far more educated, more intelligent than me. And although I'm far from stupid, I was worried about coming off as an idiot because we couldn't discuss many of the topics he's interested in. When he suggested I give the book a try and loaned me his own copy, I was determined to show him I could finish it, understand it, and even discuss the topics contained therein. So, although it took me several months, mission accomplished. What this book taught me is to never give up just because a book (or really, anything) is hard. Finishing this title is something I wear as a badge of honor. And if I'd never read it, I might never have read many other non-fiction titles about space that have both expanded me as a reader and lead me to another topic that I enjoy reading - and learning - about. 

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is not a science book, but a memoir, which is a genre that I was even less interested in than non-fiction, if that's possible. Why on Earth would I care to read about someone else's life? It has nothing to do with me, and I have nothing to gain from reading it. Oh, Dian, you're so silly! What actually convinced me to try this title is a road trip. While driving to Asheville, North Carolina, my boyfriend played an audio version of a different title by Feynman, his favorite physicist. I'd expected to be thoroughly bored and uninterested, and of course, it was the opposite. I learned that not all scientists are boring nerds, and Feynman actually led a really interesting life. I learned to appreciate romance, both fictional and in real life, as he talked about his first wife, whom he married knowing she would eventually die of tuberculosis. In listening to his story about being involved in solving the mystery of what caused the Challenger disaster, I realized that I'm actually really interested in space missions and how they come together, in the science of creating a vessel that will safely carry man into the void of space and then safely bring them home. I learned the value of real-life problem solving, and in teaching yourself to do something - like how to "guess" someone's lock combination - through sheer determination and never giving up. I also learned playing the bongos naked might not be an activity exclusive to Matthew Mcconaughey. Even physicists know how to have a good time outside of the lab.


Don't worry, I haven't finished telling you about the Great Books in Dian's Library. See Evolution of a Reader: Part 2 for more, which I'll write as soon as I put a book down long enough to do it.

And I would LOVE to hear about the books that have had an effect on you as a reader. Drop me a line in the comments below. I might even read some of them!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Because Cats

I recently read a column from my favorite funny guy Gene Weingarten about those fuzzy, cuddly, sharp little fluff balls otherwise known as cats. It's called "Here's what happened before God let cats loose upon the world" and the basic message is this: Cats are assholes. Now you might think that I, as one of the many cat ladies around the world, would take offense to Weingarten's characterization of cats as a species, but I don't. In fact, I agree. Cats are assholes, but I love them anyway. With human assholes, I at least generally understand them. I don't agree with what they say or do - they're assholes after all - but I can at least make sense of their actions. Cats? Not so much.

I've had cats and dogs as pets all my life (I've buried an embarrassing number of hamsters and fish as well), but my first real furbaby that I adopted as an adult was a stray cat I took in during college, Duck. She was a scrawny little Oreo colored thing, and I quickly turned her into a dry food addicted thirteen pound behemoth. I'd like to say that when I first took Duck in (when she was probably about a year old) that she was a perfect little cuddle ball who mewed and quietly lapped up milk and slept with me and charmed me with her little kitten love. But that would be a lie. She was always kind of a jerk. My friend Lauren can attest to this. We lived together for two years when I had Duck. In addition to destroying my pet deposit by pulling the carpet off of the stairs just because she could, she annoyed the both of us in a myriad of ways.

Any night I wasn't around, or if I went out of town, Duck would let Lauren fall asleep and then somewhere between midnight and 2 AM, just as Lauren was dancing off in la-la land with Channign Tatum, Duck would start to cry. She always made sure to do it in the stairwell, where the acoustics were best. What did she want? Nothing. She just wanted to sing Lauren her favorite version of "I Know You're Asleep, But This Is the Song of My People."

Another of Duck's favorite past times was hiding on the stairs and stalking your ankles. She would wait for Lauren to walk by and then reach out and swipe at her bare ankles. You might say, "Well she's a cat, she's just playing." No, Duck wanted blood. She never once swiped at a pant leg. She only swiped at you when your ankle was bare, for maximum blood. 

A lot of cats enjoy waking you up a few hours before their feeding time. Duck did this of course, but she was also very picky about how she ate. It wasn't enough to just put the food in her dish and walk away. You had to watch her eat. If I fed her and went back to bed, she'd cry until I got up because she wanted me to stare at her while she ate. Why? Who the hell knows? She's a cat. She also loved people food - sort of. Regardless of what was on my plate, Duck was convinced she needed to eat it, and I was constantly fending off her flying leaps at my dinner plate. However, when she finally got whatever it was, she'd stick her nose up in disdain without so much as licking it. (Unless it was a french fry; she loved french fries.)

All cats, as a rule, hate baths. Did this stop me from trying to give Duck a bath? Of course not. One day, I trapped her in the shower stall and aimed the water at her because she'd gotten especially filthy in the yard. Wouldn't you know where I found her five minutes after her bath was over? Taking a dirt bath in the middle of the road in front of the house.

On another occasion, I was sitting on the couch and talking on the phone. Duck sat next to me, cuddling against my leg and purring. I wasn't paying her enough attention, apparently, so how does she tell me? She latches on with all four sets of claws and bites me.

So basically, as Weingarten says, Duck used violence to show me a number of things. Claws and biting both meant, "Pet me", "I've had enough, stop petting me", "I love you", "I'm hungry", "This food is displeasing for no apparent reason", "It's time to wake up", "You're late", and "Hi. I missed you. Well, kind of."

You could argue that Duck was just a bad cat who liked drawing blood, and that mostly the rest of the cat species is a nice, cuddly group. But I've had a lot of pets and several cats, and that just ain't the truth. 

The cat I had growing up, Bootsy, once bit my grandmother because she was sitting in Bootsy's favorite chair. My sister's cat, Olive, just bit my other grandmother over Christmas, for no discernible reason. 

And although my two current furbabies, Catsiopoeia (Catsy) and Soma, are not violent, they continue to prove how frustratingly asshole-ish cats can be. 

Catsy has taught herself how my alarm clock works. She sets it off at 2 AM as a reminder that breakfast is only three hours away. If I'm late going to bed, she starts knocking things over, beginning with whatever is the most fragile. She's fond of knocking the remotes off the end table because she knows the battery compartment will break open and I'll spend the next 20 minutes under the couch trying to find the batteries. If knocking stuff over doesn't work, her last resort is to jump into my lap and act cuddly and affectionate. Just when my guard is down, she turns around and farts in my face. Really.

Soma is more direct. Not laying in the position she prefers? She bites your elbows. If that doesn't work, she bites your nose. If that doesn't work, she sits in the middle of the room and cries until you move. If you don't move, she doesn't stop crying. This will go on for as long as you feel like being stubborn, sometimes all night. When you finally do move and she curls up in your lap, she puts her claws out to secure her position, whether that be in the fabric of your clothes or your skin.

Since Soma and Catsy are still fairly young, they enjoy playing a lot. I've bought them a plethora of different toys; baubles, crinklies, catnip, battery powered mice, and squeakies. Their favorite toys? Q-tips, ice cubes, and twisty ties. Also, the rubber ends on all those door stoppers around the house? Missing. Every single one of them. It's the only "toy" they fight over. 

Cats are incredibly intelligent, every bit as intelligent as dogs. However, cats have no desire to please you, so there is no training them or teaching them or changing them. They want what the want when they want it and it is your duty as their human to see that they get what they want when they want it. Walked across your keyboard and deleted that ten page term paper? Should have been paying attention to me. Knocked over grandma's ashes and used them as kitty litter? I told you my litter box was dirty. What do you think all that crying at 3 a.m. was about? Turned off your alarm and you overslept? Should've fed me at four a.m. This is what happens when you don't listen. 

But all of these things are also the reason I love cats. They're confident creatures. They're never afraid of me. When I get too full of myself, they bring me down to earth by reminding me that I still have to clean the litter box by peeing on the bed. Cats don't need you; they never did and they never will. Who else is this world is so confident in who they are? No human, surely. Even Daisy Fuentes is self-conscious about her big ears. Cats are demanding, more demanding than any other pet you'll ever have, and never once in their lives are they apologetic. They're secure in who they are and you can either accept them for who they are...or not. It makes no difference to them. That's what makes them assholes, albeit cute little furry, fuzzy assholes with itty bitty pink noses and itty bitty kitty feet. 

I'd love to hear some of your kitty stories in the comments below!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Character Concerns

Sometimes when you query an agent you are lucky enough to get a personal response. I've been lucky a few times and these agents gave me their honest feedback about the sample chapters (most often the first three chapters of your book, but sometimes as little as the first five pages), which I am grateful for. More than one agent said the same thing; they ultimately didn't connect with my main character. That's pretty disappointing for me because I feel that the story I've written is so much about my main character and how she changes. To me, the book is more about how the challenges Rose Delaney faces change her, rather than what happens in the plot. But this is good constructive criticism that I am lucky to have, so I've been looking back over the book, thinking about ways to change that. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that despite spewing out a novel, I don't really have a full grasp of who Rose is, at least not at the beginning of the story. And that's a problem because if a reader doesn't care about your main character from the very beginning, they aren't going to invest in the rest of your book. Even I tell my students that if they aren't interested in the story or the characters within the first chapter or two of a new book, they should put it down and try something else. Reading is about enjoyment, after all, and if you aren't enjoying it - then why are you doing it?

So... What to do?

This is where I fall back on my teaching experience and one of the lessons I use when I teach characterization. There are four ways we learn about a character:
  • What a character looks like 
  • What a character says and does
  • What a character thinks and feels
  • How other characters react to the character
In a writing lesson, I have students create their own character. The point of the assignment is to describe this character using these four methods. They must also create a story around this character that explains this character's goal and how that goal came to be. Many students go on to write short stories about their characters because the more you understand a character you've created, the more ideas you have about their adventures in the life you've created for them, and the more you want to join in on those adventures.

So, I'm going to take my own advice and get to know Rose Delaney a little better.

Rose, 17, has dark brown eyes and long dark hair. Her hair is shiny and obedient, like the kind of hair you see in shampoo commercials. She likes flipping it over her shoulder when she knows admiring eyes are on her. She often wears it in a bun, but today has decided on a ponytail. She secretly enjoys the way it swings behind her when she stalks down the halls, knowing that even the girls who give her dirty looks or gossip about her behind her back are forced to stare jealously at her back, wishing the were as beautiful as her. Rose's effortless sense of style makes her look both classy and casual at the same time. Her trademark is the only shade of lipstick she ever wears, Big Red. It perfectly matches her red cheerleader's uniform and gives her lips a fuller, kissable look. Many of Rose's classmates have her pegged as stereo-typically shallow and stupid, but they don't know that she maintains a near perfect GPA, dreams of attending Julliard for dance, or that she has a passion for reading, and especially enjoys Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is her favorite, and she often rereads her own worn, highlighted copy. Something in the smell of the dusty pages makes her feel warm and reminds of her when she read it for the first time, as a gift from her father. Her father, whom she can hardly think of now without her eyes welling up with tears. Suck it up, Rose Delaney. You don't cry over anyone, least of all him.

Rose rules the school as both Head Cheerleader and Prom Queen, titles she wears with pride and authority. She mingles with her subjects at football and basketball games, and makes appearances at parties. It never occurs to her friends that Rose never actually drinks her beer. She holds it in her hand like a prop, regretting each sip as she remembers her mother's most recent alcoholic binge. The aftertaste of alcohol becomes bitter and empty, and she holds onto the cup so no one hassles her, and observes in silent judgment as her classmates slowly become slow and stupid. Some of them get angry, like her mom, and a fight breaks out. That's usually when she leaves with the flavor of the month. With her popularity and beauty, Rose is in no danger of running out of Friday Night Dates. Or Saturday Night Dates. Or (day of the week here) Night Dates. Boys are desperate to attain the unattainable Rose Delaney, even if only for the night. They lust after her lithe dancer's physique and fantasize about the softness of her lips and skin. But none ever succeeds. It's all a game to Rose. Make them want her, make them need her, and then toss them away. There's always another sucker around the next corner. People always say, "Leave them wanting more," right? Well, it works. Especially on boys, who are so hormone driven, that they will do anything you want if they think they'll get to kiss you at the end of it. Idiots.

Rose's friendships are no more than tenuous connections based on jealousy and the Teenage Social Hierarchy. It isn't just her Head Cheerleader and Prom Queen status that keeps her at the top of the food chain. It's fear. As much as the other girls are jealous of Rose, they fear her. Because they know what happens when you cross Rose Delaney. Just ask the girl whose head she stomped on a few months ago. She may be pretty and dainty to some, but Rose has no problem getting her hands dirty either. Consequently, there's no one there to catch her when her family falls apart, but Rose stays strong by convincing herself that she prefers it that way, sticking a band-aid over her problems and surging forward. Besides, life's not about her or her problems right now. For Rose, it's about her five year old brother Liam. Daddy isn't around anymore and he doesn't understand why. She melts when she looks into his cherubic face, unable to bear the thought of his tears or sadness. Liam is too young to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. He should be busy with play dates and laughter. His world should be all puppies and rainbows. I'll do anything to protect him from the cruelness of this world we live in. He deserves that much.

Moira, Rose's mother, is never around, either at work or at the bar, looking for another man whose family she can ruin. Suddenly Rose feels like the lone adult in the household, keeping it running while her mother gallivants around town with the other drunks in skimpy clothes that Rose might see on some of her classmates. When she is around, Rose and her mother fight like cats and dogs, each slinging burning insults at the other until someone throws something or gets slapped. Rose does love her mother, but since adolescence kicked in, and especially since the divorce, Rose's anger at her mother is winning the emotional battle against love. She's a selfish bitch, my mother. And the world's biggest hypocrite. Some Catholic you are; sleeping around, divorce, binge drinking, slapping your only daughter, and breaking families apart. She forces us to go to church every Sunday, and I go without argument just to see if she'll burst into flames when she crosses the threshold. So far, I've been disappointed, but there's always next Sunday to look forward to.

I'm not the World's Best Daughter, or even the World's Best Sister. And getting suspended for stomping on that bitch's head a few months ago certainly won't win me Student or Catholic of the Year, but at least I'm honest with myself about my faults. I'm not perfect. Sometimes I'm not even a good person, and I don't pretend to be. All I really want in this life is to survive, and make sure Liam survives too. Of course, when I set those goals, I never imagined that I'd have to save either of us from our own murderous house...

*

So, there's Rose, the main character of Wolfhowl Mountain. It's through her eyes we witness the action. Right now she doesn't sound especially likable. She's going through a hard time, missing her father and blaming her mother for the divorce. Uprooting her right before her senior year and moving from big city Texas to small town Maine isn't helping matters. But this is only the beginning of Rose's story. This book is Rose's journey, in which she learns that the world does not revolve around her and that there's something to be said about leaning on other people, about allowing yourself to become close to another person. Can her inner goodness prevail? That is the question.

So how about you? What do you do to get to know and understand the characters you've created?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

My Book Is Too Long. Well, Now What?

Word count is going to be the death of my publishing dreams. I have to admit, when I set out to get serious about publishing my first novel, it never occurred to me that the length of my book would be the reason an agent declines to represent it. I just figured that if the plot and writing are both good, then who cares how long it is? Thinking about it now, I feel foolish for not considering word count sooner.

In the publishing world, everyone looks at the length of your work in terms of words, not in pages or chapters. My novel Wolfhowl Mountain is 183,000 words. If it helps you put that into perspective, that's more than 400 pages in Microsoft Word. So it's definitely a longer book, no doubt. However, I've always felt that every word within it was necessary. I told the story in as little words as I was capable, but I recognize that an editor or agent may insist I cut my work down in order to find success with a publisher. In fact, I'm starting to think that might be the only way for me to go if I'm to successfully convince an agent to take my book on.

It's my feeling that Wolfhowl Mountain should be marketed toward young adult readers because the main character is 17. In my experience, most people like to read a novel that has a protagonist about the same age as the reader. That being said, most young adult books normally top out at 80,000 words. (And even then, that's pushing it.)* So, crap! My book is a minimum of 100,000 words too long?

My mind quickly went to what I like the call the "but what abouts..."

But what about J.K. Rowling? What about her? Are you thinking about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its some 197,000 words? Then you're forgetting that her very first novel, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone was only 76,000 words. Yup.

Okay. But what about horror master Stephen King, whose more recent novel Under the Dome is 334,000 words? Although King's first published novel was long (around 274,000 words), Carrie, the book that made him famous, is only 61,000 words. Yeah.

Well, but what about Stephenie Meyer; her first book, Twilight, was 130,000 words. Yeah...well, her book was about a handsome sparkling vampire and his whole beautiful sparkling family and their handsome enemy werewolf clan? What's not to love? She got lucky.

So what have I learned? It doesn't matter how good your book is. If it's too long, no one's going to take a chance on it, even if you're the next  J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or even Stephenie Meyer (which I don't purport to be, by the way). And the one consistent piece feedback I've heard from the few people who've read Wolfhowl Mountain is that some of the descriptive passages feel long, and they just skipped over them to get on with the story. I've been reluctant to cut those passages down too much because, for me, the setting of the novel is important to the plot and is in itself, a character in the book. But, blah, blah; blah. Of course I think it's perfect the way it is. I'm the one who wrote it.

So now comes the next lesson all writers must face at some point, one that's harder and more uncomfortable to swallow. What you write, be it articles for a newspaper or the next James Patterson-esque thriller, isn't about you. Your writing is not about you nor is it for you, the writer. It's about the reader. It's not about what you like or dislike. It's about what the reader likes or doesn't like. And readers don't like paragraph after paragraph or page after page of expository writing, no matter how beautifully or masterfully written it might be. They want to get to the story.

Case in point: I'm not just a writer, I am of course, also a reader. (Some people have told me that I read too much, but I don't think that's actually possible. I think far too many people read too little.) Even so, as a person who loves to read, what do I do when I get to really long passages, or come across several pages in a novel, that are jam packed full of tiny writing and descriptions of idyllic countrysides or  Gothic buildings or the handsome new stranger in town? I do what everyone else does; I skip over it until I get to a spot of action again. It might be the most beautiful and talented writing on this earth, but everyone one of us skips over it, even me.

Wolfhowl Mountain is something I wrote not to make a profit or win an award or have people slather me in praise for my writing abilities. (Though none of that would hurt, obviously.) It's a story I wrote because I couldn't not write it. And what is the point of writing something you think is good, if you aren't also willing to put it out there for other people to enjoy? And so, I understand that ultimately Wolfhowl Mountain is for the reader, and I need to go back and look at it through that lens for a while, to see if I can write the book that readers want to read instead of the the book I wanted to write.

And that's going to be difficult. Writing Wolfhowl Mountain was something I lived for, for ten years. Every word is written in a mixture of my own sweat and blood. And when I think about deleting passages from it, I think about computer technology and how once I delete those words and hit save, there's no going back. Those words I once wrote with such thought and care are no longer in existence. Those words are gone forever.

That's some powerful stuff right there, I'll tell you. Shortening something I've written, it's like I've been asked to slowly excise away pieces of my body until I've reached some form of acceptable societal perfection. Or like you've asked me which one of my limbs I'd prefer to have cut off, and I can't say none of them, because one way or another, I'll be leaving here without a limb. I may as well have a choice in the matter.

So someday, when I do succeed in publishing Wolfhowl Mountain (hopefully), read the book I wrote for readers with care, because every time you have the perfect mental image that I meant for you to have, every time you feel that I've touched one of your senses, each time you personally enjoy a piece of the writing I created for you, remember that I killed parts of my own soul in order for you to enjoy this book. Yeah.

I guess that's going to change the way I read books too.


*Even adult works are generally under 110,000 words

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Problem with Genre

There are a lot of things to be thinking about when embarking on a journey that hopefully ends with your work being published. How do you write a query letter? Which agents should you submit to? Should you get beta readers? Which writing community should you try? How can you attract more readers? Questions, worries, more questions, and more worries. While I've been worrying about these questions on my own journey, I was blindsided by a problem I'd never considered - genre.

As an English teacher, I work with genres all the time. Sure, I teach genre lessons, but mostly when I'm talking about genres, I'm trying to help my students find a book they will like. A lot of students (and adults, like my sister and mother who both read James Patterson almost exclusively) get stuck in a pattern. They read a science fiction story they like, and they'll go from Star Wars to Ender's Game to A Wrinkle in Time. Or they'll read a mystery they like and go from Howliday Inn to The London Eye Mystery to Agatha Christie. I read the same way (mystery and crime junkie) until I started teaching. As a teacher, I challenged my students to leave their comfort zone and try a new genre. "Who knows," I told them. "You may find a new genre to love." How could I ask my students to try different genres if I wasn't willing to do it myself? And because of that, I've opened myself up to all sorts of amazing books, both fiction and nonfiction, that I love.

Literary agents are no different. They want to work with genres they enjoy reading. After all, if they don't love your book, how are they going to convince a publisher that other readers will also love it? So I've found through my agent searches that a lot of agents only list a few genres. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If your book is a thriller, and the agent you're looking at only reads thrillers, then they're probably experts in the genre, and will know a hit when they read it. That's good. However, I've also learned that what one agent considers thriller, another considers suspense. What one agent considers suspense, another considers adventure. What one considers adventure, another considers a coming of age tale, and so on. And therein lies the problem with genre.

My genre problem is all about the paranormal. Or supernatural. Or horror. Or something else. Let's start with the story shall we? Wolfhowl Mountain, is, at its barest description, about a haunted house. (Don't let that bore you; there's a twist on the old haunted house plot that I obviously won't spoil for you.) So when I first began sending out queries, I labeled it paranormal. However, when I met face to face with two agents at a conference, one agent told me that I shouldn't call it paranormal because most agents will think about vampires and werewolves when they hear paranormal. (Thanks Twilight.) Instead, she said, call it supernatural, or maybe Gothic horror. Okay, sure. She's the expert here, so followed her advice. I go to the second agent with my Gothic supernatural pitch, but she told me she wasn't sure if she would like my story because she wasn't a big horror fan. When did I say horror? Oh wait, I didn't.

Obviously, I didn't have as good of a grasp on genres as I thought, so I decided I needed to look more into paranormal genres to make sure I'm sending my work to the right agents... but that didn't help me very much. All I've managed to learn is that all these genres run together:

Gothic stories are basically a damsel in distress seeking the help and affection of a brooding hero while dealing with a threat, which might be natural or supernatural. The only part of this genre that fits my book is a supernatural threat. So not Gothic I guess.

Horror stories want to scare repulse readers through either supernatural or psychological means. Again, all I've got here is the supernatural bit, but while I don't want to repulse you, I do want to scare you.

I won't define mystery for you because you know what it is. And although it's not like the other genres I'm listing, it does fit into my story. There is a mystery behind the 'haunted house', and it's a mystery that must be solved if the main characters are to survive. However, you won't find anything supernatural or paranormal about most books listed in the genre. Paranormal mystery is a genre, like paranormal romance, but there's no crime in the story and I think a lot of people expect a murder or a robbery when they hear mystery.

Occult is all things dealing with supernatural phenomena and paranormal elements. However, any time I've looked at a book in this category, it's about possessions, witchcraft, or satanic cults. There are no Ouija boards in my story, so I think I can cross this one off the list.

The paranormal genre includes ghosts as well as vampires, werewolves, psychics, and so on, and the story is set in the modern day. That's me! Or at least, I thought this fit my story until I actually met with an agent.

The speculative genre basically includes sci-fi, fantasy, and horror - all those stories that require a good imagination. If it can't happen in today's real world, then it goes in this category. I suppose this includes a take on the haunted house plot, but I don't think it's the best fit because most of the action is set in a real world (Maine) in modern times (2007), and there are no fairies, elves, or space ships.

The supernatural genre is defined as fiction that uses "contradictions of the commonplace natural world and materialist assumptions about it (including the traditional ghost story)." (Guide to Literary Agents 2016). So me? Not so fast. Remember I told you there was a twist on the haunted house plot? It's not a traditional ghost story. However, so far, this sounds like the best fit next to paranormal. I don't suppose I could call the story a "supernatural paranormal mystery"? Probably not.

Suspense, like mystery, is different from the other genres I've discussed. But the whole point of suspense is to make the reader anxious about the outcome of the story, and I spent a lot of time making sure my reader will feel exactly that. Why shouldn't I call it suspense? Because none of the suspense novels I've read have supernatural elements. Fooey.

Ditto the thriller genre. It's different than the others, but again, this genre is defined as a story that is intended to create suspense. What? How can this genre be about suspense if suspense is itself a genre? Well because thrillers are supposed to be about spies and sex and intrigue apparently. Think James Bond. Definitely not my story, but like I said, I have built plenty of suspense into my story.

So where does that leave me when I'm pitching to an agent or writing a query letter. Have I been able to narrow down the genre? Nope. If anything, I've further complicated it. What I have is a paranormal suspense mystery with supernatural elements. But I can't go to an agent with that because that would send the message that I don't actually understand my own story or my own writing, and that's a big fat no-no. Right now I've decided to tailor my query letters more specifically to the agent I'm querying. If the agent lists paranormal, then I'll call it paranormal. Or if the agent lists mystery, I might call it a paranormal mystery, and so on. It's the only solution I've come up with that makes any sense, but I don't know if it's the best solution. Feel free to check out my story yourself (Wolfhowl Mountain). I'd love to have some feedback on what actual readers think the genre is. One of the reasons I went to the trouble of posting the story on Wattpad is in the hopes of not only attracting more readers, but also attracting more feedback from real readers.

Comments welcome below!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Why would I read a book twice? For a lot of good reasons.

I'm definitely a reader. I'm that person who has a book (sometimes two) everywhere I go. I read in every spare second that I have, not just in the waiting room at the doctor's office. I can't help it. Some books are so good that it's worth ignoring the real world for a little while. (Well, maybe a long while.) In fact, there are some books so good that I've read them twice. There are a variety of reasons to read the same book more than once, but none so powerful as for sheer enjoyment. It's like watching your favorite movie more than once, or watching those comfortable Friends or Seinfeld repeats that are always on TV.

But there are other reasons too. Some books are so masterfully written that I just want to appreciate them again, reading over my favorite parts with a new kind of awareness. I enjoy the words in a completely different way when I already know the outcome of the story. (Imagine that.) Some books are worth reading again because they have lessons worth understanding, and sometimes understanding means re-reading and re-evaluating what you thought about parts of the book and why you felt that way. And sometimes you re-read a book not even because of what the book was about or because you love the characters (maybe even miss them), but because it evokes a sense of nostalgia in you that you feel compelled to recreate. I liken this to how I sometimes listen to a certain song or album, not because the song is necessarily any good, but because there's a memory or a part of my life when I heard that song a lot, and maybe I miss those people or that feeling or that moment.

I wonder what books other people have read twice, and for what reason. I've listed some of the books I've read twice below. Feel free to leave a comment about any books you've read twice! I'd love to hear about it.

--The Martian: I read this book twice in a row. Literally, when I read the last page, I went back to the beginning, and I read it again. I love Mark Wattney. I wish he was a real person. He is brutally honest, he is hilarious, he is intelligent, he is a survivor, and he converts all of his math and scientific equations into pirate ninjas to make the sciencey stuff a little more understandable to people of average intelligence. And speaking of the sciencey stuff? It's based in the real world and on actual science theories about traveling in space and living on Mars. This book is a perfect marriage of hilarity, levity, and awesome science. I've recommended this book to every person I know. Even if you've seen the movie, read the book. The movie does a great job of hitting Wattney's tone and demeanor, but there are so many moments that didn't make the movie that you're going to want to read about if you love his character. When I finished the book, I missed having Wattney's sardonic accounts of his daily, deadly life. I wasn't ready for his character's story to end, so I read it again.

--The Amityville Horror: Simple: it scared the hell of of me when I was a kid. I like having the hell scared out of me. Why? My mother asks me the same question every time I go see a scary movie. I don't have an answer for either of you. (By the way, it doesn't matter if any or all of this story is true. Read it like fiction if you really want to enjoy it.)

A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Obviously these two titles don't have much to do with each other. One's a fairy tale (sort of) and the other is science fiction. However, what these two books have in common for me is that I read each them when I was a kid and found them really hard to understand. When I first read them, I just skipped over the hard parts (physics for AWiT, and advanced vocabulary for TLWatW), and although I liked the characters and sort of liked the books, I didn't actually understand what happened or what they were about. So in college I set out not just to re-read them, but to understand them. And I'm glad that I did, because I ended up greatly enjoying both of them, and since each was a series, I added several more awesome books to my library.

The House Across the Cove: The first time  read this book, I read it in under a day (and not because it's short). It's because the story totally enthralled me in a way that I don't think any other book has, and I couldn't put the book down until I knew what happened. The story alternates between a girl and a boy, she from the right side of the tracks and he from the wrong, who meet over a summer at the lake. They are brought together by the strange happenings at the titular house on the other side of the lake, despite their best attempts to hate each other. Their curiosity not only leads them into each other's arms, but also puts them smack in the middle of a dangerous mystery. What's not to like? Romance. Mystery. Danger. Suspense. It has a little bit of everything.

Deadenders: I re-read this book like I re-watch movies. I quoted along as I read, and re-read some passages a few times before moving on. It's not just that the story is masterfully crafted; the writing is beautiful too. I have several highlighted parts that I like to re-read sometimes, just because. Kind of a bummer: re-reading this one reminded me that there are a lot of editing and grammatical errors that I'd forgotten about, but I'm willing to look past that.

The book I really want to read twice, but I don't know if I can: Life As We Knew It. I would place this on my top ten list of favorite books of all time. Explaining why is difficult, because the story itself is not especially exciting (and no, that doesn't mean it's boring). What I mean is that this is the kind of book where it's less about what happens (first this, then this, the end) and more about how the characters interact with each other because of what's happened. Pfeffer does a brilliant job of painting a picture of how a family would react to the world falling apart (without zombies), and how a family breaks apart and reforms as a totally different, and not necessarily better, version of itself. The family struggles with exactly what you would expect them to. That doesn't make the story boring. It makes the story relateable. It makes the story real. And that's what Pfeffer has done; she's created something so real that I don't know if I can face the heartbreak and desperation again. It's almost like watching my own family break apart under the stress of a hostile world. I don't know that I want to think about that all over again. But Pfeffer has done such a masterful job of making her story real, that I might not be able to resist.

--Other books I'm thinking about re-reading: Blindness, The Three, and It.

How about you? What books have you read more than once, or would like to read again?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

It's Okay to Be Mean

The time has come to start thinking about work again (bummer). As summer comes to a close, I will return for my seventh year as a teacher. This is also the year when my inaugural class will return to school as seniors. I feel both very proud...and a little old. It's got me thinking not just about how my students have changed over the years, but how I've changed.

There are a lot of differences between a first year teacher and a seventh year teacher. I'm certainly not going to tell you that I had all the answers then, or that I have all the answers now. More of them, sure. And even though I've learned a lot from teaching, and there is far more to learn, I have been able to narrow down what I've learned so far into one all important lesson:

It's okay to be mean.

Really.

What I mean is, it's okay if students don't love you, or even necessarily like you. It's okay if the students think you're a big fat meanie (although I'm sure that's not how they would word it). I think a lot of newer teachers sometimes forget that your job isn't to get all the students to like you, to love you, or for you to be their favorite teacher. None of these things are ultimately reflected in the grade book or in the scores on whatever state mandated test your students take.

When I started teaching, I didn't think it was my job to get students to like me, but I certainly wanted them to. I had this idea in my head that the more they liked me, the more they would listen to me, learn from me, and respect me. Oh, Dian. You're silly! It didn't take me long at all to realize that when students like you, they tend to view you as someone who is closer to their level, almost in a friendly way, and that means they are actually less likely to take you seriously. And when you're a small person like me, a person who is often referred to as an ankle-biting chihuahua when they are angry, getting people to take you seriously is already pretty difficult. So I stopped focusing on being liked and worried more about the one thing that actually counts: respect. My students may not like me or love me, but they for damn sure respect me.

Gaining respect from students is the one thing I've struggled with the most, and you basically start with a clean slate each year with a new group of students. For example, my very first teaching position was a summer school job. I taught English to rising juniors who'd failed tenth grade English. The school was in a tough area, and the tiny white girl in the room just didn't earn much respect. Take, for example, a post I made to Facebook during that term:

"Just for the record guys, I don't write my name on the board every day to be called YO MISS TEACHER LADY or MISS UM CAN I GO TO THE BATHROOM. I expect to be called by my name much as you expect me to call you by your name and not YO KID IN THE ORANGE SHIRT."

There are two things I can tell you reflecting back on that post. The first is that I never actually earned the respect of that group. Not one iota of it. In fact, there was one day where it was so bad that I just gave up. It didn't seem to matter what I said or how I said it, or what I did or how I did it. The students just flat out ignored me, went about their business like I was invisible. What are you supposed to do? Stomp your feet a whine that no one is listening to you? I don't think so. Instead, I sat at my desk and just supervised them to make sure they didn't burn the building down. When they noticed, one of them said, "Yo, we broke teach!". When another student asked what they should do, I said, "I don't care." They didn't either. It's easily the most frustrating day I've had as a teacher, because I didn't understand the lesson yet. It's not enough to want respect, and you can't beg for it (which is what I was doing). You have to demand it. And I didn't know how to do that then.

Secondly, I can tell you that this says something about how naive I was. I must say something like, "Hey, you! Yeah, you in the orange shirt! Sit down and cut it out!" three times a week, especially at the beginning of the year, and often to students I don't even have. It's not about respect or learning their names. It's about trying to get the attention of the right student in the middle of a crowded gymnasium even if you don't know their name so you can tell them to stop acting like a jerk or stop running or give so-and-so their lunch box back. Sometimes calling them out by their clothes is really your only option. I'm not doing it to be disrespectful. But I'll admit that not everyone necessarily sees it the same way I do, and being unafraid to call a student out - whether you know them or not - for being rude or running or cussing or whatever it is, can sometimes earn you that reputation as the "mean" teacher, the one whose mere name on a student's schedule can inspire a quiet dread.

For nearly all of my years as a teacher, I have been viewed as the "mean" teacher. And that isn't because I yell all day or get mad at the kids over stupid things. It's not because I charge up and down the halls like a bull, shoving kids out of my way. It's because I demand respect. If students aren't showing me respect, or showing respect to themselves or others, I will not hesitate to call you out on it. I will not hesitate to turn this into a lesson for you. And that lesson is that you had better be respectful at all times no matter what your personal feelings are. You will not disrespect anyone in my presence, and if you do, then you'll suffer the consequences. Is that mean? Some people might think so, but that's okay with me. I don't need you to like me. I need you to respect me. When you respect me, you listen to me. When you listen to me, you learn from me. And when you learn from me, I've fulfilled my purpose.

My students might tell you that I'm mean or that they don't like me. They might tell you I give too much work, that my expectations are too high, that I hand out lunch detentions like candy. But they'll never tell you that they didn't learn from me. And I think that says something about the lesson I've learned, and the lesson that I'll keep trying to pass on to them.