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.


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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ideas That Don't Go Anywhere

So, as someone who enjoys writing, my head is always filled with a lot of ideas. I ultimately write (almost) all of them down in some form, but there are so many of them that are just snippets, that don't really go anywhere. I have one work that I consider "complete", but hundreds of writings that are in various stages of incompleteness, most of which will probably stay that way. Some of them are fifty pages long, some of them only a few sentences. And sometimes I don't even really have an idea in my head so much as an image, or a line of dialogue. And a lot of these ideas or images tend to come from my dreams. Many of them I forget over the course of the day, and I'm not the type of person who can wake up and begin writing feverishly so I don't lose an idea. I figure if the idea is really any good, then I won't forget it. But I still want to do something with these incomplete ideas that may never go anywhere. Below I present to you a little snippet or image that has haunted me since I dreamed it several months ago. There was more to it in the dream, but as is often the way, it didn't make much sense once I was awake.

The sun is already below the horizon of the marshland. Its last light rests on a thin hot pink layer just above the far side of the marsh, and the wide expanse of sky is a deepening midnight blue. In moments the marsh will become pitch on this night of a new moon. It's a perfect place to watch the stars twinkle their silvery light.

In the still waters of the marsh, among the cattails and tall grasses, sits a small wooden boat that has seen better days. Several of the boards have rotted, the worst ones clumsily repaired with scrap wood and some artfully placed tarp and duct tape. Two oars sit crookedly across the bow. From a distance the boat seems empty. It isn't.

Lying in the bottom of the boat is a small girl, perhaps seven or eight, surrounded by the litter of crumpled candy bar wrappers and empty tuna cans. Her short dirty-blonde hair is matted with grime and sweat around her dirty face. Her clothes are as filthy of the rest of her, but she doesn't seem to mind. She reclines on the bottom of the boat, her hands laced behind her head and a smile on her face. She appears to wait for the stars to come out, but that is not why she's here.

"Here comes another one," she whispers just loud enough to be heard above the buzzing of cicadas and the music of crickets. The cat curled up next to her lets out a small mew, but doesn't move. "Get ready."

From above there is a thunderous roar and a gust of wind rips over the surface of the marsh. The belly of a 757 passenger plane screams by, low over the marsh as it slowly gains altitude before disappearing into the moonless night. The dog sleeping at her feet growls after the plane and she shushes him. "Oh hush up." He always growls at the 757s.

The little girl sighs to herself. This is nice, she thinks. The evening is humid, but not hot, and the wind from the plane gives her a pleasant chill. The cat snuggles closer, not caring much about anything now that she has a belly full of tinned tuna.

The little girl has been coming here to watch the planes all summer. During the day the marsh is a quiet place where nature has not been tamed by man, but when night falls, the nearby airport diverts air traffic over the unpopulated marsh to spare the city's people of the powerful roars of the planes' engines. But the girl doesn't care. She likes the noise, and often falls asleep here in the marsh, bobbing peacefully along until the blinding brightness of the sun wakes up the chatty birds and turns the insides of her eyelids red.

The dog begins barking ferociously. Not hearing the familiar sound of an approaching plane, the girl is perplexed. She sits up on her elbows, disturbing the cat, who meows with irritation. Her bright blue eyes search the sky to see what has the dog so annoyed.

She sees the flashing lights that signal an approaching plane in the dark, but still she hears no sound. In fact, other than the dog's barking, the marsh has become almost preternaturally silent. The lights become larger very quickly, and even though she knows of no other explanation, the girl doesn't think it's really a plane because she still can't hear it.

At the last second, she dives down into her boat, covering the animals with her body. Silently, a passenger plane glides by, its belly three times as low as it should be, so low the girl thinks she could have reached out and touched it, and it's moving remarkably slow.

Fifty yards ahead of the little boat, the plane hits the shallow marsh. The girl peaks back up in time to see the ball of fire erupt, blinding in the darkness. Just as she ducks away from the heat wave from the explosion, a massive wave rocks the marsh and she jumps back on top of the animals, her only real family or friends, until the water becomes calm again. Now she stands carefully. The wreckage is clear in front of her now. The plane has broken into three large sections, but it's also obvious not all of the plane is here. The roaring of the fire is almost too loud to hear over, but as the wind kicks up, the screams slice through clouds of dust. Then she hears the first siren.

Who is this girl? What is her name? Why doesn't she have anyone to care where she is all night long? How will the plane crash figure into the girl's story, or how will she figure into the story of the crash?

I don't know. That's why it's an idea that doesn't go anywhere. But that won't keep me from writing it down. Maybe some day I'll figure out the answers to all of those questions, but maybe not.

What are your ideas that don't go anywhere?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Why Start a Blog?

Well... Why not? But of course, there's more to it than that. Like many bloggers out there, I am an aspiring novelist. That is to say, I am a novelist, with far fewer readers than I would like and no publishing credits. Although I have three completed novels, only one of them is ready for readers and publishers alike (in my humble opinion).

I finished Wolfhowl Mountain about a year ago. (Anyone interested in the novel and some other shorter works can check me out here: Beginning in January, I gave myself a year to get as many queries out there as I could and to work my ass off to both court and interest a literary agent in the story. I figure if I can't interest anyone in a year, I'll get more serious about self-publishing and seeking a wider audience. I didn't expect it to be easy by any means, but about six months in, I realized that getting published is far more complicated than just sending out query letters and crossing my fingers. To date, I've contacted 57 agents/agencies, received 32 no thank yous and 25 non-responses. I'm not necessarily discouraged; many published authors get a lot more rejections than that (See: Stephen King). However, some of the agents have been kind enough to offer a little bit of feedback to help me find success with another agent. One of those suggestions is that I need to have a readership, a group of people ready to buy anything I might get published. It seems a little backwards to me, but I get it. An agent is less likely to take a chance on someone who can only name family and friends as loyal readers. And one of the best ways to attract readers (according to the Internet anyway) is a blog. Although I see the same problems with a blog as I do with my book - how the heck do you attract people to it? And once they're there, what keeps them coming back? It's about more than good writing and having something to say, I know that.

Another good reason to start a blog is to have a way to reach out to an audience (once you've got one, that is). It's a way to promote your book(s) and let your readers know when something new is coming out. Of course that doesn't apply to me (yet), but I'm willing to hang in there. The real trouble is that blogs tend to work better for non-fiction authors, for whom a platform is essential. A non-fiction author can blog about their research and adventures in developing their idea. A fiction author has a bigger challenge because I can't just post parts of my book here. For one, if all I do with this blog is promote my own work, readers aren't going to hang around. It makes you seem pretty self-serving and conceited. Plus, if I do that, what's going to make you read my work once I actually do get it published since it's all right here for free? But there are other options. I can blog about the genre of my book (supernatural, speculative, paranormal - it all depends on the agents you talk to), or I could include profiles of the main characters, deleted scenes, etc. So there are options for fiction writers, it's just a bit more of a challenge. The big thing that one really needs to understand, however, is that there will be no instant results. Just because I start a blog doesn't mean more people are going to read this blog or my book or my other work. It'll take work to attract readers here, just as it's taking work to attract readers and agents to my book.

And making money with a blog? Forget it. Pros can do that, for sure, but I doubt very much that will happen for me. And that part matters the least to me, both for this blog and for the book. Because money is not the reason I write. I don't write to make a living. I write because I want to and I have to. I have all these ideas bouncing around in my head and they have got to come out or might just go insane, or my tiny little head will get so filled that it just explodes. Really, the reason I'm here is because I just want to share my work with other people. I want readers to enjoy my book and my blog, to get that joy out of reading that I've always had. And the goal of attracting an agent isn't about money either. It's about getting my book out to the widest audience possible so that people can (hopefully) enjoy it. And I'm always on the look out for something good to read myself, so starting this blog will hopefully lead me to some other authors out there that I can enjoy too.

So what can you expect here? Well...

  • Information about my book, of course, and other writings. There'll be shameless self-promotion too, but I promise to do my very best to keep that to a minimum.
  • Links to other blogs: One of the things I've learned in starting a blog is that there are so many GREAT blogs out there about writing and for writers. It's a well of knowledge that I plan to tap into and I also plan to share that with you, because I know I'm not the only writer out there who is struggling to figure out the best way to get their work out there. One of the great ones is I'd recommend The Creative Penn to fiction and non-fiction authors alike. In addition to their awesome blog, it is a wealth of information on topics ranging from self-publishing to marketing. It's worth your time to check it out.
  • Book reviews: The only other thing I do more than write (and grade papers) is read for the joy of reading. When I find a great book, I'm going to tell everyone I know about it and do everything I can to convince others to read it so I have someone to talk to about it. For example, my father and sister would tell you that I've tried a thousand times ( far) to get them to read The Martian (a book so good I read it twice). It doesn't matter if you've seen the movie. The book is SO good. I'm on Good Reads too, by the way. You can check out my full opinion of The Martian here:
  • Thoughts on writing and exercises I use with my students. If there's one thing I've learned as a writer, it's that you should always be open to new ideas and new techniques to stretch your writing muscles. Even the best author out there can learn something new about writing and their ability.
  • Cats. I'm not joking. The only difference between me and a crazy old cat lady is a few years and a few more cats. Don't believe me? Check me out on Twitter (@MsCronan) or search Twitter for #dailycats. You'll find my 'children' all over that.
  • Thoughts on teaching, funny moments from the classroom, and what I've learned as a teacher - and trust me when I say, that's A LOT.
  • Thoughts and things I've learned on this journey that will hopefully end in a published novel.
  • A hundred other things I can't think of right now.

That's all I've got for now. If you've made it this far, thank you. I'll do my best to keep you coming back.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

It's like Ian with a D. Dian.

Shakespeare was the first (maybe) to ask "What's in a name?" (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II). Well, as it turns out, a lot.

Have you ever wondered how you might be different if you had a different name? Would that change who you are, what you like, or how you behave? Most people would say probably not, but I'm not so sure. I've often wondered how I might be different if my parents had chosen a different name for me, a normal name, like, for example, Diane, instead of Dian. You see, it's less about the actual name, and more about the experiences induced by having an unusual name.

Growing up, a lot of kids mocked my name. That's not altogether surprising I guess; that's what kids do. (My third grade teacher was Mrs. Hugaboom, whom we used to say would explode if you hugged her. Unfortunate surname.) But I'd venture to say that a name like Bobby or Jane doesn't get the kind of attention my name did. One school bully called me Dion Sanders and Dion Warwick because that was the way many teachers pronounced my name. Correcting adults on the pronunciation of my name was more embarrassing than helpful. I had a substitute teacher for one day in high school who just couldn't master my name when taking attendance. After the third or fourth try, I just said "Close enough," and the woman fairly yelled at me that it wasn't good enough for her to be "close enough." She wanted to get it right and we went back and forth several times before she got it. It was mortifying, and I never saw her again, so it hardly seems worth it. On another occasion, I tried correcting a teacher on the first day of class. She said "Diane," and I said "It's Dian," only to realize that - oops - there was girl in the class whose name was Diane. So I gave up on correcting people, which is why my eleventh grade English teacher called me Deena all year. Deena.

It's just as annoying as an adult. Someone will say, "Oh, I've never seen Diane spelled like that. How Pretty." It's clearly meant as a compliment, but I always spend a beat too long trying to figure out if I should say "That's because my name is Dian, not Diane," or just smile and say "Thank you," because it feels rude to correct someone paying me a compliment. Or, I'll go to make an appointment with a doctor's office I've been using since I was in college and they can't find me in the system because someone added the E to the end of my name, trying to be helpful I guess, assuming that I must've forgotten the E when I filled out the paper work. Because I can't spell my own name. Most annoying, my own employer, who prints name tags for teachers during staff development events, constantly prints "Diane" for me, and I always scribble the E out with a pen.

But let's set the pronunciation and spelling part to the side for now. Because there's a whole other facet of this name identity for me that may not apply to you, because I'm an identical twin. My sister's name is also unusual, if not in pronunciation, then in spelling - Kira. So what if, just what if...I'm not Dian. What if I'm really Kira and our parents mixed us up as babies? How would we ever know? And the answer to that question is kinda scary - we wouldn't. Someone out there is saying Big Deal, why should that matter? But it does matter. because although Kira and I are genetically the same, a lot of our sameness stops there. We have different personalities, different likes and dislikes, different ways of dealing with stress. I'm pretty OCD in organization and cleaning, while Kira is more comfortable with clutter (though she does have two small boys). Kira is very here is The Line; do not cross The Line. I'm more of a How defined is that line? Is it just a line in the sand you drew with a stick or is it, like, a painted white line on the highway. And when you say I can't cross it, what is your definition of crossing it? What happens if I put a toe on The Line, over it? A foot? A whole leg? And although we are both masters of sarcasm, I've got a leg up on Kira there and I wonder if my sense of humor is a little more developed because of the experiences I've had with my name. And, if I really were Kira, would I have played the violin instead of the clarinet and guitar? Would I listen to Kelly Clarkson instead of Dave Matthews? Would I have a dog instead of two cats? Would I still enjoy camping and hiking? What if, what if, what if?

But there is something positive I can take from my name too because there's something about knowing that my name is unique that makes me feel unique, makes me feel that I'm an unusual and different person. And that's a gift from my parents that a lot of other people don't have. As a teacher, I've met a hundred Jennifers, Laurens, and Emilys (and Dianes, of course). But never another Dian. I've seen a few Deeanns, but never Dian. I might be the only Dian in the whole world. In a way, it makes me feel good about myself, gives me a little extra confidence boost. So now instead of lamenting over my unfortunate name or blaming my parents for childhood bullies, I try to spend more time appreciating my name and thanking my parents for thinking of it. It's part of my identity, part of what defines me, what makes me me. I am Dian. Not Diane.

So, now it's your turn. What's your name? How does it contribute to your identity or how you define yourself?