Wednesday, November 23, 2011

RTW: Thanks, Books Edition

Well, this is pretty ideal.  Road Trip Wednesday, my favorite part of the week, asks: 

What writing or publishing-related thing(s) are you most thankful for?

Ok, first--I have to talk books.  I meant to do this earlier in the month, when I named The Hunger Games as the book I am most thankful for.  

1) Anne of Green Gables (and the other seven books in the series).  Little Women and Little Men (ugh, not Jo's boys).  A Little Princess. The Giver.  These are the books that I've read more times than I can count and that taught me how to be a person.  

2) Speak, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Looking For Alaska, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, The Hunger Games series, Divergent, Delirium, If I Stay, 13 Reasons Why, The Compound, Uglies and the rest of that series, The Forest of Hands and Teeth trilogy.  I'm sure I'm forgetting some.  These are the books I've read since I started education grad school and made YA reading a priority.  I wasn't a big reader of YA when I was a young adult--I read children's books for so long that I felt like I had to just jump straight to YA when I left the nest of the children's room at the library.  These books are all over the map, genre-wise, but they all have characters I got to know and many, many of them made me cry.  On the subway.  

3)  Which brings me to the subway:  not technically writing or publishing-related, but it is where I do nearly all my reading.  A 45-minute subway ride (each way!) is tough sometimes but it usually winds up being a highlight of my day.

4)  The blogging community!  I know everyone is saying this but there's a reason for that.  I'm writing so much more regularly now than I ever have before, and I can actually imagine showing my work to people.  Thanks, everyone, for helping me think of myself as a writer.   (And special thanks to RTW, for giving us all such creative topics to blog about every week!)

Thanks, Part 1

I've been so scattered this month that I haven't been taking the time to blog much about the things I am grateful for.  I've planned to, I've thought about it, but I just haven't paused to write them down.  So:

#1: I am grateful for today. I'm planned, my materials are ready, and I have time to breathe and write before my classes start.

#2: I am grateful that the show I directed went up this past weekend, and that the students involved rose to the challenge with flair and good grace.  I'm really proud of the work they did and the maturity they found within themselves. 

#3: I am grateful for the colleagues who supported me and my students--by attending, by encouraging their students to attend, and especially my supportive, understanding administrators and our music teacher who went way above and beyond to do all of our sound during the last few weeks of rehearsals and at every performance. 

#4:  I am grateful for my book blogging club--for half an hour every other day, I get to hang out with a room full of really cool students and geek out about things ranging from the Hunger Games trailer to my love for Neil Patrick Harris.  And without them, I would probably not have started writing here.

#5: I am grateful for my family--my husband, of course, is the easy one--but also my mom and dad and sister, and new step-dad, and step-sisters, and step-brother-in-law, and step-niece, and my mother- and father-in-law, and sister-in-law, and my aunts and uncles and twelve first cousins, and two first cousins once removed, and my cousins-in-law, and my husband's aunts and uncles, and first AND second cousins, and great-aunts and great-uncles, and then of course all the people we're not related to but who are parts of our family anyway (godparents, neighbors, former babysitters/adopted grandparents, teachers, etc.)    Whew!

Ok--enough is enough, for this post at least.  I still want to write about books that I am thankful for, but that's a post for another day, I think.  (Maybe tomorrow morning when I'm hanging out at JFK!  I am definitely thankful for Jetblue's beautiful T5--takes a lot of the yuck out of flying on Thanksgiving!)

Have a great holiday if you're in the States; otherwise, just have a good regular weekend, I guess!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Looking For Alaska (Or: You GUYS, Why Didn't You WARN Me?)

First off:  If you have not read Looking For Alaska by John Green, please stop reading this blog post.  Yup, stop right now.  Go read the book.  Then come back.  I'll wait.

Ready?  Ok.  If you're still reading,  I'm going to assume you've read the book.  Because there will be spoilers.  And despite the subtitle of this blog post, I've never been so glad not to have been spoiled on a book.  So please, please, please if you haven't read the book, go away.  You'll be glad when you read it.

[While I'm taking up space so that people don't accidentally spoil themselves, let me remark that I am really looking forward to having energy to devote to this blog again.  I've been directing A Midsummer Night's Dream with my students and the first performance was yesterday.  By 9:30 Saturday night, I'll be done with the show!  My students killed it last night and I'm really proud of them, but I will be very, very happy to have my life back.]

Ok, back on track.  Looking For Alaska.  I don't know how I managed to remain unspoiled on the biggest plot point of this novel that seems to be (justifiably) beloved by everyone on the internet.  But there I was, sitting on the train, reading the book, naively wondering, gee, what could they be counting down to?  What's going to happen when I get to those grey-edged pages? 

And then It happened.  I can't remember ever really going through the stages of grief this clearly for a fictional character.  I most definitely began with denial.  Pages and pages of denial.  I'm sorry, everyone else in my subway car, if you thought were sitting down next to a normal person and not a subway loon.  I can't imagine you loved the teary muttering and head shaking and furious page flipping that ensued.  It just really, truly, didn't occur to me that It--you know what I'm talking about--could be the Big Bad Thing.  Especially with the structure of the story, and Green's pacing leading up to It.  And all I could think was, "Why didn't anyone WARN ME ABOUT THIS?" 

I'm usually the one springing things on other readers.  One of my favorite things in the world is to read books to or with my students that I know will elicit strong reactions from them.  I love it.  The Giver and The Hunger Games definitely do this.  When I read "My Last Duchess" with my seniors this year and they got it--that was great.  And I cry at books fairly often (most recently before this: The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Before I Fall).  But this particular blend of surprise and shock (two different things), and absolute devastation--I really can't remember the last book that did that to me.  Even when bad things happen in the Hunger Games series--even the last, worst thing--didn't surprise me quite this much.  That was the world.  Maybe I wasn't using all my reading smarts during the first part of Looking For Alaska, but I think it's just really, really brilliant writing. 

Once I got over my first rush of disbelief and genuine sadness, I was able to reflect on how grateful I was for this experience.  This is why I read.  And truly, I was really glad not to have been spoiled, even though it was a rough train ride.  So, thanks, John Green, and thanks, discreet bloggers.  I've tried to follow suit as much as I could here so that others can have the same experience. 

What books have you read that truly, deeply surprised you, or moved you beyond a momentary reaction?  What did the author do to get that reaction?  As a reader, do you want those experiences, or are they too difficult?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday--Assigned Reading!

This week's RTW is about something near and dear to my heart: assigned reading!

This week's topic:
In high school, teens are made to read the classics - Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens - but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?
This one is fun because, to some extent, I DO have the power to change the curriculum, at least in my own classes.  
1)  The most successful book I have ever, ever taught?  By a landslide?  No surprise here: The Hunger Games.  It got my students reading, which is absolutely my measure of success in the classroom.

2) The book I paired with The Hunger Games in my Dystopian Lit class was The Giver.  I have loved it for so long that it breaks my heart to think of kids growing up without reading it.  It has a much slower build than The Hunger Games but most of the kids agreed that the payoff was worth it.

My first year of teaching--or rather, my first year of standing in front of my classroom every day trying to teach something--I followed a pretty cool curriculum our school uses that included a unit on Tim Burton's films and a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird.  Both were more or less busts, even though I loved the material.  There were two units that worked a little better, though:

3) Romeo and Juliet.  I knew my classes a little better by then, so I decided that rather than struggle through cold readings of the script, we would watch the Baz Luhrmann movie--with captions on.  We actually had some really good close reading discussions with the movie paused, looking at the writing on the screen.

4)  Speak

5) Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

6) Monster
7) The Outsiders
These were all from our lit circle unit.  The circles themselves weren't great, but these books got some really positive responses.  Speak was the first book that some of my students actually read on their own.  The students in the Part-Time Indian group thought they were getting away with murder--they figured there was no way a teacher would assign a book with that many pictures and swear words if she had actually read it.  (I shocked them when I calmly told them that I had read it twice, knew full well what was in it, and thought it had sufficient literary merit to assign it anyway.)  

If I got to add any book, right now, into the classes I'm teaching now?  Hmm.  Honestly, I just read Before I Fall, and I think we could have some really great discussions about issues of bullying and relationships and personal responsibility.  Then again, in terms of hooking reluctant readers, nothing beats The Compound.  Or if I wanted my students to think about big ideas--government, privacy, environmental issues--maybe Water Wars or Delirium or The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thoughts on Motivation (and THREE more giveaway links!)

Today's Friday Fives is one I really can't answer yet. 

What are the FIVE ways that get you from the beginning to the end of your WiP without losing all your hair?

Simply put:  I haven't yet.  But there is one thing I've started to realize about my brand new WIP that sets it apart from the one I've been poking at since last November. 

I want to read this book.  So...I guess I have to write it first. 

A big part of this has to do with genre.  I will read the occasional contemporary/realistic MG novel.  And goodness knows I read a LOT of them when I was growing up.  But, teacher persona aside, just me, as a human being, choosing books?  My mix breaks down to about 75% YA--of that, probably 85% is genre fiction, primarily dystopian with some fantasy and historical thrown in, and the rest is realistic/contemporary.  Then maybe 15% adult fiction, with much of that drawn from my mother's book club picks (Time Traveler's Wife, Water For Elephants, a whole bunch of Lisa See, etc.) The other 5% is split between MG and non-fiction (most recently Malcolm Gladwell).    So, clearly, the new WIP is much more on target for me as a reader.

The other thing I have to sheepishly admit is that the older WIP is--if not exactly based on my life in middle school--then at least drawn from it.  I started with characters and scenarios that were real, and then embellished.  It was good practice in terms of storytelling and raising the stakes, because it gave me something to measure against.  "Well, this is what happened in life--what's the thing that would happen in fiction, instead?"  But it didn't have the same element of surprise that my current WIP does. 

When I started writing last year, I didn't think I'd ever be able to build a world good enough to sustain a dystopian novel.  And maybe I won't be, but I feel like I'm at least making progress.  What I do have right now are characters who stay in my head.  I'm starting to actually have the writerly experience of learning about my characters, rather than inventing them.  It's like a constant, low-grade version of the feeling I get when I'm reading and I want to find out what happens to the character so badly that I skim or skip whole paragraphs just to get to the resolution of a particular conflict.  I want to know--and this time, I have to write it to find out. 

In other news--

A few awesome ladies are doing some pretty excellent giveaways.  But hurry!  One ends today!

1) The "Maybe Genius Has an Agent" Contest
ENDS 11/11!

Enter to win signed books AND critiques!  (BTW, while following her blog is not required to enter, it only took me about three posts to decide this funny, smart lady is someone I want to follow.)

2) Jessica Love's OMG I Have An Agent Giveaway

I'm totally in awe of this fellow HS English teacher who managed to finish a novel AND get an agent--that's the dream, people.

3) Malinda Lo's New Website Giveaway

Ash is high on my TBR list--and with a budget-imposed book-buying moratorium until after the holidays, I'm hoping for a copy to come my way sooner.  (And it is a gorgeous new website!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday: Writing Superpowers

Road Trip Wednesday just keeps getting harder and harder.  Today's question is: 

What are your writing and publishing superpowers (drafting? beta-reading? writing queries? plotting? character creation? etc.) -- and what's your kryptonite?

Honestly, I feel like I have no business even answering this one.  I have twenty blog posts and two WIPs that, combined, don't yet reach 10,000 words.  But really, right now--that kind of is my superpower.  I'm new.  So I'm allowed to not know things, I'm allowed to ask questions, and I'm allowed to not be very good.  This is the first thing I've done that I'm really, truly new at in a long time.  Like, maybe the last thing was trying out for my first high school play, or picking up the clarinet in 8th grade.  Other things have been offshoots of things I was already good at.  When I stage managed for the first time, or directed, I had already done a ton of acting and random tech theater work, so I felt that there was pressure to be good right away.  When I started teaching, I had gone through ten summers working at camp, so even though teaching public high school in Queens was a far cry from theater camp at a Y outside Albany or progressive private school camp for 9-year-olds in Greenwich Village, I still expected to be good right away. 

But writing?  The only time I have ever sustained any kind of daily writing habit was when I was fourteen and writing fanfiction.  For Ally McBeal.  (Plus one crossover, where Ally and friends visit the Bartlet administration from The West Wing.  Oh yeah.  It's out there.  It's terrible--all 13,000+ words of it!)  So going into real writing, I have no pressure other than wanting to tell stories.  I can celebrate every word, because it's one more than I had written before.  I can bang out a short story and submit it to a contest, blithely aware that I will almost certainly not be chosen for publication.  I'm basically a writing infant--and that's my greatest strength right now.

And my Kryptonite?  At the moment, computer games and trashy TV.  Really anything that lets me put off actually sitting down to write!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Life Happens!

Just a quick note to say that I'm sorry I haven't been as active either posting or commenting as usual in the last week or so--this weekend, I took a whirlwind trip from my home in New York to a dear friend's wedding in California.  Wheels up to wheels down, the whole thing was about 54 hours long, full of ocean and West Coast fast food and dancing and jet lag.

Plus, NaNoWriMo!  I doubled my word count today--it's still pitiful, but things are starting to spark and flow.  I posted an excerpt on my profile--I'm interested in what questions people have or what they're curious about, so feel free to NaNoMail me or post comments here.  I'm having a lot of fun thinking about these characters but I feel like the world isn't very fleshed out yet.

To those of you who are actually making the kind of progress that will get you to 50,000--I am deeply, deeply impressed.  To those of you who are going more my speed--keep going!  Every word is a win!  And to those of you working on other projects--may the work ethic that NaNo is meant to inspire enter your hearts to a much greater degree than it has mine!

I'll be back on schedule tomorrow, making the rounds of RTW!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Another fabulous giveaway!

Lydia over at The Word Is My Oyster (a fabulous blog, by the way, with a weekly feature called Medical Mondays that lets Lydia show off the fact that she is not just a soon-to-be-published YA author but also a DOCTOR) is giving away books!  And giftcards for books!  And even a critique so that your writing can get closer to being--you guessed it-- books! 

Go!  Read!  Enter!

(I believe Terry Pratchett makes an assertion in one of his books about the correlation between the number of exclamation points a person uses and the integrity of his or her sanity.  Um, I present this blog entry without further comment.  You be the judges.  November!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday--Writing Coaches

Ok, a short but sweet Road Trip Wednesday

What kind of writing coach do you need? When you have to coach friends, what kind of coach are you

As I embark on my second NaNoWriMo, my answer is simply: a coach who will keep me writing!  Right now,  I just need to keep putting words on paper.  I'm not so worried about whether my writing is good--not yet.  I need to make it a habit, and stick to it, and actually finish at least one of my works-in-progress.  Once that happens, we'll see about what kind of help or feedback I might want.

Fellow NaNo-ers--how's it going?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Am Grateful

I am constantly amazed by the generosity of the book blogging community, both in terms of their willingness to embrace newbies like myself, and in terms of giving away scads of actual, physical books.  Today I come to you with an extraordinary example of the latter:  Beth Revis, author of Across the Universe, is offering a chance to win 19 books plus a ton of swag (that's goodies, for those of you who are young enough to use the word "swag" differently than us old folks.) 

And this isn't just a chance to win cool prizes--it's also a great idea for a blog entry.  So, without further ado, I'll have a go at deciding:

What book am I MOST grateful for?

One book?  Really?  That's all? 

Ok, fine, I'll pick one.  But I will be posting separately, as November rolls along and Thanksgiving approaches, about my many, many runners-up.

Honestly,  at this moment the book I am most grateful for is The Hunger Games.  Before The Hunger Games, I had a handful of successes as an English teacher who secretly longed to be a librarian.  A couple students even told me that books I handed them were the first books they have ever read all the way through on their own.  And that felt great (I mean, and also bummed me out, but on the balance, it felt pretty good.) 

Then I read The Hunger Games and promptly designed a trimester-long English class around it*.   Suddenly, everything changed.  My students who used to ignore my every word--well, they kept ignoring my every word, except that now it was because they were too engrossed in Katniss and Rue's alliance or Peeta's injury to care what I was going on about.  All five copies of Catching Fire that I bought for my classroom were snapped up as soon as I brought them in, and several were lost in perpetuity as students passed them around from person to person without bothering to check them in first.  You might think that the students would dash through the series and then resign from reading forever--but that's not what happened.  This is what happened:

"Mrs. S--what else do you have that's like The Hunger Games?" 

"Hey, do you have any other books that are exciting like that?"

"What should I read next?  I need a book."

The Hunger Games started conversations about reading, between me and my students, and more importantly, among my students as a group.  Kids who had nothing in common were suddenly swapping news about the movie and debating the casting choices, or recommending books to each other.  These conversations are my single favorite part of being a teacher, and for that, I have to send a huge wave of gratitude to Suzanne Collins for writing The Hunger Games.

*Anthropological footnote:  when I put that class, Dystopian Lit, on the schedule for the first time in December 2010, I was flooded with students coming up to me in the halls asking me what "that d-word" meant.  When I taught it again starting in March 2011, it seemed that many, many more of my students were familiar with the genre.