Sunday, December 7, 2008

The hot new accessory...

So what’s the it new accessory in sixth grade? No, it’s not Ugg boots or the latest V.S. ‘Pink’ apparel. It’s not leggings or skinny jeans.

It’s books. And a few books in particular. The ultra-cool book right now is Twilight. I know it’s been out for a while and raging through the middle and high schools, but it’s finally hit my elementary school classroom.

They’ve all seen the movie and now they’re reading the book. But it’s so much more than a book to them – it’s an accessory. It needs to be prominently displayed on their desks at all times. (Bonus points if it’s the movie addition with Robert Pattinson’s photo on the cover). The books go to lunch with them – they take them to band lessons, recess, and specials. First thing in the morning, the girls check each other’s books to see how many pages they’ve read and then they compare their favorite scenes. Some of them are even using post-its to mark pages they want to remember.

Without realizing it, the language from my reading lessons is leaking into their dialogue. They talk about visualizing Edward’s smoldering eyes, and their inferences about the characters’ motivations.

While I’m slightly squeamish about the ideas of these impromptu book discussions continuing with the rest of the series (which is less 6th grade appropriate), I’m thrilled by how excited they are about what they’re reading. So I felt the need to state it publicly that my sixth grade girls are more excited about books than boys, the latest gossip, or the newest style of Uggs - and as I writer and a reader, that makes me feel like our future’s going into good (and literate!) hands.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Feedback and Revisions

My feedback group meets the first Wednesday of every month and this past week was the first time I was offering a sampling of FLASH up to the red pens. It wasn’t my first time contributing, just the first time for this book, but I realized mid-meeting that no matter which piece of writing I’ve submitted, I go through the same five-step emotional process each time.

Step 1

This is the same sweaty-fingers, please-like-me, is-this-sweater-okay?, I-knew-I-shouldn’t-have-worn-pink, why-did-I-listen-to-my-mom?, you-like-my-sweater?, I-like-yours-too feeling that I remember from the first days of middle school. The differences being I no longer have braces and I no longer have to worry about what I’m wearing. For all my group knows, I could be e-mailing my submissions while wearing pajamas, which I frequently do. The feeling is the same, however, it’s the result of making yourself vulnerable and inviting a layer of honesty that just isn’t found in day to day life.

Step 2

I’m stupid sometimes, and this is one of those times. Each time I listen to feedback on my pieces, I spend the first two minutes being stubborn and defensive.

I don’t actually show that I’m being stubborn or defensive, I smile prettily and nod and simper, "Oh, absolutely. That’s a great suggestion." But inside I’m seething – doesn’t he know how hard I worked on that scene? Take out the –ly words? Well, if we don’t know that Cole slightly nodded, how are we to feel his hesitation? If Tessa’s not walking unsteadily, how will we know she’s exhausted from her flash? Humph! My inner petulant child stamps her foot.

Luckily, this stage quickly comes and goes, and then I realize I’m being an idiot and start listening and absorbing helpful feedback.

Step 3

When the protective, defensive layer comes down, I tend to accept all feedback /criticism at once. And try to figure it all out at once. And then my brain goes into hyperdrive. This is when I sink into an it-can’t-be-done, I’m-just-going-to-scrap-this-piece-and-start-again funk.

Fortunately, I was born without the ability to be pessimistic for more than ten minutes, and after those ten minutes are up, I get proactive again.


Step 4 – Puzzling

Sometimes I get over step three rather quickly, but usually progress here requires me to do something. Late night runs are great times to run scenarios in my head. Sitting on my porch with my laptop during summer rainstorms works as well. Calling someone who’s read the book and is willing to listen to me sound out multiple possibilities works great. And sometimes just a night of sleep brings clarity.

But when it comes – this is the most exciting time of all. Seeing the possibilities for the piece, and knowing how much better it can become because of the feedback I’ve gotten? It’s an awesome feeling.

Step 5 – Production

Once things start clicking in step four, watch out. Neither food, nor sleep, nor conversation, nor life will interfere with my re-writing and polishing. (I do, however, make an exceptions for the dixie-cup sized bladders of the puggles – I’d rather to stop to take them out than stop for clean up).

When I get on a role and have a plan in mind, I work with a singular focus until I’m done. Then I run around like sleep and social stimuli deprived maniac and insist that everyone coo over every new comma and every deletion of an –ly word.

– Overwhelmedness
– Stubborn Protectiveness
– Submission.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Polling and Puppy Puke

Today did not start off well. I was supposed to be able to ‘sleep in’ until 6:30 since today’s an in-service, not a regular school day.

Instead at 5:30 I woke up to ‘huruph blurph bleah’ and a warm lumpy wet splatter of doggie vomit. To make the situation even better, Bruschi decided to make amends for throwing up on me by covering my shocked and sleepy face with kisses. Gross!

But the day’s gotten much, much better since then. My school is a polling place (hence the no-kids today) and when I pulled in to the driveway today, it looked like a kindergartener had done the parking. There were cars everywhere, in every direction, on the grass, on the sidewalk, and two thick around the bus circle.

I haven’t seen lines like the ones snaking across the playground and twining back and forth in the gymnasium since my last trip to Disney World. That’s pretty amazing!

And all day long people have been sharing their voting stories:

My friend Val reported a 20-year-old reemerging from his booth in panic. He was saying, "I know this was already explained to me, but can someone tell me again? I just don’t want to screw up." And everyone else in line smiled and stood a little taller.

Or my co-worker, Jesse, who teaches second grade just passed my door on his way down to ‘Kids Vote.’ When I commented that he was a little too old to be participating in the kids’ voting program, he told me how one of his students e-mailed him asking for help. This 8-year-old had to leave last night to attend his uncle’s funeral, but wanted to make sure his vote would count, so he asked his teacher to cast his kids’ ballot for him. It’s children like this that make me feel so confident that our future’s in good hands.

I waited to vote until after work today – I’m heading out in just a minute. This way I could look forward to it all day long. It’s days like today that I’m floating with American pride (and so grateful for hot, post-puppy-puke showers!).

Anyone else have a voting story?


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Oh my Lawn Chair

Matt and I were at Ikea yesterday to try and get ideas about how to organize our new closet. This has now devolved into diagrams on graph paper with color-coded scaled-down squares that represent the different sized units. I still have no clue how it’s going to work, despite all of Matt’s patience and diagrams. I’ll excitedly suggest a way that I think will work great and Matt will calmly respond, "Tiffany, if we set up the wardrobes like that, you won’t be able to open the closet door to get to your clothing." Or "Yes, the wardrobes would fit facing each other like that, but will we fit between the wardrobes to get our clothing out?"

But I digress, the thing I wanted to write about was the little boy who was skipping through the store ahead of us, singing cheerily to himself and ignoring the taunts and pokes of his bored older brother.

"Oh my lawn chair, Oh my lawn chair," he was crooning to the tune of "Clementine." I kept trying to hear the next line of the song, but Ikea has so many twists and turns that I couldn’t get close enough and his mother started to give me the wary eyeball.

Since I didn’t feel like explaining I wasn’t a creepy child stalker, I just wanted to hear what made-up lyrics he was singing, I let some distance grow and actually gave Matt and the closets some long-overdue attention. But after answering a few of my closet questions, he was practically begging me to find a new child to stalk.

"I’m not stalking! I’m writing," I explained indignantly.

"Okay," he responded in a clearly placating, go-away-and-leave-me-to-my-tape-measuring voice.

That was a mistake! Now he was going to get a full explanation and I was going to make him take me seriously, or at least be annoying enough that he would listen. "No really! I’m pre-writing. I’m gathering stolen conversation. Maybe that little boy’s song will make it into a story someday, either way it’s adorable and I’m intrigued. Aren’t you?"

"Not really. I just want to look at these wardrobes and get home. If you want to go steal conversations, that’s fine. You can tell me all about it in the car. Okay?"

"Fine," I grumbled. "But since I didn’t get to hear the rest of ‘Oh my lawn chair,’ you’d better be ready to help me think up some good lyrics."

Here they are:

Oh my lawn chair
Oh my lawn chair
Oh my chair that’s on the grass
You are cozy, and so shady, I want lemonade in my glass.

It’s clearly a work in progress. And now I’ll always have to wonder what the ‘real’ fake lyrics were. sigh

So, if you ever see me following you a little too closely in a store, or leaning in a suspicious manner toward your table at a restaurant, try not to be alarmed. I’m not stalking, or eavesdropping, I’m simply stealing your conversation. And if you know the rest of the words to "Oh My Lawn Chair," feel free to take that opportunity to sing them for me.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A delightful twist on the familiar

I love books that take familiar stories and flip them into something new.

Books like:

Coraline (a creepy Alice in Wonderland) by Neil Gaiman

Ophelia (Hamlet from her perspective) by Lisa Klein

Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

And Holly Black’s Tales of Faerie aren’t the ones from my childhood – they’re wonderfully darker!

These types of books are popular with my students as well. The boys love the Young Bond/ Alex Rider series and my girls can’t put down Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm. Perhaps this is because they already have the schemas in place, so their comprehension is clearer and they just need to adapt it for new knowledge.

As a class we’re currently reading the first book in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series: The Lightning Thief. The odds that you could walk through my classroom at any given moment and not encounter a discussion about Greek Mythology are slim to nonexistent. In fact, today, despite the fact that it’s Halloween week, the Phillies are in the World Series, and it was SNOWING (yeah, it was a fun day…), the students begged me to read more during bus dismissal. They’re captivated.

And more impressively, they’re voluntarily doing research at home so they can know more about the gods, satyrs, and heroes. A few excitedly reported that they’d dug a VHS of Disney’s Hercules and watched it over the weekend.

So when I saw the book Pandora Gets Jealous by Carolyn Hennesey while I was popping around on Amazon (always a dangerous thing to do), I had to buy it. It’s touted as the start of a hilarious new series set in ancient Athens. Sounds promising and a delightful twist on familiar.

P.S. I also bought two other books that came highly recommended from friends. Scott Heydt’s O.Y.L. and Generation Dead by Daniel Waters. (I told you Amazon was dangerous – I never get away with less than three books!)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Magical Writing Nook

I’m pretty sure my new writing nook-to-be has magical properties. Even without its spectacular view (right now the window holes are tarped over, it’s raining).


Matt’s off at a how-to-tile-workshop so he feels manly and learns how to install the slate bathroom floor. As soon as he left I changed the laundry to the dryer, crated the dogs (sorry puggles!), grabbed my writer’s notebook, a towel, my I-pod, chapstick, and water and made my way up to the addition. I’ve been dying to try out the writing energy in my nook-to-be.

And that’s when I discovered its magical properties. I was totally prepared to be covered in sawdust – after all, the whole addition is a sawdust factory and there’s a wood shavings trail a la Hansel and Gretel from the addition through the rest of the house to the door the contractors use. That’s why I brought the towel, to sit on. And that’s why I brought my notebook and left my laptop (Huey) safely in a sawdust-free spot. After all, I’m washable, Huey’s not.

But when I got up here, I discovered something – the writing nook is miraculously the only sawdust-free section of the floor! I still spread out my towel as butt padding and settled myself down to lean against the frame – which is conveniently spaced ideally as a shoulder rest. I knew I was going to love writing up here! (Okay, I’ll admit, I’m rather easy to please!)

Now I can’t wait until it features built in bookshelves and my customized writing desk and cushy window seat. I can’t quite picture it in this room yet (because of the lack of visual-spatialness in my brain), but I can picture it perfectly in my head.

This tends to be where I get in trouble – I picture things so vividly in my head and then get frustrated when they don’t come to be in exactly the same way in the world outside my brain.

But I can’t get too annoyed with these issues in translation or my ability to imagine, because these are things I rely on so much as a writer, creating people and settings so realistic in my head that I just have to write them down and make them real.

And isn’t that the best part of books, when you get so attached to a character that you’re absolutely depressed on the last page because you’ll miss them? Authors who create characters that realistic are my heroes – I fell in such a funk when I finished the last Harry Potter and the final Twilight book. I’m already anticipating the depression I’ll feel after I read Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock because I love all the Dairy Queen characters.

This is the feeling I strive to create in my own writing, a sense of I-wish-Tessa-was-real-and-my-best-friend, or Where’s-my-real-life-version-of-Cole?-ness.

The magical properties of the future-nook apparently even extend to my I-pod. It’s been selecting a wicked awesome shuffle mix since I’ve been up here. Can you imagine how much more magical it will be when it has actual walls and windows and is finished?

I can’t wait. I mean literally, I can’t wait. I woke up at 7 am this morning and my first conscious thought was I’ve got to go look at the addition again – you know, in case anything had magically changed overnight

… It’s going to be a long five weeks.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Roofless in Doylestown

I have no roof.  Well, I guess our bedroom ceiling is now technically our roof – but that peaked thing with shingles and gutters?  It’s currently in a confetti of pieces across my yard and in my bushes.  It’s a jigsawed heap in the suv-sized dumpster that’s conquered an unfair share of my driveway.

On Tuesday when I left for school, I had a roof.  I came home to a house that looked like grandma in a shower cap – roof off and tarps bungee-corded around the frame.

Yesterday I came home and half the new frame was up.  It’s crazy.  What was once the attic door is now a stairway up to the sky.

When you climb the stairs and stand amongst the scattered nails and planks, it’s a little bit scary.

I’m looking through a hole in the frame that will be a window, but I can also look through the walls-that-aren’t-there and the absent roof.

All I can tell so far is that our bathroom and new writing nook will have awesome views.

I don’t have great visual-spatial intelligence, or at least not when it comes to construction or furniture maneuvering.

I was the college student who talked her roommate into moving all our stuff into the hall so we could ‘rearrange,’ but then when we moved it all back in, it didn’t fit. (Sorry, Jenny!)

And when I try and pack a suitcase or a car – don’t expect it to be efficient or organized.  And obviously it’s not all going to fit and the most essential items will be left behind.

(I was also the college student who went home for a month-long winter break and forgot to pack underwear.)

So when I look at board and holes or even the architect’s plans, my brain can’t translate from those to a finished room.  I can’t tell if it’s going to look huge or tiny.  Is the new closet massive (fingers crossed!) or just maneuverable?  Will Matt whack his head on the hanging lantern I’ve chosen for the bathroom, or will it hover helpfully a few inches above his hair?

It frustrates me that Matt seems able to look around the construction chaos and see a finished product.  I look around and see board and beams – and then I stumble over a scrap of wood.

I guess I’ll just have to be patient and wait – but when have I ever been good at that?


Monday, October 20, 2008

Writing between books

When I’m writing a book, I’m a bit manic; sleep, laundry, cell phone messages, cooking all get ignored. If I can’t eat it one-handed, it’s too much effort. If I’m not falling asleep upright at my computer typing nonsense, then it’s not time for bed yet.

But what about the in-between times? I’m not yet starting a new project and I’m done revisions on FLASH. So what do I write now? It feels weird not to spend hours at the keyboard, yet I’m not quite ready to jump into my next novel.

But climbing into bed without writing feels odd, like I skipped brushing my teeth or some other vital part of my daily routine.

So I’ve been thinking about this – worrying about it almost – will my writing muscles atrophy? My craft weaken? I tell my students to live like writers and to write everyday – am I becoming a writing hypocrite?

Then I realized that I’m writing constantly – blogs, e-mails, notes to myself. I just wrote 27 students each a half-page of feedback on their first narratives. I’m writing, just not with a central purpose.

And more than taking the time to physically put pen to paper, I’m always composing. I narrate my life (in my head) even more than JD on Scrubs – is this normal?

So although I may not be writing it all down, I’m still writing little stories in my head.

How do others find ways to keep their writing fires lit between book projects? I’d love to hear your suggestions and ideas.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Teen Reads Week 10/12-10/19

Today is the first day of YALSA Teen Reads Week. The theme this year is Books with Bite.

There are a few ways to interpret this, and I’ll offer suggestions for each.

Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
Blue Bloods Series by Melissa de la Cruz
Vampire Academy Series by Richelle Mead
Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Vampire Kisses Series by Ellen Schreiber

Edgy Books:
Wake by Lisa McMann
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Nonfiction books about animals that bite:
Um, I don’t know much about these!  All I can think of is:
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I’m sure I missed plenty of titles, so post a comment and offer your suggestions. 

And if none of these books appeal to you (or if you’ve read them all!), find a different book to read.  The point of Teen Reads Week isn’t to tell you what to read, it’s just important that you take some time, find a book, and READ!


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Endings and letting go

Today in my sixth grade class we finished reading aloud the book Zen and the Art of Faking it by Jordan Sonnenblick.  He’s among my favorite YA authors and this book is audible-laughing-hilarious, yet I was surprised by how my students reacted to the ending.

“I don’t like it,” said one.
“I’m not satisfied,” said another.
“That’s it?” cried a few

I needed clarification – this was a book that every day received a chorus of “just one more chapter!  Please!”  A book that I caught them discussing in the hall, on the playground, and during dismissal.

Why didn’t they like the ending?

Because it was an end. 

When I asked for more details they were quick to tell me:
“I wanted more.”
“I’m just sad that it ended.”
“There’s a sequel, right?”
“Can we write the author and tell him to write a sequel?”
“I want to know about San in high school.  Does he make the basketball team?  Does he ever become ELL?”

In short, even though they would admit that the plot was resolved and there was closure – they wanted more.

And isn’t that the trademark of a great book; when you don’t want to give up the characters after the last page? 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dreaming of Dreams

Wake by Lisa McMann is one of those books I can’t get out of my mind.  I haven’t been sleeping much lately and as I lie awake, I wonder what dreams the normal sleepers in my house are having.   Judging from Janie’s experiences with dreams, I think I’d rather not know!

The format of this book really matches the plot.  The book is written with very little description, it is almost all dialogue and action, which makes it a fast read and also matches the pacing and intensity of the book.  I thought this format was especially effective and I loved the premise.  Imagine if someone could see your dreams… yikes! 

This is a book that is just waiting to be optioned for a film – it would make an excellent movie.  Just check out the video trailer at McMann’s website to see what I mean :

I can’t wait for Fade… not too much longer until February 10th.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why writing a novel is like building an addition...

Both of these things are taking up much of my time and attention right now.   We are currently putting a major addition on our Victorian home and I am also in the last-last stages of revisions before sending out queries on my YA novel FLASH.

Both are wholly consuming in mind-trapping ways and cause you to focus on them to the exclusion of other less important things… like, say, laundry or remembering to buy pet food (sorry Biscotti and Bruschi!).. 

In each of these instances, you’ve built ideas in your mind – whole new worlds and rooms.  I’ve got big plans for our new master suite and bigger plans for FLASH.  It’s the process of getting the ideas out of my mind and into reality that’s trickier. 

The hardest part is trying to decide where to start.  In the addition, we’re not doing any actual construction, but there are so many decisions we need to make.  Colors, flooring, fixtures, set up, windows… And with FLASH, where to start writing?  Do I have to write the book in order?  Would Tessa really say that?  What’s the hero’s motivation?  Colors and conflicts are the things that keep me up at night.

In some ways, it’s easier to transfer my ideas to reality with the novel.  I can take the world I’ve built in my head and record it on paper – often the hardest part is keeping my fingers moving as fast as my brain.

It’s harder with the addition.  I’ve spent 10 hours this weekend trying to find the tile that I can see so clearly in my mind, but that doesn’t apparently exist in any actual tile store.  Bringing my mental image of our bathroom-to-be to life is constrained by available materials – sigh!

Maybe I’ll give my heroine my dream bathroom so that it will still exist somewhere – even if it’s not in my house.

Wish me luck and patience in both of these endeavors.