Tuesday, September 28, 2010

the perfect moments

The young birch trees stretching up through the slanting sun, the rattle of their drying leaves in the sweet, crisp breeze.  The little hand in mine, Monkey's voice so soft with wonder.

The sight of Jabber walking proud up ahead with his Daddy, stepping into all the puddles with his black rubber fireman boots and his blaze orange cap.

The soft needles of a new white pine, the twisted hardy stand of jackpines waiting for a fire to loosen their seeds, the woody and steady curving limbs of ancient cedar.

The smell, somewhere between maple syrup and burned sage.

The contrast of the blue, blue sky with the red maple leaves and the wavering flight of the turkey vulture.

The kingfisher perched watchful on the beaver dam.

The wolf sign, fascinating us and sending little shivers down our spines.

The glimpse of water behind the trees, the opening up to find glistening waves, bordered with vivid splashes of autumn colors.

The abandoned wasp nest all papery and silver.

The sound of birds, squirrels scolding, children keeping their voices all hushed and breathy with excitement, exclaiming over all this and more.

My favorite season,
my favorite place,
and my favorite people to share it with. 

My perfect moments.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

the devil is in the details

Growing up, my favorite books had nothing in common, on the surface.  I was as deeply in love with the historical feel of Little House on the Prairie as I was with the fantasy elements (science fantasy?) of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and my favorite book for a long time was this strange paperback my grandma had picked up at a flea market called Charley, or The Girl Who Ran Away--a somewhat bizarre, feverish story about a child living on her own in a chicken coop, crawling through hedgerows and going to Sunday School with dying wildflowers in her hair.

It didn't matter what the book was about; what I wanted was for it to feel so real, so thick with details and rich settings and characters who seemed so entirely believable that I would get wrapped up in the story so tightly that I would forget where I was.  I loved being lost in a book, so far gone the sound of my mother knocking on my bedroom door would make me startle, confused and disoriented in the real world. 

As an adult, that feeling is harder to capture, but to this day, the books that truly amaze me are the books that feel...deep.  Sometimes I think of it as having layers, but other times I think of it like a thick, heavy patchwork quilt.  Every stitch was deliberately placed by hand. Every scrap of fabric has a history you can hear if you're still, if you study it long enough.  There are varied textures and funny smells and a weighty, comfortable feeling in your hands, on your lap.  And when you put it down, set it aside, there's a little moment of longing--a sad little shiver.

I want to write a book like that.  I do.  I'm trying.  But man, does it ever take a long time!

All this was sort of a lead in (or it was supposed to be, anyway) to talk about how I read through the first draft of my Cassandra WIP and scribbled notes about every other paragraph that said, "GO DEEPER HERE!" and "EXPAND THIS!" or "SLOW DOWN AND GIVE THIS SCENE A CHANCE!"  It feels so thin, so very far from that heavy quilt.  It's not even one of those double-layer fleece blankies with the fringes on the edge--the kind anyone can make, provided they can operate a pair of scissors and tie a simple knot.  This book is like...maybe a flannel sheet.

So almost everyone in my online writing group has at least attempted to do literary agent Mary Kole's 100 Declarative Sentences exercise to flesh out characters or settings.  I'm not sure if anyone has actually made it to one hundred, but even so, we've all discovered some useful tidbits about our characters in this way.  I made it to 45 sentences about Cass while I was writing the first draft, which was super helpful.  Some of the sentences actually helped me keep details straight as I was writing, like this:

14.  Cassandra has a sister Dicey, age 15; a sister Lexie, age 8; and a brother Eric, who is eleven months older than she is and will turn 18 at the end of this month.

So mainly, that kind of sentence helps me keep my continuity.  I have a hard time keeping track, for instance, of what color eyes and hair my characters have, or like, if I mention at one point that eating cheese gives them hives.

Other sentences end up telling me more about the character--sometimes giving little bits and pieces of their past lives that may not actually end up in the book, but which may give that bit of different texture to the patch that makes up that place in the quilt.  I learn things about them, like this:

22.  Cass has a vague desire to be a scientist when she "grows up", but she's worried that this is a little too nebulous...what do scientists actually do, in the real world?  She pictures herself in a lab coat, bending over beakers, but...doing what?  All the pictures in her head come out of that old biography of Marie Curie she read for a report in fourth grade.

Now, on my second draft, I'm making sentences for Darin, and Drew, and maybe even Kayla.  So far I'm on Darin number 24, and it's hard, but I've already got some notes in a different colored pen next to "EXPAND THIS!" and "GO DEEPER HERE!"  My favorite discovery is the first moment he ever noticed Cass:

15.  Darin noticed Cass for the first time on an eighth grade field trip to the underground mine.  Something about her face when the tour guide mentioned the underground physics lab reminded him of Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time, and he daydreamed a bit about traveling with her through space and time.  Or at least sitting close to her on tall stools, their heads bent together over a Bunsen burner.  He lagged behind the group for the rest of the tour, his mind far away.

So here's hoping that by the time I finish this draft, this story will have a little stuffing!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

in the middle

So my computer has been sick (I think it still is, tbh, but since my computer doctor is also sick, I'll wait and see for a few days while religiously backing up everything I do), and middle school has been overwhelming, and the weather has been amazing...all of which leads to one full week without a blog entry.  Again.

I know, that's boring.

Starting over.  So my middle school students are starting a book blog.  And at first, I didn't really think we'd make our own blog.  I thought it would be enough to simply read blogs, comment on them, maybe look at the qualities that make up a good review.  Possibly we would talk about the difficulties of writing a review of a book that isn't the greatest--how do you maintain honesty without being a jerk?  This is a concept that many middle school students (and a fair number of non-middle school students) struggle to wrap their heads around.

But.  On the first day, it became apparent that these students...they are WILD about books.  They are full of awesome ideas and an amazing amount of energy that, if we can focus and harness (and proofread!) it, will result in a terrific chance for them to interact with authors and bloggers and readers not only at our school, but all over the world.  And even though I am in the middle of editing one book and second-drafting another and assistant-directing a play (soon) and playing tooth fairy (Jabber lost another tooth today!) and mentoring a student teacher and checking the dilation of Monkey's pupils (fell off a step stool and cracked his head on the cast iron tub)...I find myself in the middle of another project.  A middle grade/young adult book blog, written and developed by my students!

Aptly, the name of the blog is "In the Middle (of a good book)" and the identity we created for the blog is "inthemiddlereading"--middle schoolers reading.  Our first post went live today, so please come by and share your favorite book with us! 

Middle school is a strange time for reading.  While a sixth grader may still be startled or even outright shocked at the appearance of a minor cuss word, an eighth grader may be devouring very mature books written for adults.  Another sixth grader may read nothing but unabridged classics, while another eighth grader may be just beginning to move from chapter books to middle grade novels. 

However, despite these differences, what has become very clear to me in the last nine years teaching middle school, is that when tweens and teens find a book they enjoy, it can change their whole lives. You can see them become a reader.  They argue passionately about books; they feel personally offended by disappointing movie adaptations.  They love their favorite characters so fiercely that they never want a series to end.  They get so excited about books at times that they will jump about in their chairs, barely able to wait their turn to share their thoughts about books.

And I hope that we'll be able to keep up with this blog, even after my little elective class is over, so that they can continue to have a real audience for their thoughts, and so they can continue to make connections with authors as real people--to read reviews by other bloggers and wait anxiously for new releases and become a part of the literary community in a real, interactive way. 

Thanks so incredibly much to Kari, who gave us links to her favorite blogs, ideas for the class, and a lot of support as I contemplated this idea in its infant stages.  Her book blog, and the others in our blogroll, are an inspiration to my students!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

*peeks out of cave*

This lovely image of Lily, the black bear star of the den cam at the North American Bear Center last fall is the perfect image to represent me tucked up in my editing cave--bleary-eyed, confused, hungry, and rather annoyed with anyone who dares to desire my attention.  (I'm sorry, family!)

So last night I sent another draft back to Melanie, my lovely editor at Marshall Cavendish, and I'm hoping that as she reads it she will find things that she thinks are improvements.

I'm now in the middle of the third week of school, and I'm working on my sixth graders, trying to get them all shaped up into middle school students.  They're a lively, spirited bunch, and my "homebase" group makes me laugh constantly, even when their exuberance gets a little frustrating.

So, reeling a little from a Friday afternoon session of craziness and everyone-talks-at-once and everyone-blurts-every-thought-without-filtering, I decided to put together a little list of talking points for Monday morning.  I called it How to Be a Human and a Sixth Grader Instead of a Little Monster in a Sixth Grader Uniform.  I don't really think my sixth graders are little monsters, but...we all have our moments, right?  rawwwrrrr.

I organized my points into "R" words.  Sort of.  They listened, and I think they thought I was moderately funny.  In any case, I feel like maybe we may have a future that doesn't involve growling at each other.  I'm pretty sure it still will involve lots and lots of shouting and jumping around, but they're getting used to my quirks, I hope.

1. REALLY. We are here to help you, not torture you. Give us a chance to do our jobs as teachers.
2. REMINDERS and REDIRECTIONS don't mean you're in trouble. RELAX and just do what we're asking you to do.
3. RESPOND with a simple, "OK". We're not interested in what you didn't do or why you were doing it or who did it first.
4. RESPONSIBILITY: take some. for your actions and your words.
5. RESPECT: we all have to earn it.
6. RETALIATE, and you will get caught. No, we won't see the person who struck first. That person's actions alerted our spidey-senses that something was off-kilter, and now we see YOU.

Then we spent our afternoon playing a team-building game that involved possibly excessive amounts of volume but also excessive amounts of smiling and cooperation, so that was cool.

/boring teacher post*

* it's okay, though.  I was thisclose to boring you all to tears with a Teaser Tuesday, so you can thank me in the comments.  :)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

do you ever?

Do you ever look around you and realize that you haven't stopped to take a breath in like two weeks?

This is my deck, which I finally finished painting on Labor Day--also the day I started my second pass of my KtMS manuscript so I can see if the edits I finished two weeks ago actually make sense. 

Today began the second week of school, and I realized around 3:00 that I hadn't stopped to use the restroom all day.  And, since at that time I was besieged by sixth graders (who all wanted to escape Language Arts class to use the restroom, by the way), the realization was once again pushed aside until 4:15, when my own son got off the bus and made his way to my classroom, freeing me to finally leave.

Except by then I was in the middle of previewing an online training module, which I have to present to the staff meeting tomorrow morning at 7:30.  And since I'll be in the meeting tomorrow morning before class starts, and since my sixth grade homeroom needs way more attention and assistance in the morning than my eighth grade homeroom did last year, I decided I'd better get my chalkboards set up for tomorrow as well.  I had two documents open on my computer, and I was pecking away at a lesson plan outline for my boss and a compilation of book blog addresses for my teen book blogging elective, at the same time as I was fixing a snack for Jabber and scheduling a complicated classroom swap with two colleagues. 

Still had not peed.

At last, I realized that I was way too busy to keep poor Jabber at school with me until I was done, so I called D. and asked him to come pick the boy up...annoying to D. as he was in the middle of making an experimental dinner recipe (which turned out to be delicious, when I consumed it out of the microwave an hour or so later!), but I was busy planning and photocopying and distributing files full of links into shared folders while I filed IEP notices, answered emails to parents, and double-checked two of my sixth graders' schedule changes.

I did finally make a trip to the bathroom--at home--and during this activity I was visited by a small child who needed help with putting on his socks.  Also several arguments/wrestling matches broke out at this time, which I broke up.  I heated up my coffee and my dinner while loading the dishwasher and then listened to Jabber read while eating and making out a check for his school photos.

Fixed bedtime snacks.  Signed reading minutes.  Cleaned up snacks.  Wrangled kids a bit.  Cleaned kitchen.  Went to gym and worked out (while reading the book I am going to start teaching on Thursday, which I've only taught once before, years ago), showered, made lunches, and sat down to revisit those edits.

Except, oh crud, I still haven't blogged.


And now it's bedtime.