Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Is cursive writing still important?

Twice in the past two days students have approached me about writing a persuasive essay/speech about teaching cursive writing (or script) in school.  They are both 'for' the teaching of script, but many schools no longer teach handwriting.  I have heard from several teachers lately, and parents of children in elementary school, that cursive writing is no longer being taught in schools.  Instead, children are taught how to use the computer and typing (or rather keyboard) skills.

Don't get me wrong, I think typing skills are very important.  Taking a typing class my last semester in college was one of the smartest things I have done, and it has helped me acquire a few jobs.  However, I do believe that hand written notes and letters are special, and valuable, and an art that I hope will not be lost to the next generation, and generations to come.  So I hand write thank-you notes, and letters, and invitations, and condolence notes.  How often do you use handwriting . . . and what do you use it for?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Recovery mode

We have power, and now my school website and Blackboard are back online so I can work.  I have never been so happy to grade essays in my life.

Little by little, street by street, corner by corner, the lights are coming back on.  And with the restoration of power the city is slowly coming back to life.  There are still many nearby stores and restaurants closed, and my local bank was still closed earlier today, but there are more and more signs of life.

Tomorrow I'll attempt to find a gas station with no, or a very short line; I'll vote for my president; I'll swing by Dunkin' Donuts and hope they are open; and I'll grade papers -  ahhh, normalcy never looked so good!

Friday, November 2, 2012


For three days we were without power.  Thankfully we still had hot water, and a gas stove/oven, so I could cook, albeit by candlelight, and we could take hot showers, though not use a hair dryer.  It hasn't been traumatic, but merely inconvenient.  Many in our area have experienced true trauma and loss.  It is a reminder that we don't have as much control over our lives as we like to think we do.   Cell phones were not much use, as is often the case in a crisis.  On 9/11 no one could get through on cell phones to loved ones.  I am thankful we kept our land line that plugs right into a phone jack and needs no electricity -- our open line of communication to the outside world as email and cell phones were useless.

 We labor under the illusion that we can control our lives, especially we Americans, and especially if we have a bit of money and education.  We control where we live, where we go to school, whom we marry, if we have children or not, and how many.  But there are many aspects of our lives that are out of our control;  when a storm hits, and how hard; where a tree falls; when power is lost, and when it is restored.  As a Christian, I rest in the fact that God is in control of all aspects of my life, so even when I feel powerless, He is still powerful.

I'm reading two books now -- of course I have to get back to reading in this blog.  Neither book is one I can't put down, which is why I'm reading two!  One delves into the loss of power many women experience, and the two protagonists are Indian women.  The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar, follows two Indian women -- one wealthy, and one poor; one erudite and one illiterate; both joyless.  So it's a bit depressing, but Umrigar has a way of distilling life's crises into language that perfectly describes the human condition.  Here is one example: "Or perhaps it is that time doesn't heal wounds at all, perhaps that is the biggest lie of them all, and instead what happens is that each wound penetrates the body deeper and deeper until one day you find that the sheer geography of your bones--the angle of your head, the jutting of your hips, the sharpness of your shoulders, as well as the luster of your eyes, the texture of your skin, the openness of your smile--has collapsed under the weight of your griefs."  See what I mean . . . 

So while our electricity is running again, we are reminded that many important aspects of our lives are out of our control, but not out of God's control. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Second Chances

Yesterday, as I was walking to my advanced Composition 1 class to give a midterm, I was stopped outside my building by three students.  I had recently given all these students second chances. 

My students will tell you I'm tough when it comes to grading, and deadlines are deadlines.  However, I do have a heart, and occasionally I allow students a second chance, when I feel their situation warrants such a move.

Two of these students were in my online World Lit course.  They were active in the beginning, then completely inactive for two weeks.  The online course is only seven weeks long.  They came to my office, and explained that they thought they could drop the class, but found out they couldn't drop the class, and they needed the credits.  Could they please rejoin the course and make up all the work???

I was skeptical, but I gave them very strict deadlines -- like finish one unit's worth of work in one day -- and told them if they didn't keep the deadlines they would fail the course.  I was happily surprised when they dove in and did a superb job for the rest of course.  So they saw me yesterday, and ran over to give me a handmade zippered small bag - see picture.

The other student also needed a second chance.  She had experienced a plethora of personal problems, and asked if she could make up the missing essays.  I also extended a second chance to her, but she decided to drop the course instead.

All three students were grateful to have a second chance, though the outcomes differed.  I will continue to extend a second chance, in very limited special circumstances, to needy students.  I'm thankful for the second chances I've gotten in life!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Analyzing An Agent's Advice

Wednesday I received another rejection from an agent.  This one hurt a bit more, because this agent had asked to see a fuller synopsis, showing some level of interest in my novel.  The closer we are to someone, the more it hurts when we are rejected.  I was in great anticipation of her response, and hoping she would ask to see my full manuscript.  But instead, she wrote that she "didn't connect" with my story as she had hoped.  And she felt that the dual storyline lacked momentum.

What were my reactions?  She's right and my manuscript stinks?!  She's wrong and she doesn't appreciate brilliance?!  There must be a middle ground here. I varied from one extreme to the other before deciding that maybe there are ways to alter the storyline, to improve the tension and momentum leading up to the denouement.   I can give Sadie a more prominent role earlier on, and show her storyline apart from Joanna (if you don't know what I'm writing about you'll have to read the book!).  Joanna is Equiano's daughter, and Sadie is her first cousin, Equiano's sister's (Oluchukwu) daughter.

Without knowing if this is de rigueur (two French words in one post - my sister is in France and I'm feeling French today!), I sent a reply to her declination, and asked for more advice.  I mentioned in my reply that I am 'constrained by historicity' and she picked up on that.  Here is part of what she wrote: 
                      To be quite honest, I think my difficulty here is fairly endemic. As you say, you are
                      constrained by historicity. I find the fictionalized
                      history area quite troublesome generally, because for
                      me at least, fiction needs to have its own organic
                      shape and momentum, i.e. qualities that come from
                      construction rather than depiction and for me,
                      with its predestined structure, the historical account
                      often loses out. Truth or truth likeness is not a virtue
                      in itself - unless you're writing non-fiction.

Help me out here - is this agent predisposed against historical fiction?  Do you like historical fiction?

P.S.  The answer to the previous post:  Jonah!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Unresolved endings

Do you like a neatly tied up ending, or an unresolved ending?  Usually, I like resolution.  Especially in books, I like to know what is happening, or will happen, to the characters.  Jane Austen has nice resolved endings in her books -  the heroine marries the wealthy, handsome man.  There is nothing I hate more than getting to the end of a very lengthy book, 400 pages or more, only to find I have no idea what will happen to the protagonist, and there is no sequel.  I feel like screaming!

In short stories, the endings are often unresolved.  The form lends itself to unresolved endings, and I can stomach them a bit better in a short story.  But my favorite ending in a short story is the surprise ending - like O. Henry, or Jeffrey Archer.  Archer is the master of surprise endings.  He has a few short story collections, and one is entitled
A Twist in the Tale. That is a great read!  You will gasp out loud at the endings in that book.

There is one book in the bible that ends with a question.  It is a rhetorical question, but a question nonetheless.  Can you tell me which book it is?  You can leave a comment below.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Role of Role Playing in Teaching

When I teach World Literature, I like to involve the students as much as possible.  My students are placed in teams, and the teams compete on their own Amazing Race, trying to defeat each other in the weekly opening quiz.  Teams also take charge of teaching various aspects of the text.  One of the learning activities my students enjoy most is the mock trial.  After reading and discussing Antigone, a Greek tragic play by Sophocles, my students take the role of prosecutor of Creon, defense for Creon, prosecutor of Antigone, defense for Antigone, judge, jury and defendants. 

While my students may know the text, and answer the questions I pose during discussion, during the trial they almost 'become' their roles.  It is uncanny how quickly they embrace their given roles, and become quite passionate about their innocence, or the other student's guilt.  It reminds me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted over 25 years ago with a set of volunteers at Stanford University.  One set of volunteers became the prisoners and the other set were the guards.  After a few days the 'experiment' had to be terminated because the guards were actually becoming abusive and the prisoners were becoming depressed.  It is amazing how quickly one assumes the role one is playing.  When done well, role playing can be a very effective tool, and it causes students to remember the material better than any lecture.

Click on this link to see my students enacting the Trial of Creon!

Then they had even more fun conducting interviews afterward - totally their own idea!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Daddy's girl

This week I read an outstanding essay by one of my Comp 1 students.  She wrote about accompanying her father to a demonstration at the United Nations in 1993, commemorating the anniversary of a massacre in Cuba in 1962.  The student wrote passionately about her father, his love of politics, and her eventual fervor for politics as well.  Her career goal is to become a lawyer, and a politician.  I've never had a student aspire to a political career before, and I think she'll be great!  She ended her essay with "the little girl . . . waiting for the next opportunity to make her daddy proud."

This reminded me of an essay we read in Comp 1 by Sandra Cisneros, entitled "Only Daughter."  Cisneros grew up with six brothers and strove to please, impress and gain the attention of her dad her whole life.  With all the awards and accolades she has received for her writing, she notes "the best thing" that happened one year was when her dad wanted copies of her story for the family.

I too wanted to make my dad proud of me.  There is a unique bond between fathers and daughters.  The competition and antagonism that sometimes exists between mothers and daughters is absent.  We daughters, most of us, love our dads fiercely and want their approval.  So when I was deciding on a major in college, I chose psychology -- the subject my dad taught at the very college I attended - Cal State Northridge.  Fast forward 20 years.  After I decided I wanted to get a master's degree, and possibly teach, I again thought I would major in psychology.  But a friend reminded me - "Katie, you love English.  You love to read, and you love to write."  Duh!  So I earned a master's degree in English Literature, and now teach English at a community college . . . just as my mom did for about 20 years.  It turns out, I'm mommy's girl too!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Double negative = positive

I often have to remind students that two negatives make a positive -- just like in math.  So if a student writes "he don't have no education," I let the student know that the person must actually have an education, because he does not have no education! 
minus × minustwo negatives make a positive:plus

Where am I going with this?  Well, I did not get a negative response from an agent.  That's two negatives -- so it must be positive!  An agent asked to see a full synopsis of my manuscript.  I'm taking that as a very positive sign, and I promptly fixed up my synopsis and sent it off to her.  It's not a request for a partial manuscript, or a full manuscript, or an offer to represent me, but it's a first step . . . and I'm ecstatic!

Monday, September 10, 2012


I like diversity.  That's no surprise to anyone who knows me well.  Since 1980 I have lived in diverse neighborhoods, in New York City and Jersey City.  I enjoy learning about other cultures, eating different kinds of foods, learning phrases from other languages, and especially getting to know people who were not born and raised in America.  My friends come from such diverse places as Aruba, Côte d'Ivoire, China, Puerto Rico, India and the Philippines.

     Hello            नमस्ते                  in-i-che            aloha             nde-ewo              你好       Dia duit
            goedendag            bonjour         καλημέρα         여보세요          Kumusta po kayo?

My campus is a very diverse place in a diverse setting.  While about 50% of the students at Hudson County Community College are from a Latino background, the remaining 50% include many Americans, and other students from all over the world.  I've had many African, Indian and Chinese students, but today I met a student in my class from Tibet - that's a first!

Not only is the student body culturally diverse, the students also span a wide age range.  Of course there are many students who have recently graduated from high school, the under-20 crowd, but there are also many students who are in their 30's, 40's and 50's. 

Finally, not only do I enjoy a diverse student body, I also like teaching a variety of courses.  We professors talk in terms of how many 'preps' we have, how many different courses we have to prepare for, knowing that more preps means more work.  This semester I have four face-to-face classes, and three preps.  But that's the way I like it.  I enjoy teaching a different class every day, to an avid group of students who represent our world.  What fun!

Friday, September 7, 2012


Why do college students read the first extant literature, about a Sumerian king who lived around 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia?  I like to read and teach the Epic of Gilgamesh because he is a fascinating and passionate man (based on a real king of Uruk).  Yes, it's true, he does sleep with all the women before they marry, and yes, he does draft all the young men to fight for him, and I must agree, he's not a very good ruler.  But for reasons I find difficult to put in words, I like the guy.

With Gilgamesh, what you see is what you get.  He loves passionately, fights bravely, and grieves deeply.  When my students read the Epic of Gilgamesh we talk about the elements of an epic -- take a national hero, give him obstacles to overcome (usually including gods and goddesses), temptations to avoid, quests to win, voyages to complete, and see how he passes the tests.  Gilgamesh is the first epic, following by other noteworthy epics like The Odyssey, The Iliad, Beowulf, and even modern-day epics like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or even Harry Potter.  Gilgamesh was the first.  He set the standard.

At a conference I attended over Memorial Day, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) Division of Creative Arts "took all the themes in the story – from love, loss, power and politics to friendship – mixed it with stories from people in Cleveland, OH and brought in NY-based composer Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR) to write and record a songbook."  The result was Project Gilgamesh.  To learn more about it, or just listen to some great original music, click on the link below.


For my blog followers, for the next several months I plan to blog regularly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  So please check in on those days to see what I'm thinking about books, writing and teaching.  Thanks for following me!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Is the first day of class really important?

Yesterday was the first day of school.  Professors will all tell you that the first day of class is very important, but some students don't agree.  So why do we feel the first day is so important?

1.  First impressions.
     Both professors and students are making a first impression on the first day.  Are they on time?  Do they show interest and engagement.  Are they smiling?  I actually read an article debating whether professors should smile at their students - I do.

2.  It sets the tone
     For me, the first day is critical because it sets the tone; actually, I set the tone.  And the tone I want to set in my class is one of excitement, challenges and rewards, hard work, improvement, engagement.  If a student misses the first day he or she will have to figure out the tone through clues given in class, but that's harder than being in class the first day.

3.  Syllabus
      So the first day the syllabus is distributed and explained.  The syllabus is a contract between the student and teacher, and I attempt to make my expectations clear, to clarify anything unclear, to emphasize the critical elements, and to hear from my students if there is anything they don't understand, or even don't like!  Students who miss the first day will get only a synopsis of this longer explanation and will completely miss the dialogue we have on the first day.

4.  Getting to know you
     On the first day I give an icebreaker, allowing students to mingle and get to know each other a bit.  So they become comforable with each other and learn fascinating facts about each other, like who has more than two brothers, or who plays a musical instrument, or who has traveled to more than three countries, or even who has never played video games.  Students who join us the second week have missed this interaction and might get to know a few other students, but have missed the opportunity to get to know the class.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What should I include in my story?

When writing historical fiction, writers face a unique dilemma.  In my last post I wrote about a book I recently read and greatly enjoyed - The Physician.  It is historical fiction, and one of the aspects I liked best about the book is the setting, and learning about a time in the distant past - what people ate, what they wore, how they celebrated.  As in any work of historical fiction, the details are fictional.  But in any good historical novel, the details are based in research.

Historical novelists must often do extensive research before they write.  Several years ago, when I first began my own historical novel, I had just finished reading A Respectable Trade, by Philippa Gregory.  It did for me what great books do - it made me laugh, cry and care.  I was so moved that I wrote to Ms. Gregory, and told her how the book impacted me, and also asked her questions about how she did her research and what the writing process is like for a writer of historical fiction.  This wonderful writer, who has sold millions of copies of her books, actually wrote back to me!  She offered very helpful advice.  She spends anywhere from 6 months to a year or two conducting research.  Then she writes. 

I do my first draft in long hand.

In preparation for writing my own historical novel, I read dozens of books and researched the settings and the time periods, and the key figures, before I wrote a word.  Then I began to write, but I continued to do research as I wrote.  I also visited plantations in South Carolina and sites in England where Joanna Vassa lived, and her burial site.  This research was invaluable.  But here's the problem.  I learned so many fascinating facts, I wanted to include them all.  But then it would not be a novel, but a compilation of research.  So what should historical novelists include?  I believe we should include only those facts and details that are necessary to the storyline.  That's not always easy to decipher, so I think during the editing phase, if there are extraneous details that don't add to the story, or are actually necessary to the story, they should be expunged!  That's the painful work of writing, killing off some of our sentences, and even paragraphs and pages, that don't contribute to the story.  Ouch!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Physician

I've been absent from this blog for awhile, traveling, but I'm back now and I want to tell you about this book I read recently.  It made for great reading on the long train ride to Montreal - 11 hours each way.  Reading it on my Kindle, I had no page numbers and no idea how long it was, or when it was published, but I found out afterward it is 720 pages long and was published 26 years ago!   I guess I like to quantify things, and sometimes the Kindle makes that difficult.

This is a good book.  What makes it good?  The characters are real and I care about them.  They are multi-dimensional, with some identifying characteristics, but not too predictable.  But what I like most about the book is the setting.  As I teach my Literature students, there are many components to fiction but five of the prominent elements are plot, characters, setting, tone and theme.  To me, in this book the setting is almost the most important character.  It takes place in 1025 or so, when barbers were also surgeons.  The main character is orphaned at the age of 9, and is apprenticed to a barber-surgeon.  After his mentor dies, he decides to travel from England to Persia (current Iran) passing himself as a Jew, to enter the esteemed school for physicians there, run by Muslim physicians.  Religion plays an important role in the book, and the author incorporates many details about Judaism and Islam, and some details about Catholicism.

The author admits that while there is indeed some historical basis for story and setting in the book, much of the "historical" aspects are purely fictional, but he manages to evoke such a sense of time and place that it indeed feels real.  It is a bit raw in places, but overall a very enjoyable read.

As I read it, I was thinking about the role of history in historical fiction, and the dilemma authors face deciding what to include.  More on this in my next blog.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Elementary truths

Last week I taught 90 5-12 year-olds at our church's vacation bible school -- July Jamboree -- instead of my normal population of young adults and adults.  It was a change of pace to teach younger children.  They would come into my bible lesson room in groups of 20-25, with their crew leaders, and sit on the floor, waiting for something interesting to happen or something fun to do.  Their favorite day was when my son played Lazarus, and hid in the "tomb" (big freezer box) until Jesus (me as narrator) called out "Lazarus come forth."  Then my son burst out of the box, with his grave clothes clinging to his newly resurrected body. They loved that!

Every day there was a central truth, a simple yet profound truth that was the whole point of the lesson.  But a funny thing happened as I was teaching the kids.  I re-learned this primary lessons myself.  And for that I thank God.

Day 1:  God is with you
Day 2:  God cares for you
Day 3:  God will meet your needs
Day 4:  God will save you
Day 5:  God hears you when you pray

I had the kids come up with hand motions to the memory verses, and I liked what one group came up with for "cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you" 1 Peter 5:7.  They pretended to cast out with a fishing rod.  That's a great image, but my problem is I cast my anxiety on the Lord, then I reel it back in!

I am reminding myself of these central truths, and learning, again, to trust God.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rejected in good company . . .

So I sent out four queries so far, and have received three rejections.  One agent has not yet replied.  I'm surprised by the speed of the replies so far, only a day or two each.  At least they're not keeping me in suspense.

I take solace in knowing that other best-selling manuscripts were rejected numerous times before someone saw some value in them, and decided to represent the author, or the publisher took a risk and published the manuscript.

The Help was a very good book, and a good movie as well.  If you haven't read the book, I encourage you to do so.  I wrote about the book in an earlier blog entry.  The author, Kathryn Stockett endured 60 rejections from agents before she found someone willing to represent her.

In her own words, here is how Kathryn Stockett dealt with the rejections:

"But I couldn’t let go of The Help. Call it tenacity, call it resolve or call it what my husband calls it: stubbornness.  After rejection number 40, I started lying to my friends about what I did on the weekends. They were amazed by how many times a person could repaint her apartment. The truth was, I was embarrassed for my friends and family to know I was still working on the same story, the one nobody apparently wanted to read."

Well, a lot of us did want to do read it, and enjoyed it very much.  And I, for one, am thankful she didn't give up.

John Grisham is another author I enjoy reading, but if he hadn't persevered through 45 rejections of his initial book, A Time to Kill, none of us would have had the pleasure of reading his books. So I feel I'm in good company.

So I'll slog on, despite rejection notices that say things like "This is not for me, but thanks for the look."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Show, Don't Tell

Every novelist is told "show, don't tell."  In the book I mentioned in a previous post,  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "Show and Tell" is chapter one.  It's that important.  So in the spirit of Show and Tell, I'm offering up two versions of one of the opening paragraphs of my book.  Vote for version A or version B.

A:  "This is how it happened.  We were at home -- mama was down by the water hole and papa was hunting.  Our brothers were in the fields, and we alone were keeping watch over the house.  We had just finished playing a game, with stones arrayed in dug-out holes on the ground, and I had won.  So I was happy, and teasing Ledu.  As I laughed at my brother for being so absentminded as to lose to me, a man and woman we didn't know appeared.  The woman approached us, and I was tempted to run back into the house, but another man was behind us.  Before we could speak or cry out, or even recognize the intruders, the man grabbed us from behind and the woman stopped up our mouths and tied our hands."

B:  "Ledu, let's play Ayo" I said.  We were alone in the compound, as mama was down by the water hole and papa was hunting. 
   "Olu, you know I'll beat you.  You must enjoy losing!" Ledu said.
    "No way.  I don't think of it as losing, but as learning how to win."
    Ledu found the small stones we used for the game, and distributed them evenly in the dug-out holes on the ground.  A nearby goat bleated loudly.
    "Don't you need to milk the goat Olu?" Ledu asked.
    "Not yet.  You're trying to distract me.  Let's play."  I squinted my eyes, concentrating on the game, and said "I'm first."
    "Fine sis.  Go first.  Won't make a difference."
     I went first and dropped my handful of stones in strategic holes.  Ledu went next, and I couldn't tell what his strategy was.  Three moves later, I was winning.
    "Well, it looks like I'm winning THIS time," I said.
    "A na-ekwu ekwu, a na-eme eme" Ledu said (talk the talk, walk the walk).
     "I'm talking," I said, moving the last of his stones over to my side, "and your stones are walking!"
     "You got lucky" Ledu said.  I smiled up at him, and then frowned.  Ledu looked at me, and then turned around to see what I was looking at.  We both stared up at two Africans, a man and a woman, we didn't know, had never seen before.  Before we could say anything, or cry out, the man grabbed us and the woman stopped up our mouths with an ugly orange cloth.

Monday, July 9, 2012

State of Wonder

I'm in a state of wonder over the book I just finished:  State of Wonder.  My doctor recommended this book to me about a year ago, and I never found it when I was in the library, so I recently broke down and bought it for my Kindle.  Wow!  Ann Patchett has an uncanny ability to evoke place, which is so important to a writer. 

Good, no, great, writers can evoke a sense of place without ever having been there.  Science fiction writers create whole worlds out of their imaginations, and writers of historical fiction recreate places and times in the near or ancient past.  I found it easier to write my novel after I had visited the places I am writing about.  After my son and I took a train trip to South Carolina and visited several plantations, I could then, and only then, write realistically about the setting.  The setting for the house is one plantation, Middleton, in Charleston, South Carolina.  The house is perfect!  The ground floor is where all the meals were prepared, and the dirt floor, low ceiling, and small storage rooms are recreated ( I hope) in my book.  One can see the river from the back door of the house, so Olu's escape route could be viewed, and dreamed about, every day of her slave life.  After we visited England I could better envision where Joanna lived, and even visited the site of her church and home.

I don't know if Ann Patchett visited the Amazon, but it sure seems like she did from this book.  In the beginning, the reader will spend some time in Minnesota, at a pharaceutical lab, but soon be transported, literally, figuratively, to the Amazon.  Both the city and the jungle come alive in Ann Patchett's able literary hands.  Here is one short passage to whet your appetite.  The main character, Marina, is in a hammock in a raised room, in the middle of the jungle.
                                   "The quiet that was left without her was layered, subtle:  at first Marina heard
                                     it only as silence, the absence of human voices, but once her ear had settled
 into it the other sounds began to rise, the deply forested chirping, the caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower primate, the incessant sawing of insect life.  It was not unlike the overture of the opera in which the well-trained listener could draw forth the piccolos, the soft French horn, a single meaningful viola."

Not only does she evoke the setting like an expert photographer, but then she offers up the perfect analogy.  Her characters are wildly different from one another, reachable, and yet unpredictable.

It was difficult for me to put this book down, until I neared the end when I kept putting it down because I didn't want to finish it.  There are some twists in the book which make the plot interesting and fun, but mostly it's her writing that makes the book a true pleasure to read.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing . . . re-writing

I have heard it said "all writing is re-writing."  Rewriting is an essential part of writing.  I stress this with my students, and now, with myself.  I'm working on the third/fourth draft of my novel, and the rewriting is a bit painful.  My sister, a fellow writer, gave me a great book:  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.  I have found it immensely helpful and am now busy incorporating the ideas into my rewrite.

Three ideas I have found most helpful refer to dialogue, how the book sounds, and use of adverbs.  To summarize, the authors suggest avoiding anything other than "he said" or "she said."  So cross out those "he exclaimed" or "she mumbled" or "he whispered" or even "she answered."  Why?  The reader should know by the diologue itself, and the action surrounding it (called the beat) how the words are being said.  Apparently, using these kinds of "tricks" surrounding dialogue is lazy; it's cheating.  Well!  So I'm fixing a lot of those.

Back in graduate school, in a fiction workshop, my professor hated adverbs.  Hated them . . . with a passion.  I like adverbs, but they should be limited in writing.  Why?  Again, because the prose and dialogue itself should convey what an adverb would convey.  So again, I'm going through my novel, spying out all the pesky adverbs, and eliminating most of them, but not all.

And finally, see how the book sounds.  So I sat in my backyard today, reading the book aloud.   It helped me to modify some of the dialogue.  Am I allowed to admit that I enjoyed hearing it read aloud?  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

You know you're a writer when . . .

You know you're a writer when . . . you receive a rejection letter (or email).  After working hard on my query letter, which introduces a writer and his/her project to the agent or publisher, and fine-tuning the first few pages of my manuscript, I emailed my first query letter for my historical novel on Monday.  Tuesday I received a form email rejection letter.  Ouch!  That was quick.  My husband tells me it's good thing, because now I have narrowed down my options.  My youngest son tells me when I do publish and become famous this agent will regret rejecting me.  Here is the first line from the email: 

"Thank you very much for your query, which we have read with interest. Unfortunately, the project does not seem right for this agency, and we are sorry that we cannot offer to serve as your literary agent."

It reminds me of my first published piece.  When my two oldest sons were very young they both suffered with pretty severe asthma.  My middle son was hospitalized four times in six months.  I was working very little, and thought I'd like to try  my hand at writing.  So I followed the advice of "write what you know" and wrote an article on "Coping With Your Chronically Ill Child."  I interviewed Leo Buscaglia, a well-known psychologist, and several parents of chronically ill children, and also used personal examples.

After working for months on the article, I began to send query letters to various magazines - Parenting, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal, etc.  Rejections began to arrive, one after the other.  Then one day, I remember it clearly, my husband called me at work; at the time I worked at the American Lung Association of Queens.  He told me a letter had come from American Baby Magazine.  I told him to open it and read it to me.  They accepted my article and wanted to pay me . . . wait for it. . . a whopping $250.  I was elated, ecstatic, euphoric.  This was my first published piece.  Actually, this was more exciting than when I got a contract for my first book, which I co-wrote with my former boss.  Knowing that someone found value in my work, and wanted to pay me for it, was the most fantastic feeling.

When (not if) this novel gets published, which I have labored over for six years, I think my feelings will eclipse the joy I felt when my first article was published.  But maybe not.

Monday, June 25, 2012

What makes a book good?

I love to read.  I read every day -- both the bible and a novel.  In the morning I read the bible, and in the evening I read a novel.  My tastes range from contemporary novels, to Victorian novels, romances, historical fiction . . .  Lately I've read some contemporary Indian fiction:  The Invitation, and Miss New India, among others.  I enjoy learning about modern-day India through novels.  However, I go back again and again to my favorites - Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte.

Recently, I read A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar.  The title intrigued me, and the book was pretty good, though long on narrative description and short on dialogue.  It violated the 'show, don't tell' rule fairly regularly.  I did take exception to the negative portrayal of missionaries.  There were two story lines, which I enjoy, as my own novel has two story lines.  When they intersected I was very surprised at how they met up. 

But the king of surprise endings and twists is Jeffrey Archer.  He is a master of leading readers in one direction, and then careening off in the opposite direction, with no advance notice.  He has written several short stories and many novels.  One of the best short story anthologies is A Twist in the Tale.  Every single story has a twist that will leave you with your eyes bulging and your mouth hanging open.  Trust me.  He has a new series out, and I've read the first two books:  Only Time Will Tell and The Sins of the Father.  The setting is early 20th century England.  I can't wait for the third book.

As with many books, it is the plot that makes Jeffrey Archer books so engaging and readable.  He does not attempt poetic or lyrical writing, which is another aspect that can make a book 'good.'  I've also read some John Grisham lately.  His books are very plot-driven.  Those few authors who manage to construct a great plot, believable characters, some of whom you love and some of whom you hate, but even the ones you hate you find some redeemable qualities in, and who also write beautifully . . . those are few and far between. 

Send me a comment - who are your favorite writers, and why??

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Kindle or book?

My husband bought me a Kindle for Mother's Day, and although I have stated in a previous blog that I prefer real books, I have to admit a Kindle is pretty cool.  It is light, and convenient, and I can have 5, or 50 books on it.  However, when I took a recent trip to Austin to attend a conference, I was so looking forward to reading a Jeffrey Archer book on my return flight . . . and the Kindle wasn't working.  What a bummer!  That never happens with books.  When I got home, I told my husband and together we couldn't figure out what was wrong or how to fix it.  Charging it all day didn't help.

The next day my 14 year-old son came bounding down the stairs and proclaimed "I fixed your Kindle Mom."  And indeed he had.  Apparently all you need to do is hold the power button for 20 seconds and jiggle it up and down -- I kid you not! 

So yes, I have a Kindle, and I'm using it.  However, I have discovered they are dangerous and seductive.  Once I finish a book, it is so easy to search for a new one, and one click later I have spent $7 or $8.  So I took myself to the library and checked out four books. 

Kindle or book?  I'll use both.

In my next blog I'll tell you a bit about the books I have just read.  What does make a good read anyway?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Community College success stories

Two days ago almost 1000 students graduated from Hudson County Community College.  The ceremony was the usual, with a speaker, a valedictorian, and the calling out of all the names, which took about 1 1/2 hours.  I knew the valedictorian this year.  He was in my World Lit class in the fall, and plays the judge in the trial of Creon (which you can view on my youtube account 'kosweeting').  He is a success story.  Growing up in Union City, of Spanish descent but not Spanish speaking, gay, and diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, he thought he was not college material.  Teachers persuaded him otherwise, and he was indeed quite successful at Hudson County - earning a perfect 4.0 and becoming valedictorian.  He gave a wonderful speech and is now on the way to New Jersey City University, on full scholarship.

Then there is the 59 year-old woman who got a degree in culinary arts, and immigrants who arrived not speaking a word of English less than 5 years ago, who are now graduating.  Community colleges are open access and equal opportunity, and many students would not have gone to college if not for community colleges.  I love these success stories.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Smart phones?

This is the last post in my diatribe about technology.  To buy or not to buy a smart phone - that is the question.  I don't have a smart phone, or at least I don't pay for the privilege of going online on my phone.  Why not, you may ask?  Honestly, mainly because I don't see the need for it.  I have a laptop at home, and I walk to work and have a computer there.  As I spend most of my time either at home or on campus, why would I need a smart phone?

I do see the benefit, but I compare myself to folks who don't drive.  As most people do drive, those who don't can find a ride when they need one 99% of the time.  If I really needed to access a smart phone when I'm out and about, I could borrow someone else's phone.

Here is one example.  On Mother's Day, our whole family was coming home from a nice Columbian dinner.  I was lamenting the fact that the Amazing Race is over, which is a fun show to watch on Sunday nights.  The wife in the winning couple did really well on the tasks, so I mentioned to my family "she was a good competer."  Oh, they got a good laugh out of that one.  "Mom, competer is not a word.  It's competitor" my 20-something year-old son said.  My youngest son stood by my side, and said he thought competer was indeed a word.  I asked my husband to ask Siri - the virtual assistant on the newest iPhone.  Siri came back with 'completer.' No help there.

When we got home, which was in less than a 1/2 hour, my youngest son looked it up on dictionary.com.  Sure enough, 'competer' is a word.  Thank God - as an English teacher it's not really fashionable to invent new words, though if Shakespeare can . . .

Of all the technology I am not currently using, a smart phone is probably the one I am more likely to buy -- but not right now.  I'd get it if only to play 'words with friends' with my oldest son, who would probably cream me every time!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Facebook - like?

Most of you are probably on Facebook.  I'm not.  This has been a deliberate choice, for many reasons.  I respect the decision to join Facebook, and who knows, I may join at some point, and I appreciate when others respect my decision to not join.  But I have felt an enormous amount of pressure to join.  And to be honest, the more pressure is exerted, the less inclined I am to join.  That may be my stubborn side, but I don't want to do something just because everyone else is doing it. 

Here are some of the reasons I'm not on Facebook:
1) My privacy is already invaded enough - I'm not comfortable having personal information splashed across the web.  Yes, I know, there are privacy settings.  And yes I know, most of my personal information is already accessible.  But I can control having a Facebook page.
2)  I have enough friends and family to keep up with as it is, so I don't feel the need to connect with folks I haven't seen or heard from in 30 years.  Another pro-Facebook argument is that it helps one connect with folks from high school, or college.  Frankly, I try to be a good friend to all my current friends, and that is enough for me!

3)  It's another thing to 'check' every day.  When I worked as an adjunct, at two colleges, I had 4 email accounts to check every day.  I didn't want something else to have to check consistently.

4)  I prefer to spend my time in person with folks, or even on the phone, rather than online.  I'm old fashioned.  There - I said it.  I'd much rather go out for lunch, or tea, or a walk, than communicate with folks online.

Of course, who knows, I may become a fan and you'll see me with a Facebook page and wonder what happened.  But for now, I'm happy with my choice.  I even have mixed feelings about blogging, but there is more control with blogging, and it's not as personal. 

Let me know why you like, or don't like, or have ambivalent feelings about Facebook.  I'd love to hear your responses.  Part three on my philosophy of technology will be on smart phones.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Philosophy of Technology

I've been thinking lately about my philosophy of technology.  What do I mean?  Well, I have deliberately chosen to avail myself of some of the latest in technology, and have assiduously avoided other fads.  I am very conscious of the choices I make regarding the use of technology, and I want to insure that I rule it, it doesn't rule me. My fear is that technology can creep into our lives little by little, and rob us of our intellectual initiative, our ability to problem solve, even our ability to think.  This is a fear I have for myself, which is why I avoid some kinds of technology, and it is a fear I have for my students. 

Here is one example.  One of my students recently showed me how with Microsoft Word one can enter in information and a parenthetical citation and Works Cited page will be automatically generated.  I teach my composition students how to do parenthetical citations, and how to compose a Works Cited page, and most of them are unfamiliar with this feature in Word.  Hence my dilemma - do I continue to teach them as I have been doing, making them think, use the book or the Purdue OWL online website, or do I teach them the feature in Word, that creates it for them?  Or do I use some combination of the two?  I'm undecided.  A student still must enter in the correct information in the correct places, and find the correct MLA version.

Example number two involves Google.  When a student doesn't know the answer to something, he or she 'googles' it.  I use Google myself, quite often in fact, but I'm afraid that my students are not aware of all the other places one can find information -- books, libraries, other people, reliable websites. 

One last example, for now, is the GPS.  My husband bought us a GPS for Christmas.  I pride myself on my ability to read a map and find my way to places I've never been, and my sense of direction is usually good.  But I have used the GPS, and I must say, I like it.  However, I don't depend on it.  I still have directions, through mapquest, or  a person, or a map, and I use it to make sure I'm going in the right direction, in the vicinity of my destination. 

This is part one of my philosophy.  For part two I will write about why I have chosen not to open a Facebook account or use a Smart Phone.  I'd love to hear about your philosophy of technology.  Or if you don't have one - why not develop your own!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Prescription for writers

As I age, I have more and more doctors -- one for my eyes, my ears, my teeth, my heart, my skin . . . and so on.  And I have discovered that doctors can be a great source of knowledge and encouragement, and not just about health issues.  My cardiologist is a published poet and an aspiring novelist.  He and I both recently finished our first novels, and he has advised me about helpful conferences, and venues to 'pitch' my novel to publishers and agents.  We compare notes about our novels, and are racing to the finish line - publication.

I recently went for my bi-annual visit to my dentist.  Though there are fewer opportunities to converse with a dentist, as he (or she) usually has his (or her) hand (or hands) in one's mouth, but before and after the actual work there is time for brief conversation.  He asked me what my plans were for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish, finally and completely finish, my book and find an agent.  Lo and behold, he has a friend who is a literary agent and has her own firm.  I was happily surprised.  He asked for my information and told me he'd contact her to see if she might be interested in receiving a query letter from me (a letter aspiring novelists write to entice agents or publishers to want to read the entire manuscript). 

I wrote my email address down for him, and the name Olaudah Equiano - as my historical novel is about the daughter and sister of Equiano.  I figured if the agent knew his name, she would be more likely to want to receive a query.  Later that same day my dentist emailed me - she knew the name Equiano and would be happy to receive a query. Yippee!  I'm fine-tuning my query and the first five pages, and will soon be sending them through cyberspace to a fine literary agency in Florida, in hopes that this agent may want to represent me, and find me a publisher.  I'll keep you updated here on my blog.

So, opportunities for networking can be found in the most unlikely places.  And I have found one ideal place is the doctor's office!  My prescription for aspiring writers, don't neglect an opportunity to talk about your book as you never know who might be able to help you on the journey to publication.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Interview with a student - end of semester ponderings

Video link to interview with World Lit student

Please click on the link to view a video of an interview I conducted with a former World Lit student.  This is an unabashed promotion of my class, which is truly a lot of fun, both for the students, and for me.

I've been inactive for awhile, actually teaching, instead of writing about teaching!  The semester is winding down.  Good students are staying current with all their work, showing up to class on time, generally being a joy to teach.  Other students are giving me excuses for late or non-existent work, showing up late or not at all, and generally making my life more stressful.  This could likely be said of any professor, any semester.  We take the good, the bad and the ugly, and try to make the most of it, teaching our hearts out, hoping some of it will 'stick.'

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Students' lives

This week I have been reminded of the difficult, crisis-laden lives many of my students live every day.  In one of my speech classes yesterday, a student spoke on PCP addiction.  Her ethos argument was herself.  She abused PCP for six years, and is still struggling to stay clean.  At one point she just stood in front of the class, not talking.  She explained that she is a living demonstration of what PCP does to a person - it erases your mind and causes you to blank out.  It was a powerful demonstration, though not a perfect speech.

Then today a student explained his absence of last week.  One of his best friends, who was serving in Afghanistan, was killed and he attended the funeral.  Both of his brothers are serving in the military now.

Another student has some serious health issues, the main one being high blood pressure.  She is a good student, and a good writer, but without health insurance it has been difficult to maintain her health.  So she already has two absences.

I could go on and on.  Students tend to be very revealing in their essays and tell me very intimate details of their lives -- lives too often steeped in poverty.   Teaching at an open-access community college allows me to interact with students from very diverse backgrounds and ability levels, but many of them, most even, are at a community college because it's affordable.   I cherish the diversity of my students, and pray that their education will be the way out of poverty.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Downton Abbey fan

I freely admit it.  I'm a Downton Abbey fan, or maybe even a fanatic.  I simply love this PBS series.  Last night the final episode of the second season aired, and this is a spoiler alert if you have not yet watched the series. I am SO glad that Mary broke it off with Sir Richard and said "yes" to Matthew's proposal.

Why do I like the series so much?  Well, for starters, I'm an Anglophile.  My favorite novels are written by British authors about England or Ireland. This series is set in the English countryside before, during and after
World War 1.

There are so many layers to this series, and so many things I enjoy about it, but I'll just pick a few.  It's funny.  I wait for Maggie Smith, aka the Dowager Dutchess, to open her mouth, because invariably she says a funny, witty one-liner, that has both me and my husband laughing out loud.  For instance, when Sir Richard was preparing to leave and said the family wouldn't be seeing him again, Maggie Smith said with her coy, smiling, smirking wit, "Promise?"  The dialogue is also real, and engaging, and fun.

Some characters I am rooting for, like Mary, and Sybil, and Matthew; some characters I can't stand, like Sir Richard, and Thomas; some I'm ambivalent about, like Edith, and O'Brien, simply because they are a bit more complex and have both good and bad qualities (like all of us); and some I just find annoying, like Daisy.  Isn't that just like real life? 

Well, it is like real life, only it's set in a magnificent estate with dozens of rooms, and the women and men abovestairs always dress elegantly.  I enjoy seeing what Mary or Cora are wearing.

And finally, well not really, but this is enough gushing for one blog, in Downton Abbey tea is a panacea.  And I feel that way about tea myself.  While Matthew is lying in a hospital bed, just having been told he will not walk again nor father a child, Mary offers him some tea!  A cure all indeed.  When my husband is tired, or my son is sick, or I am happy, or sad, or well, or sick, a cup of tea is surely the answer!

So if you haven't had the pleasure of seeing Downton Abbey yet, I highly recommend it.  It will transport you from the 21st century, back to the early 20th century, in style.