Tuesday, November 25, 2008

To split, or not to split? That is the question!

The tree did split.  Fun one, huh?  It's from the parking lot of the school where Elizabeth does orchestra.  I got bored sitting there and had to get creative.  Should I split though?  That is the real question.  I've been trying to decide if I'm going to split the book that I've been working on.  I keep waffling.  

Here's the thing:  YA books' target length is 60K-80K words, and mine weighs in at a whopping 115K.   I've shaved and cut and that's where it stands.  In the euphoria of finishing my manuscript, I sent out some so-so queries stupidly to the wrong people (who accept YA but not what I write--now that I've seen what they particularly want online--oops!  sorry about that!  I was so naive.) and some of the right people (who weren't interested at this time, thank you very much) that I got from a book.  I looked online too, but obviously not enough. 

There is so much stuff out there once you start looking and know what you're looking for.  Now that I kind of have a clue about what I'm doing, (Thanks to Nathan Bransford and other agents' websites like his--Thanks Nathan!  I worship at your feet--well sort of, and not in any stalker-like manner) I want to start all over again.  I didn't completely strike out.  I had some interest and even a request for a full, but no takers so far.  I still have yet to hear back from 2 agents. When I hear back from them I'm starting over with a little savvy this time.  If I need to make the split this is the perfect time to do it.

Some of the things I've read lately talk about how much harder it is for anyone to take on a new author (in this economy) especially if the book is long.  It's such a big risk for the publishers, etc., etc., and I totally get that.  The agent who requested the full said that she didn't think it was commercial enough in the current market.   Is a part of it, that it is too long?  It could be.  So I think I really should split my book.  There's a natural break about half way through that with a little tweaking could be the end of the first book.  It would be right about 80K words.  Still in the ballpark. Then there's a built in sequel.

I finally make up my mind that splitting it is the best thing to do, and then I think I've lost the aforementioned mind.  There is so much great stuff going on in the second half of the book.  What if the book tanks because the best part is in the second half and no one gets to read it.  The sequel never happens because the 1st book stinks.  Waaah! 

Then I think I should just lose the first half of the book and incorporate what's necessary in the 2nd half and voila a shorter book, but the building up of the tension and characters is what makes the 2nd half of the story make sense.

Some agents say that it's the writing that counts.  Yeah, but what about all those agents who won't read something over 80K for YA?  I'm in such a quandary.  Any ideas? advice? 

Friday, November 21, 2008

How about a book review?

One of the many publishing blogs I read these days said that it is a good idea for writers to include book reviews on their blogs and so here I go.  I'd like to try posting one day of reviews a week.  That may change depending on interest, but for now that is my plan.

Just a little warning I have eclectic tastes.  I read just about anything except horror and erotica.  I especially love YA (young adult/teen) and MG (middle grade) literature, and so I read a lot of it.  I find myself continually drawn to it, and that is what I tend to write as well.  I am so amazed that it took me so many years to find the phenomenal writing that is all through so much of the "children's lit" out there.  I was such a grown-up and book snob.

I came to discover the wealth of children's lit when my oldest daughter started reading.  I was 34 with my feet firmly planted in classical and literary writing, but I wanted to read the books before she did to make sure they were appropriate for her age.  I found a rich treasure trove of stories and authors.  As she got into reading the MG lit, I found some of the books stuck with me and moved me more than the books for adults that I had read. As a result you will find a lot of YA and MG books in my reviews.  

For my first review I will present two books.  A favorite--Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and the book I finished today--Izzy Willy-Nilly by Cynthia Voigt.  

OUT OF THE DUST  was one of the first YA/MG books I ever read and it blew me away.  It let me know with a vengeance that golden nuggets lurked in the children's section.  I would sit waiting in the pick-up line to get my kids from school and be transported to the dust bowl in Oklahoma in 1934-5--in one or two page snippets.  Written completely in verse, the terseness of the language captures the atmosphere of the novel and would leave me laughing or crying or both.  

There are so many vivid images that I had never thought of.  One that has never left me is that of the dishes set on the table upside down so they would not fill with dust before dinner was served.  Billie Jo, the main character, goes through many harrowing times through the course of the novel and discovers what she's made of.  I would and have read this over and over again.  This is the year I'm going to have my daughter read it.  I wanted her old enough to appreciate the poetry.

I highly recommend this Newberry Medal winner.  5 stars--easy!

IZZY WILLY-NILLY caught my attention because I've been wanting to read something by Cynthia Voigt that wasn't a series and my mother's name is Izzy.  So I thought it would be fun.  

Synopsis:  Izzy is a beautiful cheerleader who's pretty happy with her life.  She's a good person and has lots of friends.  When she loses a leg in a car crash on the way home from a party where her date had been drinking heavily, she has to deal with family and friends who aren't sure how to treat her anymore and her anger at the boy who never even apologizes.  An unexpected friend surfaces to help her make peace with her new self-image (well mostly) and others join in.

It was a compelling read.  I enjoyed the story quite a bit, but some references are dated--understandable since it was written in 1986.  The events and problems that Izzy face are still relevant today though.  Peer pressure, body image ideals, loss of friends, finding a place to fit in.  I probably wouldn't read it again, but I will recommend it for my daughter to read.

I give it 3 and 1/2 of 5 stars. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writing for money?

One of the blogs I follow regularly raised the issue of writing for money or literary acclaim.  It has started me thinking about why I write.  

What makes me sit for hours plunking away at a computer or pouring over page after page of my manuscript to try to make it work?  I like the story.  I like stringing the words together and making it all come together.  The actual act of writing is fun for me.  Sometimes it even makes me giddy.  I wish I could do it all day without interruption.  

I long to be an author, and yet so far I have nothing published.  Can I still be an author if I have nothing published?  I've done plenty of writing.  Does that count?

Do I want literary acclaim, or would I be happy as a hack making an obscene amount of money?  I always used to think I would want literary acclaim, but the more I write, the more I just want to create a story that people will enjoy reading.  If I write a book that is entertaining, will that lead to a tidy sum of money or at least some money.  I sure hope so.   Does that mean I'm a sellout?  Or should I just say "Who cares?" and go with the flow?

What do y'all think? 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sugar Coma Heaven: the salvation of the apples and pears

Hear ye!  Hear ye!  Apples and pears going over the edge can be saved!  They do not have to go down the dispos-all, into the kitchen trash, or on the compost pile.  They can be taken to Sugar Coma Heaven and take everyone along with them.  Hallelujah!  

My beloved band of readers will remember our jaunt into the highlands of southern Virginia to pick apples.  After gorging on apples, and pears and cider, oh my, until we were almost sick (That's an awful lot of excess fiber, folks!), we slowed our consumption.  Whew!  All the while the apples and pears were getting older and lost that crispy freshness that made them, in a word, irresistible.  

I was on the verge of committing mass fruit carnage when its salvation came in the form of my mother.  All hail the Mama Supreme!

She lifted a card that my sweet Maggie made  that was covering the few apples that were left on a tiered display on my kitchen counter and said, "Oh, are these apples from you trip to VA?"  

I was so embarrassed at still having the aging harvest sitting around for her perusal but said, "Yeah (I've gotten downright disrespectful with that "yeah" in my old age--or is it just laziness?  Then again that may be disrespect in disguise?  That should have been "Yes, ma'am" for all you non-southerners out there.) but I think they're too far gone now."

"No, they're perfect for making apple butter."


As we looked them over though there were a couple that really were too far gone and had to be chucked, and Mama lamented that there wouldn't be enough to make it work.  Then I remembered the pears I had put in the fridge, when they looked like they might go around the bend any minute.  I hopefully opened the bag of pears and found a couple very past peak, but the rest were pretty good.  

Then there was much peeling and coring and cutting of fruit.  Mama seasoned and I sugared--a very generous helping, indeed--all in a lovely stainless steel pot.  With one cup of water added the heat was applied and applied and applied.  

It bubbled and simmered and filled the house with the most incredible cinnamony, nutmeggy, clovey delightfulness.  It was completely intoxicating!  Who knew this could happen at my house?  In my kitchen?  This sort of miracle happens in my mother's kitchen all the time.  But in mine?  Yes, oh yes!  It did!  And can again.  It really was quite easy.  It just had to simmer 'til all the water boiled away.

The result:  Apple-Pear Butter Extraordinaire--Sugar Coma Heaven!  

So far I've had it on a spoon, mmmmmm!  and on toast, mmmmm!  It's calling for hot biscuits though.  I suppose I'll have to make some soon.  I can almost taste it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Veterans fudging the truth

Yesterday got me thinking about some of the members of my family who served in our armed forces.  In my dad's family there were 6 boys and 2 girls.  The 4 oldest boys served as soldiers and the older sister served as a nurse in WWII.  My dad was too young to go as was his younger brother and sister.  I didn't ever really know much about their service--just that one brother died in the war and that one died not long after the war.  I only heard about my aunt's service a few years ago after she died.

No one ever would talk about those who were gone.  There was no talk about any military service either.  Now, my daddy's family was a tight lipped crew, so when my Uncle Steve started talking about how he was injured during The War and showed us the scar in his side where he'd been shot, us kids sat there enthralled with the story.  He told a long and involved story about coming in on the boats to the beaches of Normandy and being shot and left on the beach.  I was amazed at the time--as a kid, but when I saw "Saving Private Ryan," the horror of what he went through had me in a daze for quite a while.  It personalized the whole event for me.

Well, in recent years Daddy has decided that it is time to share at least some of the details of what happened with his brothers and sister during the war and other details of his life, since he is the last surviving child from his family.  He'd rather tell the stories than have them be lost.  Last year my parents and I were talking about the events of WWII and how my uncles died and I started talking about how I vividly remembered Uncle Steve telling us about how he was injured on the beaches at Normandy.  Mama and Daddy just looked at me like I was nuts and started laughing.  Daddy said that Steve wasn't even there when the boats were coming in on the beach.  He said that he parachuted in a couple of days after the beach was already secured.  He had indeed been shot later, but not then.  He'd also been injured so severely another time that he had to have a metal plate put in his head and spent about 6 months in England recovering before returning to the war. 

I was completely floored.  All my life I had believed in a big fat lie about how my uncle was injured.  I think though that it was a bit of self preservation on his part.  I'm sure we had been begging him to tell us a story about when he had been in the war and he just made something up to shut us up.  He didn't want to tell us the stories that were so close to his heart.  The truth was too hard to relive.  To me that makes his ordeal even more harrowing than if he'd been able to tell us the truth. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day

Here's to all those men and women who served us all so bravely in the past and those who serve us now to preserve our liberties!   I personally would like to honor those in my family who have served and are serving, especially those who gave their lives.  

There would be quite a long list if I were to put everyone down so I won't I'll just say a huge:


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Homeschooling Continued.

Wow!  That post yesterday go very long and a bit rambly.  I can get really worked up when I talk about homeschooling my kids and why it has turned out this way.

I'm actually a reluctant homeschooler.  I have some friends who are very gung ho for it and wouldn't have their children go to school for anything.  I'm not one of those people.  I think homeschooling is great for a lot of people, and I respect those who devote all of their time to it.  I really wanted my children to go to school and thrive there.  I wanted to have my days to myself to write, etc.  Selfish me!  I finally got the youngest in all day school and then homeschool took over.

As you can guess the private school where the kids ended up going didn't provide the magic bullet that I was hoping for.  The youngest in Kindergarten was blissfully happy.  I was thrilled with her class and teachers, but she was not the one I was worried about with school.  

For the other 2 in school, homework became an even bigger issue than before.  One of the things I had never considered was that at a private school there is a lot of prestige in giving homework.  For the 4th grade it wasn't too bad, but for 6th grade, Yikes! and we kept getting reports that the "serious" homework didn't really start until 7th grade.  In the core classes homework counted from 30 to 50% of their overall grade.  I thought this was excessive.  

I taught high school and so I understand giving homework to a certain degree, but I never counted homework as more than 10% of an overall grade.  Plus I always allowed time in class for students to work on their homework so if they needed help I was right there for them.

For Elizabeth the homework always brought her grade down.  Always.  She would make A's on the tests, i.e. she knew the material, but she would definitely not make A's on the report card. In a parent teacher conference one of her teachers said that it was such a shame that she wouldn't turn in the homework he knew that she knew the material and would do so well on the tests.  His bottom line was that the homework completion was more important than the knowledge.  I felt she didn't need the homework to learn the material.  She learned it in class or through reading.  

Here's an example of my biggest frustration that year.  In her French class she had an A on every test (her French was actually pretty good--since I have a master's in French I felt pretty confidant in knowing that her language skills were fine).  She had even done most of her daily homework (which was pretty good for her), but she had not turned in an art project about light and shadow.  It was sort of related to French since they had talked about art and gone to seen a Monet exhibit. I didn't know about it until two weeks after it was due, and at that point the highest possible grade she could get was a 50--due to mark downs for being late.  That one homework assignment was 50% of her grade for the nine weeks.  I was floored.  How could one assignment that really had very little to do with the subject matter count for so much of her grade?  I'm not sure exactly why this project got overlooked.  Maybe Elizabeth can tell us in a comment.  

In the end she did the assignment and got a 50%.  Woohoo!  So the highest she could possibly make that nine weeks was a 75% with an A on every test.  I just couldn't take the madness anymore with things like that happening.

She finished out the year at that school.  The next year we started homeschool.  (That was last year.)  The younger two went to the public school that we are zoned for.  It was mostly positive for them with a few exceptions, but it was doable for us.  

Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm drinking the last of my cider!  Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!  It's hot and spicy and yummy and tangy and I want moooooorrrrrrree!  It's a bit more chilly today--62--when I was outside a little while ago.  Whew!  It being 76 yesterday, it didn't seem right to be drinking hot cider, but I couldn't resist the temptation any longer and, well, 62 has to be cold enough.

Enough of my weaknesses!  I'm supposed to blog about homeschool this week, and since it's Friday, I guess today's the day.  Oh, but I guess that brings up another of my weaknesses though: Procrastination.  My daughter claims that it is not a weakness.  It is a strength, she says, because she is always in denial.  What a silly child!  She's amazing, but silly!  I would know because I spend a lot of time with her, since she is doing school at home with me.  How's that for a segue?  Now we are officially talking about homeschool.

Mine has doubled to 2 whole students--up from only 1 last year.  Sandy, beware, you have to keep Johnny away from this post.  He can't know that David is being homeschooled!  (That would be my nephew who has been begging for homeschool for a long time.)

I have been so frustrated with the school system for so long.  I keep holding out hope that it will work for us, but in the end, I'm finding teaching these two children at home makes them and me much happier and helps them like their work better.  I'll grant you that teaching Elizabeth math at home has not made her love it.  She still hates it, actually, but she is back to loving the things that she was starting to hate because of school:  history, literature, writing, and science.   She enjoys them again. When I asked her what the best parts of having homeschool were she said:  more time to read and sleep (the middle school here has the tardy bell at 7:25AM) and write. 

Let me quote for a moment my brilliant daughter.  "Homeschool is not right for everyone.  Side effects include:  extra sleeping, musical addictions, and an increased amount of time and flexibility in your schedule, but there is a lack of social involvement and your mom gets to nag at you all day long!"  (Thanks Elizabeth!  Very well stated!)

Here's the thing though with the nagging.  I did so much more nagging when the kids were in school than now that they are home with me.  It was all about homework.  (See my blog about homework for my take on that if you haven't already.) The nice thing for me is that they know the things they have to do, and they are free to do them on their own schedule.  Plus, they are doing them when they are fresh and not tired from a long day of school.
When I asked Elizabeth what she had to do today.  She volunteered Math first up.  (Which she hates worse than torture remember.)  I didn't even have to nag.  If it had been homework from school, I not only would have had to nag, but threaten, stand over her, and continually refocus her to do it.  

With homeschool she is the master of her own destiny, and that works for her.  I think one of the things she hated most at school was the lack of control over what she did.  She always wanted to know the purpose for an assignment.  Was it to help her learn the words?  She would argue that the assignment was a waste of her time because she already knew the words.   She would much rather spend her time reading a book that she hadn't already read 5 times or learning words she already knew.  I had to agree.  There was the problem with so much of it.  I agreed with her arguments.  Her points were compelling.  It was so hard to make her do the assignments when I saw how inane they were.  "Because the teacher said to do it" was not an adequate reason.

The places where I felt the school system failed her was in the areas where she is strongest--where she could really excel.  In fifth grade they had mandated vocabulary lists that were required on a state level (maybe national level--I'm not sure exactly where the edicts were coming from). By Christmas I had grown so frustrated with her unwillingness to do the vocab homework that I went and talked to her teacher about someway to deal with this issue.  Her lack of homework was bringing her grade down even though she knew all the words.  As we were talking, he said that there was a whole group of kids in the same situation as Elizabeth--they already knew most of the words in the lists too.  He felt it was important for her to learn the responsibility of doing the work.  I told him that I wasn't trying to get her out of work.  What I was looking for was a list of words that would actually increase her vocabulary--words she didn't already know.  It was like a revelation to him and he thought it was a great idea.  He decided that students who got an A on the Monday pretest could have a different, more advanced vocabulary list for the week.  

Elizabeth was so excited when she came home with a list of words she actually had to study.  Her eyes sparkled and she was enthusiastic about learning them.  She sat right down and started working on them.  No argument. (Shock! Shock!)  I was so happy that she was doing her work without having to be prodded to death.  Other parents liked the new vocab lists and the other students felt good about it too.  There was real learning going on for all the students.  Those who didn't already know the original list learned it and those who already did know the words got a more challenging list.

Guess how long the advanced vocab lists lasted.  Three weeks!  That's it!  So much for creativity and innovation.  So much for students being challenged to really learn!  The teacher was given grief from the district and, as I understand it, was reprimanded for not following the standard protocol--the vocabulary lists were mandated, and he wasn't allowed to deviate from the program.  It was back to drones doing work they already knew how to do.  All the joy and enthusiasm for vocabulary got sucked out as well. 

So often our schools don't teach our children to think and know things.  They teach them how to obey and be compliant.  They are teaching the brightest students that drudgery is the key to success.  That is just not the lesson I want my children learning from school.

At that moment, I lost most of my faith in the school system.  I'm not trying to say that it's all about public school failing our kids.  In fact, that public school that the kids went to at that time is a really good one with awards and teachers of the years and all.  There were a lot of great things going on there.  Things that I loved.  I just felt that the teachers and administration had their hands tied by federal mandates, etc.  What's a mom to do?  

So the next year when we moved (with my husbands job) I decided to put all the kids in a private school thinking this would solve those problems.  Some solved--others created.  

      to be continued...


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Apples and cider and pears! Oh my!

I'd been so excited for our expedition to the hills of Virginia that I was worried something would surely go wrong and quash the outing.  Oh, me of little faith!  It was a glorious day, and everything ended up being no less than perfection!

The air was crisp but not cold.  The sky was bright.  The colors were vibrant.  

...and we were off!  Our first big sight was Pilot Mountain dressed for Autumn.
The drive was, in a word, beautiful.

...and at times breathtaking.

We were on a quest though.  Apples!  and  Cider!   So upon arrival in Clark, VA (just north of Floyd), we headed right to the trees that were loaded down and ready for us!
Completely organic, juicy, and delicious--just the right mix of tangy and sweet.
(About half of those apples came tumbling down on me, when my niece's husband shook that branch as I stood there underneath being amazed at how beautiful the red and green looked against the blue sky.  He was totally focused on the fruit and didn't even notice me there until I was shouting, "Hey!  Wait!" as I stumbled out from under the barrage of apples.)

We loaded the apples into the bucket of the tractor and rode the tractor wagon back over to where the apple press was set up ready to extract that mouthwatering nectar I had been craving.
We even pasteurized it for safety's sake and drank our fill!  It was lovely--all hot and tangy, sweet.  It even tasted spiced, but there was nothing in it but the juice of the apples.  I know, because I was there the whole time helping and watching.  Heaven!

I pulled out some apples and pears (that was a surprise that I didn't know about ahead of time), made sure I had some cider to take home, and gathered them up with my camera bag, Elizabeth's sketch book, and Maggie's poncho.  I didn't want to forget anything.  (Like I'd forget the cider.  Ha!  Not a chance.)  The sun was getting low and we were about to start the roasting over an open fire.  

Elizabeth hates hotdogs, but she decided to try one in honor of our perfect day.  She ended loving them cooked over the fire and ate 3!  Holy Cow!  That's a first!  Here she is with 2 of my nieces moving on to the marshmallows and loving that too. (I had no question about any of the kids loving that part.  Maggie wasn't too sure about the black ones that she roasted, but with a little help she finally got some perfectly roasted and yummed them down.)

Maggie was dying to drive the tractor and got very serious about it while it was sitting still.

David was more interested in riding around on the go-cart with his cousin.  I'm not even sure he got any marshmallows--hotdogs, chips, and apples, yes, but he was back to riding the go-cart when the marshmallows came out for roasting. 

The sun was bringing our day to a close and fire to the trees.
So we collected ourselves and said goodbye to the rustic surroundings...
...loaded into our van as the sun set and the moon came out.  The day bid us farewell as we did the same.
The ride home, with the sun burning up the sky and the kids drained to a peaceful quiet, was sweet.

So there you have it!  Our trip to Virginia was all that and a bag of marshmellows slow roasted to perfection over an open fire!  I'm just counting all my blessings!  Hurray!