Friday, December 31, 2010

I resolve too late...

Well, it's only half-way through January, and here I am writing my first blog post of the year. Even assuming that I took most of December off for holidays, this is a little late in coming. The really sad thing is that I intended my original post to be a resolution to be more consistent and attentive to this blog, and my writings in general. Guess it is safe to say I blew that one. I'm still planning to try.

I also haven't updated the website in quite some time. I suppose it is time that you are due an explanation for that, at least in part. Back before Thanksgiving, my laptop was stolen. Fortunately, I didn't lose too much, because I keep most of my work "in the cloud" and on a flash drive, which was not stolen. (Let's not talk about how that same flash drive recently did a backwards somersault is now in traction. I don't think he'll recover.) I did lose the marvelous mindmapping program called FreeMind, where I had quite a bit of the characterization and plot details for Hero Games.

In the wake of this disaster, we evaluated our situation: we had lost two laptops and a Wii gaming system, complete with a dozen games and various controllers, etc. These were significant losses, though we were, of course, thankful that this was all we had lost. It was only (mostly) property, afterall, and even most of our documents were safely in Google Docs, or otherwise kept online. However, this was a lot to replace all at once. My wife needs a computer. She's a computer engineer and not having a computer at hand is like holding her breath... under water... with man-eating, hungry sharks swimming around... watching one of her fins floating down, into the murky depths of the ocean, never to be seen again... while the glistening, bobbing surface above her darkens with the arrival of ten-mile wide spaceships, full of aliens bent on galactic domination who have spoken with an ancient cult of star-charters that have chosen her as the key element in the coming war between... -you get the picture: my wife needs to have a computer. We could really only afford to replace one of the three major items. We put off the Wii, and I elected to wait to get a computer, allowing my wife to get a fairly nice model that will keep her happy until the next time we upgrade computers.

My district is wonderful enough to allow me to take my school laptop home and use it for casual personal purposes. So, I have a computer of my own, at home, too. Mostly. The district has also been sending out lots of little messages and subtle hints about "misuse and abuse of district equipment." The bloody-horsehead-in-the-bed screensaver was a bit much, guys. So, while I am content surfing the web and doing my writing in the cloud through my school laptop, downloading programs or storing lots of personal files (like website pages) made me a little nervous. So, I haven't been updating or working on the website, and I haven't touched Hero Games, though I did continue to write the short stories I was working on for NaNoWriMo.

However, I now have a nice flash drive from the school, so I can use that for school things, and my wonderful wife was given a flash drive as part of a conference she went to that she doesn't need, so is giving that to me, and I have decided to make that one be for writing. It will be a backup copy of the writings, and a way to work on the website through the school computer, without actually loading anything onto it. Happy medium discovered. :)

And yeah, I'm trying to trim the waistline, lose weight, and get in shape. All that standard January 1st stuff. The Wii Fit says I'm doing a good job! (Her parents got us a new Wii for Christmas, and part of my parents' gift to me was the Wii Fit Plus game to replace the one that was stolen.)

So, look forward to a new Nanite Chaser story on the site, as soon as I get everything set up and organized! Happy New Year everyone, a little late.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Setting Up for a Giant Leap

So, in preparation for my students to focus on setting, I went looking for great setting descriptions from great novels. I did find a few descriptions that really focused on the setting, but most had the characters and/or plot so worked into it, that I couldn't separate them for my students to look at setting alone. I was getting a little frustrated before finally finding clear setting-focused descriptions in Dracula, Wuthering Heights, and The Call of the Wild, among others.

However, in the midst of this search, I ran into a couple of articles that got me thinking in a certain direction. One I really enjoyed was Nathan Bransford's What Makes a Great Setting . He talks there of how the setting has been left out of the efforts to develop plot and characters. "The best settings," he says, "are not static, unchanging places... Great settings are dynamic." He has quite a bit more to say about setting, which is well worth reading.

However, the one I'd really like to talk more about is called Writing Descriptions: Setting the Scene by Kaye Dacus. She has very good advice about how to describe a setting, which I completely agree with (there are always exceptions). One thing she warns against is stopping the story to describe the setting. Instead, she encourages the writer to "have the characters interact with the setting." This is good advice. Unless you are trying to teach 7th graders, who have barely been taught the parts of speech and didn't want to be in this stupid, boring class to begin with, how to write good setting. They need to grasp what setting is and how completely it can be incorporated, through the 5 senses, and maybe even a 6th if you like; the way it can be described using figurative language and well-chosen descriptors and verbs; how a mere setting description can set the tone of an entire story before nary a character even graces the stage. They have to get what this is before they can begin lacing it into the action of the plot, or the experience of the characters.

I'm sure no one denies that this is the basic level of teaching setting and that Nathan and Kaye were both trying to get writers to move past this most basic level. Once they get what setting is, they shouldn't stop there. As Nathan and Kaye pointed out, they need to learn to make the setting an active part of the story, not just the boards their characters stand on. Writers must weave setting into the story the way plot is woven among the characters, taking all to become one, to make it something to experience as a whole.

What concerns me, is that in our public school system, the students are taught the basics, exactly what I am teaching them now, but never told that what they are learning is only the very most elementary aspects of life, so they graduate and proceed, thinking they have learned it all, many never realizing that they stand on the brink of a vast expanse of knowledge and are only staring at the edge of it between their toes. My wife excelled in writing tests in school, aceing it every time, until she followed the pattern they gave her to pass and she scored lower. The average public school student (or graduate) can probably list off the three branches of government if you ask them, but how many can explain the difference even between Republican and Democrat? Or name their local representatives? Gravity is expressed as a "constant" of 9.8 m/s2. You have to get into astrophysics before any professor will admit that it's wrong. Gravity isn't constant, it changes based on mass and distance from the center of the mass, and other things. The old concept that a bowling ball and a feather fall at the same rate in a vacuum is a myth. We just can't see the difference because of relative mass (thank you Einstein) and so 9.8 is deemed "good enough."

Why do we accept the least of standards when greater is within our reach? Granted, I have to get these students to identify setting and be able to write setting instead of ignoring it, and isolating it is the first step, but why do we stop at the first step? First steps are necessary, and they are for babies. The moon is a giant leap above us, but we can reach it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


We've got NaNoWriMo Winners!! (Yeah, I'm not one of them!)

First period (once adjusted for students that left during the month), won with 49,756 words. 8th period hit just over their goal, coming in at 62,514 words. 6th period took the collaborative cake with 69,168 words. The top writer in the creative writing classes was Gilbert with over 6,000 words of short story.

The afterschool program had a lower success rate, but I'm still very proud of not only the winners, but the ones who accepted the challenge and threw themselves at the wall. Two hit their word counts of 12,000 and won. (One had me scared, but slid into home plate literally in the eleventh hour.) I am especially proud of the student we call Poizon Ivy. Her goal was 15,000. She just barely succeeded last year, struggling for those last few words, but never got the complete manuscript typed up to be published. This year, she not only hit her goal of 15k, she DOUBLED it! Her final count? 31,426 words. (She complained that she ran out of time and had to cut the ending short.) This year, I intend to see this girl's name in print!

I hit the collaborative goals for my classroom stories, but fell short of the final for my after school piece, Slave Princess. Thursday afternoon is coke and cookies for all my writers to help celebrate their struggle and accomplishments.

Maybe now, after a short break, I can finish the short story and return to work on my Work-In-Progress, Hero Games. Watch for the Nanite Chaser stories to show up soon on the Frontpage of The other short story was taken from the world of On Common Ground. You can read an excerpt of that by clicking on the title link there.