Wednesday, September 30, 2009


“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” Marian Wright Edelman

I received a phone call last evening requesting that I report to a third-grade class at the inclusion school today, which meant that there are normally three adults in the classroom, so I’d be working with at least one other person. I was sure that plans were left for me, but I brought a few things anyway. When I arrived at the school this morning, it turned out that most of the staff was attending two sets of workshops., so I was to be in the third grade for the morning and in kindergarten for the afternoon. As a substitute teacher, I’m used to having many different roles, even in one day.

It’s interesting to work at the inclusion school. I love to see how children with a variety of abilities interact. The school where I previously taught had inclusion classes, but never to the degree this school designed to accommodate. I’ve learned that there will always be one student that virtually (or sometimes, actually) needs his or her own shadow. Often, s/he acts out constantly, so much effort is used in quieting and redirecting the child. This is why it’s critical to have several educators in a room, to keep that student from impeding the education of all students in that classroom. And as I mentioned in another blog, it teaches the other children tolerance and even empathy.

Working as a Substitute in an inclusion classroom is also mildly frustrating, because I don’t have easy access to the students’ education plans or the luxury of time to peruse them. I’ll ask the teacher I’m working with for some guidance, but there certainly isn’t time to go into detail about even one child, let alone all of them. So when I assist the students academically, my concern is that I’m not helping them in the best way I can. Which approaches would’ve been best at the math tables I headed? Which students needed the most support during reading and how would they have benefited the most? One day won’t make or break anyone’s progress, but it’s another reminder that my impact on children’s education is slim to none right now, which doesn’t feel good to this teacher who wants to teach.

My hope is that each student I work with makes me a better teacher. I’ve never just wanted to educate the “average” children, but also the high and low performers. When I have my own classroom one day, I don’t want anyone lost in the shuffle. And maybe I’ll even leave notes for my substitute, so s/he knows best how to help the students who need it the most.

“I’m thinking back to the old days, when I used to be a Jedi and could do anything I want.”

Answer by a kindergartner today, when I asked why he was sitting instead of playing on the playground.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


“Is there some principal of nature which states that we never know the quality of what we have until it’s gone?” Herman Melville

Last year, my children’s school hired a new principal. It was an unusual hire because of her age (under thirty) and lack of experience (Never taught!). But she went to Harvard, so that was a plus to the hiring committee. She certainly looks the part – long, dark, shiny hair perfectly coiffed, immaculate makeup and meticulously dressed. In fact, everything about her is precise.

The school certainly seems to run smoother since she began, though it wasn’t doing too badly before she came. But several interactions have made me uneasy. She’s “nice”, but not “warm”. My children’s school had a reputation for being parent-friendly. We have been encouraged to participate in many ways; done resume screenings, been on hiring committees, joined other committees, and so on. This is all still in place, but something seems different. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I went to one of her parent breakfasts. There, I got the sense that she doesn’t welcome feedback.

A school cannot run as a democracy. As a teacher, I know parents can never completely understand what it takes to run a school. As a parent, I know how many different ideas from other parents float around. A principal cannot please everyone. Working for (and being a parent whose children have had) several different principals has made me aware of how important the position is to the health of any school.

This principal’s inexperience has become apparent in the last several months, but she doesn’t yet know it, I’m sure. Her lack of care over students’ classroom placement and lack of response to parent concerns is troubling. Working and being a parent in city schools, I recognize the importance of a high ratio of dedicated parents. Sure, some of them (us) are annoying, but what’s the alternative? As a teacher, I’ve had parents that don’t review homework, come in for conferences, and could care less if their children are misbehaving. Dedicated parents often make for dream students. The more dream students in a class, the better the classroom runs, and the better education for all.

But if the dedicated parents feel undervalued, ignored, then they will seek a school to better meet their needs. Charter schools and private schools are obvious options, but Cambridge also has school choice – parents can just switch schools. And beginning in middle school, two of the schools have intensive studies programs – a tempting option if other parents are pulling their children out of the school and a parent is worried about a high ratio of “problem” kids. I don’t want my children’s school to be part of the negative domino effect.

This principal has gone through a lot of trouble to let parents know what she expects from them. I hope that one day soon she figures out what we need from her.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back to the Grind

“An incurable itch for scribbling takes possession of many, and grows inveterate in their insane breasts.” Juvenal, Satires

“When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. But if you have not a pen, I suppose you must scratch any way you can.” Samuel Lover, Handy Andy, 1842

“The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it.” Jules Renard, "Diary," February 1895

When I received the phone call late last Sunday afternoon that I’d be teaching middle-school Science for five consecutive days, I was filled with relief. Although teaching a bunch of middle school students a subject that wasn’t my forte wasn’t the best way to spend a week, it was good for several reasons. One, no early calls for a whole week. Two, out of the previous nine days I was available to work, I’d only been called for two of them.

Now it’s Monday, which is a holiday, and I’m wondering what this four-day school week will bring me. If I don’t get a call today, I’ll once again set my alarm for 5:25AM, just in case. I’ve resigned myself to it, even if it’s not ideal.

Whether I’ve been working or home, I’m at least proud of the fact that I’ve been productive. In between chores and teaching periods, I’ve edited my manuscript, Indigo in the Know. It’s now with my father-in-law, who is more proficient at grammar than me. He’ll also take out all my unnecessary commas. Once he’s made some progress, I’ll send it back out to agents and editors. I have my blog on positive rejections to thank for reworking Indigo. Reading the feedback I’d received on it, plus the length of time it had been since I’d last looked at it, made it the perfect time to see the manuscript with new eyes.

Unfortunately, I’ve now gotten the itch to write something new. The idea came to me the other day, based on something my daughter had said in the summer that’s been a running family joke. The familiar whispers have begun, though I do my best to ignore them. Why should I write something new when I have several other pieces just waiting to be reedited and resubmitted? How many unpublished manuscripts should I accumulate? But if each piece of writing is better than the previous one, then perhaps I should write something new. I spend a lot of time talking myself into and out of working on each new idea until the whispers turn into words, then into lines, and finally, into plots. At that point, if I don’t write it down, I can’t fall asleep, and then I wake up in the middle of the night, and early in the morning (earlier than 5:25AM), with the story begging to be written.

When I searched for the quote that would match what I was writing about, all of the above quotes surfaced, so similar, speaking to my state that I included them all. More than anything else, those quotes remind me what I have in common with accomplished writers. The quote below illustrates what I have in common with those writers that aren’t accomplished. But maybe that’s not quite right; to write at all is itself an accomplishment. Perhaps I’ll begin a new piece after all.

“No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.” Russell Lynes

Sunday, September 27, 2009


“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain.” William Shakespeare

I am a detail-oriented individual. I believe I inherited this trait from my father, who researches everything before buying or pursuing. It was also an important skill to use with my mother, if I was ever to win an argument. Being meticulous when choosing words is something to which I aspire.

As a writer, it’s a fine-line between the text being enriched versus muddled. Is it better for a character to be incredibly disappointed or dismayed? Each word must be chosen with care. If I get feedback from an editor, I must take it to heart to improve my piece. Is there too much dialogue or not enough? Is the manuscript bogged down with details about surroundings or are there too few? Is the internal monologue superfluous or an inadequate explanation of internal motivations? Editors and agents have told me to show and not tell. I often think about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter, which initially goes on for pages, describing scenes in minute detail with no dialogue. I doubt an editor would offer Mr. Hawthorne a contract today. Is it detail or minutia?

Striking the right balance of detail is crucial in writing and teaching. Students can only listen so long, no matter how exciting a lesson I try to teach. I need to give enough detail to make the material clear, but not so much that they tune me out. It’s also crucial to provide analogies, so they can relate to a theory that is otherwise unclear. Their feedback helps me tailor my lessons, for if a student’s question demonstrates that s/he is lost, I need to try again. Was it my words that confused the student or the method of delivery? How can I make myself clear?

Being misunderstood in writing, teaching, or conversation is frustrating. I want to always be concise about what I am trying to communicate. Writing is the easiest because I can reedit until I get it right. And I can bestow perfect words upon the lips of my characters. Teaching is a bit harder – I aspire for clarity in the moment, the next class, or the following year, when that lesson comes up again. I often wish I was the type of person who was meticulous in selecting each word that I uttered. I've always admired people who exercise that type of restraint.

In conversation, there’s often less care in choosing words. And if words aren’t chosen correctly, they can degenerate into a misunderstanding. Then, trying to remedy a misunderstanding can quickly deteriorate into an argument. Only words will ameliorate the situation, so choose carefully.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Race Lessons

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a Dream” speech, March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Last night, my eleven-year-old son told us that he’d had an altercation with another boy during gym. He was running during a game of Capture the Flag, and tagged a student with a little too much force (Due to his momentum). Though my son immediately apologized, this new student from the other class called him a, “White son of a b*tch.” The boy may have just been talking trash that he previously witnessed or maybe said it for a more sinister reason. Either way, my son took it badly. He doesn’t like name-calling or misbehaving, in general. He prides himself on being a good kid, and doesn’t like when other kids don’t follow the rules.

But more than that, the fact that someone would point out my son’s “race” was most troubling to him. It reminded me of when he was three-years-old, playing with a group of kids on the playground. When we left, he recalled the good time he had with a particular child. I asked which one, and he replied, “The one with the red sweater.” The boy was black, and it struck me that it wasn’t the first thing my son noticed, when color/ethnicity is the first attribute most adults use to describe someone who is different from them.

At that time my family lived in a mostly white suburb, but we’ve lived in a diverse city since my son was three, and he attends a diverse public school. I recall that when my son was in kindergarten, I had commented that my son’s ears turned red when he was tired. His Ethiopian friend responded that he couldn’t tell if that happened to him, since his skin was so dark. They continued to discuss their skin colors as if they were discussing the weather. It was another time that I appreciated how the history of our nation’s treatment of different races had not yet reached my son.

I’m not na├»ve to think that my son doesn’t see differences, perhaps many based on ethnicity. I know when I taught fifth-grade the idea of color had already corrupted the ten-year-olds’ minds. Darker-skinned students often commented on one another’s skin color - usually to be disparaging. If someone was too dark, he or she was made fun of, but if a person was too light, they were chastised for not being white enough. Each year that I taught, I had to have at least one conversation about how we shouldn’t comment or judge someone by the color that person’s skin. It reminds me of the debate during Barack Obama’s fun for presidency. Was he too black for white people, yet not white enough for black people?

Each time I’ve taught, I’ve impressed on the students that the idea of “white” is not static, and explain that for a time, Irish, Southern, and Eastern Europeans were not considered white in America. In the South, there were laws that prevented “interracial” marriage between these groups and groups of Western and Northern European ancestry.*

Another lesson I’ve done, is to write down the ethnicity of each child in the class, plus my own on the board. Last year, with twenty-one people, we had forty-two groups represented. Most interestingly, two other children were a mix of Irish and Italian, like me, though one looked completely Irish and the other appeared African-American. I joked that we were triplets, because our insides were so similar but our outsides were so different. It was the ideal lesson that you don’t know whom someone is just by looking at him or her and that there really is no “black” and “white” no matter how much we clutch to the idea.

As for my son, he told his teacher, which I hope generates a fruitful discussion.

* From, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev and Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


“Closing time, every new beginning

Comes from some other beginning’s end”

Dan Wilson. Song, "Closing Time" by Matchbox 20.

Each time I have to leave a group of students that I've spent an extended period of time with, I always get a bit melancholy. I got pangs of sadness when college recitations ended, but it was nothing compared to leaving younger students. The first time I experienced this was when I student taught. My stint was from the beginning of the school year in September until the last day of the semester in December. Although it had been a lot of work, I found myself disappointed that I wouldn’t be continuing the lessons until June. It was humbling to know that I had an impact on them as well; from the gifts they gave to the kind words they said.

I didn’t experience this again until I became a Teaching Assistant in the fifth-grade. It was frustrating because they were never “my” students. I may have taught a few classes, but I wasn’t there all day, and wasn’t considered the main teacher. My paltry paycheck certainly made it clear that I wasn't the teacher. But even with the limitations, I often made strong bonds with some of the children – especially if the classes I taught were their favorite subjects or if they clashed with the lead teacher. I always ended the year giving each student a new book with a note about what I thought was special about him or her. Often, just writing those letters would bring tears to my eyes.

When I left my class in March, not completing the year was difficult. That goodbye was the most emotional of all – for me and for them. I didn’t get called to sub at the school for two months – a day I concurrently looked forward to and dreaded. The children were elated when they showed up at PE with me as their Sub, and invited me to their class, so I could see them recite Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. Afterwards, they encouraged me to come to their “Poetry Slam”, and I promised that I'd attend. Even though I had nothing to do with their accomplishments that evening, I was so proud of them. The first day I subbed at my old school and the night of the Poetry Slam, brought me back to that melancholy place from when I’d said goodbye.

For the next two months I was called to sub PE at my old school quite often, since the lead teacher was awaiting surgery. While my students were happy with the development, it was strange for me. One child said that it was like having me be her teacher again. But I didn’t want to be teaching gym – I wanted to go back to Social Studies and Word Study. It was great to see them, but it wasn’t the same.

Now I’ve been teaching science to sixth and seventh-graders for four days. Some of the classes don't have a science lesson tomorrow, so I said goodbye today. The student whom I’d had in fifth-grade last year came to me at the end of class, disappointed I wouldn’t be teaching her again. Already in four days, I’ve grown attached to and in control of the students in all five classes. Everything that had been new about the school has now become familiar. And now it’s time for another goodbye.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When I Grow Up

"Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since it’s taken some time finding a full-time position in Social Studies, my husband has encouraged me to take more classes and/or acquire another certification. He reasons that if I obtain another certification (perhaps something more popular in a down economy), then I’ll find a job faster. Humanities? Language Arts? Special Education? Go back to school or take a test for what, exactly? What do I want to be when I grow up?

When I was an undergraduate, by my second semester of school, I fell in love with history. I thought I’d be a high school teacher, when a college professor said, “Don’t sell yourself short.” I got my BA in History, and with that professor’s words ringing in my ears, I decided to get my Ph.D. in History. The first year of graduate school was the worst period of my life, but not because of the workload (Which was considerable). Virtually every professor and student spent an enormous effort to show how smart they were, while working to make others feel less so. The only part I enjoyed was being a Teaching Assistant because I got to teach once a week. One day during my second year, I gazed up at the trees, surprised that autumn was in full swing because I’d been too stressed to notice. That moment was an epiphany for me – whatever I wanted to be, it probably wasn’t a college professor.

After some soul searching, I realized that I’d rather teach than research. As a professor it’s publish or perish, so teaching high school was a better fit for me. I completed my Master’s Degree and then began taking courses for my Social Studies certification. Student teaching was rewarding, and I knew I’d made the right choice.

But in recent years, I’ve also found a passion for writing. Perhaps taking the Language Arts state test be a way to combine my love of writing and teaching, plus it would make me more attractive for those Humanities positions. Early this year, I taught an after school creative class to fifth to seventh-grade students, and found the class to be rewarding as well.

So my problem is not that I don’t know what I want to do – it’s that I want to do too many things. Does anyone need a Social Studies teacher? Or a Language Arts teacher? Or a Humanties teacher? Or would anyone want to publish one of my manuscripts? I’m ready to begin.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

First Days

"Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem." Eric Hoffer

Whenever I’ve begun a new job (or a new anything), there’s a period of adjustment. Any position I’ve ever held took from three weeks to two months to feel confident, depending on how unfamiliar it was to previous work I’d done. While I’ve waited for a job to become familiar, my life has been less even-keeled. But once the tasks became routine, I’ve gained confidence. Hitting my stride as a Substitute Teacher has been more challenging.

Remember when you were a young student and the first day or two of a new school year was spent learning the rules and getting to know one another? Even if it was sometimes boring (but better than doing real work), it served its purpose, the teacher got to know you and give his or her expectations for the year. When I sub, I have mere seconds to project my personality and expectations before we dig into the assignment. My voice and demeanor must reflect that I mean business in order to get to business.

Sometimes I’m more successful learning about the students than they are learning about my expectations. That’s why I like to arrive early so I know where everything is and what I’m expected to do – especially in subjects I’m less familiar with (Like middle school Science). Because if I’m distracted and unsure, not standing at the door and greeting each student while looking him or her in the eye, then I’ve lost an advantage. As a result, I quickly get to know the behavior problem students. My next step is to work at gaining control – a more difficult task.

Having virtually each day, a new day means that it’s important to get it right. Yesterday, I made some errors, which I had the luxury to begin to correct today, since I’m at this school for five days. First, I spent a lot of time preparing for first period – I didn’t know where everything was in order to show a documentary. As a result, my homeroom was too chatty and unfocused. Then, one of the classes was more difficult to reign in because I didn’t greet them at the door, so they entered the room loud and unruly. I had most of the same students for a math class last year, and though I handled them better this time, I plan to be even stricter tomorrow. This morning, I already warned a new group that if they couldn’t stay focused, they would finish the assignment with me at lunch. The class quickly became quiet and focused.

When I have a successful “first day” at work, it reflects better on me to the other teachers, it’s better for the students (though they’d never admit it), and it’s better for the teacher that’s entrusting me with his or her students. Certainly it makes the day much better for me. I have to work on making all my first days go smoothly, even in middle school Science.

Monday, September 21, 2009


"Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it." Anais Nin

I’m noticing that the more I work, the more people I’m connected to in surprising ways. Students I’ve subbed will recognize me at my children’s Taekwondo class or I’ll see former students in another school or I’ll teach children in different classes at the same school or I’ll run into teachers I’ve worked with previously. Cambridge is a small city and the teaching community is even smaller.

Running into faculty and staff from previous schools is a nice perk. I had been an Extended Term Substitute for a fifth-grade teacher on maternity leave at my old school about three years ago. For a brief time, I had my own assistant who now works at the school I subbed at today (And where I’ll be all week). A gym and an elementary teacher from my former school are also employed there now. And a teacher I worked with who is still at my old school, teaches at this school’s after school program, so I may see her this week as well. It's nice to reminisce and catch up.

There are even more connections for me here. This school has an Intensive Studies Program, which takes middle-school students from all over the district. So I had a student from last year’s fifth-grade class in my room. I also taught two students from my children’s school in the same classroom. One of them had been in my son’s kindergarten class! Tomorrow, I'll have an acquaintance's child. Seeing familiar faces is comforting when Substitute teaching.

The strangest connection of all is that the teacher I’m substituting for has a child with learning disabilities whom I was a shadow substitute for at another school last year. Being a shadow meant I followed him for most of the day to help with anything he needed. The boy is very sweet and I often think of him and the day we spent together. His regular shadow had also been an assistant at my previous school, and took over as lead teacher for the day that I subbed. I realized that the teacher I’m filling in for is this boy’s father when I spied the boy’s photograph on his desk.

I don’t know what his son’s condition is called, but he has a unique face, and he's behind his peers cognitively and behaviorally. The boy didn’t do well with transitions, so he had a rough morning. I tried everything I could to make him feel better, but anything new for him is hard (I was told that he was working on "being flexible"). I was touched about how caring the other students in the inclusion class were to him, demonstrating an empathy I wish I saw in more children and even adults. He was given a stuffed animal to soothe him by one of the girls and a few of the kids made sure to speak to him kindly or pat his back. As the day went on, this boy became more comfortable with me, telling me, "New friends are cool," and by the end, he gave me a hug goodbye.

I was happy that a few weeks later, this boy’s regular shadow brought him to visit me when I was subbing gym at his school. He was much happier to see me when I wasn’t his shadow! And I was even happier to see him stress-free, telling me how excited he was to go to the next grade in the fall.

When I leave my note for this teacher about how the week went, I’ll be sure to tell him what a special son he has. Working with his child was probably the most rewarding subbing day I’ve ever had. I'll always feel a special connection to him.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sub Line

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” Paulo Coelho

When the sub line calls, I can never be sure because caller I.D. states, “Private Caller”. If it’s the afternoon or evening before a job, I can wait for a message to be left, telling me the specifics of the assignment. Then I have until 5:30 the next morning to call back to accept or decline the job. If I refuse five jobs over the year, I’m off the list (Basically, fired). If I call first to say I’m sick or have a doctor’s appointment, those don’t count against me (Whew!). But if the call comes in the morning and I don’t pick up, I lose the job and it counts as one of the five. The sub line has sort of become my lifeline.

In the morning when I pick up the phone, the person from H.R. introduces herself in her gravelly voice and first asks, “Are you able to work today?” I must say yes or no, before I’m told what I’m in for. I could be saying yes to teach Montessori or Special Start to three-to-five-year-olds or a fifth/sixth-grade class or middle school Spanish or P.E. or Music or eleventh-grade Biology. Once I say yes, I then figure out which accessories are required.

If I’m teaching a younger grade, I often bring picture books and put forward my peppiest personality. If it’s third-grade and up, I bring Mad Libs and picture books for older children as an end-of-class reward. If it’s middle school, I bring my iPod and dock. Offering that as background sound for anything we’re doing (besides a movie) is a huge incentive for the students. “If you don’t stay on task, I’ll shut off the music,” I warn. Before pressing play, I remind the students that this old White Girl may not have the same taste in music. I find two main camps – those who love Coldplay and those who love the Black-Eyed Peas, and luckily, I have both groups downloaded. Many girls love pop, but I must always disappoint that I don’t have Chris Brown or Britney Spears. High School is the easiest because they’ll do the work you give them – no accessories required.

I was the most concerned about teaching Music. When my children came home after having a sub in Music, those classes always seemed to have the most discipline problems. But I found Music to be the easiest. Between the iPod and having a stack of music-related handouts, I’m always ready. I’ve actually had students in those classes tell me, “You’re the best sub we’ve ever had.”

The most pleasant jobs are when the teacher knows s/he will be out in advance, so plans are left for me. Less ideal jobs are the last minute, unplanned ones. I always have some appropriate papers from my repertoire for the students to work on. The worst jobs are when the teacher leaves a movie because the students know they’re being babysat and often talk (at best) or misbehave (At worst).

After subbing for three months, I’ve had successful and unsuccessful days, learned what works and what doesn’t, and feel more comfortable being thrown into any situation. I’ve also learned to use my best disapproving face and authoritative tone at the first inkling of misbehavior. Because no matter how prepared you are, without requiring respect, the kids will eat you alive. Experience breeds confidence, which then breeds successful classroom management.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Positive Rejections

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” T.S. Elliot

I know the title sounds like an oxymoron, but there are several types of rejections from agents and editors. The worst is when you never hear back. They’re either too inundated or may even have a policy of ignoring queries when they’re not interested. A little better is the form letter. Normally the letter is addressed to, “Author” and apologizes for being a form letter. Some don’t even waste a whole piece of paper to reject you – it’s one-third of a sheet that’s faded from how many generations the photocopy is from the original. Often, they include the first page of your manuscript as to be so kind as to let you know which one they’re rejecting. Others have a couple of fill-in-the-blank parts for your name and the title of your manuscript. Sometimes publishers and agents don’t want to waste their own paper, so they just return your query letter with something scribbled like, “It’s not right for our list.”

The next step up is that the letter is addressed to you and even the title of your manuscript, but the content is no better than a form letter. At most, you may get a personal note to, “Wish you the best.” One publishing company was nice enough to provide a checklist to let me know the reason(s) why they didn’t want my manuscript. While not very personal, it could be more informative if the editor hadn’t checked off, “Is not suited to our present needs.”

But the Holy Grail rejection letter actually tells you why your manuscript was not worth a contract. The best positive rejections are as specific as possible. Below are some examples.

The next three quotes were positive feedback I got for my first manuscript, which was far from ready for submission:

“There’s a distance to the writing style - it feels a bit more like a summary than a novel – it needs more immediacy and closeness to Jordan’s heart and mind.”

“I think you have a good concept, but you are telling and not showing. You will lose your reader’s attention, I’m afraid.”

“I particularly liked the idea of magic being split into the four elements – but Jordan’s internal monologue felt quite stilted and overly expositional to me.”

Ouch. But these comments gave me an idea of what I needed to fix.

This feedback came last year, and is about the manuscript I’m editing now:

“The writing relied too much on telling rather than showing, making Indigo seem to wise for her years. Her internal thoughts take over her character development, which I’d rather see developed through anecdote and circumstance…. I hope you continue to work on it.”

That last sentence is supposed to be a clue that the publisher would you to edit the piece and resubmit.

This may have been the most complimentary rejection I’ve ever received, though there was no critique:

“Thank you so much for the opportunity to review your manuscript. While there are many things to love here, I just didn't feel that 'spark' - the special connection that I need to feel in order to take on a new client. There is no doubt that you are a good writer, and I am sure that I'll be kicking myself for this when you sign that big book deal! But you deserve an agent who will feel just as passionate about your work as you do.

“Very best of luck, and I look forward to reading all about your successes.”

I wanted to respond, begging the agent to take a chance on me.

The same agent sent this one for a different manuscript via e-mail on the weekend while I was away on vacation this summer:

“I am a fan of yours, but I am just not loving this as much as I want to. You are a good writer and another agent will probably feel differently -- best of luck!”

If only this agent had been my BIGGEST fan.

Unfortunately, via e-mail or snail-mail, even a complimentary rejection is still a rejection. As I continue to write and submit, I get more positive feedback, which often fuels me to keep trying. Of course, the most positive feedback of all would be an agent offering me representation or an editor offering me a contract. Instead of a positive rejection, I’d like a positive acceptance. Wish me the best of luck.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reading Aloud

“I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” James Michener

I have a love-hate relationship with writers’ conferences. Since I began writing, I’ve attended four children’s book writing conferences – one in Manhattan and three in New Hampshire. I simultaneously look forward and dread these conferences. First, is that I often get critiques by editors when I go, which is nerve-wracking. Second, while the speakers and workshops inspire me, it’s intimidating to meet people that have already published, and it reiterates how much more they’ve accomplished. Each year, this feeling gets worse. Sometimes I just want to give up.

But I do get glimmers of hope. At a conference last year, the keynote speaker, Laurie Halse Anderson said that she had a great idea for her first book, but still had to learn how to write. She showed us her impressive pile of rejections (Making me feel better about my stack). Once Laurie Halse Anderson learned to write, she got the coveted contract. In the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he asserts that if someone has talent, s/he needs to put in 10,000 hours to perfect it. He sites several examples of people who put in that amount of time in order to be at the tops of their fields. This idea has recently given me hope because I haven’t worked on my craft for nearly that many hours. My husband recently said that for those who get published quickly, they probably spent years developing their writing before submitting their first manuscripts.

I began writing about three years ago. We had an author, Melissa Glenn Haber speak to our fifth-graders, and something about her talk sparked something in me. She spoke about writing whole books in secret, and tucking them into drawers. It took years for her to gain the courage to share her work. Her story was similar to mine. For years, I’d get an idea for a story, begin writing it, but then remind myself, “I’m not a writer,” and abandon the piece. After all, except for a creative writing class in high school and one in college, I hadn’t focused on writing, but instead History. Historians may write non-fiction, but that’s it.

After the talk, I wrote the first story that popped into my head, which was cathartic. I began sending it out without doing enough editing. Then, I didn’t understand how much editing a manuscript entails. When the manuscript didn’t go anywhere, I got a manuscript exchange partner and wrote another story. The more I wrote and edited, the better my pieces became. One manuscript was considered by two publishers (those were nerve-wracking weeks while I waited), but was eventually rejected by both. One of my problems is that I write and edit a piece, send it out, and after the rejections come in, I forget about it and begin a new manuscript as soon as the itch begins again.

When I worked part-time, I’d squeeze writing in when I could (sometimes with the chaos of kids around me), but especially when my daughter was young, I didn’t have as much time as I would’ve liked. I’d often write at night, when I was more prone to errors. But once I began subbing, my periods off became periods to edit instead of prepping for classes. And on the days I had free, I sometimes spent the whole time just writing and editing. In fact, the depression I had over giving up my job gave me a lot of emotion to transfer to paper, and made me more prolific than ever.

My manuscripts have improved as I continue to log in writing hours. While I have this free time on the days I don’t get called to sub, I want to continue to use it wisely. I’ve dusted off the manuscript that got the most positive feedback, and I now read aloud to hear where it flows and where it needs improvement, which has probably helped the most. When I’m done perfecting this piece, I’ll send it out again. Writing, editing, and submitting, is the life of an unpublished writer. I just have to keep putting myself out there and have faith that one day I’ll get it right.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reading Like a Writer *

“Looking closer can make something beautiful.” – Cynthia Lord, Rules.

When I realized that my daughter was sick yesterday, my plans disintegrated. Since I didn’t have a Sub job, my husband was going to take our children to the bus stop so I could take a yoga class. I hadn’t taken one in about three weeks and was looking forward to it. No yoga. And that would be the end of errands. Forget about sending out manuscripts to agents and publishers. The day would be about my daughter.

The previous evening, I had begun to read, Rules by Cynthia Lord to my daughter. I had seen Cynthia Lord give a moving and inspirational speech at the NESCBWI Conference in April. Afterwards, she signed and inscribed my copy of the book with the above-quote, which she said is her favorite. But I didn’t read her book until after the conference.

When I did read the book, it struck me about what a distinct voice she has – she writes just as she speaks. The book is one of the best middle-grade ones I’ve read, so it’s no wonder that she won the Newbery Award. It’s about a twelve-year-old girl dealing with an eight-year-old autistic brother, and her struggle to accept him. The book centers on the rules the girl tries to instill in her brother, and that she tries to live by, but eventually figures out that some rules can be broken. I enthusiastically told my children about the conference and the book. Since then, my daughter has wanted me to read it to her, though I thought she was too young. But she asked for it again and I acquiesced.

My seven-year-old daughter inhaled the book (completing two-hundred pages in twenty-four hours), reminding me of when I was young, and the power particular books had over me. I stopped periodically to explain what I thought she might not have understood or to ask questions. Rereading the book has given me more of an appreciation of the story and the writing; each word was chosen with care. So many parts tickled us. I cried over the comparison between the brother’s broken inside and the handicapped friend’s broken outside. One day, I hope to get the opportunity to touch others with something I’ve written. I have decided to reedit my manuscript, Indigo in the Know again, in aspiration to improve it.

I thought I’d spend the day getting nothing accomplished. Little did I know I’d spend it sharing a beautiful piece of literature with my daughter. In doing so, it made me reflect on my own writing.

*Title of blog is the same as book by Francine Prose, which I started reading three days ago.

Sleep to Dream

“The bed is a bundle of paradoxes: we go to it with reluctance, yet we quit it with regret; we make up our minds every night to leave it early, but we make up our bodies every morning to keep it late.”

- Charles Caleb Colton

When the alarm sounded, I felt like I was in the 1983 “Time to make the donuts,” commercial. If you’re too young to have seen it, catch it on You Tube. Although it wasn’t 3:30AM like in the commercial, it’s dark as night at 5:30AM. I know that I need to go to bed at 9:30PM to get my eight-hours of sleep; it’s hard to unwind that early, and then I have little time with my husband, who goes to bed around midnight (And only needs about seven hours of sleep). Besides, my daughter goes to bed at 8:30PM and my son goes to bed at 9:30PM. How can I go to bed at the same time as an eleven-year-old?

The strangest part about rising early is that I do it to beat the possible phone call from the sub-line after 5:30AM. I’m getting up early for a possible job, rather than an actual one. I prefer getting the call the previous evening, so I can sleep a little longer. I used to set the alarm for later, but anticipating that the phone would ring kept me from sleeping well. Sometimes I’d even dream that I heard the phone ring.

This morning, there was no call, which was good because by 7:45AM, it became clear that my daughter was going to have to stay home from school, as she had a hundred-degree fever and croup-like cough. If I had a job today, either my husband would’ve stayed home or she would’ve gone to the woman who used to watch her before she went to kindergarten, when I was an assistant. So, not having work today, prevented me to have to coordinate care for her.

If only I could figure out what to do about sleep deprivation. When I’m working, coffee in the afternoon helps me get through, but by early evening, I’m ready to collapse. It’s hard to do all the mother things, like cooking dinner, checking homework, laundry, and ferrying the kids around. When I don’t have a job, I feel guilty for even taking a catnap to catch up.

I’ve never done well without enough sleep. When my children were babies, I made sure they were good sleepers as soon as possible, just so they didn’t interfere with mine as little as possible. I know that I shouldn’t whine about it because plenty of people have to “set” early into order to “rise” early. When I get a full-time job, it may not require me to get up at 5:30AM, but if it does, I’ll be going to bed early each night for a reason. And if I get a decent advance on a children’s book, maybe I’ll get the luxury of sleeping in. A girl can dream.