Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

For the past five years, I’ve taught first year writing at community college and state universities. I assigned textbooks and/or trade books based on what other teachers used or what seemed like the kind of book college students should read. It didn’t work out so well. Now, I’m using books I get excited about.

The first books I recall assigning were writing textbooks like Curious Researcher or Axelrod & Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing. While these contain good information about writing and some useful exercises, they didn’t engage students. Half the students didn’t even bother reading, and the ones who did complained the book wasn’t worth the $50 or $60 they paid for it. 

As I got more experienced, I realized that most of the material in the textbooks could be conveyed through discussions about writing and having students reflect on their own writing and/or other people’s writing.

I stopped making students buy expensive textbooks and started assigning one or two trade books. Additionally, students would read assortment of articles they could access for free online or through the library’s databases. This works well for a lot of teachers.

While I did manage to find a handful or articles and essays that engaged my students, I couldn’t seem to find a book they liked.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose held their attention for one chapter. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba was a neat concept, but they got bored with the amount of detail in the story. They liked some of the “facts” in Modified by Caitlin Shetterly, but were easily confused and claimed she kept getting “off topic” and wound up hating the book. They claimed Dwellings by Linda Hogan only needed to be a few pages because it repeated the same message over and over again.

The first book I assigned that more than one student seemed to enjoy was Feed by M. T. Anderson—a novel.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what my problem was: I really don’t enjoy reading book length non-fiction. I know it is sometimes necessary, and that a lot can be learned from it, but it always feels like work.

I don’t get excited about it, and that is a huge problem.

Students have very sharp bullshit detectors, so they know when I’m faking it. If I’m not excited about the book, why should they get excited about it?

Feed was the first novel I asked students to read. It also happened to be dystopian, YA, and science fiction – a combination of genres I love.

Because I was so excited about it when I introduced it, they gave it chance. Because they gave it chance, many of them got pulled into the story and enjoyed it. A few loved it. One student told me it made him want to start reading novels again.

Sure there were a few who didn’t like it, but since books are so subjective, that is to be expected. Enough liked it. And enough wrote thoughtful, sourced based papers because of it.

I’ve learned my lesson. Unless the department requires it, I won’t teach a book I am not passionate about. And novel’s can get students thinking just as much as non-fiction, and the questions those novel’s raise can prompt students to do research for essays.

So this semester, I am using novels all around. Comp 1 is reading Feed again and writing a sourced based paper about the issues the novel raises. My reading class is going to read Love, Hate and Other Filters as well as Shadowshaper.

I’m still working out the details of the assignments, but I am confident these books will go over better if I can express my confidence and excitement when introducing them to the students.

I’ll post something later in the semester about how it worked out.

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Beta Readers & Remembering my Characters are NOT me.

Good beta readers and critique partners are essential for writers, not just because they make individual manuscripts stronger, but also because they can make writers aware of problematic patterns.

My beta readers often comment that my characters don’t react or show emotion to big things – like finding out demons exits, losing a loved one, seeing someone get shot, or having some slightly mundane but life changing news delivered.

Despite the validity of these comments, I often get very defensive about them. It’s not that my characters don’t feel or show emotion; they just don’t do it right away.

There is a reason I write them like that.

I almost never have instant reactions to things unless that reaction is rage or something completely irrational.

I may have immediately dissolved into screaming and swearing that one time there were cars on a hiking (I may have had a staring contest with the car)but when my grandmother died, and when I got offer a contract for my book, I just kind of stared and went through the motions before I truly reacted.

When big things happen, I don’t react to them right away. I go blank and stare until my brain figures out how it wants to react, considers how people expect me to react and finds a compromise between the two. Therefore, in my first drafts, my characters seldom react the way readers expect.

I need to stop mentally fighting readers about this.

My characters are not me.

Maybe if I am writing a character that has the same not completely diagnosed flavor of mental illness that I have, the readers would have to deal with it. However, if I am writing a neurotypical character and/or one that is mentally healthy, then they need to react like one of those people would.

Without beta readers, it would be almost impossible for me to see this. Even with them, it has taken me far to long to figure it out. Even being aware of it, I’m sure it will still happen in all my first drafts, but I am going to work harder to catch it early revisions so that my readers can focus on other things.

 

IWSG November: I will win NaNoWriMo!

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeNovember 1 question – Win or not, do you usually finish your NaNo project? Have any of them gone on to be published?

Because I was so into national novel writing month, I completely forgot to blog on the first of the month with the Insecure Writers Support Group Question. Half way through the month and about 27,000 words into a newish novel, I am slowing down.

I wouldn’t say I’ve hit a wall so much as a swamp or a mucky stretch of road. This has happened before. I get my characters past their inciting incident and on their adventure. They are getting somewhere. They are growing, and then I slow down. What was going to write next? What obstacles can I throw in their way? How will those obstacles affect them?

When I should just be writing and letting the characters talk to me, I start overthinking my first draft. As if that isn’t bad enough, I start peeking at works that are supposed to be resting, more polished works that are just a couple rounds of revision away from being sent out to agents, and I start thinking about how rough the writing in my WIP is. It slows me down. I know its bad, and in theory, I know how to get past it, but it never happens right away.

Thankfully, I’ve done NaNoWriMo (and the camp version) a few times before. I’ve completed four novels. When I finish my WIP, I’ll have five under my belt. I’m starting to get a good sense of my process. One way or another, I will finish the book.

In 2015, I didn’t sign up on the site, but I wrote the bulk of a novel in November. I didn’t call it NaNoWriMo officially because I started in Oct and finished in Dec, but since that first draft was nearly 200,000 words long, I am pretty sure I wrote at least 50,00 words in November. Several revisions later, Song of the Forest is 83,000 words and being queried. If you’ve paid attention to any of my twitter pitches, the ones about telepaths, trees and serial killers are for this book.

In 2016, I took a short story that a bunch of editors and cp’s had been telling should be a novel and turned it into a 54,000 word novel. In the end, I was really happy with the way it came out. I got some feedback, didn’t listen as closely as I should, revised a couple times, got more feedback, did some editing and started querying. After a lot of rejections, I got some honest feedback from an editor about the structure of the story, which prompted rewrite I have not yet finished since I was too excited about other projects. My plan is to revisit it in January when I am on break.

In 2017, I attempted two Camp NaNoWriMos. April’s got me some progress on a WIP, but I didn’t finish it. I tried again in July but ended up switching projects halfway through. I hit the 50,000 word mark, but it wasn’t all for one book. By the end of August, I had finished the book I switched to, but not the one I started. I haven’t returned that incomplete WIP, but will sooner or later.

Right now, I’m working on getting out of the muck for the WIP I’m working on. I will win this month, but I know this YA space adventure is going to need more than 50,000 words. I could get to an ending my 50,000 words then go back and beef up the middle later, or I could keep writing beyond the end of the month until I reach an end of the book. I’m open to either, but I know that if I over think it and don’t just do it, I won’t do either.

One thing I have learned from writing multiple novels is to trust the process. No matter how bad the first draft comes out, revision can make it better. To get through the first draft, I need to just write and let the characters have a will of their own. The rest, the careful plotting, focusing on how the characters change, and careful editing comes in later drafts.

Book Review: Walking on Water is a gorgeous and validating read.

Walking on WaterWalking on Water by Matthew J. Metzger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up an ARC of Walking on Water. I asked to review it because I love merfolk stories as long as they are not Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and have been hungry for own voices fantasy featuring trans and non-binary characters.

I admit, I was skeptical of the first two chapters because the book was set in the past, in societies that were even more binary than the modern world, especially for princes like the two mc’s.

It’s too easy, when writing women in a misogynistic society, to make women want to be men simply because a society treats them like crap. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case in Walking on Water.

Yes, Calla was oppressed by her controlling father and foiled by her girly sisters. She didn’t fit with other mermaids or accept the role women were supposed to play in her society, but it wasn’t until she found herself in the body of a human male that she fully realized she wasn’t a she, but a he. That moment was raw, beautiful and true. It was uplifting and validating to read about someone discovering their gender as an adult.

From that moment forward, I could not put the book the down. The tension was beautiful, and so was the depiction of two people communicating without words better than many people communicate with them. I kept hoping for a happy ending, and with every twist and turn, I wondered how the characters were going to overcome the obstacles that stood in front of them. As soon as I thought I knew how it would happen, something would change to make me second guess where the story was going. I suspected – hoped – it would have a happy ending. I just didn’t know how the heck the characters were going to get there. I won’t say anything else about the end, other than that it worked.

The prose were as gorgeous as the story, and the voices of the different narrators were so distinct that I never second guessed whose POV I was reading. Each narrator saw the world a little differently because in some ways, they were each from different worlds, and the author stayed consistent with this throughout. It included some stunning nautical imagery. Of course, I won’t deny my bias towards that. The ocean is in my blood. If merpeople and past lives exist, I was probable in a merman in one of my lives…

If you are looking for a good fantasy, a beach read, a romance, a just good rep of a trans character, and/or just something good to read, then you will enjoy this book.

View all my reviews

Pronoun Problems

Reclaimed story esthetic

Aesthetic of Earth Reclaimed

I’m in the midst of revising a novel (Earth Reclaimed) with a non-binary protagonist. Since this work blends high fantasy with solarpunk and has alternates points of view, I choose to write it in third person. However, several of my beta readers and critique partners have been having a hard time adjusting to me using “they/them” as a singular, gender neutral pronoun.

Readers have suggested I switch to first person, or use something like Xe or Ze. Not realizing it was own voices, one reader even questioned if it was necessary to write the character as non-binary. She meant well, but just because there is a non-binary character doesn’t mean the story has to be about being non-binary.

I knew I didn’t want to write this story in first person, and I couldn’t picture this character CIS, but I did briefly consider a different pronoun.

Before making any decisions, I wanted to see how other writers used neutral pronouns, so I read the first two books of the Ardulum series which used two variations of gender neutral pronouns for aliens who had a third gender. It worked great for those alien characters, but would not suit my protagonist or my writing style for two big reasons.

One:

Xe and Ze are not as neutral as they seem at first glance because they lose some of their neutrality when they become possessive. The writer has to make a choice: does Xe become Xer or Xis? In Ardulum, the author choose Zir as the possessive form of Xe, but when read out loud, it still sounds a lot like Xer or Her.

Some non-binary folks, including me, use gendered pronouns. I use she/her because it’s what I grew up using, and I get overwhelmed when I think about telling friends and family I prefer they/them. I don’t think I’ve ever even bothered announcing to most people that I’m non-binary or gender fluid because it’s a conversation that could turn awkward too quickly. Plus, I don’t like labels and boxes. No matter which one you stick on me, what matters is that I know who I am.

Even though Earth Reclaimed is an own voices story, the main character isn’t me. Serena lives in a future and region where gender is fluid and people are not boxed into identifying as men or women. They are also braver and bolder than I am. I wrote my first draft using she/her, and it just didn’t feel right. Serena needed a gender neutral pronoun, and at least to me, they is more neutral than the others.

Two:

Neutrality is not the only reason to choose they. Xe and Ze do not come to me as natural as they does. Growing up, if I didn’t know whether a person was male or female, I would automatically use they/them until I knew whether they were a she or a he.

Back then, I hadn’t heard of words like non-binary or gender fluid. Those terms may have existed, but they weren’t part of my vocabulary.  I was in my later twenties when I discovered those words and thought “that sounds just like me.”

Identifying with the label didn’t lead me to change the pronouns I use, but that doesn’t mean all the non-binary characters I write have to use the same pronouns, especially of the conditions that keep me using she/her don’t exist for them.

When I write a third person, own voices narrative with a non-binary character, I am going to use they/them as a pronoun. Will there confusion in the early drafts? Yes. However, with careful editing, I hope I will be able to write third person, gender neutral they/them without confusing my readers.

ISWSP October Question: #ownvoices?

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeOctober 4 question – Have you ever slipped any of your personal information into your characters, either by accident or on purpose?

My answer:

Yes, but sometimes it is more intentional than others

While none of my characters are directly based off of my self, many of them share my non-binary gender identity. They struggle with similar mental health issues, like anxiety triggered by crowds or touch. Occasionally, they even like the same things as me, like Star Wars and vegetable gardens.

Of course, there are instances where I write characters that are opposite of me and have almost nothing in common. Sometimes I need to escape my world and truely become someone else while I am writing.

Yet more often than not, it’s hard to fully filter myself from my creations, and when the ones with bits and pieces of me sewn through are more authentic, why bother filtering?

Authenticity is important. Representation is important. My experience with mental health and gender may not quite be like someone else’s, but that is kind of the point, isn’t it?

People do read for entertainment, but they also read for education. Ideally, both happen at the same time. If my book can keep people entertained, make them feel things, keep them turning pages and teach them a little something at the same time, then it was success.

Guest Post: Six Local Writing Centers and Events By Artemis Savory

My friend and critique partner, Artemis Savory, compiled a list of writing centers and events in the New England area and asked me to share it on this blog. If you are local and interested in writing, these events are definitely worth checking out! 

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Like dogs, writers need to get away from the humans and just play with each other.

 

Six Local Writing Centers and Events

By Artemis Savory

  1. (Writing Center) Grubstreet is a truly amazing place for writers. They offer classes, workshops, and free brown bag lunch and Happy Hour Writing sessions. In fact, this month on Friday, September 29th they have an evening writing session—for free! They have another next month. In the heart of Boston, getting there can be a little tricky for us out-of-towners, and the parking garage isn’t cheap, although I think you get a discount if you are going to Grubstreet events. They also run the amazing Muse & The Marketplace. https://grubstreet.org/findaclass/#/events
  2. (Event) Muse & The Marketplace is a fantastic weekend event taking place in this really tiny, but beautiful hotel in Boston. Run by Grubstreet, the workshops are interesting and everyone is extremely kind and understanding. It’s expensive, but if you’re a volunteering kind of person, you could work your way in if you play your cards right. This is definitely a great place to learn more about writing, meet other writers, and pick up further inspiration from people who are going through similar things that you might be. Next year it runs April 6-8. http://museandthemarketplace.com/
  3. (Event) Boston Book Festival is a free event happening on Oct. 28th in Copley Square. I’ve only been to one of their classes, and it was really more of an author discussion about writing YA books. It was interesting, if very full with people, and the Boston Public Library was breathtaking. There is food and lots of booths at this event, as well as discussions and I’m assuming signings. My favorite part of this event is the booths, where you can chat with other writers and learn about all the writing- and reading-related things happening in our area. https://bostonbookfest.org/
  4. (Event) Arisia takes place every January, and this year it’s January 12-15 in Boston. The entry fee is not a lot (it’s usually around $60 for the whole weekend) and the offerings vary from dancing (blues, fusion, swing, etc.), to writing classes, to geeky classes about Star Wars and how things work, to making your own costumes and more. It’s an amazing place filled with creatives—there is no way that you will ever suffer writer’s block at Arisia, although you might be so busy taking notes or socializing that you’ll never get really anything done. http://www.arisia.org/
  5. (Writing Center) New Hampshire Writers’ Project sounds like a really awesome place. They have a ton of writing groups and workshops, and they also have writer meet-ups on the first Monday of every month in various towns throughout New Hampshire: Portsmouth, Derry, Concord, Nashua, and more. They have a calendar that is up-to-date and looks very official. I’m really excited to engage in some of their events and start getting to know other local writers. http://www.nhwritersproject.org/content/events-0
  6. (Writing Center) International Women’s Writing Guild sounds like they’re in western Mass, but offer some retreats and workshops throughout the country—in New Mexico, Niagara Falls, New York and beyond. They seem to have day-long as well as week-long courses and workshops, and some of the offerings aren’t wicked expensive. On April 28th they’re having a “Boston Writing from your Life Retreat” with workshops in Metrowest, Ma. I have no idea how much it costs, but it’s worth looking into, and it sounds like one day, so it shouldn’t cost too much…I hope. http://www.iwwg.org/events/

Bailing Boats and Books

Yesterday, as rain poured out of cumulonimbus, thunder rumbled, and lightening compensated for a lack of sunlight, I realized my bilge pump wasn’t working.

I spent the morning indoors, editing, tweeting, and exchanging feedback on #preDV tweets. When the rain let up and I went outside, there was about a foot of water in my old Boston Whaler.20170906_164649

Swamped boat + broken bilge pump +broken hand pump = bailing boat out with a bucket.

Bailing a boat with a bucket is tedious. You scoop the bucket, dump it out, and repeat.

After the first few dumps, the water level hadn’t changed. I was damp. The dog had slid off the dock while barking at ducks and was staring at me, all scruffy, wet and smelly. I couldn’t tell if he was going to jump on me or back in the lake. I wanted to chuck the bucket out to the water.

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I took a deep breath, tied the dog to his run in the yard, away from the dock and the lake, and then I went back to bailing.

Eventually, I did notice the water level going down. Before I knew it, there wasn’t enough water left to scoop with my bucket. The boat was as empty as it was going to get.

After the first few tries, I wanted to give up, but I kept going even though it was damp, cold and I was being eaten alive by bugs, and eventually, I achieved my goal.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to bail this boat out by hand, and I doubt it will be the last. Every time it happens, it makes me think of my barely existent writing career.

Whenever I start a new book, I feel like I am never going to finish it. I switch back and forth from being super excited to so overwhelmed I want to chuck my draft across the lake, but I don’t chuck the draft. I keep writing.

This cycle of excitement, frustration and despair repeats through each revision and edit, but I always keep going, and I always finish the damned the book.

The same goes for publishing the book. Right now, I’m in the despair phase. One novel has gotten about 110 agent rejections and a handful from small publishers too. However, whenever I seriously feel like scrapping it, I think of the boat.

No matter how much rain gets in it, and no matter how broken it is, I never let it sink. I bail it out, and make sure what is broken gets fixed, usually via unspoken trade offs with my dad (i.e. pet sitting in exchange for replacing my spark plugs). Afterwards, when I’m speeding across the lake feeling the wind blow what’s left of my hair, I know it was worth the hard work.

The same goes for my books. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep revising. I’ll keep submitting.

I’m not one of the those fluke success stories who gets their first book agented and published right away, but I will get published, and eventually, I will get agented, and published by bigger houses that get can my books to more people.

I will never let my writing career sink.

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Problems with Word Count Quotas

While writing my first two books, I didn’t pay too much attention to my word count until after I finished the first draft. My first draft of Song of the Forest came close to 200,000 words and my first draft of Power Surge was around 130,000. When I revised, I went through a cycle of cutting and adding. By the time I got to my final drafts, they were 83,000 and 78,000 words.

My third book, Like Birds Under the City Sky, was different. It was national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo), so I had set a goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. I successfully added 50,000 words to a document that started the month off as a 4,000 word short story. As I revised, I cut and added a few thousand words, but the changes were not as drastic as they had been for my first two books.

Initially, I didn’t see this as a problem. It was my third book, and in between it and my other books, I had written dozens of short stories and flash fictions. I polished the book up, and sent it out to agents and a couple publishers. I got about 20 rejections, but one publisher suggested I give the book a complete overhaul and resubmit. Afraid to make that drastic of a change based on one editors opinion, I sought out feedback from another beta reader and heard the same thing.

When time came to start Community Magic, a novel I had been dreaming for nearly a year, I thought Camp NaNoWriMo would be the perfect way to get it done, but instead of motivating me, the word count quote actually made anxious, and made me feel guilty about not writing. This would have been okay if the guilt motivated me, and/or it was the only problem.

The guilt made me write less. I also noticed other issues.

I was overwriting. I sent chapters out to a critique partner, and she kept pointing out all kinds of things that were not necessary and were just filling space – things I may not have written had I not been rushing to meet my quota of words for the day.

The word count was a distraction. Instead of living the story as I was writing it, my eyes kept drifting down the little numbers at the bottom of my document telling me how many words I had written. I was not as immersed in the world as I should’ve been, and as a result, the plot was rambling, the characters were a little flat, and the world contained inconsistencies. I decided that book wasn’t mean to be NaNoWriMo’ed and switched to a different work in progress – Earth Reclaimed – the story I just ran a rather unsuccessful Publishizer campaign for.

I’m waiting until I have a complete draft to start seeking feedback, but I can feel myself doing some of the same things – almost mindless typing to my word count gets closer to the one my campaign said it should be when the word count. At this point, I should be focused on building the word and getting to know my characters. If my word count falls short, I can expand the draft in revision. If it to high, then I can have a party cutting words while I edited.

Word count goals are great, but when they start to detract from the quality of the writing, then I know I need to revisit how and when I use them.

Room for Discovery in Planned Novels

When I was taking a creative writing workshop in college, my professor (Andre Dubus III) told me he never planned novels. He encouraged us to avoid outlines, claiming they would make our writing feel forced. He said if we outlined, our characters wouldn’t feel real, and they wouldn’t come to life on the page.

Shortly after that, I went to a talk / signing to see Jim Butcher, who was my absolute favorite author at the time. He was the opposite. He planned entire series before he wrote them.

 

Both men were successful – they had best selling novels. One was on Oprah and had his books in her book club. The other had fans who went to cons dressed up as his characters. However, they wrote completely different styles of fiction. Dubus wrote realistic literary fiction and Butcher wrote about snarky wizards and monsters the monsters they fought.

In hind sight, I think I would’ve finished my first novel quicker if I’d followed Butcher’s planner approach. However, the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next kept me writing well past midnight. I loved letting my characters develop on the page and shape the plot with their own stubborn whims.

DSC_0750.jpgThe problem was, left to their own devices, my character took the plot down dead ends that didn’t go anywhere or their plots would amble on and on, never reaching a destination.

I started a novel when I was 18. I finished draft 1 when I was 26. I finished draft 10 at 28. Now, at 29, I’ve gotten lots of rejections for it, and am waiting for  four agents who have the full manuscript to make a decision.

It only took me a few months to write a first draft of novel # 2, but that draft turned out to be 200,000 words long. Then it took me two years to cut it down to 84,000 words. I just started querying that novel.

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Goose approves…maybe.

While I liked the idea of the “panster” approach, it was not very efficient. When 2016’s National Novel Writing Month rolled around, I tried to be a planster. I had a short story I was expanding to a novel, so made a very rough outline where it was going to go. There were some cool surprises – like the sentient, genetically modified cats that showed half way through the first draft, and chapters from the antagonist’s point of view that helped me resolve the conflict.

 

After a month, I had a 55,000 word draft that was well plotted with deep, dynamic characters. Seven beta readers and as many revisions later, I’m ready to enter this book into pitch wars.

And that brings me to the two novels I am currently working on: Community Magic and Earth Reclaimed.

With Community Magic, I had a concept and characters in my head, with a very vague plot, so I jotted down a few ideas and dove into the first draft. I’m half way through, but it is a big mess of a draft.

Earth Reclaimed..jpgFor Earth Reclaimed, I wrote out a chapter by chapter outline, wrote a complete synopsis, a pitch, and a query before I finished writing Chapter 2. So far, I have a cleaner, readable draft that I will be able to give to beta readers when I finish.

With Community Magic, I will have to revise two or three times before I let anyone read the whole thing.

Both books have interesting characters, a compelling plot, and I’ve encountered surprises while writing both of them. Even with all the planning I did, I never expected intelligent, self-aware schooners to show up in Earth Reclaimed, but they did, and they’re there to stay.

Outlines and plans are not the evil things I once thought they were. They are not vampires that suck the life out of a story. They just help writers get things done.

 

© 2017 Sara Codair