getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

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my teaching philosophy

I’m taking an online class about how to teach online (it’s a totally understandable standard requirement for first-time online instructors at my new school, even those of us who have taught online elsewhere), and I have to write a paper about my teaching philosophy! With sources! What? I didn’t sign up for this! And now I feel exactly like my students feel in every single one of my classes. It seems the course designers were trying to teach us a lesson in empathy (ya think?). I think I have a teaching philosophy somewhere that I wrote for a previous purpose, but I thought it might be self-plagiarism if I turned it in for this class (again, this is the kind of stuff my students worry about). So I thought I’d try out some ideas in this post.

The first aspect of my teaching philosophy [Comment: This is kind of a clunky transition. Can you think of a way to introduce your topic without announcing?] is that teachers should model their expectations. If I want my students to get into the habit of consulting a manual for APA format, I should show them how to look up information in the manual, not pretend I know all the APA answers from memory because I’m the teacher. If I want my students to be able to perform a close reading of a story, it’s okay if I spend most of the class period retelling Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (which I’m not sure if my students read in the first place even though I told them to) with an open textbook in front of me, pausing to ask questions (and admit that I don’t know all the answers and explain that some questions have many possible answers) and point out the kinds of literary elements I want my students to be looking for. If I don’t want my students to be on their phones during class, maybe I shouldn’t always be playing on mine while they’re taking quizzes (yikes, that’s a hard one!). [I don’t have a source for this. Can we use personal experience in this paper?]

Teachers should also make themselves available to their students, but with boundaries. [Comment: There, that’s a better transition!] During the workday, I try to respond to emails as quickly and as thoroughly as possible; I keep my office hours even though students rarely come by (and I keep my door open during office hours, which seems obvious to me but apparently isn’t universal practice), and I will always pause during class to answer a student’s question (but that’s mainly because I’m pretty sure I have adult-onset ADD and can’t ignore a raised hand). I see myself as an approachable helper, not an elusive oracle who speaks only in enigmatic proverbs. But I also set boundaries (e.g., I usually don’t check email in the evenings and on Sundays) not only for my own mental health, but also because I want my students to develop problem-solving skills and patience and learn not to panic when they don’t receive an immediate response from me. [Still no sources. Maybe I can throw in a gratuitous reference to Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend?]

Finally, I believe [Comment: No need to say “I believe”; I know you are the author.] that teachers should show the mercy and grace they have been shown. For example, the necessary flip side of my being unavailable on Sundays is that I’m usually a little lenient with Monday deadlines (shh…don’t tell my students)–i.e. if a student is waiting for a response to a question he/she emailed me over the weekend, I will usually allow that student to turn in the assignment a little late and/or resubmit it if it was submitted incorrectly. (Unless the question was stupid. Wait, there are no stupid questions! Don’t we all tell our students that? It’s mostly true.) I know some professors who approach students with skepticism (at least claim that they do so), muttering comments like “I bet his grandmother really didn’t die; he just doesn’t want to come to class.” I have to admit that I’ve had similar uncharitable thoughts before, especially about online students, whose faces I don’t see and voices I don’t hear, so it becomes far too easy to think of them as machines rather than people. That’s why I believe that it’s imperative, especially with online students, to assume positive intent and give students the benefit of the doubt. I’d rather be defrauded by one student (even though I HATE the thought of being lied to) than take a disbelieving stance toward every student. Like Albus Dumbledore, I want to believe the best about people, and it’s usually a good policy, except when hiring Defense against the Dark Arts teachers (Rowling, Books 1-7). [There! I got a citation in.]

Well, hopefully I can copy and paste some of this into my paper and just add some big words make it sound a little more academic. But would that be self-plagiarism?

home shopping tips from a non-expert

I spent the greater part of Saturday looking at nine homes in the greater Grand Rapids area, and my offer on one of them was accepted the next day. So congratulate me, friends–I’m now in some stage of owning two different homes. Fortunately, I’m not paying mortgage on both! (The closing date for both the one I’m selling and the one I’m buying is October 31–happy Halloween to me.) This has been my second time shopping for a home, so from my limited experience, I would like to offer you some simple tips.

  1. Speak your reactions aloud. Even if it’s something really obvious (“And here’s another closet”), process your observations verbally and externally. This will not only reinforce your memory–which will become important when the houses you’ve seen all start running together in your mind–but it will also help your realtor know what sorts of things you like and dislike, as well as what sorts of things you might not be noticing at all. Which brings me to my next tip…
  2. Know your areas of in-expertise, and let your realtor know. Right from the start on Saturday, I told my realtor, “I’m not good at noticing things like the age of the wiring and the furnace, so I’d appreciate it if you could point those things out to me.” Your realtor is not the stereotypical crooked used car salesman, so admitting your lack of knowledge is not setting you up to be swindled. Your realtor wants to help you find a safe, quality house and be satisfied, so even if he/she is the listing agent of the house you’re looking at (which doesn’t happen that often in my experience–maybe it would in a less-populated area), he/she is acting in your best interest.
  3. Accept that you won’t get everything on your list. I stole this one from my realtor. He said, “You’re going to have a list of about ten things you want in a house, and you’re going to get about six or seven of them.” That made-up (but pretty accurate) statistic sounds like a bummer, but as you look around, you’ll start to realize which of those items are the most important to you. And you may be able to compensate for some items: The house I’m buying doesn’t have a garage, which–because of the lake effect snow I’ve been warned of–was a pretty important item for me. But because of the low price of the house and the nice-sized driveway, I have the money and space to get a carport installed. (I could probably put an actual garage in someday too, but that’s more space for me to fill up with stuff. #hoarder)
  4. Take your time, and get a second opinion. I’m not only a hoarder; I’m a rusher. In life in general, it’s hard for me to slow down and really pay attention. I think a lot of people are like this today, so this is one reason why it’s good to have a realtor to help you notice things you might have otherwise skimmed over. If you’re buying a house alone, I also recommend taking someone along with you–I’ve brought my parents along with me while home shopping. Just make sure you don’t end up with a Say Yes to the Dress scenario. That show used to stress me out because these brides would bring huge crowds of family and friends to their dress fitting sessions, and then they’d have huge crowds of opinions to deal with. And it always seemed like there was at least one naysayer, impossible to satisfy, and at least one person who wanted to control everything. Often the sessions would end in yelling or crying. So, for your sanity, when you go home shopping (or wedding dress shopping, I guess), bring only one or two people whose opinions you trust but who won’t be offended if you disagree and who will let you make the final decision.
  5. Have fun! This goes along with the previous tip: It’s hard to have fun if you’re in a rush. On Saturday, I succeeded pretty well in making myself slow down and have a nice time exploring the homes and the area. It helped that it was a beautiful day–a quintessential First Day of Autumn. But regardless of the weather, take the pressure to find the perfect home off of yourself and enjoy the opportunity to snoop into houses you’d never get to see otherwise. Go ahead, open all the little doors and find out what they lead to. (I do this compulsively–I’m kind of like a child in this regard. This is especially fun in old houses, where you might find an old milk-bottle delivery slot, or at least a laundry chute.) Make jokes about what they’re hiding behind the doors, especially if you’re in a creepy basement. Make up stories about the people who live or have lived in the house. And if you happen to visit a home that’s having an open house, make sure you get some coffee and donuts!

the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

What are you digging right now? Let me know if the comments.

back to school

Today was the first day of classes at my new institution. Last time I wrote about the first day of classes, I wrote about being so scatterbrained that I could barely organize my thoughts for a blog post. While I wasn’t exactly a chilled-out guru sitting on a mountaintop in mountain pose with a cup of green tea today, I was considerably more focused and less stressed because now teaching is my entire job, not something I try to fit in around meetings and administrative tasks.

It’s an unusually hot day in western Michigan, and this morning it was raining, so my office has been a little damp all day. But at least it has air conditioning, unlike the room where I taught this afternoon. (There were fans blowing, but only the students who sat in the back of the room got to benefit from those, I realized when I went over to talk to one of them after class.) I like to wear a cardigan while teaching because of the pockets, so there was sweat actually dripping down my back and my legs after about an hour of class. On the positive side, my classroom has windows, and it also has an upright piano, which I doubt we’ll ever use, but it looks cool to have in the background. Actually, maybe I’ll see if any of my students can bang out a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on October 31, when we have the Reformation/All Saints Day party that I really did schedule on the syllabus. (It may end up being a Halloween party as well, but I wanted to get a sense of who my students are before I start foisting pagan celebrations upon them.)

All classes here are 90 minutes long, and I was worried about filling that much time on intro day, but I neatly rounded out the first hour by taking attendance and rambling about myself, the syllabus, and the textbooks (I am a champion rambler), and then I had my students write a literacy narrative during the remaining half-hour. I’d read about literacy narratives in composition journals–apparently they are rather passe now–but I had never assigned one myself. My off-the-cuff version of the assignment probably didn’t exactly conform to the standards of the genre, but not only did it use up a good chunk of class time; reading the results also taught me quite a bit about my students as writers and readers (e.g. several of them are Harry Potter fans; some lack confidence about writing, and all of them have decent handwriting)–and my students got a 10-point completion grade. Win, win, win.

Eleven of my twelve students are women, so I promised the token male student I would not single him out in class. All but two are brand new freshmen, though a couple of them have parents who work at the university and/or took pre-term classes, which means they probably know more about this school than I do. Still, they all looked sincere and eager to learn, many of them were taking notes during my course introduction (and I didn’t penalize them for doing so, like Snape did to Harry Potter), and one of them asked approximately ten questions during the syllabus review. She apologized for having so many questions, but I thanked her and told her that others probably had the same questions. The best student feedback I received today, though, probably wasn’t meant for my ears. Before class, I heard one of the students saying to the person next to her, “I’m so excited about this class.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student say that about a freshman writing class. I wonder if she still felt the same way after class.

I wrote a brief note on each student’s literacy narrative, and in many of them, I asked the student to talk with me about something–not incorrect grammar or ineffective transitions, but Harry Potter, creative writing, or some other such enjoyable topic. I hope they will come see me, even the ones who are shy about their writing or terrified about starting college. Especially those ones.

I don’t have any classes tomorrow, so I’ll have time to prepare for my Wednesday classes, which I think are in a room with air conditioning. Every time I walk into a class for the first time, I’m nervous that I’ll be met with faces that are judgmental, sarcastic, or completely checked out, and occasionally that happens, but most of my students really want to be in college. I just hope that after sitting through my class on day 1, they want to stay.

reasons to move to Lynchburg, VA

Tomorrow I am moving away from Lynchburg, VA (well, technically Forest, but let’s not split hairs), where I have been living for 15 years. I am writing this list partly to convince someone (perhaps you?) to move to the area and buy my lovely three-bedroom, open-floor-plan, single-story house in a quiet, convenient neighborhood (see realtor.com for further details), but mainly as an elegy to my life in this small city, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that has been so good to me for so many years.

  1. It’s nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m really bad at geography and topography, but I’m pretty sure Lynchburg is in a valley, which means that it’s sheltered from the harsh cold and snowfall that can occur in the mountains themselves. It also means that just about wherever you look (especially out in Forest, where I know about a nice house for sale!), you can see the blue silhouette of the mountains, especially on a clear morning.
  2. There’s a cliff in the middle of downtown. Officially, it’s called a bluff. I’m sure there are other cities that have this odd geographical feature, but I’ve never been to them. At the top of the bluff is most of downtown; at the bottom is Jefferson Street, some recreational spaces, a railroad track, and the James River. You can enjoy the view by sitting on the deck at Bootleggers eating a delicious burger or by walking a skinny trail along the bluff at Riverside Park.
  3. It has historical sites you haven’t already been to. Lynchburg and the surrounding towns have a number of historical locations that aren’t overrun with tourism. (Appomattox, about a 20-minute drive away, is pretty overrun, but even there you can find some newer attractions, like the Museum of the Confederacy, which is not a glorification of the Lost Cause but a thoughtful, objective presentation of history.) Forest is home to Thomas Jefferson’s second house, Poplar Forest (just down the road from a cute house I know!), and downtown Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery is full of Civil War and railroad history, plus some beautiful old graves and trees.
  4. Most people seem to enjoy serving their community. I think this is because Christian culture and hipster culture intersect in Lynchburg in a way that you don’t really see elsewhere, except in a few other cities (such as the one I’m about to move to–Grand Rapids, Michigan). Your Facebook news feed will give you lots of suggestions for ways to meet people, have fun, and do good all at once: from food truck fundraisers to racing in the CASA Superhero Run (or actually becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate–they’ll be looking for a new volunteer to replace me!).
  5. Speaking of races, Lynchburg has the most enjoyable one I’ve ever run. The Virginia 10-Miler, which occurs the last weekend of September every year, garners a massive turnout from locals as well as people who love it so much they travel in order to participate. The course is scenic and challenging (you don’t have to run up the bluff, but Lynchburg is hilly in general), and hundreds of volunteers turn out to hand out water and Gatorade and to cheer, making you feel like a celebrity even if you’re the slowest runner on the course. If a 10-mile race sounds like punishment to you, there’s also a four-miler as well as a four-mile walk.

I’ll stop here, though I could go on: Lynchburg has a cool old baseball stadium where the minor-league Hillcats still play, some good coffee and ice cream shops, and a full schedule of various festivals throughout the year (even more if you venture out into the surrounding hills–if you love apple-picking and hoedowns, you’re going to love fall in this area). Whether or not you decide to move here (and buy my house!), Lynchburg is a lovely place to visit. I’ll be visiting as often as I can.

Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).