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Patience Is More Than A Virtue

Several decades ago, a series of studies were done, known as the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Here it is in a nutshell: Young children are presented with a treat (such as a marshmallow) and told they can eat it now, or if they wait fifteen minutes for the tester to return, they can have two. Some children waited the full time. Some didn’t wait at all. Some tried to wait, but gave in and ate the marshmallow before time was up.

Over the following years, the kids who were able to delay gratification were more successful in a variety of life measures. Self-control puts us on better footing in society.

More recently, a follow-up study at the University of Rochester played with the variables a bit. Half of the children experienced the tester breaking a promise before the marshmallow experiment began. The other half experienced the tester keeping a promise. No surprise which group was able to wait longer during the experiment.

To me, this has implications for all aspects of our lives, including writing and publishing.

As far as I can tell, the most successful authors—on both sides of the traditional/self-publishing aisle—practice not only persistence, but patience. (And I consider “success” not only straight-up dollars, but also quality of product, strength of work, and longevity of career.) As both a reader and a writer, signs of impatience strike me as red flags. Some examples:

– A slapdash cover (or better, one with a stolen image) on a self-published book because “it’s what inside that matters.”

– Lack of editing because “the story is good, and who cares about grammar or craft if it’s a good story?”

– A query put up for critique, only to see that the writer self-published the book within the past few weeks.

– Queries sent out, only to have the writer self-publish before several agents even have a chance to respond.

– Querying every agent who lists that genre, without further research, and signing with a “schmagent” just because they offered.

– Submitting to every publisher who doesn’t require an agent (sometimes while querying agents simultaneously), and signing with any who offers.

I’m sure there are others.

Seriously, what’s the hurry? If you choose to go the traditional route, it’s a long process. Learn to love waiting, because you’ll do a lot of it. There will be times you have to rush—quick turnaround on copyedits, maybe—but the patience will serve you well.

If you’re still looking for an agent, it’s worth it to take your time and do your research, improving the odds that you’ll land with the right agent. In my case, taking my time and not giving in to the urge to bail and self-publish also ensured that my writing improved. Now it’s to a point where I’m fairly comfortable with the idea of it going out into the world. (It’s fine to switch tracks from querying agents to self-publishing. Just do it thoughtfully, not as an emotional act of desperation.)

If you’re self-publishing, have the self-control to take your time and do it well. Just because it’s easy to throw a first-draft out there doesn’t mean you should. If part of your motivation is that traditional publishing takes too long, that’s okay. Even taking your time, you can likely get it done well more quickly than a big publishing house.

There’s something to be learned from that second study, too, and the effect of whether the kids believed the promise would be delivered. We’re grown-ups. Don’t give in to excuses like “But this self-published book is crap and made a million dollars” or “But this Big Publisher book is crap and they made it a movie.” We shouldn’t be worrying so much about the promises of the market or the industry to make sure “the cream rises.”

We should worry about whether we can keep the promise to ourselves that we’ll BE the cream.

In Defense of First Person

Recently I heard a well-known author state that (paraphrasing) writing a story in first person is a terrible idea, shouldn’t be done, and that writing it in present tense is even worse. Respectfully, I disagree. I’m addressing the “present tense” part over on From the Write Angle, so here I’ll focus on first person.

One criticism of first-person narrative was that it’s what newbie, amateur writers default to, and they don’t have the skills to do it well.

On the first count, well, that’s kind of a big generalization. I started my very first manuscript in third person, got 5-10 pages in, and knew something wasn’t working. I went back, changed it to first person, and it flowed from there. My friend Charlee Vale tells me her first two manuscripts were entirely in third person.

But maybe the majority of new writers automatically go with first person? Sure, I can buy that.

On the second count, let’s face it. Our very first attempts with any writing technique or tool usually suck. This author posited that everyone should master third-person limited before even considering first person. You know, that’s probably not a bad idea in general. At the least, we should learn the strengths and limitations of all our options and practice to maximize their potential.

Another criticism was that there’s a “falseness” to first person. Your main character has to narrate things they would never say about themselves, engage in an unrealistic level of self-consciousness, etc. Plus in first person past tense, supposedly any suspense the character experiences is false, because they’ve already survived the tale in order to “tell” it to us. They know exactly what happens.

Here’s where people divide into two camps according to how they experience reading. Some people read a first-person narrative and process it as an artifact, a memoir written by the main character, or a record of that character verbally telling the story.

I’m not in that camp. I don’t view stories in that kind of framework unless they’re explicitly placed in it—”Now, let me tell you about the time my grandpa gave me a birthday present that changed the world.” I view the story as simply happening. I don’t think about someone telling it or writing it—it just unfolds before me, and the book with written words is just the delivery vehicle.

Just like when I watch a movie, I don’t think about “Who’s following these people around with a camera everywhere?”

I don’t know if that puts me in the majority or minority, but there it is.

At any rate, why should we or shouldn’t we use first person? Some people find the constant “I, I, I, me, me, me” obnoxious. Fair enough. Third-person limited lets us get into our protagonist’s head just as much as first person, so why don’t we stick to that?

To me, there’s still just a little more separation between reader and protagonist in third person. A character in third can get away with withholding a little information from the reader that would feel forced and fake in first person. First person, on the other hand, delivers the protagonist’s experience a little more exactly. In that case, it’s easier to withhold information from the character.

First person is notably more prevalent in some types of fiction than others, particularly young adult (YA). Some have said this is because teenagers are so self-centered, so they gravitate toward that focus on the “me.”

That may have some merit, but it doesn’t feel quite right. I know a lot of selfless, generous, thoughtful teens. Rather than self-centered, I think of them as “self-centric.” (That may be a distinction with no difference, but it makes sense to me.) The world doesn’t revolve around them—they are simply their own anchor point in a world that’s expanded tremendously since their pre-teen years.

It still sounds like I’m saying the same thing two ways, I guess. If it makes sense to any of you, and you can explain it better, please let me know.

I think for me, when choosing between first and third person, part of the decision is based on the answer to a question. Is this a story in World X focusing on Character Y? Or is it Character X’s story, occurring in World Y? Essentially, it’s a matter of story ownership, and how tightly that ownership is tied to that specific character.

First person can be very limited and restrictive, it’s true. But sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs, and I refuse to believe it’s a bad thing in and of itself. Like all tools and techniques, it has its place, its function, its value.

What do you think about first-person narratives? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Share your opinions and experiences (respectfully, please) in the comments.

Fighting Misogyny: What Can I Do?

Let me be clear. I’m not waving my hands helplessly in the air saying, “There’s nothing I can do, leave me alone!” This is a sincere request for ideas.

If you don’t follow news in the same circles I do, here’s a quick summary: In science-fiction particularly, female authors aren’t always treated as equals by their not-so-female peers. There have been similar “kerfuffles” in the gaming community. And if you check out @EverydaySexism on Twitter, you can see that it’s a dishearteningly widespread issue across all communities.

As an author, I have some ideas about how I can be pro-female (without being anti-male), how I can keep an eye out, how I can speak up. During the school year, though, I spend five days a week with teens between 13 and 15 years old. I feel like I should be doing something to address issues of sexism with those students, especially since the gaming-community issues often seem to be attributed to boys in that age group.

But how?

I’ve talked a few times about an individual who exhibited definite negative behavior. I pulled him aside, had talks with him, made it clear it wasn’t acceptable … and made some progress. But most students are smart enough to avoid super-overt displays of misogyny in my classroom.

One-time “serious” class discussions don’t always do very much. As a student, I know I tuned them out, waiting for the teacher to get back to the “real” lesson. Changing behavior and views takes time, right?

So does teaching math, and I clearly can’t throw that out the window. Honestly, when I get going on the math, it’s easy to get one-track about it, so it would be good to know what kind of concerted effort I should be making.

Is it a matter of modeling? Consistency in my own speech and behavior? Seizing on those teachable moments when they pop up and taking five minutes for them? (For instance, any time a boy uses a word like “girl” as though it’s an insult.)

I want to do what I can in my own little sphere of influence. It just feels so big, and I don’t know where to start.

Any ideas?

New Digs and a Giveaway!

Here’s the new site! I’m still kicking the tires and sprucing it up a bit (uh, mixed metaphor much?), but feel free to take a look around.

How about a giveaway to celebrate? We’ll keep it simple. Comment on this post, and I’ll do a random-number thing to pick a winner at 10pm MDT (that’s right, Mountain Time) on Friday, May 24th.

The winner gets a $25 gift card to the book retailer of their choice. At least, the retailer of their choice to which I can easily get a gift card, in the U.S. or Canada.

Yikes, I can’t forget this! Credit for the design goes to Tessa at ipopcolor. I love it, Tessa!

Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

In Support of Birthdays

Yes, you read that right.

Despite the associated anxiety that “Ugh! I’m getting old!” I’ve decided I’m in favor of birthdays. Not only am I in favor of them, I think we should give them more weight … particularly over other certain holidays.

This post lining up with Mother’s Day is no coincidence.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my mom. She beats herself up over perceived shortcomings (gee, wonder where I got that from), when in reality she’s done a great job raising the three of us.

I likewise respect mothers everywhere. It’s hard work. Infinitely rewarding, yet often thankless. My metaphorical hat is off to you all.

And yet, I have a problem with Mother’s Day.

If you know me, you probably know I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, either. Could this simply be bitterness at work? Perhaps. (Okay, somewhat likely, in part.) But I do have more behind it than that. It could be a matter of over-thinking, but when has that ever stopped me?

You see, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day—among others—have something in common. They ask us to celebrate a singular aspect of you-ness as though it can be separated from all the rest of the you-ness.

My mother is a mother, yes. She’s also a singer, a gardener, a pianist, a teacher, a genealogist, and a reader. She enjoys movies and games and puzzles. She loves animals. She hates balloons because she hates them popping.

Why single out one label over the others? Same goes for celebrating the fact that two people are each other’s romantic partner. Aren’t they more than that?

I like the idea of celebrating the whole person, for everything they are.

Thus, birthdays.

A day not for celebrating labels, but to celebrate a person’s very existence. Where it doesn’t matter what you aren’t, because the day is about what you are. Everyone has a birthday. No one has to be left out. Even if odd circumstances mean we don’t know the exact date, one can be declared and accepted. The specific day doesn’t matter, because it’s the symbol that’s important.

It’s your day to be appreciated for all you are.

No guilt trips or feelings of inadequacy necessary.

Just a thought.

When Words Are Worse Than Sticks & Stones

Words will never hurt me, huh?

Sometimes that can be true. If someone calls me a geek, I’ll just agree with them. If someone tells me something I know is untrue, big deal. It’s all well and good to say we should know who we are and be confident enough that name-calling doesn’t hurt us. But words hold a particular danger. They have a tendency to become more than just words.

I’ve talked about it before, how words have power and saying you’re teasing doesn’t make it okay. It’s continued to be an issue in varying ways in my classroom.

On a regular basis, a student will tell me something like, “Guess what—Girl X (sitting right there) made out with Boy Y last weekend.” First, I don’t care. Second, I’m pretty sure it isn’t true. And what does the girl do? Smack his arm playfully, act shocked, and say, “I did not! Stop it!” … with a smile.

In other words, encourage him to keep saying such things.

After years of getting the attention he wants from “joking” about girls being “easy,” what else is he going to think he can get away with?

I say when a guy (or anyone) is a jerk, call him out on it. Shut him down. Don’t give him what he wants.

On a related note, a student has spent most of this year calling himself and his friends a particular made-up word. “Miss Lewis, I can’t do this—I’m a _____. _____’s don’t do math.”

(Mostly this has had “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” running in my head all year.)

But then some of the friends let it slip that this name for themselves was a portmanteau of two words, one of which is ‘pimp.’

I am not okay with this. I know the word has come to have certain pop-culture meanings (i.e., pimp my ride), but as a noun, in the context of a group of boys calling themselves this, I’m not okay with it.

So I’m calling them out on it. I’m asking them if they know what a pimp actually is. (We’re in a sheltered enough community that some kids actually don’t know.) Then I’m asking if they know how a real pimp views women. Once that’s clear, I ask if they understand now why I don’t want to hear anything more about that made-up word in my classroom.

So far, they’ve understood, but I haven’t really seen the main instigators yet. (Just started having these little talks on Friday.) We’ll see if I actually have any success keeping the word out of my classroom. And better yet, convincing these kids that it’s not such a great thing, whether in my classroom or not.

I suspect the originator will argue with me and say my least favorite sentence: “It’s okay, Miss Lewis.”

I truly worry about someone who so constantly tries to insist something’s okay when I tell him to his face that it’s not.

I’ll keep trying.