Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Last Book You'll Need About How to Write a Book

I just finished the best book I've ever read about how to put together a story well. If you're a writer or wanna-be writer, this is the one for you. I was so excited when I was only two pages in, I could barely contain myself. Now I've finished and I'm working on my outline for my novel with a lot more confidence and delight than I had before when I was kind of confused and vague about what needs to go where. Plus, knowing this stuff makes me a much more effective manuscript editor.

The book? Oh, you want to know? It's called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks. Never before have I seen the process of writing a novel so well broken down, with all the necessary elements of what makes a great book defined. Brooks' constant and deliberate use of fragment sentences annoyed me quite a bit (the editor in me wanted to grab a pencil, and since I often read out loud in order to cement concepts in my brain via both visual and auditory methods, it was awkward to get those fragments read right), but the book is informative and the author is knowledgeable. He really, really has a problem with people who write organically (meaning that they simply write multiple drafts, letting the story take them where it will and then going back to see what's wrong). Brooks also calls it "pantsing," as in "writing by the seat of your pants," and he gives the reader many good reasons to abandon the practice without giving up creativity. Not being one to pants, I was already sold and I'm even more sold now that I'm armed with the tools I need to lay out my story.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

School Daze: Food for Thought

What, exactly, are teachers supposed to do? Do they just teach reading, writing, and 'rithmatic? Or are they also responsible for a child's emotional well-being, his grasp of societal norms and taboos, basic manners, and mentoring?

It's a good question, isn't it? I mean, our kids are with their teachers almost more than they are with their parents, so teachers, in some ways, are forced to fill the role of parent in many situations. A teacher with a class of 35 or more kids somehow has to help those kids learn all the basics in any given subject and deal with classroom management. And then we get all upset when they don't also spot every single problem our kid is having emotionally, physically, or spiritually; in fact, some parents get downright sue-happy when they realize that their precious little one isn't being treated with all the special, tender one-on-one time that the parents deem necessary.

I'm not being bitter or cynical here. I'm just throwing out some food for thought. Are teachers actually supposed to be responsible for all of that or is it possible that parents have now placed on teachers too much responsibility while avoiding it themselves?

A conversation I had with a friend today really brought that issue to the fore in my mind. She has intimate knowledge of what goes on in schools in our area, and one school in particular is atrocious. At this school, the principal has cultivated such an image of being a "pal" that he does not in any way demand responsibility or accountability from the students. The kids, who are in high school, attend class when they feel like it, leave school grounds when they feel like it, and abuse their teachers when they feel like it. The teachers at this school have no recourse. If they send a student to the principal's office for discipline, the principal lets them hang out with him, telling the kids to wait "while the teacher cools down." No one gets punished for multiple tardies or unexcused absences. If a parent comes to complain about their student's failing grade in a class, the teacher of that class is ordered to allow the student to make it up, even if the failing grade was a result of homework and attendance negligence.

I wonder what the principal thinks his duty as the leader of his high school actually is? When those kids graduate with what amounts to an eighth grade education (or less, depending on how well they did before they made it to this high school), they will be ill equipped to enter the workforce or attend college. Not only will their academic skills be lacking, they'll find that attendance is required, they have to be accountable for their performance, and no one is going to cut them much slack if they continue to act as if everything is to be run on their own time. They won't be ready to transition to adulthood.

This has already been proven. When a new high school was built in a town close by, students from Atrocious High (not its real name) were allowed to transfer. Nearly every single one of those who began attending the new school eventually transferred back because they couldn't handle having to show up to school on time, stay all day, and hand in their homework. There was no Pal in the head office willing to let every bad behavior slide. Plus, the principal of this school didn't appreciate being called by his first name.

The Atrocious High principal is an example of exactly what education should not be. He's incompetent and dangerous, and those kids will have to work for years to undo the damage that's been done to them by his personal desires not to upset anyone at any time. So again, it raises the question: what, exactly, is a teacher responsible for?

Because where are the parents of these kids? Why haven't they demanded that he be fired? Why are there no letters to the editor or calls to the district Board of Education? The teachers at Atrocious High are afraid to speak out because they'll be fired, and no one wants to be fired in this economy. Yet, they have all the responsibility and none of the authority because the parents of these kids and the principal are working together -- whether through open approval or silence -- to ruin these kids for life. Teachers can teach to empty classrooms or demand homework from kids who openly mock them, and in the end, they will be blamed for not giving them an education in life as well as letters and numbers.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Last week, I made rice pudding. I do that once in a while, much to the joy of my family (and my brother, Aaron, who happened to be visiting). But this time, I did something so crazy, so off-the-wall, that people just weren't sure it would turn out okay; and it turned out to be a brilliant success! Tonight, I'm going to share that success with you, and if you play your cards just right, you might become almost as popular as I am around these parts. But you'll be popular in your parts, of course, assuming people in your parts like rice pudding. These parts are my domain. So step away.

Here's what I did to the rice pudding (oh, aren't you excited??): I used only coconut milk instead of cow's milk. I know! YUM! The recipe is absolutely divine with regular milk, but when I put in 1/2 gallon of coconut milk instead, I totally ramped up the exotic taste factor along with the calorie count. And not only that, but I (wait for it...) sprinkled ground cardamom over the servings of those who felt a little more adventurous. Bliss. I don't know what it is, but that subtle, delicate whiff of cardamom that settles onto your palate like a flitting butterfly a moment after the creamy, softly textured pudding hits your tongue...well, it's indescribably delicious.

If you're thinking to yourself, "That's all fine and good, but not all of us are as rich as you are, Eva, to buy 1/2 gallon of coconut milk!" then I can't blame you. I did buy the milk at such a steep discount from my favorite grocery outlet that I'm worried that telling you how much I paid for it would sound like bragging of the most uncouth kind. Let's just say that I didn't spend over $2.00. I'm not made of money.

Here's the last rice pudding recipe you'll ever need. Play with it how you will, but as-is, it's perfect. It makes a lot, so share some with family and friends.

Anna's Pig-Out Rice Pudding, by Anna Tanner (I don't know Anna Tanner, but I definitely want to give her the credit for coming up with this.)

2 cups hot water
2 cups long grain rice (don't use jasmine rice. It clumps. I found that out the hard way)
1 cube butter
2 teaspoons salt

Put all ingredients in a large saucepan and boil until almost dry. Then add 1/2 gallon milk. Stir really well and turn the stove down to medium/low. Cover. Stir occasionally for the next 45 minutes to 1 hour. You'll know it's done when the rice is tender and the pudding starts to thicken a little.

When the pudding is ready, whisk together:
6 to 7 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 TABLESPOONS vanilla (yes. That's right)

Add the egg mixture to the pudding and stir to combine. The pudding should begin thickening up right away. Let the egg cook about 30 seconds or so, and then turn off the heat. Serve it hot, room temperature, or cold. You can sprinkle individual servings with cinnamon (or add a dollop of jam) if you like.

If you want to try my version, replace the milk with 1/2 gallon coconut milk and sprinkle with ground cardamom when serving.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Solved: the Guy is Cuckoo

I've had so many people ask me for an update on my Walmart boyfriend  that  I've decided to indulge your curiosity, you voyeuristic fans of mine. I hate to be the one through whom you must live vicariously, but if that's what it takes to satisfy my public, then so be it. I will go out and enjoy all these new experiences just so you can imagine how thrilling it would be if you were me. (sarcasm fully intended)

I believe the questions were these: was the worker at Walmart conducting some sort of sadistic experiment, or did he actually think I'm beautiful? And what would he have said had he come back from his break and I hadn't scampered quite so quickly and anxiously through the opposite exit?

I now have the answers, gentle readers! Prepare to be thrilled and amazed as I relate the ongoing saga of Anthony the Walmart Guy: Crazy for Me or Just Plain Crazy?

So here's what's happened so far (cue olde tyme soap opera organ music). After that little incident I related in the previous post, I managed not to run into him for a few weeks. In fact, I avoided that section of the store as often as I could, just to be sure. Why it got me so rattled I couldn't say, but Husband had a pretty good time laughing at me and my nervousness. Then, one day when my in-laws were here, the four of us ran to Walmart to pick up a few of the things they needed to take home to the British rellies (that's how they sometimes say "relatives" in England. They also refer to presents as "pressies," and vegetables as "veg." I think they have some sort of aversion to saying words full-length, since they also tend to chop off whole syllables in their place names, as well. For instance, when a word is spelled "Leicester," any normal human who can read English would assume it's pronounced "Lie-chest-er." NOT SO! If you say that, you're a tourist! You must say "Lester." Don't yell at me about it. I'm just the messenger here. Spend a good 18 months or so in England and learn all the silly rules yourself while exploring cool castles, eating real fish and chips, and attempting to speak to the locals about God. This message is not endorsed by any linguistics professors, tourism boards, or fish and chips councils.). The British rellies always fancy a bit of Lucky Charms cereal (probably because they live so close to Ireland), so we were standing in the cereal aisle discussing the relative merits of buying brand-name cereal in a box as opposed to generic stuff in a bag, when lo and behold! Walmart Boyfriend stepped up with fresh stock for the bins.

He gave me a big grin and probably would have spoken to me, but I did the whole smile with dismissive nod thing. Then, when his back was turned, Husband and I started giggling like fools. The in-laws didn't notice, but if they did, they probably assumed we were acting exactly as we normally act (is that sad?).

Another few weeks went by, and I had become complacent -- dangerously so. I was alone, walking down the baking aisle, when Walmart Boyfriend suddenly appeared like a somewhat tall, slightly dark apparition before me. Fortunately, when I am startled I often revert to Confident Mode (except in some critical situations, of course), so when he smiled at me, I smiled back and said with great elan, "Hi." Then he said, "You always look so beautiful." As if I receive lovely but outrageous compliments from perfect strangers all the time, I responded, "Thank you." He stuck out his hand. "My name's Anthony." I stuck out mine. "Eva. Nice to meet you." Then I smiled pleasantly and sailed blithely away down the aisle before he could think of something else to say.

Was I suave? Absolutely. Was I confident? Oh yes. My heart didn't even beat any harder with delayed adrenalin than usual. Is he crazy? Without a doubt. I got a really good look at him, and he should be hitting on my daughters, not me. Definitely crazy.

One of the good things about this is that I now know I haven't met him before and just forgot. I thought I might have suffered a serious memory gap there. I would post a photo of him, but you can't expect me to walk in and ask him to pose while I take a picture, can you? That might give him the wrong idea entirely. We constantly beautiful beings have to be careful (sarcasm fully intended).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Husband Wrote the Last Line

Today was Husband's three month checkup. Blood was drawn, vitals were taken, and the verdict was delivered: all is well. Hemoglobin up, platelets up, and all other signs indicate continued good health.

As we were leaving the parking garage, Husband said mysteriously, "And now I can continue the gaseous exchange with the infinite." Thinking I had somehow missed the profound meaning of that statement, I shot him an astute, "What??" Then I laughed because I couldn't help it.

"It's a phrase that keeps going through my head," he explained. "My brain keeps telling me it's terribly clever and I keep telling my brain it's incredibly stupid."

Now, I completely understand having an argument with your brain (though I try not to delve too deeply into the question of who, exactly, is doing the arguing), and I have written before about the strange and disturbing heated discussions one can have with oneself over flawed ideas, logic, and reasoning (including, but not limited to, waking up in the middle of the night just so you can stew and stress over something you know perfectly well you'll take care of the next day; or being plagued by luscious thoughts of eating dirt when you're anemic but knowing it's not a good idea to indulge). So I just laughed and laughed, and he laughed with me. If we are crazy, let us be crazy together. Maybe it's a writer's curse.

We celebrated the good news of his continued health by going to my parents' house and picking up my wheat grass juicer and sundry other items like CDs, books, and the like, which had been hiding under stuff in the garage or the spa/workout room. (It's been two years that we've lived in this house, and I think we'll be done moving very soon. Won't my parents be glad?) I've been wanting my juicer for a while now. If you've never slugged down an ounce of fresh wheat grass juice, you haven't lived. You certainly haven't lived with the intense and repeating wallop of fresh green grass tickling your tongue and punching you in the throat all day long. Take my advice and only drink a half-ounce or less until you get used to it -- if ever you do. It's kind of an acquired taste.

Since I haven't forced Husband to ingest any hippy health remedies like wheat grass juice lately, I don't think he can blame me for his terrible gaseous exchange with the infinite, now can he?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kid History Makes My Mouf Feel Aw Tingwy!

The family behind the Kid History movies are at it again, and I have two new ones to add to the collection. I embedded the first four videos here and there are now two more for your viewing pleasure. I personally think the sixth one is the best so far, but as I have laughed repeatedly and heartily over all of them, it's kind of hard to pick a favorite.

The kids and I are always quoting these movies, proving that the geek genes that compel a person to quote movies at random moments, to the annoyance of everyone around them, is as much a product of  environment as heredity. We're in good company, though. Even the neighborhood kids have taken to creating their own t-shirts with quotes from the movies. One girl around the corner has a shirt that says "Girls are mermaids" on the front, and on the back, "Some boys are mermaids, too."

Gabrielle was sitting in one of her high school classes last week, supposedly reading quietly from her textbook. She started thinking about Kid History 6 and couldn't stop herself from laughing out loud. Her teacher asked her why she was laughing, since the textbook was not really conducive to humor, and Gabrielle explained she had remembered a quote from the movie. The teacher started quoting from it, as well, and soon all the kids were giggling over their favorite parts. It's become a phenomenon.

And here's a little bonus:

Those Roberts boys are geniuses.  Genii? Those Roberts boys are really smart.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Seriously, Though

Seriously, though.

Yesterday was a red-letter day. The part for the vacuum cleaner arrived in the mail and Husband replaced the old, broken part. The vacuum now sucks. Yay for Husband! We could have spent the $50 on a new vacuum, but since you can't buy anything that will work longer than, say, five minutes for $50, it was well worth it to spend the money to fix our otherwise excellent vacuum cleaner. Sure, it's mostly held together with duct tape, but that sucker does a fantastic job.

Today, carpets were Hoovered. That's how they say it in England. That's just a bonus fact 'cause I'm feeling all generous and whatnot.

Tonight, I went downstairs to fetch Little Gary from the family room since it was bedtime. He had finally managed to snag a turn on the TV and was playing a video game, so he wasn't excited to hear I was going to end his fun and force a tooth-brushing. I'm tired, and dragging a small but determinedly stubborn boy up two flights of stairs was suddenly too much to deal with, so I plopped down on the couch and put my face in my hands.

"Are you going to watch me play, Mommy?" he asked excitedly, always happy to have a parental audience.

"No, I'm going to sit here and cry," I said in martyr tones.

"I will give you a hug and a kiss to make you feel better. And a raspberry. But a raspberry is gross," he said, not missing one move in his game.

"Thank you. But I also want to go to bed," I said.

"Well, go then!" he said helpfully, waving his hand at the door. He leaned over and nudged my shoulder. "Go on, then, Mommy! Go to bed."

Aww. How sweet. He's much more concerned about my well-being than his own, and he's only four. But as his mother, I can't let him wear himself ragged on my behalf. He's in bed now, the poor, selfless dear.