Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wrap It Up

mimi will not be changing her middle name to "Nostradamus" anytime soon. On January 1, I made the following predictions:
  1. Florida will not get hit by a major hurricane despite Apocalyptic reporting from The Weather Channel and nearly every Florida newscaster drawing breath. - Right on the money. Go me! Second career in meteorology!
  2. Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination for President. - Um, nope.
  3. Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination for President. - Um, nope again!
  4. Get used to saying "Madam President." - No, but we can get used to saying "Madam Secretary," which ain't too shabby.
  5. Britney Spears will do something stupid. Oh, wait a minute. That's not a prediction; that's a certainty! (Although girlfriend deserves a calm 2008!) - Girlfriend got herself a calmer 2008 and released some killer tracks. I'm glad to see her getting it together! Nobody deserves the kind of public breakdown she had to suffer through.
  6. Ratatouille will win the Oscar for Best Animated Film. - This one was truly a no-brainer.
  7. Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal will get engaged. - No, but still going strong.
  8. UCF will repeat as C-USA champs and win their bowl game this time. - (pause for hysterical laughter) Erm, no. The wheels totally fell off the Knights' wagon. Maybe next year!
  9. Celebrity obsession will be "so five minutes ago." - I wish, but no.
  10. They'll finally get the goods on Barry Bonds. - Still no, despite a fat head and obvious visual confirmation to the contrary. What is taking them so long??
Clearly, predictions are not my forte. So I won't be making any for 2009. Some stuff that did happen in 2008:
  • I won NaNoWriMo again!
  • I read the Dick Francis backlist. They were a chunk of an all-out reading orgy that included 90 new titles and 36 re-reads. That's a total of 126 books for the year, or an average of one book every three days.
  • I watched a bunch of movies. I didn't keep track of those.
  • I didn't keep track of my bank balance very well, either. You'd think all those courtesy pay charges I keep racking up at the credit union would have kept the entire American financial system afloat, but nooooooooooo. Something to work on.
  • Got to see the Canadians, though. That was fun!
  • Also went leaf-peeping in beautiful Western NC.
Basically, I can't complain. Chez mimi and its denizens are basically healthy, basically happy, still employed, and still together. All in all, that makes for a successful year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Florida, For Real


Pretty, aren't they? These are two of the Spanish horses from the wild herd roaming Paynes Prairie. Nice day spent with the rents, all the grandkids, and lots of walking and nature. Not a bad way to see out the year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Firsts by Francis

This year, I decided that one of my more attainable goals would be to read the entire Dick Francis backlist. One, although I couldn't plot one to save my life, I enjoy reading mysteries. Keeps the brain cells busy. Two, I have never wholly recovered from my girlhood horse obsession. Therefore, Dick Francis books, written by a British ex-steeplechase jockey and usually set either in or tangential to racing, have been a perfect match for years. But I've never read all of them. This year, I decided to rectify that fact.

Francis, who was once rode for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was champion jockey back in the 50s. When injury ended his career, he became a racing correspondent and in 1962, a novelist. One novel a year followed each year until 2000, the year his wife and chief researcher, Mary, died. Now he's helped by his son, Felix, and has released three books since. I've read all of them except Silks, the current release (I have it on hold at the library).

One thing about Francis, the man is consistent. Although some books are stronger than others, none of them are stinkers. They're all strongly written in first person. The viewpoint character is often someone involved in racing: a jockey, a correspondent, a trainer. What's cool about Francis is how he's able to weave in his research so beautifully. Various books have employed a film director, a wine merchant, a meteorologist, a chef, an architect, an artist, an investment banker, a glassblower, a writer of survival guides (you never know when you'll be left for dead in the calm English countryside!), a one-handed ex-jockey turned private investigator (I love me some Sid Halley!), and others as the viewpoint character. During the read, you learn amazing details of those worlds, woven in so smoothly that you don't realize how much you're learning. Now that's good writing.

And it's not just me who thinks so. Francis is the only three-time winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award, and he is also an MWA Grand Master. Not too shabby for someone who used to ride horses for a living. I enjoyed my gallops through the Francis backlist--once I get started on one, it's a race to the finish--and I learned a lot about solid writing doing so. Create strong characters with unique skills and interests, don't tell everything you know right away, give them a strong moral core so they can realistically keep outwitting the bad guys (who are often truly bad and ruthless to boot), and you'll create some unforgettable books. Here are some of my favorite first lines:

Odds Against - I was never particularly keen on my job before the day I got shot and nearly lost it, along with my life.
Risk - Thursday, March 17, I spent the morning in anxiety, the afternoon in ecstasy, and the evening unconscious.
Whip Hand - (Edgar Award winner) I took the battery out of my arm and fed it into the recharger, and only realized I'd done it when ten seconds later the fingers wouldn't work.
Proof - Agony is socially unacceptable.
Bolt - Bitter February, within and without.
Straight - I inherited my brother's life.
Come to Grief - (Edgar Award winner) I had this friend, you see, that everyone loved.
Second Wind - Delirium brings comfort to the dying.

Ride down to the library or bookstore and check out my man Dick Francis. If you love mystery and good writing, you're in for a smooth trip.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!!

For those of us who never experience a white Christmas, a little snow, courtesy of Currier and Ives:

Enjoy a restful and blessed holiday!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Beware of the Doghouse!

Okay, guys, this is why you need to pay attention when your wife/girlfriend/SO drops hints in the store:

NOTE: The jewelry ploy doesn't work on all women (mimi included). You really need to know her to find the perfect gift. But no pressure, okay? You got two days. Get crackin'.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

If Twilight Were...

Okay, this is very, very mean, but very, very funny. Check out's "If Twilight Was 10 Times Shorter and 100 Times More Honest."

Yes, I have just committed tweenage fangirl hara-kiri, but it made me laugh. What they said.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

P&P, Facebook Style

Okay, this is just hilarious. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, written as Facebook news feeds. Here's a sample:

Charles Bingley is buying a house!
Mrs. Bennet became a fan of Charles Bingley.
Kitty Bennet can't stop coughing!!!
Charles Bingley is now friends with Mr. Bennet and Sir William Lucas.
11 of your friends are attending Assembly at Meryton.
Fitzwilliam Darcy is dreading this evening.
Charles Bingley and Jane Bennet are now friends.
Elizabeth Bennet is not handsome enough to tempt a certain gentleman. Ha!
Mrs. Bennet had a most delightful evening!
Mr. Bennet wishes that Mr. Bingley had sprained his ankle in the first dance.
Elizabeth Bennet promises never to dance with Mr. Darcy.
Fitzwilliam Darcy became a fan of Fine Eyes.

&c. See the whole wonderful piece here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Knock It Off With the Chainsaws Already

This week's cover of Time sure pegged my Pissed-Off-O-Meter. The unsmiling woman in the photo is Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools. She is one no-nonsense broad. She's determined to make sweeping (hence the broom) changes in the D.C. system, damn the torpedoes.

More power to her. The public school system in this country is, let's just admit it, bloated and overly bureaucratic and in serious need of some housecleaning. But I have, to quote one of my more favorite movie lines, "reached the end of my tether" with the "public schools are broken!!" meme and the frantic calls that they need to be "fixed." Because when people say they want something fixed, they want a quick, clean, one-shot solution to the problem that leaves them with no more worries and the ability to walk away.

That is never going to happen with something as complex as public schooling. Believe me, if there were a magic bullet, someone would have found it by now. We teachers don't just sit around and drink coffee and talk to kids all day, you know.

What no one seems to be willing to admit is that schooling in general is highly complex work. No other profession, save possibly health care, requires its practitioners to deal with the day-to-day idiosyncracies of individuals at such a complex level. There is a huge difference between dealing with the idjit in the next cube who wastes company time playing online games so you can't finish your project goals on time and working with a third-grader who's just been kicked out of his house who still can't read as well as the average suburban kindergartener. Huge. As in, most of the blowhards who dismiss teachers and their supposed inability to hold a "real" job wouldn't last a week in a classroom, while many teachers have easily made the transition to corporate America and become quite successful, thank you.

What the Time cover story and the "broken schools" meme often suggest is that it's just bad teachers who keep all the schools from relocating to Lake Wobegon, where all children are above average. Get rid of bad teachers, and your battle's won. The problem is in how you identify a teacher as "bad." If you rely solely on test data, you're going to be tossing out plenty of fabulous teachers who choose to work with the toughest kids in the school. Many of those kids have learning issues so intense, Annie Sullivan wouldn't make a dent in them easily.

Test data don't tell the whole story. If a kid puts down his pencil and sleeps through the test, is it fair to judge the teacher? If another kid bombs because her anxiety over the test is so large, she's spent the past four days throwing up in the school nurse's office, is it fair to judge the teacher? Numbers don't lie--but they don't tell the whole story, either.

That's what's missing in an honest dialogue about public schools. The whole story. Don't just fret over the systems in crisis, like DC--find out what works in the leafy suburbs and see what they have that the crisis systems don't. Until there's equitable distribution of resources, you're not going to have equitable schools. Period. Can charters work? Sure--but if charters get state money, hold them to the same accountability standards expected of the public schools who survive on state money. That goes for the voucher folks, too. Take a voucher to attend a private school? Fine. But you have to take the state test along with it. If we're going to pass out state money, make the people who use it accountable for it.

And yes, be realistic about what teachers can do. If someone is doing nothing but drinking coffee and passing out worksheets, that person needs to find another line of work. But don't create "accountability measures" for teachers that would unfairly penalize those who choose to work with the toughest kids in the system. The solution, folks, is not a chainsaw. There's not that much wrong with the public schools. But we sure could use a great surgeon.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Joe the Writer?

We knew it had to happen. Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber" from late in the Presidential campaign, has just signed a book deal. In today's New York Times, Timothy Egan riffs on this in his acidic "Typing Without a Clue" opinion piece. In Egan's view, celebrity books like Mr. Plumber's bleed advance money and possibilities from real writers who deserve a chance far more than Mr. P deserves an extension on his nearly-up fifteen minutes.

Although Egan has a point (I am, after all, one of the unsigned writers out there who would lurve a book advance and a contract), there is something to the point of view that publishing houses exist to make money. And let's face it: there are a number of people out there who are really, really unhappy that Obama won the election who would snap up Mr. P's tome if for no other reason than to salve their wounds. Bracing talk from people who agree with your point of view can make you feel better, after all.

Joe the Plumber and other "celebrity" authors sell books. Unfortunate fact, but there you are. And if they sell books, then publishing houses make money. When houses make money, they have more money available for romance novels and cookbooks and literary fiction. And women's fiction, for that matter. So I guess I'll just have to take my students' word on this.

"Don't hate."

Monday, December 01, 2008

NaNoWriMo Debriefing

Fifty thousand, seven hundred and forty words later, I am a proud 2008 NaNoWriMo winner, which basically means that I can post cool graphics on my blog attesting to that fact and, if I'm jonesing for concrete validation, I can download a certificate to print out. But it's not like I didn't know that going in. NaNoWriMo is a personal challenge. It's also conducted on the honor system. The computer bots don't know whether the file I uploaded for validation is my actual book or just a whole bunch of that lorem ipsum gobbledegook pasted over and over and over, so it's up to me to submit the real thing, which I did.

This book was the first one I've ever written where I didn't have a solid idea of where the story was going to go before I started. Normally, I have a very clear picture in my head of an opening scene and a very clear picture of a closing scene, with a lot of territory to fill in. This book started with a title and a tagline. The title is basically a smart-alecky play on words and connects to two other titles, equally smart-alecky, designed to tell the stories of three different women who have been best friends since college. Belle on Wheels, this year's book, is Lucy's story.

When I sat down with my laptop on November 1, I knew Lucy's name, where she worked, and what her major issue happened to be. I'd worked for about a week on some ideas. Random cards pulled from The Writer's Brainstorming Kit helped me nail down the internal and external conflict lines. Along the way, Lucy gained an alcoholic father, a daughter with a secret, an ex-lover, a scheming ex-stepdaughter, and three ruined marriages. Someone basically not at all like me, which made her very fun to write.

I discovered that early morning is my very best time. My house starts up early anyway, so I'd get up around five and write for an hour before waking up Frick so he can make the bus on time. Most mornings, I'd write around a thousand words in an hour. Not bad, considering I didn't have much of a plan. Many of the plot elements emerged as I went along and made things more interesting for her and for me.

Now the trick is to get the revision accomplished. I've done NaNo for the past three years now, with two wins and a 40K "failure" to my credit. Basically, I have three drafts of three very different books, and none of them are complete. Before NaNo, I tended to percolate on my stories until I was pretty happy with the direction of the chapter, then I'd write the whole chapter. What emerged was usually pretty clean, so revision was fun. With NaNo, though, I have a complete story arc. Retraining my brain to accept very sloppy draft (since my previous drafts have been much, much tighter) has been a struggle. But as Buttercup reminded me, "It may be a mess, but at least you have a novel written." Point taken. Now I have to work on a new way of refining said novel.

Another insight was changing my software. For years, I've used AppleWorks for all my word processing. I finally bowed to the masses and bought a copy of Word (under protest). But Word was not the magic key. The magic came from an inexpensive piece of software for writers called Scrivener. It. Is. So. Kewl. Scrivener lets you plan on virtual notecards, move them around on a virtual corkboard--great for when you realize a scene is in the wrong place--move the card, and all the text you've written for that scene moves with it. No more cut and paste! Somehow, writing those thousand-word chunks in a text file attached to a card was so much easier than scrolling through pages and pages of a Word file. Yes, I know you can do that with anchors, but Scrivener's interface was just so much more intuitive and wonderful. Plus, at $39.95 for a full copy, it's a steal. If you have a Mac, zip over to Literature and Latte and download a free trial. It was a godsend this year.

So a couple of days off (maybe--I came up with an idea this morning while brushing my teeth, so I need to make it happen before it evaporates), and then on to the revision. Maybe I'll try a couple of books at one time. I have some great mojo working for me.

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