Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Obstacles: A Guest Post By M.R. Merrick

OBSTACLES
By M.R. Merrick

[Matt+-+Headshot.bmp]

First I want to thank Paul for inviting me to guest post, it’s officially the first one I’ve done so I’m kind of excited.

Paul asked me to guest post a few weeks ago, and I put it off again and again. Suddenly, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Then my wife mentioned I should write about writer’s block, which seemed ironically…ironic, considering my situation.

Writers block happens to all of us. Artists of all makes run into dry spells where they can’t find the inspiration they once had. Everyone, of course, has their own method of overcoming these obstacles. Some might stare at a blank page or an empty canvas until something comes to them. Others just throw down anything and push past it, coming back to fix things later. Today, I want to talk about what works for me.

EXILED was the first book I’d ever written. I’d never written a short story, a novella, nothing more than a few pages of horribly crafted poetry. You know:

Roses are red
Other flowers are purple
Some are green
But I like blue

Like I said: Horribly. Crafted. Poetry.

I’ve always used writing as a means of venting, but on one particular day, I didn’t want to vent. I wanted to get lost in a world that wasn’t my own. Normally, this would be the point I’d pick up a good book and disappear, but that just wasn’t enough this time. So I sat down to write about this long running idea I’d had in my head: A demon hunter with the ability to control the elements. And my story was born.

I didn’t write an outline, nor did I have a summary, I just wrote. On my journey to crafting a SuperAmazingYouWontBelieveItWhyHaventYouReadItYet story, I ran into more than my share of roadblocks. Where was this story going? Why was the character acting like this? This doesn’t make sense because earlier I said something conflicting. It was a long – and often painful – process. But I loved it.

When I ran into these obstacles, I tried a few different things and searched forums and blogs, trying to find how other writers moved past it. I tired brainstorming, forcing myself to push past it, and I tried just taking time off away from the story. Nothing worked. I discovered the best way break down these walls (for me), was the same thing that made me love the idea of elementals in the first place: dreaming.

Years before this story was born, I used to dream about being able to control the elements. How cool it would be if I could channel the power of water and control the contents of it in a glass. What if vampires weren’t like this, but were really like this? What if I took a classic monster, and made it like this? When I took this method and applied it to my story, things started clicking into place.

I stepped away from my computer and relived the story in my mind, over and over again. From Chapter 1, until the obstacle, I envisioned Chase and Rayna really living the story. When I’d reach the obstacle at hand, it was easier to envision what naturally happened next, as opposed to staring at the pages and deciding what I think should happen. Dreaming about my story brought new ideas, broke down roadblocks, and took my story to the next level.

In writing SHIFT, the sequel to EXILED, this process helped me in such an amazing way, I wrote the first draft in under six weeks, which for me, is an unbelievable feat.

The point is: I stopped trying what worked for everyone else and I found what works for me.

Whatever your artistic craft, you can expect to run into obstacles. Some will be small and you’ll easily overcome them. Others will have you ripping your hair out in frustration. The obstacles are nothing. They’re not important. What’s important is the way you overcome them.

There are a ton of great websites out there advocating writing and/or publishing advice/tips/rules, and there are a lot of them that are useful, but remember, what works for someone else may not work for you, it might however, help you discover what does. And when it comes to art, the rules aren’t rules - they’re guidelines. If we all followed the rules the way they were written, nobody would ever create anything new.

In this journey, learn everything you can about your craft and create the best art that’s in you to create. Obstacles will be there, no doubt about it. Some will succeed in slowing you down, others will make you think you don’t have what it takes, but don’t let any of that stop you. Ever.

Discover what works for you, and maybe, one day, you’ll find you’ve created a world unlike any other. One that people find themselves dying to be a part of.

M.R. Merrick is the author of EXILED, the first novel in his YA Fantasy series which was e-published earlier this summer.  Merrick loves movies, books, writing, and can't function without music.  He believes coffee is a necessity, chocolate is good, and eats cereal from a large salad bowl.  Merrick is currently editing SHIFT, the second novel in his series, which is slated to be e-published in 2012.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dude; Paul! Where've Ya Been, Buddy?

It's been over a week since I posted.  Life has been busy (a concept I'm not that familiar with), and honestly, I haven't had much to say.  I'm in an editing funk; I've been struggling to move forward.  When I'm unable to progress at a pace I find acceptable, I tend to hide from blogger.  I feel I don't belong.

A number of variables diverted my attention from the W.I.P.  The summer has kept me longing for a deep breath.  Seeking employment is a full-time job; it drains my energy, and when I quit for the day, little stamina remains for anything productive.  I've read fewer books than ever before.  I've skipped the gym more than I normally would.  I've slept in because I don't feel like uploading resumes.  And I've dog-paddled around the manuscript because I can't plow through the water.  It's a bit cold for my liking right now.

Regardless, the summer yielded memorable experiences - moments now filed in the archives in hopes of producing inspiration.  And although my production has been disappointing (I think it started when Borders closed shop and I lost my writing home), I have kept myself occupied with some once in a lifetime experiences.

  • My grandfather turned 100.  I traveled to Brooklyn for his celebratory luncheon, and this year, was introduced to relatives for the first time.  I don't have a large family; I never met my paternal grandmother, mom is an only child, and dad had one brother who passed away when I was in college.  I never had an Aunt or cousin, so extended family is all I know.  I am thankful for the opportunity to meet these people; although decades separate us in age, it's amazing how we get along. 

  • In 1996, I attempted a family tree project.  Unfortunately, lightening struck the house and fried the computer, deleting my efforts saved to that hard drive.  My grandfather's birthday motivated me to dig out the letters from my great aunts and uncles (I kept them knowing this was the only link to my heritage).  I'm enjoying the chance to read through the information - tracing my roots to Italy and relearning the story of how we arrived in the United States.  And, thanks to social media, I'm able to look up the extended relatives I've never met.  It's nice to have a face associated with the name.

  • My brother got married.  It was a fun weekend that got me away for a few days.  I had not been away in nearly two years, so it was much exactly what I needed. 

  • I turned 28.  I could list 28 reasons I'm not happy with this number, but I'll spare you.  I'll just say life moves incredibly fast; and I'm aware I don't take time to appreciate the journey.  My birthday is less meaningful each year.  I used to get excited for presents and parties.  Now, I look forward to hearing from people and taking the day to relax.  I don't need a big celebration or a crazy night out.  I'm happy with my favorite dinner, a sinful dessert, and a small gathering with close friends.  I guess it was the perfect day.

  • Mother Nature has been cranky.  An earthquake, tornado, and hurricane - all in one week.  Somebody buy her a drink, would ya?  (Though, kidding aside, I'm thankful to report we survived with no damage or inconveniences - and my local blogger friends seem to be in the same boat.  We didn't even lose power.) 

With summer winding down, I am planning to turn my attention back to the W.I.P.  And find a flexible job that allows me to write on the side.  And find a new writing den that provided the inspiration and encouragement Borders once did.

Oh, and the reigning champion is enthusiastically awaiting his fantasy draft next Monday.  Any recommendations?  Leave them below!

I'm also excited to participate in the Worst Movies Ever Blogfest on September 19.  If you are interested in joining us, you can sign up here.

Finally, I will be drawing a winner to receive ten new MG/YA novels to be donated to a classroom teacher.  The giveaway ends Wednesday at midnight, so click here to enter.

What's new with everyone??

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I'm On The Web, Y'all!

Fellow writer Jeff Beesler featured me in a humbling post today.  I'm honored to be included in his Awesome Writers Week series.  You can read the feature by clicking here.

Also, I am donating ten new MG/YA novels to a classroom library this fall.  If you are or know a teacher who could use  new books, please enter this giveaway and help me support literacy education.  You can find more details by clicking here.  I'm appreciative of all who help spread the word.

Support Literacy Education: Win 10 Books For A Teacher's Classroom Library

I'm hosting a giveaway.  No, you can't win, but someone you appreciate can.

In honor of Back to School season, I am donating ten new MG/YA novels to a classroom library.  One thing I remember about teaching is new books are hard to come by, especially given the massive budget cuts districts are facing.  By entering this giveaway, you give your nominated teacher an opportunity to receive this awesome prize package to share with students.

The Books:

1.  Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals (Memoir)

2.  Tangerine by Edward Bloor

3.  Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

4.  Night Hoops by Carl Deuker

5.  Losing Faith by Denise Jaden

6.  A Wrinkle in Time by Madison L'Engle

7.  Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

8.  Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

9.  Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli

10.  The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

How To Enter:

1.  Comment on this post no later than Wednesday, August 31, 11:59 EST, nominating a classroom to win the book package.  Why would you like to see the books go to this teacher?  Your comment does not need to include the teacher's name and should exclude information about where he/she works.  Some examples are as follows:

  • My son's fifth grade teacher motivated him to read.
  • My former 8th grade English teacher got me interested in writing.
  • My daughter's Reading teacher improved her comprehension skills.
  • My neighbor teaches in an underprivileged school with few resources for new books.
2.  That's it.  I will use randomizer.org to generate a comment number, and that classroom/teacher wins the books.  The winner will be announced and notified on Thursday, September 1.

3.  Though it is not required, I'm appreciative of anyone who mentions this giveaway and/or shares the link on twitter, facebook, or in a blog post.

4.  New here?  Like what you see?  Make my day and click the follow button!  And drop a line; I like getting to know everyone.

The Rules:

1.  Unfortunately, this giveaway is not international.  The winning teacher must live in the United States or Canada to receive the shipment.

2.  The winner will need to provide an address for shipment.  This can be handled one of two ways:
  • The teacher is e-mailed a heads up and the books are sent directly to him or her at school (the person who entered on their behalf can send me a note to include in the package).
  • The books are shipped to the person who entered the contest and he/she delivers them to the  school.
3.  You may nominate one classroom each day, but please do not nominate the same classroom twice.

4.  If you are a teacher or school librarian, feel free to nominate yourself by leaving a comment below.  The goal of this giveaway is to get books in the hands of students and keep them reading.

Thanks in advance to everyone who participates.  And thanks to those who help spread the word.

Good Luck!  #SupportLiteracyEducation #YASaves

Monday, August 15, 2011

Happy Two Years, WIP!

My manuscript turned two on Saturday.  I remember starting this project with no expectations.  I never expected to finish a book - it was something I did to pass time; to avoid looking for jobs that didn't exist and fool myself into thinking I was busy.

I remember when my W.I.P. turned one.  I realized, whether I wanted to admit it or not, the project consumed me, just as everything I'm passionate about manages to do.  It's not a pastime; it's not a hobby.  It's a project I'm committed to taking as far as I can on my own, and then, investing the time and energy it will take to reach the next level.  True, the next level is not something I control, but if you treat a writing project as though it will land exactly where you want, you have reached the mindset needed to produce quality work.  If you sit down to try something, you're likely to come up short.  Mentally, you have convinced yourself it's a simple experiment.  If you sit down to do something, you fight and push and persevere until your goal is accomplished.  And then, you fight and push and persevere to make it better and better and better.  Most importantly, you never quit.

I laugh when people think writing a book involves just that: writing the book.  People baffle me when they are unable to realize taking the craft seriously puts more on your plate than composing sentences intended to tell a story.  My eyes roll when people ask why we rewrite.  Or when people think editing involves running spell check and doing a quick once over to make sure everything makes sense.  Because although my family and friends are not writers, I would expect them to have more common sense regarding how books come to be.

My first year was centered around my story, though I can't say I worked on it every day.  Time management was a challenge; I failed to follow a consistent routine that blocked time for my daily activities.  Something was always neglected - writing, the gym, reading, socialization.  And a lot of time was wasted (though a large part of this was due to an inconvenient part-time job that, due to travel time and scheduling gaps, was not in my best interest given my other goals).  But with one year down, I learned there was more to the job than the physical act of writing.  I knew I wasn't doing enough; if I was committed to crossing the finish line, it was time to step up my training.

A year ago, the following was true:
  • I had yet to create a Twitter account.
  • My blog had two followers.
  • My first draft was 46% complete.
  • I had never met another writer in person.
  • I had never attended a workshop, conference, or class on writing or the publishing industry.

Over the past year, I have:
  • Created a Twitter account (that, for the record, is not used to announce when I'm eating a sandwich or brushing my teeth, as a friend once mocked me for).
  • Built up this blog and connected with writers all over the globe - some published, some represented, and some beginning.
  • Completed the first draft of a YA Contemporary.
  • Met a number of writers in my area, as well as a handful who stopped in from other parts of the country.
  • Attended events online and otherwise to study the craft.
  • Invested personal time to research and learn on my own.
  • Made time to read and write every day; days off are now planned in advance and no longer when I "don't feel like doing it."
  • Made it a priority to get out a bit more - both for inspiration and stamina.  It's amazing how seeing a good movie or meeting up with buddies refreshes the brain.
As teachers, we are taught to assess progress with benchmarks.  Meeting standards is a process involving multiple steps; lessons are intended to move students closer to mastering a concept, but no concept is fully grasped overnight.  Writing a book is much like going through school.  Our success is not defined by one final product - we achieve it through each individual milestone in a lengthy, time consuming process.  Just as students balance multiple subjects at once, we juggle more than outsiders realize.  We become our own teacher.  We write.  We read.  We research.  Study.  Network.  Revise.  Critique.  Analyze.  Blog.  Build a readership.  Promote.

We evolve, learn, and grow.  And by juggling each component at once, we move closer to achieving our goals.

How have you evolved since your journey began?  Any major realizations that helped redirect your path?  What did you wish you knew when you first sat down to write?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ten Reasons You're Lucky I'm Not Your Teacher

"Whatever you are, be a good one."
~Abraham Lincoln

My brother got married this weekend.  It was my first time away in over two years, so for three days, I was immersed in my surroundings and forgot the other crap.  I didn't let myself think about jobs, money or insurance; I didn't even think about writing.  I decided to enjoy myself for a change, and I'd say I was pretty darn successful.

Towards the end of the weekend, I had a conversation with a woman who teaches undergraduate courses at a local university.  She is beginning her 34th year.  We were discussing various topics in public education, and at one point, she cut me off to say the following:

Paul, I don't know what the f*ck is going on, but it has never been this bad.  The kids don't pay attention; they're on their phones, they leave early - and then they complain about grades.  They don't study, can't write a paper, and don't want to do anything.  My office hours are empty - nobody comes to discuss anything.  If I offer points to see a guest speaker, I sit in the auditorium myself.  They answer essay questions in bulleted fragments and their research papers are junk - nobody can even read a rubric.  They don't belong in college, and I'm sick of it.  Teachers are not preparing them - they don't read and write enough.  There is no accountability and no reason to try.  Nobody fails; everyone gets promoted.  It never used to be this way.  In 34 years, this is the worst I've seen it.

The above statement was obviously typed from memory and is not a direct quote, but still, you get the gist.  The professor's thoughts have remained on my mind; I can't shake them because she is absolutely right.  Educational priorities have shifted, and it's incredibly frustrating.
 Cameron Diaz's 'Bad Teacher' Poster - Exclusive!

If I said everything I wanted to say, this post would be an anthology.  But the insight above sparked thoughts I wanted to share.  Good teachers are out there, but so are bad ones.  Really, really, really bad ones, and I'm not talking about Cameron Diaz.  Yet for every bad teacher hogging a classroom, an amazingly talented, highly qualified applicant sits home (to be clear, I'm thinking of many I've worked with - not myself).  And every September, they pray for a classroom to enter the next year.

Our system is jacked up.  I'm over tenure.  I'm over the impersonal online application process because "paper applications will not be accepted."  I'm over clicking a link to express interest in a job when hundreds of others are doing the same and my information will never be screened.  I'm over cuts made to educational programs.  I'm over class sizes equivalent to small fraternities and retiring teachers not being replaced.  And I'm over the really, really, really bad teachers who just don't give a damn.

Ten Reasons You're Lucky I'm Not Your Teacher:

1.  I care about the kids - not my salary.  I declared my major knowing darn well I'd never be rich.  I don't care about summers off and I don't call out.  In three years, I banked 32 sick days.  I wanted this job; I have no intention of handing my key to a substitute.  Sorry; you're most likely stuck with me the full 180 days.

2.  I make my own assignments, tests, and rubrics.  I don't print from the Internet or copy from books because those materials were created by someone who never met my students.  Yes, I take ideas from resources and consult others for suggestions, but it stops there.  Everything I hand out is made by me.

3.  You WILL write in my class.  You will read, too, and you will do both CORRECTLY.  I missed where it said you only read in English class.  I missed the doctrine stating elements of good writing are not applicable outside language arts, and therefore, history papers can be written however you'd like because we only assess content.  This teacher believes in writing and literacy ACROSS the curriculum. 

4.  I'll encourage you to revise assignments and resubmit them for more points.  We learn from correcting mistakes and nothing is ever perfect.  We can always improve; I'll expect you to take advantage of this opportunity to better yourself as a learner.

5.  I stick to deadlines.  Patterns of behavior form at an early age.  It is so important students are trained to manage their time and submit things when they are due.  Bill collectors don't budge.

6.  I can turn any game into a lesson and any lesson into a game.  My lessons are designed around student-centered learning.  Kids learn most by doing; creative and engaging activities provide interaction with the material.  I'll never lecture and I'll never assign busy work.  No "read the chapter and answer the questions in the back" around here, folks.

7.  I will not teach to any test.  If I do my job correctly, the students will learn and the test scores will reflect that.  I'm not concerning myself with possible exceptions and what ifs; I'm going to do my job.  Let the cards fall where they may. 

8.  I will not turn a kid away.  If someone needs help, they get it.  If someone needs to talk, I listen.  I don't care what time my contract tells me to leave or how many minutes I'm required to enjoy a "duty-free lunch."  I'm there for the kids.  You will also find me at a number of extra-curricular activities because I support students outside academic areas.  When that last bell rings, you don't necessarily get rid of me.

9.  If I assigned it, I grade it.  I don't walk down rows and give check marks for completing worksheets I never looked at (not that I ever give worksheets).  I don't give points because something was filled out or a certain number of sentences were written in a box.   Assignments are assessed to ensure a concept has been mastered.  If the concept has not been mastered, we will be working together until it has.

10.  I DO reinvent the wheel.  One of my favorite aspects of teaching is finding new ways to tackle material.  I like creative lessons that hook students and keep them interested.  I'm always looking for better ideas and new methods.  Sorry, but I will never be the teacher who does the same thing year after year and never changes anything. 

I don't think I'm exceptional, but I do think I work hard. When you work hard and have enthusiasm for your career, you learn new techniques and continue developing your craft. I know what my evaluations say.  I also know if I taught more than three years in the same district, I wouldn't be evaluated in the same manner.  It isn't fair.  Anything can happen when nobody is watching.  If nobody steers the ship, students can drift wherever the current pulls them.

Sitting in a desk does not make a kid learn any more than holding a pen makes me a writer.  Every classroom deserves an excellent teacher standing up front.  How much longer do we allow the economy to dictate the quality of education being delivered?  And how much longer do we protect bad teachers?  How many years of safety are we granting those who do the minimum because they're untouchable?  How many more teachers will we certify when there are no jobs to be filled? 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Recommending "A Scary Scene In A Scary Movie" By Matt Blackstone

Today is August 1, 2011, or, 8-1-2011.  And since 8+1+2+1+1 = 13, I thought it was a good opportunity to introduce you to Rene Fowler.  Unfortunately, Rene did not like my idea; he is plagued by the fixation that thirteen is unlucky, and therefore would not be reached for comments.  I'm told he's spending the day in bed (invisible, thanks to the protection of his favorite hooded sweatshirt) staring at his Batman watch and waiting for midnight when it will be safe to leave his sanctuary.  Meanwhile, he remains occupied making smiley faces out of tissues and toilet paper - it's like playing Wii for this kid.

Rene Fowler is the protagonist in Matt Blackstone's A Scary Scene in A Scary Movie.  In this contemporary YA novel, the author delivers a pitch-perfect depiction of life for a teenager struggling with OCD.

I awaited the release of this novel for months, and am happy to report it exceeded all expectations.  This comical tale does more than keep readers laughing and flipping pages with anticipation; it offers insight to a population most of us cannot understand.  OCD is not an illness that attacks organs or makes someone feel ill - it is a mental disease that controls the brain, preventing victims from experiencing the same quality of life the rest of us often take for granted.

As both a reader and educator, I was thrilled to see an author tackle a topic needing more attention.  It's encouraging to see a portal for teens to gain insight about their socially awkward classmate or the neighbor who spends weekends performing 'odd' rituals.  Knowledge is essential for tolerance and acceptance to permeate; it is the key ingredient for understanding the foundation of behaviors and personalities we may not understand.

Blackstone nailed the character of Rene, never once deviating from the mindset of an OCD teen.  That fourth wall was sealed to perfection.  Through his developed supporting characters, the reader is taken through the reactions of multiple outsiders - those who are compassionate and understanding, and those who target individuals they consider 'different'. 

A Scary Scene in A Scary Movie is a book that makes you think.  It guides readers to view situations from multiple perspectives while laying the foundation for personal reflection and meaningful discussion.  I recommend this book to anyone seeking an engaging story bound to hold your attention.  I especially recommend it for educators and reluctant teen readers. 

Having worked as a public school teacher, I most enjoyed the scenes taking place in Rene's high school - his interactions with teachers and classmates kept me nodding in agreement, and of course, the inferences I pulled regarding educational issues delivered feelings of nostalgia.

This book grabbed me on the first page.  I immediately developed an interest and personal connection to Rene.  I never considered him a character; instead, he was a real person with a story I needed to hear.  I love a book that makes me feel, think, and learn.  Despite being housed under the young adult umbrella, this book provides readers of all ages those exact opportunities.