Category Archives: Education

How a Little Published Writer Tracks Development

I am not an unpublished writer, but my non-blog work is not published often. And I am okay with that at the moment. I am seeing improvement in my writing and an increase in confidence in myself as a self-confessed writer. Given that I took a decades-long break from writing fiction, I did not expect to start back up again and be able to make a living writing. I do, hope, eventually to sell my novel and to have more short stories published, but I am not tracking my development as a writer based on the amount of my work that other people have paid me to publish. Not yet.

But, I am watching my development. Not too closely, because I find that stifling.

For the past three years, I have been tracking my progress in relation to what I learn at the Ontario Writers Conference. Conferences that mix panels on the craft and business of writing with networking time and readings allow me to gauge where I am on the continuum from novice writer to award-winning novelist or fan favourite. I believe that the messages that stick with me after an event like that reveal more about me and my stage in the process than they do about the individual speakers. I hear the messages that I am ready for and the rest washes over me.

I first attended the Ontario Writers Conference in 2010. That year, Robert J. Sawyer gave the keynote speech, a lecture based on Robert A. Heinlein’s Rules for Writers, a lecture very close in content to an article you can find on his website. I had just started editing my first NaNoWriMo story and was feeling very discouraged, but I was committed to continuing to write fiction. Although three of Heinlein’s rules have to do with selling one’s work, I could only hear the first two: you must write and finish what you start. The main thought I left with that day was “Keep writing. Make time to write and don’t give up.”

The next year, I was still struggling with revisions of the same novel. I had been studying the art of plotting and had learned many things, but they weren’t showing up in my work. I heard Wayson Choi speak about writing the story that we have to tell, our story, the one that comes out of our pain, and I realized that my novel wasn’t working because I wasn’t allowing myself to write deeply enough into the pain of my own that had driven me to write the story. The work I did the following year was heavily driven by my desire to start writing from a deeper place, to write fearward and bleed onto the page more. And the work got better.

Last year, the talk the message that stuck with me the most was the need to submit my work to the marketplace, to start accumulating rejection letters. I no longer remember which speaker it was who reminded us of the image from On Writing of Stephen King with a nail on which he put reject letter after rejection letter, replacing it with a spike when the nail could no longer hold all the rejections. And so, inspired by that reminder, I have submitted my work more this year than in any other year. It has been tough leaving the current novel, which still contains elements of that first NaNoWriMo piece, for periods to write shorter pieces, but I felt the need to start getting some of my fiction out in the world. And I am starting to collect rejections. But, I am also starting to understand why I am collecting rejections, which means that my understanding of craft has deepened.

Next year, I don’t think I will be going to the Ontario Writers Conference. I went to the World Fantasy Convention for the first time this year, and I found the conversations about what writers are doing or trying to do in the specific genre that I am writing in speak to me more personally than the more generally directed discussions at the Ontario Writers Conference. This understanding tells me that my development is continuing. Getting to World Fantasy Convention is much harder logistically and financially than getting to the Ontario Writers Conference. I really want to go, but I can’t justify it if I don’t keep getting better. So, I have told myself I can’t even think about going to London for the 2013 convention if I don’t have my novel out with beta readers. I’m not sure I’ll manage it for this year, but the thought of celebrating with a trip to a convention is inspiring.

Each conference or convention I go to, I come away with the next step of my development laid out for me. I have heard the teaching that I am ready to learn. And by tracking the lessons, I can see how much deeper I am into the craft of writing fiction.

Do you have a way to measure your progress toward your intangible goals? Please share in the comments. I really would love to know.

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Teaching Children to Write: Grammar

I have been thinking about how to teach children to write. Especially how to control a sentence when you write creative fiction, and that means grammar and mechanics.

Two of my kids have been homeschoolers this year. They are both reluctant writers, though my eldest has elaborate ideas and stories that he plays with even when he doesn’t write them down. And, he has an intuitive understanding of narrative structure that makes me jealous.

Part of my difficulty in determining how to teach them the myriad of skills involved in writing well is that I have spent much of the past two years training myself out of habits I saw my eldest being encouraged to develop last year at school, especially in his creative writing. He was being taught to add adjectives and adverbs to develop descriptions; I was teaching myself to replace my adjectives and adverbs with more specific nouns and verbs.

I found myself wondering whether there was another way to teach writing that didn’t require so much unlearning – or whether this really was an age appropriate way of learning to write.

Some people believe writing must be taught very formally and others believe that writing well develops naturally from reading good literature. I am conviced there is a third way.

In the fall, I took a course that introduced me to Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction by Edgar H. Schuster. Schuster suggests a wonderful approach to learning grammar, an approach built on the assumption that we absorb grammatical rules as we learn to speak, so grammatical instruction is about refining and articulating an understanding that we already have.  In the book, he lays out both why he thinks this is the best way to teach grammar, but he also provides teaching examples. He also provides examples of how to discuss “rules” of grammar that are frequently broken in published works.

For example, sentence fragments. He encourages teachers to look at sentence fragments in literature with their students and ask how the fragment works, what impact it has on the reader. And then, to look at sentence fragments that confuse a reader or hinder understanding in some way and ask why the language works that way. He aims for a functional understanding of grammar.

This appeals to me. Grammar is the how of linguistic communciation, the structure of language, written and spoken. For most people, the application of grammatical understanding is what matters.

So, I have been teaching grammar in the context of writing. Our early assignments were retelling Aesop’s Fables. We would read them together, discuss the narrative elements of the story and any interesting sentence structures, and then he would write the story in his own words. I would mark up the draft using professional proofreaders’ marks, and we would discuss the revisions. Grammar lessons came up as he needed them, but no more. It is clear to me that his functional understanding of grammar has improved through this approach.

But, there are some formal rules and some vocabulary related to grammatical analysis that I would like him to know. So, we play Mad Libs. We read books about grammar and why it matters, like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I am looking for my copy of Breaking the Rules, which got misplaced in our move, for more analytical activities.

But, my son’s favourite grammar and punctuation activity is proof-reading my work. The satisfastion he gets when he finds an error is worth any momentary embarrassment I may feel.

I have heard a lot of horror stories of how sensitive children stopped writing when a teacher said something critical of their work. I am wondering how we can support children as they learn to wield the magical power of words.

Do you have any stories of things your teachers did right when it came to teaching you to write?

Learning to Fail Better

“Learning to Fail Better” is a chapter title in Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of A Story. The chapter is about revision, but I have been thinking of the title in the context of my overall journey as a writer.

Like many fiction writers, I started my journey writing short stories during my elementary school years. I still have some of those stories. They are charming. They show real promise, a sense of detail and some imaginative twists, but are fundamentally derivative works, inspired by the stories my teachers read aloud in class.

In late elementary school, I tried my hand at a longer piece and got stuck trying to develop a plot. I couldn’t figure out how to build a narrative and I abandoned the project in despair. That failure was pivotal in the path I have taken on my return to writing fiction as an adult.

I was the perfect participant for NaNoWriMo, that annual mad dash of bad novel-writing. I had wanted to write a novel since elementary school, but had let my fear of writing a bad one stop me from writing at all.

The first year, I gave myself permision to write a horrible novel. I wrote a 50,000+ word narrative centered on a single character’s journey. There were some interesting characters, but the plot was horrible. Realizing this, I spent the next year studying plot. The following November, I dove into NaNoWriMo with an outline of half a plot and an idea of where to go from there. But, the idea wasn’t enough and I stalled.

But, I wasn’t done. I kept thinking and studying and writing some short stories.

The following year, I started NaNoWriMo with a full narrative arc planned and a Liquid Story Binder file with a description of what would happen in each chapter. By writing each chapter in that outline, I ended NaNoWriMo with a complete first draft of a middle-grade novel.

It was a messy first draft, but it was my first complete long-form narrative.

I was still failing to write a publishable novel, but I was failing better.

No book is ever perfect, but maybe, if I keep going, one day, I may have failed at a publishable level. And that is the goal.

What does the idea of learning to fail better mean to you?

Now Comes The Hard Part: Reversing Underachievement

I am in the part of my learning curve with my fiction writing that will push me to the brink. Like many adults who slid through school without having to work hard, I never developed habits of persistence and grit. And now, I have to if I want to make progress.

I got through school by showing up to class, reading the assigned work, and taking the tests. Notice the complete lack of revision, study, or thinking about the material to understand what I was missing. I always understood enough to get As, but never enough to excel. I had no motivation to excel. To excel would have required me to live through the discomfort of staring what I didn’t know in the face and hanging out with it, examining it from all angles, trying to find a path to understanding – a discomfort that most people encounter before leaving high school, but that I managed to get through law school without ever encountering.

This pattern of not pushing myself has led to a classic case of adult underachievement, a failure on my part to fully use my strengths to accomplish my goals.

Luckily, the universe sent me a bunch of challenging children to parent. I can’t stay in bed all day and ignore my kids. I have to do my best to help them grow into happy, healthy, productive citizens. And, like all parents, some days are not so good. Some days, I really feel like a failure. But, I need to get up the next day and keep trying, hoping that what I can manage to accomplish that day will be enough.

Parenting has forced me to develop persistence, to become comfortable with studying, experimenting, and changing things that aren’t working.

For the first time, I have been given a task that feels too hard for me, but that I refuse to give up on, and I am learning to push past what comes easily.

As a writer, I have reached the point where I need to dig in for the long haul and do the hard work. I have written bad first drafts; I have read a huge amount about the craft of writing; I have written good and bad short stories; and now I am revising a novel – a very messy, in serious need of hard work, novel.

I am unwilling to give up on this novel. But, I don’t have the discipline of decades of hard work to draw on. I need help getting past my lazy habits of doing just enough to get by. For now, I need external deadlines to meet, to push me through the frustrations. I hope not to need them forever.

I have homework due for my novel-writing class – homework that will require me to do some analysis of my draft that I have been putting of for too long because it is hard. I have agreed to send the first 25 pages of my WIP to Charlotte Rains Dixon tomorrow because I won a critique from her. I am terrified to give her these pages. This is the weakest part of my draft and I know it. But, it is better now than it was before I won the critique, and it will be better again before I submit the first 20 pages at the end of my class in a few weeks.

I am determined to beat this underachievement thing.

Raising Literate Children

So far, it looks like I am off to a great start in my goal of raising readers. The pile of books my kids bring home after each visit to the library is evidence of that.

But, I don’t just want my kids to be able to read. I want them to feel comfortable with turning to written materials to learn anything they want, to know the joy of reading stories that engage them and move them emotionally, and to find the great literature of the English language accessible. To succeed in the last task, making the great literature accessible, I must introduce them not only to the classics, but also to the material referred to by the classics.

So, on this weekend of Easter and Passover, I am telling them bible stories. We are neither Christian nor Jewish. We do, however, celebrate a springtime festival of chocolate that we call Easter, and a winter festival of lights and gift-giving that we call Christmas. I am not telling them these stories because they are part of our faith tradition; I am telling them these stories because they are reference material for literate readers.

So, last night, we talked about the plagues of Egypt, the slaughter of the Egyptian first-born sons, the exodus, the crucifixion, and the empty tomb. We also talked about calendars and the scheduling of holidays.

Today, we will be at a maple syrup festival and will surely talk about symbols of spring. Sunday’s egg hunt will bring us to conversations about how religions use natural phenomena as symbols. We have these conversations every year. As the kids get older, the conversations get deeper, richer, and more complex.

I am fully conscious that what I am doing is passing down cultural traditions in a way that reveals my deepest beliefs. I am sharing stories I think are necessary for my children to understand their literary heritage. I am sharing my appreciation for myth and metaphor, encouraging an understanding of the importance of the stories we tell, grounding my love of wonder and miracle in observation of the natural world, and imparting my belief that history is a vital part of understanding who we are. To me, all of these elements are part of teaching my children to read.

It is not just enough to be able to look at words and know what they mean. To read well, you need to understand what the author is talking about, and that often means understanding references to other material.

I wrote about the need for writers to read widely last April, and included familiarity with the bible in that context. I believe that raising literate readers requires the same approach.

Are there specific books and stories you think children should be exposed to?

The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part II

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

This post follows on from The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I.

I started trying to pass for normal before I had any idea I was gifted. All I knew was that I was different and that different was bad. I have no memory of the beginning of the process. All I know is a story my parents tell, one that in retrospect shows a problem that nobody thought to address. For decades, this story has been told as an example of how clever I was. It is only now as an adult, going through the process of recognizing my own identity that I see it as a cautionary tale.

I was born in England and attended early school there. My father took a sabbatical in the U.S. when I was 5 and I started Kindergarten. I was one of two students who entered Kindergarten already reading and my only memory from that year is of the two of us lying on the floor by the coat cubbies reading while the other students learned the letters of the alphabet.

The story my father tells goes like this.

“Kate has always been a talker. Once she started, there was no stopping her. At the first parent-teacher conference in Kindergarten, we were shocked to learn that Kate never spoke up in class unless directly asked a question by the teacher. She was still talking up a storm at home. ” Pause, accompanied by facial expression conveying confusion. “The next time we met with her teacher, it was a different story. Kate was talking at school the way she talked at home – but in an American accent. She had waited to talk until she had mastered the local dialect.”

I was 5 and I was hiding myself to fit in. It is a habit I am still trying to break.

As a teenager, the disconnect between my deep truths, the truths I let myself be aware of, and the facade I was presenting to the outside world became unmanageable and I suffered an existential crisis. In the midst of that crisis, I found the ground of my being, and moved forward, but it certainly looked like all was lost for some time.

If my life were a novel, that crisis would have been the final turning point where I rallied and strode forward into the fight that would lead to the novel’s resolution. But life is messier than art. In life, the protagonist doesn’t always make the choice to fight. And, resolution is not assurred. But, that turning point is the place in my memories that I need to access in order to write about the descent into deep crisis that will push my protagonist into change.

The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post. 

Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.

“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented

This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:

“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities.  Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children

Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.

“Gifted people often adjust what they say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feel that other people do not take them seriously. This can lead to not trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It can convince children that there is someone who thinks that they are valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth

**A Note About Passing

In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.

Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.

Dare to Be Yourself

This is the beginning of a series examining the power of truth-telling in life and art.

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.”

May Sarton

Do you hide parts of yourself, locking them up inside away from the world?

Do you keep them hidden out of fear, out of a sense that they are nobody’s business but your own, out of shame, or because you don’t even see them?

What would it be like to share them?

I have been explicitly thinking about the things we don’t talk about ever since seeing the title of Azar Nafisi’s second memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories.

There is a power in claiming our experience as true and sharing it. Not only for ourselves, but for each other.

Parker Palmer, in his article Now I Become Myself, excerpted from his book Let Your Life Speak, wrote, “It is a strange gift, this birthright gift of self. Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else.” He goes on to point out that, “In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

One of the ways we betray ourselves is by keeping silent about our experiences.

And, one of the ways that we redeem ourselves is by bringing those secrets into the light.

If we dare to be ourselves, we set ourselves up for our own mental health. But more than that, by revealing our weaknesses and our struggles, we allow other people to see our humanity, to be touched by our stories, and to take healing power from our stories.

In this series, I will be reflecting on both the things that I have kept silent about and on the relationship between truth-telling and art. I hope you will join me.

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part II

Shakespeare was my first literary love.

I was 8 when my grandmother and I read Macbeth aloud together, sitting at the dining-room table of the house that holds my most vivid childhood memories, bright sunlight streaming through the window as I encountered that grim but glorious material for the first time.

This is the very book from which we read, my grandmother and I, this book bedecked with working designs, such as this image, drawn by Michael Ayrton and John Minton, from which a costume would be fashioned that Lady MacDuff might clothed be.

I was hooked.

After that, I sought out the Bard at every opportunity. By high school, I had absorbed Shakespeare’s sentence structure deeply; I was more comfortable with a sentence containing four or five clauses than my teachers.

As I proceeded through my academic career and especially during my time as a lawyer, my writing changed. I retreated from my literary use of language. By the time I left legal practice, I had developed a dry and unambiguous style, a style that was working against me as I struggled to write a fantastical novel.

This fall, I started working through a dvd-based course entitled Building Great Sentences. The instructor loves and encourages long, cumulative sentences. As I started working with the materials, it was as if a flood gate had been opened. Complex, flowing sentences of greater than average length started appearing throughout my work. The early influence of Shakespeare and my grandmother had been sleeping, but no longer.

Several of Shakespeare's plays in the Folio Society edition from the 1950s. There were several complete collections of Shakespeare's plays and poetry in my parent's house, but this edition was my favourite because of the heavy paper, elegant type, and evocative production design drawings.

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part I

I’m at my parents’ house for a few days. The books of my childhood surround me. Browsing the shelves, deciding which books to bring to my children’s attention, I am deep in my own literary memories.

Yesterday, I found this book.


I don’t remember anything about the story, but I remember a creative project inspired by it, or at least by the cover. I had forgotten this book was the inspiration until I saw it again. But, the project itself is one of those half-finished projects from my past that still haunts me.

For class (fourth grade, Mrs. Voake, one of my most inspirational teachers), I made a map of an island country, Gingericana, where every geographic feature was named after a spice. In my imagination, stories about the peoples of this land were writing themselves, but I never made time to get them down on paper. Over the past few years, I have considered revisiting this world to write stories for my children.

I don’t know if I will.

In the meantime, however, I plan to reread the book. I am curious to see whether I recognize the story within the cover.

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