Camp NaNoWriMo April 2016 Recap

Camp NaNoWriMo Apr 2016 Winner

I will have to say, compared to NaNoWriMo 2015, Camp NaNoWriMo in April was a cakewalk. Of course, part of that might be that you get to choose your word count goal. The minimum is 10,000, and although I was tempted to let that be it, I decided to do double. Twenty thousand words is nothing compared to the 50,000 in November, but after the struggle to finish the first draft of my 2015 novel, I wanted to take it easy (comparatively).

What I love about both NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo is that you can update your word count every day, and then they create a graph to show how well (or poorly) you’re doing. This can be depressing if you’re coming in under. Considering that I didn’t even sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo until April 4th, my graph looked pretty pathetic at first. A bunch of nothing until day four, and then it was just a tiny little line. My total word count on the first day? Thirty-three words. But I’m happy to say that the line started to creep up, day by day. Being able to view my progress on that graph was encouraging.

The project I picked for Camp NaNoWriMo was a novel that I started in December (unexpectedly inspired to write by some good teen fiction). While concentrating on finishing the NaNoWriMo novel, I put this other one on the back burner, and when I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, I had to read through all 20,000 words of what I’d written so far to figure out what to write next. During that read-through, I ended up cutting some (yes, a big NaNoWriMo no-no) and adding more, for a net gain of 33.

Another fun thing about both of these websites is that they calculate, based on your current rate of words per day, how long it will take to finish. I was supposed to write 20,000 words by the end of April, but for the first week or so, the calculation had me finishing in September. Yeesh. But as the days passed and the number of words I wrote per day went up, the gap closed. I would hit 20,000 by August, then July. Finally, I was on target to finish during the month of April. Typing like crazy, I hit my goal on the 20th.

As of April 30th, I had typed almost 31,000 words during Camp NaNoWriMo. The story still isn’t complete (it never is after just one month), but it’s a lot closer than it was a few weeks ago. Rather than interrupting it to edit my NaNoWriMo 2013, 2014, and 2015 books (because they’re a trilogy and need a lot of work), I’m going to keep going until I finish this one. It might be a long summer (with one more Camp NaNoWriMo opportunity in July), but I’m going to enjoy the process.

And if you’re a regular reader, you know that a big part of that process is reading. Right now I am devouring and being inspired by a lot of great teen fiction. But that’s a topic for another post.

Borrowed Books 2016

Stack of incredible teen books (and The Martian – also incredible)

This Week in the News…

It has been quite the newsworthy week, both for the good and bad, locally and internationally.

At the start of the week, it was the tragedy of David Bowie’s death, and later, it was Alan Rickman’s. I’ll say that while Bowie’s was a shock, Alan Rickman’s came as a blow. And it’s not even like I knew him. Tragically, another acclaimed actor, who seemed to be a good person in real life, met an untimely end. But I’ve always had this thing about Alan Rickman, ever since he played the despicable Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Maybe it’s because, as young a girl, I didn’t know to distinguish the actor from the character, so for years, I associated Alan Rickman with evil. It was only much later that I discovered that he was much more than the characters he portrayed. I admired him for so often choosing roles that were dark, challenging, even hated. Someone has to be very comfortable in his own skin to be able to sustain a career as such.

But getting back to the news…

Aside from additional tragic local news, there was also the national hoopla surrounding the billion-and-a-half-dollar Powerball. I’d never paid any attention to any sort of lottery before, but this one had the attention of even the most stringent non-gamblers (even if it was only to scoff). It’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to wake up one day as a billionaire. Some co-workers and I joked that we would happily “settle” for the lucky million-dollar ticket. Even after taking out taxes, that kind of money would make an incredible amount of difference in my life. And even big celebrities like Queen Latifa and David Duchovny said they were participating.

But what about people like David Bowie and Alan Rickman, who had a lot more than I’ll ever, even if not billions? Would that kind of money have made a difference to them? I’m thinking not. I’m thinking that they could already afford the best health care money could buy, yet they still both succumbed to the dreaded C-word.

While many people speculated about what they could do with that kind of money – from retiring at the tender age of 19 to buying houses in all the posh resorts around the world – I thought that I love my job and would hate to have to quit because of the sudden notoriety that being a big winner brings. If, somehow, I ever managed to get any kind of windfall that would allow me to do whatever I pleased (financially) for the rest of my life, I would want to hide it, so I could still do exactly what I’m doing right now.

I’m a pretty low maintenance girl. I don’t need fancy houses or luxury cars – although, I would like a cool reading nook or even library in my dream house. I wouldn’t spend the money on jewels or designer clothes because I’d rather wear yoga pants and a sweatshirt than anything else. It’d be nice to be able to live completely debt-free and know that my kids will always be taken care of. But money won’t cure my elder son’s dyslexia or my younger son’s whatever-he-has.

About the only changes I would make would be to buy a house closer to where I work, hire a cleaning lady once a week, and make my husband retire and become my personal chef. (He’s a good cook – no need to hire outside help.)

As for the rest – buying a new car with cash when the old one craps out or taking vacations on a whim just because we can or filling my library with all the books I could ever want – while that would be nice, there’s something to be said for earning it. Recently, we paid off a  car and finally bought a new one that has all the features we ever could have wanted but couldn’t afford until recently. And there’s something so fulfilling about knowing that we’re finally to that point – that we’ve made it ourselves.

And, hey, there’s still that very slim chance that I’ll make a comfortable living as a novelist. The odds are better than of winning the Powerball, at least.

And say that does happen – say that, someday, the world mourns my death like they’re mourning Alan Rickman’s – I’ll still want to live the quiet life. I’ll still want to sit on my couch or reading nook and be left alone to read a good book. Or read one of my favorites with my children or future grandchildren. I’ll still be enthusiastic about hosting book clubs. Because that’s who I am, and no amount of money (or lack of it) will change that.

And just because, I would like to end with a beautiful, very human quote of Alan Rickman’s. I think that anyone can appreciate it, but only true Potter fans will really get it. Alan Rickman certainly did.

Alan Rickman quote

Parental Pressure

This past week, I was fortunate to be trained to give an assessment, the Gesell Developmental Observation-Revised. My school administers it to all PreK3 students and any applicants for PreK4 and kindergarten. Although I may not ever be the examiner, I will need to know how to interpret this assessment’s results and share them with parents.

During the Gesell Institute‘s training, I realized that the information I gained about child development is crucial – not just for teachers, but for parents, as well. After being a mother for nearly eight years and being in the classroom almost three, I’ve figured out a lot of things, but some facts came as quite a surprise.

For instance, did you know you can do your child a disservice by teaching her to read too early? And the reason isn’t what you might initially think. Like everyone, I’ve been told that young brains are sponges, and this is absolutely true. But young bodies are still developing, and while a child’s brain might get that A is A and B is B, his eye muscles aren’t able to track from left to right (which we Westerners do when we read) until, on average, age five-and-a-half. In fact, you can usually tell a child who has learned to read too early because he turns his whole head in order to read across the page.

I can already hear outraged parents saying that their children learned to read on their own or that reading is a wonderful thing – we should promote it in any way possible. Number one, I know it’s possible that some kids just figure it out – my younger son certainly did, surprising us when he started reading the letters off my husband’s shirt a few months ago. It was not something we’d taught him at all. Number two, I absolutely agree that reading is wonderful and should be encouraged.

But could it also be possible that, underlying the desire to do what’s right for our kids by stimulating their little intellects and filling their minds with lots of valuable information, there’s something else at play here? Something a little selfish that you don’t want to admit?

I’m talking about peer pressure morphed into parental pressure. Peer pressure is an ugly thing when you’re thirteen, and your best friend makes a stupid decision and wants you along for the ride. It can either make you also do said stupid thing, or it can ostracize you from that friend when you say no. Either way, no fun, right?

But it doesn’t end when your zits disappear and your braces come off. It continues in fraternities and sororities, in the work place and across your neighbor’s fence. It’s the whole “keeping up with the Joneses” mess, which can turn expensive if you’re susceptible to it. It can wreck marriages or throw a kink into what you thought was a lifelong friendship.

And if you’re a parent, you can drag your innocent children into it. You have the best of intentions, but you’re actually doing damage to the precious people that you love so dearly.

I’m not saying that I’m immune. Far from it. When my son Peter was a toddler, I was talking to a mom whose child was a little older. This other child knew the entire alphabet and most of the sounds the letters made. While impressed, I also felt guilty. My son could sort of sing the alphabet, but that was the extent of it. Knowing little about early education at the time, I thought that I was remiss as a parent because my own child’s brain wasn’t brimming with this knowledge. So I came up with a brilliant plan.

Peter had a cute, wooden train, each car holding a different letter. I decided that every time he mastered a new letter, I would put the next car on. He loved trains. It would be a fun reward for him. We never got past B. I tried computer games, but the only ones he liked had nothing to do with letters. I was frustrated when nothing seemed to work, and I assumed that there was something wrong with how I was trying to teach him. But there was hope: in preschool, the problem would be solved because he would be with a person who was qualified to teach him.

Except letters didn’t come any easier in preschool. By the end of his first year, he could almost always tell you how to spell his name (and when he couldn’t, it was because he mixed up the order of the middle letters), and sometimes he could even recognize those four letters when they weren’t in his name. Otherwise, he knew the letter O.

Although it took until he was almost seven to get the formal diagnosis, we now know that Peter is dyslexic. When he couldn’t learn his letters, it wasn’t his fault, wasn’t my fault, and wasn’t his teacher’s fault. I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I hadn’t tried to push him to do something at an age that was young for a normal child, not to mention unachievable for a dyslexic.

And reading isn’t the only place this happens.

Moms of babies, how often do you compare milestones with friends?

My child is seven months old and pulling up, but poor Susan – her baby is eight months old and hasn’t even crawled yet.

It’s hard not to feel that pride when your child does something that you think is Facebook status-worthy. I was thrilled that both of my boys walked at ten months, and I wasn’t shy about spreading the news. But that didn’t stop my elder son from having dyslexia. It didn’t teach my younger son how to behave.

One excellent resource that the Gesell Institute puts out is a booklet entitled “Ready or Not: Is My Child Ready for Kindergarten?” It points out that while the average child is able to walk at twelve months, the normal range is anywhere from eight-and-three-quarters to seventeen months. By two, all normal children can walk. Where is the relevance of my ten-month walkers now, when they’re seven and three?

Just as you don’t expect your newborn to get up and walk, you shouldn’t have ridiculous expectations for your child when it comes to reading. That’s not to say that exposure to words is bad or that certain children won’t start reading spontaneously. But it does mean that when it comes time to fill out college applications, the child who was seated in front of an encyclopedia at age two won’t have the upper hand over a child who learned to read in kindergarten.

So what are we parents to do? Are we not supposed to be proud of our children? Are we not supposed to encourage them when they show potential? A dad sees his four-year-old son chuck an acorn at a tree, and Dad immediately signs the kid up for the t-ball team (where he has just as much trouble tracking the ball flying toward him as he does reading without turning his head). A mom hears her two-year-old daughter singing along with the radio and starts looking for private music instruction.

Sometimes wonderful things happen. Star baseball players are discovered. Young musical prodigies attend Julliard and become famous concert pianists.

But sometimes Bobby complains that he doesn’t like t-ball, and then what do you do? It seems that parents are either reluctant to let him quit, thinking that he’ll get there one day if they keep pushing him, or they’re quick to involve him in another sport or activity because he’s got to be brilliant at something, right?

Maybe – and I know that I’m really going out on a limb here – maybe children need to be children. Maybe they are brilliant, yes, but that in no way means that they’ll miss their true calling unless they’re turned into little professionals right now. When they’re one or three or five or even ten, their true calling is to be a child. It’s to run around outside and catch lizards. Or to learn to ride a bike and even scrape their knees in the process. Or to have weekends that aren’t packed with activities, where they can bake cookies with their moms, help their dads wash the cars. Where the whole family can sit around and read a book together.

Through play, believe it or not, children learn. Play is their work. Putting puzzles together is a pre-cursor to reading. Building with large blocks can help them with math. Smooshing clay into pancakes or working it into balls with their little fingers develops fine muscles. Finger painting encourages hand-eye coordination, and cutting scrap paper with a pair of safety scissors teaches organization. (And I know, as a pre-school teacher, I might sound like I’m bashing my own job, but it’s nurturing and guided play that happens all day long with us.)

And reading… This one has a special place in my heart. Reading lessens discipline and self-esteem problems. It keeps kids in school, keeps them out of trouble (of course, good parenting is a big contributor, too, but then good parents often read to their children).

Since I’m such a big proponent of reading yet am getting onto parents for pressuring their kids to learn to read too early, what’s the solution? Read to your kids, of course. And not just moms – dads should be involved, too. Most nights, my husband reads a book like Goodnight Moon or Brown Bear, Brown Bear to our younger son, and I read a chapter book with our elder son. Right now, that chapter book happens to be Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but at other times, it’s something easier, like Magic Tree House, that Peter can read to me.

Parents, quit pressuring your kids to be little adults. Quit expecting your schools to turn out mini physicists and doctors and poets by age four. And quit the boastful comparisons with other parents.

I don’t mean for everyone to immediately pull their kids from all ballet and music lessons, all gymnastics classes and tutoring sessions. As ever, you have to find the balance that’s right for your family. But that balance needs to include time to breathe, time to make a pile of leaves and jump on it, time to say yes to a trip to the park because you have plenty of time and aren’t stressed out about your packed schedule.

And when they’re tired and ready to rest, sit together and read a good book.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a list because, why not? Lists are cool. I wish I could take credit for it, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: my trainer from Gesell passed it out to everyone in our workshop, and I’m passing it on to you.

10 Reasons to Read to Your Child

  1. Because when you hold children and give them this attention, they know you love them.
  2. Because reading to children will encourage them to become readers.
  3. Because children’s books today are so good that they are fun even for adults.
  4. Because children’s books’ illustrations often rank with the best, giving children a life-long feeling for good art.
  5. Because books are one way of passing on your moral values to children. Readers know how to put themselves in others’ shoes.
  6. Because until they learn to read for themselves, they will think you are magic.
  7. Because every teacher and librarian they encounter will thank you.
  8. Because it’s nostalgic.
  9. Because for that short space of time, they will stay clean and quiet.
  10. Because, if you do, they may then let you read in peace.

And I’ll add my own #11: Because when the time is right (and it will be), they will read to you.

Summer 2015 Reading

Magical books

Magical books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last blog was all about the writing I’ve done this summer (and since then, I’ve achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goal – yay!), but as any worthwhile author will tell you, you can’t write if you’re not reading. So I’ve been doing what a good writer should do, naturally.

The reading list that I set for myself this year is an ambitious one. (Read it here.) On it are 27 books, including several series. Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle has been on my to-read list for three years now, and I finally finished it. But those books are dense and ate up a lot of my reading time. As I approached the halfway point through the year, I wondered how I was doing.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-July, I’ve finished 13 of the 27 books. Maybe Inheritance didn’t set me back too far, after all. Of course, I read a lot during our two-week vacation. I worried I was being overly ambitious when I packed the entire Divergent series, as well as a book that a friend lent to me a few months ago. But I read the whole borrowed book on the plane trip from east coast to west coast (Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss – I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of British humor), and I plowed through all but a couple hundred pages of the Divergent series over the two weeks.

Ahead of me, I still have at least one doozy (Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood – all of the books in her Outlander series are formidable), plus Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. I know I re-read it last year, but I want it to be fresh when the final movie comes out this fall. Also, I’ll start reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my seven-year-old in the next week. I’m excited that he’s finally old enough to comprehend the story – we may have another Potter geek in the making.

Other than my non-fiction books (which I rarely list here, unless it’s what I consider entertaining non-fiction, such as Talk to the Hand), I’ve stuck to my book list pretty well. Early on, I decided to read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone because I’d seen the movie and was interested in seeing what kind of extra character developments happened in the book. I’m glad I did. Woodrell’s use of language is unique, and as a writer, it’s always helpful to mix it up with a different style from time to time.

The only other detour I’ve made was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (also a book-turned-movie). This was a book I had to read. I’m going back to teach full-time in the fall, and the faculty at my school has a summer reading list. Still Alice was the only novel on our list of choices. I’ve jotted down the titles of several non-fiction books that interest me, but I wanted a good story – and I got it. But frequent criers, keep your tissues handy.

I’m sticking to my list and loving it. I hope to finish Lois Lowry’s The Giver series by the time the kids go back to school (I’m halfway through the second book, Gathering Blue), and then I’ll keep plowing ahead.

And never fear – if I actually make it through this whole list, I already have several new books waiting. (She rubs her hands together and cackles with glee.)

To-Done!

If you read my post last week, you know that I had great hopes for this week. My to-do list needed to get a lot shorter, and guess what? I am happy to report that my first full week of summer break has been a success.

On Sunday, I finally finished Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the last book of which I’d been waiting for read for four years. I have to say, whatever my complaints about Paolini’s style in his early books, the last one more than made up for it. The only problem, of course, was that I was sad to be finished.

Reading Dilemma

With my recreational reading done, I plunged into work on Monday. And I even involved the kids. They sat at their table and had work time while I cleaned the kitchen. I have to tell you this because a day during which I clean an entire room (actually more than that because I cleaned the laundry room and one bathroom, too) is a day for the record books. (Please tell me I’m not crazy to be proud of this.)

I also spent my younger son’s entire naptime working on my biggest freelance project, a memoir that I’ve been working on for a year now. Thank goodness my client isn’t in a hurry. Although she still has some copy to turn in to me, my hope was to finish arranging and editing the material she’s given me so far and return it to her by the end of the week. I must have spent anywhere from three to six hours on this project every day this week, and although Microsoft Word had me practically pulling my hair out by the end, I did finally get a draft to her. (I would give details, but just know it had to do with pagination – if I try to be any more specific, I’ll most likely be reduced to gibberish and &%*!@ in order to keep this a family friendly blog.)

With one project out of the way (at least until that client gets back with me), I have one last freelance project (a much simpler one) to finish before our family vacation. I understand that I will come home from our vacation with work still to do, but my clients will have that time to decide what changes they would like for me to make, and I will only have to worry about finishing touches.

And then I will be done. As of this week, I am no longer offering my freelance writing services. And it’s not just Word that’s made me fed up enough to quit. Although I won’t go into details now, I am going to join the work force again soon, and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that I can make myself and my loved ones very miserable if my plate is too full. So while I will be glad to help friends with blogs or editing projects that don’t have critical deadlines, I am no longer pursuing freelance work.

It’s a relief, actually. Anyone who is self-employed understands the pressures of finding enough work to pay the bills. Last summer, I was able to land enough steady projects to earn a paycheck while I wasn’t substitute teaching, but it meant that when I was at home with my kids, we weren’t able to do much fun stuff; I was stuck at my computer working very hard for very little monetary compensation. This summer, I will be able to spend more time with them, and the time that I do spend at the computer will mostly be writing my own fiction.

Speaking of my fiction, now that I have one freelance project behind me, I have time to concentrate on editing last year’s NaNoWriMo book. I am determined to get my two free copies from CreateSpace. Beta readers, I will be reaching out to you sometime in July, so get ready!

Lastly, while I am reducing the stresses in my life, one of them will be this blog. No, I’m not quitting! Believe me, I still have a lot to say, but I won’t be pushing myself to reach my own personal deadline (which is once a week) anymore. Many weeks, I get to Sunday and panic because I don’t know what to write about. Or I have a lot to say but am too brain dead to arrange much of a coherent thought.

I have a friend who used to blog weekly, and she made the announcement earlier this year that she will now only post when she feels inspired to do so. At the time, I was saddened because I loved reading her blogs, but I could certainly understand – and I kept her idea in the back of my mind. To remove another stress that I put on myself sounded like bliss. I told myself that if I ever went back to work, changing from a weekly blog post to a “when I’m inspired to write” blog post would be the way to go.

Don’t worry. Even if you don’t hear from me next week, I still have plenty to say. I’ll likely update my book list sometime soon, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about NaNoWriMo 2015. But when you don’t hear from me, know that I’m enjoying my family or a good book… and, as always, striving make more of my to-do list items to-done.

Playing Catch Up

During spring break, I was excited about the possibility of being able to cross off many much-neglected items on my to-do list. During that week, however, I was disappointed (as I often am) with the amount I was actually able to accomplish. Sure, I was home more than usual, but then so were the kids, and they had expectations, as well.

Since spring break, life has not become any less hectic. I’m not going to summarize all my busy-ness here – you can read any number of my recent blogs to get the idea. Just suffice it to say that, with the end of the school year drawing near, I was excited to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Last weekend, I planned to partially unplug – which I did! My husband and I spent the night away from home sans kids, TV, and wifi. It was somewhat of a surreal experience, and we couldn’t help but say “The kids would love this” or “We’ll have to bring the boys here” at the beach and the fort and a little fudge shop near our bed and breakfast. But we survived and even managed to enjoy ourselves.

One of the things I’d hoped to do was catch up on my reading. If you follow my yearly list of books that I hope to read, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle has been on there since 2013 – and I’m finally almost done! I had hoped to finish by the time my son finished school on Thursday, but I knew that was a very ambitious goal. Still, I only have a little over 200 pages to go, so I’ll definitely be through in the next couple days.

The reason I am so eager to finish (other than wanting to know what happens – this is a great series!) is because I have so much work that I need to do. While many other moms are posting selfies from the beach and running around like crazy people trying to keep their kids occupied, I plan to spend a lot of time at home. (Don’t worry – I still have plenty of fun activities planned for my kids!) This is partially because I’m tired of my commute, and our gas bill needs a little bit of a break, but it’s also because my to-do list includes clients’ projects, and these clients have been very patient. They know that I substitute teach during the year and, therefore, have an erratic schedule, but now they’re expecting results. I mean, what excuses do I have anymore?

I held off writing this post for a couple days, hoping that I’d be able to report that I spent the first full day of summer break plowing through my jobs and striking off to-do list items left and right. And I did make some progress, but it’s been slow. The children are still underfoot, although they’ve been great so far. My little one even likes my implementation of “work time” (where I have them sit at their table and color, write, or do quiet projects for a few minutes), thus giving them some structure and me some peace while I do my own work.

My goal (you know how I love goals) is to keep forging ahead, even if I only have two or three hours a day to devote to my projects. Although I’m not going to totally unplug during our upcoming family vacation (a girl still has to blog and write fiction when the mood strikes, right?), I don’t want to leave projects hanging over my head – or clients calling, only to be disappointed that I’ve put their work on hold for two weeks.

Okay, goals set. Deep breath. Next week, my to-do list is going to get a lot shorter.

Unplugging (At Least a Little Bit)

I’ve seen many an article in which the writer talks about how he or she has gotten rid of smart phones permanently, and I’ll have to say that I’m not one of those people. Believe me, I fought even getting an iPhone much longer than is normal for a so-called millennial, but I finally got one three years ago. I don’t play games on it (although I did at first), and I’m not the type of person who has to have the latest version. I like it for the convenience of being able to take snapshots and videos of my kids and check my email on the run and make phone calls and look up obscure trivia all in one device. But that also doesn’t mean that I’m glued to my phone all day. My rule is that I simply don’t use it at all if ever I wake up in the middle of the night (unless, of course, I get an emergency call or text). It’s easy for me to ignore it. In fact, there are some times when I am so busy that I’ll got 12 hours without doing more than checking the time.

But then there are those other people who can’t pull themselves away from whichever device is their vice of choice (and see how “vice” is already there in “device” – it’s like it was planned that way). These people check their email if they happen to wake up at three A.M. They play Farmville at their children’s band concerts or ballet recitals. They talk through the checkout line at the grocery store and text while driving. A lot of this comes down to a lack of common sense as well as courtesy – blog topics for another day.

The iPhone isn’t my problem, anyway. We have a semi-joke in our house about “my” MacBook. We bought this computer almost four years ago when my husband went back to school. At the time, I thought it would be great to have after he graduated, in addition to our desktop model. And for the longest time, I didn’t do much with it. He took it to class, typed term papers on it – was even typing one in the hospital room when our second son was born – but then… well, I kind of took it over after he graduated. (Don’t worry – I did get him an iPad mini to make up for stealing his tech.) By that point, our desktop computer was on it’s last legs, but I wasn’t worried about replacing it – the MacBook was more than adequate. It’s where I do everything from this blog to typing my NaNoWriMo novels to doing my freelance work to editing photos and creating photo books (for me and for clients). I’ve taken it on every vacation since we bought it, including Disney World, and I’ll even carry it in the car to work on projects if it’s a ride of 30 minutes or more (and when I’m not driving, obviously).

But this weekend I’m going to leave it at home.

That’s right – I’m letting go! My in-laws are taking the kids Friday after school through Monday – the longest I’ve gone childless since November 5, 2007. And this time, instead of my husband working half the nights they’re away, we’ve actually booked a room at my friend’s bed and breakfast – a first for us. My elder son was shocked to hear that we’re going to be doing fun stuff, too. And here’s something really different for me, the planner: we don’t have a plan. We’re going to go and just do nothing – or anything. And I’m not taking the laptop. I’m not going to write at all. Now, it’s only going to be for one night, but these are baby steps, folks. While I love writing, my husband can tell you that sitting down to innocently write a scene turns into balancing the budget for an hour and editing for Fiction Fix and any number of other computer-related distractions. We’ll take our phones (and probably the iPad) so we can FaceTime our kids and watch Netflix to our hearts’ content. I’ve been so busy lately that I refuse to go on a vacation only to do more of the same while paying extra for the room. (And see – I’m even posting this blog early just to make sure I’m distraction-free.)

We’ll have our books and a new-to-us area to explore. It’s going to be the perfect pair-of-introverts weekend.

Overcoming Dyslexia: 10 Things You Should Know

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

Right around two years ago, I realized there was a serious disconnect with my then-five-year-old son Peter. He was at the end of his second year of preschool, but this intelligent child could not learn his letters or their sounds. Today, I know that he has moderate dyslexia, and it’s been quite a journey. For my sweet boy, it’s a journey that he will continue to take for the rest of his life.

The teacher who tested Peter and helped formulate the blueprint of what the next few years will bring for him lent me her copy of Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. I recommend this book to all parents and teachers. Even after I knew that Peter had dyslexia, I still didn’t fully understand what it is – certainly more than mixing up letters, which is a common misconception.

There’s no way I can boil down every point, so I’ve chosen the ten that I found most important:

  1. Dyslexia Affects More People than You Think

In a 20-year study that followed 445 children from Connecticut, Shaywitz discovered “that reading disability affects approximately one child in five” (30). Some of the personal accounts that Shaywitz shares in her book are of bright kids who were left behind because they didn’t “qualify” as students who needed help reading. One was even unfortunate enough to attend a school in which the administration didn’t believe in dyslexia. There are many more children who can benefit from reading resources than are currently receiving help. If you think you don’t know anyone with dyslexia – think again. Especially if you’re a teacher, you likely have a child who desperately needs help right in your classroom.

  1. There’s a Reason Some Smart People Can’t Read

In her chapter entitled “Why Some Smart People Can’t Read,” Shaywitz introduces the Phonologic Model. In subsequent chapters, she breaks down why this model doesn’t work for dyslexics. They have what she repeatedly refers to as a “sea of strengths” – lots of pros surrounding one big con, the inability to decode phonemes (the smallest unit of speech). While good readers can quickly decode phonemes to make the sounds k, aaaa, and t become cat, dyslexics’ brains are not wired to do this efficiently. The frustrating part is that phonology is the lowest level of the language system, followed by semantics, syntax, and discourse. While semantics, syntax, and discourse are all intact in a dyslexic person’s brain, these higher-level abilities are trapped behind the wall of un-decodable phonemes because…

  1. Dyslexics’ Brains Are Wired Differently

There are now scientific tests that show just how a dyslexic’s person’s brain is wired. Starting in the chapter “Reading the Brain,” Shaywitz goes into great detail about how our brains decode words. A dyslexic person’s brain uses a different path – one that is not automatic and therefore much slower. The functional MRI (fMRI) is the test that shows exactly how dyslexic versus non-dyslexic people read. These tests aren’t necessary to diagnose dyslexia, but they prove that dyslexics aren’t missing a part of their brain, and they’re not brain damaged; they simply read in a different way than “good” readers.

  1. Training Kids Before School Age Helps

Unfortunately, dyslexia often goes undetected in children until they reach the third grade. At this point, they are very far behind because they are still struggling to sound out words, while their peers are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.

One way that we can save these kids so many years of frustration is by catching it sooner. Kids enrolled in preschool are ahead of the game (which is how we were able to catch Peter’s dyslexia so early), but even if you keep your children at home, helping them differentiate beginning, middle, and ending sounds of simple words (pig and pan, hen and pet, and hen and pin are the examples Shaywitz uses) will not only help them when they learn to read, but it will also help to identify if there is a problem.

With Peter, while I could say a word like “bird” to his four- and five-year-old classmates, and they would hear b, rrr, and d, he might only be able to pick out the beginning or the ending sound – forget the middle. Peter’s dyslexia wouldn’t let him distinguish the different sounds.

  1. The Severity of Dyslexia Differs from Person to Person

While “one-quarter [to] one-half of the children born to a dyslexic parent will also be dyslexic,” the way in which dyslexia manifests itself differs from person to person (99). Shaywitz writes that “the ultimate expression of dyslexia depends on an interaction between a child’s genetic endowment and his environment.” So if your child is dyslexic, don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. Continue to read aloud to him at home; expose her to as much language as you can. This particularly helps dyslexic children develop larger vocabularies because they will not read and pick up new words as quickly as their classmates who can read fluently.

  1. Dyslexics Have High IQs

High IQ’s and difficulty in reading just don’t seem to correlate, but that’s exactly what happens with a dyslexic person. In fact, dyslexic people are often amazing problem solvers; their dyslexia forces them to be creative in order to read, and they carry this skill into other areas of life.

Dyslexia should never discourage someone from pursuing his or her dream. The last chapter of Overcoming Dyslexia is devoted to the personal accounts of highly successful people, such as author John Irving, American businessman and finance expert Charles Schwab, former West Virginia governor Gaston Caperton, and a number of others. These men and women struggled in school and failed entrance exams that could have kept them from getting higher education – yet they persevered and proved that a reading problem would not force them to give up on their dreams.

  1. Retention Does Not Help Dyslexic Children

While retention is sometimes helpful for other reasons, dyslexia should not be one of them. Not only does holding a child back a year in school avoid the problem (which is decoding words), but it can also be a psychological and emotional hindrance.

Ignoring the problem is just as bad. Waiting a month or a year to see if the problem straightens itself out only robs your child of much-needed help. When I first thought that Peter might have a problem, I hoped that a little tutoring over the summer would solve it. But that tutoring didn’t address his specific issue, and the frustration we both faced the first few weeks of his kindergarten year were enough to make me wish I’d had him tested sooner.

  1. Common Indicators of Dyslexia
  • Delay in Speech While children typically start saying words by one year and phrases by 18 to 24 months, a delay could indicate dyslexia.
  • Trouble with Pronunciation This can manifest itself as baby talk, the right syllables pronounced in the wrong order, or whole syllables (such as the beginning of words) not being pronounced at all.
  • Inability to Rhyme Because they have a hard time separating phonemes, dyslexics may not be able to ascertain what rhymes and what doesn’t because they are not able to distinguish what the last sound of a word is.
  • Talking Around a Word If your child is a regular Mrs. Malaprop, that’s another indicator. Two examples that Shaywitz uses are lotion used in place of ocean and tornado used in place of volcano. The children who made these mistakes knew exactly what they were trying to say, but they simply could not recall the proper word. (This can be very embarrassing in dyslexic adults when speaking publicly.)
  • Difficulty in Learning the Alphabet They may be able to sing their ABC’s, but when shown the actual symbols that match the sounds, dyslexics may not be able to identify them.
  • Inability to Learn by Rote While dyslexics generally have strong math skills, when it comes to rote memorization of times tables, they may suddenly have trouble. The same goes for memorizing words that don’t follow the rules, people’s names, place names, and even phone numbers. I wondered, since dyslexia is a phoneme problem, why dyslexic people often dial the wrong phone number – especially since they’re often so good at math. It’s not because they can’t see the difference between the numbers but because those seven numbers seem random. There was no logical way to arrive at them (as in the answer to a math problem).
  • Inability to Focus While Reading Especially in a noisy classroom or study hall, a dyslexic person may not be able to complete a homework task because she needs quiet to be able to concentrate. Dyslexics use a lot more brain power to get the job done, so it’s harder for them to focus.
  • Discomfort When Reading Aloud Some kids will act out or fake being sick when asked to read aloud because it’s so uncomfortable for them. They may even be misjudged as ADHD by a parent or teacher, but the problem here isn’t inattention but discomfort. Be sensitive to dyslexic people when they ask not to read aloud.
  • Misspelling Even if a dyslexic person is able to read difficult words, do not expect him to spell those same words from memory. In the same manner, if shown a new word out of context, he may not be able to read it, even if it seems simple to a non-dyslexic person.
  • Terrible Handwriting This is another tell-tale characteristic of many dyslexics. The word processor is the dyslexic person’s best friend.

A dyslexic person may exhibit only a few of the above – or may have other indicators not mentioned. But if your child or someone you know shows a number of these, it would be prudent to have him or her tested for dyslexia.

  1. Common Strengths of Dyslexic People

In addition to the individual “sea of strengths” that dyslexic people have, there are common strengths that most dyslexic people share. Many dyslexic children fly under the radar because they are extraordinary auditory learners. They can hear a passage read aloud and memorize it, therefore making their teachers believe they’re reading. They are also usually skilled at math, and they are very creative. (Now, don’t worry if your child doesn’t fit this model 100%. Peter is a poor auditory learner, but kinesthetically, he’s off the charts. And I know some dyslexics who also aren’t skilled at math.)

What marks dyslexics as different than other poor readers is their reading comprehension skills, which are intact. Let them hear a book (instead of making them struggle with decoding all those words), and then open a discussion with them, and you will find that they understand the text just as well (or better) than a fluent reader. When dyslexics are not hindered by people who misjudge them, they are able to prove themselves just as capable as fluent readers, and many successful dyslexics wouldn’t have it any other way because they can easily think outside the box, unlike colleagues who never had to struggle to read.

  1. How to Help Dyslexic People in School and Beyond

The Orton-Gillingham approach of scientifically-based instruction is what Shaywitz recommends for dyslexic children. Although she lists many different ways in which parents can help their dyslexic children at home, having one-on-one instruction with a tutor who is trained in this systematic and structured method is what really helps. (Peter’s tutor uses Barton, which utilizes Orton-Gillingham and has been very beneficial to him.)

There’s also good news for dyslexic adults who have gone undiagnosed: there are programs for adult literacy, and although they do require a commitment of time, they produce dividends that improve quality of life. Many undiagnosed adults either flunked or dropped out of school and, thus, have few options for employment because of their inability to read. It’s not that they’re unintelligent, just that they were never given the proper instruction for the way that their brains are wired.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) of Princeton, New Jersey provides audio copies of books, so dyslexics can listen to their material and follow along with the hard copy. Requesting more time and a quiet room for multiple choice exams is also a must, although oral or essay tests are preferable. (As Shaywitz and so many others have pointed out, these multiple choice tests really only prove how proficient people are at test-taking.) Shaywitz lists a number of computer programs that help dyslexics, as well as study tips. In a world that is not very friendly to dyslexics, there are still ways in which they can excel.

In Conclusion

There are so many more points that I wish I could list, but this post is already very long. Please, if any of this rings true for your child or someone you know, get the book! It’s scientifically-based, and one of the many case studies included may remind you of someone you know. I know the first one I read almost made me cry because it sounded so much like my son and reminded me of his early struggles.

The great news is that there is help. As I said, Peter is being tutored in an Orton-Gillingham program, Barton. After not quite five months, his reading has improved more than my husband and I ever thought possible. Over the summer, I saw that one of his friends was reading at a level two, and Peter struggled to get through “My First” books. Now, he can pick up a level two or even books that aren’t leveled readers.

Last week, we took turns reading a Magic Tree House book aloud – Peter was even the one who volunteered to read. About halfway through a chapter, he said, “Chapter books are fun!” I couldn’t agree more, buddy.

Spring “Cleaning”

Inheritance Cycle

Inheritance Cycle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I really wish I could tell you that I spent a good chunk of spring break getting rid of toys and clothes and giving my house the overhaul that it needs. Sadly, while I did the usual laundry and daily upkeep, I didn’t spend a lot of much-needed time cleaning.

My hope for our spring break, after returning from a few days at Disney World, was to catch up on my freelance projects and recreational reading. Any cleaning that happened in addition to that was gravy.

But would you believe it? My kids actually expected to do fun stuff for spring break. I know – can you believe the nerve? Really, they were little troupers. I had a lot of not-fun-for-kids stuff packed into those five weekdays. Now, they did get to stay up later than usual and watch movies and play outside, but there was still tutoring and the dentist and grocery shopping. I finally took them to the park last Friday, where they could just be kids.

It didn’t leave a whole lot of time for all that catching up I’d planned to do. I should have known better, but when spring break is on the horizon, it looks so sweet, has so much promise.

I did make some good progress on my biggest book project (and absolutely zero on another). I edited a bunch of my novel and only had a little left when school went back into session. In all honesty, I was happy to get any of that done.

But what I didn’t do much of was read for fun. Granted, I’m reading Eldest (sequel to Eragon). Not only is it close to 700 pages, but they’re a very cumbersome almost-700 pages. There’s a reason these books are on my book list for the third year in a row – and there’s also a reason I’m tackling them early.

For the first couple months of the year, I stuck to my 2015 book list, but to get more titles under my belt and break up the pace a little, I decided to read shorter books in between the Inheritance Cycle books. Aaaaand… well, I may have fallen off my book list wagon and bought a new book.

It was a shorty, I promise, and it was a really good one – a new-to-me author with a unique style that I admire, even if I can’t emulate it. (It was Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, in case you’re wondering.) The only problem was that I made a sort-of promise to myself that I wouldn’t buy any new books until I read through all the other new books that I already own, and this was a new book.

But after that little detour, I’m back on track again. Except…

One of the other things the kids and I did on spring break was to stop by my favorite local bookstore, and because the owner knows what a sucker I am for books, she reminded me that their 40% off spring cleaning sale was coming up.

You should be proud of me. I only bought four, two of them chosen by my elder son. But I have to say it makes me happy to know that there are more books for next year’s list if I don’t get to them this year.

New Books!

New Books!

Plus, I also have to say that sometimes you get a nice surprise where you don’t expect it. That book on the top left – The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore – is amazing. I highly recommend it if you love books; you don’t even have to have kids to appreciate it. I likely would not have bought it on my own, but Peter was excited to see it because he’d heard it before in his school’s library. I’ll have to say I’m pretty proud of my little bibliophile.

Despite not checking one thing off on my to-do list, I’m pretty happy with my spring break. It’s the little things.

It’s Query Time

Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.

For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.

Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.

Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.

With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)

As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.

So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.

The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.

The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.

So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.

It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.

At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.

So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!