Monday, November 30, 2009

So I Got a Wii

Because that's what people my age do when they realize they're about 25 pounds heavier than they ought to be and they can't stick to something simple like, say, exercising and eating better. Here's how the thinking went on this Wii thing:

My in-laws have a Wii and we were over there playing it. They have the balance board and it weighs you and, in conjunction with the Wii Fit software, you can do all sorts of pseudo-exercises. It tells you how many calories you burn and all kinds of whatnot.

So I said something to The Wife like, "Hey, we should get one of these."

And The Wife gave me a look, but not the look, which was what she gave me when I suggested we go on a cruise over Christmas. So I knew there was a chance if I could make a reasoned argument.

"It could be our Christmas gift to each other."

This idea held some appeal for her, probably because I'm not that easy to buy for and because, in her heart of hearts, she wanted a Wii too.

So we got our Wii and the balance board Saturday and we spent the rest of the weekend trying it out. (And you wonder why I haven't been writing anything worth a damn.)

So, for those with Wiis, here are my favorite sports games in order:

1. Tennis
2. Bowling
3. Golf, which Little One is pretty good at. She birdied two holes in a row.
4. Baseball
5. Boxing (Killed my arms. They still hurt and it's Monday.)

And what I completely suck at is Yoga. There's this yoga thing called The Tree. It looks like this. I tried to do the tree. (That sounds wrong.) I failed miserably, much to the delight of The Wife. She laughed so hard she cried as I tried to get my foot in my crotch and then stand there without falling over. Let's just say I did not in any way resemble a tree. Unless you're talking about the kind of out-of-control, violently swaying tree one might see in a hurricane.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Here's the Truth

Anita, in a way only Anita can, lightly chided me for not blogging more often and I'd like to explain myself. So here's the truth: I got nothin'.

My creative juices have dried up. I've written nothing original in weeks. I sit down to blog and I have nothing to say. In fact, I tried to post earlier and then realized that the whole thing sounded familiar. So I checked my own archives and found a post that was almost identical to the one I was composing. ("Composing" makes this whole thing sound much more serious.)

I've done some revising on my YA, but even that's slow going. I've tried coming up with new stuff and I sit there and stare at the white screen of my laptop. I type some drivel and backspace over it, type some more garbage and erase that too. That story about the ducks is the best I've come up with in what feels like forever and I got nary a response to that which means it pretty well sucks.

So since I haven't written anything, I really have nothing to blog about. I can't exactly blog about my writing because there's hasn't been any. I could blog about the minutiae of my extremely interesting life, but how often can you go to that well before the water starts to get that metallic taste to it and you think it might have too high an iron content and so you buy bottled water even though you know it's a total rip-off and probably not that much healthier than the stuff coming out of the tap? You know?

Patience, young padawans. Genius is a fickle beast.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Story for the Kids

Five ducks lived on the pond. They were very pretty ducks and because they were pretty people liked to look at them. But looking at ducks gets boring because ducks don’t really do much, so to get the ducks to do something the people would feed the ducks. They fed them bread from their picnic sandwiches.

The five ducks were very good friends. They looked out for one another. They shared. One thing they shared was the bread. And because they shared the bread, each duck gained the same amount of weight because bread is full of carbohydrates. Especially white bread, and that is what the picnic people mostly fed them.

One day, after the picnic people had left and the ducks had all eaten their bread, something appeared in the sky above the pond. All the ducks craned their heads to see what it was. It came out of the sun with its wings flapping and landed clumsily in the middle of the pond. The ducks gasped, as much as ducks can gasp. They stared. They swam toward one another and huddled together.

“What is it?” asked one of the ducks.

“It is a bird of some sort,” answered another.

“Are you sure?” asked a third duck.

“It was flying, wasn’t it?” said the second duck.

“Bats fly. They’re not ducks,” added the fifth duck, who liked to be contrary.

And then the thing that had landed in the pond spoke. It said, “My name is Lester, and I am a duck.”

And the five ducks laughed and laughed because Lester looked nothing like them. He was brown and mottled and he had a lazy left eye. And look how skinny he was! Why, it was a wonder he could fly anywhere at all. The wind must have its way with him.“You’re no duck,” they told Lester.

The next day, when the picnic people came with their bread, the children pointed at Lester and said, “Look at that ugly duck.” Some of the women reminded their children of the ugly duckling story because they felt bad for Lester. But the children ignored their mothers as much as they ignored Lester. They fed their bread to the five fat, pretty ducks and Lester got none. The other ducks did not share with Lester.

And it went like this for many days. Lester was very hungry. He said to the other ducks, “When the picnic people come tomorrow with their bread, could you share some of it with me?” But the other ducks pretended not to hear him because they knew it was worse to be ignored than to be hated and the pretty ducks wanted Lester to leave.

The next day, when the picnic people came, there was only one duck left on the pond. It was Lester. The other ducks had all died of heart attacks because of their high cholesterol levels. The people were confused. “Where are the pretty ducks?” they said. But they soon realized that feeding an ugly duck was better than not feeding any ducks at all and so they fed their bread to Lester.

Lester was starving and he gorged himself on the bread. The picnic people loved it. They kept tossing in more bread and Lester kept eating it. When the people finally left, Lester had a stomachache. He Lester took a nap because that is what you feel like doing a couple of hours after ingesting a lot of carbohydrates.

When Lester woke up later that night he was no longer alone on the pond. There was another duck. “Hello,” the new duck said. “My name is Witherspoon.”

Lester laughed. Witherspoon! What a ridiculous name for a duck. And look at him! He looked nothing at all like Lester. He was white and sleek and when he swam he went in circles. “I have a balance problem,” Witherspoon explained.

The next day, when the picnic people came with their bread, they were excited to see the second duck. They thought that he was pretty and people like pretty things better than they like ugly things. They tried to feed him bread, but Lester would not allow it. As Witherspoon spun in circles, Lester darted for the crumbs and gobbled them all up. The people became angry with Lester.

“Get out of the way, you ugly duck!” they yelled.

“Let the pretty one eat some, lazy eye!” they shouted.

Witherspoon pleaded, “Please, let me have just one taste of bread. I’m very hungry.” But Lester’s heart was hard from the treatment of the five pretty ducks and sometimes when you have been treated badly it makes you want to treat others badly. So Lester did not share. He ate all the bread. And he fell asleep with a full stomach while Witherspoon stayed up all night, his stomach growling.


I Am Home Sick Today

But that will not stop me from entertaining you.

I really don't feel all that bad, but I've got no voice. And you need a voice to teach third grade. How else would I shout things like

"Pay attention! You must learn how to write the cursive S! Cursive writing is the future! Why do you think I spend valuable class time teaching it!"

or "Don't forget to take home your spelling words to study so you can ace Friday's test and then immediately forget those words and subsequently misspell them every single time in your writing!" (Cause I use words like 'subsequently' with my third graders. Their confused looks make me feel superior.)

or "Computers?! We're not wasting our time with those things! I'm trying to prepare you for the future here!"

So I stayed home because teaching's no fun unless you can raise your voice.

I actually have some voice. I can talk real deep, like Vin Diesel, but it comes off as me trying to sound tough and that just doesn't fly.

I ain't tough.

Plus, it would be weird to say stuff like, "Destiny, remember to use I-messages. Instead of yelling at Fred, say 'Fred, I feel sad when you call me names like turd fungus'" in a Vin-Diesel voice.

My normal voice is kaput. I've got a thin lining of mucus coating my throat that I spend all day horking up but it just keeps regenerating like the tentacles of a green hydra in the dark. It's gotten a little thicker today which makes it easier to hork, but then I get that disgusting boogery taste in my mouth for the few seconds before I spit it in the sink and rinse it down because The Wife is not happy when she sees horked up booger spit in her sink.

The good news is I slept a lot better last night than the night before when I literally go no sleep. I hadn't done that since college and back then it was intentional. You ever go through a day on zero sleep? It sucks. So I'd like to thank NyQuil for assisting last night.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Murphblog by the Numbers

This is my 200th post. My first ever post was on November 9 of last year. So that means I've now been blogging for over a year. Congratulations to me.

I have 93 books listed in the "Books I've Read in 2009" section of the blog. Technically, I've read more than that but I don't list every book I read aloud to my third graders. There's probably another 20 or so that I started reading and gave up on, which is why you do not see The Story of Edgar Sawtelle on the list. I'm excited to reach the 100 mark because I sort of set that as a goal for myself this year. When I get there, I'm planning a top ten list. I will try to be unbiased, but I'll probably fail.

I once again have 54 followers. Somebody dropped out a while back. No doubt they are regretting their hasty decision and are embarrassed to admit their mistake. I expect the person to soon be begging my forgiveness. In the meantime, let's all welcome Paul to the crew. Paul lives in Alaska and his blog has some amazing pictures on it. He's also got some good stuff about writing. And his name is Paul, so points for that.

Speaking of points, here's the leaderboard:


Points are tabulated using a formula not unlike baseball's OPS in its complexity. The worst way to acquire points is to make an obvious attempt at points acquisition, with the notable exception of agreeing with the blogger (that would be me in this case). I like when people agree with me. I also like when people disagree because that usually means more comments. And I like comments. That's one way to earn points. Unless you're commenting for the sole purpose of earning points, in which case you'll probably lose a few. Or a lot depending on my mood. Your best bet is to read everything I write, agree with most of it, comment often, but act like you don't really care all that much. Which is why Anita is in first.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

When Dialogue Goes Bad

Every once in a while it's helpful to read something you hate. So many of the books I read remind me of how far I have to go in my own writing, but sometimes I'll grab one that rubs me wrong in so many ways that I think to myself, "At least I'm not doing that in my stories."

Without mentioning the title, I recently finished a very popular book that, in so many words, sucked. Now usually I would never finish such a book, but this one was so incredibly awful that I just kept reading, mesmerized by its suckiness. I even kept notes, which is something I never do while reading, because I wanted to see just why I hated the book so much. I came up with eleven reasons, some of which were sort of trivial and personal (overuse of italics); others which I consider unpardonable sins. I'd like to talk about one of the unpardonable sins: crummy dialogue.

Since dialogue is basically the soundtrack of a story, it's imperative that the author get it right at least most of the time. I found five major problems with the dialogue in the story.


1. Inconsistent voice---I'd love to use actual examples from the text, but I promised myself that I wouldn't out the book, so I've changed some of the words:

"I was just packing up for the day. Wendell's has been temporarily shut down after the inspection, so until it opens up again, and I hope it does soon, I'll be back washing cars for a living."

Later, same character: "I know you trying to put on your brave face--that face that even your mama might not see through. But I know what you got, and you got it bad."

2. Dialogue tags other than said--I can handle a few of them, but I literally just opened to a page in this book and saw the following, in order:

John groaned. Sally taunted. John asked. Sally explained. Sally toasted, John groaned (again), John protested
I could probably look past most of the above, but there were also places where the writer wrote something like:

"I know" was all he could muster.

3. Dialogue used solely as a means to dump information, often easily identified by being too long. People just don't talk in this many sentences, unless they're giving a speech, which is basically what this sort of dialogue amounts to.

"This place wasn't here when I was a kid," said John. "It was built in 1987. People born during the 70s and 80s are referred to as the "Me Generation" because they put themselves above duty. You've heard the phrases "Be Yourself," and "Believe in Yourself?" Those came out of this me first mindset. You know, we live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, but also far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness. People like you have been raised to aim for the stars at a time when it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, and afford a house. Your expectations are sky high just as the world is becoming more competitive. Disappointment is almost guaranteed. That's what I feel here--disappointment."

4. Dialogue that doesn't fit the character

If a college kid is going to demonstrate through dialogue that she knows all about the Peloponnesian War, then the reader better be presented with a reason why she knows this stuff.

If a twelve-year-old is going to offer pearls of wisdom like Donald Sutherland, then there better be a reason why he knows so much.

5. Dialogue that would never happen because two characters would have no reason to say these things to each other.

"Remember how Mom hated the Yankees?"
"Sure do."
"She ever tell you about the time she threw a banana peel at Moose Skowron?"
"Probably fifty times."
"Yep, she waited outside the players' entrance at old Tiger Stadium and when that ugly sumbitch got within range, she fired that nasty thing right at his flat-top."
"Missed though."
"Yep, missed. She always said, 'How in the hell do you miss something that big?'
"Sure did."*

* I actually kind of like this bit of dialogue, but it's totally unnecessary and not believable. It could be remedied by adding a third character who lacks knowledge of the incident, although if the anecdote is at all central to the story, it still comes off as a cheesy writer's trick.

Friday, November 13, 2009

This is Me Being Insecure

So this week sucked. It was parent-teacher conference week, which for me means I had to spend Monday night making sure I had everything ready for the conferences, Tuesday night actually doing the conferences, Wednesday night making sure I was ready for Thursday's conferences, and Thursday night going through another round of conferences. Because I team teach, I had 56 conferences, each lasting about 10 minutes.

So the blog and writing and reading and family and just about everything else didn't even make it onto the back burner. And I realized how pitifully insecure I am about my standing in the Webosphere. I just logged on and caught up on some of my favorite bloggers and the whole time I'm doing so I'm actually thinking, "Oh man, they're going to be so disappointed. I haven't been commenting and I haven't been blogging anything interesting in like, a month. I've probably lost 10 followers."

Seriously, I'm actually worried about this.

I think it says two things, both of which are embarrassing. First, I obviously have an inflated view of my own contributions to the Blogosphere. My guess is no one really noticed or cared that I wasn't commenting on their blogs. Second, I'm kind of a pathetic loser who is worried about letting down a lot of people I've never even met.

But then again, these same people I've never met have provided hours of entertainment and given me valuable feedback on my writing and have bothered to actually read the garbage I throw up on this blog.

So maybe it's not that pathetic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It's a V-Log Explosion! Ka-Boom!

Been a while since I v-logged, so to make up for it I give you two. The first one is new. I made it tonight. The reason I'm sort of whispering is because The Wife was in the next room and I was self-conscious about the whole thing. It's about my office.

The second one is old. I made it back in March but didn't post it because I felt weird about it. It seems like I'm sarcastically ripping on Sophomore Undercover, which I had no intention of doing. Sophomore Undercover rules. Kirkus doesn't. That's what I'd like you to take away from the video. That, and beer is really good on unseasonably warm days.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Training Day

Attended a training on teaching kids with autism today (it was actually the third such training so far this year) and, like most trainings, they managed to spread an hour's worth of material over the entire eight-hour day. Educators are very good at doing this. And they don't even try to hide it.

For example, the first thing we did was introduce ourselves, a totally worthless exercise for the following reasons:

1. You know you're never going to remember everyone's name.
2. So you don't really listen, thereby guaranteeing number one.
3. The other reason you don't listen is because you're mostly thinking about how you're going to introduce yourself, which is ironic because no one is going to be listening to you either.

Then the presenters told us when our breaks and lunch would be, which is basically admitting that those things are going to be the highlights of everyone's day.

And they always have chocolate. The chocolate is bribery. It's a way of saying, "I know this is going to be really boring, but please don't fall asleep or walk out or give us a bad review on the feedback form because, hey, we did bring chocolate."

And women--it's always women--will make chocolate jokes. I've never been at a training where some woman did not make a chocolate joke. What is a chocolate joke? Well, first of all, it's not funny. It's especially not funny when you've heard it sixty times. Here's how it usually goes:

Presenter: The first thing you're going to want to do when you start the year is establish some norms for your team. Many teams agree that they're are going to meet weekly and that everyone will be on time and prepared. You might discuss how work will be delegated. Take a moment and brainstorm some norms for your teams.

Woman: I've got one. There will be chocolate at all meetings.

Told you. Not funny.

Here's something else that bothered me. Today's presenters used PowerPoint. Shocking, I know. And by "use," I mean they had a fifty page slide show that they read to us. I've never understood this. If you're going to take the time to type everything, why do you need to read it to me? I can read.

And of course the sound on the videos was barely above whisper volume and they didn't know how to fix it and I had to sit there suppressing the male urge to walk up there and tinker with the settings.

And, like always, we had to write things on chart paper and there was the whole, "My handwriting stinks" and "I'll write, but I don't want to share" nonsense, and that's stupid too, that someone even has to share. What's the point of writing something on huge chart paper and hanging the paper on the wall if you're just going to stand up and tell everyone what you wrote?

Actually, I know the answer to that. It's to waste time. Because eight hours lasts forever when you're not actually doing anything, and after a while it doesn't matter how much chocolate they have, because not only couldn't they work the sound but the lighting sucked, they ran out of brownies at lunch, and there were seven typos in their stupid PowerPoint presentation.

I'd tell you to avoid these presenters, but I have no idea what their names are.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

James Kennedy is Near

James Kennedy, world-class entertainer, all around groovy guy, and author of The Order of Odd-Fish (see all four Order of Odd-Fish Week posts here, here, here, and here) will be in Lansing tomorrow. Lansing, as some of you already know, is very close to where I live. And Mr. James Kennedy mentioned a long time ago that we should meet up while he was in town. This sounded like a splendid idea, but one I was pretty sure he'd forget about by the time November 5 rolled around.

And then two days ago I get an email from Mr. Kennedy and even though I am not a librarian he offers to get me in to his talk at the annual MLA conference. And based on past performances, I know it will be oodles of awesome.

Alas, I'm attending a training on teaching kids with autism tomorrow and will not be able to attend. Even more alas, James has to run following his presentation and I won't be able to give him my manuscript.

I mean, have him autograph my lucky sock.

Or tell him how much I'm looking forward to The Magnificent Moots.

Or ask him how he likes the whole fatherhood thing.

Or ask him just what sort of stuff he was inhaling back in the day.

Or quote lines from his book to him that relate to some situation we may find ourselves in. For example, say we were enjoying some adult beverages at The Nut House and the waitress kept screwing up our food order. I might say, "The Inconvenience must be working at peak performance, James." He would chuckle. Then after the waitress screwed everything up she would overcharge us and James would say, "Murphy, you didn't turn the silver crank, did you?" And we would both laugh uproariously.

So it's too bad none of that is going to happen. But this is not too bad: James assures me there will be shenanigans involving him wearing feathers and that he's planning to have it YouTubed. So make sure you check in on him at his new fancy home on the Web.

And buy his book if you haven't already. I mean, jeez, what are you waiting for exactly?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Help My Student Writers

My students are currently supposed to be revising their personal narratives. And some of them are. But a lot of them just rewrite the same story they wrote the first time around and, even though I've done lots of lessons on revising, I think some of them are overwhelmed and others are just forgetful.

So I typed up a handout to give them titled "Things to Revise" and I included the following. Now I'm asking for your help. Give me some other things writers do when they revise. Please remember that I teach third graders and we're not working on fiction yet. That said, feel free to share whatever. I can always not include it.

· Write new leads and choose the best one.

· Rewrite any areas that might be confusing.

· Add words that make sentences more clear.

· Name things—instead of “restaurant” say “Taco Joe’s.”

· Change tells to shows—instead of “I was mad,” write “I slammed my fist on the table.”

· Insert some dialogue.

· Make sure your dialogue is easy to follow. Who is talking?

· Make sure you don’t have parts that are nothing except dialogue. Insert small actions or facial expressions into your dialogue.

· Insert descriptions. Try some imagery. “The clouds looked like wisps of cotton, strewn across the sky.”

· Insert feelings or thoughts.

· Insert small actions.

· Word Choice—what word best describes it?

· Delete things that don’t belong in the story.

· Delete extra words that aren’t necessary.

· Rewrite your ending.

· Check paragraphing. What is most effective?

· Speed through unimportant parts.

· Slow way down during important parts—add lots of small details.

· Try a simile or metaphor to compare something—“He ate like a starving lion.”