Friday, June 26, 2015

Fantasy Lost

Fantasy Found

Strange post title, but it does connect my blog posts about fantasy writing with my blog posts decrying standardized testing in the classroom.

Aha! Confused?

Don't be. There actually is a connection. I have in earlier posts, written about how fantasy writing is liberating as it allows the author to be godlike.  Fantasy writing allows us to escape reality and create worlds of our own free from the rules, regulations, and frustrations of the real world.

Test Clip ArtIf there is any representation of rules, regulations, and frustrations in the real world that stands out, it is the current situation with standardized tests in our classrooms. Filling in bubbles on a multiple choice test and writing essays that must somehow fit into a strict rubric or format to gain maximum points takes all the creative thinking out of education.  Essays, the only place on the test where students might actually be creative are scored quickly and by certain standards.  If the new tests are anything like the old tests, really creative, original, "out of the box" answers are never going to get full points.

(Aside here:  Pearson, the company that created the PARCC test used in New Jersey, is still hiring people to score the tests.  This article offers some very interesting insights into that potential debaucle:  Hiring Scorers for PARCC )  Please note too, if you scroll down on my blog and look at earlier posts, you will be able to follow my series of posts on standardized testing in schools.  (Series started on 3/9/15)

"Out of the Box" is the way fantasy writers need to think. Their minds must be open to unexpected flights of imagination, and a desire to make the unbelievable seem real. Fantasy writing demands creativity beyond the norm and a willingness to take chances challenging reality.

It is the absolute contradiction to standardized tests. Fantasy opens minds. Testing closes them. Fantasy allows freedom of thought. Testing denies it.

Unicorn Clip ArtI keep remembering some of the very clever, original tales my one English class wrote in response to some of the essay topics we encountered in "test prep" books.  How frustrating it was to "bring them back to earth" with the sad truth.  The fact was, a story about unicorns would never score full points on the test unless somehow there was a unicorn mentioned or pictured in the assigned topic.

Unicorns don't usually exist in standardized tests. They live in fantasy worlds invented by creative minds who know the value of imagination.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Planning and Plotting

Where Does the Story Go And Where Did It Come From? 

So, just how do writers come up with ideas? How, did the Saga of Magiskeep come about in the first place?

I have always loved to write. Just recently, I found the "novels" I had written in middle school. As I re-read them, I was struck by how many of the ideas I had then, seemed to have inspired parts of Kingdom Beyond the Rim and the Saga.

The White Stallion of Twin Pines, my middle school opus was a series of five "books" --really stories, with James Weston as the main character. He was a horseman in Nevada and he rode and trained a beautiful white stallion named King's Ransom--whose sire was names Silver Jubilee. James had all kinds of adventures and found himself in numerous scrapes solving mysteries. Eventually, somehow the story shifted to a bit of a spy adventure--I think I was reading the James Bond novels at the time--and James found himself clashing with a villain name Sargari.

Now, I am the kind of writer who often forgets what she has written once it's all down on paper. In this case, I wrote those stories, put them away and twenty years or so later, when I began writing Kingdom, I'd forgotten all about them.

Or had I?
From the cover of Silvirn Shards
I assigned my high school English class a story topic, "What would you do if you had a magic power?"  They challenged me to write a story as well, and so Kingdom began.  At first, it was just the germ of a novel, but once I started, I kept on writing. It wasn't until nearly forty years later that I published what had become a full-fledged novel with two completed novel sequels, and six more novelettes.  Since then, I've added another novel and I'm working on the fifth as well.

So where did the White Stallion stories show up?  My hero's name is Jamus. He rides and trains a beautiful silver stallion--a magical version of white.  He has all kinds of adventures and finds himself challenged to solve numerous riddles, getting himself in and out of numerous scrapes along the way. In Kingdom, Jamus must confront an ambitious and dangerous Magician whose names is Sagari.

I guess I really hadn't forgotten those old stories after all. Variations on a theme, perhaps, but somehow, those old ideas had been floating around in my subconscious for years.

"Everything old is new again." (Peter Allen)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Things My Father Taught Me

Lessons of Life

As Father's Day approaches here in the USA, most of us think about our fathers.

I am no exception. (I missed posting for Mother's Day this year, but I will make up for it.)  My Dad was an amazing man. I'm not sure he set out to teach me all the things I learned from him but intentional or not, the lessons stuck.

Born in New York City, he came to the New Jersey farm just two houses away from where I live now, as a small child. His mother, Grandma, had decided that the city was no place to raise a family, so she and my Grandpa bought a farm and moved. Grandpa continued to work in New York as a tailor, and Grandma learned how to make a living as a farmer. She sold milk, eggs, vegetables, and always had a big garden to feed her large family.

My Dad inherited her green thumb. He acquired a plot of land from the family homestead, ordered a do-it-yourself house kit from Montgomery Ward and built our Cape Cod house on the land. He was an electrical engineer--worked on the electrification of the Pennsylvania Railroad--and did all the wiring, plumbing and whatever the house needed by himself. Still standing after 60 years, the home is a tribute to him and my Mother.

Dad was a master handyman who could fix just about anything. Living out in the country, we had to be pretty self-reliant and Dad always rose to the occasion. I learned that same kind of self-reliance from him and, for good or ill, if I have problem, I always try to solve it myself before asking anyone for help. I've tackled lots of jobs a wiser woman might not have even tried because of the values of self worth and "I can do it," instilled in me by my father's example. I've even done a few minor electrical repairs on my own, but I am careful--I'll hire a real electrician for the serious stuff.

I cannot recall my Dad ever missing a day of work. I'm sure he did, but those times were so far and few between I never noticed. When he left the Railroad, he became and Inspector for the Federal Government and traveled all around the State to various plants and factories as a Quality Control Inspector. He'd leave early in the morning and come home around 5 PM or so and then do some kind of work around the house. Well, after dinner, that is.

We always had a full family dinner together. My Mother was a teacher and she worked as hard as my Dad. But every evening, she would fix a dinner for us all and we'd sit to eat. My Dad would tell us long tales of his day at work, and I got to know a lot about places in New Jersey through his adventures. Even today when I drive around the State. the names I heard him say ring in my memory: Eatontown, Springfield, Summit, Farmingdale, and more. I learned there was more to the State than my hometown--a world beyond our back door.

But out the back door was my Dad's pride and joy--his yard and garden. He loved flowers and always planted rows of them with beds of roses and peonies that still bloom today despite my neglect. Gladious were always one of his favorites, and he never forgot his wedding anniversary when he would have a huge bouquet of them delivered to my Mother on January 1. He worked as hard in the garden as he did on the job.

I learned to enjoy the taste of fresh vegetables. Sweet corn picked a minute before being plunged into a pot of boiling water was the sweetest thing on earth. And tomatoes of all kinds were good to eat right off the vine with a little salt and no bother of preparation. Peppers, lima beans, string beans, peas, squash, eggplant, asparagus, cucumbers and more graced our table every summer and my Mother would can and freeze baskets of produce to keep us filled up through the winter. My Dad provided for his family with hard work on the job and hard work on the land.

My Dad was good too about getting things for both my brother and me. More than once he surprised me at Christmas with the doll I had longed for. One of the best gifts was my bicycle. Ours was a lightly traveled country road at the time. Across the way was a sandpit with tons of dirt roads and behind us a vast woodland with winding trails and farm fields with dirt roads. My Dad saved money to get my brother and me Schwinn middleweight bicycles, high-end models. I'd learned to ride a two- wheeler on one of my cousin's bike. So when I got the new bike I was all ready.

And here's where one of the most important lessons my Dad taught me comes in. My brother and I had to promise that every time we needed to cross the roads with our bikes we had to get off and walk them across. If my Dad ever saw us or heard that we were riding, he would take the bikes away. This was, of course, a safety issue, to make us pay extra attention to watch for traffic. Today, as I drive my car, that lesson sticks with me. I always look once, twice, three times before entering an intersection, even if the light has just changed in my favor. I cannot tell you how many times that extra ounce of caution has saved me.

I think my Dad knew one day that lesson would matter. He may not have known how much his work ethic impacted me to be a responsible employee myself, or how our dinners of good healthy food and family conversations molded my character, or even how I learned to love and appreciate the beauty of nature because of his flowers, but he did know about that bike.

And every time I reach an intersection, in the road of in my life, I always remember his lesson of love.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Juggling From One to Another

More Than One Book At a Time

I am working on The Fifth Dragon, the final Magiskeep novel, of course. I have the basic plot set, and now I just need to fill in the story itself. It promises to be a satisfying conclusion to the epic.

But I am apparently too used to variation in my work habits. When I was teaching school full time, I had six classes a day and often taught as many as five different grade level/subject areas. Every forty-five minutes, my brain had to alter course to teach something different. Even during the years when I had fewer different classes to teach, I never seemed to have the same grade level twice in a row.

That thirty-eight year experience programmed my brain for a sort of multi-tasking.

Now, a word on that. According to some reliable science, our brains actually cannot mult-task--do more than one job at the same time. Instead, it flashes from one task to another in split seconds. So we work on one thing for a fraction of a second, then work on another a fraction later. Of course, we may be continuing to do reflex or habitual tasks at the same time--such as typing a familiar word, or cutting up our steak--but those actions often do not need thought and can continue purely out of habit. I find if I start to type a word, for instance, the thought process of typing that word is already complete by the time I see something interesting on the TV screen. Thus, I can still type the word while I actually take in the TV information.

But I digress, sort of.

My teaching multi-tasking seems to have left me with 45-60 minute concentration spans. I write or edit for about that amount of time and then feel the need to do something else. I will certainly be able to return to the first project, but only after a break working on another.

So at the moment, I have essentially three projects in the work at the same time. I am, as I said, working on the last Magiskeep novel. I am also doing a Grammarly check of Kingdom Beyond the Rim, as, despite all my previous efforts, there are still some typos in the published versions. And I am doing a Grammarly check of my romance novel, The Loving Cup.  Every now and then, I drift off to the Internet to read forum posts and comment on social media, as well as check on new ways to promote my books.

All in all, it does keep me busy, but it does slow each project down.

But, little by little works.