Thursday, May 27, 2010

Do the Math: Secrets, Lies and Algebra, by Wendy Lichtman

Okay, time for that "occasional" part of this blog: the arithmetic. Actually, that's algebra, as studied and loved by eighth-grader Tess in this upper-MG title. But Tess goes one step further than love and study--she sees the world through math-colored glasses. She says: "We're spending a lot of time studying inequalities in algebra now, which makes sense, since who you're greater than (>) and who you're less than (<) is kind of the point of eighth grade." But this year Tess is discovering, as all higher math students eventually do, that a school subject everyone always assumed was known for its definitive answers--"Hey, either it's right or it's wrong"--is known by no such thing. Just like life, apparently, whether it's trying to figure out what to do about the coolest guy in school stealing an exam and making copies, or what to do when your mom thinks her co-worker (the same guy from whom you've taken a sculpting class) may have murdered his wife but she won't go to the police. Shocked by the death and her mother's suspicions, Tess is totally believable when she goes to her room and tries to graph the death on the x/y axes. But when her parents' voices bring her back to reality, she tears the paper to shreds and plots a nice, neat graph about riding her bike to her friend's house at 5 mph for 3 1/2 miles for her "real-life graph" homework, because "everyone knows that's the kind of thing you're supposed to be graphing in eighth grade."

There's a lot to love about this novel. Tess and her schoolmates ring true. The book is short and an easy read, smart choices to compensate for the automatic math phobia it must surmount. Tess's friendly first-person voice makes the math accessible. There's plenty else besides math going on. The teachers portrayed in the book are positive figures with real passion for their subjects, though some plain truth also comes out: Tess's history teacher is very close to math-illiterate. She suffers through his messed-up comments (such as 192, 77, 4, and 100 are prime numbers) and corrects them when she must, yet he's the teacher to whom Tess confides her mom's suspicions about murder and from whom she receives real help. The chapters have titles such as "The Quadratic Equation," "The Number Line," "Imaginary Numbers" and more. AND I really got a thrill out of this one: When her teacher gives Tess a glimpse of stuff that's "way out there" in higher math, her example is non-Euclidean geometry--geometry on a non-flat surface, such as a sphere, meaning, among other things, parallel lines DO cross. Because this was exactly the example I had thought of. When two math minds (even if mine's a tad rusty) think alike, it's a fun thing. :) There's a second book in the Do the Math series, called The Writing on the Wall, which I'll definitely be picking up.

Monday, May 24, 2010

May Critique Giveaway Winners!

The winners of this month's critique giveaway are: Laura Pauling and Blee Bonn!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "(Month) critique winner" in the subject line.
  • The deadline to submit your ms. for critique will be the DAY BEFORE the next month's critique contest begins. Critique contests always begin on the third Thursday. Therefore I must hear from the May winners by June 16.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Laura and Blee Bonn, thank you so much for stopping by and entering, and by all means enter again next month, when the entry deadline will be extended! Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win! Here are the rules and caveats:
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts each month. By "manuscript" I mean the first 1000 words of a children's magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel. Please, fiction only. No picture books or easy readers. No poetry.
  • Enter the drawing by commenting on this post AND stating that you wish to enter. This frees you up to comment, ask a question, or just say hey WITHOUT throwing your name in the hat.
  • For an additional entry, become a follower, and tell me so (or that you already are one) in the comment.
  • For an additional entry, post a link to this contest and give the URL in either the same or a separate comment. In this category, you can enter as many times as you have cyber-places to post the contest.
  • You may enter one ms. per month. While the above rules allow you to enter multiple times, those entries are for ONE manuscript. If the #2 name drawn is a duplicate of #1, drawing will continue until a new name is drawn. This way, two people are assured of a critique each month.
  • Enter anytime on May 20, 21 or 22.
  • Any story that you plan to enter in an ICL contest is ineligible. Since I am an ICL instructor, I cannot edit stories that you intend to enter in an Institute contest.
  • The level of detail I offer in a critique will vary based on my impression of the caliber of the writing. Whenever possible, I will make both "big picture" comments and zero in on more specific areas.
  • My critique is only one opinion. This business is SO subjective. Any suggestions I make that resonate with you are yours for the taking. Compare mine with those from other beta readers, critique partners, writing teachers, etc. Even if specific suggestions vary, when two or more critiquers pinpoint a certain passage or aspect, there's probably a need for revision there. Yet don't feel you must take advice you don't agree with. In the end, it's your story.
  • Winners will be announced on Monday, May 24.
So if the above sounds good to you, let the entering begin!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Humor in Fiction (if not Blog Post Titles)

Sometimes, and those times are random and relatively few, I'm funny. My sister once told me I can drop funny one-liners at unexpected moments. I like to see the humor in ordinary events and remark on it, think surprise is the heart of humor, and get a kick out of both good and bad puns. But I'm far from receiving the highest accolade bestowed on one of the most popular members of my high school class: "She's so funny!"

I'm not a funny writer. And that's fine if by that I mean I don't write humor as a genre, which I don't. No, my temperament type is one that tends to "deep meaning," oversensitivity, endless introspection, excessive daydreaming, "insight," even earnestness, which some writers consider ooky but the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 8:7) does not. In other words, I write the type of books that the Newbery Award committee loves are strongest in characterization, setting of scene, and emotional nuance. Plot's a little trickier. (What, you mean something's gotta happen?) And humor? Um...

Right now I'm first-drafting a new WIP. I've got premise, characters, setting, and emotional nuance. Hey, I've even got a plot skeleton, and I usually have to finish the draft to get that. But this book, though it's not humor and doesn't need to be, needs some levity. Which will be one of my primary goals for Draft Two. Because it hasn't got it now.

How will I find the comic relief? Well, a partial answer, I think, is to find it in a character I'm creating pretty much for that purpose. Good examples of comic relief characters are C3-PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars, and Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter books. Another key to humor in fiction is readers realizing the events are funny when all the way along the characters are panicking and blowing things out of proportion. In the Harry Potter stories, Ron Weasley often brings humor to scenes in this way.

People also tend to laugh when a character does something they, in their secret heart of hearts, would do in the same situation but never admit to, or that they think of a split second before the character or actor actually does it. Such as in the I Love Lucy scene where Lucy and Ethel are working in a candy factory and can't handle the speed of chocolates coming down the conveyor belt, so they eat them. It's so funny precisely because we would all be so sorely tempted.

Yet another important key is making surprising connections, especially when at least one of the things being connected was foreshadowed earlier. Have you ever heard the song "Cielito Lindo"? If not, and you want to, it's here. Anyway, when I was in fifth grade, our Spanish teacher taught us the song. I shall never, ever forget the chorus, which begins with a hearty, "Ay, ay, ay, ay." Weeks later, in a classroom exercise, the teacher had us all come up to the mike and say something, anything, in Spanish. This proceeded in orderly, unexciting fashion with a lot of "Me llamo Diego" stuff, until we were into the second round of turns and my best friend stepped up to that mike, belted "Ay, ay, ay ay!" and brought down the house. It was surprising, foreshadowed, and perfect juxtaposition. Not to mention brilliantly timed.

So what do you think? How do you work humor into a story, that is not itself humorous, to give it balance? What kinds of things, in a basically not-humorous story, make you laugh while still feeling they fit that story?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

May Book Giveaway Winner!

The winner of Emma's River by Alison Hart is: Laura Pauling!

You have 30 days to claim your prize, Laura. No later than June 10, email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com, giving me your postal address, and I'll acknowledge receipt and get that right out to you!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

May Book Giveaway

This cover attracted me right away, and the title page and illustrations that precede chapter 1 are no less gorgeous. Emma's River is Alison Hart's newest (March 2010) MG novel, set in 1852. Emma, age ten, her pony, and her pregnant mother travel up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers on the steamboat Sally May to join Papa in Kansas City and ultimately go to California. Nobody but Emma is glad to have Licorice Twist along, and, concerned for the pony's well-being, she sneaks to the forbidden main deck to check on him. What she finds is Patrick, a stowaway who beds with Twist, and the pair gradually become friends. When, during Mama's labor, the Sally May explodes in a fireball, Emma, Mama, Patrick, the rich, the poor, and the pony must find a way to survive the rushing waters of the Missouri.

To be entered in the drawing:
  • Comment on this post anytime on May 6, 7, or 8.
  • For an additional entry, become a follower of this blog and mention that in the comment. Ditto if you already are a follower.
  • For an additional entry, post a link to this contest and give the URL in either the same or a separate comment. In this category, you can enter as many times as you have cyber-places to post the contest.
I'll tally the number of entries per person, put 'em all in the hat, draw one, and announce the winner bright and early on Tuesday, May 11. Due to my son's college graduation on May 9 and accompanying hubbub, such as moving him, I'll need an extra day. :)