Hi. This is my blog page, but I also put other stuff here, like maps that I’ve created, miscellaneous shout outs, and other bits of authorly bric-a-brac that really don’t go anywhere else. It’s kind of like the junk drawer in the kitchen where you come across cool stuff while you’re looking for something else.
The Quantization of Murphy's Law - Everything goes wrong all at once.
Finding something – anything! – that works
Admittedly this week’s blog is a bit of a mashup because I’m struggling in so many areas right now – writing, teaching, getting in shape, learning jazz piano. Yeah, it’s safe to say that everything is kind of tough. So, before I launch into what I’m doing to fix this disaster in each area of my life, I’ll provide a bit of context.
One: I’m a writer. Sorry, but I still can’t say the word “author” without cringing inside. It always comes out sounding like “Look at ME!” Anyway, I have six books published and most people seem to genuinely like them since I have a lot more reviews than I have friends or relatives. Now, and I mean right now, I’m working on the 7th book, which is the last book in the current Darkwater trilogy. And…I missed my deadline for the first time ever because getting all the plot lines wrapped up while still creating an interesting story is more difficult than I thought.
Two: My day gig for the last ten years has been a high school math teacher. Some years are easier than others, and this year has been difficult. I can tell you the most challenging part of teaching math is to take a subject that many of your students actively hate and try to make it interesting. This year that’s been even more of a challenge than usual. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but many times a well-intentioned educational policy can do more harm than good. Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences.
Three: I went to the doctor this last summer and the paraphrased conversation went something like this:
ME: “I don’t wanna take that pill.”
DOCTOR: “Well you need to unless you want your arteries to look like the interstates downtown on Friday at five o’clock.”
ME: “What do I have to do to NOT take the pill?”
DOCTOR: “Get down to 175.”
Now, understand that I weighed 174 when I graduated high school. I’m fifty-freaking-five.
Four: My son, Patrick, is an amazing jazz pianist. He’s got the degree, he’s got the chops, he’s got the love. And unfortunately, he has me as a student. No degree. No chops. Just love. You should probably pray for him. His teaching gig might be harder than mine.
So, there you have it. Life is unfair and nothing goes well sometimes. My solution? Quite honestly, it amounts to throwing spaghetti at the wall. For writing, it means showing up every day, pounding out a thousand words in the hope that a few hundred of them are worth keeping and going for long walks in the woods when I can’t get the plot to come together. For teaching, it means hunting for an incentive so my students will stay motivated and pay attention in class, even if they’re still not thrilled with the idea of complex numbers. For getting in shape, it means making myself pick up the weights even on those days when I get home from school feeling as wrung out as a dishrag. And for piano, it means taking a step back and admitting I don’t know enough theory yet, to understand the pieces I’m trying to play.
Will any of this work? I have no idea. I’m just throwing spaghetti at the wall in the hopes that something sticks. Lucky for me, though, I have a wife who loves Italian.
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The Sound of Good Writing
Let’s start this week with a confession: I made a mistake when I wrote my first series, The Staff and the Sword, and if I had to do it all over again, I would fix it even if it meant turning in the manuscript a little late. What did I do? I messed up the editing process. Not in a huge way, and honestly, most people probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but even now, years after it still bugs me.
I didn’t read the story out loud.
First, you have to understand how I came to be a writer in the first place. I have four sons and they’re all spaced roughly two years apart. It made life around the house a wonderful, crazy, frantic time. One of my favorite parts of being a dad was getting to read to them. I have shelves and shelves of my favorite books, everything from children’s stories to my own personal favorites, and I delighted in getting to share those with them. About the time my youngest son, Ethan, hit the age of six, we would gather every evening and for half an hour to an hour I would read from stories like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, and more.
A hidden benefit of reading all these wonderful books was that my ear became attuned to the rhythm and cadence of a well-written story and it became the standard by which I judged the writing of the books I’ve read. Even now, years later, I can’t force myself to read a story with poor cadence or rhythm no matter how highly-recommended it comes.
Thus, my regret and my advice. There are a handful of places in my first series, probably no more than a dozen, that bug me because the cadence and rhythm are off. Now, sometimes this can’t be helped. For the sake of clarity, sometimes you have to repeat a name or pronoun so the reader doesn’t get lost, but there are a few places in each of those first three books I would edit if I could.
Now, how does this translate into what you should do with your work? I’ve laid out some steps below that I think can help you polish your work so that it falls lyrically on your reader’s ear.
One: After you’ve finished your final edit (except it won’t be final) read your story out loud from start to finish. Listen. Have you varied your sentence structure to avoid an oppressive rhythm? Do you have a word repeated too close to itself? Do you have run-on sentences that need to be modified to give your reader a chance to read? Do you have the right balance between dialogue and narrative? Listen.
Two: Read the best stories in your genre out loud, preferably with like-minded friends. Well-crafted rhythms and cadences are usually a big reason why a story sells well. Almost all of the best books have them. When you hit a passage that is particularly powerful, analyze it. Figure out what makes it work and then, in your own style, create something similar.
Three: Read poetry, the good stuff. Here, I would suggest that you read free-form poetry. The absence of a defined meter forces the skilled poet to create internal, more subtle rhythm within their work. Again, find these rhythms and see if you can emulate them in your own writing.
Do these things and I think you’ll find that your writing will improve. You may even discover that your story has moved from being a tale to being an epic.
About a week ago my state released its data for student achievement. The news, as everyone took pains to predict, was bad. For me and those like me who teach in urban districts it was horrific. In my district only 25% of our students are reading at grade level. In math the results were even worse. Only 15% of the students are working at grade level? What’s worse, these results do not represent the nadir of district results for our state. True, they’re a long way from the highest, but they’re not the lowest by any means.
Whenever results like these are released, there is an understandable amount of hand-wringing that occurs and justifiably so. This is usually followed by the usual litany of questions:
How did we get to this state?
Why is it being allowed to continue?
What can we possibly do to fix a problem of this magnitude?
Answers, of course, depend on who you ask. My own educational background is somewhat more ecumenical than most teachers in public education. As an Air Force brat, I attended a lot of different schools. I had what most people would call a nightmare elementary education. By the time I finished sixth grade, I’d been enrolled in six different schools. Things settled down a bit after that. I went to a middle school for grades 7-8 that had about a thousand students. That’s not a misprint. I hate that place. It reciprocated. Then I went to high school. That was a little better.
Out of high school, I went to Georgia Tech and by hard work, the support of good friends, and the grace of God, I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I capitalize it because it makes me feel good. I worked as an engineer in different jobs for about twenty years before becoming a school teacher. After that, I became nationally board certified (to this day, that’s probably the most difficult test I’ve ever taken), and earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. So, anyway, that’s me. Call my experience “the mutt” of educational pedigrees.
I’ve been teaching for ten years now. There are a lot of problems in education. It’s a big list.
But I know the biggest problem and I know how to fix it. That may sound like ego or arrogance, but practically any teacher with a decent amount of smarts and experience would say the same thing because we’re all confronted by the same problems.
Here’s a bit of background. Years and years ago, a study was done (we do all sorts of studies in education) that showed a correlation between student retention (that’s edu-speak for failing someone and making them repeat a grade) and the dropout rate. Now, it’s important to understand that showing a correlation isn’t the same as showing causation, but we’ll come back to that a later date. Suffice to say that this ushered in an era in public education defined by social promotion. The hope for this was that if we could keep students with their peers they would be less likely to drop out of school. Well, it worked.
Fast forward a few years to the No Child Left Behind legislation, a bipartisan work envisioned by Pres. Bush and crafted by Sen. Kennedy. Now, school districts would be punished monetarily for failing too many students. The trickle of social promotion turned into a flood. The graduation rate improved of course, but in the end the once-venerated high school diploma became worthless. By turning high school graduation rates from an indicator into a target, we turned the high school diploma into a “congratulations-you’ve-turned-eighteen” certificate. If that offends you and makes you angry with me, remember, 25% reading, 15% math. At this point, it’s impossible for you to be more offended than I am.
So there you have in brief, the evolution of a really bad decision. Since then, public education has been trying to rescue this decision. You can spot the efforts, most of them well-intentioned and some of them even heroic, by their acronyms:
DI – Differentiated Instruction
RTI – Response to Intervention
RTII – Response to Intervention and Instruction
SEL – Social and Emotional Learning
GFL – Grading for Learning
SBG – Standards-Based Grading
The list goes on. Understand, most of these are actually pretty good ideas. Not all, of course. Nobody bats a thousand, but most of these ideas have something to offer the teacher in terms of instruction, communication, and curriculum. The problem is many times these ideas are being used to try and rescue the original bad decision to push students to the next grade based on how old they are instead of based on the skills they’ve mastered. That won’t work and almost anyone in or out of public education would be able to tell you why.
In short, social promotion has to go. In future blogs, I will outline in greater detail its impact on the classroom and how to get rid of it, but for now, suffice to say that we owe our children a better education than to push them along from grade to grade until they’re eighteen and then put them out in a competitive workplace without the academic skills to succeed or compete. We owe them more than a diploma. We owe them an education.
Protagonists: Where to begin?
This week’s writing tip comes from a recent conversation I had with a couple of writing friends. We started talking about the traits of our protagonists, when a realization hit me: I’d seen protagonists described in all sorts of ways, but never had I seen anyone (at least that I recall) point out the most important trait of a protagonist, especially in fantasy or science fiction. Before I divulge this tidbit, let’s run down the list of important traits in a protagonist.
One: They have to be sympathetic
Well, yes and no. While most protagonists are sympathetic, there have been quite a few in the realms of fantasy that have not been and even a couple that have been quite dark. Thomas Covenant in the first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever was anything but sympathetic. Wounded? Yes, but he was also angry, selfish, violent, and stubborn. Another example of the anti-hero is Elric in the Stormbringer series by Michael Moorcock. So, in the end, no, a protagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic.
Two: They should be physically attractive/powerful.
This depends on the genre. It would be hard to find a romance novel with ugly protagonists. The whole purpose of the genre is to provide an escape. I might want to read about a guy who’s not very attractive, but then again, I’m not the target audience. In fantasy, there have been quite a few protagonists that have been less than handsome. In my current series, I went out of my way to paint the two participants of my main romance in less than the usual glowing terms, going so far as to state that most people would consider my heroine’s nose too big. In the excellent novel, Magician, by Raymond E. Feist, Pug, the main character is a very ordinary looking boy who grows into an ordinary looking man.
Three: They have to want something.
Yes. Absolutely. Every protagonist in every novel I’ve ever read has been in or put in a situation where they want something desperately.
But there is another quality your protagonist needs and surprisingly, it has more to do with you as a writer than it does your reader. It’s an inside/out way of looking at your main character, it you will.
Your main character has to be….drum roll please…..IGNORANT.
Yes, that right. In order for you to write convincing scenes and convincing dialogue, your main character is required to display ignorance, usually on a grand scale. Every protagonist I’ve ever read shares this fundamental characteristic. Here’s a quick rundown: Bilbo, Frodo, Thomas Covenant, Pug, Harry Dresden, Errol Stone (mine), Willet Dura (also mine), Rand al’ Thor, Kal and Shallan. You name it, they’re ignorant. Each of these stories is a tale of people caught in circumstances they must struggle to understand and they wander blindly through the unknown hoping that they can somehow manage to survive until the know enough to act.
So, when you’re outlining your next work, take a moment to think about your protagonist. What does he know at the beginning of the story? If he knows too much, it will guarantee that most of your scenes and much of your dialogue will have the sound of author intrusion. You’ll be trying to communicate information to your reader that your protagonist already knows.
The fun of stories is discovering the world and the danger while we experience it in the skin of the protagonist. So, when you’re outlining your story, think about the importance of your character’s ignorance.
Last post I talked about the elephant in the room. This week, I’d like to take a moment to offer an explanation about the difficulty teachers face in accomplishing their stated task. I’m not looking for sympathy. Honestly, if I thought I needed any, I would quit and go do something else. That reminds me of a story, but that will have to wait. Let’s get back to the teaching environment in most high schools. First, understand that because of social promotion, most high school classrooms are a mixture of ability levels.
An English teacher for example may have an enthusiastic student who is already reading on the college level and a student who is barely reading on the third grade level. And every level in between. In math, the story is no different. I’ve had classes with students who could have easily grasped the concept of taking the derivative of the volume of a sphere with respect to the radius to get the formula for surface area. I’ve also had classes where if I asked students to add two single-digit numbers without a calculator, a third of the students would be counting on their fingers. Really.
So the plight of the teacher is really quite simple. We don’t get to choose who we teach and we don’t get to decide what we teach. I have a set of mathematics standards that I have to teach in order to be in compliance with the state and my district. Every year, teachers are evaluated based on how well their students performed on the state benchmark test. Understand that these tests don’t cover all the remedial material that teachers have to go through just to get their students to a place where they might understand the actual course material. No. The tests cover the standards for Algebra II or English III or whatever.
So what happens in most classrooms? Well, it’s really quite simple. With all these different skill levels, teachers have to choose their battles. It usually comes down to a decision. Does the teacher “teach to the middle” to try and catch as many students as he/she can or do they “teach to the bottom” to try and help those students who most desperately need it? Either way, some students will be left out. There are a lot of strategies to overcome this, but the problem with most of these is that they’re intended for a few students and the students that require remediation are often the majority in many schools. Remember the numbers from last week. In one Tennessee district 15% of the students are doing math at grade level and 25% are reading/writing at grade level. Even in the best district in Tennessee the numbers are only a little over 40%.
I’m going to let you think about this for a while.
A Swinging Pendulum Never Stops Halfway
Actually, I could have entitled this post “The Necessity of Writing in Community.” But that seemed a little long-winded, even for me. Both titles point to the same idea; every writer struggles with how they view their own writing. I’ve met a few – a very few – writers who thought their writing was better than it was. This particular malady is usually the province of the novice writer whose critique group consists of close family and friends. Most aspiring authors grow out of this the moment they submit their work to someone who doesn’t know them. They have no idea who the writer is and they’re operating without the benefit of the new writer standing there, explaining their story-world with wide-eyed enthusiasm. All they can see are the words on the page.
I remember boasting to my wife about how well I thought I would do when I entered my first contest. I told her I actually thought I had a chance at winning. Then my scores came back. One of the judges had given me 52 out of 100. It was Christian fiction contest, so the judges were required to find some redeeming factor in the work. My judge told me she liked my punctuation. Funny, right? There was nothing about my description, characters, or story idea that she liked, it was the fact that I knew how to fire up Word and let it spell-check and auto-correct for me. Thank you very much, ma’am, may I have another?
I felt like I’d been hit in the gut, but after a few weeks, I recovered enough to go back to the critique and parse through the criticism in an attempt to improve my writing. There are a couple of quick notes here I want to stress. First, be careful who you let critique your work. My best scores in that same contest, 80 out of 100, came from a multi-published author. My worst scores (and worst reviews after being published) have consistently come from other aspiring authors. It’s unfortunate that envy is part of the human condition, but you need to guard yourself against it. There will be no shortage of people who will savage your work simply because you got published and they didn’t. Find people who know what they’re doing and earnestly want you to succeed.
So, fast forward. You’re published or, nearly so, and you find yourself with the opposite problem, which would be funny if it weren’t so crippling. You hate everything you write. “Garbage! Swill!,” you say, or some other derogatory epithet. This actually has a pretty funny analogy from the world of physics.
I’ve never seen a swinging pendulum stop at the halfway point. It only passes through on its way to the next extreme. The funny thing is neither extreme is the truth. Recognize the fact that you cannot see your work in a truly unbiased way. This is why you must create in community. In my experience, finding good critique partners is an organic endeavor. They’re grown, not manufactured, and it’s beastly difficult at times. As with your writing, keep at it. Success will come.
Education: The Growth/Achievement Chasm
A few weeks ago, we received the announcement that our TVAAS scores were up on the state education website and were available if we wanted to look at them. I didn’t…want to, that is. When I was going through grad school, I did my research paper on the validity of how TVAAS was calculated and found that basically, it just wasn’t. As an example, over half the teachers who attained the highest score, a 5, one year would fail to attain that score the following year. Think about that for a moment. With an additional year of experience and wisdom, over half of the best teachers in the state get WORSE at their job. There are other examples, but I don’t have the time or inclination to list them here. Suffice to say that after I’d finished my research paper, I decided to use my time in education improving my craft rather than worrying about a capricious scoring system.
However, our data coordinator at the school asked to sit down with me and go over my scores. I agreed, because my principal wanted me to, and as we like to say, “I’m a man under authority.” Well, my students did well enough that I scored a 5. Actually, I’ve scored a 5 most years. Now, here’s the scary part. That 5 is based on perceived student growth. Now, don’t ask me how that’s calculated because the formula is completely proprietary. That’s right. Nobody knows how those growth scores are calculated except the guy who created the formula and he’s not telling. Nice work, if you can get it.
Worse, those growth scores are completely divorced from achievement. Here’s a true-life example. One year, I was teaching a Geometry course to a group of 8th grade students. These kids were brilliant, but in this particular year, there was no Geometry end-of-course exam, so they had to take the 8th grade TCAP test because, well, we HAVE to have data. So they did. 10 kids out of 24 aced it. That’s right. Over 40% of my students in this class made a perfect score. The lowest score in this class was a 95. The average score was just shy of 99.
What was my growth score for this incredible feat? A 4.
Why? Because the growth scores have almost nothing to do with what the students know (achievement), only growth from the previous year calculated according to a formula no one knows or is willing to explain.
So, now the question usually comes up, why are we doing this?
Answer: Because we’ve given up on achievement and we have to make it look like things are getting better.
But they’re not. In our best county (Williamson) less than half the students are reading at grade level or doing math at grade level. And that’s our best. In my ten years as a teacher, I’ve noticed a sinister pattern to state testing. It goes something like this:
– Roll out a new test amid the claims the old one is obsolete and we need new benchmark data.
– Tweak the test in succeeding years, ostensibly because it needs refinement, but in reality because it accurately shows just how bad things are. These “tweaks” make the test easier.
– Report that our schools are improving because student scores are going up, while in reality, students are scoring better because we’re making the test easier.
– Student scores stall out, because we’ve made all the tweaks we can make without completely undermining the process.
– By this time, five or six years have gone by and it’s time to go back to Step 1.
So, what’s your takeaway? This. If you’re looking at a school for your children, don’t look at their improvement scores. That’s a trap. It’s easy to show a lot of improvement if you’re starting from close to zero. Ask to see their achievement scores. How many of their students are working at grade level or above? The data is there, although it’s harder to get to because, well, it’s not as pretty. However, as a parent, you have the right to ask for and receive it.
I’m almost through with the manuscript for “The Wounded Shadow,” which is the final book in the current “Darkwater Saga.” For the most part I’m happy with it, but I’m sure there are going to be some substantial edits ahead.
I’ve lost ten pounds since the first of the year, but I’m not exercising as much as I should. When I come home from school, I feel like a wrung-out dishrag.
Jazz Piano is coming along slowly right now because of the writing, but when I can, I’m working on my “drop-2” voicings so that I’ll be ready to comp. Soloing well, still seems like it’s a long way off.
Next Time: The world through a mathematical lens. I’m going to show you why we’re in deep trouble, BUT, I’m going to make it entertaining. 🙂
The End of All Things
Life through a Mathematical Lens:
A few months ago I asked people on my facebook author page what they would like to see me blog about. Most people answered that they would enjoy reading about the trials and tribs of teaching in the public school system and whatever tips I could offer on being a writer. I’ve enjoyed blogging about those because I think my experience can be a resource to others.
Surprisingly, a few people also answered that they would like to understand how I can see the world through a mathematical lens. Today’s blog post is for them. So, allow me to set the stage. I love math. I think it’s cool, but not so much in the theoretical, abstract, and nerdy way that I love ScienceFiction/Fantasy. This might be surprising because I struggle with details and the execution of math is in many cases a very detail-oriented pursuit.
However, if you’re trying to cut through the political noise of some talking-head and get to the point, math does the job better than anything else. In that sense math is like the cleaver in the butcher shop. What’s even better about this is that you can do this with a decent grasp of high school math. In fact, I’m not going to use anything that a decent student in Algebra 1 or 2 couldn’t understand.
Here we go. A few months ago, I was teaching my class the unit on exponential growth and decay. One of my students raised his/her hand and immediately asked the inevitable. Little did they know they had just walked into my trap. I said “You’re actually using it right now, or, more accurately, you’re having it used against you right now.”
I can tell you that nothing engages the teenage mind, however temporarily, like the thought that someone might be taking advantage of them.
“Mr. Carr! What do you mean?”
I showed them this:
Naturally, they asked “What’s that?”
Then, I ruined their day. I told them. The graph you see shows two curves. The blue curve is the actual data on the size of our government debt taken from the U.S. Treasury website. It wiggles and waggles, but right now, we’re within spitting distance of 20 trillion dollars. The webpage I found only went back to 1952, but I thought over 60 years-worth of data would be accurate.
Then they asked about the red line, and that’s where things got really interesting. The red line was my attempt to curve-fit the data to a simple exponential growth formula, the same kind you suffer under if you don’t pay your credit card off each month. To get the red line, I simply calculated how much, by percentage, the debt grew each year according the U.S. Treasury. Then I averaged all of those and used that as the growth factor in an exponential equation.
Here’s where this gets more than a little passing strange. The figure came out to be almost exactly 7%.
Almost exactly 7% over the course of 60 plus years. In fact, to get the curve fit to be any more accurate, I had to go out three more decimal places to 7.001%. That was almost weird enough to turn me into a conspiracy theorist. Why? Because 7% follows the “rule of sevens” that you read about in accounting. Here’s how it goes: If you have an investment (or debt) that compounds at ten percent, it will double in value every seven years. Conversely, if the rate is 7%, it will double every ten years.
One of my former math students who is a senior this year then brought up an excellent objection. To tell the truth, I’d been waiting years for someone to say something whenever I would give this presentation, and she finally did. She’s very bright (smarter than me) and she said: “But since wages are being paid with the same inflated dollars, everything works out right?”
To which I said, “Let me think about that.” After all, it was a very good point. So then, I thought. Maybe she’s right. Maybe all my histrionics about debt are meaningless since everybody using the same deflated currency anyway.
So, I went back to the U.S. Treasury website and looked for more data. This time I pulled out the numbers for the size of the U.S. Economy, the big kahuna, the Gross Domestic Product. In other words, the dollar figure attached to THE ENTIRE PORDUCTION OF THE WHOLE U.S. ECONOMY!
And I ran the same analysis on the economy that I did the debt and put it on the same graph.
Then I felt sick.
The green line is our economy, also in trillions of dollars and the purple line is the curve fit. In numerical terms, the economy is growing at about 3% per year. For decades, our strong economy and our low levels of debt have provided the economic cushion for our country to thrive.
See that point in the upper right corner where all the curves mash up against each other? That was our tipping point. That’s when our debt became bigger than our entire economy. We’re now in a situation where it’s going to be really hard to fix this.
Our debt is accelerating away from our economy with a growth rate that’s more than double (7% vs. 3%). In dollar terms our debt will be 42 trillion while our economy will be 23 trillion. That’s only ten years from now if our government doesn’t get this under control. I don’t even want to think about what the end-game of this looks like, but I’ve got some writer friends that could whip out a great dystopian novel for you with this little gem as the premise. Honestly? I was kind of hoping I would die of old age before that train wreck. I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore.
Now, if you accept that my figures are honest (I’m very sorry to tell you that they are) and that my analysis is reasonable (sorry again), you’re probably wondering what you’re supposed to do with this.
That will be the subject for a later post, but I can tell you that the first and most important thing you should do is stay calm. Countries have completely collapsed from debt any number of times through history. As a man of faith, I believe God has a plan. I’m on a need-to-know basis, and most of the time I don’t know, but that’s okay. As the saying goes, He’s God and I’m not.
Below, I’ve put in links for a couple of maps I’ve made. The first one is the one for The Darkwater Saga, although this one is cooler because it’s in color.
If you look below, there’s a link for a book trailer I made for A Cast of Stones. Granted, it’s pretty cheesy, but the cool thing about it is the music was composed and performed for the trailer by my son, Patrick. Yep, I’ve got my own composer on speed dial.