How Did You Find Out?

Santa Claus and his reindeer

Image by Rafael Marchesini.

This time of year I hear a lot of people arguing the merits of letting your kids believe or not believe in Santa Claus. I’m not interested in getting worked up over other people’s choices—I mean, seriously, I have seen people be total dicks over this, and be all like, “Why do you want to LIE to your CHILD?!?!?!” and I don’t think that’s appropriate at all. But I do wonder about people’s experiences growing up, whether they believed or not. (And I’m aware I’m coming from an exclusively Christian-oriented framework in even asking the question. I don’t assume everybody grew up celebrating Christmas, but that’s what I grew up celebrating.)

I never intended to go out of my way to make my kids believe in Santa, but they picked it up without any help from me, from school, other adults, and popular culture, and I didn’t bother fighting it. I played along, and I figured if they ever asked me point blank, I’d tell them the truth, and until then treat it like we were all pretending together. Right choice? Wrong choice? No choice? Whatever. It’s what I did. (They actually never did ask point blank, and eventually my wife spilled the beans.)

I believed as a kid. Eventually my mother went out of her way to let the truth “slip out.” To be fair, I was going out of my way to be obtuse about it, because I didn’t want to stop believing in the magical dude who traveled at more than a thousand miles an hour, giving gifts to children. For me, the myth made me happy. I don’t feel damaged one way or the other.

What about you? If you grew up celebrating Christmas, was Santa Claus a part of your holiday? How did you learn the truth? Did you feel betrayed? Angry? Amused? Did you get over it?

And because Neil De Grasse Tyson is awesome, here’s a link to him giving an explanation of the science behind Santa Claus that’s different from the one you’ve probably seen floating around online.

Posted in first world problems | 6 Comments

Another year come and gone

Happy holidays!

(And if being told “Happy holidays” bugs you, then . . . HAPPY HOLIDAYS!)

Like most people, I can’t help but take the end of the year as an opportunity to look back on what went well and what went poorly, and to look forward to what I want to see happen in the future. So here is half of that . . . my thoughts on 2012.

Personally, 2012 was a great year for me. I made some fantastic new friends, and really felt like I’m coming more into a sense of who I am and who I want to be, if that doesn’t sound too woo-woo. Or like something that should happen before you’re forty. More and more I feel like I’m living the life I want to live. Particularly special to me this year is that I’ve had more opportunities to sing than ever before. We found a great karaoke host at one of the local restaurants in town, and when they stupidly decided they didn’t think karaoke lined up with their targeted demographic, we followed him to his new gig in Clermont. I know a lot of people would sneer at karaoke, but for someone who loves to sing but doesn’t quite have the talent to do it professionally, like me, it gives me a lot of joy. Who could sneer at that?

Joe Singing

Photo by Mary Goode Smith

Professionally, it was another very good year. Last year I had my highest AP pass rate ever and the second highest in the county. I still am privileged to teach a ton of fantastic kids. I still am spread awfully thin and teaching a ton of preps, as we work to invent a new program from the ground up. I have reason to believe that next year will be easier in that regard, as I don’t expect to be teaching any more courses I’ve never taught before. I won’t be inventing the wheel over and over again each year. I’ll probably keep getting up and four and staying at work until four in the afternoon, but I’m hoping I’ll see more bang for my buck now that the groundwork is laid.

Artistically 2012 was a mixed bag. I didn’t quite meet most of my writing and reading goals from the beginning of the year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing–you’re supposed to make growth goals hard to reach, right? Otherwise, are you really stretching yourself?

One place where I did meet my goals was when it came to short fiction. I took two of Cat Rambo’s short fiction classes, and I feel like they helped me immensely in the area I was looking to improve in and in another, unexpected way: As I hoped, I finally figured out how to tell the stories I had in my head in a more reasonable number of words. Five thousand word stories used to be a challenge to me, and flash fiction was just plain unthinkable. Now I’ve pretty well unlocked that particular skill, and I’ve got the stories to prove it. Unexpectedly, though, her classes also helped jump-start my creativity. I get short story ideas much more easily now, pretty much any time I want them. If you’re an aspiring writer, particularly if short fiction or genre fiction are your bag, I can’t recommend her classes highly enough. They take place on Google+, so there’s no travel involved, and the price is beyond reasonable–I don’t know of a more affordable way to get instruction from a pro.

Beyond the short fiction, though, I fumbled through a few attempts at a follow-up to Vanishing Act. Late in the year, I finally had the revelation that I was trying too hard to tell a story that would be more marketable, or more firmly entrenched in my beloved genres. I was letting non-story concerns dictate my story, and so they weren’t *my* stories. When I wrote Vanishing Act, I wrote what was in my heart, and let everything else be damned. Once I had this realization, I was able to cast about for and find a story that was a Joe Story, and I’m well into a new draft that I’m very excited about–and that my alpha readers seem to be excited about as well. It won’t be done by year’s end, though, so I can’t quite call it a success for 2012.

Basically, though, I feel like in 2012 I found my voice. I guess that *is* a success, even if not quite as tangible as I had hoped.

Posted in artist's life, blargety-blog, teaching, writing | Leave a comment

Just for Functions

This school year our first cohort of IB students began working its way through the junior year of their two-year course of study. One of the things I’ve found interesting about the experience is teaching with international materials and textbooks published outside of the United States, and seeing how different countries might approach some of the same knowledge. There’s been some slightly new vocabulary to adjust to, and some idiosyncratic decisions when it comes to what is and what isn’t part of the curriculum.

[Tangent—feel free to disregard unless you’re a nerd like me—For example, as far as I can tell, the IB never makes reference to the secant, cosecant, and cotangent trigonometric ratios. My first thought on seeing that was, Good. Those just provide more opportunities for kids to get confused, they’re not present on the TI-84, and they add virtually nothing to the study of trigonometry. But then my calculus-teacher brain kicked in and said, What’s the derivative of tan x then? So I flipped through an IB textbook to see if they continued to avoid the reciprocal functions even then. They do: (d/dx) tan x = 1/cos2x.  ]

One of the neat things about this has been that when you ask old questions in new ways, sometimes you stumble across some interesting results. A few weeks back, a test for IB Mathematics SL students which I created using real, released questions from actual IB exams, relied on the students being able to answer the following:

Plot of a function with individual points highlighted

f (2) = _____       f (6) = _____       f (-2) = _____       f (0) = _____       etc.

This wasn’t actually the material being tested—and it’s not directly part of the IB curriculum but rather a prerequisite—but basically, the students would need to know how to answer those questions to answer the questions they were actually being asked.

For perspective, the students in this course have all completed Honors Algebra 2, and some of them have completed Honors Precalculus as well.

Now knowing my readership, at this point half of you are thinking to yourself, That’s a stupidly easy question. Why are you even talking about it? The other half are thinking Ouch! I became a writer because I hate math! Now you made my brain hurt! Either way, relax.

(If you’re very confident with math, you may want to skip the next paragraph.)

If you’ve not looked at math in decades and you don’t remember what the symbolism means, then just take it on faith that this line of questioning should be trivial. If you’re not sure but you’re curious to know what the kids were supposed to do, remember that every point on a coordinate plane has two coordinates, an x-coordinate and a y-coordinate. Listing the coordinates in order gives the “address” of any particular point, kind of like when you played Battleship as a kid. As for the question itself, kids are told from Algebra 1 on (if not sooner) that f (x) is another way of saying y. Even though it contains the letter x, it means y. The reason it contains the letter x is to make it possible to talk about specific values of y that go with specific values of x. So if I ask, “What does  f (10) equal?” I’m asking students to find the point where x = 10, and tell me what that point’s y-coordinate equals. So I’ll put the answer to the question here in white, and you can highlight it with your mouse to see if you understood what I meant. f (10) = -9. This represents the lower right dot on the graph, the point (10, -9).

Students in an honors math class ought to know this, but—and this is the important part—this isn’t how we usually ask the question. Usually instead of giving students a graph, we do the more “advanced,” algebraic thing, and we define the function using variables. So we might say that f (x) = (x3 – 10x2 + 8x + 64)/(-16). Then we might ask, “What is f (4)?” The kids, having been trained in the proper algorithm to follow, will “plug in” 4 wherever they see x, and find that:

f (4) = (43 – 10 • 42 +  8 • 4 + 64) ÷ (-16)

= (64 – 160 + 32 + 64) ÷ (-16)

= 0 ÷ (-16)

= 0

And we’ll feel good about this as teachers, because they’ll have answered the “harder” question. Wouldn’t you agree that what I just demonstrated was much more work than simply looking up the point on the graph with an x-coordinate of 4, and seeing that its y-coordinate was 0? We’re making the kids work harder, ergo we’re being more rigorous.

Except . . .

Except that when a question like the above came up on a test for my rather advanced students, most of them could not accomplish the relatively trivial task of looking up function values from the graph itself. Then, on a hunch, I asked my Honors Algebra 2 students, and they could not, by and large, either.

What this says to me is that we have succeeded in teaching a rote process, but failed to teach the concept behind the process. Anybody who knows me knows that this sort of thing is a big deal to me. I am constantly stressing in my classes how important it is to focus on why things work a certain way, sometimes to the frustration of those of my students who would just rather I gave them an algorithm to memorize already. Because there’s the rub: memorizing and plug-and-chug may be more tedium, but they’re actually easier than really getting around why things work.

I suspect, deep down, that we educators are often guilty of conspiring with our students to give them the easy way out. Because happy students are students who don’t complain. So we’re all too happy to settle for the appearance of hard work, rather than the reality of wrestling with a concept from all angles.

Another issue is probably our tendency to adopt curricula that is a mile wide and an inch deep–once again, because it gives us the comforting appearance of rigor. When you have three dozen topics to “cover”—and isn’t “cover” a poor synonym for “teach”?—then who has time to approach the same topic from multiple angles? Who has time for high level questioning?

If you’re a math teacher and you happen to stumble across this page while doing a google search for functions or for graphing or something, do me a favor: give the above problem to your kids, say, as a random bellwork problem. Did it seem trivial to you? Were you certain your kids would breeze past it? Did your students surprise you by struggling with it? Please let me know—I’d love to hear some other teachers’ experiences with this.

Posted in math | 7 Comments

Doo-de-ron-de-ron-de doo-de-ron-ron we hang out

There’ll be like one person who catches that reference, right? *g*

While I haven’t been online much the last week, I haven’t been unproductive. I’ve been writing up a storm on a couple short stories and a new novel WIP, and I’ve seen a real jump in my output. What I need to find is a way to keep churning out the words without letting other things slide. >_<

What’s worked rather well for me over the last two weeks is something I’ve jealously watched a bunch of people doing over on Google+: Writer Hangouts. Mary Robinette Kowal seems to be the pioneer behind this, both online and off (though my other agent-cousin Laura Anne Gilman has also run a bunch of hangouts, I believe). The basic idea is you gather a bunch of writers together, socialize for fifteen minutes, and then write for forty-five. Lather, rinse, and repeat. I haven’t been able to participate on G+ yet, because my laptop lacks a microphone and a camera. Hopefully it won’t be forever before I can afford a newer model.

Coffee and Books

Photo by Miguel Ugalde.

I was feeling bad about not being able to do the online hangouts, when it occurred to me that Kowal based the concept on writing hangouts she does in real life. So I started throwing the idea out to my local writer friends on Facebook, and lo and behold, I had a few takers. My wife and I have done about a half dozen of these now, and I think we’ve had a different crew come out and join us each time. One time we had a hard time keeping to the 45-15 rule, but it’s worked pretty well the others. Last night I got about 1200 words written in a couple hours at Starbucks!

(Yeah, I know 1200 words might not sound like a lot to some of the ridiculous people I know who bash out 4000+ words in a day, but I’m not a fast writer, so I was pretty dang pleased with it! Last week was also the first week this year where I didn’t struggle to make wordcount before my writers’ group deadline.)

You’d think a bunch of writers getting together at a Starbucks or whatever would just sit around and gab, but the structure allows us the time to talk while still making time to write. When we (I) declared it was time to write, it felt to me like there was a kind of peer pressure keeping everybody on-task. I would have felt embarrassed to be caught tweeting or surfing the internet, so all those distractions were off while I generated draft.

(In the interest of full disclosure, we did have one writer this week opine that this didn’t work for her, but I hope she gives it another shot.)

So this goes on the list of fun ways to boost wordcount. And you know, it’s great to look around and realize that I know a bunch of cool local writers.

Do you have something like this with your writer friends?

What strategies have you found to drive your output?

Posted in writing | 5 Comments

How mystical is your writing process?

Mystical Sky

Photo by Rasmus Andersen.

When some people describe their writing process, I swear it sounds like they need to go back on their meds or something. “My character told me that he was ___. ” “My outline called for ___ to happen, but my characters decided to go do something else instead.” “She’s telling me she’s a lesbian.” “I feel like the story already exists somewhere and I’m just transcribing it.” “And that’s when my heroine surprised me by jumping out the window.” (That last one is honest-to-comma a true example of something I heard one author say at a conference.)

I never know how seriously to take these claims. Are these people’s characters really in charge of the story? Because let me tell you, I don’t feel this way. My characters don’t tell me things. All the stuff that happens in my stories? Yeah, I make that crap up.

I have to confess that my reaction isn’t usually altogether positive when I hear this kind of author mysticism. But I’ve run into this way of talking about creativity from all corners, from published, award-winning authors on down, so it’s at least as legit as any other approach. So I hope I can forestall anybody taking offense at this by coming out and acknowledging that my reaction is very likely fueled by jealousy and insecurity. When I people talk about what their characters say to them, what I hear, accurately or not, is that writing is easy for them. You’re just transcribing a story? Jeez, how nice for you—I have to freaking work to come up with mine! I wish my characters would whisper solutions to my plot problems in my ear! In my jealousy, it tends to sound to me like people are bragging.

I think on some level I fear that the fact that this sounds alien to me is evidence that I’m not a real artist, or that I’m not creative enough. Maybe if I were really meant to be a writer, writing wouldn’t feel like work to me. (Don’t get me wrong—it’s satisfying work. But it is work.)

On the other hand, maybe one person’s mysticism is another’s mundanity. It occurs to me that some of the things that I experience very likely can come across as that same sort of mysticism to someone else. For instance, I don’t agonize over what tense and point of view to write my stories in. When I get my premise, I’ll often immediately think of lines that I’d like to use to explore the idea, and whatever person and tense they’re in is generally what I’ll stick to for the story. A nice shorthand for all that? “My story tells me what tense and POV to use.”

Also, while I never feel like I’m transcribing, and while I claim to have sweated out every line and piece of plot, when I read back my stories later, I’m often surprised. That line’s nice—where the heck did it come from? What on earth made me morph this original story concept into this unrecognizably different plotline?

I can’t answer those questions. It feels like someone else wrote those things.

Does that make me a mystic too?

Posted in artist's life | 13 Comments

Follow Friday Yes, #FF No

Twitter By Post-It

Photo by Colm McMullan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A few weeks back I changed how I approach Follow Friday on Twitter. I still try* to pass on a few good recommendations, but I’ve never been a fan of #FF posts that feel more like noise than signal. So I’ve tried to follow the advice implied by this comic at The Oatmeal and highlight one or two people per week and reasons why those who enjoy my tweets might enjoy theirs.

But the other thing I’ve done—and it’s something I haven’t seen anybody else suggesting out there—is ditch the #FF hashtag.

If you really get hashtags, then skip this paragraph and the next one. I don’t mean to condescend, but it’s also clear to me that many of my friends and acquaintances don’t get what hashtags are really about. A lot of us use hashtags as a form of ironic metacomment on our own post, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of people on twitter also use hashtags to tell the world what they’re doing (eg, #amwriting and #amreading) without an awareness of the fact that there are actual online communities that follow these hashtags. But the real point of hashtags—and I say this is the real point, or else why would hashtags be clickable?—is to allow us to cross-pollinate our twitter experience. Hashtags allow us to talk with people who aren’t already our followers, and possibly meet cool new people. If you’re a writer, click on the #amwriting hashtag sometime, and you’ll see a bunch of people all tweeting about their writing experience. Some of them will actually be cool and worth interacting with.** Instead of automatically following back every spammer who follows you with no intention of ever actually interacting with you, you can use hashtags to find the people who are genuinely using twitter as part of a giant conversation.

You can find an excellent breakdown of how to use hashtags well in this terrific post from Kristin Lamb. Among other things, you’ll learn why you should use a client like TweetDeck to get the most out of Twitter, and why you should strip the hashtags off of tweets when you retweet them dagnabbit! ::breathes::

Anyway, since hashtags are so wonderful, why am I so down on #FF?

As I see it, the purpose of Follow Friday is to let my friends know who else I like, and thus, by extension, who else they might like. What purpose, then, does the hashtag serve? My friends will see the post either way, because they follow me. People who don’t follow me aren’t interested in who I think is cool.

But let’s suppose for argument’s sake that I’m wrong about that, and that #FF isn’t just about telling my friends who they might like, but literally about telling the world who to follow. Let’s try a little experiment then. This Friday—and this works best if you use Tweetdeck or something similar—click on the #ff hashtag the next time you see it pop up. Don’t come back to this post until after you’ve done it. 😉

I’m sorry; that was a dirty trick to play wasn’t it? How long did it take you to delete that column on Tweetdeck? Or have you still not succeeded in deleting it? If so, here’s the trick: grab Tweetdeck by the bar at the top of the window and drag it down on your screen until the little X to close the column is no longer covered by the constant stream of little popups in the upper right corner of your screen. Or you could just wait until it’s Saturday for most of the world.

The point? Even if we grant that Follow Friday can be used to tell strangers who to follow, it’s clearly broken by the fire-hose-like stream of tweets, most of which actually say nothing about the people listed.

Who can read that fast?

Other than spambots, that is.

When you stick the #FF hashtag on your Friday recommendations, you’re not really increasing the likelihood of gaining legitimate followers for your friends. I don’t know for sure that it increases the likelihood of your friends being spambait, but I do know that I can’t tweet the word “iPad” without immediately attracting spambots, so it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to suppose.

In any case, I can’t see any possible upside. so why bother?

* “Try” because I’m not always on on Fridays.
** Alas, at least 50% of the people on Twitter are at the toddler stage of mental development, and thus not actually interested in communicating with anybody else, but just in promoting themselves. They don’t play “with” others so much as “in parallel to” others. But that’s a different post.
Posted in tech geek | 6 Comments

What’s in (40% of) a name?

I’ve recently undergone a name change. I didn’t have to fill out any forms, and my driver’s license hasn’t changed, but legal forms hardly represent the reality of day to day life anyway. This change has only taken effect at home, but it’s a pretty striking one nonetheless—I’ve lost 40% of my old name.

Somewhere in the last three or four months, I stopped being “Daddy” and became simply “Dad.”

It was a gentle transition. I would hear the occasional “Dad” and wonder, “Did I hear right? Ah, wait, now she called me ‘Daddy’ again. I must have heard wrong.” Gradually the ratio shifted, until now I’m only “Daddy” when my kids really, really want something. Luckily for me, the credit card is still in Daddy’s name.

I wouldn’t dream of trying to stop this change, anyway. My kids are thirteen. Past a certain age, who calls their parents “Mommy” and “Daddy” anymore?

Still, being a Daddy was nice. There’s a lot more affection carried in that word than in the short form. It’s amazing how sometimes you can hear an eyeroll in “Da-ad.” Nobody but Sylvia Plath could make “Daddy” sound like an epithet.

Being “Dad” now makes me conscious of how, in five to ten years, give or take, my kids will be grown-ups. Equals, more or less, and looking back and judging the job I’ve done. I hope they’re more lenient judges than I was with my parents.

“Daddy” doesn’t have to worry about being judged. “Daddy” is a god, who knows everything and can do no wrong. “Dad” is much more fallible, so I guess it’s time to step up my game.

Ah well, it was good while it lasted.

At the risk of being sappy, this transition has me remembering an old Harry Chapin song:

Posted in close to home | 6 Comments

So you think you’ve defeated SOPA . . .

SOPAIn the wake of Texas Representative Lamar Smith pulling the Stop Online Piracy Act from consideration yesterday(and Senator Harry Reid doing the same for the Protect IP Act), I saw a lot of jubilant tweets saying that censorship was defeated and so forth.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I live in Florida, y’all, and so I have lots of experience with legislation proposed by Voldemort’s minions. I don’t know how much national attention our Senate Bill Six got a couple years ago, where Florida legislators proposed a lot of the same union-busting measures first pioneered in Wisconsin. (Bear in mind that Florida was already a Right-To-Work-Without-The-Burden-Of-Strong-Negotiating-Position state, so it’s not like unions were perpetrating any great evils here.) In Florida the bill was directed more squarely against teachers, under the theory that the reason Florida education lags behind has nothing to do with cutting funding (like the 10% funding cut we enjoyed last year) and nothing to do with a transient population and low socioeconomic status and ridiculous paperwork and days lost to testing, and everything to do with the unions protecting incompetent teachers from being fired. Oh, and somehow Florida’s woes apparently stemmed from teachers being paid too much.

Yeah, I still haven’t figured that one out.

Anyway, teachers and students got out in force and lined the streets, protesting the bill. At the end of it all, Charlie Crist either sacrificed his political career or concluded his career was already over and decided to go out on the side of the good guys for once, and killed the thing. And the villagers rejoiced, right?

Well, no. Or yes, but the celebration was premature.

Instead of everybody living happily ever after, the anti-union, anti-teacher bunch waited a couple of years and pushed the same measures through again, spread out among more bills. Where was the outrage the second time around? Nowhere. People had outrage fatigue. We’d already fought this fight. It was fun and all, but doing it again? Bah, that was so last year.

Speaking of, remember how that brouhaha in Wisonsin ended? Governor Walker got his rebate, his budget cuts, and his union-busting rammed down everybody’s throats, and life went on. Walker is eligible to be recalled now; I guess we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out. In the meantime, though, the non-Wisconsinites who fund Walker got their way.

Which brings me back to SOPA. Public hew and outcry is a fleeting thing. People jump on bandwagons when it seems like fun, but it’s not nearly exciting to fight the hydra again after her head grows back. Most people aren’t really educated about any issues and react to everything knee-jerk fashion. (Note that anti-SOPA sites had to provide links to allow visitors to determine who their congresscritters were, and whether or not they supported SOPA/PIPA. They also had to provide links making it easier to email those same congresscritters. Most people woulnd’t have bothered if they had to do any of that legwork themselves.)

The money behind SOPA and PIPA, though—the RIAA and the MPAA and such—doesn’t view this as a football game. They care about getting their way today, and they will continue to care about it tomorrow, when everybody’s done congratulating themselves over defeating censorship. They’ll be back, and they’ll push through all the same provisions, possibly spread over several otherwise-popular bills. And when they do, it’ll be harder to drum up all this opposition.

Look, obviously I’m not neutral here. I don’t see any reason why I should be. I have a point of view, and reasonable people of goodwill can have different points of view from my own. So let me bring this back around to something maybe we can all agree on: Regardless of where you stand on SOPA, PIPA, unions, or education, if you’re not paying attention to what congress does in your name, you’re part of the problem. Because you can bet that lobbyists, who are paid to pay attention, don’t forget about the things they want just because they suffer a setback.

Posted in rants, teaching, this I believe, tinfoil hat talk | 3 Comments

What you won’t find on a blog or in a book: Direct instruction from a pro

In my last post, I linked to some good online resources for writers, pointing out how in many instances these were as good as (or better than) some books you might dish out a small pile of money for in a bookstore. What neither a book nor a website can compete with, however, is having a pro actually share their knowledge with you directly, answering your questions and clarifying their points. Kind of like how in my day job, no textbook, however great, can substitute for a good teacher in the front of the room.

I have a wishlist of writing courses/programs I’d love to attend someday, if timing and finances work out . . . Viable Paradise, OSC’s Literary Boot Camp, Clarion, Writer’s of the Future, etc. VP is always during my school year, though, and at six weeks (and around four grand) either Clarion is a bit of a stretch. Maybe once the kids are out of school.

Thanks to living in the future, though, I may have found the next best thing. Author Cat Rambo, who has sold nearly a hundred short stories, been shortlisted for various awards, and served as editor of Fantasy Magazine as well as several anthologies, is offering a series of writing classes through the magic of Google+ Hangouts. Before now, when was it ever so easy for people all over the country—heck, all over the world—to learn directly from a successful author, face to face?

Here’s a direct link to more information about the various workshops Rambo is offering in the near future. I’ll be taking the Flash Fiction one on January 28th, since writing tighter is something I’ve been focused on for some time. (My computer is not actually equipped to do hangouts, since I don’t have a webcam or mic, but I’ll be borrowing one for the occasion.) Why don’t you join me—or take some other workshop?

Posted in writing | Leave a comment

The best resources for writers are online—and free!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything writing-related, so if you’re not a writer, hopefully this post won’t bore you too much.

I cringe inwardly every time I hear about someone dropping $20 or more for the latest big fat book purporting to give you all the contact information for all the markets for your writing. For that matter, even though I blogged here about the best books on writing craft, I noted in that same post that most of the writing books I’d read weren’t very good, and that there’s tons of great writing advice online for free. With notable exceptions, most of the books I’ve read seem to be vague and padded out, as if some author decided they had enough platform now to crank out an easy work of nonfiction and rake in a bit of cash from it.


Image by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo

Paradoxically, the free stuff online is often better because, I think, if the motivation for putting it out there isn’t money, it’s much more likely to be having something to say. Also, in a blog-like format, there’s no need to pad your one little nugget of insight with fifty-thousand empty words.

Whatever you think of my reasoning there, there really are a wealth of terrific resources online. Here are some of my favorites:

Let me begin with market information. Mike Resnick once wrote in his “Ask Bwana” series in Speculations that the big fat (expensive) market compendiums are no good because they’re quickly out-of-date—often before they’re published, and often knowingly so. He related the story of when he edited a short fiction venue that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Eventually he changed the policy, or the venue closed down altogether, but the listing stayed the same year after year. In his analysis, he noted that there really was no incentive for them to correct their listing, and particularly no incentive for them to remove it: people buying the big fat book paid for names and addresses of markets, and that’s what they got. Removing listings would only remove their main selling point.

Even if you discount deliberate chicanery, a book that comes out once a year can’t keep up with a website that is constantly updated. So here are three of the best: A searchable database of agents, and a separate one for publishers. You can customize your list  to only those agents or markets that fit your criteria, and then it will keep records for you of when you queried, what response you received, who asked for a partial, who asked for a full, etc. Can that big fat book do that? Most novelists I talk to have heard of QueryTracker, but I’m always surprised by how few short story writers have heard of Duotrope. Duotrope is the same thing more or less, but for short fiction. It’s searchable by genre, pay rate, word count, you name it. And it also will keep records for you on what you’ve submitted and when and what the result was. Also cool, it will (if you want) exclude already subbed markets or markets considering your other stories from a search.

Both of the above keep statistics voluntarily shared by their members, so you know how soon to expect a reply, what percent of members get rejected, etc. On Duotrope, I sort my search results by response time rather than by pay rate (after excluding the markets that don’t pay pro rates), because not waiting a year for a reply is more important to me right now than getting paid an extra penny or two per word.

Ralan’s SpecFic & Humor Webstravaganza: Another short fiction collection, specifically for the genres noted in the site’s name. Duotrope is easier to search and has the advantage of tracking your submissions if you wish, but Ralan’s is still the source that most sci-fi writers swear by.

Now onto my two favorite writing websites:

The Other Side of the Story (with Janice Hardy): As far as I’m concerned, this is the best site out there for people learning how to write novels. I have learned so much from Janice that any advice I give is more likely to come from her than not. Just go over there and poke through her backlog of posts; you won’t be disappointed.

A Place for Strangers and Beggars: This is sci-fi writer Jim Van Pelt’s LiveJournal, and he blogs about anything and everything going on in his life: teaching, parenting, jogging, reading, writing, and more. But the specific entry I’ve linked to is a “table of contents” of his fiction-writing posts in particular. Jim is a geat short story writer, and reading through his posts on craft are an excellent Short Fiction 101 course, and again, all free!

And finally, the best site I’ve found on online networking—blogging, twitter, and so on—with occasional great posts on writing as well:

Kristen Lamb’s Blog: Kristen has a ton of commonsense insights (that are only common sense after she’s pointed them out) on the right way to blog, how to use Twitter effectively, how not to be a noisy, oily online jerk, etc. Little things like how to expand your audience by using hashtags on your tweets, and how to not clog up the stream when you retweet, by removing hashtags from your retweets. Man, I wish everybody on Twitter knew that.

There are a lot more excellent writing sites out there, but these are my favorites. I’ll probably post at another occasion about other blogs that ought to be in your feed reader—You do use a feed reader, right??—but at nearly a thousand words, this post has probably gone on long enough.

P.S.: I’ve pointed out that reading these sites is indeed free, but if you find value in them, you can pay it back in various ways. QueryTracker has a paid level which provides more exhaustive analysis features. I didn’t find them necessary, but if I ever found myself querying again I might join up just as a way to repay their awesome free service. Duotrope accepts donations. Janice Hardy and Jim Van Pelt are both great writers, and you can repay their generosity, if you find it worthwhile, by buying their books. Kristin Lamb also has several books out there which you can track down to have many of her best insights collected in one place. As I mentioned in this post, when you run across something worthwhile online, you really should try to reward the creator. Unlike the big fat books in the bookstore, though, these sources are all nice enough to let you try the goods out first and see if you like them.

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