Friday, August 28, 2009

First home game

Tonight was our high school football team's first home game. The bleachers were awash in maroon and black. I bought a new T-shirt myself just yesterday for the occasion. Although it rained most of the day today, the evening was perfect for football - temps in the high 60s with a light, cool breeze.

We cheered each time the team moved the ball down the field. We booed when the other team slammed our boys with late hits - twice in the same possession. We hollered our approval when our defense kept the other team out of the endzone, and some of us even clapped with the cheerleaders.

We lost the game 28-0.

There were lots of reasons for the loss, but my point tonight has nothing to do with dissecting plays. The biggest reason we lost is that the other team scored more points. (I stole that bit of sarcastic wit from my husband.)

What I want to focus on is that tonight's loss will more than likely have little to no effect on the attendance at the next home game. Anyone who has ever attended their local school's sporting events knows this to be true. Winning the game feels great for all involved but it isn't really why we go. At least, it isn't why most of us go.

We go to support the athletes on the field. Maybe they're related to us. Maybe they're our friends. Maybe they're our students. Or, maybe we don't know any of them at all, but we do know their parents or their grandparents. Somewhere, there's a connection between those of us in the bleachers and those on the field.

Sometimes, that connection is simply a vicarious one.

I went to the game tonight for a couple of reasons. My daughter performed with the marching band and her color guard at halftime, and I wanted my students to see me in the stands, to know I support them outside the classroom as well as inside.

But sitting there, watching the teenagers walk back and forth, back and forth, paying more attention to each other than they were to the game, I was carried back to high school. When a middle school girl stood on the ground in front of the bleachers and yelled up to a boy somewhere behind me in the stands, "Brandon, Amber likes you!" all I could do was smile. Who among us doesn't remember a similar exchange among our friends when we were thirteen or fourteen years old? And having the distance of (in my case) thirty-some years, we can smile now at the outburst rather than bury our faces in our hands in mortification.

Going to tonight's game hopefully strengthened my connections with some of my students. I know it made my daughter happy to have me there. But it also - for a moment or two - bridged several decades for me and allowed that teenager who I swear still lives inside me to take a few breaths of fresh, crisp, almost-autumn air. And it wasn't even homecoming.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What do you think?

OK...I've been pitching my novel ASSUMPTION for almost three months. I've had one request for a full but no others. I've tweaked my query letter and I've submitted it to QueryShark, hoping Janet Reid (who rejected my query) will critique my query and let me know what works and what doesn't.

If she doesn't, I was wondering, would you? I'm going to post the meat of my query here in this blog. You guys tell me what you think. If you were an agent, would it make you want to read my book? Sometimes agents will ask us to include a few pages from the novel with the query, so I'll do that too.

Be honest. Tell me if it hooks you. Tell me why it does or doesn't. I'd seriously love the feedback. I'm getting ready to work on Novel #3, another foray into women's fiction I'm titling 52 WEEKENDS.'s the query.

Dessa’s home is burning. Her children are trapped inside, screaming for help. She isn’t strong enough to break the iron grip of the police chief who holds her back, who refuses to let her rush into the inferno that’s swallowing her children.

She’s never been strong enough.

So her daughter Ginny, at only fourteen years old, decides it’s up to her. If Dessa won’t save them from Killian and his violent temper, she will – with two cans of gasoline and a match.

That’s how the fire started. That’s why.

No one was supposed to be home except Killian. The blaze claims the lives of all three of Dessa’s children and any hope she has for the future. Killian, however, survives. Facing a yawning cavern of despair with nowhere to hide from all of her mistakes, Dessa decides Ginny was right. Killian needs to die. She makes her plans and loads her gun, but will she really pull the trigger? And if she does, who will she be when it’s all over?

And now...the first few (about 4) pages.

August 15, 2003

Nothing ever happens in this town, but they still talk about that fire.
No one could believe Ginny Tillman – barely fourteen years old – had snaked gasoline through her home and struck a match to it, targeting her stepfather asleep in his bed. The feral screams – Ginny’s, Tacie’s, and Cory’s – branded those of us who watched them perish, engulfed in flames, trapped between the first and second floor.
A murderous inferno in the middle of this go-nowhere, do-nothing Illinois town grotesquely captivated its citizens. Wrinkled and gray-haired, Wendall Wallace leaned on his walker, staring at the conflagration, shaking his head in unison with his neighbor, a single mother of two that he barely acknowledged any other day. Her children, preschoolers both, clutched their mother’s legs while her arms shrouded them, talons of protection. They would never forget the wail of the sirens, the shrieks of the children – my children.
I am Dessa, and Ginny, Tacie, and Cory were mine. Ginny cloaked herself in the mantle of my responsibilities that awful August night and all I could do was watch as my children perished, and my husband ran for safety.
I am Dessa. My husband only thinks he’s safe.

Chapter One
October 28, 2001

The cake was wrong. I knew chocolate was forbidden when I snagged the mix off the shelf at Wal-Mart. I’m not sure what compelled me to do it. Maybe it was Tacie’s chubby hands clapping together and her wide grin gaping at me from the toddler’s seat in the cart. She loves chocolate, I thought to myself. She’d eat the white, argued the saner side of my psyche. Yes, went the counterattack, but she loves chocolate!
Ginny stood beside me, staring at the hem of the button-down shirt I had left untucked – thank God Killian couldn’t see me right now. When her wise, bold, blue eyes met mine, she took in the argument I was having with myself. She couldn’t hear the words, but she knew – already – at twelve years old, why my hand hesitated in mid-air, reaching for the chocolate as my gaze honed in on the plain white mix.
“Killian likes the white, Mom,” she said, verbally nudging me closer to safety. “It’s his birthday, not Tacie’s.” The meaning imbedded in her words, clearly voiced although unspoken, was Please don’t make him mad tonight.
Usually I tried to walk the peaceful path. I took the hints, I followed the clues. I tried to do what I thought he expected, hoping to protect myself physically and my children emotionally. So far, he hadn’t laid a hand on them.
But standing in Aisle 10 at Wal-Mart that day, I didn’t want to do what was expected of me. Stupid day to make a point, I know. Ginny was right. It was his birthday and everybody got to choose the cake flavor for his or her birthday. Unless, of course, Killian wasn’t in the mood for yellow when Ginny’s birthday rolled around, as he hadn’t been a few months ago. She had eaten the white cake with the white icing with a smile, telling me over and over again how delicious it was because my insightful daughter knew it had nearly killed me to make her that damn white cake.
Yes, today’s was a reckless choice, but I made it and smiled all the way to the checkout line with that chocolate cake mix in my cart. Ginny trembled walking beside me, her fists clenched at her sides. I had chosen white icing, thinking irrationally that maybe that concession to his taste would pacify Killian. It didn’t. I think it actually made it worse.
After we finished singing “Happy Birthday” to him, laughing together over the lopsided tune the way happy families are supposed to do, he cut into the cake. When he raised the knife after the first cut and it came out covered in chocolate crumbs, the light in the room disappeared quicker than when he had blown out the candles. It felt as if all of the oxygen had evaporated and I held my breath, afraid to breathe in the poison left in the air.
My husband’s hand hovered above the crevice he had cut into the cake, where he had severed the Kill– from the –ian in his name that I had written in red frosting. I focused on the first half of his name – “Kill” – and almost smiled at the irony of the blood red word as I waited for his rage to manifest itself in a closed fist. The backhand across my face caught me by surprise and knocked me to the cold tile floor.
I drew myself up onto one elbow and focused on my girls. Tacie was a cherubic statue, still kneeling on the chair at the table where I plopped her to sing the birthday song, her eyes wide and beginning to pool. I thought I heard her whimper.
No, that was you, I realized. Don’t lose it in front of the girls.
Ginny had taken one step toward me and frozen. She began to kneel while at the same time I felt Killian moving behind me. I caught Ginny’s eyes with my own and whispered, “Go!” She squinted and set her jaw, wanting so badly to rebel, to stay and fight with me. Killian stooped and twisted his fingers into my hair, pulling me across the tile. Trying not to wince or moan again with my daughters in the room, I stared into Ginny’s eyes and through clenched teeth told her one more time, “Take Tacie and go!”
Darting one dagger at her step-father, Ginny did as she was told. I watched her grab Tacie from her chair and hurry towards the back of the house to Ginny’s room. In a minute or two, my older daughter, in her role of surrogate mother to her younger sister, would have Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast singing at top volume behind a closed door.
A dream is a wish your heart makes, when it’s fast asleep, Cinderella would sing.

As Killian pulled me up to my knees by my hair and drew his free hand back to hit me again, I realized the only dream I’d had for years was simply to survive. When his smooth, strong palm connected with my face, splintering pain across my cheekbone and my nose, when I tasted blood and felt the familiar throb begin deep inside my skull, I wondered how much longer my fragile grip on that dream would hold.

So, there you have it. Any thoughts??? Anyone?? Bueller?? Bueller??
(May John Huges rest in peace)

Talk to ya later.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Medication and procrastination

It's been a good Monday so far, but I have many items left on my to-do list for today. In case anyone should happen to read this who doesn't know me personally, let me tell you what I do for a living.

First, I'm a part-time middle English teacher. I've been teaching altogether for nine years - this is my tenth. I've been teaching middle school for four years, going on five now. I love the creatures that are defined as "middle school students." They are unlike any other living, breathing being on the planet and I can't imagine my work day without them. That's not to say, however, that they don't drive me stark-raving crazy sometimes!

For instance, I have a student who is seriously incapable of being still. He can't sit without tapping, rocking, or contorting himself into some form of a pretzel. He often gets up and walks around. He talks out in class when he shouldn't, and often just talks to himself. He's a pleasant boy and I truly believe he doesn't mean to cause trouble. But he does.

And this is one time when I firmly believe some medication would help the situation. I'm not one of those who wants to tranquilize every student that talks without raising her hand, or that gets out of his seat a couple times each class period to sharpen a pencil, throw something away, grab a tissue from my desk, etc. Middle school creatures are very energetic. It's in their nature and we shouldn't ask them to be otherwise.

HOWEVER, there are some conditions that require medical intervention and I think this boy is walking case study. He can't concentrate on what we're reading, so he can't answer questions when we're done. On top of that, he distracts others around him.

So, my plea to anyone who might ever read this who might have a child similar to the one I'm describing is: If your child's teachers tell you they see this type of behavior and this behavior is interfering with your child's learning, please consider a visit to the doctor. Consider an evaluation. It might make the classroom a much more pleasant place for everyone to be.

This blog's run longer than I intended so I'll be brief on the procrastination (rather than put it off for another day). In addition to teaching, I also do some freelance writing. I read business books and write summaries of them. Occasionally, these books are interesting. You can guess what they are when they aren't interesting. But they help pay the bills, so I read them and write about them.

I put off reading the one I had for July for a couple weeks because it was summer and I wanted a break. My editor was awesome about that and gave me as much time as I needed. I turned in my summary about two weeks later than I normally would have, but I had to push to get it in before school started because I'd put it off for so long. Then, I had to push hard to get ready for the first couple of days of school. I have a novel that I'm pitching and another one I'm doing background stuff for so that I can start writing it. The new novel hasn't been touched for over a month. Bad writer. Bad.

When I keep myself organized - school, freelance, home stuff (laundry, etc.), novel - then I can pretty much stay on top of everything. But I'm telling ya, vacation's a killer. (But I wouldn't trade summer break for . . . well, for a lot of things. I would trade it for an offer of representation AND a sale of my book, though.)

OK....My newest business book is lying open beside me, calling to me for attention. I owe it at least another half hour. Then there are clothes to steam, dinner to make, and papers to grade.

Oh - and a novel to pitch and one to write.

I'd better get busy.
Talk to ya soon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Welcome to my world!

A little over ten years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, I wrote a regular weekly column for that same paper, but I had a hard time coming up with a name for it. My editor suggested "Thinning the Weeds" because my last name at the time was Gardner and he said, "Besides, that's what you do in your columns."

Well, that's what I hope to do here. I'm a teacher and a writer - two (as yet unpublished) novels and the beginnings of a third. I'm hoping that if I share some thoughts from the classroom and from my attempts to write and publish my books, I'll make some connections with some of you out there, and maybe we can learn from each other. And hopefully laugh with each other.

A quick look inside my eighth-grade classroom today:
It was only the second day of classes, so I was talking to my students about why we read books. I asked them for names of books that they had read in the past and enjoyed, and I got a lot of responses. A boy said that he had liked Twilight. I asked him if it was Twilight he liked the best or the whole series. He smiled and said, "I liked the movie."
One of the other boys in the class said, "You can't read a movie!"
"You can if you turn on the subtitles!"

I couldn't argue....
Have a great day. Talk to ya soon.