Monday, 18 May 2015

Twitterati Challenge

So first a thanks to Chris Smith (@aap03102) in Scotland for including me in his five “Twitter Stars” one week ago, following his own nomination by @mathsjem.

Just like when I was nominated for the “Sunshine Award”, I decided to do a little supplemental research. What made that easy is Chris’ link there to Teacher Toolkit (Ross McGill) which seemed to be the start. And a look back at the hashtag #TwitteratiChallenge would support that - it began Apr 29, the day of that post. Seems the challenge is not subject or level specific, merely something to encourage social media links among educators.

That said, the first thing that gave me pause upon reading the original instructions, was how, at one point, it says “you reading this must either: a)”... and then there’s never an option (b). I suspect this missing option had something to do with donating to a charity? That comes up in a postscript, and then a few other posts. Yet no one seems to comment on the missing (b). Huh.

The second interesting thing was how, in tracking back from @mathsjem, the whole “drink” aspect (steps 3 and 4) immediately disappeared (replaced by “as I am a rebel, I nominate everyone”, which is rather ironic, as everyone became said rebel). Yet the “drink” thing was there at the start, so I suppose @mathsjem, like me, jumped back to the original post too. For the curious, I’ve put the full chain towards me at the bottom of this post.

Let’s start in.


INTRO: In the spirit of social-media-educator friendships, this summer it is time to recognize your most supportive colleagues in a simple blogpost shout-out. Whatever your reason, these 5 educators should be your 5 go-to people in times of challenge and critique, or for verification and support.


RULES


There are only 3 rules.
1. You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life.
2. You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already made aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge.
3. You will need to copy and paste the title of this blogpost, the rules, and what to do information into your own blog post.


WHAT TO DO


If you would like to participate with your own list, here’s how:
1. Within 7 days of being nominated by somebody else, you need to identify colleagues that you rely on, or go to for support and challenge.
2. You need to write your own #TwitteratiChallenge blogpost. (If you do not have your own blog, try @StaffRm.)
3. As the educator nominated, that means that you reading this must either: a) record a video of themselves in continuous footage and announce their acceptance of the challenge, following by a pouring of your (chosen) drink over a glass of ice.
4. Then, the drink is to be lifted with a ‘cheers’ before the participant nominates their five other educators to participate in the challenge.
5. The educator that is now newly nominated has 7 days to compose their own #TwitteratiChallenge blogpost (use the hashtag) and identify who their top 5 go-to educators are.

*Some prior posts list steps 3 & 4 as optional for the “technically challenged”.
**It’s optional to make a donation to a chosen charity or to identify one or two charities that may be of interest to others.
The only thing I drink with ice is water. Cheers!


FIVE TWITTERATI


I don’t “go to” these days, I more lurk and respond, but whatever. Under no obligation to continue this in any way, my five social media educators are:

Christopher Danielson (@Trianglemancsd)

He’s run an online course on Functions (which I didn’t take) and one on decimals (which I blogged about). He’s written a book about Common Core for Parents. He runs a blog about “Talking Math With Your Kids” (#tmwyk). He challenges your thinking to the point where I’m sure he’s done a bunch of other stuff I’m less aware of. On the personal side, he once asked me about my depression, after a post here. Basically, great guy, check him out.

John Golden (@mathhombre)

He’s been on my watch list since the “Mystery Teacher Theatre” co-venture days. He reads the research but doesn’t let it rule him. I was able to spend some time with him at “Twitter Math Camp 2014”, and he’s great in person too. He even comments on some of my fiction writing, which doesn’t really have anything to do with educating - but has everything to do with more feedback.

Audrey McLaren (@a_mcsquared)

She knows about flipped classes, how to use Twitter lists, and if I decide to try GeoGebra, she’d be someone with answers. She can probably answer gardening questions too. Plus she can think like a logarithm, and is another person who’s enjoyed my more recreational writing.

Chris Burke (@mrburkemath)

The only person on this list I haven’t actually met in person, he runs the (x, why?) online math comic which recently hit update 1,001. And that’s just for the comics - he also blogs about other things mathematical, including the Regents and he’s been part of the 30 day blogging challenge. I sense we have a compatible sense of humour.

Hedge (@approx_normal)

I haven’t spoken much with her recently, but she was there in tough times, and I know she’s reached out to others the same way. She’s observant, and helpful - and she likes statistics, so you can follow her for that alone. (And if you go to her session at ‘Twitter Math Camp’, maybe you’ll get a green frog.)


There’s obviously a few other names I could mention (including some local people, but I didn’t feel like toeing the line of ‘rule 1’), so we’ll call it there. But know that if you’re reading this, odds are you would have made the list, were it longer. Thanks!


Square Root and Cotangent, also connecting
Now, for the purists, the backtrack blogs:
-To me, from @aap03102 (Chris Smith, above)... which was:
Via @mathsjem,
via @aegilopoides
via @KDWScience,
via @Chocotzar,
via @heatherleatt,
via @MaryMyatt,
via @cherrylkd, From SOURCE (TeacherToolkit, above).

You can also find @Sue_Cowley’s May 11th compilation here, and I've seen @JillBerry102 often pop up in association with the hashtag.

The Twitterati Challenge started in the UK, I saw it hopped to the US back on May 14 (after my nomination, but I’m slow); I guess we’ll see if it survives this particular branch across the Atlantic ocean. Thanks again for reading!

Friday, 8 May 2015

You're a Good Teacher

There’s nothing quite so simultaneously invigorating and demoralizing as going to a math conference like OAME. Or for that matter, going on Twitter, where the MTBoS (Math Twitter Blog o’ Sphere) is like a constant math conference.

Interesting viewpoint...

I say invigorating because you get to see what other teachers are doing, and learn about new technologies and innovative teaching techniques. I say demoralizing because those other teachers can seem so much better at this job, and so much more connected, able to do things that feel beyond your capabilities. I say invigorating because you gain a greater sense of community, and the knowledge that everyone is trying to figure this out together. I say demoralizing because you may now feel like one tiny voice among the masses, easily missed or drowned out by popular opinion.

Of course, of late I’ve been having issues with depression, self-worth and sleep deprivation. So the demoralizing parts of that paragraph could be only me.

But maybe it’s not. After all, last summer I posted about not needing to be ‘validated’ by other educators. A little further down the slope, we get to ‘I’m not a great teacher like that. I’m not even a good teacher. Why am I even still doing this?’ In which case, I want to reassure you that you ARE a good teacher, along with offering three tips:

1) Try not to take things personally.


That’s devilishly hard, since teachers are really good at making things personal. As a ‘for instance’: In a Marian Small presentation, she showed some (anonymous) tweets, like “All ideas are valued”... only to immediately challenge whether that SHOULD be the case. If you initially agreed with (or made!) the initial tweet, you go on the defensive. Or in the midst of a Dan Meyer presentation, he tosses in a pithy song about vocabulary, using it as a lead in to doing things in a better way. But you use songs in your instruction, thus might interpret this as casual dismissal of your seemingly good idea.

Yes, I’m attacking the keynote speakers of OAME 2015. Bear with me.

"You like cats? What's wrong with bunnies??"
First, notice that this is grafting personal experiences onto a presentation with a much broader context. The speakers are not actually attacking you, they’re attacking an idea. And they’re not even attacking it - they’re presenting an alternative viewpoint. One of Marian’s key points was that she doesn’t have the right to tell you what you think about being a teacher. And Dan pointed out that there are many things we don’t yet know about student engagement. Those are better, broader points to focus on.

I picked the keynotes because it’s more likely that you’ve seen or heard of them. Also because they have experience at painting those broader strokes, whereas sometimes others (including me) can accidentally make things personal. But whether it’s a presenter at a math conference or a colleague in your school, we’re all human, and we’re all prone to making mistakes - or misinterpreting.

An attack on an idea can feel like a personal attack, but try to take a mental step back. Is that how it was intended? Again, this is hard to do, but it’s probably in your best interests.

2) Give yourself more credit.


You are already at a math conference! Or on Twitter! (Though if you’re not, don’t take that personally.) My point is, you are making steps to better yourself. I know this because before you can even take action, you need AWARENESS. (Which you likely have if you're reading this post.) And once you have that, change doesn’t happen overnight. You need a boatload of other things too: Vision, Skills, Incentive, Resources, and a Plan.

Source Site Here

All of which might not be in the cards right now. Some of those things aren’t even under your own personal control! Maybe this is a long term thing. Maybe it’s a collaborative thing. Maybe it’s a long term collaborative thing. Ultimately, maybe it’s not even a YOU thing.

What works for one person may not work for someone else, and it’s important to know your limitations. In part so that you can push against them, but at the same time, if a push would cause you to explode and burn out - DON’T do that. Remember, you are a good teacher. We don’t want to lose you.

Besides, even if it’s not in the cards for you right now, perhaps you can turn your efforts towards helping someone else out instead. This may feel like a personal failing, like you’re not good enough, but there’s no shame in being a booster. Quite the opposite: If you’re using your awareness to help someone else move beyond you, that’s kind of the definition of teaching. Maybe some day they’ll even be able to return the favour.

Related to giving yourself credit, it’s somehow easier to see the things you’re NOT YET doing, as compared to what steps you’ve already taken. I’m not doing rich activities. I’m not creating constructive controversy. I’m lecturing/talking too much. I suck. Hold on - I am doing groupings, which three years ago would have been a virtual impossibility. I am marking on levels, possibly getting better at it. I am a good teacher. Maybe not great, but by no means bad.

Perhaps you can even harness what you’re not doing and use it as a motivator. I am not doing games in class - I’ve never liked them, I always feel like they’re a lose-lose prospect, I even avoided them at the OAMEMathsJam. Games would break me. Okay, so maybe a 3-act problem doesn’t seem so bad by comparison any more.

3) Context is key


Finally, remember this: They’re not being brilliant all the time. You’re not being terrible all the time. Social media is a wonderful lens for magnifying extremes, but there’s a lot of middle ground in there too. Math conferences may be even worse than social media, because you’re rarely seeing the bad extremes, only the good ones. (Depends a bit on what you talk about outside of sessions.)

Being good with paperwork is also handy...
There’s also more to being a teacher than teaching. What are you doing outside the class? Helping with sports, or arts, or offering extra help at lunch? That’s important! Don’t dismiss it simply because the teaching itself feels more ‘old school’ than you want it to be. (Notice I’m not saying it IS ‘old school’, merely that you perceive that it is.) In particular, when I forced myself to list “10 Good Things” back in January the majority of them were NOT things I did in my instruction!

Remember: We all have certain things that brought us to the teaching profession. We all have certain areas of strength, and weakness. We all have bad days, and good ones. We all have different classroom compositions, and things outside of our control. Try not to overanalyze what others are able to accomplish. Do the best with what you have.

Above all, remember to tell yourself that you are a good teacher. I’m not merely saying that because it’s teacher appreciation week. I’m saying that because it’s a message that is often difficult to acknowledge, even after hearing it from someone else.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Public Math Relations

Back in September (Sep 16, 2014 to be precise), the local Ottawa math association (COMA) had a social event. At this event, Marian Small was invited in to talk about “Our [teacher] relationships with Parents and the Public”. I made a bunch of notes at the time, as I often do, with the plan to post them up later. Welcome to later!

Any errors are my own. In particular, sometimes a remark can be interpreted in multiple ways, so you’re seeing my viewpoint below.

INTRODUCTION


Marian began by acknowledging how teachers can be “caught in the middle” (between policy and the public). The media may or may not end up offering factual arguments about curriculum/implementation, yet that’s what most people see. So, when speaking with others, a teacher must be honest, informative, and professional, yet divorce themselves from professional language - don’t sound like the ministry, sound like a “regular person”. And don’t talk about ‘buts’ (eg. “I do this, but sometimes...") since once an already insecure parent sees a possible weakness, it’s over.

With respect to mathematics education, the same big questions tend to come up.

“Do students have to know their times tables?” YES. There isn’t a debate here, the real issue is whether there is only one way to learn them, and whether that way is best for everybody.

“Is knowing the facts the key to success in math?” While it is extremely important, it is not a KEY to success. (An excellent K-5 resource from Alberta clarifying ‘basic facts’ for parents is at this link. It’s a result of a reporter in Edmonton who published numerous articles.)

“Are students still learning the ‘right ways’ to do mathematics?” Let’s look deeper at that one.

CALCULATIONS


IS THERE a “right way” to learn mathematics? After all, in different countries, different ways are right, who’s to say our convention is any more or less right? One could argue there are “more efficient” ways - but our whole lives are inefficient, why should math be so different? “How many 9 year olds do you know who are efficient?” Besides, is the “standard algorithm” always the most efficient? (NO: Consider 300 - 2. Or using quadratic formula to solve x^2 = 9.)

Does that mean we should force kids to use multiple strategies, or merely expose them to multiple strategies? Consider, if you look at a curriculum document (in Ontario) there are many mentions of “multiple strategies” - it doesn’t mean we always require 3 ways to solve a problem. We can, for instance, differentiate assessment OF learning from assessment FOR learning (show many in an instructional situation, then the student uses one for an evaluation).

Aside: I hate those BEDMAS Qs on Facebook.
Calculators! “What if the calculator fails?” Well, “do you keep a horse in your garage in case your car doesn’t work?”. (It’s not recommended you say that to a parent, but as long as students are able to recognize when the calculator is giving them a bizarre answer, why not use them.) And what if the child encounters “hard” numbers? A better question is why ARE they encountering those numbers - we can choose what we should have them do. (When things are simple, they can do more in their head!) And while authentic problems do involve “hard” numbers, many questions we ask in school are not authentic.

Homework! “Don’t they have to practise?” What does ‘practice’ look like? It could be 30 questions that are very similar, or one question like: “You multiply two numbers and the answer is about 65 less than if you add them. What might the numbers be?” This can engage a student for an extremely long time. (Leading to: How do we get a LESSER product? A fraction, a negative?) Practice is not always obvious. Unfortunately, there is also no way to be RIGHT when a teacher is answering a question about homework - some parents will always love you or hate you, and different places have different rules. One rule of thumb is ‘multiply your Grade number by 10 to get number of homework minutes’.

A key point: If homework is confusing, it might do more harm than good (it should not make things worse, and reinforce errors). Should it be about rote skills? Sometimes, but there can be more conceptual things that aren’t difficult to try. (For instance, “You have two fractions. If you add, subtract, multiply and divide them, what is usually the order from least to greatest?” Exploring that can be lots of practice.) What if you offer homework but don’t require it or mark it? Pro: Homework for marks is a problem anyway, you don’t know who did it, plus no marks makes it low risk, a chance to make (and fix) mistakes. Con: A lot of students/teenagers may not make the right choice in doing it.

“Why are textbooks so wordy and unclear?” In real life, nobody says “Subtract now!” (with the exception of Revenue Canada). People won’t tell you what to do, applying math in life is a different skill than performing calculations. (Besides, how do you describe a problem without words?) While new digital tools can make math more oral (hear instead of read), in books things have to be written down. That said, perhaps oral responses can be an additional option, if it gives a better sense of whether the student understands.

DISCOVERY?


“Why do we have to learn things in a different way?” Lots of people today may know their times tables, but are still anxious about math. Change is needed. Yet “discovery” is not a good word - how can you discover if you don’t know the basics? Well, think about how we learn to do new things. Do we read the manual first? Or explore first, and check later? Some basics do come first, but lots can be learned through investigating and inquiring.

It's not all about that bass.
Marian presented her “music teacher analogy”. If a kid is doing piano lessons, do you want to choose the teacher whose kids are winning competitions? It may be that they play the same pieces over and over, to get the theory perfect first. However, if the kid can also play what they want to (popular music?), won’t they stay with it longer? We need to teach that there IS some tedious stuff, but also some playful stuff, so that there’s more of a sustaining effect. You can also make a sports analogy, the idea of dribbling endlessly before playing in a game... math is a like a game, and you can teach the needed skills in the course of playing it.

“Why is my child always working in a group?” These days, it’s less likely that we work in isolation; even in university/college lots of work is done in groups. Teaching problems can also be talked about with colleagues. More to the point, we need to focus on getting students cognitively ready, not merely structurally, since later structures will be different anyway. (Now, evaluating in groups is a whole OTHER question. We need to find strategies to deal with that.)

“What do you think of [Kumon/Khan/flipped classes/etc]” Nothing is right/wrong or good/bad, it’s more complicated than that. Be respectful. The issue is whether such things are effective as the main event. If you think drill will garner success or cause enjoyment, likely no, but if the student needs skills, then yes. Of note: The goal of math is not solving a problem. Math is learning how to think in mathematical situations.

RESEARCH


We used to believe that the best way to learn facts was to sit down and repeat them over and over. We now realize that you are ahead of the game if you have more strategies to fall back on. Even though some kids memorize well, for kids who are anxious about math, having to be quick and use the old strategies dooms them to failure. Moreover, research tells us that effort and persistence account for more variability in scores than native intelligence. “Hard work and good study habits are effective. Bad attitudes are a killer.” Telling a student you believe s/he can do it works - but no guarantee! Similarly, a parent saying they’re bad at math is an invitation for kids to tune out.

Temporal paradox? Seems legit.

What can I do (at home)?  Number play. Avoid saying “That’s hard” just say “Let’s do it”. Marian’s theme is that math classes should be about thinking and not doing. Estimation is important, and there is learning through problem solving. eg. “I bought something for $10. She gave me back one bill and 4 coins. How much might the item have cost?” Counting dots on a piece of paper is hardly exciting, but counting all the spoons that exist in your house, that’s kind of interesting. Or sections in an orange (do they always have the same number?). Consider rolling two dice - you can double one result then add the other, the first player to 100 wins. Consider a strategy. Support involves not showing, but probing.

What is success? Not just a mark. In the last round of EQAO (the Ontario Grade 9 equivalency test), 93% of Grade 9 kids said they hated math. (Aside: Ontario is the only province that makes you report on five strands in elementary, no other province does that.) Enjoying the math is success!!! So you, the teacher, need to show that you enjoy math too. Show confidence, believe that the student can do something if you give them the time. Meet your audience where they ARE and take them somewhere better, rather than starting above them - they may not want to listen/climb.

In the end, you’re the manager of a classroom the way there are managers in a workplace. “Make stuff happen.” Don’t simply stand there.

Marian’s website: www.onetwoinfinity.ca

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Guessed Writing 2015

Back in January, over at the “Web Fiction Guide (WFG) Forums”, Alexander Hollins proposed “an old favourite”: Writing an ‘April Fools’ update for another serial writer. (While they write for someone else, etc.) What I said at the time was, I liked the idea of getting into someone else(s) head, but wasn’t sure that my present serial would work for someone else. After some encouragement, I signed up anyway.

This is what followed. There’s spoilers for the entry I wrote, if you wanted to read that first.



ASSIGNMENT


If you know me, you know I like playing with people’s expectations. My thought going in was: Can I write something that mimics the style of the original author closely enough at the start that it won’t be immediately recognized as fake? (Makes the foolishness that much better.)

I was then assigned “Legion of Nothing”, written by Jim Zoetewey. First, I recommend checking it out, in particular if you enjoy “superhero” and “slice of live” kinds of stories. (And while I won’t be revealing plot details below, there are some spoilers about the LoN universe. If you don’t want those, stop here.) Second, WHOA. Good thing I’m not easily intimidated.

On the one hand, I know Jim’s a regular guy, just like anyone else. But on the other, his story had been running continuously since late 2007. It’s got it’s own TV Tropes page, had a successful Kickstarter towards becoming a set of ebooks, Jim himself is a WFG Moderator... and I’m used to writing for a dozen people who rarely comment, whereas a dozen comments seemed like a SLOW day over there. Okay then!


"I'm going to read your thoughts!"
When the assignment came out, I was also in the middle of January exams (I teach), so the weight of this didn’t hit me until early February. It left me with a new question: How does one create a spoof that keeps to the style and characters of a serial with such history?

The simple answer is, you don’t worry, you write something silly and be done with it. Still, while it’s all in fun, for me, that felt too easy. In particular, you have to know the rules in order to subvert them properly, and I didn’t know the rules of Jim’s universe yet (beyond the fact that he seemed to write in first person). I decided that I wanted to learn the rules, and that reading was the best way to do that.


BACKLOGS


I started reading “Legion of Nothing” sometime around Valentine’s Day, 2015. We were supposed to read at least the last two months of our assigned serial, but I started at the beginning, ambitiously deciding that I would read as much as possible before skipping ahead. (Spoiler: I read all of it. It’s very good.)

I also read (or browsed) every post’s comments. Partly because I’m nuts. Partly because I figured this was the audience I’d be writing for, so I might as well get a sense of their preferences. Partly because Jim would sometimes remark on details that didn’t fit the current narrative. (Ergo I knew about the underwater jet entrance before it got used.) Finally, because the remarks could be funny. For instance, someone commented that “the Shift” is Irish slang for making out; I never did find a good way to incorporate that.

I refrained from commenting on posts myself for two reasons. The first is that it would take precious time away from reading, and I was on a deadline. The second is that Jim would have to approve my first comment, and from then on, constant remarks through an archive dive might spoil the surprise to his readers of who was writing in April.

So instead I, uh, stored about 80 comment flags/assorted typos into a text file. To flesh out into comments for later. I suspect Jim Zoetewey will either like me or hate me when this is all over. (Sorry Jim.)


Any "Natsuiro no Sunadokei" fans out there?
Anyway, in Book 1, Arc 4, part 19, a character named “Future Knight” appeared. Time travel was possible (or at least accepted) in Jim’s universe! That’s when I created the text file to start recording thoughts/comments. If you have no idea why time travel makes me SQUEE, feel free to read this post about “Time & Tied” (formerly “Time Trippers”), the serial I’ll be starting this Friday.

So, “Legion of Nothing”: a universe of superheroes, teenagers, and potential time travel, the last two of which are completely in my wheelhouse. Somewhere in reading Book 2 I decided I would either do whacky time travel, or subvert the story with an “unreliable narrator”. (Tell the story as if it was Nick, but it turns out to be someone else.) I rejected the latter once I realized that Jim had also written parts from the perspective of other characters.

Which gave me pause. What if he’d already written an entire time travel arc too? “Rachel in Infinity City” looked particularly suspicious, but I was only in Book 3, and didn’t want to jump ahead yet.


NEW QUESTIONS


As it so happens, this is when I ran into the last time an “April Fools Update” was applied to “Legion of Nothing”. Except owing to a miscommunication, it didn’t happen, instead there was a multi-part crossover epic that was ultimately adopted as canon. While it didn’t exactly use time travel... could my idea could be seen as derivative? What would people think? What if they thought I was trying to write something canon too? Was that good or bad? WHAT IF I’M OVERTHINKING THIS?

Ahem. This is for fun. I will keep reading.

By Book 4, my entry was starting to take shape in my head: Nick vs. the Time Bandit, but we never see her, only the fallout at some point in the past. Which I realized would best be served around the present of when I was reading. Sweet. Two ways I could take the ending: A reset, with everyone going ‘WTF?’ or some ‘OMG we’re now trapped in an alternate timeline’ scenario. The former appealed to me more, because I could have Nick himself push against the fourth wall.


Wait, what if the current Arc isn’t from Nick’s POV? I might need a new plan. I jumped ahead for the first time to check out the present. Okay, still Nick. I gotta stop overthinking this.

I got into Book 5. Rejected thoughts by now included Rachel using Nick’s guitar weapon as a real guitar, Nick charging up a time machine attachment by jogging in place, and a time travelling wardrobe falling onto their power impregnator. (Uh, if you haven’t read "Legion", you are likely confused.) Instead, mental time travel felt right, I think because I re-read Alex’s assignment message which offered “Gender swap a character. Switch brains.” Easily done. And I kinda wanted to mess with Daniel’s head (a "Legion" character).

I started writing my “Fool” entry the weekend of March 14th, a month after my first read - I’d only just gotten into Book 6, but figured I wouldn’t see anything new that would cause a serious deviation in Rocket’s personality. (For that matter, the Time Bandit stuff could easily have happened before Book 6.) I finished reading “Legion” up to the present late Sunday evening, showed the entry to my wife for her take, and sent it to Alex before going to bed.


CONCLUSION


There were only minor revisions after that. If you haven’t read my entry yet, you can do so here. I tried to keep it a length within the realm of Jim’s usual entries. I also recommend you check out Lucy Weaver (or possibly Rachel Flowers?), who wrote this entry for me. (She writes the serial “Tapestry”.) She also found a clever way to use the characters without knowing where the plot line would go in the two weeks leading up to April 1st.


The guy in the back has a story too...
Now, readers for “Legion of Nothing” may notice that, in the end, my entry used the core characters, even though there are many more secondary ones by now. My thought was this particular focus could help boost Jim’s readership (via my blog, or others in the WFG forums who didn’t already read - assuming such people exist). I’ve started second guessing that, because they’re the characters that regular readers already know so well. Did that work?

I’m also not sure about setting the story in the past any more, lest people think I didn’t read the recent stuff, and whether wrapping it up in such a tidy package was a good idea, given that it’s supposed to be silly and non-canon. Not silly enough? Too silly?

Oh well. It is what it is. Thanks for reading about the process! My time travel serial will be starting up this Friday, if you want to read more by me.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

CanCon 2014: Part 2

I learned about the Canadian Content Convention in 2013, and previously blogged about that experience. I returned for 2014. I then got distracted by life, hence why this little summary of travels and the events of October is being posted in March 2015. Oops.

If you missed part 1, find it here, filled with talk about Joss Whedon, World Building, and more. I pick up here at 4pm on Saturday.



WATTPAD


It’s a growing online writing community (panelists: Maaja Wentz, Linda Poitevin, Mark Leslie-Lefebvre) based out of Toronto, still at the “ground floor” of popularity. At present, writers are something of a limited resource (the place is 95% readers) with the majority being Young Adult. However, R.L. Stine and Margaret Atwood have both talked about it. Linda Poitevin chronicled her journey into Wattpad on her blog.

The format is serial fiction (a chapter by chapter style of publishing). Each “chapter” read counts as a “read” (so divide to get number of readers). Updating (to correct typos) doesn’t mean you lose reads. Anyone can publish anything at any time. Recommended that you publish Friday (or Wednesday and Friday) since most people start reading on Saturday.

Be careful with RIGHTS: Putting a whole novel online is a contravention of licensing (e.g. for Kindle), but maybe you put up half. Though some may not commit to reading until you’re finished. There’s also the fact that if it’s successful first on Wattpad, publishers may call you, and you can take the book down if you sell the rights. People were posting tagged NaNoWriMo novels in 2013.

You need to regularly post, to become visible (and some stories get “featured”). Romance is currently a popular area. Anything “mainstream” means for adults. It’s also multimedia, you can post up trailers or art and pick casting choices for characters. There IS a Code of Conduct. Don’t promote your story on other comments, you cannot block but can report behaviour, and while people may request feedback, know that you cannot help everybody.


SLAPDOWN AND OUT


At 5pm I went to the “Fantastic Weather Slapdown”, entirely because of Mark Robinson’s interesting perspectives back in the “World Building” panel. (He’s a meteorologist with The Weather Network, also a storm chaser.) Here’s how the Slapdown worked: Mark would present a weather phenomenon. It was up to Erik Buchanan (Fantasy), Julie Czerneda (Science Fiction) and David Nickle (Horror) to come up with a short story related to said phenomenon. “Improv at it’s finest.”


The weather effects were: Rains of various types (fish, blood...), Catatumbo lightning, Ball lightning, Derecho wind storms, Firenadoes, and a more theoretical Hypercone (winds at the speed of sound). These pre-planned items were exhausted by 5:25, so Mark pulled out a few more off the cuff. Ice Storms, Acid Fog, Les Suetes Winds (Cape Breton), Green clouds during thunderstorms (see hail), Roll Cloud, Thunderstorms, Waterspouts, and Katabatic Winds.

I didn’t write down much in the way of the short stories. I do recall a couple instances of Reincorporation (callbacks) - Horror had a grandma, SciFi had purple things with one eye, and Fantasy had a baseball game: Greek v Norse Gods. It was all good fun, no one was declared a winner. It finished a bit before 6pm, giving me time to go back down to the Dealers Room before it closed to buy “Smash Fear” from Kevin T. Johns.

I then chatted a bit with friends, and swung by the Hospitality Suite once more. Ended up discussing Babylon 5 and Doctor Who with some people up there (one recalling when 5 minute segments were aired after Classic Who episodes). Learned that “Newhart” was all a dream within the “Bob Newhart” show. Eventually headed home for dinner - I think this might have been a big marking papers weekend.


SOCIAL READING


Sunday started at 10am, I went to “Social Media 201” with Linda Poitevin. (I’d enjoyed “Marketing for Writers 201” last year.) She’s spent 3,000 hours over the last 3 years investigating social media; 72% of all Internet users are now social media active. She’s eliminated platforms like G+, Tumblr and LinkedIn in favour of marketing on three: Twitter, Facebook and Wattpad.

The main thing with social media is you have to be SOCIAL, be in conversations, not just self publicizing. Don’t necessarily seek out other authors - you need readers, reviewers, bibliophiles. On Twitter, to manage your followers, use lists (keep 10-20 followers per list, unlimited number). Don’t use the egg pic, there’s a ’twitter bio generator’, and also ’tweriod’ to find out when followers are online. You have an 86% higher chance of a RT if there’s a link, and images create double the engagement.

Twitter DOs: Personalize your profile. Respond to all @ posts. Vary your posts. Promote others. Consider Writer Wednesday & Follow Friday. Twitter DONTs: Use auto responders. Overpromote. (For every 10 regular posts, allow 1 promotional.) Double promote. (Same message on multiple platforms - vary it.) Other apps: BufferApp (schedule up to 10 tweets for free), picmonkey (make banners fast), manageflitter (unfollows account types). Try to optimize everything for a mobile device.


With regard to Facebook, use a PAGE vs a PROFILE. The latter you cannot promote. The former you can Boost a post (choosing amount of $), create an Advertisement (turn off the right column ads), or do Unpublished/Dark (something that won’t appear on your page, but can target it elsewhere to learn more). Facebook will analyze hits per image choices. Make sure to change their “per day budget”, and don’t continue unproductive ads. Aim for 3-5 posts per day - again, can be scheduled. With regard to Wattpad, see above.

At 11am, I stuck around for “Different Ways of Reading” (panelists: Nicole Lavigne, Mike Rimar, Derek Kunsken, Peter Halasz). The idea is you read text differently if it’s for pleasure, for acquisition, for editing, for critique, that sort of thing. We have different “Reading Hats”, some of which are worn simultaneously (beta readers may incorporate many). There may even be a ‘SciFi’ hat vs a ‘Fantasy’ hat for genres. Or you may put a hat on after, to analyze what you just read.

Personal taste can’t enter into it when selecting for a magazine. Could be someone’s readership won’t read (a) or (b) but if one is only critiquing/proofreading, that's not an issue. Nicole’s job required including a personalized comment, to make writers who submit feel more valued, which does make the job harder. There was also mention of “tripping”, which is when you realize that you are reading, making something feel like work - related to involuntary hat wearing, if you notice certain weaknesses in the material.


SUPERHEROES


For whatever reason, superheroes have never really grabbed me - but I wanted to see “Do Superhero Tropes Devalue Collective Action?”. Perhaps because something resonated in the title, also because Jay Odjick was on the panel (with Mark Shainblum and Su Sokol). Jay was the Media Guest of Honour, his graphic novel KAGAGI has become an animated TV series (debut was during the con), and his art is on the Program Book. As he said at one point: “You can’t tell a superhero story in the real world, because their existence changes the real world drastically.”


It's Tempus, from my post #100!
Does a belief in ideals remove our impetus to change societies? We want to have a hero to take care of our problems for us. So we must make a distinction between ‘someone will save us!’ and ‘we should aspire to be like him’. Moreover, superheroes don’t have to follow society’s rules. You want to dress up in “real life”? Cops can shut that down, if it’s illegal to walk down the street in a mask (misdemeanour, concealing identity). Is Bruce Wayne better off spending his money building schools?

It was noted that Canadian history doesn’t have the same “lone avenger” mentality as the Americans seem to. Also superheroes have had to reflect culture: Jewish people weren’t writing Jewish superheroes. And what happens after the villain's captured? They go on the FBI list? When the story ends, reality begins. Who fights to correct social injustices? All ordinary people need to relate to the new heroes.

How about superhero collectives? (Fantastic Four, Green Lantern Corps) Generally they’re trying to preserve the status quo, not overthrow it (though see X-Men). I’ve scribbled ‘government overreach’ here. Then there’s the danger of trivialization: Is Marvel turning World War II into a fight against Hydra, rather than the Nazis? Superhero battles reflecting cultural battles can even become cliche. Though one can also add gravitaas by using real events, and metaphors can survive rather than “date” a storyline.

How could superhero stories inspire collective action? There's the idea of collaborating with ‘ordinary’ people, or other people with different skill sets. Even in a collective, it’s still important to have leadership - a final decision. Sometimes a superhero is a guy in a suit (if we elect this person, will he save us). Justice League Unlimited was very political. Of course, everyone has a different opinion of “What happens next” if Superman lands in Ferguson. (...That’s still relevant from October? It’s a crazy world.)

Finally, we’re growing up. Superheroes didn’t, corporations are trying to keep traditions. You can’t do breakthrough characters now, you’re dealing with shareholders, not the public. (“Screw you, I need money to put my kids through college.”) Yet we need more diversity. And things are now more morally ambiguous (whether that’s from us being older, or in the world as a whole... I don’t specify).


After the panel, I had to head out... I forget if I stayed for a bit of Jay Odjick’s “The making of Kagagi”, I do remember him talking about some of the challenges involved in adapting the graphic novel to TV, but that might have been at another time. For instance, he said it’s not simple to animate a lot of trees, so (if memory serves) rather than jumping between them, Kagagi’s wings became more of a feature, to have battles in the air. Also there were some stylistic issues.

Anyway, hopefully you enjoyed reading this, and got something out of it! I will probably return in 2015 - not sure if I’ll continue the blogging, considering my track record? Is it worthwhile?

Saturday, 21 March 2015

CanCon 2014: Part 1

I learned about the Canadian Content Convention in 2013, and previously blogged about that experience. I returned for 2014. I then got distracted by life, hence why this little summary of the events of October is being posted in March 2015. Oops.

This has been here the whole time... yes...

FANDOM TO FILK


Long story short, I started the Con late on Friday, arriving to the 8pm panel “The Past, Present and Future of Fandom” partway though. (On panel: Jo Walton, Madeline Ashby, SM Carriere, Liz Westbrook-Trenholm) These days there IS more of a connection between writers, fans, even actors. It was remarked on that genre writers start as fans, while literary writers may be more isolated. They don’t necessarily have a place they can go to talk to fans of their work, or people who are writing similar works. Success can also be a barrier. “Neil Gaiman can’t go to a convention to hang out anymore.”

Benefits of fandom: Community is nice. People may recommend & defend you to others. Flip side: Stalkers and haters. Tends to be 1 in 100, so “need to be more popular to be more hated”. Don’t engage them. May even need to avoid posting about it on a personal blog, because your FANS may escalate the situation, going after the person. (I believe it was Jo who told a story of a guy who accused “you sicced your posse on me!” and she hadn’t even realized.) Noted that as things get big there’s a tendency to fragment (otherwise it’s overwhelming).

At 9pm, went to the Open Mic Filk (Farrell McGovern as MC). No one had a guitar. There were about 6 of us, we chatted a bit. (There was a publisher party upstairs that may have influenced attendance.) Eventually I started off some actual singing, as I’d brought a karaoke file on my PC for the Carly Rae Jepsen sendup “It’s Probability”. (I sing the math hits, in case you were unaware.) Someone else led a round (based on... Charles Stross??). A young lady who had sung a “Homestuck” song last year also contributed, this time on the same show but she had written it herself.

Things broke up a shade after 10:15. I took a quick look upstairs in the Hospitality Suite to see what the big deal was about the party, and left the hotel a bit after 10:30pm.

WHEDON TIME


I’d considered the writing and editing workshop (10-noon) with Julie Czerneda, but a large number had already signed up on the Friday, so I met elsewhere with friends I hadn’t seen in a while instead; if you’re wondering about the workshop, check out this entry on Brandon’s blog. I arrived about 11:30 and went to the “Dealers’ Room”. Wandered about a bit, chatted with the people hoping to bring the int’l convention to Quebec, and to Kevin T. Johns. Walked with him up to the next panel, which he was on.

Said panel was “The Whedonverse” (panelists Kevin Johns, Timothy Carter, Derek Newman-Stille). Started with “Buffy”, as you do. Noted that she was entering post-secondary around the same time as some panelists/audience, giving that extra bit of relevance for the time. Buffy was an “outsider”, someone on the “fringe”. The show was great with metaphor, and the story arcs always had a payoff (unlike, say, “X-Files”). The characters would also transition, which wasn’t typical at the time, like Xander going into employment rather than keeping the cast together academically.

Talk transitioned from “Buffy” to “Firefly”, which also had strength of character - which was largely lost when episodes were aired out of order. It was also a mashup of genres, not merely a “Space Western”. The cancellation of the series was raised as being a possible transition point in Joss Whedon’s career. Serenity (the movie) seen as more traditional: he was a “slave of two masters”, having to be faithful to the fans but also produce a successful film.

The power of an “open myth” was discussed, as Joss likes to leave items open and unanswered. An audience LIKES to think about such things. Perhaps Canadians in particular - the point was raised, do we like the grey areas more than Americans? It’s also true that the issues Joss tackles don’t HAVE easy answers anyway. Joss also likes to play with viewers’ expectations and stereotypes: strong female characters can still like frilly bows. Loki (from Marvel universe) was mentioned as an extension of Joss... playful and a trickster, but also makes fun of himself.

His “Much Ado” movie was referenced, as it shows his abilities beyond being a writer (Shakespeare wrote the script). “Dollhouse” was brought up, and the idea that we’re all “playing roles” or “wearing masks”. Also his brother’s work on “Agents of SHIELD”, and it was noted that with a father who worked in TV, perhaps it opens more doors for the 3 Whedon brothers. (The problems of Hollywood were remarked on here too.) Concluding thought, is Joss still as subversive now as he was with “Buffy”? (Feeling was no...)

After this was the Time Travel panel, which has been my thing since grade school, hence why I managed to previously blog about it here.

FANTASY WORLDS


From 2-3pm, I went to “I Can’t Believe You Haven’t Read That! (Fantasy)” (panelists Kathryn Cramer, Peter Halasz, Jo Walton, Matthew Johnson, Yves Menard). There was brief discussion of Jo’s “suck fairies” before starting - a detail fairy that ‘sucks’ some pleasure out of a story you read when you were younger, because you didn’t notice sexism or other cultural issues. Then the first question: What’s the biggest gap in terms of recommending an author/title?

One issue is a person can’t necessarily appreciate current things without knowing the building blocks. (“There are protocols!” Perhaps something’s being subverted?) Another is not knowing a person’s preferences. (What do you already read?) There’s also the fact that “Fantasy” is really broad. And is the person reading for love as literature, more for pleasure, to be a completist...? Some names that got tossed around: Robert Aickman, Pamela Dean, Susan Palwick, Guy Gavriel Kay, Naomi Kritzer, John M. Ford, Christopher Moore. (Some of those names from second question, about who’s current.)

Third question, who are the pillars of history? Names included Lewis Carroll, Edison (who came before Tolkien), and Lord Dunsany. Dracula was also referenced as the only book that has remained in print - other than the Bible - it’s terribly written, but has sublayers. There was also some question about whether Fantasy is more Genre or Tradition. And there was a fourth question of one book to pass on to people, but all I got down in my notes is “The Once and Future King”.

From 3-4pm, “Face-Palms of World Building” (with Mark Robinson, Andrew Barton, Julie Czerneda, Cenk Gokce). If you misfire in world building, you’ll lose 5% of readers who can’t get into the story because of it (like Dune: no oceans = no climate). Worse, if you’re writing in a sub genre (military SF, historical fantasy) that 5% could be your whole audience! Noted that a lot of world building may not appear, particularly in short stories, but should be known by the author.

Don’t necessarily explain, which can also pull a reader out. Use word choice: “The door dilated”. Or the detective who puts his hand on the car hood - you don’t need to spell out that it’s to see if the car’s been running. If the setting is Vancouver, people there wear raincoats, they DON’T use umbrellas - meaning a person with an umbrella is automatically branded a tourist. The panelist knew this because he talked to someone from Vancouver. This is a good plan, if you’re writing about a place you’ve never been.

“Everyone knows the weather”: Be careful of this trap! Game of Thrones has decades long seasons, and yet the implications of such do not appear in the story! (For example, hurricanes happening on a regular basis.) You even have to be careful with small things - which way are your rivers flowing? Is this creating a swamp in the middle of town? You can also USE the weather to drive stories. Thunderstorms MUST appear if you have a land mass like North America... unless no, because wizards on flying carpets? 

Speaking of, magic needs rules. If magic has no COST, why not always use it? If magic carpets exist, why are they restricted? Economies are based on scarcity of resources. It was noted that the “Avengers” movie gets portals wrong: Zero millibars in space, about a thousand millibars on Earth. Things move from high pressure to low pressure (creating winds which in this case would swirl at 1600 mph, whereas 318 mph is the max on Earth). Fix it - only solid matter can get through? (Suffocating Iron Man, oops?) The game “Portal” does them right.

There was also some mention of World Cultures. #AllOfTheTopias tend to bend everything (for good or bad) to make a point. Planets aren’t homogeneous, so what part of the planet is the “alien race” from? (One with scarcer resources?) Also, it’s warmer up in Alert in February as compared to Ottawa because there’s no dampness. Are all your characters the same age? Climate can also drive how entire cultures evolve. If the direction the Earth spins drives thunderstorms over planes - what if Earth spun THE OTHER WAY? “CliFi”: Climate Change Fiction?

I’ll let you ponder that, and finish the recap next week.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Product of: It’s Time

At some point, what you've written needs to get out there, otherwise it will require serious editing.

This post will clarify that statement, after which I’ll talk more personally about my time travel story.




TIMELESS


First, the statement is not saying that you should publish without serious editing. It’s saying that even AFTER doing all your editing, once you have a near PERFECT story - if you pull it out five years later, you’ll need to update everything.

Granted, this will depend a bit on if your story is timeless, or a product of it’s time. If it’s the former, you have more latitude. For instance, if you’re writing a historical drama, or a dystopian future, or a fantasy romance, it might make for good reading whether it’s 1980 or 2015. But even so, consider something like “The Hobbit” - when adapting it for the movies in present day, there needed to be more done with female characters (so I’ve heard, haven’t watched it, geek cred gone). Because an all male cast is the sort of thing society now frowns on. Other big issues along with gender (which is no longer binary!) are race and diversity. What was acceptable even ten years ago might not be acceptable now.


But it’s not only our society. Scott Delahunt wrote a good “Lost in Translation” column about our changing technology. If you’re currently writing a story about teenagers, and they don’t all have cell phones, there should be a REALLY good reason for that. Something that was not an issue fifteen years ago. And looking ahead another ten years, cell phones might date a story as being “very 2010s” because everyone will have wrist phones, or who knows what. And let’s not even start with how pop culture references can horribly date things.

Speaking as a writer, this is a real pain.

Worse, my writing has always trended towards urban fantasy, which leans much more towards being “a product of it’s time” than other genres. Because it includes more present day elements. And while it’s all well and good to invoke an alternate universe, an audience isn’t going to engage with the material if it’s too dated or unfamiliar. So, at what point does a story run past it’s “best before” date for publication? No idea. I’m now shifting gears to look at me, personally.


IT’S TIME


I have resisted publishing my time travel story online for two key reasons: (1) Once it’s online, there are issues with traditional publishing and/or plagiarism. (2) It’s technically incomplete.


My characters can stop glaring any time now...
I AM going to be putting it online shortly because: (1) The idea of publishing has always been secondary in my mind, and for all I know someone else will come up with the ideas independently. (2) It’s complete in as much as any show is complete at the end of it’s second season... plus it’s becoming dated.

Also, the writing kind of sucks. Don’t get me wrong, my grammar is great, the characterization is solid, and the ideas are innovative. But the majority of characters are white (Luci, the exception, inadvertently became a stereotypical asian brainchild), the thing takes forever to get going (there’s remarkably little time travel, I’m a character writer) and let’s face it, the whole idea behind DOING writing is that one improves at it over time.

Combine that with the fact that I already revised the whole thing once from 2012-2014 (see this post for more backstory), and you’ll see why I don’t relish doing it again. Besides, if I start publishing 3,000 words every week, right now... it will STILL take over a year and a half to get through. Who knows what else will happen by then?

So. It’s time. Two questions remain:

1. Do I take over my “Choose Your Path” web serial to do it? (After the current arc.) This is my inclination, since putting “Time Trippers” on that site was always kind of the plan. Yet in September, I wanted to write, not publish older material - whereas I now have the option of reviving my math web serial to keep me busy. But is that too jarring? The other option would be putting it onto Wattpad, but I haven’t fully investigated there yet. Or should I do both?

2. How big should a part be? My first season is a full 22 episodes, verging on 7,000 words each, WAY too much for a week of reading. The easiest thing to do is chop them in half (where I used to have commercial break cliffhangers), but the easiest thing isn’t necessarily the right thing. Would 1,500 words twice a week be better? For that matter, how often/when should I update? I was thinking only on Fridays.

I welcome your thoughts!! As before, I’m a writer regardless, but I feel better bringing joy to others, as opposed to wasting your time. To that end, your input is invaluable. Thanks for reading this much!