Time for Education to Change

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I have been commenting on the public school system and how it is failing our students time and again. Ever since social promotion was introduced, students have slowly figured out that they don’t even need to work hard to pass. Couple that with a 50% passing mark and you have average graduates. Worse yet, students earn high marks despite their performance so that when they reach the tertiary level, if they do decide to undertake a college or university course, they do not have the skills they need to excel.

Let me pose a few assumptions:

Assumption One: The public school system does not seem to communicate with colleges and universities and vice versa about what students need to know or be capable of doing.

One would come to this conclusion because students who come from the public school system have weak grammar knowledge and poor writing skills. From experience, I have discovered that they are unfamiliar with research methods and research writing; they are unable to write a cohesive research paper; they use incomplete sentences and dangling modifiers; their vocabularies are limited; they cannot speak in public; they have difficulty understanding and solving basic mathematics problems, and so on. The list goes on and on.

Assumption Two: Pass marks of 50% mean that students have only learned half of what they should.

That, plus the fact that they only perform half of what is expected of them. This is alarming, because students no longer strive to be as good as they can be in school. They are content to pass with only half the marks, as long as they pass. Their ambitions are low and they do not try to aim for more.

Naturally, there are those who work as hard as they can and earn higher marks, some of them attaining the status of honour students. I often wonder about what qualifies students to be honour students in the public school system. Is it that they achieve a general average of 80 and above? How are their grades determined then, if they achieve 80% or more and still cannot demonstrate strong basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics? I have worked with college students claiming to have been honour students in high school and being told their work was excellent, yet could not submit written work, let alone a research paper, with complete, grammatically correct sentences throughout, nor were they certain of the correct use of punctuation.

Assumption Three: Students who do not make the grade, so to speak, are promoted nevertheless.

I say this because I have not heard of any students who have failed and have been held back to repeat a year or attend remedial classes. All this achieves is send the message to students that they don’t even need to try, because they’ll pass anyway, whether or not they get the 50% mark. If that is the case, what is the point of even having a pass mark? Do students ever attend remedial classes in the public schools?

I’m aware that students who need help are sometimes sent to resource. However, I do question how much help students get, and if resource is uniform across the board. I have heard of resource where students do nothing at all, particularly in cases where students have learning disabilities and are assumed to be incapable of learning. Resource should be tailored to the students’ weaknesses, and even then, a small handful of resource teachers cannot fill in the knowledge that students should have gained over the years.

Assumption Four: The Public School System does not want change.

Why do I say this? The writing is clearly on the wall. Students graduate each year with worsening levels of achievement. Teachers are teaching to the test so that students can score well in the foundational outcomes tests. The teaching is inconsistent and the teachers are not all fully capable of teaching.

We no longer need the factory design that churns children out of school with the barest knowledge so they can find their place among assembly lines. The world has changed; the 21st century demands training in skills that are transferable. While there might be specialized skills, the basic skills still need to be taught well. Math, reading, and writing are no longer valued when they should be at the forefront of teaching. Communication is a huge factor in the working world–it has always been and always will be–and yet very little effort seems to be made to develop this skill among school-age children.

Assumption Five: Teachers are not well-trained.

When learning about education and how to teach was reduced from a four-year course to a two-year course after attaining a regular undergraduate degree, then to a one-year course, churning out new teachers on a conveyor belt, I knew the quality of education would drop even further.

When it was still a two-year course, I had the opportunity to teach a methods class for one semester, and I knew from the beginning it would be a disaster. In the first place, students were allowed to enrol in the methods class before they had taken the theory class, so instead of being able to apply theories they had learned first before working on methods, the students had to be taught theory. I had designed the class to be a workshop-type class because it was a methods class, but a good number of the students expected a full lecture class–all 45 hours of it at 3 hours a week–and for me to teach them everything I knew about teaching English. That expectation alone was ridiculous because what I knew about teaching English was something I had learned over 20 years of teaching. Also, it would be impossible for me to teach everything I knew, because a great deal of what students learn about teaching is learnt in the classroom, doing actual teaching.

The other thing that I found most ridiculous was that many students felt they were being embarrassed in front of their peers when they had to receive a 360-degree critique of a demo class. If they could not receive comments and suggestions from their peers and professor in a safe setting, how much more would they feel when faced with and average of 25 students in each class all ready to criticize them, and in most cases not constructively? Needless to say, I did not regret not being invited to teach the class again.

Assumption Six: Education does not always attract the brightest and best students.

The fact that many teachers are churned out with only one year of teacher training has a negative effect on their ability to teach. I have heard of teachers who don’t even understand what they are teaching, teach to the test, teach to the whiteboard, or even teach to themselves. Some teachers seem to be teaching subject matter they are unfamiliar with and end up leaving students without a clear understanding of the subject matter. Many times, teachers are made to teach subjects they are not experts in, regardless of the level they are assigned to.

In many countries, families have been known to encourage the least scholarly or academically-inclined of their children to take up teaching. The brightest and smartest are encouraged to take up medicine, law, or engineering–still top-rating courses no matter where in the world you go. In highly-religious cultures, the priesthood is the fourth vocation of choice. Parents ensured their futures by ensuring their children covered all necessary aspects of their lives: a doctor to take care of them in their old age; a lawyer to attend to their legal needs; an engineer to build and show off skills; a priest to take care of their spiritual needs. Once all these had been taken, the last choice would be to have a child unsuited to the top choices become a teacher. Admittedly, there are many more careers students can choose from today than there were half a century or more ago, but the elders of society might still assign greater value the same things they would have half a century or more ago. After all, having a son who is a lawyer or a doctor is still more prestigious than having one who is a computer programmer or an actuarian, assuming they understand what a computer programmer or actuarian does.

Assumption Seven: Expectations are unrealistic.

Sometimes, failure in the classroom is not completely the teacher’s fault. Sometimes, teachers are expected to teach a particular subject matter in a particular way that the teacher is not prepared to do or that does not suit the students’ learning styles. There is a problem with knowing that students all have different learning styles, just as teachers have different teaching styles. Are students expected to adapt lessons to each and every student? In an ideal world, yes, but the immensity of that proposition is beyond the reach or ability of any school.

Several theories of education besides the public-school-conveyor-belt system have been proposed, studied, and implemented in progressive schools, many with great success. Common among these theories are the Montessori approach and the Emilio Reggio approach. The theory of Multiple Intelligences has been accepted as a sound theory of learning, as is the theory of learning styles, and yet public school systems have not adapted their settings to reflect this learning. Models of the best school systems have been shown successful in Scandinavian countries, notably in Finland, yet North America has been slow to even explore these models.

Assumption Eight: The bottom line is still money.

I think that bottom line of the North American reluctance to change the way the public school system operates is money. North America’s governments do not want to foot the bill when it comes to overhauling the educational system. The cost of retrofitting classrooms and retraining educators will be no less than staggering, because not only will the public schools have to change, but the way teachers are trained must change. Teachers need to be retrained to change their perspective, their teaching-learning styles, their content learning. Too many teachers have been entrenched in their methods and adapting to new ways of teaching and learning is something they either do not want to do or cannot do.

Assumption Nine: Society’s perception of what education is must change.

Besides changing the system of education and teacher training, how society sees education as well as what society expects of education must also change. Society still sees schools the way they were taught and expects nothing to change. Probably the majority of students graduate (whether they deserve to or not) with the feeling that they are escaping a prison and choose not to look back until they have children of their own who need to attend school. Then they expect schools to teach their children everything the children need to know when they grow up, as if they themselves learned everything they needed to know from school. The attitude towards school and learning is also something society must instill in people. If the majority think going to school isn’t really worth it, is it any surprise their children do not see the value of education?

Assumption Ten: Schools just aren’t teaching the skills needed by society.

If we are teaching transferable skills that will allow students to become successful in multiple contexts, then content should not be the primary focus of education. If 90% of all graduates use only 10% of all the math they are taught, why do we continue insisting on teaching 90% of the content to the 90% and expect them to fail anyway? Why do we not teach the 90% math that they do need and will use 90% of the time? If 10% of all graduates become excellent writers or researchers and 90% of the jobs waiting for them require mastery of writing and research skills, why aren’t we teaching more writing and research? If 90% of all the jobs out there require public speaking and other communication skills, why aren’t we teaching more public speaking and communication? If everything is being done on computers or using digital media, then understanding computers and digital media should be more of a norm than a novelty.

We are approaching a time when we can no longer ignore the consequences of stubbornly clinging to an educational system that does not work. Our graduates cannot read or write or do math properly. The only thing they can do on computers is use social media. They spell as if they were texting all the time. They cannot shake hands properly or look people straight in the eye when speaking. They cannot even speak before a crowd properly. Most of them have no idea what debate or oratory or declamation is. They do not even have manners or social graces so that they know what to do with protocol. There is no denying that education is still entrenched in the 19th century while everything else is straining at its leashes, raring to leap into the 21st century.

I’ve gone on much longer on this than I thought I would, which just goes to show how much of an opinion I have on the state and quality of education today. I am certain of one thing, though: there MUST BE CHANGE.

 

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Stories of My Life Workshop

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I have just concluded delivering another workshop for a group of seniors, this one called “Stories of my life”, administered by the Senior Citizens’ Federation of PEI and funded by New Horizons for Seniors.

I had wanted to join Kathleen Hamilton’s memoir-writing workshops so I could just be the writer instead of being the mentor or teacher all the time, but I guess that wasn’t meant to be. I tutor everyday after school until a fairly late hour, and the workshops were always in the early evenings, so there was no way I could attend those workshops.

As many other things that seem to happen purely by chance, I ran into the Executive Director of the Senior Citizens’ Federation, whom I had met several times in the past when I ran LEAP workshops in art for a few seniors’ residences in Charlottetown. She asked if I would be interested in teaching a memoir-writing class on “Stories of My Life”, and when I confirmed I would have the time to fit it into my pretty full schedule, I accepted, since it would not conflict with any of my other bookings.

I will not say what topics we wrote about, nor will I share any of the stories that were shared except maybe some of mine, but I will say what one participant said: “What a wonderful group of women with such diverse stories.”

Diverse, yes, but also uncannily similar in some cases. Because of the workshop, the group has agreed that we will continue writing and meeting and I will continue to guide their writing as we deepen our stories and deepen our connection.

Yes, I had hoped, when I moved here, to find a group of friends–and I certainly have made many friends and have several different groups I work with on different things at different levels of involvement or commitment–but I needed to find a group of friends with whom I could share a deeper connection that included my writing. I needed a writing group with people whose stories needed to be shared–and not the literary and creative writing I do, because I have friends and a group to do that with–but the very personal writing that bares our souls to each other in a safe yet creative environment.

It seems that I have finally found that group I needed, and maybe we have found each other, because it was chance that brought me to the group, and chance that brought each of the other participants to the workshop. While we have not met outside of the workshop yet, we have already planned our next meeting and everyone already has the next writing assignment. I feel that the connection we have made is one that will keep us together for a while, perhaps even longer than a while. After all, it takes a lifetime to make a memoir.

 

Why be an artist?

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A good friend of mine very recently shared a post from Facebook where someone shared how she responded to the question of why people should be artists–because everyone is familiar with the phrase “starving artist”–and not switch to a career in technology because that’s where the money is. Her response was to invite naysayers to isolate themselves for 30 days without music, books, films, television, art, or dance–and I would add they should be in a plain make-shift shack or a blank-walled cell so they do not see any architectural structures–and see what life would be like. I agree with her completely.

I believe true artists follow their passion knowing full well that they could remain penniless and unrecognized all their lives, and if they are among the few fortunate enough to be discovered, they might earn something out of it, and possibly be revered after they die. Since the Renaissance ended, history shows that artists are among the most mistreated people–Van Gogh hardly sold any paintings while he was alive; Edgar Allen Poe was penniless, Sammy Davis Jr. owed millions–and the pursuit of any field related to art is discouraged because everyone knows most artists can’t live off their art.

The arts that receive the most attention are performance arts, and yet, unless you are a top-rated film actor or a record-breaking recording artist or singer, or a consistent best-seller novelist, you’re probably scrounging around for a job most of the time. Even big-name stars might be in the limelight for a while, but when the public transfers their adulation to another star, previous stars have difficulty even getting a bit-role and some even end up isolating themselves and living in seclusion because they are unable to live with the loss or their adoring public and the loss of their source of income. Among writers, it is no better. As long as you write books that the public eats up, you’re fine; the moment they find someone else to follow, and you are unable to churn out work that sells like hotcakes, your books are relegated to the back shelf or worse, taken off the shelves. Architects are often not even considered artists, and yet the artistic creations of the greatest architects live on long after their names have been forgotten. How many people still know that the Guggenheim Museum, along with thousands of other magnificent structures, were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. How many people can name the architects of the Notre Dame Cathedral? Big Ben? Westminster Abbey? the Eiffel Tower? I could go on and on, but unless you’re a fan or student of architecture (or a trivia buff) you probably can’t shoot off their names from the top of your head.

Non-performing artists, such as poets, essayists, short-story writers, theatre performers, dancers, crafters, and architects, to name a few, often have greater difficulty making ends meet. While a great number of artists dream that they will be recognized some day and start receiving what their creations are worth, there are still more who simply create art because it is the best thing they do and the only thing they want to do. Thank goodness for all the reality shows where unbelievable talents are discovered, but there are several arts that do not lend themselves to performance, hence more limited and exclusive audiences.

True artists create art not for the recognition they receive, whether pecuniary or acclamatory, but for the fulfillment and satisfaction they achieve from the mere act of creation, because everything they create is an extension of themselves. True art embodies the artists’ souls and the mere expression of artists’ deepest thoughts and emotions is reward enough. For their art to be appreciated and valued by others is an affirmation of their existence. To make money is merely icing on the cake.

 

Stepping into Their Shoes: An Encounter with Immigrant Women

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On the evening of April 21, 2018, at The Guild in Charlottetown, I met eight immigrant women who told their stories in front of a full house. The women were part of a teaching initiative founded in Toronto in 2011, and directed by novelist Katherine Govier, who taught writing workshops to help immigrant women improve their written and spoken English. In the process, the women wrote their stories—centered on shoes, because the project’s home is in a shoe museum and it was the one condition required so they could hold workshops on the museum premises for free. Thus, The Shoe Project was born.

 

The women shared how they arrived in Canada between 2003 and 2017 at different stages of life for various reasons, from love to the pursuit of a better life to seeking refuge from war and strife. Each woman’s story was different and yet the same, because each woman’s story spoke of the same struggle and trauma experienced when a life is uprooted and transplanted in an alien environment. The women were from different countries—Syria, Iran, China, South Korea, Colombia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Tibet—and all were old enough to understand the change, the necessity to leave their old lives and start new ones in a new country. They were old enough to remember all the friends, family, memories, and possessions left behind. Several were successful professional women whose careers were abandoned because their new nation would not recognize their credentials and required complete re-education—something that would take too much time, money, and effort; something that these women did not have the luxury to choose because they had to obtain gainful employment almost as soon as they landed. Employment that often would have been considered demeaning and beneath their station in life in their home country. Despite the difficulty, pain, and depression, these women forged on, put on brave faces, and claimed Canada as their new home, whether in Halifax, Calgary, or Toronto. They created new memories and while they continue to struggle with pain, depression, and trauma, they have found humour, love, and community.

I was eager to attend this performance because I knew their stories would be my story, and I was not wrong. Each story touched a raw nerve in me because I, too, was an immigrant to Canada and still feel what Govier has called a lifelong process of adjustment. I was glad to see so many immigrants in the audience as well, because these were their stories too, and hearing these eight brave women speak was almost as if they were speaking for us. I am glad this project exists because the voices of immigrants need to be heard, especially the voices of immigrant women, who are often unable to express themselves, let alone tell their stories. I am glad there were so many people in the audience and that the performance is touring the country because Canadians need to hear these stories and acquire greater understanding and compassion for immigrants. In most cases, Canadians born in country and who have lived in Canada all their lives will never be able to truly understand or imagine the experience of being an immigrant, let alone a refugee. Stories generated by initiatives such as The Shoe Project are a powerful way to provide others with a glimpse into what immigrants go through just to fit in and adapt to their new country. Hopefully, this will open up the eyes of decision-makers, employers, and policy-makers who persist in antiquated policies and practices that instantly discriminate against immigrants. I was once told it normally takes about 10 years before an immigrant is fully assimilated into the (PEI) community. Not every immigrant can or will wait that long. It is time people step into the shoes of immigrants, even if only for an evening, because an evening can stretch into forever.

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Why PEI Needs Real Math Teachers in Elementary Schools

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It’s been a while since I last posted an article, a whole month and some days to be precise.  I must apologize. Besides preparing for the Seniors College class on stories by Alice Munro, which began three weeks ago and will be in its fourth week Tuesday, I spent every minute of my spare time researching and preparing materials for a Math Camps program for grades 1-12 for the LDAPEI, where I tutor everyday after school. Yup, my main occupation at the moment is tutoring, which is both a good thing and a sad thing. Good, because students who need help and are struggling with reading and math, regardless of whether they have a learning disability or not, get the help they need. Sadly, there are just not enough tutors to help everyone. But that’s not the sad thing. The sad thing is that there are so many students who need the help, and these aren’t just students with learning disabilities, particularly when it comes to math. In my years of subbing and tutoring, I’ve encountered students who insist on performing basic math operations the wrong way because their teacher taught them that was how to do it. Those students will have to unlearn those wrong procedures and relearn the right way; meanwhile, they will experience frustration because they will never get the answers right. I discovered elementary schools do not have math majors teaching math, hence the development of concepts and skills is not approached the way teachers trained specifically to teach math would teach. Where I grew up, we always had a dedicated period for math only and math teachers who were math majors or minors teaching math in grade school; in higher grades, our math teachers had majored in math and were trained to teach math. The basic concepts were ingrained in us so that by the time we were in seventh grade, we had mastered all basic operations and knew our multiplication, addition, division, and subtraction forwards and

Good, because students who need help and are struggling with reading and math, regardless of whether they have a learning disability or not, get the help they need. Sadly, there are just not enough tutors to help everyone. But that’s not the sad thing. The sad thing is that there are so many students who need help, and these aren’t just students with learning disabilities, particularly when it comes to math. (I’ve a different rant for students who don’t learn correct grammar and spelling!)

In my years of subbing and tutoring, I’ve encountered students who insist on performing basic math operations the wrong way because their teacher taught them that was how to do it. Those students will have to unlearn those wrong procedures and relearn the right way; meanwhile, they will experience frustration because they will never get the answers right. I discovered elementary schools do not have math majors teaching math, hence the development of concepts and skills is not approached the way teachers trained specifically to teach math would teach. This is definitely a call-out to PEI’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development: Kids are bad at math because they’re not taught the right way, they don’t have the proper foundational training. Kids need real math teachers from the very start so they develop sound concepts correctly. Kids need real math teachers throughout elementary school because these are the foundational years. If they don’t learn it right at the start, they’ll have difficulty understanding concepts that build on the basics. It’s not like there aren’t any math majors available. If you can get specialized teachers for music and gym, why not math? Math is an essential skill to real life because math concepts are relevant to nearly everything they will encounter.

Where I grew up, we always had a dedicated period for math only and math teachers who were math majors or minors teaching math in grade school; in higher grades, our math teachers had majored in math and were trained to teach math. The basic concepts were ingrained in us so that by the time we were in seventh grade, we had mastered all basic operations and knew our multiplication, addition, division, and subtraction forwards and backwards. We were ready for algebra, geometry, and trigonometry–the basis of pre-calculus, which students in senior high need to understand to complete their GED requirements. If the foundation is weak, students will have greater difficulty coping as the concepts become more complex and the calculations become more complicated. By then, students will have a greater dislike for math than at the onset because of repeated failure and lack of understanding. That is where the idea of Math Camps came from–giving students the opportunity to encounter math in friendly, fun, and practical

If the foundation is weak, students will have greater difficulty coping as the concepts become more complex and the calculations become more complicated. By then, students will have a greater dislike for math than at the onset because of repeated failure and lack of understanding. That is where the idea of Math Camps came from–giving students the opportunity to encounter math in friendly, fun, and practical acpplications that reinforce the basics. And yes, that’s because I was a math major and a teacher trained to teach math before I decided to focus on writing and literature. Math rant over.

The Genuineness of Alice Munro’s Stories

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My fall literature class for Seniors College is three weeks in and we have five short weeks to go. So far, we have read and analyzed three of Alice Munro’s short stories. When we began, half the class knew of Alice Munro, the other half barely knew her, had only heard of hear, or did not know her at all. Of the half that knew her, they had read a bit of her but could not remember much of what they had read or had not read enough to form an opinion of her. Many times, we read literary works—in this case, short stories—and either like them or don’t like them. Unless we look more deeply into those works, we are unable to create an honest, informed opinion about them. At most, we might say we liked the works because they were interesting or entertaining, or we didn’t like the works because of the exact opposite—we thought them boring or uninteresting. The point with classics and works by acknowledged literary giants is that there is more to them than just mere entertainment or surface interest. That would apply to nearly every book in national and international bestseller lists. When does a literary work climb from being a bestseller to a classic, besides being a bestseller year after year, decade after decade, century after century? What is it that prize committees look for in works that earn their authors accolades and the status of laureate? Probably the most important quality a great literary work has is genuineness. Not impeccable grammar or perfect form. Not even masterful sentences or brilliant plots. This is where I bring around Alice Munro’s writing. The one thing that stands out in all her works is genuineness. Her stories are populated by genuine people, characters we can easily and quickly identify with, dealing with situations and problems we have all encountered or dealt with at one time or another. Her characters live real lives in a familiar world and, like many of us do, live mundane lives of quiet desperation or struggle through daily routines and encounters as heroically as they can. She makes readers see there can be pleasure and happiness in the littlest things, despite the hardships we face on a daily basis. She opens our eyes to the ideas, practices, and beliefs that define our behavior and affect our relationships. She reminds us that sometimes, we cannot change who we are, especially when we aren’t aware of why we think, act, or feel the way we do about what happens to us, what we do, or who we interact with. She points a spotlight on relationships in every imaginable form and makes us think about our relationships, how we live our lives, what we do, what motivates us—because it is exactly what motivates her characters and makes them think, feel, and do what they do.

Explain Less, Write More

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When you write, the temptation is to explain everything because you want to make sure your reader understands your story. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned, especially if it has any connection at all to the story you want to tell.

You try to explain your characters’ backgrounds because you know that provides your characters’ motivation, why they behave in certain ways or say things the way they do or even just say whatever it is you make them say. As you do that, you talk about their upbringing, their family and friends, their family history. You try to develop a whole character report, including what could pass for a decent psychological evaluation. You include birth dates, places, schools, past jobs—a complete dossier on each character.

You try to explain the setting because you believe the readers need to see your characters’ environment, the environment of the story, where it is happening and where it all began. You present no less than an historical treatment of the village, town, city, or country your characters move around in. You describe every room, house, street, and building in detail because you don’t want your reader to miss anything.

All that work and you still haven’t started telling your story! All that preparation and the first thing your editor does is chop it all out. All those painstaking details and it gets thrown away. Really, I have seen psychological evaluations that run as long as forty pages. And all for just a single person. And that doesn’t even include a comprehensive background or family history. You argue and agonize and complain and try to sneak the material back in, maybe even dump your editor and find a new one because you think your writing was brilliant and detailed.

It doesn’t matter how meticulous or brilliant any writing is that went into background because that is all it is—background. Any time you try to explain things to prepare the reader for what will happen merely takes away from how much time and space you have to show the reader what is happening—the true action of the story. How do you avoid this common pitfall?

When I teach fiction writing, I encourage students to imagine they are in their character’s shoes—whichever character’s point of view it is—and provide descriptions for anything as the character encounters it. For instance, don’t describe a house until your character sees it, from approach to entry. That way, your reader sees the house from the character’s perspective. Refrain from describing anything inside the house until the character has opened the door and looked in. Don’t describe the upstairs rooms if the character is moving around in the kitchen—unless your character is thinking of the upstairs rooms. If your character never sees the basement, there’s no need to describe it. Unless you have another character who’s thinking of the basement or is in the basement. It’s the same thing with characters encountering other characters. If the character knows nothing about another character and you’re setting them up to meet, don’t describe the second character until your first character sees him or her. That way, your reader also sees others through your character’s eyes. That way, you can introduce action and dialogue from the very start of your story instead of providing details that the reader is likely to forget as the story progresses.

It’s somewhat different with novels, of course, but it also depends on the type of novel you are writing. If you can carry on a brilliant dissertation on the creation and evolution of an island over a thousand years before it becomes populated with people the way Michener did, then, by all means, go right ahead. Otherwise, cut it short. After all, not everyone is a huge fan of Michener.

Why Do I Write?

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I did it! Yes, I wrote a novel in 3 days. Okay, it’s a short novel. But that was expected. The average submission in past editions of the contest expected novels was 100 pages, so I made it with 117 pages. Sure, there were only barely 31,000 words in my novel, but it was chock full of dialogue, which takes up a lot of white space. The point is, I completed the story. Whew.

Did I doubt I could do it? Absolutely! I did not think I would be able to sustain writing for three straight days to reach the 100-page mark. In fact, I managed 4-5 pages an hour and finished the novel 50 hours after the contest began, after I started writing. That even gave me the third day to review, make some revisions, and proofread as much as I could. And I even got some sleep in, meals, and showers!

The best thing that little experience did for me is to give me a little more belief and confidence in myself–something I’ve never been sure of all my life. Now, I know I can sit for three days straight and write away. Well, I actually know I can because I’ve done it before, just never for a contest. So now, I have that confirmation. I know I still have it in me because that passion for writing just pops up every now and then. I know I have it in me because the stories keep on running and growing and expanding in my head. As long as I don’t write them, they continue to plague me and haunt me like ghosts in the ether and skeletons in my closet. That is why I write.

To Be A Writer, Know Yourself

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Writing is a continuous journey that never ends and writers learn constantly from their writing. No one writer can claim to be such if they think they already know everything about writing, everything about what and how to write. If you know anyone who claims that, that person is a total sham.

In reality, writers need to dig deep inside themselves to write. They need to find out how long they can sit at a desk or wherever they like to write. If they can’t sit for an hour at a time and devote that single hour to pure writing, they won’t be able to sit for days on end, writing the stories that haunt their dreams in their sleep or their thoughts when they are awake. They need to know what motivates them to write. If they don’t know why they want to write—nay, if they don’t know what they need to write, they won’t be motivated to finish anything. They need to understand what makes them want to live, because that could be the reason their characters want to live. They need to know what makes others live, because that will be what motivates other characters. They need to know what moves them to act, to do things, to behave in certain and specific ways, because that knowledge is what will move their characters as well.

Imagine how boring and limited a writer’s works would be if they only knew one person. All their characters would think, feel, act, and react like that person. Imagine how egotistic that character would be if the writer thought he or she knew everything. Every story you write is based on something you learn about yourself, about people. Your story started long before you were born and will, most likely, continue long after you die. Your job, as a writer, is to understand the minutest details of your story, how it evolved and unfolded throughout the generations that resulted in everything your are, which means you need to understand everything and everyone involved in your story. Your writing will continue at least (hopefully) until you shed your corporeal being, thus you need to keep up with your life, with everything that evolves and unfolds inside and around you until the words no longer flow from you, because that will keep your stories going.

Every story you write is based on something you learn about yourself, about people. Your story started long before you were born and will, most likely, continue long after you die. Your job, as a writer, is to understand the minutest details of your story, how it evolved and unfolded throughout the generations that resulted in everything your are, which means you need to understand everything and everyone involved in your story. Your writing will continue at least (hopefully) until you shed your corporeal being, thus you need to keep up with your life, with everything that evolves and unfolds inside and around you until the words no longer flow from you, because that will keep your stories going.

Writing a Novel in 3 Days Takes a Village

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Whew! That is all I can say. As many of you know and have followed on Facebook, I signed up for the 3-day novel writing contest that ran from September 2 at 12:01 a.m. and ends September 4 at 11:59 p.m. The average submission expected is about 100 pages of double-spaced manuscript in a standard font of 11 or 12 points.

Why would I do something like that?

My first and strongest motivation was to prove to myself that I could do it. My second motivation was to jump start a new novel, get myself pumped up and inspired to write, especially since I have just completed the sequel to my second novel.

I did not write the third book to my series. Instead, I came up with about a dozen ideas I’d been toying with over the years. I narrowed that down to about half a dozen ideas, and then was playing with a single idea that I really liked. By the time midnight of September 2 arrived, I started writing that idea, but after a page of writing, I figured I needed something with a clearer progression of events.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a script that I intended to develop into a screenplay for a tv show. It was based on a story that had been playing in my mind, developing for several years. I took that script to a workshop and developed a bible for it, with two- or three-line descrioptions for twelve episodes. I had mentioned to a friend that I might just turn it into a novel, or a series of short novels and worry about the screenplays later. I never got to start that.

I pulled out my notes for the script bible and, using that as an outline, wrote the novel for the 3-day contest. I never touched the script and developed the novel completely from the characters and story that had been living in my head for the last 5 years or so.

Thank goodness for typing fast. I churned out an average of 4 pages per hour, so that in 50 hours since I started, I had my novel. My story developed mostly the way I had intended, but by characters did surprise me a little and a development I had not planned for crawled into my story. I don’t feel bad about that, because I quite like the way it turned out.

How did I survive? On coffee, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, apples, watermelon, peanut butter, chips, and pop. For the first time in a long time, I did not turn on the TV and leave it playing in the background as I usually do. I did not even read my bedtime book. I did not check my email.

I did, however, post my intent and my progress on Facebook. The best part about doing that was that so many friends kept me going, cheered me on, urged me on, and supported me throughout this whole weekend. I did start at 12:04 because I wanted to make sure I was well into September 2 when I started. That meant I had not slept since I woke up around noon on the 1st. I kept writing until almost 6:30 in the morning of the 2nd because I wanted to get a headstart and I wanted to see what my pace would be for the weekend. I took my first nap until 10 in the morning, then went promptly back to writing for another 6 hours or so. At that rate, I hit the 70-page mark after my first 24 hours and had about 2 more chapter to go to finish the story. Hurray! I didn’t think I could do it–actually thought I’d be writing all the way to the last minute. The good thing about that was I could catch up a bit on sleep Sunday morning and didn’t get up till 10, so I got a full 8 hours! Then I wrote straight till 6–8 hours of writing! and completed those last two chapters, which turned out to be 3 chapters because of that little twist my characters threw in. That gave me a lot of time to start proofing a bit and beefing up my descriptions, checking for a bit of consistency, all those little things. I got to sleep by 1 a.m. Sunday night or thereabouts, didn’t get up till around 10:30 in the morning of Monday, and worked straight until I finished my first pass around 5:30.

Of course, when I say I wrote straight, that included bathroom breaks and drink breaks, and a snack break here and there, mostly 5-minute breaks after a couple of hours or so. Everytime I reached a logical stop, I’d post an update on Facebook.

I have to admit I wouldn’t have survived as well without my Facebook friends watching and cheering me on–they are my village and they kept me going. Naturally, it helps to be a manic writer. I am so pumped up now, I’m ready to jump into my next novel writing project!

I am celebrating with pizza!