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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Holidays. I'm visiting family in Pennsylvania right now, and I'm taking a week off from the old blog. See you in 2013!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Now that I’m on winter break, I’ve been finalizing my application for the PhD program in Creative Writing at Ohio University. I feel good about my application. I got my official GRE results the other day, and in spite of my worries about the Analytical Writing section, I got a 5.5. I’m in the 97th percentile for verbal and the 96th for writing. My quantitative remains very low (although I did do better this time than last time), but that shouldn’t matter. I’ve got a published book under my belt, a writing sample that I feel is pretty strong, great letters of recommendation—I think I stand a decent chance.

But. You just never know, do you? Especially considering I’m only applying to one school.

I know what you’re thinking. Did she just type what I think she typed? ONE SCHOOL? Is she CRAZY? The answers are yes, yes, and I don’t think so, respectively.

Here’s the thing: I want to go to Ohio University. I already live in Athens, for one thing. My husband has a good job working as the managing editor of one of their journals, a job he loves and doesn’t want to quit. I’m a huge fan of Joan Connor, one of the fiction faculty members. I want to study under Joan. And I want to study with my friends Jolynn and Kelly. Yes, Ohio University is where I want to go.

But yes, I know, you’re supposed to cast a wide net. You’re not supposed to get too hung up on one specific program. PhD programs are crazy competitive. It’s crazy, and crazy cocky, to assume you’ll get in to your top choice.

Well I’m not assuming I’ll get in. But at this point, I’ve decided I can’t risk spending a ton of money to apply to a ton of different schools, when the truth is we might just be better off sticking around here for a while. If I don’t get in to OU, then maybe I’ll apply to more schools next year, but leaving Athens means giving up Damien’s job benefits. With a small child to take care of, it’s hard to give up insurance in the hopes of finding something better down the road. It’s not like a PhD will guarantee me a full-time job. I might get a PhD and still be stuck adjuncting, like I’m doing now.  

Still. I want a PhD. And not even just the degree itself—although I must admit, I do like the idea of being Doctor Cowger. I want to be back in school. I miss being a grad student. I love taking classes. I love workshop. And putting this application together has just made me realize how badly I do want this. So this year, I’m only applying to OU. I’m really hoping that I’ll get in and won’t have to start thinking about a Plan B, but if, come spring, I receive that painful little rejection letter in my mailbox, Damien and I will sit down and talk about the future, and if we decide it’s the right thing for our family, I’ll apply to other schools next year.

But here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that. Here’s hoping I get in to OU.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Last Wednesday I was tagged for "The Next Big Thing" by Jenni Moody. Here are my answers:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

I think of it as “The Little Dancing Girl,” but I’m positive the title will change as I continue writing and revising.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Two things sparked the idea:

When I was pregnant, someone asked me what was the most important thing I would want my child to understand about the world. I decided I wanted my daughter to know that there is no God, but that that isn’t a bad thing, that in fact, the real world—the world as we understand it based on science, not faith—is far more complex, interesting, and even magical than the over-simplified belief that someone created the world and we’re all beholden to that creator.

Also while I was pregnant, I was having trouble writing. I was incredibly distracted with thoughts of motherhood and planning for my daughter’s arrival. A few people suggested that I keep a sort of pregnancy log, possibly with the intention of showing it to my daughter down the road. I started writing her letters, which started to become a sort of memoir of the important things about me and the important incidents from my life that I wanted my daughter to know.

I wrote over a hundred pages of letters, and I started trying to shape the letters into a cohesive story about how I came to turn my back on religion (having grown up the daughter of a preacher), and how I found that my life seems to actually have more meaning this way. The problem was, as a fiction writer, I kept wanting to embellish the stories, or in some cases, make up entirely new, more interesting stories. Now that my daughter is one and the letters have been sitting, untouched on my computer, for some time, it recently hit me that this mish-mash of letters could be the impetus for a novel, in which I can explore those same basic themes, but do it in my own way, shaping the story how I want to shape it.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

I’m not really sure yet, but probably YA. The main character will be a young adult throughout the majority of the story.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmmm. If I could choose actors at any stage in their careers, I would cast Claire Danes from her My So-Called-Life days as the main character. I think I’d like to see Kevin Kline as the father and maybe Frances McDormand as the mother.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

This is a difficult question to answer at this stage of the writing process, but here’s a try:

A mother turns her life story into a fairy tale for her daughter: the tale of the little dancing girl, who grew up in a valley obscured by the shadow of a vast mountain on which everybody believed lived a fearsome king.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

If the book comes together in a way that I’m satisfied with, I’ll do an agent hunt. If I can’t secure an agent, I’ll look at small presses.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s still in progress. The plan is to have a complete draft finished by this summer.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t really know. I think it’s too early to say because I don’t really know, yet, where the story will go.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by my daughter and my desire to ease her way in life. I wanted to share with her the struggles I had growing up, never really feeling like I belonged and always searching for some meaning to my existence. On top of that, I’m a staunch atheist and feel very frustrated by the pervasiveness of Christianity in my culture. I wanted to give my daughter a clear idea of what atheism is and why her dad and I are atheists, as well as describe to her the sorts of struggles I remember dealing with from my own childhood in the hopes that the story might ease her struggles a bit.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The story is told in the style of a fairy tale, but all the magic in the story is not real—it’s just things the townspeople believe but that the main character eventually discovers to be false. In style, it’s very similar to a story from my collection, “This Is Not a Fairy Tale,” in which a very mundane, non-magical story is told through the lens of a fairy tale. In my novel, it’s very clear that the narrator is fairy-tale-izing her own life to turn it into a bedtime story for her daughter, but you don’t know exactly what parts of the story are real and what is embellishment.

Next Wednesday, visit the following writer’s blog. I’ve passed the Next Big Thing buck to Jayme Russell.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just a short post today. I'm in the midst of digging my way out from under an avalanche of final papers--and grades are due TODAY at my college. But this week I'm going to break my regular posting once a week on Sundays schedule to post on Wednesday, instead. I've been tagged in a blog project called "The Next Big Thing," which asks writers to answer questions about their next book project. I was tagged by Jenni Moody, my novel-goal buddy.

Check out Jenni's answers to the questions on her blog. I'll be answering the questions on my blog this Wedensday.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This past week I took the GRE for the second time in my life, and I did surprisingly well on the verbal portion of the test. The first time I took the test, I didn’t prepare at all, and I was embarrassed by my verbal score of 500. This time, I decided to prepare, and it was definitely worth it. The new scoring system is different from the old—now the quantitative and verbal sections each score out of 170 instead of 800—but I think my old score would have been about a 146 on the new scale. My new score, I’m proud to share, is 167—I only lost 3 points total! I don’t know yet what percentile that puts me in, but I’m sure I’ll be happy with the final report.

I thought it might be useful to share how I prepared for the test this time around, in case anyone might be planning to take or retake the GRE too. I did four things to study:

1.      For the past several months, I’ve been studying with vocabulary flashcards. The words came from words that I came cross while reading. Any time I found a word that I didn’t know, I would write it down, look it up, and create a flashcard for it. I reviewed my flashcards whenever I had spare time. I even brought them with me to class and quizzed myself with them while my students did free-writes.

Interestingly enough, many of the the words I added to my flashcards do appear on GRE vocab lists. The words you come across in the real world are the same words the GRE tests you over, so that’s nice to know.

2.      About a month before my exam, I downloaded a GRE vocab app. I wish I would have thought of this sooner. It didn’t occur to me to look for an app until my mom mentioned to me that that was how a friend of hers studied for her GRE. I looked into it, and there were an overwhelming number of GRE verbal prep apps, many of them free. I did some research online and decided to go with Barron’s Essential GRE Words, which cost me about $5.

What I liked about this app is that it gives you the 800 most commonly used GRE words. Many of the free apps either give you way less or way more—800 seemed to me like a nice large number that was not SO large it would feel overwhelming in the amount of time I had to study. Even better than that, though, the app divides the words into the “300 Absolutely Essential Words” and the rest. The top 300 words are the words that by far show up the most often on the exam. You can study with those words first. When you’ve mastered them, you can then switch to studying all 800 words. The 300 most common will still show up, then, so you can review them as you study the other 500 words.

Also, this app lets you create two piles of flashcards: “Know It” and “Study It.” If you don’t feel you need to review a particular word, you just add it to your “Know It” pile, and that word won’t come up anymore. I used the “Know It” pile pretty sparingly, though, because I didn’t see the harm in reviewing a word even after I was pretty sure I had it down.

The downside of this app is that the sample quizzes were useless. They haven’t been updated for the type of question that appears on the new GRE. If you go with this app, don’t waste your time with the quizzes. For $5, too, I would say that’s a pretty serious flaw in the app. I know $5 isn’t much, but it’s pretty expensive for an app. I’m sure there are cheaper or even free options that give you the same words without the worthless practice quizzes.

Either way, this app helped me quite a lot. I put it on my iPod and my phone both, so I always had it with me wherever I was. When I would be waiting in line or whatever I would study the app, and in the month I had it, I got through the “300 Absolutely Essential Words” pretty handily. If I had started sooner, I could have moved on to the other 500. If you have a device on which you can put apps, I definitely recommend downloading a GRE prep app as you prepare.

3.      About a month, give or take a week or so, before the exam, I started reviewing with a hand-me-down prep book: Kaplan’s GRE Verbal Workbook (from 2011). The book was only a year old, so it had been updated for the current version of the test. This book was incredibly useful. It walked me through exactly what type of questions to expect and gave me advice on how to approach the questions.

It also had several practice tests. The week or so leading up to the big day, I took a practice test a day. I think the practice tests really helped put me in the right mindset for the exam. Also, the practice tests come with detailed explanations of each answer, so after you score your results, you can review the answers you got wrong and learn about why the right answer is the right answer. This was arguably the most useful tool in all of my GRE preparation.

4.      The final step I took to prepare for the verbal part of the GRE was downloading the free Power Prep II software from the GRE website. I didn’t do this until the day before I took the test, and while that might seem strange, I think that timeline worked just fine. I used the software to take a timed sample test (I only took the verbal parts). The main thing this software helped me with was it gave me an idea of what the actual screens and computer functions would be like on the actual exam. I learned how to mark a question to review at the end, where the buttons would be on the screen, etc. While the system is fairly intuitive and you can certainly figure it out the day of the exam, having practiced with it ahead of time took away any anxiety I might have felt over the logistics of the test itself.

Also, the sample test gave me a score, which I found useful. I got a 163. I had (pretty arbitrarily) decided I wanted to get at least a 160, so getting a 163 on the sample test made me feel really confident on test day. Who knows? Maybe that extra bit of confidence is what pushed my actual score up to 167, since I wasn’t distracted by test anxiety.

Things I would do different if I had it to do again: While the only thing I think I would change in my preparation for the verbal part of the exam would be to have downloaded and started studying with the Barron’s app earlier, if I had it to all over again, I would prepare for the other two parts of the exam at least a little bit.

Quantitative: I made the executive decision early on not to bother preparing for the quantitative part of the GRE. While I still stand by my claim that my math skills shouldn’t matter for an English degree, I do worry that doing so poorly on a test—any test—might give the committee reviewing applications pause. Especially if they have two applicants who are otherwise fairly close, I could see the quantitative score on the GRE being used as a sort of tie-breaker.

After taking the test, I’m positive that I could have done very well had I taken the time to review basic arithmetic and algebra rules. The GRE tests you over math skills that you DO NOT NEED OR USE in daily life, so if you’re like me, and you haven’t taken a math class since you were 17, it’s probably not a bad idea to refresh your memory on these basic rules and equations. Though these skills are utterly useless in my life, I can see that doing very poorly on a test that is intended to gauge your abilities to recognize and perform very basic, fundamental math problems might make me look like a bit of a dunce.

Analytic Writing: I falsely assumed that since I grade and tutor other people’s college level essays for a living, I wouldn’t need to spend any time preparing for this part of the test. I don’t think I needed to spend much time, but if I could do it over again, I would have done a few practice essays from practice prompts ahead of time. I hadn’t actually written an essay in over three years, so when I got started on the first of the two essay prompts on the exam, I found that I had to sort of refresh my skills. I got halfway through the time allotted to me before I realized the scope of my thesis was too complex to be tackled in thirty minutes. But 15 minutes wasn’t sufficient time to start over. As a result, my first essay was lousy. I know it was lousy. If I were grading it, I would give it a very low grade. My second essay was much better, but I know that my Analytical Writing score is going to go way down this time (I got a 5.5 the first time around).

I think it would have been useful to practice with a sample essay or two ahead of time, if for no other reason than to get a feel for the limitations of the thirty minute deadline. There’s no reason why someone like me—with a master’s degree in English, who has published scholarly essays, who teaches and tutors college English—should not be getting at least a 5.5 on my Analytical Writing score. I should have taken the hour or so to prepare. I believe it would have made all the difference.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I’ve been thinking lately about routines. I read a recent article—which, I apologize, I was unable to track down and link to—covering the writing routines of various well-known authors. While certainly different writers write in their own different ways, it was striking the number of writers who routinely write first thing in the morning every day.

Now, of course, these were mostly (if not entirely) authors who make a living off of their writing—a dying breed, unfortunately—so it was surely much easier for these writers, whose sole job is to write and write well, to find the time to write first thing in the morning for several hours (and many of them would then return to writing again later in the day). Most of us have jobs to get ready for and papers to grade, children to feed and chores to do. For most of us, it’s hard to justify writing first and foremost every single day.

But it got me thinking about my own routines and productivity. The period of time when I was unequivocally the most productive was when I was in grad school. I wrote two full length books, and several stories besides, during my tenure as an MFA student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (Only one of those books got published, but still . . .).

While I was in grad school, Damien used to have to go in to work at like 6 or 6:30 Monday through Friday. I used to get up with him to spend some time together before he had to go in. Then, when he would leave for work, I would exercise, then write. The earliest I ever had to be anywhere was 10:00, and most days, I didn’t have to be on campus until later than that. So I handily managed an hour of exercise and a couple hours of writing before it was time to start getting ready to go in myself.

The result was that I wrote a lot more than I’ve ever written in my entire life. Some days, I would write more later in the day; other days, I wouldn’t. But either way, writing at the beginning of the day like that was an excellent way to start my days. I felt content with myself for having already gotten a fair amount of work done, and I could relax and just enjoy the rest of my days. And when I did write again, it was often because writing in the morning like that got me thinking about whatever project I was working on early in the day. Those thoughts would stay with me, simmering on the back burner, throughout the day.

After grad school, things got more difficult. I’ve tried a variety of different routines. For a while, I was setting my alarm for an hour before I needed to get up so I could write for at least an hour first thing. That worked well, while I did it—half the time, Damien would still be asleep, and the other half, he knew to leave me alone to write. It was a peaceful, relaxing way to start the day, sitting on the couch with my laptap and a cup of coffee.

But at other times, I tried different routines. I’ve tried writing at the end of the day instead of the beginning. I’ve tried not regulating when I write at all, instead regulating the amount of work I do. I’ve tried forcing myself to write for X amount of time per day, or an average of X amount of time per month. I’ve tried setting goals based on specific outcomes, such as complete X scene by the end of the day or finish X chapter by the end of the week. Nothing has ever worked as well as my grad school routine—getting up at around 5, exercising at around 6, and beginning writing at around 7.

Of course, a fat lot of good it does me to know that, now that I’m a mother. With a toddler added in to the equation, establishing and sticking to a writing routine has become almost impossible (note the “almost”). Lately, I’ve been writing after she goes to bed at night and using her nap time to grade papers and do other teaching tasks. This works well in that, at the end of the day, I have time, plenty of time, wonderfully unadulterated time, since Amie is asleep and Damien grades papers at the end of the day himself. But I’m tired at the end of the day. My mind doesn’t function the way it does earlier, and I find that, though I can write late at night, I can’t write as well or as much as I can first thing in the morning.

So I’ve decided I need to rethink and rework my writing schedule, establish a new routine, one that allows me to write when the writing’s good. I can’t write first thing in the morning like I used to—Amie wakes up when I do, unfortunately, no matter how hard I try to be quiet and not disturb her—but I’m sure there’s a way to find time to write during the day, while my mind is fresh and unclouded. The trick is that I need to just establish a routine—something that will work for me and Amie and Damien combined—and then stick to it, every day, without fail. I know routines don’t work for everybody, but they sure seem to work for an awful lot of highly productive writers, and I know from my own experience that they definitely work for me.