Students Then and Now

One of the things people say often when they find out I teach High School English is that they can’t imagine teaching “kids today.”

To some extent, that’s generational–in many ways, students today are very similar to the students of the past.  There were always disruptive clowns in class, and there were always arrogant students who thought they were smarter than the teacher, and there were always kiss-ass students and students who wouldn’t pay attention to the teacher if you paid them to.  But there are some differences between students of the 80s, when I was in school, and students today, and they can make the classroom fairly challenging to control.

To be fair, I also went to a nationally-recognized good school in an area that, at the time, was solidly middle class (we had poor students, and we had rich students, but most of us were in the middle to upper-middle of the socioeconomic strata), so my perceptions of then and now may be a bit off–but I’ve spoken to many other teachers who grew up in different circumstances about this over the last few years, and most of us are seeing the same things, regardless of where we came from.

When I was in school, we knew and accepted that it was our responsibility to bring paper, pencils, and our backpack with books.  Sure, sometimes we were out of paper, or we forgot a book, but for the most part, at least in the classes I was in, we all had our supplies.

By contrast, today’s students often come without anything other than the clothes on their back, regardless of their socioeconomic status.  When they do have backpacks, they’ll refuse to put them on the “dirty” floor, but insist on keeping them on their desk.  Girls, I’ve noticed, often won’t put their purses down, but keep them on their desk, using up valuable space and then complaining they don’t have enough room for everything on their desk.

When I was in school, cell phones were virtually unknown, and mostly limited to car-phones.  My aunt had an early mobile phone in her car, and later one of the brick-shaped handhelds, but no students had one.  Some had pagers, but those weren’t generally allowed in school.

Today’s students are always on their phones.  The official school rule is that all electronics need to be shut off and put away, but kids will pull them out the second they have a spare moment, no matter how many times you’ve taken their phone from them.  If they get a text, they want to answer it NOW, and they use the phrase “It’s my mom” as if it’s some kind of magical passphrase that allows them to ignore rules.  I’ve caught kids playing games during activity times, sexting, taking pictures, and even watching movies–including porn.  And even though they were suspended, they do the same things when they return to class.

Very few of my peers read as much as I did, but many of them read, both for class and outside of it. If they didn’t read the assigned pages, they at least pretended to be ashamed that they’d blown the assignment.  Today’s students don’t read at all, and more worrying, they’re proud of that.  Where my friends might have said “This book is boring,” today’s students declare that all books are boring.  To be sure, I have a few bookworms in my classes, but very few compared to the classes I remembered in my own high school days. Getting them to read even the shortest of stories is a pain; novels are often excruciating, even if they claim to like the story.

This lack of reading shows itself in numerous ways.  Because they don’t read, their grasp of grammar is atrocious.  Many of my students are writing several grade levels below what they should be capable of based on their general intelligence.

Then there’s the laziness.  For example, this picture is 100% accurate, and I fight it all the time:


I mean, can you imagine?  I try to explain to them that studies have proven that we remember what we write down far better than things we’ve only looked at, but I might as well be telling them that my father was born in 1949.  They just don’t care.

And, finally, the most insidious change–and this one isn’t the fault of the students.

This one’s on their parents.

When I didn’t do my homework, or got in trouble in class, my teachers called my parents, and I caught merry hell.  Sure, it didn’t always work–teens are teens, after all–but my parents tried. 

Today’s parents–well, there’s a mixed bag.  About half of them are on their kids all the time–the other half either say they’ll deal with it and don’t, or they outright don’t bother.  I once had to call a mom to explain to her that her son had been clearly high in my class (don’t get me started on why I had to call; that should have been an admin job. Suffice to say the admin wasn’t doing their job).  Her response was “What do you want me to do about it?”  Other parents have told me their kids are my problem when they’re in school; one parent told me to never call him again and that if I couBad-Parentingldn’t handle his kid, I shouldn’t be a teacher.

Fortunately, that sort of thing is rare–but many teachers have the experience of parents blaming them for their kids’ terrible grades.  One of my colleagues just this week was accosted by a parent who came on campus without signing in to yell at her.  Parent drop their kids off in areas where there are huge signs asking them not to.  They bring their kids pizza or McDonald’s for lunch nearly daily.  They get them out of class because the kid texts them that they’re bored and want out.

In all fairness, however, I have to say that it’s not always the parents’ fault.  I’ve talked to parents who are at their wits’ end, desperately trying to help a child who doesn’t want their help.  I’ve had a student who was the son of a school district superintendent who wanted desperately to be a gang member, no matter how many times he got his ass kicked.  I’ve listened to a mother talk about how many times her son had been in jail and heard the quiet fear in her voice that he wasn’t going to live to adulthood if he didn’t get a clue.  I’ve sat there in impotent rage when a kid called his mother a “stupid bitch” to her face, and seen the tears in her eyes.*   I once called a father to talk to him about his daughter telling me to “fuck off,” and he laughed, then got very quiet and said “I’m sorry.  It’s just that that’s mild compared to what she says to her mom and I every day.  We’re trying, but we can’t get through to her.”

And that’s the last thing–respect seems to be a thing of the past in many of my students.

All in all, it’s an interesting job–sometimes it’s amazing and cool, sometimes it’s death.

* We did call him on that, but there was little we could do other than tell him that was unacceptable.

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Bum dum DA DA dum BUM– MYYYYY Neuroses!

Neurosis the first: 

Lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps I am not analytical enough of fiction.  I am more concerned with the question “Is this a good story?” than I am any other.

And I wonder if that might be hurting me.

It’s not that I think I’m a terrible writer, or anything.  I can write, and I can write well. Unless my friends are lying to me, which is possible I suppose, at times my stuff has made people shiver. But I wonder if my focus on telling a good story instead of “resonance” or other of the literary overthinking that sent me screaming from grad school is taking something away from my work, making the stories less salable.  Which is stupid, and yet…

Neurosis the second: 

Seven publishing professionals, including three writers, three editors, and an agent, all of whom range from “fairly” to “very” successful in today’s field, have said good things about my work.  One called my stuff “publishable, strong prose” which sounds like faint praise, but it meant a lot.  One said that although she was passing on the project, “your writing is good.”

My beta readers, although they had suggestions for changes and some complaints, universally praised the book.  One, who has never met me and doesn’t know me from the second guy to the right, said “If I had paid for this book, I’d consider it money well spent.”  These are all people who I know can write.

And yet…

I feel like I’m flailing in the dark.  I try to remain sanguine about the whole publishing dice-shoot.  But the truth is, every rejection sucks.  It’s like getting hit by a thousand tiny cuts–no one of them hurts, but all together, they form a droning sound that says “YOU ARE WASTING YOUR TIME.”

To shut that voice up, I started working on a new project, but now that I laid down the first few hundred words, I’m going to finish some crit-work.

Neurosis the third:

I almost constantly worry that I’ve only got one or two good ideas in me, and then I’ll be stuck as “That Guy who wrote two books and then fizzled out.”  I do not want to be that guy.

So there it is.  The neuroses that make me the neurotic writer I am.  What are yours?

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Just checking in

If you didn’t hear it through other channels, the agent who requested pages passed on the project.

I spent about twelve hours crushed, because the agent in question was Sara Megibow, who is awesome in many ways, and I was really hoping she’d share my enthusiasm for the book and want to work with me.  Ah well.

In any case, I’m moving on. Instead of working on Book 2 without a contract, I’m working on a new story, in another universe.  Still space opera, but a different playground and focus.

The Widening Gyre is still being sent out to agents, and it’s still at Angry Robot (where it will no doubt also be rejected, and I knew that going in but hey, nothing ventured and all that), but that universe isn’t going to be my focus for a while.


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Sad News re: David G. Hartwell

Very saddened to hear this morning that David G. Hartwell, one of the preeminent editors in Science Fiction and Fantasy, has suffered a brain bleed and is not expected to survive.

I am not fortunate enough to be one of David’s friends, but I was lucky enough to meet him at the 2014 Nebulas and I got to talk to him for a bit. He was kind. He was encouraging. He was a fount of knowledge, both in the SFF field and outside it.

As Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden said on Making Light: David was the most consequential editor in SFF since John W. Campbell.

In a very real way, David shaped my own love of the field, as editor of the annual Year’s Best Science Fiction starting in 1996, and numerous anthologies, magazines, and novels before that.

His loss is keenly felt in the SFF community.  My heart goes out to his family and friends.

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Even Good News Can Make Me Itch

So this morning I saw I had an email back from one of the agents to whom I still have active queries out (no names; it seems unethical to say who they are here).  I had a mixed reaction to seeing the email there; all I could see of the message was the same generic way most rejection emails begin, and my heart sank a bit.  This agent is, for reasons I won’t detail here, high on my list.

“Well, let’s get it over with, anyway,” I said, and clicked the link.  “Thanks for sending, yeah, ok, I really enjoyed, ok, wait, what?”

It’s not a rejection.  It’s a request for a synopsis and several chapters, what the publishing industry calls a “Partial.”  So I’ll send that out later today, when I’ve had a chance to compile it and make sure my synopsis isn’t terrible.  That’s the part that makes me itch, because so much relies on my getting it right–or at least mostly right.

What happens after that?  Well, first I wait 4 to 6 weeks.  Then there’s most likely two options:

  1. She still likes it, so she asks for the rest of the book, what they call a “Full.” Then I wait a few months while she reads it and decides if she can work with me or not.
  2. She doesn’t like the rest of it, and sends me a rejection; if I’m lucky, it will tell me some part of why it wasn’t for her, and I’ll look at how I can change it.

There are other, less likely options, but those are the ones most likely to occur.  I’m hoping for option 1, but if that doesn’t happen, there are lots more agents out there.  One of them is for me.

Finding an agent is a lot like dating, only without the messier bits.

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The Book, and What’s Important About It

Who knew selling a book would be so hard?

Well, I did, actually.  But this is nothing compared to the writing.

Anyway, the book is still going around to agents.  There was a request for more pages, but the agent passed–said she was a “very, very tough sell on aliens, although your writing is good.”   I’ll take that compliment; thank you!

The thing is, it’s very easy to start thinking that the book is crap because nobody has said “OH MY GOD I WANT TO REP THIS!”  But that’s bullshit. People I trust, who have no reason to lie to me (and who were very honest with me in the beta stage about the flaws it had, and helped me fix them), like the book.  In fact, my favorite comment from two of the beta readers was “If I’d bought this in a bookstore and read it, I’d consider my money well spent.” It’s not perfect–no book ever is, especially before an editor takes it in hand–but it’s good.  It’s a story worth telling, and worth reading.

It’ll sell, or it won’t.  But that isn’t the important thing.  The important thing is that I have a voice, and that I need to use it.  Because, while I need to write, I’m not really writing for me.  I’m writing for that teenager who thinks the future won’t have people like him in it, because they’re not in the mainstream books being sold.  I’m writing for the girl whose parents tell her she’s a loser because she loves SFF.  I’m writing for the man who is sick of every story with a gay protagonist being erotica or romance.

So the important thing is to keep writing, and keep querying.


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Old Books: Not Really an Investment

Note: While this will crosspost to Facebook, I won’t be seeing any of the comments there for a few days, as I’ve left social media to avoid spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  If it matters to you that I see it before Saturday, best to comment on the blog.

Old books are weird. People often think they’re valuable, but the truth is, most books still in existence today were printed in enough numbers that they’re really not worth that much.  Of course, the older it is, the more likely it’s going to be rare, which increases the value, but unless we’re talking “Gutenberg Bible” or “Shakespeare’s Folio,” it’s probably not going to be worth much even then. Age alone is no indicator of value; much depends on the rarity and condition of the volume.

One of the silliest parts of old book buying is the differences between one version and another.

One of the old books I own, The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, was printed in 1921. It’s worth about $8. The 1919 edition, on the other hand, is worth $1400, partly because only 1000 of them were printed.

Another book I own, printed in 1819, is “Prayers and Offices of Devotion for Families, and for Particular Persons,” by Benjamin Jenks, Rector of Harley, in Shropshire, England. This 196 year-old book is worth a grand total of $25. Other copies, from just a few years prior, are worth over $100.

Fortunately, I don’t buy old books for their value (I couldn’t afford to, if I did).  I just like holding a nearly 200 year old book and thinking about all the hands that have touched it over the years.  It’s a connection to generations of human lives I will never touch in any other way.

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