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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Journey of a Writer of Gifted Fiction, aka, Me

This is the day every MG/YA author yearns for---the day they see their book in the hands of a kid and being read. It makes those three long years of writing, revising, writing, revising ad nauseum worthwhile. This book made quite a journey reaching this Rainard Gifted School girl's hands.

When I started out writing, I had no idea what giftedness was. I know it may be hard to believe, but I had never even heard of it. None of the private schools my daughter went through had gifted programs per se though the last school she attended, Harker,  had a number of genius level kids. I used to read her sixth grade books in first and second grade. She would patiently listen to my jumbled dyslexic reading. I always discounted the reading level on the books because they were probably geared toward public school reading levels and I never learned much in public school anyway. It was like a chore I was required to do. I was more anxious to be let out of school jail and get home to my experiments and my long term project of reading technical books 50 times trying to understand the sentences in them.

You always hear about writers realizing they liked writing in elementary school but it didn't occur to me. I always identified English as the pain subject since no matter what I wrote, I was going to lose a grade letter or two on handwriting. Plus when you read 17 pages an hour, reading assignments are a source of pain.

The private middle school I went to turned a page. I got put in something called advanced track which was basically a 1 year acceleration in math and whole lot higher expectations. School was a bit scary for the first time (because of academics, early elementary was plenty scary due to verbal/physical assault). English became interesting because of what the class read (my reading speed was up to 20-25 pages an hour). But my grammar assured me an always scary time and a disappointing grade. Two things happened that turned the tide slightly. Sentence diagramming. Painful to learn but I got pretty good at it eventually. My grammar improved some because I could picture the sentence diagram in my head. Along with this, a second thing happened. The teacher started scribbling off to the side on the report card notes like B's and C's on grammar but A's consistently on literature. Oh, as a side note, the sentence diagramming oriented my brain to understand computer languages, which sent me down the path to my initial professional career (compiler engineer, i.e., the guy who writes the program to read programming language code that people write and translate it into machine code). Speaking of technical stuff, I started acing science so English became kind of a secondary thing, so secondary that I was startled when some of my writing was put in the school magazine. I figured they needed some filler material though a few kids mumbled that what I wrote was a bit weird (note to kids wanting to impress their English teachers, the weirder you write, the better they will like it). 

My first year in high school I tried honors English. It was a pretty interesting class and we read some stuff that was worth the agony. I liked the Robert Louis Stevenson stuff but especially the Poe unit. I swam in the Poe pond extensively. Of course, I was really feeling the pain on grammar (every extra comma lost you a half a letter grade). So I let that teen anger/anxiety out in a piece I wrote for class. I wanted to write something so utterly dark that it would take the teacher's breath away. It was a kind of "revenge" for the grammar torture. I wanted to take the teacher somewhere she had never been before. I did. She 911'd the counselor. Later, the counselor and I had a good laugh about what I had done to the teacher and she typed up my writing for publication. Uh, well, meanwhile while I was distracted, the teacher was busy publishing my writing the old fashioned way---reading it to all the class sections. Permanent embarrassment ensued. My teacher spent a whole week angry about my rejection letter. It would have been easier if it had been a form letter but they wrote her a letter and told her what I had written was too dark to appear in the nationwide high school literature publication she submitted it too. I am afraid class with her was not pleasant for anyone that week. 

I didn't stay in the English honors track, just the science and math one. I was seduced by what you could take if you weren't in English honors track, which was film, radio broadcasting, and science fiction literature. It was fun writing fake radio news reports and the film script which I got to shoot. Science fiction class, though, was really interesting---honors English would not have let me read the classics of sci fi. 

When I went to college I chose the degree plan with the minimum amount of reading and English. It was an engineering/physics degree and I learned what misery was. Not knowing about giftedness, I certainly didn't know about what is embarrassingly mumbled about in the gifted community: "The Wall". I hit the wall. Gushing flames everywhere. I learned some colorful language from some highly trained professors, who couldn't understand why I could bomb the easy problems and ace the hard problems (how many different ways can you say lazy scum-bag---I found out). They couldn't know about Visual-Spatial learners (I sure didn't) and besides, college is really not about education, but exploitation. 

I did have to take one semester of freshman English---the writing semester. That requirement was in there so that the unwashed engineers could coherently communicate. I can't remember for sure how many people were in there, may 30 or 40. It annoyed the teacher that I was a senior in her freshman class and I annoyed her further whispering to adjacent students the real rules of school instead of the buffaloing bull she was telling them. So the first paper gets returned. But this is not your normal return of papers in a college classroom. The teacher, with stack of papers in hand, walks straight toward me through the rows of desks. Alert, alert, public humiliation shield deployed, stoic senior face deployed, battle stations.... 

She plops the paper down on my desk and looks at me. The paper had a B+ on it. Well at least I didn't flunk. Here comes the speech about being a senior and I should have done better---I can feel it coming. She inhales a huge breath of air, getting ready to deliver a Shakespearean oration: "Mr. Biesele, do you want to explain to me why you took my class pass-fail? (Error lights are erupting on me) You made the second highest grade in the class. And you took my class pass-fail? Why?" (Well B+ being the second highest grade in the class might be a good reason but I didn't say that). I mostly mumbled incoherently. What I couldn't tell her was that my undergraduate grades were tenuous at best and that I couldn't take the chance that marking some stupid grammar mistake on my part would prevent me from graduating. Still, it did plant a small bug in my mind about writing. My undergraduate career was somewhat "colorful"---due to bureaucratic delays, sometimes my honor's list notice and probation notice would arrive on the same day. Eventually I was rescued into computer science by a math genius heading it up. I left for industry with a masters in hand.

One of the interesting notions I came to know as I worked in industry was the design paper. This is different from a spec where some brief technical stuff is scrawled onto a piece of paper. With the design paper, you read up on advanced technology which people might have a little bit of trouble understanding (or sometimes create some) and then you write a paper explaining the technology and how this wonderful technology if implemented will propel the company to the stars (actually more like save them money and/or aggravation). Something began to happen that I didn't realize: I was virtually writing a rather dry science fiction novel, and then implementing it in real life. In my last corporate job at the top technical rung of Apple, I finished my corporate life by writing a paper on some new thing (down in the bowels of the programming tools, not a snazzy product) that should be implemented. That paper went places. Some pretty powerful programmers came and began working on the project. I felt totally inferior. What would take me a week would take them a couple of days to do. Those people are revered in Apple so it didn't help my ego at all. Still, another bug was planted: the power of the pen. That 6 pages of writing had reoriented a number of people's work. Still, after some personal tragedy and then this---I felt this wasn't the way to make a difference in the world. I quit.

I went out on my own and tried inventing a new kind of robotics language and a robotics platform as a science toy for kids. I wanted to expose kids to something very different to take away the rote boredom much of science education has. I took advantage of the sci-fi writing skill a bit. I was trying to visualize what a control system for an alien robot would look like. My aliens would have three fingers and their math would be based on base 3 instead of base 10. I tried to imagine a way of thinking so different that a kid trying to learn the robot would have to learn that different way of thinking in order to be able to operate it. The thinking was based on layers of thought: an instinctual layer, an abstraction layer, and an autonomic layer. The layers would communicate. The whole project was pretty interesting and I got as far as the initial paper, choosing the unusual materials (I think thick, solid neoprene), and I got a hardware simulator and did some simple projects. Then I quit---I figured someone would probably beat me to the market with something better anyway.

I figured it would take me 5 or 6 years to finish and productize and I would be living under an underpass by then. What I really needed to have done was to finish my paper, get someone to give me money, and go shopping for people so it wouldn't take a decade. But US culture teaches of heroes not teams so I didn't think that way.

I had been trading stocks and other securities a bit since quitting the corporate world. I needed money. I could try trading as a job. I was a financial news junky. I read people's papers. I started to try to separate the lie from the truth. In the financial industry, I would say about 60% tell lies or lies of omission. I started writing up my analysis---who was lying, why people were lying, how the world economy had to work. My relatives started telling me, gee, you should be a financial writer. To make a long story short, the 2008 crash took me out and the stress was so horrific that I began to think anything was better than trading. (Ironically I taught one of my relatives to trade and they did pretty well.)

I was trashed. I spent a spring and a summer drifting mostly aimlessly. I had tried to change the world for the better and failed. One thing I realized from the stock trading is that when I focus on trying to explicitly make money, I do terrible. I was not built for that kind of stress. I realized that I was meant to be more of a pure researcher. One of my few positive mentoring college professors suggested that to me when I was young.  My wife whispered, "Go get your teaching certificate. You would be a good teacher." I had taught at the freshman college level. I thought, hmm, me, the perpetual kid, teaching? The kids would have me for lunch. Plus they would probably end up having to teach me to be organized.

It's at times like this that you really search through the memories of your life (I have a freakish memory for long term things). I remembered for some reason the writing I did in middle school and  the things I had read. Hmm. I decided to play some music from that era. The memories got a lot stronger. I began to realize that I was interested in stories in that I was continually taking  apart the plots of old scifi shows and movies. It was an unconscious hobby---I just do it. Then I watched a series, The Tomorrow People, 1970's version. Although it was very popular during its time with kids, people who watched it with me thought it was awful. It was like they were watching a different TV program. Actually they were. I hadn't realized it, but I had taken the series apart, and rewritten it in my mind. Kids jaunting---yes. Vulnerable kid---yes. Super kids in training---yes. Expert older kid---yes. Motherly teen girl---yes. Rigid scifi---too narrow. Add fantasy. Base in a deserted subway station---you've got to be joking. Father of the expert is a police officer---social drivel. Humans arising in space and coming back to teach earthlings, impossible. So make it possible. Add aliens to the mix. Aliens can manipulate, create humans--yes. All advanced kids arising with the same talents---not likely. Add talents and diversify them among characters. What are the social ramifications of telepathy. Consult Babylon5. Machines that can see people remotely, stealthily---consult The Outer Limits, "Obit" episode. Kids learning under duress with advanced talents, read "Ender's Game." Implications of "high moral aliens" visiting Earth---consult the movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still". A clash of an advanced culture with primitive Earth culture: Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles". Stir. I'm sure Star Trek floats to the surface somewhere in there. Probably some others I am not consciously aware of. Fine. I'll never be able to write something like that. I'll run out of gas before I get to the good part that I like. More drifting.

I happened to tune into an interview with JK Rowling. She was discussing her writing process. At first it was discouraging. She is organized! She wrote so many books about the Harry Potter book before she wrote the book. Overwhelming. But as I listened, the wheels started to turn. Then it hit me. You don't have to write the book in order. You don't have to write the part in the book that builds the world. I pulled out my favorite program, OneNote. It allows you to build a multidimensional notebook. I used 2 dimensions. My top tabs were Characterization, Story, Timeline. Under "Timeline" I put side tabs or an infinite length page for each character and creature. On these pages, I listed the significant events in the creatures'/characters' lives as I knew them. Under "Characterization" I put a tab for each character and described their personality and look.  Under "Story" I made tabs for chapters. I wrote a skeleton first chapter so I could describe the world and write down any clever phrases and paragraphs I thought would be good in the introduction. It was kind of interesting because I wasn't trudging through a bunch of writing I didn't want to do. It was like I was designing a program or a device. I was filling in the precise necessary detail. Then I skipped ahead to the chapter I really liked and thought I would never get to. I started writing essentially in the middle of the book. I just wrote what I liked. I could skip ahead to tabs that I thought would have interesting stuff. Suddenly, the simulation snapped on in my head. It was the same faculty I use to simulate very complicated programs with multiple simultaneous execution threads. Except that the threads were parallel plot lines. I could hardly talk for a week. The story was flying along so fast that I couldn't get it down. I finally found that a pen, even with my unreadable chicken scratch was the only thing that could keep up. I eventually learned to throttle it back to where I could function. I wrote the four books together as one book, about 850 pages in roughly 7 months. The last thing I wrote was the start of the book. You can really play some evil tricks on the reader in the beginning if the entire rest of the book is written/known to you.

My oldest sister started editing the chapters early on. I sent her the summary text describing the world and she was able to follow my middle of the book chapter. My writing was horrible, to put it mildly. So much of the dyslexia showing. Reversed phrases, bizarre grammar. For things that cropped up repeatedly my sister sent me articles on the grammar construct I was deficient in from the Purdue Online Writing Laboratory (the OWL). I began to learn, when I want to write "this", write "that" instead because "that" is what people in the world understand. My head thinks in "this" order and structure. So eventually, I built maps in my head---like translating the language I speak to a foreign language. After 3 or 4 passes on the book, it was done. I let a few kids read it. They couldn't except for one. He was a 6th grader called a "gifted" kid. He liked it. Eventually he got exhausted and couldn't finish it. 858 pages is way too long. I split it into four parts and found that because I was worried about it being too long, it wasn't long enough. I had hurried some scenes and some descriptions were not complete or were omitted. So as I added the start and end to each of the four books, I also fleshed them out some more.

Next a small publisher read it. She showed me how it needed to be more experiential. So another rewrite and several more editing passes. I tried some kids. Some kids were mystified. They really couldn't read it. But one could and liked it. He was a gifted kid. There is that word again. Here is a school that is for the "gifted". Let's try that one. The kids really liked it. But they wanted to know more about what was going on in the heads of the characters. They really wanted to know, like it was an obsession. At the same time, I received back a response from a three versions ago submission to Arthur A Levine. They wanted stronger characterization---a lot stronger. 

While this was going on, I began to investigate what in the world "giftedness" was. I monitored some discussions. Papers were forwarded to me. Then a couple things happened. Some people started telling me "you know there is a reason you think like you do..". Let's just say I went down a very painful path. Some kind soul helped me part of the way. I eventually found a piece of the middle school writing and the last memory block fell...I remember...I remember advanced track and the intense pain I felt when there was no more advanced track available. If I wanted to continue, I would have had to put 300 miles between me and my parents --- not happening. 

So when I went to rewrite the four books a fourth time, I had some ammo. Part of characterization I learned was including the character's flaws---their quirks. Well, my crash course in giftedness had given me a few quirks and flaws to use. These new character traits went in rather easily because my normal characters were my kind of normal. Which is another reason only gifted kids liked the book.

Finally, it seemed like I was done. I started submitting each of the four books to be edited by a professional editor. The first professional editing pass of book #1 showed how, with a little insertion of some new writing, I could dramatically raise the intensity of the book and increase the believability of the plot line. Good stuff. 

With Book #2, the editor was further encouraging me to turn on the juice, add conflict, people's reactions to other people's quirks, etc. The book began to get a little dark. By the time the professional editing started on book #3, the memory block was totally gone and the editor was pushing me, so book #3 is quite dramatic and dark. Book #4 is very intense. All of the intellectual and dark restraining bolts came flying off. Book #4 was difficult for the editor to edit---not because of the darkness but because of the complexity. It was hard for me---I can only imagine how hard it was for the editor. After the first professional edit, I took book #4 totally apart and moved the scenes around. I added narration. This was to address the editor's concerns and confusion. Finally, after 6 rewrites of each book, the books were done. At least almost. And 3 more years of my life was gone because this was a full time job.

So the young person you see in the picture at the top of the article was part of a team of four students who read and commented on the final book#1. Some found mistakes that the editor missed which I was very glad to correct. But more than anything, their comments gave me the confidence to put the book out into the world---that the book was now really finished.

My middle school writing had come full circle decades later and landed into the hands of gifted middle school kids. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Review: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

Why review this movie on a blog about a book series in Gifted Fiction. Quite simply: I think this movie contains one of the more accurate portrayal of average giftedness. Whether or not it was intentional by the movie makers, the movie embodies the debate occurring within society about what giftedness is and how it is perceived. Like most things I perceive, you might find what I write about the movie a bit "odd":

Not your typical Disney movie. Very sentimental and very philosophical. A real tear jerker but happy ending. People who expected a slapstick romp or a comedy left 2/3rds of the way through. Timothy is designed to be the kid every parent could love---a kid with a huge heart. Timothy is an accurate portrayal of a gifted child: some big talents yet some big flaws. He creates beautiful art, is able to engage and motivate adults yet he is ignorant of some knowledge people presume all kids know---honest to a fault yet inspirational. A sharp contrast to the social climbing relatives who drill their kids mercilessly, brag about a gifted program at a school like it is a social badge and are basically dead inside. The agenda of the movie comes through pretty clear: to clearly show how the heart, soul, and talent of a truly gifted child comes from within and is not beat into them by pushy parents.

If you want an extremely heartwarming movie this is it. Shallow romp, look elsewhere. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Color Proof of Book #1 Arrives

I hold the book and it doesn't seem real. It's taken three years to get to this point and even though I hold the book, something about its reality just doesn't connect in my mind. Then a little reality sets in. I see the colors of the colored text is a little off from the digital proof. The imperfection of reality starts to chew into my mind and it becomes more real. Still, it's pretty cool!