Thursday, June 20, 2013

Soundtrack for Good Intentions

When I came up with the idea to write a novel, I had a thought in my head.  The "what if this happened ..." type thing (that exact idea would be a spoiler, so I don't want to go into too much detail).  Then I needed characters and settings.  I decided to go with the advice of "write what you know" so the character of Maggie is very loosely based on me.  The setting of Boston is from my own experience there.  Trying to figure out how Maggie lived and moved about the city, I pictured back to my own college days spent in Allston-Brighton and Boston.

One of the things that most helped me go back to that time was listening to music.  As luck would have it, I had just gotten an ipod for my birthday and I had uploaded from my collection of CDs from the mid to late 1990s.  I belonged to BMG music club (for those of you who don't remember this, it was a club where you got 13 CDs for $0.01, and then had to buy or return CDs every month), so I had quite a few.  I then hit the itunes store and downloaded a lot of the songs from college, some of which I only possessed on cassette tape.  Holy crap, I feel old.  At the same time, a new local radio station that only played music from the 1990s launched around here, and in between Christmas and the Superbowl, it played music without DJ's and virtually commercial-free.  Between my ipod and 105.7 FM, there was a lot of 90s music that helped me set the scenes for the book.

If I had to come up with a soundtrack or playlist for Good Intentions, based upon my frame of mind, the scene, and specific songs referenced, here is what it would look like.  Hope you take a listen, and think of these songs as you read.  Enjoy!

1.   Good Intentions by Toad the Wet Sprocket

2.   Dancin' In the Light by Entrain
      (This is a horrible audio, but for some reasons, the other, better ones would not upload.  Check out Entrain.  Can U Get It? was my favorite CD during all of college and I used to go see Entrain live all the   time)  

3.   I Like To Move It by Reel 2 Real

4.   Cotton-Eyed Joe by Rednex

5.   Thank God I'm a Country Boy by John Denver

6.   Wannabe by Spicegirls

7.   Groove is in the Heart by Deee-Lite

8.   Laid by James

9.   Crash Into Me by Dave Matthews Band

10. Say Goodbye by Dave Matthews Band

11. Better Man by Pearl Jam

12. Black by Pearl Jam

13. Tracks of My Tears by Smokey Robinson

14. Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude by Jimmy Buffet

15. The Thong Song by Sisqo

16. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham

17. Ground on Down by Ben Harper

Hope you enjoy the somewhat eclectic music selection that motivates and moves Maggie Miller.  If you haven't read the book yet, keep these songs in mind while reading.

Good Intentions is available on NookKindle and Kobo.  It will be out in print hopefully in the next two weeks!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Teacher Accountability

With the school year wrapping up, some reflection is expected.   Tonight's discussion was about teachers.  Despite my son's unique educational needs, he's been very fortunate to have excellent teachers so far.  We know that is not always the case, and were discussing how lucky he has been.  His educational course has not been what we initially wanted, but it has allowed him to have access to phenomenal teachers in two different schools that have been the best fit for him.

This is a story of teacher accountability.  The whole idea of teacher accountability is not a bad one.  However, the execution of it in New York State this year has sorely missed the mark, but that is another topic for another day.  Teachers wield a lot of power.  They can make or break a year for a child.  They can make or break a child. 

I was educated in the Catholic Schools of the Albany Diocese.  I don't know if it is still the case, but when I was in elementary school, the catholic schools got a lot of new teachers.  This can be good, but for me it was very bad.  While my son has had the most wonderful teacher this year (we love you Mrs. Hippchen!), I had a horrible third grade teacher.  It should not come as a shock to anyone who knows me, but I was pretty caught up in grades.  In the third grade, your grades were given as descriptive categories (Excellent, Good, Average, Poor and Fail).  All year long, I got 'Average' grades, especially in spelling.  I had never had something in the middle category before.  I was a very good student.  My older brother made sure to point out that 'Average' was essentially a 'C' grade.  I was devastated.  My mother was enraged.  She met with the teacher over and over.  She met with the principal.  What was the big fuss?  I never got below a 95% (but mostly got over 100% with bonuses) on my spelling.  Yet that teacher graded me as 'Average.'  When my mother questioned her on it, her reply was, "Well, that's average for her."  It made me doubt myself.  I felt sick to my stomach all the time.  I hated school.  Looking back on that year, I still get a pit in my stomach.  I can only be thankful that Jake's third grade experience was as positive as mine was negative.

I also think to my math teacher that I was oh so fortunate enough to have for 6th, 7th and 8th grade.  She didn't like me.  It was pretty obvious.  I was probably somewhat pretty obnoxious to have as a student.  I'm pretty sure I was a Tracy Flick kind of student who thought they knew it all.  Math was not my favorite subject, and I often rushed to get through it, making careless mistakes.  However, I can, with distinct clarity, remember the day that she told me that I was horrible at math, and that I would never amount to anything.

She said this in front of the whole class.

Some 25 years later, I still think about that.  I thought about that as I made Dean's List in a Tier I PT program.  I thought about her on May 13, 2006, as I received my Doctoral Degree.    I think about her when I get a next-to-impossible wheelchair approved for a student.  I think about it when my kids tell me I am a great mom.  I think about her now, with my first novel out.  She did not say it to challenge me to slow down and do better.  She said it because she did not like me.

For a few years, it broke me.  Afterall, she was my math teacher for 3 years.  I got into high school and had some really great math teachers.  Mr. Corbeil restored my faith in myself.  Sr. Kennan (RIP) never took 'no' for an answer.  My senior year, I took two honors math classes, one the prerequisite for the other, and managed to get straight A's.  

But along the way, I also had some really great teachers.  Miss Norton, Mrs. Morrissey, Sr. Mary Catherine, Sr. Frances Celine, Miss Hoagland, just to name a few.  I was also lucky enough to have parents who valued education, and who did not let the negative words of a poor teacher impact the rest of my life.  In those same moments listed above, I think of them with gratitude.

So to all the teachers out there who are fried, and just need the year to end, don't break your students.  Help make them.  And to the teachers who spend every day trying to make their students, thank you.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Best Laid Plans...

Up here in the Northeast, the Biel household, like most others, are counting down the last days of school.  Because I work in the schools as well, I'm counting down just as much as the kids are, maybe even more.  My kids have nine days left of school (and some are not even full days).  I have about seven work days left (holy crap, how am I going to get everything done in seven days?!?).  I'm not sure who is looking forwards to summer vacation more.

On the other hand, 11 weeks of unstructured time is very daunting.  Kids get bored, they fight.  They terrorize each other and trash the house.  But the summer is when I have more time.  This summer, I'm going in with a plan.  I'm pretty sure it will last about 2 weeks before it is totally abandoned, but here goes:

  1. Chores.  Every day, something will get done.  I'm working with each kid on a list of chores that they will do.  Some are daily.  Some are every other day, and some are once a week.  I reserve the right to add more chores at any time, and successful completion by the kids will result in a financial reimbursement.  We're all going to do our chores together, and something will get cleaned every day.  I'm tired of my house never being all cleaned at once, and I, myself, want to keep more on top of things.
  2. Reading.  The kids are really going to read every day, I swear.  Sophia's reading is not where I think it needs to be for her to be successful in 1st grade, so we need to improve it.  Jake is an excellent reader, but lacks fluency.  Also, I'd like him to read for enjoyment, as a hobby.  Books are a wonderful bridge for discussion with other people.  I have a list I want to read as well.
  3. Responsibility.  This kind of goes with the chores, but I really want to instill in the kids a sense of responsibility for their own belongings.  This will mean picking up after themselves, including dishes.  My hope is that with constant reminders, by the end of the summer and into next school year, it will be more habit.
  4. Peaceful co-existence.  I know they're going to fight.  I would like it to be kept at a minimum.  That being said, I don't want to be yelling and nagging all the time either.  I would like us all to have a personal respect for each other and our boundaries that keeps bloodshed and screaming to a minimum.
  5. Summer milestones.  Jake will ride a bike without training wheels. (In his defense, while the training wheels are on the bike, they are so far off the ground that they really don't do anything)  Sophia will go under the water.  Both kids will improve swimming.  I will exercise at least twice a week and hopefully fit into some shorts that are a bit snug.
  6. Sweat, but not the small stuff.  We need to spend lots of outdoor time to achieve #5, but I want for myself to be a little (ok, lot) more laid back, which may help with #4 as well.
  7. Have fun!!  The kids have some camps scheduled, but I want to do fun things too, like go to Howe Caverns, the Great Expense Escape and other various things.  We don't have our vacation scheduled yet, as I'm still trying to figure out my work schedule, with summer school and per diem work.

I know the homeschool moms, the true veterans of having kids at home, are laughing at my plans right now, just waiting for my colossal failure, but this seems reasonable, right?  I know this may not work, and by Labor Day (or August 1st), I may be looking to sell my children to the lowest bidder.  I hope not.  I love not having to set an alarm.  I love not having to rush everyday to get out of the house.  I love that the lunch boxes do not occupy space on the counter and the backpacks are hung up and put away.  I love that we don't have homework or tests.  I love that Jake can be off his medication.

I hope with the extra time, I can also work on getting my book in print form, selling it (both online and in bookstores), and on writing the next one.  I wrote the bulk of Good Intentions two summers ago, so I'd like to try and repeat that.  I'm about 20-25% of the way in, so hopefully I can run with it.

Preserving my sanity starts with a plan.  T-9 days and counting...

Friday, June 7, 2013

Risk-Benefit Analysis

Taking a break from pushing my book (although it is still for sale) to talk about a family issue.  As I have disclosed in the past, my son has Attention Deficit Disorder (without Hyperactivity).  This is not an excuse for his behavior.  He is a very, very bright young man, but he simply cannot stay focused.  He twitches and fidgets, he stares off into space.  He loses track of what he is doing midway through the task.

Part of his difficulty is that he processes information slowly.  In fact, I think his brain is actually working in overdrive when he receives information.  He's considering it, studying it, and developing theories about it.  A great example is one his Kindergarten teacher gave me.  She is one of the best teachers ever, and she really understood how he worked, which is why she was such an efficient teacher for him.  They were going around the room doing letter sounds.  This was in the first part of the year, but Jake was already reading.  Jake picked the letter 'A' and just sat there.  She knew he knew what the letter was and what sound it made, but she could not figure out why he wasn't responding.  After giving him some wait time (also very important), she gave him a gentle prompt to tell her the letter sound. He finally said, "Well, A has two sounds.  It says "A" and "ah" because it is a vowel.  The other vowels are e, i, o and u."

Very basic, but you can see what I mean about his mind working in overdrive.  But because of this thought process, we think he strays off and forgets what the original question was.  If left to his own devices, he is a future absent-minded professor in training.  But that's not what I want him to be.  I want him to be pulled together.

After careful consideration, many inter-marital disputes, and an awesome data-collection by his teacher, we finally decided that Jake would probably benefit from a trial of some medication for his ADD.  Due to his slowness, it was thought that a stimulant might be the best type for him. Since February, he's been taking Adderall XR.  He started on a low dose, and has had one dose increase.  His teacher has commented that he is finishing work in a more timely manner, and needs less prompts to stay on task during lengthy writing assignments.  Jake asks to take it before school.  He has said that he notices a difference and that he feels better at school when he takes it.  He did say a drawback is that now he can pay attention, and the school stuff is really boring, so he just pays better attention to his daydreams.

But we are seeing some negative reactions as well.  Jake is a skinny kid to begin with.  There's nothing to him, and the Adderall has killed his appetite.  He's now complaining of frequent headaches and stomach pain.  He's had an episode or two of vomiting, although it is usually in the middle of the night.  We give him a break from the medication on the weekends, just so he'll eat better, and we're planning to take him off it for the summer to try and beef him up a little.  Even on the weekend when he hasn't had the medication, although his appetite is improved, he's still sick to his stomach a lot.

This is where I'm so torn.  I just received a call from the school nurse, because Jake was in there complaining of nausea.  He was probably just overheated, but I know he's feeling crappy a lot of the time.  I also know that academically, he needs this to help him succeed in school.  He's going to get a break from it, but I have a feeling we're going to be trying different medications out.

I know that with any pharmaceutical use, one needs to perform the risk-benefit analysis.  We know how important the benefits are for Jake.  I just wish the side effects did not impact him the way they do.  Not sure what we'll try next, or if we'll just give him the break and see if that helps.

I just wish I could fix him.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Humility Block

In the artful world of Amish quilting, there is what is known as the Humility Block.  Myth says that it is a mistake, purposefully placed in the quilt to remind the quilter that only God is perfect, and to attempt a perfect quilt is exhibits too much pride.

This is my humility block.

With exuberance (and perhaps with a bit of pride), I published my novel, Good Intentions, via Nook and Kindle last week.  Despite having read the manuscript (and read it, and re-read it), and having other people read it, apparently some typos/errors have gotten though.  It seems the majority of them are the kind that your eye skims over, because your brain knows what is being said.  For example, there was the word 'of' when it should have been 'on.'

So, on the one hand, I'm thrilled that Good Intentions is slowly but surely selling (and THANK YOU!!).  But on the other hand, I'm a little bit mortified that there are this many errors.  The great thing about the digital world is that I can update the books on both Nook and Kindle and fix the errors.  Nook updates immediately, whereas Kindle takes about 10-12 hours for the changes to be updated.

I am looking at publishing the book in physical form, and would like to have as few errors in there as possible.  So, here's my proposal:

Read Good Intentions.  If you find errors, keep track of them (by chapter would work best).  Comment on this blog post with the errors.  As incentive, the person who finds the most errors ("the winner") will have a character in my next book named after them.  I'll also hook you up with a free signed copy of the physical book once it gets published.

Get reading and help me out!

Good Intentions, available on Nook and Kindle.

Michele, this does not count for you, because you already made me name a character after you.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"When did you write a book?"

If I had a nickle for everytime I've heard that one this week...

I guess I surprised a lot of people with my sudden "coming out" as a writer.  I still don't know that I would consider myself a writer, yet.  I feel I'm more a person who writes.  Just like I identify myself as a person who dances, but not a dancer.  I guess I feel that those artistic talents, writing and dancing, are crafts that are mastered and perfected.  I dabble in both as enjoyment and recreation, but do not feel that I have any sort of mastery.

Anyway, a lot of people have asked me when did I write Good Intentions.  I finished it two summers ago, but now, I can't remember when exactly I started it.  I think sometime the winter before.  I wrote a little, and then let it go until the summer, when I was able to bang the rest of it out.  Unfortunately for and unbeknownst to me, the end of the summer is when the publishing world goes on vacation, so the first 20 or 30 agents I sent it to probably did not really even consider it.

I like to read.  And since I've had an e-reader, I read a lot more.  There are new books at my fingertips all the time.  However, I'm also a little cheap when it comes to buying books.  I don't like to spend a whole lot, so I tend to get the free or inexpensively priced books (usually under $5). I read pretty fast, so if I bought higher priced books, I could end up going into serious debt.  I've read some great books, but I've also read some not fabulous books.  I realized that Good Intentions would be perfect for the e-reader market.  An inexpensive book that is an entertaining, light read.  Somewhat humorous, somewhat serious, hopefully enjoyable.

Even though I'm going the self-publishing route right now, I still have dreams of a book deal with an eventual physical book that I can hold in my hands.  I'm hoping that the people who buy Good Intentions (and enjoy it) write favorable reviews, and it takes off selling.  I'm looking into getting some physical copies printed so that I can send them to different media outlets to get more word of mouth.

I sat on my bed, computer on my lap, 90's music in the background and wrote Good Intentions.  But getting the book out there has become a community effort, and I need to thank those people.  I had some great readers to help with editing, making sure things make sense, and just plain encouragement that this was worth pursuing.  Michele, Sue and Mom, thanks for being the first to read it!  Cahren and Maureen, I know I jumped the gun with publishing, but you guys can read it now and write some nice reviews (or if you hate it, please DO NOT write a review).

I also got some (ok, a lot of) help from some fellow Catholic Central High alum who are successful published writers in their own accord.  After you finish Good Intentions, check out Dennis Mahoney and Eric Devine.  Dennis' debut novel, Fellow Mortals, was wonderful, and Eric is about to launch his third book, Dare Me.

Thank you to everyone who has purchased the book so far.  Thank you for taking a chance on me.  Thank you for telling your friends and trying to spread the word.

Thank you all for helping one of my dreams come true.

On sale now for Nook and Kindle