Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Teaching Issue

One thing I find difficult as a teacher is explaining to students that even though they might have legitimate reasons for missing class at times, they are still responsible for finishing the work, and that missing class almost always affects their grade negatively. This is not because I take off points for absences, but because by missing they lose out on stuff they just can't get from merely reading the textbook or borrowing their friends' notes.

Yet, year after year, I have students come see me who have missed a substantial amount of class because of a health issue, or because of family problems, who believe they should be given the grade they "would" have earned if they had not had the problems.

Leave aside for the moment that I have no way of predicting what they "would" have earned if they hadn't had personal issues. They always know, and it's often at least a letter grade above what I think likely. When students do have legitimate reasons for missing, I allow them to make up assignments, but I cannot go back and insert all the information in their brain that they would have gotten if they had been in class.

A student came in recently who had missed a lot of class because of family issues. She'd made a "C" on test 1, but because of all the missed classes she got an "F" on test 2. I worked out what she needed to get on test 3, the final, to get a "C" for the class. Her first question was, "What about a 'B'?" A "B" was statistically impossible. She then asked me, "What if I make like a 95 on the final exam?"

I told her that I'd be happy if she did so but that it still wouldn't get her to a "B." I could see she was hoping I'd tell her that I'd curve her grade to a "B" if she made an "A" on the final, but that's not the way it works. There is a certain amount of information a student masters in a class to earn an "A." There are other amounts for "B" and "C" and lower. Even if she mastered the last section at the "A" level, she would not have mastered the earlier material at that level.

She was nearly in tears when she left, and I felt badly for her. I know she has been through a lot this semester, but I can't morally sign off on work as having been completed at a certain level when it has not. And I don't know how to explain this to students.

I've tried telling them that we are not judged in the world on what we do 'one' time. Most people can get up for one test, one game, maybe even one story. Instead, we are judged on what we do across a semester, across undergraduate or graduate school, across a season, and across a career. We don't have to be great every time, but we need to be consistently good if we are going to get consistently good results.

Most of the students I talk to about this seem to think I'm just being mean. I don't feel very good about that myself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Novel Spaces Suspense: Part 2

I'm still over at Novel Spaces today, but I'm down one post from the top. This is the second part of my post about using suspense in writing. I should put up a new post here but I came back from vacation with a whole bunch of things piled up. I hope you can drop by.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Guest Blogger: Ty Johnston

Fantasy author Ty Johnston’s blog tour 2011 is running from November 1 through November 30. His novels include City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb and More than Kin, all of which are available for the Kindle ), the Nook, and online at Smashwords. His latest novel, Ghosts of the Asylum, is now available for e-books. To find out more, follow him at his blog. And now, Ty:

Today is Thanksgiving, but as I write this it is still October. It is through the marvels of modern blog scheduling I can write this post weeks ahead of time, then Charles can set up the time and date for my little article to run.

Why would I write this post so early, especially considering this is a holiday for many? The truth is, I have a whole bunch of blog posts to write. This month, November, I am on a blog tour to promote my newest epic fantasy e-book, Ghosts of the Asylum, which was just released earlier this week. I am appearing on 30 different blogs, one each day of the month, which means I have 30 posts to write. And then there are posts to my own blog I need to write, plus as a fiction writer I’ve always got another novel or short story to be working on.

But just because it’s October here where I sit in the past, while November 24 there where you sit, does not mean I can’t reflect upon the holiday that is Thanksgiving for those of us in and from the United States.

The truth is, I have a lot for which to be thankful. Yes, there are wars in the world and modern politics and media consistently grate at the nerves, but I am one of the fortunate few who gets to write fiction for a living.

Yes, I can get up early or sleep in. I can stay up all night if I want. I can work whenever, or not. I don’t have any bosses to answer to, nor boring meetings to attend. All because of my chosen profession.

I don’t mean to rub it in for those not so fortunate as myself. Believe me, fiction writing for a living has plenty of its own downsides.

But I want to be thankful today.

I want to thank Charles for hosting me here on Thanksgiving. I want to thank all the other bloggers who are hosting me this month. I thank my wife for putting up with my nonsense, and I even thank my beagle for being such a good girl ... most of the time. I thank my mother and father, who usually don’t understand my writing but who support me anyway.

And, perhaps most importantly, I want to thank my readers. Without you, the readers, I would not have the life I currently enjoy. I hope my writing gives back at least a little, hopefully a lot.

It’s Thanksgiving. And I’m thankful for being a fiction writer.

Got to go. It’s time for lunch, which today is a bologna sandwich. Wish I was there with you on Thanksgiving so I could enjoy some turkey and dressing!

Monday, November 21, 2011


Lake Pontchartrain isn’t really a lake. It’s an estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s generally said to be “brackish,” although parts of it to the north side are pretty fresh while other parts are heavily salty. It is the second largest inland saltwater body in the United States, after the Great Salt Lake, but, at 630 square miles, it’s the largest inland body of water in Louisiana. It borders New Orleans on the north side. I live on the north “shore” of the lake. On a recent photography expedition to the lakeshore, Lana and I stumbled up on a bit of a mystery. I’ll introduce it by asking a few questions.

Isn’t it possible, nay probable, that there are large creatures living in Lake Pontchartrain that are rarely seen by humans? Could some of these large creatures, under the right circumstances, be classified as monsters? Could such a said monster be, in fact, a relative of such other lake monsters as Nessie and Champie?

Could an intrepid photographer and her man Friday have caught a picture of said monster, who one might dub…Ponchie? Is said man Friday about to reveal said photograph right here on this blog? Does a bear **** in the woods?
You will note the long snake-like neck, a common descriptive characteristic of other lake monsters. You will note the opened mouth. I figure Ponchie was about to pounce on a pelican, of which there were many around that day. You might argue that the photo is really of some mundane object jutting out of the lake bottom. To this I say: “Pshaww!”
One last question. Could Ponchie, perhaps, be able to spend time on land? Could he be responsible for the skeleton depicted below, which was found only half a mile from my house? Should I be afraid, very afraid? I know how I would answer those questions.
What about you?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Razored Zen Interview: Patti Abbott

My most recent guest on Razored Zen Interview is Patricia (Patti) Abbott. Patti has had her short stories appear in a number of anthologies, and around the web. Recently, a substantial collection of her tales has appeared from Snubnose Press called Monkey Justice. Patti’s stories are known for capturing the essence of people’s humanity even within worlds of darkness. And so, I present Patti Abbott. (RZ represents Razored Zen and PAB is Patti.)

RZ: Tell us a little about yourself outside of writing. Hometown. Family. Job. That sort of thing.

PAB: I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia and moved to Detroit, Michigan at 22 when my husband, Phil, finished his Ph.D. and got a teaching job in political science at Wayne State University. As my children grew, I finished my degree, eventually taking a job at Wayne State writing newsletters, catalogs, web material, and brochures for the next twenty years.

My degree is in history and I didn’t start to write until I took a poetry writing workshop in the late nineties. Having access to a university probably allowed this to happen.

RZ: What made you want to write? Is it a desire that’s always been with you? Or was there some particular event or book that ignited the fire?

PAB: I have always wanted to write but lacked the confidence to try for years. My parents were the sort of people that discouraged ambition because they didn’t want to see me get hurt if I failed. They had very limited goals for themselves and for me. Better to be a secretary or work for the phone company (which I did for years) than try something so grandiose.

But some success in the poetry workshop convinced me I had some ability. Next, I won a chapbook contest and then switched to writing stories. My poems were really stories in verse so I was able to use them as blueprints for my first stories. I took four writing workshops with the wonderful Chris Leland and his encouragement made me begin to submit stories in the late 1990s. My stories were always dark, but the first dozen or so were basically literary. Sidebar: my mother changed her mind about my writing as she grew older and was very supportive of these ambitions, realizing she hadn’t encouraged me enough earlier.

RZ: Writers always get asked about their influences. Consider this that question.

PAB: I greatly admire the short stories of Alice Munro (the early ones in particular), Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Mary Lavin, William Trevor, Lorrie Moore, Eudora Welty and Charles Baxter. If I were to talk about my influences as far as crime goes, I would say Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Ruth Rendell, especially her non-Wexford work. That’s the tone I strive for at least. I like short stories that have a great voice, an unusual point of view. I am not as interested in plot. Complex plots are difficult to pull off in 4000 words so just as well.

RZ: Patti, I know this is a hard question to ask a writer, but tell us about your favorite story in Monkey Justice, and why it’s your favorite.

PAB: I think my favorite story in MONKEY JUSTICE is “Raising the Dead.” It’s the story of a female photographer who comes up with the unusual, if slightly repulsive, idea of taking pictures of dead men. I like the fact that she’s a difficult woman and relate to her need to find a way to express herself. To find a way to succeed artistically. I like that the story is set in Detroit and is gritty. There are no pretty moments in the story or the book. No noble acts. She does a rather shocking thing at the end of the story. It’s not something most people can understand, but I felt it was consistent with who she was. And perhaps who I am. That’s why I tried to turn it into a novel. The novel is able to develop her, her relationship with several men, and with the city more fully.

RZ: Writing can be hard work. What motivates you to keep going? What inspires you?

PAB: Age motivates me. The idea that time is running out and I have to cram as much as possible into every day. There have always been reasons why I didn’t have enough time to write before this year, but all of them are gone now and there is nothing to do but to sit down in front of the screen and write. I am inspired by my husband who will write anytime he has ten minutes to spare. He is my greatest inspiration and my greatest supporter. He has never once suggested I put my writing aside to do something for him. I wish I could say the same.

RZ: What are you working on currently? And what’s next for you?

PAB: I have promised my writing group to spend more time in trying to place the two novels. Twice I tried to find an agent but gave up after less than a dozen queries. Again I am up against my cursed fear of failure. Better not to try than fail. Better to let the novels wither on my hard drive until someone carts me and the computer off.

I am also working on about half a dozen stories and have about that many coming out over the next few months. I also should say here that I take my blog very seriously, especially the attention we pay to forgotten books. I also like to promote other writers whenever I can. These are hard times. I don’t have to support myself through my writing and am miserable for those who do.

RZ: Besides Monkey Justice, what other work is available from you right now, and where can readers find it? Is there a place online where folks could go to learn more about you and your work?

PAB: My website has links to most of my stories still online. (http://pattinase.blogspot.com) I also have stories in the print journals DAMN NEAR DEAD 2, NEEDLE, CRIMEFACTORY: FIRST EDITION, BEAT TO A PULP: ROUND ONE and TWO, DEADLY TREATS, and D*CKED. And one in the new Ed Gorman anthology. Ed has included my stories in three of his anthologies and I am very grateful to him.

Patti, thanks so much for visiting Razored Zen.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Halfway Man

I'm not very happy with myself at the moment. I think I'll start calling myself "Halfway Man." Since the end of summer I've been spinning my wheels. I've got a short story about Orcs halfway done. I've got a memoir about my beer drinking days that I hope will be both funny and suitable for a Kindle/Nook publication. It's halfway done.

I'm halfway through the galleys for In the Language of Scorpions. I should have been "full done" long before this. I'm halfway or near that on the erotica collection I was talking about here a few weeks ago. I've only about half way decided to publish it to begin with.

I've had a sword and planet story published that I want to promote but I'm about halfway to getting around to that. Hell, I even opened a beer the other night, drank about half of it, and put it in the fridge that way. There was a halfway finished can of Clamato already in there. Now, those two are visiting with the half eaten Quarter Pounder I stuffed in there from a few days earlier. If I can't even finish a beer, what hope is there for my writing?

What isn't halfway done is less than that, and I'm about halfway decided to chunk it all and play video games. Let's see: I'm about halfway through Red Dead Redemption. Should I go on with that one or buy a different game. No doubt, Halfway Man will buy a different one.

Progress, thy name is not Charles Gramlich.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Star Trek and Star Shatner

I just finished reading William Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now. I enjoyed it, although I most enjoyed the sections where he talked about Star Trek. It wasn’t as good as his books, Star Trek Memories and Star Trek Movie Memories, but those were all about “Trek” so that’s probably why I liked them so much. I’m a Trekker, Trekkie, Trekophile. Take your pick.

Of course, Shatner worked with other authors on these books so I don’t know how much was specifically him and how much his co-writer. But all three books had a great deal of humor in them, and they certainly humanized our Captain Kirk. Shatner went so far as to clearly acknowledge that a number of other cast members, such as Scotty, Chekov, and Uhuru, did not and do not like him, and he admitted that he might have some blame coming his way. He admits that he probably stepped on their lines at times or took them for himself, but he argues that he intended it to be for the good of the show. He does seem to have become a close friend of Leonard Nimoy. (That’s Spock for some of you non-Trekkers.)

If you’re a Star Trek fan, I’d highly recommend Star Trek Memories and Star Trek Movie Memories. Up till Now is more for the “Shatner” fan, and I think I’ve gradually become one over the years. He kind of grows on you.

What about you? Trek fan? Shatner fan? Anti-Trek? Anti-Shatner? Don’t worry about expressing your opinions. My phaser is on stun only.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Razored Zen Interview: Travis Erwin

I think it’s time to run another author interview. My guest today is Travis Erwin, who has his first book out. It’s called The Feedstore Chronicles. I have my copy but have not read this one yet. I have read his short collection for the Kindle, called Whispers and loved it very much. I’m looking forward to his newest. Without further ado, here’s Travis. (RZ represents Razored Zen and I’m sure you can figure out what TE stands for.)

RZ: Tell us a little about yourself outside of writing. Home town. Family. Job. That sort of thing.

TE: Born and raised in Amarillo, Texas, I’ve never strayed too far from the crib. By day I work for the US Postal Service making certain the machines that sort the mail keep chugging along. Being that it’s nearly Christmas card season let me say glitter is an evil thing. When you mail a glittery card half of the sparkles end up in the bottom of postal machines . Meaning when I open them up to make a repair, I come away looking like a craft store junkie or an overzealous Twilight fan.

RZ: What made you want to write? Is it a desire that’s always been with you? Or was there some particular event or book that ignited the fire?

TE: Reading. I’ve always been an avid reader and for as long as I can remember I’ve had the thought: Hey I could make up characters and stories. But for years I saw publishing as an unobtainable goal for a country boy from Amarillo, Texas. Then I met a local writer, Jodi Thomas, who writes historical romance and mainstream. Seeing the success she’s had gave me the confidence to actively write with publication in mind. Still, it took better than a decade for me to find a publisher for my first book length project.

RZ: Writers always get asked about their influences. Consider this that question.

TE: There are the folks I know. My mentors. Writers like the aforementioned Jodi Thomas and Jennifer Archer and Debbie Upton that have patiently read, critiqued, and offered advice every step of the way. Then there are the authors I love to read and whose style influences me because when I grow up I hope to be just like them. I love Richard Russo for the way he builds communities of characters so real that I begin to think I used to live in the town where it was set. Christopher Moore and Carl Hiasson both taught me nothing is too absurd for the sake of humor, and David Sedaris made me realize poking fun of yourself is sometimes the only answer.
RZ: Travis, The Feedstore Chronicles is based upon your real life experiences working at a feed store in Texas. Can you tell us a bit about that?

TE: I’m not sure if you mean a bit about working at that feedstore or a bit about writing based on real life, so I’ll tackle both. Working at the feedstore for a man who is still the most morally bankrupt I’ve ever met was, in one word, an adventure. My boss would say or do anything and I was an eager but naive teenage boy in the throes of puberty. After my four year stint I felt a bit like a natural disaster survivor—lucky to be breathing. But these days I look back with nostalgic fondness on those years. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

As far as writing about that time. It was harder than I imagined. For one thing, I didn’t want to vilify the character based on my boss. He was a likeable guy and even though I haven’t seen or spoken to him in years I still consider him a friend. Some of the events, when taken out of context, would paint an ugly picture. So it took some manipulation to turn my experiences into a story that followed the arc I created, as well as retaining a strong element of humor. There were some experiences I wanted to include but I’m not entirely certain the statute of limitation is up so I left them out. Last thing I wanted was my book used as criminal evidence. I’m only half joking.

RZ: Writing can be hard work. What motivates you to keep going? What inspires you?

TE: I’m never satisfied. I suppose that is what keeps me going. I sold my first short story about 2 months into writing. I sold three or four more in the year that followed and then, for about 5 years there, I amassed nothing but rejections. That was hard and I did get discouraged, but back in the day I refereed high school football here in Texas and trust me when I say nothing an agent or editor says to me will ever compare to the criticism I heard back on those Friday nights. My wife and boys inspire me. They believe I can do the impossible so I keep battling along trying to prove them right.

RZ: What are you working on currently? And what’s next for you?

TE: Outside of promoting The Feedstore Chronicles I am working on another humorous food based book, titled Lettuce Is The Devil: The Culinary Dogma of a Devout Meat Man. It’s a tongue in cheek mixture of memoir, comedic essay, and cook book. I also have a trio of novels in various stages. A comedic women’s fiction project about a woman whose life is being ruined by sex, a serious work of literary fiction about a man trying to redeem himself before cancer claims his life, and an erotic western titled Saddle Up and Ride. Actually that last one is bullshit. The one thing I can’t seem to write is a steamy sex scene.

RZ: Besides The Feedstore Chronicles, what other work is available from you right now, and where can readers find it? Is there a place online, such as a blog, where folks could go to learn more about you and your work?

TE: I self-published a small, novella length collection of three stories called Whispers. The stories contained in it are much heavier emotionally than most of my writing, but I felt compelled to share them with the world. Whispers is available for 99 cents on both the Nook and Kindle. I also have a short story titled “Plundered Booty” in the e-anthology Deadly by the Dozen. “Plundered Booty” is perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had writing a story and I’m glad it found a home alongside 11 other great authors.
Travis, thanks for visiting Razored Zen.

Charles, thanks for having me. Yours has always been one of my favorite blogs and I can’t wait for the day when I get to meet you in person. Hopefully over a juicy steak and a cold beer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Talking Suspense at Novel Spaces

I'm over at Novel Spaces today talking about Suspense in writing and in movies. I hope you'll drop by.

Monday, November 07, 2011

CONtraflow Con

Had me a good time at CONtraflow Con. I got to meet David Brin, whose work I admire. I didn’t really get to talk to him very much because he always seemed to be on panels at the same time as mine. My most successful panel was one on Robert E. Howard. I had several enthusiastic attendees and we had a wide ranging discussion about Howard and his work.

I also sat on a panel called “Our Vampires are Different” with a number of other writers. We compared vampires from the Dracula era to the Twilight Era, and I tried to make the point that the Twilight vampires are “fantasy” vamps rather than “horror” vamps. I also argued that vampires have moved from villains in the early days, to anti-heroes after Anne Rice, to straightforward heroes in books such as Twilight.

I also gave a panel on writing and had about five folks, including a young man of High School age to whom I gave a copy of Write With Fire. I didn’t think it went all that well but I did get a lot of questions and that was good.

I sold a few books at the Howard panel but that was about it. I bought a lot of books, though. The CONtraflow charity was the New Orleans library and they had a book sale table there where I spent a considerable sum of money. I was glad the Dealer’s Room had a couple of book tables since fewer and fewer cons have much in the way of books in the dealer’s rooms these days.

I put in about fifteen straight hours today and got a lot done, but certainly not enough. A few more fifteen hour days should get me caught up at least, although not ahead. What I’d like to work on is a set of galleys for a new collection of my stories, which have been sitting on my computer for about two weeks without me even having time to look at them. This will be a collection of my hardcore horror work, which will be entitled In the Language of Scorpions. Maybe soon.

Friday, November 04, 2011

CONtraflow and High Chaparral

Giving a test today, then taking off pretty quickly for CONtraflow con. I have a panel today on Robert E. Howard, followed by the opening ceremonies and the Meet the Guests Party. Tomorrow I have panels on Reading, Vampires, and Writing. Looking forward to all of them. David Brin is going to be there, whose work I admire greatly, so I hope to get to meet him.

Some of you might remember a Western TV series called High Chaparral. I enjoyed it, although it was short lived. I recently found a tie-in novel for the series, written by Steve Frazee, and started reading it. It's called The Apache Way.

In it, Blue and Manolito get captured by Apaches. Although I'm generally enjoying the book and the writing, Frazee did something that I hate for authors to do. While the captives are stumbling along behind an Apache warrior all bound up and nearly dying of thirst, Frazee writes a kind of: "one day they would both look back on this moment and be amazed they'd been able to survive it."

I wanted to pull my hair out. Yes, we're pretty sure already that the characters are going to live, but do you have to tell us like this, in the middle of a supposedly life-threatening situation?