Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Learning from Students

The Test Drive
In the past my students taught me to be a better writer. Early in my career when I taught a grade 3 class as a year-end L.T.O. assignment, I came in with a poem I had written the night before. I was excited about it - thinking it had a nice rhythm to it and very strong images. "Night Riders" it was titled, about mysterious people riding on a bus. As soon as I told the students I was going to read a poem they wordlessly assembled on a carpet in front of a rocking chair the previous teacher had left for me.
And so I began reading. Soon the attentive postures slumped, scabs were sought out for picking, tickle-fingers reached for friends and the whispers of more important topics quickly added to my serious reading voice: clearly the poem was not for them. I smiled and learned...
Many times over the years I have had students 'test drive' a new story long before any editor gets a look. They taught me much!
Now I need to borrow someone else's students to test drive the manuscript for Dan Time-Boy.
At Stockdale Public School I asked my good friends Kathryn Corbett (see blogs in Oct. & Nov of 09) and Dave Loucks to pass the manuscript on to a few assorted readers. Heather Yearwood, who splits her teaching duties between Stirling Sr. P.S. and Sir Mackenzie Bowell P.S. in Belleville, will do the same. (see blog 3/30/10) Heather's students were insightful readers of Leaving Fletchville last year and had great questions. Charlotte Armstrong, a former student of mine who now teaches at Percy Centennial P.S. in Warkworth will also pass the manuscript around. Her class was also very well prepped before my visit last year. (See Nov. 2009)
Getting some intelligent feedback from some adult friends and family members always helps me find clumsy stuff and typos. But adults will put up with writing that kids cannot follow, so comments from students of various grades and reading abilities are essential for me.
In a few weeks I will have a better idea of what I might want to keep / change / or add to the finished story before daring to send it for publication.

Waiting on your Writing...
When students ask me if their work is good I always tell them: put it aside for a few months and then look at it again. If it has problems you'll see them clearly. You'll groan at goofy metaphors or chafe at characters who are one-dimensional, and clench your teeth at cliche expressions. However, if it is really good you will see that too.

I have produced my fair of bad pieces of writing but also I have a few pieces of writing in a desk drawer that I will some day finish.

Getting rejections makes me wary of sending off manuscripts too quickly. I always proof-read for errors, but even if I really really like something I've written, it may still have scenes or characters in there which should have been deleted or re-written months before.
Live and learn!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

White knuckle Research

Hey, I just call it research...
At right, a Cherokee 140 similar to the one I got to fly in

Today after a pleasant motorcycle ride on the beemer I searched out a small airfield near Belleville, and after several wrong turns, found it. Just looking around...
At first I was hoping to see a small Cessna aircraft close-up and see the instrument panel so I could learn the proper terminology in the Dan, Time-Boy story.

Some time in the future I was planning to negotiate a reasonable price for a brief flight. Why a Cessna? Dan in "Dan Time Boy' steals and flies a Cessna 172*
So at this airport, basically a big grassy field, two men were sitting and I got talking with them. One, Dave Watkins owns two aircraft there. Neither was a Cessna, but hey, who's fussy? I mentioned what I was researching and before long he'd agreed to take me up for a half-hour ride for the price of the fuel. I was given the choice of a home-built 'wing over' aircraft with a joystick and seating one behind the other, or a larger, 'wing under' Piper Cherokee 140. The Cherokee would allow me to sit beside Dave and see what he was doing. The home-built aircraft would allow me a really good view of the ground, (and of crash site if that was in the plans for me that day). The Cherokee's 'wing under' design would limit my view of the ground (and the crash site). So I opted for the Cherokee. Besides, I was hoping to get a chance to actually touch the yoke or rudder pedals - an experience I've never had in a plane.
It was surprisingly simple to check various things, unhook the ropes, take off the tarps and get the plane warmed up. The runway was grass and fairly smooth with a stuff wind blowing. Take-off was easy and smooth.
Turbulence began soon!
At about 500 feet Dave said, "go ahead and take the yoke, you can feel how you really need to push against the resistance..." I pushed all right, because the plane wanted to climb way too steeply for my comfort. I was plenty nervous, but trying not to show it (yes it's a guy-thing). We climbed higher, and Dave suggested I continue to use the controls. Pretty soon I realized how easily you can lose focus on one or other dimension when you have three to deal with. As soon as I concentrated on flying in a straight heading we'd be climbing or descending. When I concentrated on descending or climbing we'd go into an unexpected turn. Turbulence followed us like a friendly dog. Finally I got us heading more or less where Dave suggested and then found we'd climbed an extra 500 feet without me noticing it. We spent about 30 minutes going over Prince Edward County, Napanee, the 401 and then a return to Belleville. A pass over the airport showed us nobody was getting ready to take off , and we could see the wind-sock billowed out full. Yes it was plenty windy on the ground too. Amazing how quickly we got to the proper altitude with just a little reduction of the throttle. Before long we were gliding just above the grass and then Dave landed smoothly despite a strong diagonal wind blowing.
Research is very cool.
Considering the experience, maybe I'll have Dan steal a Piper Cherokee 140 instead of a Cessna...
below, the cockpit of a Cherokee 160

*The Cessna 172 is one of the aircraft featured in the flight training computer program called Flight Simulator 2002, which has realistic flight movement and all sorts of options such as high winds, poor visibility, night flying, failures to controls or instruments, and messy things like that. You can also crash using Flight Simulator and when you first start using it, that's generally what you do.
In the story Dan becomes highly adept at flying the simulated aircraft in all kinds of strange wind and weather conditions. He also gets lessons from an uncle, who is a pilot, and he successfully pilots a real plane during a time when all motion ceases, including wind.

Flying in an environment of no wind at all - something rare enough- should take some of the guess-work, fear, danger, and knuckle-whitening excitement out of flying. I imagine that flying with no wind might be like driving a car with no traffic or things to bump into - except that in flying, the landing can still kill you... I'll be talking to more people who know about such things... I'll keep you posted.