About Light Novels and the new Standard of Readability

If you don’t know what a light novel is, it’s a kind of literature pretty much limited to Japan.  They’re written primarily for young-adult audiences, but are distinct from traditional young-adult novels. They’re usually serialized chapter-by-chapter in magazines before being gathered into full-volumes (a topic which I’ll probably discuss later because I love the idea of serialization).

Rental Magica, a Light Novel written by Makoto Sanda

Rental Magica, a light novel written by Makoto Sanda

A lot of people define light novels by the fact that they’re illustrated, which they are (usually in manga-style), but I disagree with that. I think it’s possible to have an illustrated novel that isn’t light and a light novel that isn’t illustrated. To me, the difference is wholly in the style of the writing, and that’s why I’m so interested in them.

The first thing to notice about how light novels are written is that they tend to be…shall we say playful…with the conventions of the language. It’s not uncommon to see musical notes used as punctuation, as well as things like “What???!!?!?!??” and my personal favorite: “…” to indicate a pointed silence. Whether it’s grammatically correct or not to use ellipses that way I think it’s fantastic. And sometimes they go on forever, taking up entire lines so that you can actually feel the awkwardness of it as you read.

But that’s all superficial. The real differences is that they’re very minimalistic in terms of their writing style. They’re generally shorter than regular novels, though not always (and, just as we see in regular novels, they tend to get longer the farther into a series you go). The good ones use their illustrations to make providing descriptions quicker and more fluid (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all), which can be helpful in cutting out some of the bloat. But again, that’s not necessary.

What really makes them faster reading is how their paragraphing is laid out. It’s rare in a light novel to see a paragraph longer than three sentences. This actually makes a huge difference in terms of reading speed. On my best day I can get through a full-length novel in eight hours. I can get through a light novel in three and get just as much out of the experience. The best example I’ve seen in American literature is the Danial X series by James Patterson and various co-authors (no paragraph is longer than three sentences and no chapter is longer than three pages).

This actually brings me to my main point, about what it means for a novel (or anything for that matter) to be “readable.” By definition that would mean if you are capable of reading it, it’s readable. But when we say that, we’re usually only thinking in terms of legibility, of whether or not it can be understood. Yes that’s an important thing to keep in mind, but there’s another question that is equally important that must be kept in mind: Is anyone going to take the time to read this?

There are some people who absolutely love books. For them, reading is its own reward. For them, the time spent reading isn’t a factor. That’s fine, and that’s why books like Ulysses get published despite being hellish verbal bogs through which readers must fight for every step forward. But I would argue that most of the market for novels isn’t made up of this kind of bibliophile. They’re not reading to be reading, they’re reading to be entertained. To hear a story, to see something different or unusual. And for a time, books were the only game in town if you wanted that kind of diversion.

But not anymore. Now books need to compete with movies, TV, video games, and comics to earn the right to entertain us, and just looking at the time commitments involved books don’t look so good. Let’s say it takes an average person ten hours to read a full novel. In that time, they could watch nearly seven movies or an entire 13-episode series of a TV show (I should know, I spent the first part of my winter vacation getting caught back up on How I Met Your Mother when I still have unread books on my shelves).

I believe that each media has some advantages over the others. There are things books can do that movies will never even come close to touching. But are those things really worth a whole 8.5 hours of someone’s life per book? With more things to occupy our time than ever before, now more than ever every moment is valuable and how we choose to spend it matters.

In light of this, I think the traditional ideas of readability, as well as the traditional idea of the novel, may need to change and adapt to the modern marketplace or else face extinction. This is why the style of the light novel interests me so much, because anything we can do to make our writing just that much faster will definitely help it stand out and ultimately survive.

But those are just my thoughts. What are yours?

How much does the Earth Weigh?

I actually heard this question in a smartphone commercial and it bothered me. They were showing off how easy it is to do a Google search from the newest tablet or whatever; just ask your question and it speaks the answer to you. In this case 5.97E24kg.

Only that’s not the answer. That’s what bothered me. And the truth is there’s a lot of interesting physics in that question and a very common misconception. Being a physics teacher, I feel like I should address it. So let’s discuss.

First of all, the question that Google answered isn’t how much the Earth weighs, it’s how massive the Earth is. This is a common misconception, that mass and weight are the same thing. They’re related, but separate, just how you and your parents share some of the same genes yet aren’t the same person. An object’s mass is just a measure of how much stuff it contains, its density multiplied by its volume. An object’s weight is the gravitational force pulling it toward the nearest massive object, usually the Earth. The mass of the Earth isn’t all that interesting to consider, even though it is interesting to think about how exactly we figured it out.

So now that we know 5.97E24kg isn’t how much the Earth weighs, what is? Here’s where things start to get fun. An object’s weight is just the force with which the Earth pulls on that object though gravity. But forces can only exist between two separate objects. By that logic, if we consider the Earth to be a single, solid object, it doesn’t weigh anything.

But that doesn’t really make sense, does it? It can’t weigh nothing. So what if we could take the Earth and put it on top of a big bathroom scale. If we then took the reading on that scale, wouldn’t that tell us how much the Earth weighs?

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Pictured: Science

Believe it or not, you can do this yourself if you have a flat scale. All you need to do is flip it over and put it on the ground. You now have a scale with the world resting on top of it. So what does that scale read? Whatever the scale weighs. So if you’re using a 10 pound scale, the scale would read 10 pounds, a 15 pound scale would read 15 pounds and so on. Scales work by measuring the force used to compress their pressure-sensitive plates. If you flip the scale over, its own weight is the force pressing that plate down, so that’s the force it reads.

So if we take this definition to be our measurement of weight, then the Earth only weighs as much as whatever you’re using to measure it.

But that still can’t be right. Let’s assume we take all of the matter that makes up the Earth, duplicate it, and then put that on a scale. What would be the weight of all that material? Surely we can call this the weight of the world.

Sadly, this also gets us into some trouble, in that we need to consider exactly how big we make our pile of matter. The bigger the pile is, the farther away from the Earth the top of it would be. The farther away the top of the pile is from the Earth, the less it is pulled by the Earth’s gravity. The less gravity it feels, the less it weighs. If we assume our material is molded into a sphere the size of the Earth, then everything halfway up the pile would weight 4 times less than it would if it were at the bottom of the pile (gravity is an Inverse Square Law, so if we double the distance between two objects we reduce the force between them by a factor of 4). The material all the way at the top of the pile weighs 9 times less than it would on the bottom of the pile, since it’s three Earth-radii away from the Earth’s center as opposed to only one. So whatever our scale reads in this case will be much less than the Earth’s true weight.

We can fix this by taking that big ball of matter and compressing it to a size where we can measure it without noticing the changes in the Earth’s own gravitational field–say shrink it down to the size of a baseball (fortunately that’s still big enough that it doesn’t turn into a black hole and doom us all). If we plop this baseball with all the mass of the Earth crammed into it onto our scale, what would it read? What would be the weight of the world?

If you do the math: 5.85E25 Newtons or about 13,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds.

With that out of the way, there’s really only one question left: Why am I even bothering to write about this?

The answer is two-fold. First, because this is my blog and I can write about whatever I want. But more importantly because these are the kinds of exercises that make teaching and learning and knowing physics worthwhile. In my opinion this is true physics. Notice I didn’t need to do a single calculation until the very end. Sure there are still equations, but they’re not nearly as important as the relationships they imply between the different variables. And this is what so often gets lost in the increasingly “plug and chug” nature of physics education. With both our kids’ worth as students and ours as teachers determined by the outcome of a single test at the end of the year, fewer and fewer teachers are willing to venture off and teach kids what they should be learning rather than simply what they “need” to know. To me, this is one of the most depressing things to happen to education in recent history.

So I’ll post here whatever I want to. Because no matter how they try, no one can ever stop you from learning.

About Dunbar’s Number and Quality Education

Recently I came across a concept known as Dunbar’s Number that really resonated with me, having just started the school year.

The idea is that based on the size of the human neocortex, there is a limit to the number of people we can “know” at any given time. To know, in this case, means to have a social relationship with, to know not just their name and face, but who they are as a person and how they relate to others. It’s a limit imposed by the brain on the size of our social circles, and estimates (because this is certainly not an exact science) place it somewhere between 100 and 230 people. The most commonly cited number is 150 people.

While this is certainly interesting in its own right when compared to the numbers of “friends” that many people have on sites such as facebook, it really hit home for me when I got my class rosters for the first time last week.

Teaching six classes, each of them at the maximum capacity allowed by law in my city, I see over 200 students every single day.

That’s not just 200 names I need to memorize and papers I need to grade, but two-hundred young individuals with different wants and goals and in the classroom. Two-hundred kids who want and need and deserve to be more than just a name on an attendance sheet.

According to Dunbar’s theories and research, no matter how hard I want to or how hard I try, I can never truly relate with all of my students at a personal level. There are just too many of them. What is so bad about this is that it is precisely that kind of connection that leads to the greatest insight, learning, and growth in students.

Think back to your favorite teachers when you were a student. Were they the ones who didn’t know your name, or the ones who knew and cared what you were doing outside of school? Sure that still happens with plenty of teachers and students, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed with a schooling system where this physically cannot happen between every student and every teacher.

Teaching isn’t—or shouldn’t—just be about getting through the curriculum. We’re not there just as knowledge dispensers, living encyclopedias. But even if we were, being able to tailor the material and curriculum to the specific needs, interests, and personal histories of our students guarantees that they will learn more and have a better understanding of the material.

I realize that overcrowding in the classroom is a problem precisely because there are too many students and not enough teachers, and I realize there is no simple way to fix this (although affording teachers the respect and professional stature they deserve in an attempt to convince the next generation that teaching is, in fact, a career worth pursuing would certainly be a good start), but I think it needs to be said yet again that the current system is unfair to both the teachers and students who are trapped within it.

It is an unfair expectation that teacher be able to know and interact at the personal level with two-hundred people every day (maybe as many as two-hundred-and-fifty once you include co-workers and other school staff), to place on them such a heavy load and still expect the results and excellence that came from a time when teachers had half as many students to engage and entertain.

But more importantly, it is unfair to the students who must fight for the attention of their teachers, struggling to be known as something more than just a name on a slip of paper. It is unfair to ask them to succeed and excel when their teachers do not have enough time in the day to sit with them as individuals and discuss their personal educations. To me, this is one of the greatest shames of the American education system.

All that said, I love my job and would not give it up for anything, and despite the overwhelming odds I will continue trying to make my classroom a place where all students can be known and all voices heard. Because for now, that’s all we can really do.

About Schools and Being Educated

As the holiday weekend comes to a close, the day that millions across the country dread silently approaches. That’s right. For many, the first day of school approacheth.

The undeniable fact is that far more students dislike school than enjoy it. This is more than just about any fact or statistic depresses me to no end. It shouldn’t be this way. There is no one party responsible for this—neither the ungrateful students nor restrictive schools are entirely to blame. Both sides share responsibility, and both must make concessions to fix this.

First, let’s address the schools.

The concept of fairness and equality in education is a great and noble goal. Unfortunately, the practices associated with that principle often fall far short of their goals. Many policy makers mistake “the same quality of education for all,” with “the same education for all,” which has disastrous effects for everyone involved. This where restrictive and inflexible curricula and standards that favor rote memorization over true and fundamental understanding come from.

Standardization is one of the worst things to happen to education, for the simple reason that only measurable artifacts can be standardized. But learning and understanding often can’t be quantized across a large and diverse population. In today’s environment, schools and teachers are implicitly instructed to favor the product over the process simply because products are easier to measure.

But in education, the process is all that matters.

Especially in the increasingly digital world we live in today, the memorization and regurgitation of facts is becoming an antiquated skill. While I would prefer that students be able to recite from memory Newton’s Second Law or the date Magna Carta was signed (F=ma and 1215, in case you were wondering), today it’s so easy to look things like that up on smart phones that there seems to be no point in even bothering to memorize them. I’ll address the issues with that later, but it’s certain that no one’s life or career will ever depend on their ability to recite trivia from memory any more, if at all they ever did.

Schools should focus not on how much students can memorize, but on how well they can use the resources presented to them. School should be a place for the enrichment of thought and cultivation of understanding, not a place to sit for hours on end and have facts jammed into your head.

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The rigid structures of the school day, the emphasis on shallow assessments, and the passive way in which all too many students are taught to learn are slowly but surely killing education. If we want to thrive as a country and as a culture, they need to change. That said, there’s no simple solution to this problem, no matter which politicians or policy-makers say otherwise.

Now for the students.

You don’t know how lucky you are. That’s not your fault, and I certainly didn’t when I was your age. Given the way things are now, it seems impossible that a little over a hundred years ago there was no mandatory education.

If you go to school, I don’t care what happens in the rest of your life you are privileged. Less than 1% of the human population has ever had access to the kind of education at your fingertips every day. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty, but think about that for a bit. For most of human history, the opportunity to sit in a classroom and do nothing but learn was restricted to only the wealthiest and highest born children. That’s how far we’ve come.

You are privileged because you’re not forced to spend every minute of every day struggling to support yourself and have enough food to make it through the day. Even if you work part-time jobs, the fact remains that five days a week you are given a time and place in which to only think about exploring the world around you and discovering yourself.

Because that’s your primary job as a student. As you are now you’re incomplete. Take the time during the school week to figure out who you are and what you want. Learn to write, learn to think, learn to explore and be self-sufficient.

Yes tests can be tedious and frightening, and sure the rules and regulations can seem restrictive and counterproductive, but that will always be the case, even after you’ve graduated and moved on. Now is your chance to learn how to deal with that pressure while being free from the many responsibilities that will saddle you when you’re older.

If you find yourself wondering when exactly you’ll use the things you’re learning in school, maybe you never will. That doesn’t detract from the value of having learned them. A secondary education is more about learning how to learn than about the particular facts and formulae you end up learning. You’re learning skills, practicing on what might be trivia so that later you can use them on things that will be more directly relevant to your life.

And never forget that your education isn’t free, even if you attend public school. We, the adults of your community, pay through taxes for you to receive the best education possible. This isn’t charity, and it’s not for your benefit. It’s for ours. We are investing in your education so that you can go on to do great things that will make our lives better and longer in the future. We pay for you to be educated so that you can cure the diseases that would otherwise kill us as we age, or clean up the disaster we’ve made of the planet so we don’t choke to death on all the smog, or even so you can invent the device that heats up butter just enough to make it spreadable but not enough to melt it.

No matter who we are, there will inevitably come a day when we need you, and for that reason we want you to be as prepared as possible for when that day comes. Remember that the next time you’re debating the value of the things you’re learning in school.

By all means enjoy yourselves, but also take full advantage of this time in your life where your major responsibility is to learn and grow and develop as a human being. Trust me, it won’t last nearly as long as you think it will.

Podcast: FSoG Critique, chapter 1

Hey everyone!
As promised, here’s my podcast critique of the first chapter of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Download link below:

Download it Here!!!

Sorry if it’s a little rough, this is my first time doing something like this. The quality gets a little better towards the end, but it is what it is. If you enjoy it, feel free to share the link.

Remember I do not own this book. This is only my opinion and is meant to use the text to teach and talk about writing. Feel free to read along with me and share your thoughts in comments. If you don’t have the book, you can buy it here.

Music courtesy of Piano Society. Seriously, check them out if you like classical music.

Let me know if you enjoy this or find it helpful/interesting. If you want me to keep going and do chapter 2 as well let me know, or if there’s another popular book you’d rather hear me talk about next.

About Teaching and Writing

As most of you have probably noticed, most of the time I’ll write about writing on my blog. That’s because I love writing and I love talking about writing. However, as much time as I’ve spent doing it over the past few years, writing isn’t my area of expertise.

My degrees are in physics and education. By day I’m a teacher. It’s only by night that I’m a writer, at least for now. I love teaching just as much as I love writing. After all, I get paid to talk nonstop about a subject I really enjoy to kids who are required to sit and listen to me. What could be better than that?

With the school year fast approaching, I was thinking about my two passions, and I realized that it’s no coincidence I enjoy them both so much—they’re practically the same thing.

 

Here’s what I mean.

Writers as Teachers:

In order for us to enjoy a book, it has to be able to teach us. If you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a new world. This is true whether your book takes place in a distant galaxy, in a magical realm, or in downtown Detroit. When you write you create a setting that’s distinct from the everyday lives of your readers. It’s your job as the creator and writer to teach your readers how your world works. What does it look like? What are the rules (magical, societal, legal, it doesn’t matter where they come from)? What can we expect?

The same is true for your characters. They are obviously not real people, but you must teach your readers enough about them that we can forget this and think about them as people rather than constructs. You need to teach your readers about each character’s history and how it has shaped their present. You teach their quirks, their interests, their hopes and dreams, and if you’ve done your job right we know them as well as our own friends.

The better you are at teaching your readers about the worlds you create and the characters who inhabit it, the more lasting an impression your book will leave. What separates a good book from a great book is how much and how well a writer can teach his or her readers about the world they’ve created.

Teachers as Writers:

If you think a teacher’s job is to sit in front of a class all day and just spout facts and information, think back to your best and favorite teachers in school. Is that how they taught? Odds are it wasn’t.

If all it took to learn was exposure to knowledge, school would consist entirely of someone standing behind a podium reading an encyclopedia. But as anyone who’s ever tried to memorize an encyclopedia (just me?) can tell you, it’s not that easy.

That’s because facts devoid of context are boring, and boring things are harder to commit to memory. What we learn best are stories, so that’s what teachers have to create.

In order to teach effectively, you need to create a story out of your material. You need to reshape it so that it’s interesting and relevant to the lives of your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching science, history, foreign language, or art, the best teachers weave their subject matter into a narrative that’s interesting and easy to follow.

Why this Matters:

Teaching and writing mesh together really well, and incorporating aspects of one into the other have made me better at both. I mentioned last week how my outlining process is the same for writing units and novels, but that’s not all the crossover I’ve seen. Teaching has made me more conscientious of my readers, always keeping in mind where they might be coming from, what they’re expecting to get out of a book and what they may want to see. Writing has made my units more cohesive, my classes more engaging. I’ve even reshaped my curriculum, straying from the traditional sequence to form a better and more compelling narrative.

So my question to all of you this week is this: How does your job relate to your hobbies? This could be writing, gardening, boxing, I don’t care. What might doing one teach you about the other? What aspects can be shared between them? Think about it and let me know. I’d be interested to hear from you.

About the Importance of Planning [a Novel]

Another post on writing, or my opinions thereof. As I get ready for school in a few weeks maybe I’ll write about education week. Let me know if that sounds interesting.

In terms of writing, and I suppose more generally life, there seem to be two schools of thought. One favors spontaneity and diving in head first while the other favors thinking and looking before taking the leap.

I’m talking, of course, about whether or not to outline a story.

Honestly, I’m not sure why there’s even a debate about this. My first attempt at a novel I wrote with unfortunately limited forethought. It was 130,000 words of absolute train wreck. On the upside I still take it out and read bits of it when I’m feeling down to remind myself that I used to be much, much worse. So at least I got something out of the process (aside from the experience).

Part of the reason I think it was so bad (sadly neither the fact that I was in college at the time or that most of it was written at three in the morning count as decent excuses) is that I didn’t take the time to plan it out properly.

Planning a novel, or even a short story, is the only consistent way to end up with a good product. At least in my experience. There are, of course, flukes and exceptions, but then someone has to win the lottery every once in a while. But more to the point, after I took the time to think about it, it’s the only way to write that actually makes sense to me.

Think about it. You don’t take a trip across the world without first booking yourself a place to stay. Painters don’t immediately put their brushes to the canvas but sketch out their vision in pencil. Architects make blueprints and models long before they break ground. That’s because all of these things—trips, paintings, buildings, and even novels—all represent huge investments of time and resources.

There are bound to be flaws in everything we do at first. As Hemmingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He’s right, and not just about writing. When we first conceive of something, it’s riddled with holes and inconsistencies, parts that are hazy and parts that are just bad and we don’t have the perspective yet to notice.

Often, writing a full draft on that first hazy idea is like building a model around a broken skeleton. Don’t be surprised when it can’t stand on its own.

Rather than that doomed draft, write an outline. That way, you’ll be able to see which parts aren’t working without investing the months (or, more realistically for a novel, years) it takes to write something only to find out it’s crap. It’s a sketching and diagnostic process where you enhance the parts that work well and cut out the parts that are dragging you down, just as an artist perfects his vision in malleable pencil before moving to paint and the architect first works with models before building the real thing.

You could argue that writing is far less permanent than a building, or even a painting, and you would be right. We can always go back and fix our mistakes (at least until it gets picked up and published, but that’s a different story), but do we really want to spend that time? Isn’t the whole point of the first draft to just get it on paper, even if it all ends up being unusable gibberish? Well, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems like a shame to waste that much time, especially important if you have to support yourself with something other than writing. For most of us, time to write can be hard to come by. I personally don’t want to waste it running in circles chasing my tail.

That said, the main argument against planning and outlining is that such forethought becomes constraining, inhibiting the naturally creative process of writing. If you ever find this to be true, then you’re not using your outline properly.

An outline should never constrict you. You’re the boss, you make the decisions. If you come up with a better idea while writing, then by all means go for it. It’s a guide, not a cast-iron contract. You’re always allowed to branch off, the outline is just there to keep you focused and heading in the right direction. You should never let any part of your writing control you, and that includes your outline.

Outlining novels has worked well for me since I started doing it, cutting down the number and severity of re-writes I’ve had to do and making the writing itself go quicker. I’d definitely recommend everyone at least try it. If it’s not for you then that’s fine. But I’ve found the process has helped me in more than just my writing—I plan weekly lessons and monthly units for my classes the exact same way I plot a novel. And now, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way.

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A little planning could keep this from happening to you.

What do you think? How do you prepare before you write? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

About Reading [Poorly Written Books]

Sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out, but it's worth it...usually.

There are two ways to learn how to write: by reading and by writing. Both of them are equally important. All it takes to get experience writing is a pen and paper or a word processor and a laptop. As for reading, you read all the best books you can get your hands on. Isn’t that enough?

I don’t think so.

I think a flaw in the way we teach English in America, at least in terms of preparing students to write their own stories and novels, is that we have a bias toward good books. Think about it, what did you read and analyze in high school? Shakespeare? Moby-Dick? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Chances are, you read nothing but classics. Even if you had a progressive teacher who had you reading current books, I’ll bet they were still award winning and well-written.

There’s nothing wrong with reading good books. That’s how we as budding writers begin to develop our own voices and styles. We read them to see how they did what they did, so that we can one day write like them. From the good books we read come our aspirations and inspiration.

But that’s only half of the picture that we, as aspiring writers, need to be successful. Watching a master dance effortlessly through a mine field might take your breath away and inspire you, but it won’t do anything to show you where the mines are buried. Maybe one rare genius may be able to follow in their footsteps exactly and not blow herself up. But for the rest of us it can more helpful to watch someone else step on a mine so that know where it’s buried.

That’s where poorly written books come in. Notice I don’t call them bad, because I believe a book can be at once both good and poorly written. To me, a bad book is one that fails to meet its own expectations. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books. I certainly don’t enjoy reading them, but many, many people do. And that’s all those books want for themselves. They’re not meant to be literature, to withstand the test of time and be this generation’s Sound and the Fury. They’re meant to be the potato chips of the literary world, consumed quickly and without thought, and by anyone’s count they’ve certainly succeeded at this.

But they are still poorly written, earning their success in spite of their writing as opposed to because of it. Books like this can get away with being poorly written, but they don’t have to. And these authors all make a lot of the same mistakes.

So even though it can be painful, read them. Learn from their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones in your own writing. You may not enjoy yourself, but I think your writing will be better for the experience. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What do you think? What are some of the most poorly written books you’ve ever read and did you learn anything about how not to write from them? I’ll share some of my own experiences later. I’m even thinking of making a podcast reading and critiquing Fifty Shades if that would be something anyone is interested in (I’m certainly not looking forward to the idea but I think it’s worth doing).