Tips for Young Student Authors

It’s good to try out a lot of things and don’t worry about success or failure. Most readers, agents and publishers are not going to want to read or publish a writer still in school, but there are always exceptions to that rule. The important thing is to finish the project you started and make it the best it can possibly be. Even if the book amounts to nothing, 10-20 years later you will always look with pride at how you managed to pull everything together.

The biggest challenge a writer faces is indifference and rejection. The other big problem is that people are less interested in reading books by people who are not famous. The battle to convince people that your books are interesting takes a lot of patience and perseverance.

The other big challenge is that writing a book is hard. It takes a lot of work and a lot of revision. It is hard making it as slim as possible and also easy to read. Just organizing plot and character is complicated and hard. It can frustrate many people (even many smart people). Often you don’t realize why your book is hard to read. It’s also hard being original, or trying an idea that doesn’t just copy what another author has tried.

The big overwhelming question the author must ask is, “so what?!” Why is this book important? Why should someone care about your character? Why should someone read this book instead a book by Hemingway or Tolstoy? Maybe friends or family can appreciate something you’ve written, but keep in mind that most potential readers are never going to meet you or know how interesting or unusual you are.

Finishing or publishing a novel is a worthy summer or school project, but many writers have the sense that their writing style will improve, and so there’s no rush in publishing when your style is not yet ready. That raises a paradox. Practice makes perfect; the more you write, the easier it becomes. Also, every writing project is in a sense a practice project, so there’s no harm in perfecting it until you are completely happy with it — regardless of how old you are. (Many sci fi authors and poets get started early though).

A writer can end up waiting forever for the right publishing opportunity. The submission/rejection process is long and frustrating. It is not unusual to self-publish your first or second book just because you’re sick and tired of waiting for opportunities.

If you want to self-publish commercially, I recommend publishing as an ebook — either through Draft2Digital or KDP. Both are free. The main problem with KDP is that you are using proprietary tools that work on only one platform (i.e, Kindle). Ideally you want to create an ebook which is readable on several reading systems. Draft2Digital uses its own tools, but I think they produce epub which can be submitted to any bookstore. Alternately you can use Calibre or Adobe Indesign. The main problem with printed books is that the options either require your buying a 100 copies and selling it yourself — or uploading it to a print-on-demand place (like Amazon, Lulu, etc) and then being forced to sell it at too high a price.

If you want to self-publish noncommercially, I recommend Wattpad or something similar. Many writers have developed a following of loyal readers that way even if they are giving away stories for free.

If you want to produce something you can show your friends, consider printing it informally from Kinkos or Office Depot and selling for a few bucks (as a zine, etc).

There is no shame about waiting until you finish graduating from college to start publishing; you’d still be ahead of most writers. One important reason for completing a book while still a student is so you can include it with applications for college or graduate school.

Paying for editors to edit your fiction is always an option, but it’s too expensive for most people.

If you are under 25, the easiest way to get feedback for your fiction is to join a writers’ group or sign up for a creative writing class (at community college or at a university). Often you can find information about local writers’ groups at your public library. Or you can start one yourself! Don’t be alarmed if people in your group are significantly older or younger than you. A variety of perspectives always provides the best feedback.

Alternately you can join an online writers’ group; the main problem is people don’t have to be polite or civilized, so it can quickly get nasty.

A good place for getting started is publishing to magazines. If you want to submit to magazines, submit to contests, find literary agents, I recommend signing up for duotrope $5/month or $50 per year.

Nowadays it’s becoming common to pay a submission fee to enter a contest or submit to a magazine. This is not a scam, but you should be careful not to pay too much for this. $5 or less per submission is reasonable.

Some good books for starting out: Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Also Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark and A Worker’s Writebook by Jack Matthews (which my publishing company publishes!) I love the Roy Peter Clark book even though it’s more about nonfiction writing and journalism.

One first step to being a good writer is finding out what’s out there. I’d recommend subscribing to a newsletter of your favorite author. Also, subscribing to an ebook deal newsletter can make you aware of good cheap ebooks out there. (Look for bookgorilla, bargainbooksy, bookbub).

Another good step is regularly listening to podcasts by authors or about a book genre. There are tons of good ones.

See also: my tips and tricks for young student writers and my letter to middle school students.

Writing Update for my Students (2017)

A quick update about my writing projects.

First, I have put off  Ice Cream Follies indefinitely though I will definitely return to it.

Last summer I realize that I need to be publishing a lot more books — probably a book a year!  Actually I am very behind on publishing books; there’s a good chance that for 2017 I will publish two books — one fiction and the other nonfiction. Please note that some of my books consist of more adult themes, so I won’t be listing them all here. I publish under pseudonyms anyway, so it may be hard to find what I’ve been up to.

This year, I’m working on Minor Sketches and Reveries (short stories) and hopefully also my essay collection Noncrappy things from my blog will be ready.  I’m practically finished for my 2018 book, and I’m not 100% sure what my 2019 book will be; it might be a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ebook I am working on. (Or it might be one of my more serious projects, who knows).  I want to publish at least 2 or 3 books for young readers; I don’t write them any differently or censor myself; it’s just that some titles might interest people from all ages, while others will not.

As before, I’ve been reading a lot of cool stuff from Project Gutenberg. Let me mention three:

Penrod by Booth Tarkington. This really funny book is about a stubborn and mischievous 11 year old. Although it takes the point of view of Penrod the boy, the writing is very sophisticated and satirical. Also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I’ve been told that the sequel Penrod and Sam is also great. (Incidentally, I’d really love to write a novel in the same vein as this book).

Speaking of funny stuff, I think Pigs is Pigs is one of the funniest short stories I have ever read. Guess what, Walt Disney made it into a comic animation movie (you should still read the story though).

I’m working on an essay about an 1836 Texas travel book that was the first book to describe the “Texian Revolution”. A fascinating ebook read.

No guarantees, but I think I will be performing again at this year’s Liars’ Contest sponsored by the Houston Storytellers’ Guild.  I competed a few times (last time I even got a trophy), but I still haven’t won.

Finally, I wish to teach you something related to writing. Getting stuck.

I have been stuck for a several weeks on several stories. I have been  working on 3 stories simultaneously (and have been revising another).  One story is long and complicated (too complicated) and I’m having trouble finishing, but I know that I will. Another story is easy to write and I will be writing and finishing it — but it is not a priority because it is not for this year’s book. The third story is for the book. Initially I was excited by the delicious premise, but after playing around with several possibilities over a few weeks, I realize that I just wouldn’t be able to write it! It’s not impossible to write, but the story had structural problems that I couldn’t write out of. I felt boxed in by the idea rather than liberated by it.

I have started stories that I thought I’d never finish. I’ve also gotten seriously stuck in some stories — and then eventually I figure out how to get past it and it ended up one of my most successful stories. Actually, this happens fairly frequently. There is a tendency for writers to avoid complex points in the narrative and just to make everything sound simple. There is a certain virtue to  that, but that is too obvious; sometimes it is better to mix a lot of different colors on your palette rather than just relying on three or four primary colors. Most narrative problems are not insurmountable, but what worried me more about this failed story is that the idea couldn’t walk on its own without substantial help (Also, it seemed to duplicate the theme of another story of mine slightly). At that point, I decided it wasn’t worth my time to  try to make my idea work. Time to invent a totally new idea. (wish me luck!).



Odds and Ends

A few notes.

First, my ebook project Ice Cream Follies has been delayed by a year. I think it will be ready in 2017 (fingers crossed). Sometimes life has a habit of getting in the way of creative writing projects. It happens.

Interestingly, the challenges of doing my own creative writing assignments turned out to be greater than I imagined. The mature writer tends to want to write novellas about everything — it’s hard to limit yourself to a page or two. I have been working on other story collections. I hope to have a serious fiction collection out within the year.

Two other book projects that have interested me.

First, my ebook publishing  company  published a short story collection about the Civil War. I ended up learning about a lot of Young Adult fiction about the 19th century and the Civil War.  I created an online bibliography of Civil War fiction for young adults here.  You can download the Oliver Optic ebooks here and the Joseph A. Altsheler novels here.

Second, I recently learned that my favorite story book  (titled Golden Phoenix)  as a child fell out of copyright. It’s very likely that I will republish the ebook and give it away for free. The original book looked terrific; I’ll try to do justice to it in the ebook version. Look for it in 2017.


Continue reading

“No More Zombies!” A comic adventure


I told this story at the Houston Storytellers’ Guild 2015  “Liars’ Contest.” It was partly inspired by my  recent adventures teaching at a middle school. It belongs to my Booby Naked story collection .

Earlier this year I started teaching at Romero Middle School. I taught creative writing. It was my first year teaching, so there were always surprises.

For example, middle school students ask strange questions. Like, Mr. Nagle, are you married? Mr. Nagle, do you have a girlfriend? Mr. Nagle, are you gay? Mr. Nagle, do you have a car? Mr. Nagle, do you like football? Mr. Nagle, do you drink a lot of beer? Mr. Nagle, what do you think of Kanye West? Mr. Nagle, do you have $5 I can borrow? Mr. Nagle, what’s the wifi password? Mr. Nagle, did you get fired from your last job?

One day I gave students a writing assignment. While they were writing, one girl’s hand shot up. I expected that she wanted me to explain something or would ask me for a pencil. Instead she asked, “Mr. Nagle, have you ever been to SeaWorld? It’s REALLY fun.”

(In case you’re wondering, the answer to those questions is No, no, no, no, no, no, don’t care, no, there isn’t one, of course not and not yet).

Another strange thing about middle school students is that no matter how many times you remind them, 20-25% will forget to put their name and period number on assignments. I ended up having to toss out a lot of brilliant but nameless compositions.

No matter what the writing assignment, half the students will quickly close their notebook after writing the words “THE END” in big letters at the bottom of the page.

Next class I told them loudly, “Do not write those two words at the end of your paper. It is unnecessary; the end needs to be a natural stopping point. Your essay shouldn’t just end when you are tired.”

I thought I had myself perfectly clear, but when the next batch of student papers came in, the number of “THE ENDs” at the bottom of the page remained the same.

I did a lesson about TV writing. We watched Twilight Zone episodes, then students were supposed to brainstorm TV plots in small groups.

During class I walked around the room, listening to what each group was planning.

When I walked by Group One, I overheard their discussions: “There are these students being chased by zombies. The zombies chase them around the school hallways until the students trap them in the cafeteria. But the students have already put cans of gasoline inside, so once all the zombies are there, the heroes kill them by throwing a match in the room.”

When I pass by Group Two, I hear a different approach. They were excitedly discussing Zombie Airlines where zombie flight attendants attack passengers in midair by zombies, so that when the passengers land, they will eat the brains of anybody who picks them up at the airport.

The third group is actively struggling. “Mr. Nagle,” the group leader says. “We already agree that the story will be about a zombie apocalypse at Walmart. We are agreed that ebola is how the zombie disease is spread to humans. We just can’t agree how to kill them: should they be killed by fireballs, cutting off their heads or exposing them to radiation?”

“Enough!” I said the next day. “No More Zombies!” I write in big letters on the board. “Zombies were a cliche 40 years ago. There is no plot twist involving zombies which hasn’t already been done. Zombie stories are too predictable, and so are the characters. Either the good guys turn out to be zombies or at the last minute the hero accidentally discovers a new way to kill zombies, or the hero finally dies during one last battle or the hero was a zombie all along. There’s a reason that zombies turn up in video games but not Shakespeare: plot is nothing more than chasing and killing and spawning other zombies. There’s only one thing that zombies can infect — your grades! For that reason, I am making a new rule: No more zombies!””

The students cried out in protest.

“Mr. Nagle, it’s not fair!” said one indignant student. “I already started my story, and now you want me to throw it away just because you decided to change the rules.”

“Mr Nagle,” said another. “My story doesn’t have zombies but creatures which look and act like zombies but are purple-colored and called Zambies. Is that ok?”

“Mr. Nagle, I know you don’t want us to write about zombies,” said a third. “But my zombies are special. They’re not even called zombies, and yes, they like to eat brains, but they also like eating ice cream. My zombies don’t carry disease, but they shoot laser beams out of their eyes. Is that all right?

“Of course not,” I said.

“Mr Nagle,” asked another. “My main character is a little girl who thinks she is a zombie and goes about eating people’s brains and then she wakes up and realizes it was just a dream. Is that all right?”

“Absolutely not!” I said. “Instead of trying to find a loophole, why not just come up with a non-zombiesh idea?!”

Then Michelle Kellogg raised her hand. She was the best student in the class. “Mr. Nagle,” she said, “on the first day of class, you said that to write great stories, we needed to free our imaginations. But now you are saying that freeing our imagination is forbidden; doesn’t that make it impossible to write great stories? Suppose I wanted to use a zombie in a poem. Or what if the main character works at a factory job so dull that she imagines that zombies run it. Or maybe my story is about a zombie high school where one lone zombie secretly prefers to eat bananas and is scorned by her peers. Should I toss away these ideas simply because you have decided that you know better what stories are good? This isn’t a creative writing class — this is a dictatorship!”

“Yeah!” everyone in the class yelled.

“You are exaggerating,” I said to Michelle.

“Mr. Nagle, everyone in the class agrees with me,” Michelle said.

“Ellen,” I said to a small girl standing at my side. “Do you agree with Michelle?”

“No, I just want the restroom pass.”

“Mr. Nagle, I need a restroom pass too,” said a boy named Jesse.

“Jesse, you can wait until Ellen returns.”

“But Mr. Nagle, it’s an emergency! I really need to go.”

Relenting, I wrote Jesse a pass, as a tiny girl started pinching me. “What is it, Susan? Do you also have to go?”

“No,” she said, smiling. “I’m a zombie and I need to eat your brains….”

“Please sit down!” I said.

But three other students were huddled around me, with eyes pleading for either artistic license or the right to go potty — I could no longer tell the difference.

“Everybody, sit down and wait your turn.”

“But Mr. Nagle!” they said “Mr. Nagle!”

Just then I felt a sharp claw against my leg. It was Melanie who whined softly, “Mr. Nagle, is it all right if I eat your brains?”

“Sit down!” I repeated. “And stop being inappropriate.”

But now all the students crowded closer. I sidled to the door and glanced down the hallway. Inching towards me was the boy I had given the hall pass to. He was dragging his body forward, and his head was tilted sideways as he gave an unnatural smile.

Then it dawned on me. These students….they were all the same… They were zombies! Real live zombies! Crazed, single-minded, incapable of individual thought and determined to subvert every aspect of my authority. And they were trying to bite me… First, it was Melanie, but then a student named Jeffrey tried to do the same.

The bell rang, and I darted out the hallway before other students could chase me down. Various groups were emerging from each classroom and herding around me, but I ducked into a faculty restroom and locked the door.

Yells and moans were coming from the other side of the door, but I felt safe behind the restroom door. The bell rang again, but I could still hear pounding and the occasional yell from the other side of the door.

Just then I heard a grown up voice say, “Mr. Nagle, are you in there?” It was Officer Falcon, the campus police officer.

“Yes, I’m here!” I called out. A key opened the door, and Officer Falcon propped it open while waving a fiery torch towards the crowd of passing students.

“Move along! Move along!” he called out, causing them to recoil to the opposite wall.

“Mr Nagle, Principal Martin asked me to bring you to the front office.”

“The principal?” I said. I had never been called to the principal’s office before.

As Officer Falcon swept the torch ahead to repel the hordes of zombie students, we hurried to the front office.

Principal Martin was waiting.

“Mr. Nagle, we have a situation,” he said, ushering me into his office. “Several students and parents have said that you are forbidding students from writing about zombies.”

“That’s true.”


I began to explain my dissatisfaction with student assignments and why zombie-free stories were better. But Mr. Martin just sighed and said, “Mr. Nagle, do you see the problem?”


“The classroom is supposed to be a setting for diversity and mutual tolerance, but now you have turned it into something else. Our school is committed to a curriculum that is both innovative and inclusive. Perhaps when we were young, zombie sensibilities were never discussed — because we never were exposed to a more zombie-friendly curriculum, but times have changed — and that is a good thing.”

“Maybe that’s true,” I said. “But I wasn’t actually criticizing zombies. I just wanted to help students to avoid writing themselves into a corner.”

“Mr. Nagle, our most important duty is to cultivate THIS.” The principal pointed to his head. “The human brain. How can the world harvest these magnificent fruits of human intellect if our schools fail to grow them to maturity? Without the proper stimulation, the human brain tires and contracts; it could even wither away. As teachers, we need to align our lesson plans to support an optimal level of brain growth. For that reason, I am asking Ms. Kirkman to prepare a directive instructing you to adopt a policy of zombie-tolerance and respect. This should be reflected not only in assignments but also class discussions. If necessary, I can arrange for you to attend a zombie diversity workshop, but I trust you can follow the directive on your own. Am I right?”

“I guess so,” I replied.

“Good. Wait here, and I’ll see if Ms. Kirkman has the paperwork.”

Moments later, Mr. Martin returned with the papers, spread them on the desk, and stood behind me while I skimmed the contents.

“Would you like a pen?” he said.

“Yes, thank you.”

Mr. Martin reached over to hand me a pen. I caught him studying the back of my head, as if trying to decide which segment of my brain would make the most delectable appetizer.


(This story was originally published here).

Letter to my middle school writing students (December 2014)

(By Robert Nagle. I passed this letter to my creative writing students on the last day of class on December, 2014).

I hope you enjoyed this creative writing class. I  enjoyed being regularly surprised by what  you think and write about. Don’t worry if your writing skills aren’t fully developed or if you  feel  you haven’t expressed something perfectly. Sometimes it’s more important just to write  something down than to make it  perfect. Do not underestimate the power of your ideas or your ability to express these ideas.

Also do not underestimate the power (or importance) of writing about the mundane. Ordinary things matter, and sometimes they disappear without leaving a trace. When you write about the ephemeral, you are reminding people about the small things which give an era its flavor. Years (or decades) later, people love to be reminded about the small ephemeral things that for a while seemed to be everywhere.

At the bottom of this letter  I have put links to some free ebooks I recommend which you can download (will do soon!) I also include some book recommendations, etc. Next summer for fun I will actually do all the same assignments which I assigned you in class. In a few years, I will eventually publish the result as a free ebook. It will be called Ice Cream Follies. 

Don’t forget to visit . This site provides an endless supply of storytelling ideas and conventions.

Below this I have compiled a list of insights and pointers which have helped me through the years. Continue reading

Tips for Writing a Twilight Zone episode

Here are some tips for writing a Twilight Zone episode. Keep in mind that some of the indirectness may be related to how TV audiences at the time were family-oriented and mainstream.

Story Conventions: 

  • Things appear normal on the outside except to the main character.
  • If there is violence, it is more likely to be suggested than actually shown.
  • Something seems mysterious to the main character until the end
  • There is a narrator who will introduce and close the show with commentary.
  • Usually there is a tragic or horrifying end.
  • Characters often doubt their own reality
  • Not usually a huge or long fight or struggle.
  • Using live actors rather than animation gives the whole series a realistic atmosphere

Here are some sample plot elements which you might find:

  • something disappears or appears
  • changing shape
  • someone or something gains a magical power
  • things becoming alive
  • some kind of illusion masks the truth
  • trapped
  • Something harmless becomes harmful
  • Breaking the rules causes unexpected harm
  • someone has some secret identity
  • something has a curse
  • a bunch of coincidences suggest a pattern
  • a secret enemy has taken charge
  • Tomato Surprise ( or Tomato in the Mirror)

See also these two articles about how to write a Twilight Zone episode and Plot Twists you find in every Twilight Zone episode.

Experience the Twilight Zone

Here are some Twilight Zone episodes. All the episodes can be streamed on Netflix.  Youtube has a small selection of full episodes.

Night Call:


To Serve Man:


Mirror Image is divided on youtube into 3 parts found on one playlist.


Eye of the Beholder:


There are many lists of Best Twilight Zone episodes. See the Paste magazine list and IGN Best list.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (and a crazy middle school dream)

Here’s the trailer for the documentary about the 11 and 12 year old boys who adapted Raiders of the Lost Ark (with lots of footage).


Here’s an 8 minute interview with the boys (now grown adults) who talk about their experience. (Although the interviewer said that the boys were 10 year olds when they started the movie, in fact the boys were 11 and 12.


Here’s a long and wonderful article about how 80s teens were heavily influenced by the ability to rewind and replay their fave movies.

Here’s a video clip from the original movie for comparison.

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Here is  their Kickstarter fundraising page. (They raised $58,000 to make the airplane/explosion scene in Raiders). Here’s how to buy their movie.

Write the Sitcom!

The best source of info about sitcoms is the sitcom entry on the website.   Please feel free to spend hours looking through TV tropes. Yes, it’s that interesting.

Sitcom Terms:  Story Bible, sketch comedy, romcom, dramedy, three camera comedy (vs. the single  camera setup), cutaway, the two act sitcom.

Here is the Honeymooners’ episode


Here is the I Love Lucy episode called “the Diet”. (A Classic 3 camera sitcom).


Here is the Everybody Hates  Chris episode titled Minimum Wage.


For the record, my alltime favorite sitcoms are

  1. All in the Family. I love every aspect of this show! 
  2. Cheers
  3. Third Rock from the Sun
  4. Larry Sanders Show
  5. Bernie Mac Show
  6. Arrested Development (on Netflix!)
  7. Seinfeld
  8. The Simpsons
  9. I Love Lucy
  10. Soap
  11. That Seventies Show
  12. Sanford and Son
  13. King of the Hill (about Texas!)
  14. Honeymooners

But to be honest, I like almost any sitcom out there!

More on Booker T. Washington Essay Contest

“We should not permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.” 

Here’s the Project Gutenberg page for Booker T. Washington. Up from Slavery is the famous autobiographical work. (Here a summary on wikipedia ,  it is on Amazon for free).  Librivox has a free audio version of  that book.

Here’s a 3 minute video biography:

Here’s a transcript of his famous speech to the Atlanta convention and here’s actual audio of BTW reading his famous speech.


A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, “Water, water; we die of thirst!” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time the signal, “Water, send us water!” went up from the distressed vessel, and was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A third and fourth signal for water was answered, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man who is their next-door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are” – cast it down, making friends in every manly way of the people of all races by whom you are surrounded.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life, shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

“Cast down your bucket where you are!”

Public domain refers to works which no longer have any copyright extension. Determining whether something is in the public domain can sometimes be difficult (especially for music)

Generally movies, art and literature (but not music) published in the US before 1923 are in the public domain. See this complicated copyright chart for info about whether something is in the public domain.

Creative Commons is a new concept in copyright which promotes sharing. (more).  Sometimes artists want to share their works with the public for free, and Creative Commons allows that while also preserving some rights for the license holder. Creative Commons is especially useful for musicians wishing to share their songs with the public.

Trigger Memories and Proust

Here are some things related to triggering  memories.


Background for the movie.

The setting is Casablanca, Morocco in 1942. There are three characters:

  • Sam, the piano player at Rick’s nightclub in Casablanca
  • Rick, the owner of Rick’s nightclub
  • Elsa, Rick’s old girlfriend who has reappeared in Rick’s Casablanca nightclub.

The Song “As Time Goes by” is one of the most famous songs in American cinema. In this scene it triggers a bundle of memories for everyone involved. Ask yourself:

  • What is Sam’s reaction when Elsa suggest that he play the song for old time’s sake?
  • Why do you think Elsa wants him to play the song?
  • What is Rick’s reaction when he hears Sam playing the song again? Why do you think he reacts that way?
  • The plot of the movie is easily available on wikipedia (spoiler alert!), but try to guess what happened in the past.

7th Period should click the next link to read the assignment they need to do:  Continue reading

Overlooked in Meatspace

Key Terms: Meatspace, Selective Memory, Change Blindness

In class we talked about what we notice and don’t notice in life.

(Here’s more videos by the same psychologist about change blindness).

Here’s the famous article and study about this “musical experiment:” This very long article won the Pulitzer Prize for best piece of journalism in that year. From the article:

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

Here’s information about the Stradivarius violin (there are only 244 around today). They have sold at auction for 2-15 million dollars. Here’s an interview with Joshua Bell about this particular violin (which is very famous and was stolen twice).

Here’s the series of SXSW diaries from which my article, Digital Convergence in the Parking Lot came.

Under the fold is your homework assignment: Overlooked in Meatspace.

Continue reading

Off-topic: More about Yellowstone National Park and random disasters


During class I mentioned the meltdown scenario at Yellowstone National Park — mainly as a way to open the discussion about imagining disaster, but I thought I’d provide a better-sourced article on the subject — lest I mislead too many people!

Says  the American Geological Society:

Is it true that the next caldera-forming eruption of Yellowstone is overdue?

No. First of all, one cannot present recurrence intervals based on only two values. It would be statistically meaningless. But for those who insist… let’s do the arithmetic. The three eruptions occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 0.64 million years ago. The two intervals are thus 0.8 and 0.66 million years, averaging to a 0.73 million-year interval. Again, the last eruption was 0.64 million years ago, implying that we are still about 90,000 years away from the time when we might consider calling Yellowstone overdue for another caldera– forming eruption. Nevertheless, we cannot discount the possibility of another such eruption occurring some time in the future, given Yellowstone’s volcanic history and the continued presence of magma beneath the Yellowstone caldera.

QUESTION: What is the chance of another catastrophic volcanic eruption at Yellowstone?

ANSWER: Although it is possible, scientists are not convinced that there will ever be another catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone. Given Yellowstone’s past history, the yearly probability of another caldera-forming eruption could be calculated as 1 in 730,000 or 0.00014%. However, this number is based simply on averaging the two intervals between the three major past eruptions at Yellowstone — this is hardly enough to make a critical judgment. This probability is roughly similar to that of a large (1 kilometer) asteroid hitting the Earth. Moreover, catastrophic geologic events are neither regular nor predictable.
QUESTION: What would happen if a “supervolcano” eruption occurred again at Yellowstone?

ANSWER: Such a giant eruption would have regional effects such as falling ash and short- term (years to decades) changes to global climate. The surrounding states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming would be affected, as well as other places in the United States and the world. Such eruptions usually form calderas, broad volcanic depressions created as the ground surface collapses as a result of withdrawal of partially molten rock (magma) below. Fortunately, the chances of this sort of eruption at Yellowstone are exceedingly small in the next few thousands of years.

Plot and Plausibility

Compare these 2 videos:

A big budget Hollywood version from 1963

Now a low budget version from 2 years ago:

Here’s more about the disaster genre from TV tropes.

Key Terms: Plausible, Suspension of Disbelief, Poetic License.

More examples of suspension of disbelief: dog jumping away from the fireball (Independence Day) and Michael J. Fox driving his time machine fast enough to be transported into a future time.

CinemaSins is a youtube channel  which dissects the plot holes in famous movies. They one they did about plot holes in Gravity is classic:

Noise and Creativity

From an article about being more productive at work, here’s a very interesting study about the relationship between moderate noise and creativity:

… studies have shown that for some people, some level of background noise can enhance creativity. People asked to engage in word-association tests and devise solutions to hypothetical scenarios, for instance, were found to be more creative when surrounded by a moderate level of noise — 70 decibels, about the volume you might experience in the average coffee shop. Louder levels of noise, however, diminished creativity.

The researchers involved in this study suggest that moderate noise increases creativity by actually making it a little harder to process information. This actually encourages abstract thinking, leading people to take alternate routes to solve a problem at hand.

This doesn’t mean you should constantly surround yourself with noise whenever you’re working. But if you’re stuck on a problem and want a bit of help in thinking creatively, heading to a moderately noisy environment could be a good idea.

(70 decibels is a little louder than the typical TV or car motor, but lower than nearby traffic noise). Here’s the original research paper if you want to read it.

15 Minute Writing Prompts — A list

Here is a list of writing prompts used for this class. In the future I will try to provide dates, but right now, I don’t remember all of them. Please note:  I don’t remember all the dates here, but starting today I should be giving an approximate date so you have an idea about what you need to make up:

Cycle 3

  1. Nov 17-18. Imagine that 2 fictional characters had cell phones and were sending text messages to one another. Write a chat dialogue between them where one of the 2 reveals a funny (or strange) secret.
  2. Nov 21-24.  What would the world be like now if video recording technology and TVs/video screens had never been invented?
  3. Dec  2-4.  You are a crazy person. Write a monologue or a story from the crazy person’s point of view about a day in your life. (Please no guns or shooting — keep everything PG!). Punctuation and spelling are optional. 
  4. Dec 5-8 Continue this story: “It’s not that way,” said the man in the red shirt. “It’s over there.”

Cycle 2

  1. What do you wish you had known earlier?
  2. Write about yesterday.
  3. October 14. (Periods 1 and 2 Only) Your character is kidnapped or taken hostage. Write about how you respond; do you try to escape/fight or trick your captors?
  4. Oct 13-15. Your character loses (or misplaces) a lottery ticket. Write about what happens next.
  5. Oct 16-20. Suppose that you won a huge cash award for several million dollars. Although you give a lot to charity and taxes, it still leaves you with an additional million dollars to spend on anything you want. How would you spend the money?
  6. October 22-24.  Suppose that scientists report that a huge asteroid  (10 km in length) has a 95% probability of hitting the earth in the next 5 years.  Such an impact is likely to cause massive destruction and loss of life on earth. If you knew about this, how do you think your character (or your character) would react? How do you think the rest of society would react?
  7. October 17-Oct 23. (All periods).  Write about some of your personality traits which you get from one or more of your family members.   Are there any personality traits of yours which you think don’t come from anyone in your family at all?
  8. October 27-29.  (Period 6 only). If you could meet and talk to any person in history, who would you choose? (Assume that you would have a person to translate everything). Make a list of questions which you would like to ask this person.
  9. October 29  If you (and only you) had the power  to read minds, how would you use it? How would it change your life?
  10.  October 30-31 Write about a song or piece of music which has special significance to you. What does it remind you of? Do you remember the time and place where you first heard the song?  Does it remind you of a certain time or place? Does it remind you about a feeling? How does it make you feel when you hear the song today?
  11. October 30-31. (Periods 1-5 only). Out of these 4 disabilities (losing your sight, losing your hearing, losing your ability to speak and losing the use of your legs), which do you think would be the hardest to deal with? Explain why? Which would be the easiest to deal with — and explain why.
  12. 12. November 4 (Period 8 only). You are a stop sign. Describe your day.

Here is a list of older 10 minute writes.  Because they were assigned long ago, you cannot make them up anymore. But still, they are interesting topics (if I can remember them all!)

  1. What are the worst and best qualities of the human race?
  2. Which is stronger: good and evil? Explain your reasons.
  3. Your character  awake in the year 2114 as the first successful cryogenic patient ever.  Describe what you do upon waking at the hospital in the next century and what you do next.
  4. Your character  arrive by plane in the Paris airport and realizes that someone has stolen your wallet or purse (containing all of the character’s ID and money). Describe what you do next.

Cool Reviews (Part 1)

This week students will be writing reviews of various products and art works. Here are some good places to look for reviews. Feel free to recommend other sites in the comment section.

Music: Allmusic, Pitchfork,

Movies: Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert (a famous reviewer who died a year or two ago).  A better queue, IMDB

Offbeat Review Sites: Sleeping in Airports reviews, Book Review covers, Review of Flags, Funny reviews,

General Review Sites:  Yelp — (restaurant/local shops and services), Trip Advisor,


Key Terms:

  • benchmark— objective measurement or test which is used to indicate quality of some gadget.
  • snarky — sarcastic/complaining; for reviewing, it refers to someone who is extremely negative mainly to be funny
  • conflict of interest
  • full disclosure
  • bias
  • objective/subjective
  • compare/contrast

Tales by a 7th grade blogger (who also won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize)

Malala_Yousafzai_at_Girl_Summit_2014Today, the  17 year old Pakistani blogger and activist  Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless activism for the rights of woman and children and the need for better education in Pakistan. In 2009 when she was 11, she was asked by BBC News to write a blog about being a young girl in Pakistan when the fundamentalist Taliban was punishing schools that educated young girls. She wrote anonymously in Urdu, and then later BBC translated it into English.  Later she was shot several times by Taliban, recovered and now is an international advocate for education and young girls.

Here is a English translation of her blog  which she wrote when she was 11 or 12 . The blog is available on BBC News and on other sites . I left the words as is, but I formatted it to make it easier to read.  (Click Continue Reading  on the bottom to read all of the posts)

I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Continue reading

Hall Pass Haiku

Here’s some  haikus written by my  classes about hall passes.

I need a hall pass.
The Restroom stinks like old cheese.
It’s just down the hall.

I need a hall pass.
I need to pee right now please —
Or I will explode!

I need a hall pass
Please help me with my problem —
Now! Emergency!

“I got to go now.”
“You are excused to go.”
“I am done now, sir.”

Silly Olympics and Monty Python

Speaking of new Olympic events, here is a famous sketch by Monty Python. They are a  group of British comedians who used to do amazing comedy sketches.  Their accents and language might be hard to understand, but the comedy is still great.


Monty Python has lots of funny comedy sketches, but you can find my favorites here and here.

Totally Blue — More about Monk Turner and singer/poet Alanna Lin

The song Totally Blue comes from Monk Turner’s Kaleidoscope album. Here’s a long profile I did with Monk Turner and an interview I did with him.  You can generally download and listen to any song by Monk Turner for free.  (The 25th album is a strong one and contains a variety of songs). Here’s a 20 minute conversation between songwriter and singer about how the song was made.  Here is a link to Totally Blue as well as an early nutty song by  Monk Turner.

Songwriter Monk Turner

Songwriter Monk Turner

I think the Emergency album is the best and it features Alanna Lin, who also sang the “Totally Blue” song.

Concept Words: Collaboration

Brian Regan — Comedian and Storyteller

My favorite comedian is now Brian Regan.  He is so funny, and he tells the greatest stories.


There are some other complete concerts here and here.  In your opinion, who do you think tells the funniest stories? (Write the answer in the comment section).

Brian Regan also did a Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode.

Related concepts: anecdotes, “retellability” ‘ transitions;  picaresque;

Oral Storytelling — Some Great Examples

Here are some great examples of oral storytelling:

This American Life is a famous storytelling radio show. You can stream the audio online.

They have a great  Middle School episode  and a hilarious episode about summer camp. You should listen to one of the stories for the next class.  Each individual story is called “Act One” “Act Two,” etc. Here’s some great stories:

Or you can choose one of the stories yourself by looking at the subject index.  There are hundreds of great examples.

Another live storytelling site is called the Moth. They have some of the best storytelling in the USA. You can pick a story from that site as well.

In the next day of class, you will write about what you have seen.  Look for:

  1. How did the storyteller engage your interest?
  2. Did the storyteller return to where they began at the end of the story?
  3. What was the big dramatic moment or climax? How did the storyteller build up to it?
  4. Was the length right?
  5. Do you think this story was 100% accurate? Where do you think the storyteller might have exaggerated?
  6. Now that you have heard this story, do you think you could easily tell the same story to someone else. Why or why not?

Budget Tablets to Recommend

Some students have asked me some budget tablets to recommend. I can’t keep up with every device under the sun, but I know someone who does: Nate Hoffelder  of The Digital Reader. Here’s his September 2014 guide to the best budget (under $100) tablets.  Nate recommends the Hisense Sero 7 Pro. (see his earlier review).  Note:  This is an ANDROID tablet.   You can buy a refurbished model for $80 on Amazon (new price is 109$). Or you can buy a factory-refurbished model at newegg for $89.  Obviously there are sales everywhere and new devices always coming out (especially as Christmas nears), but this looks like a great deal.Hisense_Sero_7_Pro_contentfullwidth1

If you want an Apple device or want a 9 inch screen, you will probably have to pay more. This week Nate recommended the new $150 Kindle Fire HD Kids Edition tablet.

Although he generally likes this Kindle, he adds that

But not everyone wants to get their kid a game and media tablet like the Kindle Fire, so it’s not perfect for everyone. If I were looking for a more academically focused tablet, I would not buy this one. Instead I would look at what Fuhu had released lately, and see what names are mentioned as competitors.

(Other recommendations of devices for young people are here).


Although you might be comfortable using the tablet’s onscreen keyboard, you can often find a keyboard which can connect to it with bluetooth. I generally recommend the Logitech bluetooth keyboards. Sometimes keyboard makers have produced a tablet case/keyboard combination specific for your device. They all generally work fine. Feel free to add your own suggestions/tips.