Monday, May 31, 2010

Bonhoeffer and Feiffer walk into a bar . . .

There are just too many great looking biographies! I can't keep up! Here are a couple of newish ones I'm particularly excited about.
  1. Jules Feiffer's Backing Into Forward: Really, I just want an excuse to read The Man in the Ceiling again. If you're an artist of any stripe, I dare you to read that book and not cry at the end. That book is where I first encountered Feiffer (and the first middle grade book I read that involved comics drawn by the main character), and it was a tiny glimpse at what has made him such an outspoken titan. I'd like to find out more about his remarkable life; I think he would be an interesting artist to know.  Seriously, go read The Man in the Ceiling.  It was just as invigorating and revolutionary to my young artist's soul as Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer as seen by Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: As if the title doesn't say enough about why I want to read this one, which is mammoth, by the way. I've heard about the pastor and martyr parts, but most sermons don't mention much about the spy part (or the prophet part). I respect his commitment to doing everything he could to do good and stem evil's tide based on what he believed was right. In the end, it got him killed, but he didn't go silently or without doing good on his way out.
Will I ever get to either of them?  Who knows.  I'll definitely read The Man in the Ceiling next time I'm about to let my failures kill my desire to create art.

Do either of these look good to you?  Any biographies you've been eying or reading lately?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Your reader/writer advantage in job interviews

While preparing (for over 30 hours) for this job interview I just had, I was able to experiment with using stories for job interviews, and it was a unique challenge.

The idea is that if you can come up with maybe 10 stories to tell, you'll be more impressive, interesting, and memorable in your interview.  Each story should cover multiple areas they might ask about in an interview, so they can be adapted on the fly.  You can even use the same story to answer more than one question, and you won't have to spend time on the background/setup, so even the way you answer the questions shows organization and efficiency. 

All four of those interviews went very well, from what my friend at the company was able to find out, so I decided to write a little bit about the process in case it can be of any use to you as writers and readers of stories.

  1. Research questions asked at interviews.  Read books.  Especially helpful are books that provide examples of answers that show what information the interviewer is really looking for when asking certain questions.  I was shocked when one of my interviewers asked me a really off-the-wall question and then said, "What we want to learn from your answer is how you use skill X."  I want to work for that interviewer; he is way better than any book.  Anyway, the more questions you can see, the more ideas you can get for good answers. 
  2. Take lots of notes.  The more notes you take about good ways to answer well, the more you will have learned those phrasings for good answers.  Mark questions that you really don't want to answer, ones you read and immediately pray, "Dear God, please don't let them ask me this," or ones that you think you'll likely be asked because of the kind of job you're interviewing for.  Basically, you're leaving a trail in your notes of questions you'll want to revisit and be sure to be ready for.
  3. Start thinking about the stories for questions you least want to answer but know they will ask.  (Ex. "Tell me about a weakness" or "What is one thing you need to improve" or "Tell me about a time you made a mistake and how you handled the situation" or "Tell me about a time you were working for someone you really couldn't get along with")  The books are not kidding when they tell you that kind of question will come up more than once in every interview.  Some strategies for dealing with these questions are as follows:
    • talk about a weakness that has nothing to do with the job,
    • talk about an aspect of your personality that is both a strength and a weakness,
    • talk about a weakness you had and how you overcame it or compensated for it so that it is a strength now,
    • talk about a problem briefly and spend a lot of time emphasizing what you learned from it and how you prevented it from happening again.
      The latter two strategies make you seem smarter to the interviewer. 
  4. Brainstorm story ideas.  Focus on ones that star you (alone and part of a group), have happy endings, or taught you valuable lessons.
  5. Draft stories.  Using a format like SAR (situation/action/result) can help you keep things focused and concise, but there are so many structures you can use.  Check out Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career for great lists.  Anyway, keep it under 350 words.
  6. Talk through these stories out loud.  Some phrases that look spiffy on paper just don't work aloud.
  7. Title your stories.  You don't get extra points for cleverness here.  Just use 1-3 words that instantly identify the story in your brain.  You may have to remember the whole story based just on these three words, so don't make it hard on your brain.
  8. List kinds of strengths/traits/topics each answer shows. (Ex. organizational or interpresonal skills, problem-solving, logic, patience, respect of colleagues, project management, handling failure, flexibility, task-orientation, etc.)
  9. Have someone who can be objective read the stories and give you feedback about where you may be saying something you don't intend or when a particularly evil follow up question could arise. 
  10. Revise your stories until you're satisfied with them.
  11. Cut your stories down to key words and phrases for notes.
  12. Talk through the stories using only those notes. 
  13. Repeat.  This part is hard if you are not a good public speaker, so the more time you leave for practicing here, the more natural you will be able to sound when you're in an interview.  You are not memorizing a script; it's more like you're programming your brain with keywords and then speaking extemporaneously.  Since you don't have it memorized, it doesn't sound memorized.
  14. If you can cut your notes down further here, do it.  You never know if they will even let you have notes, so if you can get everything typed onto one piece of paper, do so.  Half a sheet would be even better because then you could actually attach it to the notebook you brought along to take notes and be able to use it really unobtrusively.
  15. Practice with someone.  Use only your notes.  Yes, it is way harder to answer a question someone just threw at you, and you need to practice accessing the info you've stored on your notes and in your head and adapting it to fit questions you're unprepared for.  You will probably be terrible at first, so you should do this a lot.
  16. Make sure you are up early enough that you can talk through each of your stories clearly and intelligently with very little use of the notes before you even leave for the interview.  You can keep doing this on the way to the interview (unless you are on public transportation because people will look at you funny).  Read through some of those questions you marked in your notes all the way back at step 2, and practice connecting your stories to them.
  17. Be sure to get there so early that you will be able to be calm and rational.  Review your strategies, questions you have for the interviewers, and interview etiquette.
  18. Pray.

I can't say it worked for me since I probably won't get the job due to lack of experience, but it does feel good to have given the best interview I could give.  Don't let the interview be the thing that disqualifies you.  Use your natural affinity for stories to your advantage!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Boy readers, writers, etc.

"I think there's a prevailing misconception out there that boy reader equals reader of nonfiction. Actually, literacy studies have shown that boys have no higher a degree of preference for nonfiction than girls do. Why is there this common buy-in, then, this assumption, that boys want to only read nonfiction?"  - Andrew Smith

I found the above quote interesting because not long ago I was flipping through Boy Writers at a bookstore, and it seemed to indicate that teachers who want to engage boys in writing should aim for nonfiction. 

I also found it interesting because I've noticed that in the bookstore I'm in the most, there's a fairly equal split between books aimed at boys and those aimed at girls for the early readers (6-9 years) middle grade audience (8-12 years).  Once you go to the young adult section (13-18 years), though, the split is more like 90% girls, 8% boys (2% equal opportunity).

I wonder if anyone's done any research on that.  Cause?  Effect? 

Do you have any thoughts, opinions, ideas, or experiences to share?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Teaching yourself things you don't know

Wow, have I been reading a lot of nonfiction lately.
  • 101 Smart Questions to Ask on Your Interview: This is a really excellent book if you didn't know what you were supposed to do in a job interview when they ask if you have any questions. There are so very many great questions to ask (and many not to ask). I can't wait to ask some of them (the ones you're supposed to ask, not the ones you're not), so I want to get another interview soon.  Preferably before I forget or finish this notebook.
  • XML: My head hurts. I learned HTML coding the old school, HTML-editors-are-for-wusses way. In some ways, XML using an editor with pre-formatted tags should be easier, right? Now if I could just figure out what they mean when they say XML doesn't do anything, but it carries data. Carrying data is doing something, right? Wrong, apparently. I think I need to see it in action because the descriptions just don't make sense. (None of the eight I've looked at so far . . .)
  • JavaScript: Same thing with JavaScript; I think I need to actually play with coding it myself, so I can understand it. I keep reminding myself that Flash was a total enigma, too, until I took a class and did it myself. It was very ugly at first, but I learned.  Eventually.
Any nonfiction you're slogging through to learn something from right now?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To sequel or not to sequel: The Phantom Goes to New Jersey?

If you didn't know, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Phantom of the Opera now has a sequel. It's called Love Never Dies.

Since I've only ever heard the soundtrack out of order, I am not exactly certain what's going on with the story, but there is a son mentioned, and I find that icky. (Not the idea of children and stuff, but the indication is that this may not be Raoul and Christine's son, and I always kind of wanted her relationship with the Phantom to be 100% Platonic . . .)

I loved how the original ended. I just did. Now that there's an official sequel, that ending I love full of mysteries trailing off into imagination and delicious tragedy leads to somewhere I don't want it to go. Hrm. Irksome indeed.

What are your thoughts about sequels (in general or this one in particular)?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Freakazoid! and being a fan

I loved Freakazoid when it was on TV a million years ago, and I love it now.  It's smart and goofy and random and as likely to make me snort orange juice as my sister.

In one episode, Freakazoid (the ostensible superhero of the story) and his police buddy Cosgrove are waiting in line at an autograph session for construction guru Norm Abrams.  Cosgrove is nervous about being an idiot in front of his idol, and Freakazoid is being nice and calming him down. 

When they reach the front of the line, Freakazoid flips out.  "I am shaking Norm Abrams' hand!!  I am holding Norm Abrams over my head!!!!" 

While I have never narrated my interactions with authors I adore out loud or held them over my head, I am aware of how embarrassing it is to be a super-dork in front of someone you admire who will only have this single interaction with you in both of your lives.

It's kind of cathartic to see someone else doing it.  :)

Do you have any embarrassing author-meeting stories?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Stainless Steel Rat and the Job Interview Adventure

So, I was really early for my interview.  At least, I would have been if the information the interviewer gave me had been correct.  Just pick up a parking sticker at the guardhouse on the way in, she said.  It's on my way; the streets are one way.  An extra 20 minutes should be more than sufficient, even if I have to park in the lot furthest from the building I need to get to.

At the guard shack, I see a note that tells me to go to the safety office to get my pass.  Where is the safety office?  I don't know.  I have no idea.  I am sure it isn't anywhere close to where I need to go because Murphy is a close friend of mine. 

Sure enough, it is not close.  I eventually find the building.  There are no parking spaces for visitors or anyone else.  I park illegally.  I can't find my hazard flashers.  I do not have time for this.

I enter the building and see that the security office is on the lower level.  There is a stairway right next to the sign.  I hoof down it to discover that I am in some sort of Twilight Zone cul-de-sac that has nothing to do with security.  I run back up the stairs.  I look vainly for any indication of how to get where I'm going.  I see nothing.

I enter the nearest office and look for a sign.  I find one.  Security Office this way.  I go this way.  There is no security office.  There are no stairs.  There is no elevator.  I pant.

I turn around and see another sign pointing in the opposite direction of the first.  This one, too, claims to be the security office.  I am doubtful, but I am also in a tearing hurry, so I try it.  Eventually, many signs and a scary stairway later, I arrive.

Security is very . . . relaxed.  They are not in a hurry at all.  They have no easy access to an exit.  I would not feel particularly trusting if I had to call them in case of an emergency.  Eventually, they are suspicious about why I need a parking pass, but even more eventually they believe me and fill one out.  At a some-might-say leisurely pace.  Slowly. 

I retrace my steps at a dead run.  It is still 80 degrees with 150% humidity.  I am wearing a black suit.  I am perspiring.  I am not sure I will be able to get back over to my building around all the one way streets and construction, so I park at the first space I find and limp/run, taking every shortcut I can, trying not to get hit by cars since the sidewalks are blocked off by construction.  I am carrying a ridiculously heavy attache with my portfolio and other professional looking stuff.  Students laugh at me as I pass.  I sweat at them.

I am two minutes late.  I am seriously sweating, and I can't take off my suit jacket because they will be able to see the sweat on my shirt, and this will not make them think I am professional.  Everything I've ever read has said that being late to an interview dooms your chances completely.  I am panting and convincing myself I am not asthmatic because my inhaler is in the car in my coat pocket probably melting in the heat.  I am most likely slightly wild-eyed at this point.  I find a stairway (lovely vaulting) and head up.

Sweat is dripping down my face, and I have no hand to wipe it with.  My hair is wild.  I see that I am on the far side of the building from where I need to be.  A very long, plushly carpeted hallway stretches out before me for a very long time.  Joy.  Then I see two people I recognize from my research into my interviewers, and my desperation is enough of a cue for them to identify me.

They ask, was the construction a problem?   I tell them, Honestly it was the running around trying to get a parking pass that was a problem.  They look at me blankly, and I explain.  They shake their heads, That's not what they told us, sorry for the confusion.  We head to a conference room.  It is closed.  When they get the key, we head in, and the room is not air-conditioned.  Alas.  Spring in the midwest. 

I am a sweaty, frazzled mess, and the interview hasn't even started. I am trying to be graceful as I push hair away from my face and try to wipe away beads of sweat as they fall.  I do not look professional.  I probably do not smell professional.  I am late.  I am doomed.

I remember this great scene in one of Harry Harrison's hilarious Stainless Steel Rat books (maybe Gets Drafted?) where the cheerfully anarchistic SSR explains how to beat a lie detector test: you work yourself up to a state of paranoia and doom before they start, and you let yourself calm down as they conduct the test.

Apparently, this works in job interviews, too because as the sweat dries and my body cools down into focused, serious discussion mode (wherein my limbs usually become freezing cold), things go fairly smoothly.  By the end of the interview, we are having a good time, and I look somewhat competent. 

One of the interviewers even gives me a ride to where my car is parked, and we talk a little more.  Apparently, she calls the next person I am interviewing with and recommends me favorably.

So that's why you should read science fiction.