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On Writing Rules: Waiting

Not too long ago, I unleashed some pretty harsh words on math. (If you don’t feel like following the link, the harsh words were “dang you.”)

I didn’t excel at math in high school — not because I  didn’t get it, but because I didn’t care. With the strange exception of factoring polynomials, I was able to understand and implement every principle I encountered.

It felt dry and boring to me, though. What’s the point in taking a test where the best you can possibly do is find the same answer everyone else found, and for the same reasons?

No thank you! Give me an essay test over that any day.

Ahem! Anyway, that line of reasoning didn’t serve me too well when it became necessary on any given weekend to set aside some of my precious free time to work my way mechanically through a bunch of homework exercises. Instead, I’d do the two or three I needed to “figure it out,” and then stop.

That didn’t make for great grades, but what did I care about my math grades? I was going to college for an English degree, right? When it came to math, I just needed to pass.

So it was that, during my junior year in high school, I was taking Pre-Calc/Trigonometry and cruising along at a low C with the happy knowledge that this was the last required math course I’d have to take in high school. I’d need three hours on the college level, just for Gen Eds, but at least I’d get a year off in between.

Then one day halfway through the second semester, Mrs. Boehringer started the class with an announcement. “We’ve made an arrangement with Wichita State University,” she said, “so anyone who receives at least a B in this course can choose to take the WSU final instead of my final, and get college credit for Freshman Math based on their grade on the exam.”

And just like that, everything changed. I had a reason to care. If I could take that test and pass it, I could never take a math class again. I’ve never in my life worked so hard to get a B.

I only barely made it, too. Starting so late in the year it was a Herculean tasks to raise my average that much. I did it, though — I even went a hair over. The final would be worth 10% of my grade, though, so a bad enough score on it would undo all those weeks of hard work.

Appropriately enough, everything turned on a single number. The final was worth 100 points. If I got 60 points, I’d have a B on my transcript, three more hours of pre-college college credit, and I could be done with math forever.

If I got 59 points, I had a C in this class…and that was all.

So I studied. You know I studied. I practiced, I showed up early, I focused, and I showed every jot and tiddle of my work.

Only five of us even tried for the college credit, so she agreed to grade the tests for us right there on the spot. I was the last one to finish — checking and rechecking my work until the last minute. I’ll never forget that last minute.

The room was empty but for the teacher and me when an egg timer went off on her desk, and I rose and gathered my things. I brought her my papers, and watched from across her desk as she flipped through them, checking my work.

She scored each question. When she reached the end, she flipped back through totaling all the pages, then copied those totals to the front of the test and began adding them up.

It was the most nervous I’ve been about an addition problem since second grade.

She scribbled a 9 in the ones place, tallied the tens in a flash and scratched a 5 next to the 9. My heart plummeted.

Without moving her head, she cast her eyes up at me — hovering there over her. We had never had a terribly friendly relationship, and she had to know exactly how much I had riding on that grade.

If she’d been an English teacher, I would have argued for an extra point here or there (although, of course, I wouldn’t have needed to). It didn’t make any sense here, though. Math was math. If I’d gotten it wrong, I’d gotten it wrong. There, in two digits, was my fixed destiny. Much more miserable math….

I watched her eyes go back to the score on the page, and then flash up to me again. I watched her mouth curl in distaste, heard her irritated sigh, and then she marked out my grade and added one more point.

Without meeting my eyes, she jerked her head toward the door and said gruffly, “Get out!”

Building Suspense without Abusing Your Readers

I started a couple weeks ago talking about the rules of writing, and the importance of respecting your readers, and that series started a real conversation. This week I want to address those principles again as they apply to the topic of suspense.

That’s a trick a lot of new writers get wrong…and never know why. Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you how to create suspense without abusing your readers.

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