Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Ahead

I am not much of a New Year's Resolution maker, because I am not much of a New Year's Resolution keeper.
What I will do, as I enter 2009, is to remind myself of the important things to a writer.

Writers write.
Writers read.
Writers pay attention, listen,wonder, imagine.
Writers love, hurt, savor, live.

Writers face procrastination, laziness, discouragement, despair, doubt, confusion
with self-discipline, -direction, -motivation, -control, -encouragement
and forgiveness and grace.

Writers persevere.
Writers write.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year in Review

Look Back To Move Forward!

According to the email in my inbox with the above heading, celebrating the past year is just as important as setting goals for the new year. The tone of the email is a bit too rah-rah for me, but the idea may be a good one.

Today, I'll recap the positive things that have happened in my writing life in 20
08, and tomorrow, I'll return to share some thoughts for the new year.

These are some of the things I've done:
  • started this blog with some vague notion about needing to have a web presence. It turned out to be a tool in forcing me to write frequently. As a bonus, I also met some wonderful fellow writers and readers.
  • entered a couple of contests and placed 2nd in both.
  • attended my first writers' conferences and a writing retreat.
  • met fellow writers
  • sent off queries and got requests for my manuscript (which have resulted, so far, only in rejections, but personalized ones.)
  • started writing a new YA and outlining another
  • revised my Middle Grade novel a few more times per suggestions of agents and editors who'd read earlier manuscripts.
  • found online critique groups in which members write for children.
  • Read, read, and read.
  • wrote, re-wrote and re-wrote.

More lists!

So the manic gift-purchasing season is almost over, but lest you think lists are a thing of the past, the year-end is upon us, and we all know the end of a year is a time when list-making takes on epic proportions.

So for those who hunger for more suggestions on what juvenile books to read, here are two highly-respected book people who
weigh in on the subjects:

Cynthia Letich Smith and her Cynsational Books of 2008 and Editorial Anonymous with her Enormous Can of Worms. This second list comes with a bonus of readers' comments, always entertaining.

(Can of worms by "No Matter" Project.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Whose favorites?

Someone introduced me to Chris Crutcher recently. Only a few pages into the book, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I already like it, a lot.

We got to talking about whether this is one of those books that adults like but maybe teens don't. That, of course, led me back to the debate on the Newberry selections. Not exactly the same debate, but at the foundation of it is the question of whether the intended audience--as opposed to adults, however well-intentioned they are, who are in the business of juvenile literature--like a book and would read it.

Do you have books that fit into this category, especially if you're a teen? (So, Chanelle?)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas celebration

Christmas holds a special place in my heart. It's a time of joy and celebration, of connecting with people who matter, of building traditions and memories, and of reflection. Most of all, It is a time of hope.

For this Christmas, I'd like to share a few poems of hope.

First, a short poem by Raymond A. Foss:

A Kernel of Hope

Deep inside
Against the pain
The struggle

When tended
Memories ignite


When tested
For graven choices

In the dark
Against the shadows
In my heart

(You can read more about Raymond A. Foss.)

And two by
Emily Dickinson

Had I Presumed to Hope

Had I presumed to hope --
The loss had been to Me
A Value -- for the Greatness' Sake --
As Giants -- gone away --

Had I presumed to gain
A Favor so remote --
The failure but confirm the Grace
In further Infinite --

'Tis failu
re -- not of Hope --
But Confident Despair --
Advancing on Celestial Lists --
With faint -- Terrestial power --

'Tis Honor -- though I die --
For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death --
This -- is the Second Gain --

Hope is the thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

[Christmas Star (for wise men and others) by Nick Owen, The Christmas Robin by law_keven. Both found on Creative Commons.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bailout for Writers

I'm (obviously) not the only one who calls for a bailout of the publishing industry and writers. Two other writers, Paul Greenberg in the New York Times and Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker both presented their bailout plans.

Andy Borowitz presents a compelling case of how far reaching the consequences of him not given a handout: the whole economy can collapse! All these affected families!

Paul sees that:

the workspace for writers seems to get more crowded by the day as refugees from other professions take cover behind what they hope will be the respectability of the writing life.

From his perch on the writing stool, he contemplates what Graham Greene asked:

“Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled."

Save the writers!

Monday, December 22, 2008

How fun is that?

What do
10 men singing "12 days of Christmas" a capella and teams of pastry chefs creating outlandish cakes in six hours have in common?

They are both delightful and awe-inspiring to watch. We marvel at the mastery and the apparent ease these artists have as they execute something most of us know we may never be able to do. We also experience an underlying nervousness: at these high level of difficulties, so many things can go wrong. We hope the singers stay in tune with one another and nobody will suddenly have a coughing fit. We sit at the edge of the seat as we watch each team lift their 150 lb cake from the working surface to the judging table, hoping the precarious and gravity-defying creation won't topple.

There is no doubt in anybody's mind that these are talented folks. But even the most talented person will not get anywhere without motivation, desire, proper training, practice, tenacity and perseverance. Today, I pay tribute to these qualities and remind myself that talent is not something I have any say about. Even passion and desire are not of my doing. Motivation, training, practice, persevere: these will have to be my focus if I want to achieve any level of excellence.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What can go wrong? I have the recipe.

Two foodie friends gave me a cookbook when they saw us at Thanksgiving, a cookbook from a bakery in Paris. They'd been there recently and knew I loved pastry.

Since this is Christmas time and all, the recipe for chestnut and chocolate tart leaped off the page and pleaded to be made. The directions didn't look too bad, the ingredient list not that long, and the taste of chestnut and dark chocolate in a buttery pastry case taunted me from the moment I saw the recipe.

The recipe calls for a standard pie pan or "some smaller tart pans" with no mention of the dimensions of these smaller pans. That alone should have alerted me to the possibility that this cookbook falls in the "cook till done' category, cookbooks that trust the cook to have enough experience and to have acquired helpful instincts so that details are not necessary.

Yet, I continued, trying to call up as much of my baking experiences as I could to decipher some of the instructions. I am more a cook than a baker; my instincts for cooking have been nurtured since I was nine while baking is something I came to much later. Till today, I am still not terribly confident if the dough I'm kneading is of the right consistency, or whether I have over/under worked it.

I set aside a couple of hours for the recipe, but the combination of my not-enough baking experiences and the fact that this is a new recipe made sure I took close to four. The tarts turned out well, I think, although the chocolate cream is too thin and I had to substitute almond paste for chestnut paste because I couldn't find chestnut paste anywhere in town.

How this applies to writing is easy to see. Just because we have a "recipe"--include the ingredients of strong characters, real conflicts and tangible setting, mix and heat using concrete noun
s and active verbs--that has worked for other people hundreds of times doesn't mean I can make it work for me, at least not right away. And even when the results are decent, they're still far from excellent. My tarts tasted fine, but they look ed amateurish. Anyone can tell, at one glance, that they had been make by someone who was new to this.

I have to make many more tarts (like this gentleman here) before my tarts will even approach excellence.

I'm back to my keyboard to knead.

(Rose Bakery by roboppy, kneading brioche dough by yarnivore, Michael, Brick Street Bakery by fortinbras from Creative Commons.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Twenty years of unexpectedness

This week, my husband and I celebrated twenty years of marriage. In our wedding picture. We look bright and hopeful, as newlyweds tend to, and I remember feeling that way as well. We dreamed big, but our life together gave us experiences much bigger than we could imagine. Some of those have been the very ones I'd secretly hoped we'd never have to experience. Yet through them came complexity and richness that gave our life meaning and depth.

As this poem by Arthur Conan Doyle writes in his poem, Retrospect

All that we ever dreamed, dear wife,
Seems drab and common by the truth,

To the unexpected. And to loyal and courageous companions!

Poetry Friday Roundup at Author Amok this week.

What do your scales look like?

When I was in college, my roommate, a wonderful violinist who'd chosen med school, commented that she was surprised I didn't practice scales every day.

Scales are important, they train our fingers to play passages that appear over and over again in repertoire, they are great warm ups, and most important of all, they teach our arms and bodies how to move across the keyboard. So why wasn't I practicing my scales every day, even though as a music major, I was putting in anything from 4 to 10 hours a day?

Because I had already spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours devoted to this one technique in my earlier years of playing the instrument. The scales had already been ingrained in my mind, my ears, my muscles. Till today. I have forgotten most of what I've learned in geography or physics or anthropology but tell me to play a F# major scale and I won't even hesitate. These babies have drilled themselves into the nucleus of every cell.

Also, laziness. (Hey, I was in college, I was allowed to be a slacker every once in a while.)

When I started teaching, I had to decide which school of thought I subscribed to when it came to teaching scales. One school says pianists need to have as many of the standard figuration of piano playing--scales, arpeggios, chords, Alberti Bass, trills, etc--in their fingers so that when they encounter them in real repertoire, they won't need to struggle but can instead focus on the musical elements.

The second school of thought considers the hours practicing scales wasted because students should spend time on real music, instead of just the technical aspect. Students will learn scales soon enough when they start playing Mozart Sonatas.

I chose #1 although I tried as best as I could to relate particular technical exercises to real music so that the younger students, especially, could see the point of these exercises.

My question is, now that I'm a writer, what is the equivalent of practicing scales? Free writing? Journaling? Writing sentences and labeling parts: subject, verb, object?

So, my fellow writers, do you practice scales everyday? If so, what do your scales look like?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On a more upbeat note

To counter the negative vibes of my last post, I'd like to get back to the conclusion I had arrived at before getting sidetracked, and that is:

despite all the bad news and the mounting difficulties in getting published, as a writer, I will continue to write. And improve and learn and grow and live.

One of the things that helps me hone my writing is to read a lot; to compare and figure out what works and what doesn't. There is subjectivity involved, obviously, but great writing, in the end, will stand out.

The super-generous agent, Nathan Bransford, ran a contest recently, in which he invites writers to submit their first paragraphs. From the 1000+ entries, he selected 6 finalists and readers voted their favorites.

These posts offer an immense resource. First, we get to read the first paragraphs of so many writers. Second, we get to hear different people's opinions (ignore the snarks) of the chosen paragraphs. Third, we get to see the ones who stand out and why.

I haven't yet read through all the entries. But having read just the ones I have, I can understand a little better what agents and editors
mean when they discuss the queries and submission they receive.

So there you go, a bit of a silver lining.

Here's one way

To get published in this age of shrinking publishing houses and disappearing advances: take up a trade--
you only need to be as good as this guy

--and get yourself 15 minutes of fame. Or become a famous pooch, or a career celebrity by continually doing outrageous things in public.

Most of you have read the op-ed piece in the New York Times by Timothy Egan, Typing Without a Clue. If not, here it is.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The long and winding road to publishing

is getting longer and more winding.

By now, everyone interested in the publishing industry has heard the bad news. Even the big publishing houses, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Nelson, and Random House
are not immune.

What are we, unpublished writers, to do? If you're inclined to see the sky falling, you may find some comfort in one editor's take on the situation. Mark Tavani, a senior editor at Random House, talked about it at
Notes from the Handbasket, a blog by author Laura Benedict.

He doesn't offer a no-worries-things-will-be-back-to-the-good-old-days-you-just-wait. What he does offer is this:

But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books. Maybe, over time, books will regain an elite status that I sense they once had. Maybe, in the end, books won’t qualify precisely as mass entertainment, but entertainment for a sizable if select audience

Not exactly unqualified confidence in the industry, but a reasonable and achievable state. In the mean time, those of us who love the written word, who love stories, who simply have to write will do just that: write. Focus on getting better in craft and more savvy in the profession. Doing the same thing we've already been doing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Ocean breeze, white sandy beaches, gorgeous views plus no housework, no email, no phone calls for a week: a writer's dream. I brought my college-ruled notebook, three pens, and wrote new passages of a new YA novel while watching my children play all day. The notebook has gotten fatter and floppier from water and some of the words have sme
ared into pretty blue patches, which may partially explain the increased weight of our luggage despite not having bought a single thing.

I'm back now, ready to dive into writing again. But where is the guy with the pineapple drinks and the ones with the dry towels? How am I supposed to write without the sounds of the waves and the wind in my hair ?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Poetry Friday

I wasn't going to make it to the Poetry Friday Roundup today but while chauffeuring my kids around, I heard an interview on NPR with a guy who wrote poems on the 2008 election. Anyone who says he was inspired to write poetry by John Sununu is worth a read, don't you think?

Anyway, here is a taste of Deciding the Next Decider
by Calvin Trillin':

On a Clear Day, I See Vladivostok
(The Barbra Streisand standard as sung by Sarah Palin)

On a clear day
I see Vladivostok,
So I know world affairs.

(For the rest of the poem, follow the above link.)

More poetry over at Mommy's Favorite Children's Books.

Hand me the hammer, please?

If you've been thinking about getting published, you would have heard of the term "platform."

My understanding of a platform: that whic
h gives you the authority and draws people to your book. It used to be that platform reigns supreme in non-fiction. After all, who wants to read a book about the migration patterns of miniature vampire bats if the author isn't someone who knows a thing or two about it. (Please don't google "migration patterns of miniature vampire bats" because there may not be such things. See, I don't know the first thing about bats or migration patterns or vampires, so you wouldn't want to buy a book on the subject even if I wrote one.)

Fiction these days needs platforms as well, I am told. What constitutes a platform gets slightly fuzzy in my mind. One example I can think of is the author Jeff Stone, who wrote the international best-selling series on five young monks schooled in kung-fu. Jeff Stone is a highly trained martial arts practitioner as well and can talk authoritatively on the subject. I can also imagine him performing some cool monkey-styled kung-fu moves in school visits.

What else? How do unpublished authors build their platforms? (Please don't say plank by plank, you clever and cheeky ones.)

Have no fear, there is a book out, titled Getting Known Before the Book Deal, in which one writer, a successful one, discusses platform-building. You can read an interview with the author and get the links to the book and her website at Writer Unboxed.

Know a not-yet published author? Need to get him/her a

(Hint: I'm not published and I haven't read the book yet either. : D)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Books! Lists! Top 100!

Are you panicking yet about buying gifts this holiday season? You are buying books, I know that much,

but you may want to ideas about which books to buy. Here are just a few ideas:

The New York Times lists their most notable books of 2008.

Don't like the Times' taste? Here is the list compiled by the publishing industry's insider, the Publishers Weekly.

Or maybe you're a fan of NPR like I am, they weigh in on the subject as well. They have lists for best foreign fiction, cookbooks, and graphic novels.

You want a more democratic list? The Modern Library lists the board's and the readers' choices side by side.

Then there is, of course, the biggest store in the universe, Amazon, which has lists by both editors and readers in more categories than you know what to do with. (C'mon you don't need a link.)

It can be done. The publishing industry will be saved. (and gifts will be purchased on time and appreciated and enjoyed for years.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Writing is re-writing.

I agree completely. I have no problems with revising my work as many times as necessary. After all, I've been doing it for six years now, since the idea of this book came to me when my first grader was an infant. (Just what is it about being sleep-deprived and living from hour to hour that makes it conducive for ideas, such as ideas that I would write a book, seem reasonable?)

I've submitted my manuscript to my critique group, entered contests, read portions aloud to an editor, submitted to agents, and re-written it after wards. You'd think I'm getting the feel for it by now.

But I am still surprised by the process. In my current revision, among other things, I'm switching from a third person point-of-view written in past tense (Edie played the timpani) to a first-person present tense (I stare at her.) Changing pronouns and tenses: doesn't sound too bad, but I am learning that even this seemingl
y benign change requires much more mind juice than I anticipated, probably not unlike people undertaking house renovations to end up spending much more money and time than they budget for.

I do believe this change is for the better, despite the hurdles. And as always, the process of writing itself is teaching me lots about the craft.

Back to rewriting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

writers and genres

Since becoming a writer, I've noticed a lot more about the writing in the books I read. Often, the writing functions well in telling a story. Occasionally some writing draws too much attention to itself. And then there are those incredible voices, which liven up story, dig deep into emotions, and create memorable moments, all the while staying un-intrusive.

Recently I came across two such writers: Jennifer Allison and Laura Ruby. Their genres are different from what I write, but the writing will definitely go under my microscope to detect patterns and principles that will help polish my writing.

Do you have authors like that? Let me know so I can steal, I mean learn, from them.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Chasing Vermeer: and some other elusive answers

I've been re-reading several middle grade novels lately, driven by questions I haven't thought of before or questions whose answers I don't remember. The
first book is Chasing Vemeer, debut novel of Blue Balliett. I picked it up again for two reasons.

My middle-grade novel has some mystery elements but doesn't fit into the same mold as standard mysteries (think Nancy Drew.) I knew Chasing Vermeer, a non-standard mystery, won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery in 2005, so I wanted to re-read it.

At the same time, Balliett's newest novel, Calder's Game, was released. I love Alexander Calder's works, and I admire the thinking of John Dewey, an educator associated with the Lab School at the University of Chicago, where the protagonists of these novels attend. I picked up Calder's Game with anticipation.

About thirty pages into it,I
realized I had to keep telling myself to focus. One of the things that distracted me was the frequent shifts in point-of-view. It distracted me so much I had to
find out if the author did the same thing in her first book, which I had enjoyed. So I put aside Calder's Game and re-read Chasing Vermeer.

Question #1: Did Balliett use shifting p.o.v in Chasing Vermeer? If so, was it distracting?

The omniscient p.o.v in chapter 1 set the stage perfectly for a Twilight Zone vibe. Chapter 2 was primarily in Calder Pillay's p.o.v, except for the few paragraphs in Petra Andalee's. These shifts were clearly marked, creating no confusion In subsequent chapters, the p.o.v switched frequently, but never in an unclear or intrusive way. The author was very skillful in making those shifts seamless and almost transparent.

Answer to #1: Yes. No.

Question #2: what makes this book successful?

  • It provokes thinking, by asking questions and exploring ideas, such as what is art? What is the best from of communication? Is art a lie, but a lie that tells the truth, as Picasso stated? Is all of life about rearranging a few simple ideas? What if thoughts don't have to be broken into words. Thoughtful young readers will no doubt have considered these very same issues.
  • The characters and their friendships are authentic and not at all cliched. There is a scene that describes the awkward and tentative gestures between Calder and Petra early in their friendship that is unique but believable and touching.
  • Mysteries are typically plot-driven, and some don't emphasize language use, but Chasing Vermeer isn't one of them. Here is an example of an imaginative use of language: Petra looking a pictures that "made her feel as if she could leave everything predictable behind."
  • A lot of the action takes place within the heads of the characters. Depending on the reader, this can be a plus or a minus. I happen to like knowing how characters think and react to their situations, especially when it is handled skillfully.
Answer to #2: Excellent writing, believable and complex characters, thoughtful and engaging.

Question #3: Is it a mystery?

Unknown perpetrator? Check. Red herrings? Check. Multiple suspects? Check. Unexpected turn of events? Check. Protagonists solving the mystery by sheer logic and deduction? Um.

Calder and Petra receive information from a character in a painting and come to conclusions from coincidences that are more unlikely than usual. I've read interviews given by Blue Balliett and know that she intentionally includes mystical/paranormal elements in the book but I do feel let down in this aspect.

Answer to #3: Yes, but it leads to other questions, including:

Question #4: Where is the balance between having a book considered on its own criteria and submitting it to expectations within a genre?

I'll need to shelf this question to read more and think further.

Do you think this is a reasonable question to ask? Do you have opinions on this? I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I have much to be thankful for. In this blog, I want to share those things that pertain to writing, especially during these uncertain times.

I am thankful that:
  • perseverance and tenacity are part of being human,
  • people wired to write will write regardless,
  • out of impossible situations can come good results, results which may not happen otherwise,
  • when life becomes difficult, people tend to come back to what matters,
  • truth and beauty will not be defeated.
Happy thanksgiving to everyone in the US, and to the others, I wish you gratitude.

Monday, November 24, 2008

So that's what they're doing

At Shrinking Violet Promotions, a link is provided a place that rates blogs for their Myer-Briggs profiles. A novel idea. I ran my blog through and it came out ISTP. Hmmm. Except for the "I" part (Introversion), every other indicator is the opposite of my personal MB profile, which is INFJ. Interesting, but not as interesting as what I found in the comments section: that the overwhelming majority of those who commented are INFJs!

Years ago when I first took the Myers-Briggs test, I was told that INFJs are one of the smallest, if not the smallest, groups. I filed that information away as interesting trivia and nothing else.

But now that I see so many INFJs at one place, I got to thinking. If it is indeed true that there aren't many INFJs around, then how come such a high percentage of us turned up at one place? The sample is very small, granted, but still.

Can it be that the collection of personality traits/temperaments (I am using these terms not in the narrowly-defined sense, but as overall, laymen terms) are the perfect fit for fiction writers?

I= We need to be able to handle the long hours of solitude necessary for writing, and in fact, draw strength from it.

N= We have to go with our instincts when we write. Unlike mechanics and dancers, we don't rely as much on our senses to understand our world.

F= Emotional appeal is an important factor in fiction. We want to move our readers and tap into their feelings.

J= Despite the heavy emphasis on creative thinking, writers do need to be focused on one project at a time, be structured, and be disciplined in completing tasks.

There are probably other issues than what I've outlined. But thinking about this has helped me understand there is a reason I was born with these traits. Small though we are, INFJs are have the necessary ingredients for writing fiction.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The great hierarchy of verbal fatigue

...or the list of ten most irritating English phrases, according to the researchers at Oxford. ("How's your research coming along? Your thesis almost done?" "No, modern media keeps switching their annoying phrases, I can't keep current.")

So I digress easily.

This list keeps track of phrases that are tiresome, over-, and mis-used, such as "at the end of the day" and "24/7". A few of my personal favorites not on this list are "to be honest with you" (and dishonest all the other times I don't preface my sentences with this) and "let's put it this way" (since you're obviously not smart enough to understand it in its present form.)

Some other phrases are not so much annoying as disingenious. For example, people say "not to be harsh/disrespectful/rude, but..." and go on to be exactly that, as though saying they aren't being that way somehow negates their actions.

Then there is "you're going to like it." When people who know me well tell me I would like a book or a person or a dessert, I trust them. But when someone I hardly know says that, I want to ask, "but how do you know?" To date, I haven't yet blurted it out, but I still don't know why people are so confident they know me. Am I predictable, or do I fit in some preconceived notion of a stereotype?

But at the end of the day, irregardless of what people say, I can't worry about them 24/7. After all, it's not rocket science, and I personally feel, at this moment in time, with all due respect to every one who reads this, that people aren't really thinking too much what they say. Absolutely.

Besides, coming up with phrases similar to these can help bring flesh to the characters in our books.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Poetry Friday

Here is From Blossoms by by Li-Young Lee:

This is how it begins:

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

Queries and Synopses

We write our novels, we get it critiqued, we polish it. And two/seventeen years later, we get to the fun part: submitting our work, a process that involves writing various shorter works to entice agents and editors so they'll ask to read our manuscripts. Many authors deal with it with fear and trepidation, creating a new area where those in the know can help. And help they do, by writing articles and books and critiquing the efforts of the many unpublished authors.

For example,
Editorial Anonymous is offering an open mic night for synopses. If you like to participate, email her with synopses of well-known, published middle-grade/YA novels (synopses should be no more than 150 words). She'll post them with her comments regarding thoroughness, clarity, style, and appeal in a later post.

Many aspiring writers are rising to the challenge by educating themselves and by spending as much sweat on their query letters and the synopses as they do on their books.

And then the inevitable happens, as told by agent Stephen Barbara at Publishers Weekly. He now receives so many well-written queries that he will only skim through them to get to the writing samples. Sadly, his experiences so far have shown him that a good query letter is no longer a mark of a good writer.

It is all in the writing--of the book.

Ugly Pots, part deaux

Yesterday when I was improvising on the hymns I'll be playing this Sunday, I realized I had overlooked something in my post on ugly pots. In that post, I compared the process of learning a new piece of music to that of writing and concluded that the fundamental difference between these two processes makes what works in the writing world--writing a lot to learn how to write better--not very helpful in the music-learning world.


I neglected one important element: learning a piece of music that's already written isn't really comparable to writing something that doesn't exist yet. The better comparison would be to compare composing to writing.

I came to this realization as I was trying out different ways to improvise the hymns. Hymns are difficult for me because I came to improvising in the simpler pop styles where knowing the basic chords and having a rhythm/groove is 90% of it, while hymns require more sophistication.

I digress. So as I tried one rhythm and discard it as too flippant, and tried the next (too rock), and the next (too monotonous), and go through the same processes with melodic patterns, accompaniment figures, I realize I'm playing a lot of things I don't want to do again, at least in these hymns. I can't worry about the physicality of those "wrong" decisions because trying out all these options is the only way I can get to what works.

And maybe that's why improvising scares me silly. Its very nature demands unpredictability.

Learning a new piece of music: take time, go slow. Writing and composing: keep doing lots to learn. Improvising: I'll have to trust that my muscles and my mind and the predetermined ideas will work together.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

National Book Awards

The winners of the National Book Awards have been announced. In the young people's literature, Judy Blundell won with her book, What I Saw and How I Lied.

The National Book organized a Teen Press Conference in which the finalists read from their work and answered questions from the audience, mostly teens.

Here are the Publishers Weekly
interviews with the five finalists, in a n article with a clever title that combines the titles of all five books.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Poetry Friday Roundup

Welcome to my place!

Poetry intimidates me. I'm never quite sure if I've understood a poem the way the poet intended. That possibility exists in music as well, yet that' has not stopped me from learning and performing pieces. In my mind, poetry occupies a lofty place that I should approach only when I've paid my dues in studying.

Today I offer another way to look at poetry. Here is Michael Rosen, children's poet laureate of Britain, talking about poetry. The unadorned way he speaks of poetry, in language that anyone can understand, moved me. (I'd venture to say he'd considered every word choice carefully to arrive at these deceptively simple sentences; he is a poet, after all.)

Here are some examples:
  • Poetry is a great way of talking about things that matter to you.
  • It's also a good way to play with the language around us and playing pleases us.
  • Life goes by very quickly. Poetry is a way of stopping things for a moment and pointing out something to us.
Check out his website for his poems and video clips of him reading his own poem.

The Roundup
We have quite a few poems this morning related to nature: rain and wind and snow and the changing seasons. Sarah Reinhard is thinking about wood, and
posted about it here. Author Amok offers Eve Merriam's poem "Weather" together with a triumphant story of a reluctant third grade poet. Julie Larios has an original poem about rain and gargoyles at The Drift Record. From rain we move on to snow at A year of Reading. Speaking of snow, Sara is asking "When Does Winter End?" at her podcast site, A Cast of One. Fiddler brings us back from the end of winter to November here. Cuileann offers up Charles Simic's Windy Evening. All we need is a poem about hailstorms, anyone?

Here are the other bloggers with autumn on their minds.
Jone has an original poem; Kelly is in with If you were coming in the fall by Emily Dickinson; Kim accompanies her poem with photos; Janet shares a Tess Gallager poem and a lovely picture of a birds nest at Across the Page; and Tabatha has two poems and a bonus of the Simpson's version of the Raven. From The Raven, we fly-leap to Kermit at Chicken Spaghetti.

The election is featured at
Tiel Aisha Ansari's with Heirloom Diamonds and at MotherReader's with Okay, Brown Girl, Okay.

Here are a few more original poems: Stacy from Two Writing Teachers, Lisa Chellman with Pantoum of a Canine Spaz, Lori Ann Grove has hers posted here.

Dickinson is always well-represented at Poetry Friday: Tadmack has an untitled Dickinson poem and Karen E links us to Daily Dickinson.

Fuse # 8 is reviewing the William Carlos Williams picture book biography
A River of Words and Tricia in today with a poem by him.

John Mutford submits a Leonard Cohen poem, "A Limited Degree." jama shares "Oatmeal" by Galway Kinnell (and a cute picture). Linda shares Shel Silverstein as Diane of the Write Sisters remembers the movie theater of her youth. David elzey shares a trio of poems by Christina Rossetti today. Laura Salas posts a poetry event featuring Nikki Grimes, Joyce Sidman and others. And this is her offering from her weekly 15 Words or Less Showcase.

The Lost Pilot by James Tate is Stenhouse Publishers's tribute to our veterans. The Wild Rose Reader share a review of the children's book The Sun in Me: Poems about the Planets. At Blue Rose Girls, she has a Sherman Alexie poem entitled "Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World."

I didn't know there was a MTV Poet Laureate till today, as Mary Burkey links to Audiobooker's post. Little Willow quotes a portion of Charles Webster by Edgar Lee Masters at Bildungsroman. Kurios Kitty shares a poem by Ron Padgett.

And happy birthday to Sheila!

I will continue to round up the rest later in the day. If any of the links doesn't work, please let me know. Enjoy!

Two more submissions, one that makes me want to stand up and shout by Shelburns
over here and the other by erin.

Jill Corcoran is participating for the first time. Welcome, Jill. Carol remembers her father. Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children relates a story about poetry and children. Kevin has a message for would-be writers.

The last two offerings came in last night. From Anne Shirley, we have a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, and from Nadine Warner, A Chill in the Air by John Frank.

I think that's all, folks. Thanks so much for all your contributions. I'll be spending the weekend savoring them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Poetry Friday here tomorrow

I know some of you like to get your selections in early, so leave your info in the comment section and I'll round them up tomorrow.

Ugly pots, awful sentences

A little while ago, over at the Tollbooth blog, Sarah Sullivan related the story about two groups of pottery students. One group was told their work would be judged solely on quantity, and the other group, quality. The result surprised me: the "quantity" group produced the higher quality work. When I read the same story again, this time on my friend, Cheryl's blog, I reacted again to the results.

My surprise has to do with my experiences as a musician. For most of my childhood, my approach to piano playing was sloppy. I got by with as little practice as I could get away with. At around fourteen, attending a music camp and going to a different teacher turned my mild interest in music into full-blown love. I became a piano fiend and gobbled up music. Beethoven, Debussy, Schubert: anything my teacher put in front of me, I learned, quickly.

That period was my equivalent of "work judged on quantity alone" in the pottery story.

When I got into conservatory, my professor was impressed with my big repertoire but appalled (he was, and is, a true gentleman and never showed it) by my lack of finesse and detail. Under his tutelage, I revisited pieces I had "learned" earlier so that I could improve on phrasing and voicing and fingering and articulation etc.

To my dismay, I discovered that my fingers and arms knew those pieces in a certain way and changing it was very difficult. In my earlier haste to learn new music, fueled by eagerness and passion, I had overlooked details, ploughed over important sections, and smothered all nuances. Even with determination and hours and hours of re-practicing, I wasn't always successful in changing old habits.

I gained a much deeper respect for the process of learning a new piece.

In twenty years of teaching, I've seen the same thing in my students. Those who took time to analyze their pieces, work out fingerings, and began learning at slower tempos mastered their music more quickly and securely. Those who wanted to get to the finished product quickly found themselves addled with stubborn mistakes that would surface, even months after they'd been eradicated, at auditions, recitals, competitions and other stressful situations.

Quality from the start: that has been my belief. Haste in "finishing" a piece: a guarantee of unpredictability.

And that's why the pottery story surprised me.

Obviously there are a number of other factors besides the contrast of quality vs. quantity. For example, the pottery students' interest in quality. That is why during the process of producing their many ugly pots, they learned how to make beautiful ones.

The thought I concluded from this story and my own experiences is this: thank goodness writing does not have a physical-memory component. In music, my muscles become conditioned when I learn something new. Reconditioning it takes a lot of time and effort. In writing, I can type a thousand bad sentences and the physicality of it won't hamper me from writing good ones.

I'll take time when I learn new music (gearing up forChristmas is when I get to learn lots and lots of new music for the church choir) but I'll be writing lots of words to get the ugly pots out of the way.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tell me your favs!

The list I posted yesterday is a reminder that systems of categorizing are imperfect. Obviously most people reading it won't come to the conclusion that the "books that may appeal to boys" are off limits to girls, or that books under "multicultural" have nothing, besides cultural details, to offer, or that The Underneath is only a good book because there is a hound in it, but I'm still bugged.

Before I get completely off-tanget and vent my frustrations at other imperfect human-concocted systems, let me offer more book suggestions. Yesterday most of the books are for children, today I focus on mostly books for adults:

Books, fiction and non-fiction, that show in vivid details how difficult life can be, but also convince us that hope exists:

Books I simply love:

What are some of your favorite books you think would make great gifts?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Move over AIG and BIg Three Auto

Save the publishing industry!

The current economic crisis is hurting industries across the board. The one that concerns this blog has just experienced a particularly bad October. Moonrat explains it much better at her blog. It has to do with bookstores returning so much inventory to the publishers that an entire year's profit has been wiped out at some smaller houses.

As a book lover and hopeful future author, I ask that you consider buying books as gifts this season. And since I'm nothing but helpful, here is a list of suggestions, totally subjective with no discernible common factor except that I think they're well-written, entertaining, and just plain good.

Multicultural books
chapter books and early middle grade

young adult

Books that may appeal to boys
chapter books and middle grade

Books about strong sibling relationships
middle grade

Poetry books for children

Books for doglovers (who also love lyrical writing)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Poetry Friday

Our family celebrated two birthdays in the past couple of weeks, my daughter's and mine. These milestones brought to mind thoughts about growing up, growing older, changes. My daughter is still young, but she's gaining independence every day, and lately I find myself wondering the kind of adult she'll grow up to be.

by Marie Ponsot
The child was a girl, the girl is a woman; the shift
is subtle and absolute, worn like a gift.

Check out other posts on poetry at Check It Out this week.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Big Sur in the Rockies: a second report

Learning from the experience and wisdom of the faculty was wonderful, but that's only half the reason why the Big Sur in the Rockies Workshop was so valuable. The other half was meeting like-minded writers.

The weekend was structured around critique groups. Each attendee was assigned two groups led by two different faculty members. Each group met twice. Attendees chose what they submitted at each group meeting.

The talent and passion of these writers are amazing. From inventive premises to tender treatments of difficult subjects such as death and divorce to a touching corridos (Mexican and Southwestern US traditional ballad) to hilarious yet heart-warming poetry, I was treated to some excellent writing. And let me tell ya, you haven't lived till you hear an ancient Japanese / Jewish / African folk tale re-told in authentic cowboy.

Reading and critiquing the work, and listening to the critiques, of so many thoughtful writers taught me volumes.

And then there are my two cottage mates. Not only are they brilliant writers with a great sense of humor (and sass), they are also the most considerate, respectful sharers-of-space one could ever ask for. I am forever spoilt.

Big Sur in the Rockies: A report

The Big Sur in the Rockies writing retreat provided me with a wonderful time away from the day-to-day concerns and focus on writing. The workshop is small, with only about 50+ attendees and ten faculty members.

Here are Lyron Bennett and Lynda Sandoval, two people filled with wit, intelligence, knowledge about the publishing industry, and boundless energy.
I was trying to figure out how to bottle it all weekend long.

And here I am with Laura Backes, writing teacher extraordinaire.
Her superpower is way better than that of any fake super hero: she can get to the heart of any manuscript and make magic-wand type suggestions that any writer would want to immediately follow.

From l to r: Laura Backes, Linda Arms White, Marilyn Marks, Andrea Brown.

From l to r: Claudia Mills, Phyllis Perry, Hilari Bell.

The only faculty member whose picture I didn't manage to take is Paul Hindman.

I didn't get to know every one of the faculty but from listening to other attendees talk about how one or the other faculty member helped them, I can attest to the fact that every faculty has a heart for helping writers of children's literature. And God bless them for their generosity.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Post-retreat shlump

I came back from the first ever Big Sur in the Rockies writing retreat earlier this afternoon. It's great to see my family but I am in a bit of a post-retreat shlump-funk, or feeling melancholic, as my fellow-writer, Cheryl, said in a much more sophisticated way. This melancholy reminds me a lot of the feelings I used to have at the end of camps I attended as a teen.

I'll be posting more of my time at the retreat in the next few days, but right now, I think I'll go mine the emotions for my music camp novel.

(All right, call it wallow if you must, but I'm calling it part and parcel of my writing process.)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Poetry Friday

A poem about courage seems appropriate this morning, as I get ready my manuscripts to head to the Big Sur writing workshop. I think I'll print it out and mull over it while I'm there.

I Would Like to Describe
by Zbigniew Herbert
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

Read the rest of the poem here.

Poetry for Children is hosting the Roundup today.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Last weekend was filled with kid-related activities: parent-teacher conferences, a Tae Kwon Do tournament, a solo with the church children's choir. Each event brought about observations and thoughts that can fill a week's worth of blog entries, if not more.

But this weekend, I am leaving the kids with Super Dad. I'm off to a writing retreat, my first ever, at a Chautauqua site. It's the Big Sur Writing Workshop headed by Uberagent Andrea Brown. I look forward to learning from the faculty assembled as well as the attendees. I just hope my mind is focus and open enough and my skin thick enough to get the most out of the weekend.

Wish me courage!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: The End

I finished the book a few days ago and have been moping since.
The night after I finished reading, I couldn't bring myself to start another book. I watched the news instead: nothing like an overdose of rhetoric and posturing to get my mind off Edgar's world. I don't know if it will become a classic, as Oprah's magazine says, but it's one book that I won't forget.

The ending is tender and moving. The one aspect that I absolutely needed was there--thank goodness or I'll be moping even more--but it's still tragic.

The reader in me is utterly satisfied with the book. The writer in me is still trying to figure out what makes it work. As I mentioned in earlier reports on the book, it goes against quite a few of the writerly advice that is bantered about in writerly circles. Yet it made big, and deservedly so.

The only conclusion I come to is this: break all the rules you want, but you must be able to hold on to your readers. If your writing is good enough, than none of the rules matter.

It really is all about the writing.

If you're interested in my other reports on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, here they are:
  1. This one is from when I started reading it.
  2. Here is the first update, with some favorite quotes.
  3. A day later, I read the part that made me go WHOA!
  4. In this one, I rant a bit.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Review: The Willoughbys

The Willoughbys
Lois Lowry

My first Lois Lowry book is The Giver. Based on the book, I constructed an image of the author: serious, contemplative, deep. Recently I picked up her newest book, The Willoughbys, which, according to the cover, was "Nefariously Written & Ignominiously Illustrated by the Author." Hmmm. Is this the same Lois Lowry? The backcover assures me it is. I turn once again to the front cover. If illustrations can wink and nudge, then this one is nudging and winking like a 8-year old boy trying to conceal his prank. The old-fashioned black and white drawing gives the impression of being perfectly symmetrical, and therefore very proper, but it isn't. The illustrator is obviously having fun and waiting with a gotcha!

Which preconception should I trust: the one from reading The Giver, or the one from the cover?

Turns out you can judge a book by its cover.

Lois Lowry wrote this book with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek.(That image, combined with the author-blurb on the jacket flap: "...reclusive old woman who sits hunched over her desk thinking obsessively about the placement of commas" makes a striking figure, doesn't it? )She must have had great fun writing the ridiculous: four characters named Barnaby, people pretending to be furniture, and quasi-German "Mein muesli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit." Fun! Fun! Fun!

But the book is also filled with macabre details. Children as orphans is a time-honored theme in children's books, from Anne of Green Gables to the Boxcar Children to the might-as-well-be-orphans Penderwicks and Cassons in Hilary McKay's series. But seldom are there parents who want to rid themselves of children by leaving and selling the house while the children still live in it, or a mother who forgets her children's names and would rather knit for the cat, or another mother who sends her young son off to a solitary journey. Wouldn't children be scared? Wouldn't they feel insecure? Shouldn't we include this book as Halloween book for its scare factor?

Lowry masterfully balances the gruesome with a breezy style of writing that says, "Don't worry, it's all for laughs. Nothing bad will happen to these children, at least not for long." Besides, these dark possibilities are so over the top, only the most literal and timid child would not see past them to the humor behind.

Speaking of mastery, something else Lowry does makes this a delightful read. She sets up expectations that makes you think you know exactly how they will be fulfilled and then wheem! (Wham! implies a loud impact, a big whack on the side of the head. Wheem! does the same thing except softer, and the head doesn't hurt quite as much) she comes up with a totally unexpected answer. For example, when Jane, one of the Willoughby siblings, says there is a bad word here:

"You old fart...Good riddance to you both."

We all think we know which word. But then she continues, "Riddance is a very bad word and I won't ever say it again."

Here is another example. When Commander Melanoff decides to name his new candy after his little girl, Ruth, we are sure we recognize where it's going. Many pages later, we find out he's named the candy bar Little Ruthie.

And that is what parody does. It takes something familiar to both author and reader (or stand-up comic and audience) and skews it in a way that makes it funny and thought-provoking. The fine line between what works brilliantly and what simply annoys is not only hard to define but is different from one person to the next and even the best of 'em can miss the mark. Lowry doesn't in this book. She pokes fun at story-book conventions, and maybe even a little life conventions, and succeeds. It is a book that my children and I both enjoyed immensely.