Friday, May 30, 2008

6 inches of fat around my waist, please

Web presence. I had heard that I needed one. But as to why and how, I didn't, still don't, have clear ideas. Creating a website involves either a steep price or a steep learning curve. I checked out MySpace and found it too vast and overwhelming. My targeted readers at this point are middle-graders, who may not be as active on such sites as the target audience of YA books.

A blog then. It's easy enough to set up. I was uncomfortable when I started it. Still is, a little bit. Face it, the world needes another blog like we need an extra 6-inches of fat around our waists. But I thought I'd just give it a try. I do like reading some blogs so mine could potentially be not a complete waste of time. Besides, as someone who has a problem with finishing a project (preferring instead to tweak and worry it to death), a blog forces me to produce a finished product every few days.

Janet Friedman's May 22 post on covers the topic very well. She touches on the different ways to have a web presence: websites, blogs, social sites, etc. She has specific advice for writers who haven't yet published a book and those who are published.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Does purple go with orange?

When I was a young child, yellow-and-red was king in my world. As I grew older, my color palette increased and I started finding other combinations pleasing: pink/grey, navy/cream, brown/beige, and light blue with everything. I progressed through nothing but grey and silver as a teen to the starving-musician all-black-all-the-time phase in my twenties. My notions of what color combinations work has gone through some changes, but my notion of what color combinations don''t work had remained quite stubborn, namely that orange and green and purple should never be near one another.

So I was at the garden center this morning picking up some flowers to punch up the colors around the house, and came home with dahlias, gerber daisies, lily, petunias: all in either purple or orange. The deep, velvety purple petunias next to the fire-orange lily and green foliage couldn't be more gorgeous.Why did I ever think they clashed?

This made me wonder how many other prejudices I still hold, and whether my characters all possess the safe and conventional group of characteristics. Hmmm.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What works?

Create intrigue, provoke a response, engage your readers' emotion: so go some of the advice we read for writers. Other advice sounds like this: use strong verbs and concrete nouns, choose two-dollar words over ten-dollar ones, vary sentence length.

Some writers prefer the first type of advice because it compasses the whole and it captures the imagination, of which writers are supposed to possess. Others find that they need specific instructions that the second list provides.

I remember as a young music student listening to the words music teachers used to help students play better. Some of the more common exhortations include, "Make your phrases soar!" "Sing through these piano keys!" and my favorite, from a voice teacher, "There's nothing inside your skull, let your voice resonate within the chamber." I behaved. I didn't respond.

Every once in a while, such imaginative remarks would hit a spot and I would "get" what the teacher was trying to say and be able to change my playing in an instant. It would feel like magic. For the most part though, I responded much better to, "Move your elbows here so your arms can move freely," "The ending of that phrase needs to be softer and last longer." "Your bass line is not loud enough"

Soft/loud, fast/slow, short/long: these seemed so mundane compared to what music is supposed to be. Even the soaring-phrase type advice results in nothing more than varying these basic properties of music. Yet, undeniably, when these mundane properties are combined in certain ways, we no longer care about soft/loud, fast/slow, short/long. We get swept up in magic.

In writing, we string words together, and we hope the way we do that makes our readers forget the mechanics and be drawn into our stories. How do you transform words and sentences, syntax and grammar into magic? That's the million-dollar question that has us revising, agonizing, and marveling at magic when we find them.

Friday, May 23, 2008


A giant tornado tore through nearby towns yesterday, wrecking homes and even taking a life. My children were locked down in school for over two hours. This morning on the way to school I noticed an oak tree nearby torn out of the ground and split into two. Some of my children's classmates had their homes damaged.

I've seen my children bounce to the car after school a hundred times, never pausing to be thankful that they are safe.

Nothing like the massive forces of nature to put everything into perspective.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Winning a marathon

I heard on the radio that the winner of the women's division in the Colfax Marathon is 43 years old. And here I am, aiming only to finish--jog, walk, crawl--a 5k within the next few years.

Now since this is a blog about writing, I could insert a clever comment about how writing a novel is very much like finishing a marathon. But then, I'd have to figure out where publishing comes into this comparison. Do people who complete a marathon look for sponsors? Or do they go home with a sense of achievement as they tend to their tired muscles and aching bones?

And I'd have to address the fact that in a marathon, when you cross the finish line at that 26+ miles, you know, and everybody agrees, that you have completed the race, but in writing a novel, nobody, no even you, the author, really knows when the writing is completed.

And what about the people who cheer on the side in a race? Who are our cheerleaders? Critique groups? Contests? Other writers? (I wonder if runners in a race encourage one another during the race and share tips on how to run more efficiently.)

And then I'd have to point out that nobody in their right mind would wake up on race day and decide they'd run that marathon. They'd spend months and years conditioning their bodies and developing their stamina, run some 10Ks and half-marathons before they sign up for a race.

So I won't compare writing a novel to running a marathon.

You could, though. Tell me what you think.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

For those times when you wonder if it's all worth it

Recently I read an article by a teacher who teaches at an alternative school. She describes how she found appropriate literature for the teenagers at this school that not only fits their reading level but means something to them. The subjects in those books include neglect, abandonment, hunger, and poverty, subjects that are lived by many of these young people. The literature? Hansel and Gretel and other fairy tales, the un-Disneyed, original Grimm versions.

According to the author, "We construct a sense of self through the stories we read and tell. Without the stories, we do not know who we are or where we belong."

How is this relevant to me as a writer?

As a fiction writer, I tell stories with hopes of entertaining readers, and maybe reaching them with experiences they can relate to.
Sometimes--usually when I've just watched a documentary about starving children or cyclone-ravaged Myanmar or peak oil--I wonder if that is worth that much. Now, I am not comparing my work to Hansel and Gretel or any of the classics, but maybe if I write about something that is deeply meaningful to me in my stories, just maybe a tiny bit of that could help a young person somewhere understand him/herself better. And maybe, that is a worthwhile goal.

Friday, May 16, 2008

How do you judge?

Dilemma: how to decide whether something is better than something else.

An example: I have to decide on which version of Chapter 1 I should use for my novel. I can see the merits of both, and rading all the books and advice about story openings has helped, but I still have to decided which is the "better" version.

Another example: I have an idea for a new scene that I am considering adding to my mostly completed book. This scene is in part a response to comments from my critique group about wanting more on the culture and setting of my story, which takes place in a different country. I am the sort of reader who usually skips over descriptive passages about setting. My favorite thing to do when I read is to be inside the heads of characters, to know what they think and how they feel. Not having a strong visual imagination, I don't really need to "see" too much of my characters' surrounding when I read.

Two things are making me lean toward adding the scene. First, I found myself enjoying passages about setting in a recent book I read. (Thanks, Laura for the beautifully written Red Glass.) That can mean (a) even someone like me can develop a stronger visual imagination, (b) the author is highly skilled (c) it is possible to weave setting into a story that doesn't call all attention to itself but draws the reader into the world.

Second, the possible new scene shows the protagonist doing something that puts her into more trouble. Previously, I allowed only her best friend to get into this particular trouble but I think I need to let my protag make this unwise decision so she can be more believable.

Seems that I have good reasons to add. So why am I hesitant? Maybe it's because I am not totally convinced that it's a good addition to the story, or because it will add words to a work that is already on the long side, or because the writing of the scene is not going smoothly. Then there is the little nagging thought that maybe I keep wanting to add or tweak scenes because I'm afraid to acknowledge the book needs to go out to the world--and be judged. (Ah, fear, rearing its ugly head again.)

Sure I will ask for comments from trusted readers, I will set aside the work so I can look at it with fresh eyes. But in the end, I need a basis on which to make my decision, sans all the emotional baggage and nagging thoughts about what-ifs.

Is an objective decision possible?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Update on fear as motivator

I tried out the new theory that fear is the most basic of motivators for human behavior in a children's short story. The story is familiar: two best friends + a new girl who likes only one of the two = jealousy and heartache for the one left out, who is the protagonist of the story. Jealousy and possessiveness may be the most obvious of her emotions, but they could be grounded in fear: of losing a beloved friend, of not knowing what life would be like without a best friend, of not knowing her status/role in life now that she's no longer part of a duo, of being considered inferior in light of the new girl's qualities, of being rejected because she wasn't good enough.

I have to say, thinking about it like that did make me feel the pain more acutely and feel more compassion for the poor girl.

Fear as motivator seems to work in this first experiment.

Monday, May 12, 2008


From my mother and her mother I have received more than I can ever write about. Today, I just want to highlight one trait in each of them that continues to inspire me in my writing.

My mother wrote a newspaper column for over twenty years, while holding down a full time job. She wrote anything from two to four articles per week. She never waited for inspiration or moped around about writers' block. She just hunched over her paper with little green blocks that were typical for Chinese writing (we lived in Malaysia and she wrote for a Chinese newspaper) and produced what she needed.

My grandmother was illiterate; her impact on me as a writer came from her overall attitude toward work. She never shirked from any task, no matter how tedious or how difficult. From cutting vegetables to sewing seams to cleaning up after meals, I had to re-do tasks to her specifications--only to see her re-do them yet again. I learned from her that there are no shortcuts and no substitution for work well done. She wasn't aware of such notions as "taking pride in one's work"; that was just the way she lived.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


From what I've been reading recently about story openings, here are some things to avoid:
scenery, dreams, back story, alarm clock buzzing, anything static or passive, weather, "Jack stood there, remembering the day two years ago when...", exciting events that have nothing to do with the story, flowery language, detailed descriptions about character, detailed descriptions about setting, telling, too little dialogue, prologue.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Recently, my children and I each went through an experience that caused fear: my son started Tae Kwon Do class, my daughter had sealant put on a tooth, and I had a root canal. Now you may wonder why any of these is scary at all.

OK, maybe "root canal" is understandably scary, but if you think about it, the worst thing about dental work is the pain. In a root canal, the nerves are all dead, and so theoretically there should be no pain. Well. One of the three canals in my molar had some leftover, very un-dead nerves. The discovery of those nerves made sure I was on edge the entire time. To add to the fear factor, a rubber dam--a pink plastic sheet attached to a metal contraption attached to my teeth--was stretched tautly over my lips, flossed into the space between teeth, and almost drowning me. That last bit wasn't an intended consequence. It just happened that my sinuses were completely congested and I could only breath through my mouth, which was no easy feat when an airtight rubber sheet covered most of it. But the worst was when sudden gushes of water escaped from the dam down my throat. It was a good thing the brain knew to shut down the air canal to let water pass through.

My fear of anything dental turned out to be nothing compared to the fear of drowning or suffocating.

Even though the causes of my children's fears seemed puzzling, I could identify with their emotions. My five-year-old son was afraid he wouldn't be able to do the moves in class and everyone would laugh at him. My seven-year-old daughter didn't feel any pain, but she'd had enough dental work done in her young life that she was afraid pain would be just around the corner. The unknown future and the possibilities of pain and humiliation, not the actual events they experienced, were what struck fear in their hearts.

Lajos Egri, author of "The Art of Creative Writing" (Citadel Press 1965) puts forth the notion that fear is the underlying drive for human behavior and survival. That thought stopped me. Fear is indeed a powerful emotion and motivator, but the most basic? He argues even the positive emotions such as love and philanthropy, are based on fear.

This idea may take me a while to chew on. But in the mean time, it's given me new eyes to look at conflict, the engine that drives a story. If I buy this theory, my characters would base all their decisions,consciously or not, on fear and its cousin, insecurity. We'll find out how that works.

Love, revenge, greed, power lust: move out of the way!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


I've been mulling over the subject of "hooks", that hard-to-describe quality that catches the attention of an agent, editor or a reader. Here are what a few people--an author, two agents, and an editor--have to say about it. Initially I wanted to separate the hook in a query, which usually is one or two sentences long, from a hook on a first page, but I realized that it's the same thing: the way to pique interest.

The headings are well-put and the examples, especially Hole in the Corner, are not your run-of-the mills ones. I also like how her emphasis is on the readers, on how we need to be "charitable" and not be "unfair." Sometimes my focus on the publishing process: writing queries and synopses, noting which agent liked what, what new imprints are created, that I lose sight of reaching actual readers. This is a good reminder.

No question Miss Snark knows what she wants, and spares no snarkiness in getting her point across. The sheer number of examples makes this a great tool. And if you have time to read the comments from her readers, it can tell you even more. No generalities, no cuteness, no trying to pass off an idea/list of characters as a hook: these are some overall impressions I got from this.

If you scroll down to the comments section, Nathan Bransford says something comforting (or disturbing if you really like things to be structured and well organized with clear Standard Operating Procedures for everything) about how people in publishing can differ on their ideas about queries and hooks and other mandatory, getting-your-book-published steps.

The word "snark" may not be in this person's name but she uses her sharp wit and sharper words to good use. These are her posts labeled "hooks" and she talks about the differences and similarities between hooks and gimmicks: which I don't think I completely get. I guess the word "gimmick" has such a strong turn-off factor for me that it is hard for me to consider some of them as "good." Interesting to read her comments on specific books, such as Speak and Fancy Nancy.

Friday, May 2, 2008

PPW conference part 4: The Pitch

I had imagined pitch appointments to take place in a small, drafty room. The agent or editor would sit behind an imposing wooden desk and the author would stand in front of a podium. As the pitch is delivered, the agent or editor would scribble, maybe sigh involuntarily, and peer over her metal-rimmed readers.

Not quite. This is what happened:

I turned up at a room in the hotel with my "ticket"--a card listing my name, the name of the agent, my appointment time--ten minutes early. In one of the two adjoining rooms was a desk and an L-shaped couch. I handed my ticket to someone seated behind the desk. A cheerful woman checked my name against a list and asked me to sit and relax. I sat but couldn't relax. Another author didn't even sit; he paced in the hallway instead.

Exactly one minute before the appointment time, the cheerful woman called out some names and asked us to line up. Yes, line up, just the same way my kindergartener would to go to recess. Except we weren't going out to sit on a swing or climb on monkey bars or run around screaming gleefully. I secretly felt like screaming, not gleefully though.

Cheerful Woman herded us into the other room with an upbeat, "Good luck!" and I was stunned by how many people they could fit in that one room. I had an inkling that the agent and I wouldn't get a whole room to ourselves when I first checked in but seeing all six or seven of them all in the same room still took me aback. Each sat in front of a small round table.

When I walked in, Laurie was staring out the window. She looked so wistful I almost wanted to tiptoe away to let her enjoy her private moment. But I knew that was just my inner chicken talking, so I marched up to her and squeaked what was supposed to be a confident hello. She smiled and told me she remembered what I'd read the day before and quoted something from it. A good start.

Some agents blog about not wanting to be treated as just a means to an end at pitch meetings. They suggest authors take time to talk to the agents to show we care about their well-being. I just couldn't. Small talk scares me. But my worries about how to start was put to rest by Laurie's friendliness and the fact that she remembered what I wrote.

As I pitched, Laurie responded with nods and appropriate facial expressions. When she didn't understand something, she stopped to ask. It was a two-way communication instead of just me delivering a rehearsed speech. After I finished, she asked for my full manuscript. It was the desired outcome so I was happy. I ignored with all my might the little voice that whispered, "It's hard to reject someone face to face. She could be asking just to be polite."

After the formality, we chatted. Yes, chatted! I asked her about that all important first page, about just what constitutes a hook. Not every book published has its conflict by the end of the first page after all, so other things can work as hooks. But what?

That was when we were given a one-minute warning.

So what are some of the things I took away from my pitch experience?
  1. Be able to summarize my book in one, at most two sentences. This is not the time to describe how my book doesn't quite fit into existing genres.
  2. Prepare a pitch, write it out, have the overall progression of what I plan to say in my head, but don't over rehearse it. That way, forgetting one pivotal word won't throw me off, and I am able to modify what I say according how the agent or editor responds.
  3. Just before the appointment time, don't overeat or drink coffee or anything that can up the queasy factor.
  4. Keep remembering that the agent/editor is a person to talk to, not pitched at.
  5. No matter how nervous I am, keep a part of me objective so this experience can teach me about what to do next time, or about myself.