Thursday, July 31, 2008

Boot camp

Occasionally, after I finish editing and making sure I've adhered to writing rules--you know, show not tell/use active verbs/vary sentence structures/don't use cliches/engage all senses etc--I end up with passages that present no real problems, yet don't sound terribly exciting either. Ho-hum, 's alright.

When I was a youngster studying traditional
Western music harmony, I found voice-leading rules unfriendly and restrictive: by the time I followed all the rules, the resulting music would always sound deadly boring.

Later, I started analyzing harmonies written by "real" composers, Bach and Mozart and Brahms, and discovered they had all broken the rules at some point. Much later, I realized that nobody had sat down to design a set of rules for writing music. Rules came about because people wanted to codify what made music sound good. The music came first, then the rules.

Rules are the attempts of mortal humans trying to figure out the divine. While very handy, they remain servants to the actual music. In writing, we have our set as well. I am not advocating that we throw them out. Every writer should know what these are and work within their constraints before following a higher truth. Just like every artist should know about lines and perspectives, light and shadow before venturing onto something totally off the wall. Take a look at the early works or sketches of artists--Picasso, Cezanne, Rembrandt--and see how much care goes into the basics of the craft side of things.

The problem is that it is never super-clear when a higher truth is in fact a higher truth and not just an excuse for sloppiness or desire to be different or just plain bad taste. Instincts are important, and in the end, perhaps the only thing we do have, but uninformed instincts can lead us astray.

It seems to me that the only real thing we can do as writers is to hone our instincts. Read books on how to write. Do the exercises at the end of the chapters. Read. Lots and lots. Analyze. Compare. Then take the eyes and gut that have gone through these experiences to our own work and see what happens.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


I finished a 5K race today.

This is not a big deal for most people, but for the girl who routinely came in 5th or 6th--counting from the end--at cross country races in junior high, this was a huge deal.

I'd set myself a goal of finishing a 5K race by the time I'm 50. I know it is a lowly goal and the time frame provides plenty of time to procrastinate. But I did dowload a 3-month training schedule for people doing their first races. On my first day trying out the program, I discovered I couldn't even do the very easy first session. Always one to give in to disappointments, I gave up. I think I must have restarted the program four or five times.

So my sister-in-law and her husband are visiting us. They've both run marathons (you can see where this is going, can't you?) and when they read that there would be a 5K race this morning, they decided to run it and even convinced my husband to join them. I offered to watch the kids.

Last night, my husband started feeling ill and didn't think he would be able to run. "Yee, you should take his place." After laughing hysterically for a few seconds, I suddenly found the idea very appealing. Maybe it's the glass of Oyster Bay Saugivnon Blanc that I'd consumed, or maybe being in the presence of people with stamina made me feel I had stamina as well. it was going to happen, I was going to run!

Woke up this morning with my irrational exuberance still intact. It stayed with me all the way till my lungs started to burst, which was at around the half-mile point. I walked most of the way, running in short spurts. Little kids, folks who looked much older than I, and a man with a brace on his knee overtook me. But my goal was to complete the race. And I did. I even ran the last little bit.

It felt good; the type of good feeling that comes from having completed a task, a feeling that has become quite rare these days. Household chores, parenting, writing: these are all on-going tasks with no real, definitive endings. Much as I am energized by new ideas, loose ends, when accumulated, are a source of dissatisfaction; a quiet nag, nag, nag, that zaps energy and induces a sense of malaise.

Thank goodness the opportunity dropped into my lap suddenly, without pre-meditation (and thus no opportunities for procrastination and excuses.)

Refreshed, I am ready to tackle my never-ending tasks, including one stubborn novel which had gone through more revisions than I'm willing to admit.
After all, someone who can finish a 5K race can face anything!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Where ideas come from part 2

By the time I was fifteen, all three of my siblings had left home, either for college or work. My mother and I hung out a lot together. At restaurants, our favorite activity was to make up stories about the people around us, giving them characteristics and problems.

The other day, I was having an early lunch at a local seafood restaurant with my husband, and saw an older woman sitting at the bar by herself, with a glass of wine. She had on a wide brim hat, white canvas shoes, a pastel checkered shirt tucked into a pair of khaki capris. Despite her small stature and seeming frailty, she conveyed an air of strength and confidence. She started engaging the young man tending bar in conversation. I couldn't quite hear what they said, but the exchanges seemed fairly lively.

My husband and I started making up a story about this woman. Not only was it a lot of fun but very liberating as well.

I wonder what story the couple at the next table made up about us.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

You are who you are

Over at the Shrinking Violet Promotions, I took the Jung Typology test. It had been about ten years since I’d taken one of these and I wondered if the changes in my life over the years would make any difference to the results. If so, it means that personalities can change over time.

[On an aside, if you’ve taken any of these tests, you know that some of the questions are vague, such as this one: Do you enjoy a wide circle of acquaintances?

I didn’t know if the operative word was “wide” or “acquaintances.” Is the question designed to find out if I need lots of people in my life? Or that I am satisfied with acquaintances as opposed to friends.

Does the fact that I have a problem with this question say something about my personality?]

My score indicates that I am still an INFJ: Introversion-Intuition-Feeling-Judgment. (Here's an overview of the temperament types.) In fact, the two areas in which I scored high this time were the same as before: I and J. Granted, there is a chance that I'd inadvertently skewed the results because some of the questions were so obvious. Or maybe these tests are more reliable than I give them credit for. But the more interesting possible conclusion to me is that personalities don’t change that much.

Once an INFJ, always an INFJ.

That can be bad news or good. Take being an introvert, for example. It's not easy being one in an extrovert society. I've wished for the ability to mingle comfortably in large groups or to not have the need to hole up for hours after a party. But over the years, I've acquired certain extrovert-type skills and to appreciate the fact that I am an introvert. How else would I have been able to spend all that time writing and practicing?

When I first took a test similar to this one, I was not sure how I felt about the results. Over the years, my basic personality hasn't changed (at least according to this test) but something else has. Now I accept, no, more than accept, I am grateful to be given the traits I have.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Book Diva

Have you seen the issue of Oprah's O magazine with her wearing glasses on the cover? (Wait, I thought they remove glasses from people who need to look good, say, on a magazine cover or when they need to transform from the nerdy kid nobody notices to the major babe/hunk?)

Anyway, Oprah is promoting books in this issue, a summer reading list. One author is described as having "the perceptions of a young Alice McDermott", one of my favorite authors; a book compared to Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones; and one hailed as "Classic in the Making."

I haven't read any of these books, but I am definitely intrigued. Besides the two books compared to my favorite authors named Alice, I think I may pick up Barbara Ehrenreich's This Land is Their Land and Meredith Norton's memoir on her breast cancer. The line quoted in the article here in O is the one that hooked me:

"There we were...with the same annoying habits and bad manners, ungrateful, pessimistic, undisciplined, and bored. We were as mediocre as when this whole drama began."

Talk about ringing true.

If you've read any of the books mentioned, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Are these my darlings?

Kill your darlings, so goes a oft-repeated advice for writers. The cuter and cleverer the phrases/passages, the more ruthless we are to be.

But as I revise my novel, to re-balance the elements of music and mystery, per the suggestion of the editor, I find myself wondering if the passages (mostly music-related) I've removed are indeed my darlings or if I'm removing the very parts that make my story distinctive.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A perfect day

Our little town hosted its very own Jazz fest over the weekend. My family and I spent almost an entire Saturday at the festival. The weather couldn't be better: high 70s, low 80s, even in the afternoon, with a soft breeze. Nearby, there was a table for children to paint or draw, (my daughter spent most of her time there), a playground, and percussion instruments set up (my son spent his time running between the drums and the playground, and occasionally listening to the music.) My husband and I sat in the shade of oak trees and listened to all types of jazz: Latin, swing, R&B, Blues, and regular straight-ahead jazz. For dinner, we ate on a rooftop restaurant, listening a solo guitarist and vocalist.

I was amazed we were able to draw bands of such a high caliber, and as I mentioned, the weather was as close to perfect as it can get. Future Jazz fest will never be this good because how on earth do we order up the same weather?

Great music, perfect weather, time with the family, the luxury of being able to take a day off: life can't get much better than this.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Kimchee with your fries?

Took the kids to see Kung Fu Panda yesterday. As expected, the graphics are gorgeous, the dialogue witty, and the characters endearing. I love underdog stories and this underdog in particular is easy to identify with. I mean, who hasn't felt overweight, outclassed, and doomed to failure? We're all pudgy pandas who dream of Kung Fu greatness.

Another reason I love Kung Fu movies is that the stories are familiar. There's always an ancient character who is full of Deep Wisdom. The main character always feels out of place. Later he finds out why: he is really the grandson of Somebody Important (although they're not all named Luke) and is destined for The Great Thing. Then there is the relationship between a ShiFu (master) and the student. Most of the movie is spent chronicling how the talented but undisciplined/inexperienced young person comes to respect the master, overcomes great odds by learning the Great Truth, and Fulfills his Destiny.

In Kung Fu Panda, the Great Truth is "you can do anything if you believe in it." The juxtaposition of this very American idea with a classic Kung Fu movie jolted me. It's like going to a symphony concert in Carnegie Hall to find mahjong tables set up in the lobby. Or biting into a sushi roll and finding Texas style BBQ sauce in the middle.

This made me think about themes in fiction and how many of them are truly universal. Having lived in three countries, I am conscious of the differences, not only in vocabulary, but also the more subtle cultural undertones of the different groups. My book takes place in Malaysia, I use American terminology, but I hope the themes in the book, about friendship and loyalty, about goals and passion in life, can reach across cultural boundaries. I hope my juxtaposition of cultural flavors will be enjoyable instead of unpalatable.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Where ideas come from

I thought I'd take the advice of the editor and think of alternate titles for my novel. I've been revising the novel and this kind of sit-up-straight, diligent, being critical type of working can be draining. So I decided to "work" on it differently. To come up with a new title requires a mellow mood, a slouchy posture, and a wandering mind.

So I was sitting in bed, with the lights off, and my mind off on its happy stream-of-consciousness trip, and several titles popped into my head. None of them works, by the way. But a totally off-the-wall title gave me a light bulb moment. I got an idea for a whole new novel and the idea took off and I almost couldn't sleep that night.

The next day, I sat down and started writing. It felt great. I knew immediately whose point of view I would use, I knew his personality, his attitudes, and what he's been doing the past 14 years that led up to the moment when the novel opens.

So the new title for my old novel is still nowhere to be found, but now I've got two WIP, both in the beginning stage. Ain't life grand?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Write what you love, tested

I didn’t tell the whole story about the Sandy contest in yesterday’s post. I placed second—you can see the results of the contest here—and that’s good news, but more significant than that (for me, at least) is that the judge for the finals requested a partial...if I rewrite it according to her suggestions.

No brainer, of course I would rewrite.

Let’s see. Yes, she’s right, I can be clearer about this, and I can pick up the pace, and I’ll even think of a new title.

But she suggested that I reposition my novel as a mystery that happens to take place in a music camp, rather than a music camp story that happens to have a mystery. Makes sense: after all, mysteries appeal to more kids than music camp stories do. The only problem is that the original impulse for the book is the music camp story; the mystery came later.

Here is how the arguments went, more or less, between me and myself:

Me: Are you crazy? An editor asks to you reposition your story and you’re hesitating?

Myself: What happened to write what you love?

Me: Yes, but you have to be practical. She works in the industry, she knows about commercial potential of books. You write what you love but if it’s not marketable it won’t be published. I thought you wanted to get published.

Myself: Of course I want to get published.

Me: Don’t you know how busy editors are? And how little time they spend on unproven writers? Here you have someone who took the time to read your work, give you her suggestions, and offers to read a partial, and you’re not jumping on the opportunity? I reiterate, are you crazy?

Myself: I could very well be.

Me: Make the changes already. Don’t be so rigid with your book. Haven’t you heard of writers who are so obstinate about their ideas when those ideas just will not fly? And they end up old and bitter and unpublished.

Myself: Wait, I have made changes, significant ones, based on suggestions from several other industry professionals, and I am accepting all the other suggestions from this editor. It's just that this particular change is fundamental.

Me: So it's fundamental. But what does it hurt to make the changes to see what you come up with? If you think you can’t live with it, then go back to your original story.

Myself: What if I make the changes and send her the partial and she rejects it anyway?

Me: So you'll have spent time shaking your story up and looking it from a different perspective, and you'll have given yourself a chance to prove you can rise to the challenge. And the downside of that is?

Myself: Don't be so smug. Just because you're right sometimes doesn't make you superior.

Me: What's that? You're admitting I'm right?

Myself: Stop gloating.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Sandy Contest

I found out last week that Rhythm and Clues placed second in the children and young adult category in the Sandy writing contest. This is the second contest I've entered and the second time I've placed second. (Let's see, how many more times can I use the word "second" in this post.....I think that was it, the last "second"...hehehe.)