Friday, August 29, 2008

No mercy

When I first read the comments from the editor who judged my middle grade novel in a contest, I was at a loss as to what to do. I wanted to take her recommendations, I wanted to have an open mind, I wanted to be a writer who can revise beyond making cosmetic changes, and I really wanted to send her a partial because she’d taken the time to provide her thoughts. I just didn’t know how.

A good friend and fellow writer very gently suggested that I trim some of the musical details that the editor thought would not appeal to most kids, and that alone may re-balance the various elements well enough.

But trimming didn’t do it.

Ruthless chopping and slashing: that’s what had to take place. I felt occasional pain, but not as deep as I’d thought. During the process, I realize that I couldn’t have done this a few months ago when I first heard from the editor. Perhaps it’s the emotional attachment to the manuscript. Perhaps it’s the discouragement that came from thinking you mean all those revisions are still not enough? Perhaps it’s the need for a stronger validation. I don’t know. I wish I approached my writing (and while I’m at it, all of life) with a detached, objective stance. Everything would be so much more efficient.

Or maybe efficiency is over-rated.

In any case, I now have twenty pages that I’m preparing to send. I am still too close to it to decide how improved this version is. But I know that despite all the changes, I have stayed true to the characters and their story.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Poetry Friday

My daughter and son bickered just before they started their bedtime routine last night, over some shared toys. An hour later, little brother found his sister's stuffed tiger that she'd been searching and quietly placed it in her bed.

Ah, siblings!

This poem by Naomi Shihab Nye captures that bond, seemingly fragile and easily threatened by the most insignificant little nothing, but in reality, strong and robust.

Supple Cord
by Naomi Shihab Nye

My brother, in his small white bed,
held one end.
I tugged the other
to signal I was still awake.
We could have spoken,
could have sung
to one another,

Read the rest of this gentle, bitter sweet poem here.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Charlotte's Library this week.

So that's what abdicate means!

The Washington Post invited its readers to submit words that they have altered and provided definitions for. Here are some of my favorites:

Giraffiti : Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

Sarchasm : The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

Inoculatte : To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

Caterpallor ( n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

Here, the readers are invited to submit alternate meanings for common words:

coffee , n. the person upon whom one coughs.

flabbergasted , adj. appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

abdicate , v. to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

negligent , adj. absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

lymph , v. to walk with a lisp.

balderdash , n. a rapidly receding hairline.

oyster , n. a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Solipsism, times three

I came across the word solipsism for the first time last week, in Jerry Spinelli's newest book, Smiles to Go. (I love it when I learn new things from reading kidlit, don't you?) Found out that it is, according to wikipedia, an
epistemological or metaphysical position that knowledge of anything outside the mind is unjustified. Very cool.

That night at dinner, my husband wanted to tell me a joke, but first, he wanted to know if I've come across the notion of solipsism. I almost sprayed my mouthful of rice at him. That was weird, to have come across a word for the first time in my life and to have it be brought up on the very same day!

Okay, fine. Coincidences happen.

Later that night, my husband showed me a article he had been reading, and there it was, a company named Solypsis.

Cue Twilight Zone music.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Reivew: Smiles to Go

Will is sensible. He plays chess, runs cross-country, and plays Monopoly every Saturday with his two best buddies. Like many of his peers, he is trying to figure out Life; big, universal problems, such as proton decay and solipsism, as well as everyday, down-to-earth problems, such as a pesky little sister and the changing nature of his friendships, especially with Mi-Su. The middle section of the book is spent on his planning to kiss his formerly purely-platonic girl best friend. The climax of the book is surprising, but inevitable and so is Will's reaction.

The thing that I appreciate most about Jerry Spinelli's writing in this book is that he doesn't adopt the super-chummy or I'm-so-up-to-date-with-kid-lingo attitude that I find condescending. Instead he writes with understanding and respect for the way young people view their world. It's no wonder his books have been one of the mainstays in the crowded shelf of YA lit.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Poetry Friday

It's Poetry Friday again.
Today it's being hosted at Read. Imagine. Talk.

Maybe it's because I am in a midlife crisis, I mean, mid-career diversion, band, but it spoke to me. I like the straightforward style, and the line " a beautiful belief in answers" delights me.

Memory as a Hearing Aid

by Tony Hoagland

Somewhere, someone is asking a question,
and I stand squinting at the classroom
with one hand cupped behind my ear,
trying to figure out where that voice is coming from.

I might be already an old man,
attempting to recall the night
his hearing got misplaced,
front-row-center at a battle of the bands,

where a lot of leather-clad, second-rate musicians,
amped up to dinosaur proportions,
test drove their equipment through our ears.

Read the rest of the poem.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

You say inane and dull, I say...

To continue what I started yesterday about things to avoid in our work, today I offer ten qualities that will doom our manuscripts. Even though this blog focuses on mysteries, the content applies to all writing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Agents' pet peeves

I haven't been querying for the last couple of months, focusing mainly on re-writing, and summer stuff. This morning, I went over to check out the guide to literary agents blog and found this post. In it, different agents explain what turns them off in a first chapter. Quite a few of them are familiar: too much exposition/world building/telling,
clichés, dream scenes, but I found a few that are new to me, such as characters named Isabelle who go by Izzy.

Might be fun to see if any of the pet peeves mentioned are in your first chapters.

Research resource

A member of my critique group sent me this link to a blog on research for writers. Looks helpful. Check it out.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Poetry Friday

Here is a lovely, wonder-filled poem by AIleen Fisher

The Seed

How does it know,
this little seed,
if it is to grow
to a flower or weed,

if it is to be
a vine or shoot,
or grow to a tree
with a long deep root?

A seed is so small
where do you suppose
it stores up all
of the things it knows?

This poem can be found in several anthologies, including
Days Like This : A Collection of Small Poems by Simon James and Spectacular Science: A Book of Poems.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is over at Big A little a. Head on over and enjoy some poems.

Reading lists for kids

That American Library Association has a recommended list for building a home library. Over at Buried in the Buried in the Slush Pile she offers an alternate list. One of her cohorts offers up her own. Here is the second half.

For good measure, I'll throw in Oprah's list as well.

Happy reading.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Book Review: The Chaos King

The Chaos King
by Laura Ruby

A budgie that speaks pig-Latin, an extinct sloth that loves M&Ms, a giant octopus that winks, vampires who are too cool, performance art, Sesame Street, secret passages in libraries: you'd think someone reached into a hat, fished out bits of paper with outlandish and incompatible descriptions, and wrote a novel that included all of them just as a challenge. In lesser hands, this can come across as trying too hard to be different or simply annoying. Laura Ruby, however, manages to put all these into one coherent and enjoyable story.

At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two friends. Each feels like a fish out of water. The girl is newly reunited with her loving parents (and a wise, Polish cook/guardian angel who wields sausage links as a weapon. Outlandish, remember?) after having been kidnapped by the father of her best friend. This best friend tries his best to distant himself from his thug of a father and finds himself in the high-flying—literally—world of being a winner in a flying contest.

Writing a novel that introduces so many fantastical elements takes an experienced hand, and the author certainly has that. She builds her world so seamlessly that I never once felt the pace slow down. Nor were there questions about this world that took me out of the story. Everything was explained clearly, succinctly, and at the right time.

Ruby writes in a somewhat detached, bemused manner, but not in that nudge-wink-see-how-clever-I-am sort of way. It seems to me she had fun with the story and I certainly had fun reading it, occasionally chuckling out loud, and often marveling at how she'd managed to make everything seem so easy.

Tell a story that has universal themes, such as alienation and friendship, and tell it superbly. There. I’ve discovered it, the secrets to writing a successful novel.

Monday, August 11, 2008

This is becoming a habit!

Since my first 5K run was such a positive experience, I did another one over the weekend. My children ran the 1K. Here we are at the finish line.

At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, David Liss, one of the keynote speakers, said that even though the first novel seems really difficult, it's nothing compared to trying to start a second one. That's because we put everything into our first "baby", and then we have nothing else to say. Everyone chuckled, but I had secretly feared that very phenomenon. He went on to assure us that it can be done. Harper Lee, after all, is an exception, not the rule.

The first step is always the hardest, according to conventional wisdom. And I think it's probably true for most things, but sometimes the the second step could prove just as intimidating. Every step I conquer is one that will get me closer to finishing my other "races"!

Friday, August 8, 2008


I haven't been able to write much these past few weeks. We've been hosting family visiting from overseas, catching up with old friends, and taking in some beautiful sights.

After our guests left, I took out my
stubborn novel again (I think I'm just going to call it SN from now on) and to my surprise, found the revision this time around a lot more fun, yes, fun! Problems that had driven me to tears before now didn't seem so daunting any more. New scenes that had been difficult to complete, ended nicely.

Maybe that was exactly what I needed: time away from the SN and trying new things (I climbed, part way at least, up a climbing wall, and did a 5k run, among other uncharacteristic Yat-Yee type things.)

Note to self: when at a dead end with any writing project, go climb rocks or sew or some other things that don't typically appeal to me.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

When I get a perfect ACT score, I'm going to be...

A local high school junior achieved a perfect score on her ACT. Considering only three students from the entire school district have done so in the last ten years, this is obviously quite a feat.

According to the newspaper article, this young woman wants to be a children's fiction writer, but she thinks she'll study neuro science "or something in the science field" instead.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A follow up

A question arose from my last post about what plumbing has to do with piano. Nothing, really. I was merely trying to provide examples of which "new technology" I vote for or against. Modern plumbing I cannot live without, but I choose my faithful acoustic piano over the newest electronic ones. I realize the piano as it stands today, has gone through many evolution processes, and at every step, purists have protested, and some of the things that have been lost in these processes are true losses.

For example, I remember hearing Schubert and Mozart played on period keyboards and suddenly understood them so much better. But those very same instruments kept getting broken by Beethoven. For him and Brahms and Liszt and Rachmaninoff, the stronger frames and metals that could hold more tension were definitely necessary.

Back to electronic pianos. I don't hate them. In fact I owned one (in addition to my acoustic grand) when I taught piano. It was a great tool. What I do not accept is the notion that electronic pianos would take the place of acoustics.

In my previous profession, this notion is being challenged constantly. At every conference, manufacturers would roll out new models -- and I would try them all, and proponents would argue passionately, and compose or perform on them . The arguments and compositions that made sense were those that examined the new instruments on their own merits instead of trying to make them "the same, except much better."

So what was I talking about? Oh yeah, books. Hand made books made me wonder about the future of books. I am aware that changes are happening, and I am open to how these changes may work. Maybe I will have to modify the way I read; instead of curling up in bed with a book in my hand, I will be bringing an e-reader loaded with all of my favorite books in my purse everywhere I go. Maybe I will free up space in my house after I get rid of all the bookshelves. Maybe my eyesight will get even worse by reading e-books. Who knows? I just hope I always get to read books, in whatever form, that contain great ideas and touch my heart and make me think and change my life.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Move over, Kindle

As an old-fashioned reader whose attitude toward technology is influenced by an early-adopter husband, I've been thinking a lot about what the development of e-readers might mean to me. On the one hand, I love the feel of books in my hands: their textures, their faintly woodsy smells. On the other hand, the convenience of an e-reader is very enticing. And inevitable.

In the midst of the book world tumbling headlong toward an e-evolution, I was pleasantly surprised to read of Alexander Bick, a graduate student at Princeton, who founded a publishing house, Crumpled Press to publish
, by hand, works that are typically tossed aside, thus the name. Can you imagine? Folded, cut, sewn by hand (with needles and threads!) How? At book-binding "parties" where volunteers come and work for eight to ten hours. They've published eight pamphlets and books since 2005.

This brings all sorts of questions to mind: how can they continue to be viable? Why would volunteers keep coming back after the initial high of being a part of a counter-culture wears off? With these books being so labor-intensive, will they become an object of art or will the words and ideas remain the most powerful thing? And just what do they serve at those book-binding parties?

It is no surprise that their latest venture is a book about the digitization of information and the future of bricks-and-mortar-libraries. I suppose when the old ways are threatened by new ones, there are always debates with everyone having to choose their side. I am very happy with modern plumbing, thank you, but I'm not convinced by enthusiastic sales pitches about the latest model of an electronic grand piano sounding and feeling exactly the same, or better, then my outdated model. I don't need my piano to be hand-made top to bottom (can't afford it anyway), but I do prefer the sound made from physical hammers hitting physical strings
reflected from wooden sound boards.

I suppose I fall in the same place on the continuum in publishing: I hope there will be books for a long, long time to come. Hand sewing optional.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Faith restored

The books I've been reading lately have all been...fine, but I've been missing the ones that keep me reading way past my bleary-eye state or whose characters stay with me long after. Some of these books have interesting plots but so-so writing, and others are written in lively voices but the stories don't hold together convincingly.

So I was thrilled when I started reading The Chaos King by Laura Ruby and found the characters, the writing, and the promise of the story all fabulous. I'm more than half way through and my earlier expectations weren't disappointed.

I'll write more after I finish it.