Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The value of a life

Paul Newman passed away last week. He was one of my favorite actors and seemed like a decent and principled human being. I'm sure he's missed by many.

In my local newspaper, the news of Newman's death is prominently placed at the top of a page, with three pictures. Under it on the same page is the story of the deaths of 13 premature babies in the Izmir Tepecik Research and Training Hospital in Turkey. This, after the deaths of 27 other infants in August in another hospital, in Ankara.

I am not berating the newspaper editor for placing more importance on the death of one man over that of multiple infants. I'm just struck by how differently lives are viewed. I'm sure each person who died is mourned by those who love him/her, but the world doesn't know the infants, whereas Paul Newman is famous. Does it mean that a person who's had a bigger impact deserves more recognition? How does one quantify impact, and does it matter that nobody except family and friends would mourn a death?

Of course I know that each life is valuable and it's meaningless to compare the value of one life over another. Yet, I'm feeling a bit melancholic.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Red Glass Giveaway Update

So it's Friday and I am supposed to announce the winner of the book giveaway, but I am faced with a little bit of a dilemma because the magic number of 28 is not reached. I have three choices:
  • Don't give away the book because I don't have 28 eligible entries;
  • Draw from the ones who've already entered; or
  • Extend the deadline.
Since I'm Queen Bee (and Only Bee) here, I'll make an executive decision to...

Extend the deadline till Oct. 8, the date of the Colorado Book Awards.

So, please help me spread the word and remember, if someone you refer puts your name down, you get two chances.

Poetry Friday

I'd like to pay tribute to the end of September with this poem by Valerie Bloom:

Autumn Gilt
The late September sunshine
Lime green on the linden leaves
Burns bronze on the slated roof-tops,
Yellow on the farmer's last sheaves.

The rest of the poem is here.

I feel an affinity for Valerie Bloom's poems, perhaps it's because we've both grown up in a culture that is vastly different than the one we've chosen to settle. Even though I feel at home in the US and have been here longer than any of the three countries I've lived in, I still carry around in me the language, the music, the people of the other cultures. At times, I find myself using a term or phrase in a particular language that conveys much more than its surface meaning. Or I'd think of strange juxtapositions of food ingredients. And occasionally I'd use cultural references that are completely foreign to the group I'm with but my friends are used to being confounded every once in a while. It's a rich life.

Speaking of a rich life, treasures await at the roundup at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Free Book Giveaway: A Reminder

Don't forget to enter the Red Glass giveaway today before midnight!

Author Interview: Teresa Funke

Here is an interview with Teresa Funke, who has not one, but two books selected as finalists in the Colorado Book Awards, one in the Young Adult category, the other in the Fiction category.

Teresa R. Funke is the author of four books for children and adults, Dancing in Combat Boots: and Other Stories of American Women in WWII, Remember Wake and the Home-Front Heroes series for middle-grade readers. Her articles, essays and short stories have appeared in national and regional publications. Teresa is also a popular speaker, presenter and writer’s coach and on-screen host of the video series The Write Series. To learn more about Teresa, visit www.teresafunke.com

  1. Which makes you want to procrastinate more: starting a new scene or revising a draft? (Or, if you never procrastinate, please, please, please share your secret.)

That’s a tricky question. On the days I have to write new scenes, it takes me a while to clear my mind of all the chaos and focus on creating something new. On the days I’m approaching a rewrite, I always feel like that’s more manageable. After all, I’m just improving what I’ve already done, right? Then I get into it and I’m reminded how much work it is to rewrite. But I like that part. To be honest, though, I procrastinate much less now than I did before kids and before my work picked up so much. Back when I had all the time in the world to write, I found it much more tempting to spend that time reading or talking on the phone or running errands. It’s only when life got complicated and my writing time got scarce that I had to become more productive in the little bit of time I had. No more procrastinating!

  1. In your writing, what is the relationship between putting down the initial ideas and revising?

It varies depending on the project. If I’m working on a stream-of-consciousness essay, I might write a segment of the essay and then revise it before I move on. But when I write short stories, I tend to write them all the way through and then revise. With books, I usually write a chapter all the way through and then go back and revise a tiny bit and then move on. Then I do several full revisions in the end. See, there’s no one right way a writer works. We follow our best instincts and we respect each project.

  1. Which scenario comes closest to yours: (a) you wake up at dawn, sit at your keyboard with your coffee and work for a couple of hours before the rest of the family gets up; (a) you put away the dinner dishes, tuck the kids into bed, start a load of laundry and start writing; (c) you have 10 minutes between your office hour and your next class/you sit in the pickup lane of your child’s school/you lock yourself in the pantry and scribble down a few sentences?

Unlike my friend, Laura Resau, I’m NOT a morning person. If I had my way, I’d stay up till 3:00 a.each night and wake up at 10:00. But with kids, I'm kinda forced to follow a more traditional schedule. I get my kids off to school, do some quick exercise and then work till dinner. Several days a week, I go back down after they're in bed. I'm not writing the whole time. I have various jobs I do. In fact, those have taken over and I have very little time to write. So I've taken to writing my books at our condo. I"ll lock myself in for three-four days at a time to work on my children's books. It's just not possible to get that kind of concentration at home anymore!

  1. Do you have a community you turn to for support, encouragement, critiques, and celebration in your writing life?

I’ve always believed in writers supporting each other. I belong to several writing-related organizations and I network with lots of writers, but my writers’ group, The Slow Sand Writers Society, has been my life-line for 15 years. None of my work goes out without them reviewing it first.

  1. Did you ask young readers to read you book before you published it? What was the most interesting response you’ve received?

I actually relied a lot on my kids. I “made” them each read the book as I was writing it and when I was finished. They were actually a big help. I also had my goddaughter read it. And I’ve very much enjoyed hearing from the kids who’ve read Doing My Part and will hopefully soon read The No-No Boys, which is due out this fall.

  1. If you weren’t a children’s book writer, what would you do?

My dream job would be to be a philanthropist. No, that’s true. I’d LOVE to just sit around all day identifying good causes to support with my piles of money. Course, that would require HAVING piles of money first, and we all know writers don’t have that.

  1. What will you do for your two fellow authors if you win: (a) bring them homemade apple pies, (b) offer to watch their child/children for a weekend, (c) provide them with unlimited signed copies of your book?

How funny. I’ve been so focused on what I’m going to say to them if THEY win, I hadn’t thought about what I’d do for them if I win. I think the best thing I could do for them is talk up their awesome books to anyone who will listen. But I do that already. It’s great fun to be nominated with two good friends!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I am reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which has created a lot of excitement this summer. Oprah magazine calls it a "classic in the making" and Stephen King says he "flat out loved" it.

As I started reading, echoes of writing advice flittered in my mind, nagging me about how a book should not have a prologue and about how the very first line should tell the story immediately, not the backstory.

Well, this book begins with a prologue. And when Chapter 1 proper begins, it doesn't even begin with Edgar's story but his grandfather's. Actually after one sentence on the grandfather, we read about the man from whom the grandfather bought the land. For many pages, we read about the grandfather, and then the father. Even the dog gets a few pages in her viewpoint before we are properly introduced to Edgar.

But what an introduction! The author switches to punchy sentences, brilliant images, and whatever other magic he employs to make joy leap off the pages. I found myself smiling and feeling warm and tender and giggly all at once.

I love this book already, even though I haven't finished it. Its heftiness thrills me, I know I'll spend many delirious hours with it.

But my experience with the book did make me think, about writing advice, about the publishing industry, about authenticity and conformity, about rules and exception, about why people read.

I am going let these ideas brew a little while in my mind before I try to wrangle something resembling coherent thoughts from them. In the mean time, I'll leave you with random quotes that have made me linger and sigh.

Clouds like bruises scud over the fields...The pines flap their branches in the gusts, swimmers in the wind. He walks to the window to see if the treetops actually pierce the clouds.

Then Edgar was running through the cold, the house jerking in his vision.

The cold was fearsome, the sky above dilute and punctured by stars.

Fragmentary emotions possessed and released him...Below the chaos of image and memory, something so powerfully suppressed he would barely remember it.

Pep Talk Time

I got these quotes from my gym this morning--probably because I haven't been in a while--applicable to exercising and writing:

Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.
Robert Collier

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.
John Wooden

Our greatest battles are that with our own minds.
Jameson Frank

You will never find time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.
Charles Buxton

So, go make time to battle the self-doubts and distractions of the mind, not allowing them to interfere with whatever small efforts we can put in at this moment. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week. The thought that occupies my mind is how much poorer I would be if I've never read (and re-read many times) To Kill A Mockingbird, or never been disturbed by the images from Lord of the Flies, or never had my heart broken by Of Mice and Men.

Are some of your favorite books banned? Have you been meaning to read some of the books on the banned book list? Let me know.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Poetry Friday

I missed last week's Poetry Friday Roundup but I'm back with a poem that combines my three passions: music, words, and education.

Undivided attention

By Taylor Mali

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps - like classical music's
birthday gift to the insane -
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth-floor window on 62nd street.

The rest of the poem is here.
And here is Taylor Mali's website.

Head on over to Author Amok for the Roundup.

Free Book Giveaway

I forgot to mention in yesterday's post that Laura is donating a copy of Red Glass to be given away. Red Glass has garnered recognition galore, including being the Americas Award and the International Reading Association Young Adult Fiction Award winner; getting starred reviews on Publishers' Weekly, ALA Booklist, and School Library Journal; and being on numerous reading lists, Oprah's included. This is a must read, for young adults and adults who have young people in their lives, or anyone who loves to read.

Since this is the first time I'm doing a book-giveaway, I'm experimenting with how to do it. This is what I've come up with. To win the copy,
  • Leave a link to your website/blog or your name in the comment section between now and next Thursday, midnight, Mountain Daylight Time.
  • If you refer someone, your name gets put into the hat twice. If you refer two people, three times etc., no limits. The person whom you referred has to put your name in their entries.
  • I need to have at least 28 eligible entries to do this giveaway. Why 28? It's the first number that popped into my head, and in Cantonese, it sounds like "easy to prosper" and I reckon everyone would like that.
  • I will announce the winner next Friday.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Author interview: Laura Resau

Here it is, as promised, an interview with Laura Resau. Laura is the award-winning author of the young adult novels What the Moon Saw and Red Glass (Delacorte Press). She lived in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, for two years as an English teacher and anthropologist. She now lives with her husband, baby, and dog in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she writes and teaches English as a Second Language. Laura is donating a portion of her royalties to indigenous rights organizations in Latin America.

I know your secret to writing so convincingly: you are really a teenager/middle-schooler pretending to be an adult. You’re not? Then how do you do it?

Actually, I often DO feel like a teenager pretending to be an adult! I think that a lot of the questions I grappled with as a teenager are still questions I grapple with—finding my identity and being myself, following my passion in life, connecting with other people, and just, you know, in general, UNDERSTANDING LIFE AND THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING! (which is actually a diary quote from when I was fifteen.) I like how (despite the hard parts) the world seemed like a brand new super-exciting place when I was a teenager—I felt just on the verge of exploring the great, wide, world… and I still try to feel that way every day. It makes me love life more.

Which makes you want to procrastinate more: starting a new scene or revising a draft? (Or, if you never procrastinate, please, please, please share your secret.)

Hmm. I think what makes me procrastinate most is when I have to do a revision for my editor. If I'm revising a draft for myself, it's kinda fun, because I already have something on the page, and it's just a matter of adding, cutting, tweaking, etc… not too scary. But when I'm revising for my editor, I have a fixed deadline. I cringe a little at the thought of diving in and tinkering with something that was pretty polished already, and wondering whether I'll mess it up terribly. Now that's scary for me-- it requires lots of self-pep-talking!

In your writing, what is the relationship between putting down the initial ideas and revising?

I write in stream-of-consciousness for the first draft—free-floating dialogue and rambling poetry-descriptions and pieces of character studies. Then, for the revision, I ask myself how it all fits together, and add necessary scenes (or make notes about where I need more scenes. Then I take a chunk at a time (maybe five pages) and do the adding, cutting, and re-ordering. I revise the whole manuscript many, many times over.

Which scenario comes closest to yours: (a) you wake up at dawn, sit at your keyboard with your coffee and work for a couple of hours before the rest of the family gets up; (a) you put away the dinner dishes, tuck the kids into bed, start a load of laundry and start writing; (c) you have 10 minutes between your office hour and your next class/you sit in the pickup lane of your child’s school/you lock yourself in the pantry and scribble down a few sentences?

Ha! (a) I'm a morning person. Before my son came along, I would start writing with tea just after getting up. Now, it's a mad rush to get him clothed and fed and off to his daycare. Then I come back and enter the creative space of my writing trailer and try to recapture that fresh early-morning feeling.

Do you have a community you turn to for support, encouragement, critiques, and celebration in your writing life?

Old Town Writing Group has been essential to the creation of my books and essays and stories. The members are smart, fun, funny woman who are all brilliant writers. I've belonged to the group for six years, and I feel grateful to them beyond words.

Did you ask young readers to read you book before you published it? What was the most interesting response you’ve received?

No, I didn't!

If you weren’t a children’s book writer, what would you do?

Hmm. Maybe a spy?

What will you do for your two fellow authors if you win: (a) bring them homemade apple pies, (b) offer to watch their child/children for a weekend, (c) provide them with unlimited signed copies of your book?

I would happily do the pie thing— we've got lots of apples on the tree in our yard. In fact, even if I don't win, that's a good way to pawn off some apples (as long as Todd and Teresa are okay with frozen crusts—there isn't enough room on my dinky kitchen counter to roll out the dough…)

Thanks for the fun interview questions, Yat-Yee!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Colorado Book Awards

All three finalists in the Young Adult category of the Colorado Book Awards this year are from our little town. One of the finalists, Teresa Funke is a finalist in the Fiction category as well. Two other authors have entries in other categories. Go, Fort Collins!

I'll be posting an interview with one of the finalists, Laura Resau, here tomorrow. This is her second time being a finalist. Her novel, What the Moon Saw, won last year, and Red Glass is in the running this year. Her newest, The Indigo Notebook, will be released in the Fall of 2009. It'll be the first in a series published by Delacorte Press.

Stay tuned to find out more about Laura and tea and apple pies and maybe a spy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

And speaking of hooks

On this page, you'll find an author's take on the query letter. More than that, you'll find links to other authors who either post their query letters that got them their agents, or talk about how they did it without one.

If you're like me, you've read so many articles about how to write a query you can quote what they say in your sleep. But I find reading the actual queries very interesting. On the one hand, I can see some "rules" being broken, but on the other, these queries did do their jobs. So, have a look. See what you think.

Effective openings in MG and YA part 4

The combination of attending the Read and Critique Xtreme at the Pikes Peak Conference and reading Hooked has made me hyper-aware of story openings. One of the criteria for a great hook, according to Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked, is that the first sentence should encompass the entire story. This is a lofty goal, and I don't think I've come across many books that fulfill it. But I read one recently that does that.

Homeless Bird
by Gloria Whelan

"Koly, you are thirteen and growing every day," Maa said to me. "it's time for you to have a husband."

Thirteen and she has to find a husband! That certainly makes us sit up; we know we're not in Kansas anymore. The name, Koly, and how Maa is spelt confirms that this story takes place in a different place.

But beyond telling us that the story doesn't take place in our society, this first sentence does, in fact, encompass the whole story. Koly's experiences from having to be married off at the age of thirteen, and everything else that resulted from it: that is the story.

This book, which won the National Book Award in 2000, is much more than its hook, of course. I get transported to Koly's world, feeling her despair and holding on to her hope. Because my first novel takes place within a different culture, I have wrestled with problems of how to put readers in my world, to provide authenticity without pretending to be a social studies text, and to find universality in the experiences of the characters. Homeless Bird does all that. It's definitely a book I'll be re-reading and studying.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The dog ate it

I know some people who structure their lives in a way that they do a little of everything everyday. I've tried to be that structured: setting aside specific amounts of time a day on chores/writing/social life/gardening etc. But it's no use. I am the type who needs to focus on one or at most two major tasks at a time. Sure, the kids still have to be fed and taught and read to and cuddled with, meals have to appear at set times, and the underwear drawers stocked, but if I am preparing submissions and learning some 80 pages of new music for the church choir, then keeping up the blog is going to fall by the wayside.

So, I'm doing my third round of querying and submissions, trying to make sure I follow guidelines to the tee. On top of that, our church choir accompanist is plagued with unexplained pain and I'm stepping in. I've been accompanying choirs on and off for many years and I still find it one of the most unpredictable pianist jobs. The accompaniment parts are often not pianistic, there are frequent key changes, the tempos are not consistent and I'm at the mercy of the choir director.

But I digress. Back to the point: the reason I haven't posted more than a week is that I've been slaving over a different keyboard and obsessing over my queries and synopses and first 10/20/50 pages of my novel. Things are more or less back to a steady state and I will be posting a number of thoughts that have been swirling around in my head this past week. I hope you'll stay tuned.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ode to Community part 2

Went to a book release party this afternoon (yay, Victoria!) I was a little nervous about going, because I didn't know too many people, and if you're an introvert, you'd know this type of situation is much scarier than giving a speech.

The moment I stepped into the book store, however, I felt at ease because I saw two writers I'd met at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. They were just as friendly today as they'd been when I first met them. After a while, I turned around, and one of the keynote speakers of the same conference was standing nearby. Her gracious demeanor made it easy for me to strike up a conversation. Soon I was talking to another author, whom I've met briefly before and she, too, was gracious and made conversing very easy. During the course of these conversations, a
n author offered to read a final draft of my work and another offered to make an introduction to her agent.

I wasn't sure what I expected from this event, but I came home feeling blessed to be the recipient of the graciousness and generosity of so many authors and honored to be in this community.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Poetry Friday

The Poetry Friday Roundup is being hosted at Wild Rose Reader this week.

I am feeling a little sad today, maybe it's the gray skies. Here is a short poem by Robert Frost. A close friend shared it with me when we were in grad school but we've lost touch.

Nothing Gold Can Stay
by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so for an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


In a poll to determine Britain's best-loved authors, Enid Blyton, a children's author, came out tops, ahead of J. K. Rowling, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.

I cheered; because her books are the ones that turned me on to reading.

I was about nine when my brother, no doubt tired of his pesky little sister bugging him to play, threw me an Enid Blyton book. I continued to bug him, to ask him meanings of words, but his ploy eventually worked. I was so caught up with the story and the characters that I simply skipped over all the words I didn't know and read on.

That was it. I was hooked. I raided his bookcase for all the Enid Blyton books I could find. I especially loved the Famous Five and Mallory Tower books and read them at least three or four times each. I even wrote a story that took place in a boarding school in England even though I'd never been to a boarding school and knew nothing about England.

Maybe Blyton's writing cannot withstand literary scrutiny, maybe her views are old-fashioned, but she had something special. I don't know what it is: ability to tell a good story, desire to create memorable characters, understanding for her young readers? Whatever it is, she paved the way to a much richer life for me, and probably all the adults who participated in that poll. I wouldn't be surprised that in thirty years' time, Rowling would be the chosen author in a similar poll.

Maybe you can argue that the list is ridiculous, but it is a best-loved list, in which people voted not on literary merits but how much they love the books. It should at least give us pause when we re-consider the reason we write.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008



This is a picture of my daughter taken a couple of weeks ago at a local carnival/community fair. This was one of those bungee-trampoline deals. I didn't try it but my children said they felt as if they had been flying.

Those soaring moments, those wonderful, unexpected times when something delights us to the core!

I get those every once in a while, when one of my children willingly and without being told, shows compassion and generosity; when another child overcomes his fear of joining a new class.

I got them when I was a musician, when a concert or a piece or even one portion of piece went so exceedingly well or when I could feel a connection with the audience.

Occasionally, these moments are extraneous to the actual task: when my critique group likes my work, or when an agent responds to a query with "I'm intrigued, send me the full." And they definitely lift my spirits, but those moments that come from the task itself--when a revision of a tangled passage finally works, or when I realize where the story must go--those are the moments that make me truly soar.

I wish I could manufacture these moments and reward myself with them all the time. The thing is, though, they are out of my control. Just because I teach my children to be compassionate and not to be fearful doesn't mean they will do it. Just because I practice hours and hours a day doesn't mean the concert will go smoothly. Just because I write and re-write doesn't mean that the result will be good. As much of a control freak I am, I realize that soaring moments (and everything that truly matters, I suspect) are totally and completely out of my control.

But if I don't encourage my child and take him back to a class that terrifies him, if I don't practice, if I don't rewrite, then there is no chance for any soaring moments to take place.

That's the good news. Our toil and labor (my tribute to labor, one day late) can lead us to success. So my fellow writers (and anyone in pursuit of worthwhile goals), here's a wish and an encouragement to you: may you soar!