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.)