Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking Ahead

I am not much of a New Year's Resolution maker, because I am not much of a New Year's Resolution keeper.
What I will do, as I enter 2009, is to remind myself of the important things to a writer.

Writers write.
Writers read.
Writers pay attention, listen,wonder, imagine.
Writers love, hurt, savor, live.

Writers face procrastination, laziness, discouragement, despair, doubt, confusion
with self-discipline, -direction, -motivation, -control, -encouragement
and forgiveness and grace.

Writers persevere.
Writers write.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Year in Review

Look Back To Move Forward!

According to the email in my inbox with the above heading, celebrating the past year is just as important as setting goals for the new year. The tone of the email is a bit too rah-rah for me, but the idea may be a good one.

Today, I'll recap the positive things that have happened in my writing life in 20
08, and tomorrow, I'll return to share some thoughts for the new year.

These are some of the things I've done:
  • started this blog with some vague notion about needing to have a web presence. It turned out to be a tool in forcing me to write frequently. As a bonus, I also met some wonderful fellow writers and readers.
  • entered a couple of contests and placed 2nd in both.
  • attended my first writers' conferences and a writing retreat.
  • met fellow writers
  • sent off queries and got requests for my manuscript (which have resulted, so far, only in rejections, but personalized ones.)
  • started writing a new YA and outlining another
  • revised my Middle Grade novel a few more times per suggestions of agents and editors who'd read earlier manuscripts.
  • found online critique groups in which members write for children.
  • Read, read, and read.
  • wrote, re-wrote and re-wrote.

More lists!

So the manic gift-purchasing season is almost over, but lest you think lists are a thing of the past, the year-end is upon us, and we all know the end of a year is a time when list-making takes on epic proportions.

So for those who hunger for more suggestions on what juvenile books to read, here are two highly-respected book people who
weigh in on the subjects:

Cynthia Letich Smith and her Cynsational Books of 2008 and Editorial Anonymous with her Enormous Can of Worms. This second list comes with a bonus of readers' comments, always entertaining.

(Can of worms by "No Matter" Project.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Whose favorites?

Someone introduced me to Chris Crutcher recently. Only a few pages into the book, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I already like it, a lot.

We got to talking about whether this is one of those books that adults like but maybe teens don't. That, of course, led me back to the debate on the Newberry selections. Not exactly the same debate, but at the foundation of it is the question of whether the intended audience--as opposed to adults, however well-intentioned they are, who are in the business of juvenile literature--like a book and would read it.

Do you have books that fit into this category, especially if you're a teen? (So, Chanelle?)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas celebration

Christmas holds a special place in my heart. It's a time of joy and celebration, of connecting with people who matter, of building traditions and memories, and of reflection. Most of all, It is a time of hope.

For this Christmas, I'd like to share a few poems of hope.

First, a short poem by Raymond A. Foss:

A Kernel of Hope

Deep inside
Against the pain
The struggle

When tended
Memories ignite


When tested
For graven choices

In the dark
Against the shadows
In my heart

(You can read more about Raymond A. Foss.)

And two by
Emily Dickinson

Had I Presumed to Hope

Had I presumed to hope --
The loss had been to Me
A Value -- for the Greatness' Sake --
As Giants -- gone away --

Had I presumed to gain
A Favor so remote --
The failure but confirm the Grace
In further Infinite --

'Tis failu
re -- not of Hope --
But Confident Despair --
Advancing on Celestial Lists --
With faint -- Terrestial power --

'Tis Honor -- though I die --
For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death --
This -- is the Second Gain --

Hope is the thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

[Christmas Star (for wise men and others) by Nick Owen, The Christmas Robin by law_keven. Both found on Creative Commons.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bailout for Writers

I'm (obviously) not the only one who calls for a bailout of the publishing industry and writers. Two other writers, Paul Greenberg in the New York Times and Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker both presented their bailout plans.

Andy Borowitz presents a compelling case of how far reaching the consequences of him not given a handout: the whole economy can collapse! All these affected families!

Paul sees that:

the workspace for writers seems to get more crowded by the day as refugees from other professions take cover behind what they hope will be the respectability of the writing life.

From his perch on the writing stool, he contemplates what Graham Greene asked:

“Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled."

Save the writers!

Monday, December 22, 2008

How fun is that?

What do
10 men singing "12 days of Christmas" a capella and teams of pastry chefs creating outlandish cakes in six hours have in common?

They are both delightful and awe-inspiring to watch. We marvel at the mastery and the apparent ease these artists have as they execute something most of us know we may never be able to do. We also experience an underlying nervousness: at these high level of difficulties, so many things can go wrong. We hope the singers stay in tune with one another and nobody will suddenly have a coughing fit. We sit at the edge of the seat as we watch each team lift their 150 lb cake from the working surface to the judging table, hoping the precarious and gravity-defying creation won't topple.

There is no doubt in anybody's mind that these are talented folks. But even the most talented person will not get anywhere without motivation, desire, proper training, practice, tenacity and perseverance. Today, I pay tribute to these qualities and remind myself that talent is not something I have any say about. Even passion and desire are not of my doing. Motivation, training, practice, persevere: these will have to be my focus if I want to achieve any level of excellence.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What can go wrong? I have the recipe.

Two foodie friends gave me a cookbook when they saw us at Thanksgiving, a cookbook from a bakery in Paris. They'd been there recently and knew I loved pastry.

Since this is Christmas time and all, the recipe for chestnut and chocolate tart leaped off the page and pleaded to be made. The directions didn't look too bad, the ingredient list not that long, and the taste of chestnut and dark chocolate in a buttery pastry case taunted me from the moment I saw the recipe.

The recipe calls for a standard pie pan or "some smaller tart pans" with no mention of the dimensions of these smaller pans. That alone should have alerted me to the possibility that this cookbook falls in the "cook till done' category, cookbooks that trust the cook to have enough experience and to have acquired helpful instincts so that details are not necessary.

Yet, I continued, trying to call up as much of my baking experiences as I could to decipher some of the instructions. I am more a cook than a baker; my instincts for cooking have been nurtured since I was nine while baking is something I came to much later. Till today, I am still not terribly confident if the dough I'm kneading is of the right consistency, or whether I have over/under worked it.

I set aside a couple of hours for the recipe, but the combination of my not-enough baking experiences and the fact that this is a new recipe made sure I took close to four. The tarts turned out well, I think, although the chocolate cream is too thin and I had to substitute almond paste for chestnut paste because I couldn't find chestnut paste anywhere in town.

How this applies to writing is easy to see. Just because we have a "recipe"--include the ingredients of strong characters, real conflicts and tangible setting, mix and heat using concrete noun
s and active verbs--that has worked for other people hundreds of times doesn't mean I can make it work for me, at least not right away. And even when the results are decent, they're still far from excellent. My tarts tasted fine, but they look ed amateurish. Anyone can tell, at one glance, that they had been make by someone who was new to this.

I have to make many more tarts (like this gentleman here) before my tarts will even approach excellence.

I'm back to my keyboard to knead.

(Rose Bakery by roboppy, kneading brioche dough by yarnivore, Michael, Brick Street Bakery by fortinbras from Creative Commons.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Twenty years of unexpectedness

This week, my husband and I celebrated twenty years of marriage. In our wedding picture. We look bright and hopeful, as newlyweds tend to, and I remember feeling that way as well. We dreamed big, but our life together gave us experiences much bigger than we could imagine. Some of those have been the very ones I'd secretly hoped we'd never have to experience. Yet through them came complexity and richness that gave our life meaning and depth.

As this poem by Arthur Conan Doyle writes in his poem, Retrospect

All that we ever dreamed, dear wife,
Seems drab and common by the truth,

To the unexpected. And to loyal and courageous companions!

Poetry Friday Roundup at Author Amok this week.

What do your scales look like?

When I was in college, my roommate, a wonderful violinist who'd chosen med school, commented that she was surprised I didn't practice scales every day.

Scales are important, they train our fingers to play passages that appear over and over again in repertoire, they are great warm ups, and most important of all, they teach our arms and bodies how to move across the keyboard. So why wasn't I practicing my scales every day, even though as a music major, I was putting in anything from 4 to 10 hours a day?

Because I had already spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours devoted to this one technique in my earlier years of playing the instrument. The scales had already been ingrained in my mind, my ears, my muscles. Till today. I have forgotten most of what I've learned in geography or physics or anthropology but tell me to play a F# major scale and I won't even hesitate. These babies have drilled themselves into the nucleus of every cell.

Also, laziness. (Hey, I was in college, I was allowed to be a slacker every once in a while.)

When I started teaching, I had to decide which school of thought I subscribed to when it came to teaching scales. One school says pianists need to have as many of the standard figuration of piano playing--scales, arpeggios, chords, Alberti Bass, trills, etc--in their fingers so that when they encounter them in real repertoire, they won't need to struggle but can instead focus on the musical elements.

The second school of thought considers the hours practicing scales wasted because students should spend time on real music, instead of just the technical aspect. Students will learn scales soon enough when they start playing Mozart Sonatas.

I chose #1 although I tried as best as I could to relate particular technical exercises to real music so that the younger students, especially, could see the point of these exercises.

My question is, now that I'm a writer, what is the equivalent of practicing scales? Free writing? Journaling? Writing sentences and labeling parts: subject, verb, object?

So, my fellow writers, do you practice scales everyday? If so, what do your scales look like?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On a more upbeat note

To counter the negative vibes of my last post, I'd like to get back to the conclusion I had arrived at before getting sidetracked, and that is:

despite all the bad news and the mounting difficulties in getting published, as a writer, I will continue to write. And improve and learn and grow and live.

One of the things that helps me hone my writing is to read a lot; to compare and figure out what works and what doesn't. There is subjectivity involved, obviously, but great writing, in the end, will stand out.

The super-generous agent, Nathan Bransford, ran a contest recently, in which he invites writers to submit their first paragraphs. From the 1000+ entries, he selected 6 finalists and readers voted their favorites.

These posts offer an immense resource. First, we get to read the first paragraphs of so many writers. Second, we get to hear different people's opinions (ignore the snarks) of the chosen paragraphs. Third, we get to see the ones who stand out and why.

I haven't yet read through all the entries. But having read just the ones I have, I can understand a little better what agents and editors
mean when they discuss the queries and submission they receive.

So there you go, a bit of a silver lining.

Here's one way

To get published in this age of shrinking publishing houses and disappearing advances: take up a trade--
you only need to be as good as this guy

--and get yourself 15 minutes of fame. Or become a famous pooch, or a career celebrity by continually doing outrageous things in public.

Most of you have read the op-ed piece in the New York Times by Timothy Egan, Typing Without a Clue. If not, here it is.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The long and winding road to publishing

is getting longer and more winding.

By now, everyone interested in the publishing industry has heard the bad news. Even the big publishing houses, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Thomas Nelson, and Random House
are not immune.

What are we, unpublished writers, to do? If you're inclined to see the sky falling, you may find some comfort in one editor's take on the situation. Mark Tavani, a senior editor at Random House, talked about it at
Notes from the Handbasket, a blog by author Laura Benedict.

He doesn't offer a no-worries-things-will-be-back-to-the-good-old-days-you-just-wait. What he does offer is this:

But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books. Maybe, over time, books will regain an elite status that I sense they once had. Maybe, in the end, books won’t qualify precisely as mass entertainment, but entertainment for a sizable if select audience

Not exactly unqualified confidence in the industry, but a reasonable and achievable state. In the mean time, those of us who love the written word, who love stories, who simply have to write will do just that: write. Focus on getting better in craft and more savvy in the profession. Doing the same thing we've already been doing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Ocean breeze, white sandy beaches, gorgeous views plus no housework, no email, no phone calls for a week: a writer's dream. I brought my college-ruled notebook, three pens, and wrote new passages of a new YA novel while watching my children play all day. The notebook has gotten fatter and floppier from water and some of the words have sme
ared into pretty blue patches, which may partially explain the increased weight of our luggage despite not having bought a single thing.

I'm back now, ready to dive into writing again. But where is the guy with the pineapple drinks and the ones with the dry towels? How am I supposed to write without the sounds of the waves and the wind in my hair ?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Poetry Friday

I wasn't going to make it to the Poetry Friday Roundup today but while chauffeuring my kids around, I heard an interview on NPR with a guy who wrote poems on the 2008 election. Anyone who says he was inspired to write poetry by John Sununu is worth a read, don't you think?

Anyway, here is a taste of Deciding the Next Decider
by Calvin Trillin':

On a Clear Day, I See Vladivostok
(The Barbra Streisand standard as sung by Sarah Palin)

On a clear day
I see Vladivostok,
So I know world affairs.

(For the rest of the poem, follow the above link.)

More poetry over at Mommy's Favorite Children's Books.

Hand me the hammer, please?

If you've been thinking about getting published, you would have heard of the term "platform."

My understanding of a platform: that whic
h gives you the authority and draws people to your book. It used to be that platform reigns supreme in non-fiction. After all, who wants to read a book about the migration patterns of miniature vampire bats if the author isn't someone who knows a thing or two about it. (Please don't google "migration patterns of miniature vampire bats" because there may not be such things. See, I don't know the first thing about bats or migration patterns or vampires, so you wouldn't want to buy a book on the subject even if I wrote one.)

Fiction these days needs platforms as well, I am told. What constitutes a platform gets slightly fuzzy in my mind. One example I can think of is the author Jeff Stone, who wrote the international best-selling series on five young monks schooled in kung-fu. Jeff Stone is a highly trained martial arts practitioner as well and can talk authoritatively on the subject. I can also imagine him performing some cool monkey-styled kung-fu moves in school visits.

What else? How do unpublished authors build their platforms? (Please don't say plank by plank, you clever and cheeky ones.)

Have no fear, there is a book out, titled Getting Known Before the Book Deal, in which one writer, a successful one, discusses platform-building. You can read an interview with the author and get the links to the book and her website at Writer Unboxed.

Know a not-yet published author? Need to get him/her a

(Hint: I'm not published and I haven't read the book yet either. : D)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Books! Lists! Top 100!

Are you panicking yet about buying gifts this holiday season? You are buying books, I know that much,

but you may want to ideas about which books to buy. Here are just a few ideas:

The New York Times lists their most notable books of 2008.

Don't like the Times' taste? Here is the list compiled by the publishing industry's insider, the Publishers Weekly.

Or maybe you're a fan of NPR like I am, they weigh in on the subject as well. They have lists for best foreign fiction, cookbooks, and graphic novels.

You want a more democratic list? The Modern Library lists the board's and the readers' choices side by side.

Then there is, of course, the biggest store in the universe, Amazon, which has lists by both editors and readers in more categories than you know what to do with. (C'mon you don't need a link.)

It can be done. The publishing industry will be saved. (and gifts will be purchased on time and appreciated and enjoyed for years.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Writing is re-writing.

I agree completely. I have no problems with revising my work as many times as necessary. After all, I've been doing it for six years now, since the idea of this book came to me when my first grader was an infant. (Just what is it about being sleep-deprived and living from hour to hour that makes it conducive for ideas, such as ideas that I would write a book, seem reasonable?)

I've submitted my manuscript to my critique group, entered contests, read portions aloud to an editor, submitted to agents, and re-written it after wards. You'd think I'm getting the feel for it by now.

But I am still surprised by the process. In my current revision, among other things, I'm switching from a third person point-of-view written in past tense (Edie played the timpani) to a first-person present tense (I stare at her.) Changing pronouns and tenses: doesn't sound too bad, but I am learning that even this seemingl
y benign change requires much more mind juice than I anticipated, probably not unlike people undertaking house renovations to end up spending much more money and time than they budget for.

I do believe this change is for the better, despite the hurdles. And as always, the process of writing itself is teaching me lots about the craft.

Back to rewriting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

writers and genres

Since becoming a writer, I've noticed a lot more about the writing in the books I read. Often, the writing functions well in telling a story. Occasionally some writing draws too much attention to itself. And then there are those incredible voices, which liven up story, dig deep into emotions, and create memorable moments, all the while staying un-intrusive.

Recently I came across two such writers: Jennifer Allison and Laura Ruby. Their genres are different from what I write, but the writing will definitely go under my microscope to detect patterns and principles that will help polish my writing.

Do you have authors like that? Let me know so I can steal, I mean learn, from them.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Chasing Vermeer: and some other elusive answers

I've been re-reading several middle grade novels lately, driven by questions I haven't thought of before or questions whose answers I don't remember. The
first book is Chasing Vemeer, debut novel of Blue Balliett. I picked it up again for two reasons.

My middle-grade novel has some mystery elements but doesn't fit into the same mold as standard mysteries (think Nancy Drew.) I knew Chasing Vermeer, a non-standard mystery, won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery in 2005, so I wanted to re-read it.

At the same time, Balliett's newest novel, Calder's Game, was released. I love Alexander Calder's works, and I admire the thinking of John Dewey, an educator associated with the Lab School at the University of Chicago, where the protagonists of these novels attend. I picked up Calder's Game with anticipation.

About thirty pages into it,I
realized I had to keep telling myself to focus. One of the things that distracted me was the frequent shifts in point-of-view. It distracted me so much I had to
find out if the author did the same thing in her first book, which I had enjoyed. So I put aside Calder's Game and re-read Chasing Vermeer.

Question #1: Did Balliett use shifting p.o.v in Chasing Vermeer? If so, was it distracting?

The omniscient p.o.v in chapter 1 set the stage perfectly for a Twilight Zone vibe. Chapter 2 was primarily in Calder Pillay's p.o.v, except for the few paragraphs in Petra Andalee's. These shifts were clearly marked, creating no confusion In subsequent chapters, the p.o.v switched frequently, but never in an unclear or intrusive way. The author was very skillful in making those shifts seamless and almost transparent.

Answer to #1: Yes. No.

Question #2: what makes this book successful?

  • It provokes thinking, by asking questions and exploring ideas, such as what is art? What is the best from of communication? Is art a lie, but a lie that tells the truth, as Picasso stated? Is all of life about rearranging a few simple ideas? What if thoughts don't have to be broken into words. Thoughtful young readers will no doubt have considered these very same issues.
  • The characters and their friendships are authentic and not at all cliched. There is a scene that describes the awkward and tentative gestures between Calder and Petra early in their friendship that is unique but believable and touching.
  • Mysteries are typically plot-driven, and some don't emphasize language use, but Chasing Vermeer isn't one of them. Here is an example of an imaginative use of language: Petra looking a pictures that "made her feel as if she could leave everything predictable behind."
  • A lot of the action takes place within the heads of the characters. Depending on the reader, this can be a plus or a minus. I happen to like knowing how characters think and react to their situations, especially when it is handled skillfully.
Answer to #2: Excellent writing, believable and complex characters, thoughtful and engaging.

Question #3: Is it a mystery?

Unknown perpetrator? Check. Red herrings? Check. Multiple suspects? Check. Unexpected turn of events? Check. Protagonists solving the mystery by sheer logic and deduction? Um.

Calder and Petra receive information from a character in a painting and come to conclusions from coincidences that are more unlikely than usual. I've read interviews given by Blue Balliett and know that she intentionally includes mystical/paranormal elements in the book but I do feel let down in this aspect.

Answer to #3: Yes, but it leads to other questions, including:

Question #4: Where is the balance between having a book considered on its own criteria and submitting it to expectations within a genre?

I'll need to shelf this question to read more and think further.

Do you think this is a reasonable question to ask? Do you have opinions on this? I'd appreciate your thoughts.