Friday, February 27, 2009

Poetry Friday on Pep Talk Week: Optimism

Tenacity, optimism, persistence, hope, resilience: aren't these the best words for when you feel drained of anything that can propel you on the path that you thought you wanted to take

by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.

Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and
over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree:

Here is the rest of the poem.

Poetry Friday Roundup is at Mommy's Favorite Children's Books this week.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pep Talk Week: Resilience

Every once in a while, I'd get drawn to the promises of a self-help book and imagine my life improved after following its recommendations. More often than not, I can't even fi
nish reading it. The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte, however, is an exception. This is one that I've read and come back to several times.

When we face seemingly unending and insurmountable obstacles--oh, I don't know, such as trying to get published when the likelihood of that happening is shrinking daily--there is a temptation to give in to hopelessness. Resilience is the trait that prevents that.


[Resilient people] seem to soar in spite of the hardship and trauma they face. In fact, the most resilient people seek out new and challenging experiences because they've learned that it's only through struggle, through pushing themselves to their limits, that they will expand their horizons.

It's a good thing we don't have to seek out challenges.

...they don't wither when confronted with risky or dangerous situations...have found a system to galvanizing themselves and tackling problems thoughtfully, thoroughly, and energetically.

The authors are cognitive psychologists, so they advocate changing our lives by changing our thinking. They offer resilience tests, examples of thinking traps, and of course, ways to increase our RQ, (you've got it: resilience quotient!)

A couple of ideas that I find most relevant to me as a writer have to do with numbers 5 and 6 of the seven essential skills:
  • Putting it in perspective
  • calming and focusing
Yes, the book is written in the format of standard self-help books, with punchy titles and handy lists. But if you can get pass these distractions, I think the ideas may offer us dreamers and wordmules some tools for banishing negative thoughts that keep us from doing what we do.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pep Talk Week: Things May Not Be As Bad

I don't know if anyone is still reeling over the stock market dive yesterday, but I wanted to share an article that outlines several reasons for optimism in the juvenile book market.


Children’s Books are Still Selling Strongly. According to Publishers Weekly, children’s books “proved to be one of the most recession resistant segments of the book business” throughout the 2008 holiday season. Sales were strong across age groups. Many stores reported increased sales numbers over 2007.

Children’s Books are Outselling Adult Books. As we write this, the top five overall best-sellers in America, according to USA Today, are children’s/YA books. The Last Straw, the latest installment of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, is number one. The Twilight series claims slots two through five.

If you don't know Jon and Laura from the Children's Book Insider, you should check them out. At a recent writing retreat, the Big Sur at the Rockies, run by Andrea Brown, I had the privilege of being in a critique group led by Laura, and found her to be a superhero.

So, writers, especially of children's and YA lit, keep those words coming.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pep Talk Week: No Regrets

The subject today: Regret

Regrets come in two flavors:
  • "I wish I had told the guy I admired him."
  • "I came within 0.2 points of getting my summa cum laude."
The first has to do with a decision, made differently than what we think we should have. The second has to do with something outside our control. We could have studied a bit harder maybe, but in the end, the 0.2 points are not our say.

A few years ago, I realized I've prevented myself from a lot of good things because I didn't have enough guts to pursue them. All those opportunities forgone!

Faulty thinking: if I didn't go for it, at least nobody could say I've failed.

It's sad enough that appearing good in front of people had so much power, but sadder still that it wasn't even the whole story. The real reason was that I didn't want to find out for myself if I really had what it took, and didn't know if I could handle it if I had to admit I didn't have what it took. So I simply took myself out of running. All because I didn't want to face a possible truth about myself.

I decided then that I wanted to live a life of no regrets. It hasn't been easy, nor has it been totally successful, but I can say I'm pursuing more scary things now than before.

In my recent funk as a writer, I wondered if it was all worth it. I toyed with the idea that I should just stop pursuing the dream. I am not going to get published anyway, why spend all that energy and time on a dead end? This blog offers me an outlet for my writing, and maybe that should be enough.

Old habits, especially thought habits, really do die hard.

New mantra: It is always better to try and fail than not to try at all.

If I were to have any regrets, let them be of the second variety. I will not allow myself to fall back into forgoing dreams out of fear.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Book Review: Cybils YA Fantasy Winner, Hunger Games

I was going to write about how the Hunger Games is like Lord of the Flies meets reality TV; about how surreal it is that the author juxtaposes descriptions of opulent clothing and lavish feasts with kids preparing to fight one another to death; about how the book throbs with an underlying ache that comes with the recognition that many of the outrageous happenings in the book aren't that far off from reality, about the depth and power of human connections.

But I am going to settle for this:

All the accolades heaped upon the book? Well-deserved.

Go read it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: Cybils Finalist Graceling

Had it not been for the Cybils awards, I would not have picked up Graceling, because
fantasy is not my usual cup of tea.

I am glad to have read it. Say what you will about contests and art not being compatible, well-respected ones can bring books into the hands of people who would otherwise have missed them.

Graceling is a story set in a world that, despite the differences to ours, have recognizable elements: love, jealousy, danger, geeks and other outcasts, power struggle.

It is billed as an adventure and a love story. There are sword fights and chases and a treacherous journey over an impossible mountain. Katsa's hero is a prince of a fellow and their romance is hearts-a-flutter tender.

But I think, at the heart, this is a story about a strong young woman. A young woman who has to come to terms with who she really is and where she stands in relation to people around her, who has to understand her gifts differently than what she's been told, who has to make choices for the sake of people she cares about and respects.

At the beginning of the book, she is under the control of a king, as his instrument of punishment, even though her heart is elsewhere. She wishes to free herself from his control, only to find that she may be controlled by something else: her own anger. When she overcomes that, she is understandably cautious about being involved with a man, because she doesn't want to be under the control of yet another person, hero though he may be.

Katsa struggles with trust and pride throughout the book and the author spends time in Katsa's mind as she makes a number of important decisions, including how to deal with the love of her life when she doesn't want to marry anyone. Incidentally, the book is written in a kind of older, more formal style language. The only time I find a modern word intruding into this make believe language is with the use of the word "lover" as she contemplates the difference between being married partners and "lovers."

As a character, Katsa definitely grows during the course of the book and it is a pleasure to read of the transformation of a wild, stubbornly-independent girl who doesn't like herself much grow into one who accepts herself and the gifts of friendship and support from others.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review: Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Winner, The London Eye Mystery

Set up an impossible premise, throw in a cast of interesting characters, then deliver: that's how you write a page-turner mystery that gets everybody reading.

Impossible premise: someone enters a London Eye pod but doesn't disembark. Poof! He disappears.

Interesting characters: Ted, a highly functioning autistic weather-enthusiast, his alternately rebellious and conscientious sister, Kat, and a tempest of a character, Aunt Gloria.

Deliver: Yes.

Impossible premises and quirky characters are easy to conjure up. But I am sure you've read, just as I have, books that set up their high stakes and end with resolutions that are lame and unsatisfactory, and you feel cheated.

The London Eye Mystery gives the reader as much a chance to solve the mystery as the protagonist. It combines the best of the old-style mysteries in which experienced readers know which details to remember and which characters to mark with a flag, and the newer, character-driven mysteries in which readers get into the emotions and not just the minds of the mystery-solver.

Writing about autism in a first person point-of-view takes guts, and compassion. Ted is rendered as a intelligent, sensitive kid who doesn't just worry about navigating his confusing world, but also cares about people and wants to do the right thing.

The author writes with the same understanding and compassion for the other characters. There are no cardboard-box meanies or saints. Even the estranged father of the boy who disappeared who has been portrayed badly earlier in the book comes across as a sympathetic person after we meet him.

If I had any concerns as all about the book, it would be the over-abundance of non-literal sayings that Ted's family engages in on a daily basis. They are necessary; readers need to see that Ted doesn't read between the lines easily. But a family with a kid like that would learn to temper their speech, or at least explain themselves afterward.

The other concern is that even though this is a middle-grade book, it's at the high end of the spectrum. Parents of younger readers (say, a precocious seven-year old) of MG books may want to read the book along with their children.

Book Review: Cybils Finalist, Every Soul a Star

Wendy Mass writes this book from three alternating points-of-view: those of Ally, Jack and Bree, whose lives intersect in unexpected ways brought on by the eclipse.

Of the three, Ally, the carefree girl who lives with her family in a remote campsite, is the most believable. Jack, the overweight, overshadowed younger brother who escapes reality by drawing aliens, has the most convincing transformation. Bree, the beauty who wants to be a model, is the most cliche-ridden of the main characters. Even the positive aspect of her personality, her tender-heartedness, seems to be there just to round off her character.

Throughout the book are references to stars and space and the universe that fans would love. The main event of the book, the eclipse is described so well that even an astronomy-ignoramus like me is able to imagine what it might be like to experience this event.

There are a number of questions I was hoping would be answered that weren't, such as why was Jack chosen by his science teacher? Why did he act as if he didn't want to be at the eclipse but then panicked when he almost missed it because he was so engrossed in his drawing? Why would two academics give up their positions to take over a campsite after the eclipse?

My favorite scene in this book is when these three young people are stuck in a shed with a couple of younger siblings and Hot Dude in the middle of a storm. Each of them would belong to a different subsection out in the real world, i.e. school: brainiacs, jocks, A-Clique cheerleaders, yet in this shed, they are interested in the ideas of one another and actually formed connections. The bringing together of the diverse group of kids and the showing that people crave the same things underneath their facades: these are the biggest strengths of the book.

Book Review: Cybils Finalist, Alvin Ho

Alvin is afraid of
and so many other things.

And so afraid is he that
he cannot talk at school.
He has no problems talking at home, with his friends, even friends from school. But something happens at school: his thoughts refuse to come out of his mouth as words.

His family accepts it.
His friends accept it.
He accepts it.
But nobody understands it.
Including himself.

But Alvin used to be a super hero, and he has Da Dad for a dad and Da Mom for a mom, a cool gunggung, and siblings who are are pretty okay to him (even if they did leave him hanging like a roast duck in a tree for hours.)

So Alvin makes plan to overcome his problems. He packs emergency supplies, asks for advice on how to make friends, and even goes to a therapist.

But not being able to talk at school turns out to be just one of many things Alvin has to deal with, such as:
how to be a gentleman,
how to be nice to old friends, even when they are girls and talk too much,
how to express himself without using the fake Shakesperean cusswords favored by his Daddy.

For a book whose title is
Alvin Ho: allergic to girls, school and other scary things and one that starts with a whole list of scary things, it is a remarkably sunny book. You can't help but cheer for him and have your cynicism parked somewhere else for a while.

Unlike most books, this one doesn't set out with a Major Conflict that the Character Has To Overcome by the end of the book. There are a number of conflicts sprinkled throughout in the book but by the end of the book he still doesn't talk at school and he still has his fears.

Yet the story is completely satisfying. It's so refreshing to read a book that doesn't sound familiar in that overly work-shopped, let's-follow-what-the-pros-say-about-characterplotsettingvoicepointofview vibe. Sure it contains the essence of all the good advice out there: voice, character, conflicts, and spins it into a new mold.

I love this book. And I happen to know quite a few otherwise happy boys who have fears that seem incomprehensible. The snippets of Alvin's life will be so reassuring to them, especially because the book doesn't neatly end with Alvin overcoming all his fears and solving all his problems. Yet it is clear that Alvin has grown. The sense of hope that permeates the book will surely rub off on my young friends.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cybils Winners Announced

Happy Valentine's Day!


The Cybils Winners are announced this morning. Go read all about it.

This week, I'll be posting reviews on Middle Grade Fiction finalists--Alvin Ho, Every Soul A Star, and the winner, London Eye Mystery--as well as young adult finalists Graceling and winner Hunger Games.

[Valentine's Day by idua_japan at Flikr, Creative Commons]

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Empire State Building, shirts with sailboats, opera houses

Into the sea of pink and red, I'd like to introduce a tall grey building, the Empire State Building, as described by a poet. (Who else can make a building romantic?)

Superbly Situated
by Robert Hershon


just as part of me fears that if you love me for my cleanliness
i will grow filthy if you admire my elegant clothes
i’ll start wearing shirts with sailboats on them

but i have decided to become a public beach an opera house a regularly scheduled flight—something that can’t help being in the right place at the right time—come take your seat


[frankfurt opera house by tinyfroglet

[Flight Landing -- Layered
by Tony George

[Take a seat by Old Sarge
All pictures found on Flikr, Creative Commons]

Not swoon-inducing, but I find it very real and sweet.

Poetry Friday hosted by Big A little a this week.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

So write already!

This last post focuses on those suggestions from Barbara Samuel that have to do with the actual writing. She says:

A novel in progress is as delicate as an embryo, and it is your job to protect it from any environment that might harm it. Protect it from too much judgment or feedback, from other people, but also from yourself.


Your job is not to judge... only to serve each one as it arrives,

Protect it as I would an embryo.

Serve it as a guest.

When I view my work this way, courtesy and respect enter the picture, and I am no longer at liberty to be harsh and demeaning. I am not sure why, when I considered my writing just as an extension of me, it was okay to be nasty. But I am going to be mindful of my work being not just a part of me, but its own entity as well. Just like my children, whom I recognize and respect as beings separate from me.

To those of you who have indulged my process of de-funking, thank you. Your encouragement is a lifeline. I'd like to report that I started writing again this morning. I am back on the wagon and practicing my new attitude.

I wish you: beautiful relationships with all your words.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Don't Take it Too Seriously

Don't take it too seriously.

The last piece of advice from Barbara Samuel's blog post on reclaiming the joy of writing seems to counter the it's-a-difficult-and-huge-task-this-writing-business-and-you-gotta-take-it-seriously-or-else-you'd-never-succeed vibe about getting published and read.

Yet we've all known people (ourselves?) who take themselves and their jobs/passions so seriously that we feel as if life itself is being su
cked away.

I am serious about writing. I know about hard work and perseverance. What I need is exactly this advice, so that in the midst of the teeth-grtting sessions of revisions, or hair-pulling moments of not getting the emotion just right, I can breathe and remember that there is more to life than just my writing.

(Please don't tell me that if I think there is more to life than writing, then writing must not be that important to me and therefore I should just get out and do something else and leave writing to those who either write or die. Please.

I wish you: silly faces.

[Winner of the Silly Face Contest by Linda Hartman at Creative Commons]

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


When a writer loses joy in writing, the answer is almost always that he/she has moved from internal prompts to external considerations.

This is what Barbara Samuel says over at Writer Unboxed. The post is well worth reading and contains excellent suggestions on how writers can recharge and reclaim that inner joy in the process, free from the demon of external demands.

I'll highlight two today. The first:


The evening when I first realized I was in serious trouble took place about ten days ago, when I didn't feel like reading. I stood next to my bed, stared at the precariously high pile of books, and did not want to read a single one.

(Collective gasp of horror from my fellow bookworms.)

That really shook me up and made me decide I had to do something about it. How could I not want to read? How is that even conceivable?

Part of the reason is I've been a good newbie author, trying to understand the market and reading all the latest successful books available, figuring what works, what doesn't, and how I can improve mine.

But I haven't done the other kind of reading, the kind that engages me and lingers long after I'm finished, in a long time. Reading has gone from a joy to a chore.

This ties in well with Barbara's other suggestion, which is to

Fill the Well

She refers to the process of collecting fresh new details about the world, about taking notes when riding a train or going to the movies. I would like to expand that to include anything else that fills the well, not just for our writing, but of our being:
  • read books we love, not the ones we should
  • exercise
  • converse with people we care about
  • converse with people we respect
  • cuddle with our children/pets
  • eat
I've gone out running three times this weekend, two of those times with my children. I went to Zumba classes. I sorted and organized my closet (believe it or not, that was a well-filling activity for me.) I cooked several different meals that were either healthy or usually reserved for special occasions or those that required more than the usual amount of creativity. Ran errands as if they were fun events.

Still haven't written much, except here at the blog. But I think this is going to get better.

Wishing you lots of lovely books and filled-to-overflowing wells.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Snap! Snap!

What's that obnoxious snapping sound?

My desperate attempts to snap out of a writing-funk I've been in for the last couple of weeks. It's either February or the cumulative effect of reading all the Publishing-Is-Dead articles and blog posts (including this one
Publishers Weekly) that have rendered me unable to garner the necessary energy to keep writing.

What's the point of writing, publishers won't take chances on new authors. Write because you have to; if you have anything else you'd rather do, go do that. Publishing was hard to begin with, now with the economy heading south, it's just gotten a hundred times harder. Write what you love. I can't be blind to market forces. You can only write what speaks to you, anything else will come off inauthentic and publishers and readers alike will smell it a mile away.

And of course, not writing brings with it the low-level but constant restlessness and something-isn't-quite-right-ness.

Vicious cycle.

What do I have to come back to? What can I control? Not the state of the economy or the publishing industry, the taste of readers and health of bookstores, decisions of agents and editors. The only thing I can do is

Write the best book I can.

As advice goes, this is glib, flippant, and cliche, but unfortunately true.

I have to ignore the loaded word "best", ignore the bad news, and just go back to writing. Where do I find the motivation that brings energy and hope?

Write. Read. Live.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Poetry Friday

It's weird and affirming all at once when experiences or habits you thought were unique to you and somehow not to be disclosed are described by others. No experience is replicated in total, of course, but this poem by Phillip Booth is strangely familiar. Here are excerpts:

Adding it Up
by Philip Booth

My mind’s eye opens before
the light gets up.

I give some
passing thought to the point
that if I hadn’t turned poet
I might well be some other
sort of accountant.

I seesaw on the old cliff, trying
to balance things out: job,
wife, children, myself.

My mind’s eye opens before
my body is ready for its
first duty

The rest of the poem is here.

Wild Rose Reader is hosting Poetry Friday Roundup this week.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dream Teams part 2

This is my second apology: I was going to write a post the follows Dream Teams part 1 the following day, but did not realize it woul
d be a lot harder to write than I'd thought. I have the second part now, and I hope it sparks some thoughts in you. As usual, feel free to comment when you do.

I wasn't particularly fond of jazz until I met an aficionado who became my husband. I've listened to a whole lot of different jazz styles now and the thing that intrigues me most is the process of improvisation, which is at the heart of jazz. I want to be a fly on the wall during rehearsals, to see how decisions are made and to witness the interchanges among musicians.

I got that wish come true partially, while watching a DVD of the recording sessions by McCoy Tyner, for an album he created with such guitars greats as John Schofield and Bill Frisell. (And drummer Jack DiJonette: how cool is he?)

These musicians don't plan everything out, they t
alk in short hand, and they trust that their fellow musicians would respond. How they end up with their music is still a mystery to me, but I was drawn to how they worked together.

In the bonus feature of Across the Universe, a movie based on Beatles songs, the director talks about the movie-making process as being fluid and dependent on the actors' responses. She has an initial idea, and she tosses it out and everyone fleshes it out and experiments with it. Some of the results I am not sure about, bu
t a couple of them turned out to be very moving, at a guttural level. I don't think a carefully scripted, well-rehearsed scene could evoke the same reaction.

Whether the players are musicians or martial arts practitioners or movie makers, when a group of them, who are passionate about an idea, have the experiences and skills to try them out, and who respond to the energy created
by their fellow creators: BOOM!

[Hello Fire 1 by doozzle at Creatvie Commons]

My life as a writer is lived mostly in solitude and I like it just fine. Sometimes, though, I do miss the intense conversations I used to have with fellow piano pedagogy geeks when we taught at our little white building in Kingston, NJ, conversations that left me exhilarated and hyper-alive.

But even though I work in solitude, I don't live in a vacuum. And like most writers, what I write, fiction or non, is based on real experiences, reactions to people and events, and life and truth and beauty as I perceive them. People who are intentional about living and have passions and dreams are usually willing to share them when the moment is right. I just have to learn to recognize those moments.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Thank you, Shrinking Violets

I have two apologies to make. First, I neglected to mention in my review of The 39 Clues: Maze of Bones
, that the book was a gift from Shrinking Violets Promotions, as part of their Twelve Days of Christmas: Introvert Style giveaway. Thank you, Robin and Mary!

Here is the latest on their generosity: they, together with a few other writers, are offering a scholarship for a SCBWI member to attend the August 2009 conference in LA.


To apply for the 2009 scholarship, submit a 250-word, double-spaced essay describing what you hope to accomplish by attending this year's summer conference. Send your essay to:

The application deadline is April 15th, 2009. The winner will be notified May 15th, 2009.

fAiRy gOdSiStErS, iNk. is a small, benevolent squadron of Santa Barbara children's book authors who believe in the magic of passing forward lucky breaks, bounty, and beneficence, as so many have done for us. We are: Thalia Chaltas, Mary Hershey, Valerie Hobbs, Robin LaFevers and Lee Wardlaw.

If you would like to share some fairy dust of your own to help send a writer to the 2009 Summer Conference, FGI welcomes your donations!

For more information about the grant and/or making a donation, please visit the FGI website (which will be up and running any day now! We promise!) at