Monday, August 31, 2009

Your rubato is too predictable

The 24-hour classical music public radio station didn't get enough funding and had to move to a weaker signal. I can no longer just turn on the radio anytime and expect Bach or Shostakovich. Which is why the other night when I heard a Beethoven sonata on another public radio station, I was elated.

But only for a few seconds. My musician brain started to take command.

"No, no, no, you're being too stodgy with this passage. It is forte and has sforzandos but you still need to move the phrases forward, not weigh them down with this tempo plus the extra heavy touch."

"Again? Are you sure? You've already played this phrase in this exact manner of rubato in the Exposition, and you think you should do it in the exact same way? Has nothing happened in the Development section? Does the modulation cause no change? How can you treat it as if the music has stayed static?"

"That ending. Exquisite." Sigh in contentment

Critical: yes. Annoying: yes. Able to enjoy the music I love: only at the very end.

That's what devoting years of you life to studying something does; it sharpens your eyes and ears, it favors your critical-thinking, it spoils the easy enjoyment you've had when you first fell in love. But it also provides the delight of those rare and subtle moments when excellence is achieved that you wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't put in all those years in study.

Worth it?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Decisions, decisions

Kindle or Sony
Sony came up with a new version of the stylish E reader with 3G, and Kindle is tied to Amazon, who will one day take over the world, but Nathan Bransford prefers to read on his iPhone.

Decision: wait till the newness settles. A girl who grew up in a household with a 14-inch B&W TV till years after everyone else has bought their color TV doesn't need to become an early, or even semi-early, adopter of this new technology.

iPhone or Palm Pre
So many people are doing that thumb-and-index-finger motion to look up maps and restaurant reviews on their phones that my old-fashioned flip-open-to-say-hello is acquiring a retro status. Plus it is still working so well after so many years I can't justify a new purchase. Maybe I'll make it an incentive: I'll get a new phone when I get a contract. You hear that, stockholders of phone manufacturers? Work your Jedi power, your Vulcan mindmeld in the publishing industry so I'll be able to get a new phone!

Decision: stick with retro, ginormous phone.

Crutcher and Halse Anderson
Decision: gonna read 'em all. All, I say, ALL!!!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Choices, choices

Kindle or Sony E-reader
iPhone or Palm Pre
Halse Anderson or Crutcher?

Wait, not mutually exclusive.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Everything I know about writing I learned from Tae Kwon Do

How to execute an awesome kick.

On a regular basis, spend time practicing exercises that will:

  • develop an intuitive sense of balance
  • strengthen the appropriate muscles
  • teach the proper technique.
As you kick, you need to:
  • stand on a solid sole
  • keep your eyes on the target
  • be intentional
  • commit
  • Yell!

How to write an awesome story:

On a regular basis, spend time to:
  • develop an intuitive sense by reading tons
  • strengthen the appropriate muscles by writing tons
  • learn the proper technique by reading and writing and getting feedback from trusted sources
As you write, you need to:
  • stand on a solid sole, rely on the foundation you've laid by reading, observing, writing, analyzing, absorbing;
  • keep your eye on the target, remember why you're writing: whether to understand, to communicate, to express, to resolve, to entertain, to engage;
  • be intentional, don't get sidetracked;
  • commit your time, energy, effort;
  • yell! um....
[photos found at Flikr Common, by kalbara and louveciennes]

My post comparing gardening to writing received some wonderful responses. Perhaps it's because many of us find that most things in life are related and similar: gardening, writing, playing. Observations we make in one area are very likely to be true in other areas of life. When I taught piano, I drove my students batty by constantly comparing playing the piano to brushing and flossing their teeth.

So, as much as I learn from gardening, I also learn from TKD, or making curries. or relating to my children...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fragments and sparks

Yesterday was a fragmented sort of day, with more than the usual unexpected events and interruptions. By mid morning, my mind had gotten into an alert-for-any-curveball state that was not conducive to anything that required longer than a few minutes worth of attention.

One result is that I skipped over or merely skimmed my usual blogs. Almost felt like I didn't have coffee in the morning. I didn't find out till later in the day, when my mind mellowed somewhat, that Davin had written a post at the Literary Lab, that mentioned an earlier post of mine on unusual character traits.

And can I just say how thrilled I am?

When I started this blog, I had only the vaguest notions about this thing called "web presence" and now, a little after a year later, I find that the best thing about having a blog (besides having a great excuse for procrastinating) is that I "meet" people with whom I can exchange ideas. I don't know about you, but the connection that happens when like-minded people throw around ideas and find sparks and common ground, is one of the best things in life. So thank you, the wonderful writers at the Literary Lab.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Homework for me

Sherrie asked me, after reading my post yesterday on characters with unexpected combination of traits, which characters I've read recently that I found unconvincing.

And I can't remember.

I remember thinking the thought "hmm, doesn't seem that a person like this would also like that." but I don't remember the details.

So now, I am setting some homework for myself. The next time I find such characters, I will post them here.

In the mean time, I am eager to know if you find any.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Raiders of the Deer Hunter

A couple of things made me feel so sunny and happy this morning, I could have skipped if I weren't driving at 75 mph down I-25. Why? First I saw the best number plate on minivan: "GO READ." I wanted to pass it and roll down my window to yell something encouraging, but you know, 75 mph and all. And then, the radio station played Michael Buble's Home, followed by Earth, Wind, Fire singing Let's Groove. (Feel free to make fun of my taste in pop music.)

All right, some days It doesn't take much to make me happy. Even hearing the word "aeroplane" in Home provided a pleasant little skip to my heart. Maybe it's because I haven't heard that word since moving to the US where we use the shorter and possibly more efficient "airplane." Or maybe Michael Buble can sing any word and I'd think it was dreamy.

Wait, Buble's voice isn't the point.

The point is that people like unusual combinations of things. A classically trained musician can love Prokofiev and Dvorak as well as R.E.M and E.L.O. (Yes, the offer to make fun still stands.)

A woman can be a nerdy bookworm who cannot stand being too girly-girly, and still once dreamed of being a fashion designer. She can love her very practical Saturn Vue with a Honda Pilot engine, perfect for where she lives, and still wish for a Mazda Miata or a VW GTI manual. She can love depressing movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As writers, we strive to avoid cliched characters, but it's not easy to convince our readers that a character can possibly possess all these seemingly incompatible traits and interests. "Wait, but Sienna is a cheerleader type who would never dream of getting her hands dirty by working at the co-op farm!"

The problem, I think, is that we tend to sort people into categories almost as soon as w
e meet them. And unfortunately, this sorting ends up coloring every new bit of information we get subsequently. If the first time you meet me, I am working at the co-op farm wearing running clothes and then I fixed you a healthy, non-fat, all-vegetable lunch, I may have trouble
convincing you that I am as sedentary as they come and I love butter. Yet, people do and often come in unusual combinations of flavors, and if it's so difficult to accept a multi-dimensioned person in real life, how much harder it is to create them in our stories.

Have you found characters you've read recently whose traits don't seem to jive? And if you're a writer, how do you overcome this problem?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ideal World? You got off the train too early; it's the next stop

Quick, tell me one on your worthwhile goals.

Here are some of mine:
  • Good teeth (yes, I'm still traumatized by my recent visit)
  • Healthy immune system
  • Mastery of an instrument
  • A well-maintained backyard
  • Strong muscles and flexibility
  • A fierce martial-arts form
  • writing that engages and moves people
  • Close relationships with those I love
And I'll tell you--and annoy you no end because you already know this--that each one requires deliberate, consistent, and thoughtful efforts.

Just the way it is: worthwhile=difficult, meaningless=easy.

Why can't there be a world in which the opposite is true?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Time Travel

Have never been too sure about this time-travel business; didn't think it was possible. But after last Friday, I am convinced it happens.

Don't go running to your physics texts or L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time. I'm not talking about that kind of time travel. This is much more, uh, earthbound, and something I'll bet most of you have experienced.

Last Friday, I had to have a molar extracted. Apparently there was a vertical root fracture and infection had set in. It had been years since I'd had a tooth extracted, so I was understandably nervous. Didn't help that the assistant was of the old school type: all business, no smiles.

The moment the lavender bib was clipped on to me, all the good things from the past thirty over years--the uneventful moments at the dentist, the years of experiences, the maturity and sophistication I thought I'd acquired--whoosh! Gone. Just like that.

[Dentist visit by snowriderguy at Flickr]

At the mercy of two people with instruments of torture and loud noises, who pricked my gum and the roof of my mouth repeatedly with needles, who applied intense pressure to yank out my stubborn tooth, who sawed my tooth with a tool that produced a horrid buzzing sound and the even more horrid smell of tooth splintering: I was a helpless and scared six year old.

I am now a true believer in time travel.
Didn't quite expect the dentist chair to be a time machine, but after experiencing it first hand, I can no longer doubt this phenomenon.

By the way, anyone read Rebecca Stead's When I Reach You yet? If you have, would you mind letting me know what you think?

Thursday, August 13, 2009


24 is a pretty cool number: it can be divided by two and three; it is the number of hours in a day; and for a while there, it was the name of an innovative TV show.

But apparently 24 is not a good enough number for my daughter, who commented casually, "What? You STILL have ONLY 24 followers?"

8 year olds.

[addition to original post: not trying to gain followers with this post. I am thrilled to have people who read and comment regularly. Just a slice of life story.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I've had to miss two weeks' worth of Tae Kwon Do classes recently. My instructor was understanding enough to let me take time off but when I returned to class on Monday, he pulled me aside and said, "Let's see it."

Gulp. I remembered all the steps of the form, even most of the details of how I should execute the steps, but I knew I would have trouble with a two-kick combination. (Hmm, should I segue into a discussion of how if we think we can't do it, we won't; but even if we think we can do it, we still may not...? Nah. another time.)

So, yes, I wobbled. Before I took the two weeks off, I had been practicing regularly and got to a point where I felt reasonably comfortable with the kicks. But muscle-memory is something that isn't always reliable. (Another segue perhaps, to talk about my piano playing fiasco due to over-dependence on muscle-memory? Stay. On. Topic.)

Writing muscles are probably not that different from physical muscles. They need constant workouts, not bouts of manic activities interspersed with periods of hibernation.

Come to think of it, most things in life are like that.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Universal in a unique way

This past week, I've been struck by passages from two different books, passages that made me stop and remind myself to breathe.

Here's the first one from Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. LIa, the teen narrator is
alone in her room, mourning the death of her best friend, Cassie. They've both been struggling with eating disorders:

Spiders hatch and crawl out of my belly button, airy little tar beads with ballerina feet.

They swarm, spinning a silk veil, one hundred thousand spider thoughts woven together until they wrap me up in a cozy shroud.
I breathe out and it begins.

Thorn-covered vines creep across the floor, crackling like a bonfire. Black roses bloom in the moonlight, born dead and brittle. The web on my face holds my eyes open, forcing me to watch as Cassie steps out of the shadows, briars twining up her legs and around her body, reaching up through her hair.
I can't make a sound. Spiders crawl on my face and leap across to her arms. They fly back and forth, knitting us together.

The second passage is from The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. The narrator is writing a letter to the Chinese Premier, trying to explain what life is like in Bangalore, India.

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were
never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks...sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come
to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep--all these ideas, half-formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger on another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

What makes these two passages, so very different in style and subject matter, to have startled me so much? Maybe it's because they are so unusual. Spiders crawling out of belly buttons? Definitely a memorable image. But uniqueness alone doesn't do it. I've read many other passages in other books where the unusual descriptions actually made me not read because they try too hard to be different, they are too self-conscious.

As I re-read the passages, they stirred up a sense of familiarity, which is strange. I have never been to India, nor have I suffered from eating disorders. What about them that makes me catch that glimpse of recognition, a kinship, almost?

And there, I think, is the answer. These passages are so engaging because, for me, at least, they create a perfect balance between the universal and the unique.

I've never been to India, but I grew up having lizards on the ceiling and reading interesting snippets of newspaper recycled as snack-wrappers. I've never binged and purged, or counted the calories of every bite, but I've definitely thought twice about indulging in an extra piece of chocolate cake or scraped off the sour cream from baked potatoes.

Much deeper than these connections, however, are the ones that are even more universal:

  • lingering in that expanse between reality and imagination,
  • feeling such a strong bond with someone that it seems we've been woven together
  • grasping onto ideas that seem so promising, yet so unformed and elusive
  • feeling the inadequacy of our abilities and experiences

Drawing on the invisible strings that tie us all to the same basic human experiences and thoughts, yet in such unusual and vivid ways:

that's why these passages caught me,
that's why these are masterful writers,
that's what I strive for in my writing.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

An award

Sherrie Peterson and I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April as prize-winners of the Pikes Peaks Writers Fiction Contest. I discovered that not only is she a fellow fan of Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins, but that she used to sing in a rock band (as I did as well, except mine was strictly amateur while her band had caught the attention of a record label) and that she could name any restaurant in the Southwest. This is an example of our conversations:

me: You know that excellent Southwestern restaurant?
her: Uh, which one?
me: The one in Santa Barbara called Left something.
her: Oh you mean Something Left Something (I forgot the name again. Sherrie?)
me: Yes! That's the one!

Well, anyway, she gave me this award yesterday and only now am I getting to it:

Thanks, Sherrie!

So, here are the rules of this award:
  1. Each Superior Scribbler must, in turn, pass the Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy buds.
  2. Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
  3. Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.
  4. Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List at the Scholastic-Scribe's blog. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives this prestigious honor!
  5. Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.
Now. my turn: I wish to award the Superior Scribbler Award to these generous and creative people who educate, engage, and keep me on the computer much too long with their posts:
  1. Kelly Fineman at Writing and Ruminating
  2. Tanita Davis and a. fortis at Finding Wonderland
  3. Kelly Herold at Crossover
  4. The guy who killed his muse
  5. Lady Glamis, Davin Malasarn, and Scott G. F. Bailey at The Literary Lab

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Catchy siblings

Instead of writing my own posts these past few days, I've been participating in a couple of interesting conversations at other blogs. The first is over at The Literary Lab, where Davin Malasarn declares his desire to write catchy, thanks to Black Eyed Peas.

Then, over at the Tollbooth, Stephanie Greene discusses the unusual topic of siblings--The Boxcar Children, the March sisters, the Penderwicks--and dead mothers.

And while I am posting links, here's one to one of the most informative and inspirational author posts at the Shrinking VIolets by Maggie Stiefvater. Even if you're not an introvert (or if you like shoe shopping, or if you don't name your cars), I think you're going to find what she says helpful.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Don't you set out to write gripping

Laurie Halse Anderson is one of my favorite YA writers. I'm reading Wintergirls and it's gripping; gut-wrenching gripping.

But what distinguishes writing that grips and wrenches guts, and writing that manipulates emotions?

I don't know for sure, but here's just a thought: if you set out to write a book that is gut-wrenching, it will probably end up being manipulative. If you set out to write authentically, to search for that truth that is deep enough that you'd rather not touch, to explore what about the truth that makes it resist probing, you might just end up touching your readers, maybe not in as deep a level that you'd have to delve to write it, but deep enough to create a real connection.
[Fake Jay/Real Jay
by cogdogblog at Flikr Commons]

So, dare I?