Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Recipes ain't everything

The pastry shops I love keep going out of business.

The week before Maggie McCullough's closed some seven years ago, I bought all their brioche to put in my freezer. About three years ago, I brought my daughter to Babette's Feast to celebrate with her favorite pear tart as was our tradition, only to find a note taped onto the door. Not long ago, I stopped by the Belgian bakery in town and noticed it was now a bagel store. At least my daughter wasn't with me when I walked into the store.

The store lo
oked more or less the same. The only difference is the food in the display cases. One was filled with bagels and the one that usually tested my willpower the most, the one showcasing beautiful cakes and tarts, was sparse and sad.

I asked for pear tarts, they had none. I looked at my other favorites: t
he almond croissants didn't have sliced almonds on the outside. The palmiers were thick and not of the right color.

(Rather then posting pictures of sad foods, I thought I'd post ones that reminded me of what used to be.)

"So, how long have you guys been here?" I asked, as nonchalantly and as non-accusingly as possible.

The woman behind the counter regarded me with suspicious eyes. "It's been a while."

I should have come more often, bought more pear tarts, helped them stay in business!

"We bought their business and all their recipes."

I looked up at her. There is hope yet. So what if the baked goods don't look the same. All I need is for them to taste the same. They have the recipes, so all is not lost!

I bought an almond croissant and a palmier and got into the car with my little baggie of hope. It was a while before I took my first bite because I knew my hopes would either be buoyed or shattered by it.

Recipes ain't everything.

The croissant was limp and unflaky and the inside undercooked. The almond paste was the only thing that tasted the same. The palmiers tasted the way they looked: inexperienced.

All those writing rules out there, they can't promise success. All the shows-don't-tells and three-act-arcs and what-the-character-wants will not give us the products that thrill and haunt and satisfy.

What will?

Recipes + experience + well-honed taste buds + desire + working at dawn everyday.

Oh, and maybe consumers who won't practice self-control when encountering our work.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Most memorable books I read in 2010

It's that time of the year again, when we look back on the year and take stock, noting the highlights and milestones, and of course, my year-end contemplation is incomplete without remembering the books I've read. Here are some that have touched me in some way:

Loveliest book to read aloud with children:
The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Authors new to me whose work I must check out:
Nick Hornby
Aimee Bender

A book in which plot, character, language share equal weight, marrying genre and literary seamlessly:

In The Woods by Tana French

A middle grade series featuring two young adventurers, a boy and a girl, a trait that characterizes several other series, but manages to feel fresh and captivating:
Leviathan by Scott Westerfield

A book that rewarded careful, slowed-down reading
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson

A book that is much less gimmicky and much more pleasurable to read than at first glance:
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

An irreverent book that made me think about important stuff:
Lamb by Christopher Moore

Two favorite books that captured me, stayed with me, and completely baffled me as to how the authors managed to come up with what they did:
Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Tales From Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan

Let me know which of these book you've read and share some of your favs this year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is this writing?

Reading critiques of my work by my writing group
Reading their works-in-progress to offer my critique
Figuring out why a book I'm reading works so well
Figuring out what makes another book not work as well
Reading advice from screen writers about dialogue and exposition
Reading writers' and agents' responses to different loglines and opening paragraphs
Identifying elements of story in movies and other art forms
Daydreaming of what-if situations for my characters
Writing down new story ideas
Writing blog posts

These are all things I do n my quest to become a better writer. They are all important, some perhaps even necessary.

But none of them takes the place of actual writing.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Trial run, dress rehearsal, resolution

I chose not to do NaNoWriMo because I wanted to celebrate my birthday and my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, without having the word count over my head. I also needed to concentrate on my WIP, a YA novel I had started three times without being able to go past a particular point.

November is now over. Its December 1st and I don't have that much to show for it. No planning, no specific goals: that was my problem.

When The Rejectionist invited her readers to do a Pre-Resolution, a mini one before embarking an a full-blown I will exercise an hour everyday and eat only raw fruits and will treat everyone with the utmost respect and work for world peace type thing on New Year's Eve, I answered the call.

Small is good. One month is doable. I am in. Here are my pre-resolutions:

  • Every weekday at 10 a.m. I will be working on my YA novel. Actual writing, no research, no brainless switching sentences and words around or other busy but useless work.

  • Every weekday at 2:30 p.m. I will be practicing piano. My solo gig in August doesn't seem that far away anymore.

  • In Tae Kwon Do, I have a midterm coming up in less than a week and a national tournament in 6 1/2 weeks and I have specific training plans I've drawn up that I will stick to.

  • I will stick to my (more reasonable, less ambitious) house cleaning plan.
You are welcome to nudge or remind or ask me questions.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Separating the darlings from the voice

I made some decisions in my writing this week. They had to do with sentences that have either struck me or my critique group members as being too much.

Kill those darlings.


Don't get rid of the very distinctiveness that is your voice.

How do I make such decisions?

By following my gut, that's how.

I ended up keeping one of the sentences and deleting a few others. The one that I kept occupies an important position. It is the second sentence of the opening chapter. To me, its over-the-top sentiment sets the tone for the protagonist. It tells us not only about the character of this 12-year old girl, but also the things that matter to her.

The ones that I took out fall into the category of being "too clever by half." No matter how much I try to convince myself of things that I don't really buy, there is always that honest, stable part of me that will call b.s. every time. Learning to pay attention and recognize that call has been one of the most valuable things I have learned over the last few years of writing.

Who knows. Maybe my deleted darlings should see the light of day, and the sentence I've kept will turn away readers. But until I find a more fool-proof way of making these decisions, my gut is all I got.

What about you/ Does your gut call the shots as well? And how long does it call before your hear?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Follow up to the hiatus

Thanks for the good wishes for my blog hiatus. I thought I'd provide an update.

I finally completed the revision of my MG novel and sent it off. There was so much energy from the high of having completed an important task, I thought it would carry me to my new task, which was to work on my WIP, a YA novel.

But I couldn't write. There were too many thoughts, all going at high speeds heading toward different directions, in my mind. Scattered, cluttered, over-energized. The only way to calm down, I found, was to read.

I picked up three books, all different from one another, and from what I tend to write: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Frazen, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Attwood.

When I went back to my WIP a few days ago, my mind was relaxed and refreshed, and I was able to see how I needed to proceed.

And now, I seem to have found a flow for working on this book that I don't want to let go. Blogging has to take a back seat yet again.

I wish I could write and blog and live as a member of my family in a balanced way but I am apparently wired to focus on only very few things at a time.

I will see you all, if you're still around, when I next surface from my writing.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blog Hiatus

I will be unplugging from blogosphere to prepare my ms to send out.

Good week, everyone.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Get Thee Behind Me, Oh Gimmicks!

I was at a piano teachers' workshop many years ago, eagerly absorbing the wisdom and advice from a master piano teacher I admired greatly. My notebook was filling fast, my mind was challenged, and my coffee was ignored and cooling in the flask.

Teaching piano, like writing, can be a solitary occupation, despite the fact that the job itself requires at least two people to be present. It's solitary in that a teacher has very few opportunities to discuss and argue and share their aha moments.

I felt that aloneness most acutely when I started my own piano studio after spending three years teaching and apprenticing at a community music school. I missed the camaraderie I'd had with my colleagues who were always ready to talk music or teaching or music and teaching and life. I learned as much from our discussions in the kitchen over ramen noodles (kitchen pedagogy sessions as we affectionately call those times) as I did in formal classes.

Back to this particular workshop. The last event on the program was this teacher- extraordinaire teaching a group of children from the piano preparatory department of the music school that hosted the workshop. He engaged the students on stage and the piano teachers in the audience the entire time, and helped the performers make changes to their pieces that immediately made the music better and the children more confident. I was spellbound and so blown away that I was almost in tears.

"Do you have any questions?" He asked as the students left the stage. Hands shot up. He nodded at one person.

"I was wondering about the cardboard boxes that these students had?" Many other teachers nodded enthusiastically. More questions and comments arose about those boxes, about how they would motivate students to practice (huh?) and where they could be ordered.

Anyone who could read my mind at the time would decide I was a total snob. But I was dismayed and almost crushed by what I was hearing. Here was a brilliant person offering us thoughts that he had distilled over years of teaching, and they were interested in the cardboard box? Sure, the boxes were nifty but how, how, how could anyone possibly be more interested in a gimmick than the real thing? *

That was probably the beginning of my intolerance for gimmicks. And now that radar is being trained on fiction.

It's inevitable, I supposed, that any time a lot of people clamor for attention, somebody will resort to gimmicks. And of course, what qualifies as a gimmick is up for interpretation and depends on execution. I wouldn't be surprised if someone calls my work gimmicky (and stabs me in the gushy bit within my chest in the process.) In other words, I am totally aware of the subjectivity of it all.

Even so, I'd like to know: what do you consider the most intolerable gimmick in fiction?

*The more mellow (and hopefully more humble) me now realize that just because most of the comments were on the box didn't mean that it was the thing that made the most impact on the teachers in attendance. Getting older does have its benefits.

A Long Way Down: A Review

A book about four people who went up to a rooftop on New Year's Eve to commit suicide but abandoned the idea and formed an unlikely alliance: Who wants to read a book like that? Wouldn't being in the heads of not one, but four, suicidal people be depressing? And if there is any light-heartedness or humor or cleverness, wouldn't it get old or annoying after a few pages?

That Nick Hornby can avoid these and other pitfalls of a book with this premise makes him a hero-author to me.

I was engaged throughout the book. The writing is authoritative (a novel told in four first-persons point-of-view had better exude authority) without being arrogant. Morality was something that was touched on often, but never with a heavy hand.

When people contemplate suicide and life, they are bound to have many moments of reflection and rumination, yet none of it in the book is announced and treated as Deep Thought Moments. The characters wondered about things, observed the newest unexpected turn of events, and came to certain conclusions, but these moments never felt contrived or overwrought. And while some of the events seemed bizarre, they didn't feel forced.

At the Lit Lab yesterday, the topic was on novel structure and the reinvention of the form. (They are much more articulate over there and you should read the post and the comments.)

I am not convinced that A Long Way Down qualifies as a novel that broke the mold but its form was most definitely the outcome of the story. Because it didn't follow any formula that I recognized, my reading experience was an adventure. I was never quite sure what the next chapter would bring but I didn't care. I did not miss having any idea about where the story would lead; I just wanted to follow it as it unfolded. The anticipation and fulfillment were often very satisfying.

I am going to check out more Hornby books. I don't know what to expect, but I secretly hope each one will dictate the structure and I will continue to be drawn to pursue what comes next.

Any other Hornby fans out there? Detractors?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why is falling asleep like writing?

Because it has to happen every day, or I am cranky.
Because it is a miracle every time it happens.
Because I don't remember exactly how it happened the night before, but I know it'll happen again, somehow, tonight.
Because I can't force it; I just need to be ready, with my teeth brushed and flossed / mind attentive and butt in chair.
Because it's a gift.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, part IIc

The original post of this series segued from a discussion of one person's definition of art music to whether the definition worked for fiction.

The second post examined the assumptions and provided examples of how labels might be useful.

In the third post
, I asked for your responses to different genres.

In this, the last post of the series, I am revisiting the question of whether the definition given by John Steinmetz to art music--art music is the type of music that rewards knowledge, experience, and attention. (again, paraphrase mine)--works for fiction.

I don't think it works as well.

The reason is that the language of music is not something we use regularly. I don't argue with my husband in arias. I don't play the piano to my friends over the phone to invite them over
for dinner.
(Hmm, but doesn't that sound like a cool premise for a story?)

But English is something I use all the time. I do argue with my husband in English, and I do invite people to come to dinner by speaking English. People, with the exception of musical geniuses, have a stronger grasp of their primary language than they do the language o
f music. Therefore it is easier to read books that carry deep messages than it is to comprehend musical compositions that do the same thing.

I've read books that are easy to read that have touched me deeply. I have read many that rewarded me only after many hours of mindful reading. Then there are those books that are easy to read and easy to forget, as well as those that are difficult to read but offer no reward. This is probably true of most readers' experiences.

I will say, however, a large majority of the books that made me work hard have been worth the time and effort.

I suspect that this is the case with me because the "difficult" books that I didn't give up on had something that drew me in, even when I preferred to be lazy and give up on them. With whatever little bit that I'd read, I became aware of something deeper, something worthwhile; and I became convinced that a more engaged reading would allow me discover it. And so I was willing to pay my dues. By reading with a great deal more attention, these experiences became much richer.

Some books don't require much attention at all, and not being a brain scientist (Livia, if you are reading this, I'd love to hear you chime in) I can't say if this type of fast, almost skimming type of reading, in fact, doesn't engage as much of the brain, and therefore can leave only minimal impact.

Now before you start protesting, I want to state here that I am fully aware that some writing is smooth and is easy to read because of the skill and talent of the authors. I am *not* making a stand that says all difficult books are good and all easy books are fluff.

Anyway, I am approaching brain-fatigue point for this discussion. I hope you aren't. But if you are, I'd like to make it up to you by sharing these clips of music.

This first one is an example of how musical groups previously considered unrelated can in fact, share a lot of commonality: (Thanks, John, for sharing this link.)

Vivaldi and At Vance

If you've taken piano lessons, you may have played this piece, but I'll bet you've not heard it performed like this:
CPE Bach's Solfegietto

A classically trained violinist and a metal guitarist exhibiting high levels of technique:
Violinist and metal guitarist

Monday, October 11, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, part IIb

Imagine, if you will, that someone I just met finds out I am a writer and asks, "What do you write?"

Some answers:
"I write fiction."

"I write middle-grade and young adult fiction."

"I write research papers on mid-twentieth century analytical philosophers."

"I write romance."

"I write novels based on the characters from Star Wars and Star Trek: Next Generation."

"I write literary novels and short stories."

"I write about people who routinely experience strong premonitions of disasters before they occur."

How did you react? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but I'd love to have a sampling of what people think in reaction to these answers.

Some labels are benign: "fiction" for example. But some others carry heavier implications.

But here is the thing, just because I am not interested in reading about people who may be able to predict disasters with their psychic or other powers tells me nothing about the quality of the writing. In my old critique group was a writer whose writing I admired. He prefaced one of his new works sheepishly by telling us it was fan fiction. I didn't know what fan fiction meant at the time, and I didn't understand his attitude. In the same way, another member was always apologetic about her book being a romance. But these writers are good, no matter the genre,
I enjoyed their stories.

So, back to the question of why use labels. I hope this is one answer: labels and categories help define what we do and help us make decisions. And it may even open the channel for further discussion. Say you like philosophy but don't care much for writing that characterizes Continental philosophy, you'd jump all over yourself to talk to this person about analytical philosophy. I wouldn't, but you may.

So what am I trying to say?

I am trying to say that labels are necessary, not adequate, but necessary, and that the main reason they fall short is the people hold many different kinds of opinions and prejudices, carefully examined or otherwise.

I am also trying to say that even though I focused on art music in my original post, I am not making a statement about its worth compared to other types of music. I focused on it because it is the kind of music that gives me joy, engages me mind and soul, and allows me to feel deeply. It expresses something I can relate to; it expresses something bigger than me; it expresses the emotions and lives of people who lived hundreds of years ago. And one reason I am able to reap such wonderful rewards, besides being given an innate attraction to it, is that I've had the privilege of being exposed to outstanding performances and of studying the music. Would I feel this way about this music had I not been given these gifts? Probably not.

I hope you'll tell me what you think, and come back for the next, and last installment of this exploration.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Musicspeak: Bach and Iron Maiden, Part IIa

My musicspeak post last week provoked a lively conversation that has made me think all week. Some of the reactions seem to indicate that the topic has touched on something more than just the discussion of art music.

Here are the unspoken assumptions that underlie the post:
  • that there are different groups of art;
  • that it is meaningful to separate those groups.

One assumption no
t present in my post:
  • that some art forms are better than others.
Let me examine these assumptions. The assertion that there are different types of art is not disputed. How we group different types of art is where the disagreement starts. This is when
we look a
t established labels and exclaim: what do Rembrandt and Kandinsky, or a Vivaldi concerto and the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra have in common?

Here was when I found John Steinmetz's definition helpful. Unfortunately, I left out an important part. And it's this:

Art music requires the listener to pay attention

Experience and knowledge, yes, but paying attention is an even more important aspect.

Let me back up a little and address the question of why it is meaningful to have labels. Why not just say: here is a whole slew of music, enjoy? My take is that there is simply too much available, and without some sort of a classification system, we'd feel lost. Sure labels can lead us astray, but they are a convenient and often helpful way for us to navigate our lives.

And maybe it's not possible for humans not to label. Just think for a moment all the ways we categorize things and people in our lives. These categories are likely inexact or inadequate in some ways, and they can result in all sorts of meaningless and even harmful generalities. But is it really possible that we don't mentally separate foods into healthy/unhealthy, or people as those you trust your children with and those you don't?

Here is another example of why I use labels. When someone asks me what kind of musician I am, I tell them I am a pianist and an orchestral percussionist. In their minds, they know that by percussion, I mean instruments such as these:


and yes, this:

and am likely to perform in a venue like this:

standing around with these fellow percussionists:

They would probably not conjure up this image:

or ask me where I usually gig, which they may if I had just said I was a percussionist. (Nope, can't play the drum set at all. Maybe I'll take lessons one day. But it will have to come after lessons in jazz singing and bass guitar.)

I am sure you already some responses to what I've written so far and I'd love to hear them. And please come back for the continuation of this exploration. Tomorrow, I'd like to invite you to imagine some scenarios with me, to discover the responses you may have to different answers to this question:

"So, what do you write?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It's Alive!

I started writing a post to follow up on my musicspeak post last week. It took me quite a bit longer than I expected, but it was a good exercise that made me think harder about and dig deeper into the subject of genres and labels and assumptions. I'm letting that post mull for a bit.

In place of a follow-up to last week's post, this is a follow-up to Monday's post, in which I wondered if writing had killed reading for me.

I am happy to report that reading is still very much alive!

Yesterday at the library while I was checking out books for my kidlets (Sid Fleishman and Gary Paulsen and Linda Sue Park, delish;) I picked up A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby on a whim.

So far, I find myself at times delighted and at other times, thoughtful and somber.
It's a story about the New Year's eve when four people meet on a rooftop, each intending to jump to their deaths. Not the most uplifting topic, but Hornby manages to, so far at least, make me smile even as I am confronted with the cruel things in life that cause people pain and despair enough to make them consider suicide.

I have never read any of his other books but have heard good things about them. I find Hornby's writing is so unforced, and his observations so acute
that I am convinced that underneath the humor and the seemingly casual treatment of people and their lives, is a thoughtful author who carefully scrutinizes his surroundings and ideas. And that, is a good draw for me.

Oh great, I meant this as a light-hearted post. Don't know why my thoughts keep wandering around unlight-hearted things. But I will rectify that. Here is a sentence from the book I hope you find as cool as I did:

If she hadn't tried to kill me, I'd be dead, no question.

Aqua fortis and Domey Malasarn both mentioned in the comments section last week about how, when they come across a book that captures them, they pause and study, to find out how the author did it. I, however, am feeling rather like I've just found a beautiful feast and just want to eat and leave the thinking about the recipes till later.

My offering to you today: food analogies, a surprising sentence, and a promise I will have that post up, soon.

Addendum: I realize I highlighted a book about suicide in a post titled "It's Alive!" Hmmm.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Did writing kill reading for me?

I finished reading two books that have been published recently. They were both well-written and I can't really find fault with much. But the entire time I was reading, I was very aware of writerly things the authors did. For example, in both these books, each adventure follows at the
heel of another, probably because of the oft-given advice to keep the tension high, don't let the story sag! In fact, increase the stakes with each obstacle! And sure enough, in both books, not only do the troubles come one after another, the stakes are increased each time.

Then there is another advice: show, don't tell, the emotions and
motivations of the protagonists. And in these books, I watch characters break out in sweat or clench their teeth; and hear about their hearts in their throats or their muscles screaming in agony, with slight variations about how the pain or fear feels.

The problem isn't with the writing advice. I like an unrelenting adventure story as much as my 9-year old daughter. I have nothing against being shown and not told a person's emotions (but only to an extent; Brian's post yesterday hit the nail on the head for me.) And I most definitely am interested in what the characters are thinking and how they make decisions.

So then, why have these recent reading experiences been so much more about noticing what the authors are trying to do then absorbing the stories they want to share?

My question, to those of you who write, are these:
  • Does the awareness of craft take you out of a story?
  • If so, does it happen in every book?
  • And if it happens only sometimes, can you determine what factor causes this type of reading?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Musicspeak: Real art and popular art*

Commercial. Literary.

Designations of fiction: what do you think of them? What are you reactions to authors Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel protesting the labels given to their novels? No, seriously, without the snickering and the eye-rolling?

Publishing professionals talk about the sweet spot where commercial and literary intersect. Authors try to figure out where their work fits. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weine
r respond to the publicity surround Jonathan Frazen's new book.

This age-old dichotomy between art and popularity rears its head in many art forms. In music, the words "classical" and "pop" seem to do a decent job defining particular types of music. Yet doesn't it seem questionable to put Bach and Debussy in the same lot, and Iron Maiden and Lionel Ritchie in another? And where does jazz go? Straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz, fusion jazz?

Years ago, I heard a definition of art music that has made me think. It was given by the keynote speaker at a piano pedagogy conference. Speaking
to a ballroom full of conservatively dressed piano teachers, this pony-tailed, jean-clad, soft-spoken man described his journey of coming up with a way to think about art music. And this is his conclusion (my paraphrase):

Art music is music that requires knowledge and experience to appreciate.

That works really well for me; even if it may place Iron Maiden next to Bach. And this is not to say music outside this realm has no place. It just means that some music requires work and study to be understood and enjoyed fully.

I am still thinking about whether this definition works as well in fiction.
What do you think?

*Please don't shoot me for seemingly denigrating popular art. This is an attempt at speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. See that bulge on my left cheek?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Web presence, blog tours and social sites for authors

Two of my favorite blogs seem to be taking two sides of an argument, with regards to authors promoting their books:

Sarah Prineas, author of The Magic Thief, was the guest on Shrinking Violets Promotions yesterday, and she doesn't care for authors using social sites to promote their books. She doesn't think blog tours work.

Over at Writers Unboxed,
Crystal Patriarche, publicist for BookSparksPR outlines the ways an author should approach blog tours. She doesn't specifically mention the effectiveness of blog tours, but the post assume that they are.

I find myself in an unusual situation: I don't really disagree, not too much anyway, with either of their positions. What about you?

Be sure to read the comments on the SVP blog. A lively conversation has sprung up primarily between Greg Pincus, a book marketing guru, and Sarah. A few other book people turned up with their contributions: agent Jennifer Laughran, authors Tanita Davis and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Putting aside the question of social sites, at least the internet enables online communities in which thoughtful people who care can engage in meaningful discussions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Musicspeak: walking into love

One of my most trying times at the conservatory was the semester we studied 20th Century music. Lectures and tutorials weren't the problem; it was the Weekly Tape. You see, for every period in history we studied, we had to listen to a cassette tape (yes, it was that long ago) containing music from that time. Listening to music as an assignment was usually my favorite part; it was like reading To Kill A Mockingbird for school.

But that was before I was required to listen to 120 minutes of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, followed by Steve Reich and other avant garde composers every week. (John Cage's 4'33'' was especially uncomfortable. Was I supposed to sit with the earphones in my head, listening to silence for exactly 4'33"? At least White On White doesn't demand its viewer to be still for a specific length of time.)

Did you follow the links? Did you listen to the music? What do you think?

I felt tortured.

But a strange thing happened after I listened to each tape multiple times; some of the music began to make sense. I started to enjoy, and later, love some of what was initially meaningless noise, such as Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale, and Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht

This didn't happen to every piece of music. I remained unmoved by some of the compositions, despite acquiring familiarity and knowledge about them. I understood the purpose of their composers, appreciate their ideas, and maybe even admire the results at an intellectual manner, but I never sought out those pieces after that semester.

The many hours spent listening and re-listening to all that music was necessary. To be a musician, I had to know how the story of music has continued in the 20th Century.

Writers read. We do it because that's probably the reason we became writers. We do it because we love it. We do it to learn about other writers.

And we do it because we need to know the traditions on which our art is based.

I have a number of books I feel I need to read but find it difficult / intimidating. This post is primarily a pep-talk to myself, that I should put in the extra effort and time to read these not-super-accessible books.

Falling in love is exhilarating. Within a heart beat we completely embrace the object of our affection. Sometimes the feeling can even turn into something less exciting but longer lasting. Sometimes it doesn't.

Walking into love: taking slow, occasionally painful, steps, isn't as exciting. But it can lead to something deep and stable, something that makes us better writers, richer people.

Do you have books that are on the TBR, but also SI (Somewhat Intimidating) list? Have you had the experience of falling in love with a book that your originally could not get through? I would love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Black Belts and Food Trucks

So I got my black belt.

The next morning, Saturday, I competed as a
black belt for the first time--in a ring with 2nd- and 3rd-degrees who were mostly teenagers with a few state champions thrown in. Nothing quite like jumping into new challenges with both feet!

On Sunday, all adrenalin and energy deserted me all at once, it seemed, at 2:08 p.m., and I collapsed on the couch. Yes, you may watch TV, I told the kids. They chose the Food Network, which was running a marathon of the Great Food Truck Race as a lead up to their grand finale. And wouldn't you know it, several episodes later, I came away with some lessons learned that apply to writing and publishing.

A bit about the show. 7 teams set up their trucks for two days in different cities across the country. The team with the least sales amount in each city is eliminated. As with other reality shows, the producers throw in twists and turns in the forms of different challenges.

One team, the Nom-Nom truck, won in every single city. The reason was clear: they played smart. For example, before arriving at their first city, they called ahead to place an ad and had lines waiting for them before their competitors could even set up shop. In another city, every team was given a frozen quarter of beef as a challenge and many of those teams knew nothing about butchering. Some of them simply did the best they could, wasting precious time and not doing a good job. But the Nom-Nom team knew their limitations, and asked/hired a butcher to cut it all to specs.

After a few cities, a number of the other teams started to figure out their strategies and stepped their own game up. One team, Grill 'Em All, in particular tried to beat the Nom-Nom team at their own game. In one challenge, Grill 'Em All and Nom-Nom had to prepare each other's food: Vietnamese Bahn mi sandwich and hamburgers. The GEL guys hunted down a Bahn mi shop and bought all the ingredients: marinated beef, sauces, veggies, already cut up. Unfortunately, they still lost that challenge.

Every team had a good product. Each was given the same information and seed money. Why did the teams fare so differently?

Many unpublished writers have the message and the craft, why do some succeed, and others not? Some of the reasons are out of our control. The leader of the Nom-Nom team had probably the most photogenic face. And much as we like to pretend beauty makes no difference, it does. But no one on the other teams begrudged (out loud, at least) her good genes. They did their thing as best as they knew how, work hard, tried to be open to new ideas.

Then there was the Ragin' Cajun incident. This team parked at a horrible spot in one of the cities and had no customers. The leader freaked out and tried to drum up sales by using his megaphone and calling out to passers-by, but to no avail. The next morning, he started at it again, but he was much more successful, primarily because he quit being the crazy guy on the street yelling at you to go eat his food. He became the charmingly wacky guy doing his best to persuade you.

I could so relate to that poor, desperate man going red in the face on that first evening, Please, gentle readers, if you sense a whiff of my going insane in public, please stop me.

What this show reaffirms to me is that, to be successful, I have to:
  • have an excellent product
  • not bury my head in only creating this product
  • get the message out there
  • learn about my customers
  • realize that strategies and careful planning can have a lot of impact
  • be willing to adapt
But this is not the end of the story.

The Nom-Nom truck had been the clear favorite. But in the end, they lost the final challenge to Grill 'Em All, a team that makes hamburgers.

This team was almost always at the bottom in every city, yet they scrounged up new enthusiasm after every setback. Nobody on their team would make it to the cover of GQ magazine, and the one time they felt super confident about winning a challenge--by getting the ingredients for making Bahn Mi ready made--they didn't. They were definitely the underdogs. And I love it when underdogs win.

To all my fellow pursuers of a seemingly unattainable goal, to all my fellow underdogs, to all my fellow dreamers: here's to a rich journey and a satisfying end.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Stay tuned for the next installment of musicspeak

...which will air in its regular time next Thursday. Right now, I can't focus very well on anything besides Tae Kwon Do. You see, I am testing for my first degree black belt tomorrow.

[Hopefully I will be able to post a picture of me wearing the black belt soon]

I just completed a paper as part of its requirement, and passed the most nerve-wrecking segment of the test: the all-or-nothing test. As the name suggests, if I don't do everything completely well, I lose all the stripes that I had been gradually collecting over the last few months. Tomorrow evening, I will test in front of all my fellow candidates, family and friends. There will be three Masters among the panel and assorted other high-rank black belts.

So, yes. Efforts to point my mind towards music and writing have lost dismally to the self-preservation mode of preparing mentally and physically for TKD.

If you're interested, here's an older post I wrote when I first got my brown belt and the challenges that followed.

Wish me lots of stamina and balance and speed and power and no creaky joints!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Banned Books Week: my list

After looking through several lists that described the reasons for specific books being banned (and getting mildly depressed each time), I have decided on this list for my participation this year:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Young Adult
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher

e Grade
Alice books by Phyllis Naylor

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Musicspeak: our audience

After my first public recital at college, I wrote home to say how disappointed I was. The audience had been small and it seemed almost meaningless to have spent all those hours in the practice room just to perform to a few people.

In her reply to me, my very wise mother said something that has stayed with me till today.
If even one person has enjoyed or understood my performance, I would have succeeded.

The Chinese has a term for such a person: zhiyin. The first character, "zhi" means "know" and the second, "yin "means "music" or "sound." Someone who is a zhiyin, in its literal sense, is someone who knows your voice, your sound, your music.

As a performer, It is not possible to know how a performance affects anyone. I don't know if, in all my years of performing, I have found any zhiyin, but the notion that such a person could exist has definitely given me a much better attitude toward performing.

An elderly gentleman used to frequent the lunch-time recitals of my conservatory. I didn't know him, but he was almost always at my recitals. As part of my psyche-myself-up-to-perform routine, I would imagine him as a zhiyin.

Initially, the thought helped focus my intentions. As the years went on, as I became increasingly frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary judging by the professors based on obstinate ideas about how certain pieces should be performed--Bach should never be played with the damper pedal, there should be no rubato in Mozart, and the only way to achieve the effect Debussy wanted was by using the sostenuto pedal (the one in the middle on a grand piano) and no other way--that I eventually gave up being the compliant and correct student because, first of all, I couldn't keep straight which professor held which opinion, and I really didn't want to perform within such narrow parameters.

So in my last year at the conservatory, when I employed subtle rubato in Mozart or used the damper pedal in Bach, I would direct the performance toward the gentleman, and imagined that he understood what I was trying to do musically.

Maybe a person should only write for herself. But I have to admit that one of the purposes of my writing is to share something of myself with others. Otherwise I would not seek publication and I would not need this blog. I may never reach a large audience with my writing, but the notion that a zhiyin could exist out there, who will "get" my writing, is a strong motivator.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Banned Books week

To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, The Handmaid's Tale, Speak: these are but some of the books that have opened my mind, affected my soul, made me ponder the wonders and abominations of life. To think that I might not have had the opportunity to read them makes me sad. I can only imagine how much poorer I would have been had not been for these books.

The people who want to ban books have one thing right: they know the power of ideas. But they also fear. What do they fear? On a day when I feel charitable, I think they fear the susceptibility of the naive. On a day when I am less so, I think they fear that their own belief system will be challenged.

Harsh? Perhaps. But in a democracy, where some of the most important decisions are made by by individual votes, why are we not given the same courtesy to choose the
ideas we want to explore?

As a parent, I am acutely aware of ideas that are not (yet) appropriate for the absorbent and young minds of my children. And I do censor: books, TV shows, movies. But those decisions are borne out of my responsibility as a parent and based not just on the princ
iples/beliefs our family adheres to, but also on my knowledge of my children. The fact that I choose for my children while they are still young doesn't mean I will tell other parents what their children should or should not read.

September 25th till October 2nd is designated Banned Books Week. Here is the American LIbrary Association's page with helpful information and links. Librarians and bloggers everywhere highlighting banned books in the next few weeks and I am going to participate in the Banned Books Challenge hosted by Steph Su Reads. For this challenge, I will read at least one banned book for general audience, and one for children's/YA and post my reviews here between now and October 15th.

Join me, if you're so inclined, and let me know after you sign up at Steph's. And even if you're not participating, do tell me which, among the banned books you have read, is one that you can't imagine not reading.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It's September and I'm back

My sabbatical from blogging has been a good one. It has allowed me distance and given me time to consider some questions about the blog and its place in my writing life. I have not made new discoveries, just affirmed earlier thoughts, such as:
  • There are more blogs I want to read than there is time to do so;
  • I have not been using my experiences as a musician much; and
  • I really appreciate the my blogging community.
Making choices is the hardest when the options are not clearly right/wrong, but I have made mine. To pursue a huge online presence, to gain large numbers of followers, to comment on every blog I enjoy: these are no longer top priority.

Not only did these activities take massive amounts of time, they exerted a pressure on my psyche as well. I am not a person who can process all the information and share in all the emotional highs and lows and then be able to put all that aside to focus on writing. I am now choosing to limit how much my mind has to process and my emotions be affected so that I can participate fully in each experience and still have what I need to be a writer.

On a more upbeat note, I realize that I have not focused much on my other love, music. After ignoring my piano for a long while, I am practicing regularly again. There are so many parallels between the writing life and the musical life that I can't believe how little of that has been highlighted in this blog.

The practical outcome of these thoughts?
I will post twice a week, one to focus on music and how it relates to writing, and the other will be on whatever is on my mind. I will still, as I have been during my blogging pause, visit and comment on the blogs in my community, only less frequently as before. I still love you guys!

Oh, and btw, like my new look?

Monday, May 10, 2010

In which the frog jumps out of the pot, or see you in September

I have been thinking about taking a sabbatical from my blog for a while now, and it seems I'm not the only one who is stepping back. Lady Glamis is closing down her blog, Innocent Flower, Miss Rumphius is stepping out for a little while, Lotus girl is going through a purge-a-palooza, and Corey at Thing 1 and Thing 2 has lost her mojo for her blog.

My reasons? Several. First, summer is a time to be with my children, to do spontaneous things like make crepes or go for a bike ride or hang out with the neighbors. It is a time when fresh vegetables and fruits abound, and this year especially, I am looking forward to making wonderful meals from the produce I will receive from a local farm through an CSA program. It is also a time when, if I don't pay attention to the backyard for a few days, it will be overrun by weeds and over-exuberant ground covers.

Here is another reason, one which I'm not even sure I can articulate properly. The best I can do is with the metaphor of the frog in the pot of boiling water.

In my version of the story, I somehow become aware of the water getting hotter than I can handle and I jump out (hopefully not into the fire, but that's another metaphor, isn't it?) before I boil into a lovely frog broth.

Let me explain. I love interacting
with writers and people who love the arts on blogosphere. I enjoy participating in different activities: commenting, following, joining Ning groups, entering contests. But without realizing it, I've gone too far.

It's not just that I am spending too much time or energy, it's also that I am doing some things I am not entirely sure about.(This is the part that may get me some flak, but I hope you understand I am describing my struggles, not passing judgment.)

Take contests, for instance. Most of them now offer a point system to reward readers for publicizing the event. This has made me wonder: is this for me? If something is done by the majority and I choose not to do it, does it mean I am intentionally leaving myself/my book behind? When will the saturation point hit, i.e. if and when I do decide to engage in publicity this way, how can I be sure that people will not have become sick of them/blase/overwhelmed by too many people doing the same thing?

I guess the underlying reason, for me at least, is that there is something about those actions that is one step removed from the real motivation--following or blogging because I want to qualify for a contest, or requiring people to follow to qualify for my contest--that makes me ever so slightly squirmy. Lots of things in life are done for extraneous reasons, I realize that. But I still wonder.

Other issues relate to how this blog fits into my writing life. I know many bloggers re-evaluate their decisions periodically and I'll be joining them. Thoughts and arguments will brew in my mind as I fly kites and weed and grill. When I see you again, I hope to have a clearer mind, whether or not I resolve all my questions. I already have an idea of what I can do about my blog when I return.

Hope you'll join me on my journey again. I may even throw in a couple of contests and devise a new point system.

Enjoy your summer, if you're in my hemisphere, or winter, or monsoon season, and see you in September. (Anyone else thinks of this song when they hear this phrase?)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Degrees of separation: Moore, DiCamillo, Adichie, Tropper

Recently I read four books that seem very different from one another, yet when I finished, I realize common themes thread through them.

er Moore's Lamb has a lot of the author's trademark: breezy dialogues, humor, humor, and yes, more humor, often of the crude sort. Even the subtitle tells you this book is likely to contain a good dose of irreverence: The Gospel according to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. Yet underneath all that sarcasm and sacrilegious poking-fun lurks an authentic truth-seeker. And if the book itself didn't make me think, the author's afterword certainly did. The voice and tone of those pages are so different, I would have sworn they belonged to somebody else . But they don't, and it was truly eye-opening for me to see how sincerity and cynicism, respect and reverence can marry.

The Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has none of the light-heartedness of Lamb. It is a serious book on serious subjects, yet like Lamb, religion is on every page. As in Lamb, the readers are never told it's bad to do certain things in the name of religion, yet to see how the characters interpret their faith, we can't help but shudder, or at least reconsider our own beliefs and actions as a result of those beliefs.

I got the recommendation of Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You from the same place, over at the DGLM blog, when Jim McCarthy recommended books to readers based on the last five books they read. And actually the book he recommended to me is Geek Love, but when I checked out the other recommendations, Adichie's and Tropper's stood out as ones I thought I would enjoy as well.

Religion sets up the backdrop for This is Where I Leave You. A family, who hasn't been very religious, has to sit shiva for a week when the father passed away. Like Lamb, Where I Leave You is filled with wicked wit and a (over)preponderance of sex. And like Purple Hibiscus, it explores dynamics among family members in an honest and raw manner.

Now, how on earth would I link these to Kate DiCamillo, you're thinking? Well, let me
try. The book I just finished is The Magician's Elephant. A book that is written in a dreamy, almost surreal manner, where strange people do inexplicable things and where the lives of most of the characters are filled with regrets and sorrow. A book that is about magic. A book that is for middle graders.

What is the one thing that strikes me the most in the book? Not the quirky characters, or the amazing writing. It's hope.

The main event in the story drops into the lives of many who are dejected, tired, and given up. Yet, as it unfolds, every one of them finds hope.

And it is also hope that ties all of these diverse books together for me.

There is hope for the truth-seeker. If you don't buy into organized religion, if you find some of the practice or actions taken by practitioners abhorrent, you don't have to lose hope in your search. You don't even have to give into cynicism. It's fine and good even, to question standard practices; it's essential that you don't allow the sense of right and wrong, good and bad within you to be tainted by what you think the oppressive religious lot are insisting. Truth is not the exclusive property of those who claim they have it. Truth can be sought and found.

There is hope for the one stuck with people they don't know what to do with. People can learn to understand one another, even when the ways are clumsy and stupid, even when most of us prefer to shift blame and hold grudges, even when we will make lots of mistakes. If there is a bond, if there is love, then we will find ways to exist together.

I am not sure why I am in the sort of mood. Or maybe I do. Maybe that's what happens when I open myself to words and ideas and emotions that authors have poured into their books.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Tricia made me do it

Write a haiku, that is.

Tricia is celebrating her one year anniversary
at Talespinning. If you have not visited, I hope you will. It is one of my favorite blogs. Not only does she write from her heart, she also has the most gorgeous photographs and touching haiku.

As part of her celebration, Tricia is holding a contest and asking her readers to write haikus. With spring in the air, along with the sense of renewal and quiet excitement, it was easy to find inspiration.

This picture is from
my backyard. When we bought the house, we were told the steep slope at the back required a retaining wall, but that seemed so cold and uninviting. Then we found out boulders could do the trick. And I am so glad. And so are our resident monkeys, who got their mountain-goat footing by climbing and jumping on these rocks since they were mere tots. (And in the process, training their mom to deal calmly with heart-attack moments.) Even in the winter time when all is gray and brown, the boulders provide their own brand of stoic beauty.

Right now, the petals from the flowering fruit trees are giving way to the vincas and phlox. Colors are beginning to dot my backyard again. And here is my humble tribute to it:

Petals in the breeze
Phlox brims over stoic rock
Spring and hope collide

Happy spring and renewed hopes to all!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Winner from the GALM retirement party

Thanks for attending my party! Sorry I didn't post this earlier; you know how it is after a party, there's all that cleaning up to do.

Anyway, I've decided to pool all the comments together and award a prize. Those of you who entered in multiple categories got multiple chances. Here's the winner:


Tricia, please send me your address at yatyeechong at g mail dot com and tell me which one of the three books you'd like.

And to all who participated, THANK YOU. I know I will continue to mull over some of the quotes and remember the books you've recommended. And I am so glad to hear some of you have allowed GALM to help you choose your books.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Retirement Party for Grab-A-Line Monday

Welcome to my party! Come in, come in! Enjoy some

Have a drink.

Grab something to eat, Remember, virtual foods pack zero calories or stuff that our bodies don't need, so go crazy with the tiramisu and the nutella crepes.

Thanks for dropping by the retirement party for Grab-A-Line-Monday, my weekly blog event that started with this post in September:

Quick, grab a book from your bookshelf and find a memorable sentence. Or if you have one that you carry around in your mind, even better. Here's one that struck me the first time I read it and continued to occupy my mind:

In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

Flannery O'Connor
in A Good Man Is Hard To Find

If you've missed my multicolored, super-hyper announcement of a new feature on my blog, here is a recap:

Grab-A-Line Monday is the place to share sentences that stopped you in your tracks, or made you spew coffee or have stayed with you for years for other reasons. The moments when I read those sentences I count among the best in life. Since there are more books than any one of us can finish in a life time, I hope that this will become a place where we can share our treasures.

So I'd love it love it love it if you would grab a line and put it in the comments. And if it turns out you like the idea, please blog about it and share the word. Let's celebrate excellent writing and memorable moments!

Thank you so much to many of you who have come by and offered lines and passages that have caught you. Some of the quotes have so intrigued me that I have sought out out the books or short stories: Leviathan, Wee Free Men, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, just to name a few.

Other times, the quotes themselves have given me pause:

"What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind-then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it's all as it should be."

- Fyodor Dostoevsky
(A question asked by Lady Glamis via Crime and Punishment)

or made me sad:
"She had nothing left to say, so she said she loved me. And I stood there grateful for the lie."
(A line from a song by Gin Blossoms brought to GALM by Solving Sherrie)

or made me chuckle:

"Kidnapping children is not a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done."

(From Shelley the story queen.)

And then there was the fast bullock confusion. It started with an innocent quote Nandini offered:
"Greetings, Ancient Uncle," he panted, "you have a very fast bullock."

But for some reason, I misread it to say "fast buttocks". which disintegrated even further in the comments...

GALM has had a great run and again, thanks to all of you who have supported it.

Now, to the contest (I hope you got the BYOQ--bring your own quote--memo on the party invitation) Please leave me one or more in the following categories:

  • your favorite quote from previous GALM posts
  • books you've read because of the quotes you've found here
  • an all-time favorite quote
The contest will be open till midnight Mountain Time tonight. The categories that reach 10 comments will generate one of the following prizes, hard copies of:

How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
If I Stay
by Gayle Forman

Added later: forgot to re-iterate that I can only send prizes to addresses within the continental US.

Speech over. Let the party begin.