Saturday, December 31, 2011

Well, 2011

You've been a year of 
contemplation and reevaluation
new experiences, welcomed or otherwise
a few not-quites and maybe-laters
letting-go and hanging on, and waiting to see the wisdom of each
surprising new undertakings
growth and stumbles and more growth
unexpected joys.


Now send in 2012, will you?


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Well, I never

Apologies to Vicki Rocho: I signed up to participate in her blogfest, which took place last week, not foreseeing that I'd be off blogosphere  during that time. But here I am,ready to share a list of the things that begins with "I never."

I never had the desire to:

  • smoke
  • go bungee-jumping
  • run for political office
  • ride in a helicopter
  • dye my hair blonde
  • gamble in a casino
  • travel to outer space

I never thought I would:
  • earn a black belt in martial arts
  • ride in a Porsche (thanks to my friend, Janet, who gave me a ride to my 40th birthday celebration)
  •  sing in Carnegie Hall, not once, but twice (the perks of attending a graduate school known for its choirs, which are often called upon to perform in New York City with different orchestras.)
  • see friends from primary and secondary school semi-regularly
  • be in a group so loud that the hotel manager called repeatedly to the room to inform us of complaints from other guests (I was with the kidlit writers at a writers' conference)


Monday, November 14, 2011

Pondering confidence

Confidence is a strange thing, isn't it? What exactly is it? Is it a belief in oneself? Is that belief a general one or is it tied to a specific ability? Does it change from day to day? Does it impact the outcome of any given event? If so, how directly and how much? Is confidence something you're born with, like the range of your voice? Or is it dependent on your upbringing? How is confidence different from arrogance? Are they the same thing except on different places in a continuum?  Or are they different animals altogether? Is confidence  necessary for success? When confidence is not commensurate with ability, does that confidence in fact catapult the person into a higher level of success? Is a person with ability but no confidence doomed to mediocrity? Is this kitty delusional? Or is this what confidence looks like? 

Does a truly confident person ever think much about his confidence level? Does the fact that I ponder and analyze it so much say anything about my confidence?  

Edited to add: And does the fact that I accidentally wrote "commiserate" instead of "commensurate" say anything at all? Sheesh.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Oh Captain Hook, how you taunt me!

How's that for a catchy title?

No, my post has nothing to do with Peter Pan and evil pirates with hooks as hands. I am talking about that wretched hook at the beginning of the book without which nobody will want to read on. 

Am I being facetious? Why, yes. 

To an extent I agree with the general idea of a hook. What I rebel against is how it seems to have taken on a life of its own in the writing circles, not unlike query-writing. Agents and other gatekeepers are now lamenting that often the manuscripts fall short of the standard set up by the very polished queries.

This isn't the first instance I am dissenting under the yoke of the hook --in my nook of books. (Sorry, being rebellious and frustrated brings out the groaniest of jokes from me.) So why am I ranting right now?

Because I am considering yet another idea about the structure of my YA novel. My original scaffolding had the prologue (oh wait, prologues are no-nos. So I'll just call it the first chapter) showing the inciting incidents. I would introduce my two protagonists (wait again; multiple POV characters are frowned upon) at the moment their lives are changed by the deaths of a loved one. Over the course of the book, we see how the girls deal with their grief, their scenes interspersed with short, flashback chapters (speaking of no-nos...) that show the relationships between each girl and the loved one.

The other night while mulling over a different problem of the novel, an idea occurred to me: that I shouldn't start with the deaths but I should just show these two girls having difficulty navigating their lives. That way, I set up a question, a mystery of sorts: why are the girls acting and thinking this way?  I'll keep the flashback chapters to show the relationships. It's only in the middle of the book, after readers have come to know those loved ones that I reveal their deaths. Hopefully the mourning and grief my protagonists feel will be shared by the readers who have come to know them.

But who wants to read a book that starts with two girls starting a school year pretending everything is fine? 

Where's the hook?

Friday, November 4, 2011

What if they'd been all air balls

Have you seen the video that has been making the rounds on Facebook this week, about the young basketball player with autism? Like most people, I was moved to tears, cheering for Jason, the young man, and rejoicing with the people around him.

But while it encouraged and filled me with optimism, I also ached for all those other people who have the same difficulties in life but who don't have a coach caring enough to make him team manager or insightful enough to let him take the court; who don't have parents who make it possible for him to be part of the team; who don't have teammates trusting enough to hand him the ball for his three-pointers; or who may have all of those but miss all his shots. 

What then? The video, if there were even one, wouldn't go viral on Facebook. They would get a few hundred less "way to go"s. They don't get to feel the high that comes from such an incredible event. 

Hopefully this makes me a bit more aware of people around me struggling, not just with autism. In my circle, it's with the kids who don't understand boundaries, those who feel defeated by every small setbacks. It's the adults with chips on their shoulders carved so deep they can't even notice it, those who are simply worn out by demands on their strength and emotions.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Time to enjoy confrontations

 My two protagonists are about to have a big fight in my YA novel, and I am having enormous trouble writing the scene. All I want is to be as far away from the situation as possible. A lifelong inclination and practice in avoiding confrontation will do that to a person.

Maybe I should just think about the plot and where it needs to go and then steer the fight toward that end in a detached way. Maybe I can even pretend to be someone who welcomes such a challenge (I know such people exist; they just may as well be aliens to me.)

Or maybe, working through the emotions and the thought processes involved in a confrontation can reveal insights and new understanding in ways I won't even anticipate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October Blogfest

Today I am participating in Bish Denham's blogfest to celebrate 4 years of blogging and 300 followers. Yay, Bish!

I will write a 300-word story that has to do with Halloween, trying to incorporate the numbers "4" and "300" in it.

Imagine a mysterious bass voice speaking the following:

This. Is a True Story. It happened one cold and dark night in a small town in Colorado. 

The people around the fireplace in the house on this December evening look like any other holiday revelers, munching on cheese and crackers, sipping cider. But soon the lamps are turned off, leaving the fire the only light source. Plates and glasses are put away, replaced by  sheets of paper. The real reason for the gathering is about to begin. And it's not to discuss how consumerism has killed the holiday spirit. No. These are writers. Writers don't idly complain. They take action.

Tonight, the action is to reenact a tradition that celebrates the season with meaning. Tonight, they gather to share ghost stories.

Charles Dickens would feel right at home as one writer after another reads stories about dark forests and empty graves and mysterious fumes in hushed tones. The temperature drops lower with each story. The computer programmer zips up his jacket. The librarian wraps her cardigan tightly around her. The two golden retrievers, who have been happily licking faces and wagging their tails, are now trying to squeeze in among the people. The shadows thrown by the fire take on more recognizable shapes: a sickle here, a werewolf there. 

The fourth writer starts on her story; it's one that her Norwegian grandparents have assured her to be true. She has everyone hanging on every word, breathing with every cadence. 

"Janus heads to the wharf, where a light shines intermittently. His heart beats in his ears, drowning out the low moan that emits from the dilapidated boat. This is it. Finally, he gets to face down his darkest fear. Only a few more steps, and then--"


Everyone in the room jumps. A few shriek. The host runs to the kitchen and finds that the glass from the hurricane lamp on the kitchen counter has shattered into a hundred shiny pieces, reflecting the light from the candle. 

broken glass by ~zeh235

The lamp has been a gift from her daughter, who bought it in an antique store in Norway the previous summer.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Goon Squads, Book People, and Forgotten Gardens

With thousands of titles currently available, finding a great read seems like such a gamble sometimes but recently I hit the jack-pot with three fabulous books. 

It was many months after I bought the book that I finally read it. Pulitzer Prize winners have been good to me and I was afraid the heightened expectations would mar my reading experience. And when I found out the structure of the book was non-standard--one of the linked stories was told entirely in power point slides--my anti-gimmick-o-meter lit up and made me even more hesitant.

Which just goes to show how external things--covers, synopses, structure, and reviews and, yes, even awards--can fail to show what a book really is. All these worries were unnecessary. The book is like an elegant 3D puzzle. It takes an extremely creative and logical mind as well as authority to pull it off. 

I am not sure how a novel without a central protagonist (there are several recurring characters) or a real plot can evoke so much empathy and intrigue. I am not even sure I'd know how to analyze the book to find the secret ingredients, so I'll just recommend that you read it. 

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
I had been meaning to read Geraldine Brooks for a while. After browsing excerpts from several of her books at the bookstore, I took this one home. The premise of the story is simple: a book-restorer tries to uncover the mystery of an ancient treasure.

We travel to different times and places to where this book had been. The historical and cultural aspects are so richly described that they jump to life. Reading about them made me feel at once aware of my ignorance and hungry for more knowledge.

The book is much more than a history and social studies book, of course. The characters, some of whom appear for only a short time, feel authentic, with palpable struggles and hopes. For me to be able to go along on their journeys, to be privy to how they make moral decisions, difficult and life-changing, was what kept my mind going back to the book long after I"d finished it.

Forgotten Gardens by Kate Morton
When I started the book, the constant moving of the story from one protagonist to the next and one time period to the next pulled me out but I was willing to put up with the intrusion because the writing was engaging  I was also very much aware of some of the devices the author had used to enhance the story: repeated themes--losing a child; children being taken and plopped down in foreign environments--and characters with evocative names: the evil landlord named Swindell and the rat-catcher named Rodin.

At some point, however, I realized I no longer paid attention to those things. All I wanted to do was to finish off whatever I was doing: cooking, talking on the phone, chauffeuring children, so that I could get back to the book. It recaptured for me the delights of my childhood reading experiences. It reminded me what a otherworldly joy reading can bring. The book may contain stock characters or cliched phrases, but I didn't notice, nor did I care. My writer-self was convinced early in the book to stay out of the way and just let my reader-self have at it. Smart self, that one. 

Read any books lately that have given you the goose bumps or made you laugh or brought your nostalgia?

Friday, October 7, 2011


A critique partner said my latest submission to our group reminded her of at an intersection where three cars all tried to go at once; one to turn right, one to cross the intersection, and one to turn left. And they all crashed

Makes my day when someone gets my work at a level I'm not even consciously aware of.

Keep writing from your naked place.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The sweater of choice

..for those who do not want to be hugged. Say you're an introverted writer who does signings in cities with exuberant and friendly fans.

I just finished writing a short story that seems better on the page than in my head. (Ask me again tomorrow.)

And that's why I'm looking at fall fashion.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fighting Spirit

My brother gave me a piece of advice when I was 12 and playing competitive ping pong. (Yes, "competitive" and "ping pong" can very much go together, so stop that laughing, right now!) He told me all successful competitors possess something called "fighting spirit." I didn't really ask him what he meant but vaguely understood it as being equivalent to "never give up."

His advice took me through some hairy moments. I didn't always win but have amazed myself many times at how much further I could go with that attitude than without.

I was reminded of this advice this past weekend when I was competing in the same ring as a 2nd degree, a 3rd degree, and a 5th degree black belt. I walked into that ring believing that I had a chance. I didn't win in the form portion of the competition but I gave my best performance ever. When sparring came, my brother's advice continued to urge me on and I won my first match, against a 5th degree. 

It can happen, writer friends. Our time frame is long; many of us toil over our craft for years without seeing any tangible rewards but keep that fighting spirit. Something good will come from it. Maybe publication, maybe something else. Like kicking someone much higher rank in the head. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On the other side

Last Saturday, I was at the mufti-school testing for new black belts and current black belts doing their midterms or testing for the next rank. My son was scheduled to do his first-degree midterm and I had some students from the school participating as well. I attended the event prepared to encourage and cheer on the nervous students.

My instructors had other plans for me: I was asked to sit on the panel as a judge. 


I was assured that the head instructors would make the final decisions but they would take into account the scores of the lower-rank judges--there were about 8 or 9 of us. I suspect it was more an exercise for me to acquire experience and for my instructors to make sure my judgements were not out of line. While this was not the first judging assignment I'd had, it felt more stressful, because these were not lower ranks.

But an interesting thing happened. Just having the different responsibilities affected the way I viewed the testers' performances.  It clarified for me, almost immediately,  what the fundamentals are. The things that I had stressed in my own training and those of my students didn't always aligned with what I felt that night.

It was truly eye-opening. It didn't matter if the tester was a child or an adult, a first-degree or a third, the fundamentals remained the same. Proper technique, intention, focus: these must be present in a form for it to look good. 

Then there were the intangibles; talent, inherent affinity for martial arts. The qualities were impossible to pin down, but unmistakable when present. Granted, personal tastes came into play but talking with my fellow judges afterwards assured me that we agreed on all the big picture assessments. 

Which of course made me wonder if I could get myself to think as if I were on the other side of the publishing process, like a agent or acquiring editors.

What are the fundamentals: clarity of writing? Authenticity? Appropriate use of structure? Balance of story-telling elements?

And what about the intangibles? Obviously it is deadly to try to appear talented and gifted by the way we write, but how would I allow who I am to come through?

Still pondering. 

Your thoughts?

Friday, September 16, 2011

What do they think about?

I am taking a break from my YA novel and writing a short story as a possible entry to The Literary Lab's newest anthology. (It is a most unusual prompt: writers create original stories based on one of two fairy tales. So much more creative-making than Stories From The Coasts, or Stories Inspired By My Precocious Children, or The Color of Money: Green or Red. Discuss.) 

Having written so long from the points-of-view of young people, I find I am at  a loss at knowing how adults think. (The answer to your question is no, I am not really an adult, more like a 10-14 year old kid trying to fool people in to thinking my wrinkles commensurate with my wisdom.)

So now my poor thirty-something year-old man is having trouble knowing how and what to think while attending a wedding in a garden.

All right. Vented. Now back to Ryan to see if I can think mature, manly thoughts in his grown-up mind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fall Resolutions

It has been a few weeks since my Big Weekend where all of my favorite activities collided. I survived!! Yay! When I figure out how to post videos on this blog, I will show snippets of the weekend.

After the big events, It took me a few days just to recover enough to tackle things that I had put aside. As I dealt with each thing, I realized that I have been more or less living in a put-out-fire mode. More often than not, I have been barely able to ahead of things that need to be done. 

Not good. 

So I am going to take a step back and look at how to arrange my living space, my ways of taking care of things, my time-management skills to see if I can create a more organized and efficient life. 

It means paring down and giving up so that I can spend time doing what I love. This probably sounds like an end-of-year thinking, Fall can do that, give me hope that a new beginning can take place. I am going to take this change of season to make some changes that will hopefully give me a calmer outlook and less distracted mind so I can spend more time doing what I love.

As for this blog? I love being part of this community too much to give it up. I will visit y'all when I can and I hope you will check in once in a while as well.

I hope this change of season brings about good changes in your lives.  

Sunday, August 21, 2011

It's Bound to Happen

This Friday, my writing is slotted to be discussed by my critique group. Creative Weapons is on the schedule at my regional Tae Kwon Do tournament. I am performing a solo piano recital. I don't know if the planets are aligned but my activities sure are.

Their times are scattered throughout the day so I toyed with the idea of doing all three. But who was I kidding? I don't change gear that fast and will end up botching everything.

So I switched with a critique group member and submitted last Friday. I will give up Creative Weapons and compete in Traditional Forms, Traditional Weapons, and Sparring on Saturday.On Friday, I will put on my musician hat and concentrate on my performance.

I wasn't going to spin this post into a writing-related one, but an idea just popped into my head. it may be telling, or at least fun, to pile on the responsibilities and events and trouble on your characters, to see what they are made of.

If I were a character in
my story, I could potentially:
  • with great joy, participate in all the events,
  • shrink away and refuse to do anything
  • make a decision but second -guess myself constantly.
With each of these decisions could be different outcomes:
  • fail
  • scrape by
  • succeed spectacularly

[I found this picture at Ghost 19's blog]

We can have fun with how I deal with the outcome as well:
  • become prideful
  • lose all ability to take risks
  • rise up to the challenge, and whether I fail or succeed, grow from a timid, overly-cautious person to a confident risk-taker

Another idea just popped into my head. How about this:
You write a scenario for me and I'll choose one that makes me spew coffee, weep, or call you to ask for an appointment for a therapy session.

Cool Prize! Don't know what yet. But Cool, definitely Cool!

Spread the word.

To those of my friends who come over from facebook, who don't post in the comments: you don't need a Blogger account to do so. Would love to hear from you as well!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Carrots are not the opposite of Sticks

Some days I feel so much like a cynic, a hardened soul. But when I was asked, "Does your son work better with sticks or carrots?" recently, my idealism aborts its vow to stay hidden and comes back roaring.

"Carrots and st
icks are the same," I retort, trying not to sound too snooty, and stopped the words "bribery" and "manipulation" just before they escaped my mouth. "They come after something has been done and typically from an outside source and have very little to do with the task/lesson itself."

In all my years of teaching, motivation has always been the area that has fascinated (and frustrated) me the most. As a teacher, I want a key to the place where motivation resides in my students, to see what's there. As a parent, that desire is intensified a thousand times.

But this is getting away from what I want to write about today.Today, I want to write about writing and motivation, and about now my heart soared when I read the comments on my last post.

In my post, I lamented the unfortunate situation in which writers are told to polish their opening or nobody would notice their manuscripts. Most of us write because we love to or we need to but publishing is a goal as well. And when we read the same advice everywhere, it's hard not to pay heed. Some days, the heed-paying takes its toll. Like many others, I have to continually peek at my motivation and my direction, to make sure I haven't forgotten my primary responsibility is not to get published but to write what I must write.

So, when I saw in my fellow writers' comments that their concern is all about their stories, and not about how to fit into a mold that conventional wisdom insists is, if not the only one, then the bes
t, I felt like weeping.

Listen to how they talk about their work. Scott Bailey said this about beginnings:

My idea is to take the reader by the hand and say, "Hey, let's go have fun" and establish the reader's trust that I have the technique and the imagination to make good on that promise of fun.

Domey Malasarn's explanation about why he couldn't skim on his middles is simple but speaks to the real reason we write: because we care.

The middle is my favorite parts of a book, so I care about it a lot!

And I'm going to think about my endings the way Tanita Davis does from now on:

...leaving a book is so hard. I want the reader to feel the same reluctance to read the last paragraph.

Not a single comment by anyone about doing something to get published. Instead, the focus was on character and relationships and setting. Nobody mentioned anything about carrots or sticks, only the stories. So there, B. F. Skinner et al!

Go, Take heart. Write.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bait and Switch

A number of years ago, I accompanied my husband to a conference in San Francisco. During those pre-kids days, I would typically explore on my own during his meetings and then have dinner together. That time, for some reason, I decided to attend the orientation for families and heard a spiel by a fantastic walking-tour guide. He knew his facts, he presented them in interesting ways, and he was funny. I signed up.

I showed up the next morning, ready to spend a few exciting hours wandering a
round San Francisco, learning about the secret history and listening to a master story-teller.

But he wasn't there. He had sent someone else. This person mumbled and swallowed the second half of every other sentence and didn't make the walk interesting at all. I felt sorry for her but I also felt cheated. I paid money for a product only to be given something else.

With all the focus on " hooking" agents and editors with the first pages/paragraphs/lines, a lot of writers have polished and re polished the openings till they sparkle. What I wonder is if the rest of our books live up to the expectations set by the opening.

I have overhauled my book so many times that I feel I've given as much scrutiny to my middle and end as I have the beginning. Recently, just as an experiment, I started reading my book in the middle. I was relieved that it didn't feel rushed or meh-worthy. Of course I am not unbiased, despite the objectivity I managed to acquire by having left the book aside for a long time, but to the best of my knowledge and ability, I'm not doing a bait-and-switch.

To my writer friends: how do you overcome the temptation of focusing too much on the beginning and not enough for the rest? Or is it even a temptation?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In front of me are four much-awaited books:

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett,

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn,

Rules of C
ivility by Amor Towles,

A Vist from the G
oon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Were all life's decisions so delectable.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Because the Bottle Looks Classy

The heirloom tomatoes are beautiful. The basil leaves are bright and fragrant. I was out of olive oil.

Have you been to the olive oil aisle lately? My eyes started swimming. Or maybe it was my bra
in that was gasping for air. Faced with rows of choices, I made up some quick basis for elimination. These ones are too expensive. Those have too much extraneous stuff: I don't need citrus-infusion and twigs of thyme in the bottle. Greek olive oils are too strong for this dish. These bottles are too big. Those are too small.

And still there are too many choices.

Pretty soon, I am rejecting bottles for random reasons: the label color is too trendy, the font is trying too hard to be old-world, the description has too many exclamation points.

All I want is a good-quality olive oil. Short of tasting every single bottle, how was I to decide? Are the oils described as" vibrant" the same as those described as "fresh?" What does "harmonious" mean? And how is "distinct" a helpful adjective? Why can't I remember any of the brands that I'd read in Cook's Illustrated or some other olive oil survey done in Simple Magazine?

In the end I bought an unfiltered extra virgin olive oil from Italy. I am sure I chose it in part because of ridiculous reasons: the pleasing shape of the bottle: straight sides, skinny; its plain label in a muted green and well-placed letters in a sans serif font; and descriptions that are devoid of hyperbolic claims and exclamation points.

Publishing is supposedly doing fairly well in the face of all the uncertainties of the industry and the wider economy. Books are still being published, lots of them. But when I browse in a bookstore, not even necessarily a big one, I feel the same way as I did in the olive oil aisle. How do I know?

In the end, I go with award winners and honorees, I go with authors I've read before, I go with recommendations from other readers, bookstore employees, librarians, blogger friends, I go with captivating titles and intriguing subject matters. I am sure book covers play a role in my decisions, unfortunately. I've come across many fine books but I can't help but fee las if I am missing out on some gems because they haven't managed to call themselves to my attention.

My olive oil tasted fine, by the way. Subtle and mild but not bland. But I wonder about that other bottle with the trendy label or the one who surely looks too common to taste good.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The premise/title of this book is one of the most original and promising I've come across in a long time. Prime numbers, as we learned in school, are numbers that are divisible only by themselves and the number one. Some of these are very close together, 41 and 43, for example, but they never touch, they are always separated by at least one other number. Prime numbers are destined for solitude.

What an elegant idea. The aloneness and close-but-not-quite
relationships are perfectly captured in this title.

Each of the two protagonists in this novel makes a life-changing decision in their childhood. The tragedies that befall them as the result cast them into an isolation that nothing can break through, not even family, or perhaps, especially not family. The two of them meet up in their youth, drawn to each other without knowing the grief that lies in the other. In their adult life, they are apart, both wondering where and how the other fits.

The author uses a subtle way of telling the story. He doesn't belabor the emotional state of the characters but trusts that readers will deduce from the details he has provided. It works very well for the story.

This subtlety, of not spelling out the intended conclusion for the reader, didn't serve me as well for the ending. In the last quarter of the book, the plot picks up, suggesting a strong possibility of a particular type of resolution. Until that point, I was willing to go with the author, to see where he will take the story. With those events in the plot, I started thinking about an either-or solution. Not only was I disappointed in the direction that took me, but I was also frustrated by how the story actually ended.

I don't always need conclusions to be drawn and themes to be spelled out. I love endings that leave me wondering. But this ending wasn't one of those.

The reason, I believe, is that I don't think the relationship between the two protagonists have been shown convincingly enough for me. Because of that, it fell into a standard will-girl-get-back-with-boy plot rather than will-two-prime-numbers-who-are-misunderstood-by-the-world-find-each-other-and-how-will-their-lives-be-connected-if-at-all.

I got the pain and sorrow and guilt each one of the protagonists feels. I got their feelings of not belonging. I just never got the nature of the tie between them or how strong or unique it was. And that's the reason I didn't feel that the ending worked for me.

A movie is being made/has been made based on the book. And I think it may work better. Chemistry between people can be shown on screen much more effectively than on the page. Wonder if it'll be the case of this story.

This is the first review I've written since my post in which I declare myself no longer a slave to fear. Okay, maybe it's less dramatic than that.But I do want to share more of the things about books that give me pause. If only for the reaction I get from others who have read it.

So my question to you, my friends, is this: which is your reaction?
  • "Oh, well. I'll probably skip the book."
  • "Hmm. I wonder if I'll get it more clearly than she did. Let me read it to find out."
  • "Not sure if I understand her problem with the book."
  • Other. Please describe.
I'd really love to know.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Small but not Insignificant

This week I've noticed of a number of the small, the minute in among the Big, the Important.

Small action: a senator casting a vote, inspiring an end of a stalemate and hopefully a start to something better.

Microstyle Writing Contest by Gotham. Expressive economy of words. Miniature messages.
The author of the winning entry will receive bragging rights and:
  • 10-week Gotham Writing Workshop
  • $50 Barnes & Noble Gift Card
  • One-year Subscription to The Writer (12 issues)
  • Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little

Description of a Man Booker Prize longlisted book

...concentration on isolating tiny fragments of experience and apprehension makes for an intense and immersive read...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Now This is Promising

After dwelling on books I feel compelled to put down in the last few posts, I thought I'd switch to the other side.

I started reading People of The Book by Geraldine Brooks this morning and I like everything about it so far: the voice, the characters, the tone, the pace, the subject matter, the book cover. Look. Isn't this gorgeous?

Anyone reading a book they're enjoying very much right now?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Beloved Character With No Soul, Paddington Bears,and Geek Love, or What Happens When You Throw A Question Out On Your Blog

My follow-up post yesterday to this one brought about some interesting outcomes. First, Domey Malasarn has been dared to write about a character he loves, one that is without a soul.

Second, F. Scott Bailey shares his antidote to reading books that are too grim.

And those are just the outward consequences. In responding to
the insightful comments, I have been thinking and re-thinking about how I feel about difficult books. Reading The Solitude of Prime Numbers allowed me to discover a few things and now I am toying with the idea of doing another experiment.

But first, a bit of backstory.

Sometime last year, Jim McCarthy offered to give book suggestions to readers who told him the last three books they enjoyed. The book he recommended to me was Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. After reading about it, I decided to wait and chose to read some suggestions he offered other readers. I found Purple Hibiscus and This Is Where I Leave You this way.

One of the reason I shied away from Geek Love is its subject matter. From what I've read about it, the book is populated with people who do things that are difficult to understand. One character willingly ingested unsafe chemicals while pregnant in hopes of producing children who will be deformed. Just this bit of information alone gives me chills.

Yet I'd heard good things about Geek Love from different sources. And since I am exploring why I don't want to continue books that are bleak and depressing in which people do nasty things to others for unfathomable reasons, this book seems like a prime candidate to test that premise.

But I am not sure if I really want to.

Have any of you read it? Or if not, what do you think you would do if you were me?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hope, promise, and tenderness

Thank you, to those of you who commented on my last post. You've brought up a number of ideas that are new to me. Best reason for maintaining a blog, I say, not marketing or platform, but I digress.

To recap, this was the question I asked:

Why are some books difficult to read on?

I am excluding obvious reasons such as poor writing or dull story.

I kept this question front and center as I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which I finished over the weekend. I had wanted to put it down after the initial chapters but decided to use this reading experience as an experiment to see if I can figure out possible reasons for why I feel compelled to put down books.

And I did come away with a few observations.

I mentioned in the earlier post that I find it hard to stomach reading about young people suffering, yet that alone doesn't stop me. Room is about a very young, innocent, and vulnerable child, yet I was able to read it to the end.

The difference is this: hope. This young boy and his mother speak of their environment not as their destiny but keep hope alive in their minds about how life can be. In Solitude of Prime Numbers, the young people who are affected and those around them are portrayed as having surrendered to their lot. There is no hint that there may be changes in the future. Their days, their interactions, their outlook: they're all shrouded in despair.

In Okay For Now, Doug doesn't come across as someone who is hopeful for change either. In fact, he seems to be following in exactly the type of behavior--channeling his nasty brother, Lucas-- that will seal his fate in its current manifestation. Yet, Gary Schmidt managed to infuse an uncertainty in Doug's behavior when he acts in -self-destructive ways. We feel that underneath the bravado, he is still holding out hope for a different, a better outcome that he seems destined for.

Hope, that's a big difference in why I will or will not read on.

The second reason I discovered is this: how characters treat one another makes a huge different to me. When people treat another with nastiness and contempt continuously, it gives me a bad taste in my mouth. In Prime Numbers, the moment when I didn't have to push myself to finish the book was when the characters started feeling empathy and treating others with tenderness. In Okay For Now, even when Doug was being mean outwardly, a few key people treated him with respect and understanding. In Room, mom and son loved each other fiercely.

I'm not sure why this issue have such a strong impact on me, People treating one another badly isn't uncommon.Again, I believe it's the sentiment underlying the behavior that affects me. I need a smidgen of suggestion that these people have some respect or understanding or acceptance of the people they mistreat to not make me despair. People being nasty to people just because: it's not something I can handle a lot of.

So hope and understanding between people: these are the ingredients necessary for me to read about people going through horrible circumstances.

Any of these resonate with you?

Friday, July 22, 2011

It's difficult to keep reading

At the DGLM blog, Jim McCarthy asked if anyone has thrown a book after reading it. The post elicited quite a number of responses. Not surprising, since most of the readers of that blog are likely people passionate about books.

Thinking about readers being frustrated enough to want to throw a book makes me wonder about the reasons. I usually stop reading when I find the stories boring or the writing intentionally coy or pretentious, incoherent, or otherwise not engaging. But the most recent book I wanted to stop reading was extremely well-written by an author whose work I enjoy very much.

When I started Gary Schmidt's Okay For Now, I almost couldn't finish it. Not because I disliked the writing or the story but because what was happening to the protagonist was difficult to read about.

[minor spoiler alert}

This kid, Doug, has a father who's uncaring and cruel. His older brothers take after his father, and his mother stands aside, helpless. As an adult, a parent, and a teacher, I was deeply affected by the ordeals of this young man. But knowing that most juvenile fiction is essentially hopeful and contains ideas of redemption and change, I read on. And by the end, the fate of the protagonist isn't as bleak as the beginning suggests. The solutions are satisfying, though some of it rather rosy, but I was glad it ended the way it did.

I just started another book that I am tempted to stop. I decided to read Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers because of the title. (Don't tell me you don't pick
up books for quirky reasons! Why people read what they read: an interesting topic to explore and one for a future blog post.)

I have only read 5 or 6 chapters of this book and I am again so disturbed by what's happening to the protagonists, both young people, that I don't feel like reading on. The ugliness within human nature
that the events in this book touches on is disturbing. I am not disgusted so much as overwhelmed by the darkness that is possible in this world.

Maybe I'm a light weight when it comes to confronting the dark and the horrid. Maybe there's enough sadness in the real world that I don't have the energy to take much more in the fictional world. Maybe I don't have the gumption to read about young people affected by depravity.

But why is it that I have no trouble reading other books in which people face evil? Katniss's fate in Hunger Games is worse than bleak. Several people attempt suicide in A Long Way Down. The narrator in The Lovely Bones is dead. I had no trouble reading any of it.

So I don't know. Your thoughts?

Do you have books you can't read? I know people who won't read books in which children are tortured. Many have a limit for the degree of violence or gore. What are the books that are difficult for you to read?

Edited to add: I just remember another book, Room, in which the small child has to face an unimaginable life. I liked the book and had no trouble reading, even though I was immersed in his world and felt the horror of his life but didn't stop reading. So what is it?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The obvious next step

A thought has been niggling at me for a very long time with regards to my middle grade novel. And I am finally surrendering to its rightness.

You see, the book takes place in Malaysia. But as I have been primarily targeting American audiences, I've written it using American English instead of the way English would be spoken in Malaysia. I've also made sure that I explained, subtly, of course, cultural etiquettes and norms.

But for a while now, I've been thinking that I need to write a version of it that targets Asian audience. Several things have happened recently, including being shortlisted for the Scholastic Asian Book Award and talking to some authors I met at the Asian Festival of Chilldren's Content, that have convinced me that it is an excellent idea.

Except now I am pushing through my YA novel, trying to get a first draft finished before too long and the mere thought of going back to a work I had revised about 1700 times just makes me reach for the closest bar of chocolate.

But I know it has to be done. I just need to prioritize and be more organized about my time. My forte. Right.

*Heads to pantry to secret stash of chocolate*

Monday, July 11, 2011

Or maybe a lox party

I though
t the pox party mentioned in M. T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing book was scary. But that was before I heard about botox parties.

Next spring, you should come to my backyard and look at the flox. They're quite pretty.

[That's right, Yat Yee. Stay silent for weeks, then come back with a fluff post.]

I promise that
substantive posts will be forthcoming, right after I get out of the enchanting and at times overwhelming forest filled with intriguing plants, blinding colors, and promising paths that is my life right now.

The YA novel is being revamped, the kids are at home, things are still being unpacked from three back-to-back trips, and thoughts provoked by recent TKD events are swirling around, attempting to become coherent.

But then it's summer. What did I expect, really?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hang on while I go brandish my sword

I am fabulous at keeping all the threads of my life going smoothly at all times.


Over the past few weeks, I've been getting ready to compete at a huge Tae Kwon Do tournament. For a number of reasons, I am much more nervous about this one than any other, one of which is that I will be doing a form I choreograph myself. What was I thinking?!!!

So the preparation has been occupying my time and mind, leaving not much space for blog-writing. I did however, continue to work on my Work In Progress. I wanted to touch base with folks who check in periodically, to let you know what's going on.

Step-spin-hook-kick, here I come. No, maybe I should tweak the moves at the end of the sword form. No, maybe I should...