Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pretend you're an agent

Miss Snark's First Victim is holding her January Secret Agent Contest. If you have some time and are interested in reading 250-beginnings of the 50 entries, as well as the comments, go check it out.

But before you do!!!!!

Read what Alex has to say on the post below. And then leave a comment. And then go tell it on the mountains.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Guest and A Contest

As promised, today I have a guest poster. I "met" Alex at The Literary Lab in December when she wrote a fabulous paragraph using only words with one syllable, alluding to many of the information about the three Labbers. She very generously agreed to write a post on my blog. Here's a little bit about her:

Alexandra ("Alex") MacKenzie is an author and illustrator from

Seattle, WA. She illustrated "In My Nature: A Birder's Year at the
Montlake Fill" (, published in November 2009,
and she wrote the fantasy novel "Immortal Quest: The Trouble with
Mages" (, published by Edge SF (Canada) in
September 2010. She supports herself as an academic counselor at the
University of Washington, where she works down the hall from her
friend Scott Bailey of The Literary Lab

Kids These Days

I love children’s fiction, especially middle-grade. I’d love to write
a MG novel. Yet I feel out of touch with today’s youth, being a bit
of a middle-aged fuddy-duddy who grew up at a time when kids could be
out playing all day (and away from the home) without adult
supervision, when the TV had three channels, and “extracurricular
activities” meant whacking a baseball around the front yard while the
“outfielders” stood in the street watching for cars.

My reading in the MG arena tends towards fantasy, mystery, or
historical – I think because books set in contemporary times have
themes and situations to which I can’t relate. When I try to write
something in the MG line, it veers away from Here and Now. I did try
it once, but had trouble coming up with a believable protagonist.
It’s been a long time since I was ten, and I do vaguely remember what
the world was like then, but is it anything like the worldview of a
ten-year-old today? How does one tap into a contemporary child’s
experience? (I don’t have kids or grandkids, and there aren’t even
any in my neighborhood!) Or should a writer simply assume that the
things one worried about the most as a child haven’t changed all that
much? Peer pressure, fitting in socially, awkward moments, sports,
girls/boys, good teachers, bad teachers, family trips, sibling
rivalry…perhaps these are standards that transcend time?

Those of you out there who are writing (or reading) a lot of
children’s fiction these days, what attracts you about your favorite
books, your favorite protagonists? As a reader, do you prefer works
that reflect contemporary reality and issues, or do you favor books
that take you away to a land of fantasy? If you’re writing, do you
have problems figuring out what Kids These Days are feeling and doing
and wanting?

I think one author who has handled this well, combining a sense of
today’s kids with a sense of the old-fashioned, is Jeanne Birdsall in
her books “The Penderwicks” and “The Penderwicks on Gardam Street”.
Agree? Disagree? Do tell!

And now the CONTEST part of this post: leave a comment about who your favorite young protagonist is. You may do so till next Wednesday at which time I will pick a winner for one of the following books of the winner's choice:

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Solving Zoe / This is Me From Now On by Barbara Dee
The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z / Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner
The Higher Power of Lucky / Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron
How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart
Bobby vs Girls (Accidentally) by Lisa Yee
Hoot/Scat by Carl Hiaasaen
Room by Emma Donoghue,

Drop us a comment!

Added later: Alex is guest-posting over at the Lit Lab today! Go read what she has to say about being a two trick pony.

Also, I am adding another book to the list: Room by Emma Donoghue, which is not a kidlit but the protagonist is a 5-year old with an amazing story to tell.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guest blogger tomorrow

While I organize my thoughts about my experiences this past weekend, I have scheduled a wonderful post from a guest.

Come back tomorrow! Contest!

A brief note

I just came back from a big national martial arts tournament and my husband just returned from a 3-week business trip and so my attention is currently focused on non-blog related things.

Not surprisingly, experiences from the tournament have sparked off my thinking about writing and publishing. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Musicspeak: recurring nightmares

Recurring nightmares: do you have them? Here are some of mine that are music-related:

I am waiting behind the curtain on stage, getting ready to perform to a full house and someone hands me a violin. (I am a pianist.)

I am seated at the piano on stage and suddenly realize I am to perform a Beethoven sonata that I learned 10 years ago and don't remember any more.

During a performance of a Mozart concerto,
I suddenly realize I have jumped from the 1st to the 3rd movement.

Wait.That last one actually happened.

(Pause for you to feel the horror of it.)

The good thing, if there was any good ab
out this sad situation, was that I was only a first year conservatory student, and while the recital was a public one, not many people were there. Also, I wasn't accompanied by an orchestra, but by my piano teacher playing the orchestral reduction on another piano. We fixed that problem quickly and I finished the rest of the recital without further problems (I think; I was on automatic gear after that and don't remember anything very well.)

I knew that piece backwards and forwards,
maybe even upside down. How could that have happened?

The audience, that's what.

Practicing alone in a practice room, playing to my teacher in his
studio, or even playing the piano on a empty stage were significantly different phenomena than performing on stage to an audience.

I was an inexperienced performer and did not know how to handle my heart beating a mile a minute, my hands frozen and sweating at the same time, my thoughts wandering all over the place. It was a miracle, really, that I didn't have more memory lapses.

My mother, if you remember from a previous post, was (and still is) a writer and while talking about this incident, remarked that the main difference between our chosen art forms was this: that a writer did not have to be present when her work was read whereas a musician performed to a live audience.

At the time, still smarting from this humiliating experience, I wished I was a writer, safely cocooned in my private writing world. No falling flat on my face in public, no fumbling with trouble passages for all the world to see, no having my work determined by one incident. I wondered why my mother seemed wistful.

As I grew as a performer, I understood my mother's envy. There is nothing quite like the energy in a room when you have a receptive audience. It is supremely gratifying to give something of yourself and feel the vibes of the audience who accepts it. There are very few things in life that compare to how alive I feel during those moments.

Now that I am spending more time writing than performing, I appreciate the more forgiving nature of writing. I don't have to produce great sentences on the spot. I can spend time with my words, polishing them before I present them to my audience. By the same token, I do miss the immediate feedback from my audience.

I am not sure where I stand in the spectrum of whether art is a form of communication and isn't quite complete until it's received, or it is a form of expression that stands on its own. Some days, playing a piece privately is enough; it is my very private expression, of gratitude, of sorrow, of joy, and I don't need nor want anyone around. Other days, I enjoy playing for people. Some of my writing remains my prayer and will never be seen but I can't wait to see what reaction some other stories will be met with.

Where do you stand? How do you view your art or the art of others? Did Picasso create only for himself? What if Glenn Gould never released his two versions of Goldberg Variations? What if Schumann performed all the songs he wrote the year he got married only for his beloved Clara? Are you curious about all the works of Dostoevsky or King we never get to read?

[Yes, I do realize that writing, in many ways, has become a much more public endeavor. A writer known only by her works is no longer the overwhelming norm. These days, we can, if we choose, to put our work out there for something like immediate feedback by the public. But I am staying clear of this tangent for now.]

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Reivew: Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Specimen Days
by Michael Cunningham

The information on jacketflap made no sense but I read it anyway, because I loved Michael Cunningham's writing. Now that I've finished, I understand how difficult it is to describe the book. This is a book for which an elevator pitch will be, at best, strange.

Even the designation of the book, a novel, is not exactly right. The book contains three stories, each independent, yet linked. The links seem rather tenuous: each story stars a man, a woman, and a boy, each time with the same name, or a recognizable variation of it. Walt Whitman's poetry plays a large role in every story. And in each is a character who can't help him/herself with words that issue from within them. These is also a bowl, and disfigurement.

Yeah. Strange, right?

The first story takes place right after the Industrial Revolution and is a steam-punkish ghost story. The second is contemporary police thriller. The third is a dystopian that takes place some 100 years into the future.

So what's the book about? You ask. These links are interesting, but surely there is a larger theme that goes through the book?

This question gnawed on me for at least a day and a half before I eventually realized that the overall theme of Specimen Days is about choosing selflessness. No. More than that. Choosing selflessness still implied a degree of thinking about oneself. These stories are about people making decisions to sacrifice whatever necessary based purely on what is needed by another.

I started reading reviews as I prepared to write this post and the ideas are varied and very interesting. Here's the NY Times review, and here's a review from across the pond, The Guardian. If any of you who have read it have other ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Friday, January 7, 2011

All is not lost: Resolutions part two

How did I do in my pre-resolutions? Why, thanks for asking. I failed probably half of them.

Writing every weekday at 10
Did it for a few days, then had to juggle the times. I did, however, get much better at sneaking in sentences here and paragraphs there in between opening presents and making crepes and playing Clue.

Practicing every weekday at 2:30
I kept having to change the time for appointments and volunteer schedule

TKD and exercise
Lots of work before my midterm and then there was baking and there were parties and...

When I reviewed my pre-resolutions mid-month, I realized this was the most neglected aspect and scrambled to make up for the neglect. But like brushing teeth, housework is something that has to be done consistently instead of in bouts of mad activities spaced too far apart.

And here I thought I was choosing things I could succeed in, but I misjudged my ability to not to stick to a plan. Sure I can blame it on December and festivities and having two kids underfoot, but no amount of blaming can change the fact that I didn't do what I thought I would.

What does this tell me? Well, that new habits are monstrous things and that I have an infinitely creative mind when it comes to procrastinating.

But all is not lost. I found a pattern with my procrastinating. And knowing my enemy is the first step at conquering it I say. Here is my weapon:

Every day, I will do something that I really do not want to do.

I am also going to steal Story Queen's resolution, which is

to laugh more.

And, one more, that I started doing for the past few years:

Cut 'em some slack

What do you think? Do you think I'll succeed?