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...