Wednesday, December 16, 2009

ORACLE (Part 3): Word Box

Word Box: Cut slips of paper. Ten, twenty... a hundred even. Write one word on each slip of paper. Nouns and verbs work best, but adjectives are also OK. Put the word slips in a container of some sort (I use a small, plastic box shaped like a Chinese takeout container). Here are some exercises you can do with your word box.

Generic: Shake the box to mix the words around. Pull out three-five slips. Write a scene using each of those words.

Fibonacci Story: Pull 6 words. Write a story in 13 sentences according to the following rules.
First word you pull = 1st word of 1st sentence
Next word you pull = 1st word of 2nd sentence
Next word you pull = 2nd word of the 3rd sentence
Next word you pull = 3rd word of the 5th sentence
Next word you pull = 5th word of the 8th sentence
Last word you pull = 8th word of the 13th sentence
[Note: you can also do this exercise with a 13-line poem]

Taboo: Pull one word. Write a short scene in which the main character is unable to say that one word you just picked. Here's the catch: this character is in a situation where it's imperative he/she use this word. Example: The character is a look-out sitting in the ship's eagle's nest who, for some reason, can't say the word "pirate." He has just spotted the mast of a ship on the horizon, and it bears a pirate flag. You cannot use "pirate" anywhere in the scene.

These are just some ideas, but the possibilities with the word box are endless!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

ORACLE (Part 2): Acrostic

Since we're talking about character, here's another exercise the ORACLE gives me from time to time. Like most writers, I often assemble character bios at the beginning of a new project. Trouble is, these bios get long and clunky, making it hard for me to keep track of all those little character details. This exercise helps me focus my character bios into a short, portable format. Just follow these two easy steps.

Step 1: Write your character's name on an index card so that each letter appears on its own line.

Step 2: For each letter, write a word or short phrase that captures some essential characteristic of your character. It doesn't have to be a complete sentence or even a complete thought; the idea is that the phrase help you remember important elements about the character.

Example: Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
(Since Lewis Carroll's humorous poetry first inspired me to do acrostics, I thought it appropriate to use one of his characters to illustrate this exercise.)

Cat without a grin / Grin without a cat
Hangs out in Wonderland
Species of the feline variety
His grin stays behind
Invisible at times
Reappears gradually, sometimes not completely
Exceedingly mad

Croquet with the Queen
According to him "we're all mad here..."
Talks in riddles

I like to write these acrostics on an index card or slip of paper and keep them in my writing notebook. That way, I can take them with me at all times and if I find myself jotting down notes or sketching a scene, I have these mini-bios along to jog my memory.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

ORACLE (Part 1): Character Compass

As I mentioned yesterday, the ORACLE is where I go when I need writing help. Since it's the season for giving and sharing and all that good stuff, I thought I'd pass along a few tricks from my ORACLE to my fellow writers out there. Enjoy!

Character Compass

I read once that there are four basic ways to show character: Appearance, Dialogue, Action and Thought. While it's possible to depict a character using only one of these elements, most scenes tend to rely on all four elements working in concert to convey the character. That's where the character compass comes in.

This graph lets you track how much of each element you're using to show your character. You put a dot on each line. The closer to the circle's edge you put the dot, the more heavily you're using that element. (Example: the graph on the left indicates a scene where there's a lot of dialogue and action, but not a lot of thought or descriptions of appearance.)

Once you've draw the dots, connect the lines and it gives you a visual picture of how that character is being depicted in that scene. Of course, it is not essential that the graph be perfectly balanced all the time. I prefer to use this compass as a diagnostic tool. I'll choose a character and map him or her over a series of scenes. Over the course of several scenes, these graphs will show me if one (or more) of the aforementioned elements is missing.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Thoughts: ORACLE

Today's Happy Thought is... the ORACLE.

Every so often, I have a day where writing gets downright hard. (OK, usually it's more like a stretch of days or weeks but that's neither here nor there.) These are the days I visit the ORACLE. This might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but in reality the ORACLE is pretty low-tech

The ORACLE (which stands for Outrageous Ridiculous Absurd Crazy Literary Exercises) is a wooden box where I keep my writing tools. When I'm feeling uninspired, I open the box and pull something out at random. Somehow, the ORACLE always knows what exercise or writing toy to give me. Or maybe it's my brain that manages to twist whatever the ORACLE supplies into something useful, not always an easy feat since the ORACLE has some pretty weird tricks up her sleeve. Regardless, after a visit to the ORACLE I always seem to find something worth writing.

Do you have an ORACLE?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing Groups

The other day, I was chatting with a classmate on the subway and the topic of writing groups came up. As writers, people are always telling us "you need to get feedback on your work" but it's not always easy to find the right group. I myself have been working with my group, Quill & Coffee, for over two years and while I may not be an expert on all writer's groups, I can say things that have worked for us.

Rule #1: There are no rules. Our group is much more free-form than a class or workshop, governed solely by our mutual respect for each other as readers and writers. Of course, as things evolved over the years, we have added in some rules (we now have a page limit and a double-space rule) and have established something akin to a schedule. But we started with a clean slate and only one guideline: if something doesn't work for you... speak up. This style may not work for all groups, but it's worked for us.

Rule #2: Embrace your diversity as writers. Often, writers like to band together with other writers in their genre, writers who "get" what they're trying to say. I have found, though, that reading work in different genres and getting feedback from writers who may not be familiar with middle grade or teen fiction can be as valuable as getting critiques from fellow children's writers.

Rule #3: Take initiative. Our group works because different group members take initiative over different aspects of running the group. When we decided we needed to switch locations, one group member scouted out possible new places. Another writer always sends out "reminder" emails, letting the group know when the next meeting is, who's submitting, etc. My job in the group? I'm the resident supplier of writing exercises; I bring one to every meeting, in case we have time left over at the end.

As for finding the right group in the first place... that's the tricky part. Writing classes, conferences, or your local library are all good places to start. In the end, keep an open mind and give yourself a few meetings to get a sense of the group before you decide for sure if it's the right group for you. And, of course, if you can't find a group that suits your style, you can always start your own!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Happy Thoughts: December

Happy thoughts for December:
  1. Everywhere I look, there are sparkly decorations. The glitterier and kitschier the better.
  2. Winter vacation is almost here and with it comes the end to the semester.
  3. December 21st: the longest night of the year. Once I make it past that landmark, I know there will be a little more sunshine every day after that.
  4. It's perfectly justifiable and non-tacky to listen to Xmas music in December.
  5. I can break out my collection of hand-knit scarves/hats/mittens and not be totally overdressed.
  6. Snow is coming any day now.
  7. Skiing, sledding and snowball fights.
  8. Wool socks.
  9. Belgian Hot Chocolate at LPQ.
  10. Last, but certainly not least: spending time with all the awesome people and fantastic felines in my life.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In Memoriam

Today I said goodbye to my best little buddy, Goldie. Always with her ringed tail in a question mark, she chirped like a bird and enjoyed helping me with my writing. Here follows a short tribute to the sweetest feline that ever lived.

She liked camping and enjoyed the great outdoors... er, indoors.
She knew the value of a good belly rub.

She also knew that Civil Procedure textbooks are only good for one thing:
She was a curious critter, never afraid to trek into uncharted territory.
She died of an enlarged heart and never was a diagnosis so fitting. In six years, Goldie gave more love than most humans do in six lifetimes.

Princess Marigold
AKA "Goldie"
(June, 2003 - November, 2009)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Favorite First Lines

Lately, I've been thinking about first lines. They are the gateway that bring the reader into the story. They're like opening credits to TV shows, setting the mood and letting us know what we're about to see as we start turning pages.

The following are a few of my personal favorites (in no particular order):
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
  • We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
  • "Where's Papa going with that ax?"
  • Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
  • 12th Day of September: I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.
  • My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.
  • It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.
  • The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east.
  • In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed Incipit vita nova. Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book, or if not all, at least their meaning.
These opening lines come from very different books written by very different authors. One thing brings them all together in my mind: voice. Each of these opening sentences not only convey the voice of the character (or narrator) telling the story, but also captures the essence of the entire book that lies ahead.

What are your favorites and why?

(p.s. Bonus points to anyone who can guess the authors and books for the ones I listed above!)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Thoughts: Halloween

Top 10 reasons why Halloween is the best holiday of the year:
  1. Costumes!!!
  2. Carving pumpkins
  3. Spooky stories
  4. Candy corn, blow-pops, ring pops, fruit roll-ups and other yummy stuff
  5. Roasted pumpkin seeds
  6. Chocolate!
  7. Trading candy so you don't end up with all the gross licorice-flavored junk
  8. Making funny masks out of paper plates
  9. Glitter
  10. Tricks instead of Treats (or both!)
This year, I'm embracing my 80's self and dressing up as my favorite cartoon character from my childhood: Jem. Tomorrow, I will don my hot pink sequined shirt, black pleather mini and leg warmers; I will try to live up to the epithet: Truly Outrageous!

What are you dressing up as? Anyone going as a literary figure or favorite character from their kid years?

Happy Halloween everyone!

Thursday, October 22, 2009


While working my way through Homer and reading some additional critical sources, I just discovered something fascinating:

There is no Trojan Horse story in the Iliad. The Trojan Horse story is part of the Odyssey!

In fact, the only place where Homer ever mentions this story is in the Odyssey, when the bard in the Phaecian palace sings the story of how Troy fell (book 8, I believe). While I had read the Odyssey twice before I had yet to read the Iliad (yes, I know, I know... what kind of bibliophile am I if I haven't read the Iliad?) For this reason, I never really focused on the horse bit all that much; I just figured the Iliad must talk about it more since it focuses on the Trojan War and that the mention in the Odyssey was just a little Iliad reference Homer did for fun. There are so many other things going on in the Odyssey, that the horse moment is really minor.

But now, in this most recent read-through, the Trojan Horse segment caught my attention and I decided to do a little research. Turns out, the Iliad only takes place over a period of forty-some days, and ends with the death of Hector. From my knowledge of the Trojan War events via the Aeneid, I knew that Hector's death and the scene with his body being dragged around the city happened before the horse event. I did a little more research and voila! No Trojan Horse in the Iliad.

A note for those readers who haven't been following this saga from the beginning. The reason I'm so incredibly excited about this piece of literary trivia is that one of my writing projects refers to certain events in the Odyssey, including the famous horse. If the horse were an elaborate part of the Iliad, it would make things... complicated, to say the least. I'd have to do more research and reconfigure things a bit. I'm rather tired of research right now and this discovery made my day. Time for a happy dance!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the Road

This weekend I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I had tried reading this book before, and never got past the third chapter. This time around, I made it all the way through but only because I allowed my brain to check out every so often, when the story got tedious. This is one of those books that goes over better after a few drinks or if the TV is on in the background.

I think the thing that bothered me most is that the narrator, Sal, seemed rather one-dimensional and Dean, the protagonist being described from Sal's point of view, went from being crazy to being crazier. Not a character development that would make him particularly sympathetic. There were too many characters but not enough that I actually cared about. The idea of hitchhiking across America would be a great theme for a novel, but this one falls flat. Overall, I feel about this book the way I feel about J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, I can understand why someone would like it, but that someone is definitely not me.

Truman Capote once said of On the Road "That's not writing, that's typing." I must admit, I'm with Capote on this one.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Happy Thoughts: Amethyst

I have decided to institute a regular "Happy Thoughts Friday" post. No work-related stuff, no serious business, just happy thoughts to welcome the weekend.

This week's happy thought is: Spiky Amethyst Rock Crystals

In other words, something that looks like this:

First of all, they're purple, and that alone makes them fabulous. Think about it, how many naturally-purple things are there in the world? Not many. There's tons of green and yellow and orange and red and blue, but purple seems to be horribly underrepresented. Off the top of my head I can think of: eggplants, grapes, irises (though they're more of an indigo color), violets, lavender, lilacs and some types of seashells that have purple coloring on the inside. Compare that to the prevalence of grass or sky or pumpkins or lemonade, and the world's purple quotient is rather low. Back in the olden days (and by "olden days" I mean sometime way back when people used to dye their own stuff), purple dye was always reserved for royalty because it was so rare and expensive to make. How's that for a snazzy color?

Back to the crystals. When I really want to tickle my brain, I head to the Natural History Museum's rocks and minerals exhibit. While I'm there, I skip all the boring stuff in the glass cases and stare at the crystals so gigantic you could almost camp out inside. They're big enough that the museum doesn't even bother to put them in a case or have an alarm or anything because if someone wanted to steal them, they would need a forklift. When planning a museum heist, it is not advised to try and steal something that would require a forklift, because they're big and clunky and hard to sneak in and out undetected. Just FYI.

Crazy life goal #37: Someday I will have a large amethyst rock crystal in my living room as furniture. Crazy life goal #38: Someday I will also have a living room large enough for it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why Do I Torture Myself?

This morning I decided to go running. Again. After the mishaps of yesterday afternoon, this was perhaps not the wisest decision, but I did it anyway. My ankles screamed "Not this again!" My bad knee sobbed "Have mercy, please!" and my good knee just groaned and muttered four-letter words under its breath.

Ten laps on the track and a sore ankle later, I ask myself the obvious question: why do I do this?

In a word: Endorphins.

What can I say, I'm addicted to stuff and a day without some sort of exercise turns me stupid and lethargic. It makes my brain feel dull and I'm more likely to putter around and waste time. I've learned the hard way that the time I "gain" by forfeiting a workout is not nearly as useful as the productivity I get from those delicious little molecules. But there's another reason why I run. A secret reason. One that is remarkably simple but powerful nonetheless.

When I run, I can't think about the book.

On the elliptical machine, I pedal away and think about the book. On the rowing machine, with each tug at the "oar" I think about the book. On the subway, when I'm crammed between two people taller than me, I think about the book so I won't think about the body odor. In yoga class, when I'm trying to do "downward-facing dog" without falling on my face, that sneaky book creeps into my mind and before I know it, I'm twisting up plot threads instead of my arms and legs. Even when I'm sleeping, I seem to think about this book because when I wake up most mornings, my brain tingles from activity and I don't feel that restfulness you get from a night of thought-free sleep.

But when I run, it all melts away and the book disappears from my mind, like it never existed in the first place. All I can focus on is one more lap, one more step, one more breath. My brain stops racing and my legs take over the job, only instead of talking to me about theme and story arc, all they say is the occasional "ouch" or "oof" or "can we stop soon?"

And I reply: just one more lap. I'm not ready to give up my freedom just yet.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Greetings from the Planet Zorg

Dodging meteors in the Zebadu Galaxy, the intrepid Galactic Gabi must face her newest set of challenges.
  1. Sacrifice a short story recently completed to ten servants of the god Bogwan, hoping to appease the volcanic monster.
  2. Combine 5,000 words in such a way to break the unspeakable code and free work-in-progress No. 2 from captivity in Bogwan's evil dungeon.
  3. Remove draft 2 of work-in-progress No. 1 from inter-galactic quarantine.
  4. Resuscitate work-in-progress No. 1 by installing two and a half bionic organs.
  5. Circulate the pedestrian ring of terror for five galactic neplons.
That's all, kids! Don't forget to brush your teeth! Ka-pwing!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Anger Management

Those who have known me for a long time, know that I have a fiery temper. In order to maintain the docile composure most of you see regularly, I have had to learn various ways for venting my frustrations in a constructive (or at least non-hazardous) manner. Here are a few things I have found that work:
  1. Write the names of all the people who have made you mad on a piece of paper. Crumple it up. Now stomp on it. If you're really in the need for catharsis, light it on fire.
  2. Pick up the offending object or person and throw it across the room. (Note: this only works if the object or person is smaller than you, or you're really strong. Also, it's best if you don't mind dents in your walls.)
  3. Choose some really obnoxious music and play it really, really loud. My preferred method of musical venting is tweeny-pop. Dancing around like a lunatic is optional.
  4. Go for a run and imagine that with every step, you're squashing all the things that make you angry.
  5. Take one of your characters and write a scene with her in it. Make her suffer.
What about you? What do you do when you need to vent?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Card Games for Writers

Maybe it's because I spent so many years surrounded by toys, but I love games. Especially card games because they're so portable. My favorite games ones always seem to have something to do with words or writing. Here are a few from my shelf.

Once Upon a Time by Atlas
This is one of those games where it doesn't matter who wins, it's the process of playing the game that counts. The goal is to tell a fairytale story using the cards in your hand while trying to steer the story toward the ending that you were dealt. Players can interrupt each other to take over the story. I especially like this game because it works for a large number of players.

Man Bites Dog by University Games
The idea is to come up with the silliest, craziest headlines possible using cards in your hand. The crazier the card, the more points it's worth, but the harder it is to use it in a headline. The winner is the player who gets to 500 points first. I haven't played this one in a while but I remember laughing a lot when I played it last.

Quiddler by SET Enterprises
This one is on my shelf but I haven't gotten around to figuring it out yet so I cannot give an accurate review. I can say, however, that the company that designed this game is the same company that created SET, which is my favorite card game of all time!

Mystery Rummy Case #3: Jekyll and Hyde by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
This is more a strategy game, rather than a word game, but it's based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novella so I think of it as a writerly game. This is essentially rummy with a twist, where depending on whether it is Jekyll or Hyde who is "awake" you can only play certain cards. Playing it the regular way is fun, but the real challenge comes from trying to get a "shut-out" (where you play all-Jekylls or all-Hyde cards). I think this game may be out of print, which is unfortunate because it's one of my favorites.

What about you? What's your favorite writerly game?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Gone are the Days of Letter Writing

Once upon a time, I used to write letters. I think I even have some special stationary saved away somewhere. Getting the mail was always an event because the anticipation of receiving a letter was often as good as the letter itself.

Today I am reminded of letter writing through this blog: Letters of Note

These two letters are some of my favorites:
To a Top Scientist and All of this is nonsense

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

It is not even noon and already today is an marvelous day. Let me count the ways:
  1. It is October but the sky is clear and the sun is out. Also, it is warm enough for flip-flops.
  2. My heart is at ease with school matters.
  3. I finished Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman at five this morning and decided that today I will speak without contractions.
  4. Despite waking at two and reading until five, I managed seven hours of sleep, which is a respectable amount. Would that I could sleep this much every day.
  5. Morning tea is always a pleasant pastime, but morning tea with a friend is doubly lovely.
  6. I have already written half of this week's literature paper and it is only Sunday. I might just finish early this week.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Books are Theme Parks

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with theme parks. Not with going to the parks themselves, but finding out how they were put together. Most kids get excited about going to Disney World and doing all the rides. Forget the rides, my dream was taking that special tour of the underground tunnels and seeing how things worked behind the scenes. In graduate school, I got to take a backstage tour of the Mall of America as part of a design research conference. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

I recognize that there is an element of insanity to this obsession. Yes, I am that person who goes to Vegas not for the casinos or the shows, but so I can take photos of doorknobs and floor tiles. The thing that is so fascinating to me about these themed environments is that even though they are blatantly manicured and fake, there is a perverse beauty to it. It's the epitome of control and manipulation, wherein the designers construct an environment that will evoke a certain emotional response or a particular behavior from the audience. This has always made me wonder: how do they do that?

Some of it has to do with physical design of the place. Like, did you know that the bricks on Cinderella's castle are slightly smaller as you go higher up the towers? This creates an illusion of a vanishing point, which your brain interprets by thinking that the towers are taller than they actually are. Or the way casinos are built without clocks or natural light so that people are more likely to lose track of the time. Or how different theme parks handle crowd control--the most successful rides are always the ones where standing in line becomes part of the themed experience.

What does this have to do with books and writing, you may ask? Today, as I was reviewing Louis Sachar's Holes it suddenly hit me: books are theme parks. In the case of Holes, the structure of the story is literally all about holes. As we read, we have to dig/fill holes in the narrative with snippets of other stories--mostly flashbacks. It makes the reader become like one of the kids in the story. Holes is not a book; it's an experience.

But books aren't just about the words on the page. Though the words do have a lot to do with eliciting specific responses from the readers, the actual book as an object is also part of the experience. My copy of the Fagles translation of the Odyssey is all about the experience. It's a soft-cover book, but the paper is a cream color and it has a deckle edge. I pick up this book and it feels epic to me, before I've even opened it. These are minor design-related choices, but some books go even further to create the reading experience. Take Casts Off by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (AKA the Yarn Harlot). In this book, the actual graphic design of the pages helps transport readers to the land of knitting.

Of course, I realize that if I ever publish something, most of these design decisions will be out of my control. Even so, it is satisfying to think about all these possibilities. More importantly, I think it's important to focus on the aspects we can control and how we, as writers, can make reading more than just an activity. We can make it an adventure.

Monday, September 28, 2009


What makes a writing sanctuary? A place where you can feel safe to be creative? This was a question that nagged me for some time. For years, my workspace was a source of drama for me because I didn't have a desk or surface where I could perch my computer. It came down to a question of space and a difficult choice. I could either give up my drawing table and replace it with a desk, or do without the desk altogether. In the end, I decided to reclaim my drawing table and turn it into a writing sanctuary.

It started with a totem: a three inch statue of a pink alien, picking its nose with its tongue and made for me by a friend from design school. Then I added a beanie baby gorilla, a hand-knit cactus I found in a London flee market, and a rubber ducky. Soon after, there followed mardi gras beads which I hung from the lamp, a penguin mug to hold my pens, an rough-cut amethyst stone from a recent trip to Brazil, and a fabric flower lei I got at a tikki-themed bar. And this was only the beginning.

Over the past few years, I have continued to add mascots to my sanctuary and while some people might find the space too cluttered for work, for me it's just right. I've even taken to carrying around a few portable totems in my writing notebook (a slide frame with no picture, a postcard of a Tiffany stained glass window and paint chips). This way, no matter where I am, I can always have part of my sanctuary with me.

What about you? Do you have a special workplace sanctuary?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On the Nightstand

People who know me well know I have a very small attention span. They also know that my reading tastes tend to fluctuate according to my moods. At any given time, I am usually in the middle of at least six or seven books, with several more in the queue. For this reason, it can sometimes take me several years to finish one book, while other books might take me only a few hours. It also means my nightstand is continually buried beneath a mountain of books.

Here's what's on the list right now:

Enslaved by Ducks
by Bob Tarte
I've read the part about the belligerent bunny and the amorous parrot. While I haven't gotten to the ducks yet, this book is great for people like me, who are polygamous in their reading preferences. The beauty of this book is that since each chapter is fairly self-contained, I can pick it up after several months and still have a good idea of what's happened.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
I have been working my way through this book through sheer force of will. Don't get me wrong, I was a loyal fan of the wizarding universe for years. Then the books got so long and complicated that my poor pea-sized attention span was no longer able to manage it. I purchased this book the day it came out and I'm still only halfway through. Last time I picked it up, I could hardly remember what had happened in the first couple hundred pages (not to mention the previous six books) and I can't keep track of the trillion or so characters so I'm continually confused. But I refuse to be deterred and I will finish reading this book, if only so that I can have that sense of completeness of having read the entire series. If you talk to me about the Harry Potter books, don't worry about giving away spoilers... I've already skimmed through and read the ending. (This has been my habit since book 4... you know, when the books started getting seriously long. I am not a patient reader.)

Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz by Edward Burger and Michael Starbird
My freshman year in college, Prof. Burger gave the keynote address during orientation and he talked about 4th dimension and how to intersect a ring with a sphere. Right in the middle of his talk, 500 beach balls cascaded from the rafters of Chapin hall so he could illustrate his point. This was the first clue that math--real math, not that ridiculous arithmetic junk they teach in high school--is seriously cool. In the end, math became my way to decompress and unravel my brain from the labyrinth of literary reading. To this day, I read math books for fun, but I don't read them cover to cover. Instead, I pick a book up and read a section or chapter now and again. (My other favorite math/logic books are Raymond Smullyan's The Lady and The Tiger or What is the Name of this Book?)

Thirteen Detectives
by G. K. Chesterton
A collection of detective stories, by the creator of the famous Father Brown. What I love about these stories is the language. It has a similar feel to the Sherlock Holmes stories, where characters say things like "elementary" or call each other "old chap."

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose
Another book that I dip into every so often. I rarely read more than one chapter at a time and I often choose the chapter depending on what area of my writing I think needs the most work on a particular day.

Take Joy by Jane Yolen
This is my bedtime reading. I like to read a small section of this book before going to sleep so that I always remember that writing is a joy, not a chore.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Blockbusting for Writers Post 2: Taking Critique

On Tuesday, I submitted my most recent piece to workshop. I have since been stricken by a series of migraines which I can only assume are the result of this trauma. Before I lose all perspective, I must remind myself of a few truths:

• I am not the work. Nor is the work my child. The critique isn't personal.

• By allowing other people to read and comment on my work, I am freeing myself from the burden of having to do it myself. In other words, by letting someone else do the critiquing, I'm putting my inner critic out of a job. The task of judging my work becomes someone else's problem, not mine.

• This is not the first piece I have written, nor is it the last I will ever write. There's more where that came from. When I worked in product design, people would ask me: "aren't you worry that someone might steal your ideas?" And to that I would reply: "um, they're just ideas... there's always going to be more of them."

• I need to redefine my goals. If I go into a critique with the idea that I'm going to hand in something perfect, then I'm bound to be disappointed. But if my goal is to learn something from the process, then no matter what, I win.

In the end, it all comes down to this. Would you rather receive a pat on the head or meet a worthy adversary?

I am all about the worth adversary.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It's a Brain Thing

When I start to think about creativity and the arts, sooner or later it always seems to come down to the "left brain" vs. "right brain" question. You know the stereotypes. "Left brain people" are logical, good with numbers, and solve problems in a linear, scientific fashion. "Right brain people" are artistic, creative and approach problem by looking at the "big picture." There are even tests on the web that tell you which one you are. The dancer test is my favorite.

But where do writer's stand in all of this? On one hand, we're clearly "right brain people" because writing is a creative endeavor. Duh. Then why did the evolutionary powers-that-be decide to put the language centers of the brain in the left hemisphere?

Two words: Corpus Callosum.

This is that little trench of white matter between the brain hemispheres that connect them and let them talk to each other. Back in the days when lobotomies were considered perfectly reasonable methods of brain surgery, doctors used to sever the corpus callosum of patients who experienced seizures. Sure, it might have helped with the seizures, but it led to a host of other problems. So what's the point?

The point is this. Writing is not a "right brain" or "left brain" thing. It's a whole-brain activity. Unfortunately, most people are more comfortable living in either one hemisphere or the other and they end up missing out on all the things the other half of their brain has to offer.

For me, this means allowing myself to take a few risks. I'm terrified of the chaotic free-association of my right brain so when I write, I end up falling back on outlines and copious notes. This is all well and good, except I often spend more time organizing my project (and outlines and notes) than actually writing it. So with this new project, I've decided to embrace the chaos. No outlines allowed. I'm writing each scene as it comes to me, regardless of where it falls in the story arc, and I'll worry about putting it all together later on. To those of you who have to critique my work, I hope you don't mind the mess.

What about you? Are you a right-brain or left-brain writer?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Blockbusting for Writers Post 1: Not Writing a Novel

I have recently gone back to a book I read in grad school called Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams. This book, which discusses all sorts of mental blocks that get in the way of our creativity, was the required textbook for a creativity seminar I took my first year. At the time, I was far more interested in how creativity related to design and product development, but now that I am rereading the book, I find that the principles apply to writing as well.

Today, the topic that's on my mind is a perceptual block: the tendency to limit the scope of a problem. Adams uses the 9-dot problem as an example in his book.

9-Dot Problem
Using four straight lines, connect all nine dots.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Simple: it's our tendency to limit the problem too much that makes us unable to see the solution. In terms of writing, that might mean defining what the end-result will be before you've put anything down on paper. Like when you set out to write a memoir but really what comes out is a short story about a dragon and a princess. The Intern has a great post on this very topic: books that aren't really books.

As for me, I'm doing whatever I can to avoid limiting my current problem... er, project. At the moment I know this:
  1. There is a character.
  2. There are pieces of scenes involving this character written on index cards.
  3. There is a secret.
The trick, of course, is figuring out how to make these pieces hang together enough so that I can hand in something for my writing workshop tonight.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Not on Speaking Terms with the Dictionary Right Now

We had to read Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie for literature seminar this week and this line made me laugh out loud:

"After a time, he (Peter) fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy."

I puzzled over this line for a while. Wasn't this supposed to be a children's book? If so, the whole drunken-oversexed-fairies thing didn't quite seem to fit. Part of me hoped that Barrie was doing an ahead-of-his-time Pixar-style reference. (You know, the way in Pixar movies, there are those jokes that are really there for the benefit of the parents rather than for the kids.) Even so, I didn't know quite what to make of this.

After a while, I felt compelled to look up "orgy" in the OED to see if it really meant what I thought it meant or if I was simply insane. N.B.: this whole impulse to consult the OED dates back to my high school days, when my 11th grade English teacher used to make us look up every word (except "and" and "the") in the OED when reading Shakespeare sonnets.

(Incidentally, I'm really glad I managed to find a few definitions online... can you imagine going into the NYPL and asking the librarian "Hi, I need help looking up 'orgy' in the Oxford English Dictionary. May I use your computer?" Um, embarrassing.)

Here's what I found: The word "orgy" comes from the Greek orgia which means "secret rites and revelry" (Compact OED) or "secret rites or ceremonies connected with the worship of certain deities... esp. Dionysus" (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Blah. How boring. Yes, the passage from Peter Pan now seems to make more sense for a children's book, but I'm still disappointed. I was rather amused about the prospect of drunken, oversexed fairies. That's why I'm not on speaking terms with the dictionary right now.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pen and Notebook Twin

The other day, I discovered that I have a pen-and-notebook twin. I was out to brunch with my sister and her best friend from elementary school and we were talking about books and literature. At one point, I suggested a book to my sis' friend so she dug through her purse and pulled out a notebook and pen. But it wasn't just any notebook and pen; it was a moleskine unlined notebook (the hardcover kind, size=medium) and a blue Pilot varsity fountain pen.


I nearly fainted. I mean, I've known this girl since she was six and I was ten and never did I realize we were pen-and-notebook twins! This was unbelievably exciting!

Instantly, we bonded over our twin-ness. Never before had I met someone who understood the intricacies of my notebook and pen situation. Like how you can't take fountain pens on an airplane because they explode, so you always have that dilemma: do you not write for a whole plan ride or do you take a ballpoint pen and have it not match the rest of the writing in your notebook? Or how when moleskine came out with their soft-cover blank books, I almost had a panic attack because I thought they might discontinue the hardcover kind, so I raced to the bookstore and stocked up... just in case. If I admitted any of this to most people, they would think I was crazy, but now I have a pen-and-notebook twin who understands! Woot!

Which brings me to my question of the day: what's your writing medium of choice and why?

Mine is a moleskine unlined notebook (hardcover, medium) and a blue Pilot varsity fountain pen (duh). Because when that fountain pen squishes across those creamy notebook pages, it makes me feel so 19th century.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Coffee List

Coffee List = (n.) a list of authors, living or not, whom I would like to take out for coffee just so I could have an excuse to listen to them talk.

(in no particular order)

• Lewis Carroll--he wrote two novels about math. Math rules. 'Nuff said.

• Norton Juster--he also wrote a novel involving math, so right away, he's racking up the coolness points. He also wins the prize for writing the most original inscription of any signed book I own.

• E. Lockhart--she is so goshdarn funny, and when she reads her work in public, she does the voices.

• M.T. Anderson--when I heard him speak on an author's panel, he used words like "ethos" and "postulate" to talk about teen literature. Coooool.

• Louis Sachar--anyone who can weave that many plot threads together and pull off what he did in Holes while still making it look easy... that takes serious talent... and guts.

• Gaius Valerius Catullus--he could make a poem about a cute little bird sound raunchy. Can any other poet do that without coming across like a perv? Think about it.

• Jane Austen--because even in a time when women weren't allowed to inherit land, she wrote strong-minded female protagonists and made them seem believable.

That's my list for now, though I will be adding to it as I think of more authors.

What's yours?


Duh, and how could I forget?

• Samuel Johnson--king of snark and literary bad@$ness, a man not intimidated by even the most insane of literary projects (he wrote a dictionary for crying out loud!). If you doubt me, look up the word "patron" in a copy of Johnson's dictionary. But I have one caveat: he'd better not bring Boswell.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Like in that Insurance Commercial

You know that feeling when you read a book, and you're about three chapters into it and all you can think is "where is the author going with this?"

But then you have this sneaking suspicion that this author knows what she's doing--maybe because you've read previous books, or maybe because you want to give her the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't really matter why you keep reading. All that matters is that you're willing to trust the author and go along for the ride.

And you know that feeling you get when you reach the final chapters of that same book and the author managed to pull off what you thought was impossible and the ending totally delivers?

That was exactly how I felt when I read Carolyn Mackler's Tangled. Having read all of her previous books (in fact, I wrote a term paper on her books last fall) I was excited... but also slightly terrified... to read this book. This is a new approach for her, juggling four different point of view characters (two of them are boys!), and telling a story in short spurts rather than one long narrative that spans the entire novel.

I was worried about a lot of things. Like what if it wasn't really one story? What if it turned out to be four loosely-connected novellas? Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with novellas, but if I'm sitting down to read a novel, I have certain expectations. Like, I need an overarching narrative, however loose that narrative may be. And I want to see the characters grow and change throughout the book. How on earth was Mackler going to pull this off if she was jumping from one character to another and if each character's story takes place in a different time/place than the other stories?

When I read Jena's story, my apprehensions grew exponentially. Jena's character is an archetype we've seen in Mackler's work before (in particular, the protagonists in her first 3 books all have certain similarities to Jena). But the thing that always made Mackler's depiction of this archetype satisfying in her other books is that, in the end, the smart-but-not-very-popular girl who's insecure about her looks always seems to learn to accept herself as she is. It's a message of empowerment that I always looked forward to in Mackler's work. Needless to say, by the end of Jena's section of Tangled I was devastated. It felt like the message was: life sucks, and it keeps on sucking.

With each subsequent section of the book, I grew more relieved. At first, I was worried that we would be getting a "grass is always greener" moral and that the point of the book was just to show that even so-called popular kids have problems. But I should have known that Mackler wouldn't settle for an answer that easy. In the end, this book isn't just about seeing the other side of a situation or understanding how the other person feels. Really, this book is about reaching out to that other person. The structure of the book perplexed me at first. We see a lot of "before" and "after" moments with these characters, but we rarely see the actual change. Most of the time, the moment of transformation happens "offstage" between sections and are mentioned only in passing. Then it occurred to me that this book really isn't about change at all. The fact that these characters will change is a given, but what truly matters is how these characters help to transform one another.

This is an interesting departure for Mackler. While her previous books have mostly focused on one protagonist's path to self-discovery and acceptence, this book emphasizes the importance of connection with others. In the end, I had nothing to worry about, but in doing so, I became all the more invested in wanting to see how Mackler was going to pull this off. Suffice to say, she did so beautifully.

I should have known all along that I was in good hands.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Genius isn't Easy...

Finally, a book that speaks to me!

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
by Josh Lieb is officially the funniest book I read this summer.

Of course, this humor is not for everyone. The more pragmatic among you might be thrown off by certain unrealistic details, like the poison blow-darts that make the victim succumb to incessant farting. Some of you might also not fully appreciate the narrator's voice. But then again, it's hard to appreciate genius in its own time. And those of you out there who like to sympathize with the parent/teacher/mentor figures are likely to be disappointed since in this book, all the adults are morons. Except maybe for the Motivator; he's not too bright, but he's a bad@$$ so that makes him cool.

If you read this book and you're not laughing out loud, it's probably just because you're not smart enough to see the beauty in the humor. Thankfully, most kids are smart enough to get this humor, so in the end, it doesn't really matter what you think.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Can I Please Just Write the Book?

One of the things I loved about this Southampton conference is that it was a writing conference where we actually talked about writing. Yes, you heard me right. None of that "how to write a query letter" stuff or talks on "how to get published." We just talked about good, old-fashioned, sitting your backside in the chair and writing the book.

If I sound a bit snarky, that's because I'm so unbelievably sick and tired of being told all the how-to-get-published stuff when I haven't even finished my second draft.

Everyone seems to know how to get published, or at least have advice to offer. Sometimes we're lucky enough to speak to people who actually know what they're talking about. Thing is, these people usually have the good sense to know that advice is useless if you haven't written the book so they usually steer the conversation to more practical topics like how to reshape your third act. These people also know the scary truth: that if you get a hundred published writers in a room and ask them how they did it, you'll wind up with 100 totally different stories. There no one way to get published; every book is different, and so is every publishing experience.

Then there are the people who haven't got a clue. (My favorite are the complete strangers you meet at dinner parties. They ask you "what do you do?" and you say "I'm a writer" and they proceed to advise you how you should market your book even though the last book they read was "See Spot Run.") Sure, their intentions might be fine but often these conversations do more harm than good. After all, talking about doing something is a million times more interesting than actually doing it, which is why I think we have so many people who insist on giving advice on how to publish books but so few who actually get around to putting pen to page.

In an effort to re-focus my writing, I have devised a set of rules for myself.
  1. I will work on my book every day.
  2. I will not TALK about writing my book. I'll write it. Every time I feel the urge to talk or complain about writing, I will pull out a notebook and write a chapter.
  3. I will NOT workshop my book. It's been workshopped to death and for me workshopping is a convenient way to avoid actually WORKING on it.
  4. I will NOT talk about publishing or attend any how-to-get-published talks until I have a polished manuscript.
If you catch me breaking these rules, call me on it. Seriously. Smack me upside the head if you have to, but help me stay on track.

But not right now. Right now I'm going to go write that book.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Greetings from Southampton

I am not a morning person, but there's something about books that has always seemed to motivate me enough to get up before sunrise. As I kid, I would sneak into the living room and read, then sneak back into bed before my parents came to wake me for school. And there's something about sitting down to work while the morning hours are still in the single digits that makes me feel especially productive. Today is no exception.

This morning I am writing from the Stony Brook campus in Southampton, where I have been attending the Southampton Children's Literature Conference. Some highlights:

*Norton Juster of Phantom Tollbooth fame spoke, then signed books. He wins the prize for writing the funniest inscription of any signed book I own.

*Daily Workshops with Tor Seidler, where I discovered that the novel I had set aside is, indeed, not hopeless.

*Marketing Talk by Emma Walton Hamilton, who wins the prize for talking about the publishing process and not scaring me half to death!

*Research Talk by Catherine Creedon, wherein I learned that Wikipedia is not the scourge of research resources, but a perfectly good research tool, if used properly.

and, of course...

*Julie Andrews, reading from the new anthology of poetry, which she compiled together with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. She talked about her father and how he memorized poems so that when he walked alone he would never be lonely. I was reminded of my seventh grade English teacher who insisted we memorize several passages from Shakespeare so that if we were ever stranded on a deserted isle, we could recite them and not be bored. Somehow, I have a feeling if I were stranded on a desert island, being bored would be the least of my problems. I like Julie Andrews' reasoning better and I the idea of keeping poems as good friends.

Speaking of friends, that was perhaps the best part of this conference. In just five days, I met many talented writers and fellow conference attendees who I am honored now to call my friends. As the conference comes to a close, I look forward to continuing these friendships and someday seeing all our names in print.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Back from Hiatus

Wow, so it's been a while since I last posted, mostly because I've been feeling completely drained from writing, but also because there's a new procrastination tool in my house: my portfolio! That's right, I've finally gotten around to it and started putting together a jewelry portfolio for all of my designs. (It probably doesn't hurt that I just upgraded to the new version of Photoshop and it's suh-weet!)

Here's a taste of my portfolio:

This one's called "Under the Sea."
And this one I've named "Lemon Drop."

And for some reason when I designed this one, the first thing that came to mind was "Groovy, Baby" so that's what I decided to call it.

So, there you have it, a hint of what my portfolio will be like. I've got 17 finished presentation slides and another half dozen or so designs that are still in the rough stages. I think the hardest part will be selecting which designs to include in my book, since I'll have to narrow it down to about 15.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's a Bird, It's a Plane...

It's a... Literary Magazine!

That's right folks, today at "Get Your Read On" we officially introduced our new online literary magazine, Verbal Pyrotechnics, a magazine exclusively dedicated to showcasing teen literature.

There are tons of literary magazines out there, but almost all of them only print literature targeting adults. Sure, there are plenty of kid's magazines that print short fiction, poetry and non-fiction, but these magazines target the younger set. For teens, there are few venues that showcase short fiction, poetry and narrative non-fiction. That's where VP comes in. Our goal is to give teen authors a market to publish this type of work so that the world of teen literature isn't restricted to novels. Sure, novels are great, but those other forms of writing are important too.

Here's a sketch of a possible logo for Verbal Pyrotechnics.

We will be sending out a call for submissions very soon so check back again. If you have any magazine-related questions, you can email me (the Editor-in-Chief) at editor(at)verbalpyrotechnics(dot)com.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Today I spent a good chunk of my afternoon putting together a make-shift website for Verbal Pyrotechnics, a new literary e-zine for teen literature, of which I am an editor. Ultimately I envision the site being much more hi-tech than the crude mock-up I've put together, but I think it's important to get some portion of a site up so that we can start soliciting submissions. The site is not officially up yet--still need to work out a last few details--but considering I knew next to nothing about html, this afternoon was well-spent.

Here's a screen-shot of my mock-up of the main page.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Danse Macabre

Sometimes different forms of art inspire each other. This painting, Danse Macabre, was inspired by an orchestral piece by that same name, composed by Camille Saint-Saens. The black and white swirly things are crocheted and knitted strips of yarn on a background of acrylic paint and glossy medium. The swirls are visual representations of different musical motifs in the piece.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Shaking Up My Brain Cells

Sometimes a good puzzle is just what I need to break out of a creative rut. This one is one of my favorites and is a graph theory classic. It reminds me never to make obvious assumptions.

Question: How do you get across all the bridges, if you only cross each bridge only once?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Check? No Check?

Cleaning out two whole book shelves and throwing out several dozen magazines... 3 and 1/2 hours

Finishing and mailing application to summer program... 1/2 hour

Finding a grant for Verbal Pyrotechnics...

...never ending.

OK, in all fairness, it was unreasonable of me to think I'd find a grant, write a proposal and be done with it all in one afternoon. One can always dream, though, right?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

What's the Difference...

...between a "statement of purpose" and a "statement of expectations"? I'm supposed to include both in an application to a summer program but I can't see how these two things are any different from each other. Am I hallucinating or are these not the exact same thing?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Get Your Read On!

This is an event I'm helping to organize. I'll be doing my first public reading ever at this event!

The Great Writer

I find this song hilarious. Unfortunately, the video quality is less than great, but you can get the idea.

The Great Writer

Friday, May 1, 2009

Rabbit Rabbit

According to my second grade teacher, if you say "Rabbit Rabbit" first thing in the morning on the first day of the month, then good things will happen. And we all know that when your second grade teacher says something, you'd better scoop up those pearls of wisdom before they roll away. Because if teacher says it, it must be true.

So, raise your latte (or in my case, herbal tea) and let's toast the start of a great new month.

Rabbit Rabbit!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

States of Mind

I love art or music that tells a story. Perhaps this is because I love writing and storytelling, so in my mind all forms of art tell a story, you just have to uncover it.

This week I went to MOMA and searched for my three favorite paintings: States of Mind by Umberto Boccioni. They were not on view and my week has been slightly out of whack ever since. I felt discombobulated, sort of like when you go to Alice's Tea Cup and they're out of your favorite tea. Sure, you can always try another, but it's never quite the same.

Anyway, back to Boccioni. The reason I love these paintings so much is the way the individual images evoke specific emotions while the sequence creates a narrative. I find it especially interesting the order in which the paintings are presented. First you have the emotion of saying farewell. Then you accompany those who are leaving on their voyage, but in the last painting you come back and see the image of the ones they left behind. I could drone on for hours about these paintings, but instead I'll stop and let the art just speak for itself.

Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind I: The Farewells

Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind II: Those Who Go

Umberto Boccioni, States of Mind III: Those Who Stay

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Submission Frustrations

Back in February, I had set a goal for myself that I would submit one story per month, or send out a previously-submitted story to a slew of new magazines. This is all well and good. Except. In my search for magazines that might give my stories a good home, I discovered that there are very few magazines out there that cater to teens, and almost none of them literary.

The few magazines that exist are for young writers so you have to be under 18 or under 25 to submit. But what about all those great over-25 authors out there who write fantastic books for teens? If one of them wanted to submit a short story somewhere, they would have a hard time finding such a magazine.

This got me thinking... the world needs a literary magazine that caters only to teen literature. The short story form for teen readers is almost non-existent. The universe needs some venue to champion the work of short story writers who happen to write primarily for teens.

Something must be done.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Here Comes the Weird

Remember Clue? You know... "I choose Prof. Plum in the Library with the Lead Pipe?" What if we took this idea and made this into a writing game?

Choose a character, a situation and a prop at random. Write a piece in which all three figure prominently (i.e. no fair mentioning one in passing; they must all be central to the story).

Today's challenge:

Character = Monk or Nun
Situation = Visiting a Psychic
Prop = Pet Monkey

I've decided to make mine into a silly poem.

Sister Clara went to see
A psychic named Mariah
To find out why the convent thought
That she was a pariah.

The psychic looked down at her cards
And in her crystal ball,
And tried her best to figure out
The meaning of it all.

But in the end, Mariah's news
Landed like a boulder.
The problem is," she said, "the monkey
Sitting on your shoulder."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Writer's Tool Box

Here's a question for you:

Suppose you were going to put together a Writer's Tool Box--a box containing items that help spark your creativity or enrich your writing--what would you include? (5 objects - not counting notebook and pen... duh)

Here's my list:
  1. My word box (a little box full of slips of papers with words on them)
  2. My image file (a tin filled with images clipped from magazines) or stack of postcards
  3. Kaleidoscope
  4. Dice
  5. Rubber Ducky
Ask me on another day and my list might be different.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Introducing the Three Troublemakers

Today I was looking at old photos and I found some really hilarious ones of our kitties. So I thought, why not use today's blog to introduce said critters to the world? I know, I know... this is the equivalent of those annoying parents who carry around a zillion photos of their kids in their wallets and whip them out every chance they get. But these photos gave me a chuckle and made me smile, so I thought I'd share. Everyone needs a good smile now and again.

Somehow, Mel managed to squeeze inside a FreshDirect box that was still taped shut. Imagine my surprise when I went to open the box and found this pair of green glowing eyes looking right back at me.
This one is of Goldie, which is short for Princess Marigold but my husband can't bring himself to call her that. The tome that she's using for a pillow is my husband's Civil Procedure textbook. Clearly I'm not the only one that falls asleep at the sight of that book.
Here's a better one of Mel. Looks like someone wants to be a stowaway. They always start acting out when they see us bring out the suitcases.
And here's Lucy. This is not a particularly funny one--she's the most well-behaved of the three--but I didn't want to leave her out. She's a sweet, smart girl who has learned to sit, stay, beg for treats and "slap me five." The only thing that gets her into trouble is her stomach. When food's on the line, all bets are off.

So there you have it. Thank you for indulging my cat obsession and I promise in future posts I'll keep the kittiness to a minimum.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Goal: 4000 words

Actual output: 4500

Whew! Now just have to proofread and send it out.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


This past week I've been stricken with writer's drought. The worst part is that I have a deadline coming up in less than twenty-four hours and I'm still about 3000 words from where I want to be. Earlier today I thought things were completely hopeless, but I finally found something to shake me out of the barren wasteland. I call it Inventory and it's a tool I developed by combining exercises from various different books or teachers. The purpose of this exercise is to help you pinpoint what topic(s) motivate you and what your writing is about at its very core. Since this exercise was so useful for me today, I thought I'd post it here.


Part A: Influences to Your Writing
  1. List 5 favorite movies.
  2. List 5 favorite books.
  3. What's your favorite book from your childhood?
  4. What's you're favorite fairytale?
  5. List 5 favorite characters (from books, movies, TV, etc.)
  6. Look at your answers for 1-5. What do they have in common?

Part B: Looking Within
  1. List 3 topics you think about a lot / are passionate about.
  2. List 3 topics you know a lot about.
  3. List 3 topics you wish you knew more about.
  4. Look at your answers for 7-9 and circle any topics that come up in your writing.
  5. Looking at your writing as a whole, what does it all have in common?

Part C: Staying Focused

Look over all your answers to Parts A&B* and try to sum them up in one word. Write this word on a post-it and put it where you'll see it often. This can help you stay focused on what's really at the core of your writing.
*Note: a variant on this one is to look at your current writing project and try to sum it up in one word.

Part D: Moving Ahead
  1. List 3 topics or ideas of things you would like to write about (or incorporate into your current writing).
  2. List 3 reasons why you're resisting writing on one or more of these topics.
  3. What's the first *small* step you can take towards breaking down this resistance? Do that step today.

Things to keep in mind:
  • You don't need to do all the parts every time, just the parts that are relevant to you in that moment.
  • You can do this exercise multiple times. You might find your answers are a little different each time. That's part of the fun.
  • Don't let yourself get bogged down answering these questions, just write what comes to mind first.

Friday, April 10, 2009

This Assignment is Going to Kill Me

For our final project in my literature class, we're supposed to write a short story using some form of the vernacular. Since I don't feel like I can accurately convey a vernacular that is not part of my own cultural background--and since I wouldn't feel comfortable doing so either--I'm pretty much stuck with only one vernacular: Portuengles.

I've been doing a bunch of research, mostly talking to Portuguese-speakers who speak English as their second language, and I have managed to come up with a series of guidelines as to how this vernacular works. For example:
  • Words ending in consonants, often have an -ee sound at the end (Ex. Orangee Juicee)
  • Words ending in a -d sound end up sounding more like a -gee sound (Ex. Metro Cargee)
  • Words ending in a -t sound end up sounding more like a -chee sound (Ex. Bestchee Buy)
And the list goes on and on. Yesterday I tried writing in this vernacular, just for practice. I worked for two hours on one stupid paragraph, and even then it still stinks worse than yesterday's socks.

So it all comes down to this. It's either me or this assignment. One of us will remain standing at the end of this confrontation and right now it's still up for debate as to who it will be. All I know is this isn't just an assignment anymore. It's a matter of survival.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Classical Twitter

I know very little about twitter but I still found this link hilarious. It seemed particularly relevant given the writing project I was working on last fall. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Let's Be Existential for Moment

Yesterday I had a chance to see a preview performance of Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot, with Nathan Lane as Estragon, Bill Irwin as Vladimir, John Goodman as Pozzo and John Glover as Lucky. All in all, it was a great performance, albeit the execution was a bit on the literal side. For a contemporary revival of the minimalist classic, I had expected the production to take a few more liberties. But I'm quibbling about the miniscule. In total, the production was great and very true to the script. Perhaps the crowning moment was Lucky's famous "think," expertly performed by Glover.

But the issue of literal performance has stayed with me and has made me wonder: how much should plays or movies diverge from the original written text and still maintain the story's integrity? I felt that Godot might have taken more liberties, particularly in the direction of minimalism, given Becket's string of progressively more minimalist plays that came after Godot (Play and Rockabye come to mind.) It seemed that certain things like the costumes and set could have been even more simple, stark and bare than they were. I suppose, though, that this is the beauty of a Becket script in that each motion, each expression is carefully mapped out, leaving little room for such liberties. Even the most minimalist of his plays are still very detailed in the stage directions, allowing us the confidence of knowing that a script closely follows depicts Becket's original vision.

But what if that's not Becket's original intent at all? What if the subsequent plays challenge us to reinterpret the earlier ones and perhaps adapt them to a more minimal, stripped down vision? As a writer, this question is an important one because with every subsequent work we produce, we provide our readers with more context through which to view earlier works.

This brings up questions for me particularly as a writer who wants to write both for children and adults. If I have started my publishing career with short fiction targeting the literary market, what will happen when I move on to teen and pre-teen fiction? I suppose many writers also have this question relating to genres... if they start out in one genre, what will happen if they decide to switch?

I have no idea.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tings Dey Happen

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see "Tings Dey Happen," a solo show by Dan Hoyle. What an incredible performance. Not only did Hoyle capture the speech patterns of dozens of different characters, but he made each character distinct in their mannerisms and even tones of voice. So much so that when Hoyle came back onstage for the Q&A, I was surprised at how "American" his English was.

The play centers around Hoyle's experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria and gives a us a unique view of that culture and its people. What makes this show especially successful in presenting a view of Nigerian culture is that Hoyle places the audience in his shoes. What I mean is, the characters speak to the audience as if we were the Dan Hoyle, Fulbright Scholar in Nigeria. This allows the audience to experience the culture the way Hoyle himself experienced it, and has a far more powerful effect than if he had simply narrated the story as himself.

While some critics may frown on Hoyle's appropriating the voices of such a diverse group of characters so different from himself, I find that claim to be ridiculous. It's called acting, folks; that's the whole point. What is more, Hoyle treated his characters with respect and we can tell from his performance that he has a real affection both for the culture itself and for some of the individuals he met during his travels. If anything, it's some of the American characters who come off looking more like humorous caricatures than the African ones.

After the performance, we had a chance to sit in on a Q&A session with Hoyle, where he talked about developing the show and his experiences in Nigeria. That was probably my favorite part of the evening because we got a look at his creative process in putting together this performance.

All in all, it was a Wednesday evening well-spent.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

Friends, Readers, Fellowfish,
Lend me your ears.
Actually, more like your eyes, but that's neither here nor there.
I digress.

Anyway, check out this link.

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

It just got posted today. I'll be sending out emails later to family and friends and basically everyone I know. At the moment, I'm too giddy to concentrate on that so for now, I'll just post it here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Going Back to the Classics

Sometimes it's good to go back to the classics. Here are two online libraries of classic children's stories. Children's Classics

American Literature: Short Story Library for Children

Happy reading!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Falling Down the Stairs

Have you ever fallen down a flight of stairs? A whole flight, I'm talking about, top to bottom, not just a couple of measly steps. That is one of those things that I've always wondered about the mechanics of, you know, for research purposes. What if I wanted to write about a character falling down the stairs? What would it feel like? Does she fall head over feet or slide down feet first? For obvious reasons, I wasn't about to conduct said research on purpose.

Well, today my questions were answered when I slipped off the top step of a flight of stairs and bounced all the way to the bottom, feet first, like I was riding a slide. What did it feel like? It hurt. Weird thing was, for the first thirty seconds I had no idea exactly what hurt. It was like my brain didn't register the damage. In the end, it worked out for the best. No broken bones, no concussion. If you ever plan to fall down the stairs, this is the way I would recommend doing it.

You're probably wondering "what is the point of this stairs thing?" Well, the point is this. In the moment I was awash with emotions: embarrassment (did anyone see?), anger (why do those steps have to be so slippery?) and frustration (why am I such a klutz?) Then one magic little word occurred to me.


Lousy things can happen in life. Sometimes you have crummy days or weeks. Sometimes you embarrass yourself so badly, you wish the ground would swallow you up. Sometimes bad things happen and just when you think it can't get worse, it does. But no matter what, it can always serve as research. Whatever happens, good or bad, it always has the potential to become a great story.

So if I ever have to write about a character falling down the stairs, now I know exactly what it's like.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring Cleaning

Ah, first day of spring, and what a beauty of a day it has been. You know that giddy feeling that you get on the first warm, sunny day and it feels like you could do anything if you just set your mind to it? Well, I feel like that today.

Problem is, my springiness isn't channeled in the direction that I want, namely into my writing. Instead, it feels like the visual-spatial side of my brain is on overdrive, while the verbal and logical parts of my brain are still hibernating.

I have this design in my head for a really nifty beach bag, crocheted in cotton yarn. It has a handle that doubles as a drawstring and a false bottom so that it can fold in on itself for easy storage. Since I can't translate 3D shapes into flat drawings, the only way for me to record said design before I forget it is to make the darn thing. So that's my new spring project: to make this bag before the design evaporates from my brain.

That's the thing with spring. It gives me the itch to start new projects but not necessarily the motivation to see them through the end. So I've devised a rule: no new stuff until the old stuff is finished. No writing new short stories until I've finished a draft of the current one. No starting new knitting or crochet projects until I've finished at least one that's still pending. (I have to cut myself a little slack with that part of the rule because if I wait until all pending projects are done, I won't get to start something new for the next three years. Maybe longer.)

My hope is that this rule will force me to clean out the clutter of old projects and make room for the new. We shall see.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Computer Deprivation

I'm sitting at my computer and I can't seem to get myself to write. It's not that I don't want to write, I do. I just don't know where to start. I have at least half a dozen books filled with writing exercises next to my desk, but nothing seems give me the jolt I need. I've got writing tools galore. My image file, filled with weird photos and drawings I've collected, oozes story ideas. My word box is full of fascinating words I've accumulated that beg to be used in a piece. And of course there are the countless writing games designed by yours truly that are supposed to spark creativity, not squash it.

I think I need a major kick in the backside. Something drastic. Something huge. Something so gigantic that I won't be able to not write. Today is the day I resort to my most extreme measure: computer deprivation.

That's right. For the next 12 hours, I will not use the computer for anything. No email. No internet. No word processor. Nothing. I will even do something I never do when I am home; I will turn off the computer.

Today I will channel the creative vibes from writers living in the days of yore. I will do it the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper. If I need to do research, I won't resort to the almighty Google and its sidekick Wikipedia, I will get my behind out of my chair and walk to the library.

So this is it. The time-stamp on this post marks the beginning of my 12-hour marathon sans-computer. Adieu virtual world, hello real world. Here goes...