Wednesday, December 28, 2011

See Through

Me (to my kids): Guess what? I'm going to do a puppet show for you guys!

Daney (12): Mom. Is it the kind of puppet show where you're having a problem revising your book, so you act it out, then ask our advice about it?

Me: Um.

Daney: MOM!

Me: Come on, help me out here. This book is hard for me.

Daney: Yes, Mom, we know this book is hard for you. You know how we know? Because it's hard for us, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fish(nets) Out Of Water

A couple of years ago, my friend Leslie invited me to her birthday party. It was at the local kids' museum, with lemon cake frosted with chocolate. And the theme was "Circus."

The day before the party, I asked Leslie's husband, Alan, if this, like all their former fantastic parties, was dress-up. Alan said it was.

So, I decorated myself. I went as a tightrope walker, with a red sequined headpiece, a feather boa, fishnet stockings and tall boots, thick fake-lashes. I thought I looked quite smashing.

It was only upon entering the party--late, from having had lash-glue trouble--that I noticed that everyone was in normal clothes. Everyone except Alan and me. He was the ring master. I was mortified.

To add salt to the wound, there were real tightrope walkers at this party. They were doing all kinds of tricky aerial stuff. And they were dressed normal, too.

When Alan and Leslie had a Mad Men Holiday Bash the other night, I didn't call first for the dress code. I just put on something that could go either way.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Year of "Cerebral" Work

Holy hiatus, bloggers! It's been ages since I've posted.

And the reason for that is that lately, I've been working on an enormous revision. This is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian political story. And it's not YA -- it's adult!

Genius Agent Holly has given me lots to think about. Big things. Scope. Stakes. Character.

These things are so hard, I had to think about them for a few weeks before even pulling the draft back up. And after I thought and thought and talked to a lot of people about really weird stuff, I am now writing. Writing!

My goal is to finish mid-February.

Because I want to stay in this all-out flow. And at the end of February, I'm teaching Oregon's first-ever Firefighting Composition Class!

In 2011, I did a ton of writing. I revised a YA literary story, scribbled essays for the NEH Institute in Oahu, designed the firefighting class, penned the dystopian novel, was accepted for publication by the American Journal of Nursing, and took two notebooks of notes on Southeast Asia in Honolulu.

I've read, too. I figure that over the last year, I've graded 600,000 words of student work. That's 2,400 pages!

Also, I've got a new curriculum for my winter research writing class: "Beyond Super-Sized; What Food Does For--And To--Us."

Still to come, in 2012, is an article in a State University of New York anthology on Southeast Asia.

Whew! It was a big year for my brain.

But when I put a sponge in the microwave, or miss the exit to get home, when I check myself in the school parking lot for pants or a skirt, or something, on my bottom half, I know that not much has changed.

Yep. I'm still me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Food on Oahu

While I was in Oahu this summer, I swam and snorkeled and studied and hiked. I walked, wrote, did yoga. I read, visited art museums, watched foreign films.

But, I did not eat.

The trouble was that food was hard to get. I know; it sounds crazy, I mean, Waikiki has tons of restaurants. But Waikiki was also an hour away--by foot--and who wants to show up to PF Chang's all sweaty, then walk back with a stomach full of Kung Pao chicken?

We all had little fridges in our rooms. And down in the basement, with the mosquitoes, there was a microwave. But getting food was tricky. Mostly, we would walk along the foot of the Manoa mountains, past avocado and orange trees, by a little stream, and after 20 minutes, we'd end up at Safeway.

But then, there was the carrying back of the groceries. They had to fit in a backpack, and hopefully not spoil in the humidity on the way back to our rooms.

There was an empty chair one day in class, because the otherwise resourceful professor of a respected university was trying to find food.

One night, I craved all these things, all together: corn bread, papaya, butternut squash. When it was all piled up on my plate, I thought how funny that everything was orange -- and high in potassium. Potassium is key, because you're sweating all the time on Oahu, even when the afternoon monsoons are pouring down.

Another night, my friend shared her green meal with me: spinach pasta with pesto, and green beans on the side. I found that friend a mango.

I stole a ladle of soup off a stove, but it was for someone else, and that is another story.

Everything we craved on the island grew right there. We wanted starchy root (taro), and whether or not we liked them, we ate a banana a day. Papaya and avocado were also biological staples. Water, water, water, water. We drank gallons and gallons and gallons. The coffee was not yummy. And in 35 nights, I had beef only two times.

Twice, I was poisoned from Vietnamese food, but I recovered from each in a day.

And once, we got these little fried cinnamon dough things from a famous place called Leonard's, and those dough things were divine.

The best meal I had was with Dave, on the west side: incredible plate lunch from a little hole-in-the-wall. And there was a good breakfast on the beach at Duke's, during a big canoe tournament. My favorite snack was a Bird Bar--full of seeds and nuts and honey--from Down-to-Earth, a vegan market.

In all, though, I didn't eat much.

When I got off the plane, I was tired and sunburned, and my hair had grown long and blonde and stringy. But the first thing my daughter noticed was that I was holding my pants up.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Future of The Future of Us

"It's 1996, and less than half of all American high school students have ever used the Internet.

"Emma just got her first computer and an America Online CD-ROM.

"Josh is her best friend.they power up and log on -- and discover themselves on Facebook, fifteen years in the future."

I loved it, The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler.

I love that the plot is driven by high school junior Emma's obsession to have a good marriage fifteen years ahead. Emma's motivation is clear: her own parents are divorced and remarried, with lots of complications.

The effects of divorce is just one of the social issues Future explores. There's also homosexuality; stereotypes; teen sex, drinking, drugs.

Who will Emma end up marrying? Will she be happy? What will Emma and Josh do about the future they can see? The six-day mystery unfolds in 65 short chapters, through alternating narrators Emma and Josh. Each chapter is so compelling and fluid that moving through the book is smooth and fast. I never found a good time or place to put it down -- wanted to keep going, had to remind myself to slow down and enjoy each word.

I can see Mackler's call for respecting individuality and complex family dynamics (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things). And there are threads of Asher's theme of how one small "ripple" affects a lot of other people (13 Reasons Why).

While I might have traded out a couple characters for a little more 1996 -- what everyone was wearing/eating/drinking/watching/doing -- I cherished the details, like the songs that "played" in the story, and the "Wayne's World" part, and the problem with Pluto.

The Future of Us
is tight and real, funny and sad. These talented writers marry wit and philosophy, delivering a thought-provoking tale of two teens trying to thrive in a quickly-changing world:

"No matter how small the ripple, the most vulnerable part of the future is going to be our children."

Like!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Biggest, Best Critic

My work always lands in her lap last, when other eyes have already seen it, when I think I've made all the changes, when I think the story is good to go.

But it's never done after it gets to her.

She tells me, "The character's hair would not be wet. It's been 4 hours." "He wouldn't know her name yet." "He'd never know how much the other guy's boots cost."

She tells me the conflict might not resolve that fast, that the MC wouldn't say "Epic", that the love scene needs some work. She crosses out telling, pushes me to show.

She explains that the intro needs tightening, less repetition. The middle moves fast, except Chapter Ten. The end works: the whole thing makes sense now. I'm thrilled when I find a "Good!" or a star.

She reads the whole thing in a day, maybe two, working hours at a time, marking up almost every page with her purple pen.

"It's so good, Mom," she writes on the last page, my 12 year-old daughter, Daney.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our Paths Do Cross

You wouldn't think it, but our professional paths do cross, Dave's and mine.

Often, volunteer fire fighters from Dave's department are in my writing classes. They tell of rescues, of danger, of life with the guys at Station One. Sometimes, I "poach" a potential prospect. I see organization, committment, clear thinking, and I ask the student if they've ever considered fire fighting.

Then, there's my own writing. A few years ago, after a fire ravaged through Lake Tahoe, I wrote, of all things, a travel article about it. Dave and I had left the kids behind, had driven to Angora Lake, where we stood at the lookout over acres and acres of ash, a flag unfurling above it all.

And recently, there has come the perfect pairing of these two seemingly contrasting worlds. After a handful of months, I've created Oregon's first Fire Officer Composition class. Choosing the literature was fun--and tricky. I found a slew of excellent memoirs, novels, short stories, and essays, before I ended up picking really action-y stuff, stuff on smoke jumpers, on 9-11.

Over two full days, these officers will read and write their own stories: their most significant call, how to ventilate or how to place a ladder.

This is not report writing, the local chiefs have told me. They want narrative, narrative, narrative.

Undoubtedly, after reading and reading and writing and writing, these public servants will be much different thinkers. I believe that I will be, too.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Bitter Fruit of "Osage County"

Drugs. Denial. Deception. Suicide. Abuse. Incest and infidelity.

The Weston family has it all, in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-Prize winning tragic-comedy, "August: Osage County."

Every so often, we come across art, after which are not the same, nor would we be the same without having had the experience.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Director Chris Moore's rendition of this play is exactly that art. From the opening music to the skeletal set and carefully-cast characters, every element of "August" is rich, significant.

Why am I liking this? we wonder in the dark. What about this is so compelling? And what does this say about us as viewers?

Tension. It's piled up high, like mashed potatoes and gravy. Each character has conflict with every other. There's sharp wit and sharp tongues, and we want to see the actors unravel, to see their resolve. We want to know that we could survive all this, too, should it happen to us. We learn that our lives are not as bad.

We are all human is the message the play delivers. To what degree is unimportant. "There is a little bit of the Westons in each of our families," Moore writes in the playbill.

Pain. Love. Lies. Commitment: "August" explores what makes us family.

Crickets, cello, Violet's creep down the stairs: the exceptional irony in this play is Moore's tying together all the little details to show one family's falling apart.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Real Magic: Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

It is absolutely enchanting, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.

The setting alone--Victorian Paris; London; Munich; New York; and Concord, Massachusetts--pops with color and costumes and caramel apples.

The characters are rich, mysterious, and the plot--a game gone bad between two old old magicians--is different, interesting.

It's a wonder of a read, one that will take you somewhere you've never been, one you'll be thinking about days after you've read (and re-read) the last line.

There, the magic does not end. The alchemy behind the book--Morgenstern's process--that is really something.

The story started as a completely different concept in 2005, morphing into its ultimate manifestation years and revisions later.

30 agents rejected the sweeping, lyrical manuscript that eventually landed Morgenstern six-figures and a movie deal.

The MC, Morgenstern claims, was invented last. How, I wonder? How was that possible? This Celia, she is integral, holds the circus in her very palm--the cover itself.

(While we're on design, you must check out the illustrations that separate the five parts. Hint: it's what you see on one of the Circus rides.)

Better than The Magicians? The next Harry Potter? Twilight rival?

Morgenstern laughs away comparisons.

And she should.

The Night Circus is its own story, a real-life unfolding of paper, of turning of gears.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It Was Addiction

When I started teaching at the local community college, I was completely caught off guard by the deluge of essays about alcohol and meth addiction/rehab/relapse. For years, most of the narrative papers from my school have been about this struggle, the loss that comes with it, the day-to-day recovery.

I'll tell you what, it's heartbreaking, reading these stories of parents offering their 13 year-olds methamphetamine, of kids being taken away/given back/taken away again. Homes are lost. Jobs are lost. Marriages dissolve.

But in many of these papers, there has been hope. These students have been to the bottom, and have found it isn't pretty, and they've learned that they can make things better for themselves. They can choose to stop using, they can join support groups. They can decide to live again.

Now, though, there's another problem. A different problem. A new one.

For the first time since I've been teaching, the big theme is unemployment.

Sadly, it does make sense.

Oregon's unemployment rate exceeds that of the national average, and in our county here, it's two whole percentage points higher.

My students write of being laid off, of looking (and looking and looking) for work, of being turned away for body piercings or heavy-lifting requirements.

They are losing their homes, their families, their self-worth.

In these stories, I'm not seeing the hope, the will, that comes with the addiction essays.

I'm seeing desperation. Devastation. Despair.

I would like to see this turn around. Of course, I would like to see the job market explode. But, realistically, I want to see my students be stronger, be more active, to take control.

I want them to clean themselves up and look admin. right in the eye. I want them to shake hands with a firm grip, leave behind sparkly applications.

I want them to learn a little from each rejection, to get more determined, more wise, more driven from it.

I want them to keep trying.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blanca

Blanca sits on the bleachers
of her cholo's basketball game,
men's D-league.
Thursday night.
She sits
between two brown-eyed babies,
Blanca,
a baby herself.

Blanca,
toenails red,
black stilettos.
No ring on her finger.

She's the same as she was
in eighth grade English:
liquid eyeliner on her lids
full lips
long legs.

Blanca,
then,
talking and laughing during Anne Frank.
Getting referrals to the dean.
Getting detention.

Blanca,
then,
in short, swishy skirts.
Popping gum in the hallway:
"An' I tell him, if he gonna treat me that way, uh uh."

She's the same as she was,
only different, now, too.
The fire in her eyes,
gone,
even when her cholo dunks.

Blanca,
now,
in a too-tight pea coat,
tied hard around her.
Now,
with sippy cups,
with binkies and bills,
and after the two, with birth control.
Dios knows the cholo isn't worried about that.

Blanca,
checking outside the gym.
Where did they go, those babies?
Where did they disappear?
Blanca,
finding them again.

She sits in the bleachers,
center-left,
by the open door.
While her cholo drives the ball down,
right into the White Team,
fouls.

She sits.
Her babies,
talking,laughing, outside.
She sits,
checking her phone,
waiting.
She doesn't know for what.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why I Love Grading Papers

Okay, there are lots of reasons to not love grading papers (it's tedious, time-consuming, frustrating, etc.).

And a lot of the time, I'd rather be doing other stuff (going on a walk, doing yoga, playing "10 Days in Europe" with my kids).

But there are some things about grading I really do love (beyond the obvious: the excuse to drink fancy coffee, and seeing my students improve).

I like that when I have papers to grade over a weekend, I pack in a bunch of other things around it(this weekend: hiking Mount Ashland, and taking my boys fishing, and having the kids' friends over, and going to breakfast with my good man).

I structure my time, when, usually, I'd be all over the place. Going nowhere. Getting nothing done.

Also, I get to practice what I'm teaching. I get to use the techniques I'm talking about in my own writing. I have to ask myself, Is all of this relevant? Is the story as tight and clean as humanly possible? Are my sentence beginnings different?

And, while I am firing up my neurons, so are my kids. They're doing their homework and playing guitar and building amazing things with Legos. Even The Husband will at least scan Sports Illustrated.

And, the biggest plus: I don't have to cook! I can sit on the sofa or at the table or in bed, and read incredible essays about other people's fascinating lives.

50 papers about "The Most Significant Time of Your Life"?

I'd take that any day over having to fry up a bunch of chicken.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ways to Make Your Story Sing

So, as I've been revising this secret little story, I've been paying BIG attention to voice. As in, staying in it, making it good/real/rich, making it o-o-z-e personality. Tone. Mood.

I was watching a thriller the other day, and just before something bad happened, the music got all tinkly. And when the tension rose, the music got louder, fast.

How can we use music in our writing? How can we strengthen voice?

Well, I'm finding that little tricks can make an enormous difference.

Like. Punctuation! (Including parentheses. And ellipses...)

And sentence fluency.

And paragraph structure.

And it's so all about word choice.

All of these things--and showing, not telling, and using specific nouns and strong verbs--add to a story's personality/tone/mood.

Dashes. Drawls. Slang?

POOF! How about some onomatopoeia?

Or italics? Fragments? Pacing!

It's all up to you: the feel you want to create, the music you want to play.


(And by all means, help a sister out. If you have any good tips, please. Leave them right here.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Brushing off the Dust

A month or so ago, I pulled up the very first story I ever wrote, a simple little YA story that no one but my writing partner, Christy, has ever read.

At first, I thought it was incredibly primitive, as in "primate," as in, a monkey must have written the thing.

There was not much action, hardly any plot, underdeveloped characters with way too old vocabularies, too much "telling," a whiny MC.

I mean, compared to the political-dystopian-colonialist MS I just finished, this really was monkey business.

But also, the little story had some fun stuff: a vessel for telling the story that teens would really like, an uncommon but exciting setting, an MC with potential, an ending that I love.

Then, I started tinkering with it a bit--polishing up voice, working the setting, adding some dimension to the MC with dialogue. I made sure I answered the questions I asked at the beginning.

I started tinkering a lot--changing the direction of some plot points, making the MC more likeable/relateable, adding detail to the MC's motivation, the reasons for her action/reaction.

Now what I have is kind of a mess. But it's a better mess than it was when the monkey wrote it.

I'm going to tinker some more and see what comes of it, and be wide open to that whatever.

How about you? What are you working (or re-working) on?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Can It Be About Secondary Characters?

Several months ago, I was talking with one of my writing partners about how we both loved our secondary characters, far more than we liked our MCs.

What's with that?

Is it okay?

Well, I finally got around to watching "The Black Swan" last week while Man Down with a kidney infection, and I realized why I had put it off for so long: I am not a fan of Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Yes, I do respect her long hours at training for the part--the ballet she took, the weight she lost, the craft she honed. But, simply, I am not in love with her, and have never been, not even in "Where The Heart Is."

Instead of going into all the blab about why I'm not a Portman superfan, I'll tell you that I am head over heels for "Swan" secondary characters Mila Kunis (who had me at "Book of Eli") and the talented and gorgeous Frenchman Vincent Cassel, who can give one look that can win an Oscar. So for me, these two carried me through the movie. Them, and plot, and setting.

The other night, my little family went to see Bill Rauch's rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" at the outdoor Shakespeare theater. It was magic: the sword fighting and swashbuckling and disco dance breakouts. The female lead sang way too high, though, and none of us could understand what she was saying (though she did have her some swanky kimono PJs), and the lead male was meh.

But the Pirate King! Aye, my friends! This lad was really something!

And Ruth, the nursemaid, was equally fantastic. And the rollicking Modern Major General? Unforgettable!

It probably shouldn't be so that a reader or movie watcher or play goer not like the MC. But it does seem to happen, and if it does, it's better to have some really amazing sidekicks to go with it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If You Missed It...

Here they are--the inspiring, wise words of "Myths and Misconceptions" on WriteOnCon.com:

"Writing is really hard. It's a career...You can't ever stop reading, and learning." Holly Root, Agent

"Live! And have experiences." Martha Mihalick, Editor

"Being happy and supportive for other people will put you in a better mind frame for your own career." Molly O'Neill, Editor

So good!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

About Oahu

Four blocks up from the Hilton Village is an Oahu few tourists choose to see.

It's just past the canal that runs through Waikiki, a vessel for rainwater run-off and hotel sewage, that crew teams paddle their boats over. Just past this canal, barely out of range of the luau ukulele, are high rise apartment buildings strewn with strings of drying laundry, with strings of children running up and down the stairways. With skateboarders in the parking lots.

Between these skyscrapers are tiny, flat-roofed huts, upon which mango trees release their fruits that roll onto the dirt. The siding of the huts is plywood and aluminum, and lizards slip in and out of the chain-linked fences.

Piles of trash wait on street corners: stained, saggy mattresses; broken bookshelves. Diapers spilling from opened bags.

In the afternoons, tents sprawl around swings and slides: a city park for the homeless, whose scruffy shoes park outside the door flaps.

There are feral cats and enormous cockroaches and birds who sing above it all.

There are few big gas companies and no "mainland" banks.

Each street you cross has a disabled pedestrian with a tiny arm, a shortened leg, a hunched back. The result of lack of prenatal care? Of alcoholism? Of nuclear fallout?

For these kama aina ("Children of the Land"), Life Cereal is $9. A loaf of French bread is $7.29. It is cheaper to eat a McDonald's Big Mac than an apple. And a two-bedroom apartment costs
$1,200/month.

There are lots and lots of service jobs--hotels, restaurants, shops--but really, no other industry.

And the public schools are irreparable.

You'd think this poverty and collapsed infrastructure would get these natives down.

Not so much.

On Saturdays, they open their trunks and drag their Weber Grills over the sand, and they raise canvas roofs and play the guitar from their tattered Coleman camp chairs. They gather as brothers and sisters and cousins and grandmas, and they grin and flip their ono chicken, and shoot around the soccer ball at Ala Moana Beach.

The sun sets and the coffee-colored babies sleep on turtle-printed towels, and everyone listens to Auntie talk-story about the time before the Hilton Village and the skyscrapers, the time before the '60s. Before Life was so expensive. The brothers and sisters and cousins, they listen. And they eat the bread Auntie has made from the bananas in her yard.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What's Fascinating About SEA?

"How could you spend five weeks studying South East Asia," I've been asked since I've been home.

It's a good question, really.

Those ten (or eleven, depending on how you count them; different post) seemingly insignificant countries on the way other side of the earth wouldn't appear to affect us much here in the US.

In order for me to make sense of it all myself, I deconstructed everything I learned at the National Endowment of the Humanities' Institute (on Oahu). Oh, we had experts--speakers flown in from Indonesia, from Wake Forest and other east coast universities, from California, from the midwest. We were learning about things as they were happening. It was crazy.

Then, I reorganized all that information according to discipline, and analyzed it for a so...what? Where does it all lead?

Here's what you might find interesting:

The islands and mainlands are diverse in many more ways than they are unified: by geography, outside influence (including that of South and East Asia, Europe, and the US), religion, political authority, culture, and the 1,000 languages among them.

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor for access to SEA's rubber, oil, tin, iron; and to prevent US access to it.

The concepts of time (minutes, hours, days) and printing emerged with Buddhism in the region.

Indonesia is the world's fourth largest country. (And is the largest per-capita Facebook-using nation!)

While globally, the birthrate is declining, in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, it is spiking.

This region shares the same issues as the US: our relationships with China, terrorism, trade, the environment). Our citizens also strive for human, labor, and women's rights.

It comes down to the dollar; 6 of the 10 or 11 nations rank in the top half of world economies, some of which have catapulted themselves from the bottom within the last several years.

Is it clear--the economic power here?

That's one of the places all this goes.

I found the bottom line with SEA film scholar Wimal Dissanayake, a bright, lovely man, who said pointedly: "While SEA is a rapidly expanding region, it is severely understudied."

This area is sure to keep rising, in wealth, in population growth, with technology.

And???

Do you know how the US will be affected by that?

By trade, sure.

But also in our higher education systems. We'll be competing for the earth's top potential innovators. Within the next 20 to 40 years, our classrooms are likely to be filled with the greatest thinkers on the planet.

And, since 4 out of 5 foreign scholars end up staying in the US when they complete their programs, we'll be competing for jobs, too.

What do you think? Is that good or bad?

Will more and more university slots go to Jakartans, ManileƱos, taking up seats from Americans who "deserve" them?

Or will the ambition of these academics add to our melting pot, spawn our creativity, help us stay a super power?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"It Was A Long Dream"

Happy Book Birthday, Prophecy of Days II: The Serpent's Coil -- and double Happy Birthday to author Christy Raedeke!

Our lovely friend Julie gave a very fine (and impromptu) intro: "It takes a village to raise a writer," she said.

And here are the writing group babies, to prove it!


All best for your readers' delight and PoD II's success, Christy!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Right Back In It!


Oahu is behind me now--5 1/2 weeks of a life that seemed like someone else's. It's funny to not have class this morning, to not walk through the morning rains of the Manoa Valley under the plumeria.

Coffee is right here, right when I want it. And my babies are, too. One of the first things I did was to team up with my boys to scrub the pizza, smoothie, and cake batter from the kitchen walls and microwave.

The Institute was terrific. Challenging on all levels. I thought harder and deeper than I had in a long time. I walked everywhere, did lots of yoga, swam at night with the lights of Waikiki at my feet, the stars overhead.

We had experts. Teachers and speakers from Indonesia, the Netherlands, the East Coast. We learned about Buddhism, Islam, the different practices of Christianity.

We got to know each other, ranged in gender, age, discipline, interest.

We got to know the island: where the best beaches were, where to find the least expensive bread. We lived the politics, the problems, the beauty.

What did I learn? Everyone is asking me.

And, in part because it's everyone's federal tax money that pays for the program, you bet I'll share.

The third fascinating fact is this: that Southeast Asia (10 countries) are the most rapidly expanding region in the world, (in terms of economy, education, politics, religion, authority, industry), yet are severely understudied. This will affect us here in the US with trade, technology, economy, jobs, higher education, and our relationship with China.

#2: Sink all your money into Indonesia. Now. Go! Run! Buy stock, company shares, funds, currency. Seriously. This is the world's 4th biggest country, and it's only getting bigger. While it struggles with gender equity (due to its 88% Islamic population), it is on the verge of becoming a superpower. Watch for it.

And #1: While Southeast Asia and academia are important, they aren't everything. What I found out I love--and want to be--is a well-rounded person. Down-to-earth. Happy. Practical. That what I value being most on this planet is not a scholar, but a wife, a mom. A sister. A daughter. A niece and cousin and aunt. A friend.

So, after you hit up your atlas to see where in the world East Timor is, after you choose between snatching up shares in tire companies or noodle makers, go play Uno. Laugh yourself silly. Fish. Paint. Bring brownies to a neighbor. Cuddle a kiddo. Cry.

Blue collar-white collar. Let's keep it real.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Taking A Break

Aloha from Oahu!

While I'm studying here on a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, I'll be taking a little blog break. (I'm trying to learn, and write, and organize a presentation, oh, and figure out which bus gets to the beach).

Mahalo.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Not Buying It

When we got to the part of To Kill A Mockingbird where Tom Robinson is found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, my kids were livid.

"What?!?"

"That's not right!"

"It's not fair."

"This book is so dumb."

"Why did she write it like that?"

It had taken a long time to hook my kids into this read--the catalyst for that would be Boo Radley--and when they were finally willing to settle into setting, to know the characters, Harper Lee blew it for them at the climax.

"Well, wait," I told Dominic (13), Daney (12), and Rees (10). "What do you think this book--the Book of the Century--is about?"

They told me it was whether Tom was let go or given the death penalty.

"Is that everything?" I asked. "What does that have to do with killing a mockingbird?"

This was a different read for our family. It was not fantastical Harry Potter or spirit-of-survival Little House on the Prairie. As the kids get older, we read deeper. The last book we read together was The Boy in Striped Pajamas.

But this--this timeless, timely tale--this was the most slow, the most rich, the most complex (I'm gearing them up for Grapes of Wrath).

"Could it be," I asked, "That this book has less to do with what happened to Tom Robinson than what Scout and Jem think about it? That they felt like you do: that it wasn't fair. And why wasn't it? What does that say about how things were? And are things ever that way now?"

If Tom Robinson were let off, how could we review the essence of human nature? How would we know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to set aside reason from prejudice, even if a man's life is at stake?

What kind of folks will Scout and Jem grow to be? How were they different from most of their community? Why did their dad, Atticus, choose to foster that? Why does it matter?

Again, I believe that the difference between commercial and literary fiction comes down to conclusion. Mockingbird didn't end as we'd thought it would. It didn't end happy. We were dissatisfied, unravelled, even.

Days after we finished, the kids are still talking about the book. Yes, they were glad they got to "see" Boo. Because of that one scene, they raised the book to a B-, A-, A. But they're still walking around, grumbling that Tom Robinson got the chair. And that is why Harper Lee is a genius.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Who Is Valedictorian?

Your odds are better at being one of Ashland High School's valedictorians if you're female, from a two-parent family, and have worked hard enough for 12 years to want to take a year off.

AHS, which consistently ranks in the top 3% of US News & World Report's "Best High Schools," has a legendary Speech & Debate Team, an honorable Math Team, a Quidditch Club, a Gay-Straight Alliance, Knit Wits, Model United Nations, Multicultural Club, Pagan Club, and Crew. Every year, the Drama Department partners up with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to produce, direct, costume, and choreograph a professional-level musical. (This year's performance of "Chicago" rivaled the production I'd seen on Broadway of Sacramento.)

According to the Medford Mail Tribune, of AHS' 14 Class of 2011 valedictorians, 12 are female. Eight of 12 are listed with parents of the same last name. Many scholars are in Honor Society, have math honors, played soccer, are musicians.

And several are planning on taking advantage of the new trend; they'll take a "Gap Year" of travel or volunteer service, or dabble in the arts before heading back to the books at Stanford, NYU, Pomona, or George Washington to study neuroscience, physics, engineering, or journalism.

I know some of their parents: professors, doctors, authors, entrepreneurs.

This morning at breakfast, Dave and I sat by an AHS grad from a few years ago. She went to Harvard for a year, and returned to work at an Ashland coffee shop.

A simple, quiet girl from my own high school in California went to Berkeley and is now the headmaster of a private school in Marin County.

You never can tell, I guess, who will succeed, and at what. Part of the fun mystery of life is the element of surprise.

Maybe it will be an AHS 2011 valedictorian who cures AIDS, or maybe it will be the kid who sat in science in the middle row, who graduated 60th in a class of 200, who went to community college first.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Will They Come?

China is building progressive billion-dollar ghost cities.

It's true.

The People's Republic is subsidizing middle-of-nowhere construction of metropolises, with high-rise housing, schools, musuems, even mosoleums.

The goal is twofold: thin out the crowded established cities, and bring farmers to factories to produce more exports.

Incredibly, there are 6-20 of these population-primed places--including Ordos, in inner Mongolia--that stand ready to receive their 1 million citizens. And, in standard China fashion, there's no hurry. Real estate investors recovered the first year what they needed to break even on costs. If they take the next 10 to profit, that's perfectly reasonable.

And it will take a long time for the profits to start coming. Because no one is moving in. Streets, buses, parks, restaurants: everywhere is empty. That's the first problem. The second is mantenannce. Landscaping, building, and road upkeep are lagging. But China will wait, as it's good at doing, for the cities to boom, certain they will, while we in the West think this is pretty creepy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

33,000 Words In...

...I'm finding that writing sci-fi is tricky -- and fun!

First, I research history, economics, biology, technology. Anthropology, too. Sometimes it's super scary stuff. What I'm trying to do is to push out trends another 90 years into the future. How is the world different? What has caused it to change? What is the action/reaction to that change? How has the world stayed the same?

I take a tiny bit of research and fit it into my story. Sci-fi has to be original, exciting, unpredictable, but it also needs to be believeable.

And every page I move forward in my MS, I go back to the beginning and flush out that. So the story is hopefully deeper, richer, more cohesive. So it has more tension, more conflict. So the ethical, moral, and philosophical questions have answers.

With sci-fi, there is serious world-building, serious setting. And, I'm writing in 2 different limited omniscient voices.

Here's the first line:

It came down to cauliflower, Anja Knew.

I'll tell you one thing: this MS will need serious revision. Honest, I can't wait to tackle that. (Wiggles fingers.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Frozen in Time

So yesterday, my community college writing classroom was visited by the vice president.

I was nervous, I told my husband, because the lesson was a tricky one (the integration of implications), because it was the vice president coming, because even though I trusted my students completely, anything, anything could happen.

And it did.

The clock stopped.

Now, you might think there could be a worse distraction. And, there definitely could be.

I had practiced, I had prepped my incredible students. I had ironed, even got my hair cut.

But I had no idea how dependent I was on that cheeky little clock. Starting class, giving the 5-minute warm-up activity, stopping for a break, resuming, ending...there was no measure for any of it.

Technology -- basic technology -- had failed me.

Sure, the lesson went on. There were popcorn kernels and writing prompts. Reflection. Analysis. Evaluation. The students were their incredible selves: engaged, delightful, critical thinkers in full attendance.

Halfway through the hour(?), I stopped sweating it. If we started at 9:47 and ended at 9:47, if anything went super south, I convinced myself, I could pretend the whole class never happened.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What's Missing

Before Dave and I watched "Win-Win," I browsed through some reviews and their replies. One reply summed: "The only good part of this movie is the acting."

Do you remember when good acting was enough? When things didn't blow up or transform or strip down to nothing, but when dialogue was rich and actors' eyes told stories?

Story telling. It's falling behind on the media fast track. But, sheesh, when we experience it, it really is something.

Last week, Dave and I went to a local storytelling night. Six random community members spoke on one theme: "Love Hurts." There were big laughs from the audience during a tale of two tussling roommates, some sniffles over a marriage that evaporated without warning.

Each story was an authentic conversation between the talker and the listener. For days afterwards, this conversation lingered: a phrase, a word, the raise of an eyebrow.

There was thinking and feeling.

Which makes me wonder.

What are we doing when we're watching "Fast and Furious...5?"

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Here's Why

I haven't been blogging:

Because somehow we're five whole weeks into the term already.

Because I've been ironing out a new speech curriculum.

Because Dominic has had track meets at the middle school.

Because my sister Erika and her husband Ryan and their incredible 11 week-old baby came to visit from Sacramento.

Because I'm writing a little, and thinking about e-books a lot.

Because with a monthly grocery bill total of over $1500, that's oodles of shopping and unpacking and cooking!

Best Easter ever? Writing group pizza! Four writers, four men, eight kids hopped up on marshmallow eggs.

How about you? You getting any writing done?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Paper Doll

Last Sunday in the Chronicle, I found a treasure -- a full-page ad for Hugh Jackman's showtunes performance at the Curran Theater for two weeks in May.

Like many millions of women (and men), I would pay $250 for a premium seat to see the guy sing. Heck, I would pay that to just watch him stand there for ten minutes with his shirt off.

Anyway, what I do get to view every pass through my kitchen is that ad, which my adoring husband ripped out and plastered to the fridge with the word magnets "Wish," and "Pretend" "Family."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What They Won't See

I leave for the NEH Institute in Hawaii in just over two short months, and if the last three weeks of spring term is any indication, that is going to fly by.

After lots of thinking and looking up airfare and doing yoga, I've decided. The kids won't come out to see me, but if I miss them unbearably, I'll fly home for a quick weekend.

Dave works hard, and he is super supportive of my 5 week study, taking off a whole month from high fire season to shuttle the kids to swimming lessons, take them to the library. We're 19 years into this marriage, he and i, and we've not yet had a long, exotic vacation alone. This is the time.

Yes, I will crave my kids' arms around my neck. I will cry knowing that Dominic can't show me the fort he's built, that Daney can't crawl into my bed and talk about her day, that Rees won't brush my hair.

I will not see my favorite thing in the world: my cuties pulling their suitcases through the airport, that is one thing I'm sure I will miss.

But there are other things I won't see, too, because they are things my kids would have shown me. Like the assassin bug the boys spied in a bush in Cabo, or the morray eel Dominic spotted in the rocks in Hawaii, or the fried chicken place Daney found in Harlem.

With their sharp little eyes and their open hearts, my kids have always seen the things I don't, and I'm sad to know I will blindly pass plumeria and pufferfish and singing kingfishers. And while I'm nose-deep in Asian studies and the art of the Polynesian Cultural Center, I will promise myself to bring my babies back and show them the sunsets, the beaches, the carving in the palm tree. I will show them the best of the best.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

When You're Stuck in Your Story...

...Go back to the beginning. Work on what you have done. Tighten up. Rearrange. Add plot. Add dialogue. Flush out secondary characters with depth and dimension. Make setting sing.

You will see where you have been. You will remember where you are going.

Even if it wasn't tacking a thousand words onto your end, you will feel like you have done something.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What's Fun About Writing Sci-Fi...

...is that there are no limits.

Anything you can think up

Could be believable.

Any world you create

Could be real.

Systems, values, technology, conflict.

It's all different.

Exaggerated.

Time, travel, currency, politics.

Plot.

The possibilities are endless

And exciting.

Friday, April 1, 2011

BIG NEWS

Dave here,

Jennie has some exciting news! She has been selected for a National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship. She is going to spend five weeks at the University of Hawaii this summer. Jennie will study South East Asian culture. We are all very proud of her. She has been working hard and is simply amazing.

GREAT JOB JENNIE!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Instant Gratification: The Current Trend in Introduction

My kids and I were eight chapters into reading To Kill A Mockingbird (so we can see the OSF production of it this spring), when sixth-grade Daney groaned, "What is this book about, anyway? There is no plot, there is no conflict."

She was right.

Harper Lee took her sweet Southern time aquainting her readers with Scout's tiny life in Maycomb County: her admiration for her older brother, Jem; her relationships with summer visitor, Dill; the ladyfolk; the ghostly man-child, Boo Radley; her father.

We get the hot, dry dust, the simple-minded, struggling townspeople.

But it's not until page 85 when conflict rips us from the slow days of Scout's scounting about, and throws us into the political upheaval that becomes the essence of the book.

"This is like Dracula," Dominic (13) agreed. (He's reading the 500-word tome for his spring book report.) "It didn't get good until page 300, when stuff started happening."

"What did Bram Stoker write in the 300 pages of 'nothing?'" I'd asked.

"Setting," Dominic said. "And setting. And setting. He took a long time setting it up."

So right now, my kids are seeped in two worlds: in 1930s Alabama, and 19th Century Transylvania. And though they're finally capitivated, it cost a lot of hearing them complain in getting them here.

We writers could never do this today. We could never "waste" a third of our stories on establishing setting. The present trend is to drop blood, or mystery, or vengance, or some kind of conflict right on page one.

What does that mean?

What are we missing out on?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Thought I Forgot How To Write

Has that ever happened to you?

You started working on something new, and 3,000 words in, you're, like, "What's my style?" "What's my story?"

But then!

It all starts coming together. We start remembering -- yes! we put these words with this picture! -- and the story, it begins writing itself.

16,000 is my number now. It's been, what?, a month or two?, and this new sci-fi thing is really exciting me! I am learning the characters, seeing conflict, craving resolution, creating tension, looking for that ending.

The little things can be filled in: necklaces, an owl's call, the scent of fresh bread.

Halfway there, is what I'm thinking. That will be the bones. Before the flesh. But even those skeletons, they got some life in 'em.

Friday, March 25, 2011

If You Need a Laugh...Play "Dress-A-Kid"

Tell you what: you give my Big Family and me 15 minutes at the close of Value Village in Oregon's capitol city, and we'll give you the fashion show of a lifetime.

It's called "Dress-A-Kid," we just decided: We grab one of my kids and have 10 minutes to outfit them before they walk the runway (the shoe aisle). Dave, Steven, Marie, and Dominic were the judges.

I snatched up Rees (9), lied to him that the clothes are definitely washed before being hung on racks, and stuffed him into a wool plaid suit, a shiny vest, and a tie. Then I added accessories: round, mirrored glasses; a fedora; and at the last second, a sparkly hot pink-and-gold belt (which Steven said got us First Place).

Brigit picked Daney, and slipped her inside a huge men's shirt. She attached suspenders and a briefcase, and stuck all her hair inside a cap. Oh, and there were last-minute enormous pants (which Steven awarded First Place--again).

We whistled and hooted while Rees swaggered through rows of rainboots and wing-tips, while Daney snapped at her suspenders. An older couple came to watch, clapping.

We put back everything, except the plaid suit Rees wore, which everyone said was a must-have, and the winners got Dairy Queen (we were all winners).

Over her Butterscotch Dilly Bar, Brigit said, "Wait! Jennie cheated! You saw the suit for Rees first, then made it into a game!"

Smart, that Brigit.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Variety?

So, I'm writing sci-fi, for a huge change, and I'm thinking about the differences between it and other genres.

For me, so far, it comes down to setting and word choice. Character doesn't seem to change much, and plot isn't enormously effected.

I'd love to hear what your thoughts on it all.

Monday, March 21, 2011

HOW Good Is My Man?

So good, that when he reads a rant I wrote about him -- about how much he's gone, how much more he could do around the house, how he checks his stocks while I'm slaving over lasagna -- he tells me, "It's good, babe. But there's a typo. I think you forgot a 'the'."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Equation!

My friends, I found it--the scientific equation for writing! There I was, sitting in the classroom at Rees' field trip to Scienceworks, and it was right there on the board, under "Simple Machines": "Work = Force x Distance."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Have You Ever...

...Lost all your work, all in one day?

You were typing, plot was flying.

Words, words, words, words.

Then...

Poof!

It all just disappeared?

Gone.

Did you scream? Cry? Give up?

Did you blame?

Or start over? Try to remember? Get it back?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Faux Pas

So, the teacher of Dominic's Seventh Grade Health class explained that the course "will be very hands-on."

???

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Check It!

Because of my last post, I am 5,000 words into a new WIP. I love it, love it, love it! Like, I've been wondering, why haven't I been writing this story, this way, the whole time?

It's a genre I'm not usually drawn to (science fiction), and it's not YA, and it's taking more time to research than to write.

But I. Am. So. Excited!

So excited, in fact, that I haven't had time to blog. I haven't even had anything to blog about.

And I sure haven't been traveling the blogosphere much, though I do miss it.

Until recently, I had no idea that Nathan Bransford isn't in publishing anymore. I wasn't aware that Jay Asher's 13 R3asons Why will be a movie. But I did know that LK Madigan passed away, and every day I have thought of her and her family and the legend she left in her books.

There seems to be an awful lot of pink hair in the YA-writers cyber world right now.

I can't wait to finish my 1,000 words for the day (my good man, who is helping me conceive this thing, has set me a goal to finish by June), so I can vacation a bit with you bloggers!

See you soon!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Putting It Out There

Ashland is definitely a place where you can be your quirkiest self. And last night, we were at the very hub of it, at Rees' elementary school talent show.

It was unbelievable: the jokes, the hulu-hooping, the poi dancing/Katy Perry lip-syncing/stomach rolling. There was unicycling, original piano pieces, ventriloquism, all from kindergarten through fifth graders.

What amazed me most was not so much the...um..."talent," but the way these kids just put it all out there. Honestly, when I was in third grade, I never would have squeezed myself into a fluorescent unitard and belted out "Don't Stop Believin'."

How can I do this in writing, I asked myself from Row 28, Seat M. How can I let my story just flow -- with confidence, with uniqueness, with a slight awareness of but not an obsession with what the audience thinks?
It takes ambition, right? And some serious liberation. And just giving it a shot.

Can do?

Monday, February 28, 2011

What's Next?

Though the best of the Un-Real is destined to go on, I'm wondering if there will be a shift in the YA market soon. Will the saturation of vampires, werewolves, mermaids, and angels give way to reality-based fiction?

Scoot over, demons and faeries. Seems to me that while lots of young adult readers want to "escape" their lives, many of them, too, would like literature that's sympathetic to their situations. Divorced/abusive/addicted parents, friend disloyalty, drinking/drugs, bad romance, school pressure, high-stakes sports, body issues, comings-out, poverty, homelessness: Teens' reality is often grittier than fiction.

I'd like to see the market open up to books about families affected by the Iraq war, to teens trying to assimilate to cultures overseas, to teens trying to assimilate to culture right here.

While there will always be a fan base for The Chronicles of Narnia, where are the next Are You There God, It's Me, Margarets?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

So I Finally Read THE HUNGER GAMES

Dave's brother, Michael, the dad to three teen girls, is an avid reader. Every time I've talked to him in the last year, he's asked if I've read The Hunger Games yet.

Then there's my 11-year old daughter, Daney, who's read the whole series -- twice. Not to mention the entire YA community who has devoured these books.

Why did it take me so long? First, I am always reading, always editing: student papers, college admissions essays, research, the San Francisco Chronicle, writing group fabulosity. When I do get to read for fun, and I definitely should do more of it, I tend to go for adult fiction. The next book on my nightstand is Lisa Genova's Left Neglected. So there's all that, plus, I don't love dystopian.

It took me a month to get through The Hunger Games, mostly because, though I was blown away by Suzanne Collins' brilliant, unique premise, I wasn't super invested in Katniss. She was not warm. Callous, even. Superior. And though I told myself this had to do with her survivor's spirit, I didn't care if she lived or died.

Several chapters in, however, I appreciated Collins' integration of huge themes: sociology, war, government control, the confines of poverty. Maslowe's hierarchy drove the characters' actions: safety, survival, food. There was more, too: fusing the Greek Olympic Games with America's obsession of reality TV. Our focus on appearance (the mention of plastic surgery, even), with a deeper theme of Shakespeare's self-sacrifice through poison. Love: Our human strength (and weakness). DNA manipulation.

For me, the book picked up speed in the end. I had bought into Katniss' winning The Games through her care of Rue, a genius complication to the plot.

While I'd hoped to see more dialogue, at least internally, I accepted the plotty narrative, and thought over and over toward the conclusion that Collins is a Big Thinker, that the editor was lucky to find this one-of-a-kind, multifaceted story.

Will I read the other books? Probably not. But I'm glad I (finally) got to this one, and can see how it was an enormous success.

Based on Book One, I asked my daughter: Does Katniss marry Peeta in the end, and together they take down the Games, then have a baby? To keep the depth and twists, Prim must die somewhere, so that Katniss has nothing to lose. And there has to be some revisitation to a song.

Daney giggled at me, which means that at least some of these happen. Where Collins must excel, then, is at the telling of how. I admire and envy her craft.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Putting It In Writing

Dear Application Essay for National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship,

You are one tough egg to crack.

I've obsessed over you for four months now: our coffee dates, our dinner dates. You control my dreams.

Why are you so hard?

I mean, I've written tons of essays. Tons. And yet, I don't know what to do with you.

You've got some serious standards.

Can I meet your expectations?

Should I stop overthinking and just embrace you?

What do you want from me?

Lovingly,

Jennie

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What We're Doing in Writing 121

Because my class is about critical thinking, today I am changing the room around. So my dedicated students never forget to see things a different way.

Today's lesson is "Corn." Yes. As in "on-the-cob."

I will show these eager learners a big spider-y brainstorm on how to integrate implications. Like: "What is the political perspective on corn?" and "How is corn related to anthropology?"

And while we're thinking and writing, we'll be eating Doritos and drinking Coke. Breakfast of Champions. To taste our content.

Yummy.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

This Is How Much I Love My Writing Group

On Wednesday night, I brought the worst piece of writing to Starbucks.

While I sipped my salted caramel hot chocolate, Christy, Anjie, and Julie's pens went to work, crossing out circling and adding arrows and inserts.

It was an essay I've had in my head for four months, an application for a National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship.

The thing was, my creative juices just weren't flowing. At all. I ended up pretty much writing two opposite things and trying to mash them together.

Nope.

And then, there were the beginnings, all twelve of them:anecdotes, imagery, question, setting, thesis.

It. Was. A. Mess.

But after a few minutes, er, an hour, thanks to my WG, I had ideas!!! And since Wednesday, I've let them sit and stew and get all juicy and yummy.

Today is the day I will take Christy's suggestion to really plug the need for diversity in Southern Oregon. I'll add Julie's argument that our current composition topic, "Terrorism," only fuels the fear our students already have. And I'll answer Anjie's questions about how my past experience will enrich the program.

And that will make a way better four pages than I've got right now.

And I promise. Next week, I'll bring my A game to edit for them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Let Your Light Shine

Before Dave and I pruned our peach tree last weekend, we did a little Internet digging on the how-to, and found that 50% of the growth had to go.

As we Sawz-all-ed big branches out of the middle, half of me cried over all the progress that was taken away, just like that. But the other half of me saw the potential for new growth. Now, there's a lot of room in the center where the sun will shine down, where juicy fruit will bloom in July.

While my students revise their analysis essays today, I will remind them of this. That is takes some heavy pruning to let in the light, the potential, the good stuff.

I wish I had time to grab some canned peaches, so that we could taste the labor of our efforts.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Nicest Words I've Ever Heard

"Mommy, you can take a rotten watermelon and some charcoal and turn it into a five star dinner!"

--Dominic, 13

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Do You Make While You're Waiting?

We've heard it a billion times: while we're waiting to "hear," we're supposed to be writing something new.

Can you do it? I can't do it, am not focused enough. I want to do other things, things that bring quicker gratification.

So I turn my efforts toward cooking and crafting. Today, I sewed a lovely curtain from Italian fabric to go over the laundry closet my husband took the door off ten years ago.

I've decided that while I wait to "hear," while I wait for Dave to finish our decade-long remodel, I'll fix up some things.

Next, I am going to reattach some new weatherstripping to the windows. I know. But it's better than waiting.

In between my house projects, I've been creating silk flower pins with my girl. We cut and burn and glue, then stick a sparkly little something in the center. We have baskets and baskets of these.

Maybe I should have a give-away. Because I haven't yet. Because they're fun. Because the flowers are really pretty, and would go well with a nice book and some Oregon Dagoba chocolate.

Because that would be something super gratifying, for me, and for you, too!

Hmmmm....

Monday, January 31, 2011

What It's All About

There's a poster in my third-grader's class: "Give a seed of a story, not the whole watermelon."

I teach this to my community college composition students.

And I try to do it in my own writing.

It's the very essence of a story: the content.

How do we cover it though, and how do we cover it well?

Author/editor Nancy Lamb shared this tip at the Big Sur Writing Workshop: "If it doesn't move the story forward, it goes."

Okay, relevance. We move the plot forward. But how?

Exactly.

How is one of the two (hard) questions that bring us deeper in content. The other is why. Both deal with character motivation, conflict, backstory,and meaning/significance.

We do it by showing character action/reaction to dialogue/scene.

We all have the who, what, where, when down, right? So taking these elements further, with why and how, is really the heart of the story.

It's tricky, yes. But that's what makes the story good. Because the things that happen to the character (the plot) and how they affect him is what the reader cares about.

At the end of the story, the reader has to be able to say, "So...the character lives happily ever after with his true love, because he deserves that." Instead of the reader thinking, "So... what?" Which is empty, unsettling.

Content is everything.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Between Wimpy and Catcher: A Motherlode!

Writing friends, there is an audience out there waiting for you to crank out some good reads. This...is the Middle School Boy.

Who is he? Well, he likes video games, weapons, engineering, "doing stuff." He's way over Wimpy Kid, not quite ready for Catcher in the Rye. And--get this!--he has to--he has to!--read. His school makes him do it.

We feel for him, right? The kid who would rather be fishing, biking, building a tree fort, playing Halo, the kid would rather do anything than read?

I'm telling you, there's a goldmine here. Sitting right in the lap of the 13 year-old male.

Science fiction/fantasy/sports?

BRING IT ON!!!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Order of Things

When I read high schoolers' senior research papers and college entrance essays, I usually find the biggest hiccup in organization.

Voice is high (high schoolers have no problem telling all about themselves), but the paragraphs, though generally cohesive within themselves, are wonkily ordered, with evasive intros and double, if any, conclusions.

Somehow, after graduation, the organization issue seems to straighten itself out. And while I can't help wondering if sequencing is a product of human development, I have come up with some tricks:

Does the essay really start at the beginning? Or is intro more compelling one sentence, maybe one paragraph in?

A trick for this is to ask how the intro starts--with setting, scene, imagery, question, statement...

Do you already know the conclusion? Because this will lend itself to a strong, focused body.

Is there something in the middle, even in/toward the end, that could be moved way up?

Are transitional phrases used to show the reader You Are Here?

What kind(s) of conclusion(s) are used: summary/revisitation, projection, question, quote, imagery, call-to-action/examination?

And how about title--which must be written last: is it clever, reflective of content?

Hmmm... Lots to think about.

Coming soon: Content.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

IS YA Getting Darker?

You HAVE to read this New York Times debate between Ship Breaker author Paolo Bacigalupi, who claims that teens seek and deserve truth; Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater, who writes that teens flock to darkness because they'll never actually experience it; and Uglies mastermind Scott Westerfeld, who argues that dark YA grants teens freedom, privacy, and independence.

What do you think?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Go Get Yourself a Writing Group!

I will spare you a post on how I hurt myself terribly watching a "Stellaluna" puppet show yesterday at the Craterian Theater.

I will spare you from knowing how I added insult to injury by dumping curry powder all over my stiff, 40 year-old self this morning.

Instead, I will plug Christy, who has to set aside writing this week to attend the Gun & Knife Trade Show in Las Vegas.

Christy met me yesterday morning (pre-puppet show accident) in pouring rain at the bottom of Lithia Park. We walked ourselves to the top, mulling over the very last part of my Drain revision.

The thing is, I was rehashing all the edits Christy had given me (that I didn't take) a while back when we'd met for tacos. Like a good writing partner, she asked me first what I was thinking, and somehow held back uproarious laughter as I spit out everything about making the conclusion exactly the way she'd suggested.

We walked and talked, then after I hurt myself at the puppet show, I came back and re-wrote the last two pages of my story.

A good writing partner is hard to find. I know it. And I have four of them.

Thank you, Christy. Bring me back a bayonet!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

UnFORTYgettable!

1/11/11:

Those Tumultuous 30's kicked to the curb!
A sister who did my hair and make-up.
18 amazing women between 11 and 62.
3 lasagnas.
2 boys in clean shirts serving 7up with lime.
A black and white cream cake.
5 1/2 hours of laughing.
Flowers, chocolate, scarves, jewelry, and notes for me.
Books for everyone else.

And 1 good man who pulled the whole thing off.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How The Story Changed

So I was sitting there at the SCBWI Western Washington Conference, scribbling out a query, when author Suzanne Young plopped beside me and said, "Let me see that." I didn't know Suzanne at all (everyone else at the conference did), but she had sparkly eyes and a ginormous smile, so I slid her the scribble.

It was magic, what happened next. Suzanne whipped out her Jedi Query-Sabers and slashed through my little paragraph: whoosh, wham, zoom. In five seconds flat, Suzanne passed the paper back to me.

And there it was: a much tighter, cleaner query that was way more reflective of my story's voice, character, and plot!

I had called my husband from the conference, lamenting that I didn't know the genre to query Drain as. I had already sent out a couple of letters: YA Paranormal, YA Paranormal Romance, YA Thriller, YA Suspense...

A few weeks later, Holly led me through an exciting revision. There were three big things that took two months. Although Holly didn't ask me to rewrite the end, it happened anyway.

After I signed with her, one more little revision added clarity, richness, and depth. There was more magic, more character motivation, more plot (thanks to my incredible writing group, which has NO SHORTAGE of plot ideas).

If that query were to be rewritten now, it would be entirely different. Instead of YA Paranormal, Drain is more literary, more superhero story than anything else. I still wouldn't know what to call it. Mmmm... How about "published???"

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Here's The Query

If it can help you at all, please take a peek at the query letter that led to the contract. There are two things I want you to know: that I got some help on this from a real author who knows how to kick some query bottom, and that there's a typo -- a typo! Thank you, Holly, for taking me anyway.

Up next: How the Story Has Changed Since


Dear Ms Root,

I've read on many website interviews that you're seeking YA Paranormal Romance. Thank you for considering my 51,000 word Drain.

This manuscript was solicited at a conference by an editor, who nominated it for SCBWI WW's "Outstanding Work in Progress."

Additionally, this summer, my fictional piece "Bakersfield Baptism" won first place at the Pacific Northwest Writer Association's Literary Contest/Conference.

Currently, two prominent editors are considering two of my YA manuscripts.

Thank you again for reading.


Someone is going to drown. There is definitely that.

When a school prank goes fatally wrong, sixteen year-old Kat Atkins sees it. Before it happens. A self-defined “accidental emo,” Kat has been shuffled through foster homes. But in The Middle of Nowhere, Oregon, Kat discovers that she has a “gift.” Right. Like being able to see a drowning is gift-worthy.

As Kat struggles between maintaining her independence and learning to trust adults, as she falls hard for local baseball hero Steven Scarpaci, and as she tries to save a bullied boy from the school beast, Kat begins to unravel a mystery from the banks of the Umpqua River, where despite her best efforts, a life will be washed away forever.

Drain delivers with voice and irony: a book about the curses that come with certain gifts, and about the gifts that can be found in those curses.

Per your the Waxman Agency's website, the first ten pages are pasted below. I am grateful for your time.

All Best,

Jennie Englund

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

2010: A Writing Year in Reflection

I've been thinking a lot lately about my writing journey.

First, there's how grateful I am to be a part of this writing/blogging community. There's how grateful I am for a husband who encourages my writing, and for the best writing group ever. And I'm also enormously thankful for my agent, Holly Root.

Like Elana Johnson, I've been shocked when a writing partner or Holly has suggested a tough change that I was somehow able to pull off.

Once in a while, things have moved fast. More often, though, it's been slow. I'm learning to be patient.

Here's how it all went: In October 2009, I queried Holly at the Waxman Agency. A week later, I was thrilled when she requested the first three chapters! But, while I sent them within seconds and checked my email every five minutes, it was February before I'd heard back from busy Holly, who'd requested the full.

Another agency was talking to me about revision and representation, and another was expressing interest, but I was hoping, hoping for Holly, whose Twitters are witty but clean, whose client list is chock full of talented writers who adore her, who is kind and bright and professional.

After two straight months of revising per Holly's brilliant suggestions and polishing every Wednesday night at writing group, I got an exciting email: Holly loved the changes; she wanted to call me, and at 6:12 the next morning, she did--with the loveliest, most cheerful voice--offering representation!

Long story short, I queried in October, signed in June.

And since then, I've completely revised the story again, which I've recently sent back. And every time, the story gets stronger and richer and deeper. I want to listen to what Holly tells me. I want to apply her wisdom, her creativity. To not let her down. To learn.

It's winter again--all white today in Ashland. And this is the time of year when I usually start writing something new. So while Holly reads my latest draft, while I send her thoughts of gratitude and hope from triangle pose in yoga, I might whip up some nice Ghiradelli hot chocolate for myself and plunk away at the keyboard about this wild new idea I have...

I hope this inspires you. To keep writing, to keep querying. To join a writing group. To know the process is long and hard but really rewarding.