Monday, October 31, 2011

Zombie Sign Language

Today, in honor of Halloween - something entirely silly!

Full props to Jonathan Coulton for his fantastic rendition of this zombie song in American Sign Language.

The sign language interpreter in me whole-heartedly approves.

Happy Halloween!!!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Grammar Comic

Thanks to a good friend (and fellow grammar teacher) who brightened my day with this one.
I need this as a poster in my grammar classroom. :-)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Shifting Gears (A Bit)

My blog has now been up and running for a full month, and I have learned a lot in the process. These past four weeks have taught me a great deal about traffic patterns, tighter guidelines for blogging, visibility, intended and extended audiences, and how often I can reasonably update, among other things.

With that in mind, I am slowly refining a new posting schedule, as well as pinning down what topics I want to write about, and when. I've had great feedback from people on several of my anecdotes - Elephant Chai and DaVinci's Grocery List being current favorites - but I also want to talk about what I'm reading, especially since my October Fun Reads post received the most hits to date, and by a wide margin. I'd also like to occasionally post on matters strictly pertaining to aspiring writers, including some of the insights I've gleaned from Twitter about book agents, the publishing industry, and especially the ever-dreaded necessity of query letters.

Obviously I don't want to get in a rut, be untrue to myself, or fill my blog with dullness and drudge. So I would like to know: What would you like to see in regards to books, writing, or stories in general? What do you think I should not do, or have you spotted some mistakes I've already made? Those of you who have been blogging for a while - what advice do you have? You can post your comments here, or email me at goff (dot) taproostudio (at) gmail (dot) com.

Next official update will be Monday - until then I'll be working on getting ahead for future posts, as well as the beginning of NaNoWriMo! Wish me luck - and again, feel free to let me know what you're thinking about the site. Thanks!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pardon the Dust!!

If you've been to this site today, you may have noticed that I am playing around with various templates for the site. Ideally, I would do this late at night when traffic tapers off for the evening; but my current schedule does not allow for that. So please be patient if, for the next day or two, you stop by to find the wallpaper, as it were, totally different --- and do NOT hesitate to tell me which you like best!

Thank you for your patience.

~ A

Writer Comforts

With NaNoWriMo only four days away, I am hearing more and more of my NaNo buddies "stocking up" on goodies and supplies to see them through their writing blitzes.  I must admit, I had not given a thought to what sort of "treats" I ought to keep on hand to reward myself during the thirty days of literary madness. My quirk is that I have so many jobs, and such a broad taste in food, that anything would make a great snack for me. So long as I have the luxury of sitting still in one chair the entire time and not being interrupted by anything - I count that as a real treat, especially if that "sitting still time" can be Writing Time.

What I do like, though, is a special drink. Hot chocolate, chai, lattes, hot tea, cider, ginger-beer --- put a cup of something perky in my hand (preferably hot, and non-alcoholic), and I am a happy gal.

My list of "NaNo Goodies" began in the back of my head just this morning while working with a trio of homeschooled siblings. The ten year old has a lovely habit of putting a kettle on to boil about eleven o'clock, and treating all the hard workers to a pot of hot tea right as they're getting to the really tangled parts of their lessons. Today, however, she pulled out the Russian Spice mix that her mother had made and stored in an old mason jar. A couple scoops into each cup, a generous libation of hot water over each, and voila - I was handed heaven in a cup.

Russian Spice Tea

Russian Spice Tea is a seasonal favorite as the days grow dark and the temperatures drop and - as my young pupil so rightly determined - now is the perfect time of year to pull it out. It's easy to make, the ingredients are not difficult or expensive, and keeps indefinitely in a sealed container. It's a bold, warming citrus tea that is just the balm to soothe a writer's soul. There are many recipes out there (just ask Google!), but an easy one that does the trick can be found right here.

But if the citrus-y savor of Russian Spice Tea isn't your style, then you're probably on the sweet and creamy end of things; in which case you'll want a totally different set of recipes.


Cocoa and Chai Lattes: My friend, fellow writer and co-blogger Amanda over at Fly Casual put up a timely post about two weeks ago, showcasing a couple of her own homemade hot drink mixes. Check out her recommendations here for a couple of great, simple recipes for a one-cup cocoa concoction, as well as one AMAZING chai latte mix. (And great writerly insights to read while you're sipping your cup of heaven!)

I have plenty of cocoa mix here at the house, but I have every intention of putting together some chai latte mix this weekend. Or the Russian Tea. Hmmmmm. With November  almost here....I better stock up on both, just to be on the safe side. :-)

What about my blogging friends? What's your "comfort cup" 
when settling into a long evening of creativity?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Current Fun Reading: October

To start: a simple yet bald fact about me: I love to read.

More than that, I read a LOT.

As a teacher, I usually have to triage my reading into three categories:

     Fun Reads
     Fun Reads That I Get to Teach
     Books That I Must Teach But Hate As Much As (If Not More Than) My Students Do

I could type volumes on each of these categories; but today I'm going to give you just a quick look at some of the "Fun Reads" that are currently on my nightstand, or at the top of my Kindle queue.

I admit, I read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice late in the game. It took several very literate men in my life - men, I tell you - to convince me that this was not some shallow chick-flick type novel, but a real work of intelligent, savvy, humorous literature. I was pleasantly surprised, and more than I can say, when I finally sat down and read this one all the way through. (And yes, to weigh in on the everlasting debate about the movie versions: I prefer the BBC version with Colin Firth above all others. I'm sorry - I just refuse to let Kiera Knightley taint my image of Elizabeth Bennett.) I'm currently reading the annotated version in order to savor all the fine nuances and details I missed the first few times through, and gaining an even deeper appreciation for it - which is good, since next year this will be a "fun read that I get to teach" book.

I'm not sure you can get much farther removed from Austen than Kurt Vonnegut. But I was introduced to his Slaughterhouse Five under rather peculiar circumstances while teaching high school (long story - with plenty of fodder for a future post), and as a result the story - disjointed and inverted as it is - has never left me. Irony saturates this tale of the time-shifting Billy Pilgrim from beginning to end, and the fact that the book is quasi-historical (in regards to the bombing of Dresden) makes it that much more peculiar and riveting, in the sort of dark, off-kilter way that only Vonnegut can manage.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Bronte sisters. Honestly, they were all talented, but I'm not always sold on how "gifted" they were - at least when it comes to Anne and Emily. Granted, I'm only halfway through Anne's Tennant of Wildfell Hall (and have yet to read Agnes Grey). I've been hotly prejudiced against Wuthering Heights since high school, and have yet to summon up the nerve to give that novel another try. But I've never had issues with Charlotte - leastways, not with her lyrical, haunting Gothic tale of the abused child who grows up into the quiet but steely governess Jane Eyre. I fell in love with it in high school, and every time I've revisited it, my adoration for the fiery Jane only grows by leaps and bounds.

And finally, my current, not-taught-in-school, purely-for-fun read on my nightstand: Stephen R Lawhead's Hood. It is a retelling of the notorious Robin Hood in a Celtic setting, and the first of a series; and while I am only a few chapters into it I've already found it very engaging and original, neither too sordid nor too cliche, and all around a delightful read. For the moment, we'll say that the jury's out on this one - I like to judge a book by it's entire tale, and not the beginning only - but to be fair I'll also say that I've been delighted with the tale so far.


What about you? What "fun reading" are you making time for just now?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Da Vinci's Grocery List

Living in the greater Atlanta area definitely has its perks. Shopping, restaurants and entertainment go without saying; but I also adore its museums. Coupled with my own artistic background, I guess it's not surprising that The High Museum of Art is one of my favorite haunts. I am always amazed, not only at the rich spectrum of works they get on loan, but also what they keep on permanent display.

About ten years ago I was privileged to go see the DaVinci exhibit at the High Museum. I was taking a drawing class at a local university at the time - just for kicks - and the professor arranged for us all to go as a class and check out the exhibit. He was excited because it was a collection of Da Vinci's rough works - sketches and mock-ups and small models. Nothing huge or polished or anywhere near complete - only a collection of hastily noted ideas cast in plaster, or scrawled out on oddments of soiled paper.

I say "only a collection..." when really it was anything but an afterthought.  It was a wonderful exhibit, with a rare and privileged glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. I soaked up every yellowed paper, each lumpy plaster model, and all the explanatory texts that went with them.

For me, however, the highlight of the exhibit was not the sketches that mapped out his original ideas for the Sistine Chapel, or the plaster mock-ups for his sculptures. The crowning jewel was - for me - a grocery list.

Just that. A grocery list.

Allow me to put that comment in context. Da Vinci had a servant who managed his household for him, and did all manner of errands on his behalf; but those duties apparently did not usually include the grocery shopping. Going down to market, and selecting ingredients for himself, was something that Da Vinci evidently liked to do. But one day he found himself in a bit of a bind. Perhaps he was working under deadline with his latest project; or was simply focused on whatever idea he was working on at the moment. Perhaps he was on his way to meet someone. There's no telling. But in the middle of all his rushing about, Da Vinci stopped to jot down a list of items he needed from the market, and handed it off to his servant.

It was at this point that DaVinci made a timely discovery: his servant could not read.

If it had been me, I would have told the servant to not worry about it, and gone later myself. But DaVinci must have really been in a pinch for time (or groceries - perhaps he was expecting company?), because he did nothing of the sort. Instead he took back the list and carefully, dexterously, sketched out each item on the list beside its Italian name. He had asked for six eggs -- so he drew six little eggs, their rounded forms casting little shadows on each other in the right places. He needed three tomatoes --- so he drew three little tomatoes, each with their own stem and scratchy leaves on its indented forehead. He wanted fish and eggplant, and so their distinctive shapes were added to the margin of the list. Every thing that he needed he sketched out, quickly but neatly, in his own masterful hand.

It was this grocery list, scribbled on the backside of an odd scrap of drawing paper, that held my attention far longer than anything else in that exhibit. I loved it because it not only showed that Da Vinci was human, but that his attention to details cascaded into every aspect of life. He drew and painted and sculpted masterfully; his workshop was full of masterpieces, all in progress; and yet he took the time to illustrate his grocery list so his servant could go down to market and not be embarrassed because he didn't know what was expected of him.

That's the kind of artist, teacher and author that I want to be - a person who not only knows the intricate details of the task at hand, but who pauses to appreciate the details of the everyday: of tomato stems and egg-shadows, of the treasures of my local market, and most importantly of the people around me. That, I am sure, is a mark of greatness - whether it is ever remembered by anyone, or not.


What do you think? What are the details of thinking and living that sets someone apart?

Monday, October 24, 2011


This past weekend I got to get on a plane and get out of town for a few days. It was a nice luxury, neatly crammed in the middle of a hectic schedule, and it could not have come at a better time. It had been a while since I'd flown anywhere, and doing so this weekend reminded me of the key reasons why airports and flying are two of my most favorite things in the world.

Airports are my idea of adventure. If you've ever flown into or out of Atlanta, you'll know that it's one of the largest in the world - a self-contained city of sorts, with a kaleidoscopic range of businesses, people and gateways. I never really know which one excites me more: the unbounded opportunities for people-watching, or those flashing TV screens announcing myriad destinations with their connecting flights. It's almost like being caught up in my own distorted version of The Wood Between the Worlds*, and I've only to jump through the correct gate to be whisked off to an unheard-of adventure (hopefully without all that business about worlds ending and being plagued by wicked magicians). But if I had to be honest, I'd have to admit that people-watching is by far my favorite part of air travel.

People-watching is one of the best pastimes to be had for free. I like eavesdropping on snatches of phone conversations; watching travelers on the train or escalators, and try to patch together basic facts of their lives from details of clothing, baggage, phone use, hair cuts and accents. Sometimes I'll even strike up conversations with people on a whim, just to see if some of my guesses are correct. During my outbound trip  I was so diverted in this way that I nearly missed my flight, and for no better reason than I was enjoying myself in the food court, watching rivers of people pour past me, and concocting my own assumptions about each one that caught my imagination.

People-watching has also taught me that you can discern a lot by just studying faces. I'm a lifelong believer that there is some truth in the old adage that if you make an expression often enough "your face will freeze like that." (I've got my reasons for saying this - but that's a whole other blog entry.) If you accept that as something of a truth, and know what to look for, you can tell a lot of things about your airport neighbors: who is a screamer, who holds grudges, who bottles their anger inward, who is somewhat high-strung and oughtn't be pushed too far out of their comfort zone. (These are the people you generally don't want to sit next to on an airplane, as for them air transportation is usually well out of their comfort zone.)

Sometimes I fancy that I've crossed paths with characters from one of my books, as they're sprinting their way to some unknown destination of their own. There's certainly much "scope for imagination" (as Anne Shirley** would say) in an airport, and great fodder for possible future characters, or at least ideas for how such-and-other person might look or behave or sound. One of these days I'm going to arrive at the airport about five hours early with my sketchbook and pencils tucked into my carry-on, and wander the concourses at leisure, sketching and taking note of the diversity I see there. But with my luck, as sure I do that I will lose track of time, and miss my flight entirely.

Though now that I think of it, that wouldn't be too bad. It would just give me more time for people watching.

* A reference to The Magician's Nephew, by C. S. Lewis.

** Title character from the Anne of Green Gables series

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Life in the GURMAD

So, the fantabulous Amanda said in her guest post that I am currently wandering around in the GURMAD - ie, The Great Unknown Regions of Mystery and Death. I laughed aloud when I saw that, because that really describes my life right now.

Well, apart from the death stuff. No death-ish-ness, or anything pertaining thereunto, going on here. (So don't worry about that.)

Even so, my life is enmeshed in the Great Unknown on several levels - some of which has been going on for a while, some which is only now gearing up (including this blog). Being self-employed is, in itself, a Great Unknown, an adventure within adventure, that is ongoing and ever changing. And I love it. Despite the curve-balls it throws me sometimes (okay, maybe more often than merely "sometimes") I wouldn't change it. Life in the Great GURMAD is one heckuva ride and I will proudly wear my membership badges (all of which I have entirely earned).

This week finds me in Texas to see old friends for an extended and much needed vacation. So you might say that here in the GURMAD (shall I not do it in all caps? I think it works well as a name of it's own) I have found an oasis, where I lick some of my battle-wounds and get myself back up to snuff for the next round of adventures - because the Gurmad, like Wonderland and Neverland, is full of adventures, each one coming closely on the heels of the next.

And honestly - I need those adventures, especially the little ones that add so much flavor and variety to each day. If you follow my Twitter status updates, you know that I am always posting about the oddments that color my days, and it is those oddments that feed my writer's brain and give me the wherewithal to pour out new ideas onto paper.

This holiday in Texas has been just that. I have been able to unplug from the Blackberry (well, mostly), leave the grading and lesson plans behind, and not worry about anything else for several days. I have been treated to copious amounts of hot tea, lots of conversations with precocious children (my friends have four, each one of them a rosetta stained glass window), twilight dinners on the back patio, immersion in local history (Texan history is one of the things I know practically nothing about), daily naps and the most wonderfully restful, soaking conversations you'd ever want to bask in.

The timing could not be better. With my manuscript rolling out for its first round of cold reads with the Beta readers, NaNoWriMo only two weeks away, plus my 983475 other jobs that I must attend to (one must pay rent and buy groceries, after all....selfish but true), I am staring a ton of deadlines in the face - some self-imposed, some just part of the natural workings of the Gurmad. But it can all stack up very quickly.

That's why I need to remember that Gurmad is a much bigger place than deadlines and bills and lesson plans and such. There are three-year-olds that need foot races, Darjeeling tea to be savored, mango salsa to be slurped in large quantities, evening conversations by candlelight to be enjoyed, and friends to embrace in ever-winding layers to which (one hopes) you never quite find the bottom.

That is the beauty of Gurmad: it is mysterious and dangerous, and maybe death does peek in on you once in a while; but mostly it is a glorious adventure full of unbounded opportunities. So many opportunities that, as Amanda speculated, I may have a hard time finding my way out.

And honestly? -- I hope I never do.  :-)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Guest Post: Why I Write

Hello, everybody! Amanda here, filling in for Angela while she travels into the Great Unknown Regions of Mystery and Death. Will she return alive? We don't know! All we can do is wait and hope.

And, in the meantime, I can blog!

A recently trending Twitter hashtag (#whyiwrite) asks writers--fittingly enough--to explain why they write. It took some thought for me. To be honest, it probably took more thought than it should have for someone who wants to write for a living. But I finally settled on my explanation. I write because I enjoy discovering. It's the same reason I like reading. I enjoy it because it transports me to different times, different worlds; it gives me insight into things I already know or tells me fascinating new things I never would have known otherwise.

There's a scene in the film Inception that expresses something of how I feel about writing. Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Cobb, is explaining that he has a complex reason for doing what he does. "Not just money. You remember, it's the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed. Things that couldn't exist in the real world." And for me, that's the beauty of writing. Writing a book can be as amazing a learning experience for the author as reading it is for the reader. I don't just mean learning new facts as you research, either--though that's a cool part of it. You learn things about yourself, too. One of my favorite "writing" quotes is by Gustave Flaubert: "The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe." I agree wholeheartedly--writing forces you to confront your own assumptions about human nature and the nature of the world we live in.

That's why I don't really like the old adage "write what you know." To some extent, it's a good adage. Me being the history-philosophy-literature nerd-type who can only count to twenty when I'm barefoot or wearing sandals--I might be wasting my time trying to write hard sci-fi. But, to flip that around, what better way to broaden my horizons and learn something new than to write? The best way to learn is to teach, another adage goes. I think it's true of writing.

Don't be content with writing what you know. Go and learn something you didn't know. That's the real beauty of writing.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ringscar and the Guest Blogger

By the time this updates I will (hopefully) be in the air and on my way to a much-needed little vacation visiting friends out west. Under the heading of keeping my wonderful blog family up to snuff, here are a couple of little updates about what's going on:

1. Guest Blogger: First of all, since I'll be out of pocket for at least four days, I have asked the fantabulous Amanda from Fly Casual to do a guest blog for me on Friday!! So be sure to check back late Friday/early Saturday and see what sort of amazingness appears!

2. Ringscar says helloNaNoWriMo begins in just over two weeks! Are you registered? Are you ready? Are you just going to plunge in headfirst and fly by the seat of your pants? Either way - the NaNoWorld welcomes you. Get over there and get ready! Then let me know how I can find you on the forums. I'm on there as Ringscar.

3. Read Much? Just in case you haven't discovered it yet, go over and check the book-friendly social network of Goodreads. It's like being in a big virtual library and being able to whisper to each other through the bookshelves. That and you can show off just how incredibly book-savvy you are, to boot.

4. Twitterpated: I am getting such great insights into the current agent/publishing industry that I am actively working on a weekly spotlight on my blog that, I hope, will be insightful to others as well. More details later - stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Where's the Exit?

All Forest, No Trees

I have many faults. In writing, one of my more notorious shortcomings is this ongoing quirk - sometimes bordering on disease - to get balled up in the details, to not see the forest because of the trees. When I'm in the heat of writing, I have to fight against the urge to do serious edits even while I'm hammering out my original rough draft. I want to polish and repolish, tweak and reconfigure, massage and facelift every sentence and phrase ad nauseum. I'm one of those people who spun her wheels for five years in the first three chapters of her maiden manuscript, simply because I didn't think it was "just right". I didn't want to move on into the actual guts of my tale until those opening three chapters were exactly that - just right.

Of course I learned over time that spinning your wheels for years on what is roughly 30 pages of typed material is absolutely foolish. It's counterproductive, and it prohibits any real progress with the work at hand. But I am just defective like that. I tend to do it anyway.

Shoot the Engineer?

The last time I got stuck in "spinning my wheels" mode, however, my dad - who is a deep-thinking engineer, and usually very reserved with his opinions - actually ventured to give me a bit of blunt advice. "You know Angela," he said, "in engineering we have an old saying that a product can only undergo so many changes; at some point you have to shoot the engineer and put the item into production."

His advice was sound, of course. There is certainly room for tweaking and revamping, polishing and refiguring; but at some point you have to call a thing finished and put your Inner Engineer out of his misery. This is not to say that you should charge sloppily through any major project (let alone a manuscript) and try to put it out for public consumption when you haven't given it the due attention it really needs; but when you find yourself so hung up on details that you've lost sight of your vision, or - Heaven forbid! - the quality of your work actually begins to regress....that's when a wake-up call is in order.

What does that look like, exactly?

Perhaps this idea - of knowing when to step back and let your baby go - is not as easy as it sounds; but the advice itself is sound, especially if you've had clear-headed Beta readers abusing your manuscript on its shortcomings before now, and all those little quirks have been fixed. Having a couple of solid Beta Readers who are willing to stick it to you in the hurt-to-help-you way are invaluable, especially if you, the author, have the courage to accept such criticisms graciously.

The actual litmus test, I've realized, is when the author gets to the point where they want the criticism, no matter how harsh or pointed.

When you've got.....
     * bluntly honest Betas
     * you're begging for punches at your manuscript
     * you have corrected the quirks as necessary without jeopardizing your original vision for the tale

.....THEN you're ready to shoot the engineer.

Even if you think the dialogue in chapter three needs a little more tweaking.....or the exposition in chapter nine needs a little more trimming.....or......

Don't do it. Just go ahead and shoot. :-)

Am I alone in this? What part of the editing process do you struggle with most?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Three days remain till I see my journalist friend about my manuscript. Thirteen days remain until the manuscript blitzing of NaNoWriMo begins, and I get to plunge headlong into the sequel. And in the meantime, there are the wonderful NaNos themselves, creeping out of their litearature-infused dens to network with the extended Brotherhood of Writers. This means that the NaNo forums are lighting up with activity (expect the avalanche to grow as November 1st approaches), and the NaNoBloggers are going into overtime.

Not all of the NaNos are only just now coming out of hibernation, however. A few diligent souls have been hard at work, most notably Lyn Midnight's blog of WriMosFTW! This blog is an excellent source of networking and encouragement as you gear up for November, with guest blogs from various WriMos throughout the month. While the official NaNoWriMo site puts out all kinds of pep talks from published authors, the blog posts on Lyn's site are from fellow NaNos who have a common heritage of battle-scars from previous November blitzes, and infuse their posts with all sorts of wisdom and encouragement such as only a fellow NaNo can bring - and who doesn't want to be encouraged like that, from those who are part of the NaNo Brother hood?

The blog updates every day (or nearly), and with a variety of topics that keep apace of the NaNo frenzy. Be sure to bookmark the site as November draws never know what glints of NaNo awesomeness you might find there....perhaps even a guest post from yours truly? Quite possibly....

OK. So it's not a mere possibility. I've submitted an idea for a guest post and have been accepted. Can I tell you how excited I am about this? You have no idea.

So....keep your ear to the ground, folks.....the next few (writing) weeks are going to be wild....

Monday, October 17, 2011


14 days!! That's all! Only two weeks until National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, begins on November 1st. The NaNoWriMo website will give you all the details, but the short answer is that NaNo is a month of pure reckless literary enthusiasm, during which aspiring authors (and maybe even a few published ones) attempt to churn out 50,000 words, or the length of a short to midsize paperback, during 30 breathless days at the keyboard. The general idea is that you have a completed rough draft of a manuscript by the end of the month. Those who cross the magical finish line get a certificate, a nifty banner to put on their wall/website/avatar, and - at least in the case of last year - a limited time offer to get a free printed edition of your work from CreateSpace.

All of this sounds great. Spectacular. Marvelous. Just the thing to give a would-be-author the perfect sort of literary head rush. BUT...there is a flip side. (Isn't there always?)

Realistic Expectations?
Over the past few years, many literary professionals have turned up their noses at the whole idea of NaNoWriMo. They bemoan the concept on the grounds that it gives legions of starry-eyed JKRowling-wannabes this notion they can write a novel in 30 days, give it a quick brush-up, submit it and then - voila! - dream come true. Instant epic greatness. Start booking the talk shows now!

((I should pause and say here that there are more than a few published books, including some well-known ones, that were birthed during NaNoWriMo. Go ahead and check out the list!))

The Gold Rush Syndrome
But do the naysayers have a valid point? Unfortunately, yes. Every year there are competitors who go into NaNo thinking they'll have a rough manuscript at the end that'll only want a tweak here and there (something they can surely manage during Christmas break). Then they'll send it out and their work will be snatched up by eager agents and editors because it is the brilliant, fantastic "ZOMG!!!" work that it is.

How does a person get there? Possibly because the story has been in their head for so long that they've gotten to the point of "whattheheck" - that point where you shove back all the naysayers and just DO something. It's a good place to be, of course - but it is not a good place to stay. That whattheheck, cannonball-into-the-deep-end plunge is a transition moment - not a place to camp out. If you stop there, that is when the unrealistic expectations begin to multiply.

But you know what? I don't think most NaNos are like that. Not at all.

The Narnia Principle
Most of the NaNos I know - both personally and through eavesdropping on the NaNo forums - are serious about what they're doing and, as a result, they're willing to take their time. They understand what C. S. Lewis told his goddaughter Lucy in the preface to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - chiefly, that "girls grow quicker than books." Of course, he was talking about how he had started writing a fairy tale for her, only to see her outgrow fairy tales before the book itself was ready. But that's the nature of life, isn't it? Stories grow at a slower rate than girls or boys. They don't mushroom nearly as quickly as the daily demands of work and family. They don't scream quite as loudly as the bills that need to be paid and the household chores that must be conquered.

No matter how you slice it, getting a story out of your head and onto paper takes time -a LOT more time than any newbie (myself included) would like to admit.

Bottom Line?

The upshot? NaNoWriMo is an excellent kick in the pants for anyone who wants that kind of fun, persistent franticness that comes with blitzing your way to a finish line alongside oodles of other crazy writer types. And whether you reach the magic 50,000 word mark or not, whether you end with a completed rough draft or not, it's never a lost cause or a waste of time. Why? Because chances are you'll have written a good deal more than you would have anyway - certainly in November, of all months, with its holidays and   Black Friday and work pressures and goodness knows what else. Real NaNos know that it's not about having a golden trophy at the end. NaNoWriMo is a kick in the pants - the hurt-to-help-you kind.

If you're serious about writing, then steady, disciplined time is what you really need (and you already know it). Time does a lot of magic on its own, if we have the self-control to neither drag our feet nor outrun our opportunities.

Am I making sense? Where do YOU weigh in on the NaNoWriMo debate?

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Bottomless Pyramid

I'm tied up with my pre-Braille training class this weekend, so my next big update won't be until Monday. HOWEVER, because I hate to leave you without something cool to click on, I hereby present you with the amazing Bloom's Digital Taxonomy Pyramid. This is the most fantabulous URL site ever invented by man, and is crammed with links to the most creative, useful websites that you never knew existed. A friend showed it to me months ago and I am STILL spelunking through its innards. There's no end to it, I swear.

Happy clicking......see you Monday!!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Felt Books

Today: a little bit of show and tell!! One of my three "day jobs" (yes, I have three jobs and yes, I know I'm crazy) is working with sensory impaired babies and toddlers. I am currently going through additional training to work with blind tots, and one of my homework assignments is to create a felt book, to introduce them to pre-Braille "reading" techniques. Felt books allow little ones to explore new textures, get used to the left-to-right orientation of books, and - when possible - use their residual vision by discerning between brightly contrasting colors and shapes. Above is my felt book, with the top page partially turned so you can see the second yellow page; the third page is blue.

I had a good deal of fun putting this together, and was surprised at how easy it was to make (once I actually dragged out the sewing basket and started cutting out little felt shapes, and reviewed my color wheel). I guess the love for authoring interesting books runs into all areas of life - literally. At least for me. :)

Do you have any visually impaired children in your life? Do they read print or use braille? I would love to know if you have any experience or insights.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Word on Beta Readers

Hard questions are sometimes the best punches anyone can throw at you. Being punched isn't fun, but once you learn to spar, you can dodge and deflect those jabs in real life that could hurt you or throw you off track. The trick is to recognize those punches as the blessings-in-disguise that they are.

It Takes Two Kinds
I was reminded of this last night, when I met a friend to talk about our respective manuscripts. She has a strong English/Lit background and could really ask specific questions about my plot, and assimilate my answers in a way that allowed her to pinpoint a couple of my plot holes without ever reading my manuscript. It was a wonderful contrast against my previous writer's meetings, because all of my Beta readers* so far have responded to my manuscript largely on an intuitive level. They love the set-up, the dynamic between characters, specific personalities, subplots, humor, short, they've thrilled to those points of the overall story that thrill me. They've caught my enthusiasm for what I love about my tale, which is what any aspiring author wants to hear....and needs to hear, at least in the beginning stages. Our egos are so frail when we first start out that we need the confirmation that our ideas are, in fact, valid and worth pursuing.

Last night, however, my friend took a more editorial approach. She wanted to know: What have I done to make readers buy into the story? Have I made it believable? Is my tale consistent with my proposed genre and audience? Who are my protagonists? Why do I have four main protagonists, and not just one? What action draws the reader in? How am I keeping their attention? Have I left any oddments in the narrative that might jar the overall consistency of my plot? 

Stand and Deliver
The best part of this rapid-fire questioning was that, since my friend had not yet read my manuscript, I had to defend my plot. It made me articulate why I had done certain things, or not done others. I could not have had a better practice round at defending my work, even if I had received a cold call from a potential agent. Based on my explanations alone, she was able to both encourage me in what I was doing right (structurally speaking), but also point out a couple shortcomings in my plot. They are fairly easy fixes, but both are the sort of errors that I would have wholly overlooked, and which in turn would have made a dent in my proposal, come query-time.

That is, I suppose, what the professionals mean when they talk about the "ideal Beta reader." You want several Beta readers, of course; and you want them from varying ages and viewpoints so you can get a well-rounded collective response. But in your ideal Beta reader, you want someone who who catches the vision, and pinpoint specifics of how to make that vision as real to the readers as it is to you.

Anyone else run into this? How many Beta readers have looked over your prized project? What is your ideal Beta reader?
(*) Beta readers = editorial jargon for "test readers"

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Countdown: 4, 11, 21

October has always been a pressure month for me, filled to choking with exams, papers, art shows, projects, and other deadlines that try to squeeze the stuffing out of the days leading up to Halloween. This year is no different. Though I eschewed all art shows this fall, and scaled back from five jobs to three, I am still a very busy bee. However, this October brings three additional deadlines amid the usual chaos - all for which I am eagerly counting down the days:

4 Days:  I have four days until I finish my Vision Impaired training for the home therapy group that employs me. I already work with deaf and deafblind babies and toddlers; this current class is enabling me to work with visually impaired tots who are otherwise cognitively normal and need additional challenges, including pre-Braille training. Did you know that you could teach "pre-Braille" to someone still in diapers? I didn't either, till I joined this class.

11 Days: I have eleven days till I hand off my current manuscript, Castle 8, to a journalist friend who has agreed to give it a cold read. I cannot tell you how excited I am - first, that I get to see my friend, whom I haven't seen since visiting her in Jakarta several years ago; but also that I will get a thoughtful, honest response from someone who can tell me where my (literary) hangups are and what to do about them.

21 Days: Only three weeks remain until NaNoWriMo! I will do a specific post on this annual event later, especially as I know there is some strong debate in literary circles as to whether NaNo is everything it's cracked up to be; but I for one am very excited. I have already storyboarded the sequel to Castle 8 and am ironing out the details as we speak. I don't anticipate having a complete rough draft by the end of November, but if I cross that magic 50,000 word mark, that's roughly 200 pages closer to the end than I would be otherwise.

What about YOU? Are you considering doing NaNoWriMo this year? Let me know!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Clear as Fog

October is quickly passing by; and so it's time to get serious about my self-imposed timeline. If I'm going to start floating query letters on Castle 8 this coming spring, then that means several things must happen first: (1) I need to nail down the ending of my manuscript; (2) I need several "cold reads" from objective eyes; (3) I need to plough ahead into the second book (This might help me to get a grip on where Book One should end); and (4) I need to go ahead and start wrestling with the basics of a query letter.

Query letter. Ugh.

One reason I'm dreading this step of the process is because of the inevitable question that must be answered: What is my intended audience? Who do I expect to pick up my book and read it? Enjoy it? Possibly beg for that soon-to-come sequel?

My explanation has always been that I write to a state of heart, not an age bracket. But that philosophy doesn't fit into the grid. Not when you're just one more email on the list, or one more envelope in the submission pile. But knowing my audience within the established parameters will determine a lot - even which agent/agency I submit to, which publisher might pick up my work. So it needs some considering.

But the question, in turn, brings up questions about the details of my plot. Is there torture? Rape? Cussing? Unmentionable trysts? Excessive violence? Well, since this is a postdystopian world I've created, it certainly is not going to be a happy one - at least, not at first.  Many darker issues of humankind will be dealt with, though not head-on. I think it is perfectly acceptable to deal with hard issues without giving explicitly gory or lewd scenes. At the same time, if this is a postdystopian novel, then certain ugly facts have to be dealt with.

So it's obviously not going to be a picture book that will sell at the elementary school book fairs. OK. That narrows the field a bit. But not by much.

I say not by much because, as a teacher who has spent the better part of two decades teaching in various public school settings, I have seen teachers give middle schoolers some hefty material that I wouldn't have given them. I've seen quite a few books marketed as "young adult" that have made me (and several of my fellow writers) blush scarlet just from reading the back cover. So obviously I don't have the established concept of what constitutes "young adult" fiction, vs "adult" fiction. (I mean, I get what "adult fiction" typically means, but I'm just not going there. By adult fiction mean fiction that grownups would enjoy without needing to buy stock in brain bleach.)

If anyone has insights into this, please let me know. I know that right now "young adult" fiction (geared primarily to the 14-19 year old bracket) is the cash cow of the publishing world; but I don't want to tell a little white lie just to sell my book. Nor do I want to call it "adult" and have potential agents come to it expecting a heart-pounding bodice-ripper. I want to be truthful, I just don't know into which hole I ought to put the peg.

I always did hate coloring inside the lines....

Friday, October 7, 2011

Crash Duty

I live on a very dangerous curve. It's almost like living on the larger bend of a paper clip, before it runs straight, then bends again, and so on till it T-junctions at a hedgerow of privet out in the middle of nowhere. It's the sort of road that makes a pleasant rollercoasterish ride on a sunny afternoon, threading between rolling pastures and spreading farms and lush bottomland filled with cows. But that's during the day. At night that same road becomes one long roulette table, and if you can't keep your eye on the marble there's no telling where you'll end up. What makes the road so gloriously inviting during the day makes it treacherous at night.

The upshot is that I can generally count on there being at least four or five wrecks in front of my house a year. Minimum. Blessedly no one has spun out on top of my own vehicle yet, or landed on the front porch, though I have come home from the grocery store one afternoon to find an SUV upside down in the middle of my driveway. But I'm usually home when these things happen, because they usually happen in the middle of the night. Every time I hear someone's brakes go into lock-and-squeal mode I immediately start praying, usually a succession of "Please God no, please please no, no no no" until the screeching stops. As I'm muttering, I keep an ear cocked for the now almost predictable inflection of sound, like a familiar reverie of bugle taps, that precedes the sickening crunch-whump of the actual crash. After nine years in this house, I've come to know the familiar swerve-and-tack sound the careening car makes, each jerk of the overcorrecting driver, and can almost plot where they are at any particular nanosecond on the incoming curve, almost as if they were doing it on a sheet of graph paper.

Then comes the crunch-whump, and the lead-heavy silence that follows. That's when I drag myself out of bed, get on the dirty hiking shoes, and go outside with cell phone in hand to view the state of things, and start making the necessary calls.

Last Saturday night I was jolted out of bed by one of the luckier ones. A supersized 4x4 truck spun out in style, tipped over the far shoulder of the curve, and down into the deep gully beyond - so deep that the halogen headlights lit up the underbellies of the pine trees like something out of a gothic movie. I went to the edge of the gully and called down to see if I could get any audible response. Out of the truck tipped a largish frat boy in khakis, white button-down and tie, whose very response answered several things at once, starting with the one fact that carried all the others: he was stone drunk. Wanted to know if I could fix his truck. Wanted me to explain why the service engine light had come on in his souped-up Flintstonemobile. Was altogether shocked to find that my first recommendation was to call for help.

"What help?" he said.

What help, indeed. I guess there's no fixing stupid. Not until the patient has had a chance to sober up first.

I really don't mind being on crash duty. If I crashed my car in the middle of the night, I would want some sympathetic stranger to look in on me to see if I was dead or not, and call 911 for me if I couldn't place the call myself. But it also amazes me that after decades of the "don't drink and drive" rhetoric, people with a gut-full of alcohol will still get behind the wheel and tear off down the road like it's their right to bounce off trees and endanger other people's lives, let alone their own.

I don't mind crash duty. Really. But I'd rather save my efforts for honest people who get into an honest bind because a deer bolted out in front of them, or there was ice on the road, or whatever. Wrecks happen. But if you're drunk somewhere, for heavens sake stay where you are and sleep it off first. Please don't take it out on my neighborhood.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tweaks, Tributes, and the LGW

This update comes a little early, since tomorrow will be a bit off-script in terms of schedule. I will post a full, formal blog entry on Friday, but in the meantime, here's a smattering of Polaroids from my world:

1. RIP Steve Jobs. I had no idea (well, I guess no one did) that he was so very sick when he stepped down as CEO of Apple six weeks ago. His age, his legacy, and the suddenness of his death remind me strongly of when Jim Henson passed away in May 1990. Two startling geniuses, dead at the peak of their career. What a way to bow out from center stage.

2. You may notice that the color scheme/layout of the blog has been somewhat tweaked. (You may notice the changes later if you're looking at it over your cell phone.) I am still gradually working this site into a format I can use to really establish a platform for my book, but I am also very well aware that it won't happen overnight. I'll try not to make drastic changes that annoy everyone, but even so - bear with me.

3. Finally - just for fun: Since I still have Steampunk Week on the brain, allow me to suggest a look at the marvelous Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor. I always knew the Mad Hatter was the actual hero of the story.....

Gunnerkrigg Love

(This is TicToc, a mechanical bird at the court.)

In keeping with the spirit of steampunk week I'd like to make a plug for one of my favorite webcomics today. Tom Siddell is 24 chapters into a marvelous unraveling of his tale of the kids at Gunnerkrigg Court, which has a fascinating blend of the mechanical and mystical. As for the nature of the court and what the kids are doing there, I'll let you find out. It updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I wait impatiently for each one. Make sure you block off a good chunk of time for reading....the story is intricate and many-layered, and the evolution of Tom's art over the course of the story is fabulous. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


It's Steampunk Week! How fun is that?

Don't know what steampunk is? That's OK. I had to get one of my students to explain it to me because I had never heard of it either, till about a year and a half ago. But once explained, it makes sense. Almost. Because steampunk is a very narrow subgenre, but with vaguely distant boundaries.

I'm probably like a lot of Americans - my introduction to steampunk has been largely through movies (like Wild Wild West; or the airship in Stardust; I would even put League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in that category - remember Nemo's ship?). But I confess - for someone who really likes visually rich and inventive stories, I haven't read much in the way of steampunk. I took Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel, to read on the plane to Australia a few years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. (Just the thing for a long trans-Pacific flight!) It's the only true-blue steampunk book I've read to date; although I do intend to check out Beddor's The Looking Glass Wars at my earliest opportunity.

I'm sure my readers have their own favorites and opinions, so of course I'm curious: what steampunk novels do you recommend?

Monday, October 3, 2011


Now that I've put all these writing-centric measures in place (Twitter, blog, serious daily edits of my manuscript), I'm having more and more people ask me about my current project, this crazy idea of mine that I hope to have in query-ready shape come April.

The first question I generally get is: What genre is it?

Funny thing is, I don't know. Not really. I have a name for the genre, which I would call postdystopian. Only, I don't think there is such a term.

What do I mean that my novel is postdystopian? I mean that it is about the world after Big Brother has died, Animal Farm has gone to seed, the Firemen have disbanded and no one meets for the annual Lottery in the village.* All the tyrants have withered away through one circumstance or another, but the hamster-wheel - and the common, everyday people trapped within it - is still in motion.

Until the machinery itself begins to break down.

What happens when the system conks and Big Brother is no longer there to give orders? What results when the military is in disarray and, for all purposes, leaderless, even though certain forms of "peace-keeping" are maintained? What happens when people begin to break laws that can no longer be enforced?

What happens then?

My characters live in a world that is running out of man-power. Running out of thinkers. Out of medicine. Out of food. Out of time. And unless the downtrodden, largely uneducated masses can somehow reach beyond their own past to the World That Came Before, and derive from the crumbled relics some sort of template for starting over - they'll all die out. Out of sheer ignorance. No war necessary.

That's what I mean by postdystopianism. I haven't seen anything on the shelves along those lines yet...if you have, please burst my bubble and tell me. I want to know.

(*) Note: See: 1984, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Elephant Chai

Local coffeeshops are one of several crowning jewels in this not-so-backwards Southern town. We have three in all, two of them situated on opposing corners of the town square. While the larger, glossier one is generally where you'll find me (that seems to be the default setting for so many of these writers' meetings I'm always having), today I broke with tradition and went to the smaller, quieter one across the square. It is owned by, and opens onto, the local bookstore next to it - a bookstore, moreover, that has been in business for over a hundred years and shows no signs of slowing down. The coffeeshop is smaller than its cousin across the way, but is cozier and more inviting in its smallness, with comfy chairs to snug into, and racks of recent magazines and newspapers to peruse (and buy!) as you indulge in a hot beverage. Or two or four. When you finish, or can be reasonably sure you won't spill the dregs over the merchandise, there's a little side door that leads straight into the bookstore, where a bibliophile can lose another hour or so very easily.

The cousin across the way is nice but very Starbucks-y, a nice hybrid if you want to get your bubble tea (when they're not running out of the tapioca pearls, which they do frequently) or a fresh-baked scone, while knowing your hard-earned money has gone to the next well-deserving entrepreneur and not the franchise beast. But it is, as I said, very Starbucks-y. The Newsstand, on the other hand, has much the same thing but without the music or clatter or extra foot traffic, which is a good thing if you're feeling particularly pensive and quiet.

This morning it was so quiet that one of the locals - man in a golf cap poring over the day's newspaper in a corner chair - offered to step into the bookstore and find someone to wait on me. A short, pleasant woman with glasses quickly emerged through the open doorway and proceeded to help me with the daunting decision of whether to get a tiger spice chai or the more vanilla-ish elephant chai. She brought out the cannisters and allowed me to give each concoction a preliminary sniff, and I decided on the elephant chai in the end. It seemed much more mellow and thoughtful than the other, and that was the kind of morning I was having. The lady spoke cheerfully about this and that as she mixed my chai and waited for me to give it a sip or two and pronounce myself very pleased before ringing me up. I was exceptionally pleased, as it was a large cup of goodness, and was only going to cost me $2.50 plus tax. (Big Cousin across the way usually costs me in the way of $5 for their high end addictions.)

It wasn't until I got to the cash register that I hit a bit of a snag. As I pulled out my debit card, the lady said: "Oh dear. We don't accept card payments for less than $5."

Whoops. My mind went through quick inventory of the change in my purse, and in my car. Without bothering to tot up exactly, I knew I didn't have the $2.68. And I had already taken a sip of my drink. And I'm also not the sort of person who buys something she doesn't need or want for the sake of making a minimum bargain. (This is why my family rarely goes clothes shopping with me - I frustrate the beflergins out of them like you wouldn't believe.)

The lady studied my face intently for a moment - I know my facial expressions said it all, after so many years of sign language interpreting, I'm no good at holding a poker face - and then she said something that I honestly hadn't had any sales rep say to me in years:

"It's okay honey - you go ahead and enjoy the drink and the day, and bring in the $2.68 next time you're in town."

"I've got cash at home," I explained. "I just don't generally travel with it unless I have something specific to use it for. I can go home and..."

"No, no no. Don't you waste gas like that. Just bring it in next time you're 'round, y'hear?"

People ask me all the time if I like living here. Especially when I go back home to visit family, people always ask about my adopted hometown as though it were a black hole that I've somehow fallen into and haven't found my way out of yet. I keep telling them that it's a great town - half Atlanta, half Mayberry, and with the better part of both halves. The $2.68 on credit at the local coffeeshop is testament to that - I got my big city specialty drink with hometown grace, plus I think I made a friend to boot.

Oh, and the elephant chai? It was quite excellent. I highly recommend it to anyone having a mellow, gracious day. Or maybe the chai will bring the grace with it. Not if you're a moocher, of course - but life has a funny way of paying things forward and never forgetting kindnesses. Just like an elephant. :)