Thursday, October 30, 2008

No Longer Hearing Voices

Normally, as I go throughout the day at various tasks, one of my characters will talk to me, telling me what is going to happen next in my story. But this past weekend my brain was silent. I assumed it was because I was on sensory overload from the amazing Book Group Expo.

What a spectacular party Ann Kent, Susanne Pari and Kathi Kamen Goldmark arranged.I met tons of booklovers. I had a wonderful time doing my Salon (and was thrilled when several people came up and said it was the best Salon they'd been to all weekend.) I met authors I'd only conversed with online, or I'd seen before and hoped I'd run into again, or whose work I loved, but never thought I'd get a chance to say so in person. And I came home with a huge stack of books to read.

So, definitely, I was on overload. I waited for my voices to return. And waited. Then this morning I took a walk. That's when I started thinking, "Maybe I made a wrong turn last week. Maybe there's something wrong with that last chapter."

On the other hand I loved that last chapter. It was funny. It was real. It was full of tension.

Still, if I couldn't hear my characters....

I went home and started cutting. Oh, that was painful. What a great chapter that was. I took out a piece and moved it to the end. (Surely I could use it sometime). I took out a little more. And a little more.

What was interesting--more than the pain of having to remove what I had so carefully constructed--was that with each cut I made on the computer, I made a similar cut in the soundproofing material covering my brain this weekend.

I've got my voices back. Yeah!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy Hungry Ghost Festival...and Halloween

We celebrate lots of holidays in our Chinese/American household. It's always enlightening to learn about and try to explain why you are celebrating a certain day. "Because we just do," doesn't quite hold it for long.

What I find interesting is that although the dates are never the same, most of--and I know I'm leaving some major ones out on both sides--but most holidays serve a similar purpose no matter what country.

Thanksgiving, for example, is similar to the Chinese Mooncake Festival, a time for the family to gather and give thanks for the great harvest.

Christmas is like Chinese New Year, when families gather and children are given red packets of money.

Valentine's Day is Like "7th Day 7th Month Star Festival" in which couples recall the loyalty and love of the two stars--the weaver and cowherd--separated by the Milky Way and only able to meet one night a year.

And Halloween is similar to the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Well, first let's talk Halloween. To the Celts, October 31st marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and ghosts returned to earth. To commemorate the event, they built huge sacred bonfires, sacrificed animals, and wore costumes.

Over the years, the Romans got involved, as did the Christians, changing the holiday around a bit. So when I was a kid, we didn't have bonfires (although in Chicago that would have been nice). But Halloween was still only celebrated for one day a year. Since returning to the US, I've noticed that Halloween gets longer and longer each year with parades and parties and celebrations. In our neighborhood, the fun starts tomorrow. And my daughter, who goes to University at Halloween Central, already has four outfits ready for the festivities.

Like the ever-evolving Halloween, the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival lasts a month (7th Lunar Month), and the Chinese believe that during this time the gates of hell open. Ghosts roam the streets of the living. Unlike Halloween, children are to stay off the streets, lest they be snatched up by hungry ghosts. And while candy isn't part of the picture, everyone enjoys the treat of traditional Chinese opera performances all day long, all month long (At least in Singapore.) At midnight on the 30th, the ghosts return to hell and the gates are shut behind them. People prepare glorious meals for their ancestors, and burn joss sticks as well as paper money and accessories in a huge send-0ff bonfire.

So, Happy belated Hungry Ghost Festival....and Happy Halloween. Enjoy a safe time, and chase all those nasty spirits away for the year.

**Not only does Halloween get going this weekend, but it is also the time of the amazing Book Club Expo. ( The cost is a reasonable $65 for two days of listening to a great line-up of authors: i.e. Brian Copeland (Not a Genuine Black Man, Silicon Valley Reads 2009), Masha Hamilton (The Camel Bookmobile), Nicole Mones (The Last Chinese Chef), Gail Tsukiyama (The Samurai's Garden), to name a few. I'll be there Sunday at 3pm as part of an excellent panel: All Abroad--Living and Writing Elsewhere. So, in between parades and boo bashes, come to the Expo.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

When the GPS Fails....Follow Your Heart

I'm terrible with directions. You'd think that having traveled throughout Asia and parts of Europe and America that I'd be like a girlscout with a compass. Not so.
It's not that I don't mind being lost. I hate it. I guess it's just that I figure somehow I'll make it from point A to point B.
Not everyone is so forgiving of my navigational challenges, though. So, after years of trying to instill a sense of direction in me and failing, my husband went out and bought me a GPS.
Oh, I love my GPS. It warns me when a turn is coming--all in a handsome British accent. When I miss the turn, that brilliant Brit re-configures the route. I haven't been lost once in the year that I've had the thing. Not once.
Until this past weekend.
On Saturday I drove up to San Francisco to volunteer at the National Kidney Foundation's 20th Annual Author's Luncheon. (Despite our horrible economy, there were 1200+ guests in attendance, which was a heartwarming thing to see. ) Five wonderful authors talked about writing, including Tobias Wolff who spoke about how he didn't grow up reading the greats and wanting to be like them, but grew up reading these unknown dog stories and wanting to write something as fascinating. Andre Dumas, (The House of Sand and Fog), said he wasn't aware of theme and other literary tricks, but he just wrote.
At the end of that inspirational afternoon, I pulled out of the parking lot to head home. I waited to hear that clipped British voice telling me where to go. After I'd driven several blocks in an area I didn't recall coming through, I looked over at the GPS screen. A little blue light flashed, 'Your GPS Signal was lost."
"Oh," I thought. "Well, I'll just back track."
But then the street I came in on was a one-way.
I drove around, looking for someone I might ask directions from. But the surroundings got less and less conversation-friendly, as people bumbled into the middle of the street in undershirts and baggy pants. This definitely wasn't the way.
It dawned on me that although my dear co-president of the Kids Can Write camp, Sue Oksanen, insisted the city is only 49 square miles, it felt larger. I could get lost for hours. At that moment of despair, I followed what looked like the right road. Then I heard my British buddy say, "In 300 yards, make a right turn."
Yes! I was headed the right direction. And My GPS was back!
I was thrilled.
This familiar episode of stumbling around in the dark, unsure of where to go next, reminded me of writing. I'm often asked whether I do outlines or just write. I do both.
With My Half of the Sky, I didn't start with an outline. I knew where my character was going to end up. I just wasn't sure how to get there. So I started writing. And writing. And writing.
Midway through the project Plot Consultant and friend, Martha Alderson (, tried to help me plot out--scene by scene-- what was going to happen. That was IMPOSSIBLE. There were so many twists and turns I didn't know of yet. I needed to keep fumbling along. Still, the exercise was helpful in illustrating where the characters had come from, where they were headed, what actions were in store for them when.
So these days I do a combination. I map out a vague journey, create a basic GPS to follow. (Thus when I hear my Handsome Brit telling me I'll have to turn in 300 yards, I can write accordingly.) But when that trusty GPS fails--and it always does-- I resort to my tried and true method of trust. I trust that I'll get from point A to B. Somehow.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I Dare You

A book club gathering, a talk to give, two classes to teach, a theater program to edit--oh, but it's coming up on that time of year when surely I have no time to write. I mean, I can't do everything, can I?
When I get in this frame of mind, I’m reminded of a time when our family was visiting my mother in that foreign country, southern California. I say foreign, because while the weather was sunny and warm during the daytime, the “natives” had decided-- since it was technically almost winter-- that they must be bundled up in sweaters and parkas. And since noone in their right mind would swim in the winter, the management of my mother’s condominium had turned the heat off in the pool.
However, we are a family of swimmers. My four children insisted we at least go down and sit in the always-heated “cajuzzi”, at least gaze at the 50-degree pool. But, you can only sit in a hot tub for a few minutes without feeling like a steamed fish. I soon got out to get towels and call it a day. My eldest son followed. But, rather than grab a towel, he ran over to that freezing pool and jumped in.
“What are you doing,” I shrieked, looking to the fence for the life-saving equipment.
“Come on in, Mom, “ he called. “It feels good."
Who was he kidding? How could swimming in melted ice feel good?
“I dare you,” he taunted.
"It will be miserable," I rubbed my shoulders, wanting to ignore this dare. But, I took a few tentative steps towards the ice bath. I jumped in.
It was.
“You have to keep swimming,” he coached.
I did. And I enjoyed so much, he had to coax me out of that ice bath as well. My skin was so cold that the jacuzzi water burned.
Ever since that experience, the ropes around my heart have loosened. My son had been right. After the initial shock, that freezing water I’d so feared felt wonderful. Why had I waited so long to jump in?
That ice-cold water knocked down boundaries I’d created over the years—and not just regarding “the proper” temperature for swimming. When my children were babies, I set up a writing goal of 200 words/ arbitrary beginning that soon became The Law. The Law was the pinnacle of achievement. Rather than pushing harder as my babies became children--and I had more free time-- I forgave myself when I didn’t make my daily goal. I mean, geez, I'd think, comforted by the sound of the Golden Oldie playing in my head: you know the song--"I can't do everything."
These days, when I catch myself humming that tune , I remember my trip to that foreign land.
I remember my son, saying, “I dare you.”
I remember that ice bath waking my soul.
And, most of the time I remember to stand up and jump right in.

**Plot Consultant Martha Alderson has set up an inspirational blog on writing.

**Author and humorist, Lynn Walker, has set up a blogspot on easy recipes.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Plunk and Play Method

My youngest daughter is a piano player. Oh, she's not the willing sort. In fact, many times she's wanted to quit. (And, in fact, for a year she did.) But whereas when my other three children quit, they never returned to even look at the keyboard, my youngest was always drawn back to the piano. When she was angry or sad, plunking on the ivories revived her spirit. So, just recently the whole family begged her to start lessons again.
The funny thing--and I watch it every week--is she will moan and groan about the new piece her teacher has given her. When she does finally sit down, she'll spend many agonizing hours figuring out the different parts of the song. After a couple of days, though, she'll be whizzing through that song, playing it as if the notes were an extension of her soul.
Until the next lesson. Then the process begins again.
I was reminded of this process on Sunday night as she played the latest Russian waltz. I hate Sundays (It means the end of playtime.) But this past Sunday was even worse, because I was at a juncture in my story in which I didn't know what to do next.
Monday I got up thinking of my daughter struggling with her new piece and how she eventually figures it out. I sat down at my computer. But instead of opening the story and beginning at the beginning of the chapter --my normal routine-- I wrote down whatever was inside my head. Some thoughts were for the beginning of the chapter, some dialogue was for the end, and some stuff didn't even go until the end of the story. It felt strange--a lot of plunking here and there. But, Tuesday, when I went back to make sense of all the parts I'd plunked down, I was whizzing away. Whereas I normally need all the time the kids are at school to reach my daily writing goal--this week, with this new process--I zoomed through the material. My soul was singing. I actually got up and did a little dance.
Okay, to be honest, this wasn't an entirely new process. I've taken workshops on letting your conscious flow through your fingers, writing whatever comes to you. But that always seemed a little New Agey for me. Besides, if I wrote whatever came to mind, there would be so many random thoughts involved-- we need more dogfood, Book Club Expo is right around the corner, I loved John Nathan's book on Japan --that I'd never get to my story.
I tried a modified version of this stream of consciousness writing with My Half of the Sky. But again I was almost afraid of it--more prone to sticking to some school lesson I must have been taught and which was now a part of my genetic make-up: begin at the beginning. But this past week, after whizzing through my writing --and even having enough time to go buy dogfood before school got out-- I've now been converted to the Plunk and Play method.

**Congratulations to my dear friend, Becky Levine. She just landed a contract with Writers Digest to do a book on the value of critique groups. It's due out end of next year. Yeah.

**The 20th Annual San Francisco Authors Luncheon ( is October 11th from 10am. Yours truly will be helping out with this function which benefits the National Kidney Foundation. This year's featured authors are Tobias Wolff, Nancy Snyderman M.D., Curtis Sittenfeld, Jacques Pepin, Diane Johnson, and Andre Dubus III. It should be a great luncheon. Come say hello.

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You