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.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know you could get them with a British accent. Do you think I could find one that sounded like Liam Neesom?! (You know I need one, too--or should I just say, "Let's drive to East of Eden together?!" And I've done the SF-lost thing, too--took me 4 hours to get to Sonoma one time. Sigh.

And, yes, in writing, too--that map is important. But sticking to it too tightly can be the wrong route , cause you just stay in the same, sometimes dull neighborhood(excuse the bad metaphor!)

Great post, Jana.

Martha Alderson said...

I like that, Becky, you just stay in the same, sometimes dull neighborhood!! So true.....

Whatever keeps us at this passion of ours.

I write and write and write until I stall out. Then, I do a bit of plot planning and off I run again. Seems to help sometimes -- to see my story in a different way -- minus all those darn words....

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

I'll second that about the dull neighborhood. Great thoughts. Thanks.

shobuta said...

I think you are better than me. I've been passing through an Ikebukuro station to go work almost two years. I still get confused when I go to the health food shop which I frequently buy some food. And I still prefer Shinjuku station to Ikebukuro. This is the reason I never remember well.

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Oh, Shoko. I think it's easy to get turned around in those stations, with all the crowds and the stores that look the same. You just need a GPS.:)
By the way, you guys would enjoy John Nathan's books on Japan. He lived there during the 60s and translated works for Mishima and Oe.
Best to you!

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Your comment about getting lost in stations prompted me to recall my first visit to Shinjuku station...for a job interview at one of the nice schools there. I figured, "one station. How hard can that be?" Well, I went out the nishi-guchi instead of the higashi-guchi or something like that. Anyway it was the wrong exit, and I got so turned around that I missed my appointment. Wasn't offered that job.:)

Anonymous said...

When I was in London, I was SO happy that they made the subway maps for a person like me--i.e., seriously navigationally challenged. I would just study that map for a few minutes, and I could figure out where to get on/off.

Once I got to Scotland and was taking buses, I was doomed. I just don't "do" north and south; I have to have left and right--put that together with a Scottish accent that I could NOT understand, and I had very nice bus drivers leading me off the bus, down the street, and pointing. Sometimes I even made it to where I was going.

Okay, to bring this back to writing--this is probably why I plot! :)

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Think of all those charming exchanges you would have missed, though (I can just see the kindly gentleman walking you to your destination), if you knew exactly where you were going?:)
I agree plotting is helpful--but I think being lost is also necessary.

Lynn said...

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only directionally challenged writer around. When I'm on the freeway, faced with the east or west question, it's like I'm in the middle of Sophie's Choice. Which is the right answer? What if I want to go sort of to the right but sort of south, too? How can I possibly choose?

It sounds like you've worked out a good strategy for plotting, Jana. Keep it up because we're all waiting for your sequel ;)

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Thanks, Lynn. I'm looking forward to it, too.:)

Anonymous said...

I love your comparison of GPS to a story line.

I am directionally challenged too, so I have relied on GPS for several years now. What a God send!

I find the one in Hubby's car particularly interesting because the female voice sounds (to us) a little huffy when she has to recalculate.

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