Friday, December 10, 2010

Time--A Personal Issue

I ran into my son's friend today, a freshman at college. When I asked how things were going, she said, "It was a challenge at first. I've got all this time, no one looking out for how I use it, and I was never sure how much time I needed to spend doing what."
I have a new high schooler who flounders over the same thing.
I have a new middle schooler who flounders.
As an old alum I still flounder.
I've come to think it's a matter of figuring out how much time YOU need to finish what is most important to you. I'm sure this is common sense to many. But I've watched enough people struggle to be as efficient as Tom, Dick and Harry. I watch myself constantly over-estimating my writing efficiency.
It's only recently that I'm finally figuring out how personal that chunk of time is, how necessary it is to divide those precious minutes given according to your own abilities and desires. Nevermind that Sara tosses out a chapter in two hours. Nevermind that Jen wrote an entire manuscript in a month. Based on your personal prediction of how long your important activity takes, pare down the other activities so that paper gets done, project gets done, that book gets done.

Fun Books: The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks. Professor Saks writes of how she grew up feeling different, hearing voices, not always sure of the thoughts she was having. As a Yale Law School Grad and Rhodes Scholar, she takes us on her journey through her sickness and shows us another side to mental illness.
The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon: This is an amazing book written through the eyes of an intelligent boy who has learning problems. His quest is to find out who murdered his neighbor's dog, and he takes us down a dangerous road through serious family issues.
Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls is a novel based on the true-life story of her grandmother who grew up on a ranch in the early 1900s. She's full of spunk and creativity and the ability to survive even during the Depression. An easy and interesting read.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Post a Guard in Your Writing Lot --Avoid the Sorries

One thing about having a Chinese husband—or at least my Chinese husband—is that we never travel too far unless it's to visit a relative. While on the one hand this means a lot of tourist destinations are out--cross off Bahamas and Cabo-- it does make travel twice as meaningful. You’re always getting an in-depth view of the place and visiting someone you haven’t seen in a long time. This past summer we got both tourist destination and family reunion visiting my cousins in Oahu.
On the third day there, we went to a small beach renowned for having a bunch of sea turtles. The concept itself seemed funny—that sea turtles would “live” in a certain area of the ocean. But it was true. As soon as I entered the water, a huge turtle (which I thought was a rock) bumped into my leg. Another swam over my head. Amazing.
All this beauty was punctured, though, when we returned to our rental car wet, tired and hungry and ready to go home, only to realize that someone had smashed the window of the car and stolen my purse.
Fortunately, I had two teenagers and my cousin all with cell phones.
The police arrived within minutes to document this “smash and grab.” Apparently, the crime is so common (especially in this particular parking lot) it had its own title.
“If it’s so common,” I wondered aloud to the officer and my cousin, “Why not post a guard in the parking lot? I'd pay a parking fee to ensure my car was safe.”
“The economy’s bad now," they said. "No money for guards.”
That didn’t make sense to me, but I was more intent on canceling my credit cards than worrying about this parking lot.
"But don't worry," the officer consoled. "Someone from VASH will be calling you soon."
Would they find the perpetrators so quickly?
Was this just a momentary inconvenience?
No, he explained, VASH stood for Visitors Aloha Society of Hawaii --volunteers who called victims of crimes to offer sympathy, counseling, etc.
VASH did call and apologize on behalf of the Island for this unfortunate incident. Did I need counseling? When I got home, they’d even sent a card…with a local island scene on the front and "thinking of you" on the inside. That’s when I got irritated.
Here were all these passionate citizens interested in maintaining the image of their lovely island. And they do have a lovely island. But their efforts were channeled into apologizing. I thought, if they volunteered as much time guarding the affected areas of the island (or sending letters to council members to suggest better protection), there wouldn’t be a need for all this aftercare.
As usual, this made me think of writing. Of how we writers are passionate and dedicated to our work. Yet, sometimes we're so eager to get a piece finished and out there, we don’t polish up those last few scenes or we ignore the gap in that character’s arc or (more importantly), we skim through that contract.
Then we end up apologizing. (“I really didn’t mean to send that draft.”)
Or just being sorry. (“Why did I ever sign that contract?”)
I’ve lost opportunities and been stuck in situations I still regret because I didn’t post a guard in my writing lot.
So, when you think you’ll just keel over and die if you have to look at that manuscript/contract one more time, sit back. Wait a week. Or a month. Visit a relative.:) By then, you probably can bare to peek one more time to make sure everything is as perfect with your manuscript as it can be, everything is as fair with your contract as it should be.

Book of the Week
Zoe Ferraris latest novel, City of Veils, is a sequel to her great first book, Finding Nouf. The story begins with a dead body, an American woman who dreads returning to live with her husband in Saudi Arabia, and a police detective who is trying to keep up with her new job and compete among the throngs of men. Each voice--and there are five-- is unique and brings a different perspective. I found myself thinking, as I raced forward to find out what would happen next, "This isn't just about Islam." (Or dead bodies.) It's about all our Gods." It's a fun--and fast--read.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Just Give it A Try

This summer my incoming freshman son perused the club offerings at the high school.
bicycle racing club --but they bike uphill too, he figured.
swimming --doesn't start til spring, he noted.
snowboarding club --too expensive, I put in.
"What about Marching Band," I suggested.
I must admit I didn't really know anything about marching band--but they did have a percussion section, and he's been taking drumming lessons since elementary school.
"Percussion is different than drumming." He continued flipping through the offerings.
"Marching Band is social suicide," his brother said. "Only nerds join."
Then he can be the first cool nerd.
"It's militaristic," his uncle said.
Come on. The British aren't coming.
"Just give it a try," I suggested. Pleaded. Begged.
Being a cool nerd, he did. And he was surprised to discover that not everyone was a nerd, that percussion was challenging to learn, that he actually enjoyed.
Still, it was a painful few weeks dealing with everyone's preconceptions and misconceptions of this world.
It reminded me of a recent discussion among the Womens' Bay Area authors--one author wondered if it was better to have your book known as "literary fiction" or "women's fiction." Wasn't "literary fiction" tantamount to boring? And "women's fiction" another term for flimsy fluff?
"Why is there even a category called 'women's fiction?' asked another. "There's no "men's fiction.'"
To be honest, I'd never even thought of that. To be honest, though, I never gave any of the categories much thought. It seems these categories serve only to push readers away. Why do we do this?

Books of the Week
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is required reading for the UCSB African American Women's Lit class--but don't let that category build walls. It's an amazing book about a teenager living in a fundamental Catholic family in Nigeria when the the world begins to crumble under a military coup. I was so entranced by the world Adichie wove, I've since ordered her other two novels, Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Someone Sings the Praises of Underrated Writers

Recently an obviously frustrated writer, who shall go unnamed, decided to rant about today's authors. In his very un-humble opinion, these authors were given too much credit. He trashed some of my favorites--Amy Tan and Junot Diaz.
While I quietly steamed, one brilliant author, Elizabeth Stark, started her own list...underrated authors She has a wonderful blog which not only includes these unsung artists, but has interviews with authors and other writing tips.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fun is just beginning

Summer is winding down--but the fun is about to begin. Two upcoming events which might be of interest:
Award winning author/poet Jenni Beiliki is hosting a win-win auction. While raising funds for breast cancer, she is also addressing the needs of new authors. Visit Critters Against Cancer Auction to bid on a fun title and get a critique of your first chapter. If you bid on My Half of the Sky, I'll be there to guide you.
In a totally different vein--or key, as this case may be--the Cantonese Opera Association will be doing a fundraiser at Borders Books, Milpitas (15 Ranch Drive) on the weekend of September 18/19. They will feature authors of books on China, including fengshui, music, martial arts and My Half of the Sky.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Watching a 50-ton Miracle

I've been in this fog where night is day and day is night, where one day melds into the next, where there's no concern about time or dates. It's also known as summer. It's not been great for writing, but gosh it's been fun.
Yesterday I took my children whale watching in Monterey Bay. Now, if you're like me you think, "Ugh. Whale watching. A scam with seasickness to boot."
Fortunately, my neighbor works at Monterey Bay Aquarium and hears the lowdown on all the stuff going on in the bay.The whales are back in town. Like they haven't been for the past seven years.
At first we saw water spraying in the air, like little bombs exploding beneath the water's surface. One after another after another. Those bombs were the whales. Our boat was surrounded by them.
We saw them dive down and flip their tails, National Geographic style. We saw them come up and open their long wide mouths. We saw them breach (jumping up into the water and landing). That last one still gives me shivers. According to the naturalist on board, a whale is born weighing about 1200 pounds, gains 100 pounds a day, and reaches a weight of about 1 ton per foot. The humpback whale grows to 40-50 feet. So we were watching about 100,000 pounds fly up from the water. 100,000 pounds.
I now have a new image to aid my writing. Each time I feel stuck and think how impossible it is to move forward, to come up with another line, another word, I will see that humpback propelling its massive 50-ton body into the air like a ballerina. Miracles happen.
Books of the Month:
Chasing Windmills by Catherine Ryan Hyde: The story seems simple, at first--boy meets girl on subway, they fall in love and will march off into the sunset...or the crowded streets of New York. But then both the characters have lots and lots of emotional and physical baggage. One is sure that these two will never end up together. The ending is amazing and wonderful and a refreshing twist on happy-ever-afters, reminding us that life is not like the movies.
Into the Wild by Jan Krakauer: Oh, my God. These are the words that keep running through my head as I read of the true account of a young, intelligent, educated man who ditches everything--family, friends, full bank account, promising future--to live out the "ultimate adventure" living off the wilds of Alaska. While this young man's quest did not end in a happy ever after, he reminds us to live life to its fullest.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Descartes Philosophy Not Enough for A Medal

I know I shouldn't be surprised..but the concept bothers me anew at the end of the school year. Yesterday I sat in an audience of adults cheering as though their children had just discovered a cure for AIDS. All I could think of is, "What in the world are we clapping about?" I'm talking about the Million-Word Reader awards.
For those of you fortunate enough not to know what this is, it's a reading campaign started in the US many years back in which children set a goal to read so many words and then try to reach or surpass that goal. There is a complex formula for figuring out how many words are in a book--or there's even a website which will give you the word count.
I protested when the idea was introduced at our school, but was told, 'We're just are trying to find a way to encourage children to read." A noble goal. Still I had my doubts which were confirmed when--more than a few times--I saw my daughter looking through her bookshelf, picking out books and dismissing them NOT because of theme or content or even an ugly jacket cover, but because "they don't have enough words."
Trying to keep an open mind about this campaign, I went looking for research which proves the Million Word Reader encourages reading. I mean after all these years there should be some kind of study. I couldn't find anything other than enthusiastic sites which suggested how your school might advertise the campaign through posters, competitions, award nights. I kept thinking, "What are we doing to this younger generation?"
This ridiculous campaign which has swept the nation strikes me as the Cultural Revolution of Literature. In fact, I can see down the line books with few words being burned as “useless," poetry being banned altogether, Descartes philosophy "I think therefore I am." reduced to a mere five words--or by then it might be considered 18 letters--still not enough for a medal. And all the while we sit there clapping.
Am I just being a fuddy-duddy unable to grasp a new teaching method? Does anyone know of research showing that advertising word count is a better way to get kids to read? If not, does anyone have thoughts on how to combat this disaster?
Book of the Week: After the Workshop by John McNally is a novel about a man who joined the highly revered Iowa Writer's Workshop and then stagnated, in the meantime becoming a media escort. It's fun and funny.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Mystery to Be Unraveled

This past weekend, I was invited to listen to the Hindu religious teacher, Swami Chidananda, who was visiting the Bay Area for the first time in three years. One portion of his talk focused on the quote "Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived."
I smiled. Not only life. One could say the same of a manuscript.
While there might be a few basic rules to follow, each novel is unique....a mystery to be unraveled.
I'll be doing a workshop on some of those rules of scene-building for the upcoming East of Eden Writers Conference in Salinas, CA from September 24-26. If you're interested in unraveling a bit of the mystery of your manuscript, come join us.

Book of the Week: I always like to give my brain a reward for doing research. So after a week of reading (portions of) The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam which is a fascinating moment by moment account of the Korean War (and started during the coldest winter in recorded history making it deadly for many of the soldiers), I gave myself a break.
Katie Fforde writes just such relaxing novels--fun, witty stories which make me feel like I'm watching an English television drama. So I plunged into her latest book--ugh. It was hysterically horrible. Her dialogue which drives her stories and is normally so fun was beyond terrible....
"I've got such good news! I wish you'd sit down."
"If it's that good why haven't you told me already? Why have breakfast first?"
"Because I need to have you calm and sitting down."
"I am calm and sitting down. Unlike you."
And on and on...
I was so ready to return to the Coldest Winter--in fact, I would have read anything.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Give Yourself Time...Enough to do your best

My daughter's school has an extra program called The Autonomous Learner Degree. It's not an official degree, but something the students can do and be rewarded for upon graduation. To earn this degree, the student needs to demonstrate proficiency in all areas of life--community service, art, research, politics, etc. My daughter who wants to do everything, and who naturally did all of these "autonomous" things--wanted this extra degree. The only problem: she had to provide all documentation by a certain date (which was last Thursday). She kept putting this part off and putting this part off and putting this part off.
The night before the due date we were ALL up til after midnight helping her film her role play of a gifted individual, helping her find pictures for a timeline, helping her figure out a software to make an animated lesson....all things that she could have spent days on. She woke up early Thursday morning to cram in a few more things.
When I went to pick her up after she'd seen the leader of the ALD program, she seemed relaxed and resigned.
"I didn't get it," she said. The teacher had told her that her animation project was too simple and to come in to fix it, but "if she stopped me on that project, she's not going to approve the others."
Whereas I was ready to have her run in and make that last shot toward the gold medal--or whatever the award was--she was the one who stopped me, saying "I didn't give myself enough time."
I felt in the presence of a guru (albeit a miniature guru who also cried and screamed in frustration).
I always think if I push hard enough anything is possible. Anything. She reminded me otherwise. She also reminded me of my own ALD--my writing. I was reminded that it's tough to make choices between all the wonderful opportunities available--lunch with friends, a walk with the dog, reading a good book--but when it comes to my story, my manuscript, I need to reserve enough time to do my best.
Book of the Week
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen is as captivating as reading one of her old essays in Time. She has that same down-to-earth voice which made me a fan of hers for years (In fact I used to subscribe to the magazine long after it morphed into a version of the Enquirer, just so I could read her column.) Every Last One is the story of a Mother dealing with her three children and husband and their individual issues--some of which turn out to be huge. It is written in present tense (which is always a bit jarring)-- but once you get past that it's a gem. If you're a parent, you'll find yourself smiling, giggling, nodding...and crying.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I just want an "aha!"

This past week has been miserable, as I stumbled around in the dark trying to get my characters on the next part of the lighted-path. I kept thinking....
"This shouldn't be happening. I'm revising. This should be easy."
It's not.
I tried doing more research.
I tried reading books to jumpstart different techniques.
Yesterday, I spent the whole day doing totally unrelated but creative things--making greeting cards, calendars--in the hopes of finding a spark.
Nothing hit me as an "aha!"
(What I got was a more boring return to old pages to refocus this and refocus that--kind of like getting a sparkler which fizzles halfway down.)
How do you get your creativity flowing? How do you get past a dark patch in your writing?
Book of the Week:
I don't have one. I started --then abandoned--a whole bunch, as they weren't offering the right spark. I'm sure they are good books, but I'm in hyper-critical mode right now. Next week should be better.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Is Today Mother's Day?

There seemed to be a lot of confusion over Mother's Day this weekend. On Saturday, my husband came home with a dozen roses. My youngest handed me a poem she'd written at school. "Is today Mother's day?"

Mother's day can be loosely tied to ancient spring celebrations in Greece honoring Rhea, the Mother of Gods. Or to celebrations in England honoring the Christian Mother Mary (Mothering Sunday). But our present holiday is thanks to one ordinary woman--Anna Jarvis-- an unmarried, childless woman who cared so much about her mother that she went about creating a day to honor mothers. Three years after her mother's death, she held the first mother's day on May 10, 1908. The idea caught on, and eventually (1914) Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday.

Yesterday, while my eldest son prepared a feast, I went to hear Anne Quindlen discuss her latest book Every Last One at the
Commonwealth Club. A mother's day treat for myself. She discussed her writing process, saying she often felt as if she was channeling the feelings of another person. That she was just the conduit. Often she'd sit down to write and get so involved that when she looked up at the clock, several hours had gone by.

One shouldn't be watching the clock, counting the pages, the words, the letters.

I thought, yes, when the stars are aligned and all goes right.

Just like one shouldn't be watching the date. When it goes right.
Every day is Mother's day. At least it should be. Right?

But then the magic isn't always there.

This morning, I took my son to school. He turned on a rock station, the guitar notes making my eyes twitch. I turned the radio off. He turned it back on, switching stations to a no-less jarring tune. He gave me an impish grin.

"Whatever happened to Happy Mother's day?" I asked.

"That was yesterday."

Here's hoping that magic happens--in your writing and your life--more times than not.

Books of the Week

I am Nujood Age 10 and Divorced< by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui
Escape by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer

By coincidence both of these books are about women who, due to religious and cultural constraints, were forced into arranged marriages with men many times their age. One of them was from Yemen, and one of them was from the good ole U.S. of A. Both stories-although not literary gems- are fascinating.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Good Morning To You

All year long my youngest has been asking for a surprise party for her birthday--which is later in May. It's all been very funny, especially when her older brother points out
"If you ask for a surprise party, what part of it is a surprise?"
But I thought I'd try.
So I booked a campsite this last weekend, told her we were going camping and invited all her friends.
There was only one issue. We weren't doing a cake (but smores), so there would be no candles to blow out.
"Where did that tradition come from anyway," my husband asked.
We stopped packing the van to find out. Apparently blowing out candles on your birthday cake originates from the ancient Greeks. Every sixth day of the month, the Greeks celebrated the birthday of the Goddess of the Hunt (Artemis). Each household made a honey cake in her honor. In ancient times, people believed the Gods came to attention when you lit a candle. Thus each month, they lit a candle and made a wish to the Goddess. Once she received the wish, the candle was blown out. Over the years, we've adopted a similar idea with our birthday cakes.
Once I started researching on the subject of birthdays, I couldn't stop....
The birthday song originates from a kindergarten song written in 1892 by two sisters Patti and Mildred Hill. Patti Hill was a kindergarten teacher (who incidentally laid the foundation for the standards of kindergarten education in public schools.) She wrote a song called, "Good Morning To You." Later the words were changed around--and we got Happy Birthday To You.
It's a good thing one of the birthday guests called to remind me of the original goal--a surprise party--and took me away from this gold mine of information.
The party turned out to be a great surprise. We sang the Hill's birthday song. Then we all held candles and blew them out, figuring whatever wish my daughter had, she would need her friends (as well) to help her make it come true.
Book of the Week
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is set in the 1940's and is the story of a young girl whose given up into the foster care of a German family sympathetic to the Jews. It is told fascinatingly through the voice of death. I loved this book, and then passed it onto my 8th grader. He's devouring it.

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