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A few years ago when I took part in the Maui Writer’s Retreat, I had a one-on-one meeting with my group’s director, Gail Tsukiyama, to go over my opening chapters of Laps, the novel I plan to finish by the end of this year.

Ms. Tsukiyama is the well-known author of such novels as Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden, and first developed her writing reputation as a poet. I knew, therefore, that she would be the perfect person to approach about one essential aspect of my planned novel.

Since my protagonist in Laps is an award-winning novelist, with a prior preference for poetry, and a crucial piece of communication is passed to her in the form of a poem in the opening chapter, I wanted to know how much poetry I could/should include in the entire novel. I had already written three additional poems (one short and funny to help shed light on a character’s sense of humor… the other two more serious to reflect the thinking of two characters, both aspiring poets) into the storyline.

Now, I will be the first to admit that my poetry is amateurish, when judged against the work of professional poets. Still, these were only to be representative of high school work.

Ms. Tsukiyama’s response? Go ahead and use the first one that is so essential to the plotline, but leave out the others. I must admit I was a bit disappointed. When I returned to the mainland and shared her counsel with my writers group, they all vigorously disagreed. The poets in my group, in particular, wanted me to leave them in. I, myself, am inclined to leave them in…even, the short, silly one.

What is your view on the use of poetry in a novel? If you are reading a novel and, turning the page, you see what is apparently a poem on the next page, do you pass right over it or attempt to read and understand it?

Just to be clear about the kind of poem I’m talking about, I’ll post one of the poems I plan on putting in Laps here:

 

“Encased in Glass”

 

I wake and look to Heaven in a moment,

Stretch and spread each feathered limb.

Set to soar above the clamor, toward the clouds,

I lift my wings, go flying up to Him.

 

In air, I feel the breath of freedom’s flight.

The pull of earth grows less and less.

Wings of power raise me ever near His face,

But just as I reach out to His caress

 

I strike an unseen barrier to my quest–

Some glass invisible all ’round

Encloses me as if I were a captive bird,

Freedom’s promise dying in the sound

 

Of beating wings, beating on the glass,

Furiously fanning air,

Bruising pinions on this clear celestial veil,

Thrashing for the door no matter where.

 

Spent, confused, I fall again to earth,

Lie still, and heal my heaving heart,

Then rise once more to fly the path to Heaven’s word,

To shatter glass and break this world apart.

 

Must angels beat their way through glass to us?

Is earth encased, kept separate from

That realm majestic? Or have human doubts walled up

That door where Jacob’s ladder bid us come?

 

I would love to get feedback on whether poems in novels are a turn-off or whether you view them as enriching.

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I Need Not Fear

I finally realized this afternoon that all my questioning about the direction of my second novel was simply a manifestation of my fear. Fear that I can’t finish a novel again and, certainly now, fear that it will not equal or surpass my first, given that The Reckoning has now garnered honors I never anticipated.

Fortunately, my niece, Catherine, brought to my attention this wonderful talk on creativity by the best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love and it is well worth taking 20 minutes out of your day to watch if you are an artist of any kind:

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I suppose I should have waited (and maybe should still wait) a few more hours to post about the results of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards… because at 1:14 pm I received a new email congratulating me on WINNING the award for Multicultural Fiction.

It’s true that I entered 6 categories, and have won or placed in 3, so there’s still an outside chance that there may be more news to come, but I am perfectly happy right now as it is. Within a couple of weeks they will announce the grand prize winners (which I now have a shot at), but I’m afraid until then it will be hard to concentrate on my writing.

Nevertheless, I will.

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Synonyms for “inadequacy,” according to the Thesaurus, include the following:

incompetence, incapability, unfitness, ineffectiveness, inefficiency, inefficacy, inexpertness, ineptness, uselessness, impotence, powerlessness, inferiority, and mediocrity.

Yes, that pretty much sums up how I felt when I held my first-born daughter, Allison, in my arms for the first time… and I felt little better when I held my second child, Jason, three years later. I certainly felt incompetent, incapable, unfit, ineffective, and inefficient. Even after three years, I was still inexpert. How did I cope? My own mother swooped in both times to save the day… or, rather, the first 14 days.

And I was grateful, oh so grateful.

But it also tended to confirm my feelings of inferiority and mediocrity. I imagine most, if not all, new mothers share these same feelings. After all, no life experience fully prepares you for motherhood. We all enter into it naive, bumbling, and full of fears. Even now, more than eighteen years later, I feel inadequate as a mother. The challenges have changed as the children have grown, but almost every day, in some small way, I am reminded of my insufficiencies.

Particularly on Mother’s Day. I will go to Church today and listen to the speakers laud their mothers who, like mine, were perfect in every way… loving, nurturing, encouraging, and forgiving homemakers who made our family life a bit of “heaven on earth.” (Now, I know not all children view their mothers that way… a neighbor across the street back in California vowed she “would be a good mother,” unlike her own; but you never hear of those kinds of mothers on Mother’s Day.) And I will come away feeling, again, inadequate.

I am no homemaker. I was never so inclined and, at this late stage, do not feel sufficiently motivated to master such skills. Besides, I was fortunate enough to marry a man who enjoys cooking and cleaning.

My so-called maternal instincts seem set on the back burner… unless my child is hurt and needs protection. Then I rear up like a mother bear, ready to pounce on the offender. But, for the most part, I seem to take too much after my dad: focused inward; always thinking about the world and analyzing its problems; shy about imposing myself on others; happy in my cocoon of self-isolation.

Why can’t I be more like my mother? She would love the whole world if she had time and money enough to travel. Her first instinct is to nourish. As soon as someone crosses their threshold, she asks, “Can I get you anything? Are you hungry or thirsty?” And she continues to amaze me in the kitchen. After all these years, she’s still experimenting with new tastes, spices, etc. More than anything, she gave me the room to grow into the person I am today, and the confidence I would need to be content with myself…

Except on Mother’s Day.

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More on Thayer

I finished The Tree House by Doug Thayer last night. Very strong, sweet, and powerful. The further I got into the book, the more I saw his writing change, ever so subtly. It was almost as if the narrator was the inner voice of the protagonist (named Harris, by the way). As Harris faced new challenges, and the Korean War, in particular, this voice seemed to gradually age, using more textured language later on.

Yes, there were still a lot of short, punchy declarative sentences, but not as many as early on. I can’t help wondering if this was intended by Thayer.

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In my scripture reading yesterday, I came upon that well-known sentence in 1st Nephi, Chapter 16:29–“And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” Cross references led me to another less familiar Biblical scripture: James 3:4–“Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.”

What does all this have to do with writing? Plenty, I believe. That latter scripture brought to mind an excellent book on writing, “Steering the Craft,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book evolved from a workshop she gave at a writers conference back in 1996. As she put it in the Introduction:

“The course description said we would work on punctuation, sentence length, verb person and tense, POV, voice, and other such technical aspects of narrative prose. I offered the course because I’d been meeting a good many workshop writers who were afraid of semicolons and didn’t know a Point of View from a Scenic Vista. It was supposed to be a workshop for people who needed to work on their navigational skills before they took the boat out across the Pacific.”

As it turned out, the workshop became something much more, and I highly recommend her book to all writers. Indeed, it’s a perfect text for a small group of writers to follow in honing their craft, as it contains discussion topics and exercises essential to any dedicated writer. (I may even try to form such a group if there is sufficient interest.)

My point remains this: any work of fiction can sail freely or get caught in the shoals based on a slight turn here and there, whether that turn is a seemingly small plot development, a weakness in grammar, the wrong POV, etc.

As taught in the scriptures, by the great Author of our faith, by small means are great things accomplished.

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While I have always loved reading and writing, I somehow managed to get through my BYU years without ever taking a class from Doug Thayer, the so-called “Mormon Hemingway,” or even reading one of his short stories. I probably would have, had Brother Cracroft’s withering critique of my feeble creative writing attempts not entirely cowed me. Instead, I chickened out and went the Journalism route.

I am now in the middle of Thayer’s novel, The Tree House, and I have to say I am both puzzled and intrigued. His writing is so simple and declarative that I’m afraid it wouldn’t score well in my son’s Freshman Honors English class. Almost every sentence is a short, flat punch. Even after 10 pages in, I found myself unsure how or why this man could have ever received the laurels he has.

Nevertheless, I plowed on and, somewhere in the third chapter, I suddenly realized I had been drawn into the story. The plot had finally begun to show signs of life, but it was something more: I had entered this boy’s mind. As I considered just when and how, the secret of Thayer’s style came to me: He writes in thoughts. And thoughts are not usually long and involved; they are short, staccato bursts… declarative in every way.

Now, my son’s English teacher may want to see several sentences in a story or essay begin with participial phrases, but that is not the way we think. Let’s say I have just come from a physical therapy session (which I have) and I’m tired, so the first thing I notice upon entering the house is the living room couch. My thought, upon seeing the sofa, would not be: “Having come from therapy, worn out and tired, I see a good place to rest.” It would more likely be: “There’s the couch. I’m going to hoist my feet up for a while.”

In writing, as with most things in life, the simple and subtle can be most powerful. Now that I have an appreciation for Thayer’s style, I’m hoping it doesn’t get in the way during the rest of the book. I don’t think it will.

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