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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Suburban Thunder: How Taiko Drumming Fuels My Writing

In a quiet, working-class town outside of Boston, behind a bowling alley and an electricians' school, next to a Brazilian church, inside a nondescript building housing a Chinese cultural center, I've discovered a wonderful little slice of Japan. It's a dojo, a practice space for a taiko drumming group, and it's my escape hatch on Tuesdays.

This week I started my third semester of classes  with Odaiko New England. I figure I must be hooked, as I drove out to this place in the sleet, over icy roads, with a head cold and a pounding headache. Nothing like the sound of 25 drummers to ease a pounding headache, right? And yet as I got out of my car, joining fellow drummers wielding bachi (long wooden sticks), my symptoms miraculously dissipated. Taiko on Tuesdays always hits my reset button.

Here's a quick overview, since most people, when I talk taiko, stare at me blankly. In Japanese, taiko means "drum." Most of the drums we use are tall and wide, but there actually several different types of drums, drum stands, and drumming positions. The type of drumming I'm learning with Odaiko New England is called kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming. It is at once musical, artistic, and athletic, combining fluid movements with vigorous rhythms. Borrowing from martial arts as well, drummers cultivate a community spirit and give each other energy (ki) through the practice of kiai (vocal energy, or shouting, while playing). They also try to give energy by making eye contact. And, on occasion, smiling at each other. Which is actually really hard to do if you're trying to remember the phrase of a song, or learn a complicated rhythm, and not take off anyone's head with a drumstick.

The noise and the interaction with others couldn't be more different from the writing life. I think that's largely why I've come to love it. The contrast feels necessary. I'm not alone in this, I suspect, since I've met other fiction writers through drumming. (And quite a lot of computer programmers. I think this is an intriguing topic for another post someday!)

But I also find discipline and routine in taiko. Predictability mixed with bursts of improvisation. In this sense, it couldn't be more similar to the writing life. At the beginning of taiko, we bow before entering the dojo. We sit in a circle and greet one another in Japanese. We bow again. We warm up in a predictable manner, gradually building our energy and focus. I don't do the same rituals when I enter my home office and sit at my computer, but taiko has helped me cultivate a sense of discipline and focus that I try to apply to my days at the desk. I view my office as a dojo, a practice space. I work to clear my head before entering, to warm up before hitting the novel-in-progress, and to minimize visual distractions. I'm not always successful, but taiko prompts me to try.

As I left my car the other night and hurried across the ice to the dojo, already drawn to the vibrations of early drummers warming up, I realized one more thing I love about taiko -- especially doing taiko in the suburbs. It cultivates my inner rebel. I love that on a cold winter night, when a lot of us should be home with our families, or watching TV or tidying up the kitchen, we're in a dojo drumming our hearts out. I love that in this quirky location, people might pass us as they head out to restaurants or bars, or to the bowling alley or the electricians' school, and wonder what the hell is going on in there. As a YA writer, it's important to get in touch with that inner rebel now and then, to relight that fire, even for two hours. It can't be a coincidence that Wednesday mornings are my most productive writing times. The thunder is still in my ears.

Here are some pictures of my class performing at the 2010 Odaiko New England Winter Extravaganza. I'm in the front row, just to the right of the dark drum in the center. (Faces are blurry -- you'll have to take my word for it!)

And if you've followed me this far, here are videos for two pieces from the 2010 Winter Extravaganza. My beginner class is the first video; a more advanced class can be seen in the second.

What physical activities or hobbies fuel your writing life?

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Teen Dreamers: Ambitious Characters in YA Fiction

Wanted: Teen characters with at least one goal or dream beyond high school, beyond Getting the Guy. Ideal candidates: strivers and do-ers. Young people with skills, talents, passions. Passive whiners and drifters need not apply.

Yesterday I wrote this ad and taped it above my desk. I wanted to remind myself to be on the lookout for more passionate, active, motivated characters in my YA reading and writing. I'm trying to counteract my natural tendency to start writing projects with main characters who seem adrift, whose immediate or longer-term goals are unclear. ("Great, but what does she want?" my critique group moans when I bring in a draft too early. "And what else does she do?"). This aimless tendency is probably normal in a draft stage, as I'm just beginning to explore the character's personality and dipping my feet into my story. But at some point, character traits need to crystallize. Having a character with a clearly defined passion or personal goal helps me get into the dreaded "murky middle" of a novel. A character's special skill, or steps toward a personal goal, can open up all kinds of scene possibilities. An ambitious character leads me faster to intriguing tensions and conflicts. And I believe YA writers can honor the richness of our teen readers' lives when we infuse our characters with a little ambition.

Reading YA novels, I'm training myself to be more alert to characters with an extra "spark" of motivation, or a skill they cultivate. I've found two types of novels with ambitious characters. In one type, the entire novel hangs on the main character's talent and accompanying ambitions, like Justina Chen's Girl Overboard -- a story of a teen snowboarder who, after an injury, parlays her snowboarding expertise into new and exciting directions and helps her fractured family come together. In the other type, the main character's skill and ambition play a secondary role to the story's main objective. Yet they help to round out the character and assist her pursuit of a different goal. I just found a great example of that in Beth Revis's Across the Universe. This is a sci-fi thriller about a girl who's been cryogenically frozen on a spaceship heading for a distant planet 300 years in the future. Amy is awakened 50 years too soon, and finds herself trapped in a spaceship with a killer aboard. She worries her still-frozen parents could be targeted too. Amy's immediate objectives are clearly defined, and urgent. But what rounds her out wonderfully is her passion for running. We learn that she ran all the time back on Earth, and that she used to dream of running in the New York City marathon. Her desire to run is so strong that she finds a way to do so even within the confines of a spaceship, and even though pursuing her passion means putting herself in danger.The running aids her in her goal of figuring out the spaceship's secrets. It also makes her real.

I'm trying to remember what my own ambitions were as a teen, and to tap into some of the emotions around them. In my teen years, some dreams flared up and blew out fast. Like the idea of being a fashion designer/actress/film director. (Yes, all at once). And I was probably not the best goal-setter in high school; it was sometimes hard to imagine ever getting out of that place and going on to start my own life. But one thing was constant. I always wrote, and I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I scribbled novels during math class, sometimes co-authored with a friend by passing manuscripts back and forth under desks. (Oh, I failed math that semester). I sometimes lied to friends about my plans or my whereabouts so that I could stay in on a Friday night (gasp!) and write. I was embarrassed and private about my writing, yet I secretly entered -- and won -- several contests for young writers. I browsed the annual Writers Market at the library, and swapped it for a more acceptable Sweet Valley High novel if I saw a friend coming my way. These memories serve to remind me that young people can be fiercely passionate about their interests. They will structure their lives around what matters most. Characters can do this too.

What are some of your favorite ambitious characters in YA fiction? What are some of your teen memories about ambitions, hopes and dreams?

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Avatars Abroad

I've always loved writing about adventures abroad. I spent my 20's and early 30's with a suitcase constantly packed, and brought home more words about the places I went to than photos or souvenirs. But what's a travel writer to do when she's grounded? When she has a family and can't fly so far?

I've been wrestling with this issue because my current work in progress is partially set in another country. Wondering if my journals and photos were enough to jog my memories and provide the details to bring scenes to life, I thought about returning. It might be good to check some facts. Update my information. Smell the diesel fumes again, eat the local food. Record the sights and sounds anew. Then I remembered I had a three-year-old. And not the most adaptable sort of three-year-old either. The kind who loves to curl up on the couch with his beloved Pixar movies, and who won't eat unless his particular brands of mac n cheese and sliced cheese squares and cheesey chicken nuggets are available. (Hmm . . . is Wisconsin in our future?) Well, in other words, I have a very typical three-year-old. I hear mythic, romantic tales of people who travel the world with their toddlers, strapping cheerful babes to their backs and setting off for a lengthy hike, or zipping around Europe with them babbling contentedly in a bicycle trailer. Right. Not happening here.

                                          Source: www.freedigitalphotos.net

And leaving my family to jet off on a research trip? At this stage, it's unimaginable. I've never left my son for more than one night, and the one time I had to board a plane without him -- for a one-day business trip to Washington, D.C. -- I was consumed with visions of a plane crash leaving him motherless. 

Yes, I'm grounded for the time being. It's a temporary state; I know I'll travel again, both solo and with my family. Just not in the next six months. This has left me with decisions to make about how to update my information about the setting of my work-in-progress.

Fortunately, so much is available online now. Travelers post photos and videos daily. Travelers write blogs. Local news stations broadcast online around the world. Webcams show the weather as it's actually happening. And guidebooks, both hard copies and online, can provide a lot of the basic information I need to stay current.

What I was craving, I realized, was a sense of the mood of this region these days, since the political and economic climate has altered. I also wanted to get a sense of the pulse of life for young people there now. Where they hang out, where they avoid. Where they meet locals, where they meet expats. How their perceptions of the country have been challenged or changed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if I dragged my family there for a week, I wouldn't necessarily get that information. Not sealed up in an air-conditioned Marriott drinking our bottled water. I had a sense of youth culture and the pulse and pace of life by actually living and working in that country, years ago. If I went there now, it would be a different trip altogether.

It occurred to me that an avatar would be useful. Some ability to send a version of myself to walk those streets and absorb the culture there today, without leaving home. But wait -- couldn't technology make that possible? I got to work.

I designed a three-page questionnaire for people under 30, living and working in that country. I got in touch with schools I had worked with in the past and organizations that cater to young expats. I offered Amazon gift certificates in exchange for thoughtful answers to my questions about life there today. I got a fair number of respondents, and the surveys are flying back to me now, with useful and insightful information -- exactly the kind of word-on-the-street stuff I wanted to absorb. Collectively, the responses are giving me a picture of the place right now; they also jog more memories of my own experiences there. Everyone so far has offered to be available to answer further questions. At some point in the story I'm writing I'll need to figure out a certain type of travel route, and I hope one of my avatars, or ground troops there, will be willing to test it out for me.

I'd love to hear from others who set their works in distant places: how do you jog your memories or take virtual trips? How important do you feel it is to actually visit the places you write about?

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Retracing My Steps: The Pros and Cons of Travel Journals

Lately I've been diving into old journals I kept while traveling and living in another country. I'm setting a good portion of my novel-in-progress in that locale, so I am grateful for the detailed records I kept. While I experienced a number of exciting, dramatic events there (including being in city bus that drove into a bank window, and hitchhiking to the ocean with friends on the back of a Coca-Cola delivery truck), it is the most mundane details that now grab my attention. What I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Where I shopped for groceries. What the mornings smelled like. The wild pointsetta trees that burst into red blooms in plazas, like little explosions of Christmas. And the interesting characters who made cameo appearances in my day-to-day life: a peace-loving military official whom I used to tutor, and a business executive who studied jujitsu and farmed ostriches. These are the kinds of details I can comb through now to help bring a story to life.

Surprisingly less useful to me now: profound insights I had about Life at the time. Whining about culture shock, bureaucracy, and general frustrations. Sights and experiences that blew me away, described in glowing abstractions. Actually, the whole narrative of my journeys to this country -- two visits and a nine-month stint working there -- are almost completely useless to me as a fiction writer.

I write a lot of fiction based on my travel experiences, perhaps as homages to the countries I've loved. The end result is always quite different from what I actually experienced. It's tempting to mine my travel journals for the story itself. I often think, reaching for an old journal: Hey, this trip had a beginning, a middle, and an end! Lots of stuff happened! I can write about it!  The story's practically already written!

But that's dangerous thinking. Most of us, when we travel, do not have a neat narrative arc to our journeys. The travel journal typically records highs and lows, twists and turns, that are not necessarily compelling as a story or novel. For example, browsing through a journal of a 12-day trip to Turkey, I see that I experienced the following high and low points: a tumble down a flight of marble stairs, a deeply spiritual experience in a mosque, a persistent foot infection, the most heavenly breakfast, three nights in a cave, a brief spat with my husband (which involved an ice cream cone being flung out a car window at high speed, for reasons that now elude me), a breathtaking trek through village ruins led by an eight-year-old boy (and goat), and thugs attempting to break into our car and lure us into a jewelry store. All fascinating stuff that still makes my heart beat faster when I read it. Yet using the travelogue as the basis for a story or a book requires a lot of work. The material must be sifted through and reshaped, and much of it rejected altogether.

Another danger of relying too heavily on travel journals is the temptation to bend the story to follow events from the journal, or to let geography dictate the plot. In my forthcoming novel The Frame Game, I spent years, and about fifty pages, agonizing over how to get my heroines to a remote Japanese mountain village where they could stay in an ancient thatch-roof house where silkworms were once farmed. Cool place, right? I thought so. Simply because I had traveled there, and been blown away by the village and these houses, and devoted pages and pages of my journal to this place.

It was a huge revelation when one day I realized: there is no earthly reason for these girls to go to this village or to the silkworm houses! My traveler's memory had been insisting on this destination, but the story resisted it. Everything they needed to accomplish could be done right were they already were.

In revisiting my old travel journals, then, it helps to try to read them through my main character's lens. What would my character -- not me -- notice or take away from these experiences? What would my character  be interested in? Do the places, events, and details I recorded for posterity actually serve the story? If I want to include some events, what happens if I present them in a different order? Can I imagine a totally different premise or outcome than what I journaled? What if they happened to a person who is very different from myself?

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Back in the Saddle: Writing after the Holidays

I always start January impatient to get back to my desk. This year I feel that more than ever. A two-week visit in Seattle with family was luxurious, yet it derailed my novel-in-progress, the blog I started right before Christmas (what was I thinking?) and my daily journal habit. My world of words shrank to the size of my iPhone screen, as my mother got me completely addicted to WordJong.

Okay, have you played WordJong? Forget the Angry Bird craze. I love this game. Birdsong, rivers and Zen-like music play in the background as you calmly make words and clear lettered tiles from a board. You get endless second chances at this game, undoing words and playing again to beat your scores. It's a great self-esteem booster too, as cute little animals pop up now and then to tell you what a HUGE success you are, how BRILLIANT your long words are. (Who in real life does that?) It has the feel of a relaxing, non-competitive game, except for the not-so-cute animals that also pop up to taunt you with their high scores. Oh, and my mom. I'm determined to beat my mom's daily score every day, and I haven't managed to do it yet, she's that good. But I digress.

Yes, I'm much more prone to digressions and interruptions and time wasters in January, despite my fierce determination to bolt myself to my desk. And that is why I've just made arrangements for the number one strategy these days that kickstarts my writing . I've made a library date with a writing buddy.

Not long ago, through an online forum for writers, Backspace (http://www.bksp.org), I met a writer who also lives in my town and who also has a novel coming out in 2012. She's also a parent of young children and juggling family life with writing. We started getting together to write at a library nearby while our kids were in preschool.

Now when my writing buddy first proposed this idea, my first reaction was almost defensive. Write with someone? But nooooo! I work alone! I have always been a solitude-seeker.Though I've had a fantastic, supportive critique group for over ten years now, and have many wonderful writer friends, it never occurred to me to actually sit down and work with any of them.

But then I remembered the happy years when I DID work with other writers. I once belonged to an urban writers cooperative, The Writers Room of Boston. We rented space in a downtown office building, which meant we got to put on actual clothes and go downtown and sit at desks like, well, real working people. And though I never socialized much with anyone there (we were there to work, not chat), I did find comfort in hearing the sounds of people writing all around me. The tapping of keyboards, the sipping of tea, the sighs of frustration and the sighs of satisfaction. It was incredibly motivating, and validating. This is my job, I would think as I sat in my cubicle -- even though I was working two other jobs, and even though I'd spent my entire professional life trying to avoid a cubicle.

The birth of my child forced me to end my membership at the Writers Room, as it was too cumbersome and time-consuming to get downtown, and I was too greedy for any spare minute at my desk. I didn't want to waste precious time commuting. But my writing buddy's idea to get together at a library suddenly made me ache for the quiet companionship I once found in the Writers Room, working silently among like-minded people, and I ached for the motivational surge I would get from writing in such an environment.

And in fact, as soon as I started meeting my writing buddy at the library, I had a similar sensation. No cubicle this time -- we met in a grand periodicals reading room, surrounded by wood-paneled walls and high ceilings. Hunkered down at our big table, between Opera News and Oprah Magazine, we got stuff done. I advanced my novel-in-progress five pages a day; she reworked some essays.

Writing with someone, in person, is a great motivator. It makes me less likely to shirk from my goals, as it's awkward to call up with some lame excuse for not going. It guarantees I will sit at the table and at least open my computer and my document, and while it's open, I might as well read over what I've written, and while I'm doing that I might as well tweak this, and add that, and suddenly I'm writing again, moving forward, logging words and pages. I wish I could import the WordJong guys to pop up on my screen and say "HUGE SUCCESS!" because that's what it feels like. These small daily triumphs are in fact huge successes. They add up fast. 

I have just enough time to squeeze in one last game of WordJong this morning. A warthog is commanding me to tremble before his mighty score of 91. (My mom got something like 180). I'll give it one shot, and that's it. Then time to get back to my new Writers Room, off and running on my work in progress again.

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reading Resolutions for 2011

Like many bibliophiles and fellow writers, I maintain extensive reading lists. Mine are organized roughly by genre, jotted down on receipts and other scraps of paper, and updated in spare moments to a master list on my iPhone. If I'm in a bookstore or library I can readily hunt down my titles.

In 2010, I read voraciously, devouring 56 books. I'm not exactly sure how I accomplished this feat, as I was extremely busy juggling freelance writing and editing gigs, revising and trying to sell my novel, and parenting a toddler. I suppose my reading habit was helped by having a child who would only nap when driven to some distant destination. Much of my reading was done midday in a boring parking lot in a neighboring town, where my son would reliably nod off and allow me an hour-long fictional escape. I read like a criminal, in furtive snatches of stolen time.

Though I'm happy I beat the odds and made it through so many pages in 2010, I now find myself wishing I'd read a little more mindfully sometimes. Was I really reading books, or was I consuming them? Always conscious of the time pressures I faced, I fell into the habit of panicked reading. Done, cross it off the list, on to the next novel! It was like being the first to race out of the concert hall when instead, at times, I should have sat and listened to the reverberation of those final notes.

Here, then, is my list of Reading Resolutions for 2011, with the goal of more mindful reading:

1. Reflect on what you read. Don't immediately dive into a new book. Take a day or two to think about what you've just read, about the world you've just visited for the past 300 pages or so. Think of how the book changed, challenged, or confirmed your views. Allow yourself to feel the emotions the narrative stirs up in you. Analyze choices the author made on the page. Select tools from the author's toolbox that might be useful for your own work. Take time to write down reactions and opinions before they are lost -- either in a journal or as a review posted online.

2. Explore new genres. Don't binge too long on a particular genre or writer. Every couple of months, forge into new territory. How long has it been since you read science fiction? Historical fiction? Something about the Middle Ages? Fantasy? Philosophy? And what is steampunk, anyway?

3. Read globally. Don't get locked into American writers. Find exciting new voices in translation. Read books from various countries, especially non-Western ones.

4. Respect the elders. Read at least three books written before you were born. Or revisit some of the traditional "classics."

5. Reread. Think of how children often reread their favorite dogeared books. Retrospective reading is a different kind of reading. Reread a book you read for a college class, or a novel you shelved ten years ago, or a favorite childhood book. Does it speak to you the same way, or does your older self receive a different message from it now? How much did you remember?

6. Reach out to authors. Writing is lonely. Writers love compliments. I occasionally am motivated to send emails to authors immediately after reading their books. When I do, I always get a prompt response, and I always learn something interesting and useful about that writer's process in the course of a few email exchanges. Try to connect with six new authors whose work you admire.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!

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