Monday, December 21, 2009

Kiss and Tell

According to Elana's blog (well, she got the idea from another blog), today is a Kissing Day Blogfest, when you're supposed to post a kissing scene from your blog. I don't often post excerpts from my work in progress here, but I thought I'd play along. This is from Across Two Universes. Paul is attempting to convince his childhood sweetheart, Yvonne, to help him, but he becomes distracted when he learns he has a rival....

Paul’s blood pulsed at the unfamiliar male name. “Caleb? Who’s Caleb?”

She flushed. “The minister’s son at Nana’s church. We dated a couple of times while I was on leave.”

He grabbed her hand. How dare someone try to steal Yvonne from him! He forced himself to breathe slowly, normally, as if he didn’t want to punch this Caleb’s guts out.

“You love him?” he challenged her.

“I...I don’t know. No. Not yet, anyway; I don’t know him that well. All I know is he expects to take over the church when his father retires. I felt like he was interviewing me for the job of minister’s wife. Stop squeezing me so hard!”

He relaxed his grip. “I’m sorry.” He rubbed her hands with his thumbs, hoping he hadn’t hurt her. “Look, I don’t care who this guy is, if he’s telling you what to do, he’s not the one for you.”

She met his gaze. “And you think you are?”

He looked down at her. Even as upset as she was, she was still beautiful. If anything, the tears sparkling in the corners of her eyes and the color in her cheeks brought her passion to the surface. Her hair smelled like lavender; he wanted to bury his face in it. For the first time since he’d revealed he was Sean’s clone, she didn’t seem afraid of him.

His hand drifted up to her chin. “I could be, if you’d let me.”

It seemed the most natural thing in the universe to kiss her, so he did. He wasn’t sure if she’d ever French-kissed before, so he pressed her lips gently with his tongue. When she let him in, he wrapped his free arm around her and pulled her closer. He’d waited years for this moment; he needed to savor every detail of her, from the way her mouth tasted of apples to the way her curves fit so well against him.

Yvonne’s hands crept up his back, raising prickles of excitement. Her mouth opened wider, and she returned his exploration of her mouth with a tentative quest into his. But then she pushed herself away. Stunned, he let her go.

She fought to control her breathing, but her eyes were still full of longing even as she said, “I can’t do this, Paul.”

The sweet taste in his mouth turned bitter. “I shouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry.”

He bolted for the exit so quickly he almost stepped on a butterfly.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Polar Express

Early this evening, we took Alex for a ride on the Polar Express.

A nearby trolley museum hosts the Polar Express every year. We found out about this back in September. Although we haven't read the book or seen the movie, we thought this would be a fun activity for Alex, so we went ahead and bought tickets, since they sell out quickly.

After Alex woke up from his nap, we drove to the station. It's located in a forest preserve, but we were still able to find it without too much trouble. We had to wait about half an hour before we were able to board. It was a short train (two cars), but the inside was decorated for Christmas. Alex sat on my lap, so I didn't have much room to move.

Once the train departed at a slow pace, volunteers in chef costumes came around with hot chocolate and cookies. Another volunteer read the first part of the story; another person walked around displaying the book. Then two more people, one playing a guitar, led us in singing carols.

It wasn't long before we arrived at the "North Pole." Santa and Mrs. Claus boarded the train. After a bit of joshing, they went around and gave bells to all the children. We sang a song or two, then returned to the first station. The second part of the trip was similar to the first.

Alex didn't seem to know what to make of everything at first. He was quiet and looked around a lot. He didn't say much to Santa, but he took it in stride. He also enjoyed playing with his bell. After a while, Alex warmed up (perhaps the cookie had something to do with that). I think next year he'll get more out of it. It was a fun activity that I think will become a family tradition for us, at least as long as Alex believes.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: What Was I Thinking?

This is the last Blog Chain for 2009. (scary thought, huh?) Shaun picked a fun topic:

What is the silliest thing from a book or short story you've written, and why? It can be a line or a paragraph or a whole page. Anything that you look back at and go, "Say what?"

Or, as Christine Lavin would say, "What Was I Thinking?"

(Please note that this version is much more political than the one I know from her album.)

Mandy posted before me, and Eric comes next.

Personally, I think my funniest story was the one I wrote in March for another Blog Chain. It seems like cheating to use it twice, so I'm going to post an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project from 2007. The premise is that the narrator, who can shapeshift into an owl, is trying to cheer up her sister, a reluctant werewolf:

Although I couldn’t manage words, I could try to hoot a song and see if she recognized it.

I started with a song from the late 80’s. It didn’t take me long to realize that owls weren’t meant to sing. Although I could make different sounds besides hoots, none of them were exactly melodic. I continued anyway. So what if I drove all of the prey into Lake Michigan with my singing?

Yeah, I'm cringing myself. But hey, anything goes during NaNoWriMo!

I hope once you recover from reading that paragraph that you have a wonderful holiday (whichever one you celebrate). Although the Blog Chain will be on break until next year, I'll continue to post. Please stop on by!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Writing the Other: Review and CONTEST!

When Shaun started our latest Blog Chain a couple of days ago, he mentioned he had considered picking race and stereotypes as our topic. I read a book about this recently; I've been meaning to blog about it but haven't done so. So let me dust off my blogging fingers and get to it.

Writing the Other: A Practical Approach is a series of essays and writing exercises by Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl, who lead a workshop (or used to; I'm not sure if they still do) by the same name. If you've ever wanted to write about someone who isn't of your own gender/race/ethnic group/sexual orientation but didn't know how to go about it, this book can help. It's not going to tell you everything you need to know to bring that Buddhist Native American lesbian who uses a wheelchair to life, but it will point you in the right direction.

One of the first major points made in this book is that unless otherwise indicated, readers will assume a particular character is in the "unmarked" state. This means that the character is presumed to be white, middle-class, male, straight, able-bodied, etc. if you want more diversity in your cast of characters, you have to indicate that, or "mark" them. But it's not as simple as changing a few names and physical features; people are going to view the world differently based on their backgrounds. Some of the writing exercises in this book will help you get into another person's mindset.

Another essay discusses some of the common mistakes/stereotypes writers make when working with marked characters. For example, the hero may have a friend from a minority group whose main purpose is to suffer/die to save the hero. Alternatively, marked characters may be shown as not being the protagonists of their own stories or may require saving by someone else (in other words, showing them as less competent.) The authors mention books and films that have these types of mistakes; in some cases, they also list books that portray marked characters more realistically. I found this section especially useful.

I don't have the book with me at the moment, so I can't review everything that it includes. But besides what I've already discussed, it includes an essay about borrowing from other cultures and an excerpt from one of the authors of her own work.

Overall, this is a thin book, but it's got a lot of meaty material. The tone is generally meant to be candid and helpful, though it may come across as a bit "PC" at times. Still, I think this is an important book for every writer who wants to create realistic, diverse groups of characters. After all, although some people may feel afraid to write about marked characters for fear of getting them wrong, it's an even worse mistake to exclude them completely from your work. As people travel around the world and settle in different areas, populations are becoming more heterogeneous. If you can't show this in your book, then it feels less real.

(I recently read a paranormal romance set in modern Chicago, and all of the characters, even the minor ones, seemed to be white. Although this wasn't the only issue I had with the book, I think it contributed to making the setting feel flat to me. And since the main reason I bought this particular book was because of the local setting, I won't be reading the rest of the series.)

I bought two copies of this book at WisCon so I could give one away on this blog. So, here comes the contest part of this post:

1. A copy of this book will be given to a person, chosen at random, who comments on this post between now and Friday, December 11, noon CST.

2. No anonymous posts or spam will be considered. Also, any posts that are disrespectful of this topic or of other commenters will be excluded.

3. You can earn a second entry into the drawing by blogging or tweeting about this contest. Please e-mail me (sandra AT sandraulbrich DOT com) the link to your blog or tweet.

4. Although I would prefer waiting until after Christmas to mail out the book, I can do it sooner if you'd like to give it as a gift.

I think that's it! If you have any questions, please feel free to post them. And please feel free to discuss how you write about the other in your own work.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend Wrapup

Not a whole lot has been going on lately. We have made progress with Alex's sleeping (he's learned to fall asleep on his own without us being there, though he still doesn't like it), though I still feel like it'll take me a long time before I'm fully rested--if I ever get back there.

Thanksgiving was pretty quiet. We spent the day tidying up, then we had dinner at Eugene's aunt's house. Alex enjoyed banging on the piano. I took a couple of pictures but haven't uploaded them yet.

Eugene worked part of the day on Friday. While he was gone, I managed to get the tree and other decorations up. Alex was very interested in the process; he helped move his toys out of the way and handed ornaments to me. We did go shopping, but luckily the places we went weren't crowded.

My parents came by for a visit Saturday. After they left, we went to the Kristkindlmarkt in downtown Chicago. The weather was warm for this time of year, but it didn't seem as crowded as it was last time. Alex made out with a couple of wooden toys (we wanted to save at least one for Christmas, but that didn't work out). Afterward, we stopped by Millennium Park. Alex, who had part of a chocolate pretzel, enjoyed dancing by the colored fountains in Crowne Plaza.

Today we ran a couple of errands and took Alex to the library in the afternoon. Otherwise, we relaxed at home.

I didn't get a whole lot of writing done, but I did manage to move past a pivotal scene.

Finally, I have to post a little something to remember George Harrison, who passed away eight years ago today. This song is off his final album; it may not be well-known, but it's quite good:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Priorities

Wow, I'm up again on the blog chain. This time, Mandy picked the topic, and a fitting one it is too:

How do you prioritize? How do you balance paying attention to your writing, critiquing for friends, spending time with your family and earning a living?

These days, it seems everyone has too much to do, even if you're a Disney character:

Imagine what it would be like if these guys were parents!

As a working mother, I know it's impossible to keep all aspects of your life perfectly balanced. Some days your child gets sick and you have to leave work early; some times you have to go on a business trip and leave your family. And what with a job to do, a family to look after, and a house to clean, plus a mole (that's 6.02 x 10 to the twenty-third power) of other things demanding your attentions, at times I feel like I and my writing vie for last place.

Here are a couple of tips I follow to make my writing a higher priority:

Set aside time for your writing. I find the best time for this is on my lunch hour at work. Of course, sometimes I have to run errands or choose to do something else, such as blog or play Spider Solitare. But this is the best time I have to focus on my novel. On the weekends, I claim Alex's nap time as my own.

Put your writing first above critting. I hate to say this, because I do enjoy helping others, and it helps you as much as the other person. I used to be quite active on the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, but although I'm still a member, I haven't been to the site in months. I do occasional crits for my friends, but these days my time is so limited I have to focus on my work. I've had to ignore some requests from strangers.

Don't forget what really matters. For me, that means my family. My son has a very late bedtime for a toddler; lately it takes him until almost 10:00 p.m. to go to sleep. It's frustrating because I still have housework and other paperwork to take care of, so I seldom get any writing done at night anymore. But I remind myself Alex will probably be our only child, so I should cherish the time we spend together with him sitting in my lap while I read to him.

That's all I have for now, and I have to get back to writing. Go check out Eric's blog to see his response to this topic!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Faux Thanksgiving Weekend

Every year in October or November, Eugene and I go up to Madison to have a Faux Thanksgiving with our college friends. It's a real Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the traditional side dishes, just a little early. I don't remember how many years we've been doing this, but it's been going on for a long time.

We drove up to Madison Friday evening; I left work early to prep for the trip. (I even managed to clean the living room carpet before we left.) When we picked Alex up from daycare, they were playing outside, and he was zipping backwards and forwards on a riding toy. We let him play for a bit, but once his teacher spotted us and told him, he came running.

We stopped along the way but still made good time. For dinner, we just wanted something quick and easy, so we went to the Food Court in the nearby mall. We had a hotel suite so we could put Alex in a separate room. Although he didn't seem to mind sleeping in his old Pack'n'Play at first, all the strange noises woke him up, and we wound up sleeping with him on the sofa.

The hotel offered a free breakfast, but it wasn't stocked very well when we got there--only one glass (so we split it among us) and no skim milk. Other things weren't available either. We wound up having a second breakfast at a coffee shop. Then we took Alex to the Children's Museum. He loved the toy cars in the first exhibit so much he didn't want to leave. Eventually we moved on to some other play areas, though. He seemed to have a good time. We left around 1:00 so he could nap in the car. (We took turns visiting the bookstore while he slept.)

Normally we bake a dessert, but it didn't work out this year, so we picked up a couple of tarts from Whole Foods. Alex was obsessed with them--until he tried them. He didn't eat well during the dinner; he mostly ate crackers. I guess he was too busy checking out all the toys. He was more social than he was last year, which is good. I was with him a fair amount of time, but I got to socialize too. I didn't take any pictures, though.

We met our friends again for Sunday brunch, then we headed home. We stopped to visit my parents for a few hours, so we got home a bit late. Alex had taken a late nap, so it took him a long time to fall asleep. I wish we'd had more time to go around Madison while we were there; we missed some of our usual haunts. Ah well, something else to look forward to when WisCon arrives....

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Want More Drama?

It's a good thing I have the blog chain to force me to blog. Lately, my life has been like this:

Only without the Beatles or the screaming girls.

Anyway, Christine would like us to discuss drama this round:

How do you create a wonderfully dramatic story? Are there any questions you ask yourself, or specific things you keep in mind to ensure that you have the level of tension necessary to propel the story forward?

Amanda posted before me, and Eric will post next.

When I first read Christine's question, I thought I wouldn't have much to say. After all, I'm an organic writer who cranks out draft after draft, constantly tinkering with scenes in my head. However, as the chain progressed and I saw what others posted, I thought of a couple of things to add.

A couple of people have mentioned how they say "No!" to their characters, constantly denying them what they want. While that does keep the tension high, sometimes you have to let the characters move forward to advance the plot. The trick to keeping this dramatic is to have the forward movement come at a cost. Jack Bickman refers to this as "Yes, But..." in his book Scene and Structure.

Let me use an example from my current work, since I enjoy talking about it. My main character, Paul, wants to prove his great-uncle had his mother murdered; to do so, Paul plans to impersonate a famous dead ancestor of theirs that his uncle is obsessed with. To do this, he needs to visit an alternate Earth where their ancestor is still alive. Paul can travel to this Earth, since he lives on a spaceship that does visit the alternate universe, but he's never been allowed down on the planet. Paul is motivated to change his ancestor's fate (he's also murdered), which could change history, so the authorities would be better off keeping him on the spaceship. But that would be a very big roadblock for the story I want to tell. So Paul bargains with the authorities by revealing two secrets, secrets the authorities want to exploit for their own purposes. They then agree to let him leave the ship and his family--so they can run secret tests on him. This is the first "But" to the "Yes." Paul does manage to escape, but in a way that puts him in deeper trouble with the other time travelers. So even though he's making progress on one story front, he's getting deeper into trouble on another front. And when the travelers do catch up to him, there will be consequences....(insert evil laugh)

The second thing I do is take risks. Paul's best friend, Scott, is bisexual. He has an unrequited crush on Paul even though he's also attracted to Paul's sister. I didn't know this about Scott at first; I wrote him as straight in the first couple of drafts. For a long time, I suppressed it in the story, fearing it might turn readers off. But finally I gave in to the inevitable; not only does Paul know about Scott's bisexuality, but Scott reveals his feelings at a key moment. Now that's drama! As if Paul didn't have enough problems already.

That's all I can think of for now. May all of your drama stay in your fiction and not in your daily life!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Halloween Weekend

I suppose I should state this up front: I am one of the few blogging writers who is not doing NaNoWriMo this year. (That's National Novel Writing Month to those of you unfamiliar with the term; the challenge is to write 50,000 words on a new project in one month.) My main focus right now is finishing Across Two Universes; once that's ready (hopefully next year will be the year!), I'd like to go back to another project I started back in 2007.

Anyway, Alex got to celebrate Halloween for three days this weekend. His daycare center had a parade Friday afternoon; I left work early to see it. As soon as Alex saw me, he clung to me so much I wound up having to carry him in the parade. He was a dinosaur:

(We wound up leaving the hat off most of the time since it flopped over into his face.)

After the parade, we stayed a bit longer and played some games at the daycare center.

Saturday was the big day. I got dressed in my own costume -- a queen -- during Alex's nap. When Eugene came home, we got Alex dressed and took him around. It was cold and windy, but we went around for about an hour. Alex wanted to be carried again; he doesn't believe in using his legs if he can make me carry him. So I had to walk around our neighborhood holding up my long dress with one hand and balancing a toddler and his bag of goodies in the other. A piece of costume jewelry broke during our trek, and we lost a little toy we got from one of our neighbors. At least I didn't fall. Alex did pretty well, saying "Trick or Treat" and "Thank you" when prompted. He did get spooked at some of the decorations people had up; the worst one was a talking Darth Vader. When we came home, he turned over his bag and kept looking at all of his candy. I think he likes looking at the wrappers almost more than he does eating the candy. Unfortunately, he does like eating it too; I thought he was going to become a strict saccharidevore when he didn't want dinner last night. Today he ate other types of food.

Today we had a party with some other local parents. It was held at a place called Little Monkey Business, which is a combination indoor playground/coffee shop. Alex brought his bag of candy with him into the playground area; he was lucky enough not to lose any, though he did wind up giving a sucker to one of the little girls. His favorite toy was a little house; we joked he was going to take out a mortgage on it. While he did fuss here and there, overall he did very well. Now it's back to the regular routine tomorrow.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is...

Fear itself. (FDR)

I've been a bit busy to blog lately, and I haven't had much to blog about in my daily life. Writing is going slowly, as usual. But of course I'm going to make time for the Blog Chain. This time around, Kat picked a suitable topic for this time of year:

What are the primary fears that drive your characters? Do they battle aliens or gangsters or monsters? Or do they battle unreconciled issues in their lives? Which do you prefer writing about? What do you fear?

Amanda posted before me, and Eric will finish the chain tomorrow.

As I thought about this topic, I realized the main character of Across Two Universes has two main fears: that he will lose someone else he loves (since his mom was murdered at the beginning of the novel), and that he will lose his own identity and be forced to permanently play the part of Sean Quinn, the rock star Paul was cloned from. The monsters he faces are human, however. One is his great-uncle, whom Paul believes had his mother killed to make his life like Sean's. The other is Sean's own murderer. (Paul travels to an alternate universe where Sean is still alive in order to create a hologram of Sean, which Paul will need when he confronts his great-uncle.) Throughout the story, Paul tackles his fears head-on. By meeting his genetic twin, he confronts his own issues with being a clone and realizes he's still a unique person. As an actor, Paul is experienced in playing different roles. He learns to regard Sean's character as another role; the trick is keeping control in his own hands. But his weakness is his love for his friends; a threat to them could make him follow his great-uncle's wishes.

Many of Paul's actions are driven by the guilt he feels over his mother's death. His friends, however, fear more for his safety. They view Paul's attempt to save Sean from the man who wants to knife him as a suicide attempt. Their fear for him drives them to do things they wouldn't do under normal circumstances. One will face her own fear, one will acknowledge her true feelings for Paul, and one will betray him--for his own good.

I think external threats to characters often serve as a metaphor for internal fears, so by writing about one, you're also writing about the other. While I'm more interested in the internal lives of my characters, they often need something external to challenge them so they develop. Fear is not a bad thing in and of itself; it's a way of making sure we protect ourselves. It becomes a problem when we overreact to the point where we can't lead a normal life.

As for my own fears, I've commented on other people's posts about my fear of driving in ice and snow. I also don't like heights, although I can face them. I climbed to the top of Saint Paul's when we were in London a few years ago; I just clung to the walls when I reached the top (which is outside). But my biggest fear is something that's too nebulous to provoke a physical reaction. I fear for my son's future. When I read reports about global warming, overpopulation, and concerns about the future food supply, I worry what life will be like when he grows up. Will the climate be stable? Will there be enough food and clean air and water? How will instability in other regions of the world affect us here? Is what we're doing right now enough to head off a catastrophe?

Perhaps it's too bad we can't be afraid of global warming in the same visceral way we're afraid of heights.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I was looking at Facebook when I saw someone mention a social network for writers. Naturally, I joined. It's called Scribblerati, and you can check it out at the link. It was just started a few days ago, so membership is still pretty small. If you feel so inclined, help spread the word!

Monday, October 12, 2009

First Paragraph Contest

Like the rest of the writing blogosphere, I entered my first paragraph in Nathan Bransford's First Paragraph Challenge. The good thing about this contest is that it forced me to take a closer look at my first paragraph. Here's my original version:

As soon as Paul Harrison left the stage, he ripped the holoprojector bands off his arms. His skin had been itching since noon, but it appeared normal. The sensation reminded him of the way his skin tingled whenever he crossed between the two universes through the wormhole. This time, however, the prickling was disturbing, not invigorating. He couldn’t referee Hamlet’s final duel while scratching himself till he bled.

As I looked at it, I decided that 1) it wasn't deep enough in Paul's POV, and 2) while the wormhole mention was supposed to provide some intriguing background, it felt forced here. So here's the final version, simpler and more direct:

As soon as Paul Harrison left the stage, he ripped the holoprojector bands off and rubbed his arms. Why were they itching so much, and how could he make it stop? It would spoil the show if he scratched himself like a monkey during Hamlet’s final duel.

I don't know how it'll fare in the contest, but I think it's better. If you're interested, it's entry #814.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Japan: The Final Days

I just realized I haven't blogged since the typhoon. That wasn't intentional; I just got lazy.

Friday was my final day in Japan. I didn't do any lab work that day; instead, I got to tour two of my company's facilities. In the morning, I got to see the production and processing areas. In the afternoon, the manager drove me to the R&D site. It was about an hour away, but he bought a Beatles CD to help pass the time.

In the evening, two of the people I've been working with took me out for dinner to a hibachi-style place. The chef wasn't as flamboyant as one you might find at Ron of Japan, but the food was good, and that's more important.

The trip back home went fairly smoothly. Eugene and Alex picked me up from the airport. Alex just looked at me at first, but it didn't take long before he warmed up. And since we got home, I've been "the chosen one." The jet lag hasn't been as bad as it was when I got to Japan. I think it helped that I didn't sleep on the flight but was still able to stay up until bedtime. I took the next few days off to adjust, though. Alex is home with me tomorrow since daycare is closed with training. I have a spa day on Tuesday, and I'm visiting my best friend Wednesday; unfortunately, she lost her father while I was in Japan.

Anyway, I learned a lot while I was in Japan and got to experience new things. Still, I'm much happier being back home with my family.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


I think I may have mentioned how rainy it's been in Japan. Just about every day (except for the weekend), we've had some. Sometimes it's nothing more than a light drizzle, scarcely worth putting up the umbrella for. But last night they predicted a typhoon, and it was heavier than normal. As the manager drove me from work to the subway station, he told me I should call him in the morning if I had problems getting into work.

I woke up around 5:00 this morning to hear winds whipping outside my hotel window. It sounded like it raining pretty hard, too. But by the time I finished breakfast, the rain had stopped. Assuming I'd get to work without any problems, I lugged my bag to the subway station. I noticed right away there were fewer people than normal. But what I also noticed from the signs on the trains is that they stopped a station before mine. I had a feeling there was going to be a problem, but I took the train anyway. Sure enough, the train terminated a station too early, and there were no trains running in the other direction. I waited a bit to see if things were going to change, but then I called the office and explained the situation. Someone told me to take a taxi from my hotel, so I rode the train back to my station, walked back to the hotel, and found a taxi. It was definitely more expensive than the subway, but I got to work.

This was my last day doing lab work; tomorrow I have a meeting in the morning and a couple of tours in the afternoon. Some of the ladies from the QC lab decided to treat me to sushi. They brought me to a place where the sushi came out on conveyor belts and you were charged for how many plates you took. (We actually have something similar by work.) I tried a couple new things, including an egg custard. And after dinner, the subway station was back to normal.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

It's just about bedtime for me in Japan, so here's my current progress on Across Two Universes:

Currently On: Chapter Fourteen, Page 148
Total Pages: 292
Total Word Count: 93,000

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The John Lennon Museum

Before I left for Japan, our company president asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to see while I was there. My answer, of course, was the John Lennon Museum. I was told it was too far away; however, my gracious hosts found a way to make it happen.

We left for the train station early this morning and took a bullet train (I don't remember how to spell the Japanese term) to Tokyo. After that, we transferred to two other trains before arriving at our destination. The museum is next to an arena and a public place where a flea market was being held. There was also a food court with a play area for little kids and a stage where a band was being filmed.

After lunch, we went to the museum, which occupies two floors of a building. It was very quiet when we arrived. The museum tour starts with a short film summing up John's life. (We were the only people in the theater for this.) Afterwards, you trace John's life, which is broken up into nine eras. Many artifacts of his are on display. There are several guitars, including his very first one (though it might have been a replica); a guitar with a concert setlist still taped to the side, and a custom one Yoko commissioned for him with a dragon on the guitar body. There were also school reports; magazines he made as a child; his Sargent Pepper outfit (complete with hat, boots, and scarf); personal items from the Dakota; gold records; handwritten lyrics; and many more things. Naturally Yoko's art work was also included; there were recreations of the art pieces from the art show where she and John met. I liked seeing her ceiling piece (with the word "Yes" on the ceiling.) There is also a white phone that she calls from time to time, but it didn't ring when I was in the area.

Being the diehard fan that I am, I went into this exhibit already knowing much about John's life. In fact, there were some areas that I felt were glossed over. The gate from Strawberry Field is shown but not explained. I didn't see any mention of Stu Stutcliffe, John's friend from art school. Cynthia and Julian are mentioned briefly in the Beatles era, but that's about it. I suppose it's understandable that a Yoko-inspired exhibit would focus on the part of John's life when they were together, but I feel that other important people in John's life deserve to be included too. Anyway, I did learn some new details. For instance, John's capital I's have such big loops they look like 9's. Since nine was an important number for John, that may not be coincidence. I saw several photos of John wearing a cross around his neck (that cross plays an important role in Across Two Universes). I also enjoyed seeing some new photos of John, especially from the househusband period. And of course it was great just soaking in all of his music. When it's been a while since you've heard Beatles music, hearing it again is like absorbing a nutrient you didn't realize you needed.

Other exhibits about John have made a point about reminding people how he died violently, displaying the brown bag with the clothes he was wearing when he was shot. This museum took a different approach, simply displaying the date of John's death in white letters on a white wall. Beyond that point is a "Forever" room, where you can sit on clear chairs and look at some inspiring lyrics from his songs. (I noticed all the lyrics were taken from his solo work.)

After we finished going through the exhibit, naturally I had to buy some souvenirs. I was amused by the John Lennon action figure but decided it was too big to buy. I would have liked to buy a copy of Real Love: The Drawings for Sean, but it wasn't for sale. Maybe I can find it on Amazon. I wound up with a bunch of photo postcards, a keychain, a pen, and a book of John's drawings about his visits to Japan. I had my picture taken with early John; Oscar joined me for that one. (I forgot to bring him with me yesterday, but at least there's now an Asian sighting of him.) We also spent some time in the lounge, where you can read books, listen to music, and watch DVDs.

When we returned to Tokyo, we walked around a famous shopping area for a bit. It was extremely crowded, and the shops catered to younger and hipper people. Still, it was a great place to people watch. We then returned to Nagoya and had dinner at yet another restaurant where you cook your own food. This time, we made things called something like "okonomakyi" and "makjyi." (Those words are probably misspelled.) Cabbage, meat, and vegetables are combined with dough and cooked on a griddle. The closest analogy to Western food is like a potato pancake.

That's it for today. It's close to midnight, and I'm tired from all the stairs at the train stations. But I'm very happy I was able to fulfill one of my dreams today. Imagine that.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Journeys

Well, not only is it time for another Blog Chain, but I get to start it. A few days ago, I blogged about the start of my journey to Japan and how journeys can play an important role in fiction. I'm feeling lazy, so let's expand on that topic:

What kind of journeys do your characters make? What effects do they have on the characters and the plot? Also, if you wish, please tell us about one of your personal journeys and how it changed you.

Since I'm already blogging about my trip to Japan, I won't discuss the last part. Instead, I'll focus on Paul's journey in Across Two Universes.

Paul's parents work on a spaceship, so he travels with them as they travel through a wormhole into an alternate universe. But although he's been visiting this other universe since he was born, he was never allowed to leave the spaceship. Once Paul learns he was cloned from a man in the other universe, it becomes inevitable that he try to meet him. It is not an easy journey; the other time travelers are reluctant to let him go, and once he escapes from them, they try to track him down. Earth in the Twentieth Century is much different from Paul's, and he experiences culture shock as he tries to get around in a new world. But all of these difficulties teach him new things about himself and the friends who accompany him. (They get different things out of the trip too.) Paul will need the strength he finds on this trip to face the antagonist at the end of the story.

That's all I have for now. Tune in tomorrow to see what Eric has to say.

To the Temples...

Today I finally got to see something else besides the lab and my hotel room. The manager I've been working with took me on a half-day tour of some of Kyoto's famous sites. First, we took the subway to the train station, which also has a big shopping center. While we waited for the train, I found some model silver cars for Alex. (He's currently obsessed with silver cars; whenever I bring him to daycare or pick him up, we have to look at all the cars in the parking lot.) We rode one of the bullet trains that brought us to Kyoto in about 35 minutes. We ate lunch (fried rice and noodle soup), and I bought a lot of souvenirs. Then we went to a nearby hotel to join the guided tour.

Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan, and it still has many shrines and a shogun's castle. (It has so many historic sites the U.S. refrained from bombing the city during WWII.) We were only able to visit three shrines at a rushed pace. They were still pretty impressive, however.

The first shrine we visited was a Shinto shrine. The high point of this shrine was the garden, complete with several bridges. Next up was a 12th-century wooden shrine with over a thousand statues of Kannon. We weren't allowed to take photos, but the ambiance was quite impressive. It was like an army of gods. To visit the final temple, we first had to walk up a narrow street lined with shops. It was worth the climb, as the shrine had a great view of the mountains. The water at this temple is not only pure; it's supposed to grant health, wealth, or wisdom, depending on which stream you drink from. (Yes, I had some, but I'm not saying which stream it was.)

By the time we finished, we were pretty tired. We took the bullet train back to Nagoya, and another co-worker took us out for dinner at a Korean barbecue. Here, you were able to grill your food at the table. Some of it was a bit spicy for me, but it was still very good and very filling. No wonder I'm about to fall asleep!

Another Misadventure

I mentioned before how I would tell the taxi drivers where to take me by handing them a business card. That worked well until yesterday morning. The driver consulted his map a couple of times, then pulled into a convenience center and made a phone call. Then he drove for a bit and stopped again. By this time, I was already late for work, so I called the manager over here to tell him what was going on. I even handed my cell phone to the driver so my manager could give him directions. He still drove me around in the middle of nowhere. We finally managed to get close to the area, but he still couldn't pinpoint the spot. Finally he stopped to talk to a woman walking by the side of the road and convinced her to guide us to the right spot.

When I told this story to some people last night (they had a small welcoming party and fed me sushi), one of them suggested the taxi driver took me for a ride. It's very possible, as he charged me at least twice what the trip normally costs. However, he did turn off the meter before we got to my destination; you would think he would charge me for every inch if he really wanted to gyp me. Perhaps he hit a maximum fare. Still, the more I think about it, the madder I get. I hope that doesn't happen again while I'm here. I don't need to speak the language to show him I'm angry.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

Since it's still Wednesday at home.

Currently On: Chapter Fourteen, Page 145
Total Pages: 290
Total Words: 92,000

I did get some writing done on the flight over. It feels good to make my story lean and mean!

When In Japan...

Do as the Japanese do.

Shortly before the start of the work day in the lab, music plays over the intercom, and the people in the office area do a series of stretches. I do my best to follow along. Then there's a short assembly before work begins.

I've gone through all the documents the QC manager had for me, so now it looks like I'll be practicing experiments for the rest of the time. Some of the techniques are different from what I do at home. For example, most of their pipetting is done by mouth. (At home, I use automated pipets.) I haven't done mouth pipetting since high school biology class, when I got urea into my mouth. I'm doing it here for some of the work -- and yes, I've sucked up enzyme solution into my mouth again. Harmless, but not very tasty.

It can be hard to communicate with the people in the lab. Some are more fluent in English than others. We use gestures a lot. Sometimes they bring other people in to translate.

I use chopsticks at lunch, but my technique isn't the best. At this point, it's hard to retrain myself.

Getting to and from work is pretty straightforward. I take a taxi from the train station to work, and someone brings me back to the train station at the end of the day.

One of the people who can speak English very well (he and his family lived in London for several years) took me out for dinner last night. We had shabu shabu. If you're not familiar with that, a boiling pot of water is set on the table (which has a built-in heating unit), along with thinly sliced meat and vegetables. You cook the meat and vegetables in the water and dip it into sauce. Very filling--and very messy.

Yesterday at breakfast, I sat next to a couple of tourists. They're from Hawaii, though the man was originally from Chicago. (They were chatty types--at least he was.) When they got up to leave, he put on Groucho Marx glasses. I think he thought I was too young to know who that was, but I've seen a couple of the Marx Brothers movies.

Speaking of breakfast, it's time to eat. More later.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Japan: The First Day

The good news: I survived my first full day in Japan. The bad news: I'm not sleeping very well, which is why I'm posting before 6:00 a.m. local time. Here are a few things I've noted so far:

The Japanese keep their buildings at higher temps than we're used to. Plus, it's also humid; we're expected to get rain for the next several days. No wonder fans are popular here!

People do wear face masks when they're sick.

I see a fair amount of young girls with short, full skirts and knee-high socks. Even some older women dress like that.

It feels weird to have the hotel staff kneel when they present the morning Japanese paper to me and push the elevator buttons.

Work is going OK so far. The first thing I did was meet the company president as part of my official welcome. Then I was shown how to get to the Quality Control/Assurance building. This involves taking the subway to a station and then taking a taxi. I was shown around in the morning and had lunch at a company cafeteria. Good thing I can use chopsticks! Afterward, the manager of Quality Control showed me several documents, mostly in Japanese. I recognized some parts, but it's a good thing the manager has a little electronic dictionary to help translate. Everyone has been very kind and helpful to me so far.

They let me leave a little early yesterday due to my jet lag. Someone took me to the subway station. It wasn't too hard finding my train or the right stop, but once I left the subway station I became disoriented. For some reason, I thought I had to go straight to get to my hotel, so I walked for several blocks, realized I didn't recognize anything, then turned around and walked back to the subway. I tried another direction and got the same result. Meanwhile, the light rain grew heavier and heavier, and my feet hurt. Finally, I realized I needed to make a turn somewhere, and from that point, I found my hotel very quickly. I think part of what confused me is that I left the hotel in the morning from a side entrance, not the main one. Hopefully, it should go more smoothly today.

Anyway, it's time to "get up" and get ready for work. Here's hoping I don't fall asleep during my assay.


I’m writing this blog post at 10,000 feet as I fly to Japan. (OK, I’m not the one doing the actual flying, but I bet you guessed that. And yes, I wrote this Saturday but didn't post it until now.) Over the next two weeks, I will practice various enzyme assays (and hopefully become qualified to do them) and learn everything I need to know to be a one-woman Quality Control Department. At least in theory; I’m not sure how well anyone in the Japanese lab speaks English. Hopefully we’ll be able to understand each other.

I’m not too thrilled about having to make this trip. I haven’t slept well in months, and my insomnia has been even worse lately; I don’t need massive jet lag on top of that. I don’t know how well I’ll handle the culture shock. But the worst thing about this trip is leaving my family, especially Alex. My trip in June had him talking about “Mommy’s bus” for days. He was asleep when I left the house this morning, so at least I was spared having to hear him wail again. I hope this long absence doesn’t traumatize him! Eugene really has to cut his work hours to care for Alex while I’m gone. We’ve been long-distance before, but that doesn’t make it fun.

Characters in novels go on journeys fairly often. Physical shifting of scenes can help to move the plot forward, make the story interesting, and introduce the character (and the reader) to new cultures. Journeys are useful in fiction for another reason: they can force character growth. Placing a character in unfamiliar settings takes them out of their comfort zones and make them develop new skills. This is something I’ll be experiencing firsthand!

I don’t know how much time I’ll have to post during my stay, but I’ll try to keep you updated on how my trip goes. I do get a couple days to play tourist, so hopefully that will go well.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: What Makes You a Writer?

For this time around, Michelle asked the following philosophical question:

Do you choose what you do because of who you are? Or is who you are determined by what you do?

Mandy posted before me, and Eric comes next.

Personally, I think questions like this are best answered by "yes." Your innate traits and tendencies as well as your actions affect your identity; it's not a case of only one or the other. In fact, I think they work together.

We are all products of both our genes and our environment. Genes may set the potential, but the environment can affect how well those genes are expressed. Together, your genes and your environment give you traits that make you better at some things than others. For example, as a five-foot woman, I'm not very good at basketball; however, I have good verbal skills. For the sake of argument, let's say that people tend to prefer doing things they're good at over things that they're not so good at. Since I have good verbal skills, I enjoy reading and spend a lot of time doing it--or at least as much as time permits these days. My love of books and reading is part of what led me to start writing. However, by definition, a writer is someone who writes, so action is essential here. It took me a while to realize I was good at writing and enjoyed it, but the more I practiced writing, the better I became at it, and the more writing became a part of what I am. Other factors in my life influenced what I wrote about, but the more I wrote in the science fiction/fantasy genre, the more I identified with it.

I think many working people identify themselves by their jobs, no matter how they feel about them. If you lose your job or get transferred to a new position, it can cause an identity crisis. Still, there are some parts of my identity that do not change with my job title. While I may have good writing days and bad ones (today was one of the latter), writing has become a part of who I am, just as my love of science will always be a part of who I am, even if I never perform another research experiment.

Finally, I would like to answer this philosophical question with one of my own: why does it seem to be part of human nature to want something to be one thing or the other instead of embracing the duality? Although it may be easier to assign things to strict categories, in real life, there is also a lot of overlap. Acknowledging the overlap will help you see things as they really are.

Work In Progress Wednesday

Currently On: Chapter 14, Page 140
Total Pages: 305
Total Words: 98,000

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Apple Picking

Today we went apple picking at a nearby orchard. It's something we do every year, and since I'm leaving on a two-week business trip this Saturday, we wanted to do it before I had to go.

We got up early, thanks to Alex, and were at the apple orchard about a half hour after opening. This worked well, as we not only beat the crowds but were able to finish before Alex needed his nap. The bad news was that we forgot to bring a stroller and our cameras. The weather was sunny but a bit on the cool side.

We paid for a bushel of apples. Before riding on the wagon up to the actual orchard, we hung around the front area, where they had several attractions. Alex was interested in a giant purple caterpillar (kids could crawl through it and go down a slide), but he balked when he felt the air blowing out of the entrance. He briefly went into a moon bounce, and I took him into the small petting zoo, though we didn't hand out there long either. He did enjoy the pumpkin display and wanted to pick them up.

We were interested in picking Honeycrisp apples and Asian pears. Unfortunately, once we got to the orchard, we found out that the Asian pears weren't ready yet, even though we'd been told they would be. That was disappointing, but Honeycrisp apples are still good. Alex was very interested in picking apples this time. He wanted to take the apples off of the ground, and of course he wanted to put them in the bag. (I had to go through the apples when he wasn't watching and purge a few.) He did pick some apples directly from the tree, and I encouraged him to eat a couple as well.

By the time we finished and headed back, Alex was noticeably tired. He held on long enough to eat a couple of apple donuts in the car. Then he fell asleep, and as we drove home, the rain came.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I haven't had much chance to blog the past few days, which is too bad, as I have things to blog about:

Thursday was our fourth anniversary. Eugene gave me four bunches of roses and four of the remastered Beatles CDs; I gave him four books on history and photography. We're such the romantic couple, aren't we? We did go out for dinner, but we took Alex along since we didn't have a babysitter. We brought along his portable DVD player and a Wonder Pets! DVD to entertain him, but he was a restless. He didn't want the noodles we ordered for him, and he threw a small tantrum (believe me, there are gradations of tantrums) while he was sitting in my lap. Fortunately, our waitress was very understanding, as she had three of her own kids. We wound up calming him down by taking turns walking him around outside. He enjoyed touching a giant statue of a horse (we were at P.F. Chang's) and looking at a limo. He also ate one of my mu shu pancakes and some chocolate cake. We wound up getting home later than we expected, so he had a really late bedtime. It's taken us a couple of days to get him back on track.

Yesterday, our neighborhood had a picnic at a nearby fitness center. Alex didn't want to swim, but he loved the playground and dragged us back there several times. It was also nice meeting our neighbors and getting tips on where to find new parks and other places to take Alex.

We haven't done much today, but we did buy a bed rail for Alex's crib. He's very close to climbing out of the crib, so it's time to convert it. The only issue is when to do it. I'm going on a business trip to Japan at the end of the month, so I don't want to put Alex through too many changes at once.

OK, now let's see if I can get some writing done.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Work in Progress Wednesday

Currently On: Chapter Thirteen (at least I think that's the current chapter), Page 131
Total Pages: 304
Total Words: 98,000

Quote of the Day

From Edwin Schlossberg:

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Book Review: From the Query to the Call

There are only two hard parts to getting published: writing a book and selling it. And considering how many authors are out there competing for the attention of a limited number of agents, the latter task may seem even harder than the first. Fortunately, you can find an experienced guide through the querying jungle. Elana Johnson, one of my fellow Blog Chain members, has presented information about writing query letters and contacting agents at writing conferences. She recently assembled this information into an e-book called From the Query to the Call. It will be officially published next Monday (September 14), but I was able to get a sneak peek.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how well organized it was. Embedded bookmarks quickly take you to the section you're most interested in. Important tips are flagged with a special symbol. Even more important are the links to various online resources, such as worksheets to help you with your query letter and websites that can help you pick which agents to approach.

There are two main sections to this book: "Writing a Killer Query" and "Entering the Query Trenches." In the first part, Elana analyzes several successful query letters and discusses how each part works. It may surprise some writers how much of the query letter is devoted to the story itself, not to the writer's qualifications. In the second half of the book, Elana walks through the query process, from researching agents to talking to them on the phone. She includes several interviews with other authors describing how they handled "the call." It may be reassuring to learn other writers get nervous about talking to agents--and to remember that agents are humans too.

At 63 pages, this book is a quick read, which is good for overworked writers like me. Thanks to Elana's easy conversational yet empathic voice, a topic that strikes fear into the hearts of writers becomes less daunting. Although I've written query letters before, I think Elana's step-by-step approach to setting up the hooks, central conflict, and consequences of a story will help me greatly when I'm ready to send out Across Two Universes. I recommend her book to all fiction writers ready to send their books to agents.

For more information, please visit From the Query to the Call's official website or Facebook page.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Breaking the Rules

As promised, it's time for another blog chain post. This time, Kate came up with a very interesting topic:

What writing rules/advice -- whether it was a matter of cannot or will not -- have you broken?

Amanda posted before me in the chain, and Eric comes after me.

I consider myself to have a decent grounding in basic grammar (for those new to my blog, I have a master's degree in technical writing and copyedited a local newspaper for a couple of months). While I'm not infallible, my drafts tend to be mostly "clean" of grammar mistakes. However, while I think the Oxford comma should be used all the time, I also realize that fiction writing isn't as formal as academic or business writing. There are times when it's OK to break the rules -- provided you first know what the rules are and why they exist.

One of the rules I've broken in writing is the one against sentence fragments. I've read a Beatles fanfic story that had so many sentence fragments I couldn't force myself to finish it. But fragments can be used to alter the pace of your story or set off items in a list. For example, here's a paragraph from one of my stories called "The Movement You Need." The main character suspects someone has invaded his hotel room and is checking the closet:

He yanked the closet door open –

Shirts and slacks, neatly hung on the hangers provided by the hotel. His suitcase on the luggage rack, lid open. A couple pairs of non-leather shoes on the floor. Nothing else.

In my opinion, using fragments here emphasizes each item and shows how the main character thoroughly checks out his closet. The short phrases also increase tension.

As far as storytelling rules, one I've broken several times is writing novels over 120,000 words. The conventional wisdom is that they're too long to sell. The first novel I queried, Day of All Seasons, was about 170,000 words. I had a couple of agents request partials, but that's as far as it got. I don't know if the length turned them off or if there were other story issues bothering them. Originally, my current novel consisted of a novella and a sequel; I decided to drop the first part (the novella) in order to bring the word count down to something manageable.

Another rule I'm breaking in my current scene is to have characters sitting around drinking a beverage and talking. The idea behind this rule is to keep the tension high and to have your characters do active things. I'm using this scene to increase romantic tension right before my hero is forced into a nasty dilemma, so hopefully it will work for my beta readers.

That's all I have for now. I hope these examples inspire you to learn how to make the rules work for you instead of following them blindly. Please follow the rest of the blog chain to see how other writers handle the rules.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

It seems harder to find time to blog lately than to find writing time, and that's saying something. I've been meaning to post something about style in "fat fantasy" for a while now, but I haven't had a chance to write it up yet. Perhaps I'll be able to do so in the next couple of days. Anyway, here's a quick update on Across Two Universes:

Currently On: Chapter Twelve, Page 127
Total Pages: 300
Total Words: 97,000

I'm not sure if my current scene is going to work as well as I thought it would. My original plan was to have Paul and Yvonne discuss how to save Sean without telling him how he'll be killed (since he insists he doesn't want to know). Ultimately, I want to end the scene with Paul realizing he'll have to face Sean's killer and risk his own life, but I'm having trouble seeing how to get them to that point. Maybe I just need some more sleep.

I'll be back with the next round of the Blog Chain on Friday, so come back then to see what it's about!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

Just a quick update on Across Two Universes:

Currently On: Chapter Twelve, Page 124
Total Number of Pages: 298
Total Number of Words: 96,000

Friday, August 21, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Speaking Words of Wisdom

This time around, Cole presented us with the following situation:

Pretend you are addressing a crowd of aspiring authors eager to soak in your words of knowledge. The problem is, you've only been given a time slot of five seconds. In one sentence (no more than 20 words), please summarize the most important words of wisdom you can impart.

You can elaborate and address questions only in the comments section.

Here's my advice:

Act like a professional writer from the beginning, and keep learning about yourself, other people, and the world.

I'd love to expand on this, so feel free to ask me questions. ;)

Terri and Kat are the previous and next links in the chain. Check back with Cole at the end of the month, when she collects everyone's advice into one post!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

It's been a couple of weeks since my last update. Here's my current status on Across Two Universes:

Currently On: Chapter Twelve, Page 121
Total Pages: 298
Total Words: 96,000

I'm in a scene that hasn't changed much, if any, since my first draft. It's one of those darlings I had to murder since it no longer quite fit. In the original version, Sean and Paul searched through some of Sean's old belongings for something Paul's mother had given him, with Sean questioning Paul along the way. The new version just had them sitting on crates talking to each other, which I felt was much less interesting to "stage." Today, after a wasted lunch hour, my muse finally gave me an idea: Sean will give Paul one item of his choice, but what Paul doesn't know is that Sean is judging him based on what he selects. What will Paul pick? You'll just have to read it to find out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Madison Trip

Last Thursday, after Date Day, it was back to work for me. But I didn't have to go into the lab; instead, I was Madison-bound. My mission was to visit another lab we would be outsourcing some of our work to and qualify them to do the work. Not fun stuff, but it was nice to have some alone time in the car and listen to my music instead of Alex's ABC CD.

The drive up to Madison (after I brought Alex to daycare) was pretty smooth. The lab was located on the west end of Madison, in a part of town I wasn't familiar with. I didn't have any problems finding the place, though. It was a very big lab, far larger than my own company. I won't bore you with the details of my visit, but I will note that they had a very nice cafeteria. I also got to tour the lab.

After my work was done, I headed back home. I was tempted to drive through Madison so I could see the downtown area, but I didn't want to take too long getting back home. I did stop by my parents' house briefly, though I regretted it when I ran into a delay on the highway (accident). Luckily, once I got past the accident site, the rest of the drive was without incident, and I got back to daycare at my normal time. It's a shame to go all the way up to Madison and not be able to see anyone or anything I care for, though.

Date Day: Cantigny

My online time was a bit limited last week, so I have several days' worth of posts to do. Guess I'd better make them short and sweet.

I'll start with last Wednesday, which was a Date Day for Eugene and me. Earlier this year, we decided that since we're not going anywhere on vacation this year, we should take some day off each month, drop Alex off at daycare, and spend the day together. Well, work has been so busy for me I didn't take a vacation day since late April, even though I needed some time off. I finally took Wednesday off so I could recharge.

The last time we had a Date Day, we knew in advance what we wanted to do. This time, however, we knew we wanted to do a wine tasting at Lynfred Winery, but we couldn't figure out what else to do. After looking at some of the local forest preserves, we decided instead to visit Cantigny, the home of Robert McCormick, late editor of the Chicago Tribune. The estate includes several gardens, a military museum, and the house (which is also a museum).

I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in the gardens. I really wanted to just sit by a body of water and stare at it for a while until I absorbed some tranquility. Although they did have a reflecting pool and some nice ponds, they were all surrounded by tall grass and other plants so you couldn't contemplate the water. How disappointing! Still, they had a gazebo and some other shaded areas that did make nice places to sit. Of course, the gardens were smaller than those at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the plants weren't identified. I guess I'm too used to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

They had an array of tanks from various wars on the ground, but we skipped the military museum. (Eugene will probably return there on his own sometime.) We did take a tour of the house, which was pretty interesting. The decor was mostly from the 30s and 40s, with Asian and European influences brought in by McCormicks' two wives. They actually had a dishwasher and a specialized ice cube maker (not a regular freezer) in the kitchen, items I didn't think existed in that era. Among other interesting items were a 70-fo0t rice paper mural in the dining room (it had been custom-cut to act as wallpaper), a concealed bar in the library (which had 22' high walls) for entertaining, and a bookcase filled with signed first editions of books by, among others, Winston Churchill and Charles Lindbergh.

After lunch at the restaurant, we drove to Lynfred for our wine tasting. Eugene had won a free tasting for two in a weekly contest. We tasted about seven wines, ranging from white to red. There was also a pear wine; Lynfred has a great selection of fruit wines, and we're joining their fruit wine club when it starts next month. By the time we made our way home, we only had about an hour to relax before it was time to get Alex.

Here are a few photos from Cantigny:

I hope I won't have to wait another three and a half months for the next Date Day!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Seventeen-Year Sighting

Eugene and I have an old college friend named Ed. Eugene met Ed first; they bonded over a low score on an Organic Chemistry exam. Ed was the one who taught us the true definition of toluene (" a benzene...with a methyl group...sticking out of it!") and was involved in some of our most memorable moments from undergrad. Unfortunately, the last time we saw him was in 1992, at the graduation ceremony. Every once in a while, we'd find him online, in an alumni group or social networking site. There may have been an occasional phone call or e-mail, but contact was limited once Ed returned to Thailand, where he was born. Then he came to Evanston, near where my in-laws live, to take a short course at Northwestern. We weren't going to let this opportunity to see each other slip away.

We made arrangements to drop Alex off at my in-laws' house for a few hours. Then we drove to Ed's hotel; it was faster driving there than finding a parking space in the parking garage. Ed was waiting for us in the lobby. He still looks very much the way he did in undergrad.

The three of us walked to Carmen's, a pizza place Eugene and I have been to several times for stuffed pizza. The air conditioning wasn't working--naturally on the first really hot day this summer. The pizza was still good, and the conversation flowed. Ed happens to be one of those friends you can pick up with right where you left off no matter how long you've been apart. Of course we did have to fill in the major personal events of the last seventeen years, but they haven't changed our relationship.

After dinner, we walked to the lake, where we took the above photos. Too bad we didn't get one of the three of us! When it started to get dark, we found a Ben and Jerry's and had ice cream before walking Ed back to his hotel.

The babysitting situation turned out to be a triple win. We got to have an adult conversation and walk around downtown Evanston. Alex's grandparents got to spoil him and hear him talk and identify his letters. And Alex, once he got over our absence, ate lots of eggrolls, played with his uncle, and learned how to use a microphone. Yesterday was also Eugene's birthday, so between hearing Alex spontaneously tell him "Happy Birthday" and reuniting with his long-lost friend, I don't think he could have asked for anything more.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Work In Progress Wednesday

I was too exhausted last week to post, so I figure I'd better post tonight:

Currently On: Chapter 11, Page 117
Total Pages: 300
Total Words: about 97,000

This is a fun part, as Paul and Sean are meeting for the first time. I'm actually using some of what I wrote before instead of just rewriting all of it, so hopefully things will be going faster from this point.

OK, time to goof off for a few minutes before bed.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Multiwriting?

Once again I'm second in the Blog Chain. Terri started us off with this question:

Do you focus on one project at a time, or do you have many irons in the fire at any given moment?

This will be a short post, as I don't have a whole lot to say about this topic. I'm a one-project-at-a-time person. I can have a couple other ideas brewing in the back of my mind, but when it comes to putting words on the screen, I usually focus on only one project at a time, the one that currently has me in its grip. I think there have been times when I've tried working on a few projects at a time, but I've never sustained multiwriting for long. These days, when I only have a half hour or so to write, I have to focus on one project. It's a nice idea in theory to have a couple of active projects so you can switch when you need a break, but it's not how I normally operate. Maybe if I had more time (or was under contract!), I could try it. But while I occasionally try writing techniques or methods I hear about from other writers, I don't worry too much about them. I just do what works for me.

That's all I have for now. Head on over to Kat's blog for her answer to this question. And I almost forgot--we have several new members who joined us recently! I'll update the links in the sidebar in the next couple of days.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Interview with Aviva Rothschild, Part Two

Please click here for the first part of Aviva's interview about her Beatles novel With Strings Attached. If you'd like to purchase her book, you can order it here.

Q: What were your reasons for choosing self-publishing WSA, and with Lulu in particular?

A: The main reasons I self-published Strings were that:

1. I wanted complete control over the manuscript. Having been on the receiving end of some bad editorial judgment with my first book, I decided, “Never again.”

2. I didn't think a mainstream publisher would be interested in it. It's got a very niche-y audience, and most publishers aren't looking for such things.

3. Because of my book publishing background, I was better equipped to turn in a clean, properly formatted, well edited manuscript than 99.9% of self-publishers.

I chose Lulu because I'd sort of published a book (it was work by other people that I had edited) with them a couple of years before (long story, not a terribly pleasant one) and been pleased with the results. I knew they didn't cost anything, and that was probably the biggest draw. Also, I didn't have to stock up on copies, since Lulu is print-on-demand.

BTW, I also have a PDF version of the book available for much less money. I published that through I've only sold a few copies that way; most everyone I've talked to prefers to have an actual copy to read.

Q: Have your experiences with Lulu been positive or negative overall?

A: My experiences have been decidedly mixed for the following reasons:


1. Free! The only money I've had to put out to them was buying actual copies of the book.

2. The books look very professional. I really appreciate that. I've seen too many self-published books that look amateurish.

3. Print-on-demand means that I don't have to have a large supply of hard copies lying around, though I do have a few.


1. I was unable to qualify for an ISBN. Because Strings is very large and thick, the only really affordable option was to use their cheaper (but perfectly adequate) publisher-grade paper. However, doing so meant that they would NOT include a free ISBN with my book, or make it available to Amazon. And without an ISBN, it's very hard to get into bookstores, libraries, and so forth.

I spent a great deal of time trying to reformat the book so that it would qualify for the ISBN, but then it cost TWICE what the non-ISBN version cost. The non-ISBN version has a base cost of about $13, and with my royalty of $2.50, the book costs $15.50 plus $7 shipping. The ISBN version would cost $26.50 plus $7 shipping. I can't imagine anyone paying $33.50 for a paperback book, so I didn't even try to do the ISBN version.

I can get a single ISBN for the book on my own, but Lulu will still not make it available to online vendors other than themselves. I am quite annoyed by this problem.

2. Spotty author services. I haven't yet tried to contact anyone, but other people have complained bitterly that they open trouble tickets and have to wait weeks for help.

3. Their formatting instructions are not terribly clear. I can see how they would confuse people with little document design experience. Nor are they always easy to find on the site.

Because of the ISBN problem, I don't know if I would use them for another large, thick book. They're fine for books that aren't long.

As for, they seem good, but Lulu has been my focus, so I can't really comment on scribd.

Q: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

A: Yes, I'm working on the sequel to Strings. I have almost seven chapters now. As I said above, I wish I could get myself to work on my non-Beatles projects, of which I have a number, but I'm not interested right now. I have a play, a couple of musicals, and a series of short stories that I hope to work on someday.

Q: What advice do you have for other writers?

A: Probably nothing you haven't already heard, but here it is: Read a lot, and widely, across genres. Read nonfiction. Try to identify what you like about particular authors and their styles and ideas. Write different kinds of things, fiction and nonfiction. If you're going to create characters, you first need to understand yourself and why you feel the way you do in different situations. Read some psychology books or take classes if you can. Once you know what drives yourself, you can start to understand what drives other people. Join writing groups for a venue for your writing, and be prepared to accept that people will criticize your work.

If you can find a non-writer who is well read and a good critic, cultivate that person's opinion. The reason I suggest this is that I find I have a tendency to mentally compete with other writers, but not with non-writers. My mentor when I was writing Strings as a thesis was a literature professor who specialized in utopias and dystopias. She wrote scholarly papers but not fiction. I never felt for a moment that she was a rival, which was a big relief after years of competitive writing classes.

A good trick to help yourself when you're rewriting is to read your material out loud. It's amazing what you can catch that way.

Another useful technique is to rewrite the story as a script, which can help you winnow out excess description and tighten up dialogue.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our audience?

A: Don't give up! You never know when your circumstances change. If I could resurrect my novel after seven years when I thought it was dead in the water, who knows what might happen to you?

Thank you for stopping by, Aviva!

And thank you for having me!

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