Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering ...

I was teaching on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. It was a normal morning, until it wasn’t.

In the teacher’s lounge early in the a.m., I heard the first of it. By the time school started, both towers in New York and the Pentagon had been hit, Flight 93 had crashed, the South Tower had fallen, and the North Tower had started to collapse.

My fifteen-year-old students were, in a word, confused. There was high emotion, anger, but mostly, there was disbelief. Think about how you felt that morning, waking up to terror.

We turned on the TV but the images were unreal. Far away.

Early in the morning the news was reporting that Al Qaeda was responsible. I could explain the word “terrorist,” for what it meant at the time. My students could study maps and internet pages for what “facts” we could find. I explained about the conflict of the Middle East in recent history, from the 1960’s on, something we hadn’t covered in World History at the start of school.

And then afterward, there were so many questions about who we should hate, and who the enemy was. Were the Arabs the enemy? Were the Muslims? What was the difference? I could explain that, at least.

Sitting in class with students in the East Bay Area, it was easy to point out that there was no race or religion that was to blame. These were our classmates, our friends. Our people.

It’s easier when diversity is right in front of you. It must be harder when your world is smaller, because that night, when I went home and watched TV, I saw fear. I saw people blaming Arabs for the attack. I heard that Muslims, one and all, were out to get us.

Being a history lover and, you know, a human, I was alarmed. Similar sentiments caused the Japanese internment in the 1940s, a great stain on the canvas of American history. On a more extreme and terrifying level, I had read similar justifications for The Holocaust.

So I talked about it with my friends, and my family, and my students. Some listened, others didn’t, but it brought me back, as questions always do, to history. In the chaos that was Ellis Island and mass immigration, one artist was able to capture a critical sentiment in a poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

These are my people. And unless you are a descendant of a native, you are my people, too. I don’t know much about my ancestors, but guaranteed they were lucky to get across from whence they came, thrilled to work, happy to have a chance.  

Recall, Americans, that regardless of your origin, you are an immigrant. You are the result of someone risking life and limb to become part of this great country of ours.

So, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I remember the fallen and the heroes of that day. I also remember that our nation is stronger because of its diversity. Let us not forget that in the days after 9/11 there was cooperation and patriotism, but there was also confusion and fear. We have the freedom to honor each other for our differences every day. Let us not forget.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pacing, Structure, and Anger

I’m mad at a book, but I’m not going to tell you which one*.
The book I just finished had so much buzz about it that I read the first part of it online, desperate to get a glimpse of the novel that, “is the new book for the Hunger Games crowd.” Then I preordered it, hoping it would deliver to my Kindle early so I would be able to read it before today’s release date. The book downloaded yesterday. I stayed up most of the night finishing it.
So, if I read most of the book without putting it down it must be good, right? Right? 
Wrong. Not completely wrong, but big lots wrong. And the ending?!?! So. So wrong.
The main problem was the pacing. The book is the first in a trilogy, but it read like the first third of one book, not the first installment of three stories.
Look, I love book series. I get that not all stories can be told in one go, that you need more than one book to resolve the overall conflict and fully discover the world the author creates. But each book in a series needs to have all components of story structure.
We all know the basics of story structure, right? It was drilled in to us in high school. You’ve probably seen this graph, but I like the one further down better.

You start with exposition, which sets the tone and scene and introduces the main characters.
Then on to rising action. The initial conflict occurs, the main character now has a story goal, and more characters enter the story. Either the main character is working with these other characters or against them (antagonist) to complete their story goal.
And then …

There. That big black vertical line. You see it? Tension. Right smack in the middle of the story (or at 50% on Kindle). Let’s remember that we can have conflict throughout the story, but the reader needs more than that. A major revelation, a game changer that raises the stakes. It’s a figurative car crash scene after which everything changes. Characters see each other more clearly or they learn something significant about whoever is oppressing them. Then, after this event, a plan begins to form based on our new knowledge. We now know our enemy better, and our goal becomes clearer. There is something to work for, and a plan begins to form.
Continuing in the rising action portion of our story, our main character plots and plans. She struggles against adversaries, but has alliances, too, who help her with her story goal.
Then, finally, at about 85%-89%, it is time to execute the plan. This is the climax. We are riveted as our main character takes the risk. She utilizes the strengths she has gained throughout the book, overcomes challenges, she may realize something she hadn’t thought of before, but the plot points were leading her here all along. She triumphs.
Then, right at about 95%, we get our falling action and our resolution. The story goal is met, the future is described or alluded to, the lessons learned are delineated. In a series, there would also be a set up of the next part of the story with some kind of antagonism.
I checked. All of my favorite books have these elements, including the tension right at the half way mark. In Twilight, 50% is The Meadow scene. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth exactly half way in to the story. In The Hunger Games, Katniss fights off the Career Tributes for the first time.
In the book I just read, the halfway mark simply represents the end of one type of challenge and the start of a new, more mysterious challenge for our main character. We are taken from two of the characters we were invested in and then introduced to new characters. Our main character does not have a clear story goal, a coherent plan, or even an idea of who the enemy is. There are no important revelations, in fact, we are given very little information, and our heroine has lost her motivation. Don’t get me wrong, there’s action, a lot of it. It’s intense at points, especially in the beginning. This is what kept me reading. But without a stronger structure to the story there is no climax, and one challenge simply blends to the next.
And the ending! OMG the ending was infuriating. Near the end of the book, I’m talking at 93%, the main character finally gets a clue as to what is really going on. She decides to leave the crazy place she is in (this is where we should have been at the 50% point). Then, at 99%, she finally does leave, but discovers that the world she was in was even crazier than she could imagine. That’s it. No real answers. No resolution. Just part of an unfinished story.
Now, I like a good cliff-hanger, but you have to have a story to back it up. There has to be tension, clear consequences, a known opponent.
Here’s how the story should have gone. Keep in mind this is a contemporary young adult fantasy/apocalypse story.
0-10% - Main character “A” intro, disaster happens
10-20% - Struggles/conflict (lose supplies, strange creatures attack, etc.), intro little girl character “B” who relies on main character, something strange is happening, no real info, scary times, need help
20-30% - Intro love interest character “C”, seek shelter, get info on what is happening, ABC characters grow closer, go through challenges together
30-40% - ABC decide to leave current shelter to learn more about what is going on in real world, little girl B is taken, then love interest C gets hurt
40-50% - Main character A goes to find help, love interest B disappears, main character A enters strange town. A’s story goal: get ABC back together.
50-85% - Main character A realizes strangeness of town/danger right away, learns concrete information, creates a clear plan to escape, grows connected with some people in the strange town, even has a new love interest “D,” but feels ever stronger about her purpose and finding B and C.
85-95% - Executes plan, lots of tension and challenges in escaping, internal conflict b/c of those she’s leaving behind. Learns the strange town is even crazier than she thought, fuels her to keep going but makes her even more scared. Working for her story goal – to get back to B and C.
95% - Finally she reaches B and C. She rescues B (or they rescue each other?), then she finds C in a new town. So grateful to be back together. She describes the strange town to the new town, learns quickly how things operate in the new town, which is better because it’s a military structure and B is a leader. She expects the strange town people to come for her.
98% - Set up for next book. The strange town invades the new place. The new place is outnumbered, but led by military strategy and home field advantage give them the upper hand. Main character A is fighting and breaks her opponent’s arm. It’s her love interest D from strange town. Shock. Then she has a gun pointed at her and it goes off.
I know you didn’t read the book I’m talking about, but trust me, this would have been better. The author still could have maintained the characters, writing style, nuances, etc. that make the story good, but we would have had a complete book with anticipation for the next one in the series.
If they’re touting this as the next book for Hunger Games readers, it falls shy of the mark. Each of the HG books had a self-encased, fully fleshed story. Yes, each book included a set up for the next book and a cliff-hanger, but that was after the story was resolved.
There were other things that bugged me about the book, and lots of things I liked. I won’t detail them here. From the reviews I’ve read, everyone else loved this book, so maybe I expect too much.
I don’t have an MFA in creative writing and I’ve published exactly zero novels, but I read a lot. I can tell what works. And I’m telling you, readers should expect more than this.

*I chose not to name this book because writing is hard and I'm not a book critic, although a tiny bit of Googling will lead you to it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


I feel like I should explain the book thing.  I have a bit of a reading problem. My to-read list is so long that if it weren’t digital I’d need an entire room to fit all of the books. I read any spare moment I can. I have become annoyed when there is a good show to watch on TV because it’s 23 less minutes of reading time. My sleep patterns are affected and my husband has to force me to turn off the light and go to bed.

The problem started when I was young and my mom gave me The Diary of Anne Frank. I was floored. Literally, my mom had to pick me off the floor when I finished the book. I went for more lighthearted material after that. I loved books that told a relatable story free of any real conflict. I liked contemporary works, no fantasy or sci fi, and only occasionally would I read an historical fiction. I read books about ballet (my sister and I tore through the Satin Slippers Series), Sweet Valley High, and other sugar coated nonsense that makes you want to brush your teeth now, but it was perfect for us back then.

In high school I read Jane Austen for the first time, and I practically fell out of my chair. I love Jane Austen. I’ve read everything she ever wrote. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma dozens of times each. I read them at least once a year because I like to visit my old friends.

From there it was the Bronte sisters, then Dickens, then Forster, then Wilde, then Tolstoy, and then I thought I should probably read something by Americans, so I read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James and some others.

Anyway, I was a classics girl right up to college, where I stopped reading novels. I call this the dark ages because there was just no way to read for pleasure with a full college course load. If I read anything outside of the required reading list, it was biographies or memoirs of the people we studied, or non-fiction about relevant events.

I did read one non-school related book in college.  My sorority sisters passed The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood around so we could each learn the secrets. We would stare significantly into each other’s eyes like the YaYas did. But that was it. The one novel I read in college.

After college I reread A Room with a View by E. M. Forster when I was traveling through Italy, which was perfect because the book starts with a girl touring Florence, and my love of reading was renewed.

And then the real world hit, and thank God for books or I would have to cross oceans to find my happy place. There they were, my old friends Austen and the Bronte sisters (not Anne, the other two), waiting for me to pick them up again and visit. Oh, to be in a world where a girl’s biggest problem was the man she was going to marry!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I live now when I have, you know, choices and the vote, but still, it’s romantic and simpler.

So then I started reading IMPORTANT books. I was a college graduate and a teacher, so I had to be serious and read serious, adult things that MATTERED. So I read Ken Follett and Ken Kesey and Toni Morrison and others. But the books by those authors are not an escape. Those books are work. They are not fun, but they aren’t supposed to be. They are significant commentaries on the human condition and they matter, but I’d rather read about vampires.

I still read literary fiction (although I couldn’t get through the latest Jonathan Franzen book – ugh, depress me as much as possible why don’t you?!), but what I like best are the transformative, coming of age stories that are present in most young adult literature.

I love the Harry Potter books. Love them. If I could do it all over I would go to Hogwarts and be in Ravenclaw and play exploding snap and transfigure things. But I can’t, because it’s not real, so instead I’ll read about Harry. This is another series that has me jumping out of my seat I love it so much.

My real problem started with the Twilight Series. I’m going to be blunt and tell you that whatever you think about these books, they are a gateway drug series and have helped the YA lit market explode. More YA books are being published than ever before, and people of all ages are enjoying these stories. YA lit is about teens, but it is not written solely for teens. Most of the best books I’ve read lately are considered YA lit. If you want to know more, check out the Forever Young Adult webpage. They are brilliant.

So, the Twilight Series. I love it. I know it’s cheezy and misogynistic, but it’s also a well-told story. I love the characters and the world that Stephanie Myers created. So, although I wouldn’t have made the same choices that Bella did (Team Go-To-College-And-Get-Your-Own-Life), I like seeing her struggle through the consequences of those choices. I love how Myers writes about love. It’s so pure. It’s also limited and less complicated than real love, but it’s a fantasy.

Speaking of fantasy, a few years ago I realized that there was a whole world of great books out there that I never picked up because I thought I didn’t like fantasy. Obviously if I liked Harry Potter and Twilight, I might like others. So, my world opened up. I will read any dystopia you put in front of me. I will read about vampires and werewolves and fallen angels and magic. But no fairies. I draw the line at fairies.

If you haven’t read the Hunger Games yet, you need to. Now. Not because it’s trendy and there is a movie coming out, but because it’s good and it’s a significant commentary on the sacrifices, strategies, struggles, and choices that are made because of war.

When I think about it, the fact that I read mostly YA lit is not surprising. I’ve always loved these stories. Jane Austen’s main characters are in their early 20s at most. And what more fantasy is there than regency-era England? It’s all fantasy, it’s all an escape.

I’m always searching for the next thing that will force me out of the furniture. It started with Anne Frank, continued to all of Jane Austen’s work, then Harry and Bella and Katniss entered my life.  I love reading a new book, hoping it will be the next thing that renders me chairless.

I’ll probably talk a lot about the books I’ve read on here. It’s my candy, so I hope you want to share with me.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“I find I think of myself not as a writer so much as someone who provides a gateway, a tangential route for readers to reach the circus. To visit the circus again, if only in their minds, when they are unable to attend it physically. I relay it through printed worlds on crumpled newsprint, words that they can read again and again, returning to the circus whenever they wish, regardless of time of day or physical location. Transporting them at will.
When put that way, it sounds rather like magic, doesn’t it?”
-          From The Night Circus

The author Erin Morgenstern is a magician. Not the pulls-rabbits-out-of-hats- pick-a-card kind of magician, but a transcendent storyteller whose magic is captured on the pages of her new book, The Night Circus. From the first pages the reader is so immersed that she is surprised to look up and see the living room rather than the mysterious and enchanting world Morgenstern creates on the page. The reader pauses, unsure it’s healthy to be that completely immersed, then goes back to the book, expecting the pages to transform somehow. Convinced that there is a secret gateway to the tents, that when the sun sets she will be able to enter the world for real.
I was able to get my hands on an Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of this book through before it comes out this Tuesday. There’s a lot of buzz about this book, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read it before it hits the shelves officially.* Here’s a brief description of the book from Morgenstern’s website:
“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des RĂªves, and it is only open at night.
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.
True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.”

The brilliance of this book is not only in its characters and plot; it is also in the way the story is told. It is in the pacing and the manipulation of the reader throughout the book.
We experience the mystery of the circus as we learn its secrets, its history. The author addresses the reader directly in the opening scene, guiding us to experience firsthand the mysterious night circus appearing without announcement. Then we are transported back in time more than a hundred years, where we are introduced to several main characters and the competition. Now we are in the present again with our ticket in hand. We’re ready to enter the gates, and suddenly we are transported several decades after the competition begins where we meet a boy going to the circus for the first time. Now we are in the circus courtyard. We see the white flames of the bonfire that plays a central role in the magic. Then we are back at the “start” of the story again. We learn about the inception of the night circus and we meet more mysterious and talented characters. Our personal encounters at the circus mirror what we learn about the circus throughout the story.
Time is treated differently in The Night Circus. It is like the caramel on the apples that scent the courtyard, pulled and stretched and manipulated to fit its purpose. The central art piece is a unique clock that stands sentry at the entrance. Characters age differently and feel the futility of attempting to control time. The fortune teller says, “The most difficult thing to read is time, maybe because it changes so many things.” It is fitting that the story is not told in a linear timeline. The relevant pieces fit together, creating a puzzle and then a picture and then a piece of art.  
This captivating world gains flesh and texture though the themes weaved within the story. Throughout this journey we become part of a world where creativity is valued, embraced, and built upon. An unusual midnight dinner becomes a tradition, costumes and setting play a critical role for the patrons of the circus and also for the reader, and magic becomes collaboration, which then becomes the magic.
Cages are an interesting theme throughout the book. Whether one is caged by circumstances or choices or devotion, and what can be termed imprisonment to one can be deemed freedom to another.
Color is significant. The entire circus, from the flames of the fire to the dusted or painted ground, from the tents to the costumes to the art, everything is either black or white or gray. This non-chromatic work belies the complexity of the circus. The world we enter is neither black nor white, or shades of gray, it is whatever our imagination chooses. In the closing sections of the book, the author is seemingly talking directly to the reader as one character states, “Someone needs to tell those tales … there’s magic in that. It’s in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift … There are many kinds of magic, after all.”
I hope you read this book, if only to discover what form the magic takes in you.

*Note: I was not compensated in any way for this review. I just want you to read the book. It’s good. Really.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Nostalgia and Fresh Starts

My son Erik starts first grade today. He's six. He's tall and adorable and growing up so so fast.

I used to teach, and this time of year always fills me with such profound, visceral excitement, even now that I've been out of the classroom for eight (!) years. As a teacher, I reveled in the smell of new school supplies, the order of the untouched classroom, the reinvention of lesson plans, and the inspiration of new ideas and challenges. All of that mixed together meant a down-to-the-toes adrenaline rush. Of course, then the kids show up and you start counting the days until Thanksgiving break. But that's not the point. The point is: new school year = fresh start. Excitement.

But now I'm a mommy, and the excitement of the new school year is blended with anxiety over new teachers, class placement, and general queasiness over academic and social tangles that my over-protective self wants to shield from my baby. He's not a baby though. He's six. And he can do this.

Anyway, the new school year always inspires nostalgia, too. Those of you who know me are aware that our family had a non-traditional start. Erik is from Russia, and we adopted him when he was 14 months old. My husband Ryan and I kept a blog throughout our journey, and both the process of writing the posts and the incredibly supportive comments we received almost literally kept us sane during that time. It was raw, and emotional, and supportive, and lovely, and important. I loved that connection. I was grateful for every comment, every site visit.

We stopped posting shortly after we arrived home. Not because we wanted to, but because life as a newly-minted family with two jobs and an energetic toddler was not conducive to creative thought, or any thought for that matter.

Now, almost five years later, I’m nostalgic. So I thought I’d reach out. Let you know what is going on with us, things I’m thinking about, or trying, or anything that strikes my fancy.

I hope you enjoy, and I hope you comment!