Monday, December 8, 2014

Roadtrips and Rainbows...

In literature I would likely be pegged as an "unreliable narrator" for my tendency to remember ONLY the colorful side of things, often overlooking the drearier, duller bits. Take this header, for instance. No, on our recent road-trip, Troy and I did see a rainbow--a shy, frail smirk of a rainbow, lost among rockslides, fog, hail, slurry-like mud, and ungoodly amount of rain. But who wants to hear about the drab and the damp. Much less relive it. (Though, I will talk about the wild turkeys, California Condors, and the mice in the walls.)

The reason we've taken the trip in the first place was to attend Andrea Brown writing workshop at Big Sur. Hosted by one of the country's most prominent literary agencies, it is a three-day live-in, work-in retreat focused on polishing your work-in-progress while networking with your peers and industry professionals. How could I miss such a chance? Besides, we badly needed a getaway, and the fates graciously aligned their whims to our needs. Or so I like to think. The workshop ended up being a great learning experience. But then, so did the trip.

For one, we've gotten a year's worth of sightseeing in six hours, mostly in the form of various wildlife picturesquely lounging, soaring, or scavenging en plain air. The nature started us up on the hawks, moved us up to the vultures, and then swiftly progressed us to seals, deer, foxes, raccoons and finally, its glorious piece de resistance--California Condors. I had never seen one up close and--HOLY WOW!--the sheer size of it made my jaw drop as I stared at the creature in awe and trepidation. Those things are ENORMOUS! To call them birds is a sacrilege. Bears of the skies is a more fitting name!! Honestly, after seeing the condors, I would've been perfectly content to go back to LA and write them into my latest fantasy, but there was still more to experience--the writing and the revising and the networking, not to mention the driving.

Now, I'm more than ever convinced that the main purpose of road trips is brainstorming. While sampling new tunes and snacking on the gas station-bought treats, that for some unfathomable reason don't seem nearly as objectionable if consumed in a car. Treats, such as pork rinds and vinegar-soaked jerky and squishy egg salad sandwiches cut into perfect triangles. I should probably be ashamed for admitting this, but...these sandwiches are not half bad, second only to 7-Eleven hotdogs as my favorite guilty road trip pleasure.

Big Sur is a quiet, wooded place hugged by the mountains, which are in turn embraced by the ocean. Its cool, damp scent reaches you at the same time you feel a peculiar unmoored sensation of submerging underwater. One minute you are skirting the barren hills, another you are engulfed by the trees. Giant pines, whose leafy branches clung to one another, blocking out the warmth and the sun. For such a solemn landscape, all aspects of it twine together into a kind of low-strung harmony. Moody and subdued, but also achingly lovely. Celebrated for once being the home to the formidable Henry Miller, and for lying close to the picture-perfect Carmel by the Sea, Big Sur is a solitary paradise, ideal for confiding your inner world to paper. The retreat nestled in the woods, taking up the entire Big Sur Lodge, with its rows of quaint, wooden cabins and hills overrun with wild turkeys and inquisitive deer. Shockingly spacious for two people, our cabin was smoky and cranky, rustic and inexplicably charming. It rained through the night, and we could hear mice scratching beyond the walls, the soft sighing of damp wood, and branches slapping the wet palms of their leaves against the glass.

The workshop itself was lovely. The ideal hub for brainstorming, revising, and hanging out with your fellow authors. My only issue was its length. Like most things we come to appreciate and enjoy, it was all too brief. Which in no way detracted from its awesomeness, the thoroughness of its instructors, or the quality of their feedback. If any of you has an opportunity to attend this retreat, my advice is: seize it. The classes were small and intimate, and each of us got the chance to dig deep into our stories' innards, to test our plots for weaknesses, and brainstorm solutions that would deliver on storytelling potential. Three days may not seem like nearly enough time, but by the end I had rewritten my opening, bonded with a group of amazing writers, and gained a deeper understanding of my characters and plot. Also, explored Big Sur's dreamy beaches and meandering forests trails.

After Big Sur, we headed to San Francisco by way of Carmel. The town by the sea is what a fairy-tale would most likely look like if it somehow manages to translate itself into reality. Full of ivy-corseted, moss-strewn cottages with shingled roofs and neat lawns; of tiny, multi-storied art galleries with warm, glowing windows and cozy garret quarters; of brass and iron clocks that tracked the passage of time in far off places; of carved window shutters and whimsical staircases disappearing into mysterious basements; the town is a dream. And like any fairy-place worth its salt, it has a profusion of restaurants and bakeries, delicatessen and candy shops. And dogs. Carmel is delightfully dog-friendly, and if you enjoy the company of furry, shaggy canines of all sizes and shapes, it is definitely the place for you.

This friendly critter at our hotel.

To our delight, the animal friendly theme continued into San Francisco. Our trip to Union Square was especially heartwarming, because all the dogs and cats you see in these windows were being placed up for adoption by the SF SPCA, the no-kill San Francisco shelter. While we stood admiring this pretty girl and talking to one of the SPCA volunteers, two sister puppies got adopted into their new forever family. Talk about positive energy. The best part about the SPCA is their commitment to placing terminally ill pets into new homes; and only a very small percentage of these animals is ever returned. As an owner of an epileptic dog, I'm a big believer in no-kill shelters and encourage everyone to support the amazing work they do to ensure all animals find their HEA.

Gorgeous Holiday windows around Union Square.

An unexpected sledding raccoons diorama in an otherwise proper office building.

We returned to LA, grateful to be back home, though reluctant to give up the joy of roaming the roads, bone-weary from lack of sleep and antsy with the travel-borne ideas and the urge to clothe them in words. Full of those peculiar but welcome incongruities, when your body is at odds with your mind, and the friction fills you with restless electric sparks. But ultimately, we were ready to turn the page and see where the new story may take us. 
Well, hello there, rainbow!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving, Shades of Blue, Birthdays, Book Love and Masks

Wishing all those of you who celebrate it a Happy and Thoroughly Delicious Thanksgiving! Taking a day to recognize the blessings you might've otherwise taken for granted or overlooked, while sharing food and conversation with family and friends, always unspools those bright, golden threads of memories woven throughout the year that reel in warmth and laughter. Good thoughts beget good thoughts. Which is why Thanksgiving has always ranked high on my holiday meter. Besides, every so often it lands on my birthday.

It feels as if the universe itself is nudging me out of my misanthropic hibernation, hinting rather transparently that I can't help but be grateful for...well, for being here. On this planet. This side of the world. In my body. A little on the nose, universe. As if I need to smell the turkey and pumpkin-cranberry pie to bask in the glorious joy of existing. Or maybe I do. I certainly enjoy it. As I prep and cook and joke with Troy, the festive, bright feeling slowly sinks in, and by the time dinner is ready, our minds are brimming with the pleasure of each others company. Cooking always reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate, of those parts, where the heroine infuses the food she prepares with her emotions. Only in real life, this happens in reverse order; it is the sensory act of cooking that makes you shimmer and bubble, grow languorous and unhurried, light-hearted and bubbly, depending on your concoction. 

For me, Thanksgiving has always been a chirpy, lively affair (and I always sneak in a glass of red wine as I cook); besides, after all these years of making stuff together, Troy and I have synchronized our culinary temperaments to perfection and the whole thing, set to the soundtrack pumped out by Pandora, is pretty effortless. Which reminds me of our very first joint Thanksgiving, when we were still unknown quantities to each other, when our mood was exploratory and our oven in a tiny hole of a house -- perpetually out of order. My hubby surprised me with a birthday trip to San Diego, where we made a proper, many-coursed dinner (turkey, stuffing, baked yams, pie) right in our room (serendipitously equipped with a full kitchen) and realized how well we got along with the spices, sharp knives and each other. I can still see the bewildered expressions of other hotel guests, as they paused in the drab, oatmeal-colored hallways to sniff suspiciously at the roasting-turkey-scented air. Good times! On a scale of effort to gratification, cooking falls just below sitting in a deep chair with a really good read in your lap. Dreaming comes close. Very close.

Love the symbolism of the cover!
And, yes, the crocodile is a part of the plot,
and so is the raven
And while I'm thinking about dreaming and books, I cannot help but rave about a fairy tale-esque, dreamy novel by Sally Gardner -- I, Coriander.  Set in a seventeen-century London during Cromwell's revolution, the story follows Coriander -- a girl who falls on hard times when her mother dies and her father is driven away by his evil new wife. The premise might sound simple, but the story is anything but! It is fascinating and funny and heart-rending and magical, with the added bonuses of featuring two of the most malicious, creepy villains I have seen in a fantasy and delicious pages of gorgeous, lyrical writing. This book is such a delight! The history and fantasy intertwine, showing us now dazzling magic, now harrowing darkness. Through it all, Coriander remains a strong, determined heroine, who fights hard to keep her dignity and set things right.

This book was a birthday gift from my hubby, and I stayed up and up and up, unable to part with its lush, chilling, captivating world. And after I've finished reading, I stayed up a little longer to get more books by the same wonderful author. So far, I've read three of her novels! Sally Gardner is my new hero! Her spirit is as bright and persevering as that of her heroines, and I can't help but admire anyone, who has overcome severe dyslexia to become an award-winning writer. I highly recommend I, Coriander to those of you who love fantasy, fairy-tales, and romance and are not particularly averse to looking at the darker aspects of humanity. What a great book! And that cover!!! I want to always have it in my sight.

And just a tiny birthday bit snuck into a holiday post. I want to share a gorgeous card Kim, my lovely and talented sister-in-law has made for me. Isn't it perfect? It can easily be an illustration to the Land of Joy and Sorrow. It even has a gorgeous lapis-blue feather. Love it so much!!! I think this coming Christmas the color scheme in my house would flow between different shades of blue: ultramarine and turquoise and sapphire and Indian-ink-blue and iridescent raven-plumage-blue and deep-Prussian-blue. It will be a landscape of wintry shadows; the brilliance of color punctured only by the warm glow of many candles. Hmmm.... And why not!

And now, something bizarre and creepy-delightful I found whilst researching... Loooove research; odd, little gems of knowledge always fall in my lap. Like this one. A forgotten Thanksgiving tradition. How wild is that!!!

Photo via the Library of Congress

I never knew this, but it seems that a hundred years ago, Thanksgiving was a lot like...Halloween. Scores of kids and adults alike would dress up and go on 'city crawls,' especially in such sprawling areas as Chicago or New York. Makeshift Thanksgiving parades -- fantasticals -- marched down the streets. Many wore garish masks - 'false faces' or 'dough faces' and patched, tattered costumes in a perverse tribute to poverty, rode horses or bicycles. Mischief and cross-dressing ensued.

Boys posing in their sisters'
old, ragged finery.
Photo courtesy of the
New York Public Library
The goal was to look as disheveled and wretched as possible. A 1910 book called Little Talks For Little People spelled out the dress code: "Old shoes and clouted upon your feet, and old garments upon you." Children, 'maskers,' dressed as homeless people (a custom stemming from mumming, when men in costumes asked for food and money, often in exchange for music), doused people with confetti and flour, going door to door in ragamuffin packs or begging strangers "anything for Thanksgiving?" Passerby threw them change, spiced jelly gums, tinted hard candy or apples.

Only by mid 20th century did the masking tradition shift to the more whimsical Halloween. Wild, isn't it?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Illusions of Fate

Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White (a part of my Comic-Con horde) is one of those rare, special books you wish you could live in every single day. Yes, it is really that good. Better, even.

I met Kiersten at a Wonder-Con book signing last spring and fell in love with her enchanting, atmospheric In the Shadows, co-created with Jim DiBartolo. Needless to say, when I got my hands on the galley of the Illusions, I inhaled it in one seating. My only complaint about the book was its length. Too short. Too, too short. I would've loved to keep reading. And reading. And reading some more. Because this book is pure MAGIC. Charming, witty, heart-breaking, romantic. It reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle -- an old and true favorite -- with a shade of Jane Eyre, or, perhaps, Pride and Prejudice. The story has it all: a clever, strong, independent heroine; a dashing, tormented hero; a quirky, endearing sidekick (love you, Sir Bird); a creepy and cruel villain, and magic -- lots and lots of curious, strange, thrilling magic. 

On top of everything else, Kiersten has a gift for giving her readers a striking visual experience; as I was reading the book, my fingers itched to illustrate the scenes -- the ball at the lush hothouse of a Conservatory; the sparkling, vivacious symphony; the gloomy, misty park besieged by crows. Each scene set a unique mood, adding color and character to the original, vibrant world of magic, secrets and danger. And the shadows. Swoon. How I wish we could have this happen in real life. 

The story begins with Jessamine, who has left her native tropical island of Melei to attend school in a dreary, proper Albion (reminiscent of Victorian England.) With her dark hair and complexion Jessa doesn't fit in among the pale "civilized" Albions and has to deal with prejudice and harassment, still, she is determined to make the best of the situation. She excels at her studies and works hard as a maid at a ritzy hotel to pay for her school. When a chance meeting with the gorgeous Lord Finley draws her into Albion's secret world of privilege, magic and danger, Jessamine refuses to play by the rules of others and sets out to discover as much as she can about the forbidden art of spells. Soon, she is caught up in an ongoing feud between Finn and the powerful Lord Downpike, who wants to uncover the secret of Finn's magic, a feud that threatens to destroy not only Albion, but also Melei. Jessamine must use every bit of her wits to stop her enemies and save everyone she loves before it's too late.

Jessamine, Jessa, is easily one one my favorite YA heroines: she's determined, spirited, witty, intelligent, feisty and brave. She is secure in her own skin, stands firmly by her beliefs (and her friends), refuses to play a damsel in distress, and, all in all, kicks some major magic ass. 

On his part, Finn is the perfect hero: selfless, kind, sweet, courageous, loyal. He treats Jessa with respect, understands her, supports her and appreciates not only her exotic beauty, but her intelligence and her personality as well. He cares for Jessa and is deeply protective of her, but never controlling or possessive. More importantly, he lets her make her own choices. Their dynamic is wonderful; Kiersten takes time to develop their relationship, and I love seeing their flirtatious banter turn into a raw and honest expression of real feelings. 

And, of course, let's not forget Eleanor, the girl's all sorts of awesome. She's a gem of a character -- wonderfully scheming and funny and gossipy and surprisingly bad-ass.

Favorite scene:

“You made it to do with her, though, didn’t you?” Eleanor looks pointedly at the ground where my shadow pools at my feet. “Can I see it? Wiggle around or something. I’ve never actually seen someone shadowed before! It’s so romantic!”

“It is nothing of the sort! It’s…” I glance at Finn, who is avoiding my eyes. “ He was just spying, and…” Romantic? Preposterous. But suddenly I am desperate to understand. “What does it mean? He wouldn’t explain it to me.”

“Open your mouth, Eleanor, and I will cut out your tongue and use it as fertilizer for my personal herb garden.”

“But she should know!” Eleanor whines, pulling my back to the couch across from Finn. “It’s adorable.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Stronger, with More Hands...

I would've never pegged comic conventions for places to hear some of my favorite writers speak about their work to an audience of wildly costumed, raptly listening fans. To me, all the fantasy/YA panels, book signings and publishers booths at the recent San Diego Comic-Con were a complete revelation -- why hadn't I heard of such magical things taking place here before? And the book signings, my goodness, the book signings...The one thought running through my mind was -- hands. I needed more hands. Or, at the very least, a sturdier bag. But mostly -- more hands. Because the books were stacked up high, in colorful, author-coordinated towers, the scent of their still fresh typographical ink beckoning me like a heady, familiar savor lured a starving wanderer. So many new books. So many good books. So many unread books.

Getting the shiny, slick galleys (a copy of a book that has yet to go through the final stage of edits) was the unexpected treat: Kiersten White's The Illusions of Fate (I will gush about this particular book in a later post), Marie Lu's The Young Elites, Arwen Elys Dayton's Seeker. So very generous of the publishers to promote their authors with such fantastic giveaways. The galleys found a caring home, and I discovered new writers to love. Well played, publishers. Well played.

My discovery of books made me temporarily forget about everything else: the world faded to a swooshing background noise, the coffee crisis in my cup became a distant concern, the colors of the Thor costume on the fellow in front of me dimmed. Because books. They took precedent above all else. There were book signings with George R.R. Martin (you had to stand in line to enter your name in a drawing just to win the right to stand in a signing line!), with my beloved Robin Hobb, with always fabulous Laini Taylor, with the talented and hilarious Jim DiBartolo, with Lev Grossman, Allen Zadoff, Leigh Bardugo, Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Marissa Meyer, Ann Aguirre, Kimberly Derting, Kiersten White, Tobias Buckbell and many, many others. It was a lush, book lovers Eden snuck into the chaotic comic book world. Who knew? 

The second thought of the day was -- stronger. I needed to be stronger. Troy needed to be stronger. Stronger, and with more hands. Because those books and galleys, they were not feather-light. At the end of the day, my arms felt like aching wet ropes, twisted into intricate knots. Still, this hurt was well worth the pleasure of tucking myself into an armchair with so many new reads that very same evening.
The panelists also agreed that well-written female villains were perhaps the most terrifying creatures in existence: to see women as destroyers instead of mothers, nurturers, friends would send shivers down the hardest, most stoic spines.  

Marie Lu and Rachel Caine
And the panels...My goodness. The panels! The panels were simply AMAZING! I went to Vengeance and Villains and got to hear Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Ann Aguirre, Kimberly Derting, Kiersten White, Allen Zadoff and Tobias Buckbell discuss their favorite bad guys. Respect to Kiersten White for naming Peter Pan. That selfish flying brat used to annoy me as a child, making me root for the misunderstood, hook-handed pirate (and how can you not root for the pirate?). Yep, to me, Peter Pan was the ultimate bad guy: uncaring, callous, pompous, without any regrets or much of a conscience. It is ironic how the failed good guys often make the best villains! Conversely, the failed antagonists can morph into the perfect tragic heroes.

The panelists also agreed that well-written female villains were perhaps the most terrifying creatures in existence: to see women as destroyers instead of mothers, nurturers, friends would send shivers down the hardest, most stoic spines. 

The signing lines begin behind this fierce couple, see them?
The signing lines begin behind this fierce couple, see them?
I almost missed the End of Series...or Not? panel featuring Lynn Flewelling (Nightrunner series), Lev Grossman (The Magicians series), Laini Taylor (The Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy), Jon Maberry (the Rot and Ruin series), Ben Winters (The Last Policeman Trilogy), Kresley Cole (Immortals After Dark Series), and Leigh Bardugo (The Grisha Trilogy), and was one of the last people to sneak into the crowded room. So worth the wait!

The first question was whether the writers pre-planned their series to be finite or not? Did they destroy the world or leave the story open-ended? Everyone had a different take on this. Lynn (who has one seven and one three book series) said that it was always painful to end a series, but her gut told her when it was time. Lev shared that he wanted to write about the magicians' life after their eduction. For instance, what was magic for if no one was threatening the world? Once, this goal was accomplished, he stopped. Laini is an intuitive writer. She had no idea how her trilogy was going to end until she wrote it. (By the way, it is unbelievably good. The Dreams of Gods and Monsters is everything you hoped it would be...tripled. A truly solid third book.) Kresley has a fifteen book series and is still going strong. She promised to write as long as people were willing to read. And Leigh enjoyed shorter stories, which could be tricky, as they imposed limits.

The second question asked what kept the readers engaged? Leigh said that authors had two choices for their character: a character who had everything and you took it from them, or a character who had nothing and you took even more. (And keep in mind that the story always trumps world-building.) Kresley liked to introduce secondary characters like a villain or godmother and switch up expectations. In Ben’s first book in the series, the character was young in a lot of ways and had to grow up. What made people stick was that the characters were still growing. Jon mentioned how we always entered a story with a limited world view. For example, his main character in the Rot and Ruin books was angry all the time, and why he was mad was part of his limited world view. But once exposed to a larger world view, it changed his life. World view wasn’t entirely the character’s fault, but as there was more exposure the view adjusted. Laini said she liked a tight narrative where certain questions were answered. Also, if the writing was beautiful, the reader wanted to sink into it.

Lev wrote The Magicians as a stand-alone, because he wasn’t convinced it would be published. But he had to send his characters back into that world. He wanted to know what happened next. Lynn said she also wrote a stand-alone that became two books, and then her editor asked her if she wanted it to be more. She invested so much, and there was more to tell. She writes for herself, as writing is hard, so she needs to love it.

The panel was amazing. Totally worth the wait.

Comic-Con appropriate footwear.
Getting into the Rulers of the Realm was even trickier. My secret to surviving the long, non-nonsense lines? Flats, or--to be more precise--flip flops. But even had I been wearing stilettos, I wouldn't have missed this discussion of epic fantasy between George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle), Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), Joe Abercrombie (Half a King), and Lev Grossman (Magicians Trilogy). Lively Ali T. Kokman of Barnes & Noble MCed. Being a fantasy girl through and through, I found the panel riveting.

Ali kicked off the discussion by asking the writers to describe the ways they tackled world-building in their novels. Joe admitted that he "made stuff up" and suggested you do lots of research or-- in other words--read. For instance, he read historical non-fiction to lend his works authenticity. Diana agreed with the importance of research, adding that there was still "plenty to steal from real history." George R.R. Martin admitted to borrowing from history and throwing out what he didn't need or want. Lev preferred to deconstruct, or as he put it "defile" reality, and Patrick shared how sometimes he believed he had made things up, only to be questioned by fans, who found historical precedents. "I’m clever, I take credit for accidents." Nice!

After that, Ali wondered what, aside from research, assisted with writing? Joe's answer was -- maps. Yay, Joe. This really resonated with me. I'm a huge fan of fantasy maps because they really help you anchor your readers in your world, give them a real sense of place. Of course, fantasy maps can be tricky. George R.R. Martin called to exercise extra caution when dreaming up the lay of your land -- one day your publisher might decide to create a detailed map and then you would have to face all the disparities between your maps and the events you described in your book. And filling in the blanks could be a real challenge; turned out the author had a real hard time naming...mountains. He also said, "If you want to know where fantasy maps come from, take the map at the front of your favorite fantasy novel, and turn it upside down. Westeros began as upside-down Ireland. You can see the fingers of Dingle. Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies? Upside-down Alaska."

Patrick brought up an interesting point -- a writer should decide whether it is even necessary to create a map for his/her book, especially if they don’t particularly care for maps. Providing maps to the readers is a fantasy convention, true, but it is a convention only because Tolkien did it in The Hobbit -- and he did it because it was part of his story. Patrick also believed that many fantasy writers felt that they had to invent new languages, once again because of the Tolkien influence. "But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek! If you’re a geek for something, and if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics, revel in your geekery, roll around in it, and make that a part of your world." Don't do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, "I don’t really feel like that’s the best way to enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world." (By the way, Patrick's brand of geekery is currency.) To sum up this part of the discussion: Write about your passions and the rest will follow. 

For the third question Ali asked who was their first reader? "Myself," Diana responded, adding that she also trusted her husband's opinions. Joe echoed her answer, and Lev said that his wife read for him, because "she's way smarter than he is", but that he "is tougher on himself." Martin urged the writers to not simply write to trends (you'd lose yourself), but instead tell the story they really want to tell. His message was loud and clear: always write for yourself first. I cannot agree more. As for the beta readers, Patrick had the most, their number somewhere in the hundreds (he is obsessive about getting feedback from intelligent people), while Joe could only deal with two betas at a time. And Diana stressed the importance of getting feedback from the experts -- for instance, if your character loses a leg, find out as much as you can about the process of amputation.

Next, Ali wanted to know the toughest thing to get through when writing a novel?"Inertia," Diana answered. "The longer you go without writing, the harder it is to start again."She suggested to keep writing even when stuck. A great, wise advice. "That long period between the first sentence and the last," added Joe, urging fellow writers not to be too hard on themselves through the "suck." Another great advice. "Sucks" happen. They also pass, creating space for long, free stretches of writing.

At the end, the audience got to ask a few questions, among them:
How do you explore the unhealthy and healthy relationships in your books?
"Make a lot of mistakes in your life." Patrick suggested. "The earlier you make them, the more useful they will be and the more forgivable from your peers -- and the police." He explained how mistakes give one motivation to evolve. Lev described fantasy writing as "raw," the writing of it involving "sides of yourself that aren’t your can’t lie in fantasy, because everyone will know." Diana agreed that honesty is the key to a successful life (as is finding the right person.) Joe said he’d gotten two great pieces of writing advice: one from his mother, "be honest, be truthful"; "the other one, which I try to live by is -- every morning, get dressed. It can be a problem for writers." Martin challenged this, "I wrote many of my best works in a red flannel bathrobe!" "That counts!" Joe assured him.

The panel was long and lively and ended in such an interesting place that the audience, judging by how long it took people to get up from their seats, was very reluctant to leave.

Elsewhere in the center, Brenna Yavonoff signed copies of her latest book Fiendish at the Penguin booth, Marissa Meyer hung out at Macmillan that publishes Cinder, San Diego Public Library had a booth promoting library cards (libraries rock! I'm a huge fan/ardent believer in library-book-hunting) and around every corner another surprise lay in store for the lovers of books. It was like stumbling onto an Easter egg hunt, only way, way cooler.

All in all, I was surprised and thrilled to see so many authors, book sellers and publishers present at a comic con event. Next to booths of comic books, action figures and various super hero paraphernalia they held their own and drew in legions of fans -- colorful, enthusiastic, bookish, awesome.

Wow, this turned into a long, long post. But my simple going-to-look-at-the-comic-books trip turned into something much larger and greater, and I wanted to give it at least a tenth of the attention it deserved.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Of Car Troubles, Air Balloons and Writers' Days

The Friday leading up to a weekend-long SCBWI Spring Writer's Retreat at South Coast Winery in Temecula didn't start out so well. Troy and I, having procrastinated in getting on the road, were rewarded with dense traffic, scalding sun and -- in a particularly brutal twist of ill-fortune -- "check your oil level" light blazing a stern, red warning that forced us to shut off all air-conditioning for a nearly three-hour-long, snail-paced journey. In a hundred-and-ten-something weather. Eesh. Personally, I think hundred-and-ten-something temperatures are a bit extravagant even for Southern California. No matter. We soldiered on. Like some demented engine whisperers, we tried to coax (even flatter) our car into holding on until we spotted a motor-oil-rich oasis, aka Pepboys, in a landscape of looping freeway ramps thick with glistening car carapaces and long stretches of rolling hills -- shockingly lush, considering the heat.
I didn't think the flattering would work, but our poor, overheated car lurched and wheezed, wearily snorting at our promises of first-grade-oil, but still carrying us to our vineyard-resort destination in time for the check in. Thank you car!

We arrived sweaty, thirsty and cranky. The crankiness didn't last: the South Coast Winery was way too pretty to wallow in any unpleasantness. And a complimentary bottle of chilled Zinfandel waiting in our room miraculously alleviated my thirst. Cheers to SCBWI for having the genius to hold a writers' retreat on a vineyard. Writers and wine were meant go together. Notice how both words start with the same letter? Destiny! Besides, what better to complement a late night brainstorming session with awesomely maniac novelists than a glass of rich, dark wine! (If a chocolate vendor could somehow be worked into the equation, this place would be heaven on earth. Heaven! With hot air balloons! More on that later.)

Female Chocolate Vendor
Paul Gavarni
Here's the weird thing -- having lived in SoCal most of my life, I've never been to Temecula. Only an hour's trip from Pasadena (in good traffic), and I've never even heard of it. Ah, California. One of the coolest perks of calling you home is discovering tiny, hidden gems scattered in plain sight. Living Easter eggs for all those who are willing to wander the land looking for them. Troy and I are very willing. And not a month goes by that we don't stumble upon such a marvel -- a lovely place with character and charm all its own.

Temecula's charm is its verdant hills plaited in green rows of grapevines, its wine, sweet and luscious as ripe, sunkissed cherries, its crisp morning sky studded with hot air balloons. Balloons! I saw them from the patio of our hotel room and did a double take, shouting to Troy, "Baloons! No really, balloons!" in a tone worthy of announcing an alien invasion, and gaped and craned my neck like an idiot, until it grew stiff, and even forgot to drink my coffee (because -- balloons!) They felt like a gift fallen in my lap, unexpected and all the more precious for it.

But awesome as they were, balloons were not the highlight of the weekend-long retreat. It was the opportunity to hear about the latest trends in YA literature from some of the leading editors in the field, a chance to meet them during a get-to-know-you reception, to get the answers to my questions (and to those of my fellow aspiring authors) and learn what made them tick (or request full manuscripts, as were the case.) The editors at my table -- Martha Mihalik, Senior Editor at Greenwillow/HarperCollins and Noa Wheeler, Editor at Henry Holt -- were generous in sharing their experience and thorough in their commentary, both professional and approachable. Friendly. Infinitely patient in hearing everyone out. 

I was especially grateful for the glimpse inside Noa's and Martha's wishlists. So many genres, so many possibilities! Noah wanted to see well-though-out fantasy, historical fiction, original sci-fi, strong, contemporary voices and a good ghost story. No gross-out factors. Check. No tales about horses. Check. Martha sought epic fantasy and well-constructed literary fiction. The fact that Noah's house published Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone Trilogy and Martha's -- Ray Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns -- the two books I have long loved for their vividly imaginative worlds and unique heroines -- only made the meeting more compelling. I was busy taking notes. Lots of notes. 

After the reception, I met a few of the other first-night attendees and spent the rest of the evening chatting about our common passion -- YA literature. Why YA? Maybe simply because some part of us stubbornly refused to let go of our youth. People came from various neighboring SCBWI regions, their works ranging from steampunk romance to historical fiction to high school crime mysteries to magic realism. One of the benefits of such literary events is listening to the multitude of voices, hearing fresh takes on the seemingly tired, old topics. Also it never hurts to compare notes on writing queries, working with agents, promoting your work on social media and self-publishing. We compared notes well into the night. While sipping that incredible, pale-gold wine.

And the next, very early morning, I sat on the patio resuscitating myself with coffee when, lo and behold, the very first balloon crept slowly overhead. A Scull and Bones pirate balloon. (Did I mention how much I wanted to be an artist-pirate as a very little girl? To lay siege to coastal towns, herd their citizens onto the main square and force them to admire my drawings. My own captive audience. *Cue evil laughter of a five-year-old.*) So... a pirate balloon! The sight of it heralded a glorious day. And so it was. Gloriously busy.

Saturday was PACKED with presentations from the editors and writers alike. Laura Whitaker, an Associate Editor at Bloomsbury Children's Books, kicked off the morning with a high-energy talk on the emerging trends in PBs. Wow, Laura, I wish for one tenth of your high spirits. (For those of you who write picture books, it would be a great comfort to know that the trending themes range from back-to-school activities to important grownups in kids' lives to obscure holidays to pretty much everything under the sun.) Laura's presentation was followed by a cozy and casual discussion led by Lin Oliver, New York Times Bestselling Author, a discussion that felt very much like chatting with a group of friends gathered around your kitchen table. It focused mainly on MG lit and all the ways it differed from YA.

We had a break to catch our breaths and returned for Laura's presentation on gripping beginnings in YA lit. She gave examples how a strong character voice, a traumatic event, or a dramatic action scene can move us to read on. She had great examples: 
  • Unusual Situations: Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic, Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts
  • Death: Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road (my absolute favorite book), Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post
  • A Question: Neil Gaiman's Coraline
  • Humor: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Libba Bray's Going Bovine
  • Love: Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park
Later that afternoon, Martha and Noa talked at length about their publishing houses and teamed up to critique randomly selected first pages -- a good way to see what worked and what could use polishing in opening paragraphs across a variety of genres. 

In the interim between the morning and the afternoon events, all attendees had ten minutes to get their first pages professionally critiqued. The da-da-daam moment of the day! Ever since my very first semester at the then California College of Arts and Crafts (I will always miss that lovely "Crafts" bit now dropped from the name), the word "critique" gives me a bright jolt of excitement. Because critiques are all about perfecting one's craft. About highlighting your strengths. About identifying and eliminating your weaknesses. About letting your peers explore your work as its very first audience. Intimidating as they sound, critiques always leave me with a fresh perspective on both my craft and my vision, enable me to see my imagined world through the lens of another's eye and spot incongruities otherwise overlooked. Critiques are immensely helpful, and I wouldn't lie -- a round-table exchange was one of my most anticipated events at the Retreat.

It didn't disappoint.

At first, ten minutes seemed like very little time, but folks at my table weren't shy in contributing opinions and the critique swiftly turned into a lively discussion (as better critiques often tend to.) What struck me the most was the overwhelming feeling of support from my round-table mates. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, of one-boatedness, and the feedback gathered proved invaluable to my on-going revisions.

Soaking up the shade
before the workshops
Those of us most dedicated, returned for another round of critiques-and-revisions later that evening. Alas, I wasn't among them. There was simply too much information to digest, and I already felt like a battery charged to its full-capacity -- a little more and I would burn out. So instead, Troy and I headed to an eatery (I tend to think better while I'm talking, or eating, or both), where we filled our bellies with savories, while sorting through the impressions from the day in a slideshow of notes and memories. And they were all good notes and even better memories.

Sunday saw more of the first pages, this time critiqued by Laura and Agnes, and a fun lecture on crafting scenes from Martha and Noa, complete with a deconstruction of a train carriage scene from Harry Potter. It's always fun learning from Harry Potter. Martha and Noa -- who happen to be real-life friends -- finished each other's sentences, bringing humor and spontaneity to their presentation.You can't go wrong with Harry Potter.

The retreat wrapped up with the announcement of the manuscript contest winners in YA, MG and PB categories -- Congratulations Guys and Gals! -- and a group photo taken on a sunny lawn.

After it was over, Troy and I ventured into downtown Temecula -- a tiny place with wood-paneled sidewalks that manages to conjure up the atmosphere of the Gold Rush era Old West, despite the familiar Starbucks logo greeting visitors at the town's entrance and the snatches of jazz wafting from the open windows of its many shops. These shops lined the four-block long main street and offered anything from ice-cream and sweets, to olive oil tasting and assorted antiques to gluten-free alligator jerky. Ah-huh. Gluten free. I mean -- alligator jerky.

It hung, neatly packaged, next to the bundles of ostrich, venison, and boar meat. For a while, we explored the shop, egging each other on to sample some of its more outrageous offerings -- kangaroo or ostrich. Neither of us had the heart to try those, though we lingered around, intrigued by the gastronomic fearlessness (and iron bowels) of the shop's other customers. Eventually, we settled on a pack of safe and boring beef jerky to gobble on the way home, and so we did. The air conditioner worked flawlessly, the jerky was tasty, and we flew with nothing before us but the wide open roads and all around good karma for keeping promises to our car. 

Some of the Spring Retreat's prettiness:
Just follow the road along the rose-strewn posts...
Grow grapes, grow!

Roadtrips and Rainbows...

In literature I would likely be pegged as an "unreliable narrator" for my tendency to remember ONLY the colorful side of thin...