Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writer-Blogger Thursdays: Why I Will Never Make Fun Of Nicholas Sparks Again

I've made up my mind to never make fun of a commercially successful author for as long as I live.  Barring the exception of their showing up at my house in a Barney costume and yodeling, I'm not gonna do it.  Even if their writing sucks.  Even if it really sucks.

Why?  Because they've earned their success.  They really have.

I used to think that all mainstream audiences were manipulated by a Jabba the Hut-like mastermind who paid  talentless hacks ghastly sums of money to churn out fodder for the masses, inoculating them against the works of gifted writers trying to make their way in the world.  I believed that only way to be successful was to write about sparkly vampires in high school and their angsty girlfriends.  Or be Stephen King.

Then I took a peek at Nicholas Sparks' website.  In case you haven't heard of him, many people with good taste  in books accuse him of writing the same book over and over.  I loved to use his name as a punchline for every joke I made about bad writers.

Until two days ago.

I looked at his Writing Advice section and found what he had to say made a lot of sense.  His writing advice didn't differ that much from the advice of other writers whose works I enjoy.  (Read a lot, write a lot, learn the industry, be professional, etc., etc.)  And you know what?  He's found what works for him and he sticks with it.  He's got an audience who loves his books.

But, as I learned from reading about his personal journey, he worked very hard.

The question of his talent, while debated in some literary circles, is negligible at this point. He worked his butt off, paid his dues, and now he's enjoying the rewards.  I can't begrudge him his success.

I've been worrying if I am inherently good enough to pull off being a writer.  There are voices in my head screaming that what I'm writing is garbage, because I compare myself to others.  This past weekend I was tempted to curl up in a ball and give up on my work in progress.  Especially after such a tiring weekend at the spa.

But I didn't give up.  Instead, I pounded out 2,500 words.  Because I am a writer, and this is what I do.  Writing is a calling, but it's also a job.  I get to do it, no matter if I think I'm good enough or not.  There are plenty of immensely talented artists out there, and they miss out on opportunities to be more successful because they're hanging around complaining about how the movie/writing/art industry is corrupted beyond salvation.  While they're moaning that no one will appreciate their work, another artist who may not be as good will land a multimillion dollar after toiling in obscurity for years.

Don't be the whining artist.  The world needs your creation, not your complaining.

And don't stop making art, no matter how bad you think it is.

If you are true to yourself, and write that book sitting inside you, and revise like a super ninja on steroids, then the universe will break itself open for you one day, because fortune favors the hardworking and the fearless.

Also, you can't give up, no matter how many people slam doors in your face.  Just in case you were wondering if I forgot about to mention that part.  I didn't.

Happy Thursday!

P. S.  A-Z challenge starts tomorrow!  Who's excited?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Taiwanese Tuesday: A Weekend in Wulai

On Saturday I went with my host mother to Wu Lai, a place in the mountains that had a hot spring resort.  I got to sleep, eat, and use the hot spring for free, a pretty nice deal.  My host mother was every bit as embarrassing and hovering and caring as a mother can be.  She stuffed me full of food, introduced me to all of her friends, and took me to see some beautiful scenery in Wu Lai.  I was amazed at how natural the landscape was just half an hour from Taipei.

The hot spring portion of my weekend was quite an experience.  I had been to a hot spring hotel before that was very discreet: an attendant filled a tub of water in a bathroom, and there was an anteroom where you could change before and after soaking.  This hot spring had none of that.  I stripped down and went into a public area butt naked with a whole bunch of Taiwanese ladies I didn't know with my host mother and all of her friends.

You might be thinking the hot spring was unsanitary.  Nope!  The place was spotless; it was a real spa, not a public pool, so they could afford to pay staff to clean.  Clients showered before and after soaking.  I soaked for a while in hot water, dried off in a sauna, and let a giant nozzle pummel lukewarm water on my back.  My host mother and I rubbed wet salt on each others' backs and went inside what looked like a reverse sauna.  It had transparent walls but was full of hot fog.  I sat and let the salt melt on my skin, then my host mother doused me off with a cold shower nozzle.  I shrieked because I wasn't prepared for the cold.  The ladies chuckled at my reaction.

The spa had no windows, allowing steam to flow freely from under the roof.  Except for the reverse sauna, I wore my glasses the whole time.

There was an outdoor portion of the spa that had two pools: one very hot and one ice cold.  How hot was the hot pool?  SCALDING.

"Good Lord!" I cried in Mandarin as I lowered myself into it.  "It's too hot. I can't take it!"

"Don't force yourself," one of my host mother's friends said.  "Sit on the edge until you get used to it."

I did as she advised, then followed my host mother back and forth between the hot and cold pools.  My toes crackled as though a current of electricity was flowing through me.

"You're very brave," the ladies murmured as I went back and forth between pools.

I took a break from the extremely hot and cold water after a while and went to look at the river tumbling over the rocks and the steam billowing out of the spa.  A few robed ladies rested on deck chairs next to me.  The river was an opaque emerald color.  Lush green mountains shrouded in mist towered over me.  I tried to make the moment last as long as possible.

After we soaked we had dinner.  My host mother is a part of the Taiwan branch of the Girl Scouts, and last weekend was their retreat in the mountains.  They had a full program that evening, including dancing, karaoke, and an auction.  Like a good sport, I sang a karaoke song with my host mother.  Warning: if you ever go to Asia, be prepared: karaoke is a staple of social life here.  I don't care how much you hate it (and I do--almost as much as Hello Kitty).  Make everyone happy and sing at least one song.

The next day my host mother and I got up early and walked around the tourist area of Wulai full of shops selling aboriginal-themed souvenirs.  It was raining pretty heavily, so it wasn't as fun as it could have been, but I got to see the waterfall up close.  That was pretty cool.

All in all, it was a eye-opening (and exhausting) weekend.  I learned to be less self-conscious about my body.  Athough my body certainly isn't perfect (legs aren't shaved, carrying more weight that I would like, etc, etc.) no one's else's body was perfect either.  99.9% of all of people there jiggled at least a little.

Who's ready for pictures?  ME!  I AM!

No, I don't have any pictures from inside the spa.  Obviously.

So the deal is that Taiwan has a lot of mountains.  Like this one.

Me and my host mother.  She was intense but awesome.

I don't know what kind of fish this is, but I've had it a lot in Taiwanese restaurants and it's good.

Flamenco dancers!  The woman on the far left had a 'tude, which made her performance HILARIOUS.

Cool-ass waterfall!  The wires are for cable cars that go all the way up the mountain.
I got to get closer to it on Sunday.

Whee!  Sadly, I did not get to ride the cable car.

A street in the tourist section in Wulai.

See you Thursday!


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writer-Blogger Thursdays: Cliche or Plot Twist?

I got this from Deirdra:

Thank you so much!

Secondly, I have something to ask you guys.

My work in progress is about a young man who becomes the sole caretaker of his infant niece.  He faces a lot of obstacles, not the least of which is keeping his sister's unsavory associates (she's dating a drug dealer) off of his doorstep.

Recently I've been focusing a lot more on the sister's character development, and I've come up with a good reason for the sister and niece to suddenly disappear.

Is a kidnapping/disappearance of the baby girl a good plot twist, or just a cliche?

What are your thoughts?

DISCLAIMER: No baby girls, real or imagined, will be harmed in the writing of this novel.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

5 Minutes Left--Taiwanese Tuesday

I almost missed the deadline!  Phew.

It just occurred to me yesterday that I am going home it two and a half months.  My subconscious is blissfully unaware that I am not going to be here forever.  I haven't told it yet.  No need to traumatize it at this point.

Went to the Red Cross last night with my "host mother" a lovely Taiwanese woman who I will be staying with this weekend.  I believe going to the hot springs is on the agenda.  I spoke Chinese the entire time, and my head didn't hurt.  I made some mistakes, but I can understand about 85-90% of everyday conversation and respond appropriately.  Oh, language proficiency.  How lovely you are!

And now, class!  (It's noon my time.)

See you Thursday.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Writer-Blogger Saturdays

I've signed up for this:

and if you haven't already, you should, too.  They've already got more than 500 bloggers and are still going strong.  Official start date: April Fool's Day.  The idea is to post every day except Sundays for the month of April, for a total of 26 posts.  Every day you are expected to post something relevant to the alphabet, so on day one post something related to A, on day two B, etc., etc.,

The challenges have already begun; this week, the participants were challenged to write a press release promoting ourselves and the A-Z challenge.  I didn't do it.  I didn't think that I could, or that a newspaper would be remotely interested in my blog.

But someone got published.  Someone wrote a press released and got published in a local newspaper.  And it was a good press release, too.

I realized that not everyone was talking themselves out of their potential.

I'm making a lot of decisions this week that I'm not at liberty to discuss in a lot of detail here, but suffice it to say I'm no longer allowing circumstances to dictate what I can and cannot do, including feelings of self-doubt and insecurity.  Ever since I was a little girl my elders inundated me with the message: "Never give up on your dreams!  You do anything you set your mind to do!  You are a special little star twinkling in your own universe!"

I thought these people were at best misinformed optimists, and at worst willful half-wits.

Trust me, there are times in everyone's life when your dreams seem out of reach.  You get laid off.  Your mom gets sick.  Your childhood memories are riddled with craters of loneliness where there should have been love and support.  Your spouse/significant other/boss/friend is undermining you.  You're broke.

But as the saying goes, "Everything works out it the end.  If it hasn't worked out, then it's not the end yet."

Just because someone is out there being successful, doesn't mean you can't be successful too.

If you know you're supposed to do something, and you know it on so many levels not even Christopher Nolan could make a movie about it;

If your Golgi apparatuses are telling you you're a writer, and your mitochondria are telling you not to give up;

If your electrons are so burger flipping excited they can't sit still at the prospect of you going after what you're passionate about;

If space rocks have spelled out your destiny in the heavens;

If the writing on the wall, your palm reader, your pastor, your rabbi, your Buddhist monk, have confirmed that you're on the right path;

Then you can't give up.

You can't.

You.  Cannot.  Give.  Up.

You and your dreams are all you've got.

Don't let anyone talk you out of what you know you're supposed to do.  Don't let your bank account dictate your actions.  Don't let your fears and you past define your present course.  Yes, it's scary.  Life is often uncertain.  But you're not doing this alone.  We're all blogging and writing and dreaming and trying together.

You are mighty!  Now go and write mighty works made of mighty words.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Taiwanese Wednesday

This week has been hectic so far.  Someone seems to have pressed the fast-forward button on my life.  I'm starting research on a project I really like; I love my new Chinese teacher and classmates; new followers on this blog are trickling in; I got a summer job; my novel's trajectory is clear.  Even though I lost my Alien Resident Certificate last week after waiting for weeks to pick it up, reapplying for it has not been terribly strenuous, as my increased language skills have made life here much smoother.  All of these things, by the way, have happened within a few days of each other.

So I've been feeling a little like this:
This was taken after attempts to wake me failed.  My classmates are interesting people.

But, most of all, this place is finally starting to feel like home.

After almost seven months of culture shock, disillusionment, homesickness, loneliness, boredom, and frustration, suddenly Taiwan has become familiar to me.

And when I mean suddenly, I mean a couple weeks ago I was dragging myself up the mountain to go to class.  I bemoaned that Chinese was impossible.  I fantasized about having my bedroom back and seeing friends and family.

Now I'm running around trying to organize the last three months of my life, and it looks like I'll have just enough time to get everything done.  I'm even considering getting a research grant to come back here after I graduate.  I'm doing research in Chinese and I can read most of the characters.  All the suffering is paying off.

I'm cycling between exhaustion and contentment, and I'm grateful and honored to have you all along for the ride.

See you tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Technical Difficulties

I planned to write a blog post today complete with pictures, but then busy and tired stepped in.  And a nasty cold rain decided to blow raspberries all over campus, making any decent photography impossible.

Taiwanese Tuesday will happen tomorrow.  Promise.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Word About Japan

A few of you have been asking me if I've heard about the earthquake in Japan.  (Also, thanks to those of you who've asked if I'm okay.)  I'm on this side of the world, and I'm twelve hours ahead of most of you who read this, so, yes, I have.  I've steered clear of the news this weekend because I knew it was bad, and I didn't want to focus on how bad it was.  I was in New York on 9/11, and people talking about how unthinkable it was that someone would fly planes into buildings didn't help any: nor did repeated news clips of the Towers buckling underneath plumes of smoke.  You know what helped?  People who sent their thoughts and prayers our way and found ways to actually help.  For a few brief moments, the city came together in a spirit of mutual solidarity that transcended any religious sect or political agenda.  Then the media stuck its big nose in it and we got back to our paranoid bickering.

Japan's got it way worse right now.  So instead of watching the news on the Internet and getting sucked into the morbid voyeurism, donate.  And send your thoughts and prayers.  I don't care if you're an agnostic, atheist (I won't tell if you won't), Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, Christian, or Sikh.  This is not about religion; this is about the people of Japan.  They need our help.  As much as you can spare.  Sending a little unselfish love in their direction, no matter what color, class, or creed you are is the least we can do as human beings living together in a world that can go bananas at a moment's notice.

Which brings me to another reason I'm not watching the news: the media is generally not good at representing the massive amounts of love that emerges when a disaster strikes.  For every news story about the mother who can't find her children, there are many, many more about someone who sacrificed his life for someone he/she didn't know, or someone who against all odds survived beneath the rubble while volunteers dug him/her out.  There are volunteers on the ground right now, and more on their way.  Some of their stories of courage and selflessness will pop up here and there; others won't.  But it's important to remember that while the damage seems colossal--and it is--we can either focus on how much has been lost, or we can pitch in with the ones who are actually fixing this mess.

Let's stop talking about the problem and be a part of the solution.  For Japan's sake, and for ourselves.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writer-Blogger Thursdays

Okay, so first things first:

As I've already thanked and linked my awarders, I have to say seven things about myself and award other bloggers.  So, without further ado:

1. I'm an only child.  Either because of or as a result of this, I learned to make friends with adults than with people my own age.  It's something I'm still learning how to do.  If you consider yourself a good friend of mine, it's very likely you have at least five years on me.

2. I still like Avril Lavigne.

3. I'm messy, in both a figurative and literal sense.

4.  I am the queen of one-woman dance parties.

5. I have an obsessive habit of pacing that began when I was about eleven.  I try to channel it in a healthy way by walking on the track.  Somehow circles soothe me.

6. I do not know how to drive.  (I'm from a large city where cars are a waste of time and money.  Not my fault.)

7. I'm on a lifelong quest to find the perfect slice of pizza.  If you know any pizza places that are any good where you are, let me know.

Ten Bloggers who are Stylish:
Missing Link in Writing
The Serial Killer Files
Surrounded by Books
Cacy Duncan
An Alleged Author
iggi and gabbi
Mia Hayson
Nothing Cannot Happen Today
The Blogger Formerly Known As
My First Book

Secondly:  Writing Stuff.
So I mentioned before I'm working on a longer piece of fiction.  Last weekend I had a bit of a breakthrough.  I wrote an opening that felt different that anything I've written before.  It felt alive.  Charged.  I gave it to my mom to read, and instead of her usual, "I love to see you writing!" reaction (which she always does, no matter how awful or angst-filled), she wrote back she had to take a nap after she read it and that I had her attention from the start.  My mom has a way of being objective with both criticism and praise, and I trust her judgement when I ask her advice.  I also knew in my gut that I was onto something.  Something good.

What changed?

Stakes.  I raised them.

A lot.

Like, we're talking T-Bone.

I think my initial premise was interesting, but I was missing motivation in too many places.  I kept running into a wall--why would my protagonist choose to investigate the roots of his deceased father?  Closure?  I guess...but closure's really subjective.

I'm writing a piece about a dysfunctional family, and I placed the dead father in the center of it, which didn't really work. I then wrote a character sketch of the sister in relation to the father, which I liked better.

And then it hit me.

Put the protagonist in the center.


After that, the stakes kind of raised themselves.

And now ENTIRE direction of my novel has changed. Roughly 6,000 words are going to be cut; I'm starting over.

But it wasn't a waste of time.  If I hadn't written those 6,000 words, I probably never would have hit this sudden point of clarity.

I've been stewing over the love interest this week, and a JUICY DELICIOUS plot point has dropped into my lap.  I can't wait to spend this weekend reconfiguring this novel and watching these characters, who are each at the end of their respective ropes, make one last mad dash for sanity, normalcy, and--if they dare hope--love.

Happy Weekend and Happy Writing!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why I Don't Do More Extracurricular Activities

I'm already embarrassed enough that my three-hour nap prevented me from picking up my Alien Resident Certificate (ID card that goes with my resident visa) and returning a loan to my program director.  I don't need the added guilt of forgetting about your club and making your shiny hopeful face crumble into a crestfallen visage of despair at my lack of commitment.  I really don't.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Taiwanese Tuesday: What American Culture and American Media Taught me about China/Taiwan

1. Chinese has a completely different alphabet than English, which means the Chinese are not American, which makes them...foreign.  Even if you're living in their country and they outnumber you six billion to one.  They're still foreign.
2. China and Taiwan are totally the same place.
3. Yes, I have in fact read that Time/Forbes/Newsweek article that says the Chinese are going to take over the world one day.  IT'S ALREADY HAPPENING.  HIDE YOUR CHILDREN AND STOCK UP ON AMERICA.  IT'S OUR ONLY HOPE.
4.  There is only one reason why Chinese children are so good at math: they are little dormant robots awaiting the instructions of The Supreme Master Chairman Mao to destroy America.  I'm brushing up on my Chinapocalypse vocabulary.
5.  If you use your fingers to pull up your eyelids, you will not only succeed in blending in, you will have mastered how Taiwanese greet each other.
6. The only reason why an American girl would ever want to learn Chinese is to get a Chinese boyfriend.
7. All of the American expats in China and Taiwan know each other.  It's not just a Facebook group; we're all totes besties in real life.
8. Tiger Moms eat their young.  With chopsticks.
9. All Chinese people secretly want to be Americans.  If they're staring at you, it's because they're trying to learn how to be Americans.  It's not because you don't fit in or are screaming in English for a taco.
10. You can see Kim Jung-Il's house from The Great Wall.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

So Apparently I Can Post Pictures on This Thing

My descriptive powers are no match for the beauty of Hualien, so here you go!  Enjoy.
Look at that blue!

A really scary awesome bridge you had to get a government permit to go on because of the risks.
This was why we could go on a trail for only half an hour at a time.
I have no idea who that is.
seriously cool.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Writing and Traveling: A Match Made it Hualien

I've just returned from a three-day trip to Hualien, the east coast of Taiwan.  I wasn't planning on going, but I changed my mind at the last minute.  I was so glad I did, because it was one of the best weekends I've had since coming to Taiwan.  We visited Taroko Gorge National Park and the surrounding beaches, where I saw some of the most breathtaking scenery in my entire life.  I mean, I saw shades of blue I didn't know existed.  I also got to bond with the new CIEE students, which was really eye-opening, because my Chinese is (finally) at a level where I can appreciate more of the language's nuances.  Many of the new students are American-born Taiwanese, so we spoke Chinese almost the whole weekend, and (huzzah) my head didn't explode.  Was I proud of myself?  You bet.

I've also gotten The Stylish Blogger Award from Michael Offut and Devin Bond.  Thank you both very much!  I'm super flattered. I'm required to answer a few questions about myself and award other bloggers, which I'll do next week.  I'm a bit tired from the trip.  It's not going to be a long night.

I assigned my second post of the week to be about writing.  I've been reluctant to talk about writing-- specifically my writing--the same way I've been a reluctant blogger.  This is a bit ironic: a girl who can and does talk about anything and everything at great length is reluctant to discuss herself.  But I'm opening up more (thanks, Taiwan) and I took the time to discuss the writing process with fellow blogger Misha Gericke and the plot and characters of my newest project with a friend back home.  They've been enormously helpful with their suggestions.  Misha asked me if I'm a plotter or pantser.  When I asked her to clarify, she asked if I plan out plot points or if I write by the seat of my pants, an interesting question to be sure.  I guess I do a bit of both.  I plan and then write by the seat of my pants.

I don't write from plot.  I write from character.  Character, character, character.  I create characters, throw them into situations, and watch how they react.  I listen to their dialog.  And then I write it down.  Recently, this process has been tougher than usual, because I usually give up on my characters before I commit a word to the page.  My newest project, however, is forcing me to be both accountable to you, my readers, and develop these characters more.  In turn, they've shown me hues and shades that I didn't see before.  It happened this weekend, while I was taking in the landscape.  My characters deepened and sprouted dimensions that took me aback in a good way.

Characters should be like people: inconsistent, idiosyncratic, and surprising.  Their motivations should be clear, but how they get to what they want shouldn't be.  I believe a proper tension between motivation and character is what makes a literary work interesting.  I've got no problem with the characters. What I'm wondering is if my protagonist has enough motivating him to push the trajectory of the novel in the direction I want it to go.  And there's only one way to find out: keep writing.

See you all Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Taiwanese Tuesday

So I've found a decent bagel place in Taipei.  This is a big deal, because bagels were a staple of mine when I was little and I miss them so much.  Obviously, I am in a country where rice is a staple, but I need bread all the time every once in a while.  When I walked into the place, I met a someone who lived nine blocks from me back home who is studying here full time.  I came back the next day and met the owner, who lived in New York in the 80s and offered to teach me Taiwanese.  She told me she has an actual Taiwanese/English textbook, which I'd love to get my hands on.  I think I've found another regular spot for weekend brunch and general chillaxation.  The cupcakes are incredible.

Also, I met a Philipino cab driver today who apprenticed as a chef for twelve years before getting his taxi driver's license.  He gave me his card, and I think I'm going to let him drive me to some good eateries around the city.  Apparently he knows an Italian restaurant owned by a real Italian man with a real Italian chef, which sounds great.  I don't know any expats who have opened restaurants here.

Tomorrow I'm heading to Hualien, the Eastern part of Taiwan, with the CIEE group.  At first I wasn't going to go, but Carol (resident coordinator)'s face looked was so crestfallen when I told her my plans to stay in Taipei that I changed my mind.  We're going to Taroko Gorge, Taiwan's most famous national park.  I'm really looking forward to it, much more than I thought I would.  I don't think I'll be able to post on Thursday, but I'll be back on Friday!

Happiest of Tuesdays.