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writerjenn August 1 2014, 00:17

Should auld red herrings be forgot and never brought to mind

According to the cognitive psychology class I took in grad school, there was a study that indicated the biggest obstacle to problem solving was getting stuck in a dead end / wrong solution and not being able to think in another direction.

Often, when the study participants took a break--a break long enough to forget the wrong answer--they would see the solution soon after resuming work on the problem.

I share this here for whatever it's worth.
jennifer_j_s July 31 2014, 19:59

In the city of angels

Last week, I was in Los Angeles for our daughter’s wedding. I thought I would give a shout out to some of the places and experiences I enjoyed.

First off, my daughter and I enjoyed hours of pampering at Wi Spa in Koreatown. This is a traditional Korean spa, and we got ourselves buffed and massaged on slippery pink vinyl covered tables. My skin was so soft after! Like baby butt soft! Then we were given relaxing facials (I nearly drifted off to sleep), and finally, long lasting manicures and pedicures. Mine are still going strong and they weren’t the gel type. If you go, expect to strip down to nothing but your locker wristband in the women’s area. The coed area has various sauna rooms, including one where you lie down on large crystals of salt. I was tempted to lick one, to see if it was really salt, but my daughter pointed out how many people had perspired all over the salt, and that stopped me. The restaurant is also very nice, particularly the kimchi and shave ice with fresh fruit, which aren’t eaten together. We saw many people enjoying a full day, napping, playing games, and we realized that with the price of rent in #DTLA, you could almost live there, since it’s open 24/7. It’s very quiet as people talk in hushed voices.

The Grand Central Market has been around for a long time, and if you can’t find something you want to eat there, there is clearly something wrong with you. Many of the wedding guests, who got in a day early, had breakfast and lunch at the market.

Another great place to eat is Orochon Ramen in Little Tokyo. Wedding guests enjoyed visiting the Japanese American National Museum nearby. Currently it has a tattoo exhibit. The permanent exhibit, detailing the history of the internment camps during World War II is very moving.

Union Station's Fred Harvey room was the setting for the wedding. Designed by architect Mary Colter of Grand Canyon fame, it was perfect. Jennie Cooks catered the delicious vegan food, which was served family style.

And, if that’s not enough, there are cars with pink mustaches driving around! The bane of cabdrivers, because they underprice them, they are part of the Lyft service, and your first ride is free. All you need is an app for your smartphone. Alas, my phone is not clever enough, but maybe by my next visit.
writerjenn July 29 2014, 02:46

What to write next

"Please know that I am not trying to avoid my editorial responsibility, but I think it is always unfortunate that an editor decides what an author should do next. ... I do think you should do the one you really want to do. I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor."
--Ursula Nordstrom, from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus
writerjenn July 28 2014, 01:02

Taking a walk

My monthly post at YA Outside the Lines is about walking and hiking: how they enrich my writing life, and my life in general. A sample: "When I visited Paris, I never took a metro or a cab. I walked everywhere, figuring that everything I would see along the way was part of the experience: every flowerbed and statue and fountain and bridge, every patisserie and storefront and sidewalk café."
writerjenn July 24 2014, 23:42

If Carville and Matalin can get along ...

I just finished reading a nonfiction book by an author who's at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me. Actually, over the course of his career, he moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I was curious about what precipitated the journey. I admit I was also hesitant, not sure whether I would encounter the sort of shallow, venomous rhetoric that one often finds in anonymous comments on news blogs.

I was relieved to find the book perfectly readable, even fun at times. There were large parts of this person's life I could identify with or admire, and several points I even agreed with. There were weaknesses, certainly: sometimes a major shift in philosophical position was explained only by a single anecdote, and anecdotes were used more often than facts to support some generalizations. There were some straw-man arguments, some examples held up as irrefutable where I could easily think of counter-examples, and a few snide remarks to which I took offense. But I kept reading, and largely understanding and enjoying the author's story, even when I didn't always agree with his conclusions.

I mentioned the anecdotal nature of his rationalizations as a weakness in some of his arguments, and yet I think people often do base their general politics on their specific, individual experiences. A good or bad encounter with police, being the victim of a crime, having difficulty getting medical care or health insurance, having a child, starting a business, encountering racism, being laid off from a job, etc., are all examples of personal life experiences that can affect people's politics one way or another. One thing that made me laugh was whenever he characterized people from my end of the political spectrum with traits that I think of as more associated with his end of the spectrum: smugness, a tendency to be unrealistic, and bitterness being three examples. It reminded me of just how much is in the eye of the beholder, just how many labels and assumptions we use about one another, and how easy it can be to see an opponent's flaws while overlooking our own.

I often read books by and about people who are very different from me, but it's rare that I deliberately choose to read books that make cases for politics 180 degrees from my own. One of the book-jacket blurbs (from a person who agrees with the author politically) said something about the book being likely to persuade people to migrate to his end of the spectrum. I thought that quote actually showed a misunderstanding of what such books are for. By and large, they're not really to convert people who disagree with the author; they are to reassure those who already agree with the author that they are making smart choices, that they have good arguments on their side. And certainly I didn't read the book to be converted.

But near the end of my reading, I finally grasped the main reason I challenged myself with this book: I want to humanize my opponent. I am really tired of polarization, knee-jerk insults, and the situations where everyone shouts and nobody listens. The other day, on a very thoughtful blog whose comment stream seems to be populated by similarly thoughtful people, I saw commenters disagreeing on an extremely inflammatory, controversial subject, but they were arguing with logic and respect for one another's positions, and I nearly wept to see it. Those are the kinds of discussions I wish I could see more of.

I have strong political opinions based on deep convictions. If you know me, you know what they are, but I'm deliberately not identifying them on this blog post because I think it would undermine the whole point; my hope is that this post would be equally true if the other author and I were to switch political poles. I don't discuss politics on this blog, which I like to keep for writing and such. I advocate for my political views elsewhere, and I do so because I sincerely believe in what I'm advocating for. But I don't need to demonize the people who disagree with me, and I don't want them to demonize me.
writerjenn July 21 2014, 23:24

Double Negative

You may know that I have a special interest in contemporary realistic YA novels with male main characters (having written two of them myself). My friend C. Lee McKenzie has one coming out on Friday, July 25:

double-negative2
Double Negative, by C. Lee McKenzie.

Hutchison McQueen is a sixteen-year-old smart kid who screws up regularly. He’s a member of Larkston High’s loser clique, the boy who’s on his way to nowhere—unless juvenile hall counts as a destination. He squeaks through classes with his talent for eavesdropping and memorizing what he hears. When that doesn’t work, he goes to Fat Nyla, the one some mean girls are out to get and a person who’s in on his secret—he can barely read.

And then Maggie happens. For twenty-five years she’s saved boys from their own bad choices. But she may not have time to save Hutch. Alzheimer’s disease is steadily stealing her keen mind.


You can find out more at C. Lee McKenzie's website, blog, or Facebook Fan Page. There's also a giveaway for Double Negative and for Amazon gift cards here.
writerjenn July 19 2014, 01:39

Secrets in plain sight

Riffing today on a blog post by Beth Kephart in which she says, "It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due."

Those of us who write intuitively will find all sorts of themes, symbols, subplots, and characters creeping into our work. Sometimes they go nowhere and get cut out. (Sometimes they wander off the page by themselves. I'll realize I haven't mentioned the brother in 100 pages and don't miss him.) Other times, we find beautiful uses for them. They tie up loose ends, solve problems that we didn't even realize they could.

In The Secret Year, I gave my character an older brother during the first draft. I had no specific purpose in mind for the brother and thought he might get cut out later. Instead, he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a subplot that was relevant to the theme of secrecy, and he hung around to guide the main character through the book's main crisis. (Nice work, fictional brother! Glad I didn't whack you after all.) I had no idea he was going to do any of that until I was actually writing the scenes in question.

The draft of Try Not to Breathe ended much earlier than the finished book does now. But I had a nagging feeling that the ending wasn't big enough. I looked back to the book's beginning for a clue. That waterfall, I thought. There must be a reason the book starts at the waterfall. There must be a reason the characters keep going back there. It was only when I focused on the waterfall that I uncovered a secret about it and understood its true role in the story. The interesting thing was that when I went back into the story to seed a few clues about this secret, I found I didn't have to add much. Most of the clues were already there, unconsciously planted.

Everything in a story should have a purpose. If we can't identify the purpose, there are two options. One is to delete the thing. But the other is to look harder at what its purpose might be, to see if there are invisible connections that can be brought to the surface.

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