Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Fantasy Meets Mystery in CITY OF STAIRS

Fantasy novels make for great stories of adventure, romance, or horror. But it isn't often that a fantasy is able to blend fantasy with a thrilling mystery and a tale of intrigue.

But City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennet, does a masterful job of taking a political tale of murder and intrigue and placing it in the most fantastic of settings. Bulikov is a city built by beings revered as gods, where reality is bent and shaped to their will. But upon their deaths, the city undergoes a catastrophic change as reality suddenly remembers what it is supposed to look like.

Trying to picture the place where the story takes place, the city of Bulikov, was quite difficult. I couldn't grasp the concept of a solid wall that looked like it wasn't there, random stairs to nowhere, and buildings that grow into each other. It was distracting to the story, because what happened to the city is integral to the story. The god-like beings, the Divinities, were killed by a hero of Saypur, a nation once held in slavery by The Continent, where Bulikov is located. Now the conquering nation, Saypur rules those who were once the rulers.

The first chapter starts out quite dull. A courtroom scene with a bored panel of judges overseeing a case of illegal use of divine advertising, with a room full of hostile, poor, Bulikov residents. But plow through to page fifteen, where we meet the movers of the novel, and you will be transported into the subtle machinations between the political and military powerhouse of Saypur and fractured groups of The Continent make for a thrilling story of spies and traitors worthy of being placed with greats like Tom Clancy, James Patterson, and David Baldacci. The plot twists enough to keep you guessing until the end.

The characters are well defined and capture your attention. Shara Thivani and her trusted "secretary," Sigrud, add life to the novel with their interactions - between themselves and between the various residents of Bulikov. They must solve the murder of a prominent historian, and in doing so they must come to grips with various hidden truths. As a reader, you are swept along in their discoveries and cringe at the dangers they face.

I wouldn't say that this book was an easy read, but it was an exciting read. And it didn't end as it started - bored and ready to end. Instead, it offers readers a chance to ponder history: how it is told, and how it is forgotten.

This book is reviewed for Blogging for Books, enjoyed by me, and read with the anticipation to share!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: You Don't Need to be an Artist to Make Comics Like the Pros

When I wrote Circles, my deepest wish was that it would be turned into a graphic novel. But since I can't draw to save my life, I knew that dream wouldn't happen any time soon. I have a rather sizable collection of "How to Draw" books on my bookshelf, but they are mostly for moments of inspiration or boredom than for any real artistic endeavor.

But that never stops me from buying more books on drawing and illustration, especially if it relates at all to a current writing project. So when I saw Make Comics Like the Pros, by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, on Blogging for Books, I decided to give it a look. Because you never know, I might get struck by lightning and unlock mad illustrator skills.

There are two things that make this book different from all the other "How to Draw" books I've encountered. First it is the wonderful attention to the process of creating a comic, and second it is the wonderful attention to what happens AFTER the comic is complete.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Communication and the joys of teaching

image via
A little while back, after posting about a conversation I had with a friend about writing, someone asked, "Have you ever considered teaching?" And yes, actually I have. In fact, my college courses were taken with an emphasis on education and teaching. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, it's up for debate) I chose a school that did not have a B.A. in Education and after two unsuccessful attempts to get into the Masters program, I gave up.

But I never lost my passion for teaching, and for years did tutoring, mentoring, and classroom volunteering. I would joke around with my friends that I would start my own school, but for a few years I stayed a little bitter that I was not able to get a teaching certificate. I have family that have been life-long educators, and some of my friends are teachers. When I first decided I wanted to go for my teaching certificate, almost every single one of them immediately asked "Why?!"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Episode 2 of the Write Life!

Yesterday did not go as I had expected, and I had to start my hangout fifteen minutes later than originally announced. So I apologize for that last minute change. But here at the end of this post is the second episode to Write Life! and additional links for your viewing enjoyment.

I started off with a discussion that sprouted from the first episode about how long a novella is. A viewer and fellow writer watched this episode later and came up with a question about why I chose to make A Demon Born a novella and not a novel. So look forward to my answer in a future blog post and the next Write Life! episode. (I love questions, so please keep them coming!)

I then went on to talk about an answer to another question I was asked about how long it usually takes to write a novel. I have a corresponding blog post that also responds to this question, and it has links to the websites of the helpful time-management apps/programs that I mention.

The third segment was about research and how it is important to my new novel and what I've learned. Even though I grew up on Maui, there were quite a few things I didn't know about it's history. The whole airport thing threw me off, since I figured Maui would be right behind Oahu in having a commercial airport. Inter-island flights flew in and out of small grass airstrips like Hana airport throughout the '20's, but while the rest of the islands were developing paved runways between 1925 and 1927, the Maui airport wasn't built until 1938.

But the real historical journey for me has become Mango Tree Camp. I will be traveling to Maui soon and plan to do some research at a couple of archives and the library while I'm there. I hope to discover more about this forgotten camp, and I can bring it back to life. In the meantime, enjoy this second episode of Write Life!

Here are a few other links for your reading pleasure:

     I mentioned an anime that I saw many years ago and need to watch again: Steamboy
     Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company is the last commercial sugar plantation left in the islands: HC&S
     Here is the pdf version of the report that has the map showing Mango Tree Camp (Appendix A, first map): General Plan 2030

Balancing home life with the writing life

It starts with a blank page
How to find time to stay organized

During the conversation I had with my friend, where he asked about the writing process, he followed up with the question, "How long does it usually (my emphasis) take you to write a novel?" My short answer was this: It took me seven years to put my original story, Circles, onto paper. Then another year of edits and revisions before it was finally ready to publish. My novella, A Demon Born, took seven months to complete. My newest work, Under a Mango Moon won't be ready until later next year, but that has more to do with the amount of research I am doing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Understanding the writing process: How do you write?

Free-write, outline, or mind map?

Recently, a friend of mine asked me, "Do you just sit down and start writing, or do you actually, like, outline the basic plot points and such?" This was a similar question about writing that another friend had asked, but in the context of finding the time to write. Here, I was being asked what my process was.

How do you write?
How you write is tailored to your style. I can sit in front of my computer first thing in the morning and type 16,000 words to form a rudimentary story that has a beginning, a muddled middle, and maybe an end - and stop for lunch. Then I move on to unmuddling the middle or finishing my end before the family comes home. But not everyone can free-write like that.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Transit role considered for threatened train

Companion track along route may tie Maalaea, Kapalua

August 12, 2014
Engine 3 Myrtle
"Myrtle" Sugar Cane Train
By CHRIS SUGIDONO - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News

The effort to save West Maui's historic Sugar Cane Train has taken a new turn as Maui County Transportation Director Jo Anne Johnson Winer looks at using the popular tourist attraction as a transit rail system as well.

While Johnson Winer is helping to save the train as a public citizen, she said that in her capacity as transportation director she and her department must evaluate the system for future uses.

"It's important for us to do our due diligence to see if there is some aspect that can work into public transit," she Monday. "Right now, because of the purpose that it serves, it's more dedicated to tourists, but I also think it has an importance to the (county) department of economic development in terms of job creation."

The 6-mile track from Puukolii to Lahaina and the train are managed by Lahaina Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad. The train made its final run Aug. 1 after 45 years. The railroad built in 1969 has handled some 15 million passengers and is one of the state's last steam engine railroads.

State Rep. Angus McKelvey, whose father helped start the railroad, said that the train could be the basis for a transportation system to Maalaea on one end and Kapalua on the other, given demand. He noted that the state is looking at extending the Lahaina bypass to Olowalu, "but after that it is really iffy."

The problems facing the next phases of the bypass are building highways over wetlands, especially in the Ukumehame area, and over the gulches along the pali. A train offers a smaller footprint, he said, adding that the engines would have to be modern electric or diesel but could have historic facades.

"This is all long range," he said. "It is very doable."

Johnson Winer cautioned that using the railroad for public transportation is still "nowhere in the scenes" but suggested that a companion rail could be built, which could extend to Kapalua or toward the pali. She said that the railroad could have two rails, one for the tourist attraction and another for public transit.

"Although it's not part of Hawaiian culture, it has a historical thread that goes way back," she said of the railroad and its tracks, which come from the old Kahului Railroad built in the 1800s. "From that perspective, it is a part of Hawaii's history."

Kakakea trestle bridge
Releasing steam on the Kakakea trestle bridge
A nonprofit organization is being set up to preserve the Sugar Cane Train and is looking to raise $25,000 to temporarily save the railroad's assets and delay its destruction. Members of the nonprofit group in the making include Johnson Winer, McKelvey, Joan McKelvey, Lynn Donovan of Lahaina Town Action Committee and railroad General Manager Iolani Kaniho.

Johnson Winer said that the group has raised a portion of the $25,000, and that she is looking to start an online fundraiser through Kickstarter to gather additional funds. She added that railroad owners Robert and Kim Butler of Nebraska might begin removal of the track sometime in early September.

"That doesn't give us a lot of time," Johnson Winer said. "But if we can at least get a memorandum of understanding or make some type of offer we might be able to" save the train.

As the train nonprofit is established and gains its nonprofit status, Lahaina Town Action Committee will serve as the train's sponsor and will be accepting donations, Johnson Winer said.

McKelvey explained that using the train as a transportation source is a county, not a state function, as is the light rail project on Oahu currently under construction. He envisions a two-pronged approach - to save the train through a nonprofit in the short term and to look at the transportation aspect, possibly with a terminal in Maalaea and a Maui transit authority in the long term.

"It's a pro-Maui thing," he said, given the challenges of building more highway and the ability to preserve cultural history. "It seems logical."

Kaniho said that the tropical storm over the weekend did not damage the train but did push back track removal plans, which were originally set for mid-August.

"It pushed our time frame back a little bit, so it's good for the people interested in buying the train," he said, adding that there are a couple of interested buyers.

Johnson Winer said the recent storm reminded her of an incident in the 1980s when a storm tore off the roof of Kapalua airport and closed Honoapiilani Highway.

"All the power poles were down, it was like dominoes," she said. "They blocked off the entire highway. Everybody was stuck and people couldn't get anywhere so the only way they could get to (Kahului Airport) was the Sugar Cane Train."

Johnson Winer said tourists staying at resorts past Lahaina in the Kaanapali direction had to take the train from its Puukolii Station to Lahaina, where taxis took them to the airport.

"It was amazing," she said.

Johnson Winer, a former West Maui residency council member, said she "loves the train on a personal level" and "can't imagine not hearing the train whistle ever again."

"It has a very special place in many of the hearts of Maui's kupuna, as well as some of their grandkids now," she said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at

© Copyright 2014 The Maui News and reposted with permission. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without express consent of The Maui News.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Searching for lost history : the forgotten Mango Tree Camp

From Hawaii State Archives
When I set out to write my current project about a young boy living in a steampunk alternate history of Maui in the 1930's, my initial question had been, "What if the Hawaiian Monarchy had never fallen?" This was the question that drove my setting, and fueled my 9-year-old son's imaginative character building as he helped me cultivate the story.

I wanted a mango tree to be the anchor to the theme of the novel, a story about perseverance, self-assurance, and growth. And it was modeled after a tree that lived in my grandmother's back yard, next to a house built by my great grand-uncles in an old plantation town. And so, a mango tree was born in the pages of my outlined draft and it's branches encompassed the characters.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Introducing the Write Life!

I wanted a way to engage with my readers and have a conversation. So I fumbled my way through Hangouts On Air to come up with a way to do just that! Posted below is my impromptu attempt at my very first Write Life! episode. And it just so happened I had a viewer who asked questions! That was my highlight right there.

In addition to this video, please scroll down to find some links related to what is discussed. I hope you find it entertaining and helpful, and I look forward to you joining me in future Hangouts On Air.

Books featured in this episode:

Websites to visit:

If you have any questions about this episode, or have a question you would like answered on my next episode, please let me know in the comments section.

Enjoy, and write every day!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Communication and Book Reviews

image courtesy of The Book Pushers
I came across an article in my feed that a friend shared, where a Young Adult author, Kathleen Hale, was so distraught by a bad review she tracked the reviewer down both online and off and harassed her. Since reading it, I've looked into other responses to the incident. There are a few authors and publishing authorities who take Ms. Hale's side, but the overwhelming response has been, basically, "what a bitch."

As an author, I expect bad reviews. Especially since I am a relatively new and unknown author, I look forward to those reviews. Well, any reviews actually. I need to know what my readers liked or didn't like so I can improve upon my skills and create even better stories for readers to like, or not like (not everyone is a reader of my genre or style after all).

As a reader, I expect that an author provides me with a book that will entertain me and even provoke me into engaging with the social, cultural, or whatever hot-topic issues that the author wants to bring to the story. If a book meets or exceeds my expectations, I will say so. If it falls short, I'll say that too.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The commitment to write

A conversation with a friend

It's just after lunch and I am multitasking my time between completing an outline, cleaning (more like finding) my office, and figuring how to create an interactive On Air Hangout on Google+. Amidst all of this I find time to sneak onto Facebook every so often to check in on my feed.

First of all, if you want to be a successful writer, Facebook needs to go away while you are in writer mode. However, I was able to catch  a Messenger notification from an old friend from my anime convention days. Although we keep in touch through Facebook posts, we rarely use private messaging so I was curious to see what was up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Interview with a character 2

If I could draw, he'd kinda look like this. ^_^
Thank you QueenofBoos!
Solus Kordivos

It's been a while since I did an interview with one of my characters. So today I thought I would interview the main character of my new novella, Solus Kordivos. He's a tortured soul who chose to become a demon so he could fulfill his desire for revenge. Which leads me to believe this interview is going to be pretty angry. Well, hopefully, he's not nearly as ornery as Dante was!

Here goes...

Interview with a character, the demon Solus Kordivos of A Demon Born

Friday, October 10, 2014

Prequel novella available now on Smashwords and Amazon

The  prequel to Circles is now available as an eBook! This novella, A Demon Born is available for purchase from either Smashwords or Amazon for $0.99. Due to it's short length, it will not be published in paperback form.

The story follows the demon, Solus, whose desperate desire to take back what he lost causes him to choose the path of becoming a demon. He may soon realize that the price for revenge is greater than he imagined and his greatest wish could be out of reach. As his master's most powerful demon, Solus struggles to hold on to what is left of his humanity. But the darkness in his soul is growing.

Through many revisions, I completed this novella and fell in love once more with the beautifully morbid world that is Circles. I hope that you will also enjoy this little window into that world, and who knows - There just might be more stories to come!

Please enjoy this book trailer I made especially for my readers!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Communication and Marketing: Questionable subject lines

In  a recent blog post I read about subject line ideas for email newsletters, I found the suggestions to be rather "spammy" sounding. And I think it has to do with the "headlines" that I get from Facebook's "suggested posts" or email "newsletters" that I never subscribed to.
THIS is my favorite spam, not junk from the internet.

The first one was what turned me off to the whole post: Idea 1 - Mystery.
If you want to make a headline irresistible, add a bit of mystery. (You’ll notice I try to add a bit of mystery to almost every headline) 
“You’re going to freak when you see this”
“You won’t believe this when you hear it”

I see these headlines preceding everything from weight loss miracles to fuzzy feel-good puppy videos. And all these posts or emails want to promote is traffic; spam to take up my time and screen space. I felt the same way about this post's "drama" idea. As intriguing as a newsletter or post title is, if I don't think opening the link or email will benefit me and be good use of my screen time, I won't bother.

Now, the second and third ideas of using a question or setting up anticipation ("don't miss out!") make compelling headlines for posts and subject lines, but the examples this blogger used in the post were also very spam-sounding. One of my favorite newsletters that I subscribe to is from author and writing instructor Holly Lisle. Her subject lines utilize these two ideas frequently. Her last one, "I want to trade GIMP skills for a free writing class," gives recipients a quick idea that if they know a particular skill, they should hurry and let her know so they don't "miss out" on a free class. I have no idea what GIMP is, so apparently, I missed out. ^_^

The idea that made the most sense in the blog post was number ten, "unlikely combinations." This option shows a newsletter's or post's worthiness by using creative wordsmithing. If you can catch my attention with something odd or surprising (like this poster's example, "Today: Songs about pudding and car repair"), then I would be more likely to open the email or click on the post.

Which leads to my closing point of today's post. I haven't done a newsletter in over a year, but I try to promote my blog by updating my Facebook and Google+ feeds and tweeting a link to my current posts. But I want readers to click through to my blog because I want to provide worthwhile reading, not more random visits to my page to improve my ranking. And I truly hope that I am providing that for you!

What is the worst newsletter/feed headline you've seen so far? Let me know in the comments below!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Dante's 9th circle is full of - seals?

Just a short post to share a photo of a recent trip I took with my family. We were vacationing along the Oregon coast and stopped at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. Now, I can't really tell you how outstanding it was, since it was a cold and foggy afternoon when we visited, but I'm sure it would have been a worthwhile trip on a clear day. The lighthouse was amazing and I highly recommend reserving a tour.

Even though it was very foggy and cold, we enjoyed the visitor center and the lighthouse. We also enjoyed walking along Cobble Beach,  and despite the fog we could see seals playing in the water. A few were curious about the visitors on the shore and started swimming in closer. My husband got a picture of them, but didn't think it would be very good because of the poor visibility.

I finally got around to viewing the pictures from our vacation and came upon the Cobble Beach seals. Have a look for yourself, but if Dante's 9th circle for traitors is a frozen lake with the heads of traitorous souls sticking out trying to break free, I'm thinking this is what it would look like. Can you pick out the seals' heads sticking out of the water? Yikes!
Seals in the water at Cobble Beach, Yaquina Outstanding Natural Area

Monday, September 22, 2014

Communication and cover art

Making edits and all-out story changes are definitely not my favorite things to do. It makes me second guess my writing, and sometimes, like now, I am hit with the realization that I am making changes that don't need to be made. But I'm recharged because my amazing cover illustrator from Lake Joy Design sent me the thumbnail concepts for my novella.

And both images really are amazing. Both images also convey two entirely different emotions. So which one to choose? First off, it depends on what kind of story I am telling. Unfortunately for me, both images would work, as each evokes a dark and otherworldly vision. I need to choose the one that will best communicate to interested readers that beyond this image lies a daring tale of demons and rage. (Want to see them? Keep scrolling!)

Now, as much as I want to show everyone what her amazing mind comes up with, I also have to keep in mind that what she gives me is not the final artwork, only rough sketches of what could be majorly awesome artwork. However, I still want to share with you a tantalizing tidbit of her creativity. I am showcasing a part of her cover concepts so that you can tell me which one intrigues you more. I also want to show how two different, yet similar, images can change what you think a story is about.

© Laura Henion, Lake Joy Design
When we first met to talk about cover art, I knew I wanted a black wing and a simple and dramatic look. This first concept has stylized feathers that remind me of gritty graphic novels like Hellboy and Sandman. It also reminded me of anime along the lines of Afro Samurai and CLAMP's X. It appears more fantastic or dreamlike. If you were to see a cover with this image, what kind of book would you expect?

© Laura Henion, Lake Joy Design
This second concept image has a more detailed look to the feathers, which gives off a more ominous feel to the image, much darker and maybe more violent. The idea of fallen angels is brought to my mind, and novels like Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series or Neil Gaiman's American Gods seem to match the vibe of this image. How would your expectations of a book change if this were part of the cover instead?

I can't decide which direction to take the final artwork, so I would love to hear from my visitors! Tell me in the comments section which image would draw you in more to read the story, or share your thoughts on Twitter or my Facebook page.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Writing: With a little bit of help from my friends

Mystery Cover!
I am in the mad-dash-final-draft-edit-before-my-editor-edits-and-I-need-to-edit-the-final-version-to-publish stage of my novella. It was supposed to be ready for readers by the end of September, but unfortunately I was not able to follow my editing calendar. What is it with me and calendars? Anyway, A Demon Born will be ready by the second week of October and I look forward to many comments and reviews!

Which brings me to today's post. I can write to my heart's content, but if I want to share my work I understand that my story (while it makes perfect sense in my head) must make sense to other readers. So I would like to thank the beta readers that helped locate all sorts of character development flaws, continuity issues, and other random things I would have normally not caught on my own. And now that I have reworked nearly the entire piece and practically rewrote two whole chapters, I hope I didn't create more problems. I will leave that to my editor to decide.

I was a little stumped on a discriptive problem I was having in a scene, and so took to Facebook and Twitter to ask for inspiration:

Not easy to get responses on Twitter, especially when you have 200+ tweets coming at you every hour, but I got a couple of responses from FB and I would like to say thank you, I was inspired and you shall see your suggestions in action (if you get my novella). Again, thanks to my friends I was able to improve my writing.

I'm going to ask for more inspiration now - You walk into a cafe where the wait staff are dressed as Victorian maids and butlers. Your attention is drawn to one thing, what is it?

My goal is to create stories worth reading. First, it has to be a story worth telling, so if I don't like to tell it who's going to want to read it? But once I discover a story I feel compelled to share, I want it to be the best possible reading experience. Every writer should have a band of friends with the guts to tell you where your story went south. Or north. Winter is coming, after all. They don't need to be best friends, or even good friends, but they need to be readers.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: A little book about making books

Little book of Book Making: Timeless Techniques and Fresh Ideas for Beautiful Handmade Books
By Charlotte Rivers, 2014
Publisher: Potter Craft
Binding: hardcover

Summer is still trying to hold on in the Pacific Northwest, but September is here and fall is sneaking in with cool weather inserting itself more often between hot, sunny days. It may seem a little early to be thinking about Christmas, but I'm actually a bit late. August is when you are realizing school is around the corner and you only have a few weeks to get all the school supplies in order. So "Christmas in July" is my shopping motto.

I like to think about Christmas gifts early because I want to give personal, handmade gifts and it takes me a few months to actually figure out what I will make, how I will make them, and what I need to make them. When I don't give myself time to plan my gifts, Thanksgiving becomes less thankful and more stressful. It was shortly after I finished my son's back-to-school shopping that I discovered Charlotte Rivers's Little Book of Book Making. Its subtitle, Timeless Techniques and Fresh Ideas for Beautiful Handmade Books hooked me into thinking, "Hey, here's something that will give me ideas AND show me how to make them!" (Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)

Upon first opening the book, I was a little disappointed. More than half the book is is filled with "ideas," beautiful examples of book art that I could never hope to duplicate in the space of a few months. Not until the very end of the book do you find instructions on how to make basic versions of the masterpieces showcased. Momentarily disheartened, I returned to the beginning of the book. After reading the "Foreword" and "About This Book," it was clear this book was meant to provide more inspiration than instruction.

I skimmed the first section and stopped on a piece that looked simple enough and read the short write-up on the creator's process. At the end of the write-up was a notation, "See also," which gave the page for instructions to make a similar piece. I went to the page and upon closer read discovered detailed directions that were easy to follow. The art showcased in this book goes far beyond the simple techniques in the how-to section, but the instructions are written to allow you to get the basic idea of making a particular book, and then letting your imagination add to that basic structure.

This how-to section is titled "Bookmaking in Practice." Here you will find a comprehensive list of tools and materials needed and offers illustrated step-by-step instructions to produce a variety of handmade book designs. I tried one of the very basic folded binding techniques first with a scrap piece of paper. Once done, I could visualize what such a simple folded piece of paper could become. I was surprised to discover the possibilities!
My creation: an anniversary card!
Readers should not come away from this book feeling intimidated by the complex creativity highlighted in the book. After all, every artist started as a beginner, and any creative soul can see a masterpiece in the simplest of forms. Do browse the first four sections. Not all showcased art has a "See also" attached to it, but most of them do, so if you find an interesting piece, go ahead and look at it's corresponding instructions if it has one and give it a try. I give this book a four out of five stars for the beautiful pieces it showcases and its easy-to-follow instructions.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Communication and Giving

What is with this "ice bucket challenge" for ALS? It seems like social media believes this is the only cause worthy of donating to, and it makes me mad.
Every day I am bombarded with requests to give money. Every time I go to the grocery store, the drug store, the hardware store, the pet store, I am asked at the register if I want to donate to some cause. And now my news feeds and social media are pockmarked with "ice bucket challenges" as people post pictures and videos of getting doused in ice cubes and cold water for ALS.

First off, without looking it up, I couldn't tell you anything about ALS besides a famous baseball player, Lou Gehrig, had it and had to quit playing. I also know it is a degenerative disease. That's about it.

But I can tell you about malignant melanoma. I can tell you that there are four types of melanoma and once you get to stage 3 and the cancer metastasizes, your chances of survival are a slim 20 percent. I know this because a very dear teacher I had in college lost his battle with nodular melanoma. How many of you donated to the Skin Cancer Foundation to help increase the odds of surviving?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Writing: Know your history

Strahov Monastery - photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When you write non-fiction, it is important to have your facts straight. Being able to reference historical information to support your writing is essential. If you're writing about the future of publishing, be able to discuss publishing's past. If you're writing about a CEO's rise to power, give credit to events in that person's youth that put her where she is today. If you want to be considered an expert on molecular biology, reflect on the various people and theories that make up what the science is today.

But if you are writing fiction, history is meaningless, right? Let's leave out the obvious historical fiction and modern adventure/thrillers that rely on knowing past events. Would you still need history to create an epic fantasy that takes place in a fantasy realm, like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit? Or how about a grand work of science fiction like Frank Herbert's Dune? Neither novel takes place on Earth, or in a time that we know, so is history all that important?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Have you ever read Dante's Inferno?

illustration by Gustav Dore
I am starting on the next draft edits of A Demon Born and I wonder how many of my readers would be familiar with the epic work of Dante Alighieri. I myself first read Inferno in high school. At the time, I did not fully understand the text, only that this was the version of Hell that now permeates our psyche - sinners damned to endless suffering, fiery pits filled with demons and monsters from our nightmares, and the head devil himself, Lucifer, presiding over it all.

When I read it again after college, I also studied on his life and the era that he lived. Through what I learned, I imagined Dante to be disenchanted in his old age; the burden of exile must have weighed heavily on him. He would have become quite bitter, and even possibly rather crotchety. So when I created his character for my first novel, Circles, I wanted him to be free to express his dissatisfaction with his world.
No, this is not how I envisioned Dante...

After writing the book, I discovered that Dante was in fact my favorite character. Even though he did not play a large part in the story, Dante's presence was needed to help the main character, Solus, understand his own choices and discover his own freedom to express his dissatisfaction with his circumstances. It was then I decided to "have an interview" with the demon Dante, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to our conversation in my head - from his irritated manner to his snide remarks!

THIS is how I envisioned Dante, with dragon wings!
And now I need to "have an interview" with you! Please take a moment to answer the simple poll below. Your answers will help guide me through the final edits of this prequel, A Demon Born. If most of you know of the great orator, then I will not add much more to his character. But if many of you have not read at least Inferno, or never heard of Dante Alighieri at all, then I will need to spend more time introducing him to you, for I would be upset with myself if my readers did not meet this great man-turned-demon properly! I appreciate your comments as well. When did you first hear of Dante or Inferno? Do you have a memorable part of the Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradisio)? Start a conversation with me!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Communication and the fantasy world of video games

Screenshot from Final Fantasy Online
Last September I wrote about a conversation I had with my son about violence, video games, and choices. A few days ago, I came across a story from CNET about South Korea's debate on a Game Addiction law. Intrigued, I looked more into it.

Since its leap into the wired world, Korea has struggled with online gaming and its effect on society. In 2002, before the term "internet addiction" became a global problem, Korea opened the first internet addiction treatment center. It was a bad year for the country in 2005 when ten people died from video-game related causes. By 2010, nearly 10% of Korea's teenagers were considered addicted to gaming. To combat the growing problem of teenagers spending too much time playing video games, an internet gaming curfew was proposed that would make 19 games unavailable to children between midnight and 8am. It became law in 2011 but is still being challenged in court.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Communication and Kendo, Part 2

image copyright Darya Klevetova

In my last post about communication and its relationship to kendo, I talked about one basic point of kendo - it is the art of self-improvement. Today, I want to introduce a second point and how it relates to communication. This is called "Ki-ken-tai-ichi" and means (as close to translation as I can get) bringing together your mind and body through your sword.

Remember when I said that kendo is not all about hitting your opponent, but how you look and sound while you hit? Ki-ken-tai-ichi encompasses that principal. Any untrained person can pick up a shinai (bamboo sword), watch a YouTube video or read a "how-to" book, and copy the moves to make hits. What you can't learn from videos and books is how to focus your inner self into the strike - making the sword an extension of your body. I can whack a target. I can scream my head off as I hit the target. But I do not commit myself to the hit if my entire being is not IN the strike.

Think of it in terms of the sport's original life-and-death beginnings. When two swordsmen squared off, the natural response is a self-preservation one. No one wants to die, but in this moment, one will stand and one will fall. (I am so hearing Optimus Prime right now...Oh, sorry.) The question then is, who will be the one left standing? The answer is the one who committed himself to making his strike be the killing blow. His opponent would then have to do one of two things; block the strike (which, against a well-trained opponent, might be too late) or also commit to a killing strike (again, being a reactionary decision, his chances are slim).
Copyright Michel Gillet Photography
Today, we don't normally go around carrying swords with the intent of striking people down. But in kendo, the sword still holds great importance in a kendoka's* life. In kendo, your opponent isn't a stationary object. It is another person with just as much intent to commit to a strike as you. If your sword has not become a part of your body, you will not hit your target with the "killing blow." You will be slower because the sword is nothing more than added weight in your hands. The strike will not be true because it is not connected to your eyes. Your self-preservation mechanism will kick in because you will doubt your ability to hit the mark, making your feet hesitate and lose rhythm with your hands.

To persevere, your mind and body must be one with the sword.

I sat my son down one evening after a class. He was especially upset because one of his sensei (instructor) kept correcting him on his swing and footwork. The sensei wasn't paying nearly as much attention to the other students (in his mind) and so he concluded that he must be horrible at kendo. To make it worse on him, this wasn't just any sensei. He was THE sensei, head instructor of the dojo.

And I had this particular sensei as well when I first started. So I drew upon my experience to help my son understand what was really going on. If this sensei even bothered to give you his personal attention, then he saw potential - he saw someone worth his time to teach. My son should be proud that this sensei took the time to help him correct his swing or his footwork. It also meant that he should work harder to achieve Ki-ken-tai-ichi. Once he made the sword a part of his body, his swing and footwork would all fall into place because he would become completely aware of his body and his movements. And his sensei would "stop picking on him."

My son's biggest problem at the time was his habit of holding a defensive stance when facing an opponent. And in kendo, defense doesn't get you points. Don't misunderstand, defense is important to strategy when facing an opponent. But my son uses defensive moves so often it becomes predictable. It causes him to focus on what the opponent will do rather than what he can do to the opponent, and so he loses his concentration momentarily when the opponent strikes, creating dissonance between his swing and his footwork. His sensei would stop him during practice and correct him, or provide examples of how he could move better. When his second taikai (tournament) came around, he was almost sure he didn't want to participate again.

My son is not just a defensive kendoka. He is a defensive communicator. He looks for any indication from others that they are about to "strike" him with a harsh criticism, tattle on him, or some provide some other put-down. Granted, his own actions will at times warrant a word from his teacher or an "I feel" message from a classmate. But because of his personality (borderline type A, ugh) and early years of social anxiety, his interactions with most kids and adults tend to be reactionary, he waits for them to make the first move.

Thankfully, my son has mostly outgrown his defensive nature, although it still pops up once in a while.  Back to his second taikai, THE sensei spoke with him after his match and again corrected him on his footwork and to be less hesitant with his strikes. And my son stood there and looked squarely at his sensei, nodded intently, and said he would work harder. His body language showed sincerity, his voice was clear. In that moment, he was in Ki-ken-tai-ichi. He brought together his mind and body through his verbal "sword."

His sword and his communication skills are one and the same. In his defensive posture, his words are hesitant, sometimes mumbled or nonexistent.Once he's gotten over the initial defensive stance, his words are clear and easily understood. He's getting better, though, and soon he will be able to walk up to someone, determine the words he needs to say, and say them with conviction. He will take in other people's words and effortlessly decide how best to respond. And he will be able to let the words flow through him naturally as he and his "opponent" trade words in fun, in anger, in opinion, and in knowledge.

*Kendoka is a person who practices the art of kendo

Monday, May 19, 2014

Communication and Kendo: Part 1

image from
Watching my son participate in his second taikai (kendo tournament), and taking fourth place, was very exciting for two reasons. One, it cemented his belief that he could be good at kendo, making him want to continue. Two, seeing him compete showed me how much he had grown not just within the sport, but with communication in his everyday life. To help you see how I made this connection, I need to break kendo down into basic points, starting with this - Kendo is NOT an art of self-defense, it is an art of self-improvement.

If kendo was all about whacking your opponent, tournaments would go a lot faster. Anyone who has watched a taikai match will know that there could be dozens of strikes, all of which look good to a casual spectator, before a point is awarded. If you've never seen a match, YouTube is full of examples, like this one. In order to get the point, the attacker must not only hit his or her opponent in the right place, but must also look and sound good doing it.

Wait. Huh? How are you supposed to look and sound good swinging a bamboo sword and yelling wildly at the top of your lungs?

Image via Wikimedia Commons
There are three things a kendoka (one who practices kendo) must do when making a strike. First the strike must hit one of four places: the head, the wrist, the waist, or the throat. But not only must he hit these areas, he must make the hit with only the top portion of the shinai (bamboo sword). If he hits with any other part of the shinai, the point is not awarded. But even with a correct hit, he still won't get the point without proper footwork, proper stance, or proper follow-through. His feet have to move right and the way his body moves through the hit cannot be sloppy. And even if he manages to strike and move correctly, if he's not screaming out his charge with conviction (this is called ki-ai), well, no point. This is why good kendo matches are loud. It also makes one think: with all this having to worry about proper this and correct that, how does anyone actually manage to get a point?

And isn't that kind of the same question one would ask about effective communication? It's not just about having something to say. It's also about how you say something so the other person understands where you're coming from. If you don't choose your words correctly, or have the right body language, or use a proper tone of voice, then your not going to make your point.

So, back to my son. He wanted to practice kendo because I did. When he first picked up my shinai and swung it around at three years old, I decided to get him his own and gave him informal lessons. I first taught him that the shinai was not a toy, he couldn't "teach" any of his friends, and the only person he could hit was me, and I had to be in gear. What I was really teaching him was to be mindful of who he was interacting with at a given time and adjust to each situation. His sword became his feelings, and he had to adjust his feelings to properly respond to different situations: when a classmate made him mad, when he got in trouble for something he didn't understand, or when he was told to do something he didn't want to do (like homework).

Well-loved shinai
When he was finally old enough to take formal lessons, he quickly learned that while he may think it's fun to practice with mom, it's entirely different interacting with a real instructor. Although I tried to prepare him with the basics, his footwork was everywhere, his swings were wild, and if he even bothered with ki-ai, you probably still wouldn't have heard him. His teachers were always correcting him, and he would get discouraged because it felt like he couldn't do anything right.

And when he got into bogu (kendo armor), he also realized it wasn't nearly as much fun being the one getting hit. During practice drills he would get upset because he was getting hit more often than the other way around. There were times when he would decide that he didn't want to do kendo anymore because he wasn't good at it. It wasn't that he wasn't trying, it was just that there was so much to focus on! But with subtle encouragement and maybe a few not-so-subtle "suck it up" commentaries, I kept him going.

His initial struggles with kendo were a mirror-image of his every-day life. He had a hard time focusing on his work and would get distracted easily, and his teachers would have to get him back on task. He was emotional and easily upset, feeling like everybody was against him. But when he needed to speak up for himself, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He just wasn't good enough to make friends or be a successful student. He wasn't good at communicating his feelings.

When he entered his first taikai, he lost in the first round. I braced myself to comfort a child who would be upset with his loss. But what a surprise I got! Yes he was disappointed that he lost, but he was smiling and excited that he didn't let his opponent get him on the first hit. We talked about what he did right, what he could do to improve, and how much he could learn by going up against an opponent.
First Taikai

Over the next year, he continued to improve. His strikes were faster and more accurate, he read his opponent's moves a little better, and although his footwork was still a little sloppy, he made up for it in a strong and confident ki-ai. Seeing this improvement come together in his second taikai made me realize he had made improvements elsewhere in his life. He is still distractable (hello, he's a boy), but his self-esteem has grown and he is more likely to speak up when needed. He is better able to communicate effectively in various situations, whether it's with an adult, a classmate, a friend, or a stranger.

At his next taikai, his face was beaming with an ear-to-ear grin when he received his fourth-place trophy. And it should, because that trophy was also the proof that he was good enough to get his point across. Kendo, the art of self-improvement, helped with that.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Communication and the dreaded Common Core

When did you first hear about the Common Core? If you're a parent, when did someone explain to you how the Common Core was implemented in your child's school? Unless you are an ardent supporter of education, you probably never heard of the Common Core outside of news blips or as a parent when you first realized your child's math homework was more confusing than an advanced statistics textbook. A few weeks back, comedian Louis C.K. took to Twitter to rant about what the Common Core was doing to his kids: "My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!" This is a sentiment held by many frustrated parents. But do you know why it is so frustrating?

Regardless of whether you love the new common standards or you hate them, Louis C.K. has opened up a venue to debate it. Here is a man with celebrity clout relaying his frustrations, not as a comedian, but as a parent - who happens to have over 3 million Twitter followers. What was once a topic that occasionally hit the news in blips, the debate about Common Core now explodes from the media outlets. Some people in the media are praising Louis C.K. for pointing out the flaws in Common Core, and some people don't like what they hear because it jeopardizes the implementation of a lofty ideal. The debate is needed, because so much of what makes up the Common Core is still a mystery to many of us.

But of course, who wants to admit there was a mess up somewhere in the planning process. Supporters of the new standards like Michelle Rhee and Newsweek's Alexander Nazaryan were quick to respond to Louis C.K.'s dissatisfaction of the Common Core by trying to dismiss him as unqualified to weigh in. However, a quick Google news search shows an overwhelming amount of sources in support of the comedian's outspoken views. So why isn't the Department of Education listening?
Upset Dad does child's homework

I personally am also frustrated with the Common Core. Not it's ideal, mind you - I believe it is very important for our students to become better prepared for college and the global work force. What makes me mad is the way in which the Common Core (a basic by-product of that other good-idea-gone-bad "No Child Left Behind") was implemented. Education historian and educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch highlighted the rush to implement the new standards in a piece critiquing Newsweek's Nazaryan. In it, she makes a case for poor implementation, and a disconnect between the developers of the common standards and the teachers who must integrate them into the curriculum.

Another point she makes is how the U.S. government directly influences the implementation of the Common Core. By giving funding to states and school districts who adopt the new standards who fail to follow implementation, the Department of Education communicates to states that they must immediately adopt the new standards or lose their money. With funding being the most fought over topic in education, loss of federal funds can deal a huge blow to struggling schools. Accountability aside, is it fair to the students and families of these schools to be punished for a poorly planned, poorly implemented, and poorly communicated program? There is little to no communication between the DoE and educators as to how teachers are expected to implement a hastily developed program with little training and even less funding.

Photo from
According to Ravitch, studies have shown that using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is ineffective and have the potential to cause more harm. Yet, Washington state recently lost their waiver for "No Child Left Behind" requirements because the state failed to include test scores as a "significant factor in determining teacher and principal performance levels." Again, communication is disconnected here. These studies that Ravitch cites were ignored by education reformers, choosing to listen instead to economists and business experts. Excuse me, but what do economists and business experts know about classroom instruction? These are children: they are firefighters, dragon slayers, NASCAR drivers, princesses, magicians, artists and fashion designers. They are not college students ready to be the next CEO of a major global company.

It boils down to this. Money. Education has become big business for publishing houses like Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Money is to be made in the tech industry as the standardized testing associated with Common Core moves to a computer-based format and online distribution. And what no one seems to talk about is the business of test prep, where new businesses will pop up to "help" struggling schools and struggling students adapt to the new standards by offering classes and consultations and private instruction on how to pass these tests (I highly doubt there will be any assistance in funding and implementing Common Core standards). Money is going everywhere but where it's needed - in classrooms.

So why are there so many parents and teachers frustrated by the Common Core and standardized testing? Because no one is communicating to them why this is important. No one is communicating how to receive training and materials to successfully implement these standards. No one is communicating where the money comes from and goes to. No one is communicating, and it is the most important part of any program to be successful. You can't just ram a project down people's throats and expect them to swallow it ignorantly and get excellent results. Communication also requires listening to feedback, so planners can see what works and what doesn't before it becomes a huge issue. Parents and teachers are frustrated because the powers that be would rather talk AT them than TO them.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Communication and the wonderful world of bullies

Being a parent is the hardest job in the world. Especially in today's communication-deficient society. We try to raise our children to get along and adapt to different social interactions, but in a world of 140 characters and internet trolls, how does one communicate effectively?

My son had a rough start in elementary school. He did not know how to communicate his feelings and was often in trouble. Growing up, I remember classmates like him, the pushers and shovers who wanted something and didn't know how to articulate what they wanted. I also remember my teachers scolding them, telling them to apologize and show them the right way to handle the situation. But what is different (with my experience anyway) is that now the "victim" is given a lot more weight in an incident.

When I went to elementary school, I was the kid nobody liked. I was the weird one who made friends with a "fish face" girl and didn't deserve to hang with the cool kids. Yes, cool kids happen as early as second grade. My friend and I had only each other against our entire class, and while they didn't push or shove, they were harsh. Parents worry about bullies in this day and age? It's only worse because the media makes it worse. It wasn't any different then than now, except that you can pick on someone 24 hours a day through the internet instead of only at school. Sure, we told the teacher when we were being teased mercilessly. But the teachers just scolded the tormentors. And told us to ignore them, because the more we pay attention the more they will tease.

It was true. By the time we were in middle school, the teasing grew less, and in fact some of our classmates who were "mean" to us ended up being quite civil. The ostracizing didn't stop, and we were fine with it, because we discovered we could make more friends in other classes. We ignored the "cool kids" and paid attention to the nice ones.

Today, teachers take the two parties involved and have conversations with them about the proper way to communicate with each other, but the "victim" is not told to ignore the actions of others. In fact, they are encouraged to tell on any student who "makes them uncomfortable" because there is a "zero tolerance for bullying." So now we have the makings of a reverse bully.

So, back to my son, he got a pretty bad rap that followed him from kindergarten through third grade. First grade was the worst. He was constantly in trouble and he would come home crying and saying it wasn't his fault. Well, it must have been his fault, right? Why else would the teacher give him a time out? I volunteered in the classroom for the first time one day, a few months into the school year, and it hit me like an obvious cold sore why he was always in trouble. The teacher put him between a passive aggressive and a girl version of him! In the one hour I was there, my son's entire experience was one kid harping "He's doing this!" and "He's doing that!" while the other one is poking him trying to get his attention! I seriously wanted to cry for him. I requested that he be moved immediately.

Unfortunately my son, constantly in trouble, did not trust anyone - especially the adults in the school - to listen to him. He had it in his head that no matter what the situation, when a student told on him, the adult would punish him. So he kept quiet, and when he was so frustrated he would lash out with the pushing and shoving, he would stay quiet as the teacher scolded him, never once asking him what he was feeling, only asking why he did it. And he would stay quiet, because why would they care why he did it? He would be in trouble and it didn't matter that he felt like the one being picked on. How he felt didn't matter, only the "victim's" feelings seemed to matter.

Then, in second grade, the talking started. "He's a trouble maker," and "Don't play with him, he's mean." Any chance he had of making friends was thwarted by the scary predictions of what he would do. And it wasn't just coming from the kids. It also came from the parents. Parents we have never even met or known long enough to form any opinion of them. He stopped getting invited to birthday parties. Friends he did play with at school couldn't invite him for play dates. Friends he wanted to invite to his own birthday never came because the parents simply ignored the invitation. How does he tell a teacher that he's being unfairly targeted? All I can tell him is to ignore them. He doesn't need to listen to anyone who talks badly about him. But above all, he needs to show them how wrong they are through better actions. And he is getting better, but it's hard to be good when everyone expects you to be bad, when some kids try to get you in trouble on purpose. When even adults don't like you, say vicious things about you, and you don't even know them.

Third grade started just as badly. One student that we had a bad experience with ended up in his class. This was someone who had a personality exactly like our son, and who did almost the same things our son did. We knew right away this was going to be a difficult year. We tried to teach our son to ignore him if he did anything that he didn't like, that it was okay to be nice even if you didn't want to play with someone. We said that just like him, this child was going to have a difficult time adjusting, and to just be a good example of how to handle yourself in school. But it didn't work, our son was constantly in trouble with this other student and we finally told the teacher that he could not be in the same group as this other child. There were still incidents, mostly a battle of wills because they were so much alike, and I truly didn't have a problem with it because they both needed to work out their differences. But one day, and you will probably judge me for saying this, my son finally got a little vindication when this child was called into the principal's office for trying to get my son riled up. Unfortunately, my son did get riled up and retaliated with a shove, and so also got called into the office, but it was made clear that the other child's actions were not acceptable. For the first time, an adult in the school stuck up for my son. That was a moment of triumph for all of us.

My son doesn't know how to play "nicely" because he doesn't trust anyone to see that he is trying to play nice. If he pushes for a ball in soccer, or kicks a ball a little hard in kickball, or trips in tag and falls on someone, he's done something wrong and he gets in trouble. It's at the point where he can't even play anything with anybody because he "doesn't get along." I tell him he has friends, and I name every one of them, even the ones whose parents are the mean ones. I tell him his faults, then I tell him his strengths, and then he tells me how he will work on his faults using his strengths. He has bad days, but he has had more good ones this year than years past. And it will only get better. I've been there, so I know, even though he's had a rougher time than I did.

The wonderful world of bullies is a mysterious and ever-changing space, where the ones treated like bullies are sometimes the ones being bullied, and the term "bully" becomes so broad that everyone becomes one and no one is safe. We have become hyper-sensitive to the interactions of others that we forget what is a normal process of social learning. We are teaching our kids to be afraid of social interactions, and that is a dangerous downward spiral.