Monthly Archives: April 2010

She hated all the characters, but felt compelled to finish…


Hi, a bunch of us are in a Literary Blog Relay.

Basically, one writer writes a 250 word post/story/fragment and then tags another writer, etc., etc. We can write whatever we want, so long as our posts begin with the last line of the previous post (in bold here) and are linked to a central theme; in this case, “A Stranger Comes to Town.”

The following is my post, using the last line (in bold) from Heather McDonald’s contribution. I found the line challenging because of its specificity, but I hope I did it proud.

Jackson Bliss is next.

She hated all the characters, but felt compelled to finish; she hated them less than her current circumstances.

In the train station, the Chinese characters garnished the Korean hangul. She eyed the Chinese character for mountain, three tines that pointed upwards like a pitchfork, scattered like confetti throughout the route maps of the rugged terrain. In the station itself, the character for mouth, hanging over exits, haunted her; a square, an opening, a silent scream. It made her never want to leave a room.

That was it. Those were all the Chinese “hanja” characters she knew. She knew the entire Korean alphabet, but knew not what she read most of the time. Her vocabulary was that of a small child. She smiled, her eyes sad. Today, she was a child. Mom. Mommy. Mommy.

Lucy made her way to the ticket counter at Seoul station and bought a roundtrip to Gyeongju. To the funeral, and back.

On the train, Lucy held her hand up, failing to shield her face from the late afternoon summer sunlight that outside motored the chlorophyll in some billion leaves of rice, but in her coach, streamed through the window so that she felt a brilliant and uncomfortable heat. A cupcake in an easy bake oven had an easier time of it, she thought.

Still, she watched, through squinting eyes, the landscape, a bright green that never was in Southern California, all the more green because of the red soil. The contrast sharpened the grief.

THE FULL LINE-UP, IN ORDER (Completed posts in bold)….

  1. Wah-Ming Chang:
  2. Jamey Hatley
  3. Stephanie Brown
  4. Andrew Whitacre
  5. Heather McDonald
  6. Christine Lee Zilka
  7. Jackson Bliss
  8. Jennifer Derilo posted at
  9. Alexander Chee
  10. Nova Ren Suma


Continue reading


Filed under Literary Blog Relay, Memes

waxing moon

the strip

i have not slept all week. i mean, i have slept, but not slept well. i mean, i have “slept” if you mean a session of tossing, turning, restless lapsing into unconsciousness and consciousness, wandering the house in defeat, then collapsing back into bed only to wake up again in darkness.

last night i stayed up, exhausted yet alert, until 4am in the morning, thinking yes, maybe tonight i’m exhausted enough to sleep a full eight hours. but no. i wake up at 9am on my day off (on vacation from novel revision) unable to sleep anymore. (and only after restless turning tossing “sleep”).

i have tried exercise, then a hot bath, and then a big mug of chamomile tea.

i have tried lots of booze.

i have tried carbs.

(not all at once of course).

fail. fail. fail.

there was a full moon last night. the entire week has consisted of a waxing moon. maybe i’m a werewolf.

a friend said, “maybe you’re a zombie.”

to which i replied, “maybe i’m a zombie because i’m a werewolf.”

Update 4/30: Annnnnd now waning moon. I can’t stop sleeping. Several naps today. I could use more sleep. Insomnia over. Hello, narcolepsy!


Filed under Life

Craving squashed!


Remember that apple cider donut craving I’ve been having (for at least a month now)?

Craving squashed.

I made quite a few of them this morning, and then ate two fresh, warm, glazed apple cider donuts.

I’m on “vacation” from revising my novel. It’s good to know that on my vacation, I did something other than play Farm Town and grade student papers. 😉 I also ate donuts.


Filed under Cooking

Spring 2010 issue of Kartika Review is LIVE

Kartika Review‘s long awaited Spring 2010 issue is finally available for reading! I’m proud of the writers who are in this issue, one that features Meditations on Home by established APA voices, Elmaz Abinader, Peter Bacho, Alexander Chee, Justin Chin, Tess Gerritsen, Porochista Khakpour, Don Lee, Min Jin Lee, Yiyun Li, Ed Lin, David Mura, Shawna Yang Ryan, Lac Su, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Thrity Umrigar, Sung J. Woo, and Bryan Thao Worra. We had a lot of fun putting this issue together.

Also in this issue is a writer, Peter Tieryas Liu, who happened to have appeared alongside me in Yomimono’s most recent issue #14. Total coincidence, but definitely a delightful one.

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Filed under Fiction Editor, Reading

Groupthink and critique

rooftops of Balham

I’m a writer/teacher whose first 10 years of vigorous employment were spent in the land of business, and there are times that I think the industry verticals (business and education and the arts) could really learn a lesson from each other. The clarity and product-focused nature of business serves me well as a teacher…and writing/teaching’s orientation towards process and patience informs me as a Director of HR.

I often use lingo from one to describe another. Like in workshop, I used to say, “Real estate is really precious in a short story, and I’m not sure this [add whatever is relevant here] deserves all the real estate it’s been given.” I got a few giggles about the term “real estate.” But it’s true. It’s all real estate, because any space is precious, especially in a story.

Then there’s the term Groupthink, a word that describes reaching consensus with minimal conflict and minimal contest. It is a word often used in business, and groupthink is dangerous in the way that Vonnegut describes in Sirens of Titan the antennas in the brains of the soldiers of Mars, listening to one voice and following directions without protest. Groupthink is bending to peer pressure, groupthink is mindless, and groupthink is dangerous to art and creativity. Groupthink means writing by consensus.

Groupthink happens, for instance, in meetings where an exec throws out an idea, and no one is brave enough to disagree, or no one dares to pay attention to dissenting opinion. Groupthink is believed to have brought down NASA years ago, leading to the tragic Challenger disaster. No one listened to the feedback of an engineer pointing out flaws in the design of the O-rings. NASA has since become not only a cautionary tale regarding groupthink, but also a case study in how NOT to build a corporate culture. You should have an environment in which people can disagree and bring up alternative ideas and thoughts.

It is groupthink that can make workshopping so dangerous.

Years after workshops, I found a stack of critiques and saved the feedback, knowing that what didn’t pierce my psyche constructively then, might pierce my psyche in the future. But now years later again, I see the symptoms of groupthink throughout the feedback.

In workshops where writers are requested to bring in written critiques before workshops begin, groupthink is not so prevalent, because those critiques were composed before entering the group.

But in workshops where writers were not asked to bring in written critique workshops to workshop, and where people just spew their thoughts spontaneously, groupthink evades the feedback. I see it in my notes. The Famous Writer workshop leader says one thing–and everyone bends to the will/opinion of that one person. The workshop leader doesn’t even have to force this behavior; since most writers in an MFA workshop are emerging writers, if not downright beginning writers, they simply don’t have the confidence behind their opinions to contest that of someone more experienced.

Even in workshops where writers bring written feedback to class, there will always be an unexpected topic of discussion. The workshop leader will point to a passage or scene and say something like, “What do you think about this?” A good workshop leader may not throw out her/his opinion right away. S/he will wait to hear all the feedback.

But when I see feedback on my novel in those notes–I can see that after the workshop leader said something like, “It’s hard to write a scene inside a traincar–it’s real static–unless the train is crashing,” everyone immediately agreed.

In the case of my novel, I promptly deleted that chapter. Years later, I put that scene back in my novel, only condensed. It was important, but just didn’t work as written.

I’m glad I saved my workshop feedback all these years. I understand things now that I didn’t understand back then. Elizabeth Stark addressed the topic of responding to critique:

In order to be helpful, critique must be absorbed. What is unhelpful must be disregarded, and a writer does well to build up a strong instinct for what must be disregarded. What remains, then, is an arrow, pointing to a hidden door in the text that needs to be opened, or a hidden wall that needs to be removed.

One final note: we rarely know if what we are writing is good or significant while we are writing it or shortly after. The voice that judges the work is not that of our deep reader self but the anxious harping of some face concerned about the public eye. So you will not know right away if the changes you are making work. That, too, will take time, will take absorption, will lack efficiency.

In workshop, be aware of groupthink. Save your notes. Read them later. Later, as in weeks, not days. Later, as in months, not weeks. Later, as in years, not months. Do not ever delete something without leaving a backup. You may want it back, years later.


Filed under MFA, Writing

Literary Blog Relay: “A Stranger Comes to Town”

Hi, a bunch of us are in a Literary Blog Relay.

Basically, one writer writes a 250 word post/story/fragment and then tags another writer, etc., etc. We can write whatever we want, so long as our posts begin with the last line of the previous post (in bold here) and are linked to a central theme; in this case, “A Stranger Comes to Town.”

THE FULL LINE-UP, IN ORDER (Completed posts in bold)….

  1. Wah-Ming Chang:
  2. Jamey Hatley
  3. Stephanie Brown
  4. Andrew Whitacre
  5. Heather McDonald
  6. Christine Lee Zilka
  7. Jackson Bliss
  8. Jennifer Derilo posted at
  9. Alexander Chee
  10. Nova Ren Suma


Continue reading


Filed under Literary Blog Relay, Memes

Short Story Paradox

Foyles Bookstore

The Rejectionist assesses the realistic odds of having a short story collection published. It ain’t pretty. Even if you get a collection published, you’ll probably have to sign a 2-book deal in which you obligate yourself to writing a novel. In sum: if you want to publish a book, you’re better off trying to publish a novel. Even if you publish a short story collection, you’ll have to publish a novel.

But here’s the paradox. The workshop format, prevalent in MFA programs, is way more short story friendly than it is accommodating of novels. How do you read a novel in 30 page chunks and provide feedback based on a 30 page excerpt? The best MFA novel writing workshop ever was run by a visiting writer who asked for 60 pages, minimum, per workshop; we each went two times that semester, and so by the end of the semester, we each workshopped 120 pages of our novels. Even if the feedback wasn’t perfect, having workshopped 120 pages of our novels covered substantial real estate. And the feedback was way more useful for having covered 120 pages.

But every other workshop asked for a thirty page maximum. Ridiculous, if you’re workshopping a novel. And besides, the format itself is ridiculous for novels–because it’s hard to workshop the damn thing unless you’ve read the entire draft.

In sum thus far: Despite the publishing industry’s predilection for novels, MFA programs are structured to help students produce short stories.

As you might know, I signed up with Writer’s Relief a few months ago–I haven’t gotten many responses from litmags yet, but I’ve, so far, really appreciated all the legwork that Writer’s Relief provides when it comes to the submissions process, especially with research as to where I should submit a particular story. So much so, that I signed up for another round with them.

For my second round, I sent them a story that had a word count of 6,200 words. It was, they said, too long for many litmags to consider. (It’s true–litmags that come out in hardcopy have to consider the price per page of a piece; additionally, the attention span of editors is very very short). Could I possibly shorten it to less than 4,000 words, possibly less than 3,000 words?

Egads. But I did shorten the story down to less than 3,000 words–it became an entirely different story (instead of a father and son story–it became a story solely about the father). It made me sad to do this, but I sent it off to much happier response.

In sum: Publishing houses prefer novels to short stories. MFA programs nurture short stories more than they do novels. But the only welcome venue for short story publication, litmags, prefers very short stories.

In sum: Don’t write short stories. But if you do, write very very short ones. If you like to write short stories that are over 6,000 words (like I do), or if you like writing novellas…you’re screwed. Have a nice day!


Filed under Publishing, Writing

On the Other Side of the Other Side


Not too long ago, I wrote a post about being a fiction editor at a litmag and specifically, about the deep regret I feel about rejecting writers with whom I empathize. I myself get several dozen rejection letters a year. It sucks. And being on the other side of the judging table makes rejection all the more complicated for me.

Today, Colleen Lindsay blogged about what NOT to do when you get a rejection from an agent, over at The Swivet. She gave a very specific example in the form of a response to a polite rejection letter she’d sent out. The letter goes like this:

Colleen Lindsay:

Thank you for making it clear, through your response to my query, that you are unquipped (sic) to represent fiction writers who are working at the very highest level today.

Best of luck with your list of minor writers, third-rate writers, irrelevant writers, non-writers.

You lose, silly woman.

Patrick Roscoe

Do NOT write a “fuck you letter” to someone who rejects your work (unless you are Norman McLean after having written A River Runs Through It to critical acclaim, whose object of fury was the editor of the publishing house who “played games” with his first manuscript before thoroughly rejecting it).

And I have to say–I get “fuck you emails” at the litmag on a regular basis, despite the fact that I write personalized rejection letters that I make sure are polite and respectful of the writer. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and erases any regret I might have had in my decision.

I’d understand a “fuck you letter” if I accepted your piece, played mind games with you and your piece, and then ended up rejecting it anyway–but not when it’s a response to a polite, straightforward, rejection letter.


Filed under Fiction Editor, Literary Rejections, Publishing

Putting a stop to the 24/7 before my head explodes

lovely eggs

I am not good at taking days off, and this week was Spring Break; I did not allow myself any days off and I paid for that ambition. I had all kinds of things planned in my head for Spring Break, namely making epic progress on my novel revision. Pretty soon though, my inspiration turned into immense pressure, turned into self flagellation turned into self derision, turned into a chorus of “I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck…” in my head.

Every time I looked at my novel on Scrivener, I couldn’t quiet that damning voice. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t cry. I wanted to die. I couldn’t believe the novel was bringing me to my knees like that. By Tuesday evening, I found myself saying, “All I have to do is make it to L O S T tonight.” Dudes–I was MOTIVATING myself to LIVE by telling myself I had to keep my head above water just to watch what happens on L O S T. The only thing I’m proud of is the fact that somehow I didn’t have any desire to smoke cigarettes, a habit that I broke two years before my stroke.

I was in trouble, and I began to assess things. Last week, I went to my annual physical exam, and my doctor, who is the most wonderful doctor ever, one who practices more holistic medicine and spends an ENTIRE hour with me each year, cocked her head at one point and asked, “What do you do for fun, Christine?”

I looked at her, and answered in a mouse-like voice, “I write.” Actually, I confess, I said something more like, “I write?”

She smiled. “That’s what I thought you’d say.”

And that was that. But her question bumped me off my feet, as I wondered, “What *is* it that I do for fun these days?” It was the week of Passover, and it coincided with more socializing than I’d done in MONTHS. I had two very good friends over for dinner, and then I had lunch with another friend who happened to be in town for a day. My writing wasn’t going well, and I was miserable. But my friends, I found, kept my spirits up. I was hungry, and not just for leavened bread.

What is it that I do for fun?

Lately, nothing.

I tried to chalk my blasé spirits up to my annual Spring Misery and Spring allergies. And then I thumbed through my journals and found that every Spring, I feel this way and go on vacation to mitigate the Spring Misery. That’s how I get myself through Spring–and this year during my weeklong Spring Break, I’d planned on doing WORK. (The one thing about teaching that I find dreadful is that I can’t just take off for vacation at random moments–I’m married to the academic calendar).

To mitigate the Spring Misery without the luxury of travel, I tried reading books about writing, including Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel. It crushed me. Maybe it was the timeline of writing a novel in a year, maybe it was his very very airy reference to revision…but it crushed me. I felt like a failure. I felt like he was keeping secrets from me. It takes WAY longer than a year to write a novel, at least in my reality. The pressure killed me.

In desperation, and with my happiness in mind, I took a few days off from the novel, spending the last three days of Spring Break on Farm Town (oh I am so addicted to that Facebook app). I told myself to NOT look at my novel, to NOT revise at all. Full stop. I began to feel better. I began to have time to have fun–my husband and I even went to a movie! (Hot Tub Time Machine!!!). I began to relax. I began to think of cooking (my hobby of love) again–even Lobster Thermidor. I began to WANT to work on my novel again.

Now my Spring Break ends. But my vacation isn’t ending. I’m enforcing myself to go on a vacation from novel, and I have vowed to not touch my novel until May. I need the break from the 24/7 obsession. I need to give myself permission to go out and have fun with the increase in spare time. I need to read books and meet friends and feed myself again.

I think it was Bobby McFerrin who once said something like, “In order to create, I have to be full of myself.” Well. I was empty. I am empty, for various reasons. I need to fill my reserves up. So that’s what I’m going to do with this vacation.

I will allow myself to write essays, maybe even write a short story–but no novel.

And I’ll think about Cormac McCarthy’s response, in his interview with the Wall Street Journal, to why he doesn’t write short stories: “I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.”


Filed under Novel, Revision, Writing


Feral cat hunting on Emeryville point

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