Friday, November 2, 2012

On Minioperas, mentoring, and rubbing shoulders (okay, emails) with famous artists

It's been a while since my last blog post.

Here's why: 
1. I was too nervous to post because of the Minioperas event. We (writers, composers, and filmmakers) were waiting and waiting for the results.
2. I was revising a novel manuscript that was actually based on an opera, and I was scared to hell that my amazing agent would say "Meh," and ask me to start over on a different topic altogether.
3. It's fall semester, and I'm mentoring several kick-ass graduate instructors who are lovely people, but the paperwork and preparation take a lot of time.
4. My younger son broke his arm in a spectacular way (and by spectacular, I mean haunting) that required surgery and a week of attentive love and care and pillow-positioning and no sleep.

But here's the good news, my friends! 

1. Two days ago, the results of the Minioperas contest were announced. Before that, I'd been having lunch with a friend from grad school (Maryam Baig--daughter of this amazing man) whom I hadn't seen in years and who is the best Puck I have ever seen on stage (and ever will, I suspect). While walking back to my car, I started getting tweets and emails congratulating me on winning the Minioperas contest. I won the mentorship, folks, and I've been walking around in a kind of shock and awe ever since. To briefly recap:
  • I wrote a miniopera script based on Neil Gaiman's character, The Sweeper of Dreams. Please click on the link to hear him read this mesmerizing character prompt.
  • There were over 500 entries. Neil Gaiman chose the top 4 scripts based on his prompt (the other two artists chose the top 3 each, for a total of 10 finalists). I was a lucky finalist with "The Lingerer."
  • Composers then composed minioperas for their favorite finalist. Three Lingerer composers made the finalist round, too! (I literally memorized Max Perryment's composition, I listened to it so much. My partner teased me about my narcissism, but it couldn't be helped!) You can listen to all of the incredibly talented composers here.
  • I exchanged a few brief emails with Neil Gaiman, shocked (again) that my inbox says "From: Neil" and grateful that such a talented and busy artist takes the time to write an email when his time could be better spent making f*ing good art. 
  • The ENO event at BMI in London was cancelled for the finalists, so I cancelled my flight and non-refundable hotel. I was a little sad because I really wanted to shake hands with Gaiman and Terry Gilliam, but on the bright side, I could stay home with my son, who had just had surgery. 
  • Then we waited and waited to hear the announcement of the winners of a year's mentorship with a professional artist in our respective fields. Jeremy Sams is the mentor for the script writer. My God. Look at his work!
  • This morning, Mr. Sams emailed me, and this 9-month adventure with learning a new craft begins. 
Thank you, English National Opera. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. Thank you, Jeremy Sams. I feel very lucky.

As for the rest of my list?
2. My agent loved my manuscript. (Big sigh of relief and a pinch of giddiness.)
3. I just finished the syllabus template for the spring semester for all my grad students. It rocks.
4. My son is back to school with a purple cast and lots of loving attention from 4th grade pals and teachers. And Maman et Papa slept through the entire night for the first time since the surgery. Life is good.

To my friends on the East Coast: I'm thinking of you and hoping life gets easier this week, particularly in the form of electricity. Email me if you need (or just want) anything.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The First Book that Made You Cry

Several nights ago, I was sitting in my bed rereading Plato, mentally preparing for my graduate class when Julien padded into the room and crawled silently into my bed. He pulled the covers over his head and curled away from me.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

He didn't answer, so I pulled on the covers and saw his red face and puffy eyes. He was sniffling, and an embarrassed smile spread across his face.

"What's wrong?" I asked again.

"I finished the book."

"And it made you cry?"

He nodded, then burst into tears. I tugged at him until he was curled under my arm. I was immediately moved, stirred by old memories of really good books that made me cry when I was a child. I laughed a little and tried to cheer him up. I picked my phone off the bedside stand and did this impromptu interview:

Of course, I didn't make him read it. Instead, I set down Plato's Gorgias and started reading the last 40 pages of Louis Sachar's There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom. One touching scene between a counselor and her socially-challenged student did bring a tear to my eye, but the end was rather hopeful and, at times, really funny. Julien watched and waited for me to cry.

"Isn't it sad?" he asked when I finished.

"Yes. And full of hope."

He hugged me and started crying again. He cried for an hour, and I marveled at his emotional response to the book. I was proud that he'd invested his imagination in the life of this character who is so different from him. I was glad he tapped into his own fears about changes, endings, the uncertainty and unfairness of life. I was grateful that this book will, without doubt, find a permanent place in his memory of literature that profoundly moved him, like Summer of My German Soldier and Gone With the Wind and The Giving Tree did for me.

I remember curling up in bed as a child and crying, too. Loss is a universal experience. When it happens to a fictional character, we are powerless to do anything but watch. Because the characters aren't real, we're not allowed to offer sympathy through a comforting hand or glance; so we become the character and experience empathy. That's pretty powerful stuff for kids. In my opinion, empathy is the most important character trait to foster if we are to raise kind and decent children. Maybe that's why I was so proud and humbled by Julien's response.

When Julien finally settled down enough to sleep, he took my hand and said, "Thank you for buying me that book."

"Thank you, too," I answered. For two days, he couldn't watch the video of his own response to the book. It choked him up too much. But yesterday, he watched it and smiled and told me that he thought I should put it on the internet so other children would see what a great book it was. They would want to read it and see if it makes them "hysterical," too. Now, he's planning a thank you letter for Louis Sachar.

Do you remember the first book that made you cry, it was so good? What was it?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Get your cameras ready...Finalists!

I woke up at 7 am and, on a mission, trudged bleary-eyed to my laptop.
"Can I make you some coffee?" my dear one said as I passed his office. Yes, I said, ever grateful for his daily miracle of Perfect Coffee Production.

Laptop on, I went directly to to see the results of the second phase of the contest: the composition.

The screen came up, and I screamed just a little bit: three (THREE!) of my favorite minioperas made it to the final round of competition. THREE LINGERERS!

(And now, for a moment of silence for my other favorites that found their way into my dreams and my daydreams for weeks but didn't make the finals: your magic is not done. I hope to hear you elsewhere. There were a few particular composers whose work I will follow closely from now on. Thank you for honoring me with your compositions of The Lingerer.)

Let me step out of my own (apparently enormous) ego for a moment and just say that there were so many--SO MANY--marvelous, brilliant compositions to all 10 of the librettos. If you haven't already, you won't regret visiting the website and listening to them.

Here's one more thing I need to admit: sometimes I lose faith a little in the basic goodness of humanity, especially when tragedies such as the Colorado shooting or, yesterday, the Wisconsin Sikh tragedy occur. I lose faith amid the muck of politics and ignorance. After the media coverage of the Aurora shooting, I listened to the compositions at the minioperas website, one after another, and somehow they were like a poultice to the pain. As if they were telling me: if humans are compassionate enough to make music like this, there is hope for us all. It sounds really corny here now as I'm tying it, but there you go. This music helped me profoundly, and I'm thankful for it. Better to get hope from opera than from a prescription bottle.

Congratuations, finalists! You deserve heaps of applause. (And a special hurrah to Max Perryment, Alex Weston, and Julian Chou-Lambert.)

Everyone else, get your video cameras charged and ready: the film competition begins NOW! You have 49 days to git 'er done.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sinister Sweetness

I guess this weekend is all about my 9-year-old son.
Hold on to your hearts, because the Cuteness Meter is about to hit Maximum.
maximum cuteness

My last post was about our delightful purchase of poetry, and Julien was pleased to perform for the blogosphere. Today, I want to give you a sneak peek at a Middle Grade book that Julien won from a blog give-away recently: The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, by Nikki Loftin.

Here's the book description: Lorelei is bowled over by Splendid Academy--Principal Trapp encourages the students to run in the hallways, the classrooms are stocked with candy dishes, and the cafeteria serves lavish meals featuring all Lorelei's favorite foods. But the more time she spends at school, the more suspicious she becomes. Why are her classmates growing so chubby? And why do the teachers seem so sinister? It's up to Lorelei and her new friend Andrew to figure out what secret this supposedly splendid school is hiding. 

What they discover chills their bones--and might even pick them clean! Mix one part magic, one part mystery, and just a dash of Grimm, and you've got the recipe for a cozy-creepy read that kids will gobble up like candy. 

I had the fortune to meet Nikki earlier this year at the SCBWI conference in Austin, the same weekend I met and signed with my YA agent. Nikki was hilarious, had me wiping tears of laughter with her antics. She was also kind and encouraging and genuine. With great reviews from PW and Kirkus, she is surely a rising star in MG literature.

Julien was ecstatic about winning an Advanced Reader Copy (because of the exclusivity, you see--there's nothing as thrilling to a 9-yr-old as getting his hands on something cool before ANYONE in the whole school can), and this book did not disappoint. What's funny (and a little sad) is that Julien had NO IDEA what was coming as he read.

"You mean, you've never heard of the Hansel and Gretel story?" I asked him in the car.
"No. What's that?" he asked.

I had a brief FAIL moment as a mother who tries to raise culturally literate children. But then I decided that he'd learn his own version of Hansel and Gretel soon enough, and that was all right, too.

You really should order this one for your kiddos, who'll not only love the story, but look irresistibly cool carrying this awesome book around school:
The bookstore cover: love it

I read the book right after Julien, and I could not put the book down. Frankly, I was creeped out, as I was when I watched Coraline, chewing on my nails. But splendidly creeped out. Splendid Academy is deliciously and delightfully written, with surprising depth of character and just enough Sinister details to keep Julien hooked. Now for the Sweetness:
More cuteness: Julien cracking up with his newest book. The book cover on the ARC was different from the final cover.

best read with a Lick-Em Stick

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dare to Dream: Poetry for everyone

Last week, we received our much-anticipated book of poetry, Dare to Dream...Change the World, edited by my fabulous agent Jill Corcoran.

I'd gotten a glimpse of the beautiful illustrations earlier, so we were pleased that the book is large (!), and the pictures fill the entire page.

Usborne books describes the collection like this: From Jonas Salk to Steven Spielberg, the subjects of these biographical-inspired poems invented something, said something, stood for something, did something, changed something. They dared to dream.

Thirty of our nation's most prestigious poets focus their creative vision on people who not only changed their own lives, but the lives of people all over the world.

Jill Corcoran   J. Patrick Lewis    Alice Schertle   David L. Harrison    Jane Yolen   Joan Bransfield Graham    Ellen Hopkins    Georgia Heard   Hope Anita Smith   Elaine Magliaro    Curtis L. Crisler   Janet S. Wong    Denise Lewis Patrick    Joyce Lee Wong    Jacqui Robbins    Julia Durango    Tracie Vaughn Zimmer    Lisa Wheeler    Hope Vestergaard    Carol M. Tanzman   Stephanie Hemphill    Alan Katz    Lee Bennett Hopkins   Marilyn Singer    Rebecca Kai Dotlich    Joyce Sidman    Rose Horowitz    Bruce Coville    Kelly Ramsdell Fineman   Laura Purdie Salas

My 9-year-old son is a bit crazy about YouTube videos and begs me to search for funny videos. (I always supervise, of course.) So it's no surprise to me that one of his favorite poems in Dare to Dream...Change the World is inspired by YouTube's co-founding geniuses Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim: "Just Like That," by Laura Purdie Salas.

Although he stumbled a little on "from Omaha to Seoul," you can tell he loves the rhythm of this poem:

It's a beautiful book. Congrats, Jill!

UPDATE: I can't believe I didn't mention in original post the illustrator: J. Beth Jepson. The poems are only half of this book. The other half, the illustrations, are gorgeous. We love the way the poems are placed ON the illustrations. (Had to share this wonderful and important detail!)

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Yesterday I wrote about how some composers all around the world made me believe in humans' capacity for beauty in the midst of an awful display of human depravity (the Colorado cinema shooter).

These composers have also sent me straight into a surreal place. I've never written a piece of work that someone else has transformed. Let me tell you, it's an emotional, visceral, thrilling ride. Like holding a newborn baby. Maybe I've had an overdose of oxytocin?

For the music lovers, I'm embedding the ENO entries as of this morning. You can open the original libretto and follow along, more or less, with the words. What is so stunning to me is the variety of expression and quality of each interpretation. Bravo! Bravissimo!

"Big love" to you all!
POSTSCRIPT: I wrote this blog a few hours ago; I was convinced that today was Monday and that the contest was already closed. (I even drove my son to daycare, and ended up in an empty lot, boggled.) I'm happy to report that there are many compositions still to be submitted to the ENO contest, which ends on the 23rd. I'll include all the ones based on The Lingerer here. There are also many, many more amazing minioperas based on other stories. I encourage you to visit the ENO site and listen to them.

And a link, because I can't figure out how to embed this one:

Like everything, this is all best enjoyed with a glass of wine and the volume turned up "too loud."

Have an extraordinary week!

Saturday, July 21, 2012


This weekend has been overwheming.

Along with everyone else, I woke up to the tragedy of the Colorado cinema shooting. At times like these, I slip very quickly into despondency about the fierce grasp the NRA has on the throat of America. A Texan, I must admit that I'm glad my brother can legally own a gun to protect his large property in the countryside. He used it responsibly (i.e., didn't aim it, and only held it at his side as a warning) to stop a deranged, drugged man trying to break into my mother's house. But I see absolutely no reason why any lawful citizen would need an automatic assault gun. Or twenty. There will not be zombie apocalypse.

So I was grateful when my despondency was averted by the ENO music being posted on Soundcloud. There are over 60 entries as of tonight. About 6 or 7 have been posted for my libretto, The Lingerer, and I've listened to them all several times today. Tomorrow, I'll create links to all the versions so you can see the variety and beauty that these talented composers and singers created. They breathed life into a libretto, and I am stunned over and over at the healing power of music.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the minioperas contest. I am overwhelmed by the humanity in the compositions, just when I needed humanity the most.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Good Things are Afoot

A few exciting things have happened over the past week.

First, I booked my flight to London to attend the English National Opera event in October.
Minioperas! I have no idea what the evening will hold, but I'm outright giddy thinking about it. My younger son really hopes I get to meet Terry Gilliam; he's drawing a card for me to deliver to Gilliam, just in case.

This will be my first trip to England, and because I have to be back in Texas to teach, I only have THREE days in London, folks, including my arrival day (morning). What can I absolutely NOT miss when I go? And what places are equally appreciated on a postcard? I'm going to admit now something that will reveal my utter dweeb-ness: I adore Notting Hill. It's my favorite movie. I've seen it a dozen times, and I've used the Hugh Grant Walks Through the Seasons montage when I teach a film unit at SMU. So, I think I might have to go to Notting Hill.

Where else should I go? (I'm also a sucker for Jane Austen, the Beatles, and Monty Python.)
Abbey Road?

Second, my dear writer-friend, Sam, came over for drinks and chatting and, eventually as always, ice cream. It had been too long since we last got together, and I was so happy to flap our jaws about anything and everything. Isn't friendship great? Part of me wishes I had friends over every night (or every other night) for drinks. It's good for the soul.

Third, Daddy turned 89. I am lucky. So lucky.

And today, Brentney with the Dallas Observer interviewed me about my take on the changes in the publishing industry, and self-publishing's affect (read "Amazon's affect") on literary fiction. Thanks, Brentney! It's such a nicely crafted article!

Waiting on suggestions from the Brits and American travelers to London: cheap but clean hotels? not-to-be-missed landmarks?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lawyers, Step it Up

I've been following this story about the dangers of Deramaxx for over a year.
People's pets are dying horrible deaths.
Why the hell aren't the makers of Deramaxx being sued?
Lawyers, step it up. 

If you have a dog, PLEASE read this story. It just might spare your dog's life.
Holly, Amy's dog

Sunday Matinee

Sundays are great for matinees. And Vimeo's a great place to watch them. My nine-year-old son approves these videos.
Oxygen from Christopher Hendryx on Vimeo.

And Creepy:

Alma from Rodrigo Blaas on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

America the Free (Books)

To be blunt, this is a brief post about how my novel in ebook form went from oblivion to #1 in the Amazon Bestseller List for Top Free Literary Fiction  and #21 in the Top Free 100 eBooks. (Mostly told in pictures.)

Three days ago, I sat in my comfy-chair, looking forward to dinner and fireworks at Mema's house with the family. I was also thinking about my first novel, Song of the Orange Moons, which was published by an Austin press of great little books, and then disappeared into oblivion as the press unexpectedly closed shop.

There are still hard bound copies floating around on Amazon. But the $4.99 ebook, which I published (with ASD Publishing) shortly after on Amazon, in an attempt to keep the book-child breathing, sat deathly still on the digital shelf.

It was the 4th of July. We were celebrating our freedom. I decided to make my book Free for a few days--set it free and see what would happen. After doing some research and seeing how it's done, I went to KDP Select, placed the book in Free Promo status for three days, then went to Mema's for fireworks. The sale began at midnight, and this is what happened:

 The novel climbed the Free charts, and by the time I went to bed, I think the book was #24 in Literary Fiction. When I woke up, I received this snapshot text from my friend:

Song (with the greenish-brown cover) is at #3

Song at #2
At this point I am utterly boggled. What does this mean, I ask myself over and over. A few hours later, it's at #2, and holds this way throughout the day. In the meantime, it's climbing the charts for the Top 100 Free Kindle books:
#54 in Kindle Store

As I'm cooking dinner, I get a text from my brother with this image:
Song at #1
It held at this rank throughout the evening, and as I'm writing this post at 7:30 in the AM, the book is at #1 in Literary Fiction Top 100 Free and #21 in the Top 100 Kindle Store.

I don't really know what this means in the longer run (as in tomorrow, the next day, and the next). It's only a Bestseller on the Free List, so I fully appreciate the oxymoronic nature of the term.

What I do know is this: 
I have incredible friends who spread the word on Facebook and Twitter,  encouraging friends to download the book. I've been gobsmacked (my favorite word) by their encouragement. Because of them, more people know about this novel, and perhaps some will like it enough to recommend it to friends.

What I suspect is this:
That the economy has created a country of new consumers who hesitate to spring $5 on a book that they're not entirely certain (because it doesn't have a movie trailer yet) is a worthy read. I understand this phenomenon personally: these days, I only read books that are either on the NYT bestseller list or recommended to me by a friend or trusted website.
We shop at Half-Price Books, one local bookstore, and Amazon, and if the book is FREE with great reviews, so much the better.

What I think happened to push the book up the Amazon rankings list: 
I've been forwarded images of websites that have announced my book's listing on Kindle as free, here, here, and here. (At one of these sites, my book was mistakenly labeled as Religious/Literary. Although the girls in the novel must navigate their religions, the book does not promote any certain religion; I suppose it promotes love. Apologies to those who unwittingly downloaded a literary novel.) These sites have huge followings. Thanks to sites like these, thousands of people actually knew that my book was temporarily free and had the handy link.

Today is the last day of the Free Promotion, so please share the link with friends and family. (It's also available in the UK. #14 in Literary Fiction as of today.)

What I hope will happen:
For a few days, the book will stay in the Top 100, and perhaps, because of its visibility and the reviews, people will download it for $4.99. Of course I hope it sells some copies, after flying free in almost 9,000 downloads.
But I can say with absolute honesty that publishing the book was never about money. It's literary fiction, not pulp fiction. It's a serious book, and I'm encouraged that people are willing to give such reading a chance these days.