Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving Ahead: There is "Hope for Amizero"

By Georgeanne Irvine
One of my mottoes in life is to always have hope, even in situations where hope is just about the only thing you can have! For me, hope is inspiring and motivational as well as a way to keep myself positive and my spirits high. In a blog I wrote in early January, I mentioned that I hoped at least one of my writing-related projects would come to fruition this year. I’m happy to report that one project—my children’s book, Hope for Amizero—is a step or two closer to being published!

This is a true story about an orphaned chimpanzee at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Burundi, Central Africa. I researched the book in the early 1990s when two of my friends managed the sanctuary, although the story is just as pertinent, if not more so, today as it was then. The chimp infant was initially captured by poachers, who most likely killed her family, and then rescued by my friends when she was near death. She was in such bad condition she wasn’t expected to survive, but when she amazingly recovered, my friends named her Amizero, which means “hope” in the local language. Amizero grew into the most mischievous, fun-loving chimp at the sanctuary in spite of her difficult start in life. The book focuses on Amizero’s antics and provides a glimpse of her comfortable life at the sanctuary until a tribal war between the Hutus and the Tutsis changes everything.

So here’s where the project was in early January: The first draft of my manuscript had been read by an editor at a publishing house on the East Coast. He liked the story and said they definitely wanted to publish it as a children’s book. However, he hadn’t sent me suggested edits and a year and a half had passed. In addition, my plan was to partner with a well-known children’s book illustrator, who introduced me as well as my story concept to the publisher in the first place. Hope for Amizero was to primarily feature beautiful colorful drawings, with an Amizero photo gallery in the back of the book.

Here’s the update:
In late January, my illustrator friend met with the editor, who said he and his new senior editor boss were very excited about the story—BUT, they now wanted photographs to dominate the book (my initial book concept in the 1990s). My friend, who is already working with the publisher on other projects, is fine with that but I’m sure we’ll be able to include at least some of his exquisite art.

My assignment was to send an assortment of about a dozen images to the editor. Next, he asked me to send enough photos to illustrate every paragraph of the book! Having a plethora of photos wasn’t the issue for me: their format was the challenge. They were shot before the digital era, so I spent weeks sorting through transparencies and negatives, getting them scanned, color correcting the scans, organizing the digital images, and inserting them throughout the manuscript. In addition, I had a few “photo holes” in the story, especially when Amizero first arrived at the sanctuary, so I contacted a photographer friend who supplied many of those crucial images.

What’s the current status? The photo-illustrated manuscript is still making the rounds at the publishing house. The editor is sharing it with colleagues and will be back in touch with comments. Three weeks have passed—I’ll wait until early June before I check in with him again (if I haven’t heard back). I am hopeful that this will result in a book contract, but if it’s not quite right for this publisher, I hope—no, I know—it will be perfect for another!

San Diego native Georgeanne Irvine has devoted more than three decades of her career to raising awareness about animals and wildlife conservation. By day, she is associate director of development communications for the San Diego Zoo, where she has worked for 33 years. George is also the author of more than 20 children’s books plus numerous magazine, newspaper, and Web articles. George’s most recent work is the coffee table book, The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise, which is a true story about 8 dolphins from an oceanarium who were washed out to sea during Hurricane Katrina and dramatically rescued.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Favorite Writing Teacher

My Favorite Writing Teacher
by Kathi Diamant

According to Franz Kafka, "If the writer is to escape madness he should never leave his desk; he must cling to it with his teeth." That bit of advice helped me finish a two-decades-long book project. But Kafka's wasn't the only advice I sought in the long road that led finally to publication. Brenda Ueland helped me with her classic guide to writing, first published in 1938, "If You Want To Write." She advised me to "write much much, in spite of imperfections."

Anne LaMott had a hand in my success, especially with "Bird By Bird," in which she encouraged me not to be afraid to write a sh***y first draft. That was actually the title of the chapter. Lately, I find that I cannot live without Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer." His very first tool, "Begin sentences with subjects and verbs" was a revelation for me, even after a 20 year career as a professional writer.

Like other members of San Diego Writing Women, I now teach writing. I tell my students at San Diego State University's Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning that there is no other field of endeavor that has so much support, so many how-to books, courses, workshops, conferences all designed to help people become writers, who can tell their stories. Because if you don't tell your own stories, who will? To my memoir students I recommend Vivian Gornick and Anne LaMotte. To my travel writing writing students I recommend Pico Iyer and Bill Bryson. And to you, I recommend all the above named books and a visit to the book store.

I just spent several hours at a favorite local bookstore, examining the eight shelves filled with writing advice and guides. I was looking for familiar titles, as well as some new ones, and found them. Despite the fact that I have two long shelves at home filled with books on writing, I found I had to buy two more: "Telling True Stories: A non-fiction writers guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University" and "The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing" by Alice LaPlante. Every writing book I buy, every writing class I take, every conference I attend offers me wisdom, shared experience and inspiration.

As writers, we are blessed with many teachers in diffent formats. "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" is a trueism for anyone who genuinely wants to write. I found my best teachers in books. My all-time favorite remains "If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit." First published in 1938, it contains 12 points to keep in mind while writing. The poet Carl Sandberg called it "the best book ever written on how to write." It was republished in 1983 by Graywolf Press, for which it remains their bestselling title.

As Ueland said: “You may not have much ability, but what you have, get it all out, and be humble and simple and work even if you can think of no words with more than one syllable, and do the best you can and learn by doing much much, in spite of imperfections.”

That's the rule that still works for me, in all my writing. Even this blog!

Kathi Diamant is the director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University and author of Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant" published by Basic Books in 2003. The biography won the Theodore Geisel Award for the "Best of the Best" at the San Diego Book Awards in 2004, and has been translated into Russian, Chinese, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing Scared

By Laurel Corona

“Writing scared” is a feeling any serious writer will understand perfectly. Writing IS scary, unless there’s no chance for growth in it, and in that case, why bother?
In the years I taught college composition, I used to tell my students that it was easy to think of a writing assignment, or indeed any challenge, in a way that would overwhelm them. The trick is to whittle down big problems to smaller ones that can be handled one at a time. Is a ten-page paper on the Russian Revolution too scary? Well, how about one paragraph on the lives of serfs? And then how about a paragraph on how the revolution was supposed to improve their lot? Can do! And then, how about…well, you get the picture. Lo and behold, eventually you hit page ten. Most of my students, to their surprise, did just that.
In the years I wrote Young Adult books for Lucent Books I didn’t think about the 120-page length. I thought about writing 6 consecutive 20-page papers about various subtopics. That length of paper wasn’t too scary for me–after all I’d gotten through grad school, hadn’t I? Within that 20-page chapter I asked myself, “Can you write a paragraph about Jomo Kenyatta? A page about colonialism?” Voila! A 120-page book took shape sentence by sentence because I was successful in never seeing it as a 120-page book.
A few years ago, the same thing got me through writing my first full-length book, UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. An accurate and compelling portrait of the Jewish Partisan movement? Yikes! A contribution to the literature about the Holocaust? Double yikes! A page about the Nazi invasion of Lithuania? Yes. A paragraph about ghetto administrator Jacob Gens? Yes. A book? Eventually.
The fact that writing never stops being scary is tied to the fact that it never gets easy. The biggest difference between my attitude and theirs, I used to tell my students, is that experience has given me confidence that it will work out well. I know I can write what I put my mind to. I just have to figure out the baby steps every time.
I’m thinking about this a lot right now, as my fourth novel, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD is finished and headed for market.  Soon I’ll be starting on my fifth, based on an idea I’ve had for several years. The thought scares me as much as starting THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD did, or FINDING EMILIE, or PENELOPE’S DAUGHTER, or THE FOUR SEASONS. Some things never change. Can I write a novel about life in New York just before World War I? Wow, I don’t know about that. It’s pretty big. It’s awfully scary. Can I whittle it down into doable pieces? Awfully glad I think so.
So here’s some advice for anyone out there thinking about writing a book: try not to think about writing a book.  Try to think only about writing what is happening at that moment in your narrative, whether fiction or non-fiction.  For fiction, write dialogue, write sensory descriptions, write what people do, write what is transpiring right then. For non-fiction (assuming you have a pretty good working outline already) think only about the immediate matter at hand. Try not to focus on how much is left to do, or sections you might still be weeks or months off from writing.  
Stay in the now.  A very long but enjoyable process awaits, by which you discover to your amazement that it adds up to a book, one “now” at a time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fact or Fiction?

By Caitlin Rother

As the author of both fiction and nonfiction books, I thought that readers might be interested to hear how the writing process differs between the two genres, at least for me, and how I go about choosing the cases I feature in my books.

My true crime titles are Dead Reckoning, which went to a second printing in just two months; Twisted Triangle, which was the #1 true crime book on Amazon shortly after it came out in 2008; Poisoned Love, now in its seventh printing; Where Hope Begins, which is coming out in paperback as Deadly Devotion in June; and Body Parts. Naked Addiction, a thriller, is my only work of fiction so far. I’m currently working on a book about the John Gardner-Chelsea King-Amber Dubois case, The Makings of a Monster, which will come out next year.

Commercial fiction and nonfiction may be geared more toward entertainment purposes than their literary counterparts, but I try to incorporate some deeper messages into the stories I choose to tell. I’ve heard the opinion (from an attempted murderer, mind you) that true crime writers are “predators,” preying on the tragedy of families or glorifying violence. But those are certainly not my intentions. I believe I have a higher calling.

I choose the true crime stories that let me explore the psychological aspects of the human condition and illustrate the extremely important issues of life and death that we all share as well as the struggle to survive and recover from tragedy. Violent crimes can cause feelings ranging from betrayal and loss to utter devastation, not just to the victim’s family but to the killer’s family as well. I try to touch on these same psychological issues in my fiction, too. To me, all of this is just as meaningful and relevant to society, if not more so, than other genres that tend to get more respect from reviewers and society at large.

Some folks, including my former newspaper colleagues, have told me they liked my books, as if it was a big surprise, because they don't usually read true crime (as if it wasn’t worth their time). As a highly acclaimed literary fiction writer was signing a copy of his book for me, he said, “I love true crime!” As if it was his dirty little secret. The irony is that these books do sell, so somebody must be reading them!

With both kinds of writing, I find myself in "the zone" if I'm having a good day. (It’s much harder to write fiction in spurts because I lose my train of thought and forget where I’m going with the plot or a character's motivation.) Both forms of writing require a lot of thinking before I can even sit down at the computer. Deciding how to tell a story – what parts in what order – is always challenging.

Nonfiction can be more challenging because it requires so much research before I can determine the best way to present the information. It helps that I know where the story ends. With fiction, however, I often seem to end up somewhere other than where I'd planned – regardless of any outline I might draft – because the characters take over and go in their own directions. Some of them can be pretty headstrong, but that's how I get my twists and turns. Most of the twists aren't planned; they’re as much a surprise to me as they are, hopefully, to the reader.

Although I have published far more true crime books than fiction, fiction was my first passion, and is how I got started writing books in the first place. (It took me 17 years to get Naked Addiction published.) Growing up as an only child, I told myself stories, talked to myself in the mirror as different characters, and read lots of fiction and comic books to keep myself amused. Later, I added movies into the mix. I have always loved stories and storytelling.

I started writing fiction before I became a journalist, but it became more important several years into my newspaper career because it provided a creative and therapeutic relief from the daily grind of analytical thinking and fact-finding. I thought that after writing as many as four stories in a day I wouldn't have the time or energy to write at night or on weekends, but I was wrong. Writing fiction energized me, kept me up late at night, as the plot for what ultimately became Naked Addiction unfolded on my notepad. It was like a drug. From there, I learned to write narrative nonfiction – true stories that read like fiction, which combines the best of both worlds. After writing lengthy narratives for the newspaper, books were the natural next step.

As a result, the two writing forms have become symbiotic for me, i.e. my fiction writing has helped improve my nonfiction storytelling and my knowledge about homicide investigations has helped inform my fiction.

I find it fulfilling to explore a true crime case in such depth, to really probe the players about their investigative processes and strategies for trial, to go deep into the family backgrounds of both the victims and the defendant, and best of all, to learn about the evidence in such depth – usually in more detail than the jury ever knew.

Working on a constant deadline requires me to be extremely organized, planning the sequence of my interviews based on who or who may not want to talk to me and what I need to know before I can interview the next person. Sometimes you only get one shot at someone, and even if they say they'll talk to you again, they often change their mind. That's why documents and investigative reports are so important. My home office, my dining room table, and other nooks and crannies throughout my house become the repository for boxes, files, and stacks of paper. Let's just say I'm very thorough.

When each new book arrives at my house, there is nothing quite like the pride and accomplishment I feel as I hold it in my hand. Hearing from readers who were touched, moved or inspired by my writing makes it even more worthwhile, and with this blog, (and by teaching narrative non-fiction, creative writing and journalism at the University of California San Diego Extension), I can pass on what I’ve learned to others.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigativer reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author or co-author of seven books: Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, Poisoned Love, Where Hope Begins, My Life, Deleted, and her latest book, Dead Reckoning, which is available in bookstores now. For more information, please check out her website,

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fate can intervene in numerous ways to inspire a writer. In 1982, I was in the People’s Republic of China conducting research for what would become my dissertation topic—interviewing individuals about their experiences during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. Accompanying me was my mother, who was my greatest asset because she served as translator, confidante, supporter, and companion.

The trip itself was made possible because my mother was able to reconnect with her best friend from the American Episcopalian missionary school she attended from 1929-1935. Through her, we obtained housing in Beijing, entrĂ©e into a factory where I was able to interview women workers, and access to resources (cars, telephone, a refrigerator, a housekeeper) that ordinary citizens did not enjoy. Suddenly, the stories that I was weaned on were no longer about a distant past with which I had no connection. I was in my “homeland.” Wherever we traveled in China, my mother had a story or a bit of history to relate. And there was always someone who had attended St. Hilda’s School for Girls in Wuchang, China. There would be reunions, dinners, and reminiscences about life in St. Hilda’s. As I listened, and fortuitously taped, I decided to do something with the stories I was gathering. This information would become the basis of the book, Foreign Exchange: Counterculture behind the Walls of St. Hilda’s School for Girls, 1929-1937 (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press; distributed by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, New York, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-61146-004-9, 260 pages) that was just released on April 8th—the date of my 61st birthday!

The book is three tales in one. The first tale is about my mother’s experiences at St. Hilda’s and the circumstances that led her to attend the school. It provides a glimpse into the life of privilege that existed among traditional wealthy Chinese families. While these tales frequently serve as the basis of stories by fiction writers, they are not typically employed by academic scholars. Although numerous stories have been written about the missionary experience in China, this book was published because it provides the first account of the impact of missionary education from a Chinese student’s perspective.

The second tale is the result of another twist of fate. It is one of those “small world” stories as to how I met Dorothea Kingsley Wakeman Howe, a major player in this book, in March 1997. As part of the University of San Diego’s commitment to the community, it offers lectures by professors to local groups. As part of this so-called “Invisible University” program, I decided to give a talk about my on-going research concerning St. Hilda’s School for Girls in Wuchang. Brochures were printed and distributed, and a week after these brochures had been mailed, I received a voice-message on my phone. The call was from the recreational director at a local senior citizens’ residential facility informing me that a woman living there was “a teacher at the school during the exact time I was speaking about.” A telephone number was left so that I could learn more about this woman. From this telephone call, arrangements were made to have all of us meet during my presentation. At the presentation at the Vista Library, I met Dorothea, and I made arrangements to interview her. That fall, I was also scheduled for my sabbatical, and I used that time to make regular visits to see Dorothea. From that chance meeting in 1997 until her death in 2001, I would visit Dorothea regularly and hear her stories about what she considered to be “the best experience of her life.” During that time, my mother would come and stay with Dorothea, and the two would spend days reminiscing about their lives.

Dorothea was a social historian’s dream because she kept diaries, letters, photographs, and files of her life. As a young woman coming of age during the Great Depression, she was still able to obtain a college education which led her to becoming a teacher at St. Hilda’s from 1933-1937. While in China, Dorothea dutifully wrote letters home which her parents then kept and had bound into four volumes, “Letters from China and Around the World.” When Dorothea died in 2001, her two surviving children honored me beyond words by giving me the four volumes, pictures, and other personal artifacts of their mother. The reason? Her daughter, Cathy, wanted to thank me for making their mother’s last four years so meaningful. My trips to visit Dorothea often overlapped with Cathy’s visit, and we spent time chatting as well. I was not treated as the “researcher,” but as Dorothea’s friend who happened to be a researcher. Her story and the reasons why she went to China are told in the book.

The final tale is a history of St. Hilda’s School for Girls starting with its humble beginnings in 1875 through its emergence as one of the Episcopal Church’s China Inland Missions’ most important girls’ school. This history of the school is the first complete, written history of the school. The school became Wuchang Number 25 Middle School in 1952 when the communists took control over all foreign educational institutions. What was once the chapel is the last remaining remnant of St. Hilda’s on the original school grounds.

The fact that it has taken nearly thirty years to complete this project says a great deal about the scholarly enterprise and the difficulty of “letting go”. While I can attribute some of the length of time to complete this work as a result of teaching and administrative responsibilities or to the time it takes to conduct archival research, those explanations are only partial true. Because this research was personal as well as professional, the fact that this story was also about my mother adversely affected me. I felt that it had to be “perfect”. Only when other writers such as the women in the San Diego Writing Women group helped me realize that my desire for perfection was paralyzing me, did I actually complete the book.

My mother is still alive, and to her, I can finally pay tribute. The stories about her life continue to come, and I continue to write them down. At 98, she still has a lot of stories to tell, and I still want to hear them. My mother would often say two things to me while I was growing up. One, she told me that her mother would say to her, “I hope you have a willful, stubborn daughter just like you,” and second, in utter exasperation, “Why don’t you ever listen to what I say.” To my grandmother, I can state that her wish came true. To my mother, I can state, “Not only did I listen, but I listened well.” This book is my proof.

Judith Liu