Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top Eleven Discoveries of 2011

For my last post of the year I'd like to share some amazing and wonderful things I discovered in past twelve months. Some of them have been around a long time, but I hadn't picked up on how awesome they are.

These aren't in any kind of order, except maybe in the order I thought of them while writing this post.

1. Musubes

I'd seen these nifty seaweed-wrapped rice things, but I didn't learn how to make them until a few months ago. Now I make a batch every week and send them in the school lunches. Did you know that seaweed rocks when it comes to vitamin A?

2. Avatar: The Last Airbender

This is the best television cartoon series. Ever. We didn't notice it before because we don't watch television, but some time last year we started watching episodes on the internet. What I like most about this series is the excellent writing. I also like the concept of non-contact martial arts. Bending is like kung-fu at a distance, so kids can play-fight by doing cool moves but never get anywhere near each other.

3. South Wind

Who would have guessed that when I moved to Laie, Hawaii, I would find myself starting an Irish folk band? We've been playing together since January, and having a grand old time. Our next performance will be Sunday, February 5th at the Laie Temple Visitors Center.

4. Incarceron

My daughter brought this book home from the library and insisted that I read it. It has an astounding, multi-layered setting, lots of action and adventure, and an intriguing plot. I enjoyed the sequel too.

5. Afro-Blue

We're big Vocal Point fans at our house. I proudly claim attendance at the VERY FIRST Vocal Point concert ever in the fall of 1991, and I didn't miss a single concert until I graduated from BYU four years later. So we watched them in the Sing Off, and discovered Afro-Blue, another collegiate acapella group, this one from Howard University in Washington DC. Vocal Point is fun to watch, but if you want to hear some sweet jazz, I recommend Afro-Blue.

6. Megamind

I ignored this one when it came out in the theater, probably because I'd recently been tortured by Madagascar in the lobby at the dentist's office and didn't want any more punishment. But Dreamworks has at least one hit for every miss, and Megamind was a hit. Metafiction at its best.

7. Faculty Townhouses

In April we moved into an apartment complex entirely inhabited by employees of Brigham Young University Hawaii. This is the first place we've lived in which I feel like I actually fit in with the neighbors. Our family of five children is only average-sized. Walk from one end of the complex to the other at any hour of the day and you'll hear someone practicing music. There's a constant troupe of small children going from house to house to play with their friends. Sometimes we have a house full of little friends, sometimes the place is empty because they're all out at the playground. I love living here!

8. BYU Hawaii Farm Sale

The school owns a lot of farmland, and they let people farm on it. And they sell the produce at really good prices, every Thursday from 12 to 3. So each week I go and buy local grown papayas, apple bananas, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Yum.

9. Kahuku Grill

For our anniversary, Russel and I went with some friends to the Kahuku Grill. I ordered the famous coconut macadamia shrimp. It was good. We'll be going back.

10. Wailele Falls

Earlier this year, my family went on a hike up into the mountains behind the PCC. There's a trail that winds along a narrow valley, crossing a stream about fifteen times, until it finally reaches a waterfall with a pool below it. It was the best hike ever. We'll be going back for more of that too.

11. May Day

Here in Laie, the elementary school puts on a big show to celebrate May Day. It was huge! Grandparents flew in from the mainland and other islands. High school kids stayed home from school to go and watch their younger siblings. They held it in a big outdoor theater at the PCC and each grade did a dance performance. I could not believe how good the choreography was! I was especially proud because my son Colin got to be in the May Day Court as a conch shell blower.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holidays in Hawaii

Celebrating Christmas in Hawaii holds some unexpected differences.

First of all, windward coast humidity plus hard candy = goo. Candy canes melt in their wrappers. Butterscotch disks? Starlight mints? Try chewy.

The humidity problem extends to baked goods. This year, in honor of the film adaptation of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," we designed a gingerbread clock tower. I baked the walls nice and crisp, but they went soft and the top tumbled off within twenty-four hours.

That was fine with the kids. They ate it anyways.

One of our family traditions is to dress up like shepherds on Christmas eve, eat stew and home-made bread, then read the Christmas story out of the Bible. This year, it was just too warm to wear robes and bath towels tied onto our heads. By the end of the dinner, most of the shepherds had shed their costumes.

It was still a beautiful Christmas day. We walked to church in sunny, warm weather, then home again to a simple Christmas dinner. Once the sun went down, all the houses shone with Christmas lights. The palm leaves rustled outside the windows while we sang carols, then had our pie and cocoa and went to bed.

Mele Kalikimaka, everyone!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Writer's Club Wednesday: Inspiration

Today at writer's club we'll be talking about where ideas come from, how to get more of them, and how to tell when you've got a really good one. We'll also discuss the importance of WRITING IDEAS DOWN before they slip away from our minds.

Where were you when you got the first idea for the story you're working on now?

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Million Books for Christmas

We gave my son a Kindle for Christmas. I asked my husband how many public domain books were out there that he could now access for free. "About a million," he said. "Most of them you've never heard of and wouldn't want to read."

My son did find something he wanted to read right away. The New American Oxford Dictionary. It comes with the Kindle.

"Mom, it has word origins!" He was so excited. He read me entries while I cooked Christmas dinner.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Writers Club Wednesday: First Lines

Okay, I know it isn't Wednesday anymore. I'm behind schedule. I've been baking and wrapping and harping.

But I still want to tell you about our lesson from this week.

My daughter led a discussion about first lines. She brought several of her favorite books, read the first lines, and then gave us her thoughts on what a first line ought to do.

All great first lines set the tone for the book by their voice. But a first line should also make promises. The promises come in many ways. A first line can promise an intriguing setting. It can deliver immediate tension. It can pose a question. Whatever the first line promises, it has to be something that draws the reader into the book. The most important promise a first line can make is, "I promise you want to read this."

One of my daughter's favorite first lines is from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn:

Ash fell from the sky.

I've always loved: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

What's your favorite first line?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Writers Club Wednesday: Killing your Characters

Every Wednesday I meet with the Laie Young Writers Club for a short discussion on the art of writing, and then readings by club members. This week our lesson will be on killing characters. Yes, it's fun, but it must be done carefully.

So why do we kill characters in stories? Well, death happens, and exploring the powerful emotions that surround this most final of all events is one of the great themes of storytelling throughout human history. Stories, as a road map for life, also give us a road map to navigate our grief at the death of a loved one, and eventually our own meeting with the infinite beyond.

And, on a more practical level, threatening the life of a character is one of the tried and true ways of raising tension and keeping readers turning pages.

So, how to do it right? First of all, don't expect your readers to care if you kill off a character before the reader has time to get to know and love that character. If you kill or threaten to kill someone in the first few pages of a story, you can't get anywhere near the emotional reaction you would have if you saved that sort of thing for the end.

A tangent to this -- if your readers know a character is going to die during the story, they may have a hard time forming an emotional attachment to them.

Second, make sure dead characters stay dead, UNLESS you build it into the rules of your fictional world and prepare the reader for it. Killing someone only to bring them back later can make the reader feel cheated. You want death to have all of its emotional power, so don't weaken it by making it less than permanent.

Third, the death of a character only has as much emotional impact for the reader as it has for the other characters. If some unfortunate member of the adventuring party dies and the other characters have an, "Oh well, too bad, let's keep hiking. Do you suppose there's a pub in the next village?" sort of attitude, then the reader won't care either. Maybe that's what you want, but if it isn't, make sure the other characters show some shock and grief.

Anyone have some other pointers on character death for us? Leave a comment and we'll share it at club meeting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Made the Cast

Opportunity comes not only to the talented and deserving, but to the willing who show up and give it a try.

When my husband called me this morning and told me we'd both been assigned roles in our school's production of "The Sound of Music," I was almost as giddy as the day I got my first acceptance letter for a story publication in a magazine. Thinking back on that long-ago day, if I hadn't submitted that story, how would my life be different now? Would I even think of myself as a writer?

And now my husband has a supporting role in a musical, and I'll be on stage in the chorus (playing his wife). I have absolutely no theater experience, but I've always wanted to try it. Now I get a chance. It will probably change my life. I hope it is the beginning of much more to come. Maybe someday I'll think of myself as a theater person too.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Miphods Eat Mushrooms

When I signed up for art class in high school, I'd already taken a year of it in Junior High. My teacher took a look at my work and said, "You already know everything I'm going to teach in this class. How would you like to make an animated film instead?" She showed me an old dark room that used to be for the photography class, loaned me the school's old Super 8 camera, and gave me the run of the supply cupboard.

I was in heaven.

This is the first film I made, an experimental piece based on characters I created for a seventh grade science assignment in which we had to invent animals and give them appropriate Latin names. The small green star of the show is classified as a mycophage olepod, or "small footed mushroom eater."

And no, he does not die at the end, poisoned by mushrooms! He's taking a nap after a long and adventurous morning.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Evolution of Style

I found a book I wrote long ago, back in the days when two spaces came after every period. And before I learned how to punctuate dialog. And when I still put an adverb with every dialog tag. So now I'm bringing it up to date. It's a lot of work, but I enjoy it, like spending time with an old friend I haven't seen in a long while.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Seeing in Detail

In our last SCBWI-Hawaii newsletter, Sue Cowing recommended a daily writing exercise--put down six details you noticed that day. I love that idea! I notice at least six details every time I walk down the street. There's so many things to notice here in Laie. Crossing campus on my way back from the Thursday farm sale, where I buy my supply of local grown papayas, tomatoes, and cucumbers, I picked out these six gems:

A college student with a high, flat-top haircut and heavy horn-rimmed glasses buzzed by on a white moped.

Day-glo pink streamers fluttered at the end of a construction stake stuck in the middle of a muddy drainage pool.

A drab brown sea-bird with boomerang-shaped wings skimmed the water.

A cream-colored blossom lay face-down on the sidewalk under a plumeria tree, petals swirled in a spiral to rise to the sharp point of its stem.

One single burst of scarlet bloomed among the dark leaves of a bush by the sidewalk, as if someone had put the flower there by mistake.

A young woman with pale eyelashes knelt on the grass beside a bowl of soapy water, scrubbing a window screen with a plastic brush. She didn't smile back at me, her face preoccupied. Moving out soon, cleaning the apartment, final exams, graduation, my world about to change--I read it all in a single glance.

I love concrete details! There's nothing to put a whole picture in the reader's head like a single, good, solid detail. Capture some small thing in perfect imagery, and suddenly the imagination fills in all the rest. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the mind's eye can produce amazing pictures with only the stimulation of a single sentence.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Singing in the Closet

This morning I'm doing my housework and preparing an audition for BYU-Hawaii's production of "The Sound of Music." It would be a lot easier if I didn't live in the faculty townhouses next door to the theater professor and across the way from the orchestra director and various other music faculty. I've closed all the windows and pulled all the curtains, but I still think they can hear me.

Maybe I'll go sing in the closet.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Waiting and Dreaming

I love all stages of the writing process--the mad dash of drafting, the intricate puzzle-work of revision, the patient polishing of line-editing. I like the in-between times too, like right now. This week I'm waiting for test-readers to get back to me with comments on my latest draft, and in the meantime I'm happily dreaming up my next book.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful for the Internet

I love the internet! I use it to connect with friends and family, to find recipes, to do research for my books, to swap critiques with all my writing buddies, and to hunt for a literary agent. Without it, I'd be totally isolated on this little rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

But now, my dear friends, the internet is in trouble.

Congress is right now considering the PIPA bill, which will give the GOVERNMENT the power to SHUT DOWN YOUR ENTIRE SITE if they think you OR ANYONE YOU LINK TO infringes on someone's copyright. This will not stop piracy as the bill's advocates claim. Pirates are smart. They will find a way. The people in trouble are people like us, who value the free exchange of ideas. People who enjoy youtube and facebook. People who don't want internet censorship like they have in China and Iran.

Here are some of the people against the bill: the Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, and Public Knowledge.

Who is for it? The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Microsoft, the Copyright Alliance, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Who's side are you on?

Click here to join the fight! Let congress know you're thankful for the internet.

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

Friday, August 19, 2011

My Backyard Farm

I love living in the country. If I move back to the city I'm still going grocery shopping only once a month.

Well, maybe not.

Since I live so far from the usual modern day shopping resources, I decided I'd better start up some home food production. When in the country, do as the country do!

Last Saturday I built this garden box. It's up on stilts to cleverly evade the giant slugs roaming my back yard. So far, the lettuce and spinach are safe in their beds.

We also have a chicken. One chicken. My daughter rescued her as a tiny chick from the neighbor's dog. We were pretty sure the soggy, chewed-up thing was going to die, BUT IT DIDN'T. This chicken has some pluck. And just to prove it, she gave us two eggs on her first day of laying.

To celebrate the advent of eggs, we remodeled the chicken's coop from this:

to this:

Now she's got a rain-proof feed box and twice the yard. Maybe next time we'll put in a swimming pool.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The New Cove

In my last house I had an office all to myself for writing. I dubbed it "The Scribblers Cove" and named my group blog after it. But in my new house I've had to commandeer a corner of the master bedroom.

I like this arrangement better than what I had before. There's a lock on the door, lots of sunny windows, and if I need to I can spread reference materials all over the bed.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What I Would Like to be 20 Years from Now

My mom has been going through a lot of old school papers she saved from when I was a kid. She found an assignment I wrote in 6th grade called What I Would Like to be 20 Years from Now.

Twenty years from now I would like to be a mother of three girls and a baby boy living in Salt Lake City. I would like to have taught school before I had children.

I would also like to be an author of children's fiction books. I'd like to sew in my spare time and raise fish like my mother. I want my children to have a perfect childhood like I did.

I want my house to have three small bedrooms, a master bedroom, and a guest room, livingroom, and kitchen. I would use the guestroom for plants, fish, and a piano. I want to have written a few songs and be a piano teacher.

That was a little over twenty years ago. Since then I've had five children (one girl and four boys), I've written a few songs, I've been a piano teacher, taught college algebra, and that last paragraph just about describes my house except there's one less bedroom, the fish are in the kitchen, and instead of being in Salt Lake City, it's in Laie, Hawaii.

What gets me is that middle paragraph. It's one thing to claim I've always wanted to be a children's author, another thing to see the evidence. That's one big dream I'm still chasing. So here's my long-overdue What I Would Like to be 20 MORE Years from Now:

Twenty years from now I would like to be living in Laie, Hawaii with ten grandchildren, at least that many published books to my name, and more on the way (both books and grandchildren). I would like to be teaching school, playing the harp, going to the beach, and writing life histories for my family in my spare time. I hope to be a perfect grandma, just like my mom.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pretty Colors

In a recent video conference, author Kathleen Duey told the Hawaii chapter of SCBWI that revision is to re-envision. To see the story in a whole new way.

With that in mind, I'm trying to take a fresh look at my current project with a new outlining method. Okay, yes, I know, outlining is boring. But this method uses pretty colors. Ooooo!

First, I wrote a short synopsis of each chapter. Then I went through and colored the following things:


And one more thing- I only colored the main character's problems, plans, decisions, and solutions. In looking over my outline, I found out that a lot of the things I thought were important to the overall story were not important to the main character's personal story. I wasn't letting him make enough plans and decisions. Too often someone else took action or solved problems. Dread! I had a passive character.

Can't allow that sort of thing! I'll be sure and put him to work in the next draft.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Thunderstorm for Breakfast

We had a thunderstorm for breakfast this morning. Rain roared down from a dark sky. I was glad I'd been able to get the hot cereal to boil before the power went out.

"My brain isn't scared, but my body's overreacting," my eleven-year-old said as I served him some cocoa.

"Really?" I leaned across the table. Poor kid has a writer for a mom. "Tell me about it. How does it feel?"

"Well, my heart is pounding insanely. And my fingers are shaking insanely."

Lightning. Thunder. The lights flickered.

"And my stomach feels cold."

"That's great!" I said. "Beautiful! Thank-you!"

I guess I should be more sympathetic.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Disaster Plan

My nine-year-old son asked me, "So what if we knew the world was going to end in only three or four days, and we only had that long to pack up all our stuff?"

Not sure what use it would be to pack up, I asked, "Where would we go if the whole world was going to end?" 

"Mars!" he said, as if it was obvious.


"And we'd need to bring some fires with us so we could melt the ice, so we'd have something to drink. We'd also bring some seeds so we could grow food."

I guess he has his disaster plan all worked out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An Evening of Irish Music

Some things happen like magic.

The first time I played my harp in church here in our new home in Hawaii, a member of the congregation came up and introduced himself as a Celtic guitar player. He said he knew someone who played whistle, and we agreed it would be fun to put together a group. Turns out he knew a violinist too, and so a few months later we started rehearsing for our first gig at the Kahuku Public Library.

When I moved to Hawaii, I had no idea that I would find my own Irish folk band all living in my new neighborhood.

Hope you enjoyed this sample of music from our first performance last night.

One of the people who came last night was a visitor from New York, of Irish decent. He laughed when he told us he never expected to hear Irish music played on the north shore. Me neither! That's the magic.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tsunami Warning!

Last night the popcorn was popped, we were hunting for our DVD of "The Incredibles," and then I get a call from my grandma in Los Angeles.

Massive earthquake in Japan, she said. Terrible tsunami. Keep alert.

When I moved to Hawaii seven months ago, I noticed my house lay smack in the middle of a tsunami evacuation zone. So one of my first projects in our new home was to make evacuation kits. Each family member had a backpack with granola bars, peanut butter and crackers, fruit cups, water bottles, pajamas and a change of clothes. My pack had a few extras, like bug repellent, sunscreen, and toothpaste. I also had a plastic bucket with a lid that has soap, matches, toilet paper, a radio, some mylar blankets and ponchos, and various other things you want in an emergency, like a deck of Uno cards. It was such a relief to know those packs were standing by in the cupboard in case we had to go.

As I walked around the house, turning on the radio and finding the big flashlight, the watch became a warning. And then the sirens went off.

My eight-year-old burst into tears. I hugged him and told him the wave was still six hours away, and we had plenty of time to get to a safe place.

"But all our stuff!" he cried.

"That doesn't matter," I told him. "We'll be fine without it. I just want all of you to be safe."

I told the children to go find a few things they really wanted to take. Each took the special quilt their grandmother had made for them. The little ones came with handfuls of favorite toys. My eleven-year-old brought a wad of neckties out to the car. As I loaded up the evacuation kits the block captain came to my door to tell me where to go. There was a large ranch nearby where we could drive up into the hills and camp for the night. But before I had stowed the tent in our car, we got a call from a friend, inviting us to spend the night with them in their house on high ground.

That was a great idea.

Somehow we wiggled into the car among all the stuff we'd salvaged. Boxes of important documents, laptop computers, a couple of harps, the nice ukulele, and all the fresh bread I could find in the house. I didn't know what I would be coming back to in the morning. At that point, all I knew was that a ten foot wave had crushed houses and tossed cars in Japan. I imagined that in the morning the narrow strip of highway that connects our little country town to the rest of civilization might be washed out. No electricity, no water, my house wet with ocean sludge three feet up the walls. I said goodbye to life as I knew it and squeezed into the car.

A line of cars backed up along the highway, all trying to get to the gas station. At first I thought we'd be stuck in traffic for hours, but then I saw that they were all waiting in line off to the side of the road. We edged by the back end of the line, then zipped down to the next town. As we drove I thought of other things I would be sad to lose. The journals I'd kept for each child since they were a baby. My bin full of scrapbook material I hadn't had time to put together yet. Still, my family was safe, and there was NO WAY I would be sending my husband back for another load.

After we unloaded at our friends' house and had the children settled for the night, I stayed up hour after hour watching the news. Our friends went to bed, my husband dozed in a chair, but I did not want to miss a single minute. The news showed people standing in line at convenience stores, cars waiting at gas stations, and people parked along the Pali highway that runs through the mountains above Honolulu. They interviewed scientists and city officials. And they showed what had happened in Japan. A wave of mud rolled over fields, canals, roads, coming on as if it would never stop, never slow down. Flaming debris floated on the top, an insane deluge of fire and water. My eyes burned with tears.

The hours dragged on, but when the wave finally reached us in Hawaii it seemed like it had all come on so fast. Too fast. The grainy video feed from Waikiki beach showed the waves come higher, then higher, swallowing all the sand, and then...

The water went back out. Didn't even get the road wet.

What a relief!

Tsunami Evacuation Aftermath
After that I went to bed. I missed seeing the coral reefs exposed when the wave went down. I missed seeing beach-side parking lots flood on the North Shore. When the sun came up and the all-clear went out we put our things back in the car and drove home.

All day I've been grateful for the smallest things. A warm shower, all my clothes still dry and clean, my refrigerator untouched by sea-water and full of food. Most of all, my husband and dear children who stayed so calm and brave through the whole thing, and normal every-day life gone back to normal.

Aloha and thank you for all your thoughts and prayers!

-Rebecca J. Carlson

Friday, February 18, 2011

Island Poetry

My children made up a poem at the dinner table this evening:

Spam is nice
It's good with rice
So have a slice!
You'll want it twice.

At first I could not see the point of Spam. I knew that people around here liked it, but why should I pay three dollars for twelve ounces of chopped and processed who knows what? For seven months I lived in Hawaii without tasting Spam. I didn't buy it. I didn't cook it.

And then a friend of ours bought us a can of it. Since it was free, I didn't say no. I sliced it and fried it up and served it with rice for dinner.

The kids ate the Spam. And then they were too full to eat anything else.

So now I see what Spam's about. A little goes a long, long ways. That twelve ounce can for three dollars is all the meat I need for seven people.

And it will keep on the shelf too.

I think I'm going to have to buy more Spam.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What to Do with a Degree in Physics

I used to want to be a nuclear physicist. But that's a field that's hard to get into if you ever take leave from the academic world, and I jumped ship to raise my family about fifteen years ago.

Here's what I do instead:

I made this video at the request of my alma mater's society of physics students. They contacted all alumni with a request for a 30 second film that shows what we are doing with our degree now.

I've always wanted to be in a documentary film.

Monday, January 31, 2011


If you have a teenage daughter, you know what this word can sound like:


I hadn't told her she couldn't stay out past eleven with her friends. I hadn't told her to do the dishes two nights in a row. I hadn't even borrowed her favorite earrings without asking.

"What? What did I do wrong?" I asked.

"Bwah! Nothing!" she flapped her hands in frustration at the last page of my unfinished manuscript. "It's just you ended on a cliff-hanger AGAIN! And there are no more pages left for me to read! YOU NEED TO FINISH THIS BOOK!"

That's the kind of teenage-girl exasperation I truly appreciate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Complete Sentences

The kindergarten teacher said I should have my son practice speaking to me in complete sentences. So I asked him to tell me what he wanted on his toast, in a complete sentence.

"Mom, I would like some strawberry jam period."