Nice but Not Gentle

Monday, November 24, 2014

There were several new people at my critique group last week. We also had one person who had attended before but was reading for the first time. He asked us to be gentle in critiquing his work, and I replied, “That isn’t how this group works. We’re nice but not gentle.”
Nice people want to help others, and sometimes that’s inconsistent with being gentle. If you saw someone choking and you knew how to use the Heimlich maneuver, wouldn’t you choose effective over gentle? Those abdominal thrusts may not be comfortable for the person who is choking, but they can save that person’s life.

Gentle doesn’t work for a critique group, either. At least not for one that wants to develop its members as writers. I attend the Highland Writers’ Group because I’m looking to improve my craft. If I just wanted to read my work or interact with other writers, I’d find a different forum.

That doesn’t mean we tear each other’s work apart. As my statement said, we do try to be nice. If we can’t give criticism constructively, we don’t give it at all. And we do ease people into the group. The feedback we give a new writer may be quite different from what we say to an established one. But if we can’t give constructive criticism, it isn’t a critique group.

I’m going to repeat a couple of points that I made in a March 4, 2013 post. Those of you who have heard this before will have to bear with me.

Experience has taught me two things about responding to writing critiques. First, if I want to improve my craft, I can't be sensitive. Second, if I want to improve my craft, I must be sensitive. The definition to avoid is "quick to take offense; touchy." The one to embrace is "responsive to external conditions or stimulation." (These two definitions of "sensitive" come from the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.)

Several years ago, I was writing an overtly Christian novel and sharing it with the Highland Writers' Group for critique. I found myself constantly irritated by the criticism from one member. He appeared to be antagonistic to Christianity, and most of his comments showed that he misunderstood what I was trying to say in this sentence or that paragraph. My immediate reaction was, "You aren't my audience. Christians will know what I mean."

Then I went home and thought about it. Yes, he wasn't my intended audience, and maybe a Christian audience would understand what I wrote. But maybe it wouldn't. Equally important, what if a non-Christian picked up the book and read it? Better to reword a few paragraphs than to risk being misunderstood.

This has been a theme in the critique experiences I have found most helpful. If I quickly take offense and discount the criticisms, I don't learn anything. But if I think about what was said and respond offensively rather than defensively, my writing is the better for it. Yes, I still reject some of the suggestions I receive, but not until I have considered them carefully.

Nobody seemed to take offense at any of the critiques given on Saturday, and that’s good. But if they had, I wouldn’t count it as a failure.
Because sometimes we have to be nice but not gentle.

Photos are Creative Works

Monday, November 17, 2014

This isn’t the blog post I intended to write this week. I had a totally different topic in mind. So why am I postponing it for a week or two or possibly three? I found the perfect picture to use with it, but the photo is copyrighted by someone other than me. So Friday I sent a request for permission to use the photograph, and I’m deferring the post in the meantime.
But that makes this a good time to remind my readers—especially those with their own blogs—that the copyright laws apply to photos, too. And just because you can find it on the Internet doesn’t mean you have permission to use it.

The following post originally appeared on the Hoosier Ink website on October 25, 2012. I have made a few very minor edits.

Photos Are Creative Works

As with anything else, photographs must have some minimum creativity to enjoy copyright protection. But almost every photograph qualifies.*

Consider the above picture of Autumn colors, which I took in October 2012 at Crapo Park in Burlington, Iowa. I didn’t create the subject, nor did I stage the picture. But I did choose the camera settings and select the scene that filled the frame. I even get credit for being in the right place at the right time.

Then there’s the second picture, which I used in my September 27, 2012  Hoosier Ink post on art versus science. The posed subject may not look very creative, but the copyright laws say it is. The first holder has a candlestick in it to demonstrate its function, and the second is empty so the viewer can get a better idea of its design. All purposefully done to make a point.

Because both photos meet the standards for creativity, you can’t use either without my permission.

There is a distinction between natural subjects and posed pictures, however. I can stop you from using my photo of the leaves in Crapo Park, but I can’t prevent you from going there at the same time next year and taking your own photograph. With a posed picture, I can keep you from copying the pose as well as the actual photograph. That’s because the subject is also a result of my creativity.

As with my photographs, yours are also copyrighted. That’s a good thing.

Because it isn’t just our writing that is creative.


*For an in-depth discussion of the elements that make a photograph creative, see Mannion v. Coors Brewing Co., 377 F.Supp.2d 244 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

Chasing Details

Monday, November 10, 2014

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am working on a middle grade historical novel about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. My research included numerous memoirs and other non-fiction accounts. While they agree on the broad picture, they do not always agree on the details. So what’s a writer to do?   

Here’s one example.

My protagonist lives in Berkeley, California when the war breaks out, and she and her mother are sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. The sources agree that the Japanese Americans at Tanforan ate all their meals at a mess hall. But they don’t agree about who provided the dishes.

A minor point, you say? Yes, and the story certainly doesn’t hinge on its accuracy. Still, I’d like to get it right if I can. When I read a story and notice an inaccuracy, it makes me less likely to read anything else by that author. An error in my story will bother me, but it may also shrink the audience for my next book.

I purchased and read three memoirs and one near-memoir from people who were incarcerated at Tanforan. All of them mention their first meal there. In Citizen 13660, Miné Okubo says she picked up a plate, knife, and fork at the dishware counter in the mess hall and wiped her plate clean with her handkerchief. Toyo Suyemoto agrees and notes that she had to wipe off the particles of food clinging to the dishes (I Call to Remembrance: Toyo Suyemoto’s Years of Internment).

But Yoshiko Uchida and Haruko Obata both remember bringing plates and utensils to the mess hall. The Uchida family’s dishes were in their as yet undelivered luggage, so the three women took their place in line each “clutching a plate and silverware borrowed from friends who had already received their baggage” (Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family). Obata remembers, “At the dining room we had to bring our own plate, knife, fork, and spoon” (Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment). [Emphasis added.]

I could leave those details out, but they provide atmosphere and show the conditions the residents lived in. Either they brought (and washed) their own dishes, or they ate from ones that had food remnants clinging to them. One way or the other, adding the details shows that the Japanese Americans weren’t living a life of luxury at a vacation spa. (Believe it or not, that’s what some Caucasians claimed.)

So what do I do? The best I can, which in this case means to evaluate the sources and make an educated guess.

The accounts from people who were there are evenly split. But since memories fade over time, the account closest to the events is often the most accurate. Okubo’s book was published in 1946—four years after the events—while Uchida’s wasn’t published until 1982, and the other two were published even later. On the other hand, Uchida kept diaries most of her life and, although I don’t know whether she kept one at this time, she may have pulled her description from a contemporaneous account. So it is still a stalemate.

Fortunately, there is other evidence. Two photographs taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 show people waiting in line to enter the mess hall. Lange’s own caption for the photo at the top of this post reads, in part:

Supper time! Meal times are the big events within an assembly center. This is a line-up of evacuees waiting for the B shift at 5:45 P.M. They carry with them their own dishes and cutlery in bags to protect them from the dust.

If you look closely, you will see some of the white cloth bags she refers to.

Another piece of evidence is the official “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.” These instructions told the Japanese Americans what to pack, and the list included “sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of the family.”

Looking at the evidence as a whole, my best guess is that Uchida and Obata were correct and the Japanese Americans arriving at Tanforan had to use their own dishes.

Am I sure that I have it right? No. And there are other arguments for and against that I don’t have space to go into here. But my job is to do the best I can.

Because even little details can be important at times, and sloppy research is as bad as none at all.


The photograph at the head of this post shows a mess line at Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

Pronunciation Dilemma

Monday, November 3, 2014

I have a dilemma.

My current work-in-progress is a middle grade (4th-6th) historical novel that tells the story of a half-Japanese girl living in California during World War II. I need to use Japanese names and a few Japanese words to make it authentic. When I read, I pronounce words in my head, and I assume many other readers do, too. I’ve always been lousy at foreign languages, but I am doing my best to learn basic Japanese pronunciation using Internet and print/CD resources.

But my middle-grade readers aren’t going to do that, so I am trying to make it as easy as possible for them to hear the words correctly in their heads. It won’t happen with every word, and even when I can get close, I’m not looking for exact pronunciation. Some of the tongue and mouth actions that form the sounds are unfamiliar to Americans, and even the various sources I’ve listened to pronounce the same word differently, much like in the U.S. (Do you say tomayto or tomahto?) Still, I’d like to get as close as I can.

I have the biggest difficulty when two vowels are next to each other. Unlike English, in Japanese you get only one vowel to a syllable. That means contiguous vowels are in different syllables and are pronounced separately. At least that’s the theory. Americans have a tendency to run syllables together, and many of the Japanese pronunciations I’ve heard do the same thing. (The speakers don’t identify their nationality, however, so they may be American speakers.) It’s even more complicated when the vowels aren’t pronounced as an American reader expects. My natural inclination is to pronounce the name “Keiko” as Kee-koh, when it is really more like Keh-ee-koh.

I’ve gone out of my way to choose names without two adjacent vowels, but I can’t avoid all potential mispronunciation or I’d run out of names before characters.

Avoidance is also not a solution for double-voweled words like “Issei” and “Nisei,” which run rampant throughout my manuscript. They were common terms among the Japanese Americans and highlighted a distinction that was extremely important at the time. “Issei” were the first generation in America, and U.S. law denied these immigrants the right to become citizens. “Nisei” were the second generation, and they were citizens by virtue of being born here. I have to use those words.

I think I’ve done a good job incorporating the meanings of Japanese words into the flow of the story, but I’m also planning on putting a glossary at the end of the book. And that’s where the dilemma comes in. If I add pronunciation to the glossary, do I use the technical Japanese phonics, the formal American pronunciation key, or an informal one close to the actual sound?

Take “Nisei.” From what I’ve been reading, the formal Japanese pronunciation should be broken down to something like nee-seh-ee for the three syllables ni-se-i. The online dictionaries all use nē’sā (the formal American pronunciation key indicating that it is pronounced as two syllables with a long e and a long a) or the less formal nee-sey. When I hear it, I hear nee-say. So what do I do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


The Japanese characters at the top of this post spell “Nisei” according to Wikipedia.