Wednesday Within: The Tension of Reading

Book-books-page-35496-lLike so many other writers, I came to writing through reading.  From the time I first learned to recognize words on the page, I was fascinated with those words.  And from the time I figured out that somebody actually put those words there, that's what I wanted to be–a writer.  I remember back when I was a freshman in college, discovering that I could major in journalism, and more to the point, that there was actually a practical application for my love of writing.

But, as I said, before my love of writing came my love of reading.

For something that has had such a big impact on my life, you'd think I'd remember the moment when it all came together and I started to read.  But I don't.  I don't remember if someone taught me, or if I figured it out myself.  What I do remember is my excitement about it, and proudly sharing this accomplishment with a fellow first-grader.  (We were a bit slower in those days–nowadays kids learn to read long before they hit elementary school, it seems.) The other student–all I remember was that she was female–sneered and said, "You can't read!  You're lying!" (I'm pretty sure this scarred me for life, in subtle ways like sometimes being unwilling to step into the limelight for fear someone will shout the adult equivalent of "You can't read! You're lying!")

I thought about all this recently because I read a really good book.  Now, I read a lot, as all writers should, everything from magazines and newspapers to blogs and books.  But even with all that reading, it has been a long time since I read a book that transported me as much as this novel did.  It is called Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and you should go buy it or get it from the library NOW.  Don't let the subject matter turn you off.  On the surface, it is about the world 15 years after a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the world's population, and all of the infrastructure we take for granted, too, like electricity and the internet and cell phones.  But really, it is about the importance of art to our lives, the strange and wonderful connections between people, and hope.  (It was also a National Book Award finalist this year, one of the first science fiction novels to have been so nominated.  Though I would not really call it science fiction.)

And it reminded me of the tension of reading. 

What do I mean by the tension of reading?  To me, it occurs in two ways:

1. Between wanting to find out what happens and not wanting the book to end.  I have this thing I do when I'm reading: I get so curious about what's going to ensue that the tension becomes unbearable.  So I open the book further ahead and peek–just a quick glimpse–at a page. Yeah, sometimes this backfires and gives away big spoilers, but often it gives just enough of a hint to defuse the tension and let me keep going.  And sometimes it makes me think one thing is going to happen and then something completely different does! (Serves me right.)

2. Between wanting to start a new book to have the same transporting experience again–but not wanting to leave the world of the book you just finished.  When I finished Station Eleven, I wanted to start another book immediately because I wanted to duplicate the reading experience I just had.  I'd just been to the library and brought home a stack of books–a particularly good haul, I'd thought.  But when I went to peruse my pile and choose what to read next, none of them appealed.  Much as I wanted to enter a new reading world, the old one of Station Eleven still lingered. 

This was really the first time I've identified these tensions in such a direct way.  I've felt each of them for years, of course, but never really fully named them.  And, as a writer, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that tension is the most important element of any work of fiction (and I daresay non-fiction, too). I'm quite sure the tensions of reading and writing are related.

So those are my Wednesday thoughts this week.  Please leave a comment--do you have a weird reading habit?  I know one of my loyal readers, who shall remain nameless, reads the end of the book first!  So c'mon, fess up–what are your reading habits?

Photo by pontuse.

When You’re Not Writing, Read (Plus the 10 Books Meme)

31Y7scFrOIL._BO1,204,203,200_When I was an MFA student, we had packets due every three weeks, five a semester.  These packets consisted of original work and an essay about a book we had read.  Thus, I spent a lot of time reading.  It was then I realized that one of the best things about being a writer is that reading is actually part of the job description.

Of course, I've been a reader since first grade, when I initially started being able to discern that words on the page actually meant something.  I think most of us writers come to wanting to be a writer through reading.

It is my opinion that all writers should inhale words as if their writing life depended on it–because it does.  That advice that you shouldn't read while writing lest the reading you are doing influence your work?  Bull puckey.  Even if you set out to mimic a favorite writer, the words are filtered through your unique experience and will come out totally different.  (And, indeed, a very good exercise to do to train yourself to be a writer is to copy out the words of your favorite novel.)

My reading habit has been completely revitalized this year with the purchase of first a Kindle and next an Ipad mini.  Something about reading on these mobile devices turns me into a speed demon.  And because Kindle books are a lot less to purchase, I'm willing to be more open-minded about what I read.  I've discovered some very different and interesting authors this way.

But what started this rumination on how reading affects writing is that a friend tagged me on the current Facebook meme that is going around–10 book that have stayed with you.  Since I'm never on Facebook (you'll find me on Twitter all day every day but Facebook and I have never bonded) I thought I'd do it here.  Besides, this way you guys can share with me books that have stuck with you.  The idea, I gather, is to do this fast and not overthink it.  So here goes mine:

1.  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (One of the best books ever.)

2. The Pink Dress by Anne Alexander (YA classic before there was such a thing as YA.  My sister and I lust for a copy of this book, currently priced at $889+ on Amazon.)

3. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver.  (I love this book so much.) 

4. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.  (He's one of the most underrated of American writers.  I read this right after I read #3 above.  Amazing.)

5. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  (Adore.)

6. Creativity in Business.  (I don't even know who the author of this book is, but I read it years ago and it changed my ideas about what was possible in business.)

7.  The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.  (Seminal.  It changed my life.  So did studying with her in Taos.)

8.  Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge.  (Plucked this one from my Mom's book shelf when I was a kid.  Apparently its a movie, too.)

9.  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  (Just read it if you haven't.  Please.  It's a charmer.)

10.  The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  (Time to reread this terrifying classic.)

Okay, I'm cheating and adding another:

11.  The Golden Treasury of Caroline and Her Friends by Pierre Probst.  (My favorite book from childhood, bar none.  I had a copy of this for years and lost it when our house burned down a few years back.  If anyone has a copy they want to give me, I'll love you forever. I'll name a character after you.  I'll send you everything I publish for life.)

Yeah, so, this is a quirky list if their ever was one.  I bet yours is too–and I'd love to read it!  Leave one book or ten in the comments.

PS–Stay tuned this week–I've got my annual word of the year post coming up and a Christmas giveaway!

PPS–If I were a good blogger, I'd put links to all these books in.  But I'm not.  If you're interested, you'll find them. 

7 Tips for a Fabulous Book Reading

School-person-literature-15648-lI did my first in-person reading of Emma Jean's Bad Behavior last night (I did one on the telephone, which was a bit trippy, for the virtual release party).  It was at at local coffee shop and I'm happy to report that it went really well.   People laughed in all the right places and after the initial rush you get when you stand up in front of a group, I relaxed and settled into it.

I've done a lot of public speaking, presenting workshops on various aspects of writing, and yet reading my own work is a bit of a different beast.  While I've read pieces in manuscript form through the years, now I'm getting used to reading from an actual book.  I thought you might like a few tips.  (I'm probably writing these nearly as much for myself, as a reminder, as for you.)  Because once you are published, and maybe even before, you will get asked to read.

1.  Plan your reading.  Figure out what you are going to read.  I've gone to lovely readings where the author read in an organized flow, segueing from a piece of chapter one, to chapter three and further in, which can give a good idea of a book.  When I tried to do this, it was a disaster–I got confused, and I wrote the book.  So I settled with several passages with chapter one and that worked great.  If you are reading in chunks, be sure to provide connecting information to your audience–and plan it out ahead of time.

2.  Plan your attire.  This sounds vain, but it isn't, really, because you are going to have a roomful of eyes on you and you don't want to be fussing with pulling your shirt down while they watch.  Last night I chose one of those cardigans with long tails in the front precisely so that I didn't have to worry if my stomach was hanging out.  (I thought if I wore my Spanx I wouldn't be able to breathe.  See #5.)

3.  Suss out the location.  Check it out ahead of time.  The coffee shop where I read has a regular Thursday evening reading series and I'd been there a couple times to hear friends read.  I knew there was no podium and that I'd be speaking into a standing microphone.  And I knew this meant that I was going to have do practice reading with my book held in front of my face.   See next tip.

4.  Practice, practice, practice.  This is far and away my most important advice.  Practicing will give you confidence, the confidence that comes from familiarity with your material. It will alert you to potential minefields–the word you've never been sure exactly how to pronounce, the swear word that might not be appropriate for your audience, the sex scene you might want to save for another venue.  Your work sounds different when you read it aloud–do it ahead of time to find potential problems.

5.  Breathe.  Once you've walked onstage, try to remember to take a deep breath.  As mentioned early, there is a rush of energy that comes in the act of getting yourself up in front of others and it can make it hard to catch your breath.  Nerves make you breathe faster, too.  This didn't happen to me last night, but it has in the past, and then I struggled to overcome my shallow breathing.

6.  Make eye contact.  Look up at your audience once in awhile, instead of keeping your nose buried in the book or manuscript.  This was something I could have done better last night, but since I was reading from my book with no podium, I had to wear reading glasses and it was awkward to peer over them.

7.  Enjoy.  You might not be able to actually utilize this tip until you've done a few readings and gotten used to them.  But you will feel the rush of relief when you are done, and people are applauding.  Soak it in!

 Your turn.  Do you have any tips for readings?  Do you enjoy them, or dread them?

(And by the way, if you feel so moved to buy a copy of Emma Jean you can find info on online outlets here.)

 Photo by svilen001.

A New Wrinkle on a Lifelong Love Affair

School-study-person-10504-lI've been a reader all my life.  I'm sure you have, too, since if you're reading this blog, it's because you're interested in writing.  And if you're interested in writing, odds are good that you came to your love of writing through reading.

Maybe you, like me, usually have something like five books that you're reading at one time.  (I always have at least one novel going, maybe two.  And probably for sure something on spirituality.  Maybe another on self-help, and often a business or other non-fiction book as well.)

Perhaps you, like me, enjoy nothing better than an afternoon spent reading a juicy novel by the fire, or a late night when you're kept awake turning the pages of a mystery.

I wonder, too, if, over the last few years, you've not had as much time to read.  It's been the case for me.  Life got busy with children, then grandchildren, career, friends, housework, you name it.  And my lifelong love affair with reading was threatened.  It wasn't that I wasn't reading, because I always, always, always have a book going.  It was just that I wasn't reading as much.

But all that has changed.

Because I bought a Kindle. And it has revolutionized my reading world.  Already, since just last week, I've finished one full novel and am halfway through a second.  Plus, I've read sample chapters of two others and begun another one.

I've done more reading in the past few days than I've accomplished in the last month.

There's something amazingly simple about picking the little tablet up, turning it on, and reading a few pages when I have a spare five minutes.  The device makes me read faster.  I'm a visual scanner, meaning I take in a whole paragraph or sentence at a glance (which is why I'm worthless if someone spells a word or reads me a string of numbers–I need to see the whole), and something about the size of the Kindle's screen enables me to inhale words in huge gulps.

I love it.

And it is good for my writing, as well.  Reading is part of the job description for any writer, and it is an excellent way to teach yourself to write.  You could do worse than to begin your education by sitting down and reading 100 works in the genre you wish to write in.  When I read, it's almost as if the words I inhale rearrange themselves inside me and spit themselves back out on the page.  I think I've written more on my novel in the few days I've had the Kindle than I have this entire year.

Words in, words out.  It's magic. 

It puzzles me why the publishing world is so threatened by the digital revolution.  Anything that makes people read more should be considered a good thing, right? One would think so.  Another benefit to the Kindle or its pals is the ease with which you can order books.  One click and there you are, ready to read.   This is a fantastic, thing, people.

I bought the absolute cheapest Kindle available, the one with special offers and ads on it, because I wasn't sure I was going to like it.  Turns out I even love the ads, which have introduced me to a new author already.  For the record, the special deals generally feature classic authors like Paul Bowles or C.S. Lewis, so its not a bunch of crap by any stretch of the imagination.

One caveat: think hard about what you want your tablet to do.  After much thought, I realized that what I really wanted was to read on the device, period.  Which is why, despite the siren song of the Ipad, I didn't bite.  And now I'm glad, because if I had a full-fledged Ipad, I'd be checking my email or reading HuffPost.  I know myself.  I am weak.  I succumb to such temptations easily.

So that's my story about my new love affair.

How do you read–on an Ereader or with a traditional book?

Review: The Book of Jonas

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer book club, but the opinions expressed are mine and mine alone!

Any book I read (and I try to read a lot, because that's what writers do) I read through the eyes of a writer.  Once you being writing, reading is a whole different experience, because you're studying how the author uses craft as you read.  In The Book of Jonas, I not only enjoyed pondering the way author Stephen Dau wielded craft, I also loved his overall theme, which is of huge interest to writers.

But before I go into that, let me tell you a bit about the book.  The book's main protagonist, Jonas, is just a teenager when his family is killed during a U.S. military operation in an unnamed war.  He escapes to the United States, where he struggles, not only with fitting in, but with the weight of a terrible secret.  This secret concerns the story's secondary protagonist, Christopher Henderson, the U.S. soldier who saved Jonas's life.  Written in dream-like prose, the book builds to quite the emotional ending, though you'll probably have guessed it before the end.

It is quite a tour-de-force of a book and I suspect it will land in the annals of classic war literature.  Extremely well written and nearly hypnotic in its ability to keep you reading, The Book of Jonas is a stunning achievement.  And all that is saying a lot from me because it is not the kind of book I usually read–I shy away from books about war.

As I mentioned, Dau uses the writer's craft in a mesmerizing way.  Part of that is his use of a fractured chronology.  The story leaps from Jonas's current day life in America to his former life in his unnamed homeland, and neither of those chronologies is linear, so the reader is jumping all over the place, yet the story remains clear.  If you're writing a fractured chronology, you should study this book.  And by study, I mean read it over and over again, underline it, and take notes.  It is extremely well done.

Finally, the book offers up a theme that every writer can embrace: the power of story.  It is only through telling the story, in Jonas's case, and writing it down, in Christopher's, that we achieve healing, and ultimately, freedom.

For comment: what book or books have you read lately that inspired you?

 

Why Did You Decide to Become a Writer?

I'm playing around with a new character, whose life is defined by the books she reads.  And this has made
Everystockphoto_205924_m me ponder how intertwined my life is with the books I read.

I refer to characters from books I've read in my brain all the time, sometimes learning from their actions, or using what they do as a cautionary tale.  I remember incidents from memoirs and learn helpful nuggets for daily life from spiritual books. 

What makes books so amazing for me is the power they have to transport me to another world, to plop me down in a completely different setting and make me feel like I'm walking around in a new location.  Even good cookbooks can do this for me, like the latest one I'm using, which has me inhabiting a cattle ranch in Oklahoma.

What I've also been thinking about is how being an avid reader has made me who I am today, ie, a writer.  Because from the earliest time I can remember, I thought this ability of the written word to transport me to a new world was magical.  And I wanted me some of that magic for my own.  Since I was a teeny, tiny girl, I wanted to be a writer.  And that all stemmed from my love of reading.

Sometimes in my travels I run into people who want to be writers but never read.  Um, really?  C'mon.  You have to read in order to learn to write, to see how other people put words together on the page so they make sense.  To see how they compose a scene, to learn how to write dialogue.

But beyond all that, I can't even imagine a world in which reading and writing are not linked.  In which the desire to be a writer doesn't stem from an avid reading habit.  Can you? 

If you can, please tell me about it, I'm all ears.

No matter where your desire to write comes from, I'd love to hear about it.  What's your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?  Of the magic of reading?

Bookcases, Bookcases, the Joys of Bookcases

The thing about bookcases is that you always need more of them.  At least I do, because the stream of books in my life is never ending.  Books are like rabbits and ideas, they reproduce themselves automatically.  One minute you have plenty of room in your bookcases for more books and then suddenly there are books piled all over the house and it is time to buy a new bookcase, or several. 

I have so many full bookcases in my house that sometimes I think it will sink into the basement from the sheer weight of all of them.  Perhaps, you might suggest, it would be prudent to shed some of the books.  And in truth, I have gotten better about doing that.  Used to be, I would never, ever, let go of a book once it came into my possession.  But once the problem of storing them reached crisis levels I had to rethink that obsession.

One thing that helped, in a sink-or-swim kind of way, was the fact that many years ago half my house burned down.  The half that didn't burn down, the bottom floor, sustained serious smoke and water damage, and since that is where many of the books were, we had to go through them and throw a lot of them out.  Yes, I know, it is painful to contemplate, but it is true–some of the books were so badly damaged that they couldn't even be given away.  In the process, I lost some of my favorite books, that I mourn to this day–my omnibus edition of the Caroline books, for instance.

But I gained the knowledge that physical books are just that–things that are far less important than human connections.  Because, you know how everyone asks you what you would grab if your house is on fire?  When the real thing happens the only thing going through your mind is getting the living, breathing creatures out–in our case, the kids, the cats and the dog (who refused to leave and cowered under the kitchen counter as firemen tromped through the house).  You don't spare a thought for the family photos, or your carefully designed scrapbooks, or even the computer with your novel on it.  All you think about is getting your loved ones out safely.

Since then I've managed to convince myself that letting go of books is good.  And I have the great good fortune to live in Portand, where Powells is located, which means any time the bookcases get a bit too bulgy, I can sort through them and go sell a few boxes there.  The problem is they give you more money if you take a store credit, so one must be disciplined in this endeavor as well.

Oh, who am I kidding?  I still have way too many books to fit in my bookcases and they spill into every room in the house.  (Which is just as well, because I distrust houses that do not have bookcases and stacks of magazines in them.)  So when the nice people, or the one nice person, at CSN Stores offered to send me a bookcase to review, I leapt at the chance.  Actually, they offered me a choice–review the bookcase myself, or offer it as a prize in a contest.  Um, I thought about offering you guys a chance to win it, really I did.  But my need for bookcases won out.

So just as soon as they send me my bookcase, I'll be reviewing it. You will read it here first!

Observations on a Not-So-Good Novel

I'm reading a novel published by a smaller press.  Sometimes the reason why novels don't get picked up by a big publishing house (or picked up at all) is a mystery. But in this particular case I have some thoughts.  Its really a very good novel in many ways–compelling subject, lots of conflict, interesting situation.  Yet there are a few things that jump out at me, and in this, I'm realizing, it is as instructive to read a not-so-good novel as a top of the line one.  So here goes.

Cardboard characters.  This is not always true all the time, but in too many instances the author isn't able to create fully rounded characters.  What makes a fully rounded character, you ask?  Excellent question.  Too bad there's not an easy answer.  But in this novel, the characters tend to be all bad or all good.  A couple of them seem like stand-ins for idyllic causes.  Also, at times they don't act credibly.

Unbelievable actions and responses.  Sometimes the characters in this novel don't act believably.  Their actions seem to be devised for the sake of the author to move them around or to create more conflict, but its not conflict that is organic to the story and thus doesn't ring true.

Superficial viewpoint
.  No glaring viewpoint violations, but the viewpoint lapses at times, nonetheless, because the author hasn't thought through exactly what the character would see or know.  Sometimes a viewpoint character describes things about the location that, given the fact she just moved there, she wouldn't know. 

Meandering scenes.  The scenes aren't well thought out.  They don't spike, or drop.  Often they start with one emotional tone and end on the same one.  There's no movement. In addition, sometimes there's a monotony to the the order of the scenes.  They are like the same size pearls strung on a necklace, when they'd have more spice if the necklace featured all different size beads.  Just as a scene must have rising or falling action within, so to must the order of the scenes.

And yet, I'm still reading the book.  Why?  I think the main reason is that the author does manage to create a compelling viewpoint character most of the time.  And the conflict that the character faces is well presented. 

So if you find yourself reading a "bad" novel or even a not-so-good one, see if you can define what it is that makes it bad.  You might learn a lot about your own writing in the process.