Books

The Benefits of Reading

Now, I know you read a lot.  Because, you're a writer.  And writers not only write, they read.  It's the way of the world.  Reading is why most of us got into this game in the first place. 

(Brief aside: you'd be surprised how many wannabe writers I've run into who don't read.  When someone comes to me and says, "I've always wanted to be a writer," I say, "What do you like to read?" And then, ahem, when they say "Oh, I don't read, I like to watch TV and movies," I know they are not going to make it as a writer–unless they want to write scripts.)

But there's reading and there's reading, as in reading as a writer.  Once you start doing that, reading is never the same, by the way.   Because, you're constantly looking at how the author handled plot, character, setting, dialogue, theme, style–all the things we strive to add to our stories.  (I've heard some writers complain about this, saying reading is no longer the light, relaxing activity it once was for them, but I like it–I think this way of reading adds a depth that contributes to my enjoyment.)

My approach to reading got rejuvenated when I was in Louisville for the Spalding MFA residency, because that's part of what you do in workshop–pull apart stories and see how they were put together, studying each element.  I was re-inspired to approach reading this way, which happened to coincide with my own work on a couple of short stories. 

I am here to report that my recent reading has had a real, direct impact on my writing, and I want to share that in order to explain how it happens.  (You no doubt already know this.  But being reminded of it, as I was in Louisville, can be a helpful thing.)

Example #1

Before I left Louisville, I downloaded the Best American Short Stories of 2012 and then read it on the plane on the way home.  (I liked having it on my Kindle, because it forced me to read the stories straight through, whereas my usual style would be to pick and choose.  But in picking and choosing, I would miss some gems.) One of the stories was called M&M World.  (That link takes you right to the story–cool.)

I'm not going to ruin the story for you by deconstructing it, but there's a part of the story that looks to an incident in the protagonist's marriage that happened long ago.  And as I read that, I had an epiphany: this is what my story needs, too.  I needed to go briefly (for one paragraph) into the past to show an aspect of my character's marriage.  I added this and presented the rewrite to my writing group–and they loved it.  Said it added a depth and insight that had previously been lacking. Which was my intention.  So, yay.

Example #2

I recently started reading Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  Wonderful novel, I recommend it.  Love the story line and I adore his style of writing–the way he puts words together.  He's one of those writers who pulls you into the character's head with the use of the telliing detail, actually, lots of them.  And this got me to thinking–perhaps this was what was missing from my story?  I liked so much of what I had written, but overall, it seemed a bit flat to me.  And so I've been going back through and looking for places I can add more details and it is making a huge difference.  (I have a whole post on this planned for later this week.)

Both of these epiphanies have added a lot to my story (which I'm just about read to send out, by the way). And I never would have gotten them without reading.

So, what about you?  What are you currently reading?  How is it affecting your writing?

Oh, Amazon, You Trickster, You

Book-books-collection-415-lIf you enter the title of my novel, Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, into the Amazon search engine, up my book will pop, despite the fact that its pub date is not until February 12th.  And no, there's nothing about pre-ordering it mentioned on the page.  It's just there.  For sale.

I found this out thanks to the alert eyes of my reader and online buddy Zan Marie.  Now, I'd be happy to have my book available for sale, except for a couple of things:

–This isn't the final copy.  I worked on final proofing all the way to Nashville and back.  Caught a few small errors.  No big deal, you say?  Uh-uh.  Not for me.  I'm a printer's daughter and pride myself on being able to catch typos.  (Now, of course, you'll find one or more.  That's alright.  I can take it.  Let me know, I won't be hurt.) I also tinkered with the acknowledgments (the hardest part of writing the book, I swear) a bit.  And I wanted my readers to get this corrected copy, the final, final copy.  The perfect one.

–We set the pub date for February 12th and I wanted to have the requisite hoopla around it on that date.  Not some vague earlier time.  I wanted it to be a specific date, an event.  (I'm working on ideas for how I can share this event with you, so stay tuned.)  Silly, maybe, but so be it.

So I emailed my ever-patient editor and she promptly contacted Amazon to have them take it down, at the very least until the final final copy gets to them.  (You'll still see it listed for sale if you search for it or click here.  I actually don't know what happens if you click on it to buy it.)

But here's what cracks me up: Just as Emma Jean does in the novel, I started checking my Amazon sales rank.  At one point, it was down to #717,876 or something like that.  Wow!  I was feeling pretty good about that.  I mean, it wasn't even officially on sale yet and already I was ranked below a million.  Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. 

And then my editor emailed me back yet again and said that as far as the publishers could tell only one copy of that version of the book had been sold. (Thanks, Jenni–you've got a one-of-a-kind edition.)  So, as my daughter-in-law said, thus selling one book=#717,876 rank.  Does this mean if I sell two I get put right up to #1?   Um, probably not.  Apparently the Amazon algorithm is mysterious and unknown, just like the Google's.

Thus, note to self: do NOT fuss and obsess over the Amazon sales ranking when the book comes out.  Because it doesn't mean anything.  Does it?

Do you have experience with Amazon?  I'd love to hear it.  Barring that, what do you obsess over?  That's an even better topic.  Please share in the comments.

**There's only a couple more days of early-bird pricing for my Get Your Novel Written Now class.  Check out more info here.

 

Book Review: You Have No Idea

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

The book I'm reviewing today is a bit of a departure for me, or at least these pages, where we focus on literary and creative writing topics.  But in a part of my life I don't publicize, for obvious reasons, I'm sort of a fiend for celebrity gossip.

I'm not proud of this.  But there it is.

But it is also why I leaped at the chance to review You Have No Idea: A Famous Daughter, Her No-Nonsense Mother, and How They Survived Pageants, Hollywood, Love, Loss (and Each Other), by Vanessa Williams, and her mother Helen Williams.

It is mostly the story of the life of Vanessa Williams, she of Miss America, Ugly Betty, and Desperate Housewives fame.  But throughout the book, direct and forthright Helen, Vanessa's mother, speaks up, adding her point of view to the proceedings.

I've always liked Vanessa Williams, because to me she comes across as an intelligent non-diva, and that's exactly the impression I still have of her after reading this book.  Helen's part in the narrative really helps this.  Both women are good company.  I often get bored reading books like this, but I finished this one with interest.  And I loved all the photos that are interspersed throughout.  Vanessa Williams really is a stunningly beautiful woman who manages to look good no matter what.  Sigh. 

One of the things I kept thinking about as I wrote was ghostwriting.  As most of you know, one of the writer's hats I wear is ghostwriter.  In this case, the ghostwriter got a credit.  Irene Zutell is listed as a "with" on the cover.  I think she did a good job on this book, as the narrative of each woman comes across as the distinct personalities they are.  From a note at the back, I presume there was lots of meeting for interviews in locations across the country.

Sounds easy, right? Meet a celebrity in some glamorous location, interview her, transcribe the pages and clean it up a bit.  And voila! You've got yourself a memoir.  But it doesn't work like that, because the spoken word doesn't necessarily translate to a unique written voice.  Weird phenomenon, but there it is. The ghostwriter has to really work to get the voice of the subject on the page.

Anyway, if you're a fan and you get the chance to read this book, do it.  You'll enjoy it.  And it would make a great Mother's Day gift.  Also, you can read tons more about it on the BlogHer Book Club page.

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 Write a Book Proposal?


Paper_papers_letter_237662_l I attended a party over the weekend, where I was introduced to a couple of other writers (we already have plans to do Happy Hour together, we had so much fun).  But one of them asked me, "You mean people still have dreams of getting their books published?  Are any books even being published these days?"

Yes, ma'am, they are.

When I looked up statistics on how many books are being published a year, I came up with this statistic: in 2009, 1,02,803 books were published, according to Bowker, an industry analyst.

Um, in my world, that's still a lot of books.

And if one of those books is a work of non-fiction, the way you sell it is through a book proposal.  Odds are really good that even if you have your entire non-fiction book finished, an agent or editor will ask for a proposal.  I know this because it has happened to friends and clients of mine.

Which is why I'm all about writing a book proposal.  Because why not do what agents want in the first place?  And besides, the really cool thing about a book proposal is that its like a plan for your book.  So when you've finished the proposal, you know everything about the book: its structure, its content (down to chapter by chapter synopses), its flow.  And, guess what else?  You also know everything about where the book fits in the market and how you are going to position it.  So on the off-chance that the publishing world doesn't see the brilliance of your book idea and you decide to publish it yourself, you're all set.

Either way, its a win-win.  So what are you waiting for?

Oh, you don't know how to write a book proposal.  Well, the good news is that I do, and I'm once again offering my class on it.  Not only that, I'm offering crazy fast-action bonuses if you act now: a whopping $170 off the price and a one-hour coaching session to the first five who sign up. 

But.  (You knew there was a but.)

These enticements expire soon.  The crazy $170 off the price of the class expires at midnight, August 17th.  That's this Wednesday.  And your chance to nab a coaching session ends at midnight on August 24th. 

The other cool thing is that the class begins at the end of September.  Because I know we're all still in summer mode and don't really want to think about learning and writing and doing–that is September back-to-school energy, for sure.  But if you buy now, you get all the bonuses and the great price break.

So, check it out here.  You know you want to.  Oh, and by the way, if you have any questions about book proposals, ask them in the comments and I'll answer.

 

Photo by mordoc.

A Messiness of Mind

I'm enduring a messiness of mind this week. Estock_commonswiki_303408_l

It feels like I've been on a full-out run since mid-December. There's the mad Christmas rush, of course, followed by New Year's and my daughter's birthday.  And then I had to get organized for my trip to Nashville last week, which was more complicated than usual because I was also presenting a workshop.

On the two plane flights home, I had terrible problems with the air pressure changes (that'll happen when the pilot descends from 20,000 feet when you're only 60 miles out) and so ever since I've been struggling with a head as congested as a stuffed sausage.  That's what it feels like, actually.  I keep thinking that there's no room for any extra thoughts between the usual synapses in my brain.

And to top it all off, I arrived home Monday night and stepped right into a full schedule on Tuesday, with appointments during the day and every evening booked.

I realized this morning while writing morning pages that I've simply not had time to clear the gunk out of my brain (and the damn congestion doesn't help). But here's the deal.  My surroundings echo my mental state. My office is a mess, with piles of journals and notebooks here, books I've pulled off shelves there, and papers everywhere.  And after reading a blog post from my student and friend Leisa Hammett, I've realized how big of a problem this is for me.  I looked around this morning and decided I need to get myself organized, pronto.

But a messy office is just the physical manifestation of my messy mind.  Here are some of the things I haven't been doing that usually contribute to a better mental state:

My morning ritual.  I am managing to write morning pages, but usually I spend time in meditation and prayer, contemplating life, and doing a bit of inspiring reading also.  That's all out the window.

Meditation.  See above.

Exercise.  I'm a lifelong walker and usually it takes barely anything to get me out the door.  Not lately.  Its too cold, or its too wet, or its just too too.  Basically, I'm just too lazy.  This must change.  My body is complaining to me, loudly.

But here's something I have been doing a lot lately that I believe has an enormous impact on my well-being:

Reading.  I'm always reading something (usually about 5 somethings) but lately I've been on a run of reading especially good books (The Hunger Games, The Help, a couple of non-fiction titles).  There's no better way to spend downtime as a writer than reading.  It informs, encourages and teaches us about our craft in every single aspect.

So, with luck, with any luck at all, I'll get my office organized this weekend.  Right after I finish the last 100 pages of The Help.

8 Essential Tools For Book Writing (Just in Time for Nanowrimo)

The thing about writing is that you can accomplish it without much in the way of tools.  Really, all you need to finish a book is something to write on and something to write with. Of course, a computer is also helpful, but strictly speaking, it is not a requirement.  Theoretically, you could write your entire book in pencil on legal pads and find someone to type it up for you.

But that would be theoretically.  In the real world, it is good to have some niceties.  And this lack of a need for tools is one reason I got excited the other morning when I realized I had some things to recommend to have on hand when writing a book.  Though, in truth, I guess they would more accurately be called supplies than tools.  But work with me, just for the sake of it, would you?

Note_notes_notepad_260973_l

Here they are:

1. A good spiral notebook or binder.  This will be used for brainstorming, free-writing, working out your ideas for characters, writing down descriptions, and so on. 

2. A seperate notebook for notes.  This can be a small notepad or a small binder or whatever strikes your fancy.  To my mind, it is necessary because brilliant ideas and directions for changes in your book get lost in the mad rush of writing that goes on in #1.

3. A vision board.  For the visually-minded, a book-writing vision board which collects images and words to inspire you is a wonderful boon. 

4. A story board.  Not to be confused with #3, a story board actually tells the story of your book, scene by scene, on individual index cards or post-it notes tacked up on a board. Its a great aid in seeing where you are going and keeping track.

5.  Post-It Notes.  I can't live without them.  My desk is littered with them, stuck on shelves, to-do lists, in notebooks, on journal pages, everywhere.

6. A binder.  Use this for putting printed book pages in.  Nothing is more inspiring than seeing the pages stack up!

7. A carry-along notebook.  You might want to make #2 do double-duty, but you might also want to choose something compact.  Just make sure you have something with you to make notes on when inspiration strikes–I often use my phone.

8. A box of pens.  Because you'll go through them.

And then, of course, there's that metal thing called a computer…

What are your must-have tools or supplies for writing a book?

 

Image by christgr, via Everystockphoto.

Inspiration Friday

I'm starting a new feature today.  It is "Inspiration Friday," and because I am a right-brained creature through and through and I will get bored if I allow myself only one thing to post about, it is going to be a mish-mash.  A mish-mash with a common theme–something that has inspired me the previous week.  This might be a photo, a quote, a link to another blog post, or a round-up of all of these.  Or it might be something completely different.*

Cover-3d

This week it is a book called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam.  I saw this book at the Hudson Booksellers in the Nashville airport last week, didn't buy it, then got to the gate and sat there thinking about it and wished I had.  So I walked all the way back up the concourse to grab it and I'm glad I did.

Vanderkam looks at time management in a new way.  This book is not just nuts-and-bolts strategies to gain more time and be more efficient, it goes further than that to look at a bigger picture.  For instance, she examines the common assumption that we're all stressed for time and realizes that part of this is an illusion.  People who self-report on how many hours they work a week often skew the numbers up, for example.  So though it is commonplace to hear that successful people work 60 hours a week, in truth, the numbers are actually lower.

The author urges us to look at our "core competencies" and find ways to spend most of our working day performing them.  For me, my core competency is writing.  And yet there are days when I spend the bulk of my time emailing or calling or doing other jobs related to writing but not actually writing.  

I'm only halfway through the book and it has already had a big impact on me.  I'm currently reading a section called "Anatomy of a Breakthrough," about what it takes to achieve those fabled "overnight" successes.  Good stuff.  This is a book that I think is going to continue to influence me, and I recommend you check it out. 

And stayed tuned to find out what inspired me next week.  In the meantime, what inspired you this week?  Please tell.

*I promise, though, no clown pictures.  Like the one here, in case you need a reminder.  Or here.  Honest, that's it.  Except for this one.  Or this one.  Okay, really, I'm done now.   This blog is now a clown-free zone.

I snitched the photo of the book cover from Laura Vanderkam's website, but since I am promoting her book, I hope she doesn't mind too much.

Friday Review: Female Nomad and Friends

Female Nomad and Friends:
Cover

Tales of Breaking Free and Breaking Bread Around the World

by Rita Golden Gelman

I leaped at the chance to review this book because I was familiar with Gelman's first book, Tales of a Female Nomad and was happy to hear she'd written another one.  To understand the premise of the second book, you need to know a little about the first book (though you certainly don't have to read the first to appreciate the second).

At the age of 48, on the verge of a divorce, Gelman, who at the time led quite the privileged Hollywood-style life, decided to chuck it all and begin traveling.  Now, she lives all over the world, carrying what she needs with her, living serendipitously.  As she puts it, "In 1987 I opened my life to otherness; it became addictive.  I still have no fixed address and hardly any possessions."

And how does she manage to finance this lifestyle?  Through writing children's books.  Her first adult book, which detailed her adventures, also did well.  Well enough that readers clamored for more.  But Gelman didn't really want to write another book, she was too busy having fun.  Part of that fun included trying new and different things and she wanted no part of writing a sequel.  Still, readers clamored.

And thus Female Nomad and Friends was born.  Gelman hit on the idea of using the many stories that readers, inspired by her adventures, had emailed her.  Plus she decided to add recipes. So the resulting anthology has 41 stories and 32 recipes, all of an international bent.  Perhaps the best part of it all is that evey single penny of the proceeds from this book goes to Gelman's current pet project, which is funding vocational educations for high school graduates from the slums of New Delhi. 

For that reason alone you should buy this book.  But you'll also want to buy it for the stories and the recipes.  Its the kind of book that you can have on your bedside table and read one a night, in order if you are that type of person.  Or you can do what I did, which is to pick it up, close my eyes, and choose a story at random until I had read them all.  It is much more fun that way.

Here's a sampler of the stories you'll find in the book:

Breakfast in Malaca, by Wendy Lewis, about a delicious–and surprising–meal in Malaysia.

Chapati Love Remembered, by Jean Allen, probably my favorite story in the whole book, about making chaptis–and love.

Thanksgiving: A Different Perspective, by Ana Maria Bradley, in which a foreign exchange student comes to appreciate an American holiday.

And here's a taste of some of the recipes:

Latvian Piragi

Ginger-Cumin Roasted Chicken (I'm trying this one for sure)

Charred Sugar-Crusted Salmon

Vietnamese Soft Spring Rolls

Mousse au Chocolat Truffee

And many more…

Reading Gelman's story, and the many stories in the anthology, has made me ponder if I could do the same as her–live without a home base anywhere.  Now, I love to travel and actually wish I could do more of it.  But somehow I don't think I could live without a permanent address.  I love Gelman's lifestyle and appreciate that for her, it is all about being open to the other and making connections throughout the world.  But I want my own little house to come home to after I've been away–my pets, my art, my funny little things.

What about everyone else?  Could you travel the world without a permanent home?

While you ponder the answer to that question, here's a bit more information about Gelman and the book:

Rita Golden Gelman is the author of Tales of a Female Nomad and more than seventy children’s books, including More Spaghetti, I Say!, a staple in every first grade classroom. As a nomad, Rita has no permanent address.  She is currently involved in an initiative called Let’s Get Global, a project of US Servas, Inc, a national movement deigned to bring the gap year to the United States. Learn more at: www.letsgetglobal.org

We invite you to join us on the Female Nomad and Friends virtual tour. The full schedule can be seen at http://bookpromotionservices.com/2010/05/17/female-nomad-tour. You can learn much more about Rita Golden Gelman and her work on her website – www.ritagoldengelman.com

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?