2017 Reading Challenge

I enjoy reading challenges.  I collect all of the ones I can and do my best to at least take inspiration from them when choosing my reading material throughout the year.  There are even themed challenges, pushing readers to expand their horizons in certain genres or by reading from diverse authors, or perhaps by making themselves read something written that challenges political or social ideals and norms.

What is reading for, after all, than expanding our horizons?

With that in mind, I made my own reading challenge this year.  I haven’t picked a number I want to read, but I’m hoping to improve on 2016 (21 published novels and a load of editing work and fanfiction).  If you’d like to follow along, I’ll be posting reviews as I go and I have made a list with some recommendations.

A book chosen just for the cover.  Stop by your local bookstore and just browse the shelves.  Which covers catch your eye because they’re colorful or unique?  Without reading the blurbs or reviews, take it home.  If you don’t have a local bookstore, I recommend these great reads with bright, fun covers:

frog-music-e-donoghue
the-night-circus

 

A book longer than 500 pages.  Now, length doesn’t necessarily mean quality, of course, but challenge yourself to stick with a story you can’t finish in a typical weekend.  I recommend Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or, if you’re up for a real challenge, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (I reviewed it a while ago — the mass market paperback clocks in at over 1,000 pages).

A collection of short stories.  In contrast, find some bite-size stories perfect for a lunch break or morning commute (if you take public transportation, of course).  Some of my favorite short story authors are Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, and Flannery O’Connor, but I’ll also be browsing the anthologies at my local library to find some new material.

A collection of poetry.  Not everyone feels a kinship with poetry.  It can be a bit of an acquired taste…but if you want to dip your toes in, try Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete.

A classic everyone loves.  Hey, they’re classics for a reason, right?  I recommend anything by Jane Austen (I’m looking at you, men), The Lord of the Rings, Elie Wiesel’s Night, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

A comic book or graphic novel.  Good stories are good stories, even if they include pictures.  A fantastic introduction to this genre is Batman’s The Killing Joke, a classic that gives us great action, incredible graphics, and a peek into the backstory of the franchise’s most well-known and popular villain.  For new stuff, I’m going to be reading Watchmen and probably The Long Halloween.

A self-published novel.  Indie authors need love, too.  I recommend R.R. Virdi’s The Grave Report Series, but you can find tons of reviews for self-published and small house books at A Drop of Ink Reviews.  Don’t forget to write your own review and share it on Amazon, Goodreads, and/or your own blog or other social media.  Word of mouth is still the best way to find new readers and new books.

A book that challenges your political or religious/spiritual beliefs.  Now, the point of this is not necessarily to change your beliefs, but to understand the other half.  If your views change, then hey, whatever.  If you stick to your guns, then you at least can be a little bit more informed the next time you get into a Facebook argument with a stranger 😉  If you are agnostic or atheist and looking for something Christian to try out, I highly recommend Ken Ham’s New Answers series for a rundown on science and creationism.  I haven’t decided what I’ll be reading for this part of my challenge, but I welcome recommendations on your favorites.

A memoir or autobiography.  If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your librarian or research “creative nonfiction”.  David Sedaris has written some wonderfully hilarious and enlightening essay collections (one of my personal favorites is “You Can’t Kill The Rooster”).  If you’re into film/cinema, have ever seen the hilariously awful B-movie The Room, or just need a good laugh, read Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.  I currently have a copy of Lynn Wilder’s Unveiling Grace waiting for me on my bookshelf to fulfill this challenge.

A book published more than 100 years ago.  Learn a little bit about history from the people who lived it!  Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, published in 1899, is an eye-opening portrait of the Victorian woman and the birth of what historians call the New Woman movement, a precursor to later feminist/suffragist movements.  It’s also just a really well-written story with great characters and lots of interesting detail.

A book published more than 200 years ago.  Keep on going back!  While the novel didn’t come much into vogue until the early to mid-1800s, the Age of Reason still produced a plethora of great essays and poems.  Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” are two of my long-standing favorites from the 1700s.  Shakespeare is always a great choice, too 😉

A historical novel set in a time period or place you don’t know much about.  Naturally, there are certain historical events and time periods most people are pretty familiar with — World War II, the French Revolution, the European medieval period, etc, etc.  But what about those lesser-known people, places, and events?  Browse the historical fiction lists on Goodreads for some great suggestions.

A book from a genre you rarely peruse.  Broaden your literary horizons!  While there’s nothing wrong with having a favorite type of book, branching out can lead to some great discoveries.  I’m going to try reading more horror and science fiction for this challenge.

A nonfiction book about a subject you aren’t familiar with.  One of the best direct benefits from reading is learning.  While you don’t need nonfiction to learn, that unexplored aisle at your library or local bookstore probably has some real gems.  You might even discover a new hobby or want to read more about the person/place/event from your perusal of the historical fiction shelf.

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

4/5 stars

I really, really enjoyed this book.  It took me a while to plow through (the paperback version clocks in at a whopping 1,080 pages, plus a foreword and afterword) but it was definitely worth it.  The only other Stephen King novel I’ve read so far is Carrie, so it was very interesting to see his evolution as a storyteller going from a fairly short novel about a troubled, telekinetic teen girl, written in 3rd person with epistolary elements, to a massive tome about a 30-something divorcee who time-travels to stop JFK’s assassination.  Despite their differences in subject matter and overall tone, there are still the elements I’ve learned to really like about King’s writing – sharp wit, strong insight into human nature, realistic characters, and supernatural/science fiction/paranormal elements that blend seamlessly into the narrative of normal people leading normal lives.

That said, in my opinion, it was just a tad too long.  Out of the 1,080 pages I read, I would say about 150-200 of them were unnecessary.  The bits about the swing-dancing teens in Derry, the references to It (I guess when you’re as famous as Stephen King, you can allude to your own work and get away with it, but still), some of the details about the Templeton family, and so on – while interesting and well-written, I don’t feel like they really added that much to the overall story arc of Jake Epping trying to change the past.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to just about any reader.  Sci-fi fans, paranormal/supernatural fans, history buffs, and just about anyone should really enjoy 11/22/63.  The ending was amazing (and amazingly heart-breaking) and I’m looking forward to hitting Books-A-Million soon to grab some more of King’s books.

How to Be a Better Writer: Advice from the Pros

There are no laws for the novel.  There never have been, nor can there ever be.

Doris Lessing

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Ray Bradbury

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

Robert Frost

You can fix anything but a blank page.

Nora Roberts

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.

C.J. Cherryh

Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.

Anne McCaffrey

I advise writing to oneself. If you don’t want to read it, nobody else is going to read it.

S.E. Hinton

To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.

Allen Ginsberg

The most important thing for any aspiring writer, I think, is to read!

George R.R. Martin

The Gift of Reading

At the beginning of the month, I found out there’s going to be a Little One joining us in December (yay!).  When I get a break from all those famous pregnancy symptoms, I’ve been obsessing over what s/he needs.  There’s diapers and onesies and plenty of blankets for our six-month long winters…and books.

I’ll always believe that one of the great blessings of my childhood was having books at my disposal.  All kinds of books.  My parents always read for pleasure and encouraged me to do so.  My grandmother also had a huge collection of books — the accumulated titles of her childhood and those of my mother and her siblings — that I always had access to.  One of my first memories is of looking through a picture book Bible and making up my own stories to accompany the pictures, since I hadn’t learned to read yet.

My love for the written word never left me.  Books have always been my solace and my favorite pastime — from The Poky Little Puppy to Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Shannara, A Song of Ice and Fire, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen…

When I was young, I was never discouraged from reading anything.  Sure, my mother wasn’t always happy with my choices (like that um, juicy romance I picked up at 13), but I was never censored.  Reading is enrichment and it’s a love that lasts a lifetime.  I got that gift and I want to pay it forward to my little Peanut.

While I was looking through the children’s section online at B&N, I came across many of my old favorites.  Where better to start Peanut than with Mom and Dad’s favorites?  Eventually, s/he will decide to love mystery over fantasy, or documentaries or historical fiction or maybe even New Age poetry.  But for now, some good old pictures books will do.

 

The Tawny Scrawny Lion (This always made me want carrot soup!)
Horton Hears A Who! (One of hubby’s favorites)
Corduroy

 

Venturing Into the Gray Areas with Purple Prose

Keep your writing clear and coherent, and avoid pretentious or overly formal language.  Write to communicate, not to impress. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t dumb down, but don’t let your writing get in the way of your message. There’s a fine line between elegance and pomposity.

Mark Nichols, “7 Tips for Editing to Improve Usage” @ DailyWritingTips

Excellent advice.  The only problem is, where’s that “fine line between elegance and pomposity”?  The short answer is, no one really knows because it’s different for everyone.  One person’s purple prose is another’s beautiful description.  One type of writing might warrant lots of elegance, style, and 25-cent words, while another might require you to be short and sweet.  Or, you might need to use one style or the other for effect.

It takes practice to determine what’s best for yourself and your writing, and your preferences/needs may change over time.  Nichols, however, has some good guidelines that we should follow:

1.  Always be clear about your meaning.  Pretty writing is fine but don’t let it cloud the point you’re trying to make in writing.  Your readers should always know what you’re trying to say.

2.  Get rid of ulterior motives.  As a teacher/tutor I see this problem a lot.  Many new students, particularly college freshmen, write in exceptionally elevated and complex ways because they think that’s what they should be doing.  Instead of sounding formal and sophisticated, however, often it just comes out as contrived and stiff.  Don’t try to impress people with your vocabulary or prowess in using 4-line sentences that aren’t run-ons.  Just write.

3.  Know that the line is there.  If you understand that there is such a thing as being too grand, or being too basic, you’re less likely to fall into either trap.  You’ll be more aware of your writing and of how it comes across to readers.  If you find that you’re not, well, that’s what beta readers are for.

Practice!!!

Descriptive Writing From Photographs  @ ProjectGrad

Descriptive Writing Practice — $2.00 download in my TpT Store

Writing Concisely @ The UNC Writing Center Online

A Novel Idea: The Only iOS App A Writer Needs

So, I got super-lucky this year and scored an iPhone for Christmas. I’m pretty infatuated with it so far, and I’m proud to say that Goodreads gets a top spot in my app list alongside Angry Birds and Bejeweled.

There’s something like 1 million apps available for iPhone users, free and paid, for pretty much every purpose on the planet. By some strange fortune or by divine guidance, I managed to find a total gem among all the games, podcasts, and pizza delivery assistants. My friends, I introduce you to A Novel Idea.

No matter what platform or device you use, there’s no shortage of apps and software programs designed for the fiction writer out there. I’ve tried many of them and was never fully satisfied. A Novel Idea is the first such program that looks like it was actually designed for writers, by a writer, and by one who understands the need for a certain balance between structure and chaos and is realistic in his estimation of just how much time most writers actually spend writing on their phones/tablets.

Open up the free version of this app and you get all the basics — Novels, Characters, Scenes, Locations, Ideas. You can add and edit an unlimited number of entries to each section, then leave them floating free or attach them. I went in and made a page for each character in one of my novels, then linked each character to the Novel page. I added scenes and ideas and linked them to certain characters and novels, I could even link characters by their relationships — So and So is Such and Such’s daughter/mother/sister/wife/boss. And the best thing is that all of this linking and customization is completely optional, and there are no annoying reminders or notifications that pop up if you choose not to include them.

This is just one aspect of the beauty of A Novel Idea. For each novel, you can include a title, plot details, themes, premise, point of view, and more details. And even better, most of the sections are free-writes, so you can add as much or as little detail as you like. The same goes for Characters, where you can key in gender, age, physical attributes, roles, species, internal and external motivation, conflicts, skills & talents, education, and much more. When you’ve got all that information together, you can create custom groups to put your characters or your novels or whatever into. I grouped mine by genre — fantasy and contemporary fiction — and then by trilogy, since some characters belonged to multiple books, etc., etc.

It’s a lot of information. But the layout is so user-friendly that it’s as if some excellent friend went and organized all my notes and files in a way that’s actually organized but doesn’t feel awkward to me. (I had a friend like that once. In college. After graduation we moved to separate states. Sigh.)

I am, as you could probably tell, in total head-over-heels love with this app. My only complaint is that the Pro version — which allows you to sync between your devices, your computer, and Dropbox; export to iTunes, turn off the ads, and write scenes with word counts — is on the pricey side for an app at $2.99. But, the app is so great for note-taking and world-building on-the-go (or when I get an idea in bed and don’t want to dig out my notebooks or drag out my laptop) that I plan to most willingly pay the price next payday. Bottom line — if you are a fiction writer and you own any iOS device, you should be ashamed not to have A Novel Idea.

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My NaNoWriMo Success Story (Due To Not Reaching 50k)

So, a while ago I posted a very upbeat blog about how well my first day of NaNoWriMo was going.  Well, that didn’t last long.  I haven’t made it to 50K and at this point, I’m not going to.  Although I really wanted to win (this is my fourth year participating without ever winning), I’m perfectly okay with not making it to the finish line.  I attempted it, which is more than a lot of other wannabe novelists can say.  Plus, every year I’ve learned something from Nano.

My first year, in 2008, I made it to approximately 45,000 word around 11:30pm the night of the 30th.  I was thiiiiiis close to joining the ranks of completed Nano novelists.  For a newbie who had never written more than 20 pages of one story in her life, I felt pretty damn good about it.  Getting interviewed on Baltimore NPR didn’t feel too bad, either.  Today, that novel is thiiiiiiiis close to getting finished, final publishable draft and all.  So close that after the holidays, I’m going to start stalking agents to get it published.  That year I learned that I can be a writer, I will be a writer.

My second year, I started the sequel to 2008’s novel.  Both were mysteries featuring the same private detective and a lot of angst.  I didn’t get very far with that novel.  Somewhere around 20,000 words, I believe.  I petered out because I didn’t have a sustainable plot line and I wasn’t sure where things were going.  I learned a lot more about my main characters, and I learned that plotting is absolutely essential to any writing, particularly mysteries.  I still have that draft sitting somewhere abandoned on my hard drive, waiting to be resurrected in the near future.  That year, I learned that my destiny as a writer isn’t to be a one-hit wonder, but with hard work and perseverance I can achieve my dream.

My third year, I was a senior in college.  I made the terrible, terrible mistake of using the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo in my creative writing class.  It was fairly well-received, my professor liked it and so did my classmates.  I had a ball moving away from any set genre or mode of writing and just letting out raw, unadulterated emotions onto the page (it was a story about a pregnant widow).  I got critiqued, a lot.  Which, as we all know, is not conducive to the NaNoWriMo style of writing.  Lesson learned?  First drafts are for the writer’s eyes only.  And sometimes, so are second drafts.

This year, I went back to that same story.  I guess I have trouble letting things go.  I completely scrapped last year’s draft and started over with some new ideas.  I wanted to write a powerful story about love, grief, death, sanity/insanity, and parenthood.  I didn’t want to follow the “rules” of conventional storytelling; instead, I paid homage to my favorite style of writing, postmodernism.  I randomly switched between narrators, added flashbacks where I felt like it, used swear words and uncomfortable topics of discussion.  I learned that even though there’s a lot of elbow grease behind the process of writing, where it comes from is the heart, always.  That was learned most acutely when I started crying at my computer because I could really relate to what my main character was doing/saying.

I love NaNoWriMo.  There’s nothing like an impossible challenge or a group of kindred souls to get me motivated.  But even though I didn’t win, it’s been a great process year after year.  And isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?