Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When the "Non" Is Everything (Jennifer Castle)

A few months ago, just as I was settling in to start drafting a new manuscript, I did the worst, most counter-productive, generally dumbass thing this writer can do when she's settling in to start drafting a new manuscript:

I read a fantastic book.

It was a "contemporary" YA love story. It made sense to read it at that moment in time. After all, I was beginning work on a "contemporary" YA love story. Except suddenly, compared to this book, my "contemporary" YA love story was a pale shadow of a piece of garbage on the bottom of an out-of-style mateless shoe in the back of my closet. I wanted my book to be a fraction of how wonderful this book was, and I had no idea how to make it that way. Suddenly I was doubting everything I had planned and envisioned for my new project. This was how I knew it was time to Put Away All The Fiction.

Normally, I voraciously om-nom-nom all kinds of fiction. I learn a lot from the books I enjoy, and even more from the books I don't. I feel like I get a little better, my storytelling instincts a little sharper, with each book I close the cover on. But when I'm getting into the meat of a new novel, all those "lessons" just confuse me. I work better if I don't have any other narrative voices in my head but my own, and nothing positive or negative to compare with my own inclinations. I need to be true to my own characters and story, and that means no philandering with other characters and story who might, in the light of self-doubt, seem much more attractive and interesting.

So after I Put Away All The Fiction, I Go To Town On Non-Fiction. This is my chance to explore a wide variety of memoir, essays, biographies, history, commentary, parenting advice, and humor. Now I have the excuse, and the motivation, to sink into the heartbreakingly transcendent world of Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo and the perspective-toppling David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. To feel empowered with Protecting the Gift by Gavin deBecker and snort-laugh with Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling.  I'll even get to that issue of National Geographic that's been sitting in the downstairs bathroom for three months.

With non-fiction, my world expands. I'm stuck cocooning at home with my draft, passing up social invitations and family activities that would put me out there experiencing stuff, yet I'm traveling far and wide. I'm meeting characters too wonderful for any author to create. I'm feeling smarter by the page. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, something I've read will seep into my draft. I really love this time, my time of all the non-fiction. It's like a vacation to reality.

However, I'm thinking we really need a better name than "non-fiction." Can we please refrain from using the prefix "non" with any kind of book? Can we come up with something that suggests all the things this kind of reading is, rather that what it is not? Hmmmm...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” -Erasmus/ Brian Katcher

They've taken over the basement. Now they want the house.

 On my last date before I met my wife, I asked the woman what her favorite book was. She told me it was Rainbow Fish. When I clarified I didn't mean as a child, she stuck with her current choice.

It knew right then it was not to be.

On my first date with Sandra, the woman who became my wife, I asked her the same question. She couldn't answer. Not because she doesn't read, but she really couldn't narrow the choices down to just one.


As you could tell from the picture above, bibliophiles should not marry. Now that we have a daughter, it's just getting worse, with her books becoming a force of their own.

We all have e-readers, and yet the physical books still continue to expand like some sort of sentient thing. When our basement flooded last spring, we used the opportunity to get rid of a lot of books we no longer read. Must have given away two hundred volumes.

The space is already almost gone.

When we travel, we have to pack an extra bag just for the books. Sandra hides a spare novel in the car, just in case she gets stranded somewhere.

All three of us have been busted by teachers for reading in class too much. My biggest culture shock when I lived in Mexico was the lack of English books. I was so desperate, I read Ethan Frome.

My daughter, Sophie, once had a breakdown when we just stopped at the library to return books at the drop box. It's the one time we succumbed to a tantrum.

We're like those people with hundreds of cats, only without the stink. When Sophie goes off to college, my sadness will be slightly tempered by knowing we can set up bookshelves in her room.

It's an addiction.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Joys of Reading (by Margie Gelbwasser)

My mom still talks about the days I hated reading.

Unlike my older sister who took books with her everywhere (including parties), I had no interest. She was Rory Gilmore before there was a Rory Gilmore. My mom worried and talked to teachers and continued to worry. It wasn't like reading was hard for me. I liked the books we read in class. I was in the top reading groups. I scored great on tests. It's just not something I wanted to do in my free time.

Then, came middle school. In seventh grade I had a teacher named Margaret Shmea. She had a HUGE metal cabinet in the back of her room stocked with books. The books were in every genre and we had to read at least two books a month and try every genre. When we were done, we'd get a little quiz to make sure we actually read the book. I started the process with a groan. I'm sure I even dragged my feet to that filing cabinet the first time I had to choose a book. But that's all it took. One time. Then I was hooked. I read S.E. Hinton's THAT WAS THEN; THIS IS NOW as my first choice. Then, came THE OUTSIDERS. I devoured the realistic fiction books. Was daunted by THE SECRET GARDEN, but couldn't put it down once I started reading. Fanstasy, sci-fi, thrillers. I read them all. I loved them all. My mother's jaw dropped to the ground. Now, she couldn't get me to take my nose out of a book.

I got the reading bug in 7th grade, but it has never left me. In high school, I devoured Norma Fox Mazer, Norma Klein, Ann M. Martin, Cynthia Voigt every realistic fiction book there was. I also loved mysteries like those by R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike. I went through an Agatha Christie phase too. Books were everything. When mean girls arrived, when the boys I heart, heart, hearted so much dumped me or didn't look my way, when my parents annoyed me, books were constant. I could escape my thoughts and reality and travel to another's reality.

When I hear parents talk about how their kids will only read ENTER GENRE, I tell them it doesn't matter. The key is that they're READING. Expose them to as many books as you can, but if you have a reader, let him be. To me, it came down choice. When I knew I could read ANYTHING, it was freedom.

These days, I follow that rule too. I don't care if a book is a contemporary "classic" or old world "classic," if it doesn't grab me, I put it down. I may be unforgiving in this respect (I give a book 5-10 pages max to determine if I'm going to stay with it), but it is what it is. Life is too short to read what you hate, and even shorter to not read at all.

Reading hungrily (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

Our assignment this month is to talk about how we read.

I read the way people eat: for nourishment, for pleasure, for life. I read every day.

I read on the train, in bed, on the porch, and when eating alone.

I read for connection, insight, inspiration. I read to be educated, shaken up. I read to be comforted or amused. I read to see what other books are out there, and how other authors approach their stories.

I visit imaginary worlds. I speculate on what the characters should have done, and what happened to them after the book ended, and why they acted the way they did. I revisit old favorites. I pile up new books in nearly every room of my house. I smell the pages and open the bindings carefully so as not to crack the spines. I download books to my e-reading app, though I mostly read from paper.

I can call to mind the covers and illustrations from books I read as a child, decades ago.

I have strong opinions on what the characters look like and how they sound and where they should have ended up. Sometimes I mentally edit the writer's words, and sometimes I am simply lost in admiration.

I devour books; I savor them; I nibble at them; I swallow them whole.

I was a reader before I was a writer, and will remain a reader as long as my brain is able to make sense of stories.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Spasmodic (Kristin Rae)

Spasmodic: adjective - occurring or done in brief, irregular bursts

That's pretty much how I've always read. Well, not necessarily brief, but definitely in irregular bursts. Sometimes I go through a stretch where I can't read enough or fast enough! More books, more books! Sometimes I can have three books going at one time and blaze through all of them, other times I'll be stuck on the same book for months, no matter how good it is. Depends on my mood, what I'm writing, if I'm drafting and my brain has no more room for anything else, the weather. Did I mention my mood?

The first time I really and truly remember getting sucked into stories was back around the third grade. My teacher must have adored Roald Dahl because I was only in her class half the school year (we moved), but we read The BFG and James and the Giant Peach. I think that was also the class that got me reading The Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynne Reid Banks. Oh, and The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Obsessed. My mom and I would spend hours in the library back then. More books, more books!

And when I got a little bit older, my dad started giving me the Mandie books by Lois Gladys Leppard. They changed my world. Here was a young blonde girl that was a small part Native American, just like me, who goes on adventures and solves mysteries and deals with loss and juggles friendships and travels the world. I still have books 1-28 on my shelf:

I hope one day to read back through them, and find books 29-40 to see how her story ends. 

During high school and college I didn't read much for ME. I was too busy writing papers on social deviance (college) or reading Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies and trying to understand those deep existential, metaphorical, symbolic or WHATEVER thoughts the authors were trying to convey (You mean it's NOT about a farm of animals??). I'm still scared of the "classics" to this day. I don't feel smart enough to get what I'm supposed to be getting out of them. Clearly, those aren't the books for me. I don't like to analyze what I read, I want to be entertained. I want to GO PLACES.

One summer, I babysat the four boys next door (YES, four at once o_O) and found a handful of the Harry Potter books on their bookshelf. It only took one nap time reading to hook me and I started building my own collection:

I don't know how y'all handled the wait between each book. I only had to wait for the last one :)

From there, I tried to get into adult books because that's what I thought I was "supposed" to read, being an adult and all. Besides Shannon Hale's Austenland, Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin, and everything ever written by Sarah Addison Allen (especially The Sugar Queen), nothing really grabbed me. Then my husband's cousin persuaded me to read Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and I will forever be thankful for that series. It was my gateway to YA. Fast forward over a handful of years spent devouring young adult books and attempting to write paranormal stories  myself, I found Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins and my eyes were opened to the world of contemporary YA. Talk about life changing. I suppose I would have started writing contemporary eventually, but that was my kick. What is it about authors named Steph(a/e)nie guiding me through life?

I'm very open to reading from the various sub-genres of YA, just to know what's out there, to get a sense of what works for me and what doesn't, experience new worlds with new rules. To be inspired for my own creativity. But first and foremost, I just want to ENJOY what I'm reading. I want to be entertained, as well as become emotionally invested. I like when a book makes me cry. I like when I'm still thinking about characters days later. I like feeling as if I just traveled somewhere else, with a new friend.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

words and pictures

Sunshine Comics was tucked in a strip mall off US-1. On Saturdays, I pushed through the door and breathed in the smell of paper and ink. The aisles were stacked with cardboard boxes. I'd crouch on the floor and search for buried treasure.

The guy at the cash register called me, "Chrissy." He'd slump in his chair, munching an Arby's sandwich, as I dug through the piles.

"Elves. She's always looking for elves," he'd say.

Yes, I was looking for elves. Wendy and Richard Pini's elves, to be more specific. Back in middle school, comic books were my sanctuary from the world. I wanted to be brave like Cutter, the leader of the Wolfriders. At school, I felt powerless, drifting through the hallways. Comics offered the promise of escape.

"Reading is magic," said the poster at Coral Reef library. I couldn't agree more. In second grade, I hid under the covers with a flashlight, reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I borrowed my sister's dog-eared paperback of The Hobbit. I read everything--the classics, too. And I never stopped loving comic books.

Years later, I re-read the entire ElfQuest saga. It was like visiting old friends. This time, I noticed details that I hadn't seen before. As I turned the pages in "Siege at Blue Mountain," I paid attention to the spaces between words and pictures. I noticed that my imagination was filling in the gaps, creating moments of action and dialogue, (or even complete scenes) that didn't exist inside the panels.

In college, I took my first class in creative writing. My professor encouraged me to trim excessive description and leave space for the reader. It's all about making choices. Pick a strong noun or verb. That's your secret weapon.

For the longest time, I'd heard the opposite advice. Students are often told to "add more" to their stories and essays. Finally, I discovered that it's not necessary to describe everything. Give the reader one or two important sensory details. Let them imagine the rest.

In a way, every reader imagines a different story in their mind. That's what makes reading so fascinating. I'm reminded of Wendy Pini's elegant pen-and-ink drawings, the way she evokes a character's inner thoughts in one small gesture. When I’m deep into a story, I forget that I'm reading words on a page. Then I remember: magic does exist.

comics and zines at The Newsstand, a pop-up store in the Brooklyn subway

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The Sweet Serenity of Books" -- Patty Blount

What a fantastic topic we have this month -- how we read.

Those of you who know me know I treasure books and chocolate -- set me loose in a book store and I'm like a kid in a candy store. Set me loose in a Godiva shop and I'm just the way I am when cut loose in a book store. :)

I want it all!

When I was little, books provided an escape while my parents argued or my sister annoyed me. If the story was really good, I could be present in the middle of the chaos but only in body -- my mind sucked into those pages as surely as if I were the one living them. Books were my friends, my heroes, my secret crushes (my very first crush was Joe Hardy in the Hardy Boys). Books taught me about sex (who remembers "Ralph" from Judy Blume's Forever?) A book soothed my fear when I was diagnosed with scoliosis at age twelve.

Quite simply, books are magic.

When I was in elementary school, I had few friends. I wasn't pretty. I wasn't athletic. I kept trying to fit into various things -- I tried student government and the only vote I got was my own. Even my few friends voted for someone else. I tried basketball -- meh. I tried track and field -- maybe. I tried out for dance club and didn't get in. There was only one thing I was good at.


When I grew up, nobody attended nursery school or pre-K. My first school experience was kindergarten at PS 32 in Flushing, New York. My mother, also a voracious reader, used to sit with me for hours teaching me phonix and simple words. By the time kindergarten started, I was reading those Little Golden books from the grocery store. Some of my favorite memories are our walks to the Queensborough Public Library branch on Francis Lewis Boulevard. She always let me choose a book that we'd read together.

As I grew, so did my love of books. I discovered Nancy Drew in second grade. We had a library period each week and it used to take me the whole week to finish a Nancy Drew novel. By the time I'd made it to the last book in the school library's collection, I was reading them in a single day. Today, if left alone, I can read half a dozen novels in a weekend. I moved on to The Bobsey Twins, Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys and Cherry Ames. Mom introduced me to non-fiction, too. I remember reading this enormous book called Karen. It was about Karen Killelea, a young girl with cerebral palsy. That book and Karen's story are what encouraged me to want to be a nurse when I grew up (I left nursing school after two years... a story for another blog post.) When I could choose my own books, I devoured Flowers in the Attic and Judy Blume.

(Mom doesn't know this but I read Sidney Sheldon's The Other Side of Midnight during lunch time trips to my grandmother's house.)

As I got older, I moved to romance. I read a bunch of Barbara Cartland stories and well -- they're just not my cup of tea. From there, I moved to the Harlequin Presents series and Harlequin Intrigue. Those were fun. When my sons were born, I tried so hard to carry on the same tradition. My oldest, sadly, doesn't enjoy reading the way I do, despite our trips to the library and our bedtime reading. But my youngest sure does. When he was little, I read him books 1 and 2 in the Harry Potter series.

Out loud.

I'm astounded I can still talk after attempting that.

I tried affecting a British accent and he loved it. We rented the movie and he was hooked when it occurred to him that his own imagination was way cooler than what the movie showed. We both dearly love the movies, though. As he grew, Harry Potter became "our thing." We waited anxiously for the next book or movie to be released and either read or saw it together. We had long and spirited disagreements over what the horcruxes would turn out to be and SPOILER ALERT! - whether Dumbledore was truly dead or just pretending.

Though my entire life could be measured by the books I've read, writing books was a dream I secretly nourished. When I told my mother I wanted to be a writer, she frowned and said I'd never earn a living doing that. I should find a real job. So, my first stories -- scrawled in the backs of math notebooks, never saw light. I was writing fan fiction before that was even a thing -- I used to write my own Hardy Boys mysteries. I graduated to actual fan fiction and when my son and I were immersed in Harry Potter, I used to stew over the fact that Rowling wasn't a trained writer -- she was a mom who wrote when her baby napped.

That inspired me to stop hiding my writing attempts and start showing them to people. I wrote mysteries, I wrote romances, I wrote stories about teenagers and even horror. My mother, who once said I could never earn a living writing, became my biggest fan. I wrote a romance called Border Lines about a doctor whose free clinic teeters on the brink of closure because neighbors are furious that she's providing care to illegal immigrants. The doctor falls for a British journalist who became so real, so alive for me, I still dream about him though I finished this book about seven years ago. When it was done, I sent it to Mom, who encouraged me to get it published. I queried a bunch of agents but never got a nibble and eventually, put it aside to write SEND, my debut novel. One evening, I was channel surfing and found Dancing With the Stars. (I don't watch much TV because evenings are my writing time.) With my jaw dangling, I called my mother and told her to turn on that channel. The man dancing the salsa was my journalist character! The actor dancing turned out to be Gilles Marini -- the famous naked neighbor showering outside in the Sex in the City movie. Though Gilles is not British and didn't have a pony-tail, his manner, his appeal and general look are so much like my character, my mom and I became instant Gilles fans.

I even went so far as to stalk friend him on Facebook to share this story. He replied "Border Lines sounds like an interesting project. I wish you good luck with it."


Where was I? Oh, right. Books. These words are painted on my living room wall:

The love of learning,
the sequestered nooks,
and all the sweet serenity of books.

I read for fun, for education, for inspiration, for escape. I read because books are magic. Who reading this blog post has read Gone Girl and didn't want to murder those characters? That's magic. Who's read Harry Potter and wished you could attend Hogwarts? Do you remember reading under the covers with a flashlight, just one more chapter? Missing a subway stop because you forgot you were on the train? Slept with the lights on because Stephen King scared the tar out of you?

It's all magic.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How Reading Saved My Life by Jody Casella

Last week I visited a children's lit class at a college to give a talk on what it was like to be a writer. During the question and answer period, a student asked if I had any advice on how she could share books with her future students when she herself did not like to read.

I blinked at her for a few seconds. Of course I realize that there are many people in the world who don't like to read. But I guess I had hoped that teachers--people who teach reading to children--would not be among that number.

"Wait," I said. "You don't like to read?"

Several other students shook their heads. They didn't like reading all that much either.

I started to give what I hoped was a non-judgmental, thoughtful answer: "Maybe you can share books that interest you with your students. Read stories you enjoy, and those kids (and you) might end up liking reading after all."

Then I stopped again. "Wait. How can you not like to read? What a tragedy!"

Some of the students laughed uncomfortably.

"No. I mean it," I said. "That's horrible. Because some of the kids you will teach are going to need books."

I know this because I was one of those kids, and it is not an exaggeration to say that reading saved my life.

A weird introverted damaged kid, I found the world of books to be safer and quieter and more predictable than the real world, so, no dummy, I escaped into books whenever I had the chance.

The first time this happened was when I was eight years old. One of my aunts gave me the first three books in the Trixie Belden series. For those who aren't familiar with Trixie Belden, these are mysteries kind of like Nancy Drew (but way better--I'd argue). Each book has a mystery to solve, adventure and danger, but it's all fairly tame.

What I loved about the books was not the mystery anyway, it was the characters who seemed like real people--Trixie, her friends, her brothers, and her sweet, watchful-but-in-the-background parents--and the world, a quiet rural farm in the Hudson River Valley. There was a romantic interest too (also ridiculously tame by today's standards) loyal and resilient Jim, a runaway who found that he was an heir to millions but planned to use the money to open a camp to help abused orphans like himself.

I read the three books eagerly and that kind aunt caught on to my new obsession and bought me the other books--all sixteen that were written at the time. Basically these were the only books I owned. I remember being afraid when I started the 16th book, knowing that when I was finished, that was it. The end of Trixie Belden. It was like a physical pain when I closed that final book.

And it was a delicious revelation when I realized that I could pick number one up again and start all over.

I read tons of other books throughout my childhood. Other mysteries. Fantasies. Time travels. Ghost stories. There was an awesome librarian at my local library, who must've noticed me, the weirdo bookworm perusing the shelves every week and checking out everything I could carry home. She pointed out books she thought I might like. After a while, she had a stack waiting for me. She took me out for lunch one afternoon and it ranks right up there as one of the highlights of my sad little life.

When I was a teen I kept reading. I skipped over YA for the most part (that didn't really exist as a genre back then) although there were a few books--Forever by Judy Blume, The Flowers in the Attic series--that I read. I also read whatever my mother had lying around. Stephen King. Sydney Sheldon. Danielle Steel.

Sometimes, in secret, I reread my Trixie Belden books.

I lost track of the set when I went to college and I felt like an old friend had died.  Years later I was browsing around in a used bookstore and I found all sixteen. I burst into tears. I think I paid like twenty bucks for the whole shebang and I started reading the first book before I left the store. One paragraph and I was back in--not just into the world of Trixie, but somehow back into the world of me at age eight.

I remembered that sad dreamy little girl I was, the kid who, thank God, had been given the gift of reading and of books.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reading for Exhilaration (Amy K. Nichols)

I love books. Love books. But I've never really considered before how I read them.

A friend of mine, also a writer, reads very deliberately, a book in one hand, a pencil in the other. She dissects pages, paragraphs, sentences. She analyzes word choice and sentence progression. When I hear her talk about her reading process, I marvel. I don't read this way. Not with novels, at least.

I do analyze short stories. They're short, you see, and I can hold their entirety in my head. Taking a pencil to a short story like a surgeon wields a scalpel isn't as daunting as my friend's novel dissections. With a short story, I typically read it through once for pleasure and a second time (or more) to figure out what the author did and how.

But novels are a different animal, for me at least. Novels are for being swallowed up by, for getting lost in, for escape and exploration and adventure. When it comes to novels, I read for exhilaration. I'm looking to be wowed. I read in anticipation of the gasp -- the moment the story takes my breath away.

When that happens, then I'll go back (either in that moment or later, if the story is too gripping to put down) and look at how the author worked his or her magic. That's what reading is for me: a kind of magic. I really have no agenda other than to be swept up and carried away.

Most of the time the gasp comes from the events of the story itself. A recent scene that took my breath away was in Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just  sum it up with two words: water bucket. Wow. That gave me goosebumps. I literally gasped. Then I set the book down in my lap and took a minute to contemplate the event, its impact on the story and on me as a reader.

Sometimes, though, the gasp is over a technique an author used. I'm currently reading The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, and came across a passage that wowed me as a writer. (I can expound on this one without fear of giving anything away.) The protagonist tells a story to his friends, and the story is given its own chapter. During the telling, the protagonist's friends interrupt, asking questions and arguing a finer point of the story. Rothfuss handles their intrusion with several lines of italicized, unattributed, quotation-marks free dialogue. In a simple, unobtrusive way, the reader is reminded that the chapter is the telling of a story within a story (within another story, actually), as well as reminded that there are people other than the reader "listening" the tale, and that those others have their own opinions, questions, reactions. It's brilliant. It impressed me in a different way than the passage from Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it impressed me nonetheless. As a writer, I learned from that reading.

Sometimes I wonder if I should slow down and analyze books deliberately, like my friend does. My writing would probably benefit from such study, as I'm sure hers has (her writing is gorgeous!). My fear, though, is that my joy of reading would suffer, and that just isn't something I'm willing to sacrifice. Reading for exhilaration, relying on the Gasp Method, may not be the most scientific way of reading, but I've found it's what works for me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET and Other Guilty-Pleasure Reads (Nancy Ohlin)

I have always felt torn between literature and guilty-pleasure reads.

I spent the first decade of my childhood in Tokyo, first attending an all-Japanese kindergarten, then an American school for military families.  Back then, I didn’t read Charlotte’s Web or Black Beauty.  Instead, I read manga—lots of manga.  I was especially fond of Sally the Witch, Princess Knight, and Astro Boy.  

When we moved to the U.S. (I was almost ten at the time), I discovered the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.  In my favorite, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, twelve-year-old Betsy pens short stories in a notebook that she keeps hidden away in a cigar box.  Here is the title page of one of those stories:

The Repentance of Lady Clinton
By Betsy Warrington Ray
Author of Her Secret Marriage, The Mystery of the Butternut Tree,
A Tress of Golden Hair, Hardly More Than a Child. Etc. Etc.
Young Betsy is inspired by dime novels like Lady Audley’s Secret, which she and her best friend Tess read in secret.  To straighten Betsy out, her parents get her a library card pronto so she can immerse herself in real books like Tom Sawyer, Don Quixote, and Gulliver’s Travels.  
I totally would have gone for Lady Audley’s Secret instead.

My high-brow, low-brow inner battle continued in later years.  In high school, I was a quintessential nerd.  My face was usually buried in serious tomes like Middlemarch, Dubliners, and The Great Gatsby.  I loved those books, but I loved Sidney Sheldon, too.  I must have read his very racy page-turner, The Other Side of Midnight, about twenty times.  And Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann?  What’s not to like about a bunch of smart, unhappy women popping pills?

These days, my guilty pleasure list consists mostly of mysteries (Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. D. James, Martha Grimes, and Elizabeth George, among others).  If I have a free afternoon to read (which is rare, given that I write full-time and have a five-year-old), and I have a choice between The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner and a National Book Award finalist that my friends are raving about, I will be genuinely conflicted.  

Of course I want to read an amazing, critically acclaimed novel.  But at the same time, I crave the easy thrill I can get from the escapades of Perry Mason (or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple—or Astro Boy).

What are your favorite guilty-pleasure reads?  Do you read them with or without the guilt?


Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Life Story in Books (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I always begin any presentation I do about my writing by saying that I became a writer because I was a big Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, the Babysitter’s Club books everything by Judy Blume). I took out the entire Nancy Drew collection in one summer and then started on an adult mystery series my mom was reading, The Cat Who Books, mysteries solved by Siamese Cats. Best thing ever.
reader. I devoured books as a child. I always won prizes for reading and reviewing the most books during my local library’s summer reading program. I found books I loved and read them over and over again (especially the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the

I definitely read up because by 10, I’d been through all those Judy Blue books about a billion times and I couldn’t wait for the next Sweet Valley novel (Twins or High, I read them both, though the high school drama of the Wakefield sisters was way more interesting.) I wandered into the adult section discovered V.C. Andrews because man, those old keyhole covers of hers were cool. Once I’d read through all of her twisted and creepy worlds, I was ready to be seriously scared so I raided my dad’s Stephen King collection. (I hung out in my parents’ bedroom a lot in the summer because they had the only air conditioner—selfish parents!) I also read all of the Lord of the Rings books in a month and checked out every Piers Anthony and Ursula Le Guin book I could find. Oh and as a big Star Trek: The Next Generation nerd, I read all of those books, too. Imzadi was the best because it was sexy. Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, romance, contemporary, I loved it all. I didn’t have a ton of friends and I went through my share of bullying, so whether  the world was fantastical or horrifying, it was my escape.

I didn’t limit myself to fiction either. I spent one summer dipping into my mother’s complete works of Shakespeare. Her shelves were also where I first learned about feminist theory and discovered one of my all-time favorite big books, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. In high school, I read a lot more poetry and non-fiction about politics, feminism, and psychology as well as Anais Nin’s diaries and memoirs like Girl, Interrupted. My fiction of choice was The Bell Jar and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was going through some shit that made me feel like a crazy girl so I wanted to read about institutions. Oh and since there were a lot of drugs in my life, Trainspotting was kind of my bible, too. I loved Francesca Lia Block because her characters were haunted but beautiful and strong. I loved Poppy Z. Brite because her characters were haunted, beautiful, and self-destructive. I read to understand, to try to survive.

College is when reading slows down for a lot of people, but not me. I majored and went to grad school for Creative Writing so my life stayed filled with books. I read more of the classics then (and revisited some I’d read in high school): Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, The Grapes of Wrath became my all-time favorite book, and even though we were only assigned part of it, I read all of War and Peace (though my friend and I joked that it would have been better if it had just been Peace and Princesses because the war parts were kind of hard to get through.) I also discovered a bunch of contemporary authors that I adored: Dorothy Allison, Joe Meno, John McNally, Louise Erdrich (actually a rediscovery because she’d been on my dad’s shelf), Toni Morrison (another rediscovery because she’d been on my mom’s), Jhumpa Lahiri. I was extra lucky because I had jobs that gave me downtime to read—I was a work study in the Fiction Writing Department office, so when I wasn’t answering phones or making copies, they were more than happy to see me reading, and I was a dayshift bartender, so I read until customers came in. This allowed me time for the books I chose in addition to assigned reading, especially during the summer, when I regularly reread the books that were out in the Harry Potter series in preparation for the next release.

After grad school, however, I fell into a reading drought. I was working full-time and writing when I got home.  Bedtime has always been my key reading time, but I was exhausted, and um, I’d also met a boy. Then my books came out and I was teaching and bartending and freelancing to support myself, working day and night. I kept up with the authors I adored, buying and reading the new Melissa Marr, Jeri Smith-Ready, and Sara Zarr as soon as they came out, but a lot of the books I was buying were just sitting in a pile on my nightstand or book shelves unread. Sometimes I had moments where I was my old self again. I remember starting Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott during a slow night at the bar. My shift ended at 2 am and the boy who was my fiancé by that point was always fast asleep by then. I couldn’t put that book down though, so I brought it into the bathroom with me and read until I’d finished at 4:30 am. Similar things happened with Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly, and Don’t Breathe a Word by Holly Cupala.  But they were rare exceptions in a dry spell that stretched five years.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt incredibly guilty about all the unread books that I knew were amazing that languished in piles around my house, so guilty that it was paralyzing. But then at the end of last year one of my best friends from high school posted a blog about her reading log for the year. Like me, she’d been a voracious reader since childhood, and now a mother to two small children, I knew her life was as hectic as mine, but she was able to keep reading. I should too, I thought. And her log reminded me a little bit of those summer reading programs at the library I’d loved at the kid, so I decided to start keeping a list at the back of my journal. Just the name of the book and the dates I’d read it, no reviews or anything like that because I knew too much work would dissuade me.

On average I’ve read four books a month this year. I fell off completely in June because of my cross-country move and it’s slowed down a little bit since then because I’m adjusting to a full-time job (but also because I’m reading Cassandra Clare’s books and they’re huge).  Once I started reading regularly, I remembered how much better it made me feel. It was my cozy escape again. It even helped me sleep better—well except when I couldn’t put a book down (Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt and 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma), but I’m sure my fellow  bookworms would agree that’s a totally legitimate reason for losing sleep.

What about you? What books defined your life? And have you had any reading slumps? How’d you get through them?

Friday, October 11, 2013


My favorite college prof told me that as a literature student, I had to forget “good.”  Other people with far better credentials than some wide-eyed sophomore lit major had already determined that the books I was reading were good—and worth of being included in the literary canon.  

I really connected with this prof’s approach to reading—I wound up taking about five classes with the guy, everything from literary theory to Brit lit to sci fi.  And in each class, instead of deciding whether or not I thought a book was good, I tried to dig out why others had.  Was it the “universal truths”?  The literary techniques?  Why did this particular book survive to be taught, while others fell to the wayside?  

Even though I finally stopped reading with a pencil in hand (in order to take oodles of notes down the margins) when I graduated, I still do generally read in the same manner: I forget good.  I think, “An agent decided to rep this.  A pub house shelled out money to acquire it.  Sales and marketing teams were sent out to get booksellers excited about the book.  Why?  Why did an editor acquire this book, and not the others in the towering stack on his / her desk?”

I rarely, if ever, give up on a book—I might skim, but I never quit completely.  I just have to get to the bottom of that question I learned to ask nearly twenty years ago…Not is it good, but why did someone else say it was good?  Every author has some admirable quality: Great dialogue, pulse-pounding plot twists, fabulously flawed (and ultra-human) characters.  I feel it’s my job, in a sense, to find the good in each book I read.

…There are points, though, when pure enjoyment takes over.  When the reader in me pushes the writer / old lit student out of the way.  In those beautiful instances, I find myself asking why that happened.  Often, though, there is no technique I can point to definitively.  Those are the times, it seems, when magic takes over.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Voracious & Eclectic (Sydney Salter)

Reading is like chocolate--it's all good. More is better. And I'm willing to try anything.

Books & truffles: equally colorful and delicious!

When my first daughter was born 18 years ago, I started to keep a list of the books I'd read--because I feared that my brain would shrivel up with baby-talk and dirty diapers. I need not have worried. That child challenges my brain more than anything, but that's a whole other blog post. I treasure my little book of books read.

I read to keep myself out of college. Otherwise I'd study anything and everything, happily collecting majors and degrees forever and ever. Buying books is less expensive. I think.

I meander through through my to-read stack. Right now I'm finishing a biography of Cezanne because he was mentioned in an odd little "alphabet" book about the artist Antoine Watteau that I discovered while taking a workshop on collage writing. Random recommendations guide much of my reading. Last year I used my holiday gift cards to buy the year's best books list from The Atlantic Monthly (a fun mix of nonfiction, history, and novels). I'm a sucker for a compelling author interview on NPR.

A few years ago, I decided to read all the books that I encountered in the media on June 15th. I read about world economics, psychology, wine corks, and William Shatner's biography (thanks Parade Magazine!) which turned out to be the best of the bunch.

Right now my reading gift to myself is a subscription to Powell's Indiespensable book club. Every six weeks or so I receive a signed book and some goodies. So exciting--and mind-stretching!

Exploring an eclectic mix of books sparks my creativity as a writer. Reading about Cezanne's artistic suffering sure inspires me to push myself as a writer.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

How I Read (and, oh, how I love to read!) - Jenny O'Connell

How do I read? As often as possible. I would spend all day reading if I could. Just about every room in my house has a book or books stacked on a table. I have a book by my bathtub (I love to read in a bubble bath), in my kitchen (so I can grab one on the way out to the patio and the pool), in my office (where I also have stacks of books I've read waiting to be given away to someone I think would love them), on the desk in my kitchen (so I can grab one on my way out the door), and, of course, on my night table (a little bedtime reading). I even have books on my bedroom floor, mostly because I can't fit them all on my night table.

I hate finishing books I love (just finished Sonya Sones' latest and LOVED it, was so sad to turn the last page). And then there are books I can't really get into but feel I should read because of a review or recommendation (those are most likely the ones on my bedroom floor and, honestly, I rarely actually end up finishing them). The "to be read" pile is typically the one on the shelf in my kitchen. And the "in progress" books are the ones on my night table and kitchen desk. The bookshelf in my office houses books I can't bear to part with and will keep, in addition to the ones I hope to give away to some lucky friend or reader.

I typically don't continue reading a book if I really am not enjoying it. I truly believe that life is too short to spend time reading something that isn't giving me joy. I get that not every book is for everyone (I've read books I've loved and my best friend, who is like my twin, didn't like it at all) so I don't feel bad. The author got their royalty from the sale of the book, even if I didn't have the reaction I'd hoped, and as long as authors continue to get paid and publishers continue to make money, I'll continue to have books to read - and that makes me happy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It Might Look Like a Hot Mess--by Kimberly Sabatini

This month at YA Outside the Lines we are talking about how we read.

If you go way back, you'd find I've always read voraciously. One book at a time--from cover to cover. I'd bring a paper grocery bag to the library and fill it. Then I'd waddle home and dig in. When I got to the bottom, I'd fill it back up and trade it in for a new bag.

One of the happiest memories of moving into my new house in the 5th grade was finding out my bedroom had a built in bookcase to house my treasures. Books!

Whether it was a library run or pulling my favorites off my own shelves, I read as many books as I could get my hands on and reread all of my favorites over and over again--one book at a time from cover to cover.

This pattern lasted until I had kids and became a writer. Those two events are uber catalysts for change.

Now my reading style looks like a hot mess. I'm all over the place, reading 10-15 books at once. What happened? At first glance it all looks so unorganized. Kind of like my kitchen junk drawer or maybe I'll my drawers and most of my closets. And don't forget the garage. But the truth is there is a method to my madness and I kind of like it.

Here's how I read now...

*At night, in bed, I love reading good old fashioned books with a book light attached. I've been doing it this way for as long as I can remember. When the covers come up and the lights go out, I pull from the stack of books on my night stand. (That stack is big enough to be a night stand.) And I don't think it's going to get smaller. Just looking at it makes me want to sit home and read all day--and get to bed earlier.

*I also like to have a book with me at all times--ya know--for emergencies. Long bank line? Whip out a book or a twenty, because you can do that with an e-reader! And the cover won't get crinkled in your bag.

*Because I'm actually a slow reader, I LOVE audiobooks. They allow me to read while doing other things. I listen to books while I'm driving, folding laundry, running and I even have a mini-speaker so I can listen while I'm in the shower. Lather up and tell me a story. And I love listening to a great voice, it takes the book to a whole other level.

*One of my favorite things in the world is to read books aloud to my boys. (Yes, I do voices.) Don't ask me to bake with them or do crafts. Not my thing. But I usually read to them every night for 30-60 minutes with 3-4 different books going at once. They love it. I love it. It's my idea of perfection. We also have an audiobook we listen to in the car when we're all together.

*Additionally, I like to always be reading a book on the craft of writing. It might be a nuts and bolts book that teaches me mechanics. Or it might be highly inspirational. Either way, I always have at least one of those books in progress, even if it takes me a while to get through it.

*Similarly, I also seem to find a variety of other non-fiction books that interest me. Sometimes I read them on recommendation. Other times they are for research for a manuscript I'm writing. Other times they are motivational also. Some times it's as simple as paying attention to what keeps crossing my path and realizing that I keep seeing it or hearing about it for a reason.

*Somewhere in this mix is also some adult fiction. I love MG and YA and read it profusely, but I also think there is value in reading fantastic adult literature, too. (The key word is fantastic) I just finished the audio version of A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS and the personal and professional take-aways were immense.

*In the past I read solely as a fan-girl. Now I also read as a writer and most of the time, I wear both hats, although there are books where I am so wrapped up in the moment, I need to return to the book later in order to fully grow as a writer.

*As and author, I also have the pleasure of reading advanced copies of books for review. I've clearly explained in the past that I do not negatively review. It's not something I'm comfortable doing as an author, but I do enjoy actively promoting books I LOVE. And know that if you hear me say something wonderful about a book, I've meant it. I've got a lot of love to share.

*I no longer reread favorites the way I used to. *sniff* I think this because there is so much I want to read and not enough time to take it all in. But on the flip side, I always used to finish every book I started, even books I didn't like. Now I've started giving myself permission to DNF books that are taking away time from books I want or need to be reading.

And there you have it--how I read. Maybe it's a hot mess and maybe it isn't. All I know is it's what currently works for me. And at the end of the day, I'm reading and loving books.

What's the quirkiest way you read? Tell me so we can be a hot mess together.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Writer Reads:Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle

I’m reading Dream Thieves right now, book 2 of Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle. It is lush and brilliant and I’m turning the pages as fast as I can. Well, more accurately, pressing next on my Kindle, but let’s not quibble. I love this story; I could hardly wait for the new book to come out once I read Raven Boys last year. It’s my favorite of her books—there is just something about the characters and depth of their relationships and the complexity of the story being woven that gives me great pleasure.

But I’m a writer reading another writer. So I’m also learning. It goes with the territory. I honestly can’t imagine any writers who aren’t in some sense students of other authors’ work. You read, but also observe the underpinnings: how they move the plot; how they develop their characters; their word choice and punctuation choices (or lack thereof); the division between act one and act two and act three; how their dialogue is written and how the narrative is done.  You look at everything, I think, unless you’re reading a genre far removed from yours, which is why sometimes I need to read non-fiction essays or a biography so that I won’t be looking for all of those things—at least not the same way. And in Stiefvater’s case, the vivid and specific sensory description she uses throughout.

In the case of the Raven Cycle, Stiefvater has chosen to tell the series in 3rd person, past tense. This allows her some writerly turns of phrases that possibly couldn’t exist in 1st person – particularly 1st person present tense. I think about that as I read. I’m working on a couple projects right now:  I’m editing The A Word, which is next year’s sequel to my Sweet Dead Life. It is told in 1st person past tense.  I’m about to begin edits on Finding Paris, told in 1st person, present tense, a book that will be out in 2015. I ‘m thinking about both of them as I read Dream Thieves.

Here’s some of what I see and  ponder: How Stiefvater uses adverbs, which she judiciously does, often set up either humor or horror. How she sets up her dialogue, particularly when there are multiple characters in a scene, which happens frequently. Her word choice and description and how it is – to me – clearly influenced by the fact that she is by craft and profession also a working artist.  Also it’s freaking amazing.  A character’s smile is ‘sharp and hooked.’  Clothing during a fight doesn’t so much rip as it ‘parts.’  Womens’ mouths ‘twist’ into smiles. Lips are ‘lifted’ from teeth.  A smile is ‘plum and wicked.” And on like that. I’m not that far yet, but let me say that Chapter 14 of Dream Thieves is particularly phenomenal.

I love that the act of reading is a classroom for me. I really do.

How about you? What are you reading? What authors are you learning from? Let me know! I’m genuinely curious.