Monday, March 31, 2014

April Fools, April Smarts

by Elizabeth

On Friday, Susan talked about literacy. In a list of sad statistics, what struck me the most was the depressing fact that over half the low-income households in our country contain no childrens' books inside. I can't imagine my own childhood sans books. My own kids spend probably half their leisure hours with their noses  stuffed into a story, and we are fortunate, I realize, to have shelves crammed with books throughout our house.

Tomorrow is April Fool's Day. Why don't we all do something about that?

The May 1 when my daughter was two, we visited the local flower shop and bought a dozen roses, then stood on the walking trail and she handed them out with a "Happy May Day!" I love that archaic holiday, a completely selfless celebration of beauty. No one much celebrates it in the 21st Century, which is a shame as far as I'm concerned. Since that first flash of brilliance on that spring morning, nearly every year we've made May Day bouquets. We usually target a woman over sixty as the recipient, though they've been gifted to friends, relatives, strangers, teachers. Delight is the universal response, and in a month, we'll repeat the tradition.

But now, inspired by the statistic of too many homes having too few books, I've decided to start a new ritual. I'm going to hand out books. Mostly to kids. "April Smarts!" I'll say, and I'll resist the urge to slip a spider down the back of their shirt as I hand off a copy of Junie B. Jones or Harry Potter or whatever story the child chooses from my stash. Probably I'll concentrate on little kids the most, partly because those are the kids I'll be able to easily encounter while my own kids are in school all day. But I'll have a variety of books on hand, from picture books to engrossing reads that might turn a thirteen-year-old on the cusp of becoming a lifelong non-reader into a bookworm. And yes, I'll head beyond my usual comfortable middle-class stomping grounds and seek out families who might not have the disposable income to say "Yes" if "Can I buy this book?" is asked. Sure, I realize this probably isn't going to dramatically change anyone's life. But it might change their day, and who knows what happens from there.

Want to join me? April Smarts Day is tomorrow. I'm going to gather at least 20 books to give away to kids (and maybe a few to hand off to adults as well). What about you?

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Literate World

By Susan

Pamela wrote on Wednesday about reading and writing poetry to broaden your mind, vocabulary, and to improve your writing skills.
This week I planned to piggyback on her post by writing about the benefits of reading short stories. Instead, I stumbled over several statistics regarding literacy rates and decided to save my short story post for another week. Today, here are a few statistics I wanted to share:
  • Only 50% of America's population reads at or above an 8th grade reading level.
  • 21% of Americans read below the 5th grade reading level.    
  • Between 69%-85% of America's prison population* is illiterate. (Take a moment and allow that to sink in.)
  • 80% of US families did not buy a book this year.
  • Over 60% of low-income families have no children's books in the home. 

I assume if you are reading this blog that writing and reading topics are important to you, and that these statistics may not apply to you or your household. In many ways, you may feel helpless to change any of these statistics, and yet I feel that you can. Here are a few resources and programs to consider.

Donate books and money:
         The International Book Project ships gently used books around the world and domestically.  In Kentucky, where they are based, they also partner with Habitat for Humanity to provide a home library for new homes constructed for low-income families.
First Book ships new books around the world to school and programs designated for low income children.
The Prison Book Project in Massachusetts collects and ships gently used books to prisons around the country. (I've looked into private book donations directly to prisons, but they cannot accept books unless they are from approved organizations.) 

Give your time:
  • ·      Through your local United Way, you can volunteer to be a reader to children, a tutor to students, or a mentor to both children and adults working to improve their literacy.
  • ·      Through TESOL, you can be trained and teach English as a second language here in the US. Need is particularly great in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New York.
  • ·      Start a book club. Our own Pamela leads a book club at a local nursing home for older readers. Not only do studies show that reading helps delay Alzheimer's, reading with a group of more experienced readers can help broaden your world-view, as well.
  • ·      Contact your local library for opportunities to volunteer or to help with reading programs.

*prison illiteracy rates vary by source. The first statistic I came across stated that only 15% of inmates are literate. Other stats said 31%, so I included both. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


By Pamela

Tucked away in my dresser, behind a tangle of tights and scarves, is a book of poems I contributed to in high school. Some bear my byline; others I wrote for a boy in my class who was too stoned to write his own--my first foray into ghost-writing, I suppose. In college I took an advanced English class and wrote more poems, long since discarded as binding them into a book required more forethought than our professor possessed and, by that age, parents were hardly clamoring to discover what we were writing in class.

Old Barn by Mike on Flickr
Since then poetry has been that distant cousin--someone I seldom see but enjoy immensely when I do. And then Friday night, during Ron Rash's talk at the DMA, something clicked. After sharing his writing process and listing his published endeavors--novels, short story collections and books of poetry--he began to read from his book of short stories Nothing Gold Can Stay. "Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out" features two men in a barn, birthing a calf. Hardly the stuff of poets, but poetry it was:
The men sat on the barn floor, weary arms crossed on raised knees as they waited for the calf to gain its legs. Carson leaned his head on his forearms and closed his eyes. He listened as the calf's hooves scattered straw, the body lifting and falling back until it figured out the physics. Once it did, Carson raised his head and watched the calf's knees wobble but hold. The cow was soon up too. The calf nuzzled and found a teat, began to suckle. 

The cadence in his phrasing--made even more lyrical with Rash's southern lilt--brings a poetic quality to the story that might seem rote in someone else's less-capable hands. Later he read a scene from another story that followed a young girl as she got caught up in the rapids and drowned. While both captivating and heartbreaking, Rash later said he rewrote the scene, which sounded effortless, about 25 times.

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Berg, not because her stories are particularly spellbinding, in fact, I sometimes confuse one story for another, but because her gift of language in describing an ordinary scene (particularly those with dialog) is poetic. Case in point, here's one of her recent posts on Facebook:
It is my habit, most mornings, to come into the living room with my first cup of coffee, to sit on the sofa and read a poem and then hold still, waiting for gratitude. It always comes, when I make space in the day for it. And I am reminded then of the beauty we enjoy despite the despair we endure. So as the sky lightens and a new day offers itself for consideration, I sip coffee and notice small things: a bird on a wire. A sky the color of weak tea, if tea were blue. The space beneath a table. The trumpetish formation of the petals on a miniature daffodil plant.
This accumulation of small, gentle things acts as counterpoint to the insults of yesterday: an account in the paper of child abuse, the worsening effects of climate change, Putin’s bullying; the invention of a watch/computer to serve as “companion” to your smart phone, first incarnation already obsolete. I sit in the quiet living room and watch the birds and the day breaking and rid myself of those other things as though they were burrs at my hem. I leave them lying there. I can’t destroy them, but I can leave them lying there while I go into the kitchen for cinnamon toast, the slices as thick as a small town phone book. And then, body and spirit buoyed up, I can come back and stand before them, hands on my hips, and consider what to do.
Her comment about starting most days with reading poetry wasn't lost on me. Surely her work is influenced by the reading of poetry just as Rash's work is buoyed by the fact that he is a poet who also writes novels and short stories. And so my goal is now to immerse myself in poetry. To lend my ear to the rhythm of the words and phrasing. Susan recommended I start with:

Serendipitously, April is NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month), and so we have less than a week to organize our thoughts and jump in with this to stretch our imaginations and see if we can write a poem a day. If that feels too ambitious, at least READ a poem each day, perhaps commit a favorite one to memory. I know I'm on board. Care to join me?

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Night at the Museum

By Elizabeth

Last week, Joan, Pamela and I braved Friday night traffic and ventured to the Dallas Museum of Art in downtown Dallas to listen to Ron Rash and Dan Woodrell talk books. It was no small feat for any of the three of us: Joan was coming off work, I've been crazy with family stuff, and Pamela had just had a really tough day. But we made it, and we were all glad we did.

Ron Rash (foreground) and Daniel Woodrell sign
 books after their talk at the DMA. 
For one thing, it was, as pretty much ever, fun to hear writers talk about their process, their ideas, their agonies and delights in this endeavor. But I think that night, even more than usual, it was just really good to get together with kindred minds and talk. About books, yes, including Rash's and Woodrell's. Anyone who encountered me last summer probably couldn't get me to shut up about Rash's works, three of which I consumed in fast order as the temperatures soared. (Serena; The Cove; and a selection of short stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay) Both Joan and Pamela bought a tome from each man's collection, and I expect to shortly hear them rave in a fashion not unlike mine. (Well, maybe not with the same zeal, less likely than me to accost strangers at Target. But still.)

That night, though, I have to say, even more than the author talk was just our simple talk afterward. Yes, we discussed our works-in-progress, where we are and where we're headed, and we talked about other books we've read and loved recently, but we also just talked about ourselves. About life and kids and joy and tragedy and it reminded me that as much as I love books, sometimes we need to pull our noses out of them and just go have some fun. Sometimes we need other people to remind us to get out and do, go and live, to love and to be.

Woodrell's latest book, The Maid's Version, is about a real-life tragedy that changed the course of a town and the lives of its inhabitants for generations. As he read selections from it, read his description of a doomed woman who lived a questionably moral life unapologetically up until the day she perished, I thought about the decisions we all make and how they might not affect our outcome at all. This particular woman lived a short hard life, but it was not cut short because of that, but rather because she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I guess the question that rises, at least for me, is if she had known her time was so short, would she have made the same choices? Would I?

Would you?

Friday, March 21, 2014

An Evening With Ross King

By Kim

Those of you who follow our blog may have noticed that we love posting about author events. With two ballerina daughters in constant rehearsal and poor night vision that makes driving a precarious adventure, it’s rare for me to be in attendance. One event I refused to miss was author and art historian Ross King’s lecture at the Highland Park United Methodist Church on the SMU campus on March 18th

My correspondence with King began back in 2009 while he wrote his phenomenal book Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven. His research uncovered mention of a landscape painter named Carl Ahrens who, in 1916, verbally attacked certain members of the Group. Intrigued, King found my website on Ahrens (my great-grandfather) and contacted me, hoping I could shed light on what might have provoked his remarks.

What you can't see is how much he gallantly stoops! *
I replied with a small treatise on the subject and also provided King with primary sources and the photograph of Ahrens featured in Defiant Spirits.  Over the years we've periodically traded e-mails and he has assisted me with sections of my manuscript that involve the Group of Seven and the WWI Toronto art community. I could not ask for a more gracious and knowledgeable expert.

King is a master at bringing art history to life in vivid, novelistic detail. His prose is literary, yet accessible, and never, ever dull. I devoured Defiant Spirits (420 pages) in a weekend. Joan Mora raved about Brunelleschi’s Dome. King’s latest book, Leonardo and The Last Supper, looks equally riveting.

Joan, a fan of all things Italian, also attended the lecture, as did my mother, who happily snapped the photograph for this post. (Thanks, Mom!)

At the pre-lecture reception, King inscribed books and chatted with anyone who came over to introduce themselves. He reminded me of my favorite college professor, a brilliant yet approachable intellectual. Undaunted by the line, he rushed no one. To those waiting behind us, I offer a virtual apology. I know we took more than our fair share of time when he offered to pose for photographs then rather than risk missing the opportunity later.

King spoke eloquently for the better part of an hour about Leonardo da Vinci and the stories behind how he came to paint his masterpiece, The Last Supper. As in his books, King did not shy away from pointing out his subject’s shortcomings. Leonardo’s contemporaries complained he stared at walls more than painted them and was often distracted by seemingly unrelated projects when he should have been working on his commissions. He also grossly exaggerated his expertise to win favor with Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. The Last Supper, contrary to popular belief, is not a fresco. It turns out that Leonardo’s creative process did not allow for working in such a piecemeal and rushed fashion. He experimented instead, which explains why the painting had already started to disintegrate in Leonardo’s lifetime.

If King had notes, I never saw them; he certainly never looked down. This is especially remarkable because he speaks using the same densely rich language in which he writes. At one point I glanced back to see if he used a teleprompter because I thought no one could have such an encyclopedic memory for names and dates. (I stand corrected.) King’s unusual accent, a melding of Canadian and Oxford English, combined with his height, confident tone, and gesticulating hands, make him an especially dynamic and authoritative speaker.

If you ever get the chance to see a Ross King lecture, don’t miss it. You may feel smarter simply being in the same room. I know I did.

* Photo by Deborah Downes

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Movies: When filmmaking and novel writing collide

By Julie

Last week, my husband and I saw a quirky little film at Christopher Kelly's Modern Cinema - Monthly Series at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The movie was Love and Air Sex, filmed in Austin, Texas. Here's the blurb:
When brokenhearted Stan (Michael Stahl-David) flies to Austin for the weekend in hopes of "accidentally" running into his ex-girlfriend Cathy (Ashley Bell), he arrives to find their best friends Jeff (Zach Cregger) and Kara (Sara Paxton) in the middle of their own vicious breakup. Before too long, battle lines are drawn - and with the Air Sex World Championships in town, anything can go down.
The movie was fun. It was silly in places, for sure, and downright obscene in several. (Though somehow the unapologetic cringe-worthiness of the raunchy parts somehow made it feel, I dunno ... less obscene? And apparently? Air sex competitions are a real thing. You cannot make this stuff up. Another blogger wrote, "Crude beyond belief -- and in the most endearing manner") But it was also a sweet romantic comedy with top-notch performances from lesser known actors, laugh-out-loud lines and scenes, unexpected developments, and a poignant, unpredictable ending. One of the best parts is that it was a real love letter to Austin -- and we all know Austin is Weird. Ultimately, not a terrible way to spend an evening. We enjoyed it.

What made it even better, though, was the live Q&A with the director, Bryan Poyser, who attended the screening. I introduced myself to him after the event and chatted for a moment, asking if he minded a wearing an honorary tiara here at What Women Write. Mostly I just listened carefully and took good notes as the audience asked intelligent questions and he responded. The takeaway for me was how similar the filmmaking process can be to writing, editing, and promoting a novel. A few things in particular stood out.


As a director, Poyser loves seeing his work on the big screen and believes it's the best venue, but he has to stay on top of technology and be "device agnostic." That means he makes certain choices in filming, bearing in mind how the movie will play not just on a theater screen, but on a big-screen TV, a computer screen, or even a phone screen. Love and Air Sex was immediately available on iTunes, so some of those choices were critical. Ultimately, Poyser said, a film is a film is a film, no matter how it's viewed.

As novelists, knowing our novel might be read not only on paper, but on an e-reader or phone screen might not change how we write it, but it certainly makes a difference in how we promote reading and books. We have to be device agnostic and meet our readers where they come to read.

Ultimately, a book is a book is a book, no matter what platform is used to read it.

Investment of time and balancing the work

Poyser talked about how filmmaking is really a three-year process. He spends a year developing the film, casting it, securing locations, and so on. He spends close to a year producing it. And he spend the better part of a year promoting it. In the meantime, he's thinking ahead to future projects, and trying to balance all the tasks in tandem.

Sound familiar, novelists? Being a published author is a balancing act, and it's a marathon, not a sprint.


Poyser didn't write the script for Love and Air Sex, so directing the film was like writing a whole new draft. His biggest task was making it personal--putting his "voice" into the produced film. This meant, for instance, writing additional bits that weren't just funny in general, but funny to him. He said the concept of air sex competitions was awkward (ok, downright embarrassing) to him as the director -- and that came across in the camera work and in the main character's interactions. Ultimately, for the film to work with Poyser at the helm, it had to have his stamp on it. It clearly had to reflect his world view.

As a novelist, your second and third and every additional draft is about being sure your voice comes across in the story. 


An audience member asked if the final cut was anything like his original vision, and whether the differences made it better or worse. Poyser said he hopes he never thinks a film is perfect in retrospect, because he always wants to be learning. As a novice filmmaker, he said reshooting a scene felt like failure. Eventually he realized it wasn't failure, it was re-writing. It was editing out the stuff that didn't work and making it the best it could be. Also, he said, because filmmaking is collaborative, the end result and the "accidents" made it different from the original vision, but often so much better. He pointed out one particular scene that was the actors' idea. He never would have thought of it, and it added a really winning moment to the film.

As a novelist, re-writing a scene that doesn't work isn't failure; it's an opportunity. And publishing a novel is a collaborative effort. Sometimes the editor or publicist or critique partner has an idea that ramps up the quality exponentially. 

What about you, readers? Can you think of other similarities in the process of creating these very different mediums? 

(Here's the trailer for Love and Air Sex. If you are easily offended, don't say you haven't been warned. I'd say even the trailer is a strong pg-13. The movie is unrated, but it's a definite R in my opinion.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

TED Talks You Shouldn't Miss

By Joan

Two weeks ago I blogged about how images inspire stories in us, referring to a TED talk from author Tracy Chevalier. If you’ve ever been on the TED site, you’ll know it’s not so easy to stop watching after one. There are over 1700 TED talks available to view, on philosophy, technology, engineering, culture, entrepreneurship, you name it. The talks have been delivered by all types of people: experts, cultural icons, even whiz kids.

I thought I’d share some literary talks I came across. 

Two powerhouse authors tackle creativity. This one from celebrated author Elizabeth Gilbert about ever-elusive creative genius. (Gilbert, by the way, is presenting again this week.) And of course, Amy Tan always entertains. Susan and I saw her in Dallas not too long ago and here she is speaking about where creativity hides.

Lisa Bu speaks about her discovery of reading after her dreams of a career as a Chinese opera singer were squashed. After moving to the United States, she discovered reading and shares how books opened her mind to new possibilities and introduced her to people she would never meet in person. “Books have given me a magic portal to connect with people of the past and the present.”

Karen Thompson, author of The Age of Miracles, speaks about fear. “If we think of our fears as more than just fears, but as stories, we should think of ourselves as authors of those stories.” She says, “Our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination. A kind of everyday clairvoyance.” As one of the most fearful people I know, I like her take on it!  

In case you missed it, last week Pamela shared a great TED talk from author Kelly Corrigan on the link between reading, vocabulary and communication. 

There’s a clever talk from former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. Five of his poems were set to animation in this intriguing look at life. I particularly enjoyed "Literary Amnesia" and "Forgetfulness."

And I’ll leave you with a talk from recent National Book Critics Award winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who talks about the danger of a single story. Her father was a professor, her mother an administrator. She was an early reader and writer, and read primarily British and American books. So her writing featured people who drank ginger beer and complained about the snow. It wasn’t until she read African authors that she learned literature could feature many characters, some like her, some like her housekeeper's family who were very poor. When she went to university in America, she encountered people who believed a single story about Nigerians. She learned first hand that if we are conditioned to believe something about a race or culture, we won’t learn the full story.

Have a favorite TED talk? Share it with us! Feeling uninspired? Spend some time with TED.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

So, You're Thinking About an MFA in Creative Writing...

By Susan
I borrowed this gorgeous logo from Oregon State University's program.

In January, I embarked on a new journey in my writing life by beginning my first residency for my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

Perhaps it was easier to choose a program than it should have been. Perhaps I should have spent more time worrying about my application, because once I made the decision to apply, things moved very quickly. And yet I'm very happy with my decision and feel as though following my gut was the right choice for me. I thought today would be a good time to share my own path to finding the right MFA program.

Think About It
I checked my journals for the accuracy of this statement, but it's true: I spent well over two years thinking about getting my MFA before I applied anywhere. By thinking, that means I made lists of pros and cons-- even excel spreadsheets comparing programs-- researched the costs of different programs, investigated faculty and visiting faculty, and attended AWP (The Association of Writing Professionals annual conference) which literally swarmed with MFA candidates and representatives from different universities. Before you apply anywhere, think about your motivations and ask yourself these questions:
  • ·      Why am I interested in an MFA?
  • ·      What do I hope to gain by having the degree?
  • ·      Am I prepared to be a full-time student and balance my life at the same time?

Read Up
I read Poets & Writers Magazine and spent hours comparing programs. Each year, their September/October edition is devoted to ranking MFA programs and is considered THE source for program rankings. I was able to quickly narrow my search to the low-residency programs, because I'm not in a position to relocate to go to school. This link to Poets & Writers can give you even more information to assist you in narrowing your search for the right program for you. In addition, are you interested in poetry, creative non-fiction, or fiction? Certain programs gear their fiction toward the short story rather than the novel. A new book by Chad Harbach, MFA vs NYC, just came out this year and may be worth the read. When reading up, make sure you ask yourself these questions:
  • ·      Which is better for me, a low-res or full-res program?
  • ·      What schools are most appealing to me, and why?
  • ·      Do I want an international travel option? Is the campus, location, and prestige of a program important to me, or not? How much weight do I give the P&W ranking?

Talk About It
I called friends who are currently attending MFA programs. Several were kind enough to email me detailed and well-thought out letters regarding their particular program and the pros and cons. I spoke to people I'd taken writing workshops from who were professors and writers, and weighed their opinions heavily. I talked to my agent. I called the schools themselves and talked to the program directors. Here are some questions to ask:
  • ·      What's been the greatest benefit to you regarding your program?
  • ·      To my friends who attend programs, what was the most important thing in choosing a program? (Hands down, the answer to this was the quality of the faculty and the one-on-one relationships formed with mentors.)
  • ·      What advice would you give me in researching programs?

Consider the Cost
I received early advice to not go into debt for an MFA degree. In this person's opinion, and MFA wouldn't make me a better writer, necessarily, but would function to give me connections into both the New York publishing world and the academic writer's world. I can say that in these first few months following my first ten day residency that I've learned things about my own writing and about literature that I wouldn't have been able to discover on my own. For that, I am already thankful. Yet when it comes to cost, ask yourself the following questions:
  • ·      How am I going to pay for this: government student loans (for which you must fill out a FAFSA to begin the process), credit cards, pay cash, or pull from your savings? If you can't write a check each semester, I'd advise that you pay for at least some of the cost. (I certainly wouldn't borrow for the entire amount, but I know many students who have.) Think long and hard about how to feel about debt before diving in to a program.
  • ·      What is the return on my investment by obtaining an MFA?
  • ·      Am I prepared for the workload, debt payments, and payoff in obtaining this degree?

Go With Your Gut
I choose the University of Tampa. Yes, the campus is beautiful.
I looked at several schools and narrowed down my top ten, then my top five, and then my number one choice. I based my decision on the quality of faculty and visiting faculty, the location of the residencies, and the newness of the program (my final choice, the University of Tampa, is only two years old, and isn't even ranked by P&W yet.) I made several phone calls, and spoke to the director of
the program, the administrator, and even  faculty before making my decision. I liked the personalized attention and their attentiveness to my questions. Here's what my gut told me:
  • ·      Personal connection was important. I liked the quick call-backs, the late-night email replies, and the friendly, honest tone from everyone I talked to at my chosen school. I liked the faculty list and researched them extensively.
  • ·      Geography was important. I narrowed my top five down to the southeastern US. This may not be as important of a factor to you, but for a multitude of reasons, it was to me.
  • ·      Reputation and other's opinions mattered to me. I took the advice of friends, professors, and other writers who knew things about the specific programs I researched. In addition, I was swayed by visiting faculty. (George Saunders, Karen Russell, Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Robert Olen Butler made a difference to me.)

In the end, I chose a new program so we could grow together. I liked the idea of building something and the enthusiasm that came with a new program. I love the connection I feel with my first mentor as I work with him and communicate regularly with him on my writing.

If you are looking into MFA programs, I'd recommend lots of research, soul-search, and investigation before you decide on a program. Good luck in your journey!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


(brought to you by Elizabeth) 

the act or habit of procrastinating, putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention: She was smart, but her constant procrastination led her to be late with almost every assignment.

(Definition courtesy of


Monday, March 10, 2014

Say wha?

By Pamela

Last week author Kelly Corrigan came to Dallas and unfortunately, we weren't able to hear her speak but I did enjoy this TEDx talk Susan told me about. If you have a few minutes, it's certainly worth your time to listen to her speak about literacy and what impact reading has on your life.

Here are some startling statistics she shares:

  • After high school, 33% of graduates never read a book.
  • After college, that number jumps to 42%.
  • When the state of Arizona forecasts the number of beds they'll need for their prisons, they look to the number of kids in fourth grade who read well.
  • The number one cause of divorce: poor communication. 
  • The number one predictor of occupational success is vocabulary. 

It's no secret that reading results in a better command of language, and Kelly goes on to talk about how reading builds vocabulary. I'm so grateful my young life began with a mother who read to me. I went on to love reading on my own and count my school librarians as some of my favorite educators. Today, I don't read as much as I wish, but no place feels more like 'home' to me than snuggling up with a book.

If you are a parent, you have the awesome responsibility of fostering a love of reading in your child. My three started out gnawing on board books and eventually 'cut their teeth' on reading solo the BOB Books and later Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss. When we closed the cover on one story, we often switched on a CD to listen to Junie B. Jones' antics (Lana Quintal is fabulous!) or The Boxcar Children as they drifted off to sleep. While it's too soon to see if they'll become a statistic and not read after college, I certainly hope they'll love to read as adults.

I think Kelly's comments about communication resonated the most with me, and at times I'll write a word and pause to consider 'Is this the best word? Is this really what I'm trying to say?' and it's not about using a big $5 word either--one that looks or sounds impressive. Simple, direct, succinct can go a long way in communicating my ideas. Like my girl said the other day: "I possess an amazing vocabulary ... in other words ... I know a lot of words."

Writers need to communicate not only their ideas to readers but also to those with whom they interact. If you're part of a writing critique group, expressing yourself effectively is key to not only giving feedback but receiving it as well. If you hand off your work to a reader for critique, are you expecting a line edit? A copy edit? Changes tracked? Overall impression? The same goes with giving feedback to someone else. Make sure you outline your expectations and ask what's expected in return.

Joan and I recently participated in a webinar which included an agent's 'critique' of the first two pages of our manuscripts. We both got ours back the other day with similar feedback--what we considered to be fairly nonspecific comments at the bottom of the second page. Apparently 'critique' can be interpreted many different ways and we, perhaps unjustly, expected something more than we received.

So, before this becomes a post about how reading affects how we drive, what we eat, who we marry and where we vacation (trust me, I think I can connect these dots), I'll close with a final caveat: You'll never regret time spent reading--to your child, by yourself, to an elderly friend. The challenge begins with: What should I read next?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Why re-read favorite novels?

By Julie

This week, I've been doing something I never, ever, ever, ever do. Or at least not since I was kid, when I did it all the time because I didn't think I'd ever run out of time and there seemed to be a limited number of books.

I've been re-reading a favorite novel of 2013. (Yes, it was in our 2013 roundup!)

Earlier this week, I'd finished whatever book I was reading (I honestly can't remember what it was--scary, and that's going to bug me!), and was hunting around on my iPhone ebook apps, trying to decide on something new. But something else caught my eye. I decided I'd -- just for a few minutes -- go back and read part of Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. It's young adult fiction, which I hardly ever read, and that makes the next part even harder for me to believe.

Instead of spending just a few minutes on the first chapter, or scanning here and there, I got sucked right back into the story of Eleanor & Park, and I'm almost finished reading it for the second time.

And guess what else? It's taught me a few lessons about what makes a good story and why someone would want to read a story more than once.

I've received flattering emails from readers since Calling Me Home released last year, and sometimes the sender mentions they've read it more than once, or plan to buy it even when they checked it out from the library so they can re-read it when they want to. One record-setting reader told me she'd read it three times that week. I was blown away. I thought, "I never re-read books. Do people have time to do that? Why??!! There are ... SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME."

Finding myself in that situation this week, I had to analyze it. If you know me well, I'm sure you're not surprised. I like to analyze everything, sometimes to the complete annoyance of my family and friends, especially my long-suffering spouse, not to mention my wonderful literary agent.

Here's what I came up with.

Three reasons why you'd re-read a novel, and specifically why I have not struggled to re-read Eleanor & Park at all, even though I never, ever re-read books:
  1. You miss a lot the first time.
    Because I loved it so much, I read it so quickly the first time around that I don't remember lots of the details and the "what happens next." I know how it starts, the general gist of the story, certain details and scenarios, and the end, of course, but so many of the layers are new to me again! In fact, I'm not even sure I noticed some the first time around. And I actually couldn't wait to find out (remember) what happened next. Which leads to...
  2. Re-reading a favorite book is like spending time with a good friend.
    If you really click with that person, the more time you spend with them, the better you like them, and the more you want to read between the lines and learn their quirks and nuances and inner beauty.
  3. As a writer, or aspiring writer, it's important to learn from other authors.
    It's the best school there is. If you're not reading, you're missing the best lessons around--good or bad. And if you are studying a subject and are a good student, you are likely going over the details more than once to fully understand the lesson. Which leads to ...
Three things I learned re-reading Eleanor & Park:
  1. A good beginning is a good beginning, and can't be underestimated.If the reader is sucked in at the beginning of the novel, it's going to happen again the second time, and maybe even more times beyond that.  This is why agents often only want the first five or ten pages in a query, or the first 30-50 pages in a partial request. 
  2. Characterization is key.
    I mean, it seems obvious, but. I had such a clear picture of Eleanor and Park as people in my brain, having never seen anything of these two but the cute little drawing on the cover of the backs of their heads, and the words and details and dialogue Rainbow Rowell used to make these characters climb into my brain and live there. Forever.
  3. Finally, and most important:
    It's about the story, stupid.

    If you spent much time around me, you've heard me say this. As writers, we spend so much time analyzing (that dirty word again) WHY a story is commercially successful. I mean, sure marketing and publicity and other things can make a difference in how a novel makes an initial splash, but novels that sell year after year after year, or millions of copies? It's about the story, stupid. And sometimes as authors we shake our heads. Especially if we disagree. Especially if we think the writing is just plain bad. "WHY THIS STORY?" we say, gnashing our teeth and yanking ourselves bald. Right after I gnash and yank, I shrug. The story struck a nerve, somehow, somewhere, with a large enough group of people with big enough mouths they talked about it and couldn't stop talking about it and before you knew it, it was a publishing phenomenon. So, Eleanor & Park. Here's a Tweet I favorited, then retweeted not long ago.

    Why? Because ... Eleanor & Park!!!! That's why. Plainly, this story wormed its way into my conscious and it's not leaving. Eleanor and Park are real, the story is real. No matter that it's fiction. It's like the Velveteen Rabbit. Sure he was made of stuffing and velveteen, but he was real to the boy. In the same way, when a story is that good, it becomes real and people can't stop talking about it.
I'm so glad I took the time and jumped in when there were loads of other books I haven't read yet. I feel like there are many more lessons here. Maybe you know some of them.

Readers, why would you re-read a novel, and what have you learned doing that? Which novels have you read more than once?

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