Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

You know that feeling you get when you read the final words of the last line in a really good novel or when the credits start rolling at the end of an awesome movie?

There are many ways to describe that feeling. Sometimes you don’t want the story to end, you yearn to stay in this fictional world for just a little longer. Sometimes you don’t really want to stay in this world, sometimes you’re just left with the sense that you will be forever changed by what you have just read or seen. Sometimes it’s something else you can’t really put into words, you just know that you loved it.

Well, for me there is a definitive word to describe this feeling: haunted.

When I come to the end of a story and I feel totally enamored with either the story, characters, or setting, or all three, it is most often because the story has left me feeling haunted. There are exactly three things that leave me feeling haunted: a mystery, an idea, or an emotion.

The Mystery

When a story ends leaving some piece of information withheld, some mystery unexplained, I am more likely to feel affected (or haunted) by the story. One of my favorite movies is Waking the Dead, an independent film starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly. SPOILER ALERT: When the credits roll, the viewer is left wondering whether or not Jennifer Connelly’s character is alive or dead. Most of the movie is spent watching Billy Crudup’s character, Fielding, suffer with this mystery. When the movie ends without a definitive answer to this question, it leaves the viewer feeling almost as haunted as Fielding.

The Idea

Sometimes a story sparks an idea in your mind that you can’t seem to forget for days, weeks, or years. One of my favorite books is Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. I first read this book when I was sixteen years old and incredibly impressionable. When I came to the end of the book I found myself haunted by a simple but absurd idea: anything is possible. It may sound corny or naïve, after all people aren’t telekinetic and it’s physically impossible to swim in a field of grass… or is it? This book taught me to open my mind to the possibilities of the universe. The idea it planted in my mind was life changing.

The Emotion

When a story leaves you extremely sad or uplifted, you are usually reluctant to close the book. People want to experience deep emotions. It’s why we seek love with such vigor. It’s why we continue to visit those family members we know we should avoid. Sometimes, even feeling sadness or anger is better than feeling nothing at all. I recently read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and cried for almost an hour as I read the final chapters and epilogue. Even though the ending left me feeling incredibly sad, I have repeatedly recommended this book. This story will stay with me for years to come because I had such an intense emotional reaction to it.

Those are the three things that make a story memorable to me. Those are the three things that leave me feeling haunted. When a book or movie contains all three of these characteristics, I’m sold. What do you feel makes a story “un-put-down-able”?


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Snarky comment designed to trick you into believing you’re about to read an interesting blog post.

Introductory sentence stating the reason the author chose this topic for this post. Sentence supporting this reasoning and possibly providing exemplary evidence for why this topic should be discussed. Closing sentence, hopefully containing a joke about how this topic relates to the author.

Paragraph describing a personal experience either related to the joke in the last paragraph or the topic at large. This paragraph will usually include some dialogue so that those with the attention span of a squirrel with ADHD will still be enthralled.

Filler paragraph. This paragraph was constructed for the sole purpose of making sure the author cannot be accused of being a lazy blogger. A gratuitous joke or cynical comment can be thrown in for the sake of the audience.

[Place medium-sized image of adorable kitten here.]

Closing paragraph will reiterate why this topic is so important that it warrants four paragraphs written by a complete nobody. Hug, hug, kiss, kiss, little hug, big kiss.

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Ice Cream Soup

My earliest childhood memory is of being carried in someone’s arms, I think it was my father’s, at my first birthday party. I’m not sure if the party was being held in our own home. The room had that golden haze that all rooms in the seventies seemed to possess. There were so many people all around us, but I had no idea why they were there.

I clearly remember my father standing very near a refrigerator as he held me close. I was squirming in his arms. Something had caught my eye–a shiny magnet on the refrigerator. I had to have it, but it was just out of my reach.

I don’t know if I ever reached the magnet, because that is the extent of the first memory of my life. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a fabrication of my imagination and the surviving photos of my first birthday party. It’s funny how memories can become distorted. It’s easy to imagine how people can be manipulated into believing in things that are not real.

My second earliest memory is of sitting at the dining room table when I was three years old. My mother had just plopped me down on the booster seat and placed a bowl of ice cream and a spoon on the table in front of me. She left the room to do something. Though I was just three, I understood that she would be back.

I picked up the spoon and began swirling the scoop of ice cream around in the bowl, until finally I had a thick amalgamation of neapolitan ice cream soup. I scooped up a spoonful and held it to my mouth.

“No! I don’t want any!” I muttered through clenched lips, pretending my hand was the doctor’s hand and the soup was medicine.

I continued to “force-feed” myself the “medicine” until the bowl was empty. It was for my own good.

For some reason, I have no doubt that this memory is 100% accurate. There’s no golden haze in this memory. The images and the dialogue, even the emotions of being completely content playing by myself, are crystal clear. Is this a product of two more years of cognitive development or the the lack of a photographic record of the event?

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The Writing Demon

Writing Demon is a counterpart to the Cookie Monster. I try not to hang out with either one of these characters for too long–bad influences–but I’ve heard that they often get together at the local pub for milk and whiskey (Writing Demon’s beverage of choice).

Most of the time, however, Writing Demon just follows me around everywhere I go. Sometimes it seems as if he lives inside my body, like a parasite, feeding on mostly metaphors and pain.

If I haven’t written anything in a while, Writing Demon will begin to poke me while I lie in bed so I can’t get to sleep. He’ll plant evil daydreams in my head, making me imagine myself signing a publishing contract, quitting my job, and tending to my garden in my spare time. He’ll screw with the synapses in my brain so I get distracted at work and start thinking things like, “This must be the best time to get some editing done.” He’s even tried to get me fired on multiple occasions, just so I’ll have more time to feed and nurture him.

Writing Demon must be fed on a daily basis or he gets irritable and depressed (hence the drinking.) He rejoices when I’m too tired to workout, because he knows I’ll head straight for my laptop. He snaps at my daughter when she interrupts him while he’s feeding.

But once in a while, Writing Demon will do something that makes up for his sly, ornery disposition. Sometimes, he’ll reach his hand out and point with his dark, skinny finger at a juicy metaphor on the page. I’ll tilt my head and stare at the screen in awe for a moment. Did I do that?

Writing Demon will nod his head, reach for the phrase in all its glory, bring it to his lips, and, with a painful longing in his eyes, place it gently in my mouth. Thank you, Writing Demon. That was delicious.

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I’ve been thinking lately about writing poetry as a means of mastering the art of alliteration and sentence structure. Then I began to think of how therapeutic and useful poetry can be for a novelist.

Like most writers, I went through a gut-wrenching poetry phase in my teens and early twenties. If I can find some of those poems, I’ll try to post them here soon. The poetry phase began when I was 12 years old. It started innocent enough with poems that incorporated cheesy commercial slogans and parodies of popular rap songs. Then I had my first experience in the world of heartbreak and the poetry took a turn for the sappy. I wrote about unreturned phone calls and my desire to live in a universe impervious to such things as unrequited love.

Then came the rolling twenties, or the suicidal twenties, in my case. I began to write about hollow-eyed sheep and oozing self-inflicted wounds. Not a pretty time in my life, but it was necessary for me to experience it. This dark phase gave me the courage I needed to give up on writing. Yes, you heard me right. I think it takes courage to give up on a dream; maybe not as much as it takes to continue pursuing that dream in the face of adversity, but it takes courage nonetheless to admit that you are nowhere near ready to pursue something you want so badly.

Those few years away from poetry (and writing, in general) were absolutely essential for me to find out what kind of writer I wanted to be. Not writing left me with unlimited time to dedicate to reading. As I luxuriated in the unencumbered extravagance of reading for pure pleasure, I felt myself being drawn back to the page, little by little, until finally I could no longer deny the impulse to write.

I realized when I came back to the blank page, the words flowed freely and without the agony that had embodied so much of my poetry. But I also noticed that the sentences had a poetic quality. Every syllable had a purpose. Every word had movement. Every sentence had structure. This is what all those years of poetry had helped me achieve.

Next time you feel yourself stuck on a certain passage or sentence or word, and you feel like you’ve rewritten it so many times that you’d rather bang your head against a brick wall than fuss over it any longer, WALK AWAY.

Or, pick up your pen or pencil and write a poem.

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Okay, I must admit that I’m usually one of those people who like a book and swear it’s the BEST BOOK EVAR!! until I read the next book, which actually really is the best book ever. And the cycle continues. I tend to get excited about what I’m reading. Not sure if this is because I’m usually pretty good at choosing books that I’ll like, or because I’m good at choosing books that are awesome. Either way, I may be prone to hyperbolic fits of adoration when I discover a good read.

Having said that, and please don’t let this revelation eschew my credibility, I just read THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass and I loved it. For those who don’t know, Mr. Maass is CEO and uber-agent extraordinaire at Donald Maass Literary Agency. If you follow that little linky there, you’ll find he is not just a highly-experienced industry insider, he is also the author of fourteen novels published under pseudonyms. His other book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL has received much critical acclaim and it is one of the most recommended books for new authors looking to learn more about the craft of writing fiction. So, definitely check that one out if you get a chance, too.

But I didn’t read that one. I’ve already written my novel. I’m now working on the rewriting, which is why I chose to read THE FIRE IN FICTION. So, that is what I’ll be reviewing here. Focus people.

There are only nine chapters in this book, and the book itself is only 272 pages long, so this is a quick read. But, even so, I’m not going to waste our time by giving you a chapter by chapter breakdown of the book. I don’t think you want to hear little ol’ me give you a nine-paragraph review when you can just go to Amazon.com and use their handy “Look Inside” this book feature. That feature and this review should give you enough information to decide whether or not you want to throw down your hard-earned cash for this one.

Onto the book. My favorite chapters in this book were the chapters entitled “Protagonists vs. Heroes”, “A Singular Voice”, “Tension All the Time”, and “The Fire in Fiction.”

In the chapter on protagonists vs. heroes, Mr. Maass discusses the difference between a protagonist and a hero. According to him, “A protagonist is the subject of a story. A hero is a human being with extraordinary qualities.” This is to say that, protagonists can be ordinary people who do extraordinary things, but establishing them as extraordinary early on is necessary to make your reader care.

Maass argues that if your protagonist is an  average Joe, you must present him as a human being with deep emotions and hint at the underlying tension/event early on in the story. Otherwise, your readers will view him as just another average Joe to ignore as they make it about their day. Nothing extraordinary here, move along (ie. close the book.) Even if your protagonist is not the type of person most people would want to hang out with, maybe he’s the dark, broody type, establishing early on that they are worthy of the readers attention, and even their affection, will keep them reading.

The “Singular Voice” chapter discusses giving your characters voice. This involves digging deep inside the character to find what makes them distinct from you and me and especially from your other characters. Don’t be afraid to give your characters opinions and a strong point of view. Authors who write in the omniscient point of view tend to be very good at this. Jodi Picoult is a master at this. Pick up a few of her books at your local library – you won’t regret it.

In chapter 8, “Tension All the Time,” Maass goes into detail about that special ingredient that keeps you reading into the wee hours of the morning: Tension. Actually, Maass uses the term “microtension” to describe the opposing emotions, needs, and motivations experienced. If your protagonist wants to go to college but he knows his parents will lose their house if he doesn’t get a full-time job, this is inner conflict. If his mother is telling him to go to college and his father is telling him to get a job, this is outer conflict. Not all conflict involves explosions and fighting. Each chapter, each paragraph should be imbued with inner and outer conflict.

The final chapter, “The Fire in Fiction,” is about writing the story that you are most passionate about. Only then will the story be yours, instead of an imitation of your favorite author or the latest bestseller you just finished reading. Writing about what matters to you is what your ultimate goal should be.

At the end of each chapter, Maass includes exercises like picking any scene in your novel and identifying the outer and inner turning points. Or finding a piece of dialogue and stripping away all the attributives (he said/she said) to see if you can still identify who’s speaking based on the voice and action. He also provides tips throughout, such as going through your manuscript and honing the bookends of each chapter, so they are more compelling.

I think you can see how much I loved this book. I’ve read at least ten, but probably closer to 20, books on the craft of writing. I’ve read books on everything from plotting, grammar & style, and story structure, to books on tropes, the publishing industry, and formatting your manuscript. All this information can become repetitive and exhausting after a while. If you ever get to the point where you feel you’d rather listen to Dancing with the Stars soundtracks over and over again rather than read another book on writing, then you should read FONDLING YOUR MUSE by John Warner (of McSweeney’s) for a good laugh.

So, what if you’re just taking the first baby step on your writer’s journey? In that case, you may want to start with something that deals with the basics. After you get your copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, and it’s been dog-eared and highlighted into submission and you’ve been whipped into a style stupor, you might want to revive yourself with some literary smelling salts, such as STORY STRUCTURE ARCHITECT by Victoria Lynn Schmidt and THE PLOT THICKENS by Noah Lukeman. Then you can move on to ON WRITING by Stephen King and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

Then, when you’re finished with your first draft, you think you know everything there is to know about crafting a compelling story, and you’re ready to embark on the beastly journey of rewriting, you can read THE FIRE IN FICTION and, one of my personal favorites, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman.

Well, this blog post turned out to be about 17 times longer than I had anticipated. Off to dig into another rewrite.

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Yesterday, I decided to try my hand at critiquing, again.

Once upon a time, over three years ago, I belonged to the O.C. Writers’ Meetup Group. This was when I first started writing my novel. I ended up leaving the group because I was frustrated with the coddling and lack of honesty. I didn’t see how these writers were going to become better at their craft if they continued to dance around the problems they found in their fellow writers manuscripts. If someone uses too many modifiers, tell them. If they’re targeting the wrong audience, tell them. If their dialogue is cliched, tell them. Or, so I thought.

I was wrong in my assumption about what a critique group was for. I realized that critique groups are more for camaraderie than feedback — unless you are truly comfortable with your fellow critiquers. I realized that I may have seemed like a bit of an outsider to this group, considering they had been critiquing each other for months. And here I was, criticizing their leader.

It happened when the organizer of the group offered to email a few of us (his critique partners) his first six chapters. I was really excited to see how being in this critique group had helped him, since I had yet to submit anything to the group. This man was in his late 50’s and had been writing since before I was born. He had started the group and was highly admired by other members of the group who had read his work. As I waited for his email, I was expecting a polished, if somewhat flawed, manuscript. What I got confused me.

It looked like the manuscript of a teenager who had read one Clive Cussler novel and said to himself, “I can do that!” I wasn’t sure if I should be honest or diplomatic. I decided on something in between. I was honest in my critique of the writing, but diplomatic in my delivery of the critique. I went through the entire six chapters, making digital notes throughout. I then wrote up a thorough summary of my notes and included some suggested reading. Then I sent it back to him.

His response came a couple of weeks later. The verdict: My critique was so detailed in its execution that it literally made him reconsider whether or not he should be a writer. I felt awful. I left the critique group with a sense of guilt and sadness. In the world of critique groups, I was the wicked witch.

I slunk off into a solitary corner to mull over what had gone wrong. I pored through all the writers’ group’s guidelines on critiquing. Had I not followed the guidelines? Had I overstepped some boundary? And then I found it! Tucked away in one of the guidelines was a sentence stating that critiques were not to be “too detailed” so as not to hurt the writer’s feelings.

Writer’s have feelings?

I realized I was not cut out for this critiquing thing. I packed up my manuscript, clicked on the “Leave Group” button, and never looked back.

Then last night, in an attempt to find someone to critique my work, I decided to join an online critique group. I won’t say the name of the group or website to protect the writers’ works. The group organizer immediately sent me three writing samples from three different writers for me to critique.

The first story had a rage-aholic protagonist who was being very nasty to his wife while she expressed concern for his safety. I stopped reading after a couple pages. I couldn’t sympathize with raging hubby.

The second story’s protagonist was a psychotic, unremorseful serial killer. He had not a single redeeming quality, unless you count the fact that he was literate. Apparently, he used some sort of serial killer guidebook to carry out his gruesome deeds. I was not at all interested.

The last story appeared to be a paranormal romance. I read further into this one because the protagonist had a “save the cat” moment early on. For me, this moment is crucial in keeping me interested in a story. For those who don’t know (and are too lazy to click on that link), a “save the cat” moment is the moment when your protagonist does something nice that makes the reader say, “Hey, I like this guy.” From that moment on, if the writing is good, the reader will root for your protagonist’s success. Without the “save the cat” moment, readers usually have trouble finding a reason to keep reading.

So, this third entry kept me reading a little further based on his somewhat likeable protagonist. But then his protagonist quickly faded out of the story. He switched point of view to another character, without any indication whether the new character was 10 or 40 years old and what time period we were in. I was very confused and put off by the writer’s excessive modifiers. “Romance filled eyes.” Is there not a better way to say this?

Needless to say, I only critiqued the third story because of the “save the cat” moment. I figured that, though his grasp on grammar and style were not enough to keep me reading, the writer’s ability to realize he needed a likable protagonist warranted a critique.

I emailed my critique and decided I would not be returning to this online critique group. There was no reason to. I didn’t want my story critiqued by any of the three writers I had just received samples from. If these writers were a representative sample of the rest of the group, it was possible I was wasting my time.

If you have any of your own experiences with critique groups, please feel free to share them with me.

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