Gifting Writers

If you have a writer on your holiday gift list and haven’t a clue what to give him or her, let me help you out.

We love books, even ones besides our own. The path to being a good writer begins with being a good reader. Writers read books within their own genre, but if you’re like me, your tastes are eclectic–I’ll read almost anything, even if all I take away from a book is, “I don’t want to write like that.”

We love journals because when we’re without a computer, we need something besides a cocktail napkin to capture an inspiration. Smart phones with their built-in recorders go a long way, but there’s nothing better than a sweet little notebook you can carry in a pocket or your purse.

We love pens, too, and not just to write in those journals (or cocktail napkins). We’re always looking for just the right pen to use for book signings so we can make a statement. I’m partial to fountain pens myself (with cartridges, not ink bottles; I’m far too much of a klutz for them).

We love reviews of our work. Good ones, of course, and even bad ones–IF they’re constructive. The new trend in giving books you’ve never read a bad review hits a writer where it hurts. We’re all pretty sensitive creatures anyway, and we know better than anyone words do hurt. So, if you can’t give the gift of constructive criticism, cross me off your list.

We love it when our friends and family give us space to write, when they put aside their demands on our time and don’t make us feel guilty about taking the time we need to write. I recently told someone the sexiest thing my ex ever said to me was, “I know your writing is important to you, so I’ll just go row around the lake for a couple of hours.” That was a gift whose significance missed me at the time. Now, when I have different interests conflicting for my time, I wish others were as understanding that sometimes I need to retreat to my room, wherever that is, and write.

We love it as well when family and friends, even perfect strangers, give us fodder for our fiction. Some people don’t understand why writers live for the family get-togethers others dread. Easy. We know we’ll come away with a half-dozen new ideas for stories and/or snippets of killer dialogue. So, thanks. Really.

There you have it. Some great suggestions for the writer in your life. Oh, wait. I missed one. A great gift for a writer is to just say to them, “I’m proud of what you do.”

Balancing Reading and Writing

Most any writing instructor worth his or her salt will tell you, “If you want to learn how to write, read, read, read.” In particular, read within the genre you want to write. That’s excellent advice; however, none of them manage to impart how to find the time to do that, especially when you have your own writing in the mix.

Like most writers who love to read, I have a literal stack of TBR (to be read) books and a virtual one on my eBook reader as well. I participate in book-reading contests, i.e., set a number of books to be read in a year. Last year I blew right past the goal I set for myself. This year? Not so much. No matter what I do, I’m consistently four books behind my goal, and the about of time remaining in the year is quickly shrinking.

I can, however, pinpoint the cause. I spent most of the summer rewriting and revising a novel manuscript I had a (self-imposed) deadline for, so reading was one of the necessities I put aside. Now, I’m scrambling to catch up so I won’t perceive myself as a failure for not reading an arbitrary number of books in a year.

There’s an offshoot issue of this. When I go to read books in the genre I write, I find them, well, unhelpful. First, they’re mostly, almost exclusively written by men, and the female characters are stereotypical, again for the most part. So, I rarely read thrillers. I substitute non-cozy mysteries by the likes of Sara Paretsky, or speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood.

Now, it’s not that I won’t read thrillers by the late Vince Flynn or Lee Child. I do because within them is how to structure a good thriller, but I go elsewhere to learn characterization. Even though I write what will likely be considered “commercial” fiction, I want to approach it from a literary fiction standpoint, so I read a lot of literary fiction, also, contemporary as well as classic.

And the ultimate thriller writer for me is Stephen King. Yes, his work often falls into the horror/paranormal category, but the man can write; he can develop amazing characters; he concocts intricate plots; he has the most amazing sense of setting; and he eschews those dreaded -ly adverbs. His books also meet the accepted definition of a thriller, and, along with his great tutorial book, On Writing, his body of work is a writing course in and of itself.

Even after all the positives of reading to aid in writing, I still feel guilty when I devote a day to reading–I should be writing. I also feel guilty when I devote an entire day to writing–I should be making a dent in that TBR stack. To put in contemporary social media terms: I have a #firstworldproblem.

For every writer friend I have who gets the fact you have to read to understand how to write, I run across someone who declares he or she has no time for reading, “I just want to write.” One of the writers I follow on Facebook is Anne Rice, probably an icon for a successful writer. She is always posting about the books she has read and what about writing she has learned from them. So, I think you can balance her approach against the “writer” who doesn’t see the need to read and gauge which one is a writer, not a scribbler.

So, I’ve been writing long enough. Off to do some reading–Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, by the way.

Happy New Year, Friday Fictioneers!

Happy New Writing Year!

The holidays are great, but they’re over at last. No rushing about shopping or cooking or cleaning up a mound of discarded wrapping paper. The relatives have all gone home, and no more guilt-trips about spending time with your lap top, doing that, you know, hobby thing you do, writing.

I managed to keep to my writing schedule between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but not much else, and I, for one, am glad to be getting back to the writing/revising/reading schedule I’ve become comfortable with. If I don’t, the guilt-trips will come from me.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis first Friday Fictioneers of 2013 has an apt inspiration photo, and it took me to my usual genre–the thriller. Yes, it’s a bit B-movie, a bit noir, but I hope when you read it you get that I tried to juxtapose beauty and something normal with something dark and abnormal.

That’s what usually attracts me to read fiction, the contrasts between dark and light, good and evil, the usual and the unusual. I’ve often wondered why that is. You’d think with the disruptive life I had, I’d want no surprises in my fiction. I do probably read more literary fiction than anything else, but I often need my dose of something that wrenches me from normalcy, because, well, otherwise life–and reading–would be boring.

Today’s story is “Indulgences,” and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of this post and click on the Friday Fictioneers tab. Then, you can select “Indulgences” from the drop-down list.


One of the first books I received as a gift was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I was six or seven, already in love with horses thanks to my Dad, and I think I read it in one sitting, which probably went well into the night under the covers with a flashlight. I re-read that book so often, the front cover fell off. Literally, and it was a hardback. I still have the book, though I haven’t re-read it in a couple of decades or so. Hmm, maybe I’ll remedy that soon.

Over the years, there have been works of fiction I’ve read and re-read, from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to The Left Hand of Darkness and Slaughterhouse Five and many others in between. Re-reading something I love is like comfort food–you know it’s going to taste good, and you know you’re going to eat all of it, but each time is a different experience.

This month for a book club I belong to, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. As I re-read, I realized when I first read it in 1985, it was as a woman’s rights activist. Her dystopian tale of a theocracy in America reinforced the feelings and fears I had then. Sadly, we’ve come back around full circle to the things that make a society, as described in A Handmaid’s Tale, possible, even probable, but that’s not the topic for today.

I realized, as I re-read this book, I was regarding it more with a writer’s eye, which makes sense. In the past two plus years I’ve been focusing more on the craft of writing than anything else. So, I noticed how Atwood opened the story with it already tightly wound, i.e., she starts “in the present” and unfolds the story with hints and flashbacks. In the beginning her descriptions are sparse, but as the story moves forward, the people, the settings, the threads of the story all become richer and fuller. The book’s “ending” is up for grabs–it could end happily or it could be a disaster; it’s up to the reader.

At least, that’s what I came away with the first time I read it. The book actually concludes with “A Historical Note,” which I apparently ignored the first time around, likely because I thought I was in the midst of the history in 1985. The historical note is a continuation of the story, and it’s a bit more optimistic than what you think the real ending is. In the historical note you discover what you’ve just read is a diary or memoir of sorts discovered almost as if it were a relic in an archeological dig. I realized what some criticized as the “herky-jerky” pace of the novel was incredible story-telling. The protagonist was on the run, putting down facts and events as she remembered them. This was an instance where linear story-telling would have made the novel a bore.

In that re-reading, then, for a political book club, I learned a valuable writing lesson. I remembered as well why that book resonated with me twenty-seven years ago and grasped why, this time, it left me a little depressed because, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Which books do you re-read? What is it about a particular book that makes you go back again and again–character, plot, setting?

Reading and Writing

No, this isn’t a rant about the importance of the three R’s–reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic–but a chat about the connection between writing and reading. They go hand in hand, and some of the most helpful advice any writer can hear is, “If you want to write, read.” I’ll add, “Read. A lot.”

Of course, you say, my shelves are lined with writing self-help books, and I’ve read them all.

I’m not knocking any of these books. In fact, one of my bookshelves groans with the weight of them. What I mean is, if you write fiction, read fiction. Let’s go a little deeper. If you want to write romance, read romance; if you want to write science fiction, read science fiction, etc.

In an on-line forum I belong to, someone recently posted, “I’ve decided I want to write science fiction!!! How do I go about that?” I responded that the aspiring writer should read Asimov, Pohl, Dick, Bester, LeGuin, Butler, Atwood, and so on. “No, no. I don’t want to read science fiction! I want to write it.”

I washed my hands of it.

You get your best writing instruction on technique, mechanics, and what people want to read by reading what you want to write. And I have to caveat that–read good, established writers of the fiction you want to write. I’ll suggest, for now, in the fledgling state of your writing in a genre, read traditionally published writers. There are exceptions to this, of course, but if all you read is unedited indie fiction, it will only reinforce negative writing habits. I’ve posted about this before, so I won’t repeat my indie-writers-must-proofread-and-get-an-editor riff.

Reading what you want to write can be instructive in another way. You can learn the valuable lesson that a particular genre is not for you. For example, I love mysteries of all kinds–from Agatha Christie to Janet Evanovich–but I’m not sure I could write one that wouldn’t be a re-hash of something a better mystery writer than I has already done. The same with sci-fi. That was what I wanted to write when I first set pen to notebook to write stories about Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk when I was a freshman in high school.

The sad truth was, and is, sci-fi is not my forte. Granted, my short story published in eFiction Magazine last year had a sci-fi background. “Without Form or Substance” is about a young professor who finds her dream job, only to discover it involves time travel. I found, because this was a character piece, I didn’t need to go into the scientific details of time travel, which I doubt I could pull off. I learned that from reading Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin, among others.

Of all the reading I’ve done in my life, it was the characters who stood out most for me or, rather, the way the particular writer developed and wrote a character. Most of what I read is character-driven, and as a result, my strength is in the characters I’ve developed. I wouldn’t have learned how to make them “real” people if I hadn’t read great, character-driven works by authors across many genres.

Balancing reading and writing can be a chore, though. If I want to devote the time I need to writing, I can’t read all day long, which I can do at the drop of a hat. I’ve shifted the brunt of my reading to the weekends, though I still read a little in the evenings or when I need a break from staring at the blank computer screen. When I’m reading something I enjoy, which engrosses me, it’s the hardest thing to set it aside. I’m currently reading And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields. Not only is this a book about a writer, it’s a page-turner, and I regret every time I have to close the book and move on to something else I’m supposed to do.

Shields’ biography of Vonnegut is instructive on many levels. Not only do you see the mechanics of how to construct and research a biography, but you also get a glimpse into the life of a writer and how he wrote, what inspired him, and his struggle both to be published and to be accepted by other writers. I’ll give no more details than that because I want to review this book later.

I’ve found, for me, that when I hit a brick wall with something I’m writing, the best thing I can do is put it away. Then, I pick up a book and read.

What about you? What writers and what books have taught you how to write?

My Book Review List

Last week I guest-posted on Madison Woods’ blog about reviewing books, as in, I would like to review more. Three people contacted me right away, and I’ve purchased their books to review.

As other writers follow me on Twitter, I’ve identified several of their works I’d like to read and review. Then, a high school friend of mine pops up on Facebook with a link to her series of books, and I decided I wanted to read and review that as well.

So, I’ve managed to commit myself to review seven books by mid-February. What was I thinking?

However, just the other day, I blogged about establishing a writing/reading schedule for myself in the new year, and I hope that structure will help me keep my promises.

And, in the order I’m supposed to read them, here are the seven books:

Weimar Vibes by Phil Rowan, a thriller (love the thrillers)
Linkage: The Narrows of Time Series, by Jay J. Falconer, sci-fi (love the sci-fi)
The Lucky Boy by Caroline Gerardo, literary fiction
Admissions by Michael Ribisi, a romance (not so into the romance genre, but this intrigued me because it’s a romance written by a man)
Loki and Sigyn: A Love Story, by J.L. Butler, fantasy (again, not a big fantasy fan, but if it’s unique, I’ll give it a try)
Red Mojo Mama by Kathy Lynn Hall (a mashed genre of romance, thriller, and paranormal)
Scorpio Rising by Monique Domovitch, a romance

Some of these–I’m not sure which yet–I’ll review and submit the review to eFiction Magazine, which publishes indie fiction and likes book reviews of indie-published books (or self-published books, if you prefer; to me, six of one, half dozen of another). Others I’ll review in my blog on a separate page.

Yes, I’ve always been an over-achiever, or, better put, a take-on-more-than-I-can-chew achiever.

Wish me luck.