Steve Charnow, author of Charlie Fig and the Lip had some desirable words to say to us upon being asked personal questions. As part of our desire to bring the author and the reader closer together, here is a short interview with Steve!
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Thomas Harris. Liver, fava beans, and a nice Chianti.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
That I’m not good enough. Get feedback from trusted readers.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
What books are on your nightstand?
The Discrete Hero – Mario Vargas Llosa
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
The Complete Stories – Flannery O’Connor
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot – Mark Vanhoenacker
Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you?
Observation. A person I passed in the street, a mysteriously deserted building, a comment overheard on the subway, a memory.
Music: Bach; the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
“On the Road”
Why do you write? The first 5 words that come to mind. Go.
Tell a story, release, joy, to know myself, reveal.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Writing is hard. Not writing is harder.
It’s safe to say that being alive today is pretty damn easy. We can order pizza on Twitter without writing out a single word. Just tweet a pizza emoji and a pizza is on its way to your door. We can answer any question within seconds, thanks to our good friend Google. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there was a time before emojis, before Twitter, and before either of these things could be used to put food on the table.
As writers, we are both blessed and cursed by our laptops. Pros: We can type anywhere and we can type quickly. We can send the stuff we type to basically anybody without thinking anything of it. We have tools like spell-check, automated word count, and the list goes on.
But, sometimes we overlook the negatives of writing on laptops.
For starters, it’s incredibly easy to get distracted when you have the vast entirety of the cyber-world at your fingertips. at 7:33 you might be on a roll, forging ahead in your novel, your story, your poem, what-have-you—but by 7:41 you could be watching cat videos on Facebook or taking “Which Disney princess are you?” quizzes on BuzzFeed.
It’s also incredibly easy to over-edit when you’re writing on a laptop. You write a sentence, you re-read, you don’t like it, you re-write it, you re-read the revision, you still don’t like it, and the cycle goes on and on. Forty five minutes go by and you’ve re-written and erased the same sentence two dozen times without even being able to look back at each draft. All you have to show for your time and effort is blank white space with nothing to learn from.
Sometimes, if only for a little while, it’s important to step back from the blue-light of your Macbook screen and write how writers wrote before computers, before typewriters even: paper and pen. Recently, I’ve experimented with writing by hand. I’ve found some interesting things.
Basically, especially during National Novel Writing Month, it is important to try new things and new ways of writing. As far as practicality and convenience go, the laptop can’t be beat. But sometimes a little shake-up is the push you need to allow your best work to be produced.
Not working? Try again.
Do you know anything else to do?
No? Ok, try again.
None of us has any say in how we start out in the world. Those of us lucky enough to be born to committed parents with stable lives are nothing more than that: lucky. I didn’t do anything to deserve my parents or siblings. I didn’t earn the comfortable house or safe neighborhood I grew up in. I didn’t ask my parents to fill my world with books. I just got lucky, and I’ve spent countless hours saying thank you. To the universe for giving me a chance. To my parents for building my world. To my teachers for enhancing it. But as I sit here thinking about the life I’ve had and the one I’m still trying to build, I know I have more people to thank. I would be a different version of myself if it weren’t for my local libraries and librarians. So if I haven’t said it before, thank you:
For letting me check out 23 Nancy Drew novels at one time and believing me when I said I was going to read all of them.
For giving me brilliant, accomplished, and enthusiastic female role models in a city that tried to tell me I couldn’t be any of those things.
For encouraging me to be vocal about the things I loved and to not be afraid of my own voice.
For telling me that reading my way through my summer vacation was something to be proud of and that I shouldn’t be ashamed.
For bypassing the renewal limit when I just wasn’t ready to return my favorite books.
For giving my best friend and me a place to hide from the high school that made us feel nothing but weird and unaccepted.
For not judging me for the stacks of children’s books I borrow on a regular basis.
Thank you for building paper castles, making silly hats, and wearing dorky costumes. Thank you for shaping my world and letting me know that growing up doesn’t have to be boring.
Writers, editors, and publishers saturate the writing world; they think they can do best. But what really sets one apart from another? Editors and publishers are looking for quality manuscripts that they can market. The key for writers is to fit in this box while still pushing the limits.
So, what do editors look for? First, editors love to know that you’ve got a finished manuscript. We want to see that you can finish a story. It’s easy enough to begin a project, but seeing it to the end, going through the process, that takes work. We want to know that you can stick it out with your ideas and push through the good and the bad to get to the end. Writing is not always a pretty process.
Readers don’t see what goes into a novel, but editors know. We know that someone poured his or her time and energy into creating this manuscript want to see it succeed. Help us believe you’ve got the determination to get to the end. Get to the end.
Hook me. Do not underestimate the quality of a good hook. It’s over said, but not overused. Every manuscript could benefit from a good hook. Your story may be great, but if you can’t get a reader interested, it won’t sell.
Quality writing with some well-developed characters. Manuscripts generally have ‘good’ writing, but what makes a manuscript stand out? Don’t be afraid to have a voice, to describe things uniquely, to submerse your reader in your world through prose.
In this vein, your characters are your greatest allies. Develop them. Make them distinct. A good character can carry a story even when the plot, the prose, and the author are all limping along. Be the writer that creates characters that other people fantasize about.
A damn good read. This part doesn’t come easily. As an editor, I am expressly looking for ‘a damn good read.’ This is where an author’s hard work comes out. A good read comes from writing, rewriting, and knowing your subject. It doesn’t matter what genre, what time period, or what plot you deal with. There is a damn good read in that story and it is the author’s job to bring it out, shine it up, and present it to an editor. It’s a lot of pressure, but an author can do it, will do it. An author wants to.
Does anyone else get annoyed when Word gives you the little green underline and says “fragment, consider revising”? I sure do, because sometimes I talk a long time to craft a sentence that I think is really good, and after I admire it for about one second, that green line shows up and I feel lost. Maybe Word just doesn’t understand me. I’d like to think that.
In reality, it is probably a good thing to have fragments pointed out to us as we write. When our internal editor has not caught up with our writing, it can be (grudgingly) helpful to have at least something to make us second guess our writing.
Now, as a reader, I think that I can tell when a fragment is used properly, and when it is misused. You might ask, how can a fragment ever be used properly if all they do is break every grammar rule in the book? If a writer unintentionally uses a fragment in his writing, then it’s most likely a mistake. But, I think that in certain circumstances, a fragment can be used to create a dramatic jilt or a quick end to something. When used artfully (and sparingly), I think that they can really add a lot to a text.
There is nothing worse than sitting down to read something and feeling like you are hitting a new wall every two sentences. Flow is the key to a successful story, and nothing halts it like choppy sentences. It is something that I find extremely frustrating as a reader, and I’m sure I am not alone on this. It’s like driving down a long road with stop lights every 100 feet that turn red right as you get up to them; the reader needs to gain momentum to get into the story, and having to stop at every red-lighted fragment does not make for a smooth ride or read.
There are other ways to create drama in your writing than just randomly throwing punctuation around. Do not rely too much on the period, but use your words to create your desired effect. Plus, there are so many more punctuation marks that are just waiting eagerly to show what they can do. Add variety in sentence length and punctuation, mix it up for your readers, make their reading experience interesting without being jarring. Make it seamless.
Choose your fragment use wisely, my writing friend, because they can make or break you text.
Whenever I finish a really good book—one of those books that keeps you up at night, begging to be finished, that makes you think about something completely differently, that inspires you to create something that beautiful and thought-provoking, yourself—I immediately wish I could talk to the author. Sometimes I’m dying to ask the writer about their plot choices, but mostly I just want to know how. How’d they do it? How did they come up with the idea? How did they survive the grueling process of writing and editing? I want to know all about their process and experiences and habits, anything to give insight into the amazing feat of writing a book.
If you’ve ever felt the same way, then you’re in luck. We’ve invited some of Unsolicited Press’s fabulous poets and writers to join us for a little round table Question-and-Answer. Some questions are serious, some are silly, and all are interesting. Read on to meet some of our authors and find out about the behind the scenes process of writing.
To read what the authors had to say, click to read the article. This is a longer piece, but I hope it stimulates conversation!!!
I spent a lot of time this summer hiking in Colorado, including one painfully memorable afternoon when I mostly crawled up the most difficult cliff in Boulder. Equally memorable but less painful were the moments I spent learning everything I could about the book publishing industry as a student at the Denver Publishing Institute.
In her October 23rd post in The Buzz, Andie Bernard discussed the benefits of programs like DPI but acknowledged that the programs aren’t always feasible. She’s absolutely right. I loved every minute I spent at DPI and left with more knowledge than I could have hoped to gain in four weeks, but the program isn’t a practical option for everyone. It’s hard to leave your city, your job, and your friends for something that comes with few guarantees. It involves a lot of faith in yourself and in your dreams.
I went to Denver knowing that my dream was NYC. I left Denver knowing that my dream was still NYC, but I left with a better understanding that I don’t need to be in NYC to be part of a community of people who love books as much as I do. Maybe you came to that conclusion years ago and can’t understand why it took me so long to get there. Believe me; I’ve spent many hours exploring the same question. My conclusion is this: overly ambitious people are frighteningly focused creatures who unintentionally block anything that isn’t a checkpoint on the path to achieving their goals. My advice to my fellow overachievers is to remember that removing your blinders doesn’t mean abandoning your dreams. I still have every intention of moving to NYC, but as I’ve been working toward making that dream a reality, I’ve been having the best time exploring the literary communities in my home state. Volunteer at the library. Work at your local bookstore. Attend book fairs and author signings. Open your eyes and see what’s around you. I promise you’re going to love it.
Finding Your Write Voice
Writer’s block is always going to be a problem. At some point you bump up against a wall and sometimes you just need to break it. So how do you get there? Here are some ideas:
1. Keeping a journal is a great way to record ideas as they come to you. Sometimes a dream journal can provide just enough inspiration to create a story or generate a run of ideas. Journals can be small enough to carry with you or something that sits on your bedside table. These pages will become a run of ideas to come back to later when writer’s block pops up again.
2. Sometimes a prompt or writing group can provide just enough motivation to get words on a page. Both of these options provide an expectation that work will be generated. Whether or not this work is quality or used later is not the issue. Simply starting the process might be all you need to get back on track. Taking five minutes to focus on a prompt or write in a group of people provides valuable kick-start time.
3. Some authors find that music provides enough distraction to block out background noise, but still lets them focus. Try the soundtrack to a movie or a videogame. These soundtracks are designed to keep you focused while providing background noise. Sometimes music can be the change of pace that gets words on a page.
4. A change of scene is another great way to get your head in the right place to write. We all have places we naturally focus and part of that is due to how our brain associates activities with that place. For instance, reading in bed can cause your brain to associate the bed with work, which might make people have trouble falling asleep. If your desk is usually associated with work, you might find it a little too stressful or put too much pressure on yourself to produce work. Try changing venues. Writing outdoors or in a café might help your brain settle into the right place to get something done.
In the end it comes down to “butt in seat, laptop at hand.” Put the time in with your butt in a chair and a laptop opened up to a blank page. The only way to get writing is to start writing. Sometimes this way takes the longest to get started. You only have your own thoughts and the words you can bang out through the keyboard, but you have to push on. You can’t edit a blank page until you put something on it.
After a lot of time on Google, I’ve compiled a list of 10 awesome publishing programs and publishing internships. Great opportunities are all over the country; you just have to put in the work. Hopefully this list will help.
The Columbia Publishing Course
The Columbia Publishing Course is one of the oldest and well known of its kind. It began in 1947 and was originally called the Radcliffe Publishing Course. It runs for six weeks every summer; this year’s dates are June 12 to July 22, in New York City. The program is made up of lectures, specialized seminars, and hands-on workshops. In the workshops they teach you not only book publishing, but magazine and digital publishing as well.
The program also boasts a truly impressive list of publishing professionals who are involved in the instruction and networking, including a lot of people from the big five publishing houses, which is a huge advantage for students looking to make connections in the industry. The brochure urges students with Bachelor degrees in all different areas to apply, not specifically English majors. In order to apply you need to be able to afford the $5,300 tuition and $3,065 room and board; submit the application form, which includes a $55 fee; and include a personal statement, letters of recommendation, college transcripts, and résumé.
That’s a steep price for a six-week program, but it's an unparalleled opportunity. Columbia proudly states that “the percentage of course graduates placed in publishing jobs each year is very high, often as much as 95% for the first year for students who stay in the New York City metro area.” http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/publishing
On a smaller scale, there is the Emerson College publishing certificate program. Based in Boston, this program is broken up into either print & online literary magazine publishing or small press book publishing, and you could complete one or both.
The program is held as one intensive three-day kind of binge weekend. The program goes over the many different areas of the industry including editing, marketing, design, production, finance, and legal issues. They also have guest speakers each day have included many professionals from successful literary magazines.
Each program costs a more reasonable $695. The application for Emerson is much looser than Columbia as they are open to students who have not yet completed their degrees and say they look for “poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, and individuals who would like to learn publishing skills needed to start and run their own literary magazines or book publishing ventures.”
This program is a great option for a wider range of young kids looking for that edge when applying for jobs in publishing. http://www.emerson.edu/academics/professional-studies/certificate-programs/literary-publishing
New York University Summer Publishing Institute
As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, New York University has a highly accredited Summer Publishing Institute that is widely considered the best in the country. It is nearly identical to the Columbia program in my opinion. It has a similar goal of giving a broad overview of the industry with hands on workshops, lectures, and impressive guest speakers.
It has all of the allure the New York City publishing world has to offer. Next year’s program is May 31 to July 8 and the application process is very similar to Columbia’s. The tuition is $5,000 for the six-week program and housing is stated to be about $230 per week depending what you do. NYU housing is apparently not required, but may be easiest if you are only staying for six weeks. http://www.scps.nyu.edu/academics/departments/publishing/academic-offerings/summer-publishing-institute.html
CUNY Publishing Institute
CUNY Publishing Institute is a five-day course in New York City. CUNY’s website urges all kinds of people to apply including “entrepreneurs eager to explore new ways of publishing, and those wishing to enter the world of traditional book publishing, or simply learn more about it.” The program gives an overview of the different areas of the industry much like all of the other programs.
The faculty includes many publishing professionals from well-known publishing houses and successful independent houses. The 2016 session runs June 22-26 and costs $1400, which doesn’t include housing or food but still sounds like one of the best deals out of those on this list and those not included. Go apply online and get your career started in publishing. http://cpi.journalism.cuny.edu/
And then there is Yale. Their publishing course names itself “advanced leadership training for book and magazine media professionals.” Their program is split up like Emerson’s into magazine media and book publishing that are each one week long.
Many of the main lessons involve discussing the changes in the industry, specifically with digital media, and therefore seem to be geared towards people already established in the industry and looking to gain new insights, unlike the NYU and Columbia programs which are more for young students just starting out. The course fee is $5,450, which covers everything except housing, but they do offer a discount on a hotel in New Haven.
This could be something that you could ask your company to pay for because what you will learn will help them out in the long run. http://publishing-course.yale.edu/
The other way to learn about publishing and get your foot in the door of the industry is an internship. Internships are usually geared towards college upperclassmen or recent graduates and tend to pay you in academic credit and Trident Layers. But the experience you are getting is invaluable and, in this industry, a requirement for any full time job.
When you think about how to get into trade publishing, your first thought is probably Penguin Random House’s internship program. They have opportunities in editorial, graphic design, marketing, sales, publicity, and production. These internships are difficult to get for obvious reasons. You are not only going to be learning from the best of the best, buy you are going to be given opportunities to work with some of the most successful professionals in the industry. The 2015 fall internship ran from September 14-Novemeber 20, 14 hours a week, in the New York City offices. They usually have new interns every season so keep your eyes open if this is something you are interested in.
Another option is an internship at a small independent publishing house like Agate Publishing in the northern suburb of Chicago. In a place like this, you are going to get more of an overview of everything in the industry, more hands on experience, and the opportunity to make lasting connections because it is smaller and more personal. The internship is part time, runs on six-month periods, and pays a daily stipend. They hire editorial interns and publishing interns that each learn different roles in the company. This role is a great opportunity because it is very learning based; it even has separate lectures for the interns to attend to learn more. http://www.agatepublishing.com/about/agate/
Let's revisit New Haven, CT, this time for an internship at Yale University Press. A university press is a great way to learn about publishing and editing in a scholarly setting. You get a different atmosphere and subject matter than at trade book publishers.
This specific one seeks interns to work in all fields related to publishing that the press has to offer. It is 30 hours a week for 11 weeks over the summer and is open to undergraduates, graduate students, and recent grads. It pays minimum wage, which is more than a lot of other internships offer. Plus it is obviously very prestigious and looks good on a resume. Apply by February! http://www.bookjobs.com/view-internship/1516
Literary agencies also offer great learning opportunities. Browne & Miller Literary Associates is a small agency in Chicago. Their internship program offers college students a “comprehensive introduction to the publishing industry.” The internship is unpaid but they will give academic credit.
Agencies can give interns the opportunities to work with manuscript submissions, query letters, editorial, marketing, and publicity. And even though it's not New York City, working in a big city hub like Chicago helps you more easily advance in the industry and meet the people that can help you get a full time job. http://www.browneandmiller.com/how-to-query-us-1/
If you go out and really put in the time and research, you can find some uniquely awesome opportunities. One I found was at a nonprofit literary organization called Red Hen Press. The unpaid internship is 15-20 hours per week for 4 months in Pasadena, California. The internship involves all of the typical duties and learning opportunities of other internships but this one also offers other benefits like “free workshops and presentations on various topics taught by our experienced staff; intern luncheons and Q&A’s with our Managing Editor and Publisher; invites to Red Hen readings and events.” It is an exciting atmosphere and unique experience you should apply to by December 1st! http://www.bookjobs.com/view-internship/1456
There is a Flannery O’Connor quote that’s befuddled me since I first heard it:
“Nothing needs to happen to a writer’s life after they are twenty. By then they’ve experienced more than enough to last their creative life.”
When I was nineteen, this seemed really appealing. “One more year!” I thought. “One more year and then I don’t need to worry about experiencing, I can just worry about writing.”
Well. Now I’m twenty-two. I look back at my nineteen-year-old self and just see a naive (shocking, a naive nineteen year old) kid taking every bit of information he came across at face value.
Now, I find myself hoping that Flannery O’Connor was dead wrong. There are many, many things I’ve yet to experience. Things that will help shape me as a writer.
Some days I feel like I haven’t done anything worth a damn, let alone worth writing about. I’ve travelled. I’ve been to Europe. To Africa. I’ve lived on both coasts of the country. I’ve fallen in love, fallen out of love, fallen back into love, etc. I’ve read most of the books I felt or was told I was supposed to read. I’ve experienced a decent amount of what this world has to offer, but the list of things I’m still completely and utterly clueless about remains longer than the list of things I’ve got a decent handle on.
I’ve never held a baby, never lost a parent, never been in a car accident. I’ve never seen a friend get married, never helped a friend through a divorce, never been married or divorced myself. The list goes on, on, and on. I may never (hopefully) experience some of these things, but it’s inevitable that a portion of them will occur sooner or later.
Beyond the list of things I’ve never done or experienced, I can’t help but feel like taking O’Connor’s words too literally would discourage a writer from going out and living. It’s easy to think “oh, I want to write—I must lock myself up in some dimly-lit room filled with books and sever my connections with everything on the other side of the door.” There’s an appeal to doing that. And it is okay to go full-hermit every once in a while. But if you shut the door and lock it at twenty—and you lock it for good. Then you’re missing out on a hell of a lot of life. Yes, Emily Dickinson spent her whole life in one room. Yes, Salinger was a recluse. And yes, Pynchon keeps the tradition alive. But think of the Hemingway! Think of Twain! There is life to be lived and places to see, and to stop worrying about experience at the age of twenty would be a grave, grave mistake. I’m sorry, Flannery, but there’s a world out there that I, at the over-the-hill age of twenty-two, intent to enjoy.
Some of the best writing I’ve done has come just from going out and being in this world. The most fruitful inspiration has struck me at the most unexpected of times. Layovers in small satellite terminals of LAX. New Year’s Day brunches. Ferry-rides to Alcatraz. All of these events occurred after the age of twenty.
There is a definite paradox in living a writer’s lifestyle. There is the necessity of aloneness, solitude, a room of one’s own to accomplish the work that needs to be done. But existing entirely alone, entirely in a room of one’s own (a certain color wallpaper comes to mind) isn’t enough. How can one describe mountain’s he’s never seen? How can one tell a love story without ever having been in love? If you’ve never seen the vastness of an ocean, you won’t be able to do it justice with words. There are billions of people to meet and almost two hundred countries to visit. If you ask me, there’s more to write about out there than there could ever be behind one desk, in one room.
One of my absolute favorite things to do when trying to learn more about someone is asking them what their favorite book is, and then reading it. For those literary minded folk, this is almost a better way of gaining insight into their personality, sense of humor, interests, and how they think, than just chatting with them. Plus, it cuts down on the amount of annoying questions you could ask them instead.
As a book lover, I would be beyond flattered if someone purposely picked up my favorite book in order to understand why it is my favorite, and therefore understand more about me. That person is taking time out of their lives to get to know me vicariously through the storyline and characters that have enchanted me. It is just another route for the person to take to see what makes my mind and heart tick. There is no greater compliment than someone willingly making this kind of effort.
I believe that this can be an intensely personal experience for both the book lover and the reader. The book lover has obviously picked the specific story for a reason, whether it touched them in a very certain way, or made them laugh or cry harder than anything had before. You would never tell someone “(insert book title) is my favorite book because of the depth and complexity of the characters and the realness in their flaws and triumphs.” That might not be the best way to start a conversation, especially if they have no clue what you are talking about, and then all of your enthusiasm and great thoughts are lost in their blank stare.
Your thoughts on the book might be valid, but it won’t mean a thing to whomever you are telling them to, unless they have read the book before. Now, as the book lover, you could ask a person to read your favorite book, and then you could discuss it and have a deep and meaningful conversation. But, as the reader, you can really show initiative in picking up that book on your own would tell that person that you are intentionally trying to understand them more than you ever could just through casual conversation. It becomes this beautiful, shared experience, and the book lover will know that you, as the reader, did it just for them and of your own free will and desire to learn more about them.
This past Christmas, I asked my immediate family members to give me their favorite books as gifts. I was beyond excited to see who would give me what! My sister, for example, gave me a Russian spy novel, and from this book, I could understand why she now loves Russian history so much. My dad gave me a true account of a soldier who fought in the Pacific theater in World War II, and from this, I learned more about why he has such a deep appreciation and respect for the military. My mom gave me the first sci-fi novel that she ever read, which then sparked her huge interest in science, space, and technology. My family members did not ever have to tell me these things, because I learned them from reading their favorite books. I learned them on my own, and it meant even more to me to be able to glean this knowledge though book form. They connected with each of their books, and I wanted to be able to connect to them by diving into each text to see why it resonated with them so much as to be given the title of ‘favorite’.
I may be the only person who does this (though I hope not!), but I truly believe that the way to a book nerd’s heart is to read their favorite book and then listen and share your experience with them. Try it on your favorite person and see what it can do for your relationship!
Laura Bear’s Where the Heart Lands takes the reader on the journey of reinvention with Lucy Litchfield, an average stay-at-home mother whose life falls apart around her when she learns of her husband’s affair with another woman…and the child it resulted in. We see her sink to the low of attempted suicide only to watch her rise up again as she inherits her great aunt’s remote farmhouse. With a space of her own and a clean slate, Lucy is finally granted the opportunity to pick up the pieces and leave the past behind, all while she enjoys the quaint pleasures of pastoral life Minnesota has to offer. Alone and fragile from the still tender wounds left by her old life, Lucy is rejuvenated by a new friendship with her neighbor, Addie. Addie who was a childhood victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her perverted uncle, ran away to find a new family and became a radiant Mennonite of the most charming disposition. Rooted by love for her husband, Carl, and their children, she’s exactly the pair of open arms Lucy needed to make her feel at home in a new place. Together, these two women forge a friendship and embark on a journey of self-discovery. But, just when Lucy begins to settle into her new life, she’s met with adversity on multiple fronts. Her husband of 25 years threatens to claim and sell her new home, the work of restoring the house proves to be more difficult than expected, and the relationship Lucy shares with Addie intensifies and becomes complicated—even forbidden.
The Books that Shaped Us: Revisiting Our Favorite Childhood Reads and Finding New Ones BY MacKenzie McCreary
It is probably no surprise to you that I’ve been reading since I could open my eyes. There is a running joke in my family that the reason I am so obsessed with books is because my father would read to me when I was a baby. He doesn’t like to take the blame for my book-buying addiction, but it really is all his fault.
As a kid, I remember my favorite place being the library at my elementary school and the book fairs were quite literally the highlight of my school life. Words can’t describe how sad I was when I found those didn’t exist in high school.
I would spend as much time as possible in the library, reading as much as I could. As “You’ve Got Mail’s” Kathleen Kelly said, “When you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading does.” I couldn’t agree more. Childhood reading makes us who we are — it helped us form opinions, make decisions and learn the most important lessons of life before we even knew it was all happening. Reading as a child is one of the most important experiences in a person’s life and I only hope that kids today are reading as much as they can.
I remember a group of very special books I read as a child that had such a large impact on me that I can’t help but go back and read them again and again.
These include a few well-known titles such as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Math Curse,” “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” “Strega Nona,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” and “The Rainbow Fish,”
Speaking of the ocean, Unsolicited Press published a very endearing children’s book earlier this year that send me back to the days I spent on a carpeted library floor reading “The Rainbow Fish.”
This new book is “James and the Super Gigantic Very Important Ocean Adventure to Save His Friends,” by Savannah Stewart. The sweet and educational story details the journey of a rag-tag group of ocean creatures to find a new home after a fishing boat sets up camp above their reef.
Not only did I learn something (reminder: you’re never too old to learn something new), but I also thoroughly enjoyed the story and its message to never give up.
This is why I love discovering new children’s books — it’s like having an espresso shot fun with friendly reminders thrown in. These stories are filled with adventure and life lessons and are presented in a much more unique and accessible way than general fiction.
But it’s not just picture books, it’s chapter books as well.
These were my favorite growing up because they felt like more of an adventure, which is really all we want as children. Some of my favorites were “Fever 1793,” “The BFG,” “Sideways Stories from Wayside School,” and, of course, The Magic Tree House series.
Last year, I made it my mission to read the entire “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” series. I had read up to book seven in elementary school and finally decided to finish what I started. Thirteen books in about three months. And I have to say, they are my new favorite book series. I can’t get enough of the complex yet accessible characters and the way they deal with adverse situations that I could never dream of encountering.
I recently saw the new “Goosebumps” movie and, although I thought the movie to be a bit underwhelming, it revived a strong desire in me to marathon-read the Goosebumps series. But maybe that has something to do with the Halloween season. Regardless, I am making this my new mission for next year, as I have only read two Goosebumps books.
While most of us are caught up in adult reading and trying to read all of the books on the New York Times Bestseller list, it’s healthy mentally rest our minds and enjoy some easy reading and some good stories. My first recommendation? “James and the Super Gigantic Very Important Ocean Adventure to Save His Friends.”
What were your favorite childhood books? Are there any you would recommend for us to read? Let us know in the comments and let us reminisce together.
National Not Writing Month: 8 Reading Projects to Undertake in November while your Friends Are Busy Writing BY EMMA Gasperak
As far as I’m concerned, November is the unsung hero of the winter quarter of the calendar year. It doesn’t carry the same prestige as October and December, which have the almost unfair advantages of Halloween and Christmas, but in addition to Thanksgiving and the hilarity of our partners’ and family members’ No-Shave November beards, November promises late night writing extravaganzas and way too much espresso as writers celebrate National Novel Writing Month. My friends spend the whole year inventing potential story prompts that they usually don’t end up using. It’s an amazing month for them, and I have a great time watching and reading their progress, but as the only non-writer of the group, I end up with a lot of extra time on my hands while my friends are scribbling away. Consequently, November has become my month to undertake massive reading projects. If you’re looking for a project to fill your empty social calendar this month, consider joining me on one of these eight potential journeys.
1.) Book vs. Blockbuster
I think fell in love with the Jurassic Park film franchise when I was nine or ten, but I didn’t pick up the novel that started the dino-mania until two years ago. It broke into my top ten favorite novels before I’d finished the fifth chapter. I’ve since become captivated by the idea of choosing beloved blockbuster films and returning to the novels that inspired their existence. Skip this idea if you’re a book purist. Personally, I’m not a fan of insisting the book was better even if it was. It’s much more intriguing to say the book was different and explore why it was different. What choices did the writers, directors, and producers make that propelled their film to its eventual success? Would it have flopped without those choices? Choose five or ten titles, and fill a blog with your thoughts.
2.) Read the Harry Potter series (again).
Let’s be honest. I always want to read Harry Potter, and I don’t think that will ever change. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to follow my favorite boy wizard through 4200 pages of adventures as often as I’d like. November is our opportunity. Stop pretending that old Gryffindor hoodie isn’t hanging in the back of your closet, and find your way back to Platform 9 ¾.
3.) Read all the books you were supposed to read in your ninth grade English class.
I skipped ninth grade English. I’m not super smart or accomplished. It just worked out that way. But skipping that class meant I also skipped the segment of high school English that focuses on all of those amazing books that frequent summer reading lists. Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm, The Bell Jar, The Great Gatsby. Yup, I skipped all of them, and although I was enraged, I never had the time to add them into my reading list. There were too many assignments and too many other amazing books to read. November’s a great opportunity to work through books you may have missed over the years, whether you skipped a class or slept through it.
4.) Work your way through an intricate coloring book.
Adult coloring books have been warmly accepted into the hearts of bookworms over the last few years, but life is busy and sometimes it's difficult to justify coloring as a worthwhile activity. Stop trying to justify it. Buy the coloring book you’ve been eyeing for weeks, and work your way through every page. Add some wine, and your November suddenly sounds extremely inviting.
5.) Read Ulysses
Admit it. You’ve always wanted to read it even just to prove you could. Choose a book that’s always terrified you, and read it from cover to cover. We believe in you.
6.) Develop your dramatic side.
One of the best parts of being a college student is having access to knowledge that normally wouldn’t influence your life. History students can take sign language classes. Aspiring anthropologists can take dance classes. I miss having the ability to learn something new every semester. I majored in English, but I took advantage of my university’s theater department by taking a few drama classes, one of which was more theoretical than practical. Spending a semester reading and analyzing plays and then travelling with my class to see productions of those plays was such a magical experience for me. I’m determined to read and attend a play this November. Feel free to join me on this adventure if it’s something you think you’d enjoy.
7.) Feed your fanfiction addiction.
Everyone has different opinions about fanfiction. Some people love it. Others hate it. If you fall somewhere between those two groups, consider spending some time with it this month. It’s a great way for you to scribble your way through November if you secretly want to join the writing mania but feel too overwhelmed by endless possibility. Scribble to your heart’s content by creating an adventure for characters that already exist.
8.) Reorganize your bookshelves.
Rationally, this shouldn’t be a month-long project, but bookworms are rarely rational creatures when their ink and paper companions are involved. We’re all attached to our books, but even the best arrangements need refreshed every once in a while.
There are so many old books.
From Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf and everything in between. The Iliad, Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, Beloved, The Bell Jar—the list goes on and on. These are books that are rich with history, context, and significance. They are books you are assigned in high school and hate, but read later in life and love. There are a staggering number of these books. They may look stogy and unapproachable, but they can be so worth it.
There are always new books.
As if that weren't enough there are new books coming out every day! With the beauty of the internet and e-readers there is no end to new books. There are critically acclaimed, New York Times Best Sellers and there are independently published e-books. All have merit and all deserve some attention. It's impossible to keep up, but it's worth a noble effort. Besides...
People will act annoyingly shocked when you haven't read something.
“Whaaaaaaaat? You haven't read X? You've gotta read X. I can't believe that you haven't read it.” Whether it's a classic or a new release you are undoubtedly going to face someone acting surprised when you haven't read something. Especially if you are a writer. Even more so if you work in a bookstore, as I do. And of course, they will only ask you about books you haven't read. They might even ask you about several books, one right after the other—these will all be books you have not read. I don't know how they do it. You shouldn’t feel stupid, but you will. It’s impossible to read everything, but it will seem as if you just aren’t even trying. The more you read the less likely this is to happen. Hopefully.
If you don't read for a while you will never catch up.
I went through a phase of a year or so in between undergrad and graduate school where I barely read anything. Shock, gasp! And now I feel behind. For eternity. There’s too much! Don’t ever stop! Don’t make my same mistake. Save yourself!
Books smell good.
Books just smells good to read. Whether it’s a physical book or an e-reader, it’s gonna smell good. I think it makes you prettier too. Scientific studies have yet to prove this, but I wouldn’t doubt it if it were true.
A word to aspiring writers: readers read for the ending. I know that sounds silly, but it is so true. It is important to have character development and plot building, but the ending can make or break the entire story. It can make the reader feel joy, sadness, triumphant, or even a little smarter, but it should do just that: make them feel something. I know that the author has succeeded in this goal when I finish a book with a wide eyed expression, a smile on my face, or even tears in my eyes. This is what every author wants to accomplish, and I believe that a well-crafted ending is the key.
I recently finished Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With the cultural vampire craze, I figured it would be interesting to see where it all started. I thought the book was fantastic, until I got to the end. I had to purposely put the book down at night because it freaked me out, I was on the edge of my seat in suspense, and I was curious as to how and why this character had become such an icon of horror in pop culture. As I was nearing the end, the action was ramping up, and I assumed I was about to witness the ultimate showdown between good and evil, Van Helsing and Dracula (exciting, right?!), but no. Out of about a 350 page story, the ending took two of those pages. It was EXCITING, EXCITING, EXCITING…badum-bum, the end. What?! NO! The ending was what I had expected, but it was lack-luster at best!
In an ending, we instinctively root for the good guy, the underdog, to win against an uncommon foe. If the hero is killed and evil triumphs, what’s the point of having gone through the whole story? Think of your favorite story. What is the best part of it? I will bet that it is the ending when the hero beats the villain, the guy gets the girl, or when the motley crew of unlikely heroes band together to save the day. Even if the ending is sad or unexpected, it can still be good: Nicholas Sparks, anyone?
A “good ending” may be hard to actually define, but as a reader, I just seem to know when it’s right: the ending fits the theme of the book. I can think of two popular examples off the top of my head: Harry Potter and 1984. In the Harry Potter series, though the ending is an emotional roller coaster, it fits with the overall theme of the books: a young and unlikely hero is marked as the only one who can defeat the most evil of enemies. I will not go into any further details or ruin the ending, because I love people too much to do such a thing, but for those who have read it, you will agree with me.
Now, 1984 presents a whole different beast. The ending is shocking. If ever there was a story that I was expecting to end one way that did not, it was this one. Though the whole book seeks to serve as a public service announcement for the world to wake up to what our future could quite possibly turn into, I still wanted good to ultimately triumph. It does not. He does not. In this case, I did not feel that comforting sense of closure that comes when finishing a story that wraps itself up well. I am sure there are debates as to whether 1984 has an appropriate ending for its general message, but I was left almost disoriented with the abrupt and surprising end. It stands out in my memory for this reason.
Dear writers, I am a firm believer in the power of a good ending to make or break the entire story.
You must take your time to craft the ending, because the readers can tell if it is hurried, or even if you do not know how to end it and drag it out for three extra chapters. Endings can be tricky, and I give major kudos to those writers who can leave readers feeling any sort of emotion at the end. The feeling of “well, I guess that’s over” is not one that a writer wants to elicit from their reader.
Try writing a basic ending for your plot line and then writing the events of the story that will lead up to it, which obviously can be changed and molded as new ideas form. I have tried this when brainstorming story ideas and it is almost like running a race: you have a goal and you know where the finish line is, now you just have to do the work to get there.
This morning, I attended my first-ever used book sale at a local library. I’d been eagerly awaiting it. I walked through the door at 9:00 AM. Thirty minutes and twenty-two dollars later, I walked out the happy owner of fifteen new (used) books. I’d highly recommend used book sales to anybody whose reading habits pose a threat to their financial stability—but if you’re a newbie (like I am), here are some things to keep in mind.
Bring a bag.
Lucky for me, the book sale provided recycled shopping bags for us to fill with books as we looked around the room. Unlucky for me, I didn’t notice these bags until I was checking out. First, going to a used book sale isn’t anything like shopping for books at a store. At your local bookstore, you’d rarely walk out with more than maybe two books. At a used book sale where paperbacks go for a mere dollar, you could be walking out with thirty books. Second, walking around a small, crowded, library back room filled with hungry bibliophiles is dangerous enough. You will bump shoulders. You will get elbowed out of the way. People will trip you accidentally (or maybe not so accidentally) and think nothing of it. Life becomes very difficult when you’re dealing with the physicality of used book buying with an armful of heavy books. Long story short, you’re gonna wish you’d brought that bag.
If you want a book, cling to it with all your might.
The second you put that book down, whether it’s to look at another one, to tie your shoe, or even just to rearrange your haul, that book becomes one of two things: fair game or in the way. Anybody who shows up to a used book sale at nine in the morning on a Thursday is going to be a fucking vulture. You set that bad-boy down and they’ll either swoop it up or shove it into the mess of other books in the middle of their frenzied search. If you want it, lock it down. Another reason to bring a bag.
Do not be shy.
If you’re going to the used book sale with a title in mind—any title—do not be hesitant to move books and boxes around to find it. Cause a ruckus, get your book. Just because you might think it’s the greatest book to ever exist in print doesn’t mean that the person who laid out the books for the sale agrees with you. They probably didn’t even look at the books at all. They were probably tired, sweaty, and sick of moving around heavy boxes of smelly old books. Rip the place apart! I crawled under a table, almost had my hand stepped on by an aggressive shopper, and knocked over a box of thesauruses just to pluck a cool edition of David Copperfield from a shoebox. Now it’s mine forever. And it only cost me two dollars.
Get there EARLY
My first used book sale started at 9:00 AM. I was in the car by 8:00. I live about ten minutes away. Why leave so early? You’ve got to have a cushion. There could be traffic. There could be a shortage of parking. There could be a police barricade forcing you to take a detour, turning a ten-minute drive into half an hour. By that time, that book you’ve been hoping to find since you heard about the sale could be long, long gone.
Hold your fucking ground.
Chances are you’ll be dealing with some used book-sale regulars. People who live for this shit, who may or may not like newcomers. They'll be geared up with canvas bags, they’ll have scouted out the books the night before, as some book-sales allow. People will recognize each other in the line. If you’re the new guy, the alienation is not fun. You’re gonna feel out of place. You could be separating two friends in line. Do. Not. Move. It’s a battle. You’re jockeying for position. You give up your spot in line; you could be giving up the best book in the damn sale. A certain character dressed like a mix of Indiana Jones and a 19th century aristocrat was “mean-mugging” me from the second I showed up to the second I walked out the door. Pay these types no mind. You’re there to get books, just like they are.
Have fun, be adventurous.
The book sale I attended boasted a stock of 25,000 books. Needless to say, there was some stuff there I never thought I’d see—let alone buy. That’s part of the whole appeal; for a buck you can pick up a copy of a book you otherwise wouldn’t be able to justify purchasing. You may never touch it, but it only cost you a buck, and who knows—maybe someday that faded hardcover on art of the African Diaspora might come in handy. Don’t be afraid to venture out of your preferred genres. Also, there’s no other place in the world where a bunch of book-lovers convene in a room and comb through hundreds, thousands of boxes of books. There’ll be some people who take it way too seriously. There’ll be some people who’re just downright strange. But there will also be some people there just like you. People there to just see what kind of flukes and finds they can discover and buy for a more than reasonable price. Make the most of your first used book-sale. Enjoy.
Because no two readers are alike, everyone favors a slightly different method for organizing the madness of a bookshelf. Some people alphabetize their books; others group their books by genre. Personally, I organize my books by how attractive they look positioned next to each other. I have a shelf for silver and blue hues as well as one for rich browns and greens. This means that books of the same series often land on different shelves, which would drive some people mad, but it works for me. Your shelf is your own. Except when it’s not. I work at a small independent bookstore and was recently tasked with creating some organization for sections that had become more “etc.” than anything else. There’s a lot of freedom in running a small bookstore but a lot of unusual challenges as well. I made a few discoveries as I was pawing through seemingly endless piles of books that just didn’t have much in common.
Accept that you’re not going to be able to dedicate an entire shelf to every category. You’re either going to have too many books or not enough. Feel free to create some subsections that have enough in common to add some cohesion to the shelf. I pulled all of our books off the crowded Parenting shelf and redistributed them among two new shelves called New Parents and Parents’ Reference. The New Parents shelf includes all the titles anyone in their first year of parenting might need, and the Parents’ Reference shelf includes other helpful titles concerning issues such as homeschooling, bullying, mental disorders, and anything else parents of children aged 2 – 15 might need. Give yourself the freedom to reject rigidity and embrace a new system that works exclusively for your store.
Focus on Display
You want even the most specific sections to draw the attention of the casual browser, so don’t be afraid to try something that rejects everything you ever learned about the proper use of space. I ended up dedicating an entire shelf to books on anatomy and physiology. Rationally, we didn’t need to highlight these titles, but no one noticed them when they were tucked into the corner of another catch-all shelf. I ended up featuring a lot of these titles as face outs, because although the average customer may not want to buy a book on human anatomy, the books’ covers were colorful and intriguing. You never know what people may find on a shelf they wouldn’t have thought about perusing if something colorful and exciting hadn’t caught their attention.
Did you forget about those miniature coffee table books you stuck on the back shelf two years ago? Yeah, they’re still there complicating your organization and earning every glare and frown you’ve tossed their way. Pull them off the shelf, discount them, and dump them in that basket that’s been gathering dust on the counter. Someone will pay $1.00 for a collection of photos of lizards wearing hats.
Bookstores are amazing centers of warmth and comfort, intellect and commentary, and sometimes coffee and scones. As a customer, you leave your anxiety at the door. As a bookseller, sometimes it follows you inside, but don’t let it stay. It’s easy to feel frustrated when you’re trying to fit fifty new titles on already full shelf, but you’ll figure it out. Drink coffee, eat a scone, breathe deeply, and get back to work!
Why do we write? Why do we even want to write? In the age of voice activated texts and rampant abbreviations and acronyms for everything, why would you ever want to sit down and take the time to physically write with a pen in a notebook?
Regardless of the fact that I think that shows a real degradation of the fundamentals of our society, this technology does nothing for the person who sits down to write who is looking for a constructive purpose for their writing. You might as well just go and have a conversation with a real person if all you are going to do is talk at your chosen piece of technology. The crucial function of a pen and paper is twofold: the writer can exercise and invigorate their mind, and can experience all the therapeutic benefits for their soul.
In the age of autocorrect and spellcheck, it is easy to become relaxed and even lazy in our grammar and spelling discipline. We can just rely on the computer to give us that little red line underneath our mistake, and the proper spelling of the word is just a right click away. Often times, we don’t even take a look at the words in the list, but pick the top one, assuming that our computer is smart enough to know what we are talking about. It is the same with smartphones and that pesky auto correct. Yes, I want to contact my brother-in-law named Orrie, and no, for the sixteenth time, it is NOT spelled Oreo (we’ve all been there…).
If you are in the middle of writing something, whether it be the next chapter in your book, or your daily journal entry, I challenge those of you who use technology to write even just a paragraph or two on paper (it shouldn’t take long transfer it back into Word, unless you really get going!). Without being able to rely on your computer to check you, you as the writer now have to do the work of both writing and editing. Daunting, I know! Taking the time to really push yourself will allow you to sharpen your mind, wit, reason, vocabulary, grammar, and spelling skills. That is a long list of benefits. Every writer wants to be proficient in these things, and each time we rely on the computer to be our editor, we lose a little bit of our own learned skill.
Yes, it is easier to just run a spellcheck at the end of a document, and I am just as guilty as the next person, but I can see, and hopefully you can too, that it is a slippery slope when we allow technology to do the thinking for us. In my opinion, this kind of exercise is better than a treadmill (gasp!), because keeping our mind sharp has so many more benefits: creativity, understanding, literacy, ideas, problem solving, and more!
As for the soul, everyone knows and had experienced that talking to someone about whatever it is that’s on your heart is such a relief and way more fulfilling than keeping it all in. The beauty of a pen and paper is that you can be as angry, sarcastic, aggressive, cheeky, or stressed out as you want as you write, and your paper won’t tell anyone what you said. Your writing is for you and you alone, and yet getting it out of your head and on to paper has the same feeling as telling someone the same things. There is a reason that psychologists tell people to keep a diary. The person next to you on the train doesn’t have to know that you hate that he is taking up your leg room, but you can still get rid of that aggression on paper! And then, when he gets up to leave, you can smile sweetly at him and tell him to have a nice day because you are no longer a time bomb of anger waiting to explode the next time he looks your way. That is an extreme example, but it might work for you someday.
I find that my journal is the best place to write out my hopes and dreams without fear of judgment or criticism. I know what I want and now, so does my journal. A journal can be a great place to explore more about yourself, since it is just you, being real with yourself. Therapeutic is the best word for it. If my day has been hectic or I have a million thoughts in my head, I find that writing them down, as well as writing them out completely relieves so much stress. Instead of writing “Richard made me mad today” and then closing your journal, try asking “why, how, and how can I fix it?” or things that will make your write for longer and in more detail. Push yourself to keep on writing. Order your thoughts, express your emotions, make lists, test out new ideas! I always keep paper around me for these reasons. I want my mind to stay sharp and my knowledge of language to stay true. Writing on paper is harder, but the benefits are numerous!
The paper is a blank canvas, do with it what you will and your mind and soul will thank you!
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