Hollywood loves readers: The (sometimes) mutually beneficial relationship between books & movies

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Books and movies need not compete for our attention and affection. They are two very different mediums, and they have, as explained in an earlier post on this site by Williesha Morris, different needs and goals and use different tools to do the same thing—share a story with the world. In fact, although many readers and writers may loathe to admit it, movies and the books that inspire them enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship in which one feeds off and grows from the other. Less than convinced? Let me explain.

Good and Bad Movie Versions of Books Create New Readers

When it comes to readers, Hollywood often gets a bad rap. But why? Because even with a blockbuster budget a la Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, directors, producers, makeup artists and actors galore cannot measure up to many book-lovers’ imaginations. Too often, the characters, the setting, the plot, are not how we experienced them in the middle of the night, huddled under the covers with a flashlight, no special effects required.

But that’s okay.  What matters most is a writer’s story reaching more people. Because when a movie waters down or modifies a tale drastically, readers complain to their friends and family about it. Moviegoers who enjoyed the film, but have heard more times than they can count about how the books are superior, or the screenplay was so different sometimes become curious enough to crack open the book and the writer gains a new reader.

And on those rare occasions when the movie version is sublime, perfect, and adored by all the book fans, they drag their non-reader friends to the premiere, and goad them into buying or borrowing the book, and again, the writer gets new readers. For me, one instance of this is The Perks of Being a Wallflower–amazing execution, beautiful in print and on the big screen—and don’t get me started on the soundtrack—the book talks about music a lot, and wow.

Movie Versions of Books Alert Readers

Films are good press for books. It may seem shameful to readers and writers, but new movies receive far more attention and word of mouth than most freshly published tomes. Savvy readers know that many movies are based on books, so if a movie being advertised looks intriguing, with a little research they can stumble into something even more intriguing to read.

Hollywood’s in-your-face advertising put books like The Silver Linings Playbook, The Cloud Atlas and The Life of Pi on my reading list, and I’ve not even seen the last two movies. The striking print and television ads piqued my interest, and now I plan to read the books and watch the movies.

In fact, a lot of books I’ve really enjoyed have come to my attention when the blockbusters based on them were produced and promoted. Slick ads produced for box office hits nudged me into reading the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures, and the Immortal Instruments, just to name a few recent offenders—all fun, entertaining reads, well-worth a cozy afternoon spent turning pages and sipping coffee. The movies aren’t too bad, either, once you let go of the idea that they must exactly resemble the book world you and the author created in your mind.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and translator. She’s an unabashed book worm and a bit of a coffee addict. She’s accepting new writing and translation clients. Look her up at ChrisCiolli.com.

Writing About Writing: Five Noteworthy Stories and Poems

writing about writing

This is an essay by Erika Dreifus.

A funny thing happened as I immersed myself in the study and practice of writing: I found myself appreciating stories and poems about writing—works in which central characters are writers or central themes or actions involve aspects of craft, process, or business of writing—more and more. I say that this is “a funny thing” because the more I hear from other writers, the more it seems that I’m in a decided minority in my enjoyment of these works.

Take the perspective articulated by Roxane Gay, a noted writer and editor whose views on writing and publishing are always worth thinking about:

“This may well become an annual announcement but writers, you must, for the love of all that is holy, stop writing stories where the main characters are writers. I understand the appeal. You are, perhaps, writing what you know. You’re writers so you’re creating stories around the experience of being a writer. In recent memory we have read stories about writers hoping to be published, excited to have been published, writers who have entered contests and won contests. You have written stories about happy writers and miserable writers and lonely writers and desperate writers. Sometimes your writers have sex and it is awkward. Very often they drink, smoke, or use illegal substances. Some of these stories about writers have been satirical (but not) like when you pretend to be kidding but really you’re serious.”

Trust me, many others share this view. Evidently, a contingent of readers (and editors) don’t necessarily want to see more stories written by eager emerging auteurs about this particular obsession. But perhaps the cohort can concede that some truly wonderful literary creations already exist for us to read and think about. Especially if we’re writers, or writers-in-training, some of these stories and poems may inspire us. Some may amuse us. Some may actually make us (more than) a bit uncomfortable. Some may make us think more carefully about what it really means to be a writer in the first place.

Here are five brief works—three short stories and two poems—that are among my favorites when it comes to “writing about writing.” All of them are available to read online.

  • “Electric Wizard,”by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Published in The Atlantic in 1998, “Electric Wizard” presents us with a poetry teacher in the aftermath of the suicide of one of her young workshop students—and the parents of that student who seek to know what he had been writing for the class.
  • “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned this Cliche?” by Lorrie Moore. Included in Moore’s first short-story collection, Self-Help (as “How to Become a Writer”), this story is oft-anthologized and cited.
  • “How to Tell a Story,” by Margo Rabb. Originally published in Zoetrope in 1999, this story introduces us to a narrator, Anna, who is a third-semester student “in the Master of Fine Arts program at Southwestern University.”
  • “Workshop,” by Billy Collins, is a poem that continues to throw light (of a sort) onto that very strange animal—the writing workshop.
  • “Digging,” by Seamus Heaney (who passed away in 2013), also comes from the world of poetry. But it takes a much more solemn approach to the work of writing—and to the place of writing in the larger world.

What do you think about fiction and poetry “about” writers and/or writing? Any favorites (whether available online or not) that you might recommend?

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Erika Dreifus (Ed.M., M.F.A., Ph.D.) lives in New York City, where she writes poetry and prose and reads as much as she possibly can. Follow her on Twitter @erikadreifus.

Three Things Game of Thrones Can Teach Non-Fiction Writers

game of thrones reading writing

This is an essay by Rhonda Kronyk.

The list of categories we can choose reading material from is endless. Yet, as busy people, we often choose to read in the genre we write in and forget that all writers can learn from reading outside their genre.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of letting my non-fiction reading slide this year as I work on my freelance writing and editing business. I miss reading novels, but never seem to make the time to fit them into my schedule.

That is until my son introduced me to the Game of Thrones television series. I rarely read fantasy fiction, and I never watch it on TV. But I am enthralled by Game of Thrones. So much so that I bought all of the novels.

It didn’t take me long to realize that writers can adapt George RR Martin’s techniques for non-fiction writing.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Understand your characters.

All non-fiction writing has a human at its core. Whether you’re writing a technical manual, a scientific treatise, a book of history, or a self-help article, everything is written by and for humans. The sooner you understand that, the better your writing will be.

However, for some genres this is even more important. Biographies, case studies, and memoir come immediately to mind.

Martin’s characters reflect humanity. They are incredibly complex, almost always contradictory, and are motivated by a range of rationales.

The people you discuss in your writing are the same. That means you need to hone your interview skills in order to access this complexity.

What aren’t they saying? How do past actions contradict or support their current words? What are their motivations?

I’m not suggesting that you dig up dirt on the people you write about. But you need to remember that, like Martin’s characters, people are rarely easy. That means that you need to take the time to try to understand them. Martin was once asked how he writes such good female characters. His response is classic: “I’ve always considered women to be people.”

What does this mean for you? No matter how difficult the interview or your personal feelings about a subject, you are dealing with people. None of us are easy, so take that into account.

2. Setting matters.

Have you ever read a feature article about a place and walked away disappointed? When Martin writes about his kingdom, readers can form a mental picture of dark castles, rich, walled cities and a wall of ice separating the North from the Seven Kingdoms.

You need to learn to convey this same detail in your non-fiction writing. Don’t leave your reader unable to form a mental image of the nature reserve, museum, or cultural event you are writing about.

That means it isn’t enough to say the lake water is blue. Rather, say “the clouds cause the water to change from blue green to steel grey, while the wind creates patterns of ripples across the water.” Details help your reader to see what you see.

Can you imagine the ice wall in the northern kingdom described as a barrier to separate the wild lands from the Seven Kingdoms? That doesn’t provide much of a mental picture, does it? But Martin’s ice-wall is 700 feet tall, 300 miles long, and infused with magic. It has abandoned forts built along its length and dominates the surrounding geography. It is forbidding and frightening and necessary.

When you build this level of detail into your descriptions, you provide your reader with a richer experience and draw them deeper into your writing.

3. The plot has to make sense.

It doesn’t matter if your story starts at the middle or the end. By the time the reader finishes the whole article, they have to understand the chain of events.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But think about the plot turns that Game of Throne takes. I can generally guess the ending of a show before the halfway point. Yet, I am constantly amazed by the plot twists that evolve. Not only that, but the twists are realistic because they reflect the characters and setting that Martin has worked into his story.

But you aren’t writing fiction, so none of this matters right? Wrong. Real life takes just as many twists and turns as a novel. It’s just as full of unintended consequences. As a writer, you need to be able to follow the various threads, sort them into a semblance of order and cut the ones that will clutter and confuse the story.

You always need to keep the facts straight so your reader can get an understanding of the events that you are writing about – no matter how complicated they are.

I’m thrilled that I was introduced to the rich tapestry that is a George RR Martin novel. It has been an excellent reminder to rekindle my love of fiction.

So expand your reading, go back to the wonderful world of well-written novels and incorporate the techniques of good fiction writing into non-fiction writing.

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Rhonda Kronyk is the editor and co-author of Releasing the Words: Writers on Writing, an e-book helping writers take control of writer’s block. As a die-hard word-nerd, she explores everything word related including writing, editing, and reading.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Douglas Brown.

Sounding It Out

reading aloud music in reading

This is an essay by John Kilhefner.

It’s unnatural to lose the beat when we routinely read to ourselves or dutifully hammer words onto the page. Discovering the rhythm in the sound of words is akin to uncovering a new language — a language you perhaps once knew, but forgot.

Like any other studious child, I read. I read the books I needed to read. Few of them, if any, interested me. Einstein once said intelligence is fostered in part from the fairy tales we consume well before school age. Toddlers find words exotic — being aloof to deeper meanings, their intrigue owes to the aesthetic; their continued intrigue to the reward of word recognition by sound or visual representation. In school, well-behaved children read. The older I got, the less lustrous the words appeared. They were just words.

Still, I read. Not out of interest in reading, but eagerness to please. I was terrified of not being liked. Of letting my parents down, of academic ignominy at the desks of my teachers. I read, as studiously as I could, to impress.

Undoubtedly, it was the reading which fostered my natural talent for writing. Well, that and my dad’s uncanny ability to tell me a new story from his life every night. But I had no interest in writing, unless it was assigned. Or unless it was on my dad’s typewriter. The sound of the keys spelunking into the metal framework entertained me.

By adolescence, I replaced childlike eagerness with childlike rebellion. The latter satisfied me. And by high school, my head spent more time on desks than in books. Daydreaming, my thoughts roamed free. My senses melded with words which became sounds which became visuals, all simultaneously. Lucid synesthesia. Waking up meant the words were just words again.

Like any other studious child, I involved myself in extracurricular activities. I learned to read music and play the trumpet. I chose band, because my older brother was in it. I chose the trumpet because it was his instrument, and I looked up to him. The magic I would come to know in music was absent from my music classes. The curriculum dulled its hypnotic effects, turning it into another chore.

Then, in the ninth grade, a friend of mine brought in an Eminem CD and played it over the band room speakers. The song elicited a reaction in the band director, one I’d never seen before — his face was beet red when he whipped the CD out of the player and chastised us. As juvenile and explicit for the sake of explicitness as it was, I saw a certain power in words. So I listened.

When we think of rhythm, our minds don’t go immediately to the written word, but to expressive forms like music or dance. Our minds and bodies are naturally hardwired for it. If you squint, you can find rhythm in anything — from our body’s basic biological cadences to the rise and fall of the seasons due to the motion of the planet. It manifests itself in human creations, such as sports, and, of course, in song. When it comes to the latter, the reverberation of two carefully chosen words is literally music to the ears.

An explosion of ecstasy takes place when we hear a pleasing rhythmical phrase or lyric. This is immediately gratifying in music, while it takes a carefully seasoned ear to unlock the rhythms inherent in prose.

When writing, reading our finished work aloud allows us to experience the full breadth of what we just wrote. If it doesn’t flow, reading it aloud is often the lens that exposes flaws. Words, when on a page, only reveal half of themselves. Hearing the sound words make creates a multi-sensory experience fostering comprehension.

Like any other rebellious child, I listened to music my parents hated. I listened, at first, for acceptance. The more I listened, however, the more every word and every note I read coalesced. Exotic. Through music, I discovered joy in the sounds of words. Something I once knew, but forgot.

By the time I was out of high school, I read more than I ever read and played more music than I ever played in all my years as a student. I even started nurturing whatever structure I cultivated as a writer prior to academic-induced stasis. And by the time I took English literature in college, you would be hard pressed to find me not reading.

Reading and writing unveils its truth when both the writer and the reader think within the syncopations of jazz musicians or the choreographed beauty of ballet dancers. Prose consists of the interplay of carefully chosen and arranged words to form a complete composition.

Much like the tone of an instrument, the writer’s tone, too, influences the rhythm of words, sentences and paragraphs. The reader’s task is to infer tonal shifts, using the proper inflection to yield the full impact of prose.

While working at TIME, Hunter S. Thompson re-typed the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” He did this to understand Fitzgerald’s prose style and feel how writing a novel was like. Thompson was well aware of the rhythms of prose, subtle as they may be. To write well, one must find the natural sound within literature.

My flirtation with sound hasn’t just taken me down a path, it’s created a lifestyle. Today, I’m learning Japanese and, you guessed it, music is the primary motivator. I discovered Japanese hip hop, a marvel of globalization on its own, and am once again transfixed by the power of words. Or, in this case, the power that culture has on words. The English language is more suited to rhymes than Japanese, meaning the evolution of Japanese rap, or J-Rap, required a re-thinking of the structures of the language. I’m transcribing the songs I like into Romaji, and, because I only currently know about 200 words, learning the meaning of each word as I go. Eventually, I’ll cultivate enough of an understanding to be able to read an entire new culture. Now that sounds interesting.

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Johnny Kilhefner is a freelance writer specializing in the intersection of technology and culture. His work appears in Five out of Ten magazine, Unwinnable, PopMatters, Writer’s Weekly, Bridged Design, and much more. When not writing, he raises two young daughters while indulging his Sisyphean quest to brew the finest cup of tea. You can find him on Twitter.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Rima Xaros

If You Don’t Like Reading, You’re Doing It Wrong

don't like to read

This is an essay by Taylor Church.

I was not a bibliophile from the beginning. My love of books did not come until late in my adolescence. I never loathed literature, but reading books I found boring and irrelevant in school did not nurture a healthy longing to read.

I mostly stuck to the basics: Garfield books, books about NBA players with copious amounts of pictures, and the occasional novel about Wayside Schools or perhaps a fictional baseball player trying to make it the big leagues.

As my juvenility slowly progressed into my pubescent years, I began to form a somewhat broader interest in reading. But it only went further into the subject of sports. All I read was books about various athletes and maybe the occasional biography on a musician. The only real progress was that at age 14 or 15 I was reading decent-sized books with little or no pictures inside (often just a few choice photos in the middle of the book). One instance altered my paradigm forever.

I was 16 and in California on vacation with my family. We were lounging one day for hours at Huntington Beach. My parents were engrossed in huge paperbacks per usual. I was laying in the sand reading a book about post-retirement Michael Jordan. My dad took an inspired break from his guilty pleasure and accosted me. He said quite sardonically, “Why don’t you read a grown up book for once?”

I laughed and shrugged. I had no clever or reasonable retort. He then tossed me a paperback of some 500-plus pages and said, “Start reading this, if after the first two chapters you are bored or don’t like it I will leave you alone, but I think you will enjoy it.” I reluctantly agreed, thinking I was going to prove him to be the fool.

Well I was wrong. John Grisham had captured me. The book was The Runaway Jury, and I was hooked. Never before had I realized how enjoyable reading could be. I mostly just liked learning trivialities about my childhood heroes. So I got a late start, but almost 10 years later I have read almost 500 books since that fateful day on the shore.

I am afraid too many people are stuck in the same place I was 9 years ago. They do not hold reading with disdain or harsh feelings. They simply do not know how to love reading. They are stuck with the notion that reading is tolerable and enjoyable if the subject is just right.

But one must love reading! One must be enthralled with learning, exploring, finding, and searching for new ideas. One must learn from the past and study to conquer the future.

I have met too many people that claim “I like reading. I just do not have the time.” I assure them that the busiest people in the world find time to glean knowledge from the priceless pages of timeless books. Louis L’Amour in his book entitled Education of a Wandering Man said that within a year he could read upwards of 25 books simply in the time he spent waiting for things.

Ipso facto, we all have time to read. We simply must make the time. For Mr. L’Amour also said: “Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.” What terrific incentive we have to not waste away our time. Thomas A. Kempis so wisely said: “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying, or meditating or endeavoring something for the public good.”

My personal secret for making the leap from liking reading to loving it, to having an obsessive passion with it is simple. I dominate the books I read. No matter the book, if I come across a word I do not know, I do not read another page until I have looked up said word and written the definition in the margin.

Even if I have a pretty good idea what the word means from context, I look it up to homologate my suspicions. Why be unsure if we can be certain?

In reading works of history, I omnivorously look up subject matter, whether it concerns names, geography or organizations. Why just learn about something if you can become expert in it? Why are we so determined to know much, but be expert of nothing?

My books are precious to me. They are filled with food stains and scratchy annotations. They have underlined salient phraseology, and highlighted pieces of poetry. But I never vacillate with the idea of lending my book to another. The point of a book is that it is timeless.

As long as one copy is extant, its inspiration and influence can know no bounds. So why limit a book’s influence by keeping it on a dusty shelf or in a battered book bag? After all, knowledge begets knowledge. So if you are having trouble finding that passion for literature, do not fret. You needn’t run out and procure the works of Tolstoy or Edward Gibbons.

Read something small that sounds interesting. Knowledge begets knowledge. Read Wikipedia, read magazines, read blogs, read comics. But do not ever read just to read. Read to learn, read to edify yourself, read to find answers, read to escape. Let your mind be tangential.

If you just finished a book you quite enjoyed about two young lovers in South Carolina, read up on South Carolina on Wikipedia. Maybe you will find that James Brown is from there, or that Ray Allen grew up there. Or maybe you will come to remember what you heard once in an 8th grade social studies class – that the Civil War started in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Let your curiosities dictate what you learn. And lastly, do not limit yourself to one book at a time.

Perhaps you think it does not make sense to read more than one book at a time. But should you not have a book ready at hand for your every capricious mood? Sometimes you just want to escape, get away from it all and delve into a guilty pleasure type book.

Sometimes you just want facts, so you read the Sports Almanac, or Guiness Book of World Records. Sometimes you need healing, so you read a religious piece to enhance your spirituality. Sometimes you just get recommended a book, and absolutely have to start it immediately because it looks so interesting.

I am always reading between 5-10 books at a time. And it is perfect for me. But find what is perfect for you. My advice would be however, to start a book any time you feel inclined to do so.

I will finish with a few words of sagacity by Henry David Thoreau: “A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”

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Taylor Church is from Utah, enjoys learning languages, is working on two non-fiction books and hopes to teach high school history.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Evan Bench

Discovering My Passion & Talent Through Writing

finding passion in writing

This is an essay by Ashley Kabajani.

The Question That Helped Me

Being the last born in a huge family of seven (six girls and one boy), it is not easy when your older siblings all have found their purpose, gifts and talents. See, I come from a family of strong, established go-getters, and I always seemed like I was trying to follow in someone’s footsteps but never finding my own path.

It all began when a friend of mine, who admires my siblings, gave me a call to ask me the strangest, yet most life-defining call. She asked me how I felt about being the last born when all my sisters and brothers are very successful in their own right. My mind started racing, and I gave her a long essay-type answer about advantages and disadvantages. It seemed simple but for some strange reason, it had me pondering and meditating for days on end.

The Little Girl Who Craved Information

I grew up in a small mining and farming town called Kadoma in Zimbabwe. My mother tongue being Shona, I was not articulate in English until I was in school. My siblings made fun of me all the time whenever I pronounced something wrong.

From the age of 8, I discovered a secret world where I could escape that boring little place, and it was reading. My father made all of us join the local library, which was not free by the way, but he was amazed at my massive appetite for information. I remember my friends were choosing books with pictures and big letters, but I wasn’t interested. I discovered Roald Dahl and never looked back. I read all the Nancy Drew series, the Goosebumps series, the Sweet Valley High series. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, even encyclopaedias, student companions and even newspapers. You name it, I read it.

From Reading To Writing

Before long, my written and spoken English improved, I was excelling in my studies and was always in the school quiz team, which included general knowledge, spelling and other topics. In high school, I was a bit lost. All the comparisons started from teachers who had taught my siblings or those who became teachers and were in school with them.

Life dragged on. I never really knew what I wanted to do. My sisters wanted me to become a doctor, my parents joined the bandwagon. I was lost. Everyone was busy with their lives and force-shaping mine. I continued to drift through life’s challenges and had journals for almost every defining moment and reading to escape my reality.

When my father lost the battle to anaemia, I was 15 years old. Crying didn’t help. I decided to write a letter to God, and I just poured it out on paper. I didn’t think as I wrote. I wrote about how I felt and asked God why this happened. Even though there was no answer, I felt at peace.

Decoding The World With Words

This trend continued, even when my mother passed away too. I just wrote it out and cried through the pain. From my first heartache, to my major heartbreak, to my prayer requests and even dreams, hopes and goals. I wrote more than I read as I began to experience the pain, pleasure, disappointments, accomplishments, joys, sorrows and just every other ideology I had that was shattered by life. I was living this life and things were happening, and all those defining moments were shaping and forming my character and writing skills.

I continued reading up on everything and everyone. I made sure I was a member of the library everywhere I went. I was not only escaping but learning. Soon the internet made reading more interesting. All this wealth of knowledge out there, and I could easily access it. I would read the news, read about medicine, new developments, read and see the world from my own home.

In the midst of all this searching and learning, someone asked me to start blogging after picking up one of my very full journals, full of pictures, notes, prayers and letters. I still haven’t come around to do it, though I write every day. Not too sure to who but I just write. In all this scribbling and reading, I seemed uncertain about one thing – my talent. Who am I? What am I doing here? Am I just a wife, mother, sister and friend?

The Epiphany

I got married at 25, had a baby at 26. He is now a gorgeous 1 year old little man. Though I lived most of my young life (all of 17 years) in Zimbabwe, I followed my sisters who had previously relocated to South Africa. I met my Namibian husband while studying in Capetown.

I moved to Namibia after we got married and hadn’t been able to find a decent job, so we lived on one income for so long. I think I sent a hundred job applications every week, but to no avail as more than half of the Namibian population’s unemployed.

Out of frustration and pure drive of finding my calling, passion and talent, I asked myself, “What is it that I can do with my hands that I can contribute to the world?”

Then I remembered how my research topics and assignments in university easily got distinctions. The answer was simple. I can write, but how do you make writing something resourceful?

An idea came to my mind and I started my administrative services business recently, and I offered my services to various businesses and individuals. Before I knew it people were asking me to help them write company reports, including CEO statements, speeches and other administrative jargon.

Words Are Powerful

At this point, something in me clicked. That’s my talent and my passion, and I had been doing it gladly without getting anything out of it. But now, I actually get incentives. But even if they were removed, I’d still be writing anyway. This is it! Looking back, I see where it stemmed from. It started with reading books as that curious, information-craving young girl to that lost young lady who used words as a way of decoding and escaping from her world.

If there is any advice I would offer anyone, it’s to find joy in reading in this technological generation. Even the gadgets should be channels to use to read, search for knowledge and connect with the world using words. Words shaped who I am today. And at the age of 27, I may be a late bloomer, but I certainly have blossomed and no longer will you find me questioning who I am.

Both reading and writing have proved to be more than just words. They provide therapy, entertainment, knowledge, information and can even paint a picture without using drawings or photographs.

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Ashley Kabajani is a wife, mother, sister and businesswoman from Namibia. When she’s not writing about business, she enjoys writing about topics that drive and inspire her and encourage others.

Photo: Some rights reserved by matryosha.

Cheating on Your Genre

cheating on your genre

This is an essay by Susan Sundwall.

It’s an interesting word, genre, a bit snooty sounding. It means kind or type. If someone asks what sort of writing you do, they expect a genre answer.

The question frequently stumps me. My first mystery was recently published, so you’d think I’d answer “mystery,” but the word tends to stick in my throat. There’s a hesitation there, because I don’t want this asker to think that’s all I write – I’m broader than that. I don’t want her to think that’s all I read, either. Yeah, I’m broader and, dare I say, more beautiful than that, too, because of the poetry. It’s true I always have a mystery waiting on the table, under the lamp, but often, in a mad fever of rebellion, I’ll give in to my cheating heart. Here’s my confession.

Books like Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” seduced me into the historical fiction genre with its violent beauty, ancient cultural patterns, and the universal revulsion for cruel injustice. In like manner. Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and The Secret Fan” pulled me in and begged me to experience the old Chinese practice of foot binding. It was dreadful and fascinating and sent me searching like a mad women for authentic images (which I found). It also made me cringe and give thanks for being born elsewhere and in another time.

Hugh Howey’s “Wool” whipped me below the surface of the earth and made me wander through a future where everyone lives like a mole. Science fiction. I rarely read it but I could hardly lay “Wool” down. I tried. Then, every time my e-reader gave up the ghost on one installment, I had to tap-tap and get the next. So what if it was two in the morning? This is what cheating does to you, and I’m not sure I’m ashamed. Don’t judge.

After the pleasing, near erotic, diversion of any number of other genres I scamper happily back to Janet Evanovich, P.D. James, Lee Child, and Elizabeth George – old flames, brief passions, or current crushes all from my long days of delicious mystery reading. I’m excited. I feel like I have things to tell them – tales and imaginings from these other worlds I’ve discovered. I’ll gladly grab their hands and set out the picnic blanket if they’re only willing to listen, to broaden out, too.

Where can we go for a glass of wine and good brie to discuss the dark secrets revealed in the back alleys of nineteenth century London? Do they have any idea how strangely wonderful Tibetan butter tea is? And then what kind of dirty secrets might I pull from these masters about their wildly popular inspectors, detectives, or bumbling amateurs?

And who have they cheated on – these masters? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. Let’s make a deal.

Once we’re settled down and begin courting true insight, another phenomenon bubbles up. In veering off (a gentle term for cheating) into other genres, writers can become green with envy in so many productive ways. At first we chasten ourselves for not coming up with this brilliant plot twist or that sublime syntax more readily than Mr. #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Self flagellation looms. But in short order we get mad – as in mental – in a way far greater than simply red in the face. The mind whirls. The pen flies. Our writing scales new heights and heads for Alpha Centauri because our cheating heart has brought home the goods. And when, at last, that pen is laid to rest, we collapse into sobbing.

“Why didn’t I stray before? What was wrong with me?”

The old flame, brief passion, and current crush smile. What I didn’t know is that they know what it’s like – they’ve cheated, too. And so they forgive, hand over a hanky, and pour me more wine. Sure, I’m no longer pure, but I’m better, wiser and more able to forgive myself and others. The glorious blooming must come next. It’s a wonderful thing.

Now, tell me, what has your cheating heart been up to lately?

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Susan is a freelance writer and mystery novelist. The first book in her series, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Untreed Reads, and from the publisher, Mainly Murder Press. Follow her at her blog.

Serendipity in the Second-hand Bookshop

secondhand book

This is an essay by C. Witter.

In this digital age of e-books and mail-delivery online book stores, many commentators seem to suggest the printed book is an anachronism. But, one thing these prophets of techno-literacy elide is the joy of browsing the shelves of a good bookshop. And for me, though I generally detest shopping, few things are as relaxing and curious as the second-hand bookshop.

One of the most wonderful things about second-hand bookshops is the element of chance – of serendipity. Click up your internet browser and, within seconds, you can locate almost any book you can name – to read online, to buy online, to search and bookmark, with reviews and commentary. But, in the bookshop you don’t know what you will find – and that’s the joy.

I frequent bookshops for many reasons: for a good novel, or some poetry, to track down academic research materials, to buy gifts for friends, sometimes just to relax amidst that curious dry odour that seeps from so much old paper squeezed together on shelves. I often walk around in a near-trance, scanning book spines, and occasionally leaning around people to see what volumes they’re considering. In this state, it is something a surprise to find my hand going out for something: a green Virago Press paperback; a slim volume from Faber; an old hardback with a tattered dustcover. And more of a surprise to realise this is just what I was looking for – looking for without knowing – as though the book were waiting for me to come along and find it.

Many of the books I buy are for academic work. I’ve sat through long Research Methods tutorials in my time, dedicated to giving one the tools necessary to track down research materials. But, often it is the chance encounter that seems most transformative. A biography by James Forman, a Civil Rights leader in the 1960s, found in an Adams Morgan bookshop in Washington, DC, became more important to me than all of the books I was able to read whilst undertaking a research fellowship at the Library of Congress. Apparently Forman lived in the neighborhood briefly; that coincidence – the fact that he, too, might have bought books from the same place, made the book even more resonant for me.

This leads me to another thing I love about second-hand books: that they’ve been owned, read, loved – and often marked: inscribed with the previous owner’s name, or a dedication, or scribblings in the margins. Sometimes these books have been given as gifts.

In one book I own there is a note on the first page:

To Helen,

Here is a book from my own collection. A reminder.
With love, as always,

Simon
– 1962

How many questions this simple message provokes! Who was this couple? What did it mean for Simon to part with one of his books? A reminder of what? And how did this gift, this token of love, end up on a mildewed shelf in a ramshackle shop in Morecambe, Lancashire, scored over in pencil: £3.50?

To read is always to encounter other people – their lives and experiences – in profound ways. But, to chance upon a book in a certain place, at a certain time – a book carrying the invisible thread of other readers’ lives – is to begin to step into another dimension.

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C. Witter grew up on brown bread in the flatlands of the Fens. He now lives, reads and writes in the cold, windswept North-West of England. He has just finished doctoral research on US literature in the 1960s. He writes fiction, poetry and polemic, as well as academic research.

Photo: Some rights reserved by dr_tr.

This One Habit Revived and Enhanced My Love for Reading

audiobook love reading

This is an essay by Glori Surban.

Working as an online freelance writer affords you many luxuries you otherwise wouldn’t have if you’re on a 9-to-5 job. But it also has a lot of challenges. After all, it’s still a business.

But the challenge, or let’s call it, “the change” which stood out to me the most and caught me by surprise was (drumroll) my deteriorating love for reading.

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, I have to admit it’s a little embarrassing. As someone who writes for a living, I should be a voracious reader, a lover of books, a mistress to words, a connoisseur of ignoring people because I’m so entranced in a story. But for a long time, I wasn’t. It’s why I said “the change” took me by surprise.

I didn’t even notice it until one day, when I remembered the low stack of untouched books on my desk. (Books I swore I was going to devour when I bought them.) I picked one up, read the cover, skipped the foreword (a bad sign), read the first few paragraphs of the first chapter, and flipped through the pages like I was handling a deck of playing cards.

It dawned on me: I, official bookworm of class ‘09, have become a skimmer.

The Unnoticeable Effect of Being an Online Reader

The web is constantly updated with content, both good and bad. Most people would only read a headline to decide whether a blog post is worth a read or not.

Looking back, I realized the only times I seriously read something word for word was when I was researching for blog posts for clients. And even then, the process of finding reliable information took a lot skimming.

Here’s how it usually goes: You get a bunch of results in Google, you click each page, skim the material to see if it’s worth reading, and you do the same with the fifteen or so other results to be thorough.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Skimming is a sort of a required skill when you’re an online content creator. You need to be able to quickly judge a piece of content so you can spend more time reading the worthy ones to help you create.

The problem was, I unconsciously applied my skimming habit when I read for leisure, the kind of reading that got me interested in writing in the first place. As a result, I no longer found it as enjoyable as I did before.

I rarely read any fiction anymore, I skimmed ebooks instead of actually reading them, and I shared posts just because they had nice titles.

My traitorous eyes automatically skimmed everything!

The Audiobook Effect and How It Could Help You Too

It all started the day I got my smartphone. I’m not usually one for gadgets and I’m pretty old school, but I had business reasons for getting one. Anyway, it was nothing special, a standard LG Android phone.

Audiobooks were something I was already interested in even before I got my smartphone, so I wanted to listen to some. I did, and I made three important observations:

1. No skipped pages.

This may not sound like a big deal, but if you’re a writer and you suddenly realized you haven’t essentially finished (as in read-the-entire-thing-and actually-understood-it finished) one book in a space of one year, it’s a little alarming.

Listening to audiobooks forced me to listen. To every word. A good audiobook is like a blockbuster movie you wouldn’t want to take a toilet break from. You want to listen to every word so you could understand and follow the author, especially if the narrator is excellent.

Listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The book was both hilarious and oddly comforting. And I heard every word of it from Tina herself. Every word.

One a side note: I have thick fingers, making touchscreen manipulation difficult. I simply didn’t want to go through the trouble of skipping and wondering what part of the book I was in.

2. Better understanding of the material.

Prior to listening to the audiobook version, I’ve read Susan Cain’s Quiet. Or at least I thought I did.

Upon experiencing it in audio form, I realized that I didn’t exactly read it as thoughtfully as I should have because, once again, I skimmed and skipped some pages that I thought weren’t interesting enough. I also didn’t really make the effort to truly understand it.

Audiobooks allowed me to understand books better, maybe because the sound of the words being spoken is irresistible to me or perhaps because listening is the only task I have to focus on. I can just close my eyes and let the words flow.

3. Eye strain was no longer an excuse.

There used to be a bunch of ebooks that I always promised myself to read, but I never got around to it because I was too tired and my eyes needed rest. Eye strain was my go-to reason for not wanting to read any more than I thought I should.

As you can imagine, such an excuse doesn’t work on audiobooks. I listened to Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup and Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work while lying in bed (a little ironic, I know). My eyes and my body rested while my brain absorbed the wisdom of good authors.

So how did listening to audiobooks revive my love for reading?

It’s simple. As I developed my audiobook habit, I rediscovered the joy of “reading” a book in its entirety, the awe of understanding a concept, and the excitement of connecting with interesting characters.

Now, every time I read an ebook, a little voice inside my head reminds me of those joys, of the sense of fulfillment at reading and understanding a book.

For self- and peer-proclaimed bookworms (and proud of it!) like me and you, this is a feeling like no other.

So if you’re experiencing “the change” and just realized it, don’t fret. Try an audiobook. Perhaps know someone who you want to encourage to read, let them try an audiobook. Get back and give to the others the gift that keeps on giving.

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Glori Surban is a freelance blogger with a renewed passion for reading. She helps small business grow their online presence by providing quality blogging and guest blogging services. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

 Photo: Some rights reserved by yum9me

The Long and Short of It: In Praise of Little Stories

short stories

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

Since Alice Munro was announced as the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, I’ve seen such a tremendous, albeit much deserved outpouring of love for the “master of the contemporary short story.” Following the news came a lot of interesting discussions. How rewarding it was for fans, especially since she’s been overlooked many times before. How she is only the 13th woman ever to win the award and the first Canadian woman. Then there was, of course, the focus and attention to her particular kind of work. The short story. No, in her entire career, Munro has never written a single full-length novel. Not a decision, she claims, as much as something that simply did not happen when she sat down to work.

I started thinking, then, about how I personally regard the art of the short story, or what I like to call “little stories.” Where do I place them alongside novels and poetry? Looking at my bookshelf, I read mostly novels. Why is that? Turning away from myself, I considered everyone else. Was the literary world surprised Munro won (and not say, the favorite, Murakami?) because she is focused on one kind of writing, versus being a master of all? And if that is the case, are short stories then not respected?

Now I don’t think I have any real or right answers, but the one feeling I can’t seem to let go of is that short stories seem to be somewhat misunderstood and certainly not as popular as bestselling novels. Why then is that, I wonder?

A Building of Tales

When I first attended university, I enrolled in a short story class, in which we studied many individual pieces, plucked from larger collections, and examined each one. It was, embarrassingly enough, my first experience with short literature. That semester I read a great variety of authors, now some of my all-time favorites. There was Landscape with Flatiron by Murakami, Walker Brothers Cowboy by Munro (of course!), The Dead by Joyce, Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway.

As we went about our readings, I imagined each different collection as a row of apartment complexes situated on a crowded street. As a class, we only had enough time during the semester to peek through one window in each of the buildings.

Later, if we wanted, we could go back on our own time and look into the other, neighboring windows, see what was happening inside, learn about the others, those different tenants trapped between the pages. And see for ourselves just how the collections were connected, through what major theme or similarity. A place or country, a cast of interrelated and repeating characters, love or friendship?

One thing about short stories, though, is that you will never be fully invited inside. So much is not said, so much of the past or back story, is unknown. Everything is a single moment.

The reader does not get the privilege of living inside another world or narrator’s consciousness for a course of days or weeks or months, however long it takes to complete the novel. There is this comfort, I’ve found, in starting a particularly lengthy book and flipping through the pages, gauging how long you have until the end. You can ease into it. It is reassuring that the end is somewhere far off. You don’t find that sort of security when it comes to short stories.

In fact, my first encounters actually left me slightly discontented and confused. Not in an unfilled sense, but in a more basic and incredibly selfish one. I wanted more time, just a few more words, a few more sentences, to know more. It took me years to work past this and to learn how to approach a short story properly.

As enthusiastic a reader as I am, I forget sometimes how to pace myself. I can fly through a novel in a matter of hours if I am given the freedom to do so. What I needed to teach myself, and what came with age, was a certain amount of patience, restraint, and appreciation for the craft of storytelling. I had to slow down. Collections of short stories are not meant to be devoured, I learned, but savored slowly.

Writer of Stories

The ironic thing about all of this is that as a writer, myself, the first pieces I ever worked on happened to be short stories. Even before I even knew what a short story was, as a child, I was writing and illustrating little scenarios in my composition notebooks. It was drawn to what I knew – reminiscent of children’s books, the ones my parents read to me before bedtime. The concept of a beginning, middle, and end was engrained in my mind, something I did not need to be taught.

That carried over into adulthood. I never had the desire to work on a novel. Now, the majority of pieces I send out for publication are usually under 1,000 words – even shorter than some short stories. Internet literature magazines, especially, request a degree of brevity, as well as the talent and ability to be able to say something in a very limited space. They recognize that sitting down and trying to cram characters, plot, and setting into a small space is a difficult task, but necessary for the medium where attention spans are fleeting.

And this is the one thing I cannot understand about why short stories aren’t more popular – short stories are an incredible challenge. With a novel, you can have a few bad sentences, but in a five-page story, you aren’t allowed a single mistake. It is craft, elevated and perfected. This is why undergraduate and graduate students study short stories in order to learn how to write.

Future

When I look forward, I often like to look back. Novels, once not very long ago, were relatively new to literature. Poetry dominated – think of most of our great medieval texts, our great epics like Beowulf or The Odyssey and even the great Arthurian Romances – and when the early novels first came along, they were belittled, looked down upon, insulted and coined as “feminine.” It is almost hard to believe sometimes, isn’t it?

As for what I know, the future for literature on the Internet seems to mirror its fast-paced medium – seeming to suggest that you absolutely must make your stories short or no one will read them. Hence, the birth of flash fiction, pieces fewer than 500 words. Now, whether this will catch on or translate to print is up for debate. As I stated before, short stories still aren’t as popular as novels, I don’t think. I can’t see a collection of flash fiction resonating, then, outside of its own community.

However, I know that literature progresses at a slow crawl at times, but it does move forward. My real hope is that the outcome of Munro’s recognition for her lifetime of short story writing will introduce people to the importance of her writing and also other short story writers, past and present. Maybe that little gold stamp will be a key to discovery and to appreciation.

Some Recommendations

I could not end this without listing a sort of primer for other authors I admire. I’ve tried to keep it as diverse as possible:

1. The Elephant Vanishes: Haruki Murakami

2. The Tent: Margaret Atwood

3. The Secret Lives of People in Love: Simon Van Booy

4. I Am No One You Know: Joyce Carol Oates

5. No One Belongs Here More Than You: Miranda July

6. Something I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: Alice Munro

7. Cosmicomics: Italo Calvino

8. Ten Little Indians: Sherman Alexie

9. The Complete Short Stories: Ernest Hemingway

10. Collected Fictions: Jorge Luis Borges

Do you have a favorite short story or maybe short story collection? Do you write short fiction? If so, where? Feel free to share.

Amarie Fox is a writer and artist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature and recently finished her novella. She plans of making an origami swan out of her diploma. Her recent fiction work has been published by Little Fiction, NIB, and Literary Orphans. Find more information at amariefoxart.wordpress.com and amariefox.tumblr.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by julio.garciah.