The Scientific Article – Different Genre, Different Audience

This is an essay by Dr. Oreta Samples.

No truer advice was ever given to a writer than “write what you know.” It is only through such writing that the passionate appreciation for ones chosen subject matter shines through. This is not to say that one cannot research a topic and develop a perfectly acceptable article; there may however be less of a passionate sheen to the finished product. And for a “science nerd” such as myself where is the fun?

My passion is “all things science.” This is in itself not surprising as I have spent most of my adult life working within different aspects of medicine, both human and veterinary in nature. From seventeen years as an insurance medical examiner to part-time work as a phlebotomist (you know the pre-dawn blood suckers employed by hospitals) to my final landing-place as an adjunct instructor and Lead Veterinary Technologist at a veterinary technicians program in rural Georgia; I have adhered to a career of medicine in some shape, form or format. As an avid reader, I have also devoured my fair share of medical novels, textbooks and journals and early on was bitten by the “I can write as good as they do…” bug. I have discovered, since having that epiphany some fourteen years ago, that scientific writing is a niche whose contributors oftentimes are overlooked as “authors” possibly due to the perception that their offerings appeal to a narrow audience. However this genre can and has provided a starting point for many whose passion, like mine is all things science. Case in point, I would imagine that it is a safe bet to assume that authors such as Robin Cook and Patricia Cromwell have written their fair share of scientific journal articles before they became the icons of the medical thriller that they remain today.

Scientific Article Writing – Getting Started

But for those who are just starting out as writers of the scientific genre (i.e. journal and research based articles), it is important to get it right the first time. Scientific articles deal in science –  a discipline as exciting as it is rigid in terms of “believability.” Scientific articles begin with an idea or hypothesis; a sort of “what if”-styled epiphany by the writer. When choosing a topic for a scientific article, keep it simple. Beware of creating a monster as scientific topics have a way of billowing out of control if left unchecked; stay focused and regard all of the secondary ideas that are related in some obscure way to your primary topic as fodder for future articles. And yes, there will be future articles.

Outlines and Scientific Writing Play Well Together

Once the topic is chosen, I find the old-fashioned outline approach works well for a couple of reasons. First, it allows you to organize the paper in such a way that paragraphs ebb and flow along in support and therefore supported by one another. Secondly, the outline provides an organized format which one can refer to as they begin researching out the paper. Make no mistake, many a research paper has been written from the middle outward. Some authors may jot down a rough draft of their conclusion as a way of assessing just how much work must be done to “prove” their hypothesis or claims.

Introduction, Discussion, and Conclusion

However one chooses to begin, a well-written scientific article has an identifiable Introduction where the subject (or hypothesis) is first introduced. This is generally a short paragraph that also informs the reader as to “why” the subject matters. The Discussion comes next and is the true meat of the paper, allowing the author to reference the research and findings that back up claims made within the article. This is also the area where all information should be solidly referenced through heavy citation. Finally, the Conclusion allows for a discussion of the results and the authors opinion of the relevance of these results. The conclusion may or may not include reference citations; its main focus being the showcasing of the authors own thoughts on the subject. The conclusion remains the only place of opinion within the article.

Citations are Mandatory

Statements are based on facts and facts must be documented in the form of reference citations. That is the way it works if one is to be regarded seriously within the scientific community. Scientific articles are generally referenced using the American Psychological Association form of referencing, more commonly known as “APA Style.” This is a direct contrast to papers addressing topics in the humanities or languages genre whose authors utilize the Modern Language Association (MLA) format of citation. Of course if there is any doubt, a quick check of the submission or authors guidelines will provide the correct format which the publisher prefers. It is important to get this step right as utilizing the wrong form of reference citation is an indication of a sloppy or careless writing style on the part of the author.

Find Your Stride

There is no one way to draft a successful paper, just be aware that there will be many drafts before you send the paper to an editor and then there will be many more still to come before you see your work in print. New authors should embrace the challenges of writing successfully but be aware that it is not something that “just happens” and in addition to a good laptop, plenty of paper and an imagination, the most important piece of equipment in the author’s arsenal is…a thick skin. Rejections will come more often than acceptance which makes the acceptance letter (or e-mail) all the sweeter. Savor the acceptance and file away the rejections to be studied and learned from when the sting is not so fresh. Above all, it behooves the author to remain steadfast and “keep on writing.”

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My name is Dr. Oreta M. Samples and I love to write “all things science.” As an adjunct instructor at a small Land-Grant College in Fort Valley, Georgia as well as an online professor with both Kaplan University and St. Francis University, I work with adult learners on a daily basis to learn the intricacies of good solid “scientific writing.” I am a writer of what I read having served as Book Review Editor for 7 years at www.vspn.org, a community for those who have made veterinary technology their chosen career field where I review textbooks of… what else – scientific literature.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Amy Loves Yah.

It Just Took One Book

This is an essay by Laura Lovell.

My Introduction to Reading

As a kid I can remember staying up past my bedtime reading under my covers with a flashlight. Why I ever thought my mom was unaware of what I was doing under my illuminated comforter, is beyond me. I remember reading my childhood favorites, “A Fly Went By” then “Superfudge” and later the classic “Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret”. I was a child who loved to read. Anything I could get my hands on. I have always been a dreamer with an over active imagination so books helped ease my dreamy soul.

I read through high school and as a young adult more so than most of my friends, having acquired a taste for romance. I recall reading old harlequin romance novels from age 18-20, just about every single night. I would always read them in one night, took me about 3-4 hours and I would fall happily asleep thinking about my prince charming out there who would just touch my hand and jolts of electricity would explode in the air as we stared into each others eyes. I know, was I naive or what?

I lost my rose colored glasses when I was 21 and had my first son, as a single mom. The only thing I read after that day was “What To Expect When Your Expecting” type books. I no longer read for pleasure but for information, and we all know that reading about things that don’t interest us can suck every bit of fun out of reading and you develop “reading enjoyment amnesia.”(yes, I self diagnosed this made up but serious disorder). From there, I had 3 more children and my informational reading increased to the newspaper on occasion, a recipe book, kids homework topics, a random parenting magazine and “Goodnight Moon” over and over and over again.

TV, My Guilty Pleasure

When I ran into parents who read I would say to them, “who has time to read?” I had four kids under 10 who were climbing off the walls, and to my surprise I didn’t grow up to be supermom. I was new at running a house, trying to raise well-behaved children, (keyword is trying, it’s the thought that counts right?) and I even home-schooled for a year.  My life was chaos for about 18 hours a day for a decade. I hung on to my sanity by indulging in guilty pleasures, made better by my new best friend, my Tivo/DVR. TV was a great escape from my busy life and offered much more excitement than laundry or diapers. There is nothing glamorous or privileged about being a housewife in my county. Even though it was what I wanted to do, it still made my dreamy imagination ache for something to keep it busy. So I watched television. I would get the fall TV Guide, plan out a schedule, look up shows online, check on old shows to see if they were in jeopardy of being canceled. At night, I  would grab a snack and stuff myself full of junk television. I watched a soap opera, nearly every reality show and the juicy drama’s like Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. Sounds exhausting, right? But it filled that imaginative streak in me all through my 20’s.

The Series That Changed it All

About 3 years ago, I was invited by a close friend of mine to attend a “Twilight” DVD viewing party. I called her up and said “how old are you, 16?”  Why would you be interested in a teen movie?” She said it wasn’t just for teens, it was actually a good book series. I didn’t know a thing about it as my kids were still young. I decided to attend the party on a whim to see what the hype was all about and for some girl time. I was the only one there who hadn’t read the book and one of the only women who had not seen the movie. So, along with about 8 other women aged 18 to 60+, I watched  “Twilight.” I was confused by then and “underwhelmed.” Seemed like everyone knew more about the story than what showed up on the screen. I asked for the book to gain a better understanding of just what I was missing. I told my friend, I don’t know if or when I will have time to read it, but I will try.

Book One

I started reading it on a weekend. I can still remember opening the first page and settling in. The kids were playing in their rooms, nicely for once. I didn’t feel horribly guilty for taking some time out for me to read when I could have been cleaning something. Five minutes after I began, I was transported into another world and after a few chapters, I was again a bookworm.

I don’t recall how quickly I read “Twilight”, but I do know that I went berserk trying to borrow the second book, New Moon, right after I was finished. Then by the time I was through with the second book, I immediately (and trust me when I say immediately!) drove to Barnes and Noble and bought the remaining books, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. I read the entire 4 book saga in 12 days, plus the 5 or so chapters of Midnight Sun (Edwards point of view in “Twilight” that was stolen or leaked, and Author Stephenie Meyer ended up posting to her website).

I was a zombie. I fell asleep reading at 4 am and with the book still in my hand. I would wake up at 7 am to start reading within a minute, my eyes blurry and stinging. I would walk to the laundry room holding the book up, reading while I folded clothes. (On a side note to moms who decide to read the series; I highly recommend  making meals ahead of time if you ever partake in a “Twilight” saga reading binge. Plan it during summer, spring break, when you have nowhere to go.  Your family will thank you.) I read at the park, in my car while waiting in the pickup line at school. I was on fire for more of this story. I read the last book slowly. Savoring it. Stopping every so often to think about it.  Because I knew it was coming to the end and I couldn’t bear to let go of the ride. (Although, I am sure my family couldn’t wait for me to finish and have mom back!).

My Reading Didn’t Stop There

After the “Twilight” Saga, all I wanted to do was read. I saved up and got a Nook E-reader right after they first came out. It was heavenly because I never had time to browse book stores, with 4 kids a bookstore trip turns into a game of hide and seek quickly, then tag, then whose children are those? The library hates me. You have to return books whether you’ve read them or not, when they want, and when I don’t they charge me a fine! They don’t care that you can’t find the book under the stacks of papers on your desk, or you think you saw it in your son’s toy box or even if you have it on the front seat of your car for 2 months and can’t seem to get the willpower or time to drive the 3 miles to the library. Therefore e-books are ideal for me. Instant books, time to browse at home, no fines, and the luxury of reading the first few pages or chapter free of any book your interested in that’s in the Nook Library.

My TV Habits Have Changed

Since I finished “Twilight”, I’ve only liked 2-3 TV shows enough to watch. It’s not enlightening television mind you, it’s still guilty pleasures, my must watch show is Vampire Diaries on the CW. The writing on this show is phenomenal. (Much like my beloved Friday Night Lights that is no longer on). Everything else bores me (morning and afternoon talk shows), irritates or disgusts me (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of anywhere), has been done so many times already, it’s stale (every police, hospital or lawyer drama), unoriginal (silly sitcoms with laugh tracks that have a hard time finding the jokes), fake pointless reality (Survivor, The Bachelor). It’s all a hodge podge of blah. Two days ago, I started the “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. I am now on the second book, “Catching Fire.” It has swept me up, just like “Twilight.” I am once again reading every chance I get. I even grabbed my Nook out of my purse waiting in a long drive-thru at Sonic. How many times have you forgotten to breathe while watching television?  I have done it a few times already in the “Hunger Games.”

I Find Time to Read

After the kids have settled down and their angelic faces are resting on their freshly clean pillowcases and they’ve all had warm baths, tucked in with their pajamas on and their bedrooms are sparkling clean…(ok..it sounds lovely but that rarely happens). When they are all asleep and the house is finally quiet,  I will race to my Nook, relax, and treat myself to a good book after a hard day’s work of being a full-time mom. I would rather read than watch a movie or television because I know that I will like it, as opposed to watching a movie on pay per view where I often wonder why I just wasted 2 hours of my precious time and paid $5.99 to do so and I may have lost brain cells in the process. I know with the books I choose, it always ends up happily ever after. It allows me to find pleasure in reading again and it has stimulated my imagination once more, enough to push me and inspire me into becoming the writer I’ve never had time to be. Stephenie Meyer wrote her first book with two toddlers at her feet and she made her dream come true. She didn’t just change her life that day, she would come to change mine as well. “Twilight” gave me back my love of reading and gave me the confidence to explore my dream of being a freelance writer.

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Laura Lovell has been a writer since she was 8 years old, but has just recently been able to dedicate herself to full-time freelance writing. She has published over 100 articles on Yahoo Voices. She is also a stay-at-home mother of 3 boys and 1 girl, ages 5, 8, 10 and 14.  She has a variety of wide-ranging interests and it shows in her writing. In her spare time, Laura enjoys spending time with her children, her husband of 11 years and their golden retriever Daisy. She is never far from her Nook E-Reader, reads several books a week and she can’t live without the music of Rob Thomas. She has been playing fantasy football for the past 11 years, loves the NFL and is currently writing two romance novels at the same time. Check out her website www.writeatmidnight.com to peruse her plethora of articles on Family Life, Technology, Sports, Social Issues, Movie Reviews, Health Topics, A.D.H.D and Poetry. You can contact Laura at WriteatMidnight@msn.com or follow her new Facebook Page www.Facebook.com/Iwriteatmidnight.

Photo: Some rights reserved by catnipstudio.

Creating Readers, One Book At A Time: World Book Night 2012

This is an essay by Francine Garson. 

I don’t remember when my love affair with reading started. Did it happen during one of my weekly climbs to the children’s section on the third floor of my small town’s library? Or did it begin the first time I read an unforgettable story about friendship and a spider named Charlotte? I’ve never lived in 1930’s Alabama or in a futuristic society dominated by Big Brother. But the words of Harper Lee and George Orwell dropped me into these strange lands, while Ray Bradbury plunged me into the tragic nightmare of a world without books. I’ve grown from the little girl who read under the covers with a yellow flashlight to the adult who reads in line at the bank, at the kitchen table while a casserole bakes in the oven, and in bed before surrendering to sleep. But in addition to reading, one of my great pleasures is introducing others to the books that have transported me, challenged me, tickled me, depressed me, excited me, prodded me, and forced me to feel, think, and grow.

The Application Process

So when I heard about World Book Night’s plan to select literature-loving volunteers to distribute half a million books to light and non-readers across the United States on April 23, 2012, I wanted in! Typing worldbooknight.org into my browser, I learned that a committee of librarians and booksellers had developed a list of thirty books to be handed out in an event sponsored by publishers, paper companies, bookstores, and other book-related groups. The titles ranged from popular novels (The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini) to memoirs (Just Kidsby Patti Smith) to mystery (Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton) to young adult fiction (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). As a prospective “book giver,” I completed an online questionnaire in which I was asked to select three books that I’d like to give away, explain the reasons for my choices, and identify a local spot where I’d like to distribute them. The most difficult part was narrowing my picks down to three.

The Books I Chose to Give Away

So many of the books on the list had touched me and even, in some way, changed my view of the world and my place within it. But finally, after lots of thought about my own reading journeys and some regret for the “books not taken,” I chose The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. My reasons? Walls wrote a spellbinding tale of survival within an eccentric and dysfunctional family, O’Brien offered a firsthand look at the realities of war which changed my perceptions forever, and Zusak used “Death” as the narrator of a beautifully written testimony to the power of reading and friendship. Choosing the location for my book giveaway was easy too…the local shopping mall was accessible, heavily trafficked, and climate-controlled. With a few more clicks, my application was complete, and I settled in to wait for an email.

“Congratulations, you have been selected…” Yes!

So on April 23, 2012, I picked up my box of books from a nearby Barnes & Noble and headed to the mall. After pinning an ID badge to my shirt, I set up my stack of books and World Book Night sign at an empty kiosk. With a smile, a book in hand, and a brief explanation of my mission, I approached an elderly couple.

“For free?” they asked in unison. “What do we have to do?”

“Nothing,” was my response. “Just read.”

I gave them a book and watched as they walked away, heads bent over the title page.

This was fun!

But my next few attempts to give away Tim O’Brien’s literary masterpiece were met with “No thank you,” “I don’t read,” and “I don’t have time.”

Changing tactics, I targeted the salespeople manning some of the other kiosks.

“Sure, I love to read. Thank you,” a young man selling sunglasses said as he eagerly accepted a book.

And later, from a woman standing outside of an empty mattress shop, “This is a great project. Tell me about the book.”

From the kiosks, I moved on to shoppers roaming the mall. Carefully avoiding people on cell phones or those walking quickly, I honed in on friendly faces.

When I stopped two forty-something year-old women, I felt like I had found soul mates. After they scanned the list of other books being given away through World Book Night, we traded opinions on The Book Thief and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And we all loved Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.

“Now read The Things They Carried,” I said as I offered them the books.

“Just give us one. Spread the wealth. We’ll share.”

Yeah, this was fun!

Within a little over an hour, I had given away my allotted twenty books. But although the goal of the event was to introduce light and non-readers to the joy of reading, it was quite obvious that most of my “takers” were already booklovers. Still, I hope my parting words to them might have a ripple effect.

“Enjoy this great book, and then pass it on.”

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Learn more about World Book Night at worldbooknight.org.

Francine Garson’s work has appeared in All Things Girl, Faith, Hope and Fiction, Hackwriters, Humor Press, Sasee, Scarlett Rosebud, Still Crazy, Underwired, WorkLifeGroup.com, Writer Advice, and WritersType. Her flash fiction received a first place award from the League of American Pen Women in 2010. A former college counselor and law school administrator, Francine reads, writes, and attempts to play the piano in central New Jersey. Read more at francinegarson.com.

Why Read: Perspective Cont’d – Modern Man Needs Books

This is a continuation of our “Why Read” discussion. Remember, we started by defining the three broad reasons to read. Then we talked about pleasure and education. Last week, we continued our discussion by looking at the union of story and perspective.

We are modern. We deal with the immense power provided by technology and with our place in a rapidly advancing society. Part of being modern is admitting you are unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you’re expected to do. To engage in the process of coming to terms with these modern realities you must read.

In “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, Thomas C. Foster explains, “every culture has its own body of myth that can explain things that other disciplines can not. This is some of the most meaningful literature to spend time on.” Modern Philosophy is too engaged with semantics to be the answer. Literature is now the way we learn to deal with our modern predicament. Let’s look at three examples.

Farming and Ranching Were Once the Ways We Exercised Dominion Over Plants and Animals

According to Henry David Thoreau ancient poetry and mythology suggest husbandry (the cultivation of plants and animals) used to be a sacred art. The methodical tilling of ground in preparation for planting combined with the use of animals for just the right purpose were worshiped. They were the object of ceremony and ritual. Husbandry was a way we exercised dominion over plants and animals.

Most of us no longer farm or ranch. Many that still do perform the task as corporations primarily motivated by creating excess to sell for wealth. Without an idea of where we fit in the “food chain” we lose touch with reality. This is a modern predicament. Think about this, though, in the case of a food shortage who do you want in charge of the food supply? Someone who has read “The Grapes of Wrath” or someone who thinks literature is a waste of their time.

Destructive Technology is Our Creation – We Must Read to Manage it Responsibly

Technology is one way we bring our imaginations into the physical world to meet a specific need or desire. We have expansive imaginations and have shown the ability to create what our minds can see. Sometimes, those imaginings are of destructive forces. Nuclear weapons and other “weapons of mass destruction” are more prevalent and feared now than ever.

We need a counterbalance to these forces. We need to spend as much time studying the beauty of our nature as we spend learning how to destroy. I would trust the man with his finger on the nuclear bomb more if he had read “Catch-22.”

Generation Y is now Generation C

Recently, Generation Y was renamed Generation C where C stands for “connected” (arguably D would have been just as valid where D stands for “distracted”). We are defined by our connections. What if those connections are severed, though? What if those connections never form the way they should. What if the very nature of our connections leave us feeling more lonely and depressed than before?

The master of loneliness was David Foster Wallace. He captured its essence because he felt truly alone and depressed, I think. Would you be able to connect to a truly lonely and depressed person better if you’ve read “The Pale King?” Would you be in a better position to understand the impact of even a digital connection if you saw it expressed in literature? I think so.

How Does This All Relate to Perspective?

The scientific evolutionary model tells us we are animals. Our minds tell us something different. We perceive ourselves as capable of adaptation, more intelligent, and more artistic than animals. If our perceptions are true we should act like it. We should exercise those skills which make us different. Creative thinking is our evolutionary niche.

Reading leads to understanding which leads to new perspective. New perspective might teach you how to live in a modern world where we no longer struggle to survive, but instead struggle with how to think and feel. New perspective can show you how to deal with powerful technology in a responsible way. New perspective can teach you how to connect in a world filled with constant interaction.

The next time you think to yourself, I am nothing, I have nothing to offer, or I am wasted space, turn to a book. Instead of feeling lost attempt to understand your place in the world. One beautiful and true sentence can bring you back. It can help you to know your place among plants, animals, and neighbors.

Photo: Some rights reserved by MoonSoleil.

Find me at Findings.com: An Introduction to the Site

I made a new web discovery the other day. It’s a site called Findings.com. I use a kindle, used a nook before that, and read “real books” as well. I’m always looking for a good way to consolidate my highlights and notes. I think Findings.com shows potential. It is already the answer for Kindle highlights because after you import them you can share them on the major social media sites or copy and paste them to a notebook of your choosing. If importing nook highlights were part of findings.com it would be the solution there, but we aren’t so lucky.

The site has a great “help” section, but I figured I would summarize some of the functionality I have personally tested.

Getting Started – Importing Your Kindle Highlights

Create a new findings account at Findings.com.

Then, to import your quotes and notes from Kindle you follow three simple steps. Basically you use a bookmark bar java script while on the Amazon.com your highlights page. Depending on the number of highlights you are importing the process can be completed in less than five minutes.

Gather “Findings” as You Surf the Web

In addition to the easy Kindle import process you can highlight any text while browsing the internet, then hit the “findings” bookmark you’ve already created. From there you can post the web “finding” to your profile where you can share that with your findings followers or through social media.

Manually Enter Your Own “Findings”

On top of the Kindle and web functionality, let’s say you’re reading and have taken a paper note from somewhere. You can either type it in or type part of it in and if anyone else has already submitted the same finding you can “refind” their finding and have the clip stored on findings for future use. I haven’t fully tested this, but it might be a bit of a time saver when looking to consolidate a particular set of paper quotes.

Share Your Findings on Social Media

Once you have a few findings you can link social media accounts to your Findings.com account and with a couple of clicks publish any finding you want to the major social media hubs like twitter, tumblr, or facebook. I set up a tumblr account just to dump interesting “findings.” If you use twitter, the finding is abbreviated and a link is posted so people can click through to your Findings.com profile to read the full quote.

You Can Copy/Paste Findings

Drafting a blog post and looking to avoid typing a full quote? Use findings. The findings, once imported or otherwise captured, can be copied and pasted into blog posts or word processing files.

“Findings” Are Social

You have the option to make your “findings” public. This means other Findings.com users can view your public findings by clicking on your profile. It also means that other users may randomly stumble on your profile because they “found” the same quote you did. A quote in common might spark a new friendship, who knows?

I don’t have a terribly good selection of “findings” yet, because I haven’t compiled reading notes from sources other than Kindle. I am going to continue to mess around with the huge potential this site has. If you’re interested, you can visit my findings profile.

Share your experience with Findings.com in the comments.

Three Books that Could Have Won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize (But Didn’t) and Why You Should Read Them Anyway

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Ten thousand big ones awarded for “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” (per the Pulitzer Website), not to mention the boost in book sales for the winner,put the Pulitzer Prize among the most coveted prizes in the literary world. But this year, for the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize Board failed to award a prize in fiction.

The Selection Process

How is this possible? The selection process works like this: A three-member fiction jury faces the daunting task of reviewing hundreds of books over a few short months and settling on three finalists to send to the Pulitzer Board. The board reads the books, meets for two days, and determines a winner by majority vote. This year the board failed to reach a majority. End result: no winner.

Rather than jump to conclusions about the board’s discontent with all three titles, why not indulge in a more optimistic line of thinking: perhaps this year’s finalists were so good the board found it impossible to choose a favorite? It’s not completely implausible. The three finalists for 2012 were Denis Johnson’s  “Train Dreams”, Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia”, and David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King”; all were critically acclaimed and all three books were included in NPR’s “10 best books of 2011” as well as “The New York Times” 100 Notable Books of 2011.

The Three Finalists

1. “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

“Train Dreams” is the story of Grainier, a logger and hauler, born in 1886 and sent to live in the untamed woods of the Idaho Panhandle after the death of his parents; it is the haunting tale of an everyman hardened by hard work and personal tragedy—above all things–a survivor. First published in “The Paris Review,” “Train Dreams” follows Grainier’s highs and lows across eight decades of American life, but mostly takes place in the 1920s.  The author, Denis Johnson, is a poet, playwright and novelist, and a 2007 National Book Award Winner for his Vietnam War novel, “Tree of Smoke”.  A novella, “Train Dreams” is only 116 pages long, and is the shortest of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalists (and as such may prove to be the least intimidating for many readers).

2. “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell

The tale of a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) living and working in a Florida theme park in the Everglades, “Swamplandia!” is award winning-short-story-writer Karen Russell’s debut novel. The Bigtree’s thirteen-year-old daughter Ava narrates much of this book about the ups and downs of a self-invented faux-American-Indian showbiz tribe.  Ava unlike her siblings, is determined to become a great gator wrestler like her mother, Hilola, the star attraction of Swamplandia, the shabby theme park from which the book gets its title. Featured in  “20 Under 40” fiction issue of “The New Yorker,” Karen Russell was also a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree for her first book of short stories “St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”  The only of the three finalists to be listed on “The New York Times” 10 Best Books of 2011, “Swamplandia!” is exciting and odd, an alluring mixture of real-world-grit, suspense and fantasy crammed with vivid language and imagery run wild.

3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Painstakingly pieced together after David Foster Wallace’s death by his editor, Michael Pietsch, “The Pale King” is the story of an IRS agent and his officemates. It’s the somehow epic, hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking story of the dull day-to-day demands on IRS employees in 1980s Peoria, Illinois as only Wallace could tell it. Considered one of the most influential writers of the last two decades, David Foster Wallace received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1997 and his novel “Infinite Jest” was named one of “The 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the Present” by “Time” Magazine in 2005.  While “The Pale King” is certainly a challenging read, and is over 500-pages-long, it’s more grounded in reality than his masterpiece, “Infinite Jest”, and therefore likely to be more approachable for many readers.  Wallace spent the last years of his life studying tax texts, and observing accounting students, professors and professionals to create this compelling tale, and his last work, unfinished as he left it, is well worth a read.

Bonus: Already read this year’s finalists? Why not read last year’s Pulitzer Prize Fiction winner, “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, a story about growing up, up and old in the digital age?

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Phil Roeder.

Why Reading and Writing are Inseparable

This is an essay by Andrew Blackman. 

Do you remember every book you read?  How long does it take you to forget the details: a year or two?  A month or two?

A few years ago I started reading Anna Karenina.  I fell in love with Tolstoy’s rich, luscious prose, the detailed descriptions that drew me right into the Oblonskys’ house and made me see the characters as if they were standing in front of me.  It was only in about the third or fourth chapter that I began to experience an uncanny sensation of deja vu.  The characters seemed strangely familiar, the action predictable.  Then, a dog-eared page and a little margin note in my own handwriting, and suddenly I realised the awful truth: I’d read the book already, and completely forgotten about it.

It was symptomatic of my reading habits at that time.  In those days I used to read widely but passively, taking in little of what I’d read and remembering even less.  I’d speed through books and rush to pick up the next one, and the next one, and the next one, reading my way from nineteenth-century Russia to 1970s Chicago via ancient Greece, all in a weekend.  But ask me about one of these books a month or two later, and I’d stutter and stumble and try in vain to recall even the main character’s name.

It was time to make a change.  My New Year’s Resolution for 2008 was to start a blog and write a review of every book I read that year.  I kept to the first part and failed on the second, but still managed to write a couple of dozen reviews.  When I look back at 2008, I can remember reading books like A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, Identity by Milan Kundera and On Late Style by Edward Said.  I can remember what I liked and didn’t like about those books, and if I suffer a lapse I can look back at my blog and remind myself.  Ask me about 2007, on the other hand, and it’s just a blank.  I might as well not have read anything all year.

There were a couple of interesting side effects to my new habit of writing about reading.  The act of writing a review made me think about the books much more carefully, and to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.  And even before that, the very prospect of writing a review made me think more actively about the book as I read it.  Even if I never got around to writing the review, I got more out of the book because I was reading it more thoughtfully.  Reception theorists like Wolfgang Iser have shown that readers play an important role in the creation of a text, filling in the meanings and interpretations that a writer only hints at.  By reading more actively, I was finally fulfilling my part of the bargain.

A final side effect: 2008 was the year that, after several years of trying, I finally wrote a novel that a publisher deemed fit to see the light of day.  Coincidence?  Possibly.  But reading more actively and writing about it certainly helped me learn more about books, which I am sure helped to make me a better writer.

Of course, you don’t need to start a blog or even write formal book reviews to see an improvement.  All that’s needed is a book and a pen (or screen and keyboard, if you prefer).  Your writing could be public or private, formal or informal, structured or scribbled. It could be a few simple notes scribbled in the margin of the book or in a notebook or on a napkin.  It could be a letter to the author, sent or unsent.  It could be a tweet.  You could post on Facebook, or join a social-networking site devoted to books, like Goodreads.com or LibraryThing.com.

You’ll get the benefits of writing no matter what form it takes, or whether you choose to share it with anyone else.  An advantage of the public form, however, is that you get to hear what other people thought of the book as well, and to begin a dialogue, and that’s when you can learn more about the book than you ever imagined.

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Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.

Photo: Some rights reserved by spisharam.

14 Reasons Writers Have No Business Writing Unless They Read Daily

I have a guest post up on Courage 2 Create today. I hope you will check it out here. Many thanks to Ollin for giving me an opportunity to write for his site which I have followed for a couple of years. I have a great deal of respect for him and his writing. It’s full of true passion for his craft.

I had several ideas for the post and some were just as good as the ones I included. I didn’t hold anything back, but the post would have been unwieldy and longer than a blog post should be had I included this information. There are many more reasons for writers to read, or anyone for that matter, than the ones I included. So, if you read that post and want more mental ammunition to read you can carry on here.

1. Reading Teaches You To Recognize Bad Writing

It can be just as important to read bad writing, if for no other reason than to provide motivation. Seeing stuff you can do better than is helpful. About the time you get the urge to quit and trash your project, having a memory bank filled with the published crap you can beat is a miracle cure for melancholy.

For this reason you should read some trash. Read everything.

By the time you start calling some writing bad you are ready to write something better.

2. Reading Helps To Prevent Accidental Plagiarism

Read widely to be sure you aren’t unintentionally imitating another author. The last thing a writer wants to do is create something, pour their energy into it, only to be told this story has already been told in the same way.

If you are going to imitate, you want to know you’re doing it so the nuances and the intention pours through to your reader. Reading is your insurance plan against being called a hack.

3. Reading is a Way To Practice Concentration

Few activities expect silence. Writing is one and reading another. Facing silence is a way to breed writing ideas. Sitting down with a book is a way to exercise the mental muscle writing requires.

4. Reading is Necessary Because You Can’t Write all the Time and Reading is the Next Best Thing

Hands cramp, fingers blister, inspiration fades. Even the most devoted writer needs a break at times. What should a writer do to spend time away from writing? Read!

5. Read Because You Won’t be Going to War, but You Need to Experience It to Write

Few writers are warriors in modern times. To see the effect of war on individuals and society as a whole there is only one other place to turn and that is to the authors who experienced war. Hemingway, Tolstoy, Crane, and O’Brien all experienced war first hand. You probably have a favorite author/veteran. A real understanding of the essential human condition comes out during war and even if you can’t experience it yourself you should take the time to hear a first hand account.

6. Reading Makes You Bigger Than Your Actual Experiences

Writing without an education is a mistake. Not all educations come from universities, however. All writers must have a sense of what came before them to be successful. The best writers live expansive lives. This is expensive. Reading can substitute in some areas.Reading is the cheapest and most efficient form of education we have yet invented.

7. Read To Cure Depression

The statistics are harrowing.

Many writers are sick. Sometimes the sickness is self-inflicted. If writers have the capacity to inflict sickness, might they have the capacity to cure their inner demons?

The writer toils away. Vulnerable. In many cases, without peers near them. Reading allows you to encounter the creative result of the work. It exposes you to the light at the end of the tunnel.

8. Read To Learn How a Writer Behaves

We probably will never know the real story, but I have heard variations of it. Walt Whitman knocks on Emerson’s proverbial door and offers him Leaves of Grass. The work had been refused by publishers, so Whitman published it himself, initially. Whitman basically sold it door to door for some time after that. He believed in his work so he devoted himself to it.

This is one example of how writers behave. Read about other writers like Walt Whitman who believe in their work strongly enough to self-publish. Read the results of self-publishing authors. These works will show you how a writer that believes in their work should behave.

9. Read Because It’s Never Too Late to Learn Something New

The story goes like this, as the hemlock was being prepared to kill Socrates, he was learning a new melody on the flute. Why? The true meaning of the word philosopher is “lover of knowledge.” Socrates, the greatest philosopher, was learning a new tune because he loved to learn. He wanted nothing more in his last moments than this.

This is how writers must be with their writing and their reading. Writers must constantly learn new things. There is no better rapid source of learning than reading. TV and audio are too slow to rely on completely. Be like Socrates. Faced with death spend your last breath to learn something for the sake of learning.

10. Read to Find Your Voice

I think of a writer’s voice as her “self” expressed in such a way to impress the same “self” upon the mind of the reader. Reading is a way to sample how other writer’s have impressed their “self” upon your mind. In this way you can learn to express your own “self.”

11. Read to Learn How to Pay Attention

Someone once said, “God is in the details.” They must have been a reader. For a writer, this means that if you want to create worlds, if you want to be the god of your fictional world, you must do the creating in the way you express the details.

Observing beautiful images is one thing, but learning how to express those images in words takes years of practice and observation. Reading teaches you to pay attention to the image and then shows you how you might translate that image into words.

Observing the way people interact is important, but learning how to express their emotions and conversations to convey their inner states is the study of a lifetime. Reading teaches you to pay attention to your inner states and allows you to see how those inner states might be translated into words.

12. Read to Remind Yourself, You Don’t Know Everything

You can’t know everything. You can’t know what I’m thinking in any moment. You can’t know exactly how a reader will react to your writing because you can’t know their experiences.

Read to remind yourself that you can’t know these things because the writer you’re reading didn’t know these things about you.

13. Read for Motivation to Write

To see the impact of writing and the power of writing and the beauty of writing you must read and let what you read work on you. This is all the motivation you will ever need. You will see the power of words and sentences and you will go to work.

If you find yourself lost and unable to write one true word then at least you have as consolation the ability to read one true word.

From that true word your mind is carried to inspiration. Let books move you to write.

14. Read So You Might Know How Others Perceive Your Work

Professors and students of literature will read your writing. They have read widely enough to know that when people eat together it means something and has meant something for years. They will know that when a writer sends his characters on a quest there is meaning in that as well.

These professors and students of literature have their own lingo. They are also voracious readers! This means they will, at some point, you hope, get their hands on your writing. You want to at least know enough of their lingo to know how they might interpret your writing, don’t you?

These are only some of the reasons writers must read. What I want to know is, why you read?

Photo: Some rights reserved by photosteve101.

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

This is an essay by Julia Bower.

Readers often have a favorite section or two that we head to immediately when visiting a library or bookstore.  Most people decide shortly after they acquire the ability to read independently that they are primarily either fiction or nonfiction readers.  Many of us go beyond that, developing an allegiance to a particularly genre of fiction, field of knowledge or era of history, sometimes even narrowing our selections to a particular subset of authors.  This specialization has its advantages, including streamlining the book selection process and gaining expert knowledge of your chosen subject.  On the other hand, automatically defaulting to only one type of book can also become a kind of mental rut.

Ruts of our own choosing can feel like snug, comfortable homes rather than ruts when we are ensconced within them.  Usually, it’s only after we outgrow a rut enough for it to pinch us a bit that we can see it for what it was.  One way to jumpstart the growth process is to move outside of your comfort zone.  Venturing into new reading territory can not only help us refresh our mental outlook through learning new facts and facets of the world, but also help us grow as individuals, gaining appreciation for experiences and ideas very different from our own.

Nonfiction—Thinking like a Child

Given the abundant range of books available, both in print and electronically, reading is also a very accessible means to begin to stretch our own limits—while still comfortably seated in a favorite chair.  For example, if there is a subject you have always found daunting, one you have looked upon as a mental Mt. Everest you would not dare to climb, try reading about it.  This doesn’t have to mean picking up a confusing text.  Instead, seek out a book which provide a general reader’s introduction to the subject, or even a children’s book about the topic.  This side-door approach to a subject can yield fascinating new information.  Children’s books in particular tend to emphasize the imaginative aspects of a topic, making it more approachable not just for kids but for grownups who are novices to the subject matter.

Fiction—Walk a few chapters in someone else’s life

It is easy to pick up a novel which reinforces our existing ideas, one in which the main character or narrator shares with us a similar place in the world and similar point of view.  To challenge yourself to move beyond your comfort zone, think about a group of people who confuse you, then seek out a novel actually written by (not merely about) a member of that group.  Books provide an imaginative window into other people’s lives, allowing us to shed, at least temporarily, the inherent limitations of living inside our own skin.  Allowing yourself imaginatively to share space with someone of a very different background than your own can be a refreshing experience on multiple levels as you allow yourself to think about what life is like for a Muslim woman, a transgender man or someone living with a disability.  If your eyes glaze over when thinking about reading a whole book by someone vastly different from you, try a sort of sideways approach.  Find a book in your preferred comfort zone genre that happens to be written by someone different to you—perhaps a lesbian mystery novel or a science fiction book by someone born in Mexico.

The qualities which keep us limited in our reading choices have a strong similarity to the qualities that tend to limit us as individuals: inertia, fear and prejudice.  By moving beyond our reading ruts, we also open ourselves up to the potential for becoming not only more intelligent and informed about the world around us, but also wiser and more compassionate people.

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Julia Bower is a professional writer and teacher of yoga and meditation.  She is also an avid reader who overcame a fear of science resulting from bad experiences in science class by reading children’s books about zoology, botany and astronomy.  The only drawback she has found to expanding her reading is a tendency to acquire even more books.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Iggy.

Why Read: Perspective Cont’d – Story and Perspective

This a continuation of our “Why Read” discussion. Remember, we started by defining the three broad reasons to read. Then we talked about pleasure and education. Last week, we defined perspective and looked at coincidence as an example. Today, we continue our discussion by looking at the union of story and perspective.

Alfred Hitchcock: a good story is life, with the dull parts taken out.

Ray Bradbury: “There is only one type of story in the world – your story.”

Stories are our lives. Our lives are stories.

When you pick up a book and start to read, if it’s a good one, you will find yourself engrossed in the story. Finding out what happens next becomes a desire you come one step closer to realizing every time you turn the page. Humans’ interest in stories is natural. It’s universal. We want stories to be told or read to us as soon as we are old enough to understand them and the desire lasts until death. There are few phrases more powerful than, “tell me a story.”

Some stories have been around for thousands, if not millions of years. They have been refined over time and are now written down to make them more accessible, but many of the great stories began with the oral tradition.

In a similar way, our lives unfold as stories. One event happens after another and sometimes we can even recognize a connection between two events. Perceiving these connections and trying to understand them is also instinctual. We do it without having to think about it.

The perspective shift occurs when you realize the stories you read are really part of the one true story, the story of our life.

Stories are preparation for how our lives may unfold.

By reading and understanding an author’s plot we make our lives more meaningful. We start to see how the authors’ stories are related to the story of our own lives. With a little effort we might even start to see how the universal stories, the ones that have been alive for years, are still being lived out by us today.

Our connections to those around us are emphasized because we recognize their stories must be similar to our own. Our connections to our ancestors are emphasized because we recognize the problems they faced are similar to those we still encounter. Understanding the impressive power of story we learn that we are not alone.

Characters are mirror images of our internal state.

The characters we encounter are reflections of ourselves. They show us what we would look like in the mirror if you stripped away flesh and bone. The characters we encounter are a reflection of our inner mental states.

You truly know so few people in life. We are hesitant to share our honest mental states. Ironically, we are most hesitant to share these states with people we care about. Reading can fill this gap. Reading can provide mental states you would not otherwise be privy to. From your reading experience you can understand that the characters’ stories are not unlike your own.

Conclusion

Look at reading as a tool to enhance your perspective. Use reading to learn how your mental states look in the mirror. Use reading to understand your personal search for understanding is unique, but not a lonely endeavor.

Others have made the journey before you and lived to tell about it. They are labeled by their pursuits: authors, artists, philosophers, and musicians. Let story help align your perspective toward your pursuit. They have found a creative outlet to express their emotions and anxieties. Our goal is to find the same.

Can you think of a particular story or character that changed the way you viewed the world?