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.