On the Merits of Short Fiction

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

It’s a shame really, but after poetry, short fiction draws the shortest straw when it comes to widely read literature. It’s hard to say why, when short stories and first cousins like novellas and flash fiction are the ideal length for time-starved readers and writers. Just like meals made up of small plates or tapas, a reading and writing diet made up of short fiction gives us the unique opportunity to try savor old favorites while trying new things and embracing variety.

So why do short stories get the shaft? Writers love to pen them, but literary legend has it that they’re barely read, hard to publish and even harder to sell. Friends and family members, even literary agents will drone on about how they might not have any audience at all if it weren’t for required reading lists in high school and university English classes.

But this isn’t always and doesn’t have to be the case. Short stories are more than worthy of readers’ and writers’ time and energy. Or at least the well-written ones are, and as I’ve argued before, there’s plenty to learn from bad writing, too.

Beyond celebrated volumes of short fiction by the likes of Flannery O’Connor, O. Henry and Washington Irving, Readers can read new pieces by up-and-coming writers in publications like The New Yorker.

Reading Short Fiction

Novellas, short stories and flash fiction give readers a chance to explore a writer or a genre that they wouldn’t risk a novel-length endeavor on. For example, I’m not much on horror and am hard-pressed to dedicate the time and attention necessary to a full-length tome designed to give me bad dreams, especially if it’s not a celebrated classic along the lines of Dracula or The Shining. That said, I’m likely to give two to ten page tales of terror a chance.

Brief prose forces writers to produce their best work. When words are limited, they must be carefully, painstakingly chosen. This is true to such a degree that sometimes celebrated writer’s short stories far outshine their novels. Case en pointe: Harrison Bergeron in Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House. While I adore Vonnegut in general, and have more than a few favorites when it comes to his novels, nothing ever measures up to the power of the words and ideas in Harrison Bergeron for me.

Of course there’s a common misconception with short stories, as with poetry, that their brevity makes for a rapid-fire reading. In fact, the opposite is often true; a story stretching only a few pages demands our undivided attention and careful analysis in order come away from the reading with a full understanding and appreciation of the writer’s message. Site founder, Brandon Monk, discusses how to understand and deconstruct short stories and provides a handy worksheet to help in the process here.

Writing Short Fiction

Writers (beginners and pros alike) may just be better off keeping it short. At least when first developing an idea for fiction. Giving an idea a whirl, and trying to develop it to its fullest on a daily basis is a challenge that will hone and perfect your writing. Chuck Palahniuk takes a page out of Bradbury’s book and tries to write a short story daily. Sometimes those stories stand alone forever, and still others they’re linked and molded into lengthier works.

Besides, as a mostly long-form fiction writer, I’m here to say there’s something very satisfying and deeply encouraging about finishing something and sending it off to be considered by editors and publishers in a shorter time frame than a few months….or years.

3 Tips for Writing Your Best Short Fiction

  1. Set the scene as soon as possible, in a few vivid words. Leave the rest up to the reader’s imagination. Give them just enough detail to be grounded in your story’s world, and let their minds make up the rest.
  2. No idealistic heroes and heroines please. Near and full perfection has its place—in fairy tales, fables, and genre romance—in short stories where you demand your reader bond with your main characters in a tiny span of words, it’s best avoided like other literary plagues (clichés, excessive modifiers, and other no-nos I’m certainly guilty of).
  3. Introduce conflict, right away. It doesn’t have to be the main problem characters are facing, necessarily, but tension should start to build when the reader zeroes in your first few words. Note—sometimes what works is to let yourself meander to the conflict, and then raze your boring “intro.”

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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.

An Introduction to the Commonplace Book

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

I recently stumbled on the idea of the commonplace book via Ryan Holiday of Thought Catalog‘s post, “How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book.” That post lead me to search Twitter for the popularity of the idea which lead me to two books by Richard Katzev: A Commonplace Book Primer and A Literary Collage: Annotating My Commonplace Book. As is the way of the internet, that led me  to Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book and by that time my head was swirling with the idea of  starting one of my own.

I’ve been keeping something akin to a commonplace book in notebooks and online for a few years, but I’ve never implemented a comprehsneive system. I type up or write up notes on the books I read, I write in the margins, and sometimes I compile my thoughts into blog posts. But, nothing mandatory or systematic. Without a system I still have to rely on memory to uncover the right notebook when I want to revisit a passage.

Katzev describes his process, and I think it’s a good introduction to the idea:

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way. When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and its source if it is from a periodical. At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

Ryan Holiday describes his, very different, process:

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

I’m not sure which method is superior. With a project like this it’s best to make it your own. That’ll make it more likely to stick. Steal what you like from the practitioners that came before you. There are a many examples available online.

To Katzev, one of the key components of the commonplace book is the transcription of long passages from the books you’ve read. This kind of work is tedious. There are shortcuts. Katzev would argue that the shortcuts take away from the overall intent of keeping a commonplace book–which is to force some form of muscle memory to interact with the words. This visceral interaction is key for some.

If you prefer the shortcut and read with a Kindle you could easily use the Kindle: Your Highlights function to remove the need for tedious transcription. (You will need to log in to your Amazon.com account to access this feature.) Highlight with your Kindle as you read and the highlights automatically appear. From Kindle: Your Highlights you can copy and paste to your application of preference. This frees up time for you to annotate the passages you’ve read. This method has the added advantage of allowing you to use Kindle’s “Daily Review” function to review your highlighted passages and annotations as if they the passages were printed on notecards.

Katzev also discusses the value of annotating your commonplace book. Your thoughts, as you read a particular passage, are valuable to you, to your loved ones, and for your writing. The annotations can serve as source material for articles or blog posts or as a kind of diary of the remembrances invoked by your reading.

The beauty of the commonplace book is that it makes the act of reading and writing inseparable. Reading inspires writing which inspires more reading.

Emerson, in his Journals, July 1836, compared the activity to making your own bible. His take was, if you collect all the words and sentences that mean something to you, you are performing an activity that will provide a reference for future use, a book you could pull out when you needed an answer or to be uplifted. I believe it would make a fine keepsake to pass on to descendants, but there’s no harm in deciding to keep it private.

Some keepers of commonplace books, including John Locke in the 17th century, create systems to categorize and organize the passages they’ve noted. Storing your entries electronically would certainly make that task either easier or unnecessary because of the search functions available in tools like Evernote and on Amazon. The balancing act is to keep the system simple enough that you’re not discouraged from using it.

There are no hard rules when it comes to what to include in a commonplace book, basically, you note what interests you. And, isn’t that the question we ask constantly as we read anyway? “What resonates with me?” or “What in this book is consistent with my experience?”

As Katzev points out, reading is a passive activity unless we do something about that. By putting a pen in our hand or by doing something like keeping a commonplace book we turn reading into active reading. Active interaction aids our memories. The commonplace book becomes a tool we can use to refresh our minds–to recall important sentences and words.

A commonplace book could become a sort of reading memoir. There’s no doubt that the passages we pay attention to and take time to record must say something about who we are or who we’d like to be. Imagine having access to a commonplace book your grandfather consistently used.

As Alain de Botton has said more eloquently,

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader of his own self of what the books says is proof it its veracity.

A commonplace book gives you the tool to re-read yourself and Chris Ciolli has talked about the value of re-reading here before. It can be a tool to analyze and track your own evolution. As you age, your thoughts about certain passages will change and in that change you can experience your changing self.

My suggestion: Just start with what seems natural. I intend to evolve my commonplace book entries into a better system in 2014.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to become a better reader and, hopefully, a better person.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory.

Required Holiday Reading: A Christmas Carol

dickens christmas carol scrooge

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

Upon hearing the news that my father would be working most of the day on Thanksgiving, I instinctively, walked over to my bookshelf and pulled Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” down from the shelf. I suppose I was trying to remind myself what this time of year is truly about.

Although I am thankful that my father has work again, especially after losing his job earlier this year, it saddens me that at his age, the only type of job he was able to get was in sales. Where especially during these upcoming weeks, people will flood the store, shoving and screaming, looking for things, simple, silly objects, that they just need to buy.

Each year, it begins earlier, the sale advertisements in anticipation for Black Friday, so much so that they have managed to successfully intrude upon yet another important, overlooked holiday. Are we as a culture structuring our lives around greed and gratification? Have we forgotten tradition, or what is important and meaningful? Sometimes I think I know the answer, I just don’t want to say it aloud.

Dickens, I feel, is an expert on humanity, which is why he is still relevant today. During the Victorian era, he was considered a social novelist, writing ‘epics of everyday life.’ The purpose of narrative literature, for him, was to raise society’s consciousness, namely about itself. Characters in his novels are metaphorical representations, standing in for certain values, philosophies, or attitudes.

However, this is not to say the content is overwhelmingly or unnecessarily depressing or gloomy. Dickens, actually, was a master at balancing harsh realities of this world, while also seeking out and elevating the good amidst the bleakness.

A Voice of Many

Many consider “A Christmas Carol” melodramatic and sentimental. In some ways, I can understand this, but at the same time, I have to say, it represents so much more. Obviously, when approaching it historically, the short novel is a major denunciation of the Industrial period and laissez-faire capitalism, which values money and profit over the well-being of the individual. The Cractchit family – with their tenderness for one another, their care of Tiny Tim, their happiness over a frugal Christmas meal – embody a side of this system. And despite circumstances and their set position in society, not to mention the atrocious and popular attitudes of the mercantile class, they are not without love and goodness. In fact, they exude these qualities.

After the initial release and immediate wild success of it, many struggling families wrote to Dickens to tell him, ‘how the Carol had come to be read aloud there, and was to be kept upon a little shelf by itself, and was to do them no end of good.’ One must consider something: that although the Cratchit family represented quite a large portion of the poor population, Dickens was one of the only ones who actually gave them a voice.

Want and Ignorance

One of my favorite moments is when the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces the two children clinging to his robes: appropriately named Want and Ignorance. Both represent common traits that exist in society during times of financial inequality between the rich and poor. We see this numerous times throughout the text, but perhaps most strongly in the characters of Scrooge and Marley.

When two men arrive, in search of charity contributions, Scrooge promptly dismisses them. He points out that they should either be put in jail or put to work or die in order to decrease the ‘surplus population.’ Being regarded as a ‘surplus’ came from Reverend Thomas Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. At its publication, it sparked a widespread fear of over-population in England. Again, Scrooge is the vehicle, here. His opinion mirrors many other people’s opinions at the time. Like them, he is unkind, and worse, ignorant and uninformed about the strife, struggles, and experiences of the poor.

Some time later, when the ghost of his friend and business partner Marley visits, Scrooge remarks on his chains, a symbol that Jacob is a prisoner of his bad deeds. Because he never left the courting house, the money-changing home, he never recognized the hardships of others. His craving for money fueled him, but as he learns, albeit too late, “mankind was [his] business.” Charity and mercy and benevolence were traits he should have practiced while living, not the ‘every man for himself’ mentality.

After their conversation, Scrooge looks through his window and notices many miserable looking ghosts in similar shackles, some that he even recognizes. They, like Marley and like much of society, turned a blind eye to the injustice, as well. And as much as they’d like to interfere for the good, to maybe lend a hand, they cannot. They are forever separated from the living.

True Change?

One question, or maybe a doubt, I am left with at the end of this novel is regarding the nature of Scrooge’s transformation. When we examine his ‘journey’ closely, we see that it only becomes possible when he uncovers his eyes and confronts his painful past and background. Re-experiencing those repressed memories, he comes to pity himself first. With that new acknowledgement, that remembrance, he is then able to care for others.

The reason we are sympathetic, the reason we move past self-centeredness as children, is not only that we have experienced loss, loneliness, defeat, or dread, but because we also remember it when faced with someone else’s sufferings. Basically, we apply our own past emotions when attempting to understand others. Without that, we deny any chance of deeper connection, camaraderie or love.

I find consolation, though, in the simple possibility of change. The fact that goodness is something you can always strive for, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. It is never too late. But, it is a choice. Behaving badly is not difficult. Usually it is appealing, desirable, selfish, but provides that instant gratification.

What I will take away from “A Christmas Carol” this year is the reminder that one can never prove their goodness without the challenge to make a decision. And that is just what Scrooge does. He makes an important final choice, one that we should remember this December, but also year round: Love for humanity over money, material, and greed.

Will you be reading (or re-reading) A Christmas Carol this season? If so, why or why not? Do you have any holiday reading rituals? Favorite holiday related books?

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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 Ciara McDonnell

All Quiet on the Western Front: A Testament to Humanity

all quiet on the western front

This essay was written by T. Lloyd Reilly.

A search for the realities of humanity or of humanness can steer one into strange places and reveal unexpected gems.  This happened to me a few months ago in a book.  For some reason or another I had escaped reading “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque.  This probably should have been read when I was a teen, or perhaps as a part of a college lit course.  As an aficionado of classic film, I could not imagine how I skipped this story.  I found it at the bottom of a box at a garage sale.  I passed several of my favorite authors digging into the box to get to this book, and find myself quite pleased with the choice.

In a world rampant with tales of war, it seems unlikely that a tale of a group of enemy soldiers of America, in a war that occurred long ago, could divulge so many truths about who we are and what we feel.

A tale of a group of German teenagers enlisting in the Kaiser’s army during World War I, the narrative held me captive.

I usually read quickly, but I consumed this saga in a single sitting.  There are only a handful of books that have stimulated me in such a manner.  Each of them is worthy of an essay in themselves, but this particular book came at a particularly poignant time in my life.  I was enduring the end of my sister’s life from leukemia and found myself, as is usual, with a loss of importance, questioning the beliefs and feelings I had developed about life and beyond.

In this book there is an ongoing narrative of the day-to-day movements of the main characters as they wind their way through the bunkers and rear areas of the Great War.  A description of attacking the enemy lines and losing more than half the company is accented with the survivors attempting to get something to eat afterwards and being refused because the cook had instruction to serve the entire company or none.  When told that the entire company was present and that the rest of the contingent lay in pieces either on the battlefield or in medical tents the cook still refused until given a direct order from an officer.

The cook had simply done what he was told, and the lack of deviation probably came as a self-defense action.  By doing what is right in front of him, he did not have to think about the horror of the place he lived.  Any escape from reality is a tool all the characters shared.  Playing cards, smoking cigarettes, taking about girls back home, and how much of a jerk the sergeant was were just some of the diversions used to make it between times of horror.

One scene of particular interest came when several of the teens went to visit a wounded comrade.  The wounded man, Kemmerich, lay on a bed complaining that his foot hurt.  He had no clue that he was, in fact, absent the entire leg due to an amputation meant to save his life.  When one of his comrades let slip that he had lost his leg the wounded soldier laments its loss and the fact that he could not realize his dream of becoming a forester.

While Paul, the narrator, attempts to console his friend, one of the other visitors eyes the wounded man’s boots and realizes that they are in better shape than those he wore and schemed to take them for himself.  The thought of having a decent pair of boots served as motivation to enable his willingness to go back into battle.  Creature comforts supplanted the deeper emotions of fear and dread that awaits the soldier on the battlefield.

Kemmerich suffers for a while and finally drifts off into unconsciousness before dying.  While still lucid, the wounded hero implores the narrator to give his boots to the other man.  Paul’s reaction to Kemmerich’s death erupted in a dash out of the tent and around the area, realizing that running made him forget the death and feel more alive and then hungry.  Again, creature comforts displace the dread that all must have felt most of the time.  The dead man’s boots find different homes as the book go on, reinforcing the ideal of practicality in the face of that which is unbearable.

Living within their means and surviving that which is seemingly impossible to endure rings throughout the book with every page.  When the narrator gets a leave to go home, he finds less then he wished and found confusion seeping in.  He could understand a day-to-day struggle when being shot at, but grew confused by the same struggle in those whose lives are not immediately at risk.

The daily realities that the narrator expounds upon all have a flavor of true humanness.  The things that a combat soldier must tolerate seem to bring out the humanity instead of disallowing it.

Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with the death of the narrator’s friend, Katczinsky.  Wounded by a bomb, he is discovered by Paul scrounging for food.  While being carried to safety by Paul, another bomb from the very plane that initially caused his distress lets loose another bomb which kills the man while leaving his rescuer untouched.  Perhaps, continuing to search for food, the creature comfort, might have saved his life.

Paul suffers through many trials and tribulations that speak to his character and brings the reader to the thought that he is a noble warrior deserving of escape from harm.  The reality is that he is just a teenager that has experienced things that no young person should have to.  He gradually grows jaded to life and death and it is in his final moment that he reveals that which is still within him.  While sitting on the wall of his trench he spies a butterfly and, forgetting where he is, reaches for it revealing too much of his body and is shot dead.

The final scene seems tragic, yet, it fits perfectly.  The certainties of war come into focus all throughout the book while the search for simple human dignity is desperately being sought by the narrator and his cohorts.  It speaks to what is, and not what is wanted.  In living day to day with the ugliness of war, the characters teach lessons of humanity while ignoring the horror.

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T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Mordac.

The Slush Pile: Where Reading Starts to Hurt

slush pile

This essay was written by Patrick Icasas.

“Pass.”

It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I have this evening to finish my assigned stories. I click through to the next. It’s a sci-fi piece with a clever title that promises a fun parody.

I read through the first paragraph, and I’m immediately disappointed. It turns out to be an existential piece in a sci-fi backdrop, which is a big disconnect from what the title made me expect. I read through the rest, hoping that it’ll at least be compelling enough to deserve a “maybe” vote, with the caveat of a title change. It’s not.

“Pass.”

I click through to the next story, hoping for the best. But the first sentence alone has two typos, and the author can’t seem to decide which tense he wants to use. I don’t even make it a third of the way in.

“Pass.”

A literary piece comes up, and I open it, wary of more navel-gazing and existential angst. I’m pleasantly surprised to find sound characters and clever dialogue, and a unique take on an every day situation. It has its flaws, but it’s one of the best stories I’ve read that evening.

“Maybe.”

And so my evening goes, the same as a dozen other members of the Flash Fiction Online (FFO) slush team. We spend our weekends and evenings reading through piles of submissions (electronic now, thankfully), looking for the gems that will move on to the next round—the team review.

It’s long, tiring, and pretty frustrating at times. You hear so many stories about the horrors of slush from editors, agents, and other writers. But unless you actually sit down and read through the slush pile yourself, you’ll never know how much of a slog it really is.

Minor problems like typos and grammar are the most annoying. Not because they’re there, but because they’re so easy to fix. You can use all the flowery language that you want, but if you mistype “skull” as “scull”, you’re not doing your story any favors. And competition in the slush pile is so fierce that you’re going to need every advantage you can get.

Surprisingly, it’s not the bad stories that frustrate me the most. It’s the “not quites”. I’ve lost count of the stories that had great potential—a relatable character, a unique premise, or beautiful prose—only to have the author go in a completely different direction and lose my interest.

The reason it’s so frustrating is because we want to help authors get published. Forget what you’ve heard about slush readers cackling in smug satisfaction as they reject story after story. My team and I agonize over every choice, voting up pieces despite their flaws. Every so often I’ll get that one story with a unanimous vote, but more often than not choosing a story is a compromise. There’s a lot of back and forth as we discuss flaws and strengths, and how stories compare. Each member of the team is chosen for their analytical ability, so these discussions can run pretty deep.

In the end, our editor can only choose a handful out of hundreds. I’m happy that many of my favorites were eventually published, but most have not.

And then the next month comes, and we go through the entire process again.

Why do we do it? I’ve asked myself that question several times—mostly when I’m knee-deep in bad stories. Every single member of the team is a volunteer. All of our revenue goes to paying our writers and maintaining the site, so none of us is gaining any benefit other than reading stories and helping other authors.

For my part, I joined FFO because I wanted to see what slush was like. I was curious and wanted to learn more about the publication side of the fiction industry. But that doesn’t explain why I’m still around. I am getting better at analyzing stories, which helps my own fiction, but that’s a benefit, not a reason.

To be honest, I don’t know why I do stick around. Inertia, maybe? But what I do know is that whenever one of my favorites gets published on the FFO homepage, I get a little thrill knowing that I helped get that piece into the spotlight.

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Patrick Icasas is a freelance writer, marketing professional, aspiring author, and a slush reader at Flash Fiction Online.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Meets Memory Lane

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

“I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.” Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I’ve written before about the idea that taking a trip down reading memory lane is a worthwhile way to re-kindle your reading interest. An old favorite–a book you read for pleasure as a child–can take you back to the days when reading was a care-free experience. Often, the mandatory reading school imposes robs us of the pleasure. Those who continue to read find ways to carve out time to read the things they like.

But, what if you have no pleasant reading memory? I recently read Neil Gaiman’s, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a book that captures the essence of what it’s like to read for pleasure. The main character is bookish, the setting is fantasy, and the book engages the mythic inclinations hard-wired in our minds.

I see Gaiman’s book as picking up where I left off when I wrote the piece about taking a trip down reading memory lane eighteen months ago. Sometimes it takes a new book to fill the gaps in our thought process. The Ocean at the End of the Lane does that for me. It’s the closest I’ve come to the feeling I had when I’d read something I loved as a child since I’ve been forced into adulthood by the passage of time. It gives me new hope that even without a pleasurable childhood reading experience we can fill the gaps in our adult lives and find a way to read for pleasure.

Gaiman invokes three things in the book that make it have the effect it does:

1. Gaiman’s main character takes us back to our childhood.

Gaiman must have poured much of himself into the main character of the novel. His bookish ways, the manner in which he views the world, his old-soul makeup. He’d rather be reading than adventuring. But, as children, we always end up doing something other than what we want and it’s often those things that make us grow the most.

Gaiman recognizes, though, that even as adults we’re still pretending to be something we aren’t. We’re still forced to do things we don’t want to do and the way we keep ourselves in tact is by taking some time to be alone with our inner-selves and even our inner-child.

2. Gaiman invokes our sense of nostalgia.

The novel begins with an adult main character returning to his childhood home. The novel becomes a reflection on his childhood past. The effect of this is to take the reader back in time to our own childhood. Gaiman guides us, through the narrative, to our own past. Those experiences are a combination of pleasant and unpleasant events that have shaped us into the people we are. Gaiman’s novel acts as a guided meditation down memory lane and it can supplement or fill the gaps of our childhood reading past.

To explore this aspect of the book, I recommend reading slowly enough to allow time for reflection. Make annotations in the book or in a notebook of the memories brought to the surface by your reading. The interaction you have with the novel can cause you to remember things you’d thought were long forgotten. In that way, the book serves as a path by which you can arrive at some of those sentimental places that exist, now, only in your mind.

3. Gaiman’s fantasy setting carries us far enough away from the real.

Fantasy settings allow us to step out of the world where we’re expected to know how everything works, and to have an answer for every uncertainty we experience. If a fantasy setting is done right, there are enough things there to remind us of our real lives, but it’s equally important that we be asked to temporarily suspend our rational thought processes long enough to accept the fantasy the author’s created. Gaiman masterfully mixes the two. We can both relate to the world we’re told of, yet not completely understand what will come next.

The benefit to the reader is that they’re given a break from the real. They’re given an opportunity to live in the world created by the cooperative effort of the author and the reader. Just enough distance is created by the fantasy to give space for you to explore our own thoughts and remembrances.

Gaiman’s novel does what I could never do in a non-fiction piece. It creates a fantasy that fills the gaps or reminds us what we used to be like when we were willing to admit we don’t know how everything works. It’s a novel that takes us down memory lane and it can, I think, re-kindle our love of reading even if we have no pleasurable reading memory of our own.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to foster the love of amateur reading in adults.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by ajvin.

2 Tips for Watching Movie Adaptations of Books & “Ender’s Game” Review

enders game movie book adaptation

This essay was written by Williesha Morris.

“Ender, the enemy’s gate is down.”

The double meaning wasn’t lost while reading “Ender’s Game” or watching the movie adaptation.

“Ender’s Game” marks the first time I’ve ever purposefully read a book just before seeing a movie. I typically avoid watching movie versions of books for fear it would ruin my carefully, although not well-formed, visualizations of the story.

Though I have a faulty memory, snippets of books like “The Secret Life of Bees,” “The Notebook” and “Cold Mountain” have not been tarnished by the dramatizations on the big screen, even though many of these movies have been critically acclaimed. I just can’t bear to watch them.

But because “Ender’s Game” was an important novel in my husband’s childhood, and my in-laws enjoyed it as well and were kind enough to get me a copy from the library, I was determined to read it in time to see a viewing the following week.

For me, this was huge. I’m not the avid reader I once was as a child. In fact I typically only read short business e-books. But this time I was determined.

And I finished the book in three days.

Three days!

The achievement alone was more exciting than the opportunity to see it in IMAX.

Here are some tips before viewing a movie based on a book. (Read: Following this section are spoilers. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you may want to stop after this section. But come back!)

1) Remember the time frame the book was created: There are several scenes changed or fleshed out based on the cinematic technologies of today. We should all be grateful we live in a time where books from the 80s can be created into something suitable for today.

2) Remember the goal of Hollywood: Filmmakers want a movie with interesting characterization and, for movies like this, increased drama, action and romance. Those equal big box office bucks. Just the implication of those three movie elements is what keeps LA churning out movie after movie, even at the expense of taking creative liberties with novels. So you have to expect this will happen and not be turned off by it.

Given that Orson Scott Card once deemed the book impossible to be filmed but was very pleased with this movie, I dove into both the book and the movie with a very critical eye. Thanks to early versions of the trailer, I had Harrison Ford as Graff and little Asa Butterfiled as Ender in my head the whole time (with occasional flashes of Abigail Breslin as Valentine). But after getting halfway through the novel, I began to understand why Card was so skeptical at first.

Valentine and Peter’s plot to take over the world one Net forum at a time was painfully abrupt, difficult to understand and dragged the momentum of the book to a screeching halt.

While I can understand the negative ramifications of focusing an entire book on one character, it seemed completely unnecessary, the political scene was too complex, and the connections to the siblings’ lives at the end of the novel was not a valuable enough payoff to make it an integral part of the plot.

Peter’s transformation from sociopath to politician was too jarring. Had he and Valentine plotted to find out what was going on with International Fleet’s schooling or get in touch with Ender, that would have been more plausible. But this was really the only issue with the book I had. The exclusion of this subplot in the movie was definitely the most positive element.

Other great elements of the film where it deviated from the book included not calling the aliens “buggers,” but by their official term (used in later books in the series) “Formics.” “Buggers” sounded antiquated and childish.

The lake retreat and battle school scenes in particular were extremely well done, and they were really useful in imagining those moments while reading the book. Card’s details of the flying maneuvers was difficult to follow at times, and the trailer scenes provided a much needed point of reference in my mind. Creating lifelike battle scenes in Command School and having Ender and his teammates together in the same room were also great choices for the filmmakers to make that were different from the book.

Ender’s character was still lovable, complicated and dangerous, just like in the  book. However, the movie decided to soften the edges around his relationships with other characters. While his friendship with Bean was very rocky in the book, filmmakers chose to make their characters like each other almost instantly.

I was also pleased with how they handled the fight scenes. They chose not to kill off Stilson or Bonzo. Instead, it is implied Ender only hurt them to the brink of death. I was also pleasantly surprised Ender did not have a confrontation with Bernard. Instead, their combativeness is non-physical, brief and ends with them being together in battle as friends.

However, the nature of these friendships and Ender’s softer side is where the film failed to reach critics, many of which wrote their reviews as though they were completely unfamiliar with the book’s plot.

There was never a romantic relationship between Ender and Petra. Critics were tough on this element of the movie, and for the wrong reasons. Yes, Ender and Petra did nothing more than occasionally hold hands and look longingly at each other. But it wasn’t because they were children or they didn’t have chemistry.

She was never a critical part of Ender’s life in the book. They were simply friends who helped each other and respected each other in the end. I think if critics understood this, they would have had different complaints about the film, namely Petra’s overreaching role, talking with him before the “graduation” battle and being the last person he sees before discovering the Formic hiding place. None of these elements were in the book, and I was disappointed they attempted to pull something romantic out of nothing.

Movie critics who read the book had the same misgivings that I did. It was also unclear how much time had passed during Ender’s training, but the movie is already nearly two hours long, so it was understandable things had to be rushed. But it did take away from getting deeper into Ender’s complex psyche, and it also made his friendships seem forced.

There may be other book-then-movie adventures in my future, but for now, I’m happy this one turned out pretty well. I went into the movie already with a love and appreciation for the book’s characters, and it made watching it much more meaningful, even when the movie wasn’t perfect.

Let’s talk about book-to-movie adaptations. What are your favorites? Which ones do you hate? Let me know in the comments. (I expect to see a lot of Tolkien fans pop up.)

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Williesha Morris is lucky enough to have two sides to her business: she is a freelance writer and blogger and also is an administrative consultant/VA. She gets pumped when she’s able to meld the two together. When she’s not working, she’s usually spending way too much time staring at Facebook or giggling with her husband. Find her at My Freelance Life.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: Courtesy of Nerdist

Writing Made Me a Bad Reader

reading writing

This essay was written by Rebecca Jordan.

Like most readers and writers, I fell head-over-heels in love with books in my early school years. Everything was fair game: the Bloody Jack series, The Count of Monte Cristo, volumes of thousands of the best poems, The Outsiders, Esperanza Rising, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Flies, Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, The Scarlet Letter. Piratica and all books about women pirates were among my favorites. And then something happened.

I stopped reading.

I hear a lot this phrase: “Great writers are great readers,” and “You have to read a lot to write well.” I wasn’t buying it. I knew what a book was and I had stored up enough knowledge to write one.

I’m not sure exactly when or how this happened. Don’t get me wrong, I still (mostly) read assigned readings in high school and college. But I found that without being prodded with a hot poker (or the carrot that always awaited me, the big red A at the top of my papers that represented both Puritanical shame and the fruition of all my wildest dreams), I wouldn’t read. Anything.

Recently I finished Sanderson’s Mistborn. I started it in early 2012.

Before that, there were other discarded lovers. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Paolini’s Eragon series. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose heart I broke the worst. Some book about a potato famine that I still remember as the worst book I ever read, and the first book I ever failed to finish.

I traced my adultery back through the years, tracking for signs. Where had I gone wrong? Perhaps in mid-high school was where it started, though I didn’t notice it at first. Yes, I had stopped reading several books part of the way through, barely scraping by in the minimum amount of work required before I allowed myself to give up. And I unearthed something else.

That was when I had discovered writing.

Writing, it at first seemed, was easier than reading. With writing, you just pulled excrement from your already twisted brain and slapped it on a page. With reading, you were examining someone else’s excrement and trying to make sense of it. And books were so long. Who had the attention span for that?

And then it got harder. Writing, it appeared, was more a demanding lover than a sustaining one. So, naturally, all of my time previously devoted to entertainment now belonged to craft. And every time I tried to go crawling back to one of my old lovers – LeGuin, maybe, or, pensively, Melville – my writing would riddle me with guilt.

Do you see that sloppy character development? The forced dialogue? The awkward transitions? The improper use of semicolons? I could do much better than that. Come back to me.

And I did. I was no longer a mere observer, to whom were dictated The Words. I was a creator and destroyer of worlds. It was official: I was addicted to the power.

Writing started encroaching on everything else. Things like family and personal hygiene were secondary, as with any demanding lover. For almost my entire collegiate career I holed up, forgoing my admittedly sickly social life for 24/7 hibernation, just me and my computer.

And then something else happened.

A friend suggested to me a young adult book. Young Adult! I thought, scoffing. I had barely even read young adult fiction when I was an actual young adult. I knew this much: their plots were thin. Their pages were sparse. They were built for people with short attention spans and undeveloped minds.

Never mind the fact that I, too, had developed a short attention span and undeveloped my mind.

I finished the book in three days. It was the most exhilarating experience I had ever had, sneaking in minutes between classes, staying under the covers with a light turned on, falling asleep with the book squashed firmly between the bed and my breast. I wept, and not at my own genius. I wept at someone else’s genius, and I remembered why I loved reading again.

My addiction to writing waned to a more manageable essence. I was still a writer, but I was a reader again, too.

The young adult book was The Hunger Games. I immediately went to my notebook and began writing down ideas for my own work, which encouraged me to look up books similar to what I was writing and read them.

Reading and writing fuel each other again. And then Goodreads came along and allowed me to make shelves. Shelves of books that I had started and not yet finished.

Those were shelves I was going to come back to. I had begun to finish reading books again, and I remembered why I became a writer in the first place: the love of good story.

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Rebecca Ann Jordan is a ghostwriter and content writer in San Diego. As a speculative fiction author and poet, she has published pieces in Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal, and Images Magazine. She loves talking with authors about great stories and arguing over grammar. Quibble with her at rebeccaannjordan.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Morten Oddvik.

On Going Dark: Why We Read Scary Things

scary stories halloween reading

This essay was written by Chris Ciolli.

Before I even begin, I have a little confession to make. Since the age of five or six or so, I’ve been as afraid of the dark, as I am enchanted by it. When the sun goes down, it seems anything can happen, but most often what happens is bad news.

After reading Roald Dahl’s Witches and seeing the movie for reading class in elementary school, I had nightmares for months. The settling noises my parents’ log cabin made come evening had me skittish; jumping any time the floor creaked (which was often).

In my 20s, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time, and promptly traveled to Transylvania for spring break where I amused my-then-boyfriend, now husband, to no end, carrying garlic in my purse and sporting cross-shaped earrings day and night.

It’s safe to say that I didn’t grow out of my overactive imagination.

As a fully-grown, mature adult living in a drafty, early-20th century apartment building in Barcelona, with my half-Siamese, Lulu, and a full-blooded Spaniard, I still have to be very careful to read scary books during daylight hours, or suffer the restless nights, waking up in a cold sweat.

Note that scary doesn’t necessarily translate to horror. Science-fiction, dystopian classics, and even true crime can be just as disturbing. Of course when I get far enough into a story, it’s nearly impossible to resist racing through a book to reach a resolution…even if I don’t get there until 3 a.m., and at that point I’m afraid to close my eyes, because I know my mind will continue playing out unsavory scenes in my dreams. So why do I keep picking up these books up?

Because despite it all, there’s something in my mind that’s drawn to the darkness, even as it’s deathly afraid. Some part of me wants to know how the action unfolds in these stories, even as the rest rejects them in favor of lighter reading. It could be that I know I owe it to myself to embrace the existence of all sides of human nature.

Like it or not, we don’t live in a Disney vacuum where singing princesses, forest creatures and townspeople are either inherently good or evil. To overcome the cowardice and evil that are part and parcel of the human condition, we must first recognize and accept that they exist. In the end, reading about them is much easier (and more socially acceptable) than cozying up to serial killers during visiting hours at the big house, or scarier still, exploring our own dark sides first-hand and risking becoming a living nightmare like Alyssa Bustamante, the teenager who reportedly killed her young neighbor to see what it “felt” like or Armin Meiwes, who killed and ate a volunteer he found on the internet.

Scary comes in rainbow-colored hues, vivid shades of terror, evil, and doubt. It’s all around. Ignoring it won’t make it disappear. Facing it full on in written form is terrifying, but in the end, very good practice for standing up to our inner cowards in the sometimes terrifying situations real life presents.  As a writer and a reader, I know that staring down these scary books has made me stronger in a multitude of ways.

But instead of taking my word for it, why not test-drive the concept with the list of five books below? You’ll likely find that a healthy dose of fear and the serious reflection that comes after terror makes for a more well-rounded reader, writer and human being, even if it loses you some sleep.

  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – Short but terrifying, Coraline is a cautionary tale about parallel realities and how what seems to good to be true almost always is.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – A totalitarian Christian theocracy has taken over the United States. Women are forbidden to read. ‘Nough said.
  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding – It doesn’t get much scarier than a bunch of children left to their own devices with no adult supervision.
  • The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski – Footnotes, fonts and unreliable narrators can overwhelm in this strange book, but more overwhelming is the sense of panic at the possibility of being consumed by the bleak maze that grows in the house on Ash Tree Lane.
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – The true story of the chilling murder of a Kansas farmer and his family by complete strangers.

For additional Halloween reading, check out Amarie Fox’s recent post.

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Sean Winters.

Why Reading Should Be a Shared Activity

why you should read together

This essay was written by Julie Bates.

Why Share Reading?

Reading is a one person activity – right? Well, that depends.

Sometimes reading can be a wonderful escape from the real world and the tensions that send you seeking a universe far, far away. Other times nothing enriches the experience of a good read than sharing it with another.  Good shared reads allow you to share the wonder of exploring alien worlds, compare notes on exotic recipes or decide if the book the media suddenly adores is worth picking up or is exponentially overrated.

It Builds Intimacy

My husband and I read each other’s books. He’s learned to appreciate my eclectic taste in fiction and I appreciate his more scholarly interests.  We’ve had some wonderful discussions surrounding the plot of whatever book he has finished after me. Confession here – I read fast, and I tend to stay up late for a good story. He appreciates the need for eight or more hours of snoozing.

We’ve tried exotic foods read about in books and looked up places on the internet. I remember us looking at Turkey’s Hagia Sophia museum online after reading a richly textured description of it in Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk.

You can partially quote a really good line and receive a grin of acknowledgement from your significant other while leaving others baffled. Jokes, inside information, favorite characters become fodder for your moments together.

Good reads promote good dialogue. We’ve discussed the plausibility of whodunnits, physics (which he understood and I didn’t and needed some explanations) and whether or not we would try recipe X. Confession here – I read the cookbooks. He agrees to be a guinea pig as long as I don’t get too weird. He now agrees that kale can be made edible.

Your Children Benefit

Everyone wants their kid to be smart right? Everyone wants that intimate connection that comes from shared moments. Reading builds that seamlessly. From the moment my son was born, my husband and I read to him. We read Dr. Seuss, We read Magic Tree House and the entire Little House on the Prairie Series.

It was the lifesaving component of the nighttime ritual. You know, the one where you say it’s bedtime and your kid replies in that whiny, tired voice, “I’m not sleepy,”  initiating bedtime guerrilla warfare.

Plunking a tired, cranky kid in bed doesn’t work. I’ve tried it, got the tee shirt and been back in his room 3 million times because, “I can’t sleep, I need water, it’s dark and I hear a weird noise.”   What saved my sanity, such as it existed, were books.   Bedtime was when we would pick a book, he would lie in bed and I or my husband would read, usually a chapter or less if he dropped off.

I read to my child until he took the book (Despereaux) out of my hands and said “I want to read it for myself!”  He went on to read all the Harry Potter books before fifth grade only to be bummed to discover he could not get AR (Advanced Reader) points, because all but the first volume are considered middle school books.  I discovered we could talk about The Lord of the Rings as well as Hatchet.

Even now that he is a teen, we talk books. We don’t always have the same taste. I’m not into Dr. Who, and he doesn’t really enjoy some of the history I read, but we still have wonderful, literate discussions born out of all the books we read together.

Shared reading experience opens your mind

I belong to a reading group. A lot of what is read is philosophy. which is not my area of expertise. Some of these individuals started talking about what these theories meant, and my mind was blown. What seemed simple on the printed page had interpretations that had never occurred to me.

Listening to my friends discuss subjects ranging from physics to religion made me contemplate deeper meanings that I normally wouldn’t have.  They made me think rather than blindly accept what was on the page. While I will never be a debater, I have benefited from being exposed to many points of view. Who doesn’t want to expand their mind?

Good books increase friendships

I’ve had lovely discussions about books with people I’ve never met before. One of us would see the other with a book and comment about it and conversation would ensue.

Sometimes I’ve had someone say, “If you like this author, try so-and-so.”  Scribbling down the name, I’ve gone to my local library and discovered a brand new read, which I could then share with someone else.

Good books are contagious.

So why share what you’re reading?

If all the reasons I’ve already stated are not enough, think about what it does for you.  You have something to share – your opinion. Some reads inspire passion, others curiosity, others are so excruciatingly bad, we never finish, but they all affect us in some way.

Why not share that feeling? Not everyone will want to listen, but someone will. That could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

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Julie Bates is a writer and former teacher living in North Carolina. She likes to read anything that is well written, entertaining or thought provoking.

For further reading on making reading a shared activity please consider:  Reading and Writing in Relationships: How Partners Encourage Learning and Enjoyment ; How Reading Can Improve Your Love Life.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Michael Bentley.