The Pros and Cons of Distraction Free Writing

distraction free writing

This essay was written by Joel Okimoto. (No affiliate links were used.)

The words “distraction free writing” often get banded around these days when it comes to professional writing, or writing for a living. A simple space where you can write what you want without all the “useless” features of Microsoft Word (for instance).

You’ve probably even heard of a few applications which offer it too. Does iWriter and OmmWriter sound familiar to you? But what actually is distraction free writing and is it right for you?

Distraction free writing applications are basically simple tools which offer the ability to write what you want, and nothing else. They offer you a page to type on, and that’s pretty much it. No clipart, no inserting of tables or graphs or anything like that. Now to some of you that may sound like a dream, but to others it may sound more like a nightmare (personally I love distraction free writing applications, I use iWriter. I find it frees me up to write about anything I want with ease).

Pros of Distraction Free Tools

You procrastinate less. Think about it: no distraction = no time wasted. They help you get what you want done as quickly and as peacefully as possible. There is no need to worry about using the right font or the right font size. It is decided for you. I find this useful, because it lets me get on with what I want to do without worrying about all the annoying settings and preferences.

They are peaceful. I know many people who do not like to write in Microsoft Word (as an example) because they find it “ugly,” among other reasons. This is not a problem with distraction free tools. They are so minimal they don’t even have enough features to look ugly. They are simply a white screen (or sometimes black) and that’s about it. They might have a few settings at the top, but it doesn’t really go further than that.

Cons of Distraction Free Tools

No pictures. This is a real problem if you like to write blog posts or add images to your novels. I’ve tried writing blog articles in distraction free tools and it can be a real pain (I actually think WordPress is the best place for writing for blogs). Some people see something like no images as a deal breaker for these tools, and for them they may be right. The rule of thumb is: if you use pictures a lot don’t go distraction free. All it will give you is a headache.

They are “missing” features. That’s how some people see it anyway. Not being able to change the font, make things bold or add links can drive some crazy.

When I first made the switch from Word to iWriter it was strange. I kept trying to find ways around the rules, ways to change the font size, ways to add links. It wasn’t until I started to understand what it was really for that I found peace with it.

Nevertheless it can be a nuisance to use them. And if you find yourself using other tools than your keyboard when writing, distraction free will not work for you.

So there you have it, the pros and cons. Now it’s time to make your own mind up on the matter. I think using things like this is really a matter of opinion and a matter of what you primarily write. If you are someone who usually writes for a blog site or a magazine agency this sort of thing probably won’t work for you. But if you are a simple novel writer or storyteller this could be the sort of thing you are looking for.

On regards to what distraction free writing application you should use: I would suggest that if you are a Mac user you give iWriter a shot. I use it for just about everything, I find it a godsend. It also has  iPhone and iPad versions which all sync together painlessly, making for a well focused and intuitive workflow. If you are a Windows user I would suggest you give Q10 a try. It is a simple freeware app that offers you everything you would want and expect in a distraction free application, and a little more too.

There are many more distraction free applications for you to try out and you shouldn’t just take my word for it. You should give a few of them a go. In my opinion they will really change the way you write and make you much more efficient.

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Joel Okimoto is a freelance writer and a huge fan of tech.

So You Want to Be a Writer

become a writer

This is an essay by Helen Woodward.

The moment you hint at wanting to be a writer, people will tell you that you write fantastic letters and that you should write a book!

Now there’s a thought. How many pages are in a book? Five to six hundred, give or take a couple. Do you write humorous or serious stuff? Maybe a “how to” pocket-sized piece of wonder or just a bloody good yarn.

After all, if you’re going to write with the idea of strangers reading your work, then it has to either teach them something, make them laugh, cry or put them into shock with revelations you think nobody has ever thought of since the first word was chipped into a stone.

Just how do you get started?

Have a look at Henry Schoenheimer’s “Expressive English”: “A great American humorous writer, Stephen Leacock, was once asked whether writing was a difficult art. ‘Oh, no, he replied, writing isn’t difficult at all. You just take a pen and put down whatever occurs to you, of course,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘the occurring, now that can be difficult.” 

After much deliberation, you put something down on paper and you think, “That’s not bad. I might run that past someone.” Family and friends gush all over you expressing how wonderful you are and, even if your work is appalling, you are heavily encouraged to write a novel. And because of that encouragement you actually think this is a possibility.

You begin work without delay on The Novel, the theme of which you feel has to be dramatic and complicated. Maybe a psychopathic degenerate with no morals can be at the core of your gruesome tale. You throw in the odd line of dialogue so people will be under the impression that you know what you are doing and before you can say, “oops dropped my pen” you’ve written ninety pages of surreal narrative, which you believe will knock people’s socks off.

With a sudden lack of genius, your brain won’t function, not another gory thought comes to your overworked mind. You decide to have a break for a few days; six months later all thoughts of The Novel are forgotten.

The next time you feel the urge to be creative you try your hand at poetry. Little rhyming ditties roll forth on the page and you truly believe you have found your forte in the wonderful world of writing. Six months later, with several large drawers full of poems that nobody wants and your head turning all your thoughts into a rhythmic pattern of witticisms, a straight jacket is the obvious next step.

You need an idea or at least a reader-grabbing first line. In “Working With Words,” E.A. Southwell writes, “Just as a film director with his camera-men can be all powerful, making us see what he sees, so you, when you pick up your pen may take shots for your reader to see; but first you must find something that you really like looking at. For instance, on a blazing midsummer day a cool looking spot is a welcome sight.”

You realize that if ever passion and talent are to be turned into a marketable product then immediate assistance is vital. Learning becomes important and necessary. It’s time to do a course. You are put to the test – and how! You find that your skills are not as good as you first imagined, and you become aware of your inept knowledge of the subject and the importance of getting it right.

“Thirty-nine rewrites are several more than most writers will want or be fully able to attempt, but you should count on revising your work up to half a dozen times before you consider it finished.” – from “How To Get Happily Published”

A solid training regime, although sometimes difficult, opens up many possibilities.

Sweating bullets, you do your utmost to impress, handing in assignments on time all the while thinking, it’s a walk in the park. Until through the correction process you are told that some areas of your grammar skills are incompetent. This causes feelings of inadequacy, and you work harder to meet the tutor’s expectations wondering if they will ever see your brilliance shining through the rubble.

Finally you seem to be doing better and, in fact, you are. Words are being strung together and the sentences are logical. Fiction is a low point for you, however, and once again you trudge down the familiar road of doubt.

The learning process becomes a huge challenge, but you’re in there fighting.

Your latest assignment is returned and you have earned yourself a merit. You are humbled to the core and that low confidence gets a much-needed lift, but mostly you have a strong feeling of hope. Someone did like your work. Someone you don’t know personally. Someone who is not worried about upsetting your delicate ego.

This is exactly what you needed but you also realize there are a lot of cracks in this pavement. So you set about filling them in by tackling them one at a time. The longer you study and do astutely reading of other people’s work, the better your own work becomes.

“You will not get far if you ‘skim’ as many people do, through an article in a newspaper or illustrated periodical. Give it all the attention you can muster; from the first word to the last.” – from “Comprehension and Precis”

In addition to your formal studies, you read all you can about writing and indeed writers. Reference books such as “This Business of Writing” by Raymond Flower become as important to you as your dictionary. You research and plan meticulously gathering useful information. Stockpiling is very necessary.

You discover that fiction comes easier to mind when it is colored here and there with a generous helping of fact. Flower said, “Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was inspired by his sister’s true-life experience of a lost love, which eventually drove her into mental decline.”

This is the kind of fact that makes the transition to fiction a little easier. When you have written all you can, keep writing and eventually you will see a style emerge that is unmistakably you.

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Helen Woodward is an Australian mother of five and has been writing for twenty years. She has a novel in the publishing process and various published articles.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Photosteve

How Early Reading Shapes Future Writers

reading as a child

This is an essay by Emily Ruth Verona.

There are many ways that people come into writing. They are drawn into from different backgrounds and demographics. Some start young. Others begin later in life. There are those that write poetry, fiction, articles, or memoir.

There is no right way to become a writer. I can only attest to the way I became a writer and it started before I knew how to hold a pen.

I write aggressive fiction. My characters are deeply flawed and often unreliable. In school, I studied both creative writing and cinema studies, both of which fed my narrative interest. The films I watch are dark dramas with gritty, often painful conclusions. I’ve even been known to distrust sentiment.

But the first story I ever heard was “A Little Princess” by Francis Hodgson Burnett. My mother read it to me when I was very young, and it was the book I learned how to read on. It is the story of a girl sent to an elegant boarding school. Her life is ideal until she is abruptly orphaned, and everything changes. It is a story about believing in magic. And books. And friendship.

Since then I’ve read the classics, from Jane Austen to Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’ve read contemporary fiction, poetry, newspapers, textbooks, cereal boxes. Still, I am able to claim with confidence that “A Little Princess” is perhaps one of the most endearing novels ever written, and it remains to be my favorite to this day.

Early reading has a way of shaping people, particularly writers. Reading as a kid taught me to know enthusiasm—to recognize how passionate I felt when absorbed in a good novel.

Even before I could construct sentences I started composing stories in my head, and in later years scrawling them in my terrible spelling and illegible handwriting in notebooks. I modeled myself after the books I read. I knew story before I could define story; rising and falling action before I knew there to be terms for such thing.

In a creative writing course, a professor once asked us to define a narrative term and not a single one of us could, because our schools never taught us. They did not turn us into writers. We were drawn into it through reading. It pulled us willingly into its arms and have yet to emerge since.

Novels for children encourage creativity and original thought, both of which inform an individual’s way of reading and writing as an adult. I may not write now the sort of books I read when I was nine, but the evolution of my writing skills based on that early reading have helped to form the writer I have become.

The promotion of reading for young children does not just raise articulate adults; it is a foundation for writers. It changes us, lovingly, irrevocably, and with shaky hands and frenzied hearts guides us along the way.

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Emily Ruth Verona is a fiction writer. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Cinema Studies from The State University of New York at Purchase. She lives in New Jersey.

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.

Spotlight on Productivity: Is it Feasible to Write Daily?

writing daily

This essay was written by Gugu Nyoni.

Almost every nascent writer would frown at the thought of sitting on their desk and getting creative and productive with their writing potential daily. This is largely because many budding writers are saddled with a hectic daily schedule prior to shifting to full time writing, making the thought of writing daily a remote possibility.

Before we get to the core principles that can place you on the track of productivity by ensuring you can churn out valuable content daily, we need to explore reasons why writers need to keep writing daily.

1. Your previous work gets malodorous (fetid).

Just the like in the economy of physiology wherein lack of exercise results in significant loss of energy and diminished optimality in body function, slacking off on your writing thrust will kill your momentum. On the other end, putting your head on the writing craft every single day will galvanize your writing acumen.

Writing acumen, skill and craft are not attributes that can be simply acquired theoretically in a library. Writing is born of a coterie of traits acquired naturally and gradually as you keep writing and reading. Prolific writers know that if you get into the rhythm of writing daily your mind will be writing in the background, in the forefront and even in your slumber.

2. You may lose track of your plot.

Fiction writers will concur that if you get distracted from your writing course it will not be easy picking up the loose ends and carrying the story forward. Anything that prevents you from getting quality time to cogitate and develop your writ in line with your outlined plot and story line is a distraction. A lot of time, thought and intellectual investment goes into quality writing.

If it is a novel, the characters need to toe the line of your plot, what they say and do should articulate your engendered meanings. The scenes, scenarios and chapters of your writ should cohere and flow. This cannot be easily achieved without working hard to keep your head in the craft every single day. How many times have you looked back at some of your unfinished work and thought to yourself, “only if I had completed this piece right then”?

3. Your sales will drop.

If you are making a living off writing, then you need to keep writing to promote your work. Distractions can steal important time and efforts required to get your work to the hands of your target readers. Those plying the cyber space with their written work know that competition in this terrain is just a click away. Once you cease to keep posting to promote your work and up your sales, you will soon slide from your position in the market. Keep writing and posting to create and sustain a profitable buzz about your work and never slack off.

4. You will lose traction with your fan base and followers.

Once you step into the limelight of the writing space, you inevitably garner followers and fans that find your work valuable and subsequently keep tabs on you. This becomes your platform that you should never abandon – more so if you have sponsors and peers succoring your writing career.

In the modern web age, you need to continually make yourself visible to your followers by participating actively in social networks, forums, chats as well as in person. If you neglect these seemingly trivial tasks to just that time of the year or month when you have ample time to do it you will inevitably kill your drive and the value and impact of your platform will diminish.

5. Your followers and your market will forget you.

The writing industry is volatile and as rapid as any other thriving industry. As the cliché goes, out of sight, out of mind.  You need to know that new books, blogs and various materials are published daily; meaning that without active daily participation in this industry, you simple do not exist.

But how possible is it to get into the habit and rhythm of writing daily? Writers normally have cluttered schedules, hence this question is not without a valid provenance.

One of the most important principles of ensuring you write daily is to start off with dedicating about 20 minutes to writing each day.

Find meaningful writing tasks that you can handle within this time slot without shacking up your daily schedule heavily yet. While on this; explore your normal daily schedules and identify activities you could eliminate or cut down on to ensure that your writing endeavor gets a good slot every day. Many successful writers had to give up something in place of writing. You will ultimately give up your 9-to-5 day job anywhere if your attempts pen out positively and you need more time for your writing career.

Let everyone around your living sphere know that you are taking your writing endeavor seriously so that they can leave you to it. This will also get you accountable to yourself for the time you have set aside to achieve something with your writing passion and potential.

If you have explored all these insights and principles and still find yourself stuck with your normal routine it could be that you have finalized your choices at the back of your head and writing has not yet taken top priority in your life. That is fine, but if you are keen to shift into a meaningful writing career, there is nowhere things can change and remain the same. Something has to go and gradually you will grow a promising writing career.

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Gugu Nyoni  is a writer, web programmer, pianist and dREAMAXESS blogaholic!

Photo: Some rights reserved by Charlie Barker

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.