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

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

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

Good and Bad Movie Versions of Books Create New Readers

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

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

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

Movie Versions of Books Alert Readers

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

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

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

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

Three Things Game of Thrones Can Teach Non-Fiction Writers

game of thrones reading writing

This is an essay by Rhonda Kronyk.

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

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

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

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

Here’s how to do it.

1. Understand your characters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Setting matters.

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

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

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

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

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

3. The plot has to make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Some rights reserved by Douglas Brown.

Sounding It Out

reading aloud music in reading

This is an essay by John Kilhefner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Some rights reserved by Rima Xaros

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

don't like to read

This is an essay by Taylor Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Some rights reserved by Evan Bench

Cheating on Your Genre

cheating on your genre

This is an essay by Susan Sundwall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

short stories

This essay was written by Amarie Fox.

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

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

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

A Building of Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer of Stories

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

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

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

Future

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

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

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

Some Recommendations

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

1. The Elephant Vanishes: Haruki Murakami

2. The Tent: Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

7. Cosmicomics: Italo Calvino

8. Ten Little Indians: Sherman Alexie

9. The Complete Short Stories: Ernest Hemingway

10. Collected Fictions: Jorge Luis Borges

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

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

Photo: Some rights reserved by julio.garciah.

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

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

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.