How to Make Somebody Hate Reading

Hurts like the dickensHere’s how to make somebody hate reading: 

Send them to an American high school.

The end.

Hmmm – in proofreading this post, it seems a little short. So maybe I should elaborate.

I’ve seen some statistics floating around the web claiming that one third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds about right, based on how few adults I encounter who still read for pleasure. And when I think about how literature is taught in most high schools, I’m not surprised.

Some background: I grew up loving to read. My parents were both writers and readers, and the library a block away from my house quickly became my second home. But the high school English curriculum did its best to kill my love of reading, and years later, I watched it try to do the same to my teenage daughter.

How? By forcing kids to read books in which they have absolutely no interest, and then analyzing and dissecting those books in a way that A) almost no student will find relevant, and B) completely sucks any possible enjoyment out of the act of reading.

The argument, I suppose, is that they’re trying to teach them to appreciate literature, not just enjoy it. But I think that puts the cart before the horse. Why not try to get them to enjoy books first? Then, with their interest piqued, they might show an interest in a deeper level of study.

Note: I’m not saying there should be no courses that study literature in greater depth. But I feel that level of study should be offered at a voluntary level, for the few who are actually interested. It’s the way literature is taught in required English classes that I’m ranting about.

It was the best of books, it was the worst of books

So what am I bitching about? First of all, the choice of books. The Grapes of Wrath may be a “great” book, but let’s be honest: it’s also a colossal downer. And I suspect most Americans my age have read A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick for one reason and one reason only: they were forced to. Continue Reading »

Should You Read About Writing?

photo by decor plans

photo by decor plans

A writer friend of mine recently moved offices, and in doing so, had to downsize his book collection. He purged several dozen books about writing. Offering them to a group of us fellow writers, he wryly noted, “Take what you want, but remember, if reading books about writing was enough to make someone a successful writer, I would have been published long ago.”

Whether or not writing can be taught at all is an ongoing debate; whether or not one can learn it from books is too. I know many writers who absolutely swear by books on the topic that they feel helped them make a major leap forward in their writing, and just as many who’ve never read a single writing book and do amazing, wonderful work.

As to whether you should read about writing… well, that’s your own choice. There are certainly writing-focused books out there with great content, and I hope people will share their favorites in the comments. But there are plenty of coal-knobs out there with the diamonds, for sure.

So when you’re looking at how-to books on the writing craft, just keep two things in mind:

Most books about writing are written to sell books about writing. One of the books I picked up in my writer-friend’s book purge absolutely insisted that editors at publishing houses no longer edit, nor do agents really have much time to do so either, and only books that are pretty much 100% ready to publish will be successfully picked up for representation and sold. This certainly isn’t my experience; I have yet to hear from a fellow novelist whose publisher, large or small, didn’t give at least some creative input to the manuscript, and I do hear plenty of stories from those whose novels underwent major rewrites after they were bought by the publisher, with positive results.

And who were the writers of this book, whose premise was that editors at publishing houses no longer edit? Why, funny you should ask. They were freelance editors who had once worked for publishing houses, but now sold their editing services and led editing workshops for aspiring writers. Hmmmm. Mighty coincidence, that.

Now of course this principle has exceptions. Continue Reading »

Love Every Word

loveveryword-neoformix04022014Everyone who writes likely has a favorite book (or a hundred). And within those favorite books are favorite passages. My most often-revisited books fall open to specific pages, the ‘good parts’–those which hit an emotional high, or which spark a resonance within me, or even those that had me so completely enraptured in their literary spell that I forgot myself. I have re-read those passages so many times that they have become a part of my writerly being, and the best I can hope as a writer is that someday, someone’s well-loved copy of my book will fall open to a certain page.

Those ‘good parts’ provide important lessons. I am currently revising a project that has been in progress for more than a decade. I have set it aside for years at a time, unable to find the secret magic that would make it what I believed it should be. But this time around, I finally feel like I’ve found the work’s soul. The magic secret was to set only one clear goal in editing–to treat every passage, every sentence, every word, as a ‘good part.’ This requires looking at the work from the ‘inside,’ not the ‘outside.’

In prior attempts to revise this work, I had edited it with various specific goals in mind, all of which had to do with the work as seen from the outside. I was editing to reduce its scale or simplify the overall structure in order to make it ‘acceptable.’ This editing approach was the product of fear and uncertainty. The first (admittedly bloated and awful) draft was roughly 300,000 words. I cut it down to 220,000 and sent it to rather shocked beta readers. I cut some more. I watched other writers’ reactions when I mentioned it was down to 200,000 words, and I became focused on length. I was looking at the work as a product, something to be fit into a package. And it wasn’t fitting. I tried to make it fit, by breaking it into two volumes. But then there was no satisfactory ending to part one. I tried streamlining the plot, cutting characters, but the story lost its heart.

Now, I am doing what I should have done from the beginning. Continue Reading »

How Seth Godin Saved My Career: Lessons a marketing guru taught a literary novelist


Photo by Flickr’s neubda

Our guest today is Deborah McKinlay, author of some half dozen, nonfiction, humor titles, and the author of two novels The View From Here (Soho Press, 2011) and That Part Was True (Grand Central, 2014), a NYT Book Review editors’ choice on February 16th, and one of Parade Magazine’s “Ten Books You’ll Love For Spring.” It has been optioned for screen by the BBC independent film unit.

From New York Times Book Review (Feb 9th, 2014): “When the British author Deborah McKinlay takes us to ‘the depths of the English countryside, in a house that was an advertisement for the English countryside,’ we recognize that a Lively voice — à la Penelope, that is — will be reporting with wry detachment and affection.”

Deborah wanted to write this post because she “managed to find a happy middle (as a writer) after a long, dry patch (I won’t say ending because it’s a long road) and think some of my experience might resonate with people, and hopefully encourage them.” She believes there are a lot of mid-career, mid-life, authors who are feeling pretty lost in the current, increasingly slippery, publishing landscape. They started their careers in one world and find themselves suddenly in another.

Connect with Deborah on Twitter @yourauntlola.


How Seth Godin Saved My Career: Six lessons a marketing guru taught a literary novelist

In May 2010, Garrison Keillor wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the sad demise of traditional publishing – a charming piece, tied up with some winningly written nostalgia. I am a great fan of Mr Keillor’s, I read it nodding. I went on nodding until I was whomped by the following epiphany: I am not Garrison Keillor; a successful, established, fabulously talented author with a New Yorker background, whose op-eds are published in the New York Times. I was, in fact, a mid-life, mid-career writer, scary broke and a single parent. Luckily, these last two facts rubbed together enough to make some sparks. I figured that if the world was changing, it probably wasn’t smart to sit around nodding with the Old Guard. I decided to find out who was riding the forward wave. It was Seth Godin. These were the lessons he taught me:

Join the conversation: I stopped treating the internet as either a postcard substitute, or a portable encyclopaedia. Given that what I do best is write characters, I invented a Twitter persona and started to tweet as her – I still do. One advantage of this was that I could do it anonymously at first, but the secondary appeal was that by tweeting samples of my writing, rather than processes, or other people’s writing, I found some readers. I now have a way to connect with them and, importantly, to figure out who they are. (Not always, as it happens, who I thought they were.)

His advice is, ‘Do anything that won’t knock you out of the game.’ I repeat this to myself regularly – it stops me agonising over semi-colons. I write, I edit, I take a hard look and, if it’s good enough not to embarrass me, I ship. I am often surprised by what sails.

Find a tribe: Seth Godin’s definition of a Tribe is a group who unite around a leader, but don’t simply follow – they share ideas and purpose. I stopped just looking for an audience and had a go at connecting with people who would find each other. I focused my Twitter energy on getting retweets, rather than new followers. Then, I figured that novels might also benefit from some ‘shareable’ aspect. That Part Was True tells the story of two people who correspond about, among other things, a love of cooking. In the rewriting I consciously expanded the cooking element. It is the part of the novel that readers comment on most, contact me about most and ask me to write about most – it’s ‘shareable’.

Ship: I heard Seth Godin say in an interview ‘I ship’. His advice is, ‘Do anything that won’t knock you out of the game.’ I repeat this to myself regularly – it stops me agonising over semi-colons. I write, I edit, I take a hard look and, if it’s good enough not to embarrass me, I ship. I am often surprised by what sails. Continue Reading »

The Arts and Crafts of Writing Fiction

Flickr Creative Commons: Kyle Jerichow

Flickr Creative Commons: Kyle Jerichow

It’s A Bungalow? Are you familiar with the Arts and Crafts Movement? For many “Arts and Crafts” refers to a reproduction Morris chair in their den. For others it might evoke Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style or an antique Stickley dining set. Each of these is born of the A&C movement, but none of them alone does much to define it.

I was as unfamiliar as anyone until we bought our first house. We didn’t know anything about the style, but we liked that it was affordable, well-built and cozy. Turns out it was a craftsman bungalow. Being a history buff, I fell in love with the house and the style. I’ve since come to realize that my A&C ardency has affected my entire writing journey. Perhaps you too are an Arts and Crafts writer and didn’t even know it.

The Meaning Behind the Movement: When I first heard the phrase: “Arts & Crafts,” I thought of hand-knit oven-mitts at a yard sale. Then I came to know it as an architectural style. As it turns out, the A&C movement, born in 19th Century England, did not set out to promote a particular style but rather advocated reform and a critique of industrialization.

Early A&C proponents rejected the ornateness of the Victorian era. A&C pioneer John Ruskin (1819-1900) advocated honest and exposed craftsmanship in architecture. Ruskin’s writings influenced designers like William Morris (1834-1896), who strove to unite all the arts within the construction and decoration of the home, emphasizing nature and simplicity to make it a refuge of beauty and enlightenment. Morris’s influence reached America via popular turn of the century periodicals such as House Beautiful and Gustav Stickley’s The Craftsman.

The Artistic Craftsman:

“Art is not a thing; it is a way.” ~Elbert Hubbard

Craft is about function, measuring success by usefulness. Art’s value is measured outside of utility, and encompasses beauty and emotional impact. If a craft, produced for its utility, can be made to be beautiful or to evoke an emotion without harming its usefulness, hasn’t it achieved artistic value? If so, it follows that there is inherent value in combining arts and crafts.

Proponents of the A&C movement espoused beauty in nature and simplicity of form; craftsmanship through skills gained by practice and dedication. As a woodworker, I feel the most beautiful and functional items I’ve produced are the simplest and most natural. Through woodworking I’ve seen that skills are gained though doing the work. There are no shortcuts.

It’s wise to study and to plan your projects, but a craftsman’s skill is gained through practice. And artistic results are produced by skilled craftsmen. (Is this starting to resemble writing yet? Just checking.) Continue Reading »

Presenting to School Students: top tips

How do you feel about public speaking? Author talks? Writing workshops? If, like me, ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????you’re the introverted kind of writer, more comfortable in the world of the imagination than out on centre stage, that part of the job can be as much ordeal as opportunity. But we all know how necessary those public appearances are, not only to promote our work, but also to give something back to the reading and writing community.

Some of us are naturally talented at presenting, with a bottomless well of entertaining anecdotes and a flowing, easy style. Some are good at it because they’ve worked hard to prepare. I’ve done a fair amount of presenting in the fifteen or so years I’ve been a professional writer, and I still get nervous every time. The easiest audience for me? Romance writers, because although their expectations are high, they are always warm, accepting and interested. The most challenging? School students.

Recently I was a guest at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, an amazing three-day event for young readers hosted by Somerset College in Queensland. I’d been invited to attend the 2009 festival, but my cancer diagnosis just before the event meant I had to cancel at the last minute. I was happy to go back as part of the author lineup this year. March 2014 marked my critical five year milestone for surviving breast cancer.

Although I’m far more comfortable presenting to an adult audience, I found the festival an overwhelmingly positive experience. It was not only excellently organised – a mammoth task for those involved as it is a large-scale event – but also brimming with enthusiasm, creativity and flair. Over the three days, approximately 15,000 students from the region attended workshops and author talks, and thirty-odd writers and illustrators were involved. My sessions were aimed at young adults, but there were workshops and activities for all ages.

It was a challenge to prepare for this event. They couldn’t tell me until a couple of days beforehand whether I’d be speaking to groups of 20 or 200. With small groups I generally include some practical work, but in a very big group that’s unmanageable. The lack of overhead projectors in my venues ruled out using visual images to help hold audience attention. I’m a control freak, a person who finds it hard to do things ‘on the hop’, so this was a real test. But it was also a learning experience, and I came away with some good tips for future events.

Continue Reading »

Why Are You Here?

Mass4It was the best of spring breaks, it was the worst of spring breaks. Two weeks. Yep, my kid’s private school takes off not one but two weeks. Did I mention it was two weeks? In March? When public schools aren’t out? When there’s only one week of sports camp offered? When babysitters–such as but not limited to my wife–are themselves in school or otherwise unavailable?

So, last week I spent five mornings with my kid. He’s six, an only child and easily bored. It was a challenge but I decided to make it fun. We had adventures. One of them took us to the Liberty Science Center, a museum for kids in Jersey City. He loves science. Perfect, I thought.

It was the best of spring breaks, it was the worst of spring breaks. The LSC was mobbed with school groups, loud, raucous and restless. My kid, who is adopted, suffers from PTSD. The noise and milling children at the museum took him instantly back to his orphanage. The effect was familiar: He mentally and emotionally detached from me. He ran from exhibit to exhibit, frantic and unfocused. He could not hear my voice. If I glanced away I lost sight of him.

I asked myself, why am I here? What was I thinking? Trapped in Jersey City. Only a few map miles from home in Brooklyn, true, but in traffic miles an epic journey away. I felt lost, helpless and responsible for a kid who was himself lost and helpless. How could I reach him? He was only a few feet away but might as well have been on the Moon.

Then I remembered why I was there. I love my kid. I love him more powerfully than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. Why is it that? He’s my kid, sure, but it’s more than that. This particular kid owns my heart because he’s so much like me. That’s odd to say since we’re different races and he’s good at math, but it’s true.

He’s a kid who is dislocated. So was I as a kid. It was in ways milder than he’s experienced but the effect was similar. I never felt like I belonged where I was.

I took my kid away from the noisy exhibits and to the cafeteria. We got food. We sat in a quiet corner far away from the school groups. We goofed around. I suggested we go to a movie in the Imax theatre. We saw a movie about the Ice Age, wooly mammoths and their extinction. He was rapt. Afterwards he asked a hundred questions. He’s seen death, this kid, and the movie stirred him in deep ways. He feels like a saber toothed tiger, sometimes, ferociously alive yet like he’s being sucked into a tar pit. I get it. We talked.

My kid and I are the same.

So are you and your protagonist. Continue Reading »

Dear Publishers, Signed (You)

photo by Matt E

photo by Matt E

This is not an April Fools post. But for any office workers out there, I hope you keep tabs on your mouse and question any blue screens of death that might appear while you’re away from your desk.

I’ve had some interesting correspondence lately with folks in the publishing industry. Not my publisher, not anyone associated with The Moon Sisters. These folks asked to pick my brain about what authors feel about the current state of traditional publishing.

Why me? Because of you. Because of Writer Unboxed.

If things progress, I’ll reveal everything down the road, but for now I want to talk. With you. Because I’m only one author, and we are many, and if I move ahead with this I want to represent all of us.

If you had the opportunity to talk directly to folks in publishing, and be heard, what would you want to say? What works in traditional publishing today? What’s fractured or broken or lost? And most importantly, if something isn’t working, what might be done to fix it? 

Be heard. Be constructive. Be unboxed. And be honest, even if you have to comment anonymously or prefer to do so via email.

Please use the “like” button if others’ comments resonate with you, too. (I know that button is a little touchy lately, by the way, but it’s still working, even if doesn’t seem to be registering your “like” right away.)

Thanks, everyone. See you in comments.

10 Tips about Process

to do list Atro Ydur

So recently, when guest speaking at a college creative writing class, I was asked for ten writing tips I’d like to pass along to students. My first impulse was to run screaming from the building, but, when I thought more about it, I realized that the one sure thing I’ve gained in knowledge is an understanding of my own writing process, something I didn’t have a clue about while working on my first two novels.

Today, I thought I’d pass those tips along. I’m not suggesting you adopt them, just telling you what works for me. After you read, I hope you’ll share some tips of your own.

1. Ask the question, but don’t necessarily answer it: “What if?” is almost always the question that inspires my stories. As I work, I usually find that this initial, situational question leads to a deeper, more philosophical one, which becomes the theme of the novel. I don’t try to answer that deeper question. I don’t presume that I could. I hate to see the ego of the writer in a story, and I’m not fond of stories that tie things up too neatly. Certainly plot must be resolved and characters must arc, but I believe that writing and reading are collaborative, and I leave the larger question for my readers to answer for themselves.

2. Write a mess of a first draft and never show it to anyone: The initial pages I write are almost always discarded, but somewhere among them, I discover the beginning of my story. The first draft is where I begin to hear the voice of the main character and allow myself to follow her for a while, never knowing where she might lead. If I thought I had to show those pages to anyone, I’d probably stop writing. I think first drafts should be messy, like finger painting. When I finally finish the book, I burn them. Continue Reading »

The WHYs of Book Club Questions

Photo by SomeHoosier

Photo by SomeHoosier

We’re thrilled to have Mollie Lundquist of LitLovers here today, who describes herself as “an English teacher gone mad.” LitLovers grew out of an online course she taught a few years ago. It was so much fun, she decided to go public.

She says:

LitLovers has brought together my lifelong love of reading, writing, and teaching. The site is about WHAT we read, HOW we read, and HOW we THINK about our reading. Approaching literature in that way can change how we see our lives and the world around us.

It’s my hope that readers everywhere will come to the site again and again to explore, learn, and have fun.

Follow Mollie on Facebook or on Twitter.

The WHYs of Book Club Questions

So. You’ve finished your book (check), found a publisher (check), gone through the editing process (check), and myriad other steps. You’ve reached a sense of cosmic completion. Om….

But then your publisher-publicist-agent (and even your mother) tells you to write Book Club Questions. Wait. Book club questions? On top of all the other hoops you’ve had to jump through?

Let’s step back a bit.

No less an arbiter of style and trends than The New York Times quipped in a recent headline, “Really? You Aren’t in a Book Club?” The “book club boom is nationwide,” says The Times, citing five million as the number of Americans belonging to local reading groups. That number doesn’t include the millions more (25 million for GoodReads alone) who meet online.

As an author promoting your book, why would you ignore an audience so immense and influential?–Influential, because book clubs talk with one another. Just ask Kathleen Grissom, author of Kitchen House.

With an initial print run of 11,500 copies, the book didn’t get traction right away…. In an era when digital buzz is considered crucial to launching books overnight, it was old-fashioned book-club word-of-mouth that prevailed. The book is in its 21st printing, with 254,000 copies in print and 152,000 e-books sold. — The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2012

Continue Reading »

March Roundup: Hot Tweetables at #WU


As March comes to a close, I think those of us in northern climes have found ourselves singing Let it freaking go, Elsa! We’re done with winter! But much writerly goodness happens when it’s cold outside. This month we’ve seen publishers engage directly with consumers, women’s issues become popular topics in novels worldwide, and the rise of crowd-funded bookish projects, including a bar and bookstore. Of course, there’s so much more. Take a look at this month’s top tweets:





Continue Reading »

Thank You Writers

Isn’t that old fashioned.

Spending hours.




Dare I say, years.

Creating. Honing. Crafting. Editing. Exploring.

One’s own purpose. One’s craft as a writer. One’s ability to understand who they hope to reach, and how. And what they hope the effect of that connection will be. The legacy of the work.

Old fashioned to send a thank you letter in the mail, instead of merely “favoriting” a tweet.

To send a long email response to a Facebook post.

To ask to meet for coffee instead of having a phone call.

To focus less on gaming an algorithm (be it Amazon or Google), and more on publishing when it makes sense to you, the author.

To measure value in generations, not daily sub-genre bestseller lists.

To become AWARE of trends, of tools, of new opportunities, but not allow them to drive all of your actions. To balance the new, with the old, in a way that is personal to your challenges, and your goals.

To realize that “best practices” are often simplified lists of things that work only 30% as good as they used to.

And that enthusiasm is a better driver for action that skepticism.

That the demons you must battle to create and share your work lie less in understanding the ins and outs of metadata or social media or blog tours, and more in the bad habits you won’t give up, the excuses you cling to because they protect you from ancient fears.
Continue Reading »