Monday, July 28, 2014

So Many Books, So Little Time

As writers, we often hear the same tired advice dragged out time after time. Write what you know. Show, don't tell. If you want to write, you have to read.

Good advice, all, but there are exceptions to those first two -- plenty of them. Writers who stretch themselves beyond what they know often find themselves transported to new and exciting places, which they then share with their readers. And showing is good, but too much showing drags a story down, leaving readers skimming the page in search of action, or at least a promising stretch of dialogue.

But that last one? That bit about reading what you write? It's true without exception. Writers must be readers first.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't read enough. Oh, sure, I read posts on social media. Texts. E-mails. I skim magazines and newspapers and online articles. But real reading? The kind where I sit down with a book and let the world drift away? I don't do nearly enough of that.

This week, I am on vacation. Because of this, I can voraciously and unabashedly read. I always take magazines with me when I travel because I can read them and dispose of them, which means more room in my travel bag for the trip home and less clutter when I get there. I also pack my Kindle with its wide variety of books and samples.

But the thing I look forward to the most (unless I'm in the middle of something really riveting on my Kindle) is the small stack of real  books I take along. Most of them are novels, but a good non-fiction book usually makes it into the pile as well. And when I go to the beach and camp out under my umbrella, these are the books I focus on first.

I read a statistic the other day that said that "57% of new books are not read to completion." I don't know if that's true or not (the chart was bright and clear, but I don't recall a citation), but I must admit to feeling a guilty little twinge of identification when I read that piece of information.

As much as I hate being part of that 57%, I subscribe to the the "so many books, so little time" philosophy. No longer do I feel obligated to finish a book that's not fascinating. The whole thing doesn't have to be entirely fascinating, mind you -- I will also read a book all the way to the end to find out what happens to a character who takes me by the hand and bids me to follow. But something about the book -- the people, the voice, the pace, the story -- must grab me and pull me along for the ride.
And on vacation, the stakes are even higher. I have one week to get in four times the amount of material I can realistically read in that time. If a book doesn't grab me quickly, it gets set aside because there's another promising candidate right there to take its place. (And if there isn't, that's all the reason I need to make a trip to one of the bookstores at the beach). On this trip, I couldn't wait to finish the so-so book by a highly acclaimed writer that I'd started a few weeks ago (the characters bid me follow, even if the story was not as inviting) so that I could get to the ones I'd checked out of the library to read on vacation.
Like most writers, I read what I write, or at least a close approximation thereof. So, when a book in "my" genre grabs me, it becomes more than a good read. It becomes an education.

I love the folks in my critique groups, and the feedback they give me is invaluable. But all of it -- every single piece -- needs to be measured against the books that are succeeding in my genre. If I don't read "what's out there," it's easy to be swayed against my own instincts by a simple majority. If that majority consists of writers who read and/or write in my genre, then the validity of their input is substantial. But changing voice or language or style to match another writer or another genre can be a well-intentioned mistake.

Years ago, I couldn't imagine reading like a writer. Back then, it seemed to me that reading in that fashion sucked all of the joy out of the reading experience. Now, after more than twenty years as a writer, I can't imagine reading any other way. I discard a lot more books than I used to, but when a book succeeds in pulling me in, I revel in it on an entirely new level.

And sometimes, I even get to go back to my critique group and say "I told you so."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Celebrations: You've Got to Have Friends (The Final Installment)

Since you've already heard the stories, I'm limiting this one to (mostly) captions. Beach bookstore signings coming up….more pictures to follow!

I always have fun setting things up, and
the wall at the Gettysburg Starbucks
provided a great backdrop.

A grande (at least!) iced chai is a requirement
at a Starbucks book signing :-)

Don't I look official?

Wasn't it nice of Holly
to dress to match me
at my Bookiversary Party? 
It's hard to believe that Karen and I have known each other for over a
decade…or that our friendship started when our teenagers
were preschoolers…..
With my current neighbor, Lonna...

…and my former neighbors, Joyce & Kimberlyn
(with my sister and brother-in-law in the background).
Saved the best for last. No way I could have done any of this
without my husband, Steve. :-)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading Now in Ten Minutes or Less: The Aroma of a Good Book

Tokyo Milk Paper & Cotton 17 Perfume
As I prepare for my beach vacation, I face the recurring question: paperback or Kindle? I know I'll toss at least one paperback into my beach bag (along with the library book I checked out yesterday), but I also know the lightweight convenience of a Kindle can't be beat when I'm lugging a week's worth of necessities to the car -- or the beach.

R. Nichols Read Candle
Since I'll have the smell of sand, surf and salt air for atmosphere, I won't miss my new book smell on the beach. But would it perhaps be worthwhile to pack one of these for my reading back at the condo?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Word Count Thursday :-p
Posted yesterday's blog ahead of time so I could enjoy a lovely, if hot, visit to Muhlenberg College with my daughter…but forgot my Word Count Wednesday total. Took a bit of a hit with two college visits within the week, but I ended up with 2294. Hoping to double that this week :-)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Writer's Notebooks
I am a notebook nut. In fact, I imposed a moratorium on my notebook purchases after a recent organization of my office revealed just how many brand new notebooks I already had in my possession.

In addition to my new, just-waiting-for-the-right-project notebooks and the many others in various stages of usage, there are three notebooks I use daily.

My Word Count Notebook. I chose an old steno notebook to record my daily word counts when I began Word Count Wednesday last spring. The two-column format is perfect for this: the date and the task go in the left-hand column and the number of words I wrote goes in the right hand column. In addition, I note writing tasks that did not yield new words (such as revisions) in the left hand column. For these tasks, time spent goes in the right-hand column.

This notebook has a place of honor on the right hand side of my desk. I leave it out because its very presence serves as a nudge to tackle my writing and revisions.

My Sprint Journal. Ever since I attended Ramona DeFelice Long's workshop at the Pennwriters Conference in May, I have been trying to do a writing sprint at least five days a week. Ramona advocates sketching each sprint out in a notebook, but pantser that I am, I like keeping my options open, so I journal after I sprint. Weird, I know. Ramona's planning makes a lot more sense from a logical perspective, but I've found that journaling post-sprint works better for me.

I'm repurposing a calendar as my sprint journal, so each entry includes the date, the length of my sprint(s) and the number of words accomplished during the sprint. Because I make sure that I write in my sprint journal daily, this journal also includes what I did on the days I didn't sprint (e.g. class planning, family responsibilities, etc). This notebook is a companion to my word count notebook, and as such, sits underneath the WCN on my desk.

My Catch-All Notebook. Decades ago, when I took my first course through the Institute of Children's Literature, I was taught to carry a notebook everywhere I go to jot down ideas as they occur to me. Decades ago, this wasn't necessary. As I prepare to celebrate my 53rd birthday, it has become essential.

My catch-all notebook is just that -- a little bit of everything. Slightly smaller and much more beat-up than my WCN or my SJ, it goes almost everywhere I do. As a matter of fact, when I make my daily trip to Starbucks, I often have to remember which bag I used the day before so that I can locate it. Right now, it contains lists of boys' names (I am struggling to find character names I like for my work-in-progress), samples of my daughter's handwriting (guess what traveled to a medical appointment with us last week), lists, class planning notes, and partially written blogs…among other things. I buy these basic notebooks three to a pack at Staples when they go on sale because I like the size and the fact that the pages are perforated.

I don't think I'm alone in my notebook peculiarities; I think proper notebook selection is a quirk many writers (and students) share. It's all part of finding the right tool for the job. To some, the overlap among my notebooks might seem inefficient, but it's a system that works for me.

How about you? Are you picky about your notebooks? Big or small? Top spiral vs. side spiral (or no spiral at all)? Lined or unlined?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Surviving Summer To-do Lists

Last Saturday morning, I lay in bed composing my to-do list and listening to the (metaphorical) clock ticking (I have a very quiet bedside clock). It's nearly the end of July, and although I've made a dent in my to-do list, it remains long enough that I know there's more list than summer.

This is not unusual.

Given the fact that it was Saturday, I knew other people in my house would also want my attention, at least from time to time. As my mental list grew longer and longer, it began to seem increasingly unreasonable, so I adjusted my expectations, narrowing my list to a few key things.

While this is all very reasonable and logical, it does little to shrink the actual list, which crouches like a wild animal waiting to pounce just when I'm celebrating presumed progress.
Since I can't add any days to the calendar, I've decided on my own plan of attack in order to preserve the rest of the summer with some semblance of both sanity and accomplishment.

Targeted lists. Within fifteen minutes of getting out of bed on Saturday, I knew I needed to dump the mental list onto paper. I grabbed four sheets of lined paper and wrote a heading on each: WHO, WHAT, WHERE and CP.

  • WHO: the catch-all list for the people I've been wanting to get in touch with to schedule a lunch or coffee date.
  • WHAT: the standard to-do list.
  • WHERE: my errand list.
  • CP: Class planning to-do list, perhaps the largest animal in the zoo), broken down into chapters (to read), lessons (to plan) and other miscellaneous, bite-sized tasks. 
Separating the lists by category made each one a little less daunting, allowed me to break enormous tasks (class planning) down into smaller ones and made it easier to find what I was looking for without combing a complex list for a single item. It also allowed me to put similar items together, which made things more efficient. When I'm leaving the house, for example, I need to check only the "where" list to determine the errands I need to run.

Chunked time. Years ago, a friend told me about the Fly Lady website, which advocates, among other things, tackling things in fifteen minute chunks of time. It didn't take me long to become a devotee of timer-setting, a strategy I recommended freely to my elementary students when we discussed tackling organizational tasks that seemed overwhelming.
One of Saturday's prime tasks was reclaiming my dining room table. Unfortunately, the table contained many homeless items that ended up being relocated to my office until they could be properly sorted and stored. I set a goal of spending fifteen minutes a day going through everything that got dumped in the office until it all ends up where it belongs. Last night, I discovered that what appeared to be a substantial pile on the counter was actually pretty easy to wrangle, and though my fifteen minutes became 35, the reward was well worth it.

Sampling. When the list is long, it's easy to feel as though I'm making progress in one area at the expense of others. Using the chunked time strategy above, I can make a little progress on several things in one day….and by doing "a little of this and a little of that," I get to keep some variety in my day as well. Admittedly, some days call for a dedicated approach to one task, but sampling a few undesirable tasks (and mixing them in with things I enjoy) helps me to make progress on the stuff I don't wanna do.

Flexibility. I admire people who can set a schedule and stick to it, perhaps because I am rarely one of them. I like flexibility for the same reason I like sampling: there are days I just don't wanna do the things I put on the list. When the items are time sensitive, I don't have a choice, but when they're not and a better offer presents itself, there's often no good reason not to move them to another time. And during the summer, better and more valuable offers (e.g. fun family stuff) seem to pop up often.

Armed with my strategies, I'm ready to tackle the rest of my summer. What strategies work for you?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Special -- Celebrations: You've Got to Have Friends, Part 2

When you live in Pennsylvania, launching a book at the end of January is a very "iffy" proposition. Sure, there's always a chance the weather will hold and your launch party won't get snowed out…but if the winter is anything like last winter, the chances of that happening are very, very slim.

I did, indeed, plan a launch party in the middle of February before being scared away from that idea by more snow than we've seen in our area in a long time. In the end, I celebrated with an online book launch party, so it didn't matter if the weather outside was frightful or delightful. I followed that up with a book signing at my favorite local Starbucks…and it snowed. Fortunately, that didn't keep people away.

Then in June, five months after the official launch of my book, I had a Bookiversary Party. Since a picture paints a thousand words, I'm going to stop here and let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Thanks to everyone who attended anything. As I plan more events, I hope you'll keep stopping by, just to say hi, when I'm in your area because no matter where the event is, fun and friends are necessary ingredients.

"Cake" and decadent cupcakes were created by Rise,
a barista at the Randolph Park Starbucks in York.
I'm not the only writer at my local Starbucks.
Rosey, one of the baristas, has a degree
in creative writing, and I got to read a sample
of her novel last summer….
…and Cerella is a Harlequin
Heartwarming author. Her
latest title is The Paris Connection.

I was excited to celebrate with members of my
critique group who knew my story when….
Maggie (left), Judy….
…and Anne.

My sister (and fellow writer), Lori
and brother-in-law, Paul made sure
my family was represented….
Though I've retired from public education, I'm blessed to still
count former colleagues among my friends.
Wendy and Missy were not only among the
first to arrive, but they "tested" my book
club questions (and the edible stones around
the bottom of the cake) as well….

...along with my
sister-in-law, Sue.

…and Dorene & Rick even offered their house
as a location for the party.

Okay, I really thought I was going to get them all in today….but I think maybe I need one more post to get all the pictures in.  Stop back next weekend for the final installment of my party series!