Monthly Archives: March 2013

March Reading Challenge: The Books You Always Meant to Read

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.

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One of my favorite books is Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Except I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it. I love it because I loved To the Lighthouse. I loved the brave stubborn trust of Virginia Woolf’s sentences. I loved The Hours. I loved film adaptations of Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours.

That counts, right?

Not so much!

When I spotted the poster above — a vintage Chicago literacy promotion from 1936-41, shared by the Library of Congress — on Pinterest, I knew the March Challenge was on.

It’s time to challenge our reading resumes.

March is the month to read the books we’ve always meant to read.

Let’s kick this off, in proper spirit, with a shout out to McSweeney’s for sharing this post: “Feedback From James Joyce’s Submission of Ulysses to His Creative Writing Workshop.” Kudos to an imaginary beta reader brave enough to advise Joyce, “Think you accidentally stapled in something from your playwriting workshop for Ch. 15.”

No doubt, for many of us, Ulysses is poster child of a certain category of “books we’ve always meant to read.”

In my polldaddy survey (click this link to the survey ) over the past month, most readers indicated two reasons for a book they haven’t gotten around to reading:

  1. so many books, so little time – other books took priority; or
  2. the unread book was ominously challenging – like Ulysses.

I have 2 copies of Ulysses, including a completely annoted version, meant to explain all those vexing inside references. Still not sure I ever finished reading.

How About You — What books have you always meant to read?

My challenge this month is just to read Mrs Dalloway. Off to a great start: it’s in my reading stack. Next, if I finish that, might be IQ84.

And what about you?

Is there a book most kids read in high school, except you changed schools that year and missed it? Is there one (be honest…) you read Cliff’s Notes for instead of the real thing?

Is there a famous book you’ve seen several film adaptations of but never read the actual book? All those great Jane Austen flicks, but never read Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibilities? (My favorite is actually Persuasion.) Or Dracula or Frankenstein, or Anna Karenina, all of which lose their subtlety in film.

Or, just as likely, is there a guilty-pleasure book everyone else read and you never did? Bridget Jones? Harry Potter?

If It Helps Get You Thinking:

My books-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read fall into these categories:

  • classics or famous authors I’ve always meant to read: Brothers Karamozov, Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton or one of his older works, Updike.
  • books I’ve seen the movie of but wanted to read the book: Mrs. Dalloway, Life of Pi, The Help, Hunger Games.
  • new-ish books that had to wait in line when I bought other books: see My Winter Reading List for these.
  • books everyone else was talking about but I didn’t read: Swamplandia.
  • writers I love and want to read their newer work: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Michael Ondaatje
  • the great wall of literary intimidation — one or two that seem like daunting reads, for their complexity or sheer size: Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 ; Ulysses; Middlemarch.

What is your obstacle to getting your book read?

Joining the Challenge:

Where? Post in the comments below to let us know the book or author that has always stumped you (and why, if that’s interesting). If you want, share this as a post on your blog (include link to this challenge), and then post the link to your blog in the comments so we can visit your site.

What? No rules about what the book should be. Maybe this is a great excuse for tackling a classic, but there’s no reason you can’t make it the month you read Gone Girl (because it’s your turn for a sleepless night) or Tiger’s Wife (because you didn’t really mean to fake it through the book club chat).

How many? The challenge is to read one, but it’s up to you if you want to read more, or even raise the bar and aim for one each week, or one each month for the rest of the year (honestly, how many books have you been avoiding?).

When? The goal is to post the title of the book you plan to read, then post again to say you’ve finished it by the end of the month. Then we all clink glasses, confetti falls, we cheer and books everywhere sigh.

Can I get fancy? If you want to get festive on your site, you can use the badge for this challenge, which was adapted from a poster in the Library of Congress.

Books You’re Allowed to Give Up On (We Say It’s Okay)

  • If it’s on your list because it’s “a book everyone is supposed to read,” consider why. If you write short stories and it’s a collection by an author whose work became the foundation of story writing, sure, give it a go. If it’s a classic of Southern Lit and you teach literature at Ole Miss, get on it. But if Dante’s Inferno or Madame Bovary aren’t your thing, we say you’re off the hook.
  • Is it a book you bought and never read? Free pass to be fickle: the fact it grabbed you in the aisles doesn’t mean you have to read it now.

This is the month to take on a book you’ve always meant to read.  Let us know what challenge you’ll take on!

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

Thanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing Prompt, Writing workshop

Friday Links for Writers 03.08.13

maximo

Maximo, saltwater croc at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Yes, he’s real. c. Elissa Field

Chomp. Something must have eaten the first week of my March calendar, as this post is overdue.

In fact, two writing distractions have kept me away: one was preoccupation with following posts from AWP 2013 (check hashtag #awp2013 to find lingering conversations from the conference weekend). The other was application deadlines for May and summer conferences.

To that end, I ran a special post last week featuring major writers’ conferences: 2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops.

CastilloSanMarcosAt the same time, I headed north to St. Augustine to tour historic sites in America’s oldest European-settled city on the eve of Florida’s 500th anniversary. Yes, there’s more to Florida than bikinis and snowbirds. From early colonial settlements to the fort to the gilded age to listening to alligators roar… my brain is on overload.

But, lucky for you, this week’s reading yielded some fabulous links. A theme could be “debates” as links below take on topics from writing for free to PR scams to bullying, in addition to writing advice.

As always, let me know what you found inspiring in these or what topics you’d like to see more of.

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Lucrative Work-for-Free Opportunity

Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates takes on the debate of professional writers being expected to write “for exposure” in lieu of pay. In particular, Coates considers the ruckus raised when writer Nate Thayer very publicly rejected a request that he write a piece for the Atlantic for free (his spicy email is included), by reflecting on Coates’ and other writers’ common history of having published for free at various times in their careers. It’s a debate worth considering at a time when it is more easy to publish ideas than in the past, yet often more difficult to earn a living.

The Bad PR Hangover (and How to Avoid It)

In this post at Writer Unboxed, Sharon Bially addresses the services a writer should expect when contracting with a reputable PR agent. She begins with a frank rant about ineffective and even unethical PR approaches that make her “blood boil,” which leads to her “laundry list of must-haves in determining whether the firm you hire to publicize your book is up to par, and in understanding whether it’s doing (or will do) what it should for you.” A great resource, especially for those with a first book coming out.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Research 

When is research part of the hard work of writing, and when is it a time-sucking distraction? Bethanne Patrick offers thought-provoking insight on preventing research from leading a writer “down the rabbit hole” of fascinating tangents that eat away at writing time. Patrick’s own interesting insights are supported by reflections from published writers on whether they research before writing, while drafting, or not until completing a first draft, and more.

How to Stop the Bullies 

This article in The Atlantic caught my eye as it addresses the ubiquitous (and never-ending) conversation of bullying, cyber-bullying and bully-prevention. It is a fascinating read if you are a parent, educator or YA writer — but also for anyone involved in social media, as the writer traces the path of a complaint through Facebook and discusses the developments being attempted in writing algorithms to predict an abusive post.

The Rejection Generator Project 

Friday Links on February 1st shared the endearing Written Kitten. This isn’t that. No, in fact, it’s a bit more like hair of the dog that bit ya. Why wait for that painful rejection on the litmag submission that’s been pending for more than twice their stated response time? Generate your own brass knuckle reply with Stoneslide Corrective’s Rejection Generator Project. Like walking on briars to toughen your feet, you give it your email address and it shoots you a fireball of a rejection. All in fun, of course.

Tweet Spotlight: 2 Agents on Querying

Agent Pam van Hylckama tweeted to a YA writer: “If you just write a good query letter and follow sub guidelines, you are ALREADY in the top 10% of queries” (@BookaliciousPam, Mar. 9). Along the same line, Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary Agency tweeted: “Why it’s important to follow submission guidelines: honoring such a basic request shows a willingness to work as a team w/ agent. #pubtips” (@RedSofaLiterary, Mar. 6).

What did you find in these links that is useful to you? Let me know if you want more on a particular subject, or share your own best finds.

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Shared by the Library of Congress, this poster is from a Chicago promotion 1936-1941. No known copyright restrictions.Did you see my Winter 2013 Reading List? As the list shows, there is clearly no shortage of great new fiction to keep our reading hours full.

But what of books that linger from one list to the next — or even from one decade to the next — and never get read?

It’s nearly time for me to post the March Reading Challenge: inspired by this vintage public service announcement from 1939-41, it’s time to “read the books you’ve always meant to read.”

If you have a minute, please click here if you’d like to share the kinds of books on your 2013 Reading List — including any you’ve always meant to read yet never gotten around to.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Filed under Friday Links, Seeking Publication