Monthly Archives: January 2014

Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary — then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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Friday Links for Writers 01.17.14

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

As friends around the internet work on finishing a novel or preparing for a book release or jumpstarting a new business endeavor or achieving myriad other goals, lots of us are finding information or inspiration in our weekly reading.  That’s true of the articles shared in this week’s Friday Links for Writers — from an interview with George Saunders to  query advice, these were articles to spark thinking.  I hope you find them useful.

As always, let me know what resonates for you in these links, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite reads from the week in the comments. Best wishes for a great writing (and reading) week!

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The Truth About What Really Matters in a Simple Way

Writer George Saunders seems to earn nothing but praise and accolades — from bestsellers to nods from Guggenheim, MacArthur, Time and the Wall Street Journal, to Best American Short Stories. That was enough to motivate me to add his  Tenth of December: Stories to my Winter Reading List. I enjoyed reading his insights in this interview at Salon.

Why Your Editor Admires You (and Why You Might Not Realize This)

I love this open letter from Roz Morris (a writer, editor and bestselling ghostwriter) which is great inspiration to any hard-working writer, as she puts into words all the work that goes into getting a novel to a polished form.

Query Letter Pet Peeves

In this post, Chuck Sambuchino shares replies from 11 literary agents with the biggest errors they wish writers would avoid in query letters. If you’re a submission pro, this will repeat some advice, but each agent’s comment includes a link to more advice from that agent.

What Do You Want From Your Writing?

A guest post from author Dan Holloway on Jane Friedman’s blog, this post challenges writers to take the time to put into words exactly what they want from their writing.  His guidance makes this more than just vague inspiration, but an interesting introspection.

What Are Grown-Ups Afraid of in YA Books?

For my friends who read, write or market young adult fiction (or are parents or educators of readers), this article on Book Riot presents head-on the controversy that occasionally arises over some YA themes. (As an educator and parent, I have more mixed perspectives: I do think YA authors have more of a responsibility to write what is healthy for a reader, not just what will sell — and that can be hard to restrain with the pressure to get attention in a competitive market.)

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What About You?

What has been meaningful to you in your reading this week? Or what kind of information do you need to reach current goals?  Share your own links of comments below.

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Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on — but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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Friday Links for Writers 01.03.14

Snow lightly drifts onto a favorite summer reading bench. c. Elissa Field.

Snow lightly drifts onto a favorite summer reading bench. c. Elissa Field.

As this post goes live, my boys and I will be watching snow accumulate outside my parents’ 230 year-old house in Fairfield, Connecticut — or perhaps daring to hit I-95 for the long drive back south to Florida.

Being on holiday and then snowed in has been perfect time to luxuriate in long days for reading and writing, lending some great reads to this week’s edition of Friday Links for Writers.

As always, let me know what resonates for you in these links, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite reads from the week in the comments. Best wishes for a great writing (and reading) week!

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Opportunities for Writers: January and February 2014

This isn’t the first time I’ve included a link to Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, as I think it is a great site that is generous and comprehensive in sharing resources for writers — including their bimonthly listings of submission opportunities.  In addition to checking out the link, find Aerogramme on Twitter @A_WritersStudio.

The Red Roadmaster

I was looking for inspiration and actually went scrolling through Writer Unboxed’s website specifically looking for essays by Donald Maass. His words cut that cleanly to inspiration. I bypassed his most recent post to find this one, on effective backstory.

Anthony Marra on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I came across this article in the New York Times while looking for the award Anthony Marra’s novel was nominated for (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was longlisted for the National Book Award) while adding it to my 2014 Winter Reading List yesterday. I “met” Marra years back in an online writers’ forum, and have been thrilled to see the successful reception of his first novel.  This article was interesting as it discusses the connection between research (particularly travel in Chechnya) and the resulting novel.

Giving Up

Okay, obsess much?  Kidding, but yes, this one is also by Anthony Marra — another article I found while looking for info on his current novel. But this article, published at The Rumpus in 2011, may be meaningful inspiration for anyone feeling conflicted about a stagnant project, as Marra shares what he learned by giving up despite years invested on a project.

Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss

Is this one about writing? Not exactly. But this New York Times essay by Chris Huntington is a beautiful reflection on the relative nature of what matters most in life — perfect timing for anyone beating themselves up over goals not met in 2013 or planning what to prioritize in 2014. (It was my favorite read last week.)

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Conference and Workshop Deadlines

Reviewing the January 22nd registration deadline for the AWP Conference at the end of February reminded me that lots of important spring deadlines are approaching.  If you’re considering attending spring or summer conferences, here is my round up from last spring of contact information on many of the great conferences and workshops, including Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Sewanee and more:  2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops

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Admit it: did you think I was lame for claiming to be “snowed in” with the faint dusting in the picture above? That was yesterday. Today we spent the morning shoveling driveways and walks in shifts.  The snow is beautiful and a great treat before we head back south.  Enjoy your winter weekend, wherever you are!

Bundled up and shoveling out to be ready for the drive home.

Bundled up and shoveling out to be ready for the drive home.

Enjoying the snowfall in Fairfield.

Enjoying the snowfall in Fairfield.

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My Reading List: Winter 2014

Watching for snow - perfect time for a great read. c. Elissa Field

Watching for snow – perfect time for a great read. c. Elissa Field

Snowed in on New Year’s weekend seems the perfect time to curate a reading list for the winter months.  This list includes the books I am reading or plan to read over the coming months, as well as a few other notable recommendations.

Have you been inspired by a recent read or have you compiled a reading list of your own?  We’d love to hear your recommendations (or links) in the comments.  At the bottom, find more links for reading resources.

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Recommended Fiction from 2013

  • Alice McDermott, Someone (September 2013).  Folks, help me lower my expectations as I’m really expecting lots from this one (no, don’t really). McDermott has been one of my favorite authors for her nuanced characters, and an excerpt from Someone was one of my favorite short stories in the New Yorker in recent years. Let’s hope the novel measures up.
  • Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013). I can’t tell you my excitement when Marra’s novel was longlisted for the National Book Award, as I “knew” him from an online writer’s forum years back. He is a graduate of Iowa and Stanford, whose writing maturity and complexity have been compared to Jonathan Safran Foer.  I’m really curious to read this novel. From the New York Times, here is an interesting piece on research for the book, and here is a review.
  • Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (October 2013). This one has made it to my “must read” list after feedback from reading friends. My mom was slow to warm, but gripped at the end. Missouri Review editor Michael Nye tweeted me, “It’s a book you want to rush to finish AND don’t want it to end at the same time. That’s rare (for a grouch like me!)”
  • Colum McCann,  Transatlantic (2013). I will get myself to read this… but must confess I’m afraid it might disappoint, which pains me, as he is a favorite of mine. McCann’s writing can feel effortless and powerful (as in Let the Great World Spin or his story/novella collection Everything in This Country Must), but the research level of Transatlantic makes me worry it will have the overwrought weight of Zoli (can anyone convince me to finish reading that one?). Hoping for the best case scenario — I’ll let you know.
  • Amy Greene, Long Man (February 25, 2014).  I am so excited to read this new release by critically-acclaimed writer, Amy Greene (a Southern Living book of the month).
  • Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (October 2013). This winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Canada Governor General’s Literary Award is described as “a breathtaking feat of storytelling where everything is connected but nothing is as it seems.” I’m in.

Other 2013 Fiction on My Radar

Carried Over From My Summer Reading List

Continuing the Challenge: Reading the Books You Always Meant to Read

Middle Grade & Young Adult Fiction

  • Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief (2007). Well, yes, the opening of the film adaptation in November provoked me to pull this one off my classroom bookshelves, where I’d included it based on a passionate recommendation from a colleague (for 12 & up). I brought it home to buddy-read with my 7th grade son, before seeing the movie.  Random plug for an indie bookseller: this book was included on the weekly bestseller list for Village Books of Bellingham, WA. Click the link if you’d like to buy from them.
  • J.K. Rowling, The Chamber of Secrets (2000). I’m re-enjoying this one as a bedtime read-aloud with my sons.

Nonfiction

  • Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel (2008). Not sure if I’ll actually bite on this one, but I’ve heard only great things about this book, which presents writing advice in the negative by sharing “200 classic mistakes and how to avoid them.”
  • Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012). How to sum this book up? I don’t read it as much as, each time I begin to read, it instantly engages me back in revisions to my novel. I am not big on “how to write” books, but Maass writes amazing prompts to challenge structure, character motivation and more.
  • Margaret Searle, Causes and Cures in the Classroom (November 2013). I’m fascinated to read this one, which draws connections between executive functioning and behavior to optimize learning.

Want more reading recommendations?

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What Are You Reading?

I’d love to hear your own reading suggestions in the comments.  Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year or ones on your must-reads list.  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.

Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click book titles for their link on Amazon — or find them at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

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