Sunday Morning Reading

Because I’m a creature of habit, and because my body has no idea how to sleep in just one morning a week, I’m typically up and about by 6:30 on Sunday mornings, just the same as every other day. The difference is that I don’t go for a run (unless my schedule has been interrupted during the week), I don’t do work before I’ve had breakfast–which I’m happy to delay until later in the morning as long as I can get my hands on some coffee, and I refuse to make lists of all the things I could be getting accomplished. Instead, I sit in front of my computer and cruise around for things that catch my eye.

When I was a kid, Sunday mornings meant breakfast, church, and then home to the Sunday New York Times. As I grew older there was less church going, but the paper remained a staple, covering most of the dining table and a good chunk of the coffee table as my parents sprawled with its different sections. I, inevitably, read section 2 (the arts section), and the Book Review. Those were the days when the paper was entirely black and white, and the newsprint still coated your finger tips within a matter of a few pages. I would read the reviews from cover to cover, despite having little interest in many of the titles. I liked books, all books, just on principle, even if I wasn’t about to pick up a hulking political biography or some scientific doorstop at the age of ten.

Later I added the magazine section. I would gamely try my hand at the week’s crossword, and get quite excited when I knew any of the answers. I would read William Safire’s column on language–first as an assignment from my 9th grade English teacher and later because I enjoyed it. By my senior year I was poking at a few more sections, checking out what was happening in the world. I never read the paper from start to finish–the business section bored me to tears and I had no use for real estate–but I skimmed and/or read a pretty good portion of the rest of the paper.

Then I left for college in Chicago, land of the Tribune. I didn’t particularly like the Tribune. It was in color, for one thing, which struck me as wrong. I suspect part of my disinclination to read it also came from the overflowing reading list I had of course materials, and a stubborn need to read for pleasure (this means novels) even during the school year when there was little time to do so. As a result, my paper reading fell by the wayside, though I would still venture out to the bookstore on the odd Sunday and pick up a copy of the New York Times. I was loyal. And I missed the Book Review.

After I had moved home and started working, I’d read the paper sporadically, picking it up a few days during the week and then again on Sundays. When I worked in finance, I read it more faithfully, and suddenly that business section made a lot more sense to me than it did when I was a kid. But I couldn’t help but notice that the price of the paper kept going up, while the paper itself kept shrinking. The Sunday edition, in particular, felt much lighter than it did when I was in school. I suppose I could claim it was like everything else that seems to shrink as you get older–a matter of perspective–but my parents agreed that there just didn’t seem to be as much news in the newspaper as there was a decade earlier.

Moving to Los Angeles cured my addiction to the New York Times. This had nothing to do with the quality of the paper, or any superiority of LA’s own daily, The Los Angeles Times. Rather, it was a combination of financial considerations and the availability of the paper online. I was jobless at the time, just starting to freelance, and watching every penny. This meant that I was getting almost all of my news and information from the internet (courtesy of my $19.95 a month dial-up connection) rather than shelling out hard-earned cash that could otherwise go toward things like groceries. I had every intention of renewing my regular paper reading habits once I was solvent, but it just never happened.

I could say that I’m to blame for the demise of newspapers, along with many other people just like myself. But the reality is, if I read more of the paper, I would buy it. These days, I hit the various newspapers’ websites once a week at most, and then only when I’m following a link. Much of the information available at these sites is also covered elsewhere, and their print-on-paper editions feel thin and unsubstantial for the money. This morning I briefly considered taking a walk to the corner coffee shop and grabbing a copy of the New York Times–but I didn’t feel like dropping $10 for coffee and the paper, which I would have, given the out-of-town surcharge.

So far today I’ve read about the Navy SEALs killed in Afghanistan, the riot in London, and the Verizon strike. But I’ve also read Tom Lutz’s excellent story on the recent layoffs–of book reviewers–at the LA Times, and what that means for journalism and books in general; Sherwood Smith’s blog post, A Mill Pond as Wide as the Sea, about female versus male slang and gender attitudes in Jane Austen and other writers of her day; and several posts from the August edition of Bookslut. This is Sunday reading according to personal interests, the pick-and-choose method of self-education. Reading online allows one the breadth that cannot be achieved through a single Sunday edition of a major metropolitan newspaper. It is reading for the remote-control generation, we who constantly jump to the next thing of interest, searching for kernels and tidbits. The internet caters to all interests at once, something a newspaper could never hope to do in this age of budget cuts. Is the attraction that I’m reading for free? Ultimately, I don’t think so. If I could pay just for what I read, as opposed to shelling out for an entire newspaper and reading only 2-3 articles, I would gladly do so. I am, after all, paying to access the internet in the first place, even if that money fails to trickle down to those offering content. For me, the attraction is the diversity of information, and the ability to read extensively on the subjects that interest me most.

I do not claim that no one reads deeply anymore, though this is an accusation that has been bandied about with increased frequency. I agree that the internet has helped to shorten our attention spans by encouraging us to leap to the next thing, but it does not stand to reason that we are thereby incapable of sitting still and getting absorbed in something longer: an entire newspaper, a great book, a long film. Of course we can. And Sundays, at least in my mind, are designed for that sort of leisure reading or lazy movie viewing. Sundays are the perfect excuse to curl up with a mug of coffee and a fat novel and ignore the computer for a while. But life is busy and keeps moving faster, which makes those Sunday hours all the more precious. Whatever grabs my attention for a Sunday on the couch has to earn it.

Breakfast is over, e-mails answered, and I’ve taken my peek into the world at large–as depressing an activity as that can be. I’m ready to step away from my computer, top off my coffee, and settle in for a few hours of blissful reading. My choice for today? Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which has been sitting on my nightstand for two weeks, anxiously calling my name.

Work in Progress

Every writer has a work in progress, whether it’s something they’ve completed and are now revising, a partial manuscript, or an idea that’s just beginning to germinate like a small seed in the ground—you may not be able to see anything quite yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t busy growing and spreading and becoming. It could be said that a piece of writing is never quite finished. Many writers have a difficult time knowing when to stop. They continue tweaking, rearranging, cutting or adding; you hear stories of books that get altered between editions because the author simply had to change a few (or many) bits. But how does this process work? What, precisely, is a writer doing once the story has already been told?

I’ve been thinking a great deal about this stage of things, which is basically craft. After the story is written, plot holes plugged, motivations assured, pacing polished—the writer needs to take a good look at the actual writing. Are these the best words? Do sentence structures vary? Is this format really working for the subject matter (though this one you would—I hope—determine earlier in the process)? This stage, I believe, is where many writers lose patience. They skip it entirely, deem their manuscript ready to go out into the world, and then are surprised when no one beats down their door to publish it. A great story is important, but so is how you tell it. Otherwise, anyone with an idea could be a writer.

Bookstores are full of volumes that give writing advice. Many of them are basic, some of them are useless, but there are definitely books out there that can help you work on this phase of your craft. Some books focus on just one aspect of writing—such as characterizations—while others take a more soup-to-nuts approach. Even those geared toward beginners, if well written, will continue to offer advice to more skilled authors.

There are books I (and just about everyone else) always recommend: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer are excellent. I recently discovered Jeff Gerke’s Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction. But my favorite new find is The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long. Long tackles all those aspects of craft that are so important, and she does so by asking you to try new skills on bits of your current works in progress—rather than assigning writing prompts or exercises that have nothing to do with your own projects. This shows an understanding of the working writer’s schedule; not everyone can drop what they’re doing to work on something with no immediate practical application. The book is geared toward writers of creative nonfiction and shorter fiction, mostly because those examples were easiest for her to include in the text, but all the exercises and lessons can be applied to other forms of writing. The essay structures, in particular, are useful for anyone who blogs regularly. (Please note: I have no affiliation with any of these books or their authors.)

It goes without saying that you should also read other types of books—books in whatever genre you write, books that might be considered your competition, books for research, books to stretch your mind. But don’t gobble them up; take your time and really look at the words, sentences, structure. Read to learn what the author did (or didn’t do) to draw you in and make you feel, to put you into the world of the characters, to help you suspend your disbelief. Do the words set the mood? Does the rhythm of the sentences add to the story? Look at the pieces as well as the whole.

Writing is a wondrous activity because you never get to the end. This is not a static career, where you learn the steps and just keep doing them. It’s a constant challenge, with new ideas and skills around every corner. It is a work in progress with no deadline, and no completion.

Happy Book Day!

A big congratulations to Shannon K. Butcher, whose BLOOD HUNT, book 5 in the Sentinel series, hits stores today. How’s this for gorgeous cover?

Hope appeared out of nowhere, naked and alone, a woman without a past. The only thing she knows is that she is imbued with a strange power. It’s in her blood. And two men want to posses it. One is Logan, a Sanguiner demon-fighter who needs Hope’s essence to survive. The other is Krag, a Synestryn lord whose desire is to enslave Hope, and drain her of the lifeforce. When Hope and Logan both fall prey to Krag, a powerful desire grows between them. But is it enough to thwart their captor’s diabolical plan and his demon warriors, and survive a vampire’s destiny written in blood?

If you’re looking for a fun, sexy read for a hot summer day (or chilly winter day, for our friends to the south), be sure to check it out.

Links to Kick Off the Week

Happy August, happy Monday, and happy insanity. I’m looking at a crazy day, so I offer up some links to entertain you all while I go off and try not to get killed by the landslide of paperwork. If you don’t hear from me in a few days, please send a search party.

Write 15 Minutes a Day! — YA author Laurie Halse Anderson is hosting this writing challenge at her blog, encouraging newbie (and not so new) writers to put in 15 minutes a day. She’ll have prompts and thoughts on writing all month long.

Scared Straight: Writers and the New Happiness — An interesting essay that looks at the old myth that writers had a propensity for madness and drug abuse that allowed them to soar to heights of creativity, and at how modern writers seem to have shifted to the new healthier outlook that has become more acceptable in society.

The Paris Review interviews — An archive of the literary magazine’s interviews with authors through the decades. This is a great collection and inspirational resource. If you haven’t checked it out before, I highly recommend it. Also, not online yet but still in stores: the current (summer) issue of The Paris Review has interviews with Samuel R. Delany and William Gibson, both of which are excellent.

Why to Take Notes — Author Kevin Brockmeier offers a list of things people said to him at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop between 1995 and 1997 (in chronological order). Very amusing, and a good example of why it pays to jot things down.