On Holiday Reading

Anyone who has spent much time visiting this blog knows I’m a sucker for seasonal reading. I love matching some of my reading choices to the time of year, and of course Christmas begs for this sort of treatment. As an adult, my favorite reread in December is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but I’m also happy to cherry pick from a volume of Christmas stories or delve into something new. Romance readers know that this time of year brings a wealth of holiday-themed romances, both novels and anthologies, because romance goes so well with winter activities such as sleigh rides and ice skating and shopping for the perfect gift for that special someone. Young adult fiction has a handful of holiday choices, too, and of course, children’s books provide the most plentiful selection, with books about Santa Claus or Hanukkah traditions, holidays from different countries and cultures, or holiday mishaps.

Do you pick up something special to read this time of year? What are your holiday favorites?

Writers on Writing: Ian McEwan on Finding Confidence

Day 20 of the December Writing Challenge, and you’re just about two-thirds of the way through the month. So many of you are still going strong, writing away each day, and I’m so proud and excited that you’ve gotten into the groove. In case you’re feeling a little discouraged or like you’re the only one dragging yourself to your computer on some of these busy December days, I’ve got a short-but-sweet video below to help remind you that all writers face the same challenges. So keep your head up and your fingers on the keyboard or around your pen. Happy writing!

Writing in the Face of Distractions: Day 19 of the Challenge

I am sitting at my parents’ kitchen table. My mother has the New York Times spread out next to me. My father is floating around somewhere. At the moment, all is quiet, and so I’m taking the time to post here for all my December Writing Challenge folks, as well as anyone who has tried to get a little work done in the presence of family members.

Writing with a person or people as a distraction might be the ultimate challenge. I can tune out the radio or the TV, construction noise from outside, ambient sounds from strangers in a coffee shop, and even an annoying bird chirping loudly outside my window. But what do you do when someone starts to talk to you? Your mother or sister, your child, your spouse? They have something important to say. They want your attention for some bit of trivia. Or, as is often the case with my mother reading the paper, they just want “to read this one thing to you.”

Now, my mother knows I’m working right now. I explained to her that I had to post for my blog, and that’s why I showed up at the table with my laptop in tow. I’m not on Twitter or surfing websites. I’m writing. So far this means she hasn’t felt the need to read to me from the paper. The only thing she has said since I started was that it sounds windy outside. Honestly, this, for my mother, is surprising restraint. When I was in high school, she was known to stand in my doorway and tell me things while I was working on homework, and having my nose in a book is an invitation for her to come chat at me. I am fair game at all times.

However, I explained what I needed to do. How much time I needed. And she’s respecting my wishes. So if you need to get a few minutes of writing done today while family is around, try telling them straight up that you need half an hour to get something done. Children may have a harder time with this concept, but try explaining to the older ones and showing them on the clock when you’ll be finished, then stick to that promise. With smaller ones, try finding a small project for them to work on (or, I’m sorry to suggest, a half-hour holiday special to watch) and set them up to do their “work” while you do yours.

Writing with family at home or in town for a visit can be one of the more difficult aspects of creating through the holidays, but it is possible. If you can’t steal the time away to do some writing on your own, explain to the people around you that you just need a little bit of time to finish one important thing. They might surprise you with how cooperative they can be.

Now it’s time for me to let my mom read me that one thing she’s been marking with her finger between two pages of the paper. Have a wonderful weekend, and happy writing!

Friday Links: What Will You Read in the New Year?

Happy Friday! It’s a week until Christmas and day 18 of the writing challenge, and I think that calls for lots of Friday Links. For those of you planning ahead to the new year, I’ve got some reader challenges for 2016 in the mix, plus plenty of other goodies.

If you’re participating in the challenge, remember to post some writing time to your calendar this weekend and set up your alerts to help you keep those all-important writing dates with yourself (or your writing buddies). Wishing you a wonderful weekend of productivity and holiday enjoyment!

Neil Gaiman on Returning to ‘Sandman’ – A lovely interview over at NPR.

I Read 50 Books by Women of Color This Year – One reader’s recounting of her self-imposed reading challenge, with some great book recommendations.

Take 2016’s Ultimate Reading Challenge – Courtesy of PopSugar.

Making Creativity a Habit – Artist and author Danny Gregory talks about showing up every day to make your art.

The Best British Novels of All Time – A list compiled by foreign critics. Do you agree with their choices?

In Translation – Author Jhumpa Lahiri talks about writing in a foreign language.

The 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge – Back for its second year.

14 Brilliant Australian Books that Won Prizes in 2015 – Some books to check out if you’re looking to read more globally.

Flash Fiction: Saying A Lot in a Small Space

There’s an old adage, attributed to many, about the speaker writing a long letter because he lacked the time to make it shorter. This can be said about a number of formats, including fiction. Short work can take more time to craft than something twice as long because each word must be made to work harder, and there’s no room for fluff or filler. Flash fiction, which typically runs under 1,000 words in length, certainly falls into this category to some extent, but if you normally tackle novels, flash fiction might end up feeling like a nice little vacation.

Those of you participating in the December Writing Challenge have reached day 17 (hurray!), and may be looking for a little break. Or perhaps you’ve been switching up your projects all along. But have you given flash fiction a try? Whether you’re part of the challenge or just looking for something to spark your creativity, flash fiction might be worth your time.

If you’re new to flash fiction, consider checking out a few helpful sites to read some examples of these micro works. Keep in mind that different venues impose slightly different word counts to the format, so if you want to write your own, you should investigate before submitting your stories to make sure your particular flash fiction meets a publication’s parameters.

Literary Hub has recently posted A Crash Course in Flash Fiction, providing a list of great short stories to introduce you to what’s out there.

Author kc dyer has been hosting a Flash Fiction Festival on her blog for the month of December, with a new story going up each day, featuring both her own work and guest writers.

Flash Fiction Online features flash fiction between 500 and 1,000 words long, in any genre.

Brevity features very short nonfiction.

Many other publications include flash fiction along with a range of longer stories, so if you discover you enjoy reading them and/or have a knack for writing them, you’ll find plenty of places to indulge your interest. Good luck, and happy writing!

On Reading in Translation

One of the wonderful things about both writing and reading is they allow you to open yourself to new thoughts and experiences, to delve into the minds of other people, to immerse yourself in other cultures and fantastical worlds, and to truly discover how truth can be stranger than fiction. To write well, you must crawl into your character’s head space, and when reading a well-written book, you have the chance to do the same courtesy of another author’s efforts.

Ann Morgan recently set herself the task of taking her reading efforts to the next level by attempting to read a work in translation from every country in the world in a single year. At a time when there is so much discussion about representation and diversity in the publishing industry — and in the world at large — her self-set challenge feels appropriate and yet still impressive. Morgan shares both the joys and the difficulties of her year of reading the world in the following TED Talk.

New Year’s Prep: Writing Goals for 2016

We’re nearly half way through December, and by now I hope many of you have discovered how capable you are of putting your writing high on your list of priorities. No matter how busy you are, you should be able to find the time to do those things that are truly important to you. It can be so easy to fall out of the habit, even with something we want to do, but if you write daily — even for a short while — you keep that momentum going. Not only do you feel good in the moment, but when you reflect back on the year, you’ll see that you’re finishing 2015 in an excellent, productive way.

This week is the perfect time to start reflecting. Did you set writing goals for the year? How did you do? Was there a particular part of the year where you felt you went off track? What things did you accomplish that maybe weren’t on your original to-do list?

Why do we look back? There’s plenty of advice saying you should just look forward and not dwell on that past, but I believe you can only move forward successfully once you’ve assessed your previous actions. That doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up for perceived failures; we all fall down on the job occasionally, or have something that doesn’t turn out the way we imagined it would. The key is to take inventory and see what was in your control, and determine a new plan of attack for the future.

Once you’ve thought about the past year and your accomplishments, you’ll be ready to set goals for 2016. I don’t like the term resolutions. They bring to mind weight loss ambitions that die out by mid-February. Instead I believe in setting goals and then laying out a plan.

So, a few things to think about this week as you go about your business:

What are one or two year-long goals you’d like to achieve pertaining to your writing? These should be sizable and consist of actionable steps that you can break down over the course of the year. If you’re part of the way finished with writing a book, your ultimate goal could be to have it out on submission to agents, something that can be broken down into finishing the draft, revisions, writing a synopsis and pitch letter, etc.

Are there smaller goals you can set deadlines for at different points during the year? For instance, something you plan to complete by the end of January, or the end of March? Aim to send out a specific number of query letters by a set date, or spend a month learning a new-to-you social media platform or useful computer program. Not everything needs to start on January 1st, either. You might want to participate in NaNoWriMo come November, for example.

Don’t make every goal directly related to publication and becoming a professional writer. Allow yourself to set some fun goals, or to learn skills that have other applications as well. Aim to treat yourself to a weekend getaway somewhere you want to visit that might be a setting for a future book. Try your hand at writing in a different genre or format as a side project, just to see if you enjoy it.

Think ahead for bigger goals that might not take place this year but which require some advance planning. Do you want to attend a certain writer’s conference but feel it’s too costly? Put it on your goal list for 2017 and start saving now. Would you like to visit your editor in New York City when you finally get a book deal? Again, that might require you start setting aside a bit of money.

Stay flexible. Remember, these are your goals. You are making them for your own benefit, so you don’t need to answer to anyone or explain yourself if you don’t complete them all in the time you set. Sometimes things take longer, or less time, or you decide that you’d rather do something else entirely. You only have to answer to yourself, and only you can determine if a goal is important to you.

These ideas should just get you started. You’ve got a couple of weeks before the new year kicks in, so spend a few minutes each day considering what you’d like to do with it. Be a little ambitious. Let yourself stretch. Reach for a couple of stars. You can do it.



More Holiday Gifts for Readers and Writers


In years past, I’ve posted some fairly extensive lists of suggested gifts for the readers and writers in your life, or that you might want to hint about to people wondering what to buy for you. This year I’m being a bit more low key about it, as I’ll admit I’ve not done as much scouting for cool writerly stuff recently. Last Friday I posted a few links to some great gift lists other sites have compiled, and today I’m going to share some of my favorite items to round them out. Please note, this is not a sponsored post, merely a list of items I personally have used/read/found useful.

Writing Tools

Writers write, so it’s a no brainer to pick up something they can write with. This can mean stuffing their stocking with an entire box of their favorite everyday pen from the stationery store (I’m fond of the Pilot Precise V5 extra fine, personally), or investing in a lovely refillable pen that they’ll cherish for years to come. Many writers are members of the cult of the fountain pen, and the sea of colorful inks they can use, but there are also rollerball and ballpoint pens that come with nice gift boxes and refills available. I recommend Goulet Pens for their enormous selection, informational videos, and excellent customer service, but an online search will also net you the name of your nearest stationery store that stocks pens and pen supplies.

If you’re looking to gift your favorite writer (or aspiring writer) with a new writing program for their computer, check out Scrivener. Many authors swear by this multi-faceted program that allows writers to compile their story in any way they wish — linearly, piecemeal, etc. — and include research, references, and inspirational photos all in a single file. The program is available for both Mac and PC, and can be found at Literature and Latte, along with helpful video tutorials.

Whether a writer prefers to write longhand or on the computer or a combination of both, they can always use a pocket-sized notebook on hand to jot down ideas or bits of information when they come across it. I love these little Field Notes notebooks. They’re sturdy enough to take a bit of throwing around, but not so precious that you worry if a corner gets bent or the cover gets a coffee stain on it. They come with your choice of interior — lined, plain, or graph paper — or you can purchase a combo pack.

Books for Writers

I’ve a few go-to writing books that I recommend when asked or during presentations. This year I’ve added a new favorite to the bunch: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. It’s a quiet little book that’s part memoir, part advice for how to navigate the challenges of a creative practice.

A similar-yet-different book that I’ve recommended for years is Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. See comes down more on the advice side of things, with a number of practical tips for writers regarding things to consider before they even get a book deal.

For a book that focuses more on craft, check out The Making of Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante. This big, detailed book includes both exercises and readings, just as you might expect from a Norton book of this type.

More General Books

Whether you’re looking to give a book to a reader who just reads or one who writes as well, book subscriptions or mystery boxes can be a fun way to go. Book Riot currently has a book package on offer featuring four of the best books (by their estimation) of 2015, all of which they believe have flown somewhat under the radar (meaning it’s less likely someone’s already read them all). The book also includes three bookish-items (think tote bags, magnets with book covers on them, etc.). They also have a seasonal subscription that features a new bookish box quarterly, and a second one focused on young adult books.

Or create your own! Pick a few of your favorite reads from the year and assemble a box with some other bookish treats — tea and shortbread, a fun bookish bag, a small reading lap, etc.

Other Odds and Ends

If you don’t want to go the obvious route (reading and writing), think about some of the other things a reader or writer might appreciate. My favorites include:

Coffee or tea: One or the other is likely to please. Make up a nice gift basket or fill a stocking with an assortment pack.

Gift certificates: For a massage, manicure and/or pedicure, or anything else that will ease them after hours at a desk.

The gift of time: Promise them a break to read or write while you take their kids out for the day; provide them with a professional housecleaning; or give them a long weekend in a nearby inn or hotel, either to relax or to get their manuscript done.

Play for the Day: Day 13 of the Writing Challenge

Sundays can be hard days on which to motivate, especially during the holidays. Whether or not you prescribe to a religion that considers Sunday a day of rest, it seems to be the one day of the week when things slow down a bit. Depending on where you live, stores might be closed (though less so during the holiday season), banks and municipalities certainly are, and it feels like a perfect time to sleep in, linger over brunch, and ignore your to-do list.

Writing does not need to feel like a work task you have to cross off. Just because you’re attempting to write daily, does not mean you can’t approach writing from a Sunday angle if you’re feeling a bit resentful of the goal of putting down new words. If you read yesterday’s post, you know that this challenge invites you to mix things up, to write on different projects if the spirit moves you. But not everything has to be a project with purpose. Even if you owe something to an editor, it can be refreshing to take a day now and then to write for play instead, just to keep your imagination sparking and to prevent burnout from setting in and throwing you off track.

If you’re feeling tired, if writing seems like the last thing you want to do, give yourself a break today and find a way to write that refreshes you instead of taxing your creativity. Put on a piece of instrumental music you love and jot down a paragraph or two about how it makes you feel. Take your journal to a café and people watch, and write down bits of their conversations. Doodle a list of rhyming words in a notebook and write a stanza or two of funny poetry using some of the rhymes. Don’t worry if it makes complete sense — just be playful. Write about a holiday feast — realistic or fantastical — and all the wonderful dishes being served. Think Dickens’s Christmas Carol or Harry Potter or Dr. Seuss. Don’t worry about where any of these things fit into the big picture of your writing. Consider them exercises, mental gymnastics, or creative stretching.

Give it a go and see what you come up with. Remember, all the words count. Just spend a few minutes writing and let your imagination roam. And tomorrow, you’ll be ready to tackle the scene that’s giving you trouble or figure out where your plot’s gone off course. Enjoy, and happy writing!

On Writing Multiple Projects: Day 12 of the Challenge

Welcome to day 12 of the December Writing Challenge! Are you looking for a little inspiration? Maybe something new to write about, or just a break from your current work in progress? Remember that ideas are everywhere, all you need to do is ask “What if?”

Maybe you’re on deadline, in which case it’s likely you’re committed to working on the project that’s due. But if not, there’s no reason not to mix it up occasionally. Many of my clients have “secret projects” they’re working on bit by bit, something other than their primary novel. Or maybe you want to try your hand at a different format — essays, articles for publication, poetry. If it keeps you motivated and stretching your creative brain, it will help you turn up to write every day.

The video below includes the oldest known footage taken of New York City. Even if you don’t write anything with an historical setting, you might find something that sparks a fresh idea. Enjoy, and happy writing!