Friday, August 10, 2012

Written From Experience

Quite often, the writing process is overlooked while reading. How many of us think about the author while we're reading one of their books? But writing is what bonds author and reader, even for such a short time as it takes to read a book. Without it, there would be nothing to read. Every reader may not be an aspiring or current writer, yet the art of writing is so integral for that reading experience to even happen.

So, what exactly does writing entail? How does one become a writer? I thought it would be a good idea to get some opinions from writers who have experience with this, to get their perspectives on it all. It turns out they're a pretty insightful bunch...

   Have you always wanted to be a writer?

JOHN GRISHAM: "Writing was not a childhood dream of mine. I do not recall longing to write as a student. I wasn't sure how to start."

HUNTER S. THOMPSON: "As things stand now, I am going to be a writer. I'm not sure that I'm going to be a good one or even a self-supporting one, but until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says 'you are nothing,' I will be a writer."

  What are some things that every writer should know?

W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

MARK TWAIN: "Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

E. B. WHITE: "Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar."

  Writing isn't always the most successful profession. How do keep your job from seeming like a means to an end? Is it always about the money?

STEPHEN KING: "Like anything else that happens on its own, the act of writing is beyond currency. Money is great stuff to have, but when it comes to the act of creation, the best thing is not to think of money too much. It constipates the whole process.

MOLIÈRE: "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money."

   Where do you get ideas for what to write?

RAY BRADBURY: "My stories run up and bite me on the leg - I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off."

JULES RENARD: "The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it."

ERICA JONG: "I write lustily and humorously. It isn't calculated; it's the way I think. I've invented a writing style that expresses who I am."

   Getting started is sometimes the hardest part when it comes to writing. Any advice?

ROBERT FROST: "I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering."

BEATRIX POTTER: "There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they'll take you."

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

   What would you tell someone who hasn't had much success with their writing?

RAY BRADBURY: "You fail only if you stop writing."

STEPHEN KING: "You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you."

   What are your thoughts about writer's block?

JEFFERY DEAVER: "I've often said that there's no such thing as writer's block; the problem is idea block."

R. L. STINE: "I have a cheat-sheet for each one of my characters about their personality, the way they look, etc. So there is no possible way that I could have writer's block."

JODI PICOULT: "Writer's block is for people who have the luxury of time."

MARY GARDEN: "My block was due to two overlapping factors: laziness and lack of discipline."

   What can you do when you don't feel like writing?

DESIDERIUS ERASMUS: "The desire to write grows with writing." 

AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS: "The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It's not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work."

  Some young writers aren't sure if they have what it takes. Are there things they can learn, or is writing only for those with innate talent?

TRUMAN CAPOTE: "Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."

GUSTAVE FLAUBERT: "The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe."

TONI MORRISON: "I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can't teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort."

   What does writing mean to you?

ISAAC ASIMOV: "Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS: "When I stop working, the rest of the day is posthumous. I'm only really alive when I'm writing."

   How do you determine what to put into a story?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: "If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

NORTON JUSTER: "When I'm writing, I write a lot anyway. I might write pages and pages of conversation between characters that don't necessarily end up in the book, or in the story I'm working on, because they're simply my way of getting to know the characters."

KEN KESEY: "When Shakespeare was writing, he wasn't writing for stuff to lie on the page; it was supposed to get up and move around."

  Any advice for aspiring writers?

LILLIAN HELLMAN: "They're fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves."

* None of the people listed above were actually interviewed by me. I take no credit for any of the quotes spoken by them.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Share Your Books!

I'm a book hoarder. If there is anything I have too much of, books are it. Multiple bookcases are crammed into my small bedroom, all of which are stuffed two rows deep with novels and sagging from the weight of them. There are shelves on my wall and above my desk that are filled to the brim with paperbacks. I have books in thigh-high stacks along the floor of my room and piled on my nightstand. The backseat of my car has books strewn across it, and there is even a growing pile of books on the half of my bed I don't sleep on.

All of that to say: I have more books than I know what to do with. Now, I'm not one to buy a book and read it just once. I know plenty of people who do this, and I have nothing against them. I just find too much joy in reading a book I've bought to discard it after only one read! But there are obviously books in my collection that are not being read. I may be a quick reader, but I'm not that good. So what do I do with those neglected books? I don't want to get rid of all of them. Yet, it feels wrong to let so many of them sit there whenever I'm not reading them. There are a number of things I do to solve this problem:

1. Donate

I have to admit I'm not very good at this one. I'm loath to part with many of my books. But then I'm reminded of those who can't afford books of their own, or libraries in need of some new inventory, or schools who don't have funding for more books. So, every couple of years I'll do a purge where I give away a portion of my collection. While it might seem difficult at first, it's really not. There are some books that we keep more for sentimental reasons than anything else. If you've grown out of a book, donate it. If you haven't read the book in over a year, donate it. If you haven't read the book at all since you bought it a year ago, definitely donate it. There are so many people who would love to read your old books!

2. Lend

Many of my friends consider me their personal library. They'll ask me for book recommendations, or come over and pick some books from my collection. It's an easy way to share my love of books, and it allows my friends to save some money. This way, my books are getting read and I still get them back once my friends are finished. Just put a name label inside of your book and it's ready to lend out. Not to mention, you'll now have someone new to discuss the book with!

3. Trade

Most towns have at least a few used book stores. I can guarantee almost all of them will have a trade system. You take in books you don't care to keep anymore, and the owner will take the ones they'd like to add to their shop. In exchange, they will either give you cash or store credit (usually credit). With credit, you'll be able to get books from their store! It's a nice way to make a few bucks or get some new reads, just from trading in some of your old ones. I've been trading with my local used book store for almost six years now; not only have I found some gems in the store, but the owner tends to give me extra credit for being a regular customer. You can't beat the hospitality of your local businesses, so go out and support them!

4. Pass It On

A few years ago, I received a letter from a friend. It had a short note and five address labels, one of which was hers. The gist was, choose 5 books you own and send them to those people. Then send out a letter to 5 friends with new addresses, one of them your own. It was a little network of book lovers who could share books with each other. What was even better was that this network was an ever-growing group as labels continually got spread around. also has a method of passing on books and connecting with other readers. You print a label with a specific code on it and stick it in inside your book's cover before selling it/giving it away. As the book gets passed on, people can put in the code on the website and you can track its travels across the globe! These are just a few fun ways to get some new reads and pass on your old ones!

There are so many other ways we can share our love of books, too. Keeping a book collection isn't bad, but there is a lot of joy in sharing it with others! Take a few minutes to go through your old books and find a way to give back. It's so very worth the effort.

What are some ways you share your books?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ella Minnow Pea - A Novel In Letters

Have you ever taken your vocabulary under serious consideration? Statistically, the average person only uses about 3,000 words on a regular basis. Out of the approximate 60,000 words people are likely to know relatively well, that's not a lot. To make it worse, many people find themselves accustomed to a limited vocabulary in some sense. Some choose not to curse or swear. Others may speak entirely in slang or refined speech. The term "word poverty" has been thrown around recently in regards to the fact that many English-speakers do not employ a majority of the language in their everyday speech.

Even so, how often do we take the time to think about what we say before we say it? "Think before you speak" is a well-known saying, but is usually used in reference to what you say, not necessarily with which words you say it. I definitely struggle with taking the time to think about my speech before it comes pouring out of my mouth. Certainly, I rarely take the time to ponder over my vocabulary unless I'm writing a term paper. It's just not something we are forced to think about on a regular basis.

Now, imagine something a little more challenging: using words made up of only particular letters of the alphabet. Take the letter e, for instance. It is the most commonly used letter of the alphabet, and I've already employed it twenty-four times in this paragraph alone. If I took it away, I'd definitely have to take the time to consider my word choice and how else I might write what I am trying to convey to you.

In Mark Dunn's book, Ella Minnow Pea, he creatively engages such a challenge among the residents of the fictional island of Nollop. The island, named after Nevin Nollop (supposed creator of the pangram, "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"), is a rather picturesque place that has not been permeated by such advanced technology as computers or phones. In fact, the people there immerse themselves in the liberal arts and are quite passionate about the elevation and refinement of language.

But this happy setting is soon turned on its head when the statue of Nollop (underneath which are tiles that form the aforementioned pangram) in the town square loses one of its letter tiles. The island's council takes this to be a sign that the fallen letter should be removed from all written and spoken language. But, as more letters begin to fall, and the consequences for using the banned letters become more severe, the island soon finds itself under a plight of serious authoritarianism. To keep their entire language from becoming obsolete, the community must produce a pangram that is shorter than the one of Nollop's creation before time runs out.

The series of events leading up to this dilemma are portrayed in Dunn's book through missives between various characters. As more letters fall, Dunn omits them from the correspondences, creating an intellectually intriguing story with rich vocabulary and witty characters. Not only does he explore the expansive abilities of the English language to convey meaning, but he also delves into the potential ability our language has to alter a society's entire belief system. It would be a sad day when our words were censored not only for their content, but also for the letters that make them words to begin with. But this is a challenge the citizens of Nollop face, one which has intriguing solutions.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book when it was first published in 2001. I was drawn to it because of the interesting way it was written, with missing letters and multiple meanings behind what was said. But considering I was eleven at the time, I don't believe I fully understood all of the political and social implications the book covered. When I reread it recently, I found those aspects just as intriguing as the literary facets of the novel, prompting me to write this post.

While this book may not suit everyone's taste, it brings up a number of interesting issues that we don't encounter every day. It's also a short and easy read - at least until you have to start deciphering letters at the end that contain worse vocabulary and spelling than the average text message. I would definitely recommend this book to you, or at least ask you to consider the words you are using and what impact they truly can have.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How to Buy a Book

Buying a book can be hard for even the most seasoned readers. You might end up spending more money than you would make in an entire week or, even worse, you could buy a book that really wasn’t worth the time and money you spent on it. In order to avoid such traumas, here are a few problem areas you can bypass completely, just by being prepared.

1. Assess your budget.

I know that when I am buying books (whether the shopping trip was planned in advance or a spontaneous urge when passing a store) I have a bad habit of blowing my entire budget on the purchase of an enormously large stack of books. For myself — or any other passionate reader, I'm sure — a bookstore is heaven on earth, and there is no price that is too much to pay for a good read. However, this isn't the local library where that huge stack of books has absolutely no influence on your bank account. While those book prices may have seemed like a reasonable bargain at the time, there is nothing less rewarding than the realization that you don’t have enough money to make the gas light in your car disappear because those exalted green slips of paper have just been exchanged for the white and binded sort.

So, how do you prevent such unpleasant dilemmas? The first step you must take is to assess your budget. How much money do you have to spend? You need to decide this before going into the store. You don't go grocery shopping when you're starving, because everything looks amazing. It's the same concept with books. You have to walk in knowing exactly what your limit is to prevent the inevitable urge to binge on the first shelf of paperbacks you come across. Once that step is completed, you have an even harder decision to make: how much money are you able to expend (without completely destroying your budget)? The difficulty comes when you are forced to separate the ideas of what you want to spend and how much you can afford to spend. It's a difficult task, I know. Sometimes the answer is even heartbreaking when you realize that a new hardback just isn't going to make it into your hands this month. But once you’ve determined your budget you are well on your way to a few relaxing hours in another dimension.

2. Consider your options.

When setting out to buy a book, you want to analyze your prospective purchases and decide on what you’re really looking for. Planning ahead may seem entirely pointless (and unless you’ve got a specific title and author in your mind, planning may fly out the proverbial window once you’ve arrived at the bookstore), but it does tend to lead towards less time spent in the store and more time enjoying your books. I understand the joy that comes from simply walking along the rows of books with no set plan in mind. The unique mix of solitude and fellowship that books provide is a peaceful quality many bookstores offer. Why else would they have plush chairs to curl up and lose oneself in?

Only, at the moment we're not talking about the experience. We're trying to get the best possible read from limited means. So, you have a few choices to make: you have the chance to choose from a variety of sources and follow whichever path seems most appealing. Generally, books tend to be classified by whatever subject can be related to another book. These subjects are grouped in opposite pairs (fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary, education and recreation, comedy and tragedy, etc.), making your selection process much simpler in the long run. Find a genre that appeals to you and go from there. If you have an author you know you like, looking up authors or books that are similar is also a safe way to find a book you'll enjoy. Since books may also be purchased used, you have the additional option of expanding your original budget and doubling your amount of purchases should you choose to buy books that aren't new.

3. Brace yourself.

The trick is to go into the store focused on what you want and ready to face the bombardment of what psychologists refer to as subliminal advertising. Merchants know your mind, they know what sells, and they are ready to throw anything at you in order to convince you to buy their book. You’ve already fought half the battle in deciding your budget and choosing the general layout of your purchases. Now is the time to stick to your plan and find the books worth buying.

There are just a few things to keep in mind while perusing (or rushing through) the books at your store. First of all, don’t be fooled by sales. While buying one book and getting the next half off is certainly a good deal, those books are not always what you’re looking for. Be ready to do a bit of digging to find a good catch in that section. You shouldn’t settle for a mediocre read just because it fits well into your budget.

Second, try to focus on what you want, versus what looks nice. Bestsellers are definitely going to catch your eye when you enter the store, but if you constantly convince yourself that a book must be good because someone else says so, then you’re in for a rude awakening. You might want to consider that book after you’ve gone through the initial list of books you know you want to buy. That way, you won’t find yourself at home wondering why you thought that new book was more important than the newest installment of the series you’ve been following.

And finally, don’t be afraid to hold back. While I am certainly guilty of handing over my money to a bookstore without a second thought, there is something to be said for the person who is able to resist the urge to buy more books than they should. Only buy those books that you are certain you would come back for if you had, say, forgotten your wallet at home. Those are the ones truly worth spending your precious money on, and they are the books that will satisfy your urge to read (at least, until the next paycheck comes around).

4. Pay attention to details.

Don’t forget to keep a list of those mediocre books you considered in the store and eventually passed up. After all, what did you think libraries were for?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Expression > Suppression

I recently had a debate with a friend about types of suppression, so I thought censorship to be an appropriate topic for today's blog post. I'm sure at some point in our lives we've all encountered some kind of censorship. While it is easy to believe that we are more free nowadays than ever before, many aspects of our lives are still partially in the hands of others. Some censorship we take with a shrug of our shoulders and a blasé attitude, such as movies or songs that are edited in public forums then produced in their unrated format elsewhere. Then there are some that more people feel obligated to  resist; this is especially apparent in political and military spectrums.

But one particular form of censorship that worries me, one which I believe too many have begun to tolerate, is the banning of books. Books have been banned for countless reasons throughout history; this is nothing new. Yet, despite the many freedoms we fight for in our country, more and more people seem to think that they have the right to put their own boundaries on freedom when it involves literature. Schools do it to students, parents do it to children, the government does it to people...where does this end?

Now, let me make a distinction. I can already see some of you jumping our of your chairs in outrage because I mentioned parents censoring books their children read. They have every right to censorship, right? I mean, children don't know their own minds until the exact second they become an adult at eighteen. I hope you all can read the sarcasm. I agree that some texts are more age-appropriate than others and that parents should use discretion for when their children are exposed to them. But their children should still be exposed. Deciding whether a book is suitable at a certain age and bowdlerizing a child's literary experience are two very different things.

I remember wanting to read Dave Pelzer's A Child Called "It" when I was eight years old. It was all over the news at the time and I, being an avid reader, felt I should see what all the hype was about. When I asked for the book for Christmas, my parents did not get it for me. Instead, my father gave me To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a book that remains my favorite novel to this day. The book came with an inscription inside of the cover that read, "To my dear daughter: I realize this is not the book you asked for this Christmas, but I felt you should read about the good in people before you have to deal with the bad. I love you very much. Merry Christmas." While I did not get the book I wanted (and didn't wind up reading it until I was in 9th grade), I appreciated my father for being honest. Now that I am older, I can certainly understand why my parents thought an eight-year-old was not ready to read a book that involved severe child abuse in a very real and non-fictional form. I did not understand this at the time, but I accepted it. Why? Because my parents did not try to hide it from me, or censor it. They confronted it and, while still making the decision for me, did it in a way that respected my right as a reader.

Many parents and schools do not take the route my parents did. They ban books for any reason under the sun. If their authority on the matter is opposed, guess who most often wins the battle? It is a sad truth, one which not only infringes on rights but dilutes the knowledge which we are trying to instill in our youth. What does it say when we encourage them to seek knowledge, but then limit the resources from which they can learn? That is essentially what is being done. I couldn't possibly begin to delve into all of the ludicrous reasons that have been produced for officially banning a book; there are too many to discuss. However, I can guarantee that you would be shocked by some of the books that have been banned: books with strong literary merit, books you read when you were younger, even the dictionary itself. Although we can argue that some hearts are in the right place when they are doing this, it's still wrong. Not only that, but by banning a book, many are petitioning to have it removed from a curriculum, local library, or bookstore. It is no longer a personal choice - doing this can lead to the book's removal from all places in as large an area as an entire district. By forcing its removal, people are encouraging local stores and libraries not to buy it, which in turn can lead to it no longer being published at all. The chain of events moves from personal censorship to public suppression.

Since 1982, one week each year (beginning the last week of September) has been dubbed "Banned Books Week" during which people try to raise awareness of book censorship. Libraries around the country promote "challenged" books of the past and encourage people to read a banned book. Also included is a list posted by the American Library Association (ALA) of the top banned books of that year. For last year's Banned Book Week, the ALA posted the following:

"There were 348 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2010, and many more go unreported. The 10 most challenged titles of 2010 were:
And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group
Lush, by Natasha Friend
Reasons: drugs, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group
What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint
Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit
Twilight (series), by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group"

While I'm sure I am not alone in finding some of the reasons legitimate in the context of society - I do not support racism, drug abuse, etc. - I do not consider them reasonable excuses to ban books. I don't believe there exists a reason to ban books. We are far from being able to extinguish book banning entirely. But by making people more aware of it and the effects it can have on our society, I think we are taking a big step towards a future of literary freedom.

Ray Bradbury famously said, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." His words are full of truth and the application is simple: do not let others determine what you read or don't read. Make that decision of your own account and it will be one of the best choices you ever made. I urge you to look up a list of banned books on your own and choose a book from it you would like to read. Read that book. Protect that book. And protect our right to read those books before our next generation of youth finds themselves in a society akin to Oceania (George Orwell's 1984).

What book were you surprised to find on a banned book list?


For those of you who don't know, Technorati is a site where you can register your blog. It's kind of a database of blogs, if you will. I'm using this post to verify my account there, so feel free to check it out and claim your blog if you write one! :)

{ 8FTK82GSNEP9 }

Friday, July 6, 2012

Happily ever after?

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Happy endings are only found in books." It's a pretty cynical way of looking at life, but let's run with it for a moment. If you take fairytales, trashy adult fiction, or even a typical teen novel, you're likely to find a clichéd ending where the guy and girl have fallen in love, circumstances have changed in their favor, and they live...well, happily ever after.

We're taught as we grow up that, should any story begin with the telltale words, "Once upon a time..." a happy ending is to be expected post haste. In fact, nowadays there are many people who wouldn't pick up a book if it didn't have some suggestion of a possible romance or relationship. But does this expectation of eternal happiness, this semi-unreasonable ending, water down a book that could be potentially notable? Does a story need only a beatific conclusion to capture its readers' hearts? Is a juicy romance what we really yearn for, and therefore what we seek to find in the books we read - books that can provide the happy endings not always found in life?

Now, I'm not averse to a good romance. In fact, I enjoy books that end well; I get a feeling of resolution when stories have those tidy endings where everything works out and the characters probably lead content lives beyond the end of the novel. It's a good feeling. But I don't think it's a necessary feeling. A good author appeals to our emotions -  all of our emotions. An author should be able to make you feel giddy on one page and heartbreak on the next, but that shouldn't be where it ends.

As I have mentioned before, the magic of writing is that it opens up another world for you. And, while the story may not be real life, the characters should still seem real. Unless you're reading a science fiction novel that includes a race of mindless robots, or a thriller filled with brain-dead zombies, you should expect characters to have a range of emotions that goes far beyond love and a zeal for romance. Some of the best books out there give you those feelings and take them away. Why do we still love those authors after they've just raised our hope, crushed it, and then helped us move on? Because they did all of those things successfully and you feel a sense of contentment for having experienced it with them. Nicholas Sparks and his fondness of killing off major characters after we learn to love them is a perfect example of this. There is so much respect to give an author who can connect you so strongly to a character that does not really exist.

It's true when they say that it's easier to smile than to frown. The same goes for the emotion - it's easier to feel happy, giddy, or in love than it is to feel depressed, hopeless, or scared. A book that encompasses all of these emotions should be cherished just as much as one with just the former, if not more. I dare you to pick up a book this week that does not have a guaranteed happy ending. Find a story with an undeterminable conclusion and expect the most from it - you may be surprised by what you find. Happy endings are not bad things, but limiting yourself to that particular type of novel can be detrimental to your experience with the printed word. So challenge yourself with something a little different and let me know how it turns out!

What's your stance on happy endings?