Category Archives: reading

The Great Book Cull of 2015

So the husband and I are moving into our New Chicago Condo this week. Moving sucks for everyone, but it really sucks when you’re a book lover. Seriously, if we didn’t have books we’d have ten boxes and a few couches to move. (Okay, that’s hyperbole, but you get the idea.) We ditched a lot of books when we made the move to the Second City, and I’ve culled even more during the moving process. It’s an odd feeling. Anyone who is a book lover can attest that books are friends. Lovers, even. They keep you company on cold nights and hot vacations. They open your mind–if you let them–and allow you to see the world in new ways. The good ones stick with you long after you’ve bid them good night. The great ones keep you up all night until you’ve finished.

Going through a book collection is akin to going through old diaries. Oh, this is from my Dean Koontz phase. Oh, Tess Gerritson–I read her when I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. Brust–ah, yes, Brust–I got into him when I first moved away from classic epic fantasy. This shelf is full of books written by friends. This one includes stories written by me. The collection a visual (and a heavy, pain-in-the-ass-to-move) representation of the my journey as a person, and more recently, as a writer. Some of them are easier to part with than others. Some I’ll never give away–the Harry Potter series, my Stephen King collection (including a copy of The Stand that has been read so much it’s falling apart) (yes, I know it has a duex ex machina ending, I don’t care, I love that fucking book so much), the Wheel of Time series. But the Tess Gerritsons, some of the Dean Koontzes, the Patricia Cornwells? Those are going in the donation pile.

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Creating Something Out of Nothing

So I’m in the middle of a staycation from the day job, which means I finally have large chunks of time to devote to writing/editing projects (and, who are we kidding, watching West Wing). I’m working on the next Origins Game Fair Library anthology. The stories are great and so the work is enjoyable. It just sort of struck me today as I finished one of the stories: two months ago, this story didn’t exist. These characters didn’t exist, their situation didn’t exist, I didn’t have any clue about any of them. And now, today, I’ve been moved by fictional characters. I care about them. I care what happens to them. All of the stories I’m reading are set in the future, on asteriods and in space ships and on other planets. Alss of them feel very real to me.

Yes, this is due in large part to the skill of the authors and their deftness with words. For whatever reason, today I’m reminded that writers just make shit up in such a way that readers believe it. It’s … sort of magical, when you think about it.

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So right now I’m neck-deep in 1920’s Chicago research, and I have to say I really, really like it. This is almost a new concept for me. I don’t usually do much research for my novels and stories (with the exception of my stories for the Crimson Pact series, which follows the demon-fighting antics of sequential generations of women). I’ve never been a big history buff, either. I get confused about dates and motives and what the heck started World War One anyway (yes, I know Ferdinand got assassinated. I can’t tell you why or how or what that actually did to destabilize everything).

Prohibition-era, though … that’s where it’s at.

The era in general and gangsters in particular have always fascinated me. I’ve always been intrigued by the notion that folks who operate outside the law have their own moral code and rules for enforcing that code. And the fashion! I love flapper dresses and mary jane shoes and long necklaces. Doing the research now is giving me all sorts of ideas, and once I sit down to write the outline I’ll probably have to hold myself back from putting it all in one book. That’s what sequels are for, right?

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Is there a “right” way to read?

So a few days ago on Twitter someone got a little fired up about the way books are marketed. Specifically, that some books would be labeled “beach” reads, as though there were specific times of the year to read a particular book. I subscribe to that notion, and so I said so. I explained that for me, summer books were quick, fun, sometimes fluffy reads while winter books were meatier and required more concentration.

He replied, “That’s ridiculous.”  

I replied, “No, it’s not,” and left it at that. In general, I avoid arguments on social media. It’s been bothering me, though, and so I’m writing a post about it.

I’m not bothered that he disagreed with me. I’m bothered because his “that’s ridiculous” response implied (to me, at least) that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to read books.

Listen, if I want to read novels with no substantive plot other than “I like this boy” during the summer and dark, dreary literary books that are Frought With Meaning during the winter, that is my perogative. If I want to read the ending first, that’s my choice. Maybe I do it the other way around because that’s what works with my work/life schedule. If I want to read five books and once, I get to do that. Maybe I read short story anthologies during the week and read novels on the weekends. If I only read scary books during the month of October, that is my right. You know why? BECAUSE THERE’S NO “RIGHT” WAY TO READ A FUCKING BOOK. I would go so far as to say that the ONLY wrong way to read a book is to not read the fucking thing at all.



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Enduring Characters

I’m a huge fan–huge!–of the television show How I Met Your Mother. It hits a lot of my triggers: great humor, geeky references, emotional honesty, and offbeat story structure. The actors have done a great job of bringing their characters to life, and now that the series is coming to a close, I’m getting a bit maudalin because I’m saying goodbye to old friends. I’m sad that I won’t be spending time with these characters every week. Sure, I can do a Netflix binge or catch reruns on cable, but it’s not the same. I’ll still laugh at the jokes and get teary-eyed when something emotional happens, but I won’t learn anything new about the characters.

Real, fully-fleshed characters are what separates books and stories that endure from those that don’t. Prose and humor and action and gripping plotlines have their place, but characters are the glue that holds everything together. Great characters can bolster a not-so-strong plot. A relatable protagonist can bring light to a dark tale. Characters give readers a reason to give a shit. We re-read books to reaquaint ourselves with the people, not because we’ve forgotten the finer plot points of a book.

Focus on characterization and the rest will follow.

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A New Adventure

So I’ve been invited to start a new writing gig (I’m going to stay quiet about just what that gig is until it’s offical and such) and I’m excited. I’m a bit stressed, too. While the pay is minimal, the potential exposure will be nice, and I’ll get to flex my critical-thinking-about-literature muscles. It’s one more thing on top of an already busy schedule, and that stresses me out a little. The nature of the content stresses me out, too, but we’ll get into that more once I make the gig public.

I want to say more but I don’t want to jinx the gig. You understand. Perhaps this should have been a “writer’s superstitions” post.



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Reframing reading

Reading: I love it and I never read as many books as I would like. Last year, I upped my reading by first, vowing to read books instead of blog posts, and later, by listening to audiobooks instead of podcasts.

That still leaves me with a big stack of unread books. It’s mostly a virtual stack, but they nag at me. I’ve recently reframed the way I think about reading, though. Instead of “I want to read this book and this book and this book…” I’ve been aiming to read at certain times–not just before bed, but at dinner, weekend breakfasts, and thanks to audiobooks, while walking or cleaning.

This sounds kind of stupid when I write it out–who gets stressed out by unread books?–but thinking about it as just something to do, instead of a project to complete, gets rid of the stress and guilt of all those lurking books. Plus all those half-finished nonfiction books “count”.

Good thing, too, because you won’t believe how many good books I can check out in e- or audio form from my library.

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Oral Fixation

This post is not about what you want it to be about.

Chicago has a robust storytelling community–shows where people get in front of a crowd and tell a true-life story–and I finally decided to take the plunge. This past Wednesday I took part in Story Lab, which is really conducive to rookies in storytelling like me. I told the story about the time I almost fell off a bluff the summer before fifth grade. I’ve told the story to people over the years, but it’s usually over a pint and it takes about three minutes to tell. Now I had to take up six to ten minutes and do it in front of strangers.

The group of six storytellers gathered a few weeks prior to tell our stories and get feedback from the group. It was much like a critique session for writing–beef this section up, restructure this section a little bit, maybe focus on this concept more so the ending hits harder. I got some really great feedback that I incorporated into my story. Much of it dealt with craft, like pacing, focusing on tension, etc. I sort of rushed the story when I told it to the small group, mostly because I was nervous. The fact that I was nervous in front of six people didn’t bode well for me; what would I do in front of seventy? Also, I was going “off-book,” which meant that if nerves got the best of me I wouldn’t have a written story to fall back to.

Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried so much. Apparently, the bigger the crowd, the less nervous I am. Don’t get me wrong, I was plenty nervous leading up to the show, but once I got in front of everyone, I relaxed and just told the story. I felt comfortable onstage. Thinking about pacing and tension had certainly helped my performance, but I didn’t actively, consciously think “pause here for two beats, speak a little softer here.” The audience laughed, got scared, and teared up at all the right places, so I considered it a win.

Like most writers, I’ve told stories my whole life in one form or another. This was just a heightened form of telling a story to friends over dinner. Do I have room for improvement? Absolutely. But it’s definitely a craft I’d like to hone.


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Reading as a Writer

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that it’s tough for a writer to read books. It’s one of those job hazards that no one really talks about. It’s hard to turn off the writer brain long enough to appreciate the story. Like anything, it takes practice. After a while you get to where you can put aside the writer brain long enough to enjoy a book. Of course, the writer brain makes its presence known as soon as you close the book (or turn off the device, as the case may be).

I recently finished Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It’s the story about two young women–I’m never exactly sure of their ages, perhaps late teens or early twenties, but since this is marketed as YA let’s call them late teens–fighting for England during World War II. One is a pilot and the other is a spy. The spy has been caught by the Gepesto; the first part of the book is her written confession. Queenie–the spy–writes at length about her friend Maddie. The second part of the book is written from Maddie’s point of view. The story is deceptively intricate. I assumed the first part had been written by an unreliable narrator; how truthful would a spy really be when caught by the enemy? This point was driven home once I read Maddie’s point of view. Queenie, already an exceptional character, becomes even more so. The story itself is good, but the unique structure brings out its nuances. This book works on a lot of different levels. I would like to see the movie if they could somehow keep the structure intact.

And the ending is truly heartbreaking. I’d heard about people crying at the end of this book, and I joined their ranks.



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Coins of Chaos

Guys. YOU GUYS. An anthology came out yesterday called Coins of Chaos, and it just so happens I have a story in it.

Here’s the description:

During and after the great depression they were traded for food, sex, shelter, and power. Twenty of the seemingly ordinary nickles carved with dark representations of world evils and imbued with magical powers that transformed the deliciously macabre bits of lost art into carriers of death, destruction, and ill luck.
Where these coins go, so does his will. Each coin is imbued with his malice and a desire for destruction. With each life ruined… the Carver’s life goes on. Seventeen stories tell the tale of the Carver’s legacy: coins designed for beauty morphed into catalysts of pain.

Pretty cool, eh? If you’re into dark fantasy, give it a try.

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