Jolabokaflod Book Haul

Three or four years ago, Mrs. Zayon at the kids’ school library introduced me to an absurdly-long-worded holiday tradition, which took me at least two years to be able to consistently pronounce correctly(ish). (Before that it was something along the lines of ‘chocoblockoflokken’.) But since it turns out that ‘Jolabokaflod’ translates into ‘Christmas book flood’, that’s actually only one syllable more than in English, so we’ll call it a wash.

Jolabokaflod is the Icelandic tradition of exchanging books and then reading them quietly on Christmas Eve; the books are usually enjoyed with a cup of hot chocolate as well. What’s not to love? In our family, we have a few tweaks to make it ours. Since not everyone likes drinking chocolate (I haven’t completely ruled out the possibility that they were switched at birth), we give chocolate bars along with the books that they can nibble at their leisure. And the chocolate and books are just given, rather than exchanged; my husband and I buy one book and candy per person and hand them out on Christmas Eve. Reading of said books is not necessarily mandatory, but it hasn’t yet not happened.

So counting on the fact that nobody in my family actually reads my blog, I thought it would be fun to give you a sneak peak of this year’s book haul! Not all of the books have quite come in yet, so there’s still the chance of a swapperoo at the last minute, but this is the plan.

For me! (who doesn’t love an excuse to buy yourself a good book?)

Un Rêve de Renard by Minna Sundberg This is the French edition of one of my favorite webcomics ever, A Redtail’s Dream, which is available in its entirety here. (Minna Sundberg is currently working on another comic called Stand Still, Stay Silent, about a scrappy salvage crew in a post-apocalyptic world. Also available online! She’s a wonder!) A Redtail’s Dream is about a young man and his dog trying to put their town back together when a supernatural and super selfish young fox accidentally tosses it in a dreamscape. Oops! I got the French edition so I can practice my sorry excuse for language skills in a story I love and am already familiar with. We’ll see if it helps!

This one is already in hand, so no backup necessary! Hooray!

For darling spouse!

Skin Game by Jim Butcher My husband already loves this series, but he doesn’t have the last couple, so I’m sure he’ll be happy to get his hands on this one. This is the fifteenth novel in the Dresden Files, a series about Chicago-based wizard Harry Dresden—think noir detective books starring a young Merlin in modern day Chicago. Possibly riding a demon T-rex, who knows.

Also in hand, so no backup necessary, but I have one anyway. Because why would I ever not buy more books?

Calvin et Hobbes, Tome 10 by Bill Watterson Hubby also loves Calvin and Hobbes comics and has most of them, so like my book, he’s already familiar with the stories and this is really just an excuse to practice French and have fun doing it. Great crossover interest for the kids, too.

For eldest child!

Amulet, Tome 1: Le Gardien de la Pierre by Kazu Kibuishi Once again, we have a already known and loved graphic novel, but in the French edition. You know the drill by now. This is the first book in an eight book series about a family that accidently gets sucked into a fantastical alternate dimension. A girl must use her great-grandfather’s amulet to protect her family and the new realm that she’s come to love.

Unfortunately, this one isn’t yet in hand. So just in case it doesn’t show up, I’m planning to blitz down to the Barnes and Nobles to collect our backup title:

Flight of the Dragon Kyn by Susan Fletcher The second book in the Dragon Chronicles series, my oldest is head over heels in love with the first book and is itching to get his hands on this one next. Unfortunately, the library doesn’t have it! Oh no, looks like I’ll have to buy it!

For the redhead!

Soeurs Grémillet, Tome 1: Le Rêve de Sarah by Giovanni Di Gregorio Lots of dream books! This is another graphic novel, and one that none of us have read, so this would take a lot of work to imbibe, but it is relatively short and youngish so hopefully manageable. It’s about three sisters trying to untangle a web of family secrets and is heartwarmy and sad and sweet, perfect for my thoughtful little boy.

This one is unfortunately sold out of where I hoped to get it from, so it isn’t looking likely. So in case that doesn’t pan out, we have a backup planned for this dude, too!

The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare This was kind of a no-brainer for my curious kid who wants to save the world. A nonfiction reference book with a hundred cool and beautiful things from the natural world, mixed with legends and history, he’d love this one.

For le petit!

La Boîte à Musique, Tome 1: Bienvenue à Pandorient by Gijé Carbone You got it, another French graphic novel. I’m sensing a theme, are you? In this story a girl gets shrunk down and sucked into her late mother’s magical music box. Crazy!

And… also seemingly unavailable. So our backup for our youngest is:

Dogman: Grime and Punishment by Dav Pilkey *sighs* I have succumbed.

And that is it! I’m still holding out hope for some more of those French graphic novels, but it is really truly not the end of the world if they don’t show before Christmas. I’ll just hide them and then happily tuck them into Easter baskets a few months hence. Either way, I’m looking forward to sharing exciting new books with my loved ones.

How about you readers? Any bookish traditions you adhere to? Let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for more excuses to put more books on our shelves.

And until next week, happy writing (and reading)!

Native American Heritage Month Booklist

Hey, pals! I hope you’re having a good November so far. Also, did you know that November is Native American Heritage Month? True story! My kids love this month and have especially enjoyed the tremendous amount of work their music teacher at school has put into teaching them about the abundance of foods, dances, songs, and stories that are still very much a part of Fairbanks, Alaska. Living on traditional Lower Tanana Athabaskan lands and in a population center that draws Alaska Natives from all over the state, my family appreciates the vitality and beauty of the cultures and the generosity of the Alaska Native people in letting us share in them through countless potlatches, projects, festivals.


To celebrate Native American Heritage Month, how about a cool new book? I grabbed titles from a variety of tribes, genres, and age categories. I hope you find something you love!

Picture Books

My Heart Fills with Happiness (Monique Gray Smith; Julie Flett) This is a sweet story about recognizing and treasuring the good things in our lives. It’s lyrical and simple and deep, and in our music teacher’s sweet gentle voice, it’s just about perfect.

Fry Bread (Kevin Noble Maillard; Juana Martinez-Neal) I know I’ve mentioned this book on this blog before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is an awesome book. And one of the many things I love about it is that isn’t filled with stereotypical “Native” characters. It’s a modern, extended family with different builds, skin colors, hair colors, styles, but all connected by blood and culture (and a love of fry bread. Because who doesn’t love fry bread?).

Sweetest Kulu (Celina Kalluk; Alexandria Neonakis) Oh my gosh this book is so beauuuuuutiful! This is a sweet bedtime poem about the gifts the Arctic animals bestow on a newborn baby. It’s full of love of land and preciousness of people and it’s just so gorgeous. Go buy this for your babies, y’all.


Middle Grade Books

I Can Make This Promise (Christine Day) Okay, disclaimer, I haven’t read this one yet, but I am super excited to. It’s about an adopted Native girl who doesn’t know anything about her heritage and doesn’t feel like she can ask her white family. But when she finds a box of letters and pictures of what looks to be her birth family, she finds more questions than answers, including this: can she trust the adopted family that kept all this a secret from her? I can’t wait to find out!

Indian No More (Charlene Willing McManis) A girl and her family are shocked when their tribe loses its status as Native Americans. Economic need forces them to move away from (what had been) their reservation and, finding herself in a new place, without the social network and traditions that sustained her in childhood, the main character must adapt to life in California among an array of people and cultures, none of which look familiar. This moving story is set in the turbulent years of the Civil Era, and based on actual events in Umpqua history.

YA Books

How I Became A Ghost (Choctaw author) This story is about a Choctaw boy whose family and entire tribe are suddenly driven out by the neighbors they thought they could trust and sent on a grueling journey in winter to their new reservation far away. And, like so many others, the main character doesn’t make the journey alive. But his family and his people still need him and the Choctaw dead are never far. (And there are more books to follow! Huzzah!)

Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) So I actually grew up very close to the reservation this takes place on and we were constantly passing through, so I extra loved this book. And I love how well this expresses the dual lives of people who have to code switch between white culture in public and their family culture at home. With deft and hilarious doodles throughout, we get a front row seat in this book to watch a kid struggling to embrace a brighter future without abandoning his past. And it is difficult.


Adult Books

Tales of Burning Love (Louise Erdrich) Oh my gosh, this book is hilarious and terrible. The women in these stories are survivors, body and spirit, even when each of them falls for the wrong man (and in this case, the same man, if not all at the same time). I haven’t read any of the other books in the series (set?), but it apparently brings all the characters together from the other books to review their lives with the calamitous ex-husband they share. No happily ever afters here, I’m afraid.

Empire of the Summer Moon (S.C. Gwynne) So, this author isn’t Native, but I still learned a lot from this nonfiction book about American history and the clash of multiple cultures with vastly different traditions and ideals. The book did a good job of emphasizing both the beauty and ugliness of the westward expansion and the groups and individuals involved in it, dismantling and examining the myths we white Americans have about the settling of the country. I’m planning to read Blood and Thunder (Hampton Sides) at some point soon, and it’ll hopefully be just as thought provoking.

Hopefully you’ve found a book here (or on the rest of the vastness of the internet) that you can pick up soon and give a read. Enjoy! And happy Native American Heritage Month!

Craftsmanship: Building Your Skills as an Artist

Remember when you were a kid and you drew that first picture that you were really proud of? Like when you were five or eight and actually worked really hard to make something beautiful for your mom or teacher or whoever?

As for me, I drew all the time as a kid, but the first time I remember being really proud of myself was when I was twelve years old and I drew a picture of a horse running through a fenced pasture, a lush forest just outside the fence. I drew every blade of grass, every scattered wildflower. My mother, who loves horses, raved about this beautiful drawing.

Objectively speaking, that picture was garbage. I’m sorry, but it was.

I look at it now and I see all the weird little mistakes. (How many joints does a horse’s back leg have?) It was great for a twelve-year-old, and I worked my little fingers off for a week, but if I still drew like that, I certainly wouldn’t be parading it around to all my aunties and displaying it prominently in my home. It was good for then, but I had to keep building on those skills to keep them good in the now.

Maybe you don’t draw. Maybe your hobby is soccer. Or ice carving. Or cricket breeding. Your interest was piqued and then you started dabbling in it a bit, and a bit more the next week, slowly building up your skills until you were willing to be seen in public with it. Or maybe you’re not quite that far. Maybe you’re still building.

So how does one build a skill, and writing in particular? (I assume that’s why you’re here anyway.) Here are four tips for honing your craft.

Practice You can’t become a skilled violinist without ever picking up a bow, and the same is true for writing. First drafts are pretty much all rubbish anyway, but you’ll find that your drafts will get higher and higher quality the more you produce. Write in long form and short, write under deadlines and without- just write.

Critique Go through your past work and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be cruel to yourself (and don’t put up with beta readers who are) but recognize the places where you have room to improve. Likewise, critiquing for other writers will also hone your skills and give you insights into the writing process itself.

Edit Don’t be a one draft wonder. There is no first draft so genius that it can’t be improved with careful editing. And with every edit, you teach yourself how to be a better writer, which will come out in later writing as well. Even stories that get scrapped altogether are never wasted.

Study Check out the masters at work. Read widely in a varied diet of genres, even if you don’t ever plan on writing in them. Make note (mental or otherwise) of the things that you admire and think about how you can emulate those traits. (That’s emulate, not copy. Plagiarism isn’t cool.) Also study the basics- get a good grammar book and check yourself. Find a craft book to inspire and guide you. (I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I have a list of craft book recommendations here!) Don’t let yourself get complacent and think you have nothing more to learn!

These four practices will help you build your skills. They’ll help you recognize when you’re using the passive voice, when your word choice is weak or your phrases clichéd, when you’re showing instead of telling, when you’re maybe leaning a little too heavily on adverbs (ha). Looking back on my early writing drafts, I can easily spot where I was getting bogged down in purple prose. But at the time, those were some of my favorite passages. It took years of reading and writing and building my craft to realize they were a problem. And only years of reading and writing and building my craft will give me the skills to realize the other problems I have that I don’t even know about yet.

Have more tips for improving at writing? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!

Middle Grade Monday

Hello, friends! I am scrabbling like a madwoman to get all my stuff together for the AWG conference coming up this weekend, but, shock of all shocks, I’m actually being pretty productive. I am a really useful engine! Who knew?

Knowing that I would be super busy, Past Jill kindly scheduled a nice light post for this week- I’ll be highlighting my favorite MG books that’ve read over the last year. Seriously, people who don’t read children’s literature are missing out. Even if we pretend YA is adult reading, there is so much to love in kid lit! Beautiful picture books, hilarious early readers, sweet story collections- you name it.

Some of the middle grade books I’ve read were read at the school or with my own children, but a lot of them were read just for me. Here are a few of my favorites from recent history.

DespereauxThe Tale of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo (talking-animal fantasy)- I read this book aloud with my children (complete with accents, voices, and shouting) and all of us loved it. It wasn’t perfect, but darned near close. My boys and I, we’re yearners, we’re idealists, and so we found a lot of common grounds with our big-eared hero. The Tale of Despereaux is sweet and sad and poetic, and reminded me a bit of another of my all-time favorites, The Little Prince.

The Zoo at the Edge of the World by Eric Kahn Gale (fantasy adventure)- ZooMy son got this for a birthday present and we read it as a family, but he kept trying to read ahead and I had to hide the book from him. In this book, there is a boy with a speech impediment who doesn’t let that keep him down- he saves his father’s life, talks to jaguars and pythons, and uncovers a terrible plot! A quick-reading book that we all loved.

DollBonesDoll Bones by Holly Black (supernatural horror)- This book is delightfully creepy. I enjoyed it so much I went out and bought myself a copy. It has a wonderful atmosphere, a terrifying china doll (am I the old one whose grandma collected these things and they lined the wall of the guest room staring down at you in the dark?), and three kids who are determined to get to the bottom of all this eeriness.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (fantasy)- DrankMoonIt was a swamp monster! And a witch! And killer paper cranes! There was so much to love about this book. A great fantasy read about family lost and found, learning about who (and what) you are, and the powerful changes that a good person in a bad situation can make.

PeterPeter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (fantasy adventure)- Full disclosure, I am a Peter Pan fan; a few bits are a little cringy, but that’s hard to avoid with books written over a hundred years ago. This book came at the recommendation of a missionary we met a few years ago and my kids and I were hooked. We read it pretty quickly and then my oldest gobbled up the whole series and really had to dig deep to keep it together when the librarian told him there weren’t any more for him to check out. Anyway, this is basically an origin story for the unaging little imp we all know and love. I wasn’t crazy about all of it, (although my kids certainly were) but again, when you’re dealing with a century old classic, that’s to be expected.

We’re currently working our way through Carol Hughes’ JackBlackJack Black and the Ship of Thieves, although I’m having a harder time getting into it, and I just know there are many more delightful Middle Grade books out there, waiting to be read. What are some of your favorites? Any recommendations for a weird middle-aged woman and her three young boys? Thank you kindly!

Writing Craft Reading List

Okay, I have to post my word count graph from NaNoWriMo because it makes me laugh. Can you guess which days I was out of town?


Anyway, I hope you’re all hitting your own writing goals and pushing forward with your literary dreams. I know sometimes my own hopes and aspirations can seem a little laughable, but we’ve gotta keep pushing forward, even through the rough patches.

One of the things that can show a person is serious about their business is a commitment to improvement, to continuing their education in their field. I love writing, and I love reading, and I love learning, so reading books about the craft of writing is kind of the no-brainer intersection of those loves.

I read a lot of craft books, and I’ve definitely found some to be more useful than others. Here are a list of some of the craft books that have either had the greatest impact on me, or that I think at least have potential to be of use to you.

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks I do believe this was the first craft book I ever read, and it’s stuck with me ever since. (Seriously. It’s in my reference case at the desk I’m sitting at right now. It is hugging my shin as I type.) I don’t even remember a whole lot of specifics from the book, but it impacted me deeply and marked the start of my feeling like I might actually be published some day.

No Plot? No Problem by Chris Baty Being a huge NaNo fan, I didn’t love this one as much as I wanted to, but I think a big part of that was that not having a plot really is a problem for me, haha. I have a hard time just pounding out words without some idea of what I’m getting at. But this book was useful to me for encouraging better writing habits- most importantly, consistency and working on a deadline.

The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank Okay, so this is really a grammar book, not a craft book, but it’s one of the more engaging and fun grammar books out there, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read more grammar books than the average human. If you feel like your language could use a little cleaning up (or you’re just an incorrigible nerd), this book could be worth a read.

On Writing by Stephen King Part memoir, part craft book, this is a bit of a straddler as far as genres go, but I really enjoyed it anyway. (Read the full review here!) It had been on my to-read list forever (but really, what isn’t?), but I was so glad when a friend finally just bought it for me just to make me shut up about this one corner of my litany of literary eventualities. I won’t say that this book gave me much new information regarding craft, but I did enjoy a sense of affinity while reading it, and I like the no-nonsense tone.

Writer Mama by Christina Katz Full disclosure: I didn’t finish this one, and I think there are two main reasons for this. First, I found a lot of the suggestions to be impractical for my situation. (I basically stopped paying attention after reading the “hire a nanny or a daycare so that you can write” part.) And second, most of the advice targets a career path in nonfiction article writing, while I hope for a career as a traditionally published fiction author. I probably could have pressed on with one or the other problem, but not both. Seriously, I’m making this book sound worse than it is. If you can afford/don’t mind using childcare and are looking at freelance article work, this is probably the book for you. With lots of practical exercises, bulletized tips, and query/submission tips, this book as a lot to give. Just… not to me.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott I think I read half of this book aloud to whatever poor schmuck happened to be standing within earshot of me. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, this is a bit memoirish, and a bit craftish, but it’s all muddled together without any distinctions between the two. And it is beautifully written. I think my favorite thing about this book was how frank and funny and hopeful it is. I may not have encountered much craft stuff that I didn’t already know, but I felt a lot of encouragement and comradery throughout.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss Haha, that title. That cover. And with the rallying cry of “Sticklers unite!” how could I resist? Again, this is more a grammar (specifically punctuation) book than a craft book, but I’m putting it here anyway. I was laughing out loud by the preface. Truly, if you have any interest in punctuation, you should read this, and then priggishly correct all your friends. It’s lighthearted and accessible, a rant and a romp that I couldn’t stop snickering over.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder This is one of those books that I heard recommended for years before actually procuring a copy. And really, it’s more for screenwriting than for novel writing, but a lot of the principles are the same. This book is very practical and provides a strict formula to follow, laying out how to craft a tightly structured screenplay blow by blow. This book may not be as inspiring and artful as the other craft books on this list, but it is easy to read and easy to follow without any of the wait-for-the-muse mumbo jumbo that I so love and hate.

The next craft book I’m going to read is Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Like so many of the other books on this list, these both came to me highly and repeatedly recommended.

How about you fine readers? Any books I’m missing out on? Please let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Unhappily Ever After

endingsI’m always prowling around for new books to read and a few of my friends (okay, basically all of my friends) are continually horrified that an incurable bibliophile such as myself hasn’t so much as read the back cover of Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

My friend Anna has been particularly insistent, but a few conversations about it ago (it comes up a lot) she admitted that she didn’t like the way the series ended.  Given how much she raves about these books, I was a little shocked.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “What didn’t you like about it?”

Taking pains to avoid spoilers (isn’t she sweet?), she said didn’t like “the amount of closure”.

Well, what does that mean?  Plot holes?

No, not really.  She didn’t like where the characters ended up.


“I am very much a happy ending type person,” she finally said, explaining that she understood the author’s choices, but didn’t like them.  “I’m supposed to feel triumphant, and there was no real victorious feeling.”

As curious as I instantly felt about how the Divergent series ends, that got me thinking about book endings in general.  Sometimes, we go into a book knowing it’s not going to end happily ever after, like the wonderful Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which unsurprisingly made me bawl my eyes out.  Sometimes, the bitter end is shocking, like the first time I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  And unhappy endings are certainly not a new phenomenon (see The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Scarlet Letter, and like half of Shakespeare for just a few gut-kickers).

So what was it about knowing the Divergent series ends unhappily that makes me want to read it?  What is it that is so compelling about unhappy endings?

While I admit that not all unhappy endings work for me, there are a lot of features that seem to show up in unhappy endings that I find much more interesting than neat and tidy everyone-gets-what-they-wanted endings.

Endings that aren’t all happy-happy are often just more realistic.  I love an ending that I didn’t see coming, but that still makes total and perfect sense.  The girl doesn’t have to get the guy; the MC doesn’t have to defeat his every last demon; the protagonist doesn’t have to win, even.  But the ending has to be one that I can think, Yeah, that would totally happen like this.

Reality aside, sometimes I just find sadness more emotionally interesting than happily ever after, which probably says a lot about me.  Likewise, unhappy endings are more memorable.  Humans are evolved to remember pain better than pleasure; we cling to our failures more than our triumphs.  Likewise, I find that stories with a bit of bitterness at the end stick with me longer.  And while it’s all fine and dandy when the average, doesn’t-think-she’s-pretty everygirl manages to defeat the bad guys, make the world a better place, and take her pick between two equally hot and devoted studmuffins, it all starts to run together a bit, you know?

This isn’t all to say that I just automatically love an unhappy ending.  (I’m looking at you, His Dark Materials.)  There are plenty of things that can ruin an ending, happy or otherwise, catapulting it straight to just plain bad.

As mentioned earlier, an ending has to be realistic.  I mean, I love Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, but it has always irked me (even nearly twenty years after my first reading) that the romance problem at the end is so neatly fixed up out of nowhere on like the last page.  It’s too easy, you know?  As readers, we’re usually not picking up a book get another hefty dose of reality, but when a happily ever after is just handed to characters, it cheapens the rest of the struggle, somehow.

Another thing that drives me nuts is when characters are suddenly and radically… not in character.  I’m actually guilty of this myself in an early draft of one of my novels.  The main character was an honest and principled guy throughout the entire book, and then threw his values to the wind for the last chapter to become a lying, backstabbing jerk.  Why?  Because following plot points was more important to me than following character.  Don’t do this, guys.

And while we’re not doing things, here’s something you should do- do wrap up all your major subplots.  I mean, you don’t have to tie up every teeny weeny loose end and let us know where every character is going to be twenty years from now (*glares at Harry Potter*), but the more an author mentions and hints at a thing, the more important it is.  Into the Woods was really interesting, and the conclusion was realistic and unhappy and in character and all that good stuff, but a pretty darned major question mark was still dangling on the last page and to this day, I want to shake the author and demand, “What the heck happened to those kids he’s been having nightmares about for the last thirty years??”  I know having everything wrap up at the end isn’t necessarily realistic, but if I’ve had to read about it at least five times throughout the book, I think I can expect some kind of conclusion.

But even worse than dangling subplots is pointlessness.  Going back in time to before the adventure starts, exposing at the end that the whole thing was some kind of game simulation, a.k.a. anything that negates the story itself- these all drive me batty.  Again, with another book I love, Alice in Wonderland just about killed me [spoiler alert have you seriously not read this book yet go read it right now then come back] when Alice woke up from her nice nap, the whole thing having been a dream.  All that development, all that peril, all that plot, for naught.  Good morning, sunshine!  That was pointless.

So I guess this is all to say… realistic, in character, conclusive, and meaningful endings that aren’t necessarily super-saccharine happy?  Bring it on.  Maybe I’ll pick up Divergent after I finish Brown Girl Dreaming (which is beautiful, you should read it).

What about you guys?  Any endings that you loved or hated?  Any endings mentioned here that you think I’ve maligned that you think were perfect?  Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading!

Swag Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

On WritingI’m not the biggest Stephen King fan in the world, and I don’t write novel-length horror, so I wasn’t sure how useful I would find the much-lauded On Writing.  But it had been recommended to me countless times so I figured I’d get around to it some day.  Then the inestimable M Elizabeth Tait got me a copy for my birthday and I was plumb out of excuses.

This book was not what I was expecting.  Part memoir, part craft treatise, On Writing really hit that sweet spot for me between narrative and technical.  It skirted right between being a grammar book- which I love and own zillions of- and being a biography- which I love and own zillions of.  Both engaging and informative, heaven help me, I was hooked. *melts*

The book is split into three sections, but the first and last are both pretty autobiographical, so I’ll lump those together.



Not sure how I missed the whopping huge hint in the subtitle, but I was not expecting a memoir!  Go figure!  This part was wonderful, particularly his childhood.  A little sad, a little funny, I found a lot to relate to.  There were struggles I’d never had, and other struggles lacking that I’d known, but it felt wonderfully real and sincere: the same sort of quirky, bizarre, magical childhood I’d had, stuffed with childlike ambitions and adult problems only half understood.

And then adolescence and adulthood.  Again, I felt I could relate- at least right up until the checks started pouring in, haha.  But still, it gave me hope.  Like maybe I just had to keep hustling and I too would eventually get my break.



Ahh, the meat and potatoes.  This is what I had come for, and On Writing didn’t disappoint.

Framed within the analogy of a toolbox, which I loved, Mr. King sets out the skills and rules that a writer will need to write a good story.  Personality and a sense of humor enliven this how-to section in a way that my other grammar books always seem to lack.  (Possible exceptions: The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank, which has a refreshingly light tone, and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, which is just too absurd to be taken seriously.)

What are the tools Mr. King recommends?  Frankly, the same stuff we always hear recommended.   I don’t think there was any advice here that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already heard elsewhere.  Simple things- like reading other books, respecting grammar conventions, and writing what you love- that we all know already.  But as King himself points out, this isn’t an advanced course in creative writing.  This is the baseline stuff.  This is crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s so that some time after you’ve put years of your life into this, you have the foundation necessary to write amazing stories that grab your readers and never let go.

The craft section did not change my style or my process.  It didn’t give me some magic potion to make me sell books, or teach me the secret code for making publishing houses fling money at me.  Quite the opposite. This book, if nothing else, set my expectations straight.  And we all need that sometimes, that slap in the face to get us thinking right when it feels like the plane’s crashing down around us.

It will be hard.  Most of us will never make it to King’s level of success.  But the journey is worth the effort.  Love of writing is reason enough.



The thing that makes this book so unique on the craft shelf of my bookcase is the ‘memoir’ bit.  This isn’t just about how to write.  It’s about being a writer.  It’s about what it feels like to have stories bubbling out your fingertips, what it feels like to ask the bizarre questions, the creepy questions, the inappropriate questions.  What it feels like to get shot down over and over again, what it feels like to have that first tiny success.  It’s more than about the writing craft.  It’s about the writing life.

So my whole-hearted recommendation: Read this book!  Even if you don’t write horror and even if you don’t read his other books.  Read this one.

Free bonus?  Mr. Stephen King himself gave me full permission to read and write for 4-6 hours a day, every day.  I can get behind that.


Unrelated, but I’ll close this week on an ominous warning.  Tomorrow, I and my beloved family will fly out for the start of our entire-summer-long road trip.  I’ll try my very bestest to keep up with the Monday posts, but I cannot guarantee reliable internet access all over the country.  (Heck, I can’t even guarantee reliable internet access all over my house.)  So be ye warned! There will still be twelve posts in the next twelve weeks. Just… maybe at weird times.  Your safest bet is probably to subscribe (there’s a button over on the sidebar and I promise, promise, promise not to spam you), or just check back every now and then and scroll through the archives.

Wish me luck! *clutches dramamine*

Swag Review: Writing Children’s Books

ChildrensBooksSome time ago, my parents-in-law gave me a copy of Writing Children’s Books by Lesley Bolton and Lea Wait. (The book is part of a series modestly titled The Only Writing Series You’ll Ever Need, which also includes how-to’s on grant writing, screenplays, and publication.)

This book is full of straightforward, basic information. I think if I had read it when I was first stepping into the world of writing, I would have found it much more helpful. It is a very good primer, with excellent tips on getting started, coming up with a plan, and what it takes to fight your way through traditional publication. (I will say, however, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Only one chapter of twelve is actually about writing and revising. The rest is about prep, research, publication, and the industry in general.)

Writing Children’s Books covers a lot of ground. Starting with the history of children’s books, it brings you up to speed quickly and touches on the broad array of audience ages- from infant’s board books to the awesome-for-all-ages free-for-all that young adult books have morphed into. It runs the gamut of experience from first toying with the idea of maybe writing a book, to the moment your sweet baby hits the shelves. A lot of detail gets glazed over, but the book goes over quite a bit of information. Like I said, very good primer.

Another thing this book does well is that it is absolutely accessible. The language is clear and easily understood, the information is broken down into logical and digestible segments, and even the things that normally terrify me (You want me to show this stuff to other people? Send it to agents and publishers? Whaaaat?) are made somehow less scary. The authors lay it all out calmly and practically, and it maybe doesn’t sound too bad after all. It was a quick and engaging read that I generally enjoyed.

However, its handling of some pretty important pieces to the modern publishing scene seems outdated. The authors have little to nothing to say about indie- or self- publishing, and seem almost dismissive in their few mentions of digital publications. Traditional publication is really the only respectable venue in this book, whether it’s approached with or without the help of an agent.

Another shortcoming is that, in the book’s herculean task of covering all that information, a lot of detail gets lost. The book offers few concrete examples, and few specific resources on where to get more information. While there is an appendix which offers a list of resources, none of the resources are tied directly to the text, or organized by topic, so you’d still have to do quite a bit of hunting to find the information. Furthermore, we’re given a lot of things to do- such as submit to magazines, query agents, etc- without being told how to do them or where to get more information.  I feel like this could have gone from a very good primer to an excellent primer if it had put a little more effort into pointing readers toward other sources of information. As things stand, you’re pretty much left with… a google search? reading a rival title? guess work? Not sure…

My final analysis? A good beginner’s read that is quick and simple and unintimidating. If you’re new to the literary world, give it a read! But if you’ve already waded out into the wide waters of writing and feel like you have some sense of what you’re doing and where you’re going, it’s probably not worth your time- you’ve likely already gathered much of the information here. There are many other much more comprehensive and specific books out there for the intermediate and advanced writers.

(Looking for other writing books to try out? I found the following titles to be helpful: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and Davide Henry Sterry; and your particular flavor of Writer’s Digest Books’ market books– I have the Novel & Short Story breed mucking up my desk. Maybe give one of these a shot. And there’s always the vastness of the internet!  Tons of resources are available online. Some of my favorite websites for writing information and encouragement include Writer’s Digest and various agent blogs. Next on my writing books to read list? Terry Brooks’ Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life.)

The Hero’s Journey

Nelson Mandela, a hero of mine, passed away today. I know this is a writing blog, not necessarily a personal blog, so I’ll couch this in a book recommendation.

Five or ten years ago, I knew relatively little about Nelson Mandela. I knew that he was the first black president of South Africa, that he fought against Apartheid and was an all-around good guy. I like human rights and I like rugby, and so my sister-in-law sent me a book by John Carlin called Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation (previously titled “Playing the Enemy“). You can look at it on Amazon here or just Google it for other reviews. I loved this book. Loved, loved, wanted to sleep with it at night, loved. I highly recommend it.

[If you prefer a shorter read, here is his obituary from BBC.]

Nelson Mandela is one of the most brilliant, compassionate, and courageous people this world has produced and I was sorry to hear of his passing today. My condolences go out to his family, friends, and nation. May all of us leave the world a little better than we find it.