On Reviews

An author friend recently thanked me for posting an Amazon review for her latest book. “How do you always know when I’ve reviewed your books?” I asked. “Because I read my reviews,” she answered. “All of them?” “Yes.”

I’m the opposite. I seldom read my reviews. I might occasionally check my star rating and the number of reviews I’ve received. Or even glance at the first few when my book comes out. But after that, I avoid them.

I’ve put some thought into why my friend and I have such different approaches to reviews. Maybe it’s because my friend is a very non-controversial writer. She writes inspirational romances, and her books are what are called “gentle reads”. They’re never going to offend anyone, or provoke strong reactions. I can be a very polarizing writer. For example, when I entered my latest historical romance in the RITA, I got scores back of 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Readers' responses to my books tend to be all over the place.

Since the beginning of my career, my books have gotten mixed reviews, and I’ve come to accept there are aspects of my world view and creative vision that are a bit different from that of most romance writers. I also have a very distinctive voice, which draws some readers in, while turning others off. I can’t change either of those things. And so I seldom read reviews, because a lot of the time it’s my voice or my story vision that the reviewers are reacting to, and their opinion, good or bad, isn’t going to be helpful.

In contrast, my friend reads her reviews to discover what readers like and don’t like in her books. The idea is to figure out how to write a better, more compelling book next time. It’s great when a reviewer gives you something specific that you can process and use in the future. But a lot of the time, that’s not what happens. Many readers don’t analyze what they didn’t like. They simply express their emotional reaction to the book.

Professional reviews are another matter. I read a lot of them in my job ordering fiction for a library. Professional reviewers tend to discuss both the good and bad aspects of a book. When they are critical, they tend to criticize specific things. They will mention slow pacing or tired tropes, clichéd characters or awkward prose, things like that. They also tend to balance negative things with a disclaimer, like “Despite the over-the-top action and lack of character depth, urban fantasy readers will be pleased”. Or, “Her (the writer’s) fans will find what they’re looking for.”

In those cases, the reviewer is recognizing that even though they didn’t like the book, there is still going to be demand for it. For someone like me, who is purchasing books for a library, that’s very helpful. I can’t simply buy the books that get the best reviews. I have to buy the books that the patrons at the library where I work want to read. And trust me, those aren’t always the ones that get the best professional reviews.

Despite my resistance to reading reviews of my books, I have to admit reviews have influenced my writing. I’m currently rewriting a book that was published almost fifteen years ago. As I rewrite, I’m conscious of the fact a fair number of the reviews of the original version found my heroine unsympathetic and cold. This time around I’m trying to make her more appealing. I’ve not only tried to get inside her head more and better reveal her psychological state, I’ve actually changed the plot so her actions aren’t so frustrating to the reader. I’m trying to make her less flawed and more “heroic”.

Bear in mind, it’s taken me fifteen years to get to the point where I can do something positive with those negative reviews. And that’s the thing you have to be careful about. Bad reviews can be devastating. They can demoralize you to the point that you feel like giving up writing. Or, they can push you to make changes that don’t play to your strengths as a writer. You have to remember that for every reader who dislikes a certain aspect of a book, there may be another one who loves that very thing. There are books I find plodding and dull, while other readers see them as beautifully crafted and complex. There are books that bore me because the characters seem shallow and uninteresting. But other readers don’t care because they’re focused on the action and suspense.

Over and over we’re told that a review is only one person’s opinion. And that truly is something to keep in mind. If that opinion helps you write a better book next time, then maybe it’s a good review, even if it is critical of your work. But if it does nothing except ruin your day, then it really is a bad review.

How about you? Do you regularly read your reviews? Do they influence your writing?

Rocky Mountain Writer #55


Kevin8297-4x6-web-2-300x200Kevin Wolf & The Homeplace

Kevin Wolf is on the podcast this week right before the launch of his first novel, a Colorado-based mystery called The Homeplace.

Kevin won the Tony Hillerman prize for this book last year and the reward was a publication deal with St. Martin’s Press.

Kevin talks about his experiences with a big publishing house, how he developed his cast of characters for the story, and his straightforward writing style. In addition, Kevin also breaks a bit of news about his publishing career.

Kevin is a member of RMFW and Crested Butte Writers. The great-grandson of Colorado homesteaders, he enjoys fly fishing, old Winchesters and 1950s Western movies. He lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife and two beagles. Stay tuned after the chat as Kevin reads two quick excerpts from The Homeplace.

More: Kevin Wolf's website.

Intro music by Moby Gratis
Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Retrospect

I was re-reading some of my past posts here on the RMFW blog. Can you believe I've been a contributor for two years? Who knew I had so much to say? I would've expected to be ridden out of here on a rail just weeks in!

As I revisited some of my old topics, there were many I feel made some good points, if I say so myself, and that might be worth a fresh look. So in lieu of fresh content this month I thought I'd share links to some of my favorite past articles over two years of contributing to the RMFW blog. If you missed any, maybe take a look at one or two, see if there is anything in them worth taking away and applying to your own writing.

I HATE MY BOOK (12/2014)
How I went from loving my book to hating the very mention of it to loving it again!

MORE POLITICS IN FICTION (2/2015)
How to enrich your world-building by bringing complex political pressures to bear on a plot.

WAR IN FICTION (4/2015)
Tackling what can be a daunting task: relating large-scale conflict while still keeping your story character driven.

THOSE WHO CAN'T TEACH DO (5/2015)
Academics will only take you so far. Without passion, you're just writing, not storytelling.

KEEP IT TO YOURSELF, SOMETIMES (10/2015)
The occasional caustic off-hand comment often says more about us than we know, and can have devastating effects on our fellow writers.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS (5/2016)
Worried that you aren't writing the traditional formula that sells books? Don't be - it's what makes us different that makes our stories stand out.

Thanks for reading for two years! Here's to many more!

Author Newsletters or Aliens Ate My Lunch … by Stephanie Reisner

2016_Stephanie Reisner
I subscribe to quite a few author newsletters. Not just because I’m an author, but as a reader I like to keep up with my favorites, too.

As a reader, I want a newsletter to do one of three things:

  1. Inform me of what’s coming or what has just been released. The truth is I only want an author’s newsletter when something new is releasing, pre-releasing, or something big is happening. This may only be once every month to once every quarter.
  2. Let me know about sales or freebies. Sure, this could go along with #1, but sometimes sales are happening on older books and I’ll want to share that information with my friends if I already enjoyed the book.
  3. Let me know about important events or dates. This would include book signings, appearances, or online events that I might be interested in.

Anything beyond this, meh. I mean, if I wanted to know every time my favorite author posted a new blog, I’d subscribe to their blog separately. Some writers are boring bloggers (myself included at times). So keep your blog subscription separate from your newsletter subscription. Check out FeedBurner or Networked Blogs to help you install subscribe buttons for your blog. I subscribe to newsletters to actually get NEWS (about books).

2016_Reisner_AliensHere are some tips to make your newsletter better:

  • Don’t spam readers weekly if you’re not releasing new books weekly. If you do that, we readers will eventually start treating your newsletters as SPAM.
  • Don’t start a newsletter and forget it. Try to send out something regularly (once every month or every quarter), even if it is just a SALE or FREEBIE announcement. You want readers to remember you’re there without annoying them. This will also (hopefully) motivate you to release on a more regular schedule, especially if you’re indie. If you can’t release quarterly, consider writing short stories or novellas between books to keep readers interested.
  • Put new releases first. Sales and freebies second and important dates or events third. Because that’s how I, as a reader like to see it. I imagine I’m not alone in this.
  • Include links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble where I can actually buy your latest book or get the latest deal! Don’t send me to your blog, which will then send me to your book. You might lose me at your blog. I want a direct connection to buy. If you want to include your blog/web link in the newsletter, just throw it in at the bottom.
  • I prefer short descriptions as opposed to an entire chapter excerpt within the body of a newsletter. Just link the excerpt and if it looks intriguing, I’ll go to your blog or website to read the excerpt.
  • Don’t include full articles in your newsletter. Give me a heading, at most a paragraph description, and then a link to where I can read more. Click-bait me, baby!
  • Concentrate on no more than three books per newsletter. I might feel overwhelmed. The point being I want to be able to open the email, get the highlights while I’m having my morning coffee, and click what interests me. If your links are lost behind paragraphs of rambling commentary, I might get bored and move on to the next thing in my inbox.
  • Use eye catching taglines and descriptions. Not: “My new book is coming out!” Why not: “Aliens are stealing your lunch on September 1! Pre-Order **Aliens Ate My Lunch** today and save .99 cents! Well damn it – I’m ordering Aliens Ate My Lunch right now if I see that header. And if I’m not ordering, I’m definitely reading the brief description. If that brief description is just as intriguing, I’ll likely buy.
  • Include book covers. I like to see pretty book covers.
  • Don’t bombard me with the same book month after month. I get it, you only have one book currently available, but there are ways to rectify this. Did I mention short stories and/or novellas between book releases? In the case of one book bombardment, give me updates on your next book first (maybe a cover reveal?), then list appearances, and THEN remind me about your existing book with the cover, title, brief description, and buy links.
  • Of course if you are an awesome blogger, go ahead and click-bait me to your blog at the very end. I may not click it all the time, but if you’re entertaining enough, I might.

As a reader, what do YOU like to see in an author newsletter?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

2016_Reisner_Ascending2016_Reisner_SavingColorado native Stephanie Connolly-Reisner grew up with a love for reading and writing. She started penning her first stories in grade-school and never stopped. Now much older, she’s a prolific writer who lives along the front range of the beautiful Rocky Mountains with her husband and a couple of very pampered house cats. You can find her and her four author personas at www.the-quadrant.com. She can also be found at Facebook. Stephanie writes under four pseudonyms: S.J. Reisner, Audrey Brice, Anne O'Connell, and S. Connolly.

Pitch Like a BOSS by Angie Hodapp

Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter

Pitching your book to an agent or editor is daunting. How are you supposed to cram the essence of your entire novel into a pithy couple of sentences? (Hint: You’re not.) Here’s a formula for a concise pitch that will set you on the right track. Ladies and Gentlemen, James Scott Bell‘s “three-sentence pitch”:

First Sentence: Your lead character’s name, vocation, and initial situation. Will Connelly is an associate at a prestigious San Francisco law firm, handling high-level merger negotiations between computer companies.

Second Sentence: “When” + the main plot problem. When Will celebrates a recent merger by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on the top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client is developing.

Third Sentence: “Now” + the stakes. Now, with the Russian mob, the SEC, and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before the wrong people get the technology that can be used for mass destruction.

Boom. Three sentences. The first introduces the protagonist in his ordinary world. The second presents the inciting incident. The third is what your character stands to lose if the antagonistic forces prevail. Here’s another example:

Dorothy Gale is a farm girl who dreams of getting out of Kansas to a land far, far away, where she and her dog will be safe from the likes of town busybody Miss Gulch. When a twister hits the farm, Dorothy is transported to a land of strange creatures and at least one wicked witch who wants to kill her. Now, with the help of three unlikely friends, Dorothy must find a way to destroy the wicked witch so the great wizard will send her back home.

Give it a try, but keep each sentence brief. Having taught this formula at pitch workshops, I know how tempted writers are to pack those three sentences full of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building. Resist that urge!

Now, can you boil your three-sentence pitch down further to create an even more concise pitch? Conversely, can you expand it to craft an evocative query letter? Whichever way you go, start here: with three sentences.

#

Above, we looked at a quick three-sentence formula that will help you start to craft your pitch. Did you try it? Yes? Awesome!

Did you thwart the temptation to squeeze in a bunch of backstory, secondary characters, and world-building? No? Alas. Go back to those three sentences and whittle, hone, refine, and polish. Until you do, your pitch probably isn’t ready.

Go ahead. Do it now. I’ll wait.

Are you back? Excellent. Then let’s get you ready for your pitch appointment:

Ditch the idea that your pitch is supposed to be a complete summary of your novel. It’s not. Your pitch is a conversation starter. Pitch appointments at writing conferences tend to run about ten minutes. Deliver your pitch, then let the agent you’re pitching to ask you questions about your novel. About you. About your writing in general. Relax and have a chat.

Focus on character and plot. Ten-minute pitch appointments fly by, and many are wasted by the author who spends…way…too…much…time…explaining (1) his protagonist’s backstory, (2) his world-building elements, or (3) all the cool historical facts he discovered when researching his novel. Seriously. I once listened to a pitch during which the author never actually told me a single thing about her plot. Even when I asked questions about the story itself, her replies remained focused on backstory and setting. The agent wants to know if the story you put down between page 1 and page 350 is something they can sell. That’s what’s on the table, so focus on that.

Be prepared to respond to feedback and questions. Things I’ve said (gently, I hope!) to writers during pitch appointments include: (1) You’re pitching this as YA, but it’s coming across as a middle grade. What makes it YA? (2) How will your novel stand out among current bestsellers in your genre, or how will it appeal to readers of those bestsellers? (3) What are the last three books you’ve read in your genre? (4) What is your novel’s inciting incident, and how far into the manuscript does it occur? (5) In the story you just described, it concerns me that your protagonist isn’t actually the one who solves the plot problem. (6) The conflict you describe is very internal to your character. What is the story’s external conflict, and how does it get resolved and/or relate to the internal conflict? (7) Has your manuscript been critiqued by a critique group or beta readers?

Bring a copy of your query letter. If the agent stops you in the first minute of your pitch appointment with something like “I don’t represent that genre” (or anything else that feels like a shutdown/letdown), then politely ask if she wouldn’t mind giving you her quick impression of your query letter. After all, it’s your ten minutes. You paid for the appointment. And her input on your query letter just might help you land a different agent—one that’s right for you, your genre, and your project.

Understand that a disappointing pitch has zero bearing on your future as a writer. There will be other conferences, other pitch appointments, other opportunities. Keep pitching. Keep sending out query letters. The more doors you knock on, the more likely one (or more) will open.

And above all, keep writing.

 

AngieHodappAngie Hodapp has worked in language-arts education, publishing, professional writing, and editing for the better part of the last two decades. After completing her master’s thesis, a work of creative nonfiction, and leaving academia, she gave herself permission to write what she really wanted to write: speculative fiction and romance. Angie is currently the contracts and royalties manager at Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She and her husband live in a renovated 1930s carriage house near the heart of the city and love collecting stamps in their passports.

Getting to Know You: The RMFW Q&A Project #5

The Getting to Know You Project is intended to introduce RMFW members with short responses to three questions, a photo, and a few social media links if available. If you would like to participate in the project for future months, please email Pat Stoltey at blog@rmfw.org

Theresa Alan

Website: http://www.theresaalan.net
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Theresa_Author
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theresa.alan
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/115314.Theresa_Alan

2016_Theresa Alan1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

All of my published books are comedic women’s fiction. I’m working on a new series that is also comedic women’s fiction, but I’m also trying a book that’s darker, more in the vein of The Girl on the Train. I write in the mornings because that’s when my brain is most highly caffeinated. These days I write from home, although coffee shops are good choices, too. Why I write? It’s an addiction. I wrote my first book at the age of nine (I still have it) and have been writing fiction and nonfiction ever since. I’ve also been keeping a journal since the age of nine, and it’s a much cheaper form of therapy than actual therapy, plus, it’s nice having help remembering different times in my life—memory can be tricky. I’d forgotten something hilarious that had happened to me my freshman year in college; I put the scene in my first novel, Who You Know, and that true-from-my-life scene was far and away the most commented on in the fan mail I received.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

My sister is an experienced improv comedian, and one time in New York City we went to the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv and sketch place founded, in part, by Amy Poehler. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey happened to drop by the night we went. We could have reached out and touched them both. As women who write comedy, it was a thrill to see two of the best comedic writers in the world perform two feet away from us.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

It’s a four-way tie between reading, movies, going to see live comedy, and, of course, hiking (I live in Colorado, so there is a law about loving to hike).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thea Hutcheson

Website: http://theahutcheson.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thea.hutcheson
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Theah1771

2016_Thea Hutcheson1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write all over the board--SF, fantasy, romance, erotica, New Adult, and Crime fiction. I write in all the nooks and crannies of my life. Lately, I have been hard pressed to back myself into a corner, but I have been reasonably successful, and I keep trying.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I work events--Operations Manager at various Chocolate Festivals around Colorado, The Athena Festival, and the Denver Modernism Show; and Competition Director for Denver County Fair.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Lately, the thing that gives me the most pleasure (and fright) is taking road trips in Stanley (a 1941 Studebaker truck) and Big Jim (a 1955 GMC one ton utility truck) with my long-time partner, Randy Merrick, and camping in our vintage trailer, Olive. I get pleasure because we see cool places all over our great country, and our adventures and the sights we see end up in stories, which makes them all tax deductible. But being on the road can be frightening. People don't realize trailers and their tow vehicles have mass. They can't stop on a dime and that space they made between them and the car ahead of them is to insure they can slow down reasonably well. If you jump in there, and then traffic slows, it is heart wrenching sometimes to have to avoid an accident.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bernadette Marie

Website: http://bernadettemarie.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorbernadettemarie
Twitter: https://twitter.com/writesromance
5 Prince Publishing: http://5princebooks.com/

2016_Bernadette Marie1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I write HEA Contemporary Romance because I, as a reader, want to walk away from books feeling happy that I invested my time in a romance where everything was good in the end. I write all the time! I have a laptop and will travel. There is no set schedule for me. When I feel it, I do it. Luckily, I feel it all the time. I can usually write a book from start to finish in two months.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

I have a second-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do. I started martial arts with my older kids, and the others joined us when they each turned 3. After a 3 1/2 year hiatus, I have just recently begun training again and I now feel whole.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

Disneyland! Yep, I crave it. Dream it. It's like my drug, and the best part is I can take my family of 7 and no matter what age, we all turn into children. (Yes, I also blog about it on my parenting blog. Writers have to write about everything.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Yvonne Montgomery

Website/Blog: https://yvonnemontgomery.com/
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KIXKIU
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/yvonnemontgomerywriter
Twitter: https://twitter.com/authorYvonneM

2016_Yvonne Montgomery1. We know the who (that's you), so will you give us the what, why, when, where, and how you write?

I'm currently writing paranormal mysteries because I love working on stories in which the supernatural and reality bump up against each other. I tend to write from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in my study on the 3rd floor of our house. My partner is a Mac computer named Dimmsdale, and the printer is Hester Prynt.

2. What is one fun thing few RMFW members know about you?

One fun thing few RMFW members know about me is that I love cheesy horror movies. I introduced my grandkids to Godzilla, a noble achievement.

3. What is your most favorite non-writing activity, the one that gives you the greatest joy?

I have two favorite non-writing activities that give me great joy: reading and gardening. However, I don't enjoy reading about gardening.

Many thanks to Theresa, Thea, Bernadette, and Yvonne for volunteering for the Getting to Know You Project. If you'd like to participate in future GTKY posts, please email me at blog@rmfw.org

Conference Update: Some Practical Information

RMFWConference_Chalkboard_PracticalInfoMore Questions? Join our
NEW FACEBOOK GROUP
for Conference attendees!

Conference is almost here! Here is some practical information to help you get organized:

Parking: Parking is free at the hotel for conference attendees. Yay!

Airport Shuttle & Train Info: The hotel website had conflicting information, but I have confirmed that the FREE Shuttle to and from the airport is still running through the end of the year. There is also the new Light Rail train, ($9.00) which stops at Central Park Station, 0.7 miles from the hotel. If you call the hotel, they will pick you up at the station. For more details about train times, station stops, and other info, download the info flyer from the RMFW Conference Homepage.

Conference Check-in/Registration: Conference Check-in will be at the bottom of the escalators, accessible from the lobby. If you're attending a Friday morning session (Master Class or a Critique Round Table) check-in opens at 7am. If you're not attending a morning session, check-in opens at 10:30am.

Need Help? Have Questions? “ASK ME”: We have a whole army of conference veterans who know the ropes and are there for you to ask questions. If you see someone with an ASK ME ribbon on their badge… don’t be shy! Also, the Registration Table is HQ for conference. We will have volunteers there just about all the time throughout conference, so this is another place to go if you need assistance.

Wi-Fi: There is NO WIFI in the classrooms for presenters or attendees. If you wish to access the handouts for a class but your device requires wifi, you will need to download them before your class.

At-A-Glance Schedule & Brochure: The AAG is the go-to document when you're looking for the workshop schedule. There are lots of shifts that happen with the AAG over the months leading up to the conference, and the brochure updates lag behind. In the event the brochure elves slip up and there is a discrepancy, the AAG is the true schedule.

Workshop Recordings: All the open workshops/panel programming at conference are recorded. If you’re unable to be in two places at once, or if a class was especially helpful to you and you want to listen to it in the future, purchase a copy during conference at the recording room, next door to Boulder Creek.

What to Wear: Dress comfortably for conference, and wear shoes that make walking easy. You’ll do a lot of walking at conference. Dress in layers to be sure you aren’t too hot or cold as the temperature shifts. Some people do dress up for the Saturday banquet, but you’re going to see everything from jeans to cocktail dresses. Capri pants to suits. Don’t be afraid to dress up, but be equally assured that you can wear whatever makes you comfortable.

Need a Break? Take a Break! You don’t have to attend a session every hour. If you need to take a break, then you’re totally welcome to skip a session, go back to your room, hang in the open areas, or find a quiet place to write.

Have an appointment? Arrive 10-minutes early please! If you have an appointment with Pitch Coaching, Hook Your Book, Mentor Room, One-on-Ones, or Agent/Editor Pitches, please arrive 10-minutes before your appointment. This helps everyone stay on schedule and prevents delays.

Drink Water! CO is very dry, and if you’re not from here, it can come as quite a shock how easy it is to become dehydrated. Drink lots of water. Drink lots of water. Drink lots of water. And if you're not sure... DRINK WATER!

Leaving Classes In-Session: If you signed up for an appointment, it is likely that you will have to leave a workshop in session in order to attend. If you need to leave a workshop in session, this is perfectly fine and happens throughout conference. Simply gather your things and quietly depart. Once your appointment is over, feel free to return to any workshop in session.

Meals: Your conference registration includes several meals, but not all:

  • Fri Lunch - ON YOUR OWN
  • Fri Dinner - Buffet style, Included
  • Sat Breakfast - Continental style, Included (7-8a)
  • Sat Lunch - ON YOUR OWN
  • Sat Dinner - Awards Banquet - Included
  • Sun Breakfast - Continental style, Included (7-8a)
  • Sun Lunch - Buffet style, Included

More Questions? Join our
NEW FACEBOOK GROUP
for Conference attendees!

3 Reading Tips for Writers

How many books do you read in a year?  Who’s your favorite author, and why? When was the last time you truly got lost in a good read?

Only about 18% of the adults in the United States read more than one book a year for pleasure. As authors we have to sit up and say, “Yikes!” However, as humans, we also need to acknowledge that our “market” is pounded constantly for time.  People are busy with work and personal obligations, social commitments, and even a dizzying array of entertainments. The quiet book on a shelf doesn’t exactly shout out for reading time.

But for us lucky ones, those who love the book, we know several good reasons to read.  And topping the list for us is simply that to write better we need to constantly aspire to read better.

Book photo: How to Read a Book - by Adler and Van Doren
Reading better to write better -- who knew?

Last week, I picked up a copy of “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. This book, originally published in 1940, is still found in local book stores, selling well.  And no wonder. Adler and Van Doren conduct a thoughtful exploration of reading from multiple perspectives and different levels. This isn’t the only good book on reading, but, as once critic said, it “has become a rare phenomenon, a living classic.” If you get a chance, try to add “How to Read a Book” to your reading list.

After poking around "How to Read a Book," I started researching other books, blog posts, and articles on reading.  Here are three tips I hope will help you both to become a better reader and a better writer:

One - READ MORE

Well duh. Like eat more veggies and lose more weight, we writers know it’s important to read as much as possible. The question becomes not whether to do so, but how.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep an on-going book list – so you never run out of materials. Some people even set up a separate email account to send reading ideas to themselves, and follow-up emails with reviews and notes.
  • Keep reading handy – Have a book, anthology, magazine, or other reading material strategically lodged in those places you naturally gravitate to perch – your car, your favorite chair, the bathroom, etc.
  • Plan reading times – sometimes finding time is a matter of thinking ahead. Do you rush back to work from lunch and find you’ve only been gone 15 minutes? Maybe you can use that extra time for a good reading break. The twenty minutes before falling asleep at night, or turning on your light when the alarm goes off so you can wake comfortably with a good book are also good. If you look for time, you’ll find it.
  • Make reading a habit – Once you make reading fun, you’ll be inspired to return to it over and over. Keep track for a week of times you otherwise “waste” when you could be reading, and then change that habit for a reading one.

Two – MAKE YOUR BOOKS YOUR OWN

Adler and Van Doren encourage readers to jot down notes and questions in margins, underline unfamiliar words, mark in the margins great turns of phrase or quotations, and outline the book you’re reading in the couple of blank pages at the front or back of those books you buy.  I have a hard time with “outlining fiction,” but if you glance through any Cliff notes, you can see ideas for how this might be done.

One RMFW author was talking at her book signing, and mentioned that when her editor/agent suggested she write a mystery she went out, bought more than a dozen mysteries, and outlined them.  She didn’t run to the “how to write a mystery” section of the bookstore. She read the genre she was interested in writing. She made those books her own.

Three – READ AT NEW LEVELS

“How to Read a Book” talks about how most of us read at an elementary level.  This isn’t to be insulting, but accurate. If you’re like me, perhaps you too read at this level. Word. By. Word. Page one to “the end.” And if you’re as slow a reader as I, then becoming frustrated with reading more is understandable.  But here are some other levels of reading to consider:

  • Inspectional Reading – This is essentially skimming through an entire book, no matter the length, in a small set amount of time. Check the title, categorize the book, read the blurbs that so many of us struggle to write, and dive in here and there to get a complete feel for the book, before wasting time on something you don’t enjoy.
  • Analytical Reading – This is probably done the second or third time you quickly read a book. Start arguing with the author, ask questions (in the margins) and classify the book in several ways.  This is active reading to help you remember more, and enjoy the experience at a deeper level.
  • Syntopical Reading -- This is an expression developed by the authors to say that sometimes you need to read multiple books and sources on a single question, and that when you do this, your expertise is more highly developed.  As a mystery writer, for example, I wouldn’t want to read only Agatha Christie, but I need to delve into several authors in order to create my own concept of what a good mystery is all about.

In the past couple of weeks I have to admit that I’ve been indulging in Netflix reruns of “Murder, She Wrote.” In one episode, an aspiring writer asks Jessica Fletcher how he can become a better writer.  Without hesitation she answers, “Read, read, read!”

I hope you’ll share your own reading tips in the comments below.  Meanwhile, “Hound of the Baskervilles” is calling.

Rocky Mountain Writer #54


WOTY PanelWriter of the Year Panel at The Tattered Cover

This episode is a live recording of the Thursday, Aug. 18 panel at the Tattered Cover featuring Writer of the Year finalists Mark Stevens, Christine Goff and Carol Berg and Independent Writer of the Year finalists Lisa Manifold and Nathan Lowell.

The third "iWOTY" finalist, Sue Duff, was unable to attend.

The panel was quizzed by 2015 Writer of the Year Susan Spann.

 

Intro music by Moby Gratis
Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

The Myth of Craft

Craft. Meh

I don’t buy the myth that if only I learn all there is to know about craft, that I will immediately write a bestseller and everyone will love my books. I don’t buy it at all. Because I’ve read bad books and I’ve read good books and in the end, sometimes the craft was awesome, and sometimes there wasn’t any to be found. People who make money offering writing classes want you to believe in the myth of craft. Playing the odds, you will probably make more money teaching people craft than crafting books yourself. And there’s less fear involved. Says the grandmaster wizard writing teacher, “I will teach you how to write, but I won’t write books myself. That’s too hard and scary.”

I sometimes think what I just wrote in the ranty-paragraph above.

Not sure I truly believe it or not. I do know that more important than craft (or talent, which I’ll talk about next month) is the will to write the book. The game is for people who do it, not people who study it.

Better to write a bad book than not write the book at all.

Do you know what I think of when I hear people talk about the myth of craft? I think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating uses the textbook to chart the perfect poem. If we maximize plot and minimize exposition, if we chart the character arc along the y-axis, then we will have the perfect book and you will make millions!

However, let me make myself perfectly clear. I had to learn how to tell a story and I had to learn about character arc. My writing can get overblown and I LOVE saying the same thing over and over again, but in a slightly different way. I can easily gloss over details and play havoc with POV. My choreography can be iffy.

In the ten years of conferences, critique groups, and craft books, I’ve learned a ton and sometimes that really helps me. Sometimes I don’t think it matters at all. Let me repeat that. I don’t think my ten years does me much good.

Do you know why?

Because art is subjective, and I might create a perfect work of art, and people might hate it. I have two artist friends, one draws pictures that are filled with craft, the lines, the composition, all of that. They are perfect. My other artist friends draws messy sketches in a surreal kind of way, and they are far from perfect, but they have an energy, a duenda, that shines through.

So in the end, the game is writing books. Sometimes those books will hit it big, and sometimes they won’t, and I don’t know why. People who claim they do are trying to sell you something. Because selling you the dream of a successful book will probably make them more money than writing a successful book.

I will say this…before I learned plot structure, I wrote books readers couldn’t read. It was sad. My books were bad, though I loved them so. Now, I know how to hook a reader and tell a story and readers can read my books. It’s happiness, right?

No. I have friends who liked my early work better. Yes, they liked my uncrafted books when they were more about my barbaric yawp than a finely-crafted story structure.

In the end, write books. Write books you love. Write books worthy of your time. Is learning the craft of writing a bad thing? It can be. If learning craft is blocking you from the act of writing, then it is evil. Don’t use it as excuse.

As human beings, we learn in different ways. I’m a learn-along-the-way type of guy, so I wrote a book, learned a bunch, wrote the next book, learned a bunch, and so on. Other people study, study, study, and then write books. It’s all good.

I met a Colorado writer who never went to a conference, never read a how-to book, never went to a critique group. And he is far more successful than me.

There are no rules, people.

Except one.

People can’t read books you don’t write. So write books.