the fREADom to read

I’m a reader. Since before I learned to decipher the symbols that created letters and words, I’ve been fascinated with books and stories. I had the influence of older siblings and parents I saw reading all the time. Since my father was in graduate school when I was in preschool, I even have a book I scribbled in with yellow crayon because “Daddy writes in his books!” And, because I have siblings who are much older (11 years), I learned in second grade that didn’t have to read a book that did not interest me. What I read was my choice. I learned early that I had the freedom to read.

This week, though, is the perfect time to choose the freedom to read books others try to tell us we cannot read. This week is about bringing notice to censorship. During Banned Books Week, librarians, writers, readers, and other advocates for literacy shine the spotlight on books that have been either challenged or actually banned.

What’s the difference? Challenged books are those that people out there are trying to get removed from use in schools or from library shelves. Banned books are those have already been removed. You can learn more about each type of book and those on the challenged books list by going to the Banned Books Week site. The American Library Association tracks challenges and creates lists. For example, in April 2013 Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series made the top of the list. The reason? Offensive language and unsuited for age group. Anyone who knows kids—especially boys—knows these are wildly funny and tremendously popular books. Pilkey has nailed what boys this age find funny (well he should, he once was that age). More importantly, he gets them to read! We need our children to enjoy reading so they will grow up to be readers and thinkers! To see other books on the list, click here. (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about)

Just a few weeks ago, one of the writers in my Creative Writing workshop approached me after class. He was concerned that I might censor his manuscript due to offensive language and sexual content. I’m always torn in these situations. As a writer I refuse to censor anyone. As the instructor I do need to take the sensibilities and comfort of the other students into consideration. (Before you argue about “comfort,” keep in mind this a lifelong learning program with some people at the beginning stages of their writing development so creating a safe and comfortable environment for sharing to learn from each other’s works is vital.) I generally leave it to the group (since group dynamics change each time the course is offered). I’ve only had one instance where someone in the group made the choice not to listen to/read the manuscript. And that is each participant’s choice, just as it is the choice of each reader as to what he or she will or will not read.

So, take a stand this week. Voice our fREADom to read. By the way, check out the lists of banned books here. Bet you’ve read one (or more)!

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Gatsby Fever

We have only a week left until Baz Luhrmann’s  adaption of The Great Gatsby opens in movie theaters. Have you been waiting patiently? If you’re really looking forward to seeing Leonardo DiCaprio star as Gatsby, you can view stills and nearly a dozen movie trailers here

There’s been a lot of hype and build-up. Even my favorite writing magazine, The Writer, features the upcoming film with just a hint at what writers can learn from Fitzgerald. So, as I lay in bed recovering from a serious virus a few weeks ago, I rented the 1974 version of the film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It was a quiet movie  but adequately captures the voice of Nick Carraway as he reflects on events of the summer of 1922. The pace of the movie mirrored the novel with the “ups” in the film being the exciting party and car scenes. I love the Roaring Twenties and the dancing, music, cars, and costume were accurate. This movie also did a good job covering the events from the novel, though little is explained about Jay Gatsby’s background. As in the early chapters of the novel, it is mostly speculation. Unlike the later chapters of the novel, in which details of Gatsby’s childhood are revealed, this movie version suggests  it  is not important. This version of the movie gives us a glimpse of the goodness that was still at the heart of Gatsby when his father arrives for his funeral and he spends some time with Nick.

I truly hope Baz Luhrmann will hold true to Fitzgerald’s work because what we learn about Jay Gatsby — and more importantly how cleverly Fitzgerald imparts this information — is very important to the story. In the novel, Fitzgerald delays character revelation for Gatsby which builds him up in the minds of the reader just as his reputation precedes him in the reality of the characters. The reader doesn’t see or hear from Gatsby until chapter 3. Throughout the first half of the novel, the characters speculate about this man and how he gained his wealth. The reader learns Gatsby’s background, finally, in chapters 6 and 7. (Actually, he reveals details about his childhood in chapter 6 and in chapter 7 his criminal dealings are finally confirmed.)

I recall discussing the “mysteriousness” of Gatsby’s character when I read the book first in high school, again in college, and yet again (at least twice) in writing classes and as a source to study in developing my own writing. Another detail covered during those school-related readings was the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the reader has information about the story situation that characters do not possess. I know that when I read this novel the first time (in high school) I remembered having little patience or empathy for Tom and later for Daisy. At the end of the book, I remember thinking, “They truly deserve each other!” I won’t spoil the story for those unfamiliar, but the 1974 version of the movie evoked that same response, so kudos to director Jack Clayton on that account.

After having watched the movie, and seeing the movie trailers for the upcoming Luhrmann film, I think I’ll read the book again. I’m curious about the pacing of events in the book, especially after a quick check to see when exactly the reader learns about Gatsby’s past (and watching a trailer that confirms his past will be explained/revealed in the 2013 movie).

I also realize, now that I am a writer and teach writing classes, that Fitzgerald  had choices in which character should be the narrator and his choice of Nick makes the book a standout. He couldn’t choose Gatsby, since that would pose difficulties in the final chapters. How do you wrap up a story after the death of the narrator or viewpoint character? And Daisy is too self-centered while Tom is too boorish to notice details or instill pertinent information to the reader. Nick is a great choice, and I like the way the story reads as a sort of memoir—the events took place long ago  and with the feel that Nick is looking through keepsakes as he recalls that summer and looks over the lists of party-goers he kept which are now yellowed and deteriorating at the creases.

Finally, I’m taken with the description of characters and places in the novel. Even the fictitious East and West Egg and the Valley of Ashes are so descriptive. I see the events and what they seem to represent. I look forward to seeing the latest version of the movie. I only hope (and from watching the movie trailers, I really hope I’m wrong) the music is true to the Roaring Twenties and not an updated hip-hop rendition of those fast-paced jazz tunes.

All Things Writing

Looking for tips about writing? See my blog at the Word-Coach.com or click here.

Recent topics include: Recharging Stalled Writing, Breaking Writer’s Block, and  Setting Goals instead of New Year’s Resolutions.

If you want to know how  and what I read in my free time and how I incorporate that into my writing workshops, see my Goodreads page.

The “Read” Not Taken

Who got Kindles, Nooks, or iPads for the holidays? It’s time to load them with e-books and apps (and I’ll be offering my latest Kindle book free in the next few days). I never thought I’d read e-books; now I’m seriously considering writing more of them. The possibilities (for my background) are numerous. One of the big features is the option to publish shorter pieces, advice, nonfiction, fiction, etc.

Several of my traditionally published books also have e-book versions; in fact, my Kids Throughout History series was among the first (of my titles) electronically published for schools and libraries in early 2000. Still, I always thought I’d prefer hard copy books, or as my sister-in-law calls them, “dead tree mode.”

I’m particular about my books. They have to be hardback or trade paperback. I’ve never been a fan of the “pocket” paperbacks. But, I did purchase several PDF style books when Amazon first started selling their “shorts.” During my graduate work, I tried a few e-books to save on textbook costs. A big mistake! I hated sitting at the computer in order to read my assignments and it was tough to use the highlight and note features; it simply wasn’t the same as curling up with a book.

Eventually I downloaded the book apps for PC and acquired several titles. It wasn’t until recently, when I explored plans for e-publishing, that I began reading more e-books.

It’s sort of like research. Are the free books worth it? How does the pricing work? I read the reviews and comments carefully to help me make decisions for pricing choices and such with my own e-published books. I even played around with my sister’s iPad and a friend’s Kindle. They’re neat! They’re heavier than I assumed but probably not much more than the books I read. And, you can “curl up” with them.

So, in all, I like e-books though I still purchase my share of “dead tree mode” books. Two things bug me though. One, strange formatting. Maybe it’s because I spent a few years as a typesetter for a weekly newspaper but I notice whether text moves back and forth between flush left and full justification, or the font changes, or for some reason a word (or letter, or page) is suddenly red or blue instead of black. It bugs me! I notice. And it interrupts the flow of the story for me. Because I was “doing research,” I read the stories despite the format “glitches.”

These could become the “reads” not taken. I don’t want people to delete my e-books or write nasty reviews that state “it wasn’t worth the price–and I got it free.” Ouch! I read many such reviews, so when I published, I worked hard to eliminate these issues and get the formatting consistent.

The second thing that bugs me is typos. I’m calling mistakes in grammar typos because I truly hope they are mere typos and not a book that should have been edited or proofread before being e-published. This thinking is easier for me than when the errors are misspellings or frequently confused words. Sometimes I’ve noticed a place where an error was caught but the correction and the error remained “you’re your car key’s are here.”

Sadly there have been a few books (thankfully they were free) that were so riddled with grammatical errors, especially misplaced modifiers, that I wonder about the credibility of the author. No wonder e-books had a bad rep at first. Some of the worst offenders have the imprint of big publishing houses, too. Absolutely unacceptable.

Yes, typos and errors slip in. We’re all human. Sometimes deadlines are simply too tight and careful proofreading is rushed. I know I have to try my hardest to make my product the best it can be. I don’t want my writing to become the “read not taken.”

Building Background

My writing students are often baffled when I ask questions about background for their stories. How did this come about? What is your character seeing at this moment? What sounds does she hear? What odors does he smell?  They want to know why it matters. It matters because the reader needs details to help connect him or her to the story. This creates reader engagement.

These writing students have vague ideas where their stories take place but the thought of “research” to build the background for their stories seems “wrong” to them. After all, they are the creators of this story—anything is possible, and everything they say “goes.”  True, but all the details need to make sense to the reader. It’s also true that fantasy and science fiction authors must make up every detail of their world while stories taking place in the present time need only mention a few details so the reader has some anchor point for painting the scene in his or her mind.  Fantasy and science fiction authors create the story setting and background by “world building.” But stories set in the here-and-now also need a little research. After all, if your character is in the woods of North Carolina and comes face-to-face with a poisonous snake, that snake had better exist in the North Carolina woods. If not, the writer’s credibility as a storyteller evaporates.

Whether I’m working on a contemporary story or one of my “other world” stories, I use sensory details to think about the setting and make decisions about the background for my stories. If I’m taking a walk and notice a particular tree, I wonder what type of trees my characters would see in a particular scene. What sounds would Kaelyne hear when she’s in training? What sounds and smells does Kaia hear at the compound, or while exploring outside? Does Kaelyne see squirrels or other small furry rodents that inhabit trees and chitter to each other? What strange species does Kaia see on her alien planet? Are they poisonous? Dangerous? How do made-up creatures (animal and insect) move? What do they eat? What are the native species of plants and animals? Are their invasive species, as we have here in Florida? What problems do they cause? (The answer to this question could lead to a subplot, especially if Kaia or the others in her compound are blamed for bringing those invasive species to the planet.)

I remind myself to look up, too. As a child I was a sky-gazer. I loved looked at the clouds and, during the evenings, at the night sky. So I think about both the day and night sky as I build the background for my stories. Clouds can alert characters—in any type of world—to weather conditions. Stars and moons in the night sky can immediately alert the reader that this is not Earth. But our stars have constellations with connected stories and legends, so what connections and legends do the stars in my other worlds have? How will this  help my characters as they work to resolve their story conflicts?

So, when a writer is creating a world for fantasy or science fiction stories, he or she has more details to sort out, but a writer with a story set in the here-and-now still has details to consider and decisions to make. The background he or she builds helps the reader engage with the characters and have a stronger story experience. Taking a moment or two to envision what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like and then weaving those details in as the characters notice them, will help make your story real no matter where or when it takes place.

Make Your Clay

Earlier this week I finally had a chance to catch up with a dear friend. We went for a walk on the beach and talked about writing. Since she has taken my writing classes in the past (that’s actually how I met her), she reminded me about something I tell my students at all levels: “make your clay and then worry about details later.”

What do I mean by this? A writer’s draft is the medium of our craft which we shape and refine during revision. The real work of writing comes during revision. As writers we need to make our clay, meaning getting the words out of our heads and onto paper where we can then work and rework those words into a finished manuscript. If we were painters, we would have brushes, paints, palette, and paper or canvas to use to create our work. If we were potters, we would begin with a lump of clay and mold, shape, and work in details.

Writers, too, need something to work with–something to shape, trim away excess, add in detail, refine and illuminate. So I encourage all my writers to finish (or nearly finish) a draft before they focus on revising. Why? It’s easier to trim away the excess and add in details, develop a character, refine a plot line, and so on, if you have your basic three-part structure in place. It’s not set in stone. Word processing programs make it (thankfully) easy to move, cut, and add (and return to a previous version if necessary). But, once the words are in black type on white paper or screen, it gives the writer something to see and work with, much like the clay used by potters and sculptors.

Having something concrete to shape takes away the tension of revision for newer writers. Viewing the draft as something that includes debris or flaws to pick out takes the pressure off of creating a “perfect” first draft. The key word is “first,” since many writers create multiple “drafts” before a polished piece is sent to an editor. Incidentally, the editor then refers to that much-revision MS as the “first draft,” since it is his or her first go-round in editing it.

An NF book is born

I learned why woodpeckers would bother drilling on glass or metal. It’s a way to mark territory–or make their presence known. This makes a lot of sense; it’s only been a few months since I heard the glass tapping and that’s about the time I noticed many more woodpeckers around here. Tapping on glass is incredibly loud (I’ve heard it coming from a neighboring building) and it reverberates. What a way to “notify” other woodpeckers in the area.

I also discovered some interesting facts. I had no idea that these birds have a long, sticky tongue they use to extract insects, spider eggs, and insect larva from the holes they drill in trees. The Northern Flicker, a type of woodpecker, actually spends much of its time on the ground collecting ants with that sticky tongue.

Woodpeckers have feet designed to allow them to walk up and down tree trunks. Unlike other birds, they have two toe claws in the front an two in the back to prevent them from tipping back or falling as they drill into trees. They use their stiff tail feathers as further support and have muscles in their necks that serve as shock absorbers as they hammer into trees and branches. There is even a sap-sucking woodpecker which drills into a tree and extracts the sap, instead of feeding on insects. This type of woodpecker actually damages, even kills, trees.

Incidently, what I thought were red-headed woodpeckers are probably either ivory-billed or pileated woodpeckers. All those I’ve seen have had a cap of red on the crown; however, this is common with most species, except the flicker. The red-headed woodpecker has a fully red head and neck. I’ve definitely seen those when I lived in Michigan, but thought they were the males while the red-capped birds where the females.

So, now I’m eager to observe the next woodpeckers as they hammer out a meal. And I’m gathering more information about these birds. Perhaps I have an article based on this “wondering.” Certainly I have the seeds (and a bit of the research done) to begin a children’s book on these interesting birds.