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Blog Your Book? Why not Email It!

Nina Amir came out with a book in 2012 entitled How To Blog A Book. That book sits on my desk now. As Amazon would say, “I am a verified purchaser.”

“Write, publish, and promote your work one post at a time,” Amir suggests.

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Great advice. Grab a cup of coffee and go to it.

Amir quotes Professor John Keats: “If you can write an article, you can write a nonfiction book. A nonfiction book is just a series of articles on the same topic strung together.”

Now Jon Morrow has hosted Cathy Preston on his blog, Smart Blogger, (September 1, 2016). Preston writes about this same topic in this excellent and comprehensive post:  From Blog to Book: The Simple Strategy Smart Authors are Using in 2016.

Blogging a book is smart. You build up the content over a period of time, and it’s tested by readers. You collect responses and tweak the content when readers toss in good suggestions or challenge you  (politely, of course!) on what you have written.

Bloggers, Preston says, have several advantages over wannabe writers: you have a writing habit, and you have developed an audience. She also says that bloggers have one more thing: gumption! Nice to get compliments like that.

But what if you have all that content in your head, and you can’t get it down on paper?22637410-smart-boy-cartoon[1]

Ground Zero Chaplain Bob Ossler had this problem. He has an eidetic memory for details of events, but perhaps because of his eclectic learning style, he has difficulty getting his stories down on paper. We met at a writers’ critique group which my friend Kathryn Ross of The Writers Reverie and I started in May of 2015. Bob came to that first meeting and told us one compelling, jaw-dropping, tear-jerking story after another of his interactions with firefighters, police officers, search and rescue workers, volunteers, and everyday citizens who visited Ground Zero to get an understanding of the magnitude of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001…in many cases, to get a bit of closure after losing a loved one in the exploding, crashing towers.

And he told of us his exasperated and failed attempts to write his memories of Ground Zero and September 11 and its aftermath. We had a suggestion for him. Write emails. Write one email at a time about your experiences. He wrote those emails to me, and I became his mentor, writing partner, and editor. The writing group became Bob’s support team and kept the encouragement going strong.

Here’s an excerpt from the preface of our book Triumph Over Terror that tells how we published his book from his emails.

 

Writing this book was the hardest work I have ever done.

I’m a talker, not a writer. I’m an ordained chaplain, not a psychologist. I love people and want to encourage and support them in times of crisis and need, whenever and wherever the opportunity arises, whatever the mode of communication. And I want to share God’s love and comfort with everyone.

I worked at Ground Zero for five tours of duty in the fall of 2001. My first attempts, years ago, to write about September 11, 2001 and its aftermath ended in torrents of tears, frustration, and failure as recalled events tore open unhealed heart wounds.

Now, fifteen years later, for the 15th anniversary of 9-11, encouraging writer friends pushed me, yes, even lovingly commanded me to write through the pain, not only to bring closure for myself, but to bring God’s message of comfort to others suffering through crises. My friends assured me that my words would encourage others to stand firm in their faith despite heartache and suffering.

“Through sharing our pain,” they said, “we touch the hearts of others. So, write out your memories, and let God use them for His purposes.”

“But I’m not a writer.”

Janice Heck challenged me. “Can you write emails?”

“Yes.”

“Then write emails,” she suggested.

And so, I began to write again.

On this latest attempt, I cried as I wrote out streams of emails, hundreds of them, about random and out-of-order Ground Zero happenings, about memories long buried. These missives soon fell into clusters, then into chapters, then into this book.

Incident after incident from Ground Zero flowed back through my mind in startling detail, releasing long pent-up emotions.

But this book is not a retelling of the sequence of happenings on 9/11. Triumph Over Terror is my reflection on the tragic assault on New York City and our country and how the hearts and minds of those affected by the events suffered, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Over time, God helped me and others triumph over this terror to find peace and renewed faith despite the graphic images scrolling through our minds at random times.

Of course, writing Triumph Over Terror was a bit more complicated that that. Bob and I spent many hours together as we rehashed scenes, and I begged him for even more details. At times I felt like I was pouring salt into his newly reopened heart and spirit wounds. Bob shed more tears, but he didn’t quit. He had gumption. He wanted to get his story out, not only to clear his overstuffed mind, but to share his story in the hopes that it might help others going through terrors or trials of their own.

Bob didn’t quite tell the story in sequential order, and sometimes he told three or four stories blended together. We had to revisit stories many times and separate out the details. As he’d read a draft of one story out loud in our meetings, he’d stop and start talking…telling more and more details extracted from the stash in his memory vaults. The startling, jarring, and even shocking details often limited the amount of time we could work. The emotional strain pulled on us both, but primarily on Bob.

With a first draft of a number of chapters in hand, we attended the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference organized by Marlene Bagnull in August of 2015. There editors, publishers, and other writers gave us feedback on the book and encouraged us to keep working. One publisher, Scoti Springfield Domeij grasped the scope, focus, and intent of the book and encouraged to write more, then submit our new chapters to her company, Blackside Publishing.

Long story short, fifteen months after our first writers group meeting, we ended up with a published book, Triumph Over Terror. 

Click here to check out this book on Amazon.

FINAL Front COVER Triumph Over Terror FOREWORD WHITE (2)

Read another excerpt from Triumph Over Terror here: Fadda, Fadda, Can We Talk. A 9-11 Memory

Visit Chaplain Bob Ossler’s website at www.Triumphoverterror.com to read more excerpt of his book and to find out more about his life’s ventures.

Click here to go to Amazon for How To Blog a Book.

From Blog to Book: The Simple Strategy Smart Authors are Using in 2016

SPELLING: Change the Y to I and …

Do you remember learning this spelling rule in third grade?

When adding endings to words that end in Y, change the Y to I and add the ending…

fry             fried

The printer who made this sign forgot this rule.

iphone 10-8-14 006

I went by this same strip mall restaurant a few weeks later, and saw a new sign on the lawn featuring smoked ribs and FRIED shrimp.  Someone learned a new rule, but it cost him a few pennies in the process.

 

Superman to the Rescue: The It’s and Its Problem:

It’s and its confusion consistently hits the top of the most common error charts. But wait, Superman can help you remember when to use the contraction it’s.

It’s is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb:    it’s  =  it is

Using contractions in our speaking and writing makes our language flow more naturally. Without contractions, our language sounds more formal, rigid, stilted, and unnatural. If you want to sound conversational in your writing, use contractions but remember to use the apostrophe correctly.

Here’s how Superman sees it:

Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015
Stop and think about Superman when you use the contraction it’s. Superman loves apostrophes.

Special thanks to Mandy Heck for her artwork.

Its and It’s: Church Steeples and Dog Collars

Of all the possessive pronouns, the simple its causes the most problems. It is most commonly confused with the contraction it’s (it is).

its = possessive form of the pronoun it
it’s = contraction of it is

Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015

Use these clues for using the possessive pronoun (its) correctly:

  1. Possessive pronouns work as adjectives to limit nouns.
    my          our     your      his        hers       it       their
  2. Possessive pronouns never use apostrophes to show possession or ownership
    my         our     your       his        hers       its        their
  3. A noun follows a possessive pronoun:
    its sign       its steeple       its collar
  4. An adjective may follow the possessive pronoun:
    its yellow sign    its big sign   its tall sign  its white steeple
  5. The possessive pronoun its is usually not found at the beginning of a sentence.

The poodle lost its pink diamond-studded collar.

The maple tree lost its red and yellow leaves.

The gray kitten lapped up its cold milk.

The cow chewed its cud.
Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015

See also: Play Monopoly with its and it’s 

Play Monopoly with Its and It’s

It’s and its are commonly confused words in writing. You see examples of this confusion on signs and social media sites every day; yet this common mistake can be easily checked and fixed.

It's and its photo by Janice Heckits = possessive form of the pronoun it

it’s = contraction of it is

Three clues for using the possessive pronoun (its) correctly:

  1. Possessive pronouns never use apostrophes to show possession or ownership (my, his, her, its, our, your, their).
  2. The possessive pronoun its is usually not found at the beginning of a sentence.
  3. A noun (possibly with an adjective) follows a possessive pronoun:  its sign   its yellow sign    its big sign   its tall sign

Which one: its or it’s?

Check 1: Does the sentence make sense using the contraction it’s (it is) in place of the possessive pronoun its?

It’s Monopoly Time.  (It is Monopoly Time.)

McDonald’s sign makes sense with the contraction it’s for  it is.

Therefore, McDonald’s made a mistake on its yellow sign. The sign needs the contraction it’s (it is) and it’s (it is) not the possessive pronoun its.

Check 2: Position of its in sentence:

The possessive its is not usually found at the beginning of a sentence.

  • McDonald’s made a mistake on its yellow sign.

More sentences with the possessive pronoun its.

  1. The dog chases its fluffy tail while the kitten chews its paw.
  2. The tree lost its yellow leaves in the windstorm.
  3. The members of the church painted its tall steeple and its white front door.
  4. The store advertised its January sale in its display window.
  5. His truck lost its extra wheel.

Do you see the position of its in these sentences?
Do you see the adjectives tucked in after its and before the nouns?

Both of these clues help you identify the possessive pronoun its.
These sentences make sense using the possessive pronoun its.

Here’s a tricky one:

  • This is my dog. Its name is Blackey. It’s chewing its tasty bone.

The second sentence begins with the possessive pronoun its (an example of a sentence that does start with its.)
The third sentence uses both it’s (contraction for it is) and its (possessive pronoun).

Use these clues to help you use its and it’s correctly.

Happy New Year’s Day

Happy New Year – 2015!

May your new year be filled with joy and blessings. May you be comforted in any sadness.

free images photos dot com

photo: free images-photosdotcom

Did you stop and think about using an apostrophe for this New Year’s Day?

Apostrophes on holidays can be confusing. Some holidays use them; some do not.

If you say “Happy New Year,” don’t worry about an apostrophe. You don’t need one.

But if a noun follows “New Year,” use an apostrophe:

  • New Year’s Day
  • New Year’s Eve
  • New Year’s presents
  • New Year’s wishes
  • New Year’s parades
  • New Year’s fireworks
  • New Year’s celebrations

Other holidays that use apostrophes:

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Saint Patrick’s Day
  • Mother’s Day
  • Father’s Day.

If you have a holiday with plurals, remember to put the apostrophe after the s.

  • Presidents’ Day
  • April Fools’ Day

Tricks and Traps on holiday apostrophes: some holidays do not have an apostrophe:

  • Veterans Day
  • Armed Forces Day
  • United Nations Day

And now that you have rested up from your New Year’s Eve celebrations, what do you have planned for New Year’s Day?

Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? Plurals and Apostrophes

During the course of my weekly Mahjong game with Linda, Suzanne, and Cathy, the conversation shifted to our English languageGraphic by Janice Heck error pet peeves.

Linda said, “I hate it when people misuse apostrophes. Don’t they learn about apostrophes in third grade?”

Well, no, in third grade the kids just want to get outside for recess to play ball. You don’t need apostrophes out on the field, just a good pitching or catching arm and fast running. With those three key ingredients, you can be a star.

Plurals and Apostrophe Confusion

It’s around third grade that apostrophes start their mischievous and devious lives.

Plurals come easily to young children, that is, until about third grade when they half-learn about apostrophes. Apostrophes look so grown up in writing that children begin to use them everywhere, forgetting what they have learned earlier about plurals. Many children get plurals and apostrophes straightened out after some patient teaching, but alas, many get stuck in third grade using apostrophes on plurals or omitting them on possessive nouns.

There’s Hope!

Teachers use an old rhyme to help children decode words with double vowels (rain, brain, pea, speak, teach, boat, coat, glue, and so on).

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.

Thus in words like speak, teach, coat, and glue you pronounce the sound of the first letter (long vowels say their own name) while the second letter remains silent.

We can make up a similar rhyme to help us remember how to use apostrophes:

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

The Apostrophe’s Function

The apostrophe answers this question:   Who owns this (book, ball, pen, house, car, whatever)?

Who?   A person = Noun                Owns what?  A thing = Noun

Blaze this in Your Memory Banks: 

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

To use the possessive apostrophe correctly, you must have two nouns.

Here’s Abbey’s Alphabet to help you check out this guideline.

Check. Does every example have two nouns? (a person and an object)

Possessive nouns and apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Possessive Nouns and Apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Alas. Of  course, there are more apostrophe rules. We will talk about them in future posts. But for now, just remember that you need a possessive noun and an object noun to use an apostrophe to show possession.

Your Turn:

What writing quirks do you find in writing? What’s your pet peeve in writing?

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and the Ghostly And

In previous posts, Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior and Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire, we learned: use a comma before the conjunction and in a series (list) of three or more grammatically similar words, phrases, or clauses (even though journalists, Brits, and Aussies do not follow this convention). And remember to check the style guidelines of the publishers for whom you write to see which way they want you to use the serial comma.

The classic example using the serial comma before the conjunction:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

American flag

But you know writers. They like to mix it up a bit. Once they master this basic rule of using a comma and conjunction in a series (list), they proceed to make variations on the rule.

One Variation: The Ghostly and.

Instead of using a final conjunction before the last element in the series (list), the writer simply drops the conjunction and.Death Warmed Over

Eliminating the and in a series in a sentence can be an effective style choice. Let’s go back to the Unnatural Quarter and see what Zombie Private Investigator, Dan Shamble is investigating now. (Kevin J. Anderson, Death Warmed Over, 2012)

List of Nouns and Noun Phrases with the Ghostly and

Note: The parentheses indicate the placement of the ghostly and.

I look pretty good for a dead guy, or so I’ve been told:
well-trimmed dark hair,
striking eyes accentuated by bold eyebrows, (    )
just the right amount of “rugged.”

I like the bustle and little distracting noises around the office:
the ringing phone,
the slam of file-cabinet drawers, (    )
the clacking of a keyboard as Sheyenne’s ghost types up reports.

In the back room of the flat, behind a closed door, I could hear
a whimper,
muffled screams, (    )
the sounds of a struggle.

List of Verb Phrases with the Ghostly and

The ghostly and with a series of verb phrases builds tension in the story.

I spotted the silhouette of a large hairy form
loping among the graves,
sniffing the ground, (     )
coming closer.

Without me in the office Robin threw herself back into her cases,
filing more briefs and appeals,
appearing in court, (     )
speaking with fiery vehemence on behalf of her clients.

List of Independent Clauses (complete sentences in a series) with the ghostly and

Businesses sprang up that catered to the specialized clientele:
Commercial blood drives commissioned fresh supplies for vampire customers;
processing plants developed seasonings and treatments to make chicken “taste just like human”; (     )
restaurants and bars served the proper food choices.

In order to live peacefully together, unnaturals had learned to control their base urges and get along with one another…
Werewolves no longer killed human victims each full moon,
vampires gave up drinking all but voluntarily donated blood, (    )
zombies and ghouls foreswore eating human flesh.

The Fragmented Spirit: The Serial and, the Ghostly and, and the First Word of Sentence and.

Why not throw in another way to use the word and in a sentence (or not)?

Our grammar school teachers frowned when we innocently began sentences with a capitalized And. But writers nowadays regularly use that capitalized And to begin sentences, thumbing their noses at their grade-school teachers, I guess.

In this next example, Kevin J. Anderson throws in three different ways to use the word and:

  1. the compound sentence and,
  2. the ghostly and,
  3. and the first word of sentence And.

I’m dead, for starters—it happens.
But I’m still ambulatory, and I can still think, (     ) still be a contributing member of society (such as it is, these days).
And still solve crimes.

Thank goodness for P. I. Shamble. What would this world be like if all those zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and other assorted created had no legal assistance to solve their life’s problems?

Restless unnaturals instead of placated unnaturals? Let’s not go there! Keep up the good word, Shamble. In the meantime, the rest of us may borrow some of your writing stylistics using the conjunction and.

(Note: While zombie books are not especially a favorite of mine, I do believe it is important to read widely across all genres. Sometimes we can learn new things when reading in a genre that is not familiar to us. And, these books are funny!)

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire

In Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior, serial comma (aka Harvard Comma and Oxford Comma) combatants duked it out over correct usage.

On my scoreboard, the serial comma won, hands down. But journalists, Brits, and Aussies don’t all agree with me.

A Bigger Problem: Parallel Structure

But a major underlying issue compounds the serial comma problem: parallel structure.

To be grammatically correct, both serial commas and parallel structure must be right in your writing.

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft wickedly Effective Prose (1999), reminds us of the danger of not books on writing - Hale 001understanding parallel structure and appropriate punctuation:

Some of the most hilarious errors in English result from phrases that aren’t properly tracked. If you don’t know what you’re doing, phrases will deliver you straight to The Danger Zone.

Want to avoid errors with serial commas and parallel structure and keep June Casagrande’s nasty old grammar snobs from picking on your writing (Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, 2006)?   Read on.

Look for the Lists

My husband (My Heck of a Guy, affectionately known as MyHog for short) is set in his ways about just how to loads the eating utensils in the dishwasher.

Grammar graphic by Janice Heck

(Just don’t nest the utensils. They will get cleaner if they go every-which-way.)

Whatever. Makes no difference to me; he loads the dishwasher, so he can do it any way he wants.

I must admit (but don’t tell him I said this) his method of loading the dishwasher makes it easier to empty the dishwasher. Grab a handful of knives and plop them into their home base in the utensil drawer. Repeat. In six basic swoops, the utensils are happily nested in the silverware drawer.

Serial Lists: Like Parts of Speech Go Together

Serial lists are like loading silverware in the dishwasher: like parts of speech go together.

Grammar Graphic "Parallel Lists" by Janice Heck

These patterns, known as parallel structure, keep your writing organized and bring poetic flow to your sentences. If you mix grammatical words, phrases, or clauses in lists (non-parallel structure), you not only lose the flow of your sentence, but you become snickering fodder for the grammar snobs who lie in wait ready to pounce on any and all unsuspecting and naïve writers.

Writing lists in non-parallel structure to good writers is like throwing a teaspoon down the garbage disposal while it is running: it makes a terrible clunking noise, and you just want to make it stop.

Serial Lists in Zombie TerritoryDeath Warmed Over

Zombies? I follow my own advice and read widely in all genres. So when a zombie book came my way, I read it…and laughed the entire way through.

New York Times bestselling author, Kevin J. Anderson, is a master at using serial lists in his book, Death Warmed Over (2012). (All quotes in this post are from this book unless otherwise noted.)

Zombie private investigator Dan Shamble, pronounced Chambeaux, despite being dead himself, hires out to other baffled “unnaturals” (zombies, vampires, ghouls, and other utterly dead or dying creatures), each with his or her own devastating problem, all the while keeping an eye out for his own double-dealing killer.

Statistics, according to P. I. Shamble, show that these unnaturals are a serious problem:

According to the latest statistics by the DUS, the Department of Unnatural Services, about one out of every seventy-five corpses wakes up as a zombie…

With so many zombies and unnaturals around, sooner or later they will surely invade our sentences. Here’s how to root them out and get them the commas they deserve.

Lists of Words inside Sentences.

Key to success: Keep the parts of speech under control.

Private Investigator Shamble keeps these parts of speech under control with ease. Have a look:

1.  List of 3 or more single nouns.  Pattern:  …noun, noun, and noun…

The world’s a crazy place since the Big Uneasy, the event that changed all the rules and allowed a flood of baffled unnaturals to return—zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and the usual associated creatures.

I reworded Anderson’s  sentence to show that the list of nouns can be in the front of your sentence (the subject) or it can be in the back of your sentence (the predicate–as  above).

Zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, other baffled unnaturals, and other associated creatures have flooded the world since the Big Uneasy, making the world a crazy place.

2. List of 3 or more single adjectives. Pattern: …adjective, adjective, and adjective…

 [The werewolf hit man] was a smelly, hairy, muscular guy, half-wolf and half-human.

Lists of adjectives can go in the predicate as above or in the subject as in the reworded sentence below:

That smelly, hairy, muscular guy, half-wolf and half-human, is the werewolf hit man.

3. List of 3 or more single verbs. Pattern: …verb, verb, and verb…

The worst characters [the unnaturals] were arrested, tried, and sentenced…

Keep in mind that verb tense in series must be kept parallel too!

Lists of Phrases inside Sentences:

1. List of noun phrases: (noun plus descriptive details written here in list form so you can see the parallel structure easier)

A dead detective,
a wimpy vampire, and
other interesting characters from the supernatural side of the street
make Death Warmed Over an unpredictable walk on the weird side.
Charlaine Harris, Book Reviewer, Death Warmed Over

 Just before noon, the artist’s ghost manifested himself in our second-floor offices, wearing his preferred form:
 long ponytail,
 tie-dyed shirt, and
 paint-stained jeans.

The main door burst open, and a terrified-looking man [a vampire] ran in. He wore
a dark overcoat,
gloves,
a black floppy-brimmed hat, and
oversized wraparound sunglasses like the ones old ladies wear after cataract surgery.

Robin spread out the legal forms on the signing table. “I have
the property deed to the real estate in Greenlawn Cemetery,
the plat marking the location of the crypt, and
the ownership transfer documents for Mr. Ricketts to sign.” 

**Effective Writing Style Tip:  for added interest, vary the length of each item in the series. Most often, put your longest item last, but you can vary this arrangement to make it more interesting. Try different arrangements to see how they work.

**Bonus: Here’s a double series of adjective/noun phrases.

Many haunters, underground dwellers, sewer jockeys, and walking dead
don’t mind
ramshackle appearances, piled garbage, or thick shadows . . .

2. List of verb phrases. Pattern: …verb phrase, verb phrase, and verb phrase…

After returning to life, I had
shambled back into the office,
picked up my caseload, and
got to work again.

***

In law school, she [Robin, Shamble’s secretary, and a ghost, of course] had been able to
pull all-nighters;
study,
write a term paper,
go to class in the morning,
take an exam,
hang out with friends in the afternoon, and
party at night.

***

Days of investigation had led me to the graveyard. I
dug through the files,
interviewed witnesses and suspects,
met with the ghost artist Alvin Ricketts and separately with his indignant still-living family.

3. List of adverb phrases. Pattern: …adverb phrase, adverb phrase, and adverb phrase…

Popular writer of his own zombie novels, Jonathan Maberry, reviewed Anderson’s Death Warmed Over using a series of adverb phrases. (Note his choice of omitting the serial comma!)

Master storyteller Kevin J. Anderson’s Death Warmed Over is
wickedly funny,
deviously twisted and
enormously satisfying.
Two decaying thumbs up!
Jonathan Maberry, Review of Death Warmed Over

While the rest of us have been warned not to overuse adverbs in our writing, book reviewers seem to get thrills and energizing chills from using them willy-nilly! Oh well, when you are famous, you follow a different set of rules. (Read: Don’t Use Adverbs? Book Reviewers Use Them!)

Finally, Remember Four Key Principles when Using Parallel Structure

  1. Look for series/lists in sentences. Good writers use them.
  2. Keep like parts of speech together in series/lists (parallel structure).
  3. Keep verb tense the same in a series of verb phrases.
  4. Use the serial comma (the comma before the conjunction).

Follow these simple guidelines, and you will keep the grammar meanies away forever!

Of course, there are more ways to use parallel structure, and future posts will give examples of these: Parallel structure with clauses coming soon.

**Effective Writing Style tip: Good writers use parallel structure to bring rhythm and flow to their writing.

And now, if you want to read more about the zombie invasion, here is another Kevin Anderson book., Hair Raising.book for blog - Anderson, Hair Raising 001

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite quote using parallel structure?

Can you use one of Anderson’s sentence patterns in your writing using your own topic-related words?

 

One Tired, Tarnished Writing Tip…with Six Twists

Read.

That’s It. That’s the tired tip.

Read.

Probably the most common piece of advice given to wannabe and novice writers. The advice is generic…read, read, read.

Yes, and then . . .?

What does reading do for our writing?

Pat Conroy, author of My Reading Life (2010), suggests this:Conroy My Reading Life

Now when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.

The unstated purposes of “read, read, read” for writers are

  •  to explore all genres of writing,
  •  to identify qualities in writing that appeal to us as readers,
  •  to emulate those fine qualities in our own writing, and
  •  ultimately, as Conroy suggests, to internalize our reading so we change and become better persons ourselves.

How can you read more, high quality writers without spending a fortune at Books-a-Million, Amazon.com, Ex Libris, or other on-line purveyors? Try these six twists based on that one tired tip.

1. Scour the new book shelves at your local library.

I walk through the swinging doors of my library in Mays Landing, NJ, a small town at the headwaters of the Egg Harbor River, and immediately face the new book shelves, right next to the BiblioCafé with its selection of teas, coffees, and snacks. Four twelve-foot long shelves showcase the newest book acquisitions—both fiction and nonfiction. A veritable storehouse of treasure.

2. Let the titles grab you.Craig Childs, Finders Keepers

Here’s one title that grabbed my attention a while ago: Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession (2010) by Craig Childs. (Okay, I admit it. I gravitate to non-fiction books.) These strong words in the title grab my attention: finder-keepers (flashback to childhood arguments with my siblings); tale (here comes a good story); plunder (who’s going to make off with the money, the jewels, the damsel in distress?); obsession (in the desert? What?) What drama. What tension. Don’t you want to know more about this?

This book is cram-packed with Childs’ exquisite writing. Look carefully.  Study his voice. Analyze his craft.

3. Read first pages.

Pick up random new books with titles that catch your eye and interest and read the first few pages while standing at the shelves. Which snippets beg you to read more? What questions pop in your mind? Don’t you want to know the answers? Would you like to write like this?

Pat Conroy in My Reading Life says,

I consider myself a small-time aficionado of first and last pages.

Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, suggests that the first five Noah Lukeman, First Five Pagespages, first five sentences even, of a manuscript can tell an editor whether he or she should pursue reading the whole book. Look at these new books and ask yourself, “What is in these first five pages that made the editor choose this book for publication.” Look for the author’s voice, ideas, art and poetic flair, of course, but also look for writing craft.

4. Follow the Trail. Request books.

The Mays Landing, NJ, our big small-town library, casts a wide net when it comes to borrowing books. I wanted to read more of Chris Child’s writing, so Librarian Sue checked and found Childs’ The Secret Knowledge of Water (2000) in a college library some miles away. Through inter-library Loan, I got the book the next day. Dried out water holes in a dessert? What could be more boring? But listen to the language.

An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember Craig Childs, Secret Knowledge of Waterthree things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of bluffs and boulders. The second is a tadpole worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious to me that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything out here.

Childs’ first person point of view makes this narrative personal. You can almost touch the early morning scene he describes: mom and child walking hand-in-hand to hunt for treasures obscured by years of desert dust. I not only like the description, I like the orderliness and tightness of the writing. And I like the profound concluding statement that portends surprising things to come. I want to read more.

5. Savor exquisite writing.

As you read, look for exquisite language: precise choice of words and phrases, well put-together sentences, original similes and metaphors, and surprising elements. Copy these selections into your writer’s quote notebook and decide why you like them. (You do have a personal quote book, don’t you?)

6. Mimic good writers.

When you read an exquisite selection, mimic it. You will grow as a writer. Can you write a similar scene using your own words and experiences?

William Caine, in Write Like the Masters, Emulating the Best of Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, and Others, says this:William CAine, Write Like the Masters

You cannot become a terrific writer just—poof!—out of thin air. It takes something pre-existing, some structural savvy, some foundational in technique, some underlying sense of the possibilities of language before you can strip off your topcoat and tap dance across the pages like Fred Astaire.

So, yes, wannabe writers, read, read, read. Make friends with your local library and librarians. They will quickly learn your interests and suggest other good reading possibilities. Then collect words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and mimic them. Make that tired tip—read—help you become a better writer!

Something Else To Read:

Two Writing Teachers: Beginning of the Year Read Alouds This blog’s tagline: “A Meeting Place for a World of Reflective Writers.” That sounds good to me. I am not teaching now, but these ideas are still good for mature developing writers.

Don’t forget to look at children’s books. Some of them have exquisite vocabulary and sentence structure use. The TWT blog suggests read alouds to use in the classroom, but you can review these same books to see why TWT recommendsthem.

Two Writing Teachers: Setting Up the Reading Journal for a Year of Writing About Reading

TWT gives excellent suggestions for helping students keep reading logs. You have a reading log, don’t you? Reading logs are the perfect place to jot down your reflections on what you read and to copy words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that appeal to you.

 Something Else to View: How [Reading] Fiction Makes Our Brains Better

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite quote from a book you have read recently?

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