Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.
They’re all true.
Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as
my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.
Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.
First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources. Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.
Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.
Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.
Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.
First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.
Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.
What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.
Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.
Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.
One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.
A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.
On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.
“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.
‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’
‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”
Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.
While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:
“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.
“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”
I just love Espinoza’s response.
A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:
“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).
Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.
In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.
I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”
Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).
Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).
Last Friday morning, my friend Lauren and I set out with my two dogs for a day trip to the Northern Neck of Virginia. We anticipated a day of sunshine and salty breezes, scouring the sand for sea glass and cooling our skin in the brackish water on the quiet beach, where the fresh waters of the Potomac River begin to mix with the saltier waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Our plan was to leave Richmond by 8 o’clock, landing ourselves on the warm sand by ten. We’d spend about four hours in a state of summer solitude, just two friends and two dogs soaking up the sunshine, catching up on each others’ lives, and strolling the strip of sand that is the beach. By 2 o’clock, we’d enjoy cruising the country roads home.
Last June, I equally optimistically started a different kind of journey: writing my first (and so far only) novel. I was convinced I could accomplish this goal before the end of the summer. I wrote almost every single day, anywhere from 500-3500 words a day. I spent hours outside on my back deck, typing away, bringing my characters and their circumstances to life, my whippet and beagle by my side. My plan was to have a near-perfect draft finished before another school year began in the fall.
After a pit stop or two, Lauren, the dogs, and I found ourselves finally on the road leading to the beach. This road is the absolute only way to reach the beach. As we rounded the last curve before the straightway to the water, we were greeted by three or four standing vehicles, a fire truck, a utility truck, and a few people pacing the street or leaning nonchalantly against their cars. The orange lights perched atop the utility truck were silently flashing, as were the lights atop the fire truck. Directly in front of the two emergency vehicles, a large, downed tree draped in power lines like tinsel on a Christmas tree blocked the road.
I slowed to a stop.
“Well,” I said. “This is probably the most exciting thing to happen here since forever.”
A man dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt approached and, hoping for an explanation, I rolled down my window and learned that though the fire department was on-scene, the power lines were still live, and the firefighters could do nothing about the downed tree or blocked road until the power company shut off power. No one knew when that might be.
“What do we do?” I said. “Do we just turn around and go home?” It seemed such a sad solution after driving so far, with such high hopes.
Lauren and I deliberated for a few minutes as to our other options, and adjusted our plans. At my parents’ recommendation, we drove to a small, public beach about 15 minutes away, hoping to let the dogs stretch their legs in the sand, and sit on the beach to eat the sack lunches we had packed. Then, perhaps we would revisit the scene of the fallen tree in hopes that everything had been cleared up, and the road reopened.
When the end of August arrived, my novel was closer to finished–but not actually so. That was okay, I told myself. The James River Writers Annual Conference was in October, and I could pitch to an agent then. I simply adjusted myself to the idea of a new deadline: October. As long as I was finished by October, and ready to pitch to an agent, I would be satisfied. And so, whenever I could find time between grading research papers and essays, I kept writing. The goal seemed achievable.
As we pulled into the little gravel parking lot at the end of the country road to Vir Mar Beach, the skies darkened slightly and the breeze picked up, the day feeling more like late October than late July.
“Watch. Now that we’ve finally found a beach, it’s gonna rain,” Lauren joked. No sooner had she spoken than a few stray drops landed with quiet taps on the windshield. Despite the spitting skies, I harnessed up the dogs and led them up the wooden steps, over the dune, and onto the beach.
Or at least what was left of it.
The tide must have been in, and it was so windy that the waves were rolling up almost to the sea grasses at the base of the dune, leaving only a small strip of damp sand, at its widest point perhaps a foot thick. In addition, the beach itself ran only about thirty to fifty feet in either direction before we were abruptly met with “Private Beach” signs, warning us back onto public sands. I walked the dogs to one end of the beach and back in less than three minutes, and Lauren and I ate our lunches in my parked car.
I wasn’t done with my novel by October, though I did make my first (albeit sorry) attempt at a pitch to a kind agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference, who told me she couldn’t really do anything without a manuscript, but generously offered to read sample pages if I sent them her way when I had a completed draft. I left the conference feeling both discouraged and inspired. I had not met my second deadline: my novel was still incomplete. I had not met my goal: I did not have an agent. But I did have reason to keep writing. So I did.
As Lauren and I finished our lunches, the same breeze blowing water across the beach to effectively obscure it, became more helpful, and began blowing away the low, dark clouds to allow the sun to make an appearance.
“Should we go back and see if the tree and power lines are all taken care of?” I asked.
Lauren agreed, and we were pleased to round the curve and find a clear route to the beach.
Just two days before Christmas, I finally completed the first draft of my novel. Few accomplishments in my life have been so satisfying, and though I knew my work was not done, I could finally say it: I wrote a book.
Although we had a mere hour before we needed to head home in time to be ready for our separate evening obligations, Lauren and I were rewarded for our determination to reach the beach. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed the sand. The water was clear and not as roiling as it had been earlier in the day, when we had seen it spilling onto the sands of little Vir Mar Beach. We found handfuls of colorful sea glass, and the dogs gleefully sniffed and wandered and waded.
By this June, I had completed three drafts of my novel, and felt ready to start the querying process. In July, I was thrilled to see an e-mail in my inbox from one of the agents to whom I had sent a query and some sample pages. My enthusiasm was dampened slightly when I opened the message, a polite and warmhearted thanks-but-no-thanks. I was not surprised, really, but I was somewhat disappointed. Still, I press on, more or less undaunted, and am currently working on the fourth draft, which I hope will fare better in its quest to find an agent, when the time comes.
While it was hard to go home so soon after finally reaching our destination, I found inspiration in the ultimate result of the day. Lauren, the dogs, and I had had to go through several obstacles to reach a goal we originally took for granted as easy to attain. We had had to be flexible. We had had to be persistent. We had had to remain steadfast in our goal despite many reasons to give in: a blocked road and seemingly inclement weather, with no clear end in sight for either. And because we had succeeded in all these, we had gotten an hour more on the beach than we would have gotten otherwise.
The connection between that Friday adventure and my writing is clear to me: We could have turned around, abandoning our goal altogether, at the first sign of trouble. But we didn’t. Many times in my writing process, I could have done the same. But I haven’t.
My dedication and determination to not only finish my book, but also to find an agent and publisher for it, once it is more polished, and Lauren’s and my dedication and determination to just make it to the beach are one in the same. I am confident that if, like Lauren and I last Friday, I can remain optimistic, perseverant, and dedicated, I will ultimately hold my book in my hand–and maybe someday, see it in the hands of others. And when that day comes, I will finally be able to sit back, turn my face to the sun, and bask on my own beach.
Just for a few minutes–before I start writing again.
In addition to the many writing techniques and skills I learned during my Master’s program in creative writing, I was introduced to the idea of a submissions spreadsheet. Although I had been submitting writing to contests and publishers as early as elementary school, when in fifth grade I entered (and won!) my first Young Authors competition, I was in my mid-twenties before it ever occurred to me to record my submission activities. Truth be told, it didn’t occur to me, exactly–a professor mentioned it in a course I was taking, and I thought: “Why didn’t I think of that?” And more, importantly: “Why haven’t I been doing that?” So, at the age of 25, fifteen years after beginning my publishing endeavors, I created a submissions spreadsheet using Microsoft Excel. Now, I keep it in two places: a flash drive in the original Excel file, and Google Sheets online.
What to Include in a Submissions Spreadsheet
At the very top of my spreadsheet appears the date I began keeping the record, in my case, September 21, 2009. Below, are categories of information I track.
Title of Work
The very first column in my file is the title of the piece. You may prefer to set up your record so that the first column lists a different detail of the work, but I find that the easiest way for me to quickly identify a work is by its title.
My second column lists the genre of the work–poem, novel, narrative essay, for example. This allows me to see which types of writing I have had the most success with, as well as which types I am most or least often submitting, or have most or least recently been submitting.
In the third column, I list the name of the agent, publisher, or publication to which I sent the work.
The fourth column simply lists the date I submitted the work to the publisher, agent, or publication. Many publications will give you a time frame for when you can expect to hear back, 3-4 or 6-8 weeks, for example. If you know when you submitted work to them, you can also estimate when you can expect to hear back. As many agents and publications will respond only if they are interested in your work, knowing when the time frame has expired can be beneficial in letting you know when it is safe to send the piece elsewhere, especially when you are sending it to publications that may not allow simultaneous submissions.
My “Responds in…” column refers to how long I can expect to wait before hearing back from an agent, publisher, or publication, for example 3-4 weeks if interested, one month if interested, 6-8 weeks, etc. Knowing the date submitted as well as the “responds in,” or turnaround, time can help you determine when you should give up on a certain publisher, agent, or publication, and move on to other options.
If an agent, publisher, or publication responds, I return to this column and add the date I received the response and/or the amount of time that elapsed between my submission and the publisher’s/agent’s/publication’s response. This way, if I ever submit work to the same agent, publisher, or publication, I can estimate with even more accuracy when I might expect to hear back.
In this column, I track whether the piece was accepted for publication or not (I categorize pieces that were ignored as “rejected”). I have read of other writers who find the word “rejected” too harsh and discouraging, but I have found this whole writing business requires a tough skin, so if my writing is not accepted by an agent, publisher, or publication, I just call it what it is: rejected.
If a piece of my writing is accepted for publication, I record the date it was published. This information comes in handy when updating my resume or my LinkedIn and Contently profiles, writing cover letters or query letters, or locating my work online. It also gives me an idea of when my dry spells and hot spells have been, allowing me to look for patterns and identify what factors might have led to publishing success in a certain time frame, but a lack of success in another.
The last column of my spreadsheet details how much money, if any, I earned from a certain piece of writing. This can be helpful for tax purposes, budgeting purposes, etc.
You will need to decide what categories are most appropriate for your own submission spreadsheet based on your writing and your organizational style, but the above are some fundamental ones to consider in getting started. Others might include word-count or line-count, draft number, time elapsed from starting to finishing a piece, feedback received from publication/agent, etc.
My first impression of Mary-Chris Escobar came in the fall of 2015, when I attended a presentation she helped lead at the James River WritersAnnual Conference. A few months later, as a co-worker and I labored to revive our school’s creative writing club and literary magazine, and I began to wonder what help might further motivate our teenage writers, I thought of Mary-Chris. How excited would these kids be to meet and talk to a real, live author–especially one as young, approachable, and encouraging as Ms. Escobar seemed to me? I sent her a quick e-mail, and was thrilled when she quickly responded and accepted my invitation. This past February, her presentation was a huge hit at one of our creative writing club meetings; we even had several non-members attend. Below is my recent interview with Richmond-based, self-published chick lit author, Mary-Chris Escobar.
Mind The Dog: Tell me about your genre, chick lit, and how you became interested in writing it.
Mary-Chris Escobar: Ah! I said that next time I got asked this question, I was just going to quote Phoebe Fox’s answer in this interview, because it’s basically perfect. I became interested in chick lit in the early 2000s, which was sort of the height of it’s popularity. At the time where there were a lot of books being written about women who seemed to be in sole pursuit of a husband, while loathing their jobs, living in New York and obsessing over really expensive shoes. However, while those stories seemed to become synonymous with the term “chick lit,” they were never the books I was drawn to. I like the first-person narrated books that shared a woman’s journey to finding her own strength and sense-of-self, independent of a romantic relationship. Sure there were relationships, but they weren’t the sole focus. There was also humor and wit to the stories– a certain, lightness, if you will. This is what drew me to the genre, and how I still define it today.
MTD: Where do you typically find inspiration for your novels?
MCE: For me, stories always seem to grow out of a “what if” question. My first novel, Neverending Beginnings, opens with the main character giving a terrible, drunken toast at her best friend’s wedding (think admitting to dating the groom and then passing out). I wrote a version of this opening scene years ago in a writing class. I had given a lackluster and way-too-short toast at a wedding once, so I used that as a jumping off point to write a scene based around “what if that had gone terribly wrong.” Later I did a significant rewrite of the novel to include the structure of the main character repeating the same week over and over (like the movie Groundhog Day), and it was the same idea: what if you got stuck in a time loop and had to repeat the same week over and over with no idea why it was happening or how to stop it.
MTD: Of your novels, which are you proudest of/most satisfied with and why?
MCE: I think I’m always most satisfied with whatever I wrote most recently. I originally released Neverending Beginnings as an ebook only. Last year I released the paperback. I’m still very proud of the novel, and love the characters and story, but when I was re-reading parts of it during that process, I can certainly see how I’ve grown and changed as a writer. That being said, I’m probably most proud of my current work in progress.
MTD: So you have a book in the works? Tell me about it.
MCE: I do! I’m currently working on my third novel. The working title is Forty Days Of Forgetting. It’s an “after the happily ever after” story about a couple whose relationship is strained by their very huge, very different dreams. He’s a struggling musician and she’s working on her Ph.D. They break up at the beginning of the story and she develops this elaborate plan to forget him. Which doesn’t work so well.
MTD: How long does a novel usually take you to write, from initial idea to publication?
MCE: My experience with my two novels was really, really different. I wrote Neverending Beginnings very, very slowly (over the course of several years) for fun when I was in grad school. I then did a significant rewrite, submitted to an agent, and then completed another significant rewrite (adding in the repeating week structure). She pitched the novel to editors and was unable to find a home for it. I self-published it some years later in 2012. All in, that book was probably six or seven years from idea to publication.
I had written a super rough draft of How To Be Alive when Neverending Beginnings was being shopped to editors. I significantly rewrote it, and it took about a year and a half from that rewrite though critique and multiple rounds of editing to publication.
I’m a little more consistent with the novellas. They both took about six to nine months from idea through editing to publication. However, they are not published in paperback, and are about characters from my novels; the character development is already done and the publishing is less time intensive.
MTD: What do you enjoy (or not!) about the writing and self-publishing process?
MCE: I love creating characters and learning about their stories. I’m a “pants-er,” meaning I “fly by the seat of my pants” and don’t plot out my novels. I have a question/problem/scenario that sparks the story and then a general idea where I think it may go, but I don’t plan every twist and turn. As a result I learn all these things about my character as I go and often all these other fun things start to appear: the sarcastic and wise retired English professor, the two friends who are in love with each other and don’t know it yet. As a child, I loved “playing pretend” and in so many ways I view writing as doing exactly the same thing, in a more socially- acceptable-for-adults format.
As for publishing. I think I like the artistry of it. The concept of actually laying out pages and creating a book. I like the control to chose my covers and what fonts I’d like to use for section breaks. The business side of publishing, the actual selling and marketing of my books, is basically continual education. There is always something new, always something else to try. It’s easy to get bogged down in all this. For me it’s been really healthy to look at it as an experiment: what works, what doesn’t, what used to work- but not so much anymore. Rinse and repeat.
MTD: You have a full-time job. How do you make sure to find time to write, publish, keep up with social media, etc.?
MCE: I’m not great at it. In fact sometimes, I’m actually pretty terrible. How long did it take to get this interview done? I always wish I had a really pretty answer to this question– something about schedules and planners and morning pages. But I don’t. I make a commitment to writing every week and I typically write in the evenings after work or on weekends. When I’m nearing the end of the story and can see the finish line, I’ll often pull some late nights–eager to get the words out, but all other times, I’ll prioritize sleep over staying up to make sure I hit a certain word count or something like that.
As for the business/promotion stuff: I’ve been blogging weekly for a long time now, and that’s just something that’s integrated into my weekly schedule. I’ll work on it a bit in the morning and typically finish it on Tuesday nights. Sometimes I’ll try to carve out some weekend time when I have a more in-depth post like my monthly book and beer pairing (Books & Brews). And sometimes I slog it out on a Wednesday night at midnight, if I’m being really honest.
I try to use my lunch break and other natural down time for other social media. This isn’t a perfect science. And I’ll admit to sometimes going pretty silent. I am a big believer in picking social media that you’re comfortable with and not feeling the need to try every new thing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram a little. No plans to Snapchat and I refuse to join Pinterest –because I know I would just always, always fall down a rabbit hole of pretty food pictures.
All that to say, I really believe there is no one right way to do this. There will be seasons for everything. Seasons when you are an amazing writer. Seasons when you are an amazing other-job-that-pays-the bills person. Seasons where you are an amazing spouse/child/parent/caregiver. I think we have to give up the expectation of always being amazing at all of them simultaneously. It’s too much.
MTD: What do you like about writing, and how did you discover your love for writing?
MCE: As I mentioned before, writing feels like “playing pretend” as an adult — so I really think my love of it started as a child running around my house making up stories with my stuffed animals. That being said, I wandered through a number of creative outlets before realizing writing was the best match. I’ve got a bunch of theater and studio art credits on my college transcript to prove this. I was always told I was a good writer, and in high school I wrote really dramatic poetry–but it wasn’t until I took a class in fiction writing at a local arts center (Visual Arts Center, in Richmond, Virginia) in my late twenties that I really discovered that writing was my thing.
MTD: Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book? Why?
MCE: There are so many wonderful, wonderful, books–it’s always completely impossible for me to pick one, so here are a few: Megan Crane’s English As A Second Language was the book that kicked off my love of lighthearted women’s fiction. I related to the main character in a way that made me wonder if I might have a story to tell and if the “right” way for me to tell it might be in first person narrative. Meg Cabot’s Queen Of Babble series are the books I’ve re-read the most. They are my go-to “comfort” reads–the oatmeal raisin cookies of books. On the nonfiction side, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic fell into my hands at exactly the right time and has been really inspiring, as did Amanda Palmer’s The Art Of Asking (because the Fraud Police are real, folks).
MTD: What is your favorite literary device?
MCE: I don’t know if it’s technically considered a literary device– but I love a little twist of magical realism in a book. Allison Winn Scotch’s Time Of My Life is one of my favorite books of all time (see, I told you I would forget something in that last question about favorite books). The main character is thrust back in time and finds out how her life would have turned out had she made different decisions. Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke’s books also always have great examples of this, like The Status Of All Things, where the main character’s Facebook posts start to come true–so great!
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
It’s really, really, easy to get caught up in the publication talk. Do you indie publish or traditionally publish? How do you write the best query letter/back-cover copy? Which agents are looking for what, and who’s the best match for you and your book? How do I get featured on BookBub? Does that even matter?
There are thousands of questions about the business stuff. There always will be. But here’s the thing–none of them matter until you have something to sell. So please, write your book. Not someone else’s book. Not the book your parents wish you’d write. Not the trendy thing you know would sell. Not the one that would get you into an MFA program. Write YOUR book. The one you aren’t sure anyone wants to read, but that you must write. The one that wakes you up at night, and won’t let you peacefully enjoy that long car ride/walk to work until you tell it. Write that. Then worry about the rest.
Mind the Dog Writing Blog thanks Mary-Chris Escobar for being so generous with her time and participating in this interview.
As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.
I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.
The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.
Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.
While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:
Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.
Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.
Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.
Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:
Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.
Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.
Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.
Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.
Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.
Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.
Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.
I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:
have/has and other “to-be” verbs
The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.
First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.
Whenever you tell people you’re writing or have written a novel, they are (usually) instantly impressed. But if you’ve written or are writing a novel, then you know: Writing the novel was the easy part. Writing your query letter and crafting your pitch are infinitely more daunting tasks. The truly impressive achievement would be boiling your novel down to its core, to explain its marketability, significance, and plot in roughly one page–and so effectively that an agent, who has thousands of writers clamoring for his attention, decides he wants to devote it to you and your work. Because I truly do find writing a one-page query letter and delivering a 60- to 90-second pitch much more difficult than writing and revising a 110,000-word novel, I recently attended an Agile Writers of Richmond event called Beyond Agile Writers: The Elevator Pitch with Shanelle Calvin. Below are my takeaways.
Query Letters and Pitches: The Dos
Know your audience. Research the agent(s) you plan to address. Know the genres they prefer to read, know their basic background information. One concept Ms. Calvin reiterated was that if you want agents to invest in you, you have to show you are willing to invest–and have invested–in them. (See “Don’t #1”)
Be authentic. Your tone, whether during a pitch or within a query letter, should be the tone of the novel and the tone of your brand. Make sure this tone is consistent on your social media platforms, as well.
Show, don’t tell. Through social media followings, reviews of your work, author recommendations, the tone of your letter and/or pitch, and strong verbs, prove your book is marketable.
Be clear and specific. If you are sending a query letter via e-mail, make sure that both the e-mail’s subject line and the body of the e-mail clearly communicate that the purpose of your message is to query. Including the word “query” in your subject line is advisable.
Follow the directions. Every agent to whom you send work will have different requirements. Some will request the first ten pages of the manuscript to be e-mailed with the query in an attachment. Others might instruct you to send the first twenty pages of the manuscript in the body of the e-mail, below the query. Make sure you carefully review what each individual agent requires, and follow those directions scrupulously.
Provide a comparison. If you believe your work resembles the works of a well-known author, point out the similarity. For example, you might say something like, “In a novel comparable to the works of Mitch Albom…,” or “In a piece reminiscent of Fried Green Tomatoes…,” or “In the spirit of works such as…” (See Don’t #2)
Be visible and present. On social media that is. You want agents to be able to find you. Whether you use LinkedIn, Facebook, Snapchat, Periscope; whether you maintain a blog or a website or both; it is important that agents can find you, as well as any works you may already have published. If you do maintain a blog or a website, directing an agent to it in your query can be helpful, provided it is relevant to the work you are pitching. (See Don’t #6)
Dress the part. If you have a meeting or an appointment at a conference to pitch your novel, present yourself professionally. While wearing a suit and tie may not be consistent with your brand, and such a formal outfit may not be necessary, it is important to dress in a respectful, appropriate manner that will leave a positive impression. (See Don’t #7)
Compel a response with a call to action. Make sure to end your pitch or query letter with a call to action. If the agent does not request a portion of the manuscript to be sent in with the query, for example, you might close with, “May I send you the first chapter of my manuscript?” If the agent’s query requirements already request a sample from the manuscript, you might close with something like, “I hope you will provide some feedback on my work.” Alternatively, you could close with questions you have for the agent. Anything that begs a response is helpful in maintaining the communication, and in letting an agent know what your ideal next steps would be.
Include credentials. If you are a member of writing clubs or organizations, let agents know. If you have other work published, let agents know. If you have a degree in creative writing or have received a fellowship or other honors, let agents know.
Include the conflict. Make sure the query or pitch clearly communicates your protagonists’ desire, as well as the obstacles to achieving that desire.
Include statistics. Be sure to (accurately!) include the genre, target audience, and word count of your novel.
Query Letters and Pitches: The Don’ts
Send a form letter, or send the exact same letter to multiple agents. Too often, this can result in errors fatal to your novels’ chances at publication. For example, you might remember to change the recipient’s name in the salutation of the letter, but forget that you mentioned names later in the query. Where you refer to the agent by his correct name in your greeting, later you address him as a woman–another agent to whom you sent the same query.
Make outlandish and pompous claims and comparisons. While it may be acceptable to compare your work or your writing style to those of well-known authors (providing you are accurate), it is unwise (if not entirely delusional) to declare something like, “I am the next John Steinbeck” or “My book is a bestseller.”
Be impatient. Most agents will give you a timeline during which you can expect to hear back from them, such as within 6-8 weeks. Let the amount of time they ask for elapse before you follow up.
Be careless. Spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and poor grammar do not bode well for someone claiming to have written a marketable novel.
Be long-winded. The art of both the pitch and the query lies in brevity (which is why I have not yet mastered either). You do not want to give too much away by including every detail, nor do you want to run over your allotted time during an appointment or meeting, or compose too lengthy a query letter. Any of these errors can make you seem unprepared, disorganized, and inconsiderate.
Include links to irrelevant social media. While making an agent aware of your blog or website if it is consistent with your brand or pertinent to the subject matter of your work is helpful, directing them to your personal Facebook profile where you post mainly pictures of your dog is probably not helpful (unless, of course, you are pitching a book about dogs, or veterinary science, or some similar subject).
Wear jeans and a T-shirt to pitch your novel. Even if your brand is casual, you want to avoid coming off as careless, sloppy, or amateur. If you want to remain consistent with a casual brand, think business casual: khakis and a polo with boat shoes, perhaps, for men.
Now, all that said, I am off to find out if I can practice what I preach by attempting to condense my nearly 110,000-word novel into a one-page query letter! I wish you happy writing (which should be easy) and happy querying (if that isn’t an oxymoron).
Before attending last night’s James River Writers Writing Show, “Writer with a Capital ‘W,'” with moderator Kristi Tuck Austin and guest, author and founder of We Need Diverse Books, Lamar Giles, I was maybe a little delusional. I had this idea that someday, eventually, my book would get published, sell lots of copies, and the hard part would be over. I would live a life of luxury that required nothing more of me than to write for a few hours each day, and maybe make some appearances on television, and in between these two activities, I’d do whatever I wanted. Travel. Sleep past 5 a.m. Read. It would be leisurely.
Last night’s Writing Show was nothing short of a reality check for me.
The point of the Show was that as writers, we need to take ourselves seriously. That seems encouraging, but taking oneself seriously means a lot more than I bargained for. Mr. Giles spoke on topics I hadn’t even considered yet–things like speaking fees, my responsibilities to my readers, business licenses, taxes, handling setbacks, etc. Below is what I learned.
Lamar Giles’s Publication Journey
Lamar Giles has loved writing since he was a child. He began writing his first novel when he was 14, finishing it six years later, at the age of 20. When he was 21, he started his first job, which involved sitting in a cubicle eight hours a day. He recalled how hard he thought it was to get up every single day and go to work to sit in that little box all day. He also recalled always hearing people say how difficult it was to get published, and thinking to himself,
“If getting up in the morning to sit in this box is hard, and getting published is hard, why do this hard thing I don’t want to do?”
In response to that question, he made his life even harder. He started getting up even earlier, at 5 o’clock in the morning, so he could work on his writing career before heading to work each day. He would write until about 7:30, at which point he would prepare to go spend the rest of the day in his cubicle at his “real job.”
In the early 2000s, he managed to publish several short stories, and at the age of 32, ten years after setting his main goal of publishing a novel, he did. However, he also experienced a three-year dry spell during which he couldn’t seem to sell any of his writing to anyone. A $5000 grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts pulled him out of this slump, and pushed him to keep writing.
Precise Plan for Publication
Mr. Giles said one thing he believes helped him get his books published was a precise plan. In 2009, he loved writing horror, but the genre didn’t seem to be selling well. Instead, dystopian series like The Hunger Games and vampire stories like Twilight were extremely popular. However, that trend also meant those were the types of stories everyone was trying to sell. Agents’ pipelines were clogged with stories similar to Divergent,The Hunger Games, etc. So Giles asked himself: “What can I do that’s missing?” He decided on an answer: Young Adult (YA) mystery. And so he began.
He started writing in January and finished in June. He spent June through September revising the draft. He spent the entire month of December crafting his query letter, deliberately picking this month for this task, because, he informed us, the publishing industry virtually shuts down in December, but opens up again in January. He wanted to be one of the first writers the refreshed agents found in their inboxes upon their return to work. So, right on schedule, he mailed his query letters to ten agents on January 2, 2010. By the end of that same month, seven of those ten agents had requested his full manuscript.
But it wasn’t all easy from there. By the end of March, all seven had ultimately rejected his manuscript after reading it in full. Undeterred, Giles queried five more agents in June. In July, three of those five offered him representation.
His overall advice regarding getting representation can be summed up as follows:
Research agents, and query those who you think would be the most interested, and the most likely to follow up with you.
Make sure your query letter is well-crafted and personalized. Revise it meticulously. Spend lots of time on it.
Even when you get rejected (and you will), try again.
Most agents won’t invite you to resubmit, so query agents in small batches to test your query letter. If no one bites, there’s probably something wrong with your letter. Revise it, and query a new batch of agents.
I always thought that once my book was published and money started materializing out of my efforts, I would be on Easy Street. Wrong. We work to make money, but once we make it, we have to work to manage it, too.
Taxes and Money Management
Giles recommends finding an accountant to help manage your money, especially because taxes may not be taken out of your book sales, and you may have to pay quarterly taxes. He also recommends getting a business license, and warns that depending on where you are, you may need to be zoned to have a home office. In addition, you might need to file with the state for state sales tax.
One more piece of advice: If you plan to leave your job for a full-time writing career, have at least two years’ salary saved up, because publishing money comes slowly. The checks might be big, but they might only come once a year.
For the first six months of his appearances, Giles worked for free or cheap, letting the venue set his fee. Then, he started speaking at a rate of $1000 for three hours. In the fall of 2016, he will begin charging $1500 for a day, if the venue is local, and a $2500 flat fee if he has to travel and get a hotel room. These fees are meant to cover expenses and taxes, and to compensate him for his time. Time he spends presenting or speaking is time he cannot be writing, which is his real bread and butter. Giles advises us to say no if we have to, and to get a virtual assistant to handle these negotiations.
Even once your book gets published, your work is not done. You have to market your work and you have to cultivate a relationship with your readers. Giles and Austin offered online activities and offline activities we can do to support our endeavors.
Take out ads on Facebook and Twitter, and consider Amazon’s Author Central, which allows you to see where your book has been selling well, and where it hasn’t been, thus helping you target your market.
Hire a virtual assistant who can help you manage your e-mails, social media accounts, in-person appearances, etc.
Three Offline Activities
Take a course in public speaking at a local college, or get involved with your local Toastmasters.
Learn to use graphic software like Photoshop so you can design your own marketing materials, as opposed to always having to pay someone.
Write and finish and do it again.
Connect with a community of writers.
Get to genuinely know your local librarians and booksellers.
On Taking Yourself Seriously
Giles reminded all of us in the audience of the importance of taking ourselves seriously as writers. If we don’t, who will? You have to take yourself seriously and believe in yourself before others will. In addition, if you don’t have faith in yourself, the people who do have faith in themselves will crush you. Don’t be ashamed of your goal; if you take yourself seriously, the rest of the world eventually will, too.
Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time sitting out on my back deck in the sunshine, flipping through the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was pretty excited to find that the week’s edition of Paradewas dubbed the summer reading issue, and featured an article listing the best 75 books from the last 75 years. The article categorized the books by decade, listing the best books from the 1940s through the 2010s, with as few as four and as many as fifteen books listed under each decade (the 1940s fared the worst, with only four books listed, while the 1960s and 2000s performed the best, each with fifteen books listed). I’ll leave it to you to read the list in its entirety, but below are those I have read, as well as those I would have included had I been given the task.
Books I Have Read from the List
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty smith (1943)
I read this delightful coming of age novel a few summers ago, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following summer, I offered it as an option for my incoming honors students’ summer reading assignment
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
What can I say about this book except, though I have not read it since late middle school, it is one of my favorites?
Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)
I taught this book to high school sophomores during my first year teaching. Of all the books we read, this short, readable, and factual book written by a Holocaust survivor was a favorite among my students–even the ones who didn’t like to read. (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men usually has the same effect on my high school juniors.)
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)
I haven’t read this book since I was in high school, but I remember enjoying it, and feeling a particular sympathy for Boo Radley and a particular admiration for Atticus Finch. I am told the latter might change when I begin reading Go Set a Watchman this week, so I am curious as to what my own reaction will be.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
My father read this to my three siblings and me when we were elementary-aged. All four of us loved it. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor around my dad, either by the fireplace in our family room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or in the bedroom my little sisters shared, listening to him read until it was time for bed.
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)
Of course I’ve read this one. My brother even had the stuffed animal monster.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980)
Maus is one of just two graphic novels I’ve read. I didn’t expect much, as it was a “comic book,” and I’m not really into “that sort of thing,” but Maus, written by the son of Holocaust survivors, is really something artful.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)
I read this book during the summer of 2013, as Tim O’Brien was one of two authors (the other being Ernest Hemingway) I studied for my Capstone project to complete my Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a Creative Writing major from University of Denver. I cannot rave enough about this book. It is raw, it is gripping, and it is honest, though at times hard to read for these very traits. Even in its most difficult-to-stomach areas, I had a hard time putting it down. It left me thoughtful and reflective for months, asking myself questions about the human condition, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for evil, and what I could realistically expect of myself if put into situations like those described in the book.
(Some of) the Books I Would Add to the List
1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)
This book is incredibly moving and touching. One of my favorite characters is the genuine and conflicted Jim Casy. I also admire the way the book is structured, some chapters told in an almost stream-of-collective-consciousness fashion, and others narrated clearly and directly about the Joad family.
2. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)
Written by a Holocaust survivor in part about what he believed allowed some people to survive the miseries of concentration camps while others succumbed and perished, the book is a philosophical and psychological examination of the human spirit. Despite its many references to the Holocaust, the book is uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring.
3. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952)
When students ask me what my favorite book is, my answer is East of Eden. I’ve heard Steinbeck himself cited it as his masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The characters and story are enthralling–rich and complex. I have read it three times, and each time come away with a different impression, a new insight, or a new idea to ponder–if not all three.
4. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein (1964)
Next to The Velveteen Rabbit (which can’t be included in this list, because it was published in 1922) and The Ugly Duckling (1844), The Giving Tree has to be one of the most emotionally involved children’s books I have ever read. Despite its seeming simplicity (simple language, simple illustrations), the book discusses the complexities of human relationships–the give and take of love, the meaning of sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, etc. It is one of the few children’s books that still moves me to tears, and I still remember how affected I was the first time the book was read to me in a classroom when I was in elementary school.
5. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)
A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested we read this together. I don’t think my friend ever got around to it, but I ended up reading the script, as well as the novel. It. Is. Fascinating. I would go so far as to label it epic, actually. The book is about as thick as East of Eden or The Bible, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll love every page and be disappointed to find you’ve arrived at the last one. I enjoyed it so much, that I conducted a deep enough reading of it to create a sample project for the Literature Portfolio assignment my honors students are required to produce for each piece of literature we read.
6. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Next to East of Eden, this is quite possibly one of my favorite books. It is also the only book one of my most difficult students enjoyed reading, and may have been the only book he actually read during his time in my classroom. This book begs the reader to question the ethics of warfare and survival, as well as brings up questions about “The Other.”
7. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)
A fellow English teacher let me borrow this book from her last summer. The imagination of Ms. Donoghue is truly enviable. She tells her story from the perspective of a young boy whose whole life has been lived in a small backyard shed, which he calls Room, with his captive mother.
8. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (2013)
There are two things I remember clearly about this novel from my reading of it a year or two ago: 1) It left an indelible emotional imprint on me; it was incredibly poignant, and 2) It did an exceptional job presenting various perspectives of the same situation, illustrating expertly the complexities of human dealings.