Summer Reading Makes the World a Better Place

Summer Reading II by Catherine Nolin

Summer Reading II by Catherine Nolin

When I think back to my childhood summers, one of my favorite memories is the feeling of coming home from the library with a heavy armload of new books. Our weekly forays to the children’s room were a cherished ritual. There were (and still are) few things that filled my heart with such happy anticipation as a book not yet read.

Now that I’m all grown up, I love reading in any season, but there’s something about summertime that suits the literary pursuit particularly well. Even people who rarely read during the rest of the year are apt to pick up a “beach read” when they head to the shore. Perhaps it’s the way slipping between the covers of a book so perfectly complements our summertime proclivity for escape.

But there’s more to reading than just escape. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the stories I devoured during childhood were a significant part of my education on how to be a good human being. Looking back now at my book selections from those early years, it’s not difficult to identify the roots of my personal mythology. From the elementary grades through high school, I read almost exclusively fantasy and science fiction; and my virtual excursions into the imaginative and wondrous worlds of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams, and many others shaped my view of the world. The boundless diversity of the characters, ideas, beliefs, and themes in these books opened my mind and my heart, page by page.

“If minds are truly alive they will seek out books, for books are the human race recounting its memorable experiences, confronting its problems, searching for solutions, drawing the blueprints of the future.” Those words were penned by Harry Allen Overtreet, an American writer and lecturer best known for his book The Mature Mind, which contains such gems as, “All children, Diderot once observed, are essentially criminal. It is merely our good luck that their physical powers are still too limited to permit them to carry out their destructiveness.” Overstreet points out that maturity – the development of empathy, patience, respect, etc. – is the result of cultivating a particular mindset, not of chronological aging. Sadly, our society is plagued with immature grown-ups who never evolve beyond the self-centered perspective that, in adults, leads to sociopathic behavior.

Happily, there is hope. Study after study has revealed that reading fiction has a very real and positive influence on our ability to empathize with others. When we read fiction, we experience life from the perspective of the protagonist. We put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What’s more, some studies indicate that reading fiction stimulates the same neurological regions that would be activated if we were going through the protagonist’s experience ourselves.

So, stories can expand our knowledge, insight, and capacity for caring. They can also, apparently, heal. According to a fascinating article by Ceridwen Dovey in The New Yorker, bibliotherapy, a term that dates back to the early 1900s, is the practice of reading for therapeutic effect – prescribing particular books as tonics to cure apathy, heartbreak, doubt, etc. According to a number of studies, even reading simply for pleasure has many benefits including deep relaxation, lower stress, higher self-esteem, better sleep.

Books, in short, make the world a better place – a more accepting, open-minded, and empathetic place. I recently read a blog post by a mom whose family lives in a tiny town of about 1,200 people in Nevada. The local school library hadn’t been able to purchase new books since the 90s, so she sent out an SOS asking people to donate “just one book.” In her plea she wrote, “We need racially diverse books. We need graphic novels. We need women’s studies. We need science … Everything that would make a difference in a young person’s life … Will you donate a book? … Something literary or fun—something that speaks to your truth, their truths. Something that teaches them something about the world. Makes them feel less alone?”

It is perhaps ironic that the solitary act of reading a book can make us feel less alone, but in these deeply troubled times, it may be one of our best hopes.

.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/or introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
.

Getting to know your characters

a microphone on a stand photographed by Paul Hudson

Image courtesy Paul Hudson https://www.flickr.com/people/pahudson/ Paul Hudson

My head is a crowded place. Lots of people hang out in there and many are clamoring to have their stories told. That said, I need to get to know most of them better before I can tell their stories. Some are very forthcoming and share everything, some are more reluctant and the “so, tell me about yourself” line, just doesn’t work. What’s a writer to do?

Ask your characters questions

The best way to get to know somebody is to ask him or her questions. When it comes to interviewing fictional characters some questions come to you based on your story but other questions aren’t so obvious. It’s the answers to questions that can be nuggets of gold for your story.

The best place to start is with the basics.

  • What do they want?
  • What are they doing to achieve their goal?
  • What happened in the past that shaped them into who they are?
  • What drives them now to act as they do?
  • Why do they want the things they want?

But it’s also important to understand who THEY think they are. When I went to Diane McKinnan’s writers retreat at the beginning of October she had us undertake several different exercises. One of the exercises she shared was The Great I AM worksheet created by writer and communications professional Alexandra Franzen. Franzen is passionate about helping others communicate more effectively and developed this worksheet to “help you create a simple one page declaration of who you are and why your work matters.” It’s meant to be answered extemporaneously and should be completed in 20 minutes max.

At the retreat instead of answering the questions from my perspective, I interviewed Tegan, the heroine of my work-in-progress, a contemporary romance. Tegan doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone, so she’s very independent and is prone to telling people what she thinks they want to hear rather than what she truly wants.

It was really fun to complete this worksheet from her perspective especially when I went back and pressed her on some of the answers. She wasn’t super comfortable with the pressure, but I got some good information that will help me with the turning points in her relationship with the hero Troy. I was also able to “see” and make notes on some of her mannerisms. This will make it easier for me to describe her and put her in action in the story.

Get more indepth with your characters

The Great I Am Worksheet is an excellent starting point, but you’ll probably need more information? Why not have your character take a survey. Lately nary a day goes by on Facebook where you see “Which (Star Wars/Star Trek/ The Walking Dead/Friends/Brady Bunch) character are you?” There’s also the “What Color best represents you?” and a multitude of other variations. Answer them as one of your characters. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Find a magazine or a website that’s focused on a subject of interest to your character. I’ll bet it won’t take much digging to find a survey or questionnaire. There are no shortages of surveys out there. So go ahead and put your characters on the hot seat. The more you know, the easier it is to casually incorporate those details into your work and write a story about characters that leap off the page and that your readers can’t help but care about.

How do you get to know your characters?


Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She is currently a member of the Concord Monitor Board of Contributors. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe.

 

Friday Fun – Has art ever inspired your writing?

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Have any of your stories been inspired by a piece of visual or performing art – a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, a dance, or vocal performance? What struck you about the piece and inspired you to write? 

hennrikus-web2Julie Hennrikus: In so many ways! I run a service organization (StageSource) for the New England theater community, so I see a lot of theater, and talk to a lot of theater folk. Since storytelling is in the DNA, that inspires me. And the dramatic structure of plays is the same for mysteries, so there’s that. Also, using Scrivener, I often take a photograph or a painting and use them as reference points to describe a place, or an emotion. And music is frequently a mood setter for me, though I can’t write with music in the background. Artist dates are my creative food–I am pushing myself to explore new (to me) art forms. Sorry that there aren’t specifics, but I love that my life is full and inspired by art and creativity, and I know it makes me a better writer.

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson: Absolutely. I have many short stories whose inspiration came from photos I’ve come across (or taken on my own). I’m always inspired by B&W drawings or photos – something about the lack of color and the different shades of gray pulls me in and gets the muse extremely excited and creative.

I’ve been watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes via Hulu and although pulled in by the mystery, the b&w filming also pulls me in as I wonder about all the colors that I can’t see. It’s a fun creative exercise to wonder what the set was really like – did they care about having complementary colors? Or just use whatever was on hand since it would only convert to a shade of gray, anyway?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: I can’t think of a specific type of art that has inspired my writing other than poetry and literature. Over the years I’ve written sonnets after reading some of Shakespeare’s, haiku’s after discovering the form in a book of Eastern poetry, and I’ve even written my version of an epic journey after reading The Odyssey. While some might not consider this art, I’ve even written about an eventful day as a Star Trek episode. The limitation of different forms somehow boosts my creativity–and it’s really fun..

photo: M. Shafer

photo: M. Shafer

Deborah Lee Luskin: Absolutely! Classical music – especially chamber music – was a huge influence and became an important theme in Into the Wilderness. Music is the common language for Rose and Percy, who have no other way to communicate when they first meet. Percy (the leading male) even learns how to play the piano in the course of the story. Landscape and fashion are key elements of Elegy for a Girl, the novel currently with my agent. And I’m now writing Ellen, a story about a character who is hugely influenced by nineteenth century British fiction.

headshot_jw_thumbnailmermaidJamie Wallace: All. The. Time. The quantity and diversity of artworks that have sparked my writer’s mind are nearly impossible to measure. A beautiful bracelet gave me the idea to write a series of linked short stories about the bracelet’s many owners. This painting of a mermaid (which I coveted for years and which my parents gave to me as a Christmas gift last year) made me want to write a story about this beautiful and fierce merwoman. I wanted to find her story and explore her world under the sea. My daughter takes dance classes at a local dance studio that is well known for its modern choreography and gorgeous aerial work. Each time I watch one of these abstract, wordless shows, I can sense a story coursing along just below the music – reaching out through the dancers’ moves. I don’t know if I’ll ever actually write any of these stories, but they stick with me and I feel like even as time passes, they continue to percolate in the back of my mind – slowly brewing themselves into something more tangible than an ephemeral breath from the muse.

Take this song by Sting – a track off his 1999 album, Brand New Day. This song has been rattling around in my head for fourteen years.

Run, don’t walk, to listen to Inside Creative Writing

inside_creative_writing

If you’d like, you can listen to this post.

I am a writer, but I am not yet the writer I want to be.

I have had very little in the way of formal training. I do not have a college degree or an MFA. I have taken a few, scattered writing courses (most recently a class on writing fantasy at the wonderful Grub Street in Boston), but mostly I’ve cobbled together random bits and pieces – like a magpie collecting shiny things to adorn its nest.

Though my journey has followed a somewhat circuitous path, I believe that I have made progress. From a seven-year-old scribbling in a notebook that I pilfered from the supply closet at the bank where my dad was a VP, I have evolved into someone who makes her living with words – crafting content for my marketing clients, writing a column for my local paper, and even occasionally penning a feature piece for a regional magazine.

But, I am still not the writer I want to be.

I ache to write fiction, but as a single mama workin’ this gig, I can’t easily afford time to play in the speculative and financially unstable world of fiction. The writing that pays my bills takes precedence. Making time to practice and study the craft of fiction is a challenge for me, to say the least.

Enter the power of the podcast.

Those of you who’ve been hanging around here awhile already know that I am a huge and unabashed fan of audio books. If it weren’t for audio books, I’d probably only manage to read a handful of novels each year. But with Audible in my pocket, I am able to “read” while I walk, drive, do the dishes, run the vacuum, etc. It’s a beautiful thing.

Podcasts are another audio format that allow me to connect with content while I’m doing something else. I have been listening to several marketing podcasts for a while, but only recently decided to investigate writing podcasts. Long story short, I struck gold with a brand new podcast called Inside Creative Writing.

[Author Note: Sadly, Inside Creative Writing appears to be on hiatus. I’m not sure if Brad will return to podcasting, but am hopeful that he will manage to get back to the mic one of these days. In the meantime, his archive of existing recordings is still very much worth a listen … or, two.]

Brad Reed is the writer and educator behind this podcast. As a frequent podcast listener, I can be a bit of a critic, but this guy is doing a fabulous job. His shows are highly informative, entertaining, and actionable. I frequently pause in my walk to jot down a note so I don’t forget what he’s said about a particular technique or insight. He has put a lot of thought into his format – alternating one-man shows with interviews and always including a couple of closing elements – “Wise Words” (inspirational and thought-provoking quotes) and a writing assignment (not a prompt, but an assignment on applying the techniques discussed in the show). His production quality is great, his show notes are thorough, and he even has a way for listeners to participate in the show by leaving him a voicemail with a quote for the Wise Words segment, which he then edits into the actual show. (You can hear my debut appearance in Show #8.)

Can you tell I’m a bit of a fan?

The thing is, we’re only eight shows into this podcast, and I have already learned SO much. Reed covers topics in a way that is clear and non-threatening. He makes great use of examples to bring each of the concepts and techniques to life. He isn’t afraid to take deep dives on a topic, making sure you – as the listener – really have a chance to fully absorb and process the idea. Also (and this counts in my book), he’s a really nice guy. I emailed him a quick note of appreciation and wound up having a very pleasant email chat. I can tell that Reed is doing this with his community firmly in mind.

I really can’t recommend the show enough. I was talking to a group of writer friends earlier this week about our favorite writing resources – the go-to books, blogs, and magazines that help us get a handle on what the hell we’re doing. All the usual suspects came up, but then the conversation took a turn as one of the writers sputtered, “They’re all great, but I never have time to read them!” Too true.

I subscribe to Poets & Writers. It’s an excellent magazine (probably one of the very best on the topic of writing). I always learn something when I read an issue, but – like my friend – I can’t always find time to read them. As a matter of fact, I have four unread issues sitting in a pile next to my desk right now. I feel guilty and frustrated and a little defeated when I think about how long those magazines have been sitting there, waiting for me to find a few minutes to crack their crisp covers. Alas, I don’t see that happening in the near future. However, the Inside Creative Writing podcast is filling that gap in my education quite nicely. I can honestly say that I am learning as much (if not more) about good story writing by listening to Reed as I would poring over the pages of Poets & Writers. (And, that’s saying something!)

I guess the most telling thing I can say about how much I like the show is this: I’m willing to pay for it.

In the most recent episode, Reed invited listeners to become supporters by making a voluntary donation to help offset show costs. He called it the “public broadcasting model.” I immediately went to www.insidecreativewriting.com and clicked the “Donate” button. I plunked down $36 – what I might pay for a year’s subscription to a quality, writing magazine – and was happy to do it.

After all, I can certainly forego a few lattes in the name of becoming the writer I want to be.

.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

6 Ways Movies Create Better Writers

I have a confession to make. Although I am a writer who loves spending her solitary moments in the arms of a great novel, I am also a huge movie buff. That’s right; I’m a sucker for the silver screen. Though my truest love will always be the world between the covers of a good book, my passion for moving pictures comes in a close second.

I feel justified in my appreciation of cinema because I believe that it has helped my fiction writing. While I believe that to write well, you must read, I would argue that consuming stories in any format is food for the writer’s soul. We are storytellers, after all, and it is the story – not the medium –that is the blood coursing through our creative veins.

Here are six ways you can use movies to improve your writing:

Pick your audience
Movies are made to appeal to a particular audience based on things like age, demographic, and genre preferences. Try to imagine what type of person will be drawn to your work and why. How can you deliver more of what they want? Keep asking yourself, “Is this what my perfect reader would like to read?”

Create the trailer
Movie trailers tell enough of the story to get someone hooked. They are usually full of all the best bits of the story and – in about two minutes – give prospective viewers an overview of the plot, the characters, and the style of the film. What would a trailer for your book look like? What parts of the story would you include? What theme would take center stage? This “frame” will help keep stay focused on the key elements of your story. Continue reading