In Memoriam: Authors We Lost in 2018

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Many talented writers, authors and journalists left our world too soon in 2018 – individuals who shared their perspective, insights and imagination, so we could all gain a better understanding of the world we live in.

Below are some of the more prominent writers who have passed away. Whether you’ve read them or not, they all hold a place in the literary world that will not be forgotten.

In alphabetical order

Anthony Bourdain – Bourdain began his career as a chef, but broadened his work into writing and TV. His memoir “Kitchen Confidential” showed the underside of the restaurant business, while CNN’s “Parts Unknown” series engaged and challenged to not be afraid of trying new things.

Sue Grafton – The mystery writer famed for her alphabetical series (A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc.) actually died at the tail end of 2017, but I felt compelled to include her name for 2018 fearing she might have gotten lost in the last season’s holiday shuffle.

Stan Lee – the genius behind the Marvel universe and the architect of the modern comic book, his legacy will be experienced in print and on the movie screen for decades.

Ursula K LeGuin – Science fiction/fantasy author who often explored feminist themes in her novels also wrote a number of children’s books.

Philip Roth – Prize-winning novelist of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “American Pastoral.”

Anita Shreve – Author of “The Pilot’s Wife” and 18 other novels died in March 2018.

Neil Simon – The playwright and screenwriter behind notable works such as “The Odd Couple,” “Lost in Yonkers,” and “The Good-bye Girl.”

Thomas Wolfe – Known in some circles as the white-suited wizard of ‘new journalism’, Wolfe chronicled American culture in novels such as “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

One other noteworthy death belongs to a non-writer, Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library, which you might have seen around in your neighborhood. Bol built the first little free library in 2009 in the shape of a schoolhouse in honor of his mother, who was a teacher and loved books. Like his deceased peers, his legacy will hopefully live on in neighborhoods for many years to come.

2019 Reading Challenge: How Many Books Can You Read in One Year?

 

Great American Read

Looking for a way to challenge yourself in 2019? Do you love to read and would like to expand your knowledge of genres and writing styles, beyond John Grisham legal thrillers and self-help books that leave you feeling more confused than before? Then follow along with me on a journey through books.

Announcing the 2019 Reading Challenge. Here’s how you can participate.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to read one book from 26 of the 40 categories listed below. That equates to one book every two weeks.

For an added challenge, see if you can read one book from all 40 categories. If you complete all 40 categories and there’s still time in the year, reward yourself. Either take a break from reading or read anything you want. You’ve earned it!

I won’t be handing out prizes for this challenge. The only prize is the pride of personal achievement, unless you want to reward yourself with a well-earned gift, like a massage or a copy of the latest New York Times bestseller.

I have participated in reading challenges the past two years. The experience has been rewarding. Not only have I expanded my book knowledge, I’ve discovered new authors and genres I didn’t think I would like (paranormal romance, anyone?). And I had so much fun and a sense of pride each time I crossed a category off my list. As 2018 winds to a close, I’m on Book #42.

That’s why I’m sharing this reading challenge with you. If you love books as much as I do, you won’t turn down this challenge.

So for your reading pleasure, here are the categories. Remember, the first-level challenge is one book from 40 categories, one for every two weeks of the year for 26 total books. You can read them in any order you choose.

1. Autobiography or memoir
2. Historical fiction
3. A classic
4. Young adult novel
5. Mystery/thriller
6. Science fiction/fantasy
7. Romance/romantic suspense
8. A non-fiction book
9. True crime
10. A self-help book
11. An award-winning book (Pulitzer, Edgar Award for mystery, etc.)
12. A book you read in your childhood
13. A book you read in school
14. A book/novel published within the past year
15. A book/novel published more than 100 years ago
16. A book/novel published the year you were born (this will require some research; check Google)
17. A first-time author/debut novel
18. A book by an established author you have always wanted to read but haven’t until now (Example: I’ve never read Stephen King fiction, so he is on my list)
19. African-American fiction
20. Latin fiction
21. Native American fiction
22. A book made into a movie or TV show
23. A book recommended to you by someone
24. A book set in your hometown
25. A book set in a foreign place
26. A book written by someone younger than you
27. A book with a place/location in the title
28. A book with a number in the title
29. A book with a person’s name in the title
30. A book with a color in the title
31. A book with a one-word title
32. A collection of short stories
33. A collection of essays
34. A play
35. A book about sports or an athlete
36. A book that features an animal (Example: Seabiscuit)
37. A holiday-themed book (Christmas, Fourth of July, Valentine’s Day, etc.)
38. A book that can help your health (nutrition, fitness, etc., but no recipe books)
39. A book that can help your career/business
40. A book with more than 500 pages

The challenge begins January 1. Of course, if you want to get a head start, you can start today.

Have fun! Let the reading begin!

Cool Gift Ideas for Writers and Business Communicators

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Happy holidays, and ‘tis the season for gift giving. I’m taking a break from my usual posts about writing to indulge in a little brainstorming for gifts for the writer and business communicator in your life. The gift can even be for yourself.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list. Many of these ideas were inspired in part by the Writer’s Digest holiday gift guide.

1. Books. Naturally, books will fall on any writer’s wish list, especially books about writing, reading or creativity. What writer wouldn’t want to add to their library? There are plenty of books available about becoming a better writer, improving your habits, overcoming writer’s block and more. Check out some of these book suggestions.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook and/or University of Chicago Manual of Style to complete their library. Add The Elements of Style and a basic grammar book, and their library is complete. They might have a dictionary, but since they are updated annually, it never hurts to give the writer on your list a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer or communicator should be without their supply of caffeine. Check out this collection of humorous coffee mugs from Café Press that are sure to put a smile on your face.

4. A really, really nice pen set. Many writers begin writing their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider giving them a really nice stylish pen set (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put them in a more serious frame of mind when they write. Add a stack of notepads or legal pads, and your writer friend will be well stocked and ready to write before the New Year begins.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers and communicators. Writers are constantly searching for ways to improve their own craft and become better writers. Consider a gift of a Writer’s Digest subscription or an online course through Mediabistro. Writer’s Digest also offers online workshops.

6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Exercise your brain and jumpstart your creativity with a magnetic word game. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create some pretty imaginative poems. Put them on your refrigerator, and let the family create their own mini-short stories as they grab the milk.

Another option is the Writer’s Toolbox, described as “more exercises and games to inspire ‘the write side of the brain.’ Get the family involved with a Once Upon a Time storytelling card game. One person begins as the Storyteller and begins telling a story using the elements described on their cards, guiding the plot toward their Ending Card. But other players can interrupt the Storyteller with their own elements and the right to take over as the new Storyteller. All these options are sure to be fun for you and the whole family.

7. A book of writing prompts. Occasionally writers need help generating story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, they might appreciate a book of writing prompts. Before you know it, the writer in your life (or even the writer in you) will be off and running on their next story.

8. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I once saw a sign that read “Do Not Disturb. Genius at Work.” I laughed at the time, but I think it succinctly describes the sentiment most writers feel when they are at work. Writers are creative geniuses who need privacy and quiet, uninterrupted time to plot, daydream, and craft their stories. Let people know that once that sign is on the door, it’s time to get down to work.

I hope these ideas give you a head start on your gift shopping for the writers in your life. And don’t be shy about giving a gift to yourself. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

Six Writing Causes You Should Support on Giving Tuesday

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As the Christmas holiday season approaches, take a moment to think about the organizations that do a lot a good in your community. As writers and communicators, the nonprofit groups that specialize in promoting literacy and the creative arts should be topmost in our minds. Without the written word, without music or art or dance, where would we all be?

In support of Giving Tuesday, think about how you support literacy and creative arts in your own community. Don’t just think with your purse or wallet either. Think of your time, energy and creative ideas that you can give. How can you better support these organizations? Remember, your volunteer hours mean as much as donated goods or cash.

Below are a few types of nonprofit groups worthy of support on this Giving Tuesday. Remember, giving happens not just today, but every day throughout the year.

Adult Literacy programs
Literacy is for life. If you know how to read and write, it is assumed that those skills can take you far in life. But many U.S. adults fall far behind in literacy.

An April 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 32 million adults, or 14 percent of the U.S. population, cannot read. About 21 percent of adults read below the fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read (which begs the question: How are they graduating from high school if they can’t read?)

Enter literacy organizations, which aid adults, children and entire families in building their reading and writing skills. Check out 826 National and the National Literacy Directory for a literacy organization near you.

Libraries
Specialty libraries with rare collections often have difficulty acquiring additional reading materials and frequently have difficulty publicizing the work they do. Think of places like the Newberry Library in Chicago with its emphasis on history and research.

Many libraries don’t have the resources to purchase new books either. For example, check out the American Library Association’s guide to book donation programs, which lists libraries that need books to fill their shelves.

Other nonprofit groups accept book donations for resale purposes. From the proceeds of the sale of these donated books, they can fund reading and writing education programs in underserved communities. Check out organizations such as Turning the Page/Carpe Librum Bookstore and Open Books, which serve these purposes in the Chicago area. Similar organizations may be located near you.

Nonprofit writing centers
According to a recent article at Bustle, not everyone is cut out for a university MFA program. But if you want to learn to write and write well, but not necessarily want to earn a MFA, where do you go? The answer is a non-profit writing center, such as Grub Street in Boston or Story Studio in Chicago. For poets, there’s also the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona.

But these organizations can’t operate on their own. That’s where you come in. Donations are needed to purchase classroom materials, cover operating costs and assist with program planning. Not only are these organizations great places to develop your writing skills, they are terrific places for networking and community building. They are worthy of your support in more ways than one.

Museums
Without museums, our connection to our history and culture would be lost, no matter where we come from. Whether it’s a museum of art (The Art Institute of Chicago), writing (American Writers Museum), or science (Shedd Aquarium), museums give us a place to explore, to honor our history while imagining possibilities for the future.

Reading and writing groups for Incarcerated Individuals
Men and women who are serving time often do not have access to books or writing materials, often due to limited resources and funds in the prison system. Non-profit groups like Chicago Books to Women in Prison (which I have volunteered with for the past two years) and the Women’s Book Project in Minneapolis, provide free access to everything from fiction and nonfiction books of all genres, GED study materials, blank composition books, dictionaries, Bibles and career development materials.  There are numerous other organizations dedicated to helping the incarcerated connect with books and writing materials. Pen America is another organization worth checking out for writing programs for the incarcerated.

Arts foundations
Think beyond just books and writing programs. Thinks of the arts too. Consider donations to specialty organizations, such as groups that keep alive the history and legacy of silent films such as the Silent Film Society of Chicago. There are numerous local theater groups, dance companies and music schools that can benefit from your volunteer time. Because they all support the development of artists in various fields, you’re also supporting the development of story tellers in different artistic fields.

By giving to any one of these organizations, you are helping numerous individuals achieve their dreams – to read, to write, to share stories and to communicate with others. And those are causes worthy of your contributions.

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Great American Read Reveals Viewers’ Most Beloved Books

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PBS completed its five-month series, The Great American Read, which examined Americans’ most favorite novels. The program was hosted by former Today Show host Meredith Viera. I missed the program, unfortunately, but here is a wrap up of the top 25 most beloved novels, as selected by program viewers.

Topping the list at number one is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It hit the number one spot since day one and held it all the way through. Written and published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story of a young girl in the South who tries to make sense of the cruelty she sees within their community as her father – a local, crusading attorney – defends a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. The story has as much significance today as it did when it was published, which is why it seems to resonate with many readers and PBS viewers.

Rounding out the top five is the Outlander series, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien. The top 25 is listed below, followed by a few of my observations, but you can find the entire list of the top 100 on the PBS website.

The Great American Read — Top 25 Most Beloved Books

1. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
2. The Outlander (series) — Diana Gabaldon
3. Harry Potter (series) — J.K. Rowling
4. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen
5. Lord of the Rings — J.R.R. Tolkien
6. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
7. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
8. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
9. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
10. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
11. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery
12. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
14. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
15. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
16. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
18. 1984 – George Orwell
19. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
20. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
21. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
22. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
23. The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
24. The Stand – Stephen King
25. Rebecca – Daphne de Maurier

A few observations/assessments:

1. The Outlander series at number two is higher than I expected, even higher than Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia series which have been around longer and have had a loyal readership.

2. The Book Thief, which I thoroughly enjoyed, placed number 14, higher than I expected. Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale, behind the strength of its streaming series, was lower than I expected at number 34. I thought Handmaid would be in the top 20.

Of the books listed in the top 25, I’ve read 10 of them. I suppose that’s a good sign, considering I’ve read 18 of the entire top 100. Many of the remaining top 25 are books already sitting on my shelf waiting to be read while others I have heard about and would like to read. Still, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

What about you? As you review this list, what jumps out at you? Are there any books that are missing from the top 100? Are there any titles that were higher or lower than you expected? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One thing about programs and surveys like this, it generates a lot of discussion and debate. But one thing we all can agree on, America’ love of books and reading is alive and well.

Want to Improve Your Own Writing? Read Poorly Written Books

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In his book On Writing, (which I highly recommend), author Stephen King suggests that if you want to be a better writer, all you have to do is read. Read a lot. And read a variety of stories.

Of course, that might mean exposing yourself to less than stellar writing. But that’s okay.  Even the less-than-stellar samples can show writers a thing or two about crafting stories – the right way.

Perhaps I should begin by defining what I mean by ‘bad writing.’ It isn’t just about a lack of proper grammar and punctuation, although that’s part of it. It has more to do with the development of the story. Think stilted dialogue, implausible plot lines and poorly drawn characters. It isn’t the writing that’s poorly done as much as the storytelling.

As British author Toby Litt writes in The Guardian, bad writing is boring writing. Bad writing are stories you can’t wait to finish because they are dreadfully boring, or one that you don’t finish at all. On the other hand, a well-crafted, well-written book is one that keeps your attention all the way through. It makes you want to turn the page, and the next page and the next page, and so on.

In my opinion, a good book may not be the highest quality writing. It may not even be a best-seller. But what it does well is keep the reader involved in the story and with the characters, especially the protagonist. If you have a hard time putting a book down, it means the author has successfully designed the story to satisfy your interest. You want to read more to find out what’s going to happen next.

After you’ve read enough stories of different genres, your brain begins to notice differences in the way authors develop their plots and characters, or the way dialogue and narration are presented. When you’ve read enough books, you recognize contrived plot lines and inconsistent behavior from characters. You can decide, as the reader, what is believable and what isn’t. By reading bad writing, you are, hopefully, aware enough of your own skill not to commit the same mistakes.

I recently finished reading a romance novel by an author whose work I had read before and enjoyed. I looked forward to a light, easy read. It was anything but. The plot was not believable, the female protagonist behaved in ways that was not consistent with her character, and the overall experience of reading the book was unpleasant. I felt disappointed and cheated.

You don’t want to do that to your readers.

I doubt I will read anything else by this particular author ever again, although I will pick up another romance novel. They can be fun reads on their own — when they’re written well.

Lesson learned from that reading experience: Make sure the plot is plausible and believable and your protagonist behaves in ways that are true to their personality.

Bad writing can appear in any genre, and sometimes in best-sellers. If in doubt about what ‘bad writing’ is, check out Goodreads’ list of ‘poorly written’ books. Among the Fifty Shades of Gray and Twilight collections is The Da Vinci Code. I once tried to read it many years ago and couldn’t get through it. The language was overly descriptive and heavy, moving the narrative along at a snail’s pace. I kept wanting the author to pick up the pace. Naturally, I never made it to the end.

Lesson from that reading experience: Don’t get so bogged down in details that the story slows to a crawl. Keep moving the story along and you will maintain your readers’ interest. Keep that in mind when you do your own writing.

On the upside, reading bad writing can put your own writing into perspective. You can say to yourself, “Hey, I can write better than this. If this trash is being published, maybe there’s hope for me yet in this business.”

The more you read, the more you can learn from the mistakes other writers have made. So even if you have to trudge through a few bad apples along the way, you can still gain from the experience and improve your writing at the same time.

Related Reading about ‘Bad Writing’:
https://bookriot.com/2013/06/27/the-case-for-reading-bad-books/

https://joshcraigwrites.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/about-reading-poorly-written-books/

ALA Banned Books Week 2018 Calls for Reader Activism to End Censorship

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Anyone who loves books and loves reading will appreciate the advocacy effort being led by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom this week.

Banned Books Week (Sept 23-29) is an initiative that began in 1982 that brings together entire book communities – librarians, journalists, editors, teachers, writers and publishers, and of course, readers – to show support or the freedom to seek and express ideas.

This year, Banned Books Week focuses on author and reader activism. Readers are encouraged to get involved in one or several programs to fight censorship, particularly of the books that are frequently targeted with removal or restricted access in libraries and schools. Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship and the benefits of unrestricted reading.

Here are a few ways you can get involved:

Dear Banned Author Campaign
This letter-writing campaign encourages readers to write to, tweet or email authors whose works have been banned or challenged and share with them how their stories have affected them. Dear Banned Author attempts to raise awareness of books that are threatened with censorship and generates discussions about the essential access to library materials. Readers are invited to share their stories online and join the conversation using the hashtags #DearBannedAuthor and #BannedBooksWeek.

Virtual Banned Read-Out
Since the inception of Banned Books Week in 1982, libraries and bookstores across the country have hosted local read-outs – continuous readings of banned and challenged books. Banned authors have also participated, including Judy Blume among others.

Readers can participate by posting a video of themselves on YouTube reading from a banned book or talking about censorship. To submit a read-out video on YouTube, visit the ALA website. If you’re a bit camera shy, choose one of the books from the banned lists and read it this week on your own – without cameras. Some previously banned and challenged books include The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and more recently George by Alex Gino and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The ALA has lists of banned and challenged books on their website, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks.

There are other ways to show your support. Check out ALA’s Banned Books Week website to learn more.

As readers, writers and communicators, this is an issue we all need to get behind.