Looking for a new challenge for 2020? If 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 the 2020 Reading Challenge may be right for you. Here’s how you can participate.
Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to read one book from each of the categories listed below up to 26 books. That equates to one book every two weeks.
For an added challenge, see if you can read one book from all 34 categories. If you complete all 34 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 three years. 2018 was my most productive year, having read 42 books. Last year was more difficult with only 27 (28 if you count the one I started the last week of December but finished the first week of January).
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.
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 you can choose from. Remember, the first-level goal is 26 books — one book for every two weeks of the year. Any titles beyond that are bonuses. You can read them in any order you choose.
1. Autobiography or memoir
2. Historical fiction
3. A classic
4. Young adult novel
6. Science fiction/fantasy
7. Romance/romantic suspense
8. A non-fiction book or current events
9. True crime
10. A self-help or psychology book
11. A book you read in your childhood
12. A book you read in school
13. A book/novel published within the past year
14. A book/novel published more than 100 years ago
15. A first-time author/debut novel
16. African-American fiction
17. Latin-American fiction
18. A book by an author who is deceased
19. A book made into a movie or TV show
20. A book that someone recommended to you
21. A book set in your hometown
22. A book set in a foreign place
23. A book with a place/location in the title
24. A book with a number in the title
25. A book with a person’s name in the title
26. A book with a color in the title
27. A book with a one-word title
28. A collection of short stories
29. A collection of essays
30. A play
31. A book about sports or an athlete
32. A book that features an animal (Example: Seabiscuit)
34. Current Top 10 best seller
Of course, if you can think of another category for your own reading challenge, you can add it to the selections above. Since I’m getting a late start on this endeavor, the challenge begins now and runs through next January 7, 2021. I will check in periodically to share my progress and perhaps also book titles and authors I found worthwhile.
Editor’s Note: In the spirit of the holiday season, this post is republished from December 2018.
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 writing and communications professional in your life. The gift can even be for yourself.
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.
6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Brain power and creativity are key for writers. Word puzzles and writing exercises can help boost a writer’s creativity. Try magnetic word games, for example. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create numerous combinations of 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 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.
It’s one thing to show off your latest work to your family and closest friends. After all they are the ones who know you best. They know how ambitious and creative you are and how hard you work at your craft. But can they be truly objective about your work? Can they provide more helpful comments other than “it’s a great story.” If you want more than a pat on the back, then you have to look elsewhere to get your writing critiqued.
There are writing groups, of course. Many new writers swear by them, claiming they have gained valuable feedback from fellow group members. But most members are as new as you are to writing, so they may not have the best perspective of your skill or a solid grasp of your story. Members will likely tell you that the work is good as is, simply because they either don’t want to offend you or because they want to be seen as a valued contributor to the group or because they may not understand the difference between good writing and great writing. Personally, I’m skeptical of writers groups for critiques.
So who are the best people to critique your writing? Depending on where you are in your writing process, any one of the following people can provide meaningful and practical feedback.
1. Close friend or spouse In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests completing a first draft before having your work reviewed, and then showing it to only one or two people who are closest to you and who you trust, usually a spouse, partner or best friend. King’s wife reviews his first drafts, and she provides valuable input that helps him during the revision phase.
Your significant other knows you best, understands your love of writing, and supports your need to spend countless hours pouring your heart and soul onto a blank page (or computer screen). They may be in the best position to tell you if there’s a better way to phrase something or if a character seems one-dimensional or if a plot twist seems contrived. They may be close to you personally, but they are not close to your work, so they can give you an objective review of your work without killing your enthusiasm for it.
2. Writing instructor or coach
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how valuable the instructor’s knowledge can be. Not only do they become familiar with you as a writer over time, they can help you become aware of your own creative thought process. In that way, you refine your self-editing skills. As they become more knowledgeable of your writing, they can identify weak spots you need to improve on as well as strengths you can maximize to the fullest.
A coach not only provides technical guidance but will also help you be accountable for your writing and help you stay on track to meet your goals. They may be published authors themselves, so they can give you insights about the path to publishing. Many instructors also serve as coaches, offering instruction on a one-on-one basis. Instructors and coaches help you learn to help yourself, but their services may come at a price — the price of a writing class or a coaching session. But the cost may be worth it.
3. Beta readers or reading groups
Other helpful sources of feedback are beta readers and reading groups. Beta readers are individuals in your personal network who are avid readers, while reading groups are groups of avid fans. They may be fans of certain genres, such as mystery or science fiction. If you’re writing a science fiction novel for young adults, reach out to the avid readers in your network and ask for their input. Because they are familiar with the genre and have likely read tons of stories in that genre, beta readers can tell you how your story compares with others they’ve read. Is it on par with them, or does it need improvement? Beta readers and reading groups understand what works and what doesn’t, what will appeal to readers and what won’t.
Mind you, reading groups have a different focus than writing groups. While writers groups focus on writing technique and performance, readers’ groups focus on the storytelling aspect. They understand what makes readers read certain books and not others. And that information can help you craft your story better.
4. An editor
After you’ve revised your story enough times to make it believable and readable, it’s time to submit it to an editor for review. That thought might make you weak in the knees, but don’t fret. Remember, editors are your friends. They’re there to help you hone your story further. They’ve reviewed and edited hundreds of other stories, so they know that many of them are decent enough stories, but aren’t publishable. The editor can tell you how to make your story more publish-worthy.
There are two types of editors. One works for a publication and routinely reviews submitted stories. They know what writing style they’re looking for and the types of stories they want to publish. If your work does not meet the publication’s criteria, it will be rejected.
The second type of editor may work on their own, offering their services to aspiring writers before they formally submit it to an agent or publisher. They will likely charge you for their expertise, but it may be worth it to have someone review your work with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’ve worked on it a long time, you may be too close to your work to see it objectively.
5. An already published writer
If you’re fortunate enough to count a published writer among your acquaintances, take advantage of their expertise. Ask if they are willing to review a few pages or a chapter or two. If they don’t have time to review it, ask if they’re willing to discuss your project. You might get enough meaningful advice just through the discussion alone. Since they’ve been through the publishing process already, they can tell you what worked for them and what they would do differently.
6. An agent If you aspire to be published, at some point, you will want to show your completed work to a literary agent. Agents tend to work in specific genres, so do your homework and find an agent that works in the same genre as your story. A good place to start is Writer’s Market, which is updated and published every year, and Writer’s Digest magazine, which profiles a literary agent in each issue. Each agent is different, so be sure you review their submission criteria.
Agents will review your work with an eye on its marketability. Will it sell? Is it publishable? Agents have relationships with multiple publishers and can determine if your story is a good fit at one of them. Most important, they’ll review your work to determine if you are worthy of being represented by them.
Depending on where you are in your writing journey, you will no doubt have a connection to one or several of these individuals at some point. No matter which of these people you choose to review your work, their insights can help you become the best writer you can be.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about our collective love of books – from finding books on a budget and downsizing a book collection, to honoring our libraries and independent bookstores and showcasing the best resources for book clubs.
The good news – perhaps the best news – is that books are alive and well, thank you very much. It doesn’t matter if you read books with an E-reader or the traditional print version, reading is more popular than ever. One wonders what any of us would do if we did not have books to read.
Much has been written about the benefits of reading, including scores of scientific evidence of its neurological and physiological benefits. Studies find that reading just 10 or 15 minutes a day can alter your brain’s functioning power.
1. Reading stimulates the brain. Recent studies show that reading can slow the cognitive decline in dementia patients. The brain may not be a muscle in the traditional sense, but it can act like one in that it must be worked frequently to improve different cognitive functions, such as memory and math skills. The more you read, the stronger your brain becomes.
2. Reading expands knowledge. The more you read, the more you increase your knowledge of the world. Non-fiction helps you understand current events, science, technology, relationships and even your own pets. Meanwhile, reading fiction gives you insights into human behavior and motivation. Reading expands your view of the outside world.
3. Reading helps increase vocabulary and writing skills. As any professional writer can tell you, if you want to improve your writing and vocabulary, read a lot of books. Be aware of the writing styles too. As you read, it’s helpful to keep a dictionary handy in case you come across unfamiliar terms. Author Susan Reynolds in Psychology Today suggests firing up your writing brain by reading complex literary and non-fiction subjects, like science and art, which forces your brain to think more deeply, a skill that will help you become a better writer.
4. Reading is a form of relaxation and helps reduce stress. The most relaxing activity I know of is reading. Even reading for 15 minutes a day can slow down your heart rate and help you find your center again. Reading provides an escape from the pressures and problems of your day.
5. Reading increases tolerance for life’s uncertainties.A study cited in The Atlantic magazine finds that reading and writing can increase a person’s tolerance for uncertainty. Study participants who read short stories were less likely to need cognitive closure – to reach a conclusion quickly or were less likely to have an aversion to ambiguity and confusion. Reading teaches them that sometimes there are no clear cut solutions to problems and that not all stories end happily or at all. Fiction readers, especially those who were avid readers, were able to think more creatively and not get tied down to one idea.
6. Reading teaches empathy. An article in Real Simple magazine suggests that reading can help you understand a person’s emotions and motivations. By reading about different characters, whether fictional or true, readers can observe human behavior in action. When dealing with real life scenarios, they’re more likely to empathize with people going through difficulties.
7. Reading provides quality “Me Time.” Life can be stressful, and sometimes you want to get away from it all. But if you can’t take a vacation, immersing yourself in a good book is the next best thing. Think of it as a vacation for your mind. And because reading is a solo activity, it provides the quality “Me Time” most people crave.
8. Reading improves critical and analytical thinking skills. If you’ve ever read a spy thriller or a mystery novel and followed the clues to figure out “whodunit,” you’ve learned to use your analytical skills to solve the mystery on your own. Likewise, quietly observing plot development, character development, dialogue and story structure as you read along improves your thinking skills. But you don’t have to read just mysteries to achieve this. Non-fiction books can do the trick as well.
9. Reading helps improve focus and concentration. When you spend time alone with a book, the rest of the world just seems to fall away. When you read, you block out all outside distractions. It helps to turn off the TV and the radio too, which do little to build your brain’s cognitive function. The more complex the book, the more concentration and focus will be required.
10. Reading sets an example for kids. A friend of mine, who is an avid reader, once told me that she reads in front of her two young toddler sons so she can set an example for them. Studies back this up. Kids can develop an interest in reading early on simply by watching their parents read, or better yet, hearing their parents read out loud to them.
11. Reading can help you sleep better. Studies show that reading before bedtime can improve the quality of your sleep, as long as you read a printed book rather than an e-reader or tablet. The light from these devices can interfere with sleep. I’ve had nights when I lie awake at 4 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep. After reading for a half hour or so, I’m drowsy enough to get back to sleep.
12. Reading provides cheap entertainment. Reading is one of the cheapest forms of entertainment you can find. It doesn’t cost much to read a book (unless you purchased the book brand new). The only cost is the cost of the book, but even that can be minimized if you buy second-hand or borrow it. If you’re on a budget, reading is a low-cost option to entertaining yourself.
Our February theme continues: “For the love of books”
Many years ago, I wandered into my favorite local bookstore called Transitions Bookplace & Café (which sadly, has since shut down) where they were hosting a book discussion meeting. I can’t recall what book they were discussing – something about mental health and relationships, I think – but the discussion drew nearly 50 people, far more than the store management anticipated. The group leader had difficulty keeping the conversation on track, and in fact, one particular man monopolized the conversation by talking about his own personal troubles. With so many people in the room, it was difficult to hear what individuals were saying. The group leader tried on several occasions to get the discussion back on track and to get more people involved in the conversation. Out of frustration, I finally left.
Other friends of mine have had more positive experiences with book groups. The key is to keep the group small, at least eight members and no more than 15, say experts, so it will be much easier to manage the discussion.
Starting a book discussion group can seem like a daunting task. Sometimes it’s better to simply join one. Whether you start a club or join one, think about all the different ways a book club can enrich your life and your reading experience. In addition to providing a means for socializing, a book discussion group enables you to:
* Learn about new authors. Joining a book club opens up opportunities to read works from authors you may never have heard of. Or maybe you have heard of them but never read anything by them previously.
* Become familiar with different genres outside of your own interest. For example, if you don’t usually read nonfiction books, book club members may decide as a group to read two or three nonfiction books per year. As long as you’re open-minded about reading non-fiction, the experience can broaden your literary knowledge.
* Hear and discuss opinions and perspectives from other members. When you give everyone a chance to express their opinion, you learn to be more comfortable discussing complex and controversial subjects. Hopefully, you also learn to be more patient to give each member a chance to speak. You learn to listen, and though you may not agree with others’ opinions, you hopefully learn to respect their differences.
* Improve your capacity for literary analysis. When you’re part of a book club, you read books differently with an eye on discussion points. You might still enjoy the book, but you’re not reading just for pleasure anymore. You may also take notes while you read so you can prepare to discuss the book more thoroughly. It forces you to think more critically.
* Improve your ability to articulate ideas. Book discussion groups provide an outlet to test out ideas and formulate opinions. Book worms aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking their minds or sharing opinions. But with practice, more shy types can feel more confident in presenting their views in what they perceive to be a safer environment.
There are numerous sources online to help plan and participate in book discussion groups. Bookbrowse.com offers advice for starting a group, leading meetings and choosing books to read. The American Library Association offers tips for managing a book discussion group and provides some suggested questions in instances where there is no discussion guide. Also check out Bookmovement.com, which helps book clubs organize their book reading lists, maintain contact with their group members, and help clubs learn what other groups are reading. Reading Group Guides, a sister site to the Book Reporter, provides their own review guides for current releases which you can access by book title, author name or by genre.
With so many resources available and so many books to read, you’ll never run out of topics for discussion for your book group.
The key to a beneficial experience is to commit to the group experience. Going just for the food, drinks and socializing isn’t enough. Be on time, show up and stay engaged. Most important, be open to reading different authors and genres, participate in the discussions, and enjoy the camaraderie with friends over a shared love of books.
Readers: Are you involved with a book discussion group? What has been your experience?
Once you’ve finished reading one book, how do you decide what you will read next? For many readers, turning to online book review sites is the next best thing to getting a personal recommendation. These sites are especially appealing to those who prefer to read the latest releases. But it can be difficult to discern which of the newly published books are worthy of their time and money.
Book reviews – whether through an online review site or in a print publication – offers some perspective of what’s available. You’ll likely find two kinds of reviews: long-form reviews with a more thorough analysis of the book’s content written by a hired staff person or freelancer, and shorter reviews submitted by book fans, usually published on sites like Goodreads or Amazon.
There are more book review sites than ever before. The Internet and social media have made it possible to share opinions about the books we read more quickly and easily. I think this is in response to the growing number of newspapers and magazines that have downsized staffs and no longer have the resources to hire full-time book reviewers. Sites like Goodreads and BookRiot have successfully filled the void.
Book review sites have become a vital part of the publishing industry. Authors value them for providing an outlet to help them promote their books. My guess is that publishers like them too for a similar reason. These sites have created communities of readers from all parts of the world. They’re bringing the world together over a shared love of reading.
If you’re the type of reader who prefers to read the newest releases as soon as they come out, book review sites are the places to go to find out what is being published and by whom. If you’re the type of reader who likes being part of a reading community and likes learning about what other people are reading, book review sites can serve your needs well.
So what are the best places to go for book reviews? Here’s a rundown.
New York Publications — Most traditional book reviews are published by newspapers and magazines. The two that come to my mind are The New York Times and The New Yorker Page Turner section have extensive coverage of book reviews and literary criticism because, after all, New York City is where a good portion of the publishing action takes place. Most of these reviews are longer, more detailed pieces, so you can gain more thorough insight about new releases.
Goodreads — Several friends rave about Goodreads as the go-to source for everything-books. Read book reviews, keep track of books you want to read and find out what other people are reading. One of their highlights is their annual reading challenge. To participate, enter the number of books you plan to read in the coming year, then as you complete each one, update your tally to see your progress.
Kirkus Reviews – Launched in 1933, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine. Reviewing books is their forte, and they do it well. The magazine provides authoritative reviews of books weeks before they are released, and they offer a roundup of reviews for consumers in a weekly email that you can get delivered to your inbox. Kirkus also offers services to authors, such as marketing promotion and editing services.
Publishers Weekly – A publishing industry mainstay, Publishers Weekly covers industry news, author news, bestsellers, digital works and international. They also post publishing jobs and have a special section, BookLife, geared toward self-published authors.
Booklist Online – Geared toward librarians and libraries, Booklist is a publication of the American Library Association. But their Booklist Online site has reviews of adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. They offer advice to librarians about what newly published books should be added to their collections. But their reviews can be helpful to any avid reader.
IndieBound.org – Geared toward independent bookstores and publishers as well as fans of indie books, IndieBound.org does a great job of supporting this niche industry. In addition to summarizing the latest independently published works, the site has a search feature so you can find an independent bookstore near you. There is no online shop at IndieBound.org because their goal is to get more people shopping at the nearest independent bookstore.
The Book Reporter – Operated by book fans, The Book Reporter provides reviews and news of the latest releases, but also posts their own guides for reading discussion groups.
The Millions – The online literary magazine covering the arts, culture and books. The Millions showcases new releases every week on Tuesday, which it calls New Release Day.
Book Riot – In addition to sharing book reviews on the latest releases, Book Riot posts a weekly podcast, All the Books, which is a roundup of book recommendations.
Bookbub – Fans of e-books will appreciate the Bookbub site for its news and reviews of e-books.
I’m sure there are many more online book sites you can explore. Don’t forget your local bookstore staff who are usually in tuned to the latest industry news and can recommend new authors and newly published works. There’s usually a staff recommendations section to browse as well.
Despite the many sources around, I still believe the best recommendations come from the people you know, whether that’s a sibling, a friend or your hair stylist. You can never go wrong with a personal recommendation.
So what about you? Where do you go to read book reviews and learn about the newest releases?
Several years ago, I wrote about how libraries have evolved since my childhood. For awhile, many people thought libraries were on the verge of extinction as Amazon dominated the book marketplace. But that may no longer be the case. Just as independent bookstores found ways to survive by offering products and services not offered by Amazon and national chains, the public library has extended its offerings beyond short-term book loans.
According to a recent article on Vox, the library’s main purpose is to help educate the community; Amazon’s purpose is to simply sell books (and a million other things). The library still remains relevant today because it serves the public’s demand for information and resources, especially to underserved populations, at no cost.
With a focus on education and lifelong learning, the neighborhood public library has expanded its services beyond book loans. They’ve become multi-purpose destinations. And libraries are being re-designed to accommodate these expanded offerings.
If you haven’t visited a library lately, you may be surprised to find what’s available there. A Pew Internet survey from 2014 found that while many people think libraries continue to serve a useful purpose in their communities, a significant percentage did not realize the scope and depth of the services offered at libraries. For example, visitors can get income tax advice or job assistance. They can learn a new language, get literacy tutoring, participate in film discussions or research their family history.
Libraries house historic and genealogy records, map collections and other archival documents. For example, a library in Birmingham, Alabama, has preserved records and documents related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, according the Project for Public Spaces.
Public libraries also have community rooms, ideal for having discussions and debates about zoning changes and new proposed developments, all with the intent to help residents understand their community better.
Today’s libraries are trying to reach younger generations of readers by offering more programs aimed at teens and children. Some offer 3D printing, community access TV and radio stations, language labs and recording studio so they can record their own stories in their own words. Others encourage visitors to relax and linger over their reading materials by providing private reading nooks, creative spaces and even a fireplace.
These types of amenities aim to reach younger adults in their 20s and 30s, who have been largely absent in recent years but are the key to the library’s future viability.
As long as people have the desire to explore the world at large and engage in lifelong learning, and as long as there are family-friendly programs for people of all ages, the public library will continue to serve as a vital resource in our communities.