Tips for Participating in Reading Challenges

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At the start of the year, I wrote a post about my annual reading challenge. The challenge is fairly simple: to read a diverse selection of books up to 26 books, or one book every two weeks. The challenge contains a mix of book choices from genres (romance, mystery, historical fiction) to prompts (a book with a person’s name in the title, a book set in your hometown, a book with a one-word title, etc.).

My goal for the year is 32 books, however, and so far, I have completed 10. I’m well on my way to reaching my numerical goal.

But doing this challenge isn’t about the quantity of books. It’s about expanding my reading knowledge and being accountable for continuing to read throughout the year. No, I do not feel pressure to meet my number goal, and I don’t race through books to check it off my list. If I do race through a book, it’s usually because it’s a fast-paced thriller that is hard to put down.

Opponents of reading challenges say they are too much like homework assignments. I view them more like a game, a scavenger hunt where you’re given clues to find certain items. In this case, book titles that fit a particular description. Others say they don’t want to feel pressure to reach reading goals, even though they can determine what those goals should be.

Search the Internet and you’ll find numerous reading challenges, such as Popsugar, Goodreads or this one at Booklist Queen. If these sites don’t fit your reading goals, you can always create your own. For ideas on how to do that, check out Bookriot’s DIY Reading Challenge. There are different approaches to doing reading challenges that have nothing to do with a set quantity.

Maybe you love mysteries, but want to explore other mystery authors. Choose to read one book each month from a mystery author you’ve never read before. Or choose ten places you’ve never been to before, and choose 10 books that take place in those locations.

You get the idea. That’s the fun part of reading challenges.

If you have done a reading challenge, you know already how it can improve your reading. Here are a few other benefits of doing reading challenges:

— It gets you out of your comfort zone so you’re not reading the same author or genre all the time, and allows you to choose books that you wouldn’t normally read.
— It adds a fun element to reading, much like a scavenger hunt. It’s a game, although there are no set prizes.
— It’s a different way to enjoy reading. It’s really less about the quantity of books and more about enhancing the experience. You can still focus on quality books and you can still take your time reading them. It’s about making a commitment to read more books and read different styles.
— It makes you accountable. A reading challenge gives you a plan for reading more books. Some people perform better if they have a plan in place.
— It gives you a chance to make a dent in your TBR bookshelf.

Meanwhile, opponents of reading challenges cite several objections:
— Having a target goal puts pressure on you to perform at a level you may not ready for or at a faster pace than you’re used to.
— The challenge can seem like a chore, like homework. It’s something you have to do, rather than something you want to do.
— You may find yourself racing through books just to meet your target goal rather than going at a slower pace that allows you to enjoy the book.
— In a challenge with prompts, you may have to do some research to find some of the more obscure titles. It may take time to find a book that takes place in Asia, for instance, or a book published the year you were born. That can be more work than you are willing to put into it.
— Setting reading goals might ruin your enjoyment of the activity.

While some of these objections have some merit, I find that the benefits often outweigh the downsides. In the four years I’ve done this challenge, I can’t tell you how many new authors I’ve discovered, and different genres that I never would have read.

According to an article in Atlantic magazine, people who enjoyed reading challenges the most didn’t seem to care if they finished them or not. They didn’t care if they hit their target of 50 books. If their goal was to read more books and having a target goal helped them achieve that, they were satisfied with the outcome.

If you’re intrigued by reading challenges, here are a few helpful tips for participating in them:

— Set a small goal to start. Maybe choose five books by minority authors, or five nonfiction books if you’re used to reading fiction. Or do a summer reading challenge – one book on a selected topic for June, July and August.
— You don’t have to follow the established reading challenges like Goodreads if it doesn’t fit your reading goals.
— Keep track of your accomplishments. Keep a small notebook or a spreadsheet, and jot down what you read.
— Don’t worry about quantity. If setting a number goal scares you, don’t worry about it. Focus on the diversity or quality of books instead.
— Don’t overthink the challenge. Challenges exist to help you become a better reader. If you set a goal for reading 10 non-fiction books and you only read seven, don’t beat yourself up over it.
— Don’t take it too seriously. Reading challenges are meant to be fun ways to discover new authors and new genres.
— Reward yourself. While most challenges don’t offer prizes, you can always reward yourself when you complete your challenge.

Remember, you are in control of your reading challenge. You determine how many books you want to read, the types of books you want to read and how much time you’re willing to spend reading them. No one is forcing you to finish the challenge. But imagine how good you’ll feel about yourself when you do.

Ten Ways to Share Your Love of Reading

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For many of us, books are a refuge from the harsh realities of the outside world. Especially during this time of crisis, reading books is a tremendous blessing. Reading is even better when you can share that love of reading with others. They don’t even have to be people closest to you, but neighbors, colleagues, even strangers on the street.

Reading may be an individual activity, but it doesn’t have to be. Reading can be as much of a group activity as you want it to be. These days, it’s more important than ever to stay connected with one another even if we’re living in isolation. Who knew that a solo activity like reading can actually bring people together?

How do you share your love of reading with others? Here are a few ideas to consider.

1. Teach someone else to read. Whether teaching a child to read or an adult who has never learned to read, you’re teaching them more than a skill. You’re teaching them to be curious about the outside world, about language and storytelling. You’re teaching them to tap into their imaginations. And those are experiences that can last a lifetime.

2. Write a blog about books you love. Do a Google search for blogs about books and you’ll find a laundry list of entries. Book blogs abound because people still love to read. Even more important, they love to talk about books and read about books. So if you’re an avid reader who wants to share a love of reading books, start a blog. Write about your favorite authors, or write a review of books you’ve finished reading.

3. Hold book readings in your own home. Invite family and friends over and each takes turn reading from a text. Or just keep it private – like between you and your dog or cat. Reading out loud has several benefits. For one, it can aid memory and learning, according to a study published in the journal Memory. Researchers found that word recall was greatest among those who read out loud to themselves rather than reading silently or hearing an audio recording of themselves reading out loud.

4. Set up a Little Free Library in your neighborhood. It seems a new Little Free Library is popping up in my neighborhood every month. A Little Free Library looks like a little school house built out of wood that holds a collection of books that have been donated by neighbors. You can take a book or two to read while donating a few of your own. It helps keep the books circulating so everyone has a chance to share a book.

5. Host a book swap. Invite people over to exchange books. For each one they bring to your swap, they can choose one from your collection (assuming you’ve already finished reading it.) Whatever books you don’t want from the swap, you can donate to a non-profit organization, a school or the Little Free Library in your neighborhood. Either way, it’s one more way to share books and your love of reading.

6. Host a book review party. Invite friends to review their most recent or a favorite book. Everyone reads their own book, comes to the event and talks about their selection for five minutes. Everyone has a chance to talk about the book they’ve read. Not only are you sharing your love of reading, you get a chance to add to your TBR list with the titles your friends recommend.

7. Set an example for young readers. A friend of mine reads as much as she can in front of her two young sons because she wants to set an example for them. She wants them to grow up to be readers too. When kids see you read, you demonstrate that you have a curiosity about the world, and it’s an experience they want to be a part of. So set an example for kids, and they may likely grow up to be readers too.

8. Re-enact favorite books or plays. Remember Jo March in Little Women? Her head was filled with stories, and she and her sisters created skits to perform her stories. If working with students or kids, have them pretend they are characters in a story, such as Harry Potter, then have them re-enact scenes from the series. Letting them participate in live action stories helps build their brain muscles for storytelling.

9. Use social media to share your latest read. Take a photo of the book cover and post it with a brief review on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Another idea is to form a private group on Facebook for book lovers, maybe of a specific genre, like science fiction or business books. Then host weekly chats among group members.  

10. Host a reading challenge. Every year, Goodreads polls its members about how many books they want to read in one year. The estimations can range from 12 to 120. You don’t have to participate in theirs, however. Instead, you can do your own reading challenge and share that challenge with your friends. Maybe it’s not the number of books you want to read, but how many different genres you want to read or how many different authors you want to read. The challenge is whatever you make it out to be. The result is sharing a love of reading with other like-minded people.

The best part is that many of these activities don’t have to be done in person, but through a platform like Google Hangouts or Facebook Groups.

So while we isolate ourselves from one another for the sake of good health, reading is a solo refuge that many of us can still enjoy. And sharing that experience with others doesn’t have to make you feel so alone.

 

How to Read Multiple Books at a Time

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March is National Reading Month. Here’s to a celebration of reading.

I suppose one benefit of self-isolation during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is being able to catch up on your reading — that is if you don’t have a gig to go to.

With more time on your hands, and perhaps more books awaiting your attention on your bookshelf, it may be an opportune time to “divide and conquer.” One quick and easy way to do that is by reading more than one book at a time.

Whether or not you want to tackle this challenge depends on several factors: how many books are already on your TBR list, how soon you want to get through them, and whether you have the time to indulge in this activity.

Experts says reading multiple books shows a reader’s virtuosity and their multitude of literary interests. It also shows their wealth of knowledge and curiosity about the world.

For most of the rest of us, reading multiple books is a circus act, like stepping along a high wire, trying to maintain your balance while clutching a book in each hand and perhaps one on top of your head. Or like a clown who starts out juggling two or three items and keeps adding another item to juggle until he can no longer keep them all in the air.

Are you a multiple book reader? Or do you prefer reading them one at a time, with occasional breaks to read something else when you get bored with the first title?

But aside from the circus analogy above, there are several tips and tricks for reading multiple books without losing your sanity — or your balance.

1. Read different genres. This makes the most practical sense. Reading multiple books is easy to accomplish when one book is fiction and another is non-fiction.

2. Read different books in different places. According to Bookriot, setting aside different spaces for different reading materials can help you make progress through your personal library. For example, you might read something light and breezy on your commute to and from work and save the heavier, more serious topics for evening reading.

3. Read different mediums. For example, you might read a lengthy 800-page novel on your Kindle while a novel of 250 pages might be lighter to carry around.

4. Take frequent breaks. Switching between two or three titles allows you to take a break from reading a heavier-themed book so you can come back to it later with fresh eyes.

5. Think big and small. If you’re reading multiple books, vary the length of the books you’re reading, suggests Genie in a Novel blog. So you want to tackle the 1037-page Gone with the Wind? It may take a while to get through it, so supplement your reading with other titles with fewer pages and lighter topics.

6. Explore the benefits of reading. Reading multiple books enables you to enjoy the multiple benefits of reading, writes The Fussy Librarian. You can further your education with nonfiction or historical textbooks, explore the world with a travel book and feel inspired with a self-help book or a book of poetry. 

7. Have a reading buddy or join a book club. Either option can help you access different genres and authors that you might not have considered. While you’re reading with the group, you can only supplement with one or two of your personal choice on the side.

Want to read more about how people read multiple books? Check out this NPR program.

What about you? Do you read one book title at a time, or do you read multiple books? How do you manage them all?

For the love of reading: 20 quotes by women

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It’s been a difficult few weeks, and my brain cannot seem to function properly these days. I haven’t written much this week. So…since March is National Reading Month as well as Women’s History Month, in place of a regular post, I’m sharing a list of quotes by women about the love of reading. Please enjoy and be safe wherever you are.

The world was hers for the reading. – Betty Smith

Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere. – Mary Schmich

In books, I have travelled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. – Anna Quindlen

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul. – Joyce Carol Oates

She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. – Annie Dillard

I can survive well enough on my own – if given the proper reading material. – Sarah J. Maas, author YA fantasy

Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading. – Ruth Rendell

Reading one book is like eating one potato chip. – Diane Duane

A well-read woman is a dangerous creature. – Lisa Kleypas, The Wallflower Christmas

Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river. – Lisa See

Literature is my Utopia – Helen Keller

I love the solitude of reading. I love the deep dive into someone else’s story, the delicious ache of the last page. – Naomi Shihab Nye

Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again. – Louisa May Alcott

Books are the mirrors of the soul. – Virginia Woolf

You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy books and that’s kind of the same thing. – Anonymous

Wherever I am, if I’ve got that book with me, I’ve got a place I can go and be happy. – J.K. Rowling

One of the many gifts that books give readers is a connection to each other….Books cultivate empathy. – Sarah Jessica Parker

Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.  – Toni Morrison

I think that when you can escape into a book, it trains your imagination to think big and to think that more can exist than what you see. – Taylor Swift

Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences of my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds. – Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist

Which of these quotes are your favorite? Or do you have one of your own that inspires you?

Want to read more quotes about reading? Check out these other sites:

101 Quotes about Reading — She Reads
Best Quotes about Reading — Oprah the Magazine

What’s Next on Your Reading List?

Great American Read
Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer

March is National Reading Month

Reading a book is much like going on a journey. You travel along with the narrator or protagonist through numerous ups and downs they experience, which hopefully concludes with a happy ending.

But then, you are faced with a new dilemma: what should you read next? Do you pull a title from your TBR list (to be read)? Or do you search the nearby Little Free Library for something that grabs your interest? Or do you go somewhere else?

There are several ways you choose the books you read. You might go by the author. You’ve read their works before and want to read others because you know it will be a satisfying reading experience.

Maybe genre is more important to you. For example, mystery fans will gravitate toward other mysteries and thrillers, even if they haven’t read the author before.

Then there’s the third option for choosing books: the plot. When you read the inside flap or back cover, you get an idea of who your protagonist is, what conflicts they’ll be facing and perhaps, the possible payoff. You start reading with the promise of a strong compelling plot line and hope for another satisfactory conclusion.

There are a number of ways I choose what books to read. Usually, it depends on my mood. One day, I might be in the mood to read a memoir, then next I might be in the mood to be swept away in a romantic suspense novel. Since I like reading a variety of genres, it sometimes makes it difficult to choose what type of book I want to read next.

Sometimes, rather than choosing the book, I simply browse my shelf and let the book choose me. Here are a few other ways I choose a book to read.

* Someone mentioned the book in conversation. When a friend describes a book they’re reading and their voice is filled with wonder and enthusiasm, I usually see it as a sign that I should check it out too. When someone loves what they read, they’ll happily share their book choice with others.

* I avoid reading book reviews. Book reviews are meaningless to me because they tend to over analyze the story. I think to myself, “You got that much out of that story?” I have never been convinced to read a book based on a review. I prefer recommendations from people I actually know and respect who have already read the book.

* It’s an author I’ve read before. This is perhaps the number one reason people choose certain books to read. If the author has an extensive list of books they’ve published and I’ve already enjoyed reading some of those titles, I am more likely to read other titles by them. Several years ago, I read Kristen Hannah’s Winter Garden based on a recommendation from a Facebook friend. I loved that book so much, I’ve read several other titles of Hannah’s since then.

* I pay attention to book titles. Some titles automatically draw me in because they exude an air of mystery and intrigue. Once in a bookstore, I came across a title in the discounted section with a simply designed book cover – plain orange with classic, somewhat ornate writing. The Places Between Us had no book summary or marketing blurb on the back side or inside the front cover, so I had no idea what the book was about, which only added to its mystery. Strangely, I kept pacing past it. After glancing in its direction several times, I finally picked it up and read the first few pages. I wound up buying it, and it became one of the most fascinating reads, worthy of a book club discussion.

* I find authors or book titles I’ve always wanted to read. For me, that includes some old classics that I never read when I was younger. To Kill a Mockingbird had been on that list for several years. Only after its author Harper Lee passed away did I finally pick it up to read.

* I avoid current national best sellers. I’m sure there are some quality books among the current best sellers, but not all of them. I’d rather choose a book because I’m interested in the plot.

* I look for an intriguing plot or character. Recently, I read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity.  The plot line is what intrigued me most, though admittedly, I also wanted to check out Moriarity’s work since I had seen her name on bookstore shelves. The main character, Alice, heads to the gym one morning and wakes up in the hospital, only to learn that it’s ten years later, and she can’t remember anything that’s happened to her over that ten-year span. She can’t understand why her relationship with her sister is so strained or why she is recently separated from a husband she adores. The plot compelled me to pick up the book and keep reading, so I could find out how Alice pieces together memories from that missing time in her life.

* I consider bookstore staff recommendations. If unsure what to read next, you can always ask your favorite bookstore employee, or check out the bookstore’s staff recommendations section, if they have one. These folks are avid readers themselves and are happy to share their favorite books with you.

* I refrain from depending on book club choices. Sure, a title might be an Oprah Book Club choice, but don’t make that the main reason for choosing a book. Choose it because the title or plot intrigues you, someone you know recommended it, or your local bookshop owner recommended it. 

Remember, it’s helpful to develop your own criteria for choosing books to read. At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment with new authors or genres. Every now and then, it can be fun to read something outside of your comfort zone. You never know when you discover new talent. 

No matter how you go about choosing a book, it’s exciting to know that we have so many choices available to us, more than we’ve ever had before. Half the fun of reading is deciding what to read next.

How to Get More Out of Your Reading Experience

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March is National Reading Month. It’s a good time to read a book. 

If you’re like me, you have an entire shelf (or two) of books waiting to be read. In fact, at this moment, I probably have about 80 books waiting for my attention. There doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to read them all.

Browse the Internet and you’ll find numerous articles how to read more books. That’s an admirable goal. But I prefer to focus on quality. I’d rather take my time to enjoy the process of reading rather than power through each book just to ramp up my numbers.

Add to that the growing number of responsibilities in our lives. It’s difficult to enjoy a book when your mind is distracted by everyday concerns. What should I make for dinner? I need to call a babysitter for Saturday night. How am I going to pay my property tax bill? You get the idea.

If you want to get more out of your reading experience, here are a few tips and tricks you can try.

Set aside a private place for your reading. Is there a corner of your home where you like to curl up with a book? If not, make a space for yourself with a comfortable chair and good lighting away from noise and distractions. Loving pets and favorite beverages are optional.

Avoid speed reading. Reading is not a race or a competition. It’s meant to be savored, like a cup of coffee or a long walk. If you really want to enjoy reading, slow down and take your time to get through your book. When you slow down, you’ll likely notice more details in the story. Speed reading might help you power through more books, but will it help you enjoy what you’re reading?

Browse libraries and bookstore shelves for inspiration. Looking for ideas what to read next? Or do you want to find out what other people are reading? Check out the shelves at the local library or bookstore to find out what’s new and interesting. It’s not necessary to buy anything at that moment. Keep a small notebook with book titles you want to read, or jot the titles down in your smart phone for easy reference later. When you see what else is out there, it can inspire you to keep reading.

While you’re at the library, find a quiet corner and read. It can be from one of the shelves, or your own book that you’ve carried with you. Spending time at the library can inspire anyone to read more.

Participate in reading challenges. If you really want to ramp up your reading game, find a reading challenge to take part of. These challenges give you an opportunity to read different types of authors and genres. It also help you set a goal for yourself. Maybe your goal is to read two or three books a month. That would equate to 24 to 36 books a year. Make sure your goal is reasonable and reachable, however. Check out local libraries, online book clubs and sites like
Goodreads for reading challenges.

Put away electronics. If you really want to enjoy the latest bestseller, turn off the TV and put away your smart phone. You don’t really need them while you read, do you? By eliminating these distractions, you won’t be tempted to engage in non-essential activities and your mind can focus on the book in your lap rather than what’s on the screen.

Set a dedicated reading time. Find a time of day that works best for you, according to Inc. magazine. What time of day works best for you to read? For some, reading before bedtime helps them relax and sleep better. For others, reading a good book over their lunch hour is more convenient. Sometimes, getting up in the wee hours of the morning or when insomnia strikes in the middle of the night provides an opportunity to catch up on some reading. Reading for 30 minutes during that quiet time before the sun rises can help you fall back to sleep.

Read out loud or take notes. If non-fiction is your thing, sometimes it helps to read the book out loud or take notes to get the most out of your reading experience. Taking notes or reading out loud can help you understand the author’s message, develop new conclusions or increase your focus or concentration. You can get more out of your reading in shorter period of time.

Allow yourself a DNF. Every so often, you start reading a book that is simply not grabbing your attention. In that case, give yourself permission to stop reading it, writes a contributor at BookRiot. There’s no rule that says you have to finish every book you’ve started (although I do try to finish everything I read because you never know when the story might get better toward the end). Life is too short to be spent reading a boring book, especially when there are so many other amazing works out there. So go ahead and allow yourself a “Did Not Finish.”

Re-read old favorites. If you need a break from reading newer releases, go back and re-read a title that you read long ago. It feels self-indulgent to cozy up with a book you loved once upon a time.

Recently, I finished reading A Stranger is Watching by Mary Higgins Clark. The book had been sitting on my shelf after I grabbed it from a Little Free Library, but when I learned Clark had died, I knew it was my next selection. I had read it more than 25 years ago and couldn’t remember the plot. Because so much time has passed, I was able to read it again with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.

Remember, it’s not the number of books you read that matters or how quickly you get through them. It’s the quality time you spend doing what you love. Follow these tips to enjoy reading more.

 

2020 Reading Challenge: How Many Books Can You Read in One Year?

 

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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
5. Mystery/thriller
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)
33. Paranormal/vampire
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.

Have fun! Let the reading begin!

24 Quotes about Writing by Women Who Write

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As Women’s History Month comes to a close, it seems appropriate to highlight some of history’s most prominent female authors. In their own words, here are their thoughts and musings about writing and the writing life. Let their words be an inspiration and motivation for your own work.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, either from the collection below or one that is not represented?

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
Agatha Christie

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath

“I could not write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”
Jane Austen

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self; to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
Toni Morrison

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings,  specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course, you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“You must not only know how to write, but you have to be privately, personally, sound at the core. Not sane, but sound. If not, it always shows.”
Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent

“To write something, you  have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
Anne Rice

“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but one which makes you think.”
Harper Lee

“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.”
Margaret Atwood

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.”
Sandra Cisneros

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”
J.K. Rowling

“Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us.”
Alice Walker

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
Anne Frank

“Women and fiction remain, so far as I’m concerned, unsolved problems.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“Invention, it my be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.”
Mary Shelley

“When I go back and read my journals or fiction, I am always surprised. I may not remember having those thoughts, but they still exist and I know they are mine, and it’s all part of making sense of who I am.”
Amy Tan

“After awhile, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. That’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.”
Alice Hoffman

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.”
Louisa May Alcott

“Write about the emotions you fear the most.”
Laurie Halse Anderson

“Writing is a process, a journey into memory and the soul.”
Isabel Allende

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”
Ann Patchett

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page.”
Annie Proulx

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”
Anaïs Nin

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou

Writing Critiques: Who Are The Best People to Review Your Writing?

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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.

To find a freelance editor, ask fellow writers for referrals. Or check out organizations such as Editorial Freelancers Association or the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, which post directories of editors.

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.

12 Ways Reading Every Day Can Improve Your Life

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February’s theme is “For the Love of Books”

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.

A recent Lifehack article outlines some additional benefits to reading. Here’s how reading books can transform your life.

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.