Remembering the Queen of Suspense, Mary Higgins Clark

MHC autographSeveral weeks ago, we lost an icon in the literary world. Author Mary Higgins Clark passed away at the age of 92 and her loss will be deeply felt among generations of her loyal readers.

Clark authored 56 books in a career that spanned more than 40 years, which is amazing considering she didn’t get published until she was 43. It took hard work, dedication and persistence to keep writing and keep revising — a lesson for all aspiring authors. In a lovely open letter on Clark’s website, Carolyn K. Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, Clark’s publisher, writes of Mary’s work ethic and her generosity with her readers.

Clark was one of the first authors whose books I routinely sought out in bookstores or at the library because I always knew they were well written and kept me turning the pages until its satisfying conclusion. I always looked forward to the new releases from her with great anticipation, not unlike the Harry Potter series two decades later.

Clark was also one of the few authors I met during a meet-and-greet at a bookstore near my office many years ago. I remember walking into the bookstore and noting with surprise that there weren’t many people in line to meet her, maybe three or four. Mind you, this was 1991, long before there was social media and cell phones and selfies. They didn’t exist back then, so there was little pre-event publicity other than an ad in the newspaper.

I waited eagerly as she chatted with the gentleman in front of me. She actually took the time to talk and answer his questions. When my turn came, I excitedly told her I loved her stories and wanted to be a writer myself. I can’t remember what we talked about after that, but she patiently signed my book (Loves Music, Loves to Dance) with the line “Happy reading and happy writing” followed by her signature and the date. (See image above.)

It’s hard to believe I have had that book all this time. I never had the heart to donate it or give it away because, well, it was a signed copy and it had my name in it. That made it special to me.

When I heard the news of Clark’s passing, I pulled out the book from my collection and looked at what Mary wrote inside. It warmed my heart all over again. Even better, it inspired me to keep writing and keep working toward my publishing goal. Stopping my work now would be like betraying an old friend.

I think many writers can point to one or two authors who have inspired them to be the writer they wanted to be. For me, it was Mary Higgins Clark as well as suspense writer Joy Fielding, who signed a book copy for me in 1995.

JF autograph 2

If there is a moral to this story, it would be to seek out the advice of other writers who have traveled the road you’re on, especially if they are writers whose works you admire. Ask them questions about their craft, no matter how dumb they may sound. These days, most authors have a website and are on social media, so it’s easier to follow them and keep tabs on what they are doing professionally. Check in with them every so often, but don’t hound them. Check their calendar, if they have one, to find out when they’ll be visiting your town. Then make a point to stop by and say hello. You never know what that meeting might lead you toward.

What about you? Do you have a favorite author that inspired you to become a writer? Have you ever met them in person? Share your story in the comments below.

In Memoriam: Remembering the Authors and Journalists We Lost in 2019

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Before we get too far into 2020, let’s look back to the past year and the talented writers we lost.

Authors

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winning author of “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon”

Anne Rivers Siddons, author of “Peachtree Road” and numerous other novels set in and around Atlanta.

Judith Krantz, bestelling author of steamy, sexy romance novels including “Scruples” and “Til We Meet Again.”

Herman Wouk, author of “The Caine Mutiny” died at age 103

Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize winning author of numerous poems about nature and animal life

Vonda McIntyre, award-winning science fiction writer best known for her Star Trek novels

Johanna Lindsey, bestselling author of more than 50 romance novels

Ernest Grimes, author of “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Graeme Gibson, Canadian author and conservationist who was also the long-time partner of Margaret Atwood

Betty Ballantine, who with her husband helped reinvent the modern paperback through Bantam and Ballantine book publishing groups.
Journalists

Cokie Roberts, highly-respected journalist known for her work on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and co-anchoring ABC News’ “This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts.”

Garth Reeves Sr., longtime publisher of the Miami Times and a prominent voice of Miami’s black community

Kathryn Johnson, journalist with the Associated Press who covered pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement

Russ Ewing, well-respected TV reporter in Chicago

Steve Dunleavy, Australian-born tabloid journalist, columnist for the New York Post and lead reporter for the TV show “A Current Affair”

David Horowitz, consumer reporter best known for his work hosting the TV show “Fight Back!”

For more about celebrity deaths, visit Legacy.com.

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!

What to Do When You’re Not in the Mood to Write

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I don’t know if there’s ever a right time to write or a right place or even a right mood. If you always wait for just the right spirit or mood to strike, then you may never write a single word. Then all your brilliant story ideas would collect dust bunnies in your brain. What good are brilliant story ideas if you don’t begin writing them?

But sometimes you’re just not in the mood to write. Either you’re bored with the project you’re working on, or you’ve been at it for too many weeks and you’re not seeing the results you want. Maybe you’ve spent too much time away from writing, either due to illness or injury or a family emergency. In those times, it can be difficult to find the motivation to begin writing again. But you don’t have to be in the best writing mood to make progress toward your writing goals.

Ironically, it is the very act of writing that can put you in a positive writing mood. But beyond that, what else can you do to put yourself in the mood to write. Here are a few ideas.

1. Create an inspiring environment. If your environment feels stale, try mixing it up by surrounding yourself with things of beauty, like fresh flowers. If you are moved by music, play some classical music softly in the background. Find a comfortable chair to sit in, use your favorite pen to write, or even sit outdoors in the sunshine and watch nature unfold. Surrounding yourself with beautiful things can bring out the artist in you.

2. Start small. Set small easily attainable goals for yourself. For example, set a time limit of 30 minutes. See how much you can accomplish during that short time. Author Jack Smith in his book, Write and Revise for Publication, suggests trying the “dribble method.”  Try reaching a small goal, like 100 words. More often than not, you will surpass that goal and will want to keep writing.

3. Re-read what you’ve written already. If you’re working on a lengthy project, like a novel or non-fiction book, go back and review what you’ve already written, particularly the previous chapter. Your brain will automatically switch into edit mode. When you find yourself reaching for that red pen, that’s usually a strong sign that you’re ready to get back to work.

4. Switch up genres. Perhaps you’re not inspired to write because you’re bored with your latest writing project. Try switching to another genre, writes James Duncan in Writer’s Digest. If you’re writing a novel, try writing a poem or two. If your memoir is beginning to feel emotionally exhausting, work on a short story instead. You are still writing something even if it isn’t the project of your dreams, and it might just give you the motivation you need to keep working.

5. Begin with a freewrite exercise. Freewriting is the act of writing for a set time or number of pages without stopping to edit or revise. Think of it as a stream of consciousness that you put on paper. Freewriting for ten minutes can jumpstart your imagination and begin the flow of words. At the end of those ten minutes, you won’t want to stop, and you’ll want to jump back into your writing mode.

6. Read about the writing. Even though you’re not putting any words on a page doesn’t mean you’re not working at your craft. Even reading about your favorite genre, whether it’s memoir writing, science fiction or a historical romance, can help you gain useful insights that you can apply to your own work. It can also inspire you to experiment with a different technique, thus sparking more creativity.

7. Read the works of your favorite authors. Pick up one of their best books and begin reading. What is it about their writing that you always enjoyed? What can you learn from their approach to storytelling?

I recently came across several books I had in storage from a couple of my favorite authors, Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding. Both books had been signed by the authors, which was probably why I was still hanging on to them after nearly two decades. Re-reading their notes of encouragement has inspired me to keep writing today. I’m gradually re-reading these novels, this time with a more expert eye on their writing style.

8. Talk things over with a writing buddy. Sometimes taking a time out or a well-needed coffee break can break the monotony and loneliness of writing. They may have insights that you had not considered. Hearing about their successes and struggles can inspire you to get back to the table. Knowing you have someone supporting your efforts can bring you back to the present with renewed energy.

You don’t always have to find the right mood to begin writing. But you can cheat a little with these little tricks. But really, there’s only one true antidote for getting in the mood to write when you don’t feel like it. Just write.

 

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/

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

Stephen King does it. So does Kristen Hannah. So do Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris and Andre Dubus III.

They are all writers who write their first drafts in longhand with pen and paper.

Whether you are writing a novel, short story, essay or even a business writing project, like a report or white paper, it may seem counterintuitive to write the first draft longhand rather than use a computer. Writing longhand is too time consuming, you might say. Who has the patience for that?

Lots of writers have weighed in on this topic. You can find links to some of their opinions at the bottom of this post.

Funny thing is, writers who previously wrote their stories on their laptop and experimented with writing longhand say they are sold. There is something about that physical process that helped them be more productive and access their imagination more readily. Some writers claim that there’s a stronger hand-to-heart connection that helps them access deeply held emotions which comes across in their writing.

The process of writing longhand can be liberating. By writing my stories longhand, I’m able to focus on the story development process. Writing longhand seems to open up a pathway to the brain where the core of creativity lies. Amazing things have happened as I write. Characters began showing up that hadn’t been part of the story before, and scenes went off into different unanticipated directions. That’s the fun part of writing.

Writing longhand provides physical proof of your progress. Every notebook or legal pad you write on shows the results of your daily efforts. Seeing your work in black and white can make you feel good about your progress and you’ll want to keep writing. It’s a great motivator to your writing practice. If consistency (or lack thereof) has been a problem for you, try writing longhand and see how it affects your writing practice.

When choosing between the mighty pen and laptop, also think about your typing skills. How fast do you type? If you aren’t fast or accurate, writing longhand might also be a better option for you. Writing might seem slower than typing, but ideas may begin to flow at a rate you can keep up with.

When I first tried writing stories on the computer, I didn’t get very far. I was too busy editing as I was writing. Or I would go back to correct misspelled words. The process you think would be faster and easier was actually slower because I was trying to do both writing and editing at the same time, which means I was using both sides of the brain.

Multi-tasking might be fine, but not when your brain is engaged. Now I use a pen and notebook for writing while I reserve the laptop for typing my stories from the page and editing them. Yes, that might seem like an extra step. But maybe it isn’t. I am editing as I’m transferring my words during that process so it now becomes my second draft. I feel I have gotten more done because I am focused on one activity at a time and I’m not overloading my brain.

Another problem with doing your writing on the computer is the temptation to check details via the Internet, which is obviously more accessible. If you stop writing to check a piece of information, chances are you won’t get back to your writing for another three hours because you got lost in the World Wide Web. You won’t have that temptation if you write longhand.

Here are a few other ways writing longhand can improve your writing:

* Writing longhand may help undo writer’s block. The next time you feel blocked, try writing longhand. Experts say the process of writing has a cognitive benefit. It is directly connected to the part of the brain that governs creativity. By writing longhand, you are actually getting in touch with your creativity.

* It forces you to focus on one activity at a time – writing — which is actually more productive than trying to write and edit at the same time, which uses both sides of the brain. That kind of multi-tasking might actually be counterproductive.

* Brain dumping is easier when writing longhand. Let’s face it. The first draft is always a mess. So what if you write it by hand? You give yourself permission to write crappy copy from the start. With a pen it’s easier to cross out, add, write in the margins, or make notes about what to look up later. Yes, it will look messy, but that’s your brain at work.

* Pen and paper are more portable and lightweight. These writing tools travel easily anywhere you go, whether it’s your front porch, your bedroom, the local coffee shop or the library. You don’t have to worry about missing cords or recharging batteries. It’s just your pen, paper and your ideas. That’s what I call traveling light.

* Pen and paper isn’t hard on your eyesight the way a computer screen is. Sitting in front of computer screen for hours each day is hard on your eyesight. Is it a wonder so many of us wear eyeglasses? And the rays from the screen can affect our ability to sleep at night. Paper and pen don’t have the same impact.

Before you dismiss the idea of writing your stories longhand, give it a try. See how it affects your writing.  Are you more productive? Are you more focused on your story and less distracted by the Internet of things? The computer has its place in the writing process. But when it comes to launching your first draft, pen and paper may be the best way to get you to “The End.”

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.