Monday, November 25, 2013

A Bookish Christmas List: 2013

Since last year's Christmas list was full of things only Santa could afford, here's a list of genuinely good and affordable gifts for the writerly and/or readerly person in your life.

Category 1: Books

Enough with the wordy, depressing, and cliche world of pop fiction! Picture books say a whole lot in a little bit of space, and you get pages and pages of artwork to boot.

1. Buy a book that is supposedly for adults but has been put into a format supposedly for kids (apparently because of the added illustrations), like something from the Poetry for Young People series from Sterling.

2. Or buy something you've never heard of. For example, here's my rough copy of Fortunately by Remy Charlip and is a great example of a book worthy of being loved and read but no longer displayed on McBookstore shelves. Go to used bookstores, find a bunch you've never heard of, sit on the floor and read them, then pick your favorite and wrap it up for someone for Christmas.

3. Look for one of the really good classics. Here's a favorite. Don't get a cartoony edition, get the one with original artwork by William Nicholson. It makes a difference! This book is heartbreaking in the same way as Toy Story was, but with a 1920s vibe.

4. All parents are freaks in one way or another, even though some are good at hiding it. So for all those who didn't live in a Hallmark special, I present to you, Monster Mama, whose weaknesses can also be her strengths.

5. This or any book by Oliver Jeffers. They're sweet, quiet, disarmingly and deceivingly simple, and beautifully illustrated. They're a hug in a book.

6. Death can be beautiful and honorable and inspiring. Our culture needs to get a grip on it. Rabbityness.

7. Or, lastly, try out some historical creative nonfiction with a personal, meaningful message, preferably about something outside your cultural and/or social sphere.

Category 2: Focused Craft Experiences

This is more expensive than a book, and you'll need to know quite a bit about the receiver's preferences and available time off work. If you can't find something near where your friend lives, there are tons of options a plane ride away.

1. Writing Retreats & Courses - In the last year, I've gone on a couple writing retreats. One was self-led:

The other was tutor-led:

Both were fantastic experiences. There's nothing like getting away and focusing completely on your writing, and most writers would love the opportunity. Alternatively, you could rent a weekend at a cabin for your friend, buy her a gift card for the nearest grocery store, a bottle or two of wine, and a pack of invitations to send to her writing buddies so they can create a retreat of their own.

2. Conferences, Memberships & Events - Conferences are overpriced, cliquish, and often put on airs like no other, but they're a great place to make connections…

...and get your writing read by pros in the field. That can be priceless. There are conferences for everything from religious romance literature to young adult fantasy to creative nonfiction. Often, such conferences are run by groups that require membership, so your gift could be a year membership just to let them try it out. Also watch for news of author visits and book signings nearby, which are usually free. Just last year, I met the author who most affected my childhood. Getting that signed book was one of the highlights of my bookish life.

3. School Visits - If the person you're buying for is really serious about writing or getting into the book industry, buy him a weekend trip to visit a college or university with a program he's interested in, see the local sights, go to a reading or exhibit or both--generally get immersed and see what he really thinks. A school visit is what finally helped me decide to follow my interest in children's literature. It could do the same for him.

4. Literary Sites - Look around--there may be places close to you with literary history or significance. We've got the Wren's Nest and the Margaret Mitchell House here, and there are special events constantly coming through town, like this illustrator exhibit currently featured at the High Museum of Art. Taking your friend to something like this would be an excellent gift.

5. Theater Tickets - If your friend reads or writes, then your friend loves stories. Find the local playhouse. See what's playing. Get your friend season tickets and a gift card for a great restaurant nearby. Jonathan is taking me to see A Christmas Carol at The New American Shakespeare Tavern next month, and I can't freaking wait.

Category 3: Tools

If the person you're buying for is a writer, then there are lots of affordable tools that can help make the process even more enjoyable. There's a bit for readers here too.

1. Noveling Software - There's tons of software for writers, most of which I know nothing about, but I do know that using Scrivener changed my writing process. You can set up your novel into chapters, scenes, parts, whatever you like, and add notes all over the place. There's a spot for keeping all your research organized and for filing character and location sketches too. Plus, if you want to self-publish, it knows how to correctly format your finished novel. Do some research, find what's best for the writer in your life, and get them some organization software.

2. Practical, Sturdy Handwriting Tools - Journals have been popular forever. I have so many, and I never use them. The only thing I use for handwriting is a plain old Moleskine and a pack of multicolored pens. The Moleskine has an elastic band to keep it shut, comes in all sizes, and usually has a little pocket inside. No quote on the front. No lines on the pages (at least not in mine). Just paper in a sturdy book with a strap to hold it all together.

3. Craft Books - There are approximately one gazillion of these on the market. Some tell how to write stories, others describe how to write in a certain genre, others explain how to get into the business, and still others teach grammar and style. My favorites are the ones that aren't so much about how as why. They're written to encourage the writer, not tell how to write or what to write next. Sometimes, all an artist needs to keep going is for someone to say, yes, you suck today, but most days, you're fantastic, so Keep Going. Here are my favorites:

4. Book Light & Soft Cozy Blanket - No matter who's receiving your gift, they will love a soft cozy blanket and a book light. This book light is extra cool because it comes with a pen for writing secret notes. Along with this snazzy blanket, every reader will be all set.

5. Local Guide - Out of money? That's okay! One of the best gifts I can think of receiving, especially since I'm in a big town and haven't been here long, would be a homemade guide to the best local spots to read, write, get a cup of tea, people watch, get inspired, daydream, eat chocolate, or all of the above. Find great places for a creative soul to go, type up a clever guide in a nice, clean font (for the love of god not comic sans), print it, fold it like a card, draw some holly on the front, and you're done.

Category 4: In honor

If the recipient of your gift would prefer something more charitable this year, consider the following. (There are tons more options, but these are the ones I've had experience with and trust.)

1. First Book - This organization has provided 100 million books to kids in need. Read that again: 100 million. For $10, you can get 4 books sent to kids in need too, and do it in celebration or in memory of your reading/writing friend.

2. Barnes & Noble Holiday Book Drive - There's a good chance the Barnes & Noble in your area is involved in the yearly holiday book drive. You buy the books and your store donates them to a local literacy organization, school, or other group in need of literature. That's what I got Dad last year, and it was so much fun picking the books out myself (see picture below). Even better, take the recipient of your gift with you and make it an outing. Give them the receipt for their memories, a hug for being a charitable friend, and a kiss if you have a crush on them and have been meaning to tell them for years but have been a big chicken.

That's all I can think of, friends, so I hope it helps! Merry Christmas! Happy gift giving! I wish you all peaceful, pleasant, perfect moments with the ones you love, if you can manage to stop fighting for five freaking minutes :)


"One can never have enough socks," said Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books." - J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The power of universals

When someone talks about universals in literature, they mean those things that connect anybody anywhere to anybody else anywhere/time else. Universals are things like birth, death, gain, loss, progress, family, conflict, challenges, rising above, falling down, love, hate, courage, hope, hopelessness--they're human things. They aren't tied to or owned by a particular culture, race, gender, or generation. They just are.

Sure, universals may be expressed in different ways in the east and west, in the past and present, from language to language. But every beloved story has them--those commonalities that connect us. Granted, sometimes the reader has never considered the universal in such a way. Sometimes we need to understand the culture to interpret the universal someone is expressing, to know why they hold courage higher than most or why they refuse to allow hate into their minds or why they look at loss as beautiful when we may look at it as a tragedy. But the universal is there. The connection can still be made.

That's why universals are just short of holy. They transcend. We all know that people of the world don't always get along. We argue, blow each other up, and do all manner of ugly things to each other for something as small as money, power, or tradition. But you can't blow up the concept of love. You can't take it away from people. As intelligent as humans are, as amazing and creative and stupid--there are things we can't touch, sacred things like fear, loneliness, friendship, and hunger. Some are part of being spiritual creatures, some part of being physical creatures. Whatever the case, they are.

You can have one person who believes the world is the center of the universe, that everything in existence revolves around humans, that our story is the story; then you can have another person who believes we're just a part of a natural cycle, that there are likely many cycles like ours somewhere else in space, that our sun is just another star and our planet no more significant than any other; then you can have a person somewhere in the middle, not sure what to think about existence, not sure if she should bother thinking about it at all. They can fight all day about what to do before death and what happens after death. But all three will face that moment. Death is the constant. All three have a heartbeat, and all three hearts will stop beating. Where religion, politics, and culture break ties, the universals reconnect them.

I've heard it said that people are the same everywhere you go. No they're not. They're very different. They're all completely different. There's not two the exact same in the history of the world. But they all live and breathe and assume and decide and are capable of breaking and mending.

I reckon if the world is to ever be at peace, the universals will have something to do with it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The two morals of the stories I've loved

Moral #1: It's gonna be alright in the end.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Louis Sachar
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
Christy, Catherine Marshall
Holes, Louis Sachar
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
Show Way, Jacqueline Woodson
The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers
Firegirl, Tony Abbott
Hinds' Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurnard
The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff
A Separate Peace, John Knowles (in a twisted sort of way)
The Awakening, Kate Chopin (in a twisted sort of way)
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (in a sad, settling sort of way)
Hamlet, William Shakespeare (in a tragic sort of way)

Moral #2: Sometimes, it's not gonna be alright in the end.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

Bonus Moral #1.5 (i.e. somewhere between 1 & 2):

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Bible, ?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The NaNo Slog

It's that time of year again. November: The month of writing my little heart out. In past years, I've jumped naked into the writing pool and splashed around wildly while my inner editor was tied up and gagged in a closet. This year, I don't have the time or desire to write so haphazardly. This year, I'm following a plan, doing my best not to waste words, and trying to build a solid skeleton. In other words, I'm taking my time.

Unfortunately, time is short in the NaNoWriMo game, so I'm falling behind. Getting a story down quickly has its benefits, sure, but this one needs special attention. I do hope to catch up. Still I'd rather get the skeleton than win the game. So I'm slogging along, writing a scene, then stopping to put important messages to myself in brackets, like [Come back and fill in character details here], or [Fix this later, it's total crap], or [You've lost the voice, restart of scene below]. I spend time flipping back to my notes about the story arc and what conflicts I want to build in and where and how to resolve them. I stop and stare out the window and think about what I already know and make notes about what I still need to figure out: [Research chicken coops; go see one in real life], [Find out what it looks like when an evergreen forest is on fire], [If this character disappeared, would it matter?] And, in the midst of all that thinking and planning and stopping, I get a little writing done.

So wish me luck. Updates to come. Here's a short excerpt from yesterday's writing just to prove words are actually appearing on the page:

They followed Ruth and her candle around the side of the house to the cellar door, a heavy wooden square with a sheet of metal nailed to the top. Jessie had been down a few times to get beans and pickled eggs and jars of okra for dinner. The room was lined with the preserves Ruth had slowly packed away and gathered by trading with neighbors for firewood and quilts. Bob opened the door and climbed in ahead of Ruth before reaching out a hand to help the old woman down the stairs. About that time, a loud crack of thunder blasted through the hills and lightning lit up the entire valley. Jessie felt like she could see every needle on every tree. Then it was dark again. As soon as she climbed down the steps and Bob closed the door, a slow and heavy tap, tap, tap sounded on the tin then quickly sped up to the roar of pounding on a thousand metal drums. Jessie was about to learn the meaning of the words 'mountain squall'.