Living It Up

I was once told that I shouldn’t read so many books or watch so many movies; I should get out there and live! Interact with real people! Go biking or hiking or horseback riding, experience the world first hand! More recently I read one of those “That’s SO true” quotes that spin around Facebook; it said, “I read because I want to live MORE than just one life.” I can appreciate both perspectives, but one certainly comes more naturally to me than the other.

This week I am on a river cruise through Eastern Europe with my hubby for our ten-year wedding anniversary. For the flight over or any precious moments of downtime, I brought the incomparable Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. A couple months ago, I devoured THE GOLDFINCH, and I am equally enjoying her first novel.

I am an introvert. I’ve known that for a few decades; that might be one reason why I’ve always been a reader and why I now love writing. (I not only love “having written,” I love sitting in a quiet room so I can listen to my characters whine and cry and beg me to save them from their nasty neighbors and inner demons.) Seriously, though, I’m at a crossroads, and I need to pick up the fork, er, whatever … Did you know these river cruises serve wine all day?

Right, so.


We spent yesterday in Vienna: a morning walk through the city center, an afternoon excursion to Schönbrunn Palace, and an evening concert of Mozart at … another palace … Anyway, I didn’t have a minute to read even one page of The Secret History, and as I crawled into bed, I was sad about that. What’s wrong with me? Even I know that was insane. Yes, Donna Tartt is THAT good, but it was VIENNA.

We’ve had a better balance today of tours and free time, which has given me time to reflect. I am having the time of my life on this trip, and I don’t want to miss a single minute of what this world has to offer, but … There’s no place like home. Next week I’ll be back home where I don’t have to choose between the gripping pages of a novel and the sound of Salzburg. There’s a time and place for everything … And when I’m in Austria, I need to listen to Mozart and eat Wiener schnitzel!

I hope that one day all those people I should be interacting with right now will struggle between getting out in the real world or reading my latest novel. So for now, auf Wiedersehen!


My Top Books of 2013

Tis the season of Lists! I’ve been paying close attention to the Best Books lists from as many sources as possible. The NYT’s Top 100, B & N, Goodreads, Oprah, etc., to see how many of their choices I’ve read. In other words, to see how well I did choosing the right books to read this year. I did … just fair. I have read some and plan to read others. Then there are a few I’m sure are great that I have no real interest in reading. Even more interesting (though I’m not sure what this says about me) is the handful of books that made the big lists that I didn’t like for one reason or another.

In 2013, I have read 41 books (hope to get #42 done before the Ball drops). Of those books, thirty-three are fiction, and eight are non-fiction.  A few of the books I’ve read this year were actually published this year; some even made the aforementioned big lists. But, good or bad, some of the books I read this year range from old to quite old. For my Top Books of 2013, I decided to focus on the relatively new novels I read this year.

Without further ado, here are Karolyn’s Top Books for 2013:

(Relatively) New Fiction:

1. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
3. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
4. Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda
5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
6. The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)
7. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Everybody has a list, and now so do I.

I love a good book discussion. If you agree or disagree with any of my choices here, let me hear it! Or, if you have a favorite that I missed, please tell me so I can add it to my towering TBR list. And I mean that literally. This is my stack of TBR books:

IMG_1838 A few more can’t hurt.


Reading For Writers

If you want to write, you must also read. That’s as close to a truism as anything that deals with writing. Think about it: The great writers can even get away with not following the first rule of grammar: Every sentence must contain a noun and a verb.

I have gone as far as to make the analogy, writing is like tennis; if you want to get better, then play with people who are better than you. That’s why I read books I don’t even like by people like Ernest Hemingway. He’s a master, but his books are too stark for me. Even J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy barely held my interest. Also, I just finished reading Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. If this book had been written by anyone besides Ms. Strout (I loved Olive Kitteridge!), I wouldn’t have finished it; I might not even have picked it up. The second half was far more interesting than the first half, but I almost didn’t get there.

I love plot. Sure, characters are important, but introspective characters alone bore me to bedlam. So, here’s the rub. If a person wants to elevate her writing toward levels approaching Pulitzer Prize winning authors, does she have to give up mysteries and thrillers that specialize in plot? Must she read books that bore her? And, what about reading books that are so good (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife) they make the writer feel like an illiterate fool? Should a writer give those up lest she gets too discouraged?

I suppose there’s no steadfast writing rule for this quandary either (see Paragraph One). What might hold true for one writer, wouldn’t necessarily hold true for all. Have you ever stopped to consider that each of us is made up of all that we have consumed? You are what you read. I wish I could see David Mitchell’s list of favorite books, nay, his ENTIRE reading list. For even the books he didn’t like as well must have influenced him in some regard. Right?

Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, for example, are highly acclaimed writers, but now that I think about it, I don’t aspire to be their literary heir (forgive the self-agrandizing possibility that that might ever happen). For now, I’m going with Tom Perrotta’s philosophy. He has said (although I can’t find the exact quote) that while writing a novel, he likes to read mysteries and thrillers to reinforce the idea that all books, even literary fiction, need to be more and more exciting as they progress.

One female, literary great I can relate to is Joan Didion (especially in relation to this blog post). She once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking … ” I now know that I will continue to read the best writers—occasionally—so I know what they’re doing, but I will never give up mysteries and thrillers because I love a riveting plot.

How about you, fellow writers? What books do you like to read, in general or while writing? Are there any great books you intentionally avoid? And if so, why?

I love your comments, so chime in if you have a minute!

Read the Best Books Twice

Escapism. Experience. Fascination. Fun. Knowledge. Nuance. The reasons to read are vast and varied. Fiction. Nonfiction. Biography. Humor. So many choices!

I’ve been a reader as long as I can remember, but until I began writing, I read mostly novels, and I mostly read for fun. I’m sure every book I’ve ever read has influenced me in the same way that every person I’ve met has influenced me. By which I mean some have influenced me greatly; others I have no recollection of whatsoever. According to the information in Joshua Foer’s recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein, everything we’ve ever heard, seen, or done is stored in our brain somewhere; remembering it is another story.

Now I read for multiple reasons: enjoyment, sure; knowledge, of course; but also to learn to be a better writer. Reading is as essential to good writing as eating is to being a good cook. Few would argue that to be good at anything, one has to learn and practice. But not just any learning or any practicing. The better the teacher, the better the practice, the better the ability. Why else do students fight to get into the best colleges and willing incur massive debt? Why else would I read The Great Gatsby three times; Atlas Shrugged, The Thorn Birds, Lolita, and Cloud Atlas twice each? Because they are fantastic books that brought out enormous envy in me as a writer. I want those writers and their books to teach me how to be a better writer.

“Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write.” – Stephen King

I’m guessing this theory dates back to a casual chat between the likes of Plato and Aristotle while they were soaking in the Roman baths and discussing my good pal, Socrates. Socrates did not write philosophical texts (according to Wikipedia; I wasn’t alive back then to know for sure), but Plato wrote about him so that Aristotle (and the rest of us) could read about him and learn from him.

Thank you, Plato. That was a fine idea you had.

I consider myself a fast learner, but because writing is so important to me, reading has become a different matter. The first time I read a book, I read it for the story, the experience. Those that really, truly move me, I read twice so I can dissect them the way Stephen King suggests. Whether it’s for sentence structure or to learn how a writer relays emotion deep enough to make a grown man cry, I still have so much to learn.

Or in the words of Socrates: I know that I know nothing.

Except … If there’s something to be gained from a book, I know I’ll read it twice.

How about you? What are the books that you’ve read more than once at the expense of every other book on your TBR list? Any specific reason?


Houellebecq on How To Be A Novelist

“You can always take notes, Houellebecq had told him when talking about his career as a novelist, and try to string together sentences; but to launch yourself into the writing of a novel you have to wait for all of that to become compact and irrefutable. You have to wait for the appearance of an authentic core of necessity. You never decide to write a novel, he had added; a book, according to him, was like a block of concrete that had decided to set, and the author’s freedom to act was limited to the fact of being there, and of waiting in frightening inaction for the process to start by itself.”


I am in complete agreement with this.


Define “Writing”

When people ask me how many hours I write in a day or a week, I tend to stumble through my answer. My sweet husband will often jump in to say, “Sixty hours a week, at least.” I look at him askance and smile at his generosity.

But it all depends on one’s definition of “writing,” I suppose.

Write, writing, wrote… def: the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text.

1. Adding new words to a page (and apparently they’re supposed to be coherent words)
2. Editing those words: cutting out the weak or superfluous ones (read: adverbs); exchanging the boring words for non-boring words (read: verbs).
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until your fingers bleed.

But there’s more. What about the planning stages? Parents and teachers used to scold children for daydreaming, but would any great book have made it into print if authors weren’t allowed to daydream? Many days I’ll curl up on my sofa with paper and pen and scribble down ideas and thoughts, but some of my best ideas come to me in the shower, or in those sweet, sweet moments of hypnagogia. (Look that one up; it’s worth remembering.)

And here’s the big one: reading. Could anyone write a decent novel if s/he had never read one? And if a person wants to write a memorable story, mustn’t s/he read a plethora of good books? (Where else would we learn the meaning of plethora?)

Blogging! There’s another necessary element to “writing” in the Twenty-first century. (Okay, I don’t think Ann Patchett has a blog, but… )

So, if I add up blogging, reading, daydreaming, editing, and writing… carry the one… From now on, my response to the question, “How many hours a week do you write?” will be: “A thousand, give or take.”

But then, I am a pseudologist, right?

The Best Laid Plans

So, how is your TBR list? Gone? Did you at least make a dent?

Two weeks ago today, I offered directions on how to drastically shorten your To Be Read book list to make room for some of the 2012 Top 100 books. And I boldly stated that I would take my own advice the first weekend of December, and report back on my progress.

Yeah, about that…  I read only one book.

You know that saying, We make plans; God laughs ? Well, I don’t think God is laughing, but he certainly through a monkey wrench into my family’s life. However, because this is a public forum and I am a (relatively) private person, I can’t elaborate other than to say sometimes life has a way of rearranging one’s priorities. Zap! Just like that.

Okay, Peeps, back to real life.

Meanwhile, I am formulating ideas for my next novel. And my next book to read? All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. Let me hear from you. Have you tried to zip through your TBR list? How’d you do?

Get To The Bottom Of It!

This post is about reading all the books on your bedside table. It’s not a coincidence that it coincides with many publications’ Best Books of 2012 lists, of which I’ve read exactly ONE. If any of us are ever going to get to those new great books, we all need to get through our previous “Must read” books.

Life is busy; we all know that. But each of us has the same number of minutes in every day, and yet some people get so much more accomplished than others. It’s about PRIORITIES, People. Have you noticed that everyone seems to get done what’s most important to them, yet they can easily be “too busy” to accomplish what others want or expect them to do? (Yeah, I’m talking about children.) But, I digress. This is about your Books I Want To Read list.

I have had at least eight books on my bedside table for months. How is it they never disappear? I read every day! Add to those the books I have purchased that are on my bookshelves gathering dust, and the list on my Goodreads page that I want to read but haven’t purchased yet, plus the books on my iPad that are weighing that down, and don’t forget my app on my iPhone. Getting the picture? I’m overwhelmed, as I know many of you are.

I needed a plan. I came up with a plan. I am sharing my plan.

Whether or not your TBR list is as ridiculous as mine. There is a way to make a significant dent in it, if not clear it completely. Here’s what you do:

  • Be realistic. You’ve probably lost interest in some of those books, yes? They’re gone. If you haven’t purchased them yet, cross them off your list. If you have already purchased them, give them away. Regifting? No! Not if you bought them, and they’ve never been read. ‘Tis the season!
  • Divide and conquer. Undoubtedly some of them will be quick reads, some might take weeks or months to get through. Let’s focus on the easier lot. (Save the loftier ones for your next Attack of the Books.)
  • Skim or savor? Among the stack of “quick reads,” some are probably more important to you than others (favorite author; information you really need to absorb), and some might be “books you should read” or humorous books. Put the latter kind at the top. This is Pile A.
  • Now, clear your weekend. Yes, if you’re going to take this seriously, you must set aside the time as if you decided to go to the mountains for the weekend, or tackle the mountain of debris in your garage. If it happens to coincide with a snowstorm, all the better. Just commit! Turn off your phone, and for Pete’s sake, turn off the TV and the Internet. Those will always be there to suck away your precious life.
  • Divide again: Let’s say you can earnestly commit 30 actual hours to reading. Look at your books: add the number pages and divide by the hours. (2,000 pages ÷ 30 hours = 67 pages/hour) Start with the easiest book first, and knock it out; skim it if you have to. You’ll have such a sense of accomplishment that you’ll be inspired. Make notes as you go, if you like, or write a brief summary when you’re finished so that by Monday morning, the books won’t all have run together.
  • Read and repeat. Do the best you can with Pile A. With realism and perseverance, you got to the bottom of it!
  • Now Pile B. You may or may not get to this on your first weekend, but you can prioritize them the same way. Stack them according to the order in which you want to tackle them. Get started on these books if you can. Or, if your list is as ridiculous as mine, you will need to repeat this effort a few times a year.
  • Pick a Favorite. Which book is the juiciest book of all? (NO! I do not mean 50 Shades of Sh*t.) This is the one you want to read the most! This is the one you will take home this holiday season. Either you can read it (or listen to it) as you travel. Or, this is the one that will save you from too much family time. Practice this line on the way home: “I love you all so much, but I’m really beat. I’m going to read a few pages and call it a night.” Then of course, you can stay up all night if you want and read in peace!

Okay, fellow book lovers, think you could do this? This is on my calendar for the weekend of December 1st & 2nd. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Please Step Away From Mr. Lehane

When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.

Embarrassing Truth #1: When I was in grade school, I was CRAZY for David Cassidy. But that was 40 years ago so you have to give me a break on that. After him came Robby Benson, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, George Clooney, Bono… the list goes on and on. If you’ll forgive me here: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a writer, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Now that I’m a grown woman (in some senses of the word), I’ve learned to value talent and intelligence over a pretty face—though there’s nothing wrong with a pretty face.

Embarrassing Truth #2: When I was 49, I was CRAZY for both Ann Patchett and Dennis Lehane. (Wait, that’s right now. Oh, well.) I’ve even gone so far as to wish (out loud) that one day I hope to be known as the literary love child of these two great writers (never mind that I’m older than both of them; as a writer, I’m still an adolescent). For those of you who don’t know this already, Lehane wrote Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and Live By Night, among others. His stories are intense and suspenseful, if a little grisly—that’s where a dose of the lyrical Ann Patchett might come in handy.

Embarrassing Truth #3: Sometimes I scare myself. More often, I scare others. Take this summer, for example. I went to the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference for many reasons, but somewhere near the top was the opportunity to have Lisa Bankoff (Ms. Patchett’s literary agent) review my Work In Progress (WIP). That’s not a bad thing, but strangely, when I told that to Ms. Bankoff, she looked a little… nervous.

I promise, People, I’m harmless. I’m simply a dork, kind of like a puppy who’s just been let out of her kennel.

In a few weeks, I’m going to meet Dennis Lehane. I know this because I’m paying for the opportunity. That keeps me just outside the stalker category, right? I don’t have to tell you that I got front row tickets. Dennis Lehane (Let’s call him Dennis, shall we?) is coming to the great city of Des Moines for our first annual book fair. It’s fantastic for the book fair and our city, but it’s a little scary for me. I must NOT behave like a dork in front of Dennis. (Having my husband at my side will help; he’s wise and rational and he works out a lot.) I must somehow stress how much I admire his writing without creeping him out. This is going to take some practice.

I’m thinking of trying Mental Imagery, whereby I picture myself behaving like a normal person in Dennis’s presence. Not like someone who wants private writing lessons, or his personal review and opinion of my latest WIP. Not like someone who wants to observe his writing process, or to dissect his brain during the planning stages of his next novel.
How does he do it?

Did I mention that Dennis now has a publishing imprint, and is looking for young authors?

All right, wish me luck. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. And just in case the whole meditation thing doesn’t work, I think I’ll slip a Xanax in my pocket as a backup plan.

The Best Books on Writing

Ask any writer what books on writing they would recommend to others and you’re bound to get Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Fair enough, those are both great books. But, hello? They are not the best books for craft.

Over the past five years, I’ve been teaching myself how to write. I call it a self-inflicted MFA. I’ve written nearly every day (just like King and Lamott told me to) for one to eight hours a day, plus I’ve read a few hundred books, many of them on the skill of writing well. It’s definitely harder than it looks.

One thing that seems obvious in our bottom-line, cash-is-king world, is that the story trumps the skills. If someone has a killer $tory, a publisher will buy it, and so will the public. We all know who I’m talking about (ahem, Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James). (And yes, I know, they’re laughing at my list on the way to their Swiss Chalets.)

For those of us who want to be proud of our writing, who truly care about lyrical phrases and sympathetic characters, here is my list of recommended books on writing. (I have no reason to endorse these books other than I found them to be the most helpful. I am not getting paid for recommending them.)

1. The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White: This is not just an old reference book. If a person wants to begin writing, or is trying to figure out why their writing is getting rejected, this is the book to read first. These are the basic rules of the craft.

2. Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks: This book might be a bit controversial; it’s certainly arguable. Ok, here’s my argument: This book teaches the structure of a novel. If a writer considers herself to be an “organic writer,” and likes to let the words flow, let the story tell itself thru her fingertips, she ain’t gonna like this book. I still say read it, and keep Brooks’s ideas in the back of your head as you formulate your book as a whole. Brooks delineates the nine milestones every successful novel must have, just as Blake Snyder did in Save the Cat, a similar book for writing screenplays. Unfortunately, Larry Brooks seems overly defensive about his theory/opinions which nearly undercuts his idea… but I still think the structure of a novel is vital.

3. How Fiction Works, by James Wood: You’re going to have to have your thinking cap on for this deceivingly simple little book. This is possibly the most dense, erudite, non-fiction book I’ve ever read, but it was well worth the effort. The book covers 123 separate instructions. Buy the book, and even if it takes years to get through it all, read Numbers 7 – 16 on Free Indirect Style, and Number 119 on Hypotyposis (yeah, now you get the part about your thinking cap.) Buy the book.

4. Hooked, by Les Edgerton: Ok, so if you are a writer, or you want to write, you probably have a rough draft of a novel, or maybe short story by now. If, after you’ve read the first three books on this list, you’re still not sure your book’s going to sing, read this one. Every writer loves her characters, cares deeply about them—otherwise how could she spend months if not years telling their story. But how does a writer make an agent care? An agent will never read more than one (maybe five) pages of a submission if he/she doesn’t love your characters immediately. Edgerton tells you how to hook the reader on page one, and two, and three… You get the picture, now buy the book.

5. Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King: True story here: I bought this book several years ago, thumbed through it, then placed in on my shelves in perfect alphabetical order among my writing reference books. Recently, I attended the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference in order to further hone my craft. It cost me nearly $2500, but it was a wonderful, valuable experience. And the most valuable thing I learned? Read this book, the one I’ve had on my shelf for years. (Doh!) This book finally explained how to separate third person POV from omniscient POV, something I’d been screwing up all these years. And that’s just for starters.

Now, anyone who knows anything about the publishing industry will tell you that it’s all a big crapshoot. An MFA grad from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop might never publish a book as successful as The Help. Heck, I doubt Stephenie Meyer has read any of the books on my list, yet her story idea was a goldmine.

So what’s the real secret? No one really knows, unless… Wait, maybe this list of books is the secret, and no one has ever written it before because they’re trying to cut down on the competition! Oops.

Have you read any of these books? Do you agree, disagree? What books would you add to the list? Maybe there’s one more book on writing out there that I should read.

A P.S.  from Yours Truly: When I originally posted this post, a lovely reader named Cynthia Robertson (see below) suggested Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. I have since read that book and I would definitely include it in my list of Best Books on Writing. I don’t want to eliminate any of the above, so I now have six books in my top five! I can do that because it’s my blog. Read it and I think you’ll agree! Thanks, Cynthia!