Category Archives: books

Word counts: Do you want candy, or a meal?

candy apples on bed of sprinkles

CC image Candy Apples courtesy of Andrea Williams on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I saw a piece recently discussing the incredible shrinking word count for the children’s storybook. The topic resonated with me, although I am not a children’s writer, because I get the feeling a similar trend is happening in novels and some sectors of nonfiction books. The crux of the matter seems to be that too long is unacceptable, and will turn off the audience.

Let me point out for a moment that “too long” is a relative and subjective measurement. Someone’s Harriet the Spy is another person’s War and Peace. And some may prefer War and Peace over anything bite-sized.

It’s true the media has been supporting a move towards the bite-sized. News stories on American TV are quick and punctuated by commercials. In total, the coverage lasts less than an hour. Social media platforms for the pithy and quickly witty proliferate: Twitter by definition seeks a short hit, Facebook trends favor the visual and the funny, Vine (6 second videos) is a thing, texting (with a character limit) is the new telephone call.

Flash writing has also been rising in interest among readers and writers. As a method of writing, flash can be quite satisfying: been there, completed that, all in my lunch break (I can go back to edit later, of course, but you get the idea). As a method of reading, flash also satisfies—like much social media—the desire for a quick diversion, something we can access easily on small devices like our phones without having to focus too much attention or the work of a “real” computer on the event.

Shorter content is like candy. Longer content is a meal. We’re not always hungry for a full meal—occasionally, that’s too much food. Candy, meanwhile, is known for its addictive properties, the way it pretends to satisfy and always leaves you wanting more instead (my father, when we kid him about the tiny portions of ice cream he serves himself, famously says, “there is no such thing as enough ice cream. No matter how much you eat, you always want to have a little more. So why do I need a big portion?”). There is almost no time when we admit we’ve had enough (or too much) candy. We feel vaguely sick after a while, and have to take a break… we feel too sick to have a real meal, either.

A meal takes time to prepare and ideally takes time to truly enjoy. A meal involves care and attention, often the participation of other people, and the opportunity to savor. As payback, the meal satisfies, often for a long period of time. If I have a good meal, and I enjoy the preparation and the eating of it, I may spend time dwelling on the positive experience of the meal, and I also don’t feel like having another immediately afterwards. I need time to digest it. Eventually I’ll get hungry again, but for now that meal stays with me and sustains me.

Candy sometimes is good. I think we can and should give ourselves small bursts of pleasure and luxury. I believe that we should pamper ourselves and take the opportunity to make a special moment, an exception, to do something fun that may not be the best for, say, our dental health if we overdo it. I just don’t think candy replaces meals in any way. Just as an obsession with word count doesn’t replace a true story. As someone who enjoys both preparing and savoring a real meal, I hope I am not alone in this.

Know your story: A look at Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Honestly, there’s not much “new” news to add about preparing for my writer’s residency, other than, to quote Dory from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” At least, on the writing front. However, there is another side to writing, and that is reading.

While toiling away on what passes for my current manuscript, I’ve thundered through an increasing number of books. Recently, I completed Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
cover of novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven was a book I added to my “to-read” list near the end of last year, when everyone and their grandmother was coming out with end-of-the-year best-of lists. I’m not sure what list I found Station Eleven on. It was an early list, that much I know, because after a while List Exhaustion set in and I couldn’t care less who ranked what where.

I realized, after I received my copy (the wait list at the library was over 200 people when I added my name) that I’d previously read one of Mandel’s other books, and I didn’t like it. The characters annoyed me. Fortunately, Station Eleven was different.

Station Eleven displays a gift for the revealing detail. The story is also good at answering only those questions that require an answer. I liked this book a lot, and my inner Nerd Writer was pleased, also. My inner Nerd Writer is on high alert ever since the residency news came in, and I’m happy to appease her whenever possible.

Choosing what questions to answer

In Station Eleven, Mandel created a “post-apocalyptic” setting. This is a novel about a not-too-distant future in which society has collapsed after a global pandemic. Making assumptions about a theoretical future can be either inspired or a disaster. Fantasy and scifi books by definition permanently must run this gauntlet. Mandel keeps the premise probable by doing the opposite of what most writers want to do: she refrains from going into (too many) details (too early).

Because of her setting, she has a large territory to explore: what aspects of the collapse of civilization will we learn about? One of the failings of writers in this position is often the summary statement (“and then, Russia fell, and when the satellites stopped working there was a long period of confusion…”). Instead, Mandel avoids giving a third person omniscient perspective — what I think of as the “newscaster view,” in which you can imagine a network talking head getting us up to speed. Instead, we learn about aspects of the collapse and the aftermath while we are meeting the characters. Mandel answers only the questions directly relevant to these people, and this saves us from falling into an encyclopedia.

The relevant detail

I’ve thought a lot lately about what goes into a vivid, submersive description. How can we show what our written world looks like, and the people in it? How much is enough, and how much is too much information? We’ve all seen those books where character descriptions run like a police profile: height, weight, eye and hair color. Mandel almost falls into the opposite trap: we get few physical character details, and by the end of the book, I confess I still wasn’t sure what some of the main characters looked like.

Oddly, that was mostly not a problem. Information about characters, their flaws, their preferences, are sprinkled throughout Station Eleven. The effect is cumulative: as we move forward through the story, we get to know more about the characters, just as we do when we meet another person repeatedly in real life. By the end of the novel, we know a lot about who these characters are (which I think is more important), and the contours of the world they live in.

Mandel does this by choosing precise details, and leaving out the rest. The trick is, I think, to be specific. Instead of saying “flowers,” say “tulips.” Instead of writing about every aspect of scene composition, pick out a handful of details that can stand in for the rest, the way a stage set can be minimal and suggestive at the same time. Station Eleven is full of selective detail. True, Mandel doesn’t veer into botany, but she does use specific nouns for her scenes and constructs a suggestive, rather than exhaustive, set.

Know your story

In the end, I think these two strengths come back to the basic premise, “Know your story.” Mandel can do more with less because she knows what her story is about. Station Eleven is a quiet book. The action and confrontation that drive the plot are conspicuous by their absence from the page — characters are witnesses, but the reader is not. This is both good and less so. On the one hand, Mandel runs the risk of losing the reader. On the other hand, explosive action is not what the book is about. Station Eleven is about what happens to the human heart and the human condition in unusual circumstances. I think Mandel stays true to that bedrock foundation. A worthwhile read.

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What do you nerd out about in the books you read?

My nonfiction is better than your fiction, and other absurdities

girl sitting in a bright room, surrounded by stacks of books

CC image “books” courtesy of Porsche Brosseau on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you, whether in school now or remembering what it was like to be in school, ever caught yourself scratching your head about some piece of information you were required to learn, memorize, practice, and regurgitate, which you questioned would ever have any use in your future life?

I know I have.

A little while ago, I stumbled across a strange statement that reminded me of that feeling. It was a minimum suggested benchmark for reading: by the 12th grade, so the new wisdom, teenagers should be reading at least 70% nonfiction work.


I’d never seen a number like this before, and yet the topic was thrown out there like a well-known and recognized quantity. Where the hell did they come up with this figure?! And whose recommendation was this, anyway?

I’ve been a bookworm all my life. For as long as I’ve been aware of my reading — people commented often — I’ve also been aware of how people were bemoaning the loss of reading among the young. I’ve been hearing about this, I feel like, forever. Kids are watching too much TV, they’re playing too many video games, et cetera. When I saw the seventy percent figure, my first reaction was of disbelief — wait, someone cares about the proportion of fiction to nonfiction reading? — and the second was: Well, isn’t it great if kids are reading at all??

I had to get to the bottom of this idea — it was so weird. Who cared? Who were these people and where did this recommended minimum come from?

The answer was: the Common Core.

If any of you reading this are teachers or know a teacher personally, you probably got to this answer well ahead of me. The new Common Core standards for education emphasize nonfiction reading from the early ages of grammar school, and recommend proportions of nonfiction to fiction reading for each grade level. They are, as one article I read put it, the reason why educators “are extolling the importance of factual, informational reading” far and wide.

But why would they care about nonfiction reading, as opposed to reading in general? Well, the short answer is: the system.

College, and then the workplace.

In my pursuit to understand the discussion about nonfiction reading goals for students, I read quite a few scholarly articles, by educators and cognitive scientists, specifying what scientific research says with regard to reading, and reading nonfiction in particular. Almost in chorus — 99.9% of what I’ve read and the search results that turn up online — the results focus on getting into college and then parlaying that into the workplace.

Yes friends, once again, this all boils down to a culture in which the value of a proposition rests on how well you can measure it.

Is the only reason to read nonfiction to achieve a certain score on certain tests, and be accepted by certain institutions (that may or may not have anything to do with the material you are reading)? Is the only value and rationale to further my career? Can there be no other reason to want to read nonfiction?

Books — nonfiction books — have no artistic or cultural value?

As a confirmed fiction nut from earliest days, I take issue with this. Nonfiction books are replete with amazing information: also stories! One of my favorite books this year was a nonfiction book: The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. The discovery of the ecosystems that are redwood trees reads like a thriller, and is full of scientific information as well. If you’re not into trees, check out this article from a college-age student about her discovery of nonfiction texts for other examples of how cool nonfiction can be.

I found one divergent view — an English teacher who advocated for nonfiction reading, who spoke about the resistance of other English teachers to what they saw as an assault on literature and literature education. His point, as I see it, is that we can only develop and make use of skills and information that we are exposed to. I agree; here is a person after my own heart. He’s talking about people, not numbers.

Saying nonfiction is necessary because it prepares us for college is kind of an idiotic justification. We choose what to value at the college level, just as we choose what to value at work. The whole argument is self-referential, because we can change the parameters at any time (and often do). The paradigm advocates standardization and the institutional over the fulfilling and the individual. My eyes are already glazing over.

For me, the value of nonfiction, just as with the value in all reading, lies in critical and independent thinking, analysis, and adaptability, not to mention fun — none of which, I would argue, is embodied in a standardized (hello!) test. Harping on a 70% baseline guarantees none of those skills or the desire to pursue them.

We need a place to start, from which we can go out into the world under our own strength. We need a way to choose and embody individual value. Not a comprehensive way to become a cookie cutter person. And for that, we need to find reading that is interesting and engaging to us… whatever guise it comes in; whether and how much of it can be classified as “nonfiction” or not.


What’s your favorite type of reading?

Some books are bad

And we should know about them.

black and white cat cuddling with novel

CC image courtesy of Leach84 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It’s snowing here right now. Big, wet flakes of spring snow. Which means I have the perfect excuse to cuddle up with some blankets, a mug of hot chocolate, and a good book. Or several good books, as the case may be.

I am a book glutton.

I go on library binges the way some people go on chocolate binges or shopping binges. I can never seem to stop at just ONE book. There’s just too much (potential) goodness.

Notice that cute editing trick I played right there? The parentheses? It’s because I caught myself saying “goodness” as if every single book was good. Or good for us. Which is not true.

Some books are bad.

Damn, that’s hard to say out loud.

I LOVE books. Books are the perfect conversation partner — they’re always going at the exact speed we want them to go. They’ll pause when we want to pause, and continue as we want to continue. Until we get to The End, of course.

But some of them, to be honest, are lousy.

Occasionally, when I get a little ways into a book I impulse-brought-home from the library, I’ll wonder what possessed me to grab it. Not often, but sometimes. This is my version of the bar crawl and associated regret.

I try to make excuses for the book, but sometimes it’s plain bad.

Enter the book review

I was thinking about the reality of Bad Books again this week. Not because I am in the middle of a lousy book. I was on Goodreads, researching a book I was considering bringing over for coffee. I was going over one rave review after another, and my eyes were glazing over. Can this be true? I thought. It can’t be. People here totally drank the Kool-Aid.

Sometimes books are bad, and we want to know about them. In fact, low-star and negative book reviews may be more useful than any other kind of review for helping us to weed out the crowd.

I found out that I appreciated bad reviews, at any rate.

In support of the “bad” review

There were a LOT of reviews for the book I was looking up. A LOT of POSITIVE reviews. I think book reviews operate on the reverse principle of the calls made to most customer service departments. Customer service departments tend to hear from people who are pissed. Sites for reader reviews feature the readers who are in love with the book they are reviewing. Neither of these scenarios gives us an accurate picture. Book readers, on the whole, want someone else to know how amazing the book was they just read! They can’t keep the information to themselves — they want to sing it from the rooftops!

All the positive reviews for this book began to look exactly the same to me. I was getting zero information.

(Side note: what is it about book reviews that makes people want to recap the plot? Not necessary! We already have the jacket flaps and the publisher’s blurb! Otherwise the information is just spoilers! But I digress.)

They were all the same, these reviews. They weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know by the 3rd 5-star review — except what they revealed about the text itself (spoiling spoiling spoiling). I don’t care, I caught myself thinking. What if I met you (the reviewer) in person and thought you were a complete flake? This book review would do me no good whatsoever.

Then I got to the first two-star review.

Don’t tell me you “like” something. Tell me WHY you like it!

I felt as though someone had just opened a door to let in some fresh air. Finally, I had what I wanted: if there was an aspect of the book which might not thrill someone (and I’m not saying there always has to be or that the lack of thrill complaint is always valid), or which could be described as annoying, what would that be? Was this something which could bother me as well? I read on, first one and then another 2-star review, and I came across a few candidates for What Could Annoy.

I kept scrolling down through the pile of comments, giving all the 4- or 5-stars a pass. Sometimes, a 3-star would make me hesitate, but they appeared to be rare in this instance. I focused on the 2-star reviews.

Here’s the beauty of this approach: it matters not whether I agree or disagree with the 2-star review. Either way, I’ve learned something about the book by learning about the reader who disliked it. I can get a feeling for the book by checking to see whether or not I do agree or disagree with what annoyed this person. And that, gentle reader, helps me make a decision about reading the book.

Many people who like books forget to tell us why they like them. “Beautiful” may be descriptive because the word is an adjective, but it doesn’t tell me anything. I can imagine whatever I like under the word “beautiful” and my beautiful may have nothing to do with yours!

This is not to say that I want everyone to go out there and find some book to pan online. Rather, I appreciate the people who are not raving fans of certain works who took the time to share why.

This is my call to your customer service department, to say Thank You for a job well done.

…Now, for my hot chocolate and cuddle with my “good” book…. which I may or may not feel inspired to review…

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How do you feel about book reviews? Let me know in the comments!

This movie coming soon to a bookstore near you!

considering book trailers

black and white of a group of children covering their eyes

Gasp! it’s a movie! about a book! CC image “children of horror” courtesy of wolfgangfoto on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Did you know you could make movie-like trailers for books?

I didn’t.

I’m not talking about a trailer for a movie that was based on a book. I mean a trailer that was shot exclusively to promote a book. As part of that book’s publicity.

This may not be as new for the world as it is for me. I only discovered book trailers this week. The first one was utter serendipity — a link in an article I was reading. I was intrigued by the concept of making a film to advertise literature. Since then, I see links to book trailers everywhere (it’s like little red cars; see the post I wrote about Attentional Bias for more info on that).

I think this is an awesome idea.

Admittedly, I can see the trailer concept working better for some genres and types of stories than others. The link that opened the world of book trailers for me was for a kind of thriller. That type of story structure lends itself to excitement. A very interior storyline might not — for what it’s worth, that’s what I think tripped up the movie version of The Hunger Games. That book was a page-turner for me; I stayed up at night because I had find out what happened next. So much of it — and much of what appealed to me — lay in the protagonist’s reaction to the world around her: her thoughts; her ideas. The movie, in comparison, was bland. You and I could make a lot of arguments about how and why that was… one of them, for me, is that the movie failed to cash in on the first-person, interior landscape of the book, lingering instead on the easy, outside paraphernalia.

Still, I think that if you’ve got a good storyline, no matter what the genre, you could create a book trailer for your book. What a way to capture audience — our social media sharers these days are absolutely video-obsessed!


I mean, really.

In fact, creating a video could be a great benchmark for figuring out if you do have a story, and how interesting that story is. In a way, a trailer is kind of like an abstract of the book, or a pitch letter. You have to be able to capture the essence of the story and the interest of the audience in a short amount of time — hook them, leave them wanting more.

I don’t want to say the book trailer replaces the book, however. Film and literature are different media, and need to be imagined differently. Which I frankly regard as another advantage of the book trailer concept — cross-media play is a tried-and-true recipe for breaking into the creative zone. Our brains are forced to be dynamic, considering artistic problems from different angles. I wrote a little about this, too.

If you’re creating a book trailer as a test for the story’s viability, there’s no reason your film efforts ever need to see the light of day, though. Like my drawings, the video can be just for you…

…but if you do make a book trailer that you want the world to see, let me know. And long live the story!

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What do you think of the book trailer idea? Blessing or curse?