One Hundred Allies for Your Book-In-Progress

It's easy to imagine that we know our genre and niche better than we actually do. Here's some stellar advice on how to *not* fall into that trap. |

There's an extraordinary bit of advice in Heather Sellers' fantastic book Chapter After Chapter, where she recommends reading 100 books like the book you want to write.

No, my fingers didn't slip. 100 books. She calls it "The Book 100." 

... As in one hundred books. 

Sellers says:

The point is to read many, many examples of what you're trying to do. ...
Surround yourself with books. A hundred well-chosen books act as your base camp,
your buffer, your personalized M.F.A. writing program. ...
Notice what you like and what you love.
Writers learn more from reading than from all the how-to-plot books in the world. 

-- Heather Sellers

For someone like me who loves to read, this is a wonderful assignment. Super exciting.

For a recovering-perfectionist like me, this also seems fraught with problems. One hundred books?! I need to have them all read by, like, tomorrow!! I'm never going to be finished...!! 

If that's you, I promise you can relax. Sellers says you can take as long as you need to. Novelists are allowed to skim their 100 books. Or to split their list in half and share it with a friend--fifty for you, fifty for me, and we chat about them.

That said, it's still a pretty big project, so what's the point? Why do it? Isn't it a little ... overkill?

Here's what really convinced me about The Book 100: Coffeeshops.

Specifically, new coffeeshops that are also terrible coffeeshops. Created by people who, I suspect, have never been inside a good coffeeshop before.

Have you had this experience? A place that's trying to be a coffeeshop (or a café, or a bookstore) but it's just kind of--off.

Where they miss the mark on the most basic elements of a coffeeshop. And the customer is presented with mediocre coffee, crappy baked goods, apathetic baristas, and blaring music so that no one can talk, think, or work.

I stumble out of those places wondering--how did they get it so wrong? And when they go out of business, I'm not surprised. They make me wonder if the owners even liked coffee all that much, or if they liked coffeeshops, or if they'd ever actually been inside a great one?

I'm pretty sure of one thing, though. They probably didn't create that place thinking, "Let's make the suckiest coffeeshop that we can." I'm guessing that quality was part of their goal, somehow. 

And yet--they missed the mark. By a lot. 

I wonder what would have happened if they made a point to visit 100 coffeeshops before opening their store.

And to note in each place they visited: what does that particular shop do well, and where does it fail? What do they, as customers, respond to? What's off-putting? What does it look like when the basics are done really well? What innovations are delightful?

ALL those things. All elements of a good coffeeshop experience.

... Or a good novel.

You see what I'm getting at? 

As I worked on the Book 100 for my first novel, I discovered all kinds of things that I might not have realized any other way.

Like, shocking things. And really, really embarrassing things.

I saw that some of my plot moves had been done to death already in other books. I realized that my villain could be spotted miles off--and he was so covered in clichés! I realized that my protagonist's voice sounded like too many other protagonist's voices. 

Again and again, I saw what had been done too much, and where I had room to write something new. 

My Book 100 was a true education, in the very field where I wanted to be an expert. 

It is just too easy to have a mild familiarity with a genre. To know a few books, to trick yourself into coasting along with that little bit of knowledge. To think that you're writing something new.

It pays--it really pays--to know your genre much better than that. To be familiar with the very books that your fans will also have read. 

There's enough insecurity in this field already, right? Why not really learn our stuff, and to learn it by reading? 

As far as the number 100 goes: I think there's a lot to be said for going that big (and Sellers makes a really good case). ... But even if you just read and analyzed thirty of the best examples of your niche--think how much you'd learn!

It's one of the best educations, one of the best tools, we can have.

( ... As is Sellers' book Chapter After Chapter. If you're trying to write a full-length book, this is required reading for you! It has taught me the survival skills for living a book-maker's life like none other. ... I love it even more than Page After Page! Yes, really!)

Let's Go Ahead and Get a Little Word Drunk, Shall We? (Books that Celebrate Language)

Three books that will just make a writer's heart happy. (Or slightly intoxicated.) |

If you're a writer, then you're also a reader.

Yes? I don't think we really need to debate that, right? I'm guessing that a love of words and stories and books is what got you into this party.

One of the yummiest treats for the writer-reader: books that celebrate the stuff of our trade. Stories about love of language and love of books and love of stories. 

Books that celebrate other books. Pfft. I totally love 'em. 

Here are three of my favorite celebratory books: If you haven't read these yet, move them to the top of your list!

1. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Okay, if you don't catch what the title is about, say it out loud. ... Sound like a chunk of the alphabet? LMNOP? Yup. That's what's going on.

... And given that quirky title, you probably don't need me to go on about what a treat is in store for you, but--well, I'm going to anyway.

Without spoiling the premise entirely, this is a thoroughly charming novel, told through exchanges of letters and notes, about a quaint little island (sorry, there's no other way to put it) ... which is slowly outlawing the use of the letters of the alphabet. 

One by one.

So the citizens have to give up the alphabet bit by bit, and the words that use those letters as well... 

I dare you to read this and not have a renewed appreciation for every single letter of our crazy, beautiful alphabet! 

2. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster.

If you missed it when you were a kid, never fear: this book is every bit as good when read by a grown up. Seriously. I discovered it in seventh grade, and I'm still not over it!

It is a ridiculously fun, extremely clever tale of a boy named Milo, a watchdog named Tock, and a Humbug (oh, the Humbug!), who set off on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason ... a journey that goes from Dictionopolis to Digitopolis, through the Mountains of Ignorance and up to the Castle in the Air. 

If you haven't read this one yet, you owe it to yourself to dive into it as soon as possible! And buckle up for some serious wordplay, puns of all sorts, idioms turned into realities, and all kinds of other sense and nonsense. 

3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

This book! Every time I read it, I want to crawl into it and live there.

Like Ella Minnow Pea, this is a novel told in letters. But Guernsey goes deeper, celebrating books and the ways that they sustain us. ... The many narrators/letter-writers are completely lovely--I want to meet half of them in real life, immediately

This is a story about writers and writing, about books and stories, about surviving through war, about finding hope, about the island of Guernsey (serious travel fever may occur while reading)... and about some flat-out delightful characters.

So much love for this book. Mmm. 

So there's my top three! What book-loving books have you been reading? Got any recommendations? Send 'em my way in the comments! 

And if you need more book recommendations, here are Twelve Mysteries for Your Next Rainy DayFor even more word love, check out A First Line Festival

The Ultimate Traveling Companions

Why I literally can't, won't, and shouldn't leave home without a book. |

When it comes to "what to pack," this is the hardest decision:

Not what shoes to pack. Not what kind of jacket. Not how many pairs of jeans.

But this: What books will I need?

I am, possibly, the last person in the universe without an e-reader.

I just have a ridiculous fondness for the printed thing, the physical object of the book.

Even when it doesn't make sense. Even when you can fit forty thousand copies, apparently, of all the best novels in a teeny little device, therefore making it perfect for traveling. Even then.

So choosing which books I'll take: that's a major issue! There's obviously the question of weight/bulk, but far more importantly: how to cover all the possible emotional needs, the psychological issues that arise when journeying.

Whew! I spend a LOT of time thinking about this.

Because I just love traveling with books.

(Please, please, tell me someone out there still feels this way!)

I could go on and on about all the romantic and practical reasons why I love traveling with books... But Cornelia Funke describes it so beautifully in this little excerpt from Inkheart (which should be on your must-read list!! and which is, itself, perfect to travel with): 

"Take plenty to read!" Mo called from the hall. As if she didn't always! Years ago he had made her a box to hold her favorite books on all their journeys, short and long, near and far. "It's a good idea to have your own books with you in a strange place," Mo always said. He himself always took at least a dozen. ...

"If you take a book with you on a journey," Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, "an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. ... Memories cling to the printed page better than anything else."

He was probably right, but there was another reason why Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange. 

Isn't that right? 

The books I travel with--they fill up with airline tickets and boarding passes, brochures and maps, receipts and notes and lists. Sometimes with sand, sometimes with a squashed bug or two. (It happens.)

And at the same time: they make me feel at home.

Can we just take a moment to praise the books that accompany us on our journeys? 

There are the books that were just good entertainment, ways to rest, to add flavor to the time away:

- There's the Dorothy Sayers mystery (Have His Carcase) I read in Louisiana, between playing with my nieces and my nephew... 

- I read most of So Brave, Young, and Handsome in a library on my sister's college campus, escaping the fluorescent lights for the Wild West... 

- And then I read a lot of The Mysterious Benedict Society in a guest house in Nebraska... 

- I reread The Secret Garden while reconsidering my entire life in Bermuda, and on another visit, I read Frederick Buechner's The Storm while getting hideously sunburnt. (Whoops.)

But then, there are three books that come to mind for saving in me, one way or another, in tricky places: 

- I read most of The Eyre Affair on a plane over the Atlantic--which kept me from bawling after saying goodbye to the friends I'd made during a semester abroad. It was the perfect distraction.

- I soaked up the words of The Summer Book while in England for two weeks. It is the sole reason that I am still sane after standing in a line at least two miles long in Heathrow Airport. 

- And then, there's my favorite book of E.B. White's essays (One Man's Meat). Gulping down his gorgeous sentences kept me from strangling the guy I was sharing a ride with, when he was eight hours late (!) to take me home for Thanksgiving. Honestly. Jail time averted. Thanks, E.B.

What about you? Which books on your shelves did double duty as traveling companions? Which ones hold memories of other places on their pages?

Which do you recommend for travel? What will you be reading on your next trip? It's a tough question, right? Let's pool our ideas. (Oooh. Reading at the pool...)

Twelve Mysteries for Your Next Rainy Day

A dozen excellent mysteries for you to curl up with. Because no thunderstorm is complete without one. |

Mysteries and rainy days just go together. Like Sherlock and Watson, like London and fog, like coffee and ... a lot more coffee. 

I've learned not to fight it. 

Actually, when I hear thunder breaking overhead, I get my feet tangled in my scramble to grab the nearest Agatha Christie.

I've heard someone say that, at its heart, every novel is actually a mystery.

And I love that definition. I certainly think it's true: at least from a writer's point of view. You're faced with so many mysteries: unraveling the characters, their motivations, the history of the story world, and then of course, how the plot works its way out. 

Even though the book I'm writing would never be classified as a mystery: that's what I feel like I'm writing, most days. When it's going well, I feel like I'm solving the mystery of the story itself.

Writers as sleuths. I like that.

Maybe this is why I read and watch more mysteries than any other genre. 

If you're looking for a good one, here's a list of twelve of my favorites:

1. The Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout. (Because I want to marry Archie Goodwin. I do. Fiction or not, I feel sure that we can work this out. ... Book-wise, I'm especially fond of The League of Frightened Gentlemen.)

2. Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand (World War Two, bombs falling over a hospital, patients dying mysteriously during surgery... So. Good.)

3. Mary Stewart wrote mysterious romantic suspense, which reads superbly on damp dark days. Pick up Nine Coaches Waiting, especially if you're a fan of Jane Eyre.

4. Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series is ridiculously fun: she's an eleven-year-old chemist, she's hilarious, and she keeps solving mysteries. (The series is for us grown-ups though, not kids.) Of the first four, number one is still my favorite: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. 

I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn't. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail. ... Then the utter stillness. I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. -- Alan Bradley / The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

5. Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas. Excellent if you like Sherlock Holmes era mysteries, but are ready for some new characters.

6. Speaking of which... The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Of course. Obviously. Of course.

Peering through the gloom, I saw the vague outline of a man, a shade blacker than the blackness of the open door. He stood for an instant, and then he crept forward, crouching, menacing, into the room. He was within three yards of us, this sinister figure, and I had braced myself to meet his spring. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / "The Adventure of the Empty House"

7, 8, & 9. And as far as obvious choices go: It is impossible to pick a favorite Agatha Christie. Right? I "narrowed it down" to: And Then There Were None (for most goosebumps while reading), Murder on the Orient Express (for sublimeness, for perfect murder, for happening on a train, and for this screen version), and Death on the Nile (because everything... check out the movie too). 

10 &11. If you want sweeping scope, layered narratives, gloomy landscapes, dark secrets, brooding family estates--basically if you want the best sort of thing for a thunderstormy day--then check out Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (!!!!) and The Moonstone. 

12. Last but not least: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. I couldn't stop talking about this one when I finished it. (I just love the set-up: the story of an impostor who begins to unravel a family mystery...)

There have been doubles before. Hitler had several. Lots of famous people have doubles. The papers are forever printing photographs of the humble doubles of great men. They all look like the great men with the character sponged out. -- Josephine Tey / Brat Farrar

There you have it. An easy dozen for the next time you see thunderstorms in the forecast. 

Obviously I've left out only about two hundred excellent recommendations... (I didn't even mention Ellery Queen! How did that happen?! And has anyone else watched The Bletchley Circle?)

Care to fill in the gaps? What are your favorite mysteries to read or watch? I'd love some new titles to check out!

How to Keep Your Reading Life Fresh

Writers have to read--but it doesn't have to feel like drudgery! Keep your reading life inspiring with these fun tips. |

When writing became my full-time job, my reading life got all professional too.

Kinda makes sense, right? The best writers are super well-read people. I mean, they know everything. They make all these literary allusions, they quote passages from beloved books, you can't stump them with an author reference...

Basically, when it came to my reading life, I kind of panicked.

In spite of graduating with an English major, I still had some holes to fill. I'd never read The Great Gatsby--how had that happened? And Moby-Dick and The Tale of Two Cities. A lot of classics to catch up on, and oh, in the meantime, amazing writers are still actively writing...

Really, it was a paralyzing scenario. And in true Lucy Flint fashion, I came up with a plan:


... It didn't exactly work.

I made lists. A lot of lists. I read to balance out deficiencies in my book knowledge. I finished every book I started, with total seriousness. I took very detailed, I-could-give-a-presentation-on-this kind of notes on what I read.

Heck, if the quality of my own writing depended on what I read, I didn't see how I could do it any differently.

Funny thing happened. My reading energy dried up. And I got really into reading magazines instead.

Eventually I realized I needed to lighten up. I redesigned my reading life to blend structure with a bit of quirk. And now? I'm always energized by what--and how--I'm reading.

Here are my new guidelines:

I keep a huge list of books to read. And I do mean huge. At last count, I have over 1300 books on my reading list, and I'm adding to it all the time.

This used to be a bit crippling--until I changed my perspective.

Here's the thing: I'll never get all the books read. Never. There will always be worthwhile books out there that I won't get to.

Why is this good news? Because it gives me the permission I need to quit reading books I don't like. I want to find the ones I love! So if a book doesn't win my heart over pretty quickly, I toss it. 

I build a monthly reading list. Because 1300 books is still a bit daunting, I break it down and focus on a select number of titles each month. I pick out fifteen, a dozen of which are novels.

Buckle up, because this is where structure meets quirk: Each month has a theme.

Yes, really.

I know, I know, it's a little goofy. But I can't even tell you how much it delights me to do this. One month, it's books with an animal in the title. The next month features titles that start with the letter M. The month after that, it's books with a color in the title, or one-word titles, or every thirtieth book on the list.

I once explained this system to another writer, and she had such undisguised pity on her face. Apparently this way of reading is lunacy. But whatever. It's my lunacy! My reading list! ... Ahem.

I order more books than I can read. So, I order those fifteen themed books through the library, even though I know I won't get through them all.

Because I'm not that quick of a reader. In all honesty, I read about three to six full books in a month. So why order so many? So I'm free to discard the ones I don't like! It keeps me from feeling trapped with a few selections. 

(Plus, it really does feel cathartic to chuck a book. Pffft, I'm not reading this! It's a weirdly great feeling.)

I give a book twenty pages. In spite of my delight in tossing a book, I really do commit to read the first twenty pages. At that point, I know if I'm interested in continuing or not.

Twenty pages is long enough to give you a good feel for the style, the characters, and what you're in for. 

And I've found--after suffering through all too many--that if I'm snarling or rolling my eyes during the first twenty pages, I'm going to feel that way all through the rest of the book. So I chuck it. No guilt necessary.

I know, I know. This totally horrifies some people.

My only requirement in tossing a book: I try to pin down what exactly made me drop it

Was the style obnoxious? How? Was the main character totally unsympathetic? Where did I lose interest? Why wasn't it working for me? This little step lets me extract a bit of learning... without enduring the next 350 pages.

Obviously, then, I still do take notes. Yep. It's still my job, after all. But my note-taking is a lot more casual.

I'll write down what worked the best in the book, what kept me reading. I'll try to capture what exactly was disappointing or what was so moving. How did they make that setting come alive, why was that dialogue exchange so spot-on, or how did they pace the climax? 

I'll copy out paragraphs that I loved, or ones that were confusing so I can avoid those mistakes.

So yeah. There's still note-taking. But I try to keep a light hand.

I wipe the slate clean. At the end of each month, I return all the unread books along with the rest.

It gives me a light heart to chuck out the books I didn't get to, instead of making myself complete the list. It's freeing.

Sometimes you just have to be in the right mood for a certain book. So if it fell through the cracks this month, no worries. I'll probably reorder it again, some other month.

... So there it is. That's my reading life. Somehow, that blend of structure and freedom works just right for me. I don't feel so pinned down, but there's enough of a challenge that I get excited to dive in, month after month.

What about you? Do you toss books freely, or have you found it's worth it to persevere? Do you keep a reading list? Or do you like to browse and pick up what sounds good to you?

What works well for your reading life: Let's continue the discussion in the comments.

Wanna keep reading? Check out: Frivolity + Wisdom and The Power of an Explosively Good Book.