Grief

The May 16 blog on Reader Views is written by Megan Weiss and it’s titled: Grief, A Reflection of What We Love – A Central Role in Fiction.

She says: “I have had a passion for reading and writing since I was in junior high. Books are treasures, and I have always believed that knowledge is one of the best tools anyone can have, in any and all forms. I remember starting to write silly little stories when I was in elementary school, and gradually experimented with longer, more serious works as I grew older and got into high school. I did not initially intend to be a writer when I grew up, but the more experience I obtained and the more books I read, the further I got pulled into the literary world. I like to think that I did not find writing as a career, writing found me and taught me where I truly belong in the world.”

Megan Weiss

In the blog, Ms Weiss says, “The thing about grief is that though it has an exact definition, it has no straight path or timetable.  It does not follow psychological rules or care about what stage of your life you are going through.  Grief only cares about making you feel.

According to Psychology Today, one of the most common misconceptions we have about grieving is that there is any kind of real “process” or “correct” way to go through it.  We have all heard the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  The truth is, however, that these stages were never meant to be applied to the grief process that follows the death of a loved one.  Instead, these stages were derived in order to help people cope with being diagnosed with their own terminal illnesses.  Somewhere along the way, however, people began to draw parallels between the personal grief process that comes after receiving terrible, life changing news and the more commonly accepted grief process that comes with death. 

Grief has no stage.

It follows its own track, at its own speed, and all we can do is ride the rollercoaster until it finally comes to an end one day.  Even then, however, the feeling never truly goes away.  It stays with you, like that feeling of having your stomach drop out from under you as you hurtle down the hill of a giant coaster.  Even after your feet are back on the ground, there is part of you that is still waiting for the rest of you to catch up.

Grief is not simple.

It is not meant to be.  It is different for each person, and each loss, and that means that no one should force themselves to “feel” according to a certain schedule or rule. 

Grief plays a central role in fiction.

There is something quite intimate about reading along with a character who is going through a loss – maybe even one that a reader can relate to.  Books that feature grief, death and loss allow those who are bereaved to have a safe avenue through which to process and express their inner tangle of dark, twisty emotions.  It helps the reader to know that they are not alone in experiencing such a state of despair. 

Fiction that features grief, death and loss also goes one step further: it helps readers to see how there is still light.  The tunnel might be dark and long right in that very moment in time, but just like the main character of a book, eventually the light will come back into their lives and they will be able to live again.  And usually, once you climb up out of the black hole of grief, the life we continue living is enhanced, because we are filled with a new purpose and vigor: to live the life our loved one was not able to have.”

I like Ms Weiss’ point that there is no correct personal definition of Grief: there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no correct formula for getting past it. In my novel, Granduncle Bertie, which will be out later this year, there is considerable exploration of death: of a child, of a brother, of an adult son, and of several older people. In spite of all that, it is not a sad book, but it is true that the affected characters all deal with their grief in different ways.

One Star for Megan

Wednesday’s edition of the Mail Online has the headline: “Meghan Markle’s children’s book The Bench is branded ‘bland’, ‘shallow’ and ‘uninspired’ by US readers as it fails to move past number 100 on Amazon’s bestseller list after being met with abysmal reviews in the UK.”

The article was written by Charlie Lankston for the Daily Mail and Harriet Johnston for the Mail Online.

“The debut book by the Duchess of Sussex 39, was inspired by a poem she wrote for Prince Harry’s first Father’s Day the month after Archie was born, and explores the ‘special bond between father and son’ as ‘seen through a mother’s eyes’. 

However readers on both side of the pond were left very unimpressed by the $18.99 tome, with one children’s librarian in the US slamming it as having ‘no characters, no fun, no adventure.  I’m a children’s librarian, and I’m chagrined this book will now be part of our library. It is not a book for children,’ the person wrote, before opining that the book was only ever published because of Meghan’s celebrity status.

They went on: ‘It’s barely a book at all actually, just a set of poorly-rhyming platitudes on how to parent. I would be shocked if anyone gave this 5 stars if the author was an anonymous person (actually, the book wouldn’t have gotten published at all). 

‘It distresses me that Meghan (excuse me, “the duchess”) reportedly received a half-million dollar advance for this drivel, when there are so many well-deserving authors who struggle to make ends meet. Please, try their works out instead. If you need help, your local library would be delighted to offer suggestions.’

No major US media outlet included an official review of the book in its coverage. There was plenty of criticism posted online however, with many Amazon users expressing extreme disappointment in its ‘bland’ and ‘uninspired’ storyline. 

‘Boring preachy storyline and lackluster illustrations. Ms Markle is not a children’s author,’ one person commented. 

Meghan dedicated the book to Prince Harry and Archie, saying they make her heart go ‘pump-pump’, and wrote alongside a picture of a father and son playing with toy dinosaurs: ‘When life feels in shambles, you’ll help him find order.’  

But some readers called out the mother-of-two for penning a book about the bond between a father and his child when she is estranged from her own dad, Thomas Markle. Another added: ‘Ugh. She hates her father and has alienated Harry from his and she writes [a] kids book about fatherhood?’ 

The Telegraph’s Claire Allfree called The Bench ‘semi-literate’, writing: ‘One wonders how any publisher could have thought fit to publish this grammar-defying set of badly rhyming cod homilies, let alone think any child anywhere would want to read it. But that’s planet Sussex for you, where even the business of raising a family is all about the brand.’ “

For me, the nail in the coffin is the dedication: “For the man and the boy who make my heart go pump – pump”. What in the world does her heart normally do? It’s drivel. I believe that it takes plenty of literary skill, a vivid imagination, and great empathy to be a successful writer of children’s books. In the long run, brand means nothing.

Where to Buy Books?

There is an article in the News York Times by Dani Blum dated April 30, 2021 and updated May 4; in investigates the conflicting when we are buying a book between the desire to support our local bookstore and the convenience and cost of buying on line.

Dani Blum is a news assistant at the New York Times. She has written for Pitchfork, GQ, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily Beast, MTV News, Redfinery29, Cosmopolitan, Philadelphia magazine and other publications.

Ms Blum says: ” For those who want to discover and support new writers, rather than waiting for splashy releases, independent bookstores tend to be a better option. Authors generally get paid the same amount no matter where their book is sold, said Allison Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. But books without large marketing campaigns behind them have a greater chance of being discovered at an independent bookstore. ‘If you want to support debut authors, or mid-list authors, or certain voices, those books are going to be more apparent in an independent bookstore,’ she said.

‘Discoverability is essential, and it’s very difficult,’ said Regina Brooks, the founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency in Brooklyn. Black bookstores, in particular, have become a space for making debut authors more visible, she said.

Independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble also host events with authors — the Booksmith in San Francisco hosted 300 events a year before the pandemic, a representative said — that can raise awareness about books and encourage sales. During the pandemic, some stores pivoted to online events; Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, for example, hosts several Zoom events per week.

‘If independent bookstores disappeared, authors would be screwed,’ said Dennis Johnson, co-founder and publisher of Melville House, a bookstore and press based in Brooklyn. ‘When there are fewer bookstores in the landscape, there are fewer book sales and fewer people just aware of books.’

If you can’t order directly from a bookstore, e-commerce sites like IndieBound and Bookshop.org allow you to purchase from independents, which receive a cut of the profits. Keeping independent bookstores in business enables them to continue to support authors. While Bookshop.org has been a lifeline for bookstores during the pandemic, it’s better to shop directly from an independent bookstore’s website if they have one, said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, since they receive the full profit from your purchase. Many bookstores currently offer curbside pick up, which costs them less than shipping and delivering books.

And if you do buy from Amazon, pre-ordering books can be helpful for writers, said Kate McKean, vice president at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency — particularly since Amazon tends to send more data to publishers about pre-orders, which can indicate a book’s popularity. Amazon designates its best-sellers, which can attract more readers to find and notice books.

Publishers usually make slightly more money when their books are bought at independent bookstores, said Andy Hunter, the founder of Bookshop.org. That’s partly because retail giants like Amazon offer different rates to different publishers, he explained. A representative from Amazon declined to comment on revenue share between Amazon and publishers.

Supporting small presses, which have strained to weather the industry’s fluctuations during the pandemic, can take the form of shopping from independent bookstores. These stores and presses often have relationships to each other, Ms. Hill said. ‘Independent bookstores support independent publishers. That’s a tight community,’ she said. ‘The book industry is such a delicate ecosystem. Supporting independent bookstores keeps the ecosystem healthy.’

Barnes & Noble is also a crucial part of the book retail ecosystem, Ms. Hill said, and a crucial outlet for writers and publishers. The key is to ‘spread it around,’ Ms. McKean said. ‘If we only shop at one retailer, that’s bad for everybody.’

If you want the fastest delivery it’s hard to beat Amazon on shipping speed. The retail giant offers free domestic shipping between five to eight days of ordering for all users and two-day shipping for Amazon prime members.

If you want the lowest cost, Amazon also largely wins out on price. ‘Most indie bookstores will be transparent with the fact that oftentimes, we can’t compete with Amazon on prices,’ said James Odum, communications director for The Strand bookstore in New York City.

If you want the best selection. For readers seeking the largest possible range of reading options, Amazon features over three million books available online. Book recommendations are surfaced through both an algorithm customized to the individual user and through an updated list from Amazon book editors.

‘Independent bookstores can order nearly any book anyone wants,’ said Mr. Graham. Beyond the breadth of selection, independent bookstores have the benefit of more curated selections, with individual booksellers advocating for their favourite books. ‘There’s really no algorithm equivalent to it, said Amy Stephenson, a representative for the Booksmith in San Francisco.”

After reading the above arguments, I’ll have to admit to having a new-found preference for shopping at the Waterstones shop in the nearby mall. Amazon may be fast and cheap, but it only sees books in monetary terms, and not in artistic terms, as book stores see them.

Stealing Books Is OK?

The Daily Telegraph had an article written by Mike Wright on 17 May with which I disagreed. It was titled, “I’m proud that people steal my books, says Trainspotting author.”

Mr Wright covers social media and related policy and tech issues for the Telegraph.

Irvine Welsh

Wikipedia says that “Irvine Welsh (born 27 September 1958) is a Scottish novelist, playwright and short story writer. His 1993 novel Trainspotting was made into a film of the same name. His work is characterised by a raw Scots dialect and brutal depiction of Edinburgh life. He has also written plays and screenplays, and directed several short films.”

The article says, “The author of Trainspotting has said he does not mind fans stealing his books because he still gets the royalties. Irvine Welsh, the author of what is often cited as ‘the most shoplifted book in history’, said the accolade is a ‘source of pride’ and he is unconcerned if people keep stealing his books.

In an interview, he revealed that he gets paid whether his tomes are bought or stolen because the stores have to cover the cost to the publishers. He revealed the financial loophole on the podcast Midnight Meets with Colin Murray. Speaking about Trainspotting, Welsh said, “It is a source of pride that people kind of nick it. I always get some wee yob that comes up to me and goes, ‘I got your books. I stole them all.’

“I say, ‘well look, I appreciate that because they usually go to the bookseller on a sell or return basis. So if they don’t sell, the bookseller can’t return them to the publisher. That means I get my royalties. So I appreciate you stealing them because it means double sure that I get paid.’ Fabulous. It’s brilliant. It’s unbeatable.”

Welsh, 62, rose to fame with his 1993 bestseller, which was made into the Danny Boyle-directed film starring Ewan McGregor and Kelly Macdonald. The novel has since been cited as the most shoplifted book in the UK and Mr Welsh said his other titles, such as The Acid House, Filth and Porno, are also frequently the targets of theft.

The novel Trainspotting itself deals with book theft, when its heroin-addicted protagonist, Renton, admits to a judge that he stole books by the existential writer Soren Kierkegaard. However, Renton manages to avoid a jail sentence by telling the judge that his petty larceny was not aimed at feeding his drug habit but by his curiosity about the philosopher’s ‘concepts of subjectivity and truth’.

An actual list of the most stolen books in Brittan, compiled by The Times in 2009 from interviews with independent booksellers, found the London AZ the most popular with shoplifters.”

If one of my books were the target of shoplifting, I can imagine having a discrete sniggle about it with a couple of friends, but I certainly wouldn’t mention it in public. As Welsh admits, the booksellers are the ones who end up paying for the author’s royalties. And for an author to crow about his good fortune at the expense of those who are otherwise trying to make money for him seems insensitive and ill advised.

What About Racist Childhood Classic Books?

The Washington Post has an article, dated 16 May 2021, that I had to read. It is under the byline of Valerie Strauss who is an education writer who producing The Answer Sheet blog. She came to The Washington Post as an assistant foreign editor for Asia in 1987 and weekend foreign desk editor after working for Reuters as national security editor and a military/foreign affairs reporter on Capitol Hill. 

Most of the article quotes a post by Philip Nel, who is the author of “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: the Hidden Racism in Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books” a 2017 book that helped launch a conversation about racism in children’s books that led to a recent decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six of the prolific author’s books. Nel, is a professor of English at Kansas State University and director of the children’s literature program there.

Philip Nel

Mr Nel’s post is quite long quite long, so I have produces excerpts below.

“Because any culture you grow up in seems natural and inevitable, sometimes you simply don’t see. On the morning of March 2, I heard that Dr. Seuss Enterprises was withdrawing these six books, via a text from my friend, professor Sarah Park Dahlen. And I immediately thought: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!” will be withdrawn for their racist caricatures. They were.

But what were the other three? I saw “McElligot’s Pool” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” on the list, and thought: Well, Dr. Seuss often uses exoticism and foreignness as a punchline. Were there examples in these books? Yes, there were. But “On Beyond Zebra!”? That’s a personal favorite, one of Dr. Seuss’s most avant-garde books. It invents an entirely new alphabet, reminding young readers that this language they’re learning to read is arbitrary and slightly ridiculous. What could possibly be objectionable?

In rereading, I realized the book’s caricature of a Middle Eastern man was … a caricature of a Middle Eastern man. I had not seen the illustration as a caricature until Dr. Seuss Enterprises pointed it out.

I’ve written a lot about Dr. Seuss, and about racism in his work. I’ve written about blackface minstrelsy’s influence on “The Cat in the Hat.” My book “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?” began the conversation that led to Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision. You’d think I would have noticed. I hadn’t. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t see what I didn’t see.

When you grow up in a racist culture, you won’t see all the racism — it’s just part of the world in which you live. If you have only ever seen a polluted ocean, then that’s what an ocean looks like. Only when someone points out the pollution in the ocean or the racism in the culture, do you notice. And begin to ask questions.

But cancel culture nostalgists never ask or answer the questions. What in the culture are they defending? And why not instead celebrate books that, instead of perpetuating harm, represent people of any heritage with respect?

Why not break up with your favorite racist childhood classics? Maybe doing so will break your heart a little.

But, to quote a line attributed to Rumi (but which is probably not him), “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.”

That “breaking” is what reflective nostalgia allows. It allows you to reassess what you once loved. It allows you to meet new favorite books celebrating the diversity of human experience.

That’s not cancellation. That’s cultivation. That’s healing. That’s love.”

I can remember that as a child, my mother used to read classics to me, and among these ‘classics’ were several books by Joel Chandler Harris, whose books were produced in the 1880’s and were based on stories told by southern US plantation residents.  Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop’s Fables. Uncle Remus is a kindly old freedman who serves as the principal story-telling device, passing on the folktales like the traditional West African story-teller to children gathered around him. Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a character prone to tricks and troublemaking who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. In one tale, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along, he addresses the ‘tar baby’ amiably but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the tar baby’s lack of manners, punches it and kicks it, and becomes stuck.

I certainly agree with Nel’s comment that when you grow up in a racist culture, one doesn’t see the racism. Was my mother a racist? Yes, I have no doubt. And while, as a child I loved Br’er Rabbit’s exploits, I didn’t read Harris’ books to my children.

Are Celebrity Authors Hogging the Market?

The Sunday Telegraph, today, has an article by Craig Simpson entitled ‘Shun the celebrity authors like Megan publishers urged’. With its photos of celebrity authors promoting their children’s books, I had to have a read.

Mr Simpson is a reporter with Daily and Sunday Telegraph covering arts, culture, history, heritage.

Madonna reads her latest children's book 'Lotsa de Casha' to children in a bookstore
Madonna reads her children’s book Lotsa de Casha in a bookstore in New York City 

The article says: “LEADING children’s authors have hit out at publishers trying to “swamp the competition” by continuously commissioning new books by celebrities such as the Duchess of Sussex.

Sales figures obtained by The Sunday Telegraph show authors like Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton still sell millions more copies than any modern-day celebrity, with the exception of David Walliams.

The duchess is among a number of famous faces who in recent times have written a children’s book, alongside the likes of Madonna, Frank Lampard, Idris Elba and the Duchess of York.

Earlier this month it was announced her first title, The Bench, would be published by Penguin Random House, and the June release is inspired by the “special bond” between her husband Prince Harry and their son Archie.

But children’s writers have pointed out that many end up being “absolute disasters” and that better authors are being repeatedly ignored.

Gareth P Jones, who won the Blue Peter Book Award in 2012 for The Considine Curse, believes the e financial success of literature produced by dedicated writers should prompt publishers to prioritise quality over celebrity.

He said: “Meghan isn’t unique in wanting to write a story inspired by her children or pets or, in her case, a bench. Lots of parents do this.

“The ones who are not famous but good writers sometimes get books out of it. The ones who are famous but not good writers always get books out of it. I think the list should be seen as a useful u reminder to publishers that the fame of authors should not be the main steering factor when it comes to signing new book books. “Children’s literature matters. It matters to the industry, to the young readers and to the future of our society. Most celebrity authors get such whopping advances for their efforts that I’m not sure book sales or long longevity are important factors for the them.” A list of the top children’s au authors since 2010 compiled by Nielsen BookScan analysts shows only one celebrity writer – Walliams – in a top 20 list otherwise dominated by writers like Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson and JK Rowling. Separate sales figures focusing on 2019 alone featured just three celebrity authors in the top 20: Walliams, Tom Fletcher and David Baddiel.

Walliams has written 26 books for children netting more than £100m, of which he is estimated to have taken home £10m. This puts him alongside some of the UK’s highest earning authors, such as JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson.

Lucrative advances for celebrity book deals – many of which are believed to be in the millions – compare with some as low as £2,000 for lesser-known children’s authors.

“It’s so true that writing good children’s books is not an easy wheeze,” said the author of children’s thriller Waiting for Murder, Fleur Hitchcock. “There have been some absolute disasters over the years – remember Madonna’s? Some sell on the name and fizzle out, but some are so aggressively marketed that they swamp the competition.”

It seems to me that the complaining authors have a point. I have read lots of children’s books: as a child, to my children and grandchildren. The good ones are enchanting; the poor ones are boring. What’s the difference? It takes more than good verbal skills to write for children. (Some celebrities would fall at this hurdle). It also requires a special variety of imagination that can bring to life the complex feelings of a particular age group. Moreover, patience with multiple re-writes and a commitment to high quality standards are necessary.

Perhaps with the leverage of their name in mind, some celebrities see children’s books as an easy, short way to a big payday. If so, they will be disappointed.

TikTok Madness

There is an article on the Good E-Reader website on May 4, 2021 by Michael Kozlowski that mentions 5.8 billion views of book reviews. How could this be?

Michael Kowlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times. 

Mr Kowlowski said, “TikTok is a social media platform for creating, sharing and discovering short videos. The app is used by young people as an outlet to express themselves through singing, dancing, comedy, and lip-syncing, and allows users to create videos and share them across a community. You might be familiar with various TikTok challenges that dominate the news or Youtube.  One of the biggest new trends is a href=”https://www.tiktok.com/tag/booktok?lang=en”>BookTok, where old and new novels are going viral, thanks to a new wave of book-loving influencers discussing their young adult literary picks.

Here is how BookTok works. People use the hashtag #BookTok a produce a minute long video recommending books. Scroll through #BookTok and you will see in-depth spoiler-filled reviews, colour coordinated bookcases and even a user acting out a literary battle scene, complete with a sorceress dress, horse and bow and arrow. Books with teenage, star-crossed lovers are popular too with users obsessing over what fictional characters make the best boyfriends or fantasizing about their dream date.

Fantasy is currently dominating amongst Young Adult readers, offering a form of escapism from the mundanity of everyday life. It enables readers to envision alternate realities or societies that do not compare to their own, fascinated by the idea of an otherworldly experience- mental teleportation. Book-lovers have repeatedly voiced their support for series such as “The Folk of the Air” and “A Court of Thorns and Roses”, with most ‘BookTokers’ discussing them across the app.

The #BookTok hashtag has racked up over 5.8 billion views, and some authors have seen a tenfold increase in book sales for works that are often decades old. Even bookstores are jumping on the trend. The Barnes & Noble website now has a BookTok page dedicated to the most popular books on TikTok and its American stores have introduced allocated sections displaying titles that have gone viral on the platform.

In a recent press release, NPD Bookscan said that meaningful book sales occur when titles are featured on viral BookTok videos. “Backlist titles like “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara, and “The Song of Achilles,” by Madeline Miller, both received sales boosts in the first quarter of the year. In fact, “The Song of Achilles” sold 10 times the number of units in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same time period last year. “While many BookTok videos are pushing young-adult titles on to bestseller lists, the phenomenon has also carried over into adult fiction.

I really approve of this trend, it gets people reading. When researching this story, I found so many people saying the last time they read a book was in high school, for English classes, but due to people making reading cool and fun, it encouraged them to read more, which is never a bad thing.”

Are You a ‘Pantser’

Steven James is a pantser. He is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels and and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “master storyteller at the peak of his game.” Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.

Steven James
Steven James

In his October 15, 2015 article in Writer’s Digest, He says, “I can’t think of a single time I’ve received instruction on writing a story without an outline. You’ll hear the importance of plotting out your story trumpeted at writing conferences nationwide, and if you don’t follow those formulas you’ll be labeled an SOPer (that is, a “seat-of-the-pantser,” or sometimes just a “pantser”—and no, I’m not making this up).

“Lots of outliners teach that a story should have three acts. That’s simply not true. Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, this is what it needs to have in order to be effective and complete: an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climactic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character or situation (usually both).

“Popular outline and structure “formulas” are filled with misconceptions about what makes a story work. Rather than straightjacketing your story by forcing it into three acts, or trying to map it out as “character-driven” or “plot-driven,” take the organic approach by first simply asking yourself what is truly at the heart of your story.

“Remember: What your story really needs is an orientation, a crisis or calling that disrupts normal life, relentless escalation of tension, and a satisfying climax. Along the way, you’ll need to make sure readers are compelled to empathize and connect with the main character(s), feel enough emotion to stay intrigued by the story, and gain enough insight to see the world with new eyes when they’re done.

“Focus all of your attention at the heart of your story, keeping these essential elements and goals in mind, and you’ll begin to intuitively understand what needs to happen to drive the story forward.

“When you’re informed about what makes a story work, you’re never writing from the seat of your pants. By letting your story develop organically, you’re delving deeper and deeper into the essence of what storytelling is all about.

“Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. Of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. Who knows? What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that eclipses everything you previously had in mind.

“Without serendipitous discoveries, your story runs the risk of feeling artificial and prepackaged. Give yourself the freedom to explore the terrain of your story. Wander daily through your idea field and unreservedly embrace the adventure.

“Think of your story as a contract with your readers, an agreement that you will entertain, surprise and satisfy them. Every choice that your characters make has an implication; every promise you make needs to be fulfilled. The more promises you break, the less readers will trust you. And often, when readers put a book down, that’s exactly why—they’ve stopped trusting that you’re going to fulfill the promises you’ve made.

“Organic writers are well-equipped to make big promises and then keep them. We’re never directionless, because we can always work on scenes that fulfill promises we’ve made earlier, or go back and foreshadow the fulfillment of promises we think of as the story takes shape.

“In storytelling, what will happen informs what is happening, and what is happening informs what did. You cannot know where a story needs to go until you know where it’s been, but you cannot know where it needs to have been until you know where it’s going.

“It’s a paradox.

“So, in practice, how does this work? When you sit down at the keyboard each day, what do you do if you don’t have an outline to work from?

“Reorient yourself to the context. Print out the previous 50 or 100 pages (once a week I find it helpful to do the whole novel) and read it through the eyes of a reader, not an editor. Remember, readers aren’t looking for what’s wrong with the story; they’re looking for what’s right with it. Continually ask yourself, What are readers wondering about, hoping for and expecting at this moment in the story? Then give it to them.

“Draft the scene that would naturally come next. The length and breadth of the scene needs to be shaped by the narrative forces I mentioned earlier.

“Go back and rework earlier scenes as needed. What you write organically will often have implications on the story you’ve already written.

“Keep track of unanswered questions and unresolved problems. Review them before each read- through of your manuscript.

“Come up with a system to organize your ideas as they develop. In addition to files of character descriptions, phrases, clues and so on, I have four word processing files I use to organize my thoughts: 1) Plot Questions, 2) Reminders, 3) Discarded Ideas and 4) Notes.

“If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, come up with a way to make things worse, let the characters respond naturally to what’s happening, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book, or work on a scene you know readers will expect based on your genre and the story you’ve told so far. When you understand the principles of good storytelling, you always have a place to start.

“Move into and out of the story, big picture, small picture, focusing one day on the forest and the next day on the trees. Follow these ideas, and stories will unfold before you.

“Leave outlining to English teachers.”

Enhancing the Sense of Place

There is a n article in the Writer’s Digest by Jonelle Patrick of November 3 last year, which has some good ideas on how writers can make their descriptions of place more powerful to the reader. One of her ideas, in particular, is quite good.

Jonelle Patrick is the author of five novels set in Japan. Her newest mystery, The Last Tea Bowl Thief, was published by Seventh Street Books in October 2020. She’s a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Language Institute, and also a member of the Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. She divides her time between Tokyo and San Francisco.

Jonelle Patrick
Jonelle Patrick

Ms Patrick says: “Creating a sense of place can be so much more than a painterly description of the sea, or the comforting smell of coffee in the kitchen. Places aren’t just sets to be described. They exist in time. They have a history. The same place can be comforting or menacing, depending on who’s experiencing it, when they’re experiencing it, and what else is happening while they’re experiencing it.

“Let’s start easy: What’s the weather like? A chapter that takes place in a thunderstorm will feel very different from one that takes place in a heatwave. Extreme weather—like a blizzard or a hurricane—creates tension that can amplify what your characters are feeling, spur them to action, or cause them to make decisions they’re either proud of or regret. What’s the temperature like? Heat and cold can slow down your characters’ ability to make decisions and act on them. Tempers flare with discomfort, characters relax and are lulled into complacency when the temperature is balmy. Does your character suddenly go cold, even though the room is hot? Do they flush with shame, even in a snowstorm?

“A setting seen through the eyes of a child isn’t the same when seen through the eyes of a basketball player—a room looks different from three feet above the ground than it does from six. A small person (or someone who is sitting) will notice different details than a tall one (or someone who is standing). A space that dwarfs the viewer feels different from one where the viewer feels cramped. A character’s experience level also alters the feeling of a place—imagine how differently an alien from another planet would describe a church, compared to a vicar who preaches there every Sunday. If you describe a place from a position of long experience—making the reader take small leaps and guesses until they catch up to the character’s level of experience—you can make your reader feel like an insider. And the opposite technique—making a character guess wrong about what a familiar place is used for—can do the same.

“Knowing what happened in a place—either recently or in the distant past—changes how a character reacts to it and how a reader feels about it. A cave that was sacred to Native Americans feels different from one that harboured escaped slaves, even if it’s the same cave. And a room where a murder occurred feels very different from a room used to store copier paper, even if it’s the same room.

“A place where someone waits for their lover feels very different from a place where someone fears they’ll meet an accuser. A sense of place can be enhanced by describing it in terms of what the character expects to happen there.

And the most interesting idea: axe the adjectives and adverbs.

“Finally, I’m going to tell you to forget what you learned in school. Use adjectives sparingly, and insert adverbs only when nothing else will work. Your writing will instantly feel much more professional. Consider this paragraph that probably would have gotten you a solid “A” from your sainted high school English teacher:

The dark church is scary at night, with only two flickering candles on the shadowy altar. When the bell begins to toll at midnight, the candles go out, and the room grows colder. A ghostly blue cloud begins to gather near the peaked ceiling. As the phantom figure grows more distinct, I recognize its face as a long-ago vicar whose death had been blamed on my grandmother.

“A perfectly workmanlike description, right? You can picture the place, maybe even feel a shiver of apprehension. But look what happens when we deliver the same information without any adjectives or adverbs:

I shiver as the bell begins to toll. …nine…ten…eleven…midnight. As if on cue, the altar candles flicker and go out. He’s here. I can feel him. His presence sucks the warmth from the room, makes my hair stand on end. Before the shape even begins to swirl and coalesce between the rafters far overhead, I know it’s the vicar. The vicar who had died because of what my grandmother did.‘”

This is a very good example of effective writing which uses only the most effective nouns and verbs!

Most e-books harm children learning to read

Last week my post was about the benefits of Ebooks for boys. This week, I have excerpts from an article published by the same newspaper (The Telegraph) several years later (March 9, 2021), but this one focuses on the impediments that Ebooks place in the development of children’s reading skills.

Youngsters who listen to podcasts are more likely to enjoy reading and more likely to read every day compared to their peers

This more recent article is written by Dominic Penna, who is a journalist with The Telegraph. He says, “Most ebooks actually harm children in their efforts to learn to read because the added use of technology can be distracting, research has found.

In a comprehensive review of 39 different studies, researchers found that children aged one to eight-years-old were less likely to understand picture books when they read the digital version compared to the print.

This is because some digital books included games at the end of chapters and other resources which diverted attention from the story itself, which had a negative effect on learning in younger children in particular.

Overall, print books outperformed their technological alternatives by an average of seven per cent when children were assessed on their comprehension of what they had read, according to the research from the University of Stavanger in Norway.

‘In particular, the presence of short games embedded in story apps may explain children’s poor comprehension of digital books, as these distract young children’s attention from the story,’ the authors wrote.

They added: ‘Given that the human information processing system has a limited capacity, distributing cognitive resources across the story narrative, handling the device, and children’s expectations concerning an electronic device may be the reason for the reported negative effects.’

Professor Natalia Kucirkova, the co-author of the study and a professor at the Open University, said that added online tools such as dictionaries interfere with how well children can understand the story or text that they are trying to read.

However this was not the case for books which provided important context to their stories, which boosted comprehension more than their paperback counterparts.

Three of the studies that were featured in the analysis also found that reading on screens strongly correlates with lower reading ability levels across primary and secondary school children alike, something which continues into adulthood.

But while dictionaries embedded in digital books were often found to adversely affect children’s understanding of particular stories, they were cited as among the key reasons that digital reading improves their language skills.

In fact, the vocabulary of children who read ebooks improved by an average of 22 per cent when compared to printed texts across the studies analysed.

The findings come as children were increasingly forced to turn to ebooks as school libraries shut due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Reading among children had reached a 15-year low before the first coronavirus lockdown last year, but has since increased by more than eight per cent, with one in three young people saying they read more books between March and June last year.

Irene Picton, Research Manager at the National Literacy Trust, said: ‘We know many families enjoy sharing both print and digital books, and that both formats can support literacy,’ said ‘The findings of this fascinating meta-analysis highlight the importance of careful, evidence-led design of digital books to ensure children’s reading is supported most effectively.

‘It also provides valuable insight for educators and parents by identifying which digital enhancements do, and do not, support comprehension and vocabulary.’

Children and young people who have enjoyed podcasts during the pandemic are more likely to enjoy reading and read every day compared to their peers, the Trust claimed last year.”

My reaction is that the choice of eBook versus printed version will depend on the preference of the child and the characteristics of the book. Neither, in my opinion, has an inherent advantage.