Monday, July 27, 2015

Reads for Writers: Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

            Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.

First pages are usually the best written in a book—highly polished and edited—so I always want to see if the author sustained that level throughout his or her book.

When I’m in a bookstore, I pick up books and flip through them stopping at random pages to see if the writing style grabs my attention. I only read a sentence or two, not many words to convince me to buy in, but if the author is good, they are enough.

When I’m viewing books online, I can’t do that as only the first pages are available. To be honest, I’m more disappointed in the books I buy this way when I know nothing about the author. However, while online I can view many more books than are in a bookstore so I discover more gems this way.
The latest gem I’ve read is Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li. Her book caught my eye as I looked for something new to read online. I loved the title.
I opened to the first pages and read the first paragraph. Based on that paragraph alone, I decided to buy her book. I also knew if the book lived up to that paragraph, I would use it as the basis for a masterclass post. I’ve never made this decision based on 93 words before, but Li captured the absurdness of human nature during one the most solemn of occasions. She made me think and she made me laugh.
Read the same paragraph for yourselves. If it appeals to you, read the rest of Li’s book. Her insights into human nature keep coming—fresh, true, eye-opening, and heartbreaking.
The plot of the book is sparse: The four main characters grow up in China, but, after a slightly mysterious tragedy, two relocate to America. It’s the author’s voice and the creativity of her insights that made this a masterclass for me. Here are a few examples:
…believing, like most people, in a moment called later. Safely removed, later promises possibilities: changes, solutions, rewards, happiness, all too distant to be real, yet real enough to offer relief from the claustrophobic cocoon of now.  (page 33)
She had never been much of a reader of fiction before, but these [Russian or French] novels, whose characters bore long and unmemorable names had comforted her: even the most complicated stories offered a clarity that she could not find in the world around her…  (page 134)
No, solitude she did not have; what she had was a never-ending quarantine.  (page 229)
While these and many other lines appealed to me, I especially loved the phrase claustrophobic cocoon of now—four words that capture life when difficult perfectly.
Solitude a never-ending quarantine? I never considered solitude any kind of quarantine, but it is whether imposed or chosen.
The clarity of Yiyun Li's insights is why I recommend writers read Kinder Than Solitude. It’s also why I’ll read the rest of her books.

Monday, July 20, 2015

New Bookcases I've Discovered

From Kate’s Writing Crate…
 (This is NOT a paid endorsement! Just sharing thoughts on bookcases.)
          I’m surrounded by books which are well organized in bookcases if I’ve read them or they’re reference books. However, books I’m reading/reviewing are in piles on my desk, next to my reading chair, and next to my bed.
I’m one of those readers that have twenty books, usually many more, going at the same time. I switch between them depending on my mood or deadlines. They include: the books from my Personal Writing Classes, reference books for writing projects, and books I’m reading for fun or reviews. Then add in books recommended by family and friends, books I’m rereading, and new books I’ve chosen for myself.
I want all these books nearby so I can grab the one I want easily. I’ve tried a table on wheels, but the piles fall over. Bookcases on wheels are expensive and not built for paperbacks so there’s a lot of wasted space.
Then I saw a shoe rack on wheels and realized it would solve my problems. Paperbacks are displayed beautifully spines out at a downward angle—I can quickly find the book I want. The top shelf can hold taller books. No piles. No toppling over. Easy to move. I love it!
The four-shelf shoe rack works well in my office and by the bed. The larger 10-shelf shoe rack is great for paperback storage. The books can only fit on every other shelf, but it’s big enough (57” tall, 35” wide, and 9.5” deep) to hold over 200 books—30 to 50 paperbacks per shelf on five shelves or the top shelf can hold taller books. Because the rack is easy to move, it doesn’t have to sit against the wall facing out. If you get more than one, you can have them face each other or put two or three in front of each other and pull them out to find the book you want.
I also discovered Origami bookcases. These metal bookcases are fully assembled, but arrive flat. You unlock the latch at the bottom and pull the sides apart and lock the back support and the top shelf into place to use. They are 67” tall, 24” wide, and 10.5” deep.
Like most fixed-shelf bookcases, they are not designed well for books. Paperbacks can only be stacked, two deep to fill the depth space or five stacks across with no titles visible, and can easily fall out the back. Even for taller books, there is a lot of wasted space as each shelf is about 12” tall. I found the best usage of space is to have two piles of taller books stacked at each end of each shelf with three to five books upright between the piles.
What I do love about these bookcases: they are fully assembled, easy to move when folded up, the shelves don’t buckle like particle board, and they are a great price for the quality.
 I’m always looking for good bookcase ideas. Let me know if you have any.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reads for Writers: Two Books Filled with Quotes for Writers

From Kate’s Writing Crate…
          Summer is a busy time—beach, pool, visitors, BBQs, vacations, and, hopefully, writing. While writers should read as much as possible, there isn’t always time to settle down with a novel so I’m recommending two books of quotes for writers. They are easy to pick up and put down and filled with support and wisdom.        
          A Writer’s Commonplace Book by Rosemary Friedman offers quotes in eight categories: On Writers and Writing; On Literary Endeavour; On Knowledge, Discovery and Travel; On Creativity and the Arts; On the Human Condition; On Love, Marriage and Family; On Life and Death; and On Random Thoughts.
          Some of my favorites:
                    A writer knows more than he knows. He has a subconscious
ability to read signs.
                                                                   --Nadine Gordimer  (page 13)
It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creation.
                                                          --Gustave Flaubert  (page 75)
The aim of literature was to write a book that would reveal to the reader things he had never thought of before.
                                                          --Simone De Beauvoir  (page 82)
All normal people require both classics and trash.
                                                          --George Bernard Shaw  (page 84)
Learning, thinking, innovation and maintaining contact with one’s own world are all facilitated by solitude.
                                                          --Anthony Storr  (page 164)
There is power that works within us without consulting us.
                                                          --Voltaire  (page 208)
In The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion edited by James Charlton some of my favorites include:
In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read…It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.
                                                --S. I. Hayakawa  (page 12)
There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island…and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.
                                                --Walt Disney  (page 16)
When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.
                                                --Clifton Fadiman  (page 19)
Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.
                                                --Jules Renard  (page 55)
Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust your own judgement, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad—including your own bad.
                                                --Doris Lessing  (page 73)
Nine out of ten writers, I am sure, could write more. I think they should and, if they did, they would find their work improving even beyond their own, their agent’s and their editor’s highest hopes.
                                                --John Creasy  (page 94)
          Take time to read, but keep writing!

Monday, July 6, 2015

My Writing Schedule--Inspired or Not

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

When inspiration strikes, I grab a notebook and scribble down my thoughts. Inspiration is unpredictable so a notebook is always nearby, but this kind of inspiration is fleeting. It doesn’t allow for a regular writing schedule.

A better schedule: I sit at my writing desk every day, inspired or not. If I sit there, I’ll write. As I write, I become inspired. I have time to start and stop, to try new things, and to toss out what is not working. There’s pressure to do my best and to meet upcoming deadlines, but it doesn’t affect me the way it can when I’m off schedule and deadlines are looming.

          My daily writing schedule doesn’t require a certain number of hours or pages. I simply sit at my desk five or six or more times a day and work—sometimes for half an hour, usually for an hour or two, and sometimes for three hours or more at a time. (A comfortable chair is essential. Thanks for my gift, Dad!)

Life doesn’t run on a precise schedule nor does my writing, but writing is always on my schedule. I start early, around 6am. I sometimes work late, especially during monthly deadlines for the magazines I write for and edit and for this blog with its weekly midnight Sunday deadline.

          Every writing day is different depending on deadlines, but, if forced to give hard numbers, on average I write about four hours a day and edit about three hours, but not in solid blocks. I start off writing, but if my thoughts and ideas falter, I switch to editing or planning other writing projects.

When I need a break, I take the dogs out to play ball, work around the house, complete what’s on my To-Do List, read books to review, or organize my freelance projects. Then I return happily to my writing desk. Writing is not only one of my jobs, it’s my calling.

This schedule sounds idyllic, but writing and editing are hard work. Fresh eyes are needed so breaks are necessary. Also, I’ve given only average hours for writing.

In reality, during the monthly deadline week for the magazines, I often work fifteen hours a day for four or five days writing, editing, and proofing to get the issues to the printer on time. If I waited until the last minute to write my blog post, I write and edit just that for four or five hours straight. I also have to meet deadlines for my freelance projects whatever time that takes.

Add to that, I’m human so when there is too much going on (visitors, a sick dog, a broken refrigerator, etc.), I sometimes rebel by putting off writing—a double punishment to myself as I’m not doing something I love/need to do and then I feel more pressure which makes writing harder.

Don’t make writing harder for yourself. Include it in your daily schedule.

Writers write. That’s the true writing schedule I live by every day.