Writing Advice: Change Your Reading


In the past, I’ve written on this blog about the virtues of reading while working on a writing project. Guided reading can lend you insight into another author’s process and techniques. Reading can also help your writing in a more general way. I feel very strongly about the connection between reading and writing, and I feel that my own ear for language can be credited to the many books I read as a child and the books that I continue to read as an adult. Aside from process, technique, and general help, I think that reading can also affect the style in which you write.

Recently, my big reading project has been to complete the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I just recently finished reading them, and I really enjoyed all three. However, I think that they were having an unintended impact on what I was writing. As much as I love and enjoy reading Philip Pullman’s style, it’s definitely more formal than anything I typically write. The dialogue that he writes is particularly formal and doesn’t always read naturally to me. Reading that formal style was causing me to feel blocked in my own writing project, which is nowhere near as serious as Pullman’s books. When I sat down to write, everything that came out of my brain felt more serious in terms of tone.

Now that I’ve finished Pullman’s trilogy, I have moved onto something else on my shelves — The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. Waters writes in a much more conversational tone and takes care to make her fictional world relatable in some way. Her dialogue, in contrast to Pullman’s, sounds like something real people would say, if a bit cleverer. As soon as I got into this, her latest book, I noticed that my dialogue was flowing more easily and my writing didn’t seem as difficult as before. I was surprised by it at first, but it makes sense that what I was reading would have that kind of affect on my own writing.

So, if you’re feeling blocked or if you feel like what you’re writing doesn’t sound like your typical work, try changing up what you’re reading. What you’re taking in through a recent read might be filtering into what you’re writing, even if that’s not what you intend.

Happy Writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: Your Go-To Reading


Yesterday, the Writing Advice post here focused on the concept of critical reading. Of course, you  can use critical reading with just about any reading material. But we all have favorites that we return to again and again. These are works of fiction or non-fiction that hold a special place in our hearts, and which inspire us to keep creating our own work. These are the books that you return to when you’re feeling uninspired, or feel like you have writer’s block. They’re different for everyone, but I’m sure that we could all name several books — or at least a certain type of book — that can help us with our own writing.

Personally, I tend to write mostly in the fantasy or urban fantasy genre. When I’m looking for inspiration, I like to turn to books that use fantasy settings and creatures in new and interesting ways. Most recently, Mur Lafferty’s book The Shambling Guide to New York City was a great source of inspiration for me. In fact, its plot and urban fantasy setting are very similar to something I tried to write for National Novel Writing Month a few years back. The way that Lafferty is able to easily insert fantastical creatures into a place like New York City is so awesome, and reading her book inspired me to get going on my own urban fantasy ideas.

In addition to books that inspire us, I’m sure we all have a few writing blogs that we enjoy reading when we’re not writing. As you may have gathered, based on just how often I quote him here on the blog, I love Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog. I think he covers important topics for writers and does so in a fun and engaging way. I also love his Flash Fiction Friday posts, which always have great lists of writing prompts or challenges.

So, now it’s your turn. What kinds of books and blogs inspire you the most? When you’re experiencing writer’s block, or are simply feeling uninspired, where do you turn? Share in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Guided Reading


One of the most important things that you can do, as a writer, is to read. Reading fills up your so-called creative tank and gives you ideas for future writing projects. Reading was probably what made you want to write in the first place. When you read widely, you’re able to identify patterns of writing that you can then use in your own work. Reading the work of others is the foundation for creating your own work. At first, you’ll borrow from the authors that you enjoy the most, and then their work will become mere inspiration for your own unique ideas.

But you should attempt to read in a critical fashion if you’re going to get anything out of what you’re reading. Simply reading a story, setting it down, and saying that you liked it is not enough. To learn something from what you read, and to use that in your own writing, you need to read critically and ask important questions along the way.

On his blog, Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig included reading critically in his list of ways a writer cultivates instinct. Wendig says you should ask questions such as, “Why do I like this character? What’s wrong with this plot? Why is this working? Why is it not? Could I write that sentence differently? Better? Worse?”

At first, it might be difficult to ask these questions as you’re trying to enjoy the book that you’re reading. But soon it will become instinct and you’ll have no trouble picking apart the pieces of a written work. Once you know how to do that, you’ll be on your way to creating something of your own using the knowledge that you’ve gained.

I hope this advice helps you out, and I hope that you read more critically in the future. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: Reading about Writing


If you want to learn more about being a writer, or about the craft of writing, there are numerous resources out there for you to reference. There are books, there are websites, and there are blog posts like this one. There are books that will tell you how to write a specific genre and books that will tell you how to write for certain audiences. There are books that will tell you how to edit, revise, submit, and self-publish your own work.

My point, I believe, in listing all of these writing resources, is that you could easily read yourself silly and never get any writing done. I think I’ve written about my opinions regarding certain writing resources before on this blog. Generally, I think writing books that model themselves after self-help books are of no use. You can spend days reading those books, highlighting pertinent passages, and taking notes. But all of that time is time you could have spent writing.

Another good point is that writing books tend to present the craft of writing as very cut-and-dry. As Jael McHenry says, in her article on Writer Unboxed, “So many of these books are about formula: if only you follow the framework, they say, you’ll have a book that’s not only universally loved by critics, but also embraced by readers everywhere. One word: HA. Frameworks are all well and good, but creative work can never be paint-by-numbers.”

I echo Jael McHenry: Ha! Writing cannot be done according to a formula or framework. And she’s right, many of those books present writing in that way. Personally I think that’s a flawed representation and following it will not help you become a better writer. In her post, McHenry also says that those who produce writing books exist to sell those writing books. So the books may not have your best interest at heart, honestly.

Instead of reading about writing, I would suggesting reading to write. The difference is in the materials — rather than reading about the craft and about how you “should” practice it, read the works of the greats. Read what you enjoy the most. Read what you think writing should be. Seeing what other authors have done before you is far more beneficial than reading about a formula, framework, or step-by-step for writing.

What do you think? Do you disagree with me completely? How do you feel about books about writing? Share in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Edtior, Mary Egan

Discuss: Having Second Thoughts


Recently, you may have read about J.K. Rowling expressing some feelings about that seven book series that she wrote. Remember that one? Rowling was doing an interview last month and happened to mention that she thought, perhaps, Ron and Hermione maybe didn’t belong together. And then the internet exploded. I have my own opinions about this revelation, but I’m not going to bore you with my fan musings today. Instead, I want to talk about authors and the ownership they have (or don’t have) over their own work.

For the most part, I adhere to the belief that, once an author has finished writing their words and has put the story out into the world, that book now belongs to its readers (via John Green). Especially with something as hugely popular as the Harry Potter series, the books take on a life of their own as fans theorize, discuss, and even add to the story in the form of fanfiction. Fans are very important to any written work and once a piece of writing is put out there, you can be sure that fans are going to devour it both good and bad ways. But does this mean that an author cannot recant something she wrote? I don’t think so. Especially not when it has no effect on the book as it exists already.

I also firmly believe that — while the work is still in its creation phase — authors do not owe their fans anything. Yes, fans can do what they like with the work that authors put out. And yes, fans have a right to criticize authors for what they do, and I know they will. But authors are going to do things that you don’t like. Many of us didn’t enjoy the epilogue that J.K. Rowling tacked onto Harry’s story. But guess what? There’s nothing we can do about that and if it made J.K. Rowling happy to write that epilogue, I am fine with it. In this case, Rowling’s regrets — misquoted/misconstrued or not — have no bearing on the books as they stand. Her expression of this opinion does nothing to alter the books as she wrote them.

Aside from all of this, pieces of writing are rarely completely finished. I found it refreshing, actually, to see an author expressing regrets about something she had written and which had been published and out there in world for so long. That shows that Rowling still mentally inhabits the Potter-verse sometimes, that she still thinks about the characters she created, and that she is still contemplating the story she set to paper. I would hope that all authors are that thoughtful about their previous works.

For further reading on this topic, and for more in-depth discussion about what Rowling actually said and what it means in the Potter-verse, I would suggest Alyssa Rosenberg’s article, “What J.K. Rowling’s Ron And Hermione Bombshell Tells Us About True Love And ‘Harry Potter’.”

What do you think? Is Rowling “allowed” to express these opinions? What do you think about authors having regrets about plot points they put into their stories? Do books belong to the readers or the author? Share your thoughts in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: Winter Reads


For those of us caught in the polar vortex, it seems that the weather is a mixed blessing. On one hand, we’re frozen into icicles every time we step outside. On the other hand, we have plenty of time to get cozy inside and do some reading. I know that my reading always ramps up when the weather grows nasty, so I don’t really mind when a polar vortex comes swooping through my area. If you’re more of a warm weather person, but you’re also a reader, then you might want to try making a list of winter reads. Hey, we have beach reads, don’t we? Might as well make a list of books you can read when you don’t want to be outside.

Over at Flavorwire, they have compiled a list of 26 Winter Reads that you might want to check out. On this list are books such as The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, a book that has been on my shelf for years and has been sadly neglected. There is also Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, which is a very entertaining collection of short stories to cozy up with. The list also contains Middlemarch by George Eliot, which is another book I’ve been meaning to get to. For some reason, the absolute massiveness of this book connotes a winter read. And, of course, modern classics such as Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

In addition to the books shown on this list, I would like to suggest some of my own. If you’re into fantasy and want to relive a book you might have read as a child, I would suggest The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones. I loved Diana Wynne Jones’ books as a child, but I never got around to this particular story. I read it last year just as it was beginning to get cold and it reminded me of being a child on winter break. I find that Jane Austen is always good to read during the winter months, if only because her works make you grateful that you don’t live in some drafty, old estate in the English countryside. And, of course, if you’re stuck inside then it would be an opportune time to re-read the Harry Potter series. I’m always looking for an excused to re-read the Harry Potter series.

What are you reading this winter? Do you have any books that you read every year when it gets cold outside? What is your list of books to be read now that 2014 has begun? Share in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Thursday Three: Smell the Roses


What’s that cliché? Stop and smell the roses?

Earlier this week while brushing the snow off my car, a neighbor of mine, who is in his upper eighties, approached me and asked why I was in such a rush. Surprised, I didn’t really have an answer for him. I mean, isn’t everyone? Between school and work, it hardly seems there’s enough time to get anything done (and as a college student, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean). My neighbor, though, didn’t quite agree.

After some small talk, he surprised me again by saying, “What I’ve learned in life is that the more smiles you give, the more years you live,” and this resonated with me for two reasons: 1) this was coming from a man who rarely ever says more than “good morning” or “have a nice day,” and 2) I was so concerned with my day’s responsibilities that I hadn’t even stopped to smile at a man I’ve known for eleven years. And then the realization hit – we really do spend too much time worrying and not nearly enough time appreciating all the things that bring us joy. I mean, what’s that cliché? Stop and smell the roses?

With all that being said, I want to challenge everyone this week to really consider how much time you spend working and how little time you spend doing what you love – reading and writing for your own leisure. So I’ve come up with a list of a few fun, creative things to do that will hopefully appeal to you, and I encourage you to try at least one of them.

  1. Trade in your Moleskine notebook for a Smash Journal – Smash Journals are quite the trend lately, so if you haven’t heard of them, they’re basically a condensed, less aggravating version of a scrapbook. They still require all the messy materials, but they use up only half the amount of time and energy because you don’t have to worry about perfecting a layout. It’s just a journal that brings your ideas to life through creative vision.
  2. Reread a book that you love and annotate! – Sometimes there is nothing more relaxing than a good read, but if you’ve already read the book before, you can expect the experience to be much different, especially if you’ve annotated. I always recommend annotating because you can go back and review your marginal notes, paying attention to patterns. What surprised you? What intrigued you? Depressed you? By noticing these patterns, you’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about yourself and who you were at the time, or even how you’ve grown as an individual.
  3. Find a picture that speaks to you and write about it – Art is accessible just about anywhere, so find an image that really appeals to you and create literature out of it. You can write an ekphrastic poem, a character profile, or anything you wish. The point is just to write and free your mind.

So, there you have it! My three suggestions for you to “stop and smell the roses.” Enjoy!

— Melissa Carrington, Assistant Blog Editor

Discuss: Autumn Reading List


Maybe if we all start blogging about autumn books the weather will get cooler. What do you think?

The change of seasons is a time in which blogs and other bookish sites like to talk about books that are suited to that particular season. There are “beach reads” for the summer and cozy reads for the winter. Some people have yearly reading traditions in which they read certain books at certain times of the year. Even though I’ve been trying to read more new books rather than moving backward to re-read my favorites, I do have a few of these traditions. I don’t really have a reading tradition for autumn, but perhaps I can start one this year!

The Melville House blog recently posted about seven books that are on their autumn reading list. I think they’ve included some great books here, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (have not actually read, but it seems like a good spooky read for Halloween), Macbeth (definitely has that macabre touch for autumn), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I was sort of surprised to see a Harry Potter book on this list, but I think they chose the right one for autumn. Maybe it’s just the coloring of the US edition’s cover, but the fourth book in the series definitely gives me an autumnal vibe — despite the fact that I vividly remembering reading it for the first time in the summer.

Personally, I would add a few more books to this list. Frankenstein would be a great book to read as Halloween approaches. Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen, also has a slightly macabre and gothic feel to it. Autumn also makes me nostalgic for that back-to-school feeling, so I might like to re-read a few of my grade school and junior high favorites at this time of year.

What is on your autumn reading list? Share in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Read Voraciously


Now, I know what you’re thinking. How can a post about writing advice be talking about reading, rather than writing? It’s a fair question, and one that has a very good answer.  Reading — in great quantities and across many genres — is the most important thing that a writer can do in his or her life besides simply writing. Joss Whedon recently gave an interview where he talked about “filling the tank.” The idea behind this is that in between writing projects, you need to fill your creative tank. And that is where reading comes in. 

In a Brainpickings post that lists H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers, the very first item listed reads, “No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost.” I couldn’t agree more. If you know where to place your commas and your semi-colons, that’s all well and good. But if you know nothing about character development and good pacing for your story, then your writing will lack something fundamental to story success. I believe that you can learn the more emotional and ethereal aspects of writing through reading and studying other authors’ work.

Just as a painter goes to see other artists’ work and a carpenter will admire the make of furniture that is not his own, writers must read what’s out there on the market already. Not only for comparison with your own work, but to glean new techniques to use in your writing. Through reading you can learn what makes good dialogue, how much description is needed for your setting, and how characters should interact so that their relationships seem believable.

Of course, you must be careful not to become so invested in reading that you don’t get around to writing. just fill your tank, as Joss Whedon says, and then return to your writing desk with a clear head and full “tank” of creative resources.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: Re-Reading Books


When I was younger, I was very big on re-reading books. These days, my to-be-read pile is so large that it’s simply not practical to be re-reading books I’ve already read. But I still think there’s merit in re-reading and there are other ways to go about it than just sitting down with the book from your shelf that’s loved and dog-eared.

Back in the day, I had more free time to kill, so I was able to spend afternoons just paging through stories I had already experienced so I could experience them again. Most of this penchant for re-reading stemmed from Harry Potter. When you’re waiting for the next book in a series like that to come out, you need to feed your need somehow. I spent hours upon hours in the world of Harry Potter and have re-read those books more times than I can possibly count. On each re-reading, I seemed to experience something new. But the thing that never changed was the comfort and the sense of coming home that I got (and still get) from those books.

Earlier this year I began listening to some old episodes of a Harry Potter podcast and I got the itch. I wanted to re-read the books. With the aforementioned to-be-read pile of books glaring at me, I knew I had to find another way than actually reading the books with my own eyes. Luckily, the Harry Potter audiobooks are amazing. I had never had the patience for the audiobooks when I was younger, preferring instead to fly through the books at my own pace. But now I can listen to Harry Potter in the car and even at work and it’s been great. I’m on Goblet of Fire right now and I’m really enjoying this re-read that is actually  a re-listen.

How do you feel about re-reads? Do you think it’s worthwhile to re-read a book you’ve already been through? What are some of your favorite books to re-read? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan