Stories Can Heal

Classic LesOne of my favorite memories from my grandpa’s funeral is sitting around his kitchen with my cousins telling stories and jokes. That little kitchen filled up with people and laughter again, which my grandpa would have enjoyed. My grandpa was old and it was his time to go, but that act of storytelling helped to heal the wound of losing him.

I finished reading Tell Me a Story by Scott McClellan this week. It’s good stuff (you can read my review for more). Something Scott talks about in the book that I resonate with is the idea that telling stories can be healing.

I’m not a particularly good storyteller—that’s probably why I’m a writer. I like to edit and rework and figure out how best to tell a story. I work better in the written word than the spoken word. But I think part of what draws me to the word is telling stories. It’s self-indulgent, but one of the things I like to write is simply telling stories about my life. In some ways, I think that’s because there’s healing happening there. The telling of stories allows me to process, to figure things out, to think things through and find meaning or comfort or grace.

That’s probably why, in my moments of greatest distress, I turn to writing. I tell the story. Some of those stories aren’t meant to be told to anyone but myself, but still I tell them.

In adoption, I think this is why it’s important that we tell the stories. It’s easy to gloss over what could be uncomfortable details and avoid those stories. But by telling those adoption stories, we give voice to them, we shine a light on any “messy” details and we find a way to embrace them. A story gives us the narrative to do that. It gives us a voice and something to cling to when we’re confused or fearful.

That’s powerful. Continue reading Stories Can Heal

Connecting a Country: Don’t Slam the Post Office

Raymond Post OfficeThe United States Postal Service has been an easy target of late. Last year they announced a $15.9 billion loss. This year they announced the coming end of Saturday service. The jokes never seem to end as people bemoan every bad experience they’ve ever had. Everyone thinks they can run it better. Everyone thinks it needs to privatize. Or get with the times. We send email for goodness sake.

It’s kind of annoying. I like the post office. Which is why this Esquire article is worth reading.

Nobody seems to understand that this isn’t entirely the fault of the United States Postal Service. The last time the USPS was in the black? 2006. Not so coincidentally, that’s when Congress forced the USPS to pay off 75 years worth of future retiree’s benefits in the next 10 years, something no other government agency has to do and something most private companies would spread out over 40 years or more. The result? 70% of the USPS’s loss last year—$11.1 billion—came from these future health care payments.

A $4.8 billion loss is still something, but it’s a lot more manageable out of a total budget of $81 billion. It’s not quite as dire.

The reality is that for all the complaints about the United States Postal Service, we forget what it really offers.

It connects everyone in the United States like nothing else. You can deliver a letter from one end of the country to the other for the same price as sending it across town. You can literally reach anyone in the country. The Postal Service is required to get the mail to people, even in rural areas, where Fed Ex and UPS rely on the Postal Service to go that last mile. Continue reading Connecting a Country: Don’t Slam the Post Office

Talking About Books: Annotated Bookshelf

In case you can’t tell, I like talking about books. That’s what happens when you write an entire book about how to read more books.

I’ve been writing about some of my favorite books lately, but sometimes it’s more fun to stand in front of your bookshelf and do it. So here’s a shot of one of the bookshelves in our house. Click over to Flicker and mouse over the image to see a whole bunch of ridiculously annotated notes about the books (and other things). It’s kind of fun (and, yes, kind of weird).

Though not as weird as sorting your books by color.

My Book Shelf (G-Z)

Bonus: I wrote a guest post on Ally Vesterfelt’s blog about doing what you love, inspired by that whole reading a bunch of books in one year thing.

Using Scrivener to Write & Publish Books

When I wrote 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading I tried a new writing software. I used to stick with Microsoft Word for everything. But I’ve been increasingly annoyed with it lately and I’ve experimented with some other options. I eventually landed on Scrivener and I’m not going back.

Scrivener is designed for writing book-length projects, whether it’s a novel, script, nonfiction or something else. It allows you to rearrange chunks of text as you go. You can switch to a corkboard view with each chunk of text on an index card with a title and summary. Then just move the cards around if you want. It makes organizing the structure of your book a whole lot easier.

You can also tag and index things like crazy, so for a novel you could note which chunks of text which characters appear in and easily find all those places.

You can also keep everything related to your project in one spot, whether it’s notes, research or drafts. When I’ve done books in Microsoft Word before I’ve always had a growing pile of supporting documents—an outline, a timeline, a list of characters, a list of things I need to tweak, etc. With Scrivener you can keep it all in the same spot. You can tag things and quickly view only what you need to.

If you’ve ever had to write a project of any length you’re probably starting to see the possibilities. And I’m just scratching the surface of Scrivener’s features.

But perhaps the best part of Scrivener is when you’re done writing. It allows you to export your work to whatever format you need in a process known as compiling. This is where it rocks. You can export to vastly different formats with completely different layouts and looks, all using the same source material.

So with 137 Books in One Year I spit out a CreateSpace-ready PDF for my 5×8 print version of the book, as well as a Kindle-ready ebook file that I could upload directly to Amazon. That would require two separate files in Microsoft Word, which would mean making any further changes in two places. Lame. Nevermind that setting up those kind of files in Word will make you want to punch someone. It’s not completely perfect in Scrivener and I’m still learning, but it’s light years better.

I originally heard about Scrivener from this post on how to create a book from idea to Kindle in 29 days, but since then I’ve seen other writers talking about it, including Jeff Goins and Michael Hyatt.

Lessons from a Reader: Make ’em Expendable

I love gripping stories. I love reading a book I can’t put down, where I have to know what happens. A good tense story is often better than most movies. That’s something I talk about in 137 Books in One Year—the value of knowing what you love and pursing it as a reader.

So as a writer, one of the things that heightens the tension in a story and makes it so gripping is when you’re willing to make characters expendable.

Yes, killing off characters makes for better stories.

As you can imagine, this post is going to be full of spoilers. So get used to it.

I experience this recently in the zombie thriller Feed by Mira Grant. She created a post-zombie uprising world that hasn’t descended into the post-apocalyptic. Instead, people find ways to live with zombies, which mostly involves fear, lots of blood tests and guns. More than a story about zombies, Feed is the story of a trio of bloggers following a presidential campaign and uncovering a massive conspiracy.

Sidebar: In the post-zombie world bloggers come in a few stripes: Newsies who are your typical factual reporters, Fictionals who create fictional stories, and Irwins who pursue first-hand encounters with zombies. The Steve-O award is bestowed on deserving Irwins. Took me three-fourths of the way through Feed before I realized what Irwins was referring to. Get it? Brilliant.

Feed Spoilers
As the tension rises in Feed, people start dying. That’s pretty typical for a zombie story. But when one of the three primary bloggers in the story is killed, you know the stakes are high. At this point in the story, killing Buffy was pretty intense. It shook up the world for our two remaining bloggers, siblings Georgia and Shaun. But we still had those two. The story really gets intense when one of them dies. Killing two of your three main characters? Whoa. That puts the tension through the roof.

What’s perhaps more interesting is that writer Mira Grant chose to kill of Georgia, who had served as the story’s narrator. Not only did she kill off a main character with 75-some pages to go, but she killed off the freakin’ narrator.

That might seem like taking things too far. In Feed, it worked. Grant also turned the story into a trilogy that continues without two of her three main characters, or the primary narrator for the first book. That’s bold. I’ll let you know if it works.

Other Spoiler-Filled Examples
This strategy of killing off characters is put to work beautifully by Joss Whedon. In his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series he employed it to a minor degree [BUFFY SPOILER ALERT] by readily killing off supporting characters (Jenny Calendar, Joyce Summers, Tara, Anya) or moving characters off the show (Angel, Cordelia, Oz, Riley, Giles). While he never completely kills one of his three primary characters, Buffy does die twice, Willow becomes evil and Xander loses an eye.

Whedon takes it up a notch in Serenity, the theatrical finale to his canceled Firefly TV series [here come the SERENITY/FIREFLY SPOILERS]. As the movie approaches the climax he kills off Shepherd Book, one of the nine original crew. That’s big, but Book also wasn’t on the ship at the beginning of the movie. You know the stakes are high, but the core crew of the movie still seems safe, right? Wrong. When pilot Wash is killed moments after a successful crash landing, suddenly all bets are off. As the climax reaches its crescendo and our heroes are fighting for their lives, nobody is safe. Injuries pile up, characters are shot and we have no sense that anybody is going to make it.

Serenity is possibly the best example ever of killing your characters to heighten the tension.

Unlike the original Star Trek series where the main characters were never in any real danger (the “redshirt” phenomena, lampooned brilliantly by John Scalzi), this approach makes danger real and the outcome unknown. Tension heightened.

If you want your readers to be on edge, prove how high the stakes are.

Reading on an iPhone

Reading Fat Vampire on an iPhoneI’ve never been big on digital reading, but I might be converting.

My experience with digital reading usually involves borrowing my wife’s iPad. That’s problematic because it’s hers so she gets dibs. That makes it hard to read a book whenever I have an idle moment (yes, one of the many lessons in my how to read more book). I did read the entire Hunger Games series on her iPad, but in general I don’t like having to share the device.

Then last week I noticed the book Fat Vampire by Johnny B. Truant was free for the Kindle, so I grabbed it. This was potentially problematic because I wasn’t sure how to get the book from my account on my iPhone to my wife’s account on her iPad (I don’t even know if it’s possible or not—I imagine there’s a way, but this just shows you how little I’ve experimented with digital books).

I never considered just reading it on my iPhone, but the prospect of figuring out how to transfer the book and having to share my wife’s device made me give it a try.

So I read Fat Vampire on my iPhone.

iPhone Reading Verdict?
Good book. And I loved the reading experience.

I thought the small screen would be irritating. I thought flipping pages more often would get old. I thought having so many other distractions on my iPhone would pull me away from the book. Nope, nope and nope.

The screen displayed the right amount of text and a comfortable size. Flipping pages more often was no big deal. If anything, having less text visible at a time made it faster to read because I didn’t keep losing my place when there were a lot of distractions. I also found it super convenient to have a book in my pocket. I take my phone everywhere, so I had a book everywhere (another lesson from 137 Books in One Year).

I’m curious how it would go reading a longer book. Fat Vampire was pretty short and that seemed to help. I might yearn for the printed page with a longer book. My only real complaint with digital reading is not having an immediate sense of how much of the book I have to go. There’s a progress bar that shows your percent read, but you don’t always see that. A physical book you can just feel how much you have to go. I like the reality of a printed book, especially that it’s easy to share and it retains value. But the experience itself is just as good, if not better for some things.

So I might be doing more digital reading now.

I guess iPhone reading shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to Jim Kukral, 62% of people said they’d read a book on their iPhone.

Fat Vampire?
OK, I know you’re wondering: Fat Vampire? I first heard about the book when researching how to create Kindle books and came across Truant’s post about taking only 29 days to go from idea to Kindle publication. That’s impressive, but it’s not enough to get me to read your book. What got me to read his book was the idea: If vampires never grow old and always heal, then what if a fat person is turned into a vampire? Will they always be fat? Fat Vampire turns the normal vampire story upside down by exploring this funny angle. The 29 days thing is cool, but the idea sold the book.

137 Books in One Year is Free

Today’s the day. The Kindle version of my new booklet, 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading is now free on Amazon. Grab yourself a copy and tell your friends.

Here’s the video:

Here’s the dorky little graphic you can share on Facebook:

137 Books in One Year promo graphic
Save this image and post it to Facebook to spread the word about my book. Don’t forget to send people to Amazon: Thanks!

Here’s my top 15 books of 2012 and the full list of all 137 books I read in 2013.

Don’t forget to grab the Kindle version for free.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on reading:

  • What keeps you from reading more?
  • What are some of your favorite books?
  • What’s your favorite genre?

What I’ve Read in 2013

My favorite book of 2013: The Time Traveler's WifeYeah, yeah, yeah: Last year I read 137 books. What have I done lately?

In January 2013 I managed to read 14 books. If I keep up that pace I’ll be reading 168 books this year. So whatever I learned last year and poured into my booklet 137 Books in One Year, it works.

Reading what you love is still great advice. The books I loved last month I flew through. One was 766 pages, but I read it in a few days. If you love it, the length doesn’t matter (the opposite is also true: The 550-page The Book Thief took me about a week because I didn’t love it).

Finding good books is important. A lot of my favorites this month were suggestions from Adam Shields (who I interviewed in 137 Books in One Year). I also stuck to favorite authors (Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, John Scalzi, David Levithan) and favorite genres (space-focused sci-fi, post-apocalyptic sci-fi).

Libraries are awesome. Ten of 14 books came from the library. And eight of those I requested. Learn how to use your library to get the most out of it.

Here are my favorite reads from the past month:

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – A time traveling love story sounds nerdy, but it’s head- and heart-spinning. A celebration of love against all challenges, even time. It’s likely this will be my favorite book of 2013 (yes, a bold claim to make on February 4, but I’ll bet it easily makes the top 5, if not the top spot).
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin – A post- (and pre-) apocalyptic vampire novel that’s told in incredible detail (adding up to an overwhelming 766 pages). It was thrilling and suspenseful, addicting like a Stephen King novel (though not quite as bloody). It took a little bit to get used to the intricate prose, which often gave way more detail than necessary, but it also jumped around and kept the plot moving.
  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – This one takes the premise of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, inserts old people as the soldiers and runs with it. A fun idea and thoroughly enjoyable.
  • Redshirts by John Scalzi – An entire novel based on what happens when the expendable “Redshirts” of the original Star Trek TV series figure out how expendable they are. The set up alone is worth a mention here. The follow through isn’t bad.
  • Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott – This trippy Jesus follower breaks down prayer in a way that only she could. Short, sweet and a nice kick in the pants. Plus, it avoids some of her neurosis that can get a little old.
  • Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle -Finally, I gave a re-read to one of my favorite books. Such a great exploration of faith and child-like wonder and how an artist creates and what it means to be a person of faith creating stuff (of course she’s a little more eloquent than that).

Be sure to grab your copy of 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading. (Insider tip: It’ll be free Feb. 5-7!)

Here’s the full list for January 2013:

  1. Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
  2. Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
  3. The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle
  4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  5. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
  6. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
  7. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  8. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  10. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  11. The Passage by Justin Cronin
  12. Redshirts by John Scalzi
  13. First Day on Earth by Cecil Castellucci
  14. Every You, Every Me by David Levithan

What have your read lately?