Read this Book!

our souls at night kent haruf
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is incredible. It’s low-key, but the operational definition of a page-turner. It opens with Addie Moore calling Louis Waters and inviting him to sleep with her. The twist is that they are seventy-something widow(er)s, and there’s no explicit sex. They defy the town gossips and family opposition. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said, “A fine and poignant novel that demonstrates that our desire to love and be loved does not dissolve with age.”


Kent Haruf is a best selling novelist. But this is the first book of his I have read. I literally couldn’t put it down. Haruf has a spare style—like Hemingway, without the macho. It’s a fast read, but you might want to linger. It’s truly gripping.

Writing Love

The best written love must overcome obstacles.

writing love romeo and juliet
Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee (1884) [Public domain]
Yes, parental objections, physical distance, poverty, etc., are great ploys. But CONSIDER THE POTENTIAL OF MISCOMMUNICATION.

writing love pride and prejudice cover
Cover of Pride and Prejudice from 1894 [Source: Pinterest]
Jane Austin nailed misunderstanding. You can, too. Want a handy guide? Check out The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

writing love five love languages gary chapman

This book explores five ways people express love.

#1 Words of Affirmation
#2 Quality Time
#3 Receiving Gifts
#4 Acts of Service
#5 Physical Touch

According to the author, each person has a predominant mode of expression.

FOR PLOT PURPOSES, you need only have two people with different preferences for expressions of love to go unrecognized.

This book is a NYT #1 Bestseller. The writing is accessible, the examples informative. I recommend it!

And as so often happens, there are now niche sequels.

writing love five love languages gary chapman

GO FOR SOME LOVE! After all, Valentine’s Day is coming soon.

A Different Read

 These are the appointments that will affect virtually all aspects of our lives in the near future. I’m urging you to do your research. Read about each of them, trying to find the strongest facts in support of and against the nominees.


Then, contact your senators. Your representatives can’t represent you if you don’t share your opinions. Tell them what you want them to do and why. (This last is optional.)


In Virginia, that would be Tim Kaine (phone # 540-682-5693) and Mark Warner (phone # 804-775-2314). I was told that the most effective contact is a phone call to the person’s local office. You will get through immediately and be treated politely.


If you don’t live in Virginia, comparable info for your senators is available online. Ditto for members of Congress. Alternatively, you could call the congressional switchboard at 202-225-3121, and they will transfer you to the appropriate office. Unfortunately, when I tried to do this, the switchboard was swamped and I didn’t get through.


american flag
We are citizens even before we’re writers. Be informed. Be involved.

Writing Mass Behavior

writing mass behavior
A large protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016, the day after election day. [Creative Commons]
Today is the Trump inauguration. Tomorrow is the Women’s March on Washington. And every time you turn around, there is a football game or a rally of some sort. How can a writer make use of such events?


writing mass behavior
Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at Muscatine Iowa on January 24, 2016 [Creative Commons]
 1) As the background or setting for plot action. Two or more characters can come into conflict. They can initiate, confirm, or advance plans for future action, be it benign or malignant. They can use the crowd as camouflage for a murder, kidnapping, or elopement. You get the idea.


writing mass behavior football crowd
2) As a means of revealing character. Just being there makes a statement—about attitudes, beliefs, or interests, depending on what the gathering is about. Then, too, it’s an opportunity to reveal how the character feels about being part of this. Why is s/he there? Is it voluntary? Obligatory? Part of the job? Is the character interested? Resentful? Inspired? Surprised? Bored?
writing mass behavior
3) As an opportunity for deviance. In the sorts of situations under discussion here, most people behave in similar, uniform ways. Psychologists call this behavior matching. Think of the wave at football games, listening politely to a public address, spectators cheering marathon runners. But what happens when someone behaves in the opposite way? Would your character do that? Why or why not?


writing mass behavior riot
Soldiers of Ukraine’s Internal Troops in riot gear and protesters clash at Bankova str, Kiev, Ukraine. December 1, 2013. [Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, Creative Commons]
4) As an opportunity for strong emotions. People tend toward emotion matching. On average, people experience things as funnier, scarier, sadder, etc., depending on the apparent reactions of those around them. Also, people are more likely to “let themselves go”—in ways usually forbidden, anything from sexuality to looting—if people around them are doing the same. Psychologists call this disinhibition.


So, at least four good reasons to view this weekend’s mass events with a writer’s eye. Can you think of others?

Knowing What’s Out There

new york review cover
IMHO, The New York Review of Books is the single best source on what’s out there. It is published biweekly and does more than what the title says. The publication describes itself as a “journal of intellectual currents.” It contains articles on literature, culture, economics, science and current affairs. The book reviews span the publishing world (see the cover shot above) and each article is an education in itself. And, BTW, the writing is excellent.


Often two related books are covered in a given article. But you get more than a simple review. The authors put the books in context.


Susan Halpern New York Review of Books
Sue Halpern’s article, listed on the cover as “There Is Now Another You” and inside as “They Have, Right Now, Another You,” is a delightful example. Yes, she does review Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Cathy O’Neil) and Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy (Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice E. Stuckey). But she also discusses the 98 data points Facebook collects on each of its nearly 2 billion users. “Among this ninety-eight are ethnicity, income, net worth, home value, if you are a mom, if you are a soccer mom, if you are married, the number of lines of credit you have, if you are interested in Ramadan, when you bought your car, and on and on and on.”


Using herself as an case in point, she describes the erroneous—and laughable—profiles that can be generated. (You really should read this article!)


In addition, I learned some interesting—and sometimes disturbing—bits of info. For example, FB follows users across the Internet, disregarding their “do not track” settings. It knows every time a user visits a website that has a FB page. There are some 5,000 data brokers worldwide who comb public records and sell the info to public and private buyers. I concluded that FB isn’t really free to users; we are paying for it by getting the ads targeting our profile. “These ad references are the coin of the Facebook realm; the company made $2.3 billion in the third quarter of 2016 alone…”


To paraphrase TV pitches, “But wait! There’s more!” NYRB contains ads from big name publishers, university presses, and indie publishers, the book pix usually accompanied by blurbs to entice you to the bookstore—or to put your name on the waiting list at the local library!


Readers of NYRB get a glimpse of what’s showing in museums, galleries, and theaters from San Francisco to Chicago, from DC to New York. Some people actually visit those places specifically to see such shows and exhibits. Maybe someday I’ll be one of them. Oh, sigh.


Virginia ad New York Review of Books
BOTTOM LINE: the NYRB provides info on What’s Out There, and sometimes it’s even local.

Worth Repeating: Writing Tips

Below are a few writing tips I’ve written about before that are definitely still applicable today. What writing tips have you received that have helped you the most?

Watch out for dialogue

writing tips

Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know just because the reader doesn’t know those things. For example, if two sisters are talking, it’s highly unlikely that one would say, “When Mom and Dad adopted our brother John, I was devastated.” Find another way to convey relevant relationships or bits of backstory to the reader.

Another no-no is to have an exchange between two people weighed down by repeatedly calling each other by name. “Hello, John.” “Hi, Sharon.” “How are you doing, John?” “Oh, Sharon, I am so low I have to reach up to touch bottom.”

A third negative is putting in greetings and leave-takings that are pro-forma, tell us nothing about the characters, or don’t move the story forward. Just because they would happen in real life doesn’t mean that every amenity has to be spelled out to the point of diluting the scene.

Match tone and structure

writing tips

The basic rule is that short, simple sentences–even sentence fragments–convey more energy than longer, more complex sentences. They are less likely to be beautiful in the poetic sense, but they carry more punch.

Take an emotion such as anger. If it is a long-held, smoldering anger, longer sentences with modifiers and clauses might be appropriate in a narrative passage. But if it is an anger outburst or a heated argument, you are more likely to want short sentences.

If you use lots of ands, buts, whens, and thens, consider if wordiness is sapping energy from your writing. Consider breaking one long sentence into two or more shorter ones.

Beware long descriptions

writing tips

Whether describing a person, a place, a thing, or a process, long detailed descriptions–unrelieved by action–are likely to be deadly. If very well done, readers will get so involved in the description, in visualizing exactly what the author had in mind, that they are taken out of the story itself. If not well done, those passages are likely to be skipped altogether. Elmore Leonard advises leaving out the parts that readers skip anyway. Replace length with strong, vivid, memorable language.

In describing people, go for details that will help define the character for the reader. For example, describing an employee saying, “Her dress was black and blue and ruffled, better suited to a ballroom than a boardroom,” would not create the same image in the mind’s eye of every reader but it’s likely to convey the same impression–which is generally much more important.

And consider not describing transportation at all. If you need to get your character from New York to Philadelphia, put her in a car, a plane, or a train, get her out again, and let it go–unless something important to the story happens in transit. Even then, skip as much of the before and after as possible.

Finally, leave out the parts of routine actions that the reader can assume. For example, if a man is going out and locks the door behind him, we know without being told that he had already opened the door and closed it again.

Books from a Snowbound Weekend

books snowbound weekend

Truth: Marathon euchre and cribbage got us only so far. It’s only natural that talk turned to books. So here’s a list of books the four of us recommended to each other.

behind beautiful forevers katherine boo
[Source: Goodreads]
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo is beautifully written nonfiction. It’s about striving and hope in a Mumbai under-city, and won both a National Book Award and the LA Times Book Prize.

Another excellent nonfiction read is Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. It’s a gripping story.

The novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is moving, funny and good writing.

our souls night
[Source: Goodreads]
Two people praised the novel Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf as excellently written. It’s the story of a seventy-year-old widow and widower who become soulmates, written as Haruf was dying.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen was described as a “weird” but excellent novel about two young people with strange mothers, searching for their real fathers, one in San Francisco and one in East Berlin.

iron hearted violet kelly barnhill
[Source: Goodreads]
Iron-hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill is YA fantasy, about a princess who is very smart, not pretty, living in a land of dragons and magic castles.

When we got to mysteries, there were too many to list, so we just went with authors: pretty much anything by Tara French or Donna Leon for books set abroad, Greg Isles, Kathy Reichs, Lee Childs, Jeffrey Dever, Janet Evanovich, Nevada Barr, or Dennis Lebane.

Good reading even when you aren’t snowbound!

books snowbound weekend

The 13th Constellation: Am I the Last to Know?

thirteenth constellation

NASA has officially recognized a thirteenth constellation, Ophiuchus (pronounced either Oh-FEW-cuss or Off-ee-YOO-cuss, depending on who you read).

We’re all familiar with the 12 constellations associated with the signs of the zodiac for the last 3,000 years. It seems Ophiuchus was always there, but the Babylonians left it out because they needed only twelve.

thirteenth constellation ophiuchus

In the 1970s Stephen Schmitt proposed 13 zodiac signs but it was so controversial that it never caught on.

NASA points out that constellations are matters of astronomy and there are 13 of them. The signs of the zodiac are matters of astrology, and thus somewhat arbitrary.

thirteenth constellation serpentarius

The 12 signs of the zodiac divide the sun’s ecliptic so that each spans 30 degrees of celestial longitude. Constellations are unequal in size and depend on the positions of stars. Constellations and signs of the zodiac don’t generally coincide. For example, the constellation of Aquarius corresponds to the sign of Pisces.

thirteenth constellation horoscope sign chart

So, if you add Ophiuchus and adjust the dates for the other 12 constellations to align with their greatest visibility in the night sky, you get the following:

Ophiuchus: Nov. 29-Dec. 17
Sagittarius: Dec. 17-Jan. 20
Capricorn: Jan. 20-Feb. 16
Aquarius: Feb. 16-Mar. 11
Pisces: Mar. 11-Apr. 18
Aries: Apt. 18-May 13
Taurus: May 13-June 21
Gemini: June 21-July 20
Cancer: July 20-Aug. 10
Leo: Aug. 10-Sept. 16
Virgo: Sept. 16-Oct. 30
Libra: Oct. 30-Nov. 23
Scorpio: Nov. 23-Nov. 29

thirteenth constellation serpentarius

The characteristics of the original 12 signs remain the same. Ophiuchus is from the Greek, meaning “serpent-bearer.” It is associated with healers and physicians.

TRAITS OF OPHIUCHUS are all over the map. POSITIVE: happy, humorous, honest, truthful, intellectual, clever, free-spirited, instinctive, charismatic, creative, driven. IN ADDITION: competitive, secretive, emotional, adaptable, flamboyant dressers, and well-loved by authorities. SO WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE? How about being polygamous, irresponsible, jealous, judgmental, restless, temperamental, and prone to procrastination?

TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS: Consider making your character an Ophiuchus! You can learn much more about this fascinating sign online.

thirteenth constellation ophiuchus

2017 Reader Challenge

books rock tote bag

People are creatures of habit. Your challenge for the year ahead is to break out of your reading rut. How many of these categories can you sample this year? Choose at least a dozen!

dancing naked fuzzy red slippers

HUMOR: It’s a scientific fact that you can’t get ulcers while laughing. So choose humor for the good of your health.

 PRIZE-WINNERS: Pulitzer, American Book Award, Booker Prize, Hugo Award (sci-fi), Caldecott (children’s books), National Book Critics Circle Award, or any other you choose. You can’t go wrong!

indie next bestsellers

BESTSELLER: See what’s popular– for example, any NYT Bestseller category.

new bibles

READ FROM THE BIBLE: Any one or more books, any of the 450 translations into English. An all-time international bestseller. If you are into brevity here, choose the Book of Ruth.

uncle tom's cabin
[Source: Amazon]
henry fielding tom jones
[Source: Goodreads]
PUBLISHED MORE THAN 100 YEARS AGO: There are hundreds of classics that fit this category. But consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the most popular book (after the Bible) in 19th century America.

born run bruce springsteen

PUBLISHED IN 2016: For suggestions, see my blog post from December 27.

homegoing yaa gyasi
[Source: NPR]
HISTORICAL FICTION: Any fiction set before 1950.

ROMANCE: Can be mixed genre, as long as romance is a central theme.

battle wondla tony diterlizzi

YOUNG ADULT: Any genre. Explore what young people–and many adults–are reading. Think Harry Potter, or the recent vampire series.

new biography books

BIOGRAPHY AND MEMOIR: This can be current or historical, just find a life worth reading.

ABANDONED BOOK: Any book you started but didn’t finish. Why did you put it aside? Is it better the second time around?

gabriel garcia marquez

MAGICAL REALISM: Márquez inspired many writers–and readers–to explore this genre. If you aren’t a fan already, you might become one!

NEGLECTED BOOK: Any book you’ve had hanging around for awhile, intending to read eventually. What’s been stopping you?

la cuentista

A BOOK IN TRANSLATION: Any book that has been translated from another language. Think Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Marquez, or something more modern, like Ha Jin.

 HORROR: Just look for the shelf label in your local bookstore or library. Think early Steven King.

ACTION/ADVENTURE: Think Indiana Jones or James Bond.

wings fire stone fox

CHILDREN’S BOOKS: Can be another quick read, while standing in the aisle, even!

POETRY: Can be all one poet or a collection. Maybe try Shel Silverstein?

my venice donna leon
[Source: Amazon]
 NOT YOUR ETHNIC BACKGROUND: Easier than you might think. Most books in translation or set abroad would qualify, as well as subgroups within the U.S.

SCIENCE: It can be as technical or as popular, as focused or as general, as you like. Mary Roach is my favorite popular science writer.

HISTORY: Social, military, political, whatever, as long as it is nonfiction. I like Dean King.

gone with the wind margaret mitchell
[Source: Goodreads]
 BOOKS THAT SPAWNED MOVIES: I blogged about this for Christmas on December 20. But there are tons from which to choose. Try for a book for which you have seen the movie.

best american short stories john updike katrina kenison

SHORT STORY COLLECTION: It could be varied or within a genre; for example, the Virginia Is For Mysteries series.

MYSTERY: Classic or modern, cozy or police procedural, foreign or domestic. They’re everywhere!

naomi novik uprooted

FANTASY: It can be anything from an older book, like Alice in Wonderland, to a book that has just come out. It exercises you in willing suspension of disbelief.

So, in 2017 READ, READ, READ! Get thee to the bookshelves.

new fiction nonfiction paperback