Monthly Archives: December 2013

Reflections and Resolutions

Sparkler.

Photo by Flickr user Amodiovalerio Verde

New Year’s is often a time for reflection, so I’m going to take this post to look back at my writing goals from the last year and set some new ones for 2014. 2013 has been a great year for me in both my professions, but my writing has really taken off.

Around this time last year, I hadn’t committed to a serious writing project that wasn’t a class assignment in about three years. Aside from the occasional journal entry or reflective piece, I virtually stopped writing creatively in late 2009. A lot of things in my personal life contributed to this, but even after I’d worked through those I felt like my writing was going nowhere. I still called myself a writer — I wrote plenty of publicity blurbs for the library that counted as creative writing, and since I was about twelve I’ve never not thought of myself as a writer — but I was a writer without a story.

I’d heard or read from hundreds of writers who stressed the importance of writing every day, and I knew I’d done my best writing during a stretch of a few months when I’d committed to writing two hours a day, so I resolved to write something every day in 2013. I set the bar pretty low. I didn’t give myself any word count or time requirements. Since I come across a lot of unique people working as a public librarian, I resolved to come up with 365 characters in 2013. They could be real, based on real people, or entirely fictional. They didn’t even have to be human. But I wanted to end the year with 365 somethings, even if they were terrible.

By March, 365 characters had turned into finish the book I started writing by the end of the year. I’d bumped into another writer, who encouraged me to attend the Midwest Writers’ Workshop in July. There, I met even more writers in the area and found some great critique partners (who also happen to be awesome friends!).

Now, I’m at different stages of editing the two novels I wrote this year, and I have a wonderful network of YA writers to tap into when I’m looking for inspiration or just commiseration. So for 2014 I’m setting the bar a little higher with two writing goals.

1. I want to finish editing both of the novels that I’m working on right now.

2. I want to have an agent offer to represent me. Ideally I’d like to sign with an agent, but I know better than to sign just because of the excitement of having an agent.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress throughout the year. What about you? Do you have any writing goals for 2014?

Stories from the Stacks

Book stacks.

Photo by Flickr user Shannon Hauser

I don’t know if it’s the holiday season, the full moon (as some of my co-workers like to joke), the weather, or some combination of the three, but things have been exceptionally weird at the library this week. Since I don’t have anything profound to share this week, I thought I’d give you a sample of some of the stranger things we public librarians see on the front lines. Hope you get some holiday laughs from them! [Note: some details have been altered to prevent anyone from being personally identified.]

Monday: A regular patron asked what soundtracks we had. I tried to determine what he was looking for, asking if there was a certain movie or TV show or even genre he was interested in, but he kept saying that he just wanted to know what soundtracks we had. When I showed him that section of our CD collection, he complained that there were too many to look through. But when asked, he couldn’t name a single soundtrack he was looking for. He has come to the Information Services desk at least three times this week now, and has asked at least two of us this same question.

Tuesday: A man handed me his library card and asked me to put some large print Nicholas Sparks books on hold for him. He gave me a list of titles and asked if we had any of them in, then told me he would be back in a few minutes while I proceeded to look them up. Thirty minutes later, I was still sitting there with his library card, and knew that we had two of the three books checked in. Eventually he returned, but not until after I’d contemplated bringing his card up to lost and found.

Wednesday: Actually this one has happened several times, and every time I find it strange. A woman called to let us know that she would be in to pay her fines later that day. My response was something along the lines of, “Thank you. Did you have any questions about those fines?”

“No, I just wanted to let you know. It’s [names amount of money], right?”

“That’s right.” Long pause. “So was there anything I could help you with?”

Another long pause. Inevitably there is a line of people waiting at the desk at this point. Finally, “That’s all. I’ll be in later today to pay those fines.”

“Okay. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

Why do people feel the need to tell us they’re going to come pay us?

Thursday: This is another frequent occurrence. The phone rang, and I answered with the standard greeting, stating the library name, my department, and my name. A woman asked me for the phone number of a local business (who knew I’d signed on to be a phone book when I decided to work in a public library?), and while I was looking it up, she said, “Hold on.” Not, “Hold on while I find a pen,” but “Hold on while I proceed to have a long conversation with someone else in the room.” I’ve even been told, “I’m going to put you on hold for a minute,” and most of the time it’s not to check call waiting. I always want to say, “Um, you called me…” but that might be seen as impolite.

Friday: (This actually happened to a co-worker.) A woman came up to the desk asking about a book and exclaimed, “You have gorgeous eyes!” She followed this with an admonishment that my co-worker was not wearing a color that brought out her eyes, and proceeded to give her detailed instructions as to what she should wear, touting her credentials as a fashion consultant. As though a single encounter with a stranger gives someone a comprehensive look at her entire wardrobe, personality, and tastes. But at least she’s on the waiting list for that book now…

Saturday: A woman called wanting the entire history of our town, as well as several unrelated or loosely-related topics such as locations of nearby air force bases, the most popular majors at the local university, where the nearest organ network transfer was located, information about the Moravians and the Church of God… It felt like the verbal equivalent of someone reading an article and clicking on every link in that article. Except that I was reading every single article to her over the phone. And providing her with contact information for hospitals, churches, air force bases, and the historical society. For about forty minutes. And at the end of it all, I still had no idea what she’d actually called about — I felt like I’d just finished a search engine triathlon when a sprint might have sufficed if the woman hadn’t been distracted by all those tangents.

And there you have it! A week in wacky stories (I’m taking Sunday off). In case you’re wondering, no, I don’t work six days a week; I just thought I’d share six stories. All of these did happen this week, though like I said, some details have been changed to maintain anonymity.

Do any of you have fun stories from the stacks?

Happy holidays!

Holidays at the library

Snowflake.

Photo by Flickr user ChaoticMind75

This is the second holiday season I’ve been at my current place of employment, and the second year in a row that I’ve returned from Thanksgiving to find lights, stockings, trees, and reindeer throughout the library. It reminds me a bit of that first snowfall as a kid — go to bed with things one way, and wake up with the world magically changed the next day. The decorations are beautiful, and staff from every department put a lot of time and thought into them.

But as nice as they are, they’re Christmas decorations. And I work at a public library, which I feel should be welcoming to people of all backgrounds, so I was a little unsettled that no other winter holidays were represented. Maybe this is because I was raised Jewish, with a mother who joined other parents to battle the school district to give students off on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (they never did, and inevitably some teacher always scheduled a test on at least one of the holidays), and in a town where all the public buildings featured trees, menorahs, and kinaras throughout December.

I am 100% certain that the homogeneity of the decorations was unintentional. As far as I know, I’m the only non-Christian employed there, and the overwhelming majority of the community is Christian. It just didn’t cross anyone’s mind to put up any other decorations. And as soon as I said something to my manager, she said I was welcome to add symbols of other winter holidays if I wanted.

But I wasn’t unsettled by the decorations as a Jew who felt that my beliefs weren’t represented (perhaps I should have been; but that’s a topic for another blog); I was unsettled as a citizen who felt that a public institution was representing only one set of beliefs.

Again, I’m sure this is unintentional. But I’ve always viewed knowledge and awareness as the best weapons against intolerance, and I think the library is a great place to demonstrate this. I’m not suggesting that we shove culture down anyone’s throats, and, lest you think I’m a scrooge, I’m not advocating that we tear down all the trees or eliminate the phrase “Merry Christmas” from staff vocabulary. But if we can incorporate other cultures into our decorations and displays, perhaps we could at least spark a conversation.

So I’m glad that my manager was open to the changes I suggested, and that next year’s display will be more multi-cultural.

What do you all think? Am I overreacting? What has your experience with decorations in libraries been?

Becoming a book snob

Boy reading. Since writing and librarianship take up a good chunk of my time, and since reading is an integral part of improving my skills in both fields, I have become much choosier with what I read. In the past six months, I haven’t read a single novel that either a.) did not get a starred review in Library Journal or Publisher’s Weekly ; b.) did not win an award or recognition, such as the Printz Prize, the National Book Award, or a spot on one of YALSA’s (the Young Adult Library Services Association) recommended lists; c.) was not recommended to me by a trusted friend or colleague; or d.) some combination of the above. Consequently, I haven’t read a book that I didn’t like in a long time.

I’ve also been exposed to a lot of excellent writing. I try to learn at least one thing from every book I read that I can apply to my own writing, whether that’s pacing, plotting, or character development. But as awesome as this is, it comes with a down side: I’m becoming a book snob.

I’m not worried that I’ll run out of good books to read. My to-read list is just as long and robust as ever (and perhaps even longer than it was before I started working full-time as a librarian). But I am worried that my expectations may be getting too high — that in my quest for great books, I’m missing out on a lot of good ones. The other day I picked up the last book in a series I’d been waiting for over a year to read. I loved the first two books, and proudly recommend the series to everyone interested in that genre. And so far, I think the book is good, even great; but it’s not the amazing novel that I expected.

I’m sure that time has made me build up just how good the first two books really were in my head. When I went back and re-read the first pages of that first book, I still thought they were good. But they weren’t as good as I remembered.

Which leads me to wonder: am I ruining my palette for reading material? Am I becoming the literary equivalent of the gourmet connoisseur who can no longer tolerate store-brand foods? And if so, is that a bad thing? As I said, I’m not worried about running out of great reading material. But I also don’t want to be that person at the party who refuses to read the latest commercial fiction novel simply because the writing isn’t good enough.

In Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Isola declares that “reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones.” Do you think this is true? And if so, do you think it’s a bad thing? How have you battled your own bouts of book snobbery?

Reading like a writer

Memoirs of a Geisha. Lately, I’ve found myself analyzing books differently. I’ll still think about the themes and messages the author is trying to convey, but i also spend a lot of time studying the plot, pacing, and characterization. For instance, I recently read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha for the book club I run at the library. (Spoiler alert: I’ll try to keep my synopsis vague, but if you haven’t read the book, this may ruin some surprises.)

First, I found myself breaking the story into “acts.” The first act begins when the main character is noticed by a local entrepreneur and sold to be trained as a geisha, and ends when she tries to run away, thus suspending her training because her “mother” does not want to waste any more money on a flight risk. The second act opens with her getting noticed by the Chairman and deciding that she wants to be a geisha, and includes her training with a rival of her house as her “older sister.” Finally, the third act follows her life as a successful geisha and her struggles to become the Chariman’s mistress.

After looking at each of these acts, I broke down the major plot points of each one, examining how each smaller climax builds towards the final turning point when the protagonist cuts ties with a close friend in order to save her relationship with the Chairman. Then I looked at the various character arcs, the ways in which Golden makes characters’ motivations clear and believable, and the ways that he crafts their relationships with one another. The pressures and strains on the protagonist’s relationship with Pumpkin, and the consequences of their competition, is similar to the relationship between two of the characters in my own work in progress. So, even though my young adult fantasy novel bears little surface resemblance to Golden’s historical fiction, I feel I can still learn something from his writing.

Have you read any books from a writer’s perspective lately? What insights have you had?