Monthly Archives: April 2016

Genre Lessons: Inspirational Fiction

Forest with light shining through.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading inspirational fiction. I’ll admit, I have very little interest in this genre, though I know a lot of the big name writers because it’s extremely popular among patrons at my library. I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed my book for this month, which was Christian fiction but didn’t feel preachy or specific to Christianity. Yes, bible verses were quoted, but they were universal quotes about struggles and overcoming difficulties. And I learned a few writing lessons along the way.

First, when crafting characters, you should know what their religious/spiritual beliefs are. The fact that your protagonist is Catholic or Buddhist or Pastafarian may never be directly stated in the narrative, but it will influence the way they see and interact with the world. And if your character isn’t religious, that’s still an important part of their identity. As an agnostic Jew living where the Church of God is based, my lack of religion is a huge part of who I am. I’m the “token Jew,” but I don’t go to temple, even on the high holidays, which leaves me feeling guilty and a little fraudulent when I explain Jewish traditions to the Christians I interact with. For me, Judaism is more of a cultural identity than a religious one. But at the same time, I was raised Jewish, so I know what religious beliefs are Jewish even if I don’t share all of those beliefs, and I feel a duty to answer questions and correct misunderstandings about Judaism. So, I’m not religious, but religion is always a part of my life. Perhaps I’m a more extreme example, but my point is religion, or lack thereof, should be a part of your characters’ identities.

That said, religion should be just one part of your characters’ identities. Even if your main character is a priest, they may also be a sibling, a painter, a sports fan, etc. Though the protagonist of my book club read was Catholic, I found common ground with her and all the main characters of this month’s book club read. The protagonist was a musician, and I understood the pressure she felt as she prepared to audition for a spot at a conservatory. And while I couldn’t directly relate to her frustrations when she struggled to hear god and feel his/her/their presence, I could relate to her fear that something she had thought would always be the same was changing. I think readers should be able to say the same thing about the conflicts in all good books — they may never have experienced the exact situation your characters are in, but they’ve been in situations that have elicited comparable emotional responses. If I can connect with a character on an emotional level, I’ll go a long way with them. Have I mentioned how much I loved Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction or Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King? Both have characters whose strong beliefs are very different from my own, but I was invested in those characters and their struggles, and I wanted them to win.

So, those were my takeaways from reading inspirational fiction. What have you learned from this genre? Any books you’d recommend?

Awesome Audio

Lately I’m becoming more and more of an audiophile. Audiobooks were my gateway, and for a while my main listening material (aside from music). Then a friend convinced me to listen to a podcast, and a few weeks later I was asking her to recommend an app so I could subscribe to the ones I like and get every new episode in one place.

I posted a few weeks ago about podcasts for writers, but today I have a few more specific audio recommendations. First, this episode of Writing Excuses on setting and the environment blew my mind. L.E. Modessit, Jr., discusses how the environment affects many aspects of daily life in far more detail than I’ve thought about before. If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, I highly recommend listening to this. (And even if you write contemporary fiction, there’s some fascinating information here.)

Illuminae.My second recommendation is the audiobook of Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. The book is composed entirely of documents — chats, interview transcripts, military reports, etc. — so I didn’t think it would translate well to audio. It was on my list of books I should really read when I got through my current stack of print books. But then another writer recommended the audio version, and boy am I glad I listened! The production is great, and of course the story itself is fantastic. (And if you don’t want to take my word for it, Illuminae was also just nominated as a finalist for YALSA’s 2016 Teens’ Top Ten.)

Happy listening!

The problem with censoring what teens read

Banned books.

Photo by Flickr user Kennedy Library

As a public librarian, I often have parents asking me to recommend books for their middle- and high-school-aged kids. I love connecting kids with books, but these interactions sometimes frustrate me when I’m given restrictions on what’s “appropriate” for the reader — particularly when the reader is there and wants to check out “inappropriate” books. Sometimes it’s a matter of language — parents don’t want their kids reading curse words; sometimes the issue is content — no sex/drugs/violence/etc. I always do my best to ensure those readers leave with something both they and their guardian(s) will like, but it breaks my heart a little to see an enthusiastic reader censored like that.

Now, I’m not a parent, and maybe I’ll feel differently if/when I have kids, but I think we should let our kids read what they want to read. Unless a kid never leaves the house, never watches TV, never goes online, and never talks to other people, they’re going to be exposed to all the things I’ve seen parents forbid in their kids’ books. Do I wish the world had less crime, less violence, less hate? Absolutely. But it doesn’t. And refusing to let kids talk or read about certain topics just ensures they’ll try to research them on their own, either by asking friends or going online — and we all know how reliable the Internet can be.

I’m not saying let your seven-year-old read erotica. But let teens read about the things they’ll be exposed to in school, with their friends, online, etc. If you’re worried a book is too mature, suggest that you read the book together and discuss it afterward. Preventing a kid from reading about sex isn’t going to prevent them from hearing about it somewhere, and I think it’s much better to have conversations about healthy relationships and consent than to let teens navigate that world themselves. Books are a great way for teens to explore and develop their own understanding of things without having to experience them firsthand, and are an opening to start those tough but important conversations.

How do you feel about censoring teens’ reading?

Poetry Challenge for April

Poetry.

Photo by Flickr user Teresa Grau Ros

I can’t believe it’s already April! Life is kind of crazy in the best possible ways right now — lots of reading, fun programs to plan at the library — but I don’t want to completely give up my habit of writing every day. (I’m a creature of habit, and I have this fear that if I stop writing every day, I may stop writing entirely. It’s completely irrational, but there it is.) So, while friends are enjoying virtual — and maybe not-so-virtual — s’mores at Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m challenging myself to write a poem a day.

While I’m choosing poetry as a way to keep writing through a busy spell, I am in no way claiming that writing poetry is easy, or that it doesn’t take a lot of time to write a poem. It’s not, and it does. In fact, I’m 99% sure I’m completely terrible at writing poems; that’s part of the reason why I’m making it my challenge for April. In all likelihood I’ll still be a terrible poet at the end of the month, but I hope that spending more time thinking about the sound and rhythm of my words will help improve my prose. I’m not setting out to write masterpieces here, I just want to stretch some creative muscles that don’t get as much use. And what better time to start than National Poetry Month?

Are you participating in any writing challenges? Any exercises you’d recommend to improve one’s poetry?