How to be Kind to Your Reader: Some Thoughts on George Saunders

George Saunders is big on kindness. When I read the convocation speech he gave at Syracuse University, which is now available to us in a book, Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, which I highly recommend, it got me wondering: if you write fiction, as Saunders does beautifully, is there such a thing as being kind to your reader?

I happen to believe that there is. Kindness begins with respect, human being to human being. The writer of fiction should assume that the reader is an intellectual equal. Now, I know George Saunders knows more than I do, and when I read his Lincoln in the Bardo, I relished the challenge of keeping up. This masterpiece of a novel, about souls in a literal or figurative state of transition, tells the story—from a wildly original point of view—of Abraham Lincoln in the hours surrounding his beloved 11-year-old son Willie’s death from typhoid fever. Even though I wandered through some pages, disoriented as a blind squirrel looking for a nut, I trusted that Saunders would lead me to the light.

No one likes to be talked down to or treated with condescension. I used to tell my high-school English students, “In a three-page paper, you only need to say it one time. I know I’m old, but my memory is still intact. You don’t need to restate your thesis in the conclusion. Use that space and opportunity to tell me something related to your topic that I may not know.” Saunders taught me a lot, not only about American history, but also about tone and characterization and pacing and structure. Fiction writers are teachers, too. I choose to read writers whose ability level is far beyond mine so that I might learn from them.

Kind writers allow the love for their craft to show. When I read Saunders, I’m reminded of my ninth-grade geometry teacher who could not hide her admiration for the beauty of a geometrical proof. Her voice would change; her eyes would shine. I witness that same kind of joy in Lincoln in the Bardo. Imagine Saunders’ delight when he discovered that, in 1861, the President received a letter that read, “Mr. Abe Lincoln, you don’t Resign, we are going to put a spider in your dumpling….” (There’s more to that letter that made my mouth fall open in horror; see page 233 for details.) As I read these words a second time, I can almost see Saunders hopping out of his desk chair and jumping around like he’d won the lottery. Ali Smith is another awe-inspiring contemporary fiction writer easy to catch in the act of joy; her novel How to be Both is as inventive and challenging as Lincoln in the Bardo. I don’t know if Smith and Saunders have met, but I believe they’d become the fastest of friends.

A kind fiction writer embraces economy of language. One of the mantras of the editor and publisher should be, “No self-indulgence allowed.” A writer flaunting his flair with intricate similes or veering off on an unrelated tangent reveals a selfishness, not to mention a startling lack of awareness, that someone other than he will be reading the words. With their enlarged empathy genes, kind writers know better than anyone that there are plenty of other A+ novels their readers could have chosen instead. “Kindness, it turns out, is hard,” Saunders told the student body at Syracuse, where he teaches creative writing—also hard if done well, and worth all the precious time and emotional energy and sleepless nights when one reader says, “Those words on that page: I am pretty sure that you wrote them just for me.”

Jenny Hubbard lives in the town of her childhood (Salisbury, NC) and works at the public library where she first learned to read. Her two novels, Paper Covers Rock and And We Stay (Delacorte Press, Penguin Random House), feature teenage protagonists who come to rely on poetry as a way to order the chaos. An English teacher for seventeen years, Jenny believes she learned more from her students than they ever learned from her. She is currently under the tutelage of her rescue dog, Oliver.

Terrestrial, Baby

What you say after making love to your wife can crash-and-burn
a marriage—or save it. Count what I said last night as a crash-and-burn.

We had just made love for the first time in a long time. We were
just rolling around our bedroom, laughing like we had the whole world
to roll around on. About five minutes later, I go and say I don’t feel
nothing. Yeah, you heard it here. All Sharon has said since: Take out
the garbage. Do you think you can rehang the front door, the one
you busted last month? Maria needs Huggies, and Me and Maria
will be spending the next month at my mother’s. Her mother lives
in Maryland, two states to the north. Merry-damn-land, which it ain’t.

I used to think love would save me from all the sad and tore-up feelings
I’d always had about the world. So I put everything into me and Sharon.
We’ve got our sweet one-year-old, Maria. We’ve got this little A-frame
we built ourselves at the north edge of the Combahee Swamp. We’ve got
12 years of marriage, the last two real messed up. We’ve got love getting
smaller in the rearview. From the get-go, I tried to tuck the Milky Way
inside us because I wanted us to last all and forever.

I’m on my nightly run through the Combahee Swamp. About every night
for the last two months. Sharon thinks I’m seeing someone. I’m not seeing
nobody but myself. Just driving my ‘71 Bug, checking what’s out here.
Most nights there’s not even another car. Nothing except the red eyes
of some critter—a possum by the road or an owl way up in a cypress.
For a second, they’re in your headlights, and then they turn away.

Tonight’s run is to Swaim’s Taxidermy, Taxes Done, and Everything Store
for something for Sharon. White wine? Flowers? Some of those fashion
magazines she likes? Some Chinese incense, the type she burns after a fatty? What?

I reach up and rub the rootbag that’s hanging from the mirror.
The bag’s about half the size of your fist. Mulviney, the black rootwoman,
fixed it up for me. Painted the suede leather this fluorescent green color.
Inside are snips of mine and her hair, some crushed lavender, a dried-up
clasper off a hammerhead, the wax cast off Sharon’s wedding ring.

The color of Love, Mulviney said. I think it was just the only color
she had left. She’s got a place in the southern tip of Combahee Swamp,
where two dirt roads make a crossroads. Always makes me feel cold,
a dirt crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Her place’s got no running water,
just a woodstove, some books piled in a corner, a new off-road bicycle
leaning against the front of her cabin, a jug of fluorescent paint on the porch.
The paint’s already cracking off the bag and dropping little bits of it
all over the dash and floormats—they pick up whatever light there is.

The thing is Patience, Mulviney said. But patience is like waiting for Jesus
to show up, just for you, and then he doesn’t say anything. Because you’re scared
of a mute Jesus, you don’t say anything. And quick as he comes, he goes.

I cut off my Bug’s headlights, so I’m steering by the full moon coming
right off the yellow centerlines. Feels like you’re a kid coming home
from the beach. Parents’ voices soft up front, you lying on the backseat,
staring out the rear window, and the moon follows you over the mountains
and down into the valleys. You believe that the moon’s yoked to you.
You believe in some kind of good life coming your way.

Mulviney said, Count your blessings, count on what you got now, count
on the terrestrial, baby. I go to count up these stories about me
and Sharon being in love, but they’ve snuck off. I’ve looked for them
everywhere: in my glove compartment, under our waterbed, in the jeans
I wore back when I used to have them, under Sharon’s eyelids.

There’s enough light coming through the moonroof (I cut it out by hand
with my acetylene torch) so I can read the speedometer. The needle’s
swung around to 60. Too damn fast, what with all the curves and no shoulder
out here. Just a two-foot drop-off into black water that’s full of cypress knees
and water moccasins too thick to squeeze through a tailpipe.

You don’t even know what you got. Yeah, I do. I’ve got some old
love song about me and Sharon through me, but a mouth
that can’t sing it. I’ve got this road ahead of—and behind—me, cutting
across the belly of the swamp. I’ve got this one night about
to bust apart on me, like all the stars decided to drop at once.

Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam Press. He’s also had poems and stories in Field, The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, Nimrod International Journal, Zone 3, Pembroke Magazine, Eleven Eleven, Journal of the American Medical Association, Waccamaw Journal, Loud Zoo, and North Carolina Literary Review. He also likes playing tennis and urban bike riding.

Leaving Publishing for a Solo Career: One Woman’s Story

I remember seeing the notice in Publisher’s Weekly. A senior editor I knew at Hyperion had gone to work as a freelance editor, and her email address followed to get in contact with her.

Poor woman, I thought, she’ll never get any work. No publisher I had ever worked for had a budget to assign out developmental edits.

Sure enough, the next year, I saw another notice: this editor was back working at another large publisher. She’d clearly tested the waters, declared them far too risky, and gone back into the safety of corporate trade publishing again. I knew it, I thought. I should tell fortunes on the side.

It was impossible to leave publishers, leave New York, and still get work. Some former colleagues had become literary agents and got lucky with some big name clients, while others had to leave the industry altogether.

And yet not two years later, the tables turned. I had finally found a great publishing house that seemed to have their act together and was able to conduct business like grown-ups, with a sound business plan, and a convivial, collegiate atmosphere. When I got pregnant, I worked like hell, editing and acquiring the contractual sixteen books required to collect my bonus when I got back, fully determined to come back after my maternity leave.

Long story short, after I had my baby girl, I couldn’t imagine being an hour away by train from my helpless six pound newborn without a support network being nearby (which wasn’t), and my publisher wouldn’t let me work from home for a couple of days/week.

I turned in my notice to the best publishing job I’d ever had. With my husband’s support, I took a huge gamble—and went freelance.

Much to my surprise, within the week of announcing that I was an experienced editor-for-hire, I got a call from a literary agent, whose client had just gotten a major deal from Broadway Books, one of the publishers I’d worked for. This author was freaking out about actually now having to write her book on her struggles with Type 2 Diabetes. (It’s one thing to write a proposal, far different to write 80,000 words.) She hired me to collaborate, and soon I was working, part-time, in Manhattan again, commuting into the city to write alongside Carol, and coax the manuscript out of her. Another ghost-writing job soon followed, as well as edits for books from authors who were self-publishing or looking to land an agent and publisher. Referrals kept coming from past clients and authors.

When I got divorced five years later and had not just one but two girls to take care of, I took a breath. And many, rapid, shaky breaths thereafter. Could I make this freelance editor thing work full-time? And could I do it while moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, to be near my parents, far away from the epicenter of New York publishing?

Eleven years later, here I am, full-time with a waiting list, working with new authors, ghost-writing, editing, and coaching people about the book publishing process. I’ve come across a thriving writing scene here in Charlotte and the Carolinas, have clients across the U.S., as well as writers who find me from as far away as Australia and India. Last week I finished editing a complicated novel that takes place during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco years, gave advice about using real world place names to a women’s fiction author whose book I edited set in Texas, coached a nonfiction author on pitching her Ted talk, and collaborated with a woman who founded a national non-profit on her book proposal about family homelessness—we’re going to send it out to agents next week. These projects challenge me, excite me, and give me something new to tackle every week.

I’d been right and wrong about going freelance all those years ago. I was right that book publishers still don’t have the budget to hire freelance editors, but I was wrong in not recognizing that there are many authors who value the guidance of a professional editor to help make their work the best it can be, and need an expert to hold their hands as they take on the arcane and sometimes frustrating world of the book publishing industry.

Betsy Thorpe has been in the publishing business since the 90’s, when she started at Atheneum Publishers. Since then, she grew her way into the role of editor at HarperCollins, Broadway Books, Macmillan, and the trade division of John Wiley & Sons. She started Betsy Thorpe Literary Services when she had her first child, and has been running it as a full-time business for more than 11 years. She is the co-author of numerous non-fiction books, including three that have been written about in the New York Times, and has a literary agent for her first novel, The Thin Place.

In the Litmosphere: What’s Coming Up for Readers & Writers

If you’re an avid reader like me, there’s nothing worse than finding out one of your favorite authors has visited recently, but you missed them.  Maybe their appearance wasn’t well advertised, or you were busy and didn’t have a chance to read any of the fifteen information streams where it was mentioned, or your best friend thought she told you, but really didn’t.  And so you find out the next day or the next week that Margaret Atwood spoke at Davidson or John Grisham visited Park Road Books and you missed it.

I’m here for you, friend. In what we plan to be an ongoing series, Charlotte Lit has put together a heads up of literary events coming soon to the Charlotte area. Most, if not all, are free, but some do require tickets. So get reading and then get out there and hear these excellent writers. A few highlights are: George Saunders, whose novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, speaks at Davidson College in February. A master of the short story, he’s an inspiring reader who’s not to be missed. Poet Stuart Dischell, a longtime creative writing professor at UNC Greensboro, shares his touching, well-wrought poems in March at Queens. Also in March, Zadie Smith is worth the drive to Hickory’s Lenoir-Rhyne where she’ll read from her latest collection of essays; and Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Underground Railroad” visits Davidson. Buckle your seat belts for April when author of “The Historian,” Elizabeth Kostova, comes to Park Road Books with her latest novel; Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith, offers the keynote at CPCC’s Sensoria Festival; and Jill McCorkle, among others, take part in UNCC’s Literary Festival uptown.

Work read live reveals layers and nuance that’s sometimes missing from the page. Besides, writing is a lonely profession.  If you love someone’s work, show up for them, buy their book, and tell them you enjoyed it. Maybe that encouragement will be just the thing to keep them at the desk when writer’s block strikes next. And if you’re a writer, or aspire to be one, literary wisdom and encouragement is on offer for you at these in-person appearances, too. Mark your calendar, call a friend, and join the literary community for these upcoming events.

2.6.18, 7 pm, Park Road Books, Amber Smith, “The Last to Let Go” book launch, [Info]

2.12.18, 8 pm, Davidson College, George Saunders [Info]

3.8.18, 7 pm, Park Road Books, John Hart, “The Hush” [Info]

3.15.18, 7 pm, Queens University, Poet Stuart Dischell, Ketner Auditorium[Info]

3.22.18, 7 pm, Lenoir Rhyne,  Zadie Smith. [Info] (Smith’s new collection of essays, “Feel Free” will be released 2.6.18)

3.27.18, 7 pm, Davidson College, Colson Whitehead. [Info]

4.5.18, 7 pm, Park Road Books, Elizabeth Kostova, The Shadow Land[Info]

4.5.18, 7:30 pm, Davidson College, Poet Clint Smith. [Info]

4.11-12.18, CPCC’s Sensoria Festival’s keynote speaker is the poet laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith.  She will give two public readings on April 11, 8 pm,  and April 12 , 11 am. [Info] (Her new collection of poetry, “Wade in the Water” will be released 4.3.18).

4.12.18, 9:30 am, CPCC’s Sensoria Festival, Poet and Novelist Jon Pineda. [Info]

4.15.18 UNCC’s Literary Festival is at their uptown campus featuring morning events for kids and evening readings by: Jill McCorkle, Gary Jackson, Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, Paula Martinac, Siobhan Campbell. [Info]

The Art of Submitting

Unless the two sides of your brain are evenly divided—what writer’s is?—you probably don’t enjoy the heavily weighted left-side chore of submitting your work to magazines.

I am left-handed, so I’m even less linear than most. But believe me when I tell you that I have learned to enjoy the submission process. Why? Because I make a game of it. That’s me who gets the acceptances. It’s Caroline, my alter ego, who suffers the rejections.

So here are my suggestions for making submitting more fun:

1. I’m an ardent fan of Duotrope, a subscription-based web site for writers and artists. I read it like my wealthy cousin reads the stock market. It offers a veritable garden of markets for fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art. I use it to keep track of which poems I’ve sent where, and I pore over its data, including which magazines have sent out rejections/acceptances that day.

Best of all are Duotrope’s Ten Most Lists. Ten most challenging markets for poets (fiction writers, etc.). Ten slowest to respond markets (Tin House, for one). Ten fastest to respond (Tar River). A subscription to Duotrope is the best $5 I spend each month.

2. If your goal is to publish a book, fancy publishing credits could—but won’t necessarily—make a difference to a publisher. So aim high and kick your expectations to the curb. You’ll never be published by The New Yorker or The Paris Review, if you don’t send your work to these magazines. Meanwhile, you can simultaneously submit the same poems—unless the guidelines say no—to other magazines. I know poets who send identical batches to six or more magazines at once.

3. Read the magazine’s submission guidelines before sending your poems or stories. You can do this through Duotrope or Google. Is the magazine reading now? Is it looking for poems with a particular theme? The guidelines will also tell you how many poems to send and whether they allow simultaneous submissions.

4. While you’re looking up the guidelines, read a sampling of the magazine’s published poems to see what styles the editors prefer. Many magazines, such as Agni and Kenyon Review, open their online archives to you. Likely, you’ll also find poems that will inspire your own writing.

5. Make your own calendar of when journals are reading. For instance, a top market, Threepenny Review—which responds in two or three days—began reading January 1. As did Raleigh Review. Shenandoah opens to flash fiction on January 20. Crazyhorse’s poetry contest ends January 31. Some magazines have very narrow reading windows. Virginia Quarterly reads only in July. Get your work in early, before the editors have made all their selections.

6. Enter contests. The entry fees can be stiff— $25—but if you win, you might pocket $1,000 and get a featured spot in the magazine. Two local poets, Diana Pinckney and Susan Ludvigson, have done just that, Diana with Atlanta Review and Susan with Five Points.

7. Above all, don’t let rejection get you down. Acceptances for most of us are few and far between. But a personal response from an editor is the next best thing. Savor the words. Read them again and again before the next rejection rolls in.

Dannye Romine Powell is a poet and journalist whose career at the Charlotte Observer has spanned almost 40 years. As book editor, she interviewed and wrote about James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and Lee Smith, among others. Her collected interviews appear in her book, Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. Her books of poetry have twice won the Brockman-Campbell Award presented by North Carolina Poetry Society for best book by a NC poet in the preceding year. Nobody Calls Me Darling Anymore, Powell’s fourth poetry collection, was published by Press 53 in 2015. Powell’s poetry has appeared in literary journals including: Paris Review, Poetry, Field, Ploughshares, The New Republic, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, and 32 Poems.

Read to Understand: CML’s Black Lives Matter Reading List

When I arrive on the second floor of Charlotte’s Main Library, I notice the usual activity. Two librarians seated behind the reference desk, ready to answer questions. A couple of individuals shuffling through the bookshelves. A cluster of people seated at computer work stations.

But there is also the sound of a soft quiet here—not silence, but quiet. The type of quiet I think floods a place where people have respect for the many ideas percolating in the presence of so much information.

I take in these observations in a quick sweep of the room. Then words in the corner of my eye pull my gaze to the space near the elevator. “Unrest,” “K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace,” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” read the signs hanging on the wall. Interspersed with the words and phrases are black and white drawings of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland. Just above each of their names are the words, “Justice For.”

One sign frames the familiar phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and rises above a book display. I pause and I stare. I stare at the words on the wall and the drawings of people no longer alive. I read their names in a hushed voice, barely above a whisper. Then I walk around the book display, nodding at titles I’ve already read, like Men We Reaped and The Fire This Time, and also noting the many books I don’t know.

Enlarged, photocopied book covers form a column at the edge of the wall. Recommended reading for those wondering where to start. Yellow call-out bubbles explain who might want to read each book suggestion.

“Feel defensive?” says the first call-out bubble. Then read What Does It Mean to be White by Robin DiAngelo.

“Think racism is a thing of the past?” Then read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“Think you are ‘color blind’?” Then read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

“Think anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough?” Then read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

Last autumn Angel Truesdale and her co-workers curated this display and created a reading list in response to the one-year anniversary of Keith Lamont Scott’s death—and also to support the new exhibit at the Levine Museum entitled, K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace. The library will keep the display up until the end of February. However, the suggested reading list is online now and will remain available.

The presence of this book display in the Main Library sends a powerful message to our community that these issues are important and we must engage. These voices and these stories matter, and we must not turn away despite the possibility of missteps and pain. If we want to seek authentic, genuine healing in our broken society, then we must understand the places our society came from and how those places gave birth to where we are today.

I am a black woman who often writes about the topic of race. When I look at this library display and read the suggested list, I experience a thrill at knowing I add my words to the words of many.

These curated books and other materials offer invitations to all of us. For some, these are invitations to find affirmation that people are using their voices to tell our stories. For others, these are invitations to discover another experience. In the act of accepting these invitations, we open ourselves up to the possibility of reimagining the future.

I again read the words taped to the wall. I look at the drawings of people who should still be alive. I touch the spines of books. The soft library-grade quiet present in the room allows me a moment of reverence as I stand before these books and this wall.

And I think this display whispers to me, “Your life matters.”

Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration and belonging will release this summer. Please visit to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.

The Hidden Life of Trees

As I write, glancing—a little too often to be very productive—out of my office windows on this bitterly cold January afternoon, the winter sun is just beginning to sink. In another half hour, it will set the bare canopies of my front yard’s great oaks into flames of orange, pink, and deep plum.

It’s a trick, of course––a bit of nature’s magic, a show that will repeat itself on clear evenings for a few more weeks before days begin to lengthen and the sun angles itself toward spring. At our latitude in Charlotte, foliage won’t be far behind. Winter’s wizened, naked crones will don green robes and become girls again. But, if I can be still like these stately arboreal sisters, resist mind’s rush toward the longer, warmer, busier days of spring and instead sync myself to winter’s slower rhythms, I can participate in this spectacular mystery play.

Relationship with and participation in nature, particularly in the life of forest trees, is precisely what Peter Wohlleben encourages in his international bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. In this genre-blending work, Wohlleben, a forester turned ecologist, provides a naturalist’s lessons about the ecology of the forest with the voice of a gifted storyteller, convincing readers that forest trees are indeed social beings that share resources with one another, nurse their “children” with sugar and other nutrients, and have an ability to learn from experience. Above all, Wohlleben champions looking at the environment through the much longer lens of forest trees, those giant beings I like to think of as our first ancestors.

Okay, perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor a bit by referring to them as ancestors, but I’m not the first to project human characteristics upon trees. It’s easy to see why. Their vertical structures bear resemblance to human bodies—long torsos that branch into elegant limbs, then extend further into slender, finger-like branches; crowns that, when fully leafed, resemble full heads of hair; knots and scars that mimic facial features. And, though they don’t have the human capacity to pick up their roots and walk, it sometimes seems they might.

Writers and artists from Virgil to Tolkien have told such tales, endowing forest trees with human feeling and mobility, while honoring their role as keepers of ancient wisdom and sacred mysteries. The largest of living beings, trees have roots in the underworld, trunks on land, and crowns stretching toward heaven, enabling them to span the three worlds of heaven, hell, and earth and making them central figures in mythologies throughout the world. Virgil even asserted that the first humans were born of a mighty oak.

Indeed, trees have captured human imagination since our beginnings, which by the way is much more recent than theirs. Trees began to populate the earth 385 million years ago. Human beings didn’t begin to evolve until around two million years ago, and when we did, it was with dreams of trees.

Our hominid forbears lived most of their lives in the relative safety of the tree canopy, dropping to earth for limited forays until climate change caused vast numbers of trees to die off and forced these early ancestors to adapt to life on the ground. Still, we haven’t lost our fascination with the great beings in whose arms we slept, ate, and nursed our young. We wonder what they’ve witnessed in their much longer lives (the oldest tree on record is 9,550 years old), how the world has changed, and the ways in which it hasn’t.

We also realize that, despite living in an electronic age, we haven’t yet lost our dependence on these creatures whose bodies served as our first nurseries. Granted, as the daughter of a carpenter, I’m a particular fan of hardwood floors and knotted pine furniture, but as I look around, I see that I’ve never really left the forest nursery. I live in a wood-frame house, sleep in a four-poster pine bed, pull my clothes from walnut dressers and paperback books from oak library shelves, toss tonight’s salad in a bowl made from teak. And who among Americans today is much different? What would we do without the trees?

Well, for one thing, we’d have a pretty hard time breathing. Remember, trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out the oxygen—a good enough reason to contemplate their importance to human life. But because they are so essential to our health and well-being, trees have long held a primary role in human culture. After all, without trees there would be no recorded literature. In that sense, my vocation as a writer is as much tied to the trees as my father’s.

This year, Charlotte Lit will celebrate tree culture in our “city of trees.” Planning is underway, so stay tuned for a series of events that will include author readings, lectures on Charlotte’s tree canopy, a paper-making workshop. Meanwhile, add Wohlleben’s book to your winter reading list. Maybe even read it under a tree-shaded table in the park. Your blood pressure will likely drop and you’ll be filled with a phytoncide-fueled sense of well-being. Yep, I learned that in The Hidden Life of Trees.

Immutable Laws of Writing #1: The words will not write themselves

The words are not going to write themselves.

This seems obvious, no? Seems as if it doesn’t need to be said, yes? And yet, here it is, for your consumption, taking a prominent place as Immutable Law of Writing #1. Here’s the full story.

I know many writers who do not write. I think what those people mean when they say they are writers is they like to write, enjoy writing, or maybe like to think of themselves as writers. Still, they do not write.

I know many people who say they want to write a book, but they are not writing a book, and make no attempt to write a book. I think what they mean is they want to have written a book. What they don’t mean is they want the experience of writing a book. What they don’t mean is they want to do the work of writing a book. They want to be authors. This is not the same—this is not remotely the same—as wanting to do the actual work of writing.

Immutable Law of Writing #1 says the words are not going to write themselves. What, then, is the solution? The glib answer is: if you want to be a writer you must write. But here is some more practical advice: if you want to write, you must write every day.

The question that follows is how to do that: how does a busy person find the time to write every day? Here are three pieces of practical advice for finding the time to write every day.

One: Decide whether you mean it. 

Decide, once and for all, if writing is a priority for you. If it is, you will find a way to do it. I don’t mean to be simplistic about this, but it’s a simple matter: we do what we think is important. (The time won’t fall from the sky, however; you have to go and find it. See tip number two, below.)

It is vital here to know what you are writing. If it’s a novel, name it and outine it (at least roughly). If it’s a blog, decide what the blog is about and who it’s for, and keep a running idea list of things to write about. If it’s a business book, name it, define the audience, and outline its chapters. And so on. None of this is writing, by the way, but it helps you know what to write when it comes time to write.

Two: Once you have decided you will write, give something up and replace that time with writing. 

If your days are full, it will be easier to find time within the day than to figure out the physics of making the day longer than 24 hours. And the easiest way to do that is to stop doing something that takes up your precious, precious time.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to consider time as precious.

Then, look at what you do and decide what not to do so that you can write. Let’s say you need a half-hour to write each day (see tip number three, below). How might you find 30 minutes a day? Could you give up 30 minutes of sleep, Facebook, Candy Crush, or television? (On your deathbed, will you wish you had played more Candy Crush?)

If you are a writer, you are a creative thinker, so you can apply your creativity to this. Could you do the 60-minute yoga class instead of the 90-minute? Could you work from home one day a week and save the commute time? Do you have the resources to hire out a household chore, such as cutting the lawn, or have a family member do it? Could you have a child or spouse cook dinner an extra day each week? Could you take a 30-minute lunch instead of 60? Could you resign from that club you’ve belonged to for years but doesn’t really provide you any real benefit these days? Can you say “no” to something that you’ve been asked to do? The possibilities are nearly endless.

Three: When you have found your writing time, set a can’t-miss daily production goal. 

How about just 500 new words per day?

For most people, that’s about 30 minutes. How much is 500 words? It’s not much. This post, for instance, is 800 words. If you could write 500 new words per day—say, by getting up 30 minutes earlier, or forgoing one television show in the evening—you will have written a draft of a 90,000 word novel in just six months. That’s it! That’s all it takes. First thing in the morning, before everyone else has gotten up (or whenever), write a minimum of 500 new words, and do it every day.

Because, you know, the words aren’t going to write themselves.

Christmas Yet to Come: Reading “A Christmas Carol” as a writer

In addition to being a seminal work of literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautifully-constructed story, and writers can learn by studying it. A memorable protagonist, compelling flashbacks, conflict and tension—and by the time the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” arrives, we’re totally sold on the ending, Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption.

We bring it to you today not only because it’s Christmas day, but because this last week of the year is a perfect time to think about the Christmas seasons in your future. What will you have written by this time next year?

Or maybe the question is larger than that. Perhaps we should read A Christmas Carol as a caution. None of us wants to find ourselves an old Scrooge, having not done what we were called to do—to have not told the stories we wanted to tell.

And so we ask again: what will you have written by this time next year?

From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 4: The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible, save one outstretched hand. But for this, it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing his condition, and giving him time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror to know that, behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But, as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”

It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”

A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, so it’s easy to find and download in a number of formats. (Goodreads has some options here.)

Park Road Books’ Best Books of 2017

Whether you’re looking to curl up with a good book or still need to round out your gift list, there’s no better source for book recommendations than from the people who sell them all year long. The booksellers from Park Road Books, Charlotte’s independent book store, share their 2017 favorites with us here.

From James: 

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. This historically accurate account of the Loray Mill Strike in 1929 Gastonia features an indomitable heroine who takes on mill owners, abusive bosses, and corrupt police officers while trying to provide for her family. A beautifully written book that will open the most hardened heart.

The Driver by Hart Hanson. A thriller set in modern LA where a veteran with PTSD  named Skellig opens a limousine service and hires other vets suffering their own wounds from battle. A millionaire skateboarder, Bismark Avilla, recruits Skellig to drive him around, a task made more difficult by the people trying to kill Avilla. Great pacing in this first novel from the creator of the TV series “Bones.”

Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South by Karen L. Cox. UNCC history professor Karen Cox deftly describes one of the most famous murders of 1929 and its cover-up that takes place in Natchez, Mississippi.

From Shauna:

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This National Book Award finalist inspired by Black Lives Matter is a must-read for all. With nuanced discussions on race and a relevant storyline with relatable characters for a YA audience, Angie Thomas’ debut has earned its spot on the #1 NYT Bestseller’s list.

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. A dark, bloody, vicious short story collection perfect for women who are completely fed up. This collection features a multitude of queer women characters, an overtly feminist message, and stories that are both brand new and familiar, like a dream you cannot quite recall.

From Chris:

The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay. A kaleidoscopic mix of history, religion, mysticism, and good old-fashioned page-turning suspense that creatively uses historical fiction to challenge readers to see the underlying connections that shape their world. Manages the intricate feat of telling three stories that are all equally compelling in their own unique ways. Should be a great read for anybody who enjoyed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero. One of the most unabashedly fun reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. A great nostalgic love letter to the stories of yesteryear that simultaneously pays tribute to modern America’s pop cultural landscape while building a wholly original tale of madness, adventure, love, and the costs of growing up. Alternately hilarious, horrifying and heartwarming.

From Trudy:

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home by Sally Mott Freeman. Remarkable story of a family of three brothers during WWII. Their love, courage, and the will to survive makes it a fantastic read.

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. Skillful women outwitting the Japanese by code breaking during WWII. Well researched and beautifully written.

From Sally:

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Fascinating historical fiction that recalls the best noir thrillers, Egan does not disappoint with her account of a young girl, her father, and a gangster in Manhattan between the Depression and WWII.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. After oil was discovered on their land, the Osage Indians in the 1920’s were some of the richest people in America. One by one they were murdered and after the death toll reached 24, local officials turned to the newly formed FBI for help. A riveting work of non-fiction that keeps you turning pages long after you should be asleep!

Righteous (hardcover) and IQ (paperback) by Joe Ide. Joe Ide is my new idol. He writes about a young African-American growing up in one of South LA’s toughest neighborhoods who solves crimes the police won’t touch. Sherlock Holmes would be proud!

Located in the Park Road Shopping Center, Park Road Books has been independently owned and operated for 40 years, and today is the only independent bookstore in Charlotte carrying only new books. Winner of Creative Loafing’s Best of the Best awards on a yearly basis, Park Road Books hosts author events and local bookclubs.