David Mitchell and Joe Hill talk writing

And Stephen King was there. (He’s Joe Hill’s dad, though he’s probably more often described as the author of The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Under the Dome, Joyland, Mr. Mercedes…)

boneclocksJoe Hill started off with a short but sweet introduction, comparing The Bone Clocks to the Escher-esque Way of Stones in its fifth part: “a dizzying climb.” David Mitchell protested that his head had become so enormous after this intro that he’d need a second plane ticket for the way home, then he launched into reading from the third section of the book, set in 2004, narrated by war reporter Ed Brubeck. Mitchell interrupted himself frequently to “translate” from British to American, apologize for his Yorkshire accent, accuse anyone who recognized the word “Silurian” of watching too much Doctor Who, and make other self-deprecating remarks, and he concluded the reading with a teaser: “If you want to know if they find Aoife [Ed's daughter] or not, you’ll have to go to your independent bookstore…”

Hill began the Q&A by asking about genre. Mitchell views genre as “a set of preexisting formulae” that writers can tweak, change, invert, and conjoin. “Genre is dangerous to deploy,” he said, and one of the dangers is reviewers who have negative attitudes toward genres (“I don’t do elves”). However, he said, he doesn’t write for reviewers. “People can tell when books are riskless…and haven’t caused the author psychic pain.” His ideal bookstore wouldn’t have genre signs in it at all; “I don’t like these divisions,” he said. “Surely the only question that matters is Is it any good or not?

cloud_atlasHill’s next question had a geology metaphor; not “where do your ideas come from?,” but “if you drill down through your novel, what’s at the bottom?” Mitchell listed five elements of the novel: plot, character, style, ideas/themes, and structure. Plot and character are propulsive; style and ideas are…”What’s the opposite of propulsive?” (The audience shouted out ideas. Mitchell suggested this would be a fun game show. “What’s the opposite of a peacock?”) Structure is neither propulsive nor its opposite, but the neutral vehicle itself.

“Novels need ideas like bread needs yeast” – a little bit makes the whole thing rise up.

blackswangreenStructure, for Mitchell, is key: “When I find that key, the doors open in relatively rapid succession.” But you can’t impose a structure just for the sake of it; the structure must harmonize with the ideas in the novel. Cloud Atlas‘ Russian nesting doll structure suited its ideas perfectly, and may be part of the reason the book is Mitchell’s best-selling one. (“Cloud Atlas will probably be on my tombstone. It will probably pay for my tombstone.”) Black Swan Green‘s structure may be the most conventional of all Mitchell’s novels, with thirteen sections, one per month, January to January. (Hill to Mitchell: “There’s twelve months in a year, but you were close.”) Why such a radically different structure for each new book? “I’m vain enough to want to be original. Or maybe it’s not vanity…I wish to avoid cliche.” Hill commented that Mitchell’s structures make his books architectural, which chimes nicely with my own idea of each of Mitchell’s novels being like a room in a house, with characters wandering our of one and into another.

Next came the “speed round,” a series of short answer questions. “Why don’t you Internet?” Hill asked. “I do Internet. I don’t do social media,” Mitchell replied. “I don’t have time.” (If you’re going to crank out a 500+ page book every World Cup and raise children while doing it, this is probably true. Think what the rest of us could get done without Facebook and Twitter!) (Probably none of us could write The Bone Clocks, but we could do something better than “liking” pictures of friends’ cats, no?)

Hill asked if Mitchell wrote on a computer or on paper; Mitchell answered that mostly he typed, but he started new novels on paper. “I can doodle my way” into a novel on paper, but not on the screen, often starting with sketches of characters’ faces, he said.

A couple more “speed round” questions: What’s the first book you remember reading and loving? A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Recent favorite book? The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. (Mitchell didn’t list any other contemporary titles, but added that the book he would “run into a burning building to save the last extant copy of” is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.)

Hill then turned the mic over to the audience for a few questions.

What’s your advice for writers whose characters are very different from them? Get your characters to write you letters. Consider what they have to say about money, class, prejudices, sexuality, work, religion, the state, society, early childhood experiences, health, fear of death. “People give themselves away in language all the time.” (This letter-writing advice is almost word-for-word the same as that which Crispin Hershey gives his students in section four of The Bone Clocks.)

thousandautumnsWhen you wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, did you already have the whole concept of the Horologists and the Anchorites? Did you know Marinus was a Horologist? “I knew Marinus had a flexible contract with mortality,” Mitchell answered, but he hadn’t invented the whole cosmology yet. (Marinus, along with Timothy Cavendish, is one of Mitchell’s favorite characters, and one we may not have seen the last of.)

Do your beliefs inform your writing, or does your writing inform your beliefs? If he’s anything, Mitchell said, he’s a Buddhist. “It’s a thing you work at all your life really,” he said. “We need a healthier relationship with mortality.” We’re a “youth-adoring” culture, and that doesn’t serve us well. (The 49 days between the Horologists’ deaths and reincarnations is a number from Japanese Buddhism.)

Timothy Cavendish (from Cloud Atlas) appeared in the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of The Bone Clocks, but was edited out of the final version. Does this really have to do with entertainment lawyers? Partially yes, but he’s been replaced by a character who is featured in Mitchell’s next “significant” book, set in SoHo and Greenwich Village in London in the ’60s. (I assume he meant the 1960s, but one can never be sure. Also: will there be an “insignificant” book in between? Or is he just preparing us for a high page count?)

number9dreamThe Bone Clocks wasn’t on the Booker Prize shortlist. (Not really a question.) Mitchell quoted Julian Barnes, who’d said, “The Booker Prize is posh bingo.” Mitchell then noted that Barnes said that before he won (for The Sense of an Ending in 2011), and might not say the same now. Mitchell did mention that his books had been on the list in previous years (The Thousand Autumns longlisted in 2010, Black Swan Green in 2006; Cloud Atlas shortlisted in 2004, Number9Dream in 2001), and didn’t appear bitter that The Bone Clocks didn’t appear on this year’s list.

“If I were the Beatles, Number9Dream would be the White Album.”

His goal, he said, was that if his name were removed from his books, that no reader would be able to tell it was the same author who had written them. (Although some of the character names would be dead giveaways.) He’s always trying something different, which he allows can be trying for his publishers. But the roomful of readers in Cambridge tonight wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks: to LibraryThing for an ARC of The Bone Clocks; to Porter Square Books for setting up the event; to Joe Hill for sharing his thoughts on Doctor Who; to the nice people in line; to David Mitchell for signing two books; to David Ebershoff for a few minutes of nice conversation after the signing.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

I hesitate to mention this, as it’s January 14 and this is my first post here since the beginning of the year (though I did write about Simon Garfield’s engaging To the Letter, and the letter-writing resolution it inspired, on my other blog last week), but one of my new year’s resolutions is to post here more regularly: specifically, once a week, although occasionally there may be extra posts, and I’m allowing myself to miss the occasional week for vacations, illnesses, etc. I’m sure my twenty readers will be crushed by these lapses.

While I was considering a reasonable frequency for blog posts, I was also considering content. Should I limit myself to book reviews? That would focus things a bit more; this could be a book review blog. But I like having the latitude to write about any issue relevant to libraries, publishing, intellectual freedom, etc. that catches my interest, so I decided not to change the content much.

tenyearsinthetubThat said, Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub, a collection of his columns for the Believer over the past decade, presents a really excellent structure for writing about books, the only problem being that Nick Hornby’s already gone and done it. Even though, given 2,000 words a month, I’d write different things about different books (and I wouldn’t write at all about cricket or football), it seems a bit cheap to steal his format.

For today, then, I’ll just write about what Hornby has written about what he’s read. (How’s that for meta?) For those who aren’t familiar with his Believer column, he starts each one off with a list of “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” (It’s already a brilliant idea, isn’t it?) The overlap between the two lists varies from month to month, as you can imagine, and it’s interesting to see how one book leads to another, what gets read and what gets set aside, sometimes cropping up months later.

As he is writing about so many books in a relatively small space, his transitions can be a bit jarring (or rather, transitions are often lacking entirely); some books receive several paragraphs of attention and others are dealt with in a sentence or two. We can forgive this unevenness though, because Hornby writes with humor, self-deprecation, and intelligence. He often turns on himself, retracting something he wrote in a previous month or even earlier in the same column; for example, one month he writes, “Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else.” Yes! But the next time the World Cup rolls around, he does a reversal.

Hornby has a talent for articulating thoughts that might have occurred to many of us in a fuzzier form, but he does it in a way that is concise and sharp, observant and true. In two or three separate columns, he wrote about major works that have influenced literature in a significant way since their publication. Here he is, once he’s finally gotten around to reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: “But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement.” And here again, after reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (whose other books he gobbled up like candy – or perhaps the more apt metaphor in his case would be ‘inhaled like cigarettes’): “Influential books are often a disappointment, if they’re properly influential, because influence cannot guarantee the quality of the imitators, and your appetite for the original has been partially sated by its poor copies.” Finally, here he is on Voltaire: “The trouble with Candide is that it’s one of those books that we’ve all read, whether we’ve read it or not….The meat was picked off it and thrown to the crowd in the eighteenth century…”

It just so happens I’ve read and loved all three of those books, though I was younger than Hornby when I read them. (I’m still younger than him now. Ha!) Candide, in particular, I read in eleventh grade; I remember being intimidated because it was old, and French, and a classic, but felt better when I saw how tiny it was, and upon reading it thought it quite funny and not intimidating at all. I do see his point about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; I saw the movie after reading the book (I think) and Maggie Smith was – as she always is – tremendous, and memorable. The point stands, though, about influence, and it makes me feel a bit better that I didn’t love Catcher in the Rye the way I was supposed to, even though I read it when you’re supposed to (age 16 or thereabouts). For a young adult classic, I love The Perks of Being a Wallflower a hundred times better.

Though at one point Hornby warns against revisiting old favorites, in case they don’t hold up over time, he also sees forgetting as an opportunity. In one column, he writes, “A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read….I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.” This is cheering, indeed. I used to re-read books much more often than I do now; as Hornby says, “I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.” But at least a few times a year, I’ll read a book that I know, usually even before I’ve finished it, that I want to read again. Off the top of my head: Gold by Chris Cleave, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. (Incidentally, that’s two British authors and two Americans, two men and two women. Neat.)

After I graduated from college and began working in publishing, I went on what could pretty accurately be described as a two- or three-year fiction binge. I forget which year it was that I made a resolution to read at least one nonfiction book a month, but I did it when reading nothing but fiction came to feel like eating nothing but candy. (Not to say that fiction can’t be just as “good for you” as nonfiction. I’m not getting into that here.) So when Hornby wrote that he was “beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes,” I knew exactly what he meant. (My reading diet has been much more balanced since that resolution, though it still skews toward fiction.)

In two of his more recent essays, Hornby wrote about books “of the moment” – those books saturated with contemporary period details, set in a very particular place and time, complete with all its cultural references. It’s often noted in criticism of books like this that they will lose their appeal over time. “The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last; but what else do we have that delves so deeply into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? ….Some fiction at least should deal with the state of the here and now, no matter what the cost to the work’s durability, no?” Hornby asks. These books, he argues, have just as much if not more historical value than well-researched historical fiction, because they provide insight to what people were thinking and feeling in a given place and time.

Speaking of “the moment,” why, when we have e-books, do people still buy and read printed books? In part because “all the books we own, read or unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal….With each passing year…our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are.” For readers, our books are us, and our bookshelves show who we are, what we love, who we aspire to be. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

As someone who often tracks down books referenced, even fleetingly, in other books, it’s not surprising that I ended up with a nice list of books to add to my already intimidatingly long “to-read” list by the time I came to the end of Ten Years in the Tub. Here they are:

skelligFiction (including children’s/YA)
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
We’re in Trouble: stories by Chris Coake
Skellig by David Almond
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (nearly certain I read this as a child, but have forgotten it sufficiently to warrant a re-reading)
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
any book by Anne Tyler

sarahvowellNonfiction
How to Live: or, a life of Montaigne, in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell (on top of Hornby’s recommendation, I remember that the reviews and awards for this book were spectacular)
Book of Days: personal essays by Emily Fox Gordon
A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord
The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (this was already on my to-read list; I loved The Wordy Shipmates and Unfamiliar Fishes)

 

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Last year, on the last day of November, Dana Sachs published an essay in Publishers Weekly called “Doing 50,000 Words in 30 Days.”  The title of the article refers, of course, to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which started in San Francisco in 1999 and has grown and spread since then. Now there are participants all over the world – over 300,000 in 2012 – and hundreds of “write ins,” many at libraries.

NaNoWriMo2013bannerThe idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple: write a novel in a month. Specifically, write 50,000 words in 30 days. This works out to 1,667 words per day. (For reference, Sachs’ essay in PW is 750 words.) Admittedly, 50,000 words is pretty short for a novel – about 200 pages – but still, to write that much in a month is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of quality.

In fact, quality isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo. As Sachs writes, “Many writers…suffer from a gnawing perfectionism that can, at its worst, torment us over the placement of a single comma. Forget completing a first draft; perfectionists have trouble completing even a paragraph. NaNoWriMo forces us to ignore our incapacitating inner critic and keep going. The genius of NaNoWriMo is that it obliges us to (temporarily) lower our standards.”

After November, the writer has a working draft; s/he can edit, cut, amend, tinker, and add. The novel may eventually go into a drawer (or computer folder, more likely), may be self-published, may be published through the traditional process with an agent and an editor. No matter the outcome, it’s still an achievement: you’ve made something. And NaNoWriMo provides an encouraging community in which to make that something.

nano_12_new_Come_Write_In_Logo1Library literature has been full of buzz about MakerSpaces lately. Many libraries are re-envisioning their mission and redesigning their space. This is an old idea with a new label (“making” instead of “crafting”) and new technology (e.g. 3D printers). The library was never purely a place for consumption; people have always come to libraries to create as well as consume. And what better place to write (or “make”) a book than a library?

That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting Write Ins at the Robbins Library for the second year in a row. Are you a writer in the Arlington area? “Come Write In.” 

“The real secret is that anyone can write a book… Writing is for everyone, and this is your chance to scrawl your name across the page. By month’s end, you’ll have done that which many dream of, but never accomplish.” -Gennifer Albin, author of Crewel

“As you enter this month of writing, write for yourself. Write for the story. And write, also, for all of the people who doubt you. Write for all of those people who are not brave enough to try to do this grand and wondrous thing themselves.”  -Kate DiCamillo, author of The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie

Copyright and Plagiarism

Last month, I attended two webinars on copyright with Mary Minow of LibraryLaw.com. The first was Copyright Basics, and the second was called Hot Issues in Copyright; the webinars were presented by the Massachusetts Library System.

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Some of the material was familiar, of course, but some was new. Minow (coincidentally, the aunt of a close friend of mine) confirmed that all original creative content is automatically copyrighted to its creator. However, in order to gain the additional level of legal protection required to bring a lawsuit against someone who has infringed upon your copyright, it is necessary to get the official copyright from the government (there is an excellent Q&A page at copyright.gov).

600px-US-CopyrightOffice-Seal

Some people infringe upon others’ copyrighted work because they think they can get away with it; others do it out of ignorance. Using a Creative Commons (CC) license is one way to raise awareness that you hold the copyright to your work, and that others must ask permission before using it. There are a variety of CC licenses, but, as it says on the site, “All Creative Commons licenses have many important features in common. Every license helps creators — we call them licensors if they use our tools — retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work — at least non-commercially. Every Creative Commons license also ensures licensors get the credit for their work they deserve.”

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Though I had included a note on the “About” page of this blog and my other blog (“Unless otherwise noted, all blog content © Jenny Arch”), I added Creative Commons licenses recently as well – partly thanks to Minow’s reminder, and partly because, coincidentally, some of my own work was plagiarized right around the same time.

The internet is vast; I never would have known about it had an alert former co-worker not e-mailed me to let me know. She sent me a link to a post entitled “Plagiarism Sucks: It’s More Than Just Drama” on the blog Sparkles and Lightning, which is written by Annabelle, a high school senior in California. Annabelle’s fellow blogger Jessi (of Auntie Spinelli Reads) compiled a list of plagiarized reviews and bloggers, which Annabelle included in her post; my former co-worker noticed that one of my Goodreads reviews (for Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eyre Ward) was on the list.

I can’t slap a Creative Commons license up on Goodreads, because they have their own Terms. The “User Content” section of these terms includes the statement, “You understand that publishing your User Content on the Service is not a substitute for registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office, the Writer’s Guild of America, or any other rights organization.” This means that content-producing Goodreads users retain their automatic copyright, but don’t have an official government copyright – the same as if that content was posted on a blog online.

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The “License Grant” section of the Goodreads terms reads, “By posting any User Content on the Service, you expressly grant, and you represent and warrant that you have a right to grant, to Goodreads a royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all such User Content and your name, voice, and/or likeness as contained in your User Content, in whole or in part, and in any form, media or technology, whether now known or hereafter developed, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing for any purpose at the sole discretion of Goodreads.”

The key words in the above paragraph are grant and license. By adding content to Goodreads, all users give Goodreads permission to “use, reproduce, modify, publish,” etc. that original content. I’m not a lawyer or an expert in copyright law, but it seems pretty clear from these terms that the user still retains the copyright to their original content, while giving Goodreads these permissions.

Neither Goodreads nor its users, however, give permission for user content to be copied by a third party and passed off as their own work – otherwise known as plagiarism.

Researching and Writing Historical Fiction

Cross-posted as “Truth in Fiction” on the Robbins Library blog.

As November, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), was drawing to a close, I had the opportunity to attend a program that I had set up at the Robbins Library: authors Margot Livesey and Adam Braver came to have a conversation about researching and writing historical fiction. Margot is the author of, most recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a retelling of Jane Eyre; Adam’s newest novel is Misfit, about Marilyn Monroe.

Do you research first and write after, write and research at the same time, or write first and research after? “Research feeds imagination,” said Livesey. She does some preliminary research before writing, just enough for a chapter or a draft, then researches retrospectively as needed. Both authors agreed that they could get bogged down or sidetracked, and that research could be an excellent procrastination tool.

Braver said he will look up facts he needs as he writes, and “sometimes it leads to something [else],” but he also does a large amount of preliminary research, using newspapers and interviews. Both authors said they have worked and researched in public libraries, using newspapers, microfilm and microfiche, and of course books. At home, Livesey has two computers: one that “doesn’t know the Internet exists,” and another that is online. She writes on the offline computer, and only goes to the online one if she really needs to look something up.

How do you manage to spend so much time with your novels and not get sick of them; how do you manage to persevere? “Not getting sick of it is the challenge,” Braver responded. He said he usually goes through 15 – 20 revisions per book, and would often like to quit when it’s “good enough,” but “I’m restless until I feel like it’s right.”

How do you deal with conflicting versions of history? Braver answered that conflicting versions often become the story. Like historians, novelists are looking for the truth behind the facts; the facts may be irrefutable, but the order in which they are told is what makes a story.

How much is fact and how much is fiction? What liberties do you take when you write fiction set in the past? As a reader of fiction, Livesey said, “I count on fiction to tell me the truth…be faithful in certain ways.” One might, for example, add a burn unit to a hospital that didn’t have one, but not drop bombs on a city that wasn’t bombed. (Of course, authors can address what’s true and what’s invented in an Afterword.)

“I think readers mind very much about precision,” said Livesey, estimating that about 30% of the mail she receives from readers contains corrections to her work. However, “people are forgiving…unless it’s sloppy.”

What’s the difference between writing about a period some people remember, as opposed to writing about a time no one alive remembers? Braver said that certain periods in the past are viewed “in sepia tone,” and his goal is to “strip away the nostalgia,” and make the reader feel as though, by opening the novel, they are opening a door into the past.

Braver writes about well-known historical figures – President Lincoln, Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe – but focuses on the periphery, on moments that occurred out of the public spotlight. Livesey’s characters, by contrast, are “modest,” and invented. “Small details of ordinary life,” she said, can be more important than big events.

The gleam in the dark: writing and reading fiction

I’ve been a fan of Lauren Groff’s writing for years, so I was delighted to find this interview with her (via Twitter). The interviewer, Jason Skipper, asked Groff about her research for Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia, and Groff replied, “Research is about following the gleam into the dark.” She followed this beautiful sentence by talking about the difference between “creative” facts that spur one’s imagination, as opposed to those facts that dampen the process. This makes sense: just think about researching for work of historical fiction. Some facts will be fascinating, suggesting plot points all on their own, while others will seem like obstacles to the story.

Skipper then asked Groff about connection, “as a person born on the cusp of the digital age – making you old enough to remember a time without it, and young enough to realize its potential.” I have copied most of Groff’s resonant reply: “We are cuspies, aren’t we? There’s a glow to that time before things went all matrix on us, before everyone was plugged into the mainframe by their fingertips….I do remember people talking more. Nostalgia is dangerous, though, and I can’t tell whether those days actually were more authentically connected, whether they seemed so because I was an adolescent, or whether memory is spackling everything over with a thick layer of pretty-pretty.”

She continued, “In terms of writing, I think what most fiction writers treasure more than anything is the feeling that they’re living for the length of a book inside another person.” This echoes the sentiment in editor Jennifer Jackson’s publicity letter in the ARC of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars: “[The book] reminded me why I became a reader in the first place: because it is the best chance you will ever have to live another life.” Both author and reader see books as a means of escape and of empathy.

This isn’t a coincidence. In an article entitled “Your Brain on Fiction” in The New York Times earlier this year, professor of cognitive psychology and novelist Keith Oatley suggested that reading produces “a vivid simulation of reality.” The article’s author, Annie Murphy Paul, wrote, “Fiction with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other peoples thoughts and feelings.”

Paul continued, “The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life,” and cited work by Dr. Oatley and Dr. Raymond Mar indicating that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective…novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Just over a month after the “Your Brain on Fiction” article ran in the Times, the Boston Globe ran a piece by Jonathan Gottschall called “Why Fiction is Good for You.” (Originally, I was going to cite both these pieces in a post called “A spoonful of fiction makes reality go down,” about why kids should be able to read what they want without parents or teachers fearing that the content of the books will damage them somehow; it seems that rather the opposite is true.) Gottschall reports, “Research consistently shows that fiction does mold us…mainly for the better, not for the worse.” When people read fiction, they imagine themselves in the characters’ lives – which may be completely different from their own. This encourages empathy, and “by enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction.”

Imagination leads to understanding; understanding leads to empathy. It turns out – surprise, surprise – that stories are good for us.

10/4/2013 Edited to add: A study published in the journal Science found that after reading literary fiction, “as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” Read the article from the New York Times “Mind” section, in which author Louise Erdrich is quoted: “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov”

Rules for Writing Fiction

This two-part article from The Guardian (UK) isn’t new, but it’s worth another read even if you saw it when it was first published. Writers including Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Enright, Hillary Mantel, Zadie Smith, and many more offer their personal rules for writing fiction. A few that are repeated throughout many lists include “take long walks,” “avoid adverbs,” and (seems obvious, but…) “write.” Many encourage habit and routine; many also admit it’s fine to break the rules sometimes. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, the lists are fascinating.

Read Part One

Read Part Two