Category Archives: Reading

Pros and cons of stalkerish technology.

Child and phone (c) Jiri Hodan

The more advanced day-to-day technology gets, the more possibly all those the-major-corporations-and-the-government-are-watching-you conspiracy theories are. When practically every phone out there has a camera and is constantly hooked to the internet, who’s to say we aren’t being watched by the CIA and Interpol?

Honestly, my life isn’t interesting enough for me to care if the government is spying on me. I have no secrets pertinent to national security and I am not politically extreme in my views or even politically active (though, I admit, I would be a little concerned if a system like the one in the movie Eagle Eye was ever put into place). However, when thinking about the big picture, we forget about the little bits of information companies can gather about our lives from what we do on devices like our phones or even our e-readers.

Recently agent-turned-author Nathan Bransford posted about the kind of information companies like Amazon and B&N can pull off your Kindle or Nook. You can read the full post here, but below are some of the highlights:

Thanks to e-books, companies like Amazon and B&N now know whether people are actually reading the e-books they buy. Better yet, they even know where in books people are leaving off, which books are most likely to be read all the way through, and the speed people are reading them.

As Mike Shatzkin points out, this is important knowledge that the e-booksellers have and publishers do not. It could be more important to know whether people finish a bestselling book than how many copies it sells. If people stop reading and start reading something else instead, it could be a sign people might not be as enthusiastic for that author’s next book. And if people read something very quickly it could be a sign of enthusiasm.
I’m excited to have any new insight available, provided this information is made available to authors. It hardly seems fair if this information is hoarded by the e-booksllers if it’s being used to make decisions about whether and how an author is signed or promoted. And, of course, care must be taken to ensure that reader privacy is protected.

I wonder, though, how much they’ll take individual reading habits into account when looking at the statistics for a particular book. For example, I have a compulsion to finish a book I start as quickly as possible, and that compulsion only fades if I truly dislike a book. How quickly I devour a book is not necessarily a sign of enthusiasm, simply a sign that I have a few empty hours on my hands. On the other end of the spectrum is my father who savors books chapter by chapter, reading a little bit each night before he goes to bed. Kind of like dessert or a nightcap. How slowly he moves through a book isn’t an indication of dislike. In fact, if he’s really enjoying a novel, he tends to read slower, not faster.

Will companies think to look at reader trends like this and adjust the statistics? Does it matter how quickly someone reads a book as long as they finish? I would argue yes. Case in point, I read a book last night (yes, an entire book between the hours of 5:30 and 9:30), but to be honest I didn’t love it. It was well written, but there were several elements that left me dissatisfied. However, to someone looking at the reader statistics on my Kindle, all they’ll see is a blindingly fast reading rate and assume I loved it.

Having my information swiped by Amazon doesn’t bother me that much, but I worry about the interpretation and what it could mean to the business model of the publishing world. At the same time, if they offered me a peek at my reader’s stats after my book came out, I would jump all over that in a heartbeat.

Does that make me a hypocrite?

Stories can control minds. No, seriously.

(c) Andrew Schmidt

Movies, television, and books all present stories to an audience. Obviously. That much is kind of a given, right? But what we forget is that stories have always been used as a teaching tool. Myths, legends, and (please don’t kill me) religion were all developed in story form to make them more memorable, to give them a beginning and a middle and an end for people to hang onto, and for crowd control, aka mind control. Stories were used for centuries (and still are used) to impart wisdom, lessons, and history and even though we’ve kind of lost that tradition in a sense–at least in modern American culture–stories still teach us things whether we want them to or not. They shape the way we see the world and sometimes work to point us all in the same direction. Whether we realize it or not.

Why am I talking about stories and mind control? Blame Again.

A couple of days ago I found an article on their website called 5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain. Have I commented yet on the fact that the Cracked writers are not only hilarious but blindingly intelligent? I’m kind of in awe of them. But, anyway, not the point. The point is this article and the very valid incredibly interesting points it made about pop culture and the way the general population (especially my generation and all that have come after it) have been influenced by it. Most of us in ways we’ll never realize. One of the points the author David Wong makes is this:

You’ve seen Braveheart, right? You know that’s based on a historical event — the movie makes it clear that Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, was a real guy who really lived in Scotland back in the horse and castle days. You also know that Hollywood spiced things up for the movie — the real Wallace probably never assassinated a dude and then jumped his horse off a balcony in slow motion.

So if you don’t mind, just quickly tell me which parts were fiction. Without looking it up.

Like the evil king they were fighting — was he a real historical figure, too? What about Wallace’s palooka friend, Hamish? Or the crazy Irish sidekick? Were those real guys? That part where Mel Gibson’s main ally (Robert the Bruce) betrayed him and sided with the English in that big battle (aka the turning point of the entire story)– did that really happen? What about the bit at the end, where Wallace has sex with that princess, revealing that the future king of England would actually be Mel Gibson’s son? That’s the most historically important thing in the whole film, surely that was true, right?

You don’t know, do you? But who cares, right? It’s not like that impacts your life at all. It’s just historical trivia. OK, now consider this: After Jaws hit theaters, we nearly drove sharks to extinction with feverish hunting, to the point that their populations may never recover.

 “Oookaaay,” you may be saying to yourself. “Interesting. But are you for or against this whole mind control theory?”

I’m neither. Or maybe both. It doesn’t matter. The lesson I’m trying to pull out of this convoluted post is that authors need to do two things: use this truth to their advantage and be careful not to abuse it.
In the article, David makes another point, one that references another article on Cracked: 7 Bullshit Police Myths Everyone Believes (Thanks to Movies). Did you know you do not have a legal right to a phone call if you get arrested. The police do not have to give you a phone call if they have a reason not to. Any reason. Want to know why you thought otherwise (unless you have cops or lawyers in your family)? Because movies and TV uses this line so often most people assume it’s true. David explains:

Now take this one step further, and think about how many other aspects of your life you’ve only experienced via Hollywood. If you’re from a rural area, how do you know what it’s like to live in the city? Or vice versa? If you’ve never been to Paris, where does your mental image of it come from? Some of you reading this very article loved The Sopranos because its depiction of the mob was so much more “realistic” than all those stylized movies that came before it. How do you know it’s more realistic? What are you comparing it to? All those real mobsters who come over at Thanksgiving?

The reality is that vast piles of facts that you have crammed into your brain basement were picked up from pop culture, and for the most part, you don’t realize that’s where the information came from. This is called source amnesia, and I’ve talked about it before — you know that giraffes sleep standing up, but you’ve long forgotten whether you heard that fact in school or in a tour at the zoo, or saw it in a cartoon. Either way, you will treat that fact as true until something comes along to counter it — this is the entire reason MythBusters is still on the air.

As an ex-psychology geek, any article that correctly references things like source amnesia makes me a little giddy, but this article brilliantly brought home both the joys and the perils of writing a book and sending it out into the universe. It’s wonderful because we can play on the perceptions of the masses and give ourselves more creative leeway to make our stories more interesting, dynamic, heart-wrenching, action-packed, whatever. However, we are responsible for the images and information we put out into the world. Even if we can’t control how one particular person interprets what we write, we have to be at least aware of the messages most people will see in the stories we present. If you play your part right, the messages will blend and people won’t quite know where fact ends and fiction begins. Then you two will have played a part in the mind control of the globe.

Sounds fun, right? 🙂

Writing: See, What I Meant To Say Was…

One danger of publishing a book is that what you meant to say may not be what people hear. Everyone’s mind works differently and everyone sees the world through glasses colored by their experiences and inclinations. What seems like an obvious metaphor or allegory to you, may be completely obscure to your readers. This is one of the major benefits of editing and one of the reasons you should listen if more than one person questions you on some aspect of your story. The worst part of misinterpretation is that it can happen even if you’re there to tell people, “No, you’ve got it wrong.”

I love the articles on While they should all be taken with a grain of salt, they’re always amusing and usually present ideas or connections that never occurred to me. One article I found recently is called 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong.

The authors, S Peter Davis and David Vindiola, take a look at six books everyone who pays attention in Lit class has heard of: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. One of my favorite sections, though, and I think the one that most clearly demonstrates the point I’m trying to make, is contained in the section about Fahrenheit 451.

Bradbury was actually more concerned with TV destroying interest in literature than he was with government censorship and officials running around libraries with lit matches. According to Bradbury, television is useless and compresses important information about the world into little factoids, contributing to society’s ever-shrinking attention span. Like “Video Killed the Radio Star,” television would kill the, uh, book star (he said same thing about radio too, by the way). An interesting rant from the author, considering that much of Bradbury’s fame was a direct result of his stories being portrayed on science fiction shows.

For a science fiction writer who predicted the development of flat-screen TVs you hang on the wall, ATMs and virtual reality, he sure hates new technology. Along with bitching about radio and television, Bradbury also has something against the Internet. He apparently told Yahoo! they could go fuck themselves, and as far as he’s concerned, the Internet can go to hell. He doesn’t own a computer, needless to say. At least we can say whatever we want about him without getting sued.

What probably pissed Bradbury off more than anything was that people completely disregarded his interpretation of his own book. In fact, when Bradbury was a guest lecturer in a class at UCLA, students flat-out told him to his face that he was mistaken and that his book is really about censorship. He walked out.

How can you combat humanity’s natural tendency to think they’re right? Be as clear as you possibly can without destroying the prose entirely. Also, don’t assume your readers know everything you do. Don’t talk down to them, but be careful about references that might not be understood by a majority of your readership.

And, if you’re interested at all, I recommend reading the full article on Cracked. It’s really interesting (and highly amusing) as are most of the posts on that site. 🙂

Format: Will Availability Limit Your Readership?

A lot of writers are–usually by necessity or natural inclination–up to date on the latest technology. What you have to be careful to remember, though, is not all readers will be as tech-savvy as you. Depending on your genre, your expected readership may prefer one format over another, or may be split evenly down the middle. Whatever the case may be, it’s something to take into consideration, especially if you’re considering self-publishing.

Jody Hedlund, who I’ve quoted a few times on this blog already, recently posted about this very issue. Her personal experience with the question is why I’m posting it here.

the truth is, not everyone is moving at the same technological speed we are.

I’m reminded of this from time to time when I interact with readers. I often get handwritten notes in the mail from readers. And recently I received TWO letters from women who said this:

It was nice to see your P.O. Box included in your book, as we do not have a computer.”

I don’t have a computer (not good at it). Let me know if you write any other books—the titles, etc.

No computer? That may sound archaic to those of us whose fingers are super-glued to a keyboard. But it just shows that not everyone is as bonkers about computers and the internet as we are.

Recently, I was speaking at a library in Bay City, Michigan, to a group of 50-60 people at a lunch program called “Booked for Lunch.” I shared about my writing journey, research process, and had a power point presentation giving some of the background information of my books.

At the end of my talk, I left time for questions and answers. In the course of the conversations, I mentioned that my eBook of The Doctor’s Lady was on sale on Kindle (at that time was a part of Amazon’s ‘What’s the Big Deal’ promotion). I asked for those who had eReaders to raise their hands. And as far as I could tell, NOT ONE person raised his or her hand.

Jody explains this more, breaking it down into three reminders:

1. Know your genre readers and their demographics.

2. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

3. Stay humble and don’t burn bridges. 

 She goes into more detail within each bullet point on the main blog post, but even as simple reminders, they are points all writers should keep in mind. The world, your readership, and the industry are constantly changing. These days, adaptability may be key to long-term success.

Readers: Prejudice And Misinterpretation

You spend months, maybe years, creating a world and developing a cast of characters. You’re in love with your story and you can’t wait to share it with the world. But then other people start reading it and you suddenly realize they’re not exactly seeing things the same way you are. Apparantly, this is what has happened with the release of the Hunger Games movie.

First, I saw the movie this weekend and I thought it was fabulous. I am a notoriously tough critic on book to movie adaptations, especially for books I already love, but I have to give the screenwriters, director, and crew recognition for a job well done. Were things taken out or changed? Yeah. Did those changes make perfect cinematic sense? Totally. Did they miscast any of the characters? Not a single one, but according to this article, not everyone agrees with me on that last one.

 Already, the Hunger Games has crashed through multiple opening weekend records and is only stymied by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight which both have the strength of an established series of movies behind them. Viewers, even those who have read the books, didn’t expect what they got from a few characters, though. This excerpt is from the article I mentioned above:

But when it came to the casting of Rue, Thresh, and Cinna, many audience members did not understand why there were black actors playing those parts. Cinna’s skin is not discussed in the book, so truthfully, though Lenny Kravitz was cast, a white, Asian or Latino actor could have played the part.
But. On page 45 of Suzanne Collins’s book, Katniss sees Rue for the first time:

…And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor…

Later, she sees Thresh:

The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He’s one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox.

Dark skin. That is what the novelist, the creator of the series, specified. But there were plenty of audience members who were “shocked,” or confused, or just plain angry.

 The author of the article goes on to directly quote a bunch of Tweets and other internet posts that range from confusion to outright racism. One of the worst, in my opinion, states “Kk call me racist but when I found out Rue was black her death wasn’t as sad”.

A moment of silence, please, to contemplate the myriad of ways that statement is utterly sickening.

Okay, moving on. 

Rue looked exactly like I thought she would. Actually, ALL the characters seemed to be plucked straight out of the movie that plays in my head when I read The Hunger Games. It was a little freaky. Not only did Rue look like I thought she would, she was also adorable! And she played the part very well.

I always saw Rue and Thresh with dark skin. IF ANYTHING, I thought Suzanne Collins was playing off racist expectations by making the only black tributes in the Games come from the agricultural district. (Come on. Field hands? Really?) If you look closely, the people in district 11 are practically the only black actors you see in the entire movie. Whether this was intentional on Suzanne’s part to demonstrate another facet of the Capital’s expectations and control or an unconscious reveal of her own prejudice… well, we can speculate all we want, but we can’t know unless we ask her. Either way, fury over a black actress and actor playing black characters (and playing them well)? That’s just flat out stupid.

Books: The BBC Book Challenge

Emily Cross posted this list from the BBC Book Challenge (a list that makes the rounds of the interwebs every so often… I think this is the third time I’ve seen it in recent years) on her blog and I thought it would be fun to see how many I’ve read. She says that most people have read fewer than six of these titles. I’ve done better than that average by a lot (I might have miscounted, but I think I crossed off twenty-four titles). How many have you read? Click the Read more link below the picture to see the list. 

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen

36 The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Alborn
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adam
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Readers: Question Everything

I’ve always know the value of a reader who asks questions, but for a few years I’ve been without one. A good reader will find all those plot holes you didn’t know were there. A good reader will question all your leaps of logic and force you to back them up. A good reader will wonder why and how and what and who and when. And then once you answer those questions, they’ll come up with new ones.

A friend of mine just read the short story versions of Sing and afterward emailed me a long list of questions, notes, and what she calls loves. Answering her questions not only helped her understand the story better, it helped me understand the story better. Someone from the outside who doesn’t have all the answers will think of questions that never even occurred to you. They’ll dig into the dark corners you forgot to dust and find that key you’ve been looking for. They’ll bring up ideas that solve problems you haven’t run into yet. And they can be a wonderful way to get an honest reaction to new plots, characters, and themes.

A good reader is a curious reader, and a curious reader is more precious than diamonds.