Take a Look, It’s in a Book

last-night-at-the-lobsterIn February of this year, something very embarrassing happened to me. I was browsing Reddit (despite having better things to do), when a question popped up on the writing subreddit: “How many books do you read a year?” It seemed like a simple enough question. I knew that I didn’t read much – hardly at all really. I’d wanted to start reading more as a way to improve my writing, so I thought it would be good to look at the responses and get an idea of how much my fellow authors were reading.


Excuse me?

Fifty to sixty books a year. Some claimed a bit more, a few claimed a bit less. But the answers were routinely hovering around one book a week. I was shocked. In 2013 I had read two books. Total. Even then, I ended up skimming a lot of the first one, and the second one was a very short book of very short stories (it was also brilliant and I highly recommend it: Sum by David Eagleman).

This was my wakeup call. While I knew it was possible that people were over-selling themselves, they could be doubling their results and still outpacing me twelve to one. It was unacceptable. I had always been a great reader – the top of my class. By junior high I was testing as “13+”, meaning beyond the standard 12 grades and past the point where they keep track. Thirteen Plus. I was so good at reading, I was off the chart. There was a plus sign to prove it.

9780440508830_p0_v1_s260x420Looking back, the problem started early. I was good at reading, yes, but I didn’t enjoy it. More specifically, I didn’t enjoy the books I had to read for school. I didn’t enjoy The Picture of Dorian Gray. I didn’t enjoy The Scarlet Letter or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There were a few hits of course. The Little Prince was worth it. The Good Earth was surprisingly engaging, as was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But those were anomalies. I didn’t like most of the books. More importantly, I loved television. I spent hours in front of the television, internalizing the five-act plot structure and studying the timing of commercial breaks. These days most people know that a half hour show is really just over 20 minutes, but that’s because we watch shows on Netflix. I learned it the hard way – with a stopwatch and an unhealthy fascination.

The point is, I didn’t like what I was forced to read, and I didn’t bother reading anything in my spare time since I preferred television to books. It got worse in college when I discovered passing a class was a matter of reading the material OR attending the lectures. You didn’t need to do both, and I’ve always had great attendance. Besides, in high school and college I crammed my schedule so full of activities that the idea of leisure reading was absurd. I read on vacation. That was it.

And now? Now I don’t even go on vacation, so I don’t read anything at all. At least, that’s where I was in February of 2014 when I got my wake up call. I needed to do something. And I needed to start immediately: twelve books in the next twelve months.

It wasn’t easy at first. There’s a pretty big gap between two and twelve. I wasn’t used to reading every day. I wasn’t used to reading in the day at all in fact. I had always tried to read before bed, which is probably why reading makes me so sleepy. I started reading more during the daylight hours. I would give myself the freedom to only read a few pages and stop as soon as I felt myself nodding off.

By the end of February I finished my first novel, and I had another book done not long after March. I stayed on track, and by the end of July I was at eight books. I had made up for my late start and even managed to get ahead.

FermatThen in September I hit a wall. I got stuck with a book that didn’t interest me, but for unrelated reasons I knew I had to finish. I tried starting a second book so I could alternate between the two, which didn’t work. I would get interrupted when I didn’t read a high-demand library book fast enough and had to return it for a few weeks. It was a rough couple months. I lost the cockiness I’d developed in July.

But I got a second wind and now I’m halfway through book seventeen. Even if it hadn’t been for my last minute participation in the Christmas BookTubeAThon, I still would have hit my goal and then some. I’m finally a reader again.

The problem with setting goals is that once I achieve them I instantly want to set higher ones. I’m already planning on doing the July BookTubeAThon, so twelve books shouldn’t be much of a challenge. How many should I shoot for in 2015? Eighteen? Twenty-four? Perhaps I’ll need to set more specific goals, like a certain number of novels (I read mostly non-fiction this year) or a minimum page count (some of the books were quite short). Or maybe I just need to get back to the reader I once was. Maybe I already know what the real goal should be, next year and every year for the rest of my life: 13+.

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I created a GoodReads account to track my goals and the books I want to read next. If you’d like to be my friend on GoodReads, look for NoodleDrive.

Christmas BookTubeAThon 2014

This last summer one of my friends participated in BookTubeAThon, a seven day reading challenge on YouTube. The overall challenge was to read seven books in seven days, along with sub-challenges to determine which books to read (read a classic, finish a series, etc). There were daily video challenges for people to post and Twitter sprints to help you keep going. I thought it sounded terrifying and wonderful, especially as a slow reader. I was hooked from the day I heard about it…which happened to be two days after it started. No BookTubeAThon for me.

Then this last Thursday I saw a few photos pop up on my Facebook wall for Christmas BookTubeAThon (known as #xmasbooktubathon), a shortened version of the regular challenge. I was feeling busy and swamped and overwhelmed and for some reason it seemed like the perfect time to commit to something gigantic.

For #xmasbooktubeathon this year, there were four challenges:

1) Read a book with red and green on the cover

2) Read a book you really wanted to read this year

3) Read a book that was gifted to you

4) Read three books in three days

The book I wanted to read this year was The 4-Hour Workweek, which I started Friday morning and took to work to read on breaks. For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to Tim Ferris’s podcast, which is really interesting despite Tim being a terrible interviewer. He just knows a lot of fantastic people who are all willing to talk with him for hours on end. I’ve known about The 4-Hour Workweek for years, but discounted it because I thought it was all about high-powered executives outsourcing their lives to India in order to dump their 70-hour workweeks in favor of golf in Havana. Not really my scene.

It’s a little strange to read a book at work that says “WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU WANT TO QUIT YOUR JOB” on the back, but I did it anyway. And in the end, some of the best take-aways from the book were ways I could improve efficiency at work and interact better with the staff. While there’s plenty in the book that I disagree with, I found myself recommending it to two different people by the end of the weekend.

2014-12-20 18.01.53Finding a book with red and green on the cover proved surprisingly difficult. I went through every book on my shelf looking for one, even looking to my boyfriend’s bookshelf for a while. Eventually I found Century Girl: A Hundred Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfield Follies. It’s half biography, half scrapbook. It’s full of images and drawings, which meant it would be an especially fast read. Since this was my first attempt at BookTubeAThon, I thought at least one truly fast read was acceptable. The whole thing took me about two hours, three with breaks.

I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Century Girl, but Doris led a truly fascinating life. From lying about her age to get into vaudeville, to staring in silent movies, to doing ten-cent taxi dances to make it through the depression, to being on the ground floor of the Arthur Murray empire, owning a horse ranch, going to college at 77, and eventually performing at 100 years old on the same stage she started on, Doris was a pretty outstanding lady. Not to mention she was physically and mentally sharp after 100 years having never taken a single pill (she was a Christian Scientist).

Sunday morning I opened The Partly Cloudy Patriot, my choice for a book that was given to me. It was small enough that it didn’t terrify me to read it in a day, and large enough that it counted as a real book. It’s a series of essays about Sarah Vowell’s travels through America. You know, exactly the kind of thing I write. While it was generally good, a few of the essays were a bit dated and not all of them moved as quickly as I’d hoped. I like Sarah’s work on This American Life, so maybe I just don’t like hearing her through my voice.2014-12-18 19.10.19-2

I closed the final page at around 10:30PM on Sunday night, proud of my accomplishment and surprised it was so easy. Sure I didn’t pick anything especially long or dense (the longest was 300 pages), but it was still three books, start to finish, in three pages. Monday morning I was talking to a co-worker about the challenge. “I wish I had time to read three books in three days,” he lamented.

“I didn’t have time,” I replied, “but I did it.”

I recently overheard some people talking about how there’s no good time to have a baby, which is why there’s no use in couples waiting for the timing to be right. It’s true. There’s no good time for a baby, no good time to write a novel, no good time to drive around the country. There’s no good time for almost anything worth doing, and yet somehow it manages to get done.

If reading seven books in seven days sounds like something worth doing, I suggest you mark your calendar for July 2015, the next BookTubeAThon. I know I’ll be there.

I Wrote Every Day for a Year, and This is What I Learned

In the heat of writing a novel last month, I skipped over a rather important milestone. I hit my 365th day of writing every day. For one year, not a day went by where I didn’t bring at least 250 words into the world.

After years of inconsistency, I finally found The Magic Spreadsheet, a shared Google Drive document that serves as a sort of game for writers. Every day you post your word count in the spreadsheet, and it awards you points based on how much you wrote. While you can get points for volume, you get more points for consistency. AKA, you’ll get more points writing 500 words every day for 10 days than you would writing 5000 words in a single day.

The point of The Magic Spreadsheet is to encourage writers to write every day. There’s a live leaderboard to show you where you stand among others on the sheet, but I rarely look at it. I mostly look at my own line, my own count. I started last year during NaNoWriMo, and learned a lot along the way. A few key points:

1) It’s not about time, it’s about priority

The daily minimum for The Magic Spreadsheet is 250 words, which really isn’t that much. It’s about three good paragraphs, and depending on how fast you write it could take less than ten minutes. Even on days where it doesn’t feel like you have a moment to spare, you can always find 10 minutes. Sometimes I woke up early if I knew I’d have something else going on in the evening. Sometimes I wrote during my lunch break at work, saving my words in a email draft. When I went on a young adult retreat weekend, I wrote while other people played board games. When I was staffing conferences and truly didn’t have a moment to myself the whole day, I stayed up late at night to write before bed.

It wasn’t about “finding time,” it was about deciding that this was something that had to be done. I don’t find time to floss or eat or go on Facebook or stare off blankly collecting my thoughts, yet I manage to do all three on a daily basis.

2) Even phoning it in can be useful

There were times when I put off writing until late at night, until the last possible minute. I questioned whether or not it was still worth it, since what I was producing was obviously terrible. I was so tired I would fall asleep mid-sentence. I wrote whole paragraphs about how tired I was and how hard it was to stay awake. I wrote about how painful writing was, and I wrote about how I worried it wasn’t worth it at this point.

But then came November, and I was deep into my novel. I wanted to write about how my hero was feeling drained and exhausted, and realized that all I had to do was re-create the same voice I had during all those sleepy rants. It was easy to write that scene, because I’d written it so many times before.

3) Writer’s block is for projects, not practice

Writer’s Block isn’t actually an inability to write anything, it’s the inability to write the thing that you vaguely wish you could write. You can have writer’s block on a scene or a story, but it’s not a factor when you’re talking about a daily writing practice. There will always be thoughts in your head. Write them down.

4) The easiest thing I can write is my own opinions

If you spend enough days writing your own silent monologue, you’re probably going to get pretty good at it. I’m starting to realize that non-fiction, explanatory prose is about the easiest thing in the world for me to write. This post, for example, was extremely easy to write.Scrivener

5) If you up the output, you have to up the organization

My Scrivener project for this blog is a mess. It’s absolutely atrocious. Scrivener is the (fantastic) software I use for writing, and it gives you the ability to quickly and easily organize your writing. And I’ve been using it as a glorified text editor. The Scrivener project for this blog is still no more than a list and some folders. It’s a long list too, full of somewhat arbitrary categories with zero distinction between the wheat and the chaff. I think my lack of organization was the primary reason I kept questioning whether or not writing every day was worth it. I was hiding my accomplishments in the mess.

6) People may think you’re weird

While on the whole everyone was very supportive, I got a few weird looks along the way. Aren’t you tired? Don’t you want to relax? Are you really leaving early for that? It wasn’t always said, sometimes just implied. In daily life we often hear about highly dedicated people, but we seldom know them and even less frequently become them. It helped when I heard a friend explain my writing to someone else as “a daily discipline.” It felt a little more reasonable, a little more sane. We’ve all tried daily disciplines and we all fail at most of them. This was one that managed to stick with me.


I think it was beneficial to just write, regardless of subject or purpose. Like playing scales on the violin, sometimes you simply need to practice your instrument.

The Magic Spreadsheet allows you to count editing time in lieu of actual words, a substitution I haven’t allowed myself yet. However as I sit staring at the 287,000 words I’ve written in the last year I can’t help but think it’s time to start sorting through the muck. Writing is rewriting, which means editing is writing. And so long as I work on my writing in some measurable way every day, I might just end up with something great.

NaNoWriMo Debrief

This is my second attempt to write a blog post about my 2014 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Why? Because I haven’t written non-fiction in 30 days and it’s hard to suddenly switch back. I’m also out of practice with some key elements to good blogging, such as caring if what you write is any good and knowing when to stop.Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

Oddly enough, my first NaNo was the easiest one, and it’s only gotten harder since then. Perhaps it’s because your first will always be the novel you’ve imagined the most, and therefore it will be the one you’re most prepared to write. That was certainly the case for me. My first year I started without much preparation, yet I already knew my protagonist, antagonist, love interest, several supporting characters, a few key settings, the basic plot outline, and what themes I wanted to explore. This year I knew months in advance I would write that superhero story I’ve been kicking around for years, yet when November 1st arrived I realized I wasn’t prepared at all.

I didn’t have a plot beyond a few basic ideas. I didn’t have an antagonist until halfway through the month. I had a few isolated scenes and a whole lot of placeholders. Placeholders like, “a scene where she first notices her powers,” and “she should kill someone in a way that is understandable but not really justified.” These are about as helpful as someone suggesting you should “put in something really cool.” Thanks. I’ll get right on that.

Yet through it all I managed to bash out 50,359 words in 30 days. A lot of them are very bad. Most of them will be thrown out before anyone sees a first draft of my yet untitled superhero book. But it’s a start. And it’s more of a start than I had 30 days ago. Most importantly, last night my boyfriend went to the store and bought me a box of celebratory Lucky Charms. So not only did I write a book, but today I had Lucky Charms for dinner. And it’s not even Christmas yet.