Writing tips

Things to avoid:

1) Unnecessary adverbs

Example: It’s unnecessary to say your company aims to do something “successfully.” Of course you aim to be successful; no one goes into business hoping to fail.

Another example: listing a series of character traits plus one detail that doesn’t fit and pointing out that it’s “incongruous.” You can delete “incongruous;” the reader should notice that it’s different on their own.

2) Vague adjectives

Phrases like “a handsome man” or “a beautiful landscape” give the reader little information. Handsome/beautiful how? These adjectives are subjective and could mean almost anything. Use specific details to illustrate exactly what you mean.

3) Redundant adjectives

You don’t need to say a “soft velvet hat.” Velvet is soft, so just the words “velvet hat” convey the same image.

4) Name-dropping as a crutch for setting

If you’re writing a book set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you might be tempted to name some restaurants, stores, and famous universities and call it done. While this might impress the casual reader, careful readers who’ve never been to Cambridge won’t know what the city looks, feels, or sounds like. Name-dropping does not replace the harder work of creating vivid setting.

5) Name-dropping as a crutch for profundity

Various books and short stories allude to well-known literary works and authors. Sometimes they do it with a brazen title, sometimes a coy but obvious reference within the text. The name-dropper usually suffers by comparison.

Library book sale haul

One of my favorite ways to buy books — besides indie book stores with used sections, of course — is at library book sales. If you go on the last day or two of the sale, you can load up on books for amazing prices. I found a couple of sales where the books were going for $5 a bag and came back with lots of treasures.IMG_2792 - CopyIMG_2793 - CopyIMG_2794 - Copy

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This McSweeney’s title has an intriguing textured cover.

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A book about medieval books.

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A charming, old-timey handbook of 1904 vehicles (the book itself was published later)

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It’s always best when you find personal inscriptions inside!

Trash activities

 

 

Video: Trash in the Delaware Canal

Trash is an environmental crisis. Every day we use and throw out products that are designed to be convenient. That packaging lasts for hundreds of years. For instance, consider your everyday squeezable plastic hand lotion bottle. It won’t biodegrade, and you can’t recycle it.

Even products that are supposedly recyclable often aren’t. Plastic can’t be recycled if it’s contaminated with food or other substances. And the energy required to recycle plastic is sometimes more than it takes to produce new plastic.

The only real answer is to reduce the trash we’re producing in the first place. Because most products are designed to be “convenient” and “disposable,” this can be challenging. But there are easy changes you can make to reduce your trash stream right away. Inspired by people who have achieved a zero waste lifestyle, I’ve decided to make a serious effort to reduce my trash. Here are the steps I’ve taken so far:

Replacements:

Cling wrap and ziplock bags >> glass tupperware. A pretty easy switch.

Plastic disposable razors >> stainless steel safety razor. Honestly, this new razor looks sort of intimidating, but once I learn to use it, it will be less expensive and much less wasteful.

Paper napkins >> cloth napkins. Found some brown washable cotton napkins on clearance at Michael’s, and they have worked great.

Windex >> white vinegar. Vinegar, surprisingly, works just as well to clean glass when rubbed with a rag–the vinegar still comes in a plastic tub, but it’s somewhat more plastic-efficient than the Windex.

Dental floss in plastic >> dental floss in cardboard

Plastic toothbrush >> bamboo toothbrush. I bought the bamboo toothbrush on Amazon and haven’t tried it yet. Some would argue that buying a toothbrush on Amazon, with shipping involved, is equivalent to or worse than the plastic. However, I’m guessing that plastic toothbrushes also get shipped from somewhere far away–when you buy them at CVS, the closeness is an illusion. At least the bamboo toothbrush doesn’t last forever. It would be interesting and helpful if someone did a lifecycle assessment of both toothbrushes.

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This dental floss in a cardboard box isn’t perfect–it comes in a thin film of plastic wrap and has a small circular plastic wring that the floss is wrapped around. But it’s certainly an improvement over the chunky plastic box at left–and the floss works just as well. The price is similar to everyday floss, unlike more expensive eco-friendly versions. I did buy it on Amazon–but unless everyday floss is locally made (unlikely), that is probably shipped long distances as well. And I didn’t buy it individually (cardboard box), but fit it in with another order.

For products where there are container options, I try to choose the more recyclable option. For instance, this plastic wasabi tube isn’t recyclable, but the metal container is. No more plastic wasabi tubes.

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I started shopping at a bulk food store. It’s a health food/eco-friendly store where you can bring your own container, have it weighed, and use it to stock up on bulk food. They have a selection of dry goods, snacks, and some liquids like oil and maple syrup. It’s slightly more expensive than a typical grocery store, but I think the reduction in packaging–and supporting an eco-friendly business–is worth it. However, realistically, I cannot afford some of the products, like their produce and hand soap. This is one frustration of trying to be an eco-friendly shopper: because these products aren’t mainstream (and not currently produced at large scale), they can be more expensive. IMG_2563 - Copy.JPG

I also signed up for a TerraCycle program to mail in my toothpaste containers and remaining dental floss containers and toothbrushes.

And, because I live in an apartment without a private yard, I started attempting to compost with worms in a bin.

These are the changes that have been mostly painless to make. Getting to the next level might be harder and will take more strategizing.

 

Reading in Philadelphia

Last week I read an excerpt from my novel-in-progress at the Philadelphia Stories Winter 2018 issue launch party. I had a great time–I’ve been working on this project for a while, and it was exciting to finally share a little piece of it. It was also wonderful to meet other writers, artists, and literature lovers from the area!

Photo by Pam McLean-Parker

Recommended Reading 2017

Read 68 books this year. I’m recommending 44 of them. Audiobooks are critical. Between work, graduate school, and writing a novel, I don’t really have time to sit down and read. I’m also worried about straining my eyes, since I already stare at computers and paper so much. I still read the occasional print book that I can’t find on audiobook (like titles from smaller presses, such as Jillian). But I read many of these books in audiobook format. It’s the perfect multitasking tool. You can read when driving, cooking, cleaning…thereby making those activities feel less like a waste of time.

Update 12/18: Added The High Cost of Free Parking, The Likeness, The Secret Place, Broken Harbor

Update 1/15: Added In the Woods, Garbology, and Hesiod’s The Works and Days. 2017 List Complete.

Fiction

Megan Abbott. Dare Me (reread), 2013. The End of Everything (reread), 2012. Twisted crime fiction, written beautifully. What more could a reader want? Dare Me is a cheerleader murder mystery. In The End of Everything, the narrator’s best friend is kidnapped, and she tries to solve the crime.

M.T. Anderson. Feed (reread). 2002. Besides Oryx and Crake and 1984, this is the most disturbing and insightful (disturbing because insightful) dystopia I have read. In this novel, teenagers have the internet implanted in their brains. When they’re hacked during an excursion to the moon, the consequences are severe. M.T. Anderson is an astute observer of the effects of internet, advertising, and constant entertainment on our minds. See also: Amusing Ourselves to Death (below).

Margaret Atwood. Cat’s Eye (reread). 1998. A detailed and fascinating account of a Canadian childhood in the 1940s. One of the most striking aspects of this book is its scrutiny of bullying and its effect on the narrator.

A.S. Byatt. Possession. 1991. A novel of academics and literary sleuthing. When a young scholar discovers a famous poet’s letters to an unidentified lover, it sets off a string of startling revelations. As a writer, I admired the novel’s technical virtuosity. Byatt writes not only the main story, but also textbook chapters, poems, letters, etc. spanning several voices and styles.

Halle Butler. Jillian. 2015. Besides the excitement of seeing a 5 Under 35 winner come from a small press (Curbside Splendor), I absolutely loved this. Being in your 20s is supposed to be fun, or at least that’s what people say. Hilarious and cynical, Butler perfectly captures the unfun aspects, like being poor and unsuccessful. The narrator is a depressed, jerky young woman, and there is something so utterly satisfying about seeing this represented in literature. Bonus points for hating on the kind of people who don’t understand other people’s unhappiness.

Jonathan Dee. The Privileges (reread). 2010. A carefully observed, wonderfully written, deliciously voyeuristic novel about the lives of the wealthy.

George Eliot. The Mill on the Floss. 1860. Eliot brilliantly examines the childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of a woman who doesn’t fit with societal conventions. More than that, it’s a novel about family, a subject Eliot treats with compassion and warmth. She’s simply one of the best novelists in the English language, writing with incredible intelligence, wisdom, and generosity.

Tana French. The Trespasser, 2017. The Likeness, 2009 (reread). Broken Harbor, 2013 (reread). The Secret Place, 2015 (reread). In the Woods, 2007 (reread). In The Trespasser, a female detective has to solve a murder case while enduring harassment from her colleagues. The Secret Place is a boarding school murder mystery featuring bratty teenage girls. Broken Harbor is a murder mystery set in a hauntingly abandoned development after the financial crash of 2008. In The Likeness, a detective infiltrates the secret lives of a murder victim’s friends. Tana French is an expert at writing dark and twisty mysteries, while also going deep into character and setting.

Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Mary Katherine lives in an isolated house with only her sister and uncle, keeping separate from the village ever since the suspicious poisoning of several of her family members. When a cousin comes to visit, their carefully ordered existence is cast into disarray. Notable for the delightfully weird and creepy narrator.

Stephen King. The Shining (reread). 1977. One of the most perfectly creepy books I’ve encountered so far. Don’t let the movie fool you–it’s a lot more than a bunch of tawdry scare scenes. The book unfolds slowly, with much psychological depth and backstory behind Jack’s gradual unraveling. King is masterful at making unexpected things frightening. One of the scariest parts of the novel is when Danny tries to walk past a fire extinguisher–an ordinary object that becomes sinister in King’s hands.

Jean Hanff Korelitz. Admission. 2009. Like The Privileges, this one perhaps belongs in the voyeurism category. It deals with a cycle in the life of a Princeton admissions officer. An entertaining read, if you’re into campus novels.

Elizabeth Kostova. The Historian. 2009. An upscale vampire novel involving academics and lots of gorgeous libraries. In a nice shout-out to Dracula, it’s in epistolary format. An entertaining read.

Ron MacLean. Headlong. 2013. MacLean’s novel follows a journalist and a troubled teen during the Occupy protests (to be exact, a movement very similar to Occupy). MacLean has keen observations about the political climate in Boston at the time, and he does a great job exploring the nuances of how political sentiments change with our age.

Haruki Murakami. Sputnik Sweetheart (reread). 2002. A short, bittersweet novel with the dreamy surrealism that Murakami fans love.

George Saunders. Tenth of December. 2014. Saunders is notable for his distinctive voice, focus on working life, and all-around excellence as a story writer. I’m sure other people have said more eloquent things about him.

Sarah Smith. Chasing Shakespeares. 2004. Two very different graduate students think they’ve stumbled upon a Shakespeare conspiracy. Fun and fast-paced.

Zadie Smith. Swing Time. 2017. A friendship between two girls who want to be dancers changes over time. A fast-paced, interesting story with nuanced observations about race, politics, and celebrity.

Donna Tartt. The Secret History (reread). 1992. A pack of pretentious college students plot to murder one of their friends. Aside from the wonderfully melodramatic plot, Tartt writes some of my favorite sentences–she’s a keen observer of detail, dialogue, and character. Her writing is beautiful and specific. She also assembles a vivid cast of secondary characters. If you like campus novels, don’t miss this one.

Weike Wang. Chemistry. 2017. Wang was a 5 Under 35 winner this year. An unnamed PhD student in chemistry narrates her unraveling science career and relationship. The point of view is enjoyable for its take on a specialized subject matter

Sari Wilson. Girl Through Glass. 2017. A look at the world of ballet, with much fascinating professional detail.

Tobias Wolff. Old School. 2004. A young writer learns his craft while attending a fancy private school–and eventually tries to succeed by cheating. Wolff makes the daring choice of writing scenes featuring real writers, and he nails it.

Hester Young. The Gates of Evangeline, 2016. The Shimmering Road, 2017. Young writes literary thrillers–if you’re a fan of Megan Abbott or Tana French, you should check her out. Charlie Cates is a journalist who sees psychic visions about children in trouble. Her investigations take her to Louisiana and Arizona to solve crimes. These are the first two novels of a trilogy, with the third coming out in the future.

Poetry

Hesiod. The Works and Days (translated by Richmond Lattimore). We’re not sure exactly when Hesiod lived; he is probably a rough contemporary of Homer. The Works and Days is interesting because of its cataloging of ancient Greek farming techniques–within the somewhat amusing context of explaining these things to the narrator’s “great idiot” brother.

Homer. The Iliad, The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fitzgerald). Somehow I’d managed to avoid reading these until this year. That was a major error. If you haven’t read them, you must. Immediately.

Plays

Sophocles. Ajax. Sophocles presents quite a different interpretation of Ajax of Telamon and Odysseus than we see in The Iliad.

Non-fiction

Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. 1968. It was refreshing to read such an ardent defense of wilderness. Abbey advocates preserving nature for its own sake, and not mindlessly building roads, buildings, and dams everywhere. Writerly qualities: a starkly individual voice, vivid place-based detail, and one of the most striking opening passages I read this year.

Gavin de Becker. The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. 1999. A self-help-y book that would be light reading if it weren’t so terrifying…but ultimately helpful. This book is a good reminder to follow your intuition, which we often stifle in hopes of being polite.

Dennis Brian. The Curies: A Biography of the Most Controversial Family in Science. 2005. Besides George Eliot, has there ever been a superwoman like Marie Curie? She was not only a genius and a hard worker, but also a humble and generous human being. It’s also incredibly uplifting to read about how Pierre supported her. It was due to his insistence that she was awarded her first Nobel prize–the committee had planned to award him, but not her. It was the first Nobel prize ever awarded to a woman.

Michael Braungart & William McDonough. Cradle to Cradle. 2002. This paradigm-shifting book reveals a startling and upsetting truth: recycling doesn’t work. Most recycled materials are actually “downcycled,” meaning they’re made into low quality products that are usually thrown out. As it is currently practiced, recycling only delays our products’ inevitable journey to the landfill. What would actually solve the waste crisis? Designing things that can be reused.

Rita Zoey Chin. Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir. 2015. Chin writes about her years as a teenage runaway and her later struggles with anxiety. Through all the difficulty, she finds an anchor in her love for horses. This lyrical memoir is a tribute to resilience.

Elizabeth Cline. Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. 2013. Two alarming takeaways from this one: the polyester that most clothes are made of now comes from petroleum-based products; it’s synthetic and can’t biodegrade. And, for those of us who  don’t think we’re wasting clothes because we “donate” them to charity: the volume of clothing donated is so overwhelming that charities can’t handle it, and much of it is thrown out. The cycle of buying cheap clothes regularly and donating them creates a huge amount of waste. After reading this, I went through my closet and realized that most of my clothes are made from polyester. And they’re made cheaply, with rapid obsolescence being an intentional part of their lifecycle. After a lifetime of shopping in cheap fast fashion stores, I’m not sure how to change my lifestyle, but I plan to 1) try second-hand shopping and 2) to keep my eye out for higher quality pieces made of cotton.

Dan Fagin. Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. 2015. This impressively researched volume chronicles the history of the Toms River pollution case. Fagin not only analyzes every event that occurred in Toms River, but also explores the history of the various sciences and technologies that came to bear on the case: epidemiology, dye making, toxicology, statistics, etc. This perhaps makes it sound like dry reading, but Fagin is also excellent at telling the human stories in parallel with the technical detail. It’s a deeply disturbing book. It makes you realize that corporations have a large stake in concealing their polluting practices–and, because it’s so hard to prove causation between diseases and specific pollutants, they can often get away with it, at least long enough to do massive damage to the environment and human lives.

Marya Hornbacher. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. 1998. A sad but fascinating and well-written memoir about eating disorders.

Edward Humes. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash. 2012. A fascinating and sobering overview of the truly astounding extent of our garbage problem.

Bea Johnson. Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. 2013. Came to this book after learning about the Trash is for Tossers website. Some people, like Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer, have figured out ways to structure their lives so that they’re not producing any trash.

Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 1985. It’s not that entertainment is a bad thing. A small amount of entertainment is healthy. The problem is, in a world dominated by television, there is significant pressure to make everything into entertainment. Although the book was published in 1985, it’s a startlingly relevant diagnosis of much of public discourse today.

Donald Shoup. The High Cost of Free Parking. 2011. This tome addresses a surprisingly unquestioned feature of the American landscape. Why are so many suburbs blighted by huge, deserted parking lots surrounding islands of retail? It’s because of zoning laws. Shoup traces the history and origins of zoning ordinances related to parking, building a convincing argument that these ordinances have caused a wide range of problems.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. c. 400 BC. A history of astounding depth and analysis. It’s also surprisingly objective, considering that Thucydides participated in the war on the Athenian side. Thucydides observes all the fascinating details of the war, from how cities defended against siege to how large-scale political convictions fueled actions and conflicts.

Updates

This summer Pale Hearts was featured on American Bookfest.

I’m so grateful to all the readers who’ve told me they enjoyed the book! Thank you for taking the time to read it and share your kind words. I always appreciate Amazon or Goodreads reviews too, if you have a few minutes to comment on the book. It helps other readers find the book, and it helps me as I continue to write!

This fall I’m leading another writing workshop at the Lawrence Branch of Mercer County Library.  It will be on September 15 at 10 a.m., and the subject will be description.  We’ll talk about how to use descriptive language to make your writing vivid.

writing workshop

TV

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that information media cannot be value-neutral vehicles of content. Instead, the nature of media inevitably shape the content they communicate. You can’t communicate the content of a book on television; the nature of television would necessarily alter the message of the book.

Postman says that, as our society has shifted from printed to televisual communication, the content and quality of public discourse has suffered–mostly because television, as a medium, is best suited to entertainment. As a result, everything else is transformed into entertainment so that it looks good on television.

I was born after Postman’s book was published, so it’s hard for me to judge how much society has truly changed. To some extent, people have probably always trivialized serious, complex matters and/or spent large amounts of leisure time engaged in frivolous pursuits. What has definitely changed is the immediate availability of entertainment at any time and any place, as well as its explicitly addictive design. Perhaps because of this, entertainment is often seen not as an accompaniment to life, but as a serious life pursuit in itself.

TV is the center of most homes. Other furniture is acquired and arranged in deference to the television. In living rooms, the chairs and couches face the TV instead of each other–implying that the living room’s purpose is not conversation, but watching. The TV holds privileged status over any other activities that try to exist in the same room. If you’re reading a book, playing a game, or practicing a musical instrument, none of that matters as soon as someone else wants to watch TV. The TV takes over the space with its noise and flashing images, which often leak even into other rooms.

TV shapes interactions even when people aren’t in front of the screen. At any given social gathering, one of the most common topics of conversation is television. No other activity is as universal or unquestioned. People say they “have to” catch up on episodes. They force themselves to try TV shows that are popular, even if they don’t like the show at first. Many people say they don’t have time for x meaningful activity (exercise, writing, learning a new hobby), and then in the very next sentence bring up the latest episode in a popular TV show.

I don’t have a TV. I dislike to the extent to which the internet and social media already distract me from things that matter, and having a TV would only exacerbate this phenomenon. It seems more and more that we’re defined by what we choose to pay attention to–and while it’s not possible to completely ignore it, I aspire to pay as little attention to entertainment as possible.

Thinking through environmental consequences

One thing I’ve learned in my sustainability classes is that sometimes “green” solutions aren’t always so green. By solving one problem, you might be creating another. It’s essential to evaluate entire lifecycles and supply chains to determine whether one solution actually has less environmental impact.  Here are a few examples:

1)      Electric vehicles: Because electric vehicles don’t require gasoline, they might seem like a good way to lower carbon emissions. But it all depends on how the electricity is generated. In a country where most electricity is generated by burning coal, you’ve defeated the purpose. If the electricity is generated from solar and wind power, the electric vehicle is actually powered by a sustainable energy source. However, things get even more complicated. This article points out several other factors that affect the overall environmental impact of the electric car, such as the rare metals that are acquired through destructive mining practices. Only a detailed analysis of each stage of the car’s production, use, and disposal can reveal whether electric cars are actually an improvement.

2)      Artificial Christmas trees: I was glad when my parents bought their first artificial Christmas tree, thinking it would prevent the cutting of real trees. Several years later, this artificial tree had shed most of its needles, and my parents decided to throw it out. That was when I had a horrible thought: where do all the disposed artificial Christmas trees go? It turns out plastic trees in landfills aren’t the only problem. According to this New York Times article, fake trees often contain polyvinyl chrloride (PVC), “which produces carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.” Moreover, you’re not actually doing harm by cutting down a real Christmas tree. They’re grown as a local , sustainable crop, providing jobs and tree cover.

3)      Recycling: For the environmentally conscious among us, it’s reassuring to toss a plastic bottle or container into the recycling instead of trash. But there are some uncomfortable truths behind recycling: it’s expensive and consumes a lot of energy. Some of it ends up in the landfill. Much of our plastic waste isn’t recyclable in the first place. And, as pointed out in Cradle to Cradle, a game-changing book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, recycling doesn’t solve the root problem. It still relies on our society’s default product lifecycle: take resources, make a product, and dispose of it (“cradle to grave”). Recycling slows that process down by a step or two, but it doesn’t alter the overall arch. A better answer would be to shift our products toward a circular model, where waste is designed out and every element of a product, even its packaging, can be put toward productive use.