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Site Challenge: Reading like a Writer (September 2018)

This is the discussion thread for a fun new challenge we'll be doing next month. Please read the guidelines (which will be posted shortly), then join us here starting on September 1!

NaNoWriMo 2018 Progress:

It's September 1, which means it's time to kick off our Reading like a Writer challenge!

Please keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules. Our objective is simply to read a novel with a critical eye, sharing our thoughts on what works for us and what doesn't. Please feel free to share your insights as often as you like – our goal is to learn from both the books we read and from each other.

When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word IMPROBABILIA. Now Apollo is a father himself—and as he and his wife, Emma, are settling into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo’s old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd. Irritable and disconnected from their new baby boy, at first Emma seems to be exhibiting signs of postpartum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go even deeper. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood, to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest, which begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts, takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.

This captivating retelling of a classic fairy tale imaginatively explores parental obsession, spousal love, and the secrets that make strangers out of the people we love the most. It’s a thrilling and emotionally devastating journey through the gruesome legacies that threaten to devour us and the homely, messy magic that saves us, if we’re lucky.

This is the book I've chosen, and I'm so excited to get started! What will you be reading?

NaNoWriMo 2018 Progress:

I'll be reading Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope. I saw it in a thrift shop and felt like I had to choose this one since it's about something that happened at my alma mater.

Meet Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerak: one buried under the wrong name, one in a coma and being cared for by the wrong family.

This shocking case of mistaken identity stunned the country and made national news. Would it destroy a family? Shatter their faith? Push two families into bitterness, resentment, and guilt?

This is far away from my usual fare so here's hoping for the best!

I've chosen to read The Message in the Bottle by Walker Percy. It's a book of non-fiction essays I tried to read a couple of years ago and gave up early on. I usually avoid this kind of book because I usually get bored with the non-fiction-ess of it all. But here's the summary:

Ambitious yet readable, The Message in the Bottle encapsulates the philosophical foundations of his groundbreaking novels, perfect for Percy fans and new readers alike. From discussions on the dislocation of man in the twentieth century to theories on why humans talk while other animals do not, this is an enlightening collection from one of the South’s most celebrated writers.

I've chosen Ticktock by Dean Koontz. This was recommended to me by a fellow shopper at Half-Price Books. I went in knowing horror would be my genre of choice for this challenge (because I usually avoid horror in media/TV like the plague), so it was really neat that when the moment I told him I was looking to try something new, he took me over to the horror section and pointed out several options that had him on the edge of his seat. Here's the summary:

Tommy Phan is a successful detective novelist living the American Dream in southern California. One evening he comes home to find a small rag doll on his doorstep. It's a simple doll, covered entirely in white cloth, with crossed black stitches for the eyes and mouth, and another pair forming an X over the heart. Curious, he brings it inside.

That night Tommy hears an odd popping sound and looks up to see the stitches breaking over the doll's heart. And in minutes the fabric of Tommy Phan's reality will be torn apart. Something terrifying emerges from the pristine white cloth, something that will follow Tommy wherever he goes. Something that he can't destroy. It wants Tommy's life, and he doesn't know why. He has only one ally, a beautiful, strangely intuitive waitress he meets by chance--or by a design far beyond his comprehension. He has too many questions, no answers, and very little time. Because the vicious and demonically clever doll has left this warning on Tommy's computer screen:

"The deadline is dawn."


Time is running out.

Sounds like you guys made some awesome choices! Dee, yours in particular sounds like something I'd love to read.

The book I chose was from the writing course we did recently. One of the assigned readings was a small excerpt from this novel, and I was immediately intrigued. I love this first sentence:

This fairytale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike.

I really like books (or chapters) that start with a strong, declarative sentence. I also love the contradictory elements in this one – fairytales are not something we normally associate with garbage strikes.

What's the opening sentence of your book?

NaNoWriMo 2018 Progress:

I'm not sure how I feel about that first sentence, to be honest! I guess the easiest way to put it is this: if I had read that sentence first, before looking at the summary, and had to make a judgement call as to whether I should pick the book up and take it home with me, I would have probably left it on the shelf. I usually like simple, bold starts to books, too, but this one doesn't quite do it for me.

Mine doesn't do it for me either, lol.

Out of a cloudless sky on a windless November day came a sudden shadow that swooped across the bright aqua Corvette.

Setting the scene and describing the weather is, like...the fallback. It's a tried and true method, and I'm sure each one of us has used it before because it works. Readers are immediately where the characters are, seeing what they see. Readers can get a sense of the mood, too. It's not a bad way to start, really. The problem is, we as writers know it's easy to begin this way. I look at it as the way to begin when we have no idea what else to do but say something and get moving. I don't want to say it's lazy, necessarily, but I try to make a start like this my last resort, if only because it's not terribly unique.

Mine's about as lackluster as it gets:

Colleen Cerak woke up with a start to the sound of the phone ringing.

Thankfully the story picks up pretty quickly from there.

I like yours, H (haven't read that excerpt yet but I recognized the title). That first sentence definitely tells you enough about the setting to create curiosity.

Quote from Dana on September 3, 2018, 2:42 pm

Out of a cloudless sky on a windless November day came a sudden shadow that swooped across the bright aqua Corvette.


Whoa, dude needs to chill with the adjectives! 😀

– – – –

One thing I'm really liking about my book is that the main character and I were born the same year. This made it easier for me to relate to his experience, since I vividly remember what the world was like in the 80s and 90s. I especially like the pop culture references – they really do a good job of immersing me in that world.

This got me thinking about "common ground", which is so important in helping us connect with characters. Of course, it's not possible to make a character the same age as all your readers or place them in similar settings (especially if you write high fantasy), but I think it's good to pay attention to the little things. Various interests, favorite foods, unique personality quirks – you want to give as many readers as possible the opportunity to say, "hey, me too!"

This doesn't mean you should bog your story down with tons of minor details, but if you can sprinkle them in here and there, I think it makes characters feel more real/relatable.

NaNoWriMo 2018 Progress:

Since I'm reading on an e-reader, I'm not sure how to go back to see the first sentence without losing my place, but I'll give it a shot.

Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?

You'd think the book would have been more interesting to me after a start like this, but I'm finding it a chore. After stumbling through the first chapter, I've decided to read one chapter a day. That means it'll take me 15 days to get through the book, but I don't mind. I think it's the only way I'll get through it without quitting.

All Writers Are Created Equal