Saturday, March 29, 2008

From the Archives: Keeping a Reading Journal

A reading journal might help you to understand a piece of writing better and get more out of it. I found a short article from George Mason University on how to go about keeping such a journal. It is in their handout section, so I am going to paste the whole thing here for your perusal.
The GMU Writing Center Guide to Keeping
a Reading Journal


You'll find many ways to read a text. But keeping a journal as you read is one of the best ways of exploring a piece of writing. With this process you integrate reading and writing, and find that you can interact with the work more fully. Take in every detail, every description. Try to avoid hasty analysis because it can prevent you from understanding the meaning of the novel as a whole. Remember, to analyze anything fully you must have a complete understanding of it.

Begin each new novel, play or poem without predetermined bias. If you decide in advance that all good art uses realistic settings and promotes your personal moral values, you close out the possibility of new experiences. You do not have to, nor should you, enjoy every work of literature that you read. But you should be willing to recognize that the imagination is limitless.

Read slowly. This suggestion can't be stressed enough. If you roller skate through an art museum you won't see the paintings.

Read with pen in hand. Underline key phrases, speeches by major figures, or important statements by the narrator. But don't limit yourself. Underline or highlight anything that seems important or striking. Take notes on ideas or questions (don't trust your memory). Write in the margins. Keep a list of the characters and/or major events on the inside of the front cover. Circle words used in special ways or repeated in significant patterns. Look up words that you don't know or words you think you know but seem to have a special weight or usage.

Look for those qualities that professional writers look for in real life: conflict, contrast, contradiction, and characterization.

Look for rhythm, repetition and pattern. Successful works of literature incorporate such structural devices in the language, dialogue, plot, characterization, and elsewhere. Pattern is form, and form is the shaping the artist gives to his or her experience. If you can identify the pattern and relate it to the content, you'll be on your way to insight.

Ask silent questions of the material as you read. Don't read passively, waiting to be told the "meaning." Most authors will seldom pronounce a moral. Even if they do, a work of literature is always more than its theme. Use the questions devised by reporters: Who, What, When, Where. Why and How may take more study--such questions probe the inner levels of a text.

Keep a reading journal. Record your first impressions, explore relationships, ask questions, write down quotations, copy whole passages that are difficult or aesthetically pleasing.

Ideas to Keep in Mind:
Christopher Thaiss in Write to the Limit (Chicago: Holt, 1991) notes that the word journal comes from the French word for day, which is jour. The word indicates that a journal is kept daily (68). Thaiss also suggests that journals are kept for many different reasons: to record events, to keep an ongoing public record, to record feelings, to make close observations for scientific purposes and, finally, to explore emotions, memories and images in order to think and learn about any subject (69-76).

Don't feel overwhelmed. Just relax; notice and feel things. Associate ideas with other subjects, objects or feelings. Try the following three steps:

Write first. Write what you see in the text.

Next, write what you feel about what you see.

Finally, write down your thoughts and feelings. This step helps you develop perceptions.

We hope this short guide helps you explore your thoughts and ideas. A journal enables you to gain insight into the work while integrating the reading and writing process. Use this guide to help you with all of your reading and writing.

I hope this proves useful--I plan to give it a whirl, likely starting with short pieces such as poems, essays, and short stories. It would, of course, work with articles or any type of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Genre Fiction

Genre fiction is fiction that fits into a particular category, such as mystery or horror or science fiction. Each genre has its general rules about types of setting, plot, characters, and so forth. For more detail, see Wikipedia's article on "Genre Fiction".

Although genre fiction is generally considered to be less than literary fiction, most literary fiction fits into one of the genre categories. Also, a number of writers who write genre fiction are so good as to be, in actuality, literary writers. I find that the distinction is just a matter of opinion and it seems as though writers who deliberately set out to write literary fiction fall flat. Of course, that's just my opinion!

Genre fiction is usually most popular with readers. It's interesting and unpretentious, with characters you care about and plots that catch your attention. It's good for writers to explore different types of writing to see what they might like to try their hand at. Good research and writing will make any book good and attract readers.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

An Article About an Author

A few days ago my friend, Barb, recommended to me a book titled Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz. It's on my list of books to read. Meanwhile, I found an article about Ms. Schlitz at The Christian Science Monitor. It's called "Shy School Librarian Finds Success as Author" by Elaine F. Weiss. So, Barb, this link is for you! It's a nice article and it is also encouraging for those would-be writers who read my blog. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

"Sensible" Writing

When writing the description of a scene, don't just tell what it looks like. Descriptions of things that can be seen are important to the reader--it helps their imagination to picture what you are describing. Don't stop there, though.

What sounds would you hear in that place and time? Would there be traffic noise, people chatting, thunder booming, dishes clattering? How about birds singing or leaves crunching as someone walks over them?

Then there are smells. Do you smell food cooking? Are you describing a gas station and is the smell of gas wafting on the air? In a garden, can you smell flowers or mulch or fresh cut grass?

Is there tasting involved? Is a character eating a meal or trying a new food? Is there something that tastes sweet, sour, salty, or bitter? Is there an awful smell that leaves an acrid taste in your mouth?

How about touching? Does something feel smooth, rough, wet, dry, hot, cold? Is there a cat with soft fur or a dog with wiry hair?

Those kinds of descriptions can add so much to your scenes. It can give a sense of realism, a sense of "you are there". See what you can do by adding just a little extra--don't overdo it, of course. You wouldn't want to cram in all five senses in every scene, but a little something besides just what can be seen might make all the difference in how right your descriptions feel.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Thoughts on Writing

I should probably be posting some poems or other things I've written, but I still don't feel they are "finished" enough. And posting my own writing wasn't my main goal in starting this blog. I just wanted a place to share some thoughts on writing and books.

I probably have too many other things competing for my time and attention, as well. I keep explaining to myself about setting priorities, but...!

I think a mix of reading literature, reading about writing, and actually writing are the way to go in order to learn to be a good writer. Being observant as we go about our daily lives is another necessity, too. We need material to write about and inspiration. We need examples of different kinds of people, weather, scenery, and so forth so that we can bring those things to life through description in our writing.

It's work, but anything worthwhile is. What do you do to work on your writing?