Lost Gods author interview: Anna Smith Spark

I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.

What’s your writing name?

My name is Anna Smith Spark, author of the Empires of Dust trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying, The House of Sacrifice.

What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?

My story in Lost Gods is called ‘Water’. It’s a story about a selkie – a creature from Celtic myth who is both a woman and a seal. It can be read as the backstory to a woman who makes a very brief but significant appearance in The Court of Broken Knives and/or as a companion story to my story ‘Stones’ in Three Crows Magazine: Year One. Or it can be read as a story about women and motherhood in any time any place anywhere.

I’ve always been haunted by folklore about selkies, mermaids, fairies who form some kind of relationship with humans. Men who follow a fairy princess to the Otherworld and return to find a hundred years have passed and everything they knew is gone and dead; fairy women who live with a human family but are unmasked and forced to flee leaving it all behind. 

These stories have so any layers of meaning: otherness, cultural change, integration, immigration, xenophobia …  very obvious feminist readings about power and gender, a wife’s outsider status in a traditional patrilineal family structure, men’s fear of women’s sexuality …  and the universal fear of life change, moving on from the innocent time when your primary relationship is with your parents to it being with your partner, then perhaps with your own children, and you can’t go back from that, that time is gone, and then your own children too move on and you’re not their primary relationship any more, that too is forever gone … 

The story looks at all these things, and at the very basic experience of being a mother to young children, how hard it sometimes is. You do feel like an alien being, sometimes, frankly, and to your child you do have this terrifying terrifying role as a god. 

More specifically, the story was inspired by a stretch of the coast path between Gurnard’s Head and Zennor in west Cornwall. The ruined cottage and the stream are real places on that walk. Zennor has a mermaid legend – with a happy ending, interestingly, the mermaid comes up from the sea to the church because she’s drawn by a man’s beautiful singing, he goes with her to the sea, years later a fisherman meets him living happily as a merhusband with his merwife and merchildren. Zennor was where D H and Frieda Lawrence lived during the First World War, as written about by Helen Dunmore in Zennor in Darkness; Patrick Heron had a house, Eagle’s Nest, above the village. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, very isolated, a glorious suntrap with the sea beyond and the moors behind, and this incredible blazing white sunlight drenching everything.

The curd cakes mentioned in the story are a reference to a recipe that was created in honour of The Court of Broken Knives. You can find the link to the recipe on my website www.courtofbrokenknives.com. They’re delicious.    

Why do you write fantasy? 

Because of all the things in the Flecker poems quoted below.

The endless possibilities. Magic. Wonder. Beauty and horror beyond mortal ken. All the dreams and fears we have as children, the terrible cosmic awe we feel standing looking up at the vastness of the stars, the sea with the sun setting into it in fire, ancient ruins against storm clouds. The re-enchantment of the world, the yearning for something more than this: on Halloween the hollow hills will open; beneath the cold Atlantic the World Serpent lies drowsing; on another distant shore dragons dance on the west wind. Fantasy makes these things real. Makes life stranger and more beautiful. Makes the world a better, stranger place.  That oak tree might be the doorway to fairyland, that cloud might really be a castle in the sky – once you’ve read enough fantasy, you don’t quite know. On some deep level I really believe in fairies, selkies, dragons, magic. So obviously I write about them. 

But also I have no idea why I write fantasy. I wrote fantasy stories all the time as a child, I stopped writing completely, one day as an adult I started writing a scene without any idea what I was doing, no plan at all, and it turned out to be epic fantasy because … all of the above. But it wasn’t intended. Just happened. Turned out there was a vast fantasy world in my mind. (It was what is now the second chapter of The Court of Broken Knives. The twist at the end of the first section took me by surprise as well).

What’s your writing routine? 

I have two days a week to write, plus the occasional Saturday or Sunday. I write nine to five on those days and that’s all the chance I get, if I don’t use them that’s it for the week. So I tend to use them frantically. It’s quite good, actually, certainly motivates me.

I think about what I’m writing all the time, though. Listen to the cadence of the prose, think about the story and the characters, the setting, the way things are evoked … I live in the story while I’m writing it, I do see it as a whole thing before my eyes, sort of walk through it in my thoughts bending down to look carefully at details or seeing the whole and how it works as someone might look at a painting. 

How has coronavirus affected your creativity?

 Aha ha ha ha ha.  I was homeschooling two children through it, so … creativity? You don’t know what true creativity means until you’re simultaneous teaching fronted adverbials and short division while on a teams meeting with your child-free boss while realising you didn’t get a Tesco.com slot this week so there’s nothing for lunch unless you risk death and also nasty looks from an old git who refuses to wear a mask properly by going to the shop with the kids. I have never been so creative.

Read ‘Water’. I had no idea it would be quite so prescient. 

Which three books would you recommend everyone reads?

Just three????? 

M John Harrison, Viriconium. All epic fantasy is a mere footnote to Viriconium. As I said to Steven Erickson by the pool in LA. 

Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Wild, beautiful, mysterious all-ages fantasy.

 James Elroy Flecker, Collected Poems 

We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:


And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.

(From The Golden Journey to Samarkand) 

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

(From The Golden Road to Samarkand)

Those lines are everything to me, and why writing fantasy is the highest and noblest purpose in life. 

What’s next for you? (use this space for self-promotion if you’ve new things coming out or have other projects that you want people to know about) 

Several things, but most of them sadly a deep secret that I can’t really talk about yet. As in ‘Water’, I’ m writing more and more about my own lived experience, complex, confessional book – just in a high fantasy setting because that’s the best setting there is.  Elena Ferranti with dragons!  I do feel a moral obligation not to flinch away from writing the bleak truth as I see it about power and political responsibility, but I’ve been consciously writing more hopefully about the world. Empires of Dust was about tearing down false narratives, critiquing everything, it is a very nihilistic, scorched-earth approach because human life is inevitably destructive. But I certainly believe that individual goodness is possible, that love and acts of kindness are indeed humanly necessary, and I’m shifting my focus more to write that too.

Less cryptically, I’ve got a short story for the Grimdark Magazine kickstarter project The King Must Fall, which is probably a last scorched-earth nihilistic hurrah to Empires of Dust (and features a cameo by Grimbold Books supremo, author of the amazing Anna (no relation), and general-force-of-good-in-the-world Sammy K Smith). I’m also down to write a story for Grimoak Press’s Unbound III next year. And God of Grimdark Michael R Fletcher and I have co-authored a serial for Grimdark Magazine that we’re finishing up, which took far longer than anticipated because neither of us plan anything, and that turns out to be more of a problem when you’re trying to follow on from something someone else wrote (Our editor: Guys, uh, did you, like, read the previous chapters before writing the next one? Us: No. Obviously. Why would we do that?)

Looking at the above – if you run a publishing house called Mundane but Ultimately Quite Pleasant, please feel free to get in touch.

Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed, multi-award shortlisted Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice (HarperVoyager UK / Orbit US) described as ‘game of literary thrones’ by the UK Sunday Times and ‘like early Moorcock and Le Guin’ by the UK Daily Mail. Her favourite authors are Mary Renault, R Scott Bakker and M. John Harrison. Previous jobs include English teacher, petty bureaucrat and fetish model. You may know her by the heels of her shoes.

www.courtofbrokenknives.org

Twitter: @queenofgrimdark

Facebook: Anna Smith Spark

 

Lost Gods author interview: Lindsey Duncan

I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.

What’s your writing name?

Lindsey Duncan

What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?

My story in Lost Gods is entitled “Hunting Fire,” and it began as a one-hour free write exercise on the theme of unseasonable weather.  As usual with these things, I didn’t finish it in that hour, but I developed the threads that would carry the story forward.  Also as usual with these things, I took the prompt and turn it on its ear.  I decided to write about a warm spell in cold terrain from the perspective that this surge of warmth was a bad thing, even a catastrophe.  The idea of making a bitter, wintry environment into something hospitable fascinates me; it’s not the first (or last) time I’ve written a story in this kind of setting.

But I knew that humans would struggle in such a place, so the Glaciads came into being.  I always try to avoid the “humans in fuzzy suits” approach to creating nonhuman peoples, so that led to different mores, social structure … and a daughter for the main character, who turned out to be integral to the story’s resolution.  The Glaciads have their own gods, of the core, of the ice, of the winds … and something else.

Why do you write fantasy? 

I write fantasy because I adore creating worlds, playing with what-ifs, and mixing up real world facts to suit myself … and also because it’s habit.  I have been writing fantasy since my fingers first touched keys, so I suspect that even if I tried to write a mainstream tale, magic would sneak in by the back door.  History and mythology have wonderful wells to draw upon, but I love the freedom to take it in a different direction. Something I particularly enjoy is taking an absurd idea and playing it straight, often to the point that the comic origins disappear.  My story in another Grimbold anthology, Unexpected Heroines, involves the concept of a tree who operates as a spy in enemy territory.

I’m still working on a way to play “it’s raining men” as a serious story.

What’s your writing routine? 

I write most days, but there isn’t a particular time or amount of time set aside for it; it depends on how tired I am after work, how many other things are going on, and whether I’m grumpy enough to want to stab all my characters and leave them for dead.  (Granted that I love writing about the afterlife and spirits, so that might make the good *start* of a story.)  

I usually cycle between 2-3 projects, stopping at a set point to switch to the next.  I’m an incubator, so that gives me the opportunity to let things simmer on the backburner … and I’m incapable of doing one thing at a time, anyhow.  These projects are usually of different types / different stages of process:  for instance, I might write in a novel WIP while editing a short story.

How has coronavirus affected your creativity? 

My day job is in catering, so there was a lot of stress and anxiety about the survival of the business, coupled with the necessity of changing tactics to stay afloat … a move away from the elaborate desserts and appetizers we specialize in, and where most of the creative joy in cooking resides.  Add to that I also play the harp professionally for parties and events, and that business understandably dropped off a cliff.  I very much felt like I was creatively useless.  Sometimes, I was overwhelmed and just had to hibernate for a while.  Overall, though, it didn’t harm my writing:  if anything, it focused me, because it was the one thing I could still do, a creative escape that no one could cancel.

Which three books would you recommend everyone reads? 

Everyone’s reading tastes are so different, I couldn’t begin to suggest a book (or three) for everyone.  Good fantasy anthologies are hard to find, though, so I thought I would suggest three to check out:

Fantastic Companions – edited by Julie Czerneda

Not just traditional familiars and talking animals, but a wide variety of companions, including ancient gods and constellations personified

Murder by Magic – edited by Rosemary Edghill

Stories merging magic and mystery, written both by fantasy and mystery writers.  Surprise:  some of the best fantasy comes from the mystery professionals.

Beyond The Woods:  Fairy Tales Retold – edited by Paula Guran

A wide spanning anthology that takes fairy tale inspiration from dystopian science fiction to urban fantasy and even historical fiction.  The first few stories were too dark and tenuously connected for my tastes, but the quality climbs steadily throughout.

What’s next for you?

I don’t have any major projects about to come out, though you can check out my forthcoming short story and poetry at my website:  http:///www.lindseyduncan.com  I’m currently shopping a fantasy-mystery novel called Unnatural Causes, in which a snarky familiar tries to unravel the secrets behind the death of her enchanter.

My soft science fiction novel, Scylla and Charybdis, is still available from Grimbold Books:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07B54QJYL/ 

 

Lost Gods author interview: Kerry Buchanan

I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.

Author Kerry Buchanan with a horse

What’s your writing name?

Kerry Buchanan. Never felt a need to hide behind a pseudonym!

What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?

Shades of Perdition.

I’ve always been fascinated by mythology, and grew up reading the Odyssey and the Iliad as well as everything I could find about the Greek and Roman gods. Throw in a dash of C.S. Lewis, and you have the makings of a story. My main character breaks a few moulds (and not by sitting on them, although that would also be a possibility). Cassie (Cassandra) is not your usual slim, sylph-like hero with ninja skills – that would be way too easy – so instead I decided to make her middle-aged, overweight and I gave her creaky joints and bosoms that would go into orbit if she spun too fast. Once I had my scene set and my character larger than life (in every sense), all I had to do was make her life even harder.  

Why do you write fantasy? 

I don’t just write fantasy (Knife Edge, the first of my crime series set in Northern Ireland, was released in April 2021 by Joffe Books), but until recently fantasy was almost all I wrote. I guess it’s back to those legends again. Plus, I decided at a very early age that dragons were the coolest creature ever, except maybe unicorns (but I’d grown out of unicorns by around five years of age). Almost all my stories have a dragon in them somewhere. I love the freedom within fantasy to let your imagination really fly, and I love the idea of magic.

It’s not that there are no rules when writing fantasy. I think it’s important to design a magic system, or a world, that is consistent. I won’t let my characters escape peril by suddenly allowing them to discover a new and hitherto unsuspected talent for (as an example) chucking fireballs at their enemies. It’s just that I get to write the rules and police them myself. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, because who doesn’t, but at least I try for consistent world-building.

What’s your writing routine? 

Until very recently, I didn’t have one. For many years, I’ve been a full-time carer for someone with dementia, and that led to unpredictable days and a lack of routine, as I had to fit in with someone else’s randomness. Just over a week ago, my father went into residential care, so now I have free time during the day, and I have no idea what to do with it! In theory, I work for a couple of hours every morning and another couple every afternoon, but sometimes my muse refuses to dance to my tune, so I end up being struck by inspiration at the exact moment when I should be starting to make dinner or feed the cats. Cue irritated husband foraging in the fridge for something easy to cook. Once I’m lost in my writing, time has no meaning.

How has coronavirus affected your creativity? 

If anything, it has improved it. Under stress, I tend to write more not less, so I’ve been hammering away. During the first lockdown, I edited North Star, an all-female anthology by Northern Irish female writers, as well as contributing a story to it, and I’ve been editing another all-female anthology, Femmes Fae-Tales, for my wonderful friends from www.sffchronicles.com as well as writing my own fairy story for the anthology. This has brought home to me how much the pandemic has affected many other people’s creativity. So many people are finding it much harder to write these days. Some are trying to home-school children whilst also working from home (all on the same ageing laptop); others are just so disheartened by the sickness and death around them that they can’t get their minds on their writing at all. For myself, I run away into my fictional words. My safe space. I’ve completed another crime novel and almost finished a third one since last June. 

Which three books would you recommend everyone reads? 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is an epic read, and a real eye-opener. Apart from being a great book, it really makes you think about the future of species and how humans try to manipulate them. 

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, because it’s such a lesson in world building. Even down to the languages he’s created and the different races and customs. Many are nicked from the very mythologies I grew up with, but none the worse for that. It is, however, a story of its time. If you’re looking for a book that passes the Bechdel test, this is not it!

The Elderings Series  by Robin Hobb. Yes, I’m cheating here because there are more than 15 books in this series, but they’re sooo good. 

What’s next for you?

I still love writing fantasy, and will go on doing so, but currently I have a three-book contract with Joffe Books for my crime series, so that’s keeping me pretty busy at the moment. Knife Edge is doing well, and the second novel, Small Bones, should be released around June of this year. The third one, Close Hauled, won’t be too far behind. I’ve also been commissioned to write a story for another international anthology, and I run online writing classes, groups and sessions all the time. My Ulster Dedicated Writers meet four times a week, and these sessions are when I get most of my writing done.

 

The Fox Spirit Book of Love

The Fox Spirit Book of Love edited by Chloe Yates

I love writing for anthologies. There is always a central theme that ties a book together, and as a writer it’s actually pretty interesting to write within constraints. Every single writer interprets the theme in a slightly or completely different way. That’s what makes anthologies great.

My submission for the Fox Spirit Book of Love was quite random. I almost didn’t do it. I had this story that I really loved, but I had no idea where it was going to find home. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea in both style and substance. But I’m glad it turned out to be Chloe Yates’ cup of tea – the estimable editor of the Fox Spirit Book of Love. This anthology has stories by several writers who are well-known names in the British SFF indie scene, so I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Recently, Alasdair Stuart did a full review of the anthology in his weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. If you aren’t familiar with it, I highly recommend it. It covers all things pop culture. For my story, The Holy Waters, he said:

The Holy Waters’ by Dolly Garland packs a book’s worth of history and background and tragedy into one short story. As a pair of monarchs struggle to deal, in very different ways, with the loss of their children, the story pulls back and back until we get if not comfort, then context. If not understanding, then acceptance. It’s intensely ambitious and one of the best pieces in the book by some distance.

That certainly made my day. Reviews are subjective, of course. And you may hate the story that someone else likes. But as writers, when we put our heart and soul into a story, we hope that at least one person out there gets what we’re trying to say. This particularly applies to this anthology, which is all about love. Different kinds of love that speak differently to each of us.

If you are interested in some heart warming stories, do check out the Fox Spirit Book of Love.

 

Gollancz/Rivers of London BAME SFF Award Shorlist

It’s been a while since I posted here. I’ve been pretty rubbish at writing blog posts. This return hopefully means that I will rectify that. We’ll see.

When you try to be a professional writer and start sending things out in the world, one of the best ways to cope with rejections is to send things out and forget about them – because let’s face it, rejections outnumber acceptances in the publishing industry, especially when you are not an established author.

In January, I submitted the first few chapters of my novel, Kali’s Call to Gollancz’s contest for BAME SFF writers, which is supported by Ben Aaronovitch and NaNoWriMo. I didn’t exactly forget about it, but I didn’t obsess about it either.

Then in May, I first received an email saying the short-list date was pushed back due to current situations. So then the shortlist and the nervous anticipation was back in my mind. And about a week later, I received another email that included words “I’m thrilled…” and I just stared at it for a few moments.

BAME AWard

Gollancz is a pretty solid name in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and so is Ben Aaronovitch. So the fact that my novel, Kali’s Call, was included in the shortlist is nothing short of astounding.

The first few chapters of Kali’s Call were actually workshopped at my first Milford in 2017, and the feedback I received from everyone there was immensely useful. My intention to finish that novel soon after Milford didn’t work out, and the book has actually progressed a lot slower than I’d planned. In fact, I ended up not touching it for over a year. Lots of reasons behind it, including non-writing reasons. But sometimes books just take you on a weird journey. I wrote other things in between, but this book just sat there.

When I first started writing this book, it was with a complete pantser approach, because I just wanted to see where the story would take me. Shivani, one of the main characters in the story, came to me first when I wrote a short story for Fight Like a Girl anthology. In this book, Shivani’s journey continues. But it was Avantika, who came to me solid as a character, and it was her story I started to write.

The pantser approach was great, until the story took me to the middle, and just left me there. So when I returned to it, I wanted to be a little more methodical. I have plotted novels before, and this was an experiment in just going with the flow. If there is anything I should have known about my general personality is that I am totally not the sort who goes with the flow. People telling me to relax stresses me out more than whatever actual stress I might be experiencing. The same thing happened with this book. There is a room for free form exploring the story, but I think for something as big as a novel, I have now learned my lesson that I like to know where I am going.

As Isaac Asimov said, “Knowing the beginning and the end of the story before you start writing it.” So I figured out my exact end, and got bit of a handle on how the characters were going to get there. I don’t have all the details yet, and some parts are still really frustrating, but I have a general direction.

The final results of the Gollancz contest will be out any time now. Of course, I am nervous. I have no doubt that other shortlisted writers are very talented, and I know one of them personally from a London writing group. But I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed for me.

However, one good thing that has already come out of this, is it’s given me my writing mojo back. I was struggling to write when the lockdown started. Like a lot of us have been. There is an illusion of more time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a sudden creative outburst. But once this result came out, it really inspired me. I thought if others can see the potential of this book, then I owe it to myself to finish it. So I promised myself that I will finish the first draft of this story by the time the results come out in July, and since then I’ve been sticking to it.

It’s certainly not easy, and sometimes it is like pulling teeth. I am also currently doing a very busy day job, so that means I am writing in the evenings, trying to meet my daily quota. I know, there are people who write under far more challenging circumstances, but like anything, it’s relative. But getting back into daily writing, meeting my self-imposed word counts, and seeing that progress bar is giving me all sorts of productive feel. But more importantly, I am finally seeing this story shape take on paper (or screen) as I had seen it in my head, and that is the most important thing.

I don’t like leaving stories incomplete. Whatever ends up on the page never quite measures up to what is in one’s head, but you can’t edit the blank page.

So I’m really thankful to Milford for seeing the potential of this story in the first place, and to Gollancz for seeing that now. Now I better get back to that word count.

 

Live blogging from Milford writing retreat

It’s my first time at Milford’s writing retreat, but second time attending Milford altogether. My first was in 2017 when I won a bursary to attend the Milford conference. That experience was so productive and energizing that I was determined to come back.

When Milford started doing these writing retreats from 2018, I was immediately interested. But 2018 was one in freezing February so I chickened out and signed up for much milder May 2019 retreat instead.

I’ve been here a day and already I feel the writer in me taking the centre stage as rest of the life, chores, to-do lists fades away into the background.

My plan for this week is to edit (basically re-write) a short story and edit my novel. There is, of course, reading involved, because when you are done writing, you want to be inspired by good words. Hanging out with fellow Milfordians is awesome as ever. It’s amazing how close you feel to people you barely see when brought together in a right (write) setting.

It also happens to be my birthday today, and of course, whatever you do on your birthday is what you will do for the rest of the year. So this seems like a good day to be productive as a writer.

 

How to keep a reading journal

As many of you know, I’m big on journaling. I find it an immensely useful tool for all sorts of reasons. I have at one point or another kept various forms of journals, and now, I just sort of combine all of them as and when it suits my purpose.

This post is specifically about keeping a reading journal. I recently wrote a post about 9 reasons to keep a reading journal, so this goes further into the doing of it.

First, let’s start with a caveat: this is not the only way to keep a reading journal. As I repeatedly mention on Kaizen Journaling, there is no one way to keep any journal. The right way is what works for you. 

However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from others. If you are a beginner, other people’s methods will get you started. Even if you have kept reading journals before, by looking into how other people do it, or by reading articles such as this, you may learn something new. Journaling is a process of continuous improvement, and as such, it should constantly evolve.

First, determine why you want to keep a reading journal. Your why will affect your how.

Select a journal

The first obvious question is e-journal or paper journal? While I’m always an advocate for keeping hand-written journals, when it comes to reading journals, it is a matter of why you want to keep it. If you’re keeping a reading journal for personal reasons, to keep track of what you’ve read, or simply to scribble your impressions then hand-written journals will work. However, if you are keeping a reading journal for research purposes, for a dissertation or for a big writing project, then it may be more efficient to keep an electronic reading journal.

An electronic reading journal will allow you to easily list sources, which you can use for bibliography. You can also keep track of hyperlinks for references, or for relevant reading materials. You can rearrange your notes in whichever way you need them such as by topic or by themes.

If you decide to keep a hand-written journal, you can buy a simple notebook (such as regular school books, or supermarket brand notebooks that you can buy for less than a pound), or you can go for better quality (Moleskine, Rhodia, Paperblank etc.). You can also keep a loose-leaf folder, which will allow you to rearrange your entries. you can buy ready-made reading journals which come with templates. The possibilities are numerous. Just have a browse on Amazon or go to your local stationery store.

The basics

There are some basic rules of a reading journal, which I recommend you follow, no matter what your purpose.

Always date your entries. It’s common sense really, but so many people don’t do it. If you are making an effort to keep a record of your reading, when you look back at it, you’ll want to know when you wrote it.

Our impressions are so often affected by everything that’s on in our life at a particular time. By simply writing down a date, you’ll be able to reflect back far more easily.

Another thing I highly recommend is to always write the title of the book and the author’s name. While you may think that you’ll always remember what you were talking about, trust me, you won’t (unless you’ve eidetic memory).

Add page numbers to quotes

This is optional. If you are keeping a reading journal for fun, then you don’t need to be this fastidious. However, if you are keeping a reading journal for professional/academic reasons, and will need to provide sources for any quotes used, then keeping track of page numbers next to quotes you copy will save you future time and effort.

It also gives you an option to not copy the entire quote. By just making your notes and adding a page number and paragraph number it references, you can simply find it when you need to.

Write as you read

While you are reading, pause when you come across passages or even lines that make an impression on you. You don’t need to do it with every paragraph, but you could do it at an end of the chapter, for example, and jot down your reflections and impressions.

If you wait until you finish the book, your overall feeling towards it may have changed, because by the end, we usually have all the answers. To keep an insightful reading journal, record your insights as they happen.

For example, when you begin a book, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Was the book easy to get into? If not, what made you keep going?
  • Who was the first character you met?
  • What did you think of them?
  • What do you think of the tone?
  • How is the pace?
  • What are you hoping to get out of this book?
  • Why did you pick it?
  • How did you find the language?
  • Were there any glaring grammatical errors?
  • How about continuity errors?
  • How many points-of-view the writer used? Did it work for you?
  • Did you find it easy to lose yourself in the story?

As you continue reading, whenever something strikes you, stop and write about it. You don’t have to write an essay. A mere sentence or even a few words or phrases can be enough to capture your thought process. 

The End

After you’ve finished reading the whole book, write about your overall impressions. You can give it a score out of 10 if you want. Did you hate it, love it, or did it evoke a more neutral response?

What worked for you? What didn’t? Did you find anything relatable? Did you learn anything? Would you recommend this book to others?

Did the book impact you?

Some books change us or affect us profoundly. They touch us so deeply that just closing the book at the end leaves you stunned. Some books make you question things you thought you knew and your beliefs. Others change your world view by opening a door you never knew existed. Some books have the power to change a life. They have the power to change you.

What power did this book have over you? 

Have fun

This is perhaps the most important one. Don’t let this become a chore. Don’t restrict yourself by too many rules. Write whenever you want. If you skip a day or a whole book, don’t worry about it. Sometimes, you’ll just want to read for pleasure and nothing else. That’s okay.

Make the reading journal work for you, and enjoy the process.

 

Tennyson’s protagonists: yearning for what isn’t

As I read through Selected Poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson [1] two settings that stood out were Ancient Greece, and Camelot. Across these poems, there are multiple themes, but the one that stood out for me was yearning.

Protagonists yearning for …the days that are no more (Pg. 46), yearning to get back on the road, “…always roaming with a hungry heart” (Pg. 15), yearning to live in the light, “I am half sick of shadows” (Pg. 9).

In several of Tennyson’s poems, it’s the yearning that drives the narrative. The protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their life, with the purpose that fate has designed for them, comes through as they attempt, often at the risk of their demise, to break away.

Ulysses, the hero who is at a point between the Trojan war of Odysseus in Homer’s epic, and journey to hell in Dante’s Inferno, is a prime example. He is dissatisfied with his role as the king, to perform his day-to-day role of doling out “unequal laws unto a savage race.” (Pg. 15) He yearns to return to his travels, “to follow knowledge like a sinking star.” (Pg. 15) The ordinary life of staying in one place is “to rust unburnish’d.” (Pg. 15)

The Lady of Shalott, though “in her web she still delights” (Pg. 9) is yearning for more. She is tempted by sights and sounds of Camelot, and when she hears Lancelot sing, “she left the web, she left the room,” Pg. 10) and was pulled towards Camelot. Towards her doom.

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

(Pg. 11)

In Morte d’ Arthur it’s not so much  yearning, but the sense of loss that a certain time, the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is passing. All knights except for Sir Bedivere are dead, and Arthur is dying. The loss, which foretells yearning is evident in Sir Bedivere’s words:

…my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?

For now I see the true old times are dead…

…now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved. 

(Pg. 24) 

This theme of yearning for what isn’t is peppered throughout many of Tennyson’s poems. It’s a thread that connects pieces as different as Morte D’ Arthur and Ulysses. 

In ‘Break, Break, Break…’ Tennyson mourns once more for the time passed. 

But the tender grace of a day that is dead

      Will never come back to me. 

(Pg. 27)

Tennyson wrote “In Memoriam” after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam. Another kind of yearning. In it are those immortal lines:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost 

Than never to have loved at all.

(Pg. 55)

There are scholarly interpretations for all poetry, but when it comes down to us individuals, how we interpret poems is entirely subjective. While I noticed yearning as the most common theme amongst Tennyson’s poetry, someone else might notice something different. Tennyson himself may have intended an altogether different meaning. It doesn’t matter. Poetry, when we read it, influences us, and while the idea is to savour the words and get lost in the world the poet created, we can’t get lost without making it our own. Without projecting our subjectivity. In Tennyson’s poetry, no matter what theme you find, I believe the power of his words gives you a world that you can get lost in. Even if it’s through yearning for what isn’t. 

[1] Phoenix Poetry, Poems Selected by Michael Baron, ISBN 978-1-4072-2142-7

 

9 reasons to keep a reading journal

I am a big advocate for journal keeping for all sorts of purposes. Keeping a reading journal, whether it’s because you are a student or just an independent reader or doing it for research purposes can be immensely beneficial and rewarding.

Some reasons to keep a reading journal:

To keep a log of what you’ve read

When you are a regular reader, eventually there comes a time when you can’t remember if you’ve already read something or not. For example, you’ve watched a movie based on a book, so you know the story, but you can’t remember if it’s just from the movie or if you read the book. Another instance is when you are reading a series of books which have similar titles and the same characters. Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe novels and J. D. Robb’s In Death series are good examples of this.

To keep a log of how much you’ve read

Whether you have a specific book list to get through for a project, or because you simply want to get an idea of how much you read, a reading journal will aid you. It’s also useful to figure out what are your best reading months. For example, if you are an accountant, April with end-of-the-year work is probably not your best time. But if you tend to spend a few weeks in summer lounging on the beach, you probably read a lot more. Sometimes, the reading amount changes from year to year, but if you have a fairly established routine, then you will be able to see the patterns for your best reading months.

To record your impressions

We don’t read just for the sake of reading. We read for a reason. Whether it’s for pleasure, escape, research, study, or project….we read because we want to get something out of the experience. And when you finish reading that book, you feel something. By keeping a reading journal, you are spending more time on capturing that fleeting “something”. You can record your impressions throughout your reading, but particularly after you’ve finished the book. You can figure out what the book did for you, how did it impact you, and if it changed anything.

For research

Writing a dissertation, working on your PhD, writing a book, or numerous other things that involve large quantities of research? Then you will want to keep all that information straight in your head. When you read a lot of material on the same subject, after a while, it all starts to blend together in your head. It will be difficult to remember who said what, and who was on which side of the argument. By keeping a reading journal as you read, you are not only keeping facts straight but also preserving potential sources. You will have citations ready, and all the material to mine from, without having to go back to all the books when you finally sit down to start using your research for whatever purpose.

To write an essay, article, thesis

If you have to write something based on the book, you can keep a reading journal to explore the story’s theme, it’s motifs and characters. Again, just as for research purposes, for writing purposes, having the material ready from your notes during reading, will make it a lot easier to use it for writing.

To gain an awareness of your reading taste, and the changes in them

Your reading taste will change, if not permanently then at least temporarily. Over time, as you read new material, you will be tempted to try something new, to experiment. Sometimes, other people’s recommendations or gift of books also leads us to try out something new. If you are researching a particular topic or time, that may also impact what you are reading at any given time. By keeping a reading journal, you will be able to see how your taste evolves over time, and whether or not there are any significant changes.

To strengthen your understanding of the reading material

Have you ever read something only to feel when you put the book down, you had no idea what the hell happened? It leaves you feeling annoyed, and often frustrated that you wasted so much time only to understand nothing. It may also make you feel stupid. Lack of comprehension usually has very little to do with intelligence, especially if you are a regular reader. Some books simply require closer reading than we are used to. By keeping a reading journal, you can note down your impressions, questions and confusion as you read, so that these thoughts will remain fresh in your mind. As you read further, you will able to gauge whether the text itself is answering some of your concerns or not. If it doesn’t, you can use your notes to review the book, and also to reflect on what it was that made this book difficult to understand.

To better remember what you’ve read

The act of writing things down acts as a memory aid. When you write things in your words, they sink into your subconscious better. By simply keeping a reading journal, everything you read will become more memorable.

It makes you a better writer

Being a better reader makes you a better writer. When you keep a reading journal, you are practising close reading. You are focusing on what works in a book and what doesn’t. You learn about structure and syntax. You think about how characters are portrayed, and how the plot works. It’s not an overnight process, but as you do more close reading, you will gain an instinct for doing things in your own writing that work.

These nine reasons to keep a reading journal have something that will be useful for almost everyone. But I’m sure there are more reasons that I haven’t thought of. If you know, please share them in the comments with us. 

Have you ever kept a reading journal? What tips do you have for others? 

 

The little prince: the portrayal of adults vs. children

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry emphasises from the very beginning, the difference between adults and children, and his not very flattering opinion of the former.

In the course of this life I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.

[Kindle Location 60]

Saint-Exupéry’s opinion and portrayal of adults do not improve throughout the book. Adults are dull, imagination-less creatures. They are literal, and the only truth is the truth they see with their eyes, trapping them within their self-made limitations.

But in his portrayal of adults, it also feels as if he is calling them out on their fear. The truth, the kind of truth that children see, is threatening to their orderly world. The adults are only interested in what they want to hear, in things that do not challenge their established conventions, and the narrator learns as he grows older to pretend, though he never sees himself as a part of that grown-up group.

I would bring myself down to his level. I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.

[Kindle Location 60]

The narrator has seen the truth since he was a child. He never grew out of it, and perhaps Drawing Number One which he still used as a test to judge whether someone was a “person of true understanding” [Kindle Location 60] was his tether to that truth. It was his way to not start believing in the lies of the grown-up world.

Both the narrator and the little prince go through their personal journeys while helping each other. They, an adult from the earth and an alien child, find more to relate in each other than they found in their own worlds. They reinforce each other’s belief that it’s through a child’s eyes that truth is to be found. The little prince’s journey is physical, through many worlds, but his destination is the inner truth, and he discovers it and passes it onto the narrator. “…the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart…” [Kindle Location 1087]

By accepting the little prince’s journey and the lessons he’s learned as the truth, the narrator maintains his true perspective too, instead of letting it be coloured by the sheen of grown-up viewpoint.

Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes….And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance! [Kindle Location 1259]

In this little book, which at a glance may seem like a story of children, Saint-Exupéry packs the punch of much larger themes. Perhaps it’s more a book for adults rather than children. Children would embrace it as it is, for its truth and story, but perhaps it is the adults who need to examine their narrow-mindedness, and learn to see in the Drawing Number One the elephant inside a boa constrictor, rather than a hat.