Reading Debut Novels – 2017

As someone who would like to have a debut novel someday, I read the first book of several authors this year, and tried to read them as a writer.  What was it about these books that first grabbed an agent’s attention, then a publisher’s attention?  Was it possible I could do what they did someday?  My last reading post for the old year highlights debut novels.

Dissension, by Stacey Berg

Stacey is an author I’ve followed for some time on Twitter:  @slbscifi.  (She followed me back, so I’m not a total stalker.)  Berg is not only an author of speculative fiction YA books, but is also a medical researcher.  As a chemical engineer who dabbles in speculative fiction, I look to her as a role model for how one might balance a left brain career and a right brain writing avocation.

I love YA fiction, so enjoyed diving into Dissension.  It’s set in a post apocalyptic world where “the church” has taken over directing the survival of humanity.  The main character, Echo, is responsible for protecting the church and the populous.  Berg has created an engaging innovative world and Echo vacillates between being a heroine and an anti-heroine as the story unfolds.  The story was engaging, so I also read Berg’s second book, Regeneration.

From Berg I’ve learned that if you are a science person, you do not have to write fiction in your non-writer area of expertise.  Yes, there are medical aspects of Berg’s books that are important, but that is not what her story is about.  However, her books have a scientific quality that I enjoy:  they are organized and logical.  Understanding that my background can influence my writing but doesn’t need to limit my writing is a valuable lesson from Berg’s works.

I found Berg through Mary C. Moore, an agent I paid to review the first 10 pages of my novel, because I’m not just stalking authors through this little experiment of mine, I’m also looking for an agent who represents books similar to mine.

Mrs. Kimbel, by Jennifer Haigh

Ah, this Jennifer Haigh lady.  She taught me so much last year!  She taught me to find my keystone works for my own books – books that write the way I want my story told.  Then she taught me how she wrote her first book in a way she would never write a book again.  Mrs. Kimbel is a story is of three women, all married to the same man.  It was written as three discreet longish short stories that Haigh had to cram together into a novel: not a process she recommends.  It’s an interesting book, but outside of my normal preferred genre and style.  If you are a lover of interpersonal stories, I highly recommend it.  If you normally read crazy sci fi, epic fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, maybe skip it.

Because Haigh was so negative about her process creating this first book, I wasn’t sure what I would learn from it.  But books never fail to inspire.  Haigh is a single woman with no kids and no career other than writing.  In her class I learned that she has eschewed a “traditional” life in favor of being a writer.  Writing is her priority.  So, I was surprised that her book about relationships and motherhood felt true.  Whenever an author believably writes about an experience they have not had I feel permission to write prose outside of my own life experiences.

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

I adore John Scalzi.  I follow his blog.  I read his tweets.  I reply to his tweets.  (He replied back once, again proving to me that I’m not a total online stalker.)  I also love his books.  They feel like stories that actually happen.

Agent to the Stars, Scalzi’s first novel, is a funny little book about a Hollywood agent who represents an alien.  The book allows the reader to experience human first contact with a non-threatening new life-form.  True to Scalzi’s other works, it’s funny and unexpected.  The audiobook is a joy to listen to, read by Will Wheaton: one of my favorite readers.

From Scalzi’s first book, I learned about voice.  People have told me that my writing has “a good voice.”  I’ve read that agents are looking for works that are more than just technically accurate: they need a voice.  But voice is one of those nebulous things like love or faith or parenthood that you have to experience to understand.  Because I’ve read so much Scalzi has written I was able to sense his voice even in this first novel, and I think I understand the concept better now.  All Scalzi’s works are irreverent, unexpected, and highlight details other authors might gloss over.  Those details make his stories real, which I love.  From his first novel, Scalzi had voice, and maybe now I understand mine a bit better.

I learned so many different things from my first-book experiment, so am continuing it in 2018.  I just finished Point of Direction, a book by Rachel Weaver who is an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  I wanted to read Weaver’s book because she’s someone I can take writing classes from, and even ask annoying questions in person: an invaluable resource for the aspiring novelist.

My second planned first-book for 2018 is Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra.  (She’s a WordPress blogger too.)  I also found Mehrotra through Mary C. Moore, who recommended Mehrotra’s author website as one of her favorites.  Expecting some whiz-bang super-designed wonder, I was happy to see that Mehrotra’s site was well organized and easy to read, but not unobtainable.  I also found her site to be a wonderful resource for potential publication journals and she’s taught me what it looks like to be a more grown-up writer than myself.  Again, I follow Mehrotra on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra – yes, she follows back – and have loved virtually celebrating the publication Markswoman.  (It just came out this past Tuesday, but it’s been so exciting to watch the pre-publication build up.)  I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from this read.

That’s it.  All my reading analysis for 2017: the good, the bad, and the debut.  For 2018 I’m already 7 books in, and after Markswoman I’m going to dive into an Ursla K Le Guin story or two.  Shockingly, as a lover of speculative fiction, I’ve never read anything by her, and her death this week revealed what an inspiration she was to authors I love.  My bookstack is full, as always, with new stories to love and learn from.  Let me know if there’s anything you’ve read that I should add to the stack.


Books that Inspired my Writing – 2017

I am coming up on six years of being a writer.  On February 20, 2012 I put words to paper for my first – still incomplete – novel.  Since then I have not yet published anything (except this lovely blog) but I have finished writing two short stories; finished a second novel;  started three other short stories; and have four rejections to my name.  While my publishing may have been limited, 2017 was a big learning year for me, and from that learning, I am hoping to get two pieces polished in 2018 and start circulating them through the journals I’ve identified as good fits for my work.

One evolutionary writing step happened this year, when mid-book I would switch into reading-as-a-writer mode. As I read, I’d start thinking about what the author was doing, and learn from that new perspective.  Below are 3 works that helped me grow as a writer in 2017.

Slade House, by David Mitchell

I didn’t know reading-as-a-writer was a real thing, until I saw a talk by Jennifer Haigh.  Part of her process is to find keystone works.  Not books she wants to copy, but books that do something well that is relevant to her work, and new to her, such as using the first person point-of-view or being set in the same time period.  Her recommendation was to find this keystone book, dissect it, take notes, and learn how a published author accomplished the task you are attempting.

As an avid reader, this process makes sense to me.  While most writing books stress that you have to read to be a writer – a writing skill I’ve always been good at, the not-writing one – they don’t tell you what to do with all that reading.  But now I know there is a catalog of works in my head that I can refer to as a writer when I’m trying to do something new.  That said, sometimes fate and the muses smile and the right book falls in your lap at the right time.

That’s what happened with Slade House.  I’d just finished reading it when I saw Haigh’s talk.  Instantly I realized that I’d just read a keystone book for my in-progress novel.  Slade House is set in five vignettes spaced exactly nine years apart.  Each section is told in the same setting and has common characters, which is exactly what my book does, but in annual increments.  I was struggling with how to size each mini-story, and keep the pace moving, which Slade House does incredibly well.  There were mini-climax moments in each time period, but the overall plot of the book escalated up to the final climax in the last year.  Again, this is exactly how I want my book paced.  Based on Haigh’s suggestion I got out my note-cards and spreadsheets and analyzed how Mitchell created his story.   I now have a guide for how to move my story along, avoid repetition in my world building, and write something that might work for publication.  Oh, and that elusive comparable title I’ll need for querying agents?  Done.

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book could have gone on my list of most hated books for 2017.  Bacigalupi wrote a novel about climate change, a topic about which I am both passionate and have close to expert knowledge, and I hated it.  Best of all, I read this for my beloved Apocalyptic Fiction class, so I got to publicly explain my loathing, which is why magic happened.

It’s easy to hate a book.  It’s easy to dismiss the author, say they suck, and quit reading.  It’s hard to sit in a class for three weeks and tease out the exact moments that turned you off, then dissect those moments, then hear other’s contrasting opinions, then have an epiphany, then explain to the other writers in class  your epiphany: real characters and believable interaction are more important to me than plot or world building or theme or language or anything.

The moment when Bacigalupi’s tortured heroine springs from the chair she’s been strapped to and starts cleaning out her rescuer’s bullet wound made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.  People do not act that way.  People do not jump up when they have been physically tortured to care for some person they might have a crush on.  Women do not dismiss off their oozing wounds, throw a shirt on over their naked torso and become ad hoc medical professionals.  I do not want to write unbelievable scenes like that.  I want humanity.  I want you to feel the desperation of torture, experience the burgeoning attraction between the heroine and her rescuer, understand the agony of pulling a shirt on over shredded skin, and realize, with the heroine, that her survival requires that her rescuer doesn’t die.  That is how I wanted the story told, and I am so grateful for Bacigalupi doing it in the completely wrong way, so I can understand my values as a writer and how I want my story told.

I will never read that book again.  If I had a paper copy I would  have composted it to save others from having to read it, but I am a much better writer for having struggled through the reading and understanding.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?  Do you ever want to quit and do something sensible?  When this happens, go find Madeline L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech.  Unfortunately, it’s been removed from her website, but it is published in the back of the 50th anniversary paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time.  It’s worth a trip to your local library to find it, but don’t read it in the stacks or you might find yourself crying next to children looking for the dinosaur book section.

The section that matters to me begins with a quote that is now hung up next to my writing desk, “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.”  L’Engle goes on to talk about her writing of A Wrinkle in Time and says, “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it.  It was simply a book I had to write.  I had no choice.”  I read these words – the words of an author I have loved since I was a child, the words of the first author I ever met in person – when I was ready to give up on my stories.  I found the process of editing too hard.  I was never going to be any good at grammar.  I had totally screwed up and published the first draft of my best short story on my blog and no one was ever going to publish it.  I was just wasting my time.  Again, the muses smiled on me when I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books and then thumb past the reader’s guide to find inspiration when I needed it most.

I write like Madeline L’Engle writes.  I write because I have a story I have to tell.  Maybe no one but me and my mom will ever read my stories – and she won’t even read the dentist one – but a Newbery Medal winner feels about writing the same way I do.  Reading her speech kept 2017 from being the year I quit writing.

In 2017 I found a book to show me how to architect my novel.  I found I book where I learned how not to write.  And I found a book that inspired me to keep writing.  What did you read this year that changed you?

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeline L’Engle, 1963 Newbury Medal Award Speech

Afthead’s Best and Worst Books of 2017

2017 was a great reading year for me, but every year since I have been able to read was a great reading year for me.  I love reading.  I love books.   However, certain ones rise to the top, so here are my favorite (and least favorite) books of last year.

Best books:

Morning Star, by Pierce Brown

I am a firm believer that the third book of all trilogies are terrible.  So much so, that I have considered that if I ever become I real author I will not write trilogies, because I don’t want to doom every third book I write.  Pierce Brown proved me wrong with this book, until I found out that his FOURTH book in the series is due out in 2018.  Therefore, my anti-trilogy stand holds.

This book begins with the most compelling imagery I have ever experienced in a book.  He made me uncomfortable, surprised me, and horrified me all in the first chapter.  In fact, that chapter was the reason I knew I couldn’t handle the audiobook: it was too much in the best way.  This book was only for my eyes, not my ears.

Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

Clifford Simak wrote this wonder in 1963.  A story about space travel and aliens and the end of human civilization so topical that I didn’t realize how old the story was until after I finished the book and looked at the publication date.  Perhaps it was the setting in a ramshackle cabin in the forest, but I think more likely it’s the timelessness of his writing and his story.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

According to social media, it’s cool to trash this book right now.  Well I’m going to stand up and display my unquestionable uncoolness and say I loved this book.  As a child of the late 70s and early 80s this was a trip down memory lane set in a future dystopia: an impossible juxtaposition that worked wonderfully.  The good guys were good.  The bad guys were bad.  The story was just fun, and 2017 was the perfect year to appreciate a fun read.

Best Audiobook:

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

I adored reading this book and appreciated that the audiobook taught me I had been mispronouncing every proper noun in this book while reading in my head.  This simple story of a simple man’s life was more poignant, more real and more heartbreaking in audio than when I read it.

Worst books:

The Power, Naomi Alderman

Oh, I wanted to like this book.  I wanted to dive into the hype and the perfectly timed topical plot contrasting the #metoo movement and relish the idea of women evolving a deadly electrical superpower.  I wanted to meander down this alternate universe and marvel at what would happen if women were in power.  But I couldn’t.  I enjoyed the idea, but I didn’t enjoy the people, the relationships, or the story that just fizzled out.  That said, I have nothing but admiration for Ms. Alderman to write the perfect unique story to be published at the perfect time.

Super Flat Times, by Matthew Derby

I found this book on a list of the best speculative fiction of all time, or the best dystopian fiction of all time, or some other internet list that struck my interest.  Since I’d read and enjoyed several other books on the list I figured this one – raved about by the article’s author – would have to be a worthy read.  It was not.  There were some interesting ideas, and some not interesting ideas all held together with bits of gum and shoestring and then shoved into a book in a disorganized heap.  My theory is that Matthew Darby wrote the list, or someone who loved Matthew Darby wrote the list and stuck his book on.  Either that or I am just too dumb to understand the point of Super Flat Times.

How to be a Good Wife, Emma Chapman

The only thing I remember about this book is that I bought it at an airport when I forgot the real book I was reading.  Thus, I’m assuming between my one star rating (a rarity for me) and my lack of memory that this is a book I wouldn’t recommend.  I don’t care enough to do more research.

Worst Audiobook:

Red Rising andGolden Son, by Pierce Brown

Funny that one of my favorite series to read this year was my least favorite to listen too.  I have to say that has never happened before.  Normally I can handle violent audiobooks.  I enjoyed the first three Game of Thrones books while on maternity leave and nursing my baby girl.  But then, I’d listen to a stock ticker if Roy Dotrice read it.  In the end, I think that was my problem with this audiobook.  It’s intense and I did not like the reader.  His accent didn’t match the voices the characters had in my head, and he didn’t differentiate between the different characters enough, so I got lost, after already reading the book.  The combination didn’t work for me at all.

Best Children’s Books:

Unicorn Crossing, by Dana Simpson

If you have a daughter, know a girl, were once a girl, or ever had an imaginary friend go read this book.  In fact, if you are a living breathing human being with a smidgen of a sense of humor, you should read this book.  Read the whole series.  It’s about Sophie and her unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, and their adventures together.  It is amazing.  I love reading it out loud.  I dream that someday I can do the audiobooks for Dana Simpson.  I love doing all the voices, but I must say, my Marigold voice is perfect.  This is the fifth book in the series, so please read all five.  You’ll be a happier human if you do.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser

This was such a sweet story.  It’s set at Christmastime, so I checked it out at the library thinking my daughter and I would read it together forgetting that we were in the middle of Harry Potter world.   So I read it myself.  It was a great story about the ingenuity of kids and how they can solve big problems in ways parents would never manage.  I can’t wait to read this with my kiddo next year.

Worst Children’s Book:

The Boxcar Children Series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I didn’t really have a worst children’s book this year.  I love children’s books, but this series just has a hard time being relevant.  Similar to The Vanderbeekers the Boxcar children have to overcome adversity using their own wits in the first book.  Then their rich grandfather finds them and things get a little weird.  Not to say that rich kids can’t solve problems, but the problems the author comes up for them in later books get a bit odd.  The last book we read the family spent the summer on a deserted island that wasn’t really deserted.  It was a stretch.  Read the first one, maybe the second one, then stop.

What were your favorite books of last year? I’m always looking for a new great read!

Afthead Reading Totals for 2017

On a whim last year I started keeping track of the books I read.  Fast forward to this year, and all my friends are telling me about their Goodreads goals for 2018.  Pshaw, I muse, that was so 2017.  Except I didn’t set a goal, I just counted books.  Also, I didn’t do it on Goodreads, which I feel bad about since Goodreads helps authors.  Oh, and Goodreads has been doing this for awhile, so I’m not actually starting any trends.  Therefore, in 2018 I realized I’m a backwards, behind the times book reading list keeper.  Huzzah.

However, before I dive into this new-fangled Reading Challenge, I still want to review what I read in 2017.  The list is easily discovered by clicking the “Reading” link above.

I read 83 books in 2017, and for a working mother going to graduate school, I think that is pretty darn impressive.  Now, you may disagree with my accounting, so let me break it down for you:

  • 38 books were read in my head just by me
  • 22 books were audiobooks
  • 23 books were read out loud to Afthead Junior  (my rule was they had to be chapter books which took more than a day to read)

However, if you look at the numbers above and think I read 38 grown-up books, or read/listened to 60 grown-up books, you would be wrong.  This Afthead loves children and young-adult chapter books herself.  Here’s my breakdown by age category:

  • 31 children’s books
  • 9 young-adult books
  • 43 adult books (16 listen/27 read)

Now, another funny tendency I have is to listen to books right after I read them.  I’m a fast reader and often miss out on details when I read in my head, so I turn around and listen.  Many times it becomes a different book to me.  For example, as much as I loved Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, I could only listen to the first two.  The combination of a reader I didn’t love and violence I glossed over in my head made it a hard audiobook for me.  But I still counted both the reading and the listening as different “read” books.  The duplicates are:

Finally, not all of my reads were first time reads.  Not only do I listen to books I have read, but I also reread books – always have and always will.  I can’t tell you how many books became different stories when I read them at different times in my life.  The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, stands out as the most changed story between readings for me.  As a mom, the message was much different to me than pre-kiddo, but I loved both versions of the story.   So books that were read in 2017 and also before 2017 are:

So, depending on how you count I read somewhere between 83 and 27 books this year.  However, this exercise was as much about reflecting on my annual reading as it was about counting.  Looking back, the year broke into a few themes:

I’ll cover those over the next few days.  Now, off to go finish my second book of 2018: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan.  Have you read it?  So far it’s great!

If you want to follow along with me this year on Goodreads, I’m at, but I’m also keeping my good old blog list up to date too.

Afthead Reads (and does math too)


A new year means new blogging features, or at least it does around the afthead parts.  Today, I’d like to introduce you to “Afthead Reads.”  This is a totally self serving new feature, because I’ve always wanted to keep track of how many books I read in a year, but can’t handle another social media time sucker like Goodreads.  So, I made a new page on my site to keep track of my annual reading.  You can access it by clicking “Reading” on the top navigation.  Inside you’ll find a low tech list displaying the name of the book, the date I finished the book, and a rating from one to five asterisks, where five is good and one is bad. If there is no date and no rating then I’m still reading the book.

My reading is categorized into:

  • Read – these are books I actually read in my head all by myself.
  • Listen – these are audiobooks I’ve listened to in their entirety.
  • Read Aloud – these are books that I read to my daughter.

I count all of the above methods as legitimate book reading, but if you disagree with me there are subtotals on each category to make adjusting my reading totals easier.  Now, the caveats:

  • First, any book I finished this year is counted, so even things I started back in December count toward 2017.  I do this because unquestionably I will start a book in December, which I won’t finish so things will mostly even out.
  • Second, I only include entire books I read.  If I don’t finish it, or just page through it, it doesn’t count.
  • Finally, the books I read my daughter which are completed in a single session also aren’t included.  The kid books have to be at least a three night activity.

How am I doing so far?  In January I read 11 books.  Wondering if that’s a lot or a little I turned to my friends at Pew Research Center to learn more.  There I learned that:

“Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read 4 books in the last 12 months. Each of these figures is largely unchanged since 2011, when Pew Research Center first began conducting surveys of Americans’ book reading habits….”

This was eventually fascinating to me, after I did some web searching to remind myself what mean and median are.  The mean is just all the books read divided by the number of people who read the books, while the median is the middle number in the range of books read by people.  So say five people read 1, 2, 4, 11 and 42 books in January.  The median would be 4 (just like above) and the mean would be 12 (just like above).  I don’t really get medians, unless I think hard about them.  For this study, I’m assuming they present the median because it shows that there are big outliers in the data, like the 42 above.  More about that later.  For now I’m sticking with the tried and true mean or average for my next analysis.  On average Americans read 12 books a year?  I had no idea the number was so low.  Because I’m a super dork I dug into my specific demographics from the study and found:

Women: 15 books in 12 months

White: 14 books in 12 months

30-49:  14 books in 12 months

College +: 17 books in 12 months

So if I continue at my current pace I will have read 132 books this year.  Even compared to the average college educated person that’s a crazy ton of books.  Now maybe January was a fluke for me, and maybe I’m reading dumb young adult books (I am) so that pace might slow down during the year, but the truth of the matter is that I have already read more books this year than the annual average for a person, white person, or 30-49 year old person, and by the end of the week I will have tied the annual woman number.

Now I’m annoyed.  Really, why can’t there be a reading Olympics?  Maybe I could medal, or at least make the national team, or get an invite to try out?  If I was able to participate in a sport at this level, I imagine I’d be pretty good, but no one other that Pew seems to be evaluating all us readers.

Back to the super interesting math.  Considering I’m one of those outlier readers that made the Pew folks present a median value, now I’m more interested in the median.  For grins, let’s take my range from before and throw in my estimated 132 books in as the top value, so now we have 1, 2, 4, 11, 132 as our range of numbers.  Now the mean (average) jumps from 12 to 30, but the median (middle number) is still 4.  What?!?  Isn’t that amazing?  So knowing the median really helps you know that there are some big numbers at the top of this range, even if you didn’t know the numbers in the range.  For the Pew study, I don’t know how many books each of the 1,520 readers read, but I do know that 625 of the people interviewed only read 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 books, because of the median value.  That’s a lot of people who didn’t read much.  It also makes me wonder if within the Pew range of 1,520 interviewees I might not even be an Olympic caliber reader because they have a pretty large sample size.  I bet there are some big numbers at the top of the range to bring up 625 not-readers and to a mean of 12.  The more values you have in a range the harder it is to increase the mean.  But I wonder.  Are those big estimates really accurate?  How many super readers are keeping a detailed tally of their annual book consumption?

Uh, wait… have I lost you?  Are you shaking your head and saying “Johanna, this is a reading blog post!  What the heck is up with all these numbers?!?!  You tricked me!”  Sorry about that.  Anywhoo, if you are looking for good book recommendations you can always check out my new page and find the five asterisk books.  (And if anyone hears about a secret reading Olympics, please let me know.  I think I’ve got a shot.  If you are a big reader too also let me know.  Maybe we can train together in a book club.)

Thanks to Unsplash for the image!



Reader’s Block

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I wrote a novel.  Well, I wrote the novel right hear on planet Earth, not far way, but it was finished over fifteen months ago, which is a long time ago.  As a novel writing novice, I thought the step from first draft to publication was a small one.  Following the advice provided by Stephen King’s On Writing, I sat down to read my whole book in one sitting after giving myself a nice break.  I had my pen ready, and prepared to make a few brief notes as I fell into my book.

I’m a great reader.  I love novels.  Short novels, long novels, well written, good plot, and why-the-hell-don’t-I-stop-reading-this-drivel novels:  Twilight series, I’m looking at you.  I love them all.  No iota of my mind was worried about this step, the reading of my book.  Oh, silly me.  Reading MY book was nothing like reading A book.  I would sit down to read and become stuck in the land of commas, verb tense, and sentence structure.  Hours would pass and I would have “read” a few measly pages.  This scenario happened over and over.  I couldn’t read my own book.

Finally in July inspiration hit.  You can email files to your Kindle and read them on your device.  I have known this since I got my first Kindle and used to send technical reports to it when I wanted to do a last cut for readability.  (If you want to try this for yourself, check out the Send to Kindle page.)  The solution worked.  Unwilling to mark up my Kindle screen with annotations I was able to read my book.  I also did this while I was on vacation so my access to paper and writing implements was limited.  Gloriously, many of the pacing issues I thought I had disappeared when I wasn’t distracted by note taking.  At times my book was good, and once or twice it was really good.  I did come up with a few big picture things I wanted to fix, which I think is the point of the first big read.

Hooray!  Problem solved.  Now all I had to do was edit, which in On Writing takes two measly pages.  You look for big plot holes, awkward character motivation, and ask big questions while you edit.  After two drafts you bestow your book on your ideal reader.  Easy peasy.  Folks, let me tell you that I have been struggling with how to execute those two pages for five months now.  I have begun to understand that King’s book was called On Writing and not On Editing for a reason.

I needed help, because I’d moved past Reader’s Block into Editor’s Block.  Have you ever found yourself in either place?  If so, I’d love to hear your solutions.  Keep reading and I’ll share how I am clearing out the blockages.

My first of a series on reader’s and editor’s block.

The Gunslinger: Should You Read or Listen?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. – Stephen King, The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower I

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to The Gunslinger, by Stephen King?

The Afthead Summary:

I adore Stephen King.  I’ve been reading his books since I was in my early teens, and attribute my cold-sweat fear of clowns (It) and aliens (The Tommyknockers) to his works.  I have always loved King’s scary worlds.  That said, The Dark Tower series is my absolute favorite of his works; it goes beyond horror to action, adventure, magical realism and moves toward epic.  This is not a series to begin lightly, because once you start it will suck you in and you’ll lose huge swaths of your life until the last book is read.  I read George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (at least the first three) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and this series trumps them both.  If my child was a boy his name would have been Roland.  I love the main character that much.

The Gunslinger is the first book in the series, and it’s a quick read.  The slim volume begins the entire series by introducing us the gunslinger (Roland) and the first of his foils, the man in black (Walter/Marten).  The first sentence, above, sets up the story and then the book is end to end heart racing action as the gunslinger travels across the desert and the mountains after the man in black.  Through the journey you begin to learn a bit about Roland’s history and how his world has moved on.  There is travel between Roland’s world and our own, magic, mutants, darkness, love (or at least lust), and death.

For all of you who think King is a hack, this book came forth from Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland, which King studied as a sophomore in college.  His stuff may not be literature by the narrowest definition, but the man has a reader’s soul.  Only a serious reader can appreciate Browning’s poem.  (I’m not sure I count myself in that “serious reader” column.)


This is the only one of the Gunslinger books I have read, and I was young when I read it.  My copy is from 1982, and while I’m sure I didn’t read it when it was published, I know I was no more than fifteen.  This is not a book for a fifteen year old girl, even one who loved Pet Semetary.  This is a book for action loving young men and grown ups with a little life under their belts.  Someday I’ll pick up the series and read it again, or I might just keep listening to it.


George Guidall, the narrator of this book, is one of the absolute best readers ever.  I could listen to him read anything, which is good, since he’s recorded over 900 novels, according to his website.  He also read American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, another of one of my top audiobooks.  My spine shivers when I hear him start, “The man in black fled across the desert…” and it keeps shivering at varying intensities through the whole book.  The reading of this book is masterful.

There is a scene that begins in a dark cave where Roland and Jake, a boy he meets during his travels, come across the Slow Mutants.  Do not listen to this in the dark in your car.  Do not listen to this alone in the house after sunset.  This passage may be the scariest passage in any audiobook I have ever read and it will leave you breathless (if you are lucky) and crying (if you aren’t.)

Do yourself a favor and go download this book as soon as you are ready to commit hundreds of hours listening to one of the best series you’ve ever heard.  It will be the only time you are thrilled you have a long commute.



As an addendum, there is an interesting story about the Dark Tower narrators.  If you look on Audible, Guidall reads book 1, and 5-7, but  Frank Muller reads book 2-4.  (It appears from Muller’s website that at some point he also recorded book 1.)  I don’t know why the reader changed, but if you listen to the series Muller was also amazing and I love his interpretation as much as Guidall’s.  Mueller’s reading of the series ended in 2001 when he suffered head injuries from a motorcycle accident.  For those of you who know Stephen King well, he suffered a serious accident in 1999, also while working on The Dark Tower.  This series was fraught with tragedy and injury during its writing and reading, which just adds to the hyperreality of the work.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot: Should You Read or Listen?

“Being a nerd, which is to say going too far and caring too much about a subject, is the best way to make friends I know.” – Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell?

The Afthead Summary:

You should read The Partly Cloudy Patriot if you meet any of the following criteria:  you like history, you are a nerd, you are a twin, you know a twin, you like playing arcade games, you enjoy politics, you vote, you’ve heard someone inappropriately compare themselves to Rosa Parks, you like Tom Cruise, you dislike Tom Cruise, you like antique maps, you like paper cups of pickles, or you have conflict with your family on major holidays.  This little book of essays is a favorite of mine, and whenever I’m feeling down or want to feel smarter I re-read it or re-listen to it.  Sarah’s take on every topic is witty, intelligent, and enjoyable.  Full disclosure, I’d like Sarah Vowell to be my friend.  We are about the same age, and enjoy many similar things, but she’s way smarter than I am.  I like having smart friends.  We could spend hours together going in depth into nerdy topics we care too much about.  Bliss.


This is a great read.  It’s also a great book to have on hand for random gifts for random people.  Forgot a housewarming present?  Need a graduation present?  Hostess gift?  Just pull out a copy of The Partly Cloudy Patriot and you’ll delight the recipient.  Regardless of political orientation there is something in here for everyone.  (Well, you may want to take out the chapter on the Bush inauguration for die-hard Republicans.)  Because it a set of smaller writings it’s easy to enjoy a quick tidbit about history, politics, careers, and families.  I recommend this for everyone.


The audiobook is an even higher level of awesomeness.  Sarah reads the book herself, and her nasal voice lends a perfect nerd feel to the book: you’ll learn about the importance of the nerd voice if you read.  Then, she has a series of guest readers for the famous characters in the book.  Perhaps you’ve head of some of them: Conan O’Brien, Seth Green, David Cross or Stephen Colbert?  Oh, and They Might be Giants did all the music for the book.  It’s a cross entertainment genre bonanza!



I must say that I’m not enough of a history buff to really enjoy the other book I listened to by Sarah Vowell: Assassination Vacation.  Her history is entertaining, but too thorough for my enjoyment.  However, nonfiction is not really my favorite, so don’t make too much of my opinion on her more historical works.

An Ocean at the End of the Lane: Should You Read or Listen?

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to An Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman?

The Afthead Summary:

When I went to see my BFF Neil Gaiman speak a few months ago, he told the story about how An Ocean at the End of the Lane came into being.  it was an accident.  It wasn’t supposed to be a novel, but the story just kept going, and when it was done he called his publisher to tell him/her that he’d accidentally written a novel.  I am in awe.

I have to admit when I first read this book, I didn’t really dig it.   It’s the story of a man who has returned to the home of his youth and finds the memories of a magical and horrible event in his childhood.  It is Neil Gaiman through and through: succinctly told with beautiful imagery, a dark story, unexpected twists and turns, but I didn’t initially love it.


I read the novel first and it didn’t capture me.  The main character kind of reminded me of the boy in Stardust, without the bravery or the adventure behind him.  His sister is nasty, his mom is present but absent, his dad is just evil, and the family is on the brink of disaster.  Their finances are a mess and they have to let out a bedroom in their house to make ends meet which is where the problems begin.  The sister’s nastiness pales in comparison to the housekeeper they hire and life goes beyond downhill from there.  The character between utter disaster and the protagonist is an eleven year old girl.  It’s a dark book from start to end.


Normally when I’m as ambivalent about a book as this one I don’t bother to get the audiobook, but Neil Gaiman reads it and I really love listening to him.  In an ideal world I would have him following me around day and night narrating my live in his soft fluid voice.  “Johanna wakes up late, again.  She burrows her head into her cat trying to drown out the hypnotic voice of Neil Gaiman, but alas he can not be snoozed.”  I could deal with tragedy, bad news, and anger so much more effectively if it were delivered by Mr. Gaiman.  But I digress….

There is a scene where the boy pulls a worm out of his foot, and I almost had to stop my car and hug myself to alleviate the full body heebie jeebies.  The whole book was like that in the best way possible.  I sat in my parking garage at work for an awkward amount of time each morning, just trying to get to place where I could stop listening.  The evil people were so evil.  The boy was so much less blah and so much more innocent  and afraid when read through Gaiman’s interpretation.  The ending was so poignant and heart wrenching.  I loved it.



I really love Gaiman’s audiobooks.  If you get a chance, and the idea of this one doesn’t excite you, try M is for Magic, Stardust and American Gods (not read by Gaiman.)

A Dirty Job: Should You Read or Listen?

My weekly post to help you decide the best format to enjoy a book.  Without further ado:

Should you read or listen to A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore?

The Afthead Summary:

After the unexpected death of his wife, Charlie raises his infant daughter Sophie through a series of hysterical misadventures.  Wait.  That doesn’t really sound funny or like a book anyone would want to read.  How about, A Dirty Job, a comic tale of a motherless child and her beta-male father battling the forces of evil.  Crud.  That’s not really selling it either.  Okay, I recognize that Christopher Moore isn’t for everyone, but trust me, this book is funny and you’ll hardly even mind the dying mom part once you start laughing.  If everything I have written so far upsets and disturbs you, do not pick up this book.  Listen to last week’s book, or wait until next week’s book.  But if you have a strong stomach for inappropriate humor, read on.  From the Russian neighbor and her discussion of the “tiny bears” (hamsters), to the Chinese neighbor who eats all the dead pets, to the harpies of darkness stalking  “new meat” (their nickname for Charlie) this book will teach you about the mythology of death, the kindness of strangers who become family, and the love of a father for his daughter.


I read the novel first and actually laughed out loud several times.  Moore’s writing is fresh, unexpected, and will make you think long after you put the book down.  The ending takes a bit to resolve, but it’s worth the ride.  If you read it, or have read it, please let me know so I have an outlet for all my funny allusions to this book that no one I know understands.


This is an amazing audiobook.  Fisher Stevens’s voices for Minty Fresh, Charlie, the harpies, Sophie, Audrey, and the squirrel people make the book.  His characterization is so much better than what my imagination could supply.  Listening to him makes the characters take on solid form and distinct personalities.  When I’m feeling glum I start this one up again and laugh my way to work.

Again, this is not a book to listen to with small children, grandparents, humorless or judgmental people.  Know your listeners before sharing this one with friends.



Much to my excitement and joy, I found out that Moore has published a sequel to this novel, and it was released in August!  Is there anything better than an unexpected sequel that is already out?  It’s my next read, so watch for a review in the coming months.