Characterization: More Than a Pretty Face

Last week, I discussed character descriptions that are almost entirely physical–they are focused on the character’s appearance. While they are good descriptions, they can be a missed opportunity. I’m a big fan of using character descriptions strategically, not only to describe the way a character looks, but to give us some insight into the character. So, I thought I’d go a bit broader this week and share a half dozen examples of character descriptions that go beyond the superficial appearance of a character.

Notice the different techniques the authors use to effectively reveal their characters’ personalities, struggles, flaws, and pasts. Also notice how much these descriptions accomplish, often in very few words. These descriptions take the writers’ characters from good to great.

JAZZ BY TONI MORRISON: VIOLET

“I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, ‘I love you.'”

Photograph by Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company. From Marin Theatre Company’s 2019 production of Jazz. L-R: Dezi Solèy as Dorcas; C. Kelly Wright as Violet.

Thoughts: Here, Morrison introduces us to a character, Violet, and she does so without telling us what Violet looks like at all. She tells us a story about Violet’s past, and she does so in an interesting way. It’s not exposition; it’s a story from perhaps the most significant and traumatic day in Violet’s life. This makes it a small but fiercely engaging story in its own right, folded into and crucial to the bigger story. This powerful little story tells us more about Violet than a physical description ever could. Morrison deftly accomplishes characterization through the use of compelling backstory.

THE GREAT GATSBY BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD:
JAY GATSBY AND DAISY BUCHANAN

If you’ve read The Artful Edit (and I suggest you do), you’ll know that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lot of time rewriting and revising The Great Gatsby until he got every detail just right. This kind of excellence isn’t a stroke of luck or innate talent–it’s achieved with a lot of hard work and perseverance.

Here is one of protagonist Nick’s descriptions of Gatsby’s smile from The Great Gatsby:

“He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

Now, consider this oh-so-brief description of Daisy from the same novel:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.”

Thoughts: Neither of these character descriptions tell us what the characters look like. Not really. We aren’t told how Gatsby’s smile looks, whether he has a crooked mouth, laugh lines, thin lips, or shiny teeth. Instead, we learn how Gatsby’s smile makes people feel. As a reader, I feel the generosity of Gatsby’s smile–he’s one of those people who can make every person in a room feel like the only person in the room. He makes people feel seen. I get it. I can relate it to my own experiences.

And rather than learning what color Daisy’s eyes are or what color her lips are painted or what color her hair is, we learn that her face is “sad” and “lovely” and full of “bright things”–again, we come away with a feeling about Daisy and who she is.

Still, despite the lack of colorful adjectives, I find these descriptions quite visual–they invoke an image and a feeling. Here, Fitzgerald accomplishes characterization with the use of emotion.

JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTË: BLANCHE INGRAM

“Miss Ingram was a mark beneath jealousy: she was too inferior to excite feeling. Pardon the seeming paradox; I mean what I say. She was very showy, but she was not genuine; she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments, but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature; nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she was not original; she used to repeat sounding phrases from books; she never offered, nor had, an opinion of her own. She advocated a high tone of sentiment, but she did not know the sensations of sympathy and pity; tenderness and truth were not in her.”

Thoughts: This first-person description may, on its surface, seem more tell than show, but every line is thought-provoking and delves deeply into who this character is in a way that is not only interesting, but surprising and even shocking. Brontë’s use of metaphor is brilliant. This is the first-person protagonist/ narrator’s perspective–Jane Eyre is recounting her observations about Miss Ingram. So, as with all first-person narration, this passage not only tells us something about Miss Ingram, but it tells us something about the protagonist, Jane Eyre, too, and the thought it takes to consider that is engaging for readers. Also, how reliable is this description considering the inevitable bias of a first-person narrator? These added elements make the passage deeply layered.

“GOOD COUNTRY PEOPLE” BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR:
MRS. FREEMAN

“Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it.”

Thoughts: Wow, right? Who needs a physical description of Mrs. Freeman. This description of her facial expressions tells us all we need to know about this woman’s character and about who this determined or stubborn woman is. Again, this is a brilliant use of metaphor–we picture Mrs. Freeman as a strong and immovable semi-truck.

“THE ROYAL CALIFORNIAN” BY TOD GOLDBERG: SHANE

“‘I need a place near a karaoke bar, if possible.’ He had a hustle he liked to do where he’d bet people that he could make them cry and then he’d bust out ‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five and every girl who ever had an abortion would be in a puddle. It didn’t make him proud, but he had bills to pay.”

Thoughts: This passage is from the first short story in Goldberg’s 2021 collection, The Low Desert, which was just released in paperback. Here, the protagonist, Shane, is a karaoke DJ making a telephone reservation at a hotel, and he asks for “a place near a karaoke bar.” Then we hear why this is important to him, and we learn a great deal about Shane in just a few lines: he’s a hustler, he manipulates people with music, he’s not necessarily proud of it.

In addition to what we can learn about characterization from this story, it’s a masterclass in point of view too. “The Royal Californian” is written in such a close third-person point of view that it almost feels like first person. We are deeply inside Shane’s head as we read–this is exactly where you want your readers to be. Remember that, with first person, everything the narrator says or thinks or feels can help characterize them. Even if they are talking about someone else, we are getting some level of insight into who the narrator is. Here, Goldberg accomplishes the same thing with a skillful close third, which is remarkable.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE BY VIRGINIA WOOLF:
CHARLES TANSLEY

“He was such a miserable specimen, the children said, all humps and hollows. He couldn’t play cricket; he poked; he shuffled. He was a sarcastic brute, Andrew said. They knew what he liked best–to be for ever walking up and down, up and down, with Mr. Ramsay, saying who had won this, who had won that, who was a ‘first rate man’ at Latin verses, who was ‘brilliant but I think fundamentally unsound,’ who was undoubtedly the ‘ablest fellow in Balliol’ ….”

Thoughts: What I love about this particular description of Mr. Ramsey’s friend Charles Tansley is that the third person narrator (here, Mrs. Ramsey) curates it–she gathers it like intel and compiles it like a dossier–all from information given to her by those around her rather than her own observations. Instead of telling readers about his appearance, Mrs. Ramsey relates a physically-adjacent description from the point of view of her children (“miserable,” “couldn’t play cricket,” “he poked” and “shuffled). The first two lines invoke an excellent visual image–we can see his bent, sickly body in our minds. Mrs. Ramsey’s oldest son, Andrew, contributes that Tansley is “a sarcastic brute.” Now we see him as broken-bodied, unhealthy, and ill-tempered. The characterization is then fully fleshed out through Tansley’s actions, specifically, the things he talks about on his walks with Mr. Ramsey. Although we haven’t really been told what Tansley looks like, readers now have a full picture of this character, inside and out.

WRITER TIP: Last week, I suggested you study the ways characters are described in your favorite novels. Also pay special attention to the ways your favorite authors describe characters beyond physical appearance. Skilled writers use backstory, action, dialogue, emotion, thoughts, metaphor, and many other literary devices to create vivid and engaging characters. Consider too how your story’s point of view plays into characterizing your protagonist, your narrator, and the other characters in your story.

Characterization: Lessons from Twilight

I recently binged all the Twilight movies–I’d never watched them before, but I was intrigued/tricked into watching them by my friend Ashley Corinne–she recently wrote a Twilight re-read series for GXRL magazine. Ashley compared her experience reading the books now, as an adult, to reading them then, as a teenager. It felt like a crash I both wanted to avoid and didn’t want to miss.

After watching the movies, which were more entertaining than I’d expected, I was interested to see how the descriptions of the characters in the books stacked up to the actors who’d been cast in the film roles. But I also wanted to see how effectively the descriptions were written. As a book coach who works with YA authors, Stephenie Meyer’s books felt like a missing part of my education. What drew people in to the Twilight saga, arguably the most popular YA series ever?

For the most part, the books are written in first person, which is common in YA, so these are 17-year-old Bella’s observations about herself and the people she encounters. All of these descriptions are taken from the first book in the series, Twilight (2005).

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF HERSELF

“Physically, I’d never fit in anywhere. I should be tan, sporty, blond—a volleyball player, or a cheerleader, perhaps—all the things that go with living in the valley of the sun. Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete. … My skin could be pretty—it was very clear, almost translucent-looking—but it all depended on color. I had no color here.”

MY TAKE: What I noticed about this description is that it’s all physical. We don’t get much insight into Bella as a person here. The phrase “I’d never fit in anywhere” is too common a trope to be especially effective in my opinion–many YA protagonists struggle with feeling different and not fitting in. I’d have liked to have seen more show versus tell–why doesn’t Bella fit in anywhere? For me, the fact that she’s an unathletic, ivory-skinned girl from Phoenix, Arizona, isn’t enough.

What we do get though is some tension, which is great, and we get it through physical description, which is unique. This girl who didn’t fit in “in the valley of the sun” has ivory skin, “despite the constant sunshine” in Phoenix. Her skin is “almost translucent” and she has “no color.” Her physical description is almost that of a vampire. Readers are drawn in here because, in this new place, Forks, Washington, she is about to meet a group of pale-skinned vampires. Will Bella finally fit in? Is this where she was always meant to be?

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF JACOB BLACK

“He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face. … He flashed a brilliant smile.”

MY TAKE: A purely physical description with zero characterization. We learn what Jacob looks like, but nothing more. Jacob is a member of the Quileute tribe and lives on a reservation outside of Forks. Jacob is described in a stereotypical way. The descriptions of Jacob’s hair as “long,” “glossy,” “black,” and “pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck,” his eyes as deep-set, his cheekbones as high, and his skin as russet (reddish brown) invoke a fixed, partial, and inadequate image of an American Indian character. The fact that his description is only physical in this passage and provides absolutely no characterization of Jacob as a person, coupled with the stereotypical physical description, make this passage problematic in my opinion.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF EDWARD CULLEN

“[Edward Cullen] was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others. … [H]is face was absurdly handsome. … His hair was dripping wet, disheveled—even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel. His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips. But his eyes were careful.”

MY TAKE: I like this description. We get a little more insight into Edward’s personality. We perhaps know more about him than we know about Bella at this point, through Bella’s description of him as “boyish,” her description of his face as “friendly” and “open,” and her description of his eyes as “careful.” I try to keep a lid on too many adverbs and adjectives, but I think the use of “absurdly” works here–it invokes an image. And I love the description of Edward’s hair. It’s visual, and I can picture him as a dark, brooding, James Dean-type character.

BELLA’S DESCRIPTION OF CHARLIE SWAN

“He smiled back, his brown eyes crinkling around the edges. When Charlie smiled, it was easier to see why he and my mother had jumped too quickly into an early marriage. Most of the young romantic he’d been in those days had faded before I’d known him, as the curly brown hair—the same color, if not the same texture, as mine—had dwindled, slowly revealing more and more of the shiny skin of his forehead. But when he smiled I could see a little of the man who had run away with Renée when she was just two years older than I was now.”

MY TAKE: This description of Bella’s father is my favorite character description in Twilight. We learn not only what Charlie looks like, but who he is. And bonus, we get some backstory too, cleverly folded into this description rather than in pure exposition. In one short paragraph, we find out that Bella’s dad is a romantic who smiles a lot (thus the crinkles around the edges of his eyes). And we learn that he and Bella’s mom “jumped too quickly into an early marriage,” and that he and Bella’s mom had run away together when he was not much older than Bella. Note that anytime we get a character description from Bella’s point of view, we get some inadvertent characterization of Bella too. Here, we get a hint as to why Bella might not be so into the idea of marriage.

Overall, I found the initial descriptions of each character to be straightforward, physical descriptions. I’m sure the characters are developed in other ways throughout the novels, but for purposes of this discussion, these descriptions provide good examples of what to do and what not to do in your own writing. Readers want to engage with your characters deeply and to get inside your point-of-view characters’ heads, so keep in mind that physical descriptions of your characters are opportunities to tell us more than what your character looks like.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS

  • Readers want to get inside your characters’ heads and live vicariously through their experiences. Mix physical descriptions with information that gives readers insight not only into what your characters look like, but who they are.
  • Show us who your characters are versus simply telling us. In fact, physical descriptions aren’t always needed. Readers often like to imagine the way characters look. If you include physical descriptions, make sure they count.
  • Get creative with physical descriptions so readers can visualize the characters, e.g., Bella’s description of Edward’s hair–“he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel”–gives us an immediate image.
  • Don’t confine your descriptions to a single, introductory paragraph as each character is introduced. Sprinkle your descriptions throughout your book, in places where the characteristics you are describing are most relevant to the story.
  • Your narrative isn’t the only place to include character descriptions or information–try getting important character information across in dialogue too. Just make sure it makes sense, flows naturally in the context of the dialogue, and moves the narrative forward.
  • When writing characters outside your own experience, do your homework. Write a fully-fleshed-out and individual character, not a stereotype.
WRITER TIP: Every good writer is a good reader too. Pay close attention to the ways character descriptions are written and incorporated into the narrative in your favorite books. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit includes a great discussion on this topic. She uses examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to teach characterization done right.
Close up of a woman's lap, she's wearing red buffalo check flannel pajama bottoms and a gray henley shirt, with an open book in her lap and a cup of coffee or tea, just a glimpse of her neck and short dark hair.

Writing Book Reviews

All good and serious writers are readers too, and writing reviews of good books is one way to gain experience, contribute to the writing community, be a good literary citizen, and begin establishing yourself as a writer. Even if you don’t yet have links to published writing on your website, you can include links to your published book reviews to begin building a writing portfolio and to give readers and prospective publishers a glimpse into the way you think and the way you write.

How Do I Write a Book Review?

Before you start writing your first book review, and ideally before you even start reading the first book you plan to review, do your homework.

I suggest you start by educating yourself about how to write a book review. John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism is a great place to start learning “[h]ow to assess other people’s work graciously and fairly.” Especially important is to include at least one extended passage from the book to give readers a sense of the author’s style, but be careful not to quote from the book too much. Fair use allows reviewers to quote from books because it’s for educational purposes, but limits the amount a reviewer can pull from the book. Also important: Don’t review your friends’ books. Maintain some distance and objectivity.

Equally important is to learn How Not To Write a Book Review. Writing for Slate, Robert Pinsky dissects two early 19th century reviews of John Keats’s work. He notes that the reviewers were not objective and were more interested in looking smart or irreverent than they were in providing an honest review of Keats’s work. But their failings went beyond those things: “[B]oth reviewers are undone not simply by their own meanness or eagerness to shine or unfairness or social or political prejudices—nor by blindness to the genius of Keats. Their self-wounding failure is more fundamental than that: Both reviewers fail to fulfill the three golden requirements for book reviews.”

Pinsky then goes on to discuss what those three golden requirements are:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book’s author says about that thing the book is about.

Some things to keep in mind: Book reviews are not synopses or summaries. Readers want your analysis of the book. They want to know what you think about it. They want to know what recommends the book and the writing so they can decide if they want to read it. Don’t give away the story. A good rule of thumb is never to include any plot or details that are more than halfway through the book. Sometimes, you don’t want to go even that far–use your judgment. You can write about the ending in a vague way that doesn’t spoil the book for readers, e.g., was the ending satisfying to you as a reader?

Here’s an example from my review of Kristin Arnett’s novel Mostly Dead Things for The Coachella Review. Notice that I write about the ending without telling readers anything about how the book ends:

Arnett writes about a landscape and people she clearly knows and loves. She gives readers the gift of letting us see them too. Mostly Dead Things is insightful and is full of the beauty of the commonplace, even the ugly. The ending is hopeful, but not overly so. It doesn’t give away the realism that Arnett successfully worked so hard at crafting throughout the book, and it leaves room for the reader to imagine what comes next, which is something I always appreciate in a story.

Next, read book reviews. Read a lot of them from different but good sources.

Here are some of my favorite places to read book reviews:

The Los Angeles Review of Books (literature section)

The Los Angeles Times (books section)

The Rumpus (book reviews section)

The Coachella Review (book reviews section) (note: this is where I got my start reviewing books)

GXRL (books section) (note: I am the books editor for GXRL–pitch me!)

How Do I Find Books To Review?

Literary journals, magazines, and newspapers are all markets looking for reviews of books coming out in the future. You’ll want to pitch reviews of books that are coming out in several months in order to give the market time to approve your pitch, to give yourself time to read the book and write the review, and then to allow time for you to work with the publication’s editor to polish the review. Look at the websites of the markets you want to pitch to see what they have to say about the kinds of books they would like to see reviewed.

Sign up for NetGalley to not only browse books that are coming out in the next several months, but to request copies for review. Do internet searches for lists of the most anticipated books coming out soon, like Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022Vulture’s 49 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022, Bookriot’s Most Anticipated Books of 2022, and Oprah Daily’s The 50 Most Anticipated Books of 2022.

How Do I Get Copies of Books To Review?

NetGalley: NetGalley is a great place for new reviewers to get started. Their whole thing is to connect readers with e-copies of books to review. Once you have a few reviews under your belt, you’ll find it easier to be approved for more high-profile books. Be sure to review every book you request and receive in order to establish your credibility. (So be careful not to request more than you can review within a reasonable time frame, hopefully by the book’s publication date.)

Book Publishers: You can request an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), which is just what it sounds like–an advanced copy of a not-yet-published book to be read by readers who wish to write a review. You can request an ARC from the marketing department of any publishing house. Go to the publisher’s website and find the appropriate person. For example, if I wanted to request a review copy of The Pink Hotel by Liska Jacobs, coming out on July 19, 2022, I’d do a search to find out which publisher is publishing her book, I’d end up at the MacMillan Publishers website, and I’d dig around and find, under contact info, the company’s instructions for requesting review copies. If you’ve already received approval to review the book for a specific market, be sure to include that information in your email, as well as some information about you and links to any book reviews you’ve already written.

Markets That Publish Book Reviews: Some markets already have particular books in mind that they’d like to have reviewed for their publication. If you’ve already established yourself with a market or have links to other reviews you’ve written, you can ask that they assign a book to you to review. Some markets will add you to an email list of prospective reviewers and let you know when opportunities to review books arise.

How Do I Read for a Book Review?

Depending on where you get the ARC, you may get an ebook version, which you can read on an app like Kindle. If you request a book from NetGalley, you’ll get an ebook and have several options for how and where to read it. If you get a book directly from the publisher, you will likely get a .PDF emailed to you or a paperback ARC sent to you in the mail.

Make notes as you read. I used to highlight, which you can do in the physical ARC or with tools in an ebook or .PDF. I no longer highlight. Instead, I’ve started keeping soft-bound reading journals to record my thoughts as I read, write down short quotes with the page numbers, and write down the page numbers where I can find longer quotes. I find this works better for me–once I’m done reading, I refer to the notes in my reading journal, and the bulk of the review writes itself.

What kind of notes do you make? We all have thoughts as we read.

  • Ooh, this is a beautiful sentence!
  • I really love the way the author does this.
  • I’m not sure I like the way the author does that.
  • I like the way the author incorporated this idea into the book, or describes places, or lets us inside the characters’ heads.
  • I was expecting something different at the end of the book, but the ending was a pleasant surprise.
  • I was expecting something different at the end of the book, and I felt cheated.
  • I’m seeing a specific theme emerge here.
  • I think I see what the author was trying to accomplish here.
  • I think I see what the author was trying to do here, but I’m not sure it works well.
  • This section of the book is really evoking some specific feelings or memories.

We have these thoughts as we read, but when we’re reading to write a review,  or keeping a journal for any other reason, we write these thoughts down. Readers want to know what you think about the book, what you think about what the author is trying to accomplish, and whether you think the author was successful.

Where Do I Publish My Book Reviews?

There are endless markets looking for quality reviews of upcoming books. You can use services like Duotrope and Submittable to find literary journals and magazines that publish book reviews.

Most markets will ask that you pitch them first, rather than send a completed review. Some markets accept complete reviews. Read the market’s guidelines carefully and follow them.

As I mentioned above, NetGalley is a good place for a beginning reviewer to get started. You can publish a review on NetGalley even if you aren’t going to publish it anywhere else and get some credits. If you are going to pubish the review elsewhere, I suggest you include an excerpt of a line or two on NetGalley with a link to the full review. That way, you get credit with NetGalley for posting the review and also promote the review, but you don’t plagiarize yourself and create duplicate internet content that competes with the market that published your review.

IMPORTANT: Consumer reviews on Goodreads and bookselling websites are helpful to authors if done in the right way, but can cause authors harm too, if not done with care. No, it isn’t your job as a reviewer to boost an author’s career, but neither is it your job to show off or be snarky and tank a book’s Goodreads score. Approach those reviews with the same professionalism and respect as you would for any book review, as set out below. As a writer yourself, you know how much work, blood, sweat, and tears go into writing a book. Don’t give a book a poor rating because it’s not the kind of book you enjoy or because it’s too many pages long or because you don’t like the author or because the book arrived with a damaged cover. Write the review with the same respect and consideration you’d like reviewers to give to your books.

More Book Reviews!

I learned most of what I know about reviewing books from Heather Scott Partington, who is also on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics’ Circle, an organization you may want to join if you are serious about reviewing books. Heather is my go-to person when I want to see how it’s done right, so be sure to read some of her reviews.

Here are a few of my favorite writers and friends who also happen to write book reviews:

Amy Reardon

Jackie DesForges

Matt Ellis (click on “Literary Reviews” in the top menu)

Ioannis Argiris

Trey Burnette

Laurie Rockenbeck

Collin Mitchell

I also write book reviews. You can find a list of mine here:

Leanne Phillips (scroll down to “Book Reviews”)

WRITER TIP: I’m going to repeat something I already said because it bears repeating and is usually ignored by readers who come to me asking how to write a book review. If you want to write a book review, read good book reviews. Read lots of book reviews from lots of sources to see how they are structured and what kinds of things they include and don’t include. The reviews you read will all be different from one another, and as you develop your own style, yours will be different too. But do your homework before you dive in. Learn the basics, and think about what kinds of books you want to review and what kind of reviewer you want to be.

Reading Journals

During the month of December, I saw a great many social media posts about the number of books people read during 2021, as well as posts about how many books people planned to read in 2022. Last week, as 2021 wound to a close, I watched a video of a woman setting up a beautiful reading journal. It was gorgeous, really—she got creative and decorated the pages and different “spreads,” a scrapbooking or bullet journaling term for sets of pages intended for specific purposes. I was enthralled. She started with decorating the inside cover—it was lovely, and I considered whether I might do something like that myself for 2022. She then created a cover page and a quote page–okay, very nice. Next, she created spreads for an index, a 2022 reading tracker with a goal of reading 115 books, a spread of books she especially wants to read in 2022 with space to rate them–I found anxiety begin to creep in. Finally, she created a “book bracket” to help her pick her favorite book of the year–whew!

“Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.” —David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time

At this point, I was on the verge of a panic attack. First, I have to admit, part of my reaction was due to the fact that, outside of writing, I am in no way artistic or crafty. But the biggest part of my reaction was due to where I am at in my life right now. To be fair to this woman and her absolutely delightful reading journal, I just came out of five straight years of college filled with reading lists where much of my reading material was decided for me. Even the books I chose for myself the past five years were selected with a purpose in mind–to help me learn to write a closer point-of-view or how to begin a story or how to add subtext. I kept reading journals the whole five years—as I read, I filled the journals with my thoughts, favorite quotes, notes on the way an author did a particular thing, or passages that would support what I intended to write about for the critical papers I was required to write. I read so many great books for school, and I was thrilled to read them, but still, it wasn’t quite the same as grabbing a promising-looking book from a shelf and diving into the unknown.

Reading has always been a big part of my life, but it was a major part of my life while I finished college, and it’s nice having a record of my reading experiences. But right now, racing through books to try to reach a number goal doesn’t feel the least bit enjoyable. I have a lot going on, and I tend to make everything in my life a big project with detailed lists and goals. So, for me, the thought of tracking my reading in this particular way at this particular time in my life feels overwhelming. For the record, I actually love the reading-journal-making video, and when I step back and look at it from the point of view of not having to do it myself, it is not overwhelming at all.

My 2022 reading journal: isn’t she lovely?

During school, I kept my reading journals in plain notebooks. This year, I did treat myself to a fancy reading journal in which I likely will not create any spreads. I’m just planning to note the titles and authors of the books I read throughout the year. I just want a space to note anything that comes to mind while I’m reading the book. I especially love writing down favorite passages. So it will be similar to the journals I’ve been keeping, but only with a fancy cover to celebrate beginning a new journey–reading not as a student, but as a working writer who will always be a student of the work I am reading.

But I will not be setting a number goal of books to be read by the end of the year. Instead, my reading goals this year are both more abstract and more focused. I plan to make space in my life for reading in a way that adds more to my life as a human being and as a writer, for example, reading before bed rather than watching television. (Too much screen time for work and social media has been a killer lately.) I also plan to read more books by Latinx writers and other BIPOC writers. I plan to buy my books from brick-and-mortar stores this year, but I also plan to make use of our local lending library and to read books that are already waiting for me on my shelves or in my TBR stacks. Finally, I plan to be especially choosy about the books I write reviews for this year and to give those books my best–I want my book reviews to matter.

I started the year off with a palate cleanser, a book designed to clear my head and reaffirm my intentions for reading books. It’s a book that’s helping me find my way back into reading for myself and myself alone: The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time by David L. Ulin. As I write this, I’m finding that the book is already helping me re-decide for myself what reading means to me, what it gives me, and how it makes me better in ways that count. If you’re interested, you can get a taste by reading “The Lost Art of Reading,” Ulin’s Los Angeles Times essay that inspired the book.

The next book I’m going to read this year is …. Actually, I have no clue which book I’m going to read next, and that’s part of the fun. I’ll make that decision when the time comes. Whether I read a dozen books or fifty books or one hundred books this year, my biggest goal is to enjoy reading.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not averse to more complex and goal-oriented reading journals. They’re just not for me right now, coming off several years of goal-oriented reading. It’s something I may try in the future, when my life is a little less complex.

If you’re into creating a reading journal, here are a few articles with creative and beautiful ideas for spreads:

My Bullet Journal Makes Me a Better Reader

8 Creative Ways to Track Books in Your Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal Spreads and Ideas for Book Readers and Bloggers

You can also find lots of ideas on Pinterest, as well as reading journal tutorials on YouTube. Here’s the lovely video I watched last month and again, in a less-panicked mode, this morning, before I wrote this post:

What are your reading goals for 2022? I’d love to hear about them–please chime in on Twitter or Instagram.

READER TIP: Whether it’s simple or complex, I really do recommend that all writers keep a reading journal. I started doing so five years ago, and it’s been life-changing. Overall, it’s added to my love of reading, and it’s nice to be able to go back and find things like a particular quote you loved, a thought the reading inspired, or an idea that informs your work-in-progress.

The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.