I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and has the reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.


If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

75-BookStory HPCR-1

So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.


A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.

This is an evergreen post for me. I’ve modified a bit with each iteration, but it says something that’s fundamentally true about the creative process and certainly about my personal creative process. Writing (and also photography) are my version of sports. They really have always been, throughout my  life. With a little bit of luck, they always will be. So here it is again because sometimes, I need to remind myself of things I already know.

I feel I should point out that writing isn’t only an art. “Real writing” can also be a craft, or “non-fiction.” Books about science or technology are no less “real writing” than a novel. I know we who toil as wordsmiths who tell others how things work or how to accomplish tasks, rarely win prizes or make a best-seller list. Nonetheless, we do not need to hang our heads because we aren’t don’t create characters and plots. I doubt most fiction writers would be good at technical or science writing. Or, for that matter, news writing. It’s not something less, just something different.

If one kind of writing doesn’t work for you, try something else. If you are good with words, somewhere, there’s a place for you in the big world of writing and writers.

One last point. “Professional” means you get paid to do it. If you’d like to get paid, but haven’t yet, you aren’t a professional. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good, just that you don’t (yet) earn a living at it. It’s not a judgement; it’s a distinction.

We do what we do because we love it, need to do it, or both. For me, writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I strangle on words never used. My friend needs to compete, to be active. To play golf or she will suffocate.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who have told me they want to be writers, but don’t know how. They want me to tell them how. That they asked the question makes me reasonably sure they aren’t writers.

If you are a writer, you write. You will write and will keep writing because it is not what you do, it is what you are. It is as much a part of you as your nose or stomach.


I started writing as soon as I learned to read, which was about 45 minutes after someone handed me a reading primer. It was as if a switch had been thrown in my brain. Words felt like home.

Writing was (is) exactly the same as speaking, but takes longer. I have never minded spending the extra time. I love crafting sentences until they are just right. I love that I can go back and fix written words, that unlike words you say, you can take them back.

Raison d’être? I write because I’m a writer. Writing is how I express myself, how I interact with the world. It’s my window, my doorway, my handshake, my dreams.

If you are going to be a writer, you probably already know it. Practice will make you a better writer, can help you understand the techniques you need to build a plot and create books that publishers will buy — but writing itself is a gift. If you have it, you know it — and most of us know it pretty young.

computer gargoyle

Writers have words. They collect in your mind, waiting to be written. We have heads full of words, sentences, pronouns, adjectives, and dependent clauses.

My advice to everyone who aspires to be a writer is to write. Don’t talk about it. Do it. Whatever medium works for you. Blogging, novels, short stories, poetry. Whatever. I’d also advise you to not talk about your work until you’ve done a significant amount of writing. I can’t count the number of great ideas left on barroom floors, talked away until there was nothing left but a vague memory and a lot of empty wine glasses. Save your words to a better purpose.

Write a lot even if it’s mostly not very good. Sooner or later, you’ll find your thing. If you don’t write, it is your personal loss, but maybe it’s the world’s loss, too.

You will never know how good you can be if you don’t try.



There’s “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” It’s a nursery rhyme known to virtually every child who grew up speaking English. We know it by heart.

Then, there’s the Lewis Carroll version.

The Mad Hatter reciting "Twinke, twinkle Little Bat," as illustrated by John Tenniel

The Mad Hatter reciting “Twinke, twinkle Little Bat,” as illustrated by John Tenniel in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat” is a poem recited by the Mad Hatter in chapter seven of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a parody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star“. Walt Disney used it in his movie version (but has the Dormouse reciting it rather than the Mad Hatter). It has always made me laugh. That’s me, laughing. For more than fifty years.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat,
How I wonder what you’re at:
Up above the world you fly
Like a tea tray in the sky,
Up above the world you fly
Like at tea tray in the sky.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat,
How I wonder what you’re at:
Up above the world you fly
Like a tea tray in the sky.



I recently read an article in the New York Times about the efficacy of ‘bribing’ children to get them to read. The article was “The Right Way To Bribe Kids To Read”, by KJ Dell’Antonia and ran on Sunday, July 24, 2016. The article cited a study that showed that bribery does work. However it also showed that the kind of bribe determined the longevity of the positive result.

The study found that monetary or other material bribes worked only as long as the rewards continued. Once the money stopped rolling in, so did the reading. So parents have to find another kind of bribe to foster enthusiasm about reading in order to form lasting reading habits. The most effective form of bribe used in the study was the promise of one on one time with a parent. This time could be spent reading together or just talking about what the child had read.


This reminded me of one of my finest parenting moments, which I would like to share with you. When my daughter was 13, she was obsessed with reading a series of books below her reading level, called “The Babysitters’ Club.” Neither I nor the teachers at her school felt this was a serious problem. She was reading and loving it and that was enough for the school and for me.

However, her father (my ex-husband) was adamant that we “make” her read more adult books. He favored the classics, like Dickens and Jane Austen. I had hated these books when I was 13 so I did not agree that this was the way to go with our daughter. He also favored the banning of TV and other ‘punishments’ as the means of ‘motivation’. I obviously was against this approach as well.

books james lee burke

My solution to this sticky family problem was brilliant, if I do say so myself! I conceded to my ex the goal of getting our daughter to read age appropriate books. BUT, I would be the one to determine the method used to accomplish this goal.

My daughter loved movies. So I proposed that she find books that had been made into movies. She would both read the book and watch the movie. We would then talk about how the two versions differed, which was more ‘successful’ and why. And how well the book translated to the screen. The first book she choose was Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” – a movie she had already seen and loved. She loved the book too. Without parental prompting, immediately read every book Fannie Flagg wrote. She took her library of Flagg’s books to sleepover camp with her and traded them with her camp friends for other books. She was off and running as a life-long, voracious reader.

netflix for books

My daughter is 31 now and is still an avid reader. She reads all kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction, covering a wide range of subjects. She particularly loves history and historical fiction. I feel that my creative solution to her reading ‘problem’ years ago allowed her intellectual curiosity to develop freely. I firmly believe that we could have destroyed that curiosity and squashed her love of reading had we mishandled that situation when she was 13.

I guess the moral of this story is that you have to nurture and encourage your children’s interest in reading. Making reading a chore or something to do for Mom and Dad is apparently not the right approach. You have to make reading something exciting that they can share with you and with their friends. You can always ‘make’ your child read. The trick is to create an adult who loves reading and learning and passes this love down to their kids.


By Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.



And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.



Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.



More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”



As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.



His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.



He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

What Do You Call a Group of…?

Things you always wanted know and didn’t know where to look? Here’s the answer!

Science-Based Life

There is just no way you are not going to find this interesting. Below is a (semi) complete list of what you would call various groups of animals.

I absolutely love the Victorian flair. An exaltation of larks? A shiver of sharks? Fantastic.

Feel free to break these out in conversation. “Science is the poetry of reality”, after all.


Apes A shrewdness
Asses A pace
Badgers A cete
Bats A colony
Bears A sloth, sleuth
Buffalo A gang, an obstinacy (I suspect these refer to old world buffalo; use “herd” for American bison)
Cats A clowder, a pounce; for kittens…A kindle, litter, an intrigue
Cattle A drove, herd
Deer A herd, bevy (refers only to roe deer)
Dogs A litter (young), pack (wild), cowardice (of curs); specific to hounds…A cry, mute, pack, kennel
Elephants A herd
Elk A gang
Ferrets A business
Fox A leash, skulk, earth
Giraffes A…

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