Posted in Books, Writing

How to Tell the Difference Between Horror and Thriller


In 2016 I spent a year writing and revising an action-packed YA book that I queried to literary agents as a horror novel. I received lots of feedback, both good and bad, but the most surprising feedback that entered my e-mail inbox, from two separate agents no doubt, gave me the same advice: I’m incorrectly pitching my novel as horror, when it’s actually a thriller. This advice astounded me, and made me reconsider everything I knew about the genre I love. How could I possibly confuse a genre I thought I understood so well with another?

This got me to thinking how similar the genres actually are, how in many ways they both try to deliver scares and surprises and page-turning suspense to the reader. And so I decided it was time to explore in depth these two genres and study how they are similar and different, what audience expectations there are of the genres, and how I should move forward in exploring the genres in my own writing. I will begin by defining the horror novel and the thriller novel and exploring their histories, and I will next examine two important works in each genre and discuss why each belongs to its specific genre. Ultimately the two genres are incredibly similar, enough so that I would suggest that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, although not all thrillers are necessarily horror.

In her book, Horror Fiction: An Introduction, Gina Wisker defines horror as “located in both the real and the nightmarish imaginary, and an important ingredient in its success is the ability to entertain, terrify, problematize […] horror is a taste acquired by those with sufficient imagination to see beyond, beneath, and through what we take for granted as normal and familiar” (2). In effect, horror has been popular for so long not just because of its chill factor, and not because it can make a person jump in terror out of his or her seat; it has the ability to touch on the dark elements of our lives in ways no other genre can.

In his masterful 1981 non-fiction book about the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King says, “novels dealing with horror always do their work on two levels. On top is the ‘gross-out’ level […] the gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it’s always there. But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level” (17–18). King is saying that horror can often just be the gross-out, the jump scare, the monster behind the curtain who yells “Boo!” But he is also describing what I love best about horror, that it can go deeper and probe the dark parts of human nature that is so often left off the page in other kinds of fiction.

What I’ve always loved about horror is the way it can creep under my skin and make me question my own morality in the face of death or evil. The best horror writing should make me question myself. As King says, “Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world? The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools to dismantle themselves” (26). In essence he is saying that horror is helpful, and that facing fictional fears from the comfort of my own home allows me to work through inner demons that may not be able to come out in any other way.

Horror novels have taken many shapes over the years, always evolving to both audience’s tastes and the changing landscapes of the real world. Thought to be the first real horror novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published back in 1764, where “Gothic’s representations of extreme circumstances of terror, oppression, and persecution, darkness and obscurity of setting, and innocence betrayed are considered to begin” (Lloyd-Smith 3). Much of the famous early works of horror deliver jolts and scares that are more intellectual to readers than what most will find in novels of the horror genre today, but many of the same themes hold true today. This early Gothic period focused on subjects like taboos, sexuality, violence, injustice, and social fears and anxieties, and these elements have appeared in horror fiction throughout the centuries.

Consider the most famous horror novel released in the 1800s: Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel is about one of the ultimate taboos — creating a living, breathing human being from the body parts of dead people — and seeing the horrifying consequences in its sad, explicit detail, touching on “deeper psychology” and “complex motivations in characters divided against themselves” (Lloyd-Smith 134). This classic novel continues to be highly regarded and studied in the modern era because it touches on dangers and ideas that remain frightening to this day.

Of course horror evolved considerably over the decades, particularly in the twentieth century. One of the granddaddies of the genre that became the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie is the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, Psycho, about a motel owner who dresses up as his mother and murders innocent women who stay at his establishment. This classic book is an example of non-supernatural horror, a story set completely in reality that is terrifying for the reader because it talks of despicable human actions that could potentially happen to him or her. As opposed to the safer supernatural horror, which allows readers to “control the horrors […] evoke your vampire out of the grave, and at the end drive a stake through his heart and pull him back, [a] way of handling evil,” the readers are thrust into a situation that offers no safe escape (Schweitzer 16).

As Terry Heller says in his book The Delights of Terror, “though most people will never be trapped in a belfry or in a contracting prison cell, many will find themselves in analogous situations: traffic accidents, muggings, fires and diseases. […] We seek out such stories [as Psycho] to explore the psychological extremes that arise from physical danger” (29). This is not to say that supernatural horror novels don’t provide this kind of mental exercise from readers; Stephen King’s The Shining is a prime example of a work that shines a light on both fantasy horror and realistic horror, giving readers a chance to feel control over the outlandish situations of the narrative, while at the same time dig deep within themselves to approach their fears over true physical and psychological crises.

As this overview of the horror genre proves, people have always loved to be terrified — but they’ve also always loved to be thrilled. The thriller genre has been around as long as or potentially even longer than the horror novel, and although the two genres share similar traits, the thriller is different in many ways. A thriller goes beyond trying to scare the reader and trying to fill the reader with dread; it relies entirely on suspense every step of the way. In his book Writing the Thriller, author T. Macdonald Skillman says, “Suspense is emotional. It’s surprise and confusion and fear and anticipation. And suspense is danger. Immediate danger. It’s worrying about what’s going to happen, not about the action taking place at that moment. […] [Therefore] a true [thriller novel] is a book about characters who find themselves trapped in a series of increasingly frightening incidents that force them to take extraordinary steps to survive” (7). What Skillman is saying here is that while there may be frightening moments the same way there would be in a horror novel, the thriller is more interested in filling the reader with anticipation toward the state of the main characters and the increasingly complex plot.

In his book Thrillers, author Jerry Palmer says, “In the thriller, suspense derives from the adoption of a single perspective that is associated first and foremost with a [hero]. This is what differentiates thriller suspense from other forms” (61). Unlike horror, which is often written in third person and utilizes multiple points of view and can even be told from the point-of-view of the villain, thrillers generally put readers up close with the hero for every suspenseful step of the narrative. They can often be more generic than horror in a way because they offer more predictability, the journey with a central protagonist who the reader often knows will defeat the villain and live to see another day.

The thriller novel is in many ways much more broad than the horror novel, and this in return allows for the thriller to spread across to many more subgenres, including action, spy, and more. Believed to be the first true thriller is Homer’s The Odyssey, with a story of great excitement about a man trying to find his way home. A thriller needs great tension throughout, as Skillman says, “every scene [in a thriller needs to] generate both conflict and tension at some level” (43). There needs to be thrills, there needs to be suspense, but a thriller doesn’t necessarily have to terrify the way a horror novel does. Great thriller novels provide suspense and constant excitement, not necessarily terror.

One of the most famous thrillers of the twentieth century is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which became the equally compelling Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tale of a man wrongfully accused of a crime and on the run lends itself to tremendous excitement from beginning to end, particularly in regards to the pacing. Skillman says, “The pacing demands of a [thriller] are less forgiving [than other novels]. Readers who pick up a thriller expect to be kidnapped by fear and action and dragged along on a wild ride. They’re looking for a breakneck journey that rarely slows down long enough to explore dead ends or enjoy a plate of fried chicken served up with a side of flirtation” (138). Readers of thrillers expect to flip through the pages ferociously, while readers of horror expect more fear and dread on the page and not necessarily this kind of breakneck speed to the narrative. Lastly, thrillers can exist in specific subgenres that horror wouldn’t necessarily be found in. The James Bond novels by Ian Fleming fit in the spy thriller subgenre; Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is also a well-known spy thriller. Other subgenres include the legal thriller, the military thriller, the medical thriller, and lots more.

In the last few months I have studied a novel that I believe to be strictly horror, and a novel that I believe works solely as a thriller. To start with horror, let’s examine Joe Hill’s 2013 novel, NOS4A2. This book tells the story of a child abductor who harbors children in a creepy place called Christmasland and the girl who managed to escape him who grows up to be a strong woman ready to take him down. It features a few specific elements that make this a strict horror novel. First, this is a supernatural novel, one that includes an entire alternate world that the protagonist finds herself stuck inside for a huge chunk of the narrative. Generally thrillers are set in the world as we know and understand it, while horror often features ghouls and goblins and takes the main characters to unknown places. Second, Hill uses the normally celebratory aspect of the Christmas holiday season as a source of fear and dread throughout the book, turning the reader’s warm and nostalgic feelings for the holiday into a menacing kind of terror. Hill writes, “He leaned over the stool, both hands on its edge, and took a long, trembling breath — and smelled the Christmassy odor of gingerbread again. He almost flinched, the fragrance was so strong and clear” (273). The smell of gingerbread often fills one with pleasure, and the maniacal villain of NOS4A2 knows it, making it one of his prime weapons to seduce children to their doom.

Hill also goes for the gross-out from time to time in a way an author of a thriller would rarely approach in his writing, specific gory details that feel only appropriate for a horror novel: “Mr. Manx had changed. He was missing his left ear — it was tatters of flesh, little crimson strings swinging against his cheek. […] A great flap of loose red skin hung from his brow. His eyes were gone, and where they had been were buzzing red holes — not bloody sockets but craters containing live coals” (415). Notice how this description of Mr. Manx’s grisly new appearance goes on and on, Hill delighting in the disgust of his imagery. Even if Mr. Manx were a human being who had some kind of a trauma occur to his face, the thriller writer would not take a paragraph to describe every aspect of his horrid face — he would keep the narrative chugging along to keep the reader flipping through the pages.

An author of horror is allowed to take his time, setting up scenes of terror and repulsion in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to be moments of non-stop action; of course, horror often does have non-stop action, with scenes of great tension and suspense, and NOS4A2 features many terrific moments that could exist under the thriller model, like this one: “She began to push herself up once more, and Charlie Manx came down with his silver hammer again and hit her in the back, and she heard her spine break with a sound like someone stepping on a cheap toy: a brittle, plasticky crunch. The blunt force drove the wind out of her and slammed her back to her stomach” (351). This tense scene still provides one or two minor descriptions that may aim for shock value more than one would find in a standard thriller, but Hill’s prose still offer the kind of suspense that carries over to both popular genres.

Now let’s discuss Scott Smith’s 1993 thriller A Simple Plan and see what Smith does differently. A Simple Plan tells of three men who discover four million dollars in a crashed airplane and do everything in their power to keep the money a secret, resulting in unthinkable tragedy. Let’s start with the suspense aspect, which Skillman discussed in his craft book. Between the opening scene of the men finding the crashed plane and the four million dollars and the scene of Hank causing havoc in a middle-of-nowhere mini-mart, this book offers nearly non-stop suspense, with even the quietest moments filled with constant tension. Smith gets us to love the characters early on and relate to them well, so when they’re put in perilous situations, when any one of them could be captured by the police or killed, we stay on the edge of our seats. Smith’s suspense prose is simple, elegant, never too show-offy. He writes, “I took off my jacket, unbuttoned my shirt, and slid the pistol into my waistband, barrel first, fiddling with it until it felt secure. It was in the center of my belly, sharp and cold against my skin, its grip pointing to the right” (337). Smith works like Alfred Hitchcock in a way, delaying the shocking moments, because he knows, like all the best storytellers, that it’s the anticipation of the gunshot that’s more suspenseful than the gunshot itself.

Unlike Hill, who will often relish the gory details, Smith is more interested in the suspense of a scene the way a thriller writer should be. I think one telling moment is Scott’s description of a dead body early on in the novel: “His eyes had been eaten out by the bird. Their dark sockets stared at me, his head rolling a bit to the right on his neck. The flesh around his eyes had been chewed completely away” (20). Compare this description with the one Hill gives of Mr. Manx. Both feature grisly details and glimpses of gore, but Smith’s is more subtle, more attuned to how an average Joe would describe a dead body he discovered in the snowy woods. Smith never goes for a gross-out moment because he thinks it might scare the reader; any moment of terror, like when two central characters are shot and killed at a farm house, is written as realistic suspense that feels set up and earned, never grisly and exploitative.

Unlike NOS4A2, A Simple Plan is written in first person, so the reader gets a closer look at the main character Hank’s inner musings. Since thrillers more often deal with ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations, the reader of A Simple Plan gets to follow Hank as he makes one poor decision after another, the reader becoming an accomplice who asks him or herself, “Would I do the same thing if I were Hank?” Smith writes, “I realized that I’d crossed a boundary, done something abhorrent, brutal, something I never would have imagined myself capable of. I’d taken another man’s life” (91). This connection we get to the protagonist offers additional suspense because unlike Mr. Manx in NOS4A2, who we know from the first chapter is a bad man who does terrible things, Hank is someone we can identify with, and so much of the suspense comes from wanting to see him get out of his increasingly desperate situation.

In looking at the histories of the two genres and examining two specific novels, I have come to a few conclusions as to what makes a horror novel different from a thriller novel. My thesis is that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, while most thrillers are not necessarily horror, and I feel like this statement holds true through the following points…

First, a horror novel is intended to scare and/or disgust a reader by inducing feelings and emotions of terror, while a thriller is meant to excite and entertain a reader through the use of constant tension and suspense. Can a horror novel offer excitement and suspense to a reader from beginning to end? Yes. Although some horror novels can go as slow as they please, other famous works like Jack Ketchum’s horror novel The Girl Next Door features moments that shock and terrify, while at the same time giving non-stop suspense throughout its three hundred pages. A thriller, on the other hand, will not typically cross these boundaries, the writer not so interested in gory details and moments of repulsion as he is in offering endless tension.

Second, many horror novels are set in a supernatural realm, while thrillers are almost always set in the real world and are about ordinary citizens who get trapped in extraordinary circumstances. If one begins reading a suspenseful story and can’t right away decide if it’s horror or thriller, one easy question to ask yourself is if it’s realistic or if it’s speculative. As soon as a vampire or a ghost or a creature from Christmasland shows up, know you’re in horror territory. Having said that, though, not all horror novels are supernatural; Stephen King’s Misery is known far and wide as a work of horror, even though it’s set entirely in the real world. But if there is a supernatural element, know you’re likely in the realm of horror.

Third, the POV often gives a clue as to which genre we’re in; horror is often written in third person while thrillers are often written in first person. Third person allows some distance, which allows the author to build on fear and dread, to create a tone that will frighten the reader. First person allows a closer look into the hero’s head, which adds to the suspense because the reader is more greatly invested in his or her central dilemma. Are there horror novels written in first and thrillers written in third? Of course there are, but POV can in many cases be a tip-off to what genre you’re reading. In the end, the genres remain similar, but these three points help shed light on what often makes them different.

Although I have always been more passionate about the horror genre, the thriller genre has also played an important role in both my reading life and my writing life, and I have come to respect both genres as essential in my exploration in authoring works of suspense. Both work on similar and different levels, many of which I’ve explored in this paper, but it’s important to me as I move forward to have a clear understanding of the genres as separate entities and what readers, agents, and publishers will come to expect when I pitch my latest novel as either horror or thriller. Maybe, in the end, I can feel safe with my latest novel being pitched as a horror-thriller since the two genres overlap to such a stunning degree. Consider the relationship between the genres a subversive kind of love story, one fraught with murder and dread and tension, and most especially, suspense.

Works Cited

Heller, Teller. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 1987. Print.

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow and Company: New York, 2013. Print.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House: New York, 1981. Print.

Lloyd-Smith, Alan. American Gothic: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2004. Print.

Palmer, Jerry. Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1979. Print.

Schweitzer, Darrell. Speaking of Horror: Interviews with Writers of the Supernatural. The Borgo Press: San Bernadino, 1994. Print.

Skillman, T. MacDonald. Writing the Thriller: How to Craft Page-Turning Suspense With Instruction from Best-Selling Authors. Writer’s Digest Books: New York, 2000. Print.

Smith, Scott. A Simple Plan. Knopf: New York, 1993. Print.

Wisker, Gina. Horror Fiction: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2005. Print.

Posted in Books

The Oz Books #13: The Magic of Oz


A few months ago I started reading, for the first time since childhood, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, a gorgeous annotated edition that had nearly 100 pages of biography on Baum and all sorts of neat trivia about the book. When I was a kid my mom bought me the first few Oz books, so I’ve had most of the books on my bookshelf for going on twenty-five years. The farthest I ever got back in the third grade was Ozma of Oz, and I thought it was time to finally explore what else Baum’s world had to offer.

It’s been so much fun for me to curl up in bed for a few hours each week and check out Baum’s latest offering. It’s kind of amazing to think I only have one left to read — Glinda of Oz — before this sometimes frustrating but mostly enjoyable journey comes to a close. I haven’t liked all of the books, with some so far removed from the core set characters we love and adore that at times they don’t even feel like Oz books. Unfortunately, The Magic of Oz is one of the lesser entries in the series.

Like Scarecrow of Oz and Riki-Tink in Oz, the characters we’ve come to know and love act as side characters to the new Kiki Aru, who finds great use with his newfound magical power. Baum bounces around to a few stories throughout the novel, essentially making this his “Magnolia,” but unfortunately the storyline here is nowhere near as compelling as the twelfth book in the series, Tin Woodman of Oz, which kept me throughout engaged from beginning to end.

I find the best books in series, like Ozma of Oz and The Emerald City of Oz, to have high stakes, with the lesser having little to no stakes, like The Magic of Oz, which has a storyline that depends on whether or not Dorothy and the Wizard can find Ozma a frickin’ birthday present (!). The best scenes of the book occur at the end, like when all of the characters sit around Ozma’s birthday table and make conversation, and the last chapter when the Nome King finally gets his comeuppance in the Emerald City.

Overall, this was an OK read, not the worst of the series, but not one of the best either. I have a fixation on the books revolving around the characters from the previous books that I’m interested in, and when Baum throws in a new character for half the book that doesn’t offer much interest or personality, I tune out a little.

Let’s hope Glinda of Oz ends the fourteen book series on a high note!

Posted in Books, Writing

My Favorite Writing Lessons from Ray Bradbury


Published in 1990, Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays written by Ray Bradbury about his love of writing. The essays were written over the course of thirty years, not all at once for this collection. But they echo the same truths behind one’s writing.

Ray Bradbury is the writer behind many classic works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He wrote twenty-seven novels, and he also wrote for movies. He won multiple awards, including the Emmy award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

There are many practical advantages here, especially in what he discusses in the early essays. Some practical pieces of advice he gives: number one is to write 1,000 words a day, every day (kind of like Stephen King’s rule!), he recommends that you don’t think so much when you write and try to be free, the usefulness of reading more poetry to understand how to use more senses in your writer, and he also recommends we write from a place of truth.

The primary audience here is writers of fiction, particularly short story writers, since, as a speculative fiction writer, he discusses in depth strategies to strengthen your plots and characters. The secondary audience is anyone who loves to read, because he goes into not only strategies in writing but backstories of how some of his most famous books came to be.

Ray Bradbury is one of the most popular and important authors of the twentieth century, and this, his one and only non-fiction book, is worthy of study by all who are interested in writing, because he offers sound advice on how to better your writing, produce more writing, always write from a place of truth. Ultimately this book makes you fall in love with writing all over again.

Bradbury recommends you run fast when writing, and stand still when you need to observe. One or the other, and nothing in between. He goes on to give biographical details, telling how in the beginning he imitated writers he liked and only occasionally wrote something worthy of interest. He wrote out a list of nouns, picked one at random, and wrote a story. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE LOCKET. THE BEACH. Had a story called THE THING where he wrote down the noun in 1926 and finally wrote the story in 1986.

He recommends you not just sit around and wait for the muse to show up. He says to read a lot of poetry. Every day! Also, essays. Any collection you can find. He wants you to find books that help your senses, in the way you describe things in your writing. The one thing that holds it all together? Excitement! You have to be excited about your writing, or it will die a quick death on the page.

He says that he writes 1,000 words or more every single day, and would average at least one story a week, if not more, since he started writing in his teens. It took him years to write something good, but it was all about practice, practice, practice. When he turned twenty-five, he sold three stories in three days!

In the last major chapter, Bradbury discusses the importance of work and relaxation as a writer. The work must be done, but the writer also needs to relax. We can’t do it just for the money, or the fame and fortune. We have to write from truth. We have to write what speaks to us, what makes us unique. If we can find our truth, we can really start saying something.

Posted in Books

The Oz Books #12: The Tin Woodsman of Oz


What’s that phrase? Patience is a virtue, right? After the disappointment of Scarecrow of Oz, a book that barely even has the Scarecrow in it, and the bore that was Rinki-Tink of Oz, I was close to putting an end to my fourteen-book Oz project. I wasn’t having any fun, and such seemed to be the only real point in this project (aside from having written an Oz fable myself and wanting to learn more about the universe and characters).

The Lost Princess of Oz, book 11 in Baum’s initial 14-book series, was a step in the right direction, with a return to a simple and engaging storyline, as well as the characters we know and love. And now, with just three novels to go, I’m so happy to report that Tin Woodman of Oz, book 12, is an absolute joy from beginning to end, and possibly the best of all the sequels.

Tin Woodman of Oz is the book I hoped Scarecrow of Oz to be, a story that would give us backstory on one of the iconic characters from the first book. That book, however, felt like something entirely different, with the Scarecrow appearing in the last third seemingly like an afterthought.

Tin Woodman of Oz, on the other hand, focuses entirely on our beloved Nick Chopper, who finally gets the chance to tell his heartbreaking story about the girl he loved but who the Wicked Witch of the East, whose Dorothy’s house later squashed, prevented him from being with. We discover how he used to be a man of flesh and then became all made of tin (in all its gruesome details!), and why obtaining a heart was so important to him in the first place. He ultimately sets out on a journey to find his love Nimmee Amee, with the help from two friends, the Scarecrow, and a new character named Woot. Does he find her and get back together? Will he find true joy again?

Tin Woodman of Oz isn’t a perfect novel by any means. It’s another adventure story, with Oz characters on foot bumping into wild and eccentric characters spurred from Baum’s imagination, but this one rings truer because we generally care about Nick Chopper and his pursuit to find his love. Imagine if J.K. Rowling had written a sequel where Albus Dumbledore set out on a journey to find his childhood love, and you get the idea (wow, what a book that would be!).

One section in the middle of the book, where the trio transform into animals, drags a bit, and I also wish the Cowardly Lion could’ve been the third major character here, but the novel’s conclusion is genuinely surprising, in a good way, and the entertainment value in this one exceeds anything in the series since Ozma of Oz, the other great sequel Baum wrote. If you’re interested in reading later Oz books, I would skip over many of the titles, all so you can get to this one. Tin Woodman of Oz is great fun, and a treat for fans of The Wizard of Oz. I’m so happy I stuck with the series long enough to get to it!

Posted in Books, Writing

Why You Need to Read if You Want to Write


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dig in.

I’m going to be honest about something: I find it so difficult lately to find time to read. I find it hard, and yet my schedule is a lot more relaxed than many. I’m currently teaching three college classes, including an advanced writing workshop, and I’m hard at work revising two different manuscripts.

But I certainly have hours in my day I could devote to reading, so why don’t I? Because I’m glued to the television, way more than I should be. I usually enjoy watching the news first thing when I get up, and then with breakfast I like to watch an episode of whatever show I’ve been watching. Then I do my creative work in the late morning, write for two or three hours before I move on to all the work I have to do for the classes I’m teaching. Classes to prep. Papers to grade. Writing submissions to read and write comments on.

Then most afternoons I spend teaching at the university, and when I come home at night, it’s time to make dinner and watch some more TV, whether it’s a film or more of the television show. When it’s been a long day of writing and grading and teaching, I just want to sprawl out on the couch and watch TV, I don’t want to sit with a book for too long.

For the first year in my new house I had a guest bedroom with no TV in it. I would migrate there at least thirty minutes every day and use that room as a reading space, the one place in the house that had no TV, no computer, and I could just pick up a book or two off the shelf and read.

But of course eventually I did put a TV in there, and a DVD player, and now every time I migrate to it, I might look at the books I have on the shelf or the bed, might even crack one open for a few minutes, but if I’m at all tired I toss the book down, turn on the TV, and put on a movie or a TV show. There is a ton of content out there, and sometimes I feel like if I don’t watch at least eight hours of Netflix every day I’ll never catch up. And when I get in bed at night, in another room with a TV, instead of picking up that book on my nightstand, I’ll watch something else before I finally drift to sleep.

Part of the reason I’m not reading as much as I used to is that I just spent three years in an MFA Creative Writing program in which I read a lot, a lot, a lot. Between the summer of 2017 and the spring of 2018 I probably read more than forty books. I have to take notes, copy quotations, write long essays, reference many of the titles in two terrifying examinations. When I graduated in May, I said to myself, now I get to just read whatever I want.

And for the first couple months, I did. I poured through the books in my guest bedroom I’d been wanting to read for pleasure. Many of these books were fantastic. But by August or so, I’d read everything I owned I really wanted to, and ever since, I haven’t exactly been grabbed by too much fiction, whether it’s another book I have in the house or a random title I pick up at the library.

I don’t know about you, but what I’ve found with reading as I get older is that I have to really, really love the book to commit myself to it, to commit a half-hour or more each to it. If the book is just okay, if it’s not grabbing me, and I don’t have to read it for any program or anybody, then eventually I just stop going to it, and I move on to something else.

But as I sit here now, recognizing that I should be reading more, especially a holiday week like this one when I’ll have more time, I realize just how much I’ve missed reading. The last three months I haven’t given myself over to a great novel, and I’m starting to feel it in my bones. Movies and TV can be fantastic. Last night I watched a film called Shame, directed by Ingmar Bergman, that impressed me from first frame to last.

But when you go too long without reading, something inside me begins to suffer. My fiction writing always takes a hit, the best words not coming to me the way they should. Ideas for other stories don’t come as easily. I don’t sleep as well at night.

So what I’m forcing myself to do between now and the end of the year is to read at least thirty minutes every day. It can be morning or night. It can be fiction or non-fiction. It can be whatever I want. The trick is, if you don’t have time throughout the day to read, to allow yourself five-minute pockets where you can dip into a story, like Stephen King talks about. If you’re at the doctor’s office. Or waiting at the dentist. Or taking a break between the classes you’re teaching. You can do it first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night.

Find what works for you. What I’ve been doing the last few days if forcing myself to read for about thirty minutes before I do my day’s creative writing. Reading stimulates the mind, and I have found it really helpful to read in that short window of time before I sit down and do my work. I find it easier to read in the morning than at night, but that might be different for you.

What King says still stands. If you want to be a writer, you have to find time to read. It doesn’t have to be five hours of reading every day. You don’t have to read a novel each week. But even if you have your weeks or months of non-reading like I occasionally do, don’t give up. Find a window of time where you can pick up that book you wanted to check out, and if you love it, give it a chance. If the book is boring you to tears, then by all means, go on to something else.

Fall back in love with reading again, and not just your writing will get the benefit. You will, too.

Posted in Books

The Oz Books #11: The Lost Princess of Oz


Since reading The Patchwork Girl of Oz, I’ve been complaining that many of these later sequels are subpar to the magic and wonder of the original The Wizard of Oz (released in 1900) and Ozma of Oz, still the best of the sequels. I was particularly disappointed by The Scarecrow of Oz and Rinki-Tink of Oz, both which felt like non-Oz books, with some generic Oz elements thrown in during the last few chapters. With only four books left to go in Baum’s series, I was worried there wouldn’t be any bright light as I reach the end of this journey. Was there going to be a late surprise? YES!

The Lost Princess of Oz is grand entertainment, a rousing adventure all the way through, and it does everything right where so many of the other sequels have gone wrong. What works here?

One, a simple story. The last two sequels were so damn complicated sometimes I’d start skimming. In this one, Ozma gets kidnapped, and her friends have to find her. That’s it. And it makes for a fun journey.

Two, we actually get to spend the book with the characters we adore! Unlike Rinki-Tink in Oz, which introduces us to new characters for 250 pages and then throws Dorothy and Ozma in the last couple characters, The Lost Princess of Oz gives us Glinda and Dorothy and the Scarecrow and many others from the early books, from the get-go! Baum does spend too much time in the middle portion with the amazing Frogman character, but even he is one of the more charming new characters of these later sequels.

Three, there’s a strong and at times spooky villain, Ugu, the Shoemaker. Not only are the illustrations of this old, vindictive man rather eerie, but he is easily the most memorable villain Baum has created since the Nome King. What happens to him, and where he ends up in the end, is also unexpected, and surprisingly beautiful.

And four, this adventure, unlike some of the others, feels fresh, with lots of innovative ideas along the way, one of my favorites being a wall of ghost girl soldiers who pretend to have the power to keep the core characters away from Ugu’s lair.

Now… just three titles to go. After Baum died, the books continued by John R. Neill, but I wanted to focus solely on the works Baum had his stamp on. As I get nearer to the end, I’m interested to see if there’s any sense of finality in Glinda of Oz, Baum’s final book, but I’m not done yet! I’m excited to see if the Tin Woodman gets his own story in book 12, and not be tossed off to the side for the majority of the pages like the Scarecrow did in book 9.

Not every sequel has been a success, but I’m so happy to see the amount of fun Baum seems to had on The Lost Princess of Oz, easily the best sequel of the series since The Emerald City of Oz. If you’re not going book by book like I am, and just simply want to read a fun later sequel, give The Lost Princess of Oz a try. It’s a great read!

Posted in Books

What’s so great about A Discovery of Witches?


A Discovery of Witches is the kind of book that sweeps you away and keeps you under its spell for long hours at a time. I didn’t know what I was going to make of this book. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a whopper, and with there being a central romance between a witch and a vampire, I wasn’t sure what I would make of it. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the Twilight books, but I love stories about witches. I’ve been looking at it on my shelf for the last five months, intrigued to read a chapter or two and see if I like it.

A couple days before leaving for a vacation, my sister-in-law asked if I had a copy of this book. I told her yes, and she asked if she could borrow it to read on the plane. I said she could, and as soon as I got home, I took the book off my shelf and set it on my nightstand, so I wouldn’t forget. Before I went to sleep that night I turned to the first page, just to see what all the fuss was about. Then I turned to page 2, then page 3. I read the first 50 pages that night, and read another 100 the following day. I was hooked. I didn’t want to give up my copy! So I did something I’ve never done before: give someone my own purchased copy of a book, then go to the library and borrow the same book, so that I can read it. Yes we both made A Discovery of Witches a vacation book, and we’re both happy we did.

What I loved most about A Discovery of Witches was the deft manner author Deborah Harkness draws you into the world. Some have said the book opens on a dull note, with so much fuss over a manuscript, but these early scenes fascinate with their magical tone and historical implications. The protagonist Diana Bishop is not a teen girl with nothing to do all day but pine over a boy at school — she is a supremely intelligent young woman who is trying to suppress her sordid history as a witch, and move on from the mysterious deaths of her parents by making a life for herself as an acclaimed Oxford scholar.

Of course the manuscript she peruses at the campus library turns out to be the Macguffin of the plot, when it’s discovered supernatural creatures all over the world have been looking far and wide for it for centuries. Yes, Diana meets, befriends, and ultimately falls in love with a vampire Matthew Clairmont, the central element of the story that isn’t exactly fresh material by any means, but it’s a relationship based more on the meeting of the minds, than pure animal lust or giddy passion. The small details slowly revealed about his centuries-long backstory offer tremendous pleasure, and when, in concern for her safety, he whisks her away to his family home, the novel really starts to get interesting.

I loved the tone and feel of this book, as much I enjoyed the story. This is one of those books you read when you can tell the author has done her homework. A professor of history, she fills the pages with historical details that enrich the central love story, and the impending doom of all the well-defined characters. Is it a perfect novel? It’s got some lulls in its 594 pages, especially, oddly enough, toward the end, when the tension should be ratcheting up, not dwindling. But overall I really enjoyed A Discovery of Witches and am glad I checked it out. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it, and I look forward to reading the follow-ups, as well as the new TV series.