Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, June 30, 2017

What I'm Reading - June

This month I have been reading more books that I agreed to review - and have a varied collection to talk about.

Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella - I Need a Lifeguard Everywhere but the Pool



I love Lisa and Francesca's line of humorous books and eagerly try to get my hands on the next one. Which is why I was quite excited when I got a copy of this book from NetGalley to review.

In the same vein as the others in the series, this book was a quick, fun read. In fact, I found myself trying to read it slower so I could drag out the experience. Reading the essays makes you feel like you know the Scottolines and want to get to know them more. I like to think that if I were to meet Francesca at a party, we would hit it off (if I were the partying kind, that is). And that Lisa is like the fun, slightly eccentric, next-door neighbor I would like to have. 


This book is a little bit more political than the earlier ones, and has less of a focus on family. While there may be obvious reasons for that, I did miss the family anecdotes from the earlier books. Overall though, a great beach or in-bed-with-cookies read.


Sandra L. Richards - Rice and Rocks




I haven't read a children's book in at least a decade, but something about this book made me want to read it. From the book description: "Giovanni’s friends are coming over for Sunday dinner, and his grandmother is serving rice and beans. Giovanni is embarrassed—he does not like “rice and rocks” and worries his friends will think the traditional Jamaican dish is weird."


Not only is it beautifully illustrated, Rice and Rocks is a light-hearted, fun story about an important topic - accepting ourselves and others and embracing differences. I highly recommend this book to children of all ages and commend the author for her unique approach to this subject.

Eliza Green - Feeder



The book was initially hard for me to get into, but a couple of chapters in I was hooked, and raced through the book as quickly as I could. I really liked Anya and Dom, and was rooting for them, and I was really intrigued by the world.

On the downside, I found the change of viewpoints jarring, although I understood the need for them, and some chapters dragged and could probably have been tightened.


I am torn by the ending - I was kind of disappointed, but also quite intrigued, and I definitely want to read the sequel. So, I guess in the end, I would recommend the book quite highly. The author is clearly a gifted storyteller and definitely draws you into the world of the story, leaving you wanting more.




I have been meaning to read one of Sarah Morgan's books, so was delighted when I got the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, New York, Actually. It is all that I hoped it would and more. The only reason I didn’t tear through it in a day or two was that I had tons of work around the time I started to read it, and I used the book as a reward for getting through a lot of it.

I loved the characters - obviously Sarah Morgan really understands the importance of characterization, and even her minor characters were memorable and well-crafted. Although after a certain point I could predict where the plot was going and what issues were going to come up, the journey itself was tons of fun and I loved every page. The lead characters were believable and well-suited to each other, and of course, I found myself rooting for them to work out. I would happily recommend this book to anyone looking for their next summer read!

Karen McManus - One of Us is Lying




This is my new favorite book! I got hooked from the first page, and sacrificed sleep and work and real-life responsibilities to tear through the book in a couple of days. One of Us is Lying by debut author Karen McManus is a perfect combination of YA and thriller, written in a compelling style. The plot is far from cliché or predictable, and the characters are interesting and believable. I can't wait for more from the author!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Positive Psychology for Writers



I have been reading a few books on principles that derive from positive psychology or as some call it “the science of happiness”. And I was thinking of how I could apply some of it to my own life, and I was wondering if there are ways that writers specifically could use positive psychology. So I thought I would share some of my thoughts. 

First of all, as I understand it, positive psychology focuses on positive emotions and how to increase them. Now I am going to make the assumption that if you are a writer, you chose to do it because it makes you unhappy. Unlike many other professions, writing isn’t full of obvious perks like a company car and the corner office, so usually people choose to be writers for intrinsic reasons. So then, writing is supposed to make you happy. If it already does, that’s great, and you can skip further to my next point. If it doesn’t, then a good question to ask is why.

But first, does it matter if you are happy while writing? The culture is filled with examples that connect writers to negative vices - the alcoholic writer, the solitary writer who refuses to engage with people, the starving artist who can’t make ends meet. None of these connotations are positive, and sometimes we believe that’s the only way to be a serious, professional writer. Then there are the quotes - “You just need to stare at a blank piece of paper till drops of blood start to form on your forehead”. Not exactly encouraging a positive outlook. 

Positive psychology states that optimism and a positive mindset are more conducive to creativity than pessimism and being negative. You have more ideas, you are more original when you are feeling positive. So obviously, that’s something to aim towards, right?

The other thing I learned from positive psychology is that we are happier and more productive when we focus on our strengths. This might be obvious, but I often find that I obsess a lot more about my weaknesses than hone in on my strengths. I keep thinking of all the things I can’t do, what I am not good at. I can’t do social media, I am not great at marketing, I can’t popular fiction like XYZ author. I focus on my low sales figures, all the aspects of marketing I am not doing, all the platforms I am not on. I read a wonderful book and then fret because I could never write in that genre. 

However, positive psychology states that focusing on your strengths can make you feel better about yourself and you end up succeeding more. So ideally, I would be focusing on the aspects of writing that I enjoy and am good at. Write the book I want to read. Successful indie author Joanna Penn has said that she always thought that writing literary fiction was what she was supposed to do, even though what she loved to read were thrillers. She ignored her initial instincts, and today she is a USA Today bestselling author of Dan Brown-esque thrillers. 

To me, focusing on your strengths means being honest with yourself about what you are good at, what you can become better at, and what you are better off outsourcing or just forgetting about. Write the books you really want to. Hone your craft and get better at your writing, but only in the areas and subjects you really care about or are interested. And outsource anything that you absolutely hate doing so that you can spend more time on the aspects of writing you love and get better at that. If Facebook really isn’t your thing, don’t force yourself to do it. Spend time on writing a lovely author newsletter and send that out every month instead. If you can’t get the hang of converting your books to print, outsource that and start writing your next novel. 

Another aspect of positive psychology is gratitude. This is something that I personally struggle with a lot - I find it hard to be grateful, especially when I am focusing on all the lack in my life. Like the poor sales of my books, or how badly a certain book is coming, or how I wish I was doing better on social media and improving my author platform. However, changing how you think can change not only your mood but also your environment. There is so much to be grateful for if only we take the time to see it. We have the opportunity to write a book and put it out within 24 hours, and have readers from around the world read our books. We can get our books in different formats, and even translate them into other languages. Instead of honing in on poor sales or slow promotion campaigns, we can choose to be grateful for every reader that buys our books, and every follower on social media. We can celebrate every fan email or positive mention of our work online. We can be thankful for every reader who took the time to post a review. It can be hard to stand out as an author and get our work noticed, but we are lucky to have so many opportunities that were unavailable even 10 years ago. Let’s savor every good thing instead of only complaining or worrying about the bad. 

I am also learning from positive psychology to be less critical of my work. To be able to see the good parts, or at the very least, to reserve judgement while I am still in the draft stages. To edit with a light touch. To be optimistic about the merit of my work, instead of giving in to the voice that says that my work is terrible, that no one will read it, that writing the book is a waste of my time. I am trying to remind myself that this is only a draft, I can always do it over. I try to remember all the good things people have said about my work, instead of fixating on the negatives. None of this is easy, but all of it is worth it.


Whether you call it the law of attraction, positive psychology, optimism or being a dreamer, anything that makes it easier and more pleasurable to write, is worth trying, in my opinion. Focus on the positive aspects of your writing, give more time to your strengths, be grateful and try to cultivate a more positive mindset. Your writing and your environment can only improve as a result. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

What I'm Reading - May

I had meant to share regularly the books I have been reading, but in my race to get through the reading, I forgot to write about it!

The past month or so I have been catching up with reading books that I promised to review, and I thought I would share the books I read and my thoughts on them, briefly.

No Limits - John Maxwell



I love author John Maxwell's books, and this one was no exception. I enjoyed this one even more because it was aimed more at all individuals rather than just those looking to get ahead in the business world.

I think it would make an amazing graduation gift for anyone stepping into the world, giving them essentially a tool kit to develop "success skills". Although many of the skills and topics touched on in the book have been written about elsewhere, the author bestows his unique perspective and draws on decades of experience. Anyone who reads the book will be inspired, not just to imagine more productivity and success, but will have concrete tools and action points to "blow the cap off their capacity". 




The book to me felt like a combination of a memoir and a motivational self-help book, and initially that put me off a little and I took a while to get into the book. That changed a couple of chapters in, and I raced through the remainder of the book. I even found myself quoting from the book in conversations, and really wanted everyone I met to stop what they were doing to read the book.

The book inspired me and made me look again at the parts of my life on autopilot, made me rethink how I was approaching many aspects and just generally made me feel inspired to see things in a new way. Unlike many other self-help books, this doesn’t give you a list of strategies and tactics; instead the author challenges you to think differently. To see the circumstances of your life differently. As an avid reader of psychology and self-help books, instead of rehashed and trite messages, I genuinely found many lessons in the book, that were new to me or presented in a way that made me see something in my life profoundly differently. I had many "a-ha" moments while reading this book.

The author's story is an inspirational one; but it wasn't just the story of how he overcame incredible odds that inspired me, it was that he shared lessons from his experiences that the reader can begin to apply to their life. I recommend this book to parents, teachers and anyone looking to inspire themselves and others to living more fully, be more engaged with life and live "on fire".

The Courage of a Samurai - Lori Tsugawa Whaley



This book wasn’t at all what I expected - but in a good way. Although at times it seemed somewhat like reading a sermon, the simplicity of the moral code presented in the book is in especially sharp contrast with the current political climate. Presented through the stories of distinguished Japanese-Americans, the author describes a simple code of conduct derived from the samurai or warrior culture of Japan.

As a student of Japanese law and history myself, I found a lot of the stories in the book fascinating, giving me a completely new perspective into the history of the second world war and the cultural nuances of Japanese society. The principles described in the book may be familiar, but they are made new and interesting through the lens of the stories that accompany each principle and illustrate it. I found myself fascinated and read through the book in a few days.


The Courage of a Samurai reminds us that timeless principles like loyalty, honor and integrity can be guiding lights, regardless of who we are and where we come from, and especially when times are hard and we are tempted to give in to complaint and bitterness and complacency, we can live a completely different life by simply making different choices.




I really enjoyed both Lean In and Originals, the authors' previous books, and I knew that I would be interested in their next book as well. 

This book is unique in that it combines the personal story of Sheryl Sandberg losing her husband and how she and her family coped with this loss, along with research on how to develop resilience and strength in the face of grief and trauma and come out on the other side. I won't state clichés about how adversity makes you stronger, and neither does the book, but the personal anecdotes paired with research from studies on developing resilience helps you have hope, for yourself or for others in your life who are suffering.


In some ways it is helpful to see that even those who live a very different life from us are affected in the same ways by adversity. The advice and perspective in the book is extremely helpful no matter what you are struggling with, and I found myself wishing this book had been available sooner.  The only drawback - the abrupt shifts from the personal story to research data was a little jarring at times, but overall, a good read.

Self-Publishing and Libraries - Denise Weldon-Siviy



Most indie authors I know would love to have their books available in libraries, and when I was offered the chance to read an early copy of a book that discusses this topic, I jumped at it.

This book is very well-researched and comprehensive. If you are an indie or self-published author, you will already know some of the information on self-publishing given in the book, but the thorough primer would be invaluable to anyone who isn't familiar with the subject and the various options available.

I found the chapters that discussed the perspective of libraries and what it takes for books to get catalogued really eye-opening, because as either an author or a library user, you don't get to see the other side, and understand the steps that go into choosing a book to include and the constraints behind those decisions.


The book includes a list of recommendations for both indie authors and librarians, and I found the list particularly helpful, as were the resources included. Overall, if you are an author wanting to get your books into libraries, or librarians wishing to include more self-published books in your collection and wondering how to go about it, this book is highly recommended!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How I Write: Authors on Their Writing Process - Julius St. Clair

This week's interview is with author of fantasy series The Last of the Sages, Julius St. Clair.


1.              What led to your love for literature / writing? Any favorite books / teachers / writing mentors?
Not to be a downer, but my love for writing stemmed out of a therapeutic need. When I was young, my family was involved in a strict religious environment in which children were better seen and not heard. Being the type of person that loves to sit down and discuss our purpose in life, why people are the way they are, what makes objects tick, etc, I found myself yearning for answers but too afraid to ask. And when I did ask, most of my answers were given a religious spin. That is great and all, but it doesn’t always have a practical application in my daily life. So, when I was in third grade, I really got into writing, using it as a tool to explore my imagination, create my own worlds, and delve into the concepts that I wondered about through characters that seemed to gain a life of their own. Although I’m quite happy today and I don’t think the therapeutic need is as prevalent as before, I still have a great time watching the characters I created interact and grow.

2.              When did you first start writing? How did you develop your craft?
I started writing in third grade. It was this horrible science fiction story called Space Wars that was fifty pages long, and I can’t even remember what it was about. I think over time I naturally developed my craft. I would continue to write for fun, even while I was in school and in class, and it took up a great deal of my time when I was home. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began considering techniques and ways other authors write. Although I was an avid reader, I read for content and therefore I didn’t analyze how an author would relay a sentence. My approach changed drastically from high school on, and now it’s second nature. It’s hard for me to read now without stopping to appreciate how a scene is written.  

3.              What's your writing / editing process like?
Most of my ideas come to me like a movie trailer. I’ll be washing the dishes or laying on my pillow, and then suddenly scenes pour out of my consciousness like a movie reel. From there I create the characters and their motivations, and then I begin outlining the story itself. Every single time the final product changes from what I’ve outlined, but that’s okay. I love the way the characters take over. What I love most are group dynamics where the characters can play off each other and encounter the trials of life together. It’s rare when I write a book without a group ensemble, to be honest.
I can’t say that I’m an amazing writer, but I think that I’m a pretty good storyteller, especially for those that like character driven plots. After outlining the basic beats of the plot, I start writing and I just let my imagination flow. Editing comes after the entire novel is done. I currently use a reader—turned editor—turned friend named M. Thompson. She’s awesome.

4.              Who or what inspires you? Where / how do you get your book ideas?
My mind is kind of like a sponge so I get my ideas from everywhere. Books, anime, movies, my sons, my wife, my friends and family, nature, even jokes. Everything gets put into the blender of my mind and then filtered out into an original combination of ideas. Obsidian Sky is a great example. It plays off the idea of someone being granted three wishes, except it turns up the volume to eleven. It’s about a world where EVERYONE has been granted up to three wishes. Can you imagine? The chaos? The beauty? The creation? That’s the kind of playground that I love diving into and running around like a wild child. I write to read my own books. If I’m not having fun, then I don’t think other readers would have fun either.

5.              When in the day do you usually write? Do you have a writing routine / schedule? Do you listen to music while you write or do you prefer silence?
I usually write first thing in the morning, sometimes around 4 a.m. It’s when the world is quiet and I can concentrate on getting into the flow. I won’t eat until after I’m done, and often I will write between 20 - 40 pages a day, taking me about 6 hours if it’s all in one sitting. I always have to listen to music while I do it and I draw from a variety of artists and genres. As an example, my playlist could run from Fred Hammond (gospel) to evanescence (gothic) to Utada Hikaru (J-pop) to Kendrick Lamar (rap) to Linkin Park (rock) to Lady Gaga (pop) to classical music within fifteen minutes. Those are some insane switches in genre, but it’s a perfect parallel to how my mind races when I’m writing.

6.              Where do you feel most inspired to write? Describe your desk / writing corner / favorite writing spot.
I always have to write at my desk with some water nearby and music in my ear. I’ve also written at Panera Bread a few times, but having people all around me was kind of distracting.

7.              How much and what kind of research do you do? Any tips, favorite methods for research?
Google is my research partner, and it’s usually when I’m wondering about how a particular weapon works or what an article of clothing looks like from medieval times.

8.              Do you ever get writers' block? What are some ways you get around it?
I think I’ve gotten writer’s block like…once. Although my mind is constantly in free flow, even when I’m not writing, it comes with its shortcomings. I get distracted easily, and there are times I’ll be writing a book and a great idea comes to me and I want to stop everything to explore the new idea, but the discipline in me tells me to finish my current project first. I think to get around it, I treat it like most authors do with writer’s block—push through and keep working.

9.              How do you make the time to write?
I have two kids and a wife who happens to be my best friend, so whenever she’s around, I want to spend time with her. A blessing and a curse. Who wants to write when there’s fun to be had! That’s why I must write in the wee hours of the morning when everyone is still asleep. That way, I can focus on the business end of things later, spend time with the family, etc. I can write on the fly, thankfully, since I’m constantly thinking of the next “scene” in my book.

10.           What project(s) are you working on now?
Glad you asked! Right now I’m working on the sequel to Obsidian Sky, the next installment in the Sage Saga, and a plethora of other novels. One is on fairies (called Veidri) and how they give humans magic in exchange for protection. They enter a contractual and spiritual bond called Verdana that can never be severed and it plays off the concept of marriage. It takes place in the city of Passiona that is suddenly attacked by creatures that eat the fairies, and the fallout of the event. It’s a horrific and beautiful novel and I’m almost done with it. I can’t wait to reveal it to the world.
There is also a witch book I’m working on called Witchfall. It’s like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Nancy Drew, and Judge Dredd mixed up all into one dark, twisted, exhilarating tale.

11.           What question are you never asked during interviews and would you like to answer here? Any advice for aspiring authors?
I think one question that is never addressed is how hard it is to be an author. I think that everyone has a story within them to tell, and for the betterment of the world, it should be told. But to actually make a living off of it? That is insanely hard. To all the aspiring authors, I would like to give you a brief tale of how I got there and how I’m still trying to maintain this elusive status. I used to be an English teacher, but I worked in a school district that would lay off its teachers every year, with no guarantee of a callback. Thankfully, for the first three years, I was able to continue working, but in the fourth year, I didn’t get a call.

Now, I’ve always loved writing, but I had responsibilities so that is why I originally took on teaching. When I lost that, I found myself on unemployment but I still had a family. I asked my wife if she could give me six months to see what I could do to become a full-time author. She was crazy supportive and I went at it. I worked fourteen hours a day, every day for the next five months, and I saw no signs of making it. I would cry and renew myself every day and words can’t express how hard it was to continue on and not give up. I neglected my family to try to better their future, and I did this for months. It was hard seeing my son playing with my wife, while I was at a computer typing away, producing one novel after the other and one short story after another, publishing them like they were lottery tickets.

As I headed into my sixth month, I prayed to God, saying that if I was to be a full-time author, I needed to make a certain amount of money by the end of the sixth month ($1500) and if I didn’t get it, I would go back into teaching. I also said that I was done writing for that month. I would put it in his hands. So in the sixth month, I didn’t write a word. I spent time with family and enjoyed life, knowing I gave it my all.

Long story short, The Last of the Sages was successful that month, and I achieved more than what I asked for financially. This is now my fifth year as a full-time author, and I am grateful every day for what I have. I know I could lose it all in an instant, and I know that if it wasn’t for my readers, I wouldn’t be here. I humbly thank them for their support and love.

There are a lot more details to pour over of course, but the gist of my story, and my advice to aspiring writers is to never give up (as cliché as it sounds), give it your all, move the universe itself to get it, and don’t stop once you have it. If you are an aspiring writer and you want to make a career out of writing, and you are not willing to give it your all, then please choose another profession. Writing is very, very hard to make a living off of. I can’t stress that enough.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t also be the best thing to ever happen to you! It just requires a great deal of soul searching and understanding what it is you want out of life.



Bio:

Julius St. Clair
I’m just a humble storyteller trying to make a living doing what I love most. When I’m not writing, I’m usually spending time with my wonderful wife who happens to be my inspiration and my greatest critic simultaneously, and my two sons who are teaching me more about life than I ever imagined. Otherwise, I love meeting new people, going to the movies, watching anime, reading and hanging out with friends and family.


The Last of the Sages

In the kingdom of Allay, Sages are born.

Powerful warriors with supernatural abilities that would rival the strength of whole armies. And there is an academy that trains such warriors in sword and sorcery, forging them out of young, ordinary students. Few survive, but if there is any hope for this now desolate kingdom, the tests must be given to all that enter its walls.

One such student is James, a self-proclaimed slacker that has just been forced into the academy by his father. And if he plans to see another day, he will have to weather through four lessons in life: determination, maturity, trust, and love...


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