Congratulations to our 8 National Book Critics Circle Award finalists!

Founded in 1974, the NBCC now comprises more than 1,000 working critics and book-review editors throughout the country, who annually vote and bestow its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States. Fiction: Nonfiction: Autobiography: Criticism: Poetry: Author Tommy Orange will receive the annual John Leonard Prize, honoring first books in any genre for his novel THERE, THERE. See all NBCC nominees here. Winners of the NBCC awards will be announced on Thursday, March 14 at a ceremony in Manhattan’s New School’s Tishman Auditorium. A finalists’ reading will be held on March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the same location. Both events are free and open to the public.  

Penguin Random House and zulily Host Books for Kids’ “Buy 1, Give 1” Campaign

To kick off the season of giving while also celebrating National Family Literacy Month in November, zulily, the online retailer obsessed with bringing special finds to its customers every day, is teaming up with Penguin Random House to help provide books to children in need across the U.S.  Zulily is leading its third annual holiday giving campaign, launched November 1 and planned through December 12, 2018. Special sales events during the campaign will feature a curated selection of children’s books and each Penguin Random House book purchased labeled with the “BUY 1, GIVE 1” badge will trigger a new children’s book donation, up to 100,000 books, from Penguin Random House to First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides new books and other essentials to children in need nationwide. Visit here for full campaign details.

Amazon Best Books of 2018

Amazon.com announced its selections for the Best Books of 2018, naming Tara Westover’s Educated (Random House) the #1 pick for best book of 2018 and Kekla Magoon’s The Season of Styx Malone (Wendy Lamb Books) the editor’s pick for best book in the children’s category.  Amazon’s annual list features the Top 100 books of the year plus Top 20 lists across various categories ranging from biography, literary fiction, and mystery to children’s and young adult. All lists are hand-selected by Amazon’s team of editors—first by choosing the best books of every month and then, finally, the best books of the year. To see the full lists of Amazon’s Best Books of 2018, click here. The Amazon Editorial Team’s Top 10 Picks of 2018 list also includes  Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (Knopf), Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River (Riverhead), and Tommy Orange’s There There (Knopf). See the winners below:  

5 Good Writing Habits You Need to Learn Now

This article was written by Lorraine Berry and originally appeared on Signature Reads.   As writers, we can be our own worst enemies. We may have dozens of reasons why we are not writing.  Sometimes, these barriers may feel insurmountable, but James Clear argues in Atomic Habits that those barriers can be breached through a series of one percent changes to our habits. “The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do,” he says, and he offers a series of small steps to developing a writing habit.
Clear provides methods that help pinpoint those habits that are ineffective, and a large variety of tactics to create effective habits that will change what we do. His book contains clear instructions on how to develop writing as a habit, one that will feel as automatic as brushing your teeth or that first cup of coffee in the morning.
Here are five effective habits. Habit #1: In order to encourage inspiration to strike, set up a time to meet with it. James Clear cites a British study that showed that those who write down specific times when they will practice their new habit have the highest success rate. For writers, creating such an “implementation intention” would involve writing down a sentence that looks like this: “I will write for (period of time) at (time of day) at (location).” So, for example, “I will write for 30 minutes at 3 p.m. at the kitchen table.” By sitting down each day at 3, you accustom your brain to this new habit. Once your brain can count on you to keep your new habit, you may find that new ideas and inspiration are waiting for you. Habit #2: If writing is important to you, create an environment that encourages you to write. Our environment can create barriers to practicing our new habits. If your habit is to sit on the sofa to watch TV, and you had intended to write while sitting on the sofa, then the TV may prove to be too big a temptation. Instead, choose a place to write that isn’t associated with another habit. If you live in a tiny space with few options, then designate a specific place to write. It doesn’t have to be a different room. In a studio apartment, you may decide to use a different chair or to set up a small writing corner. You will attach writing to that particular place, so if you’re in that space, your brain will expect you to write. Environmental clues can be used to help reinforce your new habit. Habit #3: Create temptations that reward you for your new habit of writing. Habits are developed because our brain has a dopamine-driven feedback loop. It is the anticipation of the reward that causes the release of dopamine that makes us feel good. In fact, anticipation releases more dopamine than actually doing the thing we craved or wanted. You can use a habit you already have (getting up early, taking the dogs for a walk, drinking coffee in the morning) to attach the habit you are trying to develop to a reward that your brain anticipates. In this way, the habit you are developing is sandwiched between a daily habit you do anyway, and is followed by something you want. Clear provides readers with methods for identifying both the already established habits and also the things that individuals consider to be rewards. His system might look something like this:
  • After (current habit), I will (habit I need to develop).
  • After (habit I need to develop), I will (habit I want).
So, if you walk your dog every day after breakfast, and you need to write, but you also want to spend time on social media, you could do this:
  • After I walk the dog, I will write for 30 minutes.
  • After I write for 30 minutes, I will go on social media.
If going on social media has kept you from writing, this creates a system where social media is the reward you use to encourage yourself to write. Habit #4: Make it easy to practice the habit of writing. Wasting time is easy: we carry distractions in our pocket or give it pride of place in our living rooms. If we want to develop the practice of writing, we have to remove barriers to our practice. One way is to prime your environment with cues to your habit. So, if your intention is to write in the morning at the kitchen table, before you go to bed at night, lay out your writing implements —laptop or pen and paper. I take it further by making writing easier all the time: I carry a small notebook in my purse, have one in my car’s glove box, and leave several throughout my house. This way, it’s as easy to write as it is to pick up the phone. Habit #5: Start with the Two-Minute Rule for new habits and continue from there. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll fail in some way because your committed writing time is too long. Clear suggests creating a ritual and following the Two Minute Rule as a way to prime yourself for your new habit. If your goal is to write at night, you can help to cement the habit into your head by attaching it to a ritual of your choosing, whether that’s a cup of herbal tea or changing into comfy clothes.  Each evening, as you engage in the ritual, your brain will anticipate that you are about to sit down and write. Your ritual primes your habit. Next, write for two minutes. If you feel done, stop. Clear argues that two minutes is usually enough to get past any initial resistance. Clear has filled Atomic Habits with hints like these that enable us to change the habits we dislike and replace them with habits that show who we are. In order to be a writer, you must develop the habit of writing, even if it’s one word at a time. As Margaret Atwood reminds us, “A word after a word after a word is power.” Writing at the table © Andrew Neel/Unsplash.

Congratulations to our 2018 National Book Award Semi-Finalists

Congratulations to our Penguin Random House authors who have been chosen by the respective five category judges as “longlisted” semi-finalists for the 2018 National Book Awards. Wednesday, October 10: The “shortlist” of five finalists per category will be announced. Wednesday, November 15: The five winners will be revealed at the annual National Book Awards dinner. See below for our semi-finalists in each category.

 

Fiction

 

Nonfiction

 

Poetry

 

Translated Literature

 

Young Adult Fiction and Nonfiction

 

How to Write Short Stories (Hint: It’s Not That Simple)

This article was written by Laura Furman and originally appeared on Signature Reads.

As the series editor who chooses the stories in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories, I read hundreds of short stories every year. I also have the benefit and pleasure of asking each year’s twenty winners to write a short piece about how and why they wrote their stories. Along with my own experience as a short story writer, I’m in a good position to ponder a question often posed by aspiring writers: What are the essential elements of a good short story?

As I set out to answer that question, however, I found myself instead enumerating what is not essential. The first thing you should set aside is any explicit or guiding notion of what your story is “about.” Readers often ask writers what their stories mean, but if the writer has a ready answer, that is a problem. A good writer knows where and when the first hint of a story appeared, and how she wrote it. She knows what the process was from draft to finish – but a story’s “meaning” is often as much a mystery to writer as to reader, and that’s as it should be. Writing a short story is an intuitive activity driven by the writer’s wonderful subconscious and it’s as far from meaning as dreaming is from being awake. Conscious logical planning will get you from Point A to Point B in the shortest time but the subconscious excels at fortuitous invention. A writer must learn to trust the startling images and characters that come up in the course of composition. Her subconscious, if she trusts it, will guide her through the beginning, background, and development to the ending, which is often the most difficult part to write, and to understand. The next most important thing is grasping the particular demands of this form. In bringing to life the world of a short story, it is crucial to know what to leave out. Despite some superficial resemblance to the novel, the short story differs from it in important ways; a story must draw the reader in without attempting to imitate the enveloping completeness or epic sweep of a novel. A short story also isn’t a song or a poem, forms that express their world of meaning through extreme compression and abstraction. Some very terse stories do resemble a poem or song, for example Michael Parker’s “Stop ‘n’ Go” in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018. Whatever its length, though, and however elaborate or simple its language, the short story is rooted in its own unique deployment of quotidian details, which must feel real and convincing. In all stories, even the most starkly written, the story’s world must be recognizable, however eccentric or fantastical or hyper-realistic it may be. Characters sit on uncomfortable chairs or walk on graveled paths, and the reader must be able to sit on those chairs and walk on those paths. Frequent O. Henry winner William Trevor’s conflicted Irish and English characters feel as real and important to the fond reader as her own friends. The main character in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Tomb of Wrestling,” in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018, confronts an intruder who means her harm, and the reader is as terrified as she is. The thousands of decisions a writer makes in editing a story boil down to trusting the reader to make connections. That trust dominates the writer’s decisions as she moves from draft to draft and decides what the reader needs in order to understand plot, sequence, setting, and character – without spelling out those elements. Explaining is unnecessary when the story is right; in fact, too much explanation feels to the attentive reader like an annoying interruption, a breaking of the spell. Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence. At a magical point, the writer’s subconscious inventions connect with the reader’s intelligence and emotions, and the reader understands why the story ends where it does; how the ending is an illuminated version of the beginning; that the story’s secret has been revealed without words. The trust that has guided the writer to get rid of all but the right details has paid off and the reader has everything she needs to make the story’s meaning her own. Photo by Da Kraplak on Unsplash

Writing is Work, and You Need to Make Time for It

This article was written by Karen White and originally appeared on Signature Reads.

I always get a little squirmy when I’m asked to give advice on writing. I mean, what makes me an authority on the subject? Sure, I’ve written a bunch of books, but the only “training” I’ve had in my chosen vocation is the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime so far.

I’d like to think that despite not having a lot of experience or knowledge about the whole writing thing when I started, surely I’ve learned something along the way. And I have. In that vein, here are a few nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my nearly twenty years of being a published author. No, I haven’t figured out the magic formula that will grant a writer instant success. But I have accumulated a nice list of what not to do if you’re planning on having a career as a writer. Do not spend all your writing time making excuses as to why you can’t write instead of actually writing. Excuses will not write a book. Finding the perfect time to finally start a book is like choosing the right time to move to another country and start a new life. There will never be a perfect time, as there will always be reasons why the timing isn’t optimal. If you have a burning desire to write a book (or move to another country), make it a priority. The rest will fall into place, and you’ll be a lot happier with yourself. Do not take to heart everyone else’s writing style/advice/methods before you’ve given yourself a chance to figure out your own. Writing is incredibly personal. There are as many writing techniques and styles as there are writers. It’s what gives us our individual writer’s voice. It’s precious and unique and you need to own it and not dilute it with external influences before you’ve given it a chance to sprout. If I’d listened to all the well-meaning advice when I started (don’t write in first person, never start a sentence with “and,” outline everything before you write the first sentence), I would never have written my first book. Do not surround yourself with naysayers. For whatever reason, there will always be people in our lives who will attempt to discourage us from our pursuits. Either family members, friends, or other writers will have negative things to say about our talent (or lack thereof). Don’t listen to them. It’s always easier to be a critic than the warrior fighting the battle. Just remember that it’s not about them. Your writing is between you and the words on the page. And nobody else. Do not wait until the muse strikes before you sit down to write.This one always makes me laugh. I would have written exactly three pages in my entire career if this were true. In my previous life in the business world, I don’t imagine I would have lasted in any job very long if my attitude had been that I’d only show up for work when I felt like it. There are usually about a million other things I’d rather be doing than gluing myself to my chair and getting to work. Since I consider writing my career and not just a hobby, I treat it with respect. Do not say my family/job/life isn’t conducive to writing a book.News flash: unless you’re independently wealthy and your family is entirely self-sufficient, this will never change. I wrote my first books in my SUV at the football field and horse barn while my children practiced. My husband traveled about ninety percent of the time for his job so I was basically a single mom for most of the week. Instead of chatting with the other mothers, or reading a magazine, or napping, I used that time to write. There are pockets of time in each of our lives that we can prioritize as writing time. Expect to let go of a few things (binge watching on Netflix, hanging out on Facebook, sleeping in on weekends) to find the time. But the time is there if you’re willing to make your writing happen. Do not expect that the hard work is over after you sell your first book. It’s only just beginning. To prepare yourself for your writing career, start thinking about your next book as soon as you send your first book proposal to prospective agents and editors. You’ve got momentum so make the most of it. Writers write. It’s what we do. We turn off the negative voices, we create the time and the place, and we write. To borrow words from Nike, Just Do It. Writing/Photo by Lubomyr Myronyuk on Unsplash

If You Want to be a Writer, You Need to be Fearless: Here’s Why

This article was written by Christina Dalcher and originally appeared on Signature Reads.

A quick Google search for ‘writing advice’ tells me there can’t be much left that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winners offer tips. Forty experts tell beginners what to do. Bestselling authors give us insight into their creative processes. And so on, ad infinitum. Then there’s that perfect book, half craft, half writer’s memoir: Stephen King’s On Writing. If I could only have one how-to manual on my shelf, it would be that one.

Where does this leave us, then? What guidance can I, a debut novelist and writer of flash fiction, possibly offer the world, or the emerging writer? I’ve thought about it over and over, and finally came up with two words: Be fearless. We know writing takes work, and skill, and talent, and perseverance. There’s the old ‘Butt-in-the-chair, honey!’ mandate (with its cute acronym) — a writer’s corollary to the athlete’s ‘Just Do It’ mantra. You want to run? Run. You want to write? Write. There’s something so plainly tautological about it all. And there can be beauty in tautologies.
But I think fearlessness is the single quality we as writers need to cultivate, and I mean this in multiple ways.
We need the bravery to pour our emotions out, spilling ink onto paper with a little of our own blood mixed in. That’s no small trick. We need the courage to send our words into the world, knowing that once we do, a part of us is gone, floating in the public sphere, no longer under our control. If one accepts Roland Barthes’ notion that the author is dead, we authors must embrace the concept that we’re killing some portion of ourselves the minute our work leaves us. And, of course, we need the self-esteem and thick, carapace-like skin to hang on and persist when the inevitable rejections hit our inboxes. Believe me, they will hit — hard. A bland form rejection from an agent or editor can carry all the pain of bludgeon to the face, a direct smack to our very soul. Everyone who writes, or who wants to write, requires a ring fighter’s determination, a Rocky-esque willingness to go the distance, and to keep going. Being fearless also takes us in new directions, allowing us to experiment with previously unknown forms, new characters, and diverse points of view. One of my favorite things about writing flash fiction — tightly condensed stories often under 500 words — is exactly this: Within the space of a day, I can be a cranky old man on a front porch in Mississippi, a young housewife, or a sneaky feline. Fearlessness is a gift, a license to try something different and liberate ourselves from any habitual ruts. And it need not be limited to our writing lives. We can extend it to our whole lives: to our relationships with ourselves and others, to our careers (and the changing thereof), and to how we interact with the world. Finally, we need to forge some armor of another sort — the kind that protects us from dissatisfied readers. It’s useful to remember that old John Lydgate saying about not being able to please everyone all of the time. Every once in a while, our words may not even reach the point of unpleasing, instead inspiring far less positive reactions. Still, they’re our words and our thoughts, and we have to steel ourselves against ugly feedback. (Hint: read your reviews, or not. Then go back to doing what you do.) When I teach writing classes, the very first thing I tell my students is to prepare for rejection and failure. Both are going to happen, sometimes much more frequently than we’d wish. The rejection and failure aren’t the focus, though; it’s what we do afterwards that counts. And what we, as creators, should do afterwards is simple: get up and do it all over again. Would I call myself fearless? Would I use that label? I don’t know; I haven’t walked through the world with a superhero cape on my back. I do know that others have said this about me, starting with my first professor in graduate school twenty years ago. That man is gone now, and I can’t pick up the phone and say, “Hey, guess what? I believe you.” So instead, I write, a little or a lot every day, and try to live up to the descriptor. I try to fear nothing, even when that seems impossible. Maybe you were expecting a writer’s user manual. A list of do’s and don’ts full of perennial tips like ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘avoid adverbs.’ Something along those lines. But the best advice I can give, and — in my mind — the only advice worth its salt, is encapsulated in two words. Be fearless. Then sit back and watch what happens. I have a feeling what happens will be good. Be Fearless/Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

The Lost Art of Sentence Diagramming, Plus a Few Examples

This article was written by Lorraine Berry and originally appeared on Signature Reads.   Every now and then, my Facebook friends will have a nostalgia moment and post a cultural artifact from our cohort’s past. One television staple from the 1970s that we remember with affection was the educational videos that were shown as commercial breaks during Saturday morning cartoons. “Schoolhouse Rock” debuted in January 1973 on ABC. The first season was devoted to teaching children the basics of mathematics. The second season, which started in September of that year, took on the challenges of grammar, focusing much of its attention to the parsing of sentences. I admit that when I encounter certain words for parts of speech, I still hear the lyrics. And when I am copy editing, those song lyrics have actually helped me do my job. For example, “Interjections show excitement or emotion and are generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma when the feeling’s not as strong,” and “Conjunction junction: what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses,” both set to memorable tunes, have saved me from bone-head errors. (Though not all, as my editors can affirm.) When “Constitution Rock” debuted two years later, it helped me to succeed in seventh-grade social studies. I still remember that the test asked us to write the words to the Preamble; I heard nearly everyone in class singing the song as we wrote the words.
I mention how valuable these learning tools were because another of my favorite ways of approaching language has been turned into a creative work of art. Call Me Ishmael is a collection of postcards that illustrate the opening lines from great works of literature through sentence diagrams. I loved those days in class that we spent diagramming sentences. And while sentence diagrams may have been declared as having “no educational value,” I would argue that they impressed on your memory how the different parts of speech operated in sentence construction. Sentence diagramming is a means by which a sentence is parsed and represented by a structure of lines that establish the relationship among the words in the sentence. Perhaps the best way to envision it is as a “map” of a sentence. In 1847, Stephen Watkins Clark published a book in which he showed a sentence map as a series of bubbles. His rendering looked inelegant, and in 1877, Reid and Kellogg changed the bubbles to a series of lines. (For a detailed history of the various types of sentence diagrams, go here.) The Reid-Kellogg system was adopted by school districts across the country and for decades afterward, schoolchildren were drilled on parts of speech through the construction of diagrams. To demonstrate how to diagram sentences, consider the following examples. (For further information on sentence diagramming, see these directions.) The beginning of a diagram is the straight line. The first objective is to establish the subject and the predicate, that is, who is doing the action and the action being performed. Draw a line between the noun and the verb, as I have done with this simple sentence comprising a noun and a verb.

Sergio Agüero scores.

On the left subject side is “Sergio Agüero.” On the right is “scores.”

The verb, to score, can act as an intransitive verb that needs no object to which to do the action, or it can function as a transitive verb, where the verb takes an object to which the action is done. So, if we change the sentence to “Sergio Agüero scores goals,” it can be diagrammed with the straight line, with a second vertical line placed after the verb. The direct object is on the same line as the noun and the verb. Diagrams become more complicated with the addition of words that modify other words in the sentence. Adjectives modify nouns, so in order to indicate an adjective that is modifying the subject, draw a diagonal line and write the adjective(s) on the diagonal line(s). Possessives act like adjectives and are indicated in the same way. On the predicate side, if adjectives are used to describe the direct object, draw diagonal lines to indicate those adjectives below that part of the diagram.

Manchester City’s brilliant Sergio Agüero scores many creative goals.

Here, “Manchester City” is the possessive. “Brilliant” is the adjective. And “goals” is the direct object of the verb, which itself is described by the two adjectives “many” and “creative.” When constructing sentences with direct objects, the item to which the action is being done may itself be affected by whether another person is also interacting with the object. For example, “You may give a gift to your friend,” in which “gift” is the direct object that is being given to “friend,” which functions as the indirect object. Thus the verb “to give” takes both a direct object and an indirect object. The indirect object would be shown on a sentence diagram by a diagonal line coming off the verb. Sometimes, rather than an indirect object, however, that action may be further modified through the use of a preposition. It is a modification of the verb. For example, in modifying this sentence, observe what the preposition is doing:

Manchester City’s brilliant Sergio Agüero scores many creative goals against other Premier League teams.

Here, the preposition “against” modifies the verb by indicating that the action is done to something, but it has an impact on the verb through what is called the “prepositional phrase.” To indicate a prepositional phrase, write a diagonal line off the verb with the word “against” on it. The object of the prepositional phrase is “teams,” and the adjectives that describe teams are the adjectives “Premier League” and “other.” Sentences can also contain more than one subject, or there can be more than one verb. I looked to literature for an example of a more complex sentence, one that I must admit took me a while to break down so that I understood how each word was functioning within this sentence from P.D. James’s The Children of Men

Western science and Western medicine haven’t prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure.

Here there are two subjects — Western science and Western medicine — and two objects of prepositions, which themselves have a prepositional phrase that modifies them. Consider this diagram of the way I parsed James’ sentence. To diagram this sentence, I used a dotted line to indicate the conjunction — “and” — that connects the two nouns. The verb is followed by a direct object. The prepositional phrase that begins with the preposition “for,” has a double object of the phrase with “the magnitude and the humiliation.” Again, a dotted line is used to indicate the conjunction. That prepositional phrase is itself modified by the prepositional phrase “of this ultimate failure,” which is diagrammed by drawing a diagonal line off the double object. Sentences can be further complicated with the addition of subordinate clauses, independent clauses that are connected with conjunctions or punctuation, or declarative sentences and multiple other examples where some part of the sentence is unspoken. And the more complex the sentence, the more complex and beautiful the diagram that maps the sentence. It’s why Call Me Ishmael’s collection of postcards, which contain the opening sentences from twenty-four great works of literature, make a great gift for language lovers. The sentences themselves are revered for the beauty of their construction, choice of words, and rhythm created when they are read out loud. Seeing them as multi-layered diagrams becomes another way to appreciate the geniuses behind the words.