Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

Authors now must be self-marketers. So ...

As publishers have slashed their marketing budgets and staff, it’s become standard for most book writers to be expected to do nearly all their own marketing. This tends to push your thinking away from wanting to do the best book you can, to wondering what will most likely sell. For writers like me who have left the corporate publishing world and are bringing out books independently, or with small presses, this pressure on our thinking is the same.

Should we resist this, or embrace it? If we embrace it and build a more market-savvy approach, does that mean we likely won’t produce our best work? Or just that we’ll be working more usefully in the real world?

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Addiction fiction: the novel I wrote twice

I’ll always remember the way my dad’s hopeful face fell, when he asked what the YA novel I was working on was about ... and I told him.

I grew up in a family of two alcoholics, both my parents. And though my dad spent the last 30 years of his life sober, he was never able to talk about how his drinking had affected his three now-grown kids. I think it was just too painful. When I told him my book was about a boy whose dad is alcoholic, I could see him struggle to be supportive, as he had always been of my work. I think he was proud that I had a book coming out, but the subject was hard. He tried his best to be positive, but it was never easy.

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YA fiction on addiction: raising a touchy topic

Realistic YA novels that deal with tough subjects in kids’ lives can be welcome resources, for schools that hope to open up those issues. But there are issues, and then there are issues.

Many schools these days want to talk about bullying, which is great — this is very often huge in kids’ lives, and it’s especially potent and dangerous in the Internet age. I’ve been involved with hundreds of schools that have worked, often very powerfully, with my two novels on the subject, The Revealers and its sequel on cyberbullying, True Shoes.

But if you write about addiction ... that, I'm discovering, can be a much tougher nut to crack.

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My brain in a book: reading about ADD

One recent weekend, I read the truth about my brain.

For a few years I’d been vaguely aware that I might to some degree have attention-deficit disorder, but I had never really looked into it. You know ... I was distracted.

Then on a Saturday it surfaced in my mind that my wife Cary, who works as a counselor with children and families, had a book about ADD on her shelf. I looked, and there it was: Healing ADD, by Daniel Amen, M.D. And therein I encountered my own unusual brain.

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The story of Fatima

After college in the mid-70s, and after a summer and fall of painting houses, I traveled by train and bus from London to India and Kathmandu, with a backpack half full of books. In Delhi late in the trip I was still buying books when I could, mostly about Hinduism and Buddhism — and in a bookshop on Connaught Circus I found and invested in a Penguin paperback titled Thinkers of the East.

Back at the Venus Hotel in the travelers’ neighborhood by the railway station, I was a little let down to find that this volume of stories and anecdotes was from the Muslim world, collected by a man named Idries Shah. But there began a lifelong interest in the wisdom stories and teaching tales of the Sufis, who in Islam follow paths of personal search and illumination.

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When readers become champions

In 30 years of writing fiction for young readers, I’ve had one book take off; and that was an interesting experience. So much of what happened was a sort of underground process: stuff would pop, up here and there, from a mostly invisible percolation. “I’m telling everyone about your book!” “Hey, someone was recommending your novel at a teachers' conference in Arizona.”

Stuff like that. And what I noticed most about that was the vital, catalytic role that champions played.

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Putting stories to work for good causes

For the past 30 years, I’ve been putting the basic skills (in my case, they’re basic) of finding and writing true stories to work for nonprofit organizations. Recently I gave a couple of workshops, in Vermont and California, on how to do this, and I wondered if I could put my main points in a single, simple post. So here goes:

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Reading good stories: the new brain therapy?

I know that if I read a good book for 20 minutes or half an hour before going to bed, as opposed to lurching around the Internet for no good reason, then I’ll sleep better. (I know this because I have, oh definitely, tried both.) But could reading fiction at night actually give me a better-connected brain?

Lord knows I could use one. I do the meditation, and I’ve tried the ginkgo and so forth; but now a new study, reported in the journal Brain Connectivity, finds that reading a novel at night can have a measurable positive impact.

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When the real & fictional Katie Henochs met

I have a true story to tell, about a made-up character and a real person who have the same name. The story ends with me, the writer who thought up the fictional character, spending a night in the teenage bedroom of the real person, who’s now grown up and off living her life.

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On the pale road: the art of describing

It’s not just the words on the page — the inner dimension of written fiction is what the reader brings to the experience. One good way to look at this is to examine a couple of famous bits of description by great novelists. For me at least, what brings these examples to life is not their cleverness; it’s the connections they make between the writer’s words and what those bring up inside the reader.

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Creative avoidance: it's just so key

Back in the 1920s, the great humor writer Robert Benchley did a piece called “How to Get Things Done.” In it he suggested, based on his own rich experience of avoiding the writing of his column, that “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

This is also key in my productivity. In fact there was a time when my writing deadlines were the only reason anything in my office ever got cleaned.

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Libraries in my life: Vienna

In February of my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I decided I couldn’t stand another long, rainy winter stuck under leaden skies in central Ohio. So I found a study-abroad program in Europe — in Vienna, where the heavy, drizzly gray sets in around November and never goes away until April. I didn’t know that, of course, when we left for the year on our discount charter plane full of undergrads. We were going to Europe!

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Kris Ricigliano
It's interesting that you spent time in Vienna discovering American authors. I wonder if their words resonated more in a foreign s... Read More
Tuesday, 04 February 2014 12:40
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When readers say you didn't tell them enough

“We are upset with the ending of the book of your story, The Revealers,” began an email I got this week from five middle schoolers in Ankeny, Iowa. “It lacked the proper ending, and it did not sum up the story AT ALL! We loved the story line but we are not pleased with the ending.”

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"Why is there swearing in your book?"

My young-adult novel The Revealers includes these words: crap, ass, damn, hell. And, just once, shit.

When the book was nominated for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Reader Award, one mother went all the way to the governor’s office, campaigning to get it taken off. Just over the border in Georgia, fundamentalist protest letters to local papers denouncing a school’s work with the book intimidated the teachers and got the project stopped, in mid-read. And when I visit middle schools across the country to talk with kids who have read The Revealers, I often get asked about the language. My favorite phrasing came from an eighth grade girl in Vermont; she said, “My parents teach me not to swear. How come there’s swearing in your book?” And she waited, arms crossed, for the answer.

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"Notice & Note": fanning the reader's fire

Sometimes when I visit schools, I get to see something new — something that’s eye-catching, because it seems to work to open students’ eyes.

This is one of those things.

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On teens & libraries: building the new literacy

I wrote last week, and promised to write again, about the very meaningful findings of a just-released report on re-engaging teenagers with libraries. Issued by YALSA, the young-adult services arm of the American Library Association, “The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action” notes that this is a time of powerful need among teens for what libraries can offer — and that creates powerful opportunities.

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YALSA on libraries, teens & changing times

There are over 40 million American adolescents, “and they use libraries.” Nearly half are young people of color, 22% live in families below the poverty level — and about 3 million drop out of school every year. Are libraries giving teenagers what they need to not drop out, to succeed in today’s world?

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Books & new media: the sea change

Driving to my sister’s house on Saturday, to work on a Kickstarter video — we hope to win support for publishing a “bridge into reading” chapter book for second and third graders — I heard a TED talk on the radio, about young people putting their work out through the new media. The presenter said, “We don’t feel like we have to ask permission.”
   
And boy, is that different. I want to write today about how it’s different, and what this may mean for writers and readers of books.

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Super User
Doug, that was one of the most insightful pieces I have seen to date on the effect of digital media on authors and publishing.... Read More
Friday, 17 January 2014 08:23
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Libraries in my life: Millburn Public

I still dream, sometimes, about the library in the town where I grew up.

In the dream, I find an upstairs room I never knew was there. The room is big and open. It’s full of books and places to read, like cushions and comfortable chairs — and it’s full of people reading. A warm quiet liveliness fills this room; I come up into it and, in the dream, I have found where I want to be.

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What if the 'new media' were 2,000 years old?

However we feel about the rise of social media, we tend to assume it’s new. Right? But the British author of the new book Writing on the Wall argues that this has been the dominant way that ideas and arguments have spread for all but, oh, about 150 of the last 2,000 years.

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