Summer 2015 Reading

Magical books

Magical books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last blog was all about the writing I’ve done this summer (and since then, I’ve achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goal – yay!), but as any worthwhile author will tell you, you can’t write if you’re not reading. So I’ve been doing what a good writer should do, naturally.

The reading list that I set for myself this year is an ambitious one. (Read it here.) On it are 27 books, including several series. Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle has been on my to-read list for three years now, and I finally finished it. But those books are dense and ate up a lot of my reading time. As I approached the halfway point through the year, I wondered how I was doing.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-July, I’ve finished 13 of the 27 books. Maybe Inheritance didn’t set me back too far, after all. Of course, I read a lot during our two-week vacation. I worried I was being overly ambitious when I packed the entire Divergent series, as well as a book that a friend lent to me a few months ago. But I read the whole borrowed book on the plane trip from east coast to west coast (Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss – I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of British humor), and I plowed through all but a couple hundred pages of the Divergent series over the two weeks.

Ahead of me, I still have at least one doozy (Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood – all of the books in her Outlander series are formidable), plus Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. I know I re-read it last year, but I want it to be fresh when the final movie comes out this fall. Also, I’ll start reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my seven-year-old in the next week. I’m excited that he’s finally old enough to comprehend the story – we may have another Potter geek in the making.

Other than my non-fiction books (which I rarely list here, unless it’s what I consider entertaining non-fiction, such as Talk to the Hand), I’ve stuck to my book list pretty well. Early on, I decided to read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone because I’d seen the movie and was interested in seeing what kind of extra character developments happened in the book. I’m glad I did. Woodrell’s use of language is unique, and as a writer, it’s always helpful to mix it up with a different style from time to time.

The only other detour I’ve made was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (also a book-turned-movie). This was a book I had to read. I’m going back to teach full-time in the fall, and the faculty at my school has a summer reading list. Still Alice was the only novel on our list of choices. I’ve jotted down the titles of several non-fiction books that interest me, but I wanted a good story – and I got it. But frequent criers, keep your tissues handy.

I’m sticking to my list and loving it. I hope to finish Lois Lowry’s The Giver series by the time the kids go back to school (I’m halfway through the second book, Gathering Blue), and then I’ll keep plowing ahead.

And never fear – if I actually make it through this whole list, I already have several new books waiting. (She rubs her hands together and cackles with glee.)

What’s in a Title?

Recently, when speaking with a group of kids about being an author, one of the questions was how to come up with the perfect title. Good lord, I wish I’d been able to give an adequate answer. Instead, I pointed out titles of books I knew they’d read, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It started the conversation, at least, but it didn’t give them a fool-proof formula. Such a thing doesn’t exist.

I used to keep a list of what I considered brilliant titles. The problem, of course, is that they have nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written. And even tougher than coming up with book titles was deciding what to call all those pesky chapters lurking between the covers. (It never occurred to me until recently that I could just use “Chapter One” or simply “1.”)

It’s not just the little people like me who deal with this. I’m re-reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and while the book titles are decent, the chapter titles are inconsistent and often the pits. Yes, this is opinion speaking, but whenever I read some of them, I think, This guy was trying way too hard. Other times it seems like he just gave up. The first couple times I read these books, I didn’t give the chapter titles much thought, but this time around, I’m in a pickier mood. (Recently, I heard of a scholar who criticized the Bible for using subtitles for the various sections. It gives away what’s about to happen, she says. While I discounted her argument at the start, it’s niggled me enough to make me write this post.)

Unless you’re writing cookbooks or some other form of non-fiction, in which you need chapter titles and subtitles for quick reference’s sake, why bother with fiction? At first I thought it might just be a young adult thing, but then I remembered an adult series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which uses chapter titles throughout. While these are great books, the chapter titles leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes they’re melodramatic (“I Shall Go Down to the Sea”), and sometimes they kind of act as mini spoilers (“In Which Jamie Smells a Rat”). Other chapter titles read like throw-away lines that simply reminded the author what she was writing about in this particular chunk.

What I find most helpful are chapter titles that place the reader. For instance, in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series (great books, by the way), the chapter titles are simply characters’ names. Although narrated completely in third person, this tells the reader whose perspective is represented in each chapter. (The only problem I see with this is when you accidentally open to the last chapter and see that it’s narrated by a character that the author wants you to believe is dead. Whoops.)

Both Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth used this character-name approach in books later in their series (Twilight and Divergent, respectively). This is especially helpful, considering these books are both narrated first person. Paolini tries it once in Eldest. It’s the first time he switches to a perspective other than Eragon’s. Instead, it’s his cousin Roran, and the oh-so-imaginative title of Roran’s first chapter? Right, it’s “Roran.” Which I would be fine with if other chapters weren’t titled “Requiem” or “The Beginning of Wisdom.” Like I said, sometimes he tried too hard, and others, he didn’t try hard enough.

I know, for someone who admittedly can’t write a good title unless she just lucks into it, why am I complaining? I guess I’m really not. I’m just wondering aloud (or in print). Chapter titles are convenient if you have a table of contents. And there are some brilliant ones out there. “The Boy Who Lived” comes to mind. (Please tell me you understand that reference – but just in case you don’t, it’s from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. What a great chapter title to pull you right into an amazing series.) So I guess they can’t all be bad. I’d just like some consistency, please.

Until reading Outlander and re-reading Eragon, I never gave chapter titles much thought. Some books have them, and others don’t. But now that I’ve started thinking about them so much, I know I’m going to scrutinize everything I read. Do I make predictions when there are titles, or do I forget the titles as soon as I finish reading them? Out of curiosity, I’ve picked a few books, different genres, different time periods, a diverse range of authors, and here’s what I’ve found:

Books with Chapter Titles:

Books with Only Numbered Chapters:

Books with Part Titles but No Chapter Titles:

There are other books that defy these kinds of categorizations, such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. To see their unique chapter distinctions, I guess you’ll just have to check them out.

After looking back at all these books, some of which I’ve enjoyed multiple times, I realize that the chapter titles (or not) aren’t what I usually take away. Only when they get in the way are they problematic, such as with Outlander and Eragon. Yet with The Heroes of Olympus and Harry Potter, they actually helped orient me in the fictional worlds I was visiting – and sometimes even encouraged me to keep turning the pages. (She’s finally going to tell us about horcruxes! Oh wait, she isn’t. Darn, I guess I’ll just have to read another chapter…)

There isn’t a right or wrong way – or even one type of book that must follow one particular format. If I could, this is what I’d tell that middle school girl who asked me about titles: write what feels natural. If coming up with a creative name for each chapter feels contrived, don’t do it. But if titles are your thing, give them a try. At the end of the day, writing your story is the most important thing; fiction titles really should be secondary.

It seems that authors pick what they deem right for whichever books they’re writing at the time. After going over all the different types of chapter designations on my shelves, it’s obvious that I can’t just throw out one or another; there are some pretty awesome books that I don’t want to miss out on just because their chapter titles might put an idea in my head about some possible outcome.

Besides, you never know when an author is trying to trick you. Sometimes they can be pretty sneaky.

Does the Genre Really Matter?

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...

All seven books in the Harry Potter series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanted: Good fiction.

To be more specific, fiction that draws me in right from the start. Fiction in which the characters are believable, in which I can hear the dialogue in my mind. Fiction that makes me think, raises tough questions, makes me cry, makes me emote. Fiction that makes me want to talk to someone else about it. Fiction that saddens me when it’s over.

I like to think that if I were a literary agent, that’s what I would list under my “interests.” Because, try as I might, I can’t pin down a favorite style or genre. Now, there are certain things that I definitely don’t like. Mediocre writing, inconsistency, lack of craft. Like I said, I want the characters to be believable. If the debutante protagonist has never scrambled an egg in her life, I won’t believe it when she whips a six-course meal out of thin air. (Unless she’s magic, of course – and if she is, I better have a hint of it first.) I don’t want adverbs trying to tell me how desperately someone says something. Show me the desperation with a sweaty brow and shaking hands. I don’t want plots that are so insubstantial they can be knocked over by a sneeze.  I don’t want endings that are unrealistically happy or tragedies that are unnecessary, the only point being to make the reader cry.

I really just want a good story, one in which I can forget that I’m reading at all.

This is why labels kind of bother me. Romances, for instance. Label it like that, and I don’t want to read it. Why? Because all the romance novels I saw growing up had half-naked men massaging busty women’s shoulders on their front covers, and I really don’t want to read a novel that’s connected by one sex scene after another. So I was shocked to discover a truly excellent book that is sold in the romance section. Although the story revolves around a love story (or stories, really), it’s so much more than that. I’m speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Or take the case of my friend who told me that he could not stand to read fantasy. Wouldn’t give Harry Potter the time of day because of how it’s categorized. I’ve known other people who won’t read these wonderful books, not because of the fantasy and magic, but because they’re so-called “kids’ stuff.” Well, if kids’ stuff comes with a side of good beating the crap out of evil, I’m on board with it.

How about Stephen King? He’s known as the king of horror, yet while he started that way, his more recent books (and my favorites) are much more sci-fi, fantasy, and I-don’t-know-what. They’re just good stories. Not to mention that the guy knows how to write and how to instruct writers how to write. Chances are, if you call him a hack, you haven’t read much beyond Cujo or Pet Sematary.

When I looked for beta readers for my novel RIP, I decided to go the vague route. People asked, “What’s it about?” or “What genre is it?” I told them that it was young adult, and fortunately, my beta readers were kind enough to read because they know me. One actually told me he wouldn’t have usually read that kind of book, but he was glad that he did. Good thing I kept my mouth shut, right?

But, as I posted a couple weeks ago, I was able to workshop a portion of my novel with an agent, and in my introduction, I told her it was young adult. It was almost as if, by giving that tiny bit of a description, it put blinders on her. My book was much too long. She was unwilling to consider almost anything about the content until I addressed the length. Young adult novels generally have a word count, and mine exceeded it by double. (Nevermind that books like Twilight are half again as long as mine.) Now, she is right: there are many thousands of words that I can cut, but shouldn’t she be trying to sell a story, not a word count? (That’s an issue for another blog.)

This whole issue has gotten me thinking: does labeling novels with a genre help or hinder? If I had just told the agent: here’s the beginning of my novel, would she have judged me for not nailing down a genre?

I don’t go through bookstores and read book jackets or first pages until I find something I think I want, but many other people find their books by following this practice. (Or if not in a bookstore, online.) What about someone who only picks books from the Christian lit shelves? This person might never consider reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series because it’s sold as young adult and dystopian – would completely miss the way that Roth’s Christianity colors her novels.

While talking books with a friend recently, we got onto young adult lit, specifically John Green‘s books (which are awesome, by the way – do yourself a favor, and read them). My friend said, in a semi-surprised tone, that he’d gone on a young adult lit binge lately. And he’s in his forties with no kids. I find this wonderful – that a book written “for” an audience in their teens can speak to such a wider audience.

Of course, I totally get that if there were no classifications, I could very well mistakenly shop my novel with agents who are only interested in political thrillers or erotica. And marketing is another issue. No matter what, there are people who will refuse to read anything except X, even though they would really enjoy Y, if only they would give it a chance.

But it seems, in the effort to makes genres more attractive to more people, sub-genres have to be added. You ought to check out this list from Writer’s Digest. And it’s not even complete! I just heard of a new genre called New Adult. Each genre and sub-genre has its own little specifications, and if you hope to publish, you have to try to fit the mold. Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I just want to write or read a good book? What if I want to mull it over afterward and then say, “I think I just read a really good Western. Who knew? I never thought I would enjoy a book like that.”

All I’m asking for is a little bit more of an open mind. From agents, publishers, and readers, alike. Hey, I’ll try to have one, too.

I suppose this is why I’m not a big publishing executive. The bottom line is important, I know. Believe me, I want to make a living in this business, too. But at the end of the day, piles of money aren’t going to captivate me. But a great story will every time.

What Will You Read in 2014?


All day long, I’ve done what I could only dream about doing this time last year: I’ve sat on the couch reading a good book. Last December, I yearned for some good fiction after a few months of reading a bunch of how-to and reference materials. So at the close of the year, I looked over the books in my personal library and made a list of titles I hoped to read in 2013. It was a pretty ambitious list, one that I knew I probably wouldn’t finish, but I took a good stab at it. I did read seven of the fourteen books from my list, plus an additional ten that I hadn’t planned on reading.

I have to add a quick note about one of these unplanned books: I edited a novel called Brightleaf this year, and it was published in September. The author is my friend Raleigh Rand, and although I didn’t read this book in the traditional sense of sitting down and reading it for pleasure, I enjoyed every moment of editing it and would highly recommend it. (There’s a story behind this book, but that’s for another blog.)

So when thinking about my book list for the upcoming year, I waited until after Christmas. I can always count on someone to come through with a great book or three, and I had a sneaking suspicion (mainly because he asked me right out what I wanted) that my husband would get me Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I wasn’t disappointed. I went ahead and bought the next two books – and it’s a good thing. I started reading it this morning and am already more than 140 pages in – I’ll be done before 2014.

In addition, an unexpected gift was a book of Mark Twain’s writings from my friend Georgene. I promised that I would quote it a bunch this year, so that’s on the list. Also, my aunt ordered Bess Streeter Aldrich’s The Rim of the Prairie for me, a book I’ve read before, but alas, it was borrowed. Also (and I’m bragging now), I received two books that are a writer’s best friend – hand-crafted, leather-bound blank books. My sister-in-law convinced my husband to splurge on one (thank you!), and my aunt bought the other – they know me so well. When I’m not reading, I’m usually writing, and I can’t wait to fill them.

This year’s list will be composed of three kinds of books – the ones I still have to read from the 2013 list, books that I want to re-read, and brand new ones. And, as happened this year, I am sure that other books will pop into my life and expand my literary horizons still further.

Click on the links below to read more about these books, and if you purchase one from one of my links, you’ll support my blog.

Books I read in 2013:

My 2014 Book List:

Do I really think I’ll finish all these books? Not a chance. (I still do have to feed my kids and clean the house, after all.) But it will be fun trying. What books do you plan to tackle in the new year? Happy reading!


Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I have the love-hate relationship with technology that almost everyone seems to have nowadays. I kept my dumb phone for the longest time because I didn’t want to get sucked into the world of iPhone lovers, yet now I am one of their ranks. I didn’t want to internet bank, didn’t want to read ebooks, yet I no longer mail checks to pay bills, and not only do I own a few ebooks, but I’ve even e-published a short story.

This week, a friend mentioned a village that houses a radio telescope that is so sensitive that there aren’t any cell phones within a certain number of miles. Intrigued, I did a little research. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is located in Green Bank, West Virginia, and there is a 13,000-square mile area around this observatory in which technologies like cell phones, Wi-Fi, TV and radio broadcasts simply don’t work. I wonder how people can live in a place like this. Certainly there must be some technology, but I imagine it’s like stepping back in time, somewhat.

On a much less drastic scale, I remember my friend Amy’s blog post last year, regarding her struggle with turning off the TV. It was well and good for her, I thought at the time, but I was not willing to even consider giving up my TV. Of course, at the time, I had a new baby and counted on the TV to get me through the three A.M. feedings—and those many nights when Ian didn’t sleep at all. There were maybe three shows that I followed regularly (shows that I actually sat down and watched every time a new episode aired), but everything else was mindless viewing.

Fast forward to where I am now: I can’t remember the last time I followed a particular program. Downtown Abbey? Never seen an episode (didn’t even know how to pronounce it until someone corrected me). I don’t know when this phenomenon happened, maybe when I was in the middle of a good book and just chose not to watch. Also, as the baby got older, and then my elder son started going to school five days a week instead of two, my life got a whole lot busier. The few spare minutes I had to myself weren’t worth wasting by watching some other mom making a spectacle of herself on “reality” TV. I have enough of my own reality to deal with, thank you very much.

From time to time over the past year, I’ve thought of Amy’s post, often reflecting that, if it were just me, I could get by with the local news and Netflix. There is something strangely powerful about the TV; it is hypnotizing. One night after the kids went to bed, the TV was still on, and I suddenly realized that I was waiting until the commercial break before getting up to brush my teeth. It wasn’t even a show I care about. My husband and I laughed about how we got sucked into the program simply because it was on.

The technology is even more disruptive at work. As a bookkeeper for a small business, I am dependent on crappy accounting software that, unfortunately, is pretty universal, so it’s what our accountant requires us to use. At least once a week (and more often once a day), the software crashes, despite the fact that it’s the latest version, and I rail at the computer and how stupid it is. Then, while I’m waiting for it to restart, I pick up my iPhone and check my e-mail.

Yet I can’t be too mad at this technology, without which I couldn’t have this virtual monologue. But it does drive me nuts that we’re so dependent on it. When the power goes out, we forget how to function. God forbid a cash register goes down, and a clerk can’t count change without the register doing the math. A time traveler from the nineteenth century would most likely think us completely inept.

Speaking of time travel, I started a series of books last year, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, in which the protagonist travels from the 1940s to the 1700s and decides to stay, despite the lack of technology. I mean, we’re talking cold baths, here. Not only that, but after returning to the twentieth century, she still chooses to go back in time again. And all for love. Now, I’m not advocating giving up hot showers (please, no), but I do think that there are some things that are more important than super fast download speeds and whatnot.

My five-year-old is at the age now where he has several television shows that he likes, and if I weren’t paying attention, I could easily let him rot in front of the TV all day. When he asks why I won’t let him watch as much as he wants, I remind him that we have a house full of toys and a backyard where he can play now. I’m fortunate that he often remembers on his own, and tonight, he won my heart again. He was excited that we have a new table, where he can do his schoolwork and drawings. Right now, he’s finishing a poster about black bears, which he’ll share with his class on Monday. And he asked if I would sit with him at his new table and have a “conpersation” about his poster. “And then we can just talk about other things or play games and stuff,” he said. You can believe that his request did this mama’s heart good.

So can you do it? Can you turn the TV off for any evening? Or can you put your smart phone down for an hour, resist the temptation to check your e-mail or play another round of Words with Friends? Cutting my TV consumption down was the first step; now I try to use my iPhone less when the kids are up. What can you do to allow all the wonderful technologies of the twenty-first century to aid but not impede on your life?

I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions


Never have. But there is a certain goal that I have for the near future – let’s say 2013. You see, it’s been a while since I’ve lived in a novel. I’m talking about the kind of book that won’t let me go. The kind of book that I can’t set down if I walk from the couch to the kitchen. The kind of book that makes me forget to eat, that makes me stay up past my bedtime. I read several earlier this year, starting with Suzanne Collins‘s The Hunger Games trilogy. Not only did I let those three books consume me, but I made them consume my family as well. I waited with foot-tapping impatience for first my husband and then my parents to read them. I felt like I was betraying those books when I moved on to a completely different series, starting with Diana Gabaldan’s Outlander. And at first, I wasn’t excited, but I’d promised a friend I would read it. It was jarring to move from dystopian young adult lit to a very adult time travel-slash-love story, but I eventually got into it and had the same can’t-put-it-down kind of experience. I could not wait to get my hands on the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

The problem was that, after I finished Outlander, my life changed in many ways. My elder son graduated from a two-day preschool to preschool five days a week. My infant son became mobile, and the more he moved around, the less freedom (and free time) I had. I rejoined the staff of the University of North Florida’s literary journal Fiction Fix after more than four years off. My responsibilities are lighter than when I left—reading submissions, commenting on them, and voting—but with seven submissions every week (and no guarantee that any of them will be short), I read a lot of fiction that I might not otherwise choose. Within a month of getting back on board with Fiction Fix, I started this blog. Then I took on a book review project for a publishing company. I thought I would have time to read those books alongside my own for-fun reading, but I eventually took my fiction in sips to meet the review deadline. A couple weeks later, I started a four-year Education for Ministry program through Sewanee’s School of Theology. Finally, I decided to try my hand at e-publication, which required much research, even more reading, and, of course, writing (check out my story “Stranded” at

And it wasn’t as if I was sitting around, wondering what to do before. I had a day job and a twenty-one mile, one-way commute; I volunteered at my church and my son’s school; I sang in a volunteer community chorus that rehearsed once a week. Oh, and the freelance writing thing. Can’t forget that. I didn’t stop doing any of those things. I just piled on the fun.

I choose how full my life is, and I love all its varied facets. Things could be easier if I lived a little closer to the action, but everything else is pretty much a constant. And my kids aren’t even into sports or other extracurricular activities yet. I can only imagine how much busier it will be then. Kiss sleep (what’s left of it) good-bye. But not my books—never that! I have to consciously choose not to make a book stretch over two (or more) months. So here I am, trying to make myself accountable.

With Fiction Fix, at least I read a constant stream of fiction. If nothing else, I’m aware of how I don’t want to write by reading an unfortunate number of bad submissions. But I really want to read things that inspire me. In fact, that’s a requirement for writing. I want–need–to read something that hurts to put down, something that makes me want to pick up my own pen (or laptop) and write.

In May 1996, I first heard about schools requiring students to read twenty-five books per year, so I decided to create a list of the books I read to see how I measured up. I’ve kept up with it in the sixteen-plus years since. Fiction to non-fiction, novella to super novel, self-help to founding documents of the United States—if it’s too long to be in a magazine, and it’s complete, I count it. Some years, I barely read more than twenty-five, while several others, I’ve read over one hundred. I squeaked by with thirty from May of 2011 to this past May. I’m already at sixteen for this twelve-month period, so I feel pretty good about reading another nine in the next five months. But I don’t just want to pick up nine quick reads to make my goal. There are books I own that I’ve wanted to read for more than a year, and you now know why I haven’t been able to so much as open them.

When I was pregnant in 2007, my goal was to read every book in the house, 1) because I didn’t need to spend money on new books when I already owned so many that I hadn’t read, and 2) because I didn’t know if I would ever have time to read again after having my baby. I finished all the books I had, then read all of my husband’s. If I did it then, I will find a way to do it now, and I’m even giving myself an extra three months to do so (although I hope I can read much more during that time).

Below is my list, including two books that people lent to me, so I need to read and return them in a timely manner. You can follow my progress on Goodreads (at the sidebar on the left), and get on my case if I’m not reading quickly enough. And if you have any recommendations, why not send them my way? I love a challenge.

Voyager (Outlander) and Drums of Autumn (Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon

11/22/63: A Novel and The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower Novels) by Stephen King

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle) by Christopher Paolini (which basically means I need to re-read the preceding three books in the series, too)

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1), The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2), and The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book 3) by Rick Riordan

The Help Deluxe Edition by Kathryn Stockett

Why Can’t All Stories Be Happy?

“True art has a mythic quality in that it speaks of
that which was true, is true, and will be true.”
Madeleine L’Engle

I read all kinds of fiction. As soon as I say that I don’t like something—romance, for instance—I find myself halfway through Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and loving every page. There is one genre, however, that I just cannot stomach, that of the no-conflict, unrealistically sticky-sweet happy-ending romance. People explain it away, saying, “There’s so much sadness in real life; I like reading something where I know there will be a happy ending.” Well, what’s wrong with that? I mean, I would like for my ending to be happy, so why do I keep reading the stuff that has unhappy endings (not to mention beginnings and middles)?

In my fiction workshop days, we sometimes discussed truth in fiction. Fiction is story, through which authors convey truth. Take allegories like Aesop’s Fables. What about Jesus’ parables? Nuggets or even great chunks of truth can be mined or chiseled out of stories. And what is more true than a life full of bumps and potholes?

If fiction at all resembles real life, then endings can’t all be “happily ever after.” Sorry. Think about your favorite books and movies. How many of them include elements of tragedy? There is nothing like following the story of someone who goes through adversity and triumphs in the end. Often, however, that “in the end” might not happen until years after the protagonist has died—or it could be a sacrifice on his or her part that brings about the triumphal ending. (Can you imagine a Harry Potter in which his parents don’t die? Yeah, it’d be a lot happier, but then it wouldn’t be a story. Once upon a time there was a baby named Harry Potter. He grew up with his parents. He was a trouble-maker at school like his dad, but he got the girl in the end. Anyone could have written that, and it would have sold zero copies and movie rights.)

There are those out there on the opposite end of the spectrum who like to write sad endings simply to go against the happy-ending grain. For instance, I could rewrite Cinderella so that instead of riding off with the prince after trying on her glass slipper, she gets trampled by the horses pulling the transformed pumpkin carriage. This kind of writing only works in satire. If it’s written as a romance, and that’s the end, a lot of people will be banging on the bookstore’s door, demanding a refund. It’s a slap in the face and just as pointless, to me, as writing a happy ending for happy ending’s sake.

There is a happy medium, and I promise these books are worth reading, even if you have to go through some pain to get there. One of my favorite series of books is the Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. If you’ve read the first three, you know that many of the “tragedies” in Anne’s life are simply the mishaps of a young mischief-magnet. She grows up, matures, and gets her prince charming, right? Well. . . If you read the whole series (and there are eight books, ending when her children are adults), you get sucked into World War I. And although there is a new romance between Anne’s youngest daughter and a friend-turned-soldier, there is tragedy as well. I won’t spoil it; please read the books yourselves. But to people actually living through World War I, don’t you think they appreciated reading something in which the young heroine-turned-mother suffered, grieved, yet survived like the rest of the world? Yes, it would have been much happier if her family had escaped the horrors of war, but I know I would not have been so moved, so drawn back to them again and again, if that tragic element had not been there.

To boil it all down, it’s fine if the princess gets her prince charming, but I won’t complain—actually, I’ll keep turning the pages hours after I should have gone to sleep—if she has to go through hell to get him.