Alice Soon

My Literary Life & other obsessions…


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THE CASE FOR READING – Why everyone should read more (even CEO’s, business people and anyone who wants to communicate anything)

My co-worker made a joke last week about adding new letters to my title – C.E.O. – Chief Editing Officer. It turns about our actual CEO had written something that he wanted me to look over and fix. Why? I have no idea. Apparently being a fiction writer also makes me qualified to edit EVERYTHING.

And that’s when I realized – Every day, I read stuff in the corporate world by people who are highly educated & intelligent, but that makes me want to poke my eyes out. These emails, letters and articles are filled with run-on sentences (not the stream-of-consciousness kind you would find in Faulkner’s work*), commas in the wrong places, terrible slogans & marketing euphemisms.

They cannot write. They think that writing should be the way you speak. WRONG. Writing is about communication. It’s about crafting words specific to your audience (remember, overwriting is just as bad as poor grammar; it’s not a contest to show how smart you are) and about communicating a message.
i.e. How do I get these swirling ,complicated thoughts outta my head and onto the computer screen in a series of letters, words & paragraphs that make sense? (You would not believe the number of people I see staring at the cubicles every day, struggling to craft a simple email.)

Look, I’m no expert; I’m no William Shakespeare, but I have good taste – I know good writing when I see it. (See Ira Glass’s quote below) By default then, I also know BAD writing when I see it.
Ira Glass 2

In an age filled with BUZZFEED articles, Top Ten This and Best Tips for That, it’s no wonder we don’t know how to write anymore. Our gold standard for journalistic excellence is a one page article about “KimYe’s Post-Baby Body Tips”.
Books only

So then, what’s one to do? How can someone improve their writing? Well, there’s only one surefire way I know how: READING.

When you read something well-written, something strange & magical happens to you – somehow, those words & sentences manage permeate your brain, and against your will, your cranium expands. This is not a scientific answer, but the art of writing is not a scientific practice.

So I implore you – Students, youth, business people of the world – READ.
Pick up a book. (Audiobooks don’t count.) Preferably by someone who writes complex, meaningful themes that you can infuse into your own thoughts and into your own writing.

(So that one day, when you are CEO, a lowly manager will no longer have to spend half an hour on a Friday afternoon trying to edit your words & make it better.) 

Over & Out.

*If you don’t know who William Faulkner is, you’ve just proven my point. Please refer to the title of this article.

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My 2015 in BOOKS!

All right, peeps! It’s that time of year again, where we reflect upon the books we’ve read this year…And see if we managed to reach our GOODREADS challenge! 🙂

I just barely made it to 50 books and would’ve liked it to be 52, but my travel schedule has been a little insane this year. (And unlike popular myth, being at airports waiting in line or trapped inside an airplane for 5 hours is NOT actually conducive to reading at all!)

Here’s a quick snapshot of the books I read this year:
2015 ALL
(I’m missing 2 books ‘cuz they wouldn’t fit nicely at the bottom. They were “Out of Africa” & “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore“.
2015 GR

BEST BOOK I READ IN 2015:
A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James
I read this before James won the MAN BOOKER PRIZE (I’d like to think I was ahead of the curve :-P) and it should be required reading for every writer.
It’s a virtuoso of writing – the way James is able to weave such a complex political, social, personal narratives into each of the characters is truly stunning.
It’s a very long book, but well worth it!

OTHER RECOMMENDED BOOKS THAT WERE VERY GOOD:
– “The Most Dangerous Book” by Kevin Birmingham about the legal battle to get ULYSSES published. Also, a great bio on the legendary writer himself, James Joyce. I learned a lot from this book and Joyce’s life really inspired me as a writer. Like, the dude kept writing even when he was broke, freezing and going blind!!! It makes you question your own dedication as a writer. What are YOU willing to do to write at all costs???

– “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding – A classic novel that will leave you feeling very disturbed and thinking about its’ themes even weeks after you’ve finished the book. That’s what every good piece of literature should do! Leave you questioning its themes and make you feel uncomfortable.

– “Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy – Another classic novel that reads like a modern day novel. I picked up this book after seeing the movie and it’s just wonderful! Hardy is a great novelist.

– “Curious” by Ian Leslie about the importance of curiosity (especially in raising our children) and the dangerous delusion of the GOOGLING age and easy access to mass data & information. And hey, here’s a cool quote poster I made when I visited the Boston library this year! (Photo credit to my friend, Stephanie C.)

Photo by: Alice Soon & Stephanie C.

Photo by: Alice Soon & Stephanie C.

Here’s to a great 2016 y’all! May your heads and hearts be filled with wondrous words this coming year.
Eat Sleep Read


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Why You Shouldn’t Only Read Non-Fiction

All right, I’m deliberately calling out to you readers of so-called “NON-FICTION ONLY”.

How many times have I asked someone what they like to read (especially men), and their most common answer to me is: “I only read non-fiction.”

Like, really?

Sometimes I wonder if they are telling me that because they think reading non-fiction automatically makes them seem smarter, or they couldn’t bother with something so useless as fiction, because who wants to read stuff that is made up anyway?

Granted, I have tended to heavily skew my reading repertoire towards fiction for most of my life, but this year for some reason, I have been reading more NON-FICTION than ever.

And although I can always glean wondrous facts from all of these non-fiction works, be they biographies, business books, memoirs, academic texts, I still find I get a lot of out reading fiction.

This got me thinking about the difference between Fiction readers vs. Non-Fiction readers.  Of course, reading anything is better than reading nothing at all, but I will argue that all of you NF folks are really missing the boat.

Here’s 5 reasons why:

1) GET SOME IMAGINATION

Though it’s very important to learn about facts, sticking exclusively to non-fiction can make you seem very cut & dry.  Like you’re that stuffy, snobby guy in a silk jacket smoking a pipe, regurgitating scientific facts, but you can’t stretch your imagination to imagine a world with unicorns, wizards, magic, flying on hoverboards or a human colony on Mars. Remember, many of the best inventions and concepts the world has ever seen came from very imaginative people who thought outside of the realm of possibility and didn’t just allow their brains to be imprisoned by facts.  They daydreamed, they conjured up impossible theories and they changed the world.

Alice Soon Photo

Alice Soon Photo

2) IMPROVE YOUR CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS

When you are reading a piece of good fiction (and I’m talking about quality fiction here, not escapist literature), you are forced to THINK and analyze what it is you are actually reading. Exceptional fiction is always filled with multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, creative twists and turns, and conflicting themes.

So what’s a reader to do???

Make up your own mind, of course.

Employ your critical thinking skills, and examine why it is that you feel the way you feel.  And it is this act of thinking; this ability to clearly articulate your point of view, that makes someone a good communicator vs. a blathering moron.

Reading a good piece of fiction, even if you disagree with it, will always makes you THINK.

3) LEARN HOW TO WRITE BETTER

I think it’s pretty arguable that most fiction writers are just better writers in general.  (e.g. Michael Pollan recently admitted this on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.)

What this means is not that they are better at grammar.  You can say the same thing in 10 different ways, using a variety of word choice, word order and punctuation, but NOT all sentences are created equally, even if the meaning is the same.

This difference is called STYLE.

When you read a wonderful piece of fiction, you are learning how the writer has used a creative metaphor to express a place or a feeling; filled the pages with images and symbols that make your head spin. In short, can express the most complex, deepest, truest feelings of a human being using 26 letters.

4) YOU CAN LEARN FACTS TOO

Many good fiction books employ hundreds of hours of meticulous research to fill their stories with believable characters, realistic settings and a sense of history. Many writers even spend months or years in a particular city or country where their story takes place or painstakingly interview countless people to get their facts right.

(e.g. THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON  or A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS).

As one 70-year old bookseller I met in New Orleans once told me: “I have learned more truths from reading fiction than from any non-fiction book.”

5) INCREASE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE & EMPATHY

This is my favourite and final point.  Studies are beginning to show that readers of literary fiction actually score higher on emotional intelligence and empathy. One study by the New York School for Social Research (featured in THE WIRE), found that:

Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage Theory of the Mind (ToM) processes. Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction, which is more readerly, tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM.

In other words, by forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.”

Another study done by a trio of University of Toronto scholars led by psychologist Maja Djikic  (featured in SALON Magazine) reported that:

People who have just read a short story have less need for what psychologists call cognitive closure. Compared with peers who have just read an essay, they expressed more comfort with disorder and uncertainty—attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.

Therefore, it requires people to become insightful about others and their perspectives.”

Alice Soon Photo

                          Alice Soon Photo

Check out studies here – http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2013/10/now-we-have-proof-reading-literary-fiction-makes-you-better-person/70191/ and here – http://www.salon.com/2013/06/15/book_nerds_make_better_decisions_partner/

Not convinced having emotional intelligence is proven to be an essential skill of top leaders? Read this article in Harvard Business Review – https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader

To summarize, I think my arguments are clear: Don’t relegate yourself to the realm of one-dimensional non-fiction. Open yourself to the delights & thrills of a great fiction novel and watch your mind reach new heights.

Your brain will thank you. 🙂


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AUTHOR INTERVIEW – EDDIE MARK

I’m pleased to feature an interview with a fellow author and Torontonian, Eddie Mark, as he discusses the process of writing his debut novel, THE GARDEN OF UNFORTUNATE SOULS.

But first, here is a brief synopsis:

In 1980s Buffalo, New York, the recession has transformed the city’s proudest African American neighborhood into a ghetto. Loretta Ford, an eccentric single mother and religious fanatic, survives for years by masquerading as the owner of a dead woman’s house. Her reclusive life is interrupted when an unlikely incident brings the mayor of Buffalo to her home in the middle of the night. Their secret meeting sets off a chain of events that will leave two families altered forever. With all the passion of a Shakespearean tragedy and a cast of characters never to be forgotten, The Garden of Unfortunate Souls vividly depicts the consequences of violence, sex, and gender conflict in African American communities.

Now, the fun part – THE INTERVIEW:

1) Where did you get the concept for this novel and what inspired you to write it?

For years, I taught in an inner city public school where I knew quite a few children who were being physically and emotionally scarred by their parents’ use of corporal punishment against them. Often I would hear parents speak of it as a necessary evil to protect their children from the greater dangers of the urban environment (gangs, drugs, police violence, etc.). I’ve always questioned that theory and wanted to write a novel that explored this issue from the perspectives of the children and their parents—sort of present both sides of the debate. And then I wanted to look at it through the eyes of two culturally different African American families.

As for the specific scenes and characters, all of those are completely imagined. Some writers construct their storylines from actual experience. I get most of my mine from daydreaming, although the scene with the young man crashing into the main character’s home was inspired by a real-life event back in the nineties when this actually happened at a house I was living in at the time.

2) You have developed many conflicted and interesting characters – How do you conceive and develop your characters and decide how they will interact with one another?

For me, the key is to take an interest in people. Developing convincing characters is less about what I do on paper and more about how I handle my interpersonal relationships with others. The more a writer understands the motivations and backstories of real-life human beings, the more authentic and interesting his or her characters will be when it’s time to write the story. All people interest me, regardless of their backgrounds. I’ll meet and have a conversation with a university professor just as easily I’ll have one with a homeless man on the street. It helps me understand people in the world better, which leads to more complex and convincing characters on paper.
Garden
3) You are originally from Buffalo, NY. How much of this contributed to the setting of your novel?

Well, naturally, I’ve always found it easier to be authentic when I write about a place I know well. But Buffalo is the kind of city I’d love to write about even if it weren’t my hometown. It has its challenges, but few cities have as much history and scenic beauty. And the people are genuine. I think all of that is reflected in my novel.

4) What do you want readers to take away from reading your novel?

I’d want them to consider the long-term consequences of corporal punishment. Because in many ways, the rampant violence in our urban streets is simply an outgrowth of the violence practiced in our homes. When children are whipped, slapped, pinched, grabbed, and beaten with weapons, we’re teaching them that the way to handle conflict is to somehow hurt the offending person. So we need to find alternatives to corporal punishment. Sure, society often condones and celebrates it. But if the exact same level of force were turned against an adult, it would be a criminal assault. Just because the victim is a minor doesn’t make it better or right.

5) What is your favourite part about writing? What is your least favourite part?

My favourite part is probably the revision process. I don’t write very good first drafts. So it’s fun to watch all that bad writing morph into something more presentable. It takes a long time, but it’s worth it. My least favourite part is the long, drawn-out process of actually trying to get stories into print. Not a lot of fun.

6) What books are you reading right now?

As far as non-academic literature, I’m currently reading Dear Life by Alice Munro. I’ve actually been reading a number of Canadian authors lately, which is fitting since my next novel will most likely be set in Canada.

7) What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Be patient. Writing something worthwhile and getting it published is not a quick process. Actually, it’s quite long and exhausting—full of rejections, revisions, and delays. But don’t give up. Good writing will get published eventually. Maybe not today. But eventually.

Thanks Eddie for your time!

Rosa Wang Photography (

Rosa Wang Photography


To purchase the book, visit:
http://www.amazon.ca/Garden-Unfortunate-Souls-Eddie-Mark-ebook/dp/B00WBXHLQ0


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5 REASONS WHY I READ

For years, many people in the publishing industry have been bemoaning the lost art of reading – citing that livelier distractions and new technologies have taken away our focus and veneration for the written word. Movies, television, video games, social media…you name it, these are all reasons NOT to read.

This is a difficult fact to argue. I mean, who among us, between our grueling daily commute, tedious 9-to-5 jobs, school classes, home responsibilities has time to read? And why bother? There always seems to be a new, more enticing flashy object to lure our attention. #selfiepost
Book Love
But here I will argue that to give up the profound experience of reading is to do yourself a disservice. Though I myself am a self-proclaimed book-lover and book snob who tries to read at least 40-52 quality books per year, I realize I’m in the minority. I know of NO ONE I know personally, who reads as much as I do (except the nerds in my online book club, but they are a different breed altogether). And this is not to show off or prove how cool I am; rather, it’s to illustrate how sad it has become that the average person in North America reads only between 5-12 books to year (and most of them best-sellers, commercial fiction, celebrity-endorsed books, etc…). Books should not be just as a passing fancy, to see what the fuss is about (here’s looking at you, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY), or something to carry with you to the beach.

So, without further ado, are 5 reasons WHY I READ:

1) TO LEARN

Oprah recently did an interview with mega Hollywood producer, Brian Grazer, on the nature of curiosity and how it has shaped his career. I turn to books because I realize there is just SO MUCH I don’t know about the world. And I want to know more. I want to learn. Why? Learning for learning’s sake? Well, yes. Every time I learn something new, it’s like having a badge of honour pinned to my chest – it means I have accomplished something. I know something now that I’ve never known before. And to think all of this KNOWLEDGE is just squished somewhere in the crisp pages of a book…AMAZING!

I used to walk into a library and think to myself in awe – Why, if a person can READ, they can literally learn anything they want. Just pluck a book from the shelf and it’s right at their fingertips. Knowledge is power.

2) TO SEE ANOTHER’S POINT OF VIEW/GAIN EMPATHY

I don’t know what it’s like to live with a fundamentalist Muslim. I don’t know what it’s like to survive in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Suffragette who is jailed because she is fighting for basic human rights.

Yet, when I read books on topics like these (THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN/A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS/My own research for my 1st novel) – I start to understand another person’s point of view. I may never go to Afghanistan or Pakistan (nor, may I ever want to); I don’t have access to a time machine to go back 100 years, but through reading, I can experience all of these facets of life. To see the world through another’s eyes makes you a more empathetic person. You may not agree with everything they say or do, but at least you can have a more informed, well-rounded perspective.

3) TO LEARN PROPER GRAMMAR AND SPELLING

I don’t even have to try with this one – it just happens automatically. You want to learn how to spell and write properly? READ. Just read. You will learn how good sentences are made (and even the bad ones).

4) TO LIGHT UP YOUR IMAGINATION

Two words: HARRY POTTER.
Muggles

5) IT MAKES YOU A BETTER HUMAN BEING

I would never purport to be a perfect person, but I would say that books have made a huge impact on my life and have taught me many things. The best books are sometimes the ones that make you the most uncomfortable. But through this discomfort, you are forced to hold up a mirror to yourself and ask: Why do I feel this way? And examine your own innate prejudices and insecurities. I don’t think I would be the person I am today without books.
Love
So go and pick one up today (any book) and let it change your life. :-)


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MY 2014 YEAR IN BOOKS!

As always, another year has gone by and I usually like to reminisce about the books I’ve read. In 2014, I had to revise my reading goal down to 40 books (because I’ve been a little busy & unable to reach my usual goal of 1 book per week), but here are the highlights:

BEST OF THE YEAR/MY FAVORITES:

• “As I Lay Dying” – William Faulkner – So exceptional, I’ve added this book to my ALL-TIME FAVORITE BOOKS EVER LIST
• “The Interpreter of Maladies” – Jhumpa Lahiri – Also exceptional, mostly in the way she structures her short stories. It’s masterful.
2014v3
VERY GOOD/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED:
• “The Blazing World” – Siri Hustvedt
• “Animal Farm” – George Orwell
• “The War of Art” – Steven Pressfield
• “Euphoria” – Lily King
• “A Single Man” – Christopher Isherwood

DISAPPOINTING/OVERHYPED:
• “The Luminaries” – Eleanor Catton

There you go, my quick & dirty list!
Next year, my goal in 2015 will be to read 42 books (which is still almost double Mark Zuckerberg’s New Year’s Resolution to read 26 books. Hahaha!) 😛

HAPPY READING!


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WRITERS WHO START EARLY

This month I had the privilege of visiting Austin, TX on business and I managed to make a stop @ BOOKPEOPLE- The largest independent book store in Texas!

While I was there, I could not resist buying 6 books (which I thankfully managed to fit into my suitcase after much wrestling and wrangling…), one of which was ODD TYPE WRITERS, by Celia Blue Johnson.
BookPeopleBook stash
In this book, Johnson chronicles the interesting and often odd habits of famous writers. I love reading books about other writers in order to get inspiration (AKA to stop being lazy and get off my ass!!).

Here is a very interesting list of authors who were keen early-birds. (Sufficed to say that although I LOVE Sylvia Plath, I will not be waking up at 4am to write!!!) 😛

I thought it might also inspire writers to stop making excuses and keep writing, because after all, true professionals punch-in each & every day to work:

4:00am – Sylvia Plath
5:00am – Jack London, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter
5:30am – Anthony Trollope, Kurt Vonnegut
6:00am – Edith Wharton, W.H. Auden, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Vladimir Nabokov
7:00am – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
8:00am – Flannery O’Connor, Wallace Stegner
9:00am – Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gore Vidal
9:30am – Carson McCullers
10:00am – W. Somerset Maugham

Happy Writing everyone!