Success Soup

This article has made the rounds in the writer world today. Most of the attention has been directed at the fact that this author had the misfortune to be represented by Mark Gottlieb, an agent who has since been outed as pretty terrible on many fronts. But what I keyed into while reading it was the despair. The exhaustion. This author has been pushing that boulder up the hill for 11 years, and I get it. I’ve been there myself.

We’re bombarded daily by messages that tell us: “If you just try hard enough, you’ll get there!” That’s patently untrue. If everyone could get there, we’d all be there—wherever it is we wanted to be. But we can’t all make it as actors, writers, musicians, athletes, investment bankers, lawyers, whatever. Telling people they can be whatever they want sets them up for disappointment in the long run.

This is probably not helping anyone feel better, and in fact it angers a lot of people whenever I say it (which is fairly frequently), but I’m a realist.

The thing is: success is not a measure of talent. Success is a byproduct of a lot of ingredients, of which talent is only one (and sometimes not even necessary depending on other ingredients). Luck, timing, connections, serendipity . . . There are so many things that contribute to success. And even if you have a pantry full of talent, if you don’t have at least something to season it with, you can’t make soup.

And a lot of these things you can’t go buy at the corner grocery. You can hone your skills as a writer, you can up the chances of making connections by attending conferences and events, but some of the ingredients for success soup are like lottery prizes. You hope to win some of them, somehow. “A little luck sure would spice this soup up a bit!”

People like to say things like, “Make your own luck,” but those are the same people who already have what they want, often due to privilege (like their daddy owning the company). Again, if making luck were something we could all do, we’d all be lucky.

So before you tell someone they just didn’t try hard enough, or want something bad enough, think about the things you want and don’t have. Why don’t YOU have everything you want? Is it because you haven’t tried hard enough? Are you too lazy to have them? Is it because you lack talent or ability? And if you do have everything you want, how nice for you. But I can bet it wasn’t your own skill alone that got you there.

Don’t let not “making it”—and it’s really important to define success for yourself and not let others do it for you—make you think you’re not talented. Success soup can be made with various quantities of talent and all the other stuff I listed above, but a big bowl of talent alone won’t do it. And your access to other ingredients may be limited by gender, socio-economic status, geography, support systems (or lack thereof), and other biases. Or it may be limited by bad timing or plain bad luck.

Not everyone will make it. Not everyone can; the system doesn’t allow for that. “Anyone can be a writer.” Not true. Many writers can’t be writers, at least not in the sense of making a living at it. Anyone can put words on paper, sure, assuming they’re literate, but in a compelling way? Not everyone can tell a good story. Not everyone can sort through and organize information into a non-fiction book either, no matter how much they know about a subject. It takes skill, if not talent (not all successful people are talented, they just make up for the lack of flavor with many other ingredients). And even then, many will fall short.

Anyone who promises, “You can do it!” is telling you a lie. Sorry if that seems harsh, but let’s get real. Try hard enough, want it bad enough, and you might succeed. Write anyway. Make art anyway. If it’s in you, you won’t be able to stop yourself. Even as your heart breaks because no one else cares, you’ll keep coming back to it, again and again. And where’s the harm, aside perhaps from self-persecution? If you give up, you surely won’t succeed. If you keep writing anyway, just because you love it, you may yet get there, if only by an accidental left turn at Albuquerque.

Social Media Letdown

So I have a Tumblr that I only recently started seriously playing with. I was using it as a place to shelve snippets of a fanfic. But though some of the “chapters” got attention, it seems to have tapered off. That might be because I’ve been away on vacation (I did post a few pics while away, and I’m not officially “back” yet, but I’m home for a day before going off on the next leg, hence this post). Or it might be because I’m just not very good . . . at writing, or “tumbling” or whatever. Dunno.

Social media is so, so tricky. We’re told we need it in order to succeed as authors (or in other creative fields). Major companies are convinced they need a social media presence, too. But what we’re really feeding is our craving for validation. And we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. Or worse. People get more depressed when faced with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. They see others getting all the followers and Likes, and they feel like failures. Comparison is the thief of joy, or so the saying goes, and social media is really just a massive platform for measuring how “popular” you are. Or aren’t.

I have several friends who have recently announced they’re deleting their Facebook accounts. I’m tempted to do the same. A few years back I slashed and burned a number of my accounts and profiles, but it seems to have ballooned again. There’s always some new platform that authors are being told they need to be on.

For those wondering about the fic on Tumblr, it was inspired by my recent reading of The Raven Cycle. I actually indexed the posts on this post. And then there is a post that came after those. Though I know where the story is going, I’m not sure I’ll bother actually writing it. Social media saps the joy and desire from me, forcing me to face the indifference of the world to my work. It perpetuates the feelings we had in school, I think: there are those who have all the friends (and followers), and those who have only a few . . . or none. The kids at the crowded cafeteria table versus the kids sitting alone.

Still Worth It?

I saw a tweet today that more or less expressed this sentiment: Even if your book never gets published or your script never gets turned into a movie, the experience is still worth it.

I can’t decide if I believe that.

Writing can be its own reward, that’s true. I often remind myself that I used to love to write just for the joy of it (though that was fan fiction). And I think my best work has been written for love of the characters, like Peter Stoller or the characters in 20 August.

Sometimes, though, writing starts to feel like a chore. That’s when I know I’m also probably not doing my best.

So I guess I can say that experience of writing has taught me something: how to “feel” my writing and know when I’m on the right track.

Still, there’s something frustrating and tragic about not being able to get published or produced. One has to decide, I suppose, whether the end result of simply having the writing exist is enough. Writing that exists but never gets to readers or viewers . . . Doesn’t fulfill its potential, does it? This is all very philosophical, of course, but if prose is meant to be read and scripts are meant to be filmed so others can view them, and that never happens . . .

No, I get it. The point was for the writer to have done the work. And I’ve never been sorry I wrote something, only sorry when I couldn’t get anyone to publish it, or read it, or produce it.

Being a writer means setting yourself up to fail, at least in some respects. If you go in knowing that and accepting it, things will be easier for you in the long run. It’s the people who go in so convinced they’re going to write a bestseller or a huge blockbuster that end up bitter and angry. Me, I’m just sad. Not for myself, but for those characters and pieces of work that won’t get the eyes they deserve. Not because I’m some great writer, but because I failed them in some way—I was too clumsy and inept to tell their stories well.

Is it worth writing even if your work never sees the light of day? That’s a question that has to be answered individually, I think. Putting in the hours hones your craft. You can always go back and rework pieces to make them better. But you have to be self-aware enough to know whether you can live with having written things that live in the dark. How do you take rejection? If your sole goal is to be published or produced, then I don’t think you’ll find the exercise of simply writing satisfying. If you write because you love to write and the hope of publishing or production is the cherry on your sundae, then you’ll probably be fine. The key is to know the answer to that before you even start. That way you don’t waste your own time.

Confession

Under pain of torture . . .

. . . I’ve decided to admit something.

Well, really, it’s just that some thinking it over made it very obvious to me. I probably should have noticed it a long time ago. My friends almost certainly already know this about me, though no one has ever bothered to say as much to my face.

All my favorite literary couples are gay.

While others swoon over, I dunno, Bella and Edward (is that still a thing?), I just don’t get any heat from those kinds of stories. When I stopped to consider my favorite pairings, this is what I came up with:

  1. Touya & Yukito (& Yue) from Cardcaptor Sakura
  2. Subaru & Seishirou from Tokyo Babylon
  3. Adam Parrish & Ronan Lynch from The Raven Cycle

It was, in truth, this last one that caused me to think about this at all. I’m reading The Raven King and I love Adam + Ronan so much it hurts.

I feel kind of bad/weird about this, but it’s not something I can control, either. This is what I like. Not erotica, but these slow-burning relationships, sometimes star-crossed and tragic. I like drama and angst, I guess. I like potential for flames to erupt at any moment.

It seems like a good thing to know about oneself. Particularly as an author, I find myself leaning into the gay relationships in my books. They’re fun for me to write. If I define “fun” as tormenting my characters. Which I do.

Who are your favorite literary couples and how hot do you like your love stories?

***

ETA: Someone pointed out that I do also like Rey & Kylo from Star Wars. And that’s true! Talk about drama, angst, and star-crossed, eh? So I guess I do like at least one hetero couple.

IWSG: Writing Goals

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month (except tomorrow is a holiday, so we’re posting a day early). Read more posts and/or join in here.

I’m still fretting over finishing Faebourne.

Question of the Month: What are your ultimate writing goals, and how have they changed over time (if at all)?

Well, ideally I’d be producing more than one title per year, since generating new content seems to be the one solid way of making any money as a writer these days. And I’d like to make money—well, more than I do now. I should probably set a concrete number; they say that’s the best way to set a goal and therefore be satisfied when you finally hit it. I think it’s so very important for authors do set their own, personal definitions of success, else it’s easy to always feel like a failure. Having concrete, quantifiable goals helps you feel successful in the long run.

I’ll start modestly. I’d like to:

  • Make three figures per month consistently
  • Be asked to speak or sit on a panel at least once a year
  • Publish at least two things per year

So many other authors already do these things (and much more) . . . But as they say, comparison is the thief of joy. I can only hope to do better than myself, not as well as or better than anyone else.

I think when I started, I had no specific goals except to get my work out there. And you know what? I was happier when I didn’t have set expectations. But I don’t think I can avoid having expectations at this point, and hopes. Unfortunately, these often lead to disappointment. And I find myself less enthusiastic about writing the more pressure there is to produce and perform. Hmm. Maybe I should go back to having no goals after all. Or, rather, maybe my goal should be to just write for the fun of it again.

Favorite Authors, Influencers—Who makes your list?

I noticed something the other day, and now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop noticing it.

There’s a tendency, when asked about our favorite authors, to reach for the big names. The names people will recognize. Is that why we do it? What I mean is, whenever an author is asked something like, “Who do you like to read?” or “Who influences your work?” we go straight to Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or whatever big author applies. I’m as guilty of it as anyone.

But here’s the thing: as indie authors (or, in my case, hybrid), shouldn’t we at least try to include our fellows on that list? Stephen King doesn’t need any exposure, but if we were to mention someone else—another indie author, for example—mightn’t we perhaps cause readers of the article or interview to be curious and go look them up?

I’m not suggesting we do this as a marketing ploy. I want, honestly, to know which indie authors, or lesser-known authors, people read. It’s far more interesting than hearing you, like a billion other people, read Anne Rice or whatever. At the very least, mention a couple big names and follow with a couple smaller ones? (There are no small names, just small authors?)

For starters I’ll say I enjoy Christine Rains‘ work, and D.B. Sieders, and Caroline Warfield. (And, yes, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and Anne Rice.)

Which indie authors do YOU read?

The Sorrow of What Remains

Yesterday I went down an Internet rabbit hole. An old friend from way back when posted something on Facebook about her son receiving school awards. Seems harmless enough for starters, doesn’t it? Now, this friend still lives in the town I grew up in, but I didn’t recognize the name of the school. Of course, I knew they’d renamed many schools, and that the town had grown and there were also new schools. So out of curiosity, I went Googling.

I’d walked to elementary school as a child, and my chief question was: What did they rename my old school? When I was young and the town was small, the school names were very simple: Westside, Eastside, Central . . . But friends who were still in the area had told me they’d renamed the schools after people like our old superintendent. Fair enough. I wondered which name my old school had received.

First I looked at the school district website for my old town. None of the schools listed looked familiar based on the pictures, but I reasoned that those old buildings had probably been given facelifts. So, remembering that I used to walk, I instead went to a Google map of the town and traced my old route.

No school.

???

I double checked the area, clicking on various things on the map to see if maybe I’d misremembered something. But no, there was no school anywhere in the vicinity.

Then I made the mistake of going to Street View.

Sometimes I still have dreams set on the street where I grew up. We lived in a cul-de-sac, at the U bend of it, in fact, and behind our house ran a quiet, relatively underutilized road. There was nothing but fields on the other side of that road, and we just called it “the back road.” A skunk had been run over there once, and no one had bothered to clean it up, so there was a spot—my friends and I always looked for it—where you could see its skeleton pressed into the asphalt by the cars that had flattened it into the summer-softened blacktop.

Oh, but that road was no longer a quiet road. The fields were long gone. The land appeared flattened and without shade, the grass all brown around the houses that had sprung up. They hadn’t bothered to save any trees, apparently. It was heart crushing to see.

And my school? It appears to have become a Boys and Girls Club. I guess there could be worse fates.

It’s true that you can never go home again. Because it will never be home again. Even if I moved back, it wouldn’t be the town I grew up in. We’ve all moved on.

There’s something sad about memories. How they only exist in our heads because there is nothing concrete to hold on to. Photographs, maybe, but the truth is: those places are lost to us now and will never exist again.

Changing Behaviors

I’ve written about this topic before, if not here than definitely once on spooklights that I can recall. But it seems worth a revisit.

Yesterday my husband and I were walking over to the school to pick up the kids, and we were talking about how so many of the parents—the ones driving—use what’s known as the “back loop” for pickup, even though every email from the school principal has a reminder that the back loop is NOT open for pickup because it’s for handicap services only. Now, I could hypothesize that a few of those parents who are going against the rules don’t get email? And their kids also don’t bring home the printed notices? But not all of them.

Does it seem to you that more and more people are breaking rules or behaving as though the rules don’t apply to them? (I recommend reading F You Very Much by Danny Wallace, btw.)

I’m going to scale this down a bit and use an example I typically fall back on when discussing this subject, one that I think most of us can identify with: batteries.

We all know we’re not supposed to throw batteries away. There are community events where you bring your batteries and electronics to be disposed of, and there are sites you can bring these things to, and in our town we can even put our batteries in plastic baggies and tape them to the tops of our bins so the garbage collectors take them to dispose of them. How much easier can it get than that?

Or think about recycling in general. For years it was nearly impossible to get people to do it, but then cities began giving people special bins that they could use just like their garbage bins, no need even to separate the types of recycling, and then what? More people recycled!

There are two prongs to changing people’s behaviors, and (spoiler alert) repeated emails telling people not to do something is not one of them.

1. Convenience.

By making recycling as convenient as throwing away your garbage, cities were able to increase the number of people recycling. By putting recycling bins out next to trash bins in public spaces, again, more recycling. By making it possible for us to just tape our batteries to the tops of our trash bins, our town made us a lot less likely to throw batteries out. Because in our busy lives, no one wants to make an extra trip to Wherever to hand off dead batteries.

If and when you want people to do something, you have to make that something relatively easy. The minute you begin asking for extra effort, you’re going to lose a large percentage of potential buy-in.

Since this is a writing blog, I’ll tell it from the point of view of trying to get reviews. Many readers aren’t used to writing reviews, and to do so requires time and effort they’d rather put into reading the next book in their stack. But authors who put a link in the backs of their ebooks tend to get more reviews than authors who don’t. Because just clicking on the link? That’s relatively easy. Write a few words while the reader is still high (or low) on what he or she just read? They’re way more likely to do so at that moment than to come back to it later. And that link makes it convenient.

Going back to the pickup situation at our local school: Why might parents feel the need to break the rules and use the back loop? My guess is it’s because the current system for drop-off and pickup isn’t efficient and doesn’t suit their needs. Well, and they’re impatient and don’t want to wait their turn. There’s a streak of entitlement there—the notion that their needs are greater than anyone else’s.

Which brings us to

2. Consequences.

Another reason these parents have no problem using the back loop when they’re not supposed to? No one stops them. There’s never a police officer waiting there, or even a school official. In short, they do it because they can get away with it. There are no consequences for breaking the rule.

We want to believe people are mostly good, but don’t we all sometimes speed when we’re pretty sure we won’t get caught? “What’s the harm?” we think. Until the day we’re pulled over or, worse, in an accident. I see it every day at the school, people doing well over the 25 mph limit—unless there’s a police car parked nearby.

Why do some people throw batteries in the trash when they know they shouldn’t? Because the benefits (not having to go to any extra effort) outweigh the disadvantages. These people know they won’t get caught, won’t be fined or jailed or anything. So why not do the easy thing rather than the right one? (We as a species are pretty terrible at thinking ahead to greater consequences down the road—Exhibit A: climate change.)

Until the cons outweigh the pros, people will continue to disregard the rules.

How many people do you see driving in the HOV lane when they’re the only ones in the car? Where I live, it’s quite a few. Recently, I read a statistic that only 1 in 40 would be pulled over for it. That’s less than 3%, so the odds are in the favor of those disobeying the law. Clearly a number of people feel it’s worth the risk of (at least here) a very high fine. However, if the numbers were to change—if, say, 60% of people were caught and fined—behaviors would likely change. (My guess is, at 50% these drivers would still play the odds. Hell, even at 60% they might. But if they were statistically more likely to get pulled over and fined than not, they’d probably think twice.)

Why do people in power do things they shouldn’t? Because no one will hold them accountable. There are no consequences. Look at the sexual harassment scandals making waves through Hollywood and beyond. Only now, as people are starting to hold abusers responsible, are behaviors beginning to change.

And change is not instantaneous. It’s slow. To get people to do things, or stop doing them, is like turning a massive cruise ship. It takes time, and some people are going to feel queasy about it.

To summarize: in order to get people to change their behaviors, you must (1) make it easy for them to change, and (2) provide strict and immediate consequences for not changing. We’re creatures of habit, after all. We can be taught, but not easily. We’re like tigers in a circus: crack the whip over us, sure, but also give us treats when we do well. Eventually we’ll be trained.

Fiddling

I’m wandering into the weeds today and exploring some characters who are not my own.

Years ago, I began writing a fanfic that has since been lost to time. Basically it was a Tokyo Babylon / X / Cardcaptor Sakura crossover. Touya had a creature inside him similar to Yue—the opposite of Yue, really, as this alter ego was the power of the New Moon, the byproduct of Clow having created Yue. When you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Unlike the sun, the moon is inconstant [visually; obviously it’s always there regardless of our ability to see it]. Touya’s alter ego was named Xiwan (or Xi-Wan? something like that). I don’t remember where I got this name, but I do remember readers sending me fan art of the character. I still have it . . . somewhere . . .

I don’t remember much about the fic except that Seishiroh hits Touya with his car. This was the inciting incident, I think? And it was done on purpose as I recall because Sei needed Xiwan, or needed to eliminate Xiwan for some reason. Might have had to do with the Dragons of Heaven.

I’m not even sure why I’m writing this here and now except that with the return of Cardcaptor Sakura I find myself thinking more and more about the dynamic between Yukito and Touya. I always want more of their story, really. Mulling it over, I think about how Yuki admits to Sakura that he has feelings for Touya but isn’t sure how Touya feels. How must Yuki have felt, then, when Kaho came back to Tomoeda? When I go back and re-read the scenes in which Yuki gently probes Touya about Kaho’s return, it feels different in light of knowing Yuki loves Touya but is uncertain if that love is reciprocated. Yuki wants Touya to be happy, of course, but part of him must be in knots over wondering whether Touya still has feelings for Kaho, what their relationship was like, etc. And Touya is not particularly forthcoming; he doesn’t do much to ease Yuki’s anxiety.

Not that Yuki ever shows it. He puts a smile on for everything and everyone. It’s easy to read or watch CCS and take Yukito at (no pun intended) face value. But I’m a character person, and I like depth. I like to think that Yuki, sitting home alone night after night, wrestles with these thoughts and feelings. Touya is friendly, yes, but in a somewhat unapproachable way. Even for his best friend.

When you toss Yue into this, Jesus . . . Here is a creature who is as aloof as Touya, but we also know he has deep feelings for his creator Clow Reed. Which means he’s capable of love. Kero gets to be himself all the time, whether in small form or large, but Yue must swap his personality out with this non-person . . . It’s so complicated it makes my head spin. Yue has a sense of duty to Sakura, though his heart appears to remain with Clow. He has very little agency in “life” (if that’s what you call it). He knows Yuki’s thoughts and feelings but doesn’t seem to share them; he’s merely required to carry the burden of them. If he’s lonely, he refuses to admit it. You get the sense he’d prefer to disappear entirely now that Clow is gone. But he feels chained by his loyalty to Clow to continue to care for his new master. All that lies before him is a long trudge without the one person who means the most to him. Think about that for a while.

Love triangles may be cliché but damn does this have the potential to be a fun one. In the fanfic I wrote, Touya is in the hospital and Yuki refuses to leave his bedside. At one point Sakura comes in and discovers Yue there instead. She is alarmed, of course—Yue shouldn’t be seen by anyone, and what if a nurse or doctor or even Mr. Kinomoto were to enter? Yue tells her that he could not bear Yuki’s broken heart and needed to put him out of his misery for a while.

When I look at my book Manifesting Destiny, I realize I probably subconsciously adopted some of the dynamics of the Touya/Yuki/Yue situation when I developed the Cee/Marcus/Diodoric triangle. After all, Diodoric is Marcus’ alter ego. Of course, there is a fourth player in my story: Cee’s alter ego Livian. Not that he’s romantically interested in anyone, but Cee still has to navigate life with him as part of her.

Again, I don’t have a particular reason for bringing this up at the moment. Just something I was thinking about. When, really, I should be worrying about my WIP! So off I go to do some “real” work . . .

Favorite Books & Authors

Image courtesy of pexels.com

Fairly often I get asked about books I’d recommend or who my favorite authors are. That’s always tricky since my recommendations would largely depend on what the person asking likes to read. I myself read fairly widely, though I certainly don’t read everything. I couldn’t name a good erotica book, for instance, and I’d be limited in science fiction or epic fantasy. The only horror I read, really, is Stephen King and Dean Koontz, so I’d be little help there either.

As for favorite books, well, I have a few. And there are a handful of authors I read pretty consistently, though that handful changes over time as well.

Here are some books I generally name when asked, broadly, for recommendations:

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
In the Woods by Tana French
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot) by Ben Aaronovitch
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
Captive Queen by Alison Weir
King and Goddess by Judith Tarr
City of Masks by Daniel Hecht
The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater
Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin
Exit Sherlock Holmes by Robert Lee Hall
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
What Do You Hear from Walden Pond? by Jack Douglas

You’ll notice a few things, perhaps. For one, those books are all fiction, though many are historical fiction. A number of them are also mystery and/or fantasy. Only two are Sherlock Holmes stories (and neither by Doyle). None are Shakespeare or Shakespeare adjacent. There’s no Jane Austen on this list. That’s because I don’t think Sherlock Holmes or Shakespeare or Austen are the kind of thing I can recommend to just anybody. They aren’t most people’s cup of tea. If I happen to believe the person asking might like any of those, I’d certainly mention it. But when asked flatly, “Can you recommend a book?” these are what come to mind as most likely to please.

Some of the books listed above are also the first in series. I figure if the person reads and likes the book, it’s on them to follow up with the rest.

Then there are authors. As I mentioned, I go through cycles. I devoured all the Hercule Poirot novels when I was fifteen. I also read a lot of Dean Koontz and Stephen King around that time, and I started in on Anne Rice’s vampire novels too. I worked my way through Judith Tarr. Sara Hylton. Victoria Holt. Someone introduced me to Neil Gaiman’s work when I was 18. I went through a Kathy Reichs phase. I read all the John Le Carré Smiley books. Lately I enjoy Aaronovitch, Morton, and French as mentioned above.

“Which Stephen King books do you recommend?” is another one I get a lot. In my mind, there are two kinds of SK books: those from before his accident, and those from after. For earlier works, I usually suggest ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Dark Half. In the latter group, Duma Key is my favorite, though I also really enjoyed Bag of Bones.

Those asking for Koontz recommendations, well, I quit reading his books some while ago—around the time he dropped the “R.”—so I can’t speak to newer stuff. I really liked Watchers, and Twilight Eyes still haunts me. Lightning holds a special place in my heart, too, because it was the first “grown-up” book my dad ever handed to me. It was probably not right for someone as young as I was at the time, but I loved it. I kind of want to re-read it, but at the same time I’m afraid it won’t be as good as my memory of it.

“What about nonfiction?” I read less of that than I do fiction, but I enjoyed F You Very Much by Danny Wallace. I tend to like books that examine psychology and/or society. Just about anything by Jeanne Twenge, for example. For film industry books, Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman is the first that comes to mind. I also have quite the personal library of books about Nicholas II and the last Romanovs. The Last Empress by Greg King is really good. I know I’ve also read a number of good biographies, but I suppose none have left much of an impression since nothing springs to mind when people ask me about biographies worth reading. “Who are you interested in?” is my usual reply.

Sometimes the question is about my favorite books from when I was a kid. Zilpha Keatley Snyder was my favorite author when I was younger, and The Changeling was my favorite book by her, though I also really loved The Velvet Room. And of course I read a lot of Judy Blume. I also tended toward animal books: Where the Red Fern Grows, Lassie Come Home, The Trouble with Tuck, Socks . . . I liked this one book called The Seventh Princess, I liked the Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander, and I recall enjoying The Dollhouse Murders. There was also this one book called Cadbury’s Coffin that intrigued me. I liked The House of Dies Drear and The Secret of Gumbo Grove. And I read the Not Quite Human books, too.

For more recent titles—for books my kids enjoy, really, and that I sometimes enjoy reading to them—the usual suspects emerge: Riordan, Rowling, and the like.

This is, you see, a very long answer to the question. But there can be no short answer. I like—or, really, love—a lot of books. My house is piled with them, and then there are more still in boxes in the garage. Books I can’t bear yet to part with.

Well, then, what about you? What is your answer when someone asks you for a recommendation?