There is a wonderful documentary making the rounds called THE BOOKSELLERS.

It’s about exactly what the title suggests: people who love and sell books, mostly antiquarian ones.

But they would never have gotten into the business if they hadn’t first of all fallen in love with books.

The documentary interviews booksellers from New York, mostly those who have been in the business from fifty years ago or more. Many inherited their book stores, while others fell into becoming booksellers because of their addiction to books.

For a book nerd like myself, I found it thrilling to watch the booksellers talk about their pasts and the intrepid hunt for books they owned and sold.

buying books by

How amazing and actually a bit dizzying to see walls and walls of books waiting patiently for a buyer to take home with them! They probably will be orphaned for life.


I remember so many independent book stores in the cities I visited throughout my life. Because I grew up in Chicago —well before the chain bookstores were in operation and barracudaed their way into devouring and putting these stores out of business, I had access to a variety of book stores.

old bookstore by future primitive

Photo: Future Primitive

My favorites were the used book stores where I lingered without pushy salespeople, while listening to the classical or jazz music piping through the stereo speakers ubiquitously sitting on the counter-top.

Sometimes the smell of bean-crushed coffee wafted from a back room meant for the employees. Or the smell of Indian incense dimming the already dimmed light fixtures circulated everywhere including the book covers which still held that scent well after one bought the book and brought it home.

coffee books by t_watanabe

Photo: t_watanabe

Growing up in that major cultural city, I assumed that every American town had at least one wonderful book store.

Of course that was an illusion because even now the chain book stores are faring badly or have themselves been put out of business by online marketing.

This was the lament I heard by the booksellers in the documentary.

It was sad to hear them admit that their business, their obsession, their Holy Grails of books were no longer viable or desired by an appreciative public.

One bookseller mentioned that books, even antique ones, were not valued as highly as visual art.

Old book store by Fritz_the_Cat

Photo: Fritz_the_Cat

A first publication of a Charles Dickens novel will probably never fetch as high an auction price as say a pop art drawing by Andy Warhol.

What does that say about us as a society?

I like Warhol enough, but out of the two, I would rather have the first edition of a Dickens book if I was able to even contemplate or afford attending an auction of that sort.

Recently, several of my friends have mentioned that in their older ages, they are discarding their personal libraries—books they had lovingly purchased and collected since they were in high school.

The reasons: too cumbersome and dusty to keep, many are downsizing their homes, the books have deteriorated, and the most important reason—no one reads them anymore.

If anyone still reads, it’s probably online via e-books.

I understand this and have even joined in the purging of my own many, many books.

I also read many e-books since they are so inexpensive and far easier to carry around when traveling.

But I miss the physical comforts of a book with pages I can dog-ear and mark up with a real pen and hold in my hands like a lost child cuddling a stuffed animal.

woman-holding book

Space and time are the culprits. And yet, with each wormy, faded book I had to throw into the recycling bin, I took a moment to recall with great vividness, which book store I found it in and what was my life like when I bought it.

Every book was a photographic link to the past, every author an unwitting teacher who helped to develop my writing skills.

These little deaths were emotional tugs. It was practical, but painful to do.

There aren’t many book stores anymore in the world except perhaps in bigger cities and towns and that is a pity.

But in THE BOOKSELLERS, there are younger booksellers featured who are optimistic that book stores will continue to proliferate beyond online sales.

I hope so.

I still yearn for the days when I can go to one, browse through shelves of fiction especially, then sit in a lumpy armchair (another feature of the best book stores), and become acquainted with the books I might buy to read, and savor, and learn from.

Reading by SeaReeds

Photo: SeaReeds


As of this writing, THE BOOKSELLERS has been online streaming via various theaters. Check your area to see where and how it’s playing. Here is the trailer:

If you are discarding your books, here are some places to donate yours:

And certainly consider approaching a local used book seller in your area as well. Maybe buy a few for old times’ sake?

Writing Wisdom:

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”—Joseph Brodsky, Russian and American Poet and Essayist

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?


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sculpture- by Couleur

Besides fiction, I read a lot of how to write fiction books.

I also read a lot of self-help and motivational books to keep me writing.

But like all writers, or anyone who does anything creative without immediate rewards or accolades or even notice, I wonder why am I doing this?


It’s very much like a close relationship or love affair that has become mundane and dull.

There are times when the creative well is dry, the desire to create diminished. and the passion from our creative endeavors lie dormant and is practically gone.

We simply don’t get the same excited, burning quest we had when we first proclaimed to ourselves and the world whether out loud or in print that we are writers.

It might be fatigue. We’re just too darn tired.

Couple by Pawel Grzegorz

Photo: Pawel Grzegorz

As solitary and internal as it is, it takes enormous amounts of focus and energy to create well…anything, especially a story from scratch.

When you think about it, in our stories we are creating original worlds, people, events, conflicts, situations, resolutions, transformations, awareness, and entertainment too.

That’s a lot!

And it starts with your ideas and visions to put it all together in a well-crafted, credible and intriguing story.

For many, life is already overwhelming and we are fatigued with everything including writing.

bored man by Gared Altmann

Photo: Gared Altmann

Or the story isn’t coming through because we are bored with the characters and the whole scenario.

It’s perfectly fine to take a break.

Take a rest from writing for a week, but no more.

You may not come back to the work, or to writing at all.

Would that be so bad?

I am not discouraging you—that would be very disingenuous on my part. I feel my role is to provide encouragement and support to everyone who wants and tries to write stories, especially literary fiction.

But again, when it’s easier to leave then come back, perhaps writing isn’t for you after all—just like a love affair or friendship that has run its course and there is nothing left to give to keep it going.

paper-plane by Krzysztof Kamil

Photo: Krzysztof Kamil

Okay. It happens.

Then let me ask you this.

How do you feel?

If you are truly happier by not writing, that’s a perfect sign to alert you that you should be doing other things.

But what if you instead are irritated? Depressed? Snapping at others for no real reason?

Angry girl by Jackie Ramirez

Photo: Jackie Ramirez

Hmm, chances are that you miss writing after all. And need to come back.

Start again with the old work. Or start a brand new story.

Feeling better?

Now let’s say you are back to writing after a hiatus.

But now you are procrastinating—so easy to do!  This happens to creative people all the time as well.

Fun by DanaTentis

Photo: DanaTentis

You made the commitment to write again, but somehow you are not showing up at the screen or your notebook.

Then ask yourself these questions:

Why is this story important to write? Why is it important for me?

What would happen to me if I don’t write it? Especially my well-being.

How will I feel six months from now if I don’t write? A year? The rest of my life?

letter- By Lucia Grzeskiewicz

Photo: Lucia Grzeskiewicz

What can I do to show up at my writing space for X amount of time every day? What rewards can I give myself?

More to the point—what would happen if I complete this story? How would I feel? What will it do for my well-being?

What will give me more satisfaction and happiness? Writing at least a page, a chapter, or X amount of words each day? Starting another story, editing the one I am working on?

happy girl by Myriam Zilles

Graphic: Myriam Zilles

Or watching television, eating high-caloric foods, or some other non-writing activity?

Certainly binge-watch the programs you enjoy, and eat desserts too all in good measure, but make those the rewards and not the excuse for avoiding to write.

You will feel less guilty and more empowered if you spent quality time writing. Maybe binge-writing too.

You alone hold the answers and you know best whether or not writing is your destiny.

You will know if you can or cannot live without it.

Writing Wisdom:

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” —Ralph Ellison, American Fiction Writer, Literary Critic.

Cheers, Irene

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New subscribers will get a free copy of 100 LITERARY  CLICHES TO AVOID , SCORN AND DELETE (VOLUME 1). Humorous and helpful! Plus my report on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Rookie Fiction Writers.”

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Corona By Markus Distelrath

Photo: Markus Distelrath

As of this post, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic.

If you are reading this at the same or nearly the same time, I hope you are safe and well and we all get through this together.

If this has long passed (fingers crossed) whenever you do read this, then let’s openly breathe a collective sigh without our facemasks. We survived! We’re alive!

For most writers, being sequestered isn’t such a huge sacrifice during times of crisis. We are used to, and even crave solitude to seriously approach and delve deeply into our work.

frustrated by Ibrahim Bernal

Photo: Ibrahim Bernal

We truly need solo times to physically write, and mentally process the stories we are creating.

But solitude and isolation—even if we are quarantined with family members, can also be a trial if we are forced indoors for long stretches of time.

What’s a writer to do?

The same things you would do on a normal day.

Spend time writing. Spend more time writing.

depressed man390938_1920

But then do other things that will help you to stay strong, and avoid depression and frustration.

Sleep more. Even if you are feeling well, remember we are all collectively stressed by the news of this hovering menace. Sleep is nurturing and will replenish our energy levels and help us deal with the next bulletins.

Exercise. Try to do 15-30 minutes. It will help boost your energy and immune system. Go online for videos—there are so many to choose from including walking-in-your home type exercises.

Houghton_AC85.Aℓ194L.1869_pt.2aa_-_Little_Women,_titleRead more. Sure, you can read the classic pandemic literature like Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, but maybe try lighter fare?

As for me, I’m reading (for the first time in its entirety) LITTLE WOMEN. It’s a bit preachy at times, but I am finding the novel refreshing and comforting because it’s from another era even though I saw several movie versions. No wonder it’s an enduring classic!

Some online free books: Project Gutenberg (classics), and the Internet Archives (borrowing books online and more)

Of course listen to important news updates, but turn it off too. Watch comedies instead. Watch movies about writers too. Here is a list:

adults watching movie by Omar Medina Films

Music is a balm. I’ve discovered so much on YOUTUBE and here is my latest find, Brian Eno’s THURSDAY AFTERNOON: (one of many versions).

I find it soothing when I write. I find it soothing when I’m not writing.

girl music by who-alice moore

Photo: Who-Alice Moore

I’m also listening to the pop music I grew up with and which still makes me happy, plus online concerts by classical orchestras too.

Call or email friends and family to stay in touch. Don’t forget your writer friends.

If you are in a writer’s group, keep it going virtually. Or join one.

tablet by Gerd Altmann

Photo: Gerd Altmann

There are so many wonderful virtual activities for writers and other creatives to meet online and share—I even participated in a virtual book launch and for another event, a writers’ “happy hour.”

Do a home-based chore that you were putting off. I have a garage that needs a good cleaning. I will follow my own advice—soon.

What else can you do that will ease your spirit while sequestered? Knitting? Meditating? Pedicures? Crossword puzzles? Singing? Combing the fur of a family pet?

coronavirus cat by Orna Wachman

Photo: Orna Wachman

By all means stay alert and vigilant to the precarious changing situation in your environment, and above all stay safe.

But remember to take time to decompress and unstress.

And if all you can do is quietly sit and not do much at all, then let that be your coping mechanism.

turkey-4223117_1920 by Wei Zhu

Photo: Wei Zhu

Then decide on what is important for you to do next.

It may be turning to the writing.

Writing Wisdom:

“Suddenly you’re ripped into being alive. And life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but by God you’re alive and it’s spectacular.”—Joseph Campbell, American Writer, Orator, Academic.

Stay safe, Irene

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depression by Daniel Reche

Photo: Daniel Reche

In a previous post (CRICKETS AND TUMBLEWEEDS, also posted on my website on October 28, 2018 ), I mentioned how hard it is for a writer to sustain and continue to believe in one’s work when the publishing world is not supportive, receptive, and giving it space in their publications or welcoming it with a book contract.

In that post, I mentioned various strategies for coping when your writing is rejected including giving yourself time away from the work, or working on other stories before returning to that unpublished story with fresh eyes.

Another suggestion was to share your work with a writer’s group or with people you trust and who can offer honest and helpful feedback about the work and ways it might be improved before resubmission.

All good time-proven advice for focusing on the work and making it stronger and better.

But what do writers do to keep themselves strong and productive when nobody is supporting you as the writer?

For most writers, quiet alone time is necessary to write and rewrite. It’s also the time to think and read and research and plot and dream and mull over the stories in our minds if not on the page.

Also for many, being a writer is not a common or acceptable calling.


pointing fingers blame

Instead of feeling supportive, encouraged, cheered on and most importantly, accepted, the writer’s nearest and dearest (friends, family, even co-workers) tend to look down and disparage the writer for being one.

There are many reasons for this. Mostly, it’s because of ignorance and jealousy.

Ignorance because writing is an art-form  in addition to a highly disciplined craft which many people have no relationship with even as readers (if they read at all).

For them, It’s an otherworldly lifestyle that is still riddled with myths of drunken or drug-addled or suicidal or libidinous writers whose ethics and behaviors are so off the charts that by association, you too will be looked on with suspicion and even fear.

Girl by Victoria Borodinova

Photo: Victoria Borodinova

The other response is usually jealousy. Maybe they too want to be writers, but have no idea, or time, or the courage to actually try to write.

Really, their reasons are irrelevant.

What is relevant is whether they are setting any emotional and psychological limits on you because of who you are and what you are doing.

In that case, it’s the writer who has to enforce their protective inner boundaries.


It would be great if you could avoid and cut-off all the naysayers and downer-types, but if they live with you or work with you at your so called “real” job, then it’s hard to shun them or cut them off completely.

Here are some coping strategies for those you must keep in your life but who don’t understand your need to write:


–Don’t talk about your writing. If they ask (and they might just to goad you), simply say you are still plugging away and change the subject.

top-secret-by Pete Linforth

Graphic: Pete Linforth

–Don’t share your work, especially the early drafts. If they persist in asking to see, tell them it’s a mere rough draft, and like the batter of a cake, is not yet ready for the table (food metaphors are very relatable to most people).


–When you need to disappear to write, just say you are taking a short break and you’ll be back soon. Or it that’s too insulting to them, or complicated to fathom, tell them you need a nap.


–If that doesn’t work, then block out time to physically take yourself away from your surroundings to write and go there. Libraries, cafes, and cars are safe havens.


–Find a community to share your work with: a Facebook group, a writing class or group, another writer friend. Check out the bookstores, libraries or go online to find others doing and writing the things you are.

It’s almost as though you are having a secret affair, or a double-life, and in a way you are.

anonymous by Michael Treu

Grapic: Michael Treu

No wonder you have to withhold this part of you. You have no choice when it’s imperative to protect your writing if you are being ambushed and even humiliated for thinking you can write.

It’s your life and your soul too.

You can co-exist with others who have no interest or understanding of this need to write. But only if you realize their limitations and your priorities, and then balance the two.

Writing Wisdom:

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” –Jessamyn West, American Fiction Writer.

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?


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Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at and irenezabytko.wordpress


typewriter-alex dutemps

We’ve all seen or heard self-help gurus listing (usually the magic number of seven) the highly effective habits of professional people and how they achieve their many successes in business, fitness, love, or life.

I’m attracted to those books and videos and I try to apply some of their advice to my writing life which I consider as important and vital as any profession.

When it comes to distilling the practical wisdom, it’s really all about common sense and taking care of yourself so that you are productive, alert, and happy.

Ah, happiness…

hipster-Ryan McGuire

Photo by Ryan McGuire

The happiness factor is the essential ingredient in much of the advice I hear mentioned by these life coaches.

Happiness is a good thing for writers too.  It serves as a healthy counterweight against the myth that we must suffer for our art in order to be creative. Or vice-versa.

I always disliked the “suffering artist” syndrome. Sure, we are aware that creatives are prone to alcoholism and substance abuse, depression, poverty and heartbreak. We assume it’s normal for them in order to be great.


Being dysfunctional is not all a prerequisite to creativity. True writers and artists and musicians and all creative types are the most disciplined, focused, conscientious people in order to achieve the spectacular things they do.

And yes, some do exhibit negative traits—they’re human.

Despair by John Hain

Photo by John Hain

Creatives don’t own a patent on those bad behaviors. Every profession has their share of dysfunctional types.

That’s why self-help books sell so well! That’s why we all buy them and try to change our ways to be better and more successful people whatever we do for a living.

I’m no different. I have bookshelves dedicated to self-helpness.

Over the years, I’ve made several lists highlighting positive traits and approaches that will fuel and support my creative nature.

Here is my personal list of what I found to be the most helpful in maintaining my focus and passion for writing no matter how negative I feel, or how dismissive others are of my feelings and my work.


1.Get enough sleep. Seriously. In my college days, I was able to pull all-nighters when studying for tests, and even slip in socializing time with friends without an ounce of drowsiness, until I crashed and fell ill from lack of sleep. Now in my wiser older years, I value sleep and fully appreciate its rejuvenating and replenishing powers. Sleep is a great healer and will protect your immune system as well as relax your nerves so that you are more imaginative and creative. Try to get at least 6 hours or more if you can. Naps are great too. I take several and have learned how to get in 10 minutes of deep sleep no matter where I am (usually at airports when travelling).

spaghetti Divily

Photo by Divily

2.Eat well. Food is also fuel. A lot of food isn’t necessary, but it should be highly nutritious and energizing. When I write, I like to snack, so instead of empty calorie candy bars, I will nibble on fresh fruits and nuts and find that I am able to spend more time at the desk writing instead of thinking about my stomach. Moderate your meals too—heavy ones might make you drowsy and less productive. Little portions throughout the day might be the best, but it’s up to you.

fitness-by Sabine Mondestin

Photo by Sabine Mondestin

3.Exercise. If you are sitting for long hours in front of a screen, or writing on paper, get up at 15 minute intervals and move. I like to stretch and do a few dance steps before hopping back on the chair and writing. Tai chi or yoga moves are great too—just a few. Also, brisk walks are wonderful especially when feeling blocked. The idea is to prevent your muscles and brain from ossification and stagnation when writing for long stretches of time.

connect w ppl

4.Connect with loved ones and friends. Take a break and reconnect with people who love you and you enjoy being with. You don’t have to tell them what you are working on especially if they don’t really understand your life as a writer. But take time for positive moments like  watching a comedy show together for a while. Or playing a game. Phone calls are very nurturing too.


5.Read. Take a reading break and read the things you enjoy. If it’s fiction, then even better—exploring what other writers you admire achieve in their stories will help propel your own writing. I like to break up my writing time by reading five pages each of the many novels and non-fiction books I am currently reading at once in between writing my own. It’s one way I get ahead plus I find it stimulating for my own ideas.

deadline Gino Crescoli

Photo by Gino Crescoli

6.Time yourself. We’re all busy especially with other jobs, and family, and daily living things to take care of. If writing time is a constraint, then set aside an hour or so on a timer and give yourself permission to write for that designated time period. I like to block out an hour of time especially for the difficult things I’m writing, and then I’ll take a break, and then back to writing with a timer as needed. So much can be accomplished! Even if you are sitting in front of the screen without a thought, you are physically there and committed while waiting for the muse. Often something will happen. Just show up for the scheduled appointment and don’t leave until the buzzer sounds off.


7.Rewards. It’s tough writing alone. It’s doubly hard when no one is emotionally or financially supporting you to do it. Be good to yourself and reward yourself after you put in a solid attempt—a chapter, an outline, a novel. Even a title! Make a list of things to reward yourselves with—ice cream? A new pair of socks? A new car (well, that’s if you sell your book for big bucks—could happen!).  Whatever and however it’s done, allow yourself the wonderful privileges of acknowledging the hard work you put in.

Hope this is helpful. Feel free to create your own lists to determine what helps and that will catapult and sustain you into successful writing time.

However you create your lists, the basic rule is to simply write.

Writing Wisdom:

“Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matter, and think that even such a result is no trifle.” —Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor, Philosopher, Writer.

Cheers, Irene

P.S. JPG of THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION (1)Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?


 NEW! Now in paperback:





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© 2020 by Irene Zabytko, all rights reserved.


THE MIDWIFE'S TALE jpg“…Except for icons or Renaissance paintings, and in unpopular non-canonical texts, the midwife at the Nativity is not depicted, never remembered or acknowledged, not even in a cheerful Christmas carol. Oh, there are plenty of mentions of cows and donkeys who are supposedly given the gift of speech on that night—maybe they alone talked about the midwife’s role among themselves, but no one else seems to…” From THE MIDWIFE’S  TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY.

Unlike the narrator in my story, I am not a midwife. But after years of traditional Nativity stories and crèches and cards and carols, the emphasis has always been that Mary, Jesus’ Mother, was visited and surrounded by men—shepherds and Kings—after that miraculous birth occurred so long ago.

Where were the women during the birth?

Surely at least one woman was on the scene. Birthing children was and still is a exclusively female-oriented event in many cultures, and the midwife would have been the very first witness to Jesus’ appearance on earth.

Unless she was completely alone except for Joseph, her elderly husband to help her deliver the child, it seemed improbable that Mary would not have at least one or two women helping her with the birth.

EXTRA FOR MIDWIFE REPEAT BLOG christmas-crib-figures-1060021_1920

Typical Nativity creche figurines (Mary is the only woman). Photo: Alexas Fotos

Growing up, I used to wonder why the midwife never figured at all in any of the Nativity stories, but quickly dismissed her absence because of the prevalence of the other important male characters who were always mentioned and given the spotlight.

Recently, I received a postcard with a replica of an icon from Eastern Europe. I grew up with icons because of my Ukrainian heritage—and so was familiar with the depictions.

But this time, I did a double-take and felt compelled to seriously examine the postcard’s imagery.

On it were the familiar representations of several scenes of the Nativity with a large figure of Mary in the center, and near her, the swaddled baby Jesus in a manger.

Around the central figure of Mary are other smaller scenes indicating several related events: an angel appearing to the shepherds, the Three Kings with their gifts, and of Joseph being tempted by a shepherd (who is really the devil). All very typical in Eastern iconography depicting the Nativity.

But there was another scene painted on the icon. It was a replica of a woman—not Mary—about to wash the infant Jesus in a basin of water.

The midwife!


I never paid attention to her presence on an icon before and I  had to search for her identity and for any biblical sources about her.

Well, typically there wasn’t much at all. However, I did find an unlikely mention of a midwife in a non-canonical text (sources not condoned by traditional Christian churches) called the Gospel of James (Jesus’ brother most likely).

In it, Joseph hides Mary’s “disgrace” as he called it, by having her stay in the cave while he finds a midwife named Salome who does not believe that Mary is a virgin given her condition. That is, until Salome physically examines her.

Afterwards, a miracle of sorts occurs after Salome loses her hand, but it is later restored when holding the infant Jesus.

I didn’t care for this story at all. It’s inelegant, humiliating, and has no real feminine reality as to how women would act and interact in this type of scenario.

And so I made up my own version.

In my book, Joseph has a dream and is told to search for a midwife in the marketplace in Bethlehem. Eventually, he finds her although she is not Semitic, nor local, but rather is a migrant from one of the Slavic tribes and yes, probably from ancient Ukraine.

UKRAINE sky-3675019_1920

She enlists her helpers in the midwife mission for Mary’s delivery, dismisses Joseph who is sent away during the birth, and aides Mary to birth  in the ways that child-bearing was done in those times, and all accomplished in that cave which is more historically accurate than a stable, and far more preferable as a setting for my story version.


I did however want to keep some type of miracle occurring for the midwife, but like any good fiction writer, I included one with a twist of my own.

Because my midwife was a pagan, with her own cultural rituals that she brought with her to Bethlehem from her homeland in the steppes, she had the opportunity to practice her particular skill of soothsaying and prophecy and of course she correctly predicted Jesus’ path.

But she was also given a miracle in return for helping Mary and Joseph and in that plot twist, I hoped to convey the message of universal compassion: the midwife’s sympathy towards the stranded Holy Family and eventually, Jesus’ towards the midwife.

For any writer, it’s always risky to take on a beloved story that is so ingrained in people’s lives and religions, but rather than changing the overall Nativity story, my aim was to enlarge it by one more person who was absolutely present that particular night.

THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY by Irene Zabytko is now available on and

Watch the book trailer at

For more about THE MIDWIFE’S TALE see Stacey Garrity’s “Whispering Stories” blogpost:

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chornobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED, the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME and the writing guidebook THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION.

For more information contact:,



Whenever I come across a book sale—whether real or virtual, I sometimes will explore and even buy a book because I like its cover.

Like anything else that is marketable in our visually-hypnotic, consumer-oriented world, the way a book appears on its front cover is very important in attracting the right customer.

Genre books are easy to spot. Sci-fi book covers will usually show aliens or humans usually in space uniforms wandering on an inhabitable planet.

Harry Potter fans will have the very famous boy and his glasses staring out in his usual puzzled expression surrounded by his cohorts and the odd owl or two.

Detective fiction will most likely have the most lurid goriest covers, often with a victim spouting blood from a bludgeoned body. Ghost stories will of course will reveal ghosts looming over a cemetery, or sometimes mysterious hand-prints all over a deserted room.

And yes, romance novels will have the classic gorgeous couple embracing—she with the windswept hair and low-cut bodice, he with the masculine arm muscles and square-jawed determined expression.

TRUE LOVE retro-2743253_1280

Literary novels are harder to design covers for because the stories are not so obvious in their content.

It helps to place a well-crafted and very short summary and a blurb somewhere on the dust-jacket alerting the reader what the book is about unless it’s already a famous classic.

But regardless, the cover design is still very important.

If your book is published by a large publisher, most likely the writer had nothing to do with the book cover design.

Publishers are very regimented in their production departments and will usually work with designers on staff who create the cover with specific traits that will distinguish their imprint and brand.

Small press publishers may allow the writer to influence the cover if that is negotiated in the contract. One of my writer friends, Alexander J. Motyl who is also a painter, created the cover for his book that was published by a small press and was perfect for his novel VOVOCHKA about Vladimir Putin’s best friend.

VOVOCHKA the true confessions of Vladimir Putin's Best Friend and Confidant by AJ Motyl

If a book designer is given the task of creating the cover, then hopefully they have actually read your book and can pull out some key scenes or characters to better devise a compatible cover.

But if you are a self-publishing author, then you have all the freedom to design the best cover for your work.

Alas, writers are not necessarily visual artists. And so, if this is your dilemma, then perhaps start with researching other book covers (indie and ones from publishers) to help determine your aesthetic tastes.

You’ll discover that there are various trends in publishing books.

For instance, you might notice that static shoes tend to appear in a lot of covers as in these bestsellers:


Maybe it started with THE WIZARD OF OZ and the continuous charm of the ruby slippers, but frankly, I find shoes on book covers way overdone and boring even though I really liked and enjoyed reading both these books pictured above.

Another trend is to simply use a lot of printed words without pictures, but arranged in more random ways as in all of Jonathan Safran Foer’s books:


Provocative graphics and photography are also good choices in book design, but again it should somehow relate to the story content.

Although I loved CATCHER IN THE RYE, I never quite understood the odd graphic on its original cover but I admit, it’s more eye-catching than the version I bought long ago with its minimalist approach:


As an indie author, I too had to select a cover for my short story as book, THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY. I don’t have very much artistic skill, but thanks to a wonderful and free online design tool, called Canva (, I was able to do it all in under an hour.

With Canva you can choose their free or paid-for images and upload them into the dimensions of  a book cover. You can then play with print fonts and colors.

Give it a try.


For my book, I was able to find a great painting from the 17th century that fit perfectly. Plus, it was public domain, and so I didn’t have to obtain copyright permission (be careful with this sort of thing when selecting your images).

For the text headings, I experimented with Canva’s many fonts and background colors (all free) and voila!  A lovely cover!

It was a lot of fun to create, and I was not only pleased but amazed at how easy it was and how fabulous the cover looked (my opinion anyway).

Canva is also terrific for other things like social media posts, brochures, invitations etc. Highly recommended!

And while you are discovering the art and craft of book covers, here are a few more helpful articles to consider:

From Canva:

From Dave Chesson, an expert on Kindle:

From Joel Friedlander, who not only gives great advice, but also judges book covers:

Writing Wisdom:

“What is written beneath this heavy handsome book cover will count, so sayeth this cover.”—Anne Rice, American Novelist.

Cheers, Irene

In time for the holidays, and for a limited time–my latest short story, THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY.


Before the Three Kings and the Shepherds, there was another witness to the Nativity—The Midwife. And she has her own version of that miraculous night and historical time. A perfect short story gift for the holidays and beyond.

Available in paperback, E-book, and PDF formats.

Read more  about THE MIDWIFE’S TALE
in the following interview posted on the “Whispering Stories” Blog:




Skeletons in color by Paul Brennan

Photo by Paul Brennan

When I was a kid, I used to hang out with my older brother who was a great teller of ghost stories.

We would sit in our living room after hours, lights out except for the one flashlight he held beneath his chin—the only special effect needed.

And then the stories, first told in a whispering narrative with different voices he would mimic to depict the characters followed by a slow build-up to the conclusion which always included a loud scream (often by me), loud enough to awaken our parents.

Naturally, I couldn’t fall asleep afterwards.

little-boy- by ambermb

Photo by ambermb

But that was the best part—to be terrified enough to relate the stories to my friends the next day at school.

They too would be mesmerized and afraid because of the things I told them even if they were all untruths.

And that’s when I discovered the power of storytelling.

Photo by Gérard Jawarski

Photo by Gerard Jawarski

Ghost stories, supernatural stories, stories about things that go bump in the night will always find an audience. We may be reluctant to hear or read them, but yet we can’t resist.

If it’s a good story, the pay-off comes when we react with a strong and lingering emotional response such as fear. We can deny and scowl at it later once we remember it’s fiction after all, and yet because the story features tales of the afterlife, we cannot totally dismiss it.

Stories about those hovering beings who return from the grave, whether in fiction or from eye-witness accounts, are enticing because what happens to us after death is still very mysterious and unknown. Ghost stories are a portal into that realm however limited and sinister.

But crafting a great ghost story is also an art form. The effect should be chilling, the ending memorable, and the story itself plotted with great care.


The worst response from a reader would be to guess the outcome midway through the story thereby feeling cheated and resentful instead of frightened or awed.

Remember, we want to be scared!

Generally, there are two approaches in crafting a ghost story—usually through the main and very much alive characters who encounter a ghost or two.

Or the story is written from the ghost’s POV.

Many classic ghost stories feature protagonists who see ghosts and sometimes are co-opted by them.


“Marley’s Ghost,” from A CHRISTMAS CAROL, illustrated by John Leech, 1843 edition.

Of course the classic example is Charles’ Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL where the miserly misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge learns humanity lessons from the famous four ghosts he is obliged to meet on Christmas Eve.


Another great example is THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James.

In this novel, a governess is hired to take charge of a boy and girl whose parents have died. The children are under the power of two ghosts, one being their previous governess, and her lover, and it is up to the new governess to protect the children from the evil spirits.

One child is saved, the other alas, is not.

It’s eerie, and often psychologically baffling because like the governess who only glimpses the children’s odd behavior before deciphering what they are seeing (or rather who), we are kept guessing and are surprised at what happens at each “turn of the screw”—and plot twist.

An example of the ghost as protagonist approach occurs in the very popular novel, THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Seabold, about a teenage girl who is raped and murdered and who narrates how her family and friends are coping with her tragic demise.

Another way is found in Nikolai Gogol’s brilliant short story, “The Overcoat,” in which the hapless and friendless protagonist Akaky Akakievych is an office clerk who relishes mind-numbing and poorly paid drudge work by copying documents. He even takes his work home to pass the time.

A big shift in his life occurs when he is invited to his boss’ home for a dinner. He tries to repair his incredibly shabby overcoat, but is forced to buy a brand new one—something he hasn’t done in years.

Akaky in his Overcoat, illustrator, B. Kustodiev, 1909.

“Akaky in His New Overcoat,” in THE OVERCOAT, illustrated by B. Kustodiev, 1909 edition.

The new overcoat is noticed and admired by the boss and office mates at the party, and Akaky’s boring personality transforms into a more light-hearted and even jovial guy.

That is, until he is on his way home, and a thief accosts him and steals his new coat.

Well, that was quite a shock on many levels, enough to cause his eventual death from pneumonia.

Revenge is his, because a ghost is witnessed stealing overcoats, including the one worn by the high official who refused to help him after he reported the theft to the police.

But the great thing about this story is that we get a full character description as he was in his robotically dull life, and how something as insignificant as a new coat takes on great importance for someone so unused to change and luxury.

As a short story, it works on many levels, but the added twist of Akaky as a ghost (or is it someone else?) is one of the best endings in literature.

GHOST STORIES CARTOONWhich ghost stories have you read and remembered? If you read them again, would they still have the same scary effect? Try it—if you dare…

Here is a list of 10 great ones:

Writing Wisdom:

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”—Anais Nin, Fiction Writer, Essayist, Diarist.

Cheers, Irene

In time for the holidays, and for a limited time–my latest short story, THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY.


Before the Three Kings and the Shepherds, there was another witness to the Nativity—The Midwife. And she has her own version of that miraculous night and historical time. A perfect short story gift for the holidays and beyond.

Available in paperback, E-book, and PDF formats.

Read more  about THE MIDWIFE’S TALE
in the following interview posted on the “Whispering Stories” Blog:



Ivan Kramskoy_Portrait_of_an Unknown_Woman

“Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Ivan Kramskoy, 1883.

I read an article by a literary (so called) editor in a British women’s magazine about why she detests reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Some of her points were well taken although overall the more I read her anti-Anna rant, the more resistant I was to agree with her.

From her article, she complains how very difficult she found this novel. It was her fourth try, and for reasons that seem like martyrdom, she slogged through it a bit every day for 364 days no doubt so as to write about how much she despised reading it.

Her reasons for her hatred varied. According to this reader, she found all four of the major characters to be “utter idiots who make terrible life decisions simply from misinterpreting another character’s facial expressions.”

woman-457846_1920 by Michael Drummond

Art by Michael Drummond 

Okay, there are a lot of facial expressions going on in 19th century novels since censorship was prominent. But then I also imagine that real people in the pre-cell phone days did actually look at one another to decipher and decode feelings, emotions and patterns of behavior.

A lost art these days it seems.

The reader goes on to state how she could not find the magic in Anna that other people had—all the many, many, many readers from over a century who list this book as a must-read on their lists.

She simply hated it because it was not a book she enjoyed at all.

In fact, she reveals how she also could not get through the one Dickens book she had read (Great Expectations) and plodded through a forced reading of the Brontës’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

That’s fine. And very common these days.

Nineteenth century novels, that is those actually written in the 19th century, are not going to satisfy contemporary readers who like this editor, prefer the more facile writing styles of “chick lit” and other post-Victorian novels, some of which I even liked.


old-books by Jose Antonio Alba

Photo by Antonio Alba

But her biggest argument is that she believes that we should only read the things we enjoy.

Well, of course we do. I happen to enjoy and have enjoyed for the many times I’ve read them, all those books she hates.

girl reading book

Those particular novels were assigned to me in high school and college English classes and I am glad for it.  It was required reading, but the likelihood of my not ever reading them would have been far greater.

I would then not have known nor understood, nor appreciate what great literature is.

Nor could I attempt to learn from and emulate these masters for my own stories.

Thanks to the Internet and the bottomless glut of self-publishing options and the oversaturation of mostly badly written genre novels (oh, so many, many detective and/or fantasy books with their never ending series), we are so overwhelmed with crap that it’s even harder to decipher what great literature is anymore.

woman- by Johnny Lindner

Photo by Johnny Lindner 

Instead, we are conditioned to want quick, snappy and often shallow stories that we glance on our devices while we multi-task doing other things, usually also on our devices.

We don’t want to savor the inner workings of the human condition or decode those meaningful expressions on the characters’ faces.

We don’t have time for that.

Nor can we relate to the historical behavioral norms of 19th century England say, or get through those long Russian names in Anna. And who even knows anymore what political and historical events were going on in those days that affected the ways the characters act in the story.

Really, who cares?

We only want what we recognize right now in our culture, in our society, in our time. Even if the novel written today is set in another century, the characters have to act and speak in the modern ways we do.

Alas, disparaging the classics in world literature is part of a growing trend in anti-intellectual rhetoric and thought.

Popular culture is the rage, the addiction, the money-maker.

We have such little time, let us be entertained and quickly.


Don’t bother picking up a novel if it’s over 100 pages long. Don’t bother reading anything before 1900. Don’t bother trying to comprehend or at least appreciate the brilliance of Tolstoy, Dickens or any writer from another era.

Sure, go ahead and read other things that are lighter and humorous if that relieves stress and obligation.

But don’t dismiss or damn the great works of literature simply because a reader found it dull or irrelevant, or worse, felt coerced to read it but found no pleasure in it.

That is the reader’s unfortunate problem and misunderstanding.
I predict Anna and the true literary classics will be on “must read” lists a 100 years from now because there are always a few of us who still believe in and enjoy great writing.

Here is the article of complaint that I complained about:–ulU3BhSitIX8

Writing Wisdom:  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”–Annie Proulx, American Novelist, Short Story Writer. Journalist.

Cheers, Irene


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diary writer

I was cleaning out a cluttered room in my home with several mysterious unlabeled boxes piled in a corner. I was curious and opened the topmost box. In it were several old journals I kept over the years.

Like most writers, I kept physical blank books intended to jot down ideas for my stories and related projects. But after looking a few of them over, I realized I had a few ideas at best for my fiction, but far more lamentations and complaints about my real life.

my journal

Interesting how the journal entries repeated themselves year and year to the point where I was writing more about my frustrations about writing rather than gleaning ideas for my writing.

Was this a good thing? Was this purposeful? Helpful? Therapeutic?

At first I thought—oh my goodness, what a waste of time! The same issues, the same complaints, the same sameness in routines, and methods, and lifestyle.


Einstein Quote On Insanity Insanity Is Doing The Same Thing, Over And Over Again, But ExpectingWhat good was writing in a journal every day, really?

It reminded me of that famous quote by Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Truly, I was repeating not only my journal entries year after year, but it seemed that I was not changing my reality much at all so that fresh and new perspectives would be written instead of the same ol’, same ol’ things.

Or so I thought…

To be honest, I haven’t really kept a journal recently, but I have to admit that I had made many significant changes in both my writing and private lives since writing in those early blank notebooks.

And so, yes,  I have to give some credit to the journal writing after all. In particular to a practice called “Morning Pages” instituted first by Julia Cameron in her groundbreaking book THE ARTIST’S WAY.

THE ARTITSTS WAY COVERIn it, Cameron instructs the blocked “creative” (as she calls writers, artists, musicians etc.) to keep a blank journal kept by one’s bedside, and upon awakening, commit to writing three pages (the equivalent of 750 words) before doing anything else.

This is done in longhand (no texting or devices), with a pen actually, and is a stream-of-consciousness approach to simply getting whatever comes to mind on three blank pages in a hand held journal or notebook.

As she said in her book:

“There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages—they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’ They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind—and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”

I am not a morning person, but I religiously followed this regime (my many journals are evident of this practice), and now I remember the reasons behind the complaints, the yearnings, the cries, the sharp emotions that came out even from my sleepy, coffee-deprived brain.


Ah, no wonder there were no real concrete ideas coming forth for stories. I was self-excavating my own deeper emotions, desires, dreams, ambitions, hurts, and bewilderments.

The story ideas came when I was actually writing or thinking about my writing while in a far more conscious and alert state.

For me, morning pages were helpful because journal writing in this way liberated me to a greater extent from the self-sabotage writers in particular are capable of since so much of what we do is solitary.


Instead of constantly blocking and inhibiting my creativity all day, I poured it out in three pages first thing in the morning.

Of course there were moments of insecurity and feelings of frustration and failure while writing, but how much more impactful those negative emotions could’ve been without first facing them when I wasn’t writing.

I think I would’ve been much more inhibited. I may have given up writing altogether!


I think I’ll go back to morning pages—although now I don’t feel compelled to get up in the morning just to do them. I think it’s fine to do them whatever time of day one gets up (for me, it’s the afternoons).

But this time around, I will buy two blank journals: one for when I awake, the other for only story ideas and strategies.

Do you keep a writing journal? Have you tried Morning Pages?

Here is more about the Morning Pages approach on Julia Cameron’s website:

Writing Wisdom:

“People who keep journals have life twice.”—Jessamyn West, American Novelist, Short Story Writer.

Cheers, Irene


NEW! Now in paperback:



SUBSCRIBE to for weekly WRITING WISDOM advice. You will also receive the WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers coming to you every day in your email inbox.


100 literary cliches to AVOID, SCORN, AND DELETE, (VOLUME i)JPG

New subscribers will get a free copy of 100 LITERARY  CLICHES TO AVOID , SCORN AND DELETE (VOLUME 1). Humorous and helpful! Plus my report on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Rookie Fiction Writers.”






© 2019 by Irene Zabytko, all rights reserved