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Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

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The title of BOOK IN A MONTH reminds me of late-night infomercials that promise magical wealth or weight loss or beauty with no effort. Of course, there are people who write complete books in thirty days, some of them quite good, but that’s a lot to ask of beginners. However, Schmidt isn’t expecting her readers to write polished prose. She anticipates messy first drafts that ignore things like subplots and subtlety and consistency. Following Schmidt’s method won’t produce a book, but more of an outline/first draft hybrid.

Schmidt teaches writers how to plot the most straightforward type of novel with a three-act structure and a well-defined hero and villain. The plot points will come at predictable intervals, building to a crashing climax. Nothing wrong with that. Even better, the thirty-day method offers no time to procrastinate, second-guess, or get caught in loops of self-editing. The idea is to go in one direction only: forward.

While butt-in-chair is always good, the real danger is that a writer can spend all her time on Schmidt’s worksheets and pre-writing exercises and never write a word of the novel. Being busy doesn’t equal producing solid work. Schmidt suggests hand-writing notes directly in BOOK IN A MONTH, and the book is spiral-bound for that purpose. However, the space for writing is too small and the use of reward stickers seems juvenile. Naturally, Schmidt suggests that writers buy a new copy of BOOK IN A MONTH for each novel they write, as if they will never progress to writing on their own and will need her worksheets forever.

I admit to skipping the assignments, but just reading through BOOK IN A MONTH gave me some good tips and was great for motivation. I can see how this book would be absolutely perfect for a certain kind of writer. Someone with a burning passion, a strong concept, and no idea where to start would love this book, especially if they like lots of structure. And if a writer sees it through to the end, she’ll end up with a finished draft robust enough to stand up to the vigorous editing it will need.

Not bad for thirty day’s work.

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rating: 3 stars

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pie slices: 7 slices craft, 1 slice inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

 

 

A Writer’s Space by Eric Maisel

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A WRITER’S SPACE isn’t about setting up your home office or finding the right physical space to work in. It’s about the abstract concept of “a writer’s space,” including the emotional state of the writer, his imagination, and any psychological hang-ups that he’s bringing to the writing desk.

Maisel is a licensed therapist who has carved a professional niche for himself by convincing people that writing is hard. To Maisel, writers are people who have to be gently coaxed to the keyboard. Don’t rush it, don’t scare yourself, and by all means, “protect your writing space” so nobody sabotages your precious time or bruises your fragile writer’s ego.

Maisel talks a lot about his patients. The people who come to him for help say they want to be writers but don’t actually write anything. I’m sure that having a high-priced “creativity coach” is part of the fantasy of living the writer’s life. They want the lifestyle without doing any of the work.

Those who can’t afford a weekly therapist to tell them why they aren’t writing might turn to A WRITER’S SPACE. It’s a comfort to people who wish they were writers but don’t find any joy in the writing itself. I feel sorry for those people. Real writers love to write and take great pleasure in telling stories. If writing isn’t fun, why do it? Of course authors have bad days, but if the bad ones outnumber the good, perhaps writing isn’t truly what you want to do.

There is no shame in that. The real shame is someone like Eric Maisel telling his clients that writing is delicate and needs to be carefully guided by professionals for fear of spooking the muses. Or worse, that it’s some kind of horrible drudgery that writers resist doing. It’s not. Writing is glorious messy fun that anyone can do, whether they have the right “space” for it or not.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Take Joy by Jane Yolen or The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes instead of this book.

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

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Write every day.

Mosley starts with this advice and repeats it often in this slim volume. Every book for writers says that. But so what?  It’s simple math: the more you work, the more books you’ll produce. There is nothing that makes this advice special. Nor is there much that’s special in any of Mosley’s tips. THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL is a hundred pages of bland, uninspiring prose with none of the verve and hard truths that make Mosley’s novels so fascinating.

THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL is full of the basics we all learned in school. Mosley discusses first and third person narration, show-don’t-tell, and the uses of dialog. But it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. He’s great at telling you what works, but isn’t much interested in why it works or how to do it. He seems to have little insight into his own process, much less that of other writers.

I’m okay with books that don’t offer much actual instruction if they offer something else, like inspiration. I like some good cheerleading as much as the next writer, and if an author can remind me how awesome writing is, I love that book forever. However, Mosley is a workmanlike writer, with a regular routine. It’s just a job to him; certainly nothing to get excited about.

That’s not to say that THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL is all bad. I liked Mosley’s emphasis on rewriting, knowing that it takes multiple drafts to finish a novel. He is humble and straightforward, but in trying to erase his self-importance from THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL, he seemed to erase his own personality as well. Mosley probably didn’t offend any writers with this book, but he didn’t engage many of them, either.

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or You’ve Got a Book In You by Elizabeth Sims

 

Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott

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Take small habits. Gather them together. Make them into a routine.

That’s it. That’s the whole book. We all have little changes we’d like to make in our lives and incorporating them into a routine makes sense. I’ve got nothing against the idea; I’m just not sure why it’s a book. Perhaps, in other hands, it might have been a mildly interesting blog post.

Scott makes a list of ninety seven “small life changes” that the reader is meant to pick from when adding a new habit. The problem is, most of them are things we’re doing anyway. I don’t need to be told to drink water or make my bed or return a phone call. And I also don’t need to be told to put these things into a routine. Everyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work already has a routine. Children have routines. Retirees have routines. Anyone who wants to make a change will make a change by putting a new habit into her existing routine. Where else would it go?

Any functioning adult already knows everything in this book. There are a million ways to improve your habits and your productivity, but reading HABIT STACKING isn’t one of them.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.

 

 

 

You’ve Got a Book In You by Elizabeth Sims

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YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU came highly recommended by a fellow writer. I’m glad someone told me about this delightful book because I wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. The title and cover made it seem like it would be heavy on inspiration and light on instruction. But Sims does an admirable job of covering the basics of plotting, dialog, characterization and pacing. There’s cheerleading aplenty, too, but it’s wrapped so tightly with good solid advice that the whole book reads like a down-to-Earth best friend telling it like it is.

YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is divided into three sections. The first is about the writer’s mindset, getting ready to write. There’s an adjustment period for any new writer as they develop new habits, and Sims has common-sense ideas for getting started. The short middle section is about craft. Sims touches briefly on characterization, theme, and outlining. The final part is a mix of advice and exercises to keep the words flowing. I especially liked “How to Write Unboringly About Yourself,” with advice for bloggers and memoir writers and “Living with Your Book and Driving it to Completion,” about sticking with it through the year or more it takes to write a novel.

Taken all together, YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is writer 101. It’s everything new writers need to know and none of what they don’t. Each chapter ends with action items, leading writers logically on to the next step.

Throughout, Sims lets new writers in on a secret: writing is fun. And it will say fun as long as you get out of your own way and let things flow. She compares writing to improv. The best things come when you say “Yes, and…” instead of “Yeah, but…” With Sims as their guide, beginners will be well on their way to a solid first draft.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 4 slices craft, 4 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

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Like all writers, I’m interested in people and what makes them tick. Real life people are often baffling, but characters in novels have to make sense. Writers are usually good at creating three-dimensional heroes, but what about the bad guys? It’s hard to imagine doing some of the things these villains do. It’s even harder to imagine that the villain’s actions make perfect sense to him.

MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME) explains exactly how humans justify their actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to make up “reasons” why it was the right—perhaps even the best—thing to do.

Each chapter covers one aspect of this troubling human behavior. Tavris and Aronson explain why bullying almost always intensifies, why the police are reluctant to let wrongly accused people go, how soldiers justify torture, and how easily marriage spats get out of hand. In each case, being wrong is seen as the problem. No matter what, our brains don’t like to be wrong. So, even when confronted with facts, we’ll dig in our heels and try to shift blame or explain away the problem.

The best villains I’ve come across in fiction were not strictly “bad guys.” Their motives were pure in some way, even if their methods were not. More importantly, each villain told himself a story about why his actions were necessary, even good. Thanks to MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME), I have a little more insight into how that happens. And, a little more insight into myself as well.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn

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Going commando under skirts is not a new thing. In fact, women didn’t start wearing underpants until well into the 19th century. This is one of the facts I learned from MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS. I also learned about food, language, firearms, inherited titles, coinage, burial customs, and many other things, all while being entertained by Alleyn’s lively examples and gentle humor. Writers of historical fiction owe it to the reader to get their facts right. Alleyn shows them how.

MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS isn’t an exhaustive encyclopedia. It’s a jumping off point. Alleyn points out the most common errors she sees in historical fiction, and then shows writers how to fix them. Her focus is on European history, but the principles can be applied to any place or era. Alleyn gives common sense rules such as “never assume,” and “do not borrow your period details and information from other people’s historical novels and movies.” These rules seem like no-brainers, but we’ve all seen the results of writers breaking them, especially in Hollywood.

A writer could do a lot of quality research and still get facts wrong if she’s looking at history through a modern lens. Alleyn gives a very telling example of a 16th century fruit platter piled high with strawberries, peaches, and grapes. What’s wrong with that picture? Although those fruits were grown in Europe, they were not all available in the same season. Alleyn does a wonderful job of piercing through our assumptions (year-round fresh produce requires modern shipping and refrigeration) making the writer slow down and think before giving characters things they couldn’t possibly have.

MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS ends with a large bibliography as well as some tips for internet searches and some advice for research in general. A writer of historical fiction could spend many happy hours with Alleyn’s suggested titles. By following Alleyn’s guidelines (“look it up!”) a writer will give her readers many happy hours as well.

[Note: I bought MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS in ebook format, and I’m glad I did. It’s superbly formatted (rare for non-fiction ebooks) with everything properly hyperlinked, including the footnotes. It made the book even more of a pleasure to read, knowing I could always find what I’m looking for.]

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

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