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How to Develop Story Tension by Amy Deardon

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HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION is a short book, but it is by no means slight. Deardon gets straight to the point, starting off with a solid explanation of why stories need tension and how to get it. The thirteen techniques are all explained with concise examples that show them in action. Beginning writers will want to stop reading after every chapter to take notes and apply Deardon’s examples to their own work. Experienced writers can use it as a checklist to make sure they’ve kept the tension high and are using a variety of techniques instead of their favorite one or two.

Deardon clearly explains the difference between tension and stakes. Stakes are why the story is important, why the hero must achieve his goal. The tension is the paragraph-by-paragraph events the hero is going through. Story stakes make the reader pick up the book in the first place, but tension will force readers to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Beginning writers love to have their heroes sit still and think about their problems. But that’s the quickest way to stop a story. Better to have the hero actively trying to solve the problem, and the more obstacles that keep him from that goal, the better.

Some of the techniques in HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION are self-explanatory, like the ticking clock and closing off options. Others are more subtle, like using a mirror character to demonstrate danger and adding an incentive for not completing the goal. If the hero has motives to both complete and not complete the goal, the reader will race through the book to see which way he decides to go.

HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION ends with an explanation of the scene—sequel technique that helps move the story forward while making sure it contains emotional richness. With Deardon’s tips, and her template for a perfect scene, every writer can learn how to write a story that will keep readers’ attention until the very last page.

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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 writers

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I recommend this book

The New Me

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Just a head’s up. You might have noticed some changes in the blog–or at least its author. From now on, I will be going by the name Alex Kourvo.

That’s it. The blog isn’t changing. I’m still reading how-to books for writers, and I’ll continue to post reviews every other Friday.

And I’m still looking for the perfect slice of key lime pie.

See you Friday.

Alex

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell

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You know it when you hear it—dialogue that sparkles on the page and practically begs to be read out loud. Dialogue by people like Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and Richard A. Thompson. I love clever dialogue and eagerly read anything that can tell me how to write it better.

HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE points out the numerous ways that dialogue can go wrong and gives a brief explanation about why it’s a problem. Bell also gives examples of good dialogue, so we can see the difference. The examples are from well-known books, plays, and movies, and he is great at picking out excerpts that illustrate his points. Bell shows why characters in agreement make for boring dialogue (and boring books), how to handle exposition in dialogue, and how to handle tricky dialect.

Bell offers exercises to try, some of them quite unexpected. For example, try having a character say the exact opposite of what he should say, or insert a random line of dialogue from another book and see where it goes. Not all of these exercises will end up in the final draft, but some of them might.

However, Bell doesn’t discuss any of the techniques in depth and only gives a single example for each. Although he uses first-rate examples, he doesn’t really explain why they work. He’s very good at pointing out beginner mistakes, but misses some of the more subtle problems that can creep into dialogue. HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE will teach you how to write competent dialogue—good enough to keep you out of the slush pile—but probably won’t teach you how to write the sparkling dialogue readers love.

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rating: 3 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Writing the Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon

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Synopses are evil little demons. To sum up an entire novel in one page seems both wrong and somehow disloyal to the book. But it’s a skill every working novelist needs. I’ve taught myself how to write clear, compelling synopses and I teach others how to do it. But I’ve never learned to like them.

Oh, how I wish I’d read WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS early in my career. McCutcheon has a remarkable way of deconstructing the synopsis that makes the process nearly painless. She shows what to put in, what to leave out, and how to stay true to the novel while summarizing it in a short space. She includes helpful worksheets showing characters and their motivations, plots and their turning points, and even the target market. If a writer faithfully fills out the worksheets, the synopsis is practically written for her. More importantly, the worksheets will help her see her novel in perfect miniature.

My only criticism of this book (and it’s a minor one) is that McCutcheon uses movies instead of books as her examples. I fully understand why she did it, though. Movies are a sort of shorthand for novels, where you can see the turning points and big scenes more clearly. Also, movies feel like common ground. More people will see a popular movie than read a popular book. Still, I wish McCutcheon had used at least one book as an example, perhaps a character-driven piece of literary fiction, just to show that her method works for all kinds of stories.

I don’t know if any writer will truly enjoy writing a synopsis, but with WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS at your side, you can at least tame the little demon, and make it behave as it should.

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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.

Creative Cursing by Sarah Royal and Jillian Panarese

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Research is important for writers. I’m a nice midwestern suburban lady who writes about tough urban cops, hackers and PIs. How do I get everything in my books authentic, including the swear words? It’s important for me to research how…

…Oh, who am I kidding? I love this book because I have the sense of humor of a twelve year old, and profanity amuses me. I admire people who swear creatively. Good cursing is like poetry. It says a lot in a short space, and when done well, packs an emotional punch.

CREATIVE CURSING is a spiral bound book with two words per page. It’s split down the middle so you can flip back and forth, making endless combinations of words that don’t usually go together. Most of the left side is body parts and fluids. The right side is words like jammer, muncher, biter, with a few wild cards like waffle and monkey.

This book is not for everyone. Writers of sweet romance or cozy mysteries or books for young people don’t need this book. (Although those writers might appreciate some fresh expletives for when the printer jams or the tenth rejection letter comes.) Even the most jaded writer might balk at some of the word combinations. But hey, if it gets too raw, you can always flip the page back to “fart waffle” or “poop splash.”

I recently moved and got rid of most of my hardcopy books. This is one of the few that made the move with me. Nobody needs a book like CREATIVE CURSING. But some of us really, really want it.

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Rating: 3 stars

Pie slices: 8 slices inspiration

I recommend this book.

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

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SHOW YOUR WORK is the follow-up to Kleon’s STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST. Like the first volume, this one is a tiny book with big font and lots of graphics. There aren’t many words on each page, so you’ll get a full dose of quotes and inspirational messages, but not much instruction or advice.

The book is divided into ten sections, each with a basic marketing message like “share something small every day” and “don’t turn into human spam” and “pay it forward.” Every bit of it is good advice, but none of it breaks new ground. I kept flipping the pages faster and faster, hoping to find the real meat of the book, but in the end, there was no there there. It’s marketing 101 dressed in a very hip package.

This book is fine for someone just starting out in the creative life and wondering how to make a living at it. If someone is completely new to selling their work, SHOW YOUR WORK will tell them what to do. However, it won’t tell them how to do it.

Rating: 2 stars

Pie Slices: 4 slices business, 4 slices inspiration

I recommend The Author’s Marketing Handbook by Claire Ryan or Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran instead of this book.

On Writing by Stephen King

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It took me a long time to write this review, even though I’ve read ON WRITING three times. I read it once as a new writer, again after I’d been writing for several years, and again recently as a multi-published author. I enjoyed it immensely each time, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked it so much and why I kept coming back to it. ON WRITING has two parts. The first is sort of a memoir: unconnected snippets from King’s early life and his path to publication. I found it inspiring, but King is so far beyond my level it’s like reading the autobiography of Odin or Zeus. The second part is extremely basic how-to advice that boils down to, “read a lot, write a lot.” So what was the appeal?

I think what drew me to this book was its honesty. These are answers to questions King gets asked over and over by fans. What they really want to know is, “how do you do it?” The truth is, King doesn’t know how he does it. No writer truly does. He only knows where he came from and what experiences led him down the writing path, so he shares those memorable moments, even the ugly ones. It’s helpful to remember that even Stephen King wasn’t always Stephen King. He struggled in obscurity for years, living in a run-down trailer and selling small stories to small magazines for small money.

The second, shorter, part of ON WRITING is King’s advice to writers. There aren’t any new, different, or ground-breaking tips here, just the solid techniques that have served writers forever. There are very few universal rules, and those are very basic (for example: character and situation > plot). King knows himself and his habits, and understands that what he needs for a productive writing day is a huge desk and many uninterrupted hours. But that’s just him. Other writers need other things.

King is a working writer, treating the craft with practicality rather than reverence. He’s a blue-collar working man engaging in shop talk, even referring to writing techniques as “the toolbox.” King loves what he does and it shows, but he’s never precious about it. This is simply who he is: a writer who writes. And he makes me believe that I can be one, too. That, I think, is the magic of ON WRITING and why I keep it on my shelf to read again and again.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 5 slices inspiration, 3 slices craft

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

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