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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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9780762435753_p0_v1_s260x420Research 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

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

 

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