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2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron

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Aaron

Writing several thousand words a day is something my “pantser” friends achieve regularly. Those who write without an outline find it easy to open the computer and just write. For pantsers, the solution to a creative block is to keep writing, knowing the narrative will work itself out. And if it doesn’t, there are always revisions.

Until I read 2,000 to 10,000 I assumed that fast writing was something only pantsers did. But Aaron busts the myth that pantsers write quickly and plotters write slowly. She details the exact method she used to increase her daily word count from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. Now those of us in the “plotter” camp have the tools we need to write quickly, too.

The core of Aaron’s method is to make sure you have the time, knowledge, and enthusiasm to write. Aaron schedules huge blocks of writing time, but even if you can’t manage that, figuring out when you are the most productive, and keeping track of word counts really helps. Knowledge refers to having a plan in place for that day’s writing by pre-plotting with an outline. Enthusiasm is self-explanatory. We all write faster when we’re excited about what’s on the page.

The second half of the book delves into the nitty-gritty of Aaron’s plotting methods. She makes very detailed outlines that serve her well, and ensures her novels need less editing on the back end.

Aaron gives plenty of disclaimers all through the book. Her method works brilliantly for her, but it might not work for everyone. That’s okay. She gives so many tools and tips, every writer will get something from her advice. Even if a writer only finds half of Aaron’s tips useful and only increases her productivity a little bit, she’s got her money’s worth from the book. But I predict that every writer who reads 2,000 to 10,000 will start to write faster—and better—than she ever did before.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 6 slices craft, 2 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

 

Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

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Bell

Some people watch television when they can’t sleep. I surf the internet, which is how I ended up buying WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE at 3:00 in the morning. People are usually sorry about those middle-of-the-night purchases, but I don’t regret this one at all. I’ve enjoyed many of Bell’s books (see here and here). This is my new favorite.

WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE is a slim volume with a single big idea. Bell focuses on the scene at the exact middle of the novel: the midpoint scene. It is the tent pole that holds up the entire narrative. So many writers complain about the “sagging middle,” as if it is a dreary swamp between the intrigue of the beginning and the excitement of the end. It doesn’t have to be that way. Bell believes so strongly in the power of the midpoint scene, he suggests a writer start there and organize the rest of the novel around it.

Bell pictures the novel as a triangle with the first plot point (The doorway of no return) at the one point and the ramp up to the climax at another. The midpoint is the hinge, the biggest turning point. A well-written midpoint scene has all the high stakes and deep character work that every novel demands, crystallized in a moment of self-awareness that changes everything.

Bell shows how a strong midpoint scene can help both “plotters” and “pantsers” realize the full potential of their novels. By understanding the midpoint moment, pantsers will have something to aim toward and plotters will have something to organize the narrative around. It works for the most plot-focused genre fiction and the most character-focused literary fiction.

When I finished WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE, it was nearly dawn, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. I had to get up and open the computer, excited to start writing the midpoint scene of my next novel.

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rating: 5 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

The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition by Christopher Vogler

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Vogler

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is all about the great monomyth of western culture, known as the Hero’s Journey. The best-known example is Star Wars. George Lucas borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell’s book, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Campbell, in turn, borrowed from the unwritten assumptions of our culture, finding the universal storytelling rules we all unconsciously follow. Vogler has taken a more practical approach to Campbell’s work, laying things out for his fellow writers in an accessible way. THE WRITER’S JOURNEY shows exactly how a Hero’s Journey story goes together, and what scenes your book or screenplay needs to make a cohesive storyline.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is divided into two parts: character and plot. Vogler starts by examining the universal character types that stories have, from the hero and his mentor to the trickster, the guardian, the shadow, and other well-known types. He then shows how these characters move through the plot, outlining the hero’s journey from the ordinary world to the world of adventure and back again.

Some writers complain that THE WRITERS JOURNEY teaches a formula, and that by using it, your books will be shallow. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason the great monomyth has persisted throughout the years is because of its endless variations. In fact, it wasn’t until I read Vogler’s examples that I realized how much the movies Dances with Wolves and Sister Act have in common. The storylines couldn’t be more different, but the underlying framework is the same. Both movies feel fresh, and very different from each other, despite the well-worn structure.

My one disagreement with Vogler is that not every single story fits into the Hero’s Journey template. He says they do, but some of his examples seem like a stretch. I prefer Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, where the Hero’s Journey is just one of many ways to tell a story. That said, I can’t fault Vogler for seeing the Hero’s Journey everywhere. It’s a satisfying method of storytelling that resonates on a deep, human level. I like this book a lot, and reading it prepared me to take a writer’s journey of my own.

[note: I have all three versions of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, but the 2nd edition is the best one. Each edition became more detailed, and by the 3rd edition, Vogler got bogged down in examples and digressions, losing the forest amongst the trees. But the 2nd edition is just the right length. It’s got enough explanations to be clear, but not so many that you miss the point. It’s out of print, but used versions of the 2nd edition are cheap and easy to find.]

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rating: 5 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book

Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne

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Dunne

EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is a book for screenwriters, but it is equally valuable for novelists. In it, Dunne explains why the underlying emotional arc (what he calls the “story”) is so much more important than the surface plot. In fact, he claims that plot only exists to reveal character. While I wouldn’t go that far, I think that Dunne at least has the order right. Readers and movie audiences are always more concerned with the decisions, motivations, and growth of the hero than anything that happens to him. Without character change, a plot will be hollow, and the audience won’t care.

Some writers start with a plot, writing an action-fueled story, taking the hero’s inner life for granted or tacking it on later. But the author would be better served by first deciding what emotional change they are going to put the hero through. The writer can then carefully craft a plot around that change. Plot is extremely flexible, while character growth is absolute.

Dunne takes writer through the three acts of a movie (or novel), paying special attention to act two. If you have trouble with “sagging middles,” EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is for you. Dunne uses examples from movies like Witness, Lost in Translation, and The Professional to illustrate his points. Less helpful is Dunne’s inclusion of his own script, called Indiscretion. It’s hard to get useful lessons from a movie we’ve never seen. But even if you decline to read Dunne’s script, the rest of the book is well worth the price of admission.

EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is a long book, dense with information, and it’s best read slowly. Don’t be intimidated by its length, though. If you’re an experienced writer, you’ll find that much of what Dunne is telling you do, you’ve already done. A lot of his advice is obvious, but only in hindsight. Dunne makes it overt, so you can see all the good that’s there, and hopefully, do more of it.

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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 to advanced writers

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I recommend this book

The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker

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Pennebaker

James Pennebaker studies computational linguistics, a field which could only exist in the modern world. He uses the abundance of online content and the power of computing to count the frequency of words. It sounds dry, especially since he focuses on the most forgettable words: pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and other “function” words. What can the frequency and patterns of these words possibly tell us about someone? A lot, in fact. Words like I, he, you, that, in, the, with, and but are used around 30 percent of the time, yet we barely notice them. But these “hidden” words can reveal more than nouns and verbs do.

By simply ignoring content and counting the function words, Pennebaker discovered that men and women use language very differently. So do elders and youngsters, truth tellers and liars, and sad or happy or angry people. Use of pronouns can show when a leader is preparing for war or when a couple is in love. For example, honest people use “I” at a higher rate than liars. They own their stories. Sad people tend to use words indicating past tense while angry people focus on the here and now.

The most surprising finding is about those of high versus low status. People of high status use more nouns. People of lower status use more verbs and pronouns, especially the word “I.” You’d expect just the opposite, but upon reflection, it makes sense. Those in power pay attention to the task at hand. Those who are less secure in their position self-consciously focus on themselves. Pennebaker reprints a pair of emails he wrote, one to a student and one to his boss, showing how his use of first person pronouns shot up when he wrote to someone of higher status.

Everyone who wants to write realistic characters should study THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS. Readers may not be able to pinpoint exactly why, but they’ll complain if your honest character sounds like a liar, or your grandmother sounds like a teenager. However, the best writers instinctively know this stuff. Shakespeare and Dickens didn’t have a computer to count words or access to Pennebaker’s vast database. They just knew how real people talk. Pennebaker gives an example from the beginning of KING LEAR and from the end. Lear’s use of function words changes dramatically as he falls from power. You can see an equally huge change in Ebenezer Scrooge from powerful and angry at the beginning of A CHRISTMAS CAROL to humble and optimistic at the end.

As you can see here and here, I love popular science books that use hard data and real research to come to unexpected conclusions. In the case of THE SECRET LIFE OF PRONOUNS, that research is something I will turn to again and again for the rest of my career.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert J. Ray

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ray

THE WEEKEND NOVELIST REWRITES THE NOVEL is the sequel to THE WEEKEND NOVELIST, which I found quite useful. In that earlier book, Ray took the huge task of writing a first draft and simplified it by breaking it into 52 parts, to be finished in a year of weekends. He tries to do something similar here, but instead of simplifying, he’s made rewriting so complex no one will do it. If I were a new author, I’d find Ray’s method too intimidating to try. Now that I am a seasoned author, I just find it silly.

Ray’s rewrite plan has seventeen steps. If you write only on weekends, it will take about four months to finish. But even then, you won’t be done because at that point, you’ve only restructured your novel. Ray’s plan leaves only two weekends to polish the prose.

The main problem with THE WEEKEND NOVELIST REWRITES THE NOVEL is that it breaks things down too finely. For example, Ray instructs writers to make a grid of every character who opposes the main character, detailing when they enter and exit the story, what their resources are, what object symbolizes them, and what they want. But really, only the last one is of any use. Once you know what the bad guy wants, and how it’s in opposition to the good guy, you know everything. This is just one example of the tasks Ray sets forth. Even if you had all the time in the world, there is no reason to do most of them. They are wasted effort.

I’m a person who loves story structure and loves rewriting. I color code my outlines and think of index cards as toys, yet I found THE WEEKEND NOVELIST REWRITES THE NOVEL tedious in the extreme. I’d rather spend my money on a better book and spend my time doing actual, productive work.

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rating: 2 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder or Plot by Ansen Dibell instead of this book

The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray

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Robert Ray

THE WEEKEND NOVELIST is just what it sounds like: a blueprint for finishing a novel in a year by writing only on weekends. I haven’t actually tried Ray’s full plan (only parts of it) but it seems like a good way for a busy person to get a lot done, especially if the writer commits huge blocks of time weekend after weekend. I like Ray’s year-long timeline, which seems much more realistic than those books that promise you’ll produce a novel in a month.

Ray’s plan builds logically and systematically from idea to outline to finished novel. There are no creative writing exercises just for the sake of having exercises. Ray wants the writer to focus every bit of her limited writing time on making the novel happen. Through character studies, a detailed plot arc, and setting details, the plan in THE WEEKEND NOVELIST will make sure all the parts come together in a harmonious whole. Ray doesn’t promise your work will be great literature or even publishable. However, it will be finished and that’s no small thing.

Ray uses excerpts from many novels as examples, such as THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, THE GREAT GATSBY, and THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY. They are well-chosen and help illustrate his points. Where Ray falls down, however, when he tries to write his own examples. He uses an imaginary work-in-progress he calls “TROPHY WIVES” that is full of clichés, sexist tropes, and plain old bad writing. It’s not going to inspire anyone.

I give THE WEEKEND NOVELIST a cautious thumbs up, because it’s absolutely perfect for a certain type of writer. If a writer understands plot structure, is comfortable with detailed outlines, is willing to write scenes out of order, and refuses to deviate from the plan, this could be the perfect writing guide. But it could turn off as many writers as it turns on. Someone who is more of a “discovery writer” won’t enjoy this plan, and will probably abandon it in a week or two. But for someone who takes comfort in outlines, or a beginning writer who just needs a helping hand to get from idea to finished draft, THE WEEKEND NOVELIST might be just the thing.

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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 Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

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