Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Korean-born novelist Salesses has a lot of questions about the traditional writing workshop. Who is it for? Who does it benefit? Is there any way to teach writing that doesn’t perpetuate unequal power structures? And why is most literary fiction so gosh-darned bland, as if all the interesting edges have been sanded off? But CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD isn’t just for teachers or MFA students. It’s essential reading for anyone writing fiction today.

College writing workshops were created for upper-class, white, straight male writers, and many of the rules of fiction writing comes from them. What we consider high-quality writing is always seen through this lens. We like to pretend that craft is pure in some way, without bias, but that’s simply because the bias is invisible. Whose stores are told, whose stories have value, which plot structures are acceptable, and even which details are included are all based on an assumed reader, and that reader only comes in one flavor. Everything else is called “experimental” or “women’s fiction” or “diverse.” And in the rare occasions that other modes of expression are taught, it’s in contrast to the dominant form of fiction. Instead of asking why writing rules exist, we treat those who “break” the rules as exceptions. If a writer arrives with a different set of cultural expectations, she’ll be pressured to silence her own voice in order to conform to the norms of the group.

Salesses closely examines the typical subjects of writing craft books, asking why they always use realist fiction by dead white men as models. These are the hero’s journey stories we’re all taught, where the world bends to the hero’s will, and any problems in his life can be overcome through hard work and self-improvement. This is very much a Western, male view of the world and not one that everyone shares. In chapters on plot, conflict, tone, characterization, pacing, setting, and story structure, Salesses opens readers’ minds to new ways of thinking and writing. We don’t all write to the same market, and fiction doesn’t have to please a wide audience. It only has to please the right audience.

The last part of the book discusses practical ways to run a writing workshop that centers the author rather than those giving the critique. These methods are more labor-intensive for instructors (which is why most won’t use them). These new methods will empower writers so they can go on to revise their own stories even after they’ve left school. Working writers reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will find helpful tips to make their writing more inclusive, more interesting, and just better.

Reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD wasn’t easy for me. I remembered my own college classes and community writing groups, thinking about the ways I was silenced, and the ways I unknowingly used my privilege to silence others. I found myself reading very slowly in order to truly absorb each point before moving on to the next. Some of the lessons were painful, some were embarrassing, but more than anything else, they were helpful. When you know better, you do better, and CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will help every single one of us become better writers.

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CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

Dear Writer, it is Still 2020 by Becca Syme

During this pandemic, the running joke has been, “what is time?” The calendar may have turned, but the “2020ness” of it all is still with us. Vaccines are on the horizon and life is slowly returning to normal, so why are we still doomscrolling? Why are we unable to focus? Everything is just so much right now, and creativity has been forced into the backseat, while conversations with writer buddies always turn to laments about low productivity and lost opportunities.

If this is you, you’re not alone. That’s the biggest takeaway from DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020. You might see other authors gliding through the pandemic still writing, still publishing, still getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with you. But there is a whole hell of a lot wrong with the world, and the sooner you face that reality, the better off you’ll be. Syme explains that in many ways, 2020 has simply shone a spotlight on problems that had been bubbling under the surface for many years.

DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is an antidote to the gaslighting books that insist that if your books aren’t selling, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, or you don’t believe in yourself enough, or your book isn’t written to market, or you aren’t spending enough on ads. Syme cuts through all that bullshit to give the real-world advice we need right now.

The book is divided into two halves: why you aren’t writing and why you aren’t selling. The first part covers three similar but distinct states: being stuck, being blocked, and being burned out. It’s important to not confuse these three, because each situation needs a different remedy. Syme is a coach with a ton of education and experience, and she knows what’s at the heart of most writers’ problems, and (thank goodness) she knows how to fix them.

The second half of the book covers sales (or lack of them). Syme explains why we ignore advice, why we don’t accept our limitations, and the problem of using old methods to solve new problems. She discusses the issues with pay-to-play ads and the traps writers fall into when they assume they’re outliers, or that “the market” doesn’t apply to them, or that they’re owed a certain level of sales simply because they achieved that level in the past. DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is aimed at self-published authors, but much of the advice can also apply to traditionally published authors, since much of the marketing falls on their shoulders, too. Syme’s mantra is to always “question the premise.” The way we sell books has changed in the last decade, and continues to change on a yearly—or even monthly—basis. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that situations always change, and we must change with them.

Taken as a package, DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is about more than just being a writer in the years 2020 and 2021. It’s about how to write whenever things get hard, when outside circumstances change, or when catastrophe hits. Which means it’s not just a book for our times, but a book for all times.

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DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

After a beginning writer learns the fundamentals of character and plot, there comes a long, frustrating period where she’s finishing novels, but they aren’t very good. And if they are good, they only get that way after many rounds of revision. It takes lots of practice to get to pro-level writing, but having good mentors and how-to books can help. THE SECRETS OF STORY is the perfect book for the writer who is ready to take the leap.

Bird is a screenwriter, but his lessons apply to novelists too. The chapter titles are exactly what I expected from a how-to book: character, plot, description, dialog, theme, and revision. However, the content of those chapters was not what I expected. On the surface, it seems like Bird is giving advice that goes against everything taught in more basic how-to books. But Bird doesn’t want to upend common wisdom. Instead, he’s inviting writers to go deeper, to expand on the knowledge they’ve already gained. In thirteen chapters, Bird lays down 122 “secrets” that are so good it feels he’s explaining the laws of physics rather than something as slippery and subjective as art.

For example, most how-to books tell you to make the protagonist “heroic,” but Bird says you should make your protagonist vulnerable. That’s where audience identification comes from, and audience identification is everything. And then, he thoroughly explains how to do it.

Most how-to books caution against making all the characters sound alike. So writers will give one character a lisp, one a catch phrase, and one bad grammar habits. That’s easy. It’s also terrible. However, Bird explains that what characters need is a preferred set of metaphors and a preferred argument style. This will distinguish characters from one another in a believable way. It also forces the writer to slow down and really get to know her characters instead of slapping a set of quirks on them.

There are hundreds of other little gems like this in THE SECRETS OF STORY, along with a huge helping of solid advice about storycraft. Bird provides checklists in the book and on his website, but warns writers against using them in a mechanical way. Writers need to internalize the reasons behind the rules, and then apply them in their own way. Bird is also an advocate for breaking the rules, even the very ones he sets down. He’s the first to admit that sometimes you have to mess with story structure or write the “wrong” kind of dialogue to make a better story.

But if a writer truly absorbs all the lesson in THE SECRETS OF STORY, she’ll have leveled up to a point where the rules simply make sense. And she’ll have all the tools she needs to write a solid novel that readers will love.

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THE SECRETS OF STORY can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars!

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Bonus Blog: Valentine Giveaway

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! Who says couples get to have all the fun? Valentine’s day is about love in its many forms, and I love writers! I wish I could buy a gift for everyone who reads my blog. Since that’s not possible, I’ve done the next best thing. I’ve put together two gift boxes for two lovely readers.

Each gift box includes a how-to book along with other writerly goodies. This year, each box will also include a bar of artisan soap handmade by me! My soap is loaded with skin-loving ingredients and scented with amazing fragrances. (I also make unscented soap if that’s your jam.)

Michael W. Lucas has generously donated a copy of CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS, which is one of the most practical, useful books for writers I’ve ever read. This gift box also includes:

  • A blank journal
  • A magnet
  • A bar of artisan soap of your choice

The second box features the perfect book for our times. THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE by Jordan Rosenfeld is a book that every writer needs. This gift box also includes:

  • A blank notebook
  • A door hanger
  • A bar of artisan soap of your choice

Want to win a gift box? It’s easy to enter! Just leave a comment below telling me two things: which was your favorite how-to book this year, and a place I can contact you (Email, website, or Twitter).

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2021 at 22:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and twitter)

This giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail stuff to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $10 Amazon ecard instead.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.

xxoo,

Alex K.

Update: The winners of the giveaway are StephanieReads and Tess Grant! Congratulations to them and thank you to everyone who entered.

Hollywood vs. the Author by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Novelists are fascinated by Hollywood. It’s a dream of many to have our novels turned into movies–to see real people portray characters that once only lived in our heads and hear dialogue that we wrote. Places we dreamed up could appear in real life. If this seems cool to you? Read on.

Schwartz has collected essays from eighteen authors who wrote books that became movies and TV shows. Authors like Lawrence Block (Burglar), Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles) and Michael Connelly (Bosch) give candid reflections on the experience in exacting and often gruesome detail. They tell of lies, misogyny, shady accounting, dirty deals, and more lies. Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes abundantly clear that the author is the least important and least respected member of the team. I read HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR in sick awe. I knew some of this, but I never fully grasped just how awful Hollywood is for writers.

If it’s so bad, and writers know it’s bad, why do they do it? Money, mostly. There is money in Hollywood. Sometimes a lot of it. Jeff Parker (Laguna Heat) tells of a six-month movie option that was five times the advance for his novel. (An option is when a studio has an exclusive look at your work for a period of time.) Many an author has bought a house with movie money. But just as often, a writer loses money on the deal.

There are two ways an author can lose money in Hollywood. The first is when the novelist is hired to write the screenplay. That’s a sucker’s bet. No matter what script is turned in, the studio will demand multiple drafts and ultimately reject it so they can hire their own people. In the meantime, the author has lost a year or more that she could have been writing more novels.

But the other way is worse. Movie studios steal work every single day. But good luck proving it. Tess Gerritsen wrote the novel that became the movie Gravity, as well as most of the screenplay. It was stolen by director Alfonso Cuaron, who put his own name on it. When Gerritsen tried to sue, in what should have been an iron-clad case, she ran up against two truths: Hollywood has deep pockets and local judges don’t rule against the movie industry because Hollywood is basically a company town. Fifty copyright infringement cases were filed in California’s Ninth circuit between 1990 and 2010, and the authors lost their cases every single time.

Even when the process of book adaptation goes well, the author is always disappointed in the movie and never feels like she was respected or listened to. Most often the best an author can hope for is that they don’t lie to her too much and they don’t screw up the book too badly.

Because Hollywood will screw up the book. Every time. Novels and movies are different mediums and there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation. But more than that, producers, directors, and screenwriters don’t want a faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the time, they haven’t even read it. What they’re buying is the idea—basically a one-sentence log line. Movie studios don’t care about an author’s carefully written characters, setting, dialogue and plot. They’d never let a mere book get in the way of their movie.

The second-happiest writers in HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR are the ones who sold the rights to their books, took the money, and then turned their backs on the whole process, sometimes not even watching the movies that got made. The happiest writers are the ones who sold the rights to books that never got made into movies at all.

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HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

This book is best for: all authors

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I recommend this book

Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner

I don’t think you can finish a novel by writing only ten minutes a day. And despite the title of TEN MINUTE AUTHOR, Partner doesn’t think so either. But I can forgive the gimmicky title because if he’d called it something like How to Develop a Writing Habit, nobody would buy it.

Which is sad because an unshakable writing habit is crucial for writers, and it’s the one thing that separates career authors from wannabes. Writers write—as often as they can for as long as they can, and most full-time authors write every day.

The amount of time isn’t important. The habit is. Partner assumes that once the ten minutes is over, you will already be “in the zone” and will continue writing. But even if you stop after ten minutes, as long as you do it again the next day, and the next, the habit will begin to take form and writing sessions will naturally lengthen.

TEN MINUTE AUTHOR contains a smattering of neuroscience, a whole lot of cheerleading, and a massive dose of common sense. Partner goes into details of why the method works and how to implement it using environmental cues, sandwiching writing between two existing habits, setting a timer, and rewarding yourself after each writing session.

Even better, cutting writing sessions down to such a tiny size means there is literally no excuse not to get to the keyboard. Anyone who honestly can’t write for ten minutes a day should probably not be setting her sights on a writing career at this time.

But actually following through with an unbroken chain of daily writing sessions is a career in the making, and TEN MINUTE AUTHOR is an excellent step-by-step guide to getting it done.

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TEN MINUTE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Deep point of view—getting into a character’s head and staying there—is a difficult skill for new writers, but it’s a vital skill to master. Small author intrusions add up, distancing the reader from the character page after page. While editing, those subtle intrusions are difficult to weed out, leaving some manuscripts a muddled mess of close and distant point of view.

However, Nelson is here to help with a guide that is straightforward, no-nonsense, and thorough. There is no fluff in RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW. In eight short chapters Nelson tells writers what they need to know and no more.

And what authors need to know is how to do it. Unlike many how-to books that diagnose problems without giving solutions, RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW is all about practical application. Nelson explains the principle, gives before-and-after examples, shows exactly why they work, then gives exercises for writers to try their own hand at applying what they’ve learned.

Nelson details how to capture character thoughts, how to show emotion, how to banish filter words like saw, felt, or wondered and how to make sure cause and effect are always in the right order. These are problems I often see in beginners’ novels, but once they are conquered, the manuscript improves immeasurably.

Nelson’s examples are serviceable but not stellar. They are all from her own work, and they get the job done, although they didn’t make want to rush out and buy her fiction.

Staying tightly in a character’s point of view is not easy. The good news is, once you understand depth in point of view, it’s not something you can ever unsee, and RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW will help you master this important writing skill.

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RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

In Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work, he insisted that one could not both do meaningful work and have social media accounts. Newport himself has never had an online presence beyond a blog and email, and he insisted that this was the only way to be successful as a knowledge worker.

However, in DIGITAL MINIMALISM, Newport takes a more nuanced approach. He acknowledges that social media, Netflix, news sites, and video games are a part of life and not things that need to be banished entirely. He still thinks they’re bad, though, and explains why we’ll all be happier if we spend less time online.

We’re all walking around with powerful computers in our pockets, loaded with apps that invite us to use them any time we have more than fifteen seconds of downtime. These online services offer a mix of benefits and harm, but most people only think about the benefits—or the possible benefits, even if they can’t point to anything concrete they get out of scrolling through Twitter. These sites are addictive, using every psychological trick (especially the variable reward of the “like” button) to get you to stay on them longer.

However, interacting with a phone is not the same as interacting with a person. Moreover, dependence on the instant gratification of the online world is making our brains less capable of the sustained thought we need to get our creative work done. If every single moment is filled with entertainment provided by others, when will we think up our own ideas?

Newport doesn’t just tell you why you should use online services less, he also tells you how. There are many tricks and hacks out there, such as the “digital sabbath” or using internet blockers while working. However, Newport explains why simple tricks don’t work. It takes a mindset shift, because no habit can be changed long-term without an underlying shift in values.

Step by step, Newport shows you where to start, how to overcome temptation, how to deal with the expectation that you’ll be always “on,” and how to use the internet more thoughtfully. By taking a minimalist approach, Newport argues, you’ll find yourself still as connected as ever, but in a more meaningful way. The benefits of this approach are numerous, from reclaiming time, to decreasing stress, to redefining leisure.

I enjoyed Newport’s previous book, despite its flaws. However, DIGITAL MINIMALISM is better in every way. It gave me concrete tools for turning off the internet as well as a solid plan to use it more thoughtfully.

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DIGITAL MINIMALISM is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book.

Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel by Becky Clark

I admit, the title of Clark’s book made me curious. Why eight weeks? Why not four, or six, or twelve? It turns out that there’s nothing magical—or even particularly interesting—about the eight week timeframe. Clark recommends you write your novel in a month (just like NaNoWriMo) with a week on the front end for outlining and three weeks on the back end for revisions. This is a timeframe that Clark herself adopted on the advice of her agent, and it seems to work very well for her. But EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL is descriptive rather than instructive, basically saying, “here is what I do, now you do you.”

Clark insists that writers must use outlines, and the first half of the book is an exhaustive list of outline styles. Clark does a good job of defining these different styles, but doesn’t teach authors how to use any of them, nor how to pick the best one. She freely shares her own opinion on them, though. She likes the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet and doesn’t care for the Hero’s Journey. But what good does it do an aspiring writer to know that?

The second half of the book is about time management. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before: minimize distractions, keep track of daily work count, be consistent, try sprints, don’t edit as you go, set boundaries, etc. etc. I kept hoping for one gem to take away, some new idea that would be useful for a writer, but it was well-worn advice that all writers already know. Even Clark’s metaphors were ones we’ve seen hundreds of times. (An outline is a roadmap for your story’s journey…)

Throughout, Clark is eager to share what works for her, even reproducing her daily schedule on the page. Readers learn what time Clark gets up, how often she exercises, and that Wednesday is her day off. We learn how often she checks Facebook and how many writing sprints she does in a day. But having an example—even one as seemingly perfect as Clark—doesn’t help an aspiring writer set her own schedule around her own circumstances. Clark has neither a full-time job nor children at home, but she gives no consideration to those who do.

Read EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL if you’re curious about how one author writes her books, but not if you’re looking for instruction for writing your own.

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EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL can be found here

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell or How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler instead of this book.

Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin

INTUITIVE EDITING is a frustrating book. Yates has extensive experience as an editor, both freelance and working for big publishing houses. And she has excellent advice for authors who want to polish their novels before handing them over to a professional editor. However, everything is over-explained, every point belabored, and it’s all weighed down with so many examples that the good advice gets lost. Ironically, this book on editing could have used an editor.

I liked Yates’ approach a lot. She starts with the biggest issues and works her way to ever smaller ones. This is the way I edit, and when I teach classes on editing, this is what I teach. Start by making sure the characterization, plot, and stakes are all in place. Then come medium-sized issues like point of view consistency, pacing, and voice. The final stage is smaller things, for example, removing crutch words and streamlining descriptions.

However, Yates exhaustively explains even the most simple concepts. For example, she devotes many pages to the difference between first and third person stories. Every writer learned this in middle school, and we don’t need it taught again. Even while addressing more complex topics such as point of view or suspense, Yates throws in example after example until the original point is lost. It feels like someone nudging you in the ribs saying, “Get it? Get it?” Yates is on more solid ground when using examples from real novels rather than hypothetical ones she made up, but each time a point is made, she happily uses three or more examples when one would do.

Even worse, very little of INTUITIVE EDITING will be useful for an author with a completed manuscript. Yates seems to want to teach authors how to write a novel rather than how to revise one. She gives vague handwaving toward the difficult job of finding a novel’s problems. However, very few beginning authors have the objectivity to look at an example, figure out how it applies to her own work, and then go back and edit accordingly. And when an author does have the objectivity to do so, her skills have progressed to the point where she no longer needs this book.

And that’s what makes this book frustrating. There are many valuable lessons here. INTUITIVE EDITING is like a short writing course taught by a good professor. However, the time to apply these lessons is in the planning or first draft stage, because the lessons are too general to apply to a completed manuscript. An author would be better served by taking the very good writing lessons in INTUITIVE EDITING and applying them to her next book.

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INTUITIVE EDITING can be found here

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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 The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias