Writing Without Rules by Jeff Somers

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WRITING WITHOUT RULES might be the most annoying book I’ve ever read. Somers contradicts himself in almost every chapter, gives shockingly bad advice, and generally comes across as a dude-bro with the maturity of a teenager.

The book is divided into two sections: writing and selling what you write. Some of Somers’ advice is good, some isn’t. The problem is, the good advice can be found in other, better books and the bad advice is so out-there that following it will actually hold writers back. That is, if writers can actually wade through the numerous inconsistencies to figure out what Somers is trying to say. For example, he claims that he never uses beta readers. However his wife and his best friend always read and critique his manuscripts before he sends them out. Does Somers not know that they are his betas? The entire book is like this. Whatever Somers says on one page, you can be sure he will say its opposite a few pages later.

The footnotes in WRITING WITHOUT RULES sometimes cover half the page and bleed onto the next. Most of the footnotes are to make a bad joke, explain the joke, or ask you to please laugh at the joke. It’s clear that Somers finds himself delightful and thinks the rest of the world does too. But in reality, he’s just another entitled guy who assumes he can do his job half-assed and still succeed, as long as he does it with a nudge and a wink.

Somers revels in his mediocrity. He goes on at length about how he went to college because he thought it would be easy and never studied while he was there. He found both his agent and his publisher through such an improbable series of coincidences that the only true advice he can offer is something along the lines of, “Be lucky, like me.” Even writing a how-to book was something he did on a whim, not out of a desire to help writers, but because his agent thought it would be good for his brand.

His only saving grace seems to be that he writes nearly nonstop. If Somers is to be believed (and this isn’t a given) he’s extremely prolific. He’s able to do almost everything wrong and still achieve a little bit of success because he’s selling a tiny fraction of his seemingly endless output.

The friend who lent me this book said, “I almost feel bad for Somers. Like he could be so much more successful if he stopped following his own advice.”

I believe we’ve reached a new low on the Writing Slices blog. I’ve found a book that not only will hurt aspiring writers if they read it, but probably hurt the person who wrote it.

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WRITING WITHOUT RULES can be found here.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Writing the Novel From Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block or Writing Fiction for all You’re Worth by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

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The original SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder was the first book I reviewed on the Writing Slices blog. Even though it’s a screenwriting book, it’s been a favorite of novelists for years, and working novelists often quote Snyder’s wisdom to each other. However, novels and screenplays are different. In SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, Brody has kept everything we love about the original SAVE THE CAT, while expanding and refining Blake Snyder’s concepts to fit novels.

Brody starts with the hero/ine, and forces writers to answer that all-important question: why should readers care? It’s the perfect starting point because an unworthy hero/ine with nothing at stake will doom a novel right from the outset. Once the protagonist is on board, and the stakes are set, Brody explains the beat sheet, which is a kind of blueprint of a novel. She explains each element that a solid story needs, and where those elements go in the story.

But not all stories are the same, and the blueprint varies according to genre. Brody breaks down the ten types of story, explains what makes each one unique, and gives the three essential elements each genre needs. For example, a whodunnit needs a detective, a secret, and a dark turn. A love story needs an incomplete heroine, her counterpart, and a complication.

But Brody doesn’t just give abstract theory. For each type of story, she gives numerous examples, explaining where the story beats fall for each one. The example novels are well-known books such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Misery by Stephen King. Most writers are familiar with these books, or can easily find them in the local library.

Brody’s analysis of each novel is nothing short of breathtaking. She lifts the hood and carefully explains the inner workings of the story engine. Step by step, she details the turning points and major character shifts to give her readers a deep understanding of what makes stories work. She even generously includes two beat sheets from one of her own novels—the rough draft and the final version. Novels always deviate from their original outlines, and it’s great to see the “before” and “after” beat sheets from a published book.

The subtitle of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL is “The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need.” That’s not true, of course. You can never have just one how-to book! However, this is probably the only book on story structure that you’ll ever need. I love Blake Snyder’s original book, but I love this one more because it was written for me.

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SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars!

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

Make Your Writing Bloom by Shonell Bacon

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I never fall out of love with writing. It will always be one of my favorite things. But I do get shiny manuscript syndrome, where starting a new project seems more appealing than finishing the current one. MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM can help with that, as well as the more serious problem of general writer’s block.

MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM is a slim book that takes you through seven days of exercises. I often skip exercises in how-to books, but I took these seriously and finished all of them. Each day tackles your attitude about writing from a different angle. Why do you love to write? What fears do you have around it? What’s getting in your way? How can you incorporate writing into your daily life?

There are no wrong answers, and any epiphanies you have are up to you to interpret. There isn’t much advice in here at all, except to trust in the exercises, trust in the process, and keep writing. Bacon also includes snippets of her own struggles, which I found extremely relatable, since she’s a teacher and an editor, like me. We both are sometimes so overwhelmed with other people’s words that we have trouble finding our own.

Bacon is always realistic. She talks honestly about her setbacks and times she’s sabotaged herself, but not in a woe-is-me way. She overcame her own blocks, and is confident that we can do the same. I  appreciated that positive vibe. At this point in my career, I am completely over books that try to instill fear in writers or treat writing as something horrible and difficult. Bacon doesn’t do that, because she doesn’t have to. She starts by reminding writers why they love the craft so much, and it’s something she returns to again and again throughout the book.

While spending a week making my writing bloom, I fell a little bit more in love with my own writing too.

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MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

 

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According to Steel, there are three reasons people procrastinate. We’re bored with the task, we expect to fail, or the results are just too abstract. Of these three, it’s the third one that’s really the problem. There are real consequences in the present, while there are only theoretical ones in the future.

The longer it takes to reach our goal, the more we procrastinate. People usually don’t have trouble writing five hundred words due tomorrow. But they have a harder time with five thousand words due in a month, or fifty thousand words due in a year. For writers not under contract, with no deadline, the problem is especially acute. A fuzzy, abstract thing that we want to achieve at some unknown date in the future might as well be called a wish or a dream, rather than a goal.

Even worse, our brains are hard-wired to be impulsive, to make ourselves happy right now rather than working toward an abstract future. Modern life with television, internet, and shopping makes it worse.

Steel has devoted his life to studying procrastination, so THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION is focused on explaining why we do the things we do. It’s a little bit lighter when it comes to solutions. There are no step-by-step things to try. But understanding how our brains are wired makes the solution to procrastination easier to come by.

The easiest thing to do is to artificially shorten the deadline. Rather than saying a novel will be done by a certain date, set goals for finishing each chapter. Writers also have to stay on task while writing, since flow is so important and interruptions are deadly. It’s horrible that we work and play on the same computers, and those bastards in Silicon Valley have set up social networking to be so addictive. Internet blockers are good. So are time limits and schedules. Anything we can do to take choice out of it is helpful, since our impulsive brains will always choose checking Twitter over working on a difficult scene.

Steel also has advice for setting goals. He thinks the much-used acronym S.M.A.R.T. is stupid. S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, (which are the same thing) Attainable, Realistic, (also the same thing) and Time-Anchored. Steel suggests four alternate attributes for goals. He says they should be meaningful, challenging, with multiple sub-goals on a modest but regular schedule.

THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION isn’t truly a how-to book. Steel is more interested in telling us why we procrastinate than how to stop doing it. Even so, I found lots of useful information in its pages—information I can use right now.

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THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book.

The Scribbler Box

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In a moment of weakness, when I was feeling in need of some self-care, I signed up for a six-month subscription to THE SCRIBBLER BOX. That was a mistake. Now, every month, the postal carrier delivers another reminder that I wasted my money.

I liked the idea of it. This is a subscription box tailor-made for authors. It promised insider tips from authors, agents, and publishers, as well as unique surprises and one hardcover book. Each month, there would be a YouTube chat with a publishing insider, which seemed pretty darned exciting to me.

What came in the mail was underwhelming, and each month seemed a little bit worse than the month before. I expected the books to be a mix of genres, but they were all YA books and women’s fiction. The “insider tips” were stapled-together booklets of the most generic writing advice I’ve ever seen. Ditto the YouTube chats. Each one was an hour of the hosts asking softball questions while the guests gave vague answers. Someone looking for honest publishing advice would be better off spending an hour reading the blog of a good agent, where real advice can be found.

The box also comes with office supplies like bookmarks and highlighters and paperclips. One month, the “special” surprise was a bic pen. I actually laughed out loud when I opened that month’s box. A bic pen? Really? The whole promise of a subscription box is that they will deliver unique items, but I’ve seen better tchotchkes at OfficeMax.

Literally the best thing about THE SCRIBBLER BOX is the box the stuff comes in. It’s just the right size for shipping or gifting books and it’s decorated with a super cute typewriter graphic. Last month, my subscription box sat on my counter, unopened, for two days until I needed the box for something, so I finally opened it and dumped out the contents so I could use the box.

I never should have signed up for this subscription and I don’t recommend you do, either. The next time I’m in need of some retail therapy, I’ll go to the office supply store or the book store and fill my own cart, because the only good thing about THE SCRIBBLER BOX is the box itself.

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The Scribbler Box can be found here.

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Rating: 1 star

 

Creating Your Author Brand by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Branding isn’t something novelists think about much. It seems like something the head honchos at Pepsi and Google should worry about, not the business of an author. And the book marketing gurus always tell us “the author is the brand.” Or is it the series? If the author’s name is big enough on the cover and all the covers in the series look alike, the author is branded, right? Rusch tackles these—and many other—myths, starting with the book’s title. Creating is a verb, and it underscores that an author’s brand doesn’t just happen. A writer has an active role to play, whether she realizes it or not.

Rusch originally started writing CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND on her blog, but questions from her readers poured in and as she started addressing them, she realized she had a book. Rusch has experience in every aspect of the field, from author (traditional and indie) to magazine editor to book publisher, so branding is something she’s thought about from more than one angle and her expertise shows through.

Rusch divides her book into the early and intermediate stages of an author’s career. She breaks down the difference between brand identity (what an author thinks her brand is) and brand image (what the public thinks the brand is). She teaches writers how to identify the target audience and how to inspire brand loyalty. She also has different advice for growing an audience depending on the author’s goals and how many books she has out.

Rusch also does something I’ve never seen another marketing expert do: she cautions against fast growth. Most marketers promise huge sales and bestseller status if you’ll only follow their simple steps. Rusch knows how foolhardy that is. She’s seen firsthand how careers spike and then crash due to over-marketing. Readers are individuals, after all, and you can only grow an audience one reader at a time.

My only quibble is that a few chapters were overly long. Sometimes Rusch takes a little while to get to the main point. I get the sense that she’s thinking out loud (or through her fingers) and a few of her insights were discovered as she wrote them. She could have gone back and tightened those chapters. But sometimes, knowing how the author came to her conclusions is the whole point, so this might not be a concern for some readers.

I like that CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND is conceptual, not prescriptive. Rusch is here to teach the deep principles of branding, not a one-time formula to follow. The latter might be simple, but it will probably only work in the short term. Rusch respects her readers and knows that when we understand the underlying concepts, we can apply them to our own work to keep our branding healthy for the long term.

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CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND 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.

Blake’s Blogs by Blake Snyder

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I am a huge fan of SAVE THE CAT. I read it when it came out in 2005, and it changed my life. I talk about Snyder’s method constantly, and recommend his books whenever I have a chance.

Blake Snyder died just four years after SAVE THE CAT was published, and writers have been mourning ever since. So you can imagine my delight when I came across BLAKE’S BLOGS, a book of what his estate considers his best blog posts. But my delight soon turned to disappointment when I realized that this slim volume was really just a cash grab, one last chance for Snyder’s heirs to turn his writing into money.

The posts aren’t bad, but they are ten years old and most of them haven’t aged well. The beauty of a blog is that is captures what a writer is thinking about in that very moment. So there are posts about movies Snyder had recently seen, classes he’d been teaching, and his thoughts on the Oscar nominees of 2008. He rehashes some of what’s in his classic instruction book, but he doesn’t go deeper or come up with fresh insights. While it’s nice to have the blog posts arranged in chapters, the division is rather artificial and makes it seem like an instruction book when it’s really just a book of musings.

I’d like to say that BLAKE’S BLOGS is for the die-hard Snyder fan only, but I’m the biggest Snyder fangirl of them all, and even I didn’t like this book. In the end, BLAKE’S BLOGS made me sad. I wished this book could be better than it was, I mourned a talented teacher who died way too young, and I was embarrassed for Snyder’s relatives who put this product into the world.

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BLAKE’S BLOGS can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder instead of this book.