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Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley

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PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE promises a “plain English guide to the transformational character arc and emotional theory.” But there are two things wrong with this. First, Henley doesn’t seem to understand what transformational character arc means. Second, she really doesn’t understand what plain English means.

Henley starts with a chapter on targeting the audience. Of course consideration for the readership is important, but to put that before the concerns of story feels backward. Henley approaches market research in a very shallow way. She suggests you figure out the main emotional concerns of your target audience and then contrive a story around those triggers. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense for the story or not. As long as you can put a child in danger, make a family relationship break down, or put a heroine together with her one true love, all story considerations are secondary.

Henley’s big idea is that everything a character does in the present can be traced back to one single event in their past. Something like, “My house burned down as a child and that’s why I always freeze in new situations.” (She calls it the “core event.”) But this simplistic view of characters tends to flatten rather than increase their depth.

PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is repetitive, written in jargon, and poorly organized. It could have used a good editor. The made-up terminology doesn’t really make sense and muddies Henley’s points.

But confusing, rather than clarifying, could be the aim of PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE. Readers read novels to have an emotional experience. Writers know we need to write the hero’s emotional transformation along with the external plot. It’s something storytellers already instinctively do. However, Henley needs us to believe it’s difficult so she can save us with her instruction.  I’m seeing more and more books like this and I will no longer be taken in by them.

Neither should you.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias or Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne instead of this book.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers

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Writing is my favorite thing. If anyone asks me why I write, the answer is always the same. “Because it’s fun!” I get to write down the pictures in my head, and if I’ve done my job correctly, those same pictures appear in someone else’s head. How cool is that?

Heather Sellers feels the same way. She wants her students to “create a writing life where the writing process itself is so enchanting and delicious, you want to write….It’s not work. It’s not tedious or punishing. It’s what you do.” But she also knows that few writers achieve that happy state. Instead, we get bogged down in rules, word-count wars, and “discipline,” which many writers claim they need to do their best work.

But why not approach writing like a lover? PAGE AFTER PAGE suggests that writers do exactly that. No one needs discipline to spend time with those we love.

Sellers is more than a cheerleader. She has solid advice for living a writer’s best life. PAGE AFTER PAGE is divided into three sections. The first section is about the mindset and habits that will serve a writer well. Sellers has suggestions for getting started, keeping the butt in the chair, and keeping other voices (like those of our parents) out of our heads. The second section is about staying with it for the long haul, putting in as much time as possible to produce your best work. The third section is about meeting others in the larger world of writing: mentors, peers, and editors. Throughout, Sellers’ tone is gentle, even humorous, with plenty of examples.

Sellers is also realistic. She knows that writing–like any skill we want to master–takes effort. There are days that putting one word after another is a tedious slog. Sellers doesn’t pretend otherwise and has strategies to help. But she also shares an uncomfortable truth that few how-to books will. If writing is always more of a struggle than a joy for you, perhaps you’re not meant to be a writer. And that’s okay! Not everyone enjoys it.

But if you love to write as much as Heather Sellers does, and you can’t wait to live the writer’s life, then PAGE AFTER PAGE is for you.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie slices: 2 slices craft, 6 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady

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A friend once told me that in her MFA program, plot was a dirty word. When I read how-to books aimed at literary writers, I believe it. Literary writers emphasize pretty prose, without much thought about how to get from Once upon a time… to the end. STORY LOGIC AND THE CRAFT OF FICTION attempts to bridge that gap. It’s an admirable goal, but sadly, there is nothing new here. Even worse, Brady dresses up the information in that overblown, wordy style that academics are so fond of.

For example, she never uses so common a word as cliffhanger. She calls them “strategic postponements” and goes on to define them thusly:

Effective chapter divisions tend to splice plot at moments when literal discovery generates new pressure on characters–pressure that is only felt in the next chapter or chapters, that has yet to be acted upon, so that the action overflows the “frame” of the chapter.

Or when she is trying to discuss what to leave in and what to leave out, we get this:

When you write fiction, you are in the peculiar position of striving to discover and exploit multiple connections among the elements of a narrative and simultaneously working to submerge all surface traces of this coherent “argument.”

Um…what?

In addition to plot, Brady blunders through chapters on characterization and POV, although she seems more sure-footed when discussing things like imagery and setting.

The best section was on showing and telling. Brady breaks apart the “show, don’t tell” myth to discuss ways in which telling is useful and even necessary to a good story. Showing is for the important things, the main conflict. Telling is not. But besides being a bridge between chapters, exposition can also be used to establish intimacy with a character, raise the tension, and set up what’s to come. Brady gives decent examples of each technique, if you’re willing to wade through the jargon to find them.

Perhaps to Brady’s MFA students, the idea of plot is a new concept. But serious writers are also serious readers. We’ve been devouring stories our whole lives and don’t need a basic primer on how stories work. Dressing it up in academic speak doesn’t elevate it and won’t fool writers into thinking they’re getting new insights. I believe Brady can teach the craft of fiction at the sentence level, but her “story logic” leaves a lot to be desired.

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rating: 2 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing edited by Writer’s Digest instead of this book.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

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THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS is such a violent title for such a gentle book. I expected it to be an expansion of Sun Tzu’s THE ART OF WAR, perhaps showing how the famous general’s strategies and philosophies could be applied to the writing life. However, except for a few choice quotes, Bell ignores Sun Tzu’s book. Instead, he offers writers short, easy lessons on things like staying motivated, finishing what you start, keeping a journal, and writing solid scenes. Unlike Sun Tzu, who treated people like pawns and his generals like idiots, Bell respects writers. He tells the truth, but always wrapped in encouragement and love of the craft.

THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS is divided into three sections. The first is called “Reconnaissance.” Here, Bell talks about the writer’s lifestyle, giving advice on discipline, staying on schedule, ignoring the competition, and keeping your ego in check.

The next section, “Tactics,” is about the craft of writing, from premise to final polish. Bell examines all the expected topics like point of view, dialogue, pacing, characterization, and exposition.

The last section is called “Strategy,” where Bell discusses the basics of writing for publication: networking, finding an agent, writing a synopsis, and handling rejection. Combined, these three sections cover just about anything a beginning writer needs to know about how to write a book and get it published.

I enjoyed THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS a lot, but I kept coming back to the gimmicky title. Calling something “The Art of War” assumes that there’s an enemy to fight. But who is the writer’s enemy? Agents and editors are our allies, and our readers are our comrades-in-arms, helping us achieve our dreams. Nor is the book the enemy, as some writers seem to think.

The truth is, when starting a writing career, we are our own worst enemies. Bell wants all writers to overcome their own self-defeating behaviors. Armed with THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, writers will emerge victorious with the spoils of war (a finished novel) in hand.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 6 slices craft, 2 slices business

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY is a book that speaks to writers at all levels of craft. It’s meant for screenwriters, but novelists will benefit from it as well. Schechter shares ten lessons about screenwriting, with the emphasis on what works, rather than just a list of no-no’s.

Schechter starts with the big secret that beginning writers (and some advanced ones) don’t like to hear: all stories share a structure, writers need to learn it, and it will feel more like engineering than art at first. This won’t sit well with those who “just want to write” or “go where the characters take me.” But I’d urge even the most plot-phobic writers to give MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY a try. Schechter’s clear instruction and exuberant tone might just win you over.

Once the foundation is in place, Schechter takes writers beyond simple structure into theme and character. He explains why heroes have to be active and the key ways a hero must change over the course of the story. He explains antagonists and their motives, and how these two principal characters reveal the theme through their struggle. I especially liked this part. Understanding theory is one thing, but getting all those elements onto the page is another. MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY helps writers leap across that chasm.

One small thing about this book bothered me. Sexist chapter titles like “Your Bad Guy Punches Like My Sister” and “I Can Pitch, You Throw Like a Girl” were so unnecessary (and yet, so typically Hollywood). I wish Schechter had come up with more clever and inclusive chapter titles.

MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY is great for beginners because Schechter gets right down to the nitty-gritty without any filler. He uses examples from the same handful of movies (Star Wars, The Dark Knight, Up) so you can understand how all the different parts work together. But it’s also good for more advanced writers who have read dozens of craft books. Even if you already know most of the information, the way it’s so elegantly pulled together and clearly explained is a beautiful thing to behold.

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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: all writers

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I recommend this book.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

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Charles Baxter is an extraordinary writer. Let me just say that up front. The only time I would ever use a word like luminous is when I’m talking about Baxter’s books. In short, I’m a fan. And one of the things I like about his writing is the way he handles subtext–those moments in fiction where the implied is as powerful as the shown.

In THE ART OF SUBTEXT, Baxter gives an embarrassment of examples of subtext well done, proof that he is a careful and thorough reader. However, if you’re looking for practical advice about handling subtext in your own stories, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Baxter discusses how writers set a scene–where objects and people are in relation to others. For example, a man towering over a woman implies one thing, crouching at her feet implies another. He also discusses a character’s wants versus his true needs, the tone people use when speaking to (or ignoring) each other, and how the description of faces affects our perception of characters. There were a few good ideas sprinkled here and there, but most of them were rather obvious and most were handled better in other how-to books.

Different books are meant for different purposes, and perhaps THE ART OF SUBTEXT was never meant to be more than a piece of literary analysis. (With a fair amount of “get off my lawn” sniping at the modern world for good measure.) I don’t want to criticize a fish for not knowing how to climb a tree, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in this book. Baxter is, after all, a college professor, so I expected a bit of actual instruction along with all the theory.

While THE ART OF SUBTEXT is a good warm-up to get you thinking about the idea of subtext in your fiction, it’s truly more about reading well than writing well, and therefore does not offer much to the fiction writer.

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Rating: 2 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker or Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne instead of this book.

Story Climax by H.R. D’Costa

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Story Climax

Most of us don’t think about the end of a story when we start our manuscripts. We’re so busy writing the beginning and middle, we just sort of trust that the ending will take care of itself when we get there. But D’Costa reminds us that we might be able to sell this story to a reader on the strength of its beginning. But we’ll need a big, bold, satisfying ending to sell the next one. In fact, a writer’s career depends on nailing that ending.

Although it gives lip service to novels, STORY CLIMAX is a screenwriting book. Even so, there are many techniques a novelist can learn from screenwriters. If there’s one thing Hollywood is good at, it’s the big finish. Although all of D’Costa’s examples are from movies, novelists can still learn her lessons.

It’s not enough for an ending to have lots of action or the hero and heroine finally declaring their love. A writer builds up what D’Costa calls “narrative debts” that must be paid off in act three. In fact, they must be paid off with interest. Readers have come this far, and want and ending worthy of the money and time they spent on your story.

A teacher can’t really explain climax without talking about the antagonist and the stakes. STORY CLIMAX is a great primer on those two elements as well. But even if your antagonist is the most formidable opponent ever and your stakes are as high as they can be, there are still plenty of ways for the final encounter to go wrong. It can be rushed, underplayed, indirect, or the sidekicks can muck it up.

D’Costa shows why a direct confrontation between the hero and the villain is crucial, how to close off subplots before the climax, and how to avoid clichés like the “race to the airport” in the final scene of a romance. She gives many examples of stories that got it wrong as well as stories that got it right for great side-by-side comparisons.

I made the mistake of gulping down this entire book in one sitting. Ironically, I couldn’t wait to get to the end of this great book on endings. But I will be reading STORY CLIMAX again, while taking notes and consulting my own manuscript to make sure my climax is just as big and satisfying as I want it to be.

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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.

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