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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). They didn’t affect the reading experience at all, but 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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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.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland

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A novel is too big to hold in your head all at once, especially if its a novel you haven’t written yet. Even if you’re able to keep track of a basic beginning/middle/end plot, you also have to consider character, theme, setting, backstory, voice, and a dozen other things. Even “pantsers” who never outline take notes along the way.

Any writer who is feeling overwhelmed by the size and scope of a novel (read: all of us) can benefit from OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK. Weiland’s previous book, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL, taught writers how to make a useful outline. This one takes writers step-by-step through the process with exercises and questions. By doing the exercises, a writer will every essential piece they need to write a complete and engaging novel.

Weiland starts with the premise. She then takes writers through envisioning the big scenes, drops back for character sketches and setting ideas, then moves ahead into a detailed scene-by-scene outline. This organization mimics my own process perfectly, although every writer is different and Weiland encourages them to skip around if they want, or drop sections that don’t make sense for their books.

In fact, Weiland emphasizes that a good outline is whatever works for the writer. Even if a writer only did some of the exercises, or altered them to fit, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK provides enough questions to make sure a writer is thinking deeply about her novel, and enough structure to be sure she can complete 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: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

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The title of STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE certainly got my attention. I was interested in how discovery writers, or “pantsers,” write a successful book without an outline. James promised instruction, insight, and a way to turn traditional story structure on its head.

STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE spends a long time convincing writers that structure isn’t as important as the story arc and the narrative flow. That is true. It’s also not something any writer would argue with. Even the most die-hard plotters treat outlines like the pirate code: more like guidelines than actual rules. I read on, hoping for the revolutionary insights that were sure to come.

And then, this:

“Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, for it to feel complete it’ll need an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climatic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character.”

I did a double take. Did James just name everything he’s supposedly fighting against? By listing the things a story needed, he just explained story structure in a nutshell.

James spends the rest of the book going into detail about these story elements. He teaches the same principles that are in a hundred other books but has given them cool new names. He then denies that he’s teaching those very same principles. That’s like telling people to hydrate instead of drink water and then claiming to have a bold new health initiative.

Then James bemoans the fact that people aren’t taught to write organically. (Taught to write organically?) Writers don’t need instruction to open their computers and follow their muses. They need instruction on shaping the narrative to make it as effective as possible. There is a reason there are a hundred books about story structure including–make no mistake–this one.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of arrogance and hypocrisy. It’s sad, because STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE is not a bad book for beginning writers. It’s just that there’s nothing new here, and giving the book an in-your-face title doesn’t hide the fact that James is teaching everything that’s been taught before, and taught better, by other writers.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain instead of this book.

Gotta Read It by Libbie Hawker

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“So, what is your novel about?” is the sentence that strikes fear into the hearts of many a writer. Whether sending query letters to agents or talking to a friend at a party, many writers become tongue-tied, or worse, babble on and on. We may know our characters and their stories inside and out, but summarizing three hundred pages in just a few short paragraphs can seem impossible.

Of course every book is unique, but when pitching, Hawker wants us to keep it simple. She recommends starting with the five universal elements that every novel has: character, goal, obstacle, struggle, stakes. She shows writers how to put these elements together into a succinct summary, and how to choose the details that will help flesh out the setting and the story in the reader’s mind.

GOTTA READ IT includes a useful list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that will be helpful to a beginning writer, including not using too many proper nouns and keeping the tone of the pitch consistent with the tone of the story.

However, Hawker only gives two examples of what she considers successful pitches, and they are both from her own books. This doesn’t really prove her point. It only shows that she’s found a formula that works for her. Without examples from other books (or even hypothetical examples) there is no way of knowing how to apply her advice more broadly.

GOTTA READ IT is a good introduction to the idea of pitching your book, but it doesn’t go deep into the mechanics of pitches, nor does it give enough examples to help writers build successful pitches of their own.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices business

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hague or Rock Your Query by Cathly Yardley

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

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Novels are emotion-delivery vehicles. We read non-fiction for information, but novels are all about going on an emotional journey with the characters. As writers, we can move readers to laughter or tears, limited only by our storytelling skills.

Humans are great at decoding the emotions of others by reading their facial expressions and body language. That’s what makes movies so powerful. Novelists have a tougher time. It’s one thing to tell a reader how your hero feels. It’s quite another to make them feel it right along with him. It’s the old show-don’t-tell advice, but how do you do that?

THE EMOTION THESAURUS offers a list of seventy-five primary emotions such as anger, dread, relief, shame and satisfaction. Each entry gives clues about how to express the emotion with physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensation. So if your character is feeling something, what might she do or think? What might her physical reaction be?

THE EMOTION THESAURUS isn’t a checklist, allowing lazy writers to drop appropriate emotions onto their characters willy-nilly. Using this book takes care and thought. You must reword the descriptors to match the voice and tone of the characters while staying true to the emotions of the moment. This book won’t do the work for you. In fact, it might make your work harder by forcing you to look beyond your comfortable, clichéd expressions.

I’m a huge fan of practical writing tools. Airy theory is nice, but how-to books need to get right down into the trenches with me to be of any use. THE EMOTION THESAURUS is one of those necessary reference guides that not only tells me what to do, but shows me exactly how.

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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: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

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