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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

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

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Mendelsund is an art director at Alfred A. Knopf, so naturally he thinks visually. He has to depict an entire book in a single cover image, and since his career relies on this ability, he’s given it a lot of thought.

The central idea of WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is that novelists don’t describe every physical feature of a hero the way they’d describe him to a police sketch artist. An author’s language is more figurative, evoking a picture through action and emotion. Therefore, is it any wonder that everyone visualizes characters differently? This “insight” is not groundbreaking, and Mendelsund never gets beyond this obvious assertion into anything noteworthy or useful.

WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is heavily illustrated, but the pictures don’t add anything. They are mere gimmicks—things like movie stills or pages of text with most of the words blacked out or pages with a single word in a huge font.

The text is broken up with these heavy-handed visuals, making a murky book even murkier. WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ wanders all over the place, raising questions (“How do you know what Anna Karenina looks like?”) without ever giving answers. Mendelsund clearly did no research into neuroscience, psychology, or pedagogy to pinpoint what we actually see in our minds when we read.

Even on the level of a personal essay, this book doesn’t work. It’s like one of those late-night college gabfests when the beer is gone and the dorm is quiet and you have to get up in a few hours but the conversation is so interesting because at that point, even the most bland ideas seem profound.

There is nothing deep about WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ. Luckily, it’s a short book and I finished it quickly. Now I can turn my attention to a well-written novel. As I read, I will enjoy the unique pictures in my mind, knowing that I’m cooperating with the author in putting them there, which is a pleasant (but not amazing) thought.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

Yoga for the Brain by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston

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Until last year, I’d never used a book of writing prompts. I never saw the value in them. I found most books of prompts silly or pretentious. I thought it was better to write my own stuff, since it would be impossible to write anything good from someone else’s suggested topic. But my neighbor wanted to do some writing exercises with me and YOGA FOR THE BRAIN seemed good for us both. It has 366 writing exercises, so we committed to doing one a day for all of 2014. I didn’t care that the book was written for students. I thought it meant I’d finish faster.

Can I just say how wrong I was? About all of it. These prompts weren’t easy or simple or short. They were seriously fun, spoke to people of all ages, and brought up meaty topics in interesting ways. Sometimes I wrote three or more pages because the prompt triggered a memory or an idea and I simply had to get it on the page.

Here are some of the prompts I had great success with: #153: “What would your new rules for the world be?” #82: “Create an expression of joy in exactly 25 words.” and #166: “Write a conversation between a modern person and a person from the past.” (I chose Miley Cyrus and Ella Fitzgerald.)

But the value of YOGA FOR THE BRAIN goes far beyond the exercises in it, and what I learned wasn’t found in the book. I learned that writing a little bit every day is better than long writing sessions once a week. If you miss one day, you can make it up fairly easily. But if you miss more than one, you’ll be hard pressed to finish all the old work and the new stuff too. My life got chaotic when I moved this summer, and making up for days I didn’t write was nearly impossible.

Often, I’d come to the prompt with a head as blank as the page in front of me. But once my pen was on the paper, I always found something to say. Sometimes what I wrote was flat and dull, but most of the time it was quite good and sometimes it was amazing. I rediscovered what I’d always known: inspiration is a myth. If I put my butt in my chair and my pen in my hand, writing would happen. The muses would show up, but only if I showed up first.

After the first few months, my neighbor dropped out and stopped writing her daily exercises, but I kept going. I’m so glad I did. It wasn’t always easy, but finishing every prompt in YOGA FOR THE BRAIN has helped me grow as a writer in unexpected ways.

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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 writers

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I recommend this book.

Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa

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Long ago, when I was a brand-new baby writer, I pitched a novel to an editor at a writer’s conference. My short summary was going well (I thought) until the editor asked, “And if the heroine doesn’t reach her goal, what then?” I blinked. Blinked again. My mouth opened and closed but no words came out. I finally muttered something stupid about a dog dying, the editor declined to read my manuscript, and that was that.

I stayed in touch with the editor, and years later at another conference, I was able to hand him a copy of my first published novel. I reminded him about our first meeting, we had a good laugh, and I thanked him for his kindness. “But I was so mean!” he said. I told him he wasn’t mean. Not at all. He’d taught me a valuable lesson. He’d taught me about stakes.

If the hero has nothing to lose, there are no stakes and therefore no story. We all want to make our stories as gripping as possible, but it’s not always easy to see how. H.R. D’Costa spells out, in clear language, the different kinds of story stakes–from freedom and justice to regret, protection of others, and the hero’s own death. She uses many examples from well-known books and movies, so you can see the stakes in action. She also includes “modulating factors,” things that can be used to make situations even worse for your poor hero, mostly by making them emotionally difficult.

I would have liked to see a few more examples from books, rather than movies. The two mediums are quite different, after all. However, D’Costa explains that by using mostly movie examples, she reaches a wider audience. This is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book.

I know a lot more about story stakes now than I did the first time I tried to write a novel. Even so, I highlighted the heck out of STORY STAKES and bookmarked many pages. Thanks to H.R. D’Costa, now I’ve got even more tools to keep readers riveted to the page.

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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 Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

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I first heard about THE SENSE OF STYLE when Pinker was a guest on NPR. The author had an engaging manner and he shared lively examples from his book, which I couldn’t wait to read. Alas, if only Pinker wrote the way he talked. If he did, he might have written a good book. Instead, he got bogged down in dense prose, over-explanation, and useless theory. It’s ironic that a guidebook that’s supposed to teach writers how to write clear prose isn’t written more clearly itself.

The premise is a good one. Which rules of the past still apply? Which ones are no longer useful? In what ways is language changing right in front of us? How can we use that information to make ourselves understood? But Pinker didn’t do the premise justice. He isn’t interested in helping students write better. He’s simply interested in complaining that students write badly. He got blinded by his own self-importance, ending up with not a style guide, but a screed.

THE SENSE OF STYLE is written in long paragraphs of academic-speak. However, the ideas are not complex enough to warrant convoluted sentences dripping with graduate-level vocabulary. But of course, it fulfills the twin purposes of jargon: to make the author’s points seem more important and to exclude the riffraff.

Studying linguistics doesn’t make Pinker an expert on style. He disagrees with language purists, but his imagined enemies are a vague “they.” Besides E.B. White, Pinker doesn’t bother to cite the authorities he disagrees with. He seems to be holding up straw men for the pleasure of shooting them down, all while presenting his own personal opinion as the objective authority. His big reveal is that language changes over time and that the rules of 1900 are not the rules of 2000, which isn’t a revelation to anyone except Pinker himself.

What makes a good grammar book is utility. What makes a good instruction manual is clear ideas expressed in a straightforward way. What makes good style is something THE SENSE OF STYLE will never teach you.

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rating: 1 star

I recommend Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty or The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers by Bridget McKenna instead of this book.

A Holiday Gift For You

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Instead of a book review this week, I have a present for you. It’s a short story.

I’ve always loved taking fairy tales and folk tales and turning them on their heads, and this time, I played with the big December holiday myth. The story is called Gratitude, and it was originally published in a paperback anthology called Fantastical Visions. I recently got the rights back and now, if you have any kind of ereader, you can read it for free.

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Here are the links. Thank you for reading!

Amazon Kindle (US)

Amazon UK

Barnes and Noble Nook

Kobo

Apple iBooks

I’ll be back after Christmas with a new book review. I’m looking forward to sharing many more how-to books with you in the new year.

Peace, love, and key lime pie,

Alex

105 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block by Justin Arnold

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I’m not a person who believes in writer’s block. I have never faced a blank page I couldn’t conquer, and I’m not afraid to write garbage to clean up in later drafts. But I found 105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK valuable anyway. It’s not a book of games or meaningless exercises. It’s full of practical things that I can use even when the words are flowing freely.

Most blocks are caused by writers trying to edit while they write. It’s impossible to do and therefore the writer doesn’t produce anything. Most of Arnold’s tips are designed to distract or defeat the internal editor so the creative side of the writer can get to work. Some of the tips are well-worn, like playing music or having word-count goals. Some were new to me, like imagining a celebrity narrating your book, or writing very long or very short sentences, to shake up your usual thought patterns.

Arnold also wants writers to pay attention to our general health. It’s easier to write when you’ve had an adequate supply of fresh air, exercise, sleep, and food. Arnold advocates outdoor walks, good sleep habits, and lots of tea. Many of his tips involve doing this or that while waiting for the kettle to boil or the tea to steep.

I liked the format of the book, with the tip in bold, followed by a longer explanation of why each idea works. However, it would have been nice to have a table of contents to find a particular idea. The book is called 105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK, but there are probably only fifty unique tips in this book. After all, there isn’t much difference between “write a postcard to your character” and “write a memo to your character.”

Although I don’t need any help busting writer’s block, I still found this book useful and rather fun. I’ll use some of Arnold’s ideas to freshen up my prose, hone my writing skills, and keep my internal editor at bay,

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

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