Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

SpillingPic

I’ve written nearly a hundred fifty reviews on the Writing Slices blog, but they’ve all been books for adults. I never considered books for kids until a friend who is becoming a teacher raved about SPILLING INK, and I knew I had to check it out. I’m glad I did. Now, when I meet a younger writer who is looking for a good how-to book, I’ll know what to recommend.

SPILLING INK is aimed at kids about nine to twelve years old. Mazer and Potter meet the kids where they are, rather than where the adults think they should be. There is nothing in SPILLING INK about making pretty sentences or fixing spelling or knowing the parts of speech. It’s all about finding interesting stories and getting them on the page. The examples are age-appropriate, featuring things like sleepover parties, bad camping trips, and a cousin who burps the alphabet.

Unlike authors who are writing for adults, Mazer and Potter take nothing for granted. They include tips on how to put those very first words on the page, why interesting situations are more important than fancy words, and how to convince your characters (and yourself) that they are real. Along the way, they cover everything a writer needs to know, from plot, characterization, and revision to the good habits that will help writers for a lifetime. And they do it without ever talking down to young writers.

The exercises at the end of the chapters are called “I dare you.” They are not much different from the exercises in many writing books, but thinking of them as dares makes them feel more like healthy challenges that are okay to fail, rather than a slog to get through.

SPILLING INK is a complete manual for young writers that will guide them from their very first sentence to polishing the final draft. Kids who love to write will love the sound advice and useful examples. Kids who hate to write will love the encouragement. Kids who are indifferent to writing will love the humor. In short, this is the perfect book for all young writers, and this grown-up writer loved it too.

—-

Rating: 5 stars

—-

Pie Slices: 5 slices craft

—-

This book is best for: beginning writers

—-

I recommend this book.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Truby-book-jacket

THE ANATOMY OF STORY is not for “pantsers” (writers who write without an outline). It’s an extremely technical manual for people who like to have their whole story planned out ahead of time, including every plot point, character change, motif and theme. Following Truby’s method will give you a detailed map of your entire plot.

The problem is, Truby’s method strips story down to bare mechanics, bleeding all the life out of it. I’m someone who loves to enslave herself to an outline, and I found Truby’s method tedious, so I can only imagine what a seat-of-the-pants writer will think.

Truby makes some things more complex than they need to be, and some things just downright incomprehensible. For example, I never did get a handle on what Truby meant by “designing principle.” It seemed to be a mashup of theme and mythical structure. It’s a pretty useless concept anyway, as many books and movies have been written without the author knowing what the “designing principle” is supposed to be.

Truby is more sure-footed when he’s talking about setting and plot. His ideas are concrete with many examples. However, Truby shows what elements all stories have in common without ever explaining how to put those elements into practice. Describing what a good screenplay needs then giving examples of movies that worked well is not the same as teaching someone how to use those same elements in her own story. Writing is more than reverse-engineering from examples, no matter how comprehensive the examples.

THE ANATOMY OF STORY  is one of those neither-here-nor-there books. It might be useful for intermediate writers who have finished a few novels or screenplays and read a few other how-to books. But those same writers would quickly outgrow anything Truby has to teach. THE ANATOMY OF STORY might help a certain kind of writer (those looking for “the one true way”) but for most of us, it’s too rigid and more likely to frustrate than inspire.

—–

Rating: 3 stars

—–

Pie slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

 

Story Physics by Larry Brooks

image3

It’s hard to find the true advice in STORY PHYSICS, since what little information it contains is buried in overstatement, jargon, and unclear definitions. Even the most straightforward concept—find great plots, fill them with great characters who have something at stake—gets so twisted by Brooks that it’s hard to see what point he’s trying to make.

I was well into chapter two when I realized Brooks was still selling me the book I’d just bought. It was like one of those hour-long infomercials where the first twenty minutes are spent promising you that you’ll learn amazing things about this incredible new product without actually showing you the product.

As much as he sells himself, there’s a defensiveness to Brooks that’s extremely off-putting. When an author repeatedly tells you what his book isn’t, or feels he has to justify his approach, or scolds authors for doing it wrong, I worry. I’d rather read books that teach what to do than warn what not to do. And shouldn’t a teacher write for people who want his help, rather than criticize those who don’t?

But my real problem with STORY PHYSICS is that Brooks is deliberately trying to make simple concepts difficult. Principles of good storytelling are universal. Things like high stakes, rising action, and an exciting climax leading to the hero’s personal growth are not new. They have been in place as long as stories have been told. So why twist them, rename them, and misrepresent them?

STORY PHYSICS is full of jargon and made-up terms, which Brooks uses to make his concepts seem more elevated. Using common terms and giving them new names doesn’t make them any clearer to the reader. Nor will it make old ideas new. All it does is confuse the reader, making Brooks’ points harder to follow.

Not only is there nothing new here, Brooks doesn’t even offer a new way of looking at old ideas. Even if there are one or two good ideas buried in this book, nothing in STORY PHYSICS is worth the effort of reading it.

—–

Rating: 1 star

—–

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

 

Contagious by Jonah Berger

ContagiousCover

Word of mouth is always more effective than advertising, and that is especially true when it comes to books. We’re much more likely to read a novel based on a friend’s recommendation than an ad. And if everyone we know is reading a particular book, we want to read it, too. But as authors, how do we get that buzz started?

Berger says there are six things that will get people talking about your product and what it does. Social currency is the most important. Does it make people feel cool when they discuss this thing? The second is triggers. People need a reason to talk about it. Emotion is a big factor. We need to be fired up about something in order to start talking about it, because who wants to share something boring?

Things have to be public to influence behavior. Think of those “I voted” stickers as an example. The product or information also has to have practical value. People want to help people by sharing tips. And finally, things go viral when they have an interesting story attached. Everyone loved the “United Breaks Guitars” video because it told a gripping story. To create buzz, things don’t need all six factors, but the more they have, the more likely they are to go viral.

All of this might seem simple, even obvious, but that’s what’s great about CONTAGIOUS. Berger is able to take complex subjects and explain their conclusions in snappy summaries, using interesting examples. Berger has done all the research, and he offers insight as to why things have already gone viral.

However, he doesn’t tell you how to use these insights yourself. There are no step-by-step instructions here. That’s because each product is unique. But if you understand the principles and see why they work, you should be able to apply them to your own situation. Of course, there’s no guarantee that incorporating all six factors into your marketing will make your content viral, but it certainly ups the odds.

CONTAGIOUS isn’t a how-to book for writers. Berger was speaking more to companies with everyday products to sell. Even so, he has already changed the way I share information about my novels. I also get why some of my blog posts and social media updates were widely shared but did not lead to book sales. The content was fine on its own, but never tied directly to my novels.

Even though it wasn’t written for fiction writers, I found CONTAGIOUS a very useful book. Berger shows that you don’t need a huge budget or “social mavens” to create buzz. You just need some creativity and a good handle on why some things are—or can be made—contagious.

—–

rating: 4 stars

—–

pie slices: 8 slices business

—–

I recommend this book.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

image2

I enjoy general nonfiction books that demystify scientific research, especially when the author uses anecdotes to illustrate a point. I loved Duhigg’s previous book and thought SMARTER FASTER BETTER would be similar. I’m a writer who is trying to fit her creative life around other responsibilities, and I’m always looking for new productivity hacks, so the subtitle, “The secrets of being productive in life and business” appealed to me.

However, SMARTER FASTER BETTER isn’t a book about productivity. I’m not really sure what it is, except a collection of interesting narratives. Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and finding cool stories to report is what he’s trained to do. However, most of the time, I couldn’t figure out what idea the stories were meant to illustrate.

I don’t want my books dumbed down or explained point-by-point. But I want the examples to make sense. Even when I extracted meaning from the stories in SMARTER FASTER BETTER, the following chapter often contradicted what I’d surmised. For example, Duhigg insists that Saturday Night Live was so great because the cast members felt safe being in such a close-knit, stable group. However, he also states that the movie Frozen was creatively stuck until the Disney bosses shook things up by changing the dynamic of the team. So, which method produces hit entertainment?

Worse, at no time does Duhigg tell stories about people who stopped wasting time or put their time to better use (my definition of “productive”). The people he profiles—a poker champ, an airline pilot, the writers of Frozen—all worked extremely long hours to achieve success. They all put in an obscene amount of effort at the cost of personal and family time. That doesn’t sound smarter or better to me.

SMARTER FASTER BETTER has some good ideas in it, but they are crammed into a small appendix in the back. Duhigg explains that you need big goals, broken down into action steps. Those closest to the problem should have the decision-making power to solve it. The hardest part of any endeavor is getting started. Feeling in control will make you more motivated.

Nothing in this book is new, nor is it particularly interesting. This is probably why Duhigg relied on gripping stories of plane crashes, military intelligence failures, and high-stakes poker games to carry the book. They are wonderful tales well-told, but not something that will help anyone become more productive.

—–

Rating: 2 stars

—–

Pie slices: 8 slices business

—–

I recommend Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews or Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.

 

Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall

28353260._UY500_SS500_.jpg

I have been searching for a good, basic book about writing dialogue since I started the Writing Slices blog in 2011. I’ve read some decent books and some awful ones, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE that I found a truly great one.

WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE is organized well, starting with some simple tweaks to make dialogue better. By turning statements into questions and giving each character an agenda, dull dialogue becomes more vivid. Hall progresses through more subtle ways to enhance dialogue by shortening sentences, adding fun one-liners, and using body language. The final few chapters are advanced techniques, like using dialogue to show when someone is lying, informing without info-dumping, and using foreign accents respectfully.

Every chapter includes well-chosen examples, showing how small changes can make dialogue sing. Hall also quotes longer passages from her own novels to help show dialogue in a larger context. I wish she had included at least a few examples from other books, since every writer approaches dialogue differently, but this is a minor fault in an otherwise excellent book.

Hall includes writing exercises at the end of each chapter. Unlike some books where the exercises seem like an afterthought, the exercises in WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE were interesting and actually useful. Each one will only take a few minutes to do, but by completing them, a writer can instantly see improvement. Hall doesn’t just tackle the easy mistakes. She helps writers dig deep into the more nuanced flavors of dialogue, such as the ways that men and women speak differently, or the best uses of profanity, or when to start a story with dialogue.

Hall’s tone is encouraging, with good instruction that is never rigid. She knows there are numerous ways to achieve any effect, and that dialogue is only one tool in a writer’s toolbox. But when done well, the dialogue is what readers will remember.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book.

 

 

Discover Your Brand by Emlyn Chand

discover-your-brand-200x300

Many novelists resist the idea of author branding. “I’m a person, not a brand,” one might say. Or, “my writing is too creative to fit into a small box.” As a publicist, Chand has heard those reactions, but she’s quick to reassure writers that finding your brand isn’t about changing what you write just to sell books or win awards. Nor is it selling out your vision or writing the same book over and over.

Finding your brand is simply a shorthand way to tell potential readers the kind of book you write, and making sure you’re marketing your book to the readers who are interested in it. In a crowded marketplace, it’s essential to stand out, and having a consistent brand is the best way to guide the right readers to your books.

But how do you do that? I’ve read many marketing books that tell writers to “picture your ideal reader,” without helping you identify who that reader might be. But DISCOVER YOUR BRAND is full of ingenious exercises to tease out the answer. There are ways to find your books’ common denominator, discover the key things that readers of your genre are looking for, (and what they aren’t) and let readers know what they can find between the covers of your books.

The weakest part of DISCOVER YOUR BRAND is the chapter on finding your genre. It’s meant to be interactive, and by answering a few key questions, Chand promises to tell you the exact genre you’re writing. But the questions are vague, as are the categories. Most writers don’t need help figuring out if they’re writing romance or science fiction or fantasy. Writers do often need help teasing out the subgenres their books are in, since there’s a big difference between hardboiled and cozy mysteries, or cyberpunk and space opera. But Chand ignores subgenres altogether, so I’m not sure what the point of the chapter even is.

But once past that hurdle, Chand helps authors zero in on what truly defines their books. She guides you through the process of discovering what’s unique about you and your novels, and shows you how to wrap it all up in a carefully chosen phrase that tells readers at a glance what you’re all about.

Author branding, ultimately, is about making a promise to the reader and then keeping that promise. By telling the reader upfront what kind of book you are offering in a memorable way, you are helping to attract the exact readers you are looking for, because those readers are also looking for you.

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

Pie Slices: 8 slices business

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book.