Story Physics by Larry Brooks

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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.

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Rating: 1 star

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

 

Contagious by Jonah Berger

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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.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices business

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I recommend this book.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

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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.

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Rating: 2 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices business

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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

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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.

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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.

 

 

Discover Your Brand by Emlyn Chand

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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.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices business

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

 

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

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Most of us get up several hours before our workday starts, we rush around getting ourselves and our family ready for the day, we commute to work, then breathe a sigh of relief that we made it and take a moment for a cup of coffee at our desk or in the break room, savoring the first true “me time” of the day.

Vanderkam says it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we reversed the order of things and had our “me time” first? Much like the advice to pay yourself first before your salary is spent on non-essentials, getting up a bit earlier or rearranging our morning schedule can help us do the truly meaningful things in our lives, not just the necessary.

Anyone can do a task when a boss wants results or client’s deadline is looming. But doing a task that only matters to us (like writing a book) is harder. Beginning writers are not rewarded for writing, and most labor for years with no outside support at all. However, new research has shown that difficult tasks that require intrinsic motivation are easier when done first thing in the morning. Vanderkam suggests that this is perfect thing to concentrate on before breakfast. Activities that represent our highest goals, but that the world does not reward, are best undertaken before we are interrupted, undermined, and rescheduled.

There are a lot of concrete suggestions in this small ebook for managing your new routine, but it all comes down to making those morning rituals a habit. However, WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO BEFORE BREAKFAST is not only for morning people. Vanderkam talks a lot about getting up early, but truly, it’s not about when you rise, but how you prioritize your day. It’s about using those first hours productively, whether they come before dawn or not.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book

Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo

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Sooner or later, most writers will be called on to talk to a group. Whether it’s teaching a class, doing a talk at a bookstore, visiting a school, or being the guest on a podcast, public speaking is a skill writers need. I’ve done a fair amount of it myself, but I’m always trying to improve.

I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks lately, since these eighteen-minute talks are considered the gold standard. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, although the talks can be about nearly anything and each speaker has a different style. All the speeches I’ve seen have been terrific, and I hoped that TALK LIKE TED would give me some insight into how these talks are put together and why they succeed.

However, TALK LIKE TED is an extremely simple overview of public speaking best practices, with a lot of blow-by-blow summaries of TED talks that Gallo likes. The how-to advice isn’t bad for beginners: be passionate about your topic, tell a story, teach new things, add humor, keep slides simple, and practice a lot. However, to be at a TED level, one has to go beyond the basics, and Gallo never does.

The subtitle of TALK LIKE TED is “The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.” This is somewhat misleading. Gallo isn’t really sharing pubic-speaking tips in general, but simply showing us what all TED talks have in common. It’s more about what a TED talk is rather than how to give one. As such, it’s crammed with anecdotes, with Gallo constantly straying from the main point to share the details of yet another talk.

TALK LIKE TED has some solid advice for someone who has never given a speech before. It’s well-presented, but it does not break any new ground. It seems at once too basic and too specific. It seems geared toward helping you make a single speech, rather than helping you becoming an overall more effective speaker.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices business