Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block

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Back in the 1980s, Block wrote the “fiction” column for Writer’s Digest, sharing short essays about the writing craft and a writer’s life. SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is a collection of some of those columns, first published as a book in 1988. At last, it’s now available as an audiobook, read by Richard Neer, who reads with a delightful cadence and knows exactly how to deliver Block’s wry humor. The material itself isn’t new, but Block’s advice has aged well, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can hold its own against newer how-to books on the shelves. In many cases, Block’s classic instruction is better than the new stuff.

SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is divided into four sections. The first two deal with the nuts and bolts of fiction writing. Block covers things like the use of flashbacks, how to incorporate backstory, techniques for sex scenes and fight scenes, and how to make a reader identify with your characters. The second two sections are about a writer’s mindset and lifestyle. Fear, procrastination, and perfectionism all get a chapter here, and Block also discusses rejections, budgets, schedules, and how to believe in yourself.

Block often pretends he’s addressing a room full of students, even giving them names and allowing them to ask questions. But reading SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB never feels like sitting in a classroom. It feels like grabbing coffee with a friend. Block offers gentle advice based on his own experience, and he’s more interested in giving options than giving a to-do list. His advice is practical, inspirational, and is delivered with warmth and wit.

I’m also surprised at how timeless it all is. Yes, there are references to typewriters and photocopies and print magazines and waiting on editors and other things that modern writers simply never deal with. But I found it charming. And the lessons still apply, even if the examples Block uses are outdated. He goes on at length about buying the best typewriter paper he can afford, but what’s important about that story isn’t the paper. It’s the idea of valuing yourself as a writer—of putting your writing first.

Block is an icon in the writing community, and every writer I know looks up to him—for good reason. Whenever I review one of Lawrence Block’s books on the Writing Slices blog, I get lots of comments from writers who say that Block was their first writing teacher—either through his magazine columns or his how-to books. Those comments always make me smile, and I always respond the same way. “He was my first teacher too,” I say. “It looks like we both started in a good place.”

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SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book


[Quick reminder: my 5-part online class is still open, and the first class is free! More info here.]

I’m Teaching a Free Class, and You’re Invited!

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It’s time to type those two magic words: THE END. And I’m teaming up with author Lara Zielin to help you do exactly that.

If you’ve ever struggled with “What should I write?” or “What happens next?” or “Gah, I’m not sure I can do this!” then this class is for you. It’s a self-paced, online class. It’s easy, fun, and super affordable.

So what do you get for $39.95? You get five classes of awesomeness, that’s what you get. And the first class is on me! That’s right. The first class is totally free for you, and you don’t have to sign up or create an account or any of those other silly things. Just click and watch, friends!

I’m bringing the nuts and bolts of the novel-writing METHOD to the table, including plot points and character development insights.

Lara is bringing the breakthrough book-writing MINDSET front and center, using the Author Your Life method to help you connect to your highest, most creative self. She will show you how to overcome any obstacle that is keeping you from the page.

I’m telling you, this is a winning combo!

If you’re doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year, or if you just need some help jump-starting your novel, then you’ll want to sign up for our entire series called Yes We Can-owrimo!

It’s time to lay the foundation for getting your novel done, once and for all.

See you in class!

Your friend,

Alex K.

Writing Killer Cover Copy by Elana Johnson

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Many authors have no trouble spinning out stories of 70,000 words or longer, but freak out when it comes to writing a 200 word description of that same novel. They either get super vague, telling the reader everything except what the book’s about, or they get super detailed, trying to cram every plot point of the story into two paragraphs. Neither of these approaches will sell books.

WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is meant for indie authors who want to write better book descriptions for online retailers, but Johnson’s approach will work equally well for authors who want to write query letters that will entice agents and editors. Before going indie, Johnson herself was traditionally published and wrote for the Query Tracker blog, so I believe her approach—with minor tweaking—works in both situations.

Johnson breaks down the process step by step, showing writers what they need to include in their cover copy and what they don’t. And just like good cover copy itself, WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is short, to the point, and useful.

Johnson writes in a very casual tone, with lots of digressions and extremely lame jokes that grew more tiresome as the book went on. I understand the value of humor when trying to tackle a difficult subject, but only when the humor works. Johnson’s jokes were as cringe-worthy as watching a stand-up comic bomb on stage night after night. Luckily, the central instruction holds up and the cornball jokes didn’t get in the way of the information.

Johnson suggests that writers start with a tagline—a one-sentence “grabber.” Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that taglines are effective. She then breaks down the four sections of a good book description: the hook, the set-up, the conflict, and the consequence. Johnson provides examples and exercises so writers can make sure that every part of their cover copy works.

Publishing is a strange business, and writers don’t control much. We can’t control what’s hot today, or how Amazon changes its algorithms, or if we score a BookBub feature. What we can control is our own product. The quality of our books and the way we present them to the market is completely up to us, and WRITING KILLER COVER COPY will help writers learn this essential skill.

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WRITING KILLER COVER COPY can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Write Naked by Jennifer Probst

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One of the staples of weekend writers’ conferences is the keynote speech, in which a bestselling author details her path to fame. The speech is always full of dramatic moments, near-victories, crushing rejections, and then finally, publication, chart-climbing, and happy ever after. There is always much humor and wisdom along the way.

Like most writers, I have a bottomless appetite for these speeches. I find other writers and their process fascinating and I love a good origin story. WRITE NAKED is like the best of these keynotes in the form of a book.

Probst is a bestselling romance writer, but very few chapters in this book are specific to romance. And the majority of the book isn’t craft related anyway. It’s mostly lifestyle stuff, like how to believe in yourself, handle jealousy, be graceful on social media, and juggle a writing schedule.

Probst gets real about the fantasy of being a bestselling author. We’d all like the trappings of success—bestseller lists, fawning editors, mobs of fans, lots of money. But at the end of the day, every single writer has to sit alone in a room and write. Probst pinpoints a moment when she swore to her husband that her current work-in-progress was so bad that it would tank her career and she’d never write again. This happened after she topped the New York Times bestseller list, which just goes to show that it can happen to anyone.

Probst does a lot of this, saying the quiet part out loud so we can hear it too. She details the guilt she feels when she neglects her family to write, the way writers spend so much time alone that they start to get a bit agoraphobic, how hard it is to actually finish a book, and the dirty little secret that we like some of our books more than others.

But WRITE NAKED is also a remarkably upbeat book. Being a writer truly is the best job in the world and Probst is honest about that too. She never ignores the hard work involved, but she’s sure that if she can do this work, so can you.

Will Probst teach you how to write a novel? Not really. But she will hold your hand, dry your tears, and inspire you every step of the way.

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WRITE NAKED can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Hook Your Readers by Tamar Sloan

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The subtitle of HOOK YOUR READERS promises “12 Proven Strategies to Write a Best-Selling Book.” But what Sloan delivers are twelve things that all novels have in common, whether they are bestsellers or midlist novels. Things like conflict, emotions, a hero who wants something, questions, and plot twists are things that all fiction has, so it’s silly to claim that they are unique to bestsellers.

Nobody will be amazed that novels need conflict. Nobody will be surprised that novels need strong emotion, but Sloan acts as if these are groundbreaking insights. In scant chapters of just a few pages each, she sketches out her twelve “discoveries,” illustrating them with snatches of bestselling novels to prove her points (that didn’t need proving).

There isn’t any instruction in this how-to book. Telling a reader that books need conflict and then showing them an example of conflict doesn’t provide any instruction whatsoever. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, but—again—they teach how to describe fiction rather than produce fiction.

Sloan is a psychologist, and has attempted to apply her training to an instructional how-to. The problem is, knowing why something works is not the same as being able to teach others how to do it. And having extremely shallow material means she doesn’t have anything to teach anyway.

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Hook Your Readers can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Hooked by Les Edgerton or Hit Lit by James W. Hall instead of this book.

 

Successful Self-Publishing by Joanna Penn

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When I self-published my first book, I didn’t know exactly how to do it. But I figured that the Amazon self-publishing platform was fairly intuitive, and that if I got horribly stuck I could google the answer. Besides, if I really screwed it up, I could always go back and fix it later. On the internet, there are endless do-overs. So I gleefully jumped in without much instruction and started publishing my own novels.

I soon found out that not everyone shares this attitude. I’ve met many first-time authors who are terrified. They don’t know the first thing about formatting and uploading their own books and rather than give it a try, they become stuck and do nothing. Or worse, they pay thousands of dollars to scam vanity publishing companies to do what they could do themselves for free.

Enter Penn and SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING. This is the book that beginners need. It’s not about the why, it’s about the how. Penn assumes authors have a polished, professionally edited and well-covered book, but simply need a basic primer to go from there. This is self-publishing 101, and it covers everything authors need to know to get a manuscript from their computers to online stores.

Authors could find all this information out online by going from website to website, chasing pieces of it all over the internet, or they can get SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING and have it all in one place. Penn covers the nuts and bolts of indie publishing, including how to format a book, how to get a cover, whether you should stick with just Amazon or sell at all retailers, and how to price your book.

Penn also has a breakdown of the costs of publishing. Editing, formatting, and cover design will all cost the author something, but putting your book on sale at retailers is free. (Retailers take a cut of each sale.) It’s important for authors to understand what to spend money on and what not to, so they don’t get scammed.

The second half of SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING covers marketing—another thing that scares new authors. Authors can spend money on advertising, spend time doing content marketing (blogging, guest blogging, etc.) or both. Penn is realistic about how and when marketing efforts can help an author, and when it would be better to just write more books.

The self-publishing boom is still in its first decade, and things change all the time. Some of Penn’s specific advice might become dated, but the underlying principals she teaches won’t. Her advice boils down to, “Do what you can, hire out what you can’t do yourself, and don’t get scammed.”

And then, step by step, she tells you exactly how to do it.

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Successful Self-Publishing can be found here. (The ebook is currently free)

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning authors

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I recommend this book

 

 

 

 

The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell

 

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Starting a novel is easy. Ending one is hard. Bringing a narrative of 70,000+ words to a satisfying conclusion is a high-wire act that demands an epic showdown, deep character change, tying up loose ends, and an emotional resolution. No wonder every writer has files of half-finished manuscripts on her computer.

But Bell is here to help. THE LAST FIFTY PAGES zeroes in on that all-important third act. Bell discusses the mechanics of endings, which most writers already know how to do: good guy and bad guy face off, one of them wins. But Bell goes far beyond the mechanics. He’s more interested in the purpose of endings. Tying up the plot is only a small part of that.

Bringing things to a satisfying conclusion means looking through the novel for moments of character change, and then amplifying them at the last moment. Bell gives examples from stories that work, from Huckleberry Finn to the Maltese Falcon, showing examples of this technique done well. Character change is what gives the ending—and the entire novel—emotional resonance.

Bell also discusses the different kinds of endings. Different genres have different requirements for their endings and one size does not fit all. Sometimes the protagonist wins. Sometimes she loses. Sometimes she wins but at too high a cost. Sometimes she loses one thing but wins another. Bell uses examples of well-known books and movies to illustrate his points. I’m a big fan of well-chosen examples, since that’s how I learn best.

Bell has a short chapter on ending blunders, but does not dwell too much on it, which I also appreciate. It’s important to know what not to do, but instructors need to go beyond that, to teach writers what they should do instead, and Bell really delivers here.

There are numerous ways to get to those magical two words: the end, With THE LAST FIFTY PAGES along as a guide, a writer will get there, and she’ll make herself—and her readers—happy along the way.

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THE LAST FIFTY PAGES can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book