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

 

The Storymatic by Brian Mooney

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Most books of writing prompts leave me cold. I’ve done a few I’ve enjoyed, but most of them seem to take themselves too seriously. Or maybe I take myself too seriously when I attempt them. Either way, I don’t usually find canned prompts very exciting. But then I came across THE STORYMATIC, created by writing teacher Brian Mooney. It’s just about the coolest way of doing writing exercises I can imagine.

THE STORYMATIC is a box of five hundred cards with words on them. Half are gold cards, which are the character prompts. Some are professions, like “astronaut” or “dentist.” Some are character traits, such as “follower” or “person who refuses to fit in” or “partygoer.”

Here’s the fun part. You always take two character cards. So you might end up with “librarian / caretaker of an elephant” or “zombie / mistaken for a movie star” or “musician / security guard.” I love this, because you’re sure to get an unusual protagonist with something unresolved in her life. Unlike most writing prompts where the character and situation seem one-dimensional, with THE STORYMATIC, you’re setting up internal conflict for the character before the story even gets started.

The other half of the cards are orange. They’re the situation cards with things like “UFO sighting,” or “supermarket after hours” or simply “glasses.” You could take two of these cards, too, but one should be enough for a quick writing exercise.

THE STORYMATIC comes with a booklet that suggests ways to play with the cards, but writers already know what to do with them. Boxes full of fun words and phrases are writer catnip, and we’ll use them in ways their creators never expected.

You’re probably already familiar with the party games that rely on a similar concept. I’d say THE STORYMATIC cards are somewhere between the banality of Apples to Apples and the weird raunchiness of Cards Against Humanity. These cards are interesting, and each one suggests a story begging to be written.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this product.

 

 

 

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block

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WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT was the book that jump-started my career as a novelist and remains my favorite how-to book. In my review of the original edition, I rated it four stars, which would have been a perfect five if the book weren’t a bit outdated. (It was written in the 1970s.)

Earlier this year, I emailed Lawrence Block to ask him if he would ever update the book. He emailed back and said it was something he’d like to do. In the acknowledgements of WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL, he very generously gives me credit for giving him the idea, but I believe my email was simply the tipping point for him, since writers have been asking for a new edition for years.

WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL isn’t an update in the strictest sense. It’s an expansion. Block has reproduced his original text as-is, while adding commentary to reflect the new world of writing. In other hands, this could be clunky, but Block makes it work. It helps that he is one of the authors who has successfully made the leap from traditional to self publishing. He still has a foot in each world and is able to take a clear-eyed view of the modern writing landscape.

The section on publication is where Block did the most updating. The craft of writing novels hasn’t changed, but the way we get those novels into readers’ hands has changed tremendously. Block has added three new chapters—one each on the pros and cons of self-publishing and one on the nuts and bolts of doing it yourself. He wisely recognizes how quickly things move in today’s publishing world and points readers toward websites with up-to-date information.

The other chapters have much less commentary added to them. My beloved chapters on plotting, characters, reading like a writer, and developing solid work habits are as helpful as ever, and the commentary is sprinkled in with a light touch. Block offers a cautionary tale here, a bit of insight there, and a joke as often as he can get away with it. As I was reading, I got the delightful sensation that I was reading my own dog-eared original edition while Lawrence Block himself sat next to me offering witty asides.

WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL is like having a pocket-sized mentor you can consult any time. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

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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 and intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

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Sherlock Holmes. Scarlett O’Hara. Hannibal Lecter. Harry Potter. These are characters so fascinating and so believable, it’s as if they exist outside their books—as if they are real. Even if we never create such iconic characters, every writer can make her characters deeper, more relatable, and more interesting on the page. Doing so will also help with plotting, elevating every part of the book.

DYNAMIC CHARACTERS is divided into three parts. The first focuses on the externals. What is the character’s name? How does a character look and sound? Where does she live and what does she do?  The second part tackles the internal life of the character—her thoughts and attitudes. This is also where Kress discusses villains. The  third part is about the way character intersects with plot. Point of view comes into play here, as well as minor characters and the way character change is the strongest element of any good plot.

Kress illustrates her points with many examples from both classic and contemporary books. All her examples are positive ones, showing what works instead of what does not. She also explains why they work the way they do. After all, it’s no use having an example of a technique if the writer doesn’t know how to use it. Kress is careful to explain what is gained and what is lost by each narrative choice.

Kress also tackles touchy questions like the problem with anti-heroes, the risks of basing a character on a real person, and when the author’s assumptions about people can get him in trouble.

DYNAMIC CHARACTERS has a wealth of information, but it never feels overwhelming. Kress has broken the process of character creation into simple steps, but they are more like tools to use than a formula to follow. She explains why certain conventions exist, but isn’t dogmatic about it. She also shows us what the exceptions are and why they work.

I love all the characters I’ve created. I’m sure you do, too. We love spending time with these imaginary people who are very real to us. With DYNAMIC CHARACTERS as our guide, we can make them become real to readers, too.

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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

Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell

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It is a writer’s pet peeve. Editors and agents insist they are looking for “a fresh voice” but no one can agree on what that means. Some say it’s a writer’s personality on the page, or a unique style, or a combination of character and setting and word choice. Most people refuse to define it at all, just shoving more and more examples of “a strong voice” at a writer in hopes that she’ll intuit the rest. But without a working definition, how is a writer supposed to develop her voice?

VOICE attempts to bridge the gap between example and knowledge by providing specific exercises. Bell uses acting techniques to help an author truly inhabit the character he’s writing about. By understanding the character on a deep level, sharing the same emotional space as the character, and even assuming the character’s physical gestures, the distinct voice of the character will emerge.

Bell encourages authors to keep a voice journal, jotting down interesting turns of phrase and impressions of people. He also discusses the pros and cons of using a “voiceless voice,” which is a dispassionate narrator telling a story from an emotional distance.

Bell then takes a detour into techniques for writing itself. He talks about ways for writers to write more, more happily, and get more words onto the page. It seemed odd to have several chapters with vague cheerleading plunked into the middle of an otherwise good book full of concrete advice for writing with a more distinct voice.

Bell wraps up with examples from every type of writing including YA and literary fiction as well as the expected genres like mystery and romance. However, here, Bell makes the same mistake he complains about. He piles on the examples without analyzing them to show why they work. He breezes from one to another, barely discussing them. And while the snippets he chooses to highlight are stellar, just showing a writer what’s already been done doesn’t help her do the same.

When I finished VOICE, I turned back to the opening chapters, which are the strongest part of the book, and clearly the part that Bell is the most excited to share with writers. I’m eager to try some of the exercises he recommends, to add my own fresh voice to my prose.

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Rating: 3 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 or Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton

 

Writing in Flow by Susan K. Perry

 

Writers love to get lost in their work. There is something so satisfying about being fully inside the story, where we’re at the top of our creative game and each word follows effortlessly from the last. When we’re in this state, the rest of the world disappears and we lose track of time. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” Artists call it flow—a word used by the famous researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We’ve all experienced it at least once. Most of us would like to experience it more.

Perry has some good news for us. Achieving flow is not accidental. We don’t have to wait for the muses to show up and grace us with that blissful state. We can deliberately court it. Perry shows us how, with research interspersed with quotes from over seventy working novelists and poets.

Perry gives us five tricks—she calls them keys—to getting into flow. 1.) Have a compelling reason to write. 2.) Take risks and try new things to increase your confidence as a writer. 3.) Loosen up. 4.) focus fully on the writing. 5.) Let go of judgment.

WRITING IN FLOW helped me understand my own writing process. Now I know why short writing sessions don’t work for me. I can get twice as much done in one two-hour block than I can in four half hour blocks, even though it’s the same length of time. I spend a long time getting the first two hundred words written, but after that, something shifts and I take off. Now that I’ve read WRITING IN FLOW, I will relax a bit when those first couple of paragraphs are a mighty struggle. If I just stick with it, flow is right around the corner.

I enjoyed the snippets of interviews that Perry included, but they tended to bog down the narrative at times. It was nice to see the mix of perspectives, although sometimes she quotes four or five authors in a row all making the same point. Also, the reader should know that the first half of the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Perry wants writers to fully understand flow before trying to induce it. But that isn’t all bad. Understanding flow helps us to recognize it when we see it and court it more regularly.

Writing in flow is more than just “letting go” or “listening to the muses.” Perry reminds us that flow only happens when we are working at the top of our abilities. She’s trying to get writers to use both the creative and the analytical sides of their brains. It’s only when they work hand in hand can we achieve greatness in our writing, and enjoy doing so.

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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: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book