Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

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Vanderwarker is a personal friend of John Grisham, and over a casual lunch, Grisham made the mistake of saying, “Sure, I’ll help you with your novel.” Vanderwarker—a former ad man and author of six novel attempts—assumed that Grisham was in for a full mentorship, including reading his first drafts.

Grisham verbally sketches a complete outline for him and Vanderwarker gleefully sets to work, expecting that soon he’ll be driving a Porsche and will be booked on the Today show. But it’s telling that his dream is not to be famous for his novel. He dreams of being famous because John Grisham helped him write his novel.

Vanderwarker reproduces his full outline in WRITING WITH THE MASTER as well as excerpts from the novel, called Sleeping Dogs. It’s so full of rookie mistakes that it’s painful to read. At their next lunch, he learns brilliant insights from Grisham like “chuck out story elements that don’t directly relate to the plot” and “a novel has three acts, and the middle one is the toughest” and “show, don’t tell.” This is Writer 101, but to Vanderwarker, they are groundbreaking revelations. (I see why none of his six novel attempts were ever published.)

Even more painful is the fact that John Grisham is no editor. His editorial letters are reproduced in full, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know how to help Vanderwarker beyond vaguely saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Grisham spends dozens of hours going over Vanderwarker’s novel, but in the end, can only stomach half of it and declines to read the rest.

Vanderwarker doesn’t get the hint. He obviously worships Grisham and sincerely tries to implement his suggestions, but between Grisham’s hazy advice and Vanderwarker’s cluelessness, the novel doesn’t get much better.

After a year, Grisham finally tells Vanderwarker that he can’t help anymore. Vanderwarker interprets that as meaning Sleeping Dogs is ready and starts sending it out. It’s rejected by every agent in town. He puts the novel in a drawer and then has the clever idea of writing a book about what it’s like to write a book with John Grisham. This becomes WRITING WITH THE MASTER. It gets picked up by a small press and becomes Vanderwarker’s first published book. :::head desk:::

Billed as a how-to book full of good advice, WRITING WITH THE MASTER is actually the sad story of a groupie who’d rather piggyback on another man’s success than honestly learn the craft of writing for himself.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers or Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell instead of this book.

 

I Can’t Believe You Asked That by Phillip J. Milano

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I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT started as an online forum. Milano’s idea was to let people ask anything they wanted to know about the “other,” whether that meant race, age, sex, or class. He posted the questions and let people answer honestly, based on their experience. At the end, an expert weighed in, giving scientific research, statistics, and sometimes a reality check.

Because this is an edited version of the forum, the result is amazingly respectful. There are no racist attacks, no flame wars, no trolls or ugly politics. And the answers are wonderfully fearless. As humans, we are desperate to talk to one another, to try to understand, and admitting we don’t know something is a great first step.

The questions themselves are almost as illuminating as the answers, since they show the innate assumptions and prejudices of the people asking. An anonymous forum removes the burden of decorum, and people reveal what’s really on their minds.

Some of my favorite questions were things like, “Why are people in the Midwest assumed to be boring, uncultured idiots?” and “Why do so many gay men love The Wizard of Oz?” and “Why do Christian shows feature people with really big hair and lots of makeup?” and “Do white people really wash their hair every day?” There are also touchier questions about sex, race, disabilities, and culture clashes. It’s definitely a book for adults only, but those of us mature enough to handle it will come away surprised and enlightened.

I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT would be a great starting point for any writer hoping to expand their cast of characters in a realistic, respectful way. “Writing the other” is full of perils, and reading one book is no substitute for research, talking to people, and honestly engaging a world not your own. But sometimes we don’t even know what we don’t know, and stupid assumptions get in the way. Milano provides a safe, first step to breaking down some of those barriers in an entertaining package that a writer can keep on the shelf and refer to often.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is an odd combination of personal bragging, simple aphorisms, and “insights” that won’t be new to anyone who has read a single how-to book or even written one short story.

The premise of NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a good one. The idea is this: just because you wrote something, other people won’t necessarily want to read it. In fact, most people will go out of their way not to read your work. Writers have to earn the reader’s attention by writing something worth reading.

That’s a hard truth but a fair one. And it would have been great if Pressfield had continued in that vein, giving writers solid instruction on how to make their books and scripts worth reading. However, NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a mishmash of humblebrags about his past along with jaw-droppingly obvious instruction. He can’t seem to complete a thought, breaking into a new chapter every three or four paragraphs.

Pressfield has tried to make his instruction read like a story (he admits as much in the chapter called “Nonfiction is Fiction”). In order to do that, he pretends that his younger self was ignorant about some basic aspect of storytelling. And then, through careful reading and study and genius-level mentors, he learned better, and now he never makes that mistake again.

The “younger self” is supposed to be a proxy for the reader. It’s obvious that Pressfield himself was never that dumb, but he thinks his readers are. He thinks things like “action scenes must further the story” or “every genre has its own conventions” or “every story must have an all-is-lost moment” are new ideas that his fellow writers have never heard before.

If Pressfield’s premise is that nobody is owed a read, then I’m sorry to say that he didn’t earn mine. Nor should you feel obligated to read NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T when there are plenty of better books out there more worthy of your time.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend On Writing by Stephen King or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

Hit Lit by James W. Hall

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HIT LIT examines twelve mega-bestsellers of the twentieth century, showing what they have in common, and why they sold millions of copies. These are books that broke out on their own: not because of the author’s name (many were first novels) and not because of the movies made from them (the movies all came later). These books spent weeks and years on the bestseller lists because there was something in them that spoke to a huge number of people. Hall sets out to discover exactly what it is.

Hall has chosen his twelve books carefully, starting with Gone with the Wind in 1936 and ending with The Da Vinci Code in 2003. He also examines Jaws, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Exorcist, The Hunt for Red October, The Godfather, The Bridges of Madison County, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, The Dead Zone and The Firm.

By reading these books deeply and critically, analyzing them the exact same way he’d analyze classic literature, Hall has identified twelve key factors that all bestsellers have in common.

Every single one of them deals with fractured families. Each one focuses on a small story played out against a huge backdrop, such as one defecting submarine captain played out against the entire cold war. They cover hot-button issues that reflect our national psyche. They all have intricately described worlds (such as the Civil War south or the inner workings of a law firm or the details of a mafia family) that are so well-described we feel like we’ve been there. Each book also deals with sex and religion in some way.

The books are also fast-paced, emotionally charged, and have prose that is rather plain. There are some exceptions to Hall’s rules, but aren’t there always exceptions? Sometimes his insistence that all twelve books share all twelve elements was a stretch, but overall, his arguments were sound. I found myself thinking about more modern-day bestsellers such as The Martian and The Kite Runner, and darned if they didn’t check all the boxes, too.

That’s not to say that one could reverse-engineer a bestseller out of Hall’s rules, and he cautions writers against trying it. Any writer looking for a shortcut here will be disappointed. The books on the bestseller list have a sincerity to them that can’t be faked.

But that’s beside the point. HIT LIT is just plain fun to read, with insights on every page. HIT LIT teaches you how to be a more critical reader, even of the books critics dismiss. Hall likes these books, and treats them with respect, explaining them on a deep level that makes you want to read (or re-read) them all.

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Rating: 4 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

Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

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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.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 5 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

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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.

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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 Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

 

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.