Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John

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It’s the most maddening of rejection letters: “I didn’t connect with the story.” Or, “This is very good and well-written, but I didn’t fall in love with it.” Writers who have been writing and submitting for a while receive these rejections from editors and agents quite often. Their novels are close, but not quite ready.

If that’s you, St. John can help. Because what’s often lacking from these manuscripts is a sympathetic hero or heroine that the reader cares strongly about. What’s also often lacking is high stakes.

Most beginning writers quickly level up through the basics. They learn story structure, they nail their big turning points, and they keep a checklist of what not to do, making sure they don’t commit any big story sins. However, a writer can do all of that and still produce a novel that feels flat to the reader. It takes emotion and meaningful conflict to make a reader care, and high tension to make her keep turning pages.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT has six sections, covering conflict, emotion, setting, tension, dialogue, and characterization. Each section has several chapters diving deeply into the heart of what makes novels work. But St. John doesn’t just give instruction. She gives writers tools. She shows writers how to do research, how to take notes, and even how to watch television with an eye toward learning writing lessons. The exercises at the end of the chapters are meaningful—not just busywork.

The only bad thing about this book is that St. John uses too many examples from movies. I get why she did it (movies are shorthand for books) but I wish she’d included more examples from novels.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is perfect for intermediate writers: those who have the technical skills and are ready to make the leap to the next level. But it’s also a great book for beginners who are honing their skills and for advanced writers who need a reminder of what really makes their readers turn to the next page.

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WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is available here.
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Rating: 5 stars
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This book is best for: beginning writers
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I recommend this book.

 

Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

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In English class, many of us were taught that plot and character were separate things. They were even pitted against each other as well-meaning teachers spoke of stories that were either “plot driven” or “character driven.” Of course, we know one can’t exist without the other. The best novels are filled with fascinating characters doing amazing things. So why do we study them separately?

Even worse, writers are taught that you can structure a plot, but characters just arise organically. Weiland is here to put that nonsense to bed once and for all.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS shows writers how to craft a character just as carefully as they craft a plot. If you hate plotting because you’re a discovery writer (also known as a “pantser,”) you can map out the heroine’s emotional journey and the plot points will fall into place. If you love plotting, you can start there and make sure your heroine has the emotional turning points when she should.

Weiland breaks down the three types of character arcs: positive, negative, and flat. The positive change arc is the most popular. We see it in Hollywood movies and expect it from our genre fiction. Weiland shows how characters should change through a novel, with growth in each of the three acts. She also covers how minor characters change, and how to handle character arcs in trilogies and series. Using Weiland’s methods, a writer will not only create a fascinating protagonist, but one that is uniquely qualified to follow the plot.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS is amazing and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have lots of good books on my shelf about story structure and character creation, but this is the only one that considers them together. Many books pay lip service to the interaction between plot and character, but Weiland shows how they aren’t just linked, but interdependent. Character moves plot. Plot changes character. And Weiland shows you exactly how to integrate them into a perfect whole.

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CREATING CHARACTER ARCS 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.

The Dip by Seth Godin

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I didn’t expect to like this book. Godin tends to rub me the wrong way, and THE DIP is tiny, only 80 pages, so I thought it would be light on usefulness as well. But I took a chance, figuring I’d stop after a page or two.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. THE DIP was way better than I thought it would be. I read the whole thing in one sitting and took two pages of notes.

The main idea is that everybody quits things. We quit gyms, jobs, marriages, hobbies, and even our passions. Writers quit submitting manuscripts, or quit revising, or even quit writing. When do we quit? At precisely the wrong time. We quit when it gets hard. Almost everyone quits when it gets hard. The few that stay in, succeed.

Here’s the thing. Everyone has to pay their dues. No matter what. Writers need to spend hours and hours writing and learning the market and submitting manuscripts. Paying dues is just built in. But quitters pay all those dues and receive no benefits, while others pay all those dues, pay just a little more, and succeed.

But there’s a flipside to this. Sometimes quitting is good. If you’re in a dead-end job or sport or hobby or passion, where working harder and longer will simply lead to more of the same, getting out early is the best choice.

So how do you know which is which? Godin never explains. But you know what? He doesn’t have to. In our guts, we know when we need to double down, because we’re simply in a rough patch on the way to our dreams. We also know when we’re just fooling ourselves, coasting, spending a lot of energy being mediocre. In that case, it’s better to quit, to free up time and energy for attacking a worthy goal.

Godin says it this way: Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

Basic advice? Maybe. But it’s also advice that I—and probably many other people—needed to hear.

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THE DIP can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book.

The 5 Day Novel by Scott King

 

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First there was NaNoWriMo, where writers attempt to write a novel in a month. Then came the two-week novel. Now, King claims to have written his book in five days.

Rubbish.

Oh, I’m not saying King didn’t do it. I’m sure he did. But he did it as a stunt, just to see if he could. It’s not something he’ll continue doing regularly.

Just as writing an entire novel in five days was a stunt, this how-to book is a stunt as well. King gleefully tells us how he wrote his novel, all the while telling us not to attempt the same thing. King’s writing style also feels rushed and a bit breathless. He bounces quickly from one idea to another, using lots of exclamation points, like a guy who has consumed too many energy drinks and is now ready to jump off a cliff with a GoPro strapped to his head.

THE 5 DAY NOVEL isn’t all bad. King has some decent tips for time management, outlining, ignoring distractions, and not overthinking a rough draft.

But most of the advice is shallow, like “decide you’re a writer,” and “make time to write your novel” and my personal favorite: “Decide what you want to write about, and if you don’t know the subject well enough to write with authority, then learn more about it.” How is that for some dandy writing advice?

I’m all for books that teach me how to write faster while maintaining quality, but THE 5 DAY NOVEL is not one of those books.

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THE 5 DAY NOVEL can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book.

Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle

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Writing good description is tricky in fiction. To tell a story well, a writer has to handle exposition, backstory, characterization, passage of time, and a host of other things. Slipping in description without stopping the flow of the story is essential. Using description to actually further the story is next-level. DESCRIPTION AND SETTING will help writers see description not as a necessary evil or a story-stopper, but as an enhancement to deepen characterization, move plot, and make the setting feel real.

Rozelle speaks to writers at all levels. He explains basic concepts very well, but also teaches more experienced writers how to push themselves to make their descriptions do double or even triple duty. He covers character description, time and place, and how each genre deals with setting. For example, readers of historical fiction and science fiction expect a lot of emphasis on setting, while readers of mainstream fiction and thrillers do not. Rozelle gives advice about showing and telling, how to keep the story moving forward, how setting interacts with character, and how to use all five senses in our fiction.

Rozelle uses good examples of novels that handle description well, both in classic literature and modern fiction. He tells writers what pitfalls to avoid, but throughout, his tone is positive. He emphasizes what works, rather than what doesn’t. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, and most of them involve directly improving our works-in-progress. I loved how Rozelle skipped the empty theory to give writers specific action steps to apply to their current work.

DESCRIPTION AND SETTING includes a twelve-page appendix with bullet points covering the major ideas of each chapter for quick reference. Part of me wants to eat this book, or at least consume it so deeply that I never forget its lessons. But I will have to settle for copying the entire appendix and taping it above my computer, to remind me of what I learned, or what I thought I knew but forgot.

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DESCRIPTION AND SETTING is available 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.

Write Better, Faster by Monica Leonelle

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There are four ways writers can improve their productivity. They can write faster, they can write for more hours per day, they can do less editing, and they can hire ghost writers. Leonelle has done all of these things, but this book is focused on the first one. She greatly increased her writing speed through the use of several productivity hacks, and she’s eager to show others how she did it.

Right away, Leonelle busts the myth that speed and quality have anything to do with each other. She plans ahead and does multiple drafts. In the end, “but is it good?” is the wrong question to ask anyway. It’s not so much about whether the work is any good, it’s about whether it gets worse when writing faster. Leonelle suggests pushing the envelope on writing speed until quality begins to suffer, and then backing off a bit to land in the sweet spot where one is writing at her absolute capacity.

WRITE BETTER, FASTER has many tricks for increasing speed, starting with simply tracking results. Whatever is measured tends to increase, so keeping a spreadsheet to calculate words per hour is a great place to start. Leonelle is also a big fan of dictation, and claims to write up to 3,500 words per hour using Dragon Naturally Speaking. She also explains how to deal with writer’s block, procrastination, scheduling, and even travel, because pure speed won’t help a writer at all if the daily writing habit isn’t there.

It’s important to note that she only achieves this amazing writing speed through the use of extensive outlines. She outlines her complete novel first, then blocks out each scene with the major action, and finally, drafts the actual novel as quickly as she can.

Some writers might love WRITE BETTER, FASTER. Some writers might hate it. It depends on how your brain works. I liked it because Leonelle plans her books the same way I do. It’s a top-down approach that makes sense to me. But I imagine that more organic writers, who like to discover the story as they write, would think her approach was silly at best, and a waste of time at worst.

But if there’s one thing that all writers can agree on, it’s that we want to write more books. We all have more ideas than we’ll ever have time for. Learning to write faster is one way to make sure more of those books get written.

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WRITE BETTER, FASTER is available here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or 2,000 TO 10,000 by Rachael Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox

 

The 7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig

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Rettig is a writer in love with her own voice. Rather than give you tools for your writer’s toolbox, she wants to give you the tools, show you how to use them, explain why you should use them, tell you why you’ve been using them wrong all along, and then describe how everyone else is using the tools. The level of detail in THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC is exhausting.

For example, Rettig compares writing a novel to running a marathon. Her point is that you don’t just get up off the couch and run a marathon. You train for months. It’s the same with writing novels. You build endurance at the keyboard. That’s a valid point. However, in order to make it, she takes the reader through the entire brainstorming process she did with her class, listing everything a runner needs, right down to the hairband to keep long hair in a ponytail. It goes on for pages and pages, just to get to the blindingly obvious idea that authors—just like runners—need time, practice, and equipment. Rettig belabors every single point like this, from laughing at her own puns to defining common words to including useless diagrams.

THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC is poorly organized. Every chapter is broken into subsections, and the different sections constantly cross-reference one another, but in a haphazard way. One idea is never allowed to flow logically to the next. Despite the level of detail, the ideas were underdeveloped. It felt like I was reading someone’s outline or book proposal rather than a proper book.

There are a few good insights buried in here, but it’s a lot of work to unearth them. In case you’re wondering, here are the seven “secrets” (which aren’t a secret to anyone who has been a writer for more than five minutes).

  • Don’t be a procrastinator
  • Don’t be a perfectionist
  • Have the right equipment
  • Manage your time
  • Write many drafts quickly rather than one draft slowly
  • Have a community
  • Don’t let rejections bother you / self publish when you can

At least, I think those are the seven secrets. The chapter titles are so wordy that it was hard to nail down exactly what Rettig was trying to say in each one.

I’ve never said this about a book before, but I think this one needs a ghost writer. Rettig obviously has a lot of passion for teaching, but she’s become mired in details and can’t see which ones are important. There might be a good book hidden under the disorganization and wordiness, but as presented, THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC isn’t it.

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7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.