The Story Equation by Susan May Warren

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I’ve reviewed over 150 how-to books for writers on this site. Some have been better than others, but few have been completely incomprehensible. However, I could barely understand THE STORY EQUATION. Warren seems to be taking the age-old three act structure and showing how character change is the driving force of the story. At least, I think that’s what she’s trying to do. I’m not sure, because the book is full of paragraphs like this:

The character journey culminates in the Black Moment Event—or the realization of his Greatest Fear. As a result of this event, he experiences a Black Moment Effect when the Lie that has been chasing him the entire book suddenly feels real. This Black Moment Effect drives him to his metaphorical knees.

I think she’s describing the all-is-lost moment of the plot, that part that occurs about 3/4 of the way through every novel where the character almost gives up. But throwing in random terms (randomly capitalized) muddies rather than clarifies.

Warren constantly coins terms instead of using the familiar ones most writers already know. For example, she calls the inciting incident at the beginning of the book “the Trigger” (with a capital T). Renaming old concepts doesn’t make them into new concepts. Calling the inciting incident the Trigger doesn’t tell us anything about what that part of the story does. Warren loves to name, but not explain, her ideas.

I slogged through THE STORY EQUATION, hoping to find a new way of thinking about plot or character development, or at least some small gem of wisdom that would improve my writing. However, I couldn’t get through the Wound, the Lie, and the Noble Quest, not to mention the SEQ and the DMS (when Warren is not making up terms, she’s making up acronyms.)

I admire Warren’s enthusiasm and her desire to help other writers. She found a method and a vocabulary that worked well for her. However, it fell apart when she tried to convey her ideas to other people. And without clarity and good instruction, all the enthusiasm in the world won’t help.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress instead of this book.

Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

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People who write about romance novels usually fall into one of three categories. Either they are sneering at the entire genre and its readers, trying to distance themselves from the novels by analyzing them academically, or praising everything about romances without a single critical remark.

Wendell and Tan avoid these traps. The authors run the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” review blog, and they obviously love romance novels. But their love makes them want to understand the genre in a deep way, embracing all the good and bad. What are the tropes? Why do they work? What parts of romance are awesome and what parts kind of…well…stink?

Wendell and Tan answer these questions and more in rolicking prose that had me laughing out loud. I love a well-placed F-bomb, and I’m a sucker for made-up words like “buttsecks” and “the hero’s untamable Wang of Mighty Lovin.’” Don’t read BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS if you’re easily offended because this kind of awesomeness is on every page.

Wendell and Tan start by looking at the history of romance novels, explaining the big change that happened in the 1980s. You can almost draw a clear dividing line between the “old skool” romances of the 70s and early 80s, and the more modern ones that came after. Anyone who grew up with the rapey Harlequin historicals would hardly recognize the genre anymore. Modern romances are fun, sexy books that are all about the heroine’s happiness: in and out of bed.

From there, Wendell and Tan discuss what makes a good romance heroine, why we love romance heroes, and what’s up with common tropes like secret babies, pirates, the heroine’s life-changing makeover, spy rings, and amnesia. They also explain why romance covers are so weird, and speculate on the future of the genre. Along the way, they give dozens of examples for each point they make, and my own TBR pile has grown with their recommendations.

BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS is part appreciation, part analysis, and part snark. But its love for romance novels comes through loud and clear, and it made me love the genre a bit more, too.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 4 slices craft, 4 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book

Closing the Deal on Your Terms by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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When it comes to publishing, Rusch has seen it all. She’s the former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has published books both traditionally and indie. She’s run a small press. She’s sold short stories to magazines. So it’s fair to say she’s seen just about every kind of contract and has negotiated them from both sides of the desk.

Who better to warn you about what’s in them? Whether you’re an indie author trying to sell foreign rights, a traditionally published author asking what’s next or a newbie just starting your publishing journey, you need three things: a good IP lawyer, the ability to walk away from a bad contract, and a copy of this book.

Rusch knows what can happen when an inexperienced writer—giddy from finally being offered a book contract—signs it without negotiating it. CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is no substitute for good legal advice, but it’s a great introduction to the kinds of “gotcha” clauses publishers are adding to contracts these days.

Most writers only look at money paid and when the manuscript is due. They don’t understand all the ways that they can—and will—be screwed over. For example, deep discount clauses allow publishers to make money on your books without giving any to you. Rights grabs mean that your publisher could turn your book into a movie or a game without consulting you. Options clauses can legally bind you to your publisher for many years and many books. And these are only the most obvious examples. Modern contracts are full of worse things, buried under confusing language and contradictory clauses.

An agent won’t save you from these terrible contracts. In most cases, an agent will urge you to sign them. Many agents are also presenting their own agency agreements (read: contracts) to authors, binding that author to the agent as well as the publishing house.

Because things have changed so radically in the last thirty years, Rusch discourages writers from dealing with publishers for any book-length fiction at this time. However, she understands that every career is different, and doesn’t tell writers what to do. In fact, she defends writers who want to sign any contract under the sun, as long as that writer knows exactly what she’s signing and why.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS isn’t an easy read. It’s not one of those great craft books that will energize your writing or an inspirational book that will make you feel good. Rusch herself became quite downhearted while writing it, as she realized just how bad things had gotten in publishing land. But she stuck it out and did us all a great service by writing a book that isn’t fun, but necessary.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is probably not a book that any writer wants. However, it’s exactly the book that every writer needs.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices business

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

 

Announcement

Dear Friends,

The Writing Slices Blog will be updating once a month from now on. Look for a new review on the first of every month.

I’m actively looking for a full time job, so reading and writing time will become scarce. Also, I’m not buying any new books this year, so I’m limited to library borrows or the shelves of friends.

Thank you to everyone who reads my reviews, comments on them, and suggests other books for me to read. I hope you will come back to read my new review on December 1st.

Your friend,
Alex K.

Author in Progress edited by Therese Walsh

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AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is a collection of brand new essays by the writers who blog at the excellent “Writer Unboxed” website. It’s divided into seven sections: Prepare, Write, Invite (get critique), Improve, Rewrite, Persevere, Release. Taken together, it’s meant to be a complete guide to the writing process, from the idea to the bookshelf.

However, this isn’t a craft class in a book. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is about a writer’s lifestyle and overcoming mental blocks that keep us from the page. There are over fifty high-quality essays covering everything from time management to understanding murky feedback to overcoming jealousy, so it’s easy to flip to just the chapter you need for help with your current problem.

Walsh always seems to be one step ahead of the traps writers set for themselves. She’s gathered writers who have been doing this a long time and have developed solutions that work. Overcome with too many ideas? Read “Put a Ring on It” by Erika Robuck. Scared to go to a conference? Read “When Writers Gather” by Tracy Hahn-Burkett. Having empty nest syndrome after finishing a book? Read “Letting Go” by Allie Larkin. The contributors to AUTHOR IN PROGRESS have dealt with all the weird hangups writers have and can give solid advice from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

But my favorite essays were those that didn’t have definitive answers. Do writers need MFAs? Should writers use outlines? How useful is a professional editor? There’s more than one right answer and back-to-back essays explore both sides of the issue.

I’ve read a lot of how-to books and have, for the most part, moved past these kind of soup-to-nuts compilations in favor of more focused books that zero in on specific problem areas. However, AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is going on my keeper shelf. Because no matter what question I’m struggling with today, I know I will find the answer in its pages.

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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: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

The Secret Lives of Writers edited by Diane Lee

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THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS was written in response to a magazine article. To be fair, the article was quite offensive and warranted a response. It said that writers live a privileged life, but that they can’t get there on their own. The article implied that without family money or a spouse with a high-earning job, writers could forget about writing, which is of course, ridiculous. People from every walk of life write books, and our success is due to our own hard work.

When the original article appeared in Salon, many authors wrote rebuttals to it on their own blogs. Lee decided to do one better and put together a book. She invited thirteen contributors to write essays about how they are juggling full-time jobs and writing. It was a great idea for a book, especially since the majority of writers have day jobs. How do they do it? What can we learn from them? At the very least, will reading this book make a struggling writer feel less alone?

However, THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS is not that book. None of the essays show writers how to combine writing with other paid work. They don’t discuss time management, budgeting, how to find part-time work and freelance jobs, or how to juggle writing and parenting. Most of Lee’s contributors are either not working full time or not writing a whole lot. One of them isn’t writing at all.

I tempered my expectations, thinking that maybe THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS was meant to be inspirational rather than a how-to. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the book truly encourages the reader. But these essays contained a whole lot of “look at me” and very little “you can do it, too.” Not only were the essays not inspiring, they weren’t particularly interesting. None of the contributors overcame huge obstacles to get where they are. They simply faced the mundane, everyday time sucks that we all face.

I understand what it’s like to be angry when someone is wrong on the internet. But perhaps Lee should have left a comment on the original article in Salon and moved on, continuing to be creative in the margins of her busy life, the way most of us do.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Ink Stains edited by Lara Zielin or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book.

Break Writer’s Block Now by Jerrold Mundis

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I’ve never been someone who believes in writer’s block. And the funny thing is, despite the title of the book, Mundis doesn’t believe in it either. He says writers who are blocked are suffering from perfectionism, fear, or having the unrealistic expectation that a writing career is going to solve all their problems.

Writers are burdened by other funny beliefs, too. Writers believe that they have to be a genius, or have a magical talent, or that writing should never be hard if you’re good at it, but your life will be hard if you’re a writer. Mundis has seen writers dump all kinds of emotional baggage on their writing, robbing the process of any joy it once had.

His solution is to bust the myths, see the self-defeating behaviors for what they are, and form new habits that will keep your butt in the chair no matter your mood. And even better, Mundis says he can fix you in a single afternoon.

BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is divided into two parts. The first is theory. How to get out of your own way by understanding where these self-limiting beliefs came from and how silly they are.

The second part is practice. Mundis takes writers step-by-step through the hard mental work of getting words on the page. He starts by reminding writers to stop thinking about selling what they write and just keep filling the pages. If that doesn’t work, he takes writers through some more hardcore mythbusting, focusing on their personal misconceptions about their own writing. Next, he advises writers to form a habit and stick to it with a set time and place. And if all else fails, set a timer and force yourself to write quickly (so as to outrun the internal censor).

None of this is new stuff, and most of it can be found in other how-to books, but Mundis has stripped away all the fluff and distilled things down to their very essence. The hardcover I have is ninety pages with very generous margins, and there is beauty in its brevity, because none of us have time to waste. We’ve got books to write!

BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is excellent for beginning writers. Mundis’ no-nonsense advice is tempered with a great deal of compassion. He understands that writers need encouragement along with a kick in the pants. And even though I’m a daily writer who mostly stays out of her own way, I’ve hit a rough patch or two. BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW will stay on my shelf for those times I need a little nudge to get me back to the page.

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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 writers

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I recommend this book.