RSS Feed

Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland

Posted on

Outlining-Your-Novel-Workbook

A novel is too big to hold in your head all at once, especially if its a novel you haven’t written yet. Even if you’re able to keep track of a basic beginning/middle/end plot, you also have to consider character, theme, setting, backstory, voice, and a dozen other things. Even “pantsers” who never outline take notes along the way.

Any writer who is feeling overwhelmed by the size and scope of a novel (read: all of us) can benefit from OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK. Weiland’s previous book, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL, taught writers how to make a useful outline. This one takes writers step-by-step through the process with exercises and questions. By doing the exercises, a writer will every essential piece they need to write a complete and engaging novel.

Weiland starts with the premise. She then takes writers through envisioning the big scenes, drops back for character sketches and setting ideas, then moves ahead into a detailed scene-by-scene outline. This organization mimics my own process perfectly, although every writer is different and Weiland encourages them to skip around if they want, or drop sections that don’t make sense for their books.

In fact, Weiland emphasizes that a good outline is whatever works for the writer. Even if a writer only did some of the exercises, or altered them to fit, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK provides enough questions to make sure a writer is thinking deeply about her novel, and enough structure to be sure she can complete it.

—–

rating: 4 stars

—–

pie slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book.

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

Posted on

51HM38+UzFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The title of STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE certainly got my attention. I was interested in how discovery writers, or “pantsers,” write a successful book without an outline. James promised instruction, insight, and a way to turn traditional story structure on its head.

STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE spends a long time convincing writers that structure isn’t as important as the story arc and the narrative flow. That is true. It’s also not something any writer would argue with. Even the most die-hard plotters treat outlines like the pirate code: more like guidelines than actual rules. I read on, hoping for the revolutionary insights that were sure to come.

And then, this:

“Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, for it to feel complete it’ll need an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climatic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character.”

I did a double take. Did James just name everything he’s supposedly fighting against? By listing the things a story needed, he just explained story structure in a nutshell.

James spends the rest of the book going into detail about these story elements. He teaches the same principles that are in a hundred other books but has given them cool new names. He then denies that he’s teaching those very same principles. That’s like telling people to hydrate instead of drink water and then claiming to have a bold new health initiative.

Then James bemoans the fact that people aren’t taught to write organically. (Taught to write organically?) Writers don’t need instruction to open their computers and follow their muses. They need instruction on shaping the narrative to make it as effective as possible. There is a reason there are a hundred books about story structure including–make no mistake–this one.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of arrogance and hypocrisy. It’s sad, because STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE is not a bad book for beginning writers. It’s just that there’s nothing new here, and giving the book an in-your-face title doesn’t hide the fact that James is teaching everything that’s been taught before, and taught better, by other writers.

—–

Rating: 2 stars

—–

I recommend Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunner or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain instead of this book.

Gotta Read It by Libbie Hawker

Posted on

Hawker

“So, what is your novel about?” is the sentence that strikes fear into the hearts of many a writer. Whether sending query letters to agents or talking to a friend at a party, many writers become tongue-tied, or worse, babble on and on. We may know our characters and their stories inside and out, but summarizing three hundred pages in just a few short paragraphs can seem impossible.

Of course every book is unique, but when pitching, Hawker wants us to keep it simple. She recommends starting with the five universal elements that every novel has: character, goal, obstacle, struggle, stakes. She shows writers how to put these elements together into a succinct summary, and how to choose the details that will help flesh out the setting and the story in the reader’s mind.

GOTTA READ IT includes a useful list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that will be helpful to a beginning writer, including not using too many proper nouns and keeping the tone of the pitch consistent with the tone of the story.

However, Hawker only gives two examples of what she considers successful pitches, and they are both from her own books. This doesn’t really prove her point. It only shows that she’s found a formula that works for her. Without examples from other books (or even hypothetical examples) there is no way of knowing how to apply her advice more broadly.

GOTTA READ IT is a good introduction to the idea of pitching your book, but it doesn’t go deep into the mechanics of pitches, nor does it give enough examples to help writers build successful pitches of their own.

—–

Rating: 3 stars

—–

Pie slices: 8 slices business

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hague or Rock Your Query by Cathly Yardley

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Posted on

download

Novels are emotion-delivery vehicles. We read non-fiction for information, but novels are all about going on an emotional journey with the characters. As writers, we can move readers to laughter or tears, limited only by our storytelling skills.

Humans are great at decoding the emotions of others by reading their facial expressions and body language. That’s what makes movies so powerful. Novelists have a tougher time. It’s one thing to tell a reader how your hero feels. It’s quite another to make them feel it right along with him. It’s the old show-don’t-tell advice, but how do you do that?

THE EMOTION THESAURUS offers a list of seventy-five primary emotions such as anger, dread, relief, shame and satisfaction. Each entry gives clues about how to express the emotion with physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensation. So if your character is feeling something, what might she do or think? What might her physical reaction be?

THE EMOTION THESAURUS isn’t a checklist, allowing lazy writers to drop appropriate emotions onto their characters willy-nilly. Using this book takes care and thought. You must reword the descriptors to match the voice and tone of the characters while staying true to the emotions of the moment. This book won’t do the work for you. In fact, it might make your work harder by forcing you to look beyond your comfortable, clichéd expressions.

I’m a huge fan of practical writing tools. Airy theory is nice, but how-to books need to get right down into the trenches with me to be of any use. THE EMOTION THESAURUS is one of those necessary reference guides that not only tells me what to do, but shows me exactly how.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

Posted on

Mendelsund-diptych

Mendelsund is an art director at Alfred A. Knopf, so naturally he thinks visually. He has to depict an entire book in a single cover image, and since his career relies on this ability, he’s given it a lot of thought.

The central idea of WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is that novelists don’t describe every physical feature of a hero the way they’d describe him to a police sketch artist. An author’s language is more figurative, evoking a picture through action and emotion. Therefore, is it any wonder that everyone visualizes characters differently? This “insight” is not groundbreaking, and Mendelsund never gets beyond this obvious assertion into anything noteworthy or useful.

WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is heavily illustrated, but the pictures don’t add anything. They are mere gimmicks—things like movie stills or pages of text with most of the words blacked out or pages with a single word in a huge font.

The text is broken up with these heavy-handed visuals, making a murky book even murkier. WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ wanders all over the place, raising questions (“How do you know what Anna Karenina looks like?”) without ever giving answers. Mendelsund clearly did no research into neuroscience, psychology, or pedagogy to pinpoint what we actually see in our minds when we read.

Even on the level of a personal essay, this book doesn’t work. It’s like one of those late-night college gabfests when the beer is gone and the dorm is quiet and you have to get up in a few hours but the conversation is so interesting because at that point, even the most bland ideas seem profound.

There is nothing deep about WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ. Luckily, it’s a short book and I finished it quickly. Now I can turn my attention to a well-written novel. As I read, I will enjoy the unique pictures in my mind, knowing that I’m cooperating with the author in putting them there, which is a pleasant (but not amazing) thought.

—–

Rating: 2 stars

—–

I recommend Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

Yoga for the Brain by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston

Posted on

61WWop68XwL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Until last year, I’d never used a book of writing prompts. I never saw the value in them. I found most books of prompts silly or pretentious. I thought it was better to write my own stuff, since it would be impossible to write anything good from someone else’s suggested topic. But my neighbor wanted to do some writing exercises with me and YOGA FOR THE BRAIN seemed good for us both. It has 366 writing exercises, so we committed to doing one a day for all of 2014. I didn’t care that the book was written for students. I thought it meant I’d finish faster.

Can I just say how wrong I was? About all of it. These prompts weren’t easy or simple or short. They were seriously fun, spoke to people of all ages, and brought up meaty topics in interesting ways. Sometimes I wrote three or more pages because the prompt triggered a memory or an idea and I simply had to get it on the page.

Here are some of the prompts I had great success with: #153: “What would your new rules for the world be?” #82: “Create an expression of joy in exactly 25 words.” and #166: “Write a conversation between a modern person and a person from the past.” (I chose Miley Cyrus and Ella Fitzgerald.)

But the value of YOGA FOR THE BRAIN goes far beyond the exercises in it, and what I learned wasn’t found in the book. I learned that writing a little bit every day is better than long writing sessions once a week. If you miss one day, you can make it up fairly easily. But if you miss more than one, you’ll be hard pressed to finish all the old work and the new stuff too. My life got chaotic when I moved this summer, and making up for days I didn’t write was nearly impossible.

Often, I’d come to the prompt with a head as blank as the page in front of me. But once my pen was on the paper, I always found something to say. Sometimes what I wrote was flat and dull, but most of the time it was quite good and sometimes it was amazing. I rediscovered what I’d always known: inspiration is a myth. If I put my butt in my chair and my pen in my hand, writing would happen. The muses would show up, but only if I showed up first.

After the first few months, my neighbor dropped out and stopped writing her daily exercises, but I kept going. I’m so glad I did. It wasn’t always easy, but finishing every prompt in YOGA FOR THE BRAIN has helped me grow as a writer in unexpected ways.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book.

Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa

Posted on

Stakes_v1pt2_200px

 

Long ago, when I was a brand-new baby writer, I pitched a novel to an editor at a writer’s conference. My short summary was going well (I thought) until the editor asked, “And if the heroine doesn’t reach her goal, what then?” I blinked. Blinked again. My mouth opened and closed but no words came out. I finally muttered something stupid about a dog dying, the editor declined to read my manuscript, and that was that.

I stayed in touch with the editor, and years later at another conference, I was able to hand him a copy of my first published novel. I reminded him about our first meeting, we had a good laugh, and I thanked him for his kindness. “But I was so mean!” he said. I told him he wasn’t mean. Not at all. He’d taught me a valuable lesson. He’d taught me about stakes.

If the hero has nothing to lose, there are no stakes and therefore no story. We all want to make our stories as gripping as possible, but it’s not always easy to see how. H.R. D’Costa spells out, in clear language, the different kinds of story stakes–from freedom and justice to regret, protection of others, and the hero’s own death. She uses many examples from well-known books and movies, so you can see the stakes in action. She also includes “modulating factors,” things that can be used to make situations even worse for your poor hero, mostly by making them emotionally difficult.

I would have liked to see a few more examples from books, rather than movies. The two mediums are quite different, after all. However, D’Costa explains that by using mostly movie examples, she reaches a wider audience. This is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book.

I know a lot more about story stakes now than I did the first time I tried to write a novel. Even so, I highlighted the heck out of STORY STAKES and bookmarked many pages. Thanks to H.R. D’Costa, now I’ve got even more tools to keep readers riveted to the page.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

Pie slices: 8 slices craft

—-

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers