Write Naked by Jennifer Probst


One of the staples of weekend writers’ conferences is the keynote speech, in which a bestselling author details her path to fame. The speech is always full of dramatic moments, near-victories, crushing rejections, and then finally, publication, chart-climbing, and happy ever after. There is always much humor and wisdom along the way.

Like most writers, I have a bottomless appetite for these speeches. I find other writers and their process fascinating and I love a good origin story. WRITE NAKED is like the best of these keynotes in the form of a book.

Probst is a bestselling romance writer, but very few chapters in this book are specific to romance. And the majority of the book isn’t craft related anyway. It’s mostly lifestyle stuff, like how to believe in yourself, handle jealousy, be graceful on social media, and juggle a writing schedule.

WRITE NAKED won’t tell you much about the craft of writing, but you’ll learn plenty about how to be a writer. Probst gets real about the fantasy of being a bestselling author. We’d all like the trappings of success—bestseller lists, fawning editors, mobs of fans, lots of money. But at the end of the day, every single writer has to sit alone in a room and write. Probst pinpoints a moment when she swore to her husband that her current work-in-progress was so bad that it would tank her career and she’d never write again. This happened after she topped the New York Times bestseller list, which just goes to show that it can happen to anyone.

Probst does a lot of this, saying the quiet part out loud so we can hear it too. She details the guilt she feels when she neglects her family to write, the way writers spend so much time alone that they start to get a bit agoraphobic, how hard it is to actually finish a book, and the dirty little secret that we like some of our books more than others.

But WRITE NAKED is also a remarkably upbeat book. Being a writer truly is the best job in the world and Probst is honest about that too. She never ignores the hard work involved, but she’s sure that if she can do this work, so can you.

Will Probst teach you how to write a novel? Not really. But she will hold your hand, dry your tears, and inspire you every step of the way.


WRITE NAKED can be found here


Rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book

Hook Your Readers by Tamar Sloan


The subtitle of HOOK YOUR READERS promises “12 Proven Strategies to Write a Best-Selling Book.” But what Sloan delivers are twelve things that all novels have in common, whether they are bestsellers or midlist novels. Things like conflict, emotions, a hero who wants something, questions, and plot twists are things that all fiction has, so it’s silly to claim that they are unique to bestsellers.

Nobody will be amazed that novels need conflict. Nobody will be surprised that novels need strong emotion, but Sloan acts as if these are groundbreaking insights. In scant chapters of just a few pages each, she sketches out her twelve “discoveries,” illustrating them with snatches of bestselling novels to prove her points (that didn’t need proving).

There isn’t any instruction in this how-to book. Telling a reader that books need conflict and then showing them an example of conflict doesn’t provide any instruction whatsoever. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, but—again—they teach how to describe fiction rather than produce fiction.

Sloan is a psychologist, and has attempted to apply her training to an instructional how-to. The problem is, knowing why something works is not the same as being able to teach others how to do it. And having extremely shallow material means she doesn’t have anything to teach anyway.


Hook Your Readers can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Hooked by Les Edgerton or Hit Lit by James W. Hall instead of this book.


Successful Self-Publishing by Joanna Penn


When I self-published my first book, I didn’t know exactly how to do it. But I figured that the Amazon self-publishing platform was fairly intuitive, and that if I got horribly stuck I could google the answer. Besides, if I really screwed it up, I could always go back and fix it later. On the internet, there are endless do-overs. So I gleefully jumped in without much instruction and started publishing my own novels.

I soon found out that not everyone shares this attitude. I’ve met many first-time authors who are terrified. They don’t know the first thing about formatting and uploading their own books and rather than give it a try, they become stuck and do nothing. Or worse, they pay thousands of dollars to scam vanity publishing companies to do what they could do themselves for free.

Enter Penn and SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING. This is the book that beginners need. It’s not about the why, it’s about the how. Penn assumes authors have a polished, professionally edited and well-covered book, but simply need a basic primer to go from there. This is self-publishing 101, and it covers everything authors need to know to get a manuscript from their computers to online stores.

Authors could find all this information out online by going from website to website, chasing pieces of it all over the internet, or they can get SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING and have it all in one place. Penn covers the nuts and bolts of indie publishing, including how to format a book, how to get a cover, whether you should stick with just Amazon or sell at all retailers, and how to price your book.

Penn also has a breakdown of the costs of publishing. Editing, formatting, and cover design will all cost the author something, but putting your book on sale at retailers is free. (Retailers take a cut of each sale.) It’s important for authors to understand what to spend money on and what not to, so they don’t get scammed.

The second half of SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING covers marketing—another thing that scares new authors. Authors can spend money on advertising, spend time doing content marketing (blogging, guest blogging, etc.) or both. Penn is realistic about how and when marketing efforts can help an author, and when it would be better to just write more books.

The self-publishing boom is still in its first decade, and things change all the time. Some of Penn’s specific advice might become dated, but the underlying principals she teaches won’t. Her advice boils down to, “Do what you can, hire out what you can’t do yourself, and don’t get scammed.”

And then, step by step, she tells you exactly how to do it.


Successful Self-Publishing can be found here. (The ebook is currently free)


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: beginning authors


I recommend this book





The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell



Starting a novel is easy. Ending one is hard. Bringing a narrative of 70,000+ words to a satisfying conclusion is a high-wire act that demands an epic showdown, deep character change, tying up loose ends, and an emotional resolution. No wonder every writer has files of half-finished manuscripts on her computer.

But Bell is here to help. THE LAST FIFTY PAGES zeroes in on that all-important third act. Bell discusses the mechanics of endings, which most writers already know how to do: good guy and bad guy face off, one of them wins. But Bell goes far beyond the mechanics. He’s more interested in the purpose of endings. Tying up the plot is only a small part of that.

Bringing things to a satisfying conclusion means looking through the novel for moments of character change, and then amplifying them at the last moment. Bell gives examples from stories that work, from Huckleberry Finn to the Maltese Falcon, showing examples of this technique done well. Character change is what gives the ending—and the entire novel—emotional resonance.

Bell also discusses the different kinds of endings. Different genres have different requirements for their endings and one size does not fit all. Sometimes the protagonist wins. Sometimes she loses. Sometimes she wins but at too high a cost. Sometimes she loses one thing but wins another. Bell uses examples of well-known books and movies to illustrate his points. I’m a big fan of well-chosen examples, since that’s how I learn best.

Bell has a short chapter on ending blunders, but does not dwell too much on it, which I also appreciate. It’s important to know what not to do, but instructors need to go beyond that, to teach writers what they should do instead, and Bell really delivers here.

There are numerous ways to get to those magical two words: the end, With THE LAST FIFTY PAGES along as a guide, a writer will get there, and she’ll make herself—and her readers—happy along the way.


THE LAST FIFTY PAGES can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book

Author Your Life by Lara Zielin


A few years ago, Zielin was in a place that many people get to in the middle of their lives. Things just weren’t working out the way she wanted them to and everything was a struggle. Her finances, her weight, and her relationships were all bad and getting worse, and she was drinking more than she should. She knew she had to do something, but what?

Zielin is the author of several novels and nonfiction books, so naturally she turned to writing as a way out, and AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was born. Every morning, she woke up early and wrote down her life—not as it was, but as she wanted it to be. And slowly, over the course of a year, her real life started to match what was on the page. Not exactly affirmations, not exactly morning pages, Zielin’s journal was more of a roadmap for her soul.

Like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King, AUTHOR YOUR LIFE is part memoir, part instruction. Zielin is honest about her struggles and mistakes. She’s also extremely witty. She’s not some guru dispensing wisdom from on high. She’s a completely relatable middle-class Midwesterner. Zielin could be me. She could be all of us.

AUTHOR YOUR LIFE teaches you to use that awesome writer’s imagination of yours, but instead of visualizing the perfect outcome for your characters, you’ll be visualizing the perfect outcome for yourself. Through specific writing exercises and free-form journaling, Zielin takes you through all the steps needed to create your own happy ever after.

Writing down your ideal life every day won’t magically manifest your goals with no effort on your part. I don’t think there’s any magic involved. But I still think Zielin’s approach is brilliant.

Writing down your ideal life, day after day, forces you to clarify your goals. What do you really want? So many of us say we want to be writers, but don’t do the work that will make it happen. Doing the exercises in AUTHOR YOUR LIFE will force you to get super clear on your goals and see, in black and white, what it will take to get there. As you write, unexpected connections and solutions will come. Working toward your goals then becomes a pleasure, rather than a struggle, because you’ve cleared your own path.

Zielin doesn’t promise miracles. She’s far too smart for that. She promises hard work and struggle and setbacks and also clarity and joy and fun—just like the stories we love so much.

Reading AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was eye-opening and inspiring. I’ve already purchased several of my favorite blank notebooks so I can start telling the story that matters most: my own.


AUTHOR YOUR LIFE can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


I recommend this book

Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal


WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH is a how-to book for nonfiction writers, mainly businesspeople who want to write a book. Janal starts with the assumption that his audience has never written a book before and probably never will again. They aren’t writers, they just need a book as a credential, a calling card, or an add-on to public speaking gigs. Therefore, Janal starts with the very basics of nonfiction book creation, taking a paint-by-numbers approach of starting with the outline and filling it in little by little.

Janal’s approach is solid. To a non-writer, attempting to write forty thousand words of prose is daunting. Organizing all that research can seem impossible. Where do the quotes go? How about the personal stories? What should I leave out? What structure do I use?

Janal also understands that nonfiction books aren’t literature. They are tools to help solve a problem. He wants his readers to get the words on the page in any way possible, let hired editors clean up the mess, and start using the book to help boost their businesses.

To that end, Janal recommends that you start with a 400 word executive summary, research the market to see where your book fits and then make a ten-chapter outline (introduction, eight chapters of content, conclusion). This isn’t new to anyone who has been writing awhile—or has other nonfiction books to use as models—but it’s still useful advice.

Janal also provides ample cheerleading, sensing that this is what his audience wants most, and he includes information on beta readers and what formatting to use once the book is complete. And if it all sounds just too difficult, Janal himself is ready to step in as the ghost writer or book coach you might need.

WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH is the non-writer’s how-to book. It’s the perfect guide if you’ve never written before, don’t like writing now, and will never write again.


WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH can be found here.


Rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: beginning writers


I recommend this book or Everybody Writes by Ann Handley or Help for Writers by Roy Peter Clark 

Bonus Blog: Valentine Giveaway

It’s February, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and everyone wants to give gifts to their loved ones. Writers are my favorite people. I adore everyone who reads this blog and I wish I could give gifts to each and every one of you. I can’t do that. But I can give my favorite how-to book of all time to one lucky reader.

I put together a gift box that includes a paperback copy of the best how-to book ever: WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL by Lawrence Block.


This gift box also includes…

  • A notepad to track your writing goals
  • A seven-year pen
  • A laptop sticker
  • And a tote bag

But wait! There’s more! It’s Valentine’s Day, when things come in pairs, so I’m making a second gift box that includes a copy of the first two Detroit Next novels, TWISTED and ZONERS.


I’m also including…

  • A super cute pillowcase with typewriters on it
  • A blank notebook
  • A laptop sticker
  • And a key chain

Want to win a gift box? Just leave a comment below telling me two things: which how-to book was the most helpful for you on you writer’s journey, and a place I can contact you. (Email, website, or Twitter.)

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2019 at 22:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

And of course I have not one, but two notes.

First note: You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and the twitterz)

Second note: this giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail stuff to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $10 Amazon ecard so you can buy Lawrence Block’s book yourself.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.


Alex K.


Update: The winner of the Lawrence Block book was KirstiJones and the winner of the Detroit Next books was Kodermike! Congratulations to the winners.

And thank you to everyone who shared their favorite how-to book with me. I love to see what you’re reading.