Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

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This is the second book on this topic I’ve reviewed this year, but while Sandra Gerth’s how-to book is excellent, and a must-buy, Janice Hardy’s book could be considered the follow-up to it. UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL is extremely in-depth and will be useful for writers who want to go beyond the basics to take a detailed look at showing and telling in fiction.

Hardy starts by explaining why telling happens in prose, and how to watch out for subtle problems like the author filtering the experience, improper narrative distance, and naming a character’s emotions. Hardy’s explanations are filled with examples that perfectly illustrate her points as she shows writers how to spot telling in their own work. She examines telling trouble spots like backstory, description, and infodumps, and gives a list of red-flag words such as decided, tried, felt, or seemed.

Hardy’s chapter on the uses of telling, however, is a scant three pages long. It probably should have been longer, since there are areas where telling comes in handy and Hardy could have expanded on that point. Showing and telling need to work hand-in-hand to make a novel complete.

But most novels could use more showing and less telling, and Hardy is an excellent guide for fixing told prose. For every problem, she has a solution, and is right there with writers as they identify telling and convert it to showing. By going through all the chapters of UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL writers will be able to fix point of view problems, and get out of the characters’ way to let them tell the story. (Or rather, show the story.)

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UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

5 Secrets of Story Structure by K.M. Weiland

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Not every how-to book is for every writer. That’s why my blog exists. But even knowing that, I’ve never had such mixed feelings about a book before. Depending on how far you are on your writing journey, and what kind of writer you are, 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE could either be a rocket booster or blow up in your face.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is ideal for people who have read at least one other book on story structure but still want a deeper dive into the topic, filled with the most granular details. If you’re the kind of writer who loves to outline, wants to know exactly which scene goes where, and has a bottomless appetite for plot dissection, this book will grow your writing craft by leaps and bounds.

However, not every writer works that way. If you’re a pantser who hates outlines, thinks story structure is a “formula,” and relies on good instincts for your plotting needs, you’ll find this book overwhelming and/or baffling.

Personally, I’m a planner. I embrace the power of story structure and rely on it for my novels’ success. Save the Cat is my bible and nothing thrills me more than a well-ordered outline. I liked 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE a lot. This book gave me a deeper understanding of how and why stories work. It made me feel like I was building my own stories on a more solid framework.

Anyone who has read a single craft book knows about the big turning points that happen at every quarter, but Weiland goes beyond them to show what goes between those big plot points, and why. For example, Weiland introduces the concept of pinch points, which are exciting scenes in the middle of each act that serve as a reminder of what’s at stake. Weiland also shows how character change and growth are integrated into plot structure, and she explains it better than anyone else.  Too many books about plot ignore character change and vice-versa. Weiland knows the importance of both.

However, I was frustrated by the fact that all of Weiland’s examples were from movies. Not even books that had been turned into movies, but actual original screenplays like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ice Age. She quotes the great screenwriting teachers Syd Field and Robert McKee, and includes an exhaustive breakdown of one of the most overused and cliché examples possible: Star Wars. Weiland even tells writers to watch the facial expression of actors in movies for clues about story pacing. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is a book about writing novels, not screenplays. The mediums are very different, so using all movie examples and zero novel examples made no sense.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book. For a certain kind of writer, this will feel like being given the Rosetta Stone. For a different kind of writer, this is going to feel like  a warped party game where everyone pretends to be in the writer’s room on a film set while playing pin the tail on the donkey.

If you think this book is for you, you’re probably correct. If you think it’s not for you, you’re probably also correct. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is very short and the ebook is currently free, so if you’re not sure, this is an ideal time to check it out for yourself.

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5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is available here

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Rating: ??

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book or Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Valentine Giveaway!

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! Time to celebrate people we love, people we like, and people we feel warm affection for.

You know who my favorite person is? YOU. I like everyone who reads this blog and I wish I could buy each of you a present. I can’t buy everyone a present, but I did put together two gift boxes that I will be mailing to two blog readers.

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This year, I’m once again highlighting a how-to book from my favorite writing teacher of all time. THE LIAR’S COMPANION by Lawrence Block is one of his more personal how-to books, detailing his own struggles and triumphs in the era before he was a household name. You’re going to love this book!

This gift box also includes…
•  A blank notebook
•  “You are a badass” sticky notes
•  A coaster
•  And a stand-up pencil holder

But wait! There’s more! It’s Valentine’s Day, when things come in pairs, so of course there are two gift boxes.

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The second gift box features CREATING CHARACTER ARCS by K.M. Weiland. More than any other recent book, this one helped me get super clear on the way that plot and character go hand-in-hand. This book will supercharge your writing craft!

I’m also including the most fun blank notebook I’ve seen lately. That gemstone on the cover has LED lights in it and when you push a button on the cover, the gem lights up. I wish I could explain to you how cool it is, but you will have to see it for yourself.

This gift box also includes…
•  A set of cute erasers
•  A fridge magnet
•  And a list pad to track goals

Want to win one of these gift boxes? Just leave a comment below telling me two things: what is the most recent how-to book you’ve read, 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, 2020 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 or K.M. Weiland’s book yourself.

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

xxoo,
Alex K.
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Update: the winner of the Lawrence Block book is Bridget McKenna and the winner of the KM Weiland book is Catherine Stein. Congratulations to the winners!

On Cussing by Katherine Dunn

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I adore creative swearing. I love when someone drops a curse word in just the right place, or wields forbidden language like a dagger, or goes poetic with a long string of swear words. I love naughty language used for humor, because I’m secretly twelve and I think a well-deployed f-bomb is funny.

Dunn thinks so too. ON CUSSING is a celebration of taboo language, covering the history and neuroscience of swearing while also giving plenty of examples of how to do it well. At a short 70 pages, ON CUSSING is like good cussing itself—it makes its point without any wasted words.

At their core, curse words are emotional. Some scientists think they’re even processed in a different part of our brain. Their connotations are blasphemous or sexual or just plain filthy. These words don’t add much grammatically to a sentence. Most sentences would make just as much sense without them. But boy, do they pack a punch. And therefore, Dunn argues, these words need to be used carefully.

Curse words can be used to complain, to threaten, to solidify an oath, to lay on a curse, to insult, and to emphasize. Dunn gives examples of each, along with instruction on how to make it your own. Cussing needs to fit the character, the tone of the book, and the time period. Different eras had different curse words. Something we think of as mild would shock our ancestors, and vice-versa.

Dunn includes excerpts from classic books, although I didn’t find these very helpful. She also cautions against using curse words carelessly. There is, after all, a time and place, even for a well-deployed f-bomb.

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ON CUSSING can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

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“Show, don’t tell” is something that every writing instructor says. It’s repeated so often because it’s the thing that beginning writers struggle with the most. Even when we understand the concept, applying that concept to our own work is difficult. Even more difficult is knowing when to show and when to tell.

SHOW, DON’T TELL is a powerful solution to this common problem. In this short book, Gerth explores every facet of storytelling to explain how to show a story instead of telling it. Gerth begins with definitions to give a writer a firm grasp on exactly what showing is. Details, not conclusions. Concrete, not abstract. Dramatization, not summary. She explains how to get the reader up close and personal with the story and why it’s so necessary to do so.

Once a writer has identified the telling in her manuscript, Gerth gives examples and exercises to convert that telling into showing, concentrating on trouble areas like backstory, dialogue, description, and emotion. She gives before-and-after examples, helping writers truly see how it’s done.

Many how-to books include exercises that are meant to be done for their own sake, which is fine. Writing requires practice. But most writers will skip those kinds of exercises in the belief that theory is enough. The exercises in SHOW, DON’T TELL, however, are meant to be done on a writer’s own work in progress, specifically chapter one. Gerth shows writers how to fix their own prose, giving the exercises an immediacy that is extremely useful.

Of course, stories shouldn’t be a hundred percent showing, either. Telling is sometimes the better choice, and Gerth wraps up SHOW, DON’T TELL by detailing the uses of narrative. Telling is useful for things like transitions, repeated information, and unimportant details.

Showing is like a spotlight, focusing reader attention on the important events of a story. When a writer has complete control over her narrative, she will use that power wisely—showing the important things, telling the less important parts, and skillfully weaving foreground and background to create a harmonious whole. SHOW, DON’T TELL is the perfect guide for this essential writing skill.

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Show, Don’t Tell can be found here

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Rating: five stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

 

Writing With Jenna Moreci (YouTube channel)

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My review is a little different this month. I love my how-to books, but I’ve been under deadline pressure and my attention span has suffered. So I’ve been seeking writing advice from podcasts, classes, and YouTube videos. My new favorite YouTube channel is WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI.

Moreci has been vlogging for about four years, so she’s got a lot of great content to choose from. Each video is about twenty minutes long, and tackles a single subject with humor and wisdom. Whether it’s an element of the writing craft or an issue with the writer’s lifestyle, Moreci has a video for you.

WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI is not for the delicate. She gives rapid-fire advice (often in the form of top-ten lists) with no sugar-coating and a whole heap of swear words. She shines a spotlight on a writer’s worst habits and excuses, and tells the truth about how much work goes into writing a publishable book.

Moreci’s advice, though short and to the point, is always solid. She teaches writers how to outline a novel, how to start a novel, how to write a great sex scene or fight scene, and how to ramp things up to a great finish. She also has videos about different genres, explaining which tropes still work, and those that are past their prime. Her videos are aimed at beginners, but even this jaded old pro picked up valuable tips.

Where WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI really excels is in the lifestyle videos. Moreci has videos about writing while holding a day job, dealing with anxiety, writer’s block, and that awful critical voice in our heads. It’s a bit like getting no-nonsense advice from a big sister or favorite aunt. It might not always be easy to hear, but it’s true wisdom from someone who has been there.

Some of my favorite videos are How to Outline Your Novel, How to Overcome Writer’s Block, and my personal favorite, How to Write a Healthy Romance. But all of Moreci’s videos are worth your time.

YouTube will never take the place of the craft books on my shelf, but there are many vloggers putting out great content, and Moreci is tops. I’m glad I can still soak up craft advice even when I’m busy writing novels of my own.

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WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This channel is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this channel.

Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner

I think I read this book wrong.

Not that there’s a “wrong” way to read a book, but I approached this one the way I approach all my other how-to books. I started with page one and read straight through.

But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS isn’t that kind of book. Its 52 short chapters are meant for consuming in small doses. This is the kind of book to keep next to your bed or in your backpack, to dip in and out of when confidence flags or when you hit a specific wall. Some of the chapters are about digging in and persevering. Some are about relaxing and letting the story flow. Others are about carving out a writer identity by arranging time and space, claiming the label of writer, and finding a writing community.

Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, and PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is an excellent companion for anyone doing this 30-day novel challenge. But it will benefit every writer, year-round, because we all have bad days. Sometimes we get stuck at the beginning of a project, sometimes we get stuck in the middle, or we suffer from impostor syndrome or perfectionism or procrastination. Whatever the problem, Faulkner offers both encouragement and practical solutions, like a life coach who pats you on the back, gets you some Gatorade, and then slaps your ass and sends you back onto the field.

Every chapter ends with an exercise, and I found them creative and actually fun to do. For example, if you find yourself wasting time, try writing sprints when focus is essential. Stumped for ideas? Make a list of random nouns and then find ways to work them into a story. Need encouragement? Write a letter to yourself from your imaginary mentor.

The chapters are arranged rather haphazardly, which is fine when you’re only looking for a specific solution, but I was glad for the index in the back, which grouped chapters into a dozen categories. My favorites were the chapters on nourishing your muse and the ones on exploring storytelling tools. Faulkner has excellent tips for getting out of a creative rut.

Some books are filled with practical instruction. Some books are filled with empty cheerleading. But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is that rare combination of inspiration and action steps to align our hearts and our heads while we move forward in our creative work.

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PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book

 

Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block

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Back in the 1980s, Block wrote the “fiction” column for Writer’s Digest, sharing short essays about the writing craft and a writer’s life. SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is a collection of some of those columns, first published as a book in 1988. At last, it’s now available as an audiobook, read by Richard Neer, who reads with a delightful cadence and knows exactly how to deliver Block’s wry humor. The material itself isn’t new, but Block’s advice has aged well, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can hold its own against newer how-to books on the shelves. In many cases, Block’s classic instruction is better than the new stuff.

SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is divided into four sections. The first two deal with the nuts and bolts of fiction writing. Block covers things like the use of flashbacks, how to incorporate backstory, techniques for sex scenes and fight scenes, and how to make a reader identify with your characters. The second two sections are about a writer’s mindset and lifestyle. Fear, procrastination, and perfectionism all get a chapter here, and Block also discusses rejections, budgets, schedules, and how to believe in yourself.

Block often pretends he’s addressing a room full of students, even giving them names and allowing them to ask questions. But reading SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB never feels like sitting in a classroom. It feels like grabbing coffee with a friend. Block offers gentle advice based on his own experience, and he’s more interested in giving options than giving a to-do list. His advice is practical, inspirational, and is delivered with warmth and wit.

I’m also surprised at how timeless it all is. Yes, there are references to typewriters and photocopies and print magazines and waiting on editors and other things that modern writers simply never deal with. But I found it charming. And the lessons still apply, even if the examples Block uses are outdated. He goes on at length about buying the best typewriter paper he can afford, but what’s important about that story isn’t the paper. It’s the idea of valuing yourself as a writer—of putting your writing first.

Block is an icon in the writing community, and every writer I know looks up to him—for good reason. Whenever I review one of Lawrence Block’s books on the Writing Slices blog, I get lots of comments from writers who say that Block was their first writing teacher—either through his magazine columns or his how-to books. Those comments always make me smile, and I always respond the same way. “He was my first teacher too,” I say. “It looks like we both started in a good place.”

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SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

I’m Teaching a Free Class, and You’re Invited!

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It’s time to type those two magic words: THE END. And I’m teaming up with author Lara Zielin to help you do exactly that.

If you’ve ever struggled with “What should I write?” or “What happens next?” or “Gah, I’m not sure I can do this!” then this class is for you. It’s a self-paced, online class. It’s easy, fun, and super affordable.

So what do you get for $39.95? You get five classes of awesomeness, that’s what you get. And the first class is on me! That’s right. The first class is totally free for you, and you don’t have to sign up or create an account or any of those other silly things. Just click and watch, friends!

I’m bringing the nuts and bolts of the novel-writing METHOD to the table, including plot points and character development insights.

Lara is bringing the breakthrough book-writing MINDSET front and center, using the Author Your Life method to help you connect to your highest, most creative self. She will show you how to overcome any obstacle that is keeping you from the page.

I’m telling you, this is a winning combo!

If you’re doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year, or if you just need some help jump-starting your novel, then you’ll want to sign up for our entire series called Yes We Can-owrimo!

It’s time to lay the foundation for getting your novel done, once and for all.

See you in class!

Your friend,

Alex K.

Writing Killer Cover Copy by Elana Johnson

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Many authors have no trouble spinning out stories of 70,000 words or longer, but freak out when it comes to writing a 200 word description of that same novel. They either get super vague, telling the reader everything except what the book’s about, or they get super detailed, trying to cram every plot point of the story into two paragraphs. Neither of these approaches will sell books.

WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is meant for indie authors who want to write better book descriptions for online retailers, but Johnson’s approach will work equally well for authors who want to write query letters that will entice agents and editors. Before going indie, Johnson herself was traditionally published and wrote for the Query Tracker blog, so I believe her approach—with minor tweaking—works in both situations.

Johnson breaks down the process step by step, showing writers what they need to include in their cover copy and what they don’t. And just like good cover copy itself, WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is short, to the point, and useful.

Johnson writes in a very casual tone, with lots of digressions and extremely lame jokes that grew more tiresome as the book went on. I understand the value of humor when trying to tackle a difficult subject, but only when the humor works. Johnson’s jokes were as cringe-worthy as watching a stand-up comic bomb on stage night after night. Luckily, the central instruction holds up and the cornball jokes didn’t get in the way of the information.

Johnson suggests that writers start with a tagline—a one-sentence “grabber.” Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that taglines are effective. She then breaks down the four sections of a good book description: the hook, the set-up, the conflict, and the consequence. Johnson provides examples and exercises so writers can make sure that every part of their cover copy works.

Publishing is a strange business, and writers don’t control much. We can’t control what’s hot today, or how Amazon changes its algorithms, or if we score a BookBub feature. What we can control is our own product. The quality of our books and the way we present them to the market is completely up to us, and WRITING KILLER COVER COPY will help writers learn this essential skill.

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WRITING KILLER COVER COPY can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.