The Anatomy of a Best Seller by Sacha Black

We all became writers because we love books. Stories feed our minds and hearts, and that’s why we write. But being a great reader does not make someone a great writer. There is a huge gap between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER fills that gap, to help writers bridge the chasm between someone who loves to read and someone who understands how books are made.

There are three things a writer must do: read, deconstruct, and implement. Reading seems like the easy part. We all love to read, right? But Black teaches us how to read like writers, which is a completely different skillset. A writer must first read widely, to understand the genre, and then read deeply, to understand the techniques a writer has used.

After that comes deconstruction. This is all about reverse-engineering to figure out what an author is doing and why it works. Deconstruction means using an author’s tools, not her words. Black doesn’t advocate plagiarism. She’s showing authors how to take a deep dive into books in order to internalize those techniques, so we can make them our own. This is a very personal experience that relies on emotion rather than logic. Whatever part of the book moved you? That’s the part to pay attention to. Only then does analysis come into play. Black gives lots of useful examples here, to show this kind of deconstruction in action.

The third, and most difficult part, is implementation. Here is where most how-to books fall down, because it’s a lot easier to tell writers what to do than explain how to do it. But Black fearlessly wades into the trenches, not only explaining how to use the tools that a writer discovered in parts one and two, but how to use them for a particular audience.

The phrase “write to market” has been said so often, by so many, that it’s become an almost meaningless phrase. But Black prefers to think of it as “write to reader.” Because the truth is, writers don’t intuitively know how to please readers. Too often, we’re writing for other writers. We attend critique groups where writers pick apart our sentences, or we get beta reader feedback from fellow writers and change our books according to their sensibilities, or we take classes and write what the instructor wants. But Black wants to turn that completely around by showing us how to first read like a writer, then write for a reader.

When I finished reading THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER, I went immediately to page one and started reading it a second time. It’s that good. I have been deconstructing bestselling and midlist books for years, and my mind was still blown by Black’s insights. Even better, Black delivers all of her instruction with a wicked sense of humor and a healthy measure of f-bombs, which are two of my favorite things.

THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER is not a “get rich quick” kind of book. Black’s methods take time, patience, and lot of trial and error. But the result will be an author who truly understands novels, and can deliver fresh stories to exactly the right audience.

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THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER 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.

Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker

There are two kinds of writers in the world: those who like to outline before they begin writing and those who “fly by the seat of their pants.” TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is aimed at the latter group. Hawker promises that even the most hard-core pantsers can learn to outline. She insists that outlining novels is the only way to a full-time author career, while pantsers are doomed to keep their day jobs. Hawker then doubles down to say that outlining the “right” way (her way) is the only path to a successful literary career. None of this is true, but I suspect this book sells more for the provocative title than for any of its contents.

Hawker hasn’t done any research into the plotter/pantser divide beyond her own experience. She wrote her first book without an outline and it took her a long time. She wrote all her later books with outlines and they were written faster. Therefore, she has concluded that outlines are best for everyone. She belabors this point (and all of her points) with tons of strawman arguments and as much self-praise as she can manage.

Hawker learned her personal outlining method by following John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. She states over and over again that TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is simply a streamlined version of Truby’s book. To be fair, Truby’s book is overly complex and borderline unreadable, so perhaps Hawker thinks she’s doing writers a favor by distilling it for them. But here’s the thing: nobody needs a dumbed-down version of a bad book.

Hawker’s actual outline template is just The Hero’s Journey with different names attached to the plot points. However, changing the name of a well-known concept doesn’t make it a new concept. Calling the all-is-lost moment the “changed goal,” or calling the climax scene “the battle,” doesn’t make them different things. It’s very unfair to the reader to take a well-known story map, rename all the parts, and then pretend you invented it.

For her examples, Hawker gives a nod to the first Harry Potter book and to Charlotte’s Web, but the majority of her examples are from two sources: Lolita, and her own book called Tidewater. Her novel is the story of Pocahontas, told from Pocahontas’ point of view. Pocahontas’ fatal flaw, according to Hawker, is that she was “too ambitious.” (Too ambitious for what? For a woman? For a Native American?) Four different times, Hawker states that the theme of Tidewater is “how people handle a cultural clash.” To her, the colonization of North America was merely a clash of cultures. The whitewashing of history aside, taking examples from a book that few people have read is unhelpful, and using the author’s own novel is just bad form.

I’m someone who loves to outline her novels and I’m always thrilled when I find a new outlining method. But TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is derivative, self-indulgent, and offensive. Pantsers won’t want this book, plotters won’t like it, and nobody needs it.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin and others

Lakin has teamed up with four other professional editors to explain the problems that they see over and over in manuscripts. But they’re not here to complain. These editors are sharp-eyed at spotting flaws in manuscripts and they’re eager to help writers do better. They offer in-depth explanations of the flaw, show why it’s a problem, and teach writers how to fix it.

Some of the flaws are on the macro level, the kind of thing an author would rewrite in the second draft. These are things like too much backstory, lack of tension, overwriting, telling instead of showing, flawed dialogue, and flat description. Others are things that could be considered copyediting errors, such as weak sentence construction, improper mechanics, or using too many adverbs.

The authors take turns writing the chapters, so this is more a compilation than a true collaboration. But even though many voices are represented in this book, none of the chapters contradict one another and it never felt repetitive. Had I not known it was written by five people, I could have mistaken this book for the advice of one single author. That’s because the advice within 5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is so accurate, well-presented, and well-taught. This is one of those great books that teaches by example. The authors are not here to bash anyone for doing it wrong. They only want to help authors get it right.

The example passages are written by the authors themselves, and they give a before and after example for every single point they make. This book is very hands on, nitty-gritty, do-this-not-that. At the end of every chapter, the authors give a sample passage and invite readers to rewrite it. The authors offer up two to three pages of prose, deliberately making one of the deadly mistakes, so readers can practice what they’ve learned. The ideal is always that we’ll apply these lessons to our own manuscripts, but it’s so much easier to spot the flaws when it’s not your own work. By going through the rewrites on a sample passage, writers can internalize the principles without any emotional resistance.

5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING isn’t an “easy” book. The lessons are deep, the examples are detailed, and the process is complicated. It will take time to go through each chapter, absorb the lesson, and apply it to your own work. But the lessons are so thorough and so well-taught that any writer who spends time with this book will come out the other side a stronger writer.

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5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING 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

The Write Balance by Bonni Goldberg

THE WRITE BALANCE isn’t a book about how to write. What I mean by that is, it’s not a book about craft issues like plot, character, description, pacing, or dialogue. But it is a book about the writing process. Goldberg ignores the most obvious part of the process—the first draft. There are hundreds of books out there that will teach writers how to write a first draft faster, cleaner, in thirty days, or ninety days, or a year, with or without an outline. Goldberg leaves that to other books.

Instead, she shines a bright light into other, darker corners of the writing process—those that aren’t taught much and often not even mentioned in books and classes. THE WRITE BALANCE is divided into three parts. The first is about percolation, that pre-writing period where ideas are generated. The second is about revision, including on your own and with a critique group. The final part is about going public, which can mean publication, but doesn’t necessarily have to.

Too many writers focus on daily word count, as if that’s the only metric that matters. However, Goldberg devotes fully a third of THE WRITE BALANCE to what she calls percolation. She recognizes that writers are humans, not machines, and that we need quiet thinking time as much as we need butt-in-chair time. However, she doesn’t advocate for mindless woolgathering. Goldberg offers exercises to do and a reasonable timeframe in which to do them.

The middle part of the book is about revision—another thing that gets scant attention in most how-to books. Goldberg discusses the ins and outs of critique groups and beta readers, while constantly reminding writers that their intuition will guide them well if they listen to it.

Finally, Goldberg discusses going public, although her focus is not on rushing immediately to publication. Instead, she talks about taking your time, finding the right publication path, and finding other ways to share stories, whether that is through public readings, open mics, or blogging. Publication can (and should) be in that mix, but there are lots of ways to share what we write.

Throughout, Goldberg shares lessons steeped in empathy. Everything is seen through the lens of how it will nurture or hurt writers. But this isn’t a touchy-feely book full of woo. It’s an extremely practical guide to the areas of a writer’s life that are so often overlooked. Some of us don’t even have words for what we’re doing when we’re percolating. Instead, we call ourselves “lazy” or “procrastinators,” instead of honoring the idea phase of writing.

THE WRITE BALANCE was so insightful, I sometimes felt like Goldberg was sitting in my home office with me. More than once, I whispered to my kindle, “How does she know?” But Goldberg doesn’t see through walls. She’s simply tapped into the universal struggles that all writers share, and she shows us how to make it through all the phases of writing, from first idea to publication.

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THE WRITE BALANCE can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to worry about the state of the English language every time I used social media. Faced with a wall of misspellings, incorrect grammar, and wild punctuation, I despaired for my mother tongue. I sometimes reminded myself that until the digital age, public writing was something that professionals did, and we never read printed words from an average person. Perhaps most writing was always terrible, it’s just that we didn’t see most of it. Other times, I worried that nobody cared about the “rules” of writing and we were all doomed to a slow slide into illiteracy.

BECAUSE INTERNET showed me that my assumptions were wrong on all counts. It’s not that people are using English incorrectly, it’s that they’re adapting language to their needs. Until recently, we had formal writing and informal speech.  For example, you’d start a letter to your grandma with “Dear Grandmother,” but when you saw her in person, you’d say, “Hi, Gran!” However, with the rise of social media, for the first time, we have informal writing.

Internet language isn’t incorrect, and it doesn’t signal the end of good grammar. It’s simply a way of expressing the informality of speech in a written format. Nor should we worry about young people being unduly influenced by it. McCulloch sites studies that show that students can easily code-switch into formal writing when required for tests or papers.

BECAUSE INTERNET takes a deep dive into internet language, starting with its history. McCulloch explains why different generations use language differently on the internet. Users are roughly divided by age, but more importantly, by when they first got online. Like all good linguists, McCulloch is descriptive rather than prescriptive, explaining why and how language is changing without ever judging people for it.

Because when it comes right down to it, the way that we write when we’re online makes sense. When we’re face to face, we communicate so much in body language, tone, and facial expressions. Written words don’t express tone of voice, so we sometimes use uppercase for emphasis, or add asterisks or tildes. We use /s to indicate that this is sarcasm or a joke, but we use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters to indicate mockery. We misspell on purpose for humor or to pull out a word, as in, “I allllmost forgot my phone,” or the Tumblr favorite, “sameeee” to indicate absolute agreement.

And when words aren’t enough, we use GIFs to show a facial expression, or turn to emojis. McCulloch gives a detailed explanation of the history and purpose of emojis. They aren’t taking the place of body language, since body language is unconscious. Emojis are deliberate, and therefore represent gestures, such as a thumbs up or a shrug. McCulloch details how and why emojis are used and by whom. (I laughed the first time my mom sent me an emoji. It looked strange because most senior citizens don’t use them.)  

BECAUSE INTERNET is not written in an academic tone. It’s easy to read, sharp, insightful, and quite funny in parts. It gave me new appreciation for the way that language is changing right before our eyes, with the birth of new grammar for the digital age.

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BECAUSE INTERNET can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Into the Woods by John Yorke (content warning)

Content Warning: sexual assault

Yorke is a TV writer and producer for the BBC, so he has an interest in story structure. His career would seem to depend on it, and yet, he treats the most basic and well-known elements of storytelling as if they were brand-new insights. Yorke references the screenwriting teachers who came before him like Vogler, Snyder, and Field, while at the same time trying to take credit for ideas they developed.

While studying the three-act structure, Yorke noticed that act two was longer than the others, with a distinct dividing line in the middle. In short, he learned about Midpoints. That’s when Yorke decided that the three-act structure was really a five-act structure, and INTO THE WOODS is littered with charts to “prove” his point. It’s still the exact same story structure. He simply renamed the parts.

All of INTO THE WOODS is like this. Yorke describes some well-known facet of storycraft and then pretends he was the first to discover it. The first chapters are about story structure, while the second half of the book deals with characterization, dialogue, and exposition. Yorke ends with a long and boring history of TV shows. His entire point here is that TV shows either end because the characters change, and therefore their story is finished, or the characters don’t change at all (such as in sitcoms) and the show gets repetitive. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. There is literally nothing here that hasn’t been said before in better books.

Yorke’s examples are mostly random and never illustrate his points in any meaningful way. In fact, his points are so general that nearly any example from nearly any movie or TV show would fit. INTO THE WOODS reads like a paper from a student who did a lot of research and took a lot of notes, and is determined to cram it all into the text, whether it fits or not.

Throughout, Yorke keeps hinting at a big reveal. He keeps promising that he’s going to explain why humans tell stories. Like a late-night infomercial that keeps hyping a gadget before showing it to you, Yorke hints that his upcoming insight is going to be brilliant. Finally, he shares the secret. Are you ready for this?

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world.

That’s it.

That’s the insight that Yorke thinks is so groundbreaking that he spends an entire book leading up to it.

All this would probably add up to a two-star rating but what sinks it to a one-star is Yorke’s misogyny. The vast majority of his examples are taken from macho movies such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and every single one of the experts he quotes is a man. He brings up sexual assault at least once per chapter, as if he’s fascinated by the subject. Out of the thousands of examples he could use to illustrate his points, over and over he chooses examples of women being assaulted by men. The only woman-centric movie he cites is Thelma and Louise, and you can guess which aspect of it he’s fixated on. He even reimagines the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel with the children raped and murdered.

I never thought I’d have to put a content warning in a book review, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s another warning: don’t buy this book.

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Rating: one star

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala

Marketing isn’t something that comes naturally to writers. In fact, many of us are put off by the idea. Some of that is fear of rejection or fear of wasting time and money. But most of it is because the traditional methods of selling just don’t mesh with our personalities. We think of book marketing as something extroverts do, or people who are shameless about tricking buyers, or writers who treat their books like commodities. At the very least, we think successful marketers have an unhealthy obsession with money and sales, and their art suffers for it.

FIREFLY MAGIC upends all of those assumptions about marketing. Sapala shows writers how to sell their books in an authentic way, from a place of integrity and confidence. By thinking of our books as our service to the world, we can sell books without selling out.

Sapala is a student of the Meyers-Briggs personality matrix, and she makes it clear she’s speaking to “INFJ” writers. However, you don’t need to be one of those, or even know what the letters stand for, to benefit from FIREFLY MAGIC. Sapala is speaking to introverted and highly-sensitive people, which means she’s speaking to the vast majority of writers.

Unlike other marketing books that say “do this and get rich,” Sapala understands what’s going on inside writers. She feels those feelings and knows exactly why writers are resistant to marketing. If something feels inauthentic or sleazy or uncomfortable, we won’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing. The middle section of FIREFLY MAGIC lists the things that writers must do to be successful, and they are the very same things that other books tell us to do: get a website, use social media, have a newsletter, find your niche, lead with your unique selling point, and most of all, keep making more content. So if Sapala is telling writers to do the same thing as other marketing books, why is her book so much better? That small mindset shift—from selling to serving—makes all the difference. Other marketing books feel like sitting on a cactus, while FIREFLY MAGIC feels like stepping onto fluffy clouds. Believe it or not, Sapala can make you feel excited about marketing.

FIREFLY MAGIC is very much a “why to” rather than a “how to,” so it’s more of a companion book rather than a complete one. You’ll need other marketing books to learn the actual nuts-and-bolts of how to do it. But reading FIREFLY MAGIC first means you’ll actually be able to absorb the lessons of the other books, making sure you start your marketing efforts on the right foot and maintain them for the long haul.

FIREFLY MAGIC 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

The Writer’s Roadmap by Leigh Shulman

It seems so simple: make a goal, break it down into steps, and follow the steps. That’s been said in hundreds of books. Shulman says that too, but THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is specifically geared toward writers—especially writers who are trying to leave their day jobs to write full time. And Shulman adds a few extra steps and refinements that made me see this timeworn advice in a new light.

The problem is that many authors put “write a book” at the bottom of a long to-do list and wonder why it never gets done. We’re all working as hard as we can every day, but Shulman reminds us that working harder won’t get you anywhere if you’re working on the wrong thing. To keep writers on track, Shulman uses the acronym OGSM (which I kept reading as “orgasm” because I am twelve.) It stands for Objective, Goals, Strategies, and Measures.

Most how-to books start with goals. It seems like a natural place to start. Goals are what we’re working toward, right? But Shulman goes one level higher. What’s the overall objective? What ties your many goals together? What gives your life purpose? It’s almost like you’re writing a mission statement for yourself and your writing.

Only after the overall objective is super clear should you turn to your goals. Goals give you focus and help you find opportunities. THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is full of questions and worksheets to help writers clarify their goals and put them in order.

Strategies are the specific steps taken. These change the most. Many of us get stuck at this step because we think we need to know exactly how to accomplish our goals. But Shulman reminds us that of all the things in an OGSM, the strategies are the most flexible. We learn as we go, and it’s perfectly okay to refine your strategies.

Measures are important too. You either do the thing or you don’t do the thing. You need to keep track so you know for sure that you’ve done the thing. Numbers don’t lie. Shulman also includes short, snappy sidebars about setting boundaries and dealing with money. I really appreciate those because don’t we all struggle with those two issues? But having them as small sidebars feels insufficient when they really need whole chapters.

I think we’re all re-evaluating our goals in 2022. The last two years have been extremely hard, and we’re all looking at our writing goals in new ways. Some writers have scaled back. Some have taken on projects outside their usual genres. Some are exploring new revenue streams. But I don’t know a single writer whose objectives and goals have stayed the same since 2019. THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is a refreshing look at an old topic, and a perfect way to start the new year.

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THE WRITER’S ROADMAP can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning authors

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I recommend this book

Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration by K.M. Weiland

The first thing you need to know is that Weiland doesn’t actually believe in writer’s block. At best, it’s a bogeyman used to scare writers. At worst, it’s an excuse for not writing. However, Weiland does believe in frustration. Every writer has good days and bad days. CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION is the book you need on the bad days.

The second important thing about CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION is that the book is short, to the point, and no-nonsense. This isn’t the book that’s going to coddle writers, or let writers feel sorry for themselves, or tell writers that they are brave and heroic for simply putting pen to paper. Professional writers work long, diligent hours on their craft, and if you expect to join them, you will have to work hard too.

Inspiration exists. It’s wonderful, and when it happens, a writer feels invincible. But inspiration doesn’t come for free. The price is that the writer has to show up at the page day after day. Weiland gives solid advice for putting this foundational habit in place. Let go of perfection, study the craft, cultivate excitement in the work, and don’t cling too tightly to writing rules. Weiland also discusses the dangers of trying to “failure proof” a piece of writing, which will only bleed the life out of it. And if a writer is dreaming of fame and fortune more than she’s dreaming about her characters and her story, she’ll likely never finish her book.

However, even with solid writing habit in place, sometimes the words won’t come. In that case, Weiland lays out some emergency measures. Things like brainstorming ahead of time, stopping mid-sentence, throwing in random plot twists, or shaking up point of view, tone, or a heroine’s goal.

Throughout CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION, Weiland reminds us that writers write. A writer can’t expect success without putting in the work. Whining doesn’t get the job done. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t get the job done. Talent doesn’t get the job done. The only thing that matters is putting your butt in the chair and typing one word after another. Sometimes, doing the work is the only inspiration a writer needs.

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CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book

Trough of Hell by H.R. d’Costa

Most authors are fired up to write the beginning of their novels. They know how the story starts and are eager to get going on the wonderful story they want to tell. Many authors have an easy time with the ending as well, feeling like they’re coasting downhill to the climax. Then there’s the middle. Somehow, blank pages in the middle of a story are the worst kind of blank pages.

D’Costa specializes in taking a deep dive into one aspect of story, breaking down the story beats into their smallest possible units. TROUGH OF HELL zeroes in on that section about 75% of the way through the story, when things are as bad as they can get.

This is the all-is-lost moment, when the heroine is at her lowest point emotionally. Paradoxically, she’s also the closest to achieving her true goal—perhaps not the one she wants, but the one she needs. But in order to get there, she has to reach rock bottom. Only then, when she’s at her most vulnerable, can she face the truth about herself and change for the better.

D’Costa gets very specific here, showing readers all the ways they can hurt their heroes, and how to evoke true emotions by tailoring them to the story. She gives consideration to different genres, since this story beat plays out differently in comedies and serious stories. She also shows how to use minor characters to make the all-is-lost even more resonant. She wraps it up by discussing ways to avoid cliches, keep the pace from dragging, and make the all-is-lost moment deeper and more meaningful.

D’Costa is a screenwriter, so all the examples are from movies, some of them stretching back to the 1990s. But she never discusses obscure or arty films. All of the examples are from well-known movies, and D’Costa gives enough explanation so you can follow along even if you’ve never seen the film in question. The all-is-lost moment is a vital story beat in both novels and screenplays, with the same emotional job to do, so this concept applies to novels too.

The trough of hell is one of the least fun parts of a novel to write. It’s the moment when we have to be very mean to our imaginary friends. But with a guide like TROUGH OF HELL, writing that section of a novel will be easier, and the author will have the satisfaction of knowing that the terrible trouble she put her heroes in was all worth it.

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TROUGH OF HELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book