How to Start When You’re Stuck by Robbie Swale

On YouTube, there’s a certain kind of video made by white guys in their thirties. It’s one guy, talking to the camera, and often key words will appear on the screen as he says them, in huge font, as if we’re watching Sesame Street. Those YouTube guys are talking about “productivity” and “mindset.” There are a lot of shoulds in these videos. You should get up earlier. You should save money. You should work harder. None of them offer any concrete steps on how to do that.

HOW TO START WHEN YOU’RE STUCK is that kind of video, but in book form. There is a lot of discussion about what we should be doing, but very little that can be acted on.

Part of the problem is the way the book is written. Swale has a twelve-minute train commute to work, so that’s his daily writing time. Once he reaches his station, he does a quick proofread and then immediately posts his work on his LinkedIn page, no matter where he is in the process. HOW TO START WHEN YOU’RE STUCK is a collection of those blog posts. Most of the posts end right when Swale has caught the glimmer of a good idea.

There are small nuggets of goodness here, like getting out of your own way, and giving yourself permission to write, and identifying as a writer, and keeping promises to yourself. But time and again, Swale cuts himself off before fully discussing his topic. He could have used his train writing as a jumping off point, and fleshed out those ideas later, but he doesn’t seem to mind putting out half-baked ideas as long as he’s producing lots of content. (He constantly brags that he’s published one hundred blog posts, as if that’s a big deal.)

Swale’s big idea is that you can find twelve minutes in your day, and in that time, you can produce more than you thought you could. I agree. I understand setting the timer for twelve minutes to do a writing sprint. I don’t understand putting a boundary on a piece and declaring it finished after twelve minutes. That’s fine for a writing exercise, but not great when it’s something you expect others to read and benefit from.

It’s ironic that Swale seemed to miss his own point. He wrote an entire book about how to get started, not realizing that each post he wrote was only the start of a topic he never finished. But let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to tell someone what they should do than how they should do it.

It doesn’t even take twelve minutes.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend How to Be an Artist by Joanneh Nagler or Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner instead of this book

Can You Make the Title Bigga? by Jessica Bell

Bell is a self-taught book cover designer who considers herself an expert—not an expert in what to do right, but an expert in what everyone else is doing wrong. CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? is my least-favorite kind of how-to book. It’s a ranty book filled with complaints, but no real instruction.

Great cover design is an ever-shifting goal. Trends change in a blink and “same but different” can be a fine line to walk. The other problem is that the writer must use words to communicate her vision to an artist who thinks in pictures. And they’re trying to agree on a design that they both love that will also sell books. Money and emotions are involved. It would be great if there was a book out there that could help self-published authors navigate those treacherous waters, but CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? isn’t it.

Bell hasn’t spoken to other designers so she can’t say what’s typical in the industry. She can only explain how she does things, which she’s eager to do, over and over and over. When Bell isn’t complaining, she’s promoting her own design services. She’s certain that authors would get better covers if they did things her way. But the reader is never sure what that way is, since Bell contradicts herself constantly. She complains that authors don’t give her enough direction, and then claims to want complete creative control. She says that the worst thing an author can do is to give the designer a photo they took for the cover, but a few chapters later, she’s gushing over one of her authors who always takes the most perfect photos for her covers. She warns against “cluttered” covers, and then proudly shows off a cover that uses every available bit of white space.

Bell quotes directly from emails with clients, and she delights in showing the reader the rookie mistakes her clients have made, from not knowing how to get an ISBN to not having their jacket copy prepared ahead of time. She also includes her responses—snarky one-liners that put the authors in their place instead of soliciting the correct information from them. I have hired cover designers myself, over twenty times, and my experiences were nothing like Bell describes. Either she’s cherry-picking the worst of her client interactions, or she’s not capable of attracting professional-level clients.

Even worse, she badmouths her own employees. First, she explains that her employees are only good for grunt work, but she gives them design work anyway, which she then does over. Bell blames herself for this, because she didn’t hire the best. She even calls out these employees by name (first and last) making sure to trash them in public. It’s a major red flag and I’m not sure why anyone would want to work for her—or hire her.

Bell is a decent cover designer. She includes a handful of color images of her work to prove it. But she’s a terrible communicator. She puffs herself up while putting others down, she doesn’t know how to work with clients, and somehow, she’s written an entire book about cover design that doesn’t teach a single thing about what makes a good book cover.


CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? can be found here


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran instead of 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.


Rating: one star


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

Writing Without Rules by Jeff Somers


WRITING WITHOUT RULES might be the most annoying book I’ve ever read. Somers contradicts himself in almost every chapter, gives shockingly bad advice, and generally comes across as a dude-bro with the maturity of a teenager.

The book is divided into two sections: writing and selling what you write. Some of Somers’ advice is good, some isn’t. The problem is, the good advice can be found in other, better books and the bad advice is so out-there that following it will actually hold writers back. That is, if writers can actually wade through the numerous inconsistencies to figure out what Somers is trying to say. For example, he claims that he never uses beta readers. However his wife and his best friend always read and critique his manuscripts before he sends them out. Does Somers not know that they are his betas? The entire book is like this. Whatever Somers says on one page, you can be sure he will say its opposite a few pages later.

The footnotes in WRITING WITHOUT RULES sometimes cover half the page and bleed onto the next. Most of the footnotes are to make a bad joke, explain the joke, or ask you to please laugh at the joke. It’s clear that Somers finds himself delightful and thinks the rest of the world does too. But in reality, he’s just another entitled guy who assumes he can do his job half-assed and still succeed, as long as he does it with a nudge and a wink.

Somers revels in his mediocrity. He goes on at length about how he went to college because he thought it would be easy and never studied while he was there. He found both his agent and his publisher through such an improbable series of coincidences that the only true advice he can offer is something along the lines of, “Be lucky, like me.” Even writing a how-to book was something he did on a whim, not out of a desire to help writers, but because his agent thought it would be good for his brand.

His only saving grace seems to be that he writes nearly nonstop. If Somers is to be believed (and this isn’t a given) he’s extremely prolific. He’s able to do almost everything wrong and still achieve a little bit of success because he’s selling a tiny fraction of his seemingly endless output.

The friend who lent me this book said, “I almost feel bad for Somers. Like he could be so much more successful if he stopped following his own advice.”

I believe we’ve reached a new low on the Writing Slices blog. I’ve found a book that not only will hurt aspiring writers if they read it, but probably hurt the person who wrote it.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Writing the Novel From Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block or Writing Fiction for all You’re Worth by James Scott Bell instead of this book.


The Scribbler Box


In a moment of weakness, when I was feeling in need of some self-care, I signed up for a six-month subscription to THE SCRIBBLER BOX. That was a mistake. Now, every month, the postal carrier delivers another reminder that I wasted my money.

I liked the idea of it. This is a subscription box tailor-made for authors. It promised insider tips from authors, agents, and publishers, as well as unique surprises and one hardcover book. Each month, there would be a YouTube chat with a publishing insider, which seemed pretty darned exciting to me.

What came in the mail was underwhelming, and each month seemed a little bit worse than the month before. I expected the books to be a mix of genres, but they were all YA books and women’s fiction. The “insider tips” were stapled-together booklets of the most generic writing advice I’ve ever seen. Ditto the YouTube chats. Each one was an hour of the hosts asking softball questions while the guests gave vague answers. Someone looking for honest publishing advice would be better off spending an hour reading the blog of a good agent, where real advice can be found.

The box also comes with office supplies like bookmarks and highlighters and paperclips. One month, the “special” surprise was a bic pen. I actually laughed out loud when I opened that month’s box. A bic pen? Really? The whole promise of a subscription box is that they will deliver unique items, but I’ve seen better tchotchkes at OfficeMax.

Literally the best thing about THE SCRIBBLER BOX is the box the stuff comes in. It’s just the right size for shipping or gifting books and it’s decorated with a super cute typewriter graphic. Last month, my subscription box sat on my counter, unopened, for two days until I needed the box for something, so I finally opened it and dumped out the contents so I could use the box.

I never should have signed up for this subscription and I don’t recommend you do, either. The next time I’m in need of some retail therapy, I’ll go to the office supply store or the book store and fill my own cart, because the only good thing about THE SCRIBBLER BOX is the box itself.


The Scribbler Box can be found here.


Rating: 1 star


77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected by Mike Nappa


I usually avoid books like 77 REASONS WHY YOUR BOOK WAS REJECTED, since I don’t believe going negative helps anyone. However, at a writing workshop I teach, a disgruntled writer left a copy behind, saying that the book had upset him so much, he never wanted to see it again. That made me curious. Was the writer overreacting? Or was it really that bad?

After I read 77 REASONS WHY YOUR BOOK WAS REJECTED, I understood that writer’s reaction. I never want to see this book again either. It’s toxic. It personally attacks writers, and even worse, blames them for things that are outside their control.

Of the “reasons” Nappa gives for rejection by publishers and agents, 27 are things writers can do nothing about. Things like “We’re already publishing a similar book” and “My Sales VP is hostile toward me” and “I had a fight with my spouse just before I read your proposal” and even “You are the wrong gender.” Even so, Nappa still thinks writers should do something about it.

Rejection comes with the territory, and the best advice is to shrug it off and move on. However, Nappa suggests that writers internalize rejection, taking responsibility for it in an unhealthy way. In Nappa’s world, even the most impersonal rejection is something the writer should have been able to prevent by doing things like stalking editors on Twitter and only submitting when they’re in a good mood. (I wish I were making this up.)

Even the fifty reasons under a writer’s control are dubious at best. Things like “You are not on social media” or “Your title stinks” aren’t valid reasons to reject a good book, since those things can change after the deal is made. In fact, very few of the reasons are real reasons at all, other than the writer didn’t do enough of Nappa’s job for him.

The jacket flap of 77 REASONS WHY YOUR BOOK WAS REJECTED promises that readers will discover tips and tricks for avoiding rejection. They won’t. Nappa is eager to tell writers everything they are doing wrong but doesn’t teach them how to do it right. There are a few slivers of good advice in this book, but not enough to make wading through Nappa’s abusive rant worth it, especially since the occasional good advice is quite generic, and can be easily found in other books.

77 REASONS WHY YOUR BOOK WAS REJECTED is a close cousin to THE FIRST FIVE PAGES by Noah Lukeman, and like its predecessor, this book is not one that a writer wants or needs in their how-to library.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block or The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner instead of this book.


Writing with the Master by Tony Vanderwarker


Vanderwarker is a personal friend of John Grisham, and over a casual lunch, Grisham made the mistake of saying, “Sure, I’ll help you with your novel.” Vanderwarker—a former ad man and author of six novel attempts—assumed that Grisham was in for a full mentorship, including reading his first drafts.

Grisham verbally sketches a complete outline for him and Vanderwarker gleefully sets to work, expecting that soon he’ll be driving a Porsche and will be booked on the Today show. But it’s telling that his dream is not to be famous for his novel. He dreams of being famous because John Grisham helped him write his novel.

Vanderwarker reproduces his full outline in WRITING WITH THE MASTER as well as excerpts from the novel, called Sleeping Dogs. It’s so full of rookie mistakes that it’s painful to read. At their next lunch, he learns brilliant insights from Grisham like “chuck out story elements that don’t directly relate to the plot” and “a novel has three acts, and the middle one is the toughest” and “show, don’t tell.” This is Writer 101, but to Vanderwarker, they are groundbreaking revelations. (I see why none of his six novel attempts were ever published.)

Even more painful is the fact that John Grisham is no editor. His editorial letters are reproduced in full, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know how to help Vanderwarker beyond vaguely saying, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” Grisham spends dozens of hours going over Vanderwarker’s novel, but in the end, can only stomach half of it and declines to read the rest.

Vanderwarker doesn’t get the hint. He obviously worships Grisham and sincerely tries to implement his suggestions, but between Grisham’s hazy advice and Vanderwarker’s cluelessness, the novel doesn’t get much better.

After a year, Grisham finally tells Vanderwarker that he can’t help anymore. Vanderwarker interprets that as meaning Sleeping Dogs is ready and starts sending it out. It’s rejected by every agent in town. He puts the novel in a drawer and then has the clever idea of writing a book about what it’s like to write a book with John Grisham. This becomes WRITING WITH THE MASTER. It gets picked up by a small press and becomes Vanderwarker’s first published book. :::head desk:::

Billed as a how-to book full of good advice, WRITING WITH THE MASTER is actually the sad story of a groupie who’d rather piggyback on another man’s success than honestly learn the craft of writing for himself.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers or Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell instead of this book.


Story Physics by Larry Brooks


It’s hard to find the true advice in STORY PHYSICS, since what little information it contains is buried in overstatement, jargon, and unclear definitions. Even the most straightforward concept—find great plots, fill them with great characters who have something at stake—gets so twisted by Brooks that it’s hard to see what point he’s trying to make.

I was well into chapter two when I realized Brooks was still selling me the book I’d just bought. It was like one of those hour-long infomercials where the first twenty minutes are spent promising you that you’ll learn amazing things about this incredible new product without actually showing you the product.

As much as he sells himself, there’s a defensiveness to Brooks that’s extremely off-putting. When an author repeatedly tells you what his book isn’t, or feels he has to justify his approach, or scolds authors for doing it wrong, I worry. I’d rather read books that teach what to do than warn what not to do. And shouldn’t a teacher write for people who want his help, rather than criticize those who don’t?

But my real problem with STORY PHYSICS is that Brooks is deliberately trying to make simple concepts difficult. Principles of good storytelling are universal. Things like high stakes, rising action, and an exciting climax leading to the hero’s personal growth are not new. They have been in place as long as stories have been told. So why twist them, rename them, and misrepresent them?

STORY PHYSICS is full of jargon and made-up terms, which Brooks uses to make his concepts seem more elevated. Using common terms and giving them new names doesn’t make them any clearer to the reader. Nor will it make old ideas new. All it does is confuse the reader, making Brooks’ points harder to follow.

Not only is there nothing new here, Brooks doesn’t even offer a new way of looking at old ideas. Even if there are one or two good ideas buried in this book, nothing in STORY PHYSICS is worth the effort of reading it.


Rating: 1 star


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


Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley


PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE promises a “plain English guide to the transformational character arc and emotional theory.” But there are two things wrong with this. First, Henley doesn’t seem to understand what transformational character arc means. Second, she really doesn’t understand what plain English means.

Henley starts with a chapter on targeting the audience. Of course consideration for the readership is important, but to put that before the concerns of story feels backward. Henley approaches market research in a very shallow way. She suggests you figure out the main emotional concerns of your target audience and then contrive a story around those triggers. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense for the story or not. As long as you can put a child in danger, make a family relationship break down, or put a heroine together with her one true love, all story considerations are secondary.

Henley’s big idea is that everything a character does in the present can be traced back to one single event in their past. Something like, “My house burned down as a child and that’s why I always freeze in new situations.” (She calls it the “core event.”) But this simplistic view of characters tends to flatten rather than increase their depth.

PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is repetitive, written in jargon, and poorly organized. It could have used a good editor. The made-up terminology doesn’t really make sense and muddies Henley’s points.

But confusing, rather than clarifying, could be the aim of PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE. Readers read novels to have an emotional experience. Writers know we need to write the hero’s emotional transformation along with the external plot. It’s something storytellers already instinctively do. However, Henley needs us to believe it’s difficult so she can save us with her instruction.  I’m seeing more and more books like this and I will no longer be taken in by them.

Neither should you.


Rating: 1 star


I recommend Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias or Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne instead of this book.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker


I first heard about THE SENSE OF STYLE when Pinker was a guest on NPR. The author had an engaging manner and he shared lively examples from his book, which I couldn’t wait to read. Alas, if only Pinker wrote the way he talked. If he did, he might have written a good book. Instead, he got bogged down in dense prose, over-explanation, and useless theory. It’s ironic that a guidebook that’s supposed to teach writers how to write clear prose isn’t written more clearly itself.

The premise is a good one. Which rules of the past still apply? Which ones are no longer useful? In what ways is language changing right in front of us? How can we use that information to make ourselves understood? But Pinker didn’t do the premise justice. He isn’t interested in helping students write better. He’s simply interested in complaining that students write badly. He got blinded by his own self-importance, ending up with not a style guide, but a screed.

THE SENSE OF STYLE is written in long paragraphs of academic-speak. However, the ideas are not complex enough to warrant convoluted sentences dripping with graduate-level vocabulary. But of course, it fulfills the twin purposes of jargon: to make the author’s points seem more important and to exclude the riffraff.

Studying linguistics doesn’t make Pinker an expert on style. He disagrees with language purists, but his imagined enemies are a vague “they.” Besides E.B. White, Pinker doesn’t bother to cite the authorities he disagrees with. He seems to be holding up straw men for the pleasure of shooting them down, all while presenting his own personal opinion as the objective authority. His big reveal is that language changes over time and that the rules of 1900 are not the rules of 2000, which isn’t a revelation to anyone except Pinker himself.

What makes a good grammar book is utility. What makes a good instruction manual is clear ideas expressed in a straightforward way. What makes good style is something THE SENSE OF STYLE will never teach you.


rating: 1 star


I recommend Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty or The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers by Bridget McKenna instead of this book.