Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

I’m not exactly sure why DO THE WORK is a book. It has about as many words as a longish blog post, arranged in the poorest layout I’ve ever seen. Each sentence is a different font size, positioned all over the page, with more white space than words. I bought the hardcover book, so it wasn’t an ebook formatting problem. This was a deliberate design. Some pages have only one word on them, as if the publisher will do anything to stretch the minimal text into 98 pages, justifying a hardcover print run with a matching price.

The entire book is about “resistance,” in other words, the normal human response to doing a hard task. Pressfield compares this resistance to a dragon who wishes the writer’s death. Of course, the bigger the monster, the braver the writer gets to feel. Pressfield imagines writers as “heroic knights” for doing nothing more than putting pen to paper.

Let’s get real. If writing is truly that difficult for Pressfield–for anyone–maybe he shouldn’t be doing it. Most writers (me included) love to write. Sure, the words flow more easily on some days than others, but overall, we write because we enjoy it.

The bulk of DO THE WORK is trite observations like “suspend the inner critic” and “this draft is not being graded.” Pressfield advises writers to make a three-sentence outline of our novels (beginning, middle, end) and then fill in the gaps to have a complete outline. No…really?

Pressfield stands in awe of anyone who finishes a novel of any quality. Awe! He likens it to the difficulty of losing forty pounds, kicking crack cocaine, or surviving the loss of a loved one. Writing must be a truly ghastly experience for him if it equals the pain of daily self-denial, drug withdrawal, or acute grief. If it’s so bad, why does Pressfield write at all? Nobody is forcing him to. Anyone who finds writing that difficult should maybe find another job. I’m not saying that writing isn’t important. It is deeply, deeply meaningful. It takes courage and a lifetime of dedication. But come on! It’s not life or death.

As for me, I will take the title of the book as an invitation, not a punishment. Do the work? I’d love to. Right after I put this little stack of useless paper into the recycling bin.

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rating: 1 star

 

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I recommend How to Avoid Making Art by Julia Cameron or The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes instead of this book.

Dialogue by Lewis Turco

I’ve had very good experiences with the “Elements of Fiction Writing” series from Writer’s Digest Books (See PLOT and SETTING). It’s a brand I’ve come to trust, so I was eager to try the rest of the books. Unfortunately, DIALOGUE was not the quality book I’ve come expect from this series.

DIALOGUE is written as an imagined Socratic dialogue between Turco and “Fred Foyle,” a character who even gets a byline on the title page. The concept of endless dialogue is interesting for about three-quarters of a page. Then it get tiresome. Then ridiculous. In order to keep it going, Turco has to do everything he tells the reader not to do. He lectures the reader, uses exposition disguised as dialogue, and intrudes on the dialogue with unnecessary asides. The result is the opposite of what Turco intended. Instead of a fun read with good instruction, DIALOGUE is a dense, slow-going book with very little helpful information in its pages.

There are headers above each chunk of dialogue to help the reader find what she’s looking for. But after wading through “Fred Foyle’s” questions and Turco’s answers, I still didn’t learn anything worthwhile.

Most unforgivable were the inserts of Turco’s own short stories as examples, which “Fred Foyle” heaps praise upon in the next line of dialogue. He even calls one story a tour de force. (Who says that about their own work?)

The introduction indicates that this book was contracted and paid for before Turco wrote it. Once the sub-par manuscript was turned in, Writer’s Digest Books had to either publish it as scheduled or have a hole in their series. They made the wrong choice. Writers can’t confidently buy any book from the “Elements of Fiction Writing” series because a bad book has tarnished the entire brand.

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rating: 1 star

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I recommend Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall instead of this book.

How I Sold 1 Million ebooks in 5 Months by John Locke

John Locke writes like this! Nearly every sentence contains both italics and an exclamation point, and sometimes Locke even switches to all caps because what he wants to tell you IS VERY IMPORTANT!

Hand-waving and cheerleading aside, I found HOW I SOLD 1 MILLION EBOOKS IN 5 MONTHS to be a deeply cynical book. Locke states that in order to succeed, a writer must spend more time marketing than writing. His role model is McDonalds, where the business plan is vastly more important than the food. He has absolutely no desire to improve his craft, any more than fast food places want to improve the quality of what they serve. Now, I’m not saying every writer needs to write world-class literature. Some of my favorite books are novels that the literati look down upon. But Locke’s advice–produce slap-dash, cheap novels and market the hell out of them–is exactly the kind of thing that gives self-published writers a bad name.

The sad thing is, it works. At least it did for Locke. I don’t know if other writers can replicate his success, although I see many of them trying. Locke starts the book with reasonable advice: don’t try traditional book marketing, blog effectively, have a website, use social media, and above all, write more books. It’s good advice and I can see why people are swayed. Come on, the guy sold a million books!

Then we come to Locke’s big idea, something he calls “loyalty transfer.” It goes like this: find a popular celebrity that you admire. Craft a blog post that somehow ties you to that celebrity, no matter how fragile the connection. Make sure your post drips with emotion, too. The idea is that some of the celebrity’s glamour will rub off on you and people will therefore buy your books. He includes an especially cringe-worthy example involving himself, his mom, and Joe Paterno.

I’ve seen the results. New Locke disciples are easy to spot. The author is suddenly full of praise for Lady Gaga or Stephen King or George Lucas because they have so much in common. The loyalty transfer blog is always a complete departure in style from the author’s previous blog posts. The insincerity practically oozes through the computer.

The next step, Locke says, is to go on Twitter and tell people to read your post. Not just the people who have chosen to follow you on Twitter, either. Using a keyword or hashtag search, you must seek out people who’ve never heard of you and tell them to read your post, too. (I blame Locke for most of the book spam that fills my Twitter feed.) Worse, Locke cozies up to people on social media not because he likes them or thinks they’re interesting, but because he thinks they’ll sell his book for him.

In Locke’s own words: “If you’re only interested in forming wonderful friendships, you can do that with Twitter by taking an active interest in what your friends are doing. But from a marketing standpoint, it is almost NO BENEFIT to have 10,000 Twitter pals if you don’t get some of them OFF Twitter and onto your promotional team.”

It’s so completely the opposite of the way I use Twitter, I had to read that part twice, just to make sure Locke said what I thought he said. Making wonderful friendships is the whole point of Twitter for me. And yes, I take an active interest in what my friends are doing, whether or not they buy my books. I sincerely hope that none of the great people I’ve connected with on social media think I’m using them as a means to a sale.

I refuse to put out crap books, suck up to celebrities, spam social networks and treat everyone I encounter as a wallet instead of a person. That probably means I won’t sell a million books. Or maybe I will. When I do, it will not be because of anything I learned from  John Locke.

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rating: 1 star

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I recommend The Author’s Marketing Handbook by Claire Ryan or How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie and Brent Cole instead of this book

Write That Book Already! by Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark

In November, Writer’s Digest Books gave away several different ebooks to celebrate NaNoWriMo. I downloaded them all, but was especially intrigued by WRITE THAT BOOK ALREADY! The cover says it contains “original insight” by Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Scott Turrow and many more. The front matter is cluttered with testimonials from other household names, such as Jacquelyn Mitchard and Po Bronson. Maya Angelou wrote the forward. With such an all-star list of contributors and endorsers, I couldn’t wait to read the wisdom in its pages. My excitement was short-lived. The famous writers on the cover contributed a miniscule amount to the book. The rest of it (written by Barry and Goldmark) is either patronizing, outdated, or just plain wrong.

I could point to just about any page of the text to give an example. Here’s one from early in the book, where the authors feel the need to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. “Fiction’s first and foremost rule is that the work is made up, rather than history or fact. This doesn’t mean that you can’t draw from real experience or memory. It does mean that you get to use your imagination and create any story you want to.” This is how you explain fiction to primary school children, not adult writers.

When the authors are not talking down to us, they are giving outdated advice. The section on building a writer’s platform gives a cursory mention to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, then goes on to say, “By the time this book is in your hands, there will no doubt be many more social-networking arenas. Do whatever you can to keep up, including (gack!) actually learning about this stuff.” Barry and Goldmark completely ignore the fact that nowadays, social networking is the platform for most writers. A remark like this would be forgivable if the book was from 1990, but the copyright date of this book is 2010. Anyone who says “gack!” at the idea of learning how the internet works for writers doesn’t deserve to be called one. And don’t get me started about the anachronistic hyphen between the words social and networking, as if the authors have maybe coined a nifty new expression.

Then there’s the advice that’s just plain wrong. The authors repeatedly tell the reader to use Literary Market Place as a resource, which is a clumsy, expensive, and almost useless text. There are plenty of better resources out there, ranging from Writer’s Digest Guides to agentquery.com and none are hard to find. Worse, Barry and Goldmark tell writers to query literary agents one at a time. Who does that? Agents themselves will tell you to query multiple agents at once. Another one: the authors insist that blog tours are arranged by paying an online marketing service. Obviously the authors have no idea how blog tours work, or even what they are.

WRITE THAT BOOK ALREADY! even includes a recipe for chicken soup. Perhaps Barry and Goldmark think writers can’t find a cookbook. The recipe comes in the middle of a chapter about taking care of ourselves, in case writers don’t know how to do basic things like bathe and exercise. They also say we should deal with rejection by eating a quart of ice cream. (I wish I were making this up.)

Before deleting WRITE THAT BOOK ALREADY! from my ereader, I took a second look at the famous names on the cover, many of them my literary heroes. Their contributions to the book, maybe five percent of the total, are either generic “my first sale” stories or lists of other books that these authors recommend. Even Maya Angelou’s forward is a simple cheerleading essay that had nothing to do with the rest of the book’s content. (Did she even read it?) I can imagine my favorite authors offering their names for the cover and the tiny bit of prose inside because the community of writers is generous like that. In this case, their generosity has lent an aura of authority to a bad book.

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rating: 1 star

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I recommend PLOT by Ansen Dibell or WORD WORK by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

 

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

I can tell you what’s wrong with the first five pages of Noah Lukeman’s THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Actually, it goes wrong at the first sentence. “Most people are against books on writing on principle.” One has only to walk into any bookstore and gaze at the vast shelves of writer’s how-to books to see that Lukeman is incorrect.

But getting things right isn’t the point of Lukeman’s book. He’s more interested in complaining. He’s been a successful literary agent for years, but any writer can query any agent, so Lukeman has seen it all. The premise of THE FIRST FIVE PAGES is that he can judge the quality of an entire book by reading just the opening pages. I’ve no doubt this is true. I also admire his goal. He wants writers everywhere to stop making mistakes so obvious that they can be spotted in such a small sample. However, if this book is his remedy, I doubt he will achieve his goal any time soon.

It must be frustrating to watch writers make the same bonehead mistakes over and over. The problem is, those boneheads aren’t the audience for this book. Writers who buy how-to books are serious about the craft. We are investing time and money trying to improve. We don’t deserve to be bitch-slapped for daring to write an awkward sentence, and we certainly don’t deserve to be talked down to.

From the first page: “By scrutinizing the following examples of what not to do, you will learn to spot these ailments in your own writing; by working with the solutions and exercises, you may, over time, bridge the gap and come to a realization of what to do. There is no guarantee that you will come to this realization…” Clearly, Lukeman is not holding out much hope for us.

Lukeman has a set of criteria that he looks for in a manuscript, and has arranged his chapters accordingly. He first looks at presentation and formatting. If that’s okay, he next looks for excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. If he doesn’t see too many, he looks at the voice, and so on. At no time is he looking for a good story well told. He is only looking for reasons to dismiss. He freely admits that agents want to reject manuscripts. Why? Is it so they can get to the good stuff sooner? No. They reject manuscripts as quickly as possible to reduce their workload.

In the end, even if I could find useful material in this book, I couldn’t get past the tone. The entire book is a 200 page rant. Advice, when he gives it, is so basic as to be useless (cut adverbs, don’t use clichés, format your manuscript correctly, etc.). The examples and writing exercises are downright insulting. Nobody who buys this book writes this badly. I understand that he is exaggerating to make a point, but the result is–again–one learns what not to do without ever learning the correct way to do it.

“How not to get rejected” is a far cry from “how to write a good novel” and Lukeman never attempts to move from one to the other. If you want people to stop writing badly, complaining will not work. The only way to keep people from writing badly is by teaching them to write well. Lukeman never does. I suspect he can’t.

With so many other books on my shelf that actually show me what to do, I am sorry I wasted my time on one that does not.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend you read Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or Hooked by Les Edgerton instead of this book.