Level Up by Rochelle Melander

LEVEL UP sat on my TBR pile for a long time. Periodically I’d pick it up, read a few chapters, and say, “I really should finish this and review it” and then just…didn’t. LEVEL UP has short chapters, only a few pages each, so you’d think it would be a quick read, but there wasn’t enough content to keep me engaged.

The concept is simple. Melander wants to gamify writing. She takes typical writerly pitfalls like perfectionism or procrastination, and turns them into “quests.” She’s giving the same old advice that we’ve read in countless books and blogs. However, she tries to make it seem new and fresh by calling her advice “quests.” For example, in the chapter on social media, the “quest” is to turn off the internet for a set period every day. In the chapter on feeling overwhelmed by a task, Melander’s advice is to use a journal to examine feelings, take small steps, and reward yourself for a job well done. Even if you think of it as a game, it’s still pretty basic advice.

There are five parts to LEVEL UP: Vision and Plan Your Ideal Writing Life, Discover and Implement Your Best Practices, Master Your Mindset, Ditch Distractions, and Overcome Obstacles. The appendix lists “power ups,” which are creativity boosters like taking a walk, singing, doodling, and writing in new places.

The book has a logical flow to it. A beginning writer must first have a vision and make a plan, then make writing a regular habit, and then conquer higher-order problems like overcoming distractions and dealing with the unique problems of a creative life. None of Melander’s advice is bad, and in most cases gamifying a writing practice (or any practice) works. I, personally, have a calendar where I keep track of my writing goals, giving myself stars for completed work. I also have a dance party after every writing session. Both of those things are—in a small way—gamifying my writing practice. But I didn’t need a book to tell me how to do that. Writers are already very aware of the incentives and reward systems that will keep their butts in the writing chair.

I admire Melander’s intent, and applaud the way she encourages writers to find what works for them. But ultimately, that’s the problem with LEVEL UP. By trying to appeal to the greatest number of writers, Melander can only give well-worn, shallow advice while encouraging writers to implement her techniques in their own way. It will be easier, and more effective, to skip the middleman and simply try any gamification techniques that appeal you, since that’s what this book will tell you to do anyway.


LEVEL UP can be found here


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner or

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld instead of 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.


Rating: 2 stars


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

Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel by Becky Clark

I admit, the title of Clark’s book made me curious. Why eight weeks? Why not four, or six, or twelve? It turns out that there’s nothing magical—or even particularly interesting—about the eight week timeframe. Clark recommends you write your novel in a month (just like NaNoWriMo) with a week on the front end for outlining and three weeks on the back end for revisions. This is a timeframe that Clark herself adopted on the advice of her agent, and it seems to work very well for her. But EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL is descriptive rather than instructive, basically saying, “here is what I do, now you do you.”

Clark insists that writers must use outlines, and the first half of the book is an exhaustive list of outline styles. Clark does a good job of defining these different styles, but doesn’t teach authors how to use any of them, nor how to pick the best one. She freely shares her own opinion on them, though. She likes the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet and doesn’t care for the Hero’s Journey. But what good does it do an aspiring writer to know that?

The second half of the book is about time management. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before: minimize distractions, keep track of daily work count, be consistent, try sprints, don’t edit as you go, set boundaries, etc. etc. I kept hoping for one gem to take away, some new idea that would be useful for a writer, but it was well-worn advice that all writers already know. Even Clark’s metaphors were ones we’ve seen hundreds of times. (An outline is a roadmap for your story’s journey…)

Throughout, Clark is eager to share what works for her, even reproducing her daily schedule on the page. Readers learn what time Clark gets up, how often she exercises, and that Wednesday is her day off. We learn how often she checks Facebook and how many writing sprints she does in a day. But having an example—even one as seemingly perfect as Clark—doesn’t help an aspiring writer set her own schedule around her own circumstances. Clark has neither a full-time job nor children at home, but she gives no consideration to those who do.

Read EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL if you’re curious about how one author writes her books, but not if you’re looking for instruction for writing your own.




Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell or How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler instead of this book.

Resilience by Mark McGuinness


I really need to stop picking up books by therapists who want to “help” artists. There is nothing wrong with creative people seeking therapy. The problem comes when the therapists then generalize to the population at large, thinking all artists are suffering, and that the pursuit of an art career itself is making these poor lambs suffer. But no worries, the therapist has written a book! It’s something you can hold up as a shield when you explain to others how “difficult” the writing life is and how “heroic” you are for enduring it.

RESILIENCE is material pulled from McGuinness’ blog, and perhaps in blog form the posts weren’t so irksome. They are, however, overly simplistic. McGuinness’ advice isn’t unreasonable. He explains why rejection and criticism hurt, why it isn’t personal, and he has some decent tips for sorting out useful feedback from useless attacks. He advises artists to find their tribe, find good mentors, and keep pushing.

But there isn’t anything new here, and dozens of other authors have said it better. Tone matters a lot with this kind of book. Telling a writer that writing and publishing are hard but achievable will inspire her. Telling a writer how pitiful she is, how terrible writing and publishing are, and expecting her to be miserable, will only hold her back.

Each chapter ends with exercises. These are also fine, although they basically boil down to remembering why you love your craft, knowing you’re not alone, and not taking it personally. This is basic common sense stuff that writers already know.

It is true that rejections sting and that bad reviews suck and that it’s hard to show your work to other people for the first time. It’s also true that we self-sabotage in numerous ways because we’re human beings and human beings do that. However, the love of writing and the desire to improve our craft is usually enough to get us over these hurdles. Moreover, these problems aren’t something we solve once and then we’re done with them forever. They are part and parcel of the writing life. Thinking about how to become more resilient in the face of rejection doesn’t work. Only by doing, by getting knocked down and getting up again, will an author become stronger.

The best how-to books are written by writers who practice their craft every day. We can learn a lot from authors who enjoy their work and want others to enjoy it too.

Therapists who want to share misery while giving shallow advice can’t teach us anything that we don’t already know.


Resilience can be found here


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld or Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner instead of this book.

Hook Your Readers by Tamar Sloan


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

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

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

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


Hook Your Readers can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


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


Blake’s Blogs by Blake Snyder


I am a huge fan of SAVE THE CAT. I read it when it came out in 2005, and it changed my life. I talk about Snyder’s method constantly, and recommend his books whenever I have a chance.

Blake Snyder died just four years after SAVE THE CAT was published, and writers have been mourning ever since. So you can imagine my delight when I came across BLAKE’S BLOGS, a book of what his estate considers his best blog posts. But my delight soon turned to disappointment when I realized that this slim volume was really just a cash grab, one last chance for Snyder’s heirs to turn his writing into money.

The posts aren’t bad, but they are ten years old and most of them haven’t aged well. The beauty of a blog is that is captures what a writer is thinking about in that very moment. So there are posts about movies Snyder had recently seen, classes he’d been teaching, and his thoughts on the Oscar nominees of 2008. He rehashes some of what’s in his classic instruction book, but he doesn’t go deeper or come up with fresh insights. While it’s nice to have the blog posts arranged in chapters, the division is rather artificial and makes it seem like an instruction book when it’s really just a book of musings.

I’d like to say that BLAKE’S BLOGS is for the die-hard Snyder fan only, but I’m the biggest Snyder fangirl of them all, and even I didn’t like this book. In the end, BLAKE’S BLOGS made me sad. I wished this book could be better than it was, I mourned a talented teacher who died way too young, and I was embarrassed for Snyder’s relatives who put this product into the world.


BLAKE’S BLOGS can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder instead of this book.

The 5 Day Novel by Scott King



First there was NaNoWriMo, where writers attempt to write a novel in a month. Then came the two-week novel. Now, King claims to have written his book in five days.


Oh, I’m not saying King didn’t do it. I’m sure he did. But he did it as a stunt, just to see if he could. It’s not something he’ll continue doing regularly.

Just as writing an entire novel in five days was a stunt, this how-to book is a stunt as well. King gleefully tells us how he wrote his novel, all the while telling us not to attempt the same thing. King’s writing style also feels rushed and a bit breathless. He bounces quickly from one idea to another, using lots of exclamation points, like a guy who has consumed too many energy drinks and is now ready to jump off a cliff with a GoPro strapped to his head.

THE 5 DAY NOVEL isn’t all bad. King has some decent tips for time management, outlining, ignoring distractions, and not overthinking a rough draft.

But most of the advice is shallow, like “decide you’re a writer,” and “make time to write your novel” and my personal favorite: “Decide what you want to write about, and if you don’t know the subject well enough to write with authority, then learn more about it.” How is that for some dandy writing advice?

I’m all for books that teach me how to write faster while maintaining quality, but THE 5 DAY NOVEL is not one of those books.


THE 5 DAY NOVEL can be found here.


rating: 2 stars


I recommend 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book


The 7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig


Rettig is a writer in love with her own voice. Rather than give you tools for your writer’s toolbox, she wants to give you the tools, show you how to use them, explain why you should use them, tell you why you’ve been using them wrong all along, and then describe how everyone else is using the tools. The level of detail in THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC is exhausting.

For example, Rettig compares writing a novel to running a marathon. Her point is that you don’t just get up off the couch and run a marathon. You train for months. It’s the same with writing novels. You build endurance at the keyboard. That’s a valid point. However, in order to make it, she takes the reader through the entire brainstorming process she did with her class, listing everything a runner needs, right down to the hairband to keep long hair in a ponytail. It goes on for pages and pages, just to get to the blindingly obvious idea that authors—just like runners—need time, practice, and equipment. Rettig belabors every single point like this, from laughing at her own puns to defining common words to including useless diagrams.

THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC is poorly organized. Every chapter is broken into subsections, and the different sections constantly cross-reference one another, but in a haphazard way. One idea is never allowed to flow logically to the next. Despite the level of detail, the ideas were underdeveloped. It felt like I was reading someone’s outline or book proposal rather than a proper book.

There are a few good insights buried in here, but it’s a lot of work to unearth them. In case you’re wondering, here are the seven “secrets” (which aren’t a secret to anyone who has been a writer for more than five minutes).

  • Don’t be a procrastinator
  • Don’t be a perfectionist
  • Have the right equipment
  • Manage your time
  • Write many drafts quickly rather than one draft slowly
  • Have a community
  • Don’t let rejections bother you / self publish when you can

At least, I think those are the seven secrets. The chapter titles are so wordy that it was hard to nail down exactly what Rettig was trying to say in each one.

I’ve never said this about a book before, but I think this one needs a ghost writer. Rettig obviously has a lot of passion for teaching, but she’s become mired in details and can’t see which ones are important. There might be a good book hidden under the disorganization and wordiness, but as presented, THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC isn’t it.


7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book


47 Mind Hacks for Writers by Karen Dimmick and Steve Dimmick


I have read too many books like this.

Some people might think I’ve read too many how-to books in general, but I approach each one with an open mind, hoping to find a new gem. Unfortunately, 47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS isn’t one of them.

I was intrigued by the title. I love hacks! Kitchen hacks, organization hacks, travel hacks. I love them all. Who wouldn’t want new “hacks” for writing? The subtitle promises that Dimmick and Dimmick will help you master the writing habit while ending writer’s block and procrastination. I was sold before page one.

However, the supposed mind hacks in this book aren’t really hacks so much as common sense advice. For example one of the mind hacks is to read a lot. Is there a successful writer who doesn’t read a lot?

The authors also advise writers to be clear on their goals, find mentors, ignore the inner critic, and embrace their uniqueness. On the more practical, tangible side, 47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS advises writers to turn off their phones while writing, write at a clean desk, and write during their most productive times of day. The chapters are short and bland, with very little detail, but they don’t really need much complexity since these are things everyone already knows.

More than half the book isn’t about writing at all. It’s about self-promotion. (Again, the very watered-down, simple kind.) The authors care more about the selling of books than the writing of them. Which would be fine, if this were advertised as a marketing book. I kept flipping the pages, looking for the promised writing advice. Even worse, there are countless links to the authors’ own website scattered through the book. They can’t wait to get you out of the book and onto their own site.

Despite the provocative title, 47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS is simply a warmed-over compilation of other people’s ideas, more about selling the authors’ own stuff than giving useful advice.


47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Break Writer’s Block Now by Jerrold Mundis or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book


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The Story Equation by Susan May Warren


I’ve reviewed over 150 how-to books for writers on this site. Some have been better than others, but few have been completely incomprehensible. However, I could barely understand THE STORY EQUATION. Warren seems to be taking the age-old three act structure and showing how character change is the driving force of the story. At least, I think that’s what she’s trying to do. I’m not sure, because the book is full of paragraphs like this:

The character journey culminates in the Black Moment Event—or the realization of his Greatest Fear. As a result of this event, he experiences a Black Moment Effect when the Lie that has been chasing him the entire book suddenly feels real. This Black Moment Effect drives him to his metaphorical knees.

I think she’s describing the all-is-lost moment of the plot, that part that occurs about 3/4 of the way through every novel where the character almost gives up. But throwing in random terms (randomly capitalized) muddies rather than clarifies.

Warren constantly coins terms instead of using the familiar ones most writers already know. For example, she calls the inciting incident at the beginning of the book “the Trigger” (with a capital T). Renaming old concepts doesn’t make them into new concepts. Calling the inciting incident the Trigger doesn’t tell us anything about what that part of the story does. Warren loves to name, but not explain, her ideas.

I slogged through THE STORY EQUATION, hoping to find a new way of thinking about plot or character development, or at least some small gem of wisdom that would improve my writing. However, I couldn’t get through the Wound, the Lie, and the Noble Quest, not to mention the SEQ and the DMS (when Warren is not making up terms, she’s making up acronyms.)

I admire Warren’s enthusiasm and her desire to help other writers. She found a method and a vocabulary that worked well for her. However, it fell apart when she tried to convey her ideas to other people. And without clarity and good instruction, all the enthusiasm in the world won’t help.


THE STORY EQUATION can be found here.



Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress instead of this book