47 Mind Hacks for Writers by Karen Dimmick and Steve Dimmick

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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.

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Rating: 2 stars

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

The Story Equation by Susan May Warren

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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.

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Rating: 2 stars

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

The Secret Lives of Writers edited by Diane Lee

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THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS was written in response to a magazine article. To be fair, the article was quite offensive and warranted a response. It said that writers live a privileged life, but that they can’t get there on their own. The article implied that without family money or a spouse with a high-earning job, writers could forget about writing, which is of course, ridiculous. People from every walk of life write books, and our success is due to our own hard work.

When the original article appeared in Salon, many authors wrote rebuttals to it on their own blogs. Lee decided to do one better and put together a book. She invited thirteen contributors to write essays about how they are juggling full-time jobs and writing. It was a great idea for a book, especially since the majority of writers have day jobs. How do they do it? What can we learn from them? At the very least, will reading this book make a struggling writer feel less alone?

However, THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS is not that book. None of the essays show writers how to combine writing with other paid work. They don’t discuss time management, budgeting, how to find part-time work and freelance jobs, or how to juggle writing and parenting. Most of Lee’s contributors are either not working full time or not writing a whole lot. One of them isn’t writing at all.

I tempered my expectations, thinking that maybe THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS was meant to be inspirational rather than a how-to. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the book truly encourages the reader. But these essays contained a whole lot of “look at me” and very little “you can do it, too.” Not only were the essays not inspiring, they weren’t particularly interesting. None of the contributors overcame huge obstacles to get where they are. They simply faced the mundane, everyday time sucks that we all face.

I understand what it’s like to be angry when someone is wrong on the internet. But perhaps Lee should have left a comment on the original article in Salon and moved on, continuing to be creative in the margins of her busy life, the way most of us do.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Ink Stains edited by Lara Zielin or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book.

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is an odd combination of personal bragging, simple aphorisms, and “insights” that won’t be new to anyone who has read a single how-to book or even written one short story.

The premise of NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a good one. The idea is this: just because you wrote something, other people won’t necessarily want to read it. In fact, most people will go out of their way not to read your work. Writers have to earn the reader’s attention by writing something worth reading.

That’s a hard truth but a fair one. And it would have been great if Pressfield had continued in that vein, giving writers solid instruction on how to make their books and scripts worth reading. However, NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a mishmash of humblebrags about his past along with jaw-droppingly obvious instruction. He can’t seem to complete a thought, breaking into a new chapter every three or four paragraphs.

Pressfield has tried to make his instruction read like a story (he admits as much in the chapter called “Nonfiction is Fiction”). In order to do that, he pretends that his younger self was ignorant about some basic aspect of storytelling. And then, through careful reading and study and genius-level mentors, he learned better, and now he never makes that mistake again.

The “younger self” is supposed to be a proxy for the reader. It’s obvious that Pressfield himself was never that dumb, but he thinks his readers are. He thinks things like “action scenes must further the story” or “every genre has its own conventions” or “every story must have an all-is-lost moment” are new ideas that his fellow writers have never heard before.

If Pressfield’s premise is that nobody is owed a read, then I’m sorry to say that he didn’t earn mine. Nor should you feel obligated to read NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T when there are plenty of better books out there more worthy of your time.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend On Writing by Stephen King or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

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I enjoy general nonfiction books that demystify scientific research, especially when the author uses anecdotes to illustrate a point. I loved Duhigg’s previous book and thought SMARTER FASTER BETTER would be similar. I’m a writer who is trying to fit her creative life around other responsibilities, and I’m always looking for new productivity hacks, so the subtitle, “The secrets of being productive in life and business” appealed to me.

However, SMARTER FASTER BETTER isn’t a book about productivity. I’m not really sure what it is, except a collection of interesting narratives. Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and finding cool stories to report is what he’s trained to do. However, most of the time, I couldn’t figure out what idea the stories were meant to illustrate.

I don’t want my books dumbed down or explained point-by-point. But I want the examples to make sense. Even when I extracted meaning from the stories in SMARTER FASTER BETTER, the following chapter often contradicted what I’d surmised. For example, Duhigg insists that Saturday Night Live was so great because the cast members felt safe being in such a close-knit, stable group. However, he also states that the movie Frozen was creatively stuck until the Disney bosses shook things up by changing the dynamic of the team. So, which method produces hit entertainment?

Worse, at no time does Duhigg tell stories about people who stopped wasting time or put their time to better use (my definition of “productive”). The people he profiles—a poker champ, an airline pilot, the writers of Frozen—all worked extremely long hours to achieve success. They all put in an obscene amount of effort at the cost of personal and family time. That doesn’t sound smarter or better to me.

SMARTER FASTER BETTER has some good ideas in it, but they are crammed into a small appendix in the back. Duhigg explains that you need big goals, broken down into action steps. Those closest to the problem should have the decision-making power to solve it. The hardest part of any endeavor is getting started. Feeling in control will make you more motivated.

Nothing in this book is new, nor is it particularly interesting. This is probably why Duhigg relied on gripping stories of plane crashes, military intelligence failures, and high-stakes poker games to carry the book. They are wonderful tales well-told, but not something that will help anyone become more productive.

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Rating: 2 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices business

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I recommend Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews or Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.

 

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

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Sol Stein does not believe in encouraging writers. He’s here to teach, full stop. Stein has been an editor and a writer for years and clearly knows his craft, but in his desire to deliver straightforward instruction, he’s stripped out all the helpfulness as well. I always admire good practical instruction, but not when it’s delivered so harshly and dogmatically that I can’t take it in.

Stein is quite long-winded and it takes him forever to make a point, which is sad because he’s not saying anything new. Some say STEIN ON WRITING is “timeless” but that’s another way of saying it’s old hat.

Even so, STEIN ON WRITING is thorough and full of solid information and decent examples. He covers things like the intersection of character and plot, cutting flab during revision, the basics of good dialog, and the importance of suspense. He also shows how and when fiction techniques should be applied to non-fiction.

This is all important stuff that writers need, but it’s presented in such a condescending package I could barely get through it. Stein has a ton of knowledge. He wants to share it. All well and good, but the best teachers empower students, while Stein seems to find us hopeless. While reading STEIN ON WRITING, I got the feeling that Stein was sharing specific writing techniques not so that we can employ them in our own novels, but simply to show us how much he knows.

Writers pick up how-to books with a sincere desire to learn. I’m not asking to be coddled, but I don’t need to be talked down to, either. I’m a professional writer, and with so many how-to books already on my shelf, I have little time for books that don’t treat me with respect.

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Rating: 2 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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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.

Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady

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A friend once told me that in her MFA program, plot was a dirty word. When I read how-to books aimed at literary writers, I believe it. Literary writers emphasize pretty prose, without much thought about how to get from Once upon a time… to the end. STORY LOGIC AND THE CRAFT OF FICTION attempts to bridge that gap. It’s an admirable goal, but sadly, there is nothing new here. Even worse, Brady dresses up the information in that overblown, wordy style that academics are so fond of.

For example, she never uses so common a word as cliffhanger. She calls them “strategic postponements” and goes on to define them thusly:

Effective chapter divisions tend to splice plot at moments when literal discovery generates new pressure on characters–pressure that is only felt in the next chapter or chapters, that has yet to be acted upon, so that the action overflows the “frame” of the chapter.

Or when she is trying to discuss what to leave in and what to leave out, we get this:

When you write fiction, you are in the peculiar position of striving to discover and exploit multiple connections among the elements of a narrative and simultaneously working to submerge all surface traces of this coherent “argument.”

Um…what?

In addition to plot, Brady blunders through chapters on characterization and POV, although she seems more sure-footed when discussing things like imagery and setting.

The best section was on showing and telling. Brady breaks apart the “show, don’t tell” myth to discuss ways in which telling is useful and even necessary to a good story. Showing is for the important things, the main conflict. Telling is not. But besides being a bridge between chapters, exposition can also be used to establish intimacy with a character, raise the tension, and set up what’s to come. Brady gives decent examples of each technique, if you’re willing to wade through the jargon to find them.

Perhaps to Brady’s MFA students, the idea of plot is a new concept. But serious writers are also serious readers. We’ve been devouring stories our whole lives and don’t need a basic primer on how stories work. Dressing it up in academic speak doesn’t elevate it and won’t fool writers into thinking they’re getting new insights. I believe Brady can teach the craft of fiction at the sentence level, but her “story logic” leaves a lot to be desired.

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rating: 2 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing edited by Writer’s Digest instead of this book.