Resilience by Mark McGuinness

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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.

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Resilience can be found here

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Rating: 2 stars

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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

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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.

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Hook Your Readers can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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

 

Blake’s Blogs by Blake Snyder

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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.

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BLAKE’S BLOGS can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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

The 5 Day Novel by Scott King

 

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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.

Rubbish.

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.

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THE 5 DAY NOVEL can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

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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

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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.

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7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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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

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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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47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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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

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If you find my reviews helpful, and you’d like to contribute to my book fund, you can do that here.

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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THE STORY EQUATION can be found here.

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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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THE SECRET LIVES OF WRITERS is available here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Ink Stains edited by Lara Zielin or How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler 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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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T can be found here.

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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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SMARTER FASTER BETTER can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

 

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