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. 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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STEIN ON WRITING can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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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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STORY LOGIC AND THE CRAFT OF FICTION can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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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.

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

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Charles Baxter is an extraordinary writer. Let me just say that up front. The only time I would ever use a word like luminous is when I’m talking about Baxter’s books. In short, I’m a fan. And one of the things I like about his writing is the way he handles subtext–those moments in fiction where the implied is as powerful as the shown.

In THE ART OF SUBTEXT, Baxter gives an embarrassment of examples of subtext well done, proof that he is a careful and thorough reader. However, if you’re looking for practical advice about handling subtext in your own stories, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Baxter discusses how writers set a scene–where objects and people are in relation to others. For example, a man towering over a woman implies one thing, crouching at her feet implies another. He also discusses a character’s wants versus his true needs, the tone people use when speaking to (or ignoring) each other, and how the description of faces affects our perception of characters. There were a few good ideas sprinkled here and there, but most of them were rather obvious and most were handled better in other how-to books.

Different books are meant for different purposes, and perhaps THE ART OF SUBTEXT was never meant to be more than a piece of literary analysis. (With a fair amount of “get off my lawn” sniping at the modern world for good measure.) I don’t want to criticize a fish for not knowing how to climb a tree, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in this book. Baxter is, after all, a college professor, so I expected a bit of actual instruction along with all the theory.

While THE ART OF SUBTEXT is a good warm-up to get you thinking about the idea of subtext in your fiction, it’s truly more about reading well than writing well, and therefore does not offer much to the fiction writer.

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THE ART OF SUBTEXT can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker or Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne instead of this book.

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

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The title of STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE certainly got my attention. I was interested in how discovery writers, or “pantsers,” write a successful book without an outline. James promised instruction, insight, and a way to turn traditional story structure on its head.

STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE spends a long time convincing writers that structure isn’t as important as the story arc and the narrative flow. That is true. It’s also not something any writer would argue with. Even the most die-hard plotters treat outlines like the pirate code: more like guidelines than actual rules. I read on, hoping for the revolutionary insights that were sure to come.

And then, this:

“Regardless of how many acts or scenes your story has, for it to feel complete it’ll need an orientation to the world of the characters, an origination of conflict, an escalation of tension, rising stakes, a moment at which everything seems lost, a climatic encounter, a satisfying conclusion, and a transformation of a character.”

I did a double take. Did James just name everything he’s supposedly fighting against? By listing the things a story needed, he just explained story structure in a nutshell.

James spends the rest of the book going into detail about these story elements. He teaches the same principles that are in a hundred other books but has given them cool new names. He then denies that he’s teaching those very same principles. That’s like telling people to hydrate instead of drink water and then claiming to have a bold new health initiative.

Then James bemoans the fact that people aren’t taught to write organically. (Taught to write organically?) Writers don’t need instruction to open their computers and follow their muses. They need instruction on shaping the narrative to make it as effective as possible. There is a reason there are a hundred books about story structure including–make no mistake–this one.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of arrogance and hypocrisy. It’s sad, because STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE is not a bad book for beginning writers. It’s just that there’s nothing new here, and giving the book an in-your-face title doesn’t hide the fact that James is teaching everything that’s been taught before, and taught better, by other writers.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain instead of this book.

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

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Mendelsund is an art director at Alfred A. Knopf, so naturally he thinks visually. He has to depict an entire book in a single cover image, and since his career relies on this ability, he’s given it a lot of thought.

The central idea of WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is that novelists don’t describe every physical feature of a hero the way they’d describe him to a police sketch artist. An author’s language is more figurative, evoking a picture through action and emotion. Therefore, is it any wonder that everyone visualizes characters differently? This “insight” is not groundbreaking, and Mendelsund never gets beyond this obvious assertion into anything noteworthy or useful.

WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ is heavily illustrated, but the pictures don’t add anything. They are mere gimmicks—things like movie stills or pages of text with most of the words blacked out or pages with a single word in a huge font.

The text is broken up with these heavy-handed visuals, making a murky book even murkier. WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ wanders all over the place, raising questions (“How do you know what Anna Karenina looks like?”) without ever giving answers. Mendelsund clearly did no research into neuroscience, psychology, or pedagogy to pinpoint what we actually see in our minds when we read.

Even on the level of a personal essay, this book doesn’t work. It’s like one of those late-night college gabfests when the beer is gone and the dorm is quiet and you have to get up in a few hours but the conversation is so interesting because at that point, even the most bland ideas seem profound.

There is nothing deep about WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ. Luckily, it’s a short book and I finished it quickly. Now I can turn my attention to a well-written novel. As I read, I will enjoy the unique pictures in my mind, knowing that I’m cooperating with the author in putting them there, which is a pleasant (but not amazing) thought.

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WHAT WE SEE WHEN WE READ can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

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SHOW YOUR WORK is the follow-up to Kleon’s STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST. Like the first volume, this one is a tiny book with big font and lots of graphics. There aren’t many words on each page, so you’ll get a full dose of quotes and inspirational messages, but not much instruction or advice.

The book is divided into ten sections, each with a basic marketing message like “share something small every day” and “don’t turn into human spam” and “pay it forward.” Every bit of it is good advice, but none of it breaks new ground. I kept flipping the pages faster and faster, hoping to find the real meat of the book, but in the end, there was no there there. It’s marketing 101 dressed in a very hip package.

This book is fine for someone just starting out in the creative life and wondering how to make a living at it. If someone is completely new to selling their work, SHOW YOUR WORK will tell them what to do. However, it won’t tell them how to do it.

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SHOW YOUR WORK can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend The Author’s Marketing Handbook by Claire Ryan or Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran instead of this book.

Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott

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Take small habits. Gather them together. Make them into a routine.

That’s it. That’s the whole book. We all have little changes we’d like to make in our lives and incorporating them into a routine makes sense. I’ve got nothing against the idea; I’m just not sure why it’s a book. Perhaps, in other hands, it might have been a mildly interesting blog post.

Scott makes a list of ninety seven “small life changes” that the reader is meant to pick from when adding a new habit. The problem is, most of them are things we’re doing anyway. I don’t need to be told to drink water or make my bed or return a phone call. And I also don’t need to be told to put these things into a routine. Everyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work already has a routine. Children have routines. Retirees have routines. Anyone who wants to make a change will make a change by putting a new habit into her existing routine. Where else would it go?

Any functioning adult already knows everything in this book. There are a million ways to improve your habits and your productivity, but reading HABIT STACKING isn’t one of them.

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HABIT STACKING can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.