From Idea to Story in 90 Seconds by Ken Rand

Rand

I was intrigued by the title of FROM IDEA TO STORY IN 90 SECONDS. The jacket copy and blurb made it sound even more exciting. Could this book really teach what it promised? Most writers have enough ideas for several lifetimes worth of books, but the trick is in the execution. Until it’s wedded to character and plot, an idea is all but useless. So if this book could show writers how to flesh out those ideas into actual stories that worked, I couldn’t wait to read it. Unfortunately, Rand never follows through with anything concrete or useful. FROM IDEA TO STORY IN 90 SECONDS has plenty to say about the idea-gathering process, but next to nothing to say about what to do with all those vague ideas in our heads.

FROM IDEA TO STORY IN 90 SECONDS is divided into two parts. The first part is theory. It attempts to answer that age-old question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The answer is as individual as the writer. Rand is very clear about where he gets his ideas (while driving) but we all tap into our subconscious in our own way, and most writers are overflowing with raw ideas already.

The second part is labeled “practice” and is supposed to teach writers how to shape all those amazing ideas they have. However, Rand never discusses the specifics of creating stories. The entire second half of the book can be summed up in six words: write fast and don’t censor yourself. Rand is of the spit-it-out-and-fix-it-later school of thought. That’s perfectly okay, but the advice is both basic and well-known. It tells a writer nothing about the writing itself.

I’m giving this book two stars, because I reserve one-star ratings for books that are actively harmful to writers. Nothing that Rand says will set your writing career back in any way, but it won’t push you forward, either.

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FROM IDEA TO STORY IN 90 SECONDS 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 Hooked by Les Edgerton instead of this book.

The Order of Things by Barbara Ann Kipfer

Kipfer

Like most writers, I love lists. I love to know the relationship of one thing to another. THE ORDER OF THINGS is a fat book full of lists that is supposed to show the structure, hierarchy and pecking order of everything.  While some of the lists do just that, most of them do not.

The lists range from the interesting (boat and ship classification) to the silly (all the answers from a magic 8 ball). The problem is, Kipfer tries to impose an order where none exists. For example, there is a list of the eleven brightest stars in the night sky. However, knowing that Sirius is brighter than Vega doesn’t really tell you anything. Likewise, knowing that a tuba has 13-14 inches of tubing while a trumpet has 4-5 inches doesn’t put them into any kind of hierarchy. And I really don’t know why anyone except a McDonald’s line cook would need to know the order of assembly for a Big Mac. It’s as if Kipfer is trying to jazz up a dry list of lists. The result is a mishmash that is too dull to be truly entertaining, while also too lightweight to be truly useful.

As expected, the most thorough chapters were those on the military, government and sports. Those are places where the hierarchy is strict, confusing, and crucial to know. Kipfer’s lists would be helpful to anyone trying to sort out a chief warrant officer from a chief master sergeant, or a judo yellow belt from a judo green belt.

But none of this information is difficult to find. When looking for facts like this, my first instinct is to run for the computer, not the bookshelf. THE ORDER OF THINGS may be interesting at times, but in this age of Google, it’s hardly necessary. There is nothing here that I couldn’t find on my own with a few clicks of the mouse.

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THE ORDER OF THINGS can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

 

The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo

Pomodoro

I heard about THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE from friends and was eager to try it myself, so I started with Cirillo’s website, and then decided to buy the book. I should have stopped with the website. After struggling through the ebook’s atrocious formatting (which made the book nearly unreadable) I felt like I’d done the one thing Cirillo would not want me to do. I’d wasted my time.

THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE is absurdly simple, but I was willing to go along because sometimes the simple things work the best. It starts with a wind-up kitchen timer. Cirillo’s is shaped like a tomato–pomodoro in his native Italian. The user sets it for 25 minutes and works without interruption for that time. When the timer rings, he takes a short break and then the cycle repeats. At every cycle, the user records how he spent his time. Whatever we focus on and measure, we improve, and the goal is to “take control” of time.

Cirillo came up with the pomodoro technique in college, and it seems as if it would work well for students. When studying, 25-minute blocks with five minute breaks between them is a good way to learn new material. With all the distractions students have, a reminder to stay on task isn’t a bad thing. However, I doubt the method would work for writers. Creative people enjoy their work, and don’t need a kitchen timer to sit for long periods of time. Worse, a loud, ringing interruption every 25 minutes wrecks creative flow.

That said, my problem isn’t really with the method. My problem is with the book. I suppose THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE works as well as any other time management plan. That is, it works great for some, not so great for others. However, it’s ridiculous to pad a pamphlet’s worth of information into a full-length book when the entire method can be summed up in three sentences:

  1. Work for 25-minute blocks
  2. Take breaks between them
  3. Track your time in order to improve

There. I just saved you seven bucks, because the rest of the book is filler. More importantly, I saved you two hours of time, enough for a nice long block of creative work.

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THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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

A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty

There are a lot of books like this one. Some are complete guides to novel writing, sharing useful advice every step of the way. Some are mere gimmicks. A NOVEL IN A YEAR falls into the latter category. In the mid 2000’s, Doughty wrote a weekly column for England’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. Her column dispensed writing advice and suggested exercises on alternate weeks. Readers were encouraged to send their completed exercises to Doughty via the newspaper’s website. This book is a collection of those weekly columns.

The idea is that after writing small exercises every other week, a beginning writer will be fully-equipped to attempt a novel. In fact, for the first six months, a writer is only to do the exercises (some as short as a single sentence). All the serious novel writing comes in the second half of the year.

There is no way anyone could follow this plan and finish a novel in a year (six months, really), especially if they’ve never written before. Even if a writer followed Doughty’s plan exactly, the twenty-six exercises would only add up to a few dozen pages of work. None of the writing exercises are even meant to fit into the novel-in-progress. They are the standard sort of warm-up exercises that creative writing teachers love to give students. I kept turning the book over and over in my hands, wondering if maybe I misinterpreted the title. But the blurb on the back of the book, as well as the endorsements from professional writers, clearly state that this book is meant to be a roadmap to a novel in a year.

There are a few good bits here and there, such as Doughty’s insistence that writers must first be good readers, or her tips on making time to write. However, that kind of advice can be found in a hundred other how-to books. Doughty is much more engaging when she’s being a cheerleader, showcasing good examples sent to The Daily Telegraph’s website.

Perhaps this book (and the original newspaper column) was simply a way to get people interested in writing, or perhaps to make them feel like writers. Nothing wrong with that. Writing is fun and many people enjoy doing it. Encouraging people to write is wonderful. What’s not so wonderful is pretending you’re giving instruction when you’re only giving encouragement. The two are not the same thing.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Writing the Novel from Plot to Print by Lawrence Block or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts

SHOWING AND TELLING is divided into three parts. The first part is about scenes. It defines them and gives examples of vivid ones. The second part is about summary, and the different uses of narrative. The third part shows how both work together. Alberts doesn’t delve deeply into any of these topics. Instead, she presents an obvious concept, then smothers it in unnecessary details. But more information doesn’t equal better information. Alberts does too much telling of her own, not enough of the showing that a good how-to book needs.

Here’s an example. When explaining suspense scenes, Alberts says, “The whole genre of cliffhangers developed out of the serialization of stories (and later movies) that used that kind of life-or-death suspense to keep the audience interested enough to wait for next week’s installment.” Everyone knows what a cliffhanger is and where it came from. Far better than a definition would be lessons in how to effectively use cliffhangers, and when not to.

Likewise, a section on pacing uses examples full of ellipses where Alberts deleted words and sentences. How can you teach pacing with an example that’s deliberately made choppy? Only the full original text can accurately show the author’s pacing.

Ironically enough, Alberts’ instruction really shines when she’s telling writers what not to do. In the section called “Sins of Scenes,” she warns against dialogue as exposition, stretching credibility, and getting overly sentimental. These are worthwhile lessons that every writer needs.

The second part is slightly better than the first. Few books tackle the subject of telling, except to say, “don’t do it.” However, Alberts shows how straightforward narrative is necessary for background, context, the rich inner life of a character, and to allow for the passage of time. Narrative is also where theme often resides.

It’s always a red flag when a book is descriptive rather than instructive. Telling what to do without showing how to do it means that the author probably does not know. It’s an even bigger red flag when an author uses one of her own stories as an example. Although Alberts includes snippets of other people’s work, she feels the need to reproduce her entire short story, “Russia is a Fish” as an instructive example. Sure, this story is famous. It won a literary award and launched Alberts’ career. However, there is not a writer on the planet who can be objective enough about her own work to use it as a teaching tool.

Alberts is very eager to dissect her examples without giving any guidance to her intended audience. SHOWING AND TELLING might work as a piece of literary criticism, but it’s not a true how-to.

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SHOWING AND TELLING can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book

A Writer’s Time by Kenneth Atchity

I liked the idea of this book. It seemed like the perfect combination of my two interests: writing and time management. However, A WRITER’S TIME doesn’t really help with either. Atchity’s writing advice is overly complicated, requiring 1000 completed index cards, three desks, and several ten-day vacations. His time management advice is full of “woo,” as if writing is a mysterious process that has to be delicately handled.

Atchity divides his mind into “continents” and “islands,” his metaphor for rational and imaginative thought. He insists it’s the tension between these two states of mind that creates fiction, and he cultivates that tension by refusing to write. Yes, you read that correctly–Atchity thinks that not writing makes him a better writer. He relies heavily on vacations and unplanned days off. He puts great stock in letting ideas percolate, only touching pen to paper when he feels the time is right.

This is not my experience, nor that of most working writers. Writing is our great joy and passion, but it’s not delicate. The faster our pens move, the faster the ideas come. Taking several days off while waiting for inspiration is what wannabe writers do. Real writers write.

A WRITER’S TIME makes a few valid points, like when Atchity distinguishes between beginning, middle, and end time. Writers can’t expect steady forward progress. A project moves slowly at the beginning and races at the end. Atchity explains why that is and how to schedule writing time accordingly. However, even the good ideas are buried under sentences like this: “Thought control may be the ultimate in time management because it allows you to invoke and exploit your own positive emotions and make them work to shape your will into a lifelike resemblance to your dream.” Um….what?

Even though I liked the idea of this book, after 200 pages of dense prose, I didn’t learn anything new about time management and I certainly didn’t gain any insights into writing. I’m better off learning writing from the many craft books on my shelves. As for time management, I get far better results by treating writing as my job. In other words, writing every day, because the time is always right for writing.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews or The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg instead of this book.

Unmarketing by Scott Stratten

You know you live in the modern world when acquiring Twitter followers is a marketable skill. Scott Stratten spent months following people on Twitter and gaining followbacks. He then made an emotionally-appealing video for his followers. It went viral, Stratten started public speaking, and a career as a marketing consultant was born. One of Stratten’s favorite sayings is “You’re an expert when you say you’re an expert.” Which brings to mind one of my favorite sayings: “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Twitter is amazing. Of course it is. And Stratten is good at it. However, there is an entire world that is not Twitter-savvy. It’s possible to be well-connected online by using other platforms, such as Facebook, blogs, and Tumblr, but Stratten never discusses those things. It’s as if the entire internet is limited to 140-character micro-updates. Moreover, instead of developing truly meaty content, and then tweeting about it, Stratten’s tweets are an end in themselves. There is no there, there.

UNMARKETING has short chapters, which can be read in any order since they don’t connect with each other in any meaningful way. The book feels like scrolling through the archives of a blog. Like most blogs, it’s very writer-centric, making UNMARKETING read more like a memoir than a how-to. Stratten learned to use Twitter, got some freebies because he uses Twitter, and screwed up a few times with his mailing list but got better at it. Fair enough. He’s writing about his own experience because it has worked for him. However, he’s not teaching other people how to duplicate his success.

That isn’t to say UNMARKETING is all bad. There is some solid marketing advice in here. Stratten understands that with social currency, you have to give before you get. He’s against spammy things like auto-responders. He knows how to set up a newsletter and even what the welcome message to new subscribers should look like. He discusses what makes a good website and uses social networking in clever ways. He obviously knows his job and is probably good at working one-on-one with companies to craft their marketing message. However, he doesn’t know how to broaden that message into a more general how-to. There isn’t enough material that’s applicable to enough people to make UNMARKETING worth the time spent reading it.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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I recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie and Brent Cole  or Platform by Michael Hyatt instead of this book.

Secrets of Successful Writers by Darrell Pitt

I don’t usually discuss cover art in my reviews, but I simply have to say something about the cover of SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS. It’s eye-catching, but it doesn’t seem to go with the subject matter of the book. In fact, it sends a completely different message.

Despite what it looks like, this is a book of one-on-one interviews with working writers. The author interview has always been a staple of the how-to genre. However SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS reads like a John Locke loyalty transfer blog on steroids. In this case, the writer isn’t trying to identify with celebrities. He’s trying to identify with successful authors. There is quite a bit of self-praise in the front matter, along with a conspicuous list of Pitt’s novels. It’s obvious that his mission isn’t to help other writers or showcase the authors whom he interviewed. His mission is to shine a bright spotlight on himself.

The authors can only answer the questions that Pitt asks them, and he isn’t a very skilled interviewer. “Can you describe a typical day of writing?” isn’t the most interesting question. Pitt asks the same generic questions over and over, as if the writers were interchangable.

Generic questions mean generic answers, and SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS doesn’t really contain any secrets. It’s the same advice we’ve read on a thousand blogs and in a thousand how-to books. Write every day. Concentrate more on writing than on marketing. Be patient. Don’t give up.

Not only have I heard this before, I’ve heard it from more interesting and better-informed sources. Therefore, I’m deleting this book from my ereader and choosing one of those better books instead.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Ink Stains edited by Lara Zielin or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

Write Great Fiction–Dialogue by Gloria Kempton

Dialogue is something most writers think they write well. We talk all the time. We consume huge amounts of spoken media via television and radio. Having a book turned into a movie is a badge of honor. Dialogue is easy. Dialogue is fun, both to write and to read. But was my dialogue doing all it could? I bought three how-to books on the subject, hoping that someone could teach me more than I could learn just by listening to the world. DIALOGUE, from the “Write Great Fiction” series was the best of the bunch, although I still haven’t found a truly helpful book on the art of writing dialogue.

A hundred pages into DIALOGUE, I still felt like I was reading an introduction. Dialogue can be used for pacing. Got it. It can be used for characterization. Check. It can increase the tension. Understood. Kempton uses examples from best-selling novels, really showing the reader how good dialogue works. I figured once she set down the foundation, she would move on to teaching how to write effective dialogue. It never happened. The entire book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like in DIALOGUE, and after reading two horrid books on the subject, this one shines in comparison. Kempton explains why different genres have different dialogue requirements. She shows the importance of weaving action and narrative into the dialogue. She discusses the different personality types and how their motivations affect what they say. But none of that teaches a writer how to do the work, or how to edit something she already wrote. I can pluck any novel from my shelf and point to an example of pitch-perfect dialogue. As for getting those same results in my fiction? I’m on my own.

Near the end of the book is a tiny chapter about do’s and don’ts. Only there does Kempton write a section of bad dialogue and then show the reader how to fix it. The seven exercises at the end of the chapter are the only ones in the book worth doing.

I’m glad I read DIALOGUE, only because it confirmed what I already knew. Listening to people (both fictional and real) talk to each other is still the best way to learn how to write what they say.

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rating: 2 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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

 

First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner

"First Draft in 30 Days"

FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS is a misnomer. Wiesner’s book is not designed to help writers quickly finish a first draft. Following her method step-by-step will only produce a healthy outline. Wiesner insists that a finished outline is as good as a rough draft, but they are not the same thing. At all.

Moreover, Wiesner doesn’t seem to understand that there are two kinds of novelists with very different approaches to writing. “Plotters” love outlines and use them for every story. “Pantsers” prefer to write by the seat of their pants. I have seen pantsers try to become plotters. It’s painful. They feel like they are locking their muses in a cage. Even if pantsers force themselves to produce an outline, they never follow it anyway. I must assume up front that FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS is not for them.

That leaves plotters like me. I love outlines the way Elmo loves his crayons.  To me, an outline isn’t a cage. It’s a comfortable house for my muse to live in. You can imagine how excited I was to try out Wiesner’s detailed method.

I lasted about a week before the worksheets and schedules and character studies and scene notes and nitpicky formatting guidelines sucked every bit of creative joy from my work.

So I tried jumping ahead. I wanted to make a solid outline without color-coding or timelines or other tedious stuff. But by modifying Wiesner’s method, I ended up writing the exact outline I would have written anyway. So why was I wasting a month of my writing time on this?

Even a complete outline isn’t complete in Wiesner’s world. Once finished, it has to be broken apart and “tagged.” Plot, subplot, tension, goal all have to be separated out. Then it has to be broken down by character and then chronologically. Why? Unless the book is a complex thriller that depends on the split-second timing of characters’ movements, I can’t imagine how this would be helpful.

I feel for Wiesner. I really do. She found a method that worked for her and wants to share it with everyone. But we’re quirky people. What works for one writer rarely works for another. FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS does a great job of explaining one outlining method in a clear–even inspiring–way. The flaw is not in the execution, but in the concept. Those who are pantsers won’t be converted by this book and those who are plotters already know everything that’s contained in its pages.

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rating: 2 stars

 

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder or Plot by Ansen Dibell instead of this book