The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

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THE ANATOMY OF STORY is not for “pantsers” (writers who write without an outline). It’s an extremely technical manual for people who like to have their whole story planned out ahead of time, including every plot point, character change, motif and theme. Following Truby’s method will give you a detailed map of your entire plot.

The problem is, Truby’s method strips story down to bare mechanics, bleeding all the life out of it. I’m someone who loves to enslave herself to an outline, and I found Truby’s method tedious, so I can only imagine what a seat-of-the-pants writer will think.

Truby makes some things more complex than they need to be, and some things just downright incomprehensible. For example, I never did get a handle on what Truby meant by “designing principle.” It seemed to be a mashup of theme and mythical structure. It’s a pretty useless concept anyway, as many books and movies have been written without the author knowing what the “designing principle” is supposed to be.

Truby is more sure-footed when he’s talking about setting and plot. His ideas are concrete with many examples. However, Truby shows what elements all stories have in common without ever explaining how to put those elements into practice. Describing what a good screenplay needs then giving examples of movies that worked well is not the same as teaching someone how to use those same elements in her own story. Writing is more than reverse-engineering from examples, no matter how comprehensive the examples.

THE ANATOMY OF STORY  is one of those neither-here-nor-there books. It might be useful for intermediate writers who have finished a few novels or screenplays and read a few other how-to books. But those same writers would quickly outgrow anything Truby has to teach. THE ANATOMY OF STORY might help a certain kind of writer (those looking for “the one true way”) but for most of us, it’s too rigid and more likely to frustrate than inspire.

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THE ANATOMY OF STORY can be found here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

 

Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo

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Sooner or later, most writers will be called on to talk to a group. Whether it’s teaching a class, doing a talk at a bookstore, visiting a school, or being the guest on a podcast, public speaking is a skill writers need. I’ve done a fair amount of it myself, but I’m always trying to improve.

I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks lately, since these eighteen-minute talks are considered the gold standard. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, although the talks can be about nearly anything and each speaker has a different style. All the speeches I’ve seen have been terrific, and I hoped that TALK LIKE TED would give me some insight into how these talks are put together and why they succeed.

However, TALK LIKE TED is an extremely simple overview of public speaking best practices, with a lot of blow-by-blow summaries of TED talks that Gallo likes. The how-to advice isn’t bad for beginners: be passionate about your topic, tell a story, teach new things, add humor, keep slides simple, and practice a lot. However, to be at a TED level, one has to go beyond the basics, and Gallo never does.

The subtitle of TALK LIKE TED is “The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.” This is somewhat misleading. Gallo isn’t really sharing pubic-speaking tips in general, but simply showing us what all TED talks have in common. It’s more about what a TED talk is rather than how to give one. As such, it’s crammed with anecdotes, with Gallo constantly straying from the main point to share the details of yet another talk.

TALK LIKE TED has some solid advice for someone who has never given a speech before. It’s well-presented, but it does not break any new ground. It seems at once too basic and too specific. It seems geared toward helping you make a single speech, rather than helping you becoming an overall more effective speaker.

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TALK LIKE TED can be found here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices business

Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell

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It is a writer’s pet peeve. Editors and agents insist they are looking for “a fresh voice” but no one can agree on what that means. Some say it’s a writer’s personality on the page, or a unique style, or a combination of character and setting and word choice. Most people refuse to define it at all, just shoving more and more examples of “a strong voice” at a writer in hopes that she’ll intuit the rest. But without a working definition, how is a writer supposed to develop her voice?

VOICE attempts to bridge the gap between example and knowledge by providing specific exercises. Bell uses acting techniques to help an author truly inhabit the character he’s writing about. By understanding the character on a deep level, sharing the same emotional space as the character, and even assuming the character’s physical gestures, the distinct voice of the character will emerge.

Bell encourages authors to keep a voice journal, jotting down interesting turns of phrase and impressions of people. He also discusses the pros and cons of using a “voiceless voice,” which is a dispassionate narrator telling a story from an emotional distance.

Bell then takes a detour into techniques for writing itself. He talks about ways for writers to write more, more happily, and get more words onto the page. It seemed odd to have several chapters with vague cheerleading plunked into the middle of an otherwise good book full of concrete advice for writing with a more distinct voice.

Bell wraps up with examples from every type of writing including YA and literary fiction as well as the expected genres like mystery and romance. However, here, Bell makes the same mistake he complains about. He piles on the examples without analyzing them to show why they work. He breezes from one to another, barely discussing them. And while the snippets he chooses to highlight are stellar, just showing a writer what’s already been done doesn’t help her do the same.

When I finished VOICE, I turned back to the opening chapters, which are the strongest part of the book, and clearly the part that Bell is the most excited to share with writers. I’m eager to try some of the exercises he recommends, to add my own fresh voice to my prose.

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VOICE can be found here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton

 

Powerful Premise by William Bernhardt

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Most novelists know what they want to write about. Many of us have stories burning inside, just waiting for us to tell them. But Bernhardt urges writers to stop and think before touching the keyboard. Is this premise all it can be? Does it have high stakes, inherent conflict, and emotional appeal? If not, it’s far better to rethink the novel at the planning stages than get bogged down in fruitless revisions later.

POWERFUL PREMISE is short and to the point. Bernhardt advises us to write larger than life characters with high stakes problems in an interesting setting. He goes on to discuss originality, emotional appeal, and believability. Each chapter contains examples (mostly from classic books or movies) and ends with writing exercises.

However, Bernhardt can’t stop talking about his own books. Every few pages, he mentions either his fiction or his other how-to books. He drops them in so often that POWERFUL PREMISE felt less like a how-to and more like a sales pitch. I kept waiting for the introductory material to be over so I could get to the meat of the book. Then I realized that there wasn’t much meat to be had. Bernhardt isn’t giving new information or presenting it in an original way.

There is nothing wrong with “punching up” a premise. It’s something all writers should learn to do. Even writers of quiet literary fiction need to find what’s gripping about their story and bring it to the forefront. POWERFUL PREMISE can help with this, if you can ignore the constant salesmanship, and just focus on the examples and exercises.

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POWERFUL PREMISE can be found here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie slices: 6 slices business, 2 slices craft

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa.

Gotta Read It by Libbie Hawker

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“So, what is your novel about?” is the sentence that strikes fear into the hearts of many a writer. Whether sending query letters to agents or talking to a friend at a party, many writers become tongue-tied, or worse, babble on and on. We may know our characters and their stories inside and out, but summarizing three hundred pages in just a few short paragraphs can seem impossible.

Of course every book is unique, but when pitching, Hawker wants us to keep it simple. She recommends starting with the five universal elements that every novel has: character, goal, obstacle, struggle, stakes. She shows writers how to put these elements together into a succinct summary, and how to choose the details that will help flesh out the setting and the story in the reader’s mind.

GOTTA READ IT includes a useful list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that will be helpful to a beginning writer, including not using too many proper nouns and keeping the tone of the pitch consistent with the tone of the story.

However, Hawker only gives two examples of what she considers successful pitches, and they are both from her own books. This doesn’t really prove her point. It only shows that she’s found a formula that works for her. Without examples from other books (or even hypothetical examples) there is no way of knowing how to apply her advice more broadly.

GOTTA READ IT is a good introduction to the idea of pitching your book, but it doesn’t go deep into the mechanics of pitches, nor does it give enough examples to help writers build successful pitches of their own.

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Rating: 3 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices business

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Michael Hague or Rock Your Query by Cathly Yardley

How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell

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You know it when you hear it—dialogue that sparkles on the page and practically begs to be read out loud. Dialogue by people like Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and Richard A. Thompson. I love clever dialogue and eagerly read anything that can tell me how to write it better.

HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE points out the numerous ways that dialogue can go wrong and gives a brief explanation about why it’s a problem. Bell also gives examples of good dialogue, so we can see the difference. The examples are from well-known books, plays, and movies, and he is great at picking out excerpts that illustrate his points. Bell shows why characters in agreement make for boring dialogue (and boring books), how to handle exposition in dialogue, and how to handle tricky dialect.

Bell offers exercises to try, some of them quite unexpected. For example, try having a character say the exact opposite of what he should say, or insert a random line of dialogue from another book and see where it goes. Not all of these exercises will end up in the final draft, but some of them might.

However, Bell doesn’t discuss any of the techniques in depth and only gives a single example for each. Although he uses first-rate examples, he doesn’t really explain why they work. He’s very good at pointing out beginner mistakes, but misses some of the more subtle problems that can creep into dialogue. HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE will teach you how to write competent dialogue—good enough to keep you out of the slush pile—but probably won’t teach you how to write the sparkling dialogue readers love.

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rating: 3 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall

Creative Cursing by Sarah Royal and Jillian Panarese

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Research is important for writers. I’m a nice midwestern suburban lady who writes about tough urban cops, hackers and PIs. How do I get everything in my books authentic, including the swear words? It’s important for me to research how…

…Oh, who am I kidding? I love this book because I have the sense of humor of a twelve year old, and profanity amuses me. I admire people who swear creatively. Good cursing is like poetry. It says a lot in a short space, and when done well, packs an emotional punch.

CREATIVE CURSING is a spiral bound book with two words per page. It’s split down the middle so you can flip back and forth, making endless combinations of words that don’t usually go together. Most of the left side is body parts and fluids. The right side is words like jammer, muncher, biter, with a few wild cards like waffle and monkey.

This book is not for everyone. Writers of sweet romance or cozy mysteries or books for young people don’t need this book. (Although those writers might appreciate some fresh expletives for when the printer jams or the tenth rejection letter comes.) Even the most jaded writer might balk at some of the word combinations. But hey, if it gets too raw, you can always flip the page back to “fart waffle” or “poop splash.”

I recently moved and got rid of most of my hardcopy books. This is one of the few that made the move with me. Nobody needs a book like CREATIVE CURSING. But some of us really, really want it.

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Rating: 3 stars

Pie slices: 8 slices inspiration

I recommend this book.