Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

51MtppBC7sL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

 

The title of BOOK IN A MONTH reminds me of late-night infomercials that promise magical wealth or weight loss or beauty with no effort. Of course, there are people who write complete books in thirty days, some of them quite good, but that’s a lot to ask of beginners. However, Schmidt isn’t expecting her readers to write polished prose. She anticipates messy first drafts that ignore things like subplots and subtlety and consistency. Following Schmidt’s method won’t produce a book, but more of an outline/first draft hybrid.

Schmidt teaches writers how to plot the most straightforward type of novel with a three-act structure and a well-defined hero and villain. The plot points will come at predictable intervals, building to a crashing climax. Nothing wrong with that. Even better, the thirty-day method offers no time to procrastinate, second-guess, or get caught in loops of self-editing. The idea is to go in one direction only: forward.

While butt-in-chair is always good, the real danger is that a writer can spend all her time on Schmidt’s worksheets and pre-writing exercises and never write a word of the novel. Being busy doesn’t equal producing solid work. Schmidt suggests hand-writing notes directly in BOOK IN A MONTH, and the book is spiral-bound for that purpose. However, the space for writing is too small and the use of reward stickers seems juvenile. Naturally, Schmidt suggests that writers buy a new copy of BOOK IN A MONTH for each novel they write, as if they will never progress to writing on their own and will need her worksheets forever.

I admit to skipping the assignments, but just reading through BOOK IN A MONTH gave me some good tips and was great for motivation. I can see how this book would be absolutely perfect for a certain kind of writer. Someone with a burning passion, a strong concept, and no idea where to start would love this book, especially if they like lots of structure. And if a writer sees it through to the end, she’ll end up with a finished draft robust enough to stand up to the vigorous editing it will need.

Not bad for thirty day’s work.

—–

BOOK IN A MONTH can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

 

 

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

download

Write every day.

Mosley starts with this advice and repeats it often in this slim volume. Every book for writers says that. But so what?  It’s simple math: the more you work, the more books you’ll produce. There is nothing that makes this advice special. Nor is there much that’s special in any of Mosley’s tips. THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL is a hundred pages of bland, uninspiring prose with none of the verve and hard truths that make Mosley’s novels so fascinating.

THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL is full of the basics we all learned in school. Mosley discusses first and third person narration, show-don’t-tell, and the uses of dialog. But it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. He’s great at telling you what works, but isn’t much interested in why it works or how to do it. He seems to have little insight into his own process, much less that of other writers.

I’m okay with books that don’t offer much actual instruction if they offer something else, like inspiration. I like some good cheerleading as much as the next writer, and if an author can remind me how awesome writing is, I love that book forever. However, Mosley is a workmanlike writer, with a regular routine. It’s just a job to him; certainly nothing to get excited about.

That’s not to say that THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL is all bad. I liked Mosley’s emphasis on rewriting, knowing that it takes multiple drafts to finish a novel. He is humble and straightforward, but in trying to erase his self-importance from THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL, he seemed to erase his own personality as well. Mosley probably didn’t offend any writers with this book, but he didn’t engage many of them, either.

—–

THIS YEAR YOU WRITE YOUR NOVEL can be found here.

—–

Rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain or You’ve Got a Book In You by Elizabeth Sims

The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray

Robert Ray

THE WEEKEND NOVELIST is just what it sounds like: a blueprint for finishing a novel in a year by writing only on weekends. I haven’t actually tried Ray’s full plan (only parts of it) but it seems like a good way for a busy person to get a lot done, especially if the writer commits huge blocks of time weekend after weekend. I like Ray’s year-long timeline, which seems much more realistic than those books that promise you’ll produce a novel in a month.

Ray’s plan builds logically and systematically from idea to outline to finished novel. There are no creative writing exercises just for the sake of having exercises. Ray wants the writer to focus every bit of her limited writing time on making the novel happen. Through character studies, a detailed plot arc, and setting details, the plan in THE WEEKEND NOVELIST will make sure all the parts come together in a harmonious whole. Ray doesn’t promise your work will be great literature or even publishable. However, it will be finished and that’s no small thing.

Ray uses excerpts from many novels as examples, such as THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, THE GREAT GATSBY, and THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY. They are well-chosen and help illustrate his points. Where Ray falls down, however, when he tries to write his own examples. He uses an imaginary work-in-progress he calls “TROPHY WIVES” that is full of clichés, sexist tropes, and plain old bad writing. It’s not going to inspire anyone.

I give THE WEEKEND NOVELIST a cautious thumbs up, because it’s absolutely perfect for a certain type of writer. If a writer understands plot structure, is comfortable with detailed outlines, is willing to write scenes out of order, and refuses to deviate from the plan, this could be the perfect writing guide. But it could turn off as many writers as it turns on. Someone who is more of a “discovery writer” won’t enjoy this plan, and will probably abandon it in a week or two. But for someone who takes comfort in outlines, or a beginning writer who just needs a helping hand to get from idea to finished draft, THE WEEKEND NOVELIST might be just the thing.

—–

THE WEEKEND NOVELIST can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

The Word-loss Diet by Rayne Hall

images

THE WORD-LOSS DIET is a small book, more like a booklet. But this only means that Hall has heeded her own advice and doesn’t use extra words to pad the page count.

THE WORD-LOSS DIET has one purpose: to eliminate flabby writing. Hall doesn’t get deeply into copyediting issues. She’s here to help writers pick the low-hanging fruit. But that’s not all bad. Eliminating the most common causes of bloated writing is a great place to start.

Hall wants writers to eliminate “crutch” words which can slow the pace and make prose seem clumsy. Words like look, begin, sigh, smile, and wonder are common problems. Writers should also watch out for really, very, quite, just, and most adverbs. Hall gives wonderful before-and-after examples to help new writers get the message.

This is basic information, but any writer who can cut these offending words on the second draft is well on her way to smooth, salable copy. The trick, of course, is to internalize these rules and never write the offending words in the first place. If you’re already there, great. If not, THE WORD-LOSS DIET is a helpful reminder along the way.

—–

THE WORD-LOSS DIET can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or The Little Book of Self-Editing for Writers by Bridget McKenna

The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by Shelly Lowenkopf

Fiction Writer's Handbook Cover

Writing, like any profession, has its jargon. A writer’s vocabulary overlaps a bit with that of a literary critic. For example, words like deus ex machina and first-person narrative will be familiar to any English professor. But things like inner critic and withholding backstory and discovery draft are unique to writing. When we talk to other writers—or to ourselves—we need to know what those words mean.

THE FICTION WRITER’S HANDBOOK is an encyclopedia of sorts, giving definitions of over three hundred concepts. Think of it as a toolbox. Each technique is used a specific way, and the more tools you have, the easier the job. The better you understand things like plausibility, reversals, or payoffs, the better you can use them.

A writer could read THE FICTION WRITER’S HANDBOOK straight through as an alphabetical list of definitions, but that defeats the purpose. All the entries are hyperlinked and cross-referenced, making the ebook ideal for browsing. You can be led from entry to entry, letting your interest be your guide.

THE FICTION WRITER’S HANDBOOK is not exactly a how-to book, although there are some writing lessons in it. It’s more of a general reference book, so when your writing teacher says you need a narrative hook, or you read a blog about the villain’s agenda, you’ll know what those terms mean. With Lowenkopf at your side, you’ll also know exactly how to use them.

—–

THE FICTION WRITER’S HANDBOOK can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—-

I recommend this book or 101 Things I Learned in Film School by Neil Landau and Matthew Frederick or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

cron

Stories have an evolutionary purpose. Early humans came together to share specific information in the form of cautionary tales. The more vivid, the easier to remember and act upon. Even though we’re no longer relying on stories for our survival as a species, our brains are still hard-wired to love stories. The pleasure we get from them is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention.

Cool idea, but once you grasp that concept, where is there to go with it? It explains some things, like why rip-roaring yarns will always outsell “fine writing,” but it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the nuts and bolts of solid storytelling.

WIRED FOR STORY is full of standard advice for beginning writers. Make sure your hero has both inner and outer motivation. Use sensory details. Make sure your story has plenty of conflict. And so on. The brain science behind this advice is sprinkled in lightly, but the advice stands perfectly well without it, making it seem like a gimmick.

I never thought I’d say this about a how-to book, but the introduction to WIRED FOR STORY is the best part. On its own, it would have made a fascinating magazine article or blog post. The rest of the book contains good advice that won’t hurt beginners and might help a lot. But layering on the scientific basis for each technique doesn’t make the techniques new or noteworthy or even, (in this case) particularly interesting.

—–

WIRED FOR STORY can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

 

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass

maass

I confess to being disappointed with THE FIRE IN FICTION on my first read-through. The introduction was extremely off-putting and the rest of the book felt like a rehash of Maass’ more famous book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

However, the second time I read it, something clicked. While other books showed me how to make my fiction bigger, THE FIRE IN FICTION showed me how to make it deeper. Maass urges writers to create fully human characters, settings that ring true, and plots that are both larger-than-life and completely plausible. But beyond that, Maass taught me to put all my passion and love for my stories onto the page in such a way that readers feel it, too.

That is, once I got past the introduction. Maass divides all writers into “storytellers” and “status-seekers.” I find this a false dichotomy and the way Maass insults writers who desire a wide readership is a real turn-off. It’s especially galling since his how-to books are all about teaching writers to write big, commercial novels. His insistence that marketing has nothing to do with a novel’s success ignores the true realities of publishing. Being a literary agent, it’s a reality he knows well.

Several of my friends were so angered by the introduction that they never read the book. Which is too bad. If they had skipped ahead, they would have found a good guide to finding the true heart of their stories.

The best chapter is called “Tension All the Time.” The idea is that tension comes from emotion, specifically mixed emotion. When you add mixed feelings to a manuscript, the reader turns pages faster, desperate to discover which emotion will win out. It’s one of those simple-yet-profound lessons that once learned, can’t be unlearned. Once I understood how it’s done, I spotted this technique in other novels, and eagerly looked for ways to add it to my own manuscripts. Maass isn’t kidding about the “all the time” part. Tension via mixed feelings can be used not only in the usual places, like exposition and dialog, but also in action, description, and even backstory. Understanding this helped me see why some very simple stories have become my favorites and why some beautifully written work leaves me cold. More importantly, Maass showed me how to really use mixed emotion to better my own stories.

I still don’t know if my novels have tension all the time, but thanks to THE FIRE IN FICTION, each story I write gets closer to that ideal.

—–

THE FIRE IN FICTION can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: advanced writers

—–

I recommend this book or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglasias.

The Editor’s Eye by Stacy Ennis

Ennis

THE EDITOR’S EYE is not a book about editing. It’s a book about hiring an editor. It’s good to know some basics before hiring an editor, such as how to find a good one or what the different kinds of editors are. However, a full-length (188 pages) book about this topic is too much. THE EDITOR’S EYE could have been half this length and still more than covered its topic.

For example, Ennis includes a long anecdote about teaching in the Dominican Republic where internet was spotty. She then talks about her clients in Washington, Idaho, and New Hampshire. All this to finally state that manuscripts are edited electronically and distance doesn’t matter. The whole book reads like this, with the reader forced to wade through too much extraneous information to find the point.

When Ennis does get to the point, she has great ideas and advice. She discusses the different levels of editing (developmental, content, copyediting, and proofreading). It’s crucial to know the difference between each kind and what’s needed at each stage of the editing process. Ennis also teaches writers how to find and hire the best editor for them. Once an editor is hired, Ennis has good advice about how to work with the editor by listening to her suggestions without being intimidated.

Outside feedback is crucial for any author and the best place to get that feedback is from an insightful editor. Knowing how to work with that editor is even more important. Ennis has a wealth of knowledge about this topic and is eager to tell you every last bit of it. Sadly, this book about editing could have used an editor itself.

—–

THE EDITOR’S EYE can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

images

How-to books by famous writers are often vague at best and condescending at worst. STEERING THE CRAFT is neither. Le Guin has opinions and isn’t afraid to share them, but her advice is practical and backed with examples. More importantly, she treats her audience as if they are her peers.

Le Guin’s love for writing comes through the page and it’s clear she understands how much dedication it takes. This isn’t “Ten Rules for a Quick Bestseller.” This is the real thing, meant to help writers dive in deeply and become fully engaged. STEERING THE CRAFT is a workbook, with exercises that are meant to be done in sequence, preferably with a critique group.

The problem is, STEERING THE CRAFT is way too basic. For example, any serious writer already knows the difference between first and third person point of view. However, Le Guin never goes beyond a simple definition into the advantages of using one over the other. At other times, it takes her pages and pages to make a simple point like “vary the length of your sentences.” Some of her statements are just head-scratching. Like when she says, “Plot is much discussed in literature and writing courses, and action so highly valued…” Not in my experience. Most MFA programs treat plot like a dirty word.

The examples Le Guin uses are all from nineteenth-century classics you remember from high school English class; not something contemporary writers can relate to or aspire toward. However, the exercises really shine. They are the best part of the book, and probably the entire point of it. They are not your standard “warm up” exercises assigned in a typical writing class. They are meaty, interesting, and would be valuable for writers at all levels to do. She even teaches how to critique each exercise if you’re working in a group.

STEERING THE CRAFT would be a good workbook for a class or club of very young writers. But those of us with even a little bit of experience would be better off sailing solo.

—-

STEERING THE CRAFT can be found here.

—-

rating: 3 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers or The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

Living Write by Kelly L. Stone

download

LIVING WRITE is meant for people who are writing occasionally and want to make it a daily habit. Stone offers fifteen ways to make daily writing happen, using affirmations, visualizations, or “fake it until you make it” mind tricks.  The exercises are not practical do-this-get-that advice, but much more ambiguous. LIVING WRITE is about changing a writer’s mindset. The theory goes like this: if someone feels like a successful writer, she will act like a successful writer by writing every day.

Some people really like this kind of book, especially those with a lot of trust in the subconscious mind and faith in things like affirmations and vision boards. I see nothing wrong with a writer looking in the mirror and telling herself that she’s talented, and worthy, and hard-working, and on her way to success. However, the next step is where affirmations break down for me. Telling myself that I’m already successful or that I’m already a bestseller doesn’t work because I know it’s a lie. (Or, a pre-truth, if you will.)  My mind gets tangled in the absurdity of success coming before work. It negates the good feelings the affirmation is supposed to create.

But more than that, I have a bit of a problem with the main premise of the book. I have little patience for people who complain about the difficulty of writing. Someone who has to use fifteen different tricks in order to get to the page perhaps isn’t cut out to be a writer.

However, Stone does have some good ideas that a serious working writer can use. Even people who love to write can have small blocks, and that’s when some of the techniques in LIVING WRITE come in handy. I especially like Stone’s idea of having a writing mantra. In the same way that people training for a marathon will tell themselves “26.2” throughout the day, something like “successful author” or “finished novel” can remind writers of their ultimate goal, and perhaps keep them away from the television during writing time. I’ve also used her technique of looking up to writing role models. We all have mentors whom we’ve never met but who influence us all the same. Just thinking “what would Lawrence Block do?” has clarified my thinking on more than one occasion.

The exercises in LIVING WRITE aren’t very time-consuming or difficult, so they wouldn’t hurt to try, although they probably won’t help much, either, unless someone is already writing fairly regularly. They will probably be more useful as little pick-me-ups or boosts in an already-healthy writing practice.

—–

LIVING WRITE can be found here.

—–

rating: 3 stars

—–

this book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers or Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers