How to Write A Damn Good Novel II by James N. Frey

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I enjoyed Frey’s previous how-to book, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, and looked forward to reading the “advanced” version, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II. However, this second volume doesn’t really explain advanced techniques, nor does it show how to deepen a novel. Sometimes, more isn’t better. It’s just…more.

For example, in his earlier volume, Frey tried to explain what a premise is. He failed badly. His editor and readers must have told him he’d made a mess of it, because HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II has two chapters on premise. The first takes a premise and tries to simplify the concept. I’m still not sure what Frey was trying to say, but it seems as if his definition of “premise” is something like a log line crossed with a theme. The second chapter expands the premise into a complete outline. Neither chapter sheds any new light on story development. They are likely to confuse beginners rather than help them. After all, most writers already know exactly what they want to write about and don’t need two muddled chapters to tell them.

The next three chapters cover character, suspense, and voice. Frey uses examples from “damn good” novels such as CARRIE and JAWS. He hates pretty hard on literary fiction, calling “trying to be literary” one of the deadly sins of writing. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to genre writers. Besides, no single book can cover all types of fiction. Frey is smart to specialize, but there’s a big difference between loving genre books and actively putting down any other kind.

The best part of HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II comes near the end, when Frey covers the seven deadly mistakes that writers make. Things like “ego writing” and “failure to keep faith with yourself” and “timidity” aren’t craft issues, they are life issues. We’ve all made some of those mistakes, and a few of us have made all seven. In Frey’s usual no-nonsense style, he shows why these mistakes are deadly, and gives examples of students who stumbled on the path and never made it. He also gives examples of students who overcame these early mistakes to become great writers.

Frey knows what he’s talking about. He becomes uncharacteristically self-revealing in the final chapter as he details his own early struggles. Each of the seven deadly mistakes are things he learned the hard way. After a hundred pages of drill sergeant toughness, he turns humble and rather sweet as he encourages writers to stick with it, because the writing life–for all its struggles–is a wonderful life to live.

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HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II can be found here.

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rating: 3 stars

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this book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell

Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins

I was immediately intrigued by the subtitle of this book: “Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.” I hoped that it would teach me to write characters as vivid as the ones in my favorite movies. Since actors can only show emotion, not explain it, I hoped to learn to do the same thing (on paper). I can’t say that I learned everything about characterization from GETTING INTO CHARACTER, but I did pick up a few useful tips.

The seven “secrets” aren’t really secrets. They are staples of the writing craft. Collins insists on over-explaining and using a lot of made-up jargon, but here they are in plain English.

  1. Personalizing (Making sure your character is distinctive)
  2. Action Objectives (What does your character want?)
  3. Subtexting (Avoiding “on the nose” dialog)
  4. Coloring Passions (Emotional variety, mixed emotions)
  5. Inner Rhythm (Body language)
  6. Restraint and Control (Using the right words to describe emotion)
  7. Emotion Memory (Using your own emotions when writing)

None of these are new ideas. However, putting them into the context of acting is interesting. Many writers act out difficult scenes as they write them or speak their dialog out loud. Collins simply takes it further, showing how actors prepare for roles, and how writers can write in much the same way. She does more showing than telling, explaining each technique in a straightforward way. And while her made-up examples aren’t very artful, they get the point across.

Collins ends each chapter with two long passages from classic novels. She has chosen them carefully and they do a good job of illustrating her “secrets.” Her choice for emotion memory is particularly apt. She cuts back and forth between HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Mark Twain’s autobiography to show how Twain used details and emotions from his own life in his fiction.

True confession time: I read GETTING INTO CHARACTER once before, back when I was a new writer. I didn’t enjoy it. The lessons seemed overwhelming and almost incomprehensible. How in the world would I ever be able to do all this? Now, a decade later, I find Collins’ methods understandable and I’m easily able to follow her suggestions. Although I still find GETTING INTO CHARACTER jargon-heavy and dense, I’m now able to weed through it and pick out the gems worth keeping.

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rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book or The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by Writer’s Digest or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success by Mark Coker

There are a lot of how-to books about self publishing your ebooks. Most are written by authors, many are overpriced, and the quality varies from extremely useful to downright offensive.

SECRETS TO EBOOK PUBLISHING SUCCESS is different. It’s by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. Coker not only knows what he’s talking about, he has the data to back it up. Plus, this book is free.

Unfortunately, the 28 “secrets” he reveals are mostly common sense. “Write a Great Book” and “Create a Great Ebook Cover” aren’t really secrets. Besides, even truly crappy books represent someone’s best efforts. Nobody deliberately puts out a bad book with an ugly cover, so I’m not sure who Coker is talking to, here. A few of the “secrets” might be useful to an absolute beginner, like the chapter on being patient or the chapter on thinking globally, but the majority are self-evident to anyone who has published even a single ebook.

Coker repeats himself throughout SECRETS TO EBOOK PUBLISHING SUCCESS and a lot of it reads like a commercial for Smashwords. Any chance he can, Coker explains the advantages of using a single distributor and the ease of pushing your books to all the major selling sites by using Smashwords. A book needs to be available everywhere, Coker says, so of course you’re going to use his distribution company. He warns of the harm authors do their books by participating in KDP Select, which makes their books exclusive to Amazon.

The longest, most detailed chapters are the ones called “Maximize Distribution” and “Avoid Exclusivity,” making me think they are the point of the whole book. However, I doubt that any author who has tried KDP select feels harmed by it. The majority have enjoyed a significant sales boost from the program.

I’ve met Mark Coker. He is just a super person, truly invested in his authors’ success. Smashwords is a stellar business. It’s so good that I don’t know why Coker had to keep piling on the Smashwords propaganda in this book. A business as wonderful as his should speak for itself.

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rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb

There’s a lot to like about NOVEL SHORTCUTS. Whitcomb’s attitude is upbeat, her advice sound. At the end of every chapter, she offers suggestions for further reading. I found the recommendations for other how-to books spot-on. Each chapter also includes exercises. I usually avoid them, but Whitcomb’s ideas sound like fun. More importantly, they seem as if they will actually work.

However, NOVEL SHORTCUTS also has a lot of flaws. Much of it is confusing, as Whitcomb insists on making up her own terms for things instead of using the familiar. For example, she spends an entire chapter on “crosshairs moments,” which I took to mean all the major plot points, but which turned out to be only the climax of the novel. Her chapter on plotting focused exclusively on “plot webs” and other non-linear storytelling, ignoring the more straightforward kinds of plots that beginning novelists (and nearly all genre novelists) use.

Whitcomb nearly lost me when she discussed using a “device” for storytelling, such as writing in diary format or documentary style or a confession. Not only does she think such gimmicks are a good idea, she seems to think they are essential. Very, very few novels I’ve read use storytelling devices at all, much less effectively. It takes a writer with a delicate hand and a reader with a patient heart–a difficult combination.

I finished the book anyway, and was very glad I did. The chapter called “Shortcut to the Scene” was worth the price of the book. Even if you’ve got a thorough outline for your whole novel, Whitcomb suggests taking ten minutes to outline each scene just before writing it. First you write roughly what the scene will be, then you write snippets of dialogue you want to include, then a bit of freewriting. (Whitcomb calls it a “heartstorm,” yet another new term for an old concept.) I tried her method and found that the scene came easily onto the page, and it was also better than previous attempts.

Also good was the chapter on troubleshooting. There are countless ways for a novel to go wrong, but Whitcomb tackles the big ones, such as too many subplots or characters who have gone flat. Her concrete suggestions should get a stuck writer back on track in no time.

NOVEL SHORTCUTS is both good and bad, but the chapters are short and the prose style smooth. A writer should have no trouble picking out the useful bits and leaving the rest, which is what we do with most how-to books anyway.

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rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Plot by Ansen Dibell

Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone

It took me several tries to get into this book. Stone interviewed lots of writers and front-loaded TIME TO WRITE with their quotes, as if they would give authority to her message. The result is a loosely-connected set of thoughts that don’t add up to much. As I slogged through the opening chapters, I wondered if the rest of the book would be this shallow and repetitive.

Things picked up in chapter three, “The Secret to Finding Time to Write.” It’s not really a secret. In order to write, one must schedule it into the day. The benefits are many: it forms a habit, keeps you in the flow of the story, makes you accountable to yourself, and builds up momentum. Even more important is the psychological shift. A person who writes every day begins to think of herself as a writer. How can she not?

Stone is also realistic. We all have days packed to the brim with activities. Nobody “finds” time to write. Writers make the time. They do it by giving up something else. However, just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no writing schedule survives the first incoming e-mail. TIME TO WRITE is full of suggestions for dealing with distractions. A successful writer either zaps those time-wasters before sitting down at the desk, or puts them off until the writing is done. Above all, we have to protect the writing schedules we’ve worked so hard to obtain.

Then there’s family. Most time-management books for writers give a cursory look at this topic, as if spouse and children will enjoy the writer ignoring them in favor of her imaginary friends. Stone has ideas for managing young children, older children, and spouses. She explains how to get the family on board with the writer’s schedule and set (and keep) boundaries, both physical and temporal. The goal is a happy writer and a happy family. It can be done.

Stone lost me again in the middle of TIME TO WRITE when I came to chapters about how to get ideas and how to use them. They seemed a huge digression that had nothing to do with the basic premise of the book. Ditto chapters about writer’s block and dealing with your inner critic. A book on time management should not, itself, waste my time by straying from the topic at hand. Even if the information is good and valuable, it’s not what I bought this book to learn.

Stone rounds out TIME TO WRITE with a dose of psychology 101: believe in yourself, develop willpower, persevere, rejections aren’t personal, always take the long view. Again, she relies on quotes from other writers to bolster her point. Pity, because Stone writes best when she writes from her own experience (as do we all). More streamlining and less name dropping would result in a better book, one that I could read in half the time, giving me more time to write.

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rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham

Everything I know about craft I’ve learned from writing books. How-to books can’t teach good work habits and they can’t teach artistic vision. They can, however, teach basic writing technique. The more basic, the more easily taught (and learned), so that is what most how-to books focus on.

The title of THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES made me wary. Would this be one long rant about everything writers do wrong? But no worries–Bickham lists each mistake and gives examples of it, but quickly moves to the solution. He explains why some things don’t work and gives alternatives. The book is just over 100 pages, so none of the 38 topics is dealt with in any depth. It’s fine for a quick introduction, but it doesn’t go beyond that.

The chapters have titles like “Don’t Describe Sunsets” and “Don’t Lecture Your Reader” and “Don’t Ignore Scene Structure.” These are all things Bickham has encountered several times in student work and he does a decent job of clearing up the mistakes. Other chapters teach things like using all five senses, keeping consistent point of view, and starting in the middle of the action. A few chapters go beyond craft to Bickham’s opinion of critique groups (bad), editors (good), and the market (unpredictable), none of them more than a scant few pages each.

The words “most common” are in the title for a reason. This book helped me avoid obvious errors but it didn’t teach me the subtle stuff that good writers need to know. It might help a new writer finish a story, but the story will probably lack the style and flair that good fiction needs. Another danger is that THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES could stifle creativity. Focusing on these absolute rules could strangle artistic vision. In other words, I could avoid all 38 mistakes and still write crap.

Bickham does a good job warning new writers about basic pitfalls and steering them toward something better. If you’re reading a lot of how-to books, adding this one to your to-be-read pile won’t hurt you. But we all have fixed budgets of both time and money, so it’s probably better to spend them elsewhere.

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rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain or Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott