A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wasn’t always Lawrence Block. I mean that figuratively and literally. He wasn’t always a Grand Master of the mystery genre, and he wrote an incredible number of novels under secret pen names before ever putting his own name on a book. A WRITER PREPARES is a memoir of Block’s start, from his earliest writing attempts in high school and college up to the publication of the first novel under his own name.

In the late 1950s, while he was still in college, Block had a job writing rejection letters for the Scott Meredith Agency. It was a fee-charging agency that was very bad for writers but kind of great for Block, since it got him connected to his next job, which was writing short erotic novels. He had contracts with two publishers to deliver a book a month, for which he was paid a flat fee, and he continued doing that for a decade, during which time he got married and had two daughters. He took day jobs here and there, but still wrote erotica on the side until 1966, when he finally started writing crime novels in earnest, starting with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep.

A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block’s conversational style. It’s also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Even the parts that were horrifying, such as the terrible treatment of writers by the Scott Meredith Agency, were hilarious in that whole “laugh so I don’t cry” way. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world.

A WRITER PREPARES might seem like an odd choice for this blog. I’m all about how-to books after all. But Block is a natural teacher, and he’s always giving writing lessons, whether he means to or not. I learned so much from this book—more than I can put in a review—but here’s a small taste.

Agents don’t care about writers or writers’ careers. They care about their own bottom line. The Scott Meredith Agency was particularly scammy, charging authors a reading fee, never sending work out, and lying to authors about their submissions. But are modern agents much better? To agents, writers are interchangeable. It’s not worth going to bat for one writer when there are plenty of others to fleece represent.

Write to market. Block learned this lesson early and well. He wrote his school compositions based on what he thought his teachers wanted, and won an eighth-grade essay contest by extolling the virtues of “Americanism” because he knew the judges were patriotic. His erotic novels were always the exact length and heat level the publisher wanted. He read every back issue of Manhunt he could find to understand what the editor was looking for when he sent them stories. When Block had the idea for The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he sat on it until he was sure he had all the elements for a complete story that would appeal to mystery readers. There is nothing wrong with having original ideas that are wild and fun, but keeping the audience in mind is how a writer gets read.

Practice is never wasted. Block happily admits that he spent his twenties writing crap. All of it was under pen names for low-budget publishers and most of the time, he never saw a copy. But this served as a risk-free apprenticeship that made him the writer he is today. It allowed him to experiment, to pick up new skills, and to practice writing to a deadline. Writing a whole lot of bad fiction is a great way for a writer to learn to write good fiction.

Treat it like a job. Block may have written terrible fiction when he was just starting out, but he wrote a lot of it. He wrote while taking college classes, he wrote while editing the college newspaper, he wrote while working full time at a literary agency. Before he ever sold a word of fiction, he still wrote every day while rejection letters piled up. When he had to quit school and move back home for a semester, he wrote in his childhood bedroom. Block wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t getting paid. He wrote anyway.

Community is important. Block did his best work when surrounded by writers and publishing people. In New York, Block hung out with Donald Westlake, Hal Dresner and Robert Silverberg, and their shoptalk was vital to his success. At one point, Block moved his family to Buffalo to be near his aging mother, and his writing suffered. Pre-internet, a writer had to either live near other writers or write a whole lot of letters. Block tried the latter, but was happier with the former, and moved back to New York as soon as he could.

The book world has changed a lot since the 1950s. Or has it? There are still plenty of very bad literary agents out there, and new writers are strung along by empty promises every day. Writing erotica is different now, but with Kindle Unlimited, there are once again authors serving apprenticeships by publishing a short erotic novel each month. Writing to market is still important, as is not holding too tightly to early work. And no matter what, surrounding yourself with like-minded writers is still the best path to happiness and success.

Reading a writer’s memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It’s a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day.

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A WRITER PREPARES releases on June 24 and can be pre-ordered here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Dear Writer, it is Still 2020 by Becca Syme

During this pandemic, the running joke has been, “what is time?” The calendar may have turned, but the “2020ness” of it all is still with us. Vaccines are on the horizon and life is slowly returning to normal, so why are we still doomscrolling? Why are we unable to focus? Everything is just so much right now, and creativity has been forced into the backseat, while conversations with writer buddies always turn to laments about low productivity and lost opportunities.

If this is you, you’re not alone. That’s the biggest takeaway from DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020. You might see other authors gliding through the pandemic still writing, still publishing, still getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with you. But there is a whole hell of a lot wrong with the world, and the sooner you face that reality, the better off you’ll be. Syme explains that in many ways, 2020 has simply shone a spotlight on problems that had been bubbling under the surface for many years.

DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is an antidote to the gaslighting books that insist that if your books aren’t selling, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, or you don’t believe in yourself enough, or your book isn’t written to market, or you aren’t spending enough on ads. Syme cuts through all that bullshit to give the real-world advice we need right now.

The book is divided into two halves: why you aren’t writing and why you aren’t selling. The first part covers three similar but distinct states: being stuck, being blocked, and being burned out. It’s important to not confuse these three, because each situation needs a different remedy. Syme is a coach with a ton of education and experience, and she knows what’s at the heart of most writers’ problems, and (thank goodness) she knows how to fix them.

The second half of the book covers sales (or lack of them). Syme explains why we ignore advice, why we don’t accept our limitations, and the problem of using old methods to solve new problems. She discusses the issues with pay-to-play ads and the traps writers fall into when they assume they’re outliers, or that “the market” doesn’t apply to them, or that they’re owed a certain level of sales simply because they achieved that level in the past. DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is aimed at self-published authors, but much of the advice can also apply to traditionally published authors, since much of the marketing falls on their shoulders, too. Syme’s mantra is to always “question the premise.” The way we sell books has changed in the last decade, and continues to change on a yearly—or even monthly—basis. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that situations always change, and we must change with them.

Taken as a package, DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is about more than just being a writer in the years 2020 and 2021. It’s about how to write whenever things get hard, when outside circumstances change, or when catastrophe hits. Which means it’s not just a book for our times, but a book for all times.

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DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Hollywood vs. the Author by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Novelists are fascinated by Hollywood. It’s a dream of many to have our novels turned into movies–to see real people portray characters that once only lived in our heads and hear dialogue that we wrote. Places we dreamed up could appear in real life. If this seems cool to you? Read on.

Schwartz has collected essays from eighteen authors who wrote books that became movies and TV shows. Authors like Lawrence Block (Burglar), Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles) and Michael Connelly (Bosch) give candid reflections on the experience in exacting and often gruesome detail. They tell of lies, misogyny, shady accounting, dirty deals, and more lies. Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes abundantly clear that the author is the least important and least respected member of the team. I read HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR in sick awe. I knew some of this, but I never fully grasped just how awful Hollywood is for writers.

If it’s so bad, and writers know it’s bad, why do they do it? Money, mostly. There is money in Hollywood. Sometimes a lot of it. Jeff Parker (Laguna Heat) tells of a six-month movie option that was five times the advance for his novel. (An option is when a studio has an exclusive look at your work for a period of time.) Many an author has bought a house with movie money. But just as often, a writer loses money on the deal.

There are two ways an author can lose money in Hollywood. The first is when the novelist is hired to write the screenplay. That’s a sucker’s bet. No matter what script is turned in, the studio will demand multiple drafts and ultimately reject it so they can hire their own people. In the meantime, the author has lost a year or more that she could have been writing more novels.

But the other way is worse. Movie studios steal work every single day. But good luck proving it. Tess Gerritsen wrote the novel that became the movie Gravity, as well as most of the screenplay. It was stolen by director Alfonso Cuaron, who put his own name on it. When Gerritsen tried to sue, in what should have been an iron-clad case, she ran up against two truths: Hollywood has deep pockets and local judges don’t rule against the movie industry because Hollywood is basically a company town. Fifty copyright infringement cases were filed in California’s Ninth circuit between 1990 and 2010, and the authors lost their cases every single time.

Even when the process of book adaptation goes well, the author is always disappointed in the movie and never feels like she was respected or listened to. Most often the best an author can hope for is that they don’t lie to her too much and they don’t screw up the book too badly.

Because Hollywood will screw up the book. Every time. Novels and movies are different mediums and there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation. But more than that, producers, directors, and screenwriters don’t want a faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the time, they haven’t even read it. What they’re buying is the idea—basically a one-sentence log line. Movie studios don’t care about an author’s carefully written characters, setting, dialogue and plot. They’d never let a mere book get in the way of their movie.

The second-happiest writers in HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR are the ones who sold the rights to their books, took the money, and then turned their backs on the whole process, sometimes not even watching the movies that got made. The happiest writers are the ones who sold the rights to books that never got made into movies at all.

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HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

This book is best for: all authors

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I recommend this book

Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner

I don’t think you can finish a novel by writing only ten minutes a day. And despite the title of TEN MINUTE AUTHOR, Partner doesn’t think so either. But I can forgive the gimmicky title because if he’d called it something like How to Develop a Writing Habit, nobody would buy it.

Which is sad because an unshakable writing habit is crucial for writers, and it’s the one thing that separates career authors from wannabes. Writers write—as often as they can for as long as they can, and most full-time authors write every day.

The amount of time isn’t important. The habit is. Partner assumes that once the ten minutes is over, you will already be “in the zone” and will continue writing. But even if you stop after ten minutes, as long as you do it again the next day, and the next, the habit will begin to take form and writing sessions will naturally lengthen.

TEN MINUTE AUTHOR contains a smattering of neuroscience, a whole lot of cheerleading, and a massive dose of common sense. Partner goes into details of why the method works and how to implement it using environmental cues, sandwiching writing between two existing habits, setting a timer, and rewarding yourself after each writing session.

Even better, cutting writing sessions down to such a tiny size means there is literally no excuse not to get to the keyboard. Anyone who honestly can’t write for ten minutes a day should probably not be setting her sights on a writing career at this time.

But actually following through with an unbroken chain of daily writing sessions is a career in the making, and TEN MINUTE AUTHOR is an excellent step-by-step guide to getting it done.

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TEN MINUTE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Deep point of view—getting into a character’s head and staying there—is a difficult skill for new writers, but it’s a vital skill to master. Small author intrusions add up, distancing the reader from the character page after page. While editing, those subtle intrusions are difficult to weed out, leaving some manuscripts a muddled mess of close and distant point of view.

However, Nelson is here to help with a guide that is straightforward, no-nonsense, and thorough. There is no fluff in RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW. In eight short chapters Nelson tells writers what they need to know and no more.

And what authors need to know is how to do it. Unlike many how-to books that diagnose problems without giving solutions, RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW is all about practical application. Nelson explains the principle, gives before-and-after examples, shows exactly why they work, then gives exercises for writers to try their own hand at applying what they’ve learned.

Nelson details how to capture character thoughts, how to show emotion, how to banish filter words like saw, felt, or wondered and how to make sure cause and effect are always in the right order. These are problems I often see in beginners’ novels, but once they are conquered, the manuscript improves immeasurably.

Nelson’s examples are serviceable but not stellar. They are all from her own work, and they get the job done, although they didn’t make want to rush out and buy her fiction.

Staying tightly in a character’s point of view is not easy. The good news is, once you understand depth in point of view, it’s not something you can ever unsee, and RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW will help you master this important writing skill.

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RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black

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You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.

This is true in any field, including writing. It’s not about paying your dues. You don’t “earn” the right to break the rules. If anything, experience gives you new appreciation for those rules that you might have once chafed against.

However, once you understand the reason behind writing rules, you can break them for effect. And when you break the rules, you’ll know exactly what you gain and what you lose by doing so.

Black understands that writing rules don’t exist just for the sake of having rules. They aren’t put in place to please copyeditors or the grammar police. Writing rules are merely best practices for communication, and the better you understand them, the better you can apply them—or bend and break them when the time is right.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE consists of short lessons that will tighten flabby sentences, tune up rambling paragraphs, and shine a spotlight on the most important parts of your novel. Black covers when to show and when to tell, how to find your voice, clean up your style, and put a finer point on all your description and exposition. She has tips for brighter dialogue, tighter pacing, and clearer transitions.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE covers a lot of ground, meaning very short chapters. Black quickly tells you the rule, why it matters, and how to apply it. She illustrates each point with a single example, all but a few from her own work. The examples are good and they do the job, but it would have been nice to have examples from a range of other voices so authors could have some side-by-side comparisons.

You’d expect a book of do’s and don’ts to be stuffy but this one is not. THE ANATOMY OF PROSE is filled with punchy British slang and just the right amount of swear words (a lot of them). Black is having fun with writing. She wants you to understand the deep principles of prose so you can convey your exact meaning, and perhaps have some fun with your writing too.

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THE ANATOMY OF PROSE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

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This is the second book on this topic I’ve reviewed this year, but while Sandra Gerth’s how-to book is excellent, and a must-buy, Janice Hardy’s book could be considered the follow-up to it. UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL is extremely in-depth and will be useful for writers who want to go beyond the basics to take a detailed look at showing and telling in fiction.

Hardy starts by explaining why telling happens in prose, and how to watch out for subtle problems like the author filtering the experience, improper narrative distance, and naming a character’s emotions. Hardy’s explanations are filled with examples that perfectly illustrate her points as she shows writers how to spot telling in their own work. She examines telling trouble spots like backstory, description, and infodumps, and gives a list of red-flag words such as decided, tried, felt, or seemed.

Hardy’s chapter on the uses of telling, however, is a scant three pages long. It probably should have been longer, since there are areas where telling comes in handy and Hardy could have expanded on that point. Showing and telling need to work hand-in-hand to make a novel complete.

But most novels could use more showing and less telling, and Hardy is an excellent guide for fixing told prose. For every problem, she has a solution, and is right there with writers as they identify telling and convert it to showing. By going through all the chapters of UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL writers will be able to fix point of view problems, and get out of the characters’ way to let them tell the story. (Or rather, show the story.)

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UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

On Cussing by Katherine Dunn

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I adore creative swearing. I love when someone drops a curse word in just the right place, or wields forbidden language like a dagger, or goes poetic with a long string of swear words. I love naughty language used for humor, because I’m secretly twelve and I think a well-deployed f-bomb is funny.

Dunn thinks so too. ON CUSSING is a celebration of taboo language, covering the history and neuroscience of swearing while also giving plenty of examples of how to do it well. At a short 70 pages, ON CUSSING is like good cussing itself—it makes its point without any wasted words.

At their core, curse words are emotional. Some scientists think they’re even processed in a different part of our brain. Their connotations are blasphemous or sexual or just plain filthy. These words don’t add much grammatically to a sentence. Most sentences would make just as much sense without them. But boy, do they pack a punch. And therefore, Dunn argues, these words need to be used carefully.

Curse words can be used to complain, to threaten, to solidify an oath, to lay on a curse, to insult, and to emphasize. Dunn gives examples of each, along with instruction on how to make it your own. Cussing needs to fit the character, the tone of the book, and the time period. Different eras had different curse words. Something we think of as mild would shock our ancestors, and vice-versa.

Dunn includes excerpts from classic books, although I didn’t find these very helpful. She also cautions against using curse words carelessly. There is, after all, a time and place, even for a well-deployed f-bomb.

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ON CUSSING can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Writing With Jenna Moreci (YouTube channel)

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My review is a little different this month. I love my how-to books, but I’ve been under deadline pressure and my attention span has suffered. So I’ve been seeking writing advice from podcasts, classes, and YouTube videos. My new favorite YouTube channel is WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI.

Moreci has been vlogging for about four years, so she’s got a lot of great content to choose from. Each video is about twenty minutes long, and tackles a single subject with humor and wisdom. Whether it’s an element of the writing craft or an issue with the writer’s lifestyle, Moreci has a video for you.

WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI is not for the delicate. She gives rapid-fire advice (often in the form of top-ten lists) with no sugar-coating and a whole heap of swear words. She shines a spotlight on a writer’s worst habits and excuses, and tells the truth about how much work goes into writing a publishable book.

Moreci’s advice, though short and to the point, is always solid. She teaches writers how to outline a novel, how to start a novel, how to write a great sex scene or fight scene, and how to ramp things up to a great finish. She also has videos about different genres, explaining which tropes still work, and those that are past their prime. Her videos are aimed at beginners, but even this jaded old pro picked up valuable tips.

Where WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI really excels is in the lifestyle videos. Moreci has videos about writing while holding a day job, dealing with anxiety, writer’s block, and that awful critical voice in our heads. It’s a bit like getting no-nonsense advice from a big sister or favorite aunt. It might not always be easy to hear, but it’s true wisdom from someone who has been there.

Some of my favorite videos are How to Outline Your Novel, How to Overcome Writer’s Block, and my personal favorite, How to Write a Healthy Romance. But all of Moreci’s videos are worth your time.

YouTube will never take the place of the craft books on my shelf, but there are many vloggers putting out great content, and Moreci is tops. I’m glad I can still soak up craft advice even when I’m busy writing novels of my own.

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WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This channel is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this channel.

Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block

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Back in the 1980s, Block wrote the “fiction” column for Writer’s Digest, sharing short essays about the writing craft and a writer’s life. SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is a collection of some of those columns, first published as a book in 1988. At last, it’s now available as an audiobook, read by Richard Neer, who reads with a delightful cadence and knows exactly how to deliver Block’s wry humor. The material itself isn’t new, but Block’s advice has aged well, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can hold its own against newer how-to books on the shelves. In many cases, Block’s classic instruction is better than the new stuff.

SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is divided into four sections. The first two deal with the nuts and bolts of fiction writing. Block covers things like the use of flashbacks, how to incorporate backstory, techniques for sex scenes and fight scenes, and how to make a reader identify with your characters. The second two sections are about a writer’s mindset and lifestyle. Fear, procrastination, and perfectionism all get a chapter here, and Block also discusses rejections, budgets, schedules, and how to believe in yourself.

Block often pretends he’s addressing a room full of students, even giving them names and allowing them to ask questions. But reading SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB never feels like sitting in a classroom. It feels like grabbing coffee with a friend. Block offers gentle advice based on his own experience, and he’s more interested in giving options than giving a to-do list. His advice is practical, inspirational, and is delivered with warmth and wit.

I’m also surprised at how timeless it all is. Yes, there are references to typewriters and photocopies and print magazines and waiting on editors and other things that modern writers simply never deal with. But I found it charming. And the lessons still apply, even if the examples Block uses are outdated. He goes on at length about buying the best typewriter paper he can afford, but what’s important about that story isn’t the paper. It’s the idea of valuing yourself as a writer—of putting your writing first.

Block is an icon in the writing community, and every writer I know looks up to him—for good reason. Whenever I review one of Lawrence Block’s books on the Writing Slices blog, I get lots of comments from writers who say that Block was their first writing teacher—either through his magazine columns or his how-to books. Those comments always make me smile, and I always respond the same way. “He was my first teacher too,” I say. “It looks like we both started in a good place.”

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SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book