Deep Work by Cal Newport

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I used to scoff at people who needed an internet blocker while writing. If they were getting distracted by social media, maybe they simply didn’t love writing enough. Not anymore! Nowadays, I’m testing programs like Freedom and Cold Turkey and asking my friends which blocker works best.

Distractions are everywhere. Even worse, they are affecting our brains. The more we let ourselves get distracted, the more our brain trains us to be distractible. Computers and social media are so enticing (maybe even addictive) it’s no wonder we can’t concentrate anymore. Uninterrupted time is rare and becoming rarer. But concentrating deeply, being in “the zone,” is exactly what writers need to do. DEEP WORK has some excellent advice for writers who need to slow down, concentrate, and produce more books.

DEEP WORK is divided into two parts: theory and practice. In part one, Newport lays out why deep work is rare, valuable, and meaningful. He distinguishes between “shallow work” (things like email and meetings) and “deep work” (things like writing, computer coding, and inventing). Shallow work will make you look—and feel—busy, but only deep work truly matters. After all, nobody gets a promotion because they are great at email.

But a persuasive argument for deep work is no good without an action plan. Newport has advice for scheduling deep work, banishing distractions, and cutting out as much shallow work as possible. I found Newport’s suggestions extremely practical and not at all hard.

Newport also suggests cutting out all social media. This last one is probably not realistic for a writer, since social media is our main source of networking and fans expect to interact with us online. However, we certainly can all limit our use of social media, especially during prime writing time.

As much as I loved this book, I do think Newport has a blind spot. He cites numerous examples of men doing deep work, from Carl Jung to Nate Silver, but he quotes few women, and ignores gendered expectations. Women, especially married women, are expected by our society to take up domestic and childcare work, as well as emotional labor such as daily scheduling and managing the social life of the couple. Men are rewarded for ignoring all that and retreating into work in a way that women are not. You can’t do deep work when you’re interrupted all the time and women are most often the ones being interrupted.

DEEP WORK is not for everyone. I can’t imagine a nurse or a waiter or an electrician getting much out of this book, since their jobs are fast-paced and extremely interactive. Newport’s advice is for a certain kind of worker: a knowledge worker who works alone. In short, writers are the ideal audience.

Spending lots of time “in the zone” is crucial for writers, especially new writers without a book contract, who have to rely on their own willpower to get a book written. Without deep work, writers can drift from shallow task to shallow task, looking “busy” the whole time but never getting any of their books written.

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DEEP WORK is available 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.

How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell

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Pulp is often considered lowbrow. Just because it’s written in quantity and features plain language, it is often seen as undeserving. Literary writers are especially fond of looking down their noses at genre writers. But good pulp is simply another version of the art form known as the novel. And yes, it’s an art. Just ask Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and Lawrence Block.

Bell defines pulp fiction as plot centric, easy to read, and fast-paced, with colorful characters, witty dialogue, and intriguing settings. In other words, popular fiction. Romance and thrillers are the bestselling genres today, but Bell only gives a passing nod to romance. His advice is clearly for those who want to write thrillers or hardboiled mysteries, especially in a series. (He calls a series character “the writer’s insurance policy.”)

A pulp writer gives the reader what they want and plenty of it. In order to do that, the writer has to study the market and write fast. HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is loaded with lists and plot generators, along with good general writing advice that will keep pulp novels from becoming hack work. Bell’s two strategies for writing faster are also tried-and-true: banish distractions and write to a quota. Pulp writers can’t afford to be too precious about the work.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is rounded out with some publishing advice. The first pulp golden age was when paperbacks were a new medium. Now, ebooks are the new paperbacks, and low-priced reads are once again taking over the market. Bell assumes that pulp writers will be self-publishing and gives advice about hiring editors and proofreaders. He also urges writers to give books away periodically in order to raise awareness of your name. Since a pulp writer will be writing a lot, doing a few giveaways won’t hurt sales.

This is a very specific book for a very specific kind of writer. It’s not a general how-to book. But like pulp fiction itself, HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is fast-paced and easy to read. It’s a great introduction to writing faster, writing to market, and generally getting out of your own way to let those stories rip.

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HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available 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 Dip by Seth Godin

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I didn’t expect to like this book. Godin tends to rub me the wrong way, and THE DIP is tiny, only 80 pages, so I thought it would be light on usefulness as well. But I took a chance, figuring I’d stop after a page or two.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. THE DIP was way better than I thought it would be. I read the whole thing in one sitting and took two pages of notes.

The main idea is that everybody quits things. We quit gyms, jobs, marriages, hobbies, and even our passions. Writers quit submitting manuscripts, or quit revising, or even quit writing. When do we quit? At precisely the wrong time. We quit when it gets hard. Almost everyone quits when it gets hard. The few that stay in, succeed.

Here’s the thing. Everyone has to pay their dues. No matter what. Writers need to spend hours and hours writing and learning the market and submitting manuscripts. Paying dues is just built in. But quitters pay all those dues and receive no benefits, while others pay all those dues, pay just a little more, and succeed.

But there’s a flipside to this. Sometimes quitting is good. If you’re in a dead-end job or sport or hobby or passion, where working harder and longer will simply lead to more of the same, getting out early is the best choice.

So how do you know which is which? Godin never explains. But you know what? He doesn’t have to. In our guts, we know when we need to double down, because we’re simply in a rough patch on the way to our dreams. We also know when we’re just fooling ourselves, coasting, spending a lot of energy being mediocre. In that case, it’s better to quit, to free up time and energy for attacking a worthy goal.

Godin says it this way: Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

Basic advice? Maybe. But it’s also advice that I—and probably many other people—needed to hear.

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THE DIP can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book.

Yours to Tell by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

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I was hesitant to pick up this book, even though it was recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. I thought it would be rambling, artificial, and far too cute. But it was none of those things. YOURS TO TELL is a series of thoughtful conversations about what makes stories work, written by two people who are deeply rooted in the world of reading and writing.

The Tems take turns discussing plot, character, POV, setting, story structure and theme. They also cover more businesslike things like revision, marketing and managing paperwork. But the bulk of the book is on craft. Each author holds the floor for two or three or a dozen paragraphs at a time, but they comment on each other’s points, ask each other questions, and help each other think of examples. The result is a peek into the inner workings of two accomplished writers.

The Tems read a lot, and they don’t seem to read stories so much as inhale them. They study everything for craft lessons and they know what makes fiction work. They know the upside and downside of every writing rule and freely admit to breaking more of them than they uphold.

YOURS TO TELL is not for beginners. Anyone hoping to pick up pointers on writing craft will have to read hard between the lines. For example, in the chapters about point of view, they start with unreliable narrators and “writing the other” and only later go into difference between first and third person POV. They quickly dispense with definitions and are on to discussing things like the implied author and omnipotent narration and the weirdness of second person.

Most of the chapters are like that. The Tems are experienced writers talking about what concerns them right now. They always circle back to beginner concerns, but only after they talk about higher level stuff that they, themselves, are currently grappling with.

And that’s what makes this book such a delight. The Tems don’t instruct so much as share. They don’t talk like teachers lecturing students. They are working writers talking to their peers. Reading YOURS TO TELL was like attending a very good panel discussion at a conference, the kind that leaks out into the hallway afterward. The conversation goes in many directions, but the love of story always comes through. More than anything else, the Tems respect the process of writing fiction, and appreciate the rewards of doing so.

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YOURS TO TELL can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Author in Progress edited by Therese Walsh

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AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is a collection of brand new essays by the writers who blog at the excellent “Writer Unboxed” website. It’s divided into seven sections: Prepare, Write, Invite (get critique), Improve, Rewrite, Persevere, Release. Taken together, it’s meant to be a complete guide to the writing process, from the idea to the bookshelf.

However, this isn’t a craft class in a book. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is about a writer’s lifestyle and overcoming mental blocks that keep us from the page. There are over fifty high-quality essays covering everything from time management to understanding murky feedback to overcoming jealousy, so it’s easy to flip to just the chapter you need for help with your current problem.

Walsh always seems to be one step ahead of the traps writers set for themselves. She’s gathered writers who have been doing this a long time and have developed solutions that work. Overcome with too many ideas? Read “Put a Ring on It” by Erika Robuck. Scared to go to a conference? Read “When Writers Gather” by Tracy Hahn-Burkett. Having empty nest syndrome after finishing a book? Read “Letting Go” by Allie Larkin. The contributors to AUTHOR IN PROGRESS have dealt with all the weird hangups writers have and can give solid advice from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

But my favorite essays were those that didn’t have definitive answers. Do writers need MFAs? Should writers use outlines? How useful is a professional editor? There’s more than one right answer and back-to-back essays explore both sides of the issue.

I’ve read a lot of how-to books and have, for the most part, moved past these kind of soup-to-nuts compilations in favor of more focused books that zero in on specific problem areas. However, AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is going on my keeper shelf. Because no matter what question I’m struggling with today, I know I will find the answer in its pages.

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AUTHOR IN PROGRESS can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

Break Writer’s Block Now by Jerrold Mundis

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I’ve never been someone who believes in writer’s block. And the funny thing is, despite the title of the book, Mundis doesn’t believe in it either. He says writers who are blocked are suffering from perfectionism, fear, or having the unrealistic expectation that a writing career is going to solve all their problems.

Writers are burdened by other funny beliefs, too. Writers believe that they have to be a genius, or have a magical talent, or that writing should never be hard if you’re good at it, but your life will be hard if you’re a writer. Mundis has seen writers dump all kinds of emotional baggage on their writing, robbing the process of any joy it once had.

His solution is to bust the myths, see the self-defeating behaviors for what they are, and form new habits that will keep your butt in the chair no matter your mood. And even better, Mundis says he can fix you in a single afternoon.

BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is divided into two parts. The first is theory. How to get out of your own way by understanding where these self-limiting beliefs came from and how silly they are.

The second part is practice. Mundis takes writers step-by-step through the hard mental work of getting words on the page. He starts by reminding writers to stop thinking about selling what they write and just keep filling the pages. If that doesn’t work, he takes writers through some more hardcore mythbusting, focusing on their personal misconceptions about their own writing. Next, he advises writers to form a habit and stick to it with a set time and place. And if all else fails, set a timer and force yourself to write quickly (so as to outrun the internal censor).

None of this is new stuff, and most of it can be found in other how-to books, but Mundis has stripped away all the fluff and distilled things down to their very essence. The hardcover I have is ninety pages with very generous margins, and there is beauty in its brevity, because none of us have time to waste. We’ve got books to write!

BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is excellent for beginning writers. Mundis’ no-nonsense advice is tempered with a great deal of compassion. He understands that writers need encouragement along with a kick in the pants. And even though I’m a daily writer who mostly stays out of her own way, I’ve hit a rough patch or two. BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW will stay on my shelf for those times I need a little nudge to get me back to the page.

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BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is available here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

Help for Writers by Roy Peter Clark

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Clark is a journalism teacher who has taught everyone from schoolchildren to Pulitzer Prize winners. He’s the kind of teacher I would love to have. I imagine him delivering instruction in a calm, soft voice, patiently going over students’ questions. Or at least, that’s the vibe I get from HELP FOR WRITERS. It’s a useful companion for anyone writing nonfiction, including books, articles, and blog posts.

Clark tackles problems common to beginning writers. He discusses the trouble with doing research, how to organize your thoughts, how to cut a broad topic down to size, how to make things clear, and how to revise. Each section is in a sort of Q and A format, so you can easily flip to whatever specific problem you’re having.

Along the way, Clark gives advice about things that aren’t directly related to the writing itself, but can nevertheless affect it. He doesn’t separate the writing from the writer. He knows that things like a cluttered desk can be just as big a problem as things like sagging middles or weak openings, and he has practical solutions for all of it. He tells writers how to beat procrastination, how to stay organized, how to develop good work habits, how to meet deadlines, and how to work with editors.

The best thing about HELP FOR WRITERS is how unassuming it is. Clark uses plain language in a straightforward way. He avoids gonzo pep talks or hazy inspiration in favor of realistic advice. HELP FOR WRITERS is the kind of book that’s easy to overlook because it’s got no gimmick and no hype. Clark doesn’t promise to tell you how to write a gazillion words this week or sell a boatload of books. He just quietly gives the kind of good, solid advice that works every time, which is exactly the kind of advice writers need.

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HELP FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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Rating: 4 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