Make Your Writing Bloom by Shonell Bacon

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I never fall out of love with writing. It will always be one of my favorite things. But I do get shiny manuscript syndrome, where starting a new project seems more appealing than finishing the current one. MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM can help with that, as well as the more serious problem of general writer’s block.

MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM is a slim book that takes you through seven days of exercises. I often skip exercises in how-to books, but I took these seriously and finished all of them. Each day tackles your attitude about writing from a different angle. Why do you love to write? What fears do you have around it? What’s getting in your way? How can you incorporate writing into your daily life?

There are no wrong answers, and any epiphanies you have are up to you to interpret. There isn’t much advice in here at all, except to trust in the exercises, trust in the process, and keep writing. Bacon also includes snippets of her own struggles, which I found extremely relatable, since she’s a teacher and an editor, like me. We both are sometimes so overwhelmed with other people’s words that we have trouble finding our own.

Bacon is always realistic. She talks honestly about her setbacks and times she’s sabotaged herself, but not in a woe-is-me way. She overcame her own blocks, and is confident that we can do the same. I  appreciated that positive vibe. At this point in my career, I am completely over books that try to instill fear in writers or treat writing as something horrible and difficult. Bacon doesn’t do that, because she doesn’t have to. She starts by reminding writers why they love the craft so much, and it’s something she returns to again and again throughout the book.

While spending a week making my writing bloom, I fell a little bit more in love with my own writing too.

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MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM 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.

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

 

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According to Steel, there are three reasons people procrastinate. We’re bored with the task, we expect to fail, or the results are just too abstract. Of these three, it’s the third one that’s really the problem. There are real consequences in the present, while there are only theoretical ones in the future.

The longer it takes to reach our goal, the more we procrastinate. People usually don’t have trouble writing five hundred words due tomorrow. But they have a harder time with five thousand words due in a month, or fifty thousand words due in a year. For writers not under contract, with no deadline, the problem is especially acute. A fuzzy, abstract thing that we want to achieve at some unknown date in the future might as well be called a wish or a dream, rather than a goal.

Even worse, our brains are hard-wired to be impulsive, to make ourselves happy right now rather than working toward an abstract future. Modern life with television, internet, and shopping makes it worse.

Steel has devoted his life to studying procrastination, so THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION is focused on explaining why we do the things we do. It’s a little bit lighter when it comes to solutions. There are no step-by-step things to try. But understanding how our brains are wired makes the solution to procrastination easier to come by.

The easiest thing to do is to artificially shorten the deadline. Rather than saying a novel will be done by a certain date, set goals for finishing each chapter. Writers also have to stay on task while writing, since flow is so important and interruptions are deadly. It’s horrible that we work and play on the same computers, and those bastards in Silicon Valley have set up social networking to be so addictive. Internet blockers are good. So are time limits and schedules. Anything we can do to take choice out of it is helpful, since our impulsive brains will always choose checking Twitter over working on a difficult scene.

Steel also has advice for setting goals. He thinks the much-used acronym S.M.A.R.T. is stupid. S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, (which are the same thing) Attainable, Realistic, (also the same thing) and Time-Anchored. Steel suggests four alternate attributes for goals. He says they should be meaningful, challenging, with multiple sub-goals on a modest but regular schedule.

THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION isn’t truly a how-to book. Steel is more interested in telling us why we procrastinate than how to stop doing it. Even so, I found lots of useful information in its pages—information I can use right now.

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THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book.

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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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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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.