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 And the lessons still apply, even if the examples Block uses are outdated.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


[Quick reminder: my 5-part online class is still open, and the first class is free! More info here.]

Writing Killer Cover Copy by Elana Johnson

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Many authors have no trouble spinning out stories of 70,000 words or longer, but freak out when it comes to writing a 200 word description of that same novel. They either get super vague, telling the reader everything except what the book’s about, or they get super detailed, trying to cram every plot point of the story into two paragraphs. Neither of these approaches will sell books.

WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is meant for indie authors who want to write better book descriptions for online retailers, but Johnson’s approach will work equally well for authors who want to write query letters that will entice agents and editors. Before going indie, Johnson herself was traditionally published and wrote for the Query Tracker blog, so I believe her approach—with minor tweaking—works in both situations.

Johnson breaks down the process step by step, showing writers what they need to include in their cover copy and what they don’t. And just like good cover copy itself, WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is short, to the point, and useful.

Johnson writes in a very casual tone, with lots of digressions and extremely lame jokes that grew more tiresome as the book went on. I understand the value of humor when trying to tackle a difficult subject, but only when the humor works. Johnson’s jokes were as cringe-worthy as watching a stand-up comic bomb on stage night after night. Luckily, the central instruction holds up and the cornball jokes didn’t get in the way of the information.

Johnson suggests that writers start with a tagline—a one-sentence “grabber.” Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that taglines are effective. She then breaks down the four sections of a good book description: the hook, the set-up, the conflict, and the consequence. Johnson provides examples and exercises so writers can make sure that every part of their cover copy works.

Publishing is a strange business, and writers don’t control much. We can’t control what’s hot today, or how Amazon changes its algorithms, or if we score a BookBub feature. What we can control is our own product. The quality of our books and the way we present them to the market is completely up to us, and WRITING KILLER COVER COPY will help writers learn this essential skill.

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WRITING KILLER COVER COPY 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.

Successful Self-Publishing by Joanna Penn

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When I self-published my first book, I didn’t know exactly how to do it. But I figured that the Amazon self-publishing platform was fairly intuitive, and that if I got horribly stuck I could google the answer. Besides, if I really screwed it up, I could always go back and fix it later. On the internet, there are endless do-overs. So I gleefully jumped in without much instruction and started publishing my own novels.

I soon found out that not everyone shares this attitude. I’ve met many first-time authors who are terrified. They don’t know the first thing about formatting and uploading their own books and rather than give it a try, they become stuck and do nothing. Or worse, they pay thousands of dollars to scam vanity publishing companies to do what they could do themselves for free.

Enter Penn and SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING. This is the book that beginners need. It’s not about the why, it’s about the how. Penn assumes authors have a polished, professionally edited and well-covered book, but simply need a basic primer to go from there. This is self-publishing 101, and it covers everything authors need to know to get a manuscript from their computers to online stores.

Authors could find all this information out online by going from website to website, chasing pieces of it all over the internet, or they can get SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING and have it all in one place. Penn covers the nuts and bolts of indie publishing, including how to format a book, how to get a cover, whether you should stick with just Amazon or sell at all retailers, and how to price your book.

Penn also has a breakdown of the costs of publishing. Editing, formatting, and cover design will all cost the author something, but putting your book on sale at retailers is free. (Retailers take a cut of each sale.) It’s important for authors to understand what to spend money on and what not to, so they don’t get scammed.

The second half of SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING covers marketing—another thing that scares new authors. Authors can spend money on advertising, spend time doing content marketing (blogging, guest blogging, etc.) or both. Penn is realistic about how and when marketing efforts can help an author, and when it would be better to just write more books.

The self-publishing boom is still in its first decade, and things change all the time. Some of Penn’s specific advice might become dated, but the underlying principals she teaches won’t. Her advice boils down to, “Do what you can, hire out what you can’t do yourself, and don’t get scammed.”

And then, step by step, she tells you exactly how to do it.

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Successful Self-Publishing can be found here. (The ebook is currently free)

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning authors

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I recommend this book

 

 

 

 

The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell

 

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Starting a novel is easy. Ending one is hard. Bringing a narrative of 70,000+ words to a satisfying conclusion is a high-wire act that demands an epic showdown, deep character change, tying up loose ends, and an emotional resolution. No wonder every writer has files of half-finished manuscripts on her computer.

But Bell is here to help. THE LAST FIFTY PAGES zeroes in on that all-important third act. Bell discusses the mechanics of endings, which most writers already know how to do: good guy and bad guy face off, one of them wins. But Bell goes far beyond the mechanics. He’s more interested in the purpose of endings. Tying up the plot is only a small part of that.

Bringing things to a satisfying conclusion means looking through the novel for moments of character change, and then amplifying them at the last moment. Bell gives examples from stories that work, from Huckleberry Finn to the Maltese Falcon, showing examples of this technique done well. Character change is what gives the ending—and the entire novel—emotional resonance.

Bell also discusses the different kinds of endings. Different genres have different requirements for their endings and one size does not fit all. Sometimes the protagonist wins. Sometimes she loses. Sometimes she wins but at too high a cost. Sometimes she loses one thing but wins another. Bell uses examples of well-known books and movies to illustrate his points. I’m a big fan of well-chosen examples, since that’s how I learn best.

Bell has a short chapter on ending blunders, but does not dwell too much on it, which I also appreciate. It’s important to know what not to do, but instructors need to go beyond that, to teach writers what they should do instead, and Bell really delivers here.

There are numerous ways to get to those magical two words: the end, With THE LAST FIFTY PAGES along as a guide, a writer will get there, and she’ll make herself—and her readers—happy along the way.

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THE LAST FIFTY PAGES 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

Author Your Life by Lara Zielin

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A few years ago, Zielin was in a place that many people get to in the middle of their lives. Things just weren’t working out the way she wanted them to and everything was a struggle. Her finances, her weight, and her relationships were all bad and getting worse, and she was drinking more than she should. She knew she had to do something, but what?

Zielin is the author of several novels and nonfiction books, so naturally she turned to writing as a way out, and AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was born. Every morning, she woke up early and wrote down her life—not as it was, but as she wanted it to be. And slowly, over the course of a year, her real life started to match what was on the page. Not exactly affirmations, not exactly morning pages, Zielin’s journal was more of a roadmap for her soul.

Like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King, AUTHOR YOUR LIFE is part memoir, part instruction. Zielin is honest about her struggles and mistakes. She’s also extremely witty. She’s not some guru dispensing wisdom from on high. She’s a completely relatable middle-class Midwesterner. Zielin could be me. She could be all of us.

AUTHOR YOUR LIFE teaches you to use that awesome writer’s imagination of yours, but instead of visualizing the perfect outcome for your characters, you’ll be visualizing the perfect outcome for yourself. Through specific writing exercises and free-form journaling, Zielin takes you through all the steps needed to create your own happy ever after.

Writing down your ideal life every day won’t magically manifest your goals with no effort on your part. I don’t think there’s any magic involved. But I still think Zielin’s approach is brilliant.

Writing down your ideal life, day after day, forces you to clarify your goals. What do you really want? So many of us say we want to be writers, but don’t do the work that will make it happen. Doing the exercises in AUTHOR YOUR LIFE will force you to get super clear on your goals and see, in black and white, what it will take to get there. As you write, unexpected connections and solutions will come. Working toward your goals then becomes a pleasure, rather than a struggle, because you’ve cleared your own path.

Zielin doesn’t promise miracles. She’s far too smart for that. She promises hard work and struggle and setbacks and also clarity and joy and fun—just like the stories we love so much.

Reading AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was eye-opening and inspiring. I’ve already purchased several of my favorite blank notebooks so I can start telling the story that matters most: my own.

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AUTHOR YOUR LIFE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

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In addition to being a bestselling author, Syme has been a writing coach and productivity teacher for over a decade. She’s seen the same patterns over and over, and seen writers stumble in some very predictable ways. Now Syme has written her coaching philosophy on paper, so anyone not lucky enough to take one of her classes can still benefit from her advice. DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT is not a book about quitting writing. It’s about quitting the bad habits that steal your writing time or make you unhappy.

There is a lot of tough love in this book. Syme has been coaching long enough to have seen every bad habit that writers fall into and she’s here to cut the bullshit—especially the bullshit we tell ourselves.

With chapters titles like “Quit Thinking Facebook is Your Friend” and “Quit Expecting This to Be Easy” and “Quit Fixing the Wrong Problem” you know Syme is not going to sugarcoat anything. She tells writers exactly what they’re doing wrong, exactly why they’re doing it, and how to get out of their own way to get words on the page. She especially wants to destroy the myth that there is a single switch you can flip to magically change your life. There isn’t. You have to do the work.

But even as she’s telling it like it is, Syme’s kindness shines through. Her advice comes from the deep understanding of a writer’s psyche and a sincere desire to help. The advice she gives most often is to “question the premise.” Instead of simply copying other people’s workflow systems, first look within and ask if this is something that will truly fit with the way you’re wired. So many productivity books remove your agency by forcing you into someone else’s box. Syme empowers writers—not by teaching a system, but by teaching writers how to make their own system.

There were a few times that Syme glossed over things, telling writers that if they wanted more information, they should sign up for one of her online classes. I guess that’s to be expected. Her classes are several weeks long and she can’t put it all in one book. However, I do wish DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT stood alone a bit more rather than serving as an introduction to her class.

But about that class? I took Syme’s Write Better Faster class in 2017 and it was the best thing I ever did for my career. I mean it. Before that class, I’d been devouring time-management and productivity books, wondering why all of them worked some of the time but none of them worked all of the time. The answer is that we’re all wired differently, and everyone has a different relationship to time. It’s obvious in retrospect, but it was something I had to be shown, rather than told. Syme’s class helped me find a system that worked for me and I’ve been a happier, more productive writer ever since.

If you can take Syme’s class, do it. If you can’t, DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT will take you a long way on your career path.

You’ll have to go the rest of the way on your own.

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DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT 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.

 

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.