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

 

I Can’t Believe You Asked That by Phillip J. Milano

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I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT started as an online forum. Milano’s idea was to let people ask anything they wanted to know about the “other,” whether that meant race, age, sex, or class. He posted the questions and let people answer honestly, based on their experience. At the end, an expert weighed in, giving scientific research, statistics, and sometimes a reality check.

Because this is an edited version of the forum, the result is amazingly respectful. There are no racist attacks, no flame wars, no trolls or ugly politics. And the answers are wonderfully fearless. As humans, we are desperate to talk to one another, to try to understand, and admitting we don’t know something is a great first step.

The questions themselves are almost as illuminating as the answers, since they show the innate assumptions and prejudices of the people asking. An anonymous forum removes the burden of decorum, and people reveal what’s really on their minds.

Some of my favorite questions were things like, “Why are people in the Midwest assumed to be boring, uncultured idiots?” and “Why do so many gay men love The Wizard of Oz?” and “Why do Christian shows feature people with really big hair and lots of makeup?” and “Do white people really wash their hair every day?” There are also touchier questions about sex, race, disabilities, and culture clashes. It’s definitely a book for adults only, but those of us mature enough to handle it will come away surprised and enlightened.

I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT would be a great starting point for any writer hoping to expand their cast of characters in a realistic, respectful way. “Writing the other” is full of perils, and reading one book is no substitute for research, talking to people, and honestly engaging a world not your own. But sometimes we don’t even know what we don’t know, and stupid assumptions get in the way. Milano provides a safe, first step to breaking down some of those barriers in an entertaining package that a writer can keep on the shelf and refer to often.

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I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book.

Hit Lit by James W. Hall

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HIT LIT examines twelve mega-bestsellers of the twentieth century, showing what they have in common, and why they sold millions of copies. These are books that broke out on their own: not because of the author’s name (many were first novels) and not because of the movies made from them (the movies all came later). These books spent weeks and years on the bestseller lists because there was something in them that spoke to a huge number of people. Hall sets out to discover exactly what it is.

Hall has chosen his twelve books carefully, starting with Gone with the Wind in 1936 and ending with The Da Vinci Code in 2003. He also examines Jaws, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Exorcist, The Hunt for Red October, The Godfather, The Bridges of Madison County, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, The Dead Zone and The Firm.

By reading these books deeply and critically, analyzing them the exact same way he’d analyze classic literature, Hall has identified twelve key factors that all bestsellers have in common.

Every single one of them deals with fractured families. Each one focuses on a small story played out against a huge backdrop, such as one defecting submarine captain played out against the entire cold war. They cover hot-button issues that reflect our national psyche. They all have intricately described worlds (such as the Civil War south or the inner workings of a law firm or the details of a mafia family) that are so well-described we feel like we’ve been there. Each book also deals with sex and religion in some way.

The books are also fast-paced, emotionally charged, and have prose that is rather plain. There are some exceptions to Hall’s rules, but aren’t there always exceptions? Sometimes his insistence that all twelve books share all twelve elements was a stretch, but overall, his arguments were sound. I found myself thinking about more modern-day bestsellers such as The Martian and The Kite Runner, and darned if they didn’t check all the boxes, too.

That’s not to say that one could reverse-engineer a bestseller out of Hall’s rules, and he cautions writers against trying it. Any writer looking for a shortcut here will be disappointed. The books on the bestseller list have a sincerity to them that can’t be faked.

But that’s beside the point. HIT LIT is just plain fun to read, with insights on every page. HIT LIT teaches you how to be a more critical reader, even of the books critics dismiss. Hall likes these books, and treats them with respect, explaining them on a deep level that makes you want to read (or re-read) them all.

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HIT LIT 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: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Contagious by Jonah Berger

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Word of mouth is always more effective than advertising, and that is especially true when it comes to books. We’re much more likely to read a novel based on a friend’s recommendation than an ad. And if everyone we know is reading a particular book, we want to read it, too. But as authors, how do we get that buzz started?

Berger says there are six things that will get people talking about your product and what it does. Social currency is the most important. Does it make people feel cool when they discuss this thing? The second is triggers. People need a reason to talk about it. Emotion is a big factor. We need to be fired up about something in order to start talking about it, because who wants to share something boring?

Things have to be public to influence behavior. Think of those “I voted” stickers as an example. The product or information also has to have practical value. People want to help people by sharing tips. And finally, things go viral when they have an interesting story attached. Everyone loved the “United Breaks Guitars” video because it told a gripping story. To create buzz, things don’t need all six factors, but the more they have, the more likely they are to go viral.

All of this might seem simple, even obvious, but that’s what’s great about CONTAGIOUS. Berger is able to take complex subjects and explain their conclusions in snappy summaries, using interesting examples. Berger has done all the research, and he offers insight as to why things have already gone viral.

However, he doesn’t tell you how to use these insights yourself. There are no step-by-step instructions here. That’s because each product is unique. But if you understand the principles and see why they work, you should be able to apply them to your own situation. Of course, there’s no guarantee that incorporating all six factors into your marketing will make your content viral, but it certainly ups the odds.

CONTAGIOUS isn’t a how-to book for writers. Berger was speaking more to companies with everyday products to sell. Even so, he has already changed the way I share information about my novels. I also get why some of my blog posts and social media updates were widely shared but did not lead to book sales. The content was fine on its own, but never tied directly to my novels.

Even though it wasn’t written for fiction writers, I found CONTAGIOUS a very useful book. Berger shows that you don’t need a huge budget or “social mavens” to create buzz. You just need some creativity and a good handle on why some things are—or can be made—contagious.

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CONTAGIOUS can be found here.

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rating: 4 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices business

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I recommend this book.