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.

 

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