The Write Balance by Bonni Goldberg

THE WRITE BALANCE isn’t a book about how to write. What I mean by that is, it’s not a book about craft issues like plot, character, description, pacing, or dialogue. But it is a book about the writing process. Goldberg ignores the most obvious part of the process—the first draft. There are hundreds of books out there that will teach writers how to write a first draft faster, cleaner, in thirty days, or ninety days, or a year, with or without an outline. Goldberg leaves that to other books.

Instead, she shines a bright light into other, darker corners of the writing process—those that aren’t taught much and often not even mentioned in books and classes. THE WRITE BALANCE is divided into three parts. The first is about percolation, that pre-writing period where ideas are generated. The second is about revision, including on your own and with a critique group. The final part is about going public, which can mean publication, but doesn’t necessarily have to.

Too many writers focus on daily word count, as if that’s the only metric that matters. However, Goldberg devotes fully a third of THE WRITE BALANCE to what she calls percolation. She recognizes that writers are humans, not machines, and that we need quiet thinking time as much as we need butt-in-chair time. However, she doesn’t advocate for mindless woolgathering. Goldberg offers exercises to do and a reasonable timeframe in which to do them.

The middle part of the book is about revision—another thing that gets scant attention in most how-to books. Goldberg discusses the ins and outs of critique groups and beta readers, while constantly reminding writers that their intuition will guide them well if they listen to it.

Finally, Goldberg discusses going public, although her focus is not on rushing immediately to publication. Instead, she talks about taking your time, finding the right publication path, and finding other ways to share stories, whether that is through public readings, open mics, or blogging. Publication can (and should) be in that mix, but there are lots of ways to share what we write.

Throughout, Goldberg shares lessons steeped in empathy. Everything is seen through the lens of how it will nurture or hurt writers. But this isn’t a touchy-feely book full of woo. It’s an extremely practical guide to the areas of a writer’s life that are so often overlooked. Some of us don’t even have words for what we’re doing when we’re percolating. Instead, we call ourselves “lazy” or “procrastinators,” instead of honoring the idea phase of writing.

THE WRITE BALANCE was so insightful, I sometimes felt like Goldberg was sitting in my home office with me. More than once, I whispered to my kindle, “How does she know?” But Goldberg doesn’t see through walls. She’s simply tapped into the universal struggles that all writers share, and she shows us how to make it through all the phases of writing, from first idea to publication.

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THE WRITE BALANCE 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

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to worry about the state of the English language every time I used social media. Faced with a wall of misspellings, incorrect grammar, and wild punctuation, I despaired for my mother tongue. I sometimes reminded myself that until the digital age, public writing was something that professionals did, and we never read printed words from an average person. Perhaps most writing was always terrible, it’s just that we didn’t see most of it. Other times, I worried that nobody cared about the “rules” of writing and we were all doomed to a slow slide into illiteracy.

BECAUSE INTERNET showed me that my assumptions were wrong on all counts. It’s not that people are using English incorrectly, it’s that they’re adapting language to their needs. Until recently, we had formal writing and informal speech.  For example, you’d start a letter to your grandma with “Dear Grandmother,” but when you saw her in person, you’d say, “Hi, Gran!” However, with the rise of social media, for the first time, we have informal writing.

Internet language isn’t incorrect, and it doesn’t signal the end of good grammar. It’s simply a way of expressing the informality of speech in a written format. Nor should we worry about young people being unduly influenced by it. McCulloch sites studies that show that students can easily code-switch into formal writing when required for tests or papers.

BECAUSE INTERNET takes a deep dive into internet language, starting with its history. McCulloch explains why different generations use language differently on the internet. Users are roughly divided by age, but more importantly, by when they first got online. Like all good linguists, McCulloch is descriptive rather than prescriptive, explaining why and how language is changing without ever judging people for it.

Because when it comes right down to it, the way that we write when we’re online makes sense. When we’re face to face, we communicate so much in body language, tone, and facial expressions. Written words don’t express tone of voice, so we sometimes use uppercase for emphasis, or add asterisks or tildes. We use /s to indicate that this is sarcasm or a joke, but we use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters to indicate mockery. We misspell on purpose for humor or to pull out a word, as in, “I allllmost forgot my phone,” or the Tumblr favorite, “sameeee” to indicate absolute agreement.

And when words aren’t enough, we use GIFs to show a facial expression, or turn to emojis. McCulloch gives a detailed explanation of the history and purpose of emojis. They aren’t taking the place of body language, since body language is unconscious. Emojis are deliberate, and therefore represent gestures, such as a thumbs up or a shrug. McCulloch details how and why emojis are used and by whom. (I laughed the first time my mom sent me an emoji. It looked strange because most senior citizens don’t use them.)  

BECAUSE INTERNET is not written in an academic tone. It’s easy to read, sharp, insightful, and quite funny in parts. It gave me new appreciation for the way that language is changing right before our eyes, with the birth of new grammar for the digital age.

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BECAUSE INTERNET can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala

Marketing isn’t something that comes naturally to writers. In fact, many of us are put off by the idea. Some of that is fear of rejection or fear of wasting time and money. But most of it is because the traditional methods of selling just don’t mesh with our personalities. We think of book marketing as something extroverts do, or people who are shameless about tricking buyers, or writers who treat their books like commodities. At the very least, we think successful marketers have an unhealthy obsession with money and sales, and their art suffers for it.

FIREFLY MAGIC upends all of those assumptions about marketing. Sapala shows writers how to sell their books in an authentic way, from a place of integrity and confidence. By thinking of our books as our service to the world, we can sell books without selling out.

Sapala is a student of the Meyers-Briggs personality matrix, and she makes it clear she’s speaking to “INFJ” writers. However, you don’t need to be one of those, or even know what the letters stand for, to benefit from FIREFLY MAGIC. Sapala is speaking to introverted and highly-sensitive people, which means she’s speaking to the vast majority of writers.

Unlike other marketing books that say “do this and get rich,” Sapala understands what’s going on inside writers. She feels those feelings and knows exactly why writers are resistant to marketing. If something feels inauthentic or sleazy or uncomfortable, we won’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing. The middle section of FIREFLY MAGIC lists the things that writers must do to be successful, and they are the very same things that other books tell us to do: get a website, use social media, have a newsletter, find your niche, lead with your unique selling point, and most of all, keep making more content. So if Sapala is telling writers to do the same thing as other marketing books, why is her book so much better? That small mindset shift—from selling to serving—makes all the difference. Other marketing books feel like sitting on a cactus, while FIREFLY MAGIC feels like stepping onto fluffy clouds. Believe it or not, Sapala can make you feel excited about marketing.

FIREFLY MAGIC is very much a “why to” rather than a “how to,” so it’s more of a companion book rather than a complete one. You’ll need other marketing books to learn the actual nuts-and-bolts of how to do it. But reading FIREFLY MAGIC first means you’ll actually be able to absorb the lessons of the other books, making sure you start your marketing efforts on the right foot and maintain them for the long haul.

FIREFLY MAGIC 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

The Writer’s Roadmap by Leigh Shulman

It seems so simple: make a goal, break it down into steps, and follow the steps. That’s been said in hundreds of books. Shulman says that too, but THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is specifically geared toward writers—especially writers who are trying to leave their day jobs to write full time. And Shulman adds a few extra steps and refinements that made me see this timeworn advice in a new light.

The problem is that many authors put “write a book” at the bottom of a long to-do list and wonder why it never gets done. We’re all working as hard as we can every day, but Shulman reminds us that working harder won’t get you anywhere if you’re working on the wrong thing. To keep writers on track, Shulman uses the acronym OGSM (which I kept reading as “orgasm” because I am twelve.) It stands for Objective, Goals, Strategies, and Measures.

Most how-to books start with goals. It seems like a natural place to start. Goals are what we’re working toward, right? But Shulman goes one level higher. What’s the overall objective? What ties your many goals together? What gives your life purpose? It’s almost like you’re writing a mission statement for yourself and your writing.

Only after the overall objective is super clear should you turn to your goals. Goals give you focus and help you find opportunities. THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is full of questions and worksheets to help writers clarify their goals and put them in order.

Strategies are the specific steps taken. These change the most. Many of us get stuck at this step because we think we need to know exactly how to accomplish our goals. But Shulman reminds us that of all the things in an OGSM, the strategies are the most flexible. We learn as we go, and it’s perfectly okay to refine your strategies.

Measures are important too. You either do the thing or you don’t do the thing. You need to keep track so you know for sure that you’ve done the thing. Numbers don’t lie. Shulman also includes short, snappy sidebars about setting boundaries and dealing with money. I really appreciate those because don’t we all struggle with those two issues? But having them as small sidebars feels insufficient when they really need whole chapters.

I think we’re all re-evaluating our goals in 2022. The last two years have been extremely hard, and we’re all looking at our writing goals in new ways. Some writers have scaled back. Some have taken on projects outside their usual genres. Some are exploring new revenue streams. But I don’t know a single writer whose objectives and goals have stayed the same since 2019. THE WRITER’S ROADMAP is a refreshing look at an old topic, and a perfect way to start the new year.

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THE WRITER’S ROADMAP can be found here

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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

Trough of Hell by H.R. d’Costa

Most authors are fired up to write the beginning of their novels. They know how the story starts and are eager to get going on the wonderful story they want to tell. Many authors have an easy time with the ending as well, feeling like they’re coasting downhill to the climax. Then there’s the middle. Somehow, blank pages in the middle of a story are the worst kind of blank pages.

D’Costa specializes in taking a deep dive into one aspect of story, breaking down the story beats into their smallest possible units. TROUGH OF HELL zeroes in on that section about 75% of the way through the story, when things are as bad as they can get.

This is the all-is-lost moment, when the heroine is at her lowest point emotionally. Paradoxically, she’s also the closest to achieving her true goal—perhaps not the one she wants, but the one she needs. But in order to get there, she has to reach rock bottom. Only then, when she’s at her most vulnerable, can she face the truth about herself and change for the better.

D’Costa gets very specific here, showing readers all the ways they can hurt their heroes, and how to evoke true emotions by tailoring them to the story. She gives consideration to different genres, since this story beat plays out differently in comedies and serious stories. She also shows how to use minor characters to make the all-is-lost even more resonant. She wraps it up by discussing ways to avoid cliches, keep the pace from dragging, and make the all-is-lost moment deeper and more meaningful.

D’Costa is a screenwriter, so all the examples are from movies, some of them stretching back to the 1990s. But she never discusses obscure or arty films. All of the examples are from well-known movies, and D’Costa gives enough explanation so you can follow along even if you’ve never seen the film in question. The all-is-lost moment is a vital story beat in both novels and screenplays, with the same emotional job to do, so this concept applies to novels too.

The trough of hell is one of the least fun parts of a novel to write. It’s the moment when we have to be very mean to our imaginary friends. But with a guide like TROUGH OF HELL, writing that section of a novel will be easier, and the author will have the satisfaction of knowing that the terrible trouble she put her heroes in was all worth it.

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TROUGH OF HELL can be found 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

How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet

When people find out that I publish myself, they almost always ask the same question. “How do you market your books?” I tell them that I market my books the same way large publishers do, since nowadays, indie authors have access to almost all the same tools and sales channels the bigger publishers do. That’s usually a satisfactory answer for readers.

Fellow writers, on the other hand, often blurt out a frustrated, “Yes, but how?” Beginning writers want to know the step-by-step method from uploading a book to getting it into readers’ hands. How, exactly, does that work?

HOW TO MARKET A BOOK is a great introduction to this topic, as Fayet covers all the basics in detail. He starts with mindset, that crucial jump an author takes from creator to salesperson. Then he talks about elements of the book itself that will help it to sell—the cover, the blurb, the niche, and endorsements. Only then does he turn to things like sales channels, email lists, and price promotions. Putting things in this order makes sense. There is no use spending time and money trying to market a book that is fundamentally unmarketable.

Fayet then turns to more advanced topics like advertising platforms, audio books, boxed set promotions, understanding Amazon algorithms (as much as anyone can understand Amazon algorithms) and the ever-popular wide vs. exclusive debate. The writing is smooth throughout, with exactly the right amount of depth to serve as a good introduction without being overwhelming. And when you’re ready to go deeper on a particular subject, Fayet offers suggestions for further reading.

Fayet is one of the founders of Reedsy, which is a freelance marketplace that matches service providers (editors, book designers, web designers, etc.) with authors. Many parts of HOW TO MARKET A BOOK sounded like commercials for Reedsy. There is nothing wrong with giving your company a shoutout if you think it does things well, but there were a few times that I felt like I was reading an infomercial rather than a how-to book.

Even taking that huge grain of salt into consideration, I still found HOW TO MARKET A BOOK extremely worthwhile reading. I liked that it didn’t promise shortcuts or “easy” tricks. The suggestions were practical and straightforward in an excellent beginners’ marketing book that will teach the essential skills that every writer should learn.

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HOW TO MARKET A BOOK 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.

From Page to Stage by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

Everyone expects that writers will do a bit of public speaking—book tours for the most successful writers and at least one or two local events for those in the midlist. Authors of books for children are expected to do school visits, speaking to the most demanding audience of all. But in the social media era, opportunities for authors to speak have exploded. Authors are supposed to seek out chances to be on podcasts and Zoom with book clubs and post to their Instagram stories. Staying home and writing just isn’t enough anymore.

Never mind that most authors are introverts who dislike the spotlight. Readers assume that authors who are interesting and dynamic on the page will be equally engaging in real life, even though holding a pen and holding the stage are completely different skillsets.

Fear of public speaking is real, but it’s a lot less scary with FROM PAGE TO STAGE as a guide. Fasbinder is a public speaking coach who specializes in writers, so she has tips tailored to our specific needs. She understands how hard it is to talk about our novels and memoirs, when really, we just want people to read them.

Fasbinder begins by calming writers’ nerves, reminding us that there are lots of rewards for speaking in public. She then provides all the tools necessary, from the blueprint of a perfect talk, to how to stand, how to remain composed, and even how to handle those annoying people who have “more of a comment than a question.” She has tips for using Powerpoint slides, and tips for doing a live reading. She even discusses things like podcast interviews or how to talk about your book one-on-one in casual conversation.

There are exercises at the end of every chapter, although I don’t think they’re necessary. Most of them consist of Fasbinder recommending a TED talk, but watching TED talks doesn’t teach you anything about how to give one. It would have been nice to have some exercises about posture or a practice Q and A. Instead, I figured out what to practice on my own from the excellent information and examples in the book.

FROM PAGE TO STAGE is a gift to authors. It’s filled with concrete advice and actionable steps a writer can take to get better at public speaking. It’s the book we need for the skill that we all need to develop.

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FROM PAGE TO STAGE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wasn’t always Lawrence Block. I mean that figuratively and literally. He wasn’t always a Grand Master of the mystery genre, and he wrote an incredible number of novels under secret pen names before ever putting his own name on a book. A WRITER PREPARES is a memoir of Block’s start, from his earliest writing attempts in high school and college up to the publication of the first novel under his own name.

In the late 1950s, while he was still in college, Block had a job writing rejection letters for the Scott Meredith Agency. It was a fee-charging agency that was very bad for writers but kind of great for Block, since it got him connected to his next job, which was writing short erotic novels. He had contracts with two publishers to deliver a book a month, for which he was paid a flat fee, and he continued doing that for a decade, during which time he got married and had two daughters. He took day jobs here and there, but still wrote erotica on the side until 1966, when he finally started writing crime novels in earnest, starting with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep.

A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block’s conversational style. It’s also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Even the parts that were horrifying, such as the terrible treatment of writers by the Scott Meredith Agency, were hilarious in that whole “laugh so I don’t cry” way. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world.

A WRITER PREPARES might seem like an odd choice for this blog. I’m all about how-to books after all. But Block is a natural teacher, and he’s always giving writing lessons, whether he means to or not. I learned so much from this book—more than I can put in a review—but here’s a small taste.

Agents don’t care about writers or writers’ careers. They care about their own bottom line. The Scott Meredith Agency was particularly scammy, charging authors a reading fee, never sending work out, and lying to authors about their submissions. But are modern agents much better? To agents, writers are interchangeable. It’s not worth going to bat for one writer when there are plenty of others to fleece represent.

Write to market. Block learned this lesson early and well. He wrote his school compositions based on what he thought his teachers wanted, and won an eighth-grade essay contest by extolling the virtues of “Americanism” because he knew the judges were patriotic. His erotic novels were always the exact length and heat level the publisher wanted. He read every back issue of Manhunt he could find to understand what the editor was looking for when he sent them stories. When Block had the idea for The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he sat on it until he was sure he had all the elements for a complete story that would appeal to mystery readers. There is nothing wrong with having original ideas that are wild and fun, but keeping the audience in mind is how a writer gets read.

Practice is never wasted. Block happily admits that he spent his twenties writing crap. All of it was under pen names for low-budget publishers and most of the time, he never saw a copy. But this served as a risk-free apprenticeship that made him the writer he is today. It allowed him to experiment, to pick up new skills, and to practice writing to a deadline. Writing a whole lot of bad fiction is a great way for a writer to learn to write good fiction.

Treat it like a job. Block may have written terrible fiction when he was just starting out, but he wrote a lot of it. He wrote while taking college classes, he wrote while editing the college newspaper, he wrote while working full time at a literary agency. Before he ever sold a word of fiction, he still wrote every day while rejection letters piled up. When he had to quit school and move back home for a semester, he wrote in his childhood bedroom. Block wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t getting paid. He wrote anyway.

Community is important. Block did his best work when surrounded by writers and publishing people. In New York, Block hung out with Donald Westlake, Hal Dresner and Robert Silverberg, and their shoptalk was vital to his success. At one point, Block moved his family to Buffalo to be near his aging mother, and his writing suffered. Pre-internet, a writer had to either live near other writers or write a whole lot of letters. Block tried the latter, but was happier with the former, and moved back to New York as soon as he could.

The book world has changed a lot since the 1950s. Or has it? There are still plenty of very bad literary agents out there, and new writers are strung along by empty promises every day. Writing erotica is different now, but with Kindle Unlimited, there are once again authors serving apprenticeships by publishing a short erotic novel each month. Writing to market is still important, as is not holding too tightly to early work. And no matter what, surrounding yourself with like-minded writers is still the best path to happiness and success.

Reading a writer’s memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It’s a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day.

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A WRITER PREPARES can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Hollywood vs. the Author by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Novelists are fascinated by Hollywood. It’s a dream of many to have our novels turned into movies–to see real people portray characters that once only lived in our heads and hear dialogue that we wrote. Places we dreamed up could appear in real life. If this seems cool to you? Read on.

Schwartz has collected essays from eighteen authors who wrote books that became movies and TV shows. Authors like Lawrence Block (Burglar), Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles) and Michael Connelly (Bosch) give candid reflections on the experience in exacting and often gruesome detail. They tell of lies, misogyny, shady accounting, dirty deals, and more lies. Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes abundantly clear that the author is the least important and least respected member of the team. I read HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR in sick awe. I knew some of this, but I never fully grasped just how awful Hollywood is for writers.

If it’s so bad, and writers know it’s bad, why do they do it? Money, mostly. There is money in Hollywood. Sometimes a lot of it. Jeff Parker (Laguna Heat) tells of a six-month movie option that was five times the advance for his novel. (An option is when a studio has an exclusive look at your work for a period of time.) Many an author has bought a house with movie money. But just as often, a writer loses money on the deal.

There are two ways an author can lose money in Hollywood. The first is when the novelist is hired to write the screenplay. That’s a sucker’s bet. No matter what script is turned in, the studio will demand multiple drafts and ultimately reject it so they can hire their own people. In the meantime, the author has lost a year or more that she could have been writing more novels.

But the other way is worse. Movie studios steal work every single day. But good luck proving it. Tess Gerritsen wrote the novel that became the movie Gravity, as well as most of the screenplay. It was stolen by director Alfonso Cuaron, who put his own name on it. When Gerritsen tried to sue, in what should have been an iron-clad case, she ran up against two truths: Hollywood has deep pockets and local judges don’t rule against the movie industry because Hollywood is basically a company town. Fifty copyright infringement cases were filed in California’s Ninth circuit between 1990 and 2010, and the authors lost their cases every single time.

Even when the process of book adaptation goes well, the author is always disappointed in the movie and never feels like she was respected or listened to. Most often the best an author can hope for is that they don’t lie to her too much and they don’t screw up the book too badly.

Because Hollywood will screw up the book. Every time. Novels and movies are different mediums and there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation. But more than that, producers, directors, and screenwriters don’t want a faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the time, they haven’t even read it. What they’re buying is the idea—basically a one-sentence log line. Movie studios don’t care about an author’s carefully written characters, setting, dialogue and plot. They’d never let a mere book get in the way of their movie.

The second-happiest writers in HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR are the ones who sold the rights to their books, took the money, and then turned their backs on the whole process, sometimes not even watching the movies that got made. The happiest writers are the ones who sold the rights to books that never got made into movies at all.

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HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

This book is best for: all authors

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I recommend this book

Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner

I don’t think you can finish a novel by writing only ten minutes a day. And despite the title of TEN MINUTE AUTHOR, Partner doesn’t think so either. But I can forgive the gimmicky title because if he’d called it something like How to Develop a Writing Habit, nobody would buy it.

Which is sad because an unshakable writing habit is crucial for writers, and it’s the one thing that separates career authors from wannabes. Writers write—as often as they can for as long as they can, and most full-time authors write every day.

The amount of time isn’t important. The habit is. Partner assumes that once the ten minutes is over, you will already be “in the zone” and will continue writing. But even if you stop after ten minutes, as long as you do it again the next day, and the next, the habit will begin to take form and writing sessions will naturally lengthen.

TEN MINUTE AUTHOR contains a smattering of neuroscience, a whole lot of cheerleading, and a massive dose of common sense. Partner goes into details of why the method works and how to implement it using environmental cues, sandwiching writing between two existing habits, setting a timer, and rewarding yourself after each writing session.

Even better, cutting writing sessions down to such a tiny size means there is literally no excuse not to get to the keyboard. Anyone who honestly can’t write for ten minutes a day should probably not be setting her sights on a writing career at this time.

But actually following through with an unbroken chain of daily writing sessions is a career in the making, and TEN MINUTE AUTHOR is an excellent step-by-step guide to getting it done.

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TEN MINUTE AUTHOR 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