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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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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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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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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I recommend this book.

Discover Your Brand by Emlyn Chand

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Many novelists resist the idea of author branding. “I’m a person, not a brand,” one might say. Or, “my writing is too creative to fit into a small box.” As a publicist, Chand has heard those reactions, but she’s quick to reassure writers that finding your brand isn’t about changing what you write just to sell books or win awards. Nor is it selling out your vision or writing the same book over and over.

Finding your brand is simply a shorthand way to tell potential readers the kind of book you write, and making sure you’re marketing your book to the readers who are interested in it. In a crowded marketplace, it’s essential to stand out, and having a consistent brand is the best way to guide the right readers to your books.

But how do you do that? I’ve read many marketing books that tell writers to “picture your ideal reader,” without helping you identify who that reader might be. But DISCOVER YOUR BRAND is full of ingenious exercises to tease out the answer. There are ways to find your books’ common denominator, discover the key things that readers of your genre are looking for, (and what they aren’t) and let readers know what they can find between the covers of your books.

The weakest part of DISCOVER YOUR BRAND is the chapter on finding your genre. It’s meant to be interactive, and by answering a few key questions, Chand promises to tell you the exact genre you’re writing. But the questions are vague, as are the categories. Most writers don’t need help figuring out if they’re writing romance or science fiction or fantasy. Writers do often need help teasing out the subgenres their books are in, since there’s a big difference between hardboiled and cozy mysteries, or cyberpunk and space opera. But Chand ignores subgenres altogether, so I’m not sure what the point of the chapter even is.

But once past that hurdle, Chand helps authors zero in on what truly defines their books. She guides you through the process of discovering what’s unique about you and your novels, and shows you how to wrap it all up in a carefully chosen phrase that tells readers at a glance what you’re all about.

Author branding, ultimately, is about making a promise to the reader and then keeping that promise. By telling the reader upfront what kind of book you are offering in a memorable way, you are helping to attract the exact readers you are looking for, because those readers are also looking for you.

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DISCOVER YOUR BRAND 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.

 

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

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Most of us get up several hours before our workday starts, we rush around getting ourselves and our family ready for the day, we commute to work, then breathe a sigh of relief that we made it and take a moment for a cup of coffee at our desk or in the break room, savoring the first true “me time” of the day.

Vanderkam says it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we reversed the order of things and had our “me time” first? Much like the advice to pay yourself first before your salary is spent on non-essentials, getting up a bit earlier or rearranging our morning schedule can help us do the truly meaningful things in our lives, not just the necessary.

Anyone can do a task when a boss wants results or client’s deadline is looming. But doing a task that only matters to us (like writing a book) is harder. Beginning writers are not rewarded for writing, and most labor for years with no outside support at all. However, new research has shown that difficult tasks that require intrinsic motivation are easier when done first thing in the morning. Vanderkam suggests that this is perfect thing to concentrate on before breakfast. Activities that represent our highest goals, but that the world does not reward, are best undertaken before we are interrupted, undermined, and rescheduled.

There are a lot of concrete suggestions in this small ebook for managing your new routine, but it all comes down to making those morning rituals a habit. However, WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO BEFORE BREAKFAST is not only for morning people. Vanderkam talks a lot about getting up early, but truly, it’s not about when you rise, but how you prioritize your day. It’s about using those first hours productively, whether they come before dawn or not.

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WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO BEFORE BREAKFAST can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

 

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I recommend this book

Writing in Flow by Susan K. Perry

 

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Writers love to get lost in their work. There is something so satisfying about being fully inside the story, where we’re at the top of our creative game and each word follows effortlessly from the last. When we’re in this state, the rest of the world disappears and we lose track of time. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” Artists call it flow—a word used by the famous researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We’ve all experienced it at least once. Most of us would like to experience it more.

Perry has some good news for us. Achieving flow is not accidental. We don’t have to wait for the muses to show up and grace us with that blissful state. We can deliberately court it. Perry shows us how, with research interspersed with quotes from over seventy working novelists and poets.

Perry gives us five tricks—she calls them keys—to getting into flow. 1.) Have a compelling reason to write. 2.) Take risks and try new things to increase your confidence as a writer. 3.) Loosen up. 4.) focus fully on the writing. 5.) Let go of judgment.

WRITING IN FLOW helped me understand my own writing process. Now I know why short writing sessions don’t work for me. I can get twice as much done in one two-hour block than I can in four half hour blocks, even though it’s the same length of time. I spend a long time getting the first two hundred words written, but after that, something shifts and I take off. Now that I’ve read WRITING IN FLOW, I will relax a bit when those first couple of paragraphs are a mighty struggle. If I just stick with it, flow is right around the corner.

I enjoyed the snippets of interviews that Perry included, but they tended to bog down the narrative at times. It was nice to see the mix of perspectives, although sometimes she quotes four or five authors in a row all making the same point. Also, the reader should know that the first half of the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Perry wants writers to fully understand flow before trying to induce it. But that isn’t all bad. Understanding flow helps us to recognize it when we see it and court it more regularly.

Being in flow is more than just “letting go” or “listening to the muses.” Perry reminds us that flow only happens when we are working at the top of our abilities. She’s trying to get writers to use both the creative and the analytical sides of their brains. It’s only when they work hand in hand can we achieve greatness in our writing, and enjoy doing so.

WRITING IN FLOW 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