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

 

 

Write for Your Life by Lawrence Block

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I first read a borrowed copy of WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE about ten years ago. I returned the book as quickly as possible, disturbed by the huge amount of woo. Even the author himself says it’s a bit over-the-top. In the introduction to the new edition, Block says, “…the tone of the book is more Gee Whiz than I’m comfortable with sixteen years later. It would take a lot of work to tone that down, and it might very well be to the book’s detriment.”

At the time of my first reading, I was of the work harder, not smarter camp. Somehow, I thought if I wasn’t beating myself up, I wasn’t a real writer. Plus, I had another problem. Block wanted me to face my fears head-on—something I wasn’t prepared to do. I set aside WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE and turned to Block’s other how-to books, which are about the nuts and bolts of writing craft (much safer territory for me).

But a funny thing happened on the way to 2015 and re-reading this book. I became a pro writer. And wouldn’t you know it, I was already doing most of the things Block suggested. I had overcome the mental traps that hold writers back. I was working happily and productively day after day.

I don’t know if I subconsciously put all of Block’s advice into practice in the last decade, or if I discovered these things on my own. All I know is, this time, WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE didn’t seem full of woo. It seemed full of truth.

WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE is based on a series of seminars Block and his wife conducted, but it’s not like any seminar I’ve ever attended. There is less hyperbole and cheerleading, more action steps and practical advice to get out of your own way and start writing.

Block teaches techniques like freewriting to outrun your internal editor, tapping into your intuition to produce unique work, using affirmations to increase self-esteem, and getting rid of negative thoughts to banish procrastination and writer’s block. That last one is hard to do and Block approaches it from different angles over the course of several chapters. Humans are extremely good at sabotaging our own efforts. Coming up with justifications for staying stuck is as natural as breathing. Block shows us how to root out the self-deception until those words and beliefs no longer have power over us.

Much of WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE will be familiar to anyone who has studied neuro-linguistic programming (or has done The Artist’s Way). Block makes no claim to originality, except that he’s tailoring these practices specifically to writers. Of course he wants you to use things like affirmations, meditation, and bucket lists, because they work. One need look no further than Block’s own publishing history and impressive list of literary awards to see that. He’s learned how to do more writing with less angst, and he wants to show the rest of us how to do it, too.

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WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE 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.

Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell


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For years, Morrell was a college professor by day and wrote bestselling thrillers at night. His love of teaching comes through in LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, but reading it does not feel like a lecture. It’s more like sitting down with a mentor over a beer while he talks about the business. Everything Morrell says is from his own experience, and he’s experienced more than most. But like the professor he once was, he takes his teaching duty seriously. He does not talk down to students. He understands their concerns. LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING covers everything from starting a novel to selling the finished product.

Much like Stephen King’s ON WRITING, this is part memoir, part how-to. Morrell discusses his troubled childhood of poverty, and how he was practically raised by television, until one particular TV show made him want to be a writer. But it’s not just self-indulgent navel gazing. Morrell shows us the lessons he learned along the way, and how he achieved success (mostly by working his butt off).

As for instruction, Morrell starts where most how-to books leave off. He begins by asking, “why write?” It’s not an abstract question at all. Clarifying why we’re doing this makes everything else easier. He then takes writers step-by-step through elements of the craft, including plot, character, viewpoint, dialogue, and description. He ends with a firsthand account of selling his novel FIRST BLOOD to Hollywood (which became the move Rambo).

The business side of writing has changed tremendously in the dozen years since LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING was written. So—through no fault of the author—this is the weakest part of the book. Even so, Morrell’s insights into how big publishing works and what to watch for in contracts is still valuable to writers taking that path, and his story of selling Rambo/First Blood was a real eye-opener.

Even though Morrell hasn’t taught in a classroom for many years, he’s still a very good teacher. I’m glad he’s taken his lessons from the classroom to the page, so that anyone can learn what he has to teach.

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LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING 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.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers

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Writing is my favorite thing. If anyone asks me why I write, the answer is always the same. “Because it’s fun!” I get to write down the pictures in my head, and if I’ve done my job correctly, those same pictures appear in someone else’s head. How cool is that?

Heather Sellers feels the same way. She wants her students to “create a writing life where the writing process itself is so enchanting and delicious, you want to write….It’s not work. It’s not tedious or punishing. It’s what you do.” But she also knows that few writers achieve that happy state. Instead, we get bogged down in rules, word-count wars, and “discipline,” which many writers claim they need to do their best work.

But why not approach writing like a lover? PAGE AFTER PAGE suggests that writers do exactly that. No one needs discipline to spend time with those we love.

Sellers is more than a cheerleader. She has solid advice for living a writer’s best life. PAGE AFTER PAGE is divided into three sections. The first section is about the mindset and habits that will serve a writer well. Sellers has suggestions for getting started, keeping the butt in the chair, and keeping other voices (like those of our parents) out of our heads. The second section is about staying with it for the long haul, putting in as much time as possible to produce your best work. The third section is about meeting others in the larger world of writing: mentors, peers, and editors. Throughout, Sellers’ tone is gentle, even humorous, with plenty of examples.

Sellers is also realistic. She knows that writing–like any skill we want to master–takes effort. There are days that putting one word after another is a tedious slog. Sellers doesn’t pretend otherwise and has strategies to help. But she also shares an uncomfortable truth that few how-to books will. If writing is always more of a struggle than a joy for you, perhaps you’re not meant to be a writer. And that’s okay! Not everyone enjoys it.

But if you love to write as much as Heather Sellers does, and you can’t wait to live the writer’s life, then PAGE AFTER PAGE is for you.

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PAGE AFTER PAGE 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.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

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THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS is such a violent title for such a gentle book. I expected it to be an expansion of Sun Tzu’s THE ART OF WAR, perhaps showing how the famous general’s strategies and philosophies could be applied to the writing life. However, except for a few choice quotes, Bell ignores Sun Tzu’s book. Instead, he offers writers short, easy lessons on things like staying motivated, finishing what you start, keeping a journal, and writing solid scenes. Unlike Sun Tzu, who treated people like pawns and his generals like idiots, Bell respects writers. He tells the truth, but always wrapped in encouragement and love of the craft.

THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS is divided into three sections. The first is called “Reconnaissance.” Here, Bell talks about the writer’s lifestyle, giving advice on discipline, staying on schedule, ignoring the competition, and keeping your ego in check.

The next section, “Tactics,” is about the craft of writing, from premise to final polish. Bell examines all the expected topics like point of view, dialogue, pacing, characterization, and exposition.

The last section is called “Strategy,” where Bell discusses the basics of writing for publication: networking, finding an agent, writing a synopsis, and handling rejection. Combined, these three sections cover just about anything a beginning writer needs to know about how to write a book and get it published.

I enjoyed THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS a lot, but I kept coming back to the gimmicky title. Calling something “The Art of War” assumes that there’s an enemy to fight. But who is the writer’s enemy? Agents and editors are our allies, and our readers are our comrades-in-arms, helping us achieve our dreams. Nor is the book the enemy, as some writers seem to think.

A writer’s enemy can be found only one place: the mirror. When starting a writing career, we are our own worst enemies. Bell wants all writers to overcome their own self-defeating behaviors. Armed with THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, writers will emerge victorious with the spoils of war (a finished novel) in hand.

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THE ART OF WAR 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.

My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter

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MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY is a book that speaks to writers at all levels of craft. It’s meant for screenwriters, but novelists will benefit from it as well. Schechter shares ten lessons about screenwriting, with the emphasis on what works, rather than just a list of no-no’s.

Schechter starts with the big secret that beginning writers (and some advanced ones) don’t like to hear: all stories share a structure, writers need to learn it, and it will feel more like engineering than art at first. This won’t sit well with those who “just want to write” or “go where the characters take me.” But I’d urge even the most plot-phobic writers to give MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY a try. Schechter’s clear instruction and exuberant tone might just win you over.

Once the foundation is in place, Schechter takes writers beyond simple structure into theme and character. He explains why heroes have to be active and the key ways a hero must change over the course of the story. He explains antagonists and their motives, and how these two principal characters reveal the theme through their struggle. I especially liked this part. Understanding theory is one thing, but getting all those elements onto the page is another. MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY helps writers leap across that chasm.

One thing about this book bothered me. Sexist chapter titles like “Your Bad Guy Punches Like My Sister” and “I Can Pitch, You Throw Like a Girl” were so unnecessary (and yet, so typically Hollywood). I’m going to knock an entire star off what would otherwise be a 5-star review, because there is really no excuse for that. I wish Schechter had come up with more clever and inclusive chapter titles.

MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY is great for beginners because Schechter gets right down to the nitty-gritty without any filler. He uses examples from the same handful of movies (Star Wars, The Dark Knight, Up) so you can understand how all the different parts work together. But it’s also good for more advanced writers who have read dozens of craft books. Even if you already know most of the information, the way it’s so elegantly pulled together and clearly explained is a beautiful thing to behold.

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MY STORY CAN BEAT UP YOUR STORY 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.