Outlining Your Novel Workbook by K.M. Weiland

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A novel is too big to hold in your head all at once, especially if its a novel you haven’t written yet. Even if you’re able to keep track of a basic beginning/middle/end plot, you also have to consider character, theme, setting, backstory, voice, and a dozen other things. Even “pantsers” who never outline take notes along the way.

Any writer who is feeling overwhelmed by the size and scope of a novel (read: all of us) can benefit from OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK. Weiland’s previous book, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL, taught writers how to make a useful outline. This one takes writers step-by-step through the process with exercises and questions. By doing the exercises, a writer will have every essential piece they need to write a complete and engaging novel.

Weiland starts with the premise. She then takes writers through envisioning the big scenes, drops back for character sketches and setting ideas, then moves ahead into a detailed scene-by-scene outline. This organization mimics my own process perfectly, although every writer is different and Weiland encourages them to skip around if they want, or drop sections that don’t make sense for their books.

In fact, Weiland emphasizes that a good outline is whatever works for the writer. Even if a writer only did some of the exercises, or altered them to fit, OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK provides enough questions to make sure a writer is thinking deeply about her novel, and enough structure to be sure she can complete it.

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OUTLINING YOUR NOVEL WORKBOOK 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.

105 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block by Justin Arnold

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I’m not a person who believes in writer’s block. I have never faced a blank page I couldn’t conquer, and I’m not afraid to write garbage to clean up in later drafts. But I found 105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK valuable anyway. It’s not a book of games or meaningless exercises. It’s full of practical things that I can use even when the words are flowing freely.

Most blocks are caused by writers trying to edit while they write. It’s impossible to do and therefore the writer doesn’t produce anything. Most of Arnold’s tips are designed to distract or defeat the internal editor so the creative side of the writer can get to work. Some of the tips are well-worn, like playing music or having word-count goals. Some were new to me, like imagining a celebrity narrating your book, or writing very long or very short sentences, to shake up your usual thought patterns.

Arnold also wants writers to pay attention to our general health. It’s easier to write when you’ve had an adequate supply of fresh air, exercise, sleep, and food. Arnold advocates outdoor walks, good sleep habits, and lots of tea. Many of his tips involve doing this or that while waiting for the kettle to boil or the tea to steep.

I liked the format of the book, with the tip in bold, followed by a longer explanation of why each idea works. However, it would have been nice to have a table of contents to find a particular idea. The book is called 105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK, but there are probably only fifty unique tips in this book. After all, there isn’t much difference between “write a postcard to your character” and “write a memo to your character.”

Although I don’t need any help busting writer’s block, I still found this book useful and rather fun. I’ll use some of Arnold’s ideas to freshen up my prose, hone my writing skills, and keep my internal editor at bay.

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105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK 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.

How to Develop Story Tension by Amy Deardon

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HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION is a short book, but it is by no means slight. Deardon gets straight to the point, starting off with a solid explanation of why stories need tension and how to get it. The thirteen techniques are all explained with concise examples that show them in action. Beginning writers will want to stop reading after every chapter to take notes and apply Deardon’s examples to their own work. Experienced writers can use it as a checklist to make sure they’ve kept the tension high and are using a variety of techniques instead of their favorite one or two.

Deardon clearly explains the difference between tension and stakes. Stakes are why the story is important, why the hero must achieve his goal. The tension is the paragraph-by-paragraph events the hero is going through. Story stakes make the reader pick up the book in the first place, but tension will force readers to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Beginning writers love to have their heroes sit still and think about their problems. But that’s the quickest way to stop a story. Better to have the hero actively trying to solve the problem, and the more obstacles that keep him from that goal, the better.

Some of the techniques in HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION are self-explanatory, like the ticking clock and closing off options. Others are more subtle, like using a mirror character to demonstrate danger and adding an incentive for not completing the goal. If the hero has motives to both complete and not complete the goal, the reader will race through the book to see which way he decides to go.

HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION ends with an explanation of the scene—sequel technique that helps move the story forward while making sure it contains emotional richness. With Deardon’s tips, and her template for a perfect scene, every writer can learn how to write a story that will keep readers’ attention until the very last page.

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HOW TO DEVELOP STORY TENSION 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

Writing the Fiction Synopsis by Pam McCutcheon

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Synopses are evil little demons. To sum up an entire novel in one page seems both wrong and somehow disloyal to the book. But it’s a skill every working novelist needs. I’ve taught myself how to write clear, compelling synopses and I teach others how to do it. But I’ve never learned to like them.

Oh, how I wish I’d read WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS early in my career. McCutcheon has a remarkable way of deconstructing the synopsis that makes the process nearly painless. She shows what to put in, what to leave out, and how to stay true to the novel while summarizing it in a short space. She includes helpful worksheets showing characters and their motivations, plots and their turning points, and even the target market. If a writer faithfully fills out the worksheets, the synopsis is practically written for her. More importantly, the worksheets will help her see her novel in perfect miniature.

My only criticism of this book (and it’s a minor one) is that McCutcheon uses movies instead of books as her examples. I fully understand why she did it, though. Movies are a sort of shorthand for novels, where you can see the turning points and big scenes more clearly. Also, movies feel like common ground. More people will see a popular movie than read a popular book. Still, I wish McCutcheon had used at least one book as an example, perhaps a character-driven piece of literary fiction, just to show that her method works for all kinds of stories.

I don’t know if any writer will truly enjoy writing a synopsis, but with WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS at your side, you can at least tame the little demon, and make it behave as it should.

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WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS 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.

On Writing by Stephen King

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It took me a long time to write this review, even though I’ve read ON WRITING three times. I read it once as a new writer, again after I’d been writing for several years, and again recently as a multi-published author. I enjoyed it immensely each time, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked it so much and why I kept coming back to it. ON WRITING has two parts. The first is sort of a memoir: unconnected snippets from King’s early life and his path to publication. I found it inspiring, but King is so far beyond my level it’s like reading the autobiography of Odin or Zeus. The second part is extremely basic how-to advice that boils down to, “read a lot, write a lot.” So what was the appeal?

I think what drew me to this book was its honesty. These are answers to questions King gets asked over and over by fans. What they really want to know is, “how do you do it?” The truth is, King doesn’t know how he does it. No writer truly does. He only knows where he came from and what experiences led him down the writing path, so he shares those memorable moments, even the ugly ones. It’s helpful to remember that even Stephen King wasn’t always Stephen King. He struggled in obscurity for years, living in a run-down trailer and selling small stories to small magazines for small money.

The second, shorter, part of ON WRITING is King’s advice to writers. There aren’t any new, different, or ground-breaking tips here, just the solid techniques that have served writers forever. There are very few universal rules, and those are very basic (for example: character and situation > plot). King knows himself and his habits, and understands that what he needs for a productive writing day is a huge desk and many uninterrupted hours. But that’s just him. Other writers need other things.

King is a working writer, treating the craft with practicality rather than reverence. He’s a blue-collar working man engaging in shop talk, even referring to writing techniques as “the toolbox.” King loves what he does and it shows, but he’s never precious about it. This is simply who he is: a writer who writes. And he makes me believe that I can be one, too. That, I think, is the magic of ON WRITING and why I’ve read it so many times.

ON WRITING 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

You’ve Got a Book In You by Elizabeth Sims

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YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU came highly recommended by a fellow writer. I’m glad someone told me about this delightful book because I wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. The title and cover made it seem like it would be heavy on inspiration and light on instruction. But Sims does an admirable job of covering the basics of plotting, dialog, characterization and pacing. There’s cheerleading aplenty, too, but it’s wrapped so tightly with good solid advice that the whole book reads like a down-to-Earth best friend telling it like it is.

YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is divided into three sections. The first is about the writer’s mindset, getting ready to write. There’s an adjustment period for any new writer as they develop new habits, and Sims has common-sense ideas for getting started. The short middle section is about craft. Sims touches briefly on characterization, theme, and outlining. The final part is a mix of advice and exercises to keep the words flowing. I especially liked “How to Write Unboringly About Yourself,” with advice for bloggers and memoir writers and “Living with Your Book and Driving it to Completion,” about sticking with it through the year or more it takes to write a novel.

Taken all together, YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is writer 101. It’s everything new writers need to know and none of what they don’t. Each chapter ends with action items, leading writers logically on to the next step.

Throughout, Sims lets new writers in on a secret: writing is fun. And it will say fun as long as you get out of your own way and let things flow. She compares writing to improv. The best things come when you say “Yes, and…” instead of “Yeah, but…” With Sims as their guide, beginners will be well on their way to a solid first draft.

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YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU 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

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn

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Going commando under skirts is not a new thing. In fact, women didn’t start wearing underpants until well into the 19th century. This is one of the facts I learned from MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS. I also learned about food, language, firearms, inherited titles, coinage, burial customs, and many other things, all while being entertained by Alleyn’s lively examples and gentle humor. Writers of historical fiction owe it to the reader to get their facts right. Alleyn shows them how.

MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS isn’t an exhaustive encyclopedia. It’s a jumping off point. Alleyn points out the most common errors she sees in historical fiction, and then shows writers how to fix them. Her focus is on European history, but the principles can be applied to any place or era. Alleyn gives common sense rules such as “never assume,” and “do not borrow your period details and information from other people’s historical novels and movies.” These rules seem like no-brainers, but we’ve all seen the results of writers breaking them, especially in Hollywood.

A writer could do a lot of quality research and still get facts wrong if she’s looking at history through a modern lens. Alleyn gives a very telling example of a 16th century fruit platter piled high with strawberries, peaches, and grapes. What’s wrong with that picture? Although those fruits were grown in Europe, they were not all available in the same season. Alleyn does a wonderful job of piercing through our assumptions (year-round fresh produce requires modern shipping and refrigeration) making the writer slow down and think before giving characters things they couldn’t possibly have.

MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS ends with a large bibliography as well as some tips for internet searches and some advice for research in general. A writer of historical fiction could spend many happy hours with Alleyn’s suggested titles. By following Alleyn’s guidelines (“look it up!”) a writer will give her readers many happy hours as well.

[Note: I bought MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS in ebook format, and I’m glad I did. It’s superbly formatted (rare for non-fiction ebooks) with everything properly hyperlinked, including the footnotes. It made the book even more of a pleasure to read, knowing I could always find what I’m looking for.]

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MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS AND OTHER BLUNDERS 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

2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron

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Writing several thousand words a day is something my “pantser” friends achieve regularly. Those who write without an outline find it easy to open the computer and just write. For pantsers, the solution to a creative block is to keep writing, knowing the narrative will work itself out. And if it doesn’t, there are always revisions.

Until I read 2,000 TO 10,000 I assumed that fast writing was something only pantsers did. But Aaron busts the myth that pantsers write quickly and plotters write slowly. She details the exact method she used to increase her daily word count from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. Now those of us in the “plotter” camp have the tools we need to write quickly, too.

The core of Aaron’s method is to make sure you have the time, knowledge, and enthusiasm to write. Aaron schedules huge blocks of writing time, but even if you can’t manage that, figuring out when you are the most productive, and keeping track of word counts really helps. Knowledge refers to having a plan in place for that day’s writing by pre-plotting with an outline. Enthusiasm is self-explanatory. We all write faster when we’re excited about what’s on the page.

The second half of the book delves into the nitty-gritty of Aaron’s plotting methods. She makes very detailed outlines that serve her well, and ensures her novels need less editing on the back end.

Aaron gives plenty of disclaimers all through the book. Her method works brilliantly for her, but it might not work for everyone. That’s okay. She gives so many tools and tips, every writer will get something from her advice. Even if a writer only finds half of Aaron’s tips useful and only increases her productivity a little bit, she’s got her money’s worth from the book. But I predict that every writer who reads 2,000 TO 10,000 will start to write faster—and better—than she ever did before.

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2,000 TO 10,000 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

 

Emotional Structure: Creating the Story Beneath the Plot by Peter Dunne

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EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is a book for screenwriters, but it is equally valuable for novelists. In it, Dunne explains why the underlying emotional arc (what he calls the “story”) is so much more important than the surface plot. In fact, he claims that plot only exists to reveal character. While I wouldn’t go that far, I think that Dunne at least has the order right. Readers and movie audiences are always more concerned with the decisions, motivations, and growth of the hero than anything that happens to him. Without character change, a plot will be hollow, and the audience won’t care.

Some writers start with a plot, writing an action-fueled story, taking the hero’s inner life for granted or tacking it on later. But the author would be better served by first deciding what emotional change they are going to put the hero through. The writer can then carefully craft a plot around that change. Plot is extremely flexible, while character growth is absolute.

Dunne takes writer through the three acts of a movie (or novel), paying special attention to act two. If you have trouble with “sagging middles,” EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is for you. Dunne uses examples from movies like Witness, Lost in Translation, and The Professional to illustrate his points. Less helpful is Dunne’s inclusion of his own script, called Indiscretion. It’s hard to get useful lessons from a movie we’ve never seen. But even if you decline to read Dunne’s script, the rest of the book is well worth the price of admission.

EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE is a long book, dense with information, and it’s best read slowly. Don’t be intimidated by its length, though. If you’re an experienced writer, you’ll find that much of what Dunne is telling you do, you’ve already done. A lot of his advice is obvious, but only in hindsight. Dunne makes it overt, so you can see all the good that’s there, and hopefully, do more of it.

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EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE can be found here.

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rating: 4 stars

 

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book

Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall

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I love a good action scene. It’s one of my favorite things to read as well as to write, and I’m always looking at ways to improve mine. Fight scenes are complex and rather tricky, but Hall breaks the scenes down into their components and shows how to put an effective one together. She makes it doable for a novice writer, but even a seasoned pro could learn a few tips from WRITING FIGHT SCENES.

Fight scenes serve different purposes. Hall classifies fight scenes into two types: entertaining and gritty. In entertaining fight scenes, the scene itself is the point, the more detailed the better. Gritty fight scenes are focused more on the suspenseful build up and the horrible aftermath than the fight itself. Which one you use depends on the genre. This is something that writers might instinctively know, but it’s great to have the reasons for the two types spelled out.

Hall covers different kinds of weapons, how men and women fight differently, and how groups fight. She also details things like armor, nautical battles, and fights involving magic or animals. However, I wish she’d given written examples of each of these instead of listing endless links to Youtube. Watching movie clips only teaches you how to watch a fight, not how to write one. Each chapter ends with a helpful list of common blunders. (You can bet I’m checking my manuscripts for these right now.)

I learned a tremendous amount of new information from WRITING FIGHT SCENES and it pointed me to avenues for further research. I’ll keep it close by when writing my next book, which will be full of characters fighting the right way.

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WRITING FIGHT SCENES can be found here.

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rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book