13 Steps to Evil by Sacha Black

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Villains are the most necessary part of a story, because the villain is the one who creates the conflict and keeps it going. No conflict? No story! However, most authors lavish attention on their heroes, neglecting the villain, leading to novels that feel flat.

Black is here to correct that. She starts by explaining just how important a good antagonist is. Black then lists the steps necessary to create an ideal villain, including negative-yet-relatable traits, a strong personality, and a good motive. She shows how to write a villain’s backstory to create a believable antagonist who is a credible threat to the protagonist. Black also emphasizes the need for both the hero and the villain to be proactive, not victims to the whims of the plot.

But it’s not enough to create an ideal villain. An author must create an ideal villain for this book. So much depends on the needs of the story and the genre, and 13 STEPS TO EVIL is the first how-book I’ve seen that breaks down the different kinds of antagonists. In fact, the title is somewhat misleading, because not all antagonists are evil—or even bad—and Black is careful to distinguish the well-meaning antagonists from the truly villainous ones.

Black goes on to explain what makes a villain different from an anti-hero. She cautions against using clichés such as the sex-crazed femme fatale with too-much makeup or the supervillain with a giant self-portrait in his lair. And she teaches writers how to write a convincing climax—again, focusing on the needs of each genre.

My favorite chapter was the one on villains and mental health. Too many authors give their antagonists a mental health diagnosis and then clap their hands, thinking their job is done. This is discriminatory and offensive because it implies (or outright states) that bad guys are bad because they are mentally ill. Rather than create an interesting antagonist, some writers would rather rely on myth and stereotypes to stigmatize an entire sector of society. Black isn’t saying that your villain can’t have a mental health issue. In fact, she’ll teach you how to do it well. Black wants you to be as careful with this as you would any other part of villain creation.

13 STEPS TO EVIL is perfectly organized to function as both a how-to book and a reference book, so you can learn it all now, and also go back to look stuff up later. It has everything a new writer needs as well as tips for advanced writers who wonder why their bad guys aren’t quite hitting the mark. 13 STEPS TO EVIL delves deep into the psychology of heroes, villains, and readers to show what works and why it does.

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13 STEPS TO EVIL can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

 

Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

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The original SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder was the first book I reviewed on the Writing Slices blog. Even though it’s a screenwriting book, it’s been a favorite of novelists for years, and working novelists often quote Snyder’s wisdom to each other. However, novels and screenplays are different. In SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, Brody has kept everything we love about the original SAVE THE CAT, while expanding and refining Blake Snyder’s concepts to fit novels.

Brody starts with the hero/ine, and forces writers to answer that all-important question: why should readers care? It’s the perfect starting point because an unworthy hero/ine with nothing at stake will doom a novel right from the outset. Once the protagonist is on board, and the stakes are set, Brody explains the beat sheet, which is a kind of blueprint of a novel. She explains each element that a solid story needs, and where those elements go in the story.

But not all stories are the same, and the blueprint varies according to genre. Brody breaks down the ten types of story, explains what makes each one unique, and gives the three essential elements each genre needs. For example, a whodunnit needs a detective, a secret, and a dark turn. A love story needs an incomplete heroine, her counterpart, and a complication.

But Brody doesn’t just give abstract theory. For each type of story, she gives numerous examples, explaining where the story beats fall for each one. The example novels are well-known books such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Misery by Stephen King. Most writers are familiar with these books, or can easily find them in the local library.

Brody’s analysis of each novel is nothing short of breathtaking. She lifts the hood and carefully explains the inner workings of the story engine. Step by step, she details the turning points and major character shifts to give her readers a deep understanding of what makes stories work. She even generously includes two beat sheets from one of her own novels—the rough draft and the final version. Novels always deviate from their original outlines, and it’s great to see the “before” and “after” beat sheets from a published book.

The subtitle of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL is “The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need.” That’s not true, of course. You can never have just one how-to book! However, this is probably the only book on story structure that you’ll ever need. I love Blake Snyder’s original book, but I love this one more because it was written for me.

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SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars!

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

 

Creating Your Author Brand by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Branding isn’t something novelists think about much. It seems like something the head honchos at Pepsi and Google should worry about, not the business of an author. And the book marketing gurus always tell us “the author is the brand.” Or is it the series? If the author’s name is big enough on the cover and all the covers in the series look alike, the author is branded, right? Rusch tackles these—and many other—myths, starting with the book’s title. Creating is a verb, and it underscores that an author’s brand doesn’t just happen. A writer has an active role to play, whether she realizes it or not.

Rusch originally started writing CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND on her blog, but questions from her readers poured in and as she started addressing them, she realized she had a book. Rusch has experience in every aspect of the field, from author (traditional and indie) to magazine editor to book publisher, so branding is something she’s thought about from more than one angle and her expertise shows through.

Rusch divides her book into the early and intermediate stages of an author’s career. She breaks down the difference between brand identity (what an author thinks her brand is) and brand image (what the public thinks the brand is). She teaches writers how to identify the target audience and how to inspire brand loyalty. She also has different advice for growing an audience depending on the author’s goals and how many books she has out.

Rusch also does something I’ve never seen another marketing expert do: she cautions against fast growth. Most marketers promise huge sales and bestseller status if you’ll only follow their simple steps. Rusch knows how foolhardy that is. She’s seen firsthand how careers spike and then crash due to over-marketing. Readers are individuals, after all, and you can only grow an audience one reader at a time.

My only quibble is that a few chapters were overly long. Sometimes Rusch takes a little while to get to the main point. I get the sense that she’s thinking out loud (or through her fingers) and a few of her insights were discovered as she wrote them. She could have gone back and tightened those chapters. But sometimes, knowing how the author came to her conclusions is the whole point, so this might not be a concern for some readers.

I like that CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND is conceptual, not prescriptive. Rusch is here to teach the deep principles of branding, not a one-time formula to follow. The latter might be simple, but it will probably only work in the short term. Rusch respects her readers and knows that when we understand the underlying concepts, we can apply them to our own work to keep our branding healthy for the long term.

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CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors by Anne R Allen

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There are lots of books, websites, and courses about blogging, but most of them are about business blogs. An author blog is a completely different thing. Authors—especially fiction authors—don’t want to monetize our blogs. We just want to talk to our fans.

THE AUTHOR BLOG approaches blogging from that standpoint. Allen shows that authors don’t have to appeal to a wide audience, just our target readership. We shouldn’t even try to sell our own books on our blogs. Not directly, anyway. Blogs are simply a platform to communicate with readers. They provide an outlet for our nonfiction writing and a chance to share our view of the world. They also help a writer stick to a writing/publishing schedule, learn 21st century writing skills, and help a writer establish her brand.

Allen begins by convincing authors to start blogs. She explains how it can help your career, why blogging is different (and in some ways better) than social media, and why starting a blog now is better than waiting until your agent, editor, and fans start asking why you don’t have one.

The middle part of THE AUTHOR BLOG covers the basics of starting a blog: how to sign up with Blogger or WordPress, what your blog should look like, how to write your author bio and most importantly, what to write about. Allen goes into great detail about what a writer should share on the blog, and what she should keep to herself.

The final part covers things more experienced bloggers might want to try, such as guest blogging, blog hops, and using things like hashtags and SEO to get more traffic. But Allen never wants you to use gimmicks to build traffic or use things like pop-ups or spam comments. Good content delivered on a consistent schedule is better than any tricks the business blogs might dream up.

I loved how Allen reminded authors that our primary job is writing books, not blogs. She keeps blogs where they belong—as a sideline, not a priority. Allen is an advocate of slow blogging, and thinks once a week is a dandy schedule. She’s also much more interested in cultivating a few engaged fans than speaking to the whole world. Her common-sense approach is exactly what authors need.

Blogging isn’t going to change your life. It’s probably not going to change your career, either. But Allen’s sensible, realistic view of the blogging world might just change your mind.

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THE AUTHOR BLOG is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate authors

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I recommend this book.

 

Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John

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It’s the most maddening of rejection letters: “I didn’t connect with the story.” Or, “This is very good and well-written, but I didn’t fall in love with it.” Writers who have been writing and submitting for a while receive these rejections from editors and agents quite often. Their novels are close, but not quite ready.

If that’s you, St. John can help. Because what’s often lacking from these manuscripts is a sympathetic hero or heroine that the reader cares strongly about. What’s also often lacking is high stakes.

Most beginning writers quickly level up through the basics. They learn story structure, they nail their big turning points, and they keep a checklist of what not to do, making sure they don’t commit any big story sins. However, a writer can do all of that and still produce a novel that feels flat to the reader. It takes emotion and meaningful conflict to make a reader care, and high tension to make her keep turning pages.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT has six sections, covering conflict, emotion, setting, tension, dialogue, and characterization. Each section has several chapters diving deeply into the heart of what makes novels work. But St. John doesn’t just give instruction. She gives writers tools. She shows writers how to do research, how to take notes, and even how to watch television with an eye toward learning writing lessons. The exercises at the end of the chapters are meaningful—not just busywork.

The only bad thing about this book is that St. John uses too many examples from movies. I get why she did it (movies are shorthand for books) but I wish she’d included more examples from novels.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is perfect for intermediate writers: those who have the technical skills and are ready to make the leap to the next level. But it’s also a great book for beginners who are honing their skills and for advanced writers who need a reminder of what really makes their readers turn to the next page.

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WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is available here.
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Rating: 5 stars
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This book is best for: beginning writers
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I recommend this book.

 

 

 

Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

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In English class, many of us were taught that plot and character were separate things. They were even pitted against each other as well-meaning teachers spoke of stories that were either “plot driven” or “character driven.” Of course, we know one can’t exist without the other. The best novels are filled with fascinating characters doing amazing things. So why do we study them separately?

Even worse, writers are taught that you can structure a plot, but characters just arise organically. Weiland is here to put that nonsense to bed once and for all.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS shows writers how to craft a character just as carefully as they craft a plot. If you hate plotting because you’re a discovery writer (also known as a “pantser,”) you can map out the heroine’s emotional journey and the plot points will fall into place. If you love plotting, you can start there and make sure your heroine has the emotional turning points when she should.

Weiland breaks down the three types of character arcs: positive, negative, and flat. The positive change arc is the most popular. We see it in Hollywood movies and expect it from our genre fiction. Weiland shows how characters should change through a novel, with growth in each of the three acts. She also covers how minor characters change, and how to handle character arcs in trilogies and series. Using Weiland’s methods, a writer will not only create a fascinating protagonist, but one that is uniquely qualified to follow the plot.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS is amazing and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have lots of good books on my shelf about story structure and character creation, but this is the only one that considers them together. Many books pay lip service to the interaction between plot and character, but Weiland shows how they aren’t just linked, but interdependent. Character moves plot. Plot changes character. And Weiland shows you exactly how to integrate them into a perfect whole.

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CREATING CHARACTER ARCS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

 

Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle

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Writing good description is tricky in fiction. To tell a story well, a writer has to handle exposition, backstory, characterization, passage of time, and a host of other things. Slipping in description without stopping the flow of the story is essential. Using description to actually further the story is next-level. DESCRIPTION AND SETTING will help writers see description not as a necessary evil or a story-stopper, but as an enhancement to deepen characterization, move plot, and make the setting feel real.

Rozelle speaks to writers at all levels. He explains basic concepts very well, but also teaches more experienced writers how to push themselves to make their descriptions do double or even triple duty. He covers character description, time and place, and how each genre deals with setting. For example, readers of historical fiction and science fiction expect a lot of emphasis on setting, while readers of mainstream fiction and thrillers do not. Rozelle gives advice about showing and telling, how to keep the story moving forward, how setting interacts with character, and how to use all five senses in our fiction.

Rozelle uses good examples of novels that handle description well, both in classic literature and modern fiction. He tells writers what pitfalls to avoid, but throughout, his tone is positive. He emphasizes what works, rather than what doesn’t. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, and most of them involve directly improving our works-in-progress. I loved how Rozelle skipped the empty theory to give writers specific action steps to apply to their current work.

DESCRIPTION AND SETTING includes a twelve-page appendix with bullet points covering the major ideas of each chapter for quick reference. Part of me wants to eat this book, or at least consume it so deeply that I never forget its lessons. But I will have to settle for copying the entire appendix and taping it above my computer, to remind me of what I learned, or what I thought I knew but forgot.

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DESCRIPTION AND SETTING is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book