Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

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I’ve read a couple of Rubin’s earlier books, but thought they were only so-so, mainly because I wasn’t the target audience for them. However, BETTER THAN BEFORE is much more my style. I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it.

I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit.

I’ve read other good books on habit formation. However, they were either heavy on theory and light on practice or they treated humans as if they were one-size-fits-all. Rubin looks at habits from a fresh angle. She answers the question: why do some habits stick, and others don’t? There are a lot of factors that go into the making of a good habit (or the breaking of a bad one). But the key to success is knowing yourself.

That’s the genius of BETTER THAN BEFORE. Other books start with the outside world, telling you how to set up a schedule or reward yourself for accomplishments. However, Rubin starts from the inside. What motivates people? It turns out that people are motivated either by external expectations (what do I have to do?) or internal expectations (what do I want to do?). The external expectations are things like rules, work deadlines, and anything that’s on our calendars. Internal expectations are things like eating better, saving money, or writing a novel.

If someone responds to both internal and external expectations, they are an upholder. If someone resists all expectations, both inner and outer, they are a rebel. Both these types are rare. Most of us are either obligers, who respond well to external motivation but struggle with internal; or we’re questioners, who are motivated by internal expectations but only obey outer expectations if they make sense.

I suspect that most writers are questioners. We’re driven by an inner need to create, and will fit writing around the expectations of the world however we can. But there’s still hope if you’re one of the other types. An obliger should put writing dates on the calendar and maybe get an accountability buddy. A rebel will only do something if it’s part of her core identity, so in order to write, she needs to think of herself as a writer.

Rubin goes on to discuss other, more subtle factors that can make or break a habit. She explains the importance of monitoring and scheduling, and shows how to start a habit and the danger of ending one. She warns about things like distraction, loopholes, and the convenience factor. However, the four kinds of motivation infuse every chapter of BETTER THAN BEFORE, because once you know what motivates you, you can accomplish anything.

Over many years, I have developed a solid writing habit. For me, no day is complete without some new words on the page. But it took me a long time to get here, and I have learned many of these lessons through trial and error. If you’re just starting out or you want to solidify your writing habit more strongly, BETTER THAN BEFORE is the book that will set you firmly on the path of daily writing.
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Rating: 5 stars
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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration
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I recommend this book.

Editomat Software by Noumena Corporation

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There are about a dozen kinds of software to edit prose. Most of them, like Grammarly and Hemingway, focus on nonfiction. That’s natural, since nonfiction rules are easy to codify, and therefore easy to program into software.

But EDITOMAT is different. It was written by a fiction writer for fiction writers. Developer Clif Flynt knows that fiction needs a different kind of editing, and therefore, EDITOMAT goes beyond simple grammar rules to look at things like style and word choice and readability. It will never replace a human editor, of course, but this software is ideal for the fiction writer who simply needs a “fresh pair of eyes” before handing her manuscript to a beta reader or editor.

EDITOMAT covers the basics like accidental word repetition and weak words. It can also compare your work to others in your genre, tell you about the emotional tone, analyze your dialog, and look at specific things like clothing or vehicles or other aspects of setting. It has a nifty built-in thesaurus that goes way, way beyond the one built into Microsoft word. Highlight any word and an exhaustive list of synonyms come up. Using EDITOMAT, a writer could happily self-edit a whole novel, swapping weak words and sentences for stronger ones, and making sure the tone of the piece was just right.

The emphasis, of course, if on self editing. Although EDITOMAT will point out things that you can’t see yourself, it’s up to you to fix them. More importantly, it’s up to you to know when to ignore its suggestions. For example, I often use repetition for emphasis. I might write sentences like this: “She wanted his cooperation. But even more, she wanted his trust.” The word wanted would be flagged in EDITOMAT, and I could choose to ignore it, or not.

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A sample of my prose in Editomat, with weak words and repeated words highlighted.

One feature I thought would be superfluous turned out to be my favorite. EDITOMAT can analyze a manuscript for readability. It gives a Flesch Analysis, showing the education level someone would need to read your prose. I discovered that a short story I was working on was easy to read (which was my goal) and my blog posts tended to require at least a high school level of reading ability.

EDITOMAT can also analyze the emotional tone of a scene. I tried it with several of my short pieces, with some interesting and sometimes comical results. Just for fun, I ran a sex scene through EDITOMAT, because those are darned hard to write and I wanted to see what the program would do. I was amused to see that it flagged words like beneath, moan, surrender and lower as “negative” words. In some contexts, they aren’t. Likewise, I forgive myself for using extra adjectives and adverbs here, since sex scenes are all about the descriptions and feelings.

But this is just another example of using this software as a way to see your manuscript more clearly, rather than a way to fix things. EDITOMAT is like a helpful friend who points out when you’ve accidentally left your zipper down. Your friend will tell you about it, but it’s up to you to zip your own fly.

(EDITOMAT is available here. You can download a free demo version that will analyze short documents, or buy the full version that can handle entire novels.)

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend this software

Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

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People who write about romance novels usually fall into one of three categories. Either they are sneering at the entire genre and its readers, trying to distance themselves from the novels by analyzing them academically, or praising everything about romances without a single critical remark.

Wendell and Tan avoid these traps. The authors run the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” review blog, and they obviously love romance novels. But their love makes them want to understand the genre in a deep way, embracing all the good and bad. What are the tropes? Why do they work? What parts of romance are awesome and what parts kind of…well…stink?

Wendell and Tan answer these questions and more in rolicking prose that had me laughing out loud. I love a well-placed F-bomb, and I’m a sucker for made-up words like “buttsecks” and “the hero’s untamable Wang of Mighty Lovin.’” Don’t read BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS if you’re easily offended because this kind of awesomeness is on every page.

Wendell and Tan start by looking at the history of romance novels, explaining the big change that happened in the 1980s. You can almost draw a clear dividing line between the “old skool” romances of the 70s and early 80s, and the more modern ones that came after. Anyone who grew up with the rapey Harlequin historicals would hardly recognize the genre anymore. Modern romances are fun, sexy books that are all about the heroine’s happiness: in and out of bed.

From there, Wendell and Tan discuss what makes a good romance heroine, why we love romance heroes, and what’s up with common tropes like secret babies, pirates, the heroine’s life-changing makeover, spy rings, and amnesia. They also explain why romance covers are so weird, and speculate on the future of the genre. Along the way, they give dozens of examples for each point they make, and my own TBR pile has grown with their recommendations.

BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS is part appreciation, part analysis, and part snark. But its love for romance novels comes through loud and clear, and it made me love the genre a bit more, too.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 4 slices craft, 4 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book

Closing the Deal on Your Terms by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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When it comes to publishing, Rusch has seen it all. She’s the former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has published books both traditionally and indie. She’s run a small press. She’s sold short stories to magazines. So it’s fair to say she’s seen just about every kind of contract and has negotiated them from both sides of the desk.

Who better to warn you about what’s in them? Whether you’re an indie author trying to sell foreign rights, a traditionally published author asking what’s next or a newbie just starting your publishing journey, you need three things: a good IP lawyer, the ability to walk away from a bad contract, and a copy of this book.

Rusch knows what can happen when an inexperienced writer—giddy from finally being offered a book contract—signs it without negotiating it. CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is no substitute for good legal advice, but it’s a great introduction to the kinds of “gotcha” clauses publishers are adding to contracts these days.

Most writers only look at money paid and when the manuscript is due. They don’t understand all the ways that they can—and will—be screwed over. For example, deep discount clauses allow publishers to make money on your books without giving any to you. Rights grabs mean that your publisher could turn your book into a movie or a game without consulting you. Options clauses can legally bind you to your publisher for many years and many books. And these are only the most obvious examples. Modern contracts are full of worse things, buried under confusing language and contradictory clauses.

An agent won’t save you from these terrible contracts. In most cases, an agent will urge you to sign them. Many agents are also presenting their own agency agreements (read: contracts) to authors, binding that author to the agent as well as the publishing house.

Because things have changed so radically in the last thirty years, Rusch discourages writers from dealing with publishers for any book-length fiction at this time. However, she understands that every career is different, and doesn’t tell writers what to do. In fact, she defends writers who want to sign any contract under the sun, as long as that writer knows exactly what she’s signing and why.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS isn’t an easy read. It’s not one of those great craft books that will energize your writing or an inspirational book that will make you feel good. Rusch herself became quite downhearted while writing it, as she realized just how bad things had gotten in publishing land. But she stuck it out and did us all a great service by writing a book that isn’t fun, but necessary.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is probably not a book that any writer wants. However, it’s exactly the book that every writer needs.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices business

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

 

Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox

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Successful people don’t necessarily work longer, harder, or smarter than everyone else, but I can guarantee that successful people work more consistently than anyone else. The little things they do every day add up to huge productivity gains.

Committing to a daily writing practice not only pays off, it pays off with interest. Once that writing habit is in place it will naturally grow, and writers improve with every draft. Thinking about writing doesn’t work. Only butt-in-chair time does.

But how to cultivate that habit? How to make writing such an ingrained part of life that a writer just naturally shows up at the writing desk every day? Fox takes readers step by step into forming and maintaining a writing practice.

It starts with an honest look at how you’re already spending your time. Then Fox helps you get clear on your goals, implement a tracking system, and find writing time. (Yes, he expects you to get up early to write. It works.) Along the way, Fox helps you gather support, banish distractions, and stay inspired. Some of his advice might seem unnecessary and a little new-age, but he argues that visualizing your dream is as important as any other step in forming a lifelong habit.

As I read LIFELONG WRITING HABIT I was pleased to note that I’d already done many of Fox’s action steps. I already write every day and track my progress, but I’m very wishy-washy about when I write. More than once, I’ve written four hundred words right before bed just so I could put something on my spreadsheet for that day. Fox helped me refine my goals and figure out new ways to solidify my habit. I can imagine newer writers getting even more out of LIFELONG WRITING HABIT as they first start incorporating writing time into their lives.

I often read business books and apply their lessons to writing. It seems that Fox does the same, because he references some of my favorites. He has synthesized all the best lessons from Eat that Frog, The Power of Habit, and Switch into one neat package, along with a big helping of Getting Things Done. Fox’s book is extremely practical, packing all his lessons and inspiration into a short ebook with no repetition and no fluff. LIFELONG WRITING HABIT is ideal for any writer who wants to put their butt in the chair every single day.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book for all writers

Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

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I’ve written nearly a hundred fifty reviews on the Writing Slices blog, but they’ve all been books for adults. I never considered books for kids until a friend who is becoming a teacher raved about SPILLING INK, and I knew I had to check it out. I’m glad I did. Now, when I meet a younger writer who is looking for a good how-to book, I’ll know what to recommend.

SPILLING INK is aimed at kids about nine to twelve years old. Mazer and Potter meet the kids where they are, rather than where the adults think they should be. There is nothing in SPILLING INK about making pretty sentences or fixing spelling or knowing the parts of speech. It’s all about finding interesting stories and getting them on the page. The examples are age-appropriate, featuring things like sleepover parties, bad camping trips, and a cousin who burps the alphabet.

Unlike authors who are writing for adults, Mazer and Potter take nothing for granted. They include tips on how to put those very first words on the page, why interesting situations are more important than fancy words, and how to convince your characters (and yourself) that they are real. Along the way, they cover everything a writer needs to know, from plot, characterization, and revision to the good habits that will help writers for a lifetime. And they do it without ever talking down to young writers.

The exercises at the end of the chapters are called “I dare you.” They are not much different from the exercises in many writing books, but thinking of them as dares makes them feel more like healthy challenges that are okay to fail, rather than a slog to get through.

SPILLING INK is a complete manual for young writers that will guide them from their very first sentence to polishing the final draft. Kids who love to write will love the sound advice and useful examples. Kids who hate to write will love the encouragement. Kids who are indifferent to writing will love the humor. In short, this is the perfect book for all young writers, and this grown-up writer loved it too.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 5 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall

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I have been searching for a good, basic book about writing dialogue since I started the Writing Slices blog in 2011. I’ve read some decent books and some awful ones, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE that I found a truly great one.

WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE is organized well, starting with some simple tweaks to make dialogue better. By turning statements into questions and giving each character an agenda, dull dialogue becomes more vivid. Hall progresses through more subtle ways to enhance dialogue by shortening sentences, adding fun one-liners, and using body language. The final few chapters are advanced techniques, like using dialogue to show when someone is lying, informing without info-dumping, and using foreign accents respectfully.

Every chapter includes well-chosen examples, showing how small changes can make dialogue sing. Hall also quotes longer passages from her own novels to help show dialogue in a larger context. I wish she had included at least a few examples from other books, since every writer approaches dialogue differently, but this is a minor fault in an otherwise excellent book.

Hall includes writing exercises at the end of each chapter. Unlike some books where the exercises seem like an afterthought, the exercises in WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE were interesting and actually useful. Each one will only take a few minutes to do, but by completing them, a writer can instantly see improvement. Hall doesn’t just tackle the easy mistakes. She helps writers dig deep into the more nuanced flavors of dialogue, such as the ways that men and women speak differently, or the best uses of profanity, or when to start a story with dialogue.

Hall’s tone is encouraging, with good instruction that is never rigid. She knows there are numerous ways to achieve any effect, and that dialogue is only one tool in a writer’s toolbox. But when done well, the dialogue is what readers will remember.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.