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.

How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler

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This is, hand’s down, the most practical book for writers I’ve ever read. I’ve read other books that teach you how to make art while also making a life, but HOW TO BE AN ARTIST went so far beyond those books as to be in a different category.

Artists of all kinds are assumed to be airy flakes, but Nagler knows that what the rest of the world sees as scatterbrained is often simply a matter of the artist being overwhelmed or frustrated. She offers solutions that are wise, kind, and completely doable. Nagler offers clear-eyed advice on budgets, lifestyle, work ethics, motivation, and sticking with it for the long haul.

Nagler doesn’t want to see artists starve—financially or artistically. There are ways to have it all, but it involves setting a budget for money and time. That includes getting a day job. Yes, Nagler assumes that her readers—like most artists—have day jobs too. I don’t think I’ve ever read another how-to book that puts that front-and-center the way HOW TO BE AN ARTIST does.

Nagler busts the myth that the only successful writer is a writer who writes full time. She insists a day job is not something to tolerate. It’s something to celebrate. The benefits are numerous, starting with the security of having a firm foundation. After all, it’s hard to be creative when you’re broke, hungry, and scared you won’t make rent this month. Having a job also boosts confidence and focus. All jobs are not created equal, however, and Nagler has down-to-earth advice about choosing one that will fit around a creative life.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST gets real about money management and time management too. She offers solutions for funding our art as well as our lives, and helps artists balance their schedules in a realistic way. So many how-to books simply advise writers to wake up an hour earlier, as if that’s the one-size-fits-all solution to scheduling woes. Nagler realizes that we’re all already waking up as early as we can. She proposes other ways to find time that don’t involve messing with our sleep or our health.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST is easily the most practical book on my shelf. Strangely enough, it’s also the most inspirational. Nagler’s wise counsel, sensible methods, and kind tone made me eager to embrace my writing life in new and better ways.

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HOW TO BE AN ARTIST can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

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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BETTER THAN BEFORE can be found here.

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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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BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS can be found here.

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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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CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS can be found here.

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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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LIFELONG WRITING HABIT can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book for all writers