The Anatomy of a Best Seller by Sacha Black

We all became writers because we love books. Stories feed our minds and hearts, and that’s why we write. But being a great reader does not make someone a great writer. There is a huge gap between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER fills that gap, to help writers bridge the chasm between someone who loves to read and someone who understands how books are made.

There are three things a writer must do: read, deconstruct, and implement. Reading seems like the easy part. We all love to read, right? But Black teaches us how to read like writers, which is a completely different skillset. A writer must first read widely, to understand the genre, and then read deeply, to understand the techniques a writer has used.

After that comes deconstruction. This is all about reverse-engineering to figure out what an author is doing and why it works. Deconstruction means using an author’s tools, not her words. Black doesn’t advocate plagiarism. She’s showing authors how to take a deep dive into books in order to internalize those techniques, so we can make them our own. This is a very personal experience that relies on emotion rather than logic. Whatever part of the book moved you? That’s the part to pay attention to. Only then does analysis come into play. Black gives lots of useful examples here, to show this kind of deconstruction in action.

The third, and most difficult part, is implementation. Here is where most how-to books fall down, because it’s a lot easier to tell writers what to do than explain how to do it. But Black fearlessly wades into the trenches, not only explaining how to use the tools that a writer discovered in parts one and two, but how to use them for a particular audience.

The phrase “write to market” has been said so often, by so many, that it’s become an almost meaningless phrase. But Black prefers to think of it as “write to reader.” Because the truth is, writers don’t intuitively know how to please readers. Too often, we’re writing for other writers. We attend critique groups where writers pick apart our sentences, or we get beta reader feedback from fellow writers and change our books according to their sensibilities, or we take classes and write what the instructor wants. But Black wants to turn that completely around by showing us how to first read like a writer, then write for a reader.

When I finished reading THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER, I went immediately to page one and started reading it a second time. It’s that good. I have been deconstructing bestselling and midlist books for years, and my mind was still blown by Black’s insights. Even better, Black delivers all of her instruction with a wicked sense of humor and a healthy measure of f-bombs, which are two of my favorite things.

THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER is not a “get rich quick” kind of book. Black’s methods take time, patience, and lot of trial and error. But the result will be an author who truly understands novels, and can deliver fresh stories to exactly the right audience.

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THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER 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.

5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin and others

Lakin has teamed up with four other professional editors to explain the problems that they see over and over in manuscripts. But they’re not here to complain. These editors are sharp-eyed at spotting flaws in manuscripts and they’re eager to help writers do better. They offer in-depth explanations of the flaw, show why it’s a problem, and teach writers how to fix it.

Some of the flaws are on the macro level, the kind of thing an author would rewrite in the second draft. These are things like too much backstory, lack of tension, overwriting, telling instead of showing, flawed dialogue, and flat description. Others are things that could be considered copyediting errors, such as weak sentence construction, improper mechanics, or using too many adverbs.

The authors take turns writing the chapters, so this is more a compilation than a true collaboration. But even though many voices are represented in this book, none of the chapters contradict one another and it never felt repetitive. Had I not known it was written by five people, I could have mistaken this book for the advice of one single author. That’s because the advice within 5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is so accurate, well-presented, and well-taught. This is one of those great books that teaches by example. The authors are not here to bash anyone for doing it wrong. They only want to help authors get it right.

The example passages are written by the authors themselves, and they give a before and after example for every single point they make. This book is very hands on, nitty-gritty, do-this-not-that. At the end of every chapter, the authors give a sample passage and invite readers to rewrite it. The authors offer up two to three pages of prose, deliberately making one of the deadly mistakes, so readers can practice what they’ve learned. The ideal is always that we’ll apply these lessons to our own manuscripts, but it’s so much easier to spot the flaws when it’s not your own work. By going through the rewrites on a sample passage, writers can internalize the principles without any emotional resistance.

5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING isn’t an “easy” book. The lessons are deep, the examples are detailed, and the process is complicated. It will take time to go through each chapter, absorb the lesson, and apply it to your own work. But the lessons are so thorough and so well-taught that any writer who spends time with this book will come out the other side a stronger writer.

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5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING 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

Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration by K.M. Weiland

The first thing you need to know is that Weiland doesn’t actually believe in writer’s block. At best, it’s a bogeyman used to scare writers. At worst, it’s an excuse for not writing. However, Weiland does believe in frustration. Every writer has good days and bad days. CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION is the book you need on the bad days.

The second important thing about CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION is that the book is short, to the point, and no-nonsense. This isn’t the book that’s going to coddle writers, or let writers feel sorry for themselves, or tell writers that they are brave and heroic for simply putting pen to paper. Professional writers work long, diligent hours on their craft, and if you expect to join them, you will have to work hard too.

Inspiration exists. It’s wonderful, and when it happens, a writer feels invincible. But inspiration doesn’t come for free. The price is that the writer has to show up at the page day after day. Weiland gives solid advice for putting this foundational habit in place. Let go of perfection, study the craft, cultivate excitement in the work, and don’t cling too tightly to writing rules. Weiland also discusses the dangers of trying to “failure proof” a piece of writing, which will only bleed the life out of it. And if a writer is dreaming of fame and fortune more than she’s dreaming about her characters and her story, she’ll likely never finish her book.

However, even with solid writing habit in place, sometimes the words won’t come. In that case, Weiland lays out some emergency measures. Things like brainstorming ahead of time, stopping mid-sentence, throwing in random plot twists, or shaking up point of view, tone, or a heroine’s goal.

Throughout CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION, Weiland reminds us that writers write. A writer can’t expect success without putting in the work. Whining doesn’t get the job done. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t get the job done. Talent doesn’t get the job done. The only thing that matters is putting your butt in the chair and typing one word after another. Sometimes, doing the work is the only inspiration a writer needs.

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CONQUERING WRITER’S BLOCK AND SUMMONING INSPIRATION can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Korean-born novelist Salesses has a lot of questions about the traditional writing workshop. Who is it for? Who does it benefit? Is there any way to teach writing that doesn’t perpetuate unequal power structures? And why is most literary fiction so gosh-darned bland, as if all the interesting edges have been sanded off? But CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD isn’t just for teachers or MFA students. It’s essential reading for anyone writing fiction today.

College writing workshops were created for upper-class, white, straight male writers, and many of the rules of fiction writing comes from them. What we consider high-quality writing is always seen through this lens. We like to pretend that craft is pure in some way, without bias, but that’s simply because the bias is invisible. Whose stores are told, whose stories have value, which plot structures are acceptable, and even which details are included are all based on an assumed reader, and that reader only comes in one flavor. Everything else is called “experimental” or “women’s fiction” or “diverse.” And in the rare occasions that other modes of expression are taught, it’s in contrast to the dominant form of fiction. Instead of asking why writing rules exist, we treat those who “break” the rules as exceptions. If a writer arrives with a different set of cultural expectations, she’ll be pressured to silence her own voice in order to conform to the norms of the group.

Salesses closely examines the typical subjects of writing craft books, asking why they always use realist fiction by dead white men as models. These are the hero’s journey stories we’re all taught, where the world bends to the hero’s will, and any problems in his life can be overcome through hard work and self-improvement. This is very much a Western, male view of the world and not one that everyone shares. In chapters on plot, conflict, tone, characterization, pacing, setting, and story structure, Salesses opens readers’ minds to new ways of thinking and writing. We don’t all write to the same market, and fiction doesn’t have to please a wide audience. It only has to please the right audience.

The last part of the book discusses practical ways to run a writing workshop that centers the author rather than those giving the critique. These methods are more labor-intensive for instructors (which is why most won’t use them). These new methods will empower writers so they can go on to revise their own stories even after they’ve left school. Working writers reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will find helpful tips to make their writing more inclusive, more interesting, and just better.

Reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD wasn’t easy for me. I remembered my own college classes and community writing groups, thinking about the ways I was silenced, and the ways I unknowingly used my privilege to silence others. I found myself reading very slowly in order to truly absorb each point before moving on to the next. Some of the lessons were painful, some were embarrassing, but more than anything else, they were helpful. When you know better, you do better, and CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will help every single one of us become better writers.

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CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

After a beginning writer learns the fundamentals of character and plot, there comes a long, frustrating period where she’s finishing novels, but they aren’t very good. And if they are good, they only get that way after many rounds of revision. It takes lots of practice to get to pro-level writing, but having good mentors and how-to books can help. THE SECRETS OF STORY is the perfect book for the writer who is ready to take the leap.

Bird is a screenwriter, but his lessons apply to novelists too. The chapter titles are exactly what I expected from a how-to book: character, plot, description, dialog, theme, and revision. However, the content of those chapters was not what I expected. On the surface, it seems like Bird is giving advice that goes against everything taught in more basic how-to books. But Bird doesn’t want to upend common wisdom. Instead, he’s inviting writers to go deeper, to expand on the knowledge they’ve already gained. In thirteen chapters, Bird lays down 122 “secrets” that are so good it feels he’s explaining the laws of physics rather than something as slippery and subjective as art.

For example, most how-to books tell you to make the protagonist “heroic,” but Bird says you should make your protagonist vulnerable. That’s where audience identification comes from, and audience identification is everything. And then, he thoroughly explains how to do it.

Most how-to books caution against making all the characters sound alike. So writers will give one character a lisp, one a catch phrase, and one bad grammar habits. That’s easy. It’s also terrible. However, Bird explains that what characters need is a preferred set of metaphors and a preferred argument style. This will distinguish characters from one another in a believable way. It also forces the writer to slow down and really get to know her characters instead of slapping a set of quirks on them.

There are hundreds of other little gems like this in THE SECRETS OF STORY, along with a huge helping of solid advice about storycraft. Bird provides checklists in the book and on his website, but warns writers against using them in a mechanical way. Writers need to internalize the reasons behind the rules, and then apply them in their own way. Bird is also an advocate for breaking the rules, even the very ones he sets down. He’s the first to admit that sometimes you have to mess with story structure or write the “wrong” kind of dialogue to make a better story.

But if a writer truly absorbs all the lesson in THE SECRETS OF STORY, she’ll have leveled up to a point where the rules simply make sense. And she’ll have all the tools she needs to write a solid novel that readers will love.

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THE SECRETS OF STORY 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

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

In Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work, he insisted that one could not both do meaningful work and have social media accounts. Newport himself has never had an online presence beyond a blog and email, and he insisted that this was the only way to be successful as a knowledge worker.

However, in DIGITAL MINIMALISM, Newport takes a more nuanced approach. He acknowledges that social media, Netflix, news sites, and video games are a part of life and not things that need to be banished entirely. He still thinks they’re bad, though, and explains why we’ll all be happier if we spend less time online.

We’re all walking around with powerful computers in our pockets, loaded with apps that invite us to use them any time we have more than fifteen seconds of downtime. These online services offer a mix of benefits and harm, but most people only think about the benefits—or the possible benefits, even if they can’t point to anything concrete they get out of scrolling through Twitter. These sites are addictive, using every psychological trick (especially the variable reward of the “like” button) to get you to stay on them longer.

However, interacting with a phone is not the same as interacting with a person. Moreover, dependence on the instant gratification of the online world is making our brains less capable of the sustained thought we need to get our creative work done. If every single moment is filled with entertainment provided by others, when will we think up our own ideas?

Newport doesn’t just tell you why you should use online services less, he also tells you how. There are many tricks and hacks out there, such as the “digital sabbath” or using internet blockers while working. However, Newport explains why simple tricks don’t work. It takes a mindset shift, because no habit can be changed long-term without an underlying shift in values.

Step by step, Newport shows you where to start, how to overcome temptation, how to deal with the expectation that you’ll be always “on,” and how to use the internet more thoughtfully. By taking a minimalist approach, Newport argues, you’ll find yourself still as connected as ever, but in a more meaningful way. The benefits of this approach are numerous, from reclaiming time, to decreasing stress, to redefining leisure.

I enjoyed Newport’s previous book, despite its flaws. However, DIGITAL MINIMALISM is better in every way. It gave me concrete tools for turning off the internet as well as a solid plan to use it more thoughtfully.

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DIGITAL MINIMALISM is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book.

Cash Flow for Creators by Michael W. Lucas

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Writing full time is a dream for most writers. But how do we turn our hobby into a job? Writers are constantly told to treat our writing as a business, but most business books are not suitable for artists and very rarely address our unique concerns.

That’s where CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS comes in. It’s the most art-friendly business book you can imagine. Lucas pays his bills with his writing so this is where his focus is. He wants to teach you one thing: control your cash flow so you can make a living off your art.

Most advice for writers relies on knowing your income. One book will tell you not to quit your day job until your income from writing equals eighty percent or one hundred percent or two hundred percent of your day job salary. Another says not go full time until you have six months or eight months or twelve months of your day job salary saved. But looking at it from the income side does not work. The “experts” can’t agree on the right number, different writers need different amounts, and a writer’s income fluctuates.

Lucas has a different—and much better—approach. He knows a writer’s income is uncertain, but it’s the amount going out that will make or break a writer. It sounds simplistic to say that the amount coming in must exceed the amount going out, or the writer will go broke. However, CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS explains in detail how to calculate those numbers so that a writer always remains in the black. Using Lucas’ methods, even the most math-phobic author will have no trouble understanding the numbers she needs to decide if she can afford to go full time and if she can afford to stay there.

CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS covers every stage of a writer’s life, from pre-published to bestselling. Lucas breaks down the unique challenges of every phase, explaining what to spend money on, what to save for, and how to pay taxes. He has solid advice on hiring an accountant, dealing with banks, and taking on assistants. He knows what to do when things go really, really wrong—or really, really right.

Lucas gives lots of examples, some of them true-to-life, others fanciful. One moment, he’s giving serious consideration to the different cost of living in different regions, and how that will affect the amount a writer will need in savings. The next moment, he’s talking about making parachutes for capybaras. The better you can roll with his sense of humor, the more you’ll get out of CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS.

Because to Lucas, business—and life—are a game. It’s a game he has every intention of winning. And he wants to show you how to win it too.

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CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS 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

 

 

 

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

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It’s only May, but I’m calling it now: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is going to be my favorite book of the year. Part of the reason is that it’s the right book at the right time. Persistence is hard to come by when the future is so uncertain, and every writer I know is struggling. But I’m sure this would be my new favorite book no matter when it came into my life. Rosenfeld has practical advice, an encouraging tone, and unique ways to help us all write more and write better.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is not a craft book. It’s about all those other skills a writer needs, like organization, time-management, boundary-setting, and the ability to deal with rejection, perfectionism, procrastination, and envy.

Beginners live off the high of discovery and the energy of newness, but that wears off quickly. Writers need a concrete plan to maintain a writing practice. Rosenfeld is here to help you navigate that long, long stretch between the first creative flush and eventual success. A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE has twenty-five meaty chapters filled with practical instruction. Rosenfeld gives lots of encouragement and inspiration, but each chapter has action steps designed to get you back to the page, right here and right now.

Even though she covers everything from setting up your desk to choosing a publishing path, Rosenfeld keeps coming back to three basic principles that will get writers through that sticky middle part of their careers: finding authenticity, connecting with the community, and moving your body. Every problem a writer has can be solved by one of these three things (or sometimes a combination of them).

Finding authenticity is key. It’s important to listen to that deep part of yourself that is driven to write and would continue to write regardless of publication or prestige. That unshakable foundation will carry a writer through hard times, and becomes a moral framework upon which to base writing and publishing decisions.

Rosenfeld repeatedly stresses the importance of connecting with the writing community. Your peers are crucial to your success and Rosenfeld urges writers to gather what she calls a Creative Support Team. In addition, writers need to be good literary citizens by championing other writers, attending literary events, buying books, and doing a lot of reading.

Finally, each chapter of A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE ends with a suggestion for movement. Every writer would benefit from more exercise, but Rosenfeld takes it a step further and tailors each exercise to a particular problem. Struggling with perfectionism? Try a silly dance party filled with imperfect moves. Feeling burnout? Try a walk in the woods to reconnect with nature. Feeling envy? Try weight-lifting, to remember ways that you’re already strong. Nervous about submitting work to a publisher? Try a new exercise class to remind yourself that you can try new things. No matter a writer’s problem, Rosenfeld has a way to move beyond it—literally.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is a few years old, but it feels like it was written for this time. Rosenfeld’s gentle encouragement, down-to-earth advice, and real solutions are exactly what writers need right now.

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A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE 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.

 

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

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“Show, don’t tell” is something that every writing instructor says. It’s repeated so often because it’s the thing that beginning writers struggle with the most. Even when we understand the concept, applying that concept to our own work is difficult. Even more difficult is knowing when to show and when to tell.

SHOW, DON’T TELL is a powerful solution to this common problem. In this short book, Gerth explores every facet of storytelling to explain how to show a story instead of telling it. Gerth begins with definitions to give a writer a firm grasp on exactly what showing is. Details, not conclusions. Concrete, not abstract. Dramatization, not summary. She explains how to get the reader up close and personal with the story and why it’s so necessary to do so.

Once a writer has identified the telling in her manuscript, Gerth gives examples and exercises to convert that telling into showing, concentrating on trouble areas like backstory, dialogue, description, and emotion. She gives before-and-after examples, helping writers truly see how it’s done.

Many how-to books include exercises that are meant to be done for their own sake, which is fine. Writing requires practice. But most writers will skip those kinds of exercises in the belief that theory is enough. The exercises in SHOW, DON’T TELL, however, are meant to be done on a writer’s own work in progress, specifically chapter one. Gerth shows writers how to fix their own prose, giving the exercises an immediacy that is extremely useful.

Of course, stories shouldn’t be a hundred percent showing, either. Telling is sometimes the better choice, and Gerth wraps up SHOW, DON’T TELL by detailing the uses of narrative. Telling is useful for things like transitions, repeated information, and unimportant details.

Showing is like a spotlight, focusing reader attention on the important events of a story. When a writer has complete control over her narrative, she will use that power wisely—showing the important things, telling the less important parts, and skillfully weaving foreground and background to create a harmonious whole. SHOW, DON’T TELL is the perfect guide for this essential writing skill.

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Show, Don’t Tell can be found here

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Rating: five stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

 

Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner

I think I read this book wrong.

Not that there’s a “wrong” way to read a book, but I approached this one the way I approach all my other how-to books. I started with page one and read straight through.

But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS isn’t that kind of book. Its 52 short chapters are meant for consuming in small doses. This is the kind of book to keep next to your bed or in your backpack, to dip in and out of when confidence flags or when you hit a specific wall. Some of the chapters are about digging in and persevering. Some are about relaxing and letting the story flow. Others are about carving out a writer identity by arranging time and space, claiming the label of writer, and finding a writing community.

Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, and PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is an excellent companion for anyone doing this 30-day novel challenge. But it will benefit every writer, year-round, because we all have bad days. Sometimes we get stuck at the beginning of a project, sometimes we get stuck in the middle, or we suffer from impostor syndrome or perfectionism or procrastination. Whatever the problem, Faulkner offers both encouragement and practical solutions, like a life coach who pats you on the back, gets you some Gatorade, and then slaps your ass and sends you back onto the field.

Every chapter ends with an exercise, and I found them creative and actually fun to do. For example, if you find yourself wasting time, try writing sprints when focus is essential. Stumped for ideas? Make a list of random nouns and then find ways to work them into a story. Need encouragement? Write a letter to yourself from your imaginary mentor.

The chapters are arranged rather haphazardly, which is fine when you’re only looking for a specific solution, but I was glad for the index in the back, which grouped chapters into a dozen categories. My favorites were the chapters on nourishing your muse and the ones on exploring storytelling tools. Faulkner has excellent tips for getting out of a creative rut.

Some books are filled with practical instruction. Some books are filled with empty cheerleading. But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is that rare combination of inspiration and action steps to align our hearts and our heads while we move forward in our creative work.

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PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book