The Storymatic by Brian Mooney

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Most books of writing prompts leave me cold. I’ve done a few I’ve enjoyed, but most of them seem to take themselves too seriously. Or maybe I take myself too seriously when I attempt them. Either way, I don’t usually find canned prompts very exciting. But then I came across THE STORYMATIC, created by writing teacher Brian Mooney. It’s just about the coolest way of doing writing exercises I can imagine.

THE STORYMATIC is a box of five hundred cards with words on them. Half are gold cards, which are the character prompts. Some are professions, like “astronaut” or “dentist.” Some are character traits, such as “follower” or “person who refuses to fit in” or “partygoer.”

Here’s the fun part. You always take two character cards. So you might end up with “librarian / caretaker of an elephant” or “zombie / mistaken for a movie star” or “musician / security guard.” I love this, because you’re sure to get an unusual protagonist with something unresolved in her life. Unlike most writing prompts where the character and situation seem one-dimensional, with THE STORYMATIC, you’re setting up internal conflict for the character before the story even gets started.

The other half of the cards are orange. They’re the situation cards with things like “UFO sighting,” or “supermarket after hours” or simply “glasses.” You could take two of these cards, too, but one should be enough for a quick writing exercise.

THE STORYMATIC comes with a booklet that suggests ways to play with the cards, but writers already know what to do with them. Boxes full of fun words and phrases are writer catnip, and we’ll use them in ways their creators never expected.

You’re probably already familiar with the party games that rely on a similar concept. I’d say THE STORYMATIC cards are somewhere between the banality of Apples to Apples and the weird raunchiness of Cards Against Humanity. These cards are interesting, and each one suggests a story begging to be written.

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THE STORYMATIC can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

 

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I recommend this product.

 

 

 

Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block

Cover_Ebook_Writing the Novel

WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT was the book that jump-started my career as a novelist and remains my favorite how-to book. In my review of the original edition, I rated it four stars, which would have been a perfect five if the book weren’t a bit outdated. (It was written in the 1970s.)

Earlier this year, I emailed Lawrence Block to ask him if he would ever update the book. He emailed back and said it was something he’d like to do. In the acknowledgements of WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL, he very generously gives me credit for giving him the idea, but I believe my email was simply the tipping point for him, since writers have been asking for a new edition for years.

WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL isn’t an update in the strictest sense. It’s an expansion. Block has reproduced his original text as-is, while adding commentary to reflect the new world of writing. In other hands, this could be clunky, but Block makes it work. It helps that he is one of the authors who has successfully made the leap from traditional to self publishing. He still has a foot in each world and is able to take a clear-eyed view of the modern writing landscape.

The section on publication is where Block did the most updating. The craft of writing novels hasn’t changed, but the way we get those novels into readers’ hands has changed tremendously. Block has added three new chapters—one each on the pros and cons of self-publishing and one on the nuts and bolts of doing it yourself. He wisely recognizes how quickly things move in today’s publishing world and points readers toward websites with up-to-date information.

The other chapters have much less commentary added to them. My beloved chapters on plotting, characters, reading like a writer, and developing solid work habits are as helpful as ever, and the commentary is sprinkled in with a light touch. Block offers a cautionary tale here, a bit of insight there, and a joke as often as he can get away with it. As I was reading, I got the delightful sensation that I was reading my own dog-eared original edition while Lawrence Block himself sat next to me offering witty asides.

WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL is like having a pocket-sized mentor you can consult any time. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

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WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

 

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This book is best for: beginning and intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

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Sherlock Holmes. Scarlett O’Hara. Hannibal Lecter. Harry Potter. These are characters so fascinating and so believable, it’s as if they exist outside their books—as if they are real. Even if we never create such iconic characters, every writer can make her characters deeper, more relatable, and more interesting on the page. Doing so will also help with plotting, elevating every part of the book.

DYNAMIC CHARACTERS is divided into three parts. The first focuses on the externals. What is the character’s name? How does a character look and sound? Where does she live and what does she do?  The second part tackles the internal life of the character—her thoughts and attitudes. This is also where Kress discusses villains. The  third part is about the way character intersects with plot. Point of view comes into play here, as well as minor characters and the way character change is the strongest element of any good plot.

Kress illustrates her points with many examples from both classic and contemporary books. All her examples are positive ones, showing what works instead of what does not. She also explains why they work the way they do. After all, it’s no use having an example of a technique if the writer doesn’t know how to use it. Kress is careful to explain what is gained and what is lost by each narrative choice.

Kress also tackles touchy questions like the problem with anti-heroes, the risks of basing a character on a real person, and when the author’s assumptions about people can get him in trouble.

DYNAMIC CHARACTERS has a wealth of information, but it never feels overwhelming. Kress has broken the process of character creation into simple steps, but they are more like tools to use than a formula to follow. She explains why certain conventions exist, but isn’t dogmatic about it. She also shows us what the exceptions are and why they work.

I love all the characters I’ve created. I’m sure you do, too. We love spending time with these imaginary people who are very real to us. With DYNAMIC CHARACTERS as our guide, we can make them become real to readers, too.

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DYNAMIC CHARACTERS 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

Story Climax by H.R. D’Costa

Story Climax

Most of us don’t think about the end of a story when we start our manuscripts. We’re so busy writing the beginning and middle, we just sort of trust that the ending will take care of itself when we get there. But D’Costa reminds us that we might be able to sell this story to a reader on the strength of its beginning. But we’ll need a big, bold, satisfying ending to sell the next one. In fact, a writer’s career depends on nailing that ending.

Although it gives lip service to novels, STORY CLIMAX is a screenwriting book. Even so, there are many techniques a novelist can learn from screenwriters. If there’s one thing Hollywood is good at, it’s the big finish. Although all of D’Costa’s examples are from movies, novelists can still learn her lessons.

It’s not enough for an ending to have lots of action or the hero and heroine finally declaring their love. A writer builds up what D’Costa calls “narrative debts” that must be paid off in act three. In fact, they must be paid off with interest. Readers have come this far, and want and ending worthy of the money and time they spent on your story.

A teacher can’t really explain climax without talking about the antagonist and the stakes. STORY CLIMAX is a great primer on those two elements as well. But even if your antagonist is the most formidable opponent ever and your stakes are as high as they can be, there are still plenty of ways for the final encounter to go wrong. It can be rushed, underplayed, indirect, or the sidekicks can muck it up.

D’Costa shows why a direct confrontation between the hero and the villain is crucial, how to close off subplots before the climax, and how to avoid clichés like the “race to the airport” in the final scene of a romance. She gives many examples of stories that got it wrong as well as stories that got it right for great side-by-side comparisons.

I made the mistake of gulping down this entire book in one sitting. Ironically, I couldn’t wait to get to the end of this great book on endings. But I will be reading STORY CLIMAX again, while taking notes and consulting my own manuscript to make sure my climax is just as big and satisfying as I want it to be.

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STORY CLIMAX can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

 

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

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Novels are emotion-delivery vehicles. We read non-fiction for information, but novels are all about going on an emotional journey with the characters. As writers, we can move readers to laughter or tears, limited only by our storytelling skills.

Humans are great at decoding the emotions of others by reading their facial expressions and body language. That’s what makes movies so powerful. Novelists have a tougher time. It’s one thing to tell a reader how your hero feels. It’s quite another to make them feel it right along with him. It’s the old show-don’t-tell advice, but how do you do that?

THE EMOTION THESAURUS offers a list of seventy-five primary emotions such as anger, dread, relief, shame and satisfaction. Each entry gives clues about how to express the emotion with physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensation. So if your character is feeling something, what might she do or think? What might her physical reaction be?

THE EMOTION THESAURUS isn’t a checklist, allowing lazy writers to drop appropriate emotions onto their characters willy-nilly. Using this book takes care and thought. You must reword the descriptors to match the voice and tone of the characters while staying true to the emotions of the moment. This book won’t do the work for you. In fact, it might make your work harder by forcing you to look beyond your comfortable, clichéd expressions.

I’m a huge fan of practical writing tools. Airy theory is nice, but how-to books need to get right down into the trenches with me to be of any use. THE EMOTION THESAURUS is one of those necessary reference guides that not only tells me what to do, but shows me exactly how.

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THE EMOTION THESAURUS 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

Yoga for the Brain by Dawn DiPrince and Cheryl Miller Thurston

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Until last year, I’d never used a book of writing prompts. I never saw the value in them. I found most books of prompts silly or pretentious. I thought it was better to write my own stuff, since it would be impossible to write anything good from someone else’s suggested topic. But my neighbor wanted to do some writing exercises with me and YOGA FOR THE BRAIN seemed good for us both. It has 366 writing exercises, so we committed to doing one a day for all of 2014. I didn’t care that the book was written for students. I thought it meant I’d finish faster.

Can I just say how wrong I was? About all of it. These prompts weren’t easy or simple or short. They were seriously fun, spoke to people of all ages, and brought up meaty topics in interesting ways. Sometimes I wrote three or more pages because the prompt triggered a memory or an idea and I simply had to get it on the page.

Here are some of the prompts I had great success with: #153: “What would your new rules for the world be?” #82: “Create an expression of joy in exactly 25 words.” and #166: “Write a conversation between a modern person and a person from the past.” (I chose Miley Cyrus and Ella Fitzgerald.)

But the value of YOGA FOR THE BRAIN goes far beyond the exercises in it, and what I learned wasn’t found in the book. I learned that writing a little bit every day is better than long writing sessions once a week. If you miss one day, you can make it up fairly easily. But if you miss more than one, you’ll be hard pressed to finish all the old work and the new stuff too. My life got chaotic when I moved this summer, and making up for days I didn’t write was nearly impossible.

Often, I’d come to the prompt with a head as blank as the page in front of me. But once my pen was on the paper, I always found something to say. Sometimes what I wrote was flat and dull, but most of the time it was quite good and sometimes it was amazing. I rediscovered what I’d always known: inspiration is a myth. If I put my butt in my chair and my pen in my hand, writing would happen. The muses would show up, but only if I showed up first.

After the first few months, my neighbor dropped out and stopped writing her daily exercises, but I kept going. I’m so glad I did. It wasn’t always easy, but finishing every prompt in YOGA FOR THE BRAIN has helped me grow as a writer in unexpected ways.

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YOGA FOR THE BRAIN can be found 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.

Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa

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Long ago, when I was a brand-new baby writer, I pitched a novel to an editor at a writer’s conference. My short summary was going well (I thought) until the editor asked, “And if the heroine doesn’t reach her goal, what then?” I blinked. Blinked again. My mouth opened and closed but no words came out. I finally muttered something stupid about a dog dying, the editor declined to read my manuscript, and that was that.

I stayed in touch with the editor, and years later at another conference, I was able to hand him a copy of my first published novel. I reminded him about our first meeting, we had a good laugh, and I thanked him for his kindness. “But I was so mean!” he said. I told him he wasn’t mean. Not at all. He’d taught me a valuable lesson. He’d taught me about stakes.

If the hero has nothing to lose, there are no stakes and therefore no story. We all want to make our stories as gripping as possible, but it’s not always easy to see how. H.R. D’Costa spells out, in clear language, the different kinds of story stakes–from freedom and justice to regret, protection of others, and the hero’s own death. She uses many examples from well-known books and movies, so you can see the stakes in action. She also includes “modulating factors,” things that can be used to make situations even worse for your poor hero, mostly by making them emotionally difficult.

I would have liked to see a few more examples from books, rather than movies. The two mediums are quite different, after all. However, D’Costa explains that by using mostly movie examples, she reaches a wider audience. This is a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent book.

I know a lot more about story stakes now than I did the first time I tried to write a novel. Even so, I highlighted the heck out of STORY STAKES and bookmarked many pages. Thanks to H.R. D’Costa, now I’ve got even more tools to keep readers riveted to the page.

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STORY STAKES 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

 

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

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Like all writers, I’m interested in people and what makes them tick. Real life people are often baffling, but characters in novels have to make sense. Writers are usually good at creating three-dimensional heroes, but what about the bad guys? It’s hard to imagine doing some of the things these villains do. It’s even harder to imagine that the villain’s actions make perfect sense to him.

MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME) explains exactly how humans justify their actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to make up “reasons” why it was the right—perhaps even the best—thing to do.

Each chapter covers one aspect of this troubling human behavior. Tavris and Aronson explain why bullying almost always intensifies, why the police are reluctant to let wrongly accused people go, how soldiers justify torture, and how easily marriage spats get out of hand. In each case, being wrong is seen as the problem. No matter what, our brains don’t like to be wrong. So, even when confronted with facts, we’ll dig in our heels and try to shift blame or explain away the problem.

The best villains I’ve come across in fiction were not strictly “bad guys.” Their motives were pure in some way, even if their methods were not. More importantly, each villain told himself a story about why his actions were necessary, even good. Thanks to MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME), I have a little more insight into how that happens. And, a little more insight into myself as well.

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MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME) 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

Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell

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Some people watch television when they can’t sleep. I shop for ebooks, which is how I ended up buying WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE at 3:00 in the morning. People are usually sorry about those middle-of-the-night purchases, but I don’t regret this one at all. I’ve enjoyed many of Bell’s books (see here and here). This is my new favorite.

WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE is a slim volume with a single big idea. Bell focuses on the scene at the exact middle of the novel: the midpoint scene. It is the tent pole that holds up the entire narrative. So many writers complain about the “sagging middle,” as if it is a dreary swamp between the intrigue of the beginning and the excitement of the end. It doesn’t have to be that way. Bell believes so strongly in the power of the midpoint scene, he suggests a writer start there and organize the rest of the novel around it.

Bell pictures the novel as a triangle with the first plot point (The doorway of no return) at the one point and the ramp up to the climax at another. The midpoint is the hinge, the biggest turning point. A well-written midpoint scene has all the high stakes and deep character work that every novel demands, crystallized in a moment of self-awareness that changes everything.

Bell shows how a strong midpoint scene can help both “plotters” and “pantsers” realize the full potential of their novels. By understanding the midpoint moment, pantsers will have something to aim toward and plotters will have something to organize the narrative around. It works for the most plot-focused genre fiction and the most character-focused literary fiction.

When I finished WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE, it was nearly dawn, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. I had to get up and open the computer, excited to start writing the midpoint scene of my next novel.

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WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE 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 Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition by Christopher Vogler

Vogler

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is all about the great monomyth of western culture, known as the Hero’s Journey. The best-known example is Star Wars. George Lucas borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell’s book, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Campbell, in turn, borrowed from the unwritten assumptions of our culture, finding the universal storytelling rules we all unconsciously follow. Vogler has taken a more practical approach to Campbell’s work, laying things out for his fellow writers in an accessible way. THE WRITER’S JOURNEY shows exactly how a Hero’s Journey story goes together, and what scenes your book or screenplay needs to make a cohesive storyline.

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is divided into two parts: character and plot. Vogler starts by examining the universal character types that stories have, from the hero and his mentor to the trickster, the guardian, the shadow, and other well-known types. He then shows how these characters move through the plot, outlining the hero’s journey from the ordinary world to the world of adventure and back again.

Some writers complain that THE WRITERS JOURNEY teaches a formula, and that by using it, your books will be shallow. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason the great monomyth has persisted throughout the years is because of its endless variations. In fact, it wasn’t until I read Vogler’s examples that I realized how much the movies Dances with Wolves and Sister Act have in common. The storylines couldn’t be more different, but the underlying framework is the same. Both movies feel fresh, and very different from each other, despite the well-worn structure.

My one disagreement with Vogler is that not every single story fits into the Hero’s Journey template. He says they do, but some of his examples seem like a stretch. I prefer Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT, where the Hero’s Journey is just one of many ways to tell a story. That said, I can’t fault Vogler for seeing the Hero’s Journey everywhere. It’s a satisfying method of storytelling that resonates on a deep, human level. I like this book a lot, and reading it prepared me to take a writer’s journey of my own.

[note: I have all three versions of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, but the 2nd edition is the best one. Each edition became more detailed, and by the 3rd edition, Vogler got bogged down in examples and digressions, losing the forest amongst the trees. But the 2nd edition is just the right length. It’s got enough explanations to be clear, but not so many that you miss the point. It’s out of print, but used versions of the 2nd edition are cheap and easy to find.]

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THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, 2ND EDITION can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book