The Secrets of Character by Matt Bird

When readers begin a novel, they are not reading for plot, they are reading for character. The best plot in the world won’t hold a reader if they don’t like the hero. Readers want to be reassured, right from the start, that this is a character they’d like to spend 300 pages with, so it’s crucial you get readers invested in your hero in the first few pages. THE SECRETS OF CHARACTER shows you exactly how to do that, with an explanation of each technique and examples of how to use it.

According to Bird, readers need three things in order to keep reading. They need to believe in the protagonist, care about her, and invest in her. You make a reader believe by using specific and granular details. You make a reader care by showing the heroine’s bravery in hard circumstances. You make a reader invest by giving the heroine the unique skills she’ll need to solve the story problem.

That sounds obvious, but only in hindsight. And Bird doesn’t just tell writers to do those three things and call it a day. He meticulously breaks down each step, giving examples of all the ways you can add detail, or craft difficult circumstances, or make her a badass. All the examples are from well-known novels and movies, from Little Women to The Hunger Games. I’m someone who learns best from examples, so I appreciated Bird’s focus on showing how other writers have done it.

I also liked Bird’s positive attitude. He is not interested in telling writers about their mistakes. He’s too busy showing writers all the great things they can do with their characters. He offers lots of options but cautions readers against trying all of them. This is a menu, not an all-you-can-eat buffet. Each writer and each character is unique, and some of the tools will suit certain stories, but not others.

Some writers are skilled at characterization and automatically do much of what Bird advises. However, even character-driven writers will find THE SECRETS OF CHARACTER useful, because now they can deliberately apply these techniques instead of fumbling in the dark. And writers who are more plot-driven, or who struggle with characterization, will find THE SECRETS OF CHARACTER invaluable.

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THE SECRETS OF CHARACTER 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.

Can You Make the Title Bigga? by Jessica Bell

Bell is a self-taught book cover designer who considers herself an expert—not an expert in what to do right, but an expert in what everyone else is doing wrong. CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? is my least-favorite kind of how-to book. It’s a ranty book filled with complaints, but no real instruction.

Great cover design is an ever-shifting goal. Trends change in a blink and “same but different” can be a fine line to walk. The other problem is that the writer must use words to communicate her vision to an artist who thinks in pictures. And they’re trying to agree on a design that they both love that will also sell books. Money and emotions are involved. It would be great if there was a book out there that could help self-published authors navigate those treacherous waters, but CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? isn’t it.

Bell hasn’t spoken to other designers so she can’t say what’s typical in the industry. She can only explain how she does things, which she’s eager to do, over and over and over. When Bell isn’t complaining, she’s promoting her own design services. She’s certain that authors would get better covers if they did things her way. But the reader is never sure what that way is, since Bell contradicts herself constantly. She complains that authors don’t give her enough direction, and then claims to want complete creative control. She says that the worst thing an author can do is to give the designer a photo they took for the cover, but a few chapters later, she’s gushing over one of her authors who always takes the most perfect photos for her covers. She warns against “cluttered” covers, and then proudly shows off a cover that uses every available bit of white space.

Bell quotes directly from emails with clients, and she delights in showing the reader the rookie mistakes her clients have made, from not knowing how to get an ISBN to not having their jacket copy prepared ahead of time. She also includes her responses—snarky one-liners that put the authors in their place instead of soliciting the correct information from them. I have hired cover designers myself, over twenty times, and my experiences were nothing like Bell describes. Either she’s cherry-picking the worst of her client interactions, or she’s not capable of attracting professional-level clients.

Even worse, she badmouths her own employees. First, she explains that her employees are only good for grunt work, but she gives them design work anyway, which she then does over. Bell blames herself for this, because she didn’t hire the best. She even calls out these employees by name (first and last) making sure to trash them in public. It’s a major red flag and I’m not sure why anyone would want to work for her—or hire her.

Bell is a decent cover designer. She includes a handful of color images of her work to prove it. But she’s a terrible communicator. She puffs herself up while putting others down, she doesn’t know how to work with clients, and somehow, she’s written an entire book about cover design that doesn’t teach a single thing about what makes a good book cover.

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CAN YOU MAKE THE TITLE BIGGA? can be found here

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran instead of this book

How to Write Black Characters by the editors at Salt & Sage Books

The editors at Salt & Sage books work as sensitivity readers, and in the course of their work, they kept seeing the same problems over and over. Rather than repeating themselves to individual authors, they wrote HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS as an introduction to the topic. It’s meant as a broad overview, to help catch the most common errors, helping readers eliminate negative stereotypes and harmful tropes.

The chapters cover stereotypes, hair, language, (including an introduction to AAVE and code-switching), family, anti-Blackness, and religion. There are also chapters on Blackness in Britain and Africa, although the bulk of the book is addressing North American writers.

In the case of stereotypes, the authors explain where a stereotype came from, why it’s so harmful, examples they’ve seen, and—crucially—how to do better. Sometimes, erasing one stereotype can make an author fall into another. One example that the authors use is when you don’t want to write an “angry black woman” character, so you make her too passive and eager to please those around her, as if her emotional labor isn’t important or she’s not worthy of emotions of her own. The key is to make your character well-rounded. To help readers understand her anger and her other emotions, and why she’s worthy of having them.

I’m not Black, but some of my characters are. We live in a beautifully multicultural society, and it’s important that fiction reflect that. I learned a ton from this book, and I loved the way it went beyond the basics to the more subtle nuances. I’m grateful to the editors at Salt & Sage, who put a lot of their own lived experience on the page so that others could learn.

HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS is a short book, but it includes a lot of resources for further reading. It underscores the theme: the author must do the work. This book is an invitation, the beginning of a conversation that should continue through other sources and by talking to members of the community you want to write about.

HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS is not meant to substitute for a good sensitivity reader. There isn’t a checklist that a non-Black author can go by, and even if there were, checking the “not offensive” box isn’t enough when writing real characters. The authors warn readers right up front that this is an incomplete guide, blackness is not a monolith, and this guide should never be the sum of an author’s research.

But it’s an excellent place to start.

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HOW TO WRITE BLACK CHARACTERS can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

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.

The Relaxed Author by Joanna Penn and Mark Leslie Lefebvre

There are two truths that self-published authors have taken as holy writ: there is no better marketing than writing a new book, and books are only “new” for thirty days. In the first month of a book’s life, Amazon and the other retailers will help out quite a bit with behind-the-scenes marketing. After that, you’re on your own.

If both of those things are true, then it stands to reason that the best way to succeed in self publishing is to write a new book every single month. Lots of indie authors tried it, either on their own or as a conglomerate of four to six authors publishing under a single pen name. And to no one’s surprise, many of these authors have burned out.

Even if an author isn’t writing a book a month, trying to wear both the writer hat and publisher hat can be exhausting if the writer is trying to get maximum results from both jobs. Something’s got to give. But what should that something be?

THE RELAXED AUTHOR is part manifesto, part wise guide, and part evaluation tool. Writers don’t have to do it all, and Penn and Lefebvre are here to help sort out what’s truly useful for indie authors and what’s mere hype.

THE RELAXED AUTHOR is divided into four sections: writing, publishing, marketing, and running your author business. Each step of the way, the authors ask the right questions to help writers decide how to spend their time and effort. Being a “relaxed author” doesn’t mean doing things half-assed. It doesn’t mean you should stop caring about things. Being relaxed means going at the speed that’s right for you, and making good decisions that will provide a solid foundation for your writing life.

Penn and Lefebvre take turns writing the chapters, giving two perspectives on every problem. All of the advice is solid, and where Penn and Lefebvre have differing opinions, the reasons behind those opinions is also instructive. For example, Penn uses virtual assistants while Lefebvre finds them more trouble than they’re worth. Neither one is right or wrong. They are simply doing what’s best for them. That’s the final key. To be a relaxed author is to be self-aware, and THE RELAXED AUTHOR helps writers think through every aspect of their writing and publishing life.

Stressed out writers don’t write well. Staying relaxed can, ironically, help an author stay more creative and productive for the long haul—both as an author and as a self-publisher.

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THE RELAXED AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker

There are two kinds of writers in the world: those who like to outline before they begin writing and those who “fly by the seat of their pants.” TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is aimed at the latter group. Hawker promises that even the most hard-core pantsers can learn to outline. She insists that outlining novels is the only way to a full-time author career, while pantsers are doomed to keep their day jobs. Hawker then doubles down to say that outlining the “right” way (her way) is the only path to a successful literary career. None of this is true, but I suspect this book sells more for the provocative title than for any of its contents.

Hawker hasn’t done any research into the plotter/pantser divide beyond her own experience. She wrote her first book without an outline and it took her a long time. She wrote all her later books with outlines and they were written faster. Therefore, she has concluded that outlines are best for everyone. She belabors this point (and all of her points) with tons of strawman arguments and as much self-praise as she can manage.

Hawker learned her personal outlining method by following John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. She states over and over again that TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is simply a streamlined version of Truby’s book. To be fair, Truby’s book is overly complex and borderline unreadable, so perhaps Hawker thinks she’s doing writers a favor by distilling it for them. But here’s the thing: nobody needs a dumbed-down version of a bad book.

Hawker’s actual outline template is just The Hero’s Journey with different names attached to the plot points. However, changing the name of a well-known concept doesn’t make it a new concept. Calling the all-is-lost moment the “changed goal,” or calling the climax scene “the battle,” doesn’t make them different things. It’s very unfair to the reader to take a well-known story map, rename all the parts, and then pretend you invented it.

For her examples, Hawker gives a nod to the first Harry Potter book and to Charlotte’s Web, but the majority of her examples are from two sources: Lolita, and her own book called Tidewater. Her novel is the story of Pocahontas, told from Pocahontas’ point of view. Pocahontas’ fatal flaw, according to Hawker, is that she was “too ambitious.” (Too ambitious for what? For a woman? For a Native American?) Four different times, Hawker states that the theme of Tidewater is “how people handle a cultural clash.” To her, the colonization of North America was merely a clash of cultures. The whitewashing of history aside, taking examples from a book that few people have read is unhelpful, and using the author’s own novel is just bad form.

I’m someone who loves to outline her novels and I’m always thrilled when I find a new outlining method. But TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is derivative, self-indulgent, and offensive. Pantsers won’t want this book, plotters won’t like it, and nobody needs it.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of 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

The Write Balance by Bonni Goldberg

THE WRITE BALANCE isn’t a book about how to write. What I mean by that is, it’s not a book about craft issues like plot, character, description, pacing, or dialogue. But it is a book about the writing process. Goldberg ignores the most obvious part of the process—the first draft. There are hundreds of books out there that will teach writers how to write a first draft faster, cleaner, in thirty days, or ninety days, or a year, with or without an outline. Goldberg leaves that to other books.

Instead, she shines a bright light into other, darker corners of the writing process—those that aren’t taught much and often not even mentioned in books and classes. THE WRITE BALANCE is divided into three parts. The first is about percolation, that pre-writing period where ideas are generated. The second is about revision, including on your own and with a critique group. The final part is about going public, which can mean publication, but doesn’t necessarily have to.

Too many writers focus on daily word count, as if that’s the only metric that matters. However, Goldberg devotes fully a third of THE WRITE BALANCE to what she calls percolation. She recognizes that writers are humans, not machines, and that we need quiet thinking time as much as we need butt-in-chair time. However, she doesn’t advocate for mindless woolgathering. Goldberg offers exercises to do and a reasonable timeframe in which to do them.

The middle part of the book is about revision—another thing that gets scant attention in most how-to books. Goldberg discusses the ins and outs of critique groups and beta readers, while constantly reminding writers that their intuition will guide them well if they listen to it.

Finally, Goldberg discusses going public, although her focus is not on rushing immediately to publication. Instead, she talks about taking your time, finding the right publication path, and finding other ways to share stories, whether that is through public readings, open mics, or blogging. Publication can (and should) be in that mix, but there are lots of ways to share what we write.

Throughout, Goldberg shares lessons steeped in empathy. Everything is seen through the lens of how it will nurture or hurt writers. But this isn’t a touchy-feely book full of woo. It’s an extremely practical guide to the areas of a writer’s life that are so often overlooked. Some of us don’t even have words for what we’re doing when we’re percolating. Instead, we call ourselves “lazy” or “procrastinators,” instead of honoring the idea phase of writing.

THE WRITE BALANCE was so insightful, I sometimes felt like Goldberg was sitting in my home office with me. More than once, I whispered to my kindle, “How does she know?” But Goldberg doesn’t see through walls. She’s simply tapped into the universal struggles that all writers share, and she shows us how to make it through all the phases of writing, from first idea to publication.

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THE WRITE BALANCE can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to worry about the state of the English language every time I used social media. Faced with a wall of misspellings, incorrect grammar, and wild punctuation, I despaired for my mother tongue. I sometimes reminded myself that until the digital age, public writing was something that professionals did, and we never read printed words from an average person. Perhaps most writing was always terrible, it’s just that we didn’t see most of it. Other times, I worried that nobody cared about the “rules” of writing and we were all doomed to a slow slide into illiteracy.

BECAUSE INTERNET showed me that my assumptions were wrong on all counts. It’s not that people are using English incorrectly, it’s that they’re adapting language to their needs. Until recently, we had formal writing and informal speech.  For example, you’d start a letter to your grandma with “Dear Grandmother,” but when you saw her in person, you’d say, “Hi, Gran!” However, with the rise of social media, for the first time, we have informal writing.

Internet language isn’t incorrect, and it doesn’t signal the end of good grammar. It’s simply a way of expressing the informality of speech in a written format. Nor should we worry about young people being unduly influenced by it. McCulloch sites studies that show that students can easily code-switch into formal writing when required for tests or papers.

BECAUSE INTERNET takes a deep dive into internet language, starting with its history. McCulloch explains why different generations use language differently on the internet. Users are roughly divided by age, but more importantly, by when they first got online. Like all good linguists, McCulloch is descriptive rather than prescriptive, explaining why and how language is changing without ever judging people for it.

Because when it comes right down to it, the way that we write when we’re online makes sense. When we’re face to face, we communicate so much in body language, tone, and facial expressions. Written words don’t express tone of voice, so we sometimes use uppercase for emphasis, or add asterisks or tildes. We use /s to indicate that this is sarcasm or a joke, but we use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters to indicate mockery. We misspell on purpose for humor or to pull out a word, as in, “I allllmost forgot my phone,” or the Tumblr favorite, “sameeee” to indicate absolute agreement.

And when words aren’t enough, we use GIFs to show a facial expression, or turn to emojis. McCulloch gives a detailed explanation of the history and purpose of emojis. They aren’t taking the place of body language, since body language is unconscious. Emojis are deliberate, and therefore represent gestures, such as a thumbs up or a shrug. McCulloch details how and why emojis are used and by whom. (I laughed the first time my mom sent me an emoji. It looked strange because most senior citizens don’t use them.)  

BECAUSE INTERNET is not written in an academic tone. It’s easy to read, sharp, insightful, and quite funny in parts. It gave me new appreciation for the way that language is changing right before our eyes, with the birth of new grammar for the digital age.

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BECAUSE INTERNET can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Into the Woods by John Yorke (content warning)

Content Warning: sexual assault

Yorke is a TV writer and producer for the BBC, so he has an interest in story structure. His career would seem to depend on it, and yet, he treats the most basic and well-known elements of storytelling as if they were brand-new insights. Yorke references the screenwriting teachers who came before him like Vogler, Snyder, and Field, while at the same time trying to take credit for ideas they developed.

While studying the three-act structure, Yorke noticed that act two was longer than the others, with a distinct dividing line in the middle. In short, he learned about Midpoints. That’s when Yorke decided that the three-act structure was really a five-act structure, and INTO THE WOODS is littered with charts to “prove” his point. It’s still the exact same story structure. He simply renamed the parts.

All of INTO THE WOODS is like this. Yorke describes some well-known facet of storycraft and then pretends he was the first to discover it. The first chapters are about story structure, while the second half of the book deals with characterization, dialogue, and exposition. Yorke ends with a long and boring history of TV shows. His entire point here is that TV shows either end because the characters change, and therefore their story is finished, or the characters don’t change at all (such as in sitcoms) and the show gets repetitive. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. There is literally nothing here that hasn’t been said before in better books.

Yorke’s examples are mostly random and never illustrate his points in any meaningful way. In fact, his points are so general that nearly any example from nearly any movie or TV show would fit. INTO THE WOODS reads like a paper from a student who did a lot of research and took a lot of notes, and is determined to cram it all into the text, whether it fits or not.

Throughout, Yorke keeps hinting at a big reveal. He keeps promising that he’s going to explain why humans tell stories. Like a late-night infomercial that keeps hyping a gadget before showing it to you, Yorke hints that his upcoming insight is going to be brilliant. Finally, he shares the secret. Are you ready for this?

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world.

That’s it.

That’s the insight that Yorke thinks is so groundbreaking that he spends an entire book leading up to it.

All this would probably add up to a two-star rating but what sinks it to a one-star is Yorke’s misogyny. The vast majority of his examples are taken from macho movies such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and every single one of the experts he quotes is a man. He brings up sexual assault at least once per chapter, as if he’s fascinated by the subject. Out of the thousands of examples he could use to illustrate his points, over and over he chooses examples of women being assaulted by men. The only woman-centric movie he cites is Thelma and Louise, and you can guess which aspect of it he’s fixated on. He even reimagines the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel with the children raped and murdered.

I never thought I’d have to put a content warning in a book review, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s another warning: don’t buy this book.

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Rating: one star

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.