Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

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In English class, many of us were taught that plot and character were separate things. They were even pitted against each other as well-meaning teachers spoke of stories that were either “plot driven” or “character driven.” Of course, we know one can’t exist without the other. The best novels are filled with fascinating characters doing amazing things. So why do we study them separately?

Even worse, writers are taught that you can structure a plot, but characters just arise organically. Weiland is here to put that nonsense to bed once and for all.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS shows writers how to craft a character just as carefully as they craft a plot. If you hate plotting because you’re a discovery writer (also known as a “pantser,”) you can map out the heroine’s emotional journey and the plot points will fall into place. If you love plotting, you can start there and make sure your heroine has the emotional turning points when she should.

Weiland breaks down the three types of character arcs: positive, negative, and flat. The positive change arc is the most popular. We see it in Hollywood movies and expect it from our genre fiction. Weiland shows how characters should change through a novel, with growth in each of the three acts. She also covers how minor characters change, and how to handle character arcs in trilogies and series. Using Weiland’s methods, a writer will not only create a fascinating protagonist, but one that is uniquely qualified to follow the plot.

CREATING CHARACTER ARCS is amazing and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have lots of good books on my shelf about story structure and character creation, but this is the only one that considers them together. Many books pay lip service to the interaction between plot and character, but Weiland shows how they aren’t just linked, but interdependent. Character moves plot. Plot changes character. And Weiland shows you exactly how to integrate them into a perfect whole.

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CREATING CHARACTER ARCS 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 Dip by Seth Godin

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I didn’t expect to like this book. Godin tends to rub me the wrong way, and THE DIP is tiny, only 80 pages, so I thought it would be light on usefulness as well. But I took a chance, figuring I’d stop after a page or two.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. THE DIP was way better than I thought it would be. I read the whole thing in one sitting and took two pages of notes.

The main idea is that everybody quits things. We quit gyms, jobs, marriages, hobbies, and even our passions. Writers quit submitting manuscripts, or quit revising, or even quit writing. When do we quit? At precisely the wrong time. We quit when it gets hard. Almost everyone quits when it gets hard. The few that stay in, succeed.

Here’s the thing. Everyone has to pay their dues. No matter what. Writers need to spend hours and hours writing and learning the market and submitting manuscripts. Paying dues is just built in. But quitters pay all those dues and receive no benefits, while others pay all those dues, pay just a little more, and succeed.

But there’s a flipside to this. Sometimes quitting is good. If you’re in a dead-end job or sport or hobby or passion, where working harder and longer will simply lead to more of the same, getting out early is the best choice.

So how do you know which is which? Godin never explains. But you know what? He doesn’t have to. In our guts, we know when we need to double down, because we’re simply in a rough patch on the way to our dreams. We also know when we’re just fooling ourselves, coasting, spending a lot of energy being mediocre. In that case, it’s better to quit, to free up time and energy for attacking a worthy goal.

Godin says it this way: Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

Basic advice? Maybe. But it’s also advice that I—and probably many other people—needed to hear.

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THE DIP can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book.

The 5 Day Novel by Scott King

 

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First there was NaNoWriMo, where writers attempt to write a novel in a month. Then came the two-week novel. Now, King claims to have written his book in five days.

Rubbish.

Oh, I’m not saying King didn’t do it. I’m sure he did. But he did it as a stunt, just to see if he could. It’s not something he’ll continue doing regularly.

Just as writing an entire novel in five days was a stunt, this how-to book is a stunt as well. King gleefully tells us how he wrote his novel, all the while telling us not to attempt the same thing. King’s writing style also feels rushed and a bit breathless. He bounces quickly from one idea to another, using lots of exclamation points, like a guy who has consumed too many energy drinks and is now ready to jump off a cliff with a GoPro strapped to his head.

THE 5 DAY NOVEL isn’t all bad. King has some decent tips for time management, outlining, ignoring distractions, and not overthinking a rough draft.

But most of the advice is shallow, like “decide you’re a writer,” and “make time to write your novel” and my personal favorite: “Decide what you want to write about, and if you don’t know the subject well enough to write with authority, then learn more about it.” How is that for some dandy writing advice?

I’m all for books that teach me how to write faster while maintaining quality, but THE 5 DAY NOVEL is not one of those books.

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THE 5 DAY NOVEL can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book.

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.

Write Better, Faster by Monica Leonelle

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There are four ways writers can improve their productivity. They can write faster, they can write for more hours per day, they can do less editing, and they can hire ghost writers. Leonelle has done all of these things, but this book is focused on the first one. She greatly increased her writing speed through the use of several productivity hacks, and she’s eager to show others how she did it.

Right away, Leonelle busts the myth that speed and quality have anything to do with each other. She plans ahead and does multiple drafts. In the end, “but is it good?” is the wrong question to ask anyway. It’s not so much about whether the work is any good, it’s about whether it gets worse when writing faster. Leonelle suggests pushing the envelope on writing speed until quality begins to suffer, and then backing off a bit to land in the sweet spot where one is writing at her absolute capacity.

WRITE BETTER, FASTER has many tricks for increasing speed, starting with simply tracking results. Whatever is measured tends to increase, so keeping a spreadsheet to calculate words per hour is a great place to start. Leonelle is also a big fan of dictation, and claims to write up to 3,500 words per hour using Dragon Naturally Speaking. She also explains how to deal with writer’s block, procrastination, scheduling, and even travel, because pure speed won’t help a writer at all if the daily writing habit isn’t there.

It’s important to note that she only achieves this amazing writing speed through the use of extensive outlines. She outlines her complete novel first, then blocks out each scene with the major action, and finally, drafts the actual novel as quickly as she can.

Some writers might love WRITE BETTER, FASTER. Some writers might hate it. It depends on how your brain works. I liked it because Leonelle plans her books the same way I do. It’s a top-down approach that makes sense to me. But I imagine that more organic writers, who like to discover the story as they write, would think her approach was silly at best, and a waste of time at worst.

But if there’s one thing that all writers can agree on, it’s that we want to write more books. We all have more ideas than we’ll ever have time for. Learning to write faster is one way to make sure more of those books get written.

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WRITE BETTER, FASTER is available here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or 2,000 TO 10,000 by Rachael Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox

 

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

Yours to Tell by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

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I was hesitant to pick up this book, even though it was recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. I thought it would be rambling, artificial, and far too cute. But it was none of those things. YOURS TO TELL is a series of thoughtful conversations about what makes stories work, written by two people who are deeply rooted in the world of reading and writing.

The Tems take turns discussing plot, character, POV, setting, story structure and theme. They also cover more businesslike things like revision, marketing and managing paperwork. But the bulk of the book is on craft. Each author holds the floor for two or three or a dozen paragraphs at a time, but they comment on each other’s points, ask each other questions, and help each other think of examples. The result is a peek into the inner workings of two accomplished writers.

The Tems read a lot, and they don’t seem to read stories so much as inhale them. They study everything for craft lessons and they know what makes fiction work. They know the upside and downside of every writing rule and freely admit to breaking more of them than they uphold.

YOURS TO TELL is not for beginners. Anyone hoping to pick up pointers on writing craft will have to read hard between the lines. For example, in the chapters about point of view, they start with unreliable narrators and “writing the other” and only later go into difference between first and third person POV. They quickly dispense with definitions and are on to discussing things like the implied author and omnipotent narration and the weirdness of second person.

Most of the chapters are like that. The Tems are experienced writers talking about what concerns them right now. They always circle back to beginner concerns, but only after they talk about higher level stuff that they, themselves, are currently grappling with.

And that’s what makes this book such a delight. The Tems don’t instruct so much as share. They don’t talk like teachers lecturing students. They are working writers talking to their peers. Reading YOURS TO TELL was like attending a very good panel discussion at a conference, the kind that leaks out into the hallway afterward. The conversation goes in many directions, but the love of story always comes through. More than anything else, the Tems respect the process of writing fiction, and appreciate the rewards of doing so.

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YOURS TO TELL can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.