Deep Work by Cal Newport

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I used to scoff at people who needed an internet blocker while writing. If they were getting distracted by social media, maybe they simply didn’t love writing enough. Not anymore! Nowadays, I’m testing programs like Freedom and Cold Turkey and asking my friends which blocker works best.

Distractions are everywhere. Even worse, they are affecting our brains. The more we let ourselves get distracted, the more our brain trains us to be distractible. Computers and social media are so enticing (maybe even addictive) it’s no wonder we can’t concentrate anymore. Uninterrupted time is rare and becoming rarer. But concentrating deeply, being in “the zone,” is exactly what writers need to do. DEEP WORK has some excellent advice for writers who need to slow down, concentrate, and produce more books.

DEEP WORK is divided into two parts: theory and practice. In part one, Newport lays out why deep work is rare, valuable, and meaningful. He distinguishes between “shallow work” (things like email and meetings) and “deep work” (things like writing, computer coding, and inventing). Shallow work will make you look—and feel—busy, but only deep work truly matters. After all, nobody gets a promotion because they are great at email.

But a persuasive argument for deep work is no good without an action plan. Newport has advice for scheduling deep work, banishing distractions, and cutting out as much shallow work as possible. I found Newport’s suggestions extremely practical and not at all hard.

Newport also suggests cutting out all social media. This last one is probably not realistic for a writer, since social media is our main source of networking and fans expect to interact with us online. However, we certainly can all limit our use of social media, especially during prime writing time.

As much as I loved this book, I do think Newport has a blind spot. He cites numerous examples of men doing deep work, from Carl Jung to Nate Silver, but he quotes few women, and ignores gendered expectations. Women, especially married women, are expected by our society to take up domestic and childcare work, as well as emotional labor such as daily scheduling and managing the social life of the couple. Men are rewarded for ignoring all that and retreating into work in a way that women are not. You can’t do deep work when you’re interrupted all the time and women are most often the ones being interrupted.

DEEP WORK is not for everyone. I can’t imagine a nurse or a waiter or an electrician getting much out of this book, since their jobs are fast-paced and extremely interactive. Newport’s advice is for a certain kind of worker: a knowledge worker who works alone. In short, writers are the ideal audience.

Spending lots of time “in the zone” is crucial for writers, especially new writers without a book contract, who have to rely on their own willpower to get a book written. Without deep work, writers can drift from shallow task to shallow task, looking “busy” the whole time but never getting any of their books written.

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DEEP WORK is available here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell

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Pulp is often considered lowbrow. Just because it’s written in quantity and features plain language, it is often seen as undeserving. Literary writers are especially fond of looking down their noses at genre writers. But good pulp is simply another version of the art form known as the novel. And yes, it’s an art. Just ask Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and Lawrence Block.

Bell defines pulp fiction as plot centric, easy to read, and fast-paced, with colorful characters, witty dialogue, and intriguing settings. In other words, popular fiction. Romance and thrillers are the bestselling genres today, but Bell only gives a passing nod to romance. His advice is clearly for those who want to write thrillers or hardboiled mysteries, especially in a series. (He calls a series character “the writer’s insurance policy.”)

A pulp writer gives the reader what they want and plenty of it. In order to do that, the writer has to study the market and write fast. HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is loaded with lists and plot generators, along with good general writing advice that will keep pulp novels from becoming hack work. Bell’s two strategies for writing faster are also tried-and-true: banish distractions and write to a quota. Pulp writers can’t afford to be too precious about the work.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is rounded out with some publishing advice. The first pulp golden age was when paperbacks were a new medium. Now, ebooks are the new paperbacks, and low-priced reads are once again taking over the market. Bell assumes that pulp writers will be self-publishing and gives advice about hiring editors and proofreaders. He also urges writers to give books away periodically in order to raise awareness of your name. Since a pulp writer will be writing a lot, doing a few giveaways won’t hurt sales.

This is a very specific book for a very specific kind of writer. It’s not a general how-to book. But like pulp fiction itself, HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is fast-paced and easy to read. It’s a great introduction to writing faster, writing to market, and generally getting out of your own way to let those stories rip.

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HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

 

 

Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict by Cheryl St. John

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It’s the most maddening of rejection letters: “I didn’t connect with the story.” Or, “This is very good and well-written, but I didn’t fall in love with it.” Writers who have been writing and submitting for a while receive these rejections from editors and agents quite often. Their novels are close, but not quite ready.

If that’s you, St. John can help. Because what’s often lacking from these manuscripts is a sympathetic hero or heroine that the reader cares strongly about. What’s also often lacking is high stakes.

Most beginning writers quickly level up through the basics. They learn story structure, they nail their big turning points, and they keep a checklist of what not to do, making sure they don’t commit any big story sins. However, a writer can do all of that and still produce a novel that feels flat to the reader. It takes emotion and meaningful conflict to make a reader care, and high tension to make her keep turning pages.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT has six sections, covering conflict, emotion, setting, tension, dialogue, and characterization. Each section has several chapters diving deeply into the heart of what makes novels work. But St. John doesn’t just give instruction. She gives writers tools. She shows writers how to do research, how to take notes, and even how to watch television with an eye toward learning writing lessons. The exercises at the end of the chapters are meaningful—not just busywork.

The only bad thing about this book is that St. John uses too many examples from movies. I get why she did it (movies are shorthand for books) but I wish she’d included more examples from novels.

WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is perfect for intermediate writers: those who have the technical skills and are ready to make the leap to the next level. But it’s also a great book for beginners who are honing their skills and for advanced writers who need a reminder of what really makes their readers turn to the next page.

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WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, AND CONFLICT is available 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.

 

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.