Dear Writer, it is Still 2020 by Becca Syme

During this pandemic, the running joke has been, “what is time?” The calendar may have turned, but the “2020ness” of it all is still with us. Vaccines are on the horizon and life is slowly returning to normal, so why are we still doomscrolling? Why are we unable to focus? Everything is just so much right now, and creativity has been forced into the backseat, while conversations with writer buddies always turn to laments about low productivity and lost opportunities.

If this is you, you’re not alone. That’s the biggest takeaway from DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020. You might see other authors gliding through the pandemic still writing, still publishing, still getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with you. But there is a whole hell of a lot wrong with the world, and the sooner you face that reality, the better off you’ll be. Syme explains that in many ways, 2020 has simply shone a spotlight on problems that had been bubbling under the surface for many years.

DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is an antidote to the gaslighting books that insist that if your books aren’t selling, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, or you don’t believe in yourself enough, or your book isn’t written to market, or you aren’t spending enough on ads. Syme cuts through all that bullshit to give the real-world advice we need right now.

The book is divided into two halves: why you aren’t writing and why you aren’t selling. The first part covers three similar but distinct states: being stuck, being blocked, and being burned out. It’s important to not confuse these three, because each situation needs a different remedy. Syme is a coach with a ton of education and experience, and she knows what’s at the heart of most writers’ problems, and (thank goodness) she knows how to fix them.

The second half of the book covers sales (or lack of them). Syme explains why we ignore advice, why we don’t accept our limitations, and the problem of using old methods to solve new problems. She discusses the issues with pay-to-play ads and the traps writers fall into when they assume they’re outliers, or that “the market” doesn’t apply to them, or that they’re owed a certain level of sales simply because they achieved that level in the past. DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is aimed at self-published authors, but much of the advice can also apply to traditionally published authors, since much of the marketing falls on their shoulders, too. Syme’s mantra is to always “question the premise.” The way we sell books has changed in the last decade, and continues to change on a yearly—or even monthly—basis. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that situations always change, and we must change with them.

Taken as a package, DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is about more than just being a writer in the years 2020 and 2021. It’s about how to write whenever things get hard, when outside circumstances change, or when catastrophe hits. Which means it’s not just a book for our times, but a book for all times.

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DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 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

Hollywood vs. the Author by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Novelists are fascinated by Hollywood. It’s a dream of many to have our novels turned into movies–to see real people portray characters that once only lived in our heads and hear dialogue that we wrote. Places we dreamed up could appear in real life. If this seems cool to you? Read on.

Schwartz has collected essays from eighteen authors who wrote books that became movies and TV shows. Authors like Lawrence Block (Burglar), Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles) and Michael Connelly (Bosch) give candid reflections on the experience in exacting and often gruesome detail. They tell of lies, misogyny, shady accounting, dirty deals, and more lies. Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes abundantly clear that the author is the least important and least respected member of the team. I read HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR in sick awe. I knew some of this, but I never fully grasped just how awful Hollywood is for writers.

If it’s so bad, and writers know it’s bad, why do they do it? Money, mostly. There is money in Hollywood. Sometimes a lot of it. Jeff Parker (Laguna Heat) tells of a six-month movie option that was five times the advance for his novel. (An option is when a studio has an exclusive look at your work for a period of time.) Many an author has bought a house with movie money. But just as often, a writer loses money on the deal.

There are two ways an author can lose money in Hollywood. The first is when the novelist is hired to write the screenplay. That’s a sucker’s bet. No matter what script is turned in, the studio will demand multiple drafts and ultimately reject it so they can hire their own people. In the meantime, the author has lost a year or more that she could have been writing more novels.

But the other way is worse. Movie studios steal work every single day. But good luck proving it. Tess Gerritsen wrote the novel that became the movie Gravity, as well as most of the screenplay. It was stolen by director Alfonso Cuaron, who put his own name on it. When Gerritsen tried to sue, in what should have been an iron-clad case, she ran up against two truths: Hollywood has deep pockets and local judges don’t rule against the movie industry because Hollywood is basically a company town. Fifty copyright infringement cases were filed in California’s Ninth circuit between 1990 and 2010, and the authors lost their cases every single time.

Even when the process of book adaptation goes well, the author is always disappointed in the movie and never feels like she was respected or listened to. Most often the best an author can hope for is that they don’t lie to her too much and they don’t screw up the book too badly.

Because Hollywood will screw up the book. Every time. Novels and movies are different mediums and there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation. But more than that, producers, directors, and screenwriters don’t want a faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the time, they haven’t even read it. What they’re buying is the idea—basically a one-sentence log line. Movie studios don’t care about an author’s carefully written characters, setting, dialogue and plot. They’d never let a mere book get in the way of their movie.

The second-happiest writers in HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR are the ones who sold the rights to their books, took the money, and then turned their backs on the whole process, sometimes not even watching the movies that got made. The happiest writers are the ones who sold the rights to books that never got made into movies at all.

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HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

This book is best for: all authors

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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

 

 

 

Writing Killer Cover Copy by Elana Johnson

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Many authors have no trouble spinning out stories of 70,000 words or longer, but freak out when it comes to writing a 200 word description of that same novel. They either get super vague, telling the reader everything except what the book’s about, or they get super detailed, trying to cram every plot point of the story into two paragraphs. Neither of these approaches will sell books.

WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is meant for indie authors who want to write better book descriptions for online retailers, but Johnson’s approach will work equally well for authors who want to write query letters that will entice agents and editors. Before going indie, Johnson herself was traditionally published and wrote for the Query Tracker blog, so I believe her approach—with minor tweaking—works in both situations.

Johnson breaks down the process step by step, showing writers what they need to include in their cover copy and what they don’t. And just like good cover copy itself, WRITING KILLER COVER COPY is short, to the point, and useful.

Johnson writes in a very casual tone, with lots of digressions and extremely lame jokes that grew more tiresome as the book went on. I understand the value of humor when trying to tackle a difficult subject, but only when the humor works. Johnson’s jokes were as cringe-worthy as watching a stand-up comic bomb on stage night after night. Luckily, the central instruction holds up and the cornball jokes didn’t get in the way of the information.

Johnson suggests that writers start with a tagline—a one-sentence “grabber.” Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that taglines are effective. She then breaks down the four sections of a good book description: the hook, the set-up, the conflict, and the consequence. Johnson provides examples and exercises so writers can make sure that every part of their cover copy works.

Publishing is a strange business, and writers don’t control much. We can’t control what’s hot today, or how Amazon changes its algorithms, or if we score a BookBub feature. What we can control is our own product. The quality of our books and the way we present them to the market is completely up to us, and WRITING KILLER COVER COPY will help writers learn this essential skill.

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WRITING KILLER COVER COPY can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Successful Self-Publishing by Joanna Penn

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When I self-published my first book, I didn’t know exactly how to do it. But I figured that the Amazon self-publishing platform was fairly intuitive, and that if I got horribly stuck I could google the answer. Besides, if I really screwed it up, I could always go back and fix it later. On the internet, there are endless do-overs. So I gleefully jumped in without much instruction and started publishing my own novels.

I soon found out that not everyone shares this attitude. I’ve met many first-time authors who are terrified. They don’t know the first thing about formatting and uploading their own books and rather than give it a try, they become stuck and do nothing. Or worse, they pay thousands of dollars to scam vanity publishing companies to do what authors could do themselves for free.

Enter Penn and SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING. This is the book that beginners need. It’s not about the why, it’s about the how. Penn assumes authors have a polished, professionally edited and well-covered book, but simply need a basic primer to go from there. This is self-publishing 101, and it covers everything authors need to know to get a manuscript from their computers to online stores.

Authors could find all this information out online by going from website to website, chasing pieces of it all over the internet, or they can get SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING and have it all in one place. Penn covers the nuts and bolts of indie publishing, including how to format a book, how to get a cover, whether you should stick with just Amazon or sell at all retailers, and how to price your book.

Penn also has a breakdown of the costs of publishing. Editing, formatting, and cover design will all cost the author something, but putting your book on sale at retailers is free. (Retailers take a cut of each sale.) It’s important for authors to understand what to spend money on and what not to, so they don’t get scammed.

The second half of SUCCESSFUL SELF-PUBLISHING covers marketing—another thing that scares new authors. Authors can spend money on advertising, spend time doing content marketing (blogging, guest blogging, etc.) or both. Penn is realistic about how and when marketing efforts can help an author, and when it would be better to just write more books.

The self-publishing boom is still in its first decade, and things change all the time. Some of Penn’s specific advice might become dated, but the underlying principals she teaches won’t. Her advice boils down to, “Do what you can, hire out what you can’t do yourself, and don’t get scammed.”

And then, step by step, she tells you exactly how to do it.

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Successful Self-Publishing can be found here. (The ebook is currently free)

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning authors

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I recommend this book

 

 

 

 

Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal

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WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH is a how-to book for nonfiction writers, mainly businesspeople who want to write a book. Janal starts with the assumption that his audience has never written a book before and probably never will again. They aren’t writers, they just need a book as a credential, a calling card, or an add-on to public speaking gigs. Therefore, Janal starts with the very basics of nonfiction book creation, taking a paint-by-numbers approach of starting with the outline and filling it in little by little.

Janal’s approach is solid. To a non-writer, attempting to write forty thousand words of prose is daunting. Organizing all that research can seem impossible. Where do the quotes go? How about the personal stories? What should I leave out? What structure do I use?

Janal also understands that nonfiction books aren’t literature. They are tools to help solve a problem. He wants his readers to get the words on the page in any way possible, let hired editors clean up the mess, and start using the book to help boost their businesses.

To that end, Janal recommends that you start with a 400 word executive summary, research the market to see where your book fits and then make a ten-chapter outline (introduction, eight chapters of content, conclusion). This isn’t new to anyone who has been writing awhile—or has other nonfiction books to use as models—but it’s still useful advice.

Janal also provides ample cheerleading, sensing that this is what his audience wants most, and he includes information on beta readers and what formatting to use once the book is complete. And if it all sounds just too difficult, Janal himself is ready to step in as the ghost writer or book coach you might need.

WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH is the non-writer’s how-to book. It’s the perfect guide if you’ve never written before, don’t like writing now, and will never write again.

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WRITE YOUR BOOK IN A FLASH can be found here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Help for Writers by Roy Peter Clark 

Writing Without Rules by Jeff Somers

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WRITING WITHOUT RULES might be the most annoying book I’ve ever read. Somers contradicts himself in almost every chapter, gives shockingly bad advice, and generally comes across as a dude-bro with the maturity of a teenager.

The book is divided into two sections: writing and selling what you write. Some of Somers’ advice is good, some isn’t. The problem is, the good advice can be found in other, better books and the bad advice is so out-there that following it will actually hold writers back. That is, if writers can actually wade through the numerous inconsistencies to figure out what Somers is trying to say. For example, he claims that he never uses beta readers. However his wife and his best friend always read and critique his manuscripts before he sends them out. Does Somers not know that they are his betas? The entire book is like this. Whatever Somers says on one page, you can be sure he will say its opposite a few pages later.

The footnotes in WRITING WITHOUT RULES sometimes cover half the page and bleed onto the next. Most of the footnotes are to make a bad joke, explain the joke, or ask you to please laugh at the joke. It’s clear that Somers finds himself delightful and thinks the rest of the world does too. But in reality, he’s just another entitled guy who assumes he can do his job half-assed and still succeed, as long as he does it with a nudge and a wink.

Somers revels in his mediocrity. He goes on at length about how he went to college because he thought it would be easy and never studied while he was there. He found both his agent and his publisher through such an improbable series of coincidences that the only true advice he can offer is something along the lines of, “Be lucky, like me.” Even writing a how-to book was something he did on a whim, not out of a desire to help writers, but because his agent thought it would be good for his brand.

His only saving grace seems to be that he writes nearly nonstop. If Somers is to be believed (and this isn’t a given) he’s extremely prolific. He’s able to do almost everything wrong and still achieve a little bit of success because he’s selling a tiny fraction of his seemingly endless output.

The friend who lent me this book said, “I almost feel bad for Somers. Like he could be so much more successful if he stopped following his own advice.”

I believe we’ve reached a new low on the Writing Slices blog. I’ve found a book that not only will hurt aspiring writers if they read it, but probably hurt the person who wrote it.

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Rating: 1 star

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I recommend Writing the Novel From Plot to Print to Pixel by Lawrence Block or Writing Fiction for all You’re Worth by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

 

The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

 

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According to Steel, there are three reasons people procrastinate. We’re bored with the task, we expect to fail, or the results are just too abstract. Of these three, it’s the third one that’s really the problem. There are real consequences in the present, while there are only theoretical ones in the future.

The longer it takes to reach our goal, the more we procrastinate. People usually don’t have trouble writing five hundred words due tomorrow. But they have a harder time with five thousand words due in a month, or fifty thousand words due in a year. For writers not under contract, with no deadline, the problem is especially acute. A fuzzy, abstract thing that we want to achieve at some unknown date in the future might as well be called a wish or a dream, rather than a goal.

Even worse, our brains are hard-wired to be impulsive, to make ourselves happy right now rather than working toward an abstract future. Modern life with television, internet, and shopping makes it worse.

Steel has devoted his life to studying procrastination, so THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION is focused on explaining why we do the things we do. It’s a little bit lighter when it comes to solutions. There are no step-by-step things to try. But understanding how our brains are wired makes the solution to procrastination easier to come by.

The easiest thing to do is to artificially shorten the deadline. Rather than saying a novel will be done by a certain date, set goals for finishing each chapter. Writers also have to stay on task while writing, since flow is so important and interruptions are deadly. It’s horrible that we work and play on the same computers, and those bastards in Silicon Valley have set up social networking to be so addictive. Internet blockers are good. So are time limits and schedules. Anything we can do to take choice out of it is helpful, since our impulsive brains will always choose checking Twitter over working on a difficult scene.

Steel also has advice for setting goals. He thinks the much-used acronym S.M.A.R.T. is stupid. S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, (which are the same thing) Attainable, Realistic, (also the same thing) and Time-Anchored. Steel suggests four alternate attributes for goals. He says they should be meaningful, challenging, with multiple sub-goals on a modest but regular schedule.

THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION isn’t truly a how-to book. Steel is more interested in telling us why we procrastinate than how to stop doing it. Even so, I found lots of useful information in its pages—information I can use right now.

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THE PROCRASTINATION EQUATION can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book.

 

Creating Your Author Brand by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Branding isn’t something novelists think about much. It seems like something the head honchos at Pepsi and Google should worry about, not the business of an author. And the book marketing gurus always tell us “the author is the brand.” Or is it the series? If the author’s name is big enough on the cover and all the covers in the series look alike, the author is branded, right? Rusch tackles these—and many other—myths, starting with the book’s title. Creating is a verb, and it underscores that an author’s brand doesn’t just happen. A writer has an active role to play, whether she realizes it or not.

Rusch originally started writing CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND on her blog, but questions from her readers poured in and as she started addressing them, she realized she had a book. Rusch has experience in every aspect of the field, from author (traditional and indie) to magazine editor to book publisher, so branding is something she’s thought about from more than one angle and her expertise shows through.

Rusch divides her book into the early and intermediate stages of an author’s career. She breaks down the difference between brand identity (what an author thinks her brand is) and brand image (what the public thinks the brand is). She teaches writers how to identify the target audience and how to inspire brand loyalty. She also has different advice for growing an audience depending on the author’s goals and how many books she has out.

Rusch also does something I’ve never seen another marketing expert do: she cautions against fast growth. Most marketers promise huge sales and bestseller status if you’ll only follow their simple steps. Rusch knows how foolhardy that is. She’s seen firsthand how careers spike and then crash due to over-marketing. Readers are individuals, after all, and you can only grow an audience one reader at a time.

My only quibble is that a few chapters were overly long. Sometimes Rusch takes a little while to get to the main point. I get the sense that she’s thinking out loud (or through her fingers) and a few of her insights were discovered as she wrote them. She could have gone back and tightened those chapters. But sometimes, knowing how the author came to her conclusions is the whole point, so this might not be a concern for some readers.

I like that CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND is conceptual, not prescriptive. Rusch is here to teach the deep principles of branding, not a one-time formula to follow. The latter might be simple, but it will probably only work in the short term. Rusch respects her readers and knows that when we understand the underlying concepts, we can apply them to our own work to keep our branding healthy for the long term.

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CREATING YOUR AUTHOR BRAND 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.