Deep Work by Cal Newport


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.


DEEP WORK is available here.


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers


I recommend this book.


The Dip by Seth Godin


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.


THE DIP can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


I recommend this book


Closing the Deal on Your Terms by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


When it comes to publishing, Rusch has seen it all. She’s the former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has published books both traditionally and indie. She’s run a small press. She’s sold short stories to magazines. So it’s fair to say she’s seen just about every kind of contract and has negotiated them from both sides of the desk.

Who better to warn you about what’s in them? Whether you’re an indie author trying to sell foreign rights, a traditionally published author asking what’s next or a newbie just starting your publishing journey, you need three things: a good IP lawyer, the ability to walk away from a bad contract, and a copy of this book.

Rusch knows what can happen when an inexperienced writer—giddy from finally being offered a book contract—signs it without negotiating it. CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is no substitute for good legal advice, but it’s a great introduction to the kinds of “gotcha” clauses publishers are adding to contracts these days.

Most writers only look at money paid and when the manuscript is due. They don’t understand all the ways that they can—and will—be screwed over. For example, deep discount clauses allow publishers to make money on your books without giving any to you. Rights grabs mean that your publisher could turn your book into a movie or a game without consulting you. Options clauses can legally bind you to your publisher for many years and many books. And these are only the most obvious examples. Modern contracts are full of worse things, buried under confusing language and contradictory clauses.

An agent won’t save you from these terrible contracts. In most cases, an agent will urge you to sign them. Many agents are also presenting their own agency agreements (read: contracts) to authors, binding that author to the agent as well as the publishing house.

Because things have changed so radically in the last thirty years, Rusch discourages writers from dealing with publishers for any book-length fiction at this time. However, she understands that every career is different, and doesn’t tell writers what to do. In fact, she defends writers who want to sign any contract under the sun, as long as that writer knows exactly what she’s signing and why.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS isn’t an easy read. It’s not one of those great craft books that will energize your writing or an inspirational book that will make you feel good. Rusch herself became quite downhearted while writing it, as she realized just how bad things had gotten in publishing land. But she stuck it out and did us all a great service by writing a book that isn’t fun, but necessary.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is probably not a book that any writer wants. However, it’s exactly the book that every writer needs.




Rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers


I recommend this book


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Contagious by Jonah Berger


Word of mouth is always more effective than advertising, and that is especially true when it comes to books. We’re much more likely to read a novel based on a friend’s recommendation than an ad. And if everyone we know is reading a particular book, we want to read it, too. But as authors, how do we get that buzz started?

Berger says there are six things that will get people talking about your product and what it does. Social currency is the most important. Does it make people feel cool when they discuss this thing? The second is triggers. People need a reason to talk about it. Emotion is a big factor. We need to be fired up about something in order to start talking about it, because who wants to share something boring?

Things have to be public to influence behavior. Think of those “I voted” stickers as an example. The product or information also has to have practical value. People want to help people by sharing tips. And finally, things go viral when they have an interesting story attached. Everyone loved the “United Breaks Guitars” video because it told a gripping story. To create buzz, things don’t need all six factors, but the more they have, the more likely they are to go viral.

All of this might seem simple, even obvious, but that’s what’s great about CONTAGIOUS. Berger is able to take complex subjects and explain their conclusions in snappy summaries, using interesting examples. Berger has done all the research, and he offers insight as to why things have already gone viral.

However, he doesn’t tell you how to use these insights yourself. There are no step-by-step instructions here. That’s because each product is unique. But if you understand the principles and see why they work, you should be able to apply them to your own situation. Of course, there’s no guarantee that incorporating all six factors into your marketing will make your content viral, but it certainly ups the odds.

CONTAGIOUS isn’t a how-to book for writers. Berger was speaking more to companies with everyday products to sell. Even so, he has already changed the way I share information about my novels. I also get why some of my blog posts and social media updates were widely shared but did not lead to book sales. The content was fine on its own, but never tied directly to my novels.

Even though it wasn’t written for fiction writers, I found CONTAGIOUS a very useful book. Berger shows that you don’t need a huge budget or “social mavens” to create buzz. You just need some creativity and a good handle on why some things are—or can be made—contagious.


CONTAGIOUS can be found here.


rating: 4 stars



I recommend this book.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg


I enjoy general nonfiction books that demystify scientific research, especially when the author uses anecdotes to illustrate a point. I loved Duhigg’s previous book and thought SMARTER FASTER BETTER would be similar. I’m a writer who is trying to fit her creative life around other responsibilities, and I’m always looking for new productivity hacks, so the subtitle, “The secrets of being productive in life and business” appealed to me.

However, SMARTER FASTER BETTER isn’t a book about productivity. I’m not really sure what it is, except a collection of interesting narratives. Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and finding cool stories to report is what he’s trained to do. However, most of the time, I couldn’t figure out what idea the stories were meant to illustrate.

I don’t want my books dumbed down or explained point-by-point. But I want the examples to make sense. Even when I extracted meaning from the stories in SMARTER FASTER BETTER, the following chapter often contradicted what I’d surmised. For example, Duhigg insists that Saturday Night Live was so great because the cast members felt safe being in such a close-knit, stable group. However, he also states that the movie Frozen was creatively stuck until the Disney bosses shook things up by changing the dynamic of the team. So, which method produces hit entertainment?

Worse, at no time does Duhigg tell stories about people who stopped wasting time or put their time to better use (my definition of “productive”). The people he profiles—a poker champ, an airline pilot, the writers of Frozen—all worked extremely long hours to achieve success. They all put in an obscene amount of effort at the cost of personal and family time. That doesn’t sound smarter or better to me.

SMARTER FASTER BETTER has some good ideas in it, but they are crammed into a small appendix in the back. Duhigg explains that you need big goals, broken down into action steps. Those closest to the problem should have the decision-making power to solve it. The hardest part of any endeavor is getting started. Feeling in control will make you more motivated.

Nothing in this book is new, nor is it particularly interesting. This is probably why Duhigg relied on gripping stories of plane crashes, military intelligence failures, and high-stakes poker games to carry the book. They are wonderful tales well-told, but not something that will help anyone become more productive.


SMARTER FASTER BETTER can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars



I recommend Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews or Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.


Discover Your Brand by Emlyn Chand


Many novelists resist the idea of author branding. “I’m a person, not a brand,” one might say. Or, “my writing is too creative to fit into a small box.” As a publicist, Chand has heard those reactions, but she’s quick to reassure writers that finding your brand isn’t about changing what you write just to sell books or win awards. Nor is it selling out your vision or writing the same book over and over.

Finding your brand is simply a shorthand way to tell potential readers the kind of book you write, and making sure you’re marketing your book to the readers who are interested in it. In a crowded marketplace, it’s essential to stand out, and having a consistent brand is the best way to guide the right readers to your books.

But how do you do that? I’ve read many marketing books that tell writers to “picture your ideal reader,” without helping you identify who that reader might be. But DISCOVER YOUR BRAND is full of ingenious exercises to tease out the answer. There are ways to find your books’ common denominator, discover the key things that readers of your genre are looking for, (and what they aren’t) and let readers know what they can find between the covers of your books.

The weakest part of DISCOVER YOUR BRAND is the chapter on finding your genre. It’s meant to be interactive, and by answering a few key questions, Chand promises to tell you the exact genre you’re writing. But the questions are vague, as are the categories. Most writers don’t need help figuring out if they’re writing romance or science fiction or fantasy. Writers do often need help teasing out the subgenres their books are in, since there’s a big difference between hardboiled and cozy mysteries, or cyberpunk and space opera. But Chand ignores subgenres altogether, so I’m not sure what the point of the chapter even is.

But once past that hurdle, Chand helps authors zero in on what truly defines their books. She guides you through the process of discovering what’s unique about you and your novels, and shows you how to wrap it all up in a carefully chosen phrase that tells readers at a glance what you’re all about.

Author branding, ultimately, is about making a promise to the reader and then keeping that promise. By telling the reader upfront what kind of book you are offering in a memorable way, you are helping to attract the exact readers you are looking for, because those readers are also looking for you.


DISCOVER YOUR BRAND can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars



This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book.


Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo


Sooner or later, most writers will be called on to talk to a group. Whether it’s teaching a class, doing a talk at a bookstore, visiting a school, or being the guest on a podcast, public speaking is a skill writers need. I’ve done a fair amount of it myself, but I’m always trying to improve.

I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks lately, since these eighteen-minute talks are considered the gold standard. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, although the talks can be about nearly anything and each speaker has a different style. All the speeches I’ve seen have been terrific, and I hoped that TALK LIKE TED would give me some insight into how these talks are put together and why they succeed.

However, TALK LIKE TED is an extremely simple overview of public speaking best practices, with a lot of blow-by-blow summaries of TED talks that Gallo likes. The how-to advice isn’t bad for beginners: be passionate about your topic, tell a story, teach new things, add humor, keep slides simple, and practice a lot. However, to be at a TED level, one has to go beyond the basics, and Gallo never does.

The subtitle of TALK LIKE TED is “The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.” This is somewhat misleading. Gallo isn’t really sharing pubic-speaking tips in general, but simply showing us what all TED talks have in common. It’s more about what a TED talk is rather than how to give one. As such, it’s crammed with anecdotes, with Gallo constantly straying from the main point to share the details of yet another talk.

TALK LIKE TED has some solid advice for someone who has never given a speech before. It’s well-presented, but it does not break any new ground. It seems at once too basic and too specific. It seems geared toward helping you make a single speech, rather than helping you becoming an overall more effective speaker.


TALK LIKE TED can be found here.


Rating: 3 stars