Secrets of Successful Writers by Darrell Pitt

I don’t usually discuss cover art in my reviews, but I simply have to say something about the cover of SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS. It’s eye-catching, but it doesn’t seem to go with the subject matter of the book. In fact, it sends a completely different message.

Despite what it looks like, this is a book of one-on-one interviews with working writers. The author interview has always been a staple of the how-to genre. However SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS reads like a John Locke loyalty transfer blog on steroids. In this case, the writer isn’t trying to identify with celebrities. He’s trying to identify with successful authors. There is quite a bit of self-praise in the front matter, along with a conspicuous list of Pitt’s novels. It’s obvious that his mission isn’t to help other writers or showcase the authors whom he interviewed. His mission is to shine a bright spotlight on himself.

The authors can only answer the questions that Pitt asks them, and he isn’t a very skilled interviewer. “Can you describe a typical day of writing?” isn’t the most interesting question. Pitt asks the same generic questions over and over, as if the writers were interchangable.

Generic questions mean generic answers, and SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL WRITERS doesn’t really contain any secrets. It’s the same advice we’ve read on a thousand blogs and in a thousand how-to books. Write every day. Concentrate more on writing than on marketing. Be patient. Don’t give up.

Not only have I heard this before, I’ve heard it from more interesting and better-informed sources. Therefore, I’m deleting this book from my ereader and choosing one of those better books instead.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Ink Stains edited by Lara Zielin or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing edited by Writer’s Digest

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THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING is a huge anthology with contributions from top authors, agents, and editors, covering all aspects of the craft and business. Since all the essays are by people who are specialists in their fields, there are no really bad parts, just parts that are more or less applicable. It’s a great book to read out of order, skipping to the essays that are most helpful at any given time.

There is too much to cover in one review, but I’ll point to a few of my favorites. “What I Stole from the Movies” by Les Standiford tells of his screenwriting apprenticeship, and how he learned to translate dramatic techniques to fiction. By writing more scenes and less exposition, he ended up with fast-paced, cinematic novels that readers loved.

“Write This, Not That” by Elizabeth Sims challenges writers to think beyond the formulaic to write novels of true substance. Most importantly, she shows how it’s done. “Producing a Knockout Novel Synopsis” by Evan Marshall is the best primer I’ve  seen on the topic. Synopses are evil little monsters, but Marshall teaches us how to tame them.

The biggest surprise in the book was the conversation with Stephen King and Jerry B. Jenkins. I couldn’t imagine what a horror writer and a writer of Christian fiction would have in common. It turns out, not only are the two men friends, but they admire each others’ writing. It prompted me to take a second look at the essay Jenkins contributed to the anthology. His “Beyond Basic Blunders” was worthwhile reading, too.

THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING is over 500 pages, so I’m glad I read it as an ebook. However, several chapters contained nonsense characters or blank lines, and one table was completely unreadable (tables in ebooks are generally a bad idea). In all, the transition from print to ebook was not a smooth one, and I wished for better from the publisher.

THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING, while not complete, is pretty close. All the contributors have helpful information. They all want to tell us the secret to success. They all want us to understand the one true way. No matter how good the advice, by the end, I learned so much that I burned out, and was unable to absorb anything new. It was as if my brain was full. It was only after rest and reflection that I was able to sort through it all and keep the gems worth keeping.

Although there’s a lot of information in this anthology (probably too much), it just means I will be reading and re-reading it for a long time to come.

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THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING 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.

How I Sold 1 Million ebooks in 5 Months by John Locke

John Locke writes like this! Nearly every sentence contains both italics and an exclamation point, and sometimes Locke even switches to all caps because what he wants to tell you IS VERY IMPORTANT!

Hand-waving and cheerleading aside, I found HOW I SOLD 1 MILLION EBOOKS IN 5 MONTHS to be a deeply cynical book. Locke states that in order to succeed, a writer must spend more time marketing than writing. His role model is McDonalds, where the business plan is vastly more important than the food. He has absolutely no desire to improve his craft, any more than fast food places want to improve the quality of what they serve. Now, I’m not saying every writer needs to write world-class literature. Some of my favorite books are novels that the literati look down upon. But Locke’s advice–produce slap-dash, cheap novels and market the hell out of them–is exactly the kind of thing that gives self-published writers a bad name.

The sad thing is, it works. At least it did for Locke. I don’t know if other writers can replicate his success, although I see many of them trying. Locke starts the book with reasonable advice: don’t try traditional book marketing, blog effectively, have a website, use social media, and above all, write more books. It’s good advice and I can see why people are swayed. Come on, the guy sold a million books!

Then we come to Locke’s big idea, something he calls “loyalty transfer.” It goes like this: find a popular celebrity that you admire. Craft a blog post that somehow ties you to that celebrity, no matter how fragile the connection. Make sure your post drips with emotion, too. The idea is that some of the celebrity’s glamour will rub off on you and people will therefore buy your books. He includes an especially cringe-worthy example involving himself, his mom, and Joe Paterno.

I’ve seen the results. New Locke disciples are easy to spot. The author is suddenly full of praise for Lady Gaga or Stephen King or George Lucas because they have so much in common. The loyalty transfer blog is always a complete departure in style from the author’s previous blog posts. The insincerity practically oozes through the computer.

The next step, Locke says, is to go on Twitter and tell people to read your post. Not just the people who have chosen to follow you on Twitter, either. Using a keyword or hashtag search, you must seek out people who’ve never heard of you and tell them to read your post, too. (I blame Locke for most of the book spam that fills my Twitter feed.) Worse, Locke cozies up to people on social media not because he likes them or thinks they’re interesting, but because he thinks they’ll sell his book for him.

In Locke’s own words: “If you’re only interested in forming wonderful friendships, you can do that with Twitter by taking an active interest in what your friends are doing. But from a marketing standpoint, it is almost NO BENEFIT to have 10,000 Twitter pals if you don’t get some of them OFF Twitter and onto your promotional team.”

It’s so completely the opposite of the way I use Twitter, I had to read that part twice, just to make sure Locke said what I thought he said. Making wonderful friendships is the whole point of Twitter for me. And yes, I take an active interest in what my friends are doing, whether or not they buy my books. I sincerely hope that none of the great people I’ve connected with on social media think I’m using them as a means to a sale.

I refuse to put out crap books, suck up to celebrities, spam social networks and treat everyone I encounter as a wallet instead of a person. That probably means I won’t sell a million books. Or maybe I will. When I do, it will not be because of anything I learned from  John Locke.

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rating: 1 star

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I recommend The Author’s Marketing Handbook by Claire Ryan or How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age by Dale Carnegie and Brent Cole instead of this book

Write That Book Already! by Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark

In November, Writer’s Digest Books gave away several different ebooks to celebrate NaNoWriMo. I downloaded them all, but was especially intrigued by WRITE THAT BOOK ALREADY! The cover says it contains “original insight” by Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Scott Turrow and many more. The front matter is cluttered with testimonials from other household names, such as Jacquelyn Mitchard and Po Bronson. Maya Angelou wrote the forward. With such an all-star list of contributors and endorsers, I couldn’t wait to read the wisdom in its pages. My excitement was short-lived. The famous writers on the cover contributed a miniscule amount to the book. The rest of it (written by Barry and Goldmark) is either patronizing, outdated, or just plain wrong.

I could point to just about any page of the text to give an example. Here’s one from early in the book, where the authors feel the need to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction. “Fiction’s first and foremost rule is that the work is made up, rather than history or fact. This doesn’t mean that you can’t draw from real experience or memory. It does mean that you get to use your imagination and create any story you want to.” This is how you explain fiction to primary school children, not adult writers.

When the authors are not talking down to us, they are giving outdated advice. The section on building a writer’s platform gives a cursory mention to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, then goes on to say, “By the time this book is in your hands, there will no doubt be many more social-networking arenas. Do whatever you can to keep up, including (gack!) actually learning about this stuff.” Barry and Goldmark completely ignore the fact that nowadays, social networking is the platform for most writers. A remark like this would be forgivable if the book was from 1990, but the copyright date of this book is 2010. Anyone who says “gack!” at the idea of learning how the internet works for writers doesn’t deserve to be called one. And don’t get me started about the anachronistic hyphen between the words social and networking, as if the authors have maybe coined a nifty new expression.

Then there’s the advice that’s just plain wrong. The authors repeatedly tell the reader to use Literary Market Place as a resource, which is a clumsy, expensive, and almost useless text. There are plenty of better resources out there, ranging from Writer’s Digest Guides to agentquery.com and none are hard to find. Worse, Barry and Goldmark tell writers to query literary agents one at a time. Who does that? Agents themselves will tell you to query multiple agents at once. Another one: the authors insist that blog tours are arranged by paying an online marketing service. Obviously the authors have no idea how blog tours work, or even what they are.

WRITE THAT BOOK ALREADY! even includes a recipe for chicken soup. Perhaps Barry and Goldmark think writers can’t find a cookbook. The recipe comes in the middle of a chapter about taking care of ourselves, in case writers don’t know how to do basic things like bathe and exercise. They also say we should deal with rejection by eating a quart of ice cream. (I wish I were making this up.)

Before deleting WRITE THAT BOOK ALREADY! from my ereader, I took a second look at the famous names on the cover, many of them my literary heroes. Their contributions to the book, maybe five percent of the total, are either generic “my first sale” stories or lists of other books that these authors recommend. Even Maya Angelou’s forward is a simple cheerleading essay that had nothing to do with the rest of the book’s content. (Did she even read it?) I can imagine my favorite authors offering their names for the cover and the tiny bit of prose inside because the community of writers is generous like that. In this case, their generosity has lent an aura of authority to a bad book.

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rating: 1 star

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I recommend PLOT by Ansen Dibell or WORD WORK by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

 

Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews

I’m a little bit obsessed with the way that writers manage their time. As much as we love putting words on paper, it’s all too easy to let writing slip through the cracks of our busy lives. My problem (and maybe yours) isn’t lack of motivation. My issue is trying to do too many things in a day and then feeling stressed when I don’t finish my most important tasks. So I was thrilled to find TELL YOUR TIME. It’s a very short ebook, exactly the right size for the author to make her points without wasting my time (because I don’t have it to waste).

Most people already plan their days, and most of us have stuffed them to overflowing with activities. Our time management fault is not lack of a schedule, but that we’re scheduling the wrong things. Andrews taught me to figure out my goals first, and then make sure I finish the activities that are compatible with those goals.

This difference is crucial. TELL YOUR TIME is not a new scheduler or a program or a planner, but a new mindset. Instead of a schedule imposed from the outside, Andrews taught me to start from within. It’s head-slappingly obvious, but not something I’ve seen addressed in any other time-management book. A schedule that’s chosen rather than imposed is one I’m much more likely to keep. This doesn’t mean I do what I want, when I want. Sure, I could “schedule” myself to watch television and eat key lime pie all day, but that’s not compatible with my goals, so I won’t. I also won’t exclusively schedule work. Having fun is one of my goals, too, and TELL YOUR TIME encourages the reader to add fun to her days.

Andrews lays out a four-step method that’s easy to follow. First, figure out your purpose. Thoroughly know your goals so you’re only choosing to do what’s important. (Or, more realistically, you’re choosing the most important from a bunch of important tasks.)

Second, make a plan. Figure out your roles in life and the best ways to live in these roles. Ask yourself: what can I do now, this week, and this year to be my best self? This isn’t some airy advice that only applies to the self-employed. Even when working for someone else, on a fixed schedule, there are goals and choices to be made. And of course, there are all the other activities outside of work to plan for too. Doing this step, I had to really ask myself what was important to me. How did I want to live my life?

Third, place your activities on a grid. This was a hard step for me, but very rewarding once done. Andrews has you divide a square into four quadrants–mandatory activity with fixed time (such as work), optional activity with fixed time (such as book club), mandatory activity with flexible time (such as laundry), optional activity with flexible time (such as going on Facebook). Every activity goes into one of these quadrants, since everything is one or the other. Once I filled my grid, it was simple. My priority activities were right there in their proper place.

The final step is to take the activities off the grid and put them on a calendar. Remember, there are only 24 hours in a day. It seems obvious, but in our modern world, it is too easy to over-schedule ourselves. And there it is–a beautiful schedule that I am actually motivated to stick to. If I get off track, I need to set aside the calendar and take a good, hard look at my goals, then start my grid plotting again.

Other books on this topic have left me feeling overwhelmed. After Reading TELL YOUR TIME, I felt capable and empowered, all by changing the way I think about time management.

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This book is best for: beginning, intermediate, and advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

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rating: 5 stars

Ink Stains edited by Lara Zielin

In INK STAINS, writer/editor Lara Zielin collects essays by nine published authors, none of them bestsellers or household names. So why would I want to read advice from a bunch of midlisters? Because they have the most to teach aspiring writers!

Reading “how I got published” stories from famous people is fun, but it often makes the whole thing seem unattainable. Not so the little gems in INK STAINS. The essays in this volume are by authors at the beginning of their careers. They discuss what it’s like to be a writer when you don’t have a dozen books, a huge fan base, or superstar advances. It’s also a very contemporary book, looking at the marketplace as it exists right now, not in decades past. You may not be able to follow the path that Stephen King took to get published, but following in the footsteps of Eileen Cook or Rhonda Stapleton is not only possible, but entirely likely.

In the introduction, Zielin says she gets the same questions over and over from aspiring writers. Underneath the questions is the unspoken plea: “Tell me about your obstacles so I know I can do it, too.” The essays, mostly by writers of young adult novels, discuss things like fear of failure, second book blues, busting writer’s block, and the importance of listening to your editor. These topics are the staples of how-to books and blogs, but they are tackled here with a fresh eye and a realistic take on modern publishing.

Nested in the middle of the book are a couple of standouts. In “Taking a Break from Your Book,” Sarah Quigley talks about taking a maternity leave from writing and the fear that the decision would sideline her career. This is something usually only spoken of in whispers, and it’s great to see it addressed head-on. In “My Manuscript is Trying to Kill Me!” Josh Berk recalls a time when he essentially forced himself to write a book, and what he learned from that process. His description of locking himself in the library with only his laptop and a can of Red Bull is a vivid reminder that writers write–no matter what. I found this essay particularly helpful, and will turn to it again on days when the words don’t flow.

The one nod to self publishing comes from Jim Ottaviani, who wrote “There’s Nothing Else Out There Like This!” Ottaviani self-publishes comics about science and scientists. He spends very little time discussing the pros and cons of different publishing paths, but he does explain why he made the decision that he did. The remaining contributors to this volume are published by the big New York houses. Interesting, then, that INK STAINS itself is not. Its niche topic makes an ideal self-published ebook, and in fact supports Ottaviani’s thesis: if your subject is unlike anything else out there, self-publishing might be for you.

As I finished the book, I thought, “This is what writers really talk about when they talk to one another.” Reading INK STAINS is like eavesdropping on a roundtable of professional writers. I am so happy that they collected their words in this book, so we can all be part of the conversation.

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INK STAINS can be found 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.