13 Steps to Evil by Sacha Black

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Villains are the most necessary part of a story, because the villain is the one who creates the conflict and keeps it going. No conflict? No story! However, most authors lavish attention on their heroes, neglecting the villain, leading to novels that feel flat.

Black is here to correct that. She starts by explaining just how important a good antagonist is. Black then lists the steps necessary to create an ideal villain, including negative-yet-relatable traits, a strong personality, and a good motive. She shows how to write a villain’s backstory to create a believable antagonist who is a credible threat to the protagonist. Black also emphasizes the need for both the hero and the villain to be proactive, not victims to the whims of the plot.

But it’s not enough to create an ideal villain. An author must create an ideal villain for this book. So much depends on the needs of the story and the genre, and 13 STEPS TO EVIL is the first how-book I’ve seen that breaks down the different kinds of antagonists. In fact, the title is somewhat misleading, because not all antagonists are evil—or even bad—and Black is careful to distinguish the well-meaning antagonists from the truly villainous ones.

Black goes on to explain what makes a villain different from an anti-hero. She cautions against using clichés such as the sex-crazed femme fatale with too-much makeup or the supervillain with a giant self-portrait in his lair. And she teaches writers how to write a convincing climax—again, focusing on the needs of each genre.

My favorite chapter was the one on villains and mental health. Too many authors give their antagonists a mental health diagnosis and then clap their hands, thinking their job is done. This is discriminatory and offensive because it implies (or outright states) that bad guys are bad because they are mentally ill. Rather than create an interesting antagonist, some writers would rather rely on myth and stereotypes to stigmatize an entire sector of society. Black isn’t saying that your villain can’t have a mental health issue. In fact, she’ll teach you how to do it well. Black wants you to be as careful with this as you would any other part of villain creation.

13 STEPS TO EVIL is perfectly organized to function as both a how-to book and a reference book, so you can learn it all now, and also go back to look stuff up later. It has everything a new writer needs as well as tips for advanced writers who wonder why their bad guys aren’t quite hitting the mark. 13 STEPS TO EVIL delves deep into the psychology of heroes, villains, and readers to show what works and why it does.

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13 STEPS TO EVIL can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

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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.

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Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

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The original SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder was the first book I reviewed on the Writing Slices blog. Even though it’s a screenwriting book, it’s been a favorite of novelists for years, and working novelists often quote Snyder’s wisdom to each other. However, novels and screenplays are different. In SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, Brody has kept everything we love about the original SAVE THE CAT, while expanding and refining Blake Snyder’s concepts to fit novels.

Brody starts with the hero/ine, and forces writers to answer that all-important question: why should readers care? It’s the perfect starting point because an unworthy hero/ine with nothing at stake will doom a novel right from the outset. Once the protagonist is on board, and the stakes are set, Brody explains the beat sheet, which is a kind of blueprint of a novel. She explains each element that a solid story needs, and where those elements go in the story.

But not all stories are the same, and the blueprint varies according to genre. Brody breaks down the ten types of story, explains what makes each one unique, and gives the three essential elements each genre needs. For example, a whodunnit needs a detective, a secret, and a dark turn. A love story needs an incomplete heroine, her counterpart, and a complication.

But Brody doesn’t just give abstract theory. For each type of story, she gives numerous examples, explaining where the story beats fall for each one. The example novels are well-known books such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Misery by Stephen King. Most writers are familiar with these books, or can easily find them in the local library.

Brody’s analysis of each novel is nothing short of breathtaking. She lifts the hood and carefully explains the inner workings of the story engine. Step by step, she details the turning points and major character shifts to give her readers a deep understanding of what makes stories work. She even generously includes two beat sheets from one of her own novels—the rough draft and the final version. Novels always deviate from their original outlines, and it’s great to see the “before” and “after” beat sheets from a published book.

The subtitle of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL is “The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need.” That’s not true, of course. You can never have just one how-to book! However, this is probably the only book on story structure that you’ll ever need. I love Blake Snyder’s original book, but I love this one more because it was written for me.

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SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars!

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

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Blake’s Blogs by Blake Snyder

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I am a huge fan of SAVE THE CAT. I read it when it came out in 2005, and it changed my life. I talk about Snyder’s method constantly, and recommend his books whenever I have a chance.

Blake Snyder died just four years after SAVE THE CAT was published, and writers have been mourning ever since. So you can imagine my delight when I came across BLAKE’S BLOGS, a book of what his estate considers his best blog posts. But my delight soon turned to disappointment when I realized that this slim volume was really just a cash grab, one last chance for Snyder’s heirs to turn his writing into money.

The posts aren’t bad, but they are ten years old and most of them haven’t aged well. The beauty of a blog is that is captures what a writer is thinking about in that very moment. So there are posts about movies Snyder had recently seen, classes he’d been teaching, and his thoughts on the Oscar nominees of 2008. He rehashes some of what’s in his classic instruction book, but he doesn’t go deeper or come up with fresh insights. While it’s nice to have the blog posts arranged in chapters, the division is rather artificial and makes it seem like an instruction book when it’s really just a book of musings.

I’d like to say that BLAKE’S BLOGS is for the die-hard Snyder fan only, but I’m the biggest Snyder fangirl of them all, and even I didn’t like this book. In the end, BLAKE’S BLOGS made me sad. I wished this book could be better than it was, I mourned a talented teacher who died way too young, and I was embarrassed for Snyder’s relatives who put this product into the world.

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BLAKE’S BLOGS can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder instead of 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.

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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.

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If you find my reviews helpful, and sending me a tip would make you happy, you can do that here.

 

 

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

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If you find my reviews helpful, and sending me a tip would make you happy, you can do that here.