The Anatomy of a Best Seller by Sacha Black

We all became writers because we love books. Stories feed our minds and hearts, and that’s why we write. But being a great reader does not make someone a great writer. There is a huge gap between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER fills that gap, to help writers bridge the chasm between someone who loves to read and someone who understands how books are made.

There are three things a writer must do: read, deconstruct, and implement. Reading seems like the easy part. We all love to read, right? But Black teaches us how to read like writers, which is a completely different skillset. A writer must first read widely, to understand the genre, and then read deeply, to understand the techniques a writer has used.

After that comes deconstruction. This is all about reverse-engineering to figure out what an author is doing and why it works. Deconstruction means using an author’s tools, not her words. Black doesn’t advocate plagiarism. She’s showing authors how to take a deep dive into books in order to internalize those techniques, so we can make them our own. This is a very personal experience that relies on emotion rather than logic. Whatever part of the book moved you? That’s the part to pay attention to. Only then does analysis come into play. Black gives lots of useful examples here, to show this kind of deconstruction in action.

The third, and most difficult part, is implementation. Here is where most how-to books fall down, because it’s a lot easier to tell writers what to do than explain how to do it. But Black fearlessly wades into the trenches, not only explaining how to use the tools that a writer discovered in parts one and two, but how to use them for a particular audience.

The phrase “write to market” has been said so often, by so many, that it’s become an almost meaningless phrase. But Black prefers to think of it as “write to reader.” Because the truth is, writers don’t intuitively know how to please readers. Too often, we’re writing for other writers. We attend critique groups where writers pick apart our sentences, or we get beta reader feedback from fellow writers and change our books according to their sensibilities, or we take classes and write what the instructor wants. But Black wants to turn that completely around by showing us how to first read like a writer, then write for a reader.

When I finished reading THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER, I went immediately to page one and started reading it a second time. It’s that good. I have been deconstructing bestselling and midlist books for years, and my mind was still blown by Black’s insights. Even better, Black delivers all of her instruction with a wicked sense of humor and a healthy measure of f-bombs, which are two of my favorite things.

THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER is not a “get rich quick” kind of book. Black’s methods take time, patience, and lot of trial and error. But the result will be an author who truly understands novels, and can deliver fresh stories to exactly the right audience.

—–

THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER can be found here

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book.

Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker

There are two kinds of writers in the world: those who like to outline before they begin writing and those who “fly by the seat of their pants.” TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is aimed at the latter group. Hawker promises that even the most hard-core pantsers can learn to outline. She insists that outlining novels is the only way to a full-time author career, while pantsers are doomed to keep their day jobs. Hawker then doubles down to say that outlining the “right” way (her way) is the only path to a successful literary career. None of this is true, but I suspect this book sells more for the provocative title than for any of its contents.

Hawker hasn’t done any research into the plotter/pantser divide beyond her own experience. She wrote her first book without an outline and it took her a long time. She wrote all her later books with outlines and they were written faster. Therefore, she has concluded that outlines are best for everyone. She belabors this point (and all of her points) with tons of strawman arguments and as much self-praise as she can manage.

Hawker learned her personal outlining method by following John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. She states over and over again that TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is simply a streamlined version of Truby’s book. To be fair, Truby’s book is overly complex and borderline unreadable, so perhaps Hawker thinks she’s doing writers a favor by distilling it for them. But here’s the thing: nobody needs a dumbed-down version of a bad book.

Hawker’s actual outline template is just The Hero’s Journey with different names attached to the plot points. However, changing the name of a well-known concept doesn’t make it a new concept. Calling the all-is-lost moment the “changed goal,” or calling the climax scene “the battle,” doesn’t make them different things. It’s very unfair to the reader to take a well-known story map, rename all the parts, and then pretend you invented it.

For her examples, Hawker gives a nod to the first Harry Potter book and to Charlotte’s Web, but the majority of her examples are from two sources: Lolita, and her own book called Tidewater. Her novel is the story of Pocahontas, told from Pocahontas’ point of view. Pocahontas’ fatal flaw, according to Hawker, is that she was “too ambitious.” (Too ambitious for what? For a woman? For a Native American?) Four different times, Hawker states that the theme of Tidewater is “how people handle a cultural clash.” To her, the colonization of North America was merely a clash of cultures. The whitewashing of history aside, taking examples from a book that few people have read is unhelpful, and using the author’s own novel is just bad form.

I’m someone who loves to outline her novels and I’m always thrilled when I find a new outlining method. But TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is derivative, self-indulgent, and offensive. Pantsers won’t want this book, plotters won’t like it, and nobody needs it.

—-

Rating: 2 stars

—–

I recommend Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin and others

Lakin has teamed up with four other professional editors to explain the problems that they see over and over in manuscripts. But they’re not here to complain. These editors are sharp-eyed at spotting flaws in manuscripts and they’re eager to help writers do better. They offer in-depth explanations of the flaw, show why it’s a problem, and teach writers how to fix it.

Some of the flaws are on the macro level, the kind of thing an author would rewrite in the second draft. These are things like too much backstory, lack of tension, overwriting, telling instead of showing, flawed dialogue, and flat description. Others are things that could be considered copyediting errors, such as weak sentence construction, improper mechanics, or using too many adverbs.

The authors take turns writing the chapters, so this is more a compilation than a true collaboration. But even though many voices are represented in this book, none of the chapters contradict one another and it never felt repetitive. Had I not known it was written by five people, I could have mistaken this book for the advice of one single author. That’s because the advice within 5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is so accurate, well-presented, and well-taught. This is one of those great books that teaches by example. The authors are not here to bash anyone for doing it wrong. They only want to help authors get it right.

The example passages are written by the authors themselves, and they give a before and after example for every single point they make. This book is very hands on, nitty-gritty, do-this-not-that. At the end of every chapter, the authors give a sample passage and invite readers to rewrite it. The authors offer up two to three pages of prose, deliberately making one of the deadly mistakes, so readers can practice what they’ve learned. The ideal is always that we’ll apply these lessons to our own manuscripts, but it’s so much easier to spot the flaws when it’s not your own work. By going through the rewrites on a sample passage, writers can internalize the principles without any emotional resistance.

5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING isn’t an “easy” book. The lessons are deep, the examples are detailed, and the process is complicated. It will take time to go through each chapter, absorb the lesson, and apply it to your own work. But the lessons are so thorough and so well-taught that any writer who spends time with this book will come out the other side a stronger writer.

—–

5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is available here

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to worry about the state of the English language every time I used social media. Faced with a wall of misspellings, incorrect grammar, and wild punctuation, I despaired for my mother tongue. I sometimes reminded myself that until the digital age, public writing was something that professionals did, and we never read printed words from an average person. Perhaps most writing was always terrible, it’s just that we didn’t see most of it. Other times, I worried that nobody cared about the “rules” of writing and we were all doomed to a slow slide into illiteracy.

BECAUSE INTERNET showed me that my assumptions were wrong on all counts. It’s not that people are using English incorrectly, it’s that they’re adapting language to their needs. Until recently, we had formal writing and informal speech.  For example, you’d start a letter to your grandma with “Dear Grandmother,” but when you saw her in person, you’d say, “Hi, Gran!” However, with the rise of social media, for the first time, we have informal writing.

Internet language isn’t incorrect, and it doesn’t signal the end of good grammar. It’s simply a way of expressing the informality of speech in a written format. Nor should we worry about young people being unduly influenced by it. McCulloch sites studies that show that students can easily code-switch into formal writing when required for tests or papers.

BECAUSE INTERNET takes a deep dive into internet language, starting with its history. McCulloch explains why different generations use language differently on the internet. Users are roughly divided by age, but more importantly, by when they first got online. Like all good linguists, McCulloch is descriptive rather than prescriptive, explaining why and how language is changing without ever judging people for it.

Because when it comes right down to it, the way that we write when we’re online makes sense. When we’re face to face, we communicate so much in body language, tone, and facial expressions. Written words don’t express tone of voice, so we sometimes use uppercase for emphasis, or add asterisks or tildes. We use /s to indicate that this is sarcasm or a joke, but we use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters to indicate mockery. We misspell on purpose for humor or to pull out a word, as in, “I allllmost forgot my phone,” or the Tumblr favorite, “sameeee” to indicate absolute agreement.

And when words aren’t enough, we use GIFs to show a facial expression, or turn to emojis. McCulloch gives a detailed explanation of the history and purpose of emojis. They aren’t taking the place of body language, since body language is unconscious. Emojis are deliberate, and therefore represent gestures, such as a thumbs up or a shrug. McCulloch details how and why emojis are used and by whom. (I laughed the first time my mom sent me an emoji. It looked strange because most senior citizens don’t use them.)  

BECAUSE INTERNET is not written in an academic tone. It’s easy to read, sharp, insightful, and quite funny in parts. It gave me new appreciation for the way that language is changing right before our eyes, with the birth of new grammar for the digital age.

—–

BECAUSE INTERNET can be found here

—-

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: all writers

—–

I recommend this book

Into the Woods by John Yorke (content warning)

Content Warning: sexual assault

Yorke is a TV writer and producer for the BBC, so he has an interest in story structure. His career would seem to depend on it, and yet, he treats the most basic and well-known elements of storytelling as if they were brand-new insights. Yorke references the screenwriting teachers who came before him like Vogler, Snyder, and Field, while at the same time trying to take credit for ideas they developed.

While studying the three-act structure, Yorke noticed that act two was longer than the others, with a distinct dividing line in the middle. In short, he learned about Midpoints. That’s when Yorke decided that the three-act structure was really a five-act structure, and INTO THE WOODS is littered with charts to “prove” his point. It’s still the exact same story structure. He simply renamed the parts.

All of INTO THE WOODS is like this. Yorke describes some well-known facet of storycraft and then pretends he was the first to discover it. The first chapters are about story structure, while the second half of the book deals with characterization, dialogue, and exposition. Yorke ends with a long and boring history of TV shows. His entire point here is that TV shows either end because the characters change, and therefore their story is finished, or the characters don’t change at all (such as in sitcoms) and the show gets repetitive. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. There is literally nothing here that hasn’t been said before in better books.

Yorke’s examples are mostly random and never illustrate his points in any meaningful way. In fact, his points are so general that nearly any example from nearly any movie or TV show would fit. INTO THE WOODS reads like a paper from a student who did a lot of research and took a lot of notes, and is determined to cram it all into the text, whether it fits or not.

Throughout, Yorke keeps hinting at a big reveal. He keeps promising that he’s going to explain why humans tell stories. Like a late-night infomercial that keeps hyping a gadget before showing it to you, Yorke hints that his upcoming insight is going to be brilliant. Finally, he shares the secret. Are you ready for this?

Humans tell stories to make sense of the world.

That’s it.

That’s the insight that Yorke thinks is so groundbreaking that he spends an entire book leading up to it.

All this would probably add up to a two-star rating but what sinks it to a one-star is Yorke’s misogyny. The vast majority of his examples are taken from macho movies such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, and every single one of the experts he quotes is a man. He brings up sexual assault at least once per chapter, as if he’s fascinated by the subject. Out of the thousands of examples he could use to illustrate his points, over and over he chooses examples of women being assaulted by men. The only woman-centric movie he cites is Thelma and Louise, and you can guess which aspect of it he’s fixated on. He even reimagines the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel with the children raped and murdered.

I never thought I’d have to put a content warning in a book review, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s another warning: don’t buy this book.

—–

Rating: one star

—–

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

Trough of Hell by H.R. d’Costa

Most authors are fired up to write the beginning of their novels. They know how the story starts and are eager to get going on the wonderful story they want to tell. Many authors have an easy time with the ending as well, feeling like they’re coasting downhill to the climax. Then there’s the middle. Somehow, blank pages in the middle of a story are the worst kind of blank pages.

D’Costa specializes in taking a deep dive into one aspect of story, breaking down the story beats into their smallest possible units. TROUGH OF HELL zeroes in on that section about 75% of the way through the story, when things are as bad as they can get.

This is the all-is-lost moment, when the heroine is at her lowest point emotionally. Paradoxically, she’s also the closest to achieving her true goal—perhaps not the one she wants, but the one she needs. But in order to get there, she has to reach rock bottom. Only then, when she’s at her most vulnerable, can she face the truth about herself and change for the better.

D’Costa gets very specific here, showing readers all the ways they can hurt their heroes, and how to evoke true emotions by tailoring them to the story. She gives consideration to different genres, since this story beat plays out differently in comedies and serious stories. She also shows how to use minor characters to make the all-is-lost even more resonant. She wraps it up by discussing ways to avoid cliches, keep the pace from dragging, and make the all-is-lost moment deeper and more meaningful.

D’Costa is a screenwriter, so all the examples are from movies, some of them stretching back to the 1990s. But she never discusses obscure or arty films. All of the examples are from well-known movies, and D’Costa gives enough explanation so you can follow along even if you’ve never seen the film in question. The all-is-lost moment is a vital story beat in both novels and screenplays, with the same emotional job to do, so this concept applies to novels too.

The trough of hell is one of the least fun parts of a novel to write. It’s the moment when we have to be very mean to our imaginary friends. But with a guide like TROUGH OF HELL, writing that section of a novel will be easier, and the author will have the satisfaction of knowing that the terrible trouble she put her heroes in was all worth it.

—–

TROUGH OF HELL can be found here

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book

Guest Review from Lawrence Block: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist by Alex Kourvo

Today’s book review is a bit different. Instead of a book review by me, it’s a review of the book I wrote! Lawrence Block is visiting the blog today to share his thoughts about THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST.

Alex Kourvo is one of a kind. A gifted writer and editor, she has developed a special interest in books for writers, how-to manuals for those of us who want to find the best words and put them in their best order. Pursuing this interest, she has devoted much of her time to reading those books, digesting their contents, and reviewing them for the benefit of those writers who are her readers.

Full disclosure: I’ve written instructional books for writers myself, and Alex has been gracious enough to say very nice things about some of them.

I recall an observation of science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany: “I write the books I cannot find on library shelves.” Alex’s shelves are extensive, but the book she couldn’t find was one on writing a novel’s second draft. And so she’s written The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, designed to shepherd a writer who’s already produced a novel’s first draft.

More full disclosure: I’m an anomaly. I’ve produced a substantial body of work over many years, and while I certainly tweak sentences and rework scenes as I go along, my first draft is my final draft. So I’m probably not the best person to swear to the efficacy of Alex’s suggestions. But her book is cogent and persuasive, and now that she’s been considerate enough to write it, it’s there to be found on the shelf—where you’ll be fortunate to make its acquaintance.

Lawrence Block

—–

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is in paperback and ebook at all retailers.

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Korean-born novelist Salesses has a lot of questions about the traditional writing workshop. Who is it for? Who does it benefit? Is there any way to teach writing that doesn’t perpetuate unequal power structures? And why is most literary fiction so gosh-darned bland, as if all the interesting edges have been sanded off? But CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD isn’t just for teachers or MFA students. It’s essential reading for anyone writing fiction today.

College writing workshops were created for upper-class, white, straight male writers, and many of the rules of fiction writing comes from them. What we consider high-quality writing is always seen through this lens. We like to pretend that craft is pure in some way, without bias, but that’s simply because the bias is invisible. Whose stores are told, whose stories have value, which plot structures are acceptable, and even which details are included are all based on an assumed reader, and that reader only comes in one flavor. Everything else is called “experimental” or “women’s fiction” or “diverse.” And in the rare occasions that other modes of expression are taught, it’s in contrast to the dominant form of fiction. Instead of asking why writing rules exist, we treat those who “break” the rules as exceptions. If a writer arrives with a different set of cultural expectations, she’ll be pressured to silence her own voice in order to conform to the norms of the group.

Salesses closely examines the typical subjects of writing craft books, asking why they always use realist fiction by dead white men as models. These are the hero’s journey stories we’re all taught, where the world bends to the hero’s will, and any problems in his life can be overcome through hard work and self-improvement. This is very much a Western, male view of the world and not one that everyone shares. In chapters on plot, conflict, tone, characterization, pacing, setting, and story structure, Salesses opens readers’ minds to new ways of thinking and writing. We don’t all write to the same market, and fiction doesn’t have to please a wide audience. It only has to please the right audience.

The last part of the book discusses practical ways to run a writing workshop that centers the author rather than those giving the critique. These methods are more labor-intensive for instructors (which is why most won’t use them). These new methods will empower writers so they can go on to revise their own stories even after they’ve left school. Working writers reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will find helpful tips to make their writing more inclusive, more interesting, and just better.

Reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD wasn’t easy for me. I remembered my own college classes and community writing groups, thinking about the ways I was silenced, and the ways I unknowingly used my privilege to silence others. I found myself reading very slowly in order to truly absorb each point before moving on to the next. Some of the lessons were painful, some were embarrassing, but more than anything else, they were helpful. When you know better, you do better, and CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will help every single one of us become better writers.

—–

CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

—–

I recommend this book

The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

After a beginning writer learns the fundamentals of character and plot, there comes a long, frustrating period where she’s finishing novels, but they aren’t very good. And if they are good, they only get that way after many rounds of revision. It takes lots of practice to get to pro-level writing, but having good mentors and how-to books can help. THE SECRETS OF STORY is the perfect book for the writer who is ready to take the leap.

Bird is a screenwriter, but his lessons apply to novelists too. The chapter titles are exactly what I expected from a how-to book: character, plot, description, dialog, theme, and revision. However, the content of those chapters was not what I expected. On the surface, it seems like Bird is giving advice that goes against everything taught in more basic how-to books. But Bird doesn’t want to upend common wisdom. Instead, he’s inviting writers to go deeper, to expand on the knowledge they’ve already gained. In thirteen chapters, Bird lays down 122 “secrets” that are so good it feels he’s explaining the laws of physics rather than something as slippery and subjective as art.

For example, most how-to books tell you to make the protagonist “heroic,” but Bird says you should make your protagonist vulnerable. That’s where audience identification comes from, and audience identification is everything. And then, he thoroughly explains how to do it.

Most how-to books caution against making all the characters sound alike. So writers will give one character a lisp, one a catch phrase, and one bad grammar habits. That’s easy. It’s also terrible. However, Bird explains that what characters need is a preferred set of metaphors and a preferred argument style. This will distinguish characters from one another in a believable way. It also forces the writer to slow down and really get to know her characters instead of slapping a set of quirks on them.

There are hundreds of other little gems like this in THE SECRETS OF STORY, along with a huge helping of solid advice about storycraft. Bird provides checklists in the book and on his website, but warns writers against using them in a mechanical way. Writers need to internalize the reasons behind the rules, and then apply them in their own way. Bird is also an advocate for breaking the rules, even the very ones he sets down. He’s the first to admit that sometimes you have to mess with story structure or write the “wrong” kind of dialogue to make a better story.

But if a writer truly absorbs all the lesson in THE SECRETS OF STORY, she’ll have leveled up to a point where the rules simply make sense. And she’ll have all the tools she needs to write a solid novel that readers will love.

—–

THE SECRETS OF STORY can be found here

—–

Rating: 5 stars!

 —–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Deep point of view—getting into a character’s head and staying there—is a difficult skill for new writers, but it’s a vital skill to master. Small author intrusions add up, distancing the reader from the character page after page. While editing, those subtle intrusions are difficult to weed out, leaving some manuscripts a muddled mess of close and distant point of view.

However, Nelson is here to help with a guide that is straightforward, no-nonsense, and thorough. There is no fluff in RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW. In eight short chapters Nelson tells writers what they need to know and no more.

And what authors need to know is how to do it. Unlike many how-to books that diagnose problems without giving solutions, RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW is all about practical application. Nelson explains the principle, gives before-and-after examples, shows exactly why they work, then gives exercises for writers to try their own hand at applying what they’ve learned.

Nelson details how to capture character thoughts, how to show emotion, how to banish filter words like saw, felt, or wondered and how to make sure cause and effect are always in the right order. These are problems I often see in beginners’ novels, but once they are conquered, the manuscript improves immeasurably.

Nelson’s examples are serviceable but not stellar. They are all from her own work, and they get the job done, although they didn’t make want to rush out and buy her fiction.

Staying tightly in a character’s point of view is not easy. The good news is, once you understand depth in point of view, it’s not something you can ever unsee, and RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW will help you master this important writing skill.

—–

RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW can be found here

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book