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.

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BECAUSE INTERNET 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

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.

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Rating: one star

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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.

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TROUGH OF HELL 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

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

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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.

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CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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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.

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THE SECRETS OF STORY 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

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.

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RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW 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

Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel by Becky Clark

I admit, the title of Clark’s book made me curious. Why eight weeks? Why not four, or six, or twelve? It turns out that there’s nothing magical—or even particularly interesting—about the eight week timeframe. Clark recommends you write your novel in a month (just like NaNoWriMo) with a week on the front end for outlining and three weeks on the back end for revisions. This is a timeframe that Clark herself adopted on the advice of her agent, and it seems to work very well for her. But EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL is descriptive rather than instructive, basically saying, “here is what I do, now you do you.”

Clark insists that writers must use outlines, and the first half of the book is an exhaustive list of outline styles. Clark does a good job of defining these different styles, but doesn’t teach authors how to use any of them, nor how to pick the best one. She freely shares her own opinion on them, though. She likes the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet and doesn’t care for the Hero’s Journey. But what good does it do an aspiring writer to know that?

The second half of the book is about time management. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before: minimize distractions, keep track of daily work count, be consistent, try sprints, don’t edit as you go, set boundaries, etc. etc. I kept hoping for one gem to take away, some new idea that would be useful for a writer, but it was well-worn advice that all writers already know. Even Clark’s metaphors were ones we’ve seen hundreds of times. (An outline is a roadmap for your story’s journey…)

Throughout, Clark is eager to share what works for her, even reproducing her daily schedule on the page. Readers learn what time Clark gets up, how often she exercises, and that Wednesday is her day off. We learn how often she checks Facebook and how many writing sprints she does in a day. But having an example—even one as seemingly perfect as Clark—doesn’t help an aspiring writer set her own schedule around her own circumstances. Clark has neither a full-time job nor children at home, but she gives no consideration to those who do.

Read EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL if you’re curious about how one author writes her books, but not if you’re looking for instruction for writing your own.

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EIGHT WEEKS TO A COMPLETE NOVEL can be found here

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell or How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler instead of this book.

Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin

INTUITIVE EDITING is a frustrating book. Yates has extensive experience as an editor, both freelance and working for big publishing houses. And she has excellent advice for authors who want to polish their novels before handing them over to a professional editor. However, everything is over-explained, every point belabored, and it’s all weighed down with so many examples that the good advice gets lost. Ironically, this book on editing could have used an editor.

I liked Yates’ approach a lot. She starts with the biggest issues and works her way to ever smaller ones. This is the way I edit, and when I teach classes on editing, this is what I teach. Start by making sure the characterization, plot, and stakes are all in place. Then come medium-sized issues like point of view consistency, pacing, and voice. The final stage is smaller things, for example, removing crutch words and streamlining descriptions.

However, Yates exhaustively explains even the most simple concepts. For example, she devotes many pages to the difference between first and third person stories. Every writer learned this in middle school, and we don’t need it taught again. Even while addressing more complex topics such as point of view or suspense, Yates throws in example after example until the original point is lost. It feels like someone nudging you in the ribs saying, “Get it? Get it?” Yates is on more solid ground when using examples from real novels rather than hypothetical ones she made up, but each time a point is made, she happily uses three or more examples when one would do.

Even worse, very little of INTUITIVE EDITING will be useful for an author with a completed manuscript. Yates seems to want to teach authors how to write a novel rather than how to revise one. She gives vague handwaving toward the difficult job of finding a novel’s problems. However, very few beginning authors have the objectivity to look at an example, figure out how it applies to her own work, and then go back and edit accordingly. And when an author does have the objectivity to do so, her skills have progressed to the point where she no longer needs this book.

And that’s what makes this book frustrating. There are many valuable lessons here. INTUITIVE EDITING is like a short writing course taught by a good professor. However, the time to apply these lessons is in the planning or first draft stage, because the lessons are too general to apply to a completed manuscript. An author would be better served by taking the very good writing lessons in INTUITIVE EDITING and applying them to her next book.

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INTUITIVE EDITING 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 The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black

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You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.

This is true in any field, including writing. It’s not about paying your dues. You don’t “earn” the right to break the rules. If anything, experience gives you new appreciation for those rules that you might have once chafed against.

However, once you understand the reason behind writing rules, you can break them for effect. And when you break the rules, you’ll know exactly what you gain and what you lose by doing so.

Black understands that writing rules don’t exist just for the sake of having rules. They aren’t put in place to please copyeditors or the grammar police. Writing rules are merely best practices for communication, and the better you understand them, the better you can apply them—or bend and break them when the time is right.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE consists of short lessons that will tighten flabby sentences, tune up rambling paragraphs, and shine a spotlight on the most important parts of your novel. Black covers when to show and when to tell, how to find your voice, clean up your style, and put a finer point on all your description and exposition. She has tips for brighter dialogue, tighter pacing, and clearer transitions.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE covers a lot of ground, meaning very short chapters. Black quickly tells you the rule, why it matters, and how to apply it. She illustrates each point with a single example, all but a few from her own work. The examples are good and they do the job, but it would have been nice to have examples from a range of other voices so authors could have some side-by-side comparisons.

You’d expect a book of do’s and don’ts to be stuffy but this one is not. THE ANATOMY OF PROSE is filled with punchy British slang and just the right amount of swear words (a lot of them). Black is having fun with writing. She wants you to understand the deep principles of prose so you can convey your exact meaning, and perhaps have some fun with your writing too.

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THE ANATOMY OF PROSE 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