Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block

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Back in the 1980s, Block wrote the “fiction” column for Writer’s Digest, sharing short essays about the writing craft and a writer’s life. SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is a collection of some of those columns, first published as a book in 1988. At last, it’s now available as an audiobook, read by Richard Neer, who reads with a delightful cadence and knows exactly how to deliver Block’s wry humor. The material itself isn’t new, but Block’s advice has aged well, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can hold its own against newer how-to books on the shelves. In many cases, Block’s classic instruction is better than the new stuff.

SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is divided into four sections. The first two deal with the nuts and bolts of fiction writing. Block covers things like the use of flashbacks, how to incorporate backstory, techniques for sex scenes and fight scenes, and how to make a reader identify with your characters. The second two sections are about a writer’s mindset and lifestyle. Fear, procrastination, and perfectionism all get a chapter here, and Block also discusses rejections, budgets, schedules, and how to believe in yourself.

Block often pretends he’s addressing a room full of students, even giving them names and allowing them to ask questions. But reading SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB never feels like sitting in a classroom. It feels like grabbing coffee with a friend. Block offers gentle advice based on his own experience, and he’s more interested in giving options than giving a to-do list. His advice is practical, inspirational, and is delivered with warmth and wit.

I’m also surprised at how timeless it all is. Yes, there are references to typewriters and photocopies and print magazines and waiting on editors and other things that modern writers simply never deal with. But I found it charming. And the lessons still apply, even if the examples Block uses are outdated. He goes on at length about buying the best typewriter paper he can afford, but what’s important about that story isn’t the paper. It’s the idea of valuing yourself as a writer—of putting your writing first.

Block is an icon in the writing community, and every writer I know looks up to him—for good reason. Whenever I review one of Lawrence Block’s books on the Writing Slices blog, I get lots of comments from writers who say that Block was their first writing teacher—either through his magazine columns or his how-to books. Those comments always make me smile, and I always respond the same way. “He was my first teacher too,” I say. “It looks like we both started in a good place.”

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SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book


[Quick reminder: my 5-part online class is still open, and the first class is free! More info here.]

Hook Your Readers by Tamar Sloan

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The subtitle of HOOK YOUR READERS promises “12 Proven Strategies to Write a Best-Selling Book.” But what Sloan delivers are twelve things that all novels have in common, whether they are bestsellers or midlist novels. Things like conflict, emotions, a hero who wants something, questions, and plot twists are things that all fiction has, so it’s silly to claim that they are unique to bestsellers.

Nobody will be amazed that novels need conflict. Nobody will be surprised that novels need strong emotion, but Sloan acts as if these are groundbreaking insights. In scant chapters of just a few pages each, she sketches out her twelve “discoveries,” illustrating them with snatches of bestselling novels to prove her points (that didn’t need proving).

There isn’t any instruction in this how-to book. Telling a reader that books need conflict and then showing them an example of conflict doesn’t provide any instruction whatsoever. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, but—again—they teach how to describe fiction rather than produce fiction.

Sloan is a psychologist, and has attempted to apply her training to an instructional how-to. The problem is, knowing why something works is not the same as being able to teach others how to do it. And having extremely shallow material means she doesn’t have anything to teach anyway.

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Hook Your Readers can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Hooked by Les Edgerton or Hit Lit by James W. Hall instead of this book.

 

The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell

 

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Starting a novel is easy. Ending one is hard. Bringing a narrative of 70,000+ words to a satisfying conclusion is a high-wire act that demands an epic showdown, deep character change, tying up loose ends, and an emotional resolution. No wonder every writer has files of half-finished manuscripts on her computer.

But Bell is here to help. THE LAST FIFTY PAGES zeroes in on that all-important third act. Bell discusses the mechanics of endings, which most writers already know how to do: good guy and bad guy face off, one of them wins. But Bell goes far beyond the mechanics. He’s more interested in the purpose of endings. Tying up the plot is only a small part of that.

Bringing things to a satisfying conclusion means looking through the novel for moments of character change, and then amplifying them at the last moment. Bell gives examples from stories that work, from Huckleberry Finn to the Maltese Falcon, showing examples of this technique done well. Character change is what gives the ending—and the entire novel—emotional resonance.

Bell also discusses the different kinds of endings. Different genres have different requirements for their endings and one size does not fit all. Sometimes the protagonist wins. Sometimes she loses. Sometimes she wins but at too high a cost. Sometimes she loses one thing but wins another. Bell uses examples of well-known books and movies to illustrate his points. I’m a big fan of well-chosen examples, since that’s how I learn best.

Bell has a short chapter on ending blunders, but does not dwell too much on it, which I also appreciate. It’s important to know what not to do, but instructors need to go beyond that, to teach writers what they should do instead, and Bell really delivers here.

There are numerous ways to get to those magical two words: the end, With THE LAST FIFTY PAGES along as a guide, a writer will get there, and she’ll make herself—and her readers—happy along the way.

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THE LAST FIFTY PAGES 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

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

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.