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.

 

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.

The 5 Day Novel by Scott King

 

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First there was NaNoWriMo, where writers attempt to write a novel in a month. Then came the two-week novel. Now, King claims to have written his book in five days.

Rubbish.

Oh, I’m not saying King didn’t do it. I’m sure he did. But he did it as a stunt, just to see if he could. It’s not something he’ll continue doing regularly.

Just as writing an entire novel in five days was a stunt, this how-to book is a stunt as well. King gleefully tells us how he wrote his novel, all the while telling us not to attempt the same thing. King’s writing style also feels rushed and a bit breathless. He bounces quickly from one idea to another, using lots of exclamation points, like a guy who has consumed too many energy drinks and is now ready to jump off a cliff with a GoPro strapped to his head.

THE 5 DAY NOVEL isn’t all bad. King has some decent tips for time management, outlining, ignoring distractions, and not overthinking a rough draft.

But most of the advice is shallow, like “decide you’re a writer,” and “make time to write your novel” and my personal favorite: “Decide what you want to write about, and if you don’t know the subject well enough to write with authority, then learn more about it.” How is that for some dandy writing advice?

I’m all for books that teach me how to write faster while maintaining quality, but THE 5 DAY NOVEL is not one of those books.

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THE 5 DAY NOVEL can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book.

Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle

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Writing good description is tricky in fiction. To tell a story well, a writer has to handle exposition, backstory, characterization, passage of time, and a host of other things. Slipping in description without stopping the flow of the story is essential. Using description to actually further the story is next-level. DESCRIPTION AND SETTING will help writers see description not as a necessary evil or a story-stopper, but as an enhancement to deepen characterization, move plot, and make the setting feel real.

Rozelle speaks to writers at all levels. He explains basic concepts very well, but also teaches more experienced writers how to push themselves to make their descriptions do double or even triple duty. He covers character description, time and place, and how each genre deals with setting. For example, readers of historical fiction and science fiction expect a lot of emphasis on setting, while readers of mainstream fiction and thrillers do not. Rozelle gives advice about showing and telling, how to keep the story moving forward, how setting interacts with character, and how to use all five senses in our fiction.

Rozelle uses good examples of novels that handle description well, both in classic literature and modern fiction. He tells writers what pitfalls to avoid, but throughout, his tone is positive. He emphasizes what works, rather than what doesn’t. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, and most of them involve directly improving our works-in-progress. I loved how Rozelle skipped the empty theory to give writers specific action steps to apply to their current work.

DESCRIPTION AND SETTING includes a twelve-page appendix with bullet points covering the major ideas of each chapter for quick reference. Part of me wants to eat this book, or at least consume it so deeply that I never forget its lessons. But I will have to settle for copying the entire appendix and taping it above my computer, to remind me of what I learned, or what I thought I knew but forgot.

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DESCRIPTION AND SETTING is available 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.

Write Better, Faster by Monica Leonelle

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There are four ways writers can improve their productivity. They can write faster, they can write for more hours per day, they can do less editing, and they can hire ghost writers. Leonelle has done all of these things, but this book is focused on the first one. She greatly increased her writing speed through the use of several productivity hacks, and she’s eager to show others how she did it.

Right away, Leonelle busts the myth that speed and quality have anything to do with each other. She plans ahead and does multiple drafts. In the end, “but is it good?” is the wrong question to ask anyway. It’s not so much about whether the work is any good, it’s about whether it gets worse when writing faster. Leonelle suggests pushing the envelope on writing speed until quality begins to suffer, and then backing off a bit to land in the sweet spot where one is writing at her absolute capacity.

WRITE BETTER, FASTER has many tricks for increasing speed, starting with simply tracking results. Whatever is measured tends to increase, so keeping a spreadsheet to calculate words per hour is a great place to start. Leonelle is also a big fan of dictation, and claims to write up to 3,500 words per hour using Dragon Naturally Speaking. She also explains how to deal with writer’s block, procrastination, scheduling, and even travel, because pure speed won’t help a writer at all if the daily writing habit isn’t there.

It’s important to note that she only achieves this amazing writing speed through the use of extensive outlines. She outlines her complete novel first, then blocks out each scene with the major action, and finally, drafts the actual novel as quickly as she can.

Some writers might love WRITE BETTER, FASTER. Some writers might hate it. It depends on how your brain works. I liked it because Leonelle plans her books the same way I do. It’s a top-down approach that makes sense to me. But I imagine that more organic writers, who like to discover the story as they write, would think her approach was silly at best, and a waste of time at worst.

But if there’s one thing that all writers can agree on, it’s that we want to write more books. We all have more ideas than we’ll ever have time for. Learning to write faster is one way to make sure more of those books get written.

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WRITE BETTER, FASTER is available here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book or 2,000 TO 10,000 by Rachael Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox

 

Yours to Tell by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

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I was hesitant to pick up this book, even though it was recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. I thought it would be rambling, artificial, and far too cute. But it was none of those things. YOURS TO TELL is a series of thoughtful conversations about what makes stories work, written by two people who are deeply rooted in the world of reading and writing.

The Tems take turns discussing plot, character, POV, setting, story structure and theme. They also cover more businesslike things like revision, marketing and managing paperwork. But the bulk of the book is on craft. Each author holds the floor for two or three or a dozen paragraphs at a time, but they comment on each other’s points, ask each other questions, and help each other think of examples. The result is a peek into the inner workings of two accomplished writers.

The Tems read a lot, and they don’t seem to read stories so much as inhale them. They study everything for craft lessons and they know what makes fiction work. They know the upside and downside of every writing rule and freely admit to breaking more of them than they uphold.

YOURS TO TELL is not for beginners. Anyone hoping to pick up pointers on writing craft will have to read hard between the lines. For example, in the chapters about point of view, they start with unreliable narrators and “writing the other” and only later go into difference between first and third person POV. They quickly dispense with definitions and are on to discussing things like the implied author and omnipotent narration and the weirdness of second person.

Most of the chapters are like that. The Tems are experienced writers talking about what concerns them right now. They always circle back to beginner concerns, but only after they talk about higher level stuff that they, themselves, are currently grappling with.

And that’s what makes this book such a delight. The Tems don’t instruct so much as share. They don’t talk like teachers lecturing students. They are working writers talking to their peers. Reading YOURS TO TELL was like attending a very good panel discussion at a conference, the kind that leaks out into the hallway afterward. The conversation goes in many directions, but the love of story always comes through. More than anything else, the Tems respect the process of writing fiction, and appreciate the rewards of doing so.

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YOURS TO TELL can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book.

Editomat Software by Noumena Corporation

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There are about a dozen kinds of software to edit prose. Most of them, like Grammarly and Hemingway, focus on nonfiction. That’s natural, since nonfiction rules are easy to codify, and therefore easy to program into software.

But EDITOMAT is different. It was written by a fiction writer for fiction writers. Developer Clif Flynt knows that fiction needs a different kind of editing, and therefore, EDITOMAT goes beyond simple grammar rules to look at things like style and word choice and readability. It will never replace a human editor, of course, but this software is ideal for the fiction writer who simply needs a “fresh pair of eyes” before handing her manuscript to a beta reader or editor.

EDITOMAT covers the basics like accidental word repetition and weak words. It can also compare your work to others in your genre, tell you about the emotional tone, analyze your dialog, and look at specific things like clothing or vehicles or other aspects of setting. It has a nifty built-in thesaurus that goes way, way beyond the one built into Microsoft word. Highlight any word and an exhaustive list of synonyms come up. Using EDITOMAT, a writer could happily self-edit a whole novel, swapping weak words and sentences for stronger ones, and making sure the tone of the piece was just right.

The emphasis, of course, if on self editing. Although EDITOMAT will point out things that you can’t see yourself, it’s up to you to fix them. More importantly, it’s up to you to know when to ignore its suggestions. For example, I often use repetition for emphasis. I might write sentences like this: “She wanted his cooperation. But even more, she wanted his trust.” The word wanted would be flagged in EDITOMAT, and I could choose to ignore it, or not.

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A sample of my prose in Editomat, with weak words and repeated words highlighted.

One feature I thought would be superfluous turned out to be my favorite. EDITOMAT can analyze a manuscript for readability. It gives a Flesch Analysis, showing the education level someone would need to read your prose. I discovered that a short story I was working on was easy to read (which was my goal) and my blog posts tended to require at least a high school level of reading ability.

EDITOMAT can also analyze the emotional tone of a scene. I tried it with several of my short pieces, with some interesting and sometimes comical results. Just for fun, I ran a sex scene through EDITOMAT, because those are darned hard to write and I wanted to see what the program would do. I was amused to see that it flagged words like beneath, moan, surrender and lower as “negative” words. In some contexts, they aren’t. Likewise, I forgive myself for using extra adjectives and adverbs here, since sex scenes are all about the descriptions and feelings.

But this is just another example of using this software as a way to see your manuscript more clearly, rather than a way to fix things. EDITOMAT is like a helpful friend who points out when you’ve accidentally left your zipper down. Your friend will tell you about it, but it’s up to you to zip your own fly.

(EDITOMAT is available here. You can download a free demo version that will analyze short documents, or buy the full version that can handle entire novels.)

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend this software