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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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

The Story Equation by Susan May Warren

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I’ve reviewed over 150 how-to books for writers on this site. Some have been better than others, but few have been completely incomprehensible. However, I could barely understand THE STORY EQUATION. Warren seems to be taking the age-old three act structure and showing how character change is the driving force of the story. At least, I think that’s what she’s trying to do. I’m not sure, because the book is full of paragraphs like this:

The character journey culminates in the Black Moment Event—or the realization of his Greatest Fear. As a result of this event, he experiences a Black Moment Effect when the Lie that has been chasing him the entire book suddenly feels real. This Black Moment Effect drives him to his metaphorical knees.

I think she’s describing the all-is-lost moment of the plot, that part that occurs about 3/4 of the way through every novel where the character almost gives up. But throwing in random terms (randomly capitalized) muddies rather than clarifies.

Warren constantly coins terms instead of using the familiar ones most writers already know. For example, she calls the inciting incident at the beginning of the book “the Trigger” (with a capital T). Renaming old concepts doesn’t make them into new concepts. Calling the inciting incident the Trigger doesn’t tell us anything about what that part of the story does. Warren loves to name, but not explain, her ideas.

I slogged through THE STORY EQUATION, hoping to find a new way of thinking about plot or character development, or at least some small gem of wisdom that would improve my writing. However, I couldn’t get through the Wound, the Lie, and the Noble Quest, not to mention the SEQ and the DMS (when Warren is not making up terms, she’s making up acronyms.)

I admire Warren’s enthusiasm and her desire to help other writers. She found a method and a vocabulary that worked well for her. However, it fell apart when she tried to convey her ideas to other people. And without clarity and good instruction, all the enthusiasm in the world won’t help.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress instead of this book.

Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

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People who write about romance novels usually fall into one of three categories. Either they are sneering at the entire genre and its readers, trying to distance themselves from the novels by analyzing them academically, or praising everything about romances without a single critical remark.

Wendell and Tan avoid these traps. The authors run the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” review blog, and they obviously love romance novels. But their love makes them want to understand the genre in a deep way, embracing all the good and bad. What are the tropes? Why do they work? What parts of romance are awesome and what parts kind of…well…stink?

Wendell and Tan answer these questions and more in rolicking prose that had me laughing out loud. I love a well-placed F-bomb, and I’m a sucker for made-up words like “buttsecks” and “the hero’s untamable Wang of Mighty Lovin.’” Don’t read BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS if you’re easily offended because this kind of awesomeness is on every page.

Wendell and Tan start by looking at the history of romance novels, explaining the big change that happened in the 1980s. You can almost draw a clear dividing line between the “old skool” romances of the 70s and early 80s, and the more modern ones that came after. Anyone who grew up with the rapey Harlequin historicals would hardly recognize the genre anymore. Modern romances are fun, sexy books that are all about the heroine’s happiness: in and out of bed.

From there, Wendell and Tan discuss what makes a good romance heroine, why we love romance heroes, and what’s up with common tropes like secret babies, pirates, the heroine’s life-changing makeover, spy rings, and amnesia. They also explain why romance covers are so weird, and speculate on the future of the genre. Along the way, they give dozens of examples for each point they make, and my own TBR pile has grown with their recommendations.

BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS is part appreciation, part analysis, and part snark. But its love for romance novels comes through loud and clear, and it made me love the genre a bit more, too.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 4 slices craft, 4 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book

Help for Writers by Roy Peter Clark

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Clark is a journalism teacher who has taught everyone from schoolchildren to Pulitzer Prize winners. He’s the kind of teacher I would love to have. I imagine him delivering instruction in a calm, soft voice, patiently going over students’ questions. Or at least, that’s the vibe I get from HELP FOR WRITERS. It’s a useful companion for anyone writing nonfiction, including books, articles, and blog posts.

Clark tackles problems common to beginning writers. He discusses the trouble with doing research, how to organize your thoughts, how to cut a broad topic down to size, how to make things clear, and how to revise. Each section is in a sort of Q and A format, so you can easily flip to whatever specific problem you’re having.

Along the way, Clark gives advice about things that aren’t directly related to the writing itself, but can nevertheless affect it. He doesn’t separate the writing from the writer. He knows that things like a cluttered desk can be just as big a problem as things like sagging middles or weak openings, and he has practical solutions for all of it. He tells writers how to beat procrastination, how to stay organized, how to develop good work habits, how to meet deadlines, and how to work with editors.

The best thing about HELP FOR WRITERS is how unassuming it is. Clark uses plain language in a straightforward way. He avoids gonzo pep talks or hazy inspiration in favor of realistic advice. HELP FOR WRITERS is the kind of book that’s easy to overlook because it’s got no gimmick and no hype. Clark doesn’t promise to tell you how to write a gazillion words this week or sell a boatload of books. He just quietly gives the kind of good, solid advice that works every time, which is exactly the kind of advice writers need.

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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: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

 

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is an odd combination of personal bragging, simple aphorisms, and “insights” that won’t be new to anyone who has read a single how-to book or even written one short story.

The premise of NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a good one. The idea is this: just because you wrote something, other people won’t necessarily want to read it. In fact, most people will go out of their way not to read your work. Writers have to earn the reader’s attention by writing something worth reading.

That’s a hard truth but a fair one. And it would have been great if Pressfield had continued in that vein, giving writers solid instruction on how to make their books and scripts worth reading. However, NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T is a mishmash of humblebrags about his past along with jaw-droppingly obvious instruction. He can’t seem to complete a thought, breaking into a new chapter every three or four paragraphs.

Pressfield has tried to make his instruction read like a story (he admits as much in the chapter called “Nonfiction is Fiction”). In order to do that, he pretends that his younger self was ignorant about some basic aspect of storytelling. And then, through careful reading and study and genius-level mentors, he learned better, and now he never makes that mistake again.

The “younger self” is supposed to be a proxy for the reader. It’s obvious that Pressfield himself was never that dumb, but he thinks his readers are. He thinks things like “action scenes must further the story” or “every genre has its own conventions” or “every story must have an all-is-lost moment” are new ideas that his fellow writers have never heard before.

If Pressfield’s premise is that nobody is owed a read, then I’m sorry to say that he didn’t earn mine. Nor should you feel obligated to read NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T when there are plenty of better books out there more worthy of your time.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend On Writing by Stephen King or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias instead of this book.

Hit Lit by James W. Hall

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HIT LIT examines twelve mega-bestsellers of the twentieth century, showing what they have in common, and why they sold millions of copies. These are books that broke out on their own: not because of the author’s name (many were first novels) and not because of the movies made from them (the movies all came later). These books spent weeks and years on the bestseller lists because there was something in them that spoke to a huge number of people. Hall sets out to discover exactly what it is.

Hall has chosen his twelve books carefully, starting with Gone with the Wind in 1936 and ending with The Da Vinci Code in 2003. He also examines Jaws, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Exorcist, The Hunt for Red October, The Godfather, The Bridges of Madison County, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, The Dead Zone and The Firm.

By reading these books deeply and critically, analyzing them the exact same way he’d analyze classic literature, Hall has identified twelve key factors that all bestsellers have in common.

Every single one of them deals with fractured families. Each one focuses on a small story played out against a huge backdrop, such as one defecting submarine captain played out against the entire cold war. They cover hot-button issues that reflect our national psyche. They all have intricately described worlds (such as the Civil War south or the inner workings of a law firm or the details of a mafia family) that are so well-described we feel like we’ve been there. Each book also deals with sex and religion in some way.

The books are also fast-paced, emotionally charged, and have prose that is rather plain. There are some exceptions to Hall’s rules, but aren’t there always exceptions? Sometimes his insistence that all twelve books share all twelve elements was a stretch, but overall, his arguments were sound. I found myself thinking about more modern-day bestsellers such as The Martian and The Kite Runner, and darned if they didn’t check all the boxes, too.

That’s not to say that one could reverse-engineer a bestseller out of Hall’s rules, and he cautions writers against trying it. Any writer looking for a shortcut here will be disappointed. The books on the bestseller list have a sincerity to them that can’t be faked.

But that’s beside the point. HIT LIT is just plain fun to read, with insights on every page. HIT LIT teaches you how to be a more critical reader, even of the books critics dismiss. Hall likes these books, and treats them with respect, explaining them on a deep level that makes you want to read (or re-read) them all.

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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: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book