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.

How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell

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Pulp is often considered lowbrow. Just because it’s written in quantity and features plain language, it is often seen as undeserving. Literary writers are especially fond of looking down their noses at genre writers. But good pulp is simply another version of the art form known as the novel. And yes, it’s an art. Just ask Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and Lawrence Block.

Bell defines pulp fiction as plot centric, easy to read, and fast-paced, with colorful characters, witty dialogue, and intriguing settings. In other words, popular fiction. Romance and thrillers are the bestselling genres today, but Bell only gives a passing nod to romance. His advice is clearly for those who want to write thrillers or hardboiled mysteries, especially in a series. (He calls a series character “the writer’s insurance policy.”)

A pulp writer gives the reader what they want and plenty of it. In order to do that, the writer has to study the market and write fast. HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is loaded with lists and plot generators, along with good general writing advice that will keep pulp novels from becoming hack work. Bell’s two strategies for writing faster are also tried-and-true: banish distractions and write to a quota. Pulp writers can’t afford to be too precious about the work.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is rounded out with some publishing advice. The first pulp golden age was when paperbacks were a new medium. Now, ebooks are the new paperbacks, and low-priced reads are once again taking over the market. Bell assumes that pulp writers will be self-publishing and gives advice about hiring editors and proofreaders. He also urges writers to give books away periodically in order to raise awareness of your name. Since a pulp writer will be writing a lot, doing a few giveaways won’t hurt sales.

This is a very specific book for a very specific kind of writer. It’s not a general how-to book. But like pulp fiction itself, HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is fast-paced and easy to read. It’s a great introduction to writing faster, writing to market, and generally getting out of your own way to let those stories rip.

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HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available 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.

 

 

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