Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

51zvniaf8sl-_sx323_bo1204203200_

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.

—–

BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS can be found here.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

Pie Slices: 4 slices craft, 4 slices inspiration

—–

I recommend this book

Help for Writers by Roy Peter Clark

41LlHlSx+nL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

—–

HELP FOR WRITERS can be found here.

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

Pie slices: 8 slices craft

—-

This book is best for: beginning writers

—-

I recommend this book

 

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield

51H0OnsH8pL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

—–

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T can be found here.

—–

Rating: 2 stars

—–

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

HitLitPic

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.

—–

HIT LIT can be found here.

—-

Rating: 4 stars

—-

Pie slices: 8 slices craft

—-

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—-

I recommend this book

Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

SpillingPic

I’ve written nearly a hundred fifty reviews on the Writing Slices blog, but they’ve all been books for adults. I never considered books for kids until a friend who is becoming a teacher raved about SPILLING INK, and I knew I had to check it out. I’m glad I did. Now, when I meet a younger writer who is looking for a good how-to book, I’ll know what to recommend.

SPILLING INK is aimed at kids about nine to twelve years old. Mazer and Potter meet the kids where they are, rather than where the adults think they should be. There is nothing in SPILLING INK about making pretty sentences or fixing spelling or knowing the parts of speech. It’s all about finding interesting stories and getting them on the page. The examples are age-appropriate, featuring things like sleepover parties, bad camping trips, and a cousin who burps the alphabet.

Unlike authors who are writing for adults, Mazer and Potter take nothing for granted. They include tips on how to put those very first words on the page, why interesting situations are more important than fancy words, and how to convince your characters (and yourself) that they are real. Along the way, they cover everything a writer needs to know, from plot, characterization, and revision to the good habits that will help writers for a lifetime. And they do it without ever talking down to young writers.

The exercises at the end of the chapters are called “I dare you.” They are not much different from the exercises in many writing books, but thinking of them as dares makes them feel more like healthy challenges that are okay to fail, rather than a slog to get through.

SPILLING INK is a complete manual for young writers that will guide them from their very first sentence to polishing the final draft. Kids who love to write will love the sound advice and useful examples. Kids who hate to write will love the encouragement. Kids who are indifferent to writing will love the humor. In short, this is the perfect book for all young writers, and this grown-up writer loved it too.

—-

SPILLING INK can be found here.

—-

Rating: 5 stars

—-

Pie Slices: 5 slices craft

—-

This book is best for: beginning writers

—-

I recommend this book.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Truby-book-jacket

THE ANATOMY OF STORY is not for “pantsers” (writers who write without an outline). It’s an extremely technical manual for people who like to have their whole story planned out ahead of time, including every plot point, character change, motif and theme. Following Truby’s method will give you a detailed map of your entire plot.

The problem is, Truby’s method strips story down to bare mechanics, bleeding all the life out of it. I’m someone who loves to enslave herself to an outline, and I found Truby’s method tedious, so I can only imagine what a seat-of-the-pants writer will think.

Truby makes some things more complex than they need to be, and some things just downright incomprehensible. For example, I never did get a handle on what Truby meant by “designing principle.” It seemed to be a mashup of theme and mythical structure. It’s a pretty useless concept anyway, as many books and movies have been written without the author knowing what the “designing principle” is supposed to be.

Truby is more sure-footed when he’s talking about setting and plot. His ideas are concrete with many examples. However, Truby shows what elements all stories have in common without ever explaining how to put those elements into practice. Describing what a good screenplay needs then giving examples of movies that worked well is not the same as teaching someone how to use those same elements in her own story. Writing is more than reverse-engineering from examples, no matter how comprehensive the examples.

THE ANATOMY OF STORY  is one of those neither-here-nor-there books. It might be useful for intermediate writers who have finished a few novels or screenplays and read a few other how-to books. But those same writers would quickly outgrow anything Truby has to teach. THE ANATOMY OF STORY might help a certain kind of writer (those looking for “the one true way”) but for most of us, it’s too rigid and more likely to frustrate than inspire.

—–

THE ANATOMY OF STORY can be found here.

—–

Rating: 3 stars

—–

Pie slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book or Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

 

Writing Vivid Dialogue by Rayne Hall

28353260._UY500_SS500_.jpg

I have been searching for a good, basic book about writing dialogue since I started the Writing Slices blog in 2011. I’ve read some decent books and some awful ones, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE that I found a truly great one.

WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE is organized well, starting with some simple tweaks to make dialogue better. By turning statements into questions and giving each character an agenda, dull dialogue becomes more vivid. Hall progresses through more subtle ways to enhance dialogue by shortening sentences, adding fun one-liners, and using body language. The final few chapters are advanced techniques, like using dialogue to show when someone is lying, informing without info-dumping, and using foreign accents respectfully.

Every chapter includes well-chosen examples, showing how small changes can make dialogue sing. Hall also quotes longer passages from her own novels to help show dialogue in a larger context. I wish she had included at least a few examples from other books, since every writer approaches dialogue differently, but this is a minor fault in an otherwise excellent book.

Hall includes writing exercises at the end of each chapter. Unlike some books where the exercises seem like an afterthought, the exercises in WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE were interesting and actually useful. Each one will only take a few minutes to do, but by completing them, a writer can instantly see improvement. Hall doesn’t just tackle the easy mistakes. She helps writers dig deep into the more nuanced flavors of dialogue, such as the ways that men and women speak differently, or the best uses of profanity, or when to start a story with dialogue.

Hall’s tone is encouraging, with good instruction that is never rigid. She knows there are numerous ways to achieve any effect, and that dialogue is only one tool in a writer’s toolbox. But when done well, the dialogue is what readers will remember.

—–

WRITING VIVID DIALOGUE can be found here.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

—–

This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book.