How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler

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This is, hand’s down, the most practical book for writers I’ve ever read. I’ve read other books that teach you how to make art while also making a life, but HOW TO BE AN ARTIST went so far beyond those books as to be in a different category.

Artists of all kinds are assumed to be airy flakes, but Nagler knows that what the rest of the world sees as scatterbrained is often simply a matter of the artist being overwhelmed or frustrated. She offers solutions that are wise, kind, and completely doable. Nagler offers clear-eyed advice on budgets, lifestyle, work ethics, motivation, and sticking with it for the long haul.

Nagler doesn’t want to see artists starve—financially or artistically. There are ways to have it all, but it involves setting a budget for money and time. That includes getting a day job. Yes, Nagler assumes that her readers—like most artists—have day jobs too. I don’t think I’ve ever read another how-to book that puts that front-and-center the way HOW TO BE AN ARTIST does.

Nagler busts the myth that the only successful writer is a writer who writes full time. She insists a day job is not something to tolerate. It’s something to celebrate. The benefits are numerous, starting with the security of having a firm foundation. After all, it’s hard to be creative when you’re broke, hungry, and scared you won’t make rent this month. Having a job also boosts confidence and focus. All jobs are not created equal, however, and Nagler has down-to-earth advice about choosing one that will fit around a creative life.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST gets real about money management and time management too. She offers solutions for funding our art as well as our lives, and helps artists balance their schedules in a realistic way. So many how-to books simply advise writers to wake up an hour earlier, as if that’s the one-size-fits-all solution to scheduling woes. Nagler realizes that we’re all already waking up as early as we can. She proposes other ways to find time that don’t involve messing with our sleep or our health.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST is easily the most practical book on my shelf. Strangely enough, it’s also the most inspirational. Nagler’s wise counsel, sensible methods, and kind tone made me eager to embrace my writing life in new and better ways.

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HOW TO BE AN ARTIST can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

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I’ve read a couple of Rubin’s earlier books, but thought they were only so-so, mainly because I wasn’t the target audience for them. However, BETTER THAN BEFORE is much more my style. I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it.

I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit.

I’ve read other good books on habit formation. However, they were either heavy on theory and light on practice or they treated humans as if they were one-size-fits-all. Rubin looks at habits from a fresh angle. She answers the question: why do some habits stick, and others don’t? There are a lot of factors that go into the making of a good habit (or the breaking of a bad one). But the key to success is knowing yourself.

That’s the genius of BETTER THAN BEFORE. Other books start with the outside world, telling you how to set up a schedule or reward yourself for accomplishments. However, Rubin starts from the inside. What motivates people? It turns out that people are motivated either by external expectations (what do I have to do?) or internal expectations (what do I want to do?). The external expectations are things like rules, work deadlines, and anything that’s on our calendars. Internal expectations are things like eating better, saving money, or writing a novel.

If someone responds to both internal and external expectations, they are an upholder. If someone resists all expectations, both inner and outer, they are a rebel. Both these types are rare. Most of us are either obligers, who respond well to external motivation but struggle with internal; or we’re questioners, who are motivated by internal expectations but only obey outer expectations if they make sense.

I suspect that most writers are questioners. We’re driven by an inner need to create, and will fit writing around the expectations of the world however we can. But there’s still hope if you’re one of the other types. An obliger should put writing dates on the calendar and maybe get an accountability buddy. A rebel will only do something if it’s part of her core identity, so in order to write, she needs to think of herself as a writer.

Rubin goes on to discuss other, more subtle factors that can make or break a habit. She explains the importance of monitoring and scheduling, and shows how to start a habit and the danger of ending one. She warns about things like distraction, loopholes, and the convenience factor. However, the four kinds of motivation infuse every chapter of BETTER THAN BEFORE, because once you know what motivates you, you can accomplish anything.

Over many years, I have developed a solid writing habit. For me, no day is complete without some new words on the page. But it took me a long time to get here, and I have learned many of these lessons through trial and error. If you’re just starting out or you want to solidify your writing habit more strongly, BETTER THAN BEFORE is the book that will set you firmly on the path of daily writing.
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BETTER THAN BEFORE can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend 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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BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS can be found here.

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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

Author in Progress edited by Therese Walsh

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AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is a collection of brand new essays by the writers who blog at the excellent “Writer Unboxed” website. It’s divided into seven sections: Prepare, Write, Invite (get critique), Improve, Rewrite, Persevere, Release. Taken together, it’s meant to be a complete guide to the writing process, from the idea to the bookshelf.

However, this isn’t a craft class in a book. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is about a writer’s lifestyle and overcoming mental blocks that keep us from the page. There are over fifty high-quality essays covering everything from time management to understanding murky feedback to overcoming jealousy, so it’s easy to flip to just the chapter you need for help with your current problem.

Walsh always seems to be one step ahead of the traps writers set for themselves. She’s gathered writers who have been doing this a long time and have developed solutions that work. Overcome with too many ideas? Read “Put a Ring on It” by Erika Robuck. Scared to go to a conference? Read “When Writers Gather” by Tracy Hahn-Burkett. Having empty nest syndrome after finishing a book? Read “Letting Go” by Allie Larkin. The contributors to AUTHOR IN PROGRESS have dealt with all the weird hangups writers have and can give solid advice from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

But my favorite essays were those that didn’t have definitive answers. Do writers need MFAs? Should writers use outlines? How useful is a professional editor? There’s more than one right answer and back-to-back essays explore both sides of the issue.

I’ve read a lot of how-to books and have, for the most part, moved past these kind of soup-to-nuts compilations in favor of more focused books that zero in on specific problem areas. However, AUTHOR IN PROGRESS is going on my keeper shelf. Because no matter what question I’m struggling with today, I know I will find the answer in its pages.

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AUTHOR IN PROGRESS can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

Break Writer’s Block Now by Jerrold Mundis

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I’ve never been someone who believes in writer’s block. And the funny thing is, despite the title of the book, Mundis doesn’t believe in it either. He says writers who are blocked are suffering from perfectionism, fear, or having the unrealistic expectation that a writing career is going to solve all their problems.

Writers are burdened by other funny beliefs, too. Writers believe that they have to be a genius, or have a magical talent, or that writing should never be hard if you’re good at it, but your life will be hard if you’re a writer. Mundis has seen writers dump all kinds of emotional baggage on their writing, robbing the process of any joy it once had.

His solution is to bust the myths, see the self-defeating behaviors for what they are, and form new habits that will keep your butt in the chair no matter your mood. And even better, Mundis says he can fix you in a single afternoon.

BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is divided into two parts. The first is theory. How to get out of your own way by understanding where these self-limiting beliefs came from and how silly they are.

The second part is practice. Mundis takes writers step-by-step through the hard mental work of getting words on the page. He starts by reminding writers to stop thinking about selling what they write and just keep filling the pages. If that doesn’t work, he takes writers through some more hardcore mythbusting, focusing on their personal misconceptions about their own writing. Next, he advises writers to form a habit and stick to it with a set time and place. And if all else fails, set a timer and force yourself to write quickly (so as to outrun the internal censor).

None of this is new stuff, and most of it can be found in other how-to books, but Mundis has stripped away all the fluff and distilled things down to their very essence. The hardcover I have is ninety pages with very generous margins, and there is beauty in its brevity, because none of us have time to waste. We’ve got books to write!

BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is excellent for beginning writers. Mundis’ no-nonsense advice is tempered with a great deal of compassion. He understands that writers need encouragement along with a kick in the pants. And even though I’m a daily writer who mostly stays out of her own way, I’ve hit a rough patch or two. BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW will stay on my shelf for those times I need a little nudge to get me back to the page.

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BREAK WRITER’S BLOCK NOW is available here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox

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Successful people don’t necessarily work longer, harder, or smarter than everyone else, but I can guarantee that successful people work more consistently than anyone else. The little things they do every day add up to huge productivity gains.

Committing to a daily writing practice not only pays off, it pays off with interest. Once that writing habit is in place it will naturally grow, and writers improve with every draft. Thinking about writing doesn’t work. Only butt-in-chair time does.

But how to cultivate that habit? How to make writing such an ingrained part of life that a writer just naturally shows up at the writing desk every day? Fox takes readers step by step into forming and maintaining a writing practice.

It starts with an honest look at how you’re already spending your time. Then Fox helps you get clear on your goals, implement a tracking system, and find writing time. (Yes, he expects you to get up early to write. It works.) Along the way, Fox helps you gather support, banish distractions, and stay inspired. Some of his advice might seem unnecessary and a little new-age, but he argues that visualizing your dream is as important as any other step in forming a lifelong habit.

As I read LIFELONG WRITING HABIT I was pleased to note that I’d already done many of Fox’s action steps. I already write every day and track my progress, but I’m very wishy-washy about when I write. More than once, I’ve written four hundred words right before bed just so I could put something on my spreadsheet for that day. Fox helped me refine my goals and figure out new ways to solidify my habit. I can imagine newer writers getting even more out of LIFELONG WRITING HABIT as they first start incorporating writing time into their lives.

I often read business books and apply their lessons to writing. It seems that Fox does the same, because he references some of my favorites. He has synthesized all the best lessons from Eat that Frog, The Power of Habit, and Switch into one neat package, along with a big helping of Getting Things Done. Fox’s book is extremely practical, packing all his lessons and inspiration into a short ebook with no repetition and no fluff. LIFELONG WRITING HABIT is ideal for any writer who wants to put their butt in the chair every single day.

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LIFELONG WRITING HABIT can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book for all writers

I Can’t Believe You Asked That by Phillip J. Milano

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I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT started as an online forum. Milano’s idea was to let people ask anything they wanted to know about the “other,” whether that meant race, age, sex, or class. He posted the questions and let people answer honestly, based on their experience. At the end, an expert weighed in, giving scientific research, statistics, and sometimes a reality check.

Because this is an edited version of the forum, the result is amazingly respectful. There are no racist attacks, no flame wars, no trolls or ugly politics. And the answers are wonderfully fearless. As humans, we are desperate to talk to one another, to try to understand, and admitting we don’t know something is a great first step.

The questions themselves are almost as illuminating as the answers, since they show the innate assumptions and prejudices of the people asking. An anonymous forum removes the burden of decorum, and people reveal what’s really on their minds.

Some of my favorite questions were things like, “Why are people in the Midwest assumed to be boring, uncultured idiots?” and “Why do so many gay men love The Wizard of Oz?” and “Why do Christian shows feature people with really big hair and lots of makeup?” and “Do white people really wash their hair every day?” There are also touchier questions about sex, race, disabilities, and culture clashes. It’s definitely a book for adults only, but those of us mature enough to handle it will come away surprised and enlightened.

I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT would be a great starting point for any writer hoping to expand their cast of characters in a realistic, respectful way. “Writing the other” is full of perils, and reading one book is no substitute for research, talking to people, and honestly engaging a world not your own. But sometimes we don’t even know what we don’t know, and stupid assumptions get in the way. Milano provides a safe, first step to breaking down some of those barriers in an entertaining package that a writer can keep on the shelf and refer to often.

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I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ASKED THAT can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book.