A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wasn’t always Lawrence Block. I mean that figuratively and literally. He wasn’t always a Grand Master of the mystery genre, and he wrote an incredible number of novels under secret pen names before ever putting his own name on a book. A WRITER PREPARES is a memoir of Block’s start, from his earliest writing attempts in high school and college up to the publication of the first novel under his own name.

In the late 1950s, while he was still in college, Block had a job writing rejection letters for the Scott Meredith Agency. It was a fee-charging agency that was very bad for writers but kind of great for Block, since it got him connected to his next job, which was writing short erotic novels. He had contracts with two publishers to deliver a book a month, for which he was paid a flat fee, and he continued doing that for a decade, during which time he got married and had two daughters. He took day jobs here and there, but still wrote erotica on the side until 1966, when he finally started writing crime novels in earnest, starting with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep.

A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block’s conversational style. It’s also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Even the parts that were horrifying, such as the terrible treatment of writers by the Scott Meredith Agency, were hilarious in that whole “laugh so I don’t cry” way. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world.

A WRITER PREPARES might seem like an odd choice for this blog. I’m all about how-to books after all. But Block is a natural teacher, and he’s always giving writing lessons, whether he means to or not. I learned so much from this book—more than I can put in a review—but here’s a small taste.

Agents don’t care about writers or writers’ careers. They care about their own bottom line. The Scott Meredith Agency was particularly scammy, charging authors a reading fee, never sending work out, and lying to authors about their submissions. But are modern agents much better? To agents, writers are interchangeable. It’s not worth going to bat for one writer when there are plenty of others to fleece represent.

Write to market. Block learned this lesson early and well. He wrote his school compositions based on what he thought his teachers wanted, and won an eighth-grade essay contest by extolling the virtues of “Americanism” because he knew the judges were patriotic. His erotic novels were always the exact length and heat level the publisher wanted. He read every back issue of Manhunt he could find to understand what the editor was looking for when he sent them stories. When Block had the idea for The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he sat on it until he was sure he had all the elements for a complete story that would appeal to mystery readers. There is nothing wrong with having original ideas that are wild and fun, but keeping the audience in mind is how a writer gets read.

Practice is never wasted. Block happily admits that he spent his twenties writing crap. All of it was under pen names for low-budget publishers and most of the time, he never saw a copy. But this served as a risk-free apprenticeship that made him the writer he is today. It allowed him to experiment, to pick up new skills, and to practice writing to a deadline. Writing a whole lot of bad fiction is a great way for a writer to learn to write good fiction.

Treat it like a job. Block may have written terrible fiction when he was just starting out, but he wrote a lot of it. He wrote while taking college classes, he wrote while editing the college newspaper, he wrote while working full time at a literary agency. Before he ever sold a word of fiction, he still wrote every day while rejection letters piled up. When he had to quit school and move back home for a semester, he wrote in his childhood bedroom. Block wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t getting paid. He wrote anyway.

Community is important. Block did his best work when surrounded by writers and publishing people. In New York, Block hung out with Donald Westlake, Hal Dresner and Robert Silverberg, and their shoptalk was vital to his success. At one point, Block moved his family to Buffalo to be near his aging mother, and his writing suffered. Pre-internet, a writer had to either live near other writers or write a whole lot of letters. Block tried the latter, but was happier with the former, and moved back to New York as soon as he could.

The book world has changed a lot since the 1950s. Or has it? There are still plenty of very bad literary agents out there, and new writers are strung along by empty promises every day. Writing erotica is different now, but with Kindle Unlimited, there are once again authors serving apprenticeships by publishing a short erotic novel each month. Writing to market is still important, as is not holding too tightly to early work. And no matter what, surrounding yourself with like-minded writers is still the best path to happiness and success.

Reading a writer’s memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It’s a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day.

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A WRITER PREPARES releases on June 24 and can be pre-ordered here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Dear Writer, it is Still 2020 by Becca Syme

During this pandemic, the running joke has been, “what is time?” The calendar may have turned, but the “2020ness” of it all is still with us. Vaccines are on the horizon and life is slowly returning to normal, so why are we still doomscrolling? Why are we unable to focus? Everything is just so much right now, and creativity has been forced into the backseat, while conversations with writer buddies always turn to laments about low productivity and lost opportunities.

If this is you, you’re not alone. That’s the biggest takeaway from DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020. You might see other authors gliding through the pandemic still writing, still publishing, still getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with you. But there is a whole hell of a lot wrong with the world, and the sooner you face that reality, the better off you’ll be. Syme explains that in many ways, 2020 has simply shone a spotlight on problems that had been bubbling under the surface for many years.

DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is an antidote to the gaslighting books that insist that if your books aren’t selling, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, or you don’t believe in yourself enough, or your book isn’t written to market, or you aren’t spending enough on ads. Syme cuts through all that bullshit to give the real-world advice we need right now.

The book is divided into two halves: why you aren’t writing and why you aren’t selling. The first part covers three similar but distinct states: being stuck, being blocked, and being burned out. It’s important to not confuse these three, because each situation needs a different remedy. Syme is a coach with a ton of education and experience, and she knows what’s at the heart of most writers’ problems, and (thank goodness) she knows how to fix them.

The second half of the book covers sales (or lack of them). Syme explains why we ignore advice, why we don’t accept our limitations, and the problem of using old methods to solve new problems. She discusses the issues with pay-to-play ads and the traps writers fall into when they assume they’re outliers, or that “the market” doesn’t apply to them, or that they’re owed a certain level of sales simply because they achieved that level in the past. DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is aimed at self-published authors, but much of the advice can also apply to traditionally published authors, since much of the marketing falls on their shoulders, too. Syme’s mantra is to always “question the premise.” The way we sell books has changed in the last decade, and continues to change on a yearly—or even monthly—basis. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that situations always change, and we must change with them.

Taken as a package, DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is about more than just being a writer in the years 2020 and 2021. It’s about how to write whenever things get hard, when outside circumstances change, or when catastrophe hits. Which means it’s not just a book for our times, but a book for all times.

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DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner

I don’t think you can finish a novel by writing only ten minutes a day. And despite the title of TEN MINUTE AUTHOR, Partner doesn’t think so either. But I can forgive the gimmicky title because if he’d called it something like How to Develop a Writing Habit, nobody would buy it.

Which is sad because an unshakable writing habit is crucial for writers, and it’s the one thing that separates career authors from wannabes. Writers write—as often as they can for as long as they can, and most full-time authors write every day.

The amount of time isn’t important. The habit is. Partner assumes that once the ten minutes is over, you will already be “in the zone” and will continue writing. But even if you stop after ten minutes, as long as you do it again the next day, and the next, the habit will begin to take form and writing sessions will naturally lengthen.

TEN MINUTE AUTHOR contains a smattering of neuroscience, a whole lot of cheerleading, and a massive dose of common sense. Partner goes into details of why the method works and how to implement it using environmental cues, sandwiching writing between two existing habits, setting a timer, and rewarding yourself after each writing session.

Even better, cutting writing sessions down to such a tiny size means there is literally no excuse not to get to the keyboard. Anyone who honestly can’t write for ten minutes a day should probably not be setting her sights on a writing career at this time.

But actually following through with an unbroken chain of daily writing sessions is a career in the making, and TEN MINUTE AUTHOR is an excellent step-by-step guide to getting it done.

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TEN MINUTE AUTHOR 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

Resilience by Mark McGuinness

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I really need to stop picking up books by therapists who want to “help” artists. There is nothing wrong with creative people seeking therapy. The problem comes when the therapists then generalize to the population at large, thinking all artists are suffering, and that the pursuit of an art career itself is making these poor lambs suffer. But no worries, the therapist has written a book! It’s something you can hold up as a shield when you explain to others how “difficult” the writing life is and how “heroic” you are for enduring it.

RESILIENCE is material pulled from McGuinness’ blog, and perhaps in blog form the posts weren’t so irksome. They are, however, overly simplistic. McGuinness’ advice isn’t unreasonable. He explains why rejection and criticism hurt, why it isn’t personal, and he has some decent tips for sorting out useful feedback from useless attacks. He advises artists to find their tribe, find good mentors, and keep pushing.

But there isn’t anything new here, and dozens of other authors have said it better. Tone matters a lot with this kind of book. Telling a writer that writing and publishing are hard but achievable will inspire her. Telling a writer how pitiful she is, how terrible writing and publishing are, and expecting her to be miserable, will only hold her back.

Each chapter ends with exercises. These are also fine, although they basically boil down to remembering why you love your craft, knowing you’re not alone, and not taking it personally. This is basic common sense stuff that writers already know.

It is true that rejections sting and that bad reviews suck and that it’s hard to show your work to other people for the first time. It’s also true that we self-sabotage in numerous ways because we’re human beings and human beings do that. However, the love of writing and the desire to improve our craft is usually enough to get us over these hurdles. Moreover, these problems aren’t something we solve once and then we’re done with them forever. They are part and parcel of the writing life. Thinking about how to become more resilient in the face of rejection doesn’t work. Only by doing, by getting knocked down and getting up again, will an author become stronger.

The best how-to books are written by writers who practice their craft every day. We can learn a lot from authors who enjoy their work and want others to enjoy it too.

Therapists who want to share misery while giving shallow advice can’t teach us anything that we don’t already know.

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Resilience can be found here

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld or Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner instead of this book.

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

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It’s only May, but I’m calling it now: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is going to be my favorite book of the year. Part of the reason is that it’s the right book at the right time. Persistence is hard to come by when the future is so uncertain, and every writer I know is struggling. But I’m sure this would be my new favorite book no matter when it came into my life. Rosenfeld has practical advice, an encouraging tone, and unique ways to help us all write more and write better.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is not a craft book. It’s about all those other skills a writer needs, like organization, time-management, boundary-setting, and the ability to deal with rejection, perfectionism, procrastination, and envy.

Beginners live off the high of discovery and the energy of newness, but that wears off quickly. Writers need a concrete plan to maintain a writing practice. Rosenfeld is here to help you navigate that long, long stretch between the first creative flush and eventual success. A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE has twenty-five meaty chapters filled with practical instruction. Rosenfeld gives lots of encouragement and inspiration, but each chapter has action steps designed to get you back to the page, right here and right now.

Even though she covers everything from setting up your desk to choosing a publishing path, Rosenfeld keeps coming back to three basic principles that will get writers through that sticky middle part of their careers: finding authenticity, connecting with the community, and moving your body. Every problem a writer has can be solved by one of these three things (or sometimes a combination of them).

Finding authenticity is key. It’s important to listen to that deep part of yourself that is driven to write and would continue to write regardless of publication or prestige. That unshakable foundation will carry a writer through hard times, and becomes a moral framework upon which to base writing and publishing decisions.

Rosenfeld repeatedly stresses the importance of connecting with the writing community. Your peers are crucial to your success and Rosenfeld urges writers to gather what she calls a Creative Support Team. In addition, writers need to be good literary citizens by championing other writers, attending literary events, buying books, and doing a lot of reading.

Finally, each chapter of A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE ends with a suggestion for movement. Every writer would benefit from more exercise, but Rosenfeld takes it a step further and tailors each exercise to a particular problem. Struggling with perfectionism? Try a silly dance party filled with imperfect moves. Feeling burnout? Try a walk in the woods to reconnect with nature. Feeling envy? Try weight-lifting, to remember ways that you’re already strong. Nervous about submitting work to a publisher? Try a new exercise class to remind yourself that you can try new things. No matter a writer’s problem, Rosenfeld has a way to move beyond it—literally.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is a few years old, but it feels like it was written for this time. Rosenfeld’s gentle encouragement, down-to-earth advice, and real solutions are exactly what writers need right now.

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A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE 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.

 

Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner

I think I read this book wrong.

Not that there’s a “wrong” way to read a book, but I approached this one the way I approach all my other how-to books. I started with page one and read straight through.

But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS isn’t that kind of book. Its 52 short chapters are meant for consuming in small doses. This is the kind of book to keep next to your bed or in your backpack, to dip in and out of when confidence flags or when you hit a specific wall. Some of the chapters are about digging in and persevering. Some are about relaxing and letting the story flow. Others are about carving out a writer identity by arranging time and space, claiming the label of writer, and finding a writing community.

Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, and PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is an excellent companion for anyone doing this 30-day novel challenge. But it will benefit every writer, year-round, because we all have bad days. Sometimes we get stuck at the beginning of a project, sometimes we get stuck in the middle, or we suffer from impostor syndrome or perfectionism or procrastination. Whatever the problem, Faulkner offers both encouragement and practical solutions, like a life coach who pats you on the back, gets you some Gatorade, and then slaps your ass and sends you back onto the field.

Every chapter ends with an exercise, and I found them creative and actually fun to do. For example, if you find yourself wasting time, try writing sprints when focus is essential. Stumped for ideas? Make a list of random nouns and then find ways to work them into a story. Need encouragement? Write a letter to yourself from your imaginary mentor.

The chapters are arranged rather haphazardly, which is fine when you’re only looking for a specific solution, but I was glad for the index in the back, which grouped chapters into a dozen categories. My favorites were the chapters on nourishing your muse and the ones on exploring storytelling tools. Faulkner has excellent tips for getting out of a creative rut.

Some books are filled with practical instruction. Some books are filled with empty cheerleading. But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is that rare combination of inspiration and action steps to align our hearts and our heads while we move forward in our creative work.

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PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book

 

Write Naked by Jennifer Probst

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One of the staples of weekend writers’ conferences is the keynote speech, in which a bestselling author details her path to fame. The speech is always full of dramatic moments, near-victories, crushing rejections, and then finally, publication, chart-climbing, and happy ever after. There is always much humor and wisdom along the way.

Like most writers, I have a bottomless appetite for these speeches. I find other writers and their process fascinating and I love a good origin story. WRITE NAKED is like the best of these keynotes in the form of a book.

Probst is a bestselling romance writer, but very few chapters in this book are specific to romance. And the majority of the book isn’t craft related anyway. It’s mostly lifestyle stuff, like how to believe in yourself, handle jealousy, be graceful on social media, and juggle a writing schedule.

Probst gets real about the fantasy of being a bestselling author. We’d all like the trappings of success—bestseller lists, fawning editors, mobs of fans, lots of money. But at the end of the day, every single writer has to sit alone in a room and write. Probst pinpoints a moment when she swore to her husband that her current work-in-progress was so bad that it would tank her career and she’d never write again. This happened after she topped the New York Times bestseller list, which just goes to show that it can happen to anyone.

Probst does a lot of this, saying the quiet part out loud so we can hear it too. She details the guilt she feels when she neglects her family to write, the way writers spend so much time alone that they start to get a bit agoraphobic, how hard it is to actually finish a book, and the dirty little secret that we like some of our books more than others.

But WRITE NAKED is also a remarkably upbeat book. Being a writer truly is the best job in the world and Probst is honest about that too. She never ignores the hard work involved, but she’s sure that if she can do this work, so can you.

Will Probst teach you how to write a novel? Not really. But she will hold your hand, dry your tears, and inspire you every step of the way.

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WRITE NAKED 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

Author Your Life by Lara Zielin

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A few years ago, Zielin was in a place that many people get to in the middle of their lives. Things just weren’t working out the way she wanted them to and everything was a struggle. Her finances, her weight, and her relationships were all bad and getting worse, and she was drinking more than she should. She knew she had to do something, but what?

Zielin is the author of several novels and nonfiction books, so naturally she turned to writing as a way out, and AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was born. Every morning, she woke up early and wrote down her life—not as it was, but as she wanted it to be. And slowly, over the course of a year, her real life started to match what was on the page. Not exactly affirmations, not exactly morning pages, Zielin’s journal was more of a roadmap for her soul.

Like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King, AUTHOR YOUR LIFE is part memoir, part instruction. Zielin is honest about her struggles and mistakes. She’s also extremely witty. She’s not some guru dispensing wisdom from on high. She’s a completely relatable middle-class Midwesterner. Zielin could be me. She could be all of us.

AUTHOR YOUR LIFE teaches you to use that awesome writer’s imagination of yours, but instead of visualizing the perfect outcome for your characters, you’ll be visualizing the perfect outcome for yourself. Through specific writing exercises and free-form journaling, Zielin takes you through all the steps needed to create your own happy ever after.

Writing down your ideal life every day won’t magically manifest your goals with no effort on your part. I don’t think there’s any magic involved. But I still think Zielin’s approach is brilliant.

Writing down your ideal life, day after day, forces you to clarify your goals. What do you really want? So many of us say we want to be writers, but don’t do the work that will make it happen. Doing the exercises in AUTHOR YOUR LIFE will force you to get super clear on your goals and see, in black and white, what it will take to get there. As you write, unexpected connections and solutions will come. Working toward your goals then becomes a pleasure, rather than a struggle, because you’ve cleared your own path.

Zielin doesn’t promise miracles. She’s far too smart for that. She promises hard work and struggle and setbacks and also clarity and joy and fun—just like the stories we love so much.

Reading AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was eye-opening and inspiring. I’ve already purchased several of my favorite blank notebooks so I can start telling the story that matters most: my own.

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AUTHOR YOUR LIFE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

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In addition to being a bestselling author, Syme has been a writing coach and productivity teacher for over a decade. She’s seen the same patterns over and over, and seen writers stumble in some very predictable ways. Now Syme has written her coaching philosophy on paper, so anyone not lucky enough to take one of her classes can still benefit from her advice. DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT is not a book about quitting writing. It’s about quitting the bad habits that steal your writing time or make you unhappy.

There is a lot of tough love in this book. Syme has been coaching long enough to have seen every bad habit that writers fall into and she’s here to cut the bullshit—especially the bullshit we tell ourselves.

With chapters titles like “Quit Thinking Facebook is Your Friend” and “Quit Expecting This to Be Easy” and “Quit Fixing the Wrong Problem” you know Syme is not going to sugarcoat anything. She tells writers exactly what they’re doing wrong, exactly why they’re doing it, and how to get out of their own way to get words on the page. She especially wants to destroy the myth that there is a single switch you can flip to magically change your life. There isn’t. You have to do the work.

But even as she’s telling it like it is, Syme’s kindness shines through. Her advice comes from the deep understanding of a writer’s psyche and a sincere desire to help. The advice she gives most often is to “question the premise.” Instead of simply copying other people’s workflow systems, first look within and ask if this is something that will truly fit with the way you’re wired. So many productivity books remove your agency by forcing you into someone else’s box. Syme empowers writers—not by teaching a system, but by teaching writers how to make their own system.

There were a few times that Syme glossed over things, telling writers that if they wanted more information, they should sign up for one of her online classes. I guess that’s to be expected. Her classes are several weeks long and she can’t put it all in one book. However, I do wish DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT stood alone a bit more rather than serving as an introduction to her class.

But about that class? I took Syme’s Write Better Faster class in 2017 and it was the best thing I ever did for my career. I mean it. Before that class, I’d been devouring time-management and productivity books, wondering why all of them worked some of the time but none of them worked all of the time. The answer is that we’re all wired differently, and everyone has a different relationship to time. It’s obvious in retrospect, but it was something I had to be shown, rather than told. Syme’s class helped me find a system that worked for me and I’ve been a happier, more productive writer ever since.

If you can take Syme’s class, do it. If you can’t, DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT will take you a long way on your career path.

You’ll have to go the rest of the way on your own.

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DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

 

Make Your Writing Bloom by Shonell Bacon

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I never fall out of love with writing. It will always be one of my favorite things. But I do get shiny manuscript syndrome, where starting a new project seems more appealing than finishing the current one. MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM can help with that, as well as the more serious problem of general writer’s block.

MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM is a slim book that takes you through seven days of exercises. I often skip exercises in how-to books, but I took these seriously and finished all of them. Each day tackles your attitude about writing from a different angle. Why do you love to write? What fears do you have around it? What’s getting in your way? How can you incorporate writing into your daily life?

There are no wrong answers, and any epiphanies you have are up to you to interpret. There isn’t much advice in here at all, except to trust in the exercises, trust in the process, and keep writing. Bacon also includes snippets of her own struggles, which I found extremely relatable, since she’s a teacher and an editor, like me. We both are sometimes so overwhelmed with other people’s words that we have trouble finding our own.

Bacon is always realistic. She talks honestly about her setbacks and times she’s sabotaged herself, but not in a woe-is-me way. She overcame her own blocks, and is confident that we can do the same. I  appreciated that positive vibe. At this point in my career, I am completely over books that try to instill fear in writers or treat writing as something horrible and difficult. Bacon doesn’t do that, because she doesn’t have to. She starts by reminding writers why they love the craft so much, and it’s something she returns to again and again throughout the book.

While spending a week making my writing bloom, I fell a little bit more in love with my own writing too.

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MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.