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

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[Quick reminder: my 5-part online class is still open, and the first class is free! More info here.]

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.

 

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.

 

 

The Dip by Seth Godin

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I didn’t expect to like this book. Godin tends to rub me the wrong way, and THE DIP is tiny, only 80 pages, so I thought it would be light on usefulness as well. But I took a chance, figuring I’d stop after a page or two.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. THE DIP was way better than I thought it would be. I read the whole thing in one sitting and took two pages of notes.

The main idea is that everybody quits things. We quit gyms, jobs, marriages, hobbies, and even our passions. Writers quit submitting manuscripts, or quit revising, or even quit writing. When do we quit? At precisely the wrong time. We quit when it gets hard. Almost everyone quits when it gets hard. The few that stay in, succeed.

Here’s the thing. Everyone has to pay their dues. No matter what. Writers need to spend hours and hours writing and learning the market and submitting manuscripts. Paying dues is just built in. But quitters pay all those dues and receive no benefits, while others pay all those dues, pay just a little more, and succeed.

But there’s a flipside to this. Sometimes quitting is good. If you’re in a dead-end job or sport or hobby or passion, where working harder and longer will simply lead to more of the same, getting out early is the best choice.

So how do you know which is which? Godin never explains. But you know what? He doesn’t have to. In our guts, we know when we need to double down, because we’re simply in a rough patch on the way to our dreams. We also know when we’re just fooling ourselves, coasting, spending a lot of energy being mediocre. In that case, it’s better to quit, to free up time and energy for attacking a worthy goal.

Godin says it this way: Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

Basic advice? Maybe. But it’s also advice that I—and probably many other people—needed to hear.

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THE DIP can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book