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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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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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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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

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If you find my reviews helpful, and you’d like to help me buy more books to review, you can do that here.

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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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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I recommend this book for all writers

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If you find my reviews helpful, and you’d like to help me buy more books to review, you can do that here.

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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I recommend this book.

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam

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Most of us get up several hours before our workday starts, we rush around getting ourselves and our family ready for the day, we commute to work, then breathe a sigh of relief that we made it and take a moment for a cup of coffee at our desk or in the break room, savoring the first true “me time” of the day.

Vanderkam says it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we reversed the order of things and had our “me time” first? Much like the advice to pay yourself first before your salary is spent on non-essentials, getting up a bit earlier or rearranging our morning schedule can help us do the truly meaningful things in our lives, not just the necessary.

Anyone can do a task when a boss wants results or client’s deadline is looming. But doing a task that only matters to us (like writing a book) is harder. Beginning writers are not rewarded for writing, and most labor for years with no outside support at all. However, new research has shown that difficult tasks that require intrinsic motivation are easier when done first thing in the morning. Vanderkam suggests that this is perfect thing to concentrate on before breakfast. Activities that represent our highest goals, but that the world does not reward, are best undertaken before we are interrupted, undermined, and rescheduled.

There are a lot of concrete suggestions in this small ebook for managing your new routine, but it all comes down to making those morning rituals a habit. However, WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO BEFORE BREAKFAST is not only for morning people. Vanderkam talks a lot about getting up early, but truly, it’s not about when you rise, but how you prioritize your day. It’s about using those first hours productively, whether they come before dawn or not.

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WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO BEFORE BREAKFAST can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

 

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I recommend this book

The Storymatic by Brian Mooney

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Most books of writing prompts leave me cold. I’ve done a few I’ve enjoyed, but most of them seem to take themselves too seriously. Or maybe I take myself too seriously when I attempt them. Either way, I don’t usually find canned prompts very exciting. But then I came across THE STORYMATIC, created by writing teacher Brian Mooney. It’s just about the coolest way of doing writing exercises I can imagine.

THE STORYMATIC is a box of five hundred cards with words on them. Half are gold cards, which are the character prompts. Some are professions, like “astronaut” or “dentist.” Some are character traits, such as “follower” or “person who refuses to fit in” or “partygoer.”

Here’s the fun part. You always take two character cards. So you might end up with “librarian / caretaker of an elephant” or “zombie / mistaken for a movie star” or “musician / security guard.” I love this, because you’re sure to get an unusual protagonist with something unresolved in her life. Unlike most writing prompts where the character and situation seem one-dimensional, with THE STORYMATIC, you’re setting up internal conflict for the character before the story even gets started.

The other half of the cards are orange. They’re the situation cards with things like “UFO sighting,” or “supermarket after hours” or simply “glasses.” You could take two of these cards, too, but one should be enough for a quick writing exercise.

THE STORYMATIC comes with a booklet that suggests ways to play with the cards, but writers already know what to do with them. Boxes full of fun words and phrases are writer catnip, and we’ll use them in ways their creators never expected.

You’re probably already familiar with the party games that rely on a similar concept. I’d say THE STORYMATIC cards are somewhere between the banality of Apples to Apples and the weird raunchiness of Cards Against Humanity. These cards are interesting, and each one suggests a story begging to be written.

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THE STORYMATIC can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

 

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I recommend this product.

 

 

 

Writing in Flow by Susan K. Perry

 

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Writers love to get lost in their work. There is something so satisfying about being fully inside the story, where we’re at the top of our creative game and each word follows effortlessly from the last. When we’re in this state, the rest of the world disappears and we lose track of time. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” Artists call it flow—a word used by the famous researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We’ve all experienced it at least once. Most of us would like to experience it more.

Perry has some good news for us. Achieving flow is not accidental. We don’t have to wait for the muses to show up and grace us with that blissful state. We can deliberately court it. Perry shows us how, with research interspersed with quotes from over seventy working novelists and poets.

Perry gives us five tricks—she calls them keys—to getting into flow. 1.) Have a compelling reason to write. 2.) Take risks and try new things to increase your confidence as a writer. 3.) Loosen up. 4.) focus fully on the writing. 5.) Let go of judgment.

WRITING IN FLOW helped me understand my own writing process. Now I know why short writing sessions don’t work for me. I can get twice as much done in one two-hour block than I can in four half hour blocks, even though it’s the same length of time. I spend a long time getting the first two hundred words written, but after that, something shifts and I take off. Now that I’ve read WRITING IN FLOW, I will relax a bit when those first couple of paragraphs are a mighty struggle. If I just stick with it, flow is right around the corner.

I enjoyed the snippets of interviews that Perry included, but they tended to bog down the narrative at times. It was nice to see the mix of perspectives, although sometimes she quotes four or five authors in a row all making the same point. Also, the reader should know that the first half of the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Perry wants writers to fully understand flow before trying to induce it. But that isn’t all bad. Understanding flow helps us to recognize it when we see it and court it more regularly.

Being in flow is more than just “letting go” or “listening to the muses.” Perry reminds us that flow only happens when we are working at the top of our abilities. She’s trying to get writers to use both the creative and the analytical sides of their brains. It’s only when they work hand in hand can we achieve greatness in our writing, and enjoy doing so.

WRITING IN FLOW 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

 

 

Write for Your Life by Lawrence Block

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I first read a borrowed copy of WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE about ten years ago. I returned the book as quickly as possible, disturbed by the huge amount of woo. Even the author himself says it’s a bit over-the-top. In the introduction to the new edition, Block says, “…the tone of the book is more Gee Whiz than I’m comfortable with sixteen years later. It would take a lot of work to tone that down, and it might very well be to the book’s detriment.”

At the time of my first reading, I was of the work harder, not smarter camp. Somehow, I thought if I wasn’t beating myself up, I wasn’t a real writer. Plus, I had another problem. Block wanted me to face my fears head-on—something I wasn’t prepared to do. I set aside WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE and turned to Block’s other how-to books, which are about the nuts and bolts of writing craft (much safer territory for me).

But a funny thing happened on the way to 2015 and re-reading this book. I became a pro writer. And wouldn’t you know it, I was already doing most of the things Block suggested. I had overcome the mental traps that hold writers back. I was working happily and productively day after day.

I don’t know if I subconsciously put all of Block’s advice into practice in the last decade, or if I discovered these things on my own. All I know is, this time, WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE didn’t seem full of woo. It seemed full of truth.

WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE is based on a series of seminars Block and his wife conducted, but it’s not like any seminar I’ve ever attended. There is less hyperbole and cheerleading, more action steps and practical advice to get out of your own way and start writing.

Block teaches techniques like freewriting to outrun your internal editor, tapping into your intuition to produce unique work, using affirmations to increase self-esteem, and getting rid of negative thoughts to banish procrastination and writer’s block. That last one is hard to do and Block approaches it from different angles over the course of several chapters. Humans are extremely good at sabotaging our own efforts. Coming up with justifications for staying stuck is as natural as breathing. Block shows us how to root out the self-deception until those words and beliefs no longer have power over us.

Much of WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE will be familiar to anyone who has studied neuro-linguistic programming (or has done The Artist’s Way). Block makes no claim to originality, except that he’s tailoring these practices specifically to writers. Of course he wants you to use things like affirmations, meditation, and bucket lists, because they work. One need look no further than Block’s own publishing history and impressive list of literary awards to see that. He’s learned how to do more writing with less angst, and he wants to show the rest of us how to do it, too.

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WRITE FOR YOUR LIFE 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.