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.

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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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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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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Pie slices: 8 slices inspiration

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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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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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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 doWriteForYourLifen’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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pie slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers

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Writing is my favorite thing. If anyone asks me why I write, the answer is always the same. “Because it’s fun!” I get to write down the pictures in my head, and if I’ve done my job correctly, those same pictures appear in someone else’s head. How cool is that?

Heather Sellers feels the same way. She wants her students to “create a writing life where the writing process itself is so enchanting and delicious, you want to write….It’s not work. It’s not tedious or punishing. It’s what you do.” But she also knows that few writers achieve that happy state. Instead, we get bogged down in rules, word-count wars, and “discipline,” which many writers claim they need to do their best work.

But why not approach writing like a lover? PAGE AFTER PAGE suggests that writers do exactly that. No one needs discipline to spend time with those we love.

Sellers is more than a cheerleader. She has solid advice for living a writer’s best life. PAGE AFTER PAGE is divided into three sections. The first section is about the mindset and habits that will serve a writer well. Sellers has suggestions for getting started, keeping the butt in the chair, and keeping other voices (like those of our parents) out of our heads. The second section is about staying with it for the long haul, putting in as much time as possible to produce your best work. The third section is about meeting others in the larger world of writing: mentors, peers, and editors. Throughout, Sellers’ tone is gentle, even humorous, with plenty of examples.

Sellers is also realistic. She knows that writing–like any skill we want to master–takes effort. There are days that putting one word after another is a tedious slog. Sellers doesn’t pretend otherwise and has strategies to help. But she also shares an uncomfortable truth that few how-to books will. If writing is always more of a struggle than a joy for you, perhaps you’re not meant to be a writer. And that’s okay! Not everyone enjoys it.

But if you love to write as much as Heather Sellers does, and you can’t wait to live the writer’s life, then PAGE AFTER PAGE is for you.

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PAGE AFTER PAGE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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Pie slices: 2 slices craft, 6 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book.

105 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block by Justin Arnold

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I’m not a person who believes in writer’s block. I have never faced a blank page I couldn’t conquer, and I’m not afraid to write garbage to clean up in later drafts. But I found 105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK valuable anyway. It’s not a book of games or meaningless exercises. It’s full of practical things that I can use even when the words are flowing freely.

Most blocks are caused by writers trying to edit while they write. It’s impossible to do and therefore the writer doesn’t produce anything. Most of Arnold’s tips are designed to distract or defeat the internal editor so the creative side of the writer can get to work. Some of the tips are well-worn, like playing music or having word-count goals. Some were new to me, like imagining a celebrity narrating your book, or writing very long or very short sentences, to shake up your usual thought patterns.

Arnold also wants writers to pay attention to our general health. It’s easier to write when you’ve had an adequate supply of fresh air, exercise, sleep, and food. Arnold advocates outdoor walks, good sleep habits, and lots of tea. Many of his tips involve doing this or that while waiting for the kettle to boil or the tea to steep.

I liked the format of the book, with the tip in bold, followed by a longer explanation of why each idea works. However, it would have been nice to have a table of contents to find a particular idea. The book is called 105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK, but there are probably only fifty unique tips in this book. After all, there isn’t much difference between “write a postcard to your character” and “write a memo to your character.”

Although I don’t need any help busting writer’s block, I still found this book useful and rather fun. I’ll use some of Arnold’s ideas to freshen up my prose, hone my writing skills, and keep my internal editor at bay.

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105 WAYS TO BEAT WRITER’S BLOCK 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.