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

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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.

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

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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.

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.