Page After Page by Heather Sellers

Sellers

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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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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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

Creative Cursing by Sarah Royal and Jillian Panarese

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Research is important for writers. I’m a nice midwestern suburban lady who writes about tough urban cops, hackers and PIs. How do I get everything in my books authentic, including the swear words? It’s important for me to research how…

…Oh, who am I kidding? I love this book because I have the sense of humor of a twelve year old, and profanity amuses me. I admire people who swear creatively. Good cursing is like poetry. It says a lot in a short space, and when done well, packs an emotional punch.

CREATIVE CURSING is a spiral bound book with two words per page. It’s split down the middle so you can flip back and forth, making endless combinations of words that don’t usually go together. Most of the left side is body parts and fluids. The right side is words like jammer, muncher, biter, with a few wild cards like waffle and monkey.

This book is not for everyone. Writers of sweet romance or cozy mysteries or books for young people don’t need this book. (Although those writers might appreciate some fresh expletives for when the printer jams or the tenth rejection letter comes.) Even the most jaded writer might balk at some of the word combinations. But hey, if it gets too raw, you can always flip the page back to “fart waffle” or “poop splash.”

I recently moved and got rid of most of my hardcopy books. This is one of the few that made the move with me. Nobody needs a book like CREATIVE CURSING. But some of us really, really want it.

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CREATIVE CURSING can be found here.

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Rating: 3 stars

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I recommend this book.

On Writing by Stephen King

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It took me a long time to write this review, even though I’ve read ON WRITING three times. I read it once as a new writer, again after I’d been writing for several years, and again recently as a multi-published author. I enjoyed it immensely each time, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I liked it so much and why I kept coming back to it. ON WRITING has two parts. The first is sort of a memoir: unconnected snippets from King’s early life and his path to publication. I found it inspiring, but King is so far beyond my level it’s like reading the autobiography of Odin or Zeus. The second part is extremely basic how-to advice that boils down to, “read a lot, write a lot.” So what was the appeal?

I think what drew me to this book was its honesty. These are answers to questions King gets asked over and over by fans. What they really want to know is, “how do you do it?” The truth is, King doesn’t know how he does it. No writer truly does. He only knows where he came from and what experiences led him down the writing path, so he shares those memorable moments, even the ugly ones. It’s helpful to remember that even Stephen King wasn’t always Stephen King. He struggled in obscurity for years, living in a run-down trailer and selling small stories to small magazines for small money.

The second, shorter, part of ON WRITING is King’s advice to writers. There aren’t any new, different, or ground-breaking tips here, just the solid techniques that have served writers forever. There are very few universal rules, and those are very basic (for example: character and situation > plot). King knows himself and his habits, and understands that what he needs for a productive writing day is a huge desk and many uninterrupted hours. But that’s just him. Other writers need other things.

King is a working writer, treating the craft with practicality rather than reverence. He’s a blue-collar working man engaging in shop talk, even referring to writing techniques as “the toolbox.” King loves what he does and it shows, but he’s never precious about it. This is simply who he is: a writer who writes. And he makes me believe that I can be one, too. That, I think, is the magic of ON WRITING and why I’ve read it so many times.

ON WRITING 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

Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott

Scott

Take small habits. Gather them together. Make them into a routine.

That’s it. That’s the whole book. We all have little changes we’d like to make in our lives and incorporating them into a routine makes sense. I’ve got nothing against the idea; I’m just not sure why it’s a book. Perhaps, in other hands, it might have been a mildly interesting blog post.

Scott makes a list of ninety seven “small life changes” that the reader is meant to pick from when adding a new habit. The problem is, most of them are things we’re doing anyway. I don’t need to be told to drink water or make my bed or return a phone call. And I also don’t need to be told to put these things into a routine. Everyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work already has a routine. Children have routines. Retirees have routines. Anyone who wants to make a change will make a change by putting a new habit into her existing routine. Where else would it go?

Any functioning adult already knows everything in this book. There are a million ways to improve your habits and your productivity, but reading HABIT STACKING isn’t one of them.

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HABIT STACKING can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.

 

 

 

You’ve Got a Book In You by Elizabeth Sims

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YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU came highly recommended by a fellow writer. I’m glad someone told me about this delightful book because I wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. The title and cover made it seem like it would be heavy on inspiration and light on instruction. But Sims does an admirable job of covering the basics of plotting, dialog, characterization and pacing. There’s cheerleading aplenty, too, but it’s wrapped so tightly with good solid advice that the whole book reads like a down-to-Earth best friend telling it like it is.

YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is divided into three sections. The first is about the writer’s mindset, getting ready to write. There’s an adjustment period for any new writer as they develop new habits, and Sims has common-sense ideas for getting started. The short middle section is about craft. Sims touches briefly on characterization, theme, and outlining. The final part is a mix of advice and exercises to keep the words flowing. I especially liked “How to Write Unboringly About Yourself,” with advice for bloggers and memoir writers and “Living with Your Book and Driving it to Completion,” about sticking with it through the year or more it takes to write a novel.

Taken all together, YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU is writer 101. It’s everything new writers need to know and none of what they don’t. Each chapter ends with action items, leading writers logically on to the next step.

Throughout, Sims lets new writers in on a secret: writing is fun. And it will say fun as long as you get out of your own way and let things flow. She compares writing to improv. The best things come when you say “Yes, and…” instead of “Yeah, but…” With Sims as their guide, beginners will be well on their way to a solid first draft.

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YOU’VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU can be found 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

18 Minutes: Find your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done by Peter Bregman

Bregman

There are hundreds of time-management books on the market, but 18 MINUTES isn’t one of them. It’s more of an effectiveness management book. It won’t show you how to get everything done, it will show you how to get the right things done.

The opening section is about finding our true purpose. Most writers won’t need this since we already know we were put on Earth to write. However, it’s easy to fill our days with all the wrong things. Getting clear on our purpose is an essential part of using our time effectively.

The next section is about planning our days, starting with the decision not to get everything done. By trying to do it all, people lose focus on what’s important. Thus Bregman’s brilliant advice that in addition to a “to-do” list, everyone needs an “ignore” list. He suggests five minutes to plan in the morning, five to evaluate in the evening, and one-minute check-ups every hour. (Thus the 18 minutes of the title.)

In an ideal world, we’d all power through our to-do lists without any interference, but nobody lives in that world. We have to manage our distractions from others and ourselves. Bregman shows what happens when we stop multitasking, how to make hard jobs easier by changing our environment, and when good enough is actually the best thing. After all, productivity is more important than perfection. (Writers know this as the mantra, “Get it written, then get it right.”)

Although most of 18 MINUTES is focused on individual self-improvement, the format is similar to many easy-reading books for businesspeople. Each section opens with an introduction and ends with bullet points, and each chapter starts with an anecdote. All the anecdotes fit, although some are kind of forced and I wonder if they were invented for the book.

But these are minor concerns and probably more the choice of the publisher than the author. Don’t let the cheesy format stop you from absorbing Bregman’s rock-solid advice. He ends by suggesting we focus on just one thing. One. That’s all it takes to make a positive change. A good place to start is by reading 18 MINUTES.

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18 MINUTES 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

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth by James Scott Bell

Bell

I’ve always enjoyed James Scott Bell’s blog and was happy to find a collection of his posts on writing.  Sometimes essay collections can be uneven or repetitive, but these were carefully selected to cover a wide range of topics without repeating any. WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH is an inspirational book, but it’s not all empty cheerleading. Bell is so absolutely convinced that you can write that soon you’ll believe it too. More importantly, he’s going to show you how.

Bell says writers should push themselves, committing to never-ending self-improvement. He shows writers how to set up a schedule, how to study other books, and how to stay focused. He recommends a weekly (rather than daily) word count goal so that one bad day doesn’t derail the whole program. He stresses the inner work a writer must do to have a long-term career. Every writer has envy and arrogance and impatience but we can’t write well until we deal with it.

In the middle section, Bell covers matters of craft like how much backstory to put in or when to use prologues or how to write a synopsis. His advice is practical and to the point. I especially liked the chapter on using smell in fiction—the forgotten sense. He includes evocative examples from Dean Koontz and Stephen King. The final section is a series of interviews with eleven of the hottest authors today, like Tess Gerritsen and Brad Thor. It’s a pleasure to read writing advice from people at the top of their game.

I always learn a lot from James Scott Bell. He has a knack of telling me what I need to hear, explained in a way I can understand. His style is so smooth that I read all of WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH in one sitting, but it’s a book I’ll go back to again and again.

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WRITING FICTION FOR ALL YOU’RE WORTH 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

Living Write by Kelly L. Stone

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LIVING WRITE is meant for people who are writing occasionally and want to make it a daily habit. Stone offers fifteen ways to make daily writing happen, using affirmations, visualizations, or “fake it until you make it” mind tricks.  The exercises are not practical do-this-get-that advice, but much more ambiguous. LIVING WRITE is about changing a writer’s mindset. The theory goes like this: if someone feels like a successful writer, she will act like a successful writer by writing every day.

Some people really like this kind of book, especially those with a lot of trust in the subconscious mind and faith in things like affirmations and vision boards. I see nothing wrong with a writer looking in the mirror and telling herself that she’s talented, and worthy, and hard-working, and on her way to success. However, the next step is where affirmations break down for me. Telling myself that I’m already successful or that I’m already a bestseller doesn’t work because I know it’s a lie. (Or, a pre-truth, if you will.)  My mind gets tangled in the absurdity of success coming before work. It negates the good feelings the affirmation is supposed to create.

But more than that, I have a bit of a problem with the main premise of the book. I have little patience for people who complain about the difficulty of writing. Someone who has to use fifteen different tricks in order to get to the page perhaps isn’t cut out to be a writer.

However, Stone does have some good ideas that a serious working writer can use. Even people who love to write can have small blocks, and that’s when some of the techniques in LIVING WRITE come in handy. I especially like Stone’s idea of having a writing mantra. In the same way that people training for a marathon will tell themselves “26.2” throughout the day, something like “successful author” or “finished novel” can remind writers of their ultimate goal, and perhaps keep them away from the television during writing time. I’ve also used her technique of looking up to writing role models. We all have mentors whom we’ve never met but who influence us all the same. Just thinking “what would Lawrence Block do?” has clarified my thinking on more than one occasion.

The exercises in LIVING WRITE aren’t very time-consuming or difficult, so they wouldn’t hurt to try, although they probably won’t help much, either, unless someone is already writing fairly regularly. They will probably be more useful as little pick-me-ups or boosts in an already-healthy writing practice.

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LIVING WRITE can be found here.

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rating: 3 stars

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this book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers or Chapter After Chapter by Heather Sellers

The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo

Pomodoro

I heard about THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE from friends and was eager to try it myself, so I started with Cirillo’s website, and then decided to buy the book. I should have stopped with the website. After struggling through the ebook’s atrocious formatting (which made the book nearly unreadable) I felt like I’d done the one thing Cirillo would not want me to do. I’d wasted my time.

THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE is absurdly simple, but I was willing to go along because sometimes the simple things work the best. It starts with a wind-up kitchen timer. Cirillo’s is shaped like a tomato–pomodoro in his native Italian. The user sets it for 25 minutes and works without interruption for that time. When the timer rings, he takes a short break and then the cycle repeats. At every cycle, the user records how he spent his time. Whatever we focus on and measure, we improve, and the goal is to “take control” of time.

Cirillo came up with the pomodoro technique in college, and it seems as if it would work well for students. When studying, 25-minute blocks with five minute breaks between them is a good way to learn new material. With all the distractions students have, a reminder to stay on task isn’t a bad thing. However, I doubt the method would work for writers. Creative people enjoy their work, and don’t need a kitchen timer to sit for long periods of time. Worse, a loud, ringing interruption every 25 minutes wrecks creative flow.

That said, my problem isn’t really with the method. My problem is with the book. I suppose THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE works as well as any other time management plan. That is, it works great for some, not so great for others. However, it’s ridiculous to pad a pamphlet’s worth of information into a full-length book when the entire method can be summed up in three sentences:

  1. Work for 25-minute blocks
  2. Take breaks between them
  3. Track your time in order to improve

There. I just saved you seven bucks, because the rest of the book is filler. More importantly, I saved you two hours of time, enough for a nice long block of creative work.

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THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE can be found here.

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rating: 2 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews or Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy instead of this book.