Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Heath

SWITCH is a bit outside my usual niche of how-to books for writers. However, this book is full of good lessons for writers, for business people (which many writers consider themselves) and for families, so I decided to review it anyway. It also has information that isn’t in every other how-to book out there, and all of it is backed up by solid research and useful examples.

SWITCH is about change. It’s hard to change, even when we know we need to, but there are some surprisingly simple things that make change easier. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working with a different publishing house, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. Heath and Heath divide our capacity for change into three distinct areas they call the rider, the elephant, and the path. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but achieve lasting success by using all three.

The rider is the intellectual part of us, the part that knows we have to change. It’s the planner, not the doer. Writers are thinkers, so most of us have no problem coming up with amazing plans for change. The problem is carrying out those plans. That’s where the elephant comes in. The elephant is the energy, the motivation, and most importantly, the emotion. If you don’t feel the need for change deep in your gut, the change will be short-lived. Heath and Heath provide numerous strategies for getting your elephant moving. But of course, without a path, an elephant and a rider will go in circles. If every change seems like two steps forward, one step back, then the path might be the problem. There are ways to change the environment to make things easier.

I loved the examples in SWITCH. Many how-to books, especially those written for business people, pad the book with repetitive, irrelevant and barely plausible stories. Heath and Heath’s examples are wide-ranging. They discuss everything from nutrition programs in Vietnam to merchandising at Target, yet none it seemed contrived.

SWITCH appealed to my rider with solid how-to advice. It appealed to my elephant with its examples. And now that I’ve read the book, I know how to shape the path to make any change I want to.

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SWITCH can be found here.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty

There are a lot of books like this one. Some are complete guides to novel writing, sharing useful advice every step of the way. Some are mere gimmicks. A NOVEL IN A YEAR falls into the latter category. In the mid 2000’s, Doughty wrote a weekly column for England’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. Her column dispensed writing advice and suggested exercises on alternate weeks. Readers were encouraged to send their completed exercises to Doughty via the newspaper’s website. This book is a collection of those weekly columns.

The idea is that after writing small exercises every other week, a beginning writer will be fully-equipped to attempt a novel. In fact, for the first six months, a writer is only to do the exercises (some as short as a single sentence). All the serious novel writing comes in the second half of the year.

There is no way anyone could follow this plan and finish a novel in a year (six months, really), especially if they’ve never written before. Even if a writer followed Doughty’s plan exactly, the twenty-six exercises would only add up to a few dozen pages of work. None of the writing exercises are even meant to fit into the novel-in-progress. They are the standard sort of warm-up exercises that creative writing teachers love to give students. I kept turning the book over and over in my hands, wondering if maybe I misinterpreted the title. But the blurb on the back of the book, as well as the endorsements from professional writers, clearly state that this book is meant to be a roadmap to a novel in a year.

There are a few good bits here and there, such as Doughty’s insistence that writers must first be good readers, or her tips on making time to write. However, that kind of advice can be found in a hundred other how-to books. Doughty is much more engaging when she’s being a cheerleader, showcasing good examples sent to The Daily Telegraph’s website.

Perhaps this book (and the original newspaper column) was simply a way to get people interested in writing, or perhaps to make them feel like writers. Nothing wrong with that. Writing is fun and many people enjoy doing it. Encouraging people to write is wonderful. What’s not so wonderful is pretending you’re giving instruction when you’re only giving encouragement. The two are not the same thing.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Writing the Novel from Plot to Print by Lawrence Block or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

It only took me about half an hour to read this book. It’s little, with big font, perhaps meant to be a gift book, or an impulse item at the cash register. I wasn’t surprised to learn that STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST started as a blog post. When the original post went viral, publishers came calling, asking Kleon to expand it into a book.

Kleon says that STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST is really just advice to his past self. It reads like someone talking to a very young person. Not condescending, but quite basic, with little nuance.

Each short chapter has one tidbit of advice to artists and writers. Kleon advises them on lifestyle choices (marry well, stay out of debt) and craft matters (don’t worry about originality, remix ideas you receive). There isn’t much new here. It’s either something writers are already doing, like reading a lot, or something found in a hundred other how-to books and blogs. For example, Kleon advises writers to step away from the internet to get more writing done, which is just common sense.

I was ready to call STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST a one-star book. Then I lent it to a teenage musician. He was absolutely blown away. He had an instant mind meld with Austin Kleon. Maybe a heart-and-soul meld, too. My young friend refused to give the book back and has read it multiple times since I lent gave it to him. To him, it’s a five-star book.

Clearly, I am not the target audience. Kleon isn’t speaking to me. He’s speaking to beginners, especially those who haven’t read a single other how-to book. To very young artists, advice like “ignore your enemies” or “keep a notebook of ideas” is not only new, it’s exciting. My musician friend felt energized after reading it. For him, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. Anyone who is already on the writing path will find STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST entertaining, but not very exciting. But for those just starting out, it’s magic.

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STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST is available here.

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rating: ??

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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

No Plot? No Problem! By Chris Baty

Chris Baty founded National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo, in 1999 with a total of 21 participants. It’s since grown to the hundreds of thousands, and some people participate year after year. The goal is simple–produce a 50,000 word novel, of any quality, in the month of November. Baty conceived NaNoWriMo as a fun lark, rather like a dare. It was never intended to produce publishable work, although some writers use it as a shortcut to getting their first draft finished. NaNoWriMo participants are meant to write with wild abandon, not worrying about things like accuracy, consistency, or even a plot. It’s also a celebration of novels, and the people who write them. So many participate every year because it’s fun.

As such, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! is an excellent guide to NaNoWriMo. It’s written with the same exuberance Baty expects from NaNoWriMo participants. He flits from topic to topic, using plenty of sidebars and lists, never getting bogged down in the details.

This book is basically a pep talk between covers. Baty is a relentlessly positive cheerleader, constantly reminding his readers that they are “badass novelists.” He covers everything from how to set a schedule to how to figure out what kind of novel to write. He even tells writers what to wear and what to eat. (Baty recommends sweatpants and junk food.)

Baty then tackles the actual writing. Week by week, he reminds writers of their expected word count, and steers them around some of the emotional lows. For those who actually finish their novels in a month, it usually goes like this: week one=exhiliration, week two=doubt, week three=surrender, week four=determination.

NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! is a very good book for NaNoWriMo participants. I urge every writer who wants to try NaNoWriMo to get a copy. For everyone else, it won’t be as useful, although it’s a neat introduction to the concept of writing fast, without self-censorship.

Of course, having no plot really is a problem. Eventually, a novel is going to need one, along with other good things like characterization, setting, and theme. But that’s for later. During one coffee and candy-fueled month a year, non-writers can try on a new identity and pro writers can try a new way of writing, as everyone dashes as quickly as possible to the 50,000 word finish line.

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NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! 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.

The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

Of all the how-to books on my shelves, the ones I love the most are the ones about being a writer. Other books cover practicalities of the craft, but THE RIGHT TO WRITE deals with thought and emotion. Writing is how Cameron makes sense of the world. She writes for publication, but mostly she writes for the sake of writing. Our culture tells us that writers are weird or drunks or spacey. Cameron reminds us that writers are normal, solid citizens who happen to fit periods of writing into our daily lives. Reading Cameron makes me feel like a writer, which is the one thing guaranteed to glue my butt to the chair.

THE RIGHT TO WRITE consists of forty-three essays about the writing life, covering things a writer needs to know to bring her best self to the page. My favorite essay was about procrastination. Cameron lists the reasons that writers put things off and the payoffs for such behavior. At its heart, procrastination means living a fantasy about some imagined future of unlimited time and perfect writing. Cameron calmly and compassionately gives solutions. None of them are easy, but all of them work.

Each essay is followed by an exercise. I recognized many of these from THE ARTIST’S WAY, Cameron’s most famous book. In fact, THE RIGHT TO WRITE could be seen as “Artist’s Way Lite.” This is good or bad. One could say that Cameron is cannibalizing her own work. One could also say that she’s streamlining The Artist’s Way program, making it more friendly to beginners. I didn’t do the exercises this time, having done them before. I still got a tremendous amount from the essays, which stand alone without them.

THE RIGHT TO WRITE has a lot in common with TAKE JOY by Jane Yolen. Both books provide ample doses of comfort and courage. But where Yolen cuddles me in a security blanket, Cameron gives me a powerful kick in the pants. Something about the way she writes makes me want to grab my ideas and start scribbling. I confess to keeping a copy of THE RIGHT TO WRITE at my bedside in case I need a dose of inspiration. Whenever I’m feeling low, reading a few pages reminds me of everything I love about being a writer.

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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

Take Joy by Jane Yolen

Some books are like security blankets. You don’t really need them, but you want them. They make you feel good. They make the world less scary. They are nice to curl up with on a lonely night when life is against you. TAKE JOY is just such a soft and cozy book.

The chapters are short with tiny, gentle lessons on craft–things like how to write a good first line and how to write with honest emotion. In between lessons on craft are even shorter chapters Yolen calls “interludes.” These funny snippets are apt observations about the writing life. Yolen discusses things like the gap between dream and reality, families nibbling away a writer’s precious time, and why rejection letters don’t mean anything.

Yolen’s topics are well-worn and cover things that most of us already know. TAKE JOY didn’t teach me new things about the craft of writing, but it inspired me. Yolen reminded me why I love writing so much. She made me feel lucky that I get to do this incredible thing. She showed me ways to look at my writing–and myself–that just plain feel good.

It’s a refreshing antidote to those “writing is so hard!” complaints I’ve been reading in blogs and books. Sure, writing can be challenging, especially if one wants to do it well. But it’s a fun challenge, one that most writers embrace with excitement and yes, joy.

TAKE JOY is going on my keeper shelf. If the writing world ever starts to feel cold and harsh, I’ll know exactly which book to take with me as I snuggle under the covers.

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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

A Writer’s Time by Kenneth Atchity

I liked the idea of this book. It seemed like the perfect combination of my two interests: writing and time management. However, A WRITER’S TIME doesn’t really help with either. Atchity’s writing advice is overly complicated, requiring 1000 completed index cards, three desks, and several ten-day vacations. His time management advice is full of “woo,” as if writing is a mysterious process that has to be delicately handled.

Atchity divides his mind into “continents” and “islands,” his metaphor for rational and imaginative thought. He insists it’s the tension between these two states of mind that creates fiction, and he cultivates that tension by refusing to write. Yes, you read that correctly–Atchity thinks that not writing makes him a better writer. He relies heavily on vacations and unplanned days off. He puts great stock in letting ideas percolate, only touching pen to paper when he feels the time is right.

This is not my experience, nor that of most working writers. Writing is our great joy and passion, but it’s not delicate. The faster our pens move, the faster the ideas come. Taking several days off while waiting for inspiration is what wannabe writers do. Real writers write.

A WRITER’S TIME makes a few valid points, like when Atchity distinguishes between beginning, middle, and end time. Writers can’t expect steady forward progress. A project moves slowly at the beginning and races at the end. Atchity explains why that is and how to schedule writing time accordingly. However, even the good ideas are buried under sentences like this: “Thought control may be the ultimate in time management because it allows you to invoke and exploit your own positive emotions and make them work to shape your will into a lifelike resemblance to your dream.” Um….what?

Even though I liked the idea of this book, after 200 pages of dense prose, I didn’t learn anything new about time management and I certainly didn’t gain any insights into writing. I’m better off learning writing from the many craft books on my shelves. As for time management, I get far better results by treating writing as my job. In other words, writing every day, because the time is always right for writing.

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rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Tell Your Time by Amy Lynn Andrews or The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg instead of this book.

The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes

This book is best for intermediate writers. I usually put information about the target audience at the end of each review, but this time, it has to go up front. Beginning writers aren’t afraid. They have the brash confidence that comes from inexperience. They don’t know what they don’t know. (Not a bad place to be, by the way. Beginners tend to throw words on the page with delightful abandon.) For advanced writers, finishing, editing, and publishing their work gives them a more quiet confidence. But the vast road between those two points? That’s where fear lives.

Despite what Keyes claims, not all writers are terrified. If you’re writing daily, without undue stress, then by all means, carry on and don’t worry. However, if you’re scared to the point of paralysis, and think you’re alone, then this is the book for you.

Why is writing scary? It’s the emotion. A good book is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest fears and passions. Fewer still want to write them down for everyone to see.

THE COURAGE TO WRITE is divided into two sections. The first part describes fear in all its variations. The second part details methods for coming to terms with it. However, part two contained more validation of the fearful feelings than ways to cope. After the hundredth anecdote about a terrified writer, I started to lose patience. I know misery loves company and Keyes is trying to make anxious writers feel less alone, but the relentless dread of the page made me wonder why anyone was writing at all.

Then I got it. Anxiety about writing is not only common, but desirable. If you’re not at least a tiny bit scared, you’re not challenging yourself enough. Like a kid on a roller coaster, we must be a bit nervous, yet ultimately thrilled with our writing. Of course Keyes doesn’t teach writers how to squash fear. It can’t be done. It shouldn’t be done.

Keyes himself is an excellent writer. THE COURAGE TO WRITE is a smooth read, full of wit and compassion. I’m glad he found his own courage to write.

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THE COURAGE TO WRITE 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

Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

David Gaughran makes an unusual choice in the introduction to LET’S GET DIGITAL. Most people would start by listing their credentials, but Gaughran admits he has none. He’s not a best-selling author. He’s not a digital superstar. He’s a nobody. And that’s a good thing. Because he wants you know something important. Anyone can publish an ebook.

LET’S GET DIGITAL is divided into three parts. The first is philosophy. Before we can understand the how, Gaughran says we need to understand the why. He starts by listing the reasons big publishers are in trouble and why print books are in a death spiral. He makes good points, but he also assumes that his readers have zero knowledge of the publishing industry. Most writers have spent years working (or trying to work) within that system and know it well, so this part won’t be of much use. Besides, the audience for this book won’t need convincing that they should self-publish. They’d just like to know how.

The second part is absolutely bursting with useful information. It covers the how-to of editing, covers, formatting, uploading to sales channels, and pricing. Throughout, Gaughran urges writers to produce nothing but their best, and shows them how to do just that. He also covers post-publication work like sales, marketing, and reviews. A lot of this is common sense and the information is widely available all over the internet. However, having it all in one convenient place feels like a gift.

Gaughran also discusses how to handle a sales slump. This is somewhat of a taboo subject among indie writers and Gaughran is courageous for tackling it. His advice is mostly of the “keep calm and carry on” sort, but he also offers a few tricks to goose sales such as a revamped book description and extra promo work. However, the only thing a writer can really do is keep writing. Nothing boosts sales of a book like more books.

Part three is inspiration. Thirty-three successful authors tell their own publication stories in short essays. Every author took a slightly different path, but some common themes emerged. Self-publishing wasn’t a lifelong dream for these authors. Many of them stumbled across the idea almost accidentally. Many authors also talked about the ease of self-publishing. Turning a finished manuscript into a book really isn’t that hard. All of the contributors exceeded their own expectations. Most are doing phenomenally well, seemingly overnight. This last one might be a bit of a downer for people who don’t immediately see big sales numbers, but they are called success stories for a reason.

The other thing that came up many times, from many authors, is the importance of other people. None of them succeeded alone. They all benefited from the strong indie community that has developed on the blogs, the Kindle boards, and Twitter. Writers have always helped writers by sharing what they know, and it’s clear Gaughran has that same generous spirit. The introduction is correct. With the information and inspiration found in LET’S GET DIGITAL, anyone can publish an ebook.

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rating: 4 stars

 

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This book is best for: intermediate to advanced writers

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I recommend this book

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

No writer feels like he is writing enough. We all watch too much television, spend too much time on Facebook, or waste our writing time doing other things. For beginning writers, the problem is especially acute. With no editor giving a deadline, no fans clamoring for the next installment, and no writing income, there is literally no incentive to write–at least not consistently. Beginners might write when they are “inspired,” but with so many other things pulling them away from the writing desk, how can they stick with it for the months and years it takes to carve out a writing career?

On the other hand, most professional writers write every day. Not because they are inspired more often, not because they have more free time,  and not because they are neglecting other parts of their lives. Pros write every day for one simple yet powerful reason. They’ve made it a habit.

We tend to think of habits as bad (smoking, cussing, biting your fingernails) but they can also be good (walking the dog, oatmeal for breakfast, a weekly date with your spouse). THE POWER OF HABIT shows how easily habits form. They rely on three simple things–a cue, a routine, and a reward–and don’t take long to stick. Our brains love habits. They allow us to be efficient. They help us do things like drive a car without constant self-monitoring. Once we learn where the brake pedal is and how hard to press the accelerator, we can let our habits take over, freeing the cognitive part of our minds for other things like having a conversation with our passengers or listening to the radio.

That isn’t to say that changing a habit is painless. Our brains are hard-wired to hold onto the habits we’ve formed. Duhigg gives an example of an ex-smoker put into an MRI and shown pictures of people smoking. Areas of the brain showing anticipation and craving still became active, even years after someone’s last cigarette.

That seems like bad news for writers, but THE POWER OF HABIT is an excellent guide to trading unproductive habits for creative time at the keyboard. The trick is not to form a new habit, or try to get rid of an existing one, but to change a habit that already exists. It will take some fiddling, but by closely examining the three parts of a habit–cue, routine, and reward–a creative writer will find what works. The routine is the biggest part, both the most obvious and the hardest to change. However, Duhigg recommends isolating the reward first, then looking at the cue, then changing the routine. By figuring out what the true reward is and which cue will get you there, the routine will be easier to manage.

THE POWER OF HABIT is not a how-to so much as a this-is-why. Duhigg never mentions writers. He’s simply interested in explaining the latest brain research in laymen’s terms. However, understanding the science behind habits gave me countless insights into my own schedule, and great ideas for making writing a daily habit.

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rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book