Trough of Hell by H.R. d’Costa

Most authors are fired up to write the beginning of their novels. They know how the story starts and are eager to get going on the wonderful story they want to tell. Many authors have an easy time with the ending as well, feeling like they’re coasting downhill to the climax. Then there’s the middle. Somehow, blank pages in the middle of a story are the worst kind of blank pages.

D’Costa specializes in taking a deep dive into one aspect of story, breaking down the story beats into their smallest possible units. TROUGH OF HELL zeroes in on that section about 75% of the way through the story, when things are as bad as they can get.

This is the all-is-lost moment, when the heroine is at her lowest point emotionally. Paradoxically, she’s also the closest to achieving her true goal—perhaps not the one she wants, but the one she needs. But in order to get there, she has to reach rock bottom. Only then, when she’s at her most vulnerable, can she face the truth about herself and change for the better.

D’Costa gets very specific here, showing readers all the ways they can hurt their heroes, and how to evoke true emotions by tailoring them to the story. She gives consideration to different genres, since this story beat plays out differently in comedies and serious stories. She also shows how to use minor characters to make the all-is-lost even more resonant. She wraps it up by discussing ways to avoid cliches, keep the pace from dragging, and make the all-is-lost moment deeper and more meaningful.

D’Costa is a screenwriter, so all the examples are from movies, some of them stretching back to the 1990s. But she never discusses obscure or arty films. All of the examples are from well-known movies, and D’Costa gives enough explanation so you can follow along even if you’ve never seen the film in question. The all-is-lost moment is a vital story beat in both novels and screenplays, with the same emotional job to do, so this concept applies to novels too.

The trough of hell is one of the least fun parts of a novel to write. It’s the moment when we have to be very mean to our imaginary friends. But with a guide like TROUGH OF HELL, writing that section of a novel will be easier, and the author will have the satisfaction of knowing that the terrible trouble she put her heroes in was all worth it.


TROUGH OF HELL can be found here


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: beginning writers


I recommend this book

Guest Review from Lawrence Block: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist by Alex Kourvo

Today’s book review is a bit different. Instead of a book review by me, it’s a review of the book I wrote! Lawrence Block is visiting the blog today to share his thoughts about THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST.

Alex Kourvo is one of a kind. A gifted writer and editor, she has developed a special interest in books for writers, how-to manuals for those of us who want to find the best words and put them in their best order. Pursuing this interest, she has devoted much of her time to reading those books, digesting their contents, and reviewing them for the benefit of those writers who are her readers.

Full disclosure: I’ve written instructional books for writers myself, and Alex has been gracious enough to say very nice things about some of them.

I recall an observation of science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany: “I write the books I cannot find on library shelves.” Alex’s shelves are extensive, but the book she couldn’t find was one on writing a novel’s second draft. And so she’s written The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, designed to shepherd a writer who’s already produced a novel’s first draft.

More full disclosure: I’m an anomaly. I’ve produced a substantial body of work over many years, and while I certainly tweak sentences and rework scenes as I go along, my first draft is my final draft. So I’m probably not the best person to swear to the efficacy of Alex’s suggestions. But her book is cogent and persuasive, and now that she’s been considerate enough to write it, it’s there to be found on the shelf—where you’ll be fortunate to make its acquaintance.

Lawrence Block


The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is in paperback and ebook at all retailers.

Bonus Blog: Don’t Take My Word for It

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist comes out October 1st, and you can pre-order your ebook or your paperback today. But you may be wondering, why should you pre-order a book that you haven’t even glanced through yet? The author says it’s good, but authors always say that about their own books. Maybe we should get a second opinion or three.

Here’s what Sacha Black had to say.

You know how to draft a book, you know how to proof for commas, but what happens in the middle? The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is a fantastic tool to help you assess and do a developmental edit of your novel. If you’ve ever struggled to do the big-picture edit, you need this book. Packed with examples and comprehensive explanations, this is the perfect guide to help you through edits. Whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned pro, you’ll find tips, tricks and helpful reminders to keep you on track while editing. 

Fellow editors like Chris Allen-Riley quite like the book as well.

This book will not only walk you through the revision process step by step, it will also entertain and encourage you. Alex Kourvo and her process are nothing short of life-changing. Reading The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is like sitting down with your BFF and sorting out exactly what your book needs to take it to the next level (and beyond).

And here is Lawrence Block.

Alex Kourvo is one of a kind. A gifted writer and editor.

One more note: I won’t be writing a book review on October 1st because Lawrence Block is going to take over the Writing Slices blog for the day and write a full review of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist. Stay tuned to watch Alex’s head explode in rainbows and sparkles!

Until then, happy writing, and happy re-writing!

Alex K.

Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE is a collection of blog posts that Anders wrote for during 2020, when the world was falling apart and many writers weren’t writing. Anders wanted to counter the doom and gloom, but while other writers offered only empty cheerleading, Anders offered more. This book is a balm for the soul, a rallying cry, a creative manifesto, and an act of resistance.

There’s a lot to be said for writing despite all the awfulness of the world. In a world rocked by disease, prejudice, war, and political cruelty, stories aren’t luxuries. They’re necessities. Telling the world, “I won’t engage with your bullshit because I have books to write” is a powerful statement. As Anders puts it, escapism is resistance. Stories help us retain our humanity in a world that’s trying to take it away.

But it goes far beyond that. Writers help frame the narrative, to counter the gaslighting from those in power. We dream of things beyond the world we know, and we show those dreams to others. By actively imagining how the world can be different, writers help to create the world they want to live in.

We’re all angry at the state of the world, and Anders encourages us to embrace that anger and use it as fuel. Novels are always, always political. Who has power in our story worlds? How do they use it? What choices do our characters make and how does it change them? Who are we as humans, and who do we want to be? Anders engages with all of this in writing that is fresh and fierce and exactly what we need right now.

There is also writing craft instruction sprinkled throughout NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE, but Anders is on shakier ground here. Some things that are common knowledge to anyone who has read even a single how-to book seem to be revelations to Anders. For example, she’s floored by the idea that every story needs a strong midpoint scene, and is delighted that when she includes one, her stories work better. And she only recently learned that the final word in a sentence is the one that packs a punch.

Anders describes her own writing process, which can best be described as quirky. Very little of what she discusses will be applicable or helpful to the average writer. A writer looking for solid instruction would be better off reading other how-to books.

Where Anders truly shines is in her unique vision, and her ability to share that vision with the rest of us. The most important thing to know when creating is your “why.” Anders knows her why and is therefore unstoppable. NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE is the guide we need to keep writing through the end of the world.


NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE can be found here


Rating: 3 stars


I recommend this book or Take Joy by Jane Yolen or A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

Alex Kourvo Wrote a How-to Book

I have a new book coming soon! It’s called THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST and it’s going to be published in paperback and ebook October 1st. The ebook is available for pre-order on every major retailer.

I’ve reviewed over 200 how-to books on the Writing Slices blog, but I couldn’t find a book like this on my shelves. I’ve read many wonderful books about writing a first draft, and many about improving a book through copyediting, but I haven’t seen a book about that special middle draft, where an author is rethinking the big picture.

So I wrote one.

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs. With in-depth chapters and examples from contemporary fiction, this clear-eyed manual gives you all the tools you need to bring your book to the finish line.

The book is short and to the point, so you can get to revising your novel right away.

Pre-orders are available wherever books are sold, worldwide. When the book is published, you can order the paperback online or at your local bookstore.

Get THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST for a step-by-step guide to a polished and professional novel you’ll be proud of.

How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet

When people find out that I publish myself, they almost always ask the same question. “How do you market your books?” I tell them that I market my books the same way large publishers do, since nowadays, indie authors have access to almost all the same tools and sales channels the bigger publishers do. That’s usually a satisfactory answer for readers.

Fellow writers, on the other hand, often blurt out a frustrated, “Yes, but how?” Beginning writers want to know the step-by-step method from uploading a book to getting it into readers’ hands. How, exactly, does that work?

HOW TO MARKET A BOOK is a great introduction to this topic, as Fayet covers all the basics in detail. He starts with mindset, that crucial jump an author takes from creator to salesperson. Then he talks about elements of the book itself that will help it to sell—the cover, the blurb, the niche, and endorsements. Only then does he turn to things like sales channels, email lists, and price promotions. Putting things in this order makes sense. There is no use spending time and money trying to market a book that is fundamentally unmarketable.

Fayet then turns to more advanced topics like advertising platforms, audio books, boxed set promotions, understanding Amazon algorithms (as much as anyone can understand Amazon algorithms) and the ever-popular wide vs. exclusive debate. The writing is smooth throughout, with exactly the right amount of depth to serve as a good introduction without being overwhelming. And when you’re ready to go deeper on a particular subject, Fayet offers suggestions for further reading.

Fayet is one of the founders of Reedsy, which is a freelance marketplace that matches service providers (editors, book designers, web designers, etc.) with authors. Many parts of HOW TO MARKET A BOOK sounded like commercials for Reedsy. There is nothing wrong with giving your company a shoutout if you think it does things well, but there were a few times that I felt like I was reading an infomercial rather than a how-to book.

Even taking that huge grain of salt into consideration, I still found HOW TO MARKET A BOOK extremely worthwhile reading. I liked that it didn’t promise shortcuts or “easy” tricks. The suggestions were practical and straightforward in an excellent beginners’ marketing book that will teach the essential skills that every writer should learn.


HOW TO MARKET A BOOK can be found here


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book.

From Page to Stage by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

Everyone expects that writers will do a bit of public speaking—book tours for the most successful writers and at least one or two local events for those in the midlist. Authors of books for children are expected to do school visits, speaking to the most demanding audience of all. But in the social media era, opportunities for authors to speak have exploded. Authors are supposed to seek out chances to be on podcasts and Zoom with book clubs and post to their Instagram stories. Staying home and writing just isn’t enough anymore.

Never mind that most authors are introverts who dislike the spotlight. Readers assume that authors who are interesting and dynamic on the page will be equally engaging in real life, even though holding a pen and holding the stage are completely different skillsets.

Fear of public speaking is real, but it’s a lot less scary with FROM PAGE TO STAGE as a guide. Fasbinder is a public speaking coach who specializes in writers, so she has tips tailored to our specific needs. She understands how hard it is to talk about our novels and memoirs, when really, we just want people to read them.

Fasbinder begins by calming writers’ nerves, reminding us that there are lots of rewards for speaking in public. She then provides all the tools necessary, from the blueprint of a perfect talk, to how to stand, how to remain composed, and even how to handle those annoying people who have “more of a comment than a question.” She has tips for using Powerpoint slides, and tips for doing a live reading. She even discusses things like podcast interviews or how to talk about your book one-on-one in casual conversation.

There are exercises at the end of every chapter, although I don’t think they’re necessary. Most of them consist of Fasbinder recommending a TED talk, but watching TED talks doesn’t teach you anything about how to give one. It would have been nice to have some exercises about posture or a practice Q and A. Instead, I figured out what to practice on my own from the excellent information and examples in the book.

FROM PAGE TO STAGE is a gift to authors. It’s filled with concrete advice and actionable steps a writer can take to get better at public speaking. It’s the book we need for the skill that we all need to develop.


FROM PAGE TO STAGE can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


I recommend this book

Bonus blog: Editing Services

Hello friends,

Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m a professional editor with over a decade of experience editing for small presses and private clients.

I have not advertised this fact until now because I didn’t need to. In the before-times, my clients found me via word of mouth, and my inbox was always full. However, the entire economy slowed down last year, and I slowed down along with it.

But that’s good news for you! I have openings now, so if you’ve been looking for a freelance editor for your novel or memoir, I might be a good fit for you. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am passionate about helping writers. That passion extends to my editing work, as I strive to help writers bring better books into the world.

You can find out more information at my other site:

I’ll be back on the 1st with my regular book review. Until then, happy writing!

Alex K.

A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wasn’t always Lawrence Block. I mean that figuratively and literally. He wasn’t always a Grand Master of the mystery genre, and he wrote an incredible number of novels under secret pen names before ever putting his own name on a book. A WRITER PREPARES is a memoir of Block’s start, from his earliest writing attempts in high school and college up to the publication of the first novel under his own name.

In the late 1950s, while he was still in college, Block had a job writing rejection letters for the Scott Meredith Agency. It was a fee-charging agency that was very bad for writers but kind of great for Block, since it got him connected to his next job, which was writing short erotic novels. He had contracts with two publishers to deliver a book a month, for which he was paid a flat fee, and he continued doing that for a decade, during which time he got married and had two daughters. He took day jobs here and there, but still wrote erotica on the side until 1966, when he finally started writing crime novels in earnest, starting with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep.

A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block’s conversational style. It’s also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Even the parts that were horrifying, such as the terrible treatment of writers by the Scott Meredith Agency, were hilarious in that whole “laugh so I don’t cry” way. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world.

A WRITER PREPARES might seem like an odd choice for this blog. I’m all about how-to books after all. But Block is a natural teacher, and he’s always giving writing lessons, whether he means to or not. I learned so much from this book—more than I can put in a review—but here’s a small taste.

Agents don’t care about writers or writers’ careers. They care about their own bottom line. The Scott Meredith Agency was particularly scammy, charging authors a reading fee, never sending work out, and lying to authors about their submissions. But are modern agents much better? To agents, writers are interchangeable. It’s not worth going to bat for one writer when there are plenty of others to fleece represent.

Write to market. Block learned this lesson early and well. He wrote his school compositions based on what he thought his teachers wanted, and won an eighth-grade essay contest by extolling the virtues of “Americanism” because he knew the judges were patriotic. His erotic novels were always the exact length and heat level the publisher wanted. He read every back issue of Manhunt he could find to understand what the editor was looking for when he sent them stories. When Block had the idea for The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he sat on it until he was sure he had all the elements for a complete story that would appeal to mystery readers. There is nothing wrong with having original ideas that are wild and fun, but keeping the audience in mind is how a writer gets read.

Practice is never wasted. Block happily admits that he spent his twenties writing crap. All of it was under pen names for low-budget publishers and most of the time, he never saw a copy. But this served as a risk-free apprenticeship that made him the writer he is today. It allowed him to experiment, to pick up new skills, and to practice writing to a deadline. Writing a whole lot of bad fiction is a great way for a writer to learn to write good fiction.

Treat it like a job. Block may have written terrible fiction when he was just starting out, but he wrote a lot of it. He wrote while taking college classes, he wrote while editing the college newspaper, he wrote while working full time at a literary agency. Before he ever sold a word of fiction, he still wrote every day while rejection letters piled up. When he had to quit school and move back home for a semester, he wrote in his childhood bedroom. Block wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t getting paid. He wrote anyway.

Community is important. Block did his best work when surrounded by writers and publishing people. In New York, Block hung out with Donald Westlake, Hal Dresner and Robert Silverberg, and their shoptalk was vital to his success. At one point, Block moved his family to Buffalo to be near his aging mother, and his writing suffered. Pre-internet, a writer had to either live near other writers or write a whole lot of letters. Block tried the latter, but was happier with the former, and moved back to New York as soon as he could.

The book world has changed a lot since the 1950s. Or has it? There are still plenty of very bad literary agents out there, and new writers are strung along by empty promises every day. Writing erotica is different now, but with Kindle Unlimited, there are once again authors serving apprenticeships by publishing a short erotic novel each month. Writing to market is still important, as is not holding too tightly to early work. And no matter what, surrounding yourself with like-minded writers is still the best path to happiness and success.

Reading a writer’s memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It’s a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day.


A WRITER PREPARES can be found here


Rating: 4 stars


This book is best for: all writers


I recommend this book

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Korean-born novelist Salesses has a lot of questions about the traditional writing workshop. Who is it for? Who does it benefit? Is there any way to teach writing that doesn’t perpetuate unequal power structures? And why is most literary fiction so gosh-darned bland, as if all the interesting edges have been sanded off? But CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD isn’t just for teachers or MFA students. It’s essential reading for anyone writing fiction today.

College writing workshops were created for upper-class, white, straight male writers, and many of the rules of fiction writing comes from them. What we consider high-quality writing is always seen through this lens. We like to pretend that craft is pure in some way, without bias, but that’s simply because the bias is invisible. Whose stores are told, whose stories have value, which plot structures are acceptable, and even which details are included are all based on an assumed reader, and that reader only comes in one flavor. Everything else is called “experimental” or “women’s fiction” or “diverse.” And in the rare occasions that other modes of expression are taught, it’s in contrast to the dominant form of fiction. Instead of asking why writing rules exist, we treat those who “break” the rules as exceptions. If a writer arrives with a different set of cultural expectations, she’ll be pressured to silence her own voice in order to conform to the norms of the group.

Salesses closely examines the typical subjects of writing craft books, asking why they always use realist fiction by dead white men as models. These are the hero’s journey stories we’re all taught, where the world bends to the hero’s will, and any problems in his life can be overcome through hard work and self-improvement. This is very much a Western, male view of the world and not one that everyone shares. In chapters on plot, conflict, tone, characterization, pacing, setting, and story structure, Salesses opens readers’ minds to new ways of thinking and writing. We don’t all write to the same market, and fiction doesn’t have to please a wide audience. It only has to please the right audience.

The last part of the book discusses practical ways to run a writing workshop that centers the author rather than those giving the critique. These methods are more labor-intensive for instructors (which is why most won’t use them). These new methods will empower writers so they can go on to revise their own stories even after they’ve left school. Working writers reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will find helpful tips to make their writing more inclusive, more interesting, and just better.

Reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD wasn’t easy for me. I remembered my own college classes and community writing groups, thinking about the ways I was silenced, and the ways I unknowingly used my privilege to silence others. I found myself reading very slowly in order to truly absorb each point before moving on to the next. Some of the lessons were painful, some were embarrassing, but more than anything else, they were helpful. When you know better, you do better, and CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will help every single one of us become better writers.


CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here


Rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers


I recommend this book