Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle


Writing good description is tricky in fiction. To tell a story well, a writer has to handle exposition, backstory, characterization, passage of time, and a host of other things. Slipping in description without stopping the flow of the story is essential. Using description to actually further the story is next-level. DESCRIPTION AND SETTING will help writers see description not as a necessary evil or a story-stopper, but as an enhancement to deepen characterization, move plot, and make the setting feel real.

Rozelle speaks to writers at all levels. He explains basic concepts very well, but also teaches more experienced writers how to push themselves to make their descriptions do double or even triple duty. He covers character description, time and place, and how each genre deals with setting. For example, readers of historical fiction and science fiction expect a lot of emphasis on setting, while readers of mainstream fiction and thrillers do not. Rozelle gives advice about showing and telling, how to keep the story moving forward, how setting interacts with character, and how to use all five senses in our fiction.

Rozelle uses good examples of novels that handle description well, both in classic literature and modern fiction. He tells writers what pitfalls to avoid, but throughout, his tone is positive. He emphasizes what works, rather than what doesn’t. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, and most of them involve directly improving our works-in-progress. I loved how Rozelle skipped the empty theory to give writers specific action steps to apply to their current work.

DESCRIPTION AND SETTING includes a twelve-page appendix with bullet points covering the major ideas of each chapter for quick reference. Part of me wants to eat this book, or at least consume it so deeply that I never forget its lessons. But I will have to settle for copying the entire appendix and taping it above my computer, to remind me of what I learned, or what I thought I knew but forgot.


DESCRIPTION AND SETTING is available here.


Rating: 5 stars


This book is best for: intermediate writers


I recommend this book.

Write Better, Faster by Monica Leonelle


There are four ways writers can improve their productivity. They can write faster, they can write for more hours per day, they can do less editing, and they can hire ghost writers. Leonelle has done all of these things, but this book is focused on the first one. She greatly increased her writing speed through the use of several productivity hacks, and she’s eager to show others how she did it.

Right away, Leonelle busts the myth that speed and quality have anything to do with each other. She plans ahead and does multiple drafts. In the end, “but is it good?” is the wrong question to ask anyway. It’s not so much about whether the work is any good, it’s about whether it gets worse when writing faster. Leonelle suggests pushing the envelope on writing speed until quality begins to suffer, and then backing off a bit to land in the sweet spot where one is writing at her absolute capacity.

WRITE BETTER, FASTER has many tricks for increasing speed, starting with simply tracking results. Whatever is measured tends to increase, so keeping a spreadsheet to calculate words per hour is a great place to start. Leonelle is also a big fan of dictation, and claims to write up to 3,500 words per hour using Dragon Naturally Speaking. She also explains how to deal with writer’s block, procrastination, scheduling, and even travel, because pure speed won’t help a writer at all if the daily writing habit isn’t there.

It’s important to note that she only achieves this amazing writing speed through the use of extensive outlines. She outlines her complete novel first, then blocks out each scene with the major action, and finally, drafts the actual novel as quickly as she can.

Some writers might love WRITE BETTER, FASTER. Some writers might hate it. It depends on how your brain works. I liked it because Leonelle plans her books the same way I do. It’s a top-down approach that makes sense to me. But I imagine that more organic writers, who like to discover the story as they write, would think her approach was silly at best, and a waste of time at worst.

But if there’s one thing that all writers can agree on, it’s that we want to write more books. We all have more ideas than we’ll ever have time for. Learning to write faster is one way to make sure more of those books get written.


WRITE BETTER, FASTER is available here.


Rating: 3 stars


This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers


I recommend this book or 2,000 TO 10,000 by Rachael Aaron or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox


The 7 Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig


Rettig is a writer in love with her own voice. Rather than give you tools for your writer’s toolbox, she wants to give you the tools, show you how to use them, explain why you should use them, tell you why you’ve been using them wrong all along, and then describe how everyone else is using the tools. The level of detail in THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC is exhausting.

For example, Rettig compares writing a novel to running a marathon. Her point is that you don’t just get up off the couch and run a marathon. You train for months. It’s the same with writing novels. You build endurance at the keyboard. That’s a valid point. However, in order to make it, she takes the reader through the entire brainstorming process she did with her class, listing everything a runner needs, right down to the hairband to keep long hair in a ponytail. It goes on for pages and pages, just to get to the blindingly obvious idea that authors—just like runners—need time, practice, and equipment. Rettig belabors every single point like this, from laughing at her own puns to defining common words to including useless diagrams.

THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC is poorly organized. Every chapter is broken into subsections, and the different sections constantly cross-reference one another, but in a haphazard way. One idea is never allowed to flow logically to the next. Despite the level of detail, the ideas were underdeveloped. It felt like I was reading someone’s outline or book proposal rather than a proper book.

There are a few good insights buried in here, but it’s a lot of work to unearth them. In case you’re wondering, here are the seven “secrets” (which aren’t a secret to anyone who has been a writer for more than five minutes).

  • Don’t be a procrastinator
  • Don’t be a perfectionist
  • Have the right equipment
  • Manage your time
  • Write many drafts quickly rather than one draft slowly
  • Have a community
  • Don’t let rejections bother you / self publish when you can

At least, I think those are the seven secrets. The chapter titles are so wordy that it was hard to nail down exactly what Rettig was trying to say in each one.

I’ve never said this about a book before, but I think this one needs a ghost writer. Rettig obviously has a lot of passion for teaching, but she’s become mired in details and can’t see which ones are important. There might be a good book hidden under the disorganization and wordiness, but as presented, THE 7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC isn’t it.


7 SECRETS OF THE PROLIFIC can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy or Word Work by Bruce Holland Rogers instead of this book.

How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler


This is, hand’s down, the most practical book for writers I’ve ever read. I’ve read other books that teach you how to make art while also making a life, but HOW TO BE AN ARTIST went so far beyond those books as to be in a different category.

Artists of all kinds are assumed to be airy flakes, but Nagler knows that what the rest of the world sees as scatterbrained is often simply a matter of the artist being overwhelmed or frustrated. She offers solutions that are wise, kind, and completely doable. Nagler offers clear-eyed advice on budgets, lifestyle, work ethics, motivation, and sticking with it for the long haul.

Nagler doesn’t want to see artists starve—financially or artistically. There are ways to have it all, but it involves setting a budget for money and time. That includes getting a day job. Yes, Nagler assumes that her readers—like most artists—have day jobs too. I don’t think I’ve ever read another how-to book that puts that front-and-center the way HOW TO BE AN ARTIST does.

Nagler busts the myth that the only successful writer is a writer who writes full time. She insists a day job is not something to tolerate. It’s something to celebrate. The benefits are numerous, starting with the security of having a firm foundation. After all, it’s hard to be creative when you’re broke, hungry, and scared you won’t make rent this month. Having a job also boosts confidence and focus. All jobs are not created equal, however, and Nagler has down-to-earth advice about choosing one that will fit around a creative life.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST gets real about money management and time management too. She offers solutions for funding our art as well as our lives, and helps artists balance their schedules in a realistic way. So many how-to books simply advise writers to wake up an hour earlier, as if that’s the one-size-fits-all solution to scheduling woes. Nagler realizes that we’re all already waking up as early as we can. She proposes other ways to find time that don’t involve messing with our sleep or our health.

HOW TO BE AN ARTIST is easily the most practical book on my shelf. Strangely enough, it’s also the most inspirational. Nagler’s wise counsel, sensible methods, and kind tone made me eager to embrace my writing life in new and better ways.


HOW TO BE AN ARTIST can be found here.


Rating: 5 stars



This book is best for: all writers


I recommend this book

Yours to Tell by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem


I was hesitant to pick up this book, even though it was recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. I thought it would be rambling, artificial, and far too cute. But it was none of those things. YOURS TO TELL is a series of thoughtful conversations about what makes stories work, written by two people who are deeply rooted in the world of reading and writing.

The Tems take turns discussing plot, character, POV, setting, story structure and theme. They also cover more businesslike things like revision, marketing and managing paperwork. But the bulk of the book is on craft. Each author holds the floor for two or three or a dozen paragraphs at a time, but they comment on each other’s points, ask each other questions, and help each other think of examples. The result is a peek into the inner workings of two accomplished writers.

The Tems read a lot, and they don’t seem to read stories so much as inhale them. They study everything for craft lessons and they know what makes fiction work. They know the upside and downside of every writing rule and freely admit to breaking more of them than they uphold.

YOURS TO TELL is not for beginners. Anyone hoping to pick up pointers on writing craft will have to read hard between the lines. For example, in the chapters about point of view, they start with unreliable narrators and “writing the other” and only later go into difference between first and third person POV. They quickly dispense with definitions and are on to discussing things like the implied author and omnipotent narration and the weirdness of second person.

Most of the chapters are like that. The Tems are experienced writers talking about what concerns them right now. They always circle back to beginner concerns, but only after they talk about higher level stuff that they, themselves, are currently grappling with.

And that’s what makes this book such a delight. The Tems don’t instruct so much as share. They don’t talk like teachers lecturing students. They are working writers talking to their peers. Reading YOURS TO TELL was like attending a very good panel discussion at a conference, the kind that leaks out into the hallway afterward. The conversation goes in many directions, but the love of story always comes through. More than anything else, the Tems respect the process of writing fiction, and appreciate the rewards of doing so.


YOURS TO TELL can be found here.


Rating: 4 stars


Pie Slices: 8 slices craft


This book is best for: advanced writers


I recommend this book.

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin



I’ve read a couple of Rubin’s earlier books, but thought they were only so-so, mainly because I wasn’t the target audience for them. However, BETTER THAN BEFORE is much more my style. I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it.

I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit.

I’ve read other good books on habit formation. However, they were either heavy on theory and light on practice or they treated humans as if they were one-size-fits-all. Rubin looks at habits from a fresh angle. She answers the question: why do some habits stick, and others don’t? There are a lot of factors that go into the making of a good habit (or the breaking of a bad one). But the key to success is knowing yourself.

That’s the genius of BETTER THAN BEFORE. Other books start with the outside world, telling you how to set up a schedule or reward yourself for accomplishments. However, Rubin starts from the inside. What motivates people? It turns out that people are motivated either by external expectations (what do I have to do?) or internal expectations (what do I want to do?). The external expectations are things like rules, work deadlines, and anything that’s on our calendars. Internal expectations are things like eating better, saving money, or writing a novel.

If someone responds to both internal and external expectations, they are an upholder. If someone resists all expectations, both inner and outer, they are a rebel. Both these types are rare. Most of us are either obligers, who respond well to external motivation but struggle with internal; or we’re questioners, who are motivated by internal expectations but only obey outer expectations if they make sense.

I suspect that most writers are questioners. We’re driven by an inner need to create, and will fit writing around the expectations of the world however we can. But there’s still hope if you’re one of the other types. An obliger should put writing dates on the calendar and maybe get an accountability buddy. A rebel will only do something if it’s part of her core identity, so in order to write, she needs to think of herself as a writer.

Rubin goes on to discuss other, more subtle factors that can make or break a habit. She explains the importance of monitoring and scheduling, and shows how to start a habit and the danger of ending one. She warns about things like distraction, loopholes, and the convenience factor. However, the four kinds of motivation infuse every chapter of BETTER THAN BEFORE, because once you know what motivates you, you can accomplish anything.

Over many years, I have developed a solid writing habit. For me, no day is complete without some new words on the page. But it took me a long time to get here, and I have learned many of these lessons through trial and error. If you’re just starting out or you want to solidify your writing habit more strongly, BETTER THAN BEFORE is the book that will set you firmly on the path of daily writing.

BETTER THAN BEFORE can be found here.

Rating: 5 stars


Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

I recommend this book.

47 Mind Hacks for Writers by Karen Dimmick and Steve Dimmick


I have read too many books like this.

Some people might think I’ve read too many how-to books in general, but I approach each one with an open mind, hoping to find a new gem. Unfortunately, 47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS isn’t one of them.

I was intrigued by the title. I love hacks! Kitchen hacks, organization hacks, travel hacks. I love them all. Who wouldn’t want new “hacks” for writing? The subtitle promises that Dimmick and Dimmick will help you master the writing habit while ending writer’s block and procrastination. I was sold before page one.

However, the supposed mind hacks in this book aren’t really hacks so much as common sense advice. For example one of the mind hacks is to read a lot. Is there a successful writer who doesn’t read a lot?

The authors also advise writers to be clear on their goals, find mentors, ignore the inner critic, and embrace their uniqueness. On the more practical, tangible side, 47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS advises writers to turn off their phones while writing, write at a clean desk, and write during their most productive times of day. The chapters are short and bland, with very little detail, but they don’t really need much complexity since these are things everyone already knows.

More than half the book isn’t about writing at all. It’s about self-promotion. (Again, the very watered-down, simple kind.) The authors care more about the selling of books than the writing of them. Which would be fine, if this were advertised as a marketing book. I kept flipping the pages, looking for the promised writing advice. Even worse, there are countless links to the authors’ own website scattered through the book. They can’t wait to get you out of the book and onto their own site.

Despite the provocative title, 47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS is simply a warmed-over compilation of other people’s ideas, more about selling the authors’ own stuff than giving useful advice.


47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.


Rating: 2 stars


I recommend Break Writer’s Block Now by Jerrold Mundis or Lifelong Writing Habit by Chris Fox instead of this book