Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

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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.
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BETTER THAN BEFORE can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book.

47 Mind Hacks for Writers by Karen Dimmick and Steve Dimmick

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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.

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47 MIND HACKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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

Editomat Software by Noumena Corporation

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There are about a dozen kinds of software to edit prose. Most of them, like Grammarly and Hemingway, focus on nonfiction. That’s natural, since nonfiction rules are easy to codify, and therefore easy to program into software.

But EDITOMAT is different. It was written by a fiction writer for fiction writers. Developer Clif Flynt knows that fiction needs a different kind of editing, and therefore, EDITOMAT goes beyond simple grammar rules to look at things like style and word choice and readability. It will never replace a human editor, of course, but this software is ideal for the fiction writer who simply needs a “fresh pair of eyes” before handing her manuscript to a beta reader or editor.

EDITOMAT covers the basics like accidental word repetition and weak words. It can also compare your work to others in your genre, tell you about the emotional tone, analyze your dialog, and look at specific things like clothing or vehicles or other aspects of setting. It has a nifty built-in thesaurus that goes way, way beyond the one built into Microsoft word. Highlight any word and an exhaustive list of synonyms come up. Using EDITOMAT, a writer could happily self-edit a whole novel, swapping weak words and sentences for stronger ones, and making sure the tone of the piece was just right.

The emphasis, of course, if on self editing. Although EDITOMAT will point out things that you can’t see yourself, it’s up to you to fix them. More importantly, it’s up to you to know when to ignore its suggestions. For example, I often use repetition for emphasis. I might write sentences like this: “She wanted his cooperation. But even more, she wanted his trust.” The word wanted would be flagged in EDITOMAT, and I could choose to ignore it, or not.

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A sample of my prose in Editomat, with weak words and repeated words highlighted.

One feature I thought would be superfluous turned out to be my favorite. EDITOMAT can analyze a manuscript for readability. It gives a Flesch Analysis, showing the education level someone would need to read your prose. I discovered that a short story I was working on was easy to read (which was my goal) and my blog posts tended to require at least a high school level of reading ability.

EDITOMAT can also analyze the emotional tone of a scene. I tried it with several of my short pieces, with some interesting and sometimes comical results. Just for fun, I ran a sex scene through EDITOMAT, because those are darned hard to write and I wanted to see what the program would do. I was amused to see that it flagged words like beneath, moan, surrender and lower as “negative” words. In some contexts, they aren’t. Likewise, I forgive myself for using extra adjectives and adverbs here, since sex scenes are all about the descriptions and feelings.

But this is just another example of using this software as a way to see your manuscript more clearly, rather than a way to fix things. EDITOMAT is like a helpful friend who points out when you’ve accidentally left your zipper down. Your friend will tell you about it, but it’s up to you to zip your own fly.

(EDITOMAT is available here. You can download a free demo version that will analyze short documents, or buy the full version that can handle entire novels.)

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend this software

The Story Equation by Susan May Warren

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I’ve reviewed over 150 how-to books for writers on this site. Some have been better than others, but few have been completely incomprehensible. However, I could barely understand THE STORY EQUATION. Warren seems to be taking the age-old three act structure and showing how character change is the driving force of the story. At least, I think that’s what she’s trying to do. I’m not sure, because the book is full of paragraphs like this:

The character journey culminates in the Black Moment Event—or the realization of his Greatest Fear. As a result of this event, he experiences a Black Moment Effect when the Lie that has been chasing him the entire book suddenly feels real. This Black Moment Effect drives him to his metaphorical knees.

I think she’s describing the all-is-lost moment of the plot, that part that occurs about 3/4 of the way through every novel where the character almost gives up. But throwing in random terms (randomly capitalized) muddies rather than clarifies.

Warren constantly coins terms instead of using the familiar ones most writers already know. For example, she calls the inciting incident at the beginning of the book “the Trigger” (with a capital T). Renaming old concepts doesn’t make them into new concepts. Calling the inciting incident the Trigger doesn’t tell us anything about what that part of the story does. Warren loves to name, but not explain, her ideas.

I slogged through THE STORY EQUATION, hoping to find a new way of thinking about plot or character development, or at least some small gem of wisdom that would improve my writing. However, I couldn’t get through the Wound, the Lie, and the Noble Quest, not to mention the SEQ and the DMS (when Warren is not making up terms, she’s making up acronyms.)

I admire Warren’s enthusiasm and her desire to help other writers. She found a method and a vocabulary that worked well for her. However, it fell apart when she tried to convey her ideas to other people. And without clarity and good instruction, all the enthusiasm in the world won’t help.

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THE STORY EQUATION can be found here.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress instead of this book.

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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Pie Slices: 4 slices craft, 4 slices inspiration

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I recommend this book

Closing the Deal on Your Terms by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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When it comes to publishing, Rusch has seen it all. She’s the former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She has published books both traditionally and indie. She’s run a small press. She’s sold short stories to magazines. So it’s fair to say she’s seen just about every kind of contract and has negotiated them from both sides of the desk.

Who better to warn you about what’s in them? Whether you’re an indie author trying to sell foreign rights, a traditionally published author asking what’s next or a newbie just starting your publishing journey, you need three things: a good IP lawyer, the ability to walk away from a bad contract, and a copy of this book.

Rusch knows what can happen when an inexperienced writer—giddy from finally being offered a book contract—signs it without negotiating it. CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is no substitute for good legal advice, but it’s a great introduction to the kinds of “gotcha” clauses publishers are adding to contracts these days.

Most writers only look at money paid and when the manuscript is due. They don’t understand all the ways that they can—and will—be screwed over. For example, deep discount clauses allow publishers to make money on your books without giving any to you. Rights grabs mean that your publisher could turn your book into a movie or a game without consulting you. Options clauses can legally bind you to your publisher for many years and many books. And these are only the most obvious examples. Modern contracts are full of worse things, buried under confusing language and contradictory clauses.

An agent won’t save you from these terrible contracts. In most cases, an agent will urge you to sign them. Many agents are also presenting their own agency agreements (read: contracts) to authors, binding that author to the agent as well as the publishing house.

Because things have changed so radically in the last thirty years, Rusch discourages writers from dealing with publishers for any book-length fiction at this time. However, she understands that every career is different, and doesn’t tell writers what to do. In fact, she defends writers who want to sign any contract under the sun, as long as that writer knows exactly what she’s signing and why.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS isn’t an easy read. It’s not one of those great craft books that will energize your writing or an inspirational book that will make you feel good. Rusch herself became quite downhearted while writing it, as she realized just how bad things had gotten in publishing land. But she stuck it out and did us all a great service by writing a book that isn’t fun, but necessary.

CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS is probably not a book that any writer wants. However, it’s exactly the book that every writer needs.

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CLOSING THE DEAL ON YOUR TERMS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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Pie Slices: 8 slices business

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

 

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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Pie Slices: 8 slices inspiration

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.