Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

61e0RHp3aWL

This is the second book on this topic I’ve reviewed this year, but while Sandra Gerth’s how-to book is excellent, and a must-buy, Janice Hardy’s book could be considered the follow-up to it. UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL is extremely in-depth and will be useful for writers who want to go beyond the basics to take a detailed look at showing and telling in fiction.

Hardy starts by explaining why telling happens in prose, and how to watch out for subtle problems like the author filtering the experience, improper narrative distance, and naming a character’s emotions. Hardy’s explanations are filled with examples that perfectly illustrate her points as she shows writers how to spot telling in their own work. She examines telling trouble spots like backstory, description, and infodumps, and gives a list of red-flag words such as decided, tried, felt, or seemed.

Hardy’s chapter on the uses of telling, however, is a scant three pages long. It probably should have been longer, since there are areas where telling comes in handy and Hardy could have expanded on that point. Showing and telling need to work hand-in-hand to make a novel complete.

But most novels could use more showing and less telling, and Hardy is an excellent guide for fixing told prose. For every problem, she has a solution, and is right there with writers as they identify telling and convert it to showing. By going through all the chapters of UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL writers will be able to fix point of view problems, and get out of the characters’ way to let them tell the story. (Or rather, show the story.)

—–

UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL can be found here

—-

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: advanced writers

—–

I recommend this book

On Cussing by Katherine Dunn

On-Cussing-RGB-800x1111

I adore creative swearing. I love when someone drops a curse word in just the right place, or wields forbidden language like a dagger, or goes poetic with a long string of swear words. I love naughty language used for humor, because I’m secretly twelve and I think a well-deployed f-bomb is funny.

Dunn thinks so too. ON CUSSING is a celebration of taboo language, covering the history and neuroscience of swearing while also giving plenty of examples of how to do it well. At a short 70 pages, ON CUSSING is like good cussing itself—it makes its point without any wasted words.

At their core, curse words are emotional. Some scientists think they’re even processed in a different part of our brain. Their connotations are blasphemous or sexual or just plain filthy. These words don’t add much grammatically to a sentence. Most sentences would make just as much sense without them. But boy, do they pack a punch. And therefore, Dunn argues, these words need to be used carefully.

Curse words can be used to complain, to threaten, to solidify an oath, to lay on a curse, to insult, and to emphasize. Dunn gives examples of each, along with instruction on how to make it your own. Cussing needs to fit the character, the tone of the book, and the time period. Different eras had different curse words. Something we think of as mild would shock our ancestors, and vice-versa.

Dunn includes excerpts from classic books, although I didn’t find these very helpful. She also cautions against using curse words carelessly. There is, after all, a time and place, even for a well-deployed f-bomb.

—–

ON CUSSING can be found here

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

I recommend this book

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

download

“Show, don’t tell” is something that every writing instructor says. It’s repeated so often because it’s the thing that beginning writers struggle with the most. Even when we understand the concept, applying that concept to our own work is difficult. Even more difficult is knowing when to show and when to tell.

SHOW, DON’T TELL is a powerful solution to this common problem. In this short book, Gerth explores every facet of storytelling to explain how to show a story instead of telling it. Gerth begins with definitions to give a writer a firm grasp on exactly what showing is. Details, not conclusions. Concrete, not abstract. Dramatization, not summary. She explains how to get the reader up close and personal with the story and why it’s so necessary to do so.

Once a writer has identified the telling in her manuscript, Gerth gives examples and exercises to convert that telling into showing, concentrating on trouble areas like backstory, dialogue, description, and emotion. She gives before-and-after examples, helping writers truly see how it’s done.

Many how-to books include exercises that are meant to be done for their own sake, which is fine. Writing requires practice. But most writers will skip those kinds of exercises in the belief that theory is enough. The exercises in SHOW, DON’T TELL, however, are meant to be done on a writer’s own work in progress, specifically chapter one. Gerth shows writers how to fix their own prose, giving the exercises an immediacy that is extremely useful.

Of course, stories shouldn’t be a hundred percent showing, either. Telling is sometimes the better choice, and Gerth wraps up SHOW, DON’T TELL by detailing the uses of narrative. Telling is useful for things like transitions, repeated information, and unimportant details.

Showing is like a spotlight, focusing reader attention on the important events of a story. When a writer has complete control over her narrative, she will use that power wisely—showing the important things, telling the less important parts, and skillfully weaving foreground and background to create a harmonious whole. SHOW, DON’T TELL is the perfect guide for this essential writing skill.

—–

Show, Don’t Tell can be found here

—–

Rating: five stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book

 

Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner

I think I read this book wrong.

Not that there’s a “wrong” way to read a book, but I approached this one the way I approach all my other how-to books. I started with page one and read straight through.

But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS isn’t that kind of book. Its 52 short chapters are meant for consuming in small doses. This is the kind of book to keep next to your bed or in your backpack, to dip in and out of when confidence flags or when you hit a specific wall. Some of the chapters are about digging in and persevering. Some are about relaxing and letting the story flow. Others are about carving out a writer identity by arranging time and space, claiming the label of writer, and finding a writing community.

Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, and PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is an excellent companion for anyone doing this 30-day novel challenge. But it will benefit every writer, year-round, because we all have bad days. Sometimes we get stuck at the beginning of a project, sometimes we get stuck in the middle, or we suffer from impostor syndrome or perfectionism or procrastination. Whatever the problem, Faulkner offers both encouragement and practical solutions, like a life coach who pats you on the back, gets you some Gatorade, and then slaps your ass and sends you back onto the field.

Every chapter ends with an exercise, and I found them creative and actually fun to do. For example, if you find yourself wasting time, try writing sprints when focus is essential. Stumped for ideas? Make a list of random nouns and then find ways to work them into a story. Need encouragement? Write a letter to yourself from your imaginary mentor.

The chapters are arranged rather haphazardly, which is fine when you’re only looking for a specific solution, but I was glad for the index in the back, which grouped chapters into a dozen categories. My favorites were the chapters on nourishing your muse and the ones on exploring storytelling tools. Faulkner has excellent tips for getting out of a creative rut.

Some books are filled with practical instruction. Some books are filled with empty cheerleading. But PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS is that rare combination of inspiration and action steps to align our hearts and our heads while we move forward in our creative work.

—–

PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

I recommend this book

 

Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block

41C0S2yl+HL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

Back in the 1980s, Block wrote the “fiction” column for Writer’s Digest, sharing short essays about the writing craft and a writer’s life. SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is a collection of some of those columns, first published as a book in 1988. At last, it’s now available as an audiobook, read by Richard Neer, who reads with a delightful cadence and knows exactly how to deliver Block’s wry humor. The material itself isn’t new, but Block’s advice has aged well, and SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can hold its own against newer how-to books on the shelves. In many cases, Block’s classic instruction is better than the new stuff.

SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB is divided into four sections. The first two deal with the nuts and bolts of fiction writing. Block covers things like the use of flashbacks, how to incorporate backstory, techniques for sex scenes and fight scenes, and how to make a reader identify with your characters. The second two sections are about a writer’s mindset and lifestyle. Fear, procrastination, and perfectionism all get a chapter here, and Block also discusses rejections, budgets, schedules, and how to believe in yourself.

Block often pretends he’s addressing a room full of students, even giving them names and allowing them to ask questions. But reading SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB never feels like sitting in a classroom. It feels like grabbing coffee with a friend. Block offers gentle advice based on his own experience, and he’s more interested in giving options than giving a to-do list. His advice is practical, inspirational, and is delivered with warmth and wit.

I’m also surprised at how timeless it all is. Yes, there are references to typewriters and photocopies and print magazines and waiting on editors and other things that modern writers simply never deal with. But I found it charming. And the lessons still apply, even if the examples Block uses are outdated. He goes on at length about buying the best typewriter paper he can afford, but what’s important about that story isn’t the paper. It’s the idea of valuing yourself as a writer—of putting your writing first.

Block is an icon in the writing community, and every writer I know looks up to him—for good reason. Whenever I review one of Lawrence Block’s books on the Writing Slices blog, I get lots of comments from writers who say that Block was their first writing teacher—either through his magazine columns or his how-to books. Those comments always make me smile, and I always respond the same way. “He was my first teacher too,” I say. “It looks like we both started in a good place.”

—–

SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can be found here

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

Hook Your Readers by Tamar Sloan

41Ddj-cvY4L

The subtitle of HOOK YOUR READERS promises “12 Proven Strategies to Write a Best-Selling Book.” But what Sloan delivers are twelve things that all novels have in common, whether they are bestsellers or midlist novels. Things like conflict, emotions, a hero who wants something, questions, and plot twists are things that all fiction has, so it’s silly to claim that they are unique to bestsellers.

Nobody will be amazed that novels need conflict. Nobody will be surprised that novels need strong emotion, but Sloan acts as if these are groundbreaking insights. In scant chapters of just a few pages each, she sketches out her twelve “discoveries,” illustrating them with snatches of bestselling novels to prove her points (that didn’t need proving).

There isn’t any instruction in this how-to book. Telling a reader that books need conflict and then showing them an example of conflict doesn’t provide any instruction whatsoever. There are exercises at the end of every chapter, but—again—they teach how to describe fiction rather than produce fiction.

Sloan is a psychologist, and has attempted to apply her training to an instructional how-to. The problem is, knowing why something works is not the same as being able to teach others how to do it. And having extremely shallow material means she doesn’t have anything to teach anyway.

—–

Hook Your Readers can be found here.

—–

Rating: 2 stars

—–

I recommend Hooked by Les Edgerton or Hit Lit by James W. Hall instead of this book.

 

The Last Fifty Pages by James Scott Bell

 

43805793._UY500_SS500_

Starting a novel is easy. Ending one is hard. Bringing a narrative of 70,000+ words to a satisfying conclusion is a high-wire act that demands an epic showdown, deep character change, tying up loose ends, and an emotional resolution. No wonder every writer has files of half-finished manuscripts on her computer.

But Bell is here to help. THE LAST FIFTY PAGES zeroes in on that all-important third act. Bell discusses the mechanics of endings, which most writers already know how to do: good guy and bad guy face off, one of them wins. But Bell goes far beyond the mechanics. He’s more interested in the purpose of endings. Tying up the plot is only a small part of that.

Bringing things to a satisfying conclusion means looking through the novel for moments of character change, and then amplifying them at the last moment. Bell gives examples from stories that work, from Huckleberry Finn to the Maltese Falcon, showing examples of this technique done well. Character change is what gives the ending—and the entire novel—emotional resonance.

Bell also discusses the different kinds of endings. Different genres have different requirements for their endings and one size does not fit all. Sometimes the protagonist wins. Sometimes she loses. Sometimes she wins but at too high a cost. Sometimes she loses one thing but wins another. Bell uses examples of well-known books and movies to illustrate his points. I’m a big fan of well-chosen examples, since that’s how I learn best.

Bell has a short chapter on ending blunders, but does not dwell too much on it, which I also appreciate. It’s important to know what not to do, but instructors need to go beyond that, to teach writers what they should do instead, and Bell really delivers here.

There are numerous ways to get to those magical two words: the end, With THE LAST FIFTY PAGES along as a guide, a writer will get there, and she’ll make herself—and her readers—happy along the way.

—–

THE LAST FIFTY PAGES can be found here.

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

13 Steps to Evil by Sacha Black

51yBgc8Z+HL

Villains are the most necessary part of a story, because the villain is the one who creates the conflict and keeps it going. No conflict? No story! However, most authors lavish attention on their heroes, neglecting the villain, leading to novels that feel flat.

Black is here to correct that. She starts by explaining just how important a good antagonist is. Black then lists the steps necessary to create an ideal villain, including negative-yet-relatable traits, a strong personality, and a good motive. She shows how to write a villain’s backstory to create a believable antagonist who is a credible threat to the protagonist. Black also emphasizes the need for both the hero and the villain to be proactive, not victims to the whims of the plot.

But it’s not enough to create an ideal villain. An author must create an ideal villain for this book. So much depends on the needs of the story and the genre, and 13 STEPS TO EVIL is the first how-book I’ve seen that breaks down the different kinds of antagonists. In fact, the title is somewhat misleading, because not all antagonists are evil—or even bad—and Black is careful to distinguish the well-meaning antagonists from the truly villainous ones.

Black goes on to explain what makes a villain different from an anti-hero. She cautions against using clichés such as the sex-crazed femme fatale with too-much makeup or the supervillain with a giant self-portrait in his lair. And she teaches writers how to write a convincing climax—again, focusing on the needs of each genre.

My favorite chapter was the one on villains and mental health. Too many authors give their antagonists a mental health diagnosis and then clap their hands, thinking their job is done. This is discriminatory and offensive because it implies (or outright states) that bad guys are bad because they are mentally ill. Rather than create an interesting antagonist, some writers would rather rely on myth and stereotypes to stigmatize an entire sector of society. Black isn’t saying that your villain can’t have a mental health issue. In fact, she’ll teach you how to do it well. Black wants you to be as careful with this as you would any other part of villain creation.

13 STEPS TO EVIL is perfectly organized to function as both a how-to book and a reference book, so you can learn it all now, and also go back to look stuff up later. It has everything a new writer needs as well as tips for advanced writers who wonder why their bad guys aren’t quite hitting the mark. 13 STEPS TO EVIL delves deep into the psychology of heroes, villains, and readers to show what works and why it does.

—–

13 STEPS TO EVIL can be found here

—–

Rating: 5 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book

 

Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

71QT-dIEr8L

The original SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder was the first book I reviewed on the Writing Slices blog. Even though it’s a screenwriting book, it’s been a favorite of novelists for years, and working novelists often quote Snyder’s wisdom to each other. However, novels and screenplays are different. In SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, Brody has kept everything we love about the original SAVE THE CAT, while expanding and refining Blake Snyder’s concepts to fit novels.

Brody starts with the hero/ine, and forces writers to answer that all-important question: why should readers care? It’s the perfect starting point because an unworthy hero/ine with nothing at stake will doom a novel right from the outset. Once the protagonist is on board, and the stakes are set, Brody explains the beat sheet, which is a kind of blueprint of a novel. She explains each element that a solid story needs, and where those elements go in the story.

But not all stories are the same, and the blueprint varies according to genre. Brody breaks down the ten types of story, explains what makes each one unique, and gives the three essential elements each genre needs. For example, a whodunnit needs a detective, a secret, and a dark turn. A love story needs an incomplete heroine, her counterpart, and a complication.

But Brody doesn’t just give abstract theory. For each type of story, she gives numerous examples, explaining where the story beats fall for each one. The example novels are well-known books such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Misery by Stephen King. Most writers are familiar with these books, or can easily find them in the local library.

Brody’s analysis of each novel is nothing short of breathtaking. She lifts the hood and carefully explains the inner workings of the story engine. Step by step, she details the turning points and major character shifts to give her readers a deep understanding of what makes stories work. She even generously includes two beat sheets from one of her own novels—the rough draft and the final version. Novels always deviate from their original outlines, and it’s great to see the “before” and “after” beat sheets from a published book.

The subtitle of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL is “The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need.” That’s not true, of course. You can never have just one how-to book! However, this is probably the only book on story structure that you’ll ever need. I love Blake Snyder’s original book, but I love this one more because it was written for me.

—–

SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL can be found here.

—–

Rating: 5 stars!

—–

This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

—–

I recommend this book.

 

How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell

51wEr7Wo74L

Pulp is often considered lowbrow. Just because it’s written in quantity and features plain language, it is often seen as undeserving. Literary writers are especially fond of looking down their noses at genre writers. But good pulp is simply another version of the art form known as the novel. And yes, it’s an art. Just ask Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and Lawrence Block.

Bell defines pulp fiction as plot centric, easy to read, and fast-paced, with colorful characters, witty dialogue, and intriguing settings. In other words, popular fiction. Romance and thrillers are the bestselling genres today, but Bell only gives a passing nod to romance. His advice is clearly for those who want to write thrillers or hardboiled mysteries, especially in a series. (He calls a series character “the writer’s insurance policy.”)

A pulp writer gives the reader what they want and plenty of it. In order to do that, the writer has to study the market and write fast. HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is loaded with lists and plot generators, along with good general writing advice that will keep pulp novels from becoming hack work. Bell’s two strategies for writing faster are also tried-and-true: banish distractions and write to a quota. Pulp writers can’t afford to be too precious about the work.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is rounded out with some publishing advice. The first pulp golden age was when paperbacks were a new medium. Now, ebooks are the new paperbacks, and low-priced reads are once again taking over the market. Bell assumes that pulp writers will be self-publishing and gives advice about hiring editors and proofreaders. He also urges writers to give books away periodically in order to raise awareness of your name. Since a pulp writer will be writing a lot, doing a few giveaways won’t hurt sales.

This is a very specific book for a very specific kind of writer. It’s not a general how-to book. But like pulp fiction itself, HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is fast-paced and easy to read. It’s a great introduction to writing faster, writing to market, and generally getting out of your own way to let those stories rip.

—–

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available here.

—–

Rating: 4 stars

—–

This book is best for: beginning writers

—–

I recommend this book.