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.

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.

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.

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A WRITER PREPARES can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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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.

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CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner

I don’t think you can finish a novel by writing only ten minutes a day. And despite the title of TEN MINUTE AUTHOR, Partner doesn’t think so either. But I can forgive the gimmicky title because if he’d called it something like How to Develop a Writing Habit, nobody would buy it.

Which is sad because an unshakable writing habit is crucial for writers, and it’s the one thing that separates career authors from wannabes. Writers write—as often as they can for as long as they can, and most full-time authors write every day.

The amount of time isn’t important. The habit is. Partner assumes that once the ten minutes is over, you will already be “in the zone” and will continue writing. But even if you stop after ten minutes, as long as you do it again the next day, and the next, the habit will begin to take form and writing sessions will naturally lengthen.

TEN MINUTE AUTHOR contains a smattering of neuroscience, a whole lot of cheerleading, and a massive dose of common sense. Partner goes into details of why the method works and how to implement it using environmental cues, sandwiching writing between two existing habits, setting a timer, and rewarding yourself after each writing session.

Even better, cutting writing sessions down to such a tiny size means there is literally no excuse not to get to the keyboard. Anyone who honestly can’t write for ten minutes a day should probably not be setting her sights on a writing career at this time.

But actually following through with an unbroken chain of daily writing sessions is a career in the making, and TEN MINUTE AUTHOR is an excellent step-by-step guide to getting it done.

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TEN MINUTE AUTHOR 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

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Deep point of view—getting into a character’s head and staying there—is a difficult skill for new writers, but it’s a vital skill to master. Small author intrusions add up, distancing the reader from the character page after page. While editing, those subtle intrusions are difficult to weed out, leaving some manuscripts a muddled mess of close and distant point of view.

However, Nelson is here to help with a guide that is straightforward, no-nonsense, and thorough. There is no fluff in RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW. In eight short chapters Nelson tells writers what they need to know and no more.

And what authors need to know is how to do it. Unlike many how-to books that diagnose problems without giving solutions, RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW is all about practical application. Nelson explains the principle, gives before-and-after examples, shows exactly why they work, then gives exercises for writers to try their own hand at applying what they’ve learned.

Nelson details how to capture character thoughts, how to show emotion, how to banish filter words like saw, felt, or wondered and how to make sure cause and effect are always in the right order. These are problems I often see in beginners’ novels, but once they are conquered, the manuscript improves immeasurably.

Nelson’s examples are serviceable but not stellar. They are all from her own work, and they get the job done, although they didn’t make want to rush out and buy her fiction.

Staying tightly in a character’s point of view is not easy. The good news is, once you understand depth in point of view, it’s not something you can ever unsee, and RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW will help you master this important writing skill.

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RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW 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

Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin

INTUITIVE EDITING is a frustrating book. Yates has extensive experience as an editor, both freelance and working for big publishing houses. And she has excellent advice for authors who want to polish their novels before handing them over to a professional editor. However, everything is over-explained, every point belabored, and it’s all weighed down with so many examples that the good advice gets lost. Ironically, this book on editing could have used an editor.

I liked Yates’ approach a lot. She starts with the biggest issues and works her way to ever smaller ones. This is the way I edit, and when I teach classes on editing, this is what I teach. Start by making sure the characterization, plot, and stakes are all in place. Then come medium-sized issues like point of view consistency, pacing, and voice. The final stage is smaller things, for example, removing crutch words and streamlining descriptions.

However, Yates exhaustively explains even the most simple concepts. For example, she devotes many pages to the difference between first and third person stories. Every writer learned this in middle school, and we don’t need it taught again. Even while addressing more complex topics such as point of view or suspense, Yates throws in example after example until the original point is lost. It feels like someone nudging you in the ribs saying, “Get it? Get it?” Yates is on more solid ground when using examples from real novels rather than hypothetical ones she made up, but each time a point is made, she happily uses three or more examples when one would do.

Even worse, very little of INTUITIVE EDITING will be useful for an author with a completed manuscript. Yates seems to want to teach authors how to write a novel rather than how to revise one. She gives vague handwaving toward the difficult job of finding a novel’s problems. However, very few beginning authors have the objectivity to look at an example, figure out how it applies to her own work, and then go back and edit accordingly. And when an author does have the objectivity to do so, her skills have progressed to the point where she no longer needs this book.

And that’s what makes this book frustrating. There are many valuable lessons here. INTUITIVE EDITING is like a short writing course taught by a good professor. However, the time to apply these lessons is in the planning or first draft stage, because the lessons are too general to apply to a completed manuscript. An author would be better served by taking the very good writing lessons in INTUITIVE EDITING and applying them to her next book.

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INTUITIVE EDITING can be found here

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Rating: 3 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book or The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black or Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

The Anatomy of Prose by Sacha Black

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You’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.

This is true in any field, including writing. It’s not about paying your dues. You don’t “earn” the right to break the rules. If anything, experience gives you new appreciation for those rules that you might have once chafed against.

However, once you understand the reason behind writing rules, you can break them for effect. And when you break the rules, you’ll know exactly what you gain and what you lose by doing so.

Black understands that writing rules don’t exist just for the sake of having rules. They aren’t put in place to please copyeditors or the grammar police. Writing rules are merely best practices for communication, and the better you understand them, the better you can apply them—or bend and break them when the time is right.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE consists of short lessons that will tighten flabby sentences, tune up rambling paragraphs, and shine a spotlight on the most important parts of your novel. Black covers when to show and when to tell, how to find your voice, clean up your style, and put a finer point on all your description and exposition. She has tips for brighter dialogue, tighter pacing, and clearer transitions.

THE ANATOMY OF PROSE covers a lot of ground, meaning very short chapters. Black quickly tells you the rule, why it matters, and how to apply it. She illustrates each point with a single example, all but a few from her own work. The examples are good and they do the job, but it would have been nice to have examples from a range of other voices so authors could have some side-by-side comparisons.

You’d expect a book of do’s and don’ts to be stuffy but this one is not. THE ANATOMY OF PROSE is filled with punchy British slang and just the right amount of swear words (a lot of them). Black is having fun with writing. She wants you to understand the deep principles of prose so you can convey your exact meaning, and perhaps have some fun with your writing too.

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THE ANATOMY OF PROSE 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

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell by Janice Hardy

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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.)

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UNDERSTANDING SHOW, DON’T TELL can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book

On Cussing by Katherine Dunn

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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.

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ON CUSSING can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book