The Anatomy of a Best Seller by Sacha Black

We all became writers because we love books. Stories feed our minds and hearts, and that’s why we write. But being a great reader does not make someone a great writer. There is a huge gap between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER fills that gap, to help writers bridge the chasm between someone who loves to read and someone who understands how books are made.

There are three things a writer must do: read, deconstruct, and implement. Reading seems like the easy part. We all love to read, right? But Black teaches us how to read like writers, which is a completely different skillset. A writer must first read widely, to understand the genre, and then read deeply, to understand the techniques a writer has used.

After that comes deconstruction. This is all about reverse-engineering to figure out what an author is doing and why it works. Deconstruction means using an author’s tools, not her words. Black doesn’t advocate plagiarism. She’s showing authors how to take a deep dive into books in order to internalize those techniques, so we can make them our own. This is a very personal experience that relies on emotion rather than logic. Whatever part of the book moved you? That’s the part to pay attention to. Only then does analysis come into play. Black gives lots of useful examples here, to show this kind of deconstruction in action.

The third, and most difficult part, is implementation. Here is where most how-to books fall down, because it’s a lot easier to tell writers what to do than explain how to do it. But Black fearlessly wades into the trenches, not only explaining how to use the tools that a writer discovered in parts one and two, but how to use them for a particular audience.

The phrase “write to market” has been said so often, by so many, that it’s become an almost meaningless phrase. But Black prefers to think of it as “write to reader.” Because the truth is, writers don’t intuitively know how to please readers. Too often, we’re writing for other writers. We attend critique groups where writers pick apart our sentences, or we get beta reader feedback from fellow writers and change our books according to their sensibilities, or we take classes and write what the instructor wants. But Black wants to turn that completely around by showing us how to first read like a writer, then write for a reader.

When I finished reading THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER, I went immediately to page one and started reading it a second time. It’s that good. I have been deconstructing bestselling and midlist books for years, and my mind was still blown by Black’s insights. Even better, Black delivers all of her instruction with a wicked sense of humor and a healthy measure of f-bombs, which are two of my favorite things.

THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER is not a “get rich quick” kind of book. Black’s methods take time, patience, and lot of trial and error. But the result will be an author who truly understands novels, and can deliver fresh stories to exactly the right audience.

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THE ANATOMY OF A BEST SELLER can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

The Relaxed Author by Joanna Penn and Mark Leslie Lefebvre

There are two truths that self-published authors have taken as holy writ: there is no better marketing than writing a new book, and books are only “new” for thirty days. In the first month of a book’s life, Amazon and the other retailers will help out quite a bit with behind-the-scenes marketing. After that, you’re on your own.

If both of those things are true, then it stands to reason that the best way to succeed in self publishing is to write a new book every single month. Lots of indie authors tried it, either on their own or as a conglomerate of four to six authors publishing under a single pen name. And to no one’s surprise, many of these authors have burned out.

Even if an author isn’t writing a book a month, trying to wear both the writer hat and publisher hat can be exhausting if the writer is trying to get maximum results from both jobs. Something’s got to give. But what should that something be?

THE RELAXED AUTHOR is part manifesto, part wise guide, and part evaluation tool. Writers don’t have to do it all, and Penn and Lefebvre are here to help sort out what’s truly useful for indie authors and what’s mere hype.

THE RELAXED AUTHOR is divided into four sections: writing, publishing, marketing, and running your author business. Each step of the way, the authors ask the right questions to help writers decide how to spend their time and effort. Being a “relaxed author” doesn’t mean doing things half-assed. It doesn’t mean you should stop caring about things. Being relaxed means going at the speed that’s right for you, and making good decisions that will provide a solid foundation for your writing life.

Penn and Lefebvre take turns writing the chapters, giving two perspectives on every problem. All of the advice is solid, and where Penn and Lefebvre have differing opinions, the reasons behind those opinions is also instructive. For example, Penn uses virtual assistants while Lefebvre finds them more trouble than they’re worth. Neither one is right or wrong. They are simply doing what’s best for them. That’s the final key. To be a relaxed author is to be self-aware, and THE RELAXED AUTHOR helps writers think through every aspect of their writing and publishing life.

Stressed out writers don’t write well. Staying relaxed can, ironically, help an author stay more creative and productive for the long haul—both as an author and as a self-publisher.

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THE RELAXED 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

Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker

There are two kinds of writers in the world: those who like to outline before they begin writing and those who “fly by the seat of their pants.” TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is aimed at the latter group. Hawker promises that even the most hard-core pantsers can learn to outline. She insists that outlining novels is the only way to a full-time author career, while pantsers are doomed to keep their day jobs. Hawker then doubles down to say that outlining the “right” way (her way) is the only path to a successful literary career. None of this is true, but I suspect this book sells more for the provocative title than for any of its contents.

Hawker hasn’t done any research into the plotter/pantser divide beyond her own experience. She wrote her first book without an outline and it took her a long time. She wrote all her later books with outlines and they were written faster. Therefore, she has concluded that outlines are best for everyone. She belabors this point (and all of her points) with tons of strawman arguments and as much self-praise as she can manage.

Hawker learned her personal outlining method by following John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. She states over and over again that TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is simply a streamlined version of Truby’s book. To be fair, Truby’s book is overly complex and borderline unreadable, so perhaps Hawker thinks she’s doing writers a favor by distilling it for them. But here’s the thing: nobody needs a dumbed-down version of a bad book.

Hawker’s actual outline template is just The Hero’s Journey with different names attached to the plot points. However, changing the name of a well-known concept doesn’t make it a new concept. Calling the all-is-lost moment the “changed goal,” or calling the climax scene “the battle,” doesn’t make them different things. It’s very unfair to the reader to take a well-known story map, rename all the parts, and then pretend you invented it.

For her examples, Hawker gives a nod to the first Harry Potter book and to Charlotte’s Web, but the majority of her examples are from two sources: Lolita, and her own book called Tidewater. Her novel is the story of Pocahontas, told from Pocahontas’ point of view. Pocahontas’ fatal flaw, according to Hawker, is that she was “too ambitious.” (Too ambitious for what? For a woman? For a Native American?) Four different times, Hawker states that the theme of Tidewater is “how people handle a cultural clash.” To her, the colonization of North America was merely a clash of cultures. The whitewashing of history aside, taking examples from a book that few people have read is unhelpful, and using the author’s own novel is just bad form.

I’m someone who loves to outline her novels and I’m always thrilled when I find a new outlining method. But TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS is derivative, self-indulgent, and offensive. Pantsers won’t want this book, plotters won’t like it, and nobody needs it.

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell instead of this book.

5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin and others

Lakin has teamed up with four other professional editors to explain the problems that they see over and over in manuscripts. But they’re not here to complain. These editors are sharp-eyed at spotting flaws in manuscripts and they’re eager to help writers do better. They offer in-depth explanations of the flaw, show why it’s a problem, and teach writers how to fix it.

Some of the flaws are on the macro level, the kind of thing an author would rewrite in the second draft. These are things like too much backstory, lack of tension, overwriting, telling instead of showing, flawed dialogue, and flat description. Others are things that could be considered copyediting errors, such as weak sentence construction, improper mechanics, or using too many adverbs.

The authors take turns writing the chapters, so this is more a compilation than a true collaboration. But even though many voices are represented in this book, none of the chapters contradict one another and it never felt repetitive. Had I not known it was written by five people, I could have mistaken this book for the advice of one single author. That’s because the advice within 5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is so accurate, well-presented, and well-taught. This is one of those great books that teaches by example. The authors are not here to bash anyone for doing it wrong. They only want to help authors get it right.

The example passages are written by the authors themselves, and they give a before and after example for every single point they make. This book is very hands on, nitty-gritty, do-this-not-that. At the end of every chapter, the authors give a sample passage and invite readers to rewrite it. The authors offer up two to three pages of prose, deliberately making one of the deadly mistakes, so readers can practice what they’ve learned. The ideal is always that we’ll apply these lessons to our own manuscripts, but it’s so much easier to spot the flaws when it’s not your own work. By going through the rewrites on a sample passage, writers can internalize the principles without any emotional resistance.

5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING isn’t an “easy” book. The lessons are deep, the examples are detailed, and the process is complicated. It will take time to go through each chapter, absorb the lesson, and apply it to your own work. But the lessons are so thorough and so well-taught that any writer who spends time with this book will come out the other side a stronger writer.

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5 EDITORS TACKLE THE 12 FATAL FLAWS OF FICTION WRITING is available here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

The Write Balance by Bonni Goldberg

THE WRITE BALANCE isn’t a book about how to write. What I mean by that is, it’s not a book about craft issues like plot, character, description, pacing, or dialogue. But it is a book about the writing process. Goldberg ignores the most obvious part of the process—the first draft. There are hundreds of books out there that will teach writers how to write a first draft faster, cleaner, in thirty days, or ninety days, or a year, with or without an outline. Goldberg leaves that to other books.

Instead, she shines a bright light into other, darker corners of the writing process—those that aren’t taught much and often not even mentioned in books and classes. THE WRITE BALANCE is divided into three parts. The first is about percolation, that pre-writing period where ideas are generated. The second is about revision, including on your own and with a critique group. The final part is about going public, which can mean publication, but doesn’t necessarily have to.

Too many writers focus on daily word count, as if that’s the only metric that matters. However, Goldberg devotes fully a third of THE WRITE BALANCE to what she calls percolation. She recognizes that writers are humans, not machines, and that we need quiet thinking time as much as we need butt-in-chair time. However, she doesn’t advocate for mindless woolgathering. Goldberg offers exercises to do and a reasonable timeframe in which to do them.

The middle part of the book is about revision—another thing that gets scant attention in most how-to books. Goldberg discusses the ins and outs of critique groups and beta readers, while constantly reminding writers that their intuition will guide them well if they listen to it.

Finally, Goldberg discusses going public, although her focus is not on rushing immediately to publication. Instead, she talks about taking your time, finding the right publication path, and finding other ways to share stories, whether that is through public readings, open mics, or blogging. Publication can (and should) be in that mix, but there are lots of ways to share what we write.

Throughout, Goldberg shares lessons steeped in empathy. Everything is seen through the lens of how it will nurture or hurt writers. But this isn’t a touchy-feely book full of woo. It’s an extremely practical guide to the areas of a writer’s life that are so often overlooked. Some of us don’t even have words for what we’re doing when we’re percolating. Instead, we call ourselves “lazy” or “procrastinators,” instead of honoring the idea phase of writing.

THE WRITE BALANCE was so insightful, I sometimes felt like Goldberg was sitting in my home office with me. More than once, I whispered to my kindle, “How does she know?” But Goldberg doesn’t see through walls. She’s simply tapped into the universal struggles that all writers share, and she shows us how to make it through all the phases of writing, from first idea to publication.

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THE WRITE BALANCE 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

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch

I used to worry about the state of the English language every time I used social media. Faced with a wall of misspellings, incorrect grammar, and wild punctuation, I despaired for my mother tongue. I sometimes reminded myself that until the digital age, public writing was something that professionals did, and we never read printed words from an average person. Perhaps most writing was always terrible, it’s just that we didn’t see most of it. Other times, I worried that nobody cared about the “rules” of writing and we were all doomed to a slow slide into illiteracy.

BECAUSE INTERNET showed me that my assumptions were wrong on all counts. It’s not that people are using English incorrectly, it’s that they’re adapting language to their needs. Until recently, we had formal writing and informal speech.  For example, you’d start a letter to your grandma with “Dear Grandmother,” but when you saw her in person, you’d say, “Hi, Gran!” However, with the rise of social media, for the first time, we have informal writing.

Internet language isn’t incorrect, and it doesn’t signal the end of good grammar. It’s simply a way of expressing the informality of speech in a written format. Nor should we worry about young people being unduly influenced by it. McCulloch sites studies that show that students can easily code-switch into formal writing when required for tests or papers.

BECAUSE INTERNET takes a deep dive into internet language, starting with its history. McCulloch explains why different generations use language differently on the internet. Users are roughly divided by age, but more importantly, by when they first got online. Like all good linguists, McCulloch is descriptive rather than prescriptive, explaining why and how language is changing without ever judging people for it.

Because when it comes right down to it, the way that we write when we’re online makes sense. When we’re face to face, we communicate so much in body language, tone, and facial expressions. Written words don’t express tone of voice, so we sometimes use uppercase for emphasis, or add asterisks or tildes. We use /s to indicate that this is sarcasm or a joke, but we use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters to indicate mockery. We misspell on purpose for humor or to pull out a word, as in, “I allllmost forgot my phone,” or the Tumblr favorite, “sameeee” to indicate absolute agreement.

And when words aren’t enough, we use GIFs to show a facial expression, or turn to emojis. McCulloch gives a detailed explanation of the history and purpose of emojis. They aren’t taking the place of body language, since body language is unconscious. Emojis are deliberate, and therefore represent gestures, such as a thumbs up or a shrug. McCulloch details how and why emojis are used and by whom. (I laughed the first time my mom sent me an emoji. It looked strange because most senior citizens don’t use them.)  

BECAUSE INTERNET is not written in an academic tone. It’s easy to read, sharp, insightful, and quite funny in parts. It gave me new appreciation for the way that language is changing right before our eyes, with the birth of new grammar for the digital age.

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BECAUSE INTERNET 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

Bonus Blog: Valentine Giveaway

Valentine’s Day is almost here. It’s a day to celebrate love of all kinds, and if there is one thing we need more of these days, it’s love. I wish I could buy a present for every single person who reads this blog. However, that’s too many presents! Instead, I’m giving away two gift boxes to two people who comment on today’s blog.

Each gift box includes books and goodies for writers, along with a bar of artisan soap made by me! My soap is loaded with skin-loving ingredients and scented with amazing fragrances. (Because the world needs more love, but it also needs more hand washing!)

This year, I’m once again highlighting a how-to book from my favorite writing teacher of all time. A WRITER PREPARES by Lawrence Block is a memoir of his earliest days as a writer. It’s filled with wit and wisdom, and feels like reminiscing with a friend. You’re going to love this book! The box also includes a paperback copy of THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST, along with a notebook, a keychain, and a bar of handmade artisan soap.

The second box is all Alex Kourvo books. It includes a hardcover copy of THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST and a paperback of NO HERO WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD. The box also includes a notebook, a keychain, and a bar of handmade artisan soap.

Want to win a gift box? It’s easy to enter! Just leave a comment below telling me two things: which how-to book is your favorite, and a place I can contact you (Email, website, or Twitter).

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2022 at 21:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and twitter)

This giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail boxes to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $20 Amazon ecard instead.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.

xxoo,
Alex K.

Update: The winner of the gift boxes are Greta Picklesimer and Michael Burstein.

Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala

Marketing isn’t something that comes naturally to writers. In fact, many of us are put off by the idea. Some of that is fear of rejection or fear of wasting time and money. But most of it is because the traditional methods of selling just don’t mesh with our personalities. We think of book marketing as something extroverts do, or people who are shameless about tricking buyers, or writers who treat their books like commodities. At the very least, we think successful marketers have an unhealthy obsession with money and sales, and their art suffers for it.

FIREFLY MAGIC upends all of those assumptions about marketing. Sapala shows writers how to sell their books in an authentic way, from a place of integrity and confidence. By thinking of our books as our service to the world, we can sell books without selling out.

Sapala is a student of the Meyers-Briggs personality matrix, and she makes it clear she’s speaking to “INFJ” writers. However, you don’t need to be one of those, or even know what the letters stand for, to benefit from FIREFLY MAGIC. Sapala is speaking to introverted and highly-sensitive people, which means she’s speaking to the vast majority of writers.

Unlike other marketing books that say “do this and get rich,” Sapala understands what’s going on inside writers. She feels those feelings and knows exactly why writers are resistant to marketing. If something feels inauthentic or sleazy or uncomfortable, we won’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing. The middle section of FIREFLY MAGIC lists the things that writers must do to be successful, and they are the very same things that other books tell us to do: get a website, use social media, have a newsletter, find your niche, lead with your unique selling point, and most of all, keep making more content. So if Sapala is telling writers to do the same thing as other marketing books, why is her book so much better? That small mindset shift—from selling to serving—makes all the difference. Other marketing books feel like sitting on a cactus, while FIREFLY MAGIC feels like stepping onto fluffy clouds. Believe it or not, Sapala can make you feel excited about marketing.

FIREFLY MAGIC is very much a “why to” rather than a “how to,” so it’s more of a companion book rather than a complete one. You’ll need other marketing books to learn the actual nuts-and-bolts of how to do it. But reading FIREFLY MAGIC first means you’ll actually be able to absorb the lessons of the other books, making sure you start your marketing efforts on the right foot and maintain them for the long haul.

FIREFLY MAGIC 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

Two Big Things Happened Today

Hello, friends!

I have two exciting announcements.

My second how-two book for writers was published today! Cue the confetti cannons and balloon drop! I am so excited to share this book with you.

No Hero Wants to Save the World is both in-depth and accessible. I wanted to give you a clear understanding of story stakes and give you action steps so you could start working on your own manuscript right away.

No Hero Wants to Save the World is a compact-yet-meaty book that takes a fresh look at story stakes and cuts through all the myths that have been holding writers back. I guarantee that when you finish this book you will never look at story stakes the same way again!

Are we celebrating today? You bet we’re celebrating!

My second announcement is that The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is on sale today. To celebrate the publication of No Hero Wants to Save the World, my first book is having a little flash sale. For two days only, the ebook of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is on sale for $1.99.

If you missed The Big-Picture Revision Checklist when it first came out, now’s your chance to get the ebook for less than half price! This sale won’t last long, so if you want a copy at this amazing price, you’ll have to act fast.

And if you’ve read either of my how-to books, if they’ve helped you in any way, I’d love a review on your favorite bookselling site. Reviews help other readers find me and help raise my profile so I can keep writing books.

I’ll be back in February for my regular book review, along with my annual Valentine’s Day giveaway. In the meantime, happy reading, and happy writing!

Alex K.

Alex Kourvo’s Second Book

Big News! My second how-to book for writers, No Hero Wants to Save the World: How to Raise the Stakes in Your Fiction will be published two weeks from today.

Last year, I published The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which included a chapter on story stakes for those who were revising their novels. However, No Hero Wants to Save the World goes deeper, for a comprehensive look at story stakes on every level. This book will help you when planning, outlining, writing, and revising your novel, to make sure your stakes are as high as they can be, and that readers won’t be able to put your novel down!

Story stakes come in three kinds: inner stakes, outer stakes, and personal stakes. The key to raising the stakes is first knowing the difference between the three kinds, and then knowing when to apply each one. And most important of all, knowing that heroes and heroines don’t want the stakes raised. They are resisting danger at every turn, and unless there is something personal in the story pushing them to act, they will not cooperate with the excellent plot you’ve laid out for them.

No Hero Wants to Save the World is the guide you need to raise the stakes in an effective way. You’ll find what’s most important to your characters, how to get them personally involved, and how to crank up the tension on every page. You’ll discover the ideal time to reveal the true stakes of your story and how to add in plot twists that work. 

No Hero Wants to Save the World will be published on January 22nd. Pre-orders are available at all retailers for both ebooks and paperbacks, so you can reserve your copy right away.

Happy reading!
Alex K.