Resilience by Mark McGuinness

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I really need to stop picking up books by therapists who want to “help” artists. There is nothing wrong with creative people seeking therapy. The problem comes when the therapists then generalize to the population at large, thinking all artists are suffering, and that the pursuit of an art career itself is making these poor lambs suffer. But no worries, the therapist has written a book! It’s something you can hold up as a shield when you explain to others how “difficult” the writing life is and how “heroic” you are for enduring it.

RESILIENCE is material pulled from McGuinness’ blog, and perhaps in blog form the posts weren’t so irksome. They are, however, overly simplistic. McGuinness’ advice isn’t unreasonable. He explains why rejection and criticism hurt, why it isn’t personal, and he has some decent tips for sorting out useful feedback from useless attacks. He advises artists to find their tribe, find good mentors, and keep pushing.

But there isn’t anything new here, and dozens of other authors have said it better. Tone matters a lot with this kind of book. Telling a writer that writing and publishing are hard but achievable will inspire her. Telling a writer how pitiful she is, how terrible writing and publishing are, and expecting her to be miserable, will only hold her back.

Each chapter ends with exercises. These are also fine, although they basically boil down to remembering why you love your craft, knowing you’re not alone, and not taking it personally. This is basic common sense stuff that writers already know.

It is true that rejections sting and that bad reviews suck and that it’s hard to show your work to other people for the first time. It’s also true that we self-sabotage in numerous ways because we’re human beings and human beings do that. However, the love of writing and the desire to improve our craft is usually enough to get us over these hurdles. Moreover, these problems aren’t something we solve once and then we’re done with them forever. They are part and parcel of the writing life. Thinking about how to become more resilient in the face of rejection doesn’t work. Only by doing, by getting knocked down and getting up again, will an author become stronger.

The best how-to books are written by writers who practice their craft every day. We can learn a lot from authors who enjoy their work and want others to enjoy it too.

Therapists who want to share misery while giving shallow advice can’t teach us anything that we don’t already know.

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Resilience can be found here

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Rating: 2 stars

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I recommend A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld or Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner instead of this book.

Cash Flow for Creators by Michael W. Lucas

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Writing full time is a dream for most writers. But how do we turn our hobby into a job? Writers are constantly told to treat our writing as a business, but most business books are not suitable for artists and very rarely address our unique concerns.

That’s where CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS comes in. It’s the most art-friendly business book you can imagine. Lucas pays his bills with his writing so this is where his focus is. He wants to teach you one thing: control your cash flow so you can make a living off your art.

Most advice for writers relies on knowing your income. One book will tell you not to quit your day job until your income from writing equals eighty percent or one hundred percent or two hundred percent of your day job salary. Another says not go full time until you have six months or eight months or twelve months of your day job salary saved. But looking at it from the income side does not work. The “experts” can’t agree on the right number, different writers need different amounts, and a writer’s income fluctuates.

Lucas has a different—and much better—approach. He knows a writer’s income is uncertain, but it’s the amount going out that will make or break a writer. It sounds simplistic to say that the amount coming in must exceed the amount going out, or the writer will go broke. However, CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS explains in detail how to calculate those numbers so that a writer always remains in the black. Using Lucas’ methods, even the most math-phobic author will have no trouble understanding the numbers she needs to decide if she can afford to go full time and if she can afford to stay there.

CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS covers every stage of a writer’s life, from pre-published to bestselling. Lucas breaks down the unique challenges of every phase, explaining what to spend money on, what to save for and how to pay taxes. He has solid advice on hiring an accountant, dealing with banks, and taking on assistants. He knows what to do when things go really, really wrong—or really, really right.

Lucas gives lots of examples, some of them true-to-life, others fanciful. One moment, he’s giving serious consideration to the different cost of living in different regions, and how that will affect the amount a writer will need in savings. The next moment, he’s talking about making parachutes for capybaras. The better you can roll with his sense of humor, the more you’ll get out of CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS.

Because to Lucas, business—and life—are a game. It’s a game he has every intention of winning. And he wants to show you how to win it too.

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CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS 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

 

 

 

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

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It’s only May, but I’m calling it now: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is going to be my favorite book of the year. Part of the reason is that it’s the right book at the right time. Persistence is hard to come by when the future is so uncertain, and every writer I know is struggling. But I’m sure this would be my new favorite book no matter when it came into my life. Rosenfeld has practical advice, an encouraging tone, and unique ways to help us all write more and write better.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is not a craft book. It’s about all those other skills a writer needs, like organization, time-management, boundary-setting, and the ability to deal with rejection, perfectionism, procrastination, and envy.

Beginners live off the high of discovery and the energy of newness, but that wears off quickly. Writers need a concrete plan to maintain a writing practice. Rosenfeld is here to help you navigate that long, long stretch between the first creative flush and eventual success. A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE has twenty-five meaty chapters filled with practical instruction. Rosenfeld gives lots of encouragement and inspiration, but each chapter has action steps designed to get you back to the page, right here and right now.

Even though she covers everything from setting up your desk to choosing a publishing path, Rosenfeld keeps coming back to three basic principles that will get writers through that sticky middle part of their careers: finding authenticity, connecting with the community, and moving your body. Every problem a writer has can be solved by one of these three things (or sometimes a combination of them).

Finding authenticity is key. It’s important to listen to that deep part of yourself that is driven to write and would continue to write regardless of publication or prestige. That unshakable foundation will carry a writer through hard times, and becomes a moral framework upon which to base writing and publishing decisions.

Rosenfeld repeatedly stresses the importance of connecting with the writing community. Your peers are crucial to your success and Rosenfeld urges writers to gather what she calls a Creative Support Team. In addition, writers need to be good literary citizens by championing other writers, attending literary events, buying books, and doing a lot of reading.

Finally, each chapter of A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE ends with a suggestion for movement. Every writer would benefit from more exercise, but Rosenfeld takes it a step further and tailors each exercise to a particular problem. Struggling with perfectionism? Try a silly dance party filled with imperfect moves. Feeling burnout? Try a walk in the woods to reconnect with nature. Feeling envy? Try weight-lifting, to remember ways that you’re already strong. Nervous about submitting work to a publisher? Try a new exercise class to remind yourself that you can try new things. No matter a writer’s problem, Rosenfeld has a way to move beyond it—literally.

A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE is a few years old, but it feels like it was written for this time. Rosenfeld’s gentle encouragement, down-to-earth advice, and real solutions are exactly what writers need right now.

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A WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE 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.

 

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

5 Secrets of Story Structure by K.M. Weiland

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Not every how-to book is for every writer. That’s why my blog exists. But even knowing that, I’ve never had such mixed feelings about a book before. Depending on how far you are on your writing journey, and what kind of writer you are, 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE could either be a rocket booster or blow up in your face.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is ideal for people who have read at least one other book on story structure but still want a deeper dive into the topic, filled with the most granular details. If you’re the kind of writer who loves to outline, wants to know exactly which scene goes where, and has a bottomless appetite for plot dissection, this book will grow your writing craft by leaps and bounds.

However, not every writer works that way. If you’re a pantser who hates outlines, thinks story structure is a “formula,” and relies on good instincts for your plotting needs, you’ll find this book overwhelming and/or baffling.

Personally, I’m a planner. I embrace the power of story structure and rely on it for my novels’ success. Save the Cat is my bible and nothing thrills me more than a well-ordered outline. I liked 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE a lot. This book gave me a deeper understanding of how and why stories work. It made me feel like I was building my own stories on a more solid framework.

Anyone who has read a single craft book knows about the big turning points that happen at every quarter, but Weiland goes beyond them to show what goes between those big plot points, and why. For example, Weiland introduces the concept of pinch points, which are exciting scenes in the middle of each act that serve as a reminder of what’s at stake. Weiland also shows how character change and growth are integrated into plot structure, and she explains it better than anyone else.  Too many books about plot ignore character change and vice-versa. Weiland knows the importance of both.

However, I was frustrated by the fact that all of Weiland’s examples were from movies. Not even books that had been turned into movies, but actual original screenplays like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ice Age. She quotes the great screenwriting teachers Syd Field and Robert McKee, and includes an exhaustive breakdown of one of the most overused and cliché examples possible: Star Wars. Weiland even tells writers to watch the facial expression of actors in movies for clues about story pacing. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is a book about writing novels, not screenplays. The mediums are very different, so using all movie examples and zero novel examples made no sense.

5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is going to be a love-it-or-hate-it book. For a certain kind of writer, this will feel like being given the Rosetta Stone. For a different kind of writer, this is going to feel like  a warped party game where everyone pretends to be in the writer’s room on a film set while playing pin the tail on the donkey.

If you think this book is for you, you’re probably correct. If you think it’s not for you, you’re probably also correct. 5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is very short and the ebook is currently free, so if you’re not sure, this is an ideal time to check it out for yourself.

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5 SECRETS OF STORY STRUCTURE is available here

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Rating: ??

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This book is best for: advanced writers

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I recommend this book or Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

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

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

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“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.

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Show, Don’t Tell can be found here

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Rating: five stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book

 

Writing With Jenna Moreci (YouTube channel)

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My review is a little different this month. I love my how-to books, but I’ve been under deadline pressure and my attention span has suffered. So I’ve been seeking writing advice from podcasts, classes, and YouTube videos. My new favorite YouTube channel is WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI.

Moreci has been vlogging for about four years, so she’s got a lot of great content to choose from. Each video is about twenty minutes long, and tackles a single subject with humor and wisdom. Whether it’s an element of the writing craft or an issue with the writer’s lifestyle, Moreci has a video for you.

WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI is not for the delicate. She gives rapid-fire advice (often in the form of top-ten lists) with no sugar-coating and a whole heap of swear words. She shines a spotlight on a writer’s worst habits and excuses, and tells the truth about how much work goes into writing a publishable book.

Moreci’s advice, though short and to the point, is always solid. She teaches writers how to outline a novel, how to start a novel, how to write a great sex scene or fight scene, and how to ramp things up to a great finish. She also has videos about different genres, explaining which tropes still work, and those that are past their prime. Her videos are aimed at beginners, but even this jaded old pro picked up valuable tips.

Where WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI really excels is in the lifestyle videos. Moreci has videos about writing while holding a day job, dealing with anxiety, writer’s block, and that awful critical voice in our heads. It’s a bit like getting no-nonsense advice from a big sister or favorite aunt. It might not always be easy to hear, but it’s true wisdom from someone who has been there.

Some of my favorite videos are How to Outline Your Novel, How to Overcome Writer’s Block, and my personal favorite, How to Write a Healthy Romance. But all of Moreci’s videos are worth your time.

YouTube will never take the place of the craft books on my shelf, but there are many vloggers putting out great content, and Moreci is tops. I’m glad I can still soak up craft advice even when I’m busy writing novels of my own.

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WRITING WITH JENNA MORECI can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This channel is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this channel.

Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block

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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.”

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SPIDER, SPIN ME A WEB can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

The Author Blog: Easy Blogging for Busy Authors by Anne R Allen

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There are lots of books, websites, and courses about blogging, but most of them are about business blogs. An author blog is a completely different thing. Authors—especially fiction authors—don’t want to monetize our blogs. We just want to talk to our fans.

THE AUTHOR BLOG approaches blogging from that standpoint. Allen shows that authors don’t have to appeal to a wide audience, just our target readership. We shouldn’t even try to sell our own books on our blogs. Not directly, anyway. Blogs are simply a platform to communicate with readers. They provide an outlet for our nonfiction writing and a chance to share our view of the world. They also help a writer stick to a writing/publishing schedule, learn 21st century writing skills, and help a writer establish her brand.

Allen begins by convincing authors to start blogs. She explains how it can help your career, why blogging is different (and in some ways better) than social media, and why starting a blog now is better than waiting until your agent, editor, and fans start asking why you don’t have one.

The middle part of THE AUTHOR BLOG covers the basics of starting a blog: how to sign up with Blogger or WordPress, what your blog should look like, how to write your author bio and most importantly, what to write about. Allen goes into great detail about what a writer should share on the blog, and what she should keep to herself.

The final part covers things more experienced bloggers might want to try, such as guest blogging, blog hops, and using things like hashtags and SEO to get more traffic. But Allen never wants you to use gimmicks to build traffic or use things like pop-ups or spam comments. Good content delivered on a consistent schedule is better than any tricks the business blogs might dream up.

I loved how Allen reminded authors that our primary job is writing books, not blogs. She keeps blogs where they belong—as a sideline, not a priority. Allen is an advocate of slow blogging, and thinks once a week is a dandy schedule. She’s also much more interested in cultivating a few engaged fans than speaking to the whole world. Her common-sense approach is exactly what authors need.

Blogging isn’t going to change your life. It’s probably not going to change your career, either. But Allen’s sensible, realistic view of the blogging world might just change your mind.

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THE AUTHOR BLOG is available here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate authors

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I recommend this book.