Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders

NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE is a collection of blog posts that Anders wrote for Tor.com during 2020, when the world was falling apart and many writers weren’t writing. Anders wanted to counter the doom and gloom, but while other writers offered only empty cheerleading, Anders offered more. This book is a balm for the soul, a rallying cry, a creative manifesto, and an act of resistance.

There’s a lot to be said for writing despite all the awfulness of the world. In a world rocked by disease, prejudice, war, and political cruelty, stories aren’t luxuries. They’re necessities. Telling the world, “I won’t engage with your bullshit because I have books to write” is a powerful statement. As Anders puts it, escapism is resistance. Stories help us retain our humanity in a world that’s trying to take it away.

But it goes far beyond that. Writers help frame the narrative, to counter the gaslighting from those in power. We dream of things beyond the world we know, and we show those dreams to others. By actively imagining how the world can be different, writers help to create the world they want to live in.

We’re all angry at the state of the world, and Anders encourages us to embrace that anger and use it as fuel. Novels are always, always political. Who has power in our story worlds? How do they use it? What choices do our characters make and how does it change them? Who are we as humans, and who do we want to be? Anders engages with all of this in writing that is fresh and fierce and exactly what we need right now.

There is also writing craft instruction sprinkled throughout NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE, but Anders is on shakier ground here. Some things that are common knowledge to anyone who has read even a single how-to book seem to be revelations to Anders. For example, she’s floored by the idea that every story needs a strong midpoint scene, and is delighted that when she includes one, her stories work better. And she only recently learned that the final word in a sentence is the one that packs a punch.

Anders describes her own writing process, which can best be described as quirky. Very little of what she discusses will be applicable or helpful to the average writer. A writer looking for solid instruction would be better off reading other how-to books.

Where Anders truly shines is in her unique vision, and her ability to share that vision with the rest of us. The most important thing to know when creating is your “why.” Anders knows her why and is therefore unstoppable. NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE is the guide we need to keep writing through the end of the world.

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NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE can be found here

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Rating: 3 stars

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I recommend this book or Take Joy by Jane Yolen or A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld

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

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

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.

 

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.

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PEP TALKS FOR WRITERS can be found here.

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Rating: 5 stars

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I recommend this book

 

Write Naked by Jennifer Probst

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One of the staples of weekend writers’ conferences is the keynote speech, in which a bestselling author details her path to fame. The speech is always full of dramatic moments, near-victories, crushing rejections, and then finally, publication, chart-climbing, and happy ever after. There is always much humor and wisdom along the way.

Like most writers, I have a bottomless appetite for these speeches. I find other writers and their process fascinating and I love a good origin story. WRITE NAKED is like the best of these keynotes in the form of a book.

Probst is a bestselling romance writer, but very few chapters in this book are specific to romance. And the majority of the book isn’t craft related anyway. It’s mostly lifestyle stuff, like how to believe in yourself, handle jealousy, be graceful on social media, and juggle a writing schedule.

Probst gets real about the fantasy of being a bestselling author. We’d all like the trappings of success—bestseller lists, fawning editors, mobs of fans, lots of money. But at the end of the day, every single writer has to sit alone in a room and write. Probst pinpoints a moment when she swore to her husband that her current work-in-progress was so bad that it would tank her career and she’d never write again. This happened after she topped the New York Times bestseller list, which just goes to show that it can happen to anyone.

Probst does a lot of this, saying the quiet part out loud so we can hear it too. She details the guilt she feels when she neglects her family to write, the way writers spend so much time alone that they start to get a bit agoraphobic, how hard it is to actually finish a book, and the dirty little secret that we like some of our books more than others.

But WRITE NAKED is also a remarkably upbeat book. Being a writer truly is the best job in the world and Probst is honest about that too. She never ignores the hard work involved, but she’s sure that if she can do this work, so can you.

Will Probst teach you how to write a novel? Not really. But she will hold your hand, dry your tears, and inspire you every step of the way.

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WRITE NAKED 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

Author Your Life by Lara Zielin

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A few years ago, Zielin was in a place that many people get to in the middle of their lives. Things just weren’t working out the way she wanted them to and everything was a struggle. Her finances, her weight, and her relationships were all bad and getting worse, and she was drinking more than she should. She knew she had to do something, but what?

Zielin is the author of several novels and nonfiction books, so naturally she turned to writing as a way out, and AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was born. Every morning, she woke up early and wrote down her life—not as it was, but as she wanted it to be. And slowly, over the course of a year, her real life started to match what was on the page. Not exactly affirmations, not exactly morning pages, Zielin’s journal was more of a roadmap for her soul.

Like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or On Writing by Stephen King, AUTHOR YOUR LIFE is part memoir, part instruction. Zielin is honest about her struggles and mistakes. She’s also extremely witty. She’s not some guru dispensing wisdom from on high. She’s a completely relatable middle-class Midwesterner. Zielin could be me. She could be all of us.

AUTHOR YOUR LIFE teaches you to use that awesome writer’s imagination of yours, but instead of visualizing the perfect outcome for your characters, you’ll be visualizing the perfect outcome for yourself. Through specific writing exercises and free-form journaling, Zielin takes you through all the steps needed to create your own happy ever after.

Writing down your ideal life every day won’t magically manifest your goals with no effort on your part. I don’t think there’s any magic involved. But I still think Zielin’s approach is brilliant.

Writing down your ideal life, day after day, forces you to clarify your goals. What do you really want? So many of us say we want to be writers, but don’t do the work that will make it happen. Doing the exercises in AUTHOR YOUR LIFE will force you to get super clear on your goals and see, in black and white, what it will take to get there. As you write, unexpected connections and solutions will come. Working toward your goals then becomes a pleasure, rather than a struggle, because you’ve cleared your own path.

Zielin doesn’t promise miracles. She’s far too smart for that. She promises hard work and struggle and setbacks and also clarity and joy and fun—just like the stories we love so much.

Reading AUTHOR YOUR LIFE was eye-opening and inspiring. I’ve already purchased several of my favorite blank notebooks so I can start telling the story that matters most: my own.

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AUTHOR YOUR LIFE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Make Your Writing Bloom by Shonell Bacon

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I never fall out of love with writing. It will always be one of my favorite things. But I do get shiny manuscript syndrome, where starting a new project seems more appealing than finishing the current one. MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM can help with that, as well as the more serious problem of general writer’s block.

MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM is a slim book that takes you through seven days of exercises. I often skip exercises in how-to books, but I took these seriously and finished all of them. Each day tackles your attitude about writing from a different angle. Why do you love to write? What fears do you have around it? What’s getting in your way? How can you incorporate writing into your daily life?

There are no wrong answers, and any epiphanies you have are up to you to interpret. There isn’t much advice in here at all, except to trust in the exercises, trust in the process, and keep writing. Bacon also includes snippets of her own struggles, which I found extremely relatable, since she’s a teacher and an editor, like me. We both are sometimes so overwhelmed with other people’s words that we have trouble finding our own.

Bacon is always realistic. She talks honestly about her setbacks and times she’s sabotaged herself, but not in a woe-is-me way. She overcame her own blocks, and is confident that we can do the same. I  appreciated that positive vibe. At this point in my career, I am completely over books that try to instill fear in writers or treat writing as something horrible and difficult. Bacon doesn’t do that, because she doesn’t have to. She starts by reminding writers why they love the craft so much, and it’s something she returns to again and again throughout the book.

While spending a week making my writing bloom, I fell a little bit more in love with my own writing too.

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MAKE YOUR WRITING BLOOM 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.

 

How to Write Pulp Fiction by James Scott Bell

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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.

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HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available 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.